Monday, January 23, 2006

Life - private or shared?

George Ritzer - The Macdonaldization of Society

Ritzer identifies four characteristics of McDonalds:
1. Efficiency – everything is fast, your in, your fed, your out
2. Calculability – you know how long it takes and what it will cost to eat at McDonalds
3. Predictability – you will get the same big mac every time you order one
4. Control – mechanization – the assembly line, from making the burgers to ordering

About a month ago my wife and I were going to take a weekend to go skiing in Banff.  I was faced with the conflict of choosing a place to stay.  We wanted a romantic private getaway, something small and quite so we thought a bed and breakfast would be nice.  I have never actually stayed at one though and this fact raised some anxiety for me, what would it be like to share space with complete strangers, pay to stay at someone’s home, what kind of awkward situations would this manifest?  Would I have to slide the cash across the table?  Would there be awkward silence during breakfast if they ate with us, would they stand in the hallway looking at us as we ate the food they had prepared?  What time would we have to be checked-in, awake for breakfast?  

These are the questions McDonalds endeavours to answer by creating a uniform scripted experience.  It offers privacy and convenience, I don’t have to bend my schedule or test my conversation skills, and my etiquette only has to be rudimentary.  They have replaced human connection with privacy, a theme that fits quite well into what Mumford has to say about society.  

The founder of McDonalds has taken a page out of the Grand Inquisitor’s book, “we will take their freedom from them and they will beg us to do it and worship us because of it.”  

Kors wrote about the fact that capitalism rewards people who fulfill needs.  I think McDonalds has shown that those people who are rewarded don’t fulfill needs but wants, some real and some advertised.  Don’t lose the distinction between wants and needs, we would be living in a different world if it were needs.    

PS. We didn’t go away that weekend because I had too much homework.

Life, will that be processed or free?

Lewis Mumford – The City in History

“The metropolis, in its final stage of development, becomes a collective contrivance for making this irrational system work, and for giving those who are in reality its victims the illusion of power, wealth, and felicity, of standing at the very pinnacle of human achievement.  But in actual fact their lives are constantly in peril, their wealth is tasteless and ephemeral, their leisure is sensationally monotonous, and their pathetic felicity is tainted by constant, well-justified anticipations of violence and sudden death.  Increasingly they find themselves “strangers and afraid,” in a world they never made: a world ever less responsive to direct human command, ever more empty of human meaning” (pp. 239-240).

When I read this I wonder what we have done.  Chekhov’s statement that we have exchanged beauty for ugliness is becoming all too real.  

“Their lives are constantly in peril” – first it was the cold war and the prospect of total war.  At that time in history consumption was a patriotic thing, now consumption exists for its own sake, to construct a way of life.  The last few readings have been about the addiction and drunkenness caused by technology, but for me the real drug is home and garden magazine.  It of course pictures things that I don’t have, and things that I do have are never good enough when I lose myself in a magazine at the checkout; it isn’t a conscious distaste for what I have, just a desire for what I don’t have, that is the foundation of our society.  Post cold war the peril is our own consumption, and the tastelessness of our wealth is that same insatiable desire that drives it.    

Last night I was watching a documentary on China and they were saying that China has learned one lesson from the west, the economy duh.  Every problem can be fixed with economic growth.  Mumford refers to this as building the machine and sacrificing human development.  Soon Genesis will have to be rewritten saying that first there was the economy then God created man and woman to serve the economy.  But I suppose that won’t happen because any problem will be solved by economic growth, including ideological ones.  

“Ever more empty of human meaning.”  Mumford makes and really good point about the automobile.  He recognizes that everything is built around the vehicle, instead of parks there are parking lots, people have to drive everywhere.  He must have visited Calgary, the city with the highest per capita number of vehicles in Canada (a fact I read on a real estate advertisement, I need to get some help).  I was recently at Deerfoot meadows, where the new Ikea is, you have to drive between the stores, and the ten acres in between the stores is all parking.  Cars dictate how we interact with our city.  This is significant because they are private spaces that allow us to get farther away into our more private homes.  Our environment has become artificial, from the office to the car to the house, where we do homework, or sit and watch TV all night till its time to go to bed and we have to get up and do it all over again.

Maybe the movement toward teamwork in the corporate world is so popular because people need connections and we just don’t know how to connect with people unless there is a common problem that we are forced to deal with.  We no longer get this in social action being citizens because we are too busy and isolated to be informed about the issues in our communities, not to mention the fact that we only live in the same community for a couple years.  Mumford also mentions that everything is processed by the machine.  This applies to work teams v. citizenship.  In work teams there is a boss telling us what the goal to achieve is, he tells us what is expected and what we resources we have to complete the task.  Being a citizen there is freedom, a group of neighbours can go after any issue they choose; whatever issue is pertinent to them.  

It comes back to freedom and the fact that the easy way is having someone tell us what to do instead of coming up with our own criteria of success.  This tribal experience is getting out of processed education, it has given us freedom to set and gauge our own success.  What would happen if we looked at the world as free instead of a set of criteria?  Maybe we would find beauty.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Is life a task bar?

John Naisbitt – High Tech High Touch

His thing is that we are drunk on technology.  He lists six symptoms:
1. We favour the quick fix, from religion to nutrition
2. We fear and worship technology
3. We blur the distinction between real and fake
4. We accept violence as normal
5. We love technology as a toy
6. We live our lives distanced and distracted

One thing he said was that we live our lives in front of screens.  I can see all those things in TV and internet and video games, but I didn’t see it in cell phones or communication devices.  So I raised this point with my group.  I said that I find I am more open and can compose my thoughts better when using instant messaging on my computer and cell phones is just talking to another person.  The answer was quite enlightening.  They said that it created a surreal environment, if I find it easier to think in front of my computer instead of in front of my best friend it is just a way of getting out of learning how to communicate and talk.  The same goes with cell phones.  They create a new space in which to meet, one that isn’t real.

The printing press was a new technology at one time.  Before it students built their library by copying a book out by hand.  I think it is fair to say that the printing press created a new space.  So should books be included in this category of technology?  

I don’t think so, books are very hard to get published, you have to take the time to complete a series of thoughts and argue through something.  There are a lot of books that might not meet this requirement, but my point is that it is a lot easier to publish an instant message, or a text message than a book; books don’t have that instant quality.  Even reading a book takes a long time.  

It is all in a quest to avoid silence.  If I don’t have anything to say in an instant message I just do something else.  Has life become a task bar where we can just switch from one application to another?

The optimistic pessimist

Hartmann – The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight

“Whatever our worldview, we collect evidence that we’re right.” (P. 105)

I think that for the most part, this world is ruled by emotion, not by reason.  The more tunnelled and isolate a person is allowed to get, the easier it is to avoid things that challenge her worldview.  I think the big example of this is the internet.  There is so much information that a person only has time to look at the things that interest him.  Therefore, I can use the internet as my connection to the world and never really be challenged in what I believe, and if it does start to challenge me the only way I am going to see it through is if I am interested in it.      

Another example is TV.  Hartmann gives the stat that 27% of American adults are functionally illiterate but fewer than 1% don’t own TVs (p. 102).  He also states that TV leads to shorter and less functional attention spans.  What was I saying, I forgot.  Oh yeah, shorter attention spans.  Dr. Glasberg told the class about an article that he wrote for the Gauntlet about the corruption of the student body.  People don’t like all the readings in General studies because we don’t possess the attention span to reason and struggle through the arguments, and because we lack this it isn’t interesting to us.  

Hartmann says that this is a new phenomenon that is exclusive to our society (the last 7000 years) which he calls a young society.  He compares young societies with old societies that contrast ours in that they are sustainable.  I found his analysis to have a romantic outlook of life in past societies.  Becoming a hunter-gather won’t solve all a person’s problems.  There is still jealousy and envy.  Fast Runner is an excellent movie to illustrate this point.  He does have a point though that some of these societies have existed for tens of thousands of years.  

Another point that he brings up is a challenge to a common misconception about development, a misconception that is taught.  The misconception is that hunter-gatherers become pastoralists and pastoralists become farmers and farmers become merchants all because they see that it is a better way of life.  I think the truth is a lot closer to the fact that the way of life that is supplanted isn’t worse, but less dominant.  Hunter-gatherers are supplanted by farmers because farmers are more dominant.  Look at North America, the native population didn’t see farmers and adopt the way of life because they thought it was better.  They resisted, and it was a fight and might won.  That is the history of the world, the west isn’t powerful because we had the best way of life, we have the most powerful way of life, and it might kill us.  There is something to the saying that we will never be found by aliens because a civilization with that kind of technology would have destroyed itself.  It is much like the image of a modern corporation, the people on the top got there by cutting some throats.  

I am both an optimist and a pessimist.  I think I see a disgusting world the way it is, but I still think that good will win in the end.  It all gets back to freedom and Chekhov’s Bet. Evil ends up destroying itself.  Good is what is sustainable, it will last and people will be forced to see what is beautiful, instead of “exchanging beauty for ugliness.”  Hartmann ends on a similar note.  He says that we can change our story (the story that informs how we interact with the world).  The faith that the western world will change it’s story and that our story will not end with everyone dying is optimism.  

Slowing down endless accumulation

Wallerstein – World-Systems Analysis

Wallerstein has provided a scary and poignant analysis of the way the world is.  Everything is for endless accumulation of capital.  This is the motive that most people work toward.  The scary part of his analysis is that you don’t have to work toward endless accumulation to help the system of endless accumulation.  He gives the example of an environmentalist; the environmentalist just raises the cost of production which can be absorbed by the bigger firms but not by the smaller firms so it reduces competition.  

Here is my question, what if I were to spend my life working to raise the standard of living, wages, safety, working conditions, etc. of those working in sweatshops?  Would that screw with the system or would it just put more money in the pockets of the rich, or does it even matter because the living standard would be raised, giving those people choices?  

Last night I had a dream that Dr. Kassam and Dr. Tetty were working for an engineering firm and it was my first day as an intern.  I got in an argument with a field engineer about a project in Mexico because he was saying that the squatters should just be run off the land that was needed for the project.  I said he couldn’t do that and displacing so many people has impacts that have to be accounted for, these are people and there has to be a plan to take care of them.  He replied that they were staying on the land illegally and had no rights and started swearing.  I told him to watch his mouth twice and everyone in the office knew that his actions were inappropriate and I got the feeling that these people would be taken care of because the people in the office sided with me.  

This dream really hit me because I had an impact on the lives of a couple thousand people.  The firm still made money off the deal, but people were taken care of.  There needs to be people that are concerned with people on the inside of the operations of the TNCs.  Maybe I can’t change the goal of endless accumulation, but I can slow it down by making that profit subject to sustainability and human rights, more than that, human decency.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Magic Elixir

Ellul – The Technological Society

Ellul develops the idea of a Mass Man.  Basically, everything is now produced through mass production, assembly lines.  This enormous amount of stuff being produced has to be consumed.   Advertising is the art of creating ways of life to sell stuff.  This leads me to a point that I have been debating for quite a while.  I am not sure, but I think that there are certain images that are created, certain ways of life.  Each brand represents something, a value and certain values are associated with one or more ways of life.  Brands are also stereotypes.  Think of the French nationality, certain images come to mind, vineyards, good food and conversation, elegance, a turtleneck and loafers.  It is a certain stereotypical life.  Stereotypes and first impressions are so strong that I have to literally buy into them in order to be recognized for what I think.  If I send the wrong message by the way I dress I can be misunderstood.  This even applies to the background I chose for this Blog.  The lighthouse is an image that is loaded with meaning.  It represents wisdom, insight and even enlightenment.  It makes me look smart.  

The implication of this is that I have to be connected to what image I am portraying, which means keeping up with current trends.  The complication comes in the fact that I am not a simple homogenous image.  My character is not encapsulated in a collared shirt and glasses.  I like to do more things than read books and talk about academic issues.  I also like to hike and ski and do woodwork and contemplate the divine, this begins to describe who I am.  I can’t portray all those things congruently in the image I portray in how I dress, and I shouldn’t have to, but that is the world we live in.  It is very hard to reject because I have to wear clothes and whatever clothes I wear will portray an image and I will be judged on that image, to quote Ellul, “Man must be adapted to be happy” (p. 135).

This is incredibly limiting. I can’t express who I truly am.  But then again, communication is hard, expressing who I am through my possessions and what I buy is an easy way to communicate a complex concept.  It is a way that has its deficiencies and is quite limiting unless my monetary resources are limitless and my possessions can change with my idea of who I am.  

There has to be a better way of communicating with other people.  Doing it through possessions just is too limiting not to mention unsustainable and inaccurate.  What kind of communication is talking through stereotypes anyway?  It is pretty shallow.    

It is tough though to understand who I am autonomous to those powerful ways of life that I am faced with everyday.  It is also hard to give up those ways of life for something better because the vision has been articulated so well and confronts me at every turn.  It is an image of a nice seaside house in New England, or the Boston apartment.  It provides a goal, and then there is the ipod.  You can find one in every crowd, so keeping up with the Jones’ becomes important.  People sacrifice to compete, acting irrationally to win, doing things that they wouldn’t normally do sacrificing ethics because of the pressure.  I think the interplay between the vision and competition is how mass man is so easily controlled.  The group has some people who buy into the vision and the rest follow so as to not be left out.  

It is the group that has decided to buy into the image the company is selling.  So it is a group that is defined by possessions on a shallow basis and if I want that image I have to buy the product because that is the only entrance fee.  

Back to Chekhov, we have exchanged “beauty for ugliness,” freedom for image.  There is something to caring about people and not about what they think about what I have.  If you have the magic elixir let me know.  

Friday, January 06, 2006

Emotion and Logic

Carl Jung – The Collective Unconscious

It has occurred to me that I have been pretty hard on the rational science community and the comment Freud made about connections being the hope for the end of war led me to read Stephen Hawking’s book Black Holes and Baby Universes.  He is in search of a Grand Unifying Theory that will allow him to see into the mind of God.  He sees technology and science as inevitably proceeding.  He is also very excited and fascinated by the universe he is discovering and wants to share his discoveries with the rest of humanity.  

Hawking as a man of science provides an interesting contrast to Jung.  Jung shows postulates that there is a collective unconsciousness that everyone possess from birth.  This collective unconsciousness is much like instincts that are inherited and influence behaviour.  They combine the collective knowledge of all previous humanity and evolutionary changes.  This knowledge is contained in archetypes.  When these archetypes do not find expression in a person’s life then these archetypes have a negative impact on the person.  One application of this is when a child grows up without a father that type of relationship is sought out in other authority figures.  

Jung’s accusation is that rationalism has set up walls that separate humanity from the eternity of nature.  Reading Hawking I can understand this.  Hawking tries to explain everything without standing in awe of what he is trying to explain.  This sense of awe was not lost on Pascal who stood in wonder at the place of humanity in the continuum of the unimaginably small and large.  Jung is saying that we need to look at not only the unimaginably small and large, but also the sense of awe that inspires us.  Jung leads into ourselves, guiding us with emotion and intuition instead of just rational thought, because ultimately intelligence involves intuition, emotion, and rationalism.  


Carl Jung – Approaching the Unconscious

We have lost the emotional connection to the world we live in.  Jung uses the superstition of the number 13 to show that everything in our world holds a logical explanation.  There is no longer any room for an emotional response to the world that surrounds us because everything demands an explanation.  Knowing why frees us from wonder.  

I think it also has to do with how we know why things happen.  We miss the connections, take nature for instance.  In biology a person learns all about all the different categories of species and where everything fits in a linear order.  It makes it pretty handy to memorize, but what use is it outside of the classroom?  Everything interacts outside the classroom and ecology is the only place we learn about the interactions.  

Maybe if a person could recognize all the complex connections between animals and plants and human culture I think it might show that the stupid myths are not so stupid after all, that they show some insight into things that are written off by science and modern culture.  

Getting back to Freud, I think science has become the protective father figure that God used to be.  Myth is not lost; it is just made rational and emotionally detached.  Jung would say that the protective father is an archetype and has manifested itself in both God and science for different people.  

People need enough mystery to keep life interesting but enough explanation to be able to go on with life.  It doesn’t make sense that all of life and the suffering people must endure would happen for no reason.  It has to be because of barometric pressure or that God was angry.  People need reasons.  

The difference is that explaining things with God takes emotional involvement and science doesn’t.    Jung isn’t arguing for or against science or God, he is just saying that life has changed from an emotionally involved explanation to an unemotional explanation.  But the fact still remains that humans have an unconscious emotion that still needs an explanation.  

Thursday, January 05, 2006

It all takes Faith

Freud - Illusions
An illusion is an error made because that person desires the error.  Freud’s thinking is that people need to feel there is a god in order to feel secure in an insecure world.  His conclusion is that people need to leave their parent’s home and venture into the world.  In his time this meant that people had to reject religion because it provided a security that inhibited development.  

I personally haven’t come across a piece of evidence that would make me reject my religion.  I think this may be because I don’t want to reject my religion.  The point I am trying to make is that rationality is not a worldview.  It is just a tool that helps us accept things or reject things.  Irrational things are rejected, and things that make sense are accepted.  However, rational things are the things that make sense.  A person’s worldview will influence whether things seem rational or not.  

Therefore, my context and my experiences will form my truth.  This is my attack on rationality and liberalism.  What is true to me is a result of what I have come through.  I will argue for this truth.  All of a sudden rationality and the liberal ideal are nothing more than the reactions of the people who form the group to their collective experiences.  

It is a lot like the internet, there is so much information out there and I can create my own context and truth about what is on the internet by favouring certain sites.  It takes a much greater intelligence to comprehend what is on the internet.  

Here is a question, if everyone got together and argued the question of what was on the internet would we come up with the truth?  What place do charismatic personalities play?   The truth is subjected to a popularity contest.  However, the power the truth yields is formidable, so we are more comfortable spreading the power out, so no one can have it instead of one person.  

So back to Freud, is religion an illusion?  I think that just because I want something to be true doesn’t make it false.  Also, I think that just because I want something to be false doesn’t make it so.  I don’t think Freud’s strong rational position that religion is false because the more educated and developed believe it to be so is a strong position to take.  

“Primitive” societies know a lot more than the developed Eurocentric societies give them credit for.  This is based in a colonial history of needing to rationalize genocide and exploitation.  Freud used the fact that Christianity resembled primitive societies as a basis for rejecting it.  This is based on a racist notion that Europe is more developed than its “primitive” contemporary societies.  By rejecting Christianity and accepting science as the new religion Western society can claim objective knowledge and play the role of God in the world, exporting the European agenda of resource exploitation across the globe.  

Can't we all just get along?

Freud – Why War?  

The answer Freud gives to the question of why war exists is that it is a part of how humans interact.  He recognizes that humanity provides room for a diverse group of opinions and war or violence is a way of dealing with those conflicts.  Since it has been a part of humanity from the beginning it has helped to form the societies and cultures that have arisen since time immemorial.  

Freud identifies two essential human forces.  Those of love and hate, associated with those are also life and death.  He agrees with Augustine that people only want peace, even war mongers just want things to be their way and use war as a way of asserting their desires. Freud goes on to make the case that there are two ways to have peace, through coercion or through connections between people.  

This brings me to the most interesting quote of the whole work.  “Whatever fosters the growth of culture works at the same time against war.”  I believe this force is connections between people.  Would Hitler have done what he did if he had a deep connection with a Jewish friend?  

Freud however, makes the point that the most peaceful times have been during the reign of a strong central government.  This brings me back to Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who only wanted a strong central government that would ensure the happiness of all people.  So perhaps the way of Jesus is to offer a deep connection to the people around us.  The idea of turning the other cheek and loving my neighbour as myself are indicative of this line of thought.  

Here is the question; can people get along without someone telling them what to do?  Jesus thought yes if they kept an image of him in mind.  Freud and the Grand Inquisitor thought no.  

A Dialogue not a To-Do List

Dostoyevsky – The Brothers Karamazov excerpt “The Grand Inquisitor”

This excerpt is the most beautiful thing I have read all semester.  It challenges my faith in systems that will help people live better lives and also my lack of faith in humanity.  

The grand inquisitor made the case that Jesus gave people freedom.  He and his church “vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy.”  The church was a system that imposed upon people how they should act.  I can identify with this situation from my past in the conservative evangelical tradition.  It is much like a club; the initiation is accepting Jesus into your heart to forgive all your sins.  From there rank is determined by actions, if I read the bible everyday plus 7, but if I smoke after church minus 10.  Once you get to 100 points you can become a leader.  Beauty and money are also big points.  Not all conservative evangelicals are like this; in fact I would say this is conservative evangelicals at their worst.  This was my underlying experience, it was never verbalized, but actions speak louder than words.  The words that were being spoken were grace, and acceptance.  But what wasn’t said was how much the grace and acceptance made you a better Christian was what made you eligible for leadership.  The kind of control is much like our secular society; if you want to be successful this is what you will look like.  This still allowed for questions though.  

The questions that disillusioned me were: Why are there so many poor people and why are there rich Christians?  At the time the question was phrased more like how can I get rich while there are so many poor people. This was only a problem because Jesus made it one.  If the was a verse that would have solved that dilemma for me I would have been in business school instead of aid work.  The second major question was: why is my theology based on 20 verses of the Bible?  What would happen if, instead of John 3:16, the verse to memorize was Matthew 25 (the chapter puts serving the poor and destitute as the criteria for entering heaven)?      

The Grand Inquisitor was saying that people have given up the freedom that Jesus gave them to be part of the Jesus club and the church set up the Jesus club because they loved humanity.  They were scared by the fact that there is no longer any hierarchy.  No one but Jesus has the authority to tell me whether smoking is right or wrong (I don’t think Jesus would waste his time with smoking, but I use it as a simple example).  I think that we have forgotten that there is no competition for position.  

Then there is the kiss. After the Grand Inquisitor’s speech on how Jesus could have saved the world by not leaving room for doubt, Jesus just leaned over and kissed the Grand Inquisitor on the lips.  This was Jesus saying that I love you and I will always love you enough to give you the freedom you so despise.  

The next big question is what is freedom, and how does Jesus give it to me?  Freedom is the ability to choose between two options.  Jesus desired that freedom for us so that we will choose him, and also decide what is right and what is wrong by “having only Thy image before him as his guide.”  Jesus provided a model of how to live, and then he gave us the freedom to reject it or to choose it.  It is also a very incomplete model and one that is more of a life of reliance on him than following steps in a book.  Following Jesus is a dialogue, not a to-do list.