Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Cult of the Hyperpolyglot

BBC News Magazine has an article on those exceptional  individuals who speak 11 languages or more

Scooping an incontinent culture

“We live in an era of immense Information Overload. Which leaves us with only one option: to protect ourselves against the overdose and to filter what comes to us.  […]

Science of the Time on Filtering Information Overload

Huxley on Language, Truth and Self-Deception

Now, language is, among other things, a device which men use for suppressing and distorting the truth. Finding the reality of war too unpleasant to contemplate, we create a verbal alternative to that reality, parallel with it, but in quality quite different from it. That which we contemplate thenceforward is not that to which we react emotionally and upon which we pass our moral judgments, is not war as it is in fact, but the fiction of war as it exists in our pleasantly falsifying verbiage. Our stupidity in using inappropriate language turns out, on analysis, to be the most refined cunning. […]

The most shocking fact about war is that its victims and its instruments are individual human beings, and that these individual human beings are condemned by the monstrous conventions of politics to murder or be murdered in quarrels not their own, to inflict upon the innocent and, innocent themselves of any crime against their enemies, to suffer cruelties of every kind.

The language of strategy and politics is designed, so far as it is possible, to conceal this fact, to make it appear as though wars were not fought by individuals drilled to murder one another in cold blood and without provocation, but either by impersonal and therefore wholly non-moral and impassible forces, or else by personified abstractions.  […]

Alternatively the combatants are personal, in the sense that they are personifications. There is “the enemy,” in the singular, making “his” plans, striking “his” blows.  The attribution of personal characteristics to collectivities, to geographical expressions, to institutions, is a source … of endless confusions in political thought, of innumerable political mistakes and crimes. Personification in politics is an error which we make because it is to our advantage as egotists to be able to feel violently proud of our country and of ourselves as belonging to it, and to believe that all the misfortunes due to our own mistakes are really the work of the Foreigner. It is easier to feel violently toward a person than toward an abstraction; hence our habit of making political personifications. […]

Politics can become moral only on one condition: that its problems shall be spoken of and thought about exclusively in terms of concrete reality; that is to say, of persons. To depersonify human beings and to personify abstractions are complementary errors which lead, by an inexorable logic, to war between nations and to idolatrous worship of the State, with consequent governmental oppression.

Aldous Huxley: Words and Behaviour (1936)

Kunstler: Information is not Judgment, let alone Understanding

Among other untruths we’ve embraced collectively is the idea that computer-distributed information amounts to knowledge and understanding, tending toward judgment.  Apparently, it’s only made our society much dumber and more irresponsible.

– James Howard Kunstler, Jive Talkin’

Channelling Ivan Illich (1926-2002)

Ivan Illich’s fundamental argument is this: once our institutions develop beyond a certain scale, they become perverse, counterproductive to the beneficial ends for which they were originally conceived. The end result of this paradoxical counter-productivity is schools which make people dumb, complacent and unquestioning; hospitals which produce disease; prisons which make people violent; travel at high speed which creates traffic jams; and ‘aid and development’ agencies which create more and more ‘needy’ and ‘underconsuming’ people.

Further reading: A Turbulent Priest in the Global Village

On Understanding the World

“…my primary preoccupation is the achievement of some kind of over-all understanding of the world, directly and, at one remove, through the building up of some hypothesis that accounts for the facts…”

Aldous Huxley, 1946

The Technological Society and its Symptoms

At least four threatening and pervasive trends within all technological societies are crying out for acknowledgment and for preliminary analysis of the problems created by them. These are:

(1) increasing bureaucratization along with an accompanying decrease of organizational accountability and effectiveness;

(2) an increasingly impermeable social stratification based on ability to access, comprehend and apply information and knowledge;

(3) an accelerating erosion of public places, biodiversity, and all sociocultural forms of “the commons”; and

(4) a downward spiral in the quality of leadership in modern democracies, with leaders tending increasingly to represent the lowest common denominator within the population, to appeal to the basest of motivations and to seek the shortest-term of ends.

Moral reasoning consists largely of coming to recognize that whatever makes for a meaner, more corrupt, more violent or more totalitarian culture — or a more self-indulgent, short-sighted or destructive personality — is bad for both individual and society in the long run. The looming “tragedy of the commons” has brought home to all thinking people the long-term cost of short-term self-aggrandizement. It has opened our eyes, as well, to our inextricable interdependence and connectedness with the social and physical environment, and to our evolutionary inheritance and future prospects as a species.

– written by the late Pat Duffy Hutcheon in 1995.

Lingua franca

“A lingua franca (or working language, bridge language, vehicular language) is a language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue, in particular when it is a third language, distinct from both mother tongues” (Wikipedia)

What’s our lingua franca? More than one?

Information Deluge does not equal Effective Analysis

Information is only as good as the judgement that uses it. The deluge of available information on any given topic or field is no guarantee of effective analysis.

In part this is a quantitative problem. More importantly, it is also a problem of pedagogy, that is, higher education has become excessively specialised. Rather than teaching people how to think, it trains them in specific skills. Interdisciplinary knowledge and experience are the first casualties with the loss of contextual meaning and the ability to synthesize. Simply put, it is difficult to see the forest for the trees.

Creating a reward structure in society that favours disciplinary specialisation over interdisciplinary aggregation has other effects. In the field of economics, for example, the triumph of neo-classical economics during the twentieth century has ensured the mathematicisation of the discipline. It is, thus, taken out of the reach of most people. While the clarity and universality of mathematical reasoning is acknowledged, it has led to a system of economic reasoning that assumes a world without time, and in which history and experience do not exist.

The illusion of objectivity that this imparts can be and is used to conceal other agendas. This is education and research as propaganda, and propaganda serves its master. What this means in practical terms is that for most people, conclusions that are ‘right’ are those that make them money or give them positions of power and influence (over a restricted sphere), whether or not they understand how or why.

This is dangerous for outsiders and puts a huge premium on being an insider. The difficulties that this entails are real and not easily mastered.

The object of an independent-minded, interdisciplinary scholarly approach is to master those difficulties. There is always room for an independent view.

~adapted from the mission statement of Sanders Research Associates

Tongues of Angels, Tongues of Men

I went down where the vultures feed
I would’ve gone deeper, but there wasn’t any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any difference to me

Bob Dylan, Dignity