Seb's Open Research
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Saturday, October 05, 2002
Edge Interview with Steven Pinker

This is a month old, but I haven't seen it linked to elsewhere. Edge carries an interesting interview with MIT research psychologist Steven Pinker, following the release of his book the blank slate, on the taboos many people have against investigating human nature from a biological perspective. Here are some quotes relating to authority and the neglect of real human needs that rang particularly true to me:

The 20th century saw the rise of a movement that has been called "authoritarian high modernism," which was contemporaneous with the ascendance of the blank slate. City planners believed that people's taste for green space, for ornament, for people-watching, for cozy places for intimate social gatherings, were just social constructions. They were archaic historical artifacts that were getting in the way of the orderly design of cities, and should be ignored by planners designing optimal cities according to so-called scientific principles. [...] Ornamentation, human scale, green space, gardens, and comfortable social meeting places were written out of the cities because the planners had a theory of human nature that omitted human esthetic and social needs.

Another example is the arts. In the 20th century, modernism and post-modernism took over, and their practitioners disdained beauty as bourgeois, saccharine, and lightweight. Art was deliberately made incomprehensible or ugly or shocking—again, on the assumption that people's tastes for attractive faces, landscapes, colors, and so on were reversible social constructions. This also led to an exaggeration of the dynamic of social status that has always been part of the arts. The elite arts used to be aligned with the economic and political aristocracy. They involved displays of sumptuosity and the flaunting of rare and precious skills that only the idle rich could cultivate. But now that any now that any schmo can afford a Mozart CD or can go to a free museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the rabble. And so art became baffling and uninterpretable without acquaintance with arcane theory.

By their own admission, the humanities programs in universities, and institutions that promote new works of elite art, are in crisis. People are staying away in droves. I don't think it takes an Einstein to figure out why. By denying people's sense of visual beauty in painting and sculpture, melody in music, meter and rhyme in poetry, plot and narrative and character in fiction, the elite arts wrote off the vast majority of their audience—the people who approach art in part for pleasure and edification rather than social one-upmanship. Today there are movements in the arts to reintroduce beauty and narrative and melody and other basic human pleasures. And they are considered radical extremists!

What do you think? []  links to this post    10:34:42 PM  

Al Macintyre's building a directory of blog software [Radio Free Blogistan]

Al and dws are doing hard, valuable documentation work for the benefit of the community. I appreciate that.

What do you think? []  links to this post    9:29:06 PM  
Dave Winer's dinner with Doug Engelbart

Two years ago today I had dinner with Doug Engelbart. [Scripting News]

Dave's report on their conversation, written the following day, is here. I found it very interesting to see how these two visionaries' minds and strategies intersect to a large extent.

The software that I create, the software that Engelbart creates, is about working together. It's opposite of the walls that gatekeepers create. [...]

Gatekeepers, wall builders. Territoriality. Very important forces. Perhaps the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of true collaboration. But gatekeeping is not only an interpersonal process. Often, we act as our own gatekeepers through unconscious self-censorship. (I'm getting a little psychoanalytic there...)

It may appear that the outliner approach is narrow, but I don't think it is. I think outliners mirror what's going on in our brains, they reflect the way we organize ideas, concepts and information. I told Engelbart that our success with outliners came with people who understood the process of thinking. Everyone thinks, but only a few are aware of how they do it. This requires a higher level of awareness. First we have to turn on their lights again, after a hiatus of quite a few years. Then I want to figure out how make the tool useful for people who aren't aware of their process, the way MORE did in the 80s, by sneaking it in, in the guise of a presentation program.

Hmmm... sneaking in. Trojan horses in reverse. Sounds like another potent idea.

What do you think? []  links to this post    8:47:16 PM  
Security and comfort are prerequisites to sharing

Brent Ashley (via Philnails it.

I've noticed with myself though, that my sharing-ness tends to rise and fall with my sense of security. When I've got lots of business and no worries, I'm a veritable sharing phenom, but my willingness to participate and to share has dropped considerably this year since I've been more interested in finding enough paying business to get by. [...]

I love Open Source. I use it all the time. I believe in its future. But it can't work unless it's being practised and subsidised by people who are in a position of security and comfort.

Free knowledge sharing is among the most valuable activities from a global standpoint. How paradoxical it is that it can hardly directly provide a revenue stream and the associated security and comfort to even some of the people who are best at it.

What do you think? []  links to this post    12:52:54 PM  
Imperfection coming out of the closet

USA Today has run a story on the homeless guy I (and many others) wrote about a while ago.

"Online, the only thing that can be judged by others is your communication, your voice, your opinion," he says. "Before anyone says a thing, all people on the Internet are considered equal. It's a level of equality so pure it creates a tension that's hard to deal with.

"Idiots are easily exposed as such, and those with something real to say can say it, uninterrupted."

Kevin got a lot of feedback following that publication. I found what he wrote yesterday very inspiring.

...all the negative messages have expressed, in one way or another, a belief that weakness in people is either immoral, or unethical. And, they reject the idea of giving respect to any person who admits to having weaknesses. Of course, this is funny, and also sad, since we all have weaknesses. Denying weakness within others necessitates denying weakness within ourselves. And, it only seems logical that denying a very real aspect of one's self, albeit weakness, is an even greater weakness. My blog is a confession of weakness. Yet, as the positive response to my website grows, so does its power. Yes, there is power in weakness, in my ability to admit my weakness. And this scares some people.

Personally, I think we're undergoing a transition where it's becoming acceptable (indeed, desirable) to be imperfect in public that is largely driven by the Web. David Weinberger had a lot to say about this in chapter 4 of his book Small Pieces Loosely Joined. The trend is entering traditionally "serious" realms such as business and academia, in a process that could be called "the amateurization of professionalism". Let me quote from the aforementioned book (p.90):

Companies talk in bizarre, stilted ways because they believe that such language expresses their perfection: omniscient, unflappable, precise, elevated, and without accent or personality. This rhetoric is as glossy and unbelievable as the photos in the marketing brochure. Such talk kills conversation. That's exactly why companies talk that way.

Now the problem with killing conversation is that you get less feedback, and you're less adaptable. In a monopoly situation where things evolve slowly, you can get away with it; but the opposite is actually the case in many sectors nowadays, hi-tech business and education being two of them.

What do you think? []  links to this post    12:16:57 AM  

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