Problems, Inventions, and Implications

Inventions are usually a response to a problem. A problem is something that limits or impairs access to needs, wants, or values. An invention solves the problem, granting or improving access. An invention might be a machine, an idea, or a new value. Inventions alter our environment and often present side effects, good or bad, that may or may not have anything to do with the original problem, and may or may not have been anticipated. Inventions can create new problems, and changes in our environment can change us, often in unexpected ways, change our response to our environment, change us externally or internally, physically, mentally, or emotionally, change our behavior and the way we think of ourselves. Inventions can change culture and change the direction of societal development. Sometimes, as in the case of synthetic biology, an invention takes on “A Life of Its Own” (Michael Specter, New Yorker, 28 September 2009). This “life of its own” we might call implications. Invention shares with experiment, discovery, and creation what it means to be human.

As machines, inventions have a shelf life, for they are subject to entropy, wear and tear, as well as obsolescence created by changes in the environment or by other inventions. It was Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, talking about the creation of the State (which begins as an idea), who said, “…the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention” (Jowett, V-128, Book II, p. 60). What happens to the old machines when we no longer perceive the necessity? And if inventions are a response to a problem, what problem did the automobile solve?

Imagine life today without the automobile – not that you simply give up your car, but that the automobile was never invented.

According to Google Patents, the oldest patent using the word Automobile was filed in 1809, but not issued until 1902. The patent, by J. Ledwinka, “subject of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary,” but, “residing in Chicago,” was a design allowing for the independent functioning of the four wheels of the carriage. The patent improves the efficiency of the automobile, making it easier to operate. The terms Motor-car and Auto-car will fetch other, equally old patents from Google Patents.

The word “automobile” suggests a self-moving vehicle. A US patent for L. Bollee, of France, providing improvements for a “self-propelling vehicle,” was filed in 1896 and issued in 1898. This patent involves improvements to “…five principal parts: first, the motor; second, the frame; third, the transmission gear; fourth, the brake; and, fifth, the mechanism for engaging and disengaging the motor, for changing the speed of the vehicle, and for actuating the brake.” There’s no mention of a radio or radar detector.

Many of the patents surrounding automobiles suggest that most patents are inventions of improvement. The automobile itself, as an invention, isn’t a new machine as much as an improvement on older machines. The idea of a wheeled vehicle is very old, and may be said to leverage the underlying general principle of the circle, its latent energy (as Fuller’s piano top life preserver illustrates the underlying general principle of flotation, and his magic log illustrates the underlying general principle of the fulcrum, or leverage). Humanity’s first observations of round things rolling, seemingly of their own volition, perhaps needing a kick to get things going, seems to have set off a chain of inventions in what we now call a “snowball effect.” Society seems to be a tower of inventions, not all necessarily designed to improve our humanity.

Imagine life today without the automobile – not that you simply give up your car, but that the automobile was never invented. This is increasingly difficult to do because we may have lost sight of the original problem the automobile was designed to solve, and the automobile has itself created new problems for which it is the invention that appears to be the solution. This is why Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Related:

All Stung Over By Links of Googled Grace

Earth-Glass Half Empty or Fuller?: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

Progress Report: Our Disappearing World

Now Playing at Plato’s Cave: “The Reel World”

Plato opened the first movie theatre, the audience chained to seats, unable to see the projectionist, and there were no refreshments or intermissions. You really had to be a movie buff to enjoy a film at Plato’s Cave.

McLuhan (Understanding Media, 1964) explained that we must be trained to see movies, for “movies assume a high level of literacy in their users and prove baffling to the nonliterate [the unlit].” If a man disappears from the screen, the nonliterate wants to know where he went. “But the film audience, like the book reader, accepts mere sequence as rational.” And perspective is gravity, gravitas. The nonliterate will not sit still and be quiet in a movie theatre. They lack the requisite cultural-etiquette training, which requires the natural, balanced sensorium (the five senses tuned so that no one sense dominates another) to be dominated by the sense of sight. “For those who thus fix their eyes,” McLuhan explains, “perspective results.” This is why hot buttered popcorn is so popular in movie theatres – the nose is hard-pressed to go two hours with nothing to smell. The movie theatre is the new voting booth, where we learn both what we’re missing and what we want. “What the Orient saw in a Hollywood movie was a world in which all the ordinary people had cars and electric stoves and refrigerators…That is another way of getting a view of the film medium as monster ad for consumer goods,” McLuhan said.

There are things we don’t want to see, movies we’ve no interest in, TV shows we channel surf away from, books we self-remainder to the rummage sale. We avoid certain conversations, too, closing our ears now to the sacred, now to the profane; there are things we don’t want to hear. Yet touch is the most involving of the senses, and the sense of smell is stronger than the sense of sight, and is tied to taste. Thus we say of a bad movie that it stinks. We instinctually avert our eyes from the ghastly, but when we want to see what we don’t want to look at, we go to the movies. “It is a spectacle,” Wallace Stevens said (“Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion,” 1945), “Scene 10 becomes 11 / In Series X, Act IV, et cetera. / People fall out of windows, trees tumble down, / Summer is changed to winter, the young grow old, / The air is full of children, statues, roofs / And snow. The theatre is spinning round,….”

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John: 20-29). Blessed today might be those who have seen and yet still believe. Yet “a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” Blake said in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (and which the neuroscientists are busy trying to explain). What should we see; what should we read? What are our choices? “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else,” John Cage said, in his “Lecture on Nothing” (Silence, 1973). Just so, Cage gives us 4’33” of silence, but not silence, for we hear what we hear, note what we note, for we have eyes to see, ears to hear. McLuhan predicted YouTube: “Soon everyone will be able to have a small, inexpensive film projector that plays an 8-mm sound cartridge as if on a TV screen. This type of development is part of our present technological implosion.”

The blogger gets McLuhan’s argument: “The typewriter…has caused an integration of functions and the creation of much private independence. G. K. Chesterton demurred about this new independence as a delusion, remarking that ‘women refused to be dictated to and went out and became stenographers.’” Just so, academics are beginning to refuse the traditional forms of sanctioned publishing, for the potential to blog brings about, as McLuhan said of the typewriter, “an entirely new attitude to the written and printed word.” Back inside Plato’s Cave and McLuhan’s (via Joyce) “reel world,” some critic tries to discern what we’re actually seeing and hearing, as if we don’t have eyes to see, ears to hear. Well, yes, but we can’t see the real thing. Behold, human beings living in an underground cave, blogging. This is a world of appearances, through a glass, lightly shuttering.

Can Business Rescue the Humanities?

While Plato ruefully proposed to banish the poet from his Republic, today’s Humanities aficionados may seek to bar businesspersons from their club. Yet the Humanities are in crisis, as usual, perhaps for lack of sound business sense, while the sound business sensors, often viewed as eschewing the Humanities, may be nipping in the basement of the human condition, where the good stuff ages.

Consider three writers whose business experience may have influenced their writing, and whose writings may calm sweating brows in the Humanities: Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, and Ted Kooser. Kafka worked for two insurance companies, Assicurazioni Generali, and the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, where his reports contributed to improvements in workplace safety. One report, for example, commented on “the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk.” Wallace Stevens worked for the Hartford, and, having earned a law degree from New York Law School, eventually earned a position as VP in claims, a job he valued. Few of his peers at the Hartford knew or cared about his poems, but when one of his co-workers came into his office one day asking about one of his poems, Stevens told him not to worry about it, for his co-worker was too literal. And Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006, spent a career at Lincoln Life, another insurance company. John Cage said that when we turn our attention to that music we do not intend, we find the sound a pleasure; just so, we must turn our attention to the Humanities we do not intend.

This benevolent blogger spent 25 years in the republic of an insurance corporation. After teaching for nearly a decade, he had taken a summer off to consider a career change, selected a national organization headquartered in his hometown of Los Angeles, and bought a new suit of clothes to prepare for the new enterprise. He had been reading Thoreau’s Walden, and was well aware of Henry’s advice, in the opening chapter, “Economy,” to “beware of all enterprises which require new clothes” (para. 15), but he nevertheless bought a new pair of wingtips, on the assumption that these were the shoes worn in the business world. He soon found he was the only one in the office in a pair of wingtips. Everyone else seemed to prefer penny loafers. Thus began his education into business. The office had bells, bells to signal the start of work, bells to signal breaks and lunches, and bells to signal the end of the workday. Indeed, the office had more bells than had any school he could remember, and he was reminded of Poe’s bells, “…Keeping time, time, time…to the throbbing…to the sobbing…to the moaning and the groaning of the bells,” though the office bells touched not the acoustic heart, being electric, and he thought too of McLuhan and Fuller – that old school prepared one to work in a factory, though he watched that factory change with locomotive speed: first the bells were freed, then the men from their ties, and more gradually the women from theirs. But these changes move not linearly, as a locomotive moves, but mosaically, and it’s often difficult to know if change in business is carrying one forward or backward. But the same is true in the Humanities, where bells and ties have also had their heydays, and specialization has now created a mosaic one can read neither “out far nor in deep.”

And one also finds in the Humanities heavy doses of alienation, particularly in the bust phase of the current devaluing of the purpose of a liberal arts education as academic acculturation adulterates, through competitive forces at work in the market place, for schools are part of the commercial marketplace, as they are increasingly discovering, yet business and schools alike continue to lobby for bailouts, and neither seems to have found a purpose and audience that is sustainable in a self-contained strategy and structure. For all the criticism of the “profits” these days, the universities may have dissed their affections once invested so heavily in the public interest. What’s left is elitism, with no access for the underclass, or, increasingly, even the middle class, but can there be a balanced elitism fueled by the working class? There was in California before Reagan set about to dismantle the best university system in the world. Still, one finds no less alienation in the Humanities than one finds in capitalism. For Marx, “the worker finds work a torment, suffers poverty, overwork and lack of fulfillment and freedom. People do not relate to each other as humans should,” but does this not describe the plight of today’s average Humanities adjunct? Why can’t schools run more like businesses? Perhaps they already do, as reflected in the competitive nature of grades, even as inflation has rendered the currency valueless.

For businesses have for some time been operating more and more like schools, creating campus atmospheres, valuing continuing education for employees, including executive training that exceeds anything available in the Humanities (Wharton is a good example), inculcating team atmospheres, and creating and running corporate universities that encourage personal, purposeful growth. But schools lack the sense of urgency that permeates the business world. Tenured professors don’t work full time, think alike (the competition is not for ideas, but to maintain the status quo), too much research is funded at the public trough yet is insulated from public view. The separation of business from the Humanities creates a false dichotomy that nevertheless suggests its own solution. The Humanities should embrace business with a sense of urgency, for their Titanic has hit its iceberg, and that the ship will sink stinks with mathematical certainty.

Taking the facebook Pledge; or, The Allegory of the facebook Cave

I decided again to leave facebookland. I’m back on the facebook wagon. I spent too much time driving around in circles, and my time on facebook was beginning to feel like living on a freeway, not free, and only two ways, on and off, and I had to keep up with the traffic, stay out of the way of semi-posts, watch out for falling photos. True, the sky was blue, the windows down, the radio on, everyone waving to one another: life is good in facebookland.

I also ditched twitter, which had come to feel like reading in a nest of mosquitoes. When I left facebookland, I was detained by lures of questions asking why I was leaving, and I was distracted by messages claiming that my friends would miss me, specific friends: Jack will miss you; Jill will miss you. Twitter has a slightly different guilt driven, exit poll strategy: I was advised that I may never come back using the same name and address. It’s like going home again: you can go back home, but only as a different person. You may re-enter the facebook highway anytime you want; your friends may not even know you got off. If, when you exited, you de-friended them, that’s problematic, since they may not re-befriend you, but they’ll probably be happy to have you back, and say something like, I thought we were already friends.

Facebook has features I never used, like the real time chat, which must feel something like an electronic cocktail party rather than an endless freeway commute. It’s not facebook’s fault, my leaving. Facebook is a clean, well-lighted place that never closes, even if it is a cave. There is no night in facebookland; the sun never sets. Part of the reason I found myself soaking up more and more facebook light recently is my new laptop, a refurbished MacBook Pro I bought a couple of months ago. It’s a hovercraft. I love the way the keyboard lights up in the dark. The design is perfect, like a well-fitted, classical guitar. No viruses. As intuitive as a bicycle. It goes everywhere my backpack goes.

But the primary reason I left facebookland are the writing and reading projects I have going. There’s no pursuit more pleasurable and rewarding than reading and writing. Not that I’ll ever finish any of these projects (can one finish a blog? one might end it, but that’s not the same as finishing it), but that’s of no consequence, whether I finish a writing project or not. Abandoning a writing project is an experience very close to finishing one, though perhaps not as satisfying. One abandons books, occasionally, as ill-suited, poor fits, bad choices. Just so, one abandons one’s own writing projects. Perhaps we were not ready for them, the writing or the books we gradually let go of, until one day, they were simply gone, like past friends. One must read and write every day, without interruption, just as one must pick up the guitar every day, or the brushes or sticks, or the golf club, or the fishing pole, or the shovel or rake, or the hammer, or the ball and glove, or the pool cue, or the surfboard. And whatever distracts from these purposes, these pursuits, must be put away.

Perhaps facebook is a kind of reading and writing, some new electronic sub-genre, like texting, videos, and other sound bites. But at least facebook is what it purports to be, a social media, driven by advertising dollars, purposed to persuade users to continue, to keep on, to stay in. Facebook is a new rhetoric, a new art of persuasion. Here is facebook’s mission statement: “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Does the world want to be more open and connected? Apparently so, given the number of facebook users. But what does open mean? How does one measure more? And connected to what? “Open Sesame” gets you into the cave of the thieves, but you don’t want to forget the magic words that unseal the cave so you can get back out. Those magic words might be “Deactivate Account.” Or we are back in Plato’s cave, and though it appears we are looking directly into the light, what we see on the wall of the facebook cave may not be reality, but shadows of advertisements passing before the fire of commerce that burns behind our backs.

Increasingly, we seem to live in two worlds, “in twosome twiminds,” as Joyce said, the electronics of visual perception (the charge of the light brigade, for Joyce, was the coming of television), and the philosophy of acoustics, and we are drowning in doubt.

Note: Meaghan Morris, “Chair Professor of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney,” published a scholarly article titled “Grizzling About Facebook” in the November, 2009 issue of the Australian Humanities Review. The article is not what you might expect. For one thing, Meaghan resists the old journalist codger who would “urge me to spend more time off-line (‘making new friends and maintaining old friendships’) for the sheer good of my soul is a grizzle from those fairies at the bottom of the garden” (para. 9). Yet she acknowledges that facebookland does indeed have its back alleys and unlit corridors:  “I certainly do not mean to suggest that all criticism of Facebook is grizzling. Serious legal, ethical and political issues are arising from or being intensified by the ‘Facebook’ phenomenon (to use a typifying metonym myself), in the process sharpening some of the challenging debates of our time; free speech and its limits, censorship, the right to privacy, the negotiation of social protocols for a transnational economy that thrives on difference as well as inequality, the relations between semiotic and other modes of violence, tensions between legal, communal and performative models of identity, the foundations of community, the power of corporations in our personal lives, and the technological transformation of work are just a few of these” (para. 10). But while recognizing the traps in facebookland, Meaghan seems to think the risks worth taking, and this is what makes her scholarly viewpoint worth listening to: “…what Facebook does well is combine: you can write private letters, play games, send gifts, do quizzes, circulate news, post notes, music and clips, share photos or research, test your knowledge, join groups and causes, make haiku-like allusions to your state of mind and chat on-line with friends, all in one place and time—restoring or relieving, according to need, the pattern of an everyday life” (para. 22), and who among us, Meaghan asks, does not value these life on the street, at work, and at home activities? I’ve mentioned Meaghan’s article in a previous post, here. Meaghan’s article is a scholarly gem.

Plato was a Neuroscientist, too; or, Plato’s Purple Haze

A new Oliver Sacks book is out, The Mind’s Eye. We are kicked in the eye with metaphor, philosophy, and dichotomy, and we have not even opened the book yet: metaphor because Sacks is talking about the brain, for the mind, as Jonah Lehrer put it, “is really just a piece of meat” (Buckminster Fuller defined the mind as the capability to leverage ideas from single case experiences – see Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth); philosophy and dichotomy because to speak of the mind as an idea distinct from the brain is to cross into Plato territory (a very large country of philosopher states).

We came across Sacks’s new book in the April Harper’s Magazine, in a review by Israel Rosenfield, “Oliver Sacks and the plasticity of perception.” The brain is on the move again.

We ordered The Mind’s Eye; meantime, what does Rosenfield have to say about it? Rosenfield makes this claim: “There is a simple fact about evolution that, although rarely mentioned, is very revealing: plants don’t have brains.” (Of course, why mention the obvious, a claim about which there is no disagreement?) Yet here’s his explanation for why plants don’t have brains: “Plants don’t have brains because they don’t need them; they don’t move from place to place.” In grade school we called this moving from place to place “locomotion.” The classic example is the amoeba, but do amoebas have brains? We understand that plants don’t have the same locomotion that animals do, but we question Rosenfield’s claim that plants don’t move from place to place, because plants do move from place to place. They travel underground and in the wind, float down rivers and out to sea, appear in the most unlikely places, out of cracks in the hot summer asphalt. In fact, as Michael Pollan has suggested (The Botany of Desire, 2002), plants manipulate animals: we taxi them around, ferry them, fly them to the moon. Plants may not have brains, or locomotion, but they do get around.

Rosenfield says that brains “create something that is not there; and in doing so they help us to make sense of our environments.” To illustrate, he uses the phenomenon of color. According to Rosenfield, there is no color outside of the brain: “There are no colors in nature,” he says. (Tell that to Van Gogh, whose paintings reveal the brush of a butterfly and the heart of a hummingbird.) Nature, without a brain to perceive it, is like Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”: “If we were aware of our ‘real’ visual worlds,” Rosenfield says, “we would see constantly changing images of dirty gray, making it difficult for us to recognize forms.” But Zoe, our cat, has no problem recognizing forms. Then again, she does act like she’s on Purple Haze most of the time. In any case, the mention of separate realities brings to mind Plato as well as Purple Haze. Any mention of forms brings us back to Plato. We might also work in Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality. Is there something outside the brain? Is there something inside the brain? What does it look like when the brain is asleep, or astroke?

But it’s a sunny morning in Portland, the first in some time, the sky a solid blue, fronting the promise of a solid gold weekend. Both our brain and mind seem to agree that we should get out and into this sun. Zoe’s already out there, chasing the forms around the Salsa Garden. Ah, Bartleby; Ah, locomotion!

Plato, Pablo, and the Poetics of Health Care

Plato considered poets dangerous and banned them from his Republic, and Il Postino (1994) illustrates his point, yet also shows that we are all poets, all who use language – to love and berate, to tackle and persuade, to testify and exhort. The movie, from the book Burning Patience, by Antonio Skarmeta, a fiction set on an island of Pablo Neruda’s temporary exile, is about the democracy of language, how metaphor permeates our lives, and the consequences inherent in desiring more than our own voices can bear, even through poetry. 

Is contemporary poetry outside the margins of popular US culture? Maybe, but the creation of metaphor is still the heart of language and language the heart of culture. In the film, this is ironically dramatized by Aunt Rosa. During her hilarious visit to Pablo to complain of his contributing to the poetic delinquency of Beatrice, she lets loose with an invective that ably employs a fishnet of metaphors to describe Pablo’s bad influence on Mario and Mario’s hypnotizing effect on her niece. The blame falls on the poet for stirring the emotions of the tainted republic of the island. 

Poetry sleeps around, moving through Plato’s five regimes. Democracy gives way to tyranny; Plato should have banned lobbyists – then maybe the Republic, though awash in a bath of poetry, might at least have a decent health care system, not to mention an adequate water supply.