This post is actually a lead into an exhibit of some haunting paintings in a recent exhibit in Xalapa. And a riff off my recent “rambling” post Cantankerous is how my last post must have sounded at the end: anti-technology, longing for the good old days. In fact, I don’t have the slightest desire to be tagging along behind my grandmother on the streets of the Bronx of the late 1940s and 1950s, nor to return to the Woodstock of my childhood summers. And indeed, Jim would say we are addicted to the technology of today, especially the internet. Would we live in Mexico without it? If we did, our lives would be vastly different; indeed, vastly different from most urban and semi-urban Mexican lives. It’s part of our reality (yeah, yeah, maybe too much a part).
So why do I find myself so critical of the relentless technologization (to coin a word) of life? The statisticalization (to coin another word) of solutions to problems of living? The scientification (yet another) of all questions which seem to me to should be addressed within families and communities, among relatives and neighbors and friends and people with different opinions, which should draw on literature and history and tradition and feelings and real-life experience and laws and ethics The problems with technologization, etc lie not in process and progress but in mistaking them for more than they are. They abet modern American culture’s tendency to reduce everything to the soundbite, the instant image, Power Point slides for more complex ideas. We get so much information that we find it difficult ever to look at things in depth. Yet we seen to feel a perverse pride in being so busy, so overwhelmed by information that we simply don’t have time to do more than grab a piece of the surface. We mistake the glittery information tools which provide these instant pieces of information for a means to Truth, if you will. They should be tools in a basket of tools. We should not imagine a machine or a social science statistical analysis will arrive at a wise answers to our world's problems.
We can break down parts of life with our technical and social science tools, see how they connect to each other as electrical impulses, say, but we still will not find as Jaron Lanier called it, “the code of codes.” We can certainly use them as part of our efforts as we limp along. All we have to do is look around our cluttered planet to see we haven’t found meaningful answers to our greatest conundrums, especially those caused by human beings. Certainly neither the internet nor brain scans nor the most sophisticated surveys, nor data crunching, have caused those humans who crave power to become less voracious; we haven’t been able to figure out how to do away with violence, whether it be local or international, we haven’t been able to figure out how to convince people who dig their heels in that global warming is real; we haven’t been able to figure out how to convince the rich to share their resources with the poor. We haven’t figured out how to keep wealth from perverting our democracy. If anything, the glitter of our new technologies and disciplines blinds us further to our dilemmas. Lanier’s op ed piece in the New York Times, “The First Church of Robotics,” makes the point that technology doesn’t crack the code of human life or consciousness in reference to the study of robotics. The same could be said about neuroscientists: they are mappers of how are brain works, of changing routes within it, of electrical impulses, of its physical development or decay but not of our essential natures, nor the essential nature of existence.
While trying to get a handle on whether our current tendencies to reduce just about everything to the simple, the short, the terse, (think executive summaries, abstracts, Power Point, bumper stickers) limits disastrously at times our understanding of our own lives and of the larger world, I found myself remembering a brightly-colored but tattered scrap of Henri Bergson’s philosophy. It lodged in my head when, a million years ago I took an Introduction to Philosophy course. What I remembered was that Bergson believed something to the effect that you could try to understand experience, life, stuff, whatever, by taking a slice of it but slices were only slices, and no matter how much you cut it into smaller and smaller pieces, you wouldn’t get closer to reality or truth.I don’t want to get into Bergson’s philosophy in any detail: I can’t, if you must know. In any event, my purpose here is a bit different. I would like to address the dangers of our current practice of using slices instead of woven tapestries with unfinished edges to understand our world. Bergson interests me because, among other things, he theorized about the way human beings interacted with what they perceived “out there.” He was interested in issues of intuition vs. analytic intelligence, and issues of what I might call “snapshots” or “slices”vs. flow, or in his words, “duration” and “multiplicity.” I am going to vastly oversimplify this --- because this is about real life and not philosophy ( an overly simplified excuse for oversimplifying if I ever saw one.) In our culture, no matter our political (or religious) affiliation, we are heavily influenced by snapshots in determining our thoughts, beliefs and actions, at least a lot of us are more often than is good. Almost everyone who is in a position to make important decisions walks around thumbing down his list of emails and skips over those with more than ten words, jumps from news source to news source, watches a YouTube clip instead of the whole movie.
We overvalue “cutting to the chase.” We ourselves are ever-changing, adding new experiences, new memories, new knowledge, new acquaintances. They all merge and weave into who we are, mixing with what is already in our heads, changing it, and being changed. Perhaps Bergson’s description of possible movement from horror to humility in the presence of someone suffering might make this a little clearer: “Bergson concedes that the feeling of horror may be at the root of sympathy. But then, we realize that if we do not help this poor wretch, it is going to turn out that, when we need help, no one will come to our aide. There is a “need” to help the suffering. For Bergson, these two phases are “inferior forms of pity.” In contrast, true pity involves not so much fearing pain as desiring it. It is as if “nature” has committed a great injustice and what we want is to be seen as not complicit with it. As Bergson says, “The essence of pity is thus a need for self-abasement, an aspiration downward” into pain. But, this painful aspiration develops into a sense of being superior. We realize that we can do without certain sensuous goods; we are superior to them since we have managed to dissociate ourselves from them. In the end, one feels humility, humble since we are now stripped of these sensuous goods. Now, Bergson calls this feeling “a qualitative progress.” It consists in a “transition from repugnance to fear, from fear to sympathy, and from sympathy itself to humility.” The genius of Bergson's description is that there is a heterogeneity of feelings here, and yet no one would be able to juxtapose them or say that one negates the other. ….In any case, the feelings are continuous with one another; they interpenetrate one another, and there is even an opposition between inferior needs and superior needs. A qualitative multiplicity is therefore heterogeneous (or singularized), continuous (or interpenetrating), oppositional (or dualistic) at the extremes, and progressive (or temporal, an irreversible flow, which is not given all at once). Because a qualitative multiplicity is heterogeneous and yet interpenetrating, it cannot be adequately represented by a symbol [or a snapshot]; indeed, for Bergson, a qualitative multiplicity is inexpressible.” Perhaps easier to understand is a comparison of two kinds of color charts. You can find them on Word. One is a series of squares of well-differentiated colors called “standard colors,” the other, a couple of clicks away, called “custom colors”, is an image of colors flowing into each other. It is easy to see that the “snapshot” colors, the standard colors in boxes, reveal nothing of the mix they came from, but mix they came from indeed. (emphasis mine)
Public opinion polls push us into snapshot thinking (how do you like that for a snapshot phrase?) For instance, what was the impact of the “Do you think Obama is a Muslim” poll on you, if you saw it? What kinds of black and white, either –or thinking did it promote, both among those interviewed and those reading and analyzing it? Did it affect your view of people whom you normally see as “the others,” be they tea partiers or progressives? In fact, do you see the world as tea partiers or progressives? What were some questions that weren’t asked? What did you bring into your own opinion formation? Here is the summary of the latest Pew Research Poll on whether people think Obama is a Muslim. And this is the original question:
“Now, thinking about Barack Obama’s religious beliefs…Do you happen to to know what Obama’s religion is? Is he Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic or something else? [INTERVIEWERS_ IF DON’T KNOW, PROBE: “Is that because you’ve heard different things about his religion or because you just don’t know enough about him?”
Here is a post from one of my favorite blogs, Dr. Pullen.com. It is a critique of a study of emotional reactions in women who used botox. It led to a lot of publicity which caused at least some people to think that botox injections could inhibit emotions as well as expressions, based on very little information. Again, the danger of snapshot responses.
Depending for our information on snapshots leads us to make snap decisions, to assume we have more information than we do. Here is an article on violence not just in Mexico to challenge some of your beliefs about Mexico gleaned from the headlines. (Of course you can challenge the statistics, too.) How did you come up with (if you did) a position on the Muslim group that proposes building a prayer room, community room, a theater and a swimming pool, etc. two blocks from the area where the World Trade Center used to stand (over which NY real estate folks tangled for years over profits and leases and so forth)? And how many of you base your diet, your child-rearing practices, your desire for new medications on the snapshots provided by headlines and articles which pick and choose what is eye-catching rather than thought provoking?
Perhaps more important than simply using critical thinking skills which is after all bringing up what in fact are more if perhaps more detailed snapshots is to learn to use your full humanity: your emotions, your intuition, your conscience, , your life experiences in a reflective way when looking at the important issues of our times. What questions seep into your mind, what doubts, what feelings, what fears? What memories? And how many people with different memories and histories and beliefs from yours do you talk about these things with? In other words, do you belong to any communities where important things are discussed in detail by diverse people? Or do you feel compelled to agree with the slogans put forth by a few?
Don't throw the snapshots out. Embed them in the tapestry.
And yes, I'm talking to myself as much as anyone.