Wiki-Relating – Day Twenty-Seven

wisdom ts eliot

When I was in primary school the only way that I might quickly find information on a particular subject was to go to one of our bookshelves lined with maroon-ish colored hardbound volumes. Carefully spelling out the key word (the Ss were two volumes!) and it would take longer if one didn’t remember “i before e,” a paragraph or three could be found, perhaps alongside a diagram or picture. And that was all the information one really needed.

The first edition of Encyclopædia Britannica was published almost 200 years before I was born in 1768 by “a society of gentlemen in Scotland.” While encyclopedias have existed for over 2000 years—Marcus Terrentius Varro’s, Nine Books of Disciplines appeared c. 30BCE—these contained mainly collections of treaties on the natural sciences, histories, etc. Later collections would include religious and philosophical compendiums.

The French Encyclopédie—the first major collection to resemble modern volumes—was perceived as more French Enlightenment driven. Scotsmen, Collin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell envisioned the more conservative Britannica as countermeasure – organizing information, cross-referencing to provide a resource more accessible and to more people.

Fast forward to 1993 when Rick Gates proposes the first on-line encyclopedia. A free-as-in-freedom concept (vs. merely open source) was outlined by Richard Stallman the end of 2000. But it was Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger who finally launch Wikipedia in 2001, using Ward Cunningham’s 1995 technology and concept of the wiki. It has become one of the most frequently visited site with a recorded 18 billion page views in the month of August 2015 alone. As of November 2015 the English version contains over 5,000,000 articles.

And all of this information—not to mention the seemingly infinite content WWW-wide—is available with a touch to a smartphone. Anytime. Anywhere (well, with cell service and/or wireless connection). And when any child can look up whatever he or she wants to know, why would kids need to defer to adults as expert of anything? What is compelling about considering those older than me as worthy of special regard or respect? When they see how these same adults put a man who reasons as a toddler in our highest office, it’s a very good question.

How do I as a leader, someone entering into her second half-century (oy vey!) acquire the respect of those younger – when they can just look up a YouTube video that demonstrates mindfulness technique or breathing exercise? Or open an app to find the sense of a Hebrew word in context? What does it matter that I hold certifications in these subjects, or MAs in those or a Doctorate in that?

Perhaps the answer to these questions is as ancient as our oldest texts: relationship. Historically, vocations and information were imparted during the relational apprenticeship. The older, (presumably) wiser individual came alongside the younger person eager to learn the trade or gain knowledge in the discipline. Respect – authentic respect, vs. fear – is only earned, cannot be demanded. And it is hard-won in the context of trust-building relationship. This takes time. And relationships are not easy. They require commitment, a sort of covenant to see this agreement through. And persisting, choosing to remain to see the process through is the worthiest aim for respect.

It is more difficult than ever to forge relationships of this sort. Most young people are more content to communicate via smartphones and computers. As I type, my youngest son is “playing” with his best friend—while he remains in our living room and his friend mere blocks away. These 40 days of meditations are ways for me to process and work through how I might enter this new phase in my life. Some ideas have come to light, and processing with my dearest friend from college has been invaluable. Still, I would love to hear from others who have thoughts, comments, ideas, encouraging words. Perhaps you might like to join me?

Punked by Information

The Human Condition (painting)

The Human Condition (painting) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story of Blind Men and the Elephant is useful metaphor for the value of a variety of perspectives. It is difficult to comprehend the whole of an issue in all its complexities unless observed from multiple points of view. The same could be said for time. That is, our perspective changes at different points in time. We perceive an event (book, movie, etc.) differently over time by virtue of maturity. And cosmic time offers the advantage of perspective via the work of history.

I just listened to a podcast interview with the mathematician, Keith Devlin, who is an evangelist, really, of mathematics. He considers it a beautiful and pure language that eloquently expresses the universe and what it means to be human. It was inspiring and provoked a teensy urge to revisit math . . .

calvin and hobbs on math But, in the interview he quotes G.H. Hardy in Cambridge who wrote he could see no real-life circumstances in which he would ever use the complex computations of his professional career. Hardy saw his life work as nothing practical in application—it is just really complicated math. But, within the century they became the means and ground for the computational language that made Internet possible and undergirds (oxygenates?) the very information-saturated air we breathe.

A recent article by Richard Lacayo promoted a new show at MOMA. René Magritte, the surrealist painter of the early-mid 20th century, specifically a 13-year span that represents the nucleus of his perspective, is featured. His work was first interpreted as surrealism, though started out intending to produce in the Cubist form. Yet, to appreciate Magritte’s work in this second decade of the 21st century, is to understand that his is clearly more than Surreal. Now it is possible to see how Magritte’s representations inform, convey and expose (signify) the constraints that information puts on true knowledge of one another. That is, through all manner of technological devices, one may communicate words, messages, and infinite data, but cannot approach the human-communication that comes by physically being in one another’s presence. The Human Condition (see above) portrays a window with an easel tripod underneath, and comments on the way we create an image of the ‘real world’ and place the image in front, obstructing our view and co-opting a static representation for the ever-evolving, perspectival, perceivable beauty of the actual. But, I am taken with The Lovers, “his 1928 painting of two figures, heads enshrouded in fabric, locked in an embrace but unknowable to each other.”the-lovers-1928(1)

The acumen of Lacayo is beautifully captured in the closing comments:

“Is it too much to think of Magritte’s art as a kind of cautionary note for the Internet age? With its warnings about the treachery of images and the ways language itself is a disinformation campaign, it’s a collective metaphor about the limits of knowledge and the pitfalls of communication. It’s aimed at us, bent over our phones and keyboards, eagerly retrieving ‘information,’ all the while punked, all of us, almost all the time.”

Sir Francis Bacon said, “knowledge is power,” and many since have tweaked the quote to say, information is power. And, it is true that information can easily be used to wield power over those not as well-informed. It is also true that information can be communicated in stunning ways to convey aspects of life from a variety of perspectives, such as Euler’s identity or the epigenetics within a cell. Still, nothing is more human than to enjoy the company of another. It requires time, and is timeless. Would someone like to take the time to enjoy the Magritte exhibit when it comes to Chicago?! (h/t Howie Snyder)

The humanity of a hug

For a little extra motivation I subscribe to Seth Godin’s blog. They are mostly bits of wisdom that keep me focused on the task at hand rather than succumbing to discouragement by the difficulty of the entire project. Sometimes his observations are particularly profound or relevant to the work, and today’s held such a sentiment. Godin is speaking to the drama that our world has made of “reality,” turning life into a “sporting event [with the result of being] profitable.” When witnessed over any number of accessible devices, it begins to effect our own behavior. And, “This is dehumanizing, because it turns pathos into ratings and makes just about everyone into ‘the other’, not someone deserving more than clicks, linkbait and trolling.”

When nearly anything can be fodder for youtube or instagram or facebook, and our time consumed by, well, the consumption of that media, real life is no longer perceived as real, experienced. Indeed, we become less human. Because, to be human, is to be embodied, relational-in-body. To be sure, there are certainly benefits to using the technology available to maintain “contact” with others. At the same time, as Godin observes, “I’m not sure there’s any number of Facebook likes that can replace a hug.” Perhaps, today, before checking texts or post “likes,” before I get caught up in this work that seems so incredibly pressing, I will first find someone to hug. Now that is real!