I have told this story myself, once at full volume in a crowded NYC subway car (inadvertently, I tend to speak loudly) and was rewarded with agreement from fellow subway riders. (Scripting News, 5/23/18)
Reading Vaclac Havel, not sure what essay, I gathered the sense a progression that citizens in a tyranny might experience. Feeling like he or she is the only one who wants to resist the powers that be, feeling that only the few in the circle of friends understand how dangerous the government is, feeling that there are distant clusters of people who get it but they are cut off from each other.
Later, lots of people knowing the government is bogus but not knowing that most people know, eventually feeling that maybe lots of people do see through the power structure's lies but not sure there is a way to assemble and act, finally realizing that most everybody knows the power structure is brutal and phone and looking around for ways to gather forces, then making public the shared understanding that the government is brutal and bogus, so that now everybody knows and everybody knows that everybody knows. And now being relatively free of uncertainty and able to act. Maybe not free of fear, but free of uncertainty about the shared understanding.
If Havel was right, then part of the problem is an information problem. What kind of civic practices, publishing practices, information practices, help citizens move through that progression from isolation to shared knowledge and confidence? At certain stages, the knowledge and good will are there but difficult to tap. No visible On/Off switch.
Like that moment on the subway car that Dave Winer describes. There was a huge latent shared understanding that was only accidentally revealed.
And there is probably a huge latent potential for activism, too, with no visible On/Off switch that we can throw when we need to.
Reading just now about absurdly run "debate" shows that are more ritual combat than honest discussion.
They pretend to offer shared inquiry, and the journalists who run them are fatalistic about the nature of their shows. It's hard for the rest of us to do much about the poor quality of broadcast media.
But some media forms are more easily tilted toward our own uses.
I think of photographers who use Instagram and Facebook to build a community of artists who encourage and celebrate the good work of their peers. Poets on Twitter share new work and link to new pieces they admire by others. Painters on Facebook show works in progress and recently completed and announce new gallery shows.
These three kinds of artists create community among practitioners and fans; they create a virtual space, often linked to public performances, where they enjoy and influence each other. They break down the solitude of being an artist. They strengthen the economics of their art, and sometimes they even defend their art form politically in the world.
Driving south in the early spring is an excellent kind of time travel. In Michiana last weekend the magnolia buds were just thinking about opening and the tulips weren’t even close. But down in Bloomington on Saturday bulbs rioted on the street corners, the spring-flowering trees reached out gaudily on almost every block, and the grass needed cutting. Walkers and saunterers were out, uh, walking and sauntering, stylish patrons stood in lines in front of restaurants for the open-air seating, and I put on a baseball cap so I didn’t get a sunburn up there.
We were visiting for the start of our family’s birthday season, but we parents arrived almost empty-handed. It’s hard to know the right present for either adult child now that they live far away. So at a Bloomington sporting goods store we invited our youngest to pick something. She walked straight to the back and tried on a climbing harness.
That’s not necessarily the birthday present a parent is eager to give. A climbing harness looks like a hefty, ugly, utilitarian belt for the torso with two smaller belts hanging off that support a climber’s upper legs. And near the navel, through which mother first nurtured each of us so long ago, there’s a sturdy loop for clipping in the heavy safety rope that is meant to prevent, well, you know. Later in the day we parents drove out to see the climbing wall. At the front desk we filled out some ominous waiver forms, then we sat on a sofa in the middle of the tall warehouse room. From floor to ceiling the walls were pocked with strangely shaped little handholds and tiny wedges just big enough for the front bit of your foot. Safety ropes dangled down all around the walls.
And for the first time we watched our two adult children, into whom we have sunk so many years of parenting, take turns scaling what was maybe a four story wall while the other tended the safety rope at the base. We watched as they made their way up the wall, as they puzzled out the routes, where to put this hand or that foot so as to be able to reach the next handhold and scoot higher. Saw each of them eventually slap the topmost handhold, inches from the ceiling, marking their success. And once or twice, we saw each sibling slip, drop a few inches while the safety rope caught hold and held firm there at the navel. Then, in turn, each climber paused, faced the wall, took hold once more, and climbed on. I had a confident feeling I’ve had many times before: that these two are going to do something worthwhile with their lives. Hey, the country’s a wreck, we have to hope they will. No pressure, you two.
Outdoors again in the bright air of spring, I noticed at the edge of the parking lot a slender, crooked redbud, maybe my favorite spring tree, with its ethereally purple flowers small and tight along every branch. The family piled into the little car, two adults in front and two in back, and headed for some college town pizza.
Driving south last weekend got us, the parents, a happy, ten-day-ahead preview of spring. The trip out to the climbing wall also marked an episode of time travel. It confirmed boldly what I’ve known for a while now: that the adulthood of our children has commenced.
In the long echoing hallway between the O’Hare parking ramp and the airport terminal, a busking violinist’s sweet melody amplified my hopeful mood, so I dropped a little bigger bill than usual into his instrument case, for the karma. Upstairs, our guest writer and I shook hands, two strangers squarely on a first-name basis, James and Ken. It slowly dawned on me that the two of us were launching into an old-fashioned American road trip, just like in the movies. Only we didn’t rob any banks.
We did, however, head right to dinner at a Chicago corner tavern with Christine and Doug, my sister and brother-in-law. The four of us shared not only an enthusiasm for a neighborhood meal washed down with a flavorful beverage but also concern about our two badly polarized homelands. Back at the apartment, Dignan, the big black Labrador, proposed to our visitor that the two of them become best friends for life.
The next morning, breakfast out and a visit to a regionally sourced grocery. As a farmer himself, James asked the butcher good questions about his work, and we learned about the satisfaction he felt practicing his craft there using more healthful and sustainable food sources. We thanked Christine and Doug and resumed our American road trip. The talk is a blur to me now but an hour later there was a small bag of donuts on the seat between us and we were telling each other about the last important conversation we had with our fathers before losing them not many years ago. That evening we visited probably the most notable family goat farm in our area. Amidst the warm hospitality I was blown away by the conversation between James, the sheep breeder, and Joe, the goat breeder. They locked eyes and took their shop talk pretty deep. I had never heard two farmers talk at such length about animal care and breeding, two smart, curious, caring experts who loved the hard, creative work of their herds. I left that evening admiring farmers more directly, based on the evidence of my own eyes and ears, than ever before.
The next day James spoke with students about activism and sustainability and then with a large auditorium of people about his farm in England and his writing. He was keenly interested in clues about local, small-scale creativity that can build a community and contribute to the changes needed in the wider society, including food and agricultural policy.
Next morning, our road trip resumed through Amish and other farm-scapes southeast of the city. I asked James to point out anything he noticed about the farms that I probably wouldn’t have spotted myself as a city boy. A mile or two further down the road, he pointed to a tidy farm with wide clean fields—no cover crop over the winter—and said this farm is struggling. They haven’t bought a new piece of machinery in twenty years. Their combine is a museum piece. A little later on, passing a farm with a white barn and wooden fencing brightly painted white, he said, this smaller farm looks like they’re doing better, they’re showing more pride in the look of their place.
These things were essentially invisible to me in my homeland. We sped on. The owner of an Amish quilt shop, completely at ease in herself, told us about the satisfaction and freedom of not having to earn the money to buy and maintain a computer. James and I spent the last hour listening to the edgy beats and lyrics of politically aware music from both his country and ours. Nina Simone’s song about Mississippi still so potent after all these years, and still so much work to be done in our country. I dropped James off in a struggling little city in western Ohio—big man-hug like we both meant it. I pointed the car back toward South Bend happy to understand that I know little about my own country and with a hopeful feeling that it’s not too late to learn. Plus admiration for people doing good work all around us and a renewed fondness for the restorative American tradition of making a road trip.
Most academics don't imagine themselves operating as publishers of their insights day by day in the ongoing give and take of society, of politics.
We academics usually don't value the chance of speaking directly to a wide audience. We usually don't feel the need for non-academic forms of media. We put the power of our understanding on hold or out of reach of people who need it. Most of us do and say this:
"I will teach this powerful idea to my 19-year-old students and maybe in a decade one of them will use it in the world."
And we will not, for the most part, empower students to practice using powerful ideas in the world during the university years.
A little theory of the weakness of democracy:
Silence is the basic mode of a citizen, largely unallied with others, having no regular civic audience, skilled in no form of public address, possessing no reliable stream of information or one so contested and poisoned and vexed as to be more problem than aid, susceptible to cynicism or despair or indifference or fear every moment that is not spent laboring or consuming entertainment or tending the beautiful or bare walled garden of the private life.
For a while now I’ve had an odd feeling that semaphore still has something to tell us. You know, before there were telegraph lines, and a coup was underway in the capital city and this bit of menacing news really needed to get out to good people in the provinces in a hurry. No problem, just use some version or another of semaphore. Lights flashed from hilltop to hilltop would do the trick nicely.
If the code has been prepared. If the hilltop stations were created in advance of the emergency. If they were staffed by loyalists. If the staff had good technical training. If the people in the provinces understood the importance of the message. If they saw ways to respond. And so forth.
Here is the post-Berners-Lee, post-Snowden takeaway:
Messages are easy, easier than ever, but they go nowhere, they are useless, if the network has not been prepared. That network is a piece of open technology and a web of people already aligned with each other and inside each one of them the knowledge, attitude, and skills needed to pitch in. That’s the message I’m getting from semaphore today.
I realize that I use Twitter in part to take notes. There are many continuities in the notes--topics recur, interests, concerns, and obsessions unfold over time. But by the structure of the software, those continuities are not made clear. You'd have to remember which posts are related to each other, or dig to find these continuities.
The software doesn't care about the connections that I care about. The software doesn't track the connections I'm making when I notice something and post it. The connections between old posts and the newest one.
The software encourages the intellectual structure that teachers see in unsophisticated college papers: "Here's something I want to say. Now here's another thing I noticed. This, too, is interesting." The structure of a list, while perfectly good for grocery shopping, is not a good enough tool for some kinds of thinking.* **
So I've been using Twitter to take notes, knowing that the interesting work of making connections between the notes is yet to be done.
And due to the design of the software, will probably never be done. The continuities will probably never be exposed, considered further, developed into something more substantial. That's my main complaint about Twitter. In its current structure, Twitter looks like it's good for note-taking, but it isn't. (Not that I disagree with other well-known criticisms of the tool.)
The idea of a tool for taking notes in a public place, that idea I like. The idea that the tool, by its structure, makes it unlikely that the notes will ever be assembled into something else, that is my complaint here.
*Yes, it's true, avant-garde novelists do fun things with lists, proving that lists are ways of thinking.
**You can tell that lists aren't a rich enough kind of organization if you ever group a list into categories. Doing so, you're asserting greater thought-links than a simple list provides. A grocery list that puts all the produce together, puts all the frozen foods together, puts all the dairy products together, is still a list, but it asserts more meaning, more pattern, than a list alone.
I got out of the habit of writing short pieces most days. Now I'll try to get back into the habit.
I realize that it's been so long that I'm not even sure where I should be doing this writing and posting. Not a good sign!
Versions of a notable, much-used idea that seem to imply a process of experience, knowledge, insight into action in the world:
And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.*
The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.
The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.
I like the idea that there is a process of experience into insight into action. The more we know about that, the better. I suppose this is a note to self to keep an eye on the clues here. Elaborate on this.
If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.
Don't mourn, organize.
*The New Testament quotation that gets the ball rolling is from John 8:32. Other translations suggest that the word "know" has meaningful and even mystical layers in Hebrew, involving the words da'at and da'as as an entwined set of things that add up to profound knowledge, perhaps. So: layers upon layers here, or steps and stages that one can unpack from these few sentences.
I write a paragraph in the software's composing box, then click "Post" and my paragraph heads off to my timeline-organized site (blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) for whatever audience I am able to build there day by day.
A box pops up a second later and asks where in the idea-organized Wiki or Box folder or opml outline I'd also like the paragraph to appear. I locate a place in the file structure and click "Post" again. Off it goes, maybe with a link back to the timeline posting as well, in case a discussion develops in the comment area that I'd want to review later.
The software tool adds a note at the bottom of the timeline post saying "This paragraph also appears in a more extended context here" with a clickable link on the word "here."
Something like that, anyway.
(From a tweet storm.)
Curious problem: A university's home page is not designed to help faculty do their work. It serves other readers and other purposes.
Most universities don't have a second home page crafted for faculty work. A solo teacher pieces together links and news instead.
Obviously, a solo teacher's main work is research and teaching. Less well known: faculty together create the entire curriculum.
Yet there is no communications hub, no well-aimed, thoughtfully shaped links hub, no publishing hub, created for that shared work.
Instead, we have faculty meetings, an antique custom in which announcements are often read aloud to those who attend.
Discussions are held, sometimes without time to read and consider the issues ahead. An antique system full of old protocols.
Yet today publishing tools, linking tools, discussion tools are all around us, ready to be used.
Interesting problem, then: Choosing publishing tools to modernize and streamline the faculty's shared job of creating a campus curriculum.
It was just the two of us this time, more or less empty-nesters, with beach chairs slung over our shoulders walking toward downtown, heading for the fireworks. We can see them in miniature from our front yard, but once in a while we go see them up close, the full sound and fury. In Howard Park, people were setting out blankets and lawn chairs on the grassy slope down to the river, but we craved the maximum experience, as close as we could get.
The Jefferson Street bridge was blocked by police cars at both ends—in the dusky light, its pavement was dotted with boxes, the machinery for launching fireworks. And the crowds were still streaming over the footbridge onto the island at Seitz Park. Big bulked-up police officers circulated in the crowd. With the dull roar of water sliding over the broad low-water dam as backdrop, up on the bandstand a rhythm and blues band gave one of the classics a very respectable workout. A drum solo commenced, and I recognized the grand old man of our area’s musical heritage, drummer Billy “Stix” Nix, in his early eighties, cutting time sharply into segments and pulses, working across the drum kit and across the air so that we could all feel it pounding in the sternum, as if he played the whole crowd with those two sticks.
Next came a song made famous by Aretha Franklin. The crowd was young and old, every shade of skin color, every style of dance. Over to the side, a brittle gray-haired couple marked out a little square of sidewalk, fox-trotting almost in place, so slowly and elegantly that I couldn’t tell if they heard the rhythm of the drums or not. Most everyone else was dancing a modern, personal dance that they taught themselves in their bedrooms and on the school dance floors of their youth, each one a little different, each one a cousin. Some knew the words and sang along. Chain of fools—who hasn’t been there sometime?
We were having too nice a time to talk or to think much, but I couldn’t help but ponder the diversity. It’s the hope of America, this very diversity, getting it right someday. Billy Nix granted us an encore and then the fireworks commenced, right across the little stretch of mirrored water atop the white arches of the grand old bridge. Booming and rushing skyward and breaking open above us, light in arcs and sparks and curves, punctuated by hisses and explosions. A little boy sitting behind us couldn’t help himself, he commented aloud on every single moment of the display. His parents must find him exhausting sometimes. Up in the sky, even grander colors and curves presented themselves. We in the crowd were deeply satisfied. We seemed to like each other pretty well, too.
It went on for so long, I found myself wondering how it could be sustained. Not just the pricey fireworks, but all of us, young and old, every walk of life, every shade of humanity, all turned toward the same celebratory dome of sky. Well, you don’t do deep thinking at a fireworks display, but here’s the answer I came up with. Get everybody a fair chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Good schools, safe streets, enough jobs to go around, a blue sky and green planet, a country at peace, and health care so both our young people and elders can keep coming downtown to dance. It sounds simple, until you open up the morning paper. But you know what they say: Many hands make light work.
I ran across a couple of journalists complaining about the poor quality of many of the letters that are submitted to their newspapers. Fair enough.
Poorly written, slogan-chanting, venomous letters, that sort of thing, I'm guessing.
There was a sad fatalism about their complaints that caught my eye. How can we possibly improve the quality of these submissions?
Here is my hunch about an answer to that good question. An experiment.
Papers could trade something they have in decent supply (readers, column space) for some better letters from thoughtful people in town. Here's how it could work:
1. Do something different with the weak letters.
a. Put all the venomous letters that you must for some reason publish on a web page called Venom? yourpaper.com/venom, that sort of thing.
b. And the letters that recite talking points instead of helping readers think freshly about an issue? A web page called Slogans: yourpaper.com/slogans.
In other words, isolate and label the weak letters that you for some reason must publish.
c. If that's too bold, then just put all the weak letters online only. "No print for you! Next!"
2. Now, about attracting stronger writers.
d. Every week, rain or shine, offer the the most thoughtful and informative letter writer a three-column guest spot. Maybe one column a month on the writer’s favorite issue, edited well by one of your best people so that it's as well done as the letter that won the weekly contest. (There is a shortage of good content at most newspapers these days, right?)
e. Run a free two-hour workshop on how to write a contest-winning, column-quality letter. Tape it, post it online. Run it again from time to time. Show people you'd love to see them writing better letters, and here's how.
f. Maybe critique your syndicated columnists once in a while, too, as part of the teaching-how. Their pieces vary in quality more than they should, yes? Use these critiques to help teach the winners how to write good columns.
3. Tell everyone the new rules.
g. Be sure to do that. That check back in a month and see if you don't have some people trying hard to win the guest-spot contest each week by submitting good letters. (And maybe a few folks won't want their pieces to appear on the Venom or Slogans page and will therefore try a little harder.)
h. See if the weekly winners are turning in thoughtful, issue-oriented monthly columns. I bet most of them will take this opportunity very seriously.
4. Bottom line.
Worth a try? I think so. You’d be explicitly trading access to your readership for good letters and good columns. I bet you every town in America has some thoughtful people, some careful writers, who would like that deal very much.