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A plug for culture

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In the early 1960s my father gave me tour of the computer at the company where he worked. It wasn’t  a computer like we think of today, but a big room with a bunch of electronic stuff in it,  it’s own cooling system and men busily moving from one area to another. He showed me a dark space where every so often a green light would flash on for a second  or two and  then back to dark,  and explained that when the light was on the computer was working, but it was really a major task for the attendants to give it enough work to keep it it busy. I don’t know how much memory it had but I would not hesitate to guess 144K.

Almost fifty years have gone by and now its not just the men in the room, but everywhere people are increasingly busy finding stuff for the computer to do. All aspects of life are being converted into “zeros and ones” or what they call “information” and moving these “zeros and ones”  from one machine to another, or what is called “communication.”

Culture (in the sociological-anthropological sense) is the glue of human society. The process of socialization. i.e. the behavior of people from being born  to becoming an adult transmits culture. The things we do—our behavior— growing up transmits culture. It is like an apprenticeship, and culture is generated/transmitted by this behavioral activity of people as opposed to the intellectual activity of people. We are what we do.

One can read all the information about drawing ever written but there is only one way to learn to draw—practice, more practice and more practice. And in the end its not just learning how to draw but the discipline  to the process of learning to draw that teaches your eye to see as well as feel what it means to be able to draw . Suggesting that drawing is simply information, i.e. a bunch of “zeros and ones”  implies  that a drawing is nothing more than the lines and tones you see. It is ridiculous.

Yet using computers is producing that very thing. Computers treat what is to be learned as discrete information and the process of learning as unimportant and irrelevant to that information. We can learn anything we want about blues music by searching the WWW. But in the 1950s and 60s, people who wanted to learn about blues had to do things,—had to behave,— in a way different from society as a whole. They went on a journey, some white guy from Chicago suburbs venturing to the south side to hear Howlin’ Wolf  or Muddy Waters is a lot different than searching Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters on youtube or wikipedia.

And that difference is not in the information, but in the human experiences  involved in the process of  finding that information. In human history   the process of finding the information is not separate from the information but an essential part of it.  But to the computer the information— the “zeros and ones” which is the only part the computer can understand, is separate from the process of finding it and to the computer the process is irrelevant.

To the computer how you learn is unimportant because it cannot understand that.

In the end the behavior required to learn about blues was not different (as I previously mentioned), everyone who has a passion to learn, whether car mechanic, historian, or doctor, needs to learn how to learn those things outside of the common area and it is the experience of doing that is more important than the information to be learned. One thing that has made humans successful is the ability to reinvent that process  of learning—that is a tool, developed and honed from people before us, and passed down, made available  by culture.

But to the computer only the information itself, the “zeros and ones” is  important and while  that information is easily available with a key stroke, it deprives individuals of a more important experience  and the society itself of  the transmission and meaning of culture. Whether you see it as the Anomie of Durkheim or the Alienation of  Marx, to have the process of  learning be reduced to a few key strokes in front of a light box is to lose the cultural skill of  learning.

What happens when the plug is pulled?

Written by Steve

May 29th, 2011 at 10:51 am

Posted in QuacknDuck

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