Thursday, April 12, 2007

So It Goes

Victor Papanek from Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change

Writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died Wednesday night, April 11th. His books were important to me and my generation. So I've been enjoying reading pieces that mark his passing. 3Quarks Daily links to a half dozen: here, here, here, here, here, and here.

On Tuesday I went to a visitation for a friend who died. Such a sad occasion, for she was a most beautiful and charming friend, still madly in love with her husband and their lovely children. It was nice to see so many long-time friends. We are all in a state of shock still imagining ourselves too young to die of disease. Many of us have known each other for over twenty five years, and my thoughts turned to our youth together in the early 1970's.

Eric Hersman has been running a series called African Digerati where he's been interviewing African technologists. It's a great series and his blog White African is always information rich. His most recent post in the series was with Ethan Zuckerman. Zuckerman says he doesn't "really qualify as a member of the African Digerati," but his contributions to the Afrosphere make him a significant contributor.

I was particularly interested in this exchange:
What do you see as the biggest advantage or opportunity for African technology development?

Something that’s very important in technology research is problem selection. If you choose a boring problem to solve, you get boring technologies. If you choose a fascinating problem and are able to solve it, you can start a revolution. Right now, there are much more interesting problems in African technology than there are in the developed world, in my opinion. I think that smart computer science students around the world should be looking at the developing world for challenges to address – power usage, wireless networking, non-verbal interfaces, computer-based systems for microentrepreneurship. It’s a huge advantage for African innovators to be surrounded by interesting, worthwhile problems.
Reading perhaps more into Zuckerman's answer than is proper, my sense of it was that creating solutions applicable to the developing world is smart because those solutions will be useful everywhere.

The jump from my friend's death to Zuckerman's point about "interesting problems" is a long one. What I'm thinking about is how, back when my cohort was younger, we were indeed engaged by interesting problems. Back in the day most of us would have liked the idea of ourselves as "counter-cultural." We hardly turned out that way.

When I was in college Papaneck's book Design for the Real World captured my attention.
There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly on one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don't need, with money they don't have, in order to impress others who don't care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second.
None of us flinched reading lines like that; instead, many of us really did respond: "Right on!" Our ecological understanding sometimes wasn't very deep, but there was no mistaking a passion about it.

Looking around the room full of mourners I wondered, "What happened?" I drove down to the funeral home with a friend. On the way back home she remarked about what could have been. She was referring to the political follies of the years, but there's no escaping the fact most of us played along.

It's the construct of telesis that stuck out in Papanek's Function Complex diagram when I read the book almost thirty years ago. Telesis isn't a word I've run into much since. Merriam Webster defines:
progress that is intelligently planned and directed : the attainment of desired ends by the application of intelligent human effort to the means
Papanek relates telesis to design:
[C]ontent of a design must reflect the times and conditions that have given rise to it, and must fit in with the general human socioeconomic order in which it is to operate.
As a generation we wanted to run counter, but in our designs lacked the creativity to fashion a fit with the socioeconomic order in which we function that was anyway more ecological. In fact, we seem to have fallen for precisely the program--"It's the system, man"--we once so enthusiastically mocked.

Vonnegut's writing always seems so simple, but the ethical dilemmas he exposes are never so black and white, us and them; but nuanced. General humanness and the socioeconomic order are problems that won't go away and are the subject of much of Vonnegut's storytelling. We have to navigate through them, and Vonnegut showed that harsh judgments aren't a particularly useful way to do so.

Something about online social networks and all the content people put up on the Web is how blindingly stupid too much of it is. Geez! At least that's my reaction when reading some of what I've contributed. I'm not an African blogger, but I do want attend to the Afrosphere. The beauty of the Web is contained in the dialogs. It's worthwhile participating. But when we do, our local perspectives, our telesic baggage, influences us to such an extent we often can't see how wildly inappropriate our designs and solutions are in different contexts.

Eric Hersman responded to a comment I left at on his post with the Zuckerman interview:
I’m particularly in agreement with his belief that Africans are responsible for making Africa better. It’s up to those educated techies in the diaspora to apply their years of experience to solving Africa’s technological problems. Many of these technological problems, once solved, will likely solve a number of economic and social issues as well (my opinion).
Eric seems to be saying a number of things, not the least of which is coming from a perspective of a diasporian. I may be wrong, but I took it that he was also pointing to the problem of people in the West designing inapt solutions, ignoring the importance of place to functional design. I don't deny Eric Hersman's concerns, but I also think that Zuckerman's "worthwhile problems" is a critical and fascinating point.

Zuckerman wrote a provocative piece, The moving circus, the post-national, the Global Soul and the xenophile which inspired Joshua Goldstein on In An African Minute to respond. I'd like to put myself in a line with these two, but feel obliged to point out that I'm goof and neither of them are. Still, we're three white Americans who follow and participate in the Afrosphere. I'm a product of the Baby Boomer Generation, Zuckerman, I presume, a Gen X Generation guy, and Goldstein Gen Y.

Zuckerman wrote:
Xenophilia believes that the world is made of diverse, culturally and socially different, yet interconnected spaces, and that the ability to encounter these different spaces without getting on an airplane is one of the most exciting aspects of the 21st century.
Goldstein makes the case for the "Local Soul," but observes:
Local Soul is no longer enough. We know that our (local) way is not the only way, and for personal and creative reasons it is necessary to reach beyond the bounds of the Local Soul.
And he asks: How can we balance the tension between the necessity for a deep understanding of our place with a growing need to expand our boundaries toward a Global Soul?

The question is such a good one in that Goldstein focuses on "a balance" and not reduced to an either/or bifurcation. Balance seems the core of Hersman's emphasis on African responsibility for solving challenges in Africa, tilting the weight towards the Local Soul. And Zuckerman's point about the importance of interesting problems, and how smart computer science students around the world should pay attention to solving African challenges concerns balancing this tension, perhaps by tilting the weight towards the Global Soul.

So Kurt Vonnegut has died, one of the Greatest Generation. As much as those of us Baby Boomers rail against the notion, we're getting old and our influence waning. That realization is a small part of the shock we all felt with my friend's passing. Being among my friends, so many of them have created some very good things. As the sad sack among them, my yelling: "Sell outs!" would be ridiculous. I wouldn't say that, in any case, but I'm enough of a Boomer to know that the accusation still carries a sting. That seems a very good thing. My generation holds within a deep critique of the socioeconomic order and a vision for a more just and ecological way of living. Vonnegut was very influential in helping to shape that vision.

Rene Dubos is often credited with the maxim: Think Globally, Act Locally. Dubos, was part of a generation before Vonnegut's but coined his famous maxim while an adviser to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. Sociologist Lester Frank Ward, a couple of generations older than Dubos coined the word "telesis." There's not an imaginary straight-line that connects the generations, rather threads which extend to and beyond. Dubos's meaning in "Think Globally, Act Locally," isn't far from Zuckerman's view of the world which is "diverse, culturally and socially different, yet interconnected spaces." And the mission of World Changing where Zuckerman is a board member and contributor bears a thread that extends to Lester Frank Ward's vision of telesis.

Vonnegut's last book of is entitled, A Man Without a Country. Vonnegut's meaning isn't precisely what Zuckerman is referring to in his The moving circus post, but a a thread of humanism connects them. Many of the essays in the book are available online at the In These Times Web site. Cold Turkey is worth reading. Something that's reassuring is that even while wisdom comes from experience, a wise man like Vonnegut doesn't claim to have the meaning of it all figured out.

Verlyn Kinkenborg in The New York Times suggests that for those of us who read Vonnegut's work twenty or thirty years ago, our sense of those works now is a bit disquieting. She writes:
So you get older, and it’s been 20 or 30 years since you last read “Player Piano” or “Cat’s Cradle” or “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Vonnegut is not, now, somehow serious enough. You’ve entered that time of life when every hard truth has to be qualified by the sense of what you stand to lose. “It’s not that simple,” you find yourself saying a lot, and the train of thought that unfolds in your mind as you speak those words reeks of desperation.
But then she concludes:
And yet, somehow, the world seems more and more to have been written by Vonnegut and your life is now the footnote. Perhaps it is time to go back and revisit that earlier self, the one who seemed, for a while, so interwoven in the pages of those old paperbacks.
When I gathered with my friends earlier this week to grieve for our friend's passing, I remembered us when, and those memories were comforting.

I'm probably just lost in the weeds alluding to comparison between the tension between a generations and a Global Soul and a Local Soul. But I realize as I write that using a metaphor of a balance beam and weights to compare Zuckerman and Goldstein's positions is exactly the wrong sort of metaphor for the balance involved. Quantitative measures are nonsense when the issues are the quality of connections.

Food, shelter, clothing are essentials, and we imagine these things as something we have. Perhaps the very closeness of these essentials make it easy to neglect the basic needs for clean water and the atmosphere we breathe. Water and air we all share and so it's harder to expand our attention to the kinds of cooperation necessary for them. Vonnegut in Cold Turkey says we're addicted to oil. He's right about that of course, but like addicts we steep ourselves in denial about it. That's why it's so hard for us to get our heads around Global Climate Change, and to move our butts.

One of the reasons that Ethan Zuckerman's suggestion that smart computer science student look to the developing world for problems to address seems so interesting is because it's a way to think outside the limitations of oil addiction. No doubt Eric Hersman is correct that Africans are the ones best equipped to tackle African problems. But the problems people face today include existential challenges of a global scale. What could be more global than the composition of the Earth's thin layer of atmosphere. The interesting part is the solutions to the global problem depend upon the behavior of billions of people in hundreds of thousands locales.

World Changing's Manifesto works from a premise:
that the tools, models and ideas for building a better future lie all around us. That plenty of people are working on tools for change, but the fields in which they work remain unconnected. That the motive, means and opportunity for profound positive change are already present. That another world is not just possible, it's here. We only need to put the pieces together.
Vonnegut's literary legacy presents that putting the pieces together is no simple matter, because all sort of truly lunatic combinations are probable.

Cynics in Grecian antiquity believed that virtue is the highest good. I don't really know much about history, so I wonder how the present meanings of cynic has come to be. I've seen Vonnengut called a cynic, I've seen him called a misanthrope. And I find it strange for someone who so strongly believed in kindness and loving one another to be so cast. It's the quality of the connections that matters most. I'm grateful to have been connected to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. through his paperback books. I'm delighted that others can connect to, even while he's flown the cage.

1 comment:

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