Sunday 29 May 2011

Staying cheerful despite...

The prognosis for the education system is very bleak. The changes that are occurring now will have devastating and irreparable consequences not just on education itself but on knowledge and consequently, I believe, civil society. But, on the bright side, we are still here and no-one appears to have died directly from a lack of education (although there are indications that lack of education indirectly leads to an early grave: Even so, everyone's got to die sometime... just preferably not all at once!

In our period of bleakness, I think it would be more useful to spend time thinking about what has become of us rather than railing against the injustice of it all. There's some humour in that, and the humour can help us both manage the devastation and understand it. But beyond the jokes, what I think has become of us is that we have lost sight of our individuality and the sacredness of individual human life. Instead, we have become subsumed into the amorphous and mindless global communications networks which we have substituted for God.

The scary bit is the wiring.

Like the result of a medical experiment by Dr Moreau, every sinew, nerve and organ has been teased out of us, its signals analysed, and carefully connections made between them and the global network. The remarkableness of the engineering feat is only matched by the incompleteness of the knowledge that it took to undertake it. But our ability to discern the gaps in the knowledge have been compromised by the operation. Like Dr. Who's Cybermen, we are now wired-up; effectively prisoners to a global machine that is out of control, with the most powerful controls we once possessed - the ability to know something - taken away from us. It's no comfort to say that Heidegger predicted this.. we have cannibalised ourselves, becoming our own 'standing reserve', feeding on ourselves to drive our world. This is what the 'enframing' of technology does.

There is a need for a new quest for personhood and individuality. But this can be no 'revolutionary' call - that would simply feed the global machine. It requires instead individuals seeking inside of them the vestiges of what survived the operation. To do that we need to see what 'enframing' did to us, how we have become, and how what we know ourselves to be is different from how we have become.

More specifically, I wonder if the wiring was achieved with an analytical understanding of the structures of cognition: essentially a synchronic model. We labeled those parts of cognition, mapped the brain, worked out what had what effect and so on. Then we wired ourselves up. There was never any consideration of the emergent effects, of the diachronic model.

When I look at myself, I might speculate on the synchronic aspects of my engagements with the world (like this blog). There are patterns to be seen, which I have tried to understand more precisely with models. But each moment has a history and future. Within that history and future there are also patterns: the note that is played and dies away; the glance that stays in the mind long after it was made; the loss that transforms everything.

What I may be beginning to think is that Jung is right: that there are a finite number of states in an infinite amount of time. Understanding the diachronic process is to understand the patterning of those finite states. Bringing better knowledge of the diachronic process together with the synchronic process is perhaps when we will start to unpick the wiring.


Julie Anne said...

This is very interesting. Have you read Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). He explores some of the ideas you are discussing in what seem to be new ways.

It's a large, scholarly tome which includes knowledge and insights gained from different areas of his varied career (he has distinguished himself including neuroimaging, psychiatry. He started out as a literary scholar and had a seven year fellowship at All Souls, Oxford). There is a a website for his book at and he has a professional blog on

Julie Anne said...

An extract from the blog, which might give you the gist

The right hemisphere understands what I call ‘betweenness’: not the fact of one thing being conjoined with another, nor the conjunction itself – not even the assemblage of the parts and their togetherness; but the whole thing, which involves everything being seen in the light of everything else, before any such ‘assemblage of the parts’ could take place. It sees everything as flowing, changing, and evolving, rather than fixed, static and known. It sees the living, where the left hemisphere sees the inanimate. This has important consequences for our appreciation of music, time and the evolving self.

Mark Johnson said...

Thanks! No - I don't know it and don't know McGilchrist so I'm very grateful for this. Looks fascinating, so off to Amazon.