Sunday, May 20, 2012

Social Networks and the New Romanticism

Now that Facebook has done its initial public offering it is time to discuss the idea of “living socially,” a common phrase here in the Northwest.  (See

If you are employed you probably have heard the comment Our people are our best resource, which is often used as a team building statement.  I suspect that in the old Modernist days such comments focused more on collective meritocracy, such as we are all well credentialed, and have xyz years of education and experience.  Today’s Romanticism emphasizes social life, virtual and visceral, over the abstract and intellectual one.  To Anthropologists, the emphasis on social life is called Hight Context culture, and it is filled with high frequency communications.

Social networks have always existed, and cronyism too, but the different ways in which they are thought about give the distinction.  Modernists thought about society and social living in the abstract; it's just business, not personal, was a favorite Godfather phrase.  Romantics focus on feeling it, experiencing it, and emotionalizing it—everything is personal.

Our new Romanticism uses words that stress the social:  engaged, connected, collaborate. Zuckerberg of Facebook has always talked about his website as being about connections.  Engaged is also interesting; it's an old word that used to mean engage in war, engaged to be married, engage the clutch, but now it pushes social activity.  Collaboration has replaced partnership.  The nuance here is that collaborative relations are between equals while partnerships need not be; collaboration de-emphasizes hierarchy and is more democratic.

While I think most understand the rawness and experientialism that comes with Romantic’s interest in the visceral life, the virtual stuff needs elaboration.  We have to understand that in Modernist terms technology was a utility outside of nature.  Computers, cars, machines were just tools.  Modernists sometimes even personified their cars or linked one’s personality to a car.  I drive a mustang means I am a wild horse.  However, that was as far as it would go.

In addition, Modernists used emphatic expressions; they preferred to convey information with a sense of confidence and accuracy.  Romantics use phatic expressions, also known as small talk and grooming conversations, to stress relationships.  Facebook, Twitter, texting are dominated by phatic conversations.

In our new Romanticism, technology is our natural world and we are one with nature.   The internet is an environment of connectedness--a matrix of hardware, software, complex metaphors, and grand illusions. Our young adults can’t live without their cell phones and other social networking technologies.  To be alive is to be connected, and virtual communication means that we are all wired together.  The virtual world is as real as any other place. 

Below, the phrase social network is clearly a product of our new Romantic era.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Science: Subtly Disconnected from the Western Mainstream

The last few weeks have provided several items that demonstrate that much, but not all, of contemporary science continues to be subtly disconnected from mainstream values in American society (and in all the West).  Of course, at a macro viewpoint, science is part of society and thus its values are, by definition, part of the whole.  But, full integration is a different matter and within this holistic space it is evident that much of science is directed, pointed, in a different direction than the main flow of society.  In a world where the Dionysian impulse is growing more powerful every day, those scientists who continue in a modernist Apollonian worldview are increasingly “left behind,” or, they are wondering why their work is deemed irrelevant.  The quest for relevancy is a hot button of science today.

A recent study by sociologist Gordon Gauchat (here) got some widespread news (here).  It appears that trust in science has declined among educated American conservatives.  It’s interesting but hardly news worthy.  One significant issue he misses is that educated conservatives have been the spear point of the anti-intellectualism movement in America since the 1970s, and they have done this as shills for the oligarchy.  See here.

While studying trust-in-science is important adding other variables into the mix would be more enlightening:  apathy for, lack of belief in, the mockery of, etc.  Understanding scientism and its fall from grace in our society (except among scientists) would also be helpful.

A better understanding of American’s views on science in society can be gleaned from pop culture.  Watch the show Eureka on the Sci-Fi channel.  Its framing is that an average-guy local sheriff has to help solve world-ending problems created by brilliant and chaotic scientists.  Scientists are presented as intelligent people with the full range of human vices and virtues; they are making important technological advances but they also cause problems that average people have to help fix, usually using common sense.   The main point:  scientists need help from average people. (Egalitarianism thumps meritocracy).

In a Dionysian world, science does not enjoy the status of being a central driver of society.  It seems that many scientists don’t know this.

“The view that public trust in science is related to the growth of modern social systems has enjoyed longstanding support in social science and the dominant culture.  Parsons (1962) proposed that scientific knowledge, particularly its empirical and universal qualities, is essential to secular institutions.  Similarly, Barber (1952, 1975, 1990:40) describes a ‘special congruence’ of science with rational-legal authority and modern societies.” (Gauchat, pgs. 168-169)

Funny, reading those old modernist ideas as if they were relevant today.  How they reek of the times when scientism was paramount.  They proclaim Science is god and is the foundation of society!  (Yes, I am mocking science, especially the arrogance).

Actually, I am more inclined to agree with the idea that intellectual idiots have crippled us (here--A much broader discussion about contemporary intellectuals).

Do people really believe that science is related to the growth of modern social systems?  Let’s look at a couple of news items that scientists have given us lately.

In Europe we are told that scientists plan on building a supercomputer that will simulate the entire mind and will help fight against brain diseases, here.  Oh boy, another bunch of scientists continuing the brain/mind is machine metaphor.

Can we get away from this 20th century modernist baggage?  Talking about the brain/mind as a machine is an old plough horse whose usefulness is behind it.  The law of diminishing returns on this metaphor set in long ago.  Put it out to pasture.

Scientists need a new metaphor, one that is Dionysian and has a long use life ahead of it.  It has to be organic:  “the mind is a garden so cultivate it” or “thinking is fluid, the body is an ecosystem.”

If scientists perpetuate old metaphors then they are not leaders in social engineering.  As I pointed out last week, some engineers (or their marketing branch) are getting caught up on the new Dionysian ethos, here.

From Australia, we learn that scientists say robots could replace prostitutes by 2050, here.  Superficially, it does seem that scientists are trying to engineer society.  The fallacy here is the emphasis on machines replacing humans, a common idea.  Yes, it is true that in the more mundane aspects of life machines have “replaced” people.  However, do you really want mechanical sex?  I use that metaphor because it is generally a pejorative phrase; however, I never underestimate the kinkiness of people, so the answer could be anything.  I think the Taiwanese were correct to mock the story, here.

It is best to remember that machines are extensions of humanness and/or are additions to human contexts.  Yes, robots can replace people on assembly lines because they extend the capabilities of humans running the control boxes.  My view is that sex toys, even sophisticated robots, are additions to the game not replacements.  Using a vibrator or a robot by yourself is still masturbation.

Obviously, some may think of robots in animistic terms.  There is plenty of evidence in pop culture to suggest that many would like to see this—that robots can become human.  Is this what the Australian scientists are suggesting?  Are these scientists animistic?

Should they be?

We know that plenty of people think that machines can be or could become human.  Should scientists take this perspective?  Should we go with the flow of society and adopt animism?

In the Western Tradition, animism is clearly a Dionysian ethos.  Therefore, it would be odd to think of Western scientists adopting it.  Romantic naturalists of the 19thcentury didn’t do it because animism is not a requirement of the Dionysian worldview.  It is an option.

Clearly, many people are adopting this perspective as part of our New Romanticism.  I won’t be going along with it; I do enjoy watching it.

We know that in this “Post Modern” world some of the fundamental ideas of the Western Tradition have been shattered.  Most neuroscientists have abandoned the Cartesian separation of mind/body, and, Rationalism has been shown to be a complex metaphor steeped in intuition, emotion, and feelings.

The basic distinction between animate/inanimate: alive/not alive is being challenged.  Where will you choose to go?

Before I change my perspective and go with the flow, I will pursue the question:  can animism be a positive influence in an Apollonian ethos?  Think of those cultures that are, at a macro level, obviously Apollonian (Puebloan cultures of the Am Southwest, the ancient Maya, and ancient Egypt) and see if animism plays or did play a significant role in their worldview.

I am willing to be a full-blown romantic but knowing what the hybrid is like is a prerequisite.