September 02, 2008

No Time to Think

Dear Friends:

"No Time to Think" is the title of a lecture given a few months ago by David Levy of the University of Washington at the Google Corporation. I found it very thought provoking, and wrote Prof. Levy a response. Thought you all might be interested in this. First, here's the link to the lecture:

And here's my response:

Dear Prof. Levy:

Someone recently sent me the video of your March lecture on the matter of information overload. I thought the history of the problem, as you presented it, was terrific. (I cover some of this, BTW--esp. the control revolution, rise of the corporation, and rise of advertising--in my book "The Twilight of American Culture".) The case you make for the need for quiet space, related to creativity, is obviously an important one.

I also enjoyed the photo you reproduced of the billboard in Northern California, telling us to "fill your head." I teach at a university in Mexico City, and 2 weeks ago was driving through town with my dean (dept. of humanities), when we passed a billboard ad for cell phones, which had the caption--in English, for some reason--"KILL SILENCE". Says it all, I thought. My dean suggested that I was "fixated" on the matter of cell phones pervading our culture. Later, I realized that this was to frame the topic upside down: it's the *culture* that's fixated--on cell phones and related toys; I'm just pointing out the fixation. But from the world view of a fixated culture, of course, I'm the one who is going to appear "fixated". (Depends on where you are standing, I guess, as Archimedes showed us long ago; Tom Stoppard, more recently.)

I've slowly been working on a book over the past couple of years tentatively titled "Progress and Its Shadow." Meanwhile, I discovered that someone named Eric Cohen beat me to it (sort of--although I have yet to read the book) with his own title, "In the Shadow of Progress." In addition, the last couple of years have witnessed a fleet of articles on the subject of backlash--that multitasking and all of these toys actually *decrease* productivity (to the tune of a lost $650 billion to US industry in 2007). Thus there was a recent article in The Atlantic on "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", and a number of essays on the detrimental effects of multitasking.

The real problem I see in dealing with the shadow is, I have to say, something I feel you missed in your presentation, namely, that technology is not neutral. We commonly believe that it is merely a tool, like a razor blade: you can slice salami, or your wrists; it's a matter of choice. But as writers from Herbert Marcuse to Marshall McLuhan have shown, tech is very far from neutral; it changes the environment in which we operate, until the medium becomes the message. (In Marcuse's language, modern tech is "purposive-rational"; it shatters the context.) Hence, when you talk about creating "contemplative space" within a virtual setting, or of having people bring their laptops into quiet areas of a library (and how is it, that libraries now have to have "quiet areas"? I thought the idea of the library was that it be *entirely* quiet)--well, these are really just technological fixes, it seems to me. And they won't work: you bring a laptop into a library, and ultimately it becomes a different sort of place. The problem with the yogic response, of being a "lotus in a cesspool," so to speak, is that eventually what you get is not a transformed cesspool, but rather a dirty lotus. Or to put it another way: sure, you can read the work of Lao-Tzu online, but this is not what a virtual environment is designed to do. People don't lose weight from diet cheesecake, and the physical environment is not going to be saved by hybrid cars. Your solutions, noble though they are, will eventually be overwhelmed by the context, by the nature of the technology and the momentum of a culture based on expansion and innovation.

By way of comparison, consider the history of our solutions to previous overload situations, such as the control revolution, or the rise of advertising: the remedies were worse than the disease, don't you think? Corporations are now destroying the planet, the worker, or the possibility for a healthy way of life; advertising is--well, no need for me to elaborate on the manufacture of false needs, I'm guessing. We now have three choices regarding the information overload problem, inasmuch as these intermediate possibilities you are suggesting--halfway houses, really--finally won't (imo) change the larger picture.

The first would be legislation regarding the use of technology in public. For example, there are 5 contemplative areas in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY--or used to be, anyway. Now, people sit in those spaces and talk on their cell phones, destroying the ambience for which the spaces were originally designed. The problem with legislation is that no one is willing to enforce it. The guards certainly don't care; and the Met can't afford to lose "customers". Legislation regarding the use of cell phones in cars (the source of a huge number of auto accidents every year) has been notoriously ineffective. Nor will it stop the multitasking that goes on at work, quite obviously--employers think it's groovy, even though it's actually costing them millions or billions of dollars every year. I think it's a good bet that the world described by one of the authors you cite, Thomas Hyland Eriksen ("Tyranny of the Moment") will continue unabated, at least for the next few decades.

The second is to physically alter the brain so as to adapt it to hyper-busyness, multitasking, and the new technologies. Francis Fukuyama discusses this a bit in "Our Posthuman Future," and other scholars, such as Maryanne Wolf at Tufts, has written about how digital technology is actually rewiring the brain. Human identity, after all, has not changed in the last 100,000 years (when Homo sapiens sapiens 1st appeared), since the physical brain has not changed in that time period (this being a time span too short for biological evolution). So the "answer," much like the rise of the corporation or advertising, is to force the human being to be like the technology. Prozac, in effect, has already been doing something of this sort, and it should come as no surprise that 2/3 of the anti-depressant drugs consumed in the world are consumed by Americans. This is the Brave New World "solution"; sad to say, I think it is likely.

But it doesn't preclude the 3rd solution, namely, that the whole system, the arc of capitalism itself, from the Commercial Revolution of the 16th century to the Tech-Communications Revolution of the 21st, will finally break down. This strikes me as being *very* likely, and the whole literature of World Systems Analysis (Wallerstein, Chase-Dunn, et al.) supports this view. After all, we didn't leave the Middle Ages voluntarily; it was no easy passage--in fact, the Plague was probably the least difficult part of it(!). This too has been heavily documented by hundreds of historians, and if these sorts of major transitions are any guide, what we shall eventually go through will be nothing short of catastrophic. And I suspect that solution #2, physically altering the brain, will be part of this process. A recent review of one of my books, "Dark Ages America," states that the core of the book is the argument that "the empire we so greatly desire is the destruction we ultimately obtain." That summary seems relevant to the matter of solution #3.

Thank you, in any case, for a stimulating lecture, and for allowing me to bend your ear (eye?) in response.

With kind regards,

Morris Berman


Blogger EarloftheWest said...

Mr. Berman,

I watched Mr. Levy's lecture and then read your response. I think that this type of back and forth dialog about contemplation and culture is exactly what Mr. Levy was encouraging. Thank you for your response to his lecture.

As I read your post, I thought about how thankful I am that my family has no cable or satellite television. We tend to watch children's programming. I believe that this has given our family more time to think and reflect upon the meaning of life.

Every week or two, I visit an LDS temple and spend a few hours inside. Inside the temple, no cell phones are allowed, no phone calls are typically made and meditation, prayer and pondering are encouraged. Every time I go to the temple, I ask myself why I don't attend more often. I'm in a place where I can think about important things: serving others and solving problems. In this environment, I've received many answers that help myself and others.

I've read Dark Ages America and I enjoyed it. It gave me great pause. I continue to think that the solution to the problems that you have identified is to overcome selfishness. A tall order indeed. Is it likely that the world will change? Perhaps. But I can achieve inner peace regardless of my surroundings as I focus on serving others more and satisfying my selfish needs less.

3:55 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Prof. Berman,
Can you say more about what you mean that the rewiring of human thought will be involved with the collapse of the capitalist system? I'm having trouble picturing what that implies, and I've always pictured a collapse as more of a return to what was before, everyday concerns of obtaining food and getting along with neighbors and so on.
Do you mean that this rewiring will be a contributing factor to the collapse, or an effect of it?

9:05 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Chris,

I suspect the World Systems people would say that the breakdown they predict is already underway, although the more catastrophic aspects of it still await us. My guess is that the rewiring of the brain will be (is currently) contributing to these developments. As things continue to speed up, there is a continued effort to remake human beings in the image of that predicted by the film "Blade Runner," for example (or the infamous "Matrix"), or a novel such as Wm Gibson's "Neuromancer." It is possible, of course, that hypercapitalism will succeed, going down this path, by a virtual conversion of all human beings into robots; and that all that will be left of human society is a large machine. (This too has been a theme of science fiction, of course.) My own suspicion is that ultimately, it won't work: there will be enough remaining of the original biological entity, Homo sapiens sapiens, and his/her brain, that finally, we just won't be able to take it--Prozac be damned. Despite the sophistication of present and future biotech, I doubt that our brains are infinitely plastic, in other words. In "The Waning of the Middle Ages," Johan Huizinga wrote of the mass psychological depression that settled over the European population at the time of the late medieval period. That is starting to happen now, in the US (the Obama craze merely being our last gasp); as time goes on, people simply won't have the energy to live the way they are "supposed to," and will drop out.

In addition, I doubt we shall have the intellectual resources to keep the system going. The rewiring that is going on will, I think, continue or accelerate the dumbing-down process I and so many other authors have written about. It now turns out, for example, that multitasking, which has been hailed as the new, groovy way to think, results in loss of time and loss of focus, such that US industry lost $650 billion in 2007 because of it (there is now an extended literature on this). People who run around with electronic ear pieces, communicating all the time--and who think they are so hip because of it--are really the cutting edge of stupidity. This behavior has nothing to do with creativity, and in fact is inimical to it; and as indicated above, finally even productivity is negatively affected. The economist Joseph Schumpeter described capitalism as a system of "creative destruction," which I believe it is; but if you subtract the creative part, all you get is destruction.

Hope that helps-


10:03 AM  
Blogger Jimi said...

When working on my master's in library science a year or so ago I was talking to a fellow student about a new initiative to digitize books and make the texts fully accessible online. He gave the example of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel that had just been subjected to this process. He thought it was wonderful that now students can search for particular words or phrases within the work, and pull out quotes at the click of a button, without having to "wade through" the text. My argument was "why should we do this?" I mean, what is the point of this except to make it "easier" to "digest" a text. Works of art/expression aren't designed to be broken down to their constituent parts. What would be the point of being able to zoom in on one brush stroke of the Mona Lisa? Perhaps a conservator could use this, but nothing is gained for the viewer who wants to appreciate the work of art as a totality, as more than the sum of its parts.

My other qualm with this "total access" approach is that works of expression (not just the printed word - this could be a film, painting, sculpture, etc) should be allowed to unfold the way they're designed to. The art in a piece of literature is usually how that piece unfolds itself to you and how what you bring to it affects how it affects you. Swooping down for snatches of prose here and there (or, god help us, standalone words) is an absurd way to analyze a text. And this is how kids learn now!

I have another friend who is a teacher and she told me that she works with high schoolers. These young people don't understand that going onto Wikipedia and copy/pasting text into their paper isn't research. And it's not just that they're lazy and trying to get away with something - they literally DON'T UNDERSTAND that research involves synthesizing information, not just copy/pasting. It's extraordinary how damaging this technology can be and how dangerous the idea that "because we can we should" is.

5:20 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Jimi,

There is by now a large literature on how stupid all of this technology is making us. Check out article by Nicolas Carr in August issue of The Atlantic; the one by James Bowman in current issue of The New Atlantis; ch. 6 of Maggie Jackson, "Distracted"; and Mark Bauerlein, "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future." This is only to scratch the surface. All the evidence now shows that we are turning out morons by the boatload--morons, furthermore, who think they're hip! As the American Empire sinks more and more into its own self-destruction, it increasingly wears a smiley face--the icon of our times.

Thanks for writing-

6:48 PM  
Blogger THE LIBRARIAN said...

Prof. Berman --

I was surprised to see my very brief review of your most recent book quoted here.

Frankly, it is almost embarrassing because my blog (by necessity) condenses books into inglorious bits that do no justice to works like yours. Of course, part of the purpose is to pique the interest of potential readers. It also affords me the opportunity to make juvenile, snarky comments at the expense of President Bush and his administration. Still, I am a little chagrined, and more than a little flattered. Thank you.

I look forward to your next book.



5:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Morris, I am somewhat surprised that you would recommend the New Atlantis outfit.
Because if you check out their collective CV and the company they keep altogether, I would say that right now in 2008, they represent, and loudly advocate, the "cultural" attitude which is very much against, and completely antagonistic to any and everything to do with COMING TO OUR SENSES.

They are also staunch apologists for capitalism and empire.

God is creative---capitalism is creative---therefore it must be a manifestation of "god's plan" for planet Earth. Plus the history of the white man in America is also part of "god's plan" for humankind altogether.

They also have very strong links with right wing anti-feminist USA religionism--especially of the "catholic" variety.

They thus subscribe to the conceipt that the "catholic faith" is the ONE TRUE faith/way, and ALL other ways are inherently false and full of relativistic "errors".

They are also very much enarmoured of the legacy of Ronald Reagan. Encounter Books (The Shadow of Progress) has published at least one book in praise of the "great communicator".

12:26 AM  
Anonymous Bill said...

Allow me to counter-argue a bit lest we all become too enrapture over a narrative, a sort of secular end-time narrative that seems to becoming popular among those of us too hip for the Christian variety.

Regarding cell phones pervading our culture, did anyone complain when land-line phones first "pervaded our culture"? Or how about the postcard? National Geographic had a brief article about the postcard in its June issue. They equated it to the instant messaging of its time, noting that letter carriers made up to seven deliveries a day in big cities with people asking about health or dinner plans or using it to court love interests -- kind of like how people use today's technology.

The thing about technology is that it is not so easily taken up as you may believe. Ask the makers of personal digital assistants (PDAs). Yes, there was a subsection of the market that readily bought these things in the 1990s, but many of the makers who originally got into the market eventually left it; there just was not enough interest. But then, someone had the idea of combining the PDA with the cellphone, and, BAM, the market for the PDA was saved. Most people did not see the need for an electronic calendaring device in there pocket, but when it piggy-backs on the cell phone already in their pocket then they are fine with it (and they may even fine value in it) but the cell phone was the foremost feature, the "killer app."

What is so "killer" about it? Steve Jobs was right about cell phones when he introduced the iPhone. He said that people hate their cell phones because they are poorly designed and often have counter-intuitive interfaces. Hence, (my take) people are not enamored by technology, per se, but what technology affords them to be able to do -- and they frustratingly put up with it to do those things.

(Jobs introduced the graphical user interface to the masses with the early Apple computers and made computing tasks more intuitive by turning them into acts of pointing and tapping on objects instead of typing in cryptic command lines -- the former being something people more easily comprehended.) Likewise the interface for the iPhone makes use of real-world gestures, like pinching to make something on the screen smaller, making its interface less of something that is in the way of what the user intuitively wants to accomplish. If there is a large uptake of the iPhone over competing phones it is not that people mindlessly like shiny objects, it's that people like tools that enable them to do intuitively what the want to do (An example of this was the Razr - it was a pretty device but many people found it too frustrating and so sales dropped quickly).

People like cell phones, I imagine, because the ability to be able to have instant communication with the people who are meaningful to them no matter where each respective person is at any one time is too seductive; who would not want that? We are tribal, are we not? We come from hunting bands that by their number of, say, 200 members or so afforded the kind of ready contact that technology is only now slowly returning to us.

Depression in the modern era is rooted in and is exasperated by industrial and post-industrial isolation (and, heck, there was probably agrarian isolation as well). The clamoring for cell phones is the clamoring for connection. Is the cultural manifestation of post-card sending more noble that of cell phone texting? I can't see it, and I'm leery of a type of academic snobbery that may lead one to wax on about the engineering marvel of the Romain aqueducts but sneer at a GPS device.

With regard to "reflective time," you also have to remember that the desire for reflective time is partly a matter of disposition. Extroverts get fidgety during quiet times; they need stimulation. Introverts are fatigued by too much stimulation; they need quiet time. There are always going to be extroverts who are going to act in ways that introverts find disturbing and disruptive and who have no need for "reflective time." In the 19th century, Edgar Allen Poe wrote a short story entitled, "The Man of the Crowd." It begins with a quote that translates into "Such a great misfortune, not to be able to be alone." Yet the protagonist is clearly enlivened contemplating "the tumultuous sea of human heads" as he convalesces in a coffeehouse after a recent illness. He ends up in pursuit of an old man who intrigues him, following him from populated place to populated place all through the night projecting many motivations onto the old man but in the end, when weary of the pursuit, dismissing him by surmising that "He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd." A thought that readily fits the protagonist as well. Preference for crowds, for stimulation is a sensibility that has probably always been a part of at least a subset of the species. Heck, ADD is probably good for hunters and explorers; the desire for new stimuli makes them keep wondering what's that sound or what's beyond the next bend. I don't think technology affects core disposition any more than trying to give dolls to most young boys or trucks to most young girls sticks -- genetic predispositions reassert themselves. People embrace tools because they satisfy needs. Are cell phones reflective of "artificial" needs? - whatever that means - Maybe. But maybe so are seashell ornaments and Lascaux cave paintings.

1:02 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

I didn't recommend the New Atlantis crowd--I recommended an article published in the latest issue of their magazine. I do understand their right-wing, pro-capitalist, and very Christian orientation, and of course, these are not things I endorse. But my experience of the magazine is that once in a while, they publish an article in which all of that doesn't intrude, and is interesting and provocative in its own right. I guess I'm just trying not to throw out the baby w/the bathwater here.


3:00 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Bill,

Thanks for your thoughtful contribution. Frankly, it would take a very lengthy answer to do it justice, but let me just point out a few things.

This might make Anon (above) unhappy, but the same issue of The New Atlantis that has the Bowman article I recommended, has a very good article on technology and culture by Patrick Ledeen. He makes a very good case for culture being our oldest technology (a theme that shows up in some of Gary Snyder's poetry, BTW, such as "Axe Handles"--quite moving), and for recent technologies--say, going back to 1965, but I'd certainly include the car and television as well--being in a different category in that they are destructive of culture. He doesn't particularly talk about cell phones, but surely these are destructive of age-old habits of common courtesy (interfering with other people's space, making them listen to conversations they don't want to hear, suddenly ignoring the person you are talking to face to face and switching your attention to someone 1000 miles away--there's a long list here). What he is saying, and what a # of writers have pointed out (not just Marshall McLuhan), is that the crucial point is the serious rupture of context that can be involved in the introduction of some technologies. The continuity argument--"oh, it's always been the same; consider postcards etc."--really doesn't hold much water, because when you start examining a lot of these things, the differences are greater than the similarities. This was the problem, it seems to me, with the argument of a few years ago that the Internet was just an extension of the Talmud. There is no data I know of demonstrating that the Talmud provides information rather than knowledge; that it backfires, and finally makes people ignorant; that it generates depression and alienation; or that it renders people antisocial, caught in an abstract world. Just the opposite, in fact. Meanwhile, there is a substantial body of literature demonstrating precisely that for the Internet. Similarly, I remember reading a book years ago by 2 Disney Corp. artists, saying that their cartoons were continuous with the cave paintings of Lascaux. For starters, the animals on the walls of Lascaux are expressive of the emotions of hunter-gatherers; the cartoons of Disney are *distortions* of our emotions, and have a political agenda (check out books by Ariel Dorfman and Richard Schickel, for astute analyses of this).

It's also the case that the success of technology is a matter of its reception. The steam engine was invented by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century A.D., but in a nonindustrial context, it couldn't be much more than a toy. The Chinese invented a whole host of things--if memory serves me right, things such as printing and gunpowder--which never took off in their societies, but which did in the West many centuries later. The automobile (internal combustion engine) was around in Europe in the 1880s, I believe, but only got lionized in the US under the aegis of Henry Ford. (And think, much later, of the feeding frenzy when the Ford Corp. first introduced the SUV in 1996.) So of course, people don't embrace *all* technologies, and they don't necessarily do so immediately. If the design is inconvenient, it won't fly. But once the "formula" is correct, these things can spread like wildfire--esp. when they have a highly addictive quality, such as computer screens and cell phones and "crackberries". And their impact can enhance culture (postcards don't disrupt social contexts, or bother the people around them, for example--yes, much more "noble," to answer your question; Roman aqueducts were not part of a total surveillance society, Bentham's "panopticon," which is where the GPS has taken us) or, as Ledeen notes, destroy it . In this way, arguing that cell phones are "tribal" is quite misleading; what's the "tribe" that is being created? The big argument that originally accompanied this type of technology--that it promotes "community"--has proven to be so much hype. Hunter-gatherer bands of 200 communicated face-to-face, with all of the eye contact and body language that involved; and so did we, until (relatively) recently. This is a *narrowing* technology, one that allows people to move in society and not be truly present in it; to ignore their physical context, including the communities in which they (used to) live. It's *destructive* of tribe, and the virtual "tribes" it creates hardly have the emotive-somatic quality of our pre-cellphone lives (and probably not the continuity or endurance, either). It also enables its users to destroy the commons, to privatize public space, whether those around them like it or not. Land-line phones may have changed things, but the one thing you couldn't do with them was walk around ignoring the world around you ensconced in your own private, antisocial bubble. And "sacred space" also falls by the wayside, when you discover cellphone users in St. Patrick's Cathedral, or The Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, or at the MOMA and the Met (I've found them in all 4). I mean, so much for the preservation of contemplative space--something that has at least been with us for millennia (and I'm not sure the fact that some people are extraverts is relevant; we're talking about the shape of entire societies).

There is a chain of inventions--car, air conditioner, TV, cell phone--that have rendered our lives increasingly private and individual, anti-communal, and it's hardly a surprise that these took off, initially, in the US. We aren't a particularly introverted people, but we sure are a lonely one (and the two are not the same; extraverts can be terribly lonely). This type of social-psychological ambience also plays a large role in the acceptance or rejection of particular technologies.

Anyway, all of this is merely to scratch the surface. As I said, there is by now a large literature on how different, and destructive, these particular technologies are, including speculation that they are ironically taking us into a new Dark Age. I think that's likely; I also think there's no stopping it. After all, it's not like we or any country has a locus for a national referendum on particular technologies before they get introduced; and in any case, esp. in the US, people think of convenience, not of society--we really don't have a society anymore anyway, in any meaningful sense of the word.

Finally, if you really want to get a handle on the discontinuous nature of modern tech, and its destructive effects, the best source yet is Albert Borgmann's masterpiece, "Technology and the Culture of Contemporary Life." It's pretty dense, not easy going; but the section on the "device paradigm" in particular, as opposed to "focal practices," is something you might find particularly enlightening.

Thanks again for writing; these are important issues for all of us to consider.


4:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes I agree that New Atlantis does have some good things to say but I always check out the company any and every one keeps to find out what there real agendas are.

Cell-phones and wireless computers are creating a completely different set of health problems too.

There is growing and ample evidence that the electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell-phones and their transmission towers is gearing up to be a major public health issue.

Even more so for Wifi computers and the Wifi transmission towers. Also cordless phones too. Even cordless computer mouses. I have a friend who has a conscious feeling sensitivity to their radiation---it makes her sick.

Check out The Radiation Poisoning of America by Amy Worthington.

If Worthington and others are correct then our technology is quite literally killing us.

Some argue that the electronic smog is also negatively affecting the subtle energy fields that sustain life on the planet.

If we could actually see the electronic smog in our cities we would be horrified.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

I remember reading somewhere, many years ago, a Native American prediction that before the world is destroyed (by the white man), it will be criss-crossed with a network of artificial vibrations. Whether this stuff is literally making us ill, I have no idea; but the metaphorical version of this is the brilliant novel by Don DeLillo, "White Noise" (double entendre for "white," I suppose). And then there's that famous remark by Sitting Bull, something like "They are enamored of their possessions."

So clearly, this is not a human way to live; and frankly, I think the New Atlantis crowd would agree with that. But as you say, their solution (right-wing Christianity) is a far cry from my own, in "Coming to Our Senses" (or "Wandering God," for that matter).


10:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Berman,

I agree with all of this. Technology just isolates us more and more. We sit in our cars (metal coffins) inching along in our own little worlds, no connection to those around us, no chance to chit chat. Compare that with the chit chat on the tube or even on the German S-Bahn. Bill put it better than I did. (post industrial isolation). Some think that Autism may be related to television viewing in young babies. The eye of a baby can only take so much stimulus and is not adapted to the quickness of television's light changes. This could also be happening with toys with blinking lights, etc. Who knows? Those toys sure don't mimic our hunter-gatherer past. Modern Americans may be the loneliest people in human history. Actually, that has to do with how wealthy you are. The wealthier you are, the less family in general, the less interactions with family. Believe me, I know all about that lifestyle. Lots of Christmas presents, lots of material crap.... Think about the poor Latino families having huge picnics with 100 people by Lake Michigan. The young, childless, yuppie couple scoffs and walks quickly by (powerwalking in black lycra) each talking on his or her cellphone and dreams about divorcing the other. I am half joking here (only half). I see it everyday. One way to increase your community is to have a large family. As another side note, my friends in Ireland loved technology and had every imaginable gadget, videogame, etc., but when it was time to go to the pub, we went to the pub. They wanted to talk to people, imagine that. We Americans in Dublin would suggest staying home and watching videos, and they looked at us like we were nuts. We don't live one tenth of the social life of your average Irishman or woman, believe me. It will take a lot to kill the Irish pub or Italian cafe/piazza/disco, etc. Maybe an economic depression is just what the doctor ordered...


11:06 PM  
Blogger marc8 said...

Dear Mr Berman and writers in this blog.

I can’t even begin to tell you how inspiring is for me the reading of your writing.

I refrained from taking part in the discussion up to now because I’m ashamed of my English. I apologize in advance for torturing your language! I’m Italian and I live in Barcelona, so I could be partly forgiven since there’s a mess of languages in my head!
Before I make a comment regarding the last article, I need to say a few words about how I discovered Mr. Berman books and what it means for me (just to make it all easier to understand).
My interest in the history of consciousness (to put a name on the topic we are discussing) began with the discovery of the work of Ivan Illich. For me it was like the melting of a glacier. All the certainties that framed my mind (my ideas on education, economics, ecology medicine..) were turned upside down by this most upsetting man. (No need to say that I recommend the reading of his books). What happens to a glacier when it melts? It turns into a river. I was obsessed by the question: when and were did it all went wrong?
So I followed a path that is amazingly similar to the one described in the trilogy of consciousness (let’s call it the road from Bateson to Chatwin). It was I stream of discoveries that I wanted to share with others but, although things were clear in my mind, I couldn’t find a way to communicate them. Since the day when (I guess it was last June), rereading an old article of(guess who?) Illich I found an interesting passage. He was praising a book called the “The reenchantment of the world” and he was looking forward for the next book of the same author. Bang! No need to say that up to now the most important thing in my life has been literally devouring Morris books. They sum up years of reading in a way that could have been impossible for me to write.
Bringing the work of Morris Berman to as many friends as possible is now a pleasant task in my life. Much more than that: such a reading also cured me from what was becoming a paradigm shift addiction, the need for the next guru to blow up my brain. It’s like Morris was saying to me: “Marco you’ve come a long way on your own feet. Stop torturing yourself with perfection”. To quote the sublime verses of Leonard Cohen, almost a mantra…”ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything that’s where the light gets in”.
The stream has finally become a lake, confident and peaceful (or so it seems). The road to the sea probably lies out of the realm of books.

And so here I am. Sorry for the long prologue. Hope you‘re not all asleep!
Going back to the last thread, I listened to Prof. Levy’s interview very intently. What is particularly striking is the distinction between ratio and meditation
Astonishingly (if I weren’t almost an atheist, I’d swear Grace is at work here. Too much coincidences during the last months!) it echoed the theme of a book of Illich I’m reading(you’re going to hate the guy, it’s like an obsession for me) “In the vineyard of the text”a book about the origin of text as we know it.
Illich’s argument is that, now that the book era is ending and the screen era is dawning (or should I say totally settled?) it would be useful to look back at the birth of the former.
It’s a short book but really difficult to summarize. Very briefly: in the transition from the monk age to the scholar age during the XII century, the aspect of the page changed dramatically reflecting a social and cultural shift.
The books that monks read were like musical staves. It was impossible to read them without being engaged in a physical activity that involved listening to your own voice reading and literally savouring the words. You’d sit in meditation waiting for the text to illuminate itself and echoing profoundly in your physical memory.
The scholar’s page was still a manuscript but altered so that it was possible to read it silently on your own. A whole set of inventions that now we take for granted (alphabetical index, titles, separation of paragraphs, different characters for footnotes and many more) made it possible. It’s a page designed for logical thinkers (cogitation) who need fast access to quotations and who transfer their own silent thoughts to the page. The beginning of an ever increasing knowledge based on accumulation of sentences. So, some centuries before the use of mechanical print the type of text we’re used to was already present. This is just one of the many factors that brought to the disembodiment of the mind so superbly described by Mr Berman, probably not a secondary one.
My point is (and I’ll need further posting to explain it) that we’re witnessing a similar process nowadays, taking a giant step further in alienation. Now the transition is from the world of disembodied minds of the Cartesian age to the world dis-en-minded (I know such word doesn’t exist but I don’t know how else to name it) visions (or eyes or images) of contemporary screen age. Vision is becoming an independent realm. The tyranny of the eyes rules the information age. And I suspect that prof. Levy thinks his audience’s motto is “gogito ergo sum”, while most probably their credo is “videor ergo est” (it appears therefore it exists). My final question is: don’t you think too we’re trading an I for an Eye (a post-modern version of the Hammurabi code, I would say)
I hope I have brought some contribution to the discussion.

See you soon, hasta la proxima, a presto, fins aviat (the last is catalan, the local language here)

4:38 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Querido Marco,

En el futuro, escribe en catalano; seria muy divertido! As for the future of the US, I have only this to say to you: tancat!

Thanks, in any case, for your long and interesting letter. I should tell you first, that almost all of my books have been translated into Spanish (pero no en catalano, lastima). The consciousness trilogy was done by Cuatro Vientos Editorial of Santiago de Chile, and I can tell you whom to write if you want to order directly from them (since I doubt you'll be able to locate these books in Barcelona, but who knows?). The 2 books on the American empire were done by Sexto Piso Editorial in Mexico City, but S.P. now has an office in Madrid, so these are available in Spain. (El crepusculo de la cultura americana was also done a few years ago by Octaedro, in Barcelona, but I don't know if there are any copies still around.)

I also wanted to say that at present, Sexto Piso is planning to have me go to Spain (Madrid and Barc) in March or April, to give a talk on the Dark Ages (Edad oscura) book, so if you are in the audience--identify yourself! I have a few close friends in Barc as well; maybe we can all go to dinner. (You can help me work on my Catalan.)

As for the question of an I for an Eye: you should start by reading Foucault, I suppose; although there is a lot of recent lit on how google, screens, multitasking, digital learning, and drugs are doing a good job of ending the I once and for all.

De cualquier forma, no se averguenzado de tu ingles; es mucho mejor que mi espanol, italiano, y catalano--seguro.

Gracias por escribir-


12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Marco,
Please don't worry about your English, it is already at a higher level than most of my fellow Americans can use!
El Juero

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Hello, Morris.

I have been an interested reader of your work for some years now, beginning with *The Re-enchantment of the World*. Even when I do not always agree with you, I find your writing to be exemplary in its ability to provoke reflection and discussion. I was very pleased to learn of your blog, for that reason.

I am writing now because I would like to read your responses to a couple of pieces that strongly challenge some of the comments you have made regarding today's youth and their alleged increased ignorance and lack of attainment.

The first is an Amazon review by Michael Males of the Blauerlein *Dumbest Generation* book, which you'll find here:

The second is a *Newsweek* piece that appears here: .

I agree strongly with you that the evidence, including what I see at work, myself, supports the thesis of the "dumber" generation, but intellectual honesty also compels me to admit that the counter-arguments, on the surface, at least, are powerful. Perhaps that perception merely reflects my own ignorance. At any rate, if you have time to read these writings and reply to them, then I (and others here, I am sure) would be most interested to read your further thoughts about the "dumbing" of the American generations.

Best regards,


7:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Morris (and Kevin)

Some impressions after reading the referred to reviews of The Dumbest Generation.

“Highlights” go something like this in the Newsweek article.

-Point out that people have worried before about similar things in the past so we don’t have to worry about it now. Often in our culture real issues are presented as “battles” similar to American Idol contestants “battling it out”. Battle of the sexes. Hilary vs. Sarah etc.. Think bread and circuses.

-Inability to differentiate real from unreal.
It suggests that the skills one needs to play Dungeons and dragons translate into skills for the real world? In case one hasn’t noticed, the real world is where we are failing. It is only in our current age that the skills used to play an online fantasy role game are confused with what is needed to function in the real world.

-Offer “balanced” yet contradictory information to appear to be reasonable. I think elements like this in much of the main stream writing lead people to conclude that it’s all just a matter of opinion anyway. There aren’t any “facts” to worry about. Why bother thinking about it? It is dismissive of critical thinking in an indirect way and I think promotes learned helplessness in people.

-This one flipped me out a bit. Not understanding the difference between knowing where the information can probably be found vs. “holding” the information? Yikes.

-There has been an increasing tendency to confuse actual living human beings and what we do with computers. Journalists often gloss over this as if the problem is just making some kind of “merge” between computers and people.

For example:

"We are gradually changing from a nation of callused hands to a nation of agile brains," says cognitive scientist Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University. "Insofar as new information technology exercises our minds and provides more information, it has to be improving thinking ability."

I think this dove tails in an interesting way with the Males review on Amazon. In much of his review he’s making the “battle” of the generations argument or the inevitable argument that making judgments about what’s going on is “elitist” or “top down”.

A couple of final thought on the Males review (I admit I haven’t been able to read The Dumbest Generation yet) – he cites a number of issues that he correctly says are troubling; crushing student debt, rise of a service economy etc.. You could easily add in all of the disingenuous governmental moves like No Child Left Behind with its monotonous testing perspective. I’m not sure any of this refutes the idea that being hooked into the digital world in the way people are hasn’t had a very corrosive effect on learning, social connections and more.

I think both of the reviews are interesting in that they are typical of the “arena” our cultural debates take place in. Frankly, it’s increasingly difficult to see ourselves working our way out of these predicaments in a logical way. The problems are too complex and the issues are too rigged to discuss in a meaningful way.

El Juero

4:31 PM  
Blogger marc8 said...

Dear Morris,

Thanks for the prompt reply to my letter and for praising my English. Are you aware that, by doing this, the language torture won’t end?!

Great news! You’re coming to Barcelona! It won’t be difficult to recognize me in the audience. I’ll be the hooligan jumping and shouting with a banner that says “Viva Morris”.
Jokes apart, it would be a great pleasure to meet you in person. Besides, the possibility of a nice dinner and pleasant conversation is always tempting for me. We could talk in Spanish, Catalan or Italian (my mother tongue) and you could help me with my English.

I already own almost all your books in English but it’s good to know that they’re available in Spanish. Actually, I found a copy of “El crepusculo…” by Octaedro in a local library. I guess there’s no translation to Italian in sight? If I had more spare time I could take care of that for free. That would be a real pleasure for me.

Thanks for the suggestion about Foucault. I read one of this books long time ago (I guess it was called “ The will of knowing”) but I’ve always waited to read the rest till I’d be able to read him in French. Maybe now it’s the right time to do it. Is there any book dealing specifically with the Eye/I subject? As a man who felt the need to “flee” from the Land of the Video Dictator , Silvio Berlusconi, this subject strikes a particularly painful chord in me.

I also would like to know your opinion on Ivan Illich, even if it’s not a good one. In this case please don’t be too hard, he is like a spiritual father to me.



12:07 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Marco and everybody else:

Wish I had more time to answer you guys...I'm sitting in my office at the univ. in Mex City, soon to go off to teach a 4-hr seminar. And here I thought I was retiring! What a joke that was.

The stuff Foucault wrote about the "panopticon" started, I believe, with "Madness and Civilization," but then got expanded in a # of works. I read this stuff too long ago to remember, but his whole idea of knowledge/power and the surveillance society is rt out there, won't be hard to locate. As for Illich...well, amigo, I knew him personally, and prefer not say too much at this point, given your own admiration of him. As far as his work goes, I thought the early stuff was interesting and provocative, but that as time went on he had less and less to say. Sorry to rain on yer parade, but that's just one man's opinion, so don't be too concerned.

Translation into Italian: problem is that the French and Italians are terrible cultural chauvinists, as I'm sure you know; they insist on having made the point (whatever it may be) 1st. Hence, I've had no translation luck with my last 2 books outside of Germany. If you can get Mondadori or some co. to take the bks on, that wd be great.


1:48 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...


Sorry that you did not have time to reply, but I understand. Some other time on some other issue, perhaps.

El Juero:

Thanks very much for your lucid and most interesting comments regarding the *Newsweek* piece and the Amazon reviews of the *Dumbest Generation* book. My perspective on the matter is very similar to yours, but I was curious to read another take or two about it.

By the way, I read it after my recent post here, but, in the comments to Morris's "Humanities education" post, Morris very piquantly addresses the reply of, of "well, there've been other technological changes that people at the time feared would erode our cognitive abilities, and we've managed just fine". The comments to that post are very long and extensive, but are well worth reading when anyone has the spare time to do so.


It's been forever since I have read this stuff, either, as my interest in modern French social theory, criticism, etc., has long since vanished, but my recollection is that the most extensive discussion of "panopticism" is in Foucault's *Discipline and Punish*.

10:30 AM  

Dear Mr Berman:
I agree and think a virtual "contemplative space" is just a technological fix, that will drag this whole illusion on. But:

What makes us want our own destruction?
What makes us see a transformed cesspool rather than a dirty lotus?

I believe like Ortega and Gasset that the fear of vacuum was transformed into the illusion of infinity, which makes us no longer want to be here, but there.

I also believe the tendency to “perfection” just reduces human nature or worse creates a virtual and sophisticated pseudo human parallel that works with both individual and collective beliefs.

I feel the known world, is like if we all moved toward a mutant horizon that makes us react but still advance toward it.

I’d love to know what you think about this paradox as we could say?

11:52 AM  

I'd love to share with you and your friends, a thought of mine, inspired in your work. Thanks for helping me think about reality. Hope to see you in Chile on your next visit. Here is the link of my blog, although I write in spanish, my english is not that bad:

6:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Morris:

As I sit in my office today, preparing to teach my young Intro to Philosophy students (though I'm 30 myself) about how the Academy has lost the drive to teach the meaning of life (we're using Kronman's book), I can't help but be overwhelmed by the chaos in the Markets -- the question of what life is for is even more pressing. In times like these, I'm not sure whether my job is easier or harder -- easier because I can point out that investing your hopes and dreams in the Big Crap Table on Wall Street will, like a cheap whore, leave you drained of cash and meaning; harder, though, because after all, it's just a cycle, and the Market will bounce back, and someday my crap shoot will pay off -- what's the big deal? So, why can't my life be one of devotion to the almighty $$$? Can't I devote myself to cash and consuming for its own sake? Surely, with those things, I can discover "who I am" just as well as with books and art -- it just all depends.
The argument goes something like this. You culture lovers just use books and music and art like a drug: it enables pleasure, as "high" or as "noble" as Aristotle and later Mill sought to conceive it (so, ok, pleasures of the "body" are one thing, pleasures of the soul another -- but the dynamic is exactly the same: you get a high, you come down, and go for another, from Mozart's 40th to Beethoven's 9th to Mahler's 6th, one "great book" to another, you cry and are moved, and then you move on, etc.). So, argues the student, isn't the real goal to simply exit the dynamics of suffering itself, quite independently of *what* allows that emancipation? In other words, cash and consuming, philosophy and art -- doesn't matter what you use, it's just the getting beyond of all those things that counts. Indeed, maybe for some, cash and consuming is exactly what they need in order to become masters of their own lives. But once mastered, you are still a cash king and go a'consuming -- now you just have a different point of view (the student might quote Meister Eckhart on detachment here).
So what's the big deal? You monks (whether new -- Berman-style -- or old -- Bonaventure or Benedict) have always thought that the nature of the salvation-enabling object matters; it just doesn't. What matters is the nature of the relation itself, not what that relation is a relation between (or among). So why venerate or preserve some objects (philosophical texts, great works of art, etc.) and not others (a culture of consumerism and love of cash)? In the end, there's not one difference between our emancipation -- self-awakening or self-mastery -- and our enslavement because in the end, all those things are just the *conditions* for other things (a philosophy tract allows you to realize what the good life might be, which allows you the benefit of seeking it out, which allows ..., and so on and so on). Or as the great 3rd cent. Buddhist master once put it, "there's not once difference between nirvana and samsara; what makes the limit of nirvana makes the limit of samsara".
So, to my skeptical but smart student, what do I say? I teach that philosophy and art are great things -- for me, yes. But I always have the lingering thought that the deeper message of the Pomo tradition is actually spot on: there *are* a plurality of truths, esp. about what the good life is. But, what my sharp student is suggesting is: many paths, a single goal. More deeply: that path may be composed of different substances (the waters of ancient wisdom or the desert sands of cash and consuming), but, to repeat, it's the relation we bear to a substance and not the substance itself that counts.
So, love your cash and consuming, America -- it might be all that you have to save yourself.
I don't know if this point of view is helpful to newcomers to philosophy, and I'm not really that qualified to really *teach* it, but I guess in these times, the only thing I can hope for is to be a wounded healer.
Conclusion: do not denegrate anything; do not venerate anything. Exercise merely "skillful means". Love of culture (the good stuff) can be what does you in as much as loving the bad stuff -- and that's the point: it's that framework that can get in the way.

(This post is somewhat tangential to the present topic, so feel free to toss it if you find it tiresome ... just curious to get a response, but one that's more philosophical than "well, here's what the historical record says, and I just don't see how this has proven true (in the past)", etc.)

10:25 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

Sorry, mon cher: the substance does make a difference; it's not simply about the relations of things. The problem with your analysis is that it's being conducted with a shovel (or bulldozer), whereas what is needed here is a scalpel.

You might want to check out the first chapter of my book, "Coming to Our Senses," the part where I discuss Winnicott's "Transitional Object." He had a great idea, but then, since his analysis turned into shovel-style, his focus became that of attachment (or addiction), rather than what we get attached to. So everything became a T.O., which then meant that nothing was, and the whole analysis lost definition. While one can, of course, talk about Eckhart and Buddhism and the need for detachment, in the end you're stuck, because there's no doubt that one can get attached to detachment...not a very healthy way of being, it seems to me. Finally, being attached to heroin (or to cash, for that matter), which degrades the spirit and leaves the individual with no life at all, is qualitatively different to being attached to (say) the history of philosophy, which has the strong potential of making the individual into a deeper and more understanding person. So let's not get confused about "it's all the same thing," please. This is the disease of postmodernism, which in the last analysis is phony: they're not really saying "all texts are equal"; the real message is, "read our texts" (i.e., some texts are more equal than others--thank you, George Orwell).

Give your students something to live for, eh?


11:02 AM  
Anonymous Shane said...

Dear Morris Berman:

In July, The Nation invited readers to "name our epoch". Dark Ages America contains the phrase, "the age of terror". Would you say that about sums up our epoch?


5:00 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Shane,

Well, that might apply to a lot of the 20th century, to tell the truth. To really capture the new Bushwacked century, we'd have to add things like denial, ignorance, and stupidity. Solipsism is big, too.

Keep on truckin'...


10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Prof. Berman,

In a former life I was a Museum Studies student; when David Levy talked about our "information environmental crisis" and designing contemplative spaces, I was reminded of a favorite book (in an otherwise very dry field). In "Museums: In Search of a Usable Future", Alma Wittlin wrote:

"Are we as much concerned with the effects of noxious impressions on our minds as we are with air pollution? In the as yet to be created area of therapeutic man-made environments, museums could act as pioneers." She wonders if there were those who could appreciate a Silence Room: "Even the Freer Gallery, my personal favorite, is too loud as long as one finds oneself engulfed by exhibits on all four walls of a room." That was written almost forty years ago; the concept hasn't exactly caught on (invasion of the cell phones, etc.)

More promising, perhaps, is the work of some artists outside of the museum setting. James Turrell, who is also a Quaker, creates
"freestanding enclosed chambers" he calls Skyspaces, designed to "heighten our sense of sight and perception." Apparently, David
Levy often spends time in the Turrell Skyspace at the University
of Washington. A Slow Art sanctuary in every downtown would be nice; but (as you have noted) most visitors would likely just fill the space with their own noise
and clutter, rather than allowing it to open them to a state of peace
(if only for a moment).

Is there any hope for the Slow movement, in general, in the USA?

5:46 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon.,

Thanks for all the interesting information. I doubt the Slow Movement can ever take root here; this is the home of Rush to the Grave and Think It's the Good Life. Whereas (by comparison) some European countries have large Green parties (e.g., Germany), our own gets less than 1% of the vote, if I'm not mistaken. If Americans did stop running long enough to feel their own repressed pain, I think we'd have 300 million people writhing on the ground. Check out "The Diagnosis," by Alan Lightman, BTW.


10:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Berman,

Every day, I see that you were more and more prophetic about America. I just read about how that train engineer involved in that horrible crash was texting his friends moments before the crash. (sending them funny pictures) He was an engineer from the old school, wasn't he? Maybe he was texting, watching his favorite t.v. episode, and listening to music while watching his instrument panel. It is really turning into a technological freakshow up here. The truly bizarre becomes commonplace. I think of my grandfather from Europe, smoking his pipe, and reading in his garden. What would he have thought of all of this? Would he have regretted bringing us over here? I think he sensed what was happening because he stopped watching t.v. in the
1980s. What are your thoughts on the Mayan calendar and 2012, etc.? Maybe some big weather event, or economic depression is on the horizon. Maybe people are feeling anxiety in relation to this upcoming disaster of some kind. My educated friends have been writing me from all of the country telling me that America is going down, and not just for economic reasons. How quickly is this coming? I wish I knew more about economics, and I don't understand how the market can drop so much, and then rise so much within 7 days. Any thoughts on the recent economic turbulence? Can America just trick its way out of this one as it seems to be doing now? I am expecting this big event, but maybe it is just going to be these little cracks forming? It is very hard to get a straight answer from any newspaper, and they all seem strangely optimistic...At first I thought your idea of leaving a little extreme, but it seems to make more sense day by day.


11:40 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear John,

The fact that McCain and Obama are neck and neck in the polls ought to tell you something about the State of the Union. Not that Obama will be able to alter America's decline, but at least he has half a brain. McCain can't do much more than fume or drool at this point, and Sarah Palin is a joke (she knows about Russia because she can see it from Alaska--good answer!) You live in a nation where many millions of people think clowns like these ought to be running the country. Sixty % are sitting around, waiting for the "Rapture"; 20% think the sun revolves around the earth, and 9% say they don't know which revolves around which. More than half think Russia was our enemy during WW2, and Germany our ally--etc.

As for the economy, we have by now too many centrist economists (Paul Volcker, e.g., former head of the Fed) saying that we are "careening toward insolvency." Lehman is just the tip of the iceberg, amigo, and how many bailouts of mortgage co's etc. can the US Gov't pull off, finally? I suspect a major 1929-style crash, accompanied by a 25% devaluation of the dollar, is no more than ten years away. Meanwhile, we are "texting" ourselves to death, and think we're so hip because we have a cell phone. The moron level has never been higher. (I recall being in a doctor's office in DC, watching a woman talking on 3 cell phones. I had to restrain myself from telling her, "You know, the really hip people have at least 4 phones." The horror is she probably would have run out and bought another phone.) We wonder why we have clowns in the White House, when we have clowns in the streets. Do the math, as they say.

Rome fell from 1000 small cuts, as one historian has written, though there were major events as well (the sack of A.D. 410, for example). We too will have big cracks and little ones. Twenty to thirty yrs from now, I doubt we'll have more clout in the world than England does today; and that may be a good thing, esp. from the vantage point of other nations. The US does its best to convince its (not too bright) citizens that it is the center of the world ("the indispensable nation"--Madeleine Albright, who is little more than a war criminal, imo, having helped murder 500,000 Iraqi children and then being cavalier about it on "60 Minutes" in 1996). But it comprises less than five % of the world's population, is geographically isolated, and has lasted only 232 years. Not that it hasn't accomplished some great things, of course; but by mid-century, it will be seen by historians, I'm guessing, as a major but brief peak in the evolution and demise of capitalism. It's culture is no longer rich or interesting, when you get rt down to it--Burger King and Britney Spears. Compared to the much deeper life you could have in Europe, Latin America, or
Asia...I mean, why live your life out in a monolingual, one-dimensional (i.e., money) world? Life is too short for that, no? Personally, I love visiting the US; all that chaos and energy is great to dip into occasionally, and (to my mind) there is only one New York. But it's also great to leave, and return to sanity; which is what we all need, on a daily basis.

Good luck-


11:55 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

I recently saw What Would Jesus Buy? and in it Pastor Billy (who was desperately trying to get people to stop buying crap)said "most Americans are in a car on the way to a TV set". Now it could also be said they're on a cell phone or listening to an ipod and the kids are playing on their Leapsters in the back seat. I don't see how current technology can promote sacred or silent spaces. I don't want to sound judgemental or pessimistic but it seems to me that the people who would benefit from and see the need for sacred/silent spaces would have to have attention spans longer than a couple of minutes, recognize the intrinsic value of such spaces and make time to incorporate this in their lives. They're probably doing this to some degree already and I'm at a loss how one would get new recruits. From what I've seen, most people---including young children----get bored very quickly and want to be entertained. I used to play "the silent game" with my daughters when they were young. We would close our eyes, be silent for five minutes and then describe every sound we heard. Maybe something like that would work to introduce the concept to children and could be built from there but I don't know how you would use technology to accomplish this. In fact, it seems antagonistic to reflective type behavior. There seems to be a strange time distortion, too, that (maybe) technology has contributed to. Just as we can communicate almost instantaneously we appear to "sum each other up" that way, too. A friend of mine in her mid-thirties was telling me about going to a speed dating event. She explained that you sit facing the prospective dates and talk to them for NINETY SECONDS and then move on after a bell rings. I suggested she go back to the bars as it takes longer than that to drink a beer. How could anyone possibly think they could have any idea who this person is in 90 seconds? Do you think there's a correlation or am I stretching a point?

1:23 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

The only hope for the US would be door-to-door lobotomies. Doctors would fan out thru the neighborhood, giving every person a lobotomy; and then, at the end (since they are Americans themselves), give themselves one. Which is another way of saying that there simply is no hope for the US. It needs to be abandoned as a lost cause.

On the other hand, there may be hope for other countries, esp. ones that can resist the destruction of silence, sacred spaces, and everything decent. Mexico, for example, has living traditional cultures with a different way of life; tho how long before the peasants of Chiapas are all running around with cell phones is anyone's guess. With the poison in the water supply, so to speak, it's hard to stop it from spreading. If you or anyone out there has any ideas about this, I'm all ears.


4:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Morris:

Well, I suppose that I'm just not setting things up correctly for you to see my point clearly. But, to make things somewhat worse, you're arguing from assertion (that is to say, you haven't demonstrated how being addicted to philosophy is substantially different; you've just said it). This makes things worse/cloudier.

Now I think that what you might be pointing out is that reading philosophy -- or at least some of it -- can provide the reader with the *means* of self-awakening, unlike coke or consuming, which is just self-deadening *in itself* (that is, when taken as its own end). The idea here is that philosophy gives you a kind of "instruction manual" for self-awareness. (I've read your "Coming to our senses", but I fail to recall the argument you made on this score -- can you sketch it? I guess the T.O. point is key here, but honestly, I thought that *you* were being unsubtle on this point, and that you would do well to study up on Buddhism (and actually Jainism) a bit more, so please explain -- I am obviously not really appreciating your argument/point).

Now, on this point (that philosophy can provide you with a valid means or technique of escape), I agree. But while this might give you the necessary condition for escape -- no knowledge of the right means, no escape -- it is FAR from a sufficient condition (I think even you'd agree on *that* score). And that's my point. With a good teacher, for example, coke, cash, consuming, etc., can become your gateway out, as much as a downward spiral to your demise(it all depends on the quality of the relation you have with the substance, not the substance itself). Let's not forget the Left-hand tradition of Tantra in ancient (and modern) India. The methods were controversial to say the lease, but I see no reason why they're not as good as the study/practice of the Gita (Gandhi style) -- just depends on what your disposition(s) is(are).

Now your "shovel" comment is really unfair. Usually when people throw in labels like that, it's just mud-slinging (shovels bad; scalpels good -- surgeons are really smart and shovel-wielders are really dumb ... I get it, I think). This is your blog and you get to play the expert/moderator, and so a comment such as that is going to just make your already-glowing halo even brighter. Let's just quit the label/mud-slinging and cut to the actual logic/claims: if you're familiar with the work of Nagarjuna (or even the Jainists), then you could at least grant me that my claim is based on a reading of his Middle Way point of view. You might disagree with me, or think I'm being rather unsubtle -- in which case an argument would be nice on why my reading is wrong/off -- but surely the shovel here is just enough to till the soil, just depends on whether you want to get some grit under your fingernails.
And let's be clear: my point is not that "everything is equal" or that "everything is just as good as everything else" -- if that's what you think I'm claiming (or what you think follows from my thesis), then you haven't really understood the heart of my claim, I fear. My claim was not that everything was equal -- which *does* imply that anyone can choose anything and thereby get to the same goal (this is a kind of unconditional functionalism, which *is* a flat-footed shovel of a thesis!). And that's what's wrong with the Pomo people; but that's not what I said, and it is no part of my thesis. My thesis was that the substance doesn't matter insofar as a certain relation obtains between user/substance -- and this is the crucial qualification that doesn't render the thesis as insidiously relative as you've (conveniently) construed it to be. I don't mean to get pushy, but you're not really getting my point, and that could just be unclarity on my part.

In any case, now I think we have a real disagreement. In fact, while I enjoy and teach your work, on this point I think you're, for the most part, missing the point. Let's see whether we can find a point of convergence ... I suspect that we really don't disagree, in the end. (Maybe it's just that this format really doesn't allow for good, deep engagement -- I for one communicate best in person, in dialogue. Apologies.)

(and honestly, I do give my students something to live for -- I try to get 'em to live for themselves, minus the ego. "Self-reliance", Emerson-style.)

11:21 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon.,

I don't think I can be of much help here. It may be, indeed, that I'm not understanding these fine distinctions you claim to be making; but it seems to me that what you're engaging in is so much logic-chopping. Your qualification of how you are not making a postmodern argument seems like sophistry, quite honestly; the focus on how the issue is the relationship between substance and user hardly clears things up, at least for me. (If it isn't actually postmodern, in other words, it's doing a pretty good job of looking like it.) And from that (logical) point of view, you might 'win', but at the same time miss the boat. The only thing I can say with regard to philosophy and drugs being functionally equivalent T.O.'s or whatever is, Well, try both and see what happens. This is not about logic, and it's not about erudition. I could engage you on both levels, but it feels like it would be an endless spinning of wheels. There was a time I found that sort of thing satisfying, but eventually I began to feel it didn't have much to do with reality. But as they say, that's just me.

The bottom line: I hope you are giving your students life, and not a facsimile of it. (They won't know the answer to that for another ten years, but if it really is life, there's no reason to be concerned.)


12:21 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

In practical terms, you're right, Dr. Berman. A person consuming Jack Daniels would find his life far less rewarding (and his family and friends would agree) than a person consuming philosophy. While I would not presume to judge anyone's life based on the externals--he could be an alcoholic or a "saint"--- maybe it really is his way of being in the world that ultimately determines if it's life affiming or destructive. One of my favorite books is by Eric Fromm and he states the following in To Have or To Be?:

"In the having mode of existence what matters is not the various objects of having, but our whole human attitude. Everything and anything can become an object of craving: things we use in daily life, property, rituals, good deeds, knowledge and thought. While they are not in themselves "bad," they become bad; that is, when we hold onto them, when they become chains that interfere with our freedom, they block our self-realization."

Perhaps I've missed the point of what you two where even talking about. A person reading philosophy is probably far more interested finding truth (simply b/c he's actively pursuing it) than one drinking himself into oblivion. But you never know---an alcoholic is less likely to find his life satisfying and embark on a genuine search for the truth.

8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Susan B. (and Morris):

Thank you for that quote from Fromm -- that's EXACTLY the point I'm trying to make, but from a different point of view. I've stated it abstractly -- that it's the quality of the relation one has with the objects in their life and not the objects per se that counts when it comes to, shall we call it, spiritual salvation (that is, exiting the "dynamics of suffering" as I put it) -- but let's not forget that there's abstraction and then there's abstraction. Aristotle was abstract, but it was grounded in life and an observation of the course things take (and it took someone like Heidegger, I think, to remind us that you've got to dig back into the works of the past (Aristotle, Heraclitus) to understand how the abstraction worked, that is, to understand the ground of real, true being from which an abstraction was originally plucked -- this is the real value of great works of thought, in my opinion: they're a treasure-trove of being-to-thought connections, if only you, the reader, take pains to forge those connections out of your own life).

I think that if you pay attention to how you engage things, you realize that, to again quote Meister Eckhart, the demons keeping you chained to hell are really angels freeing you. I could go on with the Buddhist way of putting this point (see Suzuki's excellent book on Eckhart and Buddhism, for a particularly germane discussion) -- and my point is not to be erudite here -- but let's just say that often, when you think you're doing the best thing for yourself, you're actually missing the mark. There's an old tale about how Dogen, the 13th cent. Zen master who founded the Soto school of Zen/Ch'an Buddhism in Japan (roughly contemporaneous with St. Aquinas), saw his master toiling under the hot sun in his garden, working amongst his mushrooms (it was dinner time and the monks were preparing to eat, apparently), when Dogen remarked, "Master, why are you not in your study, in the shade, reading the dharma?" The master, sweat pouring from his brow, looked up to Dogen and remarked, easily, "ah, I see you have no conception of the dharma!"

So then, finally, there's philosophy (dharma) and there's philosophy, which is nothing more than your own life, as hellish or as terribly enmeshed in suffering and addiction as it might happen to be. Going to a book (the study of the dharma via texts, tradition, learning, etc. that Dogen innocently pointed to) might be the very LAST thing needed for a true understanding of the dharma (which is, among other things, Sanskrit for "law" or, the nature of things -- how things actually go), that is, for an awakening. Dogen's master understood the dharma as the toiling itself. I argue: we understand the dharma as the coked-out drunk under the bridge desperately seeking liberation, but always failing. There is philosophy right there, if you ask me. And his means of escape must begin with his very life, drugs and drink and all! And this, in the end, is Fromm's point, as I understand it. It is the quality of one's entire life and not the objects we cling to for escape (or pacification) that matters most. Or, as I put it, it's the quality/nature of the relation that matters in the end -- the totality of one's relatedness in general, if I might try to paraphrase the Fromm quote -- not the things themselves that are the means of escape from the dynamics of suffering. It follows, quite plainly as I said, that some particular thing -- philosophy, etc. -- might be a necessary condition for liberation, but far is it from being a sufficient condition (and if we're really serious about the Buddhist or Jainist perspective, maybe not even *that*).

In any case, I am not purposefully deceiving you or your audience, Mr. Berman, nor am I trying to make my self sound learned, and so I do not satisfy the definition of a "sophist". Nor am I a "postmodernist", nor is my argument grounded in such thought (I just happen to think that some of them have discovered, in a somewhat different cultural context, some basic truths discovered in South Asia centuries ago, and there is now a large literature on that point, though I am dubious of some of the connection between, e.g. Derrida and Nagarjuna -- but that's another thing). If I might remind you, even you drew from the work of the Pomo's; but, importantly, you used it in the right way, with the right "heart" as it were -- I only hope to aspire to such an end myself.

One last thing: I really don't think you know me enough to be calling my thoughts or ideas "facsimiles". I don't think there's a basis for you to "hope" on this score, either. A couple of blips on your computer screen hardly counts as evidence for that.

Anyway, with that, I'll let things stand there.

All best,

10:57 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...


With all due respect, you were "shoveling", and shoveling hard, in your first post, in which you clearly equated consumption of high culture with consumption, tout court, and all the latter's attendant evils. Only when challenged did you backpedal and express your views in more complete and nuanced terms.

Also, you have written reams on this particular blog thread. Your presence, therefore, hardly qualifies as merely a "couple of blips" on the computer screen. I think it quite gracious of Morris to have allowed you this much space here, to be honest.

4:19 PM  
Anonymous Jerzy Boy said...

Prof. Berman:

You write of systems breakdown because of overload. You refer to literature of World Systems Analysis (Wallerstein, Chase-Dunn, et al.) supports this view.

Have thought about from the world of Physics-there is the well known Brane Multiverse theory & the Triplerian Omega point.

From wikipedia-copy & pasted below: Omega Point is a term used by the mathematical physicist Prof. Frank J. Tipler to describe what he maintains is a physically required cosmological scenario in the far future of the universe. According to his Omega Point Theory, as the universe comes to an end in a specific kind of Big Crunch, the computational capacity of the universe will be accelerating exponentially faster than time runs out. In principle, a simulation run on this universal computer can thus continue forever in its own terms, even though the universe the computer is in lasts only a finite time. The Omega Point Theory requires that the universe eventually contract, and that there be intelligent civilizations in existence at the appropriate time to exploit the computational capacity of such an environment.

Prof. Tipler identifies the final singularity of this asymptotic state of infinite information capacity with God. According to Prof. Tipler and Prof. David Deutsch, the implication of this theory for present-day humans is that this ultimate cosmic computer will be able to resurrect (via emulation) everyone who has ever lived, by recreating emulations of all possible quantum brain states within the master simulation. This will be manifested as a simulated reality. From the perspective of the simulated inhabitants, the Omega Point represents an infinite-duration afterlife, which could take any imaginable form due to its virtual nature.

Have you thought about this point of view & its possible implication.

Info overload->Physically/Chemically altering brain->Moving brain/human activity into the quantum physics netherworld ->if Triplerian Omega point id right & we are cooked anyway -> Post Big Crunch existence in a Matrix like world???

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Sam Dimond said...

Mr. Berman,

I find the internet to be like wandering in the desert. Once in a while you stumble upon a jewel-like piece of information that reminds you there are still people on this planet who get it. You seem like one of these people. After finding your blog, I am motivated to read your books.

Most of the concepts presented in this blog are echoed in a book by Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil.
Was wondering if you had read it.

My personal opinion on the subject of technology trumping humanity is one of moderation. There is time enough for all the varied activities we may want to participate in during our lifetimes. Balance, and an understanding of what is truly important, is the key.

Thank you for your writing.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Sam,

I did real Stoll--both of his books, in fact--and was happy to learn of his "conversion" from Internet addict to critic. However, the effects of his addiction, which were not present in Bk #1, were certainly present in #2: it read like a bunch of e-mail bulletins. So it seemed like a bit of an irony, that the book that adulated the new technology was well written, and the one that castigated it revealed that he was a casualty of it.

Thanx for writing-

11:02 AM  

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