Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Practicalities of The New Science: The Philisophical...

My class reading assignment for the week included a hefty chunk from Laws of Media: The New Science. As an academic treatise goes, it is fairly typical in its use of 10 pages to pontificate where one page is all that's really necessary to get the point across, but there are some thought provoking nuggets of information for those who can wade through the academic-speak to find them. Indeed, there were quite a few 'Aha!' moments for me (along with quite a few 'Huh?' moments as well) and these moments are what I wish to discuss today.

My little brain bursts were incredibly varied and drifted off of the main subject at times as the text made certain points and (being a practical man as well as good little grad student) I took those points and applied them to other areas to test their validity. I've grouped these thoughts in three posts by Philosophy, Politics and Practical Application. Let's start with the Philosophical...

The basic gist of the reading is that mankind has existed in two types of mental space for the majority of his time here:

The Acoustic: The home of the orator and the philosopher, acoustic space is the chaotic realm of non-linear thought. Here, the Figure (the area of attention) and the Ground (the area of inattention, i.e. the background noise of the universe) are equal and interactive.

The main method of learning in Acoustic space is Mimesis, which in practical terms means remembering something by feeling it and putting yourself in the place of it, in other words 'being' the knowledge. As an example, orators learned stories by placing themselves in the shoes of Achilles or Gilgamesh and trying to imagine their experiences as the stories were recited.

The interesting thing about Acoustic space is that its proponents believed that, due to the interactive nature between figure and ground, the universe is actually moved by oration and reason (Logos), to the extent that when you understand something as a concept and speak of it, you are in effect, creating it, which is how God basically created the universe (Let there be light was not a command, but an 'Aha!' moment).

The Visual: Linear and organized, Visual Space is the realm of the writer and the scientist. The Figure is isolated to find the truth about the Figure without interference from the Ground. It is precise and unbending. You observe the Figure, find out what makes it tick and then sum up that knowledge in an equation, definition, whatever, and shift focus to another figure.

The argument that is presented in Laws of Media is that the creation of writing, specifically phonetic writing where letters are symbolic representations of meaningless sounds, moved mankind from Acoustic Space to Visual space and laid the foundations for the scientific method and the world we live in today. This mode of thought had dominated mankind for millennia until the modern era.

The Modern era has seen a number of changes in science, politics and art that have moved mankind from the rigid discipline of Visual Space and back into Acoustic Space. These changes were brought about by technology and the new sciences of relativity (everything is relative to the Figures position in the Ground) and quantum physics (observing the Figure or the Ground changes its very nature).

While reading all of this, I was struck by the thought that what we're really talking about here is really about philosophy versus practicality. Acoustic space is the realm of academics, Visual space is the realm of the working man, the Dreamer and the Doer, if you will.
It is, in fact, the working man, the merchants and builders, who pushed Visual space upon the rest civilization because while it might be considered artistic to draw 500 cow heads on a piece of parchment to represent the number of cattle you owned, it was far from practical and discussing the nature of a house is not nearly so useful as a blueprint. Phonetic writing was a very useful way to speed things along and since the merchants provided the goods, and the builders built the goods, they were the ones who pushed the agenda. After all, people need food and shelter more than they need paintings and answers to philosophical twaddle like 'can God make a burrito so hot even he can't eat it.' Socrates and Plato be damned, I want my steak!

Technology today does so much for us today, however, it is little wonder that people in developed countries spend so much more time arguing about the why-fores that they lose sight of that which is basic and important. Either that or spending the free time given them by centuries of of social stability to overthrow society because it doesn't fit their vision of the world perfectly or to gain some fleeting moment of infamy at the expense of social stability.

This is where I have trouble with academics. Don't get me wrong, I truly believe that we need art, philosophy and Einsteinian physics, they are quintessentially human artifacts, but there is a point where you have to leave the brain-space and get your hands dirty in the real world. Is it so hard to make practical use of esoteric knowledge and is that knowledge really useful if it makes no meaningful contribution to humanity outside of making their heads hurt pondering 'what the meaning if is, is?' It's been 5000 years since the 'great' Greek philosophers and we've yet to see someone create a house out of Oratory or reason food into existence, so is arguing over who should have housing or food really a good use of time?

And what is the point of writing endless rants on how evil and corrupt business is while sipping a latte in a Starbucks and blogging away on a tablet device created by a company that employs millions of people who are actively engaged in feeding their families and creating something useful for society? Discontinuity can lead to innovation (Necessity is the mother of invention and War is the father of Necessity, is a popular variation on this), but upsetting the apple cart just to make a statement is selfish and detrimental to society.

Right, since I'm drifting that way, I'll move onto the Political in the next post...

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