Thursday, September 27, 2012

Are You an Old Testament, or a New Testament?

I assure you, I am still sane. The backstory to the question:

Years ago, I had a friend, Rayna, who once remarked that a mutual friend was handling an argument in an “Old Testament” fashion. I wasn’t raised in a religious family, so it’s not familiar to me to characterize the world in religious terms. However, the bicameral Bible—the two gods in one text—was culturally common, so Rayna’s metaphor struck me as useful.

Looking at Western situations through these responses—are they OT, or NT?—has given me a way to look at motivations and positions in a more culturally holistic way.

This division of approaches explains much about American character and decision making. It’s how we can wage war on a country, then rebuild it, and do both without feeling ashamed. It’s why we find ourselves divided over things like immigration: OT says battle to strengthen the borders, NT says to accept all in the universal brotherhood of man.

It’s also why we can be deeply divided in our responses to OT cultures elsewhere, specifically Islam. The OT types in American culture seek to gird the country in case of attack, not because they don’t understand Islam, but because they do. The traditions come from the same core text, so the mutual understanding and thus conflict is inevitable.

The NT as a revisionist text is out of place in the conflict between OT types. The message of peace and inclusion comes with conditions—acceptance of Jesus’ divinity—that are intolerable. (Some of us who aren’t religious also find it intolerable.) However, that very notion of inclusion made later developments like democracy possible (cf Max Weber et al). Democracy, capitalism, and personal rights developed mutually. It’s no mistake that once capitalism moves into a culture, that culture suffers—not because it is being harmed, but because it is being opened.

I would argue that, as difficult and treacherous as war is, it is still necessary so long as the OT types are around. The nature of the OTs makes it possible for the NTs not to be overrun. The NTs ensure that the OTs help rebuild what they destroy. The peculiar bicameral mindset of the West gets blamed for this social ill or that complicating factor, but like conjoined twins, each depends on the other.

Many argue against religion as a necessary part of civilization, but I disagree. All the pillars of civilization work together to keep us from running through the streets killing each other, and even at that, the job’s not done. Removing one of those pillars will harm civilization, not help it.

OT? NT? Both are crucial for the longevity of Western civilization and values.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

If you laugh at cartoons of Mohammed, you must be a scientist.

A few years ago, I blogged on parody and scientific inquiry. Short version: I argue that the cultural conditions that lead to scientific thought and inquiry are the same conditions that make possible the existence of parody. Parody and scientific inquiry are similar in some ways, and both depend on an idea of truth that is independent of constraint.

Yesterday's thoughts on IQ testing fall in with these ideas. The intellectual aptitude of humans depends heavily on both environment and cultural expectations. The intellectual aptitude of humans depends heavily on both environmental and cultural practices. Flynn, in his  article, also discusses the Raven's IQ test, which not coincidentally is used by Mensa worldwide because it is culture free. In other words, it's not culture itself that shapes IQ; IQ responds to cultural conditions.

What chance do people have when their cultural conditions are prescientific?  

The lesson is clear: Those culture that do not assimilate into modernity--not Western values, but modern values--will be internally unstable, a threat to their neighbors, and doomed to failure.

Without radical changes, these prescientific states will become feral states.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Are We Really Getting Smarter?

Thought-provoking article by James Flynn--yes, that one--in the 

"Modern people do so well on these tests because we are new and peculiar. We are the first of our species to live in a world dominated by categories, hypotheticals, nonverbal symbols and visual images that paint alternative realities. We have evolved to deal with a world that would have been alien to previous generations."
I have long wrestled with the idea of arrested development in cultural terms. To claim that a given culture is stuck in its past is at odds with American notions of free will, identity, and progress. Yet the evidence is there, as noted by a friend who spent years as a government spook in Pakistan. He maintains that once one leaves the relatively modern areas of Lahore and Islamabad, the level of advancement drops several hundred years, if not a full millennium. 

It's rude to talk about such things in America. To be a good liberal, one must pretend that we all hold paramount white, middle-class values. (Note that this is not the same as wanting to be white and middle class.) This point of view insists that people are good, nonviolent, and respectful. There's no evidence for this pretense, but people cling to it.

So what does this have to do with IQ?

Flynn is spot on about the increasing abstract capabilities of those who do well--even modestly well--on IQ tests. These groups are largely in the West. This capability is a huge advantage, if in no other areas than in strategy and tactics. People who are, in Flynn's own term, "prescientific" are not cognitively capable of overcoming those who have the abstraction advantage.

Cultures that are resolutely prescientific are clinging to a failed present and are determined to meet an already failed future.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Art of Video Games: Countdown to closing.

You've got seven days, counting today, to see the Master Nerd exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. After that, you'll have to see if the aging turds on your local art museum board of directors have agreed to host this exhibit.

Just buy the damn plane ticket. Then read below to discover what the exhibition was like from one of its key developers.




"This was a triumph. I'm making a note here..." -GLaDOS

After more than six months on view, The Art of Video Games exhibition will be closing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on September 30, 2012. It's been a chaotic and exhilarating few months for those of us who have been actively involved in the exhibition, with countless programs and tours as well as the challenge of keeping all the technology functional. I will be happy to get my evenings and weekends back, but I will be sad to see the exhibition leave the galleries. The curator, Chris Melissinos, and I have lived and breathed this exhibition for more than three years. We both spend as much time as our jobs allow in the exhibition space, watching visitors interact and have fun with the content. It will be strange to walk around the third floor and not hear echoes of chip music spilling into the contemporary art galleries. So, to mark its closing, I thought I would reflect upon some of my personal highlights.

Interviewing Robin Hunicke
One of my first "wow" moments was conducting the interviews with video game designers and artists. We did all of these during the 2011 GDC and E3 events (At GDC, we managed to film 24 interviews in just 27 hours!), and they were truly inspirational. We chatted with luminaries such as Nolan Bushnell and Don Daglow as well as contemporary designers including Kellee Santiago and David Cage. It was clear from all of these interviews just how much the exhibition meant to people who had dedicated their lives to this medium, and Chris and I both felt very proud to be involved in its creation.
Working with the design team at the museum was incredible. This was my first foray into exhibition development, so I had never before worked closely with our in-house experts, David Gleeson and Michael Mansfield. If I worked hard - these guys were unstoppable - and I think you'll agree that the exhibition looks amazing. This would be a good moment to give a shout out to our lighting designer, Scott Rosenfeld, too, whose innovative work gave the exhibition galleries their unique atmosphere.

Another unforgettable moment was meeting Hideo Kojima. Just a few weeks out from the opening of the exhibition, Konami got in touch and asked if we would be interested in having him speak at the museum. Um, YES! We added the program last minute to the opening weekend festivities. When he arrived March 17, 2012, he was wonderfully gracious and friendly - he signed autographs for every person who came to the talk (including for me!), and even spent some time on the front steps of the museum hanging out with Pac-Man. If you missed his talk, you can still watch the archived webcast.
I have so many wonderful memories of working on this exhibition that I could keep talking for days, but for the purposes of this email - my last mention will be of Spontaneous Art. These crazy guys worked with us to create live action video games in the museum's courtyard for GameFest in March and GameFest 2.0 in September. In both games, visitors battled, chased, and dodged alien-like robots (or robot-like aliens?) to complete a series of levels. In the 2.0 edition, the game included an awesome monster boss, whom you had to battle to win the game. Spontaneous Art helped create a truly memorable experience for the thousands of visitors who came to each event and added just the right amount of insanity to the celebrations.

While this is the end of The Art of Video Games at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, it is certainly not the end of the exhibition overall since it will travel to ten U.S. cities over the next 3+ years. You can see the full list on our website, and I will be sending periodic updates by email as it opens at new venues. If you want to receive emails about other activities at the museum, update your preferences to make sure you're getting what you want. If you just stay on the video games list, we won't fill your mailbox with non-game-related things, we promise :) 
Thank you for all of your support! 
-- Georgina 
Exhibition Coordinator, The Art of Video Games

Friday, September 21, 2012

Epigenetics, DNA "Dark Matter," Free Will

Interesting news this week on the activity in the "dark matter" of human DNA

Unlike the boxes of items you've got packed away in that expensive storage unit, the "junk" in our DNA isn't so junky after all. In fact, it looks like it's key to our epigenetic systems and activities.

We've known about epigenetics, or the biological and environmental activation of gene expression, for a few years now. Linking the idea of epigenetics to its actual place in our DNA is a huge step.

When we start talking about brain activity, though, things get philosophically and ethically complicated. Check out the story of James Fallon, who has both the genetics and the brain structure of a psychopath, but who is as normal and productive as they come.

What is society's responsibility toward the individual and the group as we learn more about our brains? Our current model of criminal justice lags behind the criminal act. Essentially, we have structured society in a way that permits criminal activity to happen. But what will our responsibilities be as these discoveries reveal more, as no doubt they will?

How will we reckon with the question of free will?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Divide of the Considered Response

Is there a better way to think about social divides?

Blame my humanities background, but I was struck today by two articles, one by Felix Salmon on 
 titled "Teaching Journalists toReadand one by  titled "How to Be a GoodCommenter."

The articles got me wondering if the REAL divide is not digital, or class-based, or any of the usual suspects, but is instead the divide of the considered response. We might be engaged in some way with the revolutionaries in the streets--or, as is the case with many of the 
 crew, on our glowing screens--but we know that they won't make for good governance.

Instead, perhaps we should shift our attention toward those who are capable of offering a considered response...


Boring only if you're on the wrong side of that divide.

More than just a call for an intellectual class, which we already have globally, this shift would address issues current to many of us: curation of ideas, devotion of time, consideration of what's important. Trust. Validation. The proper use of our time and energy.

Scalzi and Salmon's ideas were once taught in schools--I learned them, and I taught them to my university students--but as part of the day's malaise, we seem to have stopped that and so are denying them to others. Thus, the divide: those who learn how to construct a considered response will have the advantage over those who are capable of articulation only through chaos and reaction.

For my part, I plan to do two things: follow Scalzi's 10 points in areas beyond commenting, and be that critical reader of which Salmon reminds us. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Zombies, Contagion, and Civilization

So what's up with zombies? WTH have they been popular?

Being eaten alive is not the problem. Contagion is the problem.

Zombie narratives are about contagion and collapse. The life cycle of the uninfected human has two future patterns: Ongoing uninfection, or infection, death, and reanimation.

Uninfected humans are faced with impossible moral choices. Infected humans are faced with one impossible moral choice--suicide or no--and one impossible future.

Killing zombies is the easy part

The uninfected first must decide whether they're going to preserve, and perhaps rebuild, civilization. The uninfected bring with them their personal and cultural values, and each encounter is the opportunity to apply those values.

Yes, values can be applied through weaponry.

The question for the uninfected, then, is, "What values will we preserve?" This is a critical philosophical issue. Zombie narratives are not about zombies. They're about philosophical and cultural contagion.

The physical contagion vector is, on the one hand, the infected regardless of stage. The just-bitten may be treated charitably at first, but the life cycle is set. On the other hand, the cultural and philosophical contagion vector must be reckoned with every moment. Given a collapsed civilization, what do we discard, knowing that discarding values means discarding the people who carry them?

Put on your philosopher's cap. Then lock and load.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The App-Based Economy.

Money is no longer power. Time is power.

Who has time for anything any more?

The American economy has begun a shift to an app-based economy.

What does that mean?

Manufacturing has moved through the global economy and into other nations. Meanwhile, America has explored its service-based economy, then moved into its information-based economy, which is where it is now. This economy exists in smaller parcels--small businesses, start-ups--rather than in factories and networks of manufacturing systems. Businesses are savvy about specialization. The survivors know who uses them, when, how, and why.

Businesses are now apps. And apps are created in a cottage industry of independent workers. The American economy has come full circle to the home worker creating and selling items, this time online and mobile.

All fine and well, you say, but what are the poor people doing this season?

Who has the time to answer that question, anyway?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Social Class as Biomarker

Do you still believe that the Internet is a utopia of equals? Think again. Skin color, income, and class markers are more significant than ever and continue to function as biomarkers.

Biomarker: Biomarkers indicate presence, absence, and deviation from the norm.

I was living in Baton Rouge, LA, when Katrina hit. We caught the western edge of the storm--my electricity and Internet were down for 5 days, and I couldn't reach my mother for 2 full weeks--and we caught the NOLA evacuees. Overnight, the population of Baton Rouge doubled. My workplace, a biomedical research center affiliated with LSU, was closed for a week. (If you're in the sciences, you know that this is unheard of.) I used my cell phone, a Nokia N80, for news and updates, and I essentially lived at a CC's Coffee House near my home. They still had electricity and thus air conditioning.

When the incredulous journalists in NOLA, flown in from other cities to witness the drama, began talking about the "dirty little secret" of the impoverished Ninth Ward; when the photos of the Katrina survivors at the Superdome were published; when the flat expanses of the bombed-out, low-lying flood plain that is NOLA without its levees emerged into the national consciousness, people were shocked. Shocked at the poverty, shocked at the deep racial divisions--the Superdome survivors were overwhelmingly black and poor--and shocked at the crime waves of thefts, murders, and attacks that began even as Katrina pounded the city.

Those of us from the Deep South were amused at the onlookers' shock, their incredulity...their denial.

All these years later, parts of NOLA still have not been rebuilt. Jeremy Clarkson, during an episode of , expressed his surprise that the wealthiest country on earth had let NOLA languish for so long after the storm. 

Of course it's languished.


Because those who are near the social fringe are marked for that fringe. In this case, blackness and impoverishment are social markers that are as strong as ever.

Social markers are biomarkers. The social fringe is treated as the borderland of contagion. 

The larger social structure sees the potential for contagion among such populations and, revulsed, turns away. 

Social markers are as strong and thus as important as ever. We may not agree with their function, but expressing dismay and opposition on #Facebook does nothing. 

Instead, let's ask, what do we gain through social marking, and where is it headed?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Social Class, Social Markers

Would we as a society benefit from having more clearly defined social markers?

I believe so. Why? Because equality is not identicality.

Under capitalism (which I support, please note), equality will never fail to be equated with identicality. We have confused being equal with being identical. This is a grave error that is the source of later social schizophrenia, a position that also equates justice and fairness. These two are not the same, either.

We use the tabula rasa model on social mobility: Everyone starts from the same "Go!" square, so we're all equal, which means we're all evaluated as though we're identical.

Great theory. Too bad it has no bearing in reality.

You think we don't evaluate? Albert Camus observed, "To breathe is to judge." Everyone does it, all the time. It is inescapable.

Would we as a society, then, benefit from having more clearly defined social markers?

What do we lose, and what do we gain, if we do?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Social Class, Character, and Ideology.

Where did the American middle class go? Down.

Appropriately, I realized this Labor Day holiday that the American middle class is now the American working class.

I predict that this will not go over well.

For the purposes of this essay, I define "working class" as those whose work contributes to, or otherwise builds, the foundations of a given economy, ie, the elements of an economy upon which other, larger and/or more profitable elements are built.

The American economy has largely made the transition to a service- and information-based economy; manufacturing-based economies are elsewhere for the most part. What middle-class workers now do is contribute to that service and information sector. America no longer provides the traditional entry into middle-class culture and social mobility through manufacturing jobs requiring few or no skills. Apprenticeships have largely disappeared, replaced by college degrees of varying quality. The current economy requires savvy, specialization, and technical skill, all of which are outside the reach of the traditional working class. As a result, the working class has been bumped down the ladder. With that shift comes a radically higher degree of instability as those being displaced struggle to cope.

Middle-class culture is now the lowest social rung possessing a minimal chance of stability. (Social mobility in America is frozen for the most part.) The former working classes are now the working poor, and the working poor are now more often than not unemployed, risking homelessness and multigenerational dependency on the state. That pool of multigenerational dependents will swell during the next couple of decades as the new social order stabilizes, then entrenches.

How will the middle class react to its displacement?

Where are the new social battle lines going to be drawn after that?