I have been reading Neal Stephenson’s essay “In the Beginning was the Command Line,” which is about the history of operating systems. Buried in the middle is this brilliant passage where he describes modern culture and mass media. The last time I read something so perspicacious was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Even more amazing is that he wrote it in 1999:

…If I can risk a broad generalization, most of the people who go to Disney World have zero interest in absorbing new ideas from books. Which sounds snide, but listen: they have no qualms about being presented with ideas in other forms. Disney World is stuffed with environmental messages now, and the guides at Animal Kingdom can talk your ear off about biology. If you followed those tourists home, you might find art, but it would be the sort of unsigned folk art that’s for sale in Disney World’s African- and Asian-themed stores. In general they only seem comfortable with media that have been ratified by great age, massive popular acceptance, or both.

In this world, artists are like the anonymous, illiterate stone carvers who built the great cathedrals of Europe and then faded away into unmarked graves in the churchyard. The cathedral as a whole is awesome and stirring in spite, and possibly because, of the fact that we have no idea who built it. When we walk through it we are communing not with individual stone carvers but with an entire culture.

Disney World works the same way. If you are an intellectual type, a reader or writer of books, the nicest thing you can say about this is that the execution is superb. But it’s easy to find the whole environment a little creepy, because something is missing: the translation of all its content into clear explicit written words, the attribution of the ideas to specific people. You can’t argue with it. It seems as if a hell of a lot might be being glossed over, as if Disney World might be putting one over on us, and possibly getting away with all kinds of buried assumptions and muddled thinking.

But this is precisely the same as what is lost in the transition from the command-line interface to the GUI.

Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces. Disney is a sort of user interface unto itself–and more than just graphical. Let’s call it a Sensorial Interface. It can be applied to anything in the world, real or imagined, albeit at staggering expense.

Why are we rejecting explicit word-based interfaces, and embracing graphical or sensorial ones–a trend that accounts for the success of both Microsoft and Disney?

Part of it is simply that the world is very complicated now–much more complicated than the hunter-gatherer world that our brains evolved to cope with–and we simply can’t handle all of the details. We have to delegate. We have no choice but to trust some nameless artist at Disney or programmer at Apple or Microsoft to make a few choices for us, close off some options, and give us a conveniently packaged executive summary.

But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that, during this century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abbatoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.

We Americans are the only ones who didn’t get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and values systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals, and with anything like intellectualism, even to the point of not reading books any more, though we are literate. We seem much more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of being steeped in media. Apparently this actually works to some degree, for police in many lands are now complaining that local arrestees are insisting on having their Miranda rights read to them, just like perps in American TV cop shows. When it’s explained to them that they are in a different country, where those rights do not exist, they become outraged. Starsky and Hutch reruns, dubbed into diverse languages, may turn out, in the long run, to be a greater force for human rights than the Declaration of Independence.

A huge, rich, nuclear-tipped culture that propagates its core values through media steepage seems like a bad idea. There is an obvious risk of running astray here. Words are the only immutable medium we have, which is why they are the vehicle of choice for extremely important concepts like the Ten Commandments, the Koran, and the Bill of Rights. Unless the messages conveyed by our media are somehow pegged to a fixed, written set of precepts, they can wander all over the place and possibly dump loads of crap into people’s minds.

Orlando used to have a military installation called McCoy Air Force Base, with long runways from which B-52s could take off and reach Cuba, or just about anywhere else, with loads of nukes. But now McCoy has been scrapped and repurposed. It has been absorbed into Orlando’s civilian airport. The long runways are being used to land 747-loads of tourists from Brazil, Italy, Russia and Japan, so that they can come to Disney World and steep in our media for a while.

To traditional cultures, especially word-based ones such as Islam, this is infinitely more threatening than the B-52s ever were. It is obvious, to everyone outside of the United States, that our arch-buzzwords, multiculturalism and diversity, are false fronts that are being used (in many cases unwittingly) to conceal a global trend to eradicate cultural differences. The basic tenet of multiculturalism (or “honoring diversity” or whatever you want to call it) is that people need to stop judging each other-to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing) that this is right and that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing ugly and another thing beautiful, that God exists and has this or that set of qualities.

The lesson most people are taking home from the Twentieth Century is that, in order for a large number of different cultures to coexist peacefully on the globe (or even in a neighborhood) it is necessary for people to suspend judgment in this way. Hence (I would argue) our suspicion of, and hostility towards, all authority figures in modern culture. As David Foster Wallace has explained in his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” this is the fundamental message of television; it is the message that people take home, anyway, after they have steeped in our media long enough. It’s not expressed in these highfalutin terms, of course. It comes through as the presumption that all authority figures–teachers, generals, cops, ministers, politicians–are hypocritical buffoons, and that hip jaded coolness is the only way to be.

The problem is that once you have done away with the ability to make judgments as to right and wrong, true and false, etc., there’s no real culture left. All that remains is clog dancing and macrame. The ability to make judgments, to believe things, is the entire it point of having a culture. I think this is why guys with machine guns sometimes pop up in places like Luxor, and begin pumping bullets into Westerners. They perfectly understand the lesson of McCoy Air Force Base. When their sons come home wearing Chicago Bulls caps with the bills turned sideways, the dads go out of their minds.

The global anti-culture that has been conveyed into every cranny of the world by television is a culture unto itself, and by the standards of great and ancient cultures like Islam and France, it seems grossly inferior, at least at first. The only good thing you can say about it is that it makes world wars and Holocausts less likely–and that is actually a pretty good thing!

The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being. And–again–perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won’t nuke each other.

On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised in, but at least you’ve got some tools.

In this country, the people who run things–who populate major law firms and corporate boards–understand all of this at some level. They pay lip service to multiculturalism and diversity and non-judgmentalness, but they don’t raise their own children that way. I have highly educated, technically sophisticated friends who have moved to small towns in Iowa to live and raise their children, and there are Hasidic Jewish enclaves in New York where large numbers of kids are being brought up according to traditional beliefs. Any suburban community might be thought of as a place where people who hold certain (mostly implicit) beliefs go to live among others who think the same way.

And not only do these people feel some responsibility to their own children, but to the country as a whole. Some of the upper class are vile and cynical, of course, but many spend at least part of their time fretting about what direction the country is going in, and what responsibilities they have. And so issues that are important to book-reading intellectuals, such as global environmental collapse, eventually percolate through the porous buffer of mass culture and show up as ancient Hindu ruins in Orlando.

Henry Drummond‘s essay “The Greatest Thing in the World” is an excellent exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 (which is beautifully rendered in Chinese Calligraphy). I think every human being should read and think about these ideas. How can we love each other when the world is so complex, violent, and motivated by selfishness? How can the greatest thing in the world live within the same flesh and blood that commits the most atrocious acts?
A central question for me, is how to assign value to natural systems. First of all, as an aspiring ecologist, I want to understand HOW living systems work. But, I am also interested in them from a theological standpoint, as I believe humans have a duty to be stewards of this world. It doesn’t belong to us to do as we please. “The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). The hardest thing for me to understand is how a system whose agents are completely selfish (I have never met any species, humans included, that were not interested first and foremost in the propagation of their own kind above all other considerations) can be assigned intrinsic value rigorously. This is closely tied to the controversial concept of emergence (fun to note the connections between Thomas Pynchon and Norbert Weiner, thanks Will Cathcart). There is no question in my mind that wilderness is valuable to the spiritual health of humankind, and to its physical health. The latter argument is easy to make, but the former more difficult. It is interesting, though, how similar the ecosystem is to the market economy.
In the economy, agents compete for money, which basically is a symbol of the ability to control resources. In the ecosystem, agents compete for energy, which is used to increase or propagate their physical identity (genes). I think the answer must lie somewhere between the intrinsic (spiritual) value of something that is beautiful (aesthetics) and the ability of the system to efficiently allocate resources (making life for people better, allowing them to take more time to enjoy themselves and their surroundings). What a person finds to be beautiful is a reflection of their inner self (which, for all I know, may be just another emergent property of one’s brain). And, I believe it pleases God when we delight in the surroundings he has placed us in. Ultimately, this leads us to love Him more deeply, and to see His presence in unexpected places, and thus we can learn to love deeply that which is deemed repugnant by the standards of any society. These thoughts are rich in seeming paradoxes, which resolve into layers of meaning, ad infinitum (like a fractal?).

“The defining conflict of the next era will be whether life has any intrinsic value, or whether it is merely a tool for the continued propagation of human interests.” From The Corporation. I thought it was pretty biased, but very interesting and informative. I especially liked the interviews with Ray Anderson, of Interface Carpetting. My view is that the phenomenon of life cannot be confined to the stereotype of either extreme. It is valuable both for intrinsic and instrumental reasons. In this sense, wildness is a source for both art and engineering. Also in the news, the research of Alan Pounds, of Monteverde (where I will be studying abroad for the next four months) Costa Rica on tropical frog populations.
Now, for a few links. First, I was surprised to find evidence to contradict a stereotype (it originally came from the concept of takers and LEAVERS in Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael) I had about indigenous peoples of the past. I realized they actually weren’t perfect. In fact, I expect their sinfulness and relative ability to live sustainably was the same as all people, except their circumstances didn’t allow their culture to expand continually like exploitive agriculturalists did (see Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel) and destroy or assimilate almost every other culture.
And, I am disturbed by a few trends in the culture. One is the disintegration of organized religions. Without religious traditions and scripture, how will we have any objective source for prioritizing our personal lives? I can assure you, if I didn’t have access to fellowship with other believers and the scriptures, my ability to love other people would dramatically decline as my life became dominated by selfishness and evil. Secondly, I don’t like the rampant surveillance going on, with the NSA, etc. It fits too well with ideas like the “mark of the beast” in Revelation (read it even if you aren’t a Christian. It’s a fascinatingly complex book). Bush isn’t the antichrist, of course, but one can discern certain tendencies in our society toward centralization and forced (albeit subtly) ideological uniformity, which, combined with vacuous “spirituality” premised on what amounts to hedonism leads to nothing short of tyranny. Also, I have become interested in Michel Foucault‘s meditation that modern prisons are seeking to punish not the body but the soul.
And finally, on a lighter note, don’t forget that “awkwardness is the new sexy.” That’s good news for all you nerds. Credit goes to Will Cathcart once again.

I am a rural person. I know a lot of “great thinkers” lived in big cities, but I believe that there is something to be said for the rural life. First of all, rural people are generally not very powerful, and thus they don’t cause scandalously huge amounts of damage to society when they act in a corrupt fashion (like this Jack Abramoff fellow seems to have done. I bet he didn’t grow up in the country.). Now, it’s not that country people are better than everyone else, it’s just that when they do what is wrong, it doesn’t cause the deaths of millions of innocent people, or the squandering of public property or funds, etc. When you screw somebody over in the country, they usually just hold a bitter grudge against you for a very, very long time. But, back to the point. The point is I think that a lot of people who are in my generation (I’m in college) are afraid to live in rural areas because of economic insecurity. Why is this? Why do all the “good” jobs have to be in a big city? The reason this bothers me is that I think that a lot of the intelligent folks would actually enjoy the rural life if they could see if for what it really is, rather than dwelling on the stereotypes (such as Deliverance).
Another thing that is bothering me is that I think the current economic situation is highly unstable. The dependence on foreign oil, the unfamiliarity of folks with how to procure food from the land, and how to work primitive technology. One electromagnetic pulse would be sufficient to render the entire Eastern US helpless, because everything is digital. It’s pretty scary. I think a little bit of farming familiarity would do a lot of people good. I was going to write more, but I’ll leave it at this. I’m worried we are about to hit another dark age, one from which it will be incredibly difficult to recover from, due to the ecological exhaustion of the land. Oh yeah, and there is one other thing, WIKIPEDIA IS TAKING OFF. The internet is my favorite digital technology. Even if our electronic world is about to come crashing down around us, we might as well take advantage of its fruits while they are still around (like blogs)!
And, I have become more confidant in the intellectual foundations of Christianity. Metaphysics ultimately boils down to choices between mysteries, not foolproof arguments.

I finished Foucault’s Pendulum. My favorite sections are here. It, along with my evolution/creationism class, has spawned a host of questions about the nature of the world. I started reading Metaphysics, by Peter van Inwagen; and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. Basically over the past few weeks I have been compelled to completely rethink my entire belief system and I have closed off very few of the fuzzy conflicts. One thing I did realize, though, is that I believe it is more important to spend time with family and friends than to constantly philosophize. Also, I think that most of the “hot button” issues today (war in Iraq, evolution/Intelligent Design in schools, abortion, homosexuality, technological control over our bodies and the natural world, etc.) stem from a small number of deeper, foundational questions. For example, many environmental conflicts result because it is difficult to establish what the difference is between a phenomenon that is anthropogenic and one that is “natural”. The concept of “wildness” is surprisingly elusive. Also, the question of what criteria we use to define “being human” or “science” is the deeper question that causes the issues of abortion and Intelligent Design to arise. I have made one conclusion about the evolution/ID debate: it doesn’t matter whether ID is true or not; what matters is whether it is science or not. I do not think it meets any of the usual demarcation criteria. Besides, as a Christian, why would I require any scientific evidence to justify my belief in God? I would rather believe in a God that is “beyond human understanding” than one that can be manipulated in an experiment.
Finally, I think people have a mythical urge to worship something. If not God, then what? We are natural idolaters. Just look at the pages of fashion magazines, like Vogue. These idols are modern day equivalents of Aphrodite and Isis. Many Americans are captivated by these “super-beautiful” celebrities and practically worship certain of them. Other people idolize financial success (by the way, I am opposed to state-sponsored gambling like the recent NC Lottery). There is idolatry going on everywhere, because people want there to be something more than God. In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco quotes Karl Popper: “The conspiracy theory of society…comes from rejecting God, and asking who is in His place?” Despite the prolific problems associated with the mythical urge, I think it is good that we have it, because it causes people to instinctively seek God. This means that scientific, valueless, objective statements will never give people a satisfyingly complete worldview. Either they will become atheists and worship the mind and the thought process (akin to Weston in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra), or they will seek something deeper than mere physics and dwell in the realm of myth. Myth is not a derogatory term.

Found a number of interesting links. One about a Japanese AT hiker; International Organizations:
Oxfam, Worldvision (my friend volunteered for it).
Also several links about Christian non-marriage: 1,2,3,4
I am wanting to read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.
Always fun to check out Trailjournals.
Books I’m reading for Thanksgiving Break: Humility by Andrew Murray, Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter, and maybe a few others.
I just found out about Google Video. My favorite so far is probably here.

I now know what William Gibson meant in Neuromancer. On Wednesday I had almost 8 straight hours of philosophical discourse. First, I drafted an essay on the connection between the fetus’s “right to life” (in the abortion debate) to the rights of unborn generations to a good life (ie right to live in an environmentally and culturally sound world). Then, I met with the campus RUF minister and we discussed the prospect of Christian Dating (note there is nothing in the Bible that applies to this topic), and more generally the importance of belonging to the body of Christ (Christian Community). I found out that the Church Community, not the nuclear family, is the critical social unit to belong to. In fact Christ had many anti-family teachings (see Mark 10:29-30). Then at lunch a 2 hour debate on the limits of science. As a scientist, I am a strict empiricist; as a person, I am something else (not yet defined). Science is one of many tools I use to understand the world (the others including experience, emotion, imagination, revelation, cultural traditions, etc.). Note, however, that science is the only one of these that I can propagate to others in a value-free manner. That is to say, all the other epistemological tools are personal and not fully transferable to others without ethical ramifications. Science, on the other hand, is thankfully amoral (the scientific process is, but scientists are people too with all the concomitant flaws, and this causes the interaction between science and society to be less than the amoral ideal at times…). Then I had another long talk with my Biology professor about the culture wars over Creationism and Evolution. Exhaustion comes from the influx of concepts at a rate greater than the processing capacity of my brain.
The root questions are at once the most destabilizing and the most fruitful: THEOLOGY, SCIENCE, and INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS.
No matter which one you are engaged in, you are bound to come up against something greater than yourself!

I had an argument with a couple of guys about the reliability of Wikipedia (see the links section). The following is a hastily written (and extemporaneous) defense of the big wiki:
Hey guys,

You are right, some articles in Wikipedia are unreliable and I should have looked more thoroughly before quoting one about the Skull and Bones because it is actually one of the unreliable ones. So I’m wrong and you are right. I apologize for inconsistency.
Separate from this stupidness on my part, I do think Wikipedia is a reliable source of information, because even “experts” in a given field are prone to the same human weaknesses as everyone else, namely, bias, and one would expect that with an effectively infinite number of editing capabilities, wikipedia would tend toward what is the average in a range of interpretations.
Also, there is little incentive for someone to go to the trouble to publish false information on the site, since they would know that it would likely be deleted very quickly. On the other hand, people who are sincerely interested in a particular subject (for example, entomology), would have a great incentive to share their unique knowledge in an unrestricted way.
While wikipedia is not a perfect source of information (and a completely worthless source of information about original research or current events), I think it is vastly more valuable than the Encyclopedia Britannica because of the democratic nature of the editing process. After all, who is capable of deciding what is worth publishing and what is not? In the information world, no one should be a semantic tyrant. The rapid nature of information exchange makes real democracy possible, at least in some realms of our lives. Why would we want to shy away from the very principals our society was founded on, but never quite achieved? Besides, wikipedia has an entire section devoted to self-criticism, which is impossible in a published work. Wikipedia belongs in the same class as operating systems like Unix, which have open source code. If either of you have doubts about the stability (leaving questions of “user friendliness” aside) of open source operating systems in comparison to a traditionally designed one like Windows, I encourage you to ask a representative of the Computer Science Department. A growing number of businesses and government organizations use Unix/Linux for their servers, not Windows because it is much more efficient, stable, and secure.
Yes, wikipedia is controversial, and yes it is not perfect, but neither is a democratic system of government…
Think it over and let me know your opinion(s)