This time last year I wrote an entry called Commencement Season is Here, which discussed both pleasant and stressful aspects of graduation ceremonies. That entry noted that here at SJSU there is one big graduation ceremony for the entire campus, and many smaller department ceremonies, usually called convocations. Last year I left a few early in order to hustle to drop in at others. This year I’ve decided to sit through entire ceremonies; if there are two conflicting ceremonies the associate dean would attend one of them. This year he’ll be attending two, and I have eight, plus the main all-university commencement ceremony this Saturday, May 27. Next week I’ll have to find a place that dry cleans regalia…

The Atlantic magazine has published an interesting article: “Building Social Change From the Bottom Up.” The subtitle reads, “In an era of polarization and distrust, these local innovators—from a team of urban planners to a kids’ baseball coach—show that individuals can still better their communities.” Their stories are inspiring!

It’s always a pleasure to highlight outstanding faculty. Last month I shared a Political Science professor’s thoughts on augmented reality technology. Today I want to highlight History Professor Ruma Chopra, whose article on past and present refugees to Canada — “Refugees Fit For Rescue” — was recently featured on the Early Canadian History website. Read more about Professor Chopra’s projects on her rumachopra.com website.

Shortly after President Trump took office Amazon reported that it was sold out of the book Nineteen Eighty-Four, as many wondered if his election signaled that the dystopian society depicted in that work of fiction was now reality in the United States in 2017. However, another mid 20th Century dystopian novel – Brave New World – may be the more accurate reference. For example, in a seminal work of media culture the Chair of New York University’s Department of Culture and Communication argued,

There were two landmark dystopian novels written by brilliant British cultural critics – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – and we Americans had mistakenly feared and obsessed over the vision portrayed in the latter book (an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state) rather than the former (a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble)…. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
–Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. vii.

The College of Social Sciences recently hosted the first Dean’s Office Book Club, and we discussed these books and Postman’s analysis. We asked folks for their thoughts on which book is the more accurate reflection of the U.S. today? Both books? Neither? Professor and Anthropology Chair Roberto Gonzalez and I co-facilitated the discussion; Professor Gonzalez assigned both books to his ANTH 136: Thought Control in Contemporary Society class this semester. We had a great discussion!

 

“Remember when Luke’s running the trench in the Death Star, and he’s about to fire his fateful shot, and at the last minute he decides to turn off the targeting computer and use the Force instead?” So begins an article that references a scene from the movie Star Wars: A New Hope to argue that “machines can now see into the future, and we ignore them at our peril.” The article continues, “We romanticize that moment—not just because it represents Luke’s coming into his own as a Jedi, but because to us, the decision to trust an intuition born deep in nature and honed over billions of lifetimes instead of some newfangled tech seems somehow right and good. The irony, of course, is that in our galaxy, technology is the Force. Increasingly, it’s computers that train our intuition. It’s computers that help us perceive beyond our senses.”

The article provides several examples of technology enhancing human intuition and performance, such as chess players using software to expand their abilities, and doctors using CT scans, ultrasounds, and MRIs instead of knives to explore the innards of patients. The article concludes with this prediction: “we’ll use computers to explore possible futures, and over time we’ll learn how to see those futures for ourselves, almost to feel them, to the point where it’ll seem to those not in the know that we have command of an arcane force.” That may be a bit far-fetched…I hope.

Dr. Lawrence Quill is an SJSU Professor of Political Science who often provides commentary on technology news (such as in a recent Financial Times op-ed: “Tech companies are doing what oil and steel companies have been doing for decades, but they have a halo around them.”). I asked him for his take on the article. He notes:

That article, it seems to me, is talking about augmented reality. Pokemon Go was an app that applied that in a trivial fashion. But Google Glass was a more sophisticated version.

Economists suggest that this way of thinking about the relationships between computer and human labor is the best version of a future that will be dominated by machines and information. Work with machines, they say, rather than against them.

I guess we’ll see.

But if we return to ‘the Force’ in Star Wars and Luke, I think the author of the Atlantic piece has omitted something important. For Luke, and the audience, the force was something without and within. A person looked inside in order to harness the power of the Force all around them. Technology is not the Force. Technology is always external and never ‘within’ – unless we take Elon Musk’s advice and become cyborgs, of course!

The ‘inside’ to which I’m referring is that ‘spiritual’ inside, the West’s inheritance from Christianity. Augustine’s interior space provided the foundation for Western concepts like free will and, more broadly, free agency; concepts that are fundamental to how we have come to understand politics and what it means to be human.

It is that space that is collapsing (and freedom with it). There are a few reasons for this:

1) The assault on religious thinking especially since Darwin but more broadly as a result of Modernity
2) The twentieth century equivalence (post-Turing) of mind and machine (and information)
3) Paradoxically, the quasi-religious desire to free ourselves from the body in order to download consciousness so that we may become immortal – you never really escape from Christianity’s influence. It just becomes a mash up!

Elon Musk’s comment should be taken against the background of the ideas (1-3) above. His cyborg future, which may become reality, is a kind of protest against an uncontrolled future of AI where human agency disappears. The message is simple: become a cyborg or be a human slave. Augmented reality or bust.

The Atlantic article channels the same message. Those who use The Force (technology) will leave the rest behind in their wake. How curious that the author would use a modern myth of techno-spirituality (Star Wars) to make the point.

This sounds like technological determinism and it is. But while the myth of human freedom remains, I will probably keep on saying that the present, and the future, could be different. It could be more humane (?). We could imagine a future where AI and robotics serves human (?) ends, rather than the other way around.

I am not especially hopeful, however, as neither policy-makers, nor the public, nor any other group are providing us with the key ideas of a human future that embraces technology for human ends. Instead, we must turn to William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame) style corporations and Hollywood which, for now at least, seems obsessed with a dystopian eventuality.

I am a little bit more hopeful that we can escape dystopian ends. Keeping Professor Quill’s commentary in mind can help us to try to journey in a more positive direction.

On my two-hour afternoon commute home from campus I frequently listen to audiobooks from Audible. They have created an interactive map of some of the listening habits of their members. They note, “We took a look at how some of your favorite genres play out across the country. You might be surprised where you and your fellow listeners cross paths.” Indeed!

The CityLab website has an interesting story about American megaregions, complete with a link to an interactive map. It appears that I now live in “Goldengate” (the SF Bay Area + Sacramento). I’ve also resided in “Laurentide” (Minneapolis-St. Paul area), “Winnebago” (Milwaukee area), “Twain” (St. Louis), “Tecumseh” (Indianapolis area), “Roanoke” (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill), “Catalpa” (Charlotte), and “Peachtree” (Atlanta). Interesting!

The New York Times“Economic View” section is “a column that explores life through an economic lens with leading economists and writers.” The March 17, 2017 entry has an interesting twist, as it asks, “What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?” Author Neil Erwin notes:

[A]s much as we love economics here — this column is named Economic View, after all — there just may be a downside to this one academic discipline having such primacy in shaping public policy.

They say when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And the risk is that when every policy adviser is an economist, every problem looks like inadequate per-capita gross domestic product.

Another academic discipline may not have the ear of presidents but may actually do a better job of explaining what has gone wrong in large swaths of the United States and other advanced nations in recent years.

Sociologists spend their careers trying to understand how societies work. And some of the most pressing problems in big chunks of the United States may show up in economic data as low employment levels and stagnant wages but are also evident in elevated rates of depression, drug addiction and premature death. In other words, economics is only a piece of a broader, societal problem. So maybe the people who study just that could be worth listening to.

Erwin discusses a 1967 proposal by then Senator Walter Mondale to create a White House Council of Social Advisers to compliment the Council of Economic Advisers. As a sociologist I’d be happy to see my disciplinary colleagues on the new council. As a social sciences dean I should state that other disciplines should also be represented! Regardless of membership, it is doubtful that the Trump White House would entertain the possibility of a White House Council of Social Advisers [or Advisors; I prefer the -or vs. -er spelling]. Perhaps this idea can be revived when the 46th president takes office….

Democracy in the United States is currently in rough shape, as declining trust and increasing inequality make it harder for citizens to find common ground. Michael Neblo is an Ohio State University political scientist who argues that bringing more individuals into the political discussion could reverse the process, and this increased discussion could be facilitated by the Internet. The Pacific Standard magazine recently conducted an interview with Professor Neblo. The interview concludes with, “I think there is room for angry protest in a democracy. If you think the Affordable Care Act is crucial legislation, by all means get out there and show them how angry you are at the prospect of it being dismantled. But there should also be room for civil, substantive discussion.” Indeed!

Every weekday (and usually also on Sundays) I commute to work via the Amtrak Capitol Corridor train from Oakland to San José. The trip takes about an hour and 15 minutes each way. Adding time to get to or from the stations in Oakland and San José plus allowing extra time for potential traffic delays, my commute is about two hours each way…four hours per day (!). According to the short documentary Train Life, however, my Capitol Corridor commute is pretty normal. Train Life was made in 2004, and is composed of interviews of passengers on the Sacramento-Berkeley leg of the Capitol Corridor. Someone should remake it to focus on the Oakland-San José leg. If I were the filmmaker I’d also add interviews with the conductors, and ask folks about their use of technology while on the train [I’m a bit surprised that this did not come up in the interviews.] I’d be a lot less happy, for example, without my iPad, Internet access via free Wi Fi, and wireless headphones…