Saturday, October 11, 2008

Thoughts About Time-Binding 4

So, once more I take up the topic of how time does bind, following up on Thoughts About Time-Binding 1, Thoughts About Time-Binding 2, and Thoughts About Time-Binding 3 with a fourth installment based on my recent rereading of Manhood of Humanity by Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics, having been written before he founded general semantics.

As previously noted, time-binding is the term Korzybski used to refer to the distinctly human capacity to pass on information and knowledge from one generation to the next, and thereby make progress over time. And Korzybski also distinguished between the slow, gradual time-binding of most human cultures, and the rapid progress made possible by science and engineering, and believed that it would be in the best interests of humanity if we were to apply a scientific approach not just to the specialized sectors associated with science and technology, but to all human affairs.

Something that struck me as quite interesting about Manhood of Humanity, especially in light of the current financial meltdown, is that he devotes considerable attention to the topic of economics. Now, it seems to me that Korzybski, who was Polish, was in close proximity to the newly formed Soviet Union during the First World War, before he immigrated to the United States. He certainly was no Marxist, but the question of economic systems must have been on everyone's mind at the time. Economics shares with the hard sciences a decidedly materialist orientation, as well as a penchant for quantification, but Korzybski rightly identifies it as pseudo-science. Of course, Karl Marx was not a numbers guy, and neither was Thorsten Veblen, who shared with Korzybski an interest in engineering, as noted in Thoughts About Time-Binding 3.

But let's start with a quote from Korzybski about production, a term quite familiar in Marxist discourse:

all problems of production come ultimately to the analysis of

(1) Natural resources of raw material and natural energy, freely supplied by nature, which, as we have seen, in the form as produced by nature alone, have very little or no value for humanity;

(2) The activity of the human brain (because human muscles are always directed by the brain) which gives value to the otherwise useless raw materials and energies.

Hence, to understand the processes of production, it is essential to realize that humanity is able to survive only by virtue of the capacity of humans to exploit natural resources—to convert the products of nature into forms available for human needs. If humanity had only the capacity of apes, depending exclusively on wild fruits and the like, they would be confined to those comparatively small regions of the globe where the climate and the fertility of the soil are specially favorable. But in the case supposed, humans would not be humans, they would not be time-binders—they would be animals—mere space-binders. (pp. 84-85)
So, the means of production are the product of time-binding. That is not a very radical notion, as this amounts to an acknowledgment of technological progress, and the idea, widely-accepted in anthropology, that humans could not survive without some form of technology.

A bit further into the book, Korzybski devotes two chapters to "Wealth" and "Capitalist Era" so economics is very much on his mind here. Consider now how he applies the concept of time-binding to economics in a way that the "dismal science" typically overlooks:

The potential use-values in wealth are created by human work operating in time upon raw material given by nature. The use-values are produced by time-taking transformations of the raw materials; these transformations are wrought by human brain labor and human muscular labor directed by the human brain acting in time. The kinetic use-values of wealth are also created by human toil—mainly by the intellectual labor of observation, experimentation, imagination, deduction and invention, all consuming the precious time of short human lives. It is obvious that in the creation of use-values whether potential or kinetic, the element of time enters as an absolutely essential factor. The fundamental importance of time as a factor in the production of wealth—the fact that wealth and the use-values of wealth are literally the natural offspring of the spiritual union of time with toil—has been completely overlooked, not only by the economics, but by the ethics, the jurisprudence and the other branches of speculative reasoning, throughout the long period of humanity's childhood. In the course of the ages there has indeed been much “talk” about time, but there has been no recognition of the basic significance of time as essential in the conception and in the very constitution of human values.
It is often said that “Time is Money”; the statement is often false; but the proposition that Money is Time is always true. It is always true in the profound sense that Money is the measure and symbol of Wealth—the product of Time and Toil—the crystallization of the time-binding human capacity. IT IS THUS TRUE THAT MONEY IS A VERY PRECIOUS THING, THE MEASURE AND SYMBOL OF WORK—IN PART THE WORK OF THE LIVING BUT, IN THE MAIN, THE LIVING WORK OF THE DEAD. (pp. 116-117)

I very much like the way he argues for a time consciousness that is generally lacking from all aspect of human thought, not just economics. And economics is certainly one-dimensional, not only in its focus on space rather than time (wealth as existing in the present rather than the past), but also, as other media ecology scholars have noted, because economics reduces production to quantitative value, rather than considering the qualitative impact of innovations on consciousness and culture. Not surprisingly, there have been a number of economists who have expanded their scholarship to consider and focus upon technology. One of the most notable is the esteemed Canadian political economist, Harold Innis, who wrote about space bias and time bias in cultures as associated with their media of communication and transportation, and also the Harvard economist David Landes, who authored both The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, and Revolution in Time, a study of clock technology.

But what is really striking in Korzybski's analysis is the idea that wealth is mostly not something that people earn, contrary to our own myth of the American dream, possibility of success, Horatio Alger tales of going from rags to riches. Rather, most wealth is inherited. Unlike Marx, Korzybski is not concerned with the fact that inherited wealth tends to stay in the hands of a small population over time, generally within families, with a socioeconomic class. Instead, Korzybski focuses on wealth as a common human inheritance. Let's read some of what he has to say about the capitalistic era:

It may seem strange but it is true that the time-binding exponential powers, called humans, do not die—their bodies die but their achievements live forever—a permanent source of power. All of our precious possessions—science, acquired by experience, accumulated wealth in all fields of life—are kinetic and potential use-values created and left by by-gone generations; they are humanity's treasures produced mainly in the past, and conserved for our use, by that peculiar function or power of man for the binding of time. That the natural trend of life and the progress of the development of this treasury is so often checked, turned from its natural course, or set back, is due to ignorance of human nature, to metaphysical speculation and sophistry. Those who, with or without intention, keep the rate of humanity's mental advancement down to that of an arithmetic progression are the real enemies of society; for they keep the life-regulating “sciences” and institutions far behind the gallop of life itself. The consequence is periodic social violence—wars and revolutions.
Let us carry the analysis of potential and kinetic use-values a little further. All potential use-values left to us by the dead are temporal and differ in utility. Many potential use-values are found in museums and have very limited value to-day in practical life. On the other hand some roads or water-ways built by the ancients have use-value to-day; and an almost endless list of modern potential use-values have or will have use-values for a long time to come, such as buildings, improved lands, railroad tracks, certain machines or tools; the use-value of some such items of material wealth will last for more than one generation. Kinetic use-values are permanent in their character, for, though they may become antiquated, they yet serve as the foundation for the developments that supersede them, and so they continue to live in that to which they lead.
I would draw attention at this point to one of the most important kinetic and potential use-values produced by humanity—the invention of the steam engine. Through this invention, humanity has been able to avail itself, not only of the living fruits of dead men's toil, but also of the inconceivably vast amounts of solar energy and time bound up in the growth of vegetable life and conserved for use in the form of coal and other fuels of vegetable origin. This invention has revolutionized our life in countless directions. To be brief, I will analyse only the most salient effects. Human Engineering has never existed except in the most embryonic form. In remote antiquity the conception and knowledge of natural law was wholly absent or exceedingly vague. Before the invention of the steam engine, people depended mainly upon human powers—that is, upon “living powers”—the powers of living men, and the living fruits of the labor of the dead. Even then there were manifold complications.
The invention of the steam engine released for human use a new power of tremendous magnitude—the stored-up power of solar energy and ages of time. But we must not fail to note carefully that we to-day are enabled to use this immense new power of bound-up solar energy and time by a human invention, a product of the dead.
The full significance of the last statement requires reflection. The now dead inventor of the steam engine could not have produced his ingenious invention except by using the living powers of other dead men—except by using the material and spiritual or mental wealth created by those who had gone before. In the inventor's intellectual equipment there was actively present the kinetic use-value of “bound-up-time,” enabling him to discover the laws of heat, water, and steam; and he employed both the potential and kinetic use-values of mechanical instruments, methods of work, and scientific knowledge of his time and generation—use-values of wealth created by the genius and toil of by-gone generations. This invention was not produced, let us say 6000 years ago, because civilization was not then sufficiently advanced: mathematically considered, the production of this great use-value had to await all the accumulated work of six thousand years of human ingenuity and human labor. So, if we choose, the steam engine may be considered a kinetic use-value in which the factor of time is equal to something like 6000 years, or let us say roughly 200 generations.
It is obvious that, in one life time, even a genius of the highest order, could not, in aboriginal conditions, have invented and built a steam engine, when everything, even iron, was unknown. Of course if the same inventor could have had a life of several thousands of years and could have consecutively followed up all the processes, unhampered by the prejudices of those days, and been able to make all of these inventions by himself, he would represent in himself all the progress of civilization.
By this illustration we see the profound meaning of the words—the living powers of the dead; we see the grave importance in human life of the factor TIME; we behold the significance of the time-binding capacity of man. The steam engine is to be seen anew, as in the main the accumulated production of dead-men's work. The life of one generation is short, and were it not for our human capacity to inherit the material and spiritual fruit of dead men's toil, to augment it a little in the brief span of our own lives, and to transmit it to posterity, the process of civilization would not be possible and our present estate would be that of aboriginal man. Civilization is a creature, its creator is the time-binding power of man. Animals have it not, because they belong to a lower type or dimension of life.
Sophistry avails nothing here; a child, left in the woods, would be and remain a savage, matching his wits with gorillas. He becomes a civilized man only by the accumulation of, and acquaintance with dead men's work; for then and only then can he start where the preceding generation left off. This capacity is peculiar to men; the fact can not be repeated too often.
It is untrue to say that A started his life aided exclusively by the achievements of (say) his father, for his father's achievements depended on the achievements of his immediate predecessors; and so on all the way back through the life of humanity. This fact, of supreme ethical importance, applies to all of us; none of us may speak or act as if the material or spiritual wealth we have were produced by us; for, if we be not stupid, we must see that what we call our wealth, our civilization, everything we use or enjoy, is in the main the product of the labor of men now dead, some of them slaves, some of them “owners” of slaves. The metal spoon or the knife which we use daily is a product of the work of many generations, including those who discovered the metal and the use of it, and the utility of the spoon.
And here arises a most important question: Since the wealth of the world is in the main the free gift of the past—the fruit of the labor of the dead—to whom does it of right belong? The question can not be evaded. Is the existing monopoly of the great inherited treasures produced by dead men's toil a normal and natural evolution?
Or is it an artificial status imposed by the few upon the many? Such is the crux of the modern controversy.
It is generally known that the invention of the steam engine and other combustion engines which release sun-power for mechanical use, has revolutionized the economic system; for the building of engines in the scale of modern needs, it is necessary to concentrate a great number of living men in one place, to build factories, to set up machines used in producing the engines, and all this requires the use of vast amounts of money. That is why this era is called the capitalistic era. But it is necessary to stop here and analyse the factors of value in the engine to be made and in the money used for the purpose of making use of the stored-up energies of the sun. We have found that the major part of the engine and all factors connected with its production are the combined power of dead men's labor. We have found that wealth or capital and its symbol, money, are also, in the main, the bound-up power of dead men's labor; so that the only way to obtain the benefit in the release of sun-power, is by using the product of the toil of the dead. It is further obvious that only the men or organizations that are able to concentrate the largest amounts of money, representing the work of the dead, can have the fullest use of the stored-up energies of time and the ancient sun. Thus the monopoly of the stored-up energies of the sun arises from monopolizing the accumulated fruits of dead men's toil. These problems will, in the future, be the concern of the science and art of Human Engineering. (pp. 119-125)
This is certainly not all that much at odds with the basic foundation of "scientific socialism" associated with Marxism, but again Korzybski is not talking about the abolition of private property or advocating communal living, he is simply acknowledging that most wealth is the common inheritance of all human beings, and arguing for the need for rational governance of human societies.

In this next passage, Korzybski tries to transcend politics in making a powerful ethical argument:

Whether we be capitalists or socialists or neither, we must learn that to prey upon the treasury left by the dead is to live, not the life of a human being, but that of a ghoul. Legalistic title—documentary ownership—does not alter the fact. Neither does lust for the same.
When we have acquired the just conception of what a human being is we shall get away from the Roman conception according to which a human being is instrumentum vocale; an animal, instrumentum semivocale: and a tool, instrumentum mutum. To regard human beings as tools—as instruments—for the use of other human beings is not only unscientific but it is repugnant, stupid and short sighted. Tools are made by man but have not the autonomy of their maker—they have not man's time-binding capacity for initiation, for self-direction, and self-improvement In their own nature, tools, instruments, machines belong to a dimension far lower than that of man. (p. 133)
In this passage, Korzybski's profound humanism is quite clear. He is particularly concerned with dehumanization, with the loss of our humanity either by not living up to our potential, or by turning ourselves into tools, instruments, machines.

And what follows shortly afterwards, interesting enough for scholars of communication and media, is a statement about the news media:

One of the greatest powers of modern times is the Press; it commands the resources of space and time; it affects in a thousand subtle ways the form of our thoughts. It controls the exchange of news throughout the world. Unfortunately the press is often controlled by exploiters of the “living powers of the dead,” and so what is presented as news is frequently so limited, colored and distorted by selfish interests as to be falsehood in the guise of truth. Honest, independent papers are frequently starved by selfish conspirators and forced to close down. Thus the press, which is itself the product in the main of dead men's toil, is made a means for the deception and exploitation of the living. Indeed the bitter words of Voltaire seem to be too true: “Since God created man in his own image, how often has man endeavored to render similar service to God.” Those who want to use such “God-like” powers to rule the world are modern Neros, who in their wickedness and folly fancy themselves divine. To deceive, and through deception, to exploit, rob and subjugate living men and women, and to do it by prostituting the living powers created by the dead, is the work, I will not say of men, but of mad men, greedy, ignorant and blind. What is the remedy? Revolution? Revolution is also mad. The only remedy is enlightenment—knowledge, knowledge of nature, knowledge of human nature, scientific education, science applied to all the affairs of man—the science and art of Human Engineering. (pp. 137-138)

Here again we can see how the unfortunate phrase "human engineering" (which Korzybski eventually abandoned due to its negative connotations), and we can also see that what he is really talking about is education. And he is also talking about human freedom:

Freedom, rightly understood, is the aim of Human Engineering. But freedom is not license, it is not licentiousness. Freedom consists in lawful living—in living in accord with the laws of human nature—in accord with the natural laws of Man. A plant is free when it is not prevented from living and growing according to the natural laws of plant life; an animal is free when it is not prevented from living according to the natural laws of animal life; human beings are free when and only when they are not prevented from living in accord with the natural laws of human life. I say “when not prevented,” for human beings will live naturally and, therefore, in freedom, when they are not prevented from thus living by ignorance of what human nature is and by artificial social systems established, maintained, and protected by such ignorance. Human freedom consists in exercising the time-binding energies of man in accordance with the natural laws of such natural energies. Human freedom is thus the aim of Human Engineering because Human Engineering is to be the science of human nature and the art of conducting human affairs in accordance with the laws of human nature. Survival of the fittest, where fittest means strongest, is a natural law for brutes, for animals, for the class of mere space-binders. Survival of the fittest, where fittest means best in science and art and wisdom, is a natural law for mankind, the time-binding class of life. (p. 153-154)
We see here a critique of social darwinism, and after all, we have come to understand that cooperation plays an important role in the biological survival of species, as well as competition. And the key to freedom according to Korzybski is the unlocking of the potential inherent in human nature. What stands in the way of human freedom is an inability to understand and function in sync with our time-binding capabilities:
Such are the children of folly: (1) Drifting fools—ignorers of the past—disregarders of race experience—thoughtless floaters on the shifting currents of human affairs; (2) Static fools—idealizers of the past—complacent lovers of the present—enemies of change—fearful of the future; (3) Dynamic fools—scorners of the past—haters of the present—destroyers of the works of the dead—most modest of fools, each of them saying: “What ought to be begins with Me; I will make the world a paradise; but my genius must be free; now it is hampered by the existing ‘order’—the bungling work of the past; I will destroy it; I will start with chaos; we need light—the Sun casts shadows—I will begin by blotting out the Sun; then the world will be full of glory—the light of my genius.” (p. 169)
This sounds downright biblical! And here is what Korzybski immediately goes on to say:

In striking contrast with that three-fold division of Folly, the counsel of Wisdom is one, and it is one with the sober counsel of Common Sense. What is that counsel? What is the united counsel of wisdom and common sense respecting the past? The answer is easy and easy to understand. The counsel is this: Do not ignore the past but study it—study it diligently as being the mightiest factor among the great factors of our human world; endeavor to view the past justly, to contemplate it as it was and is, to see it whole—to see it in true perspective—magnifying neither its good nor its evil, neither its knowledge nor its ignorance, neither its enterprise nor its slothfulness, neither its achievements nor its failures; as the salient facts are ascertained, endeavor to account for them, to find their causes, their favoring conditions, to explain the facts to understand them, applying always the question Why? Centuries of centuries of cruel superstition—Why? Centuries of centuries of almost complete ignorance of natural law—Why? Centuries of centuries of monstrous misconceptions of human nature—Why? Measureless creations, wastings and destructions of wealth—Why? Endless rolling cycles of enterprise, stagnation, and decay—Why? Interminable alterations of peace and war, enslavements and emancipations—Why? Age after age of world-wide worship of man-made gods, silly, savage, enthroned by myth and magic, celebrated and supported by poetry and the wayward speculations of ignorant "sages"—Why? Age upon age of world-wide slow developments of useful inventions, craftsmanship, commerce, and art—Why? Ages of dark impulsive groping before the slow discovery of reason, followed by centuries of belief in the sufficiency of ratiocination unaided by systematic observation and experiment—Why? At length the dawn of scientific method and science, the growth of natural knowledge, immeasurable expansion of the universe in Time and in Space, belief in the lawfulness of Nature, rapidly increasing subjugation of natural forces to human control, growing faith in the limitless progressibility of human knowledge and in the limitless perfectibility of human welfare—Why? The widely diverse peoples of the world constrained by scientific progress to live together as in one community upon a greatly shrunken and rapidly shrinking planet, the unpreparedness of existing ethics, law, philosophy, economics, politics and government to meet the exigencies thus arising—Why? (pp. 169-171)

So, what is Korzybski's vision for the future manhood of humanity, Utopian though it may be? Here, take a look:

In humanity's manhood, patriotism—the love of country—will not perish—far from it—it will grow to embrace the world, for your country and mine will be the world. Your “state” and mine will be the Human State—a Cooperative Commonwealth of Man—a democracy in fact and not merely in name. It will be a natural organic embodiment of the civilizing energies—the wealth-producing energies—characteristic of the human class of life. Its larger affairs will be guided by the science and art of Human Engineering—not by ignorant and grafting “politicians”—but by scientific men, by honest men who know.
Is it a dream? It is a dream, but the dream will come true. It is a scientific dream and science will make it a living reality. (pp. 199-200)
Interesting, and not a bad thought at all. Of course, the devil is in the details:

How is the thing to be done? No one can foresee all the details, but in general outline the process is clear. Violence is to be avoided. There must be a period of transition—a period of adjustment. A natural first step would probably be the establishment of a new institution which might be called a Dynamic Department—Department of Coordination or a Department of Cooperation—the name is of little importance, but it would be the nucleus of the new civilization. Its functions would be those of encouraging, helping and protecting the people in such cooperative enterprises as agriculture, manufactures, finance, and distribution.
The Department of Cooperation should include various sections, which might be as follows:
(1) The Section of Mathematical Sociology or Humanology: composed of at least one sociologist, one biologist, one mechanical engineer, and one mathematician. Their work would be the development of human engineering and mathematical sociology or humanology; promoting the progress of science; providing and supervising instruction in the theory of values and the rudiments of humanology for elementary schools and the public at large. The members of the section would be selected by the appropriate scientific societies for a term fixed by the selectors.
(2) The Section of Mathematical Legislation: composed of (say) one lawyer, one mathematician, one mechanical engineer, selected as above. Their task would be to recommend legislation, to provide means for eliminating “Legalism” from the theory and practice of law, and to bring jurisprudence into accord with the laws of time-binding human nature and the changing needs of human society. Their legislative proposals, if ratified in a joint session of sections (1) and (2), would then be recommended to the appropriate legislative bodies.
(3) The Educational Section: composed of two or three teachers, one sociologist, one mechanical engineer, one mathematician, selected as above. They would elaborate educational projects and revise school methods and books; their decisions being subject to the approval of the joint session of sections (1), (2), and (3).
(4) The Cooperative Section: composed of mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, production engineers, expert bookkeepers, accountants, business managers, lawyers and other specialists in their respective lines. This section would be an “Industrial Red Cross” (Charles Ferguson) giving expert advice when asked for by any cooperative society.
(5) The Cooperative Banking Section: composed of financial experts, sociologists, and mathematicians; its task being to help with expert advice new cooperative people's banks.
(6) The Promoters' Section: composed of engineers whose duty would be to study all of the latest scientific facts, collect data, and elaborate plans. Those plans would be published, and no private person, but only cooperative societies, would be permitted by law to use them. The department would also study and give advice respecting the general conditions of the market and the needs in the various lines of production. This section would regulate the duplication of production.
(7) The Farming Section: composed of specialists in scientific and cooperative agriculture.
(8) The Foreign Section: for inter-cooperative foreign relations.
(9) The Commercial Section.
(10) The News Section: to edit a large daily paper giving true, uncolored news with a special supplement relating to progress in the work of Human Engineering. This paper would give daily news about the whole cooperative movement, markets, etc., etc.
All men selected to the places for this work should be the very best men in the nation. They should be well paid to enable them to give their full energy and time to their duties. All the selections for this work should be made in the same manner as mentioned above—through proven merits not clever oratory. Such appointments should be considered the highest honor that a country can offer to its citizens. Every selection should be a demonstration that the person selected was a person of the highest attainments in the field of his work.
The outline of this plan is vague; it aims merely at being suggestive. Its principal purpose is to accentuate the imperative necessity of establishing a national time-binding agency—a Dynamic Department for stimulating, guiding and guarding the civilizing energies, the wealth producing energies, the time-binding energies, in virtue of which human beings are human. For then and only then human welfare, unretarded by monstrous misconceptions of human nature, by vicious ethics, vicious economics and vicious politics, will advance peacefully, continuously, and rapidly, under the leadership of human engineering, happily and without fear, in accord with the exponential law—the natural law—of the time-binding energies of Man. (pp. 200-203)

And there you have it! Simple! Well, okay, it is a bit naive, in retrospect, but I present this here for its historical interest. And maybe it is time once more to start thinking about alternate ways to organize ourselves, in light of the spectacular failures of our economic and political systems recently. As Korzybski pointed out, it doesn't hurt to dream, to speculate, and to think about the future, about where we are going, about where we want to be going, about where we have been. And it really does all begin with a consciousness and understanding of time, and time-binding.

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