Sunday, December 30, 2012

Human Sacrifice and the False Idol of Firearms

In his 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman wrote that

the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make life worth living. (p. xii)

Postman introduced the term technopoly to refer to a culture in which the growth of technology is unchecked and unrestrained, and comes to dominate all aspects of society.  As he explains

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. (p. 71)
Writing over two decades ago, Postman suggests that the United States is the only technopoly in the world, although others are aspiring to that state. Whether we are still alone in our culture's total surrender to the technological imperative is an open question, but even if we are not, we are certainly unique in being the first, and furthest along.

But I want to modify Postman's argument slightly, to say that technology is not so much a deity as it is a religion. And as a religion, it is not a form of monotheism, but rather presents us with a pantheon of gods of the machine, some of which are openly worshiped with great enthusiasm, others not so much. For example, the automobile is one of our most cherished deities, a god to whom we give enormous love and devotion, for whom we build numerous altars  and indeed alter the entire landscape, and to whom we sacrifice an enormous amount of our resources, and beyond that,
some 30,000 lives every year.  In contrast, the locomotive is a god that once enjoyed great respect and admiration in this land, but whose worship has been in sharp decline for many decades now.

A similar example is the technology of the printing press, which is enshrined in the first amendment to our constitution, and still enjoys great prestige, but in regard to  its places of worship, attendance and affiliation has been in a downward spiral (much as it has been for traditional churches and synagogues), displaced by younger gods who prefer the title media rather than press, most notably television, computers, the internet, and the pocket gods we call cell phones.

And getting to the main point now, the second amendment, in language so convoluted that it requires almost as much exegesis as biblical passages written in ancient Hebrew, seemingly deifies another technology, arms, which is interpreted as firearms, the gun as god. How else can we explain the inexplicable response on the part of the National Rifle Association to the tragic shooting of 20 children and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, by which I mean the absolute refusal to consider that guns may have had anything to do with the event, and the absolute refusal to consider that any measure of limits, even the most modest, on gun ownership might be called for?

How else to explain the fact that, in the wake of the tragedy, gun worshipers rushed out to buy even more guns, especially of the sort used in the Newtown shooting? Is this not the power of belief, of faith, of worship?

Let me be plain about this. Guns do not represent freedom. As technologies specifically designed to cause injury and harm, to maim and to kill, they are a threat to freedom. Guns do not represent safety or security. There are alternatives to firearms that can fulfill that function. What do guns mean, what do they symbolize? Freud would point to their phallic quality, a point that no doubt would be open to ridicule by many, and that I'm not putting forth seriously here, although let's not forget that almost all gun violence is caused by men. But many critics of Freud have argued that what he interpreted as sexual is really about power. And while I am not in the habit of drawing on the French cultural critic Michel Foucault, in this instance I think his emphasis on power relations as something that permeates culture, beyond the power of the state, is relevant. Knowledge is power, yes, but in practical terms it's know-how that is power, in other words it's not just science, but applied science, technology.  Technology is about power, the power to get things done by the most efficient means available, and guns provide the power to cause damage and death more efficiently than any other method available to the average citizen.

The meaning of the gun is power. The worship of guns is the worship of power, the belief that this divine power will be bestowed upon the worshiper. The concept of deities is of beings that are supernatural, above nature, and therefore of much greater power than human beings. In monotheism, God is often referred to as the Almighty, which is to say all-powerful. Technology, being a form of polytheism, the gun is not almighty, but it is worshiped for the less than absolute power that it grants. Traditionally, the power of divine entities would be invoked through rituals, through sacrifice, through prayer, and the worshiper could never be certain of whether the deity would respond in any way. But our technological gods do respond, immediately and effectively, in granting us the power we seek.

As a religion, technology delivers. But only in regard to the utilitarian, the pragmatic. When it comes to traditional religions, and I would venture to add religions that are genuine religions, there are many other things individuals pray for aside from power: guidance, wisdom, compassion, forgiveness, peace. We pray for the souls of the dead, we pray for the healing of the wounded, we pray that survivors may be comforted in their grief and mourning, we pray for the strength to carry on through adversity. Individuals may pray for the ability to do God's will, or may meditate as a way of listening for God's voice, or simply to open themselves to the sacred dimension of the world, and seek communion with the divine.  Perhaps most importantly, traditional religions include prayers for mercy, expressions of respect, awe and even fear  of divine judgment, an understanding that there are requirements for right conduct, moral behavior, as a precondition for divine providence, and against the possibility of divine punishment.  Technology makes no such requirements of us. Holding aside the validity of religious beliefs, it is clear that traditional religion plays an important role in providing a foundation for ethical behavior, and from a sociological perspective fulfills a positive function. Technological religion, on the other hand, does not, and that is the key idea to keep in mind.

Turning back now to gun worship, I'd like to introduce the comments of Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, taken from a Huffington Post essay dated December 18, and entitled Gun Worship Is Blasphemy. Rabbi Yoffie begins by framing the issue of gun control within a religious context:

Above all, let us remember this: Sensible gun-control is a religious issue.

The indiscriminate distribution of guns is an offense against God and humanity.

Controlling guns is not only a political matter; it is a solemn religious obligation. Our gun-flooded society has turned weapons into idols, and the worship of idols must be recognized for what it is: blasphemy. And the only appropriate religious response to blasphemy is sustained moral outrage and focused moral action.

There is not a single word in the sacred Scriptures of the Christian, Jewish or Islamic traditions that either opposes commonsensical gun control or supports the idea of some God-given right to automatic weapons that fire 100 shots in a single minute.

Yes, our constitution gives us certain guarantees when it comes to gun ownership. But there is nothing in the constitution that says we are entitled to own weapons with a magazine of more than eight to 10 bullets. There is nothing that obligates us to go along with what the NRA has long advocated: the right of almost any terrorist suspect, deranged person, wife-beater and crook to buy almost any weapon at almost any time, no questions asked.

At this point, I want to repeat the point I made in my previous post, On Guns and More, that the second amendment is not scripture, that the Bill of Rights is not the Ten Commandments, that the constitution can be amended and that includes the amendments themselves, and that amendments can be repealed, and it's time to start talking about repealing the second amendment. But let me return to Rabbi Yoffie, and his plea for a response from the faith community:

When these terrible tragedies occur, our nation looks to its religious leaders and its places of worship to provide comfort to the victims and solace to a stricken nation. And it is important that we should do so; we have the capacity to mobilize communities of the faithful, to provide love and caring to those in distress, and to hold our fellow Americans together when anguish and fear are driving us apart.

But at this moment, more is needed of the religious community. As men and women of God, we need to take the moral offensive and demand that something be done.

My plea to every pastor, priest, rabbi and imam in America: This is not the time for the usual platitudes. And yes, we need programs for troubled teens and fewer bloodthirsty movies and hideous video games. But we also need to take on the gun nuts, a single-issue minority too often motivated by intolerance and filled with hate.

When it comes to guns, Americans have learned to be cynical. They have learned that no matter how great the outrage, the entrenched gun interests are always triumphant. But as religious leaders, we know what this leads to. We know that when good people back down again and again; when the gun worshipers are rewarded with ever-more radical pro-gun legislation; when the corpses of the dead, lying bloody before us, are ignored; and when the zealotry and folly of the pro-gun lobby are not confronted by the forces of sanity, the result is fatalism and despair, undermining faith in government and faith in God.

To echo the words of the great sage Hillel, if not now, when?  The problem, though, is politics:

I understand that gun control is not a simple matter; that compromise will be necessary; and that honest, well-intentioned people will differ on exactly what measures are required. But we must make a start. Surely this is the moment to create a coalition of sensible citizens, willing to come forward and say no to the deadly toll that guns are taking on the lives of our children. Surely this is the time to reach out to politicians, of all persuasions and all parties, and ask them to put the welfare of our children and the safety of our citizens ahead of petty, partisan concerns. And surely religious leaders and institutions -- obligated to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with their God -- should lead the way.

If this massacre of innocents in Newtown will not rouse the nation's conscience, then nothing will. Therefore, this is the moment to mobilize the idealism, energy and anger of the American people.

And a word to President Obama: Nothing will happen without the national leadership that only you can provide. You have been a voice for hope and change, but if truth be told, in this area you have been mostly silent. I believe -- although I can't be sure -- that Americans are ready for a leader with the sense and the guts to tackle the abuses of our gun culture. We need to hear from you a voice of moral clarity and a practical plan that you will be prepared to fight for. Your tears about the murdered children were genuine, but they were not enough. No excuses and no dawdling. If Americans are to stop the slaughter and find their higher selves, religious leaders have a critical role to play -- but they can only do so much. The President of the United States must lead the way.

The trouble with compromise is that it only works when there are two sides willing to compromise. But how do you ask gun-worshipers to compromise on the worship of their god? I realize that Rabbi Yoffie is trying to be reasonable, indeed that approaching problems rationally is part of the Enlightenment orientation that gave birth to the Reform Judaism movement that he once led. And he is absolutely right in calling out President Obama on his abject failure to address this issue in any substantive way. We'll see what the Biden Commission that Obama appointed to come up with proposals to deal with this issue comes up with. But how do we compromise on matters of health and safety? What's the compromise on drinking and driving? What's the compromise on seat belts and airbags in cars? What's the compromise on second hand smoke? What's the compromise on radioactive fallout and toxic waste?

Let me turn now to an essay published in the New York Review of Books on December 15th, written by Gary Wills, a leading Roman Catholic intellectual.  The essay is entitled, simply, Our Moloch, and I thank Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz of Congregation Adas Emuno for bringing it to my attention.  The title is in reference to one of the false gods who are the subject of idol worship in the Hebrew Bible, the most often cited passage being in Leviticus 18:21 which reads, "And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch." In this instance, seed refers to offspring, and the prohibition against the sacrifice of children, which is the main lesson of the story of the binding of Isaac (as I discussed in my previous post, Appearances), is reinforced just a little further on in Leviticus in 20:1-5, which reads

1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
2 Again, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Moloch; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.
3 And I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people; because he hath given of his seed unto Moloch, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name.
4 And if the people of the land do any ways hide their eyes from the man, when he giveth of his seed unto Moloch, and kill him not;
5 then I will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go a whoring after him, to commit whoredom with Moloch, from among their people.

Harsh stuff, indeed, but a strong polemic against a practice that was considered acceptable, desirable, and demanded by the gods in the ancient middle east (as it has been in other cultures in other parts of the world). The powerful prohibition against human sacrifice appears elsewhere in the Hebrew bible, in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Second Chronicles.  And, after all, are we not to this day filled with disgust at the thought of such practices, and of sacrificing children in general? With this context in mind, let's turn to what Gary Wills has to say:

Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there. Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind:

First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol. (Paradise Lost 1.392-96)

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains—“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The analogy is entirely apt, in my opinion. Of all the false gods that we worship within our technological religion, none are more vile, more horrific, more evil than this one. Some have made reference to the existence of evil in respect to the act of mass murder that occurred, and to the shooter as a person, and in some instances this has been used as a tactic to deflect attention away from the role that firearms have played in this and so many other needless, senseless deaths. What Wills makes clear in this essay is that gun-worship itself is sinful, is evil.

Wills continues by arguing that the gun is more than a technology, but in a way that is consistent with Postman's view that our technologies have become deified:

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.

Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.

At this point, I want to note that Wills is not the first to find a false god in a machine, or to call that god Moloch. One of the most dramatic scenes in the 1927 German silent film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, depicts industrial machinery as a Moloch idol devouring workers. The film portrays a future society where there are two classes, the capitalists who live above the city in privileged luxury, and the oppressed workers who live below.  Freder, the son of the city's master ventures below to see how the other half lives, and upon viewing the workers reduced to automatons servicing the industrial engines, he has a vision of the machinery as Moloch. I'm going to include a clip here, and if you're not familiar with silent film, you might find this stylized depiction a bit hard to relate to, but try to understand the powerful statement being made here about human beings placed in servitude to technology:

This Moloch is consuming adult workers rather than children, but the reality at that time is that children were victimized by the industrial revolution, and women as well as men. It was exactly this Moloch that Karl Marx inveighed against in The Communist Manifesto, with the clear understanding that the inhuman working conditions of the industrial factory and the exploitation of impoverished men, women, and children was intolerable, and it would only be a matter of time before the workers rose up in rebellion against the ones oppressing them. But you did not have to be a leftist, radical, or anarchist to see that, as the fascist movement of the early 20th century also was fueled by the alienation of the working classes.  In fact, the screenplay for Metropolis was written by Lang's wife at the time, Thea Von Harbou, who was a Nazi sympathizer. Lang himself was on the liberal side of the political spectrum, and half-Jewish, although his mother  converted to Catholicism when Lang was a child. 

The point is that if there is a religious belief that Americans have clung to along with the belief in technology, and that goes hand-in-hand in many ways with the belief in technology, it's the belief in free enterprise. And that faith in free enterprise suggested that any kind of legislation or reforms regarding how businesses conduct themselves would be unwarranted. And yet, we did pass child labor laws, and all manner of regulations regarding safety in the workplace. Of course, it took organized effort on the part of working people, especially through the labor union movement, for this to come about. It was important, it was necessary, and if not for this process, there might well have been some kind of massive revolution here. In Metropolis, a negotiated solution is reached at the end, the kind that Rabbi Yoffie would recognize as reasonable, but even there it's only after a violent upheaval, and only to avert any further violence and disruption.

So this is a bit of a digression, but one that brings me to the point that the comparison that Wills makes between guns and Moloch not only makes sense, but has good precedent. And the fact that we were able to overcome the Moloch of the industrial machine through organized effort, political action, and legislation, with the support of religious organizations, shows that it is also possible to overcome the Moloch of firearms. And it begins with identifying the god as a false idol, which Wills proceeds to do in his essay:

The fact that the gun is a reverenced god can be seen in its manifold and apparently resistless powers. How do we worship it? Let us count the ways:

1. It has the power to destroy the reasoning process. It forbids making logical connections. We are required to deny that there is any connection between the fact that we have the greatest number of guns in private hands and the greatest number of deaths from them. Denial on this scale always comes from or is protected by religious fundamentalism. Thus do we deny global warming, or evolution, or biblical errancy. Reason is helpless before such abject faith.

2. It has the power to turn all our politicians as a class into invertebrate and mute attendants at the shrine. None dare suggest that Moloch can in any way be reined in without being denounced by the pope of this religion, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, as trying to destroy Moloch, to take away all guns. They whimper and say they never entertained such heresy. Many flourish their guns while campaigning, or boast that they have themselves hunted “varmints.” Better that the children die or their lives be blasted than that a politician should risk an election against the dread sentence of NRA excommunication.

3. It has the power to distort our constitutional thinking. It says that the right to “bear arms,” a military term, gives anyone, anywhere in our country, the power to mow down civilians with military weapons. Even the Supreme Court has been cowed, reversing its own long history of recognizing that the Second Amendment applied to militias. Now the court feels bound to guarantee that any every madman can indulge his “religion” of slaughter. Moloch brooks no dissent, even from the highest court in the land.

Though LaPierre is the pope of this religion, its most successful Peter the Hermit, preaching the crusade for Moloch, was Charlton Heston, a symbol of the Americanism of loving guns. I have often thought that we should raise a statue of Heston at each of the many sites of multiple murders around our land. We would soon have armies of statues, whole droves of Heston acolytes standing sentry at the shrines of Moloch dotting the landscape. Molochism is the one religion that can never be separated from the state. The state itself bows down to Moloch, and protects the sacrifices made to him. So let us celebrate the falling bodies and rising statues as a demonstration of our fealty, our bondage, to the great god Gun.

What a marvelous suggestion, the intent being of course to shame our political leadership into acknowledging the truth of the situation, and taking action. To understand what we are up against, let's listen to the words of Moloch's prophet:

The false conflation of national defense, a function now served by our professional military and police forces, and the private ownership of firearms by gun-worshipers is unworthy of the actor who once portrayed Moses, the Lawgiver. Professionals will generally tell you that they do not want all of these weapons in the hands of private individuals, but that's besides the ponit. For a better understanding of Charlton Heston, let's turn to the following except from Michael Moore's film, Bowling for Columbine:

While I don't completely agree with Moore, who insists on linking American gun-worship to our foreign policy and numerous military interventions in the world, and doesn't distinguish between Canadian ownership of hunting rifles and shotguns, and American worship of handguns and assault weapons, but his interview with Heston is revealing in the simple truth that there is no rational argument to be made for our policies towards firearms. When there is no argument, no rationale, it all comes down to blind faith, to religious belief, to unquestioning worship. And of what? Of the technological religion, of the gun as as American god, of the false idol of firearms who demand of us human sacrifices, the sacrifice of children. 

How much more can we bear?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Jazzing It Up in Leonia

So, in my role as president of Congregation Adas Emuno, a Reform synagogue in Bergen County, New Jersey, I've had some quotes included in articles appearing in the local Leonia Life community newspaper put out by the North Jersey Media Group, as noted in my previous posts, Congregation and Community and Reconnected. Okay, so here we go again.

The latest article was published on December 21st, entitled Adas Emuno Jazzes Up the Holiday Season in Leonia., and it begins with the following:

Eugene Marlow's Heritage Ensemble came to Congregation Adas Emuno to bring a lively, multi-cultural mix of music to Leonia on Dec. 1.

Before going any further, I should mention that I was the one who organized the concert, the second time we've had them play at Adas Emuno And I should also mention that Gene Marlow, aside from being a jazz composer and performer, is also a professor of communication at Baruch College in New York City, and a graduate of the good old media ecology program back in the halcyon days of Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom.  You can read all about Gene and his band on website, and I give the Heritage Ensemble my highest recommendation, I might add, they are just amazing!  So anyway, let's return to the article, and this is where I come in:

"They preformed for about an hour and the repertoire comes from taking Hebraic melodies and turning them into jazz compositions," said Lance Strate, President of the Congregation. "It's a kind of multi-cultural approach where there is a Latin rhythm section and sometimes we get Latin beats, Afro-Cuban beats and sometimes we get a Mediterranean touch to it."

Guests, including both members of the congregation and visitors, were entertained by a variety of songs.
"It's actually a wonderful mix and collaboration because the leader of the band, Eugene Marlow, comes from a Jewish background but the drummers are native New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent," said Lance Strate. "The saxophone player is Lebanese and the bass player is German."

Oh, and by the way, the article also features a photo credited to Christopher Trento, with the following caption: "Michael Hashim, Frank Wagner, guest vocalist Shira Lissek and Matthew Gonzalez of Eugene Marlow's Heritage Ensemble perform a variety of Hebraic melodies at Congregation Adas Emuno on Dec. 1."

And the article concludes with some more quotations:

The concert began after a brief Havdallah service. The band was also joined by a singer who joined the instrumental musicians by adding her voice to a few of the songs.
"Four of the pieces that they did they did, they were joined by Shira Lisseck who is a cantorial soloist. She has preformed with symphony orchestras and has an absolutely gorgeous voice," said Strate.
At the conclusion of the concert, guests attended the congregation's Social Hall where there were light refreshments being served.
"We're hoping to make it a tradition but this is only the second time that they preformed for us but we are planning on having them back again next year," said Strate.
The congregation also recently celebrated the daily lighting of the Menorah for Hanukkah.

And that does it for the article. You might be thinking that they overdid it with the quotations, and as much as it's gratifying to see my name in print, I'd have to agree. But there is an explanation, and it also relates to the fact that all it says under the byline of this article is "CORRESPONDENT" (a curious designation indeed!). The author of the article didn't make it to the event, so the piece is based almost entirely on an interview with me on the phone.  

Frankly, it would have been better for all involved if I had just written it for them, it would have been a much better article that way, but I guess that would cross some journalistic line of some sort, or maybe it would just mean that they'd have to pay me

And maybe it's only fitting, as jazz represents a form that retrieves some aspects of oral traditional music, fusing remnants of primary orality with the new sensibility formed out of the secondary orality of electronic media, creating a kind of hybrid energy that the Heritage Ensemble so wonderfully embodies. So the article in its own way is a kind of analogue of jazz, you might say. Or maybe not...


Friday, December 28, 2012

MOOCs are for Mooks

So, I couldn't resist the play on the acronym for Massive Open Online Courses (and the fact that it's Courses, plural, renders the s at the end of MOOCs redundant, but that's online learning for you). The equally online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines mook as a slang term denoting "a foolish, insignificant, or contemptible person" and admittedly that's a bit harsh, but then again, I didn't invent the acronym, nor am I anything but one of a multitude of critics of this latest form of distance learning.

And I bring this up because not too long ago I was interviewed by Ellis Booker for an article on the subject published in InformationWeek on December 20th under the title of Massive Open Online Courses Meet Higher Ed, accompanied by the subtitle of Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are prompting discussion about higher education's future and business model.

The article begins, appropriately enough, by posing some key questions:

Can a class contain 100,000 Internet-connected students? Can grading be crowdsourced? Will colleges and universities someday confer certifications on students who've never stepped foot on campus, never interacted with a live teacher and never paid a dime?
These are just some of the existential questions confronting academia thanks to massive open online courses, or MOOCs. MOOCs are distinguished as much by their network- and computer-mediated scale as their free-for-all philosophy.

 So, what's the origin of this new educational phenomenon? That's the next point that Booker tackles:

The first MOOC is believed to have been the 2008 course "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge," created by George Siemens, then an associate director, research and development with the Learning Technologies Centre at the University of Manitoba, and Stephen Downes, an online learning and new media designer and commentator.
Their course content was available through RSS feeds, and students could participate via threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life or synchronous online meetings. The course was taken by 25 tuition-paying students at the University of Manitoba; another 2,300 members of the general public registered for the course online, free of charge.

 From here, Booker takes us directly to the present day:

From these humble beginnings, MOOCs have grown. According to one recent count, there are 230 MOOCs today, with more than 3 million students. In a milestone last year, an online course in artificial intelligence from Stanford attracted 160,000 students -- 23,000 of whom completed it.

In fact, the fastest-growing purveyor of MOOCs isn't a college or a university. Coursera is a venture capital- backed online platform, now with more than 33 participating schools offering online courses to 1.3 million students.

So, now that we have MOOCs explained, I think it worthwhile to add that the acronym MOOC, and especially the terms massive coupled with online have a connection to an aspect of new media that involves something other than pedagogy. What I am referring to are the initials (not acronyms because they're not really pronounceable) MMO and MMORPG.  MMO stands for Massive Multiplayer Online, which is used in reference to gaming, so the typical reference is to MMO games.  MMORPG is a little more specific, referring to Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, sometimes used in reference to MMORPG games, which is of course redundant (and must I repeat myself on the significance of that point?).  MMORPG's include World of Warcraft, and various games based on the universes associated with The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc.

And while we're on the subject, these games are descendents of MUDs, which started out as text-based online games, the acronym standing for Multi-User Dungeon.  As the format, which shares some common ground with chat rooms, was adopted for non-fantasy and even non-gaming functions, alternate meanings for the initials were introduced, i.e. Multi-User Dimension, Multi-User Domain, or even Multi-User Dialogue. One type of MUD is known as a MUSH, a Multi-User Shared Hallucination (the allusion here is to William Gibson's definition of cyberspace in his science fiction novel Neuromancer as a shared consensual hallucination). Another variation is the MOO, which stands for MUD, Object-Oriented, which refers to object-oriented programming, meaning a MUD where the virtual objects contained within it are programmable.

And let's not forget where this all began, with the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, which has been abbreviated as D&D or DnD. Originally played as a kind of board game, albeit without an actual board per se, but with maps and charts and the like, along the lines of war and strategy games, these games were based on computer technology nonetheless, specifically on computer-generated statistical probability tables made available in print form, used in conjunction with rolling a variety of dice with many different sides to determine specific outcomes.

What's the point of all this, you may ask? Well, it's merely to point out that MOOCs can be said to have descended from gaming rather than schooling, and perhaps have as much if not more to do with entertainment than education. That's certainly a point that is consonant with Neil Postman's critique of education via television in Amusing Ourselves to Death. And while we're on that subject, let's note that the very term massive recalls the older term mass, as in mass consumption, mass culture, mass media, and mass communication.  And while these massive forms may have some redeeming qualities, is mass communication really the best model for pedagogical practices?

Okay, this has been a long digression, so let's get back to Booker's piece, and hear from one of the leading cheerleaders for all things online:

"The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled," Clay Shirky, an associate professor at New York University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote in a lengthy post in November.

"Once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment," Shirky wrote.

Umm, increase quality? Really? Shirky may know something about new media, sure, and may be one of the
leading cheerleaders for online communication and social media, but his understanding of quality in education leaves something to be desired. Holding aside the basic economic law of diminishing returns, there's a little thing we call teacher-student ratio that has a great deal to do with quality of education.  But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's move on to a new section of the article, with a heading of "Why Now?":

Distance learning has been a topic of discussion and experimentation for at least two decades, which begs the question: Why the current excitement?

"Why now? That's a question I've been asking myself," Kemi Jona, a research professor in learning sciences and computer science at Northwestern University, said in a phone interview with InformationWeek.

Noting the "long trajectory" and expensive failures of the past, Jona said the answer has less to do with technical advances (broadband connections to the home, tablet computers) than with economics -- specifically, the high cost of tuition and the global fiscal crisis, which combined to cause many to question the value of a post-secondary degree.

Jona is among those who see multiple advantages in online classes, ranging from "not subjecting a 19-year-old to an 8 a.m. chemistry class" to research suggesting that online environments may be more conducive to risk-taking and student participation. "It's not socially acceptable to look stupid [in person]," Jona said.

Jona's last point rings true in reference to online learning, and you might say that it applies to online behavior in general, that people are more likely to take risks when sitting comfortably in front of a computer screen rather than taking the same risks when actually in a real, live situation, which brings us back to gaming, come to think of it. But this has noting to do with massive online learning, as opposed to, say, small seminars conducted over via the internet. Well, maybe a little, as there's safety in numbers, otherwise known as risky shift, but how much participation can there really be in a course with thousands of students? And participation with whom?  Certainly not the professor. So, maybe we're talking about graduate students working as teaching assistants, but now on a massive scale?  Or will it all be programmable, automated, bot-led discussion sections. I can just hear some student say, Professor Siri, a question? Anyway, greater participation is not the same thing as greater learning. 

The earlier point is the one that is most to the point:  economics.  MOOCs represent a cheaper form of education than traditional college classes, and there is no arguing with that, but let's just say, you get what you pay for.

But where do I come in, you might ask. Well, I hope it was worth waiting for:

Not surprisingly, other educators are suspicious about MOOCs.

"It's not an accident [these] are coming out of the most prestigious and well-endowed universities," Lance Strate, professor of communication and media studies and director of the Professional Studies in New Media program at Fordham University said in a phone interview. The initiatives are, he said, "in some ways, a kind of publicity stunt to help reinforce the image of these [schools] as leading institutions of higher education." Fordham has no MOOCs, nor plans for one, according to Strate.

Strate isn't alone in his suspicions. If the unbundling of education happens, Harvard and Yale will be fine, but maybe not the "4,000 institutions you haven't heard of," Shirky wrote in his essay.

So, yeah, I'm a bit cynical, but status and prestige is definitely a factor in the rush of elite institutions to field MOOCs, as opposed to a straightforward desire to bring education to the masses. No doubt, the presence of MOOCs will soon play a role in US News & World Report rankings.

And I give him credit, Shirky does raise an ominous point, in that higher education could go the way of the media industries under this scenario, as in increased concentration of ownership. Could Harvard and Yale become the educational equivalents of Time-Warner and Disney/ABC?

Anyway, Booker gives the "inventor" of the MOOC the last word:

Does this mean existing institutions should lay low?

Not at all, says the professor whose 2008 class is credited with being the first MOOC. "If MOOCs are eventually revealed to be a fad, the universities that experiment with them today will have acquired experience and insight into the role of technology in teaching and learning that their conservative peers won't have," George Siemens wrote in a December post on his blog. These days, Siemens is an assistant professor in the Center for Distance Education and a researcher and strategist with the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute (TEKRI) at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada.

Siemens is no doubt right that there is something to be learned by those who follow the fad, but maybe it's something that the rest of us already know.  And maybe there's also something to be lost, a cost to all this, and who will be the ones to pay that cost? Maybe the students who take these courses, and think they are getting something that they in reality are not? If it's all a grand experiment, or let's say it's all just a game, then there are winners and there are losers. If the experimenters are the winners, then aren't the subjects destined to be the losers, to be the mooks for the MOOCs?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Deprivations of Privacy

Time for me to repost here another one of my guest posts for the blog run by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.  This is my 4th contribution to their Quote of the Week feature, the first 3 being Charlie Chaplin and Hannah Arendt, We Create the Conditions that Condition Us, and History and Freedom, all of which followed my initial guest post for them, which I wrote about here in an entry entitled Arendt Come Due.

So, this latest item, The Deprivations of Privacy, was posted over on their site on December 3rd, and the title is linked to it so to let you go take a look if you want. And before I proceed to adding it here, I just want to note that the post went up on their blog on that Monday, and 2 days later, on that Wednesday morning, I heard from the director of the Arendt Center, Roger Berkowitz, that the post brought 2600 people to their site, with many more hits continuing to come in after that.  And of course I'm happy about that, for my own sake sure, but also pleased to contribute in this way to center and the promotion of Arendt's work and thought.

So, lest you be deprived any further, and with thanks to Bridget Hollenback for providing the illustrations, here it is now:

"The emergence of society—the rise of housekeeping, its activities, problems, and organizational devices—from the shadowy interior of the household into the light of the public sphere, has not only blurred the old borderline between private and political, it has also changed almost beyond recognition the meaning of the two terms and their significance for the life of the individual and the citizen. Not only would we not agree with the Greeks that a life spent in the privacy of "one's own" (idion), outside the world of the common, is "idiotic" by definition, or with the Romans to whom privacy offered but a temporary refuge from the business of the res publica; we call private today a sphere of intimacy whose beginnings we may be able to trace back to late Roman, though hardly to any period of Greek antiquity, but whose peculiar manifoldness and variety were certainly unknown to any period prior to the modern age. "

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Here are the titles of some recent posts on the Deeplinks Blog, which is published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, America's leading organization advocating for citizens' digital rights:
  • Who's Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-Book Buyer's Guide to Privacy, 2012 Edition
  • Ninth Circuit Gives the A-OK for Warrantless Home Video Surveillance
  • Attempt to Modernize Digital Privacy Law Passes the Senate Judiciary Committee
  • NASA's Data Valdez: Thousands of Employees' Personal Information Compromised in Embarrassing Data Breach
  • Don't Be a Petraeus: A Tutorial on Anonymous E-Mail Accounts
  • ECPA and the Mire of DC Politics: We Shouldn't Have to Trade Video Privacy to Get Common Sense Protections of Our Email
  • EFF to Supreme Court: Limit Release of Driver Info
  • Do Not Track Update:  Professor Peter Swire to Co-Chair W3C Tracking Protection Working Group
  • Reform to Require Warrant for Private Online Messages Up for Vote, but Down on Privacy
  • Jones Meant What It Said: EFF Urges Court to Stop Warrantless GPS Tracking

Privacy is far from the only issue addressed by the EFF, but this list does account for 10 out of 16 posts appearing on the Deeplinks Blog between November 21st and 29th of this year.  And concerns about invasions of privacy surface repeatedly in regard to Facebook's data mining of user profiles and updates, Google tracking and analysis of search queries (not to mention their indiscriminate street view photography, monitoring of wifi signals, and use of gmail address books), and Apple's tracking of the whereabouts and movements of iPhone users (also done by Android and other mobile systems).  Companies are known to monitor their employee's internet use, email, and some even demand access to their social media accounts.  Law enforcement and other government agencies (foreign and domestic) seek access to citizens' email and text messages and records of websites visited and documents downloaded.  Personal messages, photos, and videos are forwarded and distributed without permission.  Sites like Wikileaks publish secret government and corporate documents.  Hackers break into databases, steal information, take credit card numbers and banking information, and in the ultimate invasion of privacy, engage in identity theft.

As much as the modern understanding of privacy seems to be under assault on account of new media and digital technologies, it's also true that many of us readily reveal personal information via online profiles and posts, post our personal photographs and video recordings, divulge our location through Foursquare and social media status updates, enable GPS tracking on our mobile devices in order to take better advantage of various apps and services, enter credit and debit card numbers on websites assuming that they are secure, and treat email, instant messaging, and SMS as if they were absolutely inviolable channels of communication.

Privacy is being consumed.  Online, our privacy is consumed by the advertising, marketing, and public relations industries, while we in turn are encouraged to serve ourselves up as personal brands (as befits cattle).  But through social media, we ourselves also consume other people's private lives, perusing their profiles, attending to their status updates, looking through their photographs, listening to their podcasts, watching their uploaded videos.  Online we participate in a great orgy of consumption, as personal and intimate details are freely exchanged. On television, we consume the privacy of a select few, but in the age of the internet, paralleling our online devotion to following the lives of ordinary people just like ourselves, we have the relatively new genre of reality TV, which serves us up real housewives and biggest losers, bachelors and bachelorettes, apprentices and survivors, amazing racers and American idols. We are cast in the role of Big Brother, but not in the Orwellian mode of surveillance in the service of social control, but rather in a trivialized form of peeping tom titillation, spying for its own sake, the pure pleasure of voyeurism as another instance of the consumption of privacy.  It's a short step from ogling others to googling them.

There is nothing new about our consumption of private lives.  What is new is the extent to which it is being carried out.  We are in the process of fulfilling Andy Warhol's prophecy that in the future everyone will be famous, but only for fifteen minutes, or was it only for fifteen people?  Without a doubt, fame and fandom are being leveled and democratized as never before, as the erosion of privacy that has long been the price of fame for celebrities has now been extended to everyone who has an online presence.  We have long grown accustomed to consuming the privacy of famous individuals in the form of celebrity gossip distributed through online services such as TMZ, through television programming such as Entertainment Tonight, and through print media such as the supermarket tabloids and People magazine (not to mention the fact that all too often this type of content is featured by legitimate news media).  Celebrity is a phenomenon that's older than television, but television's emphasis on the up-close and personal, the way that the small screen favors the close-up, lends itself to unveiling of intimate detail and expression.  As much as he was an icon of hardcore broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow pioneered the format of bringing television cameras into the homes of celebrities in Person to Person, a program he hosted from 1953 to 1959.  As television came to dominate the media environment of the late 20th century, the proliferating presence of cameras and microphones made private life all but impossible for celebrities. It is no accident that the term paparazzi traces its origins back to the same year that the Kennedy-Nixon debates signaled the beginning of image politics, 1960 (the term is derived from a character named Papparzo, a news photographer, from Federico Fellini's famous film, La Dolce Vita).  Is it any accident that the synonym for television set is monitor, as television's basic function is the monitoring or surveillance of the environment?

But to be fair, while television, and before it radio, allowed audiences to view the outside world while remaining themselves unobserved, providing a kind of two-way mirror (aka a one-way window) on events, they also have constituted an intrusion of the outside world into private homes, and thereby contributed to the erosion of the private sphere.  And long before the internet, the adoption of the telephone allowed strangers as well as friends and relatives to invade our privacy at any hour of the day or night, interrupting even the most intimate of activities (before the widespread use of answering machines, some referred to this phenomenon as telephonus interruptus).

Over the course of the 20th century, the increasing presence of cameras and microphones have subjected private life to increasingly greater public exposure, but more generally the wiring of the environment (the environment in effect wearing a wire) and the unimpeded flow of wireless transmissions permeating the very air that we breathe has placed privacy under increasing assault. In the aftermath of Watergate, Marshall McLuhan noted that on account of the electronic media, "the entire planet has become a whispering gallery, with a large portion of mankind engaged in making its living by keeping the rest of mankind under surveillance."  McLuhan held Arendt in high esteem, and he incorporated Arendt's observation that the ancient Greeks viewed the private individual as an idiot, noting that modern ideas about privacy are an aberration, rather than a natural and universal human understanding about how we should live our lives.

It often comes as a revelation to individuals not familiar with the Constitution of the United States to learn that there is no specific articulation of a right to privacy in the Bill of Rights or elsewhere, and that privacy rights are the product of judicial interpretation of, for example, the Fourth Amendment protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures."

This absence is not an oversight on the part of the founders of the American republic, but rather a reflection of the fact that the modern concept of privacy was a novelty in the late 18th century.  And as surprising as this may be, the ancient Greek understanding of private life typically comes as a shock.  As Arendt goes on to explain:

In ancient feeling the privative trait of privacy, indicated in the word itself, was all-important; it meant literally a state of being deprived of something, and even of the highest and most human of man's capacities. A man who lived only a private life, who like the slave was not permitted to enter the public realm, or like the barbarian had chosen not to establish such a realm, was not fully human. We no longer think primarily of deprivation when we use the word "privacy," and this is partly due to the enormous enrichment of the private sphere through modern individualism.

The root meaning of privacy is the same as privative and deprived, as lacking a role in or access to the public arena.  For Arendt, privacy provides the space for the individual's thoughtful contemplation, but must serve as a backstage region, to use Erving Goffman's dramaturgical metaphor, for the staging of public action, political activity involving collective deliberation and cooperation.

Underlying this is the essential point that the public and the private are interdependent, which is why "the barbarian," or member of a tribal society, has neither.  Conceptions of both the public and the private are tied to the nascent notion of the individual, of identity separate from the group, which only began to form following the introduction of writing and the advent of literacy. Writing, as Eric Havelock put it, "separates the knower from the known," allowing for objective distance from one's tradition and tribe, and from one's own thoughts.  This inward turn opens the door to the idea of the private individual, while the act of reading and writing itself require a degree of isolation.  Readers read alone and apart from one another, even if they read the exact same text at the exact same time.  Listeners constitute a group, a collectivity, as an audience (which is a singular noun, whereas readers are plural).  A public then is dependent on the existence of the private individual, as the public is composed of individuals who govern themselves because they can think for themselves, speak their own minds, and deliberate as equals. Equality too is linked to writing, as it is with the introduction of codified law made possible by writing that we gain the idea that we are all equal in relation to the same set of rules and commandments.  Public and private then have their roots in antiquity, but do not become fully formed until the modern era, following the introduction of the printing press, which also opened the door for the modern ideology of individualism.

As public and private have a common origin, so too are they commonly at risk due to the same forces.  Politically, totalitarianism seeks to remove all of the barriers that make private life possible, at the same time that the public sphere is dismantled to create a single homogenous field of power through surveillance.  Economically, in ancient Greece, the center of public life was the agora, which also served as the marketplace, but only a few years before Arendt published The Human Condition, the modern marketplace began to be referred to as the private sector, as corporations usurped the human invention of private identity, and have systemically undermined the last vestiges of the public sphere as they seek to create a single homogenous field of consumption through the manufacture of desire.  We might well wonder why corporate executives for the most part have been allowed to escape the heavy media scrutiny that political leaders and other celebrities are subjected to?  Why are they allowed to hold on to the privilege of privacy where other prominent (and not so prominent) members of society are not?  Wouldn't we all be better off if they were held to the same standards of transparency now required of politicians and government officials?

Underlying the general blurring and dissolution of the private and the public that we have been experiencing is the electronic media environment, which has undermined, superseded, and shortcircuited the media environment associated with literacy and print.  In place of individualism, which was based on the compartmentalization of private life kept separate from the public sphere, we have personalization, which involves providing open access to personal data, history, and activity, and the persona itself.  In the absence of boundaries, honesty becomes of the highest value, but it's typically the honesty of self-disclosure, narcissistic self-revelation in the interests of self-promotion, as when celebrities go on talk shows to confess to personal problems as part of what is, or seems to be, an image revitalization strategy.  Openness in communication is treasured, even though indiscriminate openness can be damaging rather than healing depending on the context and manner in which it is approached.  Transparency is put forth as a basic principle for internet activity, and while awareness that we are being observed generally results in more ethical behavior than would otherwise occur, there are times when some amount of secrecy in politics is needed for successful negotiation.

Arendt teaches us that the modern concept of private and public is not immutable, and having changed before can and is changing again.  And having been born the year before Arendt published The Human Condition, I am not entirely comfortable with the increasing loss of the distinction between the public and private, nor can I completely relate to the post-individualism of younger generations.  But given our current trajectory, our options may be limited to living with surveillance carried out by powerful entities such as governments and corporations, or meeting surveillance with sousveillance, to use the term popularized by University of Toronto political scientist Ronald Deibert, with citizens pointing their cameras back at the cameras pointing at them.  Or more generally, our best option may be to work for a transparent society, to use author David Brin's notion, where our personal sacrifice of privacy is compensated for by transparency on the part of the rich and powerful. If we must be deprived of the boundary between private life and public activity, and instead live and work in glass houses, let's make sure no one gets to gets to mirror theirs, just because they have a great deal of silver.