Thursday, December 9, 2010

Art Then Technology (Part 4): Sympathetic Summary

Fat Bastard: end of second day of installation.
(Return to Part 3)

It occurred to me as I was talking to a friend about this series of posts that I had failed to explain how I knew about Kevin Kelly and why I knew to pick up What Technology Wants. I first became aware of Kelly when he wrote a very positive piece about my essay, Star Wars: A New Heap, a couple years ago (that didn't suck at all). Since then I have become addicted to the Longnow seminar series he curates (sorry Joanne) with Stewart Brand. So I had a good sense of who Kelly's intellectual footprint before I picked up his latest book. Kelly is unabashedly pro science and technology. It is a position I find attractive but also makes me squirm. I am at once a believer in the positive long term role of science and technology (I agree with Kelly they give us choices), but deeply ambivalent when it comes to the damage being done by the consumer capitalist economy. I believe terms for contemporary conditions that begin with the "post" or "late" are premature at best, deceptive at worst.

Living in New York City I find myself geographically and chronographically (I know, that is not  what it means, but it should) at event horizon of a historically unprecedented level of material abundance. New York has been ground zero as the city of the future for at least a century. And although I appreciate and enjoy the abundance that science and technology makes possible (I love a new book or pair of shoes more than most), consumer culture, the septic brand of market capitalism and dept "innovations" that America aggressively exports are retarding the development of the cultural technologies desperately needed to damper the gluttony that inevitably accompanies abundance and to equitably distribute the excess. Manhattan is the city of tomorrow. The abundance promised to our parents and grand parents has been delivered on and it has made the denizen of tomorrow drunk, fat, and belligerent.
Adam Parker Smith, Super Fight (2010) - Thanks to Wally Krantz for finding that for me.

As I prepared this post I ran into a passage in Angels and Ages, Adam Gopnik's book about Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. It doesn't relate to the subject of this post (premises), but it explains why Kelly is a public intellectual that those most suspicious of technology and the market system it super charges should pay attention to. In his book Kelly lists 11 of the "more seminal inventions" that make up what we think of as the "scientific method." He start with "cataloged library" with index in 280 B.C.E. and ends with "meta analysis" in 1974. It doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive survey, but still, Kelly misses one invention that Gopnik happens to explains quite well:

Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great books, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity—and, at times, his guile. The habit of ‘sympathetic summery,’ what philosophers now call the ‘principle of charity,’ is essential to all the sciences. It is the principle, as Daniel Dennett says, that a counter argument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin.

For Kelly sympathetic summery is standard practice. It is an element of his Longnow seminars (it is used as a debate format), and it is the strongest element of his new book. Of all the technologies Kelly advocates for, it is the one that I find most convincing. (Continue to Part 5...)
An element of the Longnow's 10,000 year clock.

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