Sunday, January 31, 2010

You Are Not a Gadget (But You Might Be a Tool)

The Web giveth and the Web taketh away.

I’d be the first to tell you that I love what the Web hath wrought--the ability to research, reach out, connect, create and learn in ways unthinkable just a few years ago.  But I’ve also been worried for a long time about whether the Web hath rot, ah, wrought—at least in the form of bright, seductive, ever-changing screens calling to me ceaselessly from my laptop and phone.  (See I’m Going Crazy, But So Are You, and Does Technology Shape Our Ethics? for just a few examples.)  The price of all this easy knowledge and endless pestering may, in fact, be stupidity and atrocious behavior.  

In the thoughtful if sometimes inscrutable You Are Not a Gadget, technologist and musician Jaron Lanier proposes that the losses from the Web may be more than we realize.  When our background, experience and personhood are all reduced to bits and bytes; when our creative product can be ripped out of context and used (free of charge) in a mash-up; when we engage in anonymous acts of digital violence; when we fall for the line that the Web itself is becoming some kind of superhuman creature. . .

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Music and Resilience: Two Tales

We had the opportunity to see Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, live last week at a local event.  He is every bit as dynamic, funny and inspiring in person as his TED lecture indicates.  He is also unpredictable, so I’d suggest (should you ever see him live) that you not sit in the back row, nor admit that it is your birthday.

As he was discussing the Art of the Possibility, he told this story: Benjamin’s father fled Hitler’s Germany and came to the U.K. with four children and wife in tow, having lost his home, possessions, occupation and language.  At some point, with Hitler in Paris and the war going badly for the Allies, the Zanders and other German Jews were placed in an internment camp on the Isle of Mann—essentially a barbed wire enclosure filled with tents.  Benjamin said the conditions were so depressing for some of the men that they simply stared at the barbed wire all day.

So, what did his father do?  He looked around, said “There are a lot of smart people here,” and formed a university.  There were, of course, no blackboards or books, but there were 40 classes a day.  And it gave people purpose and their lives meaning in a truly dark time.

That’s what Zander means by the “art of the possibility”; it’s not “positive thinking,” it’s finding the opportunity and the goodness in every situation. 

If you need additional inspiration, you might try Terry Teachout’s new biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops.  (Here’s a review in the Washington Post.)

Armstrong, born in “the Battlefield” neighborhood of New Orleans in 1901 to a 15-year old, part-time prostitute, and abandoned at birth by his father, went on to become one of the true American geniuses of the twentieth century.  Teachout had access to over 600 hours of new recordings made by Armstrong, who was as prolific on tape and typewriter as he was on trumpet, and would have had (I’m guessing) one of the single greatest Twitter followings in the world were he alive today.

You’re probably familiar with the Steve Jobs graduation speech where Jobs connects the events of his past and concludes that if he hadn’t dropped out of school, been fired by Apple and been struck by cancer, he probably wouldn’t be the success he is today.  Well, if an 11-year old Armstrong hadn’t stolen a pistol from one of his many “step-fathers” and shot it into the air in celebration on New Year’s Eve 1912, he would never have been picked up by the police and sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys.  And, there would be no Louis Armstrong, at least the one we know.

The story just gets better from there.  And, Armstrong and Zander both come with their own brilliant soundtracks.  Just an added bonus to tales of hope and resilience.