Thursday, August 14, 2008

Living large

Mack cleared his throat. “Friends, on behalf of I and the boys it gives me pleasure to present Doc with this here.”
Doc looked at the gift—a telescope strong enough to bring the moon to his lap. His mouth fell open. Then he smothered the laughter that rose in him.
“Like it?” said Mack.
“It's beautiful.”
“Biggest one in the whole goddam catalogue,” said Mack.
Doc's voice was choked. “Thanks,” he said. He paused. “After all, I guess it doesn't matter whether you look down or up—as long as you look.”

John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday, Penguin Classics, 2008, paperback edition, p. 224

We need more telescopes in biology.

We keep magnifying and magnifying, driving deeper towards molecules, creating new worlds, and that is all fine and good.

But we could use a telescope, or at least a pair of binoculars. I could spend a period or two out in front of the school, just letting the kids stare at squirrels and pigeons.

Until a child has a rudimentary idea what a squirrel is, won't matter to him how close his DNA sequence is to that critter.


A year ago late May, I was busy rattling on about something when my eye caught a few bees buzzing near hour 4th story window. I stopped, and walked over to the window.

The class, a small but gregarious one (13 girls, 1 boy, all sophomores, enough said) suddenly hushed. They knew something was up, but not quite what.

Outside the window, just across the street, honeybees were swarming.

We just watched. And watched.

The bell eventually interrupted our reverie.

We lost half a period, gained a lifetime memory.


We need to keep sight of the bigger picture.

"After all, I guess it doesn't matter whether you look down or up—as long as you look"


lucychili said...

I have written some thoughts which fit a bit with some of your
blog and comments. Well they do for me.
They are in this dorky powerpoint.
Well they started there =).
Some are about how we view ie telescope/microscope kind of inversion.
And how we need to use fences to understand things rather than
seeing them in context, which is what you do here.

doyle said...

Your presentation led me to run off a long strand here, which I promptly lost when trying to post.

I suspect "dorky" means something different in Oz--I found the presentation both eye-catching and mind-boggling.

I'm not sure I saw the presentation you were citing, but the one I saw opened my eyes--I had not realized what now seems obvious, the emphasis on monoculture as a choice.

I want to rush out and show your presentation to my classes, but given the curriculum, it might be a stretch, though I may borrow the last slide with attribution (if that's OK).

At the least, I hope that my students come to see science as stories told within explicit boundaries, useful because of these boundaries, but also shaped by those boundaries.

Back in 1976 I had a history teacher, Ms. Roberts, who changed the way I looked at history. She required us to write a term paper using nothing but primary sources, a royal pain in the gluteus back in those days, requiring several trips to various libraries.

While I do not remember what I wrote, I do remember that after perusing all kinds of documents, I realized that the history ("story") could be told several ways, and that my view, drawn from primary sources as opposed to the distilled voice of some expert (as far as textbook authors are experts), mattered.

Ms. Roberts could have led us down the cynical path that experts are not to be trusted, but that's not what she did. She taught us how to sift through the available documents, to know a little bit what it means for something to be "true."

The scary part was learning that what were considered to be truths in history were often based onvery little evidence--and I learned to stop presuming truth without looking at evidence.

Anyway, I am rambling (again).

Thanks for your words--looking forward to reading more of them.

lucychili said...

I showed it to someone once who said that I should not link to it because it was not very professional. Eye of the beholder perhaps.

You're welcome to use it.
But as per your response I think the interesting stuff is in the references.
Wade Davis, Hoebeke.

I am also reading Carse's finite and infinite games. This video has some of the thoughts. The example of the basketball game is useful.

Some thoughts I've had earlier:
From annotated Zittrain conclusion:
"Locking down the internet is just pulling the blinds on a runaway train.
The risks of the generative internet are that in a connected open
space we can see the global damage we are doing as more than a
statistic. It becomes a part of our context and dialogue.

If our economic systems make it more viable to spam than to make
constructive work in a local region it is not the websites which need

The real challenge of the generative internet is as an opportunity to
remove the blindfold on what we are making with current global
economic and social practices and to look for models which make it
possible to be diverse, distributed, collaborative and constructive.

If our real physical structures and patterns are just and
constructive. If it is apparent in them that constructive contribution
is useful we are less likely to need this conversation because
constructive work is what is valued and valuable by our wider context.

Locking down the internet is just pulling the blinds on a runaway train.

Being able to see each other is confronting.
How is it that online warfare of bits and pixels causes strong
reactions and changes in law whereas f2f warfare kills people,
communities and ecologies but does not produce changes in the systems
which make them.

The generative internet shows us what we value. Increasingly it also
shows us what is not valued. It also shows us in our social fabric
that we have a lot of people who identify with being without value.

Finding ways to make society and ecology which weave back in ways to
value diversity
are the real changes we need to make in order not to have to fence things in.

Free software and access to knowledge approaches to education are
technology and information based expressions of this kind of ecology
based approach to participation.

We need better skills in contributing effectively and constructively
rather than mechanisms to divide people.

Doc Searls suggested that we get what we frame. I dont think a
discussion on which power stations reframes the problem.

The problem is that we cannot see the impact of our actions on our
context. Any answer to power or any other question related to the kind
of impacts of our current scale and mode of operation need to respond
to custodianship as the first priority.
If we can all see what custodianship looks like in a local sense then
I think this would mean something to us individually.

We have developed abstractions which are responsive to the money which
sponsors them, but which is therefore optimised for a central
understanding of profit and loss and which is not optimised for a
local understanding of fidelity and consequence.

We could use approaches like the bloom clock or dnetc or etc to make
apparent all the real data about our local context. Kids in schools
collecting real data about their local context for real purpose. We
could be custodians of that flow; of the shift in diversity, water
quality, use and development of power capacity.

The primary problem with this suggestion is that at the moment we do
not have the skills to navigate that kind of mesh of data in a
custodian flavoured way. We are more likely to use it as a method to
be more mobile and exploitative.

We have to make a choice between the finite and the infinite game.

The people who are likely to make those choices are possibly going to
be different people from those who currently win in the finite game.
Not many people stop a game which they are winning at even if they can
see that the long term outcome is destructive.

We are out of practice at playing the infinite game. We have tools and
language optimised for functioning at scale with simple data, rather
than locally with fidelity and local responsiveness. We find it
difficult to value biodiversity for its own sake, or cultural
diversity or variant perspectives. We are mistrustful of contexts
where there is not a clear winner. Being able to develop this kind of
thinking and skill and capacity to keep 'life in play' is imho the
reframing which we need to make different outcomes.

doyle said...


I have been approaching this at a different angle, but coming to the same idea. Your response makes it intelligible in today's less-than-connected-to-the-earth world.

Wendell Berry talks of usufruct, an old word, one now perhaps wrapped in too much legalese. I love the word "custodianship."

"The problem is that we cannot see the impact of our actions on our
context." I think we can--other human cultures have--the bigger problem is that we choose not to.

Framing this as playing the finite vs. the infinite game works. Those playing the finite game (temporarily) won once they started fencing off the commons.

And you're right; I suspect that those who even pause to make the distinction between the finite and the infinite game will be different than those who continue to play the finite game. Once you recognize the choice, you can no longer stay in the finite game and remain comfortable in your human skin.

Some will shed their skin. I have faith, however, that most who see the choices will choose to remain human, and when enough people choose to do that, the infinite game becomes possible again.

lucychili said...