Archive for the 'culture wars' Category

living with offence

Kindly Inquisitors: The new attacks on free thought (1993) by Jonathan Rauch

Frances Widdowson published a review (The Kindly Inquisitors), some time ago, of this book on her blog. I haven’t read the book but I like her review. These brief notes are based on her review.

In our civilised democratic society (not Iran, China, North Korea etc. where different forms of Fundamentalism are the main problem), the modern day equivalent of the Inquisition are the philosophies of Egalitarianism and Humanitarianism

ie. the principle of the Inquisition was that people with wrong or hurtful opinions ought to be punished for the good of society

Egalitarianism – the beliefs of all sincere people deserve equal respect
Humanitarianism – one must never offend

Taken separately and in particular when combined these outlooks undermine the pursuit of scientific truth by introducing a variety of mental and ideological barriers to free and open discussion. This is explained more in the review.

It is essential to learn the hard discipline of living with offence that will inevitably follow from this approach rather than fudging the quest for truth out of fear of offending others or being offended ourselves. Words might offend but as long it remains just words then we need to accept it and either argue back or move on, not try to censor it and to reject philosophies which attempt to censure open, vigorous discussion

steve jobs: capitalist entrepreneur

Steve Jobs’s range of achievements is impressive: the Apple computer, the NeXT computer, Pixar and then his return to Apple to lead development of the iPod, iPhone and iPad. eg. Tim Berners Lee spoke very highly of NeXT and used it to develop much of his world wide web technology.

Many people love his products (hi pat!) because they enabled them to make use out of computer technology that they could not achieve through the relatively clunky alternatives provided by Bill Gates and others.

I’ve been thinking about Jobs from the POV of how his talents would have played out, if at all, in another type of society, call it socialist or post-capitalist. It has been an interesting thought experiment for me. Jobs definitely did have a dark side as well as being quite talented in certain respects (and not talented in other respects). I’m interested in the question of creativity in the development of computing and in this case what type of creativity Jobs had and how that played out in our current social system.

Of course it’s trite to say that Jobs had a dark side. Everyone has a dark side. The political point is that the focused ruthlessness he directed against some others and institutions was magnified and rewarded by the capitalist system. From my reading (see references below for more detail) Jobs as a capitalist personified was worse than some of the others. Marx’s fundamental point about commodities is very relevant here. In pursuing commercial success in perfection in things Jobs treated many people badly.

It’s clear that much of what Jobs achieved was achieved by his partners. Wozniak did most of the work in developing the Apple computer. In Wozniak’s words (recent interview) it was he who worked in the famous Silicon valley garage while Jobs worked out of his bedroom, making phone calls, doing the marketing.

The same is true for the development of the WIMP interface (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers). The fundamental work here was done by teams led by Doug Engelbart and Alan Kay and made available for free for others to use. Jobs could see the potential and developed it commercially.

The truth of the matter is that the fundamental developments in both computing hardware and software were given away by the real pioneers of the computing revolution. Their motivation was that of scratching a personal itch, of immersing themselves in the exciting possibilities of a new technology and what could be achieved with it. The names of those pioneers are less well known than the names of those who converted their spirit of freedom into commercial success.

Jobs said about the Mac development:

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on something, but working on Macintosh was the neatest experience of my life. Almost everyone who worked on it will say that. None of us wanted to release it at the end. It was as though we knew that once it was out of our hands, it wouldn’t be ours anymore. When we finally presented it at the shareholders’ meeting, everyone in the auditorium gave it a five-minute ovation. What was incredible to me was that I could see the Mac team in the first few rows. It was as though none of us could believe we’d actually finished it. Everyone started crying.” [Playboy, Feb. 1, 1985, source, my emphasis]

The words I have bolded sums up the dilemma of creative people who decide to become highly successful under capitalism. Once the interesting, creative process is completed then you have to do the hard work of promoting and selling your product in a highly competitive market. Clearly Jobs was very good at the latter.

Anyway, here are some interesting quotes and references I have discovered in my search for the real Steve Jobs:
Richard Stallman:

“Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died”
source

Eric Raymond: On Steve Jobs’s passing

Commerce is powerful, but culture is even more persistent. The lure of high profits from secrecy rent can slow down the long-term trend towards open source and user-controlled computing, but not really stop it. Jobs’s success at hypnotizing millions of people into a perverse love for the walled garden is more dangerous to freedom in the long term than Bill Gates’s efficient but brutal and unattractive corporatism. People feared and respected Microsoft, but they love and worship Apple – and that is precisely the problem, precisely the reason Jobs may in the end have done more harm than good.

The Eric Raymond article links to a very interesting NYT article titled Against Nostalgia by Mike Daisey but unfortunately it is now hidden behind their firewall.

There were some correct criticisms of Eric Raymond’s dismissive attitude to China’s sweatshops at reddit.

What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs

What can we do about Xmas?

Xmas reminds us of what life used to be like prior to the modern era. In the old days it was “Xmas” everyday in one way or another, when people’s lives were ruled by rituals and festivals, and our relatives had to be endured on a constant basis not just once a year. Social pressure was even greater then than now. There was no space for the individual. What you did and how you thought was totally prescribed.

By Xmas I mean the in-your-face stuff that fills the public space, physical and electronic. What Christians (or quasi Christians) do in the privacy of their own dining room or in church of course is their business. We will call that Christmas.

Oliver Cromwell and the Pilgrim Fathers banned Xmas. We can’t do that, but it would be helpful if some Christians were to denounce the whole thing as a pagan travesty, which it is, of course. George Washington had the right spirit when he crossed the Delaware River and launched a surprise attack on Hessian mercenaries while they were singing Stille Nacht (or doing something equally Xmasy) on December 25 1776.

An interesting way to spend Xmas. Washington crossing the Delaware

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Winning the war against Internet censorship

Below is an article by David Jackmanson (youngmarxist) which was published at OnLine Opinion last week.  If you go to the original article you can read the discussion which followed.

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History that looks forward

The Australian National Curriculum Board was set up by the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, in January this year. A ‘Proposal for Discussion’ on ‘The shape of the National Curriculum’ has been developed by the board for public discussion. There are separate discussion proposals (called ‘Initial Advice’) relating to English, Science, and History. The Advice can be checked out at the NCB’s site: http://www.ncb.org.au/verve/_resources/History_Initial_Advice_Paper.pdf I have only considered the Advice relating to History, as that is my field.

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“Academic Freedom” is a cop out by the fearful liberal-left

Academic Paul Norton has written an article at left social-democrat blog Larvatus Prodeo. It’s about the Senate’s Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee’s Inquiry into Academic Freedom, and specifically about a submission by the “Make Education Fair” campaign (pdf, over 4 1/2 Mb), which appears to be run by right-wing Young Liberals and the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation. Norton’s article is in response to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald of Friday October 10th, 2008, headlined “Academics Rally Against Young Liberal Witchhunt”.

Most of what Norton says about the Make Education Fair submission seems fairly true. While some of the examples may be true (there’s rarely enough proof to clearly say that bias is as bad as they say), it’s a reactionary document, which seems to push the idea that any sort of university course that questions the status quo is illegitimate in itself. It’s also poorly argued and appears to take quotes out of context to push its point.

But pointing that out is like shooting academics in a barrel where free wine and cheese are on offer. Norton’s argument against the Make Education Fair campaign is that it is a threat to academic freedom. This appears typical, as it is repeated in this article by Katharine Gelber, an academic at the University of New South Wales, and this page at academicfreedom.com.au, set up by the NTEU (the academics’ union).

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Public criticism of academics is not an attack on academic freedom, nor is it McCarthyism

There is an online argument brewing about an attack on Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) Associate Professor Dr Anthony Burke, among others. The attack on Dr Burke was published in a Quadrant Magazine article, written by Mervyn F. Bendle. Bendle argues that Burke represents the “political Left” who have taken over academic terrorism studies, “with all the anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Israel, pro-terrorist, and postmodernist ideological gobbledygook that entails”, and appears to suggest that Dr Burke should not be employed by ADFA.

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