Emergence >> Pictures in Motion: The Evolution of a Digital Medium

[1] Bending Spacetime

The conversion of video into a digital medium has given us the ability to manipulate time in videos like never before.  This is made possible by the nature of a non-linear digital framework in data space.  Bill Viola explains that when a non-linear array of information, or “matrix” structure, is used, “the viewer could enter at any point, move in any direction, at any speed, pop in and out at any place.”  He predicted that this implies the following:

“Nothing needs to be physically “cut” or re-recorded at all. Playback speed, the cardinal 30 frames per second, will become intelligently variable and thus malleable, becoming, as in electronic music practice, merely one fundamental frequency among many which can be modulated, shifted up or down, superimposed, or interrupted.”

Indeed, digital video editing software has emerged that allows the user to perform these feats through non-destructive random access editing.  Features in editing software such as the timeline and trimming window, which allow the user to cut and place clips at different “locations” in time, represent time with space and duration with length.  The latest in video editing software even allows the spacial manipulation of play speed, called time-remapping, which is represented by a graph in 2-D space.  The smooth acceleration of play speed possible with these programs I think would impress even Viola.

The mixing of time and space in digital video editing would surely evoke a response from the Aristotle of comics, Scott McCloud.  He might ask the same rhetorical question he posed in Time Frames: “Ever noticed how the words “short” or “long” can refer either to the first dimension or to the fourth?”  The blurring of space and time is just as perceptible, if not more so, in the digital video medium as in comics.  In fact, digital video editing uses pretty similar techniques from comics to manipulate time and space. For example, digital videos can be overlayed, or combined into a mosaic to show multiple events unfolding at once.  Similarly, McCloud describes how comics use combinations of multiple events in space to fold and consolidate time into a single frame.  Also, where comics use enlarged or borderless frames to produce a lingering sense of timelessness, video artists use zoomed out landscape shots or overlayed shots for the same effect.

The time-remapping possible in digital film, however, is something not achievable in comics because the reader perceives everything to happen in real time.  The amazing effects of this time-altering capability are seemingly endless.  Time can be sped up to show motions too slow for the human eye.  Such timelapses can be used to document natural phenomena, human activity, or things out of this world.  They can consolidate a day, or even years, in just a few seconds.  On the other side of the spectrum, time can be slowed to display forms too transitory to glimpse with the naked eye.  These examples show how the viewer’s perception of a video can change by manipulating time – something that is static can become dynamic, and something that is uninteresting becomes interesting.

The time-altering capabilities of digital video generally enrich the medium, and allow the video editor to convey new meaning while using the same raw content.  As McLuhan would say, “the medium is the message” – media themselves overwhelm the importance of their content.  The multitude of tools granted to modern digital editors make them sculptors of their own granite blocks of video – visualizing within them a media masterpiece.  Viola says that as we “shift away from the temporal, piece-by-piece approach of constructing a program” and towards “a spatial, total-field approach of carving out potentially multiple programs,” we are “proceeding from models of the eye and ear to the models of thought processes and conceptual structures in the brain.”

[2] The Digital Eye

The digital video medium is developing an ever-closer symbiotic relationship with the computer user, allowing the user to project his “process of thinking” into the computer “in real time,” just as Licklider envisioned.  And coming into reality are Alan Kay’s dreams of a “new ‘metamedium‘” which “is active – it can respond to queries and experiment – so that the messages may involve the learner in a two-way conversation.” (A feature of video editing which exemplifies this is the video playback window.)  The result is, as Viola puts it, that “video is finally getting ‘intelligence,’ the eye is being reattached to the brain.”

The aesthetic qualities of digital cinematography with “intelligent” editing can be breathtaking, as I found in the recent film All.I.Can.  This film demonstrates the power of digital video, definitely heavy on the editing, to convey a message (in this case it’s an environmentalist message).

Multiply all this man-computer capability by millions and millions of people connected on the web, all purchasing more and more, cheaper and cheaper, smaller and smaller digital cameras and you have something great.  The video data space of the web allows the mashing-up of videos into new grotesque forms composed by creative minds.  It allows people to share your views, talents and stories, or start a buzz about a new invention.

Soon it seems, almost everyone will have a digital camera nearby.  With everyone having a camera in hand, even in the same place, no one person will film the same thing.  When digital video medium becomes the summation of all perspectives, it becomes a memory system for the collective consciousness of the world.

Here’s a little of what I’ve collected for my personal memory bank, and shared with others on my vimeo page, if you’re interested to see.  They’re all done with basic, free software in very little time, so no masterpieces there, but I think their value to me and others will only increase as they gain a timeless quality.

I’ll end with this last, lingering quote from Bill Viola:

“We are moving into an idea space here, into the world of thoughts and images as they exist in the brain, not on some city planner’s drawing board.  With the integration of images and video into the domain of computer logic, we are beginning the task of mapping conceptual structures of our brain onto the technology.”



Convergence >> Pictures in Motion: The Evolution of a Digital Medium

[1] Making Space:

The first digital format, D1, was released by Sony in 1988.  This signified a revolutionary transformation in the way video was stored.  The digital representation of video became to modern man what Dreamtime songs were to the Aborigines – an “idea space” in a different format from his visual or mental world.  To unlock the potential of the he binary “songs” of the digital format just needed a “translator” to read and communicate visual images back to a user.  This is when the parallel ascendance of the computer came into play.

The convergence of the computer and digital video was not instantaneous.  The incompatibility of the computer to adapt digital video was obvious in the ’80s due to a gap between the large bandwidth of video and low processing capabilities of computers.  More importantly, there was an absence of efficient hardware and software to integrate video with computers.  As always, the desire for better technology drove progression.

[2] Bridging The Gap

In Lev Manovich’s passage, he analyzes the process of conversion from conventional media, like motion pictures, to a digital format.  Data representation in new media, as Manovich explains, is the integration of “old” data, “representations of visual reality and human experience, i.e., images text-based and audio-visual narratives – what we normally understand by ‘culture’,” and “new” numerical data.  The results of numerical representation of film are strange hybrids of past conventions and modern computing power. Manovich gives the following example:

“As computer culture is gradually spatializing all representations and experiences, they become subjected to the camera’s particular grammar of data access. Zoom, tilt, pan and track: we now use these operations to interact with data spaces, models, objects and bodies.”

The evolution of digital video is a strange loop – a deja vous experience that mirrors the original progression of motion pictures.  I’ll let Manovich explain this one:

“My second example of similar aesthetic strategies re-appearing more than deals with the development of moving image technology throughout the nineteenth century, and the development of digital technologies to display moving images on a computer desktop during the 1990s. In the first part of the 1990s, as computers’ speed kept gradually increasing, the CD-ROM designers have been able to go from a slide show format to the superimposition of small moving elements over static backgrounds and finally to full-frame moving images. This evolution repeats the nineteenth century progression: from sequences of still images (magic lantern slides presentations) to moving characters over static backgrounds (for instance, in Reynaud’s Praxinoscope Theater) to full motion (the Lumieres’ cinematograph). Moreover, the introduction of QuickTime by Apple in 1991 can be compared to the introduction of the Kinetoscope in 1892: both were used to present short loops, both featured the images approximately two by three inches in size, both called for private viewing rather than collective exhibition. Culturally, the two technologies also functioned similarly: as the latest technological “marvel.” If in the early 1890s the public patronized Kinetoscope parlors where peep-hole machines presented them with the latest invention — tiny moving photographs arranged in short loops; exactly a hundred years later, computer users were equally fascinated with tiny QuickTime Movies that turned a computer in a film projector, however imperfect. Finally, the Lumieres’ first film screenings of 1895 which shocked their audiences with huge moving images found their parallel in 1995 CD-ROM titles where the moving image finally fills the entire computer screen (for instance, in Jonny Mnemonic computer game, based on the film by the same title.) Thus, exactly a hundred years after cinema was officially “born,” it was reinvented on a computer screen.”

As film was being reinvented in the digital format, modern distinctions of digital video began to emerge.  The inevitable result was the speeding up of the manual techniques of conventional film, as well as the decrease in cost.  Editing, for instance, used to cost so much that many television production facilities could only afford a single unit and editing was a highly involved process requiring special training.  This was during the second half of the 20th century when analog film was the norm.  In contrast, nearly any home computer sold since the year 2000 has the speed and storage capacity to digitize and edit standard-definition television (SDTV).

Editing also adopted the distinctly digital quality of non-linearity.  The first truly non-linear editor, the CMX 600, was introduced in 1971 by CMX Systems. Because videos existed as objects in data space, they could be cut and manipulated in any number of ways without actually damaging the film itself.  In data space, theoretically infinite copies can be made, which also ensures the preservation of the original film.  This characteristic of permanence in digital video is a remarkable achievement in man’s attempts to preserve reality.  (The failure of analog film to do this is why VAFP exists.)  Bill Viola, in 1982, was again right on the money with his prediction about the future of digital video editing:

“The notion of a “master” edit and original footage will disappear.  Editing will become the writing software program that will tell the computer how to arrange (i.e., shot order, cuts, dissolves, wipes, etc.) the information on the disc.”

Before I get ahead of myself, to better categorize the dynamics of the converged medium, I’ll defer back to Manovich.  He claims all mediums which have undergone a digital transition will eventually follow five principles of digital media:

  • Numerical representation: new media objects exist as data
  • Modularity: the different elements of new media exist independently
  • Automation: new media objects can be created and modified automatically
  • Variability: new media objects exist in multiple versions
  • Transcoding: The logic of the computer influences how we understand and represent ourselves.

These principles act “not as absolute laws but rather as general tendencies of a culture undergoing computerization.”  As tendencies, they have gradually become apparent over time, some becoming more realized than others and at different rates.  I’ll go through each one in the context of digital film specifically:

  • Numerical representation implies that the once-tangible become abstractions in data space – actions like play and pause, splice and overlay used to be carried out manually, but now are executed by computer algorithms.
  • Modularity exists in the independent layers of components which make up digital film: color bits make up pixels, pixels make up images, images make up a video.  These film modules were adapted to the computer through the development of digital imaging, made possible with the invention of the CCD in 1969, arguably the most vital link between film and computer.
  • Automation became used in digital video to an extent – in the algorithms that create smooth transitions for editing and in automatic camera zoom.  But, as Manovich says, “the computer is kept out of the key “creative” decisions, and is delegated to the position of the technician.”  (more in Emergence)
  • Variability, I’ve already described in the ability to create many copies of digital videos.  Manovich wonders if “tomorrow the principle of variability may also structure a digital film which will similarly exist in multiple versions.” (more in Emergence)
  • Transcoding refers to the interpretation of the human “cultural layer” in computer ontology and the “computer layer” in human cultural terms.  In essence it is the mechanism for what Licklider and Kay envisioned for the computer – complete integration of human culture in the computer medium forming a symbiotic relationship between man and machine.  The scope in which computers have altered the culture of film is obvious when considering all that has emerged from this convergence, as discussed in Emergence.

From the numerical representation of the motion picture medium, new possibilities continue to emerge in the new millennium.  While Manovich’s principles accurately describe the conversion into a digital medium, what Manovich calls a “qualitatively new phenomena,” is the “real-time networking and control” of digital media, made possible by the advent of the internet.  The products of the internet and current computer-video symbiosis are explored in Emergence.


Ascendance<<Pictures in Motion: The Evolution of a Digital Medium

[1] Darkness:

The development of the motion picture medium stems from man’s desire to preserve the visual world.  In Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?, Bill Viola alludes to artificial memory systems which use association through mnemonic imagery – early attempts by scholars to augment human memory.  One of Viola’s examples is <a title=”St. Thomas<St. Thomas Aquina’s memory scheme from the 13th century which involved projecting images and ideas on places.  <a title=”St. Thomas<According to St. Thomas, the arts of memory and of placing verse on images is the very essence of remembering: “Man cannot understand without images; the image is a similitude of a corporeal thing, but understanding is of universals which are to be abstracted from particulars.”  Viola also talks about his own experience with an ancient memory system while visiting Japan in 1981.  He described his visit to a temple “perched in the surreal landscape of an extinct volcanic crater” which held a powerful significance to the people – one which allowed them to communicate “through time and space with ancestors long gone.”

(more on Viola’s idea spaces and memory systems in Emergence)

Some form of abstract “idea space,” as Viola calls it, seem to have emerged in every culture in history to preserve aspects of reality: Egyptian tablets, Arabic scrolls, Mayan calendars, Buddhist mandalas, Chinese manuscripts.  My favorite example is Aboriginal culture which created “The Dreaming,” in which people are represented by animal totems and their entire way of life was cyphered into songs.  The songs were strangely intertwined with the visual world, acting as maps and biological guidebooks.  Outsiders have been astonished to find physical evidence of places and things described in these songs, including a giant kangaroo species around 50,000 years ago.  The Aboriginal culture is definitely a unique case of an entirely oral idea space which represents the physical world that leaves Westerners like us scratching our heads.  However, “The Dreaming” is perhaps the best demonstration in history of an abstract idea space which preserves the visual world, and allows communication through time and space.

Although the authenticity in these ancient idea spaces and memory systems leaves us bewildered, the reality is that early preservation was riddled with mythinformation.  An example everyone is familiar with is the notion that the world was flat.  Obviously, maps weren’t of the best quality in those days.  Although most sailors actually didn’t believe they’d fall off the end of the earth, they had no idea what they would encounter because most of their knowledge came from other sailors spinning yarn about just how “big” it was.  Naturally, as fish stories go, the mythical sea monster came to be, and persisted in sailors’ minds and in print for centuries.

Evidently, the “artist’s conception” has never been a trusted source for true preservation.  People needed an unbiased observer to record the world for all to see.  We found this third-party view in camera technology, without any idea that the photograph would soon be set in motion within the most far-reaching idea space that man has ever conceived.

[2] Light:

The first photograph was captured in 1826 by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.  This feat itself was the culmination of many different advances in technology, beginning with the pinhole camera, yet it was just piece of the puzzle of setting pictures in motion.  The concept of the pinhole camera, or <a title=”Camera Obscura<camera obscura, is demonstrated beautifully by photographer Abelardo Morell in National Geographic’s <a title=”Camera Obscura<May 2011 issue.  His photos embody the purpose of the video/photograph medium – to project the outside world into one’s personal environment.

     The first motion picture projector was the Zoopraxiscope (1867), which could create the illusion of motion from a single viewpoint by using photos from multiple cameras.  But it was Edison’s invention of the first true motion picture camera, the Kinetoscope (1891), that really got the reel spinning.  Finally, by the end of the 19th century, the storage and transmission tools which defined the motion picture medium came into existence.

     Around the turn of the century, the motion picture medium took root in commercial society and grew into a form that is still recognizable today.  The film industry pioneered concepts in editing and presentation that still remain throughout the digital mediums of today.  Lev Manovich explains in New Media from Borges to HTML how these old cultural conventions persist to become the norm throughout new media.  What lacked in cinema throughout the early half of the 20th century was interactivity.  Alan Kay criticized this early stage of cinema in Personal Dynamic Media:

“For most of recorded history, the interactions of humans with their media have been primarily nonconversational and passive in the sense that marks on paper, paint on walls, even “motion” pictures and television, do not change in response to the viewer’s wishes.”

The film industry had a strangle-hold on the camera because the studio system of production was too vast and expensive for any independents to compete.  Controlled by only five big studios and projected through only one medium – movies, motion pictures held tight to certain genres featuring big movie star actors – the medium was stagnant.  The “Golden Age of Hollywood” had to come to an end in order for the medium to progress.  Change came in the form of a federal antitrust action and the advent of the television.  The latter I bring up because it’s a contrast to the federal antipiracy action of today.  The television marks the first significant medium that motion pictures merged into.  Although television brought the medium to the masses, Alan Kay’s dream of human interaction with the medium had yet to be fulfilled – technology needed to push further.

     Progression of camera technology continued to accelerate through the 20th century.  Cameras became less expensive, more compact and easier to use.  This trend inevitably led to the production of the first consumer camcorder in 1983.  Even though this brought the average person and the video camera closer than ever, the two spoke completely different languages.  The linear editing techniques for analog film required great amounts of money, time, skill and patience – too costly for the common person.

     To make the interaction of man and video possible required the convergence of motion pictures with another medium – one which J.C.R. Licklider envisioned in 1960 to be “coupled together very tightly” with humans in the future.  Such a “fast information-retrieval and data-processing machine” could potentially aid the cinematographer in storing and editing videos.  The machine of course is the computer.  Its convergence with motion pictures coincides with the creation of a prolific idea space – the digital medium.

     Bill Viola realized the significance of this point in history when he wrote:

“Something extraordinary is occurring today, in the 1980s, which ties together all these threads. The computer is merging with video. The potential offspring of this marriage is only beginning to be realized.”

Pictures in Motion: The Evolution of a Digital Medium


My project focuses on the evolution of a digital medium in motion pictures.  My interest in digital cinematography arose from witnessing friends and family using digital cameras, which inspired me to purchase my own – a GoPro HD HERO.  Although my interaction with the camera has been basic, as is the camera itself, I have come to a new understanding of modern digital film through my experiences.  It’s a snowballing effect that screams the “r” word.  As soon as I understood how certain shots are filmed, I began to analyze other videos with a more metaperspective, thinking about how cinematographers do what they do, and how I could attempt to do those things myself… and the cycle repeats.  I’ve learned that a good cinematographer must be a great epistemologist who understands how we perceive the visual world.  It’s opened up a whole new world for me, and its all way too meta not to share.

I arranged the content of my project into three categories, which I posted as subblogs.  The three categories are three stages of the evolution of digital film, ordered sequentially: Ascendance discusses early concepts and developments which gave rise to the motion picture medium; Convergence focuses on the marriage of the motion picture and the computer in a digital medium; and Emergence analyzes modern production in this digital medium.  All of these subblogs gather links from the web, and information from various contributors to The New Media Reader.

I used the metaphor of evolution, and three general stages to allude to the progressive, interconnected and cyclic nature of new media development.  I intentionally used broad terms for the stages to illustrate that they could actually be applied to any evolving medium which emerges at some point in time.  The evolution of different media aren’t mutually exclusive.  The forces of aggregation inevitably lead to convergence of multiple media, and the emergence of an entirely new media – and this repeats throughout history.  The result is a branching structure, the nodes of which can be identified by defining these three stages.


  1. Ascendance
  2. Convergence
  3. Emergence

RE: RE: A Pirate’s Life for Nobody / Riding a Dead Rocking Horse

Last night’s episode of the Colbert Report featured a lot of content about online piracy.  Colbert showed that the FBI has similar high numbers to those reported in Europe as Alex postedThey report that about $200 to $250 billion is lost to piracy in the U.S. every year, but they admit they have “no record of source data or methodology for generating the estimate that it cannot be corroborated.”  It appears as though all this buzz in Congress to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act is generated by lobbying money from the music industry and the Motion Picture Association of America as Cody said.  It’s obviously not generated by actual concern about the economic damage or copyright issues related to online piracy.  (I don’t think it’s any secret that money is running the show.)

Some somewhat good news is that there is now a draft proposal of an alternative bill that will put enforcement in the hands of the ITC, rather than the court judicial system.  So at least if there is going to be litigation, it will be decided by an informed, independent agency instead of a judge who favors the side who can buy a better lawyer.

Still, I think this is just another case of fat cats dipping their dirty paws into government – trying to ensure that the rich stay rich.  I for one think the downfall of the music industry is a necessary loss in order to progress as a whole.  Rock stars will just have to learn to limit their quotas of helicopters and Ferraris (single tear).  We need to adapt to the modern way of doing things instead of riding a dead horse.

Re:Re:Re: Are We Naturally Contributors?

The debate continues…

Mike, you make a good case, but I think you bring up a common misconception about evolution: that “survival of the fittest” = “every man for himself.”  In the wiki about kin selection, it talks about “Hamilton’s Rule” – explains why prairie dogs sound alarms to their family even though it singles them out to predators.  You say that mammals “will not hesitate to engage in infanticide,” but that’s hardly ever the case.  What about salmon that exhaust themselves to death by swimming upstream to lay their eggs, or octopuses that starve to death tending to their young, or birds that fake a broken wing to distract predators from their nest, the list goes on…  Hamilton makes sense of animal altruism by defining an equation between cost and benefit to the altruist’s genes.  The equation itself is pretty useless (I see it as just an attempt at making evolution a more absolute science, which it isn’t) but the idea that the benefit to the altruist is directly related to the benefit of the recipient and the “degree of relatedness” is pretty huge.  It means that altruism, like any evolutionary trait, is the result of a balance of influences:  the cost to the individual and the benefit to kin.  According to this balance, animals are selfish only when the cost of altruism is too great.  And sometimes, as in the cases above, even the cost of death isn’t enough for a family member to think of themselves first.  You say that concern for the survival of the self is an instinctual prerequisite, but I think the opposite could be true: we instinctively think of family members first, then back down if the cost is too great, and from seeing incidents like this, I think we’re wired to make that decision in a split second.

(Some more on infanticide: When parents do eat their young, it’s because the cost of altruism is too great.  Sometimes the offspring is too weak to survive so the parent is forced to eat them to benefit its own survival.  Resource competition turns even the most team player prairie dogs into baby killers.  Another reason for infanticide, seen in lions, is to gulp down parts of the gene pool that pose a threat to their survival.  These cases usually involve species that have a lot of babies, so they’re relatively “expendable.”  The exception is male-ruled species like lions, where the male successor must do some “ethnic cleansing.”  (Is it a coincidence that some power-hungry human males have done some ethnic cleansing of their own?)  But as species have less offspring the cost of losing one becomes greater, and they’re more likely to adapt ways of getting around eating their babies, like the kangaroo.  In the animal kingdom, when babies are on the menu, parents usually prefer another meal.)

To continue, I agree that altruism has evolved as a form of reciprocation, but not completely back to one’s self, because in evolution the individual is only one path of a gene pool’s outlet into the future.  I move from this scientific meaning to the “family feeling,” because I believe that our cognitive ability to empathize with each other can extend outside our gene pool (as opposed to using only pheromones and whatnot to recognize kin).  Scientifically, it might be those mirror neurons coming into play, which lead us to make investments in groups like sports teams which have no bearing on our own success.  Of course, evolutionary science doesn’t guide our every decision and there is such a thing as individual free will, but I think the predispositions of society as a whole are highly influenced by human evolution.

About one’s individual sense of purpose: I agree that people want to make their own legacy, but is it really a natural need to always be identified as an individual?  Or is it our society’s glorification of the individual (the celebrity hero) that captivates us towards this?  I really don’t know (that’s another debate), but I do know there’s a sweet spot for everyone where they feel individually recognized, but also included.  I think Tim Berners-Lee found this sweet spot while working on the web.  He says in his TEDTalk:

It was difficult to explain, but there was a grassroots movement. And that is what has made it most fun. That has been the most exciting thing, not the technology, not the things people have done with it, but actually the community, the spirit of all these people getting together, sending the emails.

So I think that just being identified within a group which is involved in a common goal that you believe in can be as rewarding as receiving a gold star or a pat on the back.  And I think the underlying psychology has to do with these mirror neurons and that “family feeling.”  The problem is finding that “sweet spot” in a world where huge corporations and big cities can seem overwhelmingly complex and out of our control.

So I’ll bring up a new question in response to Mike’s suggestion: What if what we “generally don’t cognitively recognize” is not that our reciprocated actions are inherently selfish, but that our reciprocated actions are inherently altruistic?  What if the selfishness that we’re driven towards isn’t natural, but artificial?

As humans, we are a social species with few numbers of offspring and, at least in our society, we have plenty of resources.  The above trends in evolutionary biology suggest that we should be one big happy family.  Alright, maybe not one big family, but within some scope of relatedness, we have the necessary ingredients for altruism.  Yet every day that rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  So what’s the problem?

I don’t know if I’ve made this clear yet: I don’t believe that biological altruism is the same as everyday altruism in people (we’re not slaves to our genes), but I do think that it has roots in our underlying psychology.  I think these rooted mechanisms for altruism can be twisted and pulled by the status quo.  What I mean is that maybe it is the evolution of our society that constrains our altruistic tendencies by artificially raising the cost of altruism and lowering the benefit.

(Btw, I’m not the only one who thinks this: the other day I was in the coffee place at the library and I couldn’t help but overhear a guy and girl next to me talking about this.  They were trying to study, but drifted off into conversation about how wrapped up everyone is in the rat race.  I remember the guy called it “systemic selfishness.”  They were talking about how no one talks to each other on the bus, etc. and I couldn’t help but interrupt and tell them how much I agreed.)

A good example is donations – hard to see the benefit, easy to see the cost.  When you donate to some large organization like the Red Cross, the dent in your wallet is obvious, but how the money gets used is anybody’s guess.  It’s difficult to trust such a large group to use the money efficiently and do the right thing.  Also, because the scope of care is so large, we might not necessarily want to support all of the causes under their umbrella.

Another thing is anonymity – I think it creates selfish tendencies because it eliminates recognition: a benefit for altruism and a cost for selfishness.  A good example is road rage: chances are you’ll never see that person that you cut off again, so why not do it?  Another example is shoplifting: much easier to get away with and less guilt for a shoplifter at a crowded WalMart than at the local mom-and-pop store.

So, to conclude (finally), I think that is that it’s an evolved system of overgrown societal groups that dilute the benefit of altruism and encourage selfishness.  I think that this artificial “systemic selfishness” can sway our genetic predisposition for altruism.  The more evolved and overgrown a society becomes, the more selfish the individuals seem to get.

Here’s a pretty cynical take by Louis C.K. on consumers and capitalism along the same lines.  I try not to be so pessimistic: I think there’s opportunity for change and it starts with people being aware of how society influences their decisions, and as Ghandi said, “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Bring on the Learning Revolution

I’m still hung up on this whole education thing (I wonder why it concerns me/us so much?) so I needed to post about a TED talk which pretty much sums up everything we were trying to say, except with a lot more British wit.  Instead of saying anything more about it, I’ll just let Ken Robinson bring on the learning revolution.

I compiled a list of quotes that popped out at me, so if anyone wants to comment, you can cite them:

  1. “There are two types of people in this world, those who divide the world into two types and those who do not.” – Jeremy Bentham
  2. “Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them. They’re not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.”
  3. “What we need — and the word’s been used many times during the course of the past few days — is not evolution, but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else.”
  4. “the tyranny of common sense”
  5. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.” – Abraham Lincoln
  6. “Life is not linear, it’s organic.”
  7. “Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability.”
  8. “We have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education. And it’s impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.”
  9. “And the reason so many people are opting out of education is because it doesn’t feed their spirit, it doesn’t feed their energy or their passion.”
  10. “So I think we have to change metaphors. We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development; all you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”
  11. “It’s about creating a movement in education in which people develop their own solutions, but with external support based on a personalized curriculum.”
  12. “Every day, everywhere, our children spread their dreams beneath our feet. And we should tread softly.”
  13. “Now, in this room, there are people who represent extraordinary resources in business, in multimedia, in the internet. These technologies, combined with the extraordinary talents of teachers, provide an opportunity to revolutionize education. And I urge you to get involved in it because it’s vital, not just to ourselves, but to the future of our children.”

Alright, I have to stop wasting time and get back to my lab report made out of ticky tacky.

Evolution and Why Communism Could Never Exist (For Long)

This was originally a reply to Josh’s comment, but I started going a little overboard, so I decided to make it a post 🙂  (sorry it’s so long)

Awesome comment, Josh.  I’ve thought about this a lot, and yes I think it would definitely be the ideal way to live.  But it’s just that, an ideal situation that could never exist, or if it did, not for long.  To put it bluntly, I think it’s just the natural order of things.  Civilizations, like all things, evolve to become more stagnant and heterogeneous – this is what Herbert Spencer talks about in “First Principles.” (I stumbled on this book when I read Jack London’s biography – he’s quoted saying that “First Principles” was really influential to him.)  Spencer possesses a broad philosophical view in which he tries to unify all things under universal principles.  In this book, he goes through this all-encompassing list of evolutionary processes: solar system formation, geologic transformation, body development, religion, language, civilization, of course biological evolution, etc.  For each one, he’s able to prove that a similar process occurs:  Starting with some sort of “primordial soup” of stuff which is homogeneous, that stuff starts to coagulate in places and form distinct parts.  As time goes on, the parts become more and more distinct, and the motion that formed them starts to dissipate.  You can think of this process as a sort of fractal, because if you zoom out on the whole, it’s also a part which has become more distinct from other parts as it evolved.

When I first read this, I didn’t fully grasp how mindblowing it really was, until I thought about how it applies to anything and everything.  Take the United States as an example, to stay on topic with government.  We started as a nation united in the common goal of gettin rid of those red coats.  Most of us were do-it-yourselfers because we didn’t have much of an infrastructure and a lot of people were on the move to find new land.  Sure, you did have differences in wealth, education and other demographics, but not on the scale that you see today.  So you could say that people were a lot more similar, more homogeneous than they are now, because a lot of them were in the same boat (no Mayflower pun intended).

Then, people started deciding on how to organize the nation, and the two party system arose.  But parties were loosely defined at first, and there was even a period when there was no need for a two-sided debateLong story short, the parties used to split apart and then realign in cycles, but eventually this stabilized into the two parties we have now, which have polarized over time, grown more distinct.  People are less likely to change sides or change their views, and many would say that our government is becoming more stagnant.  Meanwhile, the people and our communities (scroll to bottom two questions) have also gotten more distinct: environmentalists in the Northwest, techies in Silicon Valley, conservative types in the Mid-West, guidos in New Jersey, etc.  You might consider these as stereotypes, but it’s because there is a definite concentration of those types of people in those places.  Additionally, most people aren’t pioneering do-it-yourselfers anymore; each person generally has his/her own specialized job.  We’ve also seen a growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor, as businesses have snowballed into powerful corporations.  This is all evidence that the United States is one of Spencer’s evolving systems, with parts that grow more distinct by the minute.  True to Spencer’s description, this applies if you zoom in on the parts, or zoom out on the whole: workers are more distinct parts of businesses, which have become more distinct parts of the U.S., which has become a more distinct part of the world.

So, according to Spencer’s unifying evolution theory, our country is like a planet in the solar system which has formed out of dust and will eventually end up as a cold rock floating in space.  But, I don’t think that we the people are that powerless.  As humans, the cycle of life grants us the ability to create perpetual motion with reproduction.  Similarly, we can create a perpetual motion as a society with revolution.  When I say revolution, I don’t necessarily mean a bloody coup.   A revolution is any kind of change in the order of things, like a jolt to the system which gets things in motion once more, restarting an evolutionary cycle.  Revolutions in industry and transportation jump started the movement of people and resources all over the globe, and revolutions in technology have dramatically altered society, the internet being a prime example.  But whereas the internet can be restructured by the masses, our government cannot be manipulated by all because power and worth aren’t so evenly distributed.

So back to communism for a bit: I believe it’s an unsteady equilibrium, set at the beginning of the evolution of a government, when everything is homogeneous.  The natural tendency is for a pockets of inequality to form, and there will be a rise to power of someone like Stalin.  To maintain communism is kind of like balancing an inverted pendulum – all it takes is a big enough push and equilibrium is lost.  Even in the case that Josh brought up, with scaled-down community groups, the push would be for a loss of homogeneity as groups combine and conquer, etc. like he mentioned (regardless of how altruistic people in those groups might be).  I think it’s foolish to try to restrain motion like this; instead we should try to keep the pendulum of government swinging.

The U.S. used to have an oscillating system of government (“long story” link from earlier), where parties would completely transform every thirty or so years in response to political pressures, like after the Great Depression.  The article explains what’s happened since then:

“With major changes in the American political system since the New Deal, the pattern of stability and change inherent in the critical realignment model no longer seems to characterize American politics. The tremendous growth in the federal government and its activist role in economic and social policy have made it far more responsive to demands for change than it once was and have perhaps transformed the underlying basis of the realignment model. The result is a weakened party system given to gradual rather than dramatic transformations.”


I’m not sure I agree with the view that the government’s growth and activist role have made it more responsive to our demands for change (this is one of the only opinion-based statements in this article, which is why you can’t always trust wikis).  I’m no expert and I don’t pretend to be, but I would think that a larger government with a stagnant party system would be less responsive to demands for change, and from what I’ve seen recently that seems to be true.  Because the party system has lost the capability of revolution, I think that evolution has run its course in our government and now corporations and their SuperPacs have grown to hold all the cards.  The pendulum is no longer swinging as much as it used to.
So, getting away from this frustrating reality, and getting into the hypothetical: if we could somehow form a new government, I think that it should be based on the idea of preserving the ability of revolution to restore motion in an evolving government.  Sure, revolution is a friend of the people, but this sounds like an oxymoron, because revolution is the enemy of government, right?  Yea, but that’s only if you think about government as a physical group of people that are replaced by a revolution (which unfortunately is how governments like to think of themselves when they’re formed).  Government should be kept more abstract, more fluid, kind of like a network of ideas, so that revolution is just a wave of change that disperses throughout.  Wait… don’t we already have something like that?  Yes, the internet!  You can probably guess what I’m thinking: online voting and campaigning.  It’s already being used in Switzerland!  And, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Switzerland is known for political stability, and has one of the most stable economies in the world.  Also, they’ve been able to satisfy demands for renewable energy.
A direct democracy, which is what Switzerland has, has always been considered unpractical and just too tedious because everyone votes on everything.  Our government is a compromise where we just elect someone to do all that work for us.  But, now that we have this perfect voting tool that’s in everyone’s hands, I don’t see the need for compromise.  I, for one, wouldn’t mind taking a few hours, one day out of the week, to vote online; instead of voting every couple years or so for a person who doesn’t have my interest in mind.  Of course, there would still need to be a central government group, but they could be more like the bootstrappers, maintaining the system and improving it; whereas the true power lies in the hands of the voters.  When the people can constantly impart their own motion into a government like this, I think that is when the government will constantly evolve, never becoming stagnant.
What do you guys think?  Could it work?  More importantly, do you think it will it ever be tried?


The Architecture of Learning

I think of the most basic learning technique as building top down structures, like pyramids, which follow a linear logic system like Viola describes on page 468.  This is how we we’re taught from the beginning, right?  In elementary school, we had some basic subjects, and we we were taught each one in a top-down fashion.  For example, “social studies” was broken down into geography, history and economics, etc. (each becoming progressively less and less general).

With this learning style, I picture the students mind as a scattering of different pyramids, each with a golden capstone engraved with a general topic like Biology, English or History.  The student’s conscious self climbs up and down the pyramids, placing new stones and patching up old ones while inspecting the structure’s integrity.

In today’s fast-paced information world (outside of elementary school), the mind’s “brick layer and inspector” would have a tough job maintaining pyramids like these.  He would receive stones faster than he can place them, opting to just throw some out.  After he lays one stone on one pyramid, he would have to make the arduous climb down and up another pyramid.  Some stones just wouldn’t seem to fit anywhere, or the decision would be too taxing.  The guy’s bound to give up at some point and just go hang out in the Facebook jungle where the fruits don’t come from labor, but are plucked from a friendly tree.  So in the end, he’s busy poking friends and devouring the ripened news feed; and meanwhile, the pyramids are eroding away.  Like America, the mind built of pyramids is facing an infrastructure crisis.

I believe the solution is to update the structures in which we store information – to evolve a modern architecture of learning.  I think that the teacher’s task shouldn’t be so much to just provide the students with building material and a blueprint, like handing them bricks and telling them where to place them.  [You could allude that to the slave labor that built the real pyramids, but I don’t wanna be too harsh on teachers (don’t worry, you’re not one of those types of teachers Dr. C ;).]  So what happens when these students are set free and they’re no longer given instruction?  I think a lot of times that’s when the infrastructure crisis sets in.  Teachers should instead be providing us with the knowledge and tools to make our own blueprints, and decide on our own building material (to a degree).  We shouldn’t be just lowly brick layers and inspectors; we should be the architects.

When we know how to build connections, like the trusses of a bridge, we can make efficient use of our minds instead of climbing up and down pyramids all the time.  When we can cope with the changing influx of building material, maybe then not so many minds would slack off on the job.

Teachers should give us at least just building codes, like the scientific process, grammar, etc. (as fun as those are).  Give the student the rules of logic, so we don’t go completely “schizo”, but let the student, or groups of students, creatively decide his or her own system of building concept structures.  Otherwise it’s just oppressive and exhausting.  I say it’s about time for the revolution.

We consider the Egyptian pyramids nowadays as one of the wonders of the world, but what I wonder is what could have been created if all of those people were free.

Re: Are We Naturally Contributors?

Mike, you give a great description of “reciprocal altruism” or “reciprocity” which I remember learning about when I took Evolutionary Bio.  Golden rule = mutual benefit.  But I wanted to talk about a sunnier side to it – something more than just a hope that people will give you something in return.  I mean, just look at this video and try not to smile.

Mammals especially have a paternal instinct and a natural need to help out those that have similar genes.  It’s kind of an abstract concept that your evolutionary interest should lie in your entire gene pool, but it makes sense if you think about it in light of recursion.  They call it “kin selection“, and there’s a lot of studies of cases in people.  I think this family instinct can extend beyond the family though, as one of the great byproducts of evolution.  Like the case with odd animal pairs, family is sometimes loosely defined, not just by genes.  Where ever you might get that closely connected family feeling, I think the family instinct can kick in.

I think that was the problem with communism – it’s too big of a family, too loosely connected, for anyone to feel a sense of national unity and be contributors.  But I think it works with the Amish and self-sustainable communities because they maintain that family feeling with small numbers, strong connections and common goals.  And I think that capitalism works to an extent because businesses can have the feeling of a family.  I believe that much of the problem with America now is that corporations and companies are too big for their workers to feel like part of a family, so our instinctual interests retract to more manageable family units, like fantasy football leagues, etc. and the business gets less and less productive.

It’s amazing how much human psychology and evolution can relate to economics, which is just one case of how “schizo” learning webs can be, which I’ll write about in my next post.