To Err is Necessary

8 December 2008

The Importance of Getting it Wrong

Lonesome, by laurinkofler, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)Error is liberation in disguise, a chance to think again in another way, to be freed of old thoughts. Yet all too often we consider only its inconvenience. We might blithely insist that to err is human, but we all baulk at the imposed changes that come with being wrong and being seen to be wrong. In seeking to be superhuman, to move beyond the biological limits placed on our ability to know, we ignore our need to learn.

Neuroscientists have a name for what we do as we bumble our way towards knowledge – they point to a process featuring “reward-prediction error“, wherein experience, aided by dopamine,  allows us to narrow the gap between prediction and outcome until we can predict what we are likely to get. Most of us call this sort of thing trial and error, which is neither an abstract investigative technique nor a luxury bestowed on those with the time to experiment, but a necessity. It is error – comprising the many small but ultimately encouraging discontinuities of experience – that ushers in new understanding.

Now this is not merely an abstract way of saying we’re all wrong and we should just live with it. Error has social implications well beyond merely being incorrect. I work in a profession – writing and editing – in which error can be brutal; it can force away clients and, at worst, cost someone their job. But very early on I read a small piece of wisdom that I’ve carried with me ever since: if you make mistakes, admit them, and never be afraid to apologise. The openness disarms people; it Lattice, by Todd Huffman, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)shows them that you’re willing to learn, and learn again. In your error people recognise how they, too, take account of experience.

And to move this onto a larger stage, it’s most heartening to hear someone who seems to know next to everything about a topic admit that, yes, they have erred. Presenting a lecture on globalisation and welfare to the London School of Economics last year, 2008 Nobel Prize for Economics winner Paul Krugman mentioned he had been wrong about the outlook for growth in developing countries. His enthusiastic predictions were “not as defensible” as he had thought. This wasn’t a major revelation, just one of two “chastenings” he levelled at himself. But it was enough to suggest that the man who pulled together the threads of new trade theory and made his name explicating the economic interconnections between and within countries could learn from his own mistakes.

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The Teacher as Token

12 November 2008

A Lesson in Communication

Sms, by Pixel Action, with Creative Commons licenceCommunication is an abstraction, regardless of how we look at it. Writing, reading, talking, listening, waving, frowning – these are all immediate actions that convey information. Communication is but the rubric under which we usually group them, the point at which hindsight dwells on their similarities rather than their differences, considers the sum rather than the parts. A teacher, for instance, communicates in a number of different ways: pointing, talking, pausing, walking. Together these actions constitute not only the lesson in action, but also the way in which meaning shifts from one mind to many. There is a certain symbolism in them all and the teacher becomes a token, at once surface alone and substance entirely, imposing order and challenging the structure of existing thought.

Having spent time lecturing honours students about academic writing at a Hong Kong university recently I’ve had time to ponder the multiple meanings of the token as a concept rather than an artefact. At the most obvious level a token is a souvenir, a small reminder of something. In that sense I’ve been nothing but a presence, reminding 70 students that their classes are compulsory, that something must be said between the start and finish of each lesson. This is the teacher’s role as an authority figure, and with students in their third year as undergraduates the figure is a little more obvious than the authority.

We begin, then, with a sort of restrained communication, which is really closer to tokenism.

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The Knowing Narrative

1 November 2008

What Literature Says About Life

Literature reveals a good deal about life. Even the most fantastic of narratives offers an understandable structure, breaks complex sequences down into something the reader can follow. As John Irving once wrote, you can’t get away with the sorts of things in novels that happen in life. A father can’t just die suddenly for no apparent reason, a mother can’t walk out to do the shopping and never return. Literature offers a way of seeing the world in a sort of prospective hindsight – you might be reading about a situation for the first time, but much of the action is most probably distilled from life’s randomness, explained in such and such a way, and set out as progress towards some sort of climax.

Through literature our lives make a rudimentary sort of sense, once removed.

Not, I should add, that it really matters what sort of literature it is. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that my concept of literature passes through comics, science fiction, the classics and much else besides. I don’t have the sort of bookshop literature- section snootiness in mind, just the telling of a tale, and telling it well. If a narrative explains something of the human condition it fulfils the requirement for literature.

Yet narrative doesn’t always work in the ways you might imagine. During the late 1990s I spent a good deal of time researching and pondering the Vietnamese tale “Tam and Cam”, an equivalent of what to many people will be the familiar “Cinderella”. As it turns out, the Vietnamese version of the tale could well be the original – the lines of transmission being long, defused and sometimes confused. But from the 1860s the two tales clashed, dragging literature and life together.

In 1866 French Marines went ashore at My Tho in what we would now call southern Vietnam, determined to place what they knew as Annam, particularly the Mekong Delta, under imperial control. It sounds a little distant now, but imagine the grief and sacrilege in the hearts and minds of Annamite villagers, the death and destruction that came with the stealing of another person’s plot of earth, the conquest of another land.

But amidst the confusion and dismay was the curious figure of Gustave Janneau, just out of his teens and within a year of abandoning the Marines for a distinguished career in colonial linguistics. As his compatriots did their best to destroy any sign of resistance, he was in My Tho collecting traditional tales, including the “Cinderella” analogue “Tam and Cam”.

Like “Cinderella”, “Tam and Cam” tells the tale of a downtrodden girl who finds her prince with the aid of a supernatural helper. Janneau’s translation was by no means as derogatory as those later produced by colonists, including the Governor-General of French Indochina, but he did accentuate something of the ‘confusion’ with which Annamese were said to regard their spiritual world. The supernatural helper – we know her as the fairy-godmother – is alternatively a spirit and a genie, depending on the translator’s whim.

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After the Perfect Present

12 October 2008

A Short Consideration of Blame

Blame is life’s convenient foil. It deflects criticism, delays logic and eliminates hindsight. With blame we can live splendidly in the perfect present, gazing out at the faultless future. Or when that future seems uncertain, at least we have the comfort of ‘knowing’ that someone else is at fault, that we took no part in the rout. Consider the role of blame in the current financial crisis. Instead of observing and learning about the economics of our own lives we blame the bankers. Rather than ever having asked ‘what can this financial instrument do for me?’ so many of us bought or borrowed and now rail against the way things are. And it’s ever this thoughtless way – consider personal culpability in the environmental crisis. Or, to take a different tack, consider the speed with which homosexuals were reviled at the outset of the AIDS epidemic.

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Tread Warily, Fair Traveller

23 July 2008

A Socioeconomic Journey into Vengeance

The world of economics is a curious domain, beset by mathematics, often at odds with the reason of everyday life, but enormously informative should you traverse its difficult terrain. I’m reminded, each time I enter, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s perilous land, the enchanting realm of Faerie wherein lie “pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold”. But I doubt another place could offer the governance of pirate crews and longevity of nuclear deterrence both to illuminate the human condition, still speaking of interest rates and supply matched mostly to demand.

Economics has taught me that much of what we assume is in no way actual, and that logic other people can’t understand is no less logical for it. So now I venture there again, to look around, to shout BEWARE! and to marvel at the concepts that lie in wait within.

The National Bureau of Economic Research in the US recently uploaded Naci Mocan’s working paper on vengeance. Yes, you read that correctly – vengeance. Those of you who, like me, have spent a while in and around academia might be tempted to think first of departmental politics, but not this time.

Mocan’s paper is a very carefully argued study of statistics drawn from the International Crime Victim Survey conducted by the United Nations, covering the responses of 89,000 interviewees from 53 countries. To cut a very long story short, it’s about what is likely to happen if your colour television is stolen that the perpetrator caught. How are you likely to feel?

That doesn’t seem entirely within the realm of economics, but it is given that Mocan finds different attitudes prevalent in different places, and according to different income levels, including per capita levels for the whole country. People from lower socioeconomic groups, and in poorer countries, will want to send that TV-stealing thief to jail for longer, and sometimes even for life.

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Connecting the Commonplace

3 July 2008

A Podcast on Possibilities

Neon mic, by fensterbme, with Creative Commons licencePrivilege is an under-rated word – it tends to convey a sense of unwarranted wealth and power when it can more easily be a synonym for honour. The two concepts are diametrically opposed but together can produce a synthesis of sorts, with the honour perhaps just a little undeserved. In that sense I had the privilege earlier today of speaking to Dave Wallace and Mike Seyfang on their Extraordinary Everyday Lives Show. Along with Kent Newsome, the pair host occasional podcasts that range across the spectrum of technology, networking, people and ideas. Much of our focus today was on the work I’m doing with domestic helpers here in Hong Kong, especially in relation to Vicky Flores’ disappearance and death. But the concepts shifted from the significance of Creative Commons licensing to the nuances of activism and on to technical solutions for networked text messaging.

As I say, a privilege. You can listen to the podcast at the site, or download it to listen at your leisure.

Dave Wallace has featured here at Greetings Earthlings! a few times now, first as a commenter and then as the inspiration behind ideas I’ve reworked or reinterpreted. He describes his Lifekludger blog as an “ecosystem for enriching human life”, and his capacity to identify connections that other people might just barely notice is only really apparent when you speak to him in person. Or as ‘in person’ as a connection between Hong Kong and Adelaide will allow.

Mike Seyfang, a self-confessed “IT-git”, is also a pleasure to speak with because he digs into concepts and shakes their entrails. He’s particularly fervent about the possibilities of open licensing for intellectual property, and has featured at the Creative Commons wiki. He also blogs at Learning with the Fang, which I’ll be visiting a great deal in the near future.

Meela & freedado, by pierofix, with Creative Commons licenceTogether the pair made me think more about the intersection of people and technology that’s becoming more commonplace, and indeed more liberating, as new possibilities move from fertile minds to people on the street who are busy living, learning, working and laughing. And from that everyday activity, other ideas move in the opposite direction.

It’s like an ecosytem, as Dave would say, or a merging of memes. Most importantly its about people meeting people regardless of the distance between them.

The Presumptions of Experience

17 June 2008

Reading as Antidote

The Pattaya Experience, by Davis80, with Creative Commons LicenceExperience is often considered the ultimate form of learning, the ne plus ultra of education. What we do and how we act is taken as the full measure of what we know, and what we might yet know. The past is at a premium, with knowledge as a synonym for memory carrying with it the presumption that we don’t forget, misunderstand or misinterpret. Also implied is that experience can be transferred between people, regardless of background, inclination and aptitude. So we speak of ‘experience sharing’, as though actions can be lifted out of context and passed around, instantly relevant to anyone who grasps at them.

The problem with this somewhat stylised scenario is that it tends towards the non-literary. There are many situations in which practical, hands-on learning combines very well with reading and more interpretive activities. The current trend towards service-learning in universities is a perfect example of that. Students are given the chance to apply what they’ve learned – through instruction and their own reading – to community service projects that they organise and manage with minimal oversight from lecturers.

But what about community organisations themselves? Moving away from established, funded NGOs, many grass-roots groups draw together volunteers from lower socio-economic backgrounds who work too long or too hard every day to have much of a chance to read. In situations like these, learning from other people’s experience becomes an attractive, easy option.

I recently attended a meeting that began the long process of organising a self-help society for migrant workers in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong. These people, mainly women, are extremely hard working for very low wages. The idea behind the group is to help domestic helpers in times of crisis, and to educate members about educating themselves. The sorts of areas we’re dealing with range from the more obvious need for familiarity with legal rights – both in the workplace and within society at large – to less obvious lack of information about where and when to seek medical help for potentially embarrassing conditions.

As the meeting progressed a friend mentioned that one of the primary measures of self-education should always be to read, and to read as often as possible. Given that many of these people work up to 18 hours a day, that could be a very limited exposure to the written word, but it seemed important nevertheless.

Reading Well, by Moriza, with Creative Commons licenceUnfortunately, the reaction was negative – not from the main group members, but from the seasoned and unusually insightful people who were coordinating the meeting. One said that she would fall asleep if she had to read a book, and the other spoke at length of networking and the difference between book learning and ‘relevant’ experience as the basis of transferring important information.

Until that moment I’d though of reading as a supplement to experience, but now I realise it could well be an antidote.

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From Another Perspective

25 May 2008

The Benefit of Bifocal Thought

Exploring an Idea, by JJay, with reative Commons licenceIdeas are never stagnant – they move, they change, they make way for other, better, more enduring ideas. In every mode of thought, circumstance dictates just what remains useful and the extent to which inquisition should eventually reach. But we never think without a framework; we’re always bound by a directive, a whispered voice of reason, in one way or another. Writing in The Scientist recently, Steven Wiley pointed out the inherent flaw in presuming that research can be conducted without a theoretical base, that the information ‘out-there’ can somehow speak for itself. Hypotheses, he argued – whether explicit or not – provide a “level of simplification” at which meaning can be usefully extracted from data.

We need similar guides to the broad sweep of thought, directions in which to look for everyday answers in an ever-puzzling world. I wrote recently about the flexibility of ideology, how it remains as a sort of uber-hypothesis when circumstances change. Marxism dies, you might say, but the quest for social justice remains. But now I want to ask a more pointed question, given the passing of doctrines, given just how fast lives can reconfigure themselves without much effort from those concerned (think of a death in the family, or the community, and its repercussions). How can we know that our way of thinking is sufficiently developed, appropriately fine-tuned, to help others?

As with many of the questions I’ve been asking here recently, I only have a partial, tentative answer. It springs from my struggle to balance Greetings Earthlings! as a blog of sometimes wayward ideas through which I’ve mixed a heavy element of activism and A Death in Hong Kong, a blog of activism in which ideas are very carefully administered. This blog is my own, I can write what I like; the other belongs to a group, on behalf of which I write. Quite often the content is similar or the same – most of my recent writing has been a reaction, in one way or another, to Vicky Flores’ death here in Hong Kong.

Empathy, by Irina Souiki, with Creative Commons licenceYou could point to that preoccupation as my guide, the thesis to which I’ve been writing on both blogs, the hypothesis for more developed thought. But a greater concern, a more specific concern, has been to see things from a different perspective.

To explain, allow me a short detour. A recent edition of the Economist provided an interesting overview of a study conducted in America that sought to show how a “win-win” situation could best be obtained from a two-party negotiation. Now, negotiations aren’t terribly renowned for providing happy endings – one party more often dominates, and benefits. But Adam Galinsky presumed that if both parties were to benefit, a slight change of analytical direction was necessary. Instead of considering empathy and the ability to take another person’s perspective as one and the same thing, Galinsky separated them.

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