An anthropological mystery

Whenever I write about Grant McCracken or recommend his site to my friends I always feel the urge to throw in a caveat. This entry shows why. He is a bit of a mystery, who needs a Grant McCracken to untangle his identity. As I said in my last entry, his writing is usually filled with interesting ideas and original insights. He also occasionally lapses into clich?s drawn straight from the neo-con hymn book. I find it hard to reconcile the two. As I said a mystery worthy of one his insights.

The Trouble with Blogs

Grant McCracken is on a roll, scattering ideas and insights in his wake. I have linked to him before when I pointed to a piece by him on welcoming difference and another on modern identity. But thinking about some of his more recent entries, highlighted for me what seems to be a problem with the blog as a form. McCracken’s site is rich in ideas and things to think about. Now I don’t know if this is just me, but the problem I see with the blog as a form is that the focus is always on the latest entries. There is little to encourage you to explore the site as a whole. I know if I arrive at a blog and there hasn’t been a new entry for a while, I tend to move on somewhere else. Of course, with some blogs this makes sense, their focus is very much on the current, on what’s happening now. But with others, this makes less sense. Something they talked about three months ago, or a year ago, or even longer may be equally as interesting as something they are talking about today. So I guess the question I end with is how could a blog look more like a web than a diary?

Powerful Questions

Some weeks ago I wrote a piece where I asked how we could encourage rather than discourage children to ask powerful questions. Stumbling around the web I came across this impassioned piece, “Grazing the Net” by Jamie McKenzie. In it he says:
“Unfortunately, schools have traditionally neglected the development of student questioning. According to Hyman (1980), for every 38 teacher questions in a typical classroom there is but one student question. Schoolhouse research, sadly, has too often fallen into the “go find out about” category. Topical research (Go find out about Dolly Madison) requires little more than information gathering. We must move beyond this traditional search for answers to simple questions. Instead of asking elementary students to find out all they can about a particular state or nation, for example, we should be asking them to compare and contrast several states or cities for a purpose – sifting, sorting and weighing the information to gain insight, to make a decision or to solve a problem.”
In contrast to what he calls the traditional approach he argues that:
“… We must teach students to start with what Sizer calls “essential questions” – the kinds of probing inquiries which might extend over a month or a lifetime – questions worth asking, which touch upon basic human issues – investigations which might make a difference in the quality of life – studies which might cast light in dark corners, illuminating basic truths. And then we must teach them how to conduct a thorough research study. Questioning persists throughout all stages of such a study.”
And concludes:
“What is a “free range student?” It is simply a student fed on the wild grains and fragments available in the magical world made accessible by the Net. Just as some gourmets prefer free range chickens to their plump cousins raised on processed grains and feed heavily impregnated with hormones and chemicals, the theme of this article is the value of raising children to think, explore and make meaning of their worlds for themselves. No more second hand knowledge. No more sage on the stage. Students will learn to make sense out of nonsense and order out of chaos. They will ask essential questions and solve complex problems. They will join electronically with brothers and sisters around the globe to cast a spotlight on earth-threatening issues which deserve attention and action.”

A wild prediction

My wild prediction for today is that the idea of a Universal Basic Income will become a hot political issue over the next ten years or so. As Philippe Van Parijs defines it, “By universal basic income I mean an income paid by a government, at a uniform level and at regular intervals, to each adult member of society. The grant is paid, and its level is fixed, irrespective of whether the person is rich or poor, lives alone or with others, is willing to work or not.”
Although I have been interested in the idea of a UBI for some years, I arrived at today’s thought by a somewhat circuitous route. It began with a link in the excellent Crooked Timber to a piece by Jacob Hacker about the rise in the instability of family income in the USA. Hacker writes:
“…. what my evidence shows is deeply troubling. When I started out, I expected to see a rise in the instability of family income. But nothing prepared me for the sheer magnitude of the increase. At its peak in the mid-’90s, income instability was almost five times as great as it was in the early ’70s, and, although it dropped somewhat during the late ’90s (my data end in 1999), it has never fallen below twice its starting level. By comparison, permanent income differences across families have risen by a more modest, if still troubling, 50 percent over the same period.”
While the US may be a particularly extreme example, this sense of economic insecurity seems to be growing throughout the industrial democracies, with curious consequence of people becoming less rather than more engaged with the political process. This linked to the numerous other examples of people’s alienation from party politics, such as this piece recently featured on the BBC news site, leads me to believe that if we are to have functioning democracies something must change. What we have in the UK and USA where a Government only represents a small minority of potential voters looks like a recipe for social discord.
A UBI would give every voter a clear stake in society and a solid reason to participate in the political process. And curiously, although the UBI is very much a fringe concept at present, the fact that it has advocates from across the political spectrum leads me to believe that it is an idea that has got legs.

Good Taste

My good friend Ben Copsey (double REALbasic prize winner 2004) sent me this link to Paul Graham‘s essay on “Great Hackers”. One of the bits that particularly struck me comes quite late in the essay. This is where he talks about the importance of good taste in producing good work. As he says:
“Many people in this country think of taste as something elusive, or even frivolous. It is neither. To drive design, a manager must be the most demanding user of a company’s products. And if you have really good taste, you can, as Steve Jobs does, make satisfying you the kind of problem that good people like to work on.”
This led me on to looking at some of his other essays – all of them interesting – but the one I particularly liked was “Taste for makers”. Personally, I think Graham gets too hung up on the issue of whether taste is subjective or objective, but where I do agree strongly is his concluding argument that the cultivation of good taste is a requirement for doing great work:
“Intolerance for ugliness is not in itself enough. You have to understand a field well before you develop a good nose for what needs fixing. You have to do your homework. But as you become expert in a field, you’ll start to hear little voices saying, What a hack! There must be a better way. Don’t ignore those voices. Cultivate them. The recipe for great work is: very exacting taste, plus the ability to gratify it.

Reclaiming America

I guess most of us have an America inside our head. Actually it’s probably it’s more complicated than that. Most of us have several contradictory Americas in our heads struggling for supremacy at any particular moment in time. The America that has often inspired me was summoned up in an entry in Bruce Sterling’s blog a few days ago. Taking a quote from Kurt Andersen, in an essay about Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, Sterling writes:
“It goes like this:
‘But when I look at the body of Michael’s work — and for that matter, at Michael himself — the common threads I see are most of the admirable American virtues. By which I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, the virtues embodied by (for instance) Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain and Charles and Ray Eames: industry, populism, pragmatism, playfulness, honesty, unpretentiousness, a sense of humor, a light touch, an appreciation of pleasure, a basic frugality, a rejection of cant, a cheerful magpie mongrelism, a balance between city-on-a-hill conviction and big-tent laissez-faire tolerance.’
There’s a lot to what Andersen says here. That’s precisely the kind of virtuous America that I want to be American in. What a great place. I wonder what happened to it, and what one has to do to get it back.”

Curiously, I rediscovered someone who seems to have the answer to Sterling’s questions yesterday. Michael Moorcock, a legendary Notting Hill figure in the Sixties, is now living in Austin, Texas – Stirling’s home time. In a very long interview, as an activist taxpayer without a vote, Moorcock does a brilliant dissection of the American psyche – well worth putting aside some time to read.