[EAS] Best Wishes and Some Thoughts

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Sun Dec 25 17:58:54 EST 2005

Dear Friends and Colleagues -

My slightly belated Best Wishes for the Holidays and the New Year.
(Next follows old-fashioned "ASCII Art" for which you need a
mono-spaced font.)

                                 "BUON ANNO"
                                "JOYEUX NOEL"
                               "VESELE VANOCE"
                              "MELE KALIKIMAKA"
                             "NODLAG SONA DHUIT"
                            "BLWYDDYN NEWYDD DDA"
                                 "GOD  JUL"
                                "FELIZ NATAL"
                                "BOAS FESTAS"
                               "FELIZ NAVIDAD"
                              "MERRY CHRISTMAS"
                             "KALA CHRISTOUGENA"
                            "VROLIJK  KERSTFEEST"
                           "FROHLICHE WEIHNACHTEN"
                          "BUON  NATALE-GODT NYTAR"
                         "HUAN YING SHENG TAN CHIEH"
                        "WESOLYCH SWIAT-SRETAN BOZIC"
                       "MOADIM LESIMHA-LINKSMU KALEDU"
                      "HAUSKAA JOULUA-AID SAID MOUBARK"
                           "'N  PRETTIG  KERSTMIS"
                          "ONNZLLISTA UUTTA VUOTTA"
                         "Z ROZHDESTYOM  KHRYSTOVYM"
                        "NADOLIG LLAWEN-GOTT NYTTSAR"
                       "FELIC NADAL-GOJAN KRISTNASKON"
                      "S  NOVYM  GODOM-FELIZ ANO NUEVO"
                       "SARBATORI FERICITE-BUON  ANNO"
                      "ZORIONEKO GABON-HRISTOS SE RODI"
                    "MERRY CHRISTMAS  - -  HAPPY NEW YEAR"

     "Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost.
      Wherever you are is called Here...
      Stand still. The forest knows where you are.
      You must let it find you."
            Native American poem translated by David Wagoner

December 2005 marks the 10th anniversary of my EAS-INFO mailings to
you. They started as a kind of "Internet neighborliness." And that's
still largely how I think of them, even though now, ten years on, we
are awash with networked messages of all kinds. In what ways these
messages are more than dots in a fleeting pointillistic image of the
world, and of ourselves as constructive agents in it, is getting
increasingly hard to understand. Regret over the disappearance of
older values being one of the symptoms of aging, we seem all
destined to age prematurely.

My thoughts go back to Neil Postman, now dead a little over two
years, whose championship of values with exemplary patience and
grace continues to stand as a beacon of hope and good sense. In the
spirit of the season let me go back to a mailing from 1998
<http://www.yale.edu/engineering/eng-info/msg00382.html>, and the
Neil Postman questions quoted there with which he asked us to
think about technology:

a) What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?

b) Who's problem is it?

c) What new problem(s) will occur with the solution of the initial

d) Which people and what institutions might be seriously affected or
     hurt by this technology?

e) What changes in language are being enforced by the implementation
    of new technology?

f) What sort of economical, social and ecological impact will new
    technology have?

g) What sort of people or institutions aquire special attention and
    education with the implementation of new technology?

In my observation, in 1998 and now, these questions are asked
astonishly  seldom, even just (a) and (b). And (e) has become a
highly important "sleeper" issue.

I urge every advocate of technological progress to read Neil
Postman, particularly "Technopoly" (1992) which begins with this
story from Plato's "Phaedrus":

>  You will find in Plato's Phaedrus a story about Thamus, the king of a
>  great city of Upper Egypt. For people such as ourselves, who are
>  inclined (in Thoreau's phrase) to be tools of our tools, few legends
>  are more instructive than his. The story, as Socrates tells it to his
>  friend Phaedrus, unfolds in the following way: Thamus once entertained
>  the god Theuth, who was inventor of many things, including number,
>  calculation, geometry, astronomy, and writing. Theuth exhibited his
>  inventions to King Thamus, claiming that they should be made widely
>  known and available to Egyptians. Socrates continues:
>    Thamus inquired into the use of each of them, and as Theuth went
>    through them expressed approval or disapproval, according as he
>    judged Theuth's claims to be well or ill founded. It would take
>    too long to go through all that Thamus is reported to have said
>    for and against each of Theuth's inventions. But when it came to
>    writing, Theuth declared, "Here is an accomplishment, my lord the
>    King, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the
>    Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and
>    wisdom." To this, Thamus replies, "Theuth, my paragon of
>    inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the
>    good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is
>    in this; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness
>    for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its
>    real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their
>    memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring
>    things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their
>    own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for
>    recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will
>    have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive
>    a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in
>    consequence be thought very knowledgable when they are for the
>    most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the
>    conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to
>    society."
>  I begin my book with this legend because in Thamus' response there are
>  several sound principles from which we may begin to learn how to think
>  with wise circumspection about a technological society. In fact, there
>  is even one error in the judgment of Thamus, from which we may also
>  learn something of importance. The error is not in the claim that
>  writing will damage memory and create false wisdom. It is demonstrable
>  that writing has had such an effect. Thamus' error in in his believing
>  that writing will be a burden to society and nothing but a burden. For
>  all his wisdom, he fails to imagine what writing's benefits might be,
>  which, as we know, have been considerable. We may learn from this that
>  it is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a
>  one-sided effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing;
>  not either-or, but this-and-that.

One cannot, of course, help substituting the word "computer" for
"writing" in the above, as Postman knows.

I hope this sample entices you to seek out "Technopoly", whose clarity
of language and exposition are a pleasure muted only by the gravity of
its message. And let me mention a final apt element in the legend of
the inventor god Theuth. He is one-eyed, implying a lack of depth
perception unless one moves adequately with respect to one's subject.

Again, my Best Wishes for the Holidays and the New Year!  --PJK

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