FSMichaels.com

I'm the author of Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything (Red Clover, 2011). I write about big ideas, culture, creativity, and the interaction of complex systems.
Posts tagged "books"

As 2011 draws to a close, it’s fun to be able to report that the brilliant Maria Popova, editor of Brain Pickings, and contributor to The Atlantic, picked Monoculture as one of the top psychology books of 2011.

Thanks, Maria!(If you haven’t signed up yet for the brainpickings newsletter, do. You won’t be sorry.)

I’m looking forward to reading the other books on the list too - interesting stuff.

I’m reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle for the first time (how did I miss this all these years?) - a six-book series that I’m just enjoying so much. Le Guin, of course, is an award-winning fantasy writer who is now in her 80s, and her writing lives up to those awards too. It’s beautifully spare and poetic, and her ability to weave a deeply felt story is profound. 

In the foreword to the fourth book, published in 2001 (the foreword has nothing to do with the story, so I’m not giving anything away), Le Guin writes about how the genre of fantasy has changed (the first Earthsea book was published in 1968).

I had just had a conversation with a friend about where what truly lasts fits into the world now that the great river of information has become a deluge and just keeps flowing on day after day after day, and what Le Guin had to say resonated in more ways than one:

In the years since I began to write about Earthsea I’ve changed, of course, and so have the people who read the books. All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. Archetypes turn into millstones, large simplicities get complicated, chaos becomes elegant, and what everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think.

It’s unsettling. For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable. We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go ‘there and back again,’ and ‘there’ is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill…So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.

And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.

Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivialises. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.

What the commodifiers of fantasy count on and exploit is the insuperable imagination of the reader, child or adult, which gives even these dead things life - of a sort, for a while.

Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea. The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.

Libraries are still being strongly shaped by the rise of the economic story. As government funding dries up, libraries try to find new revenue streams and/or cut costs however they can.

In the Denver area, as of June 2011:

Library directors are responding to the dwindling support from local governments by charging for premium services, selling passport photos and joining with DVD retailers to offer commercial movie-rental boxes in exchange for a cut of the sales.

In the most extreme examples, some communities have decided to privatize library operations….

"Libraries are everything — opportunities to come read, better yourself, find out what’s going on. But these days, it seems no one really cares about all that," said Charles Holt of Denver, a 50-year-old out-of-work cook who walks daily to a library to pass the time and search for a new job.

These days, Holt is walking farther because his closest library branch is now open just four days a week. Budget cuts in Denver threaten to shut his branch and up to half the city’s library branches permanently….

And of course, in the face of dwindling funds, the “public” in public library is increasingly becoming private based on the often-unproved economic story assumption that private management is by definition more efficient and cost-effective than public management.

Almost all public libraries rely on city and county governments to pay for staff, material and maintenance. Some communities have decided it’s an expense they no longer can afford.

Fifteen systems have been turned over completely to a private library company, a practice that is opposed by the American Library Association.

In California, the state Legislature is considering a bill to restrict the privatization of public libraries, in part by forcing contractors to show that the change would save money.

The bill was introduced by a Democratic lawmaker from Santa Barbara after he received complaints about declining service and higher fees at libraries in his district that were being operated by a for-profit company.

You can read the whole article here.

(Photo: New York Public Library)

Libraries are still being strongly shaped by the rise of the economic story. As government funding dries up, libraries try to find new revenue streams and/or cut costs however they can.

In the Denver area, as of June 2011:

Library directors are responding to the dwindling support from local governments by charging for premium services, selling passport photos and joining with DVD retailers to offer commercial movie-rental boxes in exchange for a cut of the sales.

In the most extreme examples, some communities have decided to privatize library operations….

"Libraries are everything — opportunities to come read, better yourself, find out what’s going on. But these days, it seems no one really cares about all that," said Charles Holt of Denver, a 50-year-old out-of-work cook who walks daily to a library to pass the time and search for a new job.

These days, Holt is walking farther because his closest library branch is now open just four days a week. Budget cuts in Denver threaten to shut his branch and up to half the city’s library branches permanently….

And of course, in the face of dwindling funds, the “public” in public library is increasingly becoming private based on the often-unproved economic story assumption that private management is by definition more efficient and cost-effective than public management.

Almost all public libraries rely on city and county governments to pay for staff, material and maintenance. Some communities have decided it’s an expense they no longer can afford.

Fifteen systems have been turned over completely to a private library company, a practice that is opposed by the American Library Association.

In California, the state Legislature is considering a bill to restrict the privatization of public libraries, in part by forcing contractors to show that the change would save money.

The bill was introduced by a Democratic lawmaker from Santa Barbara after he received complaints about declining service and higher fees at libraries in his district that were being operated by a for-profit company.

You can read the whole article here.

(Photo: New York Public Library)

In the book, I talked about how over the last few decades, science has moved from what was called academic science to industrialized science, where one of the things that happens is that basic research, which used to be the foundation of science, is put aside in favor of applied research.

In his book The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus, the famous explorer Jacques Cousteau summed up the problem when he said, “Only the applied scientist sets out to find a ‘useful’ pot of gold. The pure scientist sets out to find nothing. Anything. Everything. The applied scientist is a prospector. The pure scientist is an explorer.” Of course, the line between pure and applied science isn’t always distinct, but the two do have a different focus, and that focus changes what scientists do and are asked to do. For example, Cousteau pointed out that

In 2006, C. H. Llewellyn Smith, the former director general of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, commented on the funding policy of almost all countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. “Now…governments will invest in basic research only if it can be shown that it is likely to generate rather direct and specific benefits in the form of wealth creation and improvements of the quality of life. This is a bad policy…and may actually be economically counterproductive.”

Alos in 2006, the directors of Germany’s leading research organizations wrote an open letter to their country’s minister of federal research, calling on him to reverse his policy of channeling funds away from pure science to research targeted on economic priorities. The minister ignored them.