Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Rushkoff/Lakoff/Markoff: A Take-Off

[First let the OG pre-empt any wiseacres in the peanut gallery by admitting he's a "jackoff." Now: let's see if any of you can come up with a better one. And on with the show!]:

Douglas Rushkoff's Plan To Save The 1% From Themselves
The video (sorry about the mersh) pretty much covers the article, but the article spells out a bit more. It's basically a precis of Rushkoff's vastly underrated (so far) and avant book Life, Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World and How We Can Take It Back and it's guerrilla ontological (note the cluelessness of the commenters on the CNN website), counterintuitive, astoundingly well-informed about the history of capitalism (for Rushkoff, no 1776 Adam Smith, but medieval landlords as the 1%; Rushkoff really surpasses Noam Chomsky here, methinks. Noam never put together a narrative about do-nothing/create-nothing aristocratic "wealth" like Doug does here and in his book), speaks to the diffuse and legion brain trust of the Occupy movement, and...might be a tad too sly and witty for many people to "get."

What I like so much about Rushkoff is his considered and nuanced ideas about value versus money. I find it stupefying how many otherwise intelligent and well-read people accept that some corporation "must" pay its CEOs $45million bonuses, or they will lose the "best talent." You mean there isn't someone out there who could do a better "job" for half that? Okay? Now: I say there's a person who can "perform" just as well if not better for half of that. Let me then iterate this idea five or six more times. It's a con-game! They produce ZERO wealth!

(And in these pig-iron days, there are some egregious glaring examples that are far worse than not creating value, but just sucking money from everyone else while ruining lives. For example, see Matt Taibbi's piece on Bank of America.)

Some of you will think I'm wrong here, but please, as an exercize, take a week and think about it from Rushkoff's and my POV, and if you still think some asshole making "executive" decisions and fucking up and losing the company money or making some, probably by laying people off, undercutting competition, getting lucky because the true innovators and scientists made a breakthrough, or dumping pollution on poor people's heads, then fine. I have looked at the Harvard MBA stuff: there is some technical minutiae that needs to be met according to the rules of the Game, but executive "decisions" that net hundreds of millions of dollars? I cannot buy it. Look at how many of these Type-A fuckwads lose their company money...and they still give themselves massive bonuses, 'cuz it's written in the "rules" that they can! (CEOs often write the rules, having so many cowed by their "expertise.") There's no WAY in hell the CEO's "skill" or "knowledge" is worth thousands of times more than the guys driving the fork lifts over in the warehouse. What a con!

But I still say: read Life, Inc. (And lemme give a shout-out to the greatest generalist of the last 150 years, Buckminster Fuller, and his GRUNCH of Giants, where he shows how, the non-value-creating landlords and aristocracy and CEOs are history's "Great Pirates" who traditionally hired the truly talented and then absconded with the wealth/value the "wizards" created for them. Fuller and Rushkoff complement each other very well here...)

A bit of a tangent: In my university town, the chancellor of U.C. Berkeley just announced his last day will be December 31st, 2012. He makes $450,000 a year in salary. I wonder how he created value? Let's compare that to the 24 year old "adjunct professor" who just got her Master's and is working towards her PhD. She's - I'm not kidding here - getting roughly what a manager at Burger King gets. With no benefits. She's teaching the freshman and sophomore "Intro to Whatever" classes. Tuition has skyrocketed; the protesting kids aren't stupid. Our adjunct is working her ass off, and her student loans are massive, and will remain massive through her defense of her PhD. And if she gets that PhD, she gets kicked to the curb as far as being an adjunct. Because now she's worth more, with a PhD. But then no one will hire her, because the economy sucks. Meanwhile, we get stories like this one... I wonder how she and her boy-toy created value?

Professor George Lakoff On "The Santorum Strategy"
Read it HERE.
Lakoff is a tenured professor at Berkeley who's created more than enough value for me than I can possibly repay him for. Well, I buy his books. And I spend a lot of time clarifying his ideas in comment sections on the Internet, because many otherwise smart people seem to have just as tough a time understanding his ideas as they do Rushkoff's. This same piece ran on Huffington Post and I felt compelled to clarify the cognitive linguistic basis of neural networks and metaphorical thought there. Hell, George can't explain all that in his role as Public Intellectual. And I confess to being a major student of Lakoff's, though I haven't taken a class with the guy. I have attended enough of his talks that he seemed to think I was one of his old grad students once, but I digress...

If anyone reading this wants to quibble, or even cavil, on one or more points Lakoff makes in this article, let's get it going in the comments section. Of all the academic ideas about semantics out there, Lakoff's (and many of his brilliant colleagues, like Mark Turner, Gilles Fauconnier, Mark Johnson, Eleanor Rosch, and hell, I'll mention old Charles Fillmore) ideas make the most sense to me, by far. Meanwhile, Noam Chomsky never did account for why poor people who hear "death tax" want to vote against it, etc. (But I think I went over this in all those Chomsky Problem blogs, eh?)

Three things that I want to point out that didn't show in this piece, and which readers seemed to have a tough time with:

1.) It takes self-discipline and practice to frame your values in your own way, and not in the phrases you've heard or read in the media. When you begin to practice this, you will - I hope - begin to understand how overwhelmingly regressive the corporate mainstream media has been in Unistat, throughout your life. That it's a "liberal" media qualifies as much of a Goebbels-esque Big Lie as anything that might compete with it.

2.) Lakoff and a few others have shown that the Right is at least 30 years ahead of the liberals, progressives, libertarian socialists, and thoughtful rank and file small "d" democrats in using knowledge about language, imagery and the unconscious to sway minds of the electorate. Lakoff says it pretty much started with the Powell Memo, and it's only been in the last ten years that non-right wingers have begun to devise ways to frame their messages. All along it's been the Right using knowledge from the history of PR and advertising on the electorate, while the "Left," valuing their university educations, has assumed the electorate are rational actors, products of the 18th century Enlightenment, and that they will respond to reasonable discourse. And they were wrong. In so many ways. For much more on this history, see Lakoff's Moral Politics and/or The Political Mind. And, for extra credit, see this recent, timely, witty and articulate blog post on fear and the activation of semantic frames.

3.) Many non-right wingers want Lakoff to tell them what to say. I've argued countless times with folks online and face-to-face that Lakoff has made suggestions in his short books on freedom and how you ought not think of an elephant, but he's really an academic. People want Lakoff to step up and be "the Frank Luntz for the Left." I've seen this many times. Lakoff is an academic. A damned good one. I have some problems with him, but as you can probably tell, I think he's really important. He's one of the great cognitive neurolinguists in the world, and he's always been a passionate political animal, but he's more of a cognitive scientist/professor than a hired gun like Frank Luntz. On the surface Lakoff looks to people like the Bizarro World Frank Luntz, but that's not Lakoff's role. He really wants YOU to be the Left's Frank Luntz.

John Markoff On A Silicon Valley Start-Up
Markoff, one of my favorite journalists covering computers and the hi-tech industry in general - see especially his signal contribution to the history of the 1960s counterculture and how it influenced computers and the Internet, What the Dormouse Said -  has published an article that dovetails with my recent blogspew on life extension.

See this article on the recent very rapid acceleration of genomic sequencing techniques and what it might mean for knowledge about how to extend human lifespans.

The gist: over the past six months, there's been a ten-fold increase in genome sequencing, with performance from new techniques coming in tandem with a dwindling cost, to the point where it looks like, very soon, mapping your own genome will cost around what a blood test does now.

This has potential implications for startling discoveries that could apply to human health, concomitant with a bewildering array of problems with ethics, information sharing, the right to not know if your genes have a nasty turn in store for you, what to do when you know but can't do anything at present about your disease, how insurance will come into play, etc, etc, et freakin' cetera!

Caveat: Markoff, covering a start-up, is one smart reporter, but these freaks with multiple PhDs in computers/biology and medicine, or "bioinformatics" might be making the story look rosier than they know it really is, because they want investors at some point.

Still, this stuff seems like it could really have a huge impact, but it's impossible to forecast, it seems to me. But even if it's half as good as these guys make their new techniques out to be, it's exciting. The very idea of a personalized medicine based on your unique genome. The idea of industrial digital cameras that "read" small sequences of DNA.

What Markoff doesn't point out is that one way we're going to learn a lot with this cheap and very fast technology: we sequence hundred or thousands of genomes and see what they have in common. For example: take ten thousand people with an autoimmune disease like lupus, and see what they all have in common, then zero in on those commonalities. Or similarly: sequence 3000 genomes from people who are 85 and still healthy, active, running around, writing cello sonatas or still making inroads on the neurobiology of memory. (See Kandel, Erik) There's no way we can NOT learn valuable stuff in this way!

The two huge problems with all this knowledge that loom large for any layperson like myself and my Dear Readers is still 1.) how to interpret the data, and furthermore, 2.) how to interpret it in light of the explosion of new knowledge about epigenetics, and the complex role of RNA, and DNA methylation, and the dizzyingly dense difficulty that has certain genes activating due to inner and outer environmental triggers, and other genes turning far-flung genes off, etc. It's still a hard problem, but it seems like the information detonations, with more scientists working on these Hard Problems than ever before in the history of the planet...well...stay tuned.

Here's 5 minutes of John Markoff talking about psychedelic culture and the rise of computer technology:


Sue Howard said...

Wow! - Thanks for this, Michael - brilliant stuff; a great read.

michael said...

Thanks, Sue. Just as I was finishing up I saw the new article for "Anxiety-Inducing Frames," and read it, and thought it was fortuitous and totally germane. Good writing there at News-Frames.

Sue Howard said...

Thanks also for the Rushkoff video link - it seems a remarkably effective, smart & concise bit of communication from Rushkoff (on a complex aeons-spanning issue).

SatoriGuy said...

Fascinating post as usual!

I completely agree about Rushkoff. I learned more from Life Inc. than I did in any economics course I took in university. I can't help but push that book on people whenever a discussion on the economy comes up. Same with Fuller's Critical Path. The economic history section in that book is worth the price alone.

But I'm happy that Rushkoff has been writing for CNN's website regularly. Maybe some of his ideas will start to resonate with the general public.

And it looks like I will definitely have to check out Lakoff's work as well.