Saturday, February 26, 2011

Surfing Essays
Headnote: I posted a brief essay on Surfing At Work in January of 2011
Vocabulary for today: 
left brain and right brain:… Here is a simple definition; here is one by motivated people.   Gestalt: means the whole thing, as in "the whole is different from the sum of its parts." 

Here’s a milestone: my 100th post. (Or 99th) Discerning readers will know that for every 25 essays I like to do a post on the topic of “essays.” These days I have less interest in “essays” in isolation, and a keen interest in “essays on the web.”

So many computer users are what I would call "surfers:" people who click an awful lot ("clickers?") while at their computer. Even if they found a web page for World Peace they would keep their mouse hovering on the “backspace” button rather than give peace a chance. So what’s up with these surfers? And what is the effect of this ceaselessly pounding surf on the shores of society?

Since posting my 75th essay, on Essays and Blogs, I’ve been slowly adjusting to the reality of surfers and writers who don’t enjoy reading. I have been going from denial to anger to acceptance. The adjustment has been a lonely one: In this brave new cyber-world there has been, as yet, very little critical philosophy. Maybe I can add my own little philosophical voice.

I’m sure the best way to approach my opening questions is covertly, while overtly appearing to be talking about my class at work.

Being a Sensei

At work I was asked to create and teach a leadership course to five people in order to give them the skills to move into leadership positions. It’s a challenge: My students are not scholars: They don’t have the word soporific in their vocabularies; they could easily get to asleep at night by trying to read a standard school textbook on management. My intention is to get them over the mountain to being commissioned officers, beyond just being gifted NCOs. Luckily, I have high credibility, and so they accept my teaching of abstract concepts, beyond just the concrete skills they would be expecting.

They were unclear on concepts like corporate organizational pyramids, unaware that agencies like ours, and companies down in Silicon Valley, are exceptional. The normal default, as can be seen in rival agencies across town, is to operate on the traditional “theory X.” I intend to get my class beyond theory Y, beyond Maslow and Herzberg, and to have each student internalize a new default: treating staff as they would volunteers and, accordingly, inspiring staff as they give them orders and directions. (My students have no models for this; my agency has no volunteers) As I see it, solely giving orders, however sweetly done, is the “easy way out.”

Obviously we did role-playing, with me reminding them to note how it felt to be in the “inspire mode.” One day we did something original: First I wrote “overt” and “covert” on my flip chart, two words that are not normally part of our spoken vocabulary. “I have a covert agenda,” I admitted. Then I appeared to switch topics, noting that, when you interview for a for a leadership position, a standard question is “how do you handle stress?” I led them through a standard relaxation exercise that I learned to do lying on the floor in my college drama class. I think the floor is best, but people at university stress workshops learn to relax while sitting up, so that’s how we did it. Luckily I have the credibility to lead them in such a strange exercise.

Doing one section of your body at a time makes the relaxation process learnable, while tensing each section before relaxing is to make one aware of the contrast: Some people go through their lives partly tense and they don’t even knew it. Once we were all relaxed… I had them stand up- and recover the relaxed feeling. I had someone walk, stop, and recover. I had her do it again and then sit back down. Then I asked questions.

Does it make sense that I no longer have to tense each body part first?
Does it make sense that I no longer have to relax one part at a time?
Does it make sense that now I can relax my whole body in just one second?

I reminded them of how you can catch yourself off guard, with no time to get set, while passing a department store window. “Oh, is that what I look like?” The trick, then, is for you to catch yourself at times, see if you are relaxed, and then go through your one-second process to chill out.

I just happened to have a chime with me, and so I smacked it: Tinggggg!

“In Himalayan monasteries they will ring a bell at random times partly so that you can see if you are relaxed.” (And partly to see if you are mindful)
My family background was for me to be a purebred, high-strung human. (A couple friends once laughed to say, “If you’re the worst in your family, then the others must be sloths!”) But now being relaxed is a way of life. I told my class that people may also learn to be relaxed emotionally and mentally, but it is best to learn to be relaxed physically first, because that gives you the faith and confidence that such learning is doable.

I tapped the flip chart. “Remember? It’s time for the covert agenda… Just as over time you can learn to be relaxed at work as a new way of life, as a new default, so too can you learn, over time, to have a new default as a leader.” On the flip chart, facing the class, was last week’s lesson of learning to do the Right thing, not our cultural default Instinctive thing. I said, “Over time, you can learn to instinctively think, “inspire” when you give an order.”

With my legs planted, my voice calm, I looked at my students and said, “I know you can learn a new default, because I have done so…”

… I like teaching. I am mindful of how a business manager (I forget who) once said, in my own words, that learning “management” is not like a how a robot can open his chest compartment and start stacking in new facts and skills. Learning is not pure left brain. Learning is when you suddenly rearrange and “integrate” your stack: To learn is to change, becoming a new person. To become a better manager, then, you need the help of your right brain... But internet surfing, I think, is all left brain.

In this my hundredth post, to answer my two opening questions, I am fast approaching my promised covert agenda.

Surfing and Essays

My goal for my students was for them to learn to be motivated to acquire a new default as their way of life. I felt I had to “sneak up on” this concept by explaining some employee psychology and doing a little flip charting, a little role-playing and a practical in-class relaxation exercise having both an obvious and a secondary agenda. They liked all this learning. Could I have achieved the same result by merely saying the class goal as a sound bite? I don’t mean, “Would they have parroted back that sound bite on an exam?” I mean, “Would they have learned?” Meaning: Would their behavior have changed?

Our boss once told us, ”You have to hear a new thing six times.” In other words, it’s awfully hard to integrate a measly sound bite. I think a former prime minister, Kim Campbell would agree, for she said, “An election is no time to discuss issues.” Meaning: If there is only time for sound bites, then there is no time for fresh learning. (Not in a snap one-month federal election)

What if I had posted a web essay about teaching my class? (As I kind of just did) I can imagine a surfer, with as little attention span as a flea in heat, jumping from sound bite to sound bite, thinking the essay was something about relaxation, while just never grasping how the aim of my essay and class, taken as a whole, or gestalt, was, in fact, to sneak up on the theme of having a default for giving orders…

Surfers in a hurry can graze over facts, but can they integrate them? Change, growth, learning… How can these things be rushed? On February 12th of 2011 a computer expert and essay-blogger, Scott Berkun, posted a “quote of the week” about how Truth cannot be retained for long. I commented the purpose of Literature is to take a less retainable sound bite and, by taking the time to sneak up on it, make it more retainable. Of course, this requires the reader to have an attention span. The problem, as I have previously noted in my essay Surfing at Work, is, I think, that people who rush invariably lapse into their left brain. They won’t appreciate such right brain things as literature, or art, or essays.

Knowing of this default state of surfers, other people are less inclined to put slow right brain stuff onto the web. Hence the web has more photographs than fine art, rather few essays, and no tweets of “Hark! I found some literature on the web.” Such a pity.

Who wants Links?

Enthusiasts for this brave new cyber tech could say, “Hey, we can make links!” Berkun has said he looks for links as proof that a post is worthwhile before he will read it. Maybe he meant feature articles, not essays.

My own excitement for links died… on the day I read a thoughtful post by one of my favorite web essayists, a computer wiz at Google, named Stevey. As you know, certain programming languages, such as Fortran and Cobol, are almost as dead as Latin. Other languages are half-dead, and it was beyond Stevey as to why anyone would waste time learning a dying language when you could put your precious man hours into a more recent, much more powerful language. His essay was to encourage his fellow programmers to prevent any waste of their time.

Perhaps Stevey enjoys linking. Maybe, just like me, after his essay is ready to post, he will conscientiously spend at least an hour going over Google listings to find the best links for his dear readers. For his piece on programming languages, though, I’m sure Stevey thought that searching out a link to a certain useless language he had never used, and would never use, would be exactly what his article was against: a waste of time.

Then one of his “dear readers” scolded him: “Give us a break!” he said, angry that Stevey hadn’t linked to that half-dead language. I was angry too– at the reader! Presumably he is a programmer like Stevey, computer literate, a touch-typist and skilled at web searches. Question: So why not easily do his own search? Answer: He’s obviously a surfer, a flea, jumping from tree to tree but unable to see the forest, in this case the essence of Stevey’s article: "I won’t waste my time on old languages." Note to fleas: You can’t reflect while you click.

Here’s a chilling thought: If that skilled web surfer, besides being so rude and attention span challenged, is also too lazy to type in a search term, then is he also too lazy to be conscientious when he makes his own links? Instead of an hour, does he only spend a minute by linking to the first thing he finds, wikipedia say? If I work so hard to find a link for this not-so-dear reader, then aren’t I setting down an oyster before a pig? My excitement at linking has turned to ashes.

Surf Destroys the Shore

I’ve seen others like that reader, destructive rude trolls, at forum sites such as Reddit and Digg, where people garner pages from the web and post them for comments. In fairness, though, at this point in web history, these forums tend to be mostly for the early adopters of technology: the computer geeks. A computer millionaire, Paul Graham, in an essay on trolls (No, I won’t link) wrote that computer nerds tend to be less social, lacking common people skills. The troll never sees a troll in the mirror.

Earlier I asked: What is the effect of this surf, heedless, surging without cease upon the shore?... I wonder now about the “opportunity cost,” of all those computer users, amidst a dark sprinkling of rudeness, devoting all those man-hours to skimming only the surface of all those superficial pages.

Our society, or at least our surfers, at least for this day in web history, is creating an environment, or medium, where we value learning facts more than the process of learning, and we value rudeness and snap answers over civilized discourse and slow thinking. When Marshal McLuhan said, "The medium in the message" he was echoing John Dewey's belief that "we learn (message) what we do." (medium) For the next quote, I wonder how many hurried surfers would want to be spoon fed as to what to think?

McLuhan seems to have his most difficult moments trying to persuade his audiences that a television set or a newspaper or an automobile or a Xerox machine can be usefully defined as such an environment. And even when his audiences suspend disbelief long enough to probe with him further, McLuhan still  must labor to persuade that the relevant question to ask of such environments is not "What's on TV?" or "What's in the newspaper?" but "In what ways does the structure or process of the medium-environment manipulate our senses and attitudes?" (Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, 1969, p. 17) 

Well. Where does that leave an average guy like me? If I were to write my essays strictly with stereotypical surfers in mind then I would have to write “essays that are superficial,” because they read by skimming, being ignorant of gestalt, and I'd write “essays that are impersonal,” because trolls might try to hurt my feelings. How boring! … Worst of all: I’d never work hard on “essays that sneak up,” not for any of the big issues that have baffled people down the generations. Writing for surfers, I would have to give up on “essays that promote the good fight for lost causes.” Such a pity, because lost causes, the sort that trolls and hyenas will rush to tear apart, are the only ones worth fighting for.

Sean Crawford
Gazing down at a sunless sea…
February 2011
~Against snap answers is my essay Too Fast, Too Wrong

~Don’t you love the power of three’s?

~I see I’ve mentioned my three favorite computer programmer essayists in this essay; three other writers would be Roger Ebert (to the right on his home page) Little Rivkah (a growing comic artist) and Riley Harrison. (who graciously commented on my 75th piece)

~For anyone with the true grit to go to my homepage, three related essays, since my 75th, are
Reading and Rushing   (December 2010)
Surfing at Work   (January 2011)
Fluffy Social Media   (November 2010)

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