The Tree of Life

Brain Shaped Tree, image by Bill Booth

The Tree of Life may be the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (or not); in his film called “The Tree of Life,” Terence Malick plays with the universals – grace and nature parallel good and evil. Nature is will, ego; grace is nurturing. The film’s narrative plays out in Waco, Texas and in the vast cosmos, infinite space and time, surrounding it; it places one very human story in a vast transhuman context.  In one primeval scene, one dinosaur, a predator, chooses not to kill and consume another… this establishes grace as something that precedes the human; I think the point is that nature and grace always coexisted, and always will, and grace seeps into nature. “Good” and “evil” are complex and intertwingled.

I thought the film was magnificent; in it I saw scenes familiar from my own life growing up in a Texas town in the 50s and 60s, though I wasn’t in that family, and I was far more innocent. And Malick’s family has no television set in the living room… imagine what a difference that would make.

The vision of the “tree of life” represents a sense that all life on earth is related… and there’s a tree of life web project that shows that connectedness. The planet is teeming with life, but all species are endangered by the actions and operations of one – is this nature acting without grace? Last night Oliver Markley spoke to the Central Texas World Future Society on the subject of risk and resilience – is civilization at a tipping point toward collapse?

Some issues seem to exceed even the management skills of the more advanced countries, however. When countries first detected falling underground water tables, it was logical to expect that governments in affected countries would quickly raise water use efficiency and stabilize population in order to stabilize aquifers. Unfortunately, not one country—industrial or developing—has done so. Two failing states where overpumping water and security-threatening water shortages loom large are Pakistan and Yemen.

Although the need to cut carbon emissions has been evident for some time, not one country has succeeded in becoming carbon-neutral. Thus far this has proved too difficult politically for even the most technologically advanced societies. Could rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere prove to be as unmanageable for our early twenty-first century civilization as rising salt levels in the soil were for the Sumerians in 4000 BC?

Another potentially severe stress on governments is the coming decline in oil production. Although world oil production has exceeded new oil discoveries by a wide margin for more than 20 years, only Sweden and Iceland actually have anything that remotely resembles a plan to effectively cope with a shrinking supply of oil.

This is not an exhaustive inventory of unresolved problems, but it does give a sense of how their number is growing as we fail to solve existing problems even as new ones are being added to the list. Analytically, the challenge is to assess the effects of mounting stresses on the global system. These stresses are perhaps most evident in their effect on food security, which was the weak point of many earlier civilizations that collapsed.

I think it’s time to pay attention.

Photo by Bill Booth, licensed via Creative Commons

Jay Rosen on the state and future of journalism

Jay Rosen has a terrific post about the state of media, beginning with this clip from the film “Network”:

Pretty timely, eh?

Jay analyzes the scene:

… the filmmakers are showing us what the mass audience was: a particular way of arranging and connecting people in space. Viewers are connected “up” to the big spectacle, but they are disconnected from one another. Or to use the term I have favored, they are “atomized.” But Howard Beale does what no television person ever does: he uses television to tell its viewers to stop watching television.

When they disconnect from TV and go to their windows, they are turning away from Big Media and turning toward one another. And as their shouts echo across an empty public square they discover just how many other people had been “out there,” watching television in atomized simultaneity, instead of doing something about the inarticulate rage that Beale put into words. (“I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the streets. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad!”)

He goes on to ask what would happen today in response to a “Howard Beale” event…

Immediately people who happened to be watching would alert their followers on Twitter. Someone would post a clip the same day on YouTube. The social networks would light up before the incident was over. Bloggers would be commenting on it well before professional critics had their chance. The media world today is a shifted space. People are connected horizontally to one another as effectively as they are connected up to Big Media; and they have the powers of production in their hands.

Jay follows with an expansion of his comments, and concludes with a set of recommendations for today’s journalists. (The post is a must-read for journalists and news bloggers.)

There’s been too much hand-wringing over the supposed collapse of journalism as we know it, but journalism’s never been more exciting, never had the kind of tools and channels of information available today. We’re seeing, not collapse, but evolution. I’m wanting to spend more and more time with journalists, and think more and more about the relationship of professional journalism to blogging and other more or less informal information channels.

Times are changing: foraging, simplicity, Shirky-smart, etc.

Two of the best ideas I heard this week were curated or catalyzed by Clay Shirky.

One is the mathematical concept of the Lévy flight, which I already wrote about in my last post.

The other is in a link e-Patient Dave sent me. I ran across it again in a discussion of models for connectivity (“freedom to connect”). In a post called “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” Clay discusses Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, applying Tainter’s thinking to the web and digital media. Tainter says that societies that become increasingly sophisticated will tend to collapse, not despite their sophistication, but because of it.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

He then goes on to explain the evolution of complex and entrenched procedures within sophisticated, high quality media production, and how these are now trumped by the popularity of (commitment of mindshare to) simple, “good enough” media. Clay’s closing paragraph:

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

Interesting to note that there are no comments on this post, only pingbacks (links to it by others). It’s an important, already influential piece.

The first point, about foraging, is that people don’t necessarily sustain adoption of something, even if they really really like it. In the early days of blogging, I made this point in talking about links and hits from blogrolls and RSS feeds. Someone finds your blog, they really like it, so they add the link to their news aggregator. Everytime the news aggregator updates, the link to your blog produces hits, but those hits are questionable, because a common behavior is to add an RSS feed, read it for a while if at all, then move on to something else. People don’t get the web delivered every morning as a newspaper, or monthly as a magazine. It’s not push, it’s pull, and they’re surfing based on criteria other than loyalty. We have to adjust our thinking accordingly.

The second point is that complexity reaches a point of diminishing return, costs escalate beyond what we’re willing to pay, and whole systems break as a result. With media, it’s not just that it’s simpler to make something that is compelling and gets mindshare. It’s that simpler access to “good enough” media (via the web) trumps more complex (or costly) access via movies or television. Consider the traffic in torrents of lower def but “good enough” copies of movies, television shows, record albums, etc. Or think of simpler paid access to slightly more lossy music/video via iTunes, or Hulu.

There’s more to talk about, like the social thing – we’re committing mindshare to online conversations that, before, we might have commmitted to passive consumption of television programming. But you get the drift – behaviors are changing online. And low-cost/free/good-enough is as entrenched in online culture as expensive/complex/high quality is entrenched in old media culture.

Times are changing. And I’m out of time, for the moment.

SXSW 2010 Notes: Universities in the Era of Free

I think what’s happening with universities today reflects what’s happening in other fields – journalism, other forms of publishing including the music industry, energy, manufacturing, retail, the old doctom era, etc. Things are just changing everywhere. Old business models aren’t working.

The presenters here, Glenn Platt and Peg Faimon, note that the university has been an enduring institution but it’s resting on its laurels and has to think about changing. They described an image, taken from Daniel Quinn but we’ve all seen it, of a peddling flying machine attempting a takeoff over a cliff, having that momentary sensation of flying but actually falling. Higher education is facing unparalleled crisis, tectonic changes. Universities are in a state of collapse. Some entrepreneurs are doing well in this space, but the traditional universities are crumbling.

The speakers went on to convey some lists…

What are universities for?
1) Convey knowledge
2) Create knowledge (research)
3) Develop the (well-rounded, not just professional) person.
4) Contribute to society, at levels both local and global.
5) Have a “signal ability” – higher education as a signaling model, signaling the quality of a person coming out of the institution. This is a validation: “I’m smart because I have a degree.”
6) Seed innovation, working with industry.

But the system’s breaking down:
1) Costs are too high. Tuition is becoming too expensive for common enrollment, the University’s out of reach for some, yet schools are still in the red. I.e. they can’t charge enough to sustain their activities.
2) “You have to go to the mountain” and prostrate yourself to the guru in order to get single-centered knowledge.
3) There’s no control over the clock. You have to do it over the university’s timetable (~6 yrs.) and schedule.
4) The experts are local. You can only access the teachers on your campus. Expertise lies in networks – higher education finds that disturbing.
5) Universities change “one funeral at a time.” Because of tenure, professors aren’t judged by productivity. There’s no sense of market pressures. Change management is difficult.
6) Faculties hire people just like themselves.

What’s driving the breakdown? Tectonic change:
1) Change in learning styles. People learn differently now. They way they manifest themselves has changed.
2) Collapse of disciplinary structure: “know more and more about less and less until they know nothing” – against the tendency today to be broad AND deep.
3) Acceleration of K-12, where people are learning things previously taught in college. “Senior to sophomore” – seniors are testing out of the freshman year at collage, starting with a full year of credit. This has a negative impact on some curricula that depend on that first year to lay a foundation.
4) Networking technologies are flattening hierarchies.
5) Students and parents as consumers – there’s more of a consumer mind set in determining about schools to attend and what to study.
6) Employers are more active in developing curricula, companies have more influence. There’s more of a market focus, but universities don’t do this well.
7) Location independence.
8) The Internet.

Entrepreneurs stepping in – disruptions:
1) Open Courseware, various online learning opportunities including those at MIT, Itunes University, LectureFox, NPR Forum Network, TED, Open Culture, Research Channel, etc.
2) Textbooks more accessible online, via Google Books, Flat World, Textbook Revolution, Course Smart, etc. There’s also,,, etc. And there’s University of the People, a tuition-free online university. Also OpenUniversity in the UK. And the University of Phoenix currently has 150,000 MBA students.

How does the traditional university evolve? The professor of the future is….
1) Experience designer.
2) Project manager.
3) Angel investor – identify resources and solve problems, map the road to success.
4) Curator – find and make sense of the wealth of free information online. What’s more and less valuable?
5) Resource allocator.
6) Life coach.
7) Validator (as with the signaling model)

Where to begin. These recommendations are about bigger picture thinking, more holistic approaches, working across disciplines, being grounded in the “real” world, etc.  Internet/social  technology is an enabler.
1) Experiential learning. Interdisciplinary, project-based courses. Resume builders that also teach how to deal with ambiguity.
2) Multi-institutional collaborations. Need to engage with one another, think globally, maximize resources of each institution. Study-abroad programs are included here. Branch campuses.
3) Train PhDs to think more contextually. PhD’s are thoroughly trained in their specific subjects, but there are no classes that teach PhDs how to teach, or how to be contextual. (I assume what they mean by “be contextual” is look at, think about, and present facts in context, rather than divorced from context).
4) Strategic industry and non-profit partnerships: “we all need each other.”
5) Get rid of tenure. (This is evidently a big issue for Platt.)
6) Student-driven inquiry.
7) Facilitate collaboration.
8) De-privilege institutional content – the Creative Commons/Science Commons idea of making data and other content shareable and usable  across institutions.
9) Reward failure. Get rid of the doctrine of “publish or perish.” Allow time to fail and innovate.
10) Get rid of Departments and focus on Questions. Bennington is  doing this, according to the speakers, and I found this idea particularly intriguing and challenging. This would drive multidisciplinary approaches. Teaches students how to ask and answer questions – presumably how to find the right questions, too. Kevin Leahy would like this (
11) Think like an entrepreneur.
12) Give more than you get.
13) Hire people that think this way.

Another shaggy apocalypse story

I should say more about the “Collapse” preview I just posted – don’t want to mislead. For every pile of ashes there’s a great squawking phoenix, after all.

In fact I can’t say that we’re not screwed – god knows what unforeseen dangers are lurking in our little corner of the universe. The sun could explode, or the planet could implode. The Yellowstone caldera is overdue for a cataclysmic eruption. All hell could break lose.

And if you’re conversant with Buddhist thinking, you know that all things are impermanent.

That said, I also know that we’re remarkably resilient and we can probably survive more than we know. The real question (as in the global warming controversies) is this: is there something we can do now to avert a catastrophe, and should we be doing it? Those who once denied “global warming” (I prefer climate change), faced with incontrovertible evidence that Something Is Up, are now acknowledging that point but arguing that there’s nothing we can do about it (i.e., we shouldn’t do anything to disturb tourism on Amity Island, even as Bruce the shark cruises the waters, looking for hors d’oeuvres.)

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.