Society and culture

is the title of a lovely observational essay by Momus, who’s in Japan, envying train drivers:

“This Tokyu Line employee seemed to have the very soul of a train driver. He had made train driving his religion. He made me feel admiration and jealousy. I wanted his commitment, his dignity. I wanted to wear white gloves and make delicate ceremonial gestures even while doing something completely pragmatic and down-to-earth. I wanted to cry out with ecstasy every time I crossed points. As this driver, I would never feel unimportant. I would feel, in fact, like a star. I would catch glimpses of fascination and envy from children and adults alike. I’d never be surprised to find myself being photographed or filmed. It would seem perfectly natural that video game arcades featured simulations of my job. My glamour would be apparent, though lightly-worn. I would hand over to the next driver with a low bow and a deep sense of satisfaction, not to have the job behind me, but to have the same glories ahead of me tomorrow, and forever. Whatever I was paid would be okay. My reward would be a deep sense of legitimacy. Superlegitimacy, a rich reward.”

He goes on makes a list of “a cluster of ‘irreducibly Japanese values’ which might be hiding in the micro-gestures of some ordinary social interaction”, which sound like beautiful culture ships:

  • Superlegitimacy

  • Mutual capitulation
  • Cute Formalism
  • Society as ‘The Voice of Heaven’
  • The veneration of smallness
  • The universality of fetish
  • Micro-metaphysics
    • the investment of small, practical actions with ‘undue’ gravitas and charisma

I’m really enjoying Momus’s writing in his LiveJournal, but I must confess I’ve never heard any of his music. I’d like to. Any ideas of where I should start?

From Melvyn Bragg’s “In our time” newsletter:

“After the programme a lot of the talk was about a word new to me: ‘presentism’. This is the burden under which historians who teach say that they labour increasingly, ie: everything in the past (more than 10 or 15 years ago) has to be described first in terms of the present.

The idea of a century or even a previous generation being radically different from our own in its political structure, its transport structure, etc, is, I was told, increasingly hard to grab hold of.”

» BBC Radio 4: In our time


Democracy-Hack and all-round great idea launched this sunday at the excellent and exhausting NotCon, and seems to be climbing the charts nicely.

For those of you who haven’t poked around there yet – it’s a service that takes the report of the day’s proceedings in the UK Parliament, Hansard, and rechunks it with the ability to be annotated and commented on by the electorate, plus a bunch of other great tools for tracking your MP or issues you care about through Parliament.

After all the noise and fury around “digital democracy”, the Howard Dean campaign and the like from our friends across the water, it’s nice to see a thoughtful, useful and downright inspired piece of work like TWFY getting some coverage.

Great work by a gang I’m proud to know, and great to see Chuck D. and Hank Shocklee as the support band.

My old school Porthcawl Comprehensive, in South Wales has introduced a SMS-surveillance system to stop truancy, with the delightfully honest name of “Informer”, that enables the school to text parents if kids are not present at class:

“Porthcawl Comprehensive School has had an Informer system for over a year.

Head teacher Kenneth Dykes found that while not all parents were enthusiastic, the system has helped improve communication between school and home. He said, “Being able to communicate with parents to let them know that their child has not attended registration has helped us increase attendance and keep in touch with parents more often.”

I look forward to reading how the kids in Porthcawl Comp inevitably hack their way around this…

» icWales: Text messaging helps schools beat truancy

Stephen Shaviro, on “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes:

“Basically, Jaynes argues that consciousness, as we understand it today, has only been possessed by human beings for the last four thousand years or so. (By “consciousness” he means, not the primary perceptual awareness that all mammals, and perhaps many other ‘lower’ organisms as well, seem to possess, but what I would prefer to call self-consciousness, or second-order consciousness: the ability to reflect upon oneself, to introspect, to narrate one’s existence).

Jaynes proposes that, in the second millennium BC and before, human beings were not self-conscious, and did not reflect upon what they did; rather, people heard voices instructing them in what to do, and they obeyed these voices immediately and unreflectively.

These voices were believed (to the extent that “belief” is a relevant category in such circumstances) to be the voices of gods; their neurological cause was probably language issuing from the right hemisphere of the brain, and experienced hallucinatorily, and obeyed, by the left hemisphere (which is where speech is localized today).

This is why Jaynes calls the archaic mind a non-conscious, “bicameral” one. Thought was linguistic, but it did not have any correlates in consciousness; people didn’t make decisions, but instead the decisions were made automatically, and conveyed by the voices. One half of the brain commanded the other, so that decision-making and action were entirely separate functions. Neither of these hemispheres was “conscious” in the modern sense.

It was only as the result of catastrophic events in the second millennium BC that these voices fell silent, and were replaced by a new invention, that which we now know as self-conscious, reflective thought.

Jaynes introduces his theory by making reference to the Iliad, in which there is almost no description of interiority and subjectivity, or of conscious decision-making; instead, all the characters act at the promptings of the gods, who give them commands that they obey without question.”


» The Pinocchio Theory: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Consumer is a horrible word. User is not much better. Gene at

“…for me it conjures up pictures of a pale, trembling arm with a needle full of smack (YMMV, of course ;-). Of course many of the folks who sell to the “consumer” have almost exactly that metaphor in mind as their success model, but let’s not go there.

A colleague here at Nokia suggest a simple substitute for both words, after hearing me whine one-time-too-many about the usage of ‘consumer’.

He suggested “Individual”.

Does that work? A quick mental search-and-replace as a test:

  • User-centred design = Individual-centred design
  • Consumer electronics = Electronics for individuals
  • Consumer awareness = Individual’s awareness
  • User interface = Interface to an individual

Hmmm. 7/10 maybe. A bit tricky to construct replacement phrases, so can’t really see it taking off.

Of course the real difficulty with replacing ‘consumer’ and ‘user’ in commercial discourse is that they are words which make it easier for those of us designing or communicating with individuals or customers to objectify them; keep ourselves separate and aloof from them – perhaps necessary in some respects (“you are not your audience” etc.) and harmful in others.

Any thoughts?

Via a post by Andrew Zolli on neuroethics, reccomendation of Zack Lynch’s corante site “Brainwaves”, and it’s coverage of NBIC 2004. Lynch explains:

“NBIC, pronounced ‘N-bic’, stands for the convergence of nanotechnology, information technology, biotechnology and cognitive science.

Some great stuff there about Humans as Infovores, the comparative advantages of polytheistic religions in the age of NBIC (cf. Gibson, Morrison…)

» Corante: Brainwaves

The first (?) mysociety project goes live: Some of the prolific democracyhackers behind were involved, including Tomski, who introduces the site thus:

Downing Street Says turns the online-but-deeply-hidden transcript of each day’s briefings for lobby journalists into a blog where we can all read and comment upon No.10’s official line.

It got built in a couple of weeks by half a dozen people. All in different locations. In their spare time. Co-ordinated almost entirely via mailing lists.”

This is great. The prime minister’s statements permalinked, trackbacked, commented. Taking buried-but-public stuff and turning it into seeds for discourse and deliberation.

The excellent FAQ makes the point better:

“Q. Remind me again, what’s in it for me?

We let you:

  1. Read and search through what the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman actually said at each lobby briefing, in context.
  2. Leave your own comments on what was said, and to read other people’s.
  3. Find out what people across the web are saying about government policy, via those funny trackback links which appear at the bottom of every answer.”

And on how it was built:

“Running a website, contrary to what most highly-paid Net consultants will tell you, can come in very, very cheap. If you can get enough people to volunteer their time and expertise, you can create even quite complex internet projects in double quick time for almost no money. A large proportion of the Internet consists of volunteer projects like ours.”

Finding something like this when one wakes up makes one almost optimistic!

Well done all who built it… and of course well done for launching it on such an auspicious day.


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