Can we have some Bildung, please?

The Germanic languages are filled with several words packed with historical context and culture that makes them virtually untranslatable (schadenfreude, angst, blitzkrieg, doppelgänger, ersatz).

So while the British are boastfully proud of their bad weather they don’t have a word like the Swedish “Uppehållsväder” which describes a surprising lull between rainstorms. It’s a word for the absence of falling rain.

Among the more interesting words is “bildning” which comes from the German word “bildung” and is described by Wikipedia as:

…refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation, (as related to the German for: creation, image, shape), wherein philosophy and education are linked in manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation.  This maturation is described as a harmonization of the individual’s mind and heart and in a unification of selfhood and identity within the broader society…

On one level there is an element of education so a person of bildung is a person who is educated but it cannot be confused with education as that would be too simplistic. So how on earth should I translate this term?

There are several terms that seem to be used almost as synonyms liberal education, liberal arts, lifelong learning, adult or civic education, folk education (which stems from another Germanic term Folkbildning). The problem is that all these terms have odd connotations which drag the term in “wrong” directions:

The prefix Liberal brings to mind studies of classics and while this naturally can play a part it is hardly necessary today to have read Homer to be considered a person of bildung.

Lifelong learning may have the unfortunate associations with some form of refresher course necessary to enable people to remain relevant in some context.

Adult education feels like its all about getting people back into the job market after being made redundant. It smacks of re-education.

And any use of the prefix Folk raises pictures of some form of arts and crafts movement or carries the unnecessary connections with folk art or folk singing.

So the problem remains: Can we really discuss that of which we have no name? Is the mind controlled by the word? (sapir whorf hypothesis) or it may be that the word we use is not be so important – just the fact that we point towards the concept shows the importance of bildung.

No matter what I am still stuck attempting to explain bildung briefly and elegantly in a text. And without the word the concept is clumsy: Any tips?

Wiseguys of Academia

An interesting discussion on academic life leads me to arrive at some sort of conclusion… is being academia like being in the mafia?

Beginning at the bottom we are the undergrads. A bunch of thugs pushing theories like blunt tools. Unsure how they should be used, unsure what they mean but we slowly reach the conclusion: For some this brush with the system is enough – they are scared straight and go on to normal fruitful lives. For the others we begin our slow climb upwards, which begins with the recognition of a desire. We simulate theory, assimilate method but in reality still basically use these a blunt instruments in our own work. We are the wannabes.

We graduate to our master’s thesis. We struggle to be noticed by the Phd students, Phd’s and many levels of professors. We are discerning a structure, its still a mix of awe and mystery but we recognize there are a path and a hierarchy. There is less pointless use of violence but we are fully prepared to use our strengths to impress those above. We remain squeamish about acting as enforcers.

The first real step is to be inducted into the crew. We are chosen by a professor to work on a major project of our own. We are not seen as particularly profitable but we are vaguely useful. The tests are many. Acquiring knowledge seems almost secondary to learning the codes, traditions and manners of our crew. We adopt gang colors and sneer at other gangs for their lack of stringent theories or their sloppy methods – we are on the true path, we are the most loyal supporters. We are the small time enforcers pushed forward in conferences and seminars to fight for the amusement of our superiors.

During this process we grow as individuals are singled out for different paths and purposes. We begin to prove our worth and more importantly our potential for increasing the value of our chosen crew. We make our bones by attending and surviving conferences and bringing honor to our supervisors. Failing at this is not an option… many simply disappear for failing here.

The moment of truth occurs when we defend our own positions within the culture of our families. To survive the viva is to become a made man. We leave behind the role of soldier, and have obtained the first step to true power within our families and may begin the journey onwards.

From Wikipedia:

A made man is traditionally seen as “untouchable” by fellow criminals, a man to be respected and feared. To attack, let alone kill, a made man for any reason without the permission of mafiosi higher up in the organization is a cardinal sin normally met with severe retaliation (usually death), often regardless of whether the perpetrator had a legitimate grievance. A made man can however be killed if a good enough reason is provided and the Mafia bosses give permission.

Translation: no grad, undergrad, or PhD student poses a serious threat to your position. But your position within the organization is still insecure. Incurring the displeasure of the capo (professor), the Don (dean of the faculty) or the Consigliere (Faculty Chief administrator) can incur the death penalty or banishment from the family.

From this point we begin to diversify our interests. We still run the scams and games created by those who have sponsored us into the family. Our loyalty is still to the family but we are also beginning to create our own lines of income and power (research grants). This is permissible as long as we still show deference to the Don and make sure he gets a cut (of money and citations). To be profitable is to survive.

If nothing goes wrong, and you continue to prove your worth, you graduate to capo famiglia (full tenure). From this point the underlings look up to you, you walk the campus with a security and sense of power that only the chosen few have. A wave of the hand decides whether underlings live or die. Power struggles within the family (other professors) and with other families (other faculties) are common. Occasionally families act in concert (called a university) and attempt to beat out other universities in vicious turf wars.

The end of a long successful career may lead to a position of respect and admiration (emeritus) however many good soldiers have disappeared on the way.

IR13: notes from a conference

This is part conference report and part therapy. For the inadequacy of the former I give you my apologies, for the erratic gushing of the latter I offer none.

I cannot really blog the explosion of experience that is the Internet Research conference. It’s a gathering of the creative intelligentsia of my tribe. You cannot swing a cat without hitting someone attempting to debunk, reinterpret, explore, tease out, affect or simply study an amazing little feature that is technology and life. Some of these are pointed out by the newbies in a hushed tone using the honorific “the”, as in isn’t that The so-and-so. But this quickly changes and the fans are seamlessly made into friends and friends form this tribe and shape this conference.

Code is the invisible omission of the gathering. It’s always there but seldom mentioned, and sometimes, I fear, a bit misunderstood. But Susanna Paasonen captured the true nature of worlds created by codes: In a world of code, gaps and omissions can become knots of anxiety. Pure poetry.

It’s not a code conference. Mary L Gray put it well, she no longer wants to do toaster studies. When we become so immersed in technology then technology itself should not be the focus. Studying another toaster will not achieve much. It’s a people conference with a core of intelligent strong women. Usually I don’t care about the gender of a panel but when a conference begins with a panel of female power researchers – you notice.

The scholarship is first class – expect nothing less! But what sets IR apart is the passion of the delivery. Passion was set by the first speakers and absolutely lifted to a next level when Terri Senft gave her talk. Picture it: we were in a darkened theatre, she spoke without slides, capturing the audience by segments until she had us all. You could have heard a pin drop! Or to be more clear: we were mesmerized and stopped twittering bon mots and pithy phrases. Thank you Terri you made my conference with that passion and by demanding we shift attention from meaning to mattering.

The idea of IR is to capture the elusive meaning of technology this also was set forth in the beginning when in reply to a question about listening to users experiences with technologies replied: Sometimes a boring-ass story about a phone isn’t really about a phone.

From this the all too brief days become an intense mix of ideas, conversations, papers, discussion, disagreements, arguments and support. And it has a twitter channel that equals to a presidential debate (well, in tweets per capita). You may have guessed by now its about the conversation. Anybody can create a conference where we present papers – creating a forum for discussion is differnet. In many conferences the words “I disagree” are usually hidden underneath another phrase but here if you have the ideas you push them: titles, publication lists and other academic merits be damned – here they talk.

This is where a true conference blog becomes pointless. This crowd has history reflected in memes and traditions – some more obscure than others. There is Senft’s hair, Zizi’s hats and, of course, the sing star (or Kylie’s passion). Where there is culture there is counterculture (what else could the short lived Kruse Klang hair appreciation society be?)

Highlights for me were – and of course I will miss many:

Tim Hutchings mix of religion and technology “of course there is an app for that” and understanding surviellance through scripture. Hey Zuck! God was the original source of radical transparency! Lorie Kendall’s look at personal archiving and geneologi basically turned serveral concepts upside down – the family is not about togetherness but a legitimacy for the individual. Joseph Regal’s infocide: the fascinating study of people in open content movements who decide to leave their online life sometimes removing all traces sometimes removing just themselves.

Activism turned out to be a major theme. Most of these academics are, or present like, activists but the tracks that contain activism and activism studies also shows that internet is a crucial infrastructure for social movements. We knew this but the studies show how, who, why and concerns about the future.

The best new term I learned came from an audience comment: asphal: the Indonesian term for a thing that isn’t authentic but works anyway. Imagine this as a part of a piracy, plagiarism or trademark discourse?

The social events are social. Meeting new people and old friends. Looking for real ale in Manchester with the Culture & Communications people from Drexell was a highlight.

This rambling will stop here. This is my second time at IR and I highly recommend it to all who are interested in Internet Research.

The Professor as Olympian 

Via @thesiswhisperer I arrived at John Regehr’s post The PhD Grind, and Why Research Isn’t Like Sex which is a comment on Phil Guo’s online book The PhD Grind. Both the blogpost and the book are good reads but what amused me was the final part of the post which attempts to address the question if you are not aiming to be a professor then why do a PhD. To which Guo writes:

Here is an imperfect analogy: Why would anyone spend years training to excel in a sport such as the Ironman Triathlon—a grueling race consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run—when they aren’t going to become professional athletes? In short, this experience pushes people far beyond their physical limits and enables them to emerge stronger as a result. In some ways, doing a Ph.D. is the intellectual equivalent of intense athletic training.

As Guo states it’s an imperfect analogy but the thought of many of my friends, colleagues and I as professional athletes made me laugh out loud. All the years of sitting to close too the screen and reading dense texts hardly give this appearance.

Science is the poetry of reality

The British Humanist Association have created a great little video Introduction to Humanism. Its basically a six minute explanation of what humanism is. But what makes it particularly great is the people who do the talking in the movie. They are a star cast: Rumy Hasan, A.C. Grayling, Polly Toynbee, Tim Minchin, Phillip Pullman, Zoe Margolis, Andrew Copson & Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins enthusiasm for science is wonderful and inspiring in the video he says: “Science is the poetry of reality”

Killing humanites: A rage against the machine

Its painful to admit, but it seems that my own University of Göteborg (GU) is anti-humanities. Last year GU axed nine languages (Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Hebrew, Dutch, Polish, Slovenian and Czech). This year they added Italian, Russian, Greek and Old Church Slavonic.

Surely this is no real big thing you may argue – many universities are killing the humanities and besides what’s the loss of dropping Old Church Slavonic? Well first off I would like to begin with an emotional argument by Heinrich Heine: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.” When we begin to cut, we will cut to the bone and bleed to death.

But more importantly the thoughts that the humanities are unnecessary, or even more stupidly, unprofitable is so obviously foolish that it pains me to see when it is used as an argument.

What are universities for? Most seem to think that they are there to get people jobs. A strange illusion but quite prevalent, the problem is that we have no idea what will be needed in the future so designing universities for this purpose is obviously silly.

But don’t take my ineloquent word for it. Listen to the humorous and thoughtful Ken Robinson (author of The Element: How finding your passion changes everything)

There is an additional problem by streamline, focusing on core competencies and cutting the fat – it’s that we create armies of reasonably identical people who have the same backgrounds and thoughts. And from this we expect them to be innovative and new-thinking. Seriously, could you believe that??

The philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum develops these arguments in her wonderful and thoughtful book: Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

But please don’t get the impression that all of Sweden is a wasteland of real thought and culture. There are several deep and interesting researchers and thinkers. Specifically, I would like to point to the shining example of Ola Wikander, a fantastic example of a young scholar he has eight books (his own and translations) ranging from Canaanite myths to popularizing theories and developments of language. His focus is the epitome of “useless” humanities research (seriously its even called  dead languages). But in reality his works affects more people than a whole pile of average MBAs… Yet, he is the odd one.

The problem is that the MBA’s – with their incredible lack of knowledge – believe that they can create more by eliminating that which is not attractive to everyone. Popularity is the order of the day. Unfortunately the MBA’s are the ones who are running the universities right now. Hopefully, this will change before we have pushed our mental gene pool to the point of extinction. In the meantime my university just became a tad more irrelevant, less competitive and more redundant. Thanks guys! How efficiently you create our demise.

In the meantime, while the mental gene pool at my university shrinks, all we can do is rage against the machine.

Is performance lifestyle harmful?

Many years ago while on holiday at the Versailles palace I noticed an amusing pair of tourists. He was tall, large and filming everything with his camera. She was short and slim and trying to hold the audio guide close to the camera while he panned over the ceilings – the effect was an amusing dance through the gilded halls. What struck me was that neither of them seemed to be enjoying the present but were more interested in producing a record of the trip.

When I talk about social media (which I seem to do a lot) I often refer to Performance Lifestyle. This is the documentation of our lives to an imaginary or perceived audience. One of the minor effects is to create the extra-ordinary in an ordinary life. Online people don’t (for example) simply drink coffee but they either drink terrible or fabulous coffee. Or maybe they create a special interest in coffee and create a type of art or research project around the mundane event of coffee drinking (I’m guilty of this). The point is that since we live normal lives we need to create a supernormal version of everyday events.

Some may find this silly, but silly does not make it pointless. Many find sport silly, but to those with the interest it is hardly silly. Silly is therefore not an interesting measurement. But what if our performance lifestyles could be harmful in some way? In a recent lecture I argued that

One of the interesting things about technology is the way in which it enables us to do things which we normally cannot do. But it is also interesting that technology encourages us to do things differently. For example there seems to be a change in the way in which we react today when we witness an accident or emergency.

1. Photograph the event
2. Tweet the photo
3. Update status on Facebook
4. Call emergency services

Naturally this is apocryphal but it has a sad ring of truth about it.

This is something I would like to study closer but it is difficult to find a methodology to prove or disprove this effect. But take a look at what happened during the Oslo bombing on the 22 July, 2011.

This is a screenshot portion of this page. Click view image to view full size.

Time 15:25 The bomb goes off at 15:25 and 22 seconds. At 38 seconds the blast registers on NORSAR seismic data equipment at Løten. At 45 seconds the tweet “Holy Crap did Oslo just explode?”

Time 15:26 The police receive their first notification

Time 15:28: 10 seconds tweet “Shit! Office window blew up! What happened?”, 21 seconds tweet “Loud band in center of Oslo, what was it?”, 44 seconds tweet “Bomb downtown”

Time 15:29: 3 seconds tweet “Lightning, bomb, terror? What happend at Youngstorget? Our office was crushed!”

This page has a fascinating chronological list of tweets.

This is fascinating stuff but there are several problems here. First is the time – how exact are these measurements, what could or should be the reaction times to expect? Is it fair to make generalizations from the communication of shocked people in an event of this magnitude? What about the more banal everyday accidents that occur in our lives? How could we effectively observe and measure the ways in which our technology changes the ways in which we react to everyday emergencies? It’s all good and well to say things we think to be true but how do we actually conduct research around this topic? Seriously, I’m asking you. Only then could I answer the question posed in the title.

Fools and their money are easily parted

Christmas is really the time for bullshit gifts. This is not really criticism, I am all for buying crap – even though I would prefer not to be such a consumer. But there are times when I feel like shouting “Enough!!!”

This is how I felt when I came across this little spout used to pour wine. This is a good example of your usual crap – not unusual. But what is really unusual are the bullshit claims that the manufacturer makes.

Its a bottle pourer with a uniquely integrated magnetic field which, according to the manufacturer, ages the wine as you pour and then “opens” and “enhances” the wine’s flavours.

What a crock! If you really want an overpriced spout for you bottles – fine. But there is no way in science that pouring your wine through a magnetic field does anything at all to the taste. Even using industrial strength super-magnets will not change, improve, age, enhance or do anything else with your wine.

Then again the concept of the healing powers of magnetism are age old. But remember that bullshit, even old bullshit, is still bullshit.

P. T. Barnum is supposed to have said “There’s a sucker born every minute” and around Christmas they seem to be about in greater numbers than normal.