April 13, 2005
Malcolm Gladwell probably considers himself a "journalist" or just "writer", but I'm more inclined to view him as something of a prosumer philosopher. Even more then his first hit, The Tipping Point his new work, Blink is a book about a concept. And if one is to believe Gilles Deleuze (as I seem to be inclined to do perhaps a bit too frequently) then the creation of concepts is exactly what a philosopher does. And while Gladwell gives no indication he has even heard of Deleuze, the core concept of Blink is a subject dear to the late philosopher's heart, the space in the human mind where rational thought fails to enter, where discourse collapses into a univocality, where instinct and thinking are one and the same.
Gladwell interestingly puts forth what is essentially an argument for nonrationalism using hard rationalist techniques. A repeated theme of the book is the "thin slice". The thin slice is essentially a period of time where decisions are made so quickly that they can not be rationally thought through. The core concept of the book is that these thin slices or blinks are extremely powerful, capable of producing decisions that sometimes brilliant and at other times devastatingly wrong. Like Deleuze places these nonrationalist decisions at the core of human experience. But by relying extensively on the slice, the rationalist/analytical operation of breaking apart a problem into component parts in order to understand it, Gladwell ends up with a somewhat more limited concept then Deleuze. Gladwell is only really able to reach this very interesting space by breaking apart actions rationally until they no longer can be broken apart. Hence the focus on the "blink" the split second decision. What he misses is that these blinks can be extraordinarily long, lasting perhaps entire lifetimes.
The conclusion of Blink is about the use of screens in auditioning of orchestra members. Before the widespread use of these screens, which hide the players from the people making hiring decisions, there where very few women in professional orchestras. Once the screens became widespread an interesting thing happened, the number of women hired increase radically. Gladwell's argument is that the screen's allowed the decision makers to "blink" properly, making choices based on the music alone, not how the players looked. But what he misses is that the inbred discrimination at work, biases against women or minority musicians are also blinks, but blinks that happen to last years or decades.
Within those thin slices, Blink is an excellent book, a well written and entertaining exploration of a concept. If it approaches the success of The Tipping Point Gladwell will be in the position of America's most popular philosopher, most popular producer of concepts, without ever acknowledging and most likely personally accepting that he's even engaged in philosophy at all. But as large swathes of academia continues to ensnare themselves in a variety of traps of their own devising, hard rationalism, marxist dialectics, poststructuralism and the like, it is the popular producers of concepts that are filling the role of philosophers in our society. Like the high end consumer electronics I've named them after these prosumer philosophers are giving the public high quality intellectual products unburdened by the weight of professionalism (although this is not true when it comes to the art of writing). There is of course a lot to be lost in this transition, the intellectual rigor of the prosumer is non-existant compared to academia, but its also a profoundly liberating experience as the playing field of culture and concept shifts into new grounds. More soon, hopefully.
April 09, 2005
A couple days ago the New York Public Library (as in the big one guarded by lions) asked Who Owns Culture? and called in Lawrence Lessig, Jeff Tweedy and Steven Johnson to navigate. Actually the real question getting asked seemed to be "Who Makes Culture?" And the answer it seemed was "us". Whether the us was the three people on stage, the lily white crowd or something larger was utterly unclear. Ultimately though what made the event interesting though was not the questions that where asked but those that were not.
Only the a few years ago the fact that our current system of intellectual property is rift with problems, dangers and tragedies was radical, the "copyright is good for creators, no questions" Kool Aid was being served nearly universally. Mentioning the deep problems in the system was akin to unleashing the hounds, all too often I'd watch as otherwise intelligent humans turned into rabid hard copyright defenders. Thanks in large part by Lessig this is no longer the case. In fact not a single questioner in the room ever stood up the challenge the panelists. The besuited middle age lawyer looking men to my right nodded and smiled repeatedly to Lessig's arguments. It was a friendly crowd admittedly, but also one of privilege, people with something to gain from keeping things the way they are. And Lessig's "free culture" arguments pretty much where accepted as common truth, at least among those who listen to too much NPR.. Now Lessig of course represents the mainstream compromise side of the anti-copyright warriors, but at least culturally he's looking like a winning general nowadays.
April 07, 2005
So we get a day and change of springtime and already the city is acting like its 99.9% humidity Spike Lee summertime madness. It's enough to make one want to turn the computer back on, or at least the treo. But then we remember, we are New Yorkers we like it like this..