Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Art of Science (redirected from Rj's Friendster Blog)

The Art of Science

In the back of mind, I have a hazy collection of images of my life as a toddler. Most of these are jumbled together with images that have been lifted-- not from the actual memories that I once upon a time experienced-- but from the pages of old family picture albums. However, though the mind's eye may have difficulty recalling the physical realities of that time, I find that it's easier for me to remember the sort of ideas of the world I held then. Memories of what I was thinking are clearer than the images of the life I was living at three years of age. One might say that this is an illusion, and yes, it very well may be. But its a better illusion than most.

What strikes me about those days was my fascination with the pursuit of science. Perhaps it was the childhood growth into a love of animals and the natural world they represented. It could have been something subconsciously implanted by the presence of my father, a scientist himself. Or maybe it was something as obscure and superficial as Indiana Jones, the adventurer-academician. Whatever it was, what consumed me was the singular pursuit of KNOWING as much about something that I fell in love with. For me, there was a sort of crazy pleasure to be had when I could tell exactly what sort of dinosauria was illustrated in my books, along with it's approximate placement in geological history and probable behaviour: Triceratops Horridus, common name "Triceratops", a successful species of the mid-late Cretaceous period, two prominent brow horns, single nose horn, distinct from other Ceratopsia by a solid bone frill protrusion from the skull. Evidence of herd behaviour and probable organized defense. Underdeveloped eyesight suggests near-sightedness, much like today's rhinos. Side-placed eyes suggest evolution as an herbivore, confirmed by large stomach area and prominent molars. Beak suggests diet of woody shrubs, probable ecology in lightly forested areas with an abundance of shrubs, and space for a herd of possibly up to fifty animals, each weighing around the area of three tons.

Of course, I wouldn't have said it with that sort of language when i was three, but the propositions were the same. What this points to is the way I know that when my heart was set on something, the end I wished to achieve was knowledge.

This desire for knowledge led me to the field of science. Science itself is something much more broader and interesting than the textbook "systematic, empirical, quantitative inquiry of phenomena through repeatable procedures to arrive at rational conclusions". That's easy to understand, and anyone who's gone through all those science classes and labs can get a brain-vomit just thinking about it. But what I'm talking about is outside the laboratory, outside the research and the statistics. What I'm talking about is the rational mind as a state of self. What I'm talking about is the pursuit of knowledge as life unto itself.

There's an interesting statement in the NBC television series "Heroes", in the episode titled "Six Months Ago". In the episode, the character of Dr. Chandra Suresh is speaking to a man who would later be known as the villain Sylar. Suresh, a geneticist, says that everything is found in the brain. The statement piqued my interest, because it led to the idea that everything about a human being is found in knowledge. This idea may seem dehumanizing and a bit abrasive in its disregard of the realm of the emotion, but its not too much of a stretch to say that emotion itself rests on knowledge. Everything in the human experience is driven by knowledge and the working of the mind. Consciousness itself is an act of engaging the mind with the world around it.

The oracle at Delphi said "know yourself". Socrates says that to know oneself is really the device by which one cares for oneself. The "self" is said to be the soul, and the "soul" is the synthesis of spirit and consciousness, spirit being the velocity of the soul, and consciousness its body that moves and develops. I acknowledge this may seem a bit abstract, but this has a lot of bearing upon what the scientific life is really concerned about. Science is how we come to know and understand things. It is the tool of this desire to care for oneself. A change in what we know is the fundamental change that leads to the development of the soul.

Jesus said His was the "Way, the Truth, and the Life; all who believe in Me shall be saved." Look at the interrelationship of the three words: way, truth, life. It pretty much sums what humans beings are about. Life is always about finding one's way through it, a progression. The purpose of which is to determine a truth, to arrive at a certain knowledge. The operative word of the second statement is belief. Belief in itself is also a knowledge.(the talk about faith/belief being a valid sort of knowledge is a debate that this entry doesn't intend to go into; rather, the basic point is that knowledge is the core of any human endeavor.)

That is where I place science-- in the field of the human life spent seeking a path of truth.

What makes science so beautiful is the way that it unlocks the world and presents it to our minds as a likely truth, rather than as a construction of the imagination. It presents something reasonable, that people can agree to agree or disagree upon. It is articulates something that society can be based upon, even though its individuals are swayed and biased in so many different ways. Science is a level field for the discourse of rational society, where the nuances of the individual give way to the predominance of societal rationality. It is a sort of knowledge that asserts itself, not as an absolute truth, but as a reasonable truth. It is the sort of knowledge that does not lay claim to objectivity, but unabashedly and with amazing integrity displays the limitations of its subjectivity on the table of scrutiny. When I think of science, I find the most humanizing of all fields of study. And in the end, all fields of study inevitably tie back to science.

And of course, thinkers like Foucault like to confuse us even more (and present us with a deeper way of giving our souls two-cents worth of attention) by presenting a scientific inquiry into science.

This is, to me, what being a human is: it is the art of knowledge,the art of science.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Origins of Science and its Development through Deep (Christian) Faith (Part 1 of 2)

(This was my response in our class with Dr. Malayang regarding the question about whether it was possible for a person of deep faith to exercise science...)

As far as we have known through the (limited) achievements historyand archaeology, we can say that science "began" about six hundredyears before Christ with the Greek philosophers who sought non-theological answers for such fundamental questions as concerning theexistence of life and the underlying principles of the world and ofreality, which were previously dealt with in Greek mythology.

Although we have the misfortune of having to learn about them inmere fragments and citations from other subsequent philosophers andhistorians, I would say that the first ignition towards science as we know it today is owed in no small part to the Pre-Socratic Greekphilosophers, not inasmuch as they had the right answers but becausethey posed the right questions: From where does everything come? From what is everything created? How do we explain the plurality ofthings found in nature? How might we describe nature mathematically?

This paved the way for someone like Socrates to kind of set thearena for subsequent intellectual pursuits from then on through histwo assumptions of philosophy, that: 1) the unexamined life is notworth living; and 2) although reason may often bring sorrow andalienation, it is also a source of comfort and assurance (Pojman,2004, The Quest for Truth).

Plato came into the picture as Socrates' student and a proponent ofwhat could be the first philosophical prototype for all idealism,saying that the substantive reality around us is only a reflectionof a higher truth. He believed that ideas were more real thanthings. He developed a vision of two worlds: a world of unchangingideas and a world of changing physical objects.For example, a particular tree, with a branch or two missing,possibly alive, possibly dead, and with the initials of two loverscarved into its bark, is distinct from the abstract form of Tree-ness. A Tree is the ideal that each of us holds that allows us toidentify the imperfect reflections of trees all around us(

Reacting against the deeply rationalistic and highly speculative approach of his teacher Plato, Aristotle placed an increasinglystrong emphasis on what is received by the senses, that is, on aposteriori observations (Macmillan Encyclopedia ofPhilosophy. "Development of Aristotle's Thought", vol. 1, p. 153ff,1969). Using inductive reasoning to arrive at categories andprinciples based upon sense data, this was in sharp opposition toPlato's theory of forms, which was very heavily dependent on apriori assumptions, or "innate" knowledge. Aristotle also stated thecore empiricist tenet that human knowledge of reality is grounded insense experience (Sorabji, R. 1972, Aristotle on Memory).

However, the Greeks never developed anything like modern science.Otherwise, we might have had the nuclear and space age in 100 B.C.The Greek mind simply looked at the natural world primarily as anexercise for the magnificent Greek reason. The world was not to be changed; it was to be understood, and not used. So they applied their ways of reasoning to nature and came up with many great andinteresting philosophical contributions. But it never developedinto "the scientific age" (Kennedy, 1994, What if Jesus Had NeverBeen Born?).

Why didn't the Greeks go further in their potentially scientificqueries? Authors like Dr. Malcolm Jeeves point out a unique blend ofGreek thinking with a specific strand of Christianity—namely, theReformed faith—birthed modern science. He writes:It was with the rediscovery of the Bible and of its message at thetime of the Reformation … that a new impetus came to the developmentof science. This new impetus, flowing together with all that was best in Greek thinking, was to produce the right mixture to detonatethe chain reaction leading to the explosion of knowledge which beganat the start of the scientific revolution in the sixteenth century,and which is proceeding with ever-increasing momentum today.(The Scientific Enterprise and the Christian Faith, 1971)

Not only did science not develop with the Greeks, but it is also true that science would not likely have originated among the Hebrew people—it did not and would not—for the simple reason that to theHebrews, the natural world was simply an occasion for praise to the Creator: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork" (Psalms 19:1).

Nor could modern science ever hope to progress among the Arabs, because of the Muslim religion. Aristotle's writings, when lost tothe Western world from about A.D. 500 to A.D. 1100, were kept by theArabs of North Africa and finally reintroduced into Europe in the 1100s and 1200s.

Aristotle—unlike Plato—had a philosophy that would lend itself tothe scientific type of study because it was more inductive than Plato's deductive kind of reasoning. Plato would get a universal ideal and deduce all manner of things from it. Aristotle would tend to look at the particulars and induce principles from it.

Because of the Aristotelian thought they had access to, the Arabs generally made greater scientific and mathematical advances than the Europeansduring the Middle Ages. But during all of that time the Arabs never introduced nor evercreated any real science. This is due to the fatalism that dominatesthe Muslim religion. Since everything is fatalistically determined,obviously there is no point in trying to manipulate the naturalworld to change everything, because all things are unchangeable.

Science could also not have come from among the animists of central or southern Africa or many other places in the world since experimentation in the natural world would be sacrilege.

Dominant schools in Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the physicalworld is unreal and that the only reality is that of the world's soul and that the greatest thing anyone has to learn is that thephysical world is not real. There would have been no point, therefore, in spending one's life fooling with that which had noreality in the first place.

It took the rise of Christianity to come and weave the different strains of knowledge to produce the phenomenon we know as modernscience. Christianity allowed that there is, first of all, arational and ordered world. This have rise to the possibility ofscientific laws (Kennedy, 1994).

more to come..

- Nigel Uno

Monday, July 9, 2007

An Evolving Morality

One of the first ideas taught in the study of human culture is the idea of social norms. Sociologists define these norms as an agreement between the individuals of a particular culture as to what sort of behavior is accepted and what sort of behavior is not. The members of the society must conform to these agreed standards or risk being excluded or marginalized.
It is possible to point to two levels at which social norms are articulated: the first level is the most obvious one, the level of formal law. A society’s laws display the prescribed modes of behavior that are legally acceptable. Deviation from legal behavior is dealt with in a severe manner, with consequences commensurate to the deviation committed. The second level is the moral level, where the rules aren’t as concretely stated as in the formal law, but rather in the insubstantial conventions of culture. Although the language of morality isn’t as clearly imposed as the language of law, it remains—to a certain extent—just as condign and severe. The peculiar thing about morality is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be reasonable. For example, a moral standard that opposes the presence of an alternative-gender organization will deny its recognition as an official student organization simply because of its being against the “moral sensibilities” of the community, which has nothing to do with the actual formal rules that exist to define the requirements for recognition that any other student organization would have to complete. In other words, even if the particular organization complied in full with the formal requirements, the community as a whole would still attempt to keep it from existing because of its violation of “moral sensibilities”.
This moral law, like its legal counterpart, is changeable. The evidence of this is found in how moral law varies between different cultures and different historical periods. Of course, one can argue that there are certain actions that have always been considered to be “bad” like murder, or “good” like being honest, but these probably stem from the deeper, more fundamental roots of human altruism. But one can recognize the difference between these basic laws governing human behavior, and the derivative moral laws that deal with the grey areas of human relationships, such as certain lifestyles, art, or ideas, which have no direct harm on the human condition, but are seen as harmful by some because of how they “erode social fabric”.
But one has to understand also that the anatomy of social fabric is also constantly changing. At the end of the day, the point is this: there is no such thing as a fixed moral code; once cannot fortify oneself in the illusion of unchanging moral values.
There are two ways that moral codes can be viewed. The first is that they must be constantly upheld and maintained in favor of a consistent cultural identity; or that they can evolve and change according to the changes in society. The reason why this column favors the latter view is because of the idea that development occurs through change; improvement is found in constant development, rather than rigid adherence to a singular mode of morality. For example, if social morality hadn’t evolved from generation to generation, there would still see clear demarcation between the mestizo and the indio. People would still be measured and valued according to the color of their skin. Of course, vestiges of this sort of absurd morality are part of the undercurrent sentiments of contemporary culture, but its fading indicates an evolution of culture.
If it is assumed that morality is evolving, then the question of “To what end?” could be asked. That is, what then would be the end goal of this evolution? In nature, evolution’s goal is survival of the species. This parallels moral evolution: the society must survive. Culture has to power to make or break a society. Some moral conventions can bring harm to a society, rather than edify it. Harm in the sense of real physical harm and violence on the human condition. This measure of violence could include psychological and emotional trauma as well. Moral development, in moving away from the “nasty, brutish, and short” existence, must seek to lessen and eventually remove from human society the sources of harm, such as exclusivity and imbalanced power-relations.
However, not all the results of moral evolution can be seen as beneficial. “Mutations” as a result of unchecked moral development could be just as harmful to society as an unchanging moral code.
It is then necessary to use a critical framework to examine current morality and guide it towards a more beneficial result. An understanding of social commentary such as those found in the social philosophies of feminism, socialism, religion, atheism, post-modernism etc. provide perspectives on what sort of moral code would be best for the society. Understanding the differences and identities of the various views enables the student to determine a more beneficial course for the evolution of morality. But before any growth in understanding can be achieved, it must first be recognized that morality is a dynamic and changing facet of human society, not the absolute code that some would have us believe.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Through the Looking Glass of Language

The story that pretended to be real and in the end, destroyed reality and became a waking, walking, breathing figure all unto itself; the Story that breathed itself into existence, slaying the author.

The idea of the simulacra isn't a new one; Jorge Luis Borges wrote his fiction using this idea as the fulcrum of the narrative. Baudrillard coins the term in his theory of language.

Of what significance is such an idea to human existence? Why bother with an exploration of meaning and language?

I think there are a number of simple ways to answer these questions: simple stabs in the dark by ones who think simple questions are easy to answer. But of course, these one-liner answers-- "Because of curiousity," "Because we want to understand language," "Because it makes us more aware,"-- are insufficient. They do not begin to tackle the beautiful complexity that underlies the process of human inquiry. I revolt against the quick and easy answer for the reason that the knowledge I seek is that of the explorer, the adventurer who plunges into the wildness of thoughts, the brambles of contradiction and seeks, not answers, but understanding.

And so, what then of the significance of how arbitrary language can be (that is, at least from one perspective)? If one had to trace the pattern, and follow the meandering logic of the statement that "the meaning of language is arbitrary", it leads to a curious road. Language is comprised of symbols-- the entire pantheon of symbols, from the physical edifices of political power to road signs and Euclidean geometry-- which are representations of meaning. In themselves, they contain no meaning. The meaning behind them comes from our society's agreement or convention on what meaning must be attributed to what particular symbol. Borges speaks of an arrow, "pointing the way", which I presume to be some sort sign to give direction, as a symbol that has "mutated" from one of iron and wood, from the object that clouded the skies at Thermopylae and pierced the skin of Harald. In other words, Borges sees the mutation of meaning; the symbol remains unchanged, but the arbitrary meaning given to it by social convention has morphed from that of an object of terror and death to the harmless thing of streets corners and detours (which, in turn, may also give another meaning to one who has been mugged on the street corner, or has experienced being stuck in traffic because they followed the arrow).

Which leads to another disturbing thought. Mathematics is actually a science of symbols and their definite relationship to one another. The relationships between the digits, between the numbers, are there by social convention, by our articulation of meaning through the symbols of the arabic numeric system. "1" and "200" do not hold any meaning on to themselves; We, the readers, give them their meaning. And even the concept of "1" on its own, is not very useful. What disturbs me is the idea that numbers are consistent and precise, meaning that the convention of meaning has reached such a level that a thousand different people can arrive at the same conclusion using the convened operations of mathematics. This has made mathematics an extreme application of the arbitrary, to the point where we take it for granted.

George Berkeley, the English thinker, would argue otherwise, that mathematics belongs in the realm of the abstract, which exists apart from humanity's arbitrary meaning. However, I'm not quite ready to simply accept this enshrining of mathematics as apart from human interpretation. What makes more sense is that all symbols represent an abstract ideal that can never be articulated, because in the process of articulation, they lose their abstract nature and become-- to stick with Berkeley's classification of realities-- mental, that is, merely part of the construction of human experience. I say "merely" in the sense that through interpretation, whatever meaning is given is now arbitrary. The abstract remains an unattainable sublime, and our attempts to approximate the abstract result in its reduction.

If mathematics cannot be trusted-- in so far as its being real rather than useful-- then in a sense, there is no reality behind logical thinking; "logic" is another victim of arbitrary meaning, and reason is non-existent, except of course, in the minds of those who claim to possess it or wield it.

At the end of this discussion, we arrive at a bleak outlook: a world in which reason is only an illusion, windmill that we thought was a dragon, a barmaid who we thought was the Lady Dulcinea. It is an existence of collective madness, where everything is as we agree it to be, rather than what it actually is. And yet, we call ourselves sane and reasonable, and we thrust our reason upon others. Isn't this the core of conflict? This expectation that we are more correct than the other, as if there is some absolute standard to measure ourselves against? As if our language, our meaning, is fortified in unquestionable "rightness"? That's the madness of human civilization, a quest for meaning that really cannot be found.

Which leads us to Don Quixote, whose madness came from his inability to dissociate the symbol from meaning, the language from the reality. But, as he comes to his sense, Alonso Quijano realizes that his pretended reality has begotten itself in the form of actual reality, and that he must now defend this new reality with the same fervor that created it.

Yes, language and its arbitrary meaning can be only pretend realities; but, if Baudrillard's ideas have weight in this matter, there is a faint shadow of hope. Our pretend realities can become actual realities because that is how we have constructed them to be, and the conflict an irremovable facet of the imperfection of our articulation of meaning. Language is therefore, the vehicle of reality rather than its destroyer; or rather, in the process of developing a reality, it destroys the old ones. And this, at least for me, is less troubling, because it indicates a meaning that is evolving, growing, fearlessly facing its contradictions and lending itself to destruction and reconstruction. That could very well mean progress, which is an encouraging thought.

Significance of inquiry? In this case, the failure of words to capture significance seems appropriate.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Soul Survivor

Philip Yancey is presently THE Christian writer for me. I've never bought so many works by the same author in so short a time, given my meager student allowance. And even if I’m now on my 7th book by him, he never fails to inspire, enlighten, surprise and refresh me with each new book and article I get my hands on.

Here's a really short and wanting biography: He’s a journalist who serves as editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine. He has written twelve Gold Medallion Award-winning books, including Where is God When It Hurts?, Disappointment with God, and The Bible Jesus Read. The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace? were both awarded the Christian Book of the Year. He is also the author of Reaching for the Invisible God. Four of his books have sold a million copies each, and, fortunately, he also happens to be found everywhere from Cang's Inc. to National Bookstore. Articles by him can be found at, and a personal website,

Given the sensitive nature of writing Christian books, I noticed that he never writes about anything that he doesn't really know about, except when he writes to admit that he doesn't really know much about a certain subject. Seemingly an act of copping out, it is his remarkable authenticity that affords his writings a sense of dispensation of truth and grace that any reader readily appreciates, without compromising, of course, an exceptional writing caliber. A culture-savvy Christian, every stroke of his pen is not without a clear sense of literary purpose:

"Every writer has one main theme, a spoor that he or she keeps sniffing around, tracking, following to its source. If I had to define my own theme, it would be that of a person who absorbed some of the worst the church has to offer, yet still landed in the loving arms of God. Yes, I went through a period of rejection of the church and God, a conversion experience in reverse that felt like liberation for a time. I ended up, however, not an atheist, a refugee from the church, but as one of its advocates."

What allowed him to ransom a personal faith from the damaging effects of religion? It takes a whole book to answer that. Entitled Soul Survivor, that book profiles thirteen unlikely "mentors" who went a long way toward answering that question. These mentors range from the scatterbrained journalist G. K. Chesterton to the tortured novelists Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to contemporaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Annie Dillard, and Robert Coles. He teases:

"If I were invited to a convention full of skeptics, or representatives of another religion, and asked to explain my faith, these are the companions I would want along. I could simply point to these strong witnesses and say, 'Christians are not perfect, by any means, but they can be people made fully alive. This is what they look like.' Each stands at the top of his or her field, and they credit personal faith as one of the reasons why."

Perhaps I am especially drawn to Yancey through my own bitter experiences with the church, or more aptly, certain church people, whom a well-meaning friend of mine once bluntly dubbed as church a-holes.

Everyone has different grievances against people claiming to be ambassadors for Christ. These range from bad and unkindly relationships, physical assault, emotional harassment, dishonest conduct of finances, hypocrisy, and even sexual violation.

Yet however much I can accuse people, I can but justly point the questions back to myself and ask how many times have I myself misrepresented the one whose name I religiously bear, in both my public and private life? If I claim to be a victim of and an activist against church politics and hypocrisy, am I actually assuming to be on a better moral standing than my perpetrators? In recovering from church abuse, have I failed to heed W. H. Auden's warning that "those to whom evil in done, do evil in return"?

Yancey reminds me that against the backdrop of God’s glaringly perfect holiness, I'd actually look no better than any other person standing beside me, whether Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler. I know that for every wrong act that I can observe from fellow Christians and especially from certain church leaders, I am just as accountable and guilty as them for my inner, subterranean struggles and sins every day, running along the lines of pride, arrogance, lust, unforgiveness, et cetera. For instance, in writing this seemingly "spiritual" blog entry, as well as anything that can get published, I get cephalomegaly in actually having written it, expecting a pat on the back or two.

Personally, it is one such (rather stubborn) struggle to dispense love, grace and mercy to a church that, I witness, never fails to churn out spiritually wounded patients more than anything else. It is just insufferable to someone who knows that it is.

My thoughts drift into how God would run the infinite distance between God-ness and humanity through Jesus Christ, to be butchered and slain for sins even as seemingly inconsequential as a stolen penny, a careless whisper or a smug twist of the shoulder; all in the ultimate act of loving forgiveness. I often waver between holding my grudges and letting them pass—to forgive freely, as I have been forgiven in the same manner.

Apparently, God isn’t done with me yet.

Largely, the church that I was born into has, for all its contributions, terribly lost its sense of urgency and relevance in this generation. And it only goes to show that the Church (I am now referring to the collective institution wherein affiliation entails being called a Christian), as in all human organizations, is understandably flawed and imperfect. And with its over 1 billion strong membership, failure rates will unsurprisingly soar.

And like Yancey, I write this as one seeking to redeem those experiences that gave me reasons to step out of Christendom, and hopefully turn them into words of assurance to save another soul just a little bit of trouble.

If I were to write my own Soul Survivor in the far future, the name Philip Yancey would easily make it to the top my “mentors” list.

-Nigel Uno

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Futurist Thoughts on Mass Communication

Look at this blog. It's not very popular, most of the people who read it are people we know personally. But it wouldn't be very difficult to make it go "mainstream": all it woudl take is to re-name it with a few searchable keywords, strategically narrow our posts to something with a characterisable niche, and then comment on other people's blogs. Maybe add a bit of multi-media content to attract the ADHD crowds of the web world. Then the blog becomes a true form of mass media.
We live in a world where mass media in it's traditional forms is simply not sexy anymore. "Sexy" isn't a superficial qualification, by the way, not in our generation. Noel kept telling me about how looking good is so important, sometimes even more important than actually being good. I can't disregard that anymore, the evidence is overwhelming. However, in my mind, you can't cross the line of ethics. But I'm digressing from my point. Traditional forms of media are not sexy in that they are no longer streamlined and attractive to today's generation. Chuck Palanhiuk, author of Fight Club talked about our attitude towards television on a lecture on YouTube (spot the wit :) He said that we are so sick of reality shows, especially those damn house-switch decor things that seem to be on every channel. Two hundred channels on cable television and we can't find anything to watch, because the simple truth is that we've seen it all.
Aside: I'm liking "Heroes" because it's unpredictable and the characters the interesting and blended right. Who would anticipate String Theory, a guy who can paint the future, and... don't want to spoil it for those who haven't seen any of the episodes yet.
Communication, information, ideas. Entertainment, self-realization, education, socialization... the core processes by which the human mind develops are undergoing a rapid and fundamental change. I say I live in my head, don't we all? Because if you really think (hehe) about it, our perceptions are our realities. We live in worlds constructed in our minds. Those worlds come about through the information we imbibe as we develop. This idea is an unholy alliance of Kant and Dev Psych. Ain't it cool?
So what is so drastic in the difference between a kid who grew up watching television, radio and comics-- and a kid who grew up with Wikipedia, YouTube, Google, Friendster, YM and BitTorrent? The difference is in the fundamentals of communication.
The older paradigm is a one-way process, a single channel of some big institution (like the government or a media company) generating content and communicating it to a mass audience. The biggest restricition of this sort of communication is the peculiar way that information becomes dumber the wider you spread it. A television program can only be 30mins long, interjected by a mess of 10-30 second commercials. Another set-back is that you can't customise content. It's very capitalist, all these companies screaming at you trying to get your attention to look at them. But you can only get whatever they give you.
The new paradigm changes this. I can search online for content that I want; if it's not there, I can generate it myself. Think TIME magazine's person of the year for 2006: YOU. It's about the individual. It's not about plugging a faceless audience to a profit-driven company; it's about connecting one individual to another. Everyone has their own space, their own personality. Just look at those Friendster profiles. When you deal with people online, it's not a mass; its a friend network. When people comment on YouTube, you see their faces, you know their tags. It's a different society, and suddenly, information is liberated and placed at the fingertips of the users.
If you want a glimpse into society, human organization and politics of the future, I suggest you look at the blogsphere. This collection of online geeks are the future.
So there.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

300 Misrep

The movie "300" gives a highly stylized account of the battle of Thermopylae fought in 480 BC by three hundred Spartans under the leadership of King Leonidas. I don't need to go into the details of the battle itself, or even the description of the movie; what I want to focus on is the sort of message the movie sends. Throughout the film, there are constant reminders of the value of freedom.

"It is not a question of what a husband, or a Spartan, or a king should do. Instead ask yourself, my dearest love, what would a free man do?"

"We are with you sire! For freedom! For Sparta!"

"When this battle is over, the world will know that few stood against many, that free men stood against a tyrant, and that even a god-king can bleed."

"This is the dawning of a new age, an age of freedom. And all will know that three hundred Spartans gave their last breath to defend it."

Freedom and fighting against tyranny (in various forms: mysticism, subjugation, corruption) is the basic idea behind the film. While I have always believed in personal freedom, I also believe in honesty. And here is where "300" begins to tread on dangerous ground. Your average movie-goer may not understand that the whole point of why Spartans made a culture out of warfare was because of the vast slave population that drove their economy (the Helots, as their were called in Sparta). The city-state of Sparta was fed by slave labour, slaves who were fellow Greeks. It's ironic to think that Spartans would be fighting for the idea of freedom, when they themselves were the most active slavers in ancient Greece.
One can argue that the point of the film isn't really about being historically accurate, but presenting something entertaining. But I think this is beside the point. In the culture of today's generation, film is a powerful medium for expressing information; its persuasive power makes it very political (the idea is Foucauldian), and its even more dangerous because it isn't overtly political, but it masquerades as "mere entertainment". As a student of communication, I've come to the realization that nothing on the media channels is mere entertainment.
The falsehood of Spartan ideals in the film "300" is further reinforced when the film presents the Persians as the ultimate slavers, worshipping a megalomaniac god-king, bound by superstition, and completely opposed to the values of freedom, democracy and equality. This isn't a misrepresentation per se, because the Persian Empire wasn't really known for free elections or participative governance; but to use it as a contrast to a western culture that is made out of be one based on "reason" and "justice" is highly misleading. If anything, the ancient Greeks were just as unreasonable and unjust as the ancient Persians.
Today, we still have that outdated and ancient mode of thought that dictates our identity along geopolitical borders: East vs. West. A lot of the discourse on religion, governance, economies, and philosophies are divided and opposed along these geographical demarcations. This idea of a divided world is part of the problem of terrorism, neo-imperialism, and the sort of close-mindedness that has hindered development and conflict-resolution. What a film like "300" does, with its packaging and message reinforcement, is to catapult a discourse of division into the minds of the audiences. What makes it especially eye-brow raising is that we celebrate this movie as a valuable contribution to our culture.