Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part Twelve

Previously: Part Zero ... Part Eleven

Last time I compared organizations to biological organisms competing against Nature and against the rest of the ecology for survival. The battlefield is physical and virtual. Arm & Hammer's factories producing baking soda with less energy cost is good for the company. Convincing consumers that they need to buy a new box to put in the fridge every month is gold. Members of an organization are valuable to it in ways parallel to these two dimensions. Engineers that can improve efficiencies or design new products are valuable. So are accountants that can make profits tax-free. At the top of the organization, the role is entirely virtual. Generals push around symbols on a map while privates sweat in foxholes. A janitor who shows genius-level proficiency with a mop is not going to become CEO due to that skill. However, a CEO who doesn't understand how the physical world works--insofar as this affects the business--is probably not going to make very good decisions.

Higher education does a fantastic job of teaching students about physical reality (assuming said students want to learn about it). There's no substitute for experts in theory and practice, and the labs and equipment needed to engage physical reality in sophisticated ways. If you want to become an expert in what happens to molecules when you "ring" them with a sudden electromagnetic pulse, you can learn all about Fourier Transforms and whatnot, but you need a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance machine to actually do it.

The Enlightenment victory over shy Nature justifies the role of universities, but I think it also lends itself to the argument that education should be about physical stuff--learning how to stick needles in someone's arm or design a turbine blade OR low-complexity information-shuffling, like learning two-column accounting or how to integrate partial fractions. These are all safely science-y, easy to verify when accomplished, and straightforward to teach.

The victories and failures of The Enlightenment in the informational co-domain do not seem to be of as much interest in the public discourse on higher education. Ideally, this is where liberal arts education provides a benefit, but this message isn't being conveyed, and perhaps the institutions themselves haven't really internalized it.

With this lens in place, let's look at the signal-domain role of education as preparation for life in an organization. The latter might be a business, the military, a government bureau, or it might mean "to be a citizen," which can be restricted to a nationality or not. The Cynics invented "cosmopolitan," and we might agree that the highest calling of any educated person is to be of service to humanity as a whole (like Elon Musk, who brilliantly navigates both the physical and virtual landscape).

These respective roles are sometimes mutually exclusive. A citizen of a country may be at odds with a citizen of the world, and be the same person. Governments do bad things sometimes, and we might agree that the role of the citizen sometimes is to correct that in the name of some more abstract notion of what it means to be a citizen. It's the same with any organization.

Imagine this hypothetical advertisement from a college:
Our business school produces graduates that have the training to meet your most stringent demands in management, accounting, marketing, business law, international relations, and many other areas. In addition, they have been indoctrinated to be completely loyal to your organization, no matter how far you want to bend the law or even human decency--you can count on them to do the right thing!
This imaginary school is trying to guarantee that any cognitive dissonance in a new hire's mind between what the business wants done and any other role (e.g. citizen, human) will be resolved in favor of the business. I don't mean to demonize businesses with this example. In a real organization, including the military, loyalty is probably limited by intent. For example, a soldier swears to uphold the constitution, not to do what generals tell him/her to do, which allows a loophole for higher order goals (like preventing coups). The point is that it's important to an organization's survival to have a "signals" strategy in order to manage the virtual battlefield it competes on. And since most organizations still have humans in them, this means being intentional about the abilities and intentions of members or employees. The later Bush administration's Justice Department hires and fires did this rather crudely, and people noticed. Machiavelli talks about the idea in The Prince. Paraphrasing: when your enemies are physically beaten back is the best time to beat them at the information game too.

Separating signals from motivations is impossible because we only care about signals we care about. So any "coin of the realm" comes as a package including:

  • A signal (the coin as a denomination of exchange value, if taken literally)
  • Whatever the signal signifies in the physical world.
  • A realm (the organization that relies on, and probably enforces, the signal)
  • Attitudes toward the signal and realm:
    • An organization's official stance (may or may not be the 'realm' that endorses the signal)
    • An organization's practical stance (e.g as enforced)
    • The stance of individuals who come in contact with the signal, which may not be a single attitude.
If this seems complex, it is! Take the US dollar as a simple example of a signal (packaged in different informational form as currency, bonds, electronic accounting, etc.). It's clear that different nations have different intentional stances toward it, including outright debasement (North Korea). 

As a more complex example, consider an anecdote from Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope, where she describes spending the night at a friend's house during The Terror:
They were on the seventh story, so you couldn't hear cars stopping outside, but if ever we heard the elevator coming up at night, we all four of us raced to the door and listened. "Thank God," we would say, "it's downstairs" or "it's gone past." 
In the years of the terror, there was not a home in the country where people did not sit trembling at night, their ears straining to catch the murmur of passing cars or the sound of the elevator.

Stalin was sometimes presented with lists of names, beside which he would--or more likely would not--place a check mark to spare the individual. This informational signal filtered its way through the corridors of the NKVD and eventually manifest as a knock on the door at night for the unfortunate people who were identified. The Terror originated in the signal domain (to affect behavior by getting to the source of it), with physical effects (people killed or sent to the gulag). There are many rich complexities, such as the definition of "Kulak," and the show trials (see Darkness at Noon). I have written more about this in "Nominal Reality and Subversion of Intelligence."

Compared to engineering problems, where Nature may be cruel but not fickle, understanding the role of individuals in toxic situations is a hard problem. The Great Terror was not the work of Stalin alone, and it's easy enough to demonize the NKVD agents, but since they were presumably human beings too, it makes more sense to try to understand the signal/motivation balance that made them behave as they did. What were the signals and debasements thereof? What competing realms? What intentional stances toward these?

A liberal arts curriculum is bound to include more of this kind of wrestling with hard problems. I think it's mostly done on paper, as thought exercises, but this is better than nothing. There are ethical limits how what sorts of practice we can engage in (a 'lab experience' in Great Terror sounds pretty dicey), but there may be a homeopathic "The Small Fright" that can be experienced by undergraduates without damaging them, and that would let them try hands-on Cynicism.


The 'Cynic of the day' award goes to NPR's "'Mischievous Responders' Confound Research On Teens," which gives an amusing account of epistemological struggle.

The runner-up is the BBC's "Should we all be a bit psychopathic at work?", which asks how far we should prune back our internal signals for getting along with others.

Next: Part Thirteen

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