Category Archives: Commons

Cultural Contradictions

In the primary madness of the Republican Party, much is made of the cultural divide between urban supporters of Romney, and rural supporters of Santorum. Meanwhile, an equally, if not more, consequential clash is occurring, which has received far less public attention. This is the growing conflict between cultural and economic values, a tension that sociologist Daniel Bell first pointed out thirty six years ago, in his classic book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

I was first introduced to Bell’s work when working at the Office of Technology Assessment on the study Intellectual Property Rights in the Age of Electronics and Information. In fact, the ideas he discussed in “Cultural Contradictions” provided the basis for my analysis of how intellectual property rights might be affected by a changing information environment.

Daniel Bell (courtesy of us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com)

Daniel Bell (courtesy of us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com)

According to Bell, society consists of three realms–the political, economic, and cultural–each governed by differrent values and norms, or as he put it, axial principles. Looking ahead, he predicted that, as electronic technology enhanced the value of information in each of these realms, they would be brought into increasing conflict. Looking at how these conflicts might be played out in the policy arena, our OTA study concluded that:

The resolution of these issues in an information age will be more problematic. . . .Given the variety of opportunities that the new technologies afford, the increased value of information, changing relationships among the traditional participants in the intellectual property system, and rising expectations about the benefits of these technologies, the number of stake holders with disparate interests and competing claims on the system will be greater than ever before. In such a context, the granting of intellectual property rights, instead of mutually serving a variety of different stakeholders may actually pit one against another.

This theme has been developed from a variety of different angles over the last several years. For example, in his book, The Cultural Economy of Cities, Allen J. Scot, lays the groundwork for further discussion, describing how the economic and the cultural realms have converged: as he points out, today, economic products now have greatly enhanced semiotic value, whereas cultural goods are increasingly capitalized for sale. Taken together, these products comprise a rapidly growing portion of the nation’s economy, and–as Daniel Pink contends in his book Whole New Mind:Why Right Brainers Will Rule in the Future, they are the new source of America’s competitive advantage. Richard Florida would presumably agree, having argued in The Rise of the Creative Class that today’s creators now constitute a class in their own right.

Ironically, the predictions about a culture/economic clash would seem to have proven wrong. What has happened instead is the colonization of culture by the economic realm, a point that I make in my paper, Creativity: The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg. Whereas I make my case based on shifts in the architecture of the creative landscapes that allow economic actors to assume a defining role in the cultural realm, Lawrence Lessig draws a similar conclusion arguing from a legal standpoint. In his book, Free Culture he points out that, given the growing economic value of creative products, the danger today is that the laws governing the economy will come to encompass norms and activities associated with culture and creativity.

The Proof of the Pudding is in the public silence. The only place where one can see contention is in the Republican primary, where Santorum carries the banner of culture, while Romney touts economic profits.

What’s Fair is Fair

What's fair is far (courtesy of openlibrary.org) Life, of course, is full of ironies, but what strikes me most recently as such is the coincidence between FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski‘s decision on August 22, 2011 to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine and the raging debate about Super Pacs brought on in part by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Communication Commission. This game-changing Supreme Court decision allows groups of people, including corporations, to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of a candidate, so long as there is no coordination with the candidate.

Free speech, it now seems, is no longer a constitutional right; but a matter of money. Those without, are in effect silenced. Scratching my head, I have to ask myself: What’s fair about that? Thanks to Stephen Colbert, the situation was brought into stark, as well as comic, relief when he parodied the new campaign finance rules, setting up his own Super Pac, Definitely Not Coordinated with Stephen Colbert Super Pac, and transferred it to his alter ego Jon Stewart.

Not that the Fairness Doctrine has been active over the past 20+ years. Put into place in 1949, the Doctrine was intended to assure that broadcasters not only made room for issues of public importance, but also aired contrasting perspectives. The rational behind the Government’s involvement in broadcasting–notwithstanding the Constitutional guarantee of free speech–was the industry’s use of scarce, public airwaves–a rationale that was upheld by the Supreme Court in its 1969 decision Red Lion Broadcasting Co. vs FCC.

Televisions are Not Toasters (courtesy of ancient jars.com)

Televisions are Not Toasters (courtesy of ancient jars.com)

The subsequent expansion of media venues gradually weakened this rationale. In 1987, FCC Chairman Mark Fowler--famous for equating televisions with toasters–repealed the Fairness Doctrine, although it remained on the books until Chairman Genachowski’s recent decision to effectively eliminate it.

Paradoxically, today, while media outlets are plentiful, opportunities to raise one’s voice and be heard are becoming increasingly scarce. For, as Tim Wu has argued in The Master Switch, growth in media has led, time and time again, to vertical integration and greater industry concentration. Likewise, in his book The Myth of Digital Democracy, Michael Hindman illustrates how, as the number of outlets on the Internet grow, they become more and more concentrated in accordance with a power law. Hence, to gain a platform for expression under these circumstances requires having money, and lots of it.

To appreciate the full impact of this situation, one need only consider the frantic scrambling in the Republican Primary, not so much for votes but for dollars. As the contest shifts from backyard barbecues to the national media, and from policy pronouncements to negative advertising, the candidates chances of success are measured increasingly by the size of their Super PAC’S war chests. In fact, pointing to the $30.2 million that his Super Pac, Restore our Future, has raised, Mitt Romney has triumphantly predicted his own final victory.

Fierce competition, they say, is good for democracy, not just the market. Recent events make me question whether this is always the case. At the very least, this spending spree is wasteful: I can’t help thinking that the amount of money raised by the SuperPacs to promote–what more often than not is–false information far exceeds the meagre $23 million annual budget of the former Office of Technology Assessment, a Congressional agency tasked to seek out the truth, and one that Newt Gringrich, when Speaker of the House, helped to destroy. In his thoroughly engaging bookThe Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition and the Common Good, Robert H. Frank cautions against unbridled competition on more theoretical grounds. Employing Darwin as his frame of reference, he argues that such contests are likely to lead to an arms race, in which the winner may benefit in the short run, but the society will lose overall.

Sadly Frank’s scenario sounds all too familiar. With money now a proxy for speech, dialogue has become more and more vacuous, even as speech is no longer free. Could it be time for a new Fairness Doctrine?

Gone Fishing

Tom Sawyer (courtesy of kidsblogs.nationalgeographic.com)

Tom Sawyer (courtesy of kidsblogs.nationalgeographic.com)

My blog has been so dormant over the summer, one might wonder where I have been. To borrow a term from Tom Sawyer, I would simply say that, this summer, “I went fishing.”

The place was our family’s summer cottage on Hawthorne Lake, a community in the New Jersey Highlands established by my great grandfather, H.P Dillistin, together with his friends and relatives. Dating back, in fact, to Mark Twain’s days, it shares much in common with St. Petersburg, Mississippi, the town along the river where Tom Sawyer had his adventures.

Grandaddy Dillistin

Grandaddy Dillistin

Like the people in St. Petersburg, Mississippi, we have lived together in close proximity for over five generations, experiencing good and bad times, intermarrying, sharing common lore, befriending and sometimes feuding with one another, as in one big, extended family.

My own recollections of Hawthorne Lake are very vivid, dating back to the Second World War, when we spent the summers together with the wives and children of my parents’ male friends who were off at the front. So sparsely populated was the Lake at the time, we shared the waterfront with deer, beavers, muskrats and otters. And we children were much like Tom Sawyer and his friends, preoccupied with the adventures of exploring, frog hunting, cooking mud pies, turtle trapping, and looking for hidden treasures, totally oblivious to the raging events around us.

As in Tom’s case, one special past time was fishing; for the lake is home to many good fish–bass, pickerel, perch, and the sunnies that nip at you as you dip your toes in the water. As a young girl, I often accompanied my father fishing, rowing the boat as he wound reel and cast his line. It was a way of sharing with him, drawing him out, and perhaps getting hints about what was really going on in the world beyond the Lake. But my father was reserved with his children, and said little, as he waited for the fish to bite. I sat there patiently, watching the ripples wrap around the oars of the boat. But–not liking to eat fish, much less to skin them–I secretly hoped the fish would not take the bait.

No wonder I have come to believe that fishing is not so much about catching fish, as it is about capturing our thoughts and our daydreams as they float on by. So this summer, even though I was not sitting on the river banks, as Tom was inclined to do, I was fishing for ideas as I sat with my husband, in our wicker chairs, on our screened in porch, observing the world around me. Energized by LIFE, I am–as we used to say–now ready to roll.

My Husband, The River Hero

Brock Evans-River Hero

Brock Evans-River Hero

TOM’S OF MAINE AND RIVER NETWORK ANNOUNCE 2010 RIVER HEROES AWARDS
KENNEBUNK, MAINE – (June 11, 2010) – Protecting and restoring rivers and other waters is vital to the health of our country and communities. At River Network’s recent annual National River Rally conference, a pioneering group of clean water heroes came together to collaborate on innovative new ways to protect the nation’s water. In addition, this year’s River Heroes Awards ceremony, sponsored by Tom’s of Maine, celebrated six remarkable water protectors and the victories of their campaigns.

Included among this year’s River Heroes is Brock Evans, president of Endangered Species Coalition, Washington, D.C.

For more than forty years, Brock Evans, a former Marine, lawyer, former director of the Sierra Club’s Washington office and National Audubon Society’s Vice-President for National Issue, has worked tirelessly to protect and lobby for the environment. Brock’s efforts have helped gain wilderness protection for the Pacific Northwest’s North Cascade Region, defeat the damming of Hell’s Canyon, and found the Green Wave Movement for environmental justice. He currently serves as the President of the Endangered Species Coalition, an association of 450 environmental, scientific, and religious groups dedicated to protecting and strengthening the Endangered Species Act.

“It’s a tremendous honor. I spent 45 years working in environmental organizations and the River Network is one of the most vibrant, exciting groups,” said Brock Evans, honoree of the James R. Compton Lifetime Achievement Award and president of the Endangered Species Coalition. “To receive an award from a group who is doing so much themselves, is humbling. Each one of them is a hero.”

Going Out Of My Head

juke box love from miss kristin g

juke box love from miss kristin g

As a child of the Sixties, I have been imbued with the music of the time. Somewhere in my brain there is a virtual juke box, where songs and memories are inextricably intertwined. Without forewarning, an event or thought will flip a switch; then, traveling through the synapses in my brain, a tune will come to mind; and–much like Doris Day in a 1950s musical–I will break out into song. It is, so to speak, a very emergent phenomenon. Of late, for example, it is the tune Going Out of My Head by Little Anthony and the Imperials that keeps running through my mind.

 Rock Hudson and Doris Day PILLOW...from Christine Montone

Rock Hudson and Doris Day PILLOW...from Christine Montone

This notion of the virtual juke box came to mind, I think, because I have been exploring how the brain works in my class Networks and the Creative Process. Most stimulating in triggering my thoughts about how the brain, memories, and every day experiences are linked together has been Joseph Le Doux’s book Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are –a book I highly recommend. In this book, Le Doux raises the question of how we evolve to become the persons we are.

how do we evolve to become the persons we are

Le Doux’s narrative relates to the eternal debates–dating back at least to the time of Plato and Aristotle–about the mind-body problem. Le Doux transcends this dichotomy, arguing that the body (brain) and mind (soul, consciousness, self) are one. The brain, according to Le Doux is constituted of a complex network of neurons that house genetic information and memory. While these neurons store information, they are continually upgraded via axions and dendrites that reach out from other parts of the network, transmitting information via neurotransmitters, such as seritonin and dopamine. As Le Doux explains, all individuals have a brain structure that replicates this pattern, but it is an individual’s specific architecture–the product of genetic makeup and experience–that makes him or her unique. As he says: we are our synapses.

 synapse from Lush Photo

synapse from Lush Photo

So, reading Le Doux, it is now clear to me that my virtual juke box is just one customized circuit among the millions of circuits that make up my brain. Moreover, I can see how this circuit has evolved and accompanied me throughout my life, housing all the songs that have buffered me through my first heart-breaks, the anti-war movement, and all those difficulties associated with the rebellious Sixties. But why now, I ask, should the song Going out of My Head–a song I haven’t thought about in years–suddenly raise its head.

A few weeks ago I heard a colleague speak to a group of students. Talking about his own intellectual journey, he described in a most poignant way his decision to pursue what he characterized as a Life of the Mind. Shades of Plato. Having just read Le Doux, I had to question his words. If the mind is the sum total of all our synapses, isn’t Living the Life of the Mind what we all seek to do? As for me, were I to be constrained to work with only one part of my brain, I think I would go out of my head.

Can Universities Be Small Worlds?

 It's A Small World WD-2 from TTucker 8.0 2010

It's A Small World WD-2 from TTucker 8.0 2010

Students in my Networks and the Creative Process class have been thinking about what constitutes the most appropriate network architecture for fostering creativity. Following the work of Grannovetter, Strogatz, Watts, and Burt, as well as others, who advocate a small world network, we have been comparing various contextual architectures to each other as well as to that of a small world.

students compared the architecture of a city to that of the brain.

For example, in our last blogging assignment, students compared the architecture of a city to that of the brain, commenting in each case on how the architecture influences creativity. An interesting exercise, to be sure!

Perhaps I should say a word about small worlds, and why their architectures are assumed to facilitate creativity or–as Ron Burt would say–good ideas. Small world networks are characterized by dense clusters (comprised of close associations, or strong ties) that are linked to other clusters within a network by weak ties (or loosely coupled relationships). According to the theory, dense relationships within the clusters give rise to trust and collaboration, which enable collective action, thereby allowing members to more easily execute tasks.

old hat (from  Fabrizio Savoca)

old hat (from Fabrizio Savoca)

However, ideas within a cluster tend to become old hat–that is, because members are so closely associated, they tend to reinforce old ways of thinking and discourage new ideas. To garner new ideas and be creative requires outreach, based on weak ties, and the brokering of ideas across clusters.

At first glance, universities appear to be small worlds.

How does this idea apply to university settings? At first glance, one might assume that universities are ideal small worlds. Indeed, divided up into departments that are grounded in disciplinary practices and domains, the university is constituted of relatively independent departmental clusters, which are linked only indirectly through structurally equivalent ties to the university administration–an organizational paradigm that dates back to the post civil-war research university (Clark Kerr).

Medieval University (courtesy of Wikipedia

Medieval University (courtesy of Wikipedia


Although universities have long clung to their autonomy and independence from outside influences, of late, growing economic pressures have led them to reach out to their larger socioeconomic environment for financial support through grants, alliances, joint ventures, and patent pools. These outreach efforts have not only been favored by Government but also supported through legislation, which allows faculty members to claim proprietary rights over research sponsored by public funds. As Henry Etzkowitz has described it in his book The Triple Helix, the university is evolving from an ivory tower to an entrepreneurial paradigm.

As the university, as a whole, has reached outward, how have the local clusters–the disciplinary departments–fared? It is here that one might raise a red flag.

 Red Flag Day from Ridock

Red Flag Day from Ridock

Recall that for small networks to encourage creativity, outreach is not enough. External exploration requires in-group exploitation, a point that Robert Axelrod makes in his book Harnessing Complexity. However, a search of the university literature yields sparse evidence that external ideas are being capitalized upon collectively among departmental faculty.

..the overall departmental learning (and the knowledge base of the university as a whole) will likely stagnate.

To the contrary, the modus operandi within academic departments appear to be based not on collaboration but rather on competition–competition for salaries, for grants and funding as well as for peer recognition. Hence, the overall departmental learning (and the knowledge base of the university as a whole) will likely stagnate over the long term. To boot, as Carl A. Raschke has noted, new technologies will exacerbate this situation, serving to fray the ties both within the university community as well as those directed outside.

For a preview of the future, one need only consult M. Mitchell Waldrops’ book, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. In it Waldrop describes how individual scholars, who were in many cases at odds with their disciplinary departments, came together in a very synergistic fashion at the Santa Fe Institute to create the New Science of Complexity. To achieve these kind of synergies, universities might have to consider making some architectural changes to their small worlds.

Coming to Closure

Lifehack from manu contreras

Lifehack from manu contreras

Making the most of the last days of summer is like squeezing the tube of toothpaste until there are no squeezes left. This was our intent, in fact, the Thursday before Labor Day, when–on a whim–my husband Brock and I decided to head back to the Lake. We were looking for closure. We wanted to gather our wonderful summertime experiences together, and wrap them up, so we could leisurely unpack, and savor them, at some later time.

Having assembled together at Lake Hawthorne on the Forth of July to welcome in the summer, so too we gathered in early September, along with the katydids, to bid it goodbye. As in all such comings and goings, there were rituals involved–in this case, rituals designed to build social capital and hold the community together over the long winter months.

As in all such comings and goings, there were rituals involved.

The weekend was chockfull, to say the least. An evening cocktail party mellowed us before the annual business meeting on the following day, when we joined in a circle on the meadow to discuss and debate the thorny issues entailed in jointly managing a 450 acre commons. A community picnic followed, along with the raffling of prizes, boat races, and more. But, for me, the main event was the treasure hunt!

Let me emphasize, this was no ordinary treasure hunt. The groundwork was laid the evening we arrived, when my son Steve greeted us by quickly ushering us out the door. Armed with a chest of jewels (or so they seemed to the innocent eye), he explained the plan: on the next day, the lake children would search for the treasure by following clues, written by Steve in elaborate verse, and deposited in significant sites around and in the lake–Sunset Rock, The Ice House, Table Rock, etc. As we followed Steve into the woods, we came to the point where four trails converged. Depositing a clue on the branch of a nearby tree, Steve then paced out forty steps to the right, where he buried the chest, marking the spot with crisscrossed deer bones shaped as a cross. Brock and I, feeling depleted after our long drive, headed back to the house for a swim and a cocktail, while Steve traipsed on, depositing the rest of the clues.
21treasure hybt

The real fun began the following day, when the children, escorted by a few adults, set out together in search of the buried treasure. They were not alone. Along the route were a few of Steve’s friends who, dressed in unbelievable costumes, helped interpret the clues.

Fortune Teller in the Attic from Brock Evans

Fortune Teller in the Attic from Brock Evans

The next-to-last stop was our house, where the children climbed the stairs up to the dormitory (reputed for generations to be the home of ghosts) only to find a fortune-teller who–in exchange for the coin sequestered at their last stop–provided the final clue. Not long after, among shrieks of delight, they were divvying up the treasure.

It is times like these that make farewells so bitter sweet. The more enjoyable the experiences, the harder it is to bring them to a close.

Wrangler Jeans From Way Out Texas

Wrangler Jeans From Way Out Texas


Driving home from the lake, and contemplating the new school year, I thought about my next point of closure–resigning as Director of CCT. I leave the program in excellent hands–those of Dr. David Lightfoot, my former dean and mentor–who without a doubt will bring the program to new heights. And, as a member of the faculty, I shall have more time to do what I love best, pursuing with my students the treasure of seeking greater knowledge and understanding. Nonetheless, I am grateful to the students, faculty and staff who–given the special times we have shared–have made this, for me, a tender moment indeed.

The Safety Net

CCT alum Molly Moran flying high! (courtesy of Garrison Le Masters

CCT alum Molly Moran flying high!

In some circumstances, it really behooves one to have a safety net! That’s why when children take their initial steps, and teenagers first get behind the wheel, mothers and fathers are close at hand. A ritualistic dance ensues–as children develop their skills and talents, parents step back, making room for them to grow. The trick is establishing the right distance, appropriate for the circumstances at hand. 

Even as adults we benefit from safety nets, although they are far more transparent, receding into the background until a need for them arises. For example, I vividly recall a time a few summers ago, when my husband Brock and I came to appreciate the value of a safety net, while vacationing at our home at Hawthorne Lake.

Hawthorne at Sunset (courtesy of RHITMrB)

Hawthorne at Sunset (courtesy of RHITMrB)

As is our habit, Brock got up early to make coffee, which we planned to drink in bed, while watching the sun come up. Eager to watch the dawn break, he went down to the dock while waiting for the water to boil. Unfortunately he fell asleep. When he awoke the kitchen wall was in flames. Smelling the smoke, I ran downstairs, almost colliding with my husband who was racing up from the dock. Somehow we managed to call the fire deparment all the while throwing buckets of water at the fire. Driving ten miles up the mountain road–the last leg of which is dirt–the firemen finally arrived. They were there just in time to tell us that we had successfully put out the fire.

Sparta Fire Department

Sparta Fire Department

We were panicked nonetheless. How were we to inform my son Stephen–one of the fifth generation to grow up at the lake–that we had destroyed his patrimony? How were we had to restore the kitchen, much less Crossepatch, our smoke filled house, to it’s historic charm? Although it seemed a hopeless cause, we jumped into the car and raced to town, where we purchased every cleaning apparatus, and cleaning solution, in sight. Scrubbing away over the next few hours, our efforts seemed hopeless. However, not much later, my sister Anne came along, and–sympathetic to our plight, but surprised by our endeavors–reminded us our house was safe: As she pointed out, we had a safety net–our insurance company.

Crossepatch in Summer (courtesy of Haley Collins)

Crossepatch in Summer (courtesy of Haley Collins)

Safety nets are not always institutionalized. Nor do they necessarily require financial investments. Even though we are less cognizant of them, many safety nets inhere in the social structure in which we are embedded. This fact was brought home to me ten day’s ago after my husband’s fall. Within a few hours of the event, the phone began to ring. Neighbors and friends alike emerged from out of nowhere, looking for ways to help. Most touching to me was the call from Rachael, my husband’s ex-wife, who–reassuring me that “she was there for me–” invited me over to share her delicious, Seder left-overs.

Some say that the safety nets that emerge from social interactions are no different from formal institutions–such as insurance companies–in which we consciously invest in order to hedge our bets about the future. Thus, for example, rational actor theorists such as Nan Lin insist that individuals weigh the costs and benefits of investing their time and energy in establishing connections in the hopes of capturing future returns in the form of greater resources. I beg to disagree. Just as Mark Buchanan has argued in his book The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbors Usually Look Like You, humans motivations are far more complex than rational actor theorists might surmise. As Buchanan emphasizes, we are essentially social atoms whose behavior is guided as much by our evolutionary instincts and emotional needs as it is by rational choice.

And thank goodness! Circumstances call for a variety of actions, and a variety of responses. When our formal institutions fail us, we have our social relations to fall back on–just as in the hard times of today, when family and friends are turning inwards to support one another. If scholars such as Robert Putam are correct, these informal groups might generate greater social capital in the course of their interactions, which can be employed, in turn, to help reshape and rebuild much sturdier formal institutions for future generations.

A Double Header in New York


courtesy of yodababy 26

courtesy of yodababy 26

As an ardent childhood fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers–one, in fact, who paid her dollar to keep the team in Brooklyn–it is perhaps natural that I viewed my recent trip to New York as a double header.

Fortunately, I was able to preface my participation in the Columbia University Conference, Changing Dynamics of Public Controversies, with a visit to my grand daughter Sophie’s kindergarten class, where the students were celebrating her 6th birthday. To my surprise, I discovered an interesting connection between the two events.  It was a link that–as it turned out–relates to norms.

I discovered an interesting connection between the two events–a link that relates to norms. 

Sophie’s class room is not only cozy and comfortable, it is also flush with excitement, enthusiasm, and riotous color–all of which is mirrored in the artwork and projects displayed in every nook and cranny.

Red a la Kindergarten (courtesy of Fun Monitor)

Red a la Kindergarten (courtesy of Fun Monitor)

Thinking of my own experience with graduate students, I marveled at Sophie’s teacher’s ability to keep all of these somewhat hyper children consistently and cooperatively engaged while moving seamlessly from one set of activities to the next.   First there were art projects, then a general gathering with the children assembled on a bright rug at the front of the class, where I had the pleasure of reading to them.  Returning to their tables,  the children sang happy birthday; ate cupcakes topped with multi-colored icing, and played with their wind-up party favors.   Before orderly lining up to go home, they had one last chance to expel their energy, dancing together on the rug.

How, I wondered to myself, did Sophie’s teacher orchestrate this ensemble? Certainly her knowledge of, and empathy with, the children was key. But the children also did their part. They were following established norms, which were listed prominently on the classroom wall. Having committed to these few simple rules, each child was able to demonstrate his or her individuality, while working together as a group.  

My day and a half visit with my grandkids was far too short.  But it was full of special moments. By far the best was the interaction between Ben and Sophie in which they negotiated their behavior with respect to one another. Clearly, they had a common idea of what it meant to be  good. final_img_35341

“Sophie,” said 8-year old Ben, “I am going to be nice to you today because it is your birthday,” “Ben,” Sophie responded: “I am going to be good today because it’s my birthday.”

Taking my leave, and driving into New York, my thoughts shifted from my childhood in New Jersey to my graduate days at Columbia University. Advancing down the Henry Hudson Parkway, and turning onto 125th Street and Broadway (a recurrent scene in my dreams) I felt like a student again, full of anticipation and excitement for the day’s events. Above all, I wanted to hear what Bruno Latour and Jochai Benkler had to say, not only to the audience, but also-and especially–to one other. Both speakers are featured in my classes, and the students from my Networked Economy class were waiting for a full report.

The conference focused on the question of whether and where effective public controversies will likely be aired, given the recent decline of the newspaper industry and the journalism profession. Participants were concerned lest, in the absence of robust newspapers, the public will lack the knowledge and wherewithal to foster societal norms much less hold the government accountable to them. Dean Nicholas Lemann of Columbia University’s School of Journalism and Paul Starr from Princeton University laid out the problem, while Bruno Latour and Jochai Benkler spoke to it.

Bruno Latour dismissed the problem, as it was defined. Echoing Walter Lippman‘s notion of the phantom public, he contended that neither the public–nor for that matter society–exist in reality. As Latour claims, there really is no social stuff–that is to say, norms–out there.  (See, for an in-depth discussion, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory 1995.) Instead, as Latour describes it, actors assemble sporadically when specific issues arise. Lacking in-depth knowledge, the public should not engage in the resolution of issues but rather  act like lighthouses, signaling their existence to policy actors.

In contrast, Jochai Benkler’s remarks were premised on the existence of norms.   As he described, using today’s digital technologies, individuals have a far greater opportunity to generate a public  than they did in the past. Digital technologies not only allow them to  gain greater access to knowledge; they can also employ these technologies to act on that knowledge is conjunction with others.  However, this collaboration is only possible, given the existence of norms such as trust and reciprocity, which sustain a gift economy.

Riding home on Amtrak, I reflected about the issue of norms, especially Latour’s assertion that they are ephemeral.  Questioning his perspective, I asked myself: Have I had not just witnessed their actual existence in my grand daughter’s classroom?  Moreover, have I not seen how norms are negotiated in the interchange between my two grandchildren Sophie and Ben?   As importantly, have I not witnessed via the current  financial crisis what happens when a society–in the name of deregulation–has renounced its norms?  These experiences lead me to believe that what is needed today is not only an economic stimulus “package”, but also–and more importantly-normative guidelines about how the American people’s monies should be spent.

Interpreting an Ancient Landscape

Driving in Southern Utah, over the ten thousand foot high Boulder Mountain, we came to a place where the Freemont Indians and the Anasazi were said to have intermingled. The Anasazi, also known as the Ancestoral Pueblo, stemmed from Northern New Mexico and Arizona, while the Freemont were concentrated in Southern Utah. Not surprisingly, given their proximity, there were similarities between them, which were especially evident in their pottery and art work. However, there were also significant differences. The Freemont Indians lived primarily in pit-houses, deep in the ground, whereas the Anasazi sought shelter in cliff dwellings high up in the rocks. By the end of the 13th century, both peoples had deserted the area rather precipitously, leaving scientists, ever since, to speculate and wonder about their disappearance.

The Sun Dagger is located on Fajada Butte.  Photo courtesy of Buggs under a

The Sun Dagger is located on Fajada Butte. Photo courtesy of Buggs under a Creative Commons License

My close friend Anna Sofaer, trained as a city planner, and practicing in the field of art and photography, was one of those who–once captured by the story of the Anasazi–devoted the rest of her career to studying them. I remember well the day that she met me for lunch downtown, at Mr. Henry’s, armed with a set of photos that she had taken, right before summer solstice, while photographing petroglyphs on Fajada Butte in New Mexico.

Pointing to a dagger of light that bisected a spiral, carved in the rock face, which was located behind three large slabs of rock, she whispered: “I believe it marks the summer solstice.”

Pointing to a dagger of light that bisected a spiral, carved in the rock face, which was located behind three large slabs of rock, she whispered: “I believe it marks the summer solstice.”  Dumbfounded, I thought–this is a Eureka moment! There was great excitement in her tone, as Anna anticipated what to do next. Soon thereafter, she entered into collaboration with scientists from multiple backgrounds and disciplines. She also became highly proficient in the field of archeoastronomy, and developed an excellent ethnographic style that enhanced her rapport with leaders among the Pueblo communities.
Working through her nonprofit organization the Solstice Project, Anna has, over the last thirty years, made a number of even more wonderful discoveries; the marking of the lunar cycle on Fajada Butte, the religious significance of the North Road; petroglyphs that reference the geometry of buildings in Chaco Canyon; the geometric relationships among the buildings as well as their relationships to the angles of the sun and the moon. Integrating it all, Anna partnered with other scholars to develop an interactive model that precisely replicates the astronomical functioning of the calendrical site. Adding another dimension to her findings, Anna has also presented her work in the medium of film, which conveys far more acutely the mystical aspects of it all. Both films, The Sun Dagger and The Mystery of Chaco Caynon. are narrated by Robert Redford and distributed through PBS. 

Epstein’s analysis of the Anasasi–already mentioned in a previous blog–aims to be holistic insofar as it uses a generative computational model. However, the variables that Epstein includes in his model are primarily economic. Anna Sofaer also draws her conclusions based on a computer model that incorporates the geometry of the site; but, in contrast to Epstein, her model is global in nature, taking the whole picture into account. Accordingly, her work suggests that most economic decisions made by the Anasazi were not simply individually determined; most likely, they were made by high ranking community leaders who were greatly influenced by religious/cosmological factors. Likewise, she contends that economic factors are inadequate in accounting for the sudden disappearance of the Anasazi peoples. In fact, as Anna argues, Chaco Canyon was most probably not a trading center, as many had thought, but rather a religious center located at the upper most reach of the Anasazi-related peoples. Hence, in explaining the comings and goings of the Anasazi, Anna might say that their cosmology is perhaps the best place to start. In his book, Epstein concludes that economic factors alone cannot fully account for the disappearance of the Anasazi. I wonder what more he might have learned had he incorporated the data–much of which was available at the time–that Anna had so painstakingly gathered.

 Anna Sofaer is not what one might call a classic academic scholar; but she certainly had a very good idea. Stuck in their own paradigms, many traditional scholars were, at first, unwilling to take her seriously; engage with her; and include her in their communities of practice. What a shame! But now, some thirty years later, her magnificent body of work speaks for itself.