Aesthetics Abandoned

One of the many drawbacks of living in the intermediated world of industrial consumerism is that we have pretty much abandoned aesthetics. Form and function are mostly industrial products too. Marketing psychology drives them, like almost everything else.

Diverse commercial and political interests present a pre-formed world to us on the flat digital screens of our many “devices,” from smartphones to laptops. Most of the time some “middleman,” either an institution or a technology, mediates between the person and her/his perception of the world and action toward it. The various institutional purveyors of images and text mediate (shape and frame) these forms to fit their needs by selling us some product or promoting some idea, project, or political strategy.

Alienated Beauty

“Beauty” is presented to “the eye of the beholder” pre-defined by an intermediary, or it may be lost entirely in the forms of intermediated function. We see little that is directly in front of us in its natural form. More and more control is no longer direct. Beauty is subordinated to control.

I have recently become much more aware of the importance of the fact that we live in an intermediated world. The sense that so-called “self-driving” cars fit in some inevitable path of progress is an iconic cultural indicator of the dominance of intermediation and the subordination of aesthetics to system control. The implications are many and in some cases profound, sometimes even deadly. Here is one example.

Increasingly Intermediated Aviation

In aviation, pilots now benefit from a plethora of real-time digital information and images on “Primary Flight Displays” (flat-panel screens) in the cockpit, including navigational data and even moving maps with three-dimensional terrain depiction. Pilots enter flight plans into a GPS (Global Positioning System), which links them to map data and current weather data regularly updated and depicted on a screen during the flight. The screen displays the current position and actual track of the aircraft over land including any deviation from the flight plan, in real time. These displays do have a certain aesthetic appeal.

Airliner above clowdsThe GPS transmits both flight-plan and current position data to the autopilot, which signals servos that control ailerons, rudder, and elevators, thereby directing the aircraft along the designated route. The pilot is reduced to a technician who programs the automated systems that actually fly the aircraft on a flight path determined mostly by the airline and the FAA.

That is the epitome of intermediation. The airline pilot is left with little to do but manage and monitor the system that flies the airplane. He does make judgments and may request from Air Traffic Control a deviation in altitude or direction to avoid thunderstorms or turbulence. Both the system-generated situational data and the flight systems intermediate between data, the actor, and the action.

Such complex systems diminish human control and the beauty of flying. No wonder so many airline pilots own old-fashioned biplanes or small experimental aircraft they fly when off duty. They miss the direct experience of flying lost in their professional work.  stearman-640x300Flying a Stearman PT-17/N2S Biplane is a Direct Experience

The complexity and power of intricate automated systems really are quite amazing. However, the separation of human action from direct experience has its downside. In the case of flying, airline pilots who often have the latest complex automated systems in their airliners can get “rusty” in the hands-on skills of directly flying the aircraft.

The problem arises when some system falters, whether due to mechanical or electronic failure or due to extreme weather. Over-reliance on automated systems in some instances has caused pilots to misread direct signs of an emergency, causing fatal crashes. Similar downsides occur in countless other areas of modern life.

Aesthetics is Experience

What about aesthetics in all this? Well, it is all about direct perception. The image is not the thing itself. The map is not the land. Maps, of course, provide guides to navigating the land, but the distinction is important. We can appreciate the beauty of the product of a fine cartographer.

We can even build some beauty into maps generated by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) using “big data.” We can even revel in the beauty and technical prowess of an automotive moving map display depicting our travel on unfamiliar roads as it leads us on the quickest route to our destination in unknown territory.

I have not nearly as much fun with the GPS in my pickup truck as I do with the one in my little airplane. In aircraft, most GPS units are far more complex, powerful, and expensive than those assisting automotive navigation. But the primary aesthetic experience, to the extent that there is one, is in the actual travel itself. Driving through a redwood forest in Northern California or flying over Monument Valley in Utah provides a direct experience of natural beauty. So does flying among puffy white clouds after a storm. Most pilots fly because they love the aesthetic experience.

However, our overreliance on technologies and institutions that mediate the relations between us and our world can cause us to crash, either literally or figuratively. We do have a tendency to see the map as the terrain itself. It is, after all, a substitute for looking out the window.

Too many people too often rely on biased interpretations of life presented to them by powerful institutions through technologies of so-called smart devices. They uncritically accept the intermediation of their life experiences through imagery specifically designed to manipulate their behavior, either for marketing or for political purposes. Perception and aesthetic interpretation increasingly alienate us from direct experience of life itself.

Losing Aesthetic Experience

Navigational equipment is just one of many examples of the intermediation of human action by powerful technology. Many other examples reflect similar conditions and outcomes, at least as many driven by institutional dynamics as by technology itself. In most cases, the technology or institution provides some useful function while diminishing our control.

So, don’t get me wrong; I’m not giving up my GPS. Some complex actions are not possible without intermediation. Yet, intermediation is a game changer in the evolution of human action and in the ability of humanity to mitigate or adapt to the planetary changes that the growth of intermediation has caused. We live in a system of our own making that largely controls us and is fast destroying the world on which we depend.

The same processes increasingly occur within complex institutions, whether corporations to government agencies. In more and more areas of human interaction, goals and actions are increasingly intermediated by complex procedures, paperwork, “red tape,” technical requirements, and bureaucratic obstacles, than ever before. The resulting loss of human control over action and events suppresses aesthetics as it destroys the world on which it depends.

Power Out, Pause, Power Up

A power outage is not that uncommon on the high plains of New Mexico near the City of Santa Fe. In a rural or “rural residential” area, the redundancy of the power grid is reduced to nothing in some spots. In more densely populated areas, if a transformer blows out, alternate routes for electricity to travel to one’s home automatically kick in. But if there is no redundancy in a neighborhood where you live, power is off until a repair is made. That is what happened to us late one Saturday night or early Sunday morning; it stayed off longer than usual.

power-gridA power outage can be a teachable moment. At about 5:30 AM I looked at the clock; it’s ordinarily electric-green numerals were not there. The clock was entirely dark. It took a couple of foggy seconds to realize that power was out. I rolled over and snoozed ‘til full light. I never use the alarm unless I have an early flight to catch at ABQ or some other rare early “time certain” event. I can usually tell at around dawn what time it is within 5 or 10 minutes. It’s the light. When I got up I checked my smart phone, which was on the kitchen counter plugged into the charger. It was fully charged and it showed 6:30 AM. Power had been out for at least an hour. Most outages last for a few minutes to a half hour or so.

Power Out

Oh, I can’t make the coffee. My electric coffee maker grinds and drips coffee into the carafe on pressing the start button or if the timer is set. Well, I could heat some water but could not light the gas stove with its electronic igniter to heat the water; I would have to find a match. But my coffee beans need to be ground and the coffee grinder is also electric. I used to have an antique coffee grinder with a hand crank on top but I had given it to my mother years ago.

Well, power should be back up soon. So, I raised the living-room window shade and began to read a book. I usually read the Sunday paper later, after writing for a couple of hours – on my computer – can’t do that today, yet. Got the paper, read the whole thing, checked the floor lamp by my reading chair, still no power.

Pause

Well, I can’t wait any longer; it’s off to the coffee shop 4 miles away for a large mocha java. Power will probably be back up by the time I return. Ah, that’s better. I’ll get my second cup at home. On arrival, no such luck. So, I checked the PNM Web site on my phone. Nearby transformer blew; estimated repair completion: 12:30 PM. That is way past time for my second cup of java! Oh, I should have picked up some ground coffee when I was out.

Cynde is down sick with the same weird ‘sorta-flu’ I had last week. She needs some sherbet for her sore throat, so I go to the store and get sherbet and grind some piñon coffee at the coffee-bean dispenser. Cynde’s throat is relieved. After finding a match, I make a cup of coffee by pouring hot water boiled in a pan on the stove into the cone filter over a mug. Not your average automated Sunday…

Power Up

IMG_1919

My Photo-voltaic Sun Tracker Generating Electricity.

Power arrives a half hour before official ETA. I began to think. A lot more of daily life depends on electricity than we usually let into our awareness. PNM is dragging its corporate financial feet over the inevitable conversion to renewable power. At least my electrical gadgets are powered by my solar PV tracker – when the grid is not down. It usually produces a little more than we consume, so I get a check from PNM each month instead of a bill. That is great, but the investor-owned public utility still rules.

When I installed it, my grid-tied solar system was designed to automatically shut down if the grid lost power. So on that sunny Sunday I had no use of the power my system generated. The solution, of course, is an inverter that automatically disconnects from the grid and directly supplies solar power only to your house if the grid is down.

Some of the newer inverters have that capability but corporate monopoly resists loss of control. I could have had my coffee and regular Sunday morning routine. But even if our electricity is generated by a solar system, do we really need so many of our household functions to be driven by electricity instead of a crafty hand-powered tool?

In Defense of Education

We have been converted from citizens to consumers. That conversion has been helped along by the dumbing down of education in the waning decades of the industrial era. The once lofty goal of building a viable democratic society by assuring that citizens were adequately educated in all things human, including art, science, music, culture, and political economy – the full range of human knowledge – has been replaced by narrow technical training for those willing to be trained to be obedient employees rather than be educated as citizens. It’s flipping Big-Macs for the rest.

The ‘captains of industry’ realized along time ago that they only needed obedient workers and ready consumers – active citizenship would be a major inconvenience. No need for civic participation in an oligarchy – better, in fact, to restrict it. No need for an engaged thinking public if the plutocrats are in charge. [Plutocracy: “a country ruled by the richest people” Miriam-Webster online.] The power elites have known all long that the general population, for the most part should be kept as ignorant and subservient as possible. At the same time, a big part of American culture was a vision of a growing energetic entrepreneurial spirit spurring innovation and the potential for anyone to succeed. That, of course, is a rather large contradiction. Nevertheless, education was seen as the path to achieve the “American Dream.”

Most of the “educational reforms” over the last century have served the purpose of generating profits for consultants, salaries for bureaucrats, and the management of students moving through the system until at some point most jump or are pushed out. When I was in college, I thought that if we just got everyone properly educated we could solve all the world’s problems and live happily ever after. I think I still held on to that hope, tempered by a certain realism, when I began teaching university courses. Gradually, though, it became clear that education was failing America, or maybe America was failing education.

Bottom line: bureaucracy grew and teaching and learning declined as the key elements of the process became “objectified” by various “standards” and procedures (mostly formal “objective” testing and formal “learning objectives”), all of which distract from and consume the funds needed for the actual engagement of teacher and student. More and more pressure, especially on primary and high school teachers, forced them further from direct personal engagement with students, which is the essence of effective teaching and learning.

In thirty-five years of teaching in the California State University system I watched it decline in budgeted support and grow in diverse bureaucratic distractions from the reason we professors thought we were there: teaching and research. At the same time, I learned more and more about how the primary and secondary systems were destroying the chances of very bright individuals in the poverty ridden central areas of Los Angeles. The university students I taught were increasingly unprepared for the work. The hardest part was realizing that innately intelligent individuals simply had not been prepared with the skills needed to succeed in college and there was little I could do about it by that stage. I also discovered that colleagues in other cities and states were experiencing the same decline on their campuses as I was, including some of the nation’s most elite institutions.

Now, the power elites have just about what they want, except for an adequate supply of technical drones for their operations. Today, the plutocracy’s growing problem is that people are not as stupid as the elites expect them to be by depriving them of a real education; they are increasingly angry at being effectively cut off from even modest economic success, and they are ready to do something about it. As in other areas – the economy, politics, community relations – people are organizing themselves to achieve what the conventional institutions have failed to make possible. No, I’m not talking about corporate ‘charter schools’ or ‘privatized’ trade schools. Community based schools are emerging with a human focus. That is where the defense of education will be based and where the full education of citizens will be found.

The massive problems of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty wages caused by the trajectory of the failing growth economy will not be solved by education alone, despite pundits’ claims that workers are not prepared for the good jobs, which are insufficient in number anyway. The larger question is whether we are willing to support the broad public education that is necessary if we are to transition to a new ecological economy as a strong democracy, or whether we will fail entirely and devolve into social chaos. We must choose, and act now, because we have a long way to go.