A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) is a novel of its time; locked, sadly, in its time.

Written during the developing Cold War when nuclear annihilation through mutual destruction seemed close to inevitable, this is a book about persistence in an endless cycle of birth, annihilation, and rebirth.

What does this book have to say about post-literacy? A bit.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.

Canticle

The central conceit of the book is the veneration of the “Memorabilia”, textual detritus from the “pre-Deluge” age (literally shopping lists, manuals, blueprints for machines, etc.). A religious order preserves these (along with books memorized and others buried in kegs by “bookleggers”) believing them to be critical messages to inform and direct the return of civilization.

As the many centuries unfold these texts move from being inscrutable, to manuals for the rebirth of ideas, and finally to relics to be preserved once again (this time in a space colony) in the face of the virtual annihilation of Earth.

Literacy. Persistence. Preservation. Ideas. Truth. Faith. Commitment.

Lots of themes central to the idea of reading and writing as a core element of civilization (and of illiteracy has the mark of barbarism in times of “simplification”).

Lots of Latin too.

And surely that’s the biggest clunker in the book: the inexplicable persistence of Latin as the language of the Church into the far distant centuries. It seems as odd and unlikely as the use of shorthand in Clarke’s Childhood’s End (more on that here).

As a canticle to literacy and the power of reading and writing, Leibowitz is bloated and pedantic. While I’m likely oblivious or insensitive the larger religious messages of the novel, I’m not persuaded by the book that literacy holds the enduring power Miller ascribes to it.

…Mike

Walter M Miller Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz. New York: Bantam, 2007. (Originally published in 1959).

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PhD

I just posted this on Twitter:

If you know me, you are probably saying to yourself: “He’s of a *certain* age, what the hell is he thinking?”

Good question.

My not-so-good answer is simple: I’m interested in exploring the future of literacy (i.e. post-literacy) in a more formal, structured, and research-based way. A PhD program, and all the aspects around it, will give me that opportunity.

And, frankly, it’s an adventure. Who doesn’t want that?!

I’m not kidding myself. A PhD is going to be a huge challenge for me. I’m going to have to up my game to stay with it. But I’m very excited and hugely motivated by all those I consulted about making this decision. Thanks to you all.

So, follow my progress, or lack thereof. I’ll likely post, tweet, write, talk, and generally bore you to no end about it all. Sorry. Kinda.

…Mike

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Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl

“Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl” is a short story by Kathleen Ann Goonan published in the  intriguing collection Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (2014).

The main focus of the story is about the importance of literacy, neural plasticity, and individualized learning. Oddly it actually makes a good case for post-literacy instead.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.

Hieroglyph

Set ~200 years in the future but reflecting on experiences 100 years prior to that, the story begins by noting that “in the early twenty-first century illiteracy was classified as a public health problem” (p. 40).

Alia learns about her grandmother’s path from dyslexia (and resulting illiteracy) to advanced literacy through a newly invented “learning neurobiologic” call OPEN ROAD (p. 49) which “accelerates the process of learning to read for everyone” (p. 61). The quest is for universal literacy (p. 67). Against all odds Melody, the grandmother, learns to read and becomes a mentor for others. Heartwarming.

All well and good but Alia, herself quite literate, does not learn about this from reading or even from hearing Melody talk about it. Rather she learns about it through a “grok.” Most of the story is the description of what happens during that grok.

Grok: “Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.” Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).

The grok is a total immersion experience where Alia fully and deeply understands the ideas and feelings of her grandmother. As Alia herself says, the grok provides an intimacy and awareness “like reading words … but a lot more powerful” (p. 44). Or, put another way, better than literacy. Bring on the grok.

Here’s how Alia describes the grok being given to her:

“I see that Melody has assembled spheres, which glow in the air like juggling balls, unaffected by the wind. She tosses me a golden sphere, a green sphere, and one that looks like Jupiter, pulsing with many dark swirling colour. I catch them – they feel like northing but a slight tingle – and press them to my chest, where they melt into the interface on my skin. I smile … I close my eyes and grok.” (p. 43).

Incidentally Melody has invented Zebra “a three-dimensional language” (p. 43) which seems to be related to the grok delivery system but is never fleshed out. Too bad.

So, ironically, “Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl” is a plea for the value and importance of literacy but describes a capability and a set of tools that are clearly more powerful. In the end it is a story about the triumph of post-literacy.

…Mike

Kathleen Ann Goonan. “Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl” in Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. Edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. New York: William Morrow, 2014, pp. 38-73.

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Childhood’s End

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1954) is a classic of science fiction. As is all too often the case with the genre, that doesn’t make it a classic of fiction.

Literary merit aside, Childhood’s End has some fascinating and instructive aspects relating to post-literacy.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.

Childhoods-End

Childhood’s End is centrally about telepathy and collective consciousness (hive minds) but it also has descriptions of total surveillance (with on-demand playback) and synthetic memory.

Some observations:

Telepathy and Hive Minds

The Overlord, Karellen, warns humans about trying to understand or use advanced technologies; those perhaps beyond their capacity to understand: “The gulf between two technologies can easily become so great that it is – lethal” (p. 128). This is the gulf represented by the latent human telepathic powers that the children eventually develop. It is also the gulf between humans (and even the Overlords) and that of the Overmind (the hive mind entity that directs the Overlords).

The Overlords prevented human scientific progress because 21st century scientists were beginning to experiment with psychic powers and were on the verge of unlocking a capacity that was judged (by the Overmind) to be dangerous. It would become “a telepathic cancer” or a “malignant mentality”.

It was clear that the children, once telepathic, are changed, incorporated into the hive mind of the Overmind, and transformed into something beyond human:

“They will not possess minds as you know them. They will be a single entity, as you yourselves are the sums of your myriad cells. You will not think them human, and you will be right” (p. 178).

Becoming telepathic and melding into the hive mind transformations the children into something else. The price of greater insight and knowledge is the loss of the individual self; it is the end of the children as humans.

Synthetic Memory

New Athens, the community of artists and scientists set up to live apart from the Overlords (and with their acquiescence) were working on something called “total identification”. It is a means of synthetic memory “as vivid as any experience in … actual life – indeed, indistinguishable from reality itself.” (p. 142).

Whether the community fully implements “total identification” is unclear. However, working towards it presages the psychic abilities later reflected in the children.

Surveillance and Playback

The Overlords have the capacity to record, and playback, the lives of humans. A sort of global surveillance system with total recall. It is an electronic archive of human activity (although it apparently the capture mode doesn’t work under water).

Visual Language

The Overlords communicate with the Overmind using a visual language of shapes and colours (207). Unfortunately this is only vaguely alluded to but it seems to be a common trope in describing alternative languages.

The Non Sequiturs

There are some delightful non sequiturs.

Despite their great powers and superior technology, when Jan is transported to the Overlord world as a stowaway, he discovers they cannot speak English nor communicate with him in an advanced manner. They end up devolving to a crude sign and pointing language. Seems ridiculous.

However, my favourite jarring inconsistency consists of the the weekly conferences hosted by the Overlords. These are attended by reporters who are denied the use of any electronic equipment (cameras, tape recorders, etc.): “They had to rely on such archaic devices as paper and pencil – and even, incredible to relate, shorthand.” (p.126  emphasis in the original text). Only in an Arthur C. Clarke novel could shorthand survive into a future millennium.

Of course probably the most famous aspect of this book is Clarke’s disclaimer on the colophon: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” The forward to the book, first published in the 1990 edition, “mind-rotting bilge” about much of what his novel centers  on (aliens, psychic powers, etc.).

…Mike

Arthur C. Clarke. Childhood’s End. New York: Del Rey, 2015. (Original work published in 1954).

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No Woman Born

C.L. Moore was unfamiliar to me as science fiction writer. But her 1944 short story “No Woman Born”, published in Astounding Science Fiction, is well worth finding.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.

moorenowoman

The basic story is simple. Deirdre, a hugely successful dancer and actress, is all but killed in a tragic theatre fire. Only her brain survives. A new metallic body is made for her and she becomes a cyborg.

C.L. Moore, in a reflection on her work (“Footnote to Shambleau … and Others” p. 367), describes the motivation for the story: “How would being a quasi-robot, no matter how beautiful, affect her thinking and her feeling as a human being?”

As she prepares to re-enter the public realm as a performer, albeit it one in a clearly changed appearance (she has no face for example; it is described as a “smooth, delicately modeled ovoid for her head  … a sort of crescent-shaped mask” (p. 243), there is much anxiety from her creator (Maltzer) and her manager (John Harris) about the reaction she will receive.

The essential questions are: Who is she? Is this new creation Deirdre or someone/something else? Harris, upon seeing her transformed soon declares “she was still Deirdre” (p. 245) and later Deirdre herself echoes this: “This is myself” she said. “Metal – but me.” (p. 250).

Her new body gives her increased flexibility and considerable advantages. She is physically superior in every dimension.

While those around her struggle with her desire to fully enter human life and society, Deirdre repeatedly says “I wonder” reflecting on her new cyborg identity and what that means for her.

Moore, perhaps, is less sure and describes the excited Deirdre as having “the distant taint of metal already in her voice” (p. 288). Can she co-exist within this society or will her “taint” forever alienate her? Like Frankenstein’s creature, she is lonely. But unlike the creature she is convinced of her capacity and its possibilities.

Of post-literate interest here is whether as a result of cyborg changes and prosthetics we remain who were are or become “someone/something else.” Deirdre is different …. and yet the same. But she continually remarks … “I wonder.”

…Mike

C.L. Moore. “No Women Born” in The Best of C.L. Moore. Edited by Lester Del Ray. New York: Ballantine Books, 1975. 236-288.

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Radio as Pedagogy: The Book Minute

The dramatic rise in popularity of podcasts has demonstrated that radio wasn’t dead, it was just sleeping.

Listening to radio as a learning resource is one thing, but what about making radio as a pedagogical tool?

I’ve been using radio in undergraduate and graduate courses for a number of years (major tip of the hat to the awesome Kelly Jones for her guidance and vision).

podcast-icon-webCreating radio (both terrestrial radio and podcasting are “radio”) draws together a number of academic skills critical to student success: research, writing, presentation skills, team work, collaboration, and community engagement to highlight the most obvious.

A podcast or a live radio assignment can function in the same manner as the research essay does now. And it does so in a way that engages the student in a critical learning experience and excites them by challenging them with something new.

Radio as an assignment reinforces new skills and extends existing skills in a new context.

This semester I’m teaching a First Year Seminar called The Book: From Gutenberg to Gaga to Gone? The focus is about the nature and changing nature of the book and book culture.

For the major assignment in the course the students will create podcasts …. with a twist that makes this a bit more challenging.

The student podcasts will be contributions to a series called The Book Minute (www.TheBookMinute.com). These are 60 second podcasts that focus on a particular aspect of the book.

60 seconds.

This is a major constraint that I think will result in focus, research, creativity, audience awareness, performance, and technology skills. All radio is about storytelling; at the center of these podcasts will be a story, albeit a very short one.

The Book Minute

We start production next week in partnership with CFRU (93.3FM), Guelph’s community radio station. We are fortunate to be able to use their studios. They will be airing The Book Minutes throughout their programming year.

When the students evaluate the course at the end of the semester we will see if they found this pedagogical tool effective or not.

You can evaluate their contributions any time by listening to CFRU or by visiting The Book Minute.

…Mike

 

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Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (revised edition 1831) is a classic often little read and widely misunderstood because of Hollywood’s corruption of the story. If you’ve only seen the movies, read the book and prepare to be (wonderfully) surprised.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.

Frankenstein

In post-literate terms, the monster or demon Victor Frankenstein creates is a cyborg, albeit one created from human parts. Exactly how the creature is constructed and how it is reanimated is quite vague in the text.

Of interest to us is the brain and the creature’s intellectual life.

The brain Frankenstein uses is from a corpse but we don’t know how young or old, healthy or diseased.  This is important. How much does the creature “remember” of it’s former life? On the surface, nothing. He (for the creature is a he) is never seems aware of memories from another time.

However, he does manage to learn things quickly. An efficient autodidact, the creature is soon learning language, reading classic texts, and writing notes. His period of apprenticeship is short, his eloquence remarkable, and and his maturity obvious.

Is he drawing on his past or is he a superior being somehow endowed by the reanimation process with extraordinary learning capabilities? We certainly know he possesses physical strength and capabilities beyond normal humans (he scales mountainsides with ease and rows across vast waters in minutes). This is presumably the result of reanimation.

Upon learning, by observing others, the “the science of letters” (note, a science not an art), the creature remarks that this “opened before me a wide field for wonder and delight.” (p. 119). Fortuitously, he finds a bag of books on the ground and begins to read.

A favourite is Milton’s Paradise Lost which the creature reads “as a true history” (p. 129). True perhaps because the creature’s story alludes to that of Satan. The explicit link is made when the creature recalls that “Evil henceforth became my good.” (p. 220) echoing Satan’s “Evil, be thou my good” (Paradise Lost. Line 110).

Milton’s Satan is a fallen angel but one possessed of superior, beyond human, intelligence. Shelly meant us to understand the creature as a superior intellect.

Recall that the subtitle of the novel is “The Modern Prometheus.” The Prometheus myth has two version; in one, largely Greek, he attempts to help mankind and is punished by Zeus (i.e. he is their helper). In the other, largely Roman, he moulds humans from clay (i.e. he is their creator).

If the creature represents science and the superior intellect acquired through science. then a key message in Frankenstein is the power of ideas to manipulate and pervert human life. The hubris of our desire for increased knowledge and capacity is the danger. We are shaped by this.

In exhorting Frankenstein to create a partner for him, the creature says: “You are my creator, but I am your master; – obey!” (p. 167). One can hear in this McLuhan’s seminal observation, “First we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”.

The creature is not post-literate although he possess some degree of enhanced learning and intellectual capacity. He doesn’t remember a former life and the knowledge he had in that life does not inform his current incarnation.

But he is a warning. As Shelley describes, we craft our future and the tools we use have the power to overwhelm us. While post-literacy in my terms must be advantageous, Shelley indicates perhaps the outcome is otherwise.

…Mike

Mary Shelley. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

 

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The Demise of CLA

Today the members of the Canadian Library Association (CLA) voted overwhelmingly to disband the organization. I’m a member of the Executive Committee of CLA that moved the motion to do this.

Canadian Library AssociationIn many ways it’s a sad day. CLA has been a voice for libraries since 1946 and for many, me included, it has been a tremendous source of professional engagement (I’ve been a member since 1976).

But CLA has declined in relevance and value. A lack of faith in the association (for a variety of reasons) lead to declining memberships and diminished revenues. The vibrant CLA of the past had become an unsustainable organization unable to meet member, and prospective member, needs. It was time for it to go.

In many other ways, however, today is a very exciting and important day because it clears the way for a new vehicle to act as the national voice of libraries: the proposed Canadian Federation of Library Associations.

Many national and regional library associations came together over that past year or more to craft a new organization. It was extremely difficult work. The resulting proposal is not CLA revised or revisited but a new start with new people and a new vision of how to proceed.

It has been easy for some to snark on the sidelines and disparage CLA. I have been impressed by those who had similar reservations about CLA but were prepared to put in the hard work to find a new solution.

The Federation model isn’t perfect. There will be substantial challenges. But the need for a national voice for libraries was broadly and vocally supported.

CLA is over. The Federation is not CLA. It’s time to move on.

My sadness about the demise of CLA is more than tempered by the excitement of a new way forward; a way that will be shaped by those who want to be involved and want to make a difference.

One of the members at the Special General Meeting where CLA was dissolved made a passionate plea for the importance of libraries in underserved communities. We as a library community have lots of work to do to address those and many other needs.

I urge you to follow the work of the Federation and to participate in it through one or more of the many library associations who form the organization. It is our voice to have or to lose.

…Mike

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The #StationaryCrew Project (Why I Love My Job)

I teach in Guelph’s First Year Seminar program. It is by any measure, too much fun. How could it not be: small class size, interdisciplinary focus, emphasis on discussion and critical thinking, and wonderful students.

As good as it has been over the past number of years, it is so much better this semester!

Welcome to The #StationaryCrew Project. One of the courses I’m teaching this semester.

For those outside Guelph a bit of context. Installed at the University and the city are a number of statues (and objects) that have become important cultural touchstones. They include a bear, a cannon, a gryphon, a pile of garbage (!), John Galt, John McCrae, a blacksmith, and a family. Strange crew.

The #StationaryCrew

The #StationaryCrew

Let’s call these things, “icons”. Some are new (installed last year), others date back to the 19th century (and perhaps even earlier). They all have a strong visual impact and fascinating backstories.

And best of all, each of these icons has a presence on Twitter. Not a corporate account simply promoting the statue but someone being the statue, projecting a personae and chatting with others. They even have a hashtag for themselves: #StationaryCrew (hence the title of the course).

Various traditions over the years mean we interact with these icons physically as well as digitally. The cannon (Old Jeremiah) is painted regularly and acts as a focus for free speech on campus. The bear, The Begging Bear, is dressed up in all manner of clothes (my favourite being a full wedding dress). You are supposed to rub the nose of the Gryphon Statue for good luck and shake John Galt‘s hand. Bathing in the fountain around The Family in the Fountain is discouraged (but popular). Where did all this come from?

The most effective learning experiences are those which are done in public, well beyond the classroom. This course will not only get the students out into the community, they will be creating an online resource that will be accessible to everyone. And, of course, all their interactions on Twitter will be part of the digital public record.

Where the students (and the icons) take this course remains to be seen. As it always seems in my courses, it’s the journey that matters more than the destination.

Since we are learning about this in public you can follow us and participate too! Visit our website: The #StationaryCrew Project and follow the course Twitter account:


…Mike

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Whither the CIO?

Whither the CIO? Bo Wandschneider, CIO at Queen’s University (and full disclosure the Deputy CIO at Guelph when I was CIO), recently posted about the nature and future of the CIO in higher education: “The demise of the Canadian University CIO…?

Bo observed that too many CIOs in Canada were leaving (e.g. going to the private sector or to other areas of the university). He expressed some frustration at the limited vision of institutions regarding IT (e.g. IT is just a cost centre) and suggested that being a CIO in the private sector might be a better option.

CIOs in higher education (HE) come from many backgrounds; there is no standard career path to the role. I have always thought of that an advantage: diversity matters. But it might also lead to questioning the value of the role.

Difficult Questions

Is the CIO role diminished in HE? Does it live up to its “C-level” billing? And if not, who is responsible for this? The CIO, the Provost, the President?

Are universities blind to the transformational possibilities of IT? Is it just a cost centre or does it offer a positive, progressive disruption?

Is the private sector a better place to be a CIO? Is the university sector moribund or stagnant?

Collaboration

Bo thinks part of the solution for some of these woes is collaboration; real, bold, transformational collaboration. He doesn’t see it happening in IT and this hurts the credibility (and influence) of the CIO.

So, what to do? A few modest observations.

CIOs in HE manage a herd of cats (by which I mean their clients). And these cats are as independent as they come. Each client or client group has tremendous autonomy over their area. Bluntly, they want control. Building consensus for collaborative initiatives across units on campus is difficult enough; thinking about it across institutions seems impossible.

While the rest of the IT enabled world is scaling up to take advantage of innovative services and resources (with competitors sharing common infrastructure and services), HE still likes to do things on its own. Local trumps almost every other option.

Why?

University administration (read: Presidents, Provosts, VPs, Boards) don’t believe CIOs can deliver on their vision. Blunt I know.

Real collaboration, the kind Bo is calling for, requires opportunity (we have that in spades in IT), vision (I think there’s lots of good thinking in our community), and commitment (and this is where we are lacking). Collaboration is a promise. It requires a willingness to give up a certain amount (perhaps a lot) of autonomy.

CIOs are generally allergic to that. For Presidents, Provosts, etc. its anathema.

When the water starts to dry up the animals at the drinking hole start to look at each other differently. We are (and will continue) experiencing evaporating resources. But when we look at each other we should see partners not prey. We should think first of collaboration not control.

Think Long Term, Act Now

HE IT needs a long term plan that articulates a view of the HE system enabled differently in a collaborative model. Incrementally realize that vision: start new services/applications as collaborations and move legacy apps to a common framework as they become end of life. This does not mean everyone does it the same way; collaborative directions can be more flexible; variations on a theme rather than a single option.

Remember, however, that all collaboration is about mutual self-interest; finding that sweet spot means understanding the balance between the local and the collective. As a result, it must be a coalition of the willing; the perfect (all institutions are part of the collaboration) is the enemy of the good (a critical mass of engaged partners).

The University CIO

I don’t know if the private sector is a better place to be a CIO, and frankly I don’t care. I worked as a CIO in HE not because I thought technology was extraordinary (although I do) or because information is transformational (which it is) but because I’m passionate about the role and value of universities in transforming the world.

If you are a CIO who doesn’t get this, you should probably leave the sector.

CUCCIO

The Canadian University Council of CIOs (CUCCIO) is a wonderful organization involving some of the best information technology leaders in the country. They are well positioned to transform HE IT in Canada.

Be bold.

Recognize the power of collaboration.

Commit.

…Mike

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