Saturday, May 12, 2007

Shift Happens (but without the "f")

JP Rangaswami has decided to wax ecstatic on confused of calcutta about a video by Karl Fisch on globalization in the information age. This is basically a slide show that bombards the viewer with the usual hyperbolic statistics that go into stirring up the Kool-Aid of globalization evangelism, ending with the punch line "Shift happens." So far the most interesting comment I have seen came from David Butler, who observed that, on his YouTube player, this was followed by "Funny Dog Attacking Itself" and looked for a message in this proximity. By the time I got around to watching the video "Funny Dog" had been replaced by "SEX PORN," which was followed, in turn, by a dog with only two hind legs doing a very good job of walking on them. Given my feelings about this video, I think that my proximities carried more meaning than David's.

For me, however, this "proximity game" is more than a diverting joke. Rather, it helps us remember that there is far more meaning in a good metaphor than there will ever be in the most intimidating pile of numbers! Fisch's video ended up reminding me of two of my own recent exercises, "A World Without Reflection" and "Identity Pathology." As punch lines go, "Shift happens" is a slogan with about as much reflective value as "Four legs good, two legs bad!" All it really brings to mind was Enrico Fermi's ultimate put-down of a really bad talk he once had to suffer: "It isn't even wrong!"

One confused of calcutta commenter, MNB, felt that the "message" of the video was that "our education system does not get it." However, I think this fails to recognize what it means to live in a world without reflection. This is a world that subjects the education system to all sorts of pressures that have nothing to do with education. Those pressures com from the corporate world, governments in service to the corporate world, and a general public brainwashed by the media structure that props up those two worlds; and they are now calculated to prevent both educators and students from "getting it." "It," however, is not the gospel of globalization but the cognitive power to recognize our own humanity and the courage to resist when that humanity is challenged.

Filmmakers seem to be better attuned to the consequences of losing that courage than globalization evangelists are. Consider Office Tigers, the recent miniseries of documentaries run on Sundance, or, before that, the (fiction) film Boiler Room. Both are well-wrought cautionary tales about the conflicts between human values and economic prosperity. If Marx thought the workers of his day were wage-slaves, one can only wonder what he would think of today's workplaces and the sorts of stories that these films tell!

These days I pay more attention to the streets of the San Francisco Tenderloin than I do to the evangelists of globalization and Web 2.0. I have decided that the word that grates on my nerves even more painfully than "content" is "opportunity!" That word does nothing for the disenfranchised (other than aggravate their frustration); and that state of affairs will not be changed by a $1000 laptop!

Fisch's video is like a fairy tale we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better (except that it does not even have a narrative thread). We should spend more time walking the streets and looking at the world that is emerging from what we thought were our utopian ideals. We should then reflect on what we have seen before running after the next "new new thing!"

After writing the above polemic, I found myself reading the Telegraph review of Peter Brook's revival of Athol Fugard's play Sizwe Banze is Dead. This was the first Fugard play I ever saw, and it was good to be reminded of it. One of Banzi's lines should serve as a coda for the points I have been trying to make:

What’s happening in this world, good people? Who cares for who in this world?

No comments: