Story not understandable in itself

Walter Benjamin diagnosed information as the main mode of communication for modern capitalist society; one supplanting the battered craft of storytelling. Stories communicate incompletely, eliciting interpretations that draw from and integrate into one’s experiences. Their “compactness” makes them suitable for recalling and telling. It is this integration of experience enabled by narratives that imparts wisdom. It was the requirement of plausibility that made the story form inadequate for conveying knowledge.

Information, in contrast, “is understandable in itself,” capable of only an unequivocal, objective interpretation.  It is its lack of interpretation that renders information incapable of giving wisdom.

The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks. The Storyteller: (Benjamin, 89) Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov (1936).

The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only in the moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself without losing any time (90).

In Benjamin’s time, news media and journalists was the predominant information industry. Journalists offered slim narratives to recount world events, replete with biases and perspective.

Facing diminishing revenue, mainstream journalism has seems to be moving away from creating narratives towards merely delivering facts, like uncut footage, in its full unfiltered rawness. Those familiar with the work of documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis know this as “Oh Dearism.”

In our time the Internet’s data glut offers everyone a even less digested, more fragmented, polyvocal form of information than journalism – information that is not necessarily understandable in itself. The open question is just how to make sense of so many sources and perspectives discovered online.

As mainstream journalism transforms, new possibilities for independent voices become reputable platforms for debate and dialogue. Paradoxically though, the increase in voices and perspectives has also tended to produce a narrowing of information selection as consumers choose to read sources that suit their biases.

The superabundance of information has also produced a strange conflation of data and knowledge. Having so much data has in ways deformed the concept of knowledge in the oddly Humean notion that “correlation supersedes causation” as argued by Wired‘s Chris Anderson in his article The End of Theory. Why model human thought and behaviour when Google will tell us what it is exactly since “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves”.

Such is the fantastical dreams of techno-utopians such as Anderson – to see the end of theory (i.e. the end of human stories) as an solution to troubling debates about the nature of human behaviour, about ethical decisions, or explanations for why things have beauty or value. Information cannot impart wisdom, and wisdom is what is needed to make good use of, or evaluate anything. To loosely borrow from Kant: data without theory, without concepts, without wisdom, is blind.

And so Benjamin might be arguing that storytelling, and the integration of stories into our experience of the world, are more basic to us than information. Is it possible to even talk about data without stories?

Knowledge Age


In 1994, an earnest but prescient manifesto entitled “Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” heralded the arrival of the “Knowledge Age.”

On the one hand, it offered a (basically correctly) warning of new difficulties to be found in the emerging information society (e.g. who controls intellectual property, how privacy can be protected, how misinformation will become disseminated).

But it also gushed how the new networked society would emancipate us from the industrial capitalism of the past. Knowledge Age periodizes post-industrial society, the end of major industrial capitalism in the West. The emergent economy pivots around the new knowledge sector, industries of new media, information and communication technologies, rather than physical commodities. In its poetic moments, the manifesto proclaimed our human elevation above the burdensome material and natural world: “The powers of mind are everywhere ascendant over the brute force of things.”

Almost twenty years later – an eon in the evolution of computer technology – the effects of this transformation are starkly manifest and evermore transformative. Social relations, rituals and etiquette are being redrawn by social media and online networks, for example. And an elite class of knowledge workers has become the new industrial labourers.

Yet the significant characteristic of the Knowledge Age is surely not that humanity has been released from the material burdens of industrial capitalism. The burdens were merely traveled to countries with cheaper, less-protected labour markets.  And through the deep-pocketed efforts of globalization fanatics those burdens landed with all of the incumbent nasty, material problems (environmental pollution, legalized labour abuses, deadly factory fires). Even within the tech sector, the examples are easy to recall: suicides by employees at Apple’s Foxconn manufacturing plant near Hong Kong, or the ecological devastation of excavating for rare earths needed for iPhone hardware.

In the West, digital technology created a new economy as a bubble. It’s an economy marked by heavy subsidies, and an expanding array of problems, needs and desires spun out as commercial opportunities. But the the demands of technology on the knowledge worker has brought on regressive trends with material consequences.

Anyone in the knowledge sector (I include myself) can attest that information may not exert, but clearly induces a brute force upon things.  I think it’s accurate to say the classic problem of alienated labour in capitalist society has been joined by an equally troubling problem of the alienated mind. Alienating the mind by subjugating its creative powers to commerce forms the employment standards of our present age – though without the hard-won benefits, job security and livable income of classic unionized labour. We now work on different machines – not ones that produce and move products, but control and manipulate data, and ultimately people.

We need a manifesto on how we can get out of this mess.

Abbreviated Intimacy

In 2009, social networking overtook email in reach to become the dominant format of electronic messaging. And with the proliferation of mobile devices that employ social media technologies, it appears  social networks are increasingly supplanting many of the traditional, non- or old-tech activities once required to cultivate and maintain social relations.  For many, membership in a social network offers advantages over traditional networks – that social media offers something real human relations do not or cannot provide.

Traditional human networks are based on relations grounded in locality, interpersonal communications, familiarity, and shared experiences. The relations are cultivated through conversations, shared activities and other interactions, They tend to involve small groups coalesced around a place through employment, family, collegial ties, language, nationality, or other connections.

Online relations, on the other hand, are grounded in intersecting interests. Their reach can be international in scope, barring any language barriers – though even these are perceived as solvable through computer assisted translation. In a social network, individuals can be reduced in analysis to nodes of information, where each node is essentially a database profile. A relation between nodes may register, and therefore represent a real relation, though it may register a false relation. Relations are therefore self-managed linked profiles.

Time Displacement

At some point, the online relation can stand in for that which it represents: the symbolic link, which does not dissipate but is updated dynamically, can replace the relationship.  Social media innovates on the static list, in that it allows for an accumulation of “friends” but is self-managed. Old technology, such as the telephone, facilitates relations, but requires an investment of time to maintain the continuity of the relation.

Profile Reduction

The profile is our online representation, a node in the network of relations. The term “avatar”, used to describe the animated characters represented in so-called immersive environments or virtual realities, had its original Hindu meaning as the incarnation of a deity the physical realm. Second-order, virtual reality has resonance in Hindu metaphysics. The first-order, non-virtual reality is the superlative of rich media. Connecting to other profiles develops the friendbase,  a form of “social capital” to be leveraged for growth to increase one’s productivity and advancement.

The Internet, also a network, though made up of servers and fiber optic cables, has been turned into as a natural map of human relations. To encode and map human relations through social media then allows for all kinds of interesting applications. It allows one to process, analyze and exploit relations and profiles for any number of projects.

Pre-empted Communications

Text-based communications, proliferate in untold billions of emails, mobile phone text messages and social media website posts, involve continual, immediate and compact updates to a private (or public) audience. This explosion of often merely functional, logistical messages has prompted new language efficiencies and an abbreviated script suited for online chat, and perhaps to suit dwindling attention spans.

Words are abbreviated to their essential, minimal phonetics. The standard “are you,” with its cumbersome ties to vowels, and correct spelling cannot compete with the more efficient, direct “r u”. It is now common for whole sentences and complex concepts to be reduced to agreed-upon web chat acronyms. To the uninitiated, communication seems to have been truncated and blunted to something like online semaphore.

Although the achievement of widespread rich media communications, such as “video chat,” remains elusive, text communications has evolved to satisfy an incredibly strong, almost compulsive longing to share all manner of thoughts. It stands in stark contrast with classic correspondence (one-to-one letter writing), which has been in decline for decades, and now almost exclusively performed in professional, legal, or official communications. As a craft, letter writing it is collected, formal, structured, and reflective. Personal letters are careful, intimate. The electronic text communications, on the other hand, is loose, fragmentary, impulsive, organic and chaotic.

But the drive for abbreviation seems to go beyond basic communications, as we try to move towards greater online profiling – particularly as many of us are willing to draw simplistic outlines of our lives, slot their features into pre-defined categories and post them on social media sites. The online profile is a kind of reduction of the person to traits, tastes and biostatistics that fit neatly into database fields.

Getting a free ride

Vancouver B-Line Extenda-Bus

I don’t own a car. I have that rare luxury of being able to walk to my workplace from home. But other than the daily commute, I rely on public transit almost every day. In fact, I depend on transit as though it were a public service as I do public power and water – only, in Vancouver, public transit isn’t truly a public service, and this is where its troubles begin.

Transit as a Public Service

The Tyee ran a great series in 2007 called “No Fares!” around the issue of whether transit fees should be eliminated. In addition to generating interesting debate around the value of providing free public transit, the series highlighted the touchy subject of providing common and public goods, and its proverbial thorn: the free rider problem.

The term “free rider” – one apt for the issue of public transportation – is someone who consumes more than their share, or without paying. Within public transit debate in Canada, riding for free is considered a problem. There is a strong-ish view that you should only pay for what you use. As taxpayers, we subsidize public transportation, but of course we don’t all use that service (to avoid the inconveniences of an underfunded, overburdened transit, among other reasons too numerous to list here).

But it is a fact that public transit requires subsidization, as does other subsidized services like power, gas and water. We cannot support these services through user fees, because we need tax money to pay for the infrastructure and operations.

There are indeed varying degrees of subsidy by local and national governments, and in Vancouver, public transit is chronically underfunded. Regional fiscal plans limit needed bus and train services every year. The Metro Vancouver transit authority TransLink released its 2010 10-Year Transportation and Financial Plan in the fall of 2009. The report outlines a plan of drastic cuts to services, including a 40% reduction in bus service over the next ten years in the Lower Mainland to  “reduce investments and cut services in order to match expenditures with revenues.” This is required by the SCBCTA Act, which “requires TransLink to annually prepare a Base Plan that uses only established funding resources within the current borrowing limit.” And far from becoming a “fare-free” transit zone, fares will be going up in April.

What makes these cuts especially irksome, in my opinion, are their proximity to the budgetary and service exceptions made during the recent Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.   Under normal conditions, it takes a few bus trips on Vancouver’s more busy routes to see this city suffers from an obvious bus shortage (for instance, the  persistently infrequent and crammed bus service of the Broadway transit corridor). This suddenly changed during the two-week period of the recent Winter Games. Extra buses seemed to flood the streets during these days, and reduced wait times from 15-20 minutes to 3-5 minutes on these same routes. There were so many buses, in fact, the city had to find unusual places to park them while they weren’t in service. During the two weeks of the Olympics, the transit authority boasted the highest ridership ever with over 1.6 million trips made daily. Since the Olympics ended, transit service has reverted to the old schedule, and now faces a 40% service cut.

Transit’s vicious circle

In a “saner” world, I believe there would be a seismic shift of the immense research and development investment away from personal cars and individual consumer needs towards public transportation ingenuity and expansion – i.e. the public good. Instead, we support an agenda that sidelines good public transportation infrastructure and makes enormous efforts to accommodate the uncooperative car commuter.

Many agree, we need better transit to help us get out of the plethora of problems associated with our car culture. And yet, it is fairly normal for cities in North America – and particularly Vancouver – to go without well-funded and adequate (and much needed) public transit systems. It’s interesting how projects such as the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge that spans the Fraser River (see the Gateway) would amount to the current government’s solution to lessen traffic congestion from suburban commuters. This goes against an enormous amount of evidence showing public transit is a far more viable and effective means to combat this problem (see the Downs–Thomson paradox and the  SPEC). Programs such as the Gateway only seem to take us further away from better urban transit, and further diminish our collective quality of life.

But it is there is a vicious circle at work: It appears that so long as the public prefers to use private cars over public buses and trains, transit will will continue to be underfunded and overburdened, and transit authorities will continue to cut transit funding and raise fares, while urban planners will continue to prioritize car use. But if transit never gets the needed improvements and expansions, the public will never see transit as a preferable alternative to private travel. Seen in another light: we all stand to benefit from improved public transit – since it will arguably improve our quality of life – but it will only improve if we choose to use it.

The only apparent way to begin to address these problems and generate the necessary political will to do so, is for people to stop relying on their cars and start taking public transit. But this isn’t going to happen so long as we base our public transit policies on the decisions of individual consumers. It is time to consider looking for other reasons to fund public transit.

Public Transit as a Human Right?

It’s instructive to look at who happens to be a transit user. More than likely he or she will be someone who belongs to the relatively underpowered class that includes: seniors, the disabled, students, and low-wage workers. There seems to be very little anecdotal evidence of solidarity among the transit riders in this city. But there are, apparently, some major efforts to improve public transportation. Lately, these efforts have been amplified by a recent wave of protests against the B.C. government’s tragically-flawed Gateway Program, for instance, the “Society for Promoting Environmental Conservation” or SPEC.

A little known organization called the “Vancouver Bus Riders Union” (or BRU) is also fighting to make public transit a human right. The website claims the organization  “represents the mass transit and public health needs of the transit dependent.” A multi-lingual, multi-cultural union, the BRU sees itself as a public advocate for the underclass of transit-dependent users who are  ” overwhelmingly working class, and disproportionately people of colour.” One objective they claim is that “affordable, reliable and environmentally sound mass transit” should be considered a human right. Why not start the discussion with this principle? Isn’t accessible and adequate public transportation to facilitate mass mobility, as with water, food and a place to live, a necessity of urban life?