A review of Now You See It, by Cathy Davidson

The full title of this book will make it clearer what it is about: Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. At first, I was a bit worried I was reading something out of a think tank or workplace-organizing consultant. However, it did strike me as interesting in a number of ways, mainly, in the way it deals with cognitive science, transhumanism and handicap, or at least so I hoped. Actually, there is very little science in this book, although the bits there are are interesting.

I agree with her views on education, and so would pretty much anyone, but I remain unconvinced with her idea that it is somehow the Digital Age that makes these teaching methods irrelevant or ineffective. Multiple-choice tests are a terrible way of evaluating anything. All the women in my family are teachers, pretty much, and they could explain all of the points about the wrong and right ways to truly teach someone something, and most of them are terrified of the Digital Age. In Britain, it is no secret that the schools for the elite favour personal initiative and free-thinking, as they are meant to form leaders, whereas being a free spirit in a normal school will get you some sad sympathy from your teacher if they are any good, but that is about it.

Cathy Davidson re-hashes basic education theory and pretend to discover things that anyone who has been through school or university could have told her. For example, after a long development, she exclaims:

“What if “research paper” is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledegook?”

No kidding. My grandmother, her own mother and her three daughters are all teachers, and their view on education policy over the diner table was more thorough than what is presented in this book, which focuses on a few individual cases. All teachers have those stories about teaching methods, weird kids and stupid education bureaucracy deciding what is the right and only way to teach in schools. Thinking about it, there is precious little science at all in this book, it mainly stays at the level of these anecdotes.

In many ways, Cathy Davidson is trying to wish a better world into its own realisation: when I hear something like

“65% of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t been invented yet”,

my first thought is a lot of these children will be entirely disposable, the growing human waste of capital, it is surprising they are schooled at all, as compulsory schooling went hand in hand with the need to create a workforce. For Cathy Davidson though, it means that 65% of these children will all have a super creative job (crowdsourced in the Cloud, no doubt, as her discussion of crowdsourcing fails to address the economic reality of it as free outsourced labour and sees it as un-hierarchical… her treatment of open source and free software are likewise devoid of any economic and political gaze) and therefore these children need to be taught in a way that does not stifle their creativity to make them obedient industrial workers. Sadly, the only reason people might want not to stifle creativity are moral ones, as capitalism crashes, there is no incentive for it to give us a better education. Obedience is still very much needed, although it is true that the modern workplace has a different sperficial form of getting people to obey. In one of the alternative school Davidson visits the teacher asks:

“”What’s your specific role in your group today? (…)” They take turns grabbing markers and they scrawl answers on the board, initialing what they write”

I was made to do exactly the same thing when I worked in a fastfood restaurant, and I had never thought of seeing it as liberating or fun or preparing me for the Digital Age.

This rose-tinted optimism ends up sounding disturbingly dystopian, as her utopia is your nightmare (quite a good illustration of how by paying attention to different things, you construct a very different reality, by the way). For example:

It is possible that within a decade, each learner—whether a schoolchild or a lifelong learner—could be building up his own private ePortfolio, with badges and credentialing built in, of all learning, all challenges, all there to measure accomplishments at the end of a school grade and still there several years later to help refresh a memory or to be shown to a future employer, all indexed and sortable at will.

That existed before the French revolution, and was reestablished by Napoleon. Nowadays, only gypsies have to have one though. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employment_Record_Book But at least that is not something she directly promotes. This second excerpt is from her visit to an alternative school and it literally made me shiver:

“Another girl has written “Leading the group” as her answer. “That’s the hardest job of all. You know that, right?” Mr. Germain asks the tall, blond girl who has taken on that leadership role for her group. She nods seriously as her eyes slide in the direction of a boy in her group who is stretched out as far as possible while still sitting on a chair, his arms raised, his legs straight, his toes pointing. He’s yawning. Mr. Germain’s eyes follow her gaze toward the boy and then looks back at her. “You can do it. I’ll help,” he says, his voice quiet and calm.”

What are they going to do after this condidential management meeting? Kneecap him? Send him to Siberia for yawning? Notify him that his performance has been substandard and he will not be needed anymore? Davidson’s outlook is one in which any attempt to respond to the challenges to hierarchies presented by new technologies conduces to a reinforcement of hierarchies. It is not surprising when she can write things like

“Liebe und arbeit (sic), as Freud said, “love and work,”the keys to a successful life. In any century.”

So much for visionnary thinking. We are stuck with work for all centuries to come, and retrospectively, even in centuries gone which did not even have a concept of work.

There is one of her stories that inspired my sympathy though, it is when Davidson challenges the sacrosanctity of grades and gets quite a violent reaction. I was a member of a student union which was against grades, and claimed there was possibly more to admire in an ingenuous cheater at an exam than in a docile regurgitator, and I observed that fact. Grading, like voting, have an aura around them that make people irrationally angry when you attack them, even as lightly as Davidson did (‘crowdsourcing’ part of the assessment of one of her course). Probably something to do with the way we are told they allow some fairness and equality in the social order.

Neurology is fascinating, how our minds are shaped by capitalism, in school and in the workplace, is fascinating and something any revolutionary should consider, but the point of view of the author is so oblivious of political issues that this book can be quite irritating, or even scary.

Recommanding The American Way Of Death, by Jessica Mitford

This is an old book, but a wonderful one. I find the Mitford Sisters fascinating, one Anarchist, one Socialist, one married to Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists… There are few things that are boring about them. Jessica Mitford is the Socialist one, who eloped to the Spain during the revolution to marry her cousin. Later, she moved to the U.S. and took up investigative journalism. The first version of this book was published in 1963, but it has been revisited since then in 1978 and 1995. It is a fascinating inquiry into the ‘deathcare industry’. It is a book about capitalism and its extension into death, through the creation of a whole industry where none was. The economics of it are quite fascinating, but this book is also bizarre and hilarious.

Mitford’s reason to write this book is simple: while she was fighting to raise the indemnities perceived by workers’ families in case of death, she realised that undertakers simply raised the price of their funeral package when they gained any increase, leaving the family just as much in need as before they won this raise. It is a book with an immediate political message, which outraged funeral companies, according to which people should not be guilted into paying for funerals they can barely afford, abused into paying fees for ‘services’ while they are in shock, that cemetries should truly be run on a non-profit basis and so on. It is a simple message that has more to do with common sense and decency than Marxism, though, and there is nothing preachy about this book. In many ways what is wrong with capitalism becomes much more apparent when dealing with a sensitive subject such as death.

Its subject-matter makes it riveting, but the singular voice of Jessica Mitford makes it delightful as well, and I cannot think of anyone who would not enjoy it. Even the squeamish among us will be delighted to know they are given to page number to refer to if they wish to avoid the gory details of what ’embalming’ actually entails.

A Review of Demon Fish, by Juliet Eilperin

This book is about sharks, what they have meant to humans throughout the world and the ages, and what they mean to us now: the scientific discoveries made about them, the thousand ways they are killed to make commodities, and the way people start to defend them as they appear to be on their way to extinction. I chose to read it because I love sharks (actually, I plan on writing a novel about how a future anarchist society must deal with the threat caused by long-forgotten laser-sharks that mad scientists had created for the underwater mining industry before the revolution…), but I am often annoyed at the tone of documentaries about them, as even ‘educational’ ones feel like they have to take that sensationalist big man-voice to announce things like “SHARKS they evolved to be the NUMBER ONE KILLER of the sea. This APEX PREDATOR can even attack VERY BIG ANIMALS, and it could eat KILL A HUMAN IN SECONDS if it wanted to.”

(Here is a big-voice documentary that really could be worse: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmvc35pnCYE )

I’m not saying I do not see sharks as killing machines, and the fact that they could severe a limb just because of whatever their brain thought it saw is quite terrifying, but I do not want to learn about sharks only to be terrified, but also to, well, learn about them.

This is not to say that Juliet Eilperin’s style is academic or boring: on the contrary, she introduces people in a quirky way that make you think of them as characters in a novel, or your awesome new friends in the world of sharks, rather than as scientists who spend years of their lives, probably their whole careers, analysing bits of dead fish. Neither does she limit her research to scientists, her approach makes her introduce you to everyone who’s involved with shark in any way, from the Hong Kong shark fin traders to the shark-callers of Papua New Guinea, and in a quite disturbing scene Rosie O’Donnell who congratulates a woman who just caught a shark with ‘Girl Power!’. And she has a love of incorporating all the bits of curious information you can wish for: did you know the word ‘shark’ probably comes from the Mayan xoc? That Fidel Castro absolutely loved the book version of Jaws and its compelling critique of U.S. capitalism? One of the darker parts of the book is about the slave trade, and the increase familiarity it brought between humans and sharks. A Scottish abolitionist, James Tytler, wrote a very short text in 1792 for the House of Lords called The Petition of the Sharks of Africa, which seems as grim as sarcastic.

Her enquiry about sharks reveals a lot about human nastiness, indeed, as well as the absurdities of capitalism. The tale of the shark-fin soup is one of those, in which species have been made endangered to procure something that is pretty tasteless and quite bad for your health, but which is a status symbol. This is my ‘favourite’ quote about commodifying sharks:

We have been hating sharks on general principles for centuries, and in some ways they have deserved it; but now it is high time that they should pay up. There are no more interesting animals in the world, and the ways and means of turning them into cash constitute one of the most fascinating of our modern industries.

What? This bit of 1928 commercial prose simply puzzles me. Juliet Eilperin, on the other hand, has a very practical approach, and points out how people act not to take revenge on sharks, and not to protect them, but because of their economic interest, and her views on the protection of sharks are very realistic, and not the word of someone who only cares about a single issue:

This doesn’t mean that there’s no societal cost: this sort of shift may cause economic dislocation, and it does mean abandoning traditions that have lasted for centuries in some cases. But it’s important to view this in context: eliminating sharks as a widely traded commodity is not the same thingas eliminating their place in global society or in the world’s economy. In fact, the most effective way of managing this transition involve redirecting our obsession with sharks into a nonlethal form of commodification. Given current economic and political realities, it may represent the most effective method of ensuring enough sharks exist so our fetishizing them doesn’t wipe them out completely.

And her consideration of the commodification of sharks does not discriminate between Chinese cuisine and Damien Hirst’s dead sharks selling for millions. Read her book. Here she is, annoying a shark: