Monday, July 28, 2008

p33 Our Real Need

Binding God's Influence through Universal Life Planners


By John Taylor; 2008 July 28, 16 Kalimat, 165 BE


The Master taught the early believers to pay attention to their dreams. So, here is this morning's dream. But first, what happened before the dream. The cat woke me early, tearing at the sliding door screen to get in. I got up and opened it for him. Then I fired up the computer and read some scattered news items, including a New York Times article about computer literacy. Then I got sleepy, plunked into bed and dropped off into a long, light nap.


I dreamed that my son Tomaso and I were going to visit an old school friend and fellow member of the chess team, D. In the dream D had separated from his wife and was living on his own (as far as I know, this is not true in real life). There was no answer when I knocked on the door, so I left 8 year old Tomaso at the door and climbed some narrow stairs around the outside of the apartment building into the attic, looking for him. There was a narrow staircase that crashed to the ground when I walked on it. Dusting myself off, I walked back to the front door, where Tomaso was waiting anxiously.


In the dream, D finally answered the door. He had no bookshelves or even more than a few scattered books in his possession, unlike his digs in real life. He was occupying all his time playing a role playing game similar to Dungeons and Dragons. In came a group of players, one of whom was a gamine dressed in peasant costume. I thought she might be his paramour, but they only showed any interest in throwing dice for the game. Tomaso was delighted and began playing the game along with them while I looked on in puzzlement. End of dream.


This change of lifestyle seemed completely out of character for D, who, I hear, is of such a literary bent that he has had some of his plays produced. After I got back to the computer, I was drawn back to where I was before, reading that article about computer literacy. The issue of reading covers pretty much this entire summer for us, I must say. I and the kids have a running battle over computers and screen time. If I were not here they would spend every waking moment hunched over the computer, Tomaso playing online puzzles and other internet games, Silvie reading fan fiction about Kenneth Oppel's television series about bats. Both of them also love "Club Penguin," a sort of combination MUD, game and social networking site for kids. I have a constant struggle to limit them, especially now that Mom has been sucked into blogging. Since that started the laundry goes undone, dishes pile up, meals go by the board, and on and on... This means more of my time goes into taking up the slack. Since they will not touch what I cook, the only way to see that they get a square meal is to take them out to a pizza or submarine joint, and that is expensive. Next step: teach the kids the meaning of the word "chore."


Anyway, I was so distressed by the screen's successful coup d'etat over this household that at the beginning of the summer I laid down a rule for the kids. Before they get access to a computer they must do a certain amount of reading from a reasonably high-quality book (meaning not a comic book) before they have access to the computer. This has worked reasonably well for this first half of the summer vacation. Thomas for a long time preferred to give up computers completely, which was fine with me. Finally he caved and started going through the Treehouse books, a series designed for his reading level. Silvie, reluctantly, has read about a dozen books. What I learned from the Times article is that ours is not the only family in this situation (though I may be the only one actively fighting it). It says,


"As teenagers' scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading - diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books. Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. Often, they argue, writers on the Internet employ a cryptic argot that vexes teachers and parents. Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers. And many youths spend most of their time on the Internet playing games or sending instant messages, activities that involve minimal reading at best." ("Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? Is the Internet the enemy of reading, or has it created a new kind of reading, one that society should not discount? By Motoko Rich, July 27, 2008)


The article includes a picture captioned, "The Simses of Old Greenwich, Conn., gather to read after dinner. Their means of text delivery is divided by generation." It shows Dad with a newspaper, Mom curled up with a novel, and the two point zero kids hunched over their own laptops. What a nightmare! I am sure that this was posed, since in my experience screens tend to separate even more than books; in real life, they would all be in different rooms, judging by our family -- which admittedly cannot afford notebooks.


I was writing the above when the kids came in, and I showed them a little test that is included in the supplemental links section to this article ("Web Extra: Further Reading on Reading, What does it mean to read in a digital age? Here are links to some studies, speeches, reading tests - old and new - and other resources." By Motoko Rich) at:


The test consists of a fake site advocating for a fictional animal, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. Nine out of ten teens were fooled, took it seriously, and failed to get the joke. To my surprise, Silvie came closer than Tomaso to being duped, though my introduction to the problem was hardly strictly controlled. I reiterated a good lesson my father gave me when I was young,


"Do not believe everything you read."


After that they were interested and I read parts of the article. Silvie was dismayed to see her favorite thing, fanfiction, put down. Both agreed that Beyblades were garbage -- missing, I thought, the whole point about fanfiction. Then Tomaso said, "Let's watch the video." Typical older person, I had just been reading the material and had not noticed the video included there. It turned out to be a good summary of the main points of the article and probably reached them both on their own level better than my reading aloud was doing.




I wrote the above yesterday, before I was rudely interrupted by a migraine attack. Windy, rainy days spell misery. Anyway, now that I have recovered I have to admit that there are arguments for both sides. I agree with the kids that often you do get more out of the time you spend, minute for minute, researching on the Web rather than reading books. Books often go into too much detail. Once you commit to a treatise of a certain length, the temptation is to fill that space with whatever data is at hand, whether needed or not. Most of the books and novels you see on the bookshelves could be cut to a third of their length and be better off for the cutting. And reading a book is at least as solitary and isolating an activity as "computering."


What is more, books are far less interactive and participatory than Internet news sites and blogs, not to mention chat groups, MUDs and fanfiction sites. Because the media and education are dominated by old folks like me, and because reading is under threat, we tend to defend books and reading too uncritically. Most books, just as most television and Internet material, is useless pap that we would all be better off without.


In support of that, I just came across this, from my new hero Comenius's book on reform,


"By turning to comparatively worthless books we are simply throwing stones, sand, and other obstructions into this Alpheus of God's, and accumulating a pile of error and confusion in our minds, homes, schools, church, and politics. The tiny streamlets which trickle through our obstructions are all too feeble to remove our sordidness." (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 3, para 42, p. 81)


The Peneus and Alpheus, by the way, were rivers that Heracles diverted in order to clean out the Aegean stables, a metaphor that Comenius uses to great effect to describe the effectiveness of the kind of universal reform that the unification of divine, scientific and political means could effect in the world. (for more on Heracles's fifth of twelve labors, see This meta-purification is a running theme throughout the writings of Comenius, especially the Panorthosia.


The greatness of Comenius's contribution to reform is that he bases everything upon universal, as opposed to piecemeal, changes. With the possible exceptions of Frances Bacon (whose ideas inspired Comenius) and Abdu'l-Baha, I have never seen anything like Comenius's vision of what can be done for reform. Comenius's biographer, Matthew Spinka, fit Comenius into the category of what he called a "cosmopolitan universalist," because he "worked out the first completely articulated irenic plan." Irenic means something "conducive to peace, moderation and conciliation." In his Panegersia (Universal Awakening, written over a century and a half before atheist Philosophes started arrogantly calling their age "The Enlightenment") Comenius asks the crucial question:


"Why cannot men form one, all-inclusive world society, by reason of common knowledge, common law and common religion?"


This question is as challenging, fresh and new now as when he formed it back 17th Century. Like the river that performed Hercules' labor of cleaning out the masses of crude in those huge stables for him without any more effort his part, a universal unification of the world would solve such personal problems as what to read, how to read it, where to read it.




By instituting personal plans and life management programs that would be integral to and made up right along with the plans of a world government. I think Comenius grasps the secret of universal reform in the three divisions mentioned above, knowledge (science), law (politics) and religion. This tripartite structure runs throughout the Panorthosia, which I am studying right now with all the resources at my command.


The ongoing invention of interactive public-private plans would assure that the good aspects of the "new reading" done on computers and the Internet are instituted without disrupting the best of what information gathering methods are already there. A human individual by definition cannot see far enough to institute such universal plans. This was clear as long ago as the Pre-Socratics. Empedocles believed rightly that neither involvement nor detached reflection, in themselves, are enough to overcome our inherent limits:


"For narrow are the means spread throughout the limbs and many are the miseries that burst in and blunt the thoughts. And having seen only a small part of life during their lives, and doomed to early death, they are lifted up and carried off like smoke, and believing only that which each one meets with as he is driven every way, they boast of having found the whole. But things are not thus seen or heard by men or grasped by their minds. You, however, since you have withdrawn to here, shall not learn more than mortal wisdom can attain." (Empedocles, DK 2)


Only universal world reform, inspired originally by God's wisdom (Comenius calls this Panorthosia) can see far enough beyond one lifetime to institute the sort of wise change required to direct our lives in a time of fundamental change in how we relate with information.


A life planner written by open systems programmers, integrated into our lives and overseen by teachers and doctors, would unite the generations in controlling the crucial information feed that sustains our search for truth. This life planning program would be part of an overall goal of de-privatizing the human mind. It would turn culture over to whatever leads to what the word means: healthful, planned growth. Things that are essential would no longer be for sale, they would be integrated into the program and made into the common heritage of the human race. Everything from the fairy tales told to children to the news we read and watch would be publicized in the truest sense of the word, that is, made into a public thing, with public oversight, designed for the public good.


Comenius held that the key to this is wisdom, specifically what he called Pansophia, Universal Wisdom. This is what diverts the many tributaries of private data processing into a single, purifying flood of reform. Again, referring to the labor of Hercules in purifying the filth filled stables of the king, Comenius writes,


"I think that it is clear from my Universal Wisdom that it is possible for these fountains of God to combine into one torrent like the Alpheus, thus integrating everything that the world possesses and the mind of man dictates and the word of God expresses, in such a way that any seeker after knowledge may find it in full, anyone searching for forms and standards of self-government may find them ready-made, and anyone desiring God may see His presence everywhere, and hear, taste and touch Him and feel His binding influence." (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 3, para 38, p. 80)

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