A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto (Eric Hughes)

A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto

Eric Hughes

Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.

If two parties have some sort of dealings, then each has a memory of the interaction. Each party can speak about its own memory of the encounter. How could anyone prevent this? One could pass laws against it, but the freedom of speech, even more than privacy, is fundamental to an open society. We seek not to restrict any speech at all. If many parties speak together in the same forum, each can speak to all the others and aggregate together knowledge about individuals and other parties.

The power of electronic communications has enabled such group speech, and it will not go away merely because we might want it to. Since we desire privacy, we must ensure that each party to a transaction can have knowledge only of what is directly necessary for that transaction. Since any information can be spoken of, we must ensure that we reveal as little as possible. In most cases personal identity is not salient. When I purchase a magazine at a store and hand cash to the clerk, there is no need to know who I am. When I ask my electronic mail provider to send and receive messages, my provider does not need to know to whom I am speaking or what I am saying or what others are saying to me. My provider needs only know how to get the message there and how much I owe them in fees. When my identity is revealed by the underlying mechanism of the transaction, I have no privacy. I cannot here selectively reveal myself; I must always reveal myself.

Therefore, privacy in an open society requires anonymous transaction systems. Until now, cash has been the primary such system. An anonymous transaction system is not a secret transaction system. An anonymous system empowers individuals to reveal their identity when desired and only when desired; this is the essence of privacy. Privacy in an open society also requires cryptography. If I say something, I want it heard only by those for whom I intend it. If the content of my speech is available to the world, I have no privacy. To encrypt is to indicate the desire for privacy, and to encrypt with weak cryptography is to indicate not too much desire for privacy. Furthermore, to reveal one’s identity with assurance when the default is anonymity requires the cryptographic signature.

We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy out of their beneficence. It is to their advantage to speak of us, and we should expect that they will speak. To try to prevent their speech is to fight against the realities of information. Information does not just want to be free; it longs to be free. Information expands to fill the available storage space. Information is Rumor’s younger, stronger cousin: Information is fleeter of foot, has more eyes, knows more, and understands less than Rumor.

We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. We must come together and create systems that allow anonymous transactions to take place. People have been defending their own privacy for centuries with whispers, darkness, envelopes, closed doors, secret handshakes, and couriers. The technologies of the past did not allow for strong privacy, but electronic technologies do.

We the Cypherpunks are dedicated to building anonymous systems. We are defending our privacy with cryptography, with anonymous mail forwarding systems, with digital signatures, and with electronic money. Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and since we can’t get privacy unless we all do, we’re going to write it. We publish our code so that our fellow Cypherpunks may practice and play with it. Our code is free for all to use, worldwide. We don’t much care if you don’t approve of the software we write. We know that software can’t be destroyed and that a widely dispersed system can’t be shut down.

Cypherpunks deplore regulations on cryptography, for encryption is fundamentally a private act. The act of encryption, in fact, removes information from the public realm. Even laws against cryptography reach only so far as a nation’s border and the arm of its violence. Cryptography will ineluctably spread over the whole globe and with it the anonymous transactions systems that it makes possible.

For privacy to be widespread it must be part of a social contract. People must come and together deploy these systems for the common good. Privacy extends only so far as the cooperation of one’s fellows in society. We the Cypherpunks seek your questions and your concerns and hope we may engage you so that we do not deceive ourselves. We will not, however, be moved out of our course because some may disagree with our goals.

The Cypherpunks are actively engaged in making the networks safer for privacy. Let us proceed together apace. Onward.

 (Eric Hughes, “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto”, in: Ludlow, Peter (ed.). Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.)

Posted in Education, Manifestos | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto (Tim May)

The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto

Timothy C. May

 Cypherpunks of the World,

Several of you at the “physical Cypherpunks” gathering yesterday in Silicon Valley requested that more of the material passed out in meetings be available electronically to the entire readership of the Cypherpunks list, spooks, eavesdroppers, and all.

Here’s “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto” I read at the September 1992 founding meeting. It dates back to mid-1988 and was distributed to some like-minded technoanarchists at the Crypto ’88 conference and then again at the Hackers Conference that year. I later gave talks at Hackers on this in 1989 and 1990.

There are a few things I’d change, but for historical reasons I’ll just leave it as is. Some of the terms may be unfamiliar to you. . . . I hope the Crypto Glossary I just distributed will help.

—Tim May

The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto

A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy. Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner. Two persons may exchange messages, conduct business, and negotiate electronic contracts without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other. Interactions over networks will be untraceable, via extensive rerouting of encrypted packets and tamper-proof boxes which implement cryptographic protocols with nearly perfect assurance against any tampering. Reputations will be of central importance, far more important in dealings than even the credit ratings of today. These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation.

The technology for this revolution—and it surely will be both a social and economic revolution—has existed in theory for the past decade. The methods are based upon public-key encryption, zero-knowledge interactive proof systems, and various software protocols for interaction, authentication, and verification. The focus has until now been on academic conferences in Europe and the U.S., conferences monitored closely by the National Security Agency. But only recently have computer networks and personal computers attained sufficient speed to make the ideas practically realizable. And the next ten years will bring enough additional speed to make the ideas economically feasible and essentially unstoppable. High-speed networks, ISDN, tamper-proof boxes, smart cards, satellites, Ku-band transmitters, multi-MIPS personal computers, and encryption chips now under development will be some of the enabling technologies.

 The State will of course try to slow or halt the spread of this technology, citing national security concerns, use of the technology by drug dealers and tax evaders, and fears of societal disintegration. Any of these concerns will be valid; crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be trade freely and will allow illicit and stolen materials to be traded. An anonymous computerized market will even make possible abhorrent markets for assassinations and extortion. Various criminal and foreign elements will be active users of CryptoNet. But this will not halt the spread of crypto anarchy.

Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure, so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions. Combined with emerging information markets, crypto anarchy will create a liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures. And just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencingoff of vast ranches and farms, thus altering forever the concepts of land and property rights in the frontier West, so too will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property. Arise, you have nothing to lose but your barbed wire fences!

(Timothy May, “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto”, in: Ludlow, Peter (ed.). Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.)

Posted in Education, Manifestos | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The architects of information (interview)

This is an interview with John Young and Deborah Natsios, by Joseph Grima


The architects of information

This article was published in Domus 948, June 2011

In the early days of the Internet, more than a decade before Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks, two New York architects with a successful design practice saw in the Internet a platform for open exchange of information capable of fundamentally altering the asymmetrical balance of power between people, governments and corporations, and began publishing every official document—classified or otherwise—they could lay their hands on. In the last 15 years and 65,000 uploads, Cryptome.org has survived dozens of corporate takedown orders and hacker attacks, and Deborah Natsios and John Young are as convinced as ever that all information must be free.

How did Cryptome begin?

Deborah: Our collaboration started some time late in 1993. We went online in the Internet’s early infancy, its seminal moments. Quite quickly we became involved in these new online environments and communities that were positioning themselves on the front line of the politics of information. John’s involvement with the Cypherpunk Listserv was a transformative moment—Cypherpunk was dealing with issues of cryptography and freedom of information, and was way more advanced than anything that architectural practice was interested in at the time. For a long time we were the only architects in a milieu of technologists, cryptographers, hackers—we experienced a very peculiar kind of isolation in those years.

John: Cypherpunk was completely different from anything that existed at the time. It was all about taking over the world by undermining institutions and authorities. Cypherpunk did not have any interest in design, or had never heard of it, or possibly just didn’t care. On the other side, we were surrounded by architects and designers who were not interested in anything that might disturb the opportunity of getting work, anything that might hinder their careers. It was then that it started to dawn on us that the Internet was going to become an advertising medium, as it has become for designers and architects. Even today, there are thousands of websites about getting work and showing portfolios, but nothing even remotely disruptive. Cypherpunk was out to undermine precisely that.

What made you perceive the disruptive potential of the Internet in relation to the politics of information as something necessary at that time?

Deborah: I think the politics of these “new technology” people in the design world is very problematic. Architects are by and large engaged in a kind of ornamental politics—a telegenic, photogenic and glossy politics that is unerringly safe. They won’t put their careers on the line, they won’t be visited by the authorities, they won’t be subpoenaed for a federal criminal trial—all of which has happened to us. Is your work pulling the tail of the tiger? Are the authorities appearing at your door with warnings? Very few architects can say that. There is a certain abdication of engagement in the circles of mainstream production as tools of change—exhibitions, magazines and so on play their own role in this game.

John: We are not aware of anyone else in the design world who is engaged in the sort of practice we are engaged in. And even if they were, you would never find out about them through the architectural and design media—they would be too bizarre to be associated with. What the architecture world does have is a particular breed of architects who are highly practised at being embraced for their “outsiderness”. Being a professional outsider as a promotional schtick: they are welcome and there are budgets for them. So one option is to be mildly controversial, and get invited to places to give talks and do museum shows. The other is to actually do something that will really piss people off, to the extent they will never want to invite you again or have anything to do with you.

What have the consequences been? How have you been attacked?

Deborah: The most common way is through copyright law. When Cryptome was shut down by Microsoft last year, it was on a proprietary claim that “copyrighted” material had been published. It turned out that what had been published was a series of documents drafted by major corporations, Microsoft included, in response to new government directives for situations in which corporations are obliged to share user-data with law enforcement. All these companies were asked to produce a manual instructing officials on how to decode and interpret the confidential data residing in their databases. Most of them were made public by the corporations themselves so that the public would be aware that their data could potentially be turned over to the FBI, no questions asked. Microsoft’s manual, however, had not been made public. It was provided to us and we put it up on Cryptome. As a consequence, Microsoft had the site taken down. Three days later we were back up again.

What do you think about the emergence of an open-source design culture? In many ways it seems to adhere to the sort of non-proprietary attitude towards information and knowledge that you have been advocating for many years.

Deborah: To pry open the privatised domain, the realm of copyright interests, the not-public domain, the not-public space of corporate interests—but there are private security guards, global security mercenaries who patrol that boundary. If you are really serious about open source you are going to step on their toes and you will be exposed to the backlash. The push-back is very vigorous—the authorities, the corporate interests, they are not gentle about it. And there is real discomfort among those establishments in associating with this kind of work, especially among academic practitioners who are presumably on the cutting edge but who are actually slaves to job security. As soon as they get a sense that something could be too problematic for them in the academic milieu, they back away.

John: We’re great advocates of plagiarism and stealing, and as a result we get ejected from places all the time. They say: “You went too far.” That’s the marker: you went too far. You can be impolite and controversial and so forth, so long as you don’t overstep the mark. A little storm in a teacup will be OK, but if you go and join the Palestinians and attack the Israelis, that’s going too far. So being highly politicised is fine, so long as you’re careful not to lay it on too thick. Otherwise you are asked: are you insane? It’s professional suicide for an architect to do this kind of thing. No one will ever hire you again! It’s much the same in the field of architectural design: you can’t go too far in taking community issues into account in your designs, for example. But if you do, all sorts of explanations are at the ready for why the project must be cancelled. And it’s the same with the media. We’re often faced with journalists weaseling out of publishing us—they say we couldn’t do this, couldn’t publish that, it didn’t make the cut, there wasn’t enough space, it didn’t fit our format, there’s been a change since we last spoke.

What do you think about the unprecedented degree of notoriety Wikileaks has achieved with the release of the US diplomatic cables?

John: There are a number of information activists who are concerned about whistle-blowing organisations going too far, triggering a crackdown on journalism. They say we have to be careful we don’t really offend people or it will lead to a crackdown. But if you go ahead and go too far, as WikiLeaks discovered, it is all right; it turns out just fine and you can capitalise on the attention the controversy attracts. It’s a strategy: go too far, get noticed, monetise having gone too far, stop going too far, and repeat the process over and over. It’s a fairly well-known technique, and one Wikileaks is very familiar with. The markup is phenomenal. That’s why I consider all these copycats of Wikileaks pretty obnoxious. They should go beyond riding the coat-tails of the brand name and do something that is truly, extraordinarily different. The reality is that there’s big business in branding dissent and whistle-blowing. There is money to be made with these outsider stances, and they will fight fiercely for it. Once you become aware of how insidious it is, it is hard to stay clear of it. Advertising is one of the great undermining forces out there—at least in the world of managing information. We have been taunted about that: how would you like to make money, to fill up your site with advertising? The reality is that it’s not that expensive to publish information. It is very cheap, actually, until you need offices, lawyers, public relations managers, your own advertising office and so on.

What about your architectural practice?

John: This is how we practise. In addition to Cryptome we run a website called Cartome. Deborah is in charge of that one. It deals with similar issues to Cryptome—privacy, cryptography, the politics of information and so on—but from a spatialgeographic perspective. We have thousands of collaborators and clients around the world who help us with “construction documents”—not the kind you would use for that term, but it’ll help you understand. Cryptome publishes them daily, dozens of them a week. We are doing construction documents that go well beyond simple buildings. It is a huge, collaborative project, and one we’ve been invested in long before these other high-profile initiatives came along. We’ve now got thousands of collaborators, most of them anonymous, contributing and helping us create these “construction documents”. We give full credit to all these collaborators—as much credit as they can bear, in fact, but we also offer anonymity. And we don’t claim this work as ours—we simply publicise this material as the work of a global network. We are anxious to get this out and share it with others, but we won’t ask for a grant from some foundation to support us. That is a key point. We pay for this out of our own pockets.

What do you see as most problematic in contemporary architecture?

Deborah: We oppose the tele-visualisation and the photogenicisation of the architectural object, product or furniture, its glossy representation. Our interpretation of the architect is as an architect of information—collecting, annotating, combining troves of data, organising it and indexing it. Architects have an extraordinary training in handling complex team efforts. The degree to which they are capable of coordinating huge teams of disparate disciplinary archaeologies that are brought into some kind of a moment of intersection is rarely acknowledged.

John: As far as we know, no global architect is doing anything like this. Foreign policy people are, think-tanks are, but architects have been beaten down into a narrow and insignificant role of creating glossy projects for publication in their own profession’s magazines. The problem with the architecture world is that most of its members will not talk about the issues at stake here, and won’t admit to being associated with it. I have brought along some of our work in this package: 65,000 files made of videos, drawings, maps, some of them stolen, most of them contributed. It is a set of construction documents that thousands of people have helped us assemble. We don’t claim it as our own, and we make it available through DVDs and our website. It is all online and it is there for people to use as they like. Cryptome publishes five or six new files a day—sometimes a dozen—but we have no architectural readers on our site. In the back of their minds there is the fear that this kind of discourse might undermine their relationship with their clientele.

You ran a successful design office that for many years was involved in more conventional forms of practice. What drives you to do this?

Deborah: I would turn the question round to you: what are your thoughts about anonymity? What do you think about Facebook being a beautiful surveillance device? What do you think about the asymmetry of emergent social tools? They are evidently onerous, but few people are stopping to notice this—they’re too busy exulting in the sociability of it all. In the meantime, Amazon, with all its cloud services, now possesses more information than any other single organisation, with the possible exception of Google. What a sweet spot for people who want to steal personal information.

How do you distribute your DVDs?

John: Regular mail, which is probably the safest means of communication there is. Nothing online can be used for communication if you want privacy, nothing digital for that matter. We caution people: these are digital products, so beware of what is on them. We don’t really know what might be in a document sent to us on DVD. This is a macroscopic fallacy in any regulation intended to protect your privacy: it won’t work. Every privacy policy is deceptive, and is meant to mislead you. Regulations are meant to mislead you. Governments are meant to mislead you. We continually ask ourselves: how do you explain this, how do you get it across to the public when there is a huge industry out there peddling the other version, the narrative of “trustworthiness”? They say: we will pass a law, we will take care of this for you so leave it to us. What they should be saying is that you have to take care of yourself—that’s our view. We state this clearly on Cryptome: do not trust the Internet. Do not trust professionals. Do not trust us, or anybody else.

Interview recorded in New York on May 10, 2011

Posted in Education | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

List of Documents Allegedly Downloaded by Aaron Swartz

This is a list of the documents allegedly downloaded by Aaron Swartz. / Esta é uma lista dos documentos supostamente baixados por Aaron Swartz.


(Source: swartz-dl-docs.txt file at Cryptome.org)

Here is a link to Swartz’s “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto“. / Nos comentários da seguinte postagem encontra-se uma tradução em português do “Manifesto da Guerrilha pelo Acesso Aberto” de Swartz.

Other related documents can be found at the “Aaron Swartz Series” at Cryptome.

Here is a list of the related torrents at Piratebay.org, copied from Cryptome:

University Presses

Psychology Complete


Oxford University Press

Cambridge University Press

Related to these files, I copy here (without having asked for permission) also a message from Greg Maxwell, which was attached to the “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” torrent at the Pirate Bay:


Hash: SHA1

This archive contains 18,592 scientific publications totaling 33GiB, all from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and which should be available to everyone at no cost, but most have previously only been made available at high prices through paywall gatekeepers like JSTOR.

Limited access to the documents here is typically sold for $19 USD per article, though some of the older ones are available as cheaply as $8. Purchasing access to this collection one article at a time would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Also included is the basic factual metadata allowing you to locate works by title, author, or publication date, and a checksum file to allow you to check for corruption.

ef8c02959e947d7f4e4699f399ade838431692d972661f145b782c2fa3ebcc6a sha256sum.txt

I’ve had these files for a long time, but I’ve been afraid that if I published them I would be subject to unjust legal harassment by those who profit from controlling access to these works.

I now feel that I’ve been making the wrong decision.

On July 19th 2011, Aaron Swartz was criminally charged by the US Attorney General’s office for, effectively, downloading too many academic papers from JSTOR.

Academic publishing is an odd system—the authors are not paid for their writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they’re just more unpaid academics), and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the authors must even pay the publishers.

And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously expensive pieces of literature you can buy. In the past, the high access fees supported the costly mechanical reproduction of niche paper journals, but online distribution has mostly made this function obsolete.

As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models. The “publish or perish” pressure in academia gives the authors an impossibly weak negotiating position, and the existing system has enormous inertia.

Those with the most power to change the system–the long-tenured luminary scholars whose works give legitimacy and prestige to the journals, rather than the other way around–are the least impacted by its failures. They are supported by institutions who invisibly provide access to all of the resources they need. And as the journals depend on them, they may ask for alterations to the standard contract without risking their career on the loss of a publication offer. Many don’t even realize the extent to which academic work is inaccessible to the general public, nor do they realize what sort of work is being done outside universities that would benefit by it.

Large publishers are now able to purchase the political clout needed to abuse the narrow commercial scope of copyright protection, extending it to completely inapplicable areas: slavish reproductions of historic documents and art, for example, and exploiting the labors of unpaid scientists. They’re even able to make the taxpayers pay for their attacks on free society by pursuing criminal prosecution (copyright has classically been a civil matter) and by burdening public institutions with outrageous subscription fees.

Copyright is a legal fiction representing a narrow compromise: we give up some of our natural right to exchange information in exchange for creating an economic incentive to author, so that we may all enjoy more works. When publishers abuse the system to prop up their existence, when they misrepresent the extent of copyright coverage, when they use threats of frivolous litigation to suppress the dissemination of publicly owned works, they are stealing from everyone else.

Several years ago I came into possession, through rather boring and lawful means, of a large collection of JSTOR documents.

These particular documents are the historic back archives of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society—a prestigious scientific journal with a history extending back to the 1600s.

The portion of the collection included in this archive, ones published prior to 1923 and therefore obviously in the public domain, total some 18,592 papers and 33 gigabytes of data.

The documents are part of the shared heritage of all mankind, and are rightfully in the public domain, but they are not available freely. Instead the articles are available at $19 each–for one month’s viewing, by one person, on one computer. It’s a steal. From you.

When I received these documents I had grand plans of uploading them to Wikipedia’s sister site for reference works, Wikisource— where they could be tightly interlinked with Wikipedia, providing interesting historical context to the encyclopedia articles. For example, Uranus was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel; why not take a look at the paper where he originally disclosed his discovery? (Or one of the several follow on publications about its satellites, or the dozens of other papers he authored?)

But I soon found the reality of the situation to be less than appealing: publishing the documents freely was likely to bring frivolous litigation from the publishers.

As in many other cases, I could expect them to claim that their slavish reproduction—scanning the documents— created a new copyright interest. Or that distributing the documents complete with the trivial watermarks they added constituted unlawful copying of that mark. They might even pursue strawman criminal charges claiming that whoever obtained the files must have violated some kind of anti-hacking laws.

In my discreet inquiry, I was unable to find anyone willing to cover the potentially unbounded legal costs I risked, even though the only unlawful action here is the fraudulent misuse of copyright by JSTOR and the Royal Society to withhold access from the public to that which is legally and morally everyone’s property.

In the meantime, and to great fanfare as part of their 350th anniversary, the RSOL opened up “free” access to their historic archives—but “free” only meant “with many odious terms”, and access was limited to about 100 articles.

All too often journals, galleries, and museums are becoming not disseminators of knowledge—as their lofty mission statements suggest—but censors of knowledge, because censoring is the one thing they do better than the Internet does. Stewardship and curation are valuable functions, but their value is negative when there is only one steward and one curator, whose judgment reigns supreme as the final word on what everyone else sees and knows. If their recommendations have value they can be heeded without the coercive abuse of copyright to silence competition.

The liberal dissemination of knowledge is essential to scientific inquiry. More than in any other area, the application of restrictive copyright is inappropriate for academic works: there is no sticky question of how to pay authors or reviewers, as the publishers are already not paying them. And unlike ‘mere’ works of entertainment, liberal access to scientific work impacts the well-being of all mankind. Our continued survival may even depend on it.

If I can remove even one dollar of ill-gained income from a poisonous industry which acts to suppress scientific and historic understanding, then whatever personal cost I suffer will be justified—it will be one less dollar spent in the war against knowledge. One less dollar spent lobbying for laws that make downloading too many scientific papers a crime.

I had considered releasing this collection anonymously, but others pointed out that the obviously overzealous prosecutors of Aaron Swartz would probably accuse him of it and add it to their growing list of ridiculous charges. This didn’t sit well with my conscience, and I generally believe that anything worth doing is worth attaching your name to.

I’m interested in hearing about any enjoyable discoveries or even useful applications which come of this archive.


Greg Maxwell – July 20th 2011

gmaxwell@gmail.com Bitcoin: 14csFEJHk3SYbkBmajyJ3ktpsd2TmwDEBb


Version: GnuPG v1.4.11 (GNU/Linux)





Posted in Education, Intellectual Property | Tagged | Leave a comment

Wizard Prang on Education

As the website of Chronicles of Wizard Prang, the book by Stafford Beer, is not properly configured to display the text, I am putting here this chapter, which is about education.

To view the other chapters, go to the website of the “Chronicles”, save the chapter you want and change the extension from .asp to .html, so your browser will be able to display the contents.


Chapter Two – A Pompous Man

Wizard Prang almost leapt out of his skin.

Naturally enough, he asked himself why. He had been thinking for a few hours, and suddenly – this. Something must have happened, he reasoned, to disturb him.

There was a thunderous knocking on the door of his cottage.

“Funny,” Wizard Prang said to himself, “this knocking has come after my fright. It ought to have come before it.”

Before he had time to work this out, which he easily could have done, the knocking came for a third time.

Gingerly, the wizard opened the door. Outside stood a pompous man.

“Good Evening,” he said. “Wizard Prang? May I come in for a moment?”

The wizard did not feel like denying who he was, although he had all the arguments lined up to prove that he wasn’t.

“Who are you?” he asked the pompous man boldly.

Indeed, it took him a lot of courage to ask this question. So often the result was embarrassing. Last time the answer had been: “A policeman, Sir!” It was true. The caller was wearing a blue uniform and a helmet and was carrying a truncheon. Why the note of heavy sarcasm was not explained, and it had left the wizard uncomfortable. The time before that the reply had been: “I’m your brother, you old fool!” Undeniably, it was he.

“I am a Pompous Man,” replied the pompous man with an air of great satisfaction.

“Come in by all means,” said Wizard Prang amiably. “What can I do for you?”

The pompous man lowered himself into the visitor’s armchair.

“I have the honour to be the Chairman of the Education Committee in our little town,” he said. “As you know, education is the hope for mankind.”

Wizard Prang raised an eyebrow, but waited politely for his visitor to continue.

“It has come to my attention,” the pompous man said, “that you are the possessor of some very advanced knowledge. Our Committee has therefore passed a resolution Inviting you to give the School Prizes away on Speech Day this year and to give us a little address telling us all about it.”

Even as he spoke, the pompous man was wondering uneasily whether the wizard had any proper clothes. He tried to imagine him in an ordinary suit, and couldn’t. Come to think of it, what was this advanced knowledge? He looked round the room, which was littered with messed up spells of one kind or another, and shuddered. The wizard cleared his throat.

“In a hundred years or so, everyone now alive in the whole earth will be dead – is this not so?”

The pompous man was relieved. He could follow that. He nodded sagely.

“It would therefore be possible for the human race to run its affairs quite differently, in a wise and benevolent fashion, in a relatively short time.”

This way of looking at things appealed to the Chairman of the Education Committee. It had an optimistic ring, so different from the doom-laden pronouncements of most so-called clever people.

He leaned forward. “And so?” he asked encouragingly.

“The purpose of education,” said Wizard Prang, “is to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

The pompous man was thunderstruck.

“Look here, Sir,” he said, “please remember who I am. Not only do I have civic responsibilities – I am also a Pompous Man. You can’t say things like that, you know.”

The wizard was under the Impression that he just had said it, and looked around anxiously to see If anything was wrong. But things looked much as usual.

“Young people today are lazy and good-for-nothing,” declared the pompous man. He resounded. He was on familiar ground. “They sit around listening to pop music and taking drugs. What they have to do is learn more things, apply themselves.”

“No, that’s not correct,” the wizard explained, “they have to unlearn things.”

“How can that possibly be?” The pompous man was lost.

“Well,” said Wizard Prang, “we can teach only what we know. Now what we know is how to devastate the planet, kill its inhabitants, and starve two thirds of the rest. Seems a bit silly to teach people to do all that.”

“Ridiculous!” shouted the pompous man. “That is not the intention at all, and you know it.”

The wizard looked reflective. “The purpose of a system is what it does.”

He got up, and retrieved a bottle of white wine from a side table. It had been holding up part of an experiment, which promptly collapsed into a heap of tubes, wires and so forth.

No matter: the wizard had been trying to remember for weeks what the experiment was for, so that was one worry less.

“Please have a drink,” said the courteous host.

The visitor accepted less than graciously, and took the glass. Wizard Prang collected a bottle of mineral water from the other side of the room. Nothing fell down. The wizard stood still for a time wondering if anything was wrong. He mixed water with his wine – a trick he had learned from the ancient Greeks.

The pompous man had by this time emptied his wineglass, which the wizard promptly refilled. Somewhat mollified by these gestures, he made an Utterance. This Utterance was all about the noble aims of education. He always made it when he felt in need of reassurance, and it took some time to Utter.

While this was going on, Wizard Prang sat down, placing his glass on the only vacant surface in the room: a small wooden table that he had made himself.

“… lifting civilized man above the status of the savage … supporting the noblest aspirations,” the pompous man declaimed, “to which man can, er, aspire to.” He had forgotten the words, but hoped no-one would notice.

The wizard was ever so slightly mesmerized. He did not notice his glass was sliding across the table top, and it fell to the ground with a crash. It was a low table, and the glass did not break. He poured more wine and water for himself, and another glass for his guest.

The fact is that the wizard had been very pleased with his invention of the table. He had become fed up with having every surface in his room cluttered up with books and papers, experiments and messed up spells, old sandwiches, musical instruments, and so on. So he had invented this table. It had a slanting top. It worked. The surface was always clear.

Evidently, though, he would have to give it more attention: something was not quite right.

“What they have to do is learn more things,” finished the pompous man, as usual.

This time Wizard Prang was ready for him. “The only things on offer are the ones leading to the world we already have – and that doesn’t work,” he said. “Until we unlearn, we cannot recognize the world that our education has concealed from us. Let me demonstrate something to you.” He stood up.

Picking up his visitor’s newspaper, he led the way outside.

The pompous man surveyed the see-saw that the wizard had built in the field before his cottage for the children who loved to visit him. He was wary. “Take a good look,” he was instructed. He walked all round the see-saw. Two chunks of tree-trunk had been buried in the ground, and grooves had been cut in their tops. In the grooves was another piece of tree – a round piece of branch, held in place by two huge iron staples. The branch had been flattened in the middle, so that a long plank could be screwed to it. And that was it.

“Not a very – ah – sophisticated piece of equipment, I dare say,” said the pompous man in a condescending way and wearing a smirk.

He moved the plank up and down; it just about worked.

The wizard spread the newspaper over one end, and held the plank steady at the other.

“Please get on,” he asked.

Pomposity nearly overtook the pompous man. He looked around dubiously, but there was no-one around to observe him.

“Heaven knows what you are playing at,” he said as he got on.

“Yes, without doubt,” said the Wizard as he lowered the portly gentleman to the ground position.

Then he himself scrambled up to the other end of the plank. Nothing happened. The pompous man was portly. Moreover, he felt ridiculous squatting on the plank with his knees nearly under his chin. He expostulated.

“Please be quiet,” said Wizard Prang.

And his face gradually assumed an expressionless expression. That’s the only way to describe it, as some sort of benign contradiction. The portly gentleman was overawed, and said nothing more.

After a time, the plank gradually began to move.

Very, very slowly, the wizard’s end came down, while the pompous man rose slowly into the air. He hung on for dear life.

The wizard’s end touched the ground as gently as thistledown. His face did not change. There was silence. After nearly a minute, and with no movement made by either of them, the wizard’s end slowly began to rise. Eventually, the pompous man was on the ground again.

He got off in a bustle, making harumphing noises, and causing the wizard to hit the ground on his end with a thump.

No-one was going to make a fool of him.

“Well, how’s it done?” he demanded in controlled rage.

“You’ve seen everything for yourself,” the wizard said mildly. “Have another look. Make a thorough inspection!”

He went off down the path and back into his little house.

The pompous man stormed in after him.

“You don’t understand what happened,” the wizard said from his chair, “because you have learnt too many things. Now you have to unlearn them!”

“Rubbish.” The pompous man was not so much rude as completely rattled. “There is something new here and you must tell me what it is!”

“There’s nothing new,” said Wizard Prang, “in fact, it’s extremely old. But you have to unlearn things to take it in.”

“Try me,” said a strained, belligerent voice opposite.

The wizard sighed gently. “Oh, all right,” he said. “Making oneself light and making oneself heavy are two of the eight occult powers.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” said the pompous man tetchily. “Now give me a proper explanation!”

“I just did!”

“Oh, come now. I mean an explanation In terms of physics!”

The wizard stroked his beard thoughtfully.

“In terms of physics”; he repeated it from a distance.

“Of course!”

“Oh dear,” the wizard spoke almost to himself, because his demonstration had not had the right effect.

He filled the two glasses again, and absent-mindedly set down his own on the slanting table top again. He sat down, noticed the glass traveling over the edge, deftly caught it, and hoped that the pompous man had not noticed. He had.

“Well, let’s try,” said Wizard Prang.

“Weight is related to the specific gravity of any given body,” he said. “If the mass of that body Increases compared to the mass of the same volume of water, it gets heavier. And conversely,” he added.

“Schoolboy stuff,” said the pompous man. “What about it?”

“My body is mainly water, and water is mainly H20 – two atoms of hydrogen to one of oxygen,” the wizard went on. “Also schoolboy stuff; as is the fact that water has other components, such as heavy water – which is ten percent denser than ordinary water. So what happens if there is a molecular transformation, and the proportion of heavy water goes up – I get heavier. And that’s only an example!”

“But you haven’t any equipment to make ‘molecular transformations’ in that way,” the pompous man said flatly.

“Oh haven’t I?” said the wizard gently.

“Well, what could it be? – in terms of physics,” the visitor added hastily.

“Think some more schoolboy thoughts about the combining power of atoms in terms of hydrogen atoms,” Wizard Prang said sourly. “The word is valency.”

The pompous man tried to look profound.

“Ultimately, we’re only talking about charged particles,” said the wizard, “that makeup the atoms in the first place. And those particles are only little flecks in space/time. They just need … adjusting a bit.”

The wizard thought of adding that space/time itself is an illusion, but thought better of it. That isn’t schoolboy stuff. You have to go back to being a baby to perceive it. After that, education makes sure you get space/time systematically wrong. Knowledge is systematic ignorance.

Before Wizard Prang had time to say ‘Knowledge is systematic ignorance,’ which would have annoyed the Chairman of the Education Committee to the point of apoplexy, the pompous man delivered his judgement.

“Ridiculous,” he declared. “Absolute nonsense!”

He fixed the wizard with his eye.

“It couldn’t happen,” he said, although it just had.

“Oh, I see,” said the wizard.

There was a long pause after that. The wizard could hardly throw the pompous man out on his ear, and the pompous man could hardly storm out.

Tactfully, Wizard Prang refilled the glasses.

The pompous man coughed.

“There was something else on my mind,” he said.

“Oh, yes?” Wizard Prang spoke in the lowest possible key.

“Yes,” said the pompous man. “My oldest daughter has become involved in some kind of cult. They preach something called Metafarcism. I wonder if you could explain to me what it is!”

“Yes, I could,” said the wizard.

The pause this time was even longer.

Eventually, the pompous man asked: “Well then, would you?”

“No,” the wizard replied.

He was wearing what his friends called his computing face.

“It’s not worth it,” he said. “I would do the explaining, and you would have to listen. The combined effort would be considerable. Metafarcism, isn’t worth the combined effort!”

“Oh” – the questioner was flummoxed.

The wizard went into computational mode a second time.

“Got it,” he suddenly said, brightening noticeably. “We can get out of the combined effort,” he explained. “I shall give the explanation after you have gone home.”

“Oh, I see,” said the pompous man.

They got someone else for Speech Day. He told the boys and girls and their parents that it was no use sitting around listening to pop music – they had to work harder and learn more things because education is the hope of the world. The parents applauded loudly.

Posted in Education, Stories | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Books and Assemblages #rhizo14

A book is a tool that allows us to do some things. It can have a variety of purposes (aesthetic, scientific, philosophical, etc.). It is, first of all, a mode of organizing and storing information, with which a human being can engage in a variety of ways.

It is a memory tool, in the sense that it allows for an extension and modification of human memory.

Books allow for certain kinds of experiences and for certain kinds of arrangements, depending not only on their informational contents but also on their material instantiations. Both the contents and material instantiations of a book allow it to enter into different types of relations to people and other objects – to constitute different assemblages.

The idea of an “assemblage” is useful for understanding the role of books as tools.

“An assemblage emerges when a function emerges; ideally it is innovative and productive. The result of a productive assemblage is a new means of expression, a new territorial/spatial organisation, a new institution, a new behaviour, or a new realisation. The assemblage is destined to produce a new reality, by making numerous, often unexpected, connections.” (“Assemblage”, Graham Livesey, in: The Deleuze Dictionary, Rev. Ed., Adrian Parr (ed.) [Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005], 18-9).


An assemblage is any number of ‘things’ or pieces of ‘things’ gathered into a single context. An assemblage can bring about any number of ‘effects’ — aesthetic, machinic, productive, destructive, consumptive, informatic, etc. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the book provides a number of insights into this loosely defined term:

‘In a book, as in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification. Comparative rates of flow on these lines produce phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture. All this, lines and measurable speeds constitutes an assemblage. A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity—but we don’t know yet what the multiple entails when it is no longer attributed, that is, after it has been elevated to the status of the substantive. On side of a machinic assemblage faces the strata, which doubtless make it a kind of organism, or signifying totality, or determination attributable to a subject; it also has a side facing a body without organs, which is continually dismantling the organism, causing asignifying particles or pure intensities or circulate, and attributing to itself subjects what it leaves with nothing more than a name as the trace of an intensity… Literature is an assemblage. It has nothing to do with ideology. There is no ideology and never has been.’ (3-4)

The book, as described above, is a jumbling together of discrete parts or pieces that is capable of producing any number effects, rather than a tightly organized and coherent whole producing one dominant reading.

The beauty of the assemblage is that, since it lacks organization, it can draw into its body any number of disparate elements. The book itself can be an assemblage, but its status as an assemblage does not prevent it from containing assemblages within itself or entering into new assemblages with readers, libraries, bonfires, bookstores, etc.” (Davin Heckman, “Capitalism, the War Machine, and the Pokemon Trainer“, Glossary: Assemblage)

Books play an important role in Western scientific/capitalist societies’ games of truth. These games are, as frequently noted, games of power – which imply both subjection and subjectivation.

We can assume as true that every technology has an effect on human subjectivity – inasmuch as the latter is (at least partially) an effect of organic and social fields and interactions. Books are no exception, and the same goes for the Internet.

Being parts of assemblages, different technologies are subject to the different uses that are made of them.

Only self-management of attention can allow individuals to steer the continuous formation of their subjectivities in the direction of their own purposes and interests. This has to be accompanied by self-observation.

Without this, individuals become mere effects and productions of interests extraneous to themselves. At their own cost: not making choices is also a choice.


Further Reading (#rhizo14):

Bonnie Stewart, “do you know networks?

Bonnie Stewart, “we don’t need no thought control

Frances Bell, “Is Books making us stupid

Jaap Bosman, “Books

Jaap Bosman, “The medium is the message?

Jenny Mackness, “Rhizomatic learning, knowledge and books

Keith Hamon, “Print, Stupidity, and #rhizo14

Maha Bali, “Books: how do they ever get published?

Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Robert Fowler, “How the Secondary Orality of the Electronic Age Can Awaken Us to the Primary Orality of Antiquity or What Hypertext Can Teach Us About the Bible with Reflections on the Ethical and Political Issues of the Electronic Frontier

Sarah Honeychurch, “Reading, writing and forgetting

Umberto Eco, “Vegetal and Mineral Memory

Posted in Education | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Texto de Zé Pelintra

Collected from the web:


Espiritualidade não é só rezar e cantar pro Santo… É também viver a vida com encanto: despertando para as surpresas da Vida, a cada instante… É cuidar de si como de uma flor rara; é encontrar motivos pra sorrir e sonhar acordado a toda hora… É fincar os pés no agora, é contentar-se com o presente; é não se deter pelo que está longe ou fora… É sentir-se inteiro ao acordar, dormir, comer, andar, correr, dançar, cantar, pensar, falar, idealizar, rezar, trocar, entristecer, chorar… É rir com vontade e não se perder na saudade; é sempre preencher de amor o coração… É olhar os filhos com ternura e beber-lhes a doçura de crianças que um dia irão crescer e partir; é aproveitar o gosto da ventura de ser parte dessas vidas… É amar o Amor no Ser amado; é ser elo e corrente: é confiar e trocar sem perguntar quem mais amou… É trabalhar com lealdade por si mesmo e ajudar alguém quanto se possa; é não reter por medo de perder: é confiar na semente do Bem que se plantou… É ter a alma viva e clara, os sonhos largos e os passos certos; é espantar o medo com a fé em si, é crer na Vida… É ser aluno da Vida e mestre de si mesmo; é dividir o que se aprende e aprender com quem mais sabe; é não desprezar a ninguém… É agradecer pelo pão e o agasalho; e, em prece agradecendo, se entregar ao trabalho de partilhar com todo o Universo a reza e o prato… É abençoar a chuva e o orvalho; é celebrar a luz do Sol e o céu da noite; é cantar para a Mãe-Terra e sua Lua, e desnudar-se para um banho nas Estrelas… É irradiar amor e limpar a psicosfera; é viver o Inverno com a certeza da Primavera; é se despedir do que se foi no Outono; é abrir os braços para os esplendores do Verão… É, imitando a Vida, ter na mente o fogo da vontade e nas mãos o cinzel que a esculpe: é crer e buscar fazer dar vida aos nossos sonhos… É não desistir quando o campo se estreita; é abençoar a estrada e persistir na empreitada, seguindo o rumo que a alma aponta… É saber-se templo do Sagrado, sem precisar clamar aos céus: sentindo Deus em si e em tudo– o Pai-Mãe Onipresente e Justo–, a nos guiar, de dentro para fora, em qualquer tempo, lugar e hora… (Zé Pelintra, 28/9/2013.)

Posted in Spirituality | Tagged | Leave a comment

Vegetal and Mineral Memory (Umberto Eco)

Collected from the web:



(By Umberto Eco, delivered on November 1st, 2003 at the Library of Alexandria)

WE HAVE THREE TYPES OF MEMORY. The first one is organic, which is the memory made of flesh and blood and the one administrated by our brain. The second is mineral, and in this sense mankind has known two kinds of mineral memory: millennia ago, this was the memory represented by clay tablets and obelisks, pretty well known in this country, on which people carved their texts. However, this second type is also the electronic memory of today’s computers, based upon silicon. We have also known another kind of memory, the vegetal one, the one represented by the first papyruses, again well known in this country, and then on books, made of paper. Let me disregard the fact that at a certain moment the vellum of the first codices were of an organic origin, and the fact that the first paper was made with rugs and not with wood. Let me speak for the sake of simplicity of vegetal memory in order to designate books.

This place has been in the past and will be in the future devoted to the conservation of books; thus, it is and will be a temple of vegetal memory. Libraries, over the centuries, have been the most important way of keeping our collective wisdom. They were and still are a sort of universal brain where we can retrieve what we have forgotten and what we still do not know. If you will allow me to use such a metaphor, a library is the best possible imitation, by human beings, of a divine mind, where the whole universe is viewed and understood at the same time. A person able to store in his or her mind the information provided by a great library would emulate in some way the mind of God. In other words, we have invented libraries because we know that we do not have divine powers, but we try to do our best to imitate them.

To build, or better to rebuild, today one of the greatest libraries of the world might sound like a challenge, or a provocation. It happens frequently that in newspaper articles or academic papers some authors, facing the new computer and internet era, speak of the possible “death of books”. However, if books are to disappear, as did the obelisks or the clay tablets of ancient civilisations, this would not be a good reason to abolish libraries. On the contrary, they should survive as museums conserving the finds of the past, in the same way as we conserve the Rosetta Stone in a museum because we are no longer accustomed to carving our documents on mineral surfaces.

Yet, my praise for libraries will be a little more optimistic. I belong to the people who still believe that printed books have a future and that all fears à propos of their disappearance are only the last example of other fears, or of milleniaristic terrors about the end of something, the world included.

In the course of many interviews I have been obliged to answer questions of this sort: “Will the new electronic media make books obsolete? Will the Web make literature obsolete? Will the new hypertextual civilisation eliminate the very idea of authorship?” As you can see, if you have a well-balanced normal mind, these are different questions and, considering the apprehensive mode in which they are asked, one might think that the interviewer would feel reassured when your answer is, “No, keep cool, everything is OK”. Mistake. If you tell such people that books, literature, authorship will not disappear, they look desperate. Where, then, is the scoop? To publish the news that a given Nobel Prize winner has died is a piece of news; to say that he is alive and well does not interest anybody — except him, I presume.

WHAT I WANT TO DO TODAY is to try to unravel a skein of intertwined apprehensions about different problems. To clarify our ideas about these different problems can also help us to understand better what we usually mean by book, text, literature, interpretation, and so on. Thus you will see how from a silly question many wise answers can be produced, and such is probably the cultural function of naive interviews.

Let us start with an Egyptian story, even though one told by a Greek. According to Plato in Phaedrus when Hermes, or Theut, the alleged inventor of writing, presented his invention to the Pharaoh Thamus, the Pharaoh praised such an unheard of technique supposed to allow human beings to remember what they would otherwise forget. But Thamus was not completely happy. “My skillful Theut,” he said, “memory is a great gift that ought to be kept alive by continuous training. With your invention people will no longer be obliged to train their memory. They will remember things not because of an internal effort, but by mere virtue of an external device.”

We can understand the preoccupation of Thamus. Writing, like any other new technological invention, would have made torpid the human power which it pretended to substitute and reinforce. Writing was dangerous because it decreased the powers of mind by offering human beings a petrified soul, a caricature of mind, a mineral memory.

Plato’s text is ironical, naturally. Plato was writing down his argument against writing. But he was also pretending that his discourse was told by Socrates, who did not write (since he did not publish, he perished in the course of the academic fight.) Nowadays, nobody shares Thamus’s preoccupations for two very simple reasons. First of all, we know that books are not ways of making somebody else think in our place; on the contrary, they are machines that provoke further thoughts. Only after the invention of writing was it possible to write such a masterpiece of spontaneous memory as Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Secondly, if once upon a time people needed to train their memories in order to remember things, after the invention of writing they had also to train their memories in order to remember books. Books challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotise it. However, the Pharaoh was instantiating an eternal fear: the fear that a new technological achievement could kill something that we consider precious and fruitful.

I used the verb to kill on purpose because more or less 14 centuries later Victor Hugo, in his Notre Dame de Paris, narrated the story of a priest, Claude Frollo, looking in sadness at the towers of his cathedral. The story of Notre Dame de Paris takes places in the XVth century after the invention of printing. Before that, manuscripts were reserved to a restricted elite of literate persons, and the only thing to teach the masses about the stories of the Bible, the life of Christ and of the Saints, the moral principles, even the deeds of national history or the most elementary notions of geography and natural sciences (the nature of unknown peoples and the virtues of herbs or stones), was provided by the images of a cathedral. A mediaeval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV programme that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation.

Now, however, Frollo has on his table a printed book, and he whispers “ceci tuera cela”: this will kill that, or, in other words, the book will kill the cathedral, the alphabet will kill images. The book will distract people from their most important values, encouraging unnecessary information, free interpretation of the Scriptures, insane curiosity.

During the sixties, Marshall McLuhan wrote his book The Gutenberg Galaxy, where he announced that the linear way of thinking supported by the invention of printing was on the verge of being substituted by a more global way of perceiving and understanding through TV images or other kinds of electronic devices. If not McLuhan, then certainly many of his readers pointed their finger first at a TV screen and then to a printed book, saying “this will kill that”. Were McLuhan still among us, today he would have been the first to write something like “Gutenberg strikes back”. Certainly, a computer is an instrument by means of which one can produce and edit images, certainly instructions are provided by means of icons; but it is equally certainly that the computer has become first of all an alphabetic instrument. On its screen there run words and lines, and in order to use a computer you must be able to write and to read.

Are there differences between the first Gutenberg Galaxy and the second one? Many. First of all, only the archaeological word processors of the early eighties provided a sort of linear written communication. Today, computers are no longer linear in so far as they display a hypertextual structure. Curiously enough, the computer was born as a Turing machine, able to make a single step at a time, and in fact, in the depths of the machine, language still works in this way, by a binary logic, of zero-one, zero-one. However, the machine’s output is no longer linear: it is an explosion of semiotic fireworks. Its model is not so much a straight line as a real galaxy where everybody can draw unexpected connections between different stars to form new celestial images at any new navigation point.

YET IT IS EXACTLY AT THIS POINT that our unravelling activity must start because by hypertextual structure we usually mean two very different phenomena. First, there is the textual hypertext. In a traditional book one must read from left to right (or right to left, or up to down, according to different cultures) in a linear way. One can obviously skip through the pages, one — once arrived at page 300 — can go back to check or re- read something at page 10 — but this implies physical labour. In contrast to this, a hypertextual text is a multidimensional network or a maze in which every point or node can be potentially connected with any other node. Second, there is the systemic hypertext. The WWW is the Great Mother of All Hypertexts, a world-wide library where you can, or you will in short time, pick up all the books you wish. The Web is the general system of all existing hypertexts.

Such a difference between text and system is enormously important, and we shall come back to it. For the moment, let me liquidate the most naive among the frequently asked questions, in which this difference is not yet so clear. But it will be in answering this first question that we will be able to clarify our further point. The naive question is: “Will hypertextual diskettes, the internet, or multimedia systems make books obsolete?” With this question we have arrived at the final chapter in our this-will-kill-that story. But even this question is a confused one, since it can be formulated in two different ways: (a) will books disappear as physical objects, and (b) will books disappear as virtual objects?

Let me first answer the first question. Even after the invention of printing, books were never the only instrument for acquiring information. There were also paintings, popular printed images, oral teaching, and so on. Simply, books have proved to be the most suitable instrument for transmitting information. There are two sorts of book: those to be read and those to be consulted. As far as books-to-be-read are concerned, the normal way of reading them is the one that I would call the “detective story way”. You start from page one, where the author tells you that a crime has been committed, you follow every path of the detection process until the end, and finally you discover that the guilty one was the butler. End of the book and end of your reading experience. Notice that the same thing happens even if you read, let us say, a philosophical treatise. The author wants you to open the book at its first page, to follow the series of questions he proposes, and to see how he reaches certain final conclusions. Certainly, scholars can re-read such a book by jumping from one page to another, trying to isolate a possible link between a statement in the first chapter and one in the last. They can also decide to isolate, let us say, every occurrence of the word “idea” in a given work, thus skipping hundreds of pages in order to focus their attention only on passages dealing with that notion. However, these are ways of reading that the layman would consider as unnatural.

Then they are books to be consulted, like handbooks and encyclopaedias. Encyclopaedias are conceived in order to be consulted and never read from the first to the last page. A person reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica every night before sleeping, from the first to the last page, would be a comic character. Usually, one picks up a given volume of an encyclopaedia in order to know or to remember when Napoleon died, or what is the chemical formula for sulphuric acid. Scholars use encyclopaedias in a more sophisticated way. For instance, if I want to know whether it was possible or not that Napoleon met Kant, I have to pick up the volume K and the volume N of my encyclopaedia: I discover that Napoleon was born in 1769 and died in 1821, Kant was born in 1724 and died in 1804, when Napoleon was already emperor. It is therefore not impossible that the two met. In order to confirm this I would probably need to consult a biography of Kant, or of Napoleon, but in a short biography of Napoleon, who met so many persons in his life, a possible meeting with Kant can be disregarded, while in a biography of Kant a meeting with Napoleon would be recorded. In brief, I must leaf through many books on many shelves of my library; I must take notes in order to compare later all the data I have collected. All this will cost me painful physical labour.

Yet, with hypertext instead I can navigate through the whole net-cyclopaedia. I can connect an event registered at the beginning with a series of similar events disseminated throughout the text; I can compare the beginning with the end; I can ask for a list of all words beginning by A; I can ask for all the cases in which the name of Napoleon is linked with the one of Kant; I can compare the dates of their births and deaths — in short, I can do my job in a few seconds or a few minutes.

Hypertexts will certainly render encyclopaedias and handbooks obsolete. Yesterday, it was possible to have a whole encyclopaedia on a CD-ROM; today, it is possible to have it on line with the advantage that this permits cross references and the non-linear retrieval of information. All the compact disks, plus the computer, will occupy one fifth of the space occupied by a printed encyclopaedia. A printed encyclopaedia cannot be easily transported as a CD-ROM can, and a printed encyclopaedia cannot be easily updated. The shelves today occupied at my home as well as in public libraries by metres and metres of encyclopaedias could be eliminated in the near future, and there will be no reason to complain at their disappearance. Let us remember that for a lot of people a multivolume encyclopaedia is an impossible dream, not, or not only, because of the cost of the volumes, but because of the cost of the wall where the volumes are shelved. Personally, having started my scholarly activity as a medievalist I would like to have at home the 221 volumes of Migne’s Patrologia Latina. This is very expensive, but I could afford it. What I cannot afford is a new apartment in which to store 221 huge books without being obliged to eliminate at least 500 other normal tomes.

Yet, can a hypertextual disk or the WWW replace books to be read? Once again we have to decide whether the question concerns books as physical or as virtual objects. Once again let us consider the physical problem first.

Good news: books will remain indispensable, not only for literature but for any circumstances in which one needs to read carefully, not only in order to receive information but also to speculate and to reflect about it. To read a computer screen is not the same as to read a book. Think about the process of learning a new computer programme. Usually, the programme is able to display on the screen all the instructions you need. But usually users who want to learn the programme either print the instructions and read them as if they were in book form, or they buy a printed manual. It is possible to conceive of a visual programme that explains very well how to print and bind a book, but in order to get instructions on how to write, or how to use, a computer programme, we need a printed handbook.

After having spent 12 hours at a computer console, my eyes are like two tennis balls, and I feel the need of sitting down comfortably in an armchair and reading a newspaper, or maybe a good poem. Therefore, I think that computers are diffusing a new form of literacy, but they are incapable of satisfying all the intellectual needs they are stimulating. Please remember that both the Hebrew and the early Arab civilisations were based upon a book and this is not independent of the fact that they were both nomadic civilisations. The Ancient Egyptians could carve their records on stone obelisks: Moses and Muhammad could not. If you want to cross the Red Sea, or to go from the Arabian peninsula to Spain, a scroll is a more practical instrument for recording and transporting the Bible or the Koran than is an obelisk. This is why these two civilisations based upon a book privileged writing over images. But books also have another advantage in respect to computers. Even if printed on modern acid paper, which lasts only 70 years or so, they are more durable than magnetic supports. Moreover, they do not suffer from power shortages and black-outs, and they are more resistant to shocks.

Up to now, books still represent the most economical, flexible, wash-and-wear way to transport information at a very low cost. Computer communication travels ahead of you; books travel with you and at your speed. If you are shipwrecked on a desert island, where you don’t have the option of plugging in a computer, a book is still a valuable instrument. Even if your computer has solar batteries, you cannot easily read it while lying in a hammock. Books are still the best companions for a shipwreck, or for the day after the night before. Books belong to those kinds of instruments that, once invented, have not been further improved because they are already alright, such as the hammer, the knife, spoon or scissors.

TWO NEW INVENTIONS, however, are on the verge of being industrially exploited. One is printing on demand: after scanning the catalogues of many libraries or publishing houses a reader can select the book he needs, and the operator will push a button, and the machine will print and bind a single copy using the font the reader likes. This will certainly change the whole publishing market. It will probably eliminate bookstores, but it will not eliminate books, and it will not eliminate libraries, the only places where books can be found in order to scan and reprint them. Simply put: every book will be tailored according to the desires of the buyer, as happened with old manuscripts.

The second invention is the e-book where by inserting a micro- cassette in the book’s spine or by connecting it to the internet one can have a book printed out in front of us. Even in this case, however, we shall still have a book, though as different from our current ones as ours are different from old manuscripts on parchment, and as the first Shakespeare folio of 1623 is different from the last Penguin edition. Yet, up to now e-books have not proved to be commercially successful as their inventors hoped. I have been told that some hackers, grown up on computers and unused to browsing books, have finally read great literary masterpieces on e-books, but I think that the phenomenon remains very limited. In general, people seem to prefer the traditional way of reading a poem or a novel on printed paper. E-books will probably prove to be useful for consulting information, as happens with dictionaries or special documents. They will probably help students obliged to bring with them ten or more books when they go to school, but they will not substitute for other kinds of books that we love to read in bed before sleep, for example.

Indeed, there are a lot of new technological devices that have not made previous ones obsolete. Cars run faster than bicycles, but they have not rendered bicycles obsolete, and no new technological improvements can make a bicycle better than it was before. The idea that a new technology abolishes a previous one is frequently too simplistic. Though after the invention of photography painters did not feel obliged to serve any longer as craftsmen reproducing reality, this did not mean that Daguerre’s invention only encouraged abstract painting. There is a whole tradition in modern painting that could not have existed without photographic models: think, for instance, of hyper-realism. Here, reality is seen by the painter’s eye through the photographic eye. This means that in the history of culture it has never been the case that something has simply killed something else. Rather, a new invention has always profoundly changed an older one.

To conclude on this theme of the inconsistency of the idea of the physical disappearance of books, let us say that sometimes this fear does not only concern books but also printed material in general. Alas, if by chance one hoped that computers, and especially word processors, would contribute to saving trees, then that was wishful thinking. Instead, computers encourage the production of printed material. The computer creates new modes of production and diffusion of printed documents. In order to re- read a text, and to correct it properly, if it is not simply a short letter, one needs to print it, then to re-read it, then to correct it at the computer and to reprint it again. I do not think that one would be able to write a text of hundreds of pages and to correct it properly without reprinting it many times.

Today there are new hypertextual poetics according to which even a book-to-read, even a poem, can be transformed to hypertext. At this point we are shifting to question two, since the problem is no longer, or not only, a physical one, but rather one that concerns the very nature of creative activity, of the reading process, and in order to unravel this skein of questions we have first of all to decide what we mean by a hypertextual link.

Notice that if the question concerned the possibility of infinite, or indefinite, interpretations on the part of the reader, it would have very little to do with the problem under discussion. Rather, that would have to do with the poetics of a Joyce, for example, who thought of his book Finnegans Wake as a text that could be read by an ideal reader affected by an ideal insomnia. This question concerns the limits of interpretation, of deconstructive reading and of over-interpretation, to which I have devoted other writings. No: what are presently under consideration are cases in which the infinity, or at least the indefinite abundance of interpretations, are due not only to the initiative of the reader, but also to the physical mobility of the text itself, which is produced just in order to be re-written. In order to understand how texts of this genre can work we should decide whether the textual universe we are discussing is limited and finite, limited but virtually infinite, infinite but limited, or unlimited and infinite.

First of all, we should make a distinction between systems and texts. A system, for instance a linguistic system, is the whole of the possibilities displayed by a given natural language. A finite set of grammatical rules allows the speaker to produce an infinite number of sentences, and every linguistic item can be interpreted in terms of other linguistic or other semiotic items — a word by a definition, an event by an example, an animal or a flower by an image, and so on and so forth.

Take an encyclopaedic dictionary, for example. This might define a dog as a mammal, and then you have to go to the entry mammal, and if there mammals are defined as animals you must look for the entry animal, and so on. At the same time, the properties of dogs can be exemplified by images of dogs of different kinds; if it is said that a certain kind of dog lives in Lapland you must then go to the entry on Lapland to know where it is, and so on. The system is finite, an encyclopaedia being physically limited, but virtually unlimited in the sense you can circumnavigate it in a spiral-like movement, ad infinitum. In this sense, certainly all conceivable books are comprised by and within a good dictionary and a good grammar. If you are able to use an English dictionary well you could write Hamlet, and it is by mere chance that somebody did it before you. Give the same textual system to Shakespeare and to a schoolboy, and they have the same odds of producing Romeo and Juliet.

Grammars, dictionaries and encyclopaedias are systems: by using them you can produce all the texts you like. But a text itself is not a linguistic or an encyclopaedic system. A given text reduces the infinite or indefinite possibilities of a system to make up a closed universe. If I utter the sentence, “This morning I had for breakfast…”, for example, the dictionary allows me to list many possible items, provided they are all organic. But if I definitely produce my text and utter, “This morning I had for breakfast bread and butter”, then I have excluded cheese, caviar, pastrami and apples. A text castrates the infinite possibilities of a system. The Arabian Nights can be interpreted in many, many ways, but the story takes place in the Middle East and not in Italy, and it tells, let us say, of the deeds of Ali Baba or of Scheherazade and does not concern a captain determined to capture a white whale or a Tuscan poet visiting Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

Take a fairy tale, like Little Red Riding Hood. The text starts from a given set of characters and situations — a little girl, a mother, a grandmother, a wolf, a wood — and through a series of finite steps arrives at a solution. Certainly, you can read the fairy tale as an allegory and attribute different moral meanings to the events and to the actions of the characters, but you cannot transform Little Red Riding Hood into Cinderella. Finnegans Wake is certainly open to many interpretations, but it is certain that it will never provide you with a demonstration of Fermat’s last theorem, or with the complete bibliography of Woody Allen. This seems trivial, but the radical mistake of many deconstructionists was to believe that you can do anything you want with a text. This is blatantly false.

Now suppose that a finite and limited text is organised hypertextually by many links connecting given words with other words. In a dictionary or an encyclopaedia the word wolf is potentially connected to every other word that makes up part of its possible definition or description (wolf is connected to animal, to mammal to ferocious, to legs, to fur, to eyes, to woods, to the names of the countries in which wolves exist, etc.). In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf can be connected only with the textual sections in which it shows up or in which it is explicitly evoked. The series of possible links is finite and limited. How can hypertextual strategies be used to “open” up a finite and limited text?

The first possibility is to make the text physically unlimited, in the sense that a story can be enriched by the successive contributions of different authors and in a double sense, let us say either two-dimensionally or three-dimensionally. By this I mean that given, for instance, Little Red Riding Hood, the first author proposes a starting situation (the girl enters the wood) and different contributors can then develop the story one after the other, for example, by having the girl meet not the wolf but Ali Baba, by having both enter an enchanted castle, having a confrontation with a magic crocodile, and so on, so that the story can continue for years. But the text can also be infinite in the sense that at every narrative disjunction, for instance, when the girl enters the wood, many authors can make many different choices. For one author, the girl may meet Pinocchio, for another she may be transformed into a swan, or enter the Pyramids and discover the treasury of the son of Tutankhamen.

This is today possible, and you can find on the Net some interesting examples of such literary games.

AT THIS POINT one can raise a question about the survival of the very notion of authorship and of the work of art, as an organic whole. And I want simply to inform my audience that this has already happened in the past without disturbing either authorship or organic wholes. The first example is that of the Italian Commedia dell’arte, in which upon a canovaccio, that is, a summary of the basic story, every performance, depending on the mood and fantasy of the actors, was different from every other so that we cannot identify any single work by a single author called Arlecchino servo di due padroni and can only record an uninterrupted series of performances, most of them definitely lost and all certainly different one from another.

Another example would be a jazz jam session. We may believe that there was once a privileged performance of Basin Street Blues while only a later recorded session has survived, but we know that this is untrue. There were as many Basin Street Blues as there were performances of it, and there will be in future a lot of them that we do not know as yet, as soon as two or more performers meet again and try out their personal and inventive version of the original theme. What I want to say is that we are already accustomed to the idea of the absence of authorship in popular collective art in which every participant adds something, with experiences of jazz-like unending stories.

Such ways of implementing free creativity are welcome and make up part of the cultural tissue of society.

Yet, there is a difference between implementing the activity of producing infinite and unlimited texts and the existence of already produced texts, which can perhaps be interpreted in infinite ways but are physically limited. In our same contemporary culture we accept and evaluate, according to different standards, both a new performance of Beethoven’s Fifth and a new Jam Session on the Basin Street theme. In this sense, I do not see how the fascinating game of producing collective, infinite stories through the Net can deprive us of authorial literature and art in general. Rather, we are marching towards a more liberated society in which free creativity will coexist with the interpretation of already written texts. I like this. But we cannot say that we have substituted an old thing with a new one. We have both.

TV zapping is another kind of activity that has nothing to do with watching a movie in the traditional sense. A hypertextual device, it allows us to invent new texts that have nothing to do with our ability to interpret pre-existing texts. I have tried desperately to find an instance of unlimited and finite textual situations, but I have been unable to do so. In fact, if you have an infinite number of elements to play with why limit yourself to the production of a finite universe? It’s a theological matter, a sort of cosmic sport, in which one, or The One, could implement every possible performance but prescribes itself a rule, that is, limits, and generates a very small and simple universe. Let me, however, consider another possibility that at first glance promises an infinite number of possibilities with a finite number of elements, like a semiotic system, but in reality only offers an illusion of freedom and creativity.

A hypertext can give the illusion of opening up even a closed text: a detective story can be structured in such a way that its readers can select their own solution, deciding at the end if the guilty one should be the butler, the bishop, the detective, the narrator, the author or the reader. They can thus build up their own personal story. Such an idea is not a new one. Before the invention of computers, poets and narrators dreamt of a totally open text that readers could infinitely re-compose in different ways. Such was the idea of Le Livre, as extolled by Mallarmé. Raymond Queneau also invented a combinatorial algorithm by virtue of which it was possible to compose, from a finite set of lines, millions of poems. In the early sixties, Max Saporta wrote and published a novel whose pages could be displaced to compose different stories, and Nanni Balestrini gave a computer a disconnected list of verses that the machine combined in different ways to compose different poems. Many contemporary musicians have produced musical scores by manipulating which one can compose different musical performances.

All these physically moveable texts give an impression of absolute freedom on the part of the reader, but this is only an impression, an illusion of freedom. The machinery that allows one to produce an infinite text with a finite number of elements has existed for millennia, and this is the alphabet. Using an alphabet with a limited number of letters one can produce billions of texts, and this is exactly what has been done from Homer to the present days. In contrast, a stimulus-text that provides us not with letters, or words, but with pre-established sequences of words, or of pages, does not set us free to invent anything we want. We are only free to move pre-established textual chunks in a reasonably high number of ways. A Calder mobile is fascinating not because it produces an infinite number of possible movements but because we admire in it the iron-like rule imposed by the artist because the mobile moves only in the ways Calder wanted it to move.

At the last borderline of free textuality there can be a text that starts as a closed one, let us say, Little Red Riding Hood or The Arabian Nights, and that I, the reader, can modify according to my inclinations, thus elaborating a second text, which is no longer the same as the original one, whose author is myself, even though the affirmation of my authorship is a weapon against the concept of definite authorship. The Net is open to such experiments, and most of them can be beautiful and rewarding. Nothing forbids one writing a story where Little Red Riding Hood devours the wolf. Nothing forbids us from putting together different stories in a sort of narrative patchwork. But this has nothing to do with the real function and with the profound charms of books.

A BOOK OFFERS US A TEXT which, while being open to multiple interpretations, tells us something that cannot be modified. Suppose you are reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace: you desperately wish that Natasha will not accept the courtship of that miserable scoundrel Anatolij; you desperately wish that the marvellous person who is Prince Andrej will not die, and that he and Natasha will live together forever. If you had War and Peace on a hypertextual and interactive CD-ROM, you could rewrite your own story according to your desires; you could invent innumerable “War and Peaces”, where Pierre Besuchov succeeds in killing Napoleon, or, according to your penchants, Napoleon definitely defeats General Kutusov. What freedom, what excitement! Every Bouvard or Pécuchet could become a Flaubert!

Alas, with an already written book, whose fate is determined by repressive, authorial decision, we cannot do this. We are obliged to accept fate and to realise that we are unable to change destiny. A hypertextual and interactive novel allows us to practice freedom and creativity, and I hope that such inventive activity will be implemented in the schools of the future. But the already and definitely written novel War and Peace does not confront us with the unlimited possibilities of our imagination, but with the severe laws governing life and death.

Similarly, in Les Misérables Victor Hugo provides us with a beautiful description of the battle of Waterloo. Hugo’s Waterloo is the opposite of Stendhal’s. Stendhal, in La Charteuse de Parme, sees the battle through the eyes of his hero, who looks from inside the event and does not understand its complexity. On the contrary, Hugo describes the battle from the point of view of God, and follows it in every detail, dominating with his narrative perspective the whole scene. Hugo not only knows what happened but also what could have happened and did not in fact happen. He knows that if Napoleon had known that beyond the top of mount Saint Jean there was a cliff the cuirassiers of General Milhaud would not have collapsed at the feet of the English army, but his information in the event was vague or missing. Hugo knows that if the shepherd who had guided General von Bulow had suggested a different itinerary, then the Prussian army would have not arrived on time to cause the French defeat.

Indeed, in a role-play game one could rewrite Waterloo such that Grouchy arrived with his men to rescue Napoleon. But the tragic beauty of Hugo’s Waterloo is that the readers feel that things happen independently of their wishes. The charm of tragic literature is that we feel that its heroes could have escaped their fate but they do not succeed because of their weakness, their pride, or their blindness. Besides, Hugo tells us, “Such a vertigo, such an error, such a ruin, such a fall that astonished the whole of history, is it something without a cause? No… the disappearance of that great man was necessary for the coming of the new century. Someone, to whom none can object, took care of the event… God passed over there, Dieu a passé.”

That is what every great book tells us, that God passed there, and He passed for the believer as well as for the sceptic. There are books that we cannot re-write because their function is to teach us about necessity, and only if they are respected such as they are can they provide us with such wisdom. Their repressive lesson is indispensable for reaching a higher state of intellectual and moral freedom.

I hope and I wish that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina will continue to store this kind of books, in order to provide new readers with the irreplaceable experience of reading them. Long life to this temple of vegetal memory.

Posted in Education | Leave a comment

Rhizomes & formal contexts. 3. Some quotes from TAZ #rhizo14

In Temporary Autonomous Zone, Hakim Bey indicates at least one answer to the question of how to deal with formal power structures.

(One problem that you may encounter with this tactics is that not everyone wants to be free.)

He says:

“Absolutely nothing but a futile martyrdom could possibly result now from a head-on collision with the terminal State, the megacorporate information State, the empire of Spectacle and Simulation. Its guns are all pointed at us, while our meager weaponry finds nothing to aim at but a hysteresis, a rigid vacuity, a Spook capable of smothering every spark in an ectoplasm of information, a society of capitulation ruled by the image of the Cop and the absorbant eye of the TV screen.”

“The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it. Because the State is concerned primarily with Simulation rather than substance, the TAZ can ‘occupy’ these areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for quite a while in relative peace. Perhaps certain small TAZs have lasted whole lifetimes because they went unnoticed, like hillbilly enclaves–because they never intersected with the Spectacle, never appeared outside that real life which is invisible to the agents of Simulation.”

“Babylon takes its abstractions for realities; precisely within this margin of error the TAZ can come into existence. Getting the TAZ started may involve tactics of violence and defense, but its greatest strength lies in its invisibility – the State cannot recognize it because History has no definition of it. As soon as the TAZ is named (represented, mediated), it must vanish, it will vanish, leaving behind it an empty husk, only to spring up again somewhere else, once again invisible because undefinable in terms of the Spectacle. The TAZ is thus a perfect tactic for an era in which the State is omnipresent and all-powerful and yet simultaneously riddled with cracks and vacancies. And because the TAZ is a microcosm of that ‘anarchist dream’ of a free culture, I can think of no better tactic by which to work toward that goal while at the same time experiencing some of its benefits here and now.”

“The TAZ is an encampment of guerilla ontologists: strike and run away. Keep moving the entire tribe, even if it’s only data in the Web. The TAZ must be capable of defense; but both the ‘strike’ and the ‘defense’ should, if possible, evade the violence of the State, which is no longer a meaningful violence. The strike is made at structures of control, essentially at ideas; the defense is ‘invisibility’, a martial art, and ‘invulnerability’–an ‘occult’ art within the martial arts. The ‘nomadic war machine’ conquers without being noticed and moves on before the map can be adjusted. As to the future – Only the autonomous can plan autonomy, organize for it, create it. It’s a bootstrap operation. The first step is somewhat akin to satori – the realization that the TAZ begins with a simple act of realization.”

Posted in Education | Tagged | Leave a comment

Rhizomes & formal contexts. 2. A context example #rhizo14

“There must be some kind of way out of here”, said the joker to the thief.

(Bob Dylan, All along the watchtower)

(To every generalization there may be one or more exceptions. Generalizations are always valid to a certain extent, except when not.)

An overview of the school system in Brazil

Nowadays it works like this: you have two systems that coexist in paralel – the public system and the private one. The public system corresponds in general lines to what I will describe here, with some exceptions and variations. In general, the public system is considered bad by the population, and those who can afford it put their children in the private system (which is usually very expensive – again, with some exceptions). When criticizing the system, many people there hit upon the idea that politicians should be required to put their children in the public system, because then they would really have to do something about it, but this never happens. Life just goes on, and the abyss between rich and poor doesn’t seem to get any shorter.

In the private system you find a range of different approaches that go from traditional disciplinary models on one extreme, to alternative projects of various sorts on the other. But again, these possibilities are usually only available to those who can afford them.

In general, the whole system (both the private and public branches) is geared toward the final admission exams to the universities, called “Vestibular” (in the singular) or “vestibulares” (in the plural). The obsession with these exams is so great that some schools start thinking about them at the phase of children day-care (seriously). Some proudly advertize their madness to even crazier parents. There is also a whole market of pre-Vestibular courses for those who want to prepare for these exams, or to supplement the instruction offered at the schools.

Each university, be it public or private, has its own admission exam, and students at this phase usually go through a marathon of exams for different public and private institutions, in hope of getting a place in one of them. (There is also one big national exam that some universities adopt as standard, called ENEM – Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio, or “National Exam of Middle Instruction”). Aspirants have to compete with hundreds of their fellow students for these positions. Private institutions of a “pay and get in” type (“pagou passou”, as people say) are very common. Public institutions of higher education are the goal of most students, because they offer “good” instruction in any field for free.

The situation in higher education is analogous to that in basic education, with two paralel branches co-existing – a public and a private branch. But there is an inversion: while in basic education the private schools are considered the best and the public schools are usually the last resort of those who cannot afford private education, in higher education the public system is the best, and private institutions are a possibility for those who cannot get into the public system (due to the high competition in the “vestibular” exams), but are able to pay for admission at private universities. The federal government also provides subsidies to students with good grades, partly or fully financing their studies at private institutions (obviously a highly controversial move).

There is a vicious cicle that involves basic and higher education in Brazil, which works in the following way:

With relatively few exceptions, the students who are able to pass the exams for public universities are those who come out of the private system of basic education and already had a higher cultural capital. The students who come out of the public system of basic education usually go to private universities, which are expensive and rarely reach the same levels of resources and “excellence” (measured by the system’s own standards) as the public ones.

The professionals who come out of public universities then go on to work in the private system, which provides a much better pay. Teachers in the public system are working there because they are idealistic, because they like it (there are actually some reasons to like it, despite all the reasons to dislike it – one of them being the freedom from private employers’ pressures), or because they are in the beginning of their careers, or because they didn’t find other alternatives, or because they are after the retirement options and stability provided by the public service.

The goal of the basic game for students is to “pass the vestibular” and study at a prestigious university for free. For teachers, it is to make their students able to pass those tests before they get bored to death, while struggling with the kids’ other and usually contradictory impulses.

About the general work conditions

Teachers in the public system (in the state of São Paulo, but similar conditions go for the whole country) can have any number of work hours between 12 to 40 hours per week (in some cases even more, due to loopholes in legislation), distributed in various ways – depending on available positions and individual choices – in morning, afternoon and night shifts. To have a minimally reasonable income, teachers have to work 40 hours or more per week. Of a journey of 40 hours/week, around 32 correspond to in-classroom time, and 4 are dedicated to formal pedagogical meetings (called “collective pedagogic work” by the State, and “collectively lost time” by teachers) with peers and school coordinators. Only 4 hours are available for study and pedagogical preparation (including bureaucratic tasks). With this, teachers usually have to work outside their paid hours, or cheat. Classes have a duration of 50 minutes. Usually there are around 35 to 40 students per class, sometimes more. One shift – morning, afternoon or night – usually has 6 classes, which means that a teacher who works a full shift on any given period usually sees more than 200 students during that shift, in groups of around 30, during 6 short intervals of 50 minutes.

Besides the actual in-class time and its related tasks, teachers are required to perform a range of bureaucractic activities, including assessment and grading of students, and keeping a journal of their daily activities and contents administered to each class for which they are responsible during all their shifts. Students’ data provided by teachers and other school officials is recorded in automatic data-banks controlled by the State.

Teachers choose the schools where they are going to work based on a pontuation system that depends on qualifications and experience, so that the more qualified and experienced teachers choose first. But the general picture in the public system is this: low salaries and bad work conditions, even for those who are “well qualified” (by the system’s standards – that is, have graduate diplomas, extra certificates, etc.) and experienced. Things are even worse for those who are just starting off. I often wondered how people got enough money to pay their bills and live their lives working in that system, because the wages are definitely not enough to live a decent life, especially if you have to pay rent. It just seems like magic that people can manage – the fact is that many count on supportive networks of family and friends, and/or have additional jobs. Teachers’ strikes are a common occurrence, and the struggle for better conditions has been an ongoing process for decades, without real improvements.

Many kinds of health problems are a common occurrence among these teachers. Voice-related problems, and psychological, emotional and stress-related problems, including burn-out, are marks of the profession. Many teachers take controlled medicine with prescription, like anti-depressants and sleep pills. (From the side of kids, you have the whole Ritalin story and the question of psychiatric intervention in education.) Relatively large numbers of teachers miss work at least once a week because of health problems, so that in every given shift students usually have at least one vacant class. Sometimes schools have substitute teachers available, whose work conditions are even worse, because they only earn money for the number of classes they teach, and they don’t have any other workers’ benefits.

Now, there is a great lack of awareness of the general population in relation to the catasthrophe of public education. Usually, when teachers go on strike or the syndicates call up assemblies in the city of São Paulo, they protest in front of the MASP (Museum of Arts of São Paulo), which is located on the fanciest avenue of the city. This causes traffic jams that make people take hours to get home after work – which is exactly the intention of a strike in the first place, that is, to draw attention and produce an unconfortable situation. But instead of supporting the teachers, many people (not only rich people) judge them as vagabonds and troublemakers (this is also a discourse that is present all over mainstream media). State violence in these situations is not uncommon, and usually not documented by mainstream media. But actually only a fraction of the teaching profession participates actively in the political movement for better education.

About students

In relation to students, disciplinary problems are a constant theme, with episodes of verbal and even physical violence between students and teachers being relatively common (to the point that if it never happened to you, you usually know at least one person to whom it did). Sometimes this violence is just a reflex of local micro-power interactions and lack of mutual respect between human beings, inside a disciplinary system. Sometimes it is a reflex of something deeper – or wider:

(The connection of poverty, consumerist propaganda and crime creates a highly complex field of interactions which the teacher must navigate. Some people resort to crime to satisfy the desire of consuming, implanted by the same society that denies them access to those goods. This is a problem which is more visible in some places than others, but these are connections that permeate the whole of society and are not restricted to the peripheries. Consumerism and mercantilization of everything, including education, are the norms in our societies. Thus, in an unequal society marked by social injustice, those who are not involved in crime – and also those who are – have to deal with the security problem. You may not have to deal with any of this kind of violence directly, but you will certainly encounter some tentacles of the problem of social injustice along the way. It may be the “war on drugs” question. It may be ecological madness. It may be various levels of poverty and unequality. It may be various forms of lies and mind control. It may be something else. And it may be a mutation or amalgam of any number of these.)

Anyway, this is a fact: adolescents in general are a highly consumerist bunch. This is no surprise, given the massive levels of advertisement by which an average person is bombarded everyday: according to some statistics, a person in the 21st century sees more ads in one year than an average person would see during her whole life-time in the 1950s. Even if this number is not accurate, I suppose it is a good approximation. (see, for example, this documentary: Consuming kids)

Most adolescents are also somewhat “addicted” to technology (specially social connective technology), and tend to stay online all the time – which becomes a problem in a classroom where a teacher wants to control their attention and tries to enforce certain forms of behaviour. To illustrate the dimension of the problem: in some states, a law was passed that prohibits the use of cell phones and similar devices inside classrooms.

In general, students in Brazil (and everywhere) play the game of schooling in a way that is very much in line with Mark Johnstone’s description in his post on “Cheating as Learning“. They want to pass exams, and they do what they need to get there. Some cheat, some study a lot. Some are lazy and don’t do anything. They are required by law to go to school (only as recently as 2012 some concrete changes started to occur in the legislation regarding homeschooling in Brazil – which was prohibited before that).

The biggest attractive that most of them see in this arrangement is that at school they can meet their friends. So it is a big problem that the system commands them to be seated and in silence. How can you talk to your friends in this way?

State intervention

Since 1996, the state government of São Paulo instituted an external yearly examination (the SARESP – “Sistema de Avaliação de Rendimento Escolar do Estado de São Paulo”, “System of School Efficiency Assessment of the State of São Paulo”) applied in large scale to schools throughout the state, with the aim of measuring students’ learning and guiding public managers in the formulation of educational policies.

In face of the very poor results obtained in these examinations, state officials came up with a set of orders that directly impacted students’ and teachers’ behaviors in the whole system:

First, reasoning that the bad results must be due to teachers’ lack of competence, they instituted standardized lessons that completely deprived teachers of their autonomy in the classroom. Kevin Hodgson described a similar situation in his post on “Independent thinking in an age of conformity“. In Kevin’s example, “the state came in and oversaw curriculum and instruction, with canned lesson plans and scripted lessons” in one urban school. In the state of São Paulo, they did this in ALL public schools.

I won’t enter into an analysis of the actual content of those plans, but only describe teachers’ and students’ reactions. For some teachers, this simply made life easier, because it really ammounted to a relief of their obligation to think critically about their practice and gave them a pre-defined script to follow. Many, however, abhorred the idea. Students had similarly mixed reactions, but for them it didn’t make much of a difference. For the most part, they just went on with their business as usual – except that now they had to remember to bring the damn things to class everyday, which of course didn’t go very well.

The second thing, and this was the really perverse move, was: the state associated a bonus in teachers’ wages to the level of success of their students in the SARESP examinations. So, those teachers who didn’t give a damn about the infamous state measures would actually loose some money (or more precisely, have to pass without a much needed raise) in the process. Many – I guess most – of the teachers preferred to give up the money, instead of trying to dance to the music of the state. Only a very few actually believed in the effectiveness of such measures, and some heated debate ensued. The political struggle is still going on.

Posted in Education | Tagged | Leave a comment