Municipal Light

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: / Teaching / Society / Social Order / Institutions /
2006 09 06

Municipal Light
Gregory Bateson taught that misinformation can delay, perhaps cancel, learning. If you left your glasses somewhere in the house, you don’t know where, you’ll eventually find them: because you’ll look everywhere in the house. If you left your glasses in the basement, but believe you left them in the attic, you’ll never find them: so long as you look only in the attic: the wrong place.

I’d have sworn I’d already told this Bateson joke online, but not finding it, I tell it again:

A night stroller comes upon a man searching the ground under a street light. “What are you looking for?”

“I dropped my car keys.”

The stroller helps the man search the ground. After a while, still not finding any keys, the newcomer asks the man if he’s sure that this is where he dropped them.

“Oh, no. I dropped them over there,” he said, indicating off into the darkness.

“Then why are you looking for them here?”

“Because the light is so much better.”

I now want to apply that joke — and Bateson’s point about wrong assumptions, to the human habit of hanging onto things even after the things have proved harmful.

It was obvious to me that my church, my school … my country were not what they pretended. But they didn’t go away!

Ivan Illich offered community networking as a replacement for schools. If we wanted a teacher, we could hire one from the bulletin board. If we were looking for a bookstore, we could find one listed on the bulletin board. If we wanted someone to discuss a book with, we could perhaps find a partner on the bulletin board. If the bulletin board were cybernetic, millions of people, many millions, could use it.

Actually, It was I, and, independently, a few others, Denis Detzel conspicuous among them, who offered it: but Illich had designed it. My version extended beyond learning to include all possible public information: my internet could have replaced media and government, as well as school: could have had I gotten enough help getting the new infrastructure into place. (I needed a staff, programmers, time on a mainframe, a storefront in every neighborhood …) Three years into the public’s letting me starve as I bankrupted myself to save it, my son approaching school age, my wife snatched our son and abandoned me and my struggles. She moved back with her mother and they put bk into a series of fancy private schools: no need to discuss anything with the husband / father.

Why? Illich, Everett Reimer … pk had already shown that schools served social control well but learning ill. Why did Hilary want bk steeped in social control and deprived of a better learning institution?

Simple: because the schools had all the money (all the money earmarked for ahem “education”).

Ah, but you won’t find intelligence there, or truth, or survival.

Yes: but if you want money, you must go to school: no matter the cost.

And: notice the society’s substitution of “education,” a municipal product, for “learning,” a natural ingredient in survival.

Civilized man wants always to look in the street light: where the keys aren’t.

We want to live, we confuse money with living, we turn our back on life and go after the money.

Not for long we won’t; at some point our bad decisions catch up with us: like palming life and switching in money, like palming learning and switching in education.

The Jews still go to Temple even after they agree that neither the Jews nor the Temple are very good at hearing God. The Jews still go to the Temple even after the Temple has left John in the wilderness and hung Jesus on the cross.

But then Christians behave exactly the same: with teacher after prophet after genius: we lose them in the natural light, and then we diligently search for them in the municipal light.

We ignore Howlin’ Wolf, then listen to Elvis. We ignore Muddy Waters, then go gaga for the Stones. We pour money onto Elvis, the Stones. Actually, in these cases, ‘Wolf and Muddy both made a living, but neither reached the huge audiences. The huge audiences are always looking under the municipal street light, and the municipal street light is seldom installed over where we lost our keys.

But never mind man. Why does existence hold onto inefficient and wrong things? If man is indeed sinful, why are there still so many men around? If intelligence is supposed to help us solve problems and we still prefer the problems to the solutions, why does existence bother with intelligence?

I remind myself (and us): mistakes are essential for learning. Infallibility is ultimately stupid. We can’t know how many dumb sentiences, left-foot social species, the universe will have to go through before the random finds something capable of sticking around for longer than a couple of million years. Where do I get off being impatient?

If nature makes millions of sperm for one fertilized egg, why should I, a mere sperm cell, get all bent out of shape because chance denies me a viable egg to spark into the next stage?

I live among people who by their false-conservatism want intelligence to remain still born, primitive, a failure. But boy are they good at searching under the municipal light.

Typical: my original draft read better than my revised draft. But the revisions come closer to what I meant. Another draft may smooth all.


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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