Monday, August 26, 2013

Literacy +

I am reflecting again today on a conversation I had last week with my friend Art Bardige, the philosopher of teaching and learning, among other things. Art is on a mission to radically rebuild the American educational orthodoxy, and he was describing the need to end the belief that education should be about literacy.

When Art first said that, it did not resonate. However, I have learned to listen and to think about what Art says. He is a deep and innovative thinker who does not say things that are not worth saying, and hearing, and thinking about, and making one’s own.

Like all deep and innovative thinkers, however, Art struggles with the impossibility of putting “new wine into old skins”, that is, of expressing new insights using old words.

Words have meaning only in context, and familiar words bring with them their own familiar context.  When we use old words to convey new meanings, we often create false dissonance because the new meaning is being received in an old context, a context into which is really does not fit. Words that would resonate if they were received with the meaning they are intended to convey instead dissonate, The meaning gets lost. The message gets garbled. Communication fails. Instead of novelty that is interesting, we get noise that is annoying.

So I pressed Art, and learned that by literacy he meant working with a codex: written letters organized into words strung together to form sentences grouped into paragraphs, sections and chapters bound together in a book, starting with a table of contents and ending with an index.

In this context, Art’s words do resonate.

It takes hard work and specialized skill to store knowledge and information in book form. It takes hard work and specialized skill to retrieve and make one’s own the knowledge and information that is stored in book form.

Art’s point is that in the 21st Century we now have a broader portfolio of technologies for constructing and communicating knowledge and information than just the codex. We have video, that doesn’t even require the skills of reading and writing, but also a proliferation of written-word based technologies for email, the Internet, the World Wide Web, blogging, tweeting, texting and so on.

With wireless technology and digital media combined, we now can communicate through reproduced images, spoken sounds and written words, anytime, from anywhere, synchronously and asynchronously. This is powerful stuff, and it is still powerfully new.

For Art, it opens up radical -- in the Latin sense of “going to the root” -- possibilities for education and how we teach and learn the skills of creating and communicating information so that meaning can be effectively expressed and received, expectations aligned and choices and actions integrated.

For me, it opens up equally radical -- also in the Latin sense -- possibilities for how we direct capital into wealth creation.

In both cases, it also brings into focus for reconsideration that other ancient architecture for information storage and retrieval: the self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies exist to collect data that gets fit into context to create information that guides choice and drives action across successive generations of a large and diverse population of people united by some shared experience. They also perpetuate the patterns of knowing that are common to that shared experience and that provide the context into which data is placed to create the information that is the lifeblood of that bureaucracy and the source of its value to the people who support it and who it serves, when it functions properly.

Successfully self-perpetuating bureaucracies are adaptive and evolving, both in the data they collect, and in the patterns they preserve.

A good example of a successful self-perpetuating bureaucracy is the Roman Catholic Church. This is one of the longest-lived of all the currently extent bureaucracies, tracing its history back almost 2,000 years.  This bureaucracy is founded on the shared experience of faith in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Christ, and it has endured and prospered over the millennia by constantly adapting that message so that it continues to resonate with different people, in different places, across different times.

The bureaucracy of the Catholic Church is, of course, built upon its own codex. The Bible. Essentially, the message never changes, while contextually, it constantly evolves.

A less long-lived, but equally important, currently extent bureaucracy is the government of the United States of America. It was founded a scant 200 years ago “by the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”. That is from the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. Quite a remarkable codex in its own right.

Like the Catholic Church and all other successful, self-perpetuating bureaucracies, the US Government has adapted over time to changing circumstances in the lives of its people, and evolved as society and the economy has evolved.

Today, we are seeing the emergence of two new classes of self-perpetuating bureaucracies that are beginning to rival in both scale and importance both the US Government and the Catholic Church. The first is the publicly-traded multinational business corporation.

At least in its US incarnation, the modern business corporation starts out, like the US Government, as a representative democracy. It’s citizens are its shareholders who vote in elections for directors who come together as a board, like Congress, to hire officers to execute their decisions about what business is to be conducted, and how that business is to be carried on. The codex of the modern business corporation is the public law under which it is formed, and the by-laws that it adopts for itself. Both are very general in purpose. The purpose of the corporation is to carry on whatever business it chooses to conduct, as long as it operates within the law.

This legal construct of general purpose corporate republican democracy then gets transformed through financialization into the temporary ownership of transient trading positions in financialized assets that are bought, held and sold on expectations for future price movements within an exchange-based liquid asset trading market. Although in theory, and in law, the corporation is accountable to its shareholders, in practice, and in practical reality, the financialized corporation is really only accountable to its share price. Its codex does not give a financialized corporation its identity. Instead the financialized corporation exists only to be always driving its share price up, however it may choose to do that.

The power of the financialized corporation is its ability to let everybody have a share, and as long as individuals are its primary shareholders, the financialized corporation serves that function well. As individuals, we are all time-limited. So there is a match between our temporary ownership of transient trading positions in corporate shares as financialized assets, and our time-limited capacities to invest. But the story does not stop there.

In addition to the corporation, we are also seeing today the evolution of another class of large, purposeful and powerful self-perpetuating bureaucracies that are primarily economic, as opposed to being either religious or governmental, in purpose. These are pension funds, who together with other stewards of perpetually entrusted funds, such as insurance companies, commercial banks, university endowments, charitable foundations, sovereign wealth funds and even family wealth funds, have come to control a large percentage of the total wealth within our economy that is saved from current circulation and therefore available for investment in new wealth creation.

When these stewards of perpetual trusts invest their entrusted funds in self-perpetuating corporate bureaucracies, there should be a good alignment of perpetual to perpetual, but there is not.  One reason is because the connection is not made directly, through negotiation, but only indirectly, through financialization. These new “big boys” of stewardship investing, especially the pension funds, buy and sell shares over an exchange, just like us little guys, only more so. The result is the rise of Casino Capitalism: buy-and-hold becomes buy-low-to-sell-high becomes buy-high-to-sell-higher in a zero sum game played by paid professional speculators of value extraction from other speculators that drives an ever-accelerating cycle of asset pricing booms that always eventually go bust.

Herculean efforts are made to sustain these booms, but that just lets them get that much larger until they bust, as bust they must, with consequences to society and the larger economy that are increasingly catastrophic. Think 2008. 

Before that, think 1929. 

Before that, think 1897. 

We have seen this all before.

It may be that we can continue propping up the booms and suffering through the busts, but why do we want to?

The very technologies that are empowering both business corporations and stewardship investors to achieve scale can also be applied to make a more direct connection between capital and wealth creation. This can replace the boom and bust cycle of an inauthentic pursuit of perpetual growth in corporate share price with a more authentically sustainable prosperity of organic growth built on an expectation that investment is constant, but commerce, and enterprise, is changeable. 

Stewardship remains a self-perpetuating bureaucracy grounded in the purposes of its codex, or governing charter of trust: to socialize the costs of catastrophic loss of life; to maintain the integrity of our money system for keeping count of our wealth creation and exchange transactions; to provide income security in retirement to successive generations of current and future retirees; to support the university; to give back where it is needed most; to invest in the future of knowledge and innovation; to align profitable investment with social values. 

Enterprise, however, is not perpetual, but time-limited, rising and then falling in size and importance over time as the popularity of its value proposition within the economy rises and then falls over time, as the economy itself evolves through change and adaptation to change. Investment is constantly committed to enterprise, but not constantly committed to the exact same enterprise. The stewardship portfolio evolves as the economy evolves, moving investments into and out of different enterprises as enterprises change in adaptation to change.

In this way, the chartered purposes of good stewardship are perpetuated, while the vitality of a robust, resilient and regenerative economy that evolves through change and adaptation to change is also sustained.

The technologies that empower this organic investing in self-organizing and self-liquidating enterprises for a direct connection between capital and wealth creation are the same digital technologies that expand our choices for constructing and communicating information beyond the cumbersome codex, the even more cumbersome bureaucracy and the fundamentally place-based, and therefor non-inclusive, in the sense of not being scaleable, in-person conversation.

These include video, audio, computerized spreadsheets, computerized word processors, computerized image processing, computerized printing and copying, the Internet, email, the World Wide Web, blogging, tweeting, texting and other wireless technologies for creating, sending, receiving and de-coding digitized signals that represent data, context and information as data-in-context.

Art is right. We need to radically reform education to integrate all of these new technologies for teaching and learning and for knowing and communicating knowledge and intention. We need a new educational paradigm of Literacy +.

That will empower a new prosperity of direct connections between capital and wealth creation that is built on this new paradigm of Literacy +.

No comments:

Post a Comment