Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Trouble with Facebook - or - Facebook and the solitary practice of friendship

What kind of happiness does technology procure then? And why do people remain both enthralled and unsatisfied by it? (Borgmann, 130 [1])

Facebook provides mnemonic tools for keeping track of family and acquaintances. More than this, of course, it provides the very tools of friendship itself.  Assuming that the nature of friendship has not budged much since Aristotle wrote about it, this means that for Facebook to be a one-stop companionship-shop it must allow for friendships based upon use, pleasure, and the exchange of well-wishing expressed purely for the sake of the other.  I will have more to say about this later, but at first pass this can translate into commercial acquaintanceships, mutual affinities between those who share an interest, and finally the reciprocation of mutual respect between people of fine character – BFFs, in other words.

One of the implications of Facebook use, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, is that is slows the decay-rate of friendship [2].  Facebook allows us to collate intimates from the fragmented geographies of our contemporary lives and to sustain contact with friends from our past with whom we might otherwise only have sporadic contact.  As I discussed in a recentpost, Facebook may be, in fact, just one of a progression of technologies that allow us to keep track of our personal human networks (our “tribe”) when these extend beyond Dunbar’s number, that is, those 150 people predicted to be within the “natural” limit of our information-retention ability.  This limit, Dunbar claimed, is set by the size of our neocortex [3].

The hallmark of technologies that allow us to have more than 150 familiars is that they increase the efficiency of the processes required for social bonding.  It takes less time to “like” my mother’s Facebook comment about her recent trip to Killarney than it does to call her, and both call for less time than visiting her kitchen in Dublin!  Innovations that allow us maintain networks in a highly time-efficient way free up the brain for a larger circle of chums.  These innovations include language itself which, Dunbar and colleagues claim is more time-efficient than social grooming [4].  So assuming that the sequence goes from grooming to language to telephone…and on to Facebook, then new virtual networking tools emerge at the end of a respectable pedigree of social contrivances.

At least it can be said that with Facebook one gets the social juices without ingesting the nits and other ectoparasites than that come with more primordial forms of primate grooming.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Facebook and the Availability of Friendship

To be a friend to many people in the complete kind of friendship is not possible Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII

There is a nice moment in Desmond Morris’ documentary “The Human Zoo” where, as he ponders the means by which the human animal deals with dense urban living, he hoists his address book and declares: “This is his [the urban dweller’s] personal tribe!”  People in cities don’t, of course, have intimate personal dealings with all their fellow denizens, rather they interact with a small circle of friends, family, close associates.  Now, the membership of personal tribes does not fully overlap, and thus networks of interactions radiate out to include the entire population.  The central insight here is that arguably we have replicated a primordial social condition of people, though in a greatly modified way, in the city.

From a social evolutionary perspective such as Morris encouraged we can ask how many people might we typically have in our personal address books?  Twenty years ago, anthropologist Robin Dunbar provided an answer.  That answer: 150!  This is, he claimed, the number of people we might “naturally” interact with.  Numbers of intimates greater than this call for a special explanation.  In contemporary times information-communications technologies (ICTs): cell phones, Facebook, Skype, twitter and so on, may assist in extending the scope of our social networks [1].  Having an “external memory” can amplify our essential capacity for friendship.  And amplifying our otherwise stubbornly restricted somatic capabilities is what technology does best, after all.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Soundtrack for my Environmental Studies Course

This are some songs we listened to in my 100 level environmental studies course this winter.  I'll add to this in the coming weeks.  I previously posted a list of some video clips we viewed in that class.  Please suggestion additions if you care to.

Glastonbury Song (The Waterboys, for the neo-pantheists)
Ghost Dance (Robbie Robertson)
Dear God 2.0 (The Roots)

Antarctica (Midnight Oil)

Man Gave Names To All the Animals (Bob Dylan)

Many too many (Genesis) - not thematically perfect, but a perfect song nonetheless!

(Nothing but) Flowers (Talking Heads) 

Melancholia (soundtrack Wagner Tristan und Isolde) 

Concluding Thoughts
Teach your Children (Crosby, Stills and Nash)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Environmental Studies - Useful Video-clips

This are some clips we have viewed and discussed in my 100 level environmental studies course.  I'll add to this in the coming weeks.

Ken Burns National Park
Yellowstone Winter
The enduring appeal of wilderness? (survivor man)

E O Wilson
Amphibian decline

(History of world population growth


(Tainter on Collapse
(Wackernagel on footprint

(Weather vs Climate from The Daily Show)
James Balog on Extreme Ice Loss

Friday, March 9, 2012

Hopeful things: undergraduate class assignment

Initially, I ask students to identify a few projects in the city that they think are interesting, important, and hopeful.  By the term “hopeful” I mean projects that are environmentally well conceived, but are directed optimistically towards the future.  This does not mean that they must be “new” projects, but they should point us towards the future in a bold way.  Although there are lots of interesting green designs [see the City’s Green Technology Center, for instance], the projects that most interest a student may be an innovative art piece, an exhibit, a sustainable food kitchen etc.  They are encouraged to think broadly.  

The following prompts may be useful in generating a list: is the project optimistic, urban, environmentally well conceived, resilient, aesthetically pleasing, ethical, engaging and useful for people, liberating and cultivating of the wild, feasible, embracing of human and non-human diversity, non-sentimental.   In many cases the projects are conceived or run in an interdisciplinary manner.

After a class discussion on potential projects, students select one and they write a summary of this one project.  The summary will contain each of the following elements:

1.         Project description detailing the mission, vision and history of the project, showing how the project meets the criterion we have established.

2.         Map and photographs showing where the project is located and what can be seen.

3.         A list of personnel associated with the work.  It will be very useful if the student can make contact with the people affiliated with this work, and ask them to describe the project for you in a way that allows you to enrich section 1 above.

4.         An assessment of the significance of the project.

This project was developed by Dolores Wilber and Liam Heneghan. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Trees Behaving Badly

To James White, botanist and teacher.

Though you might forgivably mistake a man for a tree at the level of gross morphology, nevertheless, a tree undeniably dwells in place whereas a person’s home is born in motion.  Agnes Arber, the Cambridge plant anatomist and philosopher, remarked in her 1950 classic The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form that “among plants, form may be held to include something corresponding to behaviour in the zoological field.”  If by behavior we refer to the sum of all the activities of an organism, then the manner in which a plant grows – marshalling its leaves to best secure light, disposing its roots to obtain nutrients and to harness it to the earth – is comparable to the more rambunctious activities that animals deploy for analogous purpose.  The behavior of plants – the punctuated rhythms of their growth – is founded on the quite simple laws of cell division and extension.  This was Arber’s lesson.  And this, at eighteen, was the first conceptual framework that preoccupied me.  If simplicity rules the world of plants, why not also true for animals, for people, for me? 

Thirty years ago I took several wintery trips out to North Bull Island, a five-mile stretch of sand in Dublin Bay which formed in response to 18th Century engineering projects at the mouth of the River Liffey.  Now a site of considerable conservation interest, I went along with fellow biology student Liam Dolan to observe the curious behavior of Armeria maritima roots.  The plant, commonly known as sea pink, grew profusely on the dunes.  The two Liams were at that time under the thrall of Jim White from the Botany Department at University College, Dublin and were both taking his course on the architecture of trees.  To those of us who studied with White in the 1980s, he seemed like a visitor from another planet, one who pointed out the strangeness of his new home to the gaping residents, most of whom had never noticed the oddness of the world surrounding them.  Jim’s lectures were marvels of erudition, scientific concision, and anecdote.  Many years later when I worked in a Costa Rica, a well-known tropical forest researcher told me that he had only written one “fan letter” in his life and this was to James White.  Anyway, we returned to White with our sketches and observations on the architectural patterns formed by sea pink roots.  He was little incredulous at first – surely we were out looking at birds?  In those days it was not uncommon for hale teens to spend their days traipsing out with binoculars to Bull Island to observe birds.  It was unimaginable, apparently, that the youth would be looking at plant roots.  Perhaps it’s best for a teacher not to sense the full measure of his impact, as it may constrain the random suggestions with which he peppers his lectures.

Read on a

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Man and Tree - (A Prose Poem)

The architecture of people and plants is similarly erect; both are dominated by vertical axes.  Of course, the human animal when immobile has denser connections with plant life than just their shared verticality. The inflorescent brain of a person: like the crown of the tree; two eyes set apart like points along stout branches subtending and supporting the crown; the base of our cranial canopy is set on top of the stout trunk of neck and spinal cord.

A man firmly planted in the soil at the level of his neck would seem to flair out belowground – his appendages flailing likes roots in the deep earth – fingers and toes like adventitious rootlets fumbling through the soil. Man and plant are symmetrical friends – from crown to root, man and tree are linked by anatomical geometry.

A longer piece on tree architecture on this coming Monday 5th March.