Understanding Nature by “Cherry Picking” It.

In the last post I’ve talked about the ambiguity when defining nature. We call unnatural things natural, and natural things unnatural. We use hair products to get a “natural” hair, while the real natural hair is just a stinky mess. Some people in society say that homosexuality is not natural, but never stop to think that if it was the case, then we wouldn’t be able to see homosexuality in nature. But we sometime confuse nature on purpose, and this could be seen in the manner we imagine nature.

Nature in our imaginary world is familiar to us humans. We impose on nature our ideals and social structures. To see that all one needs to do is to open the TV on a children channel.  We can see talking animals that lead human like lives. We also give certain animals human traits. We call the fox cunning and the lion brave. Though foxes are not the only cunning animal out there and the the male lions are so lazy that the females do all the dirty work for them. In Disney movies animal-pets follow the main character and even if they cannot speak human language, they show signs of human intelligence. I guess they play a key role in supporting the main hero and give comical reliefs.

But we also apply our social realities in more serious areas. When Carl Linnaeus wrote the ‘sistemate nature’ (system of nature), he arranged nature in the same social structure he knew best. He used the monarchy as a model for nature so we got the “The Animal Kingdom”. He imposed a hierarchy which does not exist in nature at all, just for it to make sense. This is the basis for fairy tales and popular culture which Disney’s “The Lion King” is the perfect example (though it might highly (very very) influenced by the work of Ozamu Tezuka “Kimba the White lion” ).

The act of imposing human reality onto nature didn’t end with the “outside” nature, it also was applied to the human nature. In the age of the steam engine, psychology thought that the brain is like the steam engine, so we use even today sentences like “I need to blow off some steam” and “I have too much pressures”. Later when the computer became the model scientists started to refer to the brain as a computer. The brain “calculates” information, and the memory is like a hard discs (You could read about it more in the book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”). Some researches even think that the main function of sleep is for the brain to “defrag” itself.

But in reality, we are afraid of nature when it is in it’s raw and non-domesticated form. So we force nature to bend to our rules when we want to enjoy it. Most of us encounter nature only in controlled environments, for example when we go to camping we go to parks that have electricity, water, shower etc. We cherry pick nature in our lives, we want a garden, but not the bugs that come with it. We like trees but we plant only certain ones in certain places. Plants decorate out houses and offices, but in order to not waste precious time on taking care of them, we buy plastic plants. On our desktop nature is the number one wallpaper. In vacations we usually go to see other country’s big cities.

Can we call central park nature? No. because we arranged it exactly as we see fit. We planted the trees in a certain order and make sure they will grow exactly as we want to. We even cut them into different animals shapes and give them unnatural looks. People go to park to relax and connect with nature, but as long as it’s near home and it is comfortable. We impose our order on it because we are afraid of order in the wild nature.

Cherry blossomA very good example for “Cherry picking” comes from Japan. Japanese people admire the cherry blossom and even worship it. But in reality it is carefully constructed by humans. In parks they plant the same kind of cherry tree, the “Yoshino cherry” and make sure those trees all share the same DNA by cutting the stem of a single tree. This way most of the trees in the park will blossom at the same time. This kind of tree is a breed, made between the 18th and 19th centuries. So this amazing feat of nature is engineered by humans for humans to celebrate nature. (I saw it on Japanese Television).

Next post will be on Humanity conquering nature.

Some Thoughts About Nature

Did you ever stopped to think about What is nature? what is natural? How do we grasp nature? What is our relation with it? Most of those answers are not as trivial as we might think. If we won’t force ourselves to contemplate on these matters, they will escape from our perception, which is a shame. We can learn a great deal about ourselves, humans and human nature, by looking at the way we look at nature. It tells more on us than on nature itself, so it’s important.

Nature is important for us. We go camping or travel to the countrysides and go long distances just to see famous places where nature is in its fullest, like waterfalls and forests. Nature decorates our desktops with pictures of Trees, mountains, vegetation and animals. Most of us keep plants at home to give the house a little of a green a touch. We plant trees on our streets, Kids get fascinated by animals and nature, drawing pictures of animals and trees. We give flowers to other people and put flowers on graves. Why? do we need nature? And the big question is why we don’t see we are rejecting it all together.

But first, what is nature? What is natural? Does it mean anything that is not made by humans? All the things that developed not by humans? If we will look at this thing closer, we can easily get confused. We can’t argue about minerals, because they exist thanks to various physical laws. But, we can agree that if we dig a tunnel, we won’t consider it natural. But, and that is a big but, what about ants? They also dig tunnels. Beavers construct dams. Spiders make webs, are those natural? Some people might say that those are natural. But, if it’s not natural because sentient beings made them, so most of the nature we see in the world is actually not natural at all. It is “constructed”.

Bees make our beloved flowers to bloom. Woods and jungles are also constructed because Vegetation doesn’t take shape only in a random fashion. There are mind control mushrooms that spreads by sending spores that invade insect’s bodies, forcing the insects to go a to the places that are most suitable for the mushroom to grow. When it arrives there, the spore give an order to the insect to stay in that place until it dies (by biting that branch of the tree or just stay there) until they die due to the spore development. Other trees use chemical “weapons” to decrease the numbers of animals that eats them, or use it to kill other plants that “invade” their territory. Vines climb existing vegetation and so on.

Pearls are material we treat the same as stones and diamonds, but pearls are not natural because clamps make them. What about our atmosphere? is it a natural phenomenon? The only way oxygen was introduced to our atmosphere was through plant’s photosynthesis. The byproduct of this process is oxygen which was produced for enough time in big enough amounts, that it made the current atmosphere’s composition. At first the oxygen was deadly for most life forms, those who survived came into terms with it, now we cannot live without it. We all learn about the cycle of water, but not less important is the nitrogen cycle, which is the only way that animals to consume nitrogen which is important as a building block for organic bodies. The nitrogen cycle breaks the strong connection between nitrogens atoms (N2). The importance of this cycle lie in the fact that most animals can’t break this connection and consume the much needed nitrogen. This “natural” cycle happens thanks to micro-organisms that can break the N2 connection.

Maybe nature is everything that came to be, meaning if it exists, then it is possible, thus natural. This includes everything we’ve built made or constructed as civilization. Thus, space rockets and the International Space Station are natural things. So as every cellphone and every computer. Our cities are the same as forests, and highways as rivers. But of course that we don’t treat cities the same as nature, otherwise we would have “plant” concrete blocks instead of flowers in our homes and gardens. We don’t put robots in a zoo for people to see. We don’t say “if you want to enjoy nature you should go watch some skyscrapers”. people don’t breathe in car’s smog to chill out. So, I guess this is not nature for us.

The last paragraph may be a bit too extreme, but we get confused about the definition of “nature”. This confusion is apparent in beauty products. they are “natural” products that are made off “natural ingredients”. But hand creams and conditioners do not exist in nature. We won’t find any shampoos or hand creams in the jungle. The only thing that comes close to a shampoo in nature is animal’s tongue. A lot of the commercials for beauty products sell us the idea that our hair will look “natural” if we will use their product regularly. But the reality is that is it is the opposite of the natural state of our hair. All we need to do In order to get a natural look is… nothing. Leave your hair untouched for a week, and the messy oily stinky hair you will get  IS the hair in its natural look. But we don’t like our natural smell and look and We put great efforts to change it.

So I guess the answer is elusive one. We see nature as something that exclude us and happen on its own. Though we also refer to “normative” behavior as natural. So I will discuss this normative and natural “human behavior”.

The Market Economy and The Gap Between Academia and Society

During my B.A studies I quite disdained the average student. Some bragged about the “accomplishment” of finishing the degree without reading even a single article, only their summaries. Some proudly said that they didn’t even once step into the library, because “you can get everything you need online”. Every time we had to choose courses for the upcoming semester, the Facebook groups were filled with the following demands: “I’m looking for an easy course with a high average, without attendance, without homework, with an easy final house test that already has summaries and notes, which it tends to be reused by the professor. Sometimes they even summary the summary, and finish with a 70 pages manuscript which holds the “knowledge” of tens of hours of lecturing.

It is hard to condemn them because most of them have to work at almost a full-time job in order to pay the rent tuition and daily lives. Most of my friends worked at government offices which demanded at least 120 hours a month, on paper. The reality that it was more than that. So, they had to pack all the courses together in two or three days, so they can work in the “days off”. The courses they can’t fit into the tight schedule, they just skip. In most of their semesters, they have almost 7 tests, and the university doesn’t help with this issue. Students have two days between tests, maybe one, maybe two on the same day, so they have to take a late exam just to be able to study. Those who can’t afford to take late-exams have to come up with a strategy that allows them to pass. So, they have to rely on shortcuts.

For most of them, lectures come second to social life, work and hobbies. They prefer to play online games, scroll their Facebook, even buy clothes online, instead of hearing the lecture. Though some professors are just bad at lecturing, most of them are doing a fine job. It’s just that the students have too short of an attention span, or just don’t have the slightest care for those subjects. I heard a lot of complains about “boring” lectures, that for me were far from boring. Students were surprised when lectures were interesting. They tend to say “This is the only course I took that was interesting”. The rest are just deemed as not. The usual complaint is “why should I care about this theoretical issue that has little to do with the real world, the world doesn’t work like that, and those theories are dumb and have no relevance for me after graduation”.

Those lines give a clue about one possible root of the problem. This problem has to do with the way we value things in our society. So, students greatest concern is the relevance of their studies to the “real world” and their future job. When they can’t see the connection between the two, they tend to dismiss the subject and call it “boring”. For most of them, the degree itself is what matters, because this the way for a better job. They didn’t go to the university out of the sheer passion for knowledge and debates, they were forced to by the forces of the market. If it Had been possible to find a good job without a degree, I’m sure many of them wouldn’t have to bother themselves to get one.
Society value most things in terms dictated by the capitalist market. We tend to shove everything into this market in order to determine value. We measure art by its cost, a good painting costs more. We value artists by their “worth” and ranking (which is another form of currency in many ways). Salary is a way to rank “productivity” and importance within society, the more you get the more you are deemed as important. The main reason why society deems academia to be non-relevant is that in many ways, it has little to do with most jobs. But of course it’s not. if you want to work in a government office, you need to be there in order to understand the job, learning about war and peace won’t help much in this regard.

People confuse the role of academia in society and think that it’s supposed to prepare them for their jobs. They believe that academia helps to move the wheels of the economy. While there are professions that you have to have a degree, in order to be able to learn the job, for many others, it is not. So, society mistakenly also push academia into the capitalist market, and try to understand how academia contributes to it only to find that the answer is “not enough” in certain parts. So humanities and social sciences (most of them) are deemed as “a waste of time”.
But academia has a key role in society, which is transparent if you gaze at it from the perspective of the market value.

This is why the students themselves cannot form a bridge between academia and society.
Next time I’ll continue this discussion.

Tech and Dicipline

One of the reasons why Humanities and Social sciences are important is because they are the only tools humanity has in order to reflect on social issues, and look at them critically. Most of us condemn Trump’s tweets, but most of us don’t reflect for a moment about social media and the new age of Data. The promises blind us to the dangers. While some of us can see those, my fear is that we couldn’t do anything about them, because of the way our society is structured.

Soon we won’t have to worry about most of the troubles we face today. Most of our choices will be done automatically. The alarm clock will be synchronized with our schedule, and it will wake us up using our biological clock, so we won’t have to get up tired at all. An hour before we will wake up in the cold winter, the house will warm itself, so by the time we go out of bed, we won’t feel the cold. The coffee will be ready by the time we got out of the shower. It will be with the right amount of sugar because the coffee machine will “speak” to our smart-phone, that will speak with the chip we have, that monitor our sugar rate in the blood.

Some people might look at this utopian dream and feel excited. We now have IoT (Internet of Things), Connected Cars, autonomous cars, the Physical web with beacons and so on that will make this utopia into reality. Those technologies are being developed around the clock with tremendous zeal as we speak. Someone said to me “Google is taking over the world, I think that is a good thing”. I tend to disagree with him. While the automatic breakfast sounds appealing for most of us, it will come with a cost.

This cost won’t be forced on us explicitly. It won’t happen in a violent way with a gun pointed at our skulls. It will be in the disguise of a choice. “It’s OK not to put the dongle in your car sir, but if you won’t put it, we can’t sell you the insurance”. Today in most countries it is illegal to drive without at least a minimum coverage in case of a third party injury. In gangster movies, they might say “Let’s do business”, but we all know that they don’t ask, they demand.

We might struggle to keep our privacy, but it will be in vain. I heard this sentence a few times “if you care about your privacy, don’t upload anything to the web, or to your computer, want photos? Make a hard copy in an album”. Is this an option for us? To abandon everything? If we think about the email, can we handle online activities without one? Will we start sending letters written by hand again?

Today, diabetes patients can use a chip to help them monitor their sugar rates. That chip is attached to their skin, and in a fixed time it checks their sugar rates. It is connected to their mobile phone, so they can get notifications if their sugar rate is too high or too low. It helps them a lot. Now think about the new trend in medicine. Instead of reactionary treatment, there is a shift towards preventive treatment. It means that instead of fixing a problem, it’s better to prevent it from happening altogether.

What will happen when national health cares and private companies will see that they can use this chip for other uses in order to prevent medical problems? And that will save them tons money? They might force us to put this chip under our skin. They will say that it’s for our own good but will make it impossible to refuse. They will say that we can decline if we are worried about our privacy issues, but by doing so we will lose our right to health care insurance. Most people won’t be able to pay the high costs in case of a big and unexpected problem, so they will reluctantly comply.

Foucault talks about discipline and punishment within our society. We are not as free as we tend to think. A lot of the “social technology” we have is developed in order to monitor and discipline us. Look at our schools and Jails. The fence around the school is not only to keep stranger out, but it is also in order to keep the children in. Both Jail and school has a yard that can be seen from afar. In both the time is predetermined, so the kids go to the yard at the exact same time (so are the prisoners). They both suffer sanctions if they are late or don’t follow their duties. They both have uniforms and so on. I’m not saying that Schools are bad, But I do say that Jails, schools, hospitals, workplaces are all using the same social technologies in order to put us in our place and force us to conform, be it for the good or the bad. We can claim that we live in a free society, the truth is far from it. We cannot see what we want, we cannot stroll the streets aimlessly. We can’t just ride the same train over and over again, just for fun. Because eventually, someone will approach us and ask “can I help you?” (meaning what are you doing). We cannot go to our head of state and see him work, though he works for US. The way our screens are being monitored at work is like the assembly line, that the shift manager is in a position that he or she can monitor all the workers and catch those who are slacking.

The notion that we are not responsible and need to be guided by some external factors, and needed to be disciplined and controlled is not new at all. That is why we have rules, leaders, and social structures. We can’t be sure that without sanctions people will keep their word. The best picture of the lack of leadership and rule is the natural state of humankind which was depicted by Thomas Hobbes in his book “Leviathan”. There he share with us a world without sovereignty or rules:

“In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

We could see in the next post when I will talk about the “The abolition of man”, social media and the connection to “free will”.

The Gap

It is quite common to hear all sorts of sayings about the obsolescence of the Academia, about its old ways of teaching and its decreasing role in society. The ivory tower is the most dominant image of this detachment, where “The seekers of truth” works and produce knowledge that is often not relevant to the world.

It is interesting to see what scholars has to say on this issue themselves. Well most debates revolve around the existence of the gap between academia and society. Some say that this gap exists and some say it’s not. But inside these “camps” we can see differences. In my opinion the most popular stance toward this Gap, between academia and society, exists. Most scholars believe (in my opinion) that it is the role of academia to try and close it. When I searched for articles about this issue from an International Relations perspectives, I found some interesting articles. First by Bruce W. Jentleson, which is quite active in this regard. He co-founded the “Bridging the Gap project”, which its job you can understand from its name. He says that IR needs to deal with more actual events, and try to produce knowledge that can be helpful for governments and society.

Of course, he is not the only one out there that points out to this problem. I came across an article by Kevin C. Dunn. He spoke about his experience when he realized this gap. When he participated in an IR (international relations) convention, he went to clear his head in a near punk rock club. He listened to the music, and how through the music these young teenagers expressed their feelings toward the current state of international relations (eve of Iraq war). Then he realized that the top researches on world politics sit just a few hundred meters from these teenagers, but these groups couldn’t communicate.

Others say that the gap exists and it is too small, and its academia’s role is to expand it. This way “the seekers of knowledge” could be detached from the “holders of power”, and produce more accurate non-biased research. I came across this agenda in an article quoting Christopher Hill claim this. But what does it mean? That scholars should sit from afar and watch what is going on without getting involved? I think it is not possible. If a scholar produced a text, which in it he or she analyzed some cases, after he publish this knowledge, it has a “life on its own”. It might affect society years later as we would see later.

Some say that there isn’t a gap at all. trine Villumsen and Christian Buger in their article take the ideas of the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu and expand them. To make it short, they claim that scholars are not detached from society, they are part of it. They effect politicians and in turn, politicians’ effects scholars. They operate in the same social space thus it’s hard to distinguish between science and non-science.

I think that the truth relays somewhere in the middle. We do have experts who appear in TV and try to share their understandings on current affairs. We do have popular science books which are aimed to the general public. I guess some experts participate in think-tanks and try to steer policy into different directions as they see fit. But there is a problem, it’s not that the gap doesn’t allow anything to pass through, and it’s not entirely correct to say that scholars and politicians\society affect each other directly. If this was correct, we could have seen scholars play a much bigger social role than they do. Some knowledge pass, but it’s getting dangerously distorted or twisted.

I’ll continue this issue next time.



In The Heat of The Moment no body cares

While doing in my B.A I worked as a trainer\educator in a certain educational center. Its mission was to prepare high-schoolers for their army service and give them tools to deal with the life that awaits them after they get discharged. I did it for three years and enjoyed every single moment. I could influence and shape young teenagers lives and help them to become better people. In Israel, politics always plays a big role and it is very apparent in our daily lives. And we often engaged in political discussions.

When I was in school the teachers usually refrained from evoking political debates, and never shared with us their political views. I thought that as their trainer\educator and someone who studies history-culture-politics in university, I ought to take an active part in these debates, not in order to show them that I am right and they are wrong, but in order to give them other perspectives on those issues. By doing that I hoped to give them tools to think critically and develop their independent thought on these matters, allow them to escape the social trap that turn these discussions into a clash of vulgar and superficial arguments.

We used to talk of course, about the Palestinian problem, which is impossible to escape from in Israel. When Israelis hear politics, they immediately think about out conflict with the Arab world, and less about immigrants, social justice and economic issues. The Israeli right claims that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people” and that they “invented this in order to push us back to the sea”.

In the heat of the debate, I had to face this argument and I found it very difficult to explain why it is wrong to say that. I said to them, and others, “You know, our social world is constructed out of our inter-subjective agreements, thus we live in an Inter-subjective political reality. Money worth something only because we all agree on its worth, the moment we stop believe in it, it will become only a piece of paper. The same goes for nations. Nations are “imagined communities” (as Benedict Anderson said) thus if they (The Palestinians) decide and feel that they are the same “people” and “nation” we cannot disagree with them or tell them that they are wrong.

There is no way someone is going to listen to this “philosophical” argument while all heated up from the emotional debate, and this person will likely dismiss the whole argument and say “but a Palestinian nation didn’t exist in history, thus they can’t come and claim it now, all of a sudden”. It doesn’t matter how much I tried to explain that a state, as an imagined community, is based on myths, that serves only as glue to hold the community together. These myths don’t have to be real, or even right, it’s enough that a group of people believe in them in order to be real and have real effect on people.

This made me think about the gab between the “ivory tower” of academia to the society academia exists in. How come so many talented and bright people work in academia every day, publish papers, write books and think on these crucial political issues, but their voice is not heard. Not only that their voice barely reaches to the people, the people dismiss most of these voices as “nonsense”. It made doubts academia’s role in present society and society’s willingness to hear out what academics has to say. In the next posts I will share my answers. Is there a gap? Is it good or bad? And why it exists.

Mission statement?

Before I started my B.A I used to be a heavy consumer of the news. As an Israeli, politics made its impact on my life in a more explicit fashion, as opposed, I guess, to other teenagers in other parts of the globe. After I started my B.A in Japanese Area Studies and International Relations, I found myself abandoning the news almost completely. I studied the same subjects but from different angles, have learned how deep and complex world politics really is. Then I started to be dissatisfied with the superficial news articles and reports, and stopped watching the news almost completely . I was so immersed in my studies, and got so excited, that it became almost all I cared about. One day my mother asked me, when I came home for the weekend, “how are you”. I immediately started to ramble own about this article and that book, and how I would like to use them in my mid-term paper. Suddenly she got angry with me, and said, I asked about YOU, not your studies. It took her some time to understand that these issues occupy my mind, so this is my way to tell her how I am.

But as I dive deeper into the academic world, I find myself at a loss when I need to speak about politics with other people. Teenagers, my parents’ friends and so on. I just find it rather difficult to convey the simplest ideas that are in the heart of the consensus in my studies. Together with the calls from Israeli society that Humanities and social sciences are obsolete, I made it one of my goals to try to explain why Humanities and Social sciences DO matter and relevant, even more than before .

In Israel people use the term “Grass-studies” in order to mock Humanities and social sciences. it means that the students in those fields learn easy subjects with no importance to the real world, and thus sit most of their time on the grass on campus and talk. My ambitions is to change this image, as much as I can.