59. Super-Culture And The Ghost In The Machine

GhostInTheMachinePref­ace: This lit­tle essay is a bit mis­chie­vous, and appar­ently polit­i­cally incor­rect enough to have sparked out­rage in the minds of some sen­si­tive souls from the polite din­ner party set. Although it has no claims to aca­d­e­mic decency, I have pre­served it online as a stim­u­lant to fancier research, since I think the metaphor the essay runs on cap­tures some essen­tial truths.

The essay had its gen­e­sis in the star­tled obser­va­tions of a fresh expa­tri­ate teach­ing in for­eign sur­rounds. In this case, it was the PNG Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, Lae, Papua New Guinea in 1987. I found my untried lib­eral con­science strug­gling to com­pre­hend the sheer incom­pe­tence of peo­ple faced with insti­tu­tions and tech­nol­ogy which didn’t seem to work. Many of the locals were bright and friendly enough, but some­where a spark of insight was miss­ing. Much later, sur­vey­ing Aus­tralia with the naked eyes of a returnee, it was all too clear that the paral­y­sis of imag­i­na­tion was a uni­ver­sal prob­lem. 

Have you danced with the ghost … ?

I am going to tell you the secret of a super-cul­ture, to which I belong. You may not hear me, but at least I will do my best to tell you.

First of all, be clear that super-cul­ture belongs to no coun­try, nation­al­ity, race, sect or lan­guage group. Its mem­bers have been scat­tered in every age and lat­i­tude. We have had, of course, our dif­fer­ent under-cul­tures to divide us. How­ever the super-cul­ture has been our gift and bur­den.

Sec­ondly, for­give my imper­ti­nence, but I must remind you of some of the signs of super-cul­ture. I wish not to be boast­ful (for every­one has a cul­ture), but merely to set the scene for my expla­na­tion.

Super-cul­ture designed the clothes and the shoes that you are wear­ing. It designed the build­ing that you are in and the chair that you are sit­ting on. Also all the vehi­cles that you travel in, the pen that you write with, and the radios and tele­vi­sions that you lis­ten to. Super-cul­ture pro­duced almost all the knowl­edge that you learn in schools and uni­ver­si­ties. It is the source of most of the music that you lis­ten to, the nov­els that you read, and the games that you play. It pro­vided the sys­tems and pro­ce­dures that allow busi­nesses and gov­ern­ment admin­is­tra­tion to func­tion. It devel­oped ways to allow large num­bers of peo­ple with con­flict­ing inter­ests to share power, to trans­fer power with­out blood­shed, to accept medi­a­tion by impar­tial judges, and to work together for a com­mon good. It is the most pow­er­ful cul­ture on the planet earth.

For many cen­turies a small num­ber of the super-cul­tural group have tried to influ­ence their orig­i­nal under-cul­tures, as well as for­eign under-cul­tures. They have cho­sen in this way for many rea­sons, good and bad. Some wished to learn about the other cul­tures, some wished to trade, some to teach, and some even wanted to con­quer. What­ever their pur­pose how­ever, they have all brought a part of the super-cul­ture with them to these other peo­ple. Almost every­where for­eign cul­tures have tried to copy or adapt parts of the super-cul­ture into their own.

I am a teacher, and what I try to teach is some part of my super-cul­ture to peo­ple in other cul­tures. This is not always easy. Peo­ple nat­u­rally feel that by show­ing them another way to do things, this teacher is insult­ing their own cul­ture and their own val­ues. If the super-cul­ture that I bring is obvi­ously very pow­er­ful and can’t be defeated eas­ily, then the peo­ple may smile and come to my school, but in their hearts they are often jeal­ous and bit­ter. This is a nat­u­ral human reac­tion, but it makes me sad. Finally, it forces me to look very closely at the super-cul­ture that I bring, and to ask why indeed it is so pow­er­ful. After all, I am only a man, no more intel­li­gent, charm­ing or gifted than the peo­ple I teach, but this knowl­edge that I con­vey over­whelms all oppo­si­tion.

Those of us who work in other cul­tures (at home and abroad) have noticed some­thing puz­zling. In a large num­ber of cases the peo­ple we teach our ways to hap­pily learn to drive cars, use tele­phones and work in busi­ness offices. They come to the schools and uni­ver­si­ties we set up and pass exam­i­na­tions in the knowl­edge that we teach them…..BUT, but, but …. the tech­nol­ogy and the knowl­edge is dead in their hands and minds. They don’t take the knowl­edge from my super-cul­ture as a start­ing point to develop even bet­ter ideas. They use it like a reli­gious rit­ual, like a pow­er­ful magic. They don’t use the pen that I give them to design an even bet­ter pen. They will watch a clock until the bat­tery runs down, then throw it away.

Some­thing is miss­ing. The peo­ple of my super-cul­ture have demon­strated the power of their machi­nes. They have even made a gift of the machi­nes. But they have not given away the ghost in the machi­nes: the spirit that made them in the first place. Like any spirit, you have to catch this one by sur­prise to see it at all, but once you have seen it and accepted it, you are changed forever. Let me tell you about the ghost in the machine. It is the secret of super-cul­ture.

The ghost is unbal­anced. That is its essen­tial qual­ity. It can never lie down, but must dance forever. While you dance with this ghost you are never secure. You never know the whole truth, but only enough to get by with for the time being. You may expect the sun to rise tomor­row, but you are not quite cer­tain because the ghost has not told you every­thing there is to know about heaven and earth.

The ghost is a very tricky part­ner, and daz­zlingly clever. You have to use all your wits to stay in the dance. It is not enough to fol­low the old steps, even though they make a nice pat­tern. If you fol­low the old steps, round and round, in a lit­tle while you sud­denly find that you are danc­ing by your­self. When you dance by your­self, with­out the ghost, your cul­ture becomes an empty shell, like the cast-off skin of a snake or a cicada.

To dance with the ghost you have to invent new steps all the time. You invent three steps and the ghost will show you another five to fol­low. The ghost knew this new dance all the time, but it was not going to show you until you invented those first steps your­self. In my super-cul­ture we call mak­ing new dance steps by sev­eral names: inno­va­tion, inven­tion, sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery, phi­los­o­phiz­ing. The steps may be con­crete or intel­lec­tual – it makes no dif­fer­ence to the ghost – but they must be made.

The extra steps the ghost reveals, once we have shown ini­tia­tive, my under-cul­ture usu­ally calls “the laws of Nature” or “sci­en­tific laws” or even “the whole truth”. These names are very mis­lead­ing. Maybe the ghost itself told us to use them as a joke. The names like “law of Nature” sound final, and this dis­guise leads many to lose the ghost as a dance part­ner forever. They are prob­a­bly also the rea­son that so many strangers accept the empty shell of my super-cul­ture with­out under­stand­ing. To repeat, each “law of Nature” is just a small pat­tern that the ghost has fol­lowed our inven­tion with. To see a larger pat­tern hold­ing this small pat­tern we must take another three steps our­selves again. The ghost laughs and gives us five more …. and sud­denly the “law of Nature” looks entirely dif­fer­ent, once again. While we have the energy to dance, there is no end to this con­test with the ghost.

Now I want you to con­sider the qual­i­ties of mind that can keep you danc­ing with the ghost. Firstly there is ini­tia­tive. You must take those three steps. The ghost will never do it for you. Sec­ondly there is wit. You must use every bit of intel­li­gence and abil­ity that you have been blessed with, for the ghost has no time for fools. Thirdly there is skep­ti­cism. You must always doubt that you have dis­cov­ered per­fec­tion, for although the ghost will give you five beau­ti­ful steps to fol­low your three, it has count­less oth­ers hid­den and will quickly tire of your sim­ple-minded dis­cov­ery. Finally, there is humil­ity. It is exhil­a­rat­ing, won­der­ful to invent three steps and be whirled on by the ghost to a new vision. But the ghost end­lessly mocks those who make three steps and proudly con­sider them­selves mas­ters of the uni­verse.

I can see that you are becom­ing very curi­ous about the own­ers of this super-cul­ture. What is it’s home, you ask. What is its island, coun­try, con­ti­nent of origin? Well, super-cul­ture began with the first spark of inde­pen­dent intel­li­gence, and from that moment its ter­ri­tory has been the galaxy of the human mind. If you know a bit of his­tory, or have walked the byways of this planet, you will real­ize by now that you have met dancers with the ghost in the machine in some very exotic places. By a Bronze Age hunter’s fire per­haps, in Clas­si­cal Greece, in Song Dynasty China, in a l2th Cen­tury Ara­bian uni­ver­sity. Nowa­days you may find a dancer in an Eskimo hut, a Papua New Guinean vil­lage, or a space lab­o­ra­tory in Palo Alto, Cal­i­for­nia. The mem­bers of super-cul­ture are scat­tered across the face of the earth, but we rec­og­nize each other when­ever we hap­pen to meet.


Acknowl­edge­ment: The “Ghost in the Machine” image comes from a bril­liant poly­mer clay sculp­ture by Jan Mor­ris (http://labyrinthcreations.deviantart.com/art/Ghost-in-the-Machine-117501501)

Pro­fes­sional bio: Thor May’s PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Thor has been teach­ing Eng­lish to non-native speak­ers, train­ing teach­ers and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven coun­tries in Ocea­nia and East Asia, mostly with ter­tiary stu­dents, but with a cou­ple of detours to teach sec­ondary stu­dents and young chil­dren. He has trained teach­ers in Aus­tralia, Fiji and South Korea. In an ear­lier life, prior to becom­ing a teacher, he had a decade of drift­ing through unskilled jobs in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and finally Eng­land (after back­pack­ing across Asia in 1972).

con­tact: http://thormay.net    thormay@yahoo.com
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All opin­ions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influ­ence, pros­e­ly­tize or per­suade oth­ers to a point of view. He is pleased if his writ­ing gen­er­ates reflec­tion in read­ers, either for or against the sen­ti­ment of the argu­ment.

Super-Cul­ture And The Ghost In The Machine” © Thor May; all rights reserved 1987–2013

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