Wednesday, April 4, 2007

the NW passage of knowledge

Ursula LeGuin writes in her book "The Dispossessed," that hierarchical power only exists in order that certain people can tell other people what to do. Her example is the military (an easy one): a character foreign to anything but an anarchist society tries to understand why groups of soldiers follow orders--specifically orders that normally would trigger a moral dilemma for the individual soldier. For example, how are large-scale massacres not met with resistance by some of those holding the guns?

By retaining multiple layers in a hierarchy, LeGuin argues that any member of a command chain assumes responsibility only to follow the orders of his immediate superior. This method defers ultimate responsibility for any action, often indefinitely. But more dangerously, it convolutes. For a subordinate, the chain of command relinquishes his need to justify his actions, because his superior, and his superior's superior, make decisions for the subordinate, based on their "larger" scope of the issue.

I think Ursula LeGuin well illustrates her point through her military example. But I think that—because the military conjures such volatile reactions (pun intended)—LeGuin's example overshadows other important elements in the way humans communicate with each other. Here are what I consider the important questions raised by LeGuin's example:

1. Why do certain people obey others?
2. Why do certain people give orders the way they do or at all?
3. How does our method of communication (the way we transfer knowledge) systemically effect the community at large? and why?

The first two questions are most obvious, although not near as important as the latter. The latter question helps show that "obedience," "orders," and "communication" are all the resultant effects of knowledge. We obey our parents, order our co-workers, and communicate to our roommates based on the knowledge we possess and how we want to reveal that knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, the military provides a rigid approach to the passage of knowledge. But how is this subject prevalent in our day-to-day lives?

Well, of course I wouldn't post a blog if I didn't have some egocentric BEEF to expel, and today is no exception. I would love to begin with no presupposition that we serve our interest best by either withholding or disseminating information. However, as I get older, I see more and more examples of "bottled-up" knowledge in my day-to-day life, and it increasingly frustrates me. So, as much as I wish to remain neutral, I'm afraid I may not be.

I recently embarked on a very fun adventure of fixing a broken Leslie speaker and connecting it to a Hammond m100 organ. The parts were corroded and old, a couple of them broken, and the electrical stuff looked a little sketchy. Through the wonder of internet, I found most of the information I needed to fully understand the workings of a Leslie speaker, including a complete schematic of the amp, a separate schematic of my Hammond amp, and several discussions or tutorials illustrating how to connect them. So far my journey had involved no *real* human interaction! Great!

I needed two new bearings, a new tire for the bottom rotor, and (most importantly) a very interesting 6-pin connector/cable for the Leslie amp. Of course, I found all these things immediately on eBay. But they were expensive. Does anyone do this locally, I thought? Maybe I could even find someone to geek out with, fuel my excitement, and (fingers crossed) give me some pointers.

No way. I called three Portland shops that serviced Hammonds, asking first for parts, second for advice, and lastly for service. I was flatly refused on the first two requests at all 3 shops. It wasn't just the refusal that irked me, it was the attitude. Not only would local shops refuse to sell me the parts (without service), they made me feel stupid for asking. When I asked "What would cause a belt to slip?" I received vague answers like, "...could be a lot o things," or "I wouldn't be able to tell without lookin at it..." ...which is complete bullshit. Later, when I finally ordered all my parts and got advice from a campy website I found through a web-forum, I realized how simple my questions were, and how easy my repairs could have been with some good advice.

At this point it dawned on me how interesting it is: that I can research, order, troubleshoot, and successfully rebuild almost ANYTHING without even talking to a human being (provided I have enough time and willpower). Again, the wonders of this Age of Communication! Hmmm. Well, a different sort of communication. Remember those small-town yarns about the Gas-station Mechanic who tells the traveler how to fix a water-pump, then feeds him dinner, then gives him a self-written pamphlet on do-it-yourself car-repair tips for the road? I rarely experience that. Even with fellow musicians, I am reluctant to tell my secrets. Why?

It's because I'm afraid I'll become obsolete. I have a determined amount of ability, and I refuse to share it. If I do share, you might steal it, and then I'll have to find another unique ability. Remember my experience with the piano-tuning supplies several months ago? Same story. The piano-tuners guild is a PRIME example of an industry taking great pains to keep their knowledge (and gear) secret. The issue isn't as dramatic as the Army's rigid chain of command, where generals, colonels, and the president keep their plans and motives secret by virtue of convolution. This is much more obvious! Here, I have an organ-repairist looking me in the eye, saying "I refuse to give you the information you want."

What is the effect of this on me, the consumer, the artistic participant? I learn quickly that knowledge is value-rated, and highly valued knowledge should also be highly protected. But, in a starkly different illustration, if diamonds weren't highly protected, would they be so highly valued? Perhaps not. Protection, dissemination, determines value. It should not. Practicality should determine value.

If diamonds were not so highly protected and regulated, they would not be so expensive, and they would definitely not be practical. Their value would decrease. But unregulated knowledge on Leslie speakers would never diminish a Leslie's practicality to organists. In fact, it would probably foster interest in Leslie speakers, which would foster interest, which would mean increased business for those involved in the trade.

At least, that's the debate. How do we rate value? How do we value knowledge? How closely are our actions dependent on our knowledge, and—therefore—how do we ensure that our actions retain value? For example, is unregulated and un-copyrighted music just as valuable as copyrighted music? If anyone has made it to the end of this jaunt, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts.

Love, -BF