A Simpler Life

There’s a whole lot of information out there about how to lead a simpler life, but most of it is decidedly understated and anecdotal, from individuals who’ve found a simpler way, found reward in that, and then decided to share their experience via a modest blog (like this one) or website.  Few ads are evident on these sites.  Compare this with say, one of the thousands of sites on “How to Invest in…”or that most popular of search targets, “How to Make Money Online!”  These sites are stout, multi-layered destinations with guest bloggers, vast archives, and scads of ads.  Go figure.

That’s the thing about a simpler lifestyle.  There’s no money in it.  It essentially comes about as a result of a less vigorous pursuit of the omnipotent dollar.  And therefore the commercial interests which drive the digital revolution are not so drawn to probing the pecuniary habits of simpler lifestylers.  People seeking a less complicated life are not those sleeping outside Apple stores in fevered anticipation of holding the latest gadget in their hands.

No, you’re pretty much on your own in pursuing a simpler life.  Neither the media, nor corporate power, nor for that matter most of the cultural industries will be there to support you.  But technology will be, at least parts of it will be.  It’s perfectly possible to embrace a simpler way of life and cherry-pick the best of modern technology, the means which enhance but do not encumber our lives, leaving the rest of the tech clamor behind.

There are two basic ways to simplify your life that are immediately accessible to us all: 1) possess less stuff, and 2) disconnect regularly.

images-4The first is to practice anti-consumerism.  Buy something only when you truly need it, i.e. when you will use it regularly, and it either provides a new and valuable service to you, or replaces a valued item which no longer works for you.  Some folks suggest that if you haven’t used something in the last six months, including an article of clothing, you don’t need it.  This seems a tad severe even to me, but if you haven’t used it in the last year, I’d have to agree.  Dispose of it.

Do not possess more than one of the same basic item or tool.  Do not hoard; this is to live in fear.  Do not keep things you don’t need because they possess sentimental value (the way to avoid this is to not keep things you don’t need long enough for them to accrue sentimental value).  Shop in second-hand stores; this is not only less expensive; it prevents the need for a new thing to be manufactured, thus adding to the global accumulation of stuff.  Unless your home is able to expand concomitant with each new acquired item, more stuff equals more stress; it’s that simple.

There are two axioms to bear in mind when contemplating the growing buildup of stuff in your life (and everyone should watch George Carlin’s marvelous routine on us and our stuff; it’s here on Youtube).  One of these adages you’ve already heard, but the second, it seems to me, many of us don’t quite grasp while we’re still above ground:  1) you can’t take it with you, and 2) nobody wants it when you’re gone.  Space, like time, is of ever-augmenting value in today’s world, and very few of us wish to allot precious space to accommodate the material goods of others, even if those others were loved ones.

The second path to a simpler life—disconnecting regularly—is where we can discriminate among the onslaught of new technology coming at us in waves.  The internet?  Absolutely, for the information alone.  A camera?  If it releases your muse, go for it.  A portable computer?  Sure; it’s great to be able to sit on the couch and send an email, but do you really need to take it with you when you leave the house?  For my money, no one needs to be personally connected to the internet at every moment.  In fact, it’s not good for you.

As I’ve gone on about elsewhere in this blog, the stress of accelerated change comes in large part because we fall prey to the craving to connect immediately, not later.  No one needs to be always abreast of the latest news, whether it’s international, national, local, or from your friends.  Very few messages merit an instant reply.  Control the stress in your life by controlling the pace of your communication.  And for those who experience anxiety when they forget their smart phone at home, I have unfortunate news for you.  You’re experiencing an addiction, like any other.  You need to know this, but not instantly.

Unplug.  Get outside.  Go for a walk at least once a day, while the sun’s up.  It’s proven to be good for your mental as well as your physical health.  And don’t take your phone.



MOOC Learning

Academia is said to be one of the societal institutions which has best resisted the changes that have come with the e-revolution.  MOOCs may be changing all that.  MOOC is the acronym for Massive Open Online Course—a post-secondary education course where anyone with an internet connection can sign up, complete the coursework online, receive feedback and ultimately recognition for finishing the course.  Class sizes can be huge, over 150,000 in some instances, and a MOOC is sometimes combined with regular bums-in-seats-in-the-lecture-hall students.

MOOCs (pronounce it the same way a cow pronounces everything, then add the hard ‘C’) made their first appearance in 2008, and institutions as venerable as Stanford and Harvard have since introduced them.  Why not, since, like so many web-based operations, they’re cheap to set-up, and ready-made for promotion.  Fees are usually not charged for MOOC students, but I suspect that will soon begin to change.

But think of it.  You too can enroll in a course from Harvard, presented by an eminent Harvard professor, if only virtually.  It’s more of the greater democratization so often brought about by the internet.  All good thus far.

As is so frequently the case with digital innovation, however, the picture is not a straightforward one.   There is little genuine accreditation that comes with completion of a MOOC.  You may receive some sort of ‘certificate of completion’ for a single course, but there’s no degree forthcoming from passing a set number of MOOCs.  Sorry folks; no Harvard degree available via your laptop set upon the kitchen table.

The attrition rate is also high for MOOCs.  Many students who have eagerly signed up find it difficult to stay with and succeed at an online course from the unstructured isolation of the kitchen table.  The potential for cheating is another obvious issue.

Back to the upside for a moment though.  With MOOCs, learners are engaged in an interactive form of schooling which, research tells us, is considerably better than the traditional bums-in-seats model.  MOOCs are typically constructed via modules, shorter lessons which require the passing of a concluding quiz to demonstrate that the student has grasped the modular content and is thus ready to move on.  If not, then the material is easily reviewed, and the quiz retaken.  It’s a form of individualized learning which has obvious advantages over the scenario where a student, having failed to comprehend the message being delivered orally by the sage professor at her lectern, is obliged to raise his hand and make his failure known to the entire student assemblage.

p.txtOne of the most interesting aspects to the MOOC phenomenon emerged with one of the early Stanford MOOCs, when the regular, in-class students began staying away from lectures, preferring to do the online modules along with their MOOC brethren.

But online learning is also, as we all know, hardly restricted to deliverance by august institutions of higher formal education.  Anyone who has ever typed in “How to…” in the Youtube search box knows that much.  The Khan Academy, started by MIT and Harvard grad Salman Khan in 2006, now has more than 3600 mini-lessons available via Youtube.  A website like Skillshare offers lessons on everything from how to make better meatballs, to how to create an Android app.  At Skillshare you can sign up as either a teacher or a student, although as a teacher your course proposal must be vetted by the Skillshare powers-that-be.  Nevertheless, Skillshare courses are a bargain.  For one course I recently looked at, the fee was just $15 for the first 250 students to sign up.

But here’s the real kicker from a Skillshare course on how to become a Skillshare teacher.  The course is presented in just two video modules over three weeks, including office hours, and the instructor advises that you’ll need to set aside an hour per week to complete the class.  “By the end of this workshop,” gushes the young woman offering this golden opportunity, “You will be able to teach an excellent class.”  Well, to employ a pre-revolutionary term, what utter codswallop.  No one, neither Ghandi nor Einstein, should be guaranteed the ability to teach an excellent class after taking a part-time, three-week workshop.  With the internet, especially when it comes to start-ups, you’ll always want to watch your wallet.

The most significant downside to online learning is of course that it lends itself far better to certain kinds of subject matter than it does to others.  It works best with subjects where there is one and only one right answer.   That or a very defined skill, say the proper way to prune a fruit tree.  Any subject where individual interpretation, subtle analysis, critique, or indeed genuine creativity is required is not so easily adapted to a MOOC template.  Whether a computer will ever write something so sublime as King Lear is one thing; whether a computer will ever be able to legitimately grade hundreds of essays on the same work is another.

Quite simply, and despite all those from C. P. Snow on down who have argued so persuasively for the melding of arts and sciences, there are certain studies—those where the goal is insight into and appreciation of the ineffable—that will never lend themselves well to the MOOC model.  Praise be.





The Apostate

Jaron Lanier is an interesting case.  He’s an author, musician, composer and computer scientist who, back in the 80s, was a pioneer in virtual reality soft and hardware.  (The company he founded after leaving Atari in 1985 was the first to sell VR goggles and gloves.)

Most interestingly, these days Lanier is a sharp critic of what he terms, “digital Maosim,” the open source groupthink which says that not only all information, but all creative content images-3should be free and subject to appropriation (for mashups, for instance).  As you might expect, he’s been subject to considerable blowback from the online community in taking this position, and Lanier freely admits that he was once a card-carrying member of this same club, believing that any musicians or journalists who were going broke because of the digital revolution were simply dinosaurs, unable to adapt to a new environment that would soon provide them other means of financial support, if only they were a little patient and properly innovative.  The problem is, as Lanier writes in his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, “None of us was ever able to give the dinosaurs any constructive advice about how to survive.”

And so, currently, we have a world where creators—be they artists, musicians, writers or filmmakers—face massive competition and constant downward pressure on what they can charge for their product.  This while a few of what Lanier labels the “Lords of the Clouds”—those very able but still very lucky entrepreneurs who were at the right place at the right time with the right idea (think the owners of Youtube and Google)—have amassed huge fortunes.

These conditions have delivered a new feudal world where, according to Lanier, we again have starving peasants and rich lords, where formerly middle-class creators struggle to survive in the face of competition from what he adroitly describes as those people ‘living in their van,’ or those who are mere hobbyists, creating art as an after-work pastime, or perhaps because they can pay their monthly bills with an inheritance.  Important artists find themselves, like Renaissance artists of old, looking to rely on the beneficence of wealthy patrons.  “Patrons gave us Bach and Michelangelo,” rues Lanier, “but it’s unlikely patrons would have given us Vladimir Nabokov, the Beatles, or Stanley Kubrick.”

There’s little doubt that the digital revolution has been fairly disastrous for the creative community, at least once you combine it with the global economic tanking that took place in 2008-09.  (See last week’s post: ‘DEP.’)  As is so often the case, however, the picture is not so simple.  Another huge factor in the plethora of creative product out there at rock bottom prices is the advent of new production technology.  It’s now a whole lot easier than it was back in the 1970s to make a movie, or record some music, or publish your book.  The means of production have evolved to where just about anyone can get their hands on those means and begin creating, then distributing.  More supply, less [or the same] demand means lower prices; the invisible, emotionally indiscriminate hand of capitalism at work.  The former gatekeepers—the major record labels, publishing houses and movie studios—have lost their decisive positions at the entryway, and this in the end has to be a good thing.  It’s just that the change has not come without a flip side, one Lanier does a nice job of illuminating.

Back in 1990, Francis Coppola was interviewed by his wife for the making of Heart of Darkness; A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, a documentary she was shooting about the extraordinary travails Coppola had faced in completing his career-defining opus Apocalypse Now.  Coppola had this to say about the future of filmmaking: “My great hope is that … one day some little fat girl in Ohio is gonna be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father’s camera, and for once the so-called ‘professionalism’ about movies will be destroyed forever, and it will become an art form.”

Be careful what you wish for.




I began teaching part-time at the Vancouver Film School in the mid-eighties, for what I then thought was fairly decent remuneration.  I still teach at Langara College part-time, for wages that are two dollars less per hour than I was paid in 1986.  In Canada, disposable income has increased by just 10% since 1990; this while inflation totaled about 60% over that time.  In the U.S., one of two recent college graduates was unemployed or underemployed in 2012.  It’s all because of DEP.

DEP is an acronym of my own invention, abbreviating Downward Economic Pressure.  You’re welcome to use it anytime; feel free.  If your daughter, having completed an expensive university degree, seems able to secure little more than a minimum wage service job, you can shrug and simply say, “It’s DEP.”  Those auto workers in Ontario who have recently watched their jobs waft gently over the border to Mexico and the southern States?  They can put it all into proper perspective by just mumbling, “More DEP.”

Economic (and with it political power) is shifting eastward to Asia, and southward, to places like Brazil.  The glory days of North American prosperity are waning.   It’s a trend we’ve all heard of, but it’s hard to appreciate just how significant that trend is, or how lasting its effects may be.  Can anyone say, ‘British Empire,’ once the largest the world has ever known?

The median salary in Mexico is less than 3000 Canadian dollars; in Canada the median wage is about $46,000.  That about explains it, but again it’s difficult to overestimate the long-term implications of this divide, once global capitalism has its way.  And yes, I know that a few American companies have of late moved their manufacturing facilities back to the States, and I’ve heard that some plants in China have recently relocated to Viet Nam, where labour costs are still lower, but in the end the net effect is the same.  We in the West are losing our position of comparative affluence, and it ain’t coming back, not in our lifetimes.

Because this is precisely what ‘globalization’ means—the leveling of economic benefits across the globe, like water syphoned from one bucket to another, the liquid eventually finds its own matching level.  If wages are rising in India, they are falling in Canada.  And so it must be.

Or does it?  Someone like Linda McQuaid, the Canadian writer and social critic, doesn’t think so.  McQuaid, in books like The Myth of Impotence, would suggest that it’s indeed possible for governments to counteract the free-market effects of globalization with tools like the so-called ‘Tobin Tax,’ a levy proposed by Nobel Laureate James Tobin on international currency conversions.  And it may be possible, with some obvious benefits, but it’s not likely to happen, given the political power of those folks involved in international currency conversions.

But then, in contemplating the moral high ground held by someone from the left end of the political spectrum like McQuaid, I’m given to recall a tale told in Granta Magazine, years back, by a former British shipbuilder.  When some sort of technological change came around in the shipbuilding trade, requiring a shift from one union sector to another—from iron to copper pipe or some such territorial advance—it meant that many members from the replaced union sect were contemplating unemployment.  The industry’s solution, under pressure from powerful unions, was to institute an arrangement where the former pipefitter stood over the shoulder of the new pipefitter, ensuring that the job was done correctly.  Both workers would be paid equally.  Needless to say, the British shipbuilding industry slipped quietly away.

British Finance Minister George Osborne, austerity champion and someone who, a recent study indicates, appears more often in British nightmares than any other public figure, goes about these days saying that western nations must “do or decline.”  He may be right about that, and it can all be a little daunting, but, as I say, the trend is not going away, and maybe it shouldn’t.  Morally, can we assert that Western peoples, with their consumer lifestyle and broad social safety net, have any sort of inherent right to the preferred position?  Certainly colonialism put this sort of east-to-west economic flow in place, and perhaps we’re now simply witness to the final, just outcome of colonialism.

Equally perplexing is the question of whether the planet’s environment can sustain the rise of the non-western world to the same accumulative lifestyle that exists in Europe and North America.  All those cars, paid holidays, and insured medical expenses.  Time will tell, and the telling of this tale of macro-economic adjustments will get your attention, you may be sure.  We are all, it seems, subject to the ancient Chinese curse; we are all living in interesting times.