Update Available: The Algorithmic Self

Bing, Bard, and other bots. The world is rushing headlong into a ChatGPT future. Yet amid the giddy optimism over boundless new capabilities lie deeper questions about how artificial intelligence is reshaping human consciousness. Update Available: The Algorithmic Self (2023) take a critical look at this emerging phenomenon.

 We live in an age of anticipatory dread. Whether growing up or getting ahead, we’re conditioned to believe that faster is better, time is money, and danger lies in falling behind. Updates flourish in such a climate, whether in software, a makeover, or an online profile change.  Update Available: The Algorithmic Self looks at this future-oriented compulsion and the growing automation of human consciousness in an age of artificial intelligence. Increasingly people turn to online technology for health, wealth, and happiness, along the way unconsciously making changes and compromises.  Behind many of these transactions lie yearnings to get more out of life, often amplified these days by feelings of lack or impending loss. Network computing offers instant connections and enhanced capacity, with processing power serving as both means and metaphor.

Update Available is available as a free download from Apple, Barnes & Noble and other major retailers, published as an Open Access Creative Commons book. Other books by David Trend include Welcome to Cyberschool: Education at the Crossroads in the Information Age, Worlding: Media, Identity, and Imagination,  and The End of Reading: From Guttenberg to Grand Theft Auto.   Trend’s popular “Changing Creativity” course is taken each year by over 1000 students throughout the University of California system.

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Find Your Superpower

“How to Find Your Superpower” is among thousands of recent articles, books, and improvement programs about the age-old dream of an updated self. Like others in its genre, the piece offers guidance for achieving “peak performance” through a blend of passion, mastery, and hard work. “The #1 thing you can do is determine your strengths, determine your superpowers,” the authors state in coaching readers to sharpen “a dominant gift an attribute, skill or ability that makes you stronger than the rest:  a difference between you and your coworker.”[i] Find that elusive something, and you are sure to succeed. Pitches like this appear everywhere these days. Witness the massive market for fitness, beauty, self-esteem, and cognitive improvement products. These range from dietary supplements and workout regimes to books, videos, and apps. Amazon is loaded with titles like Your Hidden Superpower, Finding Your Superpower, and the kid’s book What’s My Superpower? [ii]

Juvenile appeals notwithstanding, a consistent theme runs through all these books – that it is up to you alone to find, develop, or somehow acquire missing capacities. Rarely is there a mention of structural advantages or disadvantages in the superpower quest. The impulse to exceed one’s limits has a long history in Western thought, with roots in religious doctrine and philosophy. Some even link enhancement to hard-wired survival instincts. Simply put, people have been augmenting themselves for thousands of years, first by using tools, then by working in groups, and later with machines and technology. From the Enlightenment Era onward, this was seen as humanity’s “natural” impulse for continual improvement and progress. Ongoing developments in science and medicine have intensified this drive, along with the heightened sense of crisis in the 21st century. The result has been a growing mania to become stronger, smarter, and better looking than anyone else. Continue reading “Find Your Superpower”

Anxious Creativity is now Open Access

Anxious Creativity: When Imagination Fails (Routledge) now is available without cost as an Open Access ebook thanks to funding from UC Irvine. You can get it as a Kindle ebook from Amazon or in PDF  format from Routledge using this link.

Creativity is getting new attention in today’s America –– along the way revealing fault lines in U.S. culture. Surveys show people overwhelming seeing creativity as both a desirable trait and a work enhancement, yet most say they just aren’t creative. Like beauty and wealth, creativity seems universally desired but insufficiently possessed. Businesses likewise see innovation as essential to productivity and growth, but can’t bring themselves to risk new ideas. Even as one’s “inner artist” is hyped by a booming self-help industry, creative education dwindles in U.S. schools.

Anxious Creativity: When Imagination Fails examines this conceptual mess, while focusing on how America’s current edginess dampens creativity in everyone. Written in an engaging and accessible style, Anxious Creativity draws on current ideas in the social sciences, economics, and the arts. Discussion centers on the knotty problem of reconciling the expressive potential in all people with the nation’s tendency to reward only a few. Fortunately, there is some good news, as scientists, economists, and creative professionals have begun advocating new ways of sharing and collaboration. Building on these prospects, the book argues that America’s innovation crisis demands a rethinking of individualism, competition, and the ways creativity is rewarded.

Empowerment for Sale

“Yes You Can,” (Sprint), “Be All that You Can Be” (U.S. Army), “Because You’re Worth it,” (L’Oréal) in “Your World, Delivered” (AT&T). You’ve seen these new ads: pitches for products or services to let you “be yourself” or “take control” of some aspect of your life. It’s a new strategy called “empowerment marketing,” based on the premise that in media savvy age people are smarter about advertising and need to be approached in a way that flatters their evolved sensibilities. As a recent feature in Your Business put it, “Traditional marketing depends on creating anxiety in the customer in convincing her that she has a need that only the product or service sold can help her fill.”  In contrast, “Empowerment marketing subverts traditional marketing techniques by recasting the consumer as the hero who has the power to effect change and use the product or service being sold to achieve success.”[i]

Nice as this sounds, it is really a case of putting old wine in new bottles. The example Your Business uses is the familiar Nike “Just Do it” campaign, which doesn’t so much promote a certain shoe as much as “the message that anyone can be an athlete if they’re willing to work hard.”[ii] And indeed, this is exactly the message that appears on the first page of Nike’s current website: “Your daily motivation with the latest gear, most effective workouts and the inspiration you need to test your limits––and unleash your potential” with a fashion item lower on the page captioned “Dress like a champion.”[iii] In other words, the new empowerment advertising doesn’t really forgo conventional appeals to consumer anxiety. It simply personalizes the pitch with the lure of enhanced autonomy. The Nike ad itself sums up this contradiction perfectly in stating: “Life isn’t about finding your limits. It’s about realizing you have none.”[iv] Continue reading “Empowerment for Sale”

The New Case Against College

It’s called the “paper ceiling” –– the barriers for skilled job seekers who lack a bachelor’s degree. Amid the brouhaha in recent years over admissions scams and student debt, a new line of attack is emerging against higher education. This one is being described as an ontological threat in that it questions the existence and value of college itself, while accusing the system of perpetuating multiple forms of inequity. Of course, higher education often has found itself a political football in the past. What makes this time different is its critique of qualities universities typically have seen as their strength.

Everyone knows it’s been a tough few years for higher education. Even before the pandemic, colleges and universities were seeing public opinion souring over rising costs, political correctness, and faculty misbehavior –– causing more than a few students and their families to start doubting the value of degree. With enrollments dropping during the “great disruption” at a pace not seen for half a century, concurrent changes in the American workplace have rendered college degrees unnecessary for a growing number of high wage jobs. Yet many employers require four-year credentials anyway, in what some observers see as an antiquated habit and a cover for discrimination.

The numbers are deceptively simple – that 75% of new jobs insist on a bachelor’s degree, while only 40% of potential applicants have one.[1] According the advocacy group Opportunity@Work, employers mistakenly equate college completion with work aptitude, while disregarding self-acquired knowledge or non-academic experience.  The group asserts that the nation’s undervalued workforce “has developed valuable skills through community college, certificate programs, military service, or on-the-job learning, rather than through a bachelors degree. Workers with experience, skills, and diverse perspectives are held back by silent barrier.” As a consequence, over 50% of the American skilled workforce has been under employed and underpaid.[2]  More concerning still is that such discrimination is unevenly distributed. Within a 70-million worker cohort of what are termed STARs  (Skilled Through Alternative Routes) employees, one finds 61% of Black workers, 55% of Hispanic/Latinos, and 61 of veterans.[3]  

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You 2.0 – The Will to Improve

You’ve probably never heard of TestingMom.com. It’s part of a new generation of test-prep companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review –– except this one is for toddlers. Competition for slots in kindergarten has gotten so intense that some parents are shelling out thousands to get their four-year olds ready for entrance tests or interviews. It’s just one more example of the pressure that got celebrity parents arrested for falsifying college applications a few years ago. In this case the battle is over getting into elite elementary schools or gifted programs. While such admissions pressure is widely known, what’s new is how early it’s occurring.

Equity issues aside, the demand to improve performance is being drilled into youngsters before they can spell their names. All of this bespeaks the competition for grades, school placement, and eventual careers that has transformed the normal impulse to do better into an obsession for students and their families. Much like the drive for perfection, an insatiable hunger to be quicker, smarter, and more acceptable to admissions officers is taking its toll in many ways.

What explains this obsessive behavior? Brain science has been proving what advertising long has known ­–– that wanting something is far more powerful than getting it. School admissions and other markers of success are part of an overarching mental wanting mechanism. That new iPhone might bring a thrill. But soon comes the yearning for an update, a newer model, another purchase. Neuroimaging shows that processes of “wanting” and “liking” occur in different parts of the brain, with the former more broadly and powerfully operating than the latter. This reverses the common wisdom that primal hungers and “drives” underlie human motivation.  Unlike animals, the motor force driving human beings is imagination –– with anticipation of something more important than the experience itself. This partly explains why merchandizing deals more with feeling than facts. Slogans like “Just Do It” and “Think Different” bear no direct relationship to shoes or computers, but instead tingle feelings of desire. In the fuzzy realm emotion pleasure is a fungible currency. Continue reading “You 2.0 – The Will to Improve”

College Art in Crisis

It might surprise many to know that no systematic studies exist of college and university-level arts programs. This is partly due to the way art in higher education fragments into academic disciplines and professional training programs, as well as the complex array of public and private schools, community colleges and research universities, and the ever expanding variety of for-profit entities and online learn-at-home opportunities. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provides rough disciplinary percentages of bachelor’s degrees earned by America’s estimated 18.7-million college students, however. Of these, 5.1 percent graduated in the “Visual and Performing Arts” category, and another 4.6 percent in “Communications and Journalism.” Larger break-downs included “Business” at 19.4 percent, “Health Sciences” at 10.7 percent, and “Social Science” at 9.2 percent.[i] Beyond this, anecdotal evidence abounds of a decade long decline in arts and humanities programs, described by many as a continuing crisis. The recession is partly to blame, with many students and their families simply opting for more surefire career paths, especially as college tuitions have risen.

On the other hand, college art has found new friends among creative economy advocates, with educators jumping on claims from people like Richard Florida that 30 percent of today’s jobs require creative skills.[ii] Making the most of this, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently released a report entitled “The Arts and Economic Growth,” compiled in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.[iii] The document claimed that “arts and culture” contributed $704-billion to the U.S. economy (4.2 percent of GDP) and a whopping 32.5 percent of GDP growth in the past 15 years. This is more than sectors like construction ($619-billion) and utilities ($270-billion), perhaps because the study defined art so broadly –– encompassing advertising, broadcasting, motion pictures, publishing, and arts-related merchandizing, as well as the performing and visual arts themselves. This prompted a piece entitled, “Who Knew? Arts Education Fuels the Economy” in the respected Chronicle of Higher Education, which noted similar findings from business groups. Among these were the Partnership for 21st-Century Learning, a coalition of corporate and educational leaders and policy makers, which said that, “Education in dance, theater, music, and the visual arts helps instill the curiosity, creativity, imagination, and capacity for evaluation that are perceived as vital to a productive U.S. work force.”[iv] The Conference Board, an international business-research organization, polled employers and school superintendents, finding “that creative problem-solving and communications are deemed important by both groups for an innovative work force.”[v] And IBM, in a report based on face-to-face interviews with more than 1,500 CEOs worldwide, concluded that “creativity trumps other leadership characteristics” in an era of rising complexity and continual change.[vi] Continue reading “College Art in Crisis”

Welcome to Cyberschool

While technology always has played a role in education , it went into hyperdrive with the pandemic-driven move to online learning. Up to this point, economic pressures and growing student numbers already were causing a panic in education. Schools were struggling to trim budgets as “accountability” scrutinized everyone. These extant conditions presented an upside to some of the changes that would occur.  Most dramatically, the shift to doing schoolwork at home eliminated shortfalls in classroom space and, at least temporarily, student housing as well. As the pandemic continued the share of higher education offered online jumped from 10 percent in 2019 to 33 percent a few years later.[i]  But as everyone now knows, so-called “distance learning” isn’t for everyone and doesn’t work for all kinds of material.  Research shows that one-size-fits-all character of mechanical course delivery disadvantages students of many kinds.

Online schooling isn’t as new as you might think. The idea of distance learning dates to vocational and self-improvement correspondence courses of the eighteenth century, which arose with improvements  in mail delivery systems. Often cited as an early example was a shorthand course offered by Caleb Phillips, advertised in a 1721 edition of Boston Gazette with claims that “students may by having several lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.”[ii] By the 1800s all manner of vocational skills were being taught by mail, as well hobbies like drawing and painting. The University of London became the first college to offer distance learning degrees in 1858. By the end of the century, learning by mail had become big business for institutions like the Pennsylvania-based International Correspondence Schools (ICS). In the decade between 1895 and 1905, ICS grew from 72,000 to 900,000 students signing up to learn technical and management skills.[iii] Much of this growth was due to the innovation of sending entire textbooks rather than single lessons, along with promotion by a large in-person sales team. Continue reading “Welcome to Cyberschool”

The Learning Society

As consumer prices continue to rise, experts now warn of a looming recesssion brought about by pandemic manufacturing slowdowns and supply-chain shortages. Economists explain it as a classic case of demand outpacing availability –– with scarcity making things more costly. Unfortunately, the painful solution now being launched will raise borrowing costs rates so that people spend less. While these measures may or may not improve the overall economomy, the combined effects of inflation and rising interest rates will exact a double blow to people struggling to make ends meet. In such an atmosphere it becomes critical to help people manage their own finances and to prevent the broader economy from overheating.

This is where consumer education and financial literacy can help as part of a larger move toward a “learning society.” For some time now, economists have been promoting financial education in public schools and urging people to become more resourceful. Time Magazine reported polls showing “99 percent of adults in agreement that personal finance should be taught in high school.”[i]  The Federal Reserve argued that “financial literacy and consumer education, coupled with strong consumer protections, make the financial marketplace ‘effective and efficient’ and assists consumers in making better choices.”[ii] Many colleges and universities have started making financial literacy courses graduation requirements. And for some it has worked, as many Americans “put their own budgets under the microscope ––akin to what financial analysts routinely do when the scrutinize companies.”[iii] Continue reading “The Learning Society”

The Creative Inner Child?

Pablo Picasso once quipped that “Every child is an artist; the problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.”[i]  In this often-quoted slogan, Picasso neatly summarized idealized views of the universally creative child and the uncreative adult. In a similar fashion he would later write that, “It takes a long time to become young.” What is one to make of such laments? Nostalgia over a lost youth? A yearning to escape a pressurized grown-up life?  Regardless of origins, it’s impossible to deny America’s ongoing infatuation with childhood creativity.

This fascination childhood artistry dates to the 1700s, corresponding to evolving views of children as “blank slates” (tabula rasa) better served by nurturance and education than by discipline alone. At the same time, Enlightenment debates over individualism and personal autonomy were bringing considerable anxiety to the era, evidenced in worries that self-interest would overwhelm moral sentiments.

This set the stage for the naturalism espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book Emile: Or, On Education, seeing an inherent “goodness” in children,  which becomes corrupted by adult desire and material want.[ii] With the 1800s, views of “human nature” gave ways to theories of evolution and behavioral adaptation –– owing in large part to the influence of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. While the resulting rationalism eventually would make education more formulaic, an artsy transcendentalism would counterbalance American culture with an advocacy for an “educated imagination.”[iii] The Romantic Era writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman advanced themes of emotion over reason and imagination over reality –– setting in place a tradition progressive of push-back against the instrumentalist ethos of science and industry. Continue reading “The Creative Inner Child?”