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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for the ‘Articulation’ Category

Strolling with Obama and Sadat and Reading Rather than Browsing

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 1, 2008

In Obama: The New Sadat? on Atlantic.Com, Jeffrey Goldberg quotes US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama as saying: “Actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking.”  Goldberg reports the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat lived by the very same principle, taking time out each day for a long stroll along the Nile.  Indeed, Goldberg suggests, it was on one such walk that Sadat envisioned his peace mission to Jerusalem.

I am proud to find myself in the company of Obama and Sadat both.  Wherever I may be, I try to make hours-long urban strolls part of my routine most days of the week.  The walks provide opportunities for self-reflection, for plotting out and articulating thoughts, for envisioning images to photograph, and, not least, for observing urban realities, absurdities, and change.

In each of the cities along my well-trodden path of work and projects, I have my favorite habitual routes: In New York: Westward across the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges and then through lower Manhattan or eastward out to Brighton Beach, either “cross-country” from Prospect Park or via Sunset Park to Bay Ridge and from there along Brooklyn’s seemingly endless waterfront.  In Istanbul, as often as not, my strolls take me from Tophane through now-fashionable Cihangir and Beyoglu down to the conservative quarter of Kasimpasa and finally back to Taksim or along the Golden Horn from Karakoy across the Galata Bridge to Eminonu and then via Fener and Balat to Ayvansaray. In Sofia, Bulgaria, I invariably wander along the romantic tree-lined side-streets of Iskr and Exarch Iosif, into the Women’s Market, past the late-19th-century shopfronts that line Pirotska Street, through the one-time Jewish quarter of Uc Bunar, and finaly through the Ilenden and Zakharna Fabrika quarters to the Zapadna Park at the city’s western extreme.

Long walks occassion long thoughts, not unlike the leisurely unfoldings of plots and intertwined ideas one experiences when one reads long books.  Also in the current edition of Atlantic.com, Nicholas Carr revisits to the oft-asked question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” with a fresh take on linerar reading vs. associative surfing and on the difficulties many of us experience when switching from one form of thought and attention-span to the other.

Posted in Articulation, Books, Cities, Media | Leave a Comment »

Articulation and Activism: In Praise of Screenwriters … and “Hackwriters” Too

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 8, 2007

As the US entertainment writers’ strike continues, I can’t avoid weighing in with a few words of support for the striking members of the Writers’ Guild. Their long drawn-out strike is proving that without the creativity, concentration, and plain old sweat of professional writers there would be no cinema nor television, whether for better or for worse. Yet, most writers labor silently in the background with neither the celebrity, earnings continuity, nor stellar recompense that goes to many headlining actors and directors.

I could quibble about the quality of present-day Hollywood films and American television — their cliche-ridden humor, fascination with murder, and justification of authoritarian police behavior and Mafia violence — but the central issue of the present strike is business-like and central to concepts of intellectual property and the rights of labor, i.e. residuals, the ongoing payments to writers for the rebroadcasting and reuse of creative works they have conceived and shaped and their right to share in the fruits of the long-term popularity and earnings of productions they have penned.

The strikers’ demands focus on residuals from new and emerging distribution channels — especially the internet. Over the last decades, writers time and again missed the boat on gaining a fair share of earnings from the recycling of their work via new media, including videocassettes and DVDs. Now, they are determined not to repeat this mistake with internet distribution. All of us who who are paid job-by-job for our labor and/or creative abilities should back the strikers in whatever ways we can. The same goes for those of us who believe in the future of internet as the primary distribution channel for news, opinion, knowledge, and entertainment and who understand that media are just what the word implies, i.e. “dark fiber” and “empty pipes”, vehicles for conveying content and no more. In the end, backing the strike means willingness to pay for internet content, directly or indirectly, and to pressure those who charge for content, i.e. the owners of networks and other marketing shells, to ensure that a fair share of the life-long earnings of productions goes those who create them.

Some Strike-Related Links

The writer’s strike is explained and tracked in detail at United Hollywood. The United Hollywood site also contains links to a number of YouTube pieces in support of the strike. My favorite is a testimonial by nonagenarian Writers’ Guild member Irv Brecher who wrote for the Marx Brothers in the late-1930s and for television (“The Life of Riley”) in the early-1950s. Also on target is this report (ABC Executive Now Writing All Their Shows Himself) from my favorite source of news as it could or should be, Doyle Redland of the Onion Radio News. Last, hose who are not afraid of Brooklyn-size dollops of political incorrectness might want to look at this characteristically unsparing (but smiling) piece from Dallas Penn, the point of which is that openness in terms of personal identity does not necessarily equal progressiveness or compassion when it comes to political and economic issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of others.

And “Hackwriters” Too

For most of my life, I’ve been cursed with the ability to write. In many of the places I’ve worked, the task of writing has fallen on my shoulders. My strengths as a writer have been neither my style nor even my knowledge, but simply my ability to muscle my way through half-thought-out or poorly-expressed ideas — whether my own or those of others — and sharpen and express the thinking, motives, facts, and logic behind them and leave no essential point unarticulated. This dubious ability led me for years to make my living bouncing back and forth between writing/translating and management, organizational, and project consultancy. Put simply, when asked by mayors or marketing execs or “CEO”s to write articles or commercial, legal, or technical documents presenting their strategies, policies, or activities, I had to clarify and tighten-up not only their syntax but their thinking, intents, and understandings of their own organizations and the world-at-large By writing, I created a mirror by which strategies could be tested and implemented, organizations changed and motivated, projects realized, and markets and populations reached and influenced. This was not always appreciated.

Corporate and technical “hackwriters” are on the bottom of the organizational totem pole in both the public and private sectors and in academia and science as well. In all fields, they are anonymous cogs in the wheel, this regardless of their communications skills being the medium of exchange that enable organizations to function. The situation is most extreme with the proposals and grants writers who debug the thinking and craft the documents that bring in multi-million dollar grants and multi-billion dollar projects for others. Like most corporate and tech writers, they receive no bonus shares of the projects they land nor any residuals from the worth of the companies and institutions they help enrich build. It is time for business and techwriters to follow the lead of striking entertainment writers and claim their fair share. As the “Wobblies” of the old IWW would have had it: “One Big Union!”

(This post is written with the support and approval of Naomi Yoder-Harris, a fine institutional writer who for two decades has been an important sounding board for the quality and content of my own work.)

Posted in Articulation, Communications, Internet, Media, Work | 2 Comments »

Hiatus — A few words and a few links re: articulation, organizational change, the GOP, the 1960s, mysterious and enticing doorways, the forgotten wooden mosques of the eastern Balkans, and a bodega in the Bronx

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 28, 2007

These weeks I have been a bit busy with work proposals and ongoing research projects. One of the results: Somewhat of a hiatus in substantive postings to HakPakSak. For the moment, however, the following links should each be worthy of at least a peek…

Re: my “core business” of articulation, communication, and change, look at this comment I posted some weeks ago on JP Rangaswami’s weblog Confused Of Calcutta and a worthy comment-on-the-comment as posted by Stephen Smoliar at his weblog Rehearsal Studio.

Re: Politics in America look at Bob Herbert‘s recent Ugly Side of the GOP. Now that the New York Times has opened up its former “premium” internet content to all readers, Hebert’s hard-hitting to-the-point columns can once again be read online free of charge.

Re: The 1960s and the reunion of two former philosophy students and friends, look at these kind words from North Carolina writer, thinker, and convinced Quaker Tom Brown.

Last, for a look into my parallel avocational worlds of photography, architectural history, and Balkan and Ottoman history, go to this new posting on my alter-ego weblog site Bubkes.Org.

Oh yes … not to forget … Oh Word. My recent two-fold posting on Paul Lafargue’s manifesto The Right to Be Lazy and the photocopy shops of Istanbul gained mention on Rafi Kam’s hip-hop weblog Oh Word‘s Around the Horn links. I am a long-time fan of Rafi’s and Dallas Penns humorous and very insightful minimalist video Bronx Bodega (click here to watch it on YouTube). I’m a jazz fan, not a hip-hop fan — but I am born in the Bronx!

More to follow…

Posted in Architecture, Articulation, Bulgaria, Change, Links, Media, Photography, Work | 2 Comments »

“Sense of the Meeting:” Quakers, Communications, Organizational Change, and the Blogosphere

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 9, 2007

Over at my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org, I recently posted an entry centered on a photo I took in 1994 of a group of young people standing in front of a Mennonite church in New York’s Harlem. The church had been founded by a group of Korean War era conscientious objectors and, so, the weblog entry jumped to my own response to the specter of military service in Vietnam and my Vietnam-War-Civil-Rights-Movement-era years of part-time study at a small Quaker school in the American south. During those years, I was often at loggerheads with what I saw as the caution and conservatism of local Quakers in the face of the issues and conflicts of the time. It was only years later that I realized that Quakers had also taught me lessons that illuminated my work and personal lives both.

Sense of the Streets

Growing up in Lower Manhattan I learned that discourse was argument, something to be won. One could win by being “smarter” or more humorous than others, by playing facts like trump cards, by talking louder or faster, or by being more insulting or better with one’s fists. Or, if one was in a more peaceful or democratic mood, one could settle debates or decide on courses of action by gangıng-up and enforcing “majority rule.”

Sense of the Meeting

In the company of Quakers I learned a different approach. Discourse was a way to higher truths and to commonalities that could unite people linked together by commitment or even by mere circumstance. Agreement was never beyond the reach of people dedicating to achieving it. In their worship and worldly gatherings, Quakers achieved unanimity of action by perceiving and subscribing to the “sense of the meeting.” Similar to the way Socrates sought truth through dialogue, Quakers felt that receptivity to silence and to open expression at meetings could lead to consensus acceptable to all present and well worth putting aside one’s individual reservations in the face of.

Consensus, Communications, and Organizational Change

Oddly, I first realized the value of the “sense of the meeting” in a commercial context. In the years in which I made my living writing for business and governmental clients, I came to understand that if I interviewed enough people within a fractious organization I could articulate what that organization was about and wanted to achieve in a manner that all parties could assent to and buy into. Later, when I consulted on proposals for major industrial and service-related projects I found I could pre-envision and articulate many projects in manners equally compelling to buyer and seller alike. When I worked in interim management and organizational change, I found it was possible to gain commitment and motivate people by openly articulating where organizations stood and were migrating to, why and how.

Sense of the Blogosphere

In a PBS broadcast some months ago (link unavailable) veteran journalists Bill Moyers and Bob Edwards discussed why the Knight-Ridder chain of newspaper had reported more penetratingly and accurately on the build-up to and consequences of Bush & Co.’s Iraq War. The main reason was that the star reporters at the “papers of record” such as the Washington Post and the New York Times were far too close to the White House to gain perspective or far too vain to avoid being seduced by the center of power. Knight-Ridder reporters, on the other hand, gathered their facts and opinions from middle-ranking bureaucrats and members of the military, people with a focus on realities rather than on “spin” and the selling of an ill-conceived war.

The work that the Knight-Ridder papers have done in recent years – or of the type of pioneering investigative reporting that the Washington Post allowed Woodward and Bernstein to do following the Watergate burglary – is a long-lead-time, costly task requiring weighty expense budgets and full-time research and fact-checking staff. In the early days of webloging, enthusiastic bloggers sometimes exclaimed that weblogs would soon replace newspapers – but most blogs are one-person affairs without the funding or staff or business models to sustain news gathering or investigative reporting. As a result, blogging has emerged more as a vehicle for opinion and comment. At first, the tone was intentionally brash and self-promoting, not unlike the Lower Manhattan model of discourse described above. As time goes on and the numbers of blogs grow into the tens of millions, the blogosphere brings with it the possibility of being a cyberspace-wide virtual equivalent of a Quaker meeting that in its silences and testimonies reveals patterns of commonalities and generates consensuses that can unite people into actions worthy of their beliefs and needs.

Posted in Articulation, Change, Commentary, Communications, Philosophy | 1 Comment »

Michael Polanyi, Articulation, and Marx’s Fatal Flaw

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 10, 2007

The obscure Hungarian philosopher Michael (Mihaly) Polanyi surfaced this week on Doc Searls’s Weblog. Referring to our years together as philosophy undergraduates, Doc supposes that Polanyi might still influence my thinking. After reactivating my philosophy “chops,” I realize Doc is right, Polanyi does continue to influence my thinking … and my work and personal life as well.

I remember two things from Polanyi. The first is his succinct summation of his investigations into epistemology and the role of intuition in scientific discovery, as expressed in his simple dictum: “We know more than we can tell.” The second is his concise critique of some streams of Marxist thought. In his examination of the personal nature of knowing, Polanyi seems to have stumbled onto Marx’s Achilles heel.

In Polanyi’s view, what we are able to put into words is only a part of what we actually know; indeed, there are many things that we know and learn viscerally and intuitively in ways that defy articulation. A mystic Slavo-Semitic side of me likes this idea, as does the side of me that photographs, for it leaves room for wonder and for the ineffable. But a more Anglo-Saxon side of me (a tip of the hat to the logical positivists), takes Polanyi’s dictum not as a description but as prescription, a challenge to spend a lifetime trying to articulate all that I see, sense, and feel. This is been the driver of my life-long obsession with multidisciplinary learning that is my real “core business.” It also has been the basis of my decades of work in strategic consultancy, policy analysis, organizational change, and corporate communications and public information.

In the work world, I’ve found that strategy and policy can be successfully formulated, applied, and refined only when articulated over and again until all ambiguities and all misrepresentations of external realities disappear. Likewise, organizations achieve successful change only when they can fully articulate what they do, and why and how, and in what environment. In the same way, project management is dependent on continuously articulating where one stands and should stand. Successful marketing communications, in turn, is dependent on clear articulation of who one is addressing and what one really has to say. It sometimes takes an irritating gadfly like me to help companies and institutions achieve this, but I believe in the mission and even enjoy it. Maybe this is what has enchanted me about the internet, i.e. the theoretical possibility it affords for ultimately articulating all that is from every perspective possible.

To close, a few words about Polanyi and Marx. In his book Personal Knowledge, Polanyi examines what may be Marxism’s tragic flaw, the key to its self-destruction, this being its futile attempt to clothe moral rage in the guise of scientific objectivity and historical necessity. By abandoning the language of morality some streams of Marxism lost their moral rudders and became sidetracked, preoccupied with their own rectitude and the illegitimacy of all who questioned it, rather than with the wrongs and inequities Marxism was conceived in response to in the first place. This also poses a lesson for all of us in our personal lives — and not just to moderate our Marxism! – but never to forget that all that we seek, desire, approve of, or work toward is not necessarily what is right or what should be. (In this light, another tip of the hat to G.E. Moore.)

Posted in Articulation, Communications, Marx, Philosophy | 3 Comments »