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[T]he dinner party is a true proclamation of the abundance of being—a rebuke to the thrifty little idolatries by which we lose sight of the lavish hand that made us. It is precisely because no one needs soup, fish, meat, salad, cheese, and dessert at one meal that we so badly need to sit down to them from time to time. It was largesse that made us all; we were not created to fast forever. The unnecessary is the taproot of our being and the last key to the door of delight. Enter here, therefore, as a sovereign remedy for the narrowness of our minds and the stinginess of our souls, the formal dinner for six, eight or ten chosen guests, the true convivium—the long Session that brings us nearly home.

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection

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Joint attention is an actual experience that we have. By contrast, the attentional commons is best understood as a purely negative principle, by analogy with the “precautionary principle” invoked by environmentalists. The point of being aware of the attentional commons is not to make it happen but to refrain from damaging it; to be aware of the valuable absence that creates space for private reverie, and indeed for the possibility of those episodes of joint attention that arise spontaneously and make cities feel full of promise for real human contact.

What this boils down to: Please don’t install speakers in every single corner of a shopping mall, even its outdoor spaces. Please don’t fill up every moment between innings in a lazy college baseball game with thundering excitement. Please give me a way to turn off the monitor in the backseat of a taxi. Please let there be one corner of the bar where the flickering delivery system for Bud Lite commercials is deemed unnecessary, because I am already at the bar. The attentional commons is an idea that I hope will catch on among those who are in a position to make such sanctuaries happen: building managers, commercial real estate developers, and interior designers. Here is a modest proposal: Could the Muzak be made opt-in rather than opt-out? Once every twenty minutes, somebody in the room would have to deliberately hit a button to restart it, and thereby actively affirm “Yes! We want some emo in here!”

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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It is a shame, really, that doctors spend so little time in the communities where they practice. If we did, we might come to see our patients from a different angle, as real people on equal terms, capable of returning more than they receive. With greater depth of field, we might more easily grasp their worries and woes, and recognize our failure to help them. We might be fed by their gratitude, motivated by friendship instead of their demands or our sense of sacred duty or the lure of the almighty dollar.

— David Loxtercamp, “Facing Our Morality”

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Let’s dwell for a minute on the role that Polanyi assigns to trust: “You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things.” This suggests there is a moral relation between teacher and student that is at the heart of the educational process. Of course, the student must trust that the master is competent. But he also must trust that his intention is not manipulative. It is the absence of just this trust that We found at the origins of Enlightenment epistemology in the previous chapter: a thorough rejection of the testimony and example of others. This rejection begins as a project for liberation—from manipulation by kings and priests—and blossoms into an ideal of epistemic self-responsibility. But the original ethic of suspicion leaves a trace throughout. This stance of suspicion amounts to a kind of honor ethic, or epistemic machismo. To be subject to the sort of authority that asserts itself through a claim to knowledge is to risk being duped, and this is offensive not merely to one’s freedom but to one’s pride.

If Polanyi is right about how scientists are formed, then the actual practice of science proceeds in spite of its foundational Enlightenment doctrines: it requires trust. The idea that there is a method of scientific discovery, one that can be transmitted by mere prescription rather than by personal example, harmonizes with our political psychology, and this surely contributes to its appeal. The conceit latent in the term “method” is that one merely has to follow a procedure and, voila, here comes the discovery. No long immersion in a particular field of practice and inquiry is needed; no habituation to its peculiar aesthetic pleasures; no joining of affect to judgment. Just follow the rules. The idea of method promises to democratize inquiry by locating it in a generic self (one of Kant’s “rational beings”) that need not have any prerequisite experiences: a self that is not situated.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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Logically, in plenitude some things ought to be expendable. Industrial economics has always believed this: abundance justifies waste. This is one of the dominant superstitions of American history—and of the history of colonialism everywhere. Expendability is also an assumption of the world of efficiency, which is why that world deals so compulsively in percentages of efficacy and safety.

But this sort of logic is absolutely alien to the world of love. To the claim that a certain drug or procedure would save 99 percent of all cancer patients or that a certain pollutant would be safe for 99 percent of a population, love, unembarrassed, would respond, “What about the one percent?”

There is nothing rational or perhaps even defensible about this, but it is nonetheless one of the strongest strands of our religious tradition—it is probably the most essential strand—according to which a shepherd, owning a hundred sheep and having lost one, does not say, “I have saved 99 percent of my sheep,” but rather, “I have lost one,” and he goes and searches for the one. And if the sheep in that parable may seem to be only a metaphor, then go on to the Gospel of Luke, where the principle is flatly set forth again and where the sparrows stand not for human beings but for all creatures: “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?” And John Donne had in mind a sort of equation and not a mere metaphor when he wrote, “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me.”

It is reassuring to see ecology moving toward a similar idea of the order of things. If an ecosystem loses one of its native species, we now know that we cannot speak of it as itself minus one species. An ecosystem minus one species is a different ecosystem. Just so, each of us is made by—or, one might better say, made as—a set of unique associations with unique persons, places, and things. The world of love does not admit the principle of the interchangeability of parts.

— Wendell Berry, “Health Is Membership”

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What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?

Think, for example, of how the words “community” and “conversation” are now employed by those who use the Internet. I have the impression that “community” is now used to mean, simply, people with similar interests, a considerable change from an older meaning: A community is made up of people who may not have similar interests but who must negotiate and resolve their differences for the sake of social harmony. …

Think of how television has changed the meaning of the phrase “political debate” or the word “public”; or the phrase “participatory democracy.” In his book The Electronic Republic, Lawrence Grossman argues that new technologies will make representative democracy obsolete because they will make it possible to have instant plebiscites on every issue. In this way, American voters will directly decide if we should join NAFTA or send troops to Bosnia or impeach the president. The Senate and the House of Representatives will be largely unnecessary. This, he says, is participatory democracy as it was in Athens in the fifth century B.C. I have no objection to borrowing a phrase from an older media environment in order to conceptualize a new development; we do it all the time. But it has its risks, and attention must be paid when it is done. To call a train an “iron horse,” as we once did, may be picturesque, but it obscures the most significant differences between a train and a horse-and-buggy. To use the term an “electronic town-hall meeting” similarly obscures the difference between an eighteenth-century, face-to-face gathering of citizens and a packaged, televised pseudo-event. To use the term “distance learning” to refer to students and a teacher sending e-mail messages to each other may have some value, but it obscures the fact that the act of reading a book is the best example of distance learning possible, for reading not only triumphs over the limitations of space and co-presence but of time as well. As for participatory democracy, we would be hard-pressed to find any similarity whatever between politics as practiced by 5,000 homogeneous, well-educated, slaveholding Athenian men and 250 million heterogeneous Americans doing plebiscites every week; it is dangerous to allow language to lead us to believe otherwise.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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Once, while listening to the bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice in concert, I had the thought He can do whatever he wants. Such was his complete command of his instrument. Yet “freedom” doesn’t seem quite the right concept to capture this expressive power, if by that term we mean an untutored exercise of the will. His freedom, if that’s what it was, was artistically compelling because of the musical ideas it was in the service of. These ideas were his own, but not simply his own. His expressive power was born of artistic formation.

The kind of collaborative improvisation that takes place among musicians in bluegrass, jazz, or classical Indian music is a good example of what I mean by an ecology of attention. It is mutually adaptive. The improvisation is possible because all parties are attending to one another. It is fruitful only because they are also steeped in forms; the history of their art has become the genetic material, the constitutive fiber, of their own creativity. A master jazz musician quotes from The Real Book with the same ease that a master preacher does from the gospels, and the allusion is gotten. It may be taken up and commented upon by the other players; it may be pushed forward toward possibilities that hadn’t existed moments before, as they come into being only through the improvisation itself. One must be alert, opportunistic. As in ecology, that is how new forms arise.

Note that worries about “conformity” versus “individuality” are simply put aside in the account of creativity I have just sketched. More strongly: membership in a community is a prerequisite to creativity. What it means to learn Russian is to become part of the community of Russian speakers, without whom there would be no such thing as “Russian.” Likewise with bluegrass. These communities and aesthetic traditions provide a kind of cultural jig, within which our energies get ordered.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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