Monday, June 28, 2010
  How, What, Who

Three types of knowledge: How, What, Who.

All three types are necessary, and everyone uses all three types all the time, but the dominant type strongly influences the form and the success of a culture.

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How-ism is based on skills, on knowing the way. How to build, how to cook, how to repair, how to keep people happy, how to keep them under control. How-knowledge comes directly from the senses, tempered and conditioned by comparison and proportion, with a constant awareness of feedback and cycles. (Does this work better? How can I tell when it's better? When does it repeat?) How-knowledge can be passed with no words at all from mother to daughter, father to son, master to apprentice.

What-ism is based on facts, on knowing the data. What-knowledge requires language, symbols and formulas. You can acquire what-knowledge by reading or listening.

Who-ism is based on identity and quotation. Who-knowledge requires a strong sense of status, an up-to-date reading of comparative authority, and a tape-recorder mind. If the high-status person says "2+2=5" and wears Prada, we must say "2+2=5" and wear Prada. If the low-status person says "2+2=4" and wears J.C. Penney, we must mock "2+2=4" and discard everything with a J.C. Penney label.

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In basic neurological terms, How belongs to both genders, What belongs to the male-type brain, and Who belongs to the female-type brain. [Caveat: this raw gender correlation is dramatically obvious in simple-minded people but somewhat submerged by other capabilities and shapings in smarter types.]

In chronological terms (again loose and overlapping!), America was dominated by How until WW2, by What from WW2 through 1990, and by Who since 1990.

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The high point of How-ism in America was the era of invention from 1840 to 1920. Morse, Bell, Edison, Carver, Ford: all were How-ites, developing a vision based on a set of skills, and knowing how to turn the vision into a real device or method with some assistance from What-ish data and numbers. Ford was probably the purest Howite, since his best inventions were methods and social structures, not devices.

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The high point of What-ism was clearly the Apollo moon shot, though Apollo 13 was famously saved by the ductape of How. And the final wild spin-out of What-ism is the recent stock market crime. I've been listening to the Congressional hearings and I'm struck by the total absence of any proportion, any comparison, any sense of cycles, even any curiosity among the conspirators. The investigators (especially the magnificent How-ite Elizabeth Warren) constantly ask questions like "Didn't you stop to think?" or "Didn't you wonder why this was happening?" or "Didn't you ask what's wrong with this picture?" And the Wall Street Mafiosi on the other side of the table simply DO NOT COMPUTE the questions. Their answers are synthetic and nakedly numerical: "Value Goal Credit Default Swap Senior Tranche ... Calculating ... Eight Three Dot Six." Obviously these biped enumeration modules were not programmed for pattern recognition or comparison or wonderment, except for "Which action brings me more money?"

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Verbal Who-ism is the mark of the Royalist, the Catholic, the Communist. If the current King/Pope/Premier says "X", I know "X" is true and I will defend it to the death. If the Pretender to the Throne says "X", I know "X" is false and I will fight against it with all my energy. In most cases "X" is the same thing, which means the Who-ist defends and opposes the same idea at different times.

Visual Who-ism is the mark of the Paparazzi. A photographer who gets the right candid shot of Britney Spears can receive half a million dollars for one click of the shutter. Why is this one image so valuable? Because lots of people want to see Britney Spears. Why do lots of people want to see Britney Spears, when better-looking women can be seen on the streets of any city? Because "news" sources, working together with Britney's agents, have stirred up the buzz. This circular process makes a lot of money for a few people but contributes absolutely nothing to the progress of civilization. In fact, by monopolizing media channels that might otherwise carry a wider variety of entertainment and info, it displaces What and drives civilization backwards.

Who displaces both How and What on the verbal level. You can see this in any web forum. In Who-land, observation is illegal. You're not allowed to examine nature or events and draw a rational inductive conclusion. You're only allowed to quote a credentialed authority who belongs to Team A or Team B. If your quote is precisely accurate, the authority's own team will cheer and the opposing team will boo. If your quote is inaccurate or (horror of horrors!!!!) you cite nothing more than plain reality, you're out of the arena. Banned for life.

Newsreaders before 1990 were free to say something like "It appears that the protesters are trying to push back the police." You won't hear that today. Instead, you hear "Some say that the protesters etc." Everything must be a quotation or a citation, and the Team Membership of the citation must be clear. When a sentence starts with "Critics say..." you know the rest of the sentence will be the heretical view, the racist/sexist/homophobic/Halliburtonist view that you're required to mock and disdain.

Finally, when you apply Who to an area of life that should be treated exclusively with How and What, you get the Global Warming Conspiracy. For many millenia the How-ites have observed and understood the ups and downs of Earthly seasons by watching plants, animals, sun and moon. Around 1700 the Whatians made it possible to measure temperature reliably and record the numbers for future generations, thus helping us to understand the longer cycles, the hyper-seasons of the world. Since 1988 science has been replaced by money, power and peer review, the essence of Who. Any data that disagrees with Commissars Maurice Strong and James Hansen is Undata. It does not exist, and those who continue to use it are Unpersons, subject to Liquidation at any moment.

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Sunday night, watching the oldies on WGN.... realize that 'Newhart' forms a perfect fable of How, What, Who. The show was made in the late '80s, the moment when Who was getting ready to kill off How and What. Old George the handyman is barely literate but knows how to fix anything, and functions perfectly in the small town's intricate social structure because it hasn't changed for generations. Middle-aged Dick the hotel owner writes books about home repair, functions well in New York literary circles, and always wrong-foots in local matters because he follows written rules. Young Stephanie the maid is an impossibly spoiled rich girl whose thoughts never stray from Status, Fashion and Her Own Perfect Beauty. Stephanie's boyfriend Michael is a TV producer, chafing at his low-status position in this Vermont backwater, literally whoring himself out to gain favor with Real Celebrities. Oddly enough, though the show was written by and for the What generation, old Howite George usually comes out ahead.

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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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