Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: Weaving words together by hand

Monday, September 19, 2016 - 6:53pm

Last night, a friend of mine told me about quipu, the system used by the Incas to keep track of numerical information. Quipus, also known as “talking knots,” are made up of thousands of knotted strings, which, when examined by a contemporary judge or clerk, reveal certain financial information. Quipucamayocs, or quipu specialists, were like a modern-day accountant or stenographer — recording what they saw around them.

This conversation triggered a series of questions for me. Most prominently: What does our culture lose from having information at our fingertips at all times? Is there something to be gained in needing to knot together pieces of fabric to, for example, calculate certain statistics? Why has contemporary society chosen to move in the direction of making information, pertaining to essentially any subject, instantaneously available?

It seems that today’s world gears itself toward eliminating the amount of irretrievable material out there — questions we do not know how to answer. Our world eliminates questions that, when posed, we have nothing to hold or point to as the correct response. What’s the capital of Djibouti? What’s 489 x 333? 162,837. I look the question up; I answer it based on what my phone tells me, then, in a way, I feel as if I know the answer, as if I am the one feeding the information to the world. 

But what happens with so-called irretrievable answers? Questions about which we can only deliberate and discuss, guess at and witness? Instances where we don’t just look up an answer force us to talk to one another, to put our own theories and ideas to the test of the community — the people with whom we surround ourselves. And this is why we make friends in the first place! To have people in our lives with whom we can shape our own perspectives. Because we need other people to do this. We cannot do this, any of this, on our own.

But instead of acknowledging and embracing this fact — it’s a beautiful thing to recognize one’s place within a community where every member feels a vibrant, pulsing need for everybody else — we isolate ourselves into our own machines, away from each other and away from our own working, conscious minds. Sitting in a lecture taking notes on my computer, I am an automaton, typing the words the professor says without consideration. Shouldn’t we talk about the topics we are learning about to each other as we learn about them?

In so many of my classes, we talk about the importance of considering who is telling the story, and which narrative we are supposed to believe as fact. In my field of American Studies, we believe no singular narrative can be called objectively true. Instead, we piece together ideas from literature, film, music, theater, commercials, etc. to get a sense of how people and entire communities described a certain moment or place. How these ideas stacked up against each other, how they clashed and fought and played and agreed with each other. And then we go from there, to form our own beliefs — constantly checking ourselves and checking the notions provided to us by scholars, authors and artists alike.

In a study published in Psychological Science, social psychology graduate student Pam A. Muller and Associate Professor of Cognitive Psychology Daniel M. Oppenheimer, found that the process of using computers solely to take notes — even without other alerts and windows popping up — results in shallower processing. There is something gained by taking notes by hand, especially when we rephrase the words of our professor into our own. By doing this, we check our professor and run their ideas through our own filter. This combination — their minds with ours — produces what we learn.

The emphasis on blind, instant knowledge extends to how we consume political coverage as well. Every day, we read headlines about new speeches presidential candidates give, trading barbs and insults and, rarely, new policy proposals. We discard the candidates’ histories as archaic and outdated and irrelevant, opting instead to consider who they are today, right now. And here, once again, we are not meant to question these figures or to question the system. We are meant to consume it all, automatons, stuck with two candidates whom a heavy majority of us believe to be corrupt.

From peers and colleagues and pundits alike, I often hear the following political mode of thought: I really wish things could be better in this way, but that’s unrealistic, so, they can’t improve, so I have to vote for Clinton/Trump. And nothing frustrates me more. Because this mindset operates under the belief that “we, the people” have no power, that our votes do not impact anything, that we and the system are somehow separate entities. That we are nothing more than spectators packed into the Big House, cheering and booing and yelling, unable to actually impact what we witness.

If we all got together in forums and discussions and all heard ourselves describing the world with this defeatist logic, we would soon discover we do have power, and if we all actually want to change the world for the better, we have the means to do it. In Greece, the current ruling political party was founded in 2004, and polled around 4 percent for the first few years of its existence — the Green Party in the United States polls at this same figure today.

Change happens quickly and abruptly if we provide the space for it. But that space will only come if we engage each other and hear each other. And by “hear each other,” I don’t mean to type verbatim each other’s words. Because this is not learning.

Instead, we ought to weave together, like the Incas, all of the ideas that we ourselves have, along with those that we consume. And as we knit, we can add our own flair and flavor to the project, no doubt fundamentally influenced by those around us, but ultimately creating an ideology uniquely our own.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu