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<nettime> William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition" and Ethnomathematics
Paul D. Miller on Mon, 24 Feb 2003 01:43:33 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition" and Ethnomathematics

It always amazes me how we encode culture with so many layers of 
meaning... this article brings home a point I think is really strong 
-  how we can think of a kind of "intuitive" mathematics - 
steganography writ large, so to speak, like William Gibson's new 
novel "Pattern Recognition" (his best book in years....). Like 
"Bigend" (marauding venture capitalist turned advertising guru in the 
novel - Gibson understands ADVERTISING as a kind of Situationist 
detournement - unlike so many people on the old "left" - here's a 
blurb from his spiel on why advertising is the global vernacular for 
this kind of "coded language" - if only the "old left" could get how 
things change... funny how people you would expect to be

1) alot smarter

2) alot more dynamic

seem like ossified Redwood trees in this day and age where 
detournement has become the global carnival of NOW. You ain't in 
Kansas (or perhaps Belgrade) anymore... hip-hop has absorbed this 
kind of "droppin' science" and made it - foregrounded, detached from 
the cipha-codes that people use in everyday culture...

here's a blurb from Gibson's book that matches the article below on 

"of course" he says, "we have no idea, now, of who or what the 
inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. 
Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they 
did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, 
one in which 'now' was of some greater duration. For us, of course, 
things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that 
futures like our grandparents' have no sufficient 'now' to stand on. 
We have no future because our present is too volatile." He smiles, a 
version of Tom Cruise with too many teeth, and longer, but still very 
white. "We have only risk management. The spinning of the given 
moment's scenarios. Pattern recognition."
p. 57




February 23, 2003

Mathematics is one academic subject that would seem to
reside in a world of universality, protected from competing
opinions by the objectivity of its laws. But the real
universal law is that everything is relative, even in math.
The release last month of a new math curriculum for New
York City schools by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has
elicited something just short of vituperation.
Back-to-basics advocates denounce as ''fuzzy math'' its
inclusion of so-called constructivist teaching techniques.
Critics complain that those approaches encourage
self-discovery and collaborative problem-solving at the
expense of proved practices like memorization, repetition
and mastery of algorithm.

It's all the latest in a century of American math wars. The
previous generation can remember the struggle over ''new
math'' during the 1950's and 60's. (''Hooray for new
math,/New-hoo-hoo math!'' Tom Lehrer sang. ''It won't do
you a bit of good to review math./It's so simple,/So very
simple./That only a child can do it!'') Battles flared even
earlier in the century over ''progressive'' agendas for
math education of the type pushed by John Dewey.

How tame those struggles seem, however, when compared to
the rising vanguard of self-described ethnomathematicians.
For some, the new discipline just means studying the
anthropology of various measurement methods; they merely
want to supplement the accepted canon -- from Pythagoras to
Euclid to Newton -- with mind-expanding explorations of
mathematical ideas from other cultures. For others,
however, ethnomathematics is an effort to supplant the
tyranny of Western mathematical standards.

The Postulates

Ethnomathematics has a few parents, but
most observers trace its formal birth to a speech given by
the Brazilian mathematician Ubiratan D'Ambrosio in the
mid-1980's. Now an emeritus professor of math at the State
University of Campinas outside S-o Paulo, he explained his
thinking a couple of years ago to The Chronicle of Higher
Education: ''Mathematics is absolutely integrated with
Western civilization, which conquered and dominated the
entire world. The only possibility of building up a
planetary civilization depends on restoring the dignity of
the losers.'' Robert N. Proctor, who teaches the history of
science at Pennsylvania State University, says he wants to
counter the notion ''that the West is the be all and end
all'' when it comes to mathematical studies. ''After all,''
he adds, ''all math is ethnomath -- not just African
kinship numerics or Peruvian bead counting, but also the
C.I.A.'s number-crunching cryptology and Reaganomics.''

To redress their pedagogical grievances, these
ethnomathematicians want math curriculums that place
greater emphasis on the systems of previous civilizations
and certain traditional cultures. Studies of state
civilizations might focus on Chinese or Arabic math
concepts. One study, for example, has shown how the Chinese
Chu Shih-chieh triangle anticipated by more than three
centuries the highly similar arrangement of numerals by
Pascal that holds sway in many Western teachings of
probability theory.

In her seminal books ''Ethnomathematics'' and ''Mathematics
Elsewhere,'' Marcia Ascher, emerita professor of
mathematics at Ithaca College, chronicles the astonishingly
complex data-storage systems embedded in quipu, bundles of
cotton cord knotted by Incans according to a sophisticated
base-10 numeration system. At a more quotidian level, Ron
Eglash of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has written and
taught extensively about the nuances of fractals, or
repeating patterns, that can be found in certain African
craft work. (Eglash stresses a distinction between
simple-minded multicultural math -- ''which merely replaces
Dick and Jane counting marbles with Tatuk and Esteban
counting coconuts'' -- and what he calls the ''deep design
themes'' that represent mature, developed mathematical
systems too often ignored in the study of many societies.)

What Its Critics Fear

Some of this is just fine, says
David Klein, a professor of mathematics with California
State University at Northridge. Klein (a self-described
liberal who insists on separating his academic critique
from any connection to a conservative political agenda)
says the danger lies in allowing such precepts to crowd out
fundaments on which modernity is based. He argues that the
statistically lower achievements of some female and
minority math students have resulted in an overreaction
that doesn't serve their interests. ''The practical
effect,'' Klein says, ''has been watered-down math books
that overemphasize inductive reasoning (like continuing
visual patterns), because this is supposed to be good for
women and minorities, and de-emphasizing deductive
reasoning and mathematical proofs, which is the heart of
mathematics, because that supposedly favors white males.

''But mathematics is a worldwide monoculture. Look at the
chalkboards in math departments at universities all around
the world -- in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America. You
will see the same symbols everywhere you go on this planet,
except perhaps in colleges of education where fads reign
supreme.'' Klein says he does spend some class time
discussing the math of Mayans, Egyptians and other early
civilizations. ''But ancient techniques and early
discoveries in math will not take students very far who
want to do something in the modern world with
mathematics,'' he says.

Will It Pass?

Some proponents argue that whatever the freestanding
authenticity of the cross-discipline, it is useful as a
carrot to attract indifferent students. Philip Straffin,
who has been teaching the popular ''Cultural Approaches to
Mathematics'' at Beloit College for about 10 years, says
that the lectures lure a mix of teachers in training and
art students: ''Every time we give this course, there are
twice as many students who want to take it as we have room
for.'' As long as such developments complement and enhance
rather than take time from and substitute for other
mathematics learning, Judith Grabiner, who teaches at
Pitzer College, says they are a plus. ''I don't want people
teaching students that Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi gave
a systematic treatment of quadratic equations in the 10th
century instead of learning how to solve quadratic
equations,'' she says. ''But that's a false choice. Putting
the math in its cultural context helps teach the
mathematics and makes it more meaningful to students, since
it has a human context.''

Indeed, those who think this threatens to spawn a brave new
world of mathematical correctness might search their
memories to recall if they didn't have a fourth- or
fifth-grade teacher who brought an abacus to class.

Calculating Cultural Impact

 From 'Ethnomathematics: A
Multicultural View of Mathematical Ideas,' by Marcia Ascher

For mathematics, however, there has been a long
philosophical debate on the reality of the objects it
studies. Is a square something that has external reality or
is it something only in our minds? . . . The relationship
between the length of the hypotenuse and lengths of the
sides of a right triangle is an eternal truth, but that
does not mean that any other culture need share the
categories triangle, right triangle, hypotenuse. . . . A
critical issue is that, as it stands, much of mathematics
education depends upon assumptions of Western culture and
carries with it Western values. Those with other traditions
are, as a result, often turned away by the subject or
unsuccessful in learning it. And, for them, the process of
learning mathematics, particularly when unsuccessful -- but
even when successful -- can be personally debilitating as
it detracts from and conflicts with their own cultural
traditions. . . . [In] the United States, the concern has
been stimulated by the realization that our educational
approaches have yet to come to grips with the fact that we
ourselves are a multicultural society.''

Dirk Olin is national editor at The American


"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe 
they are free...."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Paul D. Miller a.k.a. Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid

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