Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Aesthetics of Crime (and a petty misdemeanor)

According to the stats, my post entitled “How to Cheat the Word Count” is one of the most visited on this blog, searches for “cheat the word count” apparently being fairly popular on Google. No surprises there then. Now, I’m all for the creative bending of rules and inventive alternatives to unexamined orthodoxies but borrowing other peoples hard earned deceits is surely a bit rich. Coming up with an innovative cheat is one thing, but stealing one simply heaps subterfuge upon swindle and lacks even the controversial virtue of guile. No honour among thieves indeed!

Seriously though, whilst I’m critical of unimaginative pilfering, the idea of dreaming up novel ways to cheat the system is by no means wholly distasteful to me. Moreover, the notion that creativity is somehow universally positive is clearly mistaken. Creativity’s dark side finds expression in fraud, computer viruses, terrorism, fakery, counterfeiting and many other familiar, and not so familiar, crimes. I’m certainly not about to condone such acts but it’s surely inconsistent not to be curious about, and sometimes even to admire, the human ingenuity that often lies eerily close at their heart.

A book on the aesthetics of crime would seem to be long overdue but perhaps the significant challenge for such a text would be to disentangle the principles at work in beautifully planned and executed crimes from their inherent immorality, the danger being that crime becomes unwittingly elevated to the status of art form. But there is no doubting that certain crimes have something strangely sublime - in the Burkian sense - about them that makes them all the more horrifying, and this horror emerges directly from the profound discord between the aesthetic and the moral. The same fascination can be seen in such films as Silence of the Lambs in which the character of Hannibal Lecter is portrayed as an inordinately creative but depraved monster.

As I say, this is a potential subject for a book (but not one that I’ll ever write) and is perhaps a little too ambitious for a blog post, so instead I’d like to relate a story on a much smaller scale.

Recently I was requested to attend some “staff development” training consisting of several online tasks, an online test and a day of workshops. I hate online tests, I’ll do almost anything to avoid them, and when it comes to assimilating information that has doubtful relevance to me or the things that I value, I’m also a good deal less than enthusiastic about sacrificing time that I could devote to more productive work (I’m sure I’m not alone in this respect?).

Since the online tasks were provided as independent study material, I decided to complete them as quickly as possible, which meant that I would have to devise an efficient method of cutting corners but at the same time gather the necessary data to pass the test (in education theory this is disparagingly termed “Surface Learning” but it’s something in which I consider myself to be something of an expert!).

One of the tests was audio based and required listening to an account of a fictitious event and answering questions based on information recall. I tried it once and failed. Being dysgraphic the task of keeping notes is quite a challenge for me, especially if I have to do it quickly, so this conventional solution really wasn’t applicable. How else to capture the audio then, so that I could refer back to it? My mobile phone of course! And since I’d taken this leap into the sneaky utilization of technology it was only a small step to open up each of the online learning materials in a separate window on my computer and to use this to directly access the answers to the required questions. I probably could have achieved a 100% score but that would have taken more time – I was trying to do this quickly remember – so a few incorrect answers were perfectly acceptable to pass the test.

Was this cheating? It certainly felt like cheating, but then, it also felt like being creative and in some ways the two are indistinguishable. Creativity is a process of improvising, of inventing solutions and transforming imagination into form. It frequently involves illusion (which itself is a form of deception), corner cutting and the exploitation of resources. If our ancestors had never evolved this formidable array of skills, including both their positive and negative aspects, it seems extremely unlikely that we would ever have descended from the trees.

So was it unethical to use technology to short-cut the test? If the information that needed to be assimilated was vital to my job then the answer is “Yes.” Am I therefore admitting to unethical behaviour? Not exactly. Some individuals are very good at retaining information and some are simply not – not unless it’s interesting to them that is – I’m obviously of the latter category. When we lesser mortals are tasked with the job of retaining information we often resort to tools and familiar methods: pen, paper and note taking for example, since it’s cheap and easily available.

My dysgraphia aside, why should the use of a technological form of data retrieval be more unethical than the conventional practice of note taking? I’d argue that it doesn’t. The only thing that made my use of technology ‘sneaky’ was the fact that this wasn’t envisaged by the people who put the online staff development materials together. Presumably it was their intention that these materials would slow down the process and force participants to take notes and assimilate the information at a slower rate. Slower does tend to correlate with better retention, but this begs the vital question: is information retention really necessary when technology provides us with readily available repositories of rapidly accessed information that effectively extend our cognitive capacities?

“Knowledge is of two kinds: we know a subject ourselves,
or we know where we can find information upon it.” -Samuel Johnson

Last February Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely published their research into the correlation between creativity and unethical behaviour in which they claim to have “found a robust relationship between creativity and dishonesty”. If the findings stand up to scrutiny and further research in a wider variety of settings then this would seem to create a genuine dilemma for employers in how to weigh up the potential gains as opposed to the potential losses of employing creative people in their businesses. The findings also present a dilemma for creative people themselves in evaluating their own ethical behaviour since, as Gino and Ariely point out, creative people are also more likely to come up with ingenious explanations to justify their unethical behavior.

Ah… perhaps I should go and do the staff development test again!


T. Horak said...

This is a very thought provoking post! A chemistry teacher I once had comes to my mind. He was so strict that even some older students genuinely feared him because he enforced a lot of discipline and expected a lot of knowledge. At the same time he did say before every exam, that if we cheat, we must do so in a way he has never seen before in order to avoid punishment (receiving 0 points on the exam). Although I have no recollection of anyone ever testing this, I do believe that he would have actually been true to his word and acknowledge our creativity.
I am not quite sure how rhetoric your question on the necessity of data retention is, but as it hits quite a core interest for me, I feel a strong urge to address it. Of course I seriously despise the necessity of retaining unnecessary information for the mere sake of doing so (but I also used to teach mathematics to high school students and ever so often had to answer the question "what good will this be in my future life." But discussing the evaluation of information belongs to another post.) I do not fear dependence on technology per se, I believe that it brought and brings us towards further development - without the atomic clocks in gps satellites our economy would be a very different one and our almost necessary luxuries of cherry tomatoes would disappear. Ironically I have an urge to look up the name of these atomic clocks on wikipedia to add eloquence to this response. My physics teacher did tell me once - but this data was obviously not saved and the internet would be a fantastic tool to retrieve it.
Technological advances that do fill me with fear are exemplified by two of google's new innovations. I have seen commercials on the tube (the analogue underground, not the you-type), which advertise the new audio search system with slogans like "koh-vunt gar-duhn. Say it to get it." This in part reminded me of one of my older phones which had Czech T9 on it. I never went to Czech school and never learned to write correctly, but I communicate on a daily basis with family in this language. Although my spoken vocabulary is large, my writing is poor, but understandable. With this phone, I would theoretically be able to write in (almost) perfect Czech, as it would not allow me to write a word incorrectly and I could get through a text message by guessing. Now Google and the T9 developers would make the necessity retaining the data of spelling redundant. I would never really learn anything and only use someone else's programming to cheat on my behalf - similarly as others might use your method to lower their word counts. Also I wonder how would we fill the space in our brains that we use to read and write according to the set rules? I cannot help thinking of how many people have fought to spread literacy throughout our population and now our technology is slowly making this advance redundant.
Furthermore I have heard that google is finalising their automatic live audio translators, which can translate from one spoken language to another in realtime. Will the result of this make learning foreign languages unneeded? Or will there be only one real language - the programming of google? I believe in common understanding, but this does put a whole new twist on the idea of the tower of Babel. Besides that, google is making my hard work of learning all these languages redundant!
But on a serious note, I do believe in advances through technology but I think it is crucial for individuals and society to scrutinise our so called progress to avoid a negative outcome. This is, in my view, anything that leads to lethargy of the mind.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Tom,

That chemistry teacher sounds like a very wise teacher – it also reminds me of this:

On the subject of extended cognition I certainly share many of your concerns. Here’s a really interesting article on the same subject that I read not so long ago:

But perhaps better still is this very recent radio broadcast that discusses the intelligence of computers but also the extent to which human nature is evolving in response to them:

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