Fly on the Wall—Rootin’ for Rorty

AU as Epistemic Opportunity to Challenge Norms

As a kid in the 1980s and as a teenager in the 1990s, the technological tide brought many changes.  Rural BC aided and abetted a Napoleon Dynamite sense of distance from the paved sandlots of urban Canada.

Here in the Okanagan Valley, at Princeton—our favourite pariah of a Brokeback Mountain town if you’re from it’s twin-ville of Summerland—I found a 1978 Athabasca University cassette tape.  It’s topic?  Forestry.  And, hearing it in between Green Day’s Dookie (which by that point was a long-lost relic kicking around on the bottom of my truck’s floorboards) it occurred to me what history means: nothing!

Nothing at all.  And you have to laugh; if you were thirteen listening to an album and then a generation later the same band releases a new record and teenagers lap it up like the newest dance craze (the floss)?  That is, you have to laugh about epistemology.  Epistimology is the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge, yet adult education teaches us that, even as we learn, we all at some level know very little.

So why go to school at all, let alone as an adult distance student?  Maybe we can all just go on with our lives and rely on so-called common sense.  Maybe.  Or, as they say in Mexico: quiza.  Happily, philosophers have been addressing the question of knowledge for a raccoon’s edge.  Ever count the stripes on a raccoon?  It’s tricky, and if you do, maybe your subject is already dead.

Take one of the great philosophes of the 1970s: Richard Rorty.  On science, that wonderful bugbear, bugaboo, and soothsayer of our times, Rorty wrote: “The natural sciences, by themselves, leave us convinced that we know both what we are and what we can be-not just how to predict and control our behavior, but the limits of that behavior…it is the attempt to prevent abnormal inquiry from being viewed as suspicious solely because of its abnormality” (Rorty, 363).  Openness to new ideas is what learning is all about.

Perhaps all we have in life is our history, our own lives and learning as a trail along the way where we hopefully acquire wisdom.  Sophia, sophistication, word games perchance.  To know how and why we know things is to engage academically with our epistemic baseline; that this essence is changeable is core to learning how to learn.  Truth is not eternal, after all, in a way that prevails in our hearts and minds.  Otherwise, like Christopher Robin, we would just find the North Pole and be done with it (Milne, online).  No wonder respect for our elders comes as naturally as snide hey boomer comments come out of the mouths of Millennials.  In the end, even our heartfelt selves are privy to being pried open and explored differently as soon as we allow our minds to be open to new truths.

Pow Pow Pow….Ow!

Epistemological realities are like grains of sand, the breeze of culture affects how they land.  Something in the inter generational mix of life AU lets us get unstuck from our surrounds.  And that, perhaps, makes all the difference.  Take first-person, shooter video games.  To date myself, I recall when a 007 game was released and it was like a COVID lockdown.  Whammo, all my male friends were gone, locked away in basements, closets, sheds, bedrooms with nachos, and some video game.  Grab a gun and use it, right, but is that even ever a funny or fun thing to do?  It was at that time that I learned how different the two main genders are, or can be.

Upon evaluating the reality of our surroundings and the truths that seem so evident in terms of dominant epistemological beliefs prevalent in our times I discovered this reality: video games ruined academic educations from the day they were invented.  Just like the hope for simple answers from learning does and just like our hubris, as newly-minted intellectuals, we are heading for a big fall if we think that we know what we know and that what we know is knowable in all places and all times.

The first ever first-person shooter video game had predictable bullcrap results on students who have otherwise been studying.  “After completing his spell at NASA, Thompson took the game with him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  With access to a more powerful mainframe, and the aid of David Lebling—who would go on to create the legendary text adventure Zork and found Infocom—used the US defence department-run ARPANET, a map editor, projectile graphics, scoreboards, a spectator mode and ‘bots with dynamic difficulty’, all features that would resurface in mass-market shooters many years later.  Maze War was very popular on campus—it used up so much computing resources that the MIT authorities created a ‘daemon’ program to find and shut down sessions” (Evans-Thirwell, online).  Can you imagine the entitlement of these kids who had their education handed to them?  Oh, wait.

Mind you, being funded by the military-industrial complex there was perhaps no better manner in which to dissuade critical thinking and reading than by distracting our hoi polloi minds with the industrial wizard.  And for further information I would encourage to check you to check out the 1978 TV Mini-Series Evening in Byzantium (Shaw, online).  Because, unlike the joke about undergrads who take anthropology electives because they love digging up the past, sometimes a little historical education can tell us so much more about our culture and ourself.  And we at AU are luckier to be here than a nocturnal sojourner at an Aurora borealis.

Evans-Thirwell, E.  (2017).  ‘The history of the first-person shooter.’ Retrieved from
Milne, A.A.  (1926).  ‘Exotition to the North Pole’.  Winnie the Pooh.  Retrieved from
Rorty, R.  (1979).  Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.  Princeton: Princeton University.
Shaw, E.  (1978/1973).  ‘Evening in Byzantium’.  (2021/1978).  Evening in Byzantium.  Retrieved from
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