Jim Dator, a specialist in futures studies—how changes or lack of changes today become tomorrow’s reality—was perhaps my most interesting interview to date for my What I’m Reading (WIMR) column. He views reading as a form of oppression and mind control, but scans the written word daily to generate ideas about the future. He agrees with the local focus of Hawai`i’s two daily newspapers, but thinks we are miseducating today’s school children. I couldn’t print our entire interview in the Advertiser July 1, 2007, so I’m posting it here so you can ruminate on the full scope of his responses–and your own vision of the future of Hawai`i and beyond.
What I’m Reading | Jim Dator
Professor and Director, Hawai`i Research Center for Future Studies, UH Manoa.
Q&A with Christine Thomas
-What are you reading?
I am primarily a futurist concerned about the future, so in order to get information about that I have to scan—I do a lot of environmental scanning, so in fact I read all the time. But I don’t read fiction. I generally don’t like fiction because I find it very boring. I read reviews about fiction so I know generally what’s being written, but I don’t spend any time at all reading fiction itself. I read poetry though, every day. I like words—it’s not that I don’t. In my general scanning I like to read the poems that are in the magazines I read. I also get “The Best American Poetry 2006 (Best American Poetry)” and that sort of stuff that gives me a collection of what somebody thinks is good poetry. Every day I start off reading the Honolulu Advertiser and after that I usually ready poetry for a while. Basically everything I’m doing—there’s no distinction between my work and my play. My reading is scanning for things to write about or talk about or use to help some organization think about the future. That’s one of the characteristic features of me.
Secondly, as a futurist I’m particularly interested, and have been for many years, in the relationship between what we know as individuals, as a culture and a society, and the way in which we acquire information about the world. Historically that means the evolution of speech…how that then enabled us to think and to organize knowledge and to organize society in ways that we couldn’t do before. And the next big breakthrough is writing, and that’s where civilization took off…that’s a huge change from the way of thinking in an oral society and the way of thinking in a written society. Then the printing press was a further transformation of that, and until then books were scarce…only those in control could read. … But now we live in a world where most people don’t read and write. They get their information from television and movies and each other. …You simply cannot get today’s students to read—they’re extremely informed about the world but for the most part they don’t like to read. …
For many years I’ve had a fight against teaching English. We are, as far as I know, the only society that teaches its native language at the University level and teaches it over and over and over. I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. … My criteria is: Can other people understand what you’re writing? If so, then you’re communicating and that’s all you need. The rest is style. … The emphasis on proper speaking and writing is really political oppression. … It’s a way to make thought conform to what somebody thinks is acceptable. It’s a way of intimidation. In many ways I’m ideological opposed to reading. People get their information not by reading but are still well informed, and until recently are still able to communicate. …. Schools miseducate by focusing on a dying art and not teaching them how to produce television shows and movies, and interactive games and all that. … But You Tube has begun to change that. Since technology has become so easy, people are learning how to communicate rather than being taught how to communicate. That’s something I really support.
-What kinds of poetry do you read?
Whatever I happen to have. For example in “The Best American Poetry 2006 (Best American Poetry)” I just start and read all the poems, and then read at the back something about the authors, and then go back and read the poems in light of what the authors say about them. I’m interested in ideas, and I use a lot of poetry in my writing and speaking. I read a lot of historical stuff, too. I like to go back and read a whole book of poetry from before Shakespeare’s time, for example, or during Shakespeare’s time, to see what people were writing and thinking about. … It’s a general interest in words and ideas that come from poetry.
-What does poetry offer that fiction doesn’t?
It’s the brevity, the conciseness. It’s agonizing over the right word. I don’t really like rhyme poetry for the most part, but the rhyme constrained what you could do which is part of the challenge of it—so that’s sort of interesting. But in so-called modern poetry, where you’re not constrained by rhyme or meter, I don’t know—it’s a mystical experience. I get goose bumps that go up and down and it’s a surprise. I basically think that the world is absurd and we run around trying to give meaning to the world in its absurdity, and poets do it so well in my opinion.
All writing is about the past because we’re stuck with these old words and worst of all people telling us how we can use them. … I just don’t like it. I’m a political scientist and I see it as politics.
-Are you getting your fill of it because in the future poetry and writing will be replaced by interactive audio-visual technology?
I spend a lot of time looking at the relationship between technology and social change. … It almost never vanishes entirely. It’s put in its proper place. It does what it continues to do best and doesn’t have to do the things it had to do simply because there wasn’t technology available to do it. … Writing emerged as labeling to tell us what was in an earthen jar that you couldn’t see through, or to mark a tombstone or a monument. That lasted for 1000 years before people began to use it to categorize things, and it sort of leads to thinking about how the world works and developing a theory and so forth. …. Then you begin to use language for poetry or laws; language is what destroyed spirituality and created religion. … All the problems that we’re in now were caused by writing in many ways. But we still speak even though we can write. So writing will remain but it will not dominate in the ways it does at the present time, I suspect. But I don’t really know the future.