Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Primitivist Hypocrisy?

“So you call yourself a primitivist, rail against dehumanizing technology, and promote the complete annihilation of industrial civilization.  Yet you own a refrigerator and drive a car and use a computer and a cell phone and actively partake of the technological products of industrial civilization in a thousand ways.   Surely you are aware of the contradiction.  You are a nothing but a hypocrite, and your hypocrisy renders your words vacuous.”

Interesting.  So if a smoker preaches against the dangers of smoking, then tobacco ceases to be a carcinogen? 

I am forced to live a life of contradiction.  It is not a choice.  Failure to participate nominally in the system is lethal.    It is precisely this forced contradiction that I am railing against.   I could drop out of the system to the extent allowed, and live a solitary life pushing my shopping cart from alley to alley, or huddling in the shelter of a freeway overpass.  I could build a cabin in the mountains and survive by eating roots and rabbits.  But these options would only further alienate me from my humanity. 

Humans are social animals.  We find happiness and fulfillment embedded in a meaningfully woven social fabric.   Mass technology has usurped much of our social thread, and the bonds that connect us are becoming progressively thin and tenuous.  In many cases, the only connection we have to important people in our lives is through technological mediation.  Thanks to Skype, my granddaughter and I can talk to each other’s images in real time through the computer, but we cannot plant garlic together, or sit on the riverbank and throw rocks, or chase the dog through the house.    Mass technology endorses the former and mass marketing attempts to convince us that it is equivalent—or even superior—to the latter.  Years ago, a telecommunications corporation told us that long distance was “the next best thing to being there,” a tagline that at least acknowledged the superiority of face-to-face human contact.   Now we are told that the convenience of virtual conferencing renders actual human-to-human interaction superfluous.

Yes I own a computer (and a cell phone and…).  And I use it, fully conscious of how it along with the corporate infrastructure of which it is but a small part has wedged itself between me and the free expression of my human nature.   But it is not hypocrisy to own a computer and at the same time plot to bring about a world in which computers don’t exist.    

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Monkey on our Back (Part 3)

In the end, our addiction to civilization may not be the largest obstacle we will have to scale.  The “substance” of corporate consumer culture is not really all that powerful as an addictive agent.  Ultimately its power derives from the exploitation of our evolutionary hard-wiring for an entirely different kind of lifestyle. 

Our continuing consumption of the substance of consumer culture requires continuous distraction, the unrelenting input of persuasive marketing propaganda, and the distortion of our evolved psychological tendencies.  According to Benjamin Barber, one of the ways that our consumer civilization keeps us addicted to its life-draining products is through the cultivation and promotion of an ethos of infantilization, an “enduring childishness” in which our natural psychological development is intentionally stunted in order to exploit the gullibility, impulsiveness, and narcissism of youth.  Mature adults are able to delay gratification, and understand that things that are truly worthwhile take time and effort.  They prefer to work toward enduring happiness rather than seek out transient pleasures.  They are able to live with ambiguity and appreciate a plurality of individual tastes.  They emphasize public obligation over private entitlement and reasoned deliberation over emotion-driven impulse.  All of these qualities make mature adults poor consumers. 

Disengaging from the superficial, infantilized meanings of consumerism and returning to something more in line with our evolved adult propensities will be, in terms of potency, like switching from aspirin to heroin.  Actually, the drug metaphor makes for a poor comparison in this case.  The change from modern civilization to a lifestyle more consistent with our DNA will be like waking up from a suffocating nightmare to a deep breath of cool fresh mountain air.  Without a corporate system designed to keep us functioning like child zombies, without media and advertising constantly spoon-feeding us messages about how we need to furnish our lives with the latest products that promise but fail to deliver, without the continual and accelerating infusion from the global consumer machine our lifestyles will quickly revert to ones more resonant with the subsistence-living history of our species, our lives will shift rapidly in the direction of our evolutionary default.

We just need to find a way to pull the plug. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Monkey on our Back (Part 2)

Thinking about civilization as a kind of substance to which we have developed, both individually and collectively, a powerful addiction helps explain the sometimes very strident reaction people have to suggestions that we should change the status quo, and especially their reactions to the “radical” suggestion that we should be directing all of our energy and intelligence toward eliminating civilization altogether.  A similar reaction might be expected of a drug addict who discovers that his drug supply was going to be permanently cut off. 

Often the drug along with the activities that surround its procurement and use become such an intimate part of the addict’s daily life that it is difficult for the addict to imagine anything different.  The addictive substance becomes an organizing principle, providing an otherwise hollow life with purpose and meaning.  The addiction, despite its clearly negative consequences, provides a level of comfortable certainty and predictability.  To suggest life without the drug is to suggest a different life.  And it’s not just the drug itself, but everything associated with its use.  When heroin addicts run short, many will stab themselves with empty needles, finding some relief in the ritual itself.  In the same way, during an economic downturn many people find enjoyment in shopping for consumer items that they cannot afford to buy.  Buying, consuming commercial products and services, working in exchange for money to spend on commercial products and services, acquiring an education in preparation for a career in order to work in order to be in a position to continue to buy commercial products and services are what gives life its meaning.  We are consumers; it’s what we do.  To suggest that we need to put an end to the status quo and replace it with something radically different, is to suggest that we need to acquire an entirely new sense of purpose, that we find entirely different ways of giving life its meanings, that we abandon our comfortable consumer chains, that we embrace the uncertainty of a life of freely chosen goals, that we become entirely different beings.

That’s not what anyone wants to hear—especially this time of year when meaningless material consumption becomes a religious imperative.  

Viewing our problem as one of “civilization dependence” provides a way for us to understand the unyielding support of our dehumanizing and unsustainable civilization even as its malignant tendrils wend increasingly deep into the tissue of the biosphere.  The dependence metaphor also provides a potentially useful way of anticipating people’s reactions to the civilization-dismantling process and the dramatic life changes that will be necessary if we are to pull it off. 

A psychologist by the name of James Prochaska and his colleagues developed a theoretical model of the process of change, originally designed for use by addiction counselors.  The model has application beyond substance addiction to virtually any circumstances in which personal change is involved.  The theory views change as a five stage process: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.  In the precontemplation stage, the thought of change is not being actively entertained.  During this stage the person does not recognize that there is a problem to begin with.  Or if the person does acknowledge that a problem exists, it is seen as something minor, not serious enough to do anything about.  This stage is marked by deep denial.  For addicts at this stage, the positive benefits of the drug outweigh any perceived consequences, or if there are perceived consequences, they are not seen as directly relating to the use of the substance.  For some addicts, the largest hurdle to cross is the transition from precontemplation to the next stage, the contemplation stage, to the realization that there is a problem and a need to take some action to change things.  Unfortunately, just knowing and accepting that there is a problem and wanting to fix it is not sufficient to bring about change.  And acquiring insight into the causes of a problem might be an illuminating experience, but insight by itself is not enough to fix the problem.  What is missing at this stage is a meaningful commitment to change.  During the preparation stage the person has committed to change and is in the process of putting together a strategic plan of attack.  Acceptance of the severity of the problem is accompanied by a willingness to do whatever it takes to change.  The action stage involves the actual enactment of the plan; this is where the “rubber meets the road” and the person begins to change his or her behavior.  The final stage, the maintenance stage, is one of continued vigilance following successful change.  The stages of this process are sequential and obligatory.  A person can’t jump straight from contemplation to action, for example.  And regressive periods in which a person “relapses” back to previous stages are typical and to be expected.  Also, the time course of each stage varies widely from person to person and situation to situation.  Some people can spend years in the contemplation stage, where they know there is a problem that they need to address, and yet never advance to the preparation or action stages.

As a society, we are collectively in the precontemplation stage both with respect to making changes necessary to deal with our addiction to global consumer culture and with respect to our civilization’s impending disintegration. 

Hmm.  Maybe what we need is a large-scale “intervention” in which the collective social consciousness is forced to acknowledge that there is a real problem.  What would such an intervention look like? 

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Monkey on our Back (Part 1)

People are willing to invest more energy and expense in maintaining the status quo, whatever the status quo happens to be, than they would have been willing to invest to bring those conditions about in the first place.  Psychologists call this lopsided valuation of our current circumstances status quo bias.   In its simplest form, status quo bias reflects a natural distaste for change, as if our present situation carries a kind of psychological inertia.  It’s easier to keep doing the same thing than it is to try something different—even if what we are doing isn’t working out so well for us.  So we put up with a job that is not entirely satisfying, or a marriage that is not entirely fulfilling.  Our willingness to allow the continuation of our present civilization, however, is something more than just an aversion to change.  It is something more closely akin to an addiction.  It’s as if we are addicted to civilization, hooked on consumption, and, as a result, entirely willing to ruin our personal health and the health of the planet in single-minded pursuit of our drug of choice. 

In his book, Consumed, Benjamin Barber suggests that addiction plays a major role in corporate consumer society.  Powerfully addictive substances and behaviors, tobacco, alcohol, sugar- and fat-saturated foods, television and movies, video games, are major consumer items whose use is supported by an enormous amount of corporate advertising.  In addition, the act of consumption itself has been turned into an addiction by corporate marketing, much of which is aimed at children, the most vulnerable segment of the population. I would go one step further.  It’s not just consumption, but the whole of our consumer civilization that we are addicted to. 

And to see that addiction in this instance is not just a metaphor, consider how professionals diagnose substance dependence, the clinical term for addiction, defined in the DSM-IV-TR (the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals) as “[a] maladaptive pattern of substance use, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress […].”  There are seven criteria for substance dependence listed in the DSM.  The first criterion is tolerance, the need for more of the substance to produce the desired effect, or a diminished effect with the same amount of the substance.   We quickly develop tolerance for the material accessories of our consumer society.   And it doesn’t take long before we need more and bigger and faster.  The average size of new homes, for example, has grown dramatically in the last few decades.  And once we’ve actually attained more than we had previously, the positive psychological effects don’t last long.  Research on the change in life satisfaction reported by lottery winners, for instance, has found that the initial euphoria dissipates rapidly, and in a short time the person returns to pre-winning levels of life satisfaction.  Something similar happens following the purchase of expensive consumer goods.  And then there is the cliché of the power hungry corporate executive who is never satisfied with any amount of wealth and power.  Affluence and material wealth are easy to get used to, and the desire for more is proportional to the amount that you already have: the more you have the more additional it takes in order to get the same psychological boost. 

The second criterion is withdrawal, where the person experiences uncomfortable (in some cases life-threatening) physical symptoms when they stop taking the substance.  Force an adolescent to give up their cell phone or favorite video game for a week, and you are sure to see symptoms of withdrawal that would rival a hard-core junkie going cold turkey.  Pick any modern convenience and ask yourself how you would react if it were no longer available to you.  As victims of earthquakes and hurricanes quickly discover, the lack of running water is something more than just a minor inconvenience despite the fact that indoor plumbing is an extremely recent addition to the human experience.  And what about something as central to every facet of our civilized existence as oil?  What would happen if petroleum were suddenly unavailable?  Not only would most all transportation and industrial manufacture cease immediately, but we would also lose access to numerous products that are now necessities, many pharmaceuticals and plastic components used in the health-care industry, for instance, on which people’s lives quite literally depend.  The withdrawal symptoms of our oil addiction are in actual point of fact life threatening.          

The remaining criteria for substance dependence are equally easy to apply to the products of modern civilization.  The third criterion involves the person taking more of the substance than originally intended, or taking the substance for a longer period of time than originally planned.  To see how this criterion applies, we need look no further than that embodiment of a systemic inability to delay material gratification: the credit card.  Many people have managed to rack up so much in the way of personal debt that it is no exaggeration to say that they are living lives of indentured servitude to banking corporations.  The fourth criterion involves the person wanting to quit or cut down but being unsuccessful at curtailing the use of the substance.  Our inability to reduce carbon emissions fits here, as does our reluctance to transition away from gasoline powered automobiles.  The fifth criterion is that the person spends a lot of personal time engaged in activities involved in obtaining the substance or in recovering from the effects of using.  Shopping malls have become entertainment centers.  Buying things, thinking about buying things, shopping in all of its forms represents the primary activity of many Americans.  So much so that we no longer call ourselves citizens; we are consumers.  The sixth criterion is that the person has given up or reduced participation in important activities as a result of substance use.  What we have given up in our quest for ever-increasing consumption is no less than our freedom and our humanity.  We spend more time interacting with things, with our consumer products, with our cell phones and our automobiles and our games and our entertainment centers and our computers, than with the important people in our lives. 

And the seventh criterion—and this is a diagnostic clincher for many addiction counselors—the person continues to use the substance despite “knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance.”  Our civilization is destroying the planet and us along with it.  The reckless pursuit of our number one drug of choice has is rendered a substantial proportion of the planet toxic to life.  Anthropogenic global climate change is more than likely already beyond anything we can do to reverse or even meaningfully ameliorate.  Global warming skeptics aside, we are very aware of the causes of the accelerating environmental degradation that is occurring all around us.  Our industrial civilization is vacuuming the planet of all of its irreplaceable resources while the polar ice caps melt and species after species disappears forever, and yet we do nothing.  It’s business as usual.  We drive.  We shop.  We consume.  We wage wars that indiscriminately kill men women and children by the millions and litter the environment with depleted uranium munitions to protect our access to oil so that we can continue to drive, to shop, to consume. 

With respect to consumer civilization, we appear to meet all of the criteria for substance addiction.  Moreover, it should be noted that for a person to be diagnosed with substance dependence according to the DSM, only three of the criteria need to be satisfied—any three.  We clearly have a dependence problem.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Keep America Fueled Campaign

I heard an ExxonMobil commercial on the radio the other day (note: the word ExxonMobil is included in the spellcheck dictionary for Microsoft Word 2010).  The ad was in the style of a public service announcement, and the gist of the message was that you and I could help conserve the world’s energy if we would only check the air in our tires on a regular basis.  Apparently, part of the reason for peak oil is that I’m running with a chronically underinflated left front tire.

This message is very clearly modeled after the Keep America Beautiful Campaign, one of the most successful corporate sleight of hand propaganda strategies of all time.   Now we all know that litter is a serious environmental problem, one that requires our continued vigilance.  And, no, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the over-packaging of consumer products, the accelerating propagation of fast-food chains, or the mass-production and distribution of soft drinks in single-serving containers that are destined for thousands of years in a landfill after they complete their three minutes of service.  During the 1970s, when the Keep America Beautiful Campaign was launched, we learned to direct our efforts toward disposing our wrappers and containers properly, while the factories that produced them continued to fill our air and rivers and streams and lakes with less visible but incomparably more hazardous material and Pepsi and Coke avoided costly state bottle-return legislation (note: Pepsi and Coke are also in Word's spellcheck).  

A very similar kind of redirection is being attempted by Exxon with their Keep Your Tires Filled commercials.  In addition, ExxonMobil comes across as a company that truly cares about the future of our natural resources.  If you have a few moments and are in a place where shouting obscenities Tourette’s-style at the computer screen is not likely to cause problems, check out the ExxonMobil company webpage—especially their section on “corporate citizenship” (I refuse to defile my blog with an active link to it).   You can learn all about such things as how extractive technology is actually good for the environment and how ExxonMobil is improving the lives of indigenous peoples in Canada.

Note: megamachine is not in Word’s spellcheck dictionary.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Biting the Silver Bullet

I have a difficult time wrapping my head around the “reasoning” of otherwise intelligent, educated, and thoughtful people, anarchists chief among them, who reject the primitivist agenda flat out—and usually in a patronizing and dismissive fashion as if those of us who hold anti-civilization views are infantile or delusional or both. 

Some of us are, but that’s beside the point.

Hasty reactions are frequently a sign of psychological defense, and I suspect that most rejections of primitivism are based more on an emotional response than on anything resembling a well-reasoned position.  And there are indeed several facets of primitivism as it relates to the need to eradicate civilization that can serve to trigger a dramatic emotional response.  For one thing, it would mean an end to techno-toys and the addictive distracturbation they engender.  No more HD television.  No more Game Boy.  No more iPhones.  It would mean a dramatic change of lifestyle and a redefinition—a rediscovery—of what it means to be human.  True freedom can be a terrifying thing for people who have spent their entire lives restrained in a box, where their every thought has been groomed to serve the machine.

But perhaps the most frequent and most visceral rejoinder that I have heard from anti-primitivists is that people will die.  The planet cannot support anything close to the current global population in the absence of the constant interventions and machinations of the institutions of civilization.   If the controls of the machine were removed abruptly, billions of people would die horrible starvation deaths in very short order.  And, further, the people who would die first would be those who currently occupy the bottom of civilization’s vertical pecking order: the poor, the oppressed.  Intentionally removing the controls of civilization would be akin to mass genocide (even Chomsky—of all people—has said as much).         

Let’s leave aside the fact that it is precisely the interventions and machinations of civilization that led to a planet filled with highly vulnerable people in the first place.  Let’s also leave aside the fact that it is not necessary to pull the plug all at once, and that we might find ways to prepare ahead of time for civilization’s imminent demise, ways that can serve to soften the landing.  Instead, let’s simply ask what happens if we allow civilization to continue unabated.  The number of dependent and vulnerable people will only increase with time.  When civilization eventually collapses—decline and collapse is the nature of all civilization and will occur regardless what we do—it will very likely be tens of billions of people who will die horrible starvation deaths.  People are going to die.  Primitivists don’t want lots of people to die—especially primitivists who also call themselves humanists don’t want lots of people to die! 

And of course, it’s not just people who are doomed to suffer for the sins of civilization.  The entire biosphere has already paid a price beyond all reckoning.

Those who reject primitivism are holding out for a good solution.  They want to both eat and have their cake, or at least save a couple choice slices.  But there is no good solution to the crisis of civilization.  There are only better and worse courses of action.   And the absolute worst course is to do nothing, to allow the continuation of the status quo.  Any action that is not directed toward dismantling and eventually eliminating civilization is in the wrong direction.  A return to the primitive is not a good solution.  It is quite possibly a horrible solution.  But it is the only solution.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Stopping the Megamachine

The Machine is not a Metaphor

When Lewis Mumford referred to the hierarchical power structure behind civilization as the megamachine, he was not invoking a metaphor.  Civilization is, in the most concrete sense, a machine.

The difference between the megamachine that erected the great pyramid and the one that is presently scouring the planet dead is simply one of efficiency—a product of a few thousand years of technological “improvements.”  The modern gears are constructed of a different alloy, but they turn in the same way that they have always turned.  And the end result is the same: progressive dehumanization and the despoilment of the environment.

In battle, it is almost always advantageous to know something about the opposition; knowledge of the enemy’s nature sheds light on potentially exploitable weaknesses, and suggests strategies of attack.  Our enemy is a machine.  All machines share common features and attributes, regardless of their specific design and purpose.  An automobile and a corporation have more in common with each other than either has with a living human person.  Note that this is precisely why the corporate world has taken great strides to convince humans to think of themselves in mechanical or functional terms—as consumers, for example.   

There are at least three fairly straightforward ways to shut down a machine that is made of metal and plastic and hoses and wire.  The most obvious is to disrupt access to its source of power.  Tactics for accomplishing this vary depending on the specific power source or the kind of fuel, but the options are obvious.  Another approach is to damage or remove a critical component, ideally one that is difficult or impossible to replace.  Tossing a monkey wrench into the workings is a variation on this second strategy.   A third approach is simply to employ brute force and smash the machine to pieces.   

These three general strategies apply to the megamachine of civilization just as they do to more pedestrian mechanical devices.  The major obstacles with applying these three strategies to civilization lie in the difficulty recognizing the true sources of the megamachine’s power, identifying and disabling its vulnerable critical components, or assembling a big enough hammer.  

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Conspiracy of Time

Time is a product of the mechanical clock, originally designed to coordinate the behavior of medieval monks and later coopted by capitalists to coordinate the behavior of factory wage-slaves.

Time is a mechanical abstraction.  Time is not an experiential quality for humans.  We are not psychologically equipped to organize our experience according to the arbitrary units of clock-time.  We don’t experience minutes or hours or days of the week.  Two o’clock is no different from three o’clock.  Outside of an externally imposed regimen and routine, there is nothing about a Tuesday that makes it any different from a Sunday.  Life as it is actually experienced consists of events; events possess the subjective quality of duration.  Duration is not quantifiable in terms of seconds or minutes or hours.  A year’s absence can seem like a day.  An evening can last a lifetime.

The machine, however, requires the strict coordination of all of its elemental functions, and so we are coerced into partitioning our daily activity according to arbitrary slices of clock-time and compelled to subordinate our mental and physical needs—needs that fluctuate according to their own organic tempo—to its regular, relentless, soul-draining pace.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Inoculating the Sheeple

The recent media screech over the TSA airport security procedures would be funny if it weren’t for the insidious purpose behind it—the purpose behind the media message, that is.

Let’s be clear about a couple things.  In the first place, the intrusive airport security measures would not stop a single terrorist with a death-wish and half a brain from blowing up any airplane she wanted.  If I were a terrorist who wanted to achieve maximum impact, I wouldn’t try to take down a passenger plane to begin with; I would take down the entire airport.  A bomb capable of destroying a sizeable chunk of any major airport in the US could be packed in a modest suitcase, wheeled in, and detonated in a highly populated area without passing through any security screening at all.  Which would get the most attention, which would cause the most disruption to the system, taking out a single plane or shutting down a major airport? 

But more importantly, airport security is not about security, it is about control.  It is a way of keeping the masses cowed and submissive.  That is the real purpose behind all surveillance:  “We’re watching you, so don’t step out of line.”

There are two related reasons that the news media have been drawing our attention to the invasiveness of the TSA screenings with such gusto.  First, it is an issue guaranteed to generate controversy, and thus ratings.  It is an issue about which any redneck moron is capable of forming a “reasoned” justification for his or her reflexive and uninformed opinion, and the news media feed on the ignorance and vanity of morons.

Second—and this is the insidious part—it is a way of inoculating the masses against future thoughts of resistance.  Remember, the news media are part of the machine.  They can serve no interests other than those of the machine.  The media would never highlight the evils of the machine unless it is in the best interests of the machine to do so.  As for the TSA screening techniques, it is necessary for the efficiency of the machine that we acquiesce to this (and any future) violation of our freedom and privacy.  

Invariably, recent TSA news items have been accompanied by a sound bite from some government official or politician or “expert” responding with some version of “that’s the world we live in now, so get used to it.”  So the underlying message is that it is necessary for our own safety that we relinquish our humanity.  The real purpose behind the media screech is to convince us that we are helpless to resist the machine.  By drawing attention to the fact that our freedom is being siphoned out from under our feet and we are helpless to do anything about it, that we have no real recourse, the media grooms a cognitive dissonance that can be quelled only if we accept the ridiculous and demonstrably false notion that it is really for our own good.   

I suspect there may be boxcars in our future. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Conspiracy Theory and a Wager

The recent congressional refusal to extend unemployment benefits is part of an ongoing and systematic drive by politicians (read: corporate sock-puppets) to generate policy and legislation to reduce the economic power of the working class (and actually increase unemployment) in order to bolster the ranks of the desperately poor.  Despite corporate media’s incessant and solicitous noise about the deeply troubled national economy, a state of perpetual economic crisis is precisely what the corporate world wants to bring about.

Why would anyone want the streets in this country filled with the poor and unemployed?  Whose interests would that possibly serve? 

The second question has but one possible answer. 

As for the first question: capitalists during the throes of the industrial revolution depended on the presence of vast seas of the unemployed poor to run the machines.  Imagine the money that present-day industrialists could save if they didn’t have to outsource, if they could run their sweatshops right here, if there was an easily tapped  local labor pool, if there was a vast sea of American indentured wage-slaves willing to work for less than what it costs for them to live.    

In addition, a less obvious but potentially more lucrative reason for increasing poverty in the US is that by doing so the few remaining government-provided essential social services, the police, fire department, etc., will be overwhelmed and forced to enlist the services of—and then quickly be entirely replaced by—private companies.

I am both disheartened and encouraged by this last possibility.  If the corporate world succeeds (and part of me groans with the suspicion that it already has), our dystopic future is sealed.  The machine will have won.  But there is some reason to allow the indulgence of a tiny slice of hope.  The transition to total privatization will likely be attended by substantial social unrest; and there may be windows of opportunity, opportunities for resistance, real opportunities to effect systemic destabilization. 

The corporate world is gambling that we won’t notice, that enough of us will be sufficiently distracted by sparkly corporate entertainment technology to notice, or to care even if we do notice, or to feel empowered to act even if we care. 

The odds are not very good, but what do we have to lose?

Yes, that’s the real question here: what is it that we stand to lose? 

Deal me in!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Account Balance: Red

Pro-globalization cheerleaders such as Fareed Zakaria tell us that economic growth is not zero-sum, that mutual wealth and prosperity for all is a realistic goal.    

Growth is only not zero sum within a very shallow economic frame that ignores externalities.  The biosphere for all (human) intents and purposes is a closed system.  In a closed system, for one thing to grow, something else has to be depleted.  That’s zero-sum.  In fact, because our economy is driven almost entirely by a focus on short-term gain that ignores the very substantial long-term costs of that short-term gain (gulf oil rupture, anyone?), there is a lopsidedness built into our ideas of growth that make it not just a zero-sum, but a we-all-lose. 

My grandchildren and great grandchildren into the 7th generation will be paying the price for the economic growth that has occurred in just the last decade—if anyone is still left standing, that is.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Facebook is Evil

Let me count the ways:

  1. Facebook (and most other internet-based activity) is the bread-and-circuses of the 21st century.  Our corporate masters have fashioned a techno-entertainment-distraction culture to keep us too busy to question our mindless consumption. While we are playing with our social-networking toys, the earth is burning around our heads.
  1. Like all forms of social media, it encourages and perpetuates superficial social relationships and facilitates the intrusion of a “quantity is quality” economic mindset into the world of personal social interaction.
  1. It exacerbates consumer society’s focus on image over substance.
  1. It represents an exploitation of our loss of deep and meaningful social connection that results from a superficial consumer lifestyle.
  1. Participation on Facebook grooms us for life in a surveillance society, and eases us into a passive acceptance of the loss of personal privacy.  Social media are in fact redefining what “privacy” means. 
  1. It provides a large and vulnerable captive audience for corporate marketing.
  1. It (along with cell phone texting, email, twitter, etc.) conditions us to impoverished forms of mediated communication.
  1. It encourages identity fragmentation.
  1. It accelerates the process of global cultural homogenization, helping to export corporate consumerism to remote parts of the globe.
  1.  It is potentially addictive, and can lead to the same kind of life disrupting behavior seen with severe drug addiction. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Who says we can't simply walk away?

One of the most often cited clichés about technology is that once a technological innovation has occurred, it can’t be undone.  Technology is accumulative and irreversible.  So we are stuck with nuclear weapons and cell phones.  We simply can’t go back, so our only recourse is to press forward with evermore sophisticated technology.  Our salvation lies in technological advancement.  

Leaving aside for the moment the insanity of the idea that the cure for our illness is to swallow more of the poison that has made us sick in the first place, the idea that technology is accumulative and possesses an inevitable progressive momentum is directly refuted by factual history.

There are prominent historical examples of entire civilizations being abandoned, along with the vast majority of their technological accoutrements.  The citizens of the Mississippian culture apparently walked away from a complex and dynamic empire.  And what of the Maya and the Olmec and the Anasazi?  The fact that there are people alive today who rightfully claim these folks as ancestors suggests that the children and grandchildren of the last denizens of these societies continued living, and in a technological state that was qualitatively different than the one present while the civilization flourished.  So much for progressive inevitability.   

As an aside, note that these are frequently cited as examples of failed civilizations.   The idea of failure, however, only applies if you assume a progressive view of civilization in the first place—a view that germinated in the capitalist soil of the European industrial revolution.  Apparently technology is accumulative and inevitable as long as you get it right.

There are also countless examples of specific technologies that have been abandoned or rejected despite the lack of clearly superior alternatives.  For example, asbestos is no longer a primary ingredient in home construction despite the absence of a clearly superior fireproofing agent.  When the dangers of a technology are found to outweigh its advantages, as was eventually evident with asbestos, abandoning the technology is the only logical choice. 

The long-term dangers of our corporate consumer civilization—dangers to the planet and to humanity—far outstrip any potential short-term advantages.  Unfortunately the evidence of these dangers has been obscured by the glitz and glitter of consumer mass marketing, and by the frenetic pace of a technology-saturated acquisitive lifestyle. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Burning Bridges (and dams and highways and power plants and…)

Yes, destruction of physical infrastructure is an important objective.  And anyone who takes out a dam or a coal supply line has my approbation.  But I think Kaczinski’s admonition not to target the fist is good advice. 

A fighter dodges the fist, blocks the fist, tries to get to the soft parts of the body behind the fist.  He doesn’t attack the fist itself.  The superficial infrastructural trappings of civilization, highways, communication conduits, dams, rail lines, all play a “fist” role.  As do—far less metaphorically—the police, the government, and the legal system.  It’s these things that give civilization its “punch”.  But the punch is being directed from somewhere else.

Also, by pointing out the weak links in the system, the destruction of physical infrastructure has an unwanted side effect.  Future structures will be built with an eye to removing the weakness.  In this way random and uncoordinated attacks on infrastructure serve the interests of the system by uncovering points of vulnerability that need reinforcement. 

And the fist becomes stronger.

The forces directing the punch, however, are seated in civilization’s vital and largely unprotected organs.  One good punch to the spleen and it’s all over.

Think, OldDog.  Where is civilization’s spleen? 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On the Myth of Equality

While not all foraging societies have been entirely egalitarian, it is at least theoretically possible for a tribal society to manifest something very close to true social equality.

It is, however, impossible to incorporate even a small degree of egalitarianism into a consumer-based, corporate system.  And it’s not just a pragmatic matter—the corporate system is a system designed specifically to promote and increase disparity.  It is a system of exploitation.  If everyone were suddenly to have equal access and equal power, the entire system would pop into nothingness like a soap bubble.

All men (and women) may be created equal (whatever that means), but the instant they engage the system they are sorted into a complex hierarchy of access, a hierarchy that reaches deep into the womb.  For 21st century humans, freedom ends at conception.

But the push for equality is really not about freedom anyway.  The term freedom has no referent in a hierarchical system.  The push for equality is really a struggle for greater access to the reigns of exploitation.  The potent irony is that the entire purpose the system in the first place is to effect the efficient exploitation of humanity.

I suppose that if I am going to lose my leg regardless, and I was given the choice, I would rather cut it off myself than give the knife to someone else.

The question of why any of us should have to sacrifice a leg—read: our humanity—is never addressed.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Grim Tale

Once upon a time…

Sometime between 2 and 5 million years ago, one of the many extant species of chimpanzee developed characteristics sufficiently close to the modern humans who called themselves scientists for the scientists to consider them to be members of their own species.

This new species of chimpanzee quickly settled into a genetic configuration that is virtually identical in all important respects to yours and mine.  Coincident with this configuration was a lifestyle that involved nomadic and semi-nomadic foraging in small highly cooperative, largely egalitarian social groups and the manufacture and use of relatively sophisticated stone, bone, and wood tools.  Many of these groups practiced small-scale gardening to augment their diet, but the majority of their food came from wild-harvested roots, fruits, nuts, berries, and game. 

Time passed. 

Lots and lots of time passed.

Very recently, beginning just 9 or 10 thousand years ago, an infinitesimally small minority of these people began to engage in large-scale domestication experiments.  The incorporation of farming and animal husbandry by these people had profoundly negative ramifications for their physical, psychological, and social well-being as well as deadly consequences for their foraging neighbors.   

With domestication came surplus food.  With surplus food came an increase in the population.  The rapidly increasing population of farming peoples ensured the eventual displacement and/or assimilation of the surrounding foraging populations, and domestication quickly became a dominant lifestyle.

Domestication also introduced hierarchical power relationships, eventually leading to cities and city states ruled by kings.  These early city states eventually collapsed as they over-exploited their local resources.  But the statistical inevitability and virus-like quality of the domesticating lifestyle ensured that others would emerge someplace else.

Numerous tools were developed in order to maintain control of the laboring masses and support the imposition of unnatural power hierarchies; chief among these tools was religion.  Later tools included abstractions such as private property, capital, and democracy.  Religious systems in Europe led to the use of the mechanical clock to coordinate the behavior of monks.  Capitalists later borrowed the monks’ clock to coordinate the behavior of wage-slaves. 

And the modern machine was born.

And the machine quickly discovered oil and the international corporation.

And the corporation declared itself the legal equivalent of a human being.

And very little time passed before the planet died.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Compromise as Immolation

The first humans to fashion blades out of flint were no doubt painfully aware of a potent fundamental truth about technology: it cuts both ways.  Language, our most generally useful technology, is not exempt from this fundamental truth.  Language is our number one go-to tool when faced with any social problem.  Less obvious, perhaps, is the degree to which language is responsible for generating the problem in the first place. 

But that is subject matter for another post.  Here I just want to follow up on a recent conversion I had about the language of compromise. 

Compromise, the very idea of compromise, is a product of civilization.  Compromise makes no sense outside of hierarchical power structures.  And the more oppressive and comprehensive the power structure, the more prevalent is the need for compromise.  The early users of flint blades never had any use for compromise.  For the prisoners of corporate industrial society, compromise is how we live.

“Wait.  But isn’t compromise a good thing?  Aren’t we taught as very young children to get along with each other and help each other—to cooperate?  Isn’t our ability to cooperate part of what makes us social animals?”

Yes. Cooperation is clearly a defining feature of our species.  But compromise is not the same as cooperation.  Cooperation means that we are pursuing the same goal.  Compromise means that at least one of us has abandoned our original goal and replaced it with something else.  This is not a subtle difference, and yet those in power intentionally conflate the two terms.  If you don’t go along with the corporate agenda, if you are unwilling to sacrifice your goals on the corporate alter, if you are unwilling to compromise, you are being uncooperative.

Compromise is a tool for manipulation and control.  Compromise is how we are kept subservient and submissive.  It is to the advantage of those in power that we choose compromise over cooperation—even better if we think of compromise as a means of cooperation. 

Let me be clear: it is not. 

Compromise is not a form of cooperation.  Compromise is a form of obeisance.  Compromise is a compliance-inducing soporific.  Cooperation is a weapon of liberation.

Monday, November 1, 2010

In Passing

Data and information are not synonymous.  Information is not knowledge.  Knowledge is not wisdom.

At least according to the traditional ways in which these terms have been defined. 

But as we ride the spasms of the google-wiki-facebook-twitter-ipad technophile orgasm, the once-clear distinctions among these terms have blurred.  We no longer recognize either knowledge or wisdom as something separate from data and information.  Knowledge is equated with data and wisdom is reduced to the capacity to access information—and both are for sale, distilled and encapsulated in the latest smartphone app.  We have become a people for whom wisdom (in the older sense of the term) has no place, living in a culture for which knowledge (the ability to put information to meaningful use) serves no real purpose.

We’ve been here before.  We’ve been through a perhaps equally dramatic although not quite as ostentatious transition: the transition from the oral tradition to writing gave us a technologically mediated memory—far more accurate and efficient, but also somehow less human.

To what is our present technological transition leading?  What of ourselves have we already naively discarded along the way?  What will emerge from the escalating infiltration of technological mediation in all regions of experience, a mediation that permeates our personal relationships, modulates our feelings, and makes private thought a redundancy?  

Friday, October 29, 2010

Passive Aggressive

I have sent numerous business reply envelopes back to their source with a simple “no thanks” scrawled across the application inside.  I usually scrawl something a bit less polite across the ones from credit card companies.  Time is money according to corporate math, and so anything I can do to engage a corporate employee’s time has an impact on the corporate bottom line.

I try to avoid box stores like the plague (they are in fact symptoms of a deadly social disease).  But if I do find myself in Walmart or some other Chinese outlet store, there are things that I can do to insure that my purchase will not actually contribute directly to the corporate bottom line.

For example, I could spend some time wandering around the store collecting items in my shopping cart and re-shelving them randomly.  I could send each employee I come across on a wild goose chase in search of an item I know they don’t carry.  And when I get to the checkout lane, I could have the checker checkout a large cart full of items and then “change my mind” claiming that I can only afford the one item I originally came to purchase.  If I do all of these things and keep my purchase small, then the corporation will have spent at least as much in wage-slave labor costs and I will have offset my contribution to the corporate coffers.   

But this is passive aggressive.  Passive aggressive behavior is the last recourse of the powerless—a slave spitting into the master’s soup. 

We need to be setting the plantation on fire!

Monday, October 25, 2010

When your only tool is a hammer…

There is a certain level of symbiotic adaptation required with even the most simple of tools.  Anyone who has ever developed calluses from using a shovel or hayfork understands how a specific tool can leave its mark.  I have a permanent bump on the last joint of the middle finger of my writing hand that embodies decades of pushing pens and pencils.  Some tools necessitate less visible but more severe adaptations.  Think of the uncountable cognitive adaptations required to use modern communication technology.  And even the skilled operation of a primitive stone knife or axe involves permanent neuromuscular adaptation on the part of the operator. 

My point is that tool use changes the person using the tool.  In cases of simple tool use, the changes are usually benign and perhaps even beneficial (e.g., by increasing muscular strength or overall coordination).  But adaptation to some tools can have far-reaching negative ramifications.

Consider domestication.

In terms of its long-term impact on the human species—and the rest of the planet—domestication is easily the most dangerous and malignant tool ever devised.  And it’s not just the obvious material consequences that make domestication so dangerous.  Domestication changes how we think about who we are. 

Although this applies equally to plant domestication, it is perhaps more obvious with animals.  For foraging hunter-gatherers, there is often an underlying respect and reverence for other wild creatures.  That reverence is lost when the animals are caged and corralled and raised to be driven and milked and butchered.  Intelligent quarry becomes a dumb animal.  The difference is reflected in our metaphoric use of animals in everyday language.  Domestic animals are invariably linked with derisive adjectives: fat cow, dirty pig, mindless sheep, chicken (coward).  Contrast that with the clever fox, the wise owl, the majestic lion, and the graceful deer.

But the conceptual consequences of domestication go far deeper than mere metaphor.  The historic transition from wild-hunted to pastured to CAFO maps on directly to the transition from foraging band to agricultural village to modern megalopolis—from free being to land-bound laborer to mindless corporate wage-slave. 

Tools designed for one set of functions are quite frequently re-appropriated and applied to others.  In this way, domestication provides a conceptual template that is readily applied to the human social world, yielding a rich source for the dehumanization of any group of individuals who serve as potential obstacles to the goals of those in power. 

Perhaps most insidious of all is the ease with which we direct this tool to ourselves.  As individuals, we learn very young to apply the template of domestication to our own thoughts and actions.  Participation in modern society demands that we have the wilderness in our DNA firmly caged.   

Friday, October 22, 2010


The infrastructural linchpins, the system’s nodes of vulnerability, fall into two general classes: physical and psychological.

The physical targets are fairly obvious: the various structures supporting energy production and communication.  And many of these structures are entirely exposed.  In the US, for example, there has been a lot of effort directed at protecting high-visibility terrorist targets.  Fortunately, the goals of terrorism and the goal of dismantling civilization are not commensurate.  Terrorists are all about shock and awe.  Terrorists are not interested in change of a truly fundamental sort.  Terrorists want to change the system in ways that suit their interests.  They are not interested in eliminating the system itself (Sadly, this is as true for most eco-terrorists as it is for Islamic extremists).  Because of this, some of the most vulnerable gears in the machine are left unguarded. 

As just one example, consider that the majority of power plants are coal-fired and that the coal is supplied to these plants by rail lines that travel though land that is both easily accessible and unguarded.  Suppose that a group of loosely organized individuals took it upon themselves to disrupt the coal supply to several power plants simultaneously.  How many rail lines would have to be disabled and for how long?

The psychological targets are less obvious.  The global corporate system is ultimately a system for organizing human behavior, and in some ways the psychological infrastructure of civilization will be more difficult to dismantle.  Corporate marketing has pretty much cornered the market on propaganda, so, although it is essential to attack on multiple fronts, direct attempts to change people’s attitudes will likely meet with limited success. 

Here is where we need to be creative.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On Ends and Means

A frequent reaction to calls for a dramatic change in the status quo is that the status quo is simply too massive to change, or that it has acquired too much momentum for us to be able to make any meaningful course correction at this point.  Yes, our civilization is killing the planet, but there is nothing that we can do to stop it now.  We have no choice but to let the corporate industrial snowball continue to smash its way downhill at an ever-accelerating rate, assimilating everything in its path, until it eventually explodes against the base of the mountain.

The omnipresence and complexity of the current global system, however, may actually prove to be an advantage.  Taking their cue from nonlinear dynamics, some have speculated that the emergence and proliferation of networks of small self-reliant communities, once they exceed a certain critical mass and level of interconnectivity, may lead to a rapid and dramatic global reorganization, ushering in a completely new kind of global economic configuration (e.g., see Carson here).  There may be some merit to this speculation.  However, it is important to note that nonlinear systems can reconfigure in unpredictable ways; the structure of the new global system may bear little or no resemblance to the pattern of changes that led to the dynamic reconfiguration.  A totalitarian global police state is as likely an outcome as any other.  We need to work to eliminate the system, not replace it.

The snowball metaphor is informative, because it is the snowball’s speed and mass that make it vulnerable to centripetal force; relatively minor structural instability can cause the snowball to fly apart.  Likewise, the sheer mass and velocity of our civilization makes it vulnerable to even very minor internal structural weakness.

Change can occur through both violent and non violent means, although the former are frequenlty the most effective—and too often the only ones available.  Non violent means do not ensure a peaceful result.  By the same token we should not shy away from using force where necessary to knock loose the linchpins.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Losing Our Place

Place is the ultimate source of culture.  The local environment—the local climate, geography, flora, fauna—sets the parameters regarding the specific behaviors required for survival.  Culture is merely(!) the historical organization and elaboration of these behaviors over time, and the assimilation and adaptation of these behaviors by people living in different places. 

Obviously this is a gross oversimplification. 

My point is simply to reference the foundational role the local environment has played in human culture.  Culture is grounded in the physical world, and the ways we negotiate the demands of life in specific places.  

But all that is long past.  Our connection to place is rapidly dissolving.  Modern “culture” forces us into lifestyles that are increasingly untethered from the local world.  My food comes from 1500 miles away.  My children are forced to move to other time zones to find employment.  Events in China have a direct impact on my economic well-being.  The quality of the air I breathe is controlled by lawyers and lobbyists for corporations headquartered in the Cayman Islands          

As citizens of a culturally-diluted global society, we are losing our sense of place.  We are rapidly becoming a race of beings who don’t know where we belong in the world.  What that really means for us, I’m not sure.

I do know that it is a serious problem, and that the problem lies somewhere in our willingness to buy into the meme, our willingness to see ourselves as members of an abstract global system rather than as individual human beings living in a concrete physical world.  

Friday, October 15, 2010

Are Humans Still Evolving?

A potential argument against the anarcho-primitivist agenda is that humans are no longer the same physical beings that we once were.   Researchers have found evidence of numerous genetic changes that have occurred in the last several thousand years, many of which have occurred within just the last five millennia.  Our DNA has apparently been altered by civilization.  Some scientists go so far as to suggest that civilization itself is a result of critical changes in our DNA.  Either way, we have evolved beyond our foraging ancestors and can no longer be expected to flourish as hunter-gatherers.

There are numerous things wrong with this argument—not the least of which is the implication that evolution is progressive.  Here’s just one other minor problem:

Anyone who claims that humans have evolved within the last 5-10 thousand years is limiting their definition of “human” to exclude the indigenous inhabitants of Australia and New Zealand and other groups of people who have until recently been living in isolation from the populations of Africa, Asia, and Europe—an isolation that predates the agricultural revolution.  If we include Australian aborigines, then the changes in human DNA being cited as evidence of recent human evolution are really just changes in the DNA of subpopulations of humans, and represent fluctuations in the genetic variability between subpopulations (which happens all the time in virtually all species), not changes in humans as a species.  And the changes we are talking about are really not all that substantial.  I suspect that there are far more profound genetic differences between poodles and cocker spaniels. 

And, further, I would argue that the (relatively) recent changes in human DNA are a result of artificial selection, not natural selection.  They are side-effects of the “domestication” of the human species. 

And as far as the question of whether our changing DNA prevents us from flourishing in the absence of civilization’s oppressive omnipresence, it is perhaps most informative to note the seamless ease with which highly trained domestic dogs revert to their pack-scavenging ways when given the opportunity.           

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In Search of an Organic Herbicide for Corporate Weeds

In the late 1970s, a Japanese farmer by the name of Mansanobu Fukuoka wrote The One Straw Revolution.  Fukuoka’s book—really a manifesto—presents an approach to organic farming that can serve as a powerful model for a commonsense approach to living in general.  He calls his method “do-nothing” farming.  It is based on the premise that working with the land’s evolved natural propensities can ultimately yield far superior results compared to modern farming with its monoculture and its labor-intensive environmentally destructive techniques.  Modern industrial farming attempts to force nature, or impose an artificial structure on the natural world.  Fields are plowed and planted with crops that need to be fertilized because the soil’s ability to sustain growth has been destroyed by the cultivation itself.  Herbicides are then applied to keep the “weeds” at bay.  All of this requires an enormous amount of human and natural resources.  Fukuoka’s do-nothing approach is simply to scatter seed on an existing uncultivated field.  Along with the desired crop, “weeds” of a certain type are planted to keep other weeds in check.  The straw from one harvest is allowed to sit on the field and decompose naturally even as the next season’s crop is being sown.  After a few seasons, the field is producing almost as much as a commercially cultivated and chemically treated field—but without either the cultivation or the chemicals.  The plants are healthier, and there is a net improvement in the soil season by season.  Even poor land and depleted soil can be resurrected by his methods. 

Fukuoka’s do-nothing approach to farming has something important to offer us, something more than mere metaphor.  Industrial civilization forces us to live in an unnatural, highly “cultivated” manner, and by living in this way we destroy our environment in the same way that plants forced to live in industrial monoculture exhaust the soil.  And, as with the crops of industrial agriculture, it takes an enormous amount of energy and resources to maintain our lifestyle because we are being forced to live in conditions that run counter to our evolved propensities.  Fukuoka’s solution is to stop the machines, let the soil and the plants do what they have been designed to do through several hundred million years of evolutionary fine-tuning.  Likewise, the solution to restoring our environment is to stop the machine of civilization, stop forcing our lives into conformity with an artificial and inhuman mode of being.  Out of civilization’s remains will eventually emerge fertile social and ecological “soil” for nurturing all of our human needs.  The problem will be one of stopping the cultivators, putting an end to the mechanical disturbance, and then having the patience to allow the dust to settle. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Psychology of Wage Labor

A coworker overheard me bemoaning the small stature of my paycheck and took it upon himself to set my perspective right by reminding me that I am earning more than most people in our part of the state.  I really have no right to complain, he said.

My response was to smile and walk away.  I do not usually feel compelled to calibrate my coworkers’ distorted perspectives. 

If I did, I would have told him that that way of thinking is completely backward.  Instead of being happy that I don’t have it as bad as some others, I should be incensed that others have it worse than I do!  Who benefits from my complacency?  Whose interests are being served if I am content to “count my blessings”? 

Having a substantial portion of the population unemployed or underemployed serves a dual purpose: it keeps wages low and, by tapping into our sense of just-world fairness, it keeps us from demanding to be paid what we feel our labor is actually worth.

Of course, the real issue is the insanity of the capitalist frame that allows us to assign monetary value to labor in the first place.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dress Rehearsal

Iraq has served as a training ground for urban warfare.  The same tactics used for fighting insurgents in Baghdad will work just as well against those who dare challenge the corporate machine (the corporate media will call them terrorists) in Chicago and Denver and Seattle and Atlanta and Indianapolis and… 

Iraq has also introduced the general public to the idea of private security forces.  Corporate interests working through governments can enlist the services of corporate militias to impose the corporate will.  With the economy in the tank, it’s only a matter of time before the local police are privatized.  The government-to-private transition is already well underway in the penal system.

And Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan are field test sites for aerial hunter-killer robots.  How soon before the buzz of Predator drones fills the sky over Los Angeles?  Of course it will be for our own safety and protection.     

Friday, October 1, 2010

Beware of Ceremony

Ceremony is an attempt to infuse the trivial with meaning and importance.  If the circumstances being celebrated were intrinsically relevant, they would not require a public spectacle.  Ceremony is one of the earliest forms of thought control.  It is a tool used to homogenize the beliefs of individuals and align them with the goals of the power elite.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Destroying the Genie's Bottle

Dehumanizing technology doesn’t just happen.  Face-recognition surveillance systems, genetically altered salmon, and smart bombs are not inevitable results of the accumulation of knowledge, simple data points marking our progress, milestones on an upward path of ever increasing sophistication with respect to our ability to make and use tools.  Dehumanizing technology emerges from within a complex infrastructure that itself is designed—on every facet and at every level—to maximize exploitation, exploitation of the natural world, exploitation of human behavior, exploitation of the residue of previous exploitation.  And any new technology that emerges from within this infrastructure serves to enhance the capacity to exploit.      

The technology that emerges from within the global corporate industrial machine is not designed to promote human (or any other creature’s) wellbeing.  It doesn’t come into existence through the remote labor and insight of really smart people struggling alone to overcome specific problems in order to improve the human condition.  It comes into existence as a function of the operation of the machine itself.  It is not designed to service human ends.  It is designed to service the ends of the global corporate industrial machine.  And in almost every single case, technological “innovation” leads to the impoverishment of human experience. 

This is perhaps most obvious with electronic distraction technology, things such as cell phones and iPhones and high definition television, things that isolate us and insulate us from the world even as they provide us with an illusion of integration and connectivity.  But even something as superficially beneficial as pharmaceutical tech enfeebles us by increasing our dependency on the corporate machine and weakening our bodies’ natural coping mechanisms.

More to the point, the technology that emerges from the machine is not the result of our species’ natural developmental progression.  It is a byproduct of industrial civilization—our specific version of industrial civilization, a version that reflects countless accidents of history and geography.  It is a heinous and unnatural beast that needs to be destroyed before it destroys everything else.

Interesting: the archetypical genie bottle would make an ideal Molotov cocktail.    

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rebottling the Genie

Djinn are powerful inhabitants of Islamic cosmology who were made from smokeless fire.  They are the only beings in Allah’s creation other than humans to possess free will.

Smokeless fire?  Electricity?  If artificial intelligence is allowed to continue along its present developmental trajectory, perhaps the Djinn will reemerge from the sands of Arabic mythology to inhabit the silicone of electronic circuitry.

You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, or so the cliché goes.  You can’t reverse technological “progress” once it has happened.  And, besides, who would want to?  Who would want to go back to a world without cell phones and robotic aircraft and video pornography on demand?  Who would want to go back to a world without touch screens and debit cards and airport body scanners?  Who would want to go back to a world with an intact ozone layer and thriving ecosystems?  Who besides a muddle-headed anarcho-primitivist would want to go back to a time when life was a direct, unmediated, human experience?          

Maybe it’s true.  Maybe we can’t put the genie back in the bottle.  But that doesn’t mean that we are doomed to live as helpless, dehumanized victims of our own technology.  Just because we can’t put the genie back doesn't mean that we can't destroy the bottle.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Cult of Expertise (Part 1)

The life of a “primitive” is perilous.  There are dangers lurking in every tree, under every rock.  Life in the modern world is no less perilous, although the dangers are less salient, perhaps.  There is danger lurking in every egg processing plant, in every corporate boardroom.  The air we breathe, the water we drink, the factory farmed food we eat, the buildings we occupy, the appliances we interact with, the political alliances our leaders forge are all potentially deadly.   

The difference between the two, the primitive and the modern, is that the former is personally equipped to face the danger; he has the weapons and the physical constitution—and the knowledge—to protect himself and his family.  He may not always be successful, but he always has the power to act in his own best interests.

That is not the case with the victims of civilization.  As an individual, I have very little power over daily threats to my existence.  I have no control over the levels of toxins released in the air and water.  I have no control over the side effects of the genetic alteration of my food.  I have no control over oil spills or nuclear accidents or plane crashes or levee failures.  How much mercury is safe to eat?  How many highway deaths are acceptable?  I have been trained from a very early age to acquiesce to the opinions of experts and to the demands of people who have been granted the power to make decisions.  And there are laws and regulations and policies—and people with badges and guns—to ensure that I continue in my acquiescence.  I have no choice.  I have no real control.  And the knowledge I am allowed to exercise is restricted to my own slice of specialization.  

Specialization and division of labor is the hallmark of civilization.  A sense of personal power and control is the hallmark of psychological adjustment.  There is an inverse relationship between personal control and specialization, which suggests that psychological adjustment and civilization are mutually incompatible. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Words Are Not Enough

Don’t look now, but something is happening to the language of dissent.

Hyperbole has historically played a starring role in partisan political commentary, with only a rare cameo appearance in mainstream news coverage.  There is something about the language of extremes that seems at odds with objective, just-the-facts-ma’am reporting.  In recent years, however, perhaps due in large part to Fox News, hyperbole has found an increasingly welcome home in the mainstream.  

Maybe the increasing use of hyperbole simply reflects an attempt to be heard over the pandemonium of a Youtube-Twitter-Facebook cacophony, to be noticed against an ever-expanding backdrop of instant infotainment where all but the most extreme and most outrageous is ignored.  

Whatever the reasons, a side effect is that the words and expressions that we use to describe extremes are being divested of their capacity to have an emotional impact.  Words such as tragedy and catastrophe are applied with equal descriptive power to a minor irritation such as a traffic jam, a statistical blip in the stock market, and the plight of an Afghani father whose children were vaporized in the night by a US Predator Drone attack. 

As potential weapons in the battle against the machine, words are losing their cutting edge.  The language of dissent is being worn down, dulled, blunted. 

Language is still an important weapon in the arsenal of revolution.  But words alone are not enough.  They never have been.  Dissent needs to be action-based—we are not going to talk the corporate machine into pieces.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Zero Sum

A recent census bureau report charts a jump in the US poverty rate to 14.3%.  Poverty, as expected, is defined in terms of income, with the bar set at just under $11,000 per year for an individual and just under $22,000 per year for a family of four.  Fourteen percent works out to about one in seven people. 

The conservative talking heads are trying to tie the spike in poverty to too much government regulation and to the flawed fiscal ideology of their political counterparts on the left.  The liberals and progressives are blaming the rich for stacking the deck in their favor by outsourcing and by stocking the government with political puppets and corporate whores to ensure that only the poor and middle class have to pay taxes on any relevant proportion of their income.   

What both camps fail to see is that poverty is a natural—and logically necessary—result of the accumulation of wealth.  Wealth is only achieved through impoverishment.  They are flip sides of the same coin.  The US is the wealthiest nation in the history of nations.  But in order to earn that title, the rest of the planet had to be impoverished.  And for any individual—for you and me—an increase in personal wealth is brought about only through a concomitant decrease for someone or something else.

It is a zero-sum game.

Bear with me for a moment.

Although wealth is almost always talked about in monetary terms, money is a very inaccurate and unreliable metric.  Further, money only captures one facet of the wealth-impoverishment process.  The wealth-impoverishment process involves much that is simply not quantifiable.  How do you assign a dollar value to things like species diversity or ecosystem integrity or feelings of fulfillment or sense of meaning and purpose or human dignity

Maybe a concrete example will help.  The owner of a mining company becomes wealthy through the extraction and sale of mineral resources.  It is impossible to extract mineral resources without damaging or permanently destroying—impoverishing—the surrounding environment.  It is impossible to extract mineral resources without generating waste and contributing to global climate change.  These “costs” are called externalities because they do not factor into the company’s fiscal calculus.  They are burdens shouldered by the general public and by future generations.  And then there are the less tangible costs, such as those associated with human labor.  A miner trades his single most precious personal resource, the minutes and hours of his very life, for wages.  The inequity of this trade is incalculable.  When you include the dehumanizing impact of wage-labor along with the material externalities, the zero sum nature of the wealth-impoverishment process emerges as a mathematical imperative.  And if the definition of poverty is expanded to incorporate the very tangible yet non quantifiable qualities that make up an authentic human life, we are all living impoverished lives.    

Come to think of it, maybe it isn’t zero-sum after all.  Maybe, when you consider the impact of the corporate capitalist wealth-impoverishment game as a whole, from a historical, global, planetary perspective, when you account for all of the qualitative as well as the quantitative externalities, a negative sum is the only possible outcome.   

Thursday, September 16, 2010

More on the Corporate Monkey Trap

As individuals and as collective communities, our relationship with the corporate world shares much in common with Stockholm syndrome, the name given to the supposed condition in which hostages come to sympathize with and identify with their captors.  Corporations control, directly or indirectly, virtually every non trivial aspect of our lives.  And they do so through psychological manipulation, coercion, and the direct threat of violence.  We believe that we have no choice but to participate in the corporate game, and our lives are impoverished as a result.  Even those of us who have some understanding of the controlling role that corporations play in our lives continue to support them directly by purchasing their products and services and indirectly by allowing them to exploit the commons and by failing to demand restraint when they engage in practices that threaten the health of individuals and the natural environment.  Rather than wallow in our own feelings of helplessness, we come to sympathize with our oppressive captors.  We proudly wear corporate logos emblazoned on our clothing—and willingly pay for the privilege of serving as walking advertisements.

In terms of personal freedom, corporate privatization and the ideology it promotes leads to a paradox that Benjamin Barber refers to as a “civic schizophrenia,” in which an individual’s interests as a private person are placed in conflict with her interests as a public citizen.  Privately, I want my big screen high definition television, my high-speed internet, my cell phone, my weed-free lawn, and the “freedom” to drive my SUV to the local WalMart where I have access to cheap imported consumer goods.  As a pubic citizen, however, I want to live on a planet with clean air and water and in a neighborhood with character, a low crime rate, and a vibrant local economy.  Thus our corporate consumer system sets up a kind of social trap in which our private interests are pitted against our public interests, a trap in which we are coerced to participate in dehumanizing and environmentally destructive activities. 

We are trapped, but we don’t need to gnaw our leg off to get out.  All we have to do is let go.  The American dream is a sparkling effervescent nothing, a superficial promise that lacks any depth or meaning, a myth that bolsters corporate profit potential while impoverishing our lives.  We are neither citizens nor consumers.  It’s a game, and we are always free to walk away, free to refuse to play.