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. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Precept

Each day, do at least one thing to enfeeble an institution and at least one thing to strengthen an individual.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Message

I recently sat in on a lecture in which an ABD in philosophy told the students that their generation was different than all others because of their intimacy with technology.  They communicate in ways that are quantitatively and qualitatively different than the ways that previous generations communicated.

Superficially, this appears an obvious truth.  But dig beneath the surface, and the veracity of the claim starts to dissolve.  This generation is no different than any other.  Communication, to the extent that any such thing is truly possible, has not changed since Broca’s area first appeared.  What has changed is our repertory of communicative behaviors.  The message is the same.  The essence of the message has become diluted by the range and rapidity of its delivery, but it is one and the same message that has been sent countless times by countless souls across countless years: “I am here!  I exist!  And I need you in order for that fact to mean something.”           

Friday, September 10, 2010

Anarchy ≠ Chaos

In Ishmal, Daniel Quinn’s gorilla talks about the voice of mother culture, by which he means the memes and narratives of civilization that we have incorporated so deeply into our worldview that we are blind to their organizing and biasing presence.  One of the most prevalent unspoken and unquestioned truths of civilization is the need for organizational hierarchy.  Civilization is built on division of labor, specialization, expertise, and the unequal access to resources and the power differentials that emerge as a result.  It would not be hyperbole to equate civilization with these things.  The need for unequal distribution of power and control is a cornerstone of the civilized worldview.  The understanding that decision making needs to be grounded in hierarchy is woven into the very fiber of our “democratic” system of government.  Anarchy, one half of the anarcho-primitivist formula, is the barefaced denial of the legitimacy of hierarchy.  

The term anarchy is frequently used as a synonym for chaos.  The conflation of anarchy with chaos comes right out of mother culture’s insistence that power must be unequally distributed, and that without top-down control all would be confusion.  Anarchy in this sense reflects the assumed state of disorder that would result from a lack of control over the masses.  But who or what it is that should have this control in the first place, and what makes the exercise of this control legitimate, is rarely mentioned; and when it is, it is through the use of abstract and reified terms such as the social contract, the government, the rule of law.
In addition to chaos, anarchy is frequently coupled with violence: the caricature of the anarchist as a bomb-carrying thug.  Violence, unfortunately, is an unavoidable element of the anarchy equation.  But anarchy is not the source of the violence.  Violence is built into our hierarchical system.  The only way to maintain a system with such dramatic disparities in power and access to resources is through violence.  And the more extreme the disparities, the more violent the methods of maintenance need to be.  Because violence is the mortar that holds the bricks of the hierarchical system in place, any meaningful attempt to dismantle the system will elicit violence.  Also, because anarchists are usually people who want to overthrow the existing power structure, it makes some sense to think that they would probably employ violent means to do so.  How could it be otherwise?  You need to fight fire with fire.  But here we need to distinguish between the ends and the means, between anarchy as a goal-state, and the methods for bringing that state about.  And it is important to keep in mind that when it comes to means there is no necessary relationship between violence and effectiveness.  It may be possible to bring our corporate consumer system down in a relatively non violent fashion simply by finding a way for enough of us to avoid playing the corporate consumer game.  

Then again, we may have to blowup a few things.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Shouting Down the Techno Cheerleaders

Those who would argue in support of the status quo frequently cite a standard laundry list of the amazing benefits that modern technology has provided, suggesting (usually stating outright) that our lives are far better off than they would have been otherwise. 

Okay, let’s start with the idea that modern industrial technology is beneficial, and leave the question of whether we are any better off for another time.  To begin with, the very idea that technology imparts “benefits” is part of a conceptual perspective embedded within the efficiency calculus of a technoindustrial world view.  For example, cell phones provide us with the benefit of rapid and convenient communication.  But to claim this as a benefit is circular reasoning.  Rapid and convenient communication is useful only because of the specific demands of life in a modern technoindustrial society that includes cell phones.  Likewise, the benefits imparted by industrial agriculture emerge only when you have large numbers of people displaced from their family farms (as a result of industrial agriculture) and living in cities. 

What about medical technology?  Modern medical technology provides us with the inarguable benefit of extending the population’s average life span.  But average population life span has no meaning whatsoever outside of an industrial assembly-line world view that reduces all meaningful information to statistical data.  The upper end of human life expectancy has probably not changed in the last 50,000 years.

We have been trained to think in “production efficiency” terms that make no sense from a truly human perspective.  Take the often touted reduction in infant mortality that has occurred (at least in wealthy industrial nations) as a direct result of advances in medical technology in the last century: the reduction in infant mortality (along with industrial agricultural practices) is partially responsible for a dramatic increase in the global human population, so the number of individual infants who die each year—actual human deaths—is orders of magnitude larger than it was in, say, the middle ages.  Where’s the benefit of having more babies live if it means that more will have to die?  

Outside of a hollow, strictly quantitative, more-bigger-quicker industrial production perspective, the technology = benefits argument has no teeth.