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 clich├ęs 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?