Friday, March 25, 2011

Enough with the 'Facebook-saved-Egypt' bullshit!

After listening patiently to the social-network-proselytizing avowals of your techno-metabolized acquaintance, you say something like:  “Great, so you can still play with your friends from high school.  But what have you given up in the process?  How does extending the reach of your adolescent social urges help to address the problems caused by the infrastructural supports for these kinds of toys?”

In response, and without taking a full breath, your acquaintance blurts out:  "Egypt!  Egypt!  Look what Facebook did in Egypt!"

First, the role that Facebook played in the Egyptian “revolution” is 99% grossly exaggerated media sound-bite mythology.  Second, to suggest that Facebook played a pivotal role in the Egyptian uprising is like saying boxcars caused the Holocaust. 

And if it wasn’t Facebook per se, but the internet itself, and the vast communicative possibilities that it engenders:  So it wasn’t boxcars.  It was the German railroad system.  Or the diesel locomotive.  Or…

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Contingent beings

Civilization is a historical artifact.  It is not a natural part of our genetic endowment.  Nor is it a logical or inevitable result—an emergent property—of human intellect.  The same is true of domestication more generally.   The fact that humans are capable of organizing their lives in this way, or more accurately that they acquiesce to having their lives organized in this way, does not make domestication a fundamental characteristic of human nature.  And the claim that domestication is a fundamental feature of what we are is on par with the claim that the internet is somehow a latent feature of our brain circuitry.

In short, for human beings, civilization is a contingent presence.  It doesn’t have to exist.  That is especially true for the present form in which civilization has taken, a form that is the result of countless improbable accidents of history and geography and climate.  Rewind the tape of human existence and let it play forward again from the beginning, and it is unlikely that it would happen again—or if it did, that it would happen in a similar way (my apologies to Steven Gould).

Unfortunately, what’s done is done, and we can’t simply back up to a more human and humane point in time. 

So what happens if we press fast forward…?

Monday, March 21, 2011

No more slaughterhouse porn

In order for civilization to maintain its power over the masses, the masses’ acquiescence has to be continually groomed.  Whips and maces are no longer fashionable.  Instead we have propaganda and distraction (and the two are not mutually exclusive in a consumer-based system).  Iron-age slaves would never be allowed access to whips and maces.  Likewise, information-age slaves are not allowed to wield the tools of the propagandists.

So now it is illegal to videotape animal abuse at factory farms and slaughterhouses in Iowa.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Eternal recurrence

Nietzsche provided the following challenge:  “What if a demon crept after you one day or night in your loneliest solitude and said to you, ‘This life as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live again and again, times without number; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and all the unspeakably small and great in your life must return to you, and everything in the same series and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence will be turned again and again, and you with it, you dust of dust!’ –Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who thus spoke?   Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would have answered him, ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine!’ If this thought gained power over you it would , as you are now, transform and perhaps crush you; the question in all and everything: ‘do you want this again and again, times without number?’ would lie as the heaviest burden upon all your actions.  Or how well disposed towards yourself and towards life would you have to become to have no greater desire than for this ultimate eternal sanction and seal?”

A frequent rejoinder to the primitivist call for ending civilization is that it makes no difference in the long run because even if we succeed at dismantling this iteration of civilization, another will emerge in its place.  And the last 5000 years of history seem to provide support for this argument.

One problem with the “eternal recurrence” argument is that there are features of the present iteration of civilization that make it unique.  It is a truly global civilization, for one thing.  There is literally no place on earth that falls entirely outside the aegis of the corporate industrial complex.  So a complete collapse of this civilization means something different than what happened to the Phoenicians. Another issue concerns access to environmental resources.  The lack of easily accessible fossil energy resources minimizes the likelihood of the eventual reemergence of a civilization based on large-scale industrial manufacture.  This, along with the toxification of the environment—both presently and as an unavoidable result of industrial civilization’s demise—severely limits the potential size and scope of future cities.  Cities require constant importation of resources from the surrounding land base, and massive cities require an enormous land base.  Without large areas of contiguous exploitable land, and without easy and abundant energy to transport resources from distant areas, megalopolises of the kind we have today will simply not be possible. 

On a depressing side note related to the nuclear disaster presently unfolding in Japan, the toxification of the environment is guaranteed to increases for tens of thousands of years even after the eradication of civilization as nuclear and other toxic material containment structures disintegrate.  The spent nuclear fuel stored at the Savanna River nuclear site alone is sufficient to kill the world’s oceans—which it is guaranteed to do eventually as containment fails and radioactive water finds its way into the Atlantic.  And let’s not even talk about the already leaky Hanford site on the Columbia River, where, by volume, some two-thirds of the world’s nuclear waste is stored.  As of January of this year there were 442 nuclear reactors world-wide and another 65 under construction.  There is a high probability that the planet is already as good as dead no matter what we do.
Back on topic: The eradication of petroleum-powered industrial civilization does not mean the automatic elimination of exploitation and oppression.  Unfortunately, the lack of environmental support for globally-networked megalopolises does not preclude the reemergence and proliferation of something resembling the ancient pyramid societies, cultures based on extreme divisions of authority and the exploitation of human and animal labor.  In fact, as long as domestication remains part of the human social design, the punctuated emergence of broadly oppressive cultures may be a chronic threat.  

So does that mean that the eternal recurrence rejoinder has some teeth after all?  Of course not.  The fact that long-term success is not guaranteed is never an argument for inaction.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Zeno's Drain

A question I had in high school: if water drains counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the south, then what happens at the equator?  Is there some point where the water goes straight down?  Or is it a Zeno’s paradox of finer and finer distinctions between north and south?

And how does the Earth’s rotational wobble factor in?

Choices are rarely between two mutually exclusive options.  And in those rare cases where it truly appears to be a matter of either-or, the options are seldom commensurate: options that can be meaningfully contrasted by a list of pros and cons.  More frequently the comparison is apples to oranges—or apples to the Italian Renaissance. 

Any time a choice among a set number of options is offered, know that the situation has been artificially simplified in the service of someone’s agenda.  We are almost always free to choose from an infinite array of potential courses of action.  A choice between any two directions implies a third path in between, and a choice between that third path and one or the other of the original two implies yet another middle way.  There are 360 degrees of arc in a circle, and each degree can be further partitioned into minutes and seconds.  And our path is not restricted to a straight line.  We are free to sally one direction for a time and then alter our course yet again.

As long as the potential for a future is preserved—as individuals and as a species—its substance is open-ended.  

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fighting fire with fire is a good way to get burned

So a resistance movement organizes itself into a hierarchy with layers of authority so that its resistance can be more highly coordinated and the results can be more disruptive.

What we are fighting is a machine.  For a resistance movement to make itself into a machine in order to fight the machine might seem to make sense on the surface.  But we aren’t fighting the surface.  It is not a territorial contest.  It is not a power struggle.  Power is the struggle: the presence of power and the “legitimacy” of authority is the issue.  All other issues are secondary.  All other problems, humanitarian, ecological, and otherwise, emerge from power and its uneven distribution.  This is anarchy 101.  To fight the machine on its own terms is to lose before we start. 

In a fight there are usually only two possible outcomes:

(1) We win.  Although the least likely outcome, winning means that the resistance machine is now in power; so we have simply traded one machine for another.  Yes, you say, but it is a kinder and gentler machine.  OK, but the problem from the beginning is not what kind of machine it is, but that it is a machine at all.  And disassembling the machine once the battle is over flies in the face of historical precedent: somewhere I’m sure someone has made a list of all of the oppressive regimes that rode into power on the backs of a liberation ideology.  So winning gets us nothing.

(2) A more likely outcome, we lose but in the process we have made the machine stronger.  We have shown it where its nodes of vulnerability are so that it can now take steps to remove them.  The next machine we assemble will have to be much bigger and much stronger.

There is a third possibility, probably the most likely outcome of all if recent history is any indication.  The resistance machine is simply assimilated—in the way that conservation movements have been co-opted by corporations over and over again—and the resistance movement becomes just another product line or t-shirt design.   

To fight the machine, we need to learn how to start thinking like humans.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A dose of E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson’s final words in his book Consilience are these: “To the extent that we depend on prosthetic devices to keep ourselves and the biosphere alive, we will render everything fragile.  To the extent that we banish the rest of life, we will impoverish our own species for all time. And if we should surrender our genetic nature to machine-aided ratiocination, and our ethics and art and our very meaning to a habit of careless discursion in the name of progress, imagining ourselves godlike and absolved from our ancient heritage, we will become nothing.”

Wonderful words, indeed.  An echo of Daniel Quinn, John Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, and Ted Kaczynski. 

There are two layers of irony here.  The first is that these well-crafted words come at the end of a rambling—at times bordering on incoherent—monograph with a thesis that is more or less a modern-day reworking of the Newtonian/Enlightenment principle of explanatory universality: Wilson argues that a handful of natural laws and principles can serve as the foundation for a grand unification of knowledge in all fields of inquiry in both the sciences and the humanities.  The second layer of irony is that these words come after a long-winded attempt to convince readers that the solution to our perilous situation here on the brink of self-annihilation, a situation that has been actively aided and abetted by science from the beginning, is to push the scientific agenda even more deeply into all areas of life and society.  The cure for the deadly results of our application of scientific knowledge is to acquire more scientific knowledge.  Our problems stem from the fact that we just don’t have a big enough picture—hence the need for consilience, the need for a yet unknown theory that unites and explains all that we are capable of knowing.

Sounds familiar.  The solution to a drug’s unwanted side effects is another drug.  The solution to waning resources is accelerated resource extraction.  The solution to the destructive impact of technology is more technology.  Once again, a more potent form of the poison that is killing us is being offered as the most obvious antidote. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Some symbolic thoughts

From a psychological perspective, symbolic thought—defined as the mental representation of non-perceptually present (or non-existent) entities—is an innate characteristic of human experience.  Its emergence in the individual can be traced to the development of object permanence, which occurs by the 8th month of life and perhaps sooner.   The young infant’s lack of object permanence is part of the reason the game of peek-a-boo is so much fun:  your face isn’t just emerging from behind a blanket; it is suddenly materializing into existence after completely vanishing from the universe.  After the child has developed the capacity for object permanence, the surprise-value of peek-a-boo is reduced and the game loses its potency. 

But the simple (!) capacity for mental representation seems to be something qualitatively different from what we are doing when we structure and funnel our experience through reified abstract cultural institutions.  The former is necessary but not sufficient for the latter.  Symbolic thought is part of what it means to be human.  Mediated experience is part what it means to abandon your humanity to the machine.

There are some (e.g., ecopsychologists and green anarchists) who believe that getting people to engage in direct,” unmediated” experience can serve as a tool of liberation and as a way to facilitate the process of de-civilizing the world.  They might be right.  But I suspect that they might be overestimating the liberation-value of unmediated experience.   

Human psychological development is a process that interleaves specific experiences with biologically-directed maturational processes.  Our psychology is a complex product of our previous interactions with the world—many of which have involved a high level of mediation through the (mis)application of abstract mental constructs (e.g., reification ), or through technology, or frequently both.  It is not something that can be reversed or undone.  Once we have attained a certain level of biological maturity, the damage is done.  We are doomed to carry the psychological scars of civilization (with respect to our default affective and cognitive processes) for the rest of our lives.  We are all, in a sense, feral children in reverse.

This casts some doubt on the idea that getting people to engage in unmediated experience, getting them to interact with the world in a more direct manner, getting them to make contact with their immediate sensory and affective experiences, and getting them to engage in direct and meaningful human interaction with other human beings will somehow break the spell of civilization. 

But that doesn’t take away from the potential usefulness of unmediated experience as a tool in the de-civilizing process.   I don’t think it is necessary to break the spell to know that you have been bewitched, in the same way that you don’t need to have a thorough understanding of the cause of an illness to know that you are sick and to be able to affect a cure.

And, just for the record, unmediated experience is something to pursue for its own intrinsic value as experience.  Right now is all there has ever been.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Shades of gray

There are a thousand ways that we have been fine-tuned by our evolutionary past, and even much of our individual uniqueness—the way we color our world, for example—may have its source in the adaptation to life in Paleolithic band society.

Around 8% of males are colorblind.  Why?

It turns out that a side-effect of the most common form of color weakness is an enhanced ability to see through camouflage.  So you are someone we want along on the hunt because you can more easily spot the deer hiding in the bushes.  And at an 8% population frequency, even relatively small groups are likely to have at least one guy with enhanced deer-spotting ability. 

Just keep him away from the berry bushes.

We are “hardwired” for lifestyles and community conditions quite unlike those we experience in 21st century urban society, and our lives are impoverished as a result of the mismatch.   In addition to living surrounded by people we don’t know, our daily activity is directed in ways that bear very little resemblance to the activities our ancestors’ lives were organized around.  Paleolithic humans would simply not be able to comprehend spending large portions of time working at a job in which we allow ourselves to be ordered to perform tasks that have no direct bearing on any of our human needs, many of which run directly counter to our larger human interests.  It would be inconceivable from the perspective of our Paleolithic ancestors that we would choose to spend a considerable proportion of our “free time” interacting with technology and material artifacts, and engaged in otherwise artificially constructed experiences that undermine our physical health and stunt our intellectual and emotional growth.  Most of our goals, both short-term and long-term goals, are not really our own in that we did not freely choose them and their pursuit serves our human needs and interests in only very indirect and superficial ways.  By coercing us to serve the “needs” and “interests” of the corporate political and economic system—the machine—modern civilization alienates us from our humanity, and forces us to live lives that are radically disconnected from our evolved natures. 

And there are consequences.  The alienation of modern civilization is reflected in numerous ways, including widespread discontent, angst, anomie, chronic anxiety, depression, obesity, heart disease, substance use and abuse, addiction of every sort, sexual dysfunction, sexual abuse, suicide, and homicide, just to list a few.

As for those 8%, colorblindness has little meaning because concrete and asphalt come in an unlimited variety of shades of gray.