Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The tyranny of abstraction

"Humanity", "the human species", "we", "us": abstractions, psychological constructs, tools of thought.

It is, of course, difficult (impossible) to communicate about anything of any complexity without resorting to abstractions. But too often the abstraction, a linguistic convenience, is fitted with bone and flesh and sent into the world where it terrorizes and torments the very things it is meant to embrace.

Abstractions don’t have needs or goals or feelings or dreams. They can’t know joy, they can’t suffer. The human race cannot know pain. A nation cannot know fear or cold. A family cannot starve. A community cannot grieve. 

People, individuals, you and me and him and her, all 7+ billion potential targets of the pronouns you and me and him and her—and all of the other uncountable individual living beings for which we don’t have adequate pronouns—are what is important here. 

There is nothing else.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

We the sheeple...

Natural selection works by weeding out characteristics that are not well-suited to a given environment. Artificial selection typically works in the opposite fashion: by retaining traits that are deemed desirable rather than weeding out the less suited. Global industrial civilization provides a substrate for both of these modes of phenotype selection to operate simultaneously (and relatively rapidly) in humans: certain characteristics are being, intentionally or otherwise, selected against while others are systematically encouraged.

Consider the tendency toward blind obedience and its inverse, the drive for autonomy and authenticity. On one end of the spectrum, you have the highly obedient model consumer (How long are you willing to stand in line to get the latest iThing?). On the other you have fiercely independent and self-directed individuals whose mailing addresses are likely to include a cell block number. Civilization—and especially a global corporate industrial civilization powered by accelerating consumption—is no place for someone who values their capacity for autonomous thought and free choice. Your "fitness" is greatly improved if you can adopt a posture of unquestioning acquiescence. 

The human species is becoming increasingly docile. In a few more generations a Crazy Horse or a Malcolm X or a Bhagat Singh may be genetically impossible.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Technological evolution and language as metaphor

Both biological evolution and technological evolution involve the modification of preexisting structure. Technological evolution differs, however, in that what emerges can be a qualitatively different “species,” suitable for entirely different “niches” of application.

Biological evolution takes several generations to produce a new species even when environmental pressures promoting change are at their highest. And what emerges is almost always very similar to what existed before. According to a principle known as Romer’s rule, evolutionary changes are initially conservative adaptations that allow the organism to continue its previous way of life. Unlike biological evolution, technological innovation can lead in a single “generation” to the sudden appearance of an array of things the likes of which never before existed. For example, all modern computer technology traces back to the invention of the lowly transistor. To get a comparable event in biological evolution, an amoeba would have to become an entire set of large African mammals within the course of just a few cell divisions.

And since each new technology becomes immediately available for modification itself or to serve as a constituent in additional innovation, technological evolution follows an exponentially expansive trajectory. The rate of technological change itself increases across time.

Biological evolution is not the only metaphor that has been applied to technology. Technology has also been called a language. A theoretically infinite number of novel technologies can emerge from the combination of modular, constituent technologies—in the same way that an infinite number of sentences can be constructed from a large but finite number of self-contained words.

In addition, language and technology both serve as a point of interface between the individual and the larger community to which the individual belongs. Although language is produced by individual persons, supported by human cognitive capacities and uniquely human brain structures, language is a fundamentally social phenomenon. Technology, likewise, is fundamentally a social phenomenon supported by human cognitive capacities.

But when we track technology back to the individual, the analogy disintegrates and the true dehumanizing nature of technology emerges. Individuals are themselves constituents in technological “expressions.”  Division of labor and the isolation of knowledge (essential features of the technological process) transform individual persons into technological constituents something like the phonemes of spoken language.

Language is a means for the individual to interact with the community in pursuit of his or her own social needs—language serves human purposes. Technology on the other hand transforms humans into component mechanical parts of artificial devices for the pursuit of its own purposes.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Primitivism trumps democracy

In a society in which everyone has direct and equal access to resources, social contrivances such as “democracy” or “majority rule” are entirely unnecessary. Democratic modes of decision making are leveling mechanisms that become necessary only when access to life’s necessities is mediated through technology.