"If observing outer space gives us a view of the past, observing inner space would surely give us a glimpse into the future."
March 1. Continuing on the subject of technological exhaustion, a reader sends this link, Gopher, Gemini and The Smol Internet, about some really old internet platforms that still work. From the same blogger, The 100 Year Computer is about what it would take, in society and technology, to buy a computer that's still useful in 100 years. I love this paragraph:
There are two reasons to replace a computer. One is an artificially amplified desire for something exciting, new and shiny. The other is the failure of software to run in under 8Gb of RAM. We call this replacement an 'upgrade', when what's really happening is a celebration of sustainability failure.
Related, a Hacker News thread from 2017: Almost everything on computers is perceptually slower than it was in 1983.
I think it's obvious that information technology can't keep going on this path. Not only is the subjective experience of the internet getting worse, it keeps getting worse faster. But I can't see any smooth way to get off the treadmill. My best guess is, the failure of technology to serve human needs, will lead to breakdowns in mental health, which will cause societal breakdowns, which will cause more frequent failures in the infrastructure necessary for a high-tech society.
Or it could be much more sudden, if we get a Giant Solar Flare.
February 25. Taking another angle from Monday, The internet as we know it is doomed. It's by Annalee Newitz, who wrote that new book about ancient cities. Her argument has two parts. First, that there were two waves of ancient cities, and the first wave failed because it didn't have the right institutions to manage population density, so people got unhappy and left.
Then she argues that the internet is the same way. It's getting bigger and clunkier, and the costs are beginning to outweigh the benefits, so that people are now trying to live without it. Maybe the internet will fade away, and eventually "return in a form we can only guess at."
Chris, who sent the link, comments:
Every time we add extra complexity to our world, there is a decrease in the power of any single person to comprehend the society and technological foundations thereof. It feels psychically unsustainable. The state asks citizens to manage a baseline amount of technical overhead to have a modern life, but no one ever stopped to ask how much overhead it ought to take for our world to be mediated by the internet.
I think this is a big factor in the anxiety epidemic. I've said this before: the prophet of our age is not Orwell or Huxley, but Kafka. Password requirements have become so labyrinthine that I can't possibly remember them all, and I don't trust my computer to keep track of them, because I've seen both software and hardware unexpectedly fail. So I keep them all written down on a piece of paper, and I ever lose it, I might as well go live under a bridge.
In a high-complexity society, I live in the shadow of dread of all the things that could go wrong, that I would be responsible for fixing and have no idea how to fix. The thought of total technological collapse is comforting, because we would all be in the same boat, and our troubles would be comprehensible.
February 23. Following up from yesterday, Alex comments:
We are evolved to be hunter-gatherers, and fairly nomadic. Notice how many leisure activities are just hunter-gatherer "jobs" like fishing, hunting, mushroom gathering and so on.
When I was a teen I taught myself how to surf. Looking back it was tons of hard work. But it was fun. It's hard work tracking and hunting a deer, but it's considered fun. It's harder work gutting the thing and dividing it up, but those are joyous times among hunter-gatherers. I also used to get up at about 4AM and walk a couple miles up and down the beach, to find Japanese glass floats, then sneak back into bed. It was fun!
So hunter-gatherers tend to do things that might be annoying otherwise, in groups, they'll have special songs for that activity, and it makes it fun.
And to pull it off you've got to be very minimalist. Because there's tons more work that has to be done as a modern person and everyone's too busy doing all this work to sit around together and make the activity fun.
February 22. Last week, Weird Collapse linked to this Hacker News comment thread about vertical farming, about this post on Low Tech Magazine, Vertical Farming Does Not Save Space, because the solar panels to power it take up more space than a regular farm.
The techies say, it does save space, because you can use nuclear power, or solar panels out in a desert. Then there are arguments against those arguments, and so on. The angle I want to take is probably not mentioned in the thread: technological complexity, and the challenges it raises for human motivation.
I continue to think that motivation is the number one factor in collapse. A society collapses when not enough people feel like doing the stuff that holds it together, and too many people feel like doing stuff that breaks it down.
Vertical farming presents itself as a cure for malaise. You're not excited about growing food in a stinky old field? How about growing food in a shiny new building? Okay, but who's excited about pouring the foundation for that building? Mining and processing the materials that make the cement for the foundation? Digging the hole? Or doing all the tedious work that leads to a machine that can dig the hole for you? And we haven't even started the building yet.
My point is, technological complexity tends to create tasks that no one feels like doing, and the people who get excited about tech are insulated from those tasks. This actually goes back to the subject of elite overproduction. Too many people see themselves as the designers and beneficiaries of amazing new technologies, and not enough people are willing to do the increasingly fiddly grunt work.
Now, low tech doesn't magically create utopia. But look at it from another angle. Your task is to design a society where nobody is ever forced to do anything. Are you going to go high tech, or low tech? There have been societies where nobody is ever forced to do anything, and all of them so far have been technologically simple.
For growing food, the most motivationally robust system is a semi-wild food forest, all perennials and self-seeding annuals, powered by a fusion plant called the sun. There's a lot of room for highly motivated people to make this system work better, but there's also a lot of room for idleness.
February 18. I've got nothing this week, so I'll dig into the archives for a couple reposts. This is a condensed excerpt of an essay written by mathematician Norbert Wiener, in 1949, about the coming machine age:
These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.
Finally the machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do. In the discussion of the relation between man and powerful agencies controlled by man, the gnomic wisdom of the folk tales has a value far beyond the books of our sociologists. There is general agreement among the sages of the peoples of the past ages, that if we are granted power commensurate with our will, we are more likely to use it stupidly than to use it intelligently.
Moreover, if we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.
And a post I made on January 28, 2015:
Fascinating technology article, I paid $25 for an Invisible Boyfriend, and I think I might be in love. For a monthly fee, a company will pay nameless freelance workers to send you texts pretending to be your boyfriend. Supposedly the purpose is to fool your friends and family, but the article points out how easy it is for people to use this service to feel loved.
This is oddly similar to the previous subject of travelers encountering friendly natives. Wealth inequality creates unreal relationships, in which poorer people do not present themselves according to their own perspectives and their own needs, but according to the expectations of richer people. In one sense the crowdsourced texters and impoverished natives are being exploited, but in another sense they're in the better position, because they're not being made stupid. If the performers and servants are all eventually replaced by AI's and robots, is that progress?
This reminds me of a key insight from the book Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita: that you can judge your environment by whether it is indifferent to your gaze, like nature, or designed around your gaze, like television or a theme park. With continuing advances in artificial intelligence, artificial environments will not just be designed around the gaze of the average person, but each person's particular gaze. We can each have our own Disneyland, and the shared human reality could splinter into billions of tiny echo chambers.
February 15. This blog is like my job, and lately it's been bumped by another job: shoveling snow. So today, more links, starting with a capitalist argument for wealth redistribution: How Poverty Makes Workers Less Productive. Cynically, I think the only reason we still have poverty in this age of abundance, is that it's human nature to want to have someone below you.
Two weeks ago I linked to a piece about urban collapse. This is a longer piece by the same author: How Early Megacities Emerged From the Jungles of Cambodia. It's an excerpt from a book that I'll have to read.
Loosely related to elite overproduction, two reddit threads, one long and one short. At what point did you decide you were never going to be exceptional but that was ok? And from Ask Old People, For those of us who make art, has aging changed you and your work? It's mainly about how much better the creative process is, when you don't care about success.
New model could explain old cholesterol mystery. This is one of my pet subjects. Science has known for decades that eating foods high in cholesterol does not cause heart disease. Also, there is still no evidence that eating saturated fat leads to heart disease. But there is a connection between eating saturated fat and having high cholesterol in your body, and also between high cholesterol in your body and heart disease. How can this happen? The new hypothesis is that both heart disease, and high cholesterol, are symptoms of chronic inflammation.
Finally, one of the great piano players, Chick Corea, just died. One cool thing he did was to improvise musical portraits of people. This is a nice video of that, Chick makes a spontaneous composition for two audience members.
February 11. No ideas, more links. From Ask Old People, What did you used to do as a kid/teenager that you could never get away with these days? Keeping in mind that "right" and "left" are ephemeral cultural terms, I think this is where the recent left has made a big mistake, in conceding this territory to the right. We have a lot of room to make life more fun and dangerous, while still having aggressive recycling of wealth, and legal protections against domination.
This Ask Reddit thread, removed by mods for some dumb reason, is packed with great stories. Have you ever known anyone who has changed from who they were to practically a different person?
I spent most of January working on this project for the Spirit Island board game: 12 presence colors with custom reminder tokens.
Arkadia Zoomquilt is an amazing fractal zoom through trippy landscapes. Zoomquilt 2 is even trippier. The Hacker News comment thread explains how it's done. The code is pretty simple, and the hard part is producing a bunch of hand-drawn images that fit inside each other.
February 8. Stray links, starting with two Reddit threads. From Ask Old People, What is the weirdest experience you've had in your life? And lots of theological discussion in this thread, What if God is actually the devil?
Two medical links. How to make your own vaccine (thanks Ted), and The Doctor Will Sniff You Now, about the promise of using high-tech molecule detectors to diagnose illness.
And two explanations of the recent stock market drama. Posted to Weird Collapse, WallStreetBets and Cryptocurrency: Symptoms of the same societal problem, that problem being too many people whose lives have no meaning.
And a cynical Reddit comment: Wall Street Bets veterans know they're making a suicide charge for the memes, but "they have brought thousands of naive new investors with them - who think that they're going to somehow come out on top, not realizing that they're cannon fodder for the more savvy WSB users to exit with gains."
I can remember when buying stocks was something only rich people did. Middle class people might do it if they had a year's salary sitting in their savings account doing nothing. Now it seems like anyone with an extra thousand dollars is supposed to throw it in the stock market, a giant legal gambling racket where other gamblers are more skilled than you, and the "house" is whoever already has the most money.
February 5. I was planning to take today off, but I just got two consecutive emails about Cory Doctorow, so I'm going to follow that synchronicity. Alex sends this new blog post by Doctorow, Organic fascism, about the overlap between back-to-the-landers and far-right crazies. I think what's going on here is that people like to tell simple and beautiful stories about the world they live in. And once you get in that box, it's hard to get out, because it's painful to accept perspectives that make your mental models complicated and ugly.
It's funny that right wingers hate Hollywood, because no one has done more than Hollywood to feed the good vs evil bullshit that they've bought into. I saw a video of that horned hat guy from the Capitol riots (who went on a hunger strike in jail because they wouldn't give him organic food) shouting "freeeedooommm" in a clear imitation of the movie Braveheart.
I admit that I'm a little envious. Everyone is making fun of Marjorie Taylor Greene for saying that California wildfires were started by Jewish space lasers. But it would be more fun to live in that world than this one, where wildfires are caused by climate change, the bureaucratic difficulty of controlled burns, and decaying electrical infrastructure.
Doctorow 2: Matt sends a quote from his novel Walkaway:
You weren't supposed to need to be a special snowflake, because the objective reality was that, important as you were to yourself and the people immediately around you, it was unlikely that anything you did was irreplaceable. As soon as you classed yourself as a special snowflake, you headed for the self-delusional belief that you should have more than everyone else, because your snowflakiness demanded it.
I've always liked the snowflake metaphor. To me it means that every person, like every snowflake, is unique and special in their own way. Think of Mr. Rogers. He would say that each person is special, but he would never say that that means you should have more than other people. You could argue that if everyone is special then no one is, but I would say, because everyone is special, being special doesn't make anyone better.
I think that fallacious flip, from unique to better, comes from our quantitative culture. In a qualitative culture no one would even think of it. Matt comments: "There's a vertical idea of special and a horizontal idea of special, and they don't jive with each other."
It also occurs to me that being replaceable is something that happens in the workplaces of a machine-like economy, after we've passed through an education system designed to turn us into replaceable cogs. But if you're doing creative work, you don't have to go far in any direction before you're doing something that no one else has done.
Some creative work for the weekend, a nice ambient album, imbolc by emily.
February 4. Off the usual subjects, today I want to write about role models. With the Superbowl coming up, I really don't like Tom Brady. And when another person bothers you that much, it's usually because they're reflecting something inside you that you need to come to terms with. Brady always says that he couldn't have done it without his coaches and teammates. But the myth of Tom Brady is the legendary individual, not a cooperator but a competitor, whose will to win is so intense that he can carry any team of losers on his back to a championship.
My counterpoint to Tom Brady is a 90's NBA player named Derrick McKey. Supremely talented, on the court he appeared to be lazy, and he never put up big numbers. But his teammates loved him. They said he took care of the little things that made the whole team better. His lack of quantifiable production eventually led the Sonics to trade him to the Pacers. Immediately, the Pacers won twelve straight games, including a playoff sweep on the way to the eastern conference finals. Meanwhile the Sonics lost in the first round for two straight years.
So I can't defeat Tom Brady, but I can defeat my inner Tom Brady, by aiming for subtle helpful actions instead of obvious personal achievements.
Another example. I love the Great British Baking Show, and in one early season (spoilers follow) the three finalists were Brendan, James, and John. Brendan was like the Dalai Lama meets Hannibal Lecter: serene, precise, deliberate, and extremely competent. James was the opposite: wild and sunny, a master improviser who would always try crazy stuff and still bring in a good result.
The third finalist, John, was an average baker who could only motivate himself through mopey self-criticism. Week after week, he barely squeaked by, and even in the final, he was no better than Brendan. But the judges, like the writers of the disastrous Game of Thrones finale, admired his story and declared him the winner. (Years later, he would admit that he regretted winning because it derailed his life.)
Again, this bothers me because I still have an inner John, who I can eliminate by not doing what he would do, and instead doing what either Brendan or James would do.
Personality is made of actions, and small actions are more important than big actions, because there are more of them. If you want to be a different kind of person, just do what that person would do, in the smallest way, right now.
February 1. I got a lot of feedback from the last post, but all my ideas for a follow-up are half-baked. So today, some negative links.
The Paradox of Abundance is that abundance is only good for a small number of people who know how to manage it. The author starts with the example of food, where health-conscious people pick out the best food, while most people are drawn to the cheapest and best tasting food, which is bad for them. And the same kind of thing is happening with information.
The downside of clean: Scientists fear pandemic's 'hyper hygiene' could have long-term health impacts. I read somewhere that when kids in the slums of India got polio, it was only a mild sickness, because their immune systems were so strong from exposure to other microbes. Personally, I eat food off the floor, and walk barefoot outside whenever I can.
Moving on to mental health, a good thread on the psychonaut subreddit, There's a parasite inside of you feeding off negative thoughts and emotions.
And a smart article, The Seductive Appeal of Urban Catastrophe. It's mostly about the iconic ruined city of Angkor. We used to think that when the city was sacked in 1431, everyone suddenly left. Newer archaeology suggests that it was mainly the royal family who left, while nonroyals "continued to live at Angkor, repaired its ailing water infrastructure, recycled stones from temples into new structures, and planted farms where high-density housing once was."
The actual decline had already started, and would continue for a long time. The cause was that "leaders bungled maintenance of the city's water system in response to climate threats." Applying this to our own time, I continue to think that collapse will be highly local. The places that do the best job maintaining and retrofitting their infrastructure will thrive, and the places that do the worst job will be abandoned.
January 28. I've been thinking more about elite overproduction, which I last wrote about on November 2. This has probably happened in every declining society in history: there are more people raised to feel entitled to something, than the number of people who can actually have it.
I want to break these things up into three categories. First is luxuries, like having a big house and a nice car. Second is livelihood, spending your time doing stuff you like, while depending on other people doing stuff they don't like. Third is status.
My definition of status is narrow and negative. Status is a mental illness, in which human value is framed in a zero-sum context; so you can't be a better person unless one or more other people are less good. A person afflicted with status is happier if they have a Lexus and everyone else has a Ford, than if everyone else also has a Lexus. This is part of human nature, but that's no excuse for not overcoming it.
The cure for status is to practice valuing yourself and your life in absolute terms, instead of relative to other people. This is a good time to practice that. The cure for loss of luxuries is similar: valuing what you have in absolute terms, or relative to your basic needs, instead of relative to what you thought you'd have.
Livelihood is the one that worries me, because so many of the tasks necessary to keep this society going, are so unenjoyable, that it's not realistic to value them, except as a means to luxury and status that you're not going to get. This is especially true if you don't value keeping this society going. That's why I continue to think that the main factor in the present collapse is scarcity of human motivation -- or the transfer of human motivation, away from acts of creation and preservation, and toward acts of destruction.
January 25. Some links about the world getting better. This thread from Ask Old People has a lot of stuff about how much worse it was not so long ago: If I (age 26) were suddenly transported back to the 1950s or 60s and pretended to fit in, what would I probably not think to account for?
From sixthtone.com, two articles about China: In China's New Age Communes, Burned-Out Millennials Go Back to Nature. And The Hermit Culture Living On in China's Misty Mountains.
Back to America, The People the Suburbs Were Built for Are Gone. The article is not about those people, but about retrofitting the suburbs, so instead of a sprawl of giant houses, there are dense walkable neighborhoods, with lots of one and two person dwellings, and old box stores turned into community centers.
This is an easy prediction: suburbs that make these changes will attract people who want to live there. Suburbs that don't will be abandoned, if they haven't been already. As birth rates fall, animals prowl in abandoned 'ghost villages'.
On that note, I want to recommend three works of fiction, all whimsical visions of post-collapse utopias, that I like to think are roughly where we're headed. In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan, Engine Summer by John Crowley, and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou by Hitoshi Ashinano.