May - July, 2012

previous archive

May 2. The devaluation of everything: The perils of panflation. It's not about prices getting higher, but about language and culture getting distorted by the desire for things to appear better and better. So women's clothing sizes are four inches bigger than they used to be, academic work that used to get a C now gets an A, the cheapest room in a hotel is called "deluxe", the smallest pizzas and coffees are called "regular", airline "miles" have no relation to actual miles, and so on.

This comes down to the same thing as an article I posted a month ago about signal spoofing, and I think this is a bigger threat to civilization than peak oil or climate change. Those will cause pain and force adaptation, while the overall system muddles through. But a ratcheting distortion of language cannot be reset by anything less than total cultural collapse. It's easier to burn down every school in the world, than for one school to change its name from "university" back to "college". And the farther our language veers off from reality, the more we will despise our own society and wish for it to collapse.

The Jet That Ate the Pentagon. The F-35 is designed to do everything, and the result is that it's obscenely expensive and does everything badly. This reminds me of the custom unit design system in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri: if you try to make a super-unit that does everything, it's too expensive, and it's much more cost-effective to design many simple units that are each good at one thing. So now I'm thinking, how is it that game designers know this, and designers of real military units don't? I guess that's like asking, how is it that fiction writers know that being rich doesn't make you happy, while in real life people still try to get rich?

Anyway, the article concludes that "the problems, integral to the design, cannot be fixed without starting from a clean sheet of paper." Does this remind you of anything else? This is one more example of what seems to be a universal cycle: systems get more and more complex, until the costs of complexity so overwhelm the benefits that the system can be made both cheaper and more effective by a radical simplification. The challenge, in human society, is to achieve this simplification without causing so much trauma that life is nasty for generations.

May 9. Anne has some important thoughts on dropping out:

Recently I had an odd experience staying with some friends in a nearby suburb. These are folks I love dearly, they eat similar stuff to what I eat, read similar stuff, get similar cultural references... but unlike me, they never went through an outsider subculture, and in their world, everything is available by commercial transaction. You get food from a store; you get fit by joining a gym; you get smart by going to school. Its hard for me to remember that people live like this, but they do.

The fact is, commercial relationships are corrosive. Do you really expect comfort and a sense of being cared about from spilling your guts to the twenty-five year old bartender at Chili's? So after a while, people become obsessed by two delusions. First, that if the good life is out there, it must be something you buy, and it must cost a lot because you can't afford it right now. And second, that all these people you only interact with in ritualized commercial ways are something you can't wait to leave behind.

What I notice most about the Thoreaus or the Suelos is how assiduously they maintain non-commercial social connections, and what I notice about the internet discussions where people plan to buy their way off the treadmill, is how much they look forward to spending a butt-ton of money and never having to talk to anyone again.

This reminds me of something I read years ago in a zine. The author was traveling around dressed in anarchist punk clothing, and someone asked her why she was dressed that way. She said, if I dress like this, I can go up to other people who are dressed like this, and they're likely to help me out with food and a place to stay. But if I'm dressed conventionally, and talk to other people dressed conventionally, there's almost no chance they'll help me out.

As I think more about commercial vs non-commercial relationships, suddenly I understand why I haven't done anything to monetize this blog. It's not that I think money is evil and I want to stay pure. In this society, both the commercial and the social are necessary. Some things are much easier to get with money, and other things are much easier to get through friends. But when the commercial and social get blurred together, it makes people confused and insane. If I demand payment, are you my friends or my customers? If I sell ads, then every time I make a post, part of me will be asking how it will effect my income.

My philosophy is, with any particular decision, make up your mind if you're going for money or love, and go all out. If there ends up being some of both, that's great, as long as one or the other is one hundred percent. One example of half-assed blurring of money and love is socially conscious investing. You want to believe you're making money doing good, but there's a risk you'll end up losing money serving the lesser of two evils. A reader thought I was trolling yesterday when I mentioned investing in Monsanto as an alternative to having a job. That was an extreme example, and I have no idea if Monsanto is actually a good investment. But the point is, when you go into the money universe, jump in with both feet and make damn sure you're making good money. Then if you want to save the world, do it in your own neighborhood, among your own friends, with your own hands.

May 11. The new Ribbonfarm post, Welcome to the Future Nauseous, is almost too heavy for my brain to lift, with sentences like "The future is a stream of bug reports in the normalcy-maintenance software that keeps getting patched, maintaining a hackstable present Field." The general idea is that technology is constrained by the human need to not feel too many changes. So futurists are excited about technologies that will cause radical changes in human behavior and consciousness, but in practice, there is a "Field" of human consciousness that will reject any technology that brings too much change, or will "normalize" it, so that even if it's radical, it doesn't feel radical. This reminds me of the first line of M.T. Anderson's novel Feed: "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck." Venkat mentions how jet airline travel feels about the same as riding on a boat, and how Facebook channels incomprehensible technology into something that we can make sense of as an upgraded school yearbook.

So that's human consciousness at the leading edge of technology, and here's something about the trailing edge: two Edge of Grace posts from a few months back, Gnosis and Primitivism and Book Review: The Mystical State. The idea in both is that when we learn primitive skills, or idealize a return to the stone age, we think we're seeking a change in technology, when really we're seeking a change in consciousness.

Beyond this point, it's easier for me to do my own thinking than figure out someone else's -- especially if it's Ken Wilber. So I would say that what we're seeking, both in high tech and low tech, both in sci-fi and fantasy, is to break out of a set of mental habits that are usually called "rationalism" or "western thought". These habits include but are not limited to: 1) the boundaries between self and other, internal and external, mind and body; 2) objective truth, where we imagine a master reality that exists independent of observation, and which we should all see the same way; 3) philosophical materialism, in which physical matter and energy are fundamental, and consciousness is something that emerges from them.

As we break out of these habits, we begin to see all of reality as having the structure of a dream, where it doesn't even make sense to ask about a tree falling with no observer, where nothing is an object and everything is an experiencing perspective, where we don't have to see things the same way until we force it by comparing notes.

Now, if I'm sounding New Agey, it's because the New Age movement is itself an attempt to normalize this change in consciousness. But I'm wondering, is the change being slowed to maintain stability, or is it being blocked? Isn't western metaphysics stronger now than ever? I like to think that we're in the final tightness before a great mass awakening. At the end of the Ribbonfarm post, Venkat says that the pace of technological change is getting too fast for the normalcy field to keep up, and we're plunging into an age of "psychic chaos", which sounds to me like fun! But I recognize these as apocalyptic fantasies. We are always in the middle of history, the normalcy fields will keep muddling along, and the exit door is always open, but you have to walk through on your own feet.

May 19. Today I went to see The Avengers, and I'm wondering where human consciousness is headed when entertainment is so entertaining. If you're eight years old and already seeing The Avengers for fun, what will you do for fun when you're forty? How much more room do we have to push our own pleasure buttons with sound and light shows?

There's a popular idea that we'll entertain ourselves to death, we'll fall into the holodeck and never come out. I no longer believe this. I think, in terms of its power to suck us in, a full-on holodeck will exceed Skyrim by less than Skyrim exceeds imagination -- which is not even that much. We can add touch to sound and light, but ultimately it's the same kind of thing as 3D -- it adds no meaning, only novelty.

Whatever world you're in, meaning is found in the wider worlds in which your world is nested. Subworlds nested within your world are meaningful only if they reflect the wider world. So if you're in prison, books can keep you alive, but you don't want to spend your whole life in prison reading books. I remember when I was 13 years old and first saw the D&D rulebooks. It was a transcendent experience, an unfolding of a new kind of consciousness. But once unfolded, it became merely fun, and finally not even fun.

If you look for this pattern you can see it everywhere: in games, movies, drugs, romantic love, even music. We keep going back to the source, trying and failing to recapture the experience of the first time, but that source is really just a mirror that now reflects something different because the world has moved. So, to answer my original question, when today's kids are forty, maybe they'll be re-watching The Avengers for nostalgia. But I like to think that advanced virtual reality will give more people the opportunity to pass all the way through fun to the other side. "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise."

June 13. Amazing reddit post: I've been playing the same game of Civilization II for almost 10 years:

The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation. There are 3 remaining super nations in the year 3991, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.

There are many more details, and my point is not that this is a realistic view of the future, but that computer games are an untapped resource to allow anyone to simulate and explore the future of humanity. Civilization II came out in 1996. It required 8 megabytes of RAM, and it was designed to show civilization's triumph. The famous limits to growth model was done in 1972, when the most powerful computer in the world was weaker than your phone. So how much more could we do with today's computers?

June 18. Yesterday I played Oiligarchy. Even though I agree with the message, it fails as a game because there are no interesting choices. You just keep drilling oil and throwing money at politicians to keep the unchangeable script unfolding, in which oil addiction increases through evil legislation, then decreases through green activism, then liquid fuels are harvested from humans and finally there's a nuclear war.

The story does hint at a radical message that the designers might not have intended. You're running an oil company, and your goal is to keep production ahead of demand. Then, as production inevitably declines, you're still lobbying congress to increase oil addiction while the greenies are defeating you and decreasing oil addiction through stuff like bicyling and organic farming. Yet, as a player trying to keep production ahead of demand, you should be supporting laws and movements that decrease demand so that it stays below production.

Shifting to the real world, the control system wants us to bike to work and buy organic food, because soon there won't be enough oil for the system to keep going if everyone drives to work and buys synthetic-fertilized food. What the control system fears is that food production and manufacturing might become decentralized.

June 21-23. The disadvantage of smarts. The author argues that the purpose of intelligence is to deal with things that did not exist in our evolutionary environment. This includes many aspects of modern life, which is why intelligent people are more successful. But when it comes to things we've been doing for millions of years, "like how to find a mate, how to raise a child, how to make friends", intelligence gets in the way, and people with lower intelligence do better.

How can it be that the logic puzzles on IQ tests happen to measure exactly the same thing that would help our ancestors navigate change? I would say that "dumb" people are better at going on "autopilot", which includes tuning into the experience of our ancestors, and also following learned habits, while "smart" people are not so good at autopilot, but better at looking at a situation as if they've never seen it before and thinking it through. This is less efficient, but necessary if things are changing fast, or if someone is trying to exploit your autopilot.

Now consider the history of civilization as a feedback loop of intelligence and novelty. Imagine a tribe of dumb people, and one smart person who invents something that gives the tribe an advantage. By introducing novelty, this invention also gives smart people an advantage within that tribe. So over time there are more smart people, who introduce more novelty, and so on. In the same way, there are more smart tribes, who introduce more novelty, and so on.

This could explain the Flynn effect: people are getting smarter to keep up with the dizzying changes of modernity. So where does it end? As a smart person myself, I enjoy novelty, but it's hard to think of a graceful exit from the novelty/intelligence explosion.

Matt comments:

What really are the energy differences between automatic pilot and conscious thinking? The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal mentions that when we're fully focused and carefully consciously attending to something, our brains are only burning the equivalent of half a Tic Tac per minute.

That doesn't sound like much, but if you're in the wilderness, do you think you can forage half a Tic Tac every minute? In our evolutionary environment, calories were so scarce that not thinking was a powerful survival strategy. Another comment from Tim, who has practiced a lot of wilderness survival:

Where there is no pizza to fuel our emotionally calorie fueled brains and bodies life changes dramatically. Basically being calm, and pretty much not thinking of past, future, or dwelling on anything stressful that cannot be resolved in the immediate present. Direct perception, senses, being in the moment, moving differently, resting when tired, smooth nurturing social relationships, trust in core aspects of life, all require less calories I have found for myself.

June 28. Fascinating essay, Any Sufficiently Advanced Civilization is Indistinguishable from Nature:

Suppose then, that scientist observes distant aliens that are so highly advanced that their technology works in concert with the generative natural forces of their planet. Using our current empirical methods of observation, scientists will note the alien landscapes, but they will not be able to discriminate the meaning that is flowing within its organizing networks.

It occurs to me, we are still not able to discriminate the meaning in the organizing networks of our own planet! So there could be a highly advanced intelligence, native to Earth and older than humans, that we have not yet recognized. And we could be a project of this intelligence!

June 29. The Power Trip. It is said that power corrupts, and also that the scum rises to the top. Research confirms the first and contradicts the second: we actually give power to the best people, and then power makes them blind to the perspectives of others. So "throw the bastards out" will not work. The only way to avoid the corruption of power is for nobody to have power over anyone else. Humans have not yet done this in a large system, and even in small systems we only do it some of the time.

July 2-7. The Busy Trap is one of the best essays I've seen about busyness and idleness:

"The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That's why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system." This may sound like the pronouncement of some bong-smoking anarchist, but it was actually Arthur C. Clarke, who found time between scuba diving and pinball games to write "Childhood's End" and think up communications satellites. My old colleague Ted Rall recently wrote a column proposing that we divorce income from work and give each citizen a guaranteed paycheck, which sounds like the kind of lunatic notion that'll be considered a basic human right in about a century, like abolition, universal suffrage and eight-hour workdays. The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.

If we manage to stabilize in a zero-growth society (instead of an endless series of explosions and collapses) then the culture will change, idleness will seem normal, and busyness and striving will seem strange or even unhealthy. I've read three works of fiction that give a sense of how this world might feel: Richard Brautigan's novel In Watermelon Sugar, John Crowley's novel Engine Summer, and the Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou comics.

It also occurs to me that nobody is ever doing nothing. Even meditation masters are focusing their consciousness. When we talk about "idleness" we're really talking about potential idleness, the absence of external demands on your time. The freedom to do nothing is the foundation of the freedom to do anything.

July 4. A few thoughts on Obamacare. I think it will be better than the old system for most people, but that it's ultimately worse than the old system. It's like you're in a tall building that's on fire, and you climb higher. You're farther from the flames, but now it's even more difficult to get out.

The flames are the American private insurance system. Some liberals are trying to make Obamacare sound better by saying that now, like Europe and Canada, we have "universal insurance". Europe and Canada have no such thing -- they have universal coverage. In the absence of a publicly funded system, with the fear of catastrophic bills, insurance is a business that steps in to profit from spreading costs.

We could have a simple and tolerable health care system at either extreme. At the libertarian extreme, everyone pays out of pocket, providers have to set costs and services so that ordinary people can pay, and competition and consumer awareness keep prices low. The only losers (as in any libertarian system) are the poor, who still can't afford access.

At the socialist extreme, nobody even gets a bill. The government pays for everything and funds it through progressive taxation, in which money is taken from people who would actually be better off with less money. Everyone wins -- except that there's no incentive for anyone to keep costs low, so only rich nations can afford it.

In America we have the worst of both worlds: insurance insulates consumers from the market, allowing costs to explode, but ultimately consumers still have to pay. Most Americans who declare bankruptcy from medical costs had insurance that just wasn't good enough. Obamacare does nothing to change this. We still can't afford to buy insurance that covers 100% of everything, and now we are required to pay insurance premiums much higher than taxes paid by working class Canadians, while still risking financial ruin.

July 9. Why do I prefer focusing my attention on a game, over focusing it on the real world? I think it's because games are made of numbers and symbols, which allow for cleaner focus. And then I'm thinking, maybe that's how powerful people become evil: they don't have to engage with the world in its raw form -- they can use their power to create an interface in which they see only numbers and symbols. So it might seem that power is intoxicating, but the thing that's really intoxicating is abstraction.

July 10. Smart article, The Politics of Getting a Life.

The contrast between work and 'idle scrounging' implies that we can measure whether any given activity is productive or useful, by translating it into a common measure. Capitalism has such a measure, monetary value: whatever has value in the market is, by definition, productive. If the critique of capitalism is to get beyond this, it must get beyond the idea that our activities can be subordinated to a single measure of value. Indeed, to demand that time outside of work be truly free is to reject the call to justify its usefulness.

It mentions an essay by Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Here are my favorite bits:

There is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve. This is the result of our property system and our system of competition. One man owns a machine which does the work of five hundred men. Five hundred men are, in consequence, thrown out of employment, and become hungry and take to thieving. The one man secures the produce of the machine and keeps it, and has five hundred times as much as he should have, and probably a great deal more than he really wants.

We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives.

They try to solve the problem of poverty by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

July 17-19. Last week's Archdruid post, The Distant Sound of Tumbrils, is a fiery condemnation of the American elite for being out of touch, comparing them to the French aristocracy before the Revolution. It also contains several examples of a language habit that's been bothering me for years.

The word "privilege" comes from the Latin words for "individual" and "law". So on the one hand you have the state, with laws that apply equally to everyone; and on the other hand you have a system of private property with its own laws, and inevitably they favor people who have more property. In modern times, if you want to describe people who have the advantages of material wealth, you can just call them "rich", and save the word "privileged" for advantages based on things other than wealth, like race, or the subtle behaviors learned from higher class parents and teachers.

But in practice, the word "privileged" almost never points to different people than the word "rich". Instead, it's used to point to the same people with a different moral subtext. "High-income" is morally neutral, "rich" often implies evil, and "privileged" usually goes with the suggestion that wealth and power have made people stupid. The word seems to be saying, "the system has done these people a favor and made them less aware."

But being made less aware is not a favor -- it is a harm. At the same time, higher class people (including middle class people in the first world) have opportunities that make us more aware, like freedom to travel and access to books. The word "privilege" confuses us by blurring together two completely different things: benefits that are not given to everyone but should be, and benefits that should be given to no one.

I think this is related to our confusion about "power", which on the one hand (power-with) means you get to participate in decision-making, and on the other hand (power-over) means you get to deny others participation in decision-making. So it's "empowering" for women to have access to birth control, but it's "empowering" in a completely different way for women to become corporate executives.

So what is it exactly that makes rich people stupid? As the Archdruid says, it's being in a bubble: commanding workers without having to negotiate with their needs, expressing your opinion to people who are not allowed to disagree, gaining benefits without awareness of the costs that fall on others, and generally having your experience filtered, not for what's real, but for what makes you comfortable. To quote Neil Young, "They were poisoned with protection."

The word "insulate" comes from the Latin insula for island. Being made into an island is metaphorically the same as being kept in a bubble. So I suggest, if we think wealth and power have made people stupid, we can use the word "insulated" instead of the word "privileged", and see more clearly how to avoid the dangers of wealth while spreading the benefits. Also we might notice that this problem goes deeper than the rich, that even the poor, while having none of the benefits of wealth, have some of the harm, by being insulated from nature.

next archive