January - March, 2014

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January 6. Emoya Estate: The Luxury Shanty Town In South Africa Offering 'Poverty Porn' For The Rich. For now this is about the rich, but suppose we recover from the ecological and economic catastrophes of the 21st century, and in one or two hundred years, everyone in the world is as safe and comfortable as the rich are now. It might be normal to live in an "exotic hybrid of opulent luxury and extreme deprivation." Everyone wants to feel that their life is meaningful without taking real risks, but I'm not sure that's possible.

January 13, 2014. Some future predictions while the new year is fresh. The other day I got an email from a reader who recently graduated from high school, asking for advice in these difficult times. Ten years ago I would have said to get some land and learn low-tech skills like foraging and metalworking. Now I'd say the best skills are meta-skills like mindfulness and quickly noticing opportunities, and you should only go low-tech if you love it so much that you don't care if it's impractical.

I'm embarrassed that I ever predicted a technological crash, because the arguments are so hand-wavy. Instead, I expect artificial intelligence and biotech to spice up a decades-long economic depression as the global system muddles through climate change and the end of nonrenewable resources. Low quality manufactured items and industrial food will remain affordable, but good food, transportation, and services from actual humans will be more expensive. I think the best place to live is in a small house with a big yard in a city with a seaport or railroad hub. You want to be close to the supply lines, but have enough land to grow luxury foods like blueberries and good tomatoes. As you move farther into the country, the money you save by growing more of your own food will be less than the money you spend on transportation and shipping. Total self-sufficiency would be a good thing to write a novel about.

My generation was the first in American history to be poorer than our parents. Now the Millennials are poorer than us, and this trend will continue until the global infrastructure adapts to feed from a growing base of renewable resources, maybe around 2060. Meanwhile, if you can stay out of debt and find a low-stress job to build up savings, you'll be relatively well off. "Debt" is exactly as real as we believe it is. Mostly it's a trick to make people feel ashamed that they have no political power. Not that it would work any better if we felt angry. The system is totally locked down, and the most revolutionary political change of the 21st century, the unconditional basic income, will be necessary to keep the system stable, to turn the unemployed majority from hungry militants back into consumers.

Technology will promise revolution, but in practice ninety percent of the new powers will be used to keep the remaining ten percent from doing anything dangerous. By the year 2200 there will be no poverty, no disease, and no opportunity for anyone to make a difference, except by more quickly closing off the opportunity for anyone to make a difference. Reasonable people will know that they're better off than we were, but still fantasize about living in our time. Suicide will be the leading cause of death, and by 2300, any death not from suicide will be global news. By 3000 we will either be extinct or moved to another level of reality through some technology of consciousness that would seem completely loony if you described it today. Related: a clever image of reddit in the early 3000's.

January 17. The new question is out. Every year they ask a bunch of supposedly smart people one question, and this year it's "What scientific idea is ready for retirement?"

Overall the answers are weak. Even the ones I agree with are mostly unsurprising. For example: Alex Pentland and Margaret Levi argue against viewing the world in terms of rational individuals. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Cesar Hidalgo argue that perpetual economic growth is a cultural myth that is now obsolete. (I like Hidalgo's idea that the age of growth is neither eternal nor a dead end, but a phase transition.) And Luca De Biase explains how Elinor Ostrom refuted the "tragedy of the commons" by finding many systems throughout history that have managed a commons for the good of all without depleting it.

Sherry Turkle and Roger Schank have smart thoughts on "artificial intelligence", arguing that it's silly to expect robots and computers to replace humans or think like humans. Shank writes, "the name AI made outsiders to AI imagine goals for AI that AI never had."

In one of my favorite answers, Martin Rees hesitantly suggests the obvious: "maybe some aspects of reality are intrinsically beyond us, in that their comprehension would require some post-human intellect -- just as Euclidean geometry is beyond non-human primates."

If I got to answer this question, I would write about objective truth, the idea that "there is" one reality "out there" on which all observers must eventually agree. This is a useful shortcut for everyday life, but careful scientists and philosophers should never talk about truth, only experience. I think we should expect different perspectives to have inconsistent experience, and consistency is something that emerges (imperfectly) when multiple experiencing perspectives 1) want to share the same universe, and 2) compare notes.

One answer is close to this, Amanda Gefter on "*The* Universe". First she mentions "horizon complementarity", where physicists resolve a black hole paradox by imagining the inside and outside of a black hole as different universes. Then she takes it farther, "to restrict our descriptions not merely to spacetime regions separated by horizons, but to the reference frames of individual observers, wherever they are. As if each observer has his or her own universe."

January 30. Reddit comment by Erinaceous on how to change the system. You should read the whole thing but here's a condensed excerpt:

Resistance only defines the edge of the system. It might be important to define that limit but it's just the limit. And the social limit is a hard place to be. What defines the centre is the institutions, the permanent effective networks that are space filling and area preserving. More interesting though is that the control points in these hierarchical systems are not the centres. They are lower down. It's the sales guy who moves between the management and branches and talks to all the people on the shop floor. It's the minor bureaucrat who actually makes the government run. It could be the bottom up institutions that people know to go to because they are so much more effective than the government services that are constantly cut back and falling apart. The ones that make them less dependent and more capable of being fully realized people. The institutions that are working to put themselves out of job instead of trying to maintain their power. So taking the centre is not really the strategy either. It's building the alternative that the centre has to contend with.

February 5. In 1949, He Imagined an Age of Robots. The NY Times asked mathematician Norbert Wiener to write an essay on the coming machine age, but mistakes by editors buried it until it was rediscovered in 2012. My condensed excerpt of their condensed excerpt:

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.

February 12. This article, 10 Futuristic Materials, is utopian because it's childish. Aerogels could insulate a dome on the moon, carbon nanotubes could make towers that reach up to space, metamaterials could make invisibility cloaks, we could fly diamond fighter planes and live in metal foam floating cities and swing transparent swords. Sure, but once the Christmas morning novelty wears off, how exactly will this stuff improve our quality of life? There is a hint of intelligence in the final paragraph: "We'll develop clothing that can constantly project the video of our choosing (unless it turns out being so annoying that we ban it)." Yeah, remember when TV commercials were so annoying that we banned them, and now there are no more TV commercials?

In practice, technologies will be used by control systems to maintain their power and stability. This is especially true of weapons, but even information technology is in danger of being used this way. This reddit comment makes a thorough critique of ebooks, which can be locked down, controlled, and leveraged into economic domination in ways that paper books cannot. The author continues:

Let's say we invent the Star Trek replicator. Finally -- goods can be made out of thin air. Food can be made out of thin air. Replicators would be a scarcity destroying machine with the possibility of both destroying labor AND ending world hunger. It'd be a major shift for society. But insert the corporation and the capitalist who would wrap this machine's usage up in license fees, laws restricting usage, etc. They would use it to destroy labor, but they would prevent the device from destroying scarcity. It's too threatening to the power structures that control capital. You'll never technologically innovate yourself out of the exploitation of capitalism.

What about just using technology to make ourselves happy? Here's an article, illustrated with a great comic, about a Dutch biologist and his research into supernormal stimuli:

Tinbergen succeeded in isolating the traits that triggered certain instincts, and then made an interesting discovery. The instincts had no bounds. Instead of stopping at a 'sweet spot', the instinctive response would still be produced by unrealistic stimuli. Once the researchers isolated the instincts' trigger, they could create greatly exaggerated dummies which the animals would choose instead of a realistic alternative. Songbird parents would prefer to feed fake baby birds with mouths wider and redder than their real chicks, and the hatchlings themselves would ignore their own parents to beg fake beaks with more dramatic markings.

Of course the point is that humans play these tricks on ourselves when we eat junk food and watch TV and so on. The conclusion is that we have to learn the awareness to hold these urges in check. But as technology continues to make stimuli more powerful, can our awareness keep up? Here's a 2007 article on the subject, Superstimuli and the Collapse of Western Civilization.

February 19. Three links about work and money. From Peter Frase in Jacobin Magazine, Work It analyzes three meanings of "work", and eight possible permutations of those meanings. The whole thing is worth reading, not only for the ideas but for a refreshing example of someone thinking clearly. The conclusion:

What we need is not just less work -- though we do need that -- but a rethinking of the substantive content of work beyond the abstraction of wage labor. That will mean both surfacing invisible unpaid labor and devaluing certain kinds of destructive waged work. But merely saying that we should improve the quality of existing work and reduce its duration doesn't allow us to raise the question of whether the work needs to exist at all. To use Albert Hirschman's terms, giving workers voice within the institution of wage labor can never fundamentally call the premises of that institution into question. For that, you need the real right of Exit, not just from particular jobs but from the labor market as a whole.

The Economics of Star Trek does a beautiful close reading of the Star Trek canon, to argue that it's a valuable example of a proto post scarcity economy. Basically the Federation is like European socialism with such massive benefits that nobody has to think about money, but there are still private currencies that you can play with on the edges of that system.

I sort of love that Star Trek forces us to think about a society that has no money but still operates with individual freedom and without central planning. I love that democracy is still in place. I love that people can still buy and sell things. It's real. It's a more realistic vision of post-capitalism than I have seen anywhere else. Scarcity still exists to some extent, but society produces more than enough to satisfy everyone's basic needs. The frustrating thing is that we pretty much do that now, we just don't allocate properly.

Finally, this reddit comment explains how hunter-gatherers were more free than us, and why this freedom was linked to mobility, lack of storage, and a social taboo against hoarding.

February 21. The Math That Predicted the Revolutions Sweeping the Globe Right Now. There is a strong correlation between high food prices and political unrest, and the crazy thing is, cheap food is usually not what the protesters are demanding. Instead, hunger is the catalyst that makes them finally take the streets for other grievances. More generally, hungry people take bigger risks, so there will be more crime, more fights, even more accidents.

How hard is it to feed everyone? Right now the obstacles are mostly political. Ukraine is a massive wheat producer but most of it is being exported as a commodity. This leads to my favorite definition of the difference between a free market and capitalism: in a free market, money is used to convert one commodity into another commodity; in capitalism, a commodity is used to convert money into more money. Protesters are being shot because in the logic of the global economy, turning money into more money is a more important use of food than feeding people.

February 24. Writing The Snowden Files: The paragraph began to self-delete. A reporter covering the NSA describes a bunch of strange experiences, from obvious encounters with spies to bizarre computer anomalies. This is going to sound crazy, but this is my number one area of specialization, and where can I write about it if not on my own blog? If you study the fringe, you see this again and again: through a combination of heightened awareness and isolation, it is possible to veer off into a reality that cannot be reconciled with consensus reality. You can say there was a crumb under the delete key, but this untestable conventional explanation serves to protect consensus reality from the phenomenon, making the experience possible. It didn't happen because the NSA was watching -- it happened because nobody was watching.

March 3. Yesterday on the subreddit there was a post wondering what I meant when I said "I see computers as humanity's suicide". My response:

A good test of any behavior, including any use of technology, is: what happens if I do it for a while and then stop? Or: does this application of technology make me weaker or stronger in its absence?

So GPS navigation makes us worse at navigating in the absense of GPS, escalators make us worse at going between floors in the absence of escalators, and so on. So far, most human use of technology has been in this category, so it's a good bet that we'll keep going in this direction, for example through virtual reality or body implants.

We could choose to go in the other direction, and use future technology in a way that makes us stronger in its absence. For example, we could use neurofeedback to learn mindfulness, or virtual reality to learn physical skills. I expect this kind of thing to be uncommon, so the overall trend will be for human powers (without technology) to be whittled down to nothing.

Meanwhile, it's easy to imagine how biotech could increase biodiversity in the long term (and a good use of computers would be to support this).

But biotech can also be used to make life weaker. Right now, almost all genetic modification is being done to make crops that are dependent on industrial agriculture with high energy inputs. The danger is that inevitable biotech catastrophes will serve as the excuse to give central control systems a strict monopoly over biotech, and they will use it to stamp out biodiversity and create life that is dependent on those control systems for its survival.

March 14-15. Inside The Barista Class is an overly long article with some good insights about class and culture in America. One of the main jobs of baristas, after making coffee, is validating customers' beliefs in their own hipness. A librarian comments:

Customer service is a dying skill. It is all about people, face to face ideally, trying to give them what they need even if that isn't what they start out asking you for, and making it a pleasant experience. Some of the best interns in my library came from tending shitty bars.

And you can't standardize it, although that seems to be the corporate goal. It has to be about *that* specific moment and the people who are sharing it. Maybe you just have to give half a shit about the guy on the opposite side of that desk or counter? If you actually care, people will pick up on that and express appreciation, and that makes a much nicer day for everyone.

March 18. A fascinating speculation that lost airliner MH370 shadowed SIA68, another airliner bound for Barcelona, to sneak through the airspace of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and then veered off to a landing in Turkmenistan, Iran, China, or Kyrgyzstan. Here's the Hacker News comment thread on this idea.

March 20-21. There's a popular new study predicting collapse. The main thing it shows is that economic inequality weakens the system, because the elites remain unaware of how resource depletion is affecting everyone else. But the study's model lacks the complexity to show how the coming changes could actually play out. Anne comments:

What I remember from ecological modeling is that models almost always crash, even when modeling systems that are robust in the real world. Mathematically, you could say that a model progresses to a stable attractor and, for obvious reasons, most attractors in synthetic systems are boundary conditions - the point at which there are no rabbits, or all the biomass is trees. These never happen in real life because correction factors exist that are negligible except in extreme circumstances (and consequently impossible to model accurately). Saying that this model predicts a crash just means it doesn't account for everything that happens when some other factor goes to eleven.

March 31. George Monbiot argues that Humans are diminutive monsters of death and destruction, and not just civilized humans, but that we've been ruining the planet for more than a million years. I believe, following an idea in John Livingston's book Rogue Primate, that the key event was not walking upright, but fire. There's a popular idea that our caveman ancestors used fire to scare predators away. But think about it. If deer learned how to make fire, would wolves be scared away, or would they learn to follow the smoke to their next meal? When our ancestors tamed fire, they began announcing their presence to all other animals, and then they had to become the deadliest animal in the world.

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