June - August, 2007

previous archive

June 13. I often see the statement, especially from baby boomers, that future generations will look back and be angry at us for ruining the Earth. I disagree.

Almost everyone reading this lives in a city or suburb. Are you angry at previous generations that killed the wilderness that used to be there? Iraq was once covered with dense cedar forests -- are Iraqis angry at the ancient people who cut the trees down? The seashores of the world used to be teeming with a thousand kinds of life. Now they're deserts where a few seagulls eat plastic, and we're not angry. Some of us are sad, and most of us just don't know. Even the worst change soon becomes the new normal. I'm briefly angry when I see a beautiful wild field turned into suburban houses, and then I get used to it. How much less will people feel, when they didn't even experience the world before?

Future generations will live on a planet of weeds, a world of abandoned buildings, junked cars, and cracked pavement, covered with english ivy or kudzu or himalayan blackberry or spotted knapweed or purple loosestrife. They will watch flocks of crows and hear the calls of coyotes, and "this land used to be a deep forest" will be nothing more than a factoid among the educated, just as it is now. They will also know nothing of office cubes or traffic jams or medical bills or loneliness in a crowd. In many ways their lives will be better than ours. But they will look at the spectacular buildings and freeways and dead high-tech gadgets, and tell stories of the strange golden age when people lived like gods. They won't hate us, but they might envy us.

Philip K Dick said it best in A Scanner Darkly:

God's M.O., he reflected, is to transmute evil into good. If He is active here, He is doing that now, although our eyes can't perceive it; the process lies hidden beneath the surface of reality, and emerges only later. To, perhaps, our waiting heirs. Paltry people who will not know the dreadful war we've gone through, and the losses we took.

June 15. On Simon's recommendation, I've been reading John Crowley's 1979 novel Engine Summer. (You're most likely to find it as part of the three-novel compilation Otherwise.) It's set roughly 1000 years in the future, long after the fall of industrial civilization, when the narrator leaves a utopian community to explore the world. I find Crowley's "haunting, lyrical style" difficult, but some of you will love it, and the story is full of profound ideas and way ahead of its time. Here's a condensed excerpt of the part about our own age:

Oh, the world was full in those days. In those days a thousand things began and ended in a single lifetime. It was like some monstrous race between destruction and perfection; as soon as some piece of world was conquered, the conquest would turn on the conquerors, as Road killed thousands in their cars; and in the same way, the mechanical dreams the angels made with great labor and inconceivable ingenuity, dreams broadcast on the air like milkweed seeds, passing invisibly through the air, through the very bodies of the angels themselves, one dream dreamed by all so that all could act in concert, until it was discovered that the dreams were poisonous to them somehow, and millions were sickening, but unable to stop the dreaming even when the dreams themselves warned them that the dreams were poisoning them, unable or afraid to wake and find themsleves alone.

And it all went faster as the Storm came on, that is the Storm coming on was the race drawing to its end; the solutions grew stranger and more desperate, and the disasters greater, and in the teeth of them the angels dreamed their wildest dreams, that we would live forever, that we would leave the earth, a dream they could not achieve because of the Wars starting and the millions of them falling out in a million different ways. And then the Storm, which anybody could have seen, and it all began to stop, and kept stopping till all those millions were standing in the old woodlands which they had never been in before and looking around in wonder at the old world as though it were as strange as their dreams had truly been.

July 1. A few weeks ago I read a piece about dealing with scientologists, and more generally about defending yourself from manipulators. The best trick of manipulative people is to put you in a position where the burden is on you to justify saying no. They say "Why don't you bla bla bla?" and whatever you say to explain why you won't to it, they don't accept it, until finally you give up and do it. If you allow the battle to be framed that way, you've already lost. The correct tactic is to keep the burden on the manipulator to tell you why you should do it... and whatever they say, just say, "hmm," and go on with your business.

This leads to a bigger question of what it means to be "free." Americans think freedom means no restrictions, no boundaries -- no matter what you want to do, nobody can say no. But if "freedom" is defined this way, you end up in a hierarchy, where people below you can't say no to you, and you can't say no to people above you. Then what you have is a slave society, where even the people at the very top can't say no to the system itself.

The opposite is a society where no one is ever commanded -- that is, everyone always has the right to say no. But if you can say no to anyone, that means anyone can say no to you. So to have freedom (no coercion), we have to give up freedom (no boundaries), and vice versa. It's confusing to use a language where such an important word has two opposite meanings and no one notices.

July 18. Great bit from this Alan Weisman interview:

To see how the world would look if humans were gone, I began going to abandoned places, places that people had left for different reasons. One of them is the last fragment of primeval forest in Europe. It's like what you see in your mind's eye when you're a kid and someone is reading Grimm's fairy tales to you: a dark, brooding forest with wolves howling and tons of moss hanging off the trees. And there is such a place. It still exists on the border between Poland and Belarus. It was a game reserve that was set aside in the 1300s by a Lithuanian duke who later became king of Poland. A series of Polish kings and then Russian czars kept it as their own private hunting ground. There was very little human impact. After World War II it became a national park. You go in there and you see these enormous trees. It doesn't feel strange. It almost feels right. Like something feels complete in there. You see oaks and ashes nearly 150 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, with bark furrows so deep that woodpeckers stuff pinecones in them.

August 9. Space dust self-organizes into life!

"These complex, self-organized plasma structures exhibit all the necessary properties to qualify them as candidates for inorganic living matter," says Tsytovich, "they are autonomous, they reproduce and they evolve".

August 19. The Singularity Myth is a good highly technical critique of the argument that accelerating "progress" is going to break us through into techno-heaven. Basically, an exponential curve on a graph always exists as part of a larger curve, which eventually goes the other way, and computer speed will level out by 2045 at less than 100 times what it is now, assuming we still have a computer industry. Related: Biotech's growth curves leave Moore's Law in the dust.

August 28. On my last trip to the land I noticed something: Getting into a groove of mindless repetitive work is centering. If you're feeling terrible, it makes you feel pretty good; if you're feeling super-hyped, it makes you feel pretty good. So what happens when an entire society has all mindless repetitive work done by machines? Now, instead of working wood with hand tools, which is meditative, we do it with power tools, which is stressful because you can kill yourself at any moment. It's the same with driving instead of walking.

We have made "progress" according to one narrow equation: more transformation of the world per human attention. In many other ways, machine power is a serious misstep. Of course it consumes more actual energy, which comes from hidden unsustainable sources. Also, more transformation per attention means more stress, and more and bigger mistakes. And finally, without the centering effect of meditative physical work, depressed people stay depressed and fanatical people stay fanatical, all of them pushing us toward apocalypse.

August 30. On the TV news, everything they say is true, but everything they take for granted is a lie.

August 31. Jeff Wells had a good post the other day, Ask not for whom the frog sings, about the way paranormal phenomena seem to actively hide from proof. Of course it's all normal, and by "proof" we mean something that can be duplicated and experienced at will by anyone -- something we only demand and expect because of our cultural myth of objective reality. Here's a condensed bit from the book The Spell of the Sensuous:

Husserl's notion of intersubjectivity suggested a new interpretation of the so-called "objective world." The conventional contrast between "subjective" and "objective" realities could now be reframed as a contrast within the subjective field of experience itself. The sciences are thought to aim at knowledge of an objective world independent of awareness. Considered experientially, however, the scientific method enables greater consensus, greater agreement among a plurality of subjects. The pure "objective reality" commonly assumed by science was, according to Husserl, a theoretical construction, an idealization of intersubjective experience.

I'm reading a fantasy novel in which there are magical books that change their contents according to who is reading them and what they're ready to know, and it occurs to me that the whole world works that way. Modern science is on a doomed quest to nail the world down, but the best it can do is to declare that the stuff that varies doesn't really exist.

I'm also thinking, as soon as technology gets to the point where we can't tell a real UFO film from a fake UFO film, it will become much easier to film real UFO's, because those films will be easily dismissible and will no longer threaten consensus reality.

next archive