July - August, 2009

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July 2. I think I figured out climate change propaganda. Look at Earth 2100, or Al Gore's work. They're nice people warning us about a real danger and seemingly telling us how we can stop it... but notice that they always talk about reducing consumption, and not throttling production. Economists assume that demand drives production: if we burn less, the fields will pump less. There is some truth to that, but it also happens that production drives consumption, especially in the case of energy: whatever the fields pump out, someone somewhere will burn it.

The oil companies love to talk about the whole world coming together and reducing carbon emissions, because they know that kind of bullshit will never prevent them from finding a buyer for any fuel they can produce cheaply. And that's the key: If we want to prevent catastrophic climate change, we need to make it more expensive to get the oil and coal and gas from the ground to market, so the energy companies arrive sooner at the point where mass extinction is no longer profitable.

July 3. Transcript of a PBS video, Dimming the Sun, and a transcript of a BBC video, Global Dimming. The idea is, particles from industrial air pollution and airplane trails are reflecting massive amounts of sunlight, and without that effect, the climate would be changing even faster. And in the near future, as "dirty" air pollution (CO2 and soot) is replaced by "clean" air pollution (CO2 only), we'll get a double acceleration in warming!

July 8. Yesterday I finished Charles Tart's book Mind Science, and I highly recommend it. The text is a partial transcript of a workshop he did a few years ago, covering three different styles of meditation. The first is where you quiet your thoughts and focus on one thing, typically your breath. The second is where you sit and pay attention to whatever arises in your mind and body and senses. And the third is where you practice staying "awake" in your regular life.

This mental state is almost impossible to describe to someone who hasn't practiced it. For the video game generations, I can say: think of your mental state when you first come into a game, you know you're in a game, and you're exploring with a sense of wonder. Now compare that to the mental state you get in later, where you're fixated on the goals of the game and mechanically hammering buttons.

Also, it's absolutely essential to practice accepting metaconsciousness instead of judging metaconsciousness. Again, words are inadequate, but what I call "acceptance" can still discern and calculate. It can say, "this is useful for this but not for that." What it doesn't do is stick on value-loaded labels: genius or idiot, healthy or deviant, crop or weed. Acceptance carries a lantern and judgment carries a hammer.

Judging metaconsciousness is so common in the culture of Empire that Freud called it the "superego" and thought it was normal. It becomes more troublesome the more you use it, because inevitably it starts fighting against itself. Accepting metaconsciousness is almost completely the opposite. The only controlling it does is to keep catching you when you wander off into mental models and unconscious habits, and bring you back to full engagement with reality. And the more you use it, the better it works.

July 9. Some nuggets from independent video game maker Eskil Steenberg:

A trend is when someone has an idea, and everyone who doesn't have an idea thinks they have the same idea.
One trend I particularly don't like is that games don't let you do cool stuff, rather the game does the cool stuff for you... "In this game you can rip the heads off your enemies" really means: "In this game you can hammer the X button and we will play you an animation".
My "reinvent everything" policy has taken me so far away from what others do that I can no longer relate... What strikes me the most is how complicated they have made it... Destructible environments now are hard, yet in Super Mario bros they were easy. We are raising the bar but we less gracefully clear it. We try to tell stories, yet we still can't do better then a text adventure.
What is the virtue of Reviews? ... Thinking that you can describe a game with a number from one to ten, doesn't qualify you as a writer, it disqualifies you.
Either someone can own a message and stop others from saying it, or we have freedom of speech. These are the stakes. Don't think it is about someone getting paid. The financial well being of me and all the artists I love is insignificant, compared to the basic rights of a human being.
Seeing is believing, so why do we believe so strongly in the things we cannot see? We want to believe that the things we don't see are better than our wildest imagination.

July 10. This Douglas Rushkoff interview argues that the late Medieval period was a golden age and then it all got ruined by the development of central control and individualism. There's lots of other good stuff too, including an observation that the word "home" used to mean a landbase with a community, and now it means a building where you live in isolation.

July 15-16. Derrick Jensen has a new piece in Orion: Forget Shorter Showers. I made a similar point on July 2, that climate change has been framed in terms of reducing consumption, when it's a better tactical move to increase the costs of fossil fuel production. And in this post in 2007, I linked to a 2005 interview about garbage, which mentioned that in 1953, polluting industries formed an organization called Keep America Beautiful, which reframed saving the Earth "as an individual responsibility, and not one connected to the production process."

So, if personal conservation doesn't help, what can we do? Of course, Jensen ends up arguing that we should bring down industrial civilization. But check out his historical examples: "Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, antebellum United States". Nazi Germany was not brought down by internal activists, but by Hitler's decisions to invade the USSR and declare war on the USA. American slavery was not stopped by activists, but by violent conquest by a stronger industrial power. And Tsarist Russia was indeed overthrown from within, but the system that replaced it was much worse!

I'd like to see a historical study of how exactly bad societies turn into good societies. It seems to happen through non-destructive changes that give ordinary people more autonomy. Do you know why Americans are not going to blow up dams, or blockade Monsanto, or even put effective pressure on Congress? Because they're too busy at their jobs! And they're terrified of losing their jobs because then they would quickly go tens of thousands of dollars in debt to the medical industry. That's why I've repeatedly emphasized that the point of disengaging from the system is not to avoid guilt but to get free, to shift your time and attention and energy away from forced labor and toward activities that you find personally enjoyable and meaningful.

Jeff Vail comments:

I side partially with Jensen on this one: societies seem to be a one-way arrow toward oppressive and abusive. I disagree, however, that we need to bring down industrial civilization. My concern about Jensen's approach is that, unless coupled with the construction of a viable alternative to our present society, we'll just succeed in destroying our current social order for a much more authoritarian, oppressive, yet localized social order -- something like what has happened in Mexico.

Instead, I think there are many examples of an "opening of the map" where either real or conceptual space is created that is beyond the control of the "bad" society. Hakim Bey focused on the pirate havens and networked civilization of sea-rovers. Today, perhaps the functional equivalent is the potential for a networked cyber-society that gradually moves from its current information processing function to the provisioning of a set of platforms and open-source tools that allow people to remove their dependencies on our hierarchal economic system.

I've found John Robb's recent discussions on "resilient community" and platforms to be very informative, and the Open Source Ecology website. I think it will be very difficult to build a higher level of consumption society as an alternative, but certainly we can build a higher level of leisure time society. I've written about this in Vernacular Zen.

July 17. Swoopo is a new auction site that exploits the principle of sunk costs to sucker people out of huge amounts of money. The idea is, you have to pay every time you make a bid, so bidders feel compelled to keep bidding, because if they lose, all the money they spent bidding was wasted.

It occurs to me that our whole culture works the same way, but with psychological sunk costs. People have invested years of their attention and belief into goals of conventional social status and material wealth and perpetual increase and control over their environment, and if they abandon those goals, it means they've wasted their lives.

July 29-31. Earlier this month Kevin Kelly posted a big piece on Moore's Law, the famous observation that microprocessor performance is increasing exponentially. Notice his value-loaded language: he uses the word "better" 17 times, when what he's really talking about is some number getting higher or lower in a way that is preferred by his particular culture. And his thesis, that the techno-acceleration is somehow built into history, is an idea that's been floating around for years.

What's new here is the breadth of his analysis: he compiles graphs of a bunch of different numbers that are all increasing exponentially, from wavelengths per optical fiber to the cost per base pair of DNA sequencing. Then he notices what they all have in common: they're all about information processing, and the improvements are all achieved by making things smaller.

Now, if you're a techie, you will ask, "How much more room do we have to make things smaller?" If you're a doomer, you will ask, "Can these extremely complex technologies keep going through severe climate change, economic collapse, and energy decline?" My question is philosophical: "What exactly is information processing?"

At one extreme, you have the idea that information is the fundamental stuff of reality itself, and any increase in the speed or quantity of information processing is an absolute metaphysical good. (And these people think they don't believe in God!) At the other extreme is the idea that "information" is just stories we tell. We have experiences, we build systems of abstract symbols based on those experiences, and now my computer is juggling those symbols at a billion cycles a second, and what good does it do? I wonder if the final word on Moore's Law was written more than 2000 years ago in Ecclesiastes 12:12: "There is no end to the making of books, and much study wearies the flesh."

Or, to translate it for this century: There is no limit to how far we can move our consciousness into the world of information, but if we go too far, the physical world falls apart. Eskil Steenberg made a similar point a week ago in this post about the moon landing, The earth was blue and there was no god. He notices some of the technological powers we have lost in the last 40 years, and although he doesn't explictly connect this to computers, he also notices that computers have made it so easy for us to have cheap fun that we've lost the motivation to make things. This reminds me again of the Scott Adams line that the holodeck will be our last invention.

Simon comments on Steenberg:

What good does flying a mach 2 plane do when you can get there by using an ordinary plane? By the same logic, there just isn't much to do on the moon that's worth the expense of getting there.

Let's run with it: Why fly when we could get there on horses or sailing ships? Why even travel when we could be happy staying in the same village for our whole lives? Why use clothing when we could just live in tropical areas? Why use fire when so many foods are good raw?

I take these questions seriously. To answer them, you either have to be an extreme primitivist, and say that we shouldn't use any tools at all that we don't need for comfortable basic survival, or you have to find some justification for technologies that go beyond that. Of course, engineers don't need reasons to plunge ahead with their inventions. This point applies to philosophers: if you want to say "Eh, going to the moon is not so great, but computers are wonderful," you have to back that up with a general story that says what makes a technology valuable.

One move here is to be circular: if a technology is pursued then it must be valuable, and if it's abandoned then it must be worthless. That's stupid. A better story is satisfaction of human desires: so it's okay to cut down forests or distribute meth if that's what people want. Another, very popular in the modern age, is that any technology is good if it reduces pain. In that case we should all live in padded rooms doped up with opium. A pretty good test of a technology is whether it increases people's subjective feelings of their quality of life. But again, using the padded room example, or the story of the Matrix, most of us would say that it's not good if our happy feelings depend on blocking out reality.

My justification would be something like this: any technology is good if it expands our experience in such a way that, looking back, we're glad we did it. Would I be glad to have had the experience of being zapped by a pain ray? I doubt it. Am I glad to have spent hundreds of hours playing computer games? Some of them. But if NASA had built on the Apollo program, so that 40 years later I could personally walk on the moon, that would be one of the greatest events of my life. Instead, technologies that expand our range of real experience are being abandoned, while "progress" gives us better artificial experiences.

August 12. I don't like to use the word "fascism", for the same reason I don't like to use the word "freedom". Nobody will stand up now and says "I am a fascist" or "I am against freedom". When everybody agrees whether a word is good or bad, but nobody agrees about what it means, then any use of that word turns into a semantic argument.

Whatever we call it, this is what we might see: As the economy continues to fall apart, popular movements will arise to redistribute land, cancel debts, tax the rich, and withdraw from the dominant system. The giant blocks of money/power, threatened by these movements, will stir up angry stupid people and organize them to violently attack poor people, homeless people, squatters, immigrants, ethnic minorities, bicyclists, hippies, liberals, intellectuals, and if the fire gets out of control, even rich white people.

But does America really have enough fuel for that kind of fire? I just read one of the best Holocaust memoirs, From the Ashes of Sobibor by Thomas Toivi Blatt. Blatt survived the early roundups and massacres, was sent to a death camp, escaped, and then hid out in various places until the Soviets came through. One thing that struck me was the meanness and selfishness of the whole surrounding culture. Even the peasant who sheltered him the longest exploited him and finally tried to kill him. Even after the "liberation" he was almost killed by local thugs. If ordinary people had merely looked the other way, many lives would have been saved. Instead, ordinary people went out of their way to beat, rob, turn in, hunt down, and kill Jews. Maybe some parts of America are that mean, but not where I live.

Another thing I noticed was how vulnerable Jews were. They were relatively easy to identify, and everywhere they were outnumbered by people who were itching to murder them as soon as they got the green light. We don't have any comparable group in America, except immigrants in a few regions. Some obvious survival advice: if you walk down the street and notice everyone glaring at you, get out before order breaks down.

I also wonder if we're stuck in the 1940's, preoccupied with Hitler-style fascism and 1984-style totalitarianism, while ignoring greater threats and challenges that are new to the 21st century.

August 15. On the Whole Foods boycott, I disagree with both sides. The anti-boycotters say that Whole Foods is a relatively good company, and that the CEO's critique of health care reform was somewhat insightful, so we shouldn't boycott them. That completely misses the point: the boycott is a vastly powerful and neglected tool. What the strike is to production, the boycott is to consumption. If we learn to do it right, we can train corporations like dogs. It doesn't matter if people are motivated to boycott Whole Foods for a silly reason. If we can tap into that motivation and publicly influence Whole Foods to make any change at all, our boycotting muscle grows stronger.

Meanwhile, the boycotters have missed exactly the same point. Liberals think that boycotting is something you do as a disconnected individual to advertise your righteous anger or your purity. That won't get us anywhere. The right way to do a boycott is to organize a large number of people, pick a target, boycott it hard, and make specific demands. When the demands are met, the boycott ends. In the Whole Foods boycott, I haven't seen anyone even raise the subject of demands. A boycott without demands is worse than no boycott at all. Going back to the dog training metaphor, it's like disciplining a dog without showing it the correct behavior. The dog just gets confused and angry.

August 25. Near the end of Joe Bageant's piece on health care, he says this:

Whenever we must reach any significant agreement as human beings... we immediately cede the field to ideology. We simply don't know how to do anything else. Ideology has utterly triumphed. It has separated us from ourselves and built itself a home inside our consciousness, from whence it operates now as our reality.

Yes... but what exactly is ideology? I looked up some definitions, and what Bageant is talking about is clearly more powerful and dangerous than "a body of ideas related to politics or culture". Whatever we call it, this is what I think is happening: some animals, including humans, get into tribe wars. Tribe wars are driven by tribe war consciousness, in which individuals become strongly emotionally attached to their own tribe, easily controlled by the leaders of their own tribe, and reflexively hostile to the enemy tribe and anything related to it.

But humans are so good at abstract thinking that we can attach tribe war consciousness to things other than small tribes: to vaguely defined ethnic identities, to cultures, to nations, and even to ideas. I think that's what Joe Bageant and Guy Debord mean by "ideology": tribe war consciousness attached to ideas. And then an enemy idea, or even a fact supporting an enemy idea, will be aggressively rejected without thinking.

Tribe war consciousness is cowardly. People afflicted with it, if they have a choice, will choose the side that looks like it's winning. Thus, in Russia after 1917, ideologues became communists, and in America after 1980, they became something they called "conservative", which was actually a new and radical idea that giant concentrations of private wealth and power should be as free as the wind.

August 26. In this post about medical paradigms, Anne points out the similarities between "alternative" medicine and dominant western medicine: Both of them imagine some other universe in which you have perfect health, and the reason you're in this universe, where you don't, is that someone has done something wrong -- probably you. And since you're not perfect, you need to be fixed, which requires diagnosis and treatment by an "expert".

In contrast, Anne gives some examples of trends to use medical technology not for correction but augmentation. I'm also thinking of movements to see autism and ADHD not as defects but as valuable different modes of consciousness. And here's a short piece from a month ago, Fighting deadly diseases by ignoring them, suggesting that if you get HIV or cancer, it might work better to "call a truce with it" than try to eradicate it.

Taking a few steps back: all of western thought, from medicine to religion to political theory to lawn maintanence, imagines that somewhere there is a perfect world, and if we obey the right instructions, we can go there and stay forever. But it's more liberating to see reality as fundamentally messy, and to ride the mess and see where it can take us.

August 28. Completely off the usual subjects, I was reading this article about Woodstock and generational differences, and was surprised to find out that as late as 1966, only 4% of Americans said that rock and roll was their favorite kind of music.

I can remember when punk rock and heavy metal were still scandalous, but to me, "rock" has always been like air. It so saturates our culture that it would be silly to love it or hate it. It's so broadly defined that you could probably find three "rock" albums without a single musical instrument in common. Consider Apocalyptica's Inquisition Symphony, which has no guitar, bass, drums, or vocals! If a new kind of music was invented that made rock obsolete, it would still be classified as "rock", because that's where they put everything that doesn't fit neatly in some other category.

This has probably already happened several times. Is anyone making new music that sounds like Rocket 88? The original musical form is abandoned, and the name is meaningless, and yet the soul is immortal: It seems built into reality itself that old things lose their integrity and fall apart, and new life springs through the cracks.

August 31. When you read fiction about space travel, the big space outposts are usually in orbit around planets and stars. Now it looks like they would be at Lagrange points, where the gravity of two large bodies cancels out. The article calls them gravity "holes", but you can see from this Wikipedia Lagrange point image that they're more like gravity ridges or peaks or saddles. Once you get there, it takes very little energy to stay. (If you're into synchronicity, ZZ Top has a song called "La Grange", which copies the riff from the song "Spirit in the Sky".)

I used to think human space travel was troubling, but after watching Firefly, and reading this piece on space permaculture, I think it could be awesome. Of course, all popular sci-fi is going to project human myths on the new myth of space travel. In Star Trek it's a totalitarian utopia, a benevolent hierarchy crushing outbreaks of chaos. In Firefly it's an anarchist utopia, a free tribe having adventures in a messy world with no edges.

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