April - May 2010

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April 2. The latest Archdruid post, Riddles in the Dark, puts together a lot of important insights:

1) Certain nations feed off the labor and resources of the rest of the world. 2) The citizens of these nations need to be paid off or distracted, or they will violently revolt. The Romans called this "bread and circuses". 3) One of the big ways we are paid off is through extremely high wages. I would add, we mistake these for low wages because the cost of living is so high, especially housing. Instead of pitying Africans who live on a dollar a day, we should ask, "What if our society was set up so that we could live on a dollar a day, and still make $15 an hour?"

4) Because our wages are so high, human labor is the limiting factor in the size and growth of businesses and other money-based systems. So economists view efficiency and productivity in terms of how much stuff is done per unit of human labor. This leads to insanity like industrial agriculture, which wastes massive amounts of energy and physical resources, destroys topsoil, and produces unhealthful food, but allows one farmer to work hundreds of acres.

5) But economists haven't thought it through. When agriculture and manufacturing become more "efficient", what happens to the people who lose their jobs? If they are cut off from the benefits of the system, they turn against it. I would add that in Europe, unemployed people just go on the dole, but in America, with our puritan work ethic, they have to be given other jobs. These jobs are mostly meaningless and degrading busywork in finance, insurance, real estate, and high tech. Greer is arguing that a system made of human labor is better in terms of physical resources, but I would say it's also better in terms of human nature. The more directly our work is related to our own survival and pleasure, the more we feel like life has meaning and the system is fair.

April 6. I love this rant about vampires: fictional vampires have now been watered down to where they're exactly like humans except sexy and strong and immortal, and yet they mope and whine about it.

Why is this story so popular? Maybe vampires are a metaphor for Americans sucking the blood from the rest of the world, and still not being happy. But unlike vampires, we have good reasons to be depressed. Almost everything we have gained is shallow -- sweet food, flashy colors, comfortable temperatures, dizzying speed -- while what we have lost is deep: a minute-to-minute life in which our actions arise from the aliveness inside us, and the sense that we're equal participants in a story that we believe in.

Or maybe we're seeing the future: If biotech survives the ongoing collapse, which seems likely, then we may see cures for aging, and for most fatal diseases, in this century. I see only two ways to make this work: if everybody gets immortality technology, suicide will have to be the most common cause of death; but if too many people actually enjoy living thousands of years, the technology will have to be restricted to a small elite.

April 12. I've been thinking more about Anne's provocatively pessimistic statement (in this post) that without any tech crash, just a financial crash will have us all standing in line for coal mining jobs. If we ask why, we open a deep hole that leads to the enclosure movement, massacres of Indians, and every repressive system in history.

For any system to control you, it must stand between your work and your food. I know there are other needs like shelter and water and warmth, but in most regions, food is the big one. In a forager hunter tribe, or a family of subsistence farmers, your work directly creates your food. You might be poor, but you're free. In industrial civilization, you probably have a job that has nothing to do with producing food, where if you challenge your superiors, you'll be fired, and no longer receive the tokens that are required for food and shelter. You might be surrounded by dazzling technology and comfort, but you are owned.

Now, if this system collapses, you're free but you're hungry; your need for food, and your ability to work, are like two poles of a battery. If you can't connect them yourself, you need something to connect them for you, a social machine that can use your work and give you food. This could be a nice community farm, a crime gang, or a new complex domination system that's worse than the old one.

I can see only one way to have a non-repressive society of any size. Every person has to have the ability, whether or not they use it, to connect their work (or the work of their close friends and family) directly to their food (and also shelter). And on top of that foundation, if we want universities and airplanes and computers, those functions are bought by autonomous food producers with surplus food.

I touched on this a few years ago in a post on Malthus: "How can we have a dense population center that does not grow all its own food, but does not deplete the land that its food comes from? The answer is simple: the people in the city must not own the land, or otherwise control it." An unsustainable city owns the farmers around it, and a sustainable city is owned by the farmers around it. So the question is not, "What do we give the farmers to make them feed us?" It's, "What non-food jobs do we farmers want to create?"

April 20. The Expansion of Ignorance. Kevin Kelly finds exponential increases in "information", measured by web pages, and "knowledge", measured by patent applications and scientific articles. But then he points out that answers create new questions, so what we don't know (or more precisely, what we know we don't know) is increasing exponentially faster than what we know. Terence McKenna said it best: "The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."

But there's a deeper question that Kelly doesn't ask. What exactly is information? The most charitable answer is that information is the expansion of our consciousness into the fabric of reality itself. The least charitable answer is that information is lies: stories that our detached rational brain tells itself to make sense of experience.

This is basically what Dmitry Orlov argues in The Great Unreasoning: that when we map our systems of thought onto reality, we always crash and burn; and this is not because our systems of thought have not yet been perfected, but because "the exercise of our ability to think can reach the point of diminishing, then negative, returns." And "the human propensity for abstract reasoning is a defect of breeding that leads to collective insanity."

So the information explosion claims to be taking us outward, when it's mostly taking us inward. This is the same point that Jerry Mander made in In The Absence of the Sacred: that our technological progress is not evolution but inbreeding.

April 21-22. Disaster Utopianism, a review of the book A Paradise Built in Hell. Contrary to popular myth, crowds are rational, people remain calm in disasters, and big disruptions are big opportunities for both repression and autonomy. Anne comments:

I was in Haiti with the relief effort. I agree wholeheartedly with the review of Solnit's book. It's a truism that in a disaster you have to work harder to keep well-meaning but unskilled people from hurting themselves trying to help, than you ever have to work to keep the survivors from hurting each other trying to steal or rape. We had a saying that went around the rescue workers, usually said to newbies on their first encounter with a corpse:

"The three myths of a disaster are that the dead bodies will kill you, the survivors will kill you, and the men with guns are there to help."

A second observation is that there are always gangsters, and the crimes they were putting together in Haiti were much better organized than the "looting" and "rioting" you saw on the news. Plenty of kingpins and would-be warlords used the earthquake to arrange dubious contracts, ensnare debtors, attract followers and jockey for position in what remained of the political infrastructure.

April 29. Last week I mentioned that we don't have a good definition of the word "information". Then I found out that physicist Vlatko Vedral has made a mathematical definition of information, which has to do with the unlikeliness of the event. So, is this definition the same thing that techno-utopians are talking about, with their information explosion? I don't know! A European reader, Yiedyie, looked at Vedral's book and sent me a bunch of deep thoughts, from which I extracted a few insights.

First, in the philosophical sense, I am not a materialist but an idealist. I think mind is the fundamental reality, and matter is something that mind creates, for reasons we can only guess. Another way to think of it is that reality itself is like a dream, but when many perspectives share a dream, they need a set of rules, and these rules appear to us as matter and energy.

This explains a lot of phenomena that defy materialism, and it erases the "hard problem of consciousness". But it raises new questions, like: if a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there, does it even make sense to talk about it? Or: when astronauts first saw the far side of the moon, was the landscape just then created, and if so, by whom?

These questions force us to accept that the conscious human mind is only a tiny, tiny fraction of the mind or minds creating the physical world. To put it another way: if you are a solipsist, and you think the entire universe is your dream, then you must have a massive subconscious mind to generate and manage it all.

This leads to one of Yiedyie's thoughts. Quoting Gregory Bateson: "No organism can afford to be conscious of matters with which it could deal at unconscious levels." So the high tech information explosion is not creating new information, but is bringing information from subconscious levels, where we were dealing with it just fine, to the conscious level, where it overwhelms the feeble processing power of our rational minds, and leaves us distracted and confused.

Next, getting deeper: what is entropy? Here's an article on the new theory that gravity emerges from information and entropy. It's only a small step from the idea that information is the root of reality, to the idea that mind is the root of reality. And this provides an easy answer to a hard question: if the whole universe is winding down, how did it get wound up in the first place? I once read a speculation that the Big Bang was a massive spike of negative entropy in the quantum whatever. Put this in metaphysical terms, and a system is wound up in the first place by a pure act of will, when mind chooses to condense itself into matter and energy.

But here's the kicker: that means entropy is matter turning back into mind. This reminds me of my 2007 post on entropy, with this amazing comment from Joel:

I heard a fun lecture by Freeman Dyson a few years ago, in which he refuted the notion of a "heat death" of the universe due to the spread of entropy. As the last stars cool down and space warms up, there will be less energy available, but in his calculations this would never slow down the pace of adaptation enough to cause a universal extinction, even as the whole system approaches equilibrium.
I really like the second law from an aesthetic point of view, because of my view of entropy. A good professor of mine said he was annoyed by people who thought of entropy as disorder; a better word for it is fluidity, or maybe unpredictability. To me, the second law says that a system will continue to become more amenable to change, have more variety, and be less easy to predict, if left to its own devices.

May 4. Wind turbines without gears are lighter, cheaper, more reliable. This is because they're simpler, with half as many moving parts, and permanent magnets instead of electromagnets in the generators. Engineers love to make this kind of innovation, and it's exactly what we need to smooth the ongoing collapse. If energy producers know how to simplify while preserving function, it's a good sign that the energy crash will not be catastrophic. But...

When was the last time you saw this kind of innovation in a consumer product? Can you imagine the next generation Ford F-series or Toyota Camry being smaller and cheaper with only half as many parts? The first Apple II could be taken apart without tools, and came with a schematic of the entire circuitry. What would it take for Apple to go back to that?

The deeper issue here is that consumers are powerless. Or, humans have fallen into a powerless role that we call being a "consumer". Here's a related article from a few weeks ago, The Lost Tribes of Radio Shack. We have forgotten how to produce or create anything, except as part of a giant machine that eats the Earth to generate garbage and control. In this economic context, any business that empowers us erodes its own profit base. Apple built a great reputation by giving us participation in power, but its stock didn't take off until it took away our power and gave us toys.

But this economic context is not normal. I remember a dumb saying from the late 90's tech bubble: "What doesn't grow, dies." It's true that what doesn't adapt dies, but getting bigger is a bad way to adapt, because it makes future adaptations more and more difficult.

So, today's big companies that make consumer products will mostly die out with the consumption paradigm, and the adaptations will be made by small new systems. What will those adaptations be? In the next age, the goal of a business will not be to enable investors to increase their money by doing nothing, but to enable customers to improve their lives by doing autonomous work. There are already businesses selling shovels and canning jars and tractor clutches. But if advanced technologies can be taken apart by users, the next step is to make the parts and let users put them together in different ways. Here's a related John Robb post, Modular Tools for Resilient Communities. And the next step is to just make the instructions for making the parts, and the next step after that is to give the instructions away free.

May 19. Just finished reading a new sci-fi novel, The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. That link goes to a nice review by Cory Doctorow. The story has the good kind of plot twist, where a character makes a crazy move that seems to surprise even the author. Also it has impressive moral complexity, leaving you totally on your own to decide what's wrong or right. And best of all, this is the first fiction I've seen about the medium-distant future that sees it the same way I do: Oil-based civilization will collapse, but large complex systems will survive and regrow using a different resource base; and biotech will be much more important than computers.

I have only one complaint. Why does so much "quality" science fiction take place in a cutthroat world where everyone is trying to fuck everyone else? Why are so many characters either hyperselfish or agonizing over their own inadequacy? I have a theory: this is the personality that develops in humans who are allied to powerful technology. Because the technology does the hard stuff for them, they never develop inner strength, or learn to cooperate with other people. And sci-fi authors are noticing this trend and exaggerating it.

Compare this with fantasy. In dumb fantasy, characters are intrinsically good or evil, and this determines whether they use magic for good or evil purposes. In smart fantasy, evil characters become evil because of magic, and they are opposed by good characters using inner strength, cooperation, and the power of nature. And when you think about the meaning of "the power of nature", biotech becomes really interesting.

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