Posted: October 13, 2014 in Culture, Debate, Idle Nonsense, Science, Technophilia
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Computerworld has a preposterous article by Patrick Thibodeau entitled “Why We Live in an Anti-Tech Age.” The argument is that science is the object of hatred and “real” technological progress has stalled because it hasn’t given us a serious game-changer since … well, the early decades of the Atomic Era cum Space Age. The explicit suggestion, quoting David Hanaman, is that modern tech may have “a lot of cool technology, and it has made first-world lives maybe a little more superficially fun, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the human condition.” Thibodeau also cites dystopian movies such as The Terminator, The Matrix, Avatar, Elysium, and Gravity as reflections of society’s hostility to tech. I guffawed at these assertions. Here’s another one, citing Peter Thiel:

Technology has a much different meaning today than it did in the 1950s or 1960s. During that period, it meant computers and rockets, underwater cities, new forms of energy and all sorts of supersonic airplanes. Since then, there “has been this narrowing” view that technology is mostly information technology.

Sure, it’s different now. The field of play has shifted. Then, it was more about big, centrally funded government projects (infrastructure and otherwise), remote and exotic places, and traversing the spaces between. Now, projects are more likely corporate or crowd-sourced, and we take for granted international shipping and travel, bringing much more of the world to our homes both materially and digitally.

What irritates me most is that Thibodeau assesses the public attitude toward tech, or more appropriately, high-tech and innovation, completely wrong. The public has none of the considered reluctance or refusal to engage with tech that would earn them the slur Luddites. Indeed, lines around the block for each new release of the Jesus Phone iPhone demonstrate how much in demand are the latest tech products. The public is heavily primed to adopt anything innovative coughed up by technology, such as wearable computers (e.g., Google Glass) and 3D TVs. However, the public simply doesn’t understand basic scientific principles or much of resulting technology beyond childish, push-button interfaces, and even that has proven to be too much, as the modest difficulty of setting VCR clocks revealed decades ago. There’s a reason why devices are designed to be plug-and-play: the public can’t use them otherwise. As a result, to the public, what tech delivers is more nearly magic, and that engenders distrust and fear (e.g., self-driving cars), which is foolishly mistaken by Thibodeau as hostility. What portion of the public uses more than a small fraction of the full capability of smart phones, computers, automobiles, etc., which are BTW constantly adding new, unneeded features, is a matter of debate. But Americans in particular are unlike Asians, who often drill down to the most arcane and pointless aspects of the user experience solely to demonstrate prowess.

My other irritation is the risible assertion, quoted above, is Hanaman’s remark concerning the human condition. Why would that be any kind of measure of successful innovation? Further, as ought to be clear to anyone paying attention, we are in the midst of an epochal shift in the way human cognition functions, which is a direct result of wall-to-wall engagement with media. Literacy and education have taken nose dives in the last few decades. We now outsource basic mental process to computers and gather opinions and attitudes by listening to some of the worst pundits and demagogues the public sphere has has created through a perverse set of financial incentives that reward noxious infamy. This leads directly to debasement of institutions both real and idealized (e.g., democracy) that rely on an informed public able to think critically and act responsibly in the interest of themselves and the commonweal.

Examining how these shifts affect society as a whole would be a very long undertaking and lies outside the scope of this blog post. Suffice it to say that many sociologists, philosophers, and even technologists from the early decades of the 20th century have documented and demonstrated how society in the modern era has lost much of its beauty, meaning, and spirituality at the hands of technical progress. Cool gadgets, conveniences, efficiencies, and entertainments have not actually served us very well in the long run. In fact, they have weakened and diminished the human condition at the same time we are granted amazing powers of creation and destruction. It’s impossible to know sometimes whether science, technology, and innovation are on balance salutary or demonic, but certain aspects are certainly recognizable as unspeakably nasty. Gradual shifts occurring over the span of generations are harder to assess, but hindsight is beginning to reveal that we are increasingly hollow men and women, largely because of technology’s effects. Thibodeau’s reflexive technophilia and marshaling of quotable entrepreneurs slavering for some new, game-changing innovation are plainly poor analysis.

This is the fourth of four parts discussing approaches to the prospect of NTE, specifically, “Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene” (DH in the A) by Bethany Nowviskie, which is a transcript of a talk given at the Digital Humanities 2014 conference in Lausanne, Switzerland. Part one is found here; part two is here; part three is here.

Of the three articles reviewed in this blog series, DH in the A is the most confounding. It offers what I thought might be the best approach to the prospect of NTE, which is to confront it openly and hash out some sort of meaningful action to take in the time remaining us — but from a humanities perspective. However, as Nowviskie’s comments indicate, she is refraining from endorsing most of what she wrote about in favor of the measured, meaningless mumbles of empty academic speech. But before I get to that, let’s have a look at (some of) what Nowviskie covers in her lengthy article. The profusion of people cited and links littered throughout the transcript is pretty impressive, though I daresay few would bother to explore them in much detail. She begins by laying bare the stark reality of mass extinction:

To make plain the premise on which this talk rests: I take as given the scientific evidence that human beings have irrevocably altered conditions for life on our planet. I acknowledge, too, that our past actions have a forward motion: that we owe what ecologists like David Tilman call an “extinction debt” — and that this debt will be paid. As the frequency of disappearance of species leaps from its background rate by a hundred to a thousand times the average, I accept — despite certain unpredictabilities but with no uncertain horror — that we stand on the cusp of a global mass extinction of plants and animals, on the land and in our seas. We are here to live for a moment as best we can, to do our work, and to help our fellow-travelers muddle through their own short spans of time — but we are also possessed of a knowledge that is sobering and rare. We, and the several generations that follow us, will bear knowing witness to the 6th great extinction of life on Earth. This is an ending of things, a barring of doors, not seen since the colossal dying that closed the Mesozoic Era, 66 million years ago. [link in original; emphases mine]

Read the rest of this entry »

/rant on

I already have one post regarding theater of the absurd, but that was more a stunt with diverse unrelated elements. This one from the LA Times features California GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari taking a mallet to a toy train to promote his idiotic position against building high-speed rail linking Los Angeles and San Francisco. (Maybe California is too bankrupt and drought-stricken — perhaps soon to experience a major diaspora — to consider infrastructure upgrades, but that’s not what’s under discussion.) Kashkari also gave away $25 gas cards to the first 100 attendees of his campaign event to sweeten the deal. In the news story, comparison is made to a similar bit of political theater by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who dropped a wrecking ball onto an Oldsmobile to signal his dissent regarding onerous annual automobile registration fees.

Now then, I can’t say for certain what’s going on inside the heads of numbskull candidates whose best ideas amount to busting shit up to make their points, but forcing Californians to climb into their cars by thwarting mass transit options is more than a little questionable when the roadways and air are already choked with traffic and smog:

I see a similar layer of smog over Chicago nearly every morning, though it’s usually visible as a layer of brown gunk only when the sun has not yet risen too far over Lake Michigan. Later in the day, it’s gray haze. Chicago traffic congestion is also a serious problem despite numerous mass transit options, which begs all sorts of other questions.

No doubt it sounds conspiratorial to suggest that automobile manufacturers and Big Oil marched everyone unwittingly into their cars and bought or installed their share of government lackeys to aid and abet. But there was and still is lots of lucre to be made by doing so. And how else can any thinking person possibly rationalize the continuing destruction of the natural world that comes with paving over the landscape and extracting the energy needed to keep happy motoring alive? This doesn’t even account for the horrific number of traffic deaths each year. True, trends have gone consistently down over time when averaged over millions of vehicle miles traveled, but maybe that’s partially accounted for by congestion. The sheer number of deaths is still startling.

Similar questions can be raised regarding economists and political hacks who fail utterly to see any limits to growth — indeed, cannot believe that finitude is anywhere or anytime nearby — despite severely diminished returns on continued extraction of resources, worsening overpopulation, and toxification of water, soil, and air. To be alive in the 21st century means knowing (if one has the courage to face the truth) that we’re slowly killing ourselves through a variety of behaviors that are now so deeply woven into industrial civilization as to be inescapable. So we all continue to drive, use electricity (generated by burning coal or by nuclear fusion), and have babies because, frankly, we don’t know how to do anything else. And no one with the power to “move the needle” is saying much about what should have us all shocked and awed, namely, the fully anticipatable wreckage of the modern world coming soon to neighborhoods near yours and mine and everyone’s. Instead, we get buffoonery such as continuous wars, campaign theater of the absurd, and political promises of a brighter future. Our disconnect from what reality will deliver could not be more complete.

/rant off

The failed Scottish referendum on independence from Old Blighty caught me off guard. I thought perhaps it would be the first secessionist movement in the 21st century to succeed. But alas, breaking up is hard to do, as the song lyric goes. A cursory survey of geopolitical hotspots reveals that there may be a quiet movement afoot, something in the air perhaps. For example, Québec also failed in its latest attempt to establish sovereignty from Canada in 1995, whereas the Free State Project in New Hampshire has yet to test the waters. Texas always has someone beating the drum about secession, but it appears to be mostly rhetoric. More sympathetically, the Republic of Lakota declared sovereignty in 2007, which is yet to be recognized by the U.S. government. There must certainly be other secessionist movements on other continents besides N. America of which I’m unaware.

Secession is only one way nation-states break apart. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) and Czechoslovakia both dissolved bloodlessly, while Yugoslavia broke apart following a civil war. Nations located in the Middle East have had on-and-off civil wars over the past 100 years, abetted recently by destabilization efforts spearheaded outside those countries, frequently under the false humanitarian guise of “regime change.” More pointedly, high-profile calls for straightforward revolution made the news last fall, notably those of Chris Hedges and Russell Brand. Changing out a government is not quite the same as a country breaking up, but there is some overlap.

Aside: Hedges has long established himself as possessing unique erudition and perspective on the world. Brand was a surprise to me, partly because he came almost out of nowhere (as a political commentator) and partly because he insists that there is no reason in particular the pundits should pay him any attention. The obvious rejoinder is that he clearly has something to say, though he admits he can never be a voice of the people because of his fame and fortune. This contrasts with the commonplace mistake of celebrity entertainers lending their names to political causes, as though it’s somehow important that, say, Robert Redford, Eva Longoria, or Alec Baldwin have anything to add to political discussion that isn’t overshadowed and thus made worthless by their celebrity. Withholding might be one of the sacrifices necessitated by celebrity.

It’s a mistake to pretend to penetrate too deeply into the cultural moment and divine a grassroots movement of the people against big government, but I find it plausible at least to observe that the spirit of collectivism has been invalidated in our time. Communism survives only a few places on the globe, and socialism, though still widespread, has suffered a serious public relations setback — especially in the United States. People(s) organize themselves more meaningfully according to smaller social units than nation-states. Thus, the tribalism of sports fans, religions, or political parties is more rabid and motivating than nationalities. I would suggest that average people are even more atomized than that, considering the failure and breakdown of an even more granular sense of community that used to operate in parishes, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and families. More people see themselves today as disconnected and adrift from wider context and expect to go it alone when difficulty strikes hard. Recent history has reinforced the growing awareness that institutions that ought to serve us have instead abandoned us or become openly hostile. And yet this is occurring at the same time that economic flows — a poor but ubiquitous measure of wellbeing — are aggregating and leaving behind average folks. That’s globalization at work. However, even the very few who reap outrageous wealth from exploitation of the masses recognize they, too, have no community around them and indeed seek to become sovereign or supranational citizens, which filters down in a hobbled form to the rancher or anarchist who thumbs his nose at government. One wonders whether current political unrest in Syria, Ukraine, and of course Iraq, aren’t prime examples of conflicting motivations between the individual and society.

Update: This post at Stratfor Global Intelligence appears to argue the same main point I made. Naturally, the arguments are a lot beefier, as befits a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm that trades in such analyses. It even has a world map showing significant separatist movements. I knew they were out there.

This is the third of four parts discussing approaches to the prospect of NTE, specifically, “The Last of Everything” by Daniel Drumright, a blog essay for denizens of Nature Bats Last, which has recently narrowed its focus to discussion of NTE. Part one is found here; part two is here.

Despite having had the longest period of engagement (of the three authors reviewed in this blog series, I’m guessing) with industrial, economic, and ecological collapse that will precede population collapse and most likely extinction of the preponderance of life on Earth, Drumright still writes with the raw emotion of someone who has just become aware that we are all now staring inescapable death in the face  — the death of our species. Indeed, the number of ways Drumright rephrases the damning dawning realization still waiting to break across the popular mind or public sphere is exhausting. Here is one from the outset of the essay:

This is a commiserative thought experiment written ONLY for those whose lived experiences have afforded them the intellectual/emotional freedom to fully explore the dismal implications that virtually no one will survive near term global starvation.

Again and again, Drumright comes back to the stark reality of NTE using a variety of evocative phrases, none of which fully encapsulates the immensity of NTE because, frankly, humans have great difficulty trying to grok things so far outside standard frames of reference. He rightly points out, too, that no humans up to this point in history have had to contend with such awful conclusions, foreseeable and delayed or postponed in their effect but nonetheless unavoidable. Accordingly, his essay is written with none of the sober detachment and objectivity of the professional critic or academic. Instead, he writes as though he were a parent destroyed by the death of a child. That comparison fails, of course, because despite our familial responsibility for the fate of the living planet, we are all participants in this prospective death, referred to elsewhere on this blog as a megadeath pulse.

Whether because of this emotional overlay or mere sloppiness, Drumright’s essay suffers from unnecessary restatement and rambling, poor grammatical and paragraph structure, and excessive length. (To decipher the tortured language, I edited the copy I pasted into MS Word for safekeeping.) But maybe it’s just as well that the writing is choked and spluttering in places; its tone is what I actually expect even from those who have dealt with the NTE meme complex for some time. We’re just not culturally equipped to absorb the death of our species with much composure.

One of Drumright’s principal ideas is acceptance, as distinguished from (I guess) denial, resistance, desperation, or hope (now frequently renamed as the placebo drug hopium). Only with acceptance does the time remaining begin to offer forms of sanctuary for the soul. But this can only be an individual response and refuge. Conjecture by those with a lengthy period of collapse-awareness more typically envisages scenarios of anarchic chaos and destruction before it’s all over. Rather like the last tortured gasps of empire, an expectation of out-of-control crowds (mobs, really) and wanton, end-of-days benders (including some nasty jaunts toward revenge and victimization) seems a greater likelihood than calm, wizened acceptance. Indeed, few achieve the peace of mind needed to go to one’s death with grace and resignation.

Drumright provides numerous insights hard won in his time fighting for environmental justice. Only on “this side of acceptance,” however, has he broken through the idols and illusions of political activity and recognized that the trajectory we’re on is not guided or controllable (if it ever was, in fact). Similarly, various impediments stand in the way of acceptance and continue to thwart the next, not-quite-final step:

Let’s start talking about how we’re all going to die, not vaguely, halfheartedly or sarcastically, but specifically so that we can actually begin to get beyond that specter, and start being creative in figuring out how we’re going to live through [the ongoing process of] extinction until that fateful day comes for each of us. Because if we’re talking about acceptance, it’s probably time we get around to actually talking about what IT is we’ve come to accept, beyond endlessly lamenting the loss of all the rest of life, and incessantly debating our legacy of agency which has nevertheless led us to where we are today irrespective of our personal opinions.

Drumright goes on to discuss (at length) as a case in point the suicide this past spring of whistle-blower and truth-teller Michael Ruppert. Somewhat surprisingly, Drumright is critical of Ruppert for having squandered an opportunity to lead the way with a meaningful or beautiful death, albeit by suicide. Part of Drumright’s indignation stems from Ruppert’s position in the vanguard among the collapse-aware (I’ve adopted the term doomer but for reasons yet unclear cannot stomach collapsitarian). Ruppert’s approach was never, best as I can assess, spiritual or therapeutic. Rather, he was always trying to break through the wall of denial, obfuscation, and ignorance that characterizes most people, some who know better and most who don’t. To deny him (after the fact) his own personal response, shocking though ultimately harmless to those of us who puzzled over his choice of exit strategy, seems to me a niggardly response.

From a wider perspective, Drumright appears to make a mistake of metonymy, lamenting that in his final act Ruppert failed to teach by example how we all might take our leave in the company of love and dignity. The discontinuity between individual and society, however, will not be bridged even by hundreds of prime examples. Irrational fear as we recognize death stalks each of us simply cannot be undone or overcome at the level of society. Still, for those who can take instruction and choose consciously how to end things, Drumright offers thoughtful alternatives. Absent from those alternatives are the usual frothy, lofty incantations that soothe the faithful, which are not actually humane responses, considering how they rely on other idols and illusions. He does, however, offer a glimpse of beauty by reminding us that the bonds of community, whether shared digitally or in person, are to be embraced and cherished in our remaining time.

Before continuing with my series on “Pre-Extinction Follies,” I want to divert to an idea I’ve struggled with for some time, namely, that by virtue of socialization and education (and especially higher education), we train our minds to think according to a variety of different filters. Which filter is most powerful and for what objectives is a question that leads to many potential answers, such as, just for example, (1) the scientific worldview and its follow-on power to manipulate (and pollute) the land, sky, and oceans of the planet, (2) the spiritual worldview and its power to transfix the human psyche, (3) the artistic worldview and its power to resonate with emotion and intuition, or (4) the sportsman’s worldview and its power to construe the world in terms of pointless endless cycles of competitions, games, and championships. As I observed here, there is considerable overlap that makes distinguishing between competing worldviews somewhat questionable, but considering how depth and nuance is driven out of most points of view, keywords, soundbites, and dogma function just fine to separate and define people according to classes, races, demographic groups, etc.

The idea of twisted minds, never far from my thinking, came to the fore again recently because of two experiences: reading (at long last) Joe Bageant’s Rainbow Pie and getting HBO, which granted access to comedy shows (Real Time with Bill Maher and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver) that rework political and cultural news to make it palatable to and digestible by the masses. Having been a viewer of The Daily Show for some time and long before that a variety of Bill Maher’s exploits, I appreciate the acumen it takes to transmit (some of) the news comically. That particular filter is precisely why I go there. Along the way, I get exposure to lots of ideas I normally avoid (yes, I practice a form of information aversion at the same time I’m an information sponge, though not a political junkie or news hound), but I don’t kid myself as hosts of those shows sometimes chide their own audiences that I’m getting all of the news there.

Still, I can’t help but feel frustration at the way various media folks twist the news. In unscripted interviews and panel discussions in particular, ask a question of an economist and an economics answer results. The same is true, respectively, of news anchors, magazine and blog writers, and celebrities (mostly actors). They may have excellent command of the issues, but their minds reshape issues according to their training and/or vocation, which makes me want to hurl things at the screen because opinions and policy are frequently so constrained and twisted they become idiotic. An economist who promotes growth is a good example (more of what’s destroying us, please!). The worst, though, are politicians. Career politicians (is there any other kind?) are conditioned to distort issues beyond recognition and to deal with people (and their issues) as demographics to be shuffled in the abstract around the imaginary surface of some playing field. Dedication to service of the commonweal is long gone, replaced by theater, spin doctoring, and perpetual campaigning.

In contrast, someone comes along infrequently who has the wit and god’s eye view necessary to contextualize and synthesize modern information glut effectively and then tell the truth, the latter of which carries a very high value for me. That would be Joe Bageant, whose writing and perspective are fundamentally alien to me yet communicate with power and clarity, cutting through all the manufactured bullshit of trained and twisted minds. Writing about literacy, Bageant has this to say about the redneck folks (the white underclass) he knew and was part of growing up:

  1. They do not have the necessary basic skills, and don’t give a rat’s ass about getting them;
  2. Reading is not arresting enough to compete with the electronic stimulation in which their society is immersed;
  3. They cannot envisage any possible advantage in reading, because the advantages stem from extended personal involvement, which they have never experienced, are conditioned away from, and is understandably beyond their comprehension; and
  4. Their peers do not read as a serious matter, thereby socially reinforcing their early conclusion that it’s obviously not worth the time and effort ….

Elsewhere, Bageant writes about the unacknowledged lessons of class warfare that his brethren knew as a matter of intuition from living through it rather than through abstract instructions of some sociology text or teacher. We all possess that intuition about a wide array of issues, but we suppress most of it as a result of educational conditioning and conformity (the rightthink or political correctness for which we congratulate ourselves on issues such as sexism, racism, and LGBT rights). So we prefer the happy lies and fables of politicians, entertainers, and educators to the awful truth of what’s really happening all around us, plain to see. It’s a systemic fraud in which we all participate.

What strikes me, too, is that education (or literacy) does not function as a panacea for the masses. Over-educated Icelanders made that clear roughly a decade ago. Bageant decries the ignorance (“ignernce”) of his social stratum and their continuous knuckling under to their supposed betters, yet he admits they flee into the middle and upper classes when opportunity arises, social mobility usually resulting from educational accomplishment. The unspoken conclusion, however, is that the educated elite conspire (albeit sometimes unwittingly) to perpetuate and intensify class warfare and to preserve their enhanced position on the scale. And they do so with the armature of education.

This is the second of four parts discussing approaches to the prospect of NTE, specifically “Consume, Screw, Kill” by Daniel Smith in Harper’s Magazine (behind a paywall), which is a review of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Part one is found here.

I don’t plan to read The Sixth Extinction any more than Guy McPherson’s book Going Dark, primarily because I need no further convincing from either author how badly things are going in the world (not in the economic or geopolitical sense, though those aspects are also in the protracted process of cratering). Also, I have other titles with stronger claims on my (remaining) time. But Smith’s review of Kolbert’s book and this review of McPherson’s came across my path, both of which I read with some interest. Professional critics often sound false to me, their assessments frequently being bogged down with competing motivations that interfere with honesty and objectivity, including careerism and what’s allowed to be said in mainstream publications.

Smith recounts what’s in Kolbert’s book with considerable detail and worthwhile context. This part is valuable. But the logical emotional response is stuffed down like choked-back vomitus. (Is there such a thing as a logical emotion, or is that an oxymoron?) Instead, Smith’s principal critique is to waive away Kolbert’s indictment of humanity, who have wrecked things not just for ourselves but for the rest of creation. Smith notes that over evolutionary and geological time, the Earth has always recovered from extinction events:

There are moments reading The Sixth Extinction when one is positively cheered by the geologic perspective on display. A giant rock smashed into Earth, baking it to a crisp — and still the planet recovered. More than recovered, it thrived! So profligate and inventive is the process of evolution, and so resourceful and fecund are the planet’s life-forms, that even now we can’t say how many species live here … None of this is to say that the collapse of biodiversity is not a tragedy. It is simply to say that tragedy is a human problem, inevitably defined in human terms.

Maybe this sixth time is little different, other than being anthropogenic in origin, but considering that ionizing radiation from unattended nuclear power plants is certain to irradiate the entire planet once we’re gone, I have a hard time chalking this one up as merely another in a series of catastrophic geological events. True, by now we have no control over foreseeable events, if ever we did, but we have culpability this time. The telescope / microscope argument carries no weight with me, either. To zoom in or zoom out far enough to alter one’s perspective so radically there is no longer any reason to fret is just a cheap rhetorical trick. Extinction won’t be a comic episode of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” or B-movie fare such as “Attack of the 40-ft. Woman” (both cautionary if fanciful tales of science run amok). Instead, it will be “Oops, we killed almost everything, including ourselves” — a nearly lifeless Earth. The word oops hardly expresses the response most have once they have processed the awful news. Smith goes on:

It is also to say that it is difficult to know just how to respond to the sixth mass extinction — or to The Sixth Extinction.

Really? The response any decent person ought to have is any one of, say, abject horror, galling self-recrimination, existential despair, desperate conservation, or resigned leave-taking, not some vague wondering. Individuals typically wrestle with the eventuality of their own demise at some point; that’s part of the human condition. The prospect of no future for one’s progeny, or anything else for that matter, well, that’s a novelty. Compartmentalization in the face of such a threat is the mark of an academic or journalistic approach, such as this further remark:

Kolbert nevertheless maintains a conspicuous ethical distance from her subject, no doubt both because she is one of the 7 billion defendants in the dock (and one who, I don’t think it’s churlish to note, has been racking up a disproportionate number of airline miles) and because of the likelihood that the sixth extinction is a foregone conclusion.

No, churlish is exactly what it is. How exactly does Smith think scientific reports, news stories, and books come into being except to go out and gather information, synthesize it, and draw from it conclusions? The risible charge that airline miles makes Kolbert or any of us a worse contributor than the next is idiotic in the extreme. No one has ideological purity or behavioral innocence. We all have a participatory hand, but we only happen to be here at the end stage. Indeed, the fix we’re in has been centuries if not millennia in the making. Along the way, the drift of culture and history has shaped our options broadly and narrowly, but only a very few have ever been in a position to influence outcomes with any significance, and they appear to have been routinely corrupted by that uniqueness.

Smith’s approach to pre-extinction contrasts with others I will blog about in parts 3 and 4 of this series.

I’ve been working my way (as always, slowly) through three different approaches and a fair number of hyperlinks found therein to the prospect of Near-Term Extinction (NTE — modifying that as Near-Term Human Extinction, or NTHE, is an unnecessary and self-absorbed embellishment). The three are these:

  1. Consume, Screw, Kill” by Daniel Smith in Harper’s Magazine (behind a paywall), which is a review of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction,
  2. The Last of Everything” by Daniel Drumright, which is a blog essay at Nature Bats Last, and
  3. Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene” by Bethany Nowviskie, which is a transcript of a talk given at the Digital Humanities 2014 conference in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Each of these is rather long and involved. Drumright has been in the vanguard for decades, but the others may be relative latecomers (hard to know whether this is accurate) to the complex of ideas I’ll call “pre-extinction follies.” That complex is basically a response to the recognition that we humans are very likely not long for this world due to a variety of factors well beyond our control but delayed in their effect. That delay provides opportunity for quite a bit of introspection while the lights are still burning and store shelves are still stocked. From an only slightly longer perspective, such responses are arguably the province of what some call the chattering classes: those many pundits and commentators with time, education, and media resources available to ponder issues that lie largely beyond the ken of the masses. That would include me, obviously. Read the rest of this entry »

The Chicago Reader has a feature article on something I have blogged about repeatedly, namely, infiltration of abandoned structures to take photographs and video(s) in the interest of documenting modern ruins and establishing an aesthetic I called “post-industrial chic.” The Reader article provides new nomenclature for this behavior and sensibility: urban exploration, or urbex for short. The article cites Detroit, Chicago, and Gary (IN) as urbex hubs, but my previous surfing around the Internet revealed plenty of other sites, including those on other continents, though perhaps none so concentrated as the American rust belt. The idea is proliferating, perhaps even faster than abandonment of structures built to house our more enterprising endeavors, with Facebook pages, Meet.Up groups, and an already defunct zine/blog/book complex called Infiltration, which is/was devoted to penetrating places where one is not supposed to be. It would be suitably ironic if Infiltration had itself been abandoned, but instead, its founder and chief instigator passed away.

It’s impossible to know what may be going on inside of the minds of those who are, by turns, documentarians, aesthetes and artists, thrill-seekers, and voyeurs. Have they pieced together the puzzle yet, using their travels to observe that so many of these crumbling structures represent the ephemeral and illusory might of our economic and technical achievements, often and unexpectedly from the Depression Era with its art deco ornamentation? Is there really beauty to be found in squalor?

Answers to those questions are not altogether apparent from urbex sources. Whereas artistic statements are de rigeur in galleries and artist’s websites, urbex purveyors tend to be uncharacteristically silent about their drive to document. There are frequent paeans to the faded, former glory of the abandoned sites, but what resonates is the suggestion of human activity and optimism no longer enjoyed but held over in the broken fibers of the structures rather than a recognition that, by not even being worth the bother of tearing down, these ruins are close reminders of our own uselessness in old age, impermanence, and mortality.

To those more doom-aware, if I can be so presumptuous, another deeper significance flows from late-modern ruins: our self-defeat. The Pyrrhic victory of human success (in demographic terms) over the rest of creation has lasted long enough to spans entire lifetimes, which has been enjoyed innocently by those born at the propitious historical moment (if, indeed, they managed to survive various 20th-century genocides and wars). But for those of us born only a little later, we are already witness to the few decayed bits (thus far) of the far more expansive human-built world we will leave behind.

This fate was explored by the History Channel film Life After People, which omits the obvious reasons for our disappearance but simply leaps ahead in time to contemplate how the natural world reacts to our absence. The film, as it turns out, became the pilot for a series that appears to have run for two seasons, largely on its own recycled bits. Invented imagery of this eventuality is echoed in all manner of cinematic demolition derbies, with New York City and the White House among the most iconic locations to undergo ritual destruction for our, um, what? Enjoyment?

Something caught my eye this week as I was surfing around, this time from a mostly abandoned classical music criticism blog I used to read (with some frustration). I reproduce in full a post called “Top Ten Music School Rankings” because it’s content-lite (perhaps not original to the blog):

10. The school where you did your undergrad.
9. The school where you got your Master’s, and to which you are indebted for the gigs it helped you get to pay off the student loans for the school where you did your undergrad.
8. The place where you wrote your DMA dissertation on your teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s pedagogical methods (or lack thereof).
7. Juellerd. Julleard? Julliard. Jewelyard? Whatever.
6. Harvard.
5. The place you wanted to go for undergrad, but you fracked one single note in one single excerpt and then you panicked and broke down and called the trumpet professor “Dad” and then Dave got in even though he couldn’t play Petrushka in time and he’s always been kind of a dick about it and now he’s subbing like every weekend in the fucking BSO.
4. Royal Something of Great British Academy I think? I hear they never let Americans in. Or maybe that’s the other one?
3. The school that everybody knows isn’t as good as the school where you did your undergrad, but is “up-and coming.” Featuring a lauded entrepreneurship initiative that trains barista skills at one of the three coffee shops housed in its new state-of-the-art building, named for an alumnus of the university’s business school currently facing indictment for fraud.
2. University of Phoenix.
1. The school that has paid to have this list promoted on Facebook.

It’s funny (I guess) in ways that register mostly on music school grads, whose experiences and concerns over musical minutiae diverge from the mass of college graduates who majored in business, English, or any number of professional studies (premed, prelaw, journalism) that lead more consistently to employment in those professions. (Music school, BTW, is an unacknowledged type of trade school.) But the jokes are also somewhat ghoulish in ways that are becoming increasingly familiar to everyone seeking employment after completion of the formal phase of education. Mentions of Univ. of Phoenix and Facebook ought to be struck from this particular list except that they’re too emblematic of the systemic fraud that now passes for higher education. So it was curious to read, after the hooting and self-recognition in the comments section, a veritable cry in the wilderness:

I graduated from Oberlin, Michigan and Wisconsin and am currently a custodian in an apartment complex. I even won the concerto competition at 2 of the 3 schools and am in debt up to my eyeballs. I wish music schools would emphasize alternatives in the field of music, offer apprenticeships and internships and even require students to double major or double on a secondary “gig” instrument, so they could do well in the field.

Despite robust demand for education in performance fields (e.g., music, dance, acting) and other fine arts, there have never been waiting jobs anywhere close to the number of (presumably skilled) graduates churned out by schools. Obviously, one can invert the supply-demand nomenclature to oversupply of skilled performance labor vs. minimal market demand for those skills. Offering such degrees by every second- and third-tier school is undoubtedly a money-making enterprise but is nonetheless tantamount to intellectual dishonesty of a type distinct from what I blogged about here. Faculty and administrators are certainly hip to the fact that they’re often selling a bill of goods. After all, they’re paid for that expertise. This is why some parents (and some professors, too) do everything in their power to discourage students from pursuing performance studies, but to little avail as enrollments and selectivity continue to rise even if skill levels and accomplishment don’t.

As the “debt up to my eyeballs” comment above exemplifies, the cost of higher education has mounted far faster than inflation, and crushing student debt (unlikely to ever be repaid) now accompanies attendance at most top-tier schools except perhaps to trust-fund students. And even those top-tier schools find it difficult to deliver graduates into waiting jobs. It’s not that no one gets employed, mind you; it’s just that majoring in performance studies of one sort or another is akin to (essentially) majoring in football or basketball with dreams of joining the NFL or NBA after school. The numbers don’t bode well for graduates without extraordinary talent and/or connections, and unlike sports franchises, the arts don’t operate as pure meritocracies. Scoring ability if far more measurable than artistic expression, making it worthwhile to tolerate the misbehavior of thugs and cretins with speed, power, and attitude. I’m still waiting for the meme to establish itself that perhaps the considerable risk of tens of thousands of dollar in debt to attend music school is not worth the reward. This would clearly be a case of “do as I say, not as I do,” as careful readers of this blog must surmise by now that I, too, went to music school, though some while back before tuition hikes put it out of reach for me.