Violent events of the past week (Charleston, VA; Barcelona, Spain) and political responses to them have dominated the news cycle, pushing other newsworthy items (e.g., U.S.-South Korean war games and a looming debt ceiling crisis) off the front page and into the darker recesses of everyone’s minds (those paying attention, anyway). We’re absorbed instead with culture wars run amok. I’m loath to apply the term terrorism to regular periodic eruptions of violence, both domestic and foreign. That term carries with it intent, namely, the objective to create day-to-day terror in the minds of a population so as to interfere with proper functions of society. It’s unclear to me whether recent perpetrators of violence are coherent enough to formulate sophisticated motivations or plans. The dumb, obvious way of doing things — driving into crowds of people — takes little or no planning and may just as well be the result of inchoate rage boiling over in a moment of high stress and opportunity. Of course, it needn’t be all or nothing, and considering our reflexively disproportionate responses, the term terrorism and attendant destabilization is arguably accurate even without specified intent. That’s why in the wake of 9/11 some 16 years ago, the U.S. has become a security state.

It’s beyond evident that hostilities have been simmering below the not-so-calm surface. Many of those hostilities, typically borne out of economic woes but also part of a larger clash of civilizations, take the form of identifying an “other” presumably responsible for one’s difficulties and then victimizing the “other” in order to elevate oneself. Of course, the “other” isn’t truly responsible for one’s struggles, so the violent dance doesn’t actually elevate anyone, as in “supremacy”; it just wrecks both sides (though unevenly). Such warped thinking seems to be a permanent feature of human psychology and enjoys popular acceptance when the right “other” is selected and universal condemnation when the wrong one is chosen. Those doing the choosing and those being chosen haven’t changed much over the centuries. Historical Anglo-Saxons and Teutons choose and people of color (all types) get chosen. Jews are also chosen with dispiriting regularity, which is an ironic inversion of being the Chosen People (if you believe in such things — I don’t). However, any group can succumb to this distorted power move, which is why so much ongoing, regional, internecine conflict exists.

As I’ve been saying for years, a combination of condemnation and RightThink has simultaneously freed some people from this cycle of violence but merely driven the holdouts underground. Supremacy in its various forms (nationalism, racism, antisemitism, etc.) has never truly been expunged. RightThink itself has morphed (predictably) into intolerance, which is now veering toward radicalism. Perhaps a positive outcome of this latest resurgence of supremacist ideology is that those infected with the character distortion have been emboldened to identify themselves publicly and thus can be dealt with somehow. Civil authorities and thought leaders are not very good at dealing with hate, often shutting people out of the necessary public conversation and/or seeking to legislate hate out of existence with restrictions on free speech. But it is precisely through free expression and diplomacy that we address conflict. Violence is a failure to remain civil (duh!), and war (especially the genocidal sort) is the extreme instance. It remains to be seen if the lid can be kept on this boiling pot, but considering cascade failures lined up to occur within the foreseeable future, I’m pessimistic that we can see our way past the destructive habit of shifting blame onto others who often suffer even worse than those holding the reins of power.

Previous blogs on this topic are here and here.

Updates to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists resetting the metaphorical doomsday clock hands used to appear at intervals of 3–7 years. Updates have been issued in each of the last three years, though the clock hands remained in the same position from 2015 to 2016. Does that suggest raised geopolitical instability or merely resumed paranoia resulting from the instantaneous news cycle and radicalization of society and politics? The 2017 update resets the minute hand slightly forward to 2½ minutes to midnight:

doomsdayclock_black_2-5mins_regmark2028129For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way …

The principal concern of the Bulletin since its creation has been atomic/nuclear war. Recent updates include climate change in the mix. Perhaps it is not necessary to remind regular readers here, but the timescales for these two threats are quite different: global thermonuclear war (a term from the 1980s when superpowers last got weird and paranoid about things) could erupt almost immediately given the right lunacy provocation, such as the sabre-rattling now underway between the U.S. and North Korea, whereas climate change is an event typically unfolding across geological time. The millions of years it usually takes to manifest climate change fully and reach a new steady state (hot house earth vs. ice age earth), however, appears to have been accelerated by human inputs (anthropogenic climate change, or as Guy McPherson calls it, abrupt climate change) to only a few centuries.

Nuclear arsenals around the world are the subject of a curious article at Visual Capitalist (including several reader-friendly infographics) by Nick Routley. The estimated number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal has risen since the last time I blogged about this in 2010. I still find it impossible to fathom why more than a dozen nukes are necessary, or in my more charitable moments toward the world’s inhabitants, why any of them are necessary. Most sober analysts believe we are far safer today than, say, the 1950s and early 1960s when brinkmanship was anybody’s game. I find this difficult to judge considering the two main actors today on the geopolitical stage are both witless, unpredictable, narcissistic maniacs. Moreover, the possibility of some ideologue (religious or otherwise) getting hold of WMDs (not necessarily nukes) and creating mayhem is increasing as the democratization of production filters immense power down to lower and lower elements of society. I for one don’t feel especially safe.

My previous entry on this topic is found here. The quintessential question asked with regard to education (often levied against educators) is “Why can’t Johnnie read?” I believe we now have several answers.

Why Bother With Basics?

A resurrected method of teaching readin’ and writin’ (from the 1930s as it happens) is “freewriting.” The idea is that students who experience writer’s block should dispense with basic elements such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, organization, and style to simply get something on the page, coming back later to revise and correct. I can appreciate the thinking, namely, that students so paralyzed from an inability to produce finished work extemporaneously should focus first on vomiting blasting something onto the page. Whether those who use freewriting actually go back to edit (as I do) is unclear, but it’s not a high hurdle to begin with proper rudiments.

Why Bother Learning Math?

At Michigan State University, the algebra requirement has been dropped from its general education requirements. Considering that algebra is a basic part of most high school curricula, jettisoning algebra from the university core curriculum is astonishing. Again, it’s not a terrible high bar to clear, but for someone granted a degree from an institution of higher learning to fail to do so is remarkable. Though the rationalization offered at the link above is fairly sophisticated, it sounds more like Michigan State is just giving up asking its students to bother learning. The California State University system has adopted a similar approach. Wayne State University also dropped its math requirement and upped the ante by recommending a new diversity requirement (all the buzz with social justice warriors).

Why Bother Learning Music?

The Harvard Crimson reports changes to the music curriculum, lowering required courses for the music concentration from 13 to 10. Notably, most of the quotes in the article are from students relieved to have fewer requirements to satisfy. The sole professor quoted makes a bland, meaningless statement about flexibility. So if you want a Harvard degree with a music concentration, the bar has been lowered. But this isn’t educational limbo, where the difficulty is increased as the bar goes down; it’s a change from higher education to not-so-high-anymore education. Not learning very much about music has never been prohibition to success, BTW. Lots of successful musicians don’t even read music.

Why Bother Learning History?

According to some conservatives, U.S. history curricula, in particular this course is offered by The College Board, teach what’s bad about America and undermine American exceptionalism. In 2015, the Oklahoma House Common Education Committee voted 11-4 for emergency House Bill 1380 (authored by Rep. Dan Fisher) “prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.” This naked attempt to sanitize U.S. history and substitute preferred (patriotic) narratives is hardly a new phenomenon in education.

Takeaway

So why can’t Johnnie read, write, know, understand, or think? Simply put, because we’re not bothering to teach him to read, write, know, understand, or think. Johnnie has instead become a consumer of educational services and political football. Has lowering standards ever been a solution to the struggle to getting a worthwhile education? Passing students through just to be rid of them (while collecting tuition) has only produced a mass of miseducated graduates. Similarly, does a certificate, diploma, or granted degree mean anything as a marker of achievement if students can’t be bothered to learn time-honored elements of a core curriculum? The real shocker, of course, is massaging the curriculum itself (U.S. history in this instance) to produce citizens ignorant of their own past and compliant with the jingoism of the present.

Having been asked to contribute to a new group blog (Brains Unite), this is my first entry, which is cross-posted here at The Spiral Staircase. The subject of this post is the future of transportation. I’ve no expertise in this area, so treat this writing with the authority it deserves, which is to say, very little.

Any prediction of what awaits us must inevitably consider what has preceded us. Britain and the United States were both in the vanguard during the 19th and early 20th centuries when it came to innovation, and this is no less true of transportation than any other good or service. I’m not thinking of the routine travels one makes in the course of a day (e.g., work, church, school) but rather long excursions outside one’s normal range, a radius that has expanded considerably since then. (This hold true for freight transportation, too, but I am dropping that side of the issue in favor of passenger transit.) What is interesting is that travel tended to be communal, something we today call mass transit. For example, the Conestoga wagon, the stagecoach, the riverboat, and the rail car are each iconic of the 19th-century American West.

Passenger rail continued into the mid-20th century but was gradually replaced (in the U.S.) by individual conveyance as the automobile became economically available to the masses. Air travel commenced about the same time, having transitioned fairly quickly from 1 or 2 seats in an exposed cockpit to sealed fuselages capable of transporting 30+ people (now several hundred) at once. Still, as romantic as air travel may once have been (it’s lost considerable luster since deregulation as airlines now treat passengers more like freight), nothing beats the freedom and adventure of striking out on the road in one’s car to explore the continent, whether alone or accompanied by others.

The current character of transportation is a mixture of individual and mass transit, but without consulting numbers at the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, I daresay that the automobile is the primary means of travel for most Americans, especially those forced into cars by meager mass transit options. My prediction is that the future of transportation will be a gradual return to mass transit for two reasons: 1) the individual vehicle will become too costly to own and operate and 2) the sheer number of people moving from place to place will necessitate large transports.

While techno-utopians continue to conjure new, exotic (unfeasible) modes of transportation (e.g., the Hyperloop, which will purportedly enable passengers to make a 100-mile trip in about 12 minutes), they are typically aimed at individual transport and are extremely vulnerable to catastrophic failure (like the Space Shuttles) precisely because they must maintain human environments in difficult spaces (low orbit, underwater, inside depressurized tubes, etc.). They are also aimed at circumventing the congestion of conventional ground transportation (a victim of its own success now that highways in many cities resemble parking lots) and shortening transit times, though the extraordinary costs of such systems far exceed the benefit of time saved.

Furthermore, as climate change ramps up, we will witness a diaspora from regions inundated by rising waters, typically along the coasts where some 80% of human population resides (so I’ve read, can’t remember where). Mass migration out of MENA is already underway and will be joined by large population flows out of, for example, the Indian subcontinent, the Indonesian archipelago, and dustbowls that form in the interiors of continents. Accordingly, the future of transportation may well be the past:

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photo: National Geographic

and

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photo: UN Refugee Agency

Back in undergraduate college, when just starting on my music education degree, I received an assignment where students were asked to formulate a philosophy of education. My thinking then was influenced by a curious textbook I picked up: A Philosophy of Music Education by Bennett Reimer. Of course, it was the wrong time for an undergraduate to perform this exercise, as we had neither maturity nor understanding equal to the task. However, in my naïvté, my answer was all about learning/teaching an aesthetic education — one that focused on appreciating beauty in music and the fine arts. This requires the cultivation of taste, which used to be commonplace among the educated but is now anathema. Money is the preeminent value now. Moreover, anything that smacks of cultural programming and thought control is now repudiated reflexively, though such projects are nonetheless undertaken continuously and surreptitiously through a variety of mechanisms. As a result, the typical American’s sense of what is beautiful and admirable is stunted. Further, knowledge of the historical context in which the fine arts exist is largely absent. (Children are ahistorical in this same way.) Accordingly, many Americans are coarse philistines whose tastes rarely extend beyond those acquired naturally during adolescence (including both biophilia and biophobia), thus the immense popularity of comic book movies, rock and roll music, and all manner of electronica.

When operating with a limited imagination and undeveloped ability to perceive and discern (and disapprove), one is a sitting duck for what ought to be totally unconvincing displays of empty technical prowess. Mere mechanism (spectacle) then possesses the power to transfix and amaze credulous audiences. Thus, the ear-splitting volume of amplified instruments substitutes for true emotional energy produced in exceptional live performance, ubiquitous CGI imagery (vistas and character movements, e.g., fight skills, that simply don’t exist in reality) in cinema produces wonderment, and especially, blinking lights and animated GIFs deliver the equivalent of a sugar hit (cookies, ice cream, soda) when they’re really placebos or toxins. Like hypnosis, the placebo effect is real and pronounced for those unusually susceptible to induction. Sitting ducks.

Having given the fine arts (including their historical contexts) a great deal of my academic attention and acquired an aesthetic education, my response to the video below fell well short of the blasé relativism most exhibit; I actively dislike it. Read the rest of this entry »

Allow me to propose a hypothetical, to conduct a thought experiment if you will.

Let’s say that the powers that be, our governmental and corporate overlords, have been fully aware and convinced of impending disaster for some time, decades even. What to do with that burdensome information? How to prepare the public or themselves? Make the truth openly public and possibly spark a global panic or bury the information, denying and obfuscating when news eventually got out? Let’s say that, early on, the decision was made to bury the information and keep plodding through a few more blissfully ignorant decades as though nothing were amiss. After all, prophecies of disaster, extrapolating simple trend lines (such as population growth), were not uncommon as early as the 18th and 19th centuries. Science had made sufficient progress by the 1970s to recognize without much controversy that problems with industrial civilization were brewing and would soon overflow, overtaking our ability to maintain control over the processes we set in motion or indeed ourselves. Thus, at the intuitive level of deep culture, we initiated the ecology movement, the predecessor of environmentalism, and experienced the (first) international oil crisis. The decision to bury the prognosis for civilization (doom!) resulted in keeping a lid on things until the information swung fully into public view in the middle 2000s (the decade, not the century), thanks to a variety of scientists not among the power elite who sounded the alarms anew. At that point, obfuscation and disinformation became the dominant strategies.

Meanwhile, to keep the lights on and the store shelves stocked, the powers that be launched a campaign of massive debt spending, stealing from a future we would never reach anyway, and even dabbled at modest terraforming to forestall the worst by spraying chemicals in the atmosphere, creating global dimming. This program, like many others, were denied and made into conspiracy theories (chemtrails vs. contrails), enabling the public to ignore the obvious evidence of climate change and resulting slo-mo environmental collapse. Public uprising and outrage were easily quelled with essentially the same bread and circuses in which the Classical Romans indulged as their empire was in the midst of a protracted collapse. Modern global industrial empire will not experience the same centuries-long disintegration.

Now, I’ll admit, I don’t actually believe much of this. As with most conspiracies, this hypothetical doesn’t pass the straight-face test. Nor do the powers that be demonstrate competence sufficient to pull off even routine programs, much less extravagant ones. However, elements are undoubtedly true, such as the knowledge that energy policy and resources simply won’t meet anticipated demand with global population still swelling out of control. Neither will food production. Rather than make a difficult and questionable philosophical decision to serve the public interest by hiding the truth and keeping modern civilization going until the breaking point of a hard crash, at which point few would survive (or want to), the easy decision was probably made to ignore and obfuscate the truth, do nothing to keep the worst ravages of global industry from hastening our demise, and gather to themselves all financial resources, leaving everyone else in the lurch. The two basic options are to concern ourselves with everyone’s wellbeing over time vs. one’s own position in the short term.

In case the denial and obfuscation has worked on you, the reader of this doom blog, please consider (if you dare) this lengthy article at New York Magazine called “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells. Headings are these:

  1. “Doomsday”
  2. Heat Death
  3. The End of Food
  4. Climate Plagues
  5. Unbreathable Air
  6. Perpetual War
  7. Permanent Economic Collapse
  8. Poisoned Oceans
  9. The Great Filter

No one writes this stuff just to scare the public and get attention. Rather, it’s about telling the truth and whistle-blowing. While captains if industry and kings of the realm slumber, fattened and self-satisfied upon their beds, at least some of the rest of us recognize that the future is barrelling at us with the same indifference for human wellbeing (or the natural world) that our leaders have shown.

According to Hal Smith of The Compulsive Explainer (see my blogroll), the tragedy of our time is, simply put, failed social engineering. Most of his blog post is quoted below:

Americans, for example, have decided to let other forces manage their nation — and not let Americans themselves manage it. At least this is what I see happening, with the election of Trump. They have handed the management of their country over to a man with a collection of wacky ideas — and they feel comfortable with this. Mismanagement is going on everywhere — and why not include the government in this?

This is typical behavior for a successful society in decline. They cannot see what made them successful, has been taken too far — and is now working against them. The sensible thing for them to do is back off for awhile, analyze their situation — and ask “What is going wrong here?” But they never do this — and a collapse ensues.

In our present case, the collapse involves a global society based on Capitalism — that cannot adapt itself to a Computer-based economy. The Software ecosystem operates differently — it is based on cooperation, not competition.

Capitalism was based on just that — Capital — money making money. And it was very successful — for those it favored. Money is still important in the Computer economy — people still have to be paid. But what they are being paid for has changed — information is now being managed, something different entirely.

Hardware is still important — but that is not where the Big Money is being made. It is now being made in Computers, and their Software.

I’m sympathetic to this view but believe that a look back through history reveals something other than missed opportunities and too-slow adaptation as we fumbled our way forward, namely, repeated catastrophic failures. Such epic fails include regional and global wars, genocides, and societal collapses that rise well above the rather bland term mismanagement. A really dour view of history, taking into account more than a few truly vicious, barbaric episodes, might regard the world as a nearly continuous stage of horrors from which we periodically take refuge, and the last of these phases is drawing quickly to a close.

The breakneck speed of technological innovation and information exchange has resulted not in Fukuyama’s mistakenly exuberant “end of history” (kinda-sorta winning the Cold War but nevertheless losing the peace?) but instead an epoch where humans are frankly left behind by follow-on effects of their own unrestrained restlessness. Further, if history is a stage of horrors, then geopolitics is theater of the absurd. News reports throughout the new U.S. presidential administration, still less than 6 months in (more precisely, 161 days or 23 weeks), tell of massive economic and geopolitical instabilities threatening to collapse the house of cards with only a slight breeze. Contortions press agents and politicized news organs go through to provide cover for tweets, lies, and inanities emanating from the disturbed mind of 45 are carnival freak show acts. Admittedly, not much has changed over the previous two administrations — alterations of degree only, not kind — except perhaps to demonstrate beyond any shadow of doubt that our elected, appointed, and purchased leaders (acknowledging many paths to power) are fundamentally incompetent to deal effectively with human affairs, much less enact social engineering projects beyond the false happiness of Facebook algorithms that hide bad news. Look no further than the egregious awfulness of both presidential candidates in the last election coughed up like hairballs from the mouths of their respective parties. The aftermath of those institutional failures finds both major parties in shambles, further degraded than their already deplorable states prior to the election.

So how much worse can things get? Well, scary as it sounds, lots. The electrical grid is still working, water is still flowing to the taps, and supply lines continue to keep store shelves stocked with booze and brats for extravagant holiday celebrations. More importantly, we in the U.S. have (for now, unlike Europe) avoided repetition of any major terrorist attacks. But everyone with an honest ear to the ground recognizes our current condition as the proverbial calm before the storm. For instance, we’re threatened by the first ice-free Arctic in the history of mankind later this year and a giant cleaving off of the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica within days. In addition, drought in the Dakotas will result in a failed wheat harvest. Guy McPherson (in particular, may well be others) has been predicting for years that abrupt, nonlinear climate change when the poles warm will end the ability to grow grain at scale, leading to worldwide famine, collapse, and near-term extinction. Seems like we’re passing the knee of the curve. Makes concerns about maladaptation and failed social engineering pale by comparison.

I have just one previous blog post referencing Daniel Siegel’s book Mind and threatened to put the book aside owing to how badly it’s written. I haven’t yet turned in my library copy and have made only modest additional progress reading the book. However, Siegel came up over at How to Save the World, where at least one commentator was quite enthusiastic about Siegel’s work. In my comment there, I mentioned the book only to suggest that his appreciation of the relational nature of the mind (and cognition) reinforces my long-held intuition that the self doesn’t exist in an idealized vacuum, capable of modeling and eventually downloading to a computer or some other Transhumanist nonsense, but is instead situated as much between us as within us. So despite Siegel’s clumsy writing, this worthwhile concept deserves support.

Siegel goes on to wonder (without saying he believes it to be true — a disingenuous gambit) that perhaps there exists an information field, not unlike the magnetic field or portions of the light spectrum, that affects us yet falls outside the scope of our direct perception or awareness. Credulous readers might leap to the conclusion that the storied collective consciousness is real. Some fairly trippy theories of consciousness propose that the mind is actually more like an antenna receiving signals from some noncorporeal realm (e.g., a quantum dimension) we cannot identify yet tap into constantly, measuring against and aligning with the wider milieu in which we function. Even without expertise in zoology, one must admit that humans are social creatures operating at various levels of hierarchy including individual, family, clan, pack, tribe, nation-state, etc. We’re less like mindless drones in a hive (well, some of us) and more like voluntary and involuntary members of gangs or communities formed along various familial, ethnic, regional, national, language group, and ideological lines. Unlike Siegel, I’m perfectly content with existing terminology and feel no compulsion to coin new lingo or adopt unwieldy acronyms to mark my territory.

What Siegel hasn’t offered is an observation on how our reliance on and indebtedness to the public sphere (via socialization) have changed with time as our mode of social organization has morphed from a predominantly localized, agrarian existence prior to the 20th century to a networked, high-density, information-saturated urban and suburban existence in the 21st century. The public sphere was always out there, of course, especially as embodied in books, periodicals, pamphlets, and broadsides (if one was literate and had reliable access to them), but the unparalleled access we now enjoy through various electronic devices has not only reoriented but disoriented us. Formerly slow, isolated information flow has become a veritable torrent or deluge. It’s not called the Information Age fer nuthin’. Furthermore, the bar to publication  — or insertion into the public sphere — has been lowered to practical nonexistence as the democratization of production has placed the tools of widely distributed exposure into the hands of everyone with a blog (like mine) or Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Pinterest/LinkedIn account. As a result, a deep erosion of authority has occurred, since any yahoo can promulgate the most reckless, uninformed (and disinformed) opinions. The public’s attention riveted on celebrity gossip and House of Cards-style political wrangling, false narratives, fake news, alternative facts, and disinformation also make navigating the public sphere with much integrity impossible for most. For instance, the MSN and alternative media alike are busy selling a bizarre pageant of Russian collusion and interference with recent U.S. elections as though the U.S. were somehow innocent of even worse meddling abroad. Moreover, it’s naïve to think that the public sphere in the U.S. isn’t already completely contaminated from within by hucksters, corporations (including news media), and government entities with agendas ranging from mere profit seeking to nefarious deployment and consolidation of state power. For example, the oil and tobacco industries and the Bush Administration all succeeded in suppressing truth and selling rank lies that have landed us in various morasses from which there appears to be no escape.

If one recognizes his or her vulnerability to the depredations of info scammers of all types and wishes to protect oneself, there are two competing strategies: insulation and inoculation. Insulation means avoiding exposure, typically by virtue of mind-cleansing behaviors, whereas inoculation means seeking exposure in small, harmless doses so that one can handle a larger infectious attack. It’s a medical metaphor that springs from meme theory, where ideas propagate like viruses, hence, the notion of a meme “going viral.” Neither approach is foolproof. Insulation means plugging one’s ears or burying one’s head in the sand at some level. Inoculation risks spreading the infection. If one regards education as an inoculation of sorts, seeking more information of the right types from authoritative sources should provide means to combat the noise in the information signals received. However, as much as I love the idea of an educated, informed public, I’ve never regarded education as a panacea. It’s probably a precondition for sound thinking, but higher education in particular has sent an entire generation scrambling down the path of identity politics, which sounds like good ideas but leads inevitably to corruption via abstraction. That’s all wishful thinking, though; the public sphere we actually witness has gone haywire, a condition of late modernism and late-stage capitalism that has no known antidote. Enjoy the ride!

For a variety of reasons, I go to see movies in the theater only a handful of times any given year. The reasons are unimportant (and obvious) and I recognize that, by eschewing the theater, I’m giving up the crowd experience. Still, I relented recently and went to see a movie at a new AMC Dolby Cinema, which I didn’t even know exists. The first thing to appreciate was that is was a pretty big room, which used to be standard when cinema was first getting established in the 1920s but gave way sometime in the 1970s to multiplex theaters able to show more than one title at a time in little shoebox compartments with limited seating. Spaciousness was a welcome throwback. The theater also had oversized, powered, leather recliners rather than cloth, fold-down seats with shared armrests. The recliners were quite comfortable but also quite unnecessary (except for now typical Americans unable to fit their fat asses in what used to be a standard seat). These characteristics are shared with AMC Prime theaters that dress up the movie-going experience and charge accordingly. Indeed, AMC now offers several types of premium cinema, including RealD 3D, Imax, Dine-In, and BigD.

Aside I: A friend only just reported on her recent trip to the drive-in theater, a dated cinema experience that is somewhat degraded unenhanced yet retains its nostalgic charm for those of us old enough to remember as kids the shabby chic of bringing one’s own pillows, blankets, popcorn, and drinks to a double feature and sprawling out on the hood and/or roof of the car (e.g., the family station wagon). My friend actually brought her dog to the drive-in and said she remembered and sorta missed the last call on dollar hot dogs at 11 PM that used to find all the kids madly, gleefully rushing the concession stand before food ran out.

What really surprised me, however, was how the Dolby Cinema experience turned into a visual, auditory, and kinesthetic assault. True, I was watching Wonder Woman (sorry, no review), which is set in WWI and features lots of gunfire and munitions explosions in addition to the usual invincible superhero punchfest, so I suppose the point is partly to be immersed in the environment, a cinematic stab at verisimilitude. But the immediacy of all the wham-bam, rock ’em-sock ’em action made me feel more like a participant in a theater of war than a viewer. The term shell shock (a/k/a battle fatigue a/k/a combat neurosis) refers to the traumatized disorientation one experiences in moments of high stress and overwhelming sensory input; it applies here. Even the promo before the trailers and feature, offered to demonstrate the theater’s capabilities themselves, was off-putting because of unnecessary and overweening volume and impact. Unless I’m mistaken, the seats even have built-in subwoofers to rattle theatergoers from below when loud, concussive events occur, which is often because, well, filmmakers love their spectacle as much as audiences do.

Aside II: One real-life lesson to be gleaned from WWI, or the Great War as it was called before WWII, went well beyond the simplistic truism that war is hell. It was that civility (read: civilization) had failed and human progress was a chimera. Technical progress, however, had made WWI uglier in many respects than previous warfare. It was an entirely new sort of horror. Fun fact: there are numerous districts in France, known collectively as Le Zone Rouge, where no one is allowed to live because of all the unexploded ordnance (1oo years later!). Wonder Woman ends up having it both ways: acknowledging the horrific nature of war on the one hand yet valorizing and romanticizing personal sacrifice and eventual victory on the other. Worse, perhaps, it establishes that there’s always another enemy in the wings (otherwise, how could there be sequels?), so keep fighting. And for the average viewer, uniformed German antagonists are easily mistakable for Nazis of the subsequent world war, a historical gloss I’m guessing no one minds … because … Nazis.

So here’s my problem with AMC’s Dolby Cinema: why settle for routine or standard theater experience when it can be amped up to the point of offense? Similarly, why be content with the tame and fleeting though reliable beauty of a sunset when one can enjoy a widescreen, hyperreal view of cinematic worlds that don’t actually exist? Why settle for the subtle, old-timey charm of the carousel (painted horses, dizzying twirling, and calliope music) when instead one can strap in and get knocked sideways by roller coasters so extreme that riders leave wobbly and crying at the end? (Never mind the risk of being stranded on the tracks for hours, injured, or even killed by a malfunction.) Or why bother attending a quaint symphonic band concert in the park or an orchestral performance in the concert hall when instead one can go to Lollapalooza and see/hear/experience six bands in the same cacophonous space grinding it out at ear-splitting volume, along with laser light shows and flash-pot explosions for the sheer sake of goosing one’s senses? Coming soon are VR goggles that trick the wearer’s nervous system into accepting they are actually in the virtual game space, often first-person shooters depicting killing bugs or aliens or criminals without compunction. Our arts and entertainments have truly gotten out of hand.

If those criticisms don’t register, consider my post more than a decade ago on the Paradox of the Sybarite and Catatonic, which argues that our senses are so overwhelmed by modern life that we’re essentially numb from overstimulation. Similarly, let me reuse this Nietzsche quote (used before here) to suggest that on an aesthetic level, we’re not being served well in display and execution of refined taste so much as being whomped over the head and dragged willingly? through ordeals:

… our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists … the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual. [italics not in original]

When I first wrote about this topic back in July 2007, I had only just learned of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (and similar garbage gyres in others oceans). Though I’d like to report simply that nothing has changed, the truth is that conditions have worsened. Some commentators have rationalized contextualized the issue by observing that the Earth, the environment, the ecosphere, the biosphere, Gaia, or whatever one wishes to call the natural world has always been under assault by humans, that we’ve never truly lived in balance with nature. While that perspective may be true in a literal sense, I can’t help gnashing my teeth over the sheer scale of the assault in the modern industrial age (extending back 250+ years but really getting going once the steam engine was utilized widely). At that point, production and population curves angled steeply upwards, where they continue point as though there be no biophysical limits to growth or the amount and degree of destruction that can be absorbed by the biosphere. Thus, at some undetermined point, industrial scale became planetary scale and humans became terraformers.

News reports came in earlier this month that the remote and uninhabited (by humans) Henderson Island in the Pacific is now an inadvertent garbage dump, with estimates of over 17 tons of debris littering its once-pristine shores.

17hendersonisland1-superjumbo

This despoliation is a collateral effect of human activity, not the predictable result of direct action, such as with the Alberta Tar Sands, another ecological disaster (among many, many others). In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes its mission as protecting human health and the environment and has established a Superfund to clean up contaminated sites. Think of this as a corporate subsidy, since the principal contaminators typically inflict damage in the course of doing business and extracting profit then either move on or cease to exist. Standard Oil is one such notorious entity. Now that the EPA is in the process of being defunded (and presumably on its way to being deauthorized) by the current administration of maniacs, the ongoing death-by-a-thousand-cuts suffered by the natural world will likely need to be revised to death-by-millions-of-cuts, a heedless acceleration of the death sentence humans have set in motion. In the meantime, industry is being given a freer hand to pollute and destroy. What could possibly go wrong?

If all this weren’t enough, another development darkened my brow recently: the horrific amount of space debris from decades of missions to put men, communications and surveillance satellites, and (one would presume) weapons in orbit. (Maybe the evil brainchild of inveterate cold warriors known unironically as “Star Wars” never actually came into being, but I wouldn’t place any bets on that.) This video from the Discovery Network gives one pause, no?

Admittedly, the dots are not actual size and so would not be as dense or even visible from the point of view of the visualization, but the number of items (20,000+ pieces) is pretty astonishing. (See this link as well.) This report describes some exotic technologies being bandied about to address problem of space junk. Of course, that’s just so that more satellites and spacecraft can be launches into orbit as private industry takes on the mantle once enjoyed exclusively by NASA and the Soviet space program. I suppose the explorer’s mindset never diminishes even as the most remote places on and now around Earth are no longer untouched but human refuse.