My work commute typically includes bus, train, and walking legs to arrive at my destination. If wakefulness and an available seat allow, I often read on the bus and train. (This is getting to be exceptional compared to other commuters, who are more typically lost in their phones listening to music, watching video, checking FB, or playing games. Some are undoubtedly reading, like me, but electronic media, which I find distasteful, alter the experience fundamentally from ink on paper.) Today, I was so absorbed in my reading that by the time I looked up, I missed my bus stop, and half an hour later, I nearly missed my train stop, too. The experience of tunnel vision in deep concentration is not at all unfamiliar to me, but it is fleeting and unpredictable. More typical is a relaxed yet alert concentration that for me takes almost no effort anymore.

So what sent me ’round the bend? The book I’m currently reading, Nick Carr’s The Glass Cage, takes a diversion into the work of poet Robert Frost. Carr uses Frost to illustrate his point about immersion in bodily work with manageable difficulty lending the world a more robust character than the detached, frictionless world experienced with too much technological mediation and ease. Carr does a terrific job contextualizing Frost’s lyric observations in a way quite unlike the contextual analysis one might undertake in a high school or college classroom, which too often makes the objects of study lifeless and irrelevant. Carr’s discussion put me unexpectedly into an aesthetic mode of contemplation, as distinguished from analytic or kinesthetic modes. There are probably others.

I don’t often go into aesthetic mode. It requires the right sort of stimulation. The Carr/Frost combination put me there, and so I tunneled into the book and forgot my commute. That momentary disorientation is often pleasurable, but for me, it can also be distressing. My infrequent visits to art museums are often accompanied by a vague unease at the sometimes nauseating emotionalism of the works on display. It’s an honest response, though I expect most folks can’t quite understand why something beautiful would provoke something resembling a negative response. In contrast, my experience in the concert hall is usually frustration, as musicians have become ever more corporate and professional in their performance over time to the detriment and exclusion of latent emotional content. I suppose that as Super Bowl Sunday is almost upon us (about which I care not at all), the typical viewer gets an emotional/aesthetic charge out of that overhyped event, especially if the game is hotly contested rather than a blowout. I seek and find my moments in less crass expressions of the human spirit.

I remember that sinking feeling when the Deepwater Horizon oil well blew out in April 2010 and gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days at an estimated rate of 62,000 barrels per day (9,900 m3/d) until it was reportedly capped (but may not have been fully contained). That feeling was more intense than the disgust I felt at discovering the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (and subsequently others in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans). For reasons that make no particular sense, slo-mo ecological disasters in the oceans didn’t sicken me as much as high-speed despoliation of the Gulf. More recently, I’ve been at a loss, unable to process things, actually, at two new high-speed calamities: the contaminated tap water flowing from public waterworks in Flint, MI, and the methane leak from an underground well in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA (no links provided, search for yourself). Whereas the first two examples turned my stomach at the mere knowledge, the second two are quite literally sickening people.

These examples are could be part of a daily diet of stomach-churning news if I had the nerve to gather further examples. Indeed, the doomer sites I habituate at intervals (no longer daily) gather them together for me. As with the examples above, many are industrial chemical spills and contamination; others are animal and plant populations dying en masse (e.g., bee colony collapse disorder);  yet others are severe weather events (e.g., the California drought) on the rise due to the onset of climate change (which has yet to go nonlinear). Miserable examples keep piling up, yet business as usual continues while it can. Death tolls are difficult to assess, but at present, they appear to be impacting nonhuman species with greater ferocity thus far. Some characterize this as Mother Nature doing her necessary work by gradually removing the plant and animal species on which humans depend as the very top apex predator. That means eventually removing us, too. I don’t care for such a romantic anthropomorphism. Rather, I observe that we humans are doing damage to the natural world and to ourselves in perhaps the slowest slo-mo disaster, the most likely endpoint being near-term extinction.

As much, then, as the alarm has been sounding adequately with respect to high-speed disasters stemming from human greed, incompetence, and frailty, I find that even worse calamity awaiting us has yet to penetrate the popular mind. Admittedly, it’s awfully hard to get one’s head around: the extinction of the human species. Those who resign themselves to speaking the truth of inevitability are still characterized as kooks, wackos, conspiracy mongers, and worse, leaders of death cults. From my resigned side of the fence, proper characterization appears to be the very opposite: those who actively ruin nature for profit and power are the death cult leaders, while those who prophesy doom are merely run-of-the-mill Cassandras. The ranks of the latter, BTW, seem to be gaining while critical thought still exists in small, isolated oases.

After some delay, I picked up Nick Carr’s latest book The Glass Cage to read (see link to Carr’s blog Rough Type on my blogroll at left). Carr is an exceptionally clear thinker and lays out his arguments both for and against technology very well. Like my blog about Michael Crawford’s book, I won’t get too involved blogging about The Glass Cage, which discusses deskilling among other things. However, my reading of his discussion of self-driving cars (and autopilot on airplanes) and the attendant loss of the driver’s and pilot’s skill and focus coincided with something I read elsewhere, namely, that while self-driving cars may free the driver of some attentional burdens (not really burdens upon closer inspection), they are likely to cause increased congestion precisely because self-driving cars would no longer require passengers. Thus, an owner could potentially instruct the car to drive back home from work in the morning and then to come back and pick him or her up in the evening, handily doubling the time and distance the car is on the road. Similarly, a driver could avoid paying parking fees in pricey downtown precincts by instructing the vehicle to circle the block while the owner is out of the car shopping or dining. These are workarounds that can be fully anticipated and perhaps limited, but there will undoubtedly be others not so easily anticipated.

Carr argues that technology has enabled some (e.g., for those who designed their own software) to profit disproportionately from their effort. This is especially true of wikis and social media sites that run on user-generated content. It’s impossible to establish whether that’s laudable innovation, a questionable workaround, or simply gaming the system. Either way, redesigning workflows and and information flows carries the unintended consequence of creating perverse incentives, and one can be certain than in a hustling society such as ours, many someones are going to discover ways to exploits loopholes. This is already the case with the legal system, the financial system, social media, and journalism, and it seems ubiquitous with education and sports, where cheating is only a problem if one gets caught.

Perverse incentives don’t arise solely from rapid, destabilizing technological change, though that’s frequently a trigger. What’s worse, perhaps, is when such perversity is normalized. For instance, politics now operates under a perverse funding regime that awards disproportionate influence to deep pockets while creating no incentive for participants (politicians or deep pockets) to seek reform. Similarly, pooling wealth, and with it political power, within an extremely small segment of society carries no incentive for the ultrarich to plow their riches back into society at large. A few newly philanthropic individuals don’t convince me that, in the current day and age, any high-minded idealism is at work. Rather, it’s more plausible that the work of figuring out things to do with one’s money is more interesting, to a few at least, than merely hoarding it. A better incentive, such as shame, does not yet exist. So the ultrarich are effectively circling the block, clogging things up for no better reason than that they can.

rant on/

This is the time of year when media pundits pause to look back and consider the previous year, typically compiling unasked-for “best of” lists to recap what everyone may have experienced — at least if one is absorbed by entertainment media. My interest in such nonsense is passive at best, dismissive at worst. Further, more and more lists are weighed and compiled by self-appointed and guileless fanboys and -girls, some of whom are surprisingly knowledgeable (sign of a misspent youth?) and insightful yet almost uniformly lack a sufficiently longitudinal view necessary to form circumspect and expert opinions. The analogy would be to seek wisdom from a 20- or 30-something in advance of its acquisition. Sure, people can be “wise beyond their years,” which usually means free of the normal illusions of youth without yet having become a jaded, cynical curmudgeon — post-ironic hipster is still available — but a real, valuable, historical perspective takes more than just 2-3 decades to form.

For instance, whenever I bring up media theory to a youngster (from my point of reckoning), usually someone who has scarcely known the world without 24/7/365 access to all things electronic, he or she simply cannot conceive what it means to be without that tether/pacifier/security blanket smothering them. It doesn’t feel like smothering because no other information environment has ever been experienced (excepting perhaps in early childhood, but even that’s not guaranteed). Even a brief hiatus from the information blitzkrieg, a two-week vacation, say, doesn’t suffice. Rather, only someone olde enough to remember when it simply wasn’t there — at least in the personal, isolating, handheld sense — can know what it was like. I certainly remember when thought was free to wander, invent, and synthesize without pressure to incorporate a continuous stream of incoming electronic stimuli, most of which amounts to ephemera and marketing. I also remember when people weren’t constantly walled in by their screens and feeds, when life experience was more social, shared, and real rather than private, personal, and virtual. And so that’s why when I’m away from the radio, TV, computer, etc. (because I purposely and pointedly carry none of it with me), I’m less a mark than the typical media-saturated fool face-planted in a phone or tablet for the lures, lies, cons, and swindles that have become commonplace in late-stage capitalism.

Looking back in another sense, I can’t help but to feel a little exasperated by the splendid reviews of the life in music led by Pierre Boulez, who died this past week. Never heard of him? Well, that just goes to show how far classical music has fallen from favor that even a titan such as he makes utterly no impression on the general public, only specialists in a field that garners almost no attention anymore. Yet I defy anyone not to know who Kim Kardashian is. Here’s the bigger problem: despite being about as favorably disposed toward classical music as it is possible to be, I have to admit that no one I know (including quite a few musicians) would be able to hum or whistle or sing a recognizable tune by Boulez. He simply doesn’t pass the whistle test. But John Williams (of Star Wars fame) certainly does. Nor indeed would anyone put on a recording of one of Boulez’s works to listen to. Not even his work as a conductor is all that compelling, either live or on disc (I’ve experienced plenty of both). As one looks back on the life of Pierre Boulez, as one is wont to do upon his passing, how can it be that such prodigious talent as he possessed could be of so little relevance?

Consider these two examples flip sides of the same coin. One enjoys widespread subscription but is base (opinions differ); the other is obscure but (arguably) refined. Put differently, one is pedestrian, the other admirable. Or over a lifetime, one is placebo (or worse), the other fulfilling. Looking back upon my own efforts and experiences in life, I would much rather be overlooked or forgotten than be petty and (in)famous. Yet mass media conspires to make us all into nodes on a network with goals decidedly other than human respectability or fulfillment. So let me repeat the challenge question of this blog: are you climbing or descending?

rant off/

I chanced upon a dinner conversation of the type that tends to light me up, full of familiar assertions and brief citations that purport to make sense of the world but instead open up broad inquiries without ever resolving anything. Whereas all the hanging threads might be frustrating to others, I don’t mind that we leapt from subject to subject carelessly. Engagement with another’s intellect is what really fires me.

So in the course of the discussion, I argued (as devil’s advocate) that the discontinuity between various scales and timeframes renders subtle appreciation of the world and/or universe moot. Specifically, fine-grained knowledge that flows from hard sciences such as mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics does not combine to form anything approaching a complete picture of reality in the mind of the average person. Soft sciences such as sociology, psychology, economics, anthropology, and history are as likely to confound and confuse as illuminate, considering their vulnerability to interpretative flexibility. Further, the extensive conjectural and theoretical complexity of cosmology and quantum sciences are so far out of scope for typical beer-swilling Joes as to be invisible. Even the basic distinction between the Euclidian and Ptolemaic models of the solar system is losing currency with no immediately apparent effect in the wider (American) culture of prideful ignorance.

Here’s the rub: even though I believe more nearly the opposite, namely, that refined understandings of the universe developed and held in the minds of a relative few and never achieving the completeness of a union theory yet sufficient to bestow upon us hubris a model for action in the world are eventually (or ultimately) embedded in the deep culture, I found it difficult to argue that point to us fish inside the fishbowl. Indeed, the fellow across the table from me, who possessed far greater scientific wherewithal than do I, could only rebut my assertions with the baldest “is not, is too” type of negation.

I attempted an exploration of a deep-culture effect more than two years ago with this post, but I fear the whole subject was too arcane to make much of an impression. General readers simply do not go in for such analysis. Yet I still believe that the effect is present in, for example, our willingness to trash the world until it’s uninhabitable — at least for us — and our earnest desire to transcend our embodiment and be something other than human (e.g., Transhumanism), which is an expression of our deep self-loathing and self-destructive impulse (explored amply by The Compulsive Explainer — see blogroll). Like my dinner table conversation, these inquiries lead nowhere in particular but are nonetheless fascinating. Perhaps a generous reader out there who can point to a better example that is more accessible and convincing than what I’ve been able to muster.

Lots of ink has been spilled over intransigent presidential candidate Donald Trump, so it’s unlikely that I will have anything particularly original to offer. This post at Gin and Tacos, including the mostly excellent commentary, got me thinking. Whereas most politicians are pleasantly insincere, offering no end of platitudes and rhetoric designed to appeal to everyone while being almost wholly insubstantial, The Donald is sincerely unpleasant, whipping conservative mouth-breathers into hysterics over one threat or another, real or imagined. Neither is a particularly good option, but The Donald has, for the moment, at least two distinct advantages: (1) fear-mongering as motivation, and (2) hewing much closer to the truth than is possible for any career politician. Everyone gets the insincerity behind the typical politician, all predictable bromides and empty promises. It’s frankly sickening such drivel passes for leadership. Then along comes an outsider unwilling to play by the candidate’s rulebook, spewing heinous insults at every opportunity, and refusing to offer even the tiniest gesture of remorse when taken to task over his continuous onslaught of invective. It’s both refreshing and disgusting.

So let me bring forward something from Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness (reviewed here) that is on point: xenophobia. If one subscribes to Glubb’s description of the five ages, the first (pioneering or conquest) is characterized by enterprise, initiative, “optimism, confidence, devotion to duty, a sense of honor, a shared purpose, and adherence to a strict moral code.” These attributes arise out of strong consensus and confer high morale. Shared purpose and strong consensus are enabled by a fundamental sameness of the people, a group identity that makes snap, surface distinctions between us and them. In contrast, the last age (decadence) is characterized by “[f]rivolity, aestheticism, hedonism, cynicism, pessimism, narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fatalism, fanaticism, and other negative attributes, attitudes, and behaviors …” Although Glubb and Ophul never quite spell it out, the current vogue of multicultural and pluralistic sensitivity are surely a profound weakening of consensus and morale that give the age of pioneers its élan.

Without suggesting of any intellectual awareness, candidate Trump has latched onto (among other things) fear of otherness, not far removed from simple fear of the unknown, and made it a modern touchstone. In doing so, he has struck an inchoate but resonant chord among Americans of northern European extract who were until recently a majority in the U.S. They know already that an unstoppable demographic wave is flowing over then, much like the related socioeconomic wave that has reduced the formerly great middle class to a fading memory. Thus far, Trump’s rhetoric has successfully stigmatized an incredible diverse people (Muslims) by substituting a tiny but noisy and violent fragment (Islamofascists) for the whole. (In parallel, try lumping all Christians into one undifferentiated group using the most crazily dogmatic of them as the model.) I anticipate renewal of white supremacy movements under a twisted nativist banner (e.g., taking back America!) completely lacking in even the most basic historical understanding of what the American melting pot has been about these past 300 years. Thus, we face our own fascist moment, rhyming (à la Twain) with those of the not-so-recent past, led by a despicable charismatic whose ravings appeal to the lizard brains in all of us.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying that I wholly agree with Glubb and Ophuls, or even politically correct identity politics now emerging from higher education into everyday society. I am saying that this interpretation of our historical moment is worth some consideration.

Only one day away from the premiere of the new Star Wars film (in case it had escaped your notice), I must admit that I did not purchase advance tickets, nor will I likely see the film until some time in early 2016. (As a result, I rather expect to suffer from spoiler exposure, not that it matters much to me.) I have several reasons, but a happenstance conversation today caused me to consider that I may have made to wrong decision to defer.

Over time, I’ve grown numb to media hype, and I tend to be overwhelmed by large, anonymizing crowds and audiences. Smaller, more intimate settings have greater appeal to me. However, I can’t deny the irresistible emotional current that enlivens a truly engaged audience. Sports are perhaps the most sure-fire way of being swept into the crowd’s energy, though I’ve been witness to plenty of lifeless events, too, where players and fans are both merely putting in appearances or marking time. Live musical performance runs a similar gamut between transcendent and lifeless experience. The former is infrequent to rare, while the latter has been my assessment of the modern concert-going experience, and one’s experience is not improved by cranking up the volume to unbearable levels. Political rallies and activism offer further points of entry into the mob mind.

Viewing films in a movie theater is usually a better experience than watching on the TV at home. I’ve only been in theaters a handful of times this year, which has been consistently underwhelming in terms of both film quality and audience response. In fact, given the static nature of cinema, performers have no possibility of interacting with the audience vibe as with live theater, comedy, and music. However, given that I habitually avoid opening night crowds, I just might be shortchanging myself. I was told today that the long lines and breathless anticipation tend to bond audiences together, who typically cheer and applaud at the mere appearance onscreen of familiar and/or beloved characters. Basically, pent-up emotion is purged into the room, which may not possible once opening weekend has passed.

Unfortunately, the most hotly anticipated films these days are superhero blockbusters, which appeal especially to adolescents and adult fanboys still hopped up on hormones. Older, wiser, been-there-done-that adults like me may suffer from a lack of childlike wonder or suspension of disbelief, succumbing instead to jadedness and lethargy. So as we approach the new year, I make the resolution to attend an opening night showing just to see if there is something I’ve been missing out on.

A friend gave me William Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail to read a couple years ago and it sat on my shelf until just recently. At only 93 pp. (with bibliographical recommendations and endnotes), it’s a slender volume but contains a good synopsis of the dynamics that doom civilizations. I’ve been piecing together the story of industrial civilization and its imminent collapse for about eight years now, so I didn’t expect Ophuls’ analysis to break new ground, which indeed it didn’t (at least for me). However, without my own investigations already behind me, I would not have been too well convinced by Ophuls’ CliffsNotes-style arguments. Armed with what I already learned, Ophuls is preaching to the choir (member).

The book breaks into two parts: biophysical limitations and cultural impediments borne out of human error. Whereas I’m inclined to award greater importance to biophysical limits (e.g., carrying capacity), particularly but not exclusively as civilizations overshoot and strip their land and resource bases, I was surprised to read this loose assertion:

… maintaining a civilization takes a continuous input of matter, energy, and morale, and the latter is actually the most important. [p. 51]

Upon reflection, it seems to be a chicken-and-egg question. Which comes first, increased and unmet demands for inputs or exhausted and/or diminished inputs due to human factors? The historical record of failed empires and civilizations offers examples attributable to both. For instance, the Incan civilization is believed to have risen and fallen on the back of climate change, whereas the fall of the Roman and British Empires stems more from imperial overreach. Reasons are never solely factor A or B, of course; a mixture of dynamic effects is easily discoverable. Still, the question is inevitable for industrial civilization now on a trajectory toward extinction no less that other (already extinct) civilizations, especially for those who believe it possible to learn from past mistakes and avoid repetition.

Read the rest of this entry »

A little more content lite (even though my complaint is unavoidable). Saw on Motherboard a report on a first-person, Web-based shopping game about Black Friday zombie mall shoppers. You can play here. It’s pure kitsch but does reinforce the deplorable behaviors of sale-crazed shoppers swarming over each other to get at goodies (especially cheap electronics), sometimes coming to blows. Videos of 2015 Black Friday brawls appeared almost immediately.

We apparently learn nothing year-over-year as we reenact our ritual feeding frenzy, lasting all the way through New Year’s Eve. (I never go out on Black Friday.) I might have guessed that big box retailers face diminishing returns with store displays torn apart, disgruntled shoppers, traumatized employees, and the additional cost of rent-a-cops to herd the masses and maintain order (which obviously doesn’t work in many instances). Yet my e-mail inbox keeps loading up with promotions and advertisements, even a day later. The video game in particular reminds me of Joe Bageant’s great line: “We have embraced the machinery of our undoing as recreation.”

This blog of mine (nearing 10 years old) is in need of something besides ranting and complaining. Time to organize another traffic report.

Since my previous report, rather than reining myself back to 3-4 paragraphs per entry, I’ve gone the opposite direction and begun breaking entries into 3- or 4-part series. The “more” html tag is used with some frequency, and an addendum post is not unusual, as I always think of more to write. Seems to be lots of ideas to unpack and argue, even though commentary remains minimal. Which brings me to another development. Since telling other bloggers to stop subscribing so that I’ll go look at their blogs, my subscriber count has more than tripled and is now up to 626. If even half of those subscribers read my new posts when notification is sent, Spiral Staircase would be getting regular traffic spikes. But that’s not happening. Rather, I’m ignoring them, and they’re ignoring me, which is fine with me; I’m not a whore self-aggrandizing personality trying to drive up meaningless numbers via social media.

The Filipino cohort searching, finding, and clicking on my post about Scheler’s Hierarchy continues to gather the most traffic. When I blog about doom and collapse, Global Risk Report (an aggregator) sometimes picks up my post and refers traffic. A week’s traffic these days varies from 50 to 250 hits, which is a five-fold difference but still nothing in comparison to other blogs. So how about that collapse? Some believe in a fast, tumultuous crash, others in a slow, incremental fading away that only looks like a crash when viewed from the vantage of considerable hindsight (e.g., the Fall of the Roman Empire). Although I don’t discount the possibility of the fast scenario (should banks in particular seize up), it seems that the corrective mechanisms keeping the house of cards standing but wobbling madly are effective to forestall the worst for now. The slope still points down, but we’re still only just over the crest of the wave.

And finally, considering that today is Thanksgiving in the U.S., what can I be thankful for? All the usual, no doubt: hearth, health, food, and friends. That’s absolutely for real, not some sort of snark. But knowing what I know, I often wonder what to wish for, considering all the conventional American desires (wealth, fame, influence, etc.) feed back into the culture as distortion. Further, the longer industrial civilization persists, the worse it will be for whatever life remains on the other side of the bottleneck. Whereas some counsel resistance and even sabotage to hurry things along, the behemoth is so great by now that it will eventually fall under its own weight. My active contribution to that eventuality, whatever attitude and behaviors I adopt, is minuscule to the point of irrelevance (sorta like voting). So while the lights stay on and there’s air to breathe (unlike China), I suppose simple thanks for this life we enjoy is plenty enough for me.