Archive for January, 2011

I was initially intrigued by an article called The Ascendance of Psychotic Knowledge until the jarring mention of (space?) aliens in para. 3, which was far too early to be completely sidetracked. The writers at Reality Sandwich are often more than a little flaky, but I still want to consider the nature of the author’s term “psychotic knowledge.” Here is para. 1 in its entirety:

We have entered a period of epistemological chaos. The true condition of our world, indeed the very nature of our phenomenal reality, including agreement regarding the meaning of knowledge itself, is completely up for grabs. Not only are we witnessing rapid paradigm shifts and schisms within mainstream science, but also, and more dangerously, the politically motivated suppression of authentic discoveries and insights has led to epistemological blowback on every front. Every established authority has been de-legitimized. This has led to the rise of a new and unprecedented kind of discourse, which can be categorized as psychotic knowledge.

The author argues that erosion of religious and scientific authority was the result of secret hegemonic factions, operating within legitimate governments, that sought to suppress truth and eventually install a surveillance/security/propaganda state. But in a bit of juicy irony, use of the Internet as a surveillance tool has allowed the paradoxical emergence of a style of consciousness rooted in hyperreality or virtual reality and enabled by the democratic effect of value relativism:

We have gone from Nietzsche’s axiom that God is dead, to the postmodern claim that Man is dead, and now we can say that reality is dead. Reality has been overcome, not by any single alternative worldview, but by a burgeoning legion of otherworldly messengers. And who is to say that they are false or demonic? Who has the credibility to say anything authoritative any more? Who will listen? By suppressing authentic information and feeding the public too much flavorless and undigestible [sic] disinformation, the merely mortal authorities with their clearly fallible forms of knowledge have given birth to a disinformational universe, in which they are the first victims of their own bad karma.

The author then veers off into a series of pronouncements about the coming of a new consciousness beyond today’s psychotic knowledge. I’m unconvinced by and unconcerned about such florid argument, but I observe that, like so many prophets, philosophers, and spiritual leaders of the past, the author essentially hopes that humanity can be rescued from “mere phenomenal reality,” a fate apparently worse than false consciousness. Making meaning in the world has been one of man’s principal preoccupations for millennia, whether via religion, mythology, shamanic practice, the arts, or the simple biological impulse to preserve one’s genes. We’re currently in a profoundly self-destructive phase, but unlike the author, I don’t see relinquishing the self as the seed of spiritual rebirth.

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Vehicle Platooning

Posted: January 23, 2011 in Consumerism, Technophilia

The Houston Chronicle reports (quite briefly) on Volvo’s new technology for creating an automobile road train system that uses wireless interconnectivity to join a series of enabled cars in autodrive behind a human-driven lead vehicle. The technology is also called auto platooning. Naturally, the gee whiz amazement factor extinguishes any possibility of actual critical analysis, as the author promises banal marvels while failing to offer any possible downside. Maybe he isn’t simply a shill, but he’s certainly not careful or thoughtful enough in his very few paragraphs to sound otherwise.

To borrow a theme from The Compulsive Explainer, why are engineers and technophiles so desperate to lose the self in the objects of our creation? At a time in history when perhaps we might feel, however inchoately, a need to reengage ourselves in the processes and responsibilities of modern life, we instead appear to be hurtling toward further disengaging ourselves, in effect remaking ourselves into mindless riders within the larger flow of technology, history, and culture. We may rationalize that diverting our attention here makes it more available there, but the truth is that there is often just distraction and idle entertainment. Further, by turning over control to external devices, we thus ensure that everything now happens to us, and we happily shoulder no responsibility for events.

The driverless car, or more properly, the car that drives itself so that its passenger(s) are free to do something else, is frequently sold as a safety innovation, since most auto accidents are attributable to driver error. Blaming driver error, while obviously true, is nonetheless fatuous, being akin to pointing out that most accidents occur when someone is behind the wheel. Well, ya think? But the dream of autodrive (autopilot transferred from planes to cars where the platoon is closer to a Blue Angels aerial formation than the wide open skies where autopilot is useful) is to remove the driver’s agency and therefore errors rather than make him or her a better, safer driver. It’s a technological innovation in search of a justification, because as this article in Popular Mechanics argues, safety is not improved by removing drivers’ attention but by engaging it more fully. (This is also one of the takeaways from GPS, which has caused more than a few zombie drivers to veer off-road when the computerized voice said “turn.”)

The obvious weaponization of vehicle platooning and its vulnerability to either catastrophic failure or malicious intervention (e.g., commandeering a car wirelessly) are eminently foreseeable. In fact, they have already been explored in the cinema, though that hasn’t stopped gobsmacked goobers from slavering, “kewl, when can I get one?” American culture has a long way to go before it learns from the Luddites the wisdom of evaluating technological innovation before embracing it. At our present moment, the attitude is more nearly “if you build it, they will come.” While thralldom to everything shiny and blinky and new has not yet proven to be universal (i.e., BluRay, 3D TVs, the Chevy Volt, and the Nissas Leaf have not yet gone fully mass market), it is still the default response to most technologies within our purchasing power.

Contempt for Death

Posted: January 15, 2011 in Culture, Idle Nonsense, Philosophy

Foreknowledge of death has been a perennial subject of contemplation for humanity, which is expressed in a variety of ways as we each wend our ways through life. In youth, a false sense of immortality often leads to heedless risk-taking. In midlife, crises typically occur as we become more fully aware of death stalking us (e.g., a first serious health scare or a dying parent) and wish to make meaning out of our lives. In our advanced age and infirmity, we frequently acquiesce, seeing a naturalness in the circle of life. And in difficult circumstances, we sometimes actively embrace death as refuge or release from worldly struggles. Informing all these is an omnipresent fear (or perhaps merely the biological impulse for self-preservation) of the boundary to the unknown death represents, if in fact anything beyond even exists. I have nothing to say about these attitudes that isn’t already amply explored in literature and other arts. However, one attitude that has made a strong impression on me lately yet receives only intermittent attention is contempt for death.

Contempt is a tricky attitude to define, as it’s a mixture of disaffection, denial, disrespect, and dishonor. As it relates to death (as anthropomorphized in common thought), contempt is a statement that the prospect of death has little power over the choices we make in life and/or that life cannot be lived well if we are too concerned with our own doom, which is inevitable and somewhat arbitrary anyway. The best expression of this attitude, familiar to many of us through popular culture, is the fictional Lt. Cmdr. Worf from Star Trek, who is given to uttering implacably in the face of peril, “Today is a good day to die.” Although Worf comes from a hypermasculine warrior culture, this attitude can sometimes be glimpsed in real life beyond the warrior classes in admirable forms that aren’t mere nihilism.

Perhaps the most obvious examples come from heroic behaviors triggered by protectiveness (e.g., men toward women, parents toward children) and the fight-or-flight instinct, which are displayed by average folks who, when faced with extraordinary circumstances, risk life and limb. If one is trained to respond to danger, as are servicemen, firemen, policemen, lifeguards, etc., risk is substantially reduced. It’s a part of the job. So although still heroic, jumping into the fray may not qualify as contemptuous of death. I am also aware of philosophical poses that exhibit contempt for death, though they tend not to translate into direct action, especially now that philosophy has disappeared almost altogether from our intellectual life and been driven underground as unconscious motivation. As society continues to unravel, now that we’re past several well-acknowledged tipping points, I suspect that many more of us average folks will be forced into untenable situations that reveal our characters and underlying attitudes toward death.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, China is reportedly about to embark on the mother of all fan projects: copying the Burj Khalifa (formerly the Burg Dubai, just as the Willis Tower was formerly the Sears Tower). I’ve blogged before about copying the twisted building design but left the topic of skyscrapers alone for some time now. China’s new gambit, however, pushed the topic back to the front of my mind.

Dubai has attracted some dubious attention (here and here and here, for instance) for its apparent craziness, namely, building so many skyscrapers concentrated in one place so quickly. Pictures from as recent as 1990 show a mostly empty landscape in Dubai. China is ripe for similar criticism, as it appears to have embarked on similar building projects spread all around the country, especially the notorious empty cities. This unstated competition calls to mind a similar rivalry between Chicago and New York in the early days of the skyscraper. Kazakhstan may be a late entry into the crazy building sweepstakes.

Although it may be a fallacy to peer into the minds of entire cultures to tease out their motivations, the triumphalism associated with supertall buildings and their supposed prestige suggests a fairly obvious demonstration by both Dubai and China of their arrival on the international scene as formidable economic forces. Looking solely at what they’re able to build do, the world has to take them seriously, right? (A similar observation was made about the Beijing Olympics.) If I understand things correctly, Dubai’s economic power is derived primarily from oil, making the United Arab Emirates essentially a lottery winner like other desert countries of the Middle East, whereas China’s economic ascent is the result of fast, recent industrialization and adoption of a commodity culture, although without the rights and freedoms associated with Western liberal democracies.

How long the infatuation with really, really tall and expensive buildings will persist is anyone’s guess, but proposals continue to be added at SkyscraperPage.com. Speaking only for Chicago, the financial failure of 7 South Dearborn (once intended to be the tallest in N. Amer.), the stalled Chicago Spire (dormant since 2008), the lowering of the height of the Trump Tower prior to construction (though still pretty darn tall), and other abandoned or barely begun projects might prompt some soul-searching about whether such projects really deliver the cachet they promise.