Archive for October, 2014

I am usually so slow getting posts finalized that the subject matter has already been treated voluminously by others better equipped than me in terms of timeliness and comprehensiveness, often in book form rather than news reports or blog posts. However, I sometimes get to something first, such as a brief article in the New York Times entitled “Three Divergent Visions of Our Future Under Climate Change,” which resembles my blog series reviewing three different approaches to the prospect of NTE. I won’t congratulate myself with the inference that the NYT got the idea from me, since it reviews three books rather than three blog posts as I did, but the subject matter overlaps. The three books are these:

  1. The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us by Diane Ackerman,
  2. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, and
  3. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein.

Links go to publishers’ websites rather than I have little to add to the exceedingly light NYT book review other than to observe that, in typical degraded journalistic fashion, it entertains both sides of the issue before arriving wanly at the conclusion that the worst-case scenario contemplated by Oreskes and Conway probably hews closer to reality than those offered by the other two authors.

Beyond pointing to further treatments of the dark prognosis for the planet, I want to collect my thoughts on the topic. No one has asked for such a summary, just as no one has made a substantive comment (as yet) on any of the posts in this series. That’s not sour grapes; I write this blog primarily for my own sake, mostly to solidify my thinking, and rather expect to be completely irrelevant in the wider public sphere. The usual multiple agendas to drive traffic, sell books, campaign for office, indulge in punditry, or otherwise influence the public mind are not part of my motivation.



Posted: October 13, 2014 in Culture, Debate, Idle Nonsense, Science, Technophilia
Tags: , ,

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, namely, 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 processes 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]

That Nowviskie says, in effect, “it’s coming” rather than “it’s begun, we can already see it happening” is of little consequence; hardly anyone regards dying (or extinction) correctly as a process rather than an event. Indeed, scientists say mass extinction is a protracted, incremental process scaled outside of human time, but this one is advancing alarmingly fast in evolutionary and geological time compared to previous mass extinctions. That’s the premise, then, and extinction includes humans among the targets. I can’t be certain whether Nowviskie’s audience in Lausanne took as given her framework, but I suspect they did not. In my experience, even among well-educated professionals, only a few possess the curious combination of character attributes needed to acknowledge NTE, much less make it the centerpiece of their work (or blog, as I have). Furthermore, even at venues such as Nature Bats Last, where people gather specifically to discuss NTE, there are always newcomers who must get up to speed, repeating the painful process of information absorption, developing emotional honesty, and coming to final acceptance. (See this link for a recent, worthwhile statement why these discussions are ongoing.) Because it’s such a sobering, horrifying conclusion, the number of people willing and able to say openly “we’re cooked” is by my estimate still only a tiny fraction of the population, though the number increases every day. The likelihood of a whole room full of DH doomers strikes me as silly.