Archive for June, 2017

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]