Archive for February, 2021

On the heels of a series of snowstorms, ice storms, and deep freezes (mid-Feb. 2021) that have inundated North America and knocked out power to millions of households and businesses, I couldn’t help but to notice inane remarks and single-pane comics to the effect “wish we had some global warming now!” Definitely, things are looking distinctly apocalyptic as folks struggle with deprivation, hardship, and existential threats. However, the common mistake here is to substitute one thing for another, failing to distinguish weather from climate.

National attention is focused on Texas, expected to be declared a disaster zone by Pres. Biden once he visits (a flyover, one suspects) to survey and assess the damage. It’s impossible to say that current events are without precedent. Texas has been in the cross-hairs for decades, suffering repeated droughts, floods, fires, and hurricanes that used to be prefixed by 50-year or 100-year. One or another is now occurring practically every year, which is exactly what climate chaos delivers. And in case the deep freeze and busted water pipes all over Texas appear to have been unpredictable, this very thing happened in Arizona in 2011. Might have been a shot across the bow for Texas to learn from and prepare, but its self-reliant, gun-totin’, freedom-lovin’ (fuck, yeah!), secessionist character is instead demonstrated by having its own electrical grid covering most of the state, separated from other North American power grids, ostensibly to skirt federal regulations. Whether that makes Texas’ grid more or less vulnerable to catastrophic failure is an open question, but events of the past week tested it sorely. It failed badly. People literally froze to death as a result. Some reports indicate Texas was mere moments away from an even greater failure that would have meant months to rebuild and reestablish electrical service. A substantial diaspora would have ensued, essentially meaning more climate refugees.

So where’s the evil in this? Well, let me tell you. Knowledge that we humans are on track to extirpate ourselves via ongoing industrial activity has been reported and ignored for generations. Guy McPherson’s essay “Extinction Foretold, Extinction Ignored” has this to say at the outset:

The warnings I will mention in this short essay were hardly the first ones about climate catastrophe likely to result from burning fossil fuels. A little time with your favorite online search engine will take you to George Perkins Marsh sounding the alarm in 1847, Svente Arrhenius’s relevant journal article in 1896, Richard Nixon’s knowledge in 1969, and young versions of Al Gore, Carl Sagan, and James Hansen testifying before the United States Congress in the 1980s. There is more, of course, all ignored for a few dollars in a few pockets. [links in original]

My personal acquaintance with this large body of knowledge began accumulating in 2007 or so. Others with decision-making capacity have known for much, much longer. Yet short-term motivations shoved aside responsible planning and preparation that is precisely the warrant of governments at all levels, especially, say, the U.S. Department of Energy. Sure, climate change is reported as controversy, or worse, as conspiracy, but in my experience, only a few individuals are willing to speak the obvious truth. They are often branded kooks. Institutions dither, distract, and even issue gag orders to, oh, I dunno, prop up real estate values in south Florida soon to be underwater. I’ve suggested repeatedly that U.S. leaders and institutions should be acting to manage contraction and alleviate suffering best as possible, knowing that civilization will fail anyway. To pretend otherwise and guarantee — no — drive us toward worst-case scenarios is just plain evil. Of course, the megalomania of a few tech billionaires who mistakenly believe they can engineer around society’s biggest problems is just as bad.

Writ small (there’s a phrase no one uses denoting narrowing scope), meaning at a scale less than anthropogenic climate change (a/k/a unwitting geoengineering), American society has struggled to prioritize guns vs. butter for over a century. The profiteering military-industrial complex has clearly won that debate, leaving infrastructure projects, such as bridge and road systems and public utilities, woefully underfunded and extremely vulnerable to market forces. Refusal to recognize public health as a right or public good demanding a national health system (like other developed countries have) qualifies as well. As inflated Pentagon budgets reveal, the U.S. never lacks money to oppress, fight, and kill those outside the U.S. Inside the U.S., however, cities and states fall into ruin, and American society is allowed to slowly unwind for lack of support. Should we withdraw militarily from the world stage and focus on domestic needs, such as homelessness and joblessness? Undoubtedly. Would that leave us open to attack or invasion (other than the demographic invasion of immigrants seeking refuge in the U.S.)? Highly doubtful. Other countries have their own domestic issues to manage and would probably appreciate a cessation of interference and intervention from the U.S. One might accuse me of substituting one thing for another, as I accused others at top, but the guns-vs.-butter debate is well established. Should be obvious that it’s preferable to prioritize caring for our own society rather than devoting so much of our limited time and resources to destroying others.

So far, this multipart blog post has trafficked in principles and generalities. Let me try now to be more specific, starting with an excerpt from Barry Lynn’s article in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Big Tech Extortion Racket” (Sept. 2020):

… around the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans began to develop technologies that could not be broken into component pieces. This was especially true of the railroad and the telegraph … Such corporations [railroad and telegraph companies] posed one overarching challenge: they charged some people more than others to get to market. They exploited their control over an essential service in order to extort money, and sometimes political favors … Americans found the answer to this problem in common law. For centuries, the owners of ferries, stagecoaches, and inns had been required to serve all customers for the same price and in the order in which they arrived. In the late nineteenth century, versions of such “common carrier” rules were applied to the new middleman corporations.

Today we rightly celebrate the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which gave Americans the power to break apart private corporations. But in many respects, the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 was the more important document. This act was based on the understanding that monopoly networks like the railroad and the telegraph could be used to influence the actions of people who depend on them, and hence their power must be carefully restricted …

For a century and a half, Americans used common carrier policies to ensure the rule of law in activities that depended on privately held monopolies … regulations freed Americans to take full advantage of every important network technology introduced during these years, including telephones, water and electrical services, energy pipelines, and even large, logistics-powered retailers. Citizens did not have to worry that the men who controlled the technologies involved would exploit their middleman position to steal other people’s business or disrupt balances of power.

I appreciate that Barry Lynn brings up the Interstate Commerce Act. If this legal doctrine appeared in the net neutrality debate a few years ago, it must have escaped my notice. While Internet Service Providers (ISPs) enable network access and connectivity, those utilities have not yet exhibited let’s-be-evil characteristics. Similarly, phone companies (including cell phones) and public libraries may well be eavesdropping and/or monitoring activities of the citizenry, but the real action lies elsewhere, namely, on social media networks and with online retailers. Evil is arguably concentrated in the FANG (or FAANG) corporations but has now grown to be ubiquitous in all social networks (e.g., Twitter) operating as common carriers (Zoom? Slack?) and across academe, nearly all of which have succumbed to moral panic. They are interpreting correctly, sad to observe, demands to censor and sanitize others’ no-longer-free speech appearing on their networks or within their realms. How much deeper it goes toward shaping politics and social engineering is quasi-conspiratorial and impossible for me to assess.

Much as I would prefer to believe that individuals possess the good sense to shift their activities away from social networks or turn their attention from discomfiting information sources, that does not appear to be the case. Demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces commonplace a few years ago on college campuses have instead morphed into censorious removal, deplatforming, and cancellation from the entire public sphere. Those are wrong responses in free societies, but modern institutions and technologies have gotten out of hand and outstripped the limits of normal human cognition. In short, we’re a society gone mad. So rather than accept responsibility to sort out information overflow oneself, many are demanding that others do it for them, and evil private corporations are complying (after a fashion). Moreover, calls for creation of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, rebranded as a Truth Commission and Reality Czar, could hardly be any more chillingly and fascistically bizarre. People really need someone to brainwash decide for them what is real? Has anyone at the New York Times actually read Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 and taken to heart its lessons?

From an article in the Sept. 2020 issue (I’m lagging in my reading) of Harper’s Magazine by Laurent Dubreuil titled “Nonconforming“:

American academia is a hotbed of proliferating identities supported and largely shaped by the higher ranks of administrators, faculty, student groups, alumni, and trustees. Not all identities are equal in dignity, history, or weight. Race, gender, and sexual orientation were the three main dimensions of what in the 1970s began to be called identity politics. These traits continue to be key today. But affirmed identities are mushrooming.

… identity politics as now practiced does not put an end to racism, sexism, or other sorts of exclusion or exploitation. Ready-made identities imprison us in stereotyped narratives of trauma. In short, identity determinism has become an additional layer of oppression, one that fails to address the problems it clumsily articulates.

Considering the acceleration of practically everything in the late-modern world (postmodern refers to something quite different), which makes planning one’s higher education somewhat fraught if the subject matter studied is rendered flatly out-of-date or moribund by the time of either graduation or entry into the workforce, I’ve heard it recommended that expertise in any particular subject area may be less important than developing expertise in at least one subject that takes a systems approach. That system might be language and communications, mathematics (or any other hard science), history, economics and finance, business administration, computer coding, law and governance, etc. So long as a rigorous understanding of procedures and rules is developed, a structuralist mindset can be repeated and transferred into other subject areas. Be careful, however, not to conflate this approach with a liberal arts education, which is sometimes described as learning how to learn and is widely applicable across disciplines. The liberal arts have fallen distinctly out of favor in the highly technological and technocratic world, which cares little for human values resistant to quantification. Problem is, Western societies in particular are based on liberal democratic institutions now straining due to their sclerotic old age. And because a liberal arts education is scarcely undertaken anymore, civics and citizenship are no longer taught. Even the study of English has now been corrupted (postmodern does apply here) to the point that the basic liberal arts skill of critical thinking is being lost through attrition. Nowhere is that more abundantly clear than in bristling debate over free speech and censorship.

Aside. Although society tinkers and refines itself (sometimes declines) over time, a great body of cultural inheritance informs how things are done properly within an ideology or system. When tinkering and refinement become outright intransigence and defiance of an established order, it’s commonplace to hear the objection “but that’s not how _______ works.” For instance, debate over climate science or the utility of vaccines often has one party proclaiming “trust [or believe] the science.” However, that’s not how science works (i.e., through unquestioning trust or belief). The scientific method properly understood includes verification, falsification, and revision when results and assertions fail to establish reasonable certainty (not the same as consensus). Similarly, critical thinking includes a robust falsification check before “facts” can be accepted at face value. So-called “critical studies” (a/k/a grievance studies), like religious faith, typically positions bald assertions beyond the reach of falsification. Well, sorry, that’s not how critical thinking works.

Being older and educated before critical studies were fully legitimized (or gave rise to things as risible as feminist glaciology), my understand has always been that free speech and other rights are absolutes that cannot be sliced and diced into bits. That way lies casuistry, where law founders frequently. Thus, if one wishes, say, to trample or burn the U.S. flag in protest, no law can be passed or constitutional amendment enacted to carve out an exception disallowed that instance of dissenting free speech. A lesser example is kneeling silently rather than participating in singing the national anthem before a sporting event. Though offensive to certain individual’s sensibilities, silencing speech is far worse according to liberal democratic values. Whatever our ideological or political difference are, we cannot work them out when one party has the power to place topics out or bounds or remove others from discussion entirely. The point at which spirited debate crosses over into inciting violence or fomenting insurrection is a large gray area, which is the subject of the second impeachment of 45. Civil law covers such contingencies, so abridging free speech, deplatforming, and adopting the formulation “language is violence” are highly improper responses under the liberal form of government codified in the U.S. Constitution, which includes the Bill of Rights originally omitted from the U.S. Constitution but quickly added to articulate the rights fully.

Liberal democratic ideology arose in mercantile, substantially agrarian Western societies before scientific, industrial, and capitalist revolutions built a full head of steam, so to speak. Considering just how much America has developed since the Colonial Period, it’s no surprise society has outgrown its own founding documents. More pointedly, the intellectual commons was a much smaller environment, often restricted to a soapbox in the town square and the availability of book, periodicals,and broadsides. Today, the public square has moved online to a bewildering array of social media platforms that enables publication of one’s ideas well beyond the sound of one’s voice over a crowd or the bottleneck of a publisher’s printing press. It’s an entirely new development, and civil law has not kept pace. Whether Internet communications are regulated like the airwaves or nationalized like the U.S. military, it’s clear that the Wild West uber-democratic approach (where anyone can basically say anything) has failed. Demands for regulation (restrictions on free speech) are being taken seriously and acted upon by the private corporations that run social media platforms. During this interim phase, it’s easy for me, as a subscriber to liberal democratic values, to insist reflexively on free speech absolutism. The apparent mood of the public lies elsewhere.

I have observed various instances of magical thinking in mainstream culture, especially here, which I find problematical. Although it’s not my ambition to disabuse anyone of magical thinking, which extends far beyond, say, religious thought, I was somewhat taken aback at the suggestion found in the comic at this link (not embedded). For those not familiar with Questionable Content (one of two online comics I read regularly), the comic presents an extended cast of characters, mostly in their early 20s, living in a contemporary New England college town. Those characters are supplemented by a few older parents and lots of AIs (in robot bodies). The AIs are not particularly futuristic but are simply accepted as a normal (if curious) part of the world of the comic. Major story arcs involve characters and AIs (the AIs are characters, I suppose) in the process of discovering and establishing themselves as they (the humans, anyway) transition into early adulthood. There are no great political themes or intrusions into life in a college town. Rather, the comic is largely about acceptance of difference. Often, that means washing away meaningful difference in the name of banal tolerance. Real existential struggle is almost entirely absent.

In the linked comic, a new character comes along and offers advice to an established character struggling with sexual attractions and orientation. The dialogue includes this exchange:

Character A: If tarot or astrology or religion halps you make sense of the world and your place in it, then why not use them?
Character B: But they’re not real. [emphasis in original]
Character A: It doesn’t matter, if you use them constructively!

There it is in a nutshell: believe whatever you want if it, um, halps. I’ve always felt that being wrong (i.e., using unreal or make-believe things) was a sufficient injunction against anchoring oneself to notions widely known to be false. Besides, isn’t it often remarked that the biggest fool is one who fools himself? (Fiction as a combination of entertainment and building a worldview is quite normative, but it’s understood as fiction, or to a lesser degree, as life imitating art and its inverse. Exceptions abound, which are regarded as psychopathy.) The instruction in that dialogue (part object lesson, part lesson in cognition) is not that it’s OK to make mistakes but that knowingly believing something false has worthwhile advantages.

Surveying examples where promulgating false beliefs have constructive and destructive effects is too large a project. Well short of that, nasty categories include fraud, gaslighting, and propaganda, which are criminal in many cases and ought to be in most others (looking at you, MSM! — or not, since I neither trust nor watch). One familiar benevolent category is expressed in the phrase fake it til you make it, often recommended to overcome a lack of confidence. Of course, a swindle is also known as a confidence game (or by its diminutive, a con), so beware overconfidence when asked by another to pay for something (e.g., tarot or astrology readings), take risks, or accept an ideology without question.

As philosophy, willful adoption of falsity for its supposed benefits is half-baked. Though impossible to quantify, my suspicion is that instances of positive outcomes are overbalanced by negative ones. Maybe living in a constructed reality or self-reinforcing fantasy is what people want. The comic discussed is certainly in line with that approach. However, while we dither and delude ourselves with happy, aspirational stories based on silliness, the actual world around us, including all the human institutions that used to serve us but no longer do, falls to tatters. Is it better going through life and eventually to one’s grave refusing to see that reality? Should childlike wonder and innocence be retained in spite of what is easily observable just by poking one’s head up and dismissing comforting lies? Decide for yourself.

Evil exists in the world. History and current events both bear this out amply. Pseudo-philosophers might argue that, like emotions and other immaterial sensations, good and evil are merely reified concepts, meaning they are human constructs with no palpable external reality. Go tell that to victims of evildoers. Human suffering can’t be anonymized, rationalized, or philosophized away quite so handily.

It was sort of refreshing, back in the day, when Google’s motto and/or corporate code of conduct was simple: “Don’t Be Evil.” It acknowledged the potential for being or becoming evil (like any of the Bigs: Big Tobacco, Big Soda, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Media, Big Agriculture, etc.) and presumably aspired to resist obvious temptations. That was then (from 2000 to 2018), this is now (2021 until death take us — soon enough, I fear). But like all entities possessed of absurd levels of wealth and power, Google (now reorganized as a subsidiary of Alphabet, but who actually refers to it that way?) and its Silicon Valley brethren have succumbed to temptation and become straight-up evil.

One might charitably assess this development as something unbidden, unanticipated, and unexpected, but that’s no excuse, really. I certainly don’t envy celebrity executives experiencing difficulty resulting from having created unmanageable behemoths loosed on both public and polity unable to recognize beastly fangs until already clamped on their necks. As often occurs, dystopian extrapolations are explored in fiction, sometimes satirically. The dénouement of the HBO show Silicon Valley depicts tech mogul wannabes succeeding in creating an AI (or merely a sophisticated algorithm? doesn’t matter …) that would in time become far too powerful in blind execution of its inner imperative. In the show, characters recognize what they had done and kill their own project rather than allow it to destroy the world. In reality, multiple developers of computer tech platforms (and their embedded dynamic, including the wildly unhelpful albeit accurate term algorithm) lacked the foresight to anticipate awful downstream effects of their brainchildren. Yet now that those effects are manifesting recognizably, these corporations continue to operate and wreak havoc.

Silicon Valley shows a extended software development period of bungling ineptitude punctuated by brilliant though momentary breakthroughs. Characters are smart, flawed people laughably unable to get out of the way of their own success. The pièce de résistance was yoking one so-called “learning machine” to another and initiating what would become a runaway doomsday process (either like ecological collapse, building slowly the making the biosphere uninhabitable all at once, or like the gray goo problem, progressively “processing” biomass at the molecular level until all that remains is lifeless goo). It was a final act of bumbling that demanded the characters’ principled, ethical response before the window of opportunity closed. Real Silicon Valley tech platforms are in the (ongoing) process of rending the social fabric, which is no laughing matter. The issue du jour surrounds free speech and its inverse censorship. More broadly, real Silicon Valley succeeded in gaming human psychology for profit in at least two aspects (could be more as yet unrecognized): (1) mining behavioral data as an exploitable resource, and (2) delivering inexhaustible streams of extremely divisive content (not its own) to drive persistent engagement with its platforms. Yoked together, they operate to drive society mad, and yet, mounting evidence of this development has not produced even an inkling that maybe the damned doomsday devices ought to be shut off. As with the environment, we operate with freedom enough to destroy ourselves. Instead, politicians issue stunningly ineffectual calls for regulation or break-up of monopolies. In the meantime, ever more absurd wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few executives who have clearly punted and decided “let’s be evil.” No restraints on their behavioral experimentation across whole societies exist.

Much more to say on this topic in additional parts to come.