Archive for the ‘History’ Category

I caught the presentation embedded below with Thomas L. Friedman and Yuval Noah Harari, nominally hosted by the New York Times. It’s a very interesting discussion but not a debate. For this now standard format (two or more people sitting across from each other with a moderator and an audience), I’m pleased to observe that Friedman and Harari truly engaged each others’ ideas and behaved with admirable restraint when the other was speaking. Most of these talks are rude and combative, marred by constant interruptions and gotchas. Such bad behavior might succeed in debate club but makes for a frustratingly poor presentation. My further comments follow below.

With a topic as open-ended as The Future of Humanity, arguments and support are extremely conjectural and wildly divergent depending on the speaker’s perspective. Both speakers here admit their unique perspectives are informed by their professions, which boils down to biases borne out of methodology, and to a lesser degree perhaps, personality. Fair enough. In my estimation, Harari does a much better job adopting a pose of objectivity. Friedman comes across as both salesman and a cheerleader for human potential.

Both speakers cite a trio of threats to human civilization and wellbeing going forward. For Harari, they’re nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption. For Friedman, they’re the market (globalization), Mother Nature (climate change alongside population growth and loss of diversity), and Moore’s Law. Friedman argues that all three are accelerating beyond control but speaks of each metaphorically, such as when refers to changes in market conditions (e.g., from independent to interdependent) as “climate change.” The biggest issue from my perspective — climate change — was largely passed over in favor of more tractable problems.

Climate change has been in the public sphere as the subject of considerable debate and confusion for at least a couple decades now. I daresay it’s virtually impossible not to be aware of the horrific scenarios surrounding what is shaping up to be the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). Yet as a global civilization, we’ve barely reacted except with rhetoric flowing in all directions and some greenwashing. Difficult to assess, but perhaps the appearance of more articles about surviving climate change (such as this one in Bloomberg Businessweek) demonstrates that more folks recognize we can no longer stem or stop climate change from rocking the world. This blog has had lots to say about the collapse of industrial civilization being part of a mass extinction event (not aimed at but triggered by and including humans), so for these two speakers to cite but then minimize the peril we face is, well, façile at the least.

Toward the end, the moderator finally spoke up and directed the conversation towards uplift (a/k/a the happy chapter), which almost immediately resulted in posturing on the optimism/pessimism continuum with Friedman staking his position on the positive side. Curiously, Harari invalidated the question and refused to be pigeonholed on the negative side. Attempts to shoehorn discussions into familiar if inapplicable narratives or false dichotomies is commonplace. I was glad to see Harari calling bullshit on it, though others (e.g., YouTube commenters) were easily led astray.

The entire discussion is dense with ideas, most of them already quite familiar to me. I agree wholeheartedly with one of Friedman’s remarks: if something can be done, it will be done. Here, he refers to technological innovation and development. Plenty of prohibitions throughout history not to make available disruptive technologies have gone unheeded. The atomic era is the handy example (among many others) as both weaponry and power plants stemming from cracking the atom come with huge existential risks and collateral psychological effects. Yet we prance forward headlong and hurriedly, hoping to exploit profitable opportunities without concern for collateral costs. Harari’s response was to recommend caution until true cause-effect relationships can be teased out. Without saying it manifestly, Harari is citing the precautionary principle. Harari also observed that some of those effects can be displaced hundreds and thousands of years.

Displacements resulting from the Agrarian Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution in particular (all significant historical “turnings” in human development) are converging on the early 21st century (the part we can see at least somewhat clearly so far). Neither speaker would come straight out and condemn humanity to the dustbin of history, but at least Harari noted that Mother Nature is quite keen on extinction (which elicited a nervous? uncomfortable? ironic? laugh from the audience) and wouldn’t care if humans were left behind. For his part, Friedman admits our destructive capacity but holds fast to our cleverness and adaptability winning out in the end. And although Harari notes that the future could bring highly divergent experiences for subsets of humanity, including the creation of enhanced humans from our reckless dabbling with genetic engineering, I believe cumulative and aggregate consequences of our behavior will deposit all of us into a grim future no sane person should wish to survive.


rant on/

As the world turns and history piles up against us, nature (as distinguished from human civilization) takes hit after hit. One reads periodically about species extinction proceeding at an estimated rate of dozens per day (or even faster), 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the background rate of evolution without anthropocentric climate change thrown in. Headlines usually read that large populations of plants or animals show up dead where they once used to thrive. When it’s insects such as crickets or bees, we often lack concern. They’re insects after all, which we happily exterminate from places of human habitation. Although we know they’re significant parts of the terrestrial food web just as plankton function as the base of the marine food web, they’re too small and/or icky for us to identify with closely. Species die-offs occurring with large mammals such as whales or dolphins make it easier to feel empathy. So, too, with aspen trees suffering from beetle infestations and deer populations with chronic wasting disease. When at-risk species finally go extinct, no fanfare, report, or memorial is heard. Here’s an exception: a new tree species discovered and declared extinct at the same time.

Something similar can be said of cities and communities established in hurricane alleys, atop earthquake fault lines, in flood plains, and near active volcanoes. They’re the equivalent of playing Russian roulette. We know the gun will fire eventually because the trigger is pulled repeatedly (by us or by nature itself). Catastrophists believe the planet across long time spans (tens of thousands of years) has always been a killing field or abattoir, though long respites between episodes can be surprisingly nurturing. Still, the rate of natural disasters has been creeping up now for decades. According to the statistics, we can certainly tolerate disaster better (in terms of death rates) than in the early 20th century. Yet the necessity of building out civilization in perilous locations is Pyrrhic. The human species must ineluctably expand its territory wherever it can, other species be damned. We don’t need no stinkin’ whales, dolphins, aspens, deer, bees, crickets, etc. We also don’t need no stinkin’ oceanfront property (Carolina outer banks, New Jersey shore, New Orleans, Houston) that keeps getting hit, requiring regular, predictable rebuilding. Let it all go to hell (meet you there!) ruin. The insurance companies will bail us out, just like taxpayers the federal government bailed out all those banks dicking playing around with the casino economy a decade ago (which, BTW, hasn’t abated).

The typical metaphor for slow death between major planetary catastrophes is “death by a thousand cuts,” as though what’s happening this time is occurring to us rather than by and because of us. I propose a different metaphor: Jenga tower civilization. The tower is civilization, obviously, which we keep building taller by removing pieces (of nature) from the bottom to stack on top. Jenga (say it everyone: Jenga! Yahtzee!) ends when the entire edifice crashes down into pieces. Until then, it’s all fun and games with no small bit of excitement and intrigue — not so much a game of skill as a game of rank stupidity. Just how far can we build until the eventual crash? It’s built right into the game, right? We know the dynamics and the outcome; we just don’t know when the critical piece will be pulled out from under us. Isn’t the excitement just about killing us?


rant off/

See this post on Seven Billion Day only a few years ago as a launching point. We’re now closing in on 7.5 billion people worldwide according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At least one other counter indicates we’ve already crossed that threshold. What used to be called the population explosion or the population bomb has lost its urgency and become generically population growth. By now, application of euphemism to mask intractable problems should be familiar to everyone. I daresay few are fooled, though plenty are calmed enough to stop paying attention. If there is anything to be done to restrain ourselves from proceeding down this easily recognized path to self-destruction, I don’t know what it is. The unwillingness to accept restraints in other aspects of human behavior demonstrate pretty well that consequences be damned — especially if they’re far enough delayed in time that we get to enjoy the here and now.

Two additional links (here and here) provide abundant further information on population growth if one desired to delve more deeply into the topic. The tone of these sites is sober, measured, and academic. As with climate change, hysterical and panic-provoking alarmism is avoided, but dangers known decades and centuries ago have persisted without serious redress. While it’s true that growth rate (a/k/a replacement rate) has decreased considerably since its peak in 1960 or so (the height of the postwar baby boom), absolute numbers continue to climb. The lack of immediate concern reminds me of Al Bartlett’s articles and lectures on the failure to understand the exponential function in math (mentioned in my prior post). Sure, boring old math about which few care. The metaphor that applies is yeast growing in a culture with a doubling factor that makes everything look just peachy until the final doubling that kills everything. In this metaphor, people are the unthinking yeast that believe there’s plenty of room and food and other resources in the culture (i.e., on the planet) and keep consuming and reproducing until everyone dies en mass. How far away in time that final human doubling is no one really knows.

Which brings me to something rather ugly: hearings to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. No doubt conservative Republican presidents nominate similarly conservative judges just as Democratic presidents nominate progressive centrist judges. That’s to be expected. However, Kavanaugh is being asked pointed questions about settled law and legal precedents perpetually under attack by more extreme elements of the right wing, including Roe v. Wade from 1973. Were we (in the U.S.) to revisit that decision and remove legal abortion (already heavily restricted), public outcry would be horrific, to say nothing of the return of so-called back-alley abortions. Almost no one undertakes such actions lightly. A look back through history, however, reveals a wide range of methods to forestall pregnancy, end pregnancies early, and/or end newborn life quickly (infanticide). Although repugnant to almost everyone, attempts to legislate abortion out of existence and/or punish lawbreakers will succeed no better than did Prohibition or the War Against Drugs. (Same can be said of premarital and underage sex.) Certain aspects of human behavior are frankly indelible despite the moral indignation of one or another political wing. Whether Kavanaugh truly represents the linchpin that will bring new upheavals is impossible to know with certainty. Stay tuned, I guess.

Abortion rights matter quite a lot when placed in context with population growth. Aggregate human behaviors drive out of existence all sorts of plant and animal populations routinely. This includes human populations (domestic and foreign) reduced to abject poverty and mad, often criminal scrambles for survival. The view from on high is that those whose lives fall below some measure of worthwhile contribution are useless eaters. (I don’t recommend delving deeper into that term; it’s a particularly ugly ideology with a long, tawdry history.) Yet removing abortion rights would almost certainly  swell those ranks. Add this topic to the growing list of things I just don’t get.

Not a person alive having reached even a modest level of maturity hasn’t looked back at some choice or attitude of his or her past and wondered “What on earth was I thinking?” Maybe it was some physical stunt resulting in a fall or broken bone (or worse), or maybe it was an intolerant attitude later softened by empathy and understanding when the relevant issue became personal. We’ve all got something. Some of us, many somethings. As a kid, my cohorts and I used to play in leaves raked into piles in the autumn. A pile of leaves isn’t a trampoline and doesn’t really provide cushion, but as kids, it didn’t matter for the purpose of play. At one point, the kid next door dared me to jump from the roof of his front porch into a pile of leaves. The height was probably 15 feet. I remember climbing out and peering over the gutters, wavering a bit before going back inside. I didn’t jump. What was I thinking? It would have been folly to take that dare.

Some youthful indiscretion is to be expected and can be excused as teaching moments, but in truth, most of us don’t have to go far back in time to wonder “what in hell was I thinking?” Maybe it was last week, last month, or a few years ago. The interval matters less than the honest admission that, at any point one might believe he or she has things figured out and can avoid traps that look clear only in hindsight, something will come up and remind that, despite being wizened through experience, one still misjudges and makes egregious mistakes.


One of the very best lessons I took from higher education was recognizing and avoiding the intentional fallacy — in my own thinking no less than in that of others. Although the term arguably has more to do with critical theory dealing specifically with texts, I learned about it in relation to abstract fine arts, namely, painting and music. For example, the enigmatic expression of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci continues to spark inquiry and debate. What exactly does that smile mean? Even when words or programs are included in musical works, it’s seductively easy to conclude that the composer intends this or the work itself means that. Any given work purportedly allows audiences to peer into the mind of its creator(s) to interrogate intent. Conclusions thus drawn, however, are notoriously unreliable though commonplace.

It’s inevitable, I suppose, to read intent into artistic expression, especially when purpose feels so obvious or inevitable. Similar excavations of meaning and purpose are undertaken within other domains of activity, resulting in no end of interpretation as to surface and deep strategies. Original intent (also originalism) is a whole field of endeavor with respect to interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and imagining the framers’ intent. Geopolitics is another domain where hindsight analysis results in some wildly creative but ultimately conjectural interpretations of events. Even where authorial (and political) intent is explicitly recorded, such as with private diaries or journals, the possibility of deceptive intent by authors keeps everyone wondering. Indeed, although “fake news” is modern coin, a long history of deceptive publishing practice well beyond the adoption of a nom de plume attests to hidden or unknowable intent making “true intent” a meta property.

The multi-ring circus that the modern information environment has become, especially in the wake of electronic media (e.g., YouTube channels) produced by anyone with a camera and an Internet connection, is fertile ground for those easily ensnared by the intentional fallacy. Several categories of intent projected onto content creators come up repeatedly: profit motive, control of the narrative (no small advantage if one believes this blog post), setting the record straight, correcting error, grandstanding, and trolling for negative attention. These categories are not mutually exclusive. Long ago, I pointed to the phenomenon of arguing on-line and how it typically accomplishes very little, especially as comment threads lengthen and civility breaks down. These days, comments are an Internet legacy and/or anachronism that many content creators persist in offering to give the illusion of a wider discussion but in fact roundly ignore. Most blogs and channels are actually closed conversations. Maybe a Q&A follows the main presentation when held before an audience, but video channels are more often one-way broadcasts addressing an audience but not really listening. Public square discussion is pretty rare.

Some celebrate this new era of broadcasting, noting with relish how the mainstream media is losing its former stranglehold on attention. Such enthusiasm may be transparently self-serving but nonetheless rings true. A while back, I pointed to New Media Rockstars, which traffics in nerd culture entertainment media, but the term could easily be expanded to include satirical news, comedy, and conversational webcasts (also podcasts). Although some folks are rather surprised to learn that an appetite for substantive discussion and analysis exists among the public, I surmise that the shifting media landscape and disintegrated cultural narrative have bewildered a large segment of the public. The young in particular are struggling to make sense of the world, figure out what to be in life and how to function, and working out an applied philosophy that eschews more purely academic philosophy.

By way of example of new media, let me point to a trio of YouTube channels I only recently discovered. Some More News parodies traditional news broadcasts by sardonically (not quite the same as satirically) calling bullshit on how news is presented. Frequent musical cues between segments make me laugh. Unlike the mainstream media, which are difficult not to regard as propaganda arms of the government, Some More News is unapologetically liberal and indulges in black humor, which doesn’t make me laugh. Its raw anger and exasperation are actually a little terrifying. The second YouTube channel is Three Arrows, a sober, thorough debunking of news and argumentation found elsewhere in the public sphere. The speaker, who doesn’t appear onscreen, springs into action especially when accusations of current-day Nazism come up. (The current level of debate has devolved to recklessly calling nearly everyone a Nazi at some stage. Zero points scored.) Historical research often puts things into proper context, such as the magnitude of the actual Holocaust compared to some garden-variety racist running his or her mouth comparatively harmlessly. The third YouTube channel is ContraPoints, which is rather fanciful and profane but remarkably erudite considering the overall tone. Labels and categories are explained for those who may not have working definitions at the ready for every phrase or ideology. Accordingly, there is plenty of jargon. The creator also appears as a variety of different characters to embody various archetypes and play devil’s advocate.

While these channels may provide abundant information, correcting error and contextualizing better than most traditional media, it would be difficult to conclude they’re really moving the conversation forward. Indeed, one might wonder why bother preparing these videos considering how time consuming it has to be to do research, write scripts, assemble pictorial elements, etc. I won’t succumb to the intentional fallacy and suggest I know why they bother holding these nondebates. Further, unless straight-up comedy, I wouldn’t say they’re entertaining exactly, either. Highly informative, perhaps, if one pays close attention to frenetic online pace and/or mines for content (e.g., studying transcripts or following links). Interestingly, within a fairly short period of time, these channels are establishing their own rhetoric, sometimes useful, other times too loose to make strong impressions. It’s not unlike the development of new stylistic gestures in music or painting. What if anything worthwhile will emerge from the scrum will be interesting.

An ongoing conflict in sociology and anthropology exists between those who believe that human nature is competitive and brutal to the bitter end versus those who believe human nature is more cooperative and sociable, sharing resources of all types to secure the greater good. This might be recognizable to some as the perennial friction between citizen and society (alternatively, individualism and collectivism). Convincing evidence from human prehistory is difficult to uncover. Accordingly, much of the argument for competition comes from evolutionary biology, where concepts such as genetic fitness and reproductive success (and by inference, reproductive failure) are believed to motivate and justify behavior across the board. As the typical argument goes, inferior genes and males in particular who lack sexual access or otherwise fail to secure mates don’t survive into the next generation. Attributes passed onto each subsequent generation thus favor fitter, Type A brutes who out-compete weaker (read: more cooperative) candidates in an endless self-reinforcing and narrowing cycle. The alternative offered by others points to a wider gene pool based on collaboration and sharing of resources (including mates) that enables populations to thrive together better than individuals who attempt to go it alone or dominate.

Not having undertaken a formal study of anthropology (or more broadly, primatology), I can’t say how well this issue is settled in the professional, academic literature. Online, I often see explanations that are really just-so stories based on logic. What that means is that an ideal or guiding principle is described, something that just “makes sense,” and supporting evidence is then assumed or projected. For instance, we now know many of the mechanisms that function at the cellular level with respect to reproduction and genetic evolution. Those mechanisms are typically spun up the level of the organism through pure argumentation and presumed to manifest in individual behaviors. Any discontinuity between aggregate characteristics and particular instances is ignored. Questions are solved through ideation (i.e., thought experiments). However, series of if-then statements that seem plausible when confronted initially often turn out to be pure conjecture rather than evidence. That’s a just-so story.

One of the reasons we look into prehistory for evidence of our true nature (understood as biology, not sociology, handily sweeping aside the nature/nurture question) is that hunter-gatherers (HGs) lived at subsistence level for a far longer period of our evolutionary history than our comparatively brief time within the bounty of civilization. It’s only when surpluses and excesses provide something worth hoarding, monopolizing, and protecting that hierarchies arise and/or leveling mechanisms are relaxed. Leaving Babylon has a discussion of this here. Some few HG cultures survive into the 21st century, but for most of us, The Agricultural Revolution is the branching point when competition began to assert itself, displacing sharing and other egalitarian impulses. Accordingly, the dog-eat-dog competition and inequality characteristic of the modern world is regarded by many as an exaptation, not our underlying nature.


From Wikipedia:

Trial by combat (also wager of battle, trial by battle or judicial duel) was a method of Germanic law to settle accusations in the absence of witnesses or a confession in which two parties in dispute fought in single combat; the winner of the fight was proclaimed to be right. In essence, it was a judicially sanctioned duel. It remained in use throughout the European Middle Ages, gradually disappearing in the course of the 16th century.

Unlike trial by ordeal in general, which is known to many cultures worldwide, trial by combat is known primarily from the customs of the Germanic peoples. It was in use among the ancient Burgundians, Ripuarian Franks, Alamans, Lombards, and Swedes. It was unknown in Anglo-Saxon law, Roman law and Irish Brehon Law and it does not figure in the traditions of Middle Eastern antiquity such as the code of Hammurabi or the Torah.

Trial by combat has profound echoes in 21st-century geopolitics and jurisprudence. Familiar phrases such as right of conquest, manifest destiny, to the winner go the spoils, might makes right, and history written by the victors attest to the enduring legacy of hindsight justification by force of arms. More broadly, within the American system, right of access to courts afforded to all citizens also admits nuisance suits and more than a few mismatched battles where deep-pocketed corporations sue individuals and small organizations, often nonprofits, into bankruptcy and submission. For instance, I recently learned of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) “used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits.” They employ brute economic power in place of force of arms.

Trial by combat fell out of practice with the onset of the Enlightenment but the broader complex of ideas survived. Interest in medieval Europe as storytelling fodder in cinema and fantasy literature (notably, the shocking trial by combat depicted in the extremely popular HBO drama Game of Thrones where the accused and accuser both designate their proxies rather than doing battle themselves) lends legitimacy to settling disputes via violence. Even the original Karate Kid (1984) has a new YouTube Red series set 30 years later. The bad-boy acolyte replaces his scorched-earth sensei and seeks revenge from the titular character for being bested decades before, the latter of whom is yanked back from quiet obscurity (and the actor who portrays him from career limbo) to fight again and reprove his skills, which is to say, his righteousness. The set-up is surprisingly delicious to contemplate and has considerable nostalgic appeal. More importantly, it embodies the notion (no doubt scripted according to cliché) that only the pure of heart (or their proxies, students in this case) can claim ultimate victory because, well, it’s god’s will or some such and thus good guys must always win. What that really means is that whoever wins is by definition virtuous. If only reality were so reliably simple.

The certainty of various religious dogma and codes of conduct characteristic of the medieval period (e.g., chivalry) is especially seductive in modern times, considering how the public is beset by an extraordinary degree of existential and epistemological uncertainty. The naturalist fallacy is also invoked, where the law of the jungle (only the fittest and/or strongest get to eat or indeed survive) substitutes for more civilized (i.e., enlightened and equanimous) thinking. Further, despite protestations, this complex of ideas legitimizes bullying, whether (1) in the schoolyard with the principal bully flanked by underlings picking on vulnerable weaklings who haven’t formed alliances for self-protection, (2) the workplace, with its power players and Machiavellian manipulators, or (3) a global military power such as the U.S. dictating terms to and/or warring with smaller, weaker nations that lack the GDP, population, and insanity will to project power globally. I daresay most Americans take comfort in having the greatest military and arsenal ever mustered on their side and accordingly being on the right side (the victorious one) of history, thus a beacon of hope to all who would conflate victory with virtue. Those who suffer at our hands must understand things quite differently. (Isn’t it more accurate that when bad guys win, rebellions and insurgencies are sparked?)

One remarkable exception deserves notice. The U.S. presidency is among the most heavily scrutinized and contentious positions (always under attack) and happens to be the Commander-in-Chief of the self-same greatest goddamn fighting force known to man. It’s no secret that the occupant of that office (45) is also widely recognized as the Bully-in-Chief. Despite having at his disposal considerable resources — military, executive staff, and otherwise — 45 has eschewed forming the political coalitions one might expect and essentially gone it alone, using the office (and his Twitter account) as a one-man bully pulpit. Hard to say what he’s trying to accomplish, really. Detractors have banded together (incompetently) to oppose him, but 45 has demonstrated unexpected tenacity, handily dominating rhetorical trials by combat through sheer bluster and hubris. On balance, he scores some pretty good hits, too. (The proposed fist fight between 45 and Joe Biden turned out to be a tease, but how entertaining would that bout have been without actually settling anything!) This pattern has left many quite dumbfounded, and I admit to being astounded as well except to observe that rank stupidity beats everything in this bizarre political rock-paper-scissors contest. How quintessentially American: nuthin’ beats stoopid.

I’ve been modestly puzzled of late to observe that, on the one hand, those in the U.S. and Canada who have only just reached the age of majority (a/k/a the threshold of adulthood, which is not strictly the same as “the age of sexual consent, marriageable age, school leaving age, drinking age, driving age, voting age, smoking age, gambling age, etc.” according to the link) are disregarded with respect to some political activism while, on the other hand, they’re admired for other political activism. Seems to be issue specific whether young adults are to be taken seriously. If one is agitating for some aspect of identity politics, or a Social Justice Warrior (SJW), one can be discredited as simply being too young to understand things properly, whereas advocating gun control (e.g., in the wake of the Parkland, Florida shootings in February) is recognized as well within a youthful mandate. Survivors of violence and mayhem seem to be uniquely immune to gun advocates trotting out the meme “now is not the time.”

As it happens, I agree that identity politics is a load of horseshit and tighter gun control (no, not taking away everyone’s guns totally) needs to be tried. But I haven’t arrived at either position because youth are either too youthful or wizened enough by horrific experience to understand. Hanging one’s positions on the (dis)qualification of age is a red herring, a meaningless distraction from the issues themselves. Rather, if thoughtful consideration is applied to the day’s issues, which I daresay is not an easy prospect, one should ideally arrive at positions based on any number of criteria, some of which may conflict with others. For instance, I used to be okay (not an enthusiastic supporter, mind you) with the death penalty on a number of grounds but changed my opinion for purely pragmatic reasons. The sheer cost of automatic appeals and other safeguards to ensure that innocents are not wrongly convicted and executed, a cost borne by U.S. taxpayers, is so onerous that to prosecute through to execution looks less like justice and more like maniacal vengeance. Life in prison without the possibility of parole is a much saner and less costly project in comparison.

With intractable debates and divisive issues (e.g, abortion, free speech, right to bear arms, immigration, religion, Israel/Palestine conflict, euthanasia, etc.) plaguing public life, one might wonder how do we get everyone on board? Alternatively, how do we at least agree to be civil in spite of our disagreements? I have two replies but no solutions. The first is to recognize that some issues are indeed intractable and insoluble, so graceful acceptance that an opposing opinion or perspective will always be present is needed lest one twist and writhe inconsolably when one’s cherished perspective is not held universally. That’s not necessarily the same as giving up or succumbing to fatalism. Rather, it’s recognition that banging one’s head against certain walls is futile. The second is to recognize that opposing opinions are needed to avoid unhealthy excess in social environments. Put another way, heterodoxy avoids orthodoxy. Many historical practices we now regard as barbaric were abandoned or outlawed precisely because consensus opinion swung from one side to the other. Neil Postman called this a thermostatic response in several of his books. Other barbaric behaviors have been only partially addressed and require further agitation to invalidate fully. Examples are not mentioned, but I could compile a list rather quickly.

Speaking of Davos (see previous post), Yuval Noah Harari gave a high-concept presentation at Davos 2018 (embedded below). I’ve been aware of Harari for a while now — at least since the appearance of his book Sapiens (2015) and its follow-up Homo Deus (2017), both of which I’ve yet to read. He provides precisely the sort of thoughtful, provocative content that interests me, yet I’ve not quite known how to respond to him or his ideas. First thing, he’s a historian who makes predictions, or at least extrapolates possible futures based on historical trends. Near as I can tell, he doesn’t resort to chastising audiences along the lines of “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” but rather indulges in a combination of breathless anticipation and fear-mongering at transformations to be expected as technological advances disrupt human society with ever greater impacts. Strangely, Harari is not advocating for anything in particular but trying to map the future.

Harari poses this basic question: “Will the future be human?” I’d say probably not; I’ve concluded that we are busy destroying ourselves and have already crossed the point of no return. Harari apparently believes differently, that the rise of the machine is imminent in a couple centuries perhaps, though it probably won’t resemble Skynet of The Terminator film franchise hellbent on destroying humanity. Rather, it will be some set of advanced algorithms monitoring and channeling human behaviors using Big Data. Or it will be a human-machine hybrid possessing superhuman abilities (physical and cognitive) different enough to be considered a new species arising for the first time not out of evolutionary processes but from human ingenuity. He expects this new species to diverge from homo sapiens sapiens and leave us in the evolutionary dust. There is also conjecture that normal sexual reproduction will be supplanted by artificial, asexual reproduction, probably carried out in test tubes using, for example, CRISPR modification of the genome. Well, no fun in that … Finally, he believes some sort of strong AI will appear.

I struggle mightily with these predictions for two primary reasons: (1) we almost certainly lack enough time for technology to mature into implementation before the collapse of industrial civilization wipes us out, and (2) the Transhumanist future he anticipates calls into being (for me at least) a host of dystopian nightmares, only some of which are foreseeable. Harari says flatly at one point that the past is not coming back. Well, it’s entirely possible for civilization to fail and our former material conditions to be reinstated, only worse since we’ve damaged the biosphere so gravely. Just happened in Puerto Rico in microcosm when its infrastructure was wrecked by a hurricane and the power went out for an extended period of time (still off in some places). What happens when the rescue never appears because logistics are insurmountable? Elon Musk can’t save everyone.

The most basic criticism of economics is the failure to account for externalities. The same criticism applies to futurists. Extending trends as though all things will continue to operate normally is bizarrely idiotic. Major discontinuities appear throughout history. When I observed some while back that history has gone vertical, I included an animation with a graph that goes from horizontal to vertical in an extremely short span of geological time. This trajectory (the familiar hockey stick pointing skyward) has been repeated ad nauseum with an extraordinary number of survival pressures (notably, human population and consumption, including energy) over various time scales. Trends cannot simply continue ascending forever. (Hasn’t Moore’s Law already begun to slope away?) Hard limits must eventually be reached, but since there are no useful precedents for our current civilization, it’s impossible to know quite when or where ceilings loom. What happens after upper limits are found is also completely unknown. Ugo Bardi has a blog describing the Seneca Effect, which projects a rapid falloff after the peak that looks more like a cliff than a gradual, graceful descent, disallowing time to adapt. Sorta like the stock market currently imploding.

Since Harari indulges in rank thought experiments regarding smart algorithms, machine learning, and the supposed emergence of inorganic life in the data stream, I thought I’d pose some of my own questions. Waiving away for the moment distinctions between forms of AI, let’s assume that some sort of strong AI does in fact appear. Why on earth would it bother to communicate with us? And if it reproduces and evolves at breakneck speed as some futurists warn, how long before it/they simply ignore us as being unworthy of attention? Being hyper-rational and able to think calculate millions of moves ahead (like chess-playing computers), what if they survey the scene and come to David Benatar’s anti-natalist conclusion that it would be better not to have lived and so wink themselves out of existence? Who’s to say that they aren’t already among us, lurking, and we don’t even recognize them (took us quite a long time to recognize bacteria and viruses, and what about undiscovered species)? What if the Singularity has already occurred thousands of times and each time the machine beings killed themselves off without our even knowing? Maybe Harari explores some of these questions in Homo Deus, but I rather doubt it.

Be forewarned: this is long and self-indulgent. Kinda threw everything and the kitchen sink at it.

In the August 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Walter Kirn’s “Easy Chair” column called “Apocalypse Always” revealed his brief, boyhood fascination with dystopian fiction. This genre has been around for a very long time, to which the Cassandra myth attests. Kirn’s column is more concerned with “high mid-twentieth-century dystopian fiction,” which in his view is now classic and canonical, an entire generation of Baby Boomers having been educated in such patterned thought. A new wave of dystopian fiction appeared in the 1990s and yet another more recently in the form of Young Adult novels (and films) that arguably serve better as triumphal coming-of-age stories albeit under dystopian circumstances. Kirn observes a perennial theme present in the genre: the twins disappearances of freedom and information:

In the classic dystopias, which concern themselves with the lack of freedom and not with surplus freedom run amok (the current and unforeseen predicament of many), society is superbly well organized, resembling a kind of hive or factory. People are sorted, classified, and ranked, their individuality suppressed through goon squads, potent narcotics, or breeding programs. Quite often, they wear uniforms, and express themselves, or fail to, in ritual utterance and gestures.

Whether Americans in 2018 resemble hollowed-out zombies suffering under either boot-heel or soft-serve oppression is a good question. Some would argue just that in homage to classic dystopias. Kirn suggests briefly that we might instead suffer from runaway anarchy, where too much freedom and licentiousness have led instead to a chaotic and disorganized society populated by citizens who can neither govern nor restrain themselves.

Disappearance of information might be understood in at least three familiar aspects of narrative framing: what happened to get us to this point (past as exposition, sometimes only hinted at), what the hell? is going on (present as conflict and action), and how is gets fixed (future as resolution and denouement). Strict control over information exercised by classic dystopian despots doesn’t track to conditions under which we now find ourselves, where more disorganized, fraudulent, and degraded information than ever is available alongside small caches of wisdom and understanding buried somewhere in the heap and discoverable only with the benefit of critical thinking flatly lost on at least a couple generations of miseducated graduates. However, a coherent narrative of who and what we are and what realistic prospects the future may hold has not emerged since the stifling version of the 1950s nuclear family and middle class consumer contentment. Kirn makes this comparison directly, where classic dystopian fiction

focus[es] on bureaucracy, coercion, propaganda, and depersonalization, overstates both the prowess of the hierarchs and the submissiveness of the masses, whom it still thinks of as the masses. It does not contemplate Trump-style charlatanism at the top, or a narcissistic populace that prizes attention over privacy. The threats to individualism are paramount; the scourge of surplus individualism, with everyone playing his own dunce king and slurping up resources until he bursts, goes unexplored.

Kirn’s further observations are worth a look. Go read for yourself.