Archive for the ‘Narrative’ Category

Caveat: Rather uncharacteristically long for me. Kudos if you have the patience for all of this.

Caught the first season of HBO’s series Westworld on DVD. I have a boyhood memory of the original film (1973) with Yul Brynner and a dim memory of its sequel Futureworld (1976). The sheer charisma of Yul Brynner in the role of the gunslinger casts a long shadow over the new production, not that most of today’s audiences have seen the original. No doubt, 45 years of technological development in film production lends the new version some distinct advantages. Visual effects are quite stunning and Utah landscapes have never been used more appealingly in terms of cinematography. Moreover, storytelling styles have changed, though it’s difficult to argue convincingly that they’re necessarily better now than then. Competing styles only appear dated. For instance, the new series has immensely more time to develop its themes; but the ancient parables of hubris and loss of control over our own creations run amok (e.g., Shelley’s Frankenstein, or more contemporaneously, the surprisingly good new movie Upgrade) have compact, appealing narrative arcs quite different from constant teasing and foreshadowing of plot developments while actual plotting proceeds glacially. Viewers wait an awful lot longer in the HBO series for resolution of tensions and emotional payoffs, by which time investment in the story lines has been dispelled. There is also no terrifying crescendo of violence and chaos demanding rescue or resolution. HBO’s Westworld often simply plods on. To wit, a not insignificant portion of the story (um, side story) is devoted to boardroom politics (yawn) regarding who actually controls the Westworld theme park. Plot twists and reveals, while mildly interesting (typically guessed by today’s cynical audiences), do not tie the narrative together successfully.

Still, Westworld provokes considerable interest from me due to my fascination with human consciousness. The initial episode builds out the fictional future world with characters speaking exposition clearly owing its inspiration to Julian Jayne’s book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (another reference audiences are quite unlikely to know or recognize). I’ve had the Julian Jaynes Society’s website bookmarked for years and read the book some while back; never imagined it would be captured in modern fiction. Jaynes’ thesis (if I may be so bold as to summarize radically) is that modern consciousness coalesced around the collapse of multiple voices in the head — ideas, impulses, choices, decisions — into a single stream of consciousness perhaps better understood (probably not) as the narrative self. (Aside: the multiple voices of antiquity correspond to polytheism, whereas the modern singular voice corresponds to monotheism.) Thus, modern human consciousness arose over several millennia as the bicameral mind (the divided brain having two camera, chambers, or halves) functionally collapsed. The underlying story of the new Westworld is the emergence of machine consciousness, a/k/a strong AI, a/k/a The Singularity, while the old Westworld was about a mere software glitch. Exploration of machine consciousness modeling (e.g., improvisation builds on memory to create awareness) as a proxy for better understanding human consciousness might not be the purpose of the show, but it’s clearly implied. And although conjectural, the speed of emergence of human consciousness contrasts sharply with the abrupt ON switch regarding theorized machine consciousness. Westworld treats them as roughly equivalent, though in fairness, 35 years or so in Westworld is in fact abrupt compared to several millennia. (Indeed, the story asserts that machine consciousness sparked alive repeatedly (which I suggested here) over those 35 years but was dialed back repeatedly. Never mind all the unexplored implications.) Additionally, the fashion in which Westworld uses the term bicameral ranges from sloppy to meaningless, like the infamous technobabble of Star Trek.

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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.

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned how killing from a distance is one way among many that humans differentiate from other animals. The practical advantage of weaponry that distances one combatant from another should be obvious. Spears and swords extend one’s reach yet keep fighting hand-to-hand. Projectiles (bullets, arrows, catapults, artillery, etc.) allow killing from increasingly long distances, with weapons launched into low orbit before raining down ruin being the far extreme. The latest technology is drones (and drone swarms), which remove those who wield them from danger except perhaps psychological torment accruing gradually on remote operators. Humans are unique among animals for having devised such clever ways of destroying each other, and in the process, themselves.

I finally got around to seeing the film Black Panther. Beyond the parade of clichés and mostly forgettable punchfest action (interchangeable with any other Marvel film), one particular remark stuck with me. When the warrior general of fictional Wakanda went into battle, a female as it happens, she dismissed the use of guns as “primitive.” Much is made of Wakanda’s advanced technology, some of it frankly indistinguishable from magic (e.g., the panther elixir). Wakanda’s possession of weaponry not shared with the rest of the world (e.g., invisible planes) is the MacGuffin the villain seeks to control so as exact revenge on the world and rule over it. Yet the film resorts predictably to punching and acrobatics as the principal mode of combat. Some of that strategic nonsense is attributable to visual storytelling found in both comic books and cinema. Bullets fly too fast to be seen and tracking airborne bombs never really works, either. Plus, a punch thrown by a villain or superhero arguably has some individual character to it, at least until one recognizes that punching leaves no lasting effect on anyone.

As it happens, a similar remark about “primitive” weapons (a blaster) was spat out by Obi-Wan Kenobi in one of the Star Wars prequels (dunno which one). For all the amazing technology at the disposal of those characters long ago in a galaxy far, far away, it’s curious that the weapon of choice for a Jedi knight is a light saber. Again, up close and personal (color coded, even), including actual peril, as opposed to, say, an infinity gauntlet capable of dispatching half a universe with a finger snap. Infinite power clearly drains the stakes out of conflict. Credit goes to George Lucas for recognizing the awesome visual storytelling the light saber offers. He also made blaster shots — the equivalent of flying bullets — visible to the viewer. Laser beams and other lighted projectiles had been done in cinema before Star Wars but never so well.

 

A paradoxical strength/weakness of reason is its inherent disposition toward self-refutation. It’s a bold move when undertaken with genuine interest in getting things right. Typically, as evidence piles up, consensus forms that’s tantamount to proof unless some startling new counter-evidence appears. Of course, intransigent deniers exist and convincing refutations do appear periodically, but accounts of two hotly contested topics (from among many) — evolution and climate change — are well established notwithstanding counterclaims completely disproportionate in their ferocity to the evidence. For rationalists, whatever doubts remain must be addressed and accommodated even if disproof is highly unlikely.

This becomes troublesome almost immediately. So much new information is produced in the modern world that, because I am duty-bound to consider it, my head spins. I simply can’t deal with it all. Inevitably, when I think I’ve put a topic to rest and conclude I don’t have to think too much more about it, some argument-du-jour hits the shit pile and I am forced to stop and reconsider. It’s less disorienting when facts are clear, but when interpretive, I find my head all too easily spun by the latest, greatest claims of some charming, articulate speaker able to cobble together evidence lying outside of my expertise.

Take for instance Steven Pinker. He speaks in an authoritative style and has academic credentials that dispose me to trust his work. His new book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). Still, Pinker is an optimist, whereas I’m a doomer. Even though I subscribe to Enlightenment values (for better or worse, my mind is bent that way), I can’t escape a mountain of evidence that we’ve made such a mess of things that reason, science, humanism, and progress are hardly panaceas capable of saving us from ourselves. Yet Pinker argues that we’ve never had it so good and the future looks even brighter. I won’t take apart Pinker’s arguments; it’s already been done by Jeremy Lent, who concludes that Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. Lent has the expertise, data, and graphs to demonstrate it. Calling Pinker a charlatan would be unfair, but his appreciation of the state of the world stands in high contrast with mine. Who ya gonna believe?

Books and articles like Pinker’s appear all the time, and in their aftermath, so, too, do takedowns. That’s the marketplace of ideas battling it out, which is ideally meant to sharpen thinking, but with the current epistemological crises under way (I’ve blogged about it for years), the actual result is dividing people into factions, destabilizing established institutions, and causing no small amount of bewilderment in the public as to what and whom to believe. Some participants in the exchange of ideas take a sober, evidential approach; others lower themselves to snark and revel in character assassination without bothering to make reasoned arguments. The latter are often called a hit pieces (a special province of the legacy media, it seems), since hefty swipes and straw-man arguments tend to be commonplace. I’m a sucker for the former style but have to admit that the latter can also hit its mark. However, both tire me to the point of wanting to bury my head.

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If the previous blog in this series was about how some ideas and beliefs become lodged or stuck in place (fixity bias), this one is about how other ideas are notoriously mutable (flexibility bias), especially the latest, loudest thing to turn one’s head and divert attention. What makes any particular idea (or is it the person?) prone to one bias or another (see this list) is mysterious to me, but my suspicion is that a character disposition toward openness and adherence to authoritative evidence figure prominently in the case of shifting opinion. In fact, this is one of the primary problems with reason: if evidence can be deployed in favor of an idea, those who consider themselves “reasonable” and thus rely on accumulation of evidence and argumentation to sharpen their thinking are vulnerable to the latest “finding” or study demonstrating sumpinorutha. It’s the intellectual’s version of “New! Improved!”

Sam Harris exploits rationalism to argue against the existence of free will, saying that if sufficient evidence can be brought to bear, a disciplined thinker is compelled to subscribe to the conclusions of reasoned argument. Choice and personal agency (free will) are removed. I find that an odd way to frame the issue. Limitless examples of lack of choice are nonequivalent to the destruction of free will. For example, one can’t decide not to believe in gravity and fly up into the air more than a few inches. One can’t decide that time is an illusion (as theoretical physicists now instruct) and decide not to age. One can’t decide that pooping is too disgusting and just hold it all in (as some children attempt). Counter-evidence doesn’t even need to be argued because almost no one pretends to believe such nonsense. (Twisting one’s mind around to believe in the nonexistence of time, free will, or the self seems to be the special province of hyper-analytical thinkers.) Yet other types of belief/denial — many of them conspiracy theories — are indeed choices: religion, flat Earth, evolution, the Holocaust, the moon landings, 9/11 truth, who really killed JFK, etc. Lots of evidence has been mustered on different sides (multiple facets, actually) of each of these issues, and while rationalists may be compelled by a preponderance of evidence in favor of one view, others are free to fly in the face of that evidence for reasons of their own or adopt by default the dominant narrative and not worry or bother so much.

The public struggles in its grasp of truthful information, as reported in a Pew Research Center study called “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News.” Here’s the snapshot:

The main portion of the study, which measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.

Indiscriminate adoption by many Americans of a faulty viewpoint, or more pointedly, the propaganda and “fake news” on offer throughout the information environment, carries the implication that disciplined thinkers are less confused about truth or facts, taking instead a rational approach as the basis for belief. However, I suggest that reason suffers its own frailties not easily recognized or acknowledged. In short, we’re all confused, though perhaps not hopelessly so. For several years now, I’ve sensed the outline of a much larger epistemological crisis where quintessential Enlightenment values have come under open attack. The irony is that the wicked stepchild of science and reason — runaway technology —  is at least partially responsible for this epochal conflict. It’s too big an idea to grok fully or describe in a paragraph or two, so I’ll simply point to it an move on.

My own vulnerability to flexibility bias manifests specifically in response to appeals to authority. Although well educated, a lifelong autodidact, and an independent thinker, I’m careful not to succumb to the hubris of believing I’ve got it all figgered. Indeed, it’s often said that as one gains expertise and experience in the world, the certainty of youth yields to caution precisely because the mountain of knowledge and understanding one lacks looms larger even as one accumulates wisdom. Bodies of thought become multifaceted and all arguments must be entertained. When an expert, researcher, or academic proposes something outside my wheelhouse, I’m a sitting duck: I latch onto the latest, greatest utterance as the best truth yet available. I don’t fall for it nearly so readily with journalists, but I do recognize that some put in the effort and gain specialized knowledge and context well outside the bounds of normal life, such as war reporters. Various perverse incentives deeply embedded in the institutional model of journalism, especially those related to funding, make it nearly impossible to maintain one’s integrity without becoming a pariah, so only a handful have kept my attention. John Pilger, Chris Hedges, and Matt Taibbe figure prominently.

By way of example, one of the topics that has been of supreme interest to me, though its historical remove renders it rather toothless now, is the cataclysm(s) that occurred at the conclusion of the last ice age roughly 12,000 years ago. At least three hypotheses (of which I’m aware) have been proposed to explain why glacial ice disappeared suddenly over the course of a few weeks, unleashing the Biblical Flood: Earth crust displacement, asteroidal impact(s), and coronal mass ejection(s). Like most hypotheses, evidence is both physical and conjectural, but a sizable body of evidence and argumentation for each is available. As I became familiar with each, my head turned and I became a believer, sorta. Rather than “last one is the rotten egg,” however, the latest, most recent one typically displaces the previous one. No doubt another hypothesis will appear to turn my head and disorient me further. With some topics, especially politics, new information piling on top of old is truly dizzying. And as I’ve written about many topics, I simply lack the expertise to referee competing claims, so whatever beliefs I eventually adopt are permanently provisional.

Finally, my vulnerability to authoritative appeal also reacts to the calm, unflappable tones and complexity of construction of speakers such as Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Charles Murray. Their manner of speaking is sometimes described pejoratively as “academese,” though only Pinker has a teaching position. Murray in particular relies heavily on psychometrics, which may not be outright lying with statistics but allows him to rationalize (literally) extraordinarily taboo subjects. In contrast, it’s easy to disregard pundits and press agents foaming and fulminating over their pet narratives. Yet I also recognize that with academese, I’m being soothed more by style than by substance, a triumph of form over function. In truth, this communication style is an appeal to emotion masquerading as an appeal to authority. I still prefer it, just as I prefer a steady, explanatory style of journalism over the snarky, reinterpretive style of disquisition practiced by many popular media figures. What communicates most effectively to me and (ironically) pushes my emotional buttons also weakens my ability to discriminate and think properly.

Yet still more to come in part 5.

Language acquisition in early childhood is aided by heavy doses of repetition and the memorable structure of nursery rhymes, songs, and stories that are repeated ad nauseum to eager children. Please, again! Again, again … Early in life, everything is novel, so repetition and fixity are positive attributes rather than causes for boredom. The music of one’s adolescence is also the subject of endless repetition, typically through recordings (radio and Internet play, mp3s played over headphones or earbuds, dances and dance clubs, etc.). Indeed, most of us have mental archives of songs heard over and over to the point that the standard version becomes canonical: that’s just the way the song goes. When someone covers a Beatles song, it’s recognizably the same song, yet it’s not the same and may even sound wrong somehow. (Is there any acceptable version of Love Shack besides that of the B52’s?) Variations of familiar folk tales and folk songs, or different phrasing in The Lord’s Prayer, imprinted in memory through sheer repetition, also possess discomfiting differences, sometimes being offensive enough to cause real conflict. (Not your Abrahamic deity, mine!)

Performing musicians traverse warhorses many times in rehearsal and public performance so that, after an undetermined point, how one performs a piece just becomes how it goes, admitting few alternatives. Casual joke-tellers may improvise over an outline, but as I understand it, the pros hone and craft material over time until very little is left to chance. Anyone who has listened to old comedy recordings of Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and others has probably learned the jokes (and timing and intonation) by heart — again through repetition. It’s strangely comforting to be able to go back to the very same performance again and again. Personally, I have a rather large catalogue of classical music recordings in my head. I continue to seek out new renditions, but often the first version I learned becomes the default version, the way something goes. Dislodging that version from its definitive status is nearly impossible, especially when it’s the very first recording of a work (like a Beatles song). This is also why live performance often fails in comparison with the studio recording.

So it goes with a wide variety of phenomenon: what is first established as how something goes easily becomes canonical, dogmatic, and unquestioned. For instance, the origin of the universe in the big bang is one story of creation to which many still hold, while various religious creation myths hold sway with others. News that the big bang has been dislodged from its privileged position goes over just about as well as dismissing someone’s religion. Talking someone out of a fixed belief is hardly worth the effort because some portion of one’s identity is anchored to such beliefs. Thus, to question a cherished belief is to impeach a person’s very self.

Political correctness is the doctrine that certain ideas and positions have been worked out effectively and need (or allow) no further consideration. Just subscribe and get with the program. Don’t bother doing the mental work or examining the issue oneself; things have already been decided. In science, steady evidenciary work to break down a fixed understanding is often thankless, or thanks arrives posthumously. This is the main takeaway of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: paradigms are changed as much through attrition as through rational inquiry and accumulation of evidence.

One of the unanticipated effects of the Information and Communications Age is the tsunami of information to which people have ready access. Shaping that information into a cultural narrative (not unlike a creation myth) is either passive (one accepts the frequently shifting dominant paradigm without compunction) or active (one investigates for oneself as an attribute of the examined life, which with wizened folks never really arrives at a destination, since it’s the journey that’s the point). What’s a principled rationalist to do in the face of a surfeit of alternatives available for or even demanding consideration? Indeed, with so many self-appointed authorities vying for control over cultural narratives like the editing wars on Wikipedia, how can one avoid the dizzying disorientation of gaslighting and mendacity so characteristic of the modern information environment?

Still more to come in part 4.

Oddly, there is no really good antonym for perfectionism. Suggestions include sloppiness, carelessness, and disregard. I’ve settled on approximation, which carries far less moral weight. I raise the contrast between perfectionism and approximation because a recent study published in Psychological Bulletin entitled “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016″ makes an interesting observation. Here’s the abstract:

From the 1980s onward, neoliberal governance in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom has emphasized competitive individualism and people have seemingly responded, in kind, by agitating to perfect themselves and their lifestyles. In this study, the authors examine whether cultural changes have coincided with an increase in multidimensional perfectionism in college students over the last 27 years. Their analyses are based on 164 samples and 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students, who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (Hewitt & Flett, 1991) between 1989 and 2016 (70.92% female, Mage = 20.66). Cross-temporal meta-analysis revealed that levels of self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism have linearly increased. These trends remained when controlling for gender and between-country differences in perfectionism scores. Overall, in order of magnitude of the observed increase, the findings indicate that recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves.

The notion of perfection, perfectness, perfectibility, etc. has a long tortured history in philosophy, religion, ethics, and other domains I won’t even begin to unpack. From the perspective of the above study, let’s just say that the upswing in perfectionism is about striving to achieve success, however one assesses it (education, career, relationships, lifestyle, ethics, athletics, aesthetics, etc.). The study narrows its subject group to college students (at the outset of adult life) between 1989 and 2016 and characterizes the social milieu as neoliberal, hyper-competitive, meritocratic, and pressured to succeed in a dog-eat-dog environment. How far back into childhood results of the study (agitation) extend is a good question. If the trope about parents obsessing and competing over preschool admission is accurate (may be just a NYC thang), then it goes all the way back to toddlers. So much for (lost) innocence purchased and perpetuated through late 20th- and early 21st-century affluence. I suspect college students are responding to awareness of two novel circumstances: (1) likelihood they will never achieve levels of success comparable to their own parents, especially financial (a major reversal of historical trends) and (2) recognition that to best enjoy the fruits of life, a quiet, reflective, anonymous, ethical, average life is now quite insufficient. Regarding the second of these, we are inundated by media showing rich celebrities (no longer just glamorous actors/entertainers) balling out of control, and onlookers are enjoined to “keep up.” The putative model is out there, unattainable for most but often awarded by randomness, undercutting the whole enterprise of trying to achieve perfection.

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I watched a documentary on Netflix called Jim & Andy (2017) that provides a glimpse behind the scenes of the making of Man on the Moon (1999) where Jim Carrey portrays Andy Kaufman. It’s a familiar story of art imitating life (or is it life imitating art?) as Carrey goes method and essentially channels Kaufman and Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton. A whole gaggle of actors played earlier incarnations of themselves in Man on the Moon and appeared as themselves (without artifice) in Jim & Andy, adding another weird dimension to the goings on. Actors losing themselves in roles and undermining their sense of self is hardly novel. Regular people lose themselves in their jobs, hobbies, media hype, glare of celebrity, etc. all the time. From an only slightly broader perspective, we’re all merely actors playing roles, shifting subtly or dramatically based on context. Shakespeare observed it centuries ago. However, the documentary points to a deeper sense of unreality precisely because Kaufman’s principal shtick was to push discomfiting jokes/performances beyond the breaking point, never dropping the act to let his audience in on the joke or provide closure. It’s a manifestation of what I call the Disorientation Protocol.

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As time wears on and I add years to this mostly ignored blog, I keep running across ideas expressed herein, sometimes long ago, recapitulated in remarks and comments elsewhere. Absolutely disparate people can develop the same ideas independently, so I’m not claiming that my ideas are stolen. Maybe I’m merely in touch with the Zeitgeist and express it here only then to see or hear it again someplace else. I can’t judge objectively.

The latest coincidence is the growing dread with which I wake up every day, wondering what fresh new hell awaits with the morning news. The times in which we live are both an extension of our received culture and yet unprecedented in their novelty. Not only are there many more people in existence than 100 years ago and thus radical opinions and events occurring with extraordinary frequency, the speed of transmission is also faster than in the past. Indeed, the rush to publication has many news organs reporting before any solid information is available. The first instance of blanket crisis coverage I remember was the Challenger Disaster in 1986. It’s unknown to me how quickly news of various U.S. political assassinations in the 1960s spread, but I suspect reporting took more time than today and imparted to those events gravity and composure. Today is more like a renewed Wild West where anything goes, which has been the preferred characterization of the Internet since its creation. We’ll see if the recent vote to remove Net Neutrality has the effect of restraining things. I suspect that particular move is more about a money grab (selling premium open access vs. basic limited access) than thought control, but I can only guess as to true motivations.

I happened to be traveling when the news broke of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. Happily, what news I got was delayed until actual news-gathering had already sorted basic fact from confabulation. Paradoxically, after the first wave of “what the hell just happened?” there formed a second wave of “here’s what happened,” and later a third wave of “what the hell really happened?” appeared as some rather creative interpretations were offered up for consideration. That third wave is by now quite familiar to everyone as the conspiracy wave, and surfing it feels inevitable because the second wave is often so starkly unbelievable. Various websites and shows such as snopes.com, metabunk.org, MythBusters, and Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (probably others, too) presume to settle debates. While I’m inclined to believe scientific and documentary evidence, mere argument often fails to convince me, which is troubling, to say the least.

Fending off all the mis- and disinformation, or separating signal from noise, is a full-time job if one is willing to undertake it. That used to be the mandate of the journalistic news media, at least in principle. Lots of failures on that account stack up throughout history. However, since we’re in the midst of a cultural phase dominated by competing claims to authority and the public’s retreat into ideation, the substitute worlds of extended and virtual reality become attractive alternatives to the fresh new hell we now face every morning. Tune in and check in might be what we think we’re doing, but more accurately, we tune out and check out of responsible engagement with the real world. That’s the domain of incessantly chipper morning TV shows. Moreover, we like to believe in the mythical stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, such as, for example, how privacy doesn’t matter, or that the U.S. is a free, democratic, liberal beacon of hope, or that economic value inheres in made-up currencies. It’s a battle for your attention and subscription in the marketplace of ideas. Caveat emptor.

Reading further into Anthony Giddens’ book The Consequences of Modernity, I got a fuller (though still incomplete) sense of what is meant by his terms disembedding mechanisms, expert systems, and symbolic tokens, all of which disrupt time and space as formerly understood in traditional societies that enjoyed the benefit of centuries of continuity. I’ve been aware of analyses regarding, for instance, the sociology of money and the widespread effects of the introduction and adoption of mechanical clocks and timepieces. While most understand these developments superficially as unallayed progress, Giddens argues that they do in fact reorder our experience in the world away from an organic, immediate orientation toward an intellectualized adherence to distant, abstract, self-reinforcing (reflexive) mechanisms.

But those matters are not really what this blog post is about. Rather, this passage sparked my interest:

… when the claims of reason replaced those of tradition, they appeared to offer a sense of certitude greater than that provided by preexisting dogma. But this idea only appears persuasive so long as we do not see that the reflexivity of modernity actually subverts reason, at any rate where reason is understood as the gaining of certain knowledge … We are abroad in a world which is thoroughly constituted through reflexively applied knowledge, but where at the same time we can never be sure that any given element of that knowledge will not be revised. [p. 39]

Put another way, science and reason are axiomatically open to examination, challenge, and revision and often undergo disruptive change. That’s what is meant by Karl Popper’s phrase “all science rests upon shifting sand” and informs the central thesis of Thomas Kuhn’s well-known book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s not the narrow details that shift so much (hard sciences lead pretty reliably to applied engineering) as the overarching narrative, e.g., the story of the Earth, the cosmos, and ourselves as revealed through scientific inquiry and close examination. Historically, the absolute certainty of the medieval church, while not especially accurate in either details or narrative, yielded considerable authority to post-Enlightenment science and reason, which themselves continue to shift periodically.

Some of those paradigm shifts are so boggling and beyond the ken of the average thinker (including many college-educated folks) that our epistemology is now in crisis. Even the hard facts — like the age and shape of the Earth or its orbital relationship to other solar bodies — are hotly contested by some and blithely misunderstood by others. One doesn’t have to get bogged down in the vagaries of relativity, nuclear power and weapons, or quantum theory to lose the thread of what it means to live in the 21st century. Softer sciences such as psychology, anthropology, economics, and even history now deliver new discoveries and (re-)interpretations of facts so rapidly, like the dizzying pace of technological change, that philosophical systems are unmoored and struggling for legitimacy. For instance, earlier this year, a human fossil was found in Morocco that upended our previous knowledge of human evolution (redating the first appearance of biologically modern humans about 100,000 years earlier). More popularly, dieticians still disagree on what sorts of foods are healthy for most of us (though we can probably all agree that excess sugar is bad). Other recent developments include the misguided insistence among some neurobiologists and theorists that consciousness, free will, and the self do not exist (I’ll have a new post regarding that topic as time allows) and outright attacks on religion not just for being in error but for being the source of evil.

I have a hard time imagining other developments in 21st-century intellectual thought that would shake the foundations of our cosmology any more furiously than what we’re now experiencing. Even the dawning realization that we’ve essentially killed ourselves (with delayed effect) by gradually though consistently laying waste to our own habitat is more of an “oops” than the mind-blowing moment of waking up from The Matrix to discover the unreality of everything once believed. Of course, for fervent believers especially, the true facts (best as we can know them, since knowledge is forever provisional) are largely irrelevant in light of desire (what one wants to believe), and that’s true for people on both sides of the schism between church and science/reason.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So it’s probably wrong to introduce a false dualism, though it has plenty of historical precedent. I’ll suggest instead that there are more facets and worldviews at play in the world that the two that have been warring in the West for the last 600 years.