Archive for the ‘Technophilia’ Category

An old Star Trek episode called “A Taste for Armageddon” depicts Capt. Kirk and crew confronting a planetary culture that has adopted purely administrative warfare with a nearby planet, where computer simulations determine outcomes of battles and citizens/inhabitants are notified to report for their destruction in disintegration chambers to comply with those outcomes. Narrative resolution is tidied up within the roughly 1-hour span of the episode, of course, but it was and is nonetheless a thought-provoking scenario. The episode, now 50 years old, prophesies a hyper-rational approach to conflict. (I was 4 years old at the time it aired on broadcast television, and I don’t recall having seen it since. Goes to show how influential high-concept storytelling can be even on someone quite young.) The episode came to mind as I happened across video showing how robot soldiers are being developed to supplement and eventually replace human combatants. See, for example, this:

The robot in the video above is not overtly militarized, but there is no doubt that it will could be. Why the robot takes bipedal, humanoid form with an awkwardly high center of gravity is unclear to me beyond our obvious self-infatuation. Additional videos with two-wheeled, quadriped, and even insect-like multilegged designs having much improved movement and flexibility can be found with a simple search. Any of them can be transformed into ground-based killing machines, as suggested more manifestly in the video below highlighting various walking, rolling, flying, floating, and swimming machines developed to do our dirty work:

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This past Thursday was an occasion of protest for many immigrant laborers who did not show up to work. Presumably, this action was in response to recent executive attacks on immigrants and hoped to demonstrate how businesses would suffer without immigrant labor doing jobs Americans frequently do not want. Tensions between the ownership and laboring classes have a long, tawdry history I cannot begin to summarize. As with other contextual failures, I daresay the general public believes incorrectly that such conflicts date from the 19th century when formal sociopolitical theories like Marxism were published, which intersect heavily with labor economics. An only slightly better understanding is that the labor movement commenced in the United Kingdom some fifty years after the Industrial Revolution began, such as with the Luddites. I pause to remind that the most basic, enduring, and abhorrent labor relationship, extending back millennia, is slavery, which ended in the U.S. only 152 years ago but continues even today in slightly revised forms around the globe.

Thursday’s work stoppage was a faint echo of general strikes and unionism from the middle of the 20th century. Gains in wages and benefits, working conditions, and negotiating position transferred some power from owners to laborers during that period, but today, laborers must sense they are back on their heels, defending conditions fought for by their grandparents but ultimately losing considerable ground. Of course, I’m sympathetic to labor, considering I’m not in the ownership class. (It’s all about perspective.) I must also admit, however, to once quitting a job after only one day that was simply too, well, laborious. I had that option at the time, though it ultimately led nearly to bankruptcy for me — a life lesson that continues to inform my attitudes. As I survey the scene today, however, I suspect many laborers — immigrants and native-born Americans alike — have the unenviable choice of accepting difficult, strenuous labor for low pay or being unemployed. Gradual reduction of demand for labor has two main causes: globalization and automation.

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I discovered “The Joe Rogan Experience” on YouTube recently and have been sampling from among the nearly 900 pod- or webcasts posted there. I’m hooked. Rogan is an impressive fellow. He clearly enjoys the life of the mind but, unlike many who are absorbed solely in ideas, has not ignored the life of the body. Over time, he’s also developed expertise in multiple endeavors and can participate knowledgeably in discussion on many topics. Webcasts are basically long, free-form, one-on-one conversations. This lack of structure gives the webcast ample time to explore topics in depth or simply meander. Guests are accomplished or distinguished in some way and usually have fame and wealth to match, which often affects content (i.e., Fitzgerald’s observation: “The rich are different than you and me”). One notable bar to entry is having a strong media presence.

Among the recurring themes, Rogan trots out his techno optimism, which is only a step short of techno utopianism. His optimism is based on two interrelated developments in recent history: widespread diffusion of information over networks and rapid advances in medical devices that can be expected to accelerate, to enhance human capabilities, and soon to transform us into supermen, bypassing evolutionary biology. He extols these views somewhat regularly to his guests, but alas, none of the guests I’ve watched seem to be able to fathom the ideas satisfactorily enough to take up the discussion. (The same is true of Rogan’s assertion that money is just information, which is reductive and inaccurate.) They comment or joke briefly and move onto something more comfortable or accessible. Although I don’t share Rogan’s optimism, I would totally engage in discussion of his flirtation with Transhumanism (a term he doesn’t use). That’s why I’m blogging here about Rogan, in addition to my lacking enough conventional distinction and fame to score an invite to be a guest on his webcast. Plus, he openly disdains bloggers, many of whom moderate comments (I don’t) or otherwise channel discussion to control content. Oh, well.

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Once in a while, a comment sticks with me and requires additional response, typically in the form of a new post. This is one of those comments. I wasn’t glib in my initial reply, but I thought it was inadequate. When looking for something more specific about Neil Postman, I found Janet Sternberg’s presentation called Neil Postman’s Advice on How to Live the Rest of Your Life (link to PDF). The 22 recommendations that form Postman’s final lecture given to his students read like aphorisms and the supporting paragraphs are largely comical, but they nonetheless suggest ways of coping with the post-truth world. Postman developed this list before Stephen Colbert had coined the term truthiness. I am listing only the recommendations and withholding additional comment, though there is plenty to reinforce or dispute. See what you think.

  1. Do not go to live in California.
  2. Do not watch TV news shows or read any tabloid newspapers.
  3. Do not read any books by people who think of themselves as “futurists,”
    such as Alvin Toffler.
  4. Do not become a jogger. If you are one, stop immediately.
  5. If you are married, stay married.
  6. If you are a man, get married as soon as possible. If you are a woman,
    you need not be in a hurry.
  7. Establish as many regular routines as possible.
  8. Avoid multiple and simultaneous changes in your personal life.
  9. Remember: It is more likely than not that as you get older you will get
    dumber.
  10. Keep your opinions to a minimum.
  11. Carefully limit the information input you will allow.
  12. Seek significance in your work, friends, and family, where potency and
    output are still possible.
  13. Read’s Law: Do not trust any group larger than a squad, that is, about
    a dozen.
  14. With exceptions to be noted further ahead, avoid whenever possible
    reading anything written after 1900.
  15. Confine yourself, wherever possible, to music written prior to 1850.
  16. Weingartner’s Law: 95% of everything is nonsense.
  17. Truman’s Law: Under no circumstances ever vote for a Republican.
  18. Take religion more seriously than you have.
  19. Divest yourself of your belief in the magical powers of numbers.
  20. Once a year, read a book by authors like George Orwell, E.B. White, or
    Bertrand Russell.
  21. Santha Rama Rau’s Law: Patriotism is a squalid emotion.
  22. Josephson’s Law: New is rotten.

Stray links build up over time without my being able to handle them adequately, so I have for some time wanted a way of purging them. I am aware of other bloggers who curate and aggregate links with short commentaries quite well, but I have difficulty making my remarks pithy and punchy. That said, here are a few that I’m ready to purge in this first attempt to dispose of a few links from by backlog.

Skyfarm Fantasies

Futurists have offered myriad visions of technologies that have no hope of being implemented, from flying cars to 5-hour workweeks to space elevators. The newest pipe dream is the Urban Skyfarm, a roughly 30-story tree-like structure with 24 acres of space using solar panels and hydroponics to grow food close to the point of consumption. Utopian engineering such as this crops up frequently (pun intended) and may be fun to contemplate, but in the U.S. at least, we can’t even build high-speed rail, and that technology is already well established elsewhere. I suppose that’s why cities such as Seoul and Singapore, straining to make everything vertical for lack of horizontal space, are the logical test sites.

Leaving Nashville

The City of Nashville is using public funds to buy homeless people bus tickets to leave town and go be poor somewhere else. Media spin is that the city is “helping people in need,” but it’s obviously a NIMBY response to a social problem city officials and residents (not everyone, but enough) would rather not have to address more humanely. How long before cities begin completing with each other in numbers of people they can ship off to other cities? Call it the circle of life when the homeless start gaming the programs, revisiting multiple cities in an endless circuit.

Revisioneering

Over at Rough Type, Nick Carr points to an article in The Nation entitled “Instagram and the Fantasy of of Mastery,” which argues that a variety of technologies now give “artists” the illusion of skill, merit, and vision by enabling work to be easily executed using prefab templates and stylistic filters. For instance, in pop music, the industry standard is to auto-tune everyone’s singing to hide imperfections. Carr’s summary probably is better than the article itself and shows us the logical endpoint of production art in various media undertaken without the difficult work necessary to develop true mastery.

Too Poor to Shop

The NY Post reported over the summer that many Americans are too poor to shop except for necessities. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Retailers have blamed the weather, slow job growth and millennials for their poor results this past year, but a new study claims that more than 20 percent of Americans are simply too poor to shop.

These 26 million Americans are juggling two to three jobs, earning just around $27,000 a year and supporting two to four children — and exist largely under the radar, according to America’s Research Group, which has been tracking consumer shopping trends since 1979.

Current population in the U.S. is around 325 million. Twenty percent of that number is 65 million; twenty-six million is 8 percent. Pretty basic math, but I guess NY Post is not to be trusted to report even simple things accurately. Maybe it’s 20% of U.S. households. I dunno and can’t be bothered to check. Either way, that’s a pretty damning statistic considering the U.S. stock market continues to set new all-time highs — an economic recovery not shared with average Americans. Indeed, here are a few additional newsbits and links stolen ruthlessly from theeconomiccollapseblog.com:

  • The number of Americans that are living in concentrated areas of high poverty has doubled since the year 2000.
  • In 2007, about one out of every eight children in America was on food stamps. Today, that number is one out of every five.
  • 46 million Americans use food banks each year, and lines start forming at some U.S. food banks as early as 6:30 in the morning because people want to get something before the food supplies run out.
  • The number of homeless children in the U.S. has increased by 60 percent over the past six years.
  • According to Poverty USA, 1.6 million American children slept in a homeless shelter or some other form of emergency housing last year.

For further context, theeconomiccollapseblog also points to “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans” in The Atlantic, which reports, among other things, that fully 47% of Americans would struggle to scrape together a mere $400 in an emergency.

How do such folks respond to the national shopping frenzy kicking off in a few days with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Charitable Sunday, and Cyber Monday? I suggest everyone stay home.

While I’m revisiting old posts, the term digital exhaust came up again in a very interesting article by Shoshana Zuboff called “The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism,” published in Frankfurter Allgemeine in March 2016. I no longer remember how I came upon it, but its publication in a obscure (to Americans) German newspaper (German and English versions available) was easily located online with a simple title search. The article has certainly not gone viral the way social media trends work, but someone obviously picked it up, promoted it, and raised it to the level of awareness of lots of folks, including me.

My earlier remarks about digital exhaust were that the sheer volume of information produced and exchanged across digital media quickly becomes unmanageable, with the result that much of it becomes pointless ephemera — the useless part of the signal-to-noise ratio. Further, I warned that by turning our attention to digital sources of information of dubious value, quality, and authority, we face an epistemological shift that could take considerable hindsight to describe accurately. That was 2007. It may not yet be long enough to fully understand effect(s) too well, or to crystallize the moment (to reuse my pet phrase yet again), but the picture is already clarifying somewhat terrifyingly.

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According to Jean-Paul Sartre, the act of negation (a/k/a nihilation) is a necessary step in distinguishing foreground objects from background. A plethora of definitions and formal logic ensure that his philosophical formulations are of only academic interest to us nowadays, since philosophy in general has dropped out of currency in the public sphere and below awareness or concern even among most educated adults. With that in mind, I thought perhaps I should reinforce the idea of negation in my own modest (albeit insignificant) way. Negation, resistance, and dissent have familial relations, but they are undoubtedly distinct in some ways, too. However, I have no interest in offering formal treatments of terminology and so will gloss over the point and decline to offer definitions. Lump ’em all in together, I say. However, I will make a distinction between passive and active negation, which is the point of this blog post.

Although the information environment and the corporations that provide electronic access through hardware and connectivity would have us all jacked into the so-called Information Superhighway unceasingly, and many people do just that with enormous relish, I am of a different mind. I recognize that electronic media are especially potent in commanding attention and providing distraction. Stowed away or smuggled in with most messaging is a great deal of perception and opinion shaping that is worse than just unsavory, it’s damaging. So I go beyond passively not wanting handheld (thus nonstop) access to actively wanting not to be connected. Whereas others share excitement about the latest smartphone or tablet and the speed, cost, and capacity of the service provider for the data line on their devices, I don’t demur but insist instead “keep that nonsense away from me.” I must negate those prerogatives, refuse their claims on my attention, and be undisturbed in my private thoughts while away from the computer, the Internet, and the constant flow of information aimed indiscriminately at me and everyone.

Of course, I win no converts with such refusals. When I was shopping for a new phone recently, the default assumption by the sales clerk was that I wanted bells and whistles. She simply could not conceive of my desire to have a phone that is merely a phone, and the store didn’t sell one anyway. Even worse, since all phones are now by default smart phones, I had a data block put on my account to avoid inadvertently connecting to anything that would require a data line. That just blew her mind, like I was forgoing oxygen. But I’m quite clear that any vulnerability to information either tempting me or forced on me is worth avoiding and that time away from the computer and its analogues is absolutely necessary.

Personal anecdote: I was shopping at an appliance retailer (went to look at refrigerators) recently that had an embedded Apple store. At the counter with three models of the iPhone 6, the latest designations, were three kids roughly 8-11 in age (I estimate). They were unattended by parents, who must have believed that if the kids were not causing problems, they were a-okay. The kids themselves were absolutely transfixed — enthralled, really — by the screens, standing silent and motionless (very unlike most kids) with either a fierce concentration or utterly empty heads as they examined the gadgets. They were so zoomed in they took no notice at all of passersby. Parents of earlier generations used the TV as a pacifier or baby sitter the same way, but these kids seemed even more hollow than typical, dull-eyed TV viewers. Only a few days later, at a concert I attended, I watched a child who apparently could not pry his eyes away from the tablet he was carrying — even as he struggled to climb the stairs to his seat. The blue glare of the screen was all over his face.

Both scenes were unspeakably sad, though I might be hard-pressed to convince anyone of that assessment had I intervened. These scenes play out again and again, demonstrating that the youngest among us are the most vulnerable and least able to judge when to turn away, to disconnect. Adults fare no better. Schools and device makers alike have succeeded in selling electronics as “educational devices,” but the reality is that instead of exploring the world around us, people get sucked into a virtual world and the glossy fictions displayed on screens. They ultimately become slaves to their own devices. I mourn for their corrupted mindscapes, distorted and ruined by parents and teachers who ought to be wiser but who themselves have been coopted and hollowed out by mass media.

Today is the 10-year anniversary of the opening of this blog. As a result, there is a pretty sizeable backblog should anyone decide to wade in. As mentioned in my first post, I only opened this blog to get posting privileges at a group blog I admired because it functioned more like a discussion than a broadcast. The group blog died of attrition years ago, yet here I am 10 years later still writing my personal blog (which isn’t really about me).

Social media lives and dies by the numbers, and mine are deplorable. Annual traffic has ranged from about 6,800 to about 12,500 hits, much of which I’m convinced is mere background noise and bot traffic. Cumulative hits number about 90,140, and unique visitors are about 19,350, neither of which is anything to crow about for a blog of this duration. My subscriber count continues to climb pointlessly, now resting at 745. However, I judge I might have only a half dozen regular readers and perhaps half again as many commentators. I’ve never earned a cent for my effort, nor am I likely to ever put up a Patreon link or similar goad for donations. All of which only demonstrate that almost no one cares what I have to write about. C’est la vie. I don’t write for that purpose and frankly wouldn’t know what to write about if I were trying to drive numbers.

So if you have read my blog, what are some of the thing you might have gathered from me? Here’s an incomplete synopsis:

  • Torture is unspeakably bad. History is full of devices, methodologies, and torturers, but we learned sometime in the course of two 20th-century world wars that nothing justifies it. Nevertheless, it continues to occur with surprising relish, and those who still torture (or want to) are criminally insane.
  • Skyscrapers are awesomely tall examples of technical brilliance, exuberance, audacity, and hubris. Better expressions of techno-utopian, look-mom-no-hands, self-defeating narcissism can scarcely be found. Yet they continue to be built at a feverish pace. The 2008 financial collapse stalled and/or doomed a few projects, but we’re back to game on.
  • Classical music, despite record budgets for performing ensembles, has lost its bid for anything resembling cultural and artistic relevance by turning itself into a museum (performing primarily works of long-dead composers) and abandoning emotional expression in favor of technical perfection, which is probably an accurate embodiment of the spirit of the times. There is arguably not a single living composer who has become a household name since Aaron Copland, who died in 1990 but was really well-known in the 1940s and 50s.
  • We’re doomed — not in any routine sense of the word having to do with individual mortality but in the sense of Near-Term (Human) Extinction (NTE). The idea is not widely accepted in the least, and the arguments are too lengthy to repeat (and unlikely to convince). However, for those few able to decipher it, the writing is on the wall.
  • American culture is a constantly moving target, difficult to define and describe, but its principal features are only getting uglier as time wears on. Resurgent racism, nationalism, and misogyny make clear that while some strides have been made, these attitudes were only driven underground for a while. Similarly, colonialism never really died but morphed into a new version (globalization) that escapes criticism from the masses, because, well, goodies.
  • Human consciousness — another moving target — is cratering (again) after 3,000–5,000 years. We have become hollow men, play actors, projecting false consciousness without core identity or meaning. This cannot be sensed or assessed easily from the first-person perspective.
  • Electronic media makes us tools. The gleaming attractions of sterile perfection and pseudo-sociability have hoodwinked most of the public into relinquishing privacy and intellectual autonomy in exchange for the equivalent of Huxley’s soma. This also cannot be sensed or assessed easily from the first-person perspective.
  • Electoral politics is a game played by the oligarchy for chumps. Although the end results are not always foreseeable (Jeb!), the narrow range of options voters are given (lesser of evils, the devil you know …) guarantees that fundamental change in our dysfunctional style of government will not occur without first burning the house down. After a long period of abstention, I voted in the last few elections, but my heart isn’t really in it.
  • Cinema’s infatuation with superheros and bankable franchises (large overlap there) signals that, like other institutions mentioned above, it has grown aged and sclerotic. Despite large budgets and impressive receipts (the former often over $100 million and the latter now in the billions for blockbusters) and considerable technical prowess, cinema has lost its ability to be anything more than popcorn entertainment for adolescent fanboys (of all ages).

This is admittedly a pretty sour list. Positive, worthwhile manifestations of the human experience are still out there, but they tend to be private, modest, and infrequent. I still enjoy a successful meal cooked in my own kitchen. I still train for and race in triathlons. I still perform music. I still make new friends. But each of these examples is also marred by corruptions that penetrate everything we do. Perhaps it’s always been so, and as I, too, age, I become increasingly aware of inescapable distortions that can no longer be overcome with innocence, ambition, energy, and doublethink. My plan is to continue writing the blog until it feels like a burden, at which point I’ll stop. But for now, there’s too much to think and write about, albeit at my own leisurely pace.

A long while back (8 years ago), I drew attention to a curious bit of rhyming taking place in the world of architecture: the construction of skyscrapers that twist from base to top (see also here). I even suggested that one per city was needed, which seems to be slowly manifesting. Back then, the newest installment was the Infinity Tower, now fully built and known as the Cayan Tower. The doomed planned Chicago Spire has yet to get off the ground. Another incarnation of the basic twisting design is the Evolution Tower in Moscow, completed in 2014 (though I only just learned about it):

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There are plenty more pics at the Skyscraper page devoted to this building.

News of this development comes to me by way of James Howard Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month feature at his website. I draw attention to Kunstler because he is far better qualified to evaluate and judge architecture than am I, even though most of his remarks are disparagement. Kunstler and I share both aesthetic and doomer perspectives on stunt architecture, and the twisting design seems to be one faddish way to avoid the boxy, straight-line approach to supertall buildings that dominated for some fifty years. Indeed, many buildings of smaller stature now seek that same avoidance, which used to be accomplished via ornamentation but is now structural. Such designs and construction are enabled by computers, thought it remains to be seen how long maintenance and repair can be sustained in an era of diminishing financial resources. (Material resources are a different but related matter, but these days, almost no one bothers with anything without financial incentive or reward.)

When the last financial collapse occurred in 2008 (extending into 2009 with recovery since then mostly faked), lots of projects were mothballed. I note, however, that Chicago has many new projects underway, and I can only surmise that other skylines are similarly full of cranes signalling the return of multibillion-dollar construction projects aimed at the well-off. Mention of crumbling infrastructure has been ongoing for decades now. Here’s one recent example. Yet attention and funding seems to flow in the direction of projects that really do not need doing. While it might be true that the discrepancy here lies with public vs. private funding, it appears to me another case of mismanaging our own affairs by focusing too much on marquee projects while allowing dated and perhaps less attractive existing structures to decay and crumble.

My work commute typically includes bus, train, and walking legs to arrive at my destination. If wakefulness and an available seat allow, I often read on the bus and train. (This is getting to be exceptional compared to other commuters, who are more typically lost in their phones listening to music, watching video, checking FB, or playing games. Some are undoubtedly reading, like me, but electronic media, which I find distasteful, alter the experience fundamentally from ink on paper.) Today, I was so absorbed in my reading that by the time I looked up, I missed my bus stop, and half an hour later, I nearly missed my train stop, too. The experience of tunnel vision in deep concentration is not at all unfamiliar to me, but it is fleeting and unpredictable. More typical is a relaxed yet alert concentration that for me takes almost no effort anymore.

So what sent me ’round the bend? The book I’m currently reading, Nick Carr’s The Glass Cage, takes a diversion into the work of poet Robert Frost. Carr uses Frost to illustrate his point about immersion in bodily work with manageable difficulty lending the world a more robust character than the detached, frictionless world experienced with too much technological mediation and ease. Carr does a terrific job contextualizing Frost’s lyric observations in a way quite unlike the contextual analysis one might undertake in a high school or college classroom, which too often makes the objects of study lifeless and irrelevant. Carr’s discussion put me unexpectedly into an aesthetic mode of contemplation, as distinguished from analytic or kinesthetic modes. There are probably others.

I don’t often go into aesthetic mode. It requires the right sort of stimulation. The Carr/Frost combination put me there, and so I tunneled into the book and forgot my commute. That momentary disorientation is often pleasurable, but for me, it can also be distressing. My infrequent visits to art museums are often accompanied by a vague unease at the sometimes nauseating emotionalism of the works on display. It’s an honest response, though I expect most folks can’t quite understand why something beautiful would provoke something resembling a negative response. In contrast, my experience in the concert hall is usually frustration, as musicians have become ever more corporate and professional in their performance over time to the detriment and exclusion of latent emotional content. I suppose that as Super Bowl Sunday is almost upon us (about which I care not at all), the typical viewer gets an emotional/aesthetic charge out of that overhyped event, especially if the game is hotly contested rather than a blowout. I seek and find my moments in less crass expressions of the human spirit.