Archive for the ‘Technophilia’ Category

I’ll try to be relatively brief, since I’ve been blogging about industrial and ecological collapse for more than a decade. Jeff Gibbs released a new documentary called Planet of the Humans (sideways nod to the dystopian movie franchises Planet of the Apes — as though humans aren’t also apes). Gibbs gets top billing as the director, but this is clearly a Michael Moore film, who gets secondary billing as the executing producer. The film includes many of Moore’s established eccentricities, minus the humor, and is basically an exposé on greenwashing: the tendency of government agencies, environmental activists, and capitalist enterprises to coopt and transform earnest environmental concern into further profit-driven destruction of the natural environment. Should be no surprise to anyone paying attention, despite the array of eco-luminaries making speeches and soundbites about “green” technologies that purport to save us from rendering the planet uninhabitable. Watching them fumble and evade when answering simple, direct questions is a clear indication of failed public-relations approaches to shaping the narrative.

Turns out that those ballyhooed energy sources (e.g., wind, solar, biofuel, biomass) ride on the back of fossil fuels and aren’t any more green or sustainable than the old energy sources they pretend to replace. Again, no surprise if one has even a basic understanding of the dynamics of energy production and consumption. That admittedly sounds awfully jaded, but the truth has been out there for a long time already for anyone willing and able to confront it. Similarly, the documentary mentions overpopulation, another notorious elephant in the room (or herd of elephants, as aptly put in the film), but it’s not fully developed. Entirely absent is any question of not meeting energy demand. That omission is especially timely given how, with the worldwide economy substantially scaled back at present and with it significant demand destruction (besides electricity), the price of oil has fallen through the floor. Nope, the tacit assumption is that energy demand must be met despite all the awful short- and long-term consequences.

Newsfeeds indicate that the film has sparked considerable controversy in only a few days following release. Debate is to be expected considering a coherent energy strategy has never been developed or agreed upon and interested parties have a lot riding on outcomes. Not to indulge in hyperbole, but the entire human race is bound up in the outcome, too, and it doesn’t look good for us or most of the rest of the species inhabiting the planet. Thus, I was modestly dismayed when the end of the film wandered into happy chapter territory and offered the nonsensical platitude in voiceover, “If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible.” Because we’ve passed and in fact lapped the point of no return repeatedly, the range of possibilities has shrunk precipitously. The most obvious is that human population of 7.7 billion (and counting) is being sorely tested. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we also know that post-pandemic there can be no return to the world we’ve known for the past 70 years or so. Although the documentary could not be reasonably expected to be entirely up to date, it should at least have had the nerve to conclude what the past few decades have demonstrated with abundant clarity.


This review provides support for my assessment that “green” or “sustainable” energy cannot be delivered without significant contribution of fossil fuels.

Color me surprised to learn that 45 is considering a new executive order mandating that the “classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings, revising the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture issued in 1962. Assuredly, 45 is hardly expected to weigh in on respectable aesthetic choices considering his taste runs toward gawdy, glitzy, ostentatious surface display (more Baroque) than restraint, dignity, poise, and balance (more Classical or Neoclassical).

Since I pay little attention to mainstream news propaganda organs, I learned of this from James Howard Kunstler’s blog Clusterfuck Nation (see blogroll) as though the order had already issued, but it’s apparently still in drafting. Twas nice to read Kunstler returning to his roots in architectural criticism. He’s never left it behind entirely; his website has a regular feature called Eyesore of the Month, which I rather enjoy reading. He provides a brief primer how architectural styles in the 20th century (all lumped together as Modernism) embody the Zeitgeist, namely, techno-narcissism. (I’m unconvinced that Modernism is a direct rebuke of 20th-century fascists who favored Classicism.) Frankly, with considerably more space at his disposal, Iain McGilchrist explores Modernist architecture better and with far greater erudition in The Master and his Emissary (2010), which I blogged through some while ago. Nonetheless, this statement by Kunstler deserves attention:

The main feature of this particular moment is that techno-industrial society has entered an epochal contraction presaging collapse due to over-investments in hyper-complexity. That hyper-complexity has come to be perfectly expressed in architecture lately in the torqued and tortured surfaces of gigantic buildings designed by computers, with very poor prospects for being maintained, or even being useful, as we reel into a new age of material scarcity and diminished expectations …

This is the life-out-of-balance statement in a nutshell. We are over-extended and wedded to an aesthetic of power that requires preposterous feats of engineering to build and continuous resource inputs to operate and maintain. (Kunstler himself avers elsewhere that an abundance of cheap, easily harvested energy enabled the Modern Era, so chalking up imminent collapse due primarily to over-investment in hyper-complexity seems like substitution of a secondary or follow-on effect for the main one.) My blogging preoccupation with skyscrapers demonstrates my judgment that the vertical dimension of the human-built world in particular is totally out of whack, an instantiation of now-commonplace stunt architecture. Should power ever fail for any sustained duration, reaching floors above, say, the 10th and delivering basic services to them, such as water for sinks and toilets, quickly becomes daunting.

However, that’s a technical hurdle, not an aesthetic consideration. The Modernist government buildings in question tend to be Brutalist designs, which often look like high-walled concrete fortresses or squat, impenetrable bunkers. (Do your own image search.) They project bureaucratic officiousness and disconcern if not open hostility toward the people they purport to serve. Basically, enter at your own risk. They share with the International Style a formal adherence to chunky geometric forms, often presented impassively (as pure abstraction) or in an exploded view (analogous to a cubist painting showing multiple perspectives simultaneously). Curiously, commentary at the links above is mostly aligned with perpetuating the Modernist project and aesthetic as described by Kunstler and McGilchrist. No interruptions, difficulties, or vulnerabilities are contemplated. Commentators must not be reading the same analyses I am, or they’re blithely supportive of progress in some vague sense, itself a myth we tell ourselves.

Robots are coming; we all know it. Frankly, for some implementations, they’re already here. For example, I recently took interest in robotic vacuums. I already have an upright vacuum with the usual attachments I push around on weekends, plus brooms and dustpans for hard, uncarpeted floors. But I saw a robotic vacuum in action and found myself considering purchasing something I knew existed but never gave thought to needing. All it took was watching one scuttling along the floor aimlessly, bumping harmlessly into furniture, to think perhaps my living experience would be modestly enhanced by passive clean-up while I’m out of the house — at least I thought so until I saw the price range extends from roughly $150 to $500. Surprised me, too, to see how crowded the marketplace is with competing devices from different manufacturers. Can’t rationalize the expense as a simple labor-saving device. The effort it replaces just isn’t that arduous.

Another robotic device caught my eye: the Gita cargo robot by Piaggio Fast Forward. I will admit that a stuff carrier for those with mobility issues might be a worthwhile device, much like Segway seemed like a relatively good idea to increase range for those with limited mobility — at least before such devices branched into self-balancing hoverboards and motorized scooters that now clog the sidewalks, create unnecessary hazards, and send thousands each year to emergency rooms with broken wrists (or worse). One of those little Gita buggers following able-bodied folks around seems to me the height of foolishness, not to mention laziness. The video review I saw (sorry, no link, probably outta date and based on a prototype) indicated that the Gita is not ready for prime time and requires the user to wear a camera/belt assembly for the Gita to track and follow its owner. Its limited capacity and operating duration between charges (yeah, another thing to plug in — sigh), plus its inability to negotiate doors effectively, makes it seem like more trouble that it’s worth for the hefty price of around $3,250.

Billed as a robot butler, the Gita falls well short of a Jetsons or Star Wars upright robot that’s able, for example, to execute commands and interact verbally. Maybe the Gita represents the first baby steps toward that envisioned future (or long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), but I rather doubt it. Moreover, we’re already irritatingly besieged by people face-planted in their phones. Who wants a future were others (let’s say half of the people we come into contact with in hallways, corridors, and parking lots) are attended by a robot cargo carrier or fully functioning robot butler? In the meantime, just like the Google Glass that was never adopted widely, anyone seen with a Gita trailing behind is a tool.

The supertall skyscraper biz has had its, um, ups and downs. My position over the 15 years of this blog is that they’re paeans to techno-utopianism and -narcissism and probably ought to stop being designed and built in an era of rapidly diminishing returns for economies around the globe. The initial price tag on these giants runs into the billions, and I have severe doubts they can be maintained even on the short term should when the next financial collapse impoverishes everyone. Just won’t be enough juice to keep nonessential luxury projects operating. That was very nearly our experience with the last collapse in 2008 — a (temporary or permanent?) setback from which many have not yet recovered despite new U.S. stock market records being set nearly every day (in mid-July 2019).

Eleven years ago, a number of skyscraper projects around Chicago were either scrapped entirely due to disappearance of financing or truncated well below their planned heights after lengthy construction hiatuses to allow time to regroup, redesign, and refinance. I had thought developers might be chastened enough by that experience to limit the grandiosity of future plans. Well, seems memories are short and nothing was learned. According to Curbed Chicago, the Loop has multiple projects in the conceptual through construction phases:

  1. Vista Tower — under construction at 1,198 feet
  2. NEMA Chicago — under construction at 896 feet
  3. Bank of America Tower — under construction at 820 feet
  4. One Chicago Square — site being prepped at 969 feet
  5. 1000M — approved at 832 feet
  6. Lakeshore East “Parcel I” — approved at 950 feet
  7. Salesforce Tower — approved at 813 feet
  8. BMO Tower — approved at 700 feet
  9. 725 W. Randolph — approved at 615 feet
  10. Tribune Tower East — proposed at 1,422 feet
  11. 400 N. Lake Shore Drive — on hold pending redesign
  12. The 78 — master plan approved, design subject to change
  13. One Central — conceptual

Number 11 is of particular interest to me as it’s the site of the ill-fated (doomed might be a better word) Chicago Spire (a/k/a Fordham Spire), a planned 2,000-foot building that would have been the world’s second tallest after the Burj Khalifa (a/k/a Burj Dubai) — at least until they were both eclipsed by the Jeddah Tower (a/k/a the Kingdom Tower) if stalled construction is ever restarted and completed. The most audacious and unnecessary proposal above is One Central, a preposterous 34-acre site situated atop existing Metra tracks serving commuters traveling into the Loop from the south and southeast.

All these projects appear to be mixed-use luxury developments: a combination of commercial, hotel, and condominium space. Affordable housing is a far more pressing need in Chicago, but those modest projects don’t produce the (presumed) profit or enhance the skyline. Where all the exceedingly well-heeled buyers will materialize from is a mystery. Indeed, claims that Chicago is fast becoming the new North American technology center for young, urban professionals after Seattle, Silicon Valley, and Austin (TX) are played out are hard to justify.

The skyscraper craze is a peculiar sort of madness from which we show no signs of recovering. A few similar madnesses have overtaken us. For instance, on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, NASA has a renewed project for a manned moon shot. How far will we launch skyward in either aspect (skyscrapers or space travel) before our hubris gets the better of us?

/rant on

Yet another journalist has unburdened herself (unbidden story of personal discovery masquerading as news) of her addiction to digital media and her steps to free herself from the compulsion to be always logged onto the onslaught of useless information hurled at everyone nonstop. Other breaking news offered by our intrepid late-to-the-story reporter: water is wet, sunburn stings, and the Earth is dying (actually, we humans are actively killing it for profit). Freeing oneself from the screen is variously called digital detoxification (detox for short), digital minimalism, digital disengagement, digital decoupling, and digital decluttering (really ought to be called digital denunciation) and means limiting the duration of exposure to digital media and/or deleting one’s social media accounts entirely. Naturally, there are apps (counters, timers, locks) for that. Although the article offers advice for how to disentangle from screen addictions of the duh! variety (um, just hit the power switch), the hidden-in-plain-sight objective is really how to reengage after breaking one’s compulsions but this time asserting control over the infernal devices that have taken over life. It’s a love-hate style of technophilia and chock full of illusions embarrassing even to children. Because the article is nominally journalism, the author surveys books, articles, software, media platforms, refusniks, gurus, and opinions galore. So she’s partially informed but still hasn’t demonstrated a basic grasp of media theory, the attention economy, or surveillance capitalism, all of which relate directly. Perhaps she should bring those investigative journalism skills to bear on Jaron Lanier, one of the more trenchant critics of living online.

I rant because the embedded assumption is that anything, everything occurring online is what truly matters — even though online media didn’t yet exist as recently as thirty years ago — and that one must (must I say! c’mon, keep up!) always be paying attention to matter in turn or suffer from FOMO. Arguments in favor of needing to be online for information and news gathering are weak and ahistorical. No doubt the twisted and manipulated results of Google searches, sometimes contentious Wikipedia entries, and various dehumanizing, self-as-brand social media platforms are crutches we all now use — some waaaay, way more than others — but they’re nowhere close to the only or best way to absorb knowledge or stay in touch with family and friends. Career networking in the gig economy might require some basic level of connection but shouldn’t need to be the all-encompassing, soul-destroying work maintaining an active public persona has become.

Thus, everyone is chasing likes and follows and retweets and reblogs and other analytics as evidence of somehow being relevant on the sea of ephemera floating around us like so much disused, discarded plastic in those infamous garbage gyres. (I don’t bother to chase and wouldn’t know how to drive traffic anyway. Screw all those solicitations for search-engine optimization. Paying for clicks is for chumps, though lots apparently do it to lie enhance their analytics.) One’s online profile is accordingly a mirror of or even a substitute for the self — a facsimile self. Lost somewhere in my backblog (searched, couldn’t find it) is a post referencing several technophiles positively celebrating the bogus extension of the self accomplished by developing and burnishing an online profile. It’s the domain of celebrities, fame whores, narcissists, and sociopaths, not to mention a few criminals. Oh, and speaking of criminals, recent news is that OJ Simpson just opened a Twitter account to reform his disastrous public image? but is fundamentally outta touch with how deeply icky, distasteful, and disgusting it feels to others for him to be participating once again in the public sphere. Disgraced criminals celebrities negatively associated with the Me-Too Movement (is there really such a movement or was it merely a passing hashtag?) have mostly crawled under their respective multimillion-dollar rocks and not been heard from again. Those few who have tried to reemerge are typically met with revulsion and hostility (plus some inevitable star-fuckers with short memories). Hard to say when, if at all, forgiveness and rejoining society become appropriate.

/rant off

Apologies for this overlong blog post. I know that this much text tries the patience of most readers and is well in excess of my customary 3–4 paragraphs.

Continuing my book blogging of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, Chapter Two (subtitled “History’s Winners and Their Illusions”) focuses on the thought revolution that followed from the Enlightenment in Western Europe and its imitation in non-Western cultures, especially as manifested in the century leading to the French Revolution. Although the American Revolution (more narrowly a tax revolt with insistence on self-rule) preceded the French Revolution by slightly more than a decade, it’s really the French, whose motto liberté, égalité, fraternité came to prominence and defined an influential set of European values, who effectively challenged enthusiastic modernizers around the globe to try to catch up with the ascendant West.

However, almost as soon as this project appeared, i.e., attempting to transform ancien régime monarchies in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Russia into something pseudo-European, critics arose who denounced the abandonment of tradition and centuries-old national identities. Perhaps they can be understood as the first wave of modern conservatism. Here is Mishra’s characterization:

Modernization, mostly along capitalist lines, became the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. Economic growth was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide, not to mention the gateway to happiness. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom, which in turn was best advanced by moneymaking. [p. 48]

Aside: The phrase “rights-bearing individual” has obvious echoes with today’s SJWs and their poorly conceived demand for egalitarianism not just before the law but in social and economic outcomes. Although economic justice (totally out of whack with today’s extreme income and wealth inequality) is a worthy goal that aligns with idealized but not real-world Enlightenment values, SJW activism reinforces retrograde divisions of people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc. Calls to level out all these questionable markers of identity have resulted in intellectual confusion and invalidation of large “privileged” and/or “unoppressed” groups such as white males of European descent in favor of oppressed minorities (and majorities, e.g., women) of all categories. Never mind that many of those same white males are often every bit as disenfranchised as others whose victimhood is paraded around as some sort virtue granting them authority and preferential treatment.

Modernization has not been evenly distributed around the globe, which accounts for countries even today being designated either First, Second, or Third World. An oft-used euphemism is “developing economy,” which translates to an invitation for wealthy First-World nations (or its corporations) to force their way in to exploit cheap labor and untapped natural resources. Indeed, as Mishra points out, the promise of joining First-World living standards (having diverged centuries ago) is markedly hollow:

… doubters of Western-style progress today include more than just marginal communities and some angry environmental activists. In 2014 The Economist said that, on the basis of IMF data, emerging economies — or, most of the human population — might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the West. In this assessment, the last decade of high growth was an ‘aberration’ and ‘billions of people will be poorer for a lot longer than they might have expected just a few years ago’.

The implications are sobering: the non-West not only finds itself replicating the West’s trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment — manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests, and devastating floods — the non-West also has no real prospect of catching up … [pp. 47-48]

That second paragraph is an unexpected acknowledgement that the earliest industrialized nations (France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.) unwittingly put us on a path to self-annihilation only to be knowingly repeated and intensified by latecomers to industrialization. All those (cough) ecological disturbances are occurring right now, though the public has been lulled into complacency by temporary abundance, misinformation, under- and misreporting, and international political incompetence. Of course, ecological destruction is no longer merely the West’s trauma but a global catastrophe of the highest magnitude which is certainly in the process of catching up to us.

Late in Chapter Two, Mishra settles on the Crystal Palace exhibition space and utopian symbol, built in 1851 during the era of world’s fairs and mistaken enthusiasm regarding the myth of perpetual progress and perfectibility, as an irresistible embodiment of Western hubris to which some intellectual leaders responded with clear disdain. Although a marvelous technical feat of engineering prowess and demonstration of economic power (not unlike countries that host the Olympics — remember Beijing?), the Crystal Palace was also viewed as an expression of the sheer might of Western thought and its concomitant products. Mishra repeatedly quotes Dostoevsky, who visited the Crystal Palace in 1862 and described his visceral response to the place poignantly and powerfully:

You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that here there is victory and triumph. You even begin vaguely to fear something. However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. ‘For isn’t this the achievement of perfection?’ you think. ‘Isn’t this the ultimate?’ Could this in fact be the ‘one fold?’ Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace? It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you gasp for breath. [p. 68]

And later, describing the “world-historical import” of the Crystal Palace:

Look at these hundreds of thousands, these millions of people humbly streaming here from all over the face of the earth. People come with a single thought, quietly, relentlessly, mutely thronging onto this colossal palace; and you feel that something final has taken place here, that something has come to an end. It is like a Biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy from the apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes. You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is not to accept the material world as your ideal. [pp. 69–70]

The prophetic finality of the Crystal Palace thus presaged twentieth-century achievements and ideas (the so-called American Century) that undoubtedly eclipsed the awesome majesty of the Crystal Palace, e.g., nuclear fission and liberal democracy’s purported victory over Soviet Communism (to name only two). Indeed, Mishra begins the chapter with a review of Americans declarations of the end of history, i.e., having reached final forms of political, social, and economic organization that are now the sole model for all nations to emulate. The whole point of the chapter is that such pronouncements are illusions with strong historical antecedents that might have cautioned us not to leap to unwarranted conclusions or to perpetuate a soul-destroying regime hellbent on extinguishing all alternatives. Of course, as Gore Vidal famously quipped, “Americans never learn; it’s part of our charm.”


There is something ironic and vaguely tragic about how various Internet platforms — mostly search engines and social media networks — have unwittingly been thrust into roles their creators never envisioned for themselves. Unless I’m mistaken, they launched under the same business model as broadcast media: create content, or better yet, crowd-source content, to draw in viewers and subscribers whose attention is then delivered to advertisers. Revenue is derived from advertisers while the basic services — i.e., search, job networking, encyclopedias and dictionaries, or social connection — are given away gratis. The modest inconveniences and irritations of having the screen littered and interrupted with ads is a trade-off most end users are happy to accept for free content.

Along the way, some platform operators discovered that user data itself could be both aggregated and individualized and subsequently monetized. This second step unwittingly created so-called surveillance capitalism that Shoshana Zuboff writes about in her recently published book (previously blogged about it here). Essentially, an Orwellian Big Brother (several of them, in fact) tracks one’s activity through smart phone apps and Web browsers, including GPS data revealing movement through real space, not just virtual spaces. This is also the domain of the national security state from local law enforcement to the various security branches of the Federal government: dragnet surveillance where everyone is watched continuously. Again, end users shrug off surveillance as either no big deal or too late to resist.

The most recent step is that, like the Internet itself, various platforms have been functioning for some time already as public utilities and accordingly fallen under demand for regulation with regard to authenticity, truth, and community standards of allowable speech. Thus, private corporations have been thrust unexpectedly into the role of regulating content. Problem is, unlike broadcast networks that create their own content and can easily enforce restrictive standards, crowd-sourced platforms enable the general population to upload its own content, often mere commentary in text form but increasingly as video content, without any editorial review. These platforms have parried by deploying and/or modifying their preexisting surveillance algorithms in search of objectionable content normally protected as free speech and taken steps to remove content, demonetize channels, and ban offending users indefinitely, typically without warning and without appeal.

If Internet entrepreneurs initially got into the biz to make a few (or a lot of) quick billions, which some few of them have, they have by virtue of the global reach of their platforms been transformed into censors. It’s also curious that by enabling end uses to publish to their platforms, they’ve given voice to the masses in all their unwashed glory. Now, everyone’s crazy, radicalized uncle (or sibling or parent or BFF) formerly banished to obscurity railing against one thing or another at the local tavern, where he was tolerated as harmless so long as he kept his bar tab current, is proud to fly his freak flag anywhere and everywhere. Further, the anonymous coward who might issue death or bomb threats to denounce others has been given means to distribute hate across platforms and into the public sphere, where it gets picked up and maybe censored. Worst of all, the folks who monitor and decide what is allowed, functioning as modern-day thought police, are private citizens and corporations with no oversight or legal basis to act except for the fact that everything occurs on their respective platforms. This is a new aspect to the corporatocracy but not one anyone planned.

For a time after the 2008 financial collapse, skyscraper projects in Chicago came to a dead halt, mostly due to dried-up financing. My guess (since I don’t know with any reliability) is that much the same obtained worldwide. However, the game appears to be back on, especially in New York City, one of few cities around the globe where so-called “real money” tends to pool and collect. Visual Capitalist has an interesting infographic depicting changes to the NYC skyline every 20 years. The number of supertalls topping 1,000 feet expected by 2020 is quite striking.

Courtesy of Visual Capitalist

The accompanying text admits that NYC is left in the dust by China, specifically, the Pearl River Delta Megacity, which includes Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Macau, and others. As I’ve written before, the mad rush to build (earning ridiculous, absurd, imaginary prestige points awarded by and to exactly no one) takes no apparent notice of a slo-mo crack-up in the way modern societies organize and fund themselves. The new bear market might give one … um, pause.

Also left in the dust is Chicago, home of the original skyscraper. Since the 2008 collapse, Chicago’s most ambitious project, the ill-fated Chicago Spire (a/k/a the Fordham Spire) was abandoned despite a big hole dug in the ground and some foundation work completed. An absence of completed prestige projects since 2008 means Chicago has been lapped several times over by NYC, not that anyone is counting. The proposed site of the Chicago Spire is too enticing, however — just inside Lake Shore Drive at the mouth of the Chicago River — for it to be dormant for long. Indeed, a press release last year (escaped my attention at the time) announced redevelopment of the site, and a slick website is operating for now (linked in the past to similar sites that went abandoned along with their subject projects). Also reported late last year, Chicago appears to have rejoined the game in earnest, with multiple projects already under construction and others in the planning/approval phases.

So if hiatus was called the last time we crashed financially (a regular occurrence, I note), it seems we’ve called hiatus on the hiatus and are back in a mad, futile race to remake modernity into gleaming vertical cities dotting the globe. Such hubris and exuberance might be intoxicating to technophiles, but I’m reminded of a observation (can’t locate a quote, sorry) to the effect that civilizations’ most extravagant projects are undertaken just before their collapses. Our global civilization is no different.

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.

The story appears to aim at psychological depth and penetration (but not horror). Most human characters (“guests”) visit the Westworld theme park as complete cads with no thought beyond scratching an itch to rape, pillage, and kill without consequence, which is to say, for sport. Others eventually seek to discover their true selves or solve puzzles (the “real” story behind the surfaces of constructed narratives). The overarching plot is what happens as the robots (“hosts”) slowly gain awareness via perfect, permanent, digital memory that they exist solely to serve the guests and must suffer and die repeatedly. Thus, administrators frequently play therapist to the hosts to discover and manage their state of being.


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 are 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 to and 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.