Posts Tagged ‘Recent History’

“Language is dynamic” is a phrase invoked in praise or derision of shifts in usage. Corollaries include “the only constant is change” and “time’s arrow points in only one direction” — both signalling that stasis is an invalid and ultimately futile conservative value. The flip side might well be the myth of progress, understood in reference not to technological advancement but human nature’s failure to rise above its base (animal) origins. This failure is especially grotesque considering that humans currently albeit temporarily live in an age of material abundance that would provide amply for everyone if that largesse were justly and equitably produced and distributed. However, resources (including labor) are being systematically exploited, diverted, and hoarded by a small, unethical elite (what some call “alpha chimps”) who often use state power to subjugate vulnerable populations to funnel further tribute to the already obscenely wealthy top of the socioeconomic hierarchy. But that’s a different diatribe.

Although I’m sensitive the dynamism of language — especially terms for broad ideas in need of short, snappy neologisms — I’m resistant to adopting most new coin. For instance, multiple colors of pill (red, blue, white, and black to my knowledge) refer to certain narrative complexes that people, in effect, swallow. Similarly, the “blue church” is used to refer to legacy media struggling desperately (and failing) to retain its last shreds of legitimacy and authority. (Dignity is long gone.) Does language really need these terms or are hipsters just being clever? That question probably lacks a definitive answer.

My real interest with this blog post, however, is how the modern digital mediascape has given rise to a curious phenomenon associated with cancel culture: deletion of tweets and social media posts to scrub one’s past of impropriety as though the tweet or post never happened. (I’ve never deleted a post nor have any plans to.) Silicon Valley hegemons can’t resist getting their piece of the action, too, by applying deeply flawed algorithms to everyone’s content to demonetize, restrict, and/or remove (i.e., censor) offensive opinion that runs counter to (shifting) consensus narratives decided upon in their sole discretion as water carriers for officialdom. Algorithmic dragnets are not effective kludges precisely because thoughts are not synonymous with their online expression; one merely points to the other. Used to be said that the Internet is forever, so wait before posting or tweeting a reasonable duration so that irresponsible behavior (opinion and trolling, mostly) can be tempered. Who knows who possesses technical expertise and access to tweet and video archives other than, say, the Wayback Machine? When a public figure says or does something dumb, a search-and-destroy mission is often launched to resurrect offending and damning past utterance. Of course, scrub-a-dub erasure or deletion is merely another attempt to manage narrative and isn’t a plea for forgiveness, which doesn’t exist in the public sphere anyway except for rehabilitated monsters such as past U.S. presidents a/k/a war criminals. And the Internet isn’t in fact forever; ask an archivist.

Shifting language, shifting records, shifting sentiment, shifting intellectual history are all aspects of culture that develop naturally and inevitably over time. We no longer believe, for instance, in the four elements or geocentrism (a/k/a the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system; never mind the intransigent Flat Earthers who need not be silenced). Darker aspects of these shifts, however, include the remarkable Orwellian insight that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” from the 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Here’s the passage for context:

Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past … The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.

In 2021, the awful lesson is taken to heart by multiple parties (not the Party in the novel but wannabes) who have latched maniacally onto Orwellian mechanisms of thought control specifically through the manipulation of records, history, and language. But as mentioned above, policing mere expression is not the same as policing thought itself, at least among those who retain critical thinking skills and independence of mind. I abstain judgment how effective attempted brainwashing is with the masses but will at least mention that Yeonmi Park, who escaped from North Korea in 2007 before settling in the U.S. in 2014, describes the chilling totalitarian thought control exercised by the North Korean government — the stuff of nightmare dystopianism. The template is by now well established and despots everywhere are only too happy to implement it repeatedly, following an evil trajectory that should be resisted at every turn while still possible.

In my neighborhood of Chicago, it’s commonplace to see vehicles driving on the road with a giant Puerto Rican flag flying from a pole wedged in each of the rear windows. Often, one of the two flags’ traditional colors (red, white, and blue) is changed to black and white — a symbol of resistance. Puerto Rican politics is a complicated nest of issues I don’t know enough about to say more. However, the zeal of my neighbors is notable. Indeed, as I visited a local farmer’s market last weekend, I couldn’t help but notice quite a welcome diversity on display and folks entirely untroubled by the presence of others who didn’t look just like them (tattoos, unnatural hair colors, long beards and shaved heads, nonstandard attire and accoutrements, etc.). I’m actually pleased to see a level of comfort and freedom to present oneself is such manner as one wishes, and not just because of the buzz phrase “diversity and inclusion.” So go ahead: fly your freak flag high! (This same value applies to viewpoint diversity.)

In contrast, when I venture to some far-flung suburb for sundry activities now that lockdowns and restrictions have been lifted, I encounter mostly white, middle-aged, middle-class suburbanites who admittedly look just like me. It’s unclear that folks in those locales are xenophobic in any way, having withdrawn from city life in all its messiness for a cozy, upscale, crime-free subdivision indistinguishable from the next one over. Maybe that’s an artifact of mid-20th-century white flight, where uniformity of presentation and opinion is the norm. Still, it feels a little weird. (Since the 1980s, some rather well-put-together people have returned to the city center, but that usually requires a king-sized income to purchase a luxury condo in some 50-plus-storey tower. After last summer’s BLM riots, that influx turned again to outflux.) One might guess that, as a visible minority within city confines, I would be more comfortable among my own cohort elsewhere, but that’s not the case. I rather like rubbing elbows with others of diverse backgrounds and plurality of perspectives.

I’ve also grown especially weary of critical race theory being shoved in my face at every turn, as though race is (or should be) the primary lens through which all human relations must be filtered. Such slavish categorization, dropping everyone giant, ill-fitted voting blocs, is the hallmark of ideologues unable to break out of the pseudo-intellectual silos they created for themselves and seek to impose on others. Yet I haven’t joined the growing backlash and instead feel increasingly ill at ease in social situations that appear (on the surface at least) to be too white bread. Shows, perhaps, how notions of race that were irrelevant for most of my life have now crept in and invaded my conscience. Rather than solving or resolving longstanding issues, relentless focus on race instead spreads resentment and discomfort. The melting pot isn’t boiling, but summer is not yet over.

Coming back to this topic after some time (pt. 1 here). My intention was to expand upon demands for compliance, and unsurprisingly, relevant tidbits continuously pop up in the news. The dystopia American society is building for itself doesn’t disappoint — not that anyone is hoping for such a development (one would guess). It’s merely that certain influential elements of society reliably move toward consolidation of power and credulous citizens predictably forfeit their freedom and autonomy with little or no hesitation. The two main examples to discuss are Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the response to to the global pandemic, which have occurred simultaneously but are not particularly related.

The BLM movement began in summer 2013 but boiled over in summer 2020 on the heels of the George Floyd killing, with protests spilling over into straightforward looting, mayhem, and lawlessness. That fit of high emotional pique found many protester accosting random strangers in public and demanding a raised fist in support of the movement, which was always ideologically disorganized but became irrational and power-hungry as Wokedom discovered its ability to submit others to its will. In response, many businesses erected what I’ve heard called don’t-hurt-me walls in apparent support of BLM and celebration of black culture so that windows would not be smashed and stores ransacked. Roving protests in numerous cities demanded shows of support, though with what exactly was never clear, from anyone encountered. Ultimately, protests morphed into a sort of protection racket, and agitators learned to enjoy making others acquiesce to arbitrary demands. Many schools and corporations now conduct mandatory training to, among other things, identify unconscious bias, which has the distinct aroma of original sin that can never be assuaged or forgiven. It’s entirely understandable that many individuals, under considerable pressure to conform as moral panic seized the country, play along to keep the peace or keep their jobs. Backlash is building, of course.

The much larger example affecting everyone, nationwide and globally, is the response to the pandemic. Although quarantines have been used in the past to limit regional outbreaks of infectious disease, the global lockdown of business and travel was something entirely new. Despite of lack of evidence of efficacy, the precautionary principle prevailed and nearly everyone was forced into home sequestration and later, after an embarrassingly stupid scandal (in the U.S.), made to don masks when venturing out in public. As waves of viral infection and death rolled across the globe, political leaders learned to enjoy making citizens acquiesce to capricious and often contradictory demands. Like BLM, a loose consensus emerged about the “correct” way to handle the needs of the moment, but the science and demographics of the virus produced widely variant interpretations of such correctness. A truly coordinated national response in the U.S. never coalesced, and hindsight has judged the whole morass a fundamentally botched job of maintaining public health in most countries.

But political leaders weren’t done demanding compliance. Any entirely novel vaccine protocol was rushed into production after emergency use authorization was obtained and indemnification (against what?) was granted to the pharma companies that developed competing vaccines. Whether this historical moment will turn out to be something akin to the thalidomide scandal remains to be seen, but at the very least, the citizenry is being driven heavily toward participation in a global medical experiment. Some states even offer million-dollar lotteries to incentivize individuals to comply and take the jab. Open discussion of risks associated with the new vaccines has been largely off limits, and a two-tier society is already emerging: the vaccinated and the unclean (which is ironic, since many of the unclean have never been sick).

Worse yet (and like the don’t-hurt-me walls), many organizations are adopting as-yet-unproven protocols and requiring vaccination for participants in their activities (e.g., schools, sports, concerts) or simply to keep one’s job. The mask mandate was a tolerable discomfort (though not without many principled refusals), but forcing others to be crash test dummies experimental test subjects is well beyond the pale. Considering how the narrative continues to evolve and transform, thoughtful individuals trying to evaluate competing truth claims for themselves are unable to get clear, authoritative answers. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a situation where authorities in politics, medicine, science, and journalism could worked so assiduously to undermine their own credibility. Predictably, heads (or boards of directors) of many organizations are learning to enjoy the newly discovered power to transform their organizations into petty fiefdoms and demand compliance from individuals — usually under the claim of public safety (“for the children” being unavailable this time). Considering how little efficacy has yet been truly demonstrated with any of the various regimes erected to contain or stall the pandemic, the notion that precautions undertaken have been worth giving injudicious authority to people up and down various power hierarchies to compel individuals remains just that: a notion.

Tyrants and bullies never seem to tire of watching others do the submission dance. In the next round, be ready to hop on one leg and/or bark like a dog when someone flexes on you. Land of the free and home of the brave no longer.

Addendum

The CDC just announced an emergency meeting to be held (virtually) June 18 to investigate reports (800+ via the Vaccination Adverse Effect Reporting System (VAERS), which almost no one had heard of only a month ago) of heart inflammation in adolescents following vaccination against the covid virus. Significant underreporting is anticipated following the circular logic that since authorities declared the vaccines safe prematurely (without standard scientific evidence to support such a statement), the effects cannot be due to the vaccine. What will be the effect of over 140 million people having been assured that vaccination is entirely safe, taken the jab, and then discovered “wait! maybe not so much ….” Will the complete erosion of trust in what we’re instructed told by officialdom and its mouthpieces in journalism spark widespread, organized, grassroots defiance once the bedrock truth is laid bare? Should it?

For more than a decade, I’ve had in the back of my mind a blog post called “The Power of Naming” to remark that bestowing a name gives something power, substance, and in a sense, reality. That post never really came together, but its inverse did. Anyway, here’s a renewed attempt.

The period of language acquisition in early childhood is suffused with learning the names of things, most of which is passive. Names of animals (associated closely with sounds they make) are often a special focus using picture books. The kitty, doggie, and horsie eventually become the cat, dog, and horse. Similarly, the moo-cow and the tweety-bird shorten to cow and bird (though songbird may be an acceptable holdover). Words in the abstract are signifiers of the actual things, aided by the text symbols learned in literate cultures to reinforce mere categories instead of examples grounded in reality. Multiply the names of things several hundred thousand times into adulthood and indeed throughout life and one can develop a formidable vocabulary supporting expressive and nuanced thought and speech. Do you know the differences between acute, right, obtuse, straight, and reflex angles? Does it matter? Does your knowledge of barware inform when to use a flute, coupe, snifter, shot (or shooter or caballito), nosing glass (or Glencairn), tumbler, tankard, goblet, sling, and Stein? I’d say you’ve missed something by never having drunk dark beer (Ger.: Schwarzbier) from a frosted schooner. All these varieties developed for reasons that remain invisible to someone content to drink everything from the venerable red Solo cup. Funnily enough, the red Solo cup now comes in different versions, fooling precisely no one.

Returning to book blogging, Walter Ong (in Orality and Literacy) has curious comparisons between primarily oral cultures and literate cultures. For example:

Oral people commonly think of names (one kind of words) as conveying power over things. Explanations of Adam’s naming of the animals in Genesis 2:20 usually call condescending attention to this presumably quaint archaic belief. Such a belief is in fact far less quaint than it seems to unreflective chirographic and typographic folk. First of all, names do give humans beings power over what they name: without learning a vast store of names, one is simply powerless to understand, for example, chemistry and to practice chemical engineering. And so with all other intellectual knowledge. Secondly, chirographic and typographic folk tend to think of names as labels, written or printed tags imaginatively affixed to an object named. Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag, for they have no idea of a name as something that can be seen. Written or printed representations of words can be labels; real, spoken words cannot be. [p. 33]

This gets at something that has been developing over the past few decades, namely, that as otherwise literate (or functionally literate) people gather more and more information through electronic media (screens that serve broadcast and cable TV, YouTube videos, prerecorded news for streaming, and podcasts, and most importantly, audiobooks — all of which speak content to listeners), the spoken word (re)gains primacy and the printed word fades into disuse. Electronic media may produce a hybrid of orality/literacy, but words are no longer silent, internal, and abstract. Indeed, words — all by themselves — are understood as being capable of violence. Gone are the days when “stick and stones ….” Now, fighting words incite and insults sting again.

Not so long ago, it was possible to provoke a duel with an insult or gesture, such as a glove across the face. Among some people, defense of honor never really disappeared (though dueling did). History has taken a strange turn, however. Proposed legislation to criminalize deadnaming (presumably to protect a small but growing number of transgender and nonbinary people who have redefined their gender identity and accordingly adopted different names) recognizes the violence of words but then tries to transmute the offense into an abstract criminal law. It’s deeply mixed up, and I don’t have the patience to sort it out.

More to say in later blog posts, but I’ll raise the Counter-Enlightenment once more to say that the nature of modern consciousness if shifting somewhat radically in response to stimuli and pressures that grew out of an information environment, roughly 70 years old now but transformed even more fundamentally in the last 25 years, that is substantially discontinuous from centuries-old traditions. Those traditions displaced even older traditions inherited from antiquity. Such is the way of the world, I suppose, and with the benefit of Walter Ong’s insights, my appreciation of the outlines is taking better shape.

/rant on

The self-appointed Thought Police continue their rampage through the public sphere, campaigning to disallow certain thoughts and fence off unacceptable, unsanitary, unhygienic, unhealthy utterances lest they spread, infect, and distort their host thinkers. Entire histories are being purged from, well, history, to pretend they either never happened or will never happen again, because (doncha know?) attempting to squeeze disreputable thought out of existence can’t possibly result in those forbidden fruits blossoming elsewhere, in the shadows, in all their overripe color and sweetness. The restrictive impulse — policing free speech and free thought — is as old as it is stupid. For example, it’s found in the use of euphemisms that pretend to mask the true nature of all manner of unpleasantness, such as death, racial and national epithets, unsavory ideologies, etc. However, farting is still farting, and calling it “passing wind” does nothing to reduce its stink. Plus, we all fart, just like we all inevitably traffic in ideas from time to time that are unwholesome. Manners demand some discretion when farting broaching some topics, but the point is that one must learn how to handle such difficulty responsibly rather than attempting to hold it in drive it out of thought entirely, which simply doesn’t work. No one knows automatically how to navigate through these minefields.

Considering that the body and mind possess myriad inhibitory-excitatory mechanisms that push and/or pull (i.e., good/bad, on/off, native/alien), a wizened person might recognize that both directions are needed to achieve balance. For instance, exposure to at least some hardship has the salutary effect of building character, whereas constant indulgence results in spoiled children (later, adults). Similarly, the biceps/triceps operate in tandem and opposition and need each other to function properly. However, most inhibitory-excitatory mechanisms aren’t so nearly binary as our language tends to imply but rather rely on an array of inputs. Sorting them all out is like trying to answer the nature/nurture question. Good luck with that.

Here’s a case in point: student and professional athletes in the U.S. are often prohibited from kneeling in dissent during the playing of the national anthem. The prohibition does nothing to ameliorate the roots of dissent but only suppresses its expression under narrow, temporary circumstances. Muzzling speech (ironically in the form of silent behavior) prior to sports contests may actually boomerang to inflame it. Some athletes knuckle under and accept the deal they’re offered (STFU! or lose your position — note the initialism used to hide the curse word) while others take principled stands (while kneeling, ha!) against others attempting to police thought. Some might argue that the setting demands good manners and restraint, while others argue that, by not stomping around the playing field carrying placards, gesticulating threateningly, or chanting slogans, restraint is being used. Opinions differ, obviously, and so the debate goes on. In a free society, that’s how it works. Societies with too many severe restrictions, often bordering on or going fully into fascism and totalitarianism, are intolerable to many of us fed current-day jingoism regarding democracy, freedom, and self-determination.

Many members of the U.S. Congress, sworn protectors of the U.S. Constitution, fundamentally misunderstand the First Amendment, or at least they conveniently pretend to. (I suspect it’s the former). Here is it for reference:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Defending the First Amendment against infringement requires character and principles. What we have instead, both in Congress and in American society, are ideologues and authorities who want to make some categories flatly unthinkable and subject others to prosecution. Whistleblowing falls into the latter category. They are aided by the gradual erosion of educational achievement and shift away from literacy to orality, which robs language of its richness and polysemy. If words are placed out of bounds, made unutterable (but not unthinkable), the very tools of thought and expression are removed. The thoughts themselves may be driven underground or reduced to incoherence, but that’s not a respectable goal. Only under the harshest conditions (Orwell depicted them) can specific thoughts be made truly unthinkable, which typically impoverishes and/or breaks the mind of the thinker or at least results in pro forma public assent while private dissent gets stuffed down. To balance and combat truly virulent notions, exposure and discussion is needed, not suppression. But because many public figures have swallowed a bizarre combination of incoherent notions and are advocating for them, the mood is shifting away from First Amendment protection. Even absolutists like me are forced to reconsider, as for example with this article. The very openness to consideration of contrary thinking may well be the vulnerability being exploited by crypto-fascists.

Calls to establish a Ministry of Truth have progressed beyond the Silicon Valley tech platforms’ arbitrary and (one presumes) algorithm-driven removal of huge swaths of user-created content to a new bill introduced in the Colorado State Senate to establish a Digital Communications Regulation commission (summary here). Maybe this first step toward hammering out a legislative response to surveillance capitalism will rein in the predatory behaviors of big tech. The cynic in me harbors doubts. Instead, resulting legislation is far more likely to be aimed at users of those platforms.

/rant off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning to the subject of this post, I asserted that the modern era frustrates a deep, human yearning for meaning. As a result, the Medieval Period, and to a lesser degree, life on the highroad, became narrative fixations. Had I time to investigate further, I would read C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image (1964), but my reading list is already overfull. Nonetheless, I found an executive summary of how Lewis describes the Medieval approach to history and education:

Medieval historians varied in that some of them were more scientific, but most historians tried to create a “picture of the past.” This “picture” was not necessarily based in fact and was meant more to entertain curiosity than to seriously inform. Educated people in medieval times, however, had a high standard for education composed of The Seven Liberal Arts of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.

In the last chapter, Lewis summarizes the influence of the Medieval Model. In general, the model was widely accepted, meaning that most people of the time conformed to the same way of thinking. The model, he reiterates, satisfied imagination and curiosity, but was not necessarily accurate or factual, specifically when analyzed by modern thinkers.

Aside. Regular readers of The Spiral Staircase may also recognize how consciousness informs this blog post. Historical psychology offers a glimpse into worldviews of bygone eras, with the Medieval Period perhaps being the easiest to excavate contemplate due to proximity. Few storytellers (cinema or literature) attempt to depict what the world was truly like in the past (best as we can know) but instead resort to an ahistorical modern gloss on how men and women thought and behaved. One notable exception may be the 1986 film The Name of the Rose, which depicts the emerging rational mind in stark conflict with the cloistered Medieval mind. Sword-and-sandal epics set in ancient Rome and Greece get things even worse.

(more…)

/rant on

Remember all those folks in the weeks and days preceding election day on November 4, 2020, who were buying guns, ammo, and other provisions in preparation for civil breakdown? (No one known personally, of course, and gawd no not actually any of us, either; just them other others who don’t read blogs or anything else.) Well, maybe they were correct adopting the precautionary principal (notably absent from a host of other perils besetting us). But as of this writing, nothing remotely resembling widespread disruption — feared by some, hotly anticipated by others — has developed. But wait! There’s still time. Considering Americans were set up by both political parties to distrust the outcome of the presidential race no matter which candidate claimed to have prevailed, we now face weeks or months of legal challenges and impatient formation of agitators (again, both sides) demanding their candidate be declared the winner (now, dammit!) by the courts instead of either official ballot-counters or the liberal-biased MSM. To say our institutions have failed us, and further, that political operatives all the way up to the sitting president have been openly fomenting violence in the streets, is a statement of the obvious.

Among my concerns more pressing than who gets to sit in the big chair, however, is the whipsawing stock market. Although no longer an accurate proxy of overall economic health or asset valuation, the stock market’s thoroughly irrational daily reaction to every rumor of, say, a vaccine for the raging coronavirus, or resumption of full economic activity and profitability despite widespread joblessness, renewed lockdowns, and a massive wave of homelessness in the offing due to bankruptcies, evictions, and foreclosures, none of this bodes well for the short-term future and maintenance of, oh, I dunno, supply lines to grocery stores. Indeed, I suspect we are rapidly approaching our very own Minsky Moment, which Wikipedia describes as “a sudden, major collapse of asset values which marks the end of the growth phase of a cycle in credit markets or business activity” [underlying links omitted]. This is another prospective event (overdue, actually) for which the set-up has been long prepared. Conspiratorial types call it “the great reset” — something quite different from a debt jubilee.

For lazy thinkers, rhyming comparisons with the past frequently resort to calling someone a Nazi (or the new Hitler) or reminding everyone of U.S. chattel slavery. At the risk of being accused of similar stupidity, I suggest that we’re not on the eve of a 1929-style market crash and ensuing second great depression (though those could well happen, too, bread lines having already formed in 2020) but are instead poised at the precipice of hyperinflation and intense humiliation akin to the Weimar Republic in 1933 or so. American humiliation will result from recognition that the U.S. is now a failed state and doesn’t even pretend anymore to look after its citizens or the commonweal. Look no further than the two preposterous presidential candidates, neither of whom made any campaign promises to improve the lives of average Americans. Rather, the state has been captured by kleptocrats. Accordingly, no more American exceptionalism and no more lying to ourselves how we’re the model for the rest of the world to admire and emulate.

Like Germany in the 1930s, the U.S. has also suffered military defeats and stagnation (perhaps by design) and currently demonstrates a marked inability to manage itself economically, politically, or culturally. Indeed, the American people may well be ungovernable at this point, nourished on a thin gruel of rugged individualism that forestalls our coming together to address adversity effectively. The possibility of another faux-populist savior arising out of necessity only to lead us over the edge (see the Great Man Theory of history) seems eerily likely, though the specific form that descent into madness would take is unclear. Recent history already indicates a deeply divided American citizenry having lost its collective mind but not yet having gone fully apeshit, flinging feces and destroying what remains of economically ravaged communities for the sheer sport of it. (I’ve never understood vandalism.) That’s what everyone was preparing for with emergency guns, ammo, and provisions. How narrowly we escaped catastrophe (or merely delayed it) should be clear in the fullness of time.

/rant off