feelings, nothing more…

Andrew Sullivan has apparently chosen neuroscience as a pet topic for the past few weeks. Key quote:

Without religion or a shared culture, science has assumed a role it is not qualified to play: a judgment of the whole, not just of its relevant area of inquiry. Don’t get me wrong: science is a vital mode of human thought; it is also just part of it. History, aesthetics, prudence, morals, virtues: these it cannot understand; and when it tries to explain them, it is not wrong, so to speak. It’s just irrelevant.

What strikes me so much here is that, out of that list in the final sentence, only ‘History’ is something that arguably takes place (mostly) outside of the human head. The rest are essentially all subtly-colored synonyms for ‘feelings’.

Aesthetics is concerned with shared sub-cultural tastes and values, which are, at their root, feelings-based. Imagine two people: the art professor trying to develop a new formal theory of aesthetics, and some random person in their car choosing a radio station for the drive to work: Whether they realize it or not, each is trying in their own way to answer the same essential questions on some level: What sub-cultural tribe do I identify with? What am I supposed to like or dislike, based upon that? What makes me feel good? What makes me feel uncomfortable, or in territory unfamiliar?.

Tell me your socioeconomic background, age, gender, marital status, where you’re from and your religion, and I’ve got a pretty good chance at guessing your taste in movies, books, art, music and politics. That is ‘aesthetics’.

“Prudence, morals and virtues” have even less essential substance. The study of ‘Morals’, as Nietzsche pointed out over a century ago, is largely a subset of aesthetics (you inherit your initial set of morals from your originating tribe, perhaps modifying them as your tastes change over time as you interact with and move between different sub-cultures), so the above applies. I’d argue that ‘Prudence’ is essentially the urge to avoid public shaming or other consequences. And I’d argue that ‘virtues’ are ultimately derived from pride, both private and public. Prudence, when it works, is the thing that keeps you from getting shunned or expelled from the group. Virtues are the things that will help you to acquire social capital (and therefore status) within a group.

Feelings, all.

Emotional life is of course a valid mode of human experience… but we must remember that nothing is more easily manipulated than human emotion. And if you can control that, then you control almost every other aspect of a person’s psyche. I’ll just post my favorite Richard Feynman quote here:

The first principle [of the scientific method] is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

I pick on Sullivan here because he’s a kind of ‘cultural canary’, quite canny at sniffing out overall trends, and this general anti-science backlash is definitely something I’ve noticed coming back into prominence over these past few years.

The slow, inexorable move towards post-scarcity economics seems to be driving two general trends. First, more and more goods are becoming positional goods, i.e. things that derive their value mostly from their artificial inaccessibility to the general crowd. And secondly, the increased prominence of social capital in the lives of ordinary people.

Up until a few centuries ago, only the ruling class and their courtiers had to worry much about social capital: the so-called lower orders, generally too busy surviving to indulge in much intrigue or social games, tended to derive all their value from their originating tribe. Move forward to the present, and the Everyfolk now seem to spend much of their of time displaying cultural signifiers and tribal identifiers to one another on Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, YouTube, etc. Much like the old Courtiers at Versailles, (though minus the scented handkerchiefs), and frankly not too different from Baboons flashing their red haunches at each other– we are primates, after all, and it’s just part of what we do. There are even forums like Kickstarter now, which give the Everyfolk a chance to actually monetize any social capital they acquire to fund a new product or service.

My point: We seem to be moving from the old American notion of ‘Every Man a King’, towards a new aesthetic (there’s that word again) of ‘Every Man a Courtier’. And I do think this is a big part of what’s driving the anti-science movements, because the notion of objectivity threatens this new culture.

Essentially, you discriminate between tribe A and tribe B by what they believe– but if there is only One Right Answer, that distinction disappears. A positional good rarely has any objective excess value of its own (the $10K Rolex and the $10 Timex are objectively equivalent in function, for example). And most of the baubles of social capital are either matters of opinion (i.e. aesthetics), or have no essential substance at all (i.e. they are completely inside our proverbial heads).

Small wonder, then, that there’s so much anti-scientism in popular culture: If you derive almost all of your personal value from these things, you will unconsciously see science, with its potentially corrosive truth-seeking, to be a dire threat to your very self.

IMO this will only get worse as time moves on: But this tension between our tribal primiate natures, and the new global machine-culture that’s being born as we speak, will be one of the primal forces driving everything from our art to our politics for at least the next few decades.

marathon memories, in no particular order…

For the first handful of years to my life, Patriot’s Day just happened to be the Monday of April vacation week (most Massachusetts schoolchildren have this week off, and most businesses are closed today as well). There was a Marathon or something, it was a Boston thing, it was all over the local news. It often rained, but once in awhile it was the start of true Spring weather. Sometimes it fell on the day after Easter. It was just part of the rhythm of the year. Last vacation before summer.

My first adult year living in Boston (this would be April 1990), I was struck with this sudden irrational urge to buy and set up an aquarium. I decided to walk to a nearby pet store (found in the yellow pages, which were still a useful thing back then) to get a tank, filter and some gravel for initial setup. I had to cross Beacon Street to get there, and it turned out… oh, Marathon. That’s right, it’s today. That year they had kids in uniform (ROTC kids, I think; from local schools, probably) serving as escorts to help noisome pedestrians like myself across breaks in the (surprisingly distributed– as you cross it, the street is actually eerily empty) pack of runners so we could get to the other side of the street. So I crossed in one direction, an awkward anonymous grad student all alone. And a half hour later I crossed in the other direction, the same awkward anonymous grad student bearing a 10 gallon aquarium tank with 3 bags of gravel and a filter inside of it, on his way home to fill said tank up with water so he could let it sit for a week to settle before he could add some fish to it.

Later (1995-9 or so), it became a day when there was no point in trying to take the train to work. I’d take it off, hide from the crowds. It signified the beginning of the end of the Winter Funk. I developed a habit of going to the local package store (along the route) in the late afternoon on Marathon day. Most of the crowd had dispersed by then, but standing in the littered streets were always those last few Spectators, and they’d be cheering on the ‘stragglers’ who were at that point just running to finish it. To this day, when you say “Marathon” to me, that is the image that comes to me.

By now, I live well north of downtown, and I know how to get to work without running into Marathon issues. It’s just another day. But then I heard sirens, and heard planes flying over Cambridge, and checked twitter etc and found out what had happened only a few minutes after it had.

So, Now?

Ask me in a year. Or two. Or a few.

For today, so close to home… barely two miles from my office?

I have nothing.

‘Indie Capitalism’: Once you name it, it’s a Thing.

After yesterday’s rant on the Great Inevitable Future of Work, I stumble onto this article in WiReD about ‘Indie Capitalism’. This article, itself, quotes another article in Businessweek on the same subject– arguably a more mainstream/non-techie publication, which indicates that the idea has ‘arrived’, I suppose.

So, ‘Indie Capitalism’ now has a name. Which means that it is now a Thing (ie a meme or concept that I now expect to see mentioned or bandied about all over the place over the next few months).

Another cultural indicator: Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on ‘The Art of Asking’ (via boingboing), giving a pop-musician’s view on how to use Kickstarter and social media. Note that the self-named ‘Happy Mutant’ set is precisely the well-off, largely self-employed demographic I referred to yesterday, so those circles bear watching.

I’ll just wryly note that now that ‘Indie Capitalism’ is a Cool Thing, then (almost by definition) that means that exclusionary networks are sure to arise (or existing ones re-enforced) to limit access to the Cool Thing… because otherwise, the Thing would cease to be Cool.

This was essentially what I was trying to get at with yesterday’s post– Damien Walter’s article is the only one I’ve read on the subject that doesn’t make the implicit assumption that all class/social barriers to entry to this new ‘regime of work’ are either already gone, or about to disappear.

contra leisuretopia (some random thoughts).

Just wanted to make note of an interesting article by sci-fi author Damien Walter in aeon magazine about the possibility of a ‘creative culture’ arising in the near future, as the natural result of increased automation and our current, inexorable shift towards a pure-knowledge economy.

The article falls in line with current thoughts and assumptions about the Great Inevitable Future of Work. It’s not an unusual vision by now: Most of the drudge-labor gets delegated to machines. Most manufacturing is done on-site via 3D printers. The now-displaced labor class then somehow gets magically educated into the ‘knowledge economy’, and voila!, fast forward— It’s the late 21st century! And all nine billion souls on the planet are earning a living wage by doing 10-15 hrs a week of freelance work (all funded on Kickstarter, of course) on their laptops at the local cafe!

I’ll just politely note that these claims are invariably made by well-born, well-educated, well-off, well-connected and generally self-employed types who already inhabit a world that looks much like this. It’s a very nice, pleasant and well-meaning vision (though I can’t help but wonder how much of it is unconsciously driven by guilt: Don’t worry, unemployed laborers… soon you’ll all get to live and work like we do! Just be patient!) While I agree in principle that such a society is theoretically possible (and may in fact be one of the few pleasant near-futures available to us), to ignore issues of custom, law and class –not to mention human nature– when talking about the transition always seemed somewhat naive to me.

Which is why this article jumped out at me: Mr. Walter actually mentions class. Money quote:

As much as our social hierarchies are about limiting and controlling access to wealth, they are also about limiting and controlling access to creativity. Increasingly, the real benefit that money buys is the time, freedom and power to act creatively.

Bingo. I’ll also note, without comment, that only a Brit could have written the above English sentence so honestly, and gotten it published. (Here in the US, you can’t even utter the words ‘social hierarchy’ in most circles without being greeted by eyerolls– we’re quite well trained in that respect).

At least here in the first world, while we clearly haven’t banished poverty or inequity (far from it), all but the very poorest among us can afford at least some degree of what would have been considered physical plenty by their ancestors. They don’t live in rags, as the pre-Revolutionary French peasants would have done. Many have ‘luxuries’ like HDTVs, a cellphone, and often some kind of vehicle (albeit a used one). Once mere possession of an object could no longer serve as a suitable class marker, the discriminating factor became Quality. Compare a 1975 BMW or Mercedes against a 1975 Ford or Chevy, for example. Most of us got access to automobiles by that point, thanks to a half-century of Fordism… but only the Quality could afford the Best (or vice versa).

But in the ensuing decades, manufacturing has become so efficient that we now live in a world where lower-end products have almost equivalent utility to their higher-end counterparts: Going back to our car example, compare a 2012 BMW to a 2012 Ford or Honda, and you’ll note much less difference-in-quality between the two than there would have been 35+ years prior. Is the $1800 Mac better than the $900 PC with equivalent specs? IMO, yes, it still is. Is it twice as good or useful? No. No it isn’t. The surplus is for that logo– which, you’ll note, is conspicuously placed on the backside of the laptop, for others to see. Not you.

IMO, this is what has driven our current era’s obsession with ‘Branding’ and ‘Mindshare’. Our cultural wiring still requires Discriminators, so we insist they are there when they’re really not. Clothing would be another area where the only real discriminator at this point is the trademarked icon put there by the manufacturer: Since almost anyone can afford a decent shirt, pants and shoes nowadays, those little icons on your chest are all that’s left to announce your social status, economic worth, general class and tribal affiliation to any passers-by who might wish to evaluate you. Those sigils by Apple, Nike, Champion or BMW are essentially the current incarnation of tribal tattoos, put there for others to see. Not you.

Back to Walter’s article: Leisure time has of course been a class marker for at least as long as there has been such a thing as social hierarchies: It was never coincidence that the Throne was a seat, before which you stood (or knelt, or groveled). But, with increased automation and lesser need for human labor, ‘leisure’ has become available to more people than ever before (ironically, even in the case of the chronically un-/under-employed, who would perhaps prefer to be less idle). So, as with Branding, the game has to change to suit our habitual nature– and I believe Walter’s quote up above points out our current quandary very nicely.

I live in a country where people argue against food stamps/unemployment insurance because some cunning idler might use them to buy cigarettes, or booze, or cellphones (none of these claims are objectively true, since purchases are limited by category, but cross-tribal hatreds run strong in an era of perceived decline). Few seem willing to pay to educate the entire American populace up the economic food chain, either. Nor does our current economy seem able to create jobs for all those who do manage to get educated above their birth-class. So it’s not clear to me how we’re supposed to transition from our current state of affairs to some post-Labor Leisure Culture. We can’t all start businesses, Capital is too scarce (ie the banks would never fund them all). We can’t all go freelance, because there are only so many slots available, and so many barriers to entry and gatekeepers in the way.

Most serious thinkers seem to realize the necessary End Game at this point, but none seem to have a serious, believable, achievable path to get there without some massive (and very unlikely) mass-transformation in the culture and psychology of those currently living.

I’ll let Mr Walter finish the topic, since it was his article that got me started:

We need to learn this lesson as a culture. We have to place the human capacity to create at the very centre of our social and political life. Instead of treating it as a peripheral benefit of economic growth, we need to understand that our wealth only grows at the speed that we can develop our creative capacities. And we must realise that we can no longer afford to empower the creativity of the few at the cost of the many. Our systems of government, business and education must make it their mission to support the creative fulfilment of every human being.

So… how to get to this future, from here?

Or are we just kidding ourselves?

slouching towards zanzibar…

SOTU is in a half hour or so. To my mind, this is when the second Obama Administration begins (everything since the election –Hagel, Brennan, drone memos, the fiscal cliff– has just been the usual noise and aftermath, at this scale). That just seems to be part of the national rhythm. Between that, and exhaustion, I haven’t been paying as much attention to politics since the election as I usually do.

It’s been a bizarre few weeks, outside of politics: Aaron Swartz committed suicide over the JSTOR case. Iran may (or may not) have launched a monkey into space and got it back to Earth safely. North Korea managed to sort of launch a rocket, and then went on to confirm that they could still make Uranium go critical under highly controlled conditions underground. We had a Blizzard of ’78 class storm here. The pope resigned (like many, I didn’t even know he could do that). An ex-cop starts out on an OJ-esque rampage of revengeful murders and multi-cop chase scenes, and (as I write this) ends up in a Waco-esque burning cabin, complete with billowing black smoke (in karmic honor of the upcoming Conclave, I can only assume).

Oh, and Ted Nugent (who has made physical threats against coined some disturbingly colorful ‘metaphors’ involving POTUS in the past) will attend the SOTU, at the personal invitation of some (to me) obscure Tea-Party House member.

Compare this to the post-2003 career trajectory of the ill-fated, anti-Bush Dixie Chicks.

About ten minutes to SOTU now. And they’re announcing Dorner’s apparent death (and that of at least one deputy). Finishing up just in time for the 9pm speech coverage. Tidy, that.

The title came to me as I was typing my news summary, it really is the Stand on Zanzibar era in some ways… and I really do need to finish that book.

always on a friday…

…another shooting. This one at a school in Connecticut. Twenty young kids, dead. Even the President, himself with kids in school, tears up a little as he talks about it.

I have nothing to add or say that hasn’t been added or said. I just want to remember that (at this time, anyway) the Consensus feels a little different. Maybe because it was kids in school, or because the chief target was one of the teachers, shot by her own son in her own classroom with her own gun. Or because after four or five of these in a year, people have just kind of had it with the NRA and their apologists. Nobody seriously expects a sudden move towards gun control. But I sense that we’re allowed to use those words out loud, again.

For my part, this is just another example of how our collective, cultural inability to think, talk and act like adults has been hurting us since at least Reagan.

IMO, we could at least try regulating firearms at least as attentively as we regulate automobiles, alcohol and OTC decongestants, and see what happens.

one month later…

…to the day, I just realized.

Obama and the Quants won. Now we’re four-weeks deep into the ambiguous aftermath, headed towards what has been billed as the ‘fiscal cliff’, a time bomb strapped to economy by the lame-duck Congress of 2010.  No one can agree what that means, exactly. All seem to agree that it will change… something.

Israel almost invaded Gaza, then decided not to with a little help from the new (post Arab Spring) Egypt. Meanwhile, Morsi starts strange post-revolutionary parliamentary maneuvers we haven’t seen since the 1970s.  Gen. Petraeus resigns his CIA post amid some scandal. We’re still trying to figure out WTF is going on in Libya.  Assad contemplates using chemical weapons on his own people, knowing that will start a major war with US/NATO/etc.

Few people here in the US have had the time or energy to follow any of this. I haven’t. I’ve been too exhausted, myself, which is why I haven’t written anything.

With regards to the election, the one big, long-lasting takeaway from last month is this: They were True Believers, after all. Karl Rove refused to believe that his team had lost Ohio. Skeptics like me assumed that Karl Rove “knew” he had Ohio in the bag, for nefarious reasons.  Turns out that, no, Karl Rove literally inhabits a different universe where the electorate was whiter, older, more conservative. He really did have alternative math.

But it wasn’t just Turd Blossom. Turns out that Romney himself had been so certain of victory that he’d ordered up some celebratory fireworks for Boston Harbor, and neglected to write a concession speech. His own team’s polls had him up in NH, OH, CO, FL and VA.  Polls that weren’t so much unscientific, as colored by “personal expectation” on the part of the interpreters. (Because, after all, any damned geek in a white lab coat can take a poll, that’s just sissy mathematics– you’re paying for the interpretation, aren’t you?)

That scares me, frankly: These Reality-Creators had, in fact, gotten trapped in the very world they had built for us. So they were unable to see what was plainly there before them. Unable to see and process uncomfortable truths. Unable to make decisions based on real data.

Imagine what magnificent foreign policy blunders such a mindset could have accomplished. Imagine how much collateral damage to the social safety net and the working class such a mindset could have accomplished.

These people almost got to run the country.