Category: quasi-meta

black iron prison, velvet cage.

How does one destroy a Republic? You destroy the very notion of res publica.

You convince the people that there is… no People. No civic space. No public forum. Every square inch of the planet, owned by someone. Every idea, every invention, every thought, every human creation of value, owned by someone.

Every one of us… well, owned, by someone.

You convince them that the notion of banding together in their own common interest is naive and stupid at best, or insidious and evil at worst.

You leverage almost a century’s worth of social engineering to peel away at their very human pieces. Commoditize their religions, their politics, their stories, their History, their fictions. Their dreams.

Train them to identify with some abstract Tribe (their innate biological wiring predisposes them to it, after all) and to instinctively distrust, despise anyone or anything Other. Offer them a limited buffet of (so-called) “Lifestyles”, and they will happily choose, and thank you for the right to do so. Train them to speak in social codes, shibboleth, images, feelings, symbols that are unique to each tribe, until they lose the ability to even communicate across the artificial semiotic fences you’ve built for them.

Give them idols to worship– artists without art. Leaders without leadership. Gods without… godliness. Give them joyless, pointless festivals and rituals to keep them busy, and so they can feel as though they belong. Keep them just well fed enough that they won’t revolt (but not too well– be sure to keep just enough of the poor around to keep the others in permanent fear of losing what little they have).

You convince them that this is the only World. That they are without hope of escape, or improvement, or that the very notion of the possibility of ‘progress’ in the classical sense is a naive illusion, or delusion (and make sure you train them how to laugh at those who do, while you’re at it). That Power is all. That Money is all. That they are nothing more than meat to be cultivated, bought and sold, and finally consumed.

Until one day, they have nothing left but fear and ignorance; distrust and hatred. The useful submission that comes from Quiet Desperation.

You train them to act as their own prison guards, essentially. No need to censor (or censure), at least not publically. Keep the forums open and free, and let the little people speak as much as they want. For have no fear, the others will gladly shout them down.

Black Iron Prison, indeed. Only this time around, enclosed within a Cage of Velvet Rope.

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.

‘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?

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.

no peanuts in church…

…probably had something to do with allergic reactions in crowded spaces.

The last time I was on an airplane, they wouldn’t give me my bag of peanuts. Because the kid in front of me was allergic.

Some actuary had actually modeled, computed and assessed the risk of me spraying the kid in the seat in front of me with Sublime Airborne Peanut Spray, thereby causing their horrible death via anaphylactic shock.  And my taste for peanuts (and sincere need for vegetable protein) were just not worth the actuarial risk.

Ok, fine. I didn’t want to kill anyone. I had just wanted to eat some peanuts.

That said, I (much later) remembered the old Boston Puritans had outlawed eating peanuts in church, long ago, and it was still technically on the books. As a child, I had assumed this had some obscure almost-medieval reasoning behind it (peanuts were of the devil and sparked fires, summoned earthquakes and made the cows infertile). Or maybe it had something to do with the slave trade.

But no, it was probably allergies. Someone’s kid got sprayed with Sublime Airborne Peanut Spray in church, and died in convulsions. Accusing the neighbors of Witchcraft to get their land was long passé at that point (and that nonsense had always been for the backwards Country Folk, anyway), so they just decided to ban the peanuts.

It’s a theory, anyway. And so now I have this domain name.

Makes perfect sense, really.