April - May 2010

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April 2. The latest Archdruid post, Riddles in the Dark, puts together a lot of important insights:

1) Certain nations feed off the labor and resources of the rest of the world. 2) The citizens of these nations need to be paid off or distracted, or they will violently revolt. The Romans called this "bread and circuses". 3) One of the big ways we are paid off is through extremely high wages. I would add, we mistake these for low wages because the Beast immediately steals this money back from us through rent and interest, so we need extremely high wages to not be homeless. Instead of pitying Africans who live on a dollar a day, we should ask, "What if our society was set up so that we could live on a dollar a day, and still make $15 an hour?"

4) Because our wages are so high, human labor is the limiting factor in the size and growth of businesses and other money-based systems. So economists view efficiency and productivity in terms of how much stuff is done per unit of human labor. This leads to insanity like industrial agriculture, which wastes massive amounts of energy and physical resources, destroys topsoil, and produces unhealthful food, but allows one farmer to work hundreds of acres.

5) But economists haven't thought it through. When agriculture and manufacturing become more "efficient", what happens to the people who lose their jobs? If they are cut off from the benefits of the Empire, they turn against it politically. I would add that in Europe, unemployed people just go on the dole, but in America, with our puritan work ethic, they have to be given other jobs. These jobs are mostly meaningless and degrading busywork in finance, insurance, real estate, and high tech. Greer is arguing that a system made of human labor is better in terms of physical resources, but I would say it's also better in terms of human nature. The more directly our work is related to our own survival and pleasure, the more we feel like life has meaning and the system is fair.

April 6. I love this rant about vampires: fictional vampires have now been watered down to where they're exactly like humans except sexy and strong and immortal, and yet they mope and whine about it.

Why is this story so popular? Maybe vampires are a metaphor for Americans sucking the blood from the rest of the world, and still not being happy. But unlike vampires, we have good reasons to be depressed. Almost everything we have gained is shallow -- sweet food, flashy colors, comfortable temperatures, dizzying speed -- while what we have lost is deep: a minute-to-minute life in which our actions arise from the aliveness inside us, and the sense that we're equal participants in a story that we believe in.

Or maybe we're seeing the future: If biotech survives the ongoing collapse, which seems likely, then we may see cures for aging, and for most fatal diseases, in this century. I see only two ways to make this work: if everybody gets immortality technology, suicide will have to be the most common cause of death; but if too many people actually enjoy living thousands of years, the technology will have to be restricted to a small elite.

April 8. Three good collapse posts. In The Twilight of the Machine, John Michael Greer explains in detail why we're going to have to shift from machine labor to human labor, and concludes that we need to focus on learning skills and building simple tools.

In The Simplification of Complex Societies, John Robb suggests that we may be able to avoid a painful drop in complexity by shifting from one complex system to another, through resilient communities, which will grow at the edges of the old system.

Finally, in Refactoring Civilization, Adam Feuer gives a bunch of examples of innovations to smoothly reduce complexity.

I'm thinking about the highly complex technologies that I use most frequently: computer, operating system, internet, automobile. All four of these are getting rapidly more complex, and if any of them are going to survive an overall drop in complexity, someone needs to make a new model that is less complex, and easier to manufacture and maintain, than the old model. No one is doing this. A few years ago I switched from Windows to the simpler Puppy Linux, but Linux is still being forced to become more complex to keep up with the increasing complexity of computers and the internet.

I think computers and the internet are going down. And I won't change my mind until I see new computers and new ways of connecting them that are simpler and more resilient than the ones we have now. I think cars are going down, and I won't change my mind until I see a new car with wheels and suspension designed for potholed roads, that any competent mechanic can fix in a garage with locally made parts.

These innovations are possible in theory, but I don't expect them. I expect cars and computers to become less and less reliable, and slowly withdraw to the wealthiest areas -- just like the government. And think of all the other things that depend on cars and trucks and computers. As I wrote yesterday, our physical infrastructure is so complex that it's not realistic for every part of every system to be manufactured locally. A region that can neither make a component, nor have it shipped in, will eventually lose everything that depends on that component.

I'm optimistic -- I think we will innovate our way through this, but these innovations will be growing through the cracks of the old system, rather than trying to fix it.

April 12. I've been thinking more about Anne's provocatively pessimistic statement (in this post) that without any tech crash, just a financial crash will have us all standing in line for coal mining jobs. If we ask why, we open a deep hole that leads to the enclosure movement, massacres of Indians, and every repressive system in history.

For any system to control you, it must stand between your work and your food. I know there are other needs like shelter and water and warmth, but in most regions, food is the big one. In a forager hunter tribe, or a family of subsistence farmers, your work directly creates your food. You might be poor, but you're free. In industrial civilization, you probably have a job that has nothing to do with producing food, where if you challenge your superiors, you'll be fired, and no longer receive the tokens that are required for food and shelter. You might be surrounded by dazzling technology and comfort, but you are owned.

Now, if this system collapses, you're free but you're hungry; your need for food, and your ability to work, are like two poles of a battery. If you can't connect them yourself, you need something to connect them for you, a social machine that can use your work and give you food. This could be a nice community farm, a crime gang, or a new complex domination system that's worse than the old one.

I'd like to imagine a new complex system that is much better. We can tell wonderful stories about a gift economy information utopia, but at some point we have to ask: where does the food come from? Is it grown by slaves? Suppose it's grown by free people -- and I don't mean free in the watered-down American sense, but economically free, where they could easily not work for anyone but themselves, but they choose to grow extra food because they get something in exchange. What do they get? Lots of money? Which they then use to hire farm workers who are not economically free? And then, when the people who do the actual work want to own the means of production, they have a revolution? We've been through that, and I fear we're going to keep going through it again and again.

I can see only one way to have a non-repressive society of any size. Every person has to have the ability, whether or not they use it, to connect their work (or the work of their close friends and family) directly to their food (and also shelter). And on top of that foundation, if we want universities and airplanes and computers, those functions are bought by autonomous food producers with surplus food.

I touched on this a few years ago in a post on Malthus: "How can we have a dense population center that does not grow all its own food, but does not deplete the land that its food comes from? The answer is simple: the people in the city must not own the land, or otherwise control it." An unsustainable city owns the farmers around it, and a sustainable city is owned by the farmers around it. So the question is not, "What do we give the farmers to make them feed us?" It's, "What non-food jobs do we farmers want to create?"

April 20. The Expansion of Ignorance. Kevin Kelly finds exponential increases in "information", measured by web pages, and "knowledge", measured by patent applications and scientific articles. But then he points out that answers create new questions, so what we don't know (or more precisely, what we know we don't know) is increasing exponentially faster than what we know. Terence McKenna said it best: "The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."

But there's a deeper question that Kelly doesn't ask. What exactly is information? The most charitable answer is that information is the expansion of our consciousness into the fabric of reality itself. The least charitable answer is that information is lies: stories that our detached rational brain tells itself to make sense of experience.

This is basically what Dmitry Orlov argues in The Great Unreasoning: that when we map our systems of thought onto reality, we always crash and burn; and this is not because our systems of thought have not yet been perfected, but because "the exercise of our ability to think can reach the point of diminishing, then negative, returns." And "the human propensity for abstract reasoning is a defect of breeding that leads to collective insanity."

I touched on some of these issues in The Age of Batshit Crazy Machines. The information explosion claims to be taking us outward, but it's mostly taking us inward. This is the same point that Jerry Mander made in In The Absence of the Sacred: that our technological progress is not evolution but inbreeding. Most of the bits flowing around the internet are games or porn. Most of our technology is being used to cut us off from the world around us, rather than help us face it.

How much of this is built into the technologies themselves, and how much is in how we decide to use them? If we do choose to turn our attention outward, what is the best way to do so? Clearly we can use rational thought to see the limits of rational thought, but how do we go beyond those limits?

April 21-22. Disaster Utopianism, a review of the book A Paradise Built in Hell. Contrary to popular myth, crowds are rational, people remain calm in disasters, and big disruptions are big opportunities for both repression and autonomy. Anne comments:

I was in Haiti with the relief effort. I agree wholeheartedly with the review of Solnit's book. It's a truism that in a disaster you have to work harder to keep well-meaning but unskilled people from hurting themselves trying to help, than you ever have to work to keep the survivors from hurting each other trying to steal or rape. We had a saying that went around the rescue workers, usually said to newbies on their first encounter with a corpse:

"The three myths of a disaster are that the dead bodies will kill you, the survivors will kill you, and the men with guns are there to help."

A second observation is that there are always gangsters, and the crimes they were putting together in Haiti were much better organized than the "looting" and "rioting" you saw on the news. Plenty of kingpins and would-be warlords used the earthquake to arrange dubious contracts, ensnare debtors, attract followers and jockey for position in what remained of the political infrastructure.

April 29. Last week I mentioned that we don't have a good definition of the word "information". Then I found out that physicist Vlatko Vedral has made a mathematical definition of information, which has to do with the unlikeliness of the event. So, is this definition the same thing that techno-utopians are talking about, with their information explosion? I don't know! A European reader, Yiedyie, looked at Vedral's book and sent me a bunch of deep thoughts, from which I extracted a few insights.

First, in the philosophical sense, I am not a materialist but an idealist. I think mind is the fundamental reality, and matter is something that mind creates, for reasons we can only guess. Another way to think of it is that reality itself is like a dream, but when many perspectives share a dream, they need a set of rules, and these rules appear to us as matter and energy.

This explains a lot of phenomena that defy materialism, and it erases the "hard problem of consciousness". But it raises new questions, like: if a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there, does it even make sense to talk about it? Or: when astronauts first saw the far side of the moon, was the landscape just then created, and if so, by whom?

These questions force us to accept that the conscious human mind is only a tiny, tiny fraction of the mind or minds creating the physical world. To put it another way: if you are a solipsist, and you think the entire universe is your dream, then you must have a massive subconscious mind to generate and manage it all.

This leads to one of Yiedyie's thoughts. Quoting Gregory Bateson: "No organism can afford to be conscious of matters with which it could deal at unconscious levels." So the high tech information explosion is not creating new information, but is bringing information from subconscious levels, where we were dealing with it just fine, to the conscious level, where it overwhelms the feeble processing power of our rational minds, and leaves us distracted and confused.

Next, getting deeper: what is entropy? Here's an article on the new theory that gravity emerges from information and entropy. It's only a small step from the idea that information is the root of reality, to the idea that mind is the root of reality. And this provides an easy answer to a hard question: if the whole universe is winding down, how did it get wound up in the first place? I once read a speculation that the Big Bang was a massive spike of negative entropy in the quantum whatever. Put this in metaphysical terms, and a system is wound up in the first place by a pure act of will, when mind chooses to condense itself into matter and energy.

But here's the kicker: that means entropy is matter turning back into mind. This reminds me of my 2007 post on entropy, with this amazing comment from Joel:

I heard a fun lecture by Freeman Dyson a few years ago, in which he refuted the notion of a "heat death" of the universe due to the spread of entropy. As the last stars cool down and space warms up, there will be less energy available, but in his calculations this would never slow down the pace of adaptation enough to cause a universal extinction, even as the whole system approaches equilibrium.
I really like the second law from an aesthetic point of view, because of my view of entropy. A good professor of mine said he was annoyed by people who thought of entropy as disorder; a better word for it is fluidity, or maybe unpredictability. To me, the second law says that a system will continue to become more amenable to change, have more variety, and be less easy to predict, if left to its own devices.

May 4. Wind turbines without gears are lighter, cheaper, more reliable. This is because they're simpler, with half as many moving parts, and permanent magnets instead of electromagnets in the generators. Engineers love to make this kind of innovation, and it's exactly what we need to smooth the ongoing collapse. If energy producers know how to simplify while preserving function, it's a good sign that the energy crash will not be catastrophic. But...

When was the last time you saw this kind of innovation in a consumer product? Can you imagine the next generation Ford F-series or Toyota Camry being smaller and cheaper with only half as many parts? The first Apple II could be taken apart without tools, and came with a schematic of the entire circuitry. What would it take for Apple to go back to that?

The deeper issue here is that consumers are powerless. Or, humans have fallen into a powerless role that we call being a "consumer". Here's a related article from a few weeks ago, The Lost Tribes of Radio Shack. We have forgotten how to produce or create anything, except as part of a giant machine that eats the Earth to generate garbage and control. In this economic context, any business that empowers us erodes its own profit base. Apple built a great reputation by giving us participation in power, but its stock didn't take off until it took away our power and gave us toys.

But this economic context is not normal. I remember a saying from the late 90's tech bubble, and nothing so stupid has ever been mistaken for wisdom: "What doesn't grow, dies." It's true that what doesn't adapt dies, but getting bigger is a bad way to adapt, because it makes future adaptations more and more difficult.

So, today's big companies that make consumer products will mostly die out with the consumption paradigm, and the adaptations will be made by small new systems. What will those adaptations be? In the next age, the goal of a business will not be to enable investors to increase their money by doing nothing, but to enable customers to improve their lives by doing autonomous work. There are already businesses selling shovels and canning jars and tractor clutches. But if advanced technologies can be taken apart by users, the next step is to make the parts and let users put them together in different ways. Here's a related John Robb post, Modular Tools for Resilient Communities. And the next step is to just make the instructions for making the parts, and the next step after that is to give the instructions away free.

May 17. Brian comments on the seduction community:

For better and worse, the Seduction Community has changed my life. I never realized that people were so irrational, that they responded to the silliest manipulations, and that sexual attraction was based on such crazy irrational things. It's crazy to think that there are people whose lives revolve around figuring out ways to get laid as many times as possible by as many attractive women as possible. It's really disheartening me and has changed the way I view humans, for the worse.

It's also made me much more protective of my significant other. I never realized why I was trapped in the "friend zone" with everyone, and reading things from the Seduction Community revolutionized my approach, and has made me much more attractive to women in general. But... when I thought my girlfriend loved me because I was awesome, fun, wanted to change the world, I was never worried about losing her. When I think that she is attracted to me because I'm cocky/funny, and initiated attraction a certain way, now I'm worried that any guy can do that. Especially when reading pick-up artist blogs about how these guys get happily married women to sleep with them, within one day of meeting them. It's really fucked up. It's hard for me to ever think I can fully love/trust someone again.

This is similar to how rich guys never know if women really love them, or just love their money. And there is a simple and difficult solution: Don't use the techniques. It will make it harder for you to find someone, but when you do, you will know that she likes you for something you have and other guys don't.

But this answer is too simple, because when you look through the advice that pickup artists give, some of it is psychopathic and some of it is insightful and benign. Here's an example that two readers sent: The Sixteen Commandments Of Poon. In the third commandment, he tells you not to make a woman the center of your existence, but then immediately says that "women want to subordinate themselves". Yes, this is a culture that can't even imagine a relationship where one person is not controlling the other. The sixteenth is great advice: "Never be afraid to lose her." But in this context, the seventh is telling: Keep another woman as a backup, because otherwise your main woman can threaten to leave you, which "will rend your soul if you are faced with contemplating the empty abyss alone."

These guys don't have it. And not having it is both the cause and the effect of faking it. Consider number eleven: "Be irrationally self-confident." Why not build up a basis for rational confidence? Motivational gurus who talk about "confidence" are exploiting a bug in the English language, which uses the same word for two different things. One is cockiness, and the other might be called mastery: having skills and being aware of them. Cockiness can be bootstrapped, but skills must be learned through struggling and failure. Cockiness is a tempting road, and it can take you a long way, but eventually you have to go back to the beginning and start over. The "empty abyss" is the place where you should have built something real to stand on.

I follow the straight and patient road of not-seduction. Here's a little list of rules:

1. Be Transparent. Show what you're feeling; say what you're thinking. Offer and accept communications at face value. Do this from the beginning, and the bad relationships will run from you like shadows from the light. Now, this doesn't mean you can't use non-verbal techniques to make people feel better -- but here is the test: If you were to explain everything you are doing and why, would the other person feel exploited, or honored?

2. Become Skilled at Being Single. Learn to make good food, pay your bills, motivate yourself, stay sane, and get sexual release, by yourself and with help from friends. Then why do you even need a partner? Exactly. But you might still appreciate a partner, which is a stronger position.

3. Embrace the Friend Zone. Having friends is a good thing. The suffering of the "friend zone" is an illusion created by desire. Let go of desire and the prison becomes paradise -- or the false friendship is exposed. Of course, you might still fantasize about another kind of relationship. The key is that you are not holding tension between where you are and where you are not.

4. Broaden Your Standards. Typically, guys who complain that women are attracted to assholes, are themselves attracted to asshole women. (Actually, this explains a lot about pickup artist culture.) Remember that nice person who you rejected for not being sexy enough? That's karma: you must follow the rules you make. At the same time, nobody wants to be settled for. Practice valuing qualities that are valuable.

5. Be Like Water. Do not push anything, but move instantly to fill any opening. This will not generate nearly as much sex as aggressive seduction, but it will make it better, by filtering out sex for the sake of proving something, and leaving only sex based on strong mutual attraction.

6. Sex Is Not the Goal. There is no goal. There is only the process: be who you are, and engage with what you encounter on that road.

One reason I live like this, is that the more I influence someone on a subconscious and senseless level, the more I despise them, and I don't want to spend my life among people I despise. If I'm applying for a job, and I hear that wearing a certain kind of pants will make them more likely to hire me, I have a strong urge to wear exactly the wrong pants to wake them the fuck up.

But it also occurs to me that this is a luxury. If your kids are starving, you're going to wear the hypnotic pants. We live on a planet of zombie monkeys, and we have to choose our battles, and compromise between meeting our needs and making the world better.

May 19. Just finished reading a new sci-fi novel, The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. That link goes to a nice review by Cory Doctorow. The story has the good kind of plot twist, where a character makes a crazy move that seems to surprise even the author. Also it has impressive moral complexity, leaving you totally on your own to decide what's wrong or right. And best of all, this is the first fiction I've seen about the medium-distant future that sees it the same way I do: Oil-based civilization will collapse, but large complex systems will survive and regrow using a different resource base; and biotech will be much more important than computers.

I have only one complaint. Why does so much "quality" science fiction take place in a cutthroat world where everyone is trying to fuck everyone else? Why are so many characters either hyperselfish or agonizing over their own inadequacy? I have a theory: this is the personality that develops in humans who are allied to powerful technology. Because the technology does the hard stuff for them, they never develop inner strength, or learn to cooperate with other people. And sci-fi authors are noticing this trend and exaggerating it.

Compare this with fantasy. In dumb fantasy, characters are intrinsically good or evil, and this determines whether they use magic for good or evil purposes. In smart fantasy, evil characters become evil because of magic, and they are opposed by good characters using inner strength, cooperation, and the power of nature. And when you think about the meaning of "the power of nature", biotech becomes extremely interesting...

May 28. I've been thinking more about language. Last week someone asked me if the reason I don't like to get drunk is that I like to stay in "control". Among modern liberals, "control" is a dirty word; we're supposed to not control others or control ourselves, but let everything be free. But again, we're confused by a language that uses one word to point to different things. One of them I would call domination. But consider a pitcher who controls the ball, or a pilot who controls an airplane. This is what you might call precision. The reason I don't like to be drunk, is not that I want to dominate myself, or even that I want to follow logic and not emotion. It's that I want to maintain agility and precision in my thoughts and feelings and actions. (For the same reason, I don't like to be stoned in social situations, although it's nice if I'm alone and staring at the ceiling.)

Another kind of self-control is usually called "self-discipline", but in some circles "discipline" means flogging. What we're really talking about is more like self-awareness. If you're aware that you've had too much to drink, or that your anger is turning people against you, or that a toy you want to buy will use up your food money, you don't have to restrain yourself at all -- you just have to derive your actions from that awareness. What we call "self-discipline" is the radical notion that your future self is you, or it's the habit of being your big self and not your little self.

This is related to another tricky word: "lazy". I'm extremely lazy in the sense that I want to do as little work as possible. I only feel fully alive when there's nothing I'm supposed to be doing, and ideally I would do nothing but slack off and play for the next ten thousand years. But part of minimizing work is to invest work now in slack later, or to do little jobs before they become big jobs, or to do tasks as soon as they come up, to avoid the strain of having them hanging over me.

Why do some people have trouble with this? You've probably heard of the experiment where kids could get one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later, and the ability to hold out for the marshmallows later was strongly correlated with their future success. Is this genetic? Environmental? I'm guessing that it's epigenetic, and related to nutrition and stress. If your recent ancestors were malnourished, then you will be "soft-wired" to always grab the marshmallow now, because your body doesn't believe that there will be two marshmallows later. Or if they were stressed, you will grab the hour of idleness now because you don't believe there will be two hours of idleness later. And that's how poverty perpetuates itself across generations.

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