November - December, 2010

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November 8. After the American election, it's tempting to write a fiery rant calling the voters every name in the English language for lack of intelligence. I'm looking specifically at the initiatives and referendums in my state, Washington. We're a "blue" state that hasn't gone Republican for president since 1984. And yet, voters overwhelmingly rejected taxes and spending: 65-35% to require a nearly impossible two thirds majority of the legislature to raise taxes, 65-35% against an income tax on the very rich, 62-38% to repeal a sin tax on candy and soda, and 55-45% against going into debt to make schools more energy efficient.

And yet, when asked whether the government should stop doing any particular thing, they said no, rejecting two initiatives to get the state out of the liquor business, and one to privatize workers' compensation. Basically the voters have combined the foolishess of the left and right: they want the government to be Santa Claus, but they don't want to pay for it. And here's something even more troubling: by a massive majority, 85-15%, they approved a resolution to allow people not convicted of any crime to be held in prison indefinitely. Of course, the state phrased this as denying bail for violent predators. And yet, voters rejected the income tax on the rich, for fear it would trickle down to everyone, and it never occurred to them that the police state could trickle down to everyone.

It will. The people have decided to use their votes to destroy the only system in which they have votes. Eventually the government will be stripped down to little more than police and prisons, which will enforce the interests of corporations.

My favorite election commentary is by Sharon Astyk: The election is over - Now what do we do with all the fear? I agree: the voters are not really idiots -- they are cowards, and using their human brainpower to convince themselves of fantasies that defy both reason and observation: that the government can dispense benefits without collecting taxes; that an economy based on exponential growth can continue on a planet of fixed size; that we can have utopia merely by filling the slots in the present system with different people. What they're afraid of is reality: that the government, the economy, the planet, cannot continue to give more than they get, that all the stuff we've been getting, we're going to stop getting.

Astyk thinks that eventually the people will be ready for leaders who call for self-sacrifice. I'm not that optimistic. After they lose their toys, the people will be hungry for leaders who call for the sacrifice of others, and I mean sacrifice in the literal sense: the ritual mass-murder of scapegoats. When there are piles of bodies in the streets, only then, from the sane fringes, will new and better systems grow to fill the dead spots. Eventually those systems will become top-heavy and blind, and the whole story will repeat, again and again, until humans either go extinct or become smarter, by which I mean dumber -- less skilled at telling ourselves lies.

November 14. I recently spent a couple days playing Gemcraft, a flash tower defense game, but I had to quit when I noticed that it was destroying the motivation and reward centers in my brain. For days, everything I did in the real world felt like a painful crawl up a mountain. Now, I must be unusually susceptible to computer strategy game addiction, but I'm wondering how many people are going through their lives with the same effects from other activities they think of as harmless fun. The Buddha was opposed to dice games. How many people are depressed and unmotivated, and would get better if they stopped watching TV, looking at porn, using Facebook, doing crossword puzzles, playing board games, even reading certain books or having certain kinds of conversations? There's even a new study showing that daydreaming makes you unhappy! I wonder if the only way to have pleasure, without having more pain later, is to expand your perspective into the world around you.

November 26-29. From three years ago, Stuart Staniford argues that peak oil actually helps industrial agriculture. He frames this within a critique of "reversalism", a strawman position that the future will look basically like the past. Smart doomers know that the present collapse, like all collapses in history, will be followed by some combination of old ways and new ways.

But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Staniford's particular points are correct: that peak oil will make industrial megafarms more profitable, that they will not spend more on labor, and that the average agribusiness will get bigger. Now, if they're making a higher profit, and they're also paying more for oil, then food will be more expensive. But if it's more expensive, then they will sell less of it, because fewer people will be able to afford it! And if they're selling less food, then they will not be buying up more and more land. Oil-based farming corporations might keep getting bigger by merging, but the total amount of land in oil-based farming will be driven down by economics. Government subsidies will only put a patch on this process, and only as long as governments can afford subsidies.

So if industrial agriculture shifts into feeding the rich, what will the rest of us eat? We will not suddenly become self-sufficient, but gradually buy less and less oil-based food and grow more food ourselves. Maybe you'll be growing beans and squash and buying wheat for sourdough bread and chicken feed. And the people who can neither buy food nor grow it will die off -- most likely not from starvation, but from the many bad things that happen to poor people in a collapsing society before they get around to starving.

Can you compete with industrial farming? You don't have to! Staniford says that "industrial farmers are extremely efficient," but this is only true when you measure efficiency in terms of money, in a world where oil is cheap and human labor is expensive. If you don't have a job, your own labor is free, and if you're growing organically, you don't have to buy oil either. It's true that small for-profit farms will not out-compete big ones. Industrial agribusiness will monopolize one niche, which shrinks over time, while gift economy gardeners will monopolize another, which grows.

But Michael brings up a terrifying possibility: suppose industrial agribusiness is able to replace oil with biofuel! Or maybe they could directly synthesize food with energy gathered from vast solar plants. This brings us to every good human's nightmare, the reason right wingers hate Al Gore and lefties hate Monsanto. We fear a society that is global, repressive, and sustainable: a collapse-proof dystopia. To make it even tighter, let's assume that this system can withstand climate change, and let's ignore Joseph Tainter. Then we would seem to be damned for all time. With industrial agriculture feeding the rich and expanding, the poor would be exterminated or assimilated, and "the rich" would become "everyone", walking behind our solar lawn mowers, doing dreary make-work office jobs, playing video games in which our actions have meaning, and buying food with no seeds that we might save to put the smallest crack in our total enslavement.

At this point we have one card left: psychological sustainability. If we have no autonomy in our jobs, we do them badly; if our society makes life meaningless, we want to bring it down. I think this is the subconscious motive of the Tea Partiers. They have arrived through emotion where the Unabomber arrived through intellect: they hate this world and they want to blow it up.

There are better ways for human aliveness to break a bad system. But if we fail to break it, there is one scenario that is even worse. If the tech system becomes independent of human choice, but it still needs human existence, then we could be stuck in lives of total confinement and pure horror -- just like the animals in our factory farms right now. And if biotech reverses aging, you might not even escape through death. You could be tortured until the sun burns out -- or with interstellar space colonies, forever.

Now, I don't think this is going to happen. I just want to point out that as long as industrial agribusiness is getting stronger, we are on that path, and one way or another we have to get off it. And alternate paths are not limited to the tiny range of things that have already been tried. We can set the bar much higher, and aim for a world of permaculture food forests, decentralized manufacturing, 100% bottom-up social systems, and global consciousness.

November 30. Continuing on the future of food, I'm reading Carol Deppe's new book, The Resilient Gardener, and in the chapter on climate change she describes the Little Ice Age in Europe. Basically everyone was growing grain, which needs stable and warm weather, and the population was stretching the best-case carrying capacity of the land. Then in 1315, extreme rains ruined grain crops for three straight years. But the population didn't just starve down and bounce back -- the whole culture became nastier, there were more wars and murders and disease epidemics, and people lost faith in the ruling systems. The weather remained cold and erratic for centuries, and didn't warm and stabilize until the industrial age (probably because of greenhouse gases).

Meanwhile, farmers made all kinds of innovations: more diversity, more vegetables, root crops, animals, legumes, and perennials, a broader range of useful skills, and wider trading. In episode 6 of Connections, "Thunder in the Skies" (video link), James Burke argues that many other technological events began with the Little Ice Age.

This is my new favorite model for our own collapse. Our agriculture is based on genetically-modified monocultures, which are not really more productive, only better adapted to a stable climate and massive industrial inputs. As these conditions change, there will be food shortages and all the bad things that follow them. There will be deep shocks and partial recoveries, life will get rougher and more chaotic, and yet many of the existing domination systems will survive and become more brutal. At the same time, there will be more cracks, more room to try different things, and many innovations. Over hundreds of years, these will lead to a new civilization that we can't imagine.

December 2-3. So Julian Assange is in hiding, apparently hunted by Interpol for removing a condom without the consent of his partner, but really for standing up in front of the whole world and thumbing his nose at the ruling powers. Of course they're going to find him and crush him, but this move will be symbolic or mythic, not tactical. WikiLeaks will continue without him, because that's the whole point of a wiki.

And then what? This blog post, WikiLeaks on the run, asks a good question: "When does the situation reach equilibrium?" But the answer is a bit optimistic:

It seems to me that at the end of this chain is BitTorrent... Once the distribution is underway the only way to shut it down will be to shut down the Internet itself. Politicians should be aware that these are the stakes. They either get used to operating in the open, where the people they're governing are in on everything they do, or they go totalitarian, around the globe, now.

That must be what they're discussing behind the scenes in government. And don't miss that this is equally threatening to media. They won't be able to engage in spin rooms and situation rooms, appearances and perception. When we can see the real communiques, that kind of mush won't do.

Oh really? While we're at it, let's set up congress so we see exactly how everyone voted, and also see where their donations came from. Surely that will dissolve the power of big money lobbyists in the golden light of human awareness. Let's make an "information superhighway" where text and pictures and sound can move around the world in seconds. Surely that will bring universal understanding and world peace. Let's invent a magical device that can capture moving pictures and sound in a format that can be spread electronically. Then when just one person sneaks in and films an industrial pig farm, within days everyone in the world will see the video and change their buying habits. Let's put all the great works of literature and millions of scientific articles at our fingertips, and we'll all become scholars and geniuses...

You see what I'm getting at. The information optimists are forgetting the last and most powerful censor: the mind of the information consumer. It is human nature (so far) to believe whatever makes us feel good, and then go looking for the evidence to support it. So the more information we have access to, and the more free we are to browse it, the stupider we get! The spin rooms will be stronger than ever, because with all that data, we will want someone to sort it out for us.

Imagine a world of 100% transparency. There is a camera everywhere, all the time. You can watch Sarah Palin taking a dump or (God forbid) Joe Lieberman having sex. And if Vladimir Putin wants an opponent murdered, what will he do? He'll get right on the phone and order the hit, because he understands that nobody can do anything about it, just as we can't do anything now about all the undisputed facts that Noam Chomsky writes about. At the fringes of the internet a few losers will point fingers, while the great mass of losers point fingers at some guy in Ohio who tortured a cat.

So, getting back to tactics, total transparency is the wrong move. If everything is in the open, then nothing is in the open. The correct move is to make it so the functionaries of the targeted system never know when the eyes of the world will be focused on them -- a reverse panopticon! This is roughly what WikiLeaks is already doing, although they have room to do it better. And this is what Julian Assange wrote in his blog (archive here) on December 31, 2006:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive "secrecy tax") and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.

December 7. Scientists have found evidence that the universe may have existed for ever. How long is that? The dominant theory says the universe is around 14 billion years old. A billion years is a one with nine zeroes after it. You can fit nine zeroes in an inch. If you're waiting for something unlikely, and you need more time, you can stick another zero on and you've got ten times as long. Suppose you need to wait a really long time, so you keep adding zero after zero, each one multiplying your time by ten, until you've got a string of zeroes that goes all the way around the Earth. Now, how much of eternity is that? It's none of eternity.

How long will it take for a planet pretty much the same as this one to exist again? Enough years to put zeroes around the Earth? How about an entire universe exactly like this one? Enough zeroes to go all the way around the universe 100 times? No problem! You're still at zero percent of eternity. It follows that a universe exactly like this one has already existed, and will exist again, an infinite number of times. If you also accept physical determinism, it means that in between any two iterations of this universe, all the same things will happen, in a very long cycle.

Even if you don't accept determinism, it doesn't mean that anything you can imagine will happen given infinite time. Most of the things you can imagine are not possible. No matter how long you twist a Rubik's cube, you can't make all the sides red. Sadly, there will never be a world exactly like Middle Earth, or the Legend of Zelda games, or Firefly. But there might be something reasonably close. And through virtual reality, which is getting better very fast right now, you can at least have the lonely experience of anything you can imagine. Shared experience is trickier, since all the participants have to agree on the world.

Suppose we are already in a sub-world. Personally, I think mind is the fundamental reality, and matter is like an exchange medium, or a set of rules, that comes into being when a bunch of perspectives try to share the same world. Matter is what the inertia of consensus of a shared mind-world looks like. So in that case, what is the eternal physical universe? Maybe it's like a database, a set of all possible worlds, into which any perspective, from outside time and space, can move.

This raises many more questions, but at this point I'd rather stop thinking and watch this video: That's About the Size.

December 9. Consider the myth of Julian Assange. We don't know the reality. Maybe he's a megalomaniac, a creepy guy who sneaks condoms off during sex, and he hasn't done any of the real work for WikiLeaks, which anyway is being played by some intelligence agency. Or not. But myth doesn't care. Here's a reddit thread about how Assange is like a James Bond villain. My favorite comment:

Oh man this remind me of 'Leak hard 2' movie! The bad guy is a web terrorist that hold himself in nuclear bunker. He is brainwashing net people into anarchist and try to topple the capitalism! Not only that, he also hire pirate and b-tard to guard his base! I still remember the last scene where the terrorist hold a remote that will spread poisonus data file to internet. To bad i dont remember the ending......

And over email, Anton writes:

Not only are Assange and Wikileaks doing great stuff for the world, but they are also real-life comic book characters. Assange is a bleached-hair hacker who brazenly attacks the global power structure, stashes computer servers in former bomb shelters, has a network of global contacts...

And look what Assange wrote in his own blog, in early 2007:

If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whos hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.

Also, he has a really cool name. Suppose the leaks continue, and the leaks are popularly seen to contribute to America's decline as a world power. How will they think of Julian Assange in 100 years, or 1000 years? His myth has the potential to be like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood had brought down the Roman Empire. Or he might fade into the background as the Empire takes even bigger blows from somewhere else.

If they make a movie about Assange, the most interesting character will be Obama. He also wanted to change the world by empowering people from the bottom up, but his fatal mistake was working within the system. It's popular to blame Obama personally for the decisions that pass through his office, but I think a file clerk has more autonomy, more room to bend the job description, than the president of the United States. The farther you go up the hierarchy, the more you must obey the logic of the hierarchy. I wonder if Obama fantasizes about being Assange, and yet, is required to crush him.

December 13. Thoughtful article about how technology is making kids stupid. The author raises the possibility that humans are just shifting to a new kind of intelligence. But when she examines how exactly our brains are changing, it's scary. Basically, computerland is designed to be so easy and fun that we lose the ability to do anything difficult:

Teens, Nielsen Norman has found, are actually less equipped to make sense of the Internet world than their elders: They don't have the reading ability, patience or research skills to successfully complete what they set out to do online.

This reminds me of a bit in that PBS Rock and Roll documentary. The band New Order made some important electronic music, and later another band got their hands on the same mixing board that New Order had used. They thought the mixer would allow them to effortlessly make great music, but it turned out to be unusually difficult to use!

Yes, human achievement comes from being challenged, not from being coddled, and we are using technology to coddle ourselves. Scott Adams wrote that the holodeck will be our last invention, but this is not something in the future -- it is happening right now.

Related: GPS navigators may be eroding your brain. Also related: SelfControl is a new computer program to take the place of the development of self control in people addicted to computers!

This makes me feel like humans are on the fast track to extinction, outsourcing more and more of our skills to our tools, while our inner strength fades. But when I think about it more carefully, it's only in the richest economies, and only in the last few decades, that we see abominations like pre-grated cheese and escalators. If the ongoing collapse goes fast enough, there may be only one or two lost generations, and their kids will rediscover how to skin a raccoon and fix an engine.

December 15-17. Ralph Borsodi was a big social thinker and back-to-the-land guru in the early 20th century. Greg recommends his book This Ugly Civilization, and here's a Ralph Borsodi interview (both at the Soil and Health Library).

Notice that the interview is from 1974, that Borsodi had already been saying this stuff for 50 years, and that people who have never heard of Borsodi are coming up with the same ideas now and thinking they're new: that our civilization is unsustainable, that we have to go back to the land, that we should build communities instead of trying to be self-sufficient in isolation, that we should shift to solar and wind energy, that "instead of waiting for a crash to drive us to a better way of living, we should... develop that sort of living before the coming collapse takes place."

It makes me think there's nothing new under the sun, and never will be: that in 100, 1000, 10,000 years, there will still be repressive systems muddling along, going through "crashes" and "recoveries" that are just shifts between suffocating central control and the random violence of gang rule, while a few people in every generation fight the ruling system and get crushed, or build alternatives that eventually get sucked back in.

I don't think repressive systems are made by shadowy elites. The prey defines the ecosystem, not the predator, and in this case the prey is human inattention: the vast majority of people go through life on autopilot. If you manage to stay off autopilot, you have a good chance to thrive in any age. Then, whatever you build, the people who come after you will mess it up. To try to build Utopia, a system in which everyone can be on autopilot and still thrive, is foolishness. But if everyone is paying attention, Utopia is inevitable.

Is this possible? I like to think so, but I could be wrong. For a darker view, check out Jacques Ellul on propaganda, or Peter Wessel Zapffe's The Last Messiah.

December 23. A couple weeks ago I wondered whether there is any newer computer game where a skilled player can keep going indefinitely. Michael mentioned Dwarf Fortress, and Crystal sent this post about emergent narrative, also using Dwarf Fortress as an example of a game where the story arises out of the player's decisions, as opposed to games that are scripted by designers. This is a fascinating and complex subject. Eskil Steenberg, the smartest game designer in the world, touched on it in this post, pointing out how difficult it is to make a game where the player drives the story and the story is interesting.

I think the greatest game yet made is Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, in which the overall story is scripted but there's also a large interactive world. But it's still easy to imagine how it could be better. What if you could make major changes in the story, like training Malon to fight and taking her with you through the dungeons? This could be done with a better artificial intelligence, and I think the next revolution in gaming (assuming the tech system doesn't crash) will be AI's powerful enough to manage the core story as an attractor, rather than as a script.

After that, the next revolution will be AI-moderated games with no core story at all, and no end. The attractor is the enjoyment of the players! You might have had a taste of this if you've ever played D&D, or some other pencil and dice RPG, with a really good game master.

But even the primitive games we have today are diverting too much of our attention from the "real" world of industrial civilization (which is itself a diversion from the biosphere). How much worse will it get as the games get better? This goes back to the Scott Adams line I always quote, that the holodeck will be our last invention. I'm going to call this Adams's law: A sufficiently enjoyable sub-world will draw away the attention needed to maintain the surrounding world. This leads to a law I've written differently before, and this time I'll write it as: A sustainable sub-world must serve the needs of the world that contains it.

So the attractor, in our hypothetical super-AI game, cannot be the enjoyment of the players... at least not for long. If the game is going to last, the prime attractor has to be the learning or transformation of the players, and they have to be learning or changing in a way that makes them more fit for living in the surrounding world when they go back to it.

If you've read this blog for long, you know the punchline: suppose we are already in that game.

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