July - December, 2013

previous archive

July 1. So what happened with Obama? How far back would you have to go to find an administration worse on civil liberties? Could anyone have predicted this? And I mean for a good reason, not the knee-jerk cynicism that drove Obama's opponents in 2008. If you think every new president is going to be terrible, you will not be disappointed, but your opinion is meaningless. What I'm wondering is: in hindsight, can we come up with testable principles that will help us predict the behavior of political candidates and choose them better?

I see three stories. One is that Obama was a secret authoritarian all along. So when he spent years as a community activist, he was thinking, "Man, I hate these losers. They need to shut up because the government knows better. But my evil timelord masters have told me that this will get me elected president in 2008." Or, when he singlehandedly pushed a bill through the Illinois legislature to make cops videotape interrogations, he was thinking, "Bwa ha ha, now they will never guess, when I run for president, that I want the power of the police to be completely unchecked!" This story is funny but not helpful.

The second story is more realistic, and more cynical: that even if you yourself were president, you could not stop secret assassinations of American citizens, or a million-fold increase in violations of the Fourth Amendment. John Dean famously said "There is a cancer growing on the presidency." But suppose there's a cancer growing above the presidency, an alliance of high technology and central control that is now politically unstoppable. I don't see an Orwellian future, but a blend of Kafka and Huxley, where the control system is incomprehensible and you do not have a shred of freedom or power outside the world of entertainment.

The third story is that Obama was corrupted by power. But here we need to distinguish different things that are called "corruption". One of them I call third world corruption: the purpose of any political office is to channel money and power to yourself and your friends and family. Bush was somewhat third-world corrupt, and Obama is not at all. Instead he might be suffering from two other overlapping corruption syndromes.

One I call strategy game corruption, inspired by this article, Seeing like a state: Why strategy games make us think and behave like brutal psychopaths. Now, I don't think games make us behave that way outside the game, but they can help us understand it. I recommend Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. In a hard game, if you want to win, sometimes your best move is to nerve-staple your drones. And Obama has two traits that would make him more susceptible to strategy game corruption. First, he has high "intelligence", which is mostly the ability to narrrowly focus on abstractions, which makes it easy to see human beings as pawns in a game. Second, like every other high-level politician, he is highly competitive. Maybe we need to recruit slacker leaders who don't really want the job.

The other way Obama could be corrupt, I'll call framing corruption: you take on the world-view and the values of whatever people are around you. Obama could be especially vulnerable to this, and I wonder if anyone called this in 2008. It seems like a virtue that he's a consensus-builder and not an ideologue, but he could be a consensus-builder to the point of being morally empty. So when he was surrounded by the poor and powerless, he fought hard for their interests, and as president he fought hard for the interests of medical insurance companies, and now, people who use technology to crush humanity in the name of security. To prevent this in the future, we need to look for leaders who have set an example of being surrounded by the rich and powerful, and turning against them.

Anne comments:

Arguably, there's a fourth narrative that scares me shitless... there is something totally implausible and unsupportable about the American way of life -- maybe it's the grand marquee of moralistic issues, like debt and overconsumption, maybe it's more subtle, like we're fucking over the global futures markets for food commodities or we're this close to losing our control of the international currency markets for reasons that have nothing to do with quantitative easing or gold standards. Maybe there's an alien invasion underway and that's why we had to bomb the moon, I don't know. The point is, we're vulnerable in some awful, creepy way, and even talking about it publicly would tear out the supports that hold up the world's trust in "America" -- maybe even Americans' trust in "America." Obama is actually making rational decisions, of a sort -- if the government weren't constantly saber-rattling, grabbing up data, validating "free speech zones" at home and free-fire zones abroad, something we all take for granted would be revealed as a potemkin village and great Cthulhu rises from the depths.

July 18. I've decided to go ahead and comment on the George Zimmerman spectacle. If you've done the wise thing and completely ignored it, here's a good long reddit comment summarizing the legal issues in the trial. My main question is: why has this particular case drawn so much public attention?

I don't think it's race. There must be hundreds of other cases where a black guy and a hispanic guy got in a fight, one of them died, and it was uncertain whether the other one acted in legitimate self-defense. And it happens all the time that a non-black cop kills a black guy with questionable justification. I think this case blew up because Zimmerman was neither an ordinary citizen nor a police officer. As an armed neighborhood watchman, he was in a grey area between them. So the big issue is not race or class or guns -- it's vigilantism. People who are only mildly troubled by abuses of police power, are terrified of mistakes made by ordinary citizens trying to do the work of police.

Here's the subreddit thread on this subject.

July 22. Concise article, The Eye of Sauron Is the Modern Surveillance State, arguing that Tolkien understood surveillance better than Orwell. All three points are important: 1) A system that lacks empathy can see everything but fail to understand motivations. 2) Surveillance is reactive and clumsy. 3) The more raw data the system collects, the harder it is to pick out the important stuff.

July 24. A few days ago, after my prediction that technology will seduce us into lifeless comfort and safety, a reader asked how I reconcile this with peak oil and so on. I haven't written about collapse in a while so it's a good time to go through my latest thinking. I expect global economic collapse and decades of poverty while we switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Extreme poverty will cause political upheavals, but not such a deep political collapse that you won't have to pay taxes. And I expect little or no technological collapse. Even energy-intensive technologies like cars will not disappear, just shrink to serve the elite. And I think information technology will continue its present course, so people with gadgets out of Star Trek will be digging up cattail roots for food.

After a few decades, renewable energy will catch up to where fossil fuels are now... and then continue to grow! At this point, if other technologies haven't destabilized the world in some other way, there is a danger that we'll try to go back to an exponential growth economy based on increase in planetary surface area covered by solar panels or artificial photosynthesis nodes or something. I don't know what small percent of the earth's surface can meet the whole world's present consumption, but whatever it is, under exponential growth, eventually the whole planet won't be enough. And as Kevin Scott Polk calculated in his book Gaiome, even if we expand into space at light speed in all directions, that's merely polynomial expansion, and cannot keep up with human demands that grow exponentially. So in the long term the economy must either abandon exponential growth or suffer endless repetition of growth and collapse.

Now that I think about it, cycles of growth and collapse might be preferable to permanent zero growth, because that stability would enable ever-increasing infantilization, where we're more and more sensitive to pain and permit less and less taking of physical risks. Thinking about one of my favorite depressing articles, How children lost the right to roam in four generations, it's hard to imagine how the roaming ranges could grow back, but if human life can only get more safe and never more dangerous, it's hard to imagine how we won't go extinct, either from boredom or by veering off into artificial worlds.

July 31. I recently read Lee Smolin's new book Time Reborn. That link goes to a review by James Gleick. My favorite idea in the book is not something Smolin believes, but something he mentions and then rejects with a weak argument: the Boltzmann brain hypothesis. It's basically the hard science version of solipsism. That link goes to a recent blog post on the subject, and this stuff has led me to begin exploring hybrids between philosophical idealism, materialism, and animism. I'm not going to get into details on this page because I hate having philosophical discussions over email. If you want to talk about this stuff, you have to come visit me.

August 5. Evgeny Morozov interview, What's Wrong with Technological Fixes? A repeating theme is that we're designing technologies to make a better world even if everyone is stupid, and we could choose instead to design technologies to challenge us and make us more mature and aware. I think the best test of any tool is not to compare life when we have it, with life before we had it; the best test is to imagine that the tool comes and then goes away, and compare life before it with life after it.

September 11. From three months ago, a well written reddit comment on the creepiness of the word "homeland". I would add: the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) was the main division of the Nazi SS, and the parent organization of the Gestapo. While the German word "Reich" is not translatable into English, a reasonable translation of "Reichssicherheitshauptamt" would be "Department of Homeland Security". My prediction: The "war on terror" will be defined more and more broadly as a war on anyone who attempts to break the state monopoly on politically effective physical action -- which will eventually include a majority of Americans as more wealth is concentrated at the top.

September 16. A couple weeks ago the Archdruid had one of his best posts in a while, The Next Ten Billion Years. It was a response to this Ugo Bardi post from a year ago, also called The Next Ten Billion Years.

They both try to predict the future by powers of ten, looking 10 years ahead, 100 years, 1000 years, and so on. Bardi has the "bad" scenario, where civilization slowly collapses, and humans linger for a while and go extinct, and the "good" scenario, where this civilization survives to terraform other planets and expand into the galaxy. Greer has only one scenario, in which thousands of global human civilizations rise and fall, and then there are rising and falling civilizations of other species that evolve human-like intelligence, and then the sun dies and the same thing happens around other stars.

I roughly agree with Bardi's bad scenario for 10 years, Bardi's good scenario for 100 years, and Greer for the big numbers. Humans are extremely resourceful but not until we have our backs to the wall, so things will get really bad before they turn around. But I think energy decline and climate change will just be bumps on the road for high tech. The deaths of a billion poor people will not stop luckier people from unlocking new powers with computers and biotech.

If I had to guess, humans will be extinct within 500 years, not from the failure of technology but from its success. Biotech will tempt us to change ourselves into something that is no longer human, and that is better in obvious ways, but in subtle ways much worse; and even when we see extinction coming, we will be psychologically or culturally unable to change ourselves into something that can survive. At the same time, virtual reality will tempt us to turn our attention fatally inward.

There's also a chance, before we go extinct, that we'll use biotech to give human-like intelligence to other species, or make crazy biological-cybernetic hybrids. Most of these will also go extinct, but some of them will settle into ecological niches, so in just a thousand years we could have Greer's crow people and raccoon people at the same time, along with rat people, octopus people, unicorns and snuffleupagi. This is my personal best case scenario, and I sort of wrote about it more than ten years ago in J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow.

October 14. Last month I read the book Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita. Here's an excerpt containing what I think is the book's most important idea. It's a story of how uncomfortable you would feel if you were stuck in rural Saskatchewan with no distracting technology, and the key line is "Nothing here was designed to affect you."

Elsewhere he argues that our word "real" is outdated because what we used to call real and artificial are now blurred together. I think, of the many possible definitions and uses of the word "real", the most valuable is to distinguish between 1) something that is playing to you as an audience, that is arranged or designed for your observation, and 2) something that doesn't know or care whether you are observing it. So obviously a forest is more real than a theme park, but also, the industrial area of a city is more real than a botanic garden.

A few more ideas from the book:

October 25. The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines, with many examples of how automation robs us of the ability to do things on our own, and increasingly, the ability to understand things. I've said this before: Machines that do physical work make us weak. Machines that do mental work make us stupid. What's going to happen with spiritual machines?

October 30. Mental Illness, the Video Game. A woman who learned to deal with depression and anxiety designed a game about how she did it, a game that directs your attention outside of the game and back into your own mind and body. If humans avoid extinction, it will be through this kind of use of technology, and this game will be historically important.

November 4. The secrets of the world's happiest cities. There's some stuff about social connections, but it's mostly about transportation: driving makes us unhappy, and walking and bicycling make us happy, especially if the city is designed for traveling without cars. I have two ideas not in the article. First, given identical commute times, I think we would rather move at a steady pace than alternately move super-fast and be stuck. Second, we cannot operate a car without depending on a giant system that we cannot understand and in which we have no participation in power. The first time we experience something like that, it feels like a magical miracle. But over the long term, we feel disconnected, weak, and unsatisfied.

November 6. The Girl in the Closet is a giant 8-part article about Lauren Kavanaugh, who at age 20 months was taken from her adoptive parents and given back to her terrible birth mother. For the next six years she was locked in a closet and horrifically abused. Now 20 years old, she has made an impressive but incomplete recovery.

The interesting question is, why would parents do this? Especially when they had five other kids who were not treated nearly as badly. I wonder if Lauren was singled out because she alone had the experience of living in a healthy family. So she would not put up with the abuse and neglect of a bad family, and at 20 months, could not be diplomatic about it. The parents had to either raise the level of how they treated all their kids, or escalate the conflict. Once they locked her in a closet, it was easier to keep here there and imagine she deserved it, than to admit their own failure. Then she became the sink for all the family's frustration and hostility.

You can see the same thing in repressive states that kill or imprison people who try to make things better. I think it can happen in any dysfunctional system of any size. You could even use this as a definition of dysfunction: that anyone who draws attention to what's wrong with the system and how it could be improved, is punished.

I think this can also happen inside of a person: someone might lock up and punish an aspect of their personality that threatens to make their life better in a way that a more dominant part of their personality cannot tolerate.

December 2. Great reddit comment about capitalism as an evolutionary system using power as the foundation rather than fitness.

I wouldn't use the word capitalism because it leads to semantic arguments about whether an imaginary better society is or is not "capitalist". But the idea is that under low energy flows, human systems are like trees, growing slowly, minimizing waste, and integrating with the ecosystem; under high energy flows, human systems are like annual weeds, gobbling energy to grow fast and maximize output. So the more energy a society has, the worse it is! And maybe the end of the oil age will be good for us.

Another factor is whether the energy flows are centrally controlled or democratic. That's why I'm against nuclear power, because so far it can only be done in central plants, instead of everyone having a micro-reactor in their house. Solar panels are potentially democratic, but I expect the control systems to push for giant centralized plants. Cynically, I expect another energy boom in the next century, with more of the planet covered with solar plants, and the energy feeding even more political inequality, insulation from reality, and artificial needs.

December 5-12. Last week I did a post about why I gave up on homesteading:

I learned by actually trying it how hard it is. And I noticed that people I knew who had gone back to the land in small groups were unhappy compared to people in the city. In practice, most back-to-the-landers end up being little developers, or remote suburbanites. They still drive into town for food and supplies, they have to drive much farther, they cut down a lot of trees, and the only advantage is a better view.

Then I mentioned that urban people generally do better than rural people in a collapse, but this is a complicated subject. Urban people did better in America in the 1930's, but rural people did better in Weimar Germany, and arguably during the decline of Rome. So where is the best place to be as the 21st century collapse deepens?

First we need a collapse scenario. I'm going to say that liquid fuels continue to decline, renewable energy cannot replace them nearly fast enough, and everything that now depends on liquid fuels gets much more expensive. This contributes to decades of zero or negative economic growth. Another contributor is the de-monetization of labor: a lot of the economic growth of the 20th century came from taking labor that used be outside the money economy, like child care and food preparation, and bringing it into the money economy. This is going to reverse as people lose their jobs, do stuff at home for free instead of paying other people to do it, those people lose their jobs, and so on.

New money-making opportunities will be snatched by whoever is in the best position: mostly the already rich. So wealth inequality will increase, and the cost of good food and human labor will continue to rise, until only the rich can afford to buy much of either. Meanwhile manufactured items and low-quality industrial food will remain cheap. If you think factory farms will give way to permaculture, check out this bleak and important article from 2008, Why Peak Oil Actually Helps Industrial Agriculture.

So you won't be in danger of starving, but you're likely to find yourself deep in unpayable debt, squeaking by on government assistance, and struggling to find something to sell to the rich so you can afford to buy small luxuries to make your life tolerable. Anne comments:

The real determination isn't "where can I produce enough food" but rather "where can I find consumers for whatever I produce." Weavers and musicians used to be nomadic for a reason -- the consumers of their production lived in dispersed manors. You need to be able to get to where the 1% are, which is exurbs, while still having the space to grow your thousand-square-feet of kale and carrots to keep from dying of an all-corn diet. Basically, the future is the inner ring suburbs.

I would add that even most residential neighborhoods inside cities have enough land. My lot is 7000 square feet. You just want to not be in the inner city, and not be so far out that transportation becomes a problem. And if you want to help others, the best angle is to make it easier for urban people to do small-scale farming and to trade services. Here's a subreddit thread with more discussion of these issues.

December 16. Condensed excerpt of this great Charlie Stross comment about non-monetized self-actualization:

Rather than a society in which everyone "works", we should be aiming for a society in which everyone has the opportunity for as much self-actualization as they can cope with. This sounds similar to libertarianism, but the key difference is that money is not the sole yardstick of human success or value. It requires some organizational framework to arbitrate between the competing desires of the participants, and a money-based market is not a sufficient mechanism to settle such disputes if we expand the scope to include non-monetizable items such as subjective happiness, artistic merit, or friendship.

December 20. Every year my girlfriend makes a mix of her favorite songs of the year (or sample songs from her favorite albums). Here are her 2013 gems. The host site doesn't allow you to view the list without listening, but the artists are Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs, Jake Bugg, Woodkid, Anna Meredith, Janelle Monae, Of Montreal, Ahmad Jamal, Islet, Suuns, Melt Yourself Down, Teeth of the Sea, Temples, Jacco Gardner, The Child of Lov, His Clancyness, TV on the Radio, and Sons of Kemet. I've YouTube linked my four favorites.

next archive