March - July, 2015

previous archive

March 4 and 9. The Archdruid writes about technology and the externalization of costs. Greer does a great job of explaining how technology, as it has developed over the last few thousand years, has given obvious benefits to its users and owners, while causing harm that is not obvious to its users and owners. An example would be a factory that makes a product cheaper by exploiting workers or dumping toxic waste. Capitalism rewards whoever does the best job of externalizing costs, which leads to increasing costs that are now poisoning whole systems like the economy and the biosphere, and leading to collapse.

So far, so good. But western intellectuals can't rest at pointing out what's actually happening; they have to turn it into some kind of universal logical statement. This is the same disagreement I have with Derrick Jensen: he observes the behavior of large complex society over its first few thousand years, uses that behavior to make a universal logical definition of "civilization", and projects that definition onto all possible large complex societies. To me that's like defining the human potential by watching a baby, and Greer does the same thing by defining "technological progress" so that it logically requires increasing externalization of costs. If you want to see Greer's argument as local not universal, you can go through his entire post saying "as we know it" after every instance of the word "technology" or "technological".

His conclusion: "a society that chose to stop progressing technologically could maintain itself indefinitely, so long as its technologies weren't dependent on nonrenewable resources or the like." My conclusion would be: "a society that made it a top priority to not externalize costs could keep improving technologically without destabilizing itself." Or, if we have a culture that is acutely aware of whole systems, then any new technology, in order to outcompete existing technologies, has to externalize fewer costs. You can already see the first glimmers of this in ecological food labeling.

So the externalization of costs is not a feature of technology, but a feature of human lack of awareness, which leads to one particular bad path in the vast landscape of toolmaking. We've been on this path at least since the invention of stone weapons that caused prehistoric extinctions, and I think we can get off the path without going all the way back there. Technological changes that benefit whole systems do not have to be reversals, but can lead us outside the tiny realm of stuff we have already tried.

Now, from the perspective of the doomer vs techno-utopian debate, it may seem that I'm making a stealth argument for unlimited fusion power or a Star Trek future. I'm against those things. My intention is to argue for the vastness of the Unknown Unknown. It's the same argument Terence McKenna made when he said, in the context of extraterrestrial life, that looking for radio transmissions from other planets is like looking for Italian food on other planets.

This argument has practical implications. If you think civilization as we know it is collapsing, and you also think that the range of human action is limited to stuff we've already tried, then you might expect to get a head start on the future by learning pre-industrial skills like blacksmithing or small-scale farming. If that's what you love to do, cool, you can probably carve out a niche. But if you think it's what you have to do, you're gambling your quality of life on the belief that your own imagination sets the limits of the collective response of billions of people to a historically unique crisis.

March 11. Sarah Perry has a new post on Ribbonfarm, Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty. It's so dense with ideas that it's taken me a week just to wrap my head around it. These are the main points:

1) Good systems are made of many subsystems with boundaries. This enables more diversity and it's much easier to solve problems. Examples would be bodies made of many cells, islands with different ecologies, technological systems built out of modules, and human societies made of many tribes or neighborhoods.

2) The march of civilization has destroyed boundaries and subsystems in order to build one giant system, and this is a bad thing. This is why "the system" is so clunky, so unsatisfying, and why we have no power. The metaphor here is mountain climbers roped together. If one falls, they all fall; but we're like billions of mountain climbers who, because of that danger, are not permitted to move at all, but remain stuck in mediocrity.

3) Ancestral cultures are more elegant and beautiful than modern culture because they are small enough that individual humans influence them, and also because they are constrained by rules. An example would be children who learn to play music together on instruments that force them to all play in the same key.

Related: Steven Strogatz on the dangers of Too Much Coupling:

"Coupling" refers to the ability of one part of a complex system to influence another... In all sorts of complex systems, this is the general trend: increasing the coupling between the parts seems harmless enough at first. But then, abruptly, when the coupling crosses a critical value, everything changes... With our cell phones and GPS trackers and social media, with globalization, with the coming Internet of things, we're becoming more tightly connected than ever... But the math suggests that increasing coupling is a siren's song. Too much makes a complex system brittle.

I think he's wrong, but only because the core of the system is completely insulated from the choices of ordinary people. The tragedy is that a large system with no boundaries has to be designed that way. If somehow we all had real power, it would collapse overnight. But it's possible to build a big system out of many "cells". Within your cell, you have power and your life has meaning. And your cell is linked to other cells and has power within a larger system, and that system has power within a still larger system. In the whole system, political power could be almost completely bottom-up, we could smoothly adapt to change, and the connections would not reach the density to make it unstable.

April 13. Can civilisation reboot without fossil fuels? This is an important question, and I'd like to see more than just this one guy trying to answer it. His answer is that the most realistic source of energy would be charcoal and wood gas, but that wood power would be heavily constrained by competition with agriculture.

I think the most likely scenario is that solar power (not necessarily photovoltaic) is able to adapt and survive through the coming resource bottleneck, and eventually it will grow to surpass the energy we're now getting from fossil fuels. Then, if the most powerful nations have stable zero growth economies, we've got utopia, but I don't expect humanity to learn that fast. Probably there will be solar empires, still addicted to growth and all fighting each other, and we'll eventually hit peak solar, in which it takes more and more effort to harvest the last few photons. Then we'll either finally figure out how to live without growth, or we'll get another crash.

April 20. Over the weekend I had a visitor, Nick. We talked about all kinds of things, and I learned lots of stuff about the possible future of energy. For example, you can have a parabolic reflector focusing sunlight on a point through which you pass a fluid that can hold lots of heat, and then this fluid can transfer heat to water, driving a steam engine, so you've got solar power without a high-tech infrastructure making photovoltaics. Nick's utopian vision is a kind of home-scale mini-biosphere or super-greenhouse that would make such good use of sunlight and water that people living in it would be almost completely self-sufficient. This kind of thing will have to be developed if we ever want Mars colonies, but then it would turn out to be more useful to help us live better on Earth.

May 4-6. In the last post I was writing about three different things -- sweet foods, video games, and marijuana -- that make you feel good, but if you do them too much, you feel bad. Why does reality work this way?

Why isn't there anything that feels good, and continues to feel good the more you do it? And why doesn't it work the other way around? If I slap myself in the face it feels bad, but if I were to do it all the time, it would keep feeling bad, rather than turning around and starting to feel good. Why is feeling good so challenging and feeling bad so easy?

You might try to answer this in terms of evolution, or biology, or even the laws of physics. But that raises the question: why is the physical world this way and not some other way? You could call this the Hedonic Anthropic Principle. If this is a mindless universe of particles and waves in which consciousness appeared by accident, how unlucky are we that pleasant consciousness is so elusive?

I want to believe that life is intrinsically meaningless, because then it should be possible to game the system, to find an easy trick to feel enduring bliss. But we've tried this for all of history and completely failed, which suggests that life does have a meaning: that our minds and our stories are serving some invisible deeper mind that does not simply want us to feel good, but uses good and bad feelings, like scientists using treats and electroshocks on rats, to lead us toward some unimaginable goal.

In this subreddit post, The Hedonic Anthropic Principle, polyparadigm argues that consciousness can only arise where happiness is challenging -- because otherwise the decisions are so easy that consciousness is not necessary. I happen to think consciousness is universal, but I still accept this idea under a special definition of consciousness: the power to choose whether or not to be in the moment.

May 20-22. A reader sends a fascinating doom scenario. It starts with the idea that drones are the future of warfare. The plot thickens with the observation that military drones normally require satellites. And the speculation is that experimental high-altitude aircraft like waveriders, which are also being developed by China, are intended to shoot down satellites to neutralize the enemy's drones in a war. Enough blown up satellites and we've got Kessler syndrome, a feedback loop where high-velocity space debris hits satellites and makes more space debris, and "the resulting debris cascade could render low Earth orbit essentially impassable."

This is the same kind of mutually assured destruction that has so far prevented global nuclear war. The difference is, if you push the button to start a nuclear war you're killing billions of people and destroying your own nation. A satellite war is merely a big inconvenience, and you might be preserving your own nation. If someone has the ability to blow up all the satellites, and it feels more like saving the world than ending the world, they're going to do it.

So how do you win a war after the satellites are gone? Or how do you get in a position where the satellite war hurts your enemies more than you? By having the best drone force that does not depend on satellites. I'm guessing drones could navigate by triangulating from fixed beacons on the ground, and they could communicate globally through massive drone-to-drone networks, but not fast enough for remote operators to make combat decisions. So the likely goal is drones that are smart enough to make combat decisions on their own.

In this subreddit post, Drone Combat and the End of Satellites, polyparadigm argues that even satellites are slow enough to give a disadvantage to human controllers, and the future of drone combat is local control. I wonder if it will eventually be like video games are now: humans give general commands like destroy or engage or defend or pursue, and the AI takes care of the moment-to-moment details.

May 25. The Case for Dangerous Roads and Low-Tech Cars is an excerpt from Matthew Crawford's book The World Beyond Your Head. The idea is that we drive more safely if roads and cars are engineered to fully engage our attention. Crawford's broader idea is that technology is being used to insulate us from the challenges of the physical world, and this makes us incompetent and depressed.

Another way to frame it: the trend in technology is to make practical things boring and idiot proof, so they don't attract our attention but without our attention they still barely work. Meanwhile, entertainment and advertisements are being skillfully engineered to demand our attention. You can escape this trap by learning to ride a motorcycle, speak a new language, play an instrument, play a sport, make furniture, anything that puts your mind and body out in the world unmediated.

In the coming decades I see a psychological version of the popular myth of the apocalypse. Instead of physically dying, most people are going to fade away into technologically assisted adult infancy, while communities based on challenging skills and deep relationships survive and eventually fill in the dead spaces.

June 10. I've finished Matthew Crawford's book The World Beyond Your Head, and my favorite parts are where he argues that technology is being designed to take skill away from us and make us powerless consumers of entertainment. The parts I like the least are where he argues that individual freedom has gone too far and we need to be more constrained by authority, custom, and tradition. That's true in some contexts, but I think those contexts are outliers -- his example of a tradition-bound utopia is a business that restores old pipe organs.

I wonder what experiences led Crawford to take that position and seek the unusual examples that support it, because I'm the same age and my encounters with authority and structure have been tedious and painful. Meanwhile, my most interesting challenges have been about navigating life with very little external regulation. I've complained a thousand times about obligations and never complained about boredom -- that would be like a rich person complaining that they don't know how to spend their money.

But apparently I'm also an outlier. Gabriel sends this article, In Europe, Fake Jobs Can Have Real Benefits. There are thousands of dummy companies where people do office work to support the manufacture and sale of imaginary products -- without even being paid! It makes the workers feel useful, and supposedly they're learning skills that will make them employable, but the trend is toward fewer office jobs as they get replaced by better computers. So if the businesses are not grounded in physical reality, and the workers are not learning useful skills, they might as well be playing video games. Or they could be making real pottery or furniture or planting real trees. They could be learning stonemasonry and building castles and cathedrals. At least they're not making bombs.

I like Crawford's vision of a return to skilled trades, and I like my own vision of universal self-regulation, but I don't expect either one to happen in this century. Instead I expect a global struggle to tap the growing resource of people who want someone to tell them what to do all day.

June 17. A New Theory of Distraction is a review of Matthew Crawford's book The World Beyond Your Head, with a critique similar to the one I wrote a week ago.

Crawford thinks that modern people have too much freedom, which leads to boredom, depression, and being victimized by high-tech distraction, and we need to build a culture of benevolent authority and meaningful constraints. I think we've only begun to learn self-regulation, and unstructured time is not a burden but an exciting opportunity to practice the skill of navigating freedom. The reviewer, Joshua Rothman, uses James Joyce's Ulysses to argue that constant distraction is not a bad thing, and instead of avoiding it, we should own it.

On a tangential subject, Rothman mentions that comedian Louis C.K. and author David Foster Wallace think we seek distraction to avoid facing some unbearable pain at the heart of our being. But Louis C.K. is a sad man, and of course Wallace hanged himself. Maybe that "emptiness inside" is something that only a small proportion of people feel, but it drives them to success or self-destruction and they get all the attention.

June 22. Saturday night I was listening to music and had a thought. One song, which I had originally classified as pretentious and boring, and later as interesting, this time sounded radical and brilliant. So how does that mental model change, or not change? What do I do inside my head so that tomorrow I think of this song as great and not average?

Earlier I was watching baseball and having a similar thought about how batters see pitches. As an amateur I would just see a ball coming at me, but a professional batter sees a fastball, a curve ball, whatever, and they might also see it in the context of what they expect from that pitcher. This is more than a mental model -- it's burned into their instinctive body motions by practice, so they hardly have to think at the moment of the swing. Pitchers do the same thing to learn how to pitch to different batters, and they're both aware the other one is doing it, which is how the mental game develops: if you know the other player's mental landcape, you can take advantage of it, or even hack it. It's a contest between creativity trying to stay a step ahead and adaptability trying to catch up.

So here's my theory. Our landscapes of mind and habit are mostly shaped by emotion. The more intense my feelings when I'm listening to that song, the easier it is to start thinking of it as a great song. This might be obvious to anyone who's not an intellectual, and if it's true it explains a lot. In conflicts between companies or empires or sports teams, why do young upstarts defeat established powers? They're living more on the edge, so in every little success or failure, their emotions are more acute, and lead more easily to valuable mental adjustments. Why do people get stupid when they get comfortable? Because they have insulated themselves from the extreme events and strong emotions that would help them stay on top of a changing world.

This also explains why job interviewers look for enthusiasm, and why it's so dangerous to fake it, because it gets you in situations where you're not as creative and adaptable as you need to be.

June 25. Musical Language is a one hour radio show about some of the science behind one of my favorite subjects, musical taste. How can people in the same culture hear music so differently? Why is musical judgment more varied and subjective than, say, judgment of landscape photographs? What internal process makes us like the sounds we like?

There's a good story about Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. At its first performance in 1913, it was so dissonant that fights broke out in the audience and people threw things at the orchestra. Only a year later audiences loved it. And if you look closely enough at the brain, you can see physical events that correspond to our mental process of turning noise into beauty.

I'm not interested in the mechanism, only how good it feels when I do it. But I have more questions. Why does some challenging music sound incredible after repeated listening, while most challenging music merely sounds not bad? If this varies between different people, and if it's independent of number of listens, it suggests a deeper component of musical taste.

Is this related to other practices of transforming pain into pleasure, like BDSM, or certain schools of meditation? Is the same thing happening with difficult fiction? Are we decoding something in the art, or is the art decoding something in us? And are we making progress? If we exchanged music with people from a thousand years ago, would it be an equal exchange? And if not, if their music would bore us and our music would shock them, what does that say about changes in human consciousness?

June 30. Thanks Ian for letting me know that the full interviews for the film What A Way To Go have been put up on YouTube on this page. This includes a hundred minutes of me talking, almost ten years ago, and my ideas have changed a lot since then.

The reason I'm no longer a doomer is simply that I got tired of being wrong. And I started to feel contempt for other doomers who shamelessly made the same wrong predictions year after year. And you have to make precise predictions because otherwise what does "collapse" even mean? Do you think we're still going to have internet? Container ships? Large scale grain farming? Banks? Taxes? Electrical grids? Hospitals? Stock markets? Elections? These are all different subjects that require different specialized knowledge. And for each thing that's going to go away, how long will it take, and by what chain of events?

Everyone wants to be right, but people who persist in being doomers want to be right in a different way than I do. I want to say what's going to happen, and then it actually happens. Some people want to feel like they understand the mechanism for how things happen. But the real world is much too complex for any one person to understand, so we make simplifications. In the context of collapse, the simplest idea is business as usual plus sci-fi extrapolation. The next simplest idea is total collapse: every one of the above things goes away, because they're all part of the same One Big Thing, and some of the conditions that made the One Big Thing possible are disappearing.

I know that you can't have perpetual economic growth on a finite planet, that renewable energy is not coming online fast enough for a smooth transition out of fossil fuels, and that presently fertile regions will become deserts. But I also know that modern civilization is only One Big Thing inside my head, and out in the world it's billions of people I don't know, their knowledge and habits and intentions, plus trillions of physical objects and all the connections between everything. It would be arrogant to think that large complex high-tech society cannot adapt to these conditions, just because I can't personally imagine how it can adapt.

July 9. Esquire has a new article about the emotions of climate scientists, and it mentions scenarios all the way from human extinction to "We can solve this problem in a way that doesn't disrupt our lifestyle."

I want to divide this topic into three levels: science, society, and psychology. Science can tell us about rising temperatures and melting glaciers and acidifying oceans. A good book on this subject is Under A Green Sky by Peter Ward. This is the worst scenario you can get to with good science, and still Ward admits that it won't be as extreme as the Permian-Triassic extinction, because too much carbon has been locked up in limestone. And even the P-T extinction only killed 70% of land vertebrate species. It's not a lottery -- the delicate specialist species go first, and humans are among the toughest and most adaptable.

So given severe climate change and human survival, how will we be living? This is an impossible question, because nobody in 2015 can imagine the options and the creativity of millions of people with their backs to the wall in 2025. On the subreddit a reader mentioned the 1972 Limits To Growth model. It's been pretty accurate so far, and I think it has proven that we can't go on living exactly the way we've been living. But other ways of living are outside the scope of the model. I can't find the link, but someone took Limits To Growth and applied it to the year 1400, and it also predicted near-term collapse.

In the Esquire article, one scientist thinks that "consumption and growth have become so central to our sense of personal identity, and the fear of economic loss creates such numbing anxiety, we literally cannot imagine making the necessary changes." He's talking about the politically impossible changes that would prevent eco-catastrophe, but this is also true of the involuntary changes that will allow human systems to keep going through eco-catastrophe.

Last September there was a fascinating article about the mysteriously high Russian death rate. It seems that older Russians were unable to adapt mentally to the fall of the Soviet system, and they have lost the will to live and are dying more easily from all kinds of things. But in the coming decades the whole world could see more severe social changes -- people losing their money, their status, their jobs, their home cities, their ancestral cultures, their belief in progress -- without getting anywhere near a Mad Max collapse. So I think the challenges of this century will be more psychological than physical, and growing your own food is less valuable than growing your own meaning.

July 20. The Cyborg Compulsion: Why the robots aren't coming in the way you expect. The idea is that technology changes human society not so much according to economics, but according to the human need for life to feel meaningful. This is why synthesizers did not replace orchestras, and instant coffee did not replace hand-made coffee. And the danger is not that we will give up control to machines that will turn evil or incompetent, but that we will insist on maintaining control over ever-more powerful machines, amplifying the effects of human evil and incompetence. "The evolution of modern information technology looks a lot more like a cyborg vanity project, in which we equip ourselves with power tools to emulate super-powers."

July 27. Stop trying to be creative. It's about a computer program that allows you to breed random images into images that look like real things, and it turns out that it's really hard to get to a picture of a car by trying to get to a picture of a car, but you might get there accidentally by trying to get to a picture of a face. This is how creativity works. When your favorite band recorded your favorite song, they did not start out with that exact song already in their head and figure out how to play it. More likely, they were aiming for something else but were able to "maintain an openness to discovering whatever arises."

next archive