Snow Crash vs Star Trek

“[C]yberpunk sci-fi of the 1980s and early 1990s accurately predicted a lot about our current world. Our modern society is totally wired and connected, but also totally unequal,” writes Noah Smith (What we didn’t get, Noahpinion). “We are, roughly, living in the world the cyberpunks envisioned.”

I don’t find that surprising. Cyberpunk writers were looking at ongoing trends and extrapolating about the near future. We are living in that near future.

Considering inequality in the US began growing several decades ago when cyberpunk became a genre, it wasn’t hard to imagine that such inequality would continue to grow and play out within technology itself. And the foundations for present technology were developed in the decades before cyberpunk. The broad outlines of the world we now live in could be seen earlier last century.

That isn’t to downplay the predictions made and envisioned. But it puts it into context.

Smith then asks, “What happened? Why did mid-20th-century sci fi whiff so badly? Why didn’t we get the Star Trek future, or the Jetsons future, or the Asimov future?” His answer is that, “Two things happened. First, we ran out of theoretical physics. Second, we ran out of energy.”

That question and answer is premature. We haven’t yet fully entered the Star Trek future. One of the first major events from its future history are the Bell Riots, which happen seven years from now this month, but conditions are supposed to worsen over the years preceding it (i.e., the present). Like the cyberpunk writers, Star Trek predicted an age of growing inequality, poverty, and homelessness. And that is to be followed by international conflict, global nuclear war, and massive decimation of civilization.

World War III will end in 2053. The death toll will be 600 million. Scientific research continues, but it will take decades for civilization to recover. It’s not until the 22nd century that serious space exploration begins. And it’s not until later in that century that the Federation is formed. The Star Trek visionaries weren’t starry-eyed optimists offering much hope to living generations. They made clear that the immediate future was going to be as dark or darker than most cyberpunk fiction.

The utopian world that I watched in the 1990s was from The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Those two shows portray the world 250 years from now, about the same distance we have to the last decades of the American colonial era. It’s unsurprising that a pre-revolutionary writer might have predicted the invention of the cotton gin at the end of the 18th century, just as unsurprising that he couldn’t have predicted the world we now live in. That is why I would argue it’s premature to say that no further major advancements in science will be made over that time period.

Scientific discoveries and technological developments tend to happen in spurts — progress builds incrementally, which is what makes Star Trek compelling in how it offers the incremental details of how we might get from here to there. We can be guaranteed that, assuming we survive, future science will seem like magic to us, based as it would be on knowledge we don’t yet possess. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were those who predicted that nothing significant was left for humans to learn and discover. I laugh at anyone who makes the same naive prediction here at the beginning of the 21st century.

To be fair, Smith doesn’t end there. He asks, “These haven’t happened yet, but it’s only been a couple of decades since this sort of futurism became popular. Will we eventually get these things?” And he adds that, “we also don’t really have any idea how to start making these things.”

Well, no one could answer what the world will be like in the distant future any more than anyone in the distant past was able to predict the world that has come to pass. Nothing happens yet, until it happens. And no one really has any idea how to start making anything, until someone figures out how to do so. History is an endless parade of the supposedly impossible becoming possible, the unforeseen becoming commonplace. But it is easy to argue that recent changes have caused a rupture and that even greater changes are to come.

Smith goes on to conjecture that, “maybe it’s the authors at the very beginning of a tech boom, before progress in a particular area really kicks into high gear, who are able to see more clearly where the boom will take us.” Sure. But no one can be certain one is or is not at the beginning of a tech boom. That can only be seen clearly in retrospect.

If the Star Trek future is more or less correct, the coming half century will be the beginning of a new tech boom that leads to the development of warp drive in 2063 (or something akin to it). And so following it will be an era of distant space travel and colonization. That would be the equivalent of my grandparents generation growing up with the first commercially sold cars and by adulthood, a half century later, experiencing the first manned space flight — there being no way to predict the latter from the former.

As a concluding thought, Smith states that, “We’ll never know.” I’m sure many in my grandparents generation said the same thing. Yet they did come to know, as the future came faster than most expected. When that next stage of technological development is in full force, according to Star Trek’s future historians, those born right now will be hitting middle age and those reaching young adulthood now will be in their sixties. Plenty in the present living generations will be around to know what the future holds.

Maybe the world of Snow Crash we seem to be entering into will be the trigger that sends us hurtling toward Star Trek’s World War III and all that comes after. Maybe what seems like an endpoint is just another beginning.

* * *

About predictions, I am amused by early 20th century proclamations that all or most great discoveries and inventions had been achieved. The belief was that the following century would be limited to working out the details and implementing the knowledge they already had.

People at the time had just gone through a period of tumultuous change and it was hard to imagine anything further. Still, it was a time of imagination, when the earliest science fiction was popularized. Most of the science fiction of the time extrapolated from what was known from the industrial age, from Newtonian physics and Darwinian evolution. Even the best predictions of the time couldn’t see that far ahead. And like cyberpunk, some of the predictions that came true in the following decades were dark, such as world war and fighting from the air. Yet it was hard for anyone to see clearly even into the end of the century, much less the century following that.

The world seemed pretty well explained and many felt improvements and progress were hitting up against a wall. So, it would be more of the same from then on. The greater changes foreseen tended toward the social rather than the technological. Otherwise, most of the experts felt certain they had a good grasp of the kind of world they lived in, what was possible and impossible. In retrospect, such confidence is amusing to an extreme degree. The following passage describes the context of that historical moment.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine
by John Higgs
pp. 17-19

It appeared, on the surface, to be an ordered, structured era. The Victorian worldview was supported by four pillars: Monarchy, Church, Empire and Newton.

The pillars seemed solid. The British Empire would, in a few years, cover a quarter of the globe. Despite the humiliation of the Boer War, not many realised how badly the Empire had been wounded and fewer still recognised how soon it would collapse. The position of the Church looked similarly secure, despite the advances of science. The authority of the Bible may have been contradicted by Darwin and advances in geology, but society did not deem it polite to dwell too heavily on such matters. The laws of Newton had been thoroughly tested and the ordered, clockwork universe they described seemed incontrovertible. True, there were a few oddities that science puzzled over. The orbit of Mercury, for instance, was proving to be slightly different to what was expected. And then there was also the issue of the aether.

The aether was a theoretical substance that could be described as the fabric of the universe. It was widely accepted that it must exist. Experiments had shown time and time again that light travelled in a wave. A light wave needs something to travel through, just as an ocean wave needs water and a sound wave needs air. The light waves that travel through space from the sun to the earth must pass through something, and that something would be the aether. The problem was that experiments designed to reveal the aether kept failing to find it. Still, this was not considered a serious setback. What was needed was further work and cleverer experiments. The expectation of the discovery of the aether was similar to that surrounding the Higgs boson in the days before the CERN Large Hadron Collider. Scientific wisdom insisted that it must exist, so it was worth creating more and more expensive experiments to locate it.

Scientists had an air of confidence as the new century began. They had a solid framework of knowledge which would withstand further additions and embellishments. As Lord Kelvin was reputed to have remarked in a 1900 lecture, “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Such views were reasonably common. “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered,” wrote the German-American physicist Albert Michelson in 1903, “and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.” The astronomer Simon Newcomb is said to have claimed in 1888 that we were “probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.”

The great German physicist Max Planck had been advised by his lecturer, the marvellously named Philipp von Jolly, not to pursue the study of physics because “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.” Planck replied that he had no wish to discover new things, only to understand the known fundamentals of the field better. Perhaps unaware of the old maxim that if you want to make God laugh you tell him your plans, he went on to become a founding father of quantum physics.

Scientists did expect some new discoveries. Maxwell’s work on the electromagnetic spectrum suggested that there were new forms of energy to be found at either end of his scale, but these new energies were still expected to obey his equations. Mendeleev’s periodic table hinted that there were new forms of matter out there somewhere, just waiting to be found and named, but it also promised that these new substances would fit neatly into the periodic table and obey its patterns. Both Pasteur’s germ theories and Darwin’s theory of evolution pointed to the existence of unknown forms of life, but also offered to categorise them when they were found. The scientific discoveries to come, in other words, would be wonderful but not surprising. The body of knowledge of the twentieth century would be like that of the nineteenth, but padded out further.

Between 1895 and 1901 H.G. Wells wrote a string of books including The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The First Men in the Moon. In doing so he laid down the blueprints for science fiction, a new genre of ideas and technological speculation which the twentieth century would take to its heart. In 1901 he wrote Anticipations: An Experiment in Prophecy, a series of articles which attempted to predict the coming years and which served to cement his reputation as the leading futurist of the age. Looking at these essays with the benefit of hindsight, and awkwardly skipping past the extreme racism of certain sections, we see that he was successful in an impressive number of predictions. Wells predicted flying machines, and wars fought in the air. He foresaw trains and cars resulting in populations shifting from the cities to the suburbs. He predicted fascist dictatorships, a world war around 1940, and the European Union. He even predicted greater sexual freedom for men and women, a prophecy that he did his best to confirm by embarking on a great number of extramarital affairs.

But there was a lot that Wells wasn’t able to predict: relativity, nuclear weapons, quantum mechanics, microchips, black holes, postmodernism and so forth. These weren’t so much unforeseen, as unforeseeable. His predictions had much in common with the expectations of the scientific world, in that he extrapolated from what was then known. In the words commonly assigned to the English astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, the universe would prove to be not just stranger than we imagine but, “stranger than we can imagine.”

 

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Weirdness of Waze

There is a popular GPS app, Waze. It was developed in Israel and bought by Google. The purpose of it is to not just track where you are, but to keep track of where you’ve been and where you normally go, not to mention when and for how long. It then gives you info based on your behavioral patterns. It is the ultimate spy app.

I hadn’t heard of it until my dad mentioned it to me. He has been using it lately. I’m not sure he realized what it was intended to do, because he was surprised by the results.

On several occasions, it has figured out the precise place he visits: the local senior center, his church, etc. Then it determined what was going on while he was there and gave him info about future events. Just yesterday, it told him about the church service and what time it was to begin today, and it told him how long it would take to drive there and some info from the church newsletter.

The app had figured this all out on its own. It used my dad’s past behavior and searched the web to find data that corresponded. It has even recommended to him events to him that didn’t fit his past behavior but fit the kinds of things he’d like to do in the places he does visit. He found it slightly disconcerting. It is clear that vast amounts of data is being kept and analyzed.

My dad’s smart phone is also connected to his car, which has GPS as well. I don’t know if the app is able to access to the car’s GPS, but it seems like that might be the case. He was leaving somewhere and the app told him where he had left his car, without him even asking it to do so. It just assumed he wanted to go to his car and it knew where it was.

Before long, such apps will know us better than we know ourselves. But until then, there will be a learning curve with these new technologies.

* * *

Terms & Conditions: Waze is a privacy accident waiting to happen
by Andrew Couts, Digital Trends

Did Google Just Buy a Dangerous Driving App?
by Kevin Roose, New York Magazine

Israeli Students Hack GPS App Waze to Create Fake Traffic Jam
by Shiryn Ghermezian, The Algemeiner

Israeli troops relying on Waze app blunder into Palestinian area; clashes follow
by Ruth Eglash, The Washington Post

Waze app directions take woman to wrong Brazil address, where she is killed
by Shasta Darlington, CNN

Plowing the Furrows of the Mind

One of the best books I read this past year is The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally. The book covers the type of data HBDers (human biodiversity advocates) and other hereditarians tend to ignore. Kenneally shows how powerful is environment in shaping thought, perception, and behavior.

What really intrigued me is how persistent patterns can be once set into place. Old patterns get disrupted by violence such as colonialism and mass trauma such as slavery. In the place of the old, something new takes form. But this process isn’t always violent. In some cases, technological innovation can change an entire society.

This is true for as simple of a technology as a plow. Just imagine what impact a more complex technology like computers and the internet will have on society in the coming generations and centuries. Also, over this past century or so, we saw a greater change to agriculture than maybe has been seen in all of civilization. Agricultural is becoming industrialized and technologized.

What new social system is being created? How long will it take to become established as a new stable order?

We live in a time of change and we can’t see the end of it. We are like the people who lived during the time when the use of plows first began to spread. All that we know, as all that they knew, is that we are amidst change. This inevitably creates fear and anxiety. It is a crisis that has the potential of being more transformative than a world war. It is a force that will be both destructive and creative, but either way it is unpredictable.

* * * *

The Invisible History of the Human Race:
How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures
by Christine Kenneally
Kindle Locations 2445-2489

Catastrophic events like the plague or slavery are not the only ones that echo down the generations . Widespread and deeply held beliefs can be traced to apparently benign events too, like the invention of technology. In the 1970s the Danish economist Ester Boserup argued that the invention of the plow transformed the way men and women viewed themselves. Boserup’s idea was that because the device changed how farming communities labored, it also changed how people thought about labor itself and about who should be responsible for it.

The main farming technology that existed when the plow was introduced was shifting cultivation. Using a plow takes a lot of upper-body strength and manual power, whereas shifting cultivation relies on handheld tools like hoes and does not require as much strength. As communities took up the plow, it was most effectively used by stronger individuals , and these were most often men. In societies that used shifting cultivation, both men and women used the technology . Of course, the plow was invented not to exclude women but to make cultivation faster and easier in areas where crops like wheat, barley, and teff were grown over large, flat tracts of land in deep soil. Communities living where sorghum and millet grew best— typically in rocky soil— continued to use the hoe. Boserup believed that after the plow forced specialization of labor, with men in the field and women remaining in the home, people formed the belief— after the fact— that this arrangement was how it should be and that women were best suited to home life.

Boserup made a solid historical argument, but no one had tried to measure whether beliefs about innate differences between men and women across the world could really be mapped according to whether their ancestors had used the plow. Nathan Nunn read Boserup’s ideas in graduate school, and ten years later he and some colleagues decided to test them.

Once again Nunn searched for ways to measure the Old World against the new. He and his colleagues divided societies up according to whether they used the plow or shifting cultivation . They gathered current data about male and female lives, including how much women in different societies worked in public versus how much they worked in the home, how often they owned companies, and the degree to which they participated in politics. They also measured public attitudes by comparing responses to statements in the World Value Survey like “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than a woman.”

Nunn found that if you asked an individual whose ancestors grew wheat about his beliefs regarding women’s place, it was much more likely that his notion of gender equality would be weaker than that of someone whose ancestors had grown sorghum or millet. Where the plow was used there was greater gender inequality and women were less common in the workforce. This was true even in contemporary societies in which most of the subjects would never even have seen a plow, much less used one, and in societies where plows today are fully mechanized to the point that a child of either gender would be capable of operating one.

Similar research in the cultural inheritance of psychology has explored the difference between cultures in the West and the East. Many studies have found evidence for more individualistic, analytic ways of thought in the West and more interdependent and holistic conceptions of the self and cooperation in the East. But in 2014 a team of psychologists investigated these differences in populations within China based on whether the culture in question traditionally grew wheat or rice. Comparing cultures within China rather than between the East and West enabled the researchers to remove many confounding factors, like religion and language.

Participants underwent a series of tests in which they paired two of three pictures. In previous studies the way a dog, a rabbit, and a carrot were paired differed according to whether the subject was from the West or the East . The Eastern subjects tended to pair the rabbit with a carrot, which was thought to be the more holistic, relational solution. The Western subjects paired the dog and the rabbit, which is more analytic because the animals belong in the same category. In another test subjects drew pictures of themselves and their friends. Previous studies had shown that westerners drew themselves larger than their friends . Another test surveyed how likely people were to privilege friends over strangers; typically Eastern cultures score higher on this measure.

In all the tests the researchers found that, independent of a community’s wealth or its exposure to pathogens or to other cultures, the people whose ancestors grew rice were much more relational in their thinking than the people whose ancestors were wheat growers. Other measures pointed at differences between the two groups. For example , people from a wheat-growing culture divorced significantly more often than people from a rice-growing culture, a pattern that echoes the difference in divorce rates between the West and the East. The findings were true for people who live in rice and wheat communities today regardless of their occupation; even when subjects had nothing to do with the production of crops, they still inherited the cultural predispositions of their farming forebears.

The differences between the cultures are attributed to the different demands of the two kinds of agriculture. Rice farming depends on complicated irrigation and the cooperation of farmers around the use of water. It also requires twice the amount of labor that is necessary for wheat, so rice-growing communities often stagger the planting of crops in order that all their members can help with the harvest. Wheat farming, by contrast, doesn’t need complicated irrigation or systems of cooperation among growers.

The implication of these studies is that the way we see the world and act in it—whether the end result is gender inequality or trusting strangers— is significantly shaped by internal beliefs and norms that have been passed down in families and small communities . It seems that these norms are even taken with an individual when he moves to another country. But how might history have such a powerful impact on families, even when they have moved away from the place where that history, whatever it was, took place?

Advance of Knowledge and Generations

Knowledge has advanced greatly just within my relatively short lifetime.

The internet, of course, has grown exponntially which has brought social media and alternative media. This has made knowledge more widely available and more easily accessible, but it has also opened up dialogue. If you write a blog post about some particular place (country, city, region, etc), it is qute likely that someone from that place or familiar with that place will respond in the comments. I find myself regularly interacting with people I would never have met prior to the internet.

There is also a general increase in data, especially demographics and polls. This partly is just because there are more organizations gathering data and naintaining databases. Computers have made it easier and cheaper to store data. Plus, companies offering data services have become profitable such as genealogy websites.

Even scientific data has become more accessible. The ease of data gathering now makes scientific research easier and cheaper. Along with adverisers, scientists have been sifting through the vast repositories of data.

It was the scientific angle that got me thinking. Every ideology and opinion is potentially a hypothesis to be tested. However, some ideologies predispose individuals to holding opinions of mistrust or even denialism toward scientists and others who gather and/or analyze data. Some people respond to new info with excitement and curiosity while others respond with fear and defensiveness.

Some of this is just personality differences. Whatever the cause, it creates a strange predicament for our info saturated modern society.

For most of human existence and civilization, humans just muddled along with no hope of learning much about the world around them. If you had an idea and the power to enforce it, you could create a religion or government and that was just the way it was. There was no scientifically testing of claims about someone’s idea being better than someone else’s. Jesus existed because the church said so and there were no academic historians to challenge that claim. A particular country was the best because the king said so and there was no scientist to do a cross-nationl analysis.

All of that has changed. There is no claim that has remained safe from questions and criticisms, from study and analysis. If you believe that some system is more efficient or some group more biased or whatever else, then it is your responsibility to prove it. However, there are some people who don’t like this. It makes me wonder what they are afraid of. Why wouldn’t a person want to know that their belief isn’t supported b the evidence? What is so horrible about changing one’s mind?

A new generation has grown up in this information age and they never experienced the world that came before. They are perfectly comfortable with all the information overload. They have more trust in science (and less blind faih in religion). As the older generations retire and die, what kind of world will the younger generations create in the coming decades?

The democracy of e-books

Here is the link to a blog post by Quentin S. Crisp:

The business of books

The following are my responses. I want to be clear about one thing, though. These are my responses to my perception of Crisp’s presented view in this particular blog. My specific perceptions here, of course, may not be entirely accurate and most likely involves various biases and projections.

To speak of Crisp more generally, I like him and agree with him more than not. In this particular case, however, I found myself having a bewildered response in trying to understand why Crisp’s ‘loathing’ was so strong, especially as his loathing seemed directed at a group of people of which I am a member, i.e., Kindle owners. 

My first response:

I’m of the type who thinks change just happens and there ain’t nothin’ can be done about it. After civilization began, it was all downhill from there. I’m fatalistic about progress. I embrace it until civilization collapses. I’m curious where it will lead before then.

I bought a Kindle for various reasons, but my original reason was that I wanted something to replace my electronic dictionary. I still buy some physical books, not as much as I used to though. It’s a good thing because I was running out of room in my apartment.

By the way, why does “just sayin'” irritate you so much? I would assume it originates from American English. I’ve used the phrase “just sayin'” on occasion. I just find it amusing to say. It’s silly and stupid.

As I read your blog post, I must admit I felt some gut response to defend the world wide web. It’s ‘democracy’ in all of its beauty and ugliness. As Freck said in A Scanner Darkly, “Well, I like it.”

In early America, the government gave subsidies to presses so that it would be cheaper to publish newspapers and books. This would also meant more opportunities for writers. Of course, not everyone had a newspaper column like people now have blogs. But I’m sure the average published writing back then wasn’t all that well-edited. I was wondering about this. It would be an interesting analysis to look at first editions of books across the centuries to find out when writing was the most well-edited according to the standard grammar of the time period.

Having more writers does create more chaos. Even so, I’d point out that (since you were blogging about VALIS) I’m with PKD in having faith in chaos and the good it can safeguard. The corollary to chaos is innovation. Every age of innovation began with the crumbling of the previous age. We can’t know if it will lead to progress or destruction, but either way it can’t be avoided.

My second response:

On the whole I’m more sympathetic to chaos than order, as anyone who’s visited my flat can probably testify, but I think I’m most sympathetic of all to benign chaos – that is, self-regulating chaos of the idyllic kind which seems to be championed in the Dao De Jing, etc.

I’m also a man of much personal chaos. But there is a difference between one’s own chaos and someone else’s. And, as you say, there is a difference between benign chaos (benign to me, at least) and other varieties of chaos. I don’t know how benign PKD saw chaos, but he didn’t see chaos as an automatic enemy. He saw the divine as that which can’t be controlled, that which in fact will seek to avoid control. The divine sought hiding in the chaos so as to not to be found by the demiurgic forces that seek to control the world for their own purposes.

The argument that is always raised with any new technology, when anyone objects, is basically that “it’s all good” or “you can’t stop change”. But the same argument is never used in the case of politics. In politics, the points themselves are generally argued, and people, however stupid their decisions may be as related to the points, hardly ever just revert to “all change is good and/or inevitable.” So why do this with technology, which is, after all, as much of human manufacture as politics?

That may be true for some or even for most, but it ain’t true for me. I see two warring tendencies in society’s progress. There are those who see all progress as good and those see all progress as bad. An interesting middle position is that of Jeremy Rifkin in his book The Empathic Civilization. In Rifkin’s analysis, the progress of civilization is both destructive and creative. On the creative end, new technology (for traveling and communication) increases collective empathy. But it does so at a very high cost. Will our empathy for other people and other life increase quickly enough that we will find solutions to the destruction we’ve caused?

I don’t know. I just thought such a way of thinking might be applicable to this issue as well. Modern society changes ever more quickly which means much of the past gets lost. With the introduction of Western culture (including the Western invention of the book), many indigenous cultures are destroyed and lost forever. Likewise, with the introduction of new technologies, the traditions of the West can also become endangered. However, there is also a counter trend. For example, the digitization of books has saved many books from the dustbin of history. Some of these books only had one physical copy left remaining in the world, but now anyone anywhere can read them.

I think people have been hypnotised into thinking technology is inevitable and has a kind of universal objectivity to it, in other words, that it doesn’t have cultural implications or cultural bias. But all technologies have cultural implications and biases. Someone has made a decision somewhere to switch tracks to this or that thing.

Yeah, that is true. Even a simple technology like books hypnotize us into a certain way of looking at and being in the world. The printing press probably was the first to create or at least widely promulgate this perception of inevitability and universal objectivity. The vision of inevitable progress goes at least back to the Age of Enlightenment. More broadly, of societies around the world, a collective decision over generations was made to switch from oral to written, from stone and clay to scrolls and then to books and now to e-books. No single person or even group of people is making this decision, but this isn’t to say that individual choices don’t have influence. It’s just that individuals are increasingly choosing e-books. Still, you are free to think people like me are wrong or stupid for choosing e-books.

My third response:

I think that PKD must have been at least ambivalent towards chaos. In Valis, he identifies ananke, or ‘blind chance’ (also translated as ‘necessity’, or could that be ‘you can’t stop change’?), as a symptom of evil in the universe, and generally seems to equate rationality and order with good.
Oh yeah. I’m sure PKD was ambivalent about lots of things. I should’ve clarified my thoughts. I was partly referencing PKD’s view of what he called “God in the gutter” or “God in the garbage”. PKD was fascinated with chaos, not that he idealized it.

People accept free will in politics and other areas of life, so why not in technology?

I have no clear opinion about freewill. Part of me is attracted to the view of philosophical pessimism. I don’t think individuals are all that free. We act according to our natures and our natures were formed (with genetics and early life experience) long before we had any opportunity to aspire to become self-willed agents. And, on the larger scale of society, I suspect we have even less willed influence.

As I see it, freewill is a very modern concept, if anything created by and magnified by technology. Books are just one of the early technologies that have formed the modern sense of self. the book format was first used by the early Christians and it was that era when individualism was beginning to become what we know of it. With modern technology, people have an even stronger sense of self and of a self-willed relation to the world.

The problem you seem to be perceiving is that as the masses gain more freedom then more specific groups lose their monopoly on specific areas. When everyone can be a writer, everyone can influence the culture of writing, not just ‘professional’ published authors. Writing is no longer an elite profession. The internet and other new technologies have democratized writing and empowered the average person. For example, I’m just a parking ramp cashier and yet I’m talking to you, a published author. Online, I am equal to you and we’re both equal to everyone else. Power and authority have little meaning online, unless you’re one of the people who owns a major internet company like Google.

You have a sense, as an author, of losing power even as many people around the world are gaining power through more opportunities of reading and writing. But that isn’t how I see it. A small press author like you gets more readers from more countries for the very reason of newer technology. A century ago, you might never have been published at all or have remained almost entirely unknown. There are trade-offs. You gain more ability to reach more people but so does everyone else. Also, you have been self-publishing recently. Yes, you are more careful in editing, but because of limits of funds many small press publishers (whether self-published or not) often have issues with quality editing as it is very time consuming. I know Mike has bought expensive small press books with many editing problems. So why blame the average person for such issues? Why should anyone get to decide who can publish or not? Who would be on this publishing board of literary oligarchs?

I know you aren’t actually promoting oligarchy or anything. But how do you think the average person would be persuaded to your position? Considering the increase of writers among average people, you’d probably have a hard time even convincing writers of your position. This, however, doesn’t mean your position is wrong. Many of my own positions seem in the minority which doesn’t cause me to stop holding those positions. However, on this issue and as an American, I do have a healthy skepticism of any elite who wishes to tell the masses what they should do. Maybe if I were a part of the elite of professional published writers my views would be different… or maybe not. Matt Cardin bought a Kindle before I did. Mike is a collector of rare books and a lover of a fine book. He also has been considering buying an e-reader so as to not to have to read the expensive copies of books he owns.

There are a couple of factors I see.

First, there is an increase of freewill rather than a decrease. It’s just that there is greater equality of freewill (more opportunities to influence, more choices available) than ever before in all of the history of civilization. However, this creates other problems. As the ability to publish writing spreads to the lower classes, the upper classes lose control of defining correct and acceptable grammar. As the English language spreads to diverse cultures, British English becomes less dominant in defining correct and acceptable English grammar. For example, the more informal American English has become more popular because of American media.

Second, there is the development of large corporations. It’s ultimately not the average person defining writing and publishing. Large corporations (like Amazon and book publishing companies) aren’t democracies. This is probably where your insight fits in. These big businesses often promote a false sense of freedom and opportunity. What we’re experiencing is a shift of who is the elite controlling society. In the US, the founders were mostly an intellectual elite and small business owners who were actually fighting against a transnational corporation (British East India Company). But now such transnational corporations have taken over every major country and economy and taken over society in general. It’s the corporate elite, instead of the traditional intellectual elite, who now mostly control the publishing of books. It’s also large corporations who own most of the media companies (newspapers, tv, movies, internet, etc). It’s these companies who have the greatest power to influence language and there main motivation is profit, not maintaining the proud tradition of literature.

Eugenics was ‘progress’ and a new idea once. Should we have accepted it merely on those terms?

There is always the question of defining ‘progress’. I would, of course, agree that not all ‘progress’ is good.

However, I would point out that eugenics as a basic idea isn’t new. Spartans supposedly threw deformed babies off of a cliff. Male cats when they become the new alpha male will often kill the kittens of the former alpha male. The only modern part is that eugenics was able to be done on a larger scale and done with more precision. I would say that eugenics isn’t progress itself, although it can be used in the service of certain visions of progress.

I think everything I’ve said still stands. If there were concomitant spritual or social progress, technological progress would be simply useful, possibly irrelevant, probably harmless. But I don’t think that genetic modification, for instance, will represent true progress, because it will be an amplification of the steering will of a number of individuals in order to wipe from existence the possibility of certain other steering wills.

I also think everything I’ve said still stands. 😉

Actually, I don’t know to what degree we disagree. Like you, I’m not blindly for progress. Mabye less like you, I’m not against progress either. Like most issues, I’m agnostic about progress. It brings out my fatalist side. I can read someone like Derrick Jensen and find myself strongly persuaded. All of civilization (books and e-readers alike) is built on and maintained through massive dysfunction, oppression and violence. On the other hand, nothing has yet stopped the march of civilization’s progress, despite millennia of doomsayers.

I honestly don’t think it matters whether I like e-readers or not. I loathe lots of things and yet those things continue to exist. I loathe war and yet my tax money funds wars where worse things than Kindles happen.

I own a Kindle not because I have a strong opinion in support of e-readers but because I have a strong opinion about reading. I like to read and love books, in any and all formats. An e-book if it’s public domain is free and if not it’s still usually way cheaper than a physical book. As a relatively poor person, I can get more reading material for my money with e-books. As a person living in a relatively small apartment, I can from a practical perspective own more e-books than I could physical books. Even my public library already allows the public to ‘check out’ e-books. I personally like having my opportunities and choices increased. If that happens through e-readers, it is good by me. Or, if it happens by some other format, it is also good by me.

Similarly, I don’t see Kindle as a form of real progress, since what it does is allow people who don’t care about books and literature to call the shots.

Yes, I understand you feel strongly about this. But why does any individual get to decide which people are perceived to care? I suspect many of these people do care and some to a great degree. Like many normal people, I care. Don’t I matter? Defining who cares is like defining what is or isn’t literature, what is or isn’t art. In some ways, you might be right. Literature as we know it may be in the process of being destroyed. This is just like how Socrates was right that the oral tradition as he knew it was being destroyed by written texts. The ironic part is that Socrates supposed words are now recorded in text. It’s also ironic that your views here are recorded on a blog.

We don’t really know what will happen, and I hope the outcome ends up being more positive than negative, but I honestly don’t see much that’s positive coming out of it at the moment.

Yep. I don’t entirely lack hope, but in the long run I think it’s all doomed. We’re all just going along for the ride. Sometimes the ride is fun, often not.

Reading is already one of the most egalitarian of cultural media. It is an open university.

It’s true that it is to an extent an open university, but not equally so. Poor people in wealthy countries have a lot less access to this “open university”. And people in poor countries have had little access to it at all until very recently. The internet and e-books have opened up this “open university” to the entire world.

Now, however, Amazon have got the thin end of their wedge into reading, and I’m rather afraid (this seems to be the direction), that before long, Amazon (with Kindle) will be saying, “All those who want to come to reading, must do so by me, and my technology. All those who want to come to writing, must do so by me, and my technology. Keep up. Plug in. Buy the next model.”

The issue of transnational corporations taking over the world isn’t the same as the issue of e-readers, although like everything in life there is overlap. Right now, there are numerous devices (computers, tablets, pads, e-readers, smart phones, etc) that anyone can use to read almost any book (or at least any book that has been digitized) and such devices are becoming cheaper and more widely available. Right now, even poor people can access some kind of device that allows them to access the entire world’s library of public domain literature. I see that as a good thing.

Yes, many plutocrats would like to use the power and wealth of corporations to take over the world. They might be successful, but don’t blame the average person who simply wants more freedom and opportunity to cheaply and easily access reading material. In time, the natural trend of things should lead to open source e-readers being developed just as there are open-source computers and browsers.

The difference between us, in this matter, seems to be where we direct our loathing the most. The main problem I see is a plutocratic elite rather than the democratic masses. Democracy can be messy and ugly, but I think it’s better than the alternative. You seem to be equating the plutocratic elite with the democracy-seeking masses because the former is always trying to manipulate the latter. Even if the latter is being manipulated, why blame them instead of those who manipulate? Why not try to end their being manipulated rather than trying to end their having influence?

I realize that you have an old fashioned respect for the intellectual elite. I do too in many ways. I think the demise of the intellectual elite has had major problems. Maybe there will always be an elite. If so, I’d choose an intellectual elite over a plutocratic elite. In case you’re interested, Chris Hedges writes about the loss of power and influence among the intellectual elite in his book Death of the Liberal Class.

I would emphasize that this issue is part of a larger set of issues. Reading, writing and publishing are being democratized just as knowledge and education is being democratized. The first public library was only in recent centuries. For most of the history of ‘Great Literature’, most people had little or no access to any book besides the Bible and often not even that. Public education is likewise very new. I think it was Jefferson who helped create the first publicly funded university. Now, starting in the mid 20th century, almost anyone in the West can go to college if they really want to and if they have basic intelligence.

There is another tidbit of history related to American and British history. Thomas Paine was a working class craftsman. His father, a Quaker, taught him a love of learning and made sure he received a basic education. But lack of money and social position disallowed Paine to follow a scholarly profession. Fortunately, he went to London where he discovered many self-educated people. The lower classes weren’t allowed into the universities and so these people paid people to give them lectures. It was the rise of democracy that first took form through knowledge and education. From the perspective of the elite, this led to what was seen as chaos challenging tradition, the masses challenging authority. It probably didn’t look like democracy as we know it. During this era, there was much rioting and violence. An old order was collapsing.

The democratization of knowledge and education has led to problems in some ways. It created a literate middle class who mostly read crappy pulp fiction, but it also created a massive publishing industry that made books available to average people. It’s this pulp fiction industry that allowed someone like PKD to make a living at writing, despite the literary elite at the time thinking his writing was worthless.

I’m far from being an optimist, but apparently I’m the one defending optimism. I suppose I’m just playing Devil’s Advocate. Maybe it’s easy for me to be an optimist as I don’t have skin in the game in the same way you do. Your livelihood is dependent on book publishing. Nonetheless, I would point that, from a practical perspective, if you want to continue to make a living as an author, you should embrace e-readers. However, if principle is more important than profit, you are free to fight the Goliath to your dying breath. I wouldn’t hold that against you. We all have to pick our fights.

Rise of the Creative Class & Second Axial Age

Profit, greed, selfishness… are these the primary motivations of human nature?

I’ve always thought that humans aren’t primarily selfish. Going by my studies of psychology, humans seem to be primarily social animals. However, modern society forces people into a self-centered mentality. The problem is that this isn’t natural. It worked well enough in the past when society was hierarchical and when the central ideal of society was merely that of success. Using this mindset, many people became filthy rich and very powerful. But we no longer live in the times of the Robber Barons.

The Industrial Age attitude of individualism is being replaced by the very different view which is encouraged by this new Technological Age. All you have to do is look at the Millennials who grew up on technology. They have much more of a group mentality. They’re more interested in cooperation than competition. It’s not that they don’t want to succeed, but they just are less likely to define success as being the result of the isolated actions of an individual. The technological Age is slowly creating a less hierarchical society. Out of this, a creative class is arising.

I’ve always found it strange that conservatives are so embracing of Social Darwinism. This is particularly strange with Christian fundamentalists who believe their culture is superior and often this is identified with “white culture” or “Western culture”. It’s the idea that we genocidally destroyed the Native American cultures and so our culture is superior. We deserve our superior position because our culture is superior (i.e., stronger, more dominant, more forceful, more successful). We won. You lost. The same for the African-Americans. Conservatives whites love to complain about the black culture being dysfunctional which is rather convenient since the black culture was destroyed by whites.

I wonder how much this has to do with Christianity. Not all Christians have this superior attitude, but it has been a far from uncommon attitude throughout the history of Christianity. Christians have always been about “spreading the Good Word”. Unlike the views of many Eastern religions, not everyone is guaranteed of being saved in Christianity. In fact, there is the idea of an elect few who will be saved and this idea has been popular since the beginning of Christianity. There were other views within the Christian tradition. Universalism (i.e., everyone is saved) has also been a part of Christianity from the beginning, but unlike Buddhism or Hinduism it never gained much traction within mainstream Christianity.

It’s interesting that “white culture” Christian fundamentalism is on the decline at the very same time that the creative class is on the rise. But it isn’t surprising. My guess is that the creative class tends to be liberal and open to alternative lifestyles such as atheism and agnosticism. Buddhism, or certain traditions of Buddhism, have become very popular as well in the creative class, the educated class, the liberals. The greatest spokesperson for this new attitude is probably the Dalai Lama who is of course a Buddhist.

At the same time, the developing world is simultaneously embracing both the model of materialistic success and the modern attitude of religious fundamentalism. I’ve always thought that Karen Armstrong was correct when she identified religious fundamentalism as a modern phenomenon, a reaction to Industrialization and demographic shifts forcing the mixing of cultures. In the US (along with Europe and countries such as Japan), we’ve assimilated this change and it has become a part of our identity. Particularly, the US demographics are shifting so quickly that the newest generation is already past much of the old racial/cultural conflicts.

The Industrialized West is entering terra incognito. There are some people (*ahem* conservatives *cough cough*) who don’t want their world to change, but like it or not the world is changing and there is no going back. As a liberal, I’m very curious where it’s all heading. I don’t see Western Culture as a static artifact or a set of laws set in stone. The entire history of the West has been of progress. The very idea and ideal, the very narrative of progress is at the heart of the Western Culture.

I should add that this doesn’t mean that Christianity is simply being left in the dust of the 21st century. If there is one thing that Christianity has proven itself to be, it is that it’s an evolving tradition which is very flexible and adaptable (the grand ideal of cultural mixing of the Greco-Romans). Christianity is shifting partly because the culture wars are shifting. It used to be the God-fearing Americans versus the Godless Commies. However, we no longer have a great enemy like the Soviet Union and the enemy we are focused on is even more religiously fundamentalist. The atheists and agnostics have gained a foothold and are growing, but more importantly even religious Americans think about religion differently. When Christianity was politicized by conservatives it became a competition of values where one side had to win at the cost of the other side. The young generations no longer see it that way and they don’t like the way religion has become politicized.

Why has Christianity been shifting so dramatically in recent decades? The most obvious explanation is that biblical studies itself has changed as it became free of church control and as new texts were discovered.

What is taking place of politicized Christianity? That is easy to figure out. Just listen to what the religious right is complaining about. Presently, the most vocal defender of the religious right is Glenn Beck. So, what is Glenn Beck complaining about? Social Justice Christians. What is different about these liberal Christians? For one, they tend towards the ideas of Unitarianism and Universalism. Many Christians have been fighting for these ideals for centuries, but only in this last century have they had great impact on US culture (although there was a Universalist European country in the past). My basic point is that this is a less competitive and more inclusive view of religion. It’s what Martin Luther King, jr was speaking about when he said he had a Dream. The Social Justice Christians argue that this was the very message that Jesus spoke of.

Of course, this Dream is older than Christianity. To speak of it broadly, this is the vision and ideal of human rights.

Many people have spoken of a world that wasn’t or shouldn’t be just dog eat dog. There is an ancient idea that humans, all humans have inherent worth.

One thing I’d is that of the Axial Age. Many cultures around the world developed along similar lines at about the same time. It wasn’t that the idea of human rights simply spread out from a single point. There was something inherent to human culture that hits a tipping point where human rights become a collective ideal and aspiration.

It’s been more than a couple of millennia since the beginning of the Axial Age. We Westerners like to think we’re so advanced and yet we’re still processing the radical change, the cultural shift that happened so long ago. Some argue that we’re in a Second Axial Age.

I’m not exactly optimistic. I do feel that something is trying to be born, but the birth pangs are going to be painful.

I can’t speak of certainties in the context of global society and what it may become. My point is simply that culture itself is shifting, attitudes are changing. It’s something that is happening on the level of relationships and communities, on the level of everyday communication and interactions. More important than anything else, people are changing on a fundamental level. It’s not about what is happening in politics, not about what leaders are deciding, not about what the plans and agendas international corporations project into the future. 

No one knows what is coming. There is no one at the top who is in control.

Ephemeral Media

Many things are changing with the new media. I remember a time when I was but a wee child sitting blank-eyed in front of picture box. When I wanted to change the channel, I had to stand up and manually turn a knob. That was about as interactive as it got, but now with the world wide web interactive is the name of the game.

There is a specific change I had in mind. It’s become increasingly apparent that the new media is simultaneously more permanent and more ephemeral. If you’ve ever posted, commented or uploaded anything on the web, you can try to remove it but you can never be sure it’s entirely gone. Someone else could’ve downloaded it or copy/pasted it. The web trawlers capture almost anything that has been up any amount of time.

That said, it’s easy for things to disappear or become inaccessible. I’ve noticed the fickleness of search engines. I’ve known something exists, but couldn’t find it in a search. Or you can know precisely what you’re looking for and yet look through hundreds of results before finding it.  Search engines only show what the web trawler has noticed and it only shows results according to equations of relevance. And if you live in China, much of the world’s internet would be entirely invisible to you. You can’t know about what you can’t see.

My thoughts, however, are focused on another aspect. A famous example is the Kindle book that was simultaneously removed from everyone’s Kindle because Amazon didn’t have the rights. That would be like if a bookseller did a recall and entered everyone’s home while they were sleeping to retrieve the book. Another example was a cellphone company that managed to lose all of its customers data (contact info and whatever else).

More pertinent to my own experience are examples related to online forums and websites. The first forum I was an active member of closed down a while back. The sad part was it just disappeared one day without warning. I had many wonderful discussions that were almost entirely lost… except what the web trawlers managed to save. Could you imagine if real life communities could just disappear instantly like that? In the case of the forum I mentioned, I did still have contact with some of the other members through other sites… but it still sucked.

Even more recently, the only other online community I’ve been active in also shut down. It was where my first blog was. Fortunately, I had a two week warning. I realized, though, that I wouldn’t have had a warning at all if someone hadn’t told me about it because I hadn’t visited the site as much in recent months. If someone hadn’t sought me out on my new blog, I might’ve lost all of my old blogs… and that would’ve really sucked.

The people from that community have mostly moved over to Ning and started new communities. That is fine. I wasn’t too sad about any of it, but I learned something about Ning that gives me pause. The Ning management has an absolute policy about every individual having the rights to their own material. So, any person can delete everything they wrote, but the messed up part is that all responses to the deleted material will also be deleted. That is just not right.

A similar thing has happened to me on the local newspaper website, but on a smaller scale. If a comment gets reported for breaking some rule (such as slander), then that comment is removed and all responses to it automatically disappear as well.

One last example directly related to blogging itself. I have many posts in this blog. I have some of them saved, but not all of them. If someone hacked my account, they could delete my blogs or even cancel the account entirely. I’ve heard of examples on other blogging platforms where blogs get accidentally removed or deleted by a system error. Sometimes they are able to be put back up and sometimes not. I haven’t heard of any problems with WordPress, but it’s always a possibility.

To be fair, all of life is ephemeral. A fire could destroy all my books in a very short amount of time. In the past, I’ve lost a notebook that had personal writings in it. Or a more odd incident involved a pile of printed material I was saving that one of my cats peed on. That is life. Things get lost and destroyed, but there is something about a physical book, newspaper or magazine that feels more real because you can physically hold it and possess it. Writings on paper can last for centuries and millennia. If the internet collapsed or was destroyed, would it be as bad or worse than the burning of the library of Alexandria?