No One Knows

Here is a thought experiment. What if almost everything you think you know is wrong? It isn’t just a thought experiment. In all likelihood, it is true.

Almost everything people thought they knew in the past has turned out to be wrong, partly or entirely. There is no reason to think the same isn’t still the case. We are constantly learning new things that add to or alter prior fields of knowledge.

We live in a scientific age. Even so, there are more things we don’t know than we do know. Our scientific knowledge remains narrow and shallow. The universe is vast. Even the earth is vast. Heck, human nature is vast, in its myriad expressions and potentials.

In some ways, science gives a false sense of how much we know. We end up taking many things as scientific that aren’t actually so. Take the examples of consciousness and free will, both areas about which we have little scientific knowledge.

We have no more reason to believe consciousness is limited to the brain than to believe that consciousness is inherent to matter. We have no more reason to believe that free will exists than to believe it doesn’t. These are non-falsifiable hypotheses, which is to say we don’t know how to test them in order to prove them one way or another.

Yet we go about our lives as if these are decided facts, that we are conscious free agents in a mostly non-conscious world. This is what we believe based on our cultural biases. Past societies had different beliefs about consciousness and agency. Future societies likely will have different beliefs than our own and they will look at us as oddly as we look at ancient people. Our present hyper-individualism may one day seem as bizarre as the ancient bicameral mind.

We forget how primitive our society still is. In many ways, not much has changed over the past centuries or even across the recent millennia. Humans still live their lives basically the same. For as long as civilization has existed, people live in houses and ride on wheeled vehicles. When we have health conditions, invasively cutting into people is still often standard procedure, just as people have been doing for a long long time. Political and military power hasn’t really changed either, except in scale. The most fundamental aspects of our lives are remarkably unchanged.

At the same time, we are on the edge of vast changes. Just in my life, technology has leapt ahead far beyond the imaginings of most people in the generations before mine. Our knowledge of genetics, climate change, and even biblical studies has been irrevocably altered—throwing on its head, much of the earlier consensus.

We can’t comprehend what any of it means or where it is heading. All that we can be certain is that paradigms are going to be shattered over this next century. What will replace them no one knows.

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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?

The Mechanized City

I just left a meeting at the place I work, City of Iowa City Parking Department. The management of the department and of the city have been planning for future developments to improve the downtown area, some of which will eventually alter my job. It’s interesting to see the functioning of government from a slightly inside perspective.

Being a liberal city, the government here is very obsessed about such things as transparency and providing optimal services. There is some bureaucracy involved, but not as much since it’s a smaller population, not even large by Iowa standards. Also, surprising to some people, I’ve observed how Parking management doesn’t seem overly focused on profit-making, despite Parking being the only department that actually makes a profit. Everything is about serving the public. They take their role as civil servants very seriously.

(Although not focused on the profit of the parking department, they are focused on overall tax revenue. So, the ‘public’ in question particularly includes anyone involved in the downtown economy. The downtown business association — going by a different name these days — is directly involved in such city decisions. As such, the city is very focused on the profit of downtown businesses and thus the happiness of prospective customers.)

I’ve wondered about some of the recent changes, as I get to see much of it firsthand with my job. I’m a parking ramp cashier. I started out working in an empty lot that had no ticket spitter or even gates. Everything was done manually and it was a bit chaotic. Over the years, they keep adding new elements to parking such as building new ramps and now putting in self-pay stations. Eventually, my job will be replaced by what they call and ambassador position which then be my new job. Being an ambassador means I won’t be stuck in a booth and my job description will involve more customer service of the ambulatory variety, i.e., going to the customers when they have problems and generally being out and about doing what needs to be done.

They’ve invested massive amounts of money into technology. Along with self-pay stations, they have cameras everywhere and they are looking into various other possibilities: new meter systems with more options such as paying by smartphone, license plate reading machines, etc. One idea is that they might save money in the long run because they’ve let recidivism decrease the number of employees, but I doubt that can be a very central goal since they are spending such a vast amount of money in the process. I suspect they could run the parking department very cheaply with almost no technology at all.

It’s not really about money. It’s about information. Technology means data can be collected, stored, organized, and analyzed. Also, it is data that can be provided to the public as part of the services offered such as maps showing where open parking is at any moment or where a bus is at any moment.

The future is all about information. It’s not data for the sake of data as might be seen in the bureaucracy of a more authoritarian government. It’s all data with a specific purpose, the idea of a smoothly running machine, an entire city mechanized. Some might find that disturbing, maybe even dystopian. As for me, I’m just a curious observer.

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.

Rich Liberals Vs Conservatives w/ Author David Callahan

In this interview, David Callahan’s view intrigues me.

He is arguing that the liberal rich has been smaller in recent decades than the conservative rich. However, supposedly with the growing technology industry and the knowledge economy, there has been a growing liberal rich. These wealthy liberals are highly educated and got their wealth through entrepreneurship. It’s an interesting argument. Entrepreneurs are more likely to be liberal whereas old money and established corporations are likely to be conservative.

Over the last half century or so, the conservative rich created a massive infrastructure of conservative media, think tanks, lobbyist groups, and astro-turf movements. Liberals, on the other hand, have been very lacking in organization. But this apparently has been changing this last decade. I’d probably say it’s the internet that has been a boon for liberals because the internet makes it easier to do grassroots bottom-up organization which is where liberals excel. The argument, however, is that the internet has boomed along with the wealth of the liberals who started businesses in this sector. So, there was the introduction of tools for grassroots organization at the same time new money was funding liberal organizations and media.

It still seems liberals aren’t quite organized in a lock-step way as is seen among conservatives, but definitely a shift has happened.

The shift the author sees is in that the upper class is shifting away from the Republican party. “The upper class is becoming more educated, more secular, more based in urban America (particularly on the coasts). And the Republican party is becoming more religious, more based in small town America, and becoming less educated.” This argument seems supported by the evidence showing the average IQ of Republicans has decreased since a high point during Reagan’s administration.

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.

Noam Chomsky: An Interview with Barry Pateman

 I always enjoy hearing Chomsky talk on almost any issue. In this interview, Chomsky discusses: anarchism, community, technology, class warfare, wealth transferral, taxation, free market, outsourcing, command economy, totalitarianism, Marxism, neoliberalism, and globalization.



Developing Technology, Controlling Society

Developing Technology, Controlling Society

Posted on Jan 2nd, 2009 by Marmalade : Gaia Explorer Marmalade
There is a lot of technology that is quite impressive, but most of it feels like its still in development.  The whole internet and computer industry feels like its in permanent Beta mode (similar in concept to Orwell’s endless, permanent war).  There always glitches and compatability issues.  They always come up with a new product or service before ever quite perfecting what they provided before.  The companies are more afraid of controlling their product than offering the best possible service.  Its a shame considering the potential.

There are the cable and dish tv companies that have near monopolies.  These monopolies are being challenged.  Also, the monopolies of other media (newspapers, networks, etc.) are likewise being challenged.  And they’re all fearful of the internet and wary of investing too much in it.  But mostly its just the monopolies from one industry butting heads against the monopolies of another industry.

Its not all negative.  A few companies are paving the way.  Starz and CBS have stood out as companies who are willing to make deals and experiment.  As for internet companies, Google and Amazon seem to be the leaders in bridging to non-internet companies.

The problem is that integration and standardization is happening slowly and in a very flawed fashion.  For example, Blu-ray won the war of new video format and has been out for years, and yet it has so many flaws as to be almost utterly worthless to the average person. 

Three companies that personally interest me are Netflix, Amazon, and Rhapsody. 

Netflix has a great service, but you can’t buy movies from then and instead have to go to another site such as Amazon.  Amazon has a wide selection of services including two that I’m attracted to.  The Kindle is revolutionary, but relevant to Netflix is Video On Demand and the Unbox.  However, in order for Amazon to make its deals with the movie industry they have to control the data.  So, you buy a movie and yet you don’t own it.  Its very convenient and reliable, but whenever they lose rights to a movie you lose the product you bought.  You can download it to your computer and that is fine as long as you keep using the same computer.  Netflix is also having a constant change in the movies available in the online streaming.  The movie industry seems to be fidgety and unwilling to come to any final agreements. 

The music industry is similar, but is quite a bit more established online.  Rhapsody is one of the best models ever created.  They have a reasonable subscription price for an all-you-can-listen-to service which has an immense selection.  Also, they’ve copied Amazon in selling MP3s and they’ve made them DRM-free which puts them above iTunes.  Rhapsody is doing what most companies fear.  Besides offering compatability with players they don’t make, they’ve also encouraged scrobbling with Last FM.  They’ve have made their own player, the ibiza which does what no other player does.  It uses a similar concept to Amazon’s Kindle in that it directly connects to your account.  The downside of Rhapsody is that they don’t have much in the way of spoken word and no audio books.  Also, they don’t have movies.

What I want is to have tv, movies, music, music videos, spoken word, audio books, and electronic text from a single company… instead of needing multiple companies and constantly having to search around.  What I want is fairly simple in that its not beyond present technology.  If Netflix, Amazon, and Rhapsody merged or integrated their services, that would be awesome.  And if they could make permanent deals with the entertainment industries, they’d have a perfect product.

The problem at the moment is that there isn’t enough cooperation and neither is there enough competition.  There are just a few mega-corporations that own practically everything in the world, and so its not that far off from being a complete monopoly.  These companies have no reason to be in a hurry to offer a great service because they have the only game in town.  And any company that attempts something new (such as Youtube) eventually has to chose to go out of business or sell out to one of the large mega-corporations.

Another reason that companies don’t want to cooperate is because they probably think they can get more by nickle-and-diming the customer.  If something you bought a few years ago isn’t compatable with somethin new you’ve bought, then you have buy a new version of that or a new upgrade.  Also, it would seem like more money if you paid for all these technologies and services together.  Separately, the customer is less likely to notice how the cost adds up.

Humans are strange.  If we wanted to, all kinds of things could be possible… but something always holds us back.  There were all these utopian dreams from the ’50s (and also from the 1800s).  The thing is the only thing unrealistic about those visions is that they didn’t take into account the limitations of human nature.  Technologically-speaking, we could have fully functioning colonies throughout the solar system by now.  We could have robots that did almost all manual labor and people could be freed from long work hours of drudge work.  War, famine, and poverty could be ended almost instantaneously.  Humans have proved themselves capable of near miraculous leaps in development during certain periods… often periods of war, unfortunately.

However, it comes down to control.  Change doesn’t happen because those in power would rather have control than change and those not in power would also rather the world stay predictably the same.  Companies only create new services if it helps them control consumers better.  Corporations have become quite talented at manipulating people.  We aren’t free because the manipulation is unconscious to us in that its seamless.  There is no way to protest except to feed back into the system which is something Tim Boucher talks about.

Its to companies advantage to keep customers contented.  But its also to their advantage to control development and feed it slowly to the public.  People in power have a vision and it takes decades or even generations to fulfill that vision.  Its no accident that most politicians come from the same set of families and that those families have royal blood.  Its no accident that politicians have good jobs waiting for them in the industries they used to oversee.

The one nice thing about this internet age is that the world is becoming more complex.  Its less clear who is manipulating who.  Its easier for the oppressed masses to manipulate in return.  The real hope is in the potential for cooperation.  Humans have never been good at equal-opportunity cooperation especially on a large-scale.  This is becoming a real potential with the internet, but its still yet to be seen whether it will ever become more than potential always just beyond the horizon.

From a spiritual perspective, maybe seeking for freedom in this world of power games and materialism is looking in the wrong place.  Still, it seems we humans are incapable of giving up on the hope that the world might eventually be transformed.  Places like this here Gaia seem to be all about that hope.  Gaia maybe primarily about the connections between people, but human connection is inseparable from human technology. 

Even our understanding of God is limited by our technological metaphors.  That is an area that is explored by many Sci-Fi stories and movies.  I guess I managed to bring this blog back to my recent thinking.

Access_public Access: Public 11 Comments Print Post this!views (258)  

Marmalade : Gaia Explorer

about 1 hour later

Marmalade said

My personal motivation is that I’m very curious, but of limited means. I can only explore my curiosity so far. I’d love to own an Amazon Kindle and I’m thinking I’d enjoy Rhapsody’s ibiza. Its not that I can’t afford either of these, but that these technologies are imperfect.

This goes back to the idea of technology in eternal Beta mode. If I buy an expensive piece of technology, I’d like to know if it will work well several years from now and continue to be compatible with other developing technologies. And there is always the possibility that one can buy a technology for a specific company’s service and that service is discontinued for any number of reasons.

I’d love to see both more competition and more integration. However, the more integration that I’d like to see might lead to less competition. Google has done a lot to integrate many different technologies and services. If Google gets any more powerful, it might become a near monopoly of the whole internet.

Monopolies are a natural tendency of human nature. It goes with globalization. People seek ever greater power, and people seek ever greater forms of social connection and cultural aggregation.The development of civilizationhas been primarily a history of the slow but sure concentration of power… political, religious, and capitalistic. Along with this, its also been the concentration of human knowledge and wisdom.

So, this is far from beingan inherently bad tendency. Much benefit has come from civilization of course. Anyways, even if the tedency is inevitable, the specific direction it takes isn’t. Many people would like to control the direction of this development, but I suspect its an unpredictable phenomena.

To bring inthe spiritual angle, I think there is an obvious and direct relationship between this tendency and Monotheism. And this reminds me of the conflicted relationship between mainstream Christianity and Gnosticism. Gnosticism, even though Monotheistic, was wary of how Monotheism could be used politically to oppress the individual.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

about 15 hours later

Nicole said

eternal Beta mode, that’s a great way of stating it.

I’d never thought of the connection between monopoly and monotheism. Monogamy too I guess? 🙂 Singularly focussed…

Marmalade : Gaia Explorer

about 19 hours later

Marmalade said

I didn’t come up with the “eternal Beta mode” on my own. I came across that idea a few times this past year in my various researches. It makes a lot of sense to me. The original contribution I made was in relating it to Orwell’s idea of continuous war… which is a dystopian idea that seems to have come true or maybe was always true. I think I remember reading that America has been continuously involved in one war or another since it became a country.

The connection between monopoly and monotheism is something I thought of on my own, but I’m sure others have thought of it before. Itsa simple and somewhat obvious view. And, yeah, I’d add monogamy in the mix. Stories of polygamy in theOld Testamentrepresent a time when polytheism still had major influence in Jewish culture.

Monotheism isn’t really any great insight limited to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Any culture that develops a centralized government will come to a conclusion like this about the divine. Even seemingly non-theistic religions will end up focusing their “worship” on some singular ideal.

Marmalade : Gaia Child

about 21 hours later

Marmalade said

Its kind of funny that this isn’t the blog I intended to write when I started it. I think I originally just wanted to write about technology. I’ve had all these other ideas on my mind for a while. I suppose it all goes together, but my mind wasn’t very focused when writing this.

Let me add a different factor. No monopoly will ever be absolute. Its just one tendency amongst many. Similarly, if “monotheistic” religions were completely monotheistic, then they wouldn’t have these complex hierarchies of spiritual beings. Likewise, if monogamy was the only tendency of humans, then studies wouldn’t show that possibly between 10 and 20 % of children aren’t of the father that claims them and married women wouldn’t be more likely to cheat when most fertile.

As for capitalism, that which undermines the monopolistic tendency is two-fold.

Specific to computers and the internet, the open source community has many loyal followers. This levels the playing field, but open source will never be the central player. Mega-corporations aren’t entirely against open source because it gives them a free resource of ideas that they can co-opt.

More generally speaking, the black market is the closest that capitalism gets to being a free market. Black markets force companies to be more competitive and hence innovative. The main motivating force behind coporate innovation online is to provide a better product than what people can find illegally for free. The music industry was the first that had to come to terms with this. The plethora of nice music services such as Rhapsody is a direct result of free file sharing.

1Vector3 : "Relentless Wisdom"

1 day later

1Vector3 said

An interesting intersection of ideas !! I’d like to address some underlying ideas, even though I recognize they don’t contribute much to your actual discussion, but to me they are super-important. Part of my mission in life is to make sure people are clear about these economic ideas, because almost no one IS clear, and there is a lot at stake in our way of living, if misunderstandings persist and we make choices and decisions based on them.

Based on my research and studies, we don’t really have “capitalism” in this country, never have. We have a so-called “mixed economy” which technically is a Socialism-Fascism mix. Capitalism is synonymous with “free market” – the government does not interfere with the economy in any way. In Fascism the government regulates or controls some or all of the economy. In Socialism, it owns some of the economic entities. (In Communism, it owns all of them.)

I found it interesting you called for a big conglomerate, and then recognized you were suggesting something akin to a monopoly.

In capitalism, there are “natural monopolies” but they come and go. Whenever a monopoly persists, you will – with sufficient research – find government regulations are the force keepingit from its natural dissolution (from a significant competitor emerging.) Utility companies that you mentioned, are not “natural monopolies.” In fact, most of them are not just allowed or supported by government, they are government-mandated/created.

Thanks for letting me hold forth. I hope this was seen as somewhat relevant. I really enjoyed your thoughts !!

Blessings,

OM Bastet

Marmalade : Gaia Explorer

1 day later

Marmalade said

Its all good, OM. I don’t even know what my actual discussion is. Myset of ideas feels rather sprawling.

I think I agree with all that you said. Yep, “capitalism” doesn’t exist in the US. That is what I was implying with my comment about black markets. I don’t know exactly what kind of economy we have, but your description of a “mixed economy” sounds about right.

I’m glad you noticed the conflict in my view… which I was conscious of. The concentration of power and knowledge has advantages… and disadvantages. I like your idea of “natural monopolies”. I wasn’t thinking in those terms, but it does clarify the problem of how utility companies are forced into a permanent monopolistic structure by the government itself.

I don’t know how it works in other cities, but here the government disallows competition. There is one electricic company and one cable company. You have no other choices other than turning to other forms of technology. Also, the city runs a monopoly their own monopolies on certain utilities such as water and parking. Maybe this is a necessary evil for utilities such as water, but not for most utilities. However, maybe even water could be provided in new innovative ways if it weren’t controlled as a monopoly.

I shouldn’t complain too much as I personally benefit from the City government’s monopoly on the parking industry… where I’m employed. Its run innefficiently with way too much overheadand doesn’t even provide that great of service considering the money spent. If every parking ramp downtown was owned by different private companies, then there might be cheaper parking or else at least improved options. Besides, there is no reason for the government to run parking ramps. Its not as if their isn’t a market to motivate private companies to invest.

I’m glad to have you hold forth. Its all relevant in my book. Enjoyment is all around.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

2 days later

Nicole said

yes, I can see the connection to Orwell’s continuous war.

I’m intrigued by the stat about married women cheating more when fertile, it seems a difficult thing to establish with clarity. But more importantly, are human tendencies away from monogamy a sign that it’s a bad idea or … something else? Worth pondering especially for those in monogamous relationships 🙂

Marmalade : Gaia Child

2 days later

Marmalade said

I first heard about such stats on a tv show that was about human sexual behavior. I did a websearch and tons of pages came up, but most of it is discussion. The Wikipedia article about evolutionary psychology is interesting, and I thought this quote relevant:

“In particular, Haselton and Miller (2006) showed that highly fertile women prefer creative but poor men as short-term mates. Creativity may be a proxy for good genes. Research by Gangestad et al. (2004) indicates that highly fertile women prefer men who display social presence and intrasexual competition; these traits may act as cues that would help women predict which men may have, or would be able to acquire, resources.”

The difficult to establish part is something I’m not sure about as I don’t know about all of the research. I haven’t come across any research (not that I was looking that much) that was based on direct observations of human women cheating. The research I have heard of is various.

There are direct observations of animal behavior, and research is starting to show that even animals considered monogamous still cheat. The human research is about studying how women dress in more sexually attractive ways when fertile (skirts instead of pants, showing more skin, etc.) and that fertile women shift their behavior to a pattern that fits mating strategy.

I really don’t know the research that well, but there seems to be plenty of it out there if you wish to spend the time to ferret it out.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

3 days later

Nicole said

hmm! 🙂 well, not at the moment, but thanks for sharing what you do know.

Marmalade : Gaia Child

3 days later

Marmalade said

I didn’t think you would necessarily be. I’m not all that inspired to research it much myself. Its just an interesting piece of info… whatever its validity or meaning.

My personal theory is that (most? many?) humans are genetically programmed to be polygamous but not openly. I suspect that the outward display of monogamy is necessary for social order and peacable relations.

My personal attitude towards life is that I prefer monogamy. I’m too lazy to deal with multiple mates. I hardly can handle a single one. Throw in the normal tendencies of human jealousy, and polygamy doesn’t seem worth it to me.

I don’t see it as primarily a moral issue. Our moral ideals cause us as many problems as they attempt to solve, but I don’t think idealizing the opposite of the social (genetic?) norm is helpful either.

But all of that is neither here nor there as it pertains to this discussion.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

4 days later

Nicole said

yes, I do see your points – from a practical standpoint one person is more than most of us can handle! LOL!

Hybrid Books

Curling Up With Hybrid Books, Videos Included
By Motoko Rich
(The New York Times)

The article is decently informative, but it doesn’t offer much analysis.  I found it irritating how the author concluded.  There are always critics of every new technology.  Experts and others have been warning about the death of the book for the last century and the book industry is still very profitable.

Video (or hyperlinks or whatever) aren’t going to destroy people’s ability to read text.  People will still have the choice to read books with plain text.  This merely increases the options.

Videos don’t make people stupid.  Every technology demands different kinds of intelligence.  Even video games increase intelligence.  These new hybrid books will make reading more interactive which will most definitely increase intelligence.

However, it’s very rare to see an intelligent criticism of evolving technology.  People were complaining about written text when it was replacing oral culture.  There were those who believe telephones and television would destroy society when they were invented.  Change is change.  Get over it and quit complaining.