Life is already too short to waste on speed.
So, what does footloose communing with nature mean for you?
Harper’s Magazine published this bucolic scene of camping in New York’s Adirondacks by up-and-coming artist Winslow Homer in 1874. It’s one of many illustrations he turned out in competition with Currier & Ives in the mid-to-late 19th century for magazines and newspapers, most depicting Americans comporting themselves out-of-doors in cities, towns, villages, and beyond, in an age unmarred by automobiles, aircraft, telephones, and digitalia.
But even by then, the accelerating pace of progress had decimated the vast Adirondack region in its voracious demand for lumber, paper, and charcoal. In the mid-1880s, after much environmentalist agitation and corporate opposition, New York’s legislature designated the area as a forest preserve. Ten years hence, after the preserve’s stewards were exposed as corrupt, the state constitution was amended to protect the 6.3M-acre region “forever.” The amendment was all of two sentences, but it did the trick:
Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff (W.W. Norton, 2019, 256 p. hardbound), ISBN 987-0-393-65169-0, $23.95. Also available in eBook and audiobook formats.
The entities called computers were originally human beings, people like the accounts clerk Bob Cratchit in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. In the mid-20th century, computers were (mostly) women who worked calculators and slide rules, tasked with tabulating data and solving numerical problems. Nowadays, says Douglas Rushkoff, computers run us as extensions of applications that abuse us for fun and profit. Rushkoff has had it with the soul-sucking “innovation economy”; to retrieve the human agency and dignity that technocracy has usurped, he proposes not a revolution but a renaissance of pre-industrial, even pre-enlightenment, societal values. Rushkoff emerged as an early member of the digerati, but has since been a longstanding critic of those who control digital media and manipulate its users, not to mention capitalism itself. Now a professor of media studies (CUNY Queens), public intellectual, and podcast host, he’s quietly assembling an army of change agents. Their mission is to “challenge the operating system that drives our society” by organizing the (better-educated) masses to throw off their (block) chains by imagining and building human-scale alternatives to giant financial institutions, public corporations, and their enablers. Given how overarching and well-wired global capitalism is, that’s a tall order, but Rushkoff asserts that the battle can be won if we stick together. Continue reading “Undoing Dystopia”
A Dystopian Time Machine from 1909: Sunday 1/19/2020
It was in 1909, before he had published any of his novels, that E. M. Forster flung himself into the far future to epitomize the hole he believed humanity was digging itself into—literally—in his novella The Machine Stops. Although he seems to have forgotten or ignored it as most others have done, he lived long enough (passing in 1970) to seen the stirrings of the technological mousetrap he depicted in that tale of an estranged mother and son cocooned in subterranean air-conditioned private vaults designed and maintained by forces beyond their ken. How we have come to dwell is different in detail but not in essence, and the polarities of acceptance and rejection of our fate echo those of Forster’s protagonists.
In a way, The Machine Stops turns H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) on its head. Instead of Wells’s Eloi, innocents dwelling on the earth’s surface who are at the mercy of the subterranean beasts, the Morlocks, Forster’s characters live deep below the surface in warrens fashioned long ago by men driven to escape the environmental catastrophes their own inventions had wrought. But neither book ends well for its protagonists.
None of Forster’s later works entered such territory. In his novels of marriages and mores, he went on to chronicle the intimate travails of bourgeois Brits, expressed as modernist realism rather than science fiction. But by 1940, modern life had burdened him so that he could never find relevance in such period pieces.
What his novella meant for Forster and what it signifies for us today I have tried to puzzle out ina commentary online in The Technoskeptic Magazine, accompanied by a few editorial excerpts from it. The entire novella has been republished online n several places, such as this PDF version. If you have never read it, doing so will make you think twice before logging on anywhere.
The Next Debate Needs More Mud: Wednesday 10/16/2019
The Democratic presidential debates are getting too predictable and too carefully scripted to slant coverage the way media barons and their CIA minders want. It has come time for presidential aspirants to get down and dirty (Don and dirty?) And so, for the next nationally televised debate (hopefully over the air as well as on cable news), here’s what I’d like to see:
Live mud wrestling onstage, narrated by a Howard Cowell impersonator!!!
Picture, if you will and can, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders facing off in a sea of mud, clad only in Titleist shorts, tripping, poking eyes, and body-slamming their opponent. Picture too Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris in Speedos tearing at each others’ hair (advantage Warren) or slipping through holds (advantage Harris). Let’s pair off all the others and make a ladder of mud until the final encounter, mano a mano, wrestles the top contenders to their inevitable (if the DNC has its way) political death.
Then and only then will we know what these people are made of. My prediction of who will take the final round is…
National Guard reservist and in-shape Iraq veteran Tulsi Gabbard.
Issue with Contact Forms Fixed: Wednesday 6/19/19
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I Support Tulsi: Monday 6/10/19
And here’s some good reasons why you should too, win or lose.
If you share only one thing about Tulsi with your friends and family, make it this video. Over six minutes, this raw and emotional exchange encapsulates the reason she is running for president. #Tulsi2020pic.twitter.com/BaB3RxrKIq
Here’s prematurely alopeciated Jeff Bezos, proudly displaying Amazon wares looking part goofball, part nerd, and part used car salesman. The photo of the now-richest human being is undated, but I place it in the late 1990s.
One clue is that book he’s holding, Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought, 1st Edition, by Douglas Hofstadter, published in 1996 and currently selling for $20.17 at Amazon.
Amazon’s blurb for it reads: “Driven to discover whether computers can be made to ‘think’ like humans, Hofstadter and his colleagues created a variety of computer programs that extrapolate sequences, apply pattern-matching strategies, make analogies, and even act ‘creative.’ As always, Hofstadter’s work requires devotion on the part of the reader, but rewards him with fascinating insights into the nature of both human and machine intelligence.”
Well gosh, isn’t that just what young Jeff went on to do? Amazon’s AI inference engines are among the best in the biz. Everything you do on the site is tracked to predict what you will want next and put up for sale to assorted merchants and data brokers. All that shopping and just clicking around made Jeff a media plutocrat by giving people what they were urged to want, but also by selling their souls. We might have gotten the hint then, but who was paying attention to all that profiling or knew AI would come after us with it? My advice: resist one-click shopping.
Childfree Doesn’t mean Carefree: Saturday 3/30/19
WIRED this week features a rather joyless essay, Why Don’t You Want Kids? Because Apocalypse! that makes a case for the Childfree movement, as is evidenced on Reddit and in several recent or forthcoming books and academic articles. I can relate to these young folks who spurn parenthood; newly married in my mid-twenties, I decided I didn’t want to have any kids. Now the childfree folks say its to spare potential offspring from one or more coming collapses. Back then, Vietnam, Nixon, assassinations, and civil disturbances, not to mention overpopulation, made bringing a child into the world seem risky, if not futile. But the real reason I didn’t want to was that I had decided I did not want my wife to be the mother of my children. That was a problem, and after three years together we sensibly broke up.
It took many relationships and 30 years for me to change my mind, and now my only child, my special daughter, is about to enter college. Of course I’m glad we had her, and gratified that she’s plotting a career to fight for environmental quality justice. We—and she—know her path won’t be easy, but we wouldn’t have it otherwise.
Now, many of today’s childfreebies may have staggering loads of student debt, which wasn’t so much of a problem when I graduated from college. No doubt, having a baby when one is under such a financial cloud can feel daunting. But even if they manage to pay off their own college and grad school obligations, they’ll still need to save the money they might have spent to educate their unborn. That’s because, come the time when they grow old and feeble, they’ll need to pay for support that adult children typically provide ageing parents; such services don’t come cheap and may go on for a number of years, if not decades. Are they prepared to put their money where their mouth is, their faith in the kindness of strangers, and their fates in underpaid hands, or have they already decided that the world will soon end and take them with it? If so, good for them. Who needs another generation of nihilists?
You know those little green-and-white USDA Organic labels you find on organic produce? What if someone told you that their adhesive transmits a powerful drug into the edible that over time can render humans sterile? It’s true, they say; they’ve seen the lab reports, and go on to assert that this is a plot by USDA and agribusiness interests to decimate nutritionally savvy people as a way boost sales of poison-laden GM food products.
Insidious beyond belief, you think. You’re pretty sure it’s a crock, but your doubt gene says “What if…?” and you decide to check it out. You email people to ask if they’ve heard it and some of them do the same. Someone finds a truther blog with a long discussion thread about it and lets you know. Alleging scientific credentials, certain discussants proceed to hypothesize about the chemistry and physiology of the attack vector and argue about that. Others point to connections between certain USDA political appointees and Big Food. The rumor has become a thing, and even if you post refutations that get shot down, you’re now part of it. Continue reading “Yes, Virginia, there are conspiracies—I think”
The 2400 words that follow encapsulate three years of struggle to produce and publish a book into a somewhat coherent memoir. Should your interest start to flag as you skim through, don’t abandon ship; simply scroll to the end for a summation and a special offer. ~ Geoff Dutton
Once upon a time, when my life was in upheaval, in an urgent act of therapy I channeled my angst into a novel. It seemed necessary at the time, but as my situation improved my motivation ebbed and I abandoned it halfway through. Twenty years later, I began another one. It too was an act of therapy, but for society rather than myself. And because its topic—the threat of radical Islamic terrorism—was all over the news, I wanted it to be reality-driven, socially relevant, politically provocative, and an antidote to Islamophobia.
My unaccountable passion to tell that story and my determination to finish it drove me to write 120,000 words over 18 months and badger dozens of literary agents and publishers. After nine revisions, it weighed in at 105K words and just under 400 pages, a bit obese for a first novel as some literary types informed me. But it is what it is, I decided, and started peddling it again. Six months later—just a few days ago—it was published, but not as I had envisioned.
(Revised and expanded July 4th, 2018. Happy Independence from Consumerism Day!)
You probably sense as I do that normality isn’t what it used to be, even a few years ago. I’m talking not about Trump or politics but of the magnificent panoply of digital technologies we are immersed if not drowning in. The speed at which technologists are shoving stuff at us has bugged me for quite some time. Understanding innovation mania has caused me to spend years puzzling out what’s driving the complexification of nearly everything and how the new ways we are obliged to adopt might transform concepts of what human nature is.
Why, I wonder, is everything possible being digitized as quickly as possible? I hate to use the phrase, but might there be some “intelligent design” that drives humans to churn out technology, faster and faster? More importantly, whom or what are we serving with our clever innovations, especially those that render what once was tangible into bits? Continue reading “When Momma Ain’t Happy”
If you are upset that in behalf of Trump’s campaign, Cambridge Analytica siphoned personally identifying information on 50 million Americans from Facebook to microtarget voters, chances are that you may be missing the point about what they do and what it signifies. They are involved in psy-op electioneering on at least five continents similar to their efforts for Trump. Their data revelations are consulted in military and intelligence operations around the planet and their gluttony for personal data knows no bounds.
To get a handle on how these machinations play out, take a look at Roberto Gonzales’ (chair of the anthropology department at San José State University) recent article in CounterPunch, which shines a light on how CA and its parent company operate; by no means a complete accounting of the technologies or aims involved but enough to make you lose a few hours of sleep.
Read it, and let me know how happy you are now to expose yourself to social media. The task ahead for the citizenry, as I see it, is to immunize ourselves to behavioral manipulations, regardless of source or intent.
Every one of us bears within him the possibility of all passions, all destinies of life in all its manifold forms. Nothing human is foreign to us. ~ Edward G. Robinson
In the darkest days of World War II, Hollywood went to bat for Russia—our ally then—by adapting Soviet propaganda films for the American audience and making some of its own on their behalf. This amazing documentary, a paean to the heroism of the Russian people and the Red Army, was shot before, during, and after Hitler’s siege of Moscow. Filmed between October 1941 and January 1942 during a time of invasion, privation, agony and death in the depths of the Russian winter, Moscow Strikes Back (Russian version here) may be a little hard to take in spots, but is well worth an hour of your time. Should the following video start in the middle, rewind by dragging the red button all the way to the left. Makes me think: wouldn’t it be nice to be able to rewind America away from the right? Continue reading “From Russia with Trepidation”
“Once a policy has been adopted and implemented, all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it” Barbara Tuchman, The march of folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984. p. 245).
In the 20th-century but still fun party game called Telephone, people sit in a circle and someone whispers a phrase or sentence to the person to the left, who whispers it to their left, around the clock, until it reaches the original speaker, who enunciates what s/he sent and received. The final utterance may make sense, but it is almost never the one sent and is often complete nonsense. This is one form of truth decay.
Truth is a relatively scarce commodity. Science progresses by disproving theories, not proving them (that only happens in mathematics). In the real world, everything you know to be true just hasn’t been disproved yet, so it’s a good idea to stay tuned. Continue reading “Living with Truth Decay”
Boston MA, November 5th, 2017, 8 PM. Around 11 this morning another lone gunman struck. This time in the peaceable little community of Sutherland Springs, TX (pop. some 500 human souls), 25 miles southeast of San Antonio, in a Baptist church during a Sunday service.
By 6 PM, television and radio news networks were pre-empting regular content to cover breaking developments. In my TV media market, ABC led the charge, with an independent VHF station bravely following suit. No doubt, the 11 o’clock news will be about the S.S. Massacre virtually entirely, as it was for NPR’s All Things Considered late this afternoon. “Special coverage” then forced its way in to regurgitate what little was known.