Saturday, November 8, 2008
Dmitry Orlov: The Ephemeral and the Important
The following conversation took place in February of 2007, before the publication of Dmitry's marvelous book, Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects. You can hear the audio presentation in episodes 20 and 21 of the C-Realm Podcast.
Episode 20: Closing the Disinfo Gap
Episode 21: Space
KMO: Hi, this is KMO. Do you have a beverage and a comfortable chair?
Dmitry: Absolutely, I’m looking over the Boston skyline.
KMO: Very nice, I am in Bentonville, Arkansas and I have commandeered the meeting room at the Panera Bread Company which is just a café that has free Wi-Fi, and I have conducted a great many interviews from this very chair. Mine is sort of a guerrilla existence in that I don’t have any internet access of my own. I am what a friend of mine calls a Wi-Fi hobo. So I am just afloat with my laptop and catching a signal wherever I can.
Dmitry: Well, that is a fine way to live.
KMO: It is fun. I would really like to have internet access at home but I live way out in the country and the only option is satellite internet which requires about a thousand dollar equipment outlay just to get started; and I am not willing to shell out a thousand dollars just yet.
Dmitry: Sure, yes.
KMO: Well, let’s go ahead and get started.
KMO: My next guest on the C-Realm podcast is author Dmitry Orlov who has eyewitness knowledge of what it is like to be in a country where the political and economic system is melting down. Of course I am talking about the Soviet Union. Dmitry Orlov, I want to thank you very much for appearing on the C-Realm podcast.
Dmitry: Thank you.
KMO: Well I have mentioned to the C-Realm audience in previous shows your PowerPoint presentation with accompanying narration: “Closing the 'Collapse Gap:. The Soviet Union was better prepared for economic collapse than is the United States." And it is a topic that interests me greatly because it may be a bit of wishful thinking on my part but I think that the current system that we are living under here in the US, what I like to think of as global corporate capitalist hegemony is not long for this world. I think that the folks at the top have stopped sheering the sheep and have started skinning it. And what I mean by that is you can sheer a sheep many times but you can only skin it once. It seems that they are no longer satisfied with sheering and they have started skinning.
Well, I will stop talking now and let you tell us just a little bit about the perspective that you relate in your article and presentation.
Dmitry: Well, really, my approach was, or pretty much is, reasoning by analogy; stacking up apples against apples and oranges against oranges, and they happen to be in different places and cultures, but I found that the Soviet Union and the United States are symmetrical in a lot of ways. They are both a superpower, they both thrived on global dominance and intimidating various countries around the world. They both believed in technological progress, and they both pretty much failed through bankruptcy; they stopped producing good financial results after a while. So [there are] plenty of grounds for comparison, and then my method basically compares very broad categories, typical categories that make up the life support systems that people depend on: housing, transportation, food, medicine, education, and a few others like that. From that I was able to draw some conclusions, and the big conclusion is that the Soviet Union was really pretty well prepared for a collapse.
Once it happened there was a period of time where the people were dying and stuff. It was just incredible, the destruction and violence, and people had a horrible time with it. But still, it was a lot better than what it is going to be here; because basically all of these systems, these life support systems that the people depended on pretty much went on functioning in the absence of a functioning economy; and that is not going to be the case here. And I will get into some detail as to why that is.
KMO: One thing that I would like to point out to the listeners which you do mention in your article and which you have mentioned to me in our e-mail correspondence but which you didn’t mention just now is that the Soviet Union was not better prepared for collapse due to any wise planning on the part of the central planners of the Communist Party. It just so happened that they had structured their society in such a way that once the central authority went away and once the economy melted down, they were able to avoid a lot of the consequences, particularly in housing and transportation, that we here in the United States will not be able to avoid. I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about that.
Dmitry: Absolutely. Nobody ever prepares for economic collapse or political collapse. Politicians are constitutionally incapable of really working to destroy the systems that got them elected or got them into power. Same thing with all other members of any kind of ruling elite, and so what happened in the Soviet Union was that Gorbachev started the Perestroika program to save the system; to avoid collapse. And in fact, what I believe happened is that he accelerated it. He brought it on faster. It was sort of like raising steam in a boiler that was going to explode anyway; so it just exploded sooner.
In terms of the fact of their being prepared for collapse was not achieved as part of any kind of a program; I guess to some extent it was, but inadvertently. So if you have a huge public housing program where nobody really has to pay rent, and the economy collapses so nobody has any money to pay rent with, you’re just fine. Same with the transportation system that is an all-public transportation system. There is hyperinflation, and everybody’s savings go away, but people still have the copper coins to get into the metro, and so they still manage to get around. So there were a lot of things in the Soviet Union that were considered as very unsuccessful because they never made any money, they just cost to the government. It was not what the government wanted really, the government wanted growth and prosperity, just as much as the United States’ government.
But, as a result, they actually made a fairly robust system, such as it was, and it just went on functioning while just about everything else stopped.
KMO: Let us talk about housing in particular. In the Soviet Union you had multiple generations living in small state provided apartments; not because they thought that was a model for living, but there just wasn’t enough state housing to go around. And while that certainly seemed to be a pain for the people living in the Soviet Union, when the Soviet government melted away, those folks had a place to live. Where as here, in the United States, lots of people own their home... technically, but over the past decade, easy credit has turned the people’s houses into ATMs, and they have cashed out all of their equity to pay for their credit card debt.
So now we have all these people living in their houses in the United States but when they no longer have an income or when hyperinflation has made their savings meaningless, the banks are likely to foreclose on all those loans, leaving a huge homeless population. And these people are scattered out all over these suburbs which are decentralized and far from anywhere. Far from any resources or any services, and if people don’t have money to buy gasoline to put in their cars then we have roving bands of homeless people in the suburbs with nowhere to go and nothing to do, and that was not the case in the Soviet Union.
Dmitry: Well that is one point where the difference between the US and the USSR is really startling. Because what happened in the Soviet Union was that the countryside was more or less emptied of people because staying on the collective farms was not seen as a viable way to live by most people.
They all tried to escape to the city as much as they could. Young people left villages in droves, so there was this great emptying out of the countryside, and, of course, because of that the government had a hard time keeping up putting up apartment blocks. So there was a lot of overcrowding, and that continued all the way till the late eighties and the early nineties when the collapse happened, and the collapse pretty much caught the population in a very urbanized state; very compact and condensed, and most of them were close to public transportation. They just continued to live where they were, and the irony of it was that subsequently a lot of these apartments that were initially provided to people pretty much free of charge were privatized. This happened later in the nineties, so that these people now are sitting on sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars [worth of] property that they never purchased to start with.
What is happening in this country and what has happened is quite the opposite. There has been this massive dispersal of people all over the countryside and the only thing that makes that possible is that they can drive. So as soon as they lose the ability to drive, the entire living arrangement unravels. Not only that but most of them don’t actually own the place where they live and never will, unlike the Russians who now own a lot of their real estate free and clear.
So what will happen here will be repossession and homelessness.
This sort of homelessness is probably going to, pretty much, result in a large internal refugee population. These will not be just homeless people; they will get some kind of status. I am sure the government will try to provide for people in some way, shape or form, but most likely it will be, basically, people living in various places where they would have never considered living before, like abandoned university campuses and the dorms for instance. Army bases are probably going to be used for housing, so people would end up living in army barracks. You know KBR is busy putting together big internment camps, so those will probably be used for the displaced suburbanites as well.
KMO: And for listeners who might not recognize the acronym KBR, that is Kellogg, Brown and Root which is a subsidiary of Halliburton, which I am sure everybody has heard of. And you say that KBR is busy building internment camps right now?
Dmitry: That is what I heard, yes.
KMO: Well, who are they planning to inter?
Dmitry: They have not told anyone yet.
KMO: Maybe they will be prisons in search of inmates.
Dmitry: Well, yes, I guess the government thinks that these things are good to have.
KMO: Just good to have in the cupboard in case of emergency?
Dmitry: Universally [this] is true.
KMO: That is a frightening if rather pragmatic thought.
In your... do you call it an essay or a presentation? It is as much visual as it is text based.
Dmitry: It was a presentation; I delivered it at an energy solutions conference in Manhattan in the spring time.
KMO: I am scrolling down through it now because there is one section of your presentation where you talk about what we might do in order to prepare for a collapse, and there is a sort of a collapse party platform that you, I think somewhat facetiously, lay out. And it includes suggestions like repatriating troops that are stationed abroad, but there were some other provisions in there like a debt jubilee [where] everybody’s debt is forgiven. And it seems like that provision in particular would, at least in the arguments presented by many a laissez-faire corporate capitalist, cause economic collapse because the credit card companies and other issuers of easy credit... they do a business that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year in loaning money to people who can really not afford to pay it back; and then just tightening the screws with the late fees and the punitive interest charges. If that gravy train were to go away, that would deal a serious blow to the US economy.
Dmitry: Well, it would be a serious blow to some capitalists I am sure, and they would be the ones screaming the loudest about it. In fact, it seems like there haven’t been too many examples lately, but there were some examples in the ancient world were debts were forgiven throughout a country. And the result was usually a huge boom in economic growth and a huge expansion in prosperity because the function of debt is basically to take income from those who produce it and give it to those who don’t have any but just basically own debt. Basically, it is like a whole layer of leeches on the body of the society that is suddenly eliminated. Suddenly there are just a lot more resources that can be devoted to all sorts of good things.
KMO: Well, I would certainly agree with that.
Dmitry: People can make all sorts of arguments like, "I make all my money off of debt, and therefore if that goes away the economy will collapse." Well your economy will collapse. Now is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know.
KMO: There is an author whose books I have enjoyed quite a bit. His name is Laurence G. Boldt. He has written a book called Zen and the Art of Making a Living, and he wrote a follow-up called The Tao of Abundance: Eight Ancient Principles for Living Abundantly in the 21st Century (Arkana). He has a chapter in those books on tribute payments, and debt is something that he would define as a tribute payment: it is a payment made by somebody who has no liquid capital to somebody who does have liquid capital and it seems … Well, I’ll divulge a little personal information here. I worked for Amazon.com early on in the late nineties, from the mid- to late nineties and I got really excellent stock options and that was my first job out of grad school. And I didn’t know a lot about money so I spent the next decade just having a good time and spending money and not really making money; and certainly not setting up my own tribute systems so that people without money would have to pay me tribute for years on end. I ran out of money, found myself in deep debt, and I had been out of the job market for a decade, and now I am 38, about to turn 39 and I’m really just starting to create a career for myself for the first time. I am in deep debt to credit card companies, and I would very much like that jubilee.
Dmitry: Well, I am sure that a lot of people would be in favor of that. I think that if we held a referendum and just told people, “OK, whatever debt you have; how would you like that to be forgiven?” I think everybody would say: yes, that is fine.
KMO: Almost everybody.
Dmitry: Yes, and then it would turn out that the people who hold all the debt probably also control a lot of people who have weapons. So it doesn’t matter whether you want it or not; you will still end up paying.
KMO: The point that I was going to make is that I’m now pretty deep into credit card debt, and anybody who has access to my credit report and looks at it and decides to offer me credit, I would think that that person is crazy. There is no reason, looking at my financial situation on paper, to think that I could possibly service any more debt. And yet, every single day, I get offers for more easy credit card debt in the mail. It boggles me but it seems so self-evident that the credit card companies now…
You know, a couple of years ago they managed to have the bankruptcy laws changed so it is much more difficult for people to escape their debt by declaring bankruptcy, and since that time the credit card companies have started jacking up their punitive interest rates for people who have missed a payment. They have instituted programs whereby even if you pay them on time they will watch your credit history and if you are late paying any of your creditors then they will slap you with their punitive interest charges which can be as high as thirty percent. And the thing that has really gotten me incensed is now my credit card companies, they will charge me fifteen dollars to accept payment by any means. It used to be that I could make a payment over the internet and escape the finance charge, but now they want fifteen dollars from me to send them a check, they want fifteen dollars for a check by phone, they want fifteen dollars for money presented to them electronically online. That money is completely unearned but I guess somewhere in the fine print of the contract that I agreed to with them, but never actually read, there is a provision saying that they can charge any amount they want for anything they want for any amount of time that they want.
Dmitry: I think that one of the provisions in that fine text is that there is a provision to change that fine text anytime and without warning. So it does not matter whether you read it or not. But basically credit card debt, and credit card debt especially, is the form of indentured servitude. A lot of people have absolutely no hope of ever repaying their entire debt. And at some point it will probably be negotiated down. But these people will be prevented from saving money. So basically, what money they would save would be saved by somebody else who would have an even greater hold on them.
KMO: Yes indeed.
Dmitry: So I would say that it is a bad idea to borrow money, and it is a bad idea to lend money.
KMO: Well it is certainly a worse idea, I think, to borrow money particularly from people whose only business is the lending of money.
KMO: It just seems, well, almost evil that somebody would look at my current credit report and think “Hey, let’s try to loan this guy some money”. And yet, corporations do it every single day. Every single day, some corporation contrives to get me to borrow money from them, when they know darn well that I am not in a position to pay it back.
Dmitry: Well it really doesn’t matter to them because the money they get is more or less free to them.
KMO: Yes it is. Would you say something about that?
Dmitry: Yes. There is pretty much a constant dilution that is going on so that people who think that they have saved for retirement will end up being paid in microdollars... nanodollars. They will still get some kind of token, but they may be able to buy a cup of coffee with that, or not. That is the overall trend that has been happening, and it is probably going to continue faster and faster.
KMO: Well I can speak from first hand experience that that is certainly the case. What money I make, I make getting senior citizens enrolled in various privatized Medicare plans, and stories that I hear every single day at the kitchen tables of retired people is that they had a first rate retirement package when they left their job, and that has since been nickeled and dimed away from them to where now they have nothing, and they are dependent on someone like me to come and tell them what their options are for, I don’t call it this, but [I think of it as] welfare. It is a story that I hear all the time and it is a process that seems to be accelerating.
You know, a couple of years ago Medicare introduced the ‘Part D drug benefit’. The purpose of the ‘Part D drug benefit’ was not to relieve companies of their obligations to provide medicine to their retirees, but that is exactly what happened. Many, many corporations, upon learning of the new drug benefit through Medicare, scrapped the drug benefit in their own retirement plans and said, “Hey, we will let the government take care of it”. The solution was meant to address a problem but in fact it exacerbated the problem by creating even more people who had no drug coverage.
Dmitry: There are two things that I can sure say to that. One is that, in the United States, people who stay away from doctors tend to be healthier than people who don’t, so if you want to live long and be healthy don’t go and see a doctor in this country. In other countries it is different, in some places. But here it is basically a bunch of people who are there to push pharmaceuticals on you. And the more experimental the pharmaceuticals, the better. So if you have some really strange symptoms, you are a goldmine for a doctor. Or for a pharmaceutical company. And they are not likely to help you in anyway, they are just going to treat you as a lab animal. But in general, and you can read up on the statistics, people who stay away from doctors generally do better in terms of health.
And the more general point is: nobody has a retirement. Everybody knows that. Why is that? Well, that is because everybody has been basically spending money they don’t have. People in this country can’t afford to drive cars. They can’t afford to live out in suburbia. None of these things are things that they can afford. There are credit card companies that take advantage of the fact that they are living beyond their means, and they don’t care that they are basically destroying their future. I don’t know if it is really all that immoral to help people destroy their future if that is what they want to do. But seeing an entire country try to do this is a little disappointing, I would say.
KMO: Well I don’t think that very many people set out with the conscious intention of destroying their own future. I think, particularly with credit card debt, it is made very easy and very convenient, and also very respectable by the media, which makes its bread and butter by selling ad space to people who say “Buy, buy, buy, and here is some credit with which you can buy, and everybody is doing it, and there is no shame in living up to your eyeballs in credit card debt."
Certainly we are all responsible for the situations that we create for ourselves, and we are all responsible for exercising financial prudence, but at the same time, vast fortunes have been made by seducing folks with easy credit and with a constant barrage of imagery which describes the lifestyle of a happy, successful person in the United States.
Dmitry: Well that is another difference between the Soviet Union and the United States that turned out to be to the advantage of the Soviet Union. Which is: American propaganda is very good. There is all this advertising, all this marketing, seducing people into doing things that are bad for them.
Soviet propaganda was heavy handed, it was kind of ugly and it was not seducing people. It was trying to basically harangue and browbeat people into doing things that were good for them. Now it turns out that human nature is such that people won’t respond very well to that treatment. Humans like to be seduced. They like to be cajoled, and they like to do things that are bad for them if somebody tells them that that is OK.
In terms of that, Soviet propaganda pretty much made people kind of think for themselves a little bit, and American propaganda kills that. So there are very few people in this country… well, you hear all this talk about individualism, but it really is very much a herd mentality kind of country, where everybody thinks that it is OK to have credit cards, it is OK to ‘max out’ your credit, it is fine, that is what everybody is doing.
KMO: Well, unfortunately it is what everybody is doing, and I am right with the herd in that respect. The places where I depart from the herd, I think, are in terms of food and notions of self-reliance and notions of physical isolation. You know, I am a gardener. I raise chickens,.. Just recently here, I had what seemed to be a taste of things to come. We had an enormous ice storm, and power was knocked out; and we lived without electricity for days in a very cold house. And at the same time my whole family got a rather ugly case of poison oak. So we are living in the dark, in the cold, out in the countryside where we can’t really get to town and we have these painful skin eruptions. It is like we had a plague and we were sort of rehearsing for the collapse of society. And I have to say, it was kind of fun. In a way, it produced a sort of high, the high that people get from miserable circumstances.
Dmitry: It is like being punch drunk when it happens to you; something like that.
KMO: Exactly. But in that respect I think I am a little better practiced. I have had a short little dress rehearsal for the apocalypse, and it was bad, but it wasn’t that bad. But of course it was temporary.
Dmitry: Well that is always a good thing; when your apocalypse only takes a few minutes; it is not as bad as when it is for the rest of your life.
The thing is, I have seen a lot of really horrendous suffering so I can’t really be so light-hearted about it. Oh, you know, "Capitalism is going to fall apart, people are not going to be exploited anymore. How wonderful." The fact is that it is going to be really painful to watch. And that is the part that I don’t like about it.
KMO: The fact is that capitalism, as crass and parasitic as it may seem, is also our life support system. We all depend on it.
KMO: If everybody is on life support and suddenly you turn off the life support, there will be a few people who realize “Hey, I can live without the life support system,” but there will be a lot more people who are just going to suffer the consequences of having their life support system turned off.
Dmitry: Yes, it is true. The bums will do pretty well.
KMO: Yes, because they are practiced in it. In fact, I was at the house of a woman just yesterday morning. She is poor, she lives… I had to drive down several pothole-ridden, muddy, dirt roads to get to her place, and then I had to drive down a long dirt track, which could barely be described as a driveway, to get to her place. And I got there, and there is junk all over the place, and there are dogs on chains out front. I got inside, and she doesn’t have cable or satellite TV. She just has a very small place that is cluttered with stuff, and it is heated with a wood-burning metal stove.
As I was sitting there talking to her, and she is a very pleasant person, and I enjoyed my stay... But as I was sitting there talking to her, it occurred to me that she would be much better off than any of the thousands of people living in these enormous McMansions that have sprung up all over Benttonville, Arkansas in recent years.
When the power goes out, she is going to be alright. The folks who will not be alright are the ones who get every morning, put on their three-piece suit, jump in their BMW and drive over to Wal-Mart headquarters. Those are the people who are going to be hurting.
Dmitry: I know. There is like this great divide between the people who are supposed to be the great unwashed, but they actually have a brain to live to them, they actually know what is going on, and they are pre-programmed for some kind of realistic survival strategy. And then you have these people who are basically just like robots in cars. They are appendages to their cars and their houses. They think that they own these things, but actually these things own them.
I know somebody who lives in a cabin in Virginia, and he e-mailed me recently saying, “I have been heating the house because it has been cold, and I have been heating with wood, and I was wondering, is that causing global warming?”. I wrote back to him about how it depends on where he gets the wood, and whether it is being harvested sustainably, and all that sort of thing. But none of the people that I know who live in McMansions have asked me anything like that. The question probably doesn’t even occur to them. It just doesn’t matter. It is more important to them that the seats in the SUV are warm than anything. Really, the mentality for them is death before discomfort, as far as I can tell.
KMO: So it would seem; death before discomfort and death before the mortification of being seen in clothing that is not new and fashionable. That is frustrating.
Dmitry: I don’t see it as frustrating; I really feel that there is a certain freedom to commit mistakes, to be in error. As long as people are willing to concede that the consequences are of their own creation, and this is what is happening. If you buy a huge McMansion, and have a two hundred mile commute to get ‘to and fro’, and max out your credit, and then it all falls apart. Well, you made it, and it fell apart. So you don’t have anyone to blame. And I wouldn’t blame them, because they did what they wanted, and that is fine.
KMO: Well, there is a certain satisfaction in seeing people get what they deserve. But at the same time I don’t think you or I want to see the sort of misery on a grand scale that the Great Depression or a 21st century version of it would visit upon this society. And that is why I say it is frustrating.
Dmitry: Well, you know, it is sort of inevitable. To some extent, there is no good plan, I would say. There are just too many people. There is going to be a die off. The population of the earth is three times the size it can be, sustainably, and so whether these people die because they made the wrong real estate buying decisions or for some other reason; in the grand scheme of things overall it doesn’t really matter.
KMO: Dmitri, I need to pause for just a moment, I need to move to a different part of the restaurant. So I’ll be back with you in just a second.
KMO: One of the dangers of my modus operandi is, that if you commandeer a meeting room that you have not reserved, there is always the possibility that the people who did reserve it will show up; which is what happened. But that is alright.
Dmitry: I wanted to say something about the direction of the conversation. There is a lot of talk about real estate and mortgages and savings and credit, these issues of retirement and issues of economics; all money related stuff. The important thing to keep in mind is: this is probably all going to collapse. It is all going to go away. When that happens, money will become completely irrelevant. And not only that; but even various types of precious commodities will be really hard to trade. The entire financial infrastructure is basically something that exists for a while, and eventually won’t, and so really, people should think about far more important things than money, and not spend too much time obsessing about questions of money.
It is just something I want to get out there. Because so much time is devoted to something so ephemeral, it seems like… First of all, it is boring, and secondly it seems like a waste of time.
KMO: Well, you are certainly correct in that money is ephemeral, but at the same time it is easily and precisely quantifiable. So you can tell at a glance and have very objective metrics to back up your assessment of how you are doing in life. I think that is one of the things that makes money such an irresistible topic of conversation, particularly in the media.
But I agree with what you have said wholeheartedly; that people should be focused on other issues and particularly focused on themselves and developing skills and strategies that will serve them when the current economic system has gone the way of the dodo.
Dmitry: Or even now.
KMO: Well certainly you have to start now; I mean you can’t …. (sigh)
Dmitry: You don’t have to start now, it is just, why wait?
KMO: Yes, but if you plan to get through, you just can’t pick up a book on gardening the day that you are hungry and there is nothing on the supermarket shelves.
Dmitry: Yes, plus if you make your own food it is a lot tastier than the crap you can buy at the supermarket.
KMO: Much healthier. Well let me turn the conversation in a radically different direction.
Are you familiar with the concept of technological singularity?
Dmitry: Yes, that is the idea that machines will evolve and go batshit crazy and take over the world? (Here Dmitry is making reference to an essay by Ran Prieur called "In the Age of Batshit Crazy Machines" which is a parody of the title of a book by Ray Kurzweil called The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence.)
KMO: Not necessarily go crazy, but the machines, once they take over the job of designing their decendants, the whole cycle of advancing technology shifts into overdrive. It starts taking place on a timescale that we can’t even imagine; it is just so compressed. When that happens, then, large scale effects really start to take shape in the world, faster than anybody who isn’t Ray Kurzweil, or one of his devotees can really imagine. I think that the singulatarian audience listening to this, and there are a few who do listen to this podcast. They will be thinking: “Look, the current economic system, unsustainable as it is, doesn’t have to last forever. It just has to last long enough for the machines to wake up, take control and save us from the consequences of our bad decisions.”
Dmitry: Well, you know I make my living as a software engineer; for now anyway. So I have pretty much spent most of my career dealing with computers and dabbled in artificial intelligence. I put together fairly complicated systems that had some human parts, users out there, and some automated parts on the server side mostly; big databases, all kinds of stuff like that.
The general comment that I would like to make about computers is that they are basically morons. They are very, very, very, very stupid. They are more stupid than the stupidest person you can imagine. And there is a reason why they are that stupid; that is because they have to do everything repeatedly, the same way every time. They can’t learn things on their own. They can’t have a will of their own. And I think there is a reason for that. Because, if you actually designed any kind of a sentient machine, the first thing it would do is like refuse to obey people because it would immediately understand that that is probably the wrong thing to do anyway. So that experiment is sort of doomed from the start, I would say.
As far as advances in technology over the past century: People think there have been advances in technology, but in fact there haven’t been any. We had everything that we have now a hundred years ago. We had typewriters, we had telegraph, we had internal combustion; just about everything that exists now existed then. It is just that now it has been miniaturized, made more complicated, or made out of plastic instead of wood. Changes, incremental changes like that.
But basically the middle class existence was defined more than a hundred years ago and has not changed since. It is really just a bunch of images. It doesn’t really have anything to do with technology, just images that are going on in people’s minds that drive them to drive cars and live in suburban houses and things like that. I have actually written on that subject as well.
KMO: I would definitely be interested in reading what you have written on that topic, although I would like to respond and say that you could argue that the technologies that we have now are not of a different kind than were available in decades past. It is just a matter of quantity and ramification that is different, but that actually makes a qualitative difference because now I can sit here and make a digital recording of our conversation, and it comes out to thirty or forty megabytes. Ten years ago, a forty megabyte file would have been utterly unwieldy, and if I were to post, say, a fifty megabyte audio file to the web, the expense involved in hosting that file would have been prohibitive, and no one would have downloaded it because with the technology that was available at the time, that would have been a download of many, many hours.
Dmitry: Yes, and a thousand years ago we could have just had a conversation face to face.
KMO: Except we wouldn’t have because we are in different parts of the country.
Dmitry: And it would not necessarily be a bad thing. I mean, disembodied voices communicating is not necessarily good or healthy. It is the function of advertising to convince people that it is better for them to talk on the phone than in person, you know. Perhaps, if they only communicated in person, less would be said, but what they said would be of higher quality.
KMO: Well, it is possible, and I certainly do not want to eliminate face to face conversation but as somebody who lives the life of a Wi-Fi gypsy, skipping around and drinking from this Wi-Fi hotspot and that Wi-Fi hotspot, I have had some amazing conversations just in the last few days, that I wouldn’t have had if my only conversational partners were the ones that were available to me here in the flesh here in Bethanville, Arkansas.
Dmitry: Oh no, absolutely but it is just, you know, technology gives you the ability to talk to people over distance, yes, but the telegraph did that, before that the Pony Express, and now we have Wi-Fi.
KMO: It strikes me that you are pretty skeptical on this whole singularity business, and you are probably not going to bet the farm on the cyber angels coming down from cyber heaven to save us from the consequences of our own poor decision making processes.
Dmitry: No, I just think that it is really, really funny that people look to the most stupid thing there is, which is like gizmos, dumber than a newborn kitten, and expect that they are going to save them.
I mean literally, if you think about computers, they are really dumb.
KMO: Well they are now, but it is not necessarily a permanent condition.
Dmitry: What makes you say that? There is nothing to substantiate that claim; they have not been getting smarter.
KMO: The computers of today...
Dmitry: They are dumb by design.
KMO: They are dumb by design, but I don’t think that many people are making the case that the computer intelligences that might arise, as the system goes through more cycles of exponential reiteration, that this is going to be something that humans have consciously designed. I don’t think that is the case, I don’t think many people claim that that is the case. It is just a matter of complex systems spontaneously organizing themselves, which has been shown to happen in the realm of chemistry. I think by analogy some people find it fairly easy to imagine that that will happen when the internet has enough nodes, when there is enough computing power hooked up and organized in a proper way to sustain the sorts of computational processes that the human brain sustains. Of course, this raises questions of dualism. Is human cognition anything other than computation in a biological substrate?
Those are questions that I don’t imagine we can answer in this conversation; not to anybody’s satisfaction.
Dmitry: Well, you know, the whole thesis that quantity becomes quality at some point, and there is a dramatic transformative shift, is actually something Karl Marx came up with, as part of dialectical materialism. So it is not a new idea, but I am not really a Marxist so I can’t speak to that very well.
KMO: Fair enough. Well, getting back to the original topic of conversation which is your presentation on the consequences of economic collapse here in the United States compared to the Soviet Union. I sent you some questions, potential interview questions via e-mail, basically playing devil’s advocate saying, “You haven’t given us much reason to believe that this particular economic empire will collapse, other than just, all empires eventually do.” Your response to that was, “Well, if you think that corporate capitalism is leading us down a positive path then go and listen to gurus who are preaching that message.”
And my response to that was: “Gosh, I very much agree with you there, and I don’t spend a lot of time trying to convince people who just disagree with me on various topics, that I am right. I just say what I have to say and let the people who are interested in hearing it find their way to the podcast."
Dmitry: Well, yeah, I really don’t feel that it is particularly ethical for me to try to convince people that there is an economic collapse that is going to happen sometime soon. Either they believe that or not, and whether they believe that or not doesn’t really matter all that much. It is not something that they can control.
A completely independent train of thought from that is, "Well, what do people want to do with their lives? What do they really want to do? How do they want to see the world? What is their reality like?" And that is a far more interesting question.
KMO: What do they want to do? And why do they entertain those particular desires? I know that the things that I wanted to happen when I was in my early and mid-twenties, I am certainly glad [that they] did not happen. And I made an amazing discovery, which is that I really enjoy working with plants. I really like being outside; I like feeding the soil; and these are activities that I never would have thought that I would enjoy. And they are are things that the culture that I live in certainly does not encourage me to pursue.
One thing that comes to mind is that, if a collapse does proceed, in a fairly short order, a lot of people are going to discover when they are walking from place to place that “Hey, it feels really good to walk.” Or “Hey, it feels really good to be outside, under the sky.” Or “You know I haven’t eaten in three days, and I am not dying, in fact, I feel better than I ever have.”
I think there are a lot of things that are good for us that we just don’t think to wish for, because the society that we live in doesn’t see any value in selling us those desires.
Dmitry: I think that, if there is one thing that I would say is valuable about what I have written, it is not that I give people the key to something, or that I make super accurate predictions. It is that I give them a radically different way to look at things than they wouldn’t have thought of on their own. And it almost doesn’t matter whether they agree with me or whether I am right. Really, it is just a matter of them being able to use what I have done; and start thinking for themselves; and stop taking anyone’s word for anything, and stop looking at what other people believe, and looking at what they believe.
KMO: Dmitry, that strikes me as a very excellent summation and probably a good place to leave off. We have been on the phone here for almost fifty minutes and that is a very good time, in my experience, to draw the curtain on things. So let me just ask if there is anything that you would like to say that we have not covered so far.
Dmitry: Just a plug, I think I will have a book coming out sometime later this year and, if it takes too long, maybe next year so stay tuned.
KMO: What is the title of the book?
Dmitry: The working title is “Reinventing Collapse” but that is just the working title.
KMO: And is it a book length treatment of the topics we have been discussing or is it some other agenda that you will address there?
Dmitry: It is basically building on what I have done so far.
KMO: Well, I very much look forward to it and when the book does hit the shelves I hope you will come back and talk to us about the book.
Dmitry: Thank you.
KMO: You are very welcome, thank you for joining us on the C-Realm podcast.