Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Smell of Betterness

I had some promotional postcards made up that feature my face against a cityscape background Photoshopped into a psychedelic fantasmagoria.  On the back of the card is the elevator pitch for the C-Realm Podcast. It reads:

Join KMO and guests for weekly C-Realm Podcast conversations and consider the predicament we’ve created for ourselves. We have pushed the infinite growth paradigm to the brink of a broken planet. Clearly, transition is upon us, but what sort of transition?

Must humans behave like bacteria, consuming and multiplying to the limits of our resource base and then dying in droves, or will we use our foresight and rationality to curb our appetites and avert disaster? Ultimately, it all comes down to one question: Are we a conscious species?

As the late Terence McKenna put it, “If the expansion of consciousness does not loom large in the human future, what kind of future is it going to be?”

I was already regretting the design of the card when I realized what a self-important doofus I would seem on those occasions when I would be handing out postcards with my own face on them. Now, as I read through Evgeny Morozov’s new book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, I wonder if I haven’t committed an even bigger sin with the backside blurb than by making my own face the primary design element on the front of the card.

What sin have I possibly committed? Morozov calls it "epochalism," by which he means the belief that our present circumstances are so singularly unique that they have no historical parallels or precedents and that no appeals to the past can provide us with any guidance. As Steven Poole summarized it in his review for the Guardian, “...if you think that the age of Twitter and online videos of sneezing cats is so unlike anything that has gone before that we must tear up the rule-book of civilisation, then you are an ‘epochalist’. “

Am I an epochalist? I have certainly fantasized about a radical re-invention of the world delivered either by beneficent godlings born of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology or by a psychedelic phase shift in consciousness. Baring those smiley-face deliverances, I’ve even dreamed of a cascading failure of the global technocracy touched off by peak oil, plague, coronal mass ejection, or gray goo, though that appetite for schadenfreude is one that I recognize as  a clear and dangerous vice and have resolved to nip in the bud.

In my defense, I present as exhibit A the collection of interviews that I have published with the Archdruid, John Michael Greer. James Doohan, who played Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott on Star Trek: The Original Series, claimed, "Scotty is ninety-nine percent James Doohan and one percent accent." Similarly, I would say that JMG’s schtick is eighty percent clear thinking and writing and twenty percent willingness to read books that are more than 20 years old. He has filled a book with numerous examples of end of the world scenarios that, even after they fail to actually end the word, get cyclically brushed off and presented as devastating new revelations as soon as the last generation to fall for it has died.

I like to get John Michael Greer back on the C-Realm Podcast as often as I do, because he has a penchant for identifying popular delusions, some of which I have endorsed myself. The one that jumps immediately to mind is the fast collapse from peak oil scenario, which I grouped with the technological singularity and psychedelic consciousness bootstrapping as manifestations of epochalism that have insinuated themselves into my consciousness and thereby into the content of the C-Realm Podcast. Unlike Singularitarians, who brush off as mere coincidence any similarity between their coming epochal transformation and the myriad apocalyptic visions that Christians and other superstitious rattle-shakers hold dear, I admit the possibility that I can be so seduced by an appealing belief system that I turn a blind eye to its glaringly improbable elements.

In the run up to another couch-surfing speaking tour, I’m assembling a new collection of talking points, and the more I think about it, the stronger a candidate “Beware of Epochalism” appears. I fall for it myself. Great transformations. Great expectations. Great visions for a better world. They seem hard to resist and harder to criticize as goals, but as Bruce Sterling put it in his closing remarks at this year’s South by Southwest gathering:

Things do not always progress, and the successes of progress become thorny problems for the next generation. They don’t stay permanently “better.” Our value judgments about what are better are temporary. They are time-bound. When you overuse the word “better,” it’s like a head-fake, it’s a mantra. You don’t have a better-o-meter. You can’t measure the length and breadth and duration of the “betterness.” “Better” is a metaphysical value judgement. It’s not a scientific quality like mass or velocity.

Is the reverse also true? Is “worse” a time-bound value judgment? Could it be that today’s worse doesn’t stay worse? Might the worse of the present morph into a life preserver for the next generation? If so, then no matter how much worse things appear today than they did yesterday, perhaps any impulse to break ranks and run for the hills should come with a built in pause-and-reflect reflex.

One reason that running for the hills is a bad idea is that, as Dmitry Orlov points out, living arrangements that prove workable after a collapse are simply unacceptable before the collapse. It’s embarrassing to run for the hills only to demonstrate in the process that you don’t have the grit to live the life you fantasized about. Even if you do have the wherewithal to survive the collapse, you probably don’t have the gumption to compete with industrial society before it collapses. The potential for looking and feeling sheepish is high if you sever your ties, retreat to your custom-built doomstead, and then sit there waiting for a collapse that does not arrive when you wanted or expected it to.

Similarly, if you’re waiting for the Singularity to get you out of debt peonage or to save you from your lack of exercise and your industrial diet of salt, fat, and high-fructose corn syrup, how foolish will you look at age 65 when there are super-cool techno gizmos and mind-blowing virtual vistas but starchy foods and empty calories still make you fat and give you bad skin?

In a recent C-Realm conversation with Bruce Damer, he described the process by which the mesmerizing visions that so many of us carry in the palms of our hands, and which Google is promising to transform into a heads-up display with Google Glass, have so thoroughly captured our attention that we have given ourselves collective permission to never make eye contact. We seem impotent to heal the economy, purge political corruption, or pacify a glowering climate, but we have great power to innovate and transform the digital realms that peer out at us from inside our little glowing screens. It's no mystery why Silicon Valley wunderkinder who got rich conceiving, building, and continuously improving this hallucinatory realm believe that big data will save and transform human civilization. No wonder the more ambitious among them believe that our best hope resides in a complete migration from our meat bodies and the fragile biosphere in which they are embedded into the realm of pure digital betterness as perfected avatars who need fear neither entropy nor extinction.

It’s an alluring vision and a fantasy I once cherished, and what’s the harm? Why wallow in the futility of plodding mitigation, Sisyphean reform and other frustrating half-measures when perfection beckons from the digital heavens? After all, nanotechnology will soon make matter as malleable as software, and then, the prophets tells us, the digital perfection of cyberspace will pour into the degenerate world of matter, and the betterness will be made manifest and undeniable. In response to an early version of this essay, SF author Charles Stross wrote:

Ignore people who promise that there will be jam tomorrow. By the time you get to tomorrow you might have been run over by a bus. Start living your life now so that when the bus hits you you'll have had a spoonful of peanut butter -- and don't get too worked up about the radiant day-after-tomorrow because even if you live to see it, it might not be as shiny as you think.

So what’s the upshot? Am I advocating defeatism? Am I suggesting we embrace our doom? Even if better is a fleeting, ephemeral and unverifiable goal, what are we supposed to do? Aim to make matters worse?

No. Of course we want to make things better, solve problems and rack up as much “progress” as we can, even if we can’t bear to spell it without the scare quotes. As long as we proceed with a modicum of methodological and epistemological humility, and as long as we don’t kid ourselves into thinking that our efforts will achieve “real and lasting good” as Andrew Carnegie so famously (and fatuously) put it, you’d have to be a bit of dick not to want to make things better.

The danger is not the sincere belief that we can and should do good. The danger lurks in the arrogance born of success that says perfection is possible and that failure to attain it would be too tragic to tolerate.  As my long-time digital acquaintance and early C-Realm Guest, Prester Scott, put it:

...we can and should attempt to improve our lives and our manners and our world, without recourse to trying to build the New Jerusalem and the Beatific Vision. The latter goal entails a number of unpleasant phenomena including seeing yourself as anointed, your gospel as infallible, your methods as unquestionable, and your personal worth highly dependent on how much work you do or converts you make for Kingdom Come. And I'm sure you understand that my language is ironic given that the most fanatical cultists in our own day are staunchly secular.

At this point, I imagine hearing you object, “Okay, we get it. Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Make use of the available tools to do what we can from where we are, but what are we supposed to do? Ride bikes? Eat more fresh and locally grown vegetables? Meditate and do yoga? All that may make our lives better, but it won’t change the fact that psychopaths own all the property, decide what money is, make the laws and hold all the power! Living well is not the best revenge. The tyrant’s head on a pike is the best revenge. What we need is a revolution!”

When the revolutionary moment is upon us, it will happen, and full participation in life will mean full engagement with the revolution. That said it would be foolish to wait for the revolution to provide you with that missing feeling of camaraderie, common purpose and shared destiny. By the time the revolution gets here, you may be too tired to recognize it or even care. Even worse than pining for the revolution would be trying to will it into existence through sheer moral outrage. Revolutions lead to score-settling and power struggles between former brothers in arms. There are more pikes wanting heads than there are tyrants.

Turn on the TV and you’ll find lots of folks are stoking moral indignation, and they seem to be making good use of it to achieve their ends. Or at least they’re getting rich and famous in the process, and aren't those universal ends? You may be tempted to use anger to motivate you and galvanize your troops. You would be better off using methamphetamine to power your daily workout sessions than you would using moral indignation to achieve laudable goals. Rage always feels righteous, but it has an agenda of its own, and it’s not an agenda you would agree to serve in moments of calm self-examination.

Rage doesn't want what you want. You may see the parasitic 1% as the obstacles to a better tomorrow and the terror that you and your revolutionary comrades would visit upon them as a brief but necessary phase on the way to the full manifestation of your utopian vision; but terror has its own agenda, and the part of you (is it part of you or is it something else?) that calls for the slaughter of the masters, views terror, rage and vengeance as their own rewards.

What part of you would love the smell of righteous carnage in the morning? What would that smell like? Betterness?


Phil in Freeport said...

I see you carefully neglect the work of c-realm guest Guy Mcpherson. And Guy is only a messenger, his sin is to point out the science studies which indicate that we really ARE at the end of an epoch. We have all taken a stable climate for granted. We have all assumed that the human drama would be played out against a fairly reliable backdrop of spring, summer, fall and winter. The evidence suggests that is changing. Even the oligarchies live with that assumption. No amount of money, no amount of power or persuasion, no amount of property and loyal lackies will keep you safe if the climate backdrop shifts radically.
I'm grateful to be around to find out. 200 species a day are going extinct (most recently the black rhino of Africa). That number is conservative. Yes there have been extinction events in the past, yes evolution is dynamic and constantly changing, yes, yes, yes. We'll know in a few years if the arctic ice is gone just how fragile our current living arrangements really are_ Park avenue or park bench. I'm not being "epochal" I'm simply avoiding the more obvious forms of denial.

KMO said...

Hi Phil,

Thank you for commenting. Yes, just because Evgeny Morozov has coined (or at least popularized) a label for people who think that we live in unprecidented times it doesn't mean that we don't live in unprecedented times.

I think it could be said with some fairness that JMG's position, the one that depicts both the advocates for a glorious transformation and the prophets of doom as varieties of people who can't or won't wrap their minds around the fact that the kinds of transformations they predict do not unfold over the course of a single human lifetime amounts to a very articulate form of question begging.

In the interest of keeping an open mind, I think we have to leave on the table the possibility that Guy McPherson may be right about near term human extinction.

Even so, I think it's good to be on the lookout for signs of epochalism when weighing the merits of any particular forcast.

Thank you again, and stay well.


Anonymous said...

Dear KMO:
I loved your recent program with Guy McPherson, especially the point where he honestly admitted he might not have radically changed his living situation had he known how things would be today. The truth is refreshing, and this particular truth reminded me of the life-lesson that radical changes are often less productive than incremental (organic?) change.
And speaking of organic..I really enjoy it when Jay Smith is on. He beams tranquility and reasonableness.