Wednesday, October 16, 2013

There’s a Whole Lot of Crazy to go Around

I was giving myself another double dose of punishment today at the gym.  Keeping this body healthy sometimes feels like a full-time job because time passes slowly when I’m wrestling with some free weights.  My self-flagellation is compounded by the inane rhetoric I am subjected to.  One guy’s hot air is used up glorifying the free market.  Another guy is inciting fear in his conversation victim about the work of the devil.

As a “socio-economic sustainability activist,” I tend to focus my attention on disabusing people of the first guy’s beliefs since I’m convinced that disillusionment is usually the first step to a transformation in worldview.  Free Market religion is much more widespread and less contested, in my estimation, so it needs a counter narrative in the media and person-to-person discourse. 

As I was washing away the sweat, I started thinking about these two conversations, and I wondered if these two seemingly disparate belief systems were actually related.  The religious person believes the world is a place that needs a controlling and judging force.  Humans need religion to control their wild forces because without religion, chaos and evil will dominate life, which will lead to suffering.  Since this force is external to humanity, it is believed to be trustworthy.  Compare this to the idea that the free market is free of any one individual’s control.  Free market believers contrast their belief with—the only alternative—dictatorship.  Of course, it is childish to assume that a dictatorship is the only alternative, but I’m not making this up!  Free market believers have been indoctrinated into the power of the invisible hand, which will fairly regulate life and minimize suffering.  Notice how the invisible hand is viewed as an external force, one which is more trustworthy because of this “independence.”

The irony is that the bibles, qurans, bhagavad gitas, and other holy books have been written and passed down by humans.  Children aren’t gifted these texts by heavenly deities on their 3rd birthdays.  (Probably not even Santa bothers to leave these books under freshly slaughtered trees moved indoors and dressed with skirts and other regalia.)  Many children don’t even read these books because they are spoon-fed just enough to keep them in fear.  Likewise, children are not given the freedom to explore different socio-economic designs.  They are not even given technical simulations to measure and evaluate how different designs lead to different outcomes, and which they prefer.  Rather, they are taught that “this is the way things are” and that they need to adapt.  They are also told “this is the best system there is.”  Most of them have minimal exposure to economics, sociology, psychology, and resource sustainability, which makes them ill-equipped to assess the validity and worth of our current socio-economic design.  Children of these two seemingly separate beliefs grow up and become proponents of those beliefs.  They have identified with them.  Those beliefs are part of their cultural heritage, and while that is true, they have not learned the skills to de-identify with that cultural heritage so that they can take in a larger view of life, which is necessary for raising sustainability-minded global citizens.

While the leaders of religions decide which snippets of text are important to promulgate, and exhort their followers to abide by, leaders of large companies decide which products will be produced no matter the damage to the environment and the people that assemble them.  Executive editors decide which topics and opinions are newsworthy, with a faith that they will be wise enough to represent people’s interests and needs for information.  But, it’s okay, because it was the “invisible hand” that made these decisions, just like the god that works in mysterious ways by letting kids be born into starvation or abuse.  We can all rest easy because it’s out of our hands.  We are not responsible.  The billions of people suffering is just a natural result of god’s the invisible hand’s work.  Björk said it best, “It’s in our hands, it always was…look no further.”

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Context of Spying

MANY news outlets and bloggers have been excited to talk about the NSA surveillance leaks (and get web traffic).  We are told that the NSA’s spying is for the purpose of protecting Americans from terrorist attacks, but people are wondering how this information might be used against them.  And since corporations can buy this data-mining software, how does it affect “consumers?”  Is it being used to blackmail senators and house representatives to force votes?  Are people being criminalized unfairly?  Should we all stop using the internet?  We would be less connected, and less able to organize protests.

While this debate will continue, it’s important not to forget why this is happening.  Why are valuable resources being organized in such a way to spy on people?  The purpose could be to steal your ideas, beat you to the market, and know which demographic to market to. It could be to protect someoneX from someoneY” (insert groups or individuals).  Creative people will invent new ways of using this technology to their advantage.  As long as an advantage is to be had, and a human culture that reinforces taking that advantage, people will take it, and we should expect nothing less!

So, while we bite our fingers nervously imagining ways in which our private conversations could be used to exploit us, technology will continue to advance and become even more powerful.  It may sound unrealistic now, but in a few years I could be typing an anti-Wal-Mart rant and a mosquito-sized drone (imprinted with their logo, no doubt) injects me with some neurotoxin.  Or, I could be preparing for a presentation and suddenly, my data is corrupted. 

As long as we perpetually concern ourselves with the details, we will not be able to correct our course.  We will not be able to dig up the roots that bear this rotten fruit.  Technological advancement is not something that can or needs to be stopped.  There is just too much advantage to be gained, and too much curiosity in people to stifle.  When we look back in our future’s mirror, the NSA scandal will seem almost charming in its scope and persecutory powers compared with what is to come.

It is worth mentioning that this data gathering does not have to be dangerous, given a different context.  For example, you call your Grandma to wish her well on her trip.  Three hours later, when she was supposed to have called and let you know she arrived, no call comes in.  Thankfully, when her vehicle failed mechanically and rolled over off the side of the road, an emergency team was dispatched immediately by the car’s automatic SOS system and they got to her in time to save her life.  Perhaps a design problem was uncovered once a product was being used in a real-life environment, and it was quickly and easily remedied.

The incentive for collecting information will depend on our cultural and economic circumstances.  As long as we have a context of nation-against-nation, family-against-family, person-against-person, we will have these “corrupt” uses of this technology. It is time for a radical transformation in our awareness of what it means to build a sustainable culture.  Nationalism, sexism, racism, and classism now create barriers to sustainable human life.  If you are fine with jobs being outsourced to cheaper workers somewhere else, if you are fine with some people going hungry, and if you are fine with not being concerned about the “world’s problems” then you are not concerned with your problems because the world’s problems are not independent of your own problems. And if even you can’t be bothered with your own problems, then you should not be surprised at this world we’ve created.  Spying, exploitation, degradation, and throwaway people are all part of this world we reify.  If you carry a “less than” mentality in your mind and heart for other people, you will be paid in kind.  If someone says they want women to earn as much as men, but then thinks immigrants should just “go home,” I know they are not serious about equality.  It wasn’t long ego in western cultures that women were told to “just get back to the kitchen!”  It is the same thinking, just different content.

Be serious about equality.  Transform your perspective by educating yourself, and it will be understood that these divisions undermine your own quality of life.   Spying will be rendered obsolete when there is no longer a motive for it to exist.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

From the Concrete Jungle to the Asphalt Plains

I just returned to Orange County from a trip to the Eureka redwoods.  I forgot that I was on the freeway traveling near 80 up there because these ancient giants paint the scene.  Freeways in southern California are starkly divided from regular life.  You feel glad to be in the safety of your car and not “out there.”  After stopping for an evening in the gourmet-littered streets of San Francisco and a boring ride on Interstate 5, I find myself back on the seemingly deserted streets of Irvine.  (The streets bloat with cars at the evening and morning commute hours when the residents dare to leave their self-absorbing homes.)  After filling up my car’s belly with regular unleaded, I decided to walk to the closest post office to send a letter.  It didn’t look too far on my smartphone map; just a couple of blocks!  Google reminded me that those two blocks actually spanned 1.2 miles.  1.2 miles?  Never wanting to be outdone, Orange County design makes the sizable Redwood dimensions seem quaint.  It takes me 30 seconds to just cross the intersection. I decide to take the quieter street to avoid vehicular fumes.  The sidewalk is forgotten on this street.  To make the best of this situation, I play “tightrope” on the curb.  I’m assured I’m not drunk since I can successfully balance my clumsy self half a foot above the street.  Eventually, one of the usually out-of-sight lawn maintenance workers obstructs my catwalk, so I jump off.  I saw several of these landscaping manicurists on my walk.  One was even blowing leaves out of the bushes, as if it was an offense for a bush to be a little unkempt.  The dedication to keeping everything under control is something Irvine excels at, including its people.  I only passed three other walkers on my round-trip 2.4-mile stroll.  You almost feel weird being a foot-based commuter here.  This town was made for wheels, and we really admire you if you have fancy ones.

My quick displacement from the irrepressible jungle of San Francisco to the asphalt plains of Irvine made the contrast all the more vivid.  In my 4-block walk, I noticed how the businesses (no homes were intermingled in this zone) keep each other at arm’s lengths.  Perhaps they are protecting their trade secrets, or their secret trades.  It doesn’t matter where the money comes from, just as long as you have it!  The streets are so clean of debris that few birds bother to visit to find a random treat.

A friend of mine here loves the planning of the city.  No ugly electrical wires, big open spaces, discrete zones for businesses and residences.  Like the cupboard of someone with OCD, every thing has its proper place.  Orange County has everything you could need:  malls, chain stores, chain restaurants, churches, cineplexes, a grand arts center with family-approved productions, and plenty of medical offices.  There is a small rough-around-the-edges Artists Village in Santa Ana with a distinctly more progressive urban streak to it, but as long as it is contained in that community, the rest of OC doesn’t have to worry.  Irvine, and Orange County generally, make people feel safe, secure, and comfortable.  There is a lot of predictability here, which is why Occupiers were so upsetting to some people.  That kind of thing is only supposed to happen elsewhere.  Even though Orange County has a wonderful range of ethnic, linguistic, and culinary diversity, it doesn’t have the conspicuous expressive range that is typical of more diverse communities. 

It’s the damn streets!  While well designed for cars, with their insulating effect on everyone’s psyches, they are not conducive to social mixing.  It’s rare to “happen upon” an interesting spot here.  On your way to work, school, grocery shopping, or a friend’s house, you just see more of the same. I still get slightly confused driving in Irvine sometimes because the visual referents we normally rely on are all so similar as to make them unhelpful. On a hike in nature, or in a city, it’s almost impossible to just see more of the same.  The surprising giant clovers creeping out around the trail’s turn or the gilded embellishments on a SF home grab your attention. They are distinctive.  In these spaces, you are forced to walk, and at that slower pace, you bump into all kinds of unexpected life. 

Orange County must be overrun with communists since they have surrendered themselves to top-down central planning!  Oh that’s right, those are just inciteful buzzwords to scare the thinker away.  Any planning project, whether broad or narrow in scope, will create an effect that is in large part determined by what the intentions of the project are.  What are the values that the planning is serving and promoting?  Some communities are planned to foster mixing.  Some communities assiduously plan to provide every home with water, others don’t.  Some communities plan to maintain social stability by using rent control. Orange County doesn’t.  Orange County bends over backwards to attract businesses, and makes a less heroic effort to provide low-income housing for workers that those businesses don’t pay enough.  The funny thing is that all organizations, large, small, private, governmental, and non-profit all do planning.  Even the ever-experimental Google plans its playtime for employees.  Planning, like technology, isn’t inherently dangerous.  It’s the motivation behind it that matters. 

What might a society that used planning to make our lives better, socially and physically, look like?


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Change, Time, and Hope

CHANGE with a capital C is the kind of change this post is about, not the endless flux of life that occurs within and without.  After having just watched another documentary (Surviving Progress) about our human-created mess, described as a “progress trap,” there was the familiar and immediate sense of frustration, anger, and despair about how we have manufactured problems faster than churn out widgets.  These problems are like ominous waves threatening to crash us in our hastily built rafts against the rocky shore, and we’re too busy putting on wetsuits to “prepare.”

After those initial feelings of panic wane, many of us end up securing ourselves to Hope.  This Hope calms us by the repetition of assurances that tuck us safely away in our delusions: change will come, life will be better, and we just have to stay optimistic. The alternative, it seems, is to just hope for the end of the world. 

Is it possible to be neither hopeful nor fatalistic?  Do we have to either wish it all ends in a big Noah’s Arc-like deluge or that somehow, through time, people will be made sane and a healthy world will materialize by the sheer force of social momentum? Is there perhaps a middle path?  You are probably wondering why I seem so hostile to hope—who the hell doesn’t like Hope?

First, let’s look at some facts.  Humanity’s appearance on this biosphere has been quite brief in geologic time.  For nearly all of that time, human technology empowered us to impact the biosphere only minimally.  That has changed with industrialization and ever-increasing rates of technological advancement, which is why a lot of people ascribe the blame to technology instead of human culture.  (Note: we are quite adept at missing the correct causal chain of events!) With such a short time to properly adapt to our new circumstances, we often face the glitches of fancy new programs running on old brain neuroarchitecture. (Maybe we’ll change this brain hardware problem sooner than we think via cybernetic augmentation.) As much as humans have an affinity for beliefs of a never-ending ego (the Soul), we have an affinity for beliefs of a human species that lives on and on.  Perhaps most species have “thought” similarly, but we can’t ask them because they are extinct now. So, even if we disregard anthropogenic biosphere modification, humans have a fair statistical chance of becoming extinct.  Add in habitat degradation by humans, and those odds increase significantly.  In other words, it would not be unreasonable to bet on human extinction if we were gambling at the Galactic Casino.

Being an unconventional and eccentric species with brain-powered adaptation, we could also feel hopeful that such a unique attribute will enable us to overcome any significant change in environment.  Our lives seem so divorced from the “natural environment” already that we are inclined to think the fuss about climate change, pollution, desertification, ocean acidification, and fresh water loss can all be overcome.  Heck, we’re supposed to be able to survive on Mars, so screw you Earth! Except, we are very poorly adapted biologically to non-Earth environments as one recent Mars500 study demonstrated.  Our rhythms, sense of perception, bone density, and microorganism symbiosis are all part of this Earth, our native planet.  It is appropriate to understand Earth as our “mother” that brought us to life and nurtures us to our deaths.
But, what’s so wrong with hoping for a better future?  What’s wrong with believing that things must get better because that is just where the arc of history leads, not unlike the leprechaun’s rainbow which always ends in a big pot of gold?  While not true in every case, it does seem that when people give in to this “Hope,” it allows them to take a backseat to action.  It goes something like this (not an actual quote): “Look! I know our habitat is being destroyed, and that’s just terrible, but things will work themselves out in the long run.  We just need Time for people to realize this, and then a wonderful transformation will occur.  People will wake up and stop this madness.  In the meantime, I’ve got places to be and things to do.” 

Second, this hopeful thinking fails to acknowledge the suffering of now.  If I am the 12-year old sold into sex slavery, do you think I am mollified by the idea that Time will bring Change?  If my only viable means to an income is to scavenge for trash, despite its dangers, does it help me that you are willing to be patient for Change?  If my child is dying from a lack of basic medical care, does your Hope for an improved future world ease my grief?  “Sorry lil’ Ruby, you may not get to live another day, but it’s ok, a better world is coming soon.” 

When we have to take out the trash, we just do it.  We don’t Hope that it goes away magically, nor do we resign ourselves to a house overflowing with garbage.  We act.  When we break a bone or need surgery, we get it done.  When we run out of food, we go buy or grow some more. Our human family is sick and so is our habitat, so we must act to regain our health.  That doesn’t mean we don’t study the causes, try solutions, and refine our approach.  It just means that Hope and Despair are unnecessary to action, and often, can prevent proper action.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Competition as Lack of Insight

HUMAN NATURE is a complicated area of study because people have such strongly held beliefs about it.  Their beliefs about human nature are wrapped up tightly in their emotions, which inform their “meaning of Life.”  The uniquely human existential crises that have produced world religions offer their own misguided views of human nature.  That’s why most people feel they are experts on the topic, even though they might be just as “experienced” with human nature as they are with regard to the molecular structure of the antibiotic they are taking.  Even if they can detach themselves from their emotional investment in “human nature,” it is still a very difficult area of study.  Is there a way to study a human in a cultural vacuum? If there were, have not the generations of human culture already shaped to some degree our genetic expression?  And what about individual differences?  It is true that we all need relatively “clean” food, but some people can handle “dirtier” food than others.  Pain may be bad, but what level of pain a person can endure can vary widely from person to person.  And pain tolerance can impact what kinds of activities someone pursues. 

This kind of awareness about knowing our nature is relevant when talking about competition and cooperation, and which is "natural" to humans.  There is a lot of research about the advantages of cooperation; indeed, it seems to have been critical to our survival as a species because we are not that physically robust.  In thinking about this continuum of cooperation-competition, it is helpful to conceive of it not as a fixed trait, but as a constantly available repertoire of possible action.  Capitalist culture, for example, is continually demanding a competitive response, so the members of that culture behave accordingly.  But, if an individual behaved in that way within the context of their nuclear family, it would cause immediate and terrible disruption.  (Parent to child: I know you are only 5 years old, but you need to earn your keep because I don’t want to spend my hard-earned money on you.  Only by investing in myself will I be able to achieve greater success (excess) and you might get some trickle-down beverages and scraps of food.)  A more cooperative response is needed within the family to keep the family intact.  We feed, clothe, house, and nurture each other, which supports everyone’s well being.  I have never met a homemaker who charges the rest of the family for dinner or washing the dishes, and there’s probably a good reason for that.

This flexible approach to human nature is advantageous because it frees up the time spent on trying to decide which side is “right,” and it means that the fork-in-the-road is not something long past, but constantly re-appearing.  We didn’t, individually, or as a species, decide to be competitive and now we’re stuck in that mode of behaving.  One may have been ruthlessly competitive yesterday, but today is a new opportunity to respond more cooperatively. 

Recently, I read an article about the 100 richest people being wealthy enough to end world poverty.  And just after that, I read about Robert Axelrod’s simulations of social behavior and how cooperative strategies outperformed competitive ones within groups.  If cooperative behavior were so rewarding, and hence, self-reinforcing, then why would these richest 100 people come to have such power?  Wouldn’t we just have known better so that such disparities never happened in the first place?  It would not be sensible to have a socio-economic system that demands competitive strategies.

I think this problem relates to another problem of human perception.  Humans tend to focus on immediate rewards and punishments.  It is probably why the Native American Iroquois valued thinking ahead for seven generations, as an applied mental exercise.  Such a cultural compass helped mitigate the effects of an immediate reward/punishment paradigm.  They understood that their actions now would create ripple effects for many generations to come, and it was their responsibility to ensure wise decisions were made.

While the impoverished do not have the luxury of thinking ahead that far (they might not survive this generation!), the richest 100 certainly have that opportunity.  Of course, they are rich because they have worked the game in such a way to get those immediate benefits. Their behavior was reinforced. Further, they may not be aware of the many ways that shortsightedness undermines their well being.  They are blind to the long-term consequences, and aware of only the benefits, so by their calculation, their behavior is entirely rational and beneficial. By not addressing the momentum of increasing ecosystem collapse, there will be less clean air, water, and land.  Catastrophic natural disasters such as fracking-induced earthquakes or “super storms” may claim their lives, or those of their families.  Social instability increases their insecurity since ownership rights only have meaning in a society that recognizes and permits those rights.  They, or their families, may be victims of random or intentional violence.  Social and technical infrastructures on which they rely may be destroyed (striking food workers, highways crumbling due to insufficient funding, airplane bombings from “terrorists, contaminated drugs from counterfeit manufacturers trying to increase their earnings, arts and entertainment venues closing because everyone needs a “practical” business degree). People sickened by the excesses of competition causes a pandemic of neurotic disorders.

Lastly, it takes a special kind of desensitization programming to grow thick enough skin to not be affected by children being dismembered by wars and violence, desperate homeless faces looking for a meal, and miserable workers employed at these richest 100-owned companies who would rather leap to their deaths than spend another day enslaved by corporate fascism.  Sure, humans can adapt to callousness, but like a painkiller that numbs the pain, does not callousness dull the mind?  In other words, they have to anesthetize themselves to live in a world of pervasive degradation.  Their own well being is ultimately compromised by their lack of foresight. 

Enlightened by this broader understanding of causality, the view of “self-interest” goes from Standard to HD widescreen.  With a clearer picture of how society is interconnected, and how ecosystems are housed within a giant galactic Russian doll, the richest 100 can make better decisions about how to wield their socially granted power.  If they don’t, society will turn against them wresting power from them by force. The shift to a global cooperative strategy is not a missed opportunity, but a current opportunity, one that should be seized immediately.  Human nature, with its extraordinary flexibility, allows us to respond differently--and wiser!--for generations to come.