The plan for October was to do a lot of reading, thinking, and writing. That’s didn’t quite work out. The net result was a bunch of fragments that I’m now trying to build out and publish. This is the second this week. My all-time publishing record:-)
Before we delve into the details of highly speculative doom scenarios, here’s a young adult sf novel about AI and cat videos that will help restore your faith in machine intelligence:-) Catfishing on the Catnet.
Joe Biden’s administration has just announced regulations for Generative Artificial Intelligence. There’s a concern that the widespread use of Large Language Models heralds a new era where general artificial intelligence becomes an “existential threat to humanity.”
For this to be true, you would need 1) advanced ‘artificial intelligence,’ whatever that is exactly, but presumably machine intelligence smarter than we are. Also, there would need to be 2) a programmed motivation, i.e., a goal and, more specifically, a goal like achieving total global domination, and 3) agency…some equivalent of fingers and toes.
The fears typically center around number 2) above. Specifically, the fear is AI motivation gone off the rails in a particular process called instrumental convergence.
The classic example is this paper clip maximizer thought experiment (Nick Bostrom, 2003): a system charged with making paper clips ends up converting all matter on earth into paper clips…not because it had anything against the biosphere but because converting it was instrumental to the goal of paper clips.
Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985) provides a parallel example. Here, a rouge researcher injects a simple biocomputer into his bloodstream to smuggle it out of the lab rather than destroy it, and ultimately, he becomes an infectious hive mind. The short story version ended with the biosphere converted into a superorganism (see the jacket cover below.) The novel had a happier ending with all of us people re-instantiated as individuals but with a variety of defects fixed. Thanks AI!
The nanotechnology version of this is called ‘grey goo’…the term from K. Eric Drexler’s 1986 nanotech rah-rah book, Engines of Creation. Here, everything gets converted into nano substrate…grey goo…thanks to an insufficiently regulated process.
I like that term the best for instrumental convergence bad juju. (I’ve argued elsewhere that the goal of a lot of political dinformation is to turn all facts into noise–the informational equivalent of ‘grey goo.’
Side note: there’s a parallel speculative thread to all this I find scarier. I’ll add an addendum about that below.
But first, a more immediate type of runaway instrumentality: American hyper-capitalism.
Finance is Coming for Your Grandmother
Again, science fiction leads the way:-). In an essay in BuzzFeed, author Ted Chaing lays it out very concisely. I’m going to quote him at some length. Emphasis mine.
Speaking to Maureen Dowd for a Vanity Fair article published in April, Musk gave an example of an artificial intelligence that’s given the task of picking strawberries. It seems harmless enough, but as the AI redesigns itself to be more effective, it might decide that the best way to maximize its output would be to destroy civilization and convert the entire surface of the Earth into strawberry fields…
This scenario sounds absurd to most people, yet there are a surprising number of technologists who think it illustrates a real danger. Why? Perhaps it’s because they’re already accustomed to entities that operate this way: Silicon Valley tech companies.
Consider: Who pursues their goals with monomaniacal focus, oblivious to the possibility of negative consequences? Who adopts a scorched-earth approach to increasing market share? This hypothetical strawberry-picking AI does what every tech startup wishes it could do — grows at an exponential rate and destroys its competitors until it’s achieved an absolute monopoly. The idea of superintelligence is such a poorly defined notion that one could envision it taking almost any form with equal justification: a benevolent genie that solves all the world’s problems, or a mathematician that spends all its time proving theorems so abstract that humans can’t even understand them. But when Silicon Valley tries to imagine superintelligence, what it comes up with is no-holds-barred capitalism.
Chiang’s insight is accurate, and the term grey goo comes in handy: capitalism, or more specifically finance, is well on its way towards reducing most enterprises to a devalorized economic grey goo. People and their little concerns become instrumental to the grand task of consolidating wealth.
image from Adbusters – now and their targeted future
Within capitalism, private equity and investment banking firms are the most voracious in chewing value into grey goo. They operate by purchasing an enterprise and then extracting value for themselves by reducing its value to employees, clients, customers, and often the environment.
A typical process is the one that I’ve seen from the inside.
First, secure debt to purchase a business (often in the form of creating a loan from yourself to yourself); second, transfer the debt to the business; third, pay yourself interest and hefty consulting fees for managing the process; and fourth, discard the desiccated husk. Sears is the poster child for this.
A 20,000-foot view: if you’ve made a billion from a declining business, that money must have been extracted at the cost of something else. As surprising as the thought may be in the current climate, money has to come from somewhere.
What do I find scary? The merger of AI and hyper-capitalism!
In a recent episode of This Week In Google (my sole remaining tech podcast), Leo Laporte and crew report on what they term ‘heartlessness as a service.’
Their source is ProPublica:
On a summer day last year, a group of real estate tech executives gathered at a conference hall in Nashville to boast about one of their company’s signature products: software that uses a mysterious algorithm to help landlords push the highest possible rents on tenants.
“Never before have we seen these numbers,” said Jay Parsons, a vice president of RealPage, as conventiongoers wandered by. Apartment rents had recently shot up by as much as 14.5%, he said in a video touting the company’s services. Turning to his colleague, Parsons asked: What role had the software played?
“I think it’s driving it, quite honestly,” answered Andrew Bowen, another RealPage executive. “As a property manager, very few of us would be willing to actually raise rents double digits within a single month by doing it manually.”
I consider hyper-capitalism to be a machine that tends, in an interative process, ejects humans that let ethics get in the way of profits in favor of humans with fewer scruples–ultimately leaving only the machine.
AI will sort through options to optimize whatever it’s told to optimize.
The combined result in a particularly vicious combination: a mindless instrumentality that will chew through the economy remorselessly, generating grey goo from actual human value. (Kinda like Elon Musk’s brain.)
Addendum: good and bad singularities
Okay, Elon’s not scary enough:-)?
Warning: I’m going to nerd out a bit. Why? Because I can’t help myself.
The grandmother of all this ‘generative ai’ talk is The Singularity, defined as the point machine intelligence uplifts to sentience–but with expanded networked intelligence that dwarfs our own ‘as humans are compared to flatworms’ as the expression goes.
Vinge is the Sf author who coined the term Singularity. John von Neumann discussed the event in the ’50s, but Vinge’s 1983 short story ‘True Names’ put the term into use.
The discussion immediately jumped track since none of the panelists could imagine that The Singularity wouldn’t happen. So, they started talking about possible positive or negative singularities and the range between them.
Their benchmark for a bad singularity?
Two opposing hyper-paranoid military computers in China and the US ‘uplifting’ each other to sentience during a disastrous global war that lasts only a couple of hours.
TLDR: This is Part 3 in the Emotional Truth / Political Lies series: a loss of meaning can be more deadly than the loss of income when jobs go away for White working-class males. Their immiseration ripples out to affect us all.
We have a baked-in tendency to split the world into Us and Them. That’s being exploited to pit us against each other. We need to focus on the few Thems behind the Them-ing. In short, we need a Smaller Them.
My thesis: the economic immiseration of a broad section of the American middle and working classes has unmoored them. Identity is up for grabs. The economic crisis creates a crisis of meaning and identity.
Political lies: significant resources are being spent to make sure widespread discontent doesn’t feed back into effective political action.
It’s expensive to make Americans this stupid, but the payoff has been rich.
Part 1 introduced the thesis and looked at who is to blame for our current laws and regulations.
Emotional truth: the feeling that government policy ignores everyday people is accurate.
Part 2 reviewed Those That Work and Those That Don’t – an early Petri dish example of identity destabilization through job loss.
The author’s finding: identity resets outside economic factors, substituting intangibles such as ‘moral superiority.’
Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive. – Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism 2020
Part 3 – Deaths of Despair
The next analytic touchstone after ‘Those That Work’ is the research of Anne Case and Angus Deaton. This takes us from the Petri dish of ‘Golden Valley’ out to the wider impact of job loss. In this section, the pattern of good ‘working class’ jobs disappearing is viewed demographically rather than through a specific case history.
In 2015, life expectancy in the wealthiest country in the world fell for the first time in decades. Then came the nearly unfathomable: Life expectancy in the US fell again in 2016 — and for a third time in a row in 2017. It is hard to communicate just how disquieting that trend is. – Roge Karma, Vox, 4/15/2020
Half a million people are dead who should not be dead. – Case & Deaton 2015
In 2015 (in a study that they initially had trouble even getting published!) Case & Deaton announced the discovery of what has come to be termed ‘deaths of despair’ among non-college-educated middle-aged Whites…men in particular and women to a lesser extent.
They noticed a spike in death rate first in comparison to other US ethnicities and then in contrast to similar populations in other countries. Digging into the statistics, these additional deaths were a result of suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdose coupled with poor access to healthcare. Deaths of despair.
Groups less dependent on their job for a sense of identity (primarily because of their historical exclusion from ‘good jobs’ and, hence, centering meaning elsewhere, e.g., Latinos and women) did not exhibit the same demographic trends.
Let’s put the numbers in perspective.
What’s going on?
Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive. – Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism 2020
If we apply Sherman’s discoveries across this entire demographic, identity was set adrift— decentered —for a broad demographic with dire consequences both for those individuals and for society.
Individuals scrambled to find a new way to play a leading role in their own stories. As Sherman points out, being ‘moral’…being a ‘good guy’…became core.
Many of those who failed the challenge died. Between successful and dead lay degrees of emotional distress, typically a chronic low-grade sense of panic among those on the edge.
Into the breach came a huge billionaire-funded industry aimed at offering wedge ideologies as identity and toxic religion as a comfort.
A core strategic win was the political capture of the Southern Baptist Church during the ‘Conservative Resurgence‘, starting in the late 70s and consolidating gains through the subsequent 15 years and again now in a second cycle. The SBC’s ‘liberals’ were certainly not far left of center, but they and even center-right moderates were purged.
The impact of this can’t be underestimated. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination even after close to 2000 churches broke away to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (the Jimmy Carter Baptists.) Huge monetary and organizational resources were now available. The SBC has six sizeable seminaries training thousands yearly and an annual budget of nearly $200M–all contributed by people in local churches.
Worse, in my opinion, those local churches, critical envelopes of support in the face of death, illness, trials and tribulations, and pillars of identity to many, now became organizing cells in the culture wars.
Add to this Koch-brothers-type think tanks, right-wing talk radio, and Fox News as the Ministry of Truth, and you have the enormous resources devoted to keeping the pot boiling.
Observing people seeming to vote against their self-interest, I hear friends asking how people can be so stupid. If we could calculate a ‘cost per unit of stupid,’ I think we’d find it’s hugely expensive to make people this ‘stupid.’ Obviously, it’s worth the investment to those footing the bill.
First, if you combine the decentering of working-class identity and the way that it has been exploited, the result is that ideology has become identity. This is key to understanding what’s going on and looking for strategies to fix it.
An ideology is a narrow and brittle basis for identity. Under these conditions, a challenge to particular ideas is an existential threat!
Much of what seems crazy has to be understood in that light. It’s not at all a matter of ideas and evidence. The challenge is to the person’s sense of self, not some contingent idea that can be easily revised or corrected.
Another way to look at it: if people are acting against their economic interests, there must be something they see as more important.
I believe that dividing the world up into Us and Them is baked in by our evolutionary history. (Evidence on request.) That makes it a leverage point easily exploited.
Starting politics with a common rallying point…say, a commitment to decent jobs, good schools, health care that wasn’t a huge source of misery and personal bankruptcy, and a clean environment…could cut across the most common Us vs Them divides.
It would also mean that the corporate engines of consolidation and profit at any cost and the 1%’s domination of American politics would be imperiled. So, something divisive has to be substituted.
Coming in future installments. Where do we go from here? Republicans and Democrats – heartless exploitation vs. gutless weasels. And more.
Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. – Michael Pollen
Despite the American cult of individualism, I have never believed our identity was our idiosyncrasies and, despite my neophile tendencies, I have never believed that something was of value simply because it was new.
On the other hand, I don’t believe something is of value simply because it’s old—unless it’s really really old. That may be a different story.
Here follows a variant on Michael Pollen’s ‘eat what your great-grandmother ate’ test expressed not in a few generations but in tens or hundreds of millennia.
You are reading part of an intellectual wander aimed at building a framework for understanding the continuity between everyday experiences of awe and wonder and the type of ‘mystical’ experiences that are considered outside regular human experience (in my view mistakenly). And for considering the utility of such experiences.
My starting assumption is that this framework needs to address ego, instinct, and what are often termed nonordinary states. I have some theories about each of those. They will hopefully be modified in dialog with you and with the writing process itself.
Many of you who know me know of my love of grilling oysters and, in particular grilling oysters on the beach. It feels deeply right to me.
Explaining my theory about why requires a digression.
In an undergraduate course in Feminist Literature, I read Elaine Morgan‘s, The Descent of Woman. This was 50 years ago. I have no clue at this point what Shulamith Firestone wrote about. Time has fuzzed that out. Many of Morgan’s points, however, remain vivid.
Her central argument is that we share a few key odd body traits not with our close cousins, the chimps, but with aquatic mammals. Examples include women’s subcutaneous fat and both genders’ minimal body hair…traits that overlap with dolphins, for example, but not most terrestrial mammals. She believes this argues for some interregnum of seashore or riparian evolution. Women, specifically, were at the leading edge of evolution during this period. (Men’s layer of fat is half the thickness of women’s, and men are typically furrier.)
One reason she stayed fresh in my mind was that ‘real’ anthropologists would remind me of her in occasional snide footnotes or asides. You could almost see the eye rolls. Not that they actually disputed her claims. That would be beneath them. So, irritating certain pros, and ideas I liked: two points in her favor:-).
Jump forward to 2015 or so. Wendy, Griffin, and I are at a lecture on human evolution at the California Academy of Science. It’s being given by Zeresenay Alemseged, Curator and Irvine Chair of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences and discoverer of Selam, a remarkably complete Australopithecus fossil skeleton that predates Leakey’s famous Lucy by 120,000 years.
Alemseged is discussing one of the big issues in human evolution: what provided enough calories to allow the step up in brain size between Australopithecus and Homo species. Brains burn a lot of energy. Other primate’s diets could not support a brain of our size. And evolution does not support the sort of look-forward activity that would require some Australopithecus species to decide, “Hey, we need bigger brains, let’s go look for different food.” The calories have to be there already to allow a boot-up mutation to work.
His answer is based on his recent work in what was at one time the coast of South Africa. Shellfish! They’re easy to gather in quantity, can be eaten cooked or raw, and protein is calorie-rich.
Creative Commons license via Wikimedia. Australopithecus species had stone tools. Homo hablis used fire.
Soooo, oysters on the beach, baby! Step aside ‘man the hunter’. Enter proto-people with digging sticks on the shoreline. Elaine Morgan, fuck yeah:-).
(To set a bit of context. Both fire and stone tools predate the appearance of homo sapiens. An ancestor some 2.5M years ago used stone tools and one used fire 1M years ago give or take. All these dates keep getting pushed back. Homo sapiens likely clocks in at a mere .25M years to date.
Connecting it all up, there was an ancestor animal with a brain roughly 2/3rds the size of ours walking erect, using stone tools, cooking on a fire, and consuming shellfish. Likely there were adolescent hominids poking the fire with a stick. Shellfish have remained a high-quality staple for many cultures. The unceded Muwekma Ohlone land in nearby Emeryville contains a shell mound with the remains of millions of shellfish meals consumed over a recent two and half thousand years. )
Okay, evidence-wise, the oyster thing is a bit squishy. My feeling deeply grounded while cooking oysters at the beach…a feeling of ‘being all of one piece’… doesn’t exactly make it at the top of the hard evidence chart. And I’m not even sure how to articulate this within a theory of what’s commonly called instinct.
I’m starting with a metaphor. In my defense, thinkers such as Thomas Kuhn and George Lakoff have argued that metaphors, despite getting trashed by the likes of Newton and Bacon, can play a central role at the core of the clusters of scientific thinking and evidence that Kuhn termed paradigms. Math and hypothesis testing are key in the mix as well, of course, but both verbal and visual metaphors are important ‘tools to think with’.
My metaphor will be the mouth of a bay.
My friend Martin has warned me that the mouth of bays are particularly dangerous places to boat. You have currents, tides, waves, occasional whirlpools, and abrupt shifts in winds caused by the temperature differential between the waters and the shore. The mouth of Tomales Bay and Drake’s Estero are both good examples. Sometimes they’re relatively placid, and sometimes they’ll kick your ass. Every once in a while, they kill somebody.
You can paddle in a specific direction with knowledge, good equipment, and determination, but sometimes it is much more difficult than others, and if you take your eye off your destination, you can suddenly find yourself somewhere you did not intend to go.
Our typical view of instinct is of something like salmon swimming upstream– a compulsion or drive–which I think limits what we consider when we talk about its impact in humans.
The hormonal/neurotransmitter blend in our internal sea marks the intersection of our bodies and the environment and adds the push of currents and tides to our behavior. We transverse them occasionally wondering how we ended up somewhere.
We can consciously tweak our blood chemistry by, for example, blocking adenosine receptors with caffeine or seeking dopamine hits with a game on our phone. But mostly all this is mostly happening below the surface. Our tide and currents are at play against underwater surfaces that are not typically visible in an easy-to-interpret way. This interacts with built-in and learned schema that helps pattern what might be called raw perception into what we perceive…all that outside consciousness as well.
Something between me, oysters, cooking, and the beach is tweaking how I feel. A hormonal and neural balance is emerging in my inner sea. I contend that this is on a continuum with whatever else human instinct might be.
Side note: other reasons I like the water metaphor are, first, water flows downhill following a natural ‘instinctual’ gradient, and, second, water has depth. Things can be closer or further from consciousness.
More on instinct: positive and negative examples
In order to firm up and challenge this formulation, let’s look at a few more examples. Next post we’ll complicate things further by adding in Jung’s concepts of imago and archetype. Then try and tie it up into a tentative theory of instinct.
Thinking fast and slow
We should at least mention Daniel Kahneman’s fast thinking vs slow thinking. Kahneman describes fast thinking as ‘instinctual and emotive’. That would include knee-jerk responses, but he includes pretty much anything that happens below the surface: perceptual and cognitive biases, the automatic placement of objects in space, and even skills that have achieved automaticity.
Certainly, danger reactions that have to be faster than conscious ‘slow thinking’ can achieve should be termed instinct.
Instinct with a positive impact
Despite a shocking lack of research on grilling oysters, there’s a significant body of evidence for a similar activity: getting out into a natural environment.
As an outdoor nerd, I’ve been collecting citations. Here are just a few from my stash that focus on measurable metrics.
… experiments conducted by Japan’s Chiba University found that forest bathing lowered heart rate and blood pressure and brought down levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that can wreak havoc on every system when large amounts circulate through the body. … These findings underscore that spending time in the forest is a medical intervention as well as an aesthetic and spiritual one, something scientists have long observed but haven’t been able to quantify.
There was an increase in mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness in counties infested with the emerald ash borer. The magnitude of this effect was greater as infestation progressed and in counties with above-average median household income. Across the 15 states in the study area, the borer was associated with an additional 6113 deaths related to illness of the lower respiratory system, and 15,080 cardiovascular-related deaths. [In other words, when the trees went away, health suffered.]
Our results reveal a significant positive association between the coverage of forest and amygdala integrity. We conclude that forests may have salutogenic effects on the integrity of the amygdala.
Brother Francis and Brother Sun, Giovanni Costa, 1878 – if there’s a patron saint of getting outdoors, it would be Francis:-)
Instinct with a negative impact
Regular readers know that I consider our Us vs. Them reaction to be a species of fast thinking with malign impact. (Links here, here, and here; it’s a long story.) Here are a few things more contained.
Newly published research finds fear of the infectious disease, which was widely in the news in the month before the election, increased voters’ intention to vote Republican. This effect was primarily found in red states, which means the outbreak effectively turned them a deeper shade of red.
“Disease outbreaks may influence voter behavior in two psychologically distinct ways: increased inclination to vote for politically conservative candidates, and increased inclination to conform to popular opinion,” writes a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Alec Beall.
For those working on a better class of conspiracy theories, note the Ebola panic faded shortly after the election.
A new experimental study found that heightened anxiety makes people more prone to believe in various claims they are exposed to and to share them on social media. This was especially true for Republicans and did not depend on the accuracy or truthfulness of the claim. The study was published in New Media & Society.
In part #004, I intend to complicate things considerably.
We will explore a Jungian view of ‘instinct’. Here we find an unconscious realm populated by ‘imago’ and archetypes and inhabited by dark gods and talking animals. A realm from whence not just impulse but full-blown narratives arrive. A realm of entities that constantly tweak our felt gradients and that can override our everyday self quite dramatically—but that might also contain an instinct for wholeness and healing.
The driving question that Jung successfully answers: what form did instinct take as hardwired behavior evolved in beings such as ourselves that need room for the huge role of learning and culture?
Short version: wife Wendy took an abrupt fall (the result of an unrecognized Lisfranc injury), and, between acting as a home health aide and dodging storms then making repairs, I spent 3 months with no time to write. Even with much healing and the end to a series of atmospheric rivers, time was tight. Now Wendy is highly mobile again, and it’s a glorious spring. Time to get active.
But hold on a minute.
The interruption gave me yet another opportunity to try and decide what I want to be when I grow up. I’m nearing the end of a series I call Emotional Truth / Political Lies written in order to think things through. (More of that below.) I used Medium as a platform because it makes writing look good and held out the promise of helping find readers/kibitzers.
Here’s the problem.
First, it has become clear to me that folks that get read a lot on Medium, write a lot on Medium. Like every week. Some daily! I’m not capable of that. I’m using writing to think; that’s a slow process. I can get something out every month or two if I’m pushing it. So no big rush of new readers.
Second, the wtf demon that’s had me since 2016 is releasing its grip.
I’m finishing up the analysis phase of the Truth/Lies series. There will be a summary of thoughts so far, and I do need to write something about the political capture of the Southern Baptist Church. But I’m nearing a natural transition point.
So here’s what I’m going to do.
A piece on Medium by Cory Doctorow pointed to a way to solve my ‘slow but unsteady’ approach to writing: “…interesting stuff that crosses my path gets turned into a blog post where it rubs up against other interesting stuff and crystallizes into longer, more considered pieces” I’m going to try that. Pieces here will be short, tentative, and likely awkward. Things will appear on Medium as they mature or in the unlikely event that I end up writing something quick and fun (could happen, right?).
If you want to see the long stuff, you could Subscribe on Medium.
The latest piece and the first in 6 months is Drake’s Equation and You. If you think you’ve Subscribed but didn’t see it, then either it went to spam, or you Followed me rather than Subscribed.
(If you want to see all work by a writer on Medium remember: Follow bad; Subscribe good. Their system is confusing.)
I’ll add a teaser to the current work in progress below. See it here as sections get roughed out.
Thanks for reading, Al
We Need a Smaller Them
Emotional Truth, Political Lies — Our Plot So Far
There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion. –Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything (2021)
The neoliberal project was focused on designing institutions — not to liberate markets but to encase them, to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy. -Quinn Slobodian, Globalists (2018)
I have elsewhere presented the case that, to survive, we need a bigger Us. This presents the corollary: we need a smaller, more focused Them.
On November 6th, 2016, I was jolted out of my assumptions about our political landscape. Now hijacked, my attention has been focused on the contradictions of our weird political culture ever since. I’ve been reading and thinking, hoping to internalize the contradictions and write my way out. I’m part way there. This is my interim report.
Something odd is going on. Folks on the lower end of the economic spectrum have been consistently acting against their own interests — or so it seems to me. Clearly, they don’t see it that way.
Here are free links to things I’ve written over the last quarter. I always appreciate your thoughts and getting a critique of mine…best if you leave them on Medium but whatever works.
I’ve sorted them by topic. They are, alas, weighted towards political coverage. That was not my plan when I started writing on Medium but the topics won’t let me go. Things are just two effing weird. Someday we’ll get back to quantum theory, evolutionary biology, Carl Jung, sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Lighter stuff, you know.
Thanks for reading, Al
PS, Medium is weird. You can Follow me and it does pretty much nothing. Subscribe to get a note when I publish. That’ll be about once a month averaged out. Also, the Medium Clap button is not like Like. If you Clap, please hold it down and turn it up to 11!
PSS, I add a few folks from my address book whenever I’m about to send a Newsletter out. You might be one of those folks. If you don’t want to receive these, note the Unsubscribe at the bottom or just reply and I’ll remove you.
After noting that he liked to move around, see the shops, and meet people in any neighborhood he lived in, he described going to a house-warming party in New York in the late ’70s.
The taxi delivered him to an address in a bad neighborhood. He suspected he was at the wrong address until, arriving at the top floor, he found himself in a “multi-million dollar palace.” He asked the host if she liked the neighborhood? The reply: “Oh, the neighborhood? Well, that’s outside.”
Or if you can’t spam your friends, who can you spam?
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. – Joan Didion, Why I Write
When asked in college to visualize what I wanted to do after graduation, I had a clear image.
I wanted to sit, read, stare into space, think, make little notes…perhaps write things up now and then…all on a sunny hillside at tree line overlooking a wild meadow of tall grass.
The image was clear.
How that would allow me to keep body and soul together, not so much.
Forty-plus years later, retired and off the leash, I’m able to make it a full-time gig. I’ve now noticed a few things:
Discovery #1 – writing is not one component among many but central to it all, as Didion points out. It forces one to articulate musings and then presents them back to allow a critical look. Ideas that feel well-dressed turn out to be threadbare.
(I do need to add reading and research as key components of the discovery process, but it’s writing that puts it all together.)
Discovery #2 – writing is hard work.
Not for some, maybe, but for me, it’s a slow painful extrusion of text. A big challenge: even when one of those musings can be pinned to the mat, they then have to be linearized. There’s no way to write in bubbles from the center out. I’ve tried it.
Discovery #3 – having done all the work of writing, I like to get read.
Part of that is ego, of course. But more than that, it’s about joining what might be called the community of ideas. It’s about comments, discussions, and dialog (both online and face-to-face.) As an inveterate reader, I want to join the flow.
So here we are.
To get read I need to come to people’s attention and you all, my natural community, are the most likely source of comments, dialog, and discussion. You’re who I have in my mind’s eye when I try to get something clearly expressed.
There should likely be a Discovery #4.
I end up writing long shaggy pieces that work through some composite of interrelated ideas. These are not quick reads but they are central to the process.
What I’m going to be doing is using longer pieces as an anchor and breaking out key components into short stand-alone reads. That should make it more workable.
On to spam. I’m using both Medium and MailChimp
Both will send articles. MailChimp does this by integrating with WordPress.
MailChimp/Wordpress is what I’ve been using. I’m going to switch and use that for a Quarterly Newsletter instead, eg this.
The articles will go out directly from Medium
An advantage of MailChimp and Medium is that they have an easy unsubscribe. You can tell me to pipe down without it getting personal.
On the other hand, if you read something you like, please share it.
The challenge on Medium is working the paywall. I get a ‘Friends Link’ that ducks it and will try to use that wherever possible. Second, I think I’ve got it set up so you’ll see full articles in email and won’t have to go there at all.
But if you do, a secondary goal is to surface things on Medium for that community. Medium is weird. Don’t just Clap once if you like something: hold the Clap button down.
Also, if you are not a Medium member and start finding stuff of interest there, join using my link. I get money every month. It will go in the beer and burrito fund. We’ll share it! Maybe after a hike.
Where’s this all heading? The intent is to determine the most effective points to alter the situation.
Note, that I love comments, collaborators, and kibitzers. Could that be you?
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Fascism sees its salvation in giving people not their rights, but instead a chance to express themselves. — Walter Benjamin
Richard Boone is one bad hombre
As a kid, I loved Westerns.
When I stayed with my grandparents, the big treat was being allowed to stay up and watch them. They featured exciting heroes doing manly deeds in a bland world of Laurence Welk variety shows and Father Knows Best sitcoms. In addition, as adult fare, they were shown past my official bedtime, and (bonus!) my mom didn’t like them. (Not sure why…probably her instinct against semi-toxic nonsense.)
Each show was a slow build to a quick resolution.
The Bad Guys telegraphed their Evil nature early, generally by bullying townspeople and disrespecting women, and then the show proceeded to reveal deeper menace and a counterforce of reaction and resistance with each character claiming their spot on the Good-To-Evil Continuum.The climax was always a Shootout in which Good triumphed, Evil received its due (death!), and the morally compromised were wounded or died heroically throwing in with Good in The End.
I’m certainly not in favor of bullying townspeople or disrespecting women but there are some problems with The Shootout as a template for conflict resolution or political action. Nonetheless, it seems to be one — as American as apple pie.
The objective of this piece is to work towards an operational definition of ‘smart’ and ‘stupid’. We’ll get philosophical about that in a bit.
We are in a crisis where great need seems to lead to stupid rather than smart action — as if we’re striving to break some surface but can’t tell up from down.
In this article, I will be analyzing one way things go astray — how emotional truth can become ensnared in political nonsense.
Before it became a drug name, the term ecstasy referred to an emotional state with religious overtones. An online definition, ‘powered by Oxford’, is “an emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.”
Religious authors frequently reframe the word into ‘ex-stasis’ highlighting the break of stepping out of one’s static self and returning changed.This resolution of conflict through cinematic violence is a peculiarly American ecstasy. It embodies an archetype of change or conversion through a story of ‘action adventure’ in which a stand-out ‘liminal’ moment of violence resolves the conflict and gives all their due.
It’s an apocalypse that delivers utopia in a blaze of glory.
Revolution Is No Tea Party
Norman Cohen, in his classic The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, traces the appearance and development of ‘revolutionary millenarianism’ in the 14th century when the common people were set adrift by the crumbling authority of the Church in a world ravaged by the plague and famine.Millenarianism can be defined as a movement powered by the vision of a new order — specifically an egalitarian utopia — and the belief that there can be a glorious and immediate transformation to that state. (Cohen draws out some important distinctions between the different types of revolts and insurrections. We’ll return to that below.)I remember being puzzled when I first read Cohen some decades ago by the frequent jumps from imagined utopia to inter-communal violence. The egalitarian utopia wasn’t going to be equally distributed. Apparently, the route to a better future leads through the murder of Jews, or of a different variant of Christians, or the nobles, or some other flavor of not-us.
Time has clarified this for me. It’s central to the whole impulse:
Things are bad.
Someone must be responsible.
We are good people; we’re acting right; our intentions are pure.
Therefore (part 1), since the someone responsible isn’t Us. It must therefore be Them acting as a poison to the body politic.
Therefore (part 2), if we purge the poison, there will be a dramatic, sudden transformation to the good.
The psychodynamics and biochemistry of this are interesting and we’ll dig into that more in a future article. For now, we’ve pretty much described the underlying mental architecture of QAnon and the Capitol Insurrection: utopia delivered in an ecstasy of violence.
Back to Amerika
But before we go further, I’ll have to admit to having more than just a theoretical knowledge of this type of thinking.
Set the Wayback Machine to 1970: we’re in a world where our amazing planet is being destroyed by a system built on the systematic exploitation of everyday people and rooted in the genocide of First Peoples and the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans. We are being fed into the grinder in a war to satisfy some sort of tit-for-tat fantasy of Henry Kissenger’s. The deep state has infiltrated and disrupted resistance movements…even lowly food coops. Our leaders are being assassinated by lone gunmen or police raids. Our compatriots have been killed at Jackson State and Kent State. Old men posture with nuclear weapons when their use would clearly be insane in a “we found it necessary to destroy this village in order to save it” sort of way.
From this perspective, a small but intensely committed subset of the 60s/70s American left argued for acts of violence — not primarily because they would themselves have an impact but because they would crystalize awareness, show that resistance is possible, and lead to a mass uprising. This manifesto from the Weather Underground is worth a quick scan if only to note what has changed and what hasn’t: Prairie Fire (sds-1960s.org.)
Not everyone agreed that violence made sense, but the intensity of emotion created a pounding demand for some sort of action…not endless talk or compromise with the effing Hubert Humphrey liberals! Our lives were on the line. Things had to change. Now!
Hence, the idea of slow and steady progress seemed a slow and steady path to nowhere. Revolution seemed the only answer. Okay, Stalin was a bit iffy but Che or Lenin provided a beacon. And then along came Mao talking of ‘permanent revolution’. What could be cooler than that!Like John Lennon, you could count me out (and in) but the intent here is not to argue strategy. Certainly, uprisings and rebellions have led to progressive change and, certainly, they have backfired horribly.What I want to highlight, though, is the strong fantasy undercurrent of Revolution as the zipless fuck of progress. Transformations are quick; impact is unambiguous; consequences are as intended; evil is dispatched and good ascends. This constellation of ideas is a strange attractor in American politics.
That brings us to the modern American right.
What Were They Thinking
Followers of QAnon…believe that there is an imminent event known as the “Storm” when thousands of members of the cabal will be arrested and possibly sent to Guantanamo Bay prison or to face military tribunals, and the U.S. military will brutally take over the country. The result will be salvation and utopia on earth – WikipediaI’m now officially the dumbest guy in my whole family -QAnon follower on 1/21/21
There’s been enough ink on QAnon. QAnon’s theory in short: an evil deep-state cabal controls the country; Trump will lead a massive reset; time was running out so it had to happen on Inauguration Day, 2021.
If you’ve been out of the loop for the last 6 years, Wikipedia has it detailed for your reading enjoyment.
Since it involves less than a dozen specific well-chronicled individuals, the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitman provides better grist for analysis. In short: the Wolverine Watchmen Militia consisting of less than a dozen members, meeting in secret at Adam Fox’s temporary living quarters in the cellar of the Vac Shack vacuum shop, planned to kidnap the Governor (because?), blow up a bridge to delay police pursuit (until?), and hole up somewhere (and?).
From there it gets a little vague:-) Missing were specific demands or a manifesto or a political program or tactics to connect the kidnapping to any sort of change. Various members railed against everything from gun laws (gun laws?— some of Wolverines had already shown up at the State Capitol with legal assault weapons), to COVID precautions, to deep state control, to motor vehicle laws. (Reform the DMV or the Governor gets it!)
As the reports of the plot continued to come in, I could only shake my head and keep asking, ”What were they thinking?”
Let’s see what one of the leaders of the Wolverine Watchman, Adam Fox, had to say (source Wikipedia):
In all honesty right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude…. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back
Snatch and grab, man. Grab the fuckin’ Governor. Just grab the bitch. Because at that point, we do that, dude — it’s over.
Smart vs Stupid: Party Like It’s 1299
Norman Cohen pointed out a critical distinction between ineffective and effective social movements:
It is characteristic of this kind of movement that its aims and premises are boundless. A social struggle is seen not as a struggle for specific, limited objectives, but as an event of unique importance, different in kind from all other struggles known to history, a cataclysm from which the world is to emerge totally transformed and redeemed.
… in contrast…
How did the movements we have been considering stand in relation to other social movements? They occurred in a world where peasant revolts and urban insurrections were very common and moreover were often successful. It frequently happened that the tough, shrewd rebelliousness of the common people stood them in excellent stead, compelling concessions, bringing solid gains in prosperity and privilege.
Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
One key indicator of the difference is the ‘atemporality’ of misguided solutions. The aims are ‘boundless’ and the solution is a ‘cataclysm’ from which the world emerges ‘totally transformed and redeemed.’
A second indicator: there is no ambiguity. The vision is pure and complete; unintended consequences will be non-existent.
Thus, making change is not a process that unfolds like growing crops, or building a house, or baking a pie. It doesn’t require domain knowledge, or trial and error, or sustained focused work over months or years. We ‘ex-stasis’ out of a complicated world of brick-by-brick construction and fix it all in ‘cataclysm’ of ‘redemption.’As a story, this resonates. As a strategy, it fails spectacularly.
It’s worth noting that, since we’re working with myth, that we’re in some weird variant of the hero‘s story. The Wisconsin Wolverines clearly felt themselves to be defenders and protectors. But where Hercules had his dozen labors or, as Joeseph Campbell describes, a hero goes through stages of progressive struggle through time, here the whole story is collapsed. Everything gets fixed in a ‘blaze of glory.’
And that, in a sense, is what this series is all about: the disconnect between a deeply felt emotional impulse and an effective political program.
Emotional truth; political lies.
The Economic Truth
Life flows along the commonplace. – Carl Jung
Our current economy seems defined by the loss of a ‘meaningful commonplace’ for a huge swath of the population.
After Trump’s election, I did a deep dive into popular and academic literature trying to understand what had driven a result I did not understand…particularly the voting patterns in the upper Midwest and particularly where Obama voters that had become Trump voters.There are lots of ‘sufficient’ explanations for why Trump won. Many of them are correct. The result was ‘overdetermined’ — any of a variety of factors could explain the few votes that swung the election. Even non-voting by regular voters…the relative proportion of those too turned off to vote in this election but not in the previous…was enough to explain the result.
This doesn’t ignore the impact of evangelicals or the baleful influence of misogyny or White supremacy, but a few vote switches in just a very few states would have taken the election in a different direction. There were sufficient non-evangelical, non-misogynist, non-supremacist Trump voters to make the difference.
My finding: it wasn’t all that complicated. By and large, we’re fairly simple creatures. What folks wanted could be summarized pretty easily: a decent life — agency, respect, and a fair shake. Fifty years ago much of the White working-class could obtain that in the combination of occupation and their social capital rooted in their relationships in the church, club, union, etc.This good-enough commonplace has been steadily disrupted by the loss of jobs that might support a family and increasing economic polarization and disdain for those excluded from an economy that steadily distributes wealth upward. This has been exacerbated by disruptive technologies, globalization, and ever-accelerating ‘future shock’.
As in the times described by Norman Cohen, times of economic uncertainty, plague, and the collapse of normal meaning generation are steadily tightening the screws on everyday people. People suffer with increasingly lethal consequences. As a result, people can get a little crazy.
The Political Lies
But that craziness is being shaped and shaped in a way that directly mitigates against changing the conditions causing it. Instead of a meaningful program for change, we get ‘cosplay revolution with real bullets’. Neither the Capitol Insurrection nor kidnapping Gov Whitmer had a plan that would have created good jobs or a more inclusive economy. Our distress has been short-circuited into theater.
The call to action from the political podium, the pulpit, and Fox News ups emotional intensity but blurs focus on the material processes that underly our distress so that folks are tipped into a strange attractor of self-referential cathartic but ineffective action.
The number one factor breaking families is money…economics…but try telling that to Focus on the Family.
True and False; Smart and Stupid
Post-truth is pre-fascism…. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. – Timothy Snyder, Levin Professor of History, Yale
In part 1 of this series, we started to tally up what’s being spent to make us stupid. Here we define stupid operationally and quite simply.
Smart works toward an effective solution. Stupid action produces a non-solution or even mitigates against effective action.Telling them apart is occasionally difficult but sometimes simple. If you have a flat tire and you’re looking under the hood or you’re on a jihad to discover the evildoer who cursed your car, you’re going nowhere.
I’ll argue stupid action is clearly stupid if it has all 3 elements:
1) There’s a disconnect from facts on the ground.
One clue: an accurate analysis of any biological system, human behavior included, is always complicated. A story that refuses ambiguity or counter-evidence is at the very least incomplete.
You can’t easily jack yourself up to crazy action if there’s a chance your story might be wrong. A storyteller that gets more and more insistent without introducing additional analysis or evidence is likely heading down some rabbit hole (or running a con).
2) There’s a disconnect from effective action.
This can be caused by a misunderstanding or refusal of facts or simple political naivety. Without an informed political program, you’re simply flailing. Atemporal blaze-of-glory solutions with ‘boundless’ objectives are an invariant red flag.
3) There’s a call to action that highlights self-referential emotion release. In the cases we’re looking at here, that consists of a call to violence as transformative catharsis.
Gimee Some Truth
After decades of thinking about evolution, cognitive psychology, a few strains of philosophy, and the history of science, I increasingly believe that the closest we can get to Truth is the ability to take an action and have it achieve the predicted result.
Our politics is collapsing through the lack of it.
Effective action grounds itself in connection to what is actually there.
Make It Glow
Like a moth to the flame, Adam Fox had an image in his head. 100% intense; 100% ineffective. Emotional truth; political nonsense.
He didn’t arrive there by accident.
I don’t know that the path that led him astray was mapped in advance. Trump, for example, would fish for emotional responses and then build his narrative through iteration at repeated rallies.
A story just had to be ‘good enough’ to achieve the desired result: to tip us from effective action that might alter the current structures of power and oppression into an ineffective self-referential fugue.
Our stories of shootouts — violent cathartic transformations — provide archetypal draw… a strange-attractor into which an unmoored Adam Fox can be tipped to his and all our detriment.
Thanks for reading.
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