Tagged: Culture

Truths Hidden in Plain Sight

In the 18 July 2014 issue of ScienceKendra Smyth reviews the new book “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert.  The book documents past mass extinction events and situates the present loss of biodiversity — due to human activity — within this context.

If it is the case — as Smyth writes — that “with warp speed humans are responsible for transforming the biosphere” and that “humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches,” then this state of affairs would seem to draw attention to certain un-examined assumptions behind statements like “humans have succeeded extravagantly.”

Specifically: perhaps our characteristic intelligence is not at all a survival advantage, but rather a genetic fluke, and the relative youth of our species (behaviorally-modern humans are roughly 50,000 years old) may then simply indicate that natural selection hasn’t yet gotten around to knocking us off the food chain. Perhaps this is a hypothesis better left untested.  Perhaps we’re only “succeeding” insofar as we’re eliminating ourselves faster than natural selection eliminates other species.

It would also seem that the West’s post-Renaissance preoccupation with technological progress conceals an irrational vestige of our religious heritage: an irrational faith in a technological savior to the eschatological trajectory of technology. That is, we eagerly anticipate a technological solution to the problems created by technology.  Given that modern technology is only 300 years old (beginning with the Newcomen engine in the early 1700’s) there is very little evidence in the history of the human race to support the view that technology will solve the problems of technology, making such beliefs very much an article of faith.

To quantify the aforementioned state of affairs, it may be worth beginning with an honest discussion of the heresy of diminishing returns. If one looks at the productivity of the US healthcare system, for example, we see a straightforward diminishing returns curve:

Productivity of the US healthcare system.  Chart indexes increases in life expectancy to expenditures as a percentage of GNP.  Data depicts a characteristic diminishing returns curve.

The meaning of the above chart is that relatively few medical innovations have made a substantive difference in quality of life and overall health outcomes: sanitation and hygiene (in the mid-1800’s, Ignaz Semmelweis at Vienna General Hospital decided that doctors should wash their hands), anesthetics and analgesics (patients used to die of shock during surgery), antibiotics (developed for around $20,000 of basic science research), and the vaccine. Since then, modern medicine has been largely concerned with addressing the problems of technological civilization, such as poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and environmental pollution. And medicine has been growing exponentially more expensive.  Unfortunately, there are few patents to be found where a change in cultural values is what is needed: you can’t patent a healthy diet and exercise, so well-funded science turns its attention elsewhere.

Although diminishing returns is a well-documented economic phenomenon, it receives scant discussion in the mass media, which is otherwise filled with breathless accounts of the latest and greatest gadgets.  The phenomenon is by no means limited to the healthcare industry, but appears throughout the economy.  If one looks at, for example, the cost per patent over time, a similar curve emerges:


The above chart illustrates a simple point: patents get more expensive over time because most of the easy and most pressing problems get solved first.  The diminishing marginal utility kicks in as more specialized patents affect fewer numbers of individuals, in contrast to patents with a more broad applicability that affect many people.

Here is what diminishing returns on investments in technology mean in cultural terms:

Fracking is a new energy extraction technology with many harmful consequences, including heavy water use, irregular seismic activity, and environmental pollution.  Fracking is becoming an increasingly popular way of extracting energy for two main reasons: politically, Americans don’t want to depend on foreign energy sources; and, culturally, Americans want to persist in destructive, wasteful habits.  Driving in automobiles is inherently wasteful, as over 2/3 of the energy purchased as gasoline is not converted into motion, but rather lost as waste heat.  Fracking is a harmful technology designed to preserve a wasteful mode of transit for cultural reasons.  Busses (measured in passenger miles per gallon), trains, and urban living are by far more energy efficient and less environmentally costly.

Many Americans delude themselves about their habits by purchasing “green” products like hybrid automobiles.  While hybrids produce fewer emissions while in operation, they are more complex than conventional automobiles, use more energy-intensive materials, and they rely on toxic chemicals for their batteries, so that, on the whole, they may actually produce more pollution than typical internal combustion engines.  If one purchases a hybrid with the goal of reducing carbon emissions, one would do better to adopt a vegetarian diet.  Doing so reduces carbon emissions, reduces antibiotics use, lowers medical costs by improving diet, and reduces animal cruelty, without further concentrating wealth in the hands of the industrial system that profits from marketing “green” products that aren’t actually all that “green.”

Dietary modification, despite its advantages, requires self-control and a change in cultural values.  Unfortunately, scientific and technological “progress” plays the role of an enabler for bad habits.  These bad habits seem poised to wipe our species off the face of the planet.



Theses on Technological Progress

Assuming technology always “evolves” better versions is medieval thinking.  This way of thinking about technology only makes sense if one assumes that Man is on top of Nature’s Great Chain of Being, and that technology, our prosthesis, is made in our image, as a Microcosm of Man.

Technology doesn’t “evolve,” it’s designed.  The modern understanding of “design” originates in the European Renaissance.

Technological “evolution” exhibits some features of reproduction with variation, but these variations are determined by design, not by natural selection.

Markets may resemble natural selection in certain cases, but “competition” — which drives evolution under the model of natural selection — is not a defining feature of today’s organized industries.

Commercially-produced industrial technologies are often released in successive iterations, but to consider each iteration as a sign of “progress” makes a categorical error.

Progress is a teleological concept: it is goal-oriented.  One makes progress along a line from A to B.  “Intelligent design” is also a teleological concept because it involves God having a plan for Man.

The technological iterations commonly deemed “progress” involve complex tradeoffs that are often qualitative in nature.

The modern concept of “progress” originated in the European Enlightenment, which was defined by the cultural rediscovery of Classical wisdom from antiquity.

In action, “progress” does not entail improvement, nor does it implicate “advancement” as the word might be understood in the “pure” sciences.

With respect to technological “progress,” consider a case in point: the mobile phones of today offer inferior voice quality with a more fragile connection than the landlines of yesterday.  The wireless capability of mobile phones may offer one advantage over our natural limitations, and the ability to speak at a distance another, but, as cultural artifacts, telephones neither directly nor by analogy “evolved” the ability to send and receive text messages, in response people tiring of habitually speaking into them.

Pollution is by and large a problem with commercial technology.  Yet with religious fervor, most people unquestioningly believe there is a technological solution to the problems of technology.  This assumption may prove disastrous for anybody reading this, or their children, or their grandchildren, but it will happen that soon.

The New Iron Curtain

In the January 24, 2014 issue of Science (vol. 343, P. 372), Albert-László Barabási reviews Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle. The novel concerns a large technology company that “relentlessly innovates to reduce crime, to organize and store all information, and to leave no one behind.” Employees live by the “Orwellian” NewSpeak dicta, “Privacy is theft” and “Secrets are lies.”

Where the novel would depict what Barabási calls “the 21st Century’s version of Orwell’s 1984,” both the novelist and the reviewer seem too eager to latch onto the technological aspects of 1984, as well as today’s growing surveillance state. The review concludes with an observation about the National Security Agency and George Orwell’s novel 1984, by way of likening the NSA’s use of private contractors to the themes in Eggers’ new novel, which “reboots 1984 for the digital age.”

The main problem with this techno-centric approach to looking at Orwell’s novel — or today’s surveillance state, for that matter — is that 1984 doesn’t need to be “rebooted for the digital age.” The key principle in the novel is a psychological one — that of the Panopticon — that applies as well today as it did at the very start of the industrial revolution, when the principle was first formulated.

Although 1984 depicts a pervasive system of surveillance, is not about surveillance technology per se, but about the psychology of living under a political system that makes use of such technology. Modern readers tend to focus on the technological aspects of 1984, but this is a modern bias that probably derives from the post-war emphasis on technological growth, and a shift in the science fiction genre away from what Robert Heinlein called “speculative fiction” to what is perhaps might more properly be called “technology fiction.”

In 1984, however, the technology is largely incidental: the protagonist Winston Smith suffers his downfall not because the surveillance proves to be an effective tool for law enforcement, but, rather, because of his own personal indiscretions. Winston Smith — petty bureaucrat and Party member — frequents a resale shop in the forbidden “proletarian quarters.” Winston buys trinkets left over from a world he spends his professional life erasing; he buys a notebook in which he writes his personal heresies; and, when he eventually rents out the spare bedroom above the shop — for the purposes of an illicit love affair — he is entrapped by the shopkeeper, who turns out to be an undercover officer with the “thought police.”

The society in 1984 is modeled on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon: a prison design that Bentham proposed in 1787, which he felt had applicability to a broad range of social contexts.  The full title of Bentham’s work reads:

“PANOPTICON; Or, The Inspection-House: Containing The Idea Of A New Principle Of Construction Applicable To Any Sort Of Establishment, In Which Persons Of Any Description Are To Be Kept Under Inspection; And In Particular To Penitentiary-Houses, Prisons, Houses Of Industry, Work-Houses, Poor-Houses, Lazarettos, Manufactories, Hospitals, Mad-Houses, And Schools: With A Plan Of Management.”

The key effect of the pan-optic (“all-seeing”) surveillance system in 1984 is psychological: a constant pressure exerted by the mere possibility of being observed, which coerces individuals into behaving as though there are in actual fact being monitored at all times.  Orwell describes the psychology of the surveillance system in 1984 as follows:

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live–did live, from habit that became instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

Orwell’s description of this psychological effect is quite similar to Michel Foucault’s characterization of Bentham’s contrivance.  Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish (1975):
“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.
“To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.”

It is, indeed, “Orwellian” that, as we become more aware of this type of surveillance, we come more under its influence — even while lacking a basic understanding of the real effects of the system. It is, to say the least, disconcerting that our modern biases — which we fancy to be so sophisticated — blind us so systematically to those ideas we need now more than ever to properly grasp.

While one may be tempted so suppose that our modern surveillance state represents something new — because of how technologically advanced it is — there is ample evidence that such a system of total surveillance cannot be effective, in terms of detecting all criminal behavior.

In his essay, “Your Face is Not a Barcode,” computer scientist Philip E. Agre reiterates an argument made by noted cryptologist Bruce Schneier.  Using face recognition technology as an example, Agre writes:

“Face recognition is nearly useless for the application that has been most widely discussed since the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington: identifying terrorists in a crowd. As Bruce Schneier points out, the reasons why are statistical. Let us assume, with extreme generosity, that a face recognition system is 99.99 percent accurate. In other words, if a high-quality photograph of your face is not in the ‘terrorist watch list’ database, then it is 99.99 percent likely that the software will not produce a match when it scans your face in real life. Then let us say that one airline passenger in ten million has their face in the database. Now, 99.99 percent probably sounds good. It means one failure in 10,000. In scanning ten million passengers, however, one failure in 10,000 means 1000 failures — and only one correct match of a real terrorist.

“In other words, 999 matches out of 1000 will be false, and each of those false matches will cost time and effort that could have been spent protecting security in other ways. Perhaps one would argue that 1000 false alarms are worth the benefits of one hijacking prevented. Once the initial shock of the recent attacks wears off, however, the enormous percentage of false matches will condition security workers to assume that all positive matches are mistaken. The great cost of implementing and maintaining the face recognition systems will have gone to waste. The fact is, spotting terrorists in a crowd is a needle-in-a-haystack problem, and automatic face recognition is not a needle-in-a-haystack-quality technology. Hijackings can be prevented in many ways, and resources should be invested in the measures that are likely to work.”

Similar arguments can be made for other forms of automatic target detection.  Consider, too, that the NSA doesn’t even attempt to process all the data it gathers — since it’s unnecessary.  In an “Orwellian” twist, it appears that NSA chief General Keith Alexander can tell Congress that the NSA doesn’t “intercept” domestic communications by tapping into the fiber optic lines of telecommunications carriers, making copies of the data, and storing it in a warehouse.  According to how the NSA defines what it does, data is only “intercepted” when it is “put into an intelligible form intended for human inspection.”  Which is to say, in Foucault’s words, “the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action.”

The more fundamental problem with the fixation on the technological aspects of the surveillance state is that it draws attention away from the real issues at play.  Towards the end of 1984, the goal of the totalitarian state depicted in the novel is described as follows:

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

Like the characters in 1984 who, due to NewSpeak whittling down the dictionary, were in the process of losing the ability to express basic facts about their lives and circumstances, we — due to our cultural fixations on growth, and technology, and novelty — effectively live under the same circumstance, and cannot see it.

Love of Disease

Chuck Klosterman, who writes the Ethicist column for the New York Times, ends his 2009 book Eating the Dinosaur with an essay about Ted Kaczynski — more commonly known as the Unabomber.

In discussing Kaczynski’s essay “Industrial Society and Its Future” — also called the “Unabomber Manifesto” — Klosterman observes that the document is “not nearly as insane as it should be, at least relative to how we view its author.”  This is an unusually perceptive observation.  Klosterman’s basic thesis is that the Unabomber “was a bad person, but sometimes he was right.”

From this starting point, Klosterman proceeds with what appears to be a clear and rational discussion of the Unabomber’s writing.  Klosterman grants that the  Unabomber was largely correct insofar as “the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”  Klosterman adds to this the sympathetic observation that:

“We are living in a manner that is unnatural.  We are latently enslaved by our own ingenuity, and we have unknowingly constructed a simulated world.  The benefits of technology are easy to point out… but they do not compensate for the overall loss of humanity that is its inevitable consequence.  As a species, we have never been less human than we are right now.”

And from these premises, Klosterman nevertheless concludes that, for his own love of technology, he gives up “nothing that’s particularly important to me.”  Klosterman’s conclusion is profoundly nihilistic: in essence, the Unabomber was right to say we are living in a disaster, but who cares?

Klosterman even understands the implications of his nihilistic conclusion:

“I could change… But I choose the opposite.  Instead of confronting reality and embracing the Experience of Being Alive, I will sit here and read about Animal Collective over the Internet… not because the content is important or amusing or well written, but because the content exists.”

So the New York Times ethicist is a nihilist.  In this he is hardly unique, though a more profound attitudinal problem derives from some of his unexamined biases.  He remarks repeatedly that the Unabomber was a “bad man.”  In a sense, Klosterman has no choice but to say so.  Yet one could just as plausibly suggest that the Unabomber was acting out of the deepest human sympathies.  His goal was not sadistic, to revel in making others suffer; he was not indifferent to the suffering of others.  Rather, Kaczynski’s goal was to prevent future generations from suffering the indignities of the industrial system — on which point Klosterman largely agrees with Kaczynski.

The most Klosterman can honestly say on this point is that the Unabomber was misguided, and chose bad tactics.  Kaczynski’s fault wasn’t sociopathy, as Klosterman claims — those people we reward with high office (evolutionary psychologist Linda Mealey has a lot to say about sociopathy as an adaptation to competitive society in her 1997 essay, “The Sociobiology of Sociopathy: An Integrated Evolutionary Model”).  Klosterman calls the Unabomber a sociopath, but that word has a specific meaning.  By misusing that word, Klosterman overclouds the already-probelmatic discourse surrounding violence in our culture.

Similarly, Klosterman misapplies the term “fascist” to the Unabomber.  Fascism is state-centric authoritarianism — but the Unabomber is opposed to the state.  He is a self-described anarchist, and his beliefs and lifestyle choices place him square within an anarcho-primitivist milieu.  In his Manifesto, the Unabomber complains:

“Modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence. This is not accidental or a result of the arbitrariness of arrogant bureaucrats. It is necessary and inevitable in any technologically advanced society. The system HAS TO regulate human behavior closely in order to function. At work, people have to do what they are told to do, otherwise production would be thrown into chaos.  Bureaucracies HAVE TO be run according to rigid rules. To allow any substantial personal discretion to lower-level bureaucrats would disrupt the system and lead to charges of unfairness due to differences in the way individual bureaucrats exercised their discretion.”

The Unabomber is upset about authoritarianism — and, specifically, the authoritarian measures that states maintain for the benefit of industry.  Like libertarian guru Friedrich Hayek, the Unabomber is opposed to coercion, whether it comes from a state or a commercial interest.

Perhaps Klosterman thinks the Unabomber is a fascist because he rails against leftism — but leftism is not the opposite of fascism.  The left wing and the right wing are both state-centric positions.  The Unabomber viewed the state and industry as intertwined, and therefore both in need of being abolished.

Where the Unabomber’s complaints about “regulation” might sound like the modern American right wing, there is one important difference: modern libertarians want to abolish regulation while preserving both the industrial system and the concentration of wealth it creates.  The modern right wing wants to institute an aristocracy of wealth where a hereditary aristocracy has been abolished.  The Unabomber sees through this contradiction, and wants to do away with both the state and industry.

These observations about the Unabomber’s attitude towards the state and industry bring up another important error in Klosterman’s essay: it is not at all the case that the Unabomber doesn’t explain what a “rational” society should look like.  In railing against technological society, he advocates for a society without industrial technology.  We know very well what that type of society looks like: its how humans have lived for most of human history.

Klosterman’s essay also contains important omissions.  Yes, the Unabomber was the victim of an unwitting stress test, but Klosterman apparently doesn’t find it worth mentioning that the stress test was administered under the CIA mind control program MKULTRA.  And Klosterman doesn’t think it is worth mentioning anything about how the Unabomber chose his targets — specifically, people he perceived as promoting or intensifying the advance of industrial civilization.

And of those three people the Unabomber killed — far fewer in number than our celebrated mass murders in high office whom we reward generously with paid speaking engagements  — we find equal selectivity on the part of our supposed madman.  One prominent victim was Thomas J. Mosser, an upper-level executive at the Burson-Marstellar PR firm.  This PR firm — among other notable clients — represented the Argentine dictatorship, Blackwater after some of their mercenaries murdered several Iraqi civilians in cold blood, Union Carbide after the Bhopal chemical disaster poisoned thousands of innocent people, Exxon after the Valdez oil spill, the company that manufactured the Three Mile Island nuclear plant… bad man!

In his eminently reasonable — if not glib — tone, Klosterman engages in a bit of self-rationalization for his attention-seeking experiment in generating controversy:

“The fact that a document’s creator is an ego-centric murderer does not preclude the work from being worthwhile (Phil Spector shot a woman in the face, but that doesn’t make the harmonies on ‘Be My Baby’ any less beautiful).  The fact that Kaczynski has a deeply damaged psyche doesn’t mitigate its value at all…”

The notion that — like Phil Spector — the Unabomber was a bad man with brilliant ideas is almost as dangerous as endorsing his tactics.  Consider this analogous argument: sure the Nazi’s conducted medical experiments on living Jews, but their scientific innovations were brilliant, and need to be appreciated. Perhaps Klosterman knows a thing or two about the history of our ballistic missile program

The stakes are also higher than Klosterman lead his readers to believe: he ignores the environmental degradation industrialization has brought with it.  Industrialization also makes us work harder than we ever have before: the typical hunter-gatherer works a 15 hour week for a life expectancy on par with Renaissance Europe, and the typical European Medieval peasant worked only 1/3 of the year.  Today we work less than the 60 or 80 hour weeks common during the 19th Century, but that’s really not saying much.

Unemployment due to the increased use of automation — which we call increases in productivity — could just as easily shorten the workweek, or increase worker pay, or ensure that the many humans who today live on planet Earth without the benefits of industry might enjoy something closer to our standard of living.  Instead, the trend we see is this: adjusted for inflation, median wages have increased 4% since 1965.  During this same time, worker productivity has doubled, reducing the number of manufacturing jobs to pre-World War II levels while still increasing the value of the output.

Advanced technology really only benefits a very few humans, though plenty of people are addicted to it all the same.  Klosterman’s sloppy intellectualism and cavalier use of loaded terminology is dangerous: it perverts the language which we need in order to address serious social problems.  Incidentally, the perversion of language is a central characteristic of fascist regimes.  And Klosterman’s glib, superficial style elides nicely with his penchant for lying to interviewers, which he brags about in the first essay of his book.  He wrote: “I feel no compulsion to do right by the people who interview me.  In fact, I sometimes want to do wrong, even if the only person who suffers is myself.”

Klosterman seems to find immense ego-gratification from the attention of the many people eager to read his each and every word, who will shape their attitudes in response to his influence.  His glib, superficial, manipulative, egocentric personality traits make him closer to a true sociopath than the Unabomber.  And what makes Klosterman dangerous like the Unabomber is his perpetuation and normalization of these socially destructive character traits wrought by industrial ideology.