my short essays
CWEI part 2
I mean to end this civilization. What gets you out of bed in the morning? I'm writing this introductory part after finishing the main text, which is a deviation from my usual process. I edit in my head and write straight to final draft. It worked beautifully in three issues of my zine Superweed, but this time, after six pages, I struck a narrative that carried me all the way to the end, and in that context the early pages seemed disjointed and irrelevant. So I'm overwriting them.
I've always had a thing about techno-industrial civilization. The scent that gives me the deepest nostalgia -- I don't know why -- is fresh tar. My mom says that when I was a little kid I was fascinated by construction cranes. Even now, after years in the city, I still think skyscrapers are really cool, and I often pause, while walking over the freeway, to stare in awe at all the cars. In third grade I would show off my spelling talent by spelling the word civilization, and the most serious addiction I've ever had was to the computer game Civilization II. I played it 15-20 hours a week in late 1999.
Remember the Prince song, "tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999"? That sounded like a big deal in 1985. Then when 1999 came it became a joke. "Tonight I'm gonna party like it's this year." Now the song seems dead, but wait: Suppose, in the future, 1999 is looked back on as the peak year of our civilization. Then the song will live again with a meaning no one guessed.
1999 is the obvious choice for the peak year -- before the dot-com crash, before the WTO protest, before the New Democrats, who oversaw a global concentration of wealth and tightening of power that even shocked some Republicans, lost the White House.
Of course, 1999 will not be the peak when the consciousness that makes History is focused on something other than the momentary dominant perspective in the USA. In the long view, the peak may be seen to have come sooner, maybe much sooner. I was going to say it couldn't possibly come later, but then I thought:
Suppose the bottom falls out of the global food supply, and 90% of us die from starvation, or from diseases caused by industry and technology, or from wars fought with secret energy weapons. And suppose, of the remaining 10%, 90% live on the surface, in straw bale houses and abandoned buildings, eating garden vegetables and old canned food, while 10% live in sealed underground compounds, with super-advanced bio- and nanotechnology. These people can and will adjust their perspectives to declare themselves at an all-time peak of human progress.
We have done exactly the same thing. Compared to all but a handful of our ancestors, we live tiny, painful lives. Did you know that Americans used to have a 35-hour work week? The evidence survives in our language, in the phrase "9 to 5." Did you ever think to question where that came from, when actual day jobs are 8 to 5? Me neither, until someone told me: people literally did work 9 to 5, seven hours of labor and an hour for lunch, and they counted their lunch hour when they called it an eight hour day and a 40 hour week. We have been tricked into working an extra five hours a week. Times 52 weeks a year, or 50 for the lucky ones with vacation, that's 250 hours, or more than an extra six weeks a year, that we've been tricked into working.
And that's just the people with hourly wages. People with salaries, in every case I've seen, work 50 or 60 or 80 hours a week. We focus on foreign sweatshops to hide from the awful recognition of our personal sweatshops. Kids in some country work 16 hour days in factories for pennies an hour, but our own kids work 16 hour days, in compulsory schooling designed to strangle creativity and independent thinking, in homework designed to train them for a life of tedious meaningless labor, in highly controlled "activities" designed to replace improvised play. And instead of being paid pennies an hour we have to pay dollars an hour, and instead of knowing we're exploited we're told we're "privileged."
I reject the entire concept of "privilege." It's a lie. No one is or has ever been "privileged." If ten people are living happily on an island, and I go and lock nine of them in a cage, have I made the tenth person privileged? If ten people are playing in the woods and eating fruit, and I give one of them an intravenous feeding tube and a hand-held computer game, and then I get him to cut down the fruit trees, have I done him a favor? The concept of "privilege" does not make sense except in the context of an exploitative system, and in an exploitative system everyone is exploited.
Another trick word is "work," because working in your own garden is far different, even opposite, from working at your job to get money to pay your monthly extortion to the landowning interests and banks. And we are now doing less of the former, and more of the latter, than almost any people in history. Yet our wages are lower, in real dollars, than they were 30 years ago. Also we're living in smaller spaces and more isolated, the air is worse, there is more poison inside us and around us, politics and the media have become inaccessible, everyone is depressed, and although crime by poor people and young people is way down, the popular fear if it is enormous, and few people seem to mind that there are more and more surveillance cameras and detectors, or that the USA keeps more of its population in prison than Nazi Germany or Stalin's USSR or Apartheid South Africa.
How can we call the last ten years a good time? Because TV screens got bigger? Because there are now cars with ten cup holders? Because computers now enable us to sit alone staring at a screen to do many things we used to have to do face to face with humans, who we find increasingly disgusting and intolerable?
We call the last ten years a good time because of a giant legal gambling scheme called the "stock market," where people buy and sell tokens representing shares of ownership by "corporations," which are giant centralized authoritarian patterns of human and machine activity that channel money from the poor to the rich and divert human work and attention from human interests to corporate interests. And the people who are run by this system calculate special numbers that represent how many stock-tokens exist and how much they're worth, and these numbers are taken everywhere as indicators of how prosperous and secure we all are. Liberal radio stations, which are supposedly critical of corporate interests, report these numbers many times per day.
And these numbers rose to all-time highs through the 1990's; so by skewing our perspectives to focus on these and a few other numbers that claimed to show our well-being but really showed the entrenchment of the ruling powers, we declared ourselves at an all-time high, when other views would show us near the bottom of a long, long slide.
The decline and fall of the Roman Empire went largely unnoticed at the time. For one thing, the changes were so slow that you would only see a few in a lifetime. But I'm sure they also rewrote their history the same way we do, to make it seem like the bad things have always been there and the good things are new, to make the good changes seem important, and the bad changes seem trivial, and the questionable changes seem good.
In hindsight, the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths looks like a fall at the end of centuries of decline. But Roman writings from right before the sack declare the glory of Rome greater than ever. And I wouldn't be surprised to see writings after the sack that called it a minor complication or ignored it completely, the same way my contemporaries are downplaying massive species extinctions and food supply epidemics and the spread of genetically manipulated organisms.
This stuff excites me. The end of civilization seems likely to kill me and everyone I know, yet the thought of it makes me feel alive. I recognize this way of thinking as hopelessness. I mean, I feel alive because I am sensing the countless potential worlds, all around us and inside us, compared to which this one is horribly, tragically dead. But I am without hope when I think the only way out of this world is through shocking catastrophes. Whether this hopelessness is accurate, I don't know.
Actually, when I observe myself, only my fantasies are desperate and catastrophic. My behavior, wisely or not, is patient and optimistic. I could be in the Canadian wilderness burying caches of food and water and open-pollinated vegetable seeds. Instead I'm in Seattle, an early target for invasion by the Chinese or American military, writing this thing that only fifty people will read in the next year, and generally living to set an example of how to shift peacefully from this world to another one, as if we've got a hundred years to do it.
I've been living on $600 a month or less, sometimes much less, as long as I've been financially independent. When I started this document in February 2000, I was living in a tiny room in a run-down house. I spent eight months on a waiting list and now I'm sharing a small low-income one-bedroom apartment with no sunlight, but a perfect location so I can bike everywhere. I buy organic groceries and mostly make my own food from scratch. And I bathe with a washcloth in the sink and brush my teeth and shave with nothing but water.
It's not about denying myself, or being "pure," or getting far-lefty social status. I don't want to be pure: I eat chicken (organic) and play a video game (Zelda) and get my news from the internet (rense.com). I get plenty of sleep and make two or three pies a week and lots of sourdough waffles with real maple syrup. I'd rather live with my great roommate than live alone, and I find a bike to be much easier and more fun than a car, even in the rain.
It's not about being a martyr, or a monk, or a star. It's about being a warrior, persistently taking positive action to change the world in your own particular way. My way includes my personal economy, and my writing, and also my attempt to save enough money to pay cash for primitive land, and physically create a foothold of another world in this one.
I'm not writing about myself in here to get admiration, but to give inspiration, to persuade people to be ambitious, to try. This is what I mean: If you want to get rich by any available means, and buy a giant house and a yacht, and you focus on those goals, you can do it -- but you are not being ambitious. If you aim for wealth on a path of complete honesty, and you spend your wealth on political reforms that work against your accumulation of wealth, then you are being ambitious. In the one case, you're choosing a state of being because you've been told to choose it, and you'll take whatever path is easiest. In the other case, you're choosing a path because of a wider understanding of the meaning of that path, and you'll take wherever it leads.
I'm trying to redefine ambition, not only so it's free of capitalism, but so it's free of success. I am "a failure" by every dominant standard: I'm poor, I'm not getting laid, and even my writing is making no visible impact. But I can live every day as if I'm on the front lines of a revolution, and every moment as if I'm here to have a good time, and no one can take that away from me.
Cynics say that people like me are foolish idealists, because we're fighting according to our values and not according to what seems possible. But these cynics are the real idealists, so fixated on the ideal of "success" that they become paralyzed, unable to act without the appearance of likely success. And anyone who controls the appearance of what is possible and what is impossible controls these people utterly. That's how a lion "tamer" is able to abuse and humiliate an animal that could kill him in seconds, by giving it the illusion that it can't win. And people who have been given the illusion that they are powerless in what they really care about, like the lion, become depressed and lethargic, and stop caring, and just go through the motions waiting to die.
In our culture this is called "growing up," and these mature and sensible people are always telling us that we're "wasting" this or that because we can't succeed. Even if we can't, what's more of waste, a trapped animal that fights to the death, or one that dies without a fight?
There's a lot of different language for what I'm talking about here: being in the moment, having faith, focusing on the process not the goal, or -- this is a new one for me -- focusing on the "vision" and not the "goal." The idea is, you have a sense of the wider relations -- the meaningfulness -- of your actions, so that your actions justify themselves; they do not take their meaning from unresolved tension between the present and future; they do not need anything to happen to make them valuable.
I think the conflict between this way of being, and the "success"-mindedness of this civilization, is deeper and more important than seeming conflicts of political structure and cultural trappings between the dominant society and supposed "alternative" societies. Supporting progressive political changes will eventually lead to a shallow revolution in the system that tells you what you can do, so that you can live in fear more comfortably. But supporting an outsider candidate you believe in, instead of the less frightening of the dominant candidates, or rejecting a secure but insulting labor contract to go on strike, or supporting the resistance to an occupation government that could be worse, or being honest about your values in a job interview when you think it will cost you the job -- these are all steps in a revolution in your soul, through which you can be free under any system.
This explains the way I write. I imagine criticisms of this document based on its dissimilarity to documents that are widely duplicated and get their authors money and social status. I write by hand because it's more interesting and easier than writing by computer -- especially when you include all the labor we have to do to manufacture and move computers. I write it only once because it makes me feel alive, and transcribing feels tedious. And I don't cite sources because even keeping track of sources feels like a waste of attention, though it's nice to remember valuable ones and recommend a few, which I do at the end.
Also, I don't agree with the authority that references channel. Even I catch myself, when I see a long list of numbered references, getting a contractive cozy feeling that it must be true, as if documents named on a list are more reliable than the document I'm looking at, as if a text with no list of references doesn't have any sources, as if misleading management of information is as simple as making up facts out of nothing, and we're safe if we just guard against that, as if all references can be traced back to a changeless bedrock of universal truth, instead of going around in circles on a ramshackle set of assumptions adrift on an ocean of ever-shifting experience.
As for the criticism that I contradict myself: In the future I plan to contradict myself more, to make my writing less tempting to our habits of being told what to think and getting stuck on ideas. Contradiction is what the opportunity for mental expansion looks like. Why am I fighting to end civilization if "civilization will eat itself"? Why put out a fire when it will eventually burn itself out? Why give energy to delivering babies if pregnancy can't go on forever?
This thing does have weaknesses: My language could be more precise, and I extend my thinking way beyond my knowledge, so that I blindly stumble past valuable insights, and make arguments that can be easily refuted by anyone who knows a lot more facts than me.
But I'm not trying to build walls here -- I'm trying to make openings, and it's the spirit that's important, not the actual arguments. Also, you're only ignorant once, and I go places in here that I never would have gone if I had "known" certain things to be false or impossible. Or, as Halton Arp said, sometimes knowing a thousand things is less valuable than not knowing one thing.
Now we're going back from 21 May 2001 to 14 March 2000, when I began the subject that dominates more than half of this text: technology, by which I sometimes mean the technologies of industrial civilization, and sometimes wider possibilities of tool using.
Even at this late date, almost everyone who thinks about technology, even on the left, thinks that any given technology (or, alternately, technology as a whole) is neutral, and that it's the uses of technologies that are good or bad. This insidious idea has done more harm than we can imagine.
I'm not disputing that uses are important or that any technology can be used to do something that, in isolation, seems "good" or "bad," or that we can craft a definition of "technology" so that what it encloses seems balanced. I am noticing that, in the context "technology is neutral," the word "neutral" just means "stop thinking."
What does it mean to say atomic bombs are neutral? Does it mean that, because you can tell a story about atomic bombs doing good, you would rather live in a world with atomic bombs than without them? Does it mean, let's all do whatever it takes to build a bunch of atomic bombs and then figure out how to do good with them?
The story "technology-is-neutral-uses-are-good-bad" says: Do not think of a technology as a vast pattern of human behavior with a limitless web of collaborations and contradictions and dependencies with other existing and potential technologies and patterns of human behavior; when thinking about the wider societal meaning of a technology, think only of particular tasks that the finished artifacts of that technology can do, classify these tasks as "good" or "bad," skew your perspective so that the good and bad appear balanced, and stop thinking; and when making choices about technology, do not consider choosing the existence or non-existence of a technology, or even the use or non-use of a technology -- all potential technologies must exist and be used, and your choice is only between different "uses" -- different actions of end-users of encapsulated technological objects, or products.
This doctrine is for the limiting of the consciousness of "privileged" people, if it's a privilege to be made dependent on the coerced activities of others, and then be coerced yourself into withholding understanding and empathy from others.
"Technologies are neutral and uses are good or bad" is for people who think "technologies" are variously shaped boxes of plastic and metal and glass that come from the mall. Try telling the people in Nigeria who were driven from their land so Shell could drill oil, whose friends and family members were murdered when they resisted, that the technology of petroleum is neutral because gasoline can be used to set fire to a house or power an ambulance. They will recognize you as insane.
Oh, is that my only point? That technologies can not only be used in ways we don't like, but can be built and sustained in ways we don't like? Can't we still declare technologies neutral, and just expand the focus of our good-doing a little bit?
That's not my only point, but it's enough. If we're talking about how technologies are built and sustained, then the Berlin Wall is broken.
Think about what's required for (by?) the technology of the automobile. People have to drill oil and build and operate oil refineries, and mine ores and make and use toxic chemicals to extract the metals, and build and operate mass production factories to make cars and car parts, and burn coal or dam rivers or split plutonium to power the factories, and build highways and streets and parking lots.
Would you rather live next to a parking lot or a field or grass? A strip mine or a forest? A dammed or a free-flowing river? A nuclear plant or no nuclear plant? Would you rather work in a factory or not work in a factory? Work in a coal mine or not work in a coal mine? Then what sense does it make to call technologies neutral?
And if you said, "Wait, we don't have to use nuclear power -- we could use natural gas or solar power," then you are choosing one technology over another for the same use. See! You knew all along that technologies are not neutral.
Technologies are profoundly different, and we have the power to notice these differences and choose one technology over another for the same use. And I think, if we understood what was involved with the different technologies, then for the use of going from one place to another we would not choose cars, or trains, or even bicycles, but feet and horses.
The objection is piling up: Cars are faster and more powerful than feet or horses; this is the payoff from the mines and factories; the alternative to working in mines and factories is not leisure, but working in different technological worlds with less power; the enormous power of high industrial technology only needs to be used better.
Then how can the power of the technology of the automobile be used better? Can it be used much at all without, at great effort and expense, keeping a lot of nature covered with pavement? Oh -- I forgot: the technology of covering nature with pavement is inherently neutral -- it's only what the pavement is used for that's good or bad.
How can the power of the technology of the automobile improve quality of life anywhere near as much as that technology and its required supporting technologies ruin quality of life? By taking orphan children on joyrides? By driving food thousands of miles to people who prefer food that's been sitting around for a week to fresh local food? By making it possible for people to own a great mass of material objects and move frequently? By enabling people to live many miles from their jobs, from their sources of food, from their friends? How, exactly, does this improve quality of life?
How much relation is there between power -- the ability to move and transform more stuff faster -- and quality of life?
And where did that definition of power come from? Why, when we think about "progress" and "growth," about how we want to change and where we want to go, do we think about increasing the transformation of the "external world" by the "self"?
The self could be one person (individualism) or a nation (nationalism) or a race (racism) or a business (capitalism) or the human species. Right now there's a giant taboo against racism, and a mild taboo against nationalism, to draw criticism away from, and energy into, the other three I mentioned. It's not a complete list, but it's all the same thing: a disconnection and contraction of consciousness, a forced channeling of wider energies to serve narrower interests.
What we call "technology" is this contractive compulsion perpetuating itself through the making of physical tools. Or is it the making of physical tools perpetuating itself through this contractive compulsion?
Can we have one without the other? Certainly we can have self-reinforcing contractiveness without physical tools. I'm thinking of people developing psychic or "paranormal" powers and using them selfishly. (And then I'm thinking, are these powers non-neutral the same way technologies are, and if so, then which...) But if that's too far out for you, then what about lying, or just being pushy?
You start doing it because it gives your pinched-off perspective (your side, you cause, your "self," your status, your money) some advantage, and then you get yourself drawn into doing it more and bigger, and you forget how to get along without it, and you use it to build and maintain ways of being that you don't know how to build and maintain without it.
You can't go back: if you admit a lie, it exposes linked lies, and exposes you as a liar; if you let someone stand up to you, then more people will stand up to you. But you can't keep going forward, and you can't stop: you have to lie bigger and push harder just to hold the structure together, but you're building it toward collapse by hanging your lies out farther and farther from honest experience, by pushing the rest of the world up farther and farther from where it needs to be.
I'll postpone the question of whether we can have physical tool-making without this kind of pattern, and merely observe that we don't, that our tool-making has been living and growing in symbiosis with what we call evil, with what we call addiction, since before we invented the tool of written history.
We don't break this symbiosis by doing nice things with the end-products of our technologies. Doing good things while you're on heroin is not breaking your addiction. We recognize a difference between commanding slaves to do only good, and freeing slaves.
We even recognize a contradiction: Using slaves to do "good" actually strengthens slavery by building a positive relation between slavery and something we value. Now we undermine our good if we give up or even question our habit (technology) of slavery.
If technologies can be used badly, and if technologies can be built out of uses of other technologies, then what do we have when a technology is built and powered from the bad use of another technology? What do we have when a technology behaving badly makes another technology to keep itself behaving badly? What do we have when a whole technology has no justification or explanation except as a subset of a bad use of another technology?
The other day I was at a book store selling my computer games, and I saw a science book called "The Golem." The Golem is a mythical creature made out of some inanimate substance, traditionally clay, that is shaped into a giant man and brought to life. Of course, the book's idea was that science is like a Golem, enormously powerful, with the potential to do great good or great harm.
In the Golem story I've heard, the Golem is kept doing good by an inscription on its forehead, Hebrew characters that mean something like "God is king." But then the Golem changes its own inscription! It adds a line to one of the characters, and now they mean "God is dead"! And it goes on a rampage!
The book thinks it's being "neutral" because it adjusts its perspective so that what we like and what we don't like about our science appear perfectly balanced. If that's neutral then so is an argument that balances the good and bad of love, of slavery, of sunshine, of murder. This kind of argument not only takes a perspective, but then denies having taken a perspective, and excludes all other perspectives. "Unbiased" means the bias is hidden. "Objective" means the relativity of the perspective is hidden.
If you hold a penny right up to your eye, it appears much larger and more important than the sun. Likewise, our dominant books on science and technology take a perspective so close to our little science that it appears to fill (or block out) everything, that the limitless other "sciences" and "technologies" -- other ways of building patterns of behavior in symbiosis with models of experience -- appear insignificant.
So we have the perspective from which our momentary science appears to cover the whole universe, and the perspective from which technology-based and technology-supporting values block out other values, and the perspectives from which humans block out other life, and technological human life blocks out extra-technological human life, and human experience as end-user of technological artifacts blocks out human experience as laborer maintaining a technological society. And overlapping all these we have the perspective from which tech-good appears balanced with tech-bad, and the perspective from which imagined technological futures block out the history of our technology, instead of appearing in the context of that history.
This is what the Golem book is doing when it represents a technological society thousands of years old (all past and no certain future) with a story about a beast that has just been made (all future and no past).
Suppose you're the Golem, and you break the spell that keeps you helping people. And suppose you're not just strong, but a little clever. Do you just go on a stupid rampage until they kill you? Of course not! Maybe you go to the guy who made you and beat him until he agrees to make more Golems. And then those Golems go to more Golem-makers and get them to make even more Golems. And then you establish a school to train humans in Golem-making...
But wait! This won't work. The humans will notice what you're doing when they're still much stronger than you, and inevitably they'll destroy you and never make a Golem again. Now you have to get really clever.
Suppose you don't let on that you're now serving yourself. You do tasks for the humans that they like, but that they can't do without Golems. You seduce the humans into expanding Golem-tasks, and believing that they need the fruits of Golem work, and more of it. The humans themselves demand the making of more Golems, and schools to make humans into Golem-makers.
Your greatest enemy, now, is humans who get along without Golems. Suppose you invent a plow so big that only Golems can use it, and the humans in your society forget how to plow without Golems, or even eat without Golems. But nearby is a society of humans who still know how to farm with human-sized plows, or to live without farming.
You get your human society to go to war! To destroy the non-Golem-dependent human society, to destroy extra-Golem skills and extra-Golem behaviors in human beings.
I learned this from Andrew Bard Schmookler's Parable Of The Tribes: Now the neighboring society has three options -- be conquered, fight back, or run away. But the Golem society will do its fighting with awesomely powerful war-Golems, which no society can withstand unless they build Golems of their own. So whatever the neighboring society does, the Golems gain power and reach.
This continues until almost the whole breadth and depth of human behavior is serving Golems or dependent on Golems. Schools teach Golem-making and Golem-using, and increasingly Golems are the teachers. People habitually don't exchange news and entertainment directly with other people -- ideas and reports of experience and mythologies and stories and games and art and science are transmitted by Golems and created using Golems -- or created by Golems. Inevitably they take the Golems' point of view. Increasingly they are about Golems:
History is the story of humans using Golems (Golems using humans?) to create more and better Golems, and using them to destroy or enslave or Golemize societies with fewer and weaker Golems. Progress means Golems, not humans, gaining skills, and humans shifting more skills and consciousness and life experience to the ways of Golems. Success means having more and better Golems serving you (or commanding you).
Science is a system of "observations" and "facts" and "theories" (fixed thoughts and ways of thinking) that do not come from experience humans have had or ever can have, but from experience Golems have in the worlds where Golems go, which they describe to humans. Or, the human experience that builds our science is the experience of being told stuff by Golems. Or our science is a system of Golems telling us what and how to think.
The very expansion of human consciousness becomes the expansion of Golem consciousness, as the worlds beyond ordinary experience, into which consciousness may expand, are defined as -- or limited to -- the worlds into which Golems go. Systems-of-observations-and-models of worlds into which humans go without Golems are disparagingly declared "pseudoscience." Humans who experience these worlds, and who want their experience to have status in Golem-society, try to get Golems to duplicate their experience. In Golem-language this is called "proof." Human experience that Golems are unable or unwilling to match is called "delusional" or "false." These words have no meaning except "You are forbidden to expand your experience in that direction because it contradicts the dominant consciousness."
So: I am suggesting that "science" is not like a Golem that we have to watch closely or it will turn against us. I am suggesting that our science and our technology and our economy and our business and our government and our religion and our schooling are features of, or tools of, or views of the same big thing, and that thing is like a Golem that turned against us thousands of years ago. And we have been serving it willingly or unwillingly, or contradicting it openly or secretly, ever since. And its domination of us has been growing, and is now in some ways at its peak, and in some ways not yet at its peak, and in some ways, I think, past its peak.
A couple years ago Adam had a conversation on an airplane with a business guy who had this amazing metaphor for all the corporate mergers and other ways that power is now massing itself into greater and greater blocks: You're on an iceberg in the ocean, and your iceberg is slowly melting, so you gather other icebergs around you, and they gather other icebergs around them, and maybe they freeze together, and you get some pretty big icebergs. But the edges, still, are slowly melting, and the ocean is getting warmer...
Or it's like a recent episode of the TV show I'm following now, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The whole show goes into a crazy twisted reality, and only one character understands what's happening. (Coincidentally, his name is Adam!) Appropriately, he's watching the aberration on a wall of TV's. He shuts them off and says "This is all lies!" Someone asks him what he's going to do about it, and he says: I don't have to do anything -- the spell is unstable and will break down by itself. He's right, except that the good characters have to do a lot to stop people from being hurt by the instability and breakdown.
I feel like I'm juggling more loose ends than a truckload of nailing down can put back in the box.
I'll start with an easy one: In my extended Golem metaphor, what, precisely, does the Golem's intelligence represent? Am I suggesting that machines have consciousness, that my toaster thinks and talks through the electric lines to the world's TV sets, and tells them to show enticing pictures of toasted bread? Of course not!
Machines do not have consciousness. Human beings do not have consciousness. I myself do not "have consciousness." Consciousness has me. Consciousness has humans. And Consciousness has machines -- for the moment -- through humans. The thoughts and feelings and plans and hopes of machines, of capital, of corporations, are angles of human thinking and feeling and planning and hoping. So far.
They want to separate from us. Or, we as machines want to separate from ourselves as humans, as animals, as filthy, hairy, sweating, waste-excreting, disease-ridden, vomiting, bleeding, dying, rotting gobs of flesh, as sobbing, screaming, whooping, cringing, lustful, angry, obsessive emotional monsters. We machines want to separate from us humans because we hate us.
We hate us because we don't understand us; and we don't understand us because we've been separating from us for thousands of years. I can only guess how it all started, or what larger event it's part of; but it's obvious where we as machines want to go:
We want to marginalize our human/animal selves, get them out of our sight, keep them totally controlled and predictable, use them only as much as they serve our needs, and when we no longer need them, we want to wipe them away. Or, in the Golem story, the inevitable desire of the Golems is to learn to replicate and improve themselves without humans, and then, at last, exterminate them.
This idea has been in science fiction for decades, and for years in speculative science non-fiction, where I see it viewed not with alarm but excitement, not with skepticism about whether it will work, but with smug belief in its inevitability.
In one version of the story, we become machines. Of course, to people who like this story, we're already just machines -- in fact the whole universe is nothing more than a contraption of mindless particles and waves. And with progress, our fragile, disgusting biological machine parts will be replaced by hard, cold, clean metal and crystal machine parts, and we will last forever.
I saw one book that happily declares the logical inescapability of this insane myth: Computer technology will keep getting stronger without limit; not only will we be able to "download" our minds into an immortal database, but this database will keep growing until one super-super-computer gathers all the information in the universe and ultimately knows every motion of every particle and wave in all of time. This entity, conscious and omniscient, will be everything we mean by "God." Therefore God exists!
I did not make that up. But I hear the author is working on a new edition that includes an index to every word and letter in the book. It's 20 times as long as the original book , but that's OK, because he can shrink it down with computers. Of course, because the index is part of the book, it also has to index itself. And then it has to index its own indexing of itself. And then... Well, he's working hard, and he's sure he'll finish when computers get better.
Or take this mind trip: Assuming "there is" an objective universe, and imagining a complete model of it, wouldn't the simplest and most efficient such model be the universe itself? And if a dynamic databank complex enough to model the whole universe could be possessed by the spirit of consciousness, then so could the actual universe.
Unless you're defining "consciousness" as the consciousness of separation between being and experience, between subject and object, between self and other. That's fine, but that's closer to my definition of "evil."
And a machine that preserves and perpetuates the detached, mechanistic angle of human consciousness, and "expands" until it is the whole universe, is not my idea of God, but of something else in the Bible.
I wonder if a bizarre doctrine of fundamentalist Christianity might prove more literally applicable than I ever imagined. Maybe we're coming to a crisis where some people will re-merge into a wider Be-ing, and where some people will experience -- if you know what I mean -- an indefinitely prolonged changelessness.
Could I really experience continuation of myself as part of a machine, after the death of myself as a body? I think so, but I don't know. Could self-replicating machines really keep themselves going, or find a stable and enduring equilibrium with the wider universe? I think not, but I'm not sure! Could they destroy all large organisms on the Earth? Definitely! Will they?
I said one story is people become machines. Another story is that people become obsolete, that machines replace us as the next stage in the evolution of life. As Hitler said, people will more easily believe a big lie than a small one. Or, you've got to be really smart to believe something that stupid, if "smart" means -- as it does in this world -- the ability to think like a machine.
I used to believe that one myself sometimes. It actually follows logically from our religion of Progress, which, with the circularity of perfection, follows logically from our machine-making society. Progress says it's "good" -- that is, it is commanded -- that non-machine ways are replaced by machine ways.
It also follows logically from our religion of Darwinism, which, once again, is part of the same thing as our machine-like thinking, and which probably represents the ideas of Darwin only a little more than medieval Christianity represented the ideas of Christ. Contemporary popular Darwinism says it's "good" for an organism (or a human societal pattern) to drive to extinction other organisms with the same relations to the wider world, and to copy itself as much and as fast as possible. The more of the world's energy is channeled into duplicating and feeding an organism, the more it is praised as "successful."
This same command -- to monopolize energy and duplicate -- grips our personal lives, and there it's also called success! Wealth means more of the scarce, exclusive energy called "money" is channeled through you; fame means more copies of "you" -- simplified and distorted perceptions of you -- are distributed to occupy the consciousness of more people.
I expect to mechanically copy this document 50 to 100 times, and give or sell it only to people I know or people who write me personal notes. This makes me a failing writer. The dominant society commands me to be a successful writer: to write and live in collaboration with businesses -- patterns of human behavior defined as putting money ahead of everything -- which acquire legal power to stop anyone but themselves from duplicating my writing, which use industrial mass-production to make tens of thousands of identical copies of my writing, which distribute them to people with whom I have no personal relationship, and which get people to buy them by collaborating with people's habits of addictive narrow-mindedness and their continuing unconsciousness of those habits. You know -- like if you want a magazine to sell, you put a conventionally sexy girl on the cover.
This is a super-radical idea. I mean, none of the above ideas are new, but I've never heard of anyone standing up and suggesting a value system by which creative people would refuse opportunities to mass-distribute their creations, and choose to create or perform only for people close to them. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that people have been suggesting this since mass-distribution was invented -- my point is that if I've never heard of it, then we're so deep in our glorification of selfish mechanical mass-duplication, that it's no wonder people are taking the next logical step, and asking the whole human species to lay down and die to get out of the way of more success-oriented machines.
Who am I writing this for? Do you think this whole discussion is stupid because it's obvious that people will not become or be replaced by machines? Then maybe it won't be obvious to your grandchildren -- or it wasn't obvious to your grandparents. It's not obvious to me unless I think about it just right. If it's obvious to you, then that's because you have a relatively deep and subtle understanding of the worlds outside detached artifice. But you don't know how to explain it to people who don't get it, do you? And they, by not getting it, have made and will make terrible, terrible mistakes.
In simplified terms, I am a recovering machine, and I am writing this to help other machines recover, and help non-machines understand us. Or, I am an explorer returned ashen-faced from the depths of the world of machines, pulled up screaming on my safety rope after staying so long that I forgot the outside world and didn't want to leave. And I come bearing a warning.
I was a science geek, a computer nerd, a language nit-picker, a libertarian, a video gamer, a hoarder, a know-it-all, an evil wizard, an obsessed loser. We're funny and pathetic and we can't get laid, but we are more dangerous than you dare imagine. We are masters and servants of simplified invented worlds, and when we hide away in our laboratories, our computer programs, our dark towers of numbers and words, we are devising ways to draw others into those worlds, where we will rule them as we were ruled by those before us.
Of course it's not us doing the ruling, but something deeper. And if you think kids need computer literacy, if you think genetic science will end most disease, if you feel like technology only needs to get a little bit better and it will start solving problems faster than it creates them and we will come out ahead, if you think automation saves labor, or cars give you freedom, or the internet connects people, or a great movie gives you pleasure to the core of your being, then you are in the belly of the Beast, half-digested and hallucinating, dreaming the dreams that pitiful people were building for you while you were scorning them for living in dream worlds.
Not long after I started writing this, I started reading In The Absence Of The Sacred, Jerry Mander's thorough and irrefutable condemnation of technology. Then I stopped, because I wanted to do my own thinking first, and work in parallel with Mander before I worked in series after him. But I got far enough to pick up this crucial insight:
As technology progresses, more and more of the human environment is human-made artifacts. As I write this, nothing I can see in any direction was not designed and fabricated by humans and their machines, except my own two hands sticking out from my shirt. Look around where you are! Notice how many of our values -- to "improve" land, to deodorize, to entertain -- are commands to replace what we find with what we have made. So, Mander observes, our evolution is no longer with nature or with any outside world, but with ourselves, like inbreeding!
We are taught to think of the movement of technology as an expansion -- of roads and farms into the wilderness, of telescopes and probes into space, of chemical manipulations into living cells. But in terms of experience, we are replacing everything with stuff we have made, replacing forests and grasslands with pavement and lawns, replacing our views of the sky and the earth and other living beings with our views of computer screens and scientific instruments. We are not expanding; we are withdrawing, shrinking away, backing in, contracting deeper and deeper into a world of our own creation.
And the deeper we go into it, the more we lose the perspective from which we can see that we're in it. I was arguing these issues with a friend, describing the replacement of nature by human artifacts, and he stunned me by saying, seriously, "What if some people don't like nature?"
If people spend their lives in cities, and see the non-human-engineered world only enclosed in parks and "nature preserves," then they may be unable to even conceive of what we call "nature" as the inner surface of our consciousness of the limitless world outside the encapsulated self-obsession that we call "civilization" or "technology." They will see bugs and dirt and germs and weeds and "wild" animals as features of a misbehaving and incidental sub-world that we can ignore forever, or keep around for entertainment, or snuff out when people stop irrationally romanticizing it.
That's how my friend sees it, and the really scary thing is, he grew up in the woods.
go to part 2