Thursday, February 22, 2018

Remember the Day The World Ended?

Do you recall July 1, 1997, the day the world ended, or should I say the day a world ended? Neither do I, no clue at all what I did that day. It was an important day, at least symbolically, and for China, Britain, and Hong Kong, of vital importance. July 1 was the day Britain returned Hong Kong to China. Metaphorically, it was also the end of the Age of Vasco da Gama, whose voyage to open up the sea route to Asia had begun on July 8, 1497. Carlo Cipolla used the term to refer to the age of European world dominance, which really began with the voyages of Columbus to the west and da Gama to the east. They were made possible in part by recent advances in technology - better ships, better guns, better navigation aids, better information technology - and by evolving world views in Europe. 

European dominance did not come all at once, nor did it end all at once; it grew, it flourished, and it decayed. You could argue that the mortal blows were struck by the Japanese between December 1941 and the end of February 1942, beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the assault on the Gin Drinkers Line (outer defenses of Hong Kong on December 7/8), The Destruction of Force Z (HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Renown) two days later, and the fall of Singapore towards the end of February. Still, the terminal decline was protracted. Decades passed as the colonial powers withdrew from Asia and Africa, while fighting rearguard actions with their American hegemons. Even the Soviets tried their hand at empire in Afghanistan, having disregarded hard-won British lessons about that country, just as three successive American presidents have done.

We are still behaving as if we are living in that world, but we are not; we are transitioning to a new world system, and it is not just a matter of international politics and trade. What we are seeing, I believe, is the breakdown or rapid evolution of a number of systems that we identify with modernity and Western Civilization. These include:
  • Gutenberg's information revolution, 
  • the nation state, 
  • business and banking, 
  • the military revolution, and 
  • post-Reformation Christianity. 

All of these have their roots in events that occurred between about 1450 and 1550, have long dominated aspects of the world to the point where no alternative to them long seems possible, have been going through a prolonged period of difficulty or decay, and which appear to either be on the brink or replacement or of evolving into something else. We are undergoing an epochal change - literally, a change of epochs, and have no reason to expect that the transitions will be any easier, any more peaceful, any less disturbing from those that came a half-millennium ago.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Vital Dichotomy

This year has been about much more than just some political realignments and chaos. It is the year a fundamental change in the inner workings of society became visible.

Back during the election, I argued, with anyone who would listen, that we need to get away from left-right dichotomies in thinking about politics. The thing that happened is that the Trump campaign had figured this out, and went much further, while the reporters and pundits either didn't get it or could not use it in the context of their papers, magazines, or shows. Of course I'm talking about the way Trump's campaign and affiliated groups broke the electorate up into tightly focused groups and targeted them. They were not looking at a simple left-right continuum but something more like a cloud with a several score dimensions. Put another way, while everyone else was looking at a grainy, monochrome display they had a 4K screen displaying millions of colors.

So here we are a year into this mess of an administration, and the media and pundits, and a lot of the politicians, are still talking, writing, and behaving as if they can still deal with a continuum, possibly a forked continuum with a progressive and a socialist branch breaking away from a neoliberal branch on the left and libertarian and alt-right branches on the other end, but really nothing much more complex than they have been for a couple of hundred years. Whether you want to view this as intentional concealment, institutionalized blindness, or something else, it is making it very difficult for anyone to follow what is really happening.

This is not just a political problem. We are living in a world where, thanks to surveillance capitalism, the surveillance state, and the heretofore freewheeling nature of the net, we still think and act on binaries (male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, rich/poor, black/white, Christian/non-Christian, etc., etc.) that were a product of an earlier period of sociological and economic thinking. We continue to frame ourselves and our world in old categories, but our society increasingly has no use for them, except as ways to manipulate us. We all drag huge clouds of data and metadata with us wherever we go. Increasingly, we are those clouds, or rather, we are what analytics programs and AI's can pull from those clouds and find useful. So while we still see ourselves in one way, we are seen in a completely different way by business, pollsters, and government. But just to make things worse, the biases and prejudices that go with the old binaries are getting folded into the analytical software.  

For at least the past couple of centuries, we have been educated and indoctrinated to think in binaries. We are not well equipped to think and function in a society that is no longer structured around them, and our society is increasingly moving away from them. This makes for a dangerous transition in which those who can think on cloud terms can more easily manipulate those who cannot. To heighten the danger, we have no way of knowing if the few have a good way of understanding the implications of their actions (events would seem to indicate otherwise) or can really retain sufficient control of their AI's. What happens when the algorithms and AI's are complex to a point where they become incomprehensible and make decisions no one can understand (we may already be there or be close to being there)?

Something new is taking form. It is not the anticipated Singularity, nor the much longer prophesied Millennium. It is something other, other than those events and other than what we have previously experienced. We have to understand it. We have to learn to live with it and within it. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

On Armistice/Veterans/Remembrance Day

Today is one of our three great patriotic holidays in the US, and an important one throughout the English-speaking countries. Here it was originally Armistice Day, not Veterans Day, but elsewhere it is Remembrance Day. It seems like a straightforward enough holiday, a day to remember those who sacrificed and served their countries in war, particularly the First World War, but like so much else that is patriotic, there are layers to it, and forgetting those layers, particularly in the present environment, where we are being told it is wrong to criticize generals, ignoring those layers seems as wrong as it would be if we suddenly decided to demonize all veterans, 

To begin with there is the choice of the day. For 98 years now, there have been commemorations of the Armistice. We think of it as the end of World War One, but of course it simply marked the cessation of fighting on the Western Front. The Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, and the Soviets were all already out of the War, while fighting continued for a few more days in Africa. What it did not do was end the War. That ended in June, and it was far from a formality. The Allied blockade continued unmodified until mid-January, was certainly still causing starvation in March, and was not fully lifted until the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919. The numbers are unclear, but more than 100,000 Germans starved to death (probably several times that number) and many more were weakened during the worst pandemic of the century. Even after all that, the civil wars, Allied interventions, and smaller international wars in Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean continued for a few more years. 

To forget all of that on Armistice/Veterans/Remembrance Day is something that should not be done. To do so is to engage in a kind of moral sleight of hand with the past.

But that brings us to the other issue we need to consider. While we can all wish our veterans the best and thank them for their service and sacrifice, we cannot let the military (or its associated industrial complex) off the hook. In fact, I would suggest that to let the military  have this as a day of reverence without questioning is a disservice to our fallen, our veterans, and to the very ideals of Anglo-American democracy. It is one thing to look to the individual deeds and privations of veterans and admire them; it is quite different to argue that the wars and actions of the military and the corporations that support it are equally deserving. It is to accept that there have never been atrocities committed by our troops (which also raises the very difficult question of how we should treat those who perpetrated or knew of them but remained silent - a question that troubles me given my grandfather's service in the Philippine Insurrection where many atrocities were committed by US forces), that all of our wars have been just, that the decisions made by our commanders have been good, or that companies have never betrayed the trust of the men and women they equipped with shoddy goods or weapons (shoddy in fact is the name of a material from the US Civil War that some contractors used in supplying uniforms - it was notorious for falling apart in the rain). We cannot and should not let the military off the hook, not even for a single day.

What civilians owe to today's veterans is not a polite "thank you for your service," but constant vigilance to ensure that their needs are met during and after their service, that their equipment is reliable and appropriate, and that the wars and campaigns in which they fight are both necessary and just (or at least legal). What we all owe those who are no longer with us is to understand what they went through in context and to see that their sacrifices are not betrayed today.

So thank you, I hope we will always remember, never forget, and not fail to get watch your back.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Reformation Quincentenary

This Tuesday is not just Halloween, it is also the quincentenary of the Reformation, which began with Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses (protesting the sale of indulgences) to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517. From the beginning, there was a strong component of German identity bound up in the Reformation, with Luther sometimes being portrayed as a Germanic Hercules defeating pagan and Catholic philosophers and theologians (see: Hans Holbein's print of Hercules Germanicus of 1523), but the real apotheosis of Luther as a national hero, almost as a savior, came on the last centennial of this event, which happened to coincide with the First World War. Philip Jenkins explains in The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (2014) that the commemorations of that year were used to emphasize the unique religious, cultural, and historical mission of the German Empire; to argue for the need for resistance to the Allies and America at any cost (just as Luther had stood up to both the Pope and the Emperor); and to identify the German people with a messianic vision, that by the end of the War, it is not an exaggeration to say that many Germans saw no real difference to the hell of starvation and privation (on the home front due to the British blockade, though also due to the short-sited policies of their own, militarized government, as well as on the combat fronts) and their crucified Lord.

When religion and politics combine, the results are powerful. Essentially two belief systems interact and form a stronger product. This is especially true when ethnic or national politics are involved. That is what happened to some extent in all the major powers in WWI. The results were to make some aspects of the War more intense and to make the post-War world less stable, as the enemy was transformed into the Anti-Christ, obscure prophesies were trotted out after Allenby took Jerusalem and won a victory at Armageddon, and religious divides in the Middle East were deepened. 

Much more was going on too: the emergence of Fundamentalism, a reinforcement of apocalyptic belief, and the alliance of government, business, and religion against Bolshevism that reinforced for many the idea that Christianity, Capitalism,  and citizenship were deeply linked and intertwined. We are still dealing with much of the fallout, and seem to be living in a new age of emerging religious nationalism and religious racism. We need to pay attention to the history of a hundred years ago and look at what is happening today, as well as where it may lead us tomorrow. We cannot afford to let religious and ethnic nationalism take over or to continue to shape the policy agenda. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Robot Sophia and Misunderstanding Technology

I am really bothered by the amount of attention the android Sophia is getting for dumb publicity stunts. First off, the blatancy of the stunt (making a robot a citizen of a country) is horrendous. So is the idiotic banter with the robot. But really we've had robots (and robotic weapons) for a century-and-a-half. In fact, I would argue that the first real robot was a weapon perfected between 1866 and 1868, the locomotive (or Whitehead) torpedo. In its original form, it was self-propelled and could self-correct its depth (though it could not correct its course for another three decades when gyroscopes were introduced). The first actual (combat) use of it occurred 140 years ago this past May, when the Peruvian rebel ironclad Huascar was unsuccessfully attacked with two torpedos by boats from HMS Shah.

Of course I could argue that the first practical robot was a thermostatically controlled egg incubator around 1620 by Cornelius Drebbel, who is also credited with inventing the first practical submarine. Thermostats really didn't take off until Victorian times,  but the represent the  basic model of a cybernetic control. 

We have to start approaching our technologies from an evolutionary and co-evolutionary perspective and quit freaking out. Although there are some things wrong with it, primarily the author's unstinting optimism and capitalist tendencies, one of the best places to start is Kevin Kelly's 2010 book, What Technology Wants. Kelly makes a good argument (I think) for treating technology as a seventh kingdom of life, as well as sketching out some useful approaches to technology (the Amish Hacker chapter is a must read). Conversely, it is useful to take a look at what cybernetics tells us about ourselves and our minds, which was part of the discussions of the (in)famous Macy's Conferences. To me the most approachable starting point for that remains Gregory Bateson's work in his collection, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and his follow up book, Mind and Nature. He was not trying to argue that living beings are machines, or that machine metaphors are the best way of understanding mind (though he recognized them as useful heuristics), but cybernetics useful for understanding the continuum of mind and the nature of learning. 

That leads me to the second thing I think we need to do: understand how technologies need to be seen as part of a much larger, interconnected web or webs, both in the way technologies interact with each other, but also how they interact with the larger informational space we perceive as the world of living things. I have written before in this blog about the importance of even simple human machine interfaces, but we really need to have an understanding of how complex the interactions  are between machines, between machines and humans, and between machines and nature. That allows us to enter into an ecological view that is very enlightening and useful. If we do not do so, we tend to limit ourselves to simplistic us-versus-them scenarios and replaying the original Star Trek or 2001 in our heads. The latter, of course, does place machines, specifically HAL 9000 and the Alien Monolith in an evolutionary perspective stretching from the Australopithecines to the Star Child. 

So I think the hype and the marketing surrounding Sophia are counter-productive, as they take us only where the PR people, the developers, and the venture capitalists (not necessarily in that order, or even that they want the same things) want us to go. It is vital that we deepen and broaden our thinking about robots, AI, and all of the other technologies enveloping and transforming our lives and worlds. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Betsy Hartmann's America Syndrome

Betsy Hartmann, The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness, 2017.

I don't often find books that impress me this much or challenge my understanding of multiple topics as thoroughly as this one did. It was something I stumbled across and thought might go in an entirely different direction. For some time, actually for most of my life, I've been cognizant that apocalyptic thinking has a big impact on how we live our lives and conduct our politics. In the last year or two, I've been trying to understand what that means in both breadth and depth. The sub-title naturally attracted me. 

Hartmann is an emerita professor of development and a long-time advocate of more diverse and humane approaches to problems development, population, and climate. She eschews simplistic explanations and takes in a broad swath of related ideas and realities, as well as her personal experiences, in framing her narrative. 

I assumed that the book would mostly be about how Puritan and later Protestant speculation on the end of the world had come to pervade American society and hijack our politics. She does do that, but in ways I had never considered.

From the beginning, she shows how American apocalyptic fever dreams got entangled with racism, sexism, militarism, and capitalism. Among other things Hartmann spends time on how the Jeremiad entered American politics, and how it's style, coupled with the urgency induced by belief that the end is near (both in religious and later in scientific circles) controls much of our understanding of the world and limits our political options to dualities.

The second chapter walks us through how all of this entered and destroyed the communal utopian movements of the last two centuries. Through social history and memoir, she sets up the main themes of the rest of the rest of the book and makes the transition from the Second Great Awakening to the Cold War era.

The meat of the book, the most thought provoking parts for me are contained in the last three chapters (there are five chapters plus a solid introduction). These deal with nuclear threats, population and relate environmental issues, and climate change. 

The nuclear chapter, "Boom and Doom," began as I expected it to, but drove down some byways of the government's manipulation of the public in the nuclear era and of the psychology of nuclear fear that were both familiar (this is the way I felt as kid and the kinds of things I heard) and disturbing. She also spends a bit of time considering how we misrepresent the early Cold War era. As I said, much of this felt familiar, but it was fascinating to me to see it though the eyes of someone exactly a decade older, and of the opposite sex. I know much of the Cold War rhetoric was heavily gendered, and that the nuclear experience of children in the 50s was different from the 60s, but some of the smaller details were eye-opening to me. 

The two chapters that really startled me were, "The Church of Malthus" and "Climate Change: Tip of the Melting." The former documents the basic problems that entered the debate over overpopulation and the environment from the very beginning through the apocalyptic thought of Malthus and his followers, how easily it tipped over into racism and sexism (by imposing forced contraception, sterilization, and family planning on women, particularly of color), eugenics, and even led to what she calls "the greening of hate." By the latter, she means the adoption of environmental agendas by white supremacist and anti-immigrant groups to bolster their arguments, draw in new supporters, and make themselves appear more mainstream and respectable. Throughout she argues for a less dualistic approach, one more diverse and humane, and one divorced from apocalyptic rhetoric. 

Her climate change chapter picks up the threads of dualistic explanations and solutions, racism, and the manipulation of apocalyptic fears for our own security of the two previous chapters. Two of the best points Hartmann drives home are how apocalyptic thought shuts down discussion (and even hope), always canalizing into extreme forms, and how easily the industrial-security complex can exploit that. She devotes a good amount of space to how the military paints the direst scenarios of wars and terrorism driven by climate change, how and why those are mostly not supported by facts, but how they are picked up by journalist and politicians, and how they have driven the securitization (the assumption of normally civilian roles by the military and security apparatus) and privatization of international aid, and the been used to feed the needs and appetites of the Pentagon and its contractors. 

If the book is lacking anything, I suppose that more consideration of the period between 1850 and 1950 would have been in order. To me that is a critical period in the development of our problems, and one which saw the birth of both religious fundamentalism but also the development and flowering of a lot of apocalyptic ideas derived from science. It would also have been nice to have an epilogue to tie everything together, though perhaps it is better to let readers draw together the different strands and form their own judgments. That, after all, accords well with Hartmann's desire to get us all thinking outside the box.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Between One World and Another

As we watch the end of one world order (the one originated at Versailles in 1919 and modified at Dumbarton Oaks, Bretton Wood, and San Francisco three-quarters-of-a-century ago) unravel and disintegrate, our collective reactions resemble those of bewildered and injured children, focused on their relentless hunger, unwilling or unable to grow up and take responsibility for their own needs. We see this on all sides and everywhere. It is embodied in the current election, in the movements of protest and dissent, from every point of the political compass, that lack an encompassing view of the horizon or an acknowledgement of the deeper interconnections between our present problems and the deepest questions of our existence. Pope Francis, to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders, and others have recently tried to make clear the connections in our problems and solutions, each within the limitations of their belief systems and hindered by the reductionist monoculture that has penetrated even the arts, humanities, and religion. They have made some inroads into our collective consciousness and against our institutionalized inertia, though it is too soon to tell if their effects will persist and expand, or wither and die.

The threats we have to face today are much larger and more complex than those with which we struggled in the world wars. Those were horrible enough and existential to one culture or another, but amenable to military solutions. Those we have today go far beyond and require solutions affecting every aspect of life, in fact requiring a contemplation of who and what we are, a worldwide questioning more profound than we or our religions have undertaken previously. They are existential threats to humanity and life itself. In our elections and politics, both here and abroad, we choose too often to ignore them, to focus on lesser issues, dog-whistle issues, in isolation. We focus on petty quarrels between this politician and that one as they struggle for the scraps at the table. The apparent chaos of this election, the violence in our society, the dangerous instability of the international scene, the storms and droughts, are foretastes of what may happen. They are not tokens of the end times envisioned by the Bible or Quran, awaited so expectantly by millions or billions, and which have served so many politicians in the past forty years as an excuse for inaction; they are the harbingers of our new reality, our new normal. We must refocus our attention and our energies. We must come to an understanding of who we are and would be, and we must act on it, or we will not survive - not just the United States, but the world.