Pagles’ Revelation 1

 

Readers of this blog who take note of how much I talk about the Book of Revelation might be forgiven for thinking I had perhaps lost my grip on reality, that soon I might be found wandering the street with a sign around my neck informing the world that “the end is near!” or might be on the verge of joining the church of Harold Camping with the hope that next time he will get his dates right.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Nevertheless, I perhaps find the Book of Revelation as fascinating as those who believe it to be an outline of the human future composed by the mind of God. For me, Revelation is the first, and without doubt the most powerful dystopia ever written. The vagueness of its symbolism is its strength. For what other narrative is so flexible that its penultimate villain- the Anti-Christ- can be grafted onto historical figures as diverse as the Roman Emperor Nero, Pope Boniface VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte,  Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama.

We should not forget either that the Revelation narrative was sometimes used by the “good guys” of history such as Bartolome de Las Casas who fought for the rights of Native Americans against his Spanish countrymen, or could be found in the hearts and minds of the Union armies during the Civil War who sang:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

His truth is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,

He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,

So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,

Our God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Revelation has proven the most powerful dystopian narrative in history whose value is as varied as the humanity that is its subject inspiring saints, poets, madmen and murderers. Thus, I awaited with some anticipation to get my hands on the religious scholar Elaine Pagels’ recently released Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. Pagels is a brilliant historian of religion who writes in a style accessible to the lay reader, and in her work she sets out to tell us the origins of this strangest of books.

For those who have never read the Book of Revelation, or have read it and don’t quite remember what exactly it says,  below are the basics. Please bear with it, for later on, with the help of Pagel we will snap the whole thing into place.

The author of Revelation , John of Patmos, announces at the beginning of his book in a tone that clearly implies the imminent occurrence of what he is about to unveil:

Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things therein: for the time is at hand. [emphasis added]

In powerful words John speaks in the voice of God and indicates that the story he will tell is the end of a drama that began with the creation:

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, what was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

John then reports how he was given his prophecy, which come to him in visions that he was told by God to convey by letters along with “warnings” to the seven churches of Asia.

In his letter to the church of Ephesus John warns against “them which say they are apostles and are not”.  To the church of Smyrna he warns against “those who say they are Jews and are not”. The church of Pergamos he warns against worshipers of the pagan god Baal. Thyatira he warns against “that woman Jezebel who calleth herself a prophet”. Sardis he cautions to keep on the right path. To Philadelphia John again makes this strange warning against those “which say they are Jews and are not” but are instead of “the synagogue of Satan”. [Quick note: this has often been interpreted as deranged anti-semitism on the part of John, and that is how I have always read it, but Pagel is going to offer a whole new explanation for this nonsense, so again, stay turned].  Lastly, John warns the Laodiceans about their “lukewarm” faith.

Now the story gets interesting. John sees four heavenly beasts with the faces of a lion, calf, man, and an eagle each with six wings and “full of eyes within”  surrounding a throne on a “sea of glass”  praising God. Around the throne also are seated 24 “elders” clothed in dazzling white and also singing praises to God.

On his throne, God holds a book in right hand locked shut with “seven seals”, only a slain lamb, the symbol of Christ, is able to open the book. This is the book on which the end of our world is written. The breaking of the first seal brings forth a white horse representing conquest, the second a red horse-violence-, a black horse-famine-, and a white horse-death. The breaking of the fifth seal reveals those who have died in the name of their faith who cry for the justice and revenge of God upon their tormentors.
The sixth seal triggers an enormous earthquake, the sun goes black, the moon becomes as red as blood, and stars fall from the sky.

For the great day of his wrath has come; and who shall be able to stand?

Angels descend from heaven to mark God’s chosen with a seal that will offer them protection from the horrors to come 144,000 are so marked. The story gets even harder to follow. At the breaking of the seventh seal  angel’s blow trumpets and all hell breaks-loose, so to speak, the angles pour out vials causing all kinds of horrors and monsters to descend upon the earth where a gaping abyss has opened up.

John now shatters all human conventions of past, present, and future. He sees a woman in heaven bathed in sunlight crying in labor giving birth to a child. (Mary, giving birth to Jesus which had happened a little less than a century before John wrote)  Satan, emerging from the abyss, makes chase to kill the child and battles Michael and the Angels of heaven (something that “took place” before the creation of mankind). To his side Satan calls the two figures we all remember from Revelation, the Beast, and another figure who has become known as the Antichrist.

The Beast has “seven heads and ten horns” and is obviously some sort of political power for he is said to have power “over all kindreds and tongues  and nations”. The Beast has been “wounded by a sword but did live”. The second figure, the Antichrist, makes his appearance. He is a sort of miracle worker who convinces the masses to worship the first Beast. The Antichrist decrees that everyone:

….. receive a mark in their right hand or in their forehead:
and that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

John then let’s us know that if we are wise enough we can actually figure out who this beast is:

for it is the number of a man: and his number is six-hundred threescore and six.

John then sees seven more angels pour yet more cups of horrors on the peoples of the earth. One of these angels takes John to see a woman sitting on a scarlet colored beast- again with seven heads. Upon her head is written:

MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH

And we are informed that the seven heads of the beast “are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth”.

John tells us how Babylon will be destroyed and how the merchants that have grown rich from her and those that have felt her pleasures “cinnamon, and, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil… and the souls of men” [emphasis added] will lament her fall.

God, on a white horse, and his armies descend from heaven and destroy the Beast, and end up chaining Satan in a bottomless pit for a thousand years. After this period Satan is released who will again deceive the nations of the earth including “Gog and Magog” at the four corners of the earth.  A last great battle for the meaning of the world ensues. The forces of good win. The great generations of the dead of humanity rise from under water and earth: their physical bodies reconstituted. The wicked of the world receive God’s justice, condemned  to a lake of fire.

After this last epic battle between the forces of good and evil, the resurrection of the dead and last judgement, John’s prophecy turns from a horrifying dystopian vision to poetic image of utopia, a reality that promises moral closure, a final end in which the world has made sense: the evil punished, the good rewarded, and all that haunts us has passed away. The world as we have known it with its deceit, desire, pain, and suffering is at last gone replaced with something entirely new and beautiful:

And God will wipe away all the tears from their eyes: and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any pain: for the former things are passed away.

The holy city of Jerusalem, the seat of this new world, is composed of dazzling jewels on a sea of glass.

And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon… for the Lord God giveth them light and they shall reign forever and ever.

That then, is the Book of Revelation, we are left with questions: Who was this John of Patmos? Why did he write this strange book that has haunted us since? What does its crazy symbolism: this Beast, and Antichrist, and Jezebel, and Babylon and all the rest mean? And lastly, the most important questions, what does it say to us? What does it mean, for us?

We will need Pagels’ help to answer these questions, and I will pick it up there next time.

The Janus Face of Metropolis

Last week my post consisted of a Voice Thread presentation on the 1927 science-fiction silent-film by Fritz Lang, Metropolis. My thanks to John  for participating, and to everyone who gave me positive comments and feedback. One of the drawbacks of Voice Thread is that you have to sign up to participate, and though relatively painless, I can understand why someone wouldn’t sign up for yet another web application- I know I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to, or if it didn’t obviously add something helpful to my life.  Feedback was good enough, however, that I think I will try such presentations again, where they fit with the subject, but for this week I am back to my usual fare.

You can get the background for the post that follows below from that presentation. Click on the image above to access.  Be forewarned you’ll have live through my nasally voice and might want to have a cup of coffee at the ready. There are reasons I don’t work in Hollywood.

In any case, what struck me about the film Metropolis was how the film could be so forward looking and so backward at the same time. As I mentioned in the presentation Lang supposedly got his inspiration for the film from a few years before ‘27 when he first set eyes on the skyline of New York.  Now that the modernism of urban landscapes has moved elsewhere, the cityscape of the film put me as much in mind of hypermodern Shanghai,  Abu Dhabi, or Tokyo than my near and familiar New York.

Lang’s idea of air-travel was just a little off, after all, we don’t really have biplanes anymore, except for hobbyist, let alone biplanes as a means of traveling between skyscrapers, but for a certain strata of the elite you do have helicopters, which do just about the same. If memory serves me, in cities where the automobile traffic is horrendous, such as Mexico city, helicopter travel is the preferred way for elites to get from place to place, and avoid all the “undesirable” neighborhoods. I guess they haven’t caught on to Lang’s idea of hiding the poor underground.

Lang also has a pretty good grasp of just how dominant the automobile is going to be as a form of transportation. At this time the German autobahn was just an idea floating in some German engineers’ heads, and the ever present freeways of Metropolis were merely a dream, a prediction which Lang got roughly right, even if our expressways don’t, as his do, stretch into the heavens between the skyscrapers.

Yet if Lang, and let’s not forget his wife, Thea Von Harbou, who co-wrote the film, get these technological details right, they get the social,  historic, and economic forces propelling the world toward the uncertain and dangerous future both foresaw horribly wrong.

Think about the year the film was released- 1927.  What’s going on in 1927? This is ten years after the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin had died three years earlier and been replaced by Joseph Stalin who would prove to be one of the most murderous rulers in human history. Five years before Metropolis had been released Mussolini had brought fascism to the world with his new form of dictatorship in Italy. In 1923, inspired by Mussolini’s “March on Rome” a little known nationalist maniac in Lang’s own Germany  attempted to duplicate Mussolini’s revolution with something that became known as “The Beer Hall Putsch”. The revolution would fail, and the maniac would be thrown in prison, but Adolf Hitler would be back. Within two years of Metropolis’ release the entire capitalist-industrial world Lang’s Metropolis portrays had collapsed, although, I suppose, he can not be blamed for having not seen that.

Lang’s answer to this is “Christian Brotherhood”. He is saying to the elites in effect: “the workers are your brothers in Christ, do not mistreat them”. Lang can perhaps be forgiven for not having read his Nietzsche who declared God to be dead and for there to thus be great storms on the horizon. Or, for having not read or understood the Christian message of Dostoevsky who predicted that the godlessness of European society made inevitable savage inhumanity the likes of which had never been seen. Still, Lang and his wife can be blamed for not reading the newspapers, not seeing how the concept of Christian charity was a thin and already broken reed on which to place the solutions to the enormous pressures society was undergoing.

Indeed, the Catholic Church, whose imagery we find throughout Metropolis would fall into the same moral vortex that swept up every other element of European society, and would fail to mount any real defence to save the Jews of Europe who found themselves in the center of the storm.

Metropolis demonstrates the enormous flexibility of the story of the Book of Revelation which can be used as a way to give meaning to almost any dystopian predicament and in a bewildering diversity of historical circumstances. The problem with being overly reliant on this or any other myth or sets of myths, such as that of the Tower of Babel, or the legend of Golem, which Lang also taps into to give meaning to events, is that as often as not they blind you to the actual historical situation you are facing.

The world of the 1920s-30s was facing enormous challenges: the dysfunction of industrial-capitalism, the utter incompetence of parliamentary democracy, the spread of nihilism throughout Western society, both on account of the savagery of the First World War, and the moral vacuum opened up as the traditional religious worldview gave to a scientific and secular one. And, of course, there was the specter of a workers’ revolution inspired by the example or machinations of the Soviet Union. Fascism was one “answer” to this, and Lang’s wife Thea Von Harbou herself became a Nazi, a decision that caused the two to split. Fascism offered social protection to the workers in exchange for the disavowal of revolution, indeed in exchange for rabid nationalism and anti-communism.

After the Second World War, the democracies, especially in Europe, but to a lesser extent even in the United States, found that they could short-circuit communism and its by offering this same social protection to its workers. But, instead of those protections coming attached to a militaristic, expansionist regime in the form of fascism theses protections, again I am speaking primarily about Europe, were attached to the softer nationalism of the democratic nation-state. Elites took care of the poor as fellow members of the nation, and as a historical result of the contest between fascism and communism for the loyalty of the people.

But now we face a dilemma. The worker protections and social welfare programs that were created in the middle of the 20th century were inspired by the fear of elites  communism- that is fear of revolution. In Europe this system is premised on the nation-state. Europe is now a supranational entity, but it is difficult to imagine how its version of social democracy can survive unless Europeans treat one another like a common people- that is rich individuals provide some support for poorer countries and individuals.

In the US the much thinner system of social support has proven much easier to erode, and the social gospel has been supplanted by the “prosperity gospel”.

All signs point to the fact that the old system is giving way, but there appears to be nothing in the offing at the ready to take its place. We are back, in a sense, in the world Metropolis has shown us and faced with the question Lang failed to answer.  What bond is there between elites and non-elites, between the rich and the poor, that will limit exploitation and make society liveable, or in Lang’s lame phrase, what unites the head and the hands in a world without heart?


Metropolis, please share your voice

This week I wanted to try something new. I deeply appreciate all of you who take the time to read this blog and especially those who share their own thoughts in the comments. One of the down sides of blogging, or any other writing for that matter,  is that you never get to listen to your readers. It would be wonderful to actually hear your voices.

With that in mind, this week I created a presentation on the 1927 science-fiction classic Metropolis. I did this using a program called Voice Thread. What is cool about Voice Thread is that not only does it allow you to create presentations that can include the presenter’s own audio comments; you can also open the presentation up to others so they can make audio comments as well.

So, if you’d like check out my presentation at:

https://voicethread.com/#q.b3223281.i0.k0

Hope to hear from you. And this time I mean it literally.

Rick Searle

 

Defining Home

One would be hard-pressed to find two thinkers as distinct as Jane Jacobs and Jaron Lanier. Jacobs, who passed away in 2006, was a thinker concerned with the concrete reality of real-world communities, and most especially, how to preserve them. Lanier is a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, having coined the phrase, with deep ties to the culture of Silicon Valley. This is why I found it so surprising upon reading relatively recent books from both of these authors that they provided an almost synergistic perspective in which each author appeared to inform the work of the other resulting in a more comprehensive whole.

I’ll start with Jane Jacob’s. The purpose of her last and by far most pessimistic book Dark Age Ahead, published in 2004, was to identify what she saw as some major dystopian trends in the West that if not checked might result in the appearance of a new dark age. Jacob’s gives what is perhaps one of the best descriptions of what a dark age is that I have ever seen; A state of “mass amnesia” in which not only have certain aspects of a culture been lost, but the fact that these aspects have been lost is forgotten as well.

In Dark Age Ahead, Jacobs identifies five dystopian trends which she thinks are leading us down the path of a new dark age: the decline of communities and the family, the decline of higher education, the decline of science, the failure of government, and the decay of culture. One of the things that make Jacobs so interesting is that she defies ideological stereotypes. Looking at the world from a perspective of the community allows her to cast her net much wider in the search for explanations than what emerges from “think tanks” of both the right and the left. Want a reason for the decline of the family? How about consumerism, the need for two incomes, and the automobile, rather than the right’s claim of declining moral standards. Want a reason for the failure of government?
What about the loss of taxing authority by local governments to the national government, and the innate inability of national bureaucracies to craft effective policies based on local conditions, rather than, as some on the left would have it, the need for a more expansive federal government.

Jacob’s unique perspective gained her prescience.  Over three years before the housing bubble burst and felled the US economy she was able to see the train wreck coming. (DA P.32). This perspective grows out of her disdain for ideology, which is one of her main targets in Dark Age Ahead. Something like ideology can be seen in what Jacobs understands to be the decline of science. Openness to  feedback from the real- world is the cornerstone of true science, but, in what Jacob’s sees as a far too often occurrence scientists, especially social scientists,  ignore such feedback because it fails to conform to the reigning paradigm. Another danger is when fields of knowledge without an empirical base at all successfully pass themselves off as “science”.

But where the negative effect of ideology is most apparent is at the level of national government where the “prefabricated answers” ideology provides become one-size-fits-all “solutions” that are likely to fail, firstly, because profound local differences are ignored, and secondly, because national imperatives and policies emerge from bureaucratic or corporate interests that promote or mandate solutions to broad problems that end up embedding their own ideology and agenda, rather than actually addressing the problem at hand.

Sometimes we are not even aware that policies from distant interests are being thrusts upon us. Often what are in fact politically crafted policies reflecting some interest have the appearance of having arisen organically as the product of consumer choice. Jacobs illustrates this by showing how the automobile centric culture of the US was largely the creation of the automobile industry, which pushed for the deconstruction of much of the public transportation system American cities. Of course, the federal government played a huge role in the expansion of the automobile as well, but it did not do so in order to address the question of what would be the best transportation system to adopt, but as a means of fostering national security, and less well known, to promote the end of national full-employment, largely blind to whatever negative consequences might emerge from such a policy.

Jacobs ideas regarding feedback- whether as the basis of real science, or as the foundation of effective government policies- have some echoes, I think, of the conservative economist Friedrich Hayek. Both Hayek and Jacobs favored feedback systems such as the market, in Hayek’s case, or, for Jacobs the community (which includes the economy but is also broader) over the theories of and policies crafted by and imposed by distant experts.

A major distinction, I think, is that whereas Jacob looked to provide boundaries to effective systems of feedback- her home city of Toronto was one such feedback system rather than the economy of all of Canada, North America, or the world- Hayek, emerging from the philosophy of classical liberalism focused his attention sharply on economics, rather than broadening his view to include things such as the education system, institutions of culture and the arts, or local customs. Jacob saw many markets limited in geographic scope, Hayek saw the MARKET a system potentially global in scale, that is given the adoption of free- trade, would constitute a real, as opposed to a politically distorted, feedback system which could cover the whole earth. Jacobs is also much more attuned to areas that appear on the surface to be driven by market mechanisms- such the idea that consumer choice led to the widespread adoption of the automobile in the US- that on closer inspection are shown to be driven by influence upon or decisions taken by national economic and political elites.

Anyone deeply familiar with either Hayek or Jacobs who could help me clarify my thoughts here would be greatly appreciated, but now back to Lanier.

Just as Jacobs sees a naturally emergent complexity to human environments such as cities, a complexity that makes any de-contextualized form of social engineering likely to end in failure, Lanier, in his 2009 manifesto, You Are Not A Gadget, applies an almost identical idea to the human person, and challenges the idea that any kind of engineered “human-like” artificial intelligence will manage to make machines like people. Instead, Lanier claims, by trying to make machines like people we will make people more like machines.

Lanier is not claiming that there is a sort of “ghost in the machine” that makes human beings distinct. His argument is instead evolutionary:

I believe humans are the result of billions of years of implicit, evolutionary study in the school of hard knocks. The cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very  large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.( 157)

Both human communities and individuals, these authors seem to be suggesting, are the products of a deep and largely non-replicable processes. Imagine what it would truly mean to replicate, as software, the city of Rome. It is easy enough to imagine that we could reproduce within amazing levels of detail the architecture and landscape of the city, but how on earth would we replicate the all the genealogical legacies that go into a city: its history, culture, language- not to mention the individuals who are the carriers of such legacies?The layers that have gone into making Rome what it is stretch deep back into human, biological, and physical time: beginning with the Big Bang, the formation of the Milky Way, our sun, the earth, life on earth from the eons up until human history, prehistoric settlements, the story of the Roman Republic and Empire, the Catholic Church, Renaissance city states, national unification, Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship down to our own day. Or, to quote Lanier: “What makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion”.  (134)

Lanier thinks the fact that everything is represented in bits has lead to the confusion that everything is bits. The result of this type of idolatry is for representation and reality to begin to part company a delusion which he thinks explains the onset of the economic crisis in 2008.( It’s easy to see why he might think this when the crisis was engendered by financial frankensteins such as Credit Default Swaps which displaced traditional mortgages where the borrowers credit was a reality lenders were forced to confront when granting a loan.)

Lanier also thinks it is far beyond our current capacity to replicate human intelligence in the form of software, and when it appears we have actually done so, what we have in fact achieved is a massive reduction in complexity which has likely stripped away the most human aspects of whatever quality or activity we are trying to replicate in machines. Take the case of chess where the psychological aspects of the game are stripped away to create chess playing machines and the game is reduced to the movement of pieces around a board. Of course, even in this case, it really isn’t the chess playing machine that has won but the human engineers and programmers behind it who have figured out how to make and program such a machine. Lanier doesn’t even think it is necessary to locate a human activity on a machine for that activity to be stripped of its human elements. He again uses the case of chess only this time chess played against a grandmaster not by a machine but by a crowd wherein individual choices are averaged out to choose the move of the crowd “player”. He wants us to ask whether the human layer of chess, the history of the players their psychological understanding of their opponent is still in evidence in the game-play of this “hive- mind”. He thinks not.

Like Jacobs and her example of the origins of the US transportation system in the machinations of the automotive industry and the influence of the American government to promote an economy built around the automobile for reasons that had nothing to do with transportation as such- namely national security and the desire for full-employment, Lanier sees the current state of computer technology and software as not a determined outcome, but as a conscious choice that has been imposed upon the broader society by technologist. What he sees as dangerous here is that any software architecture is built upon a certain number of assumptions that amount to a philosophy, something he calls “digital-lock-in”.That philosophy then becomes the technological world in which we live without ever having had any broader discussion in society around the question of if this is truly what we want.

Examples of such assumptions are the non-value of privacy, and the idea that everything is a vehicle for advertising. Lanier thinks the current treatment of content producers as providers of a shell for advertisement are driving artists to the wall. Fact is, we all eventually become stuck with these models once they become universal. We all end up using FaceBook and Google because we have to if we want to participate in the online world. But we should realize that the assumptions of these architectures was a choice, and did not have to be this way.

It is my hope that, in terms of the Internet, the market and innovation will likely provide solutions to these problems even the problem of how artist and writers are to find a viable means of living in conditions of ubiquitous copyable content. But the market is far from perfect, and as Jacob’s example of the development of the US transportation system shows, are far too often distorted by political manipulation.

A great example of this is both the monopolization of the world’s agriculture by a handful of mammoth agribusinesses, a phenomenon detailed by Giulio Caperchi, of the blog The Geneaology of Consent.  In his post , Food Sovereignty, Caperchi details how both the world food system is dominated by a small number of global firms and international organizations. He also introduces the novel concept of epistemological sovereignty “the right to define what systems of knowledge are best suited for particular contexts”.  These are ideas that are desperately needed, for if Lanier is right, we are about to embark on an even more dangerous experiment by applying the assumptions of computer science to the natural world, and he cites an article by one of the patriarchs of 20th century physics- Freeman Dyson- to show us that this is so.

There must be something with me and Freeman Dyson, for this is the second time in a short period that I have run into the musings of the man, first in doing research for a post I wrote on the science-fiction novel Accelerando, and now here. In Our Biotech Future  Dyson lays out what he thinks will be the future of not just the biotech industry and biological sciences but the future of life itself.

Citing an article by Carl Woese on “the golden age” of life before species had evolved and gene transfer between organisms was essentially unbounded and occurred rapidly. Dyson writes:

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell, anticipating Bill Gates by three billion years, separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species of bacteria and the first species of any kind reserving their intellectual property for their own private use.

And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

Dyson looks forward to an age when:

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.

Dyson, like Lanier and Jacobs praises complexity: he thinks swapping genes is akin to cultural evolution which is more complex than biological evolution ,and that the new biological science, unlike much of the physical sciences, will need to reflect this complexity. What he misses, what both Jacobs and Lanier understand ,is that the complexity of life does not emerge just from combination, but from memory, which acts as a constraint and limits choices. Rome is Rome, a person is a person, a species is a species because choices were made which have closed off alternatives.

Dyson is also looking at life through the eyes of the same reductionist science he thinks has reached its limits. I want to make a kitten that glows in the dark, so I insert a firefly gene etc. In doing this he is almost oblivious to the fact that in complex systems the consequences are often difficult to predict beforehand, and some could be incredibly dangerous both for natural animals and plants and the ecosystems they live in and for us human beings as well. Some of this danger will come from bio-terrorism- persons deliberately creating organisms to harm other people- and this would include any reinvigorated effort to develop such weapons on behalf of states as it would the evil intentions of any nihilistic group or individual. Still, a good deal of the danger from such a flippant attitude towards the re-engineering of life could arise more often from unintended consequences of our actions. One might counter that we have been doing this re-engineering at least since we domesticated plants and animals, and we have, though not on anything like the scale Dyson is proposing. It is also to forget that one of the unintended consequences of agriculture was to produce diseases that leap from domesticated animals to humans and resulted in the premature deaths of millions.

Applying the ideas of computer science to biology creates the assumption that life is software. This is an idea that is no doubt pregnant with discoveries that could improve the human condition, but in the end it is only an assumption- the map not the territory. Holding to it too closely results in us treating all of life as if it was our plaything, and aggressively rather than cautiously applying the paradigm until, like Jacob’s decaying cities or Lanier’s straight-jacket computer technologies, or Caperchi’s industrialized farming it becomes the reality we have trapped ourselves in without having ever had a conversation about whether we wanted to live there.

The First Prophet and His Legacy

Out of all the post I’ve made on this blog, so far, one in particular solicited the sharpest criticism. It probably had something to do with the title. Naming the post Blame Zarathustra and then connecting the ancient sage to the invention of what I characterized as an extremely dangerous strand of dualistic thinking that normally goes by the name of a later prophet and his religion- Mani and Manichaeism- brought forth much justified criticism from still practicing Zoroastrians and scholars of his ancient faith.

I decided I should do a little homework before holding to such sweeping assertions. I was, in other words, in search of the real Zarathustra, and that search led me to a book of exactly that title: the wonderful In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek.

Kriwaczek’s aim is to uncover both the truth and the legacy of the figure of Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), a man he characterizes as the first prophet. His quest takes him throughout Asia and Europe through both the past and the present.  For Kriwaczek the new vision that Zarathustra, brought to the world was that:

Unlike other prophets of antiquity, Zarathustra had taught that history was neither cyclic nor eternal. The struggle described between good and evil would one day be brought to as head in a great battle, and after many troubles and torments, the forces of good would be victorious.

Evil would be vanquished; history- the world as we know it-would come to an end. (148)

Zarathustra thus brought two ideas into history that were to be of enormous consequence. The first was the view of history as a battle between the forces of good and evil. The second was the promise that the ugly reality of not just human history but the natural world would come to a beneficent and final end. This latter idea has proven perhaps the most potent for it broke with the much older traditions of a cyclical and therefore irredeemable history. Cyclical views of history and nature were those such as the Hindu idea of Yugas or epochs- a golden age, Satya-Yuga, inevitably giving way to successively worse ages until the total decay of the Kali-Yuga ended and the cycle began all over again. Other cyclical theories of history, such as that of the Greek poet, Hesiod, were almost identical to the Yugas.

Kriwaczek thinks these two ideas: the war between good and evil, and the idea that history is linear and leading to a positive end state, influenced the almost as ancient Hebrew idea of God as an actor in human history. Kriwaczek holds that the ideas of the Hebrews regarding “the end of the world” that were developed independently and can be found in the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, among others,  were far more this-worldly in nature than the vision of Zarathustra. The early prophets foretold the coming of a messiah and the reordering of the political world in which the Jews would play the role in world affairs we ascribe to conquering and imperial peoples such as the Romans. What the early Hebrew messianic visions did not hold was the idea that history itself, and the relationship of humankind with the world would be revolutionized, which was the view of
the Zoroastrians. ( 149-150)

Kriwaczek sees the Book of Daniel, with its intense imagery and prophesy of a world transformed, which was compiled from earlier stories during the Maccabean revolt of the Jews against the Greeks, as a bridge linking the Hebrew messianic and the apocalyptic  legacy of Zarathustra. The Maccabean revolt resulted not in Jewish independence, let alone,Palestine becoming the center of a new and divinely sanctioned world power, but to the intervention of the Roman general Pompey and the Jews absorption  by the growing Roman Empire. Under these conditions, Judaism abandoned its worldly millennialism for a concept of an end of the world that would transform the very nature of the human relationship with God, nature, and each other- ideas much closer to Zoroastrianism. (160)

These ideas regarding the imminent end of the current world and the birth of a new one were especially popular among so called “God-fearers”, gentiles who had adopted elements of the Jewish faith. (166) The Roman Empire provided a vast network for the interchange of ideas, people, and products. In these conditions Judaisms became a proselytizing faith actively seeking converts in all corners of the Empire. Before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. this “open” Judaism was perhaps the most numerous and widespread faith in the Roman world. Perhaps, one of the major reasons Rome crushed the revolt in Palestine with such violence as depicted in The Jewish War of Josephus.

One uses the singular term Judaism for the faith during this period, but in fact Judaism was a spectacularly diverse religion during the late periods B.C.E and early periods of the Common Era giving rise not just to the schools of the Pharisees and Sadducees depicted in the New Testament, but to apocalyptic sects such as the Essenes and, of course, Christianity.

If Kriwaczek gives us a good grounding in Zoroastrianism and Judaism we need other scholars to move further afield.  The religious scholar, Elaine Pagels, in her Book Of Revelation explores how a  group of Christians best represented by John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelation, built upon earlier beliefs to create their own version of a world that was soon to undergo a second creation, after an epic confrontation between the forces of good and evil.

John of Patmos lived in truly apocalyptic times, especially for early Christians. Not only was there the evil decadence of figures such as the emperor Nero, there was the brutal persecution of Christians, the before mentioned invasion of Judea and burning of the Temple in Jerusalem by Roman legions, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which must have truly made it seem that the world itself was coming to an end.

John of Patmos must have been tapping into a deep need for apocalyptic narratives for Christianity’s great rival during its first centuries was an even more dualistic faith in the form of  Manichaeism founded  by the prophet Mani (216-276 C.E.).  Manichaeism was a form of gnosticism, a broad array of beliefs on the nature of humankind and the world to the divine that if it had one broadly shared feature it was the idea that the material world was corrupt and the individual, therefore, was called to free his spirit from its spell. Manichaeism  imagined a world torn between a world of light and a world of darkness. It was an amazingly flexible faith able to spread from societies as diverse as the Roman Empire, Safavid Iran, India and even China.

After Mani, the best known Manichean was a man who converted from that faith to Christianity- Saint Augustine. Augustine probably did more than any other person to move the Church away from its apocalyptic and utopian strain. His great work The City of God reimagined the Christian community as mystical city, not the seed for some type earthly paradise.

Of course, dualistic ideas regarding the battle between good and evil, and the understanding of history as the unfolding and eventual conclusion of this epic struggle didn’t disappear within Christianity because of Augustine. The philosopher John Gray in his excellent book, Black Mass, traces these beliefs from the figure of the mystic, Joachim of Fiore (1135-12o2 C.E.), through the Reformation and English Civil War, right up until the secular utopias of the 20th century with their own dualistic, apocalyptic narratives- Communism and Nazism.

Part of the inadequacy of Gray’s otherwise compelling book is that he seems to think no good has ever come out of this strain of thinking. I believed this fervently myself until I began to look more deeply into the matter, and came across a figure such as Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566). This Catholic friar who lived in the Americas was perhaps the first hero of the movement for human rights, bravely defending the rights of Native Americans against Spanish atrocities. He was also a man whose world view was steeped in dualistic and apocalyptic thought believing the end of the world which would start with the conquest of Europe by Muslim armies to be imminent, and the New World to represent a last refuge for Christian civilization.

How could both of these views be compatible, I thought? And then I remembered my readers’ criticism of my initial post about Zarathustra. “I just didn’t get it”, they seemed to be saying. Zarathustra was talking about something more internal- in the mind and heart- than external, located in the political realm. It seems to me now that what Zarathustra invented, contrary to the parody of him by the genius Friedrich Nietzsche who saw the first prophet as the source of the tortured conscience of humanity, the very possibility of moral progress. As individuals, and as societies, we are called by this ancient sage to choose between good and evil, and in choosing the good, day by day, we can move the world toward ever brighter light.

Mockingjay

Mockingjay is the last of the novels in the dystopian Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. For my money, it is the best of the bunch because, much more than the two previous novels in the series, it manages to explore the moral ambiguities that inevitably arise in the struggle against dystopia and in doing so arms the reader against certain elements and political realities of dystopias specifically. and tyranny more generally in a way that allows the novel to serve as a survivors and rebels guide through both.

The dystopian areas where the Mockingjay has something particularly relevant to say are: the cult of fear that surrounds tyranny, the meaning and psychological nature of torture as a political weapon, the nature of revenge and desire for collective punishment, the moral dangers of insurgency, and the unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of political action and the relationship of such action to responsibility.

Pretty good for a children’s book.

One aspect that the Mockingjay brings to the fore is the cult of fear that surrounds tyranny. The foundation of Panem has been the Hunger Games that instill a sense of paralysis upon the Districts. Once the spell of this fear has been broken, as it was by the open defiance of Petta and Katniss in the Game, the regime does all it can to restore the balance of terror, engaging in a genocidal campaign against the rebellious Districts, burning District 12, which both Peeta and Katniss call home, to the ground leaving only those who can escape by their own wits alive.

We learn in the novel about the sphere of murder that surrounds President Snow. It is not merely the horrors of the Hunger Games and the civil war against the Districts that constitute this sphere, but a wave of secret murders and tortures which have brought and kept him at the pinnacle of power.

As Plato in his Republic told us: There are crimes from which there is no turning back.  Once a tyrant has crossed a certain level of political violence, only further violence can insure his safety, as the deep desire for justice and revenge grows in those who have felt the lash of the whip. Such violence on the part of a tyrant results thus in more and more violence. The moral vortex only silenced with the tyrant’s end.

Collins did not foresee this, but this is precisely the situation we had in Libya before the end of Gaddafi, or in Syria right now as I speak, or, God forbid, in Egypt should the current machinations of the military open a floodgate of resistance.

A second issue the Mockingjay deals with is the nature of torture. In the novel Peeta has his very soul transformed by torture. The person he loves most in the world and has sacrificed everything for, Katniss, has been transformed in the form of re-engineered memories to appear to him as monstrous. Here, we should take away something very important about the role of torture in dystopian and tyrannical regimes, and for our own foreign policy. The role of torture, as any knowledge of the Inquisition or familiarity with Orwell’s 1984 or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange tells us is not the infliction of pain, but the possession by the state of the soul. With torture, the state aims not merely to break  but to shatter and make unreconstructable the heart of the individual. The purpose of President Snow’s torture of Peeta is not merely to assert ownership over the soul of this rebel, but to shatter forever the heart of the girl, Katniss Evergreen.

The only emotional response possible by the individual under these circumstances is the desire for revenge. One can forgive perhaps almost any crime committed against oneself, but how can one forgive the murder or torture of those one loves. Revenge becomes the only emotional anchor and monomaniacal purpose for persons who have suffered thus, as the desire for personal revenge against President Snow becomes the overriding purpose of Katniss after she learns the fate of Peeta. This desire for revenge, could it remain within bounds, might otherwise go by the name of justice were it not for the very real danger that it will become transformed into something else.

The problem is that the person at whom this desire for revenge is justly targeted often remains unreachable. The real criminals are hidden safely behind the fortress of power, so the danger for the person seeking justice becomes one of targeting those who can be reached. Far too often those reachable are total innocents connected to the tyrant by weak associations such as shared ethnicity or religion. This extension of hate to the collective, when combined with the implicit weakness of insurgencies relative to those in power, results in the horrors of terrorism. This danger is represented in the Mockingjay by the character Gale who turns his trapping skills not just on the armed forces of the Capital, but its innocent citizens as well.  It is also seen in the willingness of even Katniss to bring down punishment on the children of the political criminals of Panem, as a form of collective “justice”.

A last thing that the Mockingjay teaches us well is the uncontrollable and unpredictable nature of our actions and what it means for our sense of moral responsibility. Everything Katniss does seems to unleash a chain of events that result in more and more suffering, and she is tortured by this suffering. Even her very freedom seems to be used as a tool of the leader of the rebel forces, District 13 for its own political purposes. Is she just a pawn in yet another game? If Katniss has caused so much suffering what is to separate her moral status for that of a tyrant such as President Snow? Surely it is not that she has “reasons” for her actions. President Snow has his reasons as well, namely to prevent the chaos and bloodshed of another rebellion.

What distinguishes Katniss from President Snow are two things: 1) she nowhere directly tries to cause suffering- such suffering results from the responses of others to the actions she takes, and her avoidance of action because of such an eventuality would result in moral paralysis if she heeded it and not the desire to overcome the systematic suffering that characterizes Panem. And more importantly:  2) Katniss feels responsible for her actions. There is no rationalization, as is the case with President Snow, there is none of the infamous “you need to break eggs in order to make an omelette” which has served as justification of all sorts of horrors in the name of revolution and counter-revolution alike. There is no blind faith that the violence she engages in will bring forth a better world or preserve a world better than the alternative.  Katniss is, thus,  the very opposite of a tyrant, and her story gives us insight how to not become tyrants, or much more likely,  the servants or enablers of tyrants, ourselves.

The Sixth Age

An almost universal myth found in agricultural civilizations is that of a lost paradise or golden age placed in the beginning of human history, or if still supposed to be in existence, beyond the sprawl of civilization, a prehistoric utopia frozen in amber.

The paradise myth we are most familiar with, of course, is that of the Biblical Garden of Eden and the story of the Fall. Yet, there were other myths similar in content that exist elsewhere. In the West, the biggest rival to the story of Adam and Eve and their paradise was that of the Greek poet Hesiod (sometime between 750-650 B.C.E) and his Ages of Man, a concept found in his Works and Days.  It was a myth once as well known as that of the Garden of Eden, but isn’t much talked about now. That’s a shame, because it has some very important things to tell us. So let me try…

The first of Hesiod’s ages, the Golden Age was a period when:

First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.

It was all downhill from there.

How exactly this golden age ends isn’t precisely clear, but, Zeus, the new head of the universe after his Titan predecessor, Cronos, is deposed ends up destroying the human race of the Golden Age. The people of the Silver Age that follows are neither as long lived or as content as their golden ancestors. For the first time human beings are forced to seek shelter from the elements and build houses. They are also forced to work for a living and start fighting among themselves. Understandably, the people of the Silver Age are also less than deferential to the gods, and Zeus ends up destroying them too.

The Bronze Age that followed ends up being even more violent than the Silver. Human beings were in a constant state of war and strife. Like turtles or hermit crabs they take shelter from one another in hard houses, made of bronze, of course. Even the none- too- compassionate Zeus was appalled by their barbarity. Yahweh like, he destroyed them in a flood.

There is a pause in the seemingly endless degeneration of humanity with the Heroic Age that follows the Bronze. People here are pious and brave if still violent, and this is the period that we see the world’s heroes, such as Achilles take the stage. But, make no mistake this is only a pause.

The age which follows, the age in which Hesiod finds himself, is the Iron Age. It is the worst yet of the lot for men here are destined to labor to preserve their existence, and continue their strife, with even parents and children coming to blows. If the people of the Golden Age lived long lives, and died peacefully by the end of the Iron Age people will be born with grey hair and die soon after.

Hesiod seems to hold out hope that something better will follow.  At least that is how I understand him when he says:

Thereafter, would that I had not been born in the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterward.

But Hesiod gives us no insight into what the sixth age of man will be like.

For me, one of the things I find fascinating is just how many features Hesiod’s Works and Days and the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis share.  Both see the movement from paradise into the world as a metamorphosis from a life of ease to a life of labor. Both seem to take a certain negative stance towards knowledge. Genesis against the knowledge of good and evil, and Hesiod against technology. If one thought Yahweh was cruel for cursing humankind to live “by the sweat of his brow” he has nothing on Zeus, who along with his court of Olympian gods:

…keep hidden from men the means of life. Else you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working.

What a strange idea- that what has made the mysteries of nature so difficult to discover and control is that they have been hidden by the gods. Here, I think, a seed had been sown in the Western mind. The return to paradise would entail the discovery of the “means of life” that had been hidden by the gods. It was a seed that when full grown would give us science and the power over nature, but I will leave that subject for the future.

Instrumental in this “knowledge war” between Zeus and humanity are the characters of Prometheus and Pandora. Again, like Genesis, Works and Days is really not one story but two.

The myth of Prometheus is found in Hesiod’s Works and Days along with his Theogony. The essence of the story is this: Prometheus, the only one of the Titans that had taken Zeus’s side in coup d’état against Cronos had a special place in his heart for human beings having, according to some legends, created them. Not only had Prometheus created humans, who the Greeks with their sharp wisdom called mortals, he was also the one who, when all the useful gifts of nature had seemingly been handed out to the other animals before humans had got to the front of the line, decided to give mortals an upright posture, just like the gods, and that most special gift of all- fire.

Prometheus was up to something.

Having a special place in his heart for the mortals, and a special disdain for Zeus and his cronies who had destroyed his fellow Titans, Prometheus tricked Zeus into accepting worthless bones wrapped in fat rather than the prime parts of an animal for sacrifice, which human would thereafter keep for themselves.  Incensed by this trick Zeus took not only fire from the mortals, but hid from them the ways of nature casting them into a world of unending scarcity.

Prometheus is punished by being chained for eternity to a rock. His liver pecked out daily by an eagle only to regenerate during the nights on account of his nature as an immortal like the medical fantasies of nanotechnologist.

The other famous character in Hesiod’s story is Pandora.  In yet another way that Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony resemble the first chapters of Genesis, Hesiod manages to blame women for all of humankind’s problems. It appears that women didn’t exist before the gods got it into their heads to payback the mortals for Prometheus’ trick with the sacrificial meat. The gods create the beautiful figure of the first woman Pandora, who with her famous box, would bring upon humanity all of its ills with the gift of hope remaining when Pandora shut the lid.

Hesiod’s understanding of the arc of history no doubt strikes modern ears as strange. We are apt to see history as progressive rather than regressive. Longevity increases rather than decreases, material goods and ease increase not decrease, the present is better than the past and the future will be better still. The Golden Age is in front of us rather than, in Hesiod’s scheme, in our distant past.

In recent years the case for general progress has been made by a whole slew of thinkers who, if they take the current crisis into account at all, see it as a mere bump on the road to an inexorably improving  human condition. Steven Pinker, for example, in his
Better Angels of Our Nature argues that, despite the news, violence and discrimination have been in steep decline since the Enlightenment. Not only are a lesser number of human beings injured or killed by one another, relative to the population, but the last few centuries have seen the end of slavery, the emancipation of women, the disappearance of state sponsored racism, the recognition of the rights of homosexuals, and the acknowledgement of the rights of animals.

Another recent book, this one by Stephen Moore and called It’s Getting Better All the Time makes a similar case that the world since the beginning of the 20th century has witnessed unprecedented progress. The book has an interesting back story in that Moore crafted the book from the notes of the late Julian Simon who is famous for his bet with the modern day Malthusian Paul Erlich. Erlich’s dystopian work The Population Bomb   predicted a Malthusian crisis for the end of the 20th century as the explosive  growth of the human population, he thought, would lead to an era of starvation, scarcity and environmental catastrophe. Simon and Erlich wagered on the price of five commodities, Simon predicting that their price would fall, Erlich that they would rise.
Erlich lost the bet, but the argument continues, and Malthusians continue to make quite reasonable arguments that we are headed off the end of a cliff. It’s just taking longer than expected to fall.

It is easy to see this argument tracing its way back to Hesiod. Those who side with technology are in the camp of Prometheus, and those who see our golden age in the primitive, unspoiled past, like Hesiod take the side of Zeus.

Whether the Sixth Age will represent a permanent end to Zeus’ curse or yet another movement away from paradise- only the future will tell.

Panem and the dueling dystopias

As was mentioned in my prior review of the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins got the inspiration for the idea for the books while watching American reality television juxtaposed with the very real horrors of the Iraq War. If the first book, for all its violence, concentrated on the decadence of the Capitol, the second book, Catching Fire take us much deeper into the dystopian tyranny of Panem, and it is the combination of these two versions of dystopia that Collins has skillfully packaged in the form of a children’s novel that most sparks my interest.

Catching Fire, tells the story of what unfolds after Katniss and Peeta have returned victorious from the Hunger Games. Their act of defiance at the end of the games, threatening to commit suicide rather than follow the cruel logic of the games which permits only one victor, has proven a spark that begins insurrections against the tyranny of the Capitol. Rebellion only grows as the Capitol tries to manage the story of Katniss and Peeta and put an end to their worship as heroes. But, what has begun can not be stopped and here we are shown the deep violence at the heart of Panem that transcends the dark cruelty of the ritualized brutality found in the spectacle of the games.In desperation, the Capitol isolates rebellious districts and attempts to starve them into submission. It tortures, imprisons’ , and, as appears to be hinted at towards the end of the novel,commits an act of genocide against District 12 the home of Katniss and Peeta.

As the philosopher have always told us, tyranny, being based upon fear, is the worst form of government. Such fear can only lead to three results in the individual: paralysis, flight, or the decision to fight back. The tyranny of the Capitol has been based on the institutionalized fear of the Hunger Games, along with the “memory” of the Capitol’s complete destruction of District 13 during the last rebellion. Katniss and Peeta had broken the spell of the games. Katniss herself entertains ideas of flight only to ultimately decide on courageous rebellion, and the peoples of the districts become inspired to end their paralysis and fight back not only by her, but by the hope that District 13 has somehow survived and remained beyond the control of the Capitol

On a superficial level what Collins has done here is something quite interesting and groundbreaking, for she has managed to combine successfully the two rival versions of dystopia that have held us in their spell since the first half of the last century. Those two versions are, of course, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Orwell aimed to capture the brutality of totalitarianism, in both its right-wing, and left-wing varieties. The dystopia of totalitarianism was characterized by Orwell as “a boot stomping on a human face, forever”. It was a state based upon not only fear, as were all tyrannies of the past, but the need for the absolute submission of the individual. Obedience was not enough. The soul of the individual was a territory the totalitarian state aimed to bring under its will, and the aim of the state was to surround its subjects in an omnipresent web of surveillance that took from them not only their public but their private lives as well.

Huxley took a much different, and many argue more prescient, view of dystopia in his Brave New World. For him, tyranny was less likely in the modern era to take the form of a regime based on fear and total control, than it was to be based on the population being lulled into submission by entertainment, consumption, sex, and satiety.

In his brilliant, if horribly ill timed book, The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov, argues that we have been blinded to the nature of modern tyranny by seeing the distinction between Orwell’s and Huxley’s visions of utopia as an either- or question. Thinkers, such as Herbert Marcuse, have made a pretty good case that the West has many of the features of the dystopia presented in Brave New World. We are a society that has, willfully or not, been distracted from politics by a plethora of entertainment, advertisement, and pleasures. As Morozov points out, many non-Western regimes  that are in every sense of the word, authoritarian, have caught onto this trick. States like Russia and China let people watch or buy whatever they wish. The reality and dreams of limitless consumption appear to steer attention and energy away from politics and thus leave current political elites entrenched. “Bread and circuses” as the Romans used to say is the best way to control the masses.

Morozov insists that just because regimes have learned from the West how to lull their people  to sleep ala Brave New World does not mean that Orwell should be left in the dust. For, when deemed necessary as the only means of retaining their grip on power,  manyauthoritarian regimes have shown themselves capable of 1984 style violence. We need both Huxley and Orwell to understand dystopia in the present, and Collins has managed to combine both.

The Capitol is a Brave New World style dystopia through and through. Its citizens are enthralled, not merely, by the reality TV “entertainment” of the Hunger Games, but by seemingly endless consumption, celebrity, and vanity. A great metaphor for the Capitol can be seen in a common practice there which Collins presents to us almost as an afterthought. “Citizens” of the Capitol have a habit of eating everything in sight at their major social gatherings. The way they pull this off is to ingest a liquid that makes them vomit between periods of gorging. This occurs even in periods when the Capital is trying to starve the people of rebellious districts into submission or death.

Yet, if within the world of the Capitol dystopia takes on the form of a Brave New World the way the Capitol brutally treats the districts is straight out of 1984. It tortures, murders, terrorizes, and commits acts of genocide.

Collins could not have anticipated that within several years of writing her novel the whole scene of the Capital trying to bring the rebellious districts to heel would be replicated in the real world as challenged tyrants resorted to the fear of extreme violence to keep themselves in power: Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria where the horrors continue. Only where the forces of the regime refused to kill their own people, such as Egypt, was enormous bloodshed avoided.

The Panem analogy could also easily be applied to the US if one sees America itself as the Capitol and the world at large as the districts. We are a consumerist and entertainment paradise that spies upon, brutalizes, and attempts to control the rest of the world.  No matter if this analogy holds or not it’s pretty certain that if Aldous Huxley were brought to early 21st century America he’d think he’d stepped into his Brave New World, but Orwell could not say the same for 1984, at least not within the United States itself.

Still, the best real world version we have for Panem is not, despite all its flaws and injustices, the United States, but China. The developed eastern China is enthralled to a versions of consumerism that would make even Americans blush. As long as the Chinese Communist Party can keep the money flowing they remain largely unchallenged even if a blind renegade such as Chen Guangcheng
can periodically bring the injustices, of at least local governments to light. If eastern China is Collin’s Capitol, its Tibetan and Xijiang regions are its districts, which inspire brutal crackdowns wherever their inhabitants get a little too uppity for the PRC’s taste. It will be interesting to see how the Hunger Games movies, and the inevitable copycats they will spawn will play in China. This potential of a now global film and media industry to pose deep questions may be the only way to balance out its tendency to lull society into a state of passive acceptance of the current order.

No one in the West should become smug on the basis of this characterization of China as Panem.  Rather, we should remain ever vigilant for any movement in the direction of 1984 and push back hard on any extension of the power of the state to imprison, silence, torture, spy upon, or lie. Huxley’s dystopia, which is probably the one we live in, is based upon the state having solved the problem of scarcity and stuffing the people until they no longer know what freedom is for. This may be characteristic of a very particular period of human history following the Second World War, but this might prove to have been a golden age of economic equality which we have exited permanently.

If we do not, sometime soon, emerge from the current economic crisis, if the model of middle class consumer society proves irretrievably broken, then all bets are off. Elites may be challenged in ways they have not since the early part of the last century and one of the possible, if unlikely, dystopian outcomes would be a return of at least some of the features of the tyranny on display in 1984.

Accelerando II

Were it merely the case that all Charles Stross was offering in his novel Accelerando was a kind of critique of contemporary economic trends veiled in an exquisitely Swiftian story the book would be interesting enough, but what he gives us transcends that. What it offers up is a model for how technological civilizations might evolve which manages to combine the views of several of his predecessors in a fascinating and unique way.

Underlying Stross’s novel is an idea of how technological civilizations develop known as the Kardashev scale.  It is an idea put forward by the Russian physicists Nikolai Kardashev in the early 1960s. Kardashev postulated that civilizations go through different technological phases based on their capacity to tap energy resources. A Type I civilization is able to tap the equivalent of the solar radiation present its home planet, and he thought that civilization as of 1964 had reached that level. A Type II civilization in his scheme is able to tap an amount of energy equivalent to the amount put out by its parent star, and a Type III civilization able to tap the energy equivalent to its entire galaxy. Type IV and Type V civilizations able to tap the energy of the entire universe or even multiverse have been speculated upon that would transcend even the scope of Kardashev’s broad vision.  Civilizations of this scale and power would indeed be little different from gods, and in fact would be more powerful than any god human beings have ever imagined.

Kardashev lays most of his argument out in an article On the Inevitability and Possible Structures of Supercivilizations.   It is a fascinating piece, and I encourage you to follow the link and check it out. The article was published in 1984, a poignant year given Orwell’s dystopia, and at the apex of the Second Cold War, with tensions running high between the superpowers. Kardashev, of course, has no idea that within a few short years the Soviet Empire will be no more. Beneath his essay one can find lurking certain Marxist assumptions about technological capacity and the cult of bigness. He seems to think that the dynamic of civilization will require bigger and bigger solutions to problems, and that there is no natural limit to how big such solutions could become. Technological civilizations could expand indefinitely and would re-engineer the solar system, galaxy, or even the universe to their purposes.

Yet, this “bigger is better” ideology is just that, an ideology, not a truth. It is the ideology that led the Soviets to pump out more and more steel without asking themselves “steel for what?” The idea of throwing more and more resources at a problem might have saved Russia during the Second World War, but in its aftermath it resulted in an extremely complex and inefficient machine that was beyond the capacity of intelligent direction, which ultimately proved itself incapable of providing a standard of living on par with the West. We are, thankfully, no longer enthralled to such gigantism.

Stross, for his part, does not challenge these assumptions, but rather build’s his story upon them.  Three other ideas serve as the prominent backdrop of the story: Dyson Sphere’s, Matrioshka Brains, and the Singularity. Let me take each in turn.

In Accelerando, as human civilization rapidly advances towards the Singularity it deconstructs the inner planets and constructs a series of spheres around the sun in order to capture all of the sun’s energy. These, so called, Dyson Sphere’s are an idea Stross borrows from the physicist Freeman Dyson, an idea that Kardashev directly cites in his On the Inevitability and Possible Structures of Supercivilizations.  Dyson developed his idea back in 1960 in his article Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation, which proposed 24 years before Kardashev, that one of the best ways to find extraterrestrial intelligence would be to look for signs that solar systems had undergone similar sorts of engineering.  Dyson himself found the inspiration for his sphere’s in Olaf Stapledon’s brilliant 1937 novel Star Maker, which was one of the first novels to tackle the question of the evolution of technological society and the universe.

A second major idea that serves as a backdrop of Stross’s novel is that of a Matrioshka Brain. This was an idea proposed by the computer scientist and longevity proponent, Robert Bradbury, who in sad irony, died in 2011 at the early age of 54. It is also rather telling and tragic that in light of his dream of eventually uploading his mind into the eternal electronic cloud, all of the links I could find to his former longevity focused entity Aeiveos appear to be dead links, seeming evidence that our personhood really does remain embodied and disappears with the end of the body.

Matrioshka Brains builds off of the idea of Dyson Spheres, but while the point of the latter is to extract energy the point of the former is to act as vast spheres of computation nestled one inside the other like the Russian dolls after which the Matrioshka Brain is named. In Accelerando, human-machine civilization has deconstructed the inner planets not just to capture energy, but to serve as computers of massive scale.

Both of these ideas, Dyson Sphere’s and Matrioshka Brain put me in mind of the idea of the crystal spheres which the ancients imagined surrounded and circled the earth and held the planets and stars. It would be the greatest of ironies if the very science which had been born when men such as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo overthrew this conception of the cosmos gave rise to an engineered solar system that resembled it.

The major backdrop of Accelerando is, of course, the movement of human begun technological civilization towards the Singularity. In essence the idea of the Singularity is that at some point the intelligence of machines that originated with human technological civilization will eventually exceed human intelligence. Just as human beings were able to design machines that were smarter than themselves, machines will be able to design machines smarter than themselves, and this process will accelerate to an increasing degree with the time between the creation of one level of intelligence and the next falling to shorter and shorter intervals.  At some point the reality that emerges from this growth of intelligence becomes unimaginable to current human intelligence- like a slug trying to understand humanity and its civilization. This is the point of the singularity- an idea Vernor Vinge in his 1993 article The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era, borrowed from the physics of black holes. It is the point over the event horizon over which no information can pass.

If you follow any link in this article I would highly recommend that you read Vinge’s piece, for unlike the optimist Ray Kurzweil, Vinge is fully conscious of the existential risks that the Singularity poses and the philosophical questions it raises.

Stross’s novel, in its own wonderful way, also raises, but does not grapple, with these risks and questions. They remain for us to think our way through before our thinking is done for us.

Accelerando I

The New Earth Archive has a list of 70 books that help us think our way through the future that every educated person concerned with our fate is encouraged to read. Though his book is a novel, Charles Stoss’s Accelerando should be at the top of that list. Perhaps even, at the very top.

I picked up a copy of Accelerando after I heard an interview with Venor Vinge, one of the founders of the Singularity Movement, who praised the work as one of the few examples of fiction that tried to peer behind the dark veil of the singularity. I had originally intended to do a review of Accelernado all in one post, but then realized how much it made my head hurt, but in a good way. I figured that I might make my readers’ heads hurt in the same way if I tried to explain the book all in one go.  Accelerando is so bizarre, profound, and complex that it needs to be described in digestible doses, the same way I found myself wrestling with the novel. To take it all on in one post is a fool’s errand.

What follows below then is a general sketch of the plot of Accelerando. I then dive into what I think are some very important things Stross has to say about our current economic model through the medium of his novel. In a future post I’ll try to tackle something even more important he takes on in the book- the nature and evolution of technological civilization, and the fate of the human species.

The plot of the novel centers- around the story of four generations of the Macx clan: Manfred, Amber, Sirhan, and Manni.  All of the Macx’s are befriended/manipulated by the robotic cat, Aienko, who plays a central role in the story.  The book begins with Manfred Macx, a kind of Julian Assange/George Soros who is hated by almost everybody- especially tax hungry IRS agents and his ex-wife, Pamela, (who happen to be one of the same) for giving his brilliant ideas away for free.

Manfred is an example of a type of human being Stross sees just over the horizon, constantly plugged-in, with so much of his self offloaded into the cloud, that he loses his identity the minute his” glasses”, which are his interface with net, are stolen.

He is also a new type of political figure managing to revive a form of communism by creating a centralized-planning algorithm that can interface with market based systems.  At the same time he is a pioneer in granting rights to increasingly sentient emergent AIs of whom a group of uploaded lobsters originally created by the KGB  can be counted.

If Manfred represents the first stage of the singularity, the stage we can now be said to be in, and are therefore somewhat familiar, his daughter Amber represents the stage that follows. Purposefully enslaving herself on a slave ship on a mission to mine a moon of Jupiter, Amber eventually sets up a “kingdom” on a small asteroid.  At this point the story becomes fantastical. The line between the real and the virtual essentially disappears, persons at this stage are able to split themselves into virtual “ghosts”, and Amber and her crew eventually set off in a star-ship the size of a Coke can, the crew able to embed themselves in its virtual world. Their destination is the source of alien messages some three light years away from Jupiter. What they discover are a particularly intelligent and ravenous group of space lobsters, who Manfred had liberated from the KGB years before, who exist as scavengers upon a civilization that has collapsed under the weight of their own singularity- more on the latter in a moment.

When the “virtual” Amber returns from her space mission she finds that the “real” Amber has married and had a child, named Sirhan, with Sadeq- the fundamentalist Muslim theologian who had come to the Jupiter system to bring the word of Muhammad to the aliens beyond the solar system, and found himself, instead, caught up in the legal struggles between Amber and her mother, Pamela.  The site of their empire now centers around Saturn.

What Amber and her crew discovered on their trip to the alien router outside the solar system was a dark fact about the singularity.  Many, indeed most, civilizations that reach the stage of singularity collapse, having consumed itself along with the original wet-ware species that had given it birth. What is left, or passersby, huddling closely to their parent star- a closed network.

Knowing this is their likely fate Amber, and her family, launch a political party the Accelerationista that is pushing a referendum to flee into the Milky Way from the “Vile Offspring” that have been created in the singularity, have consumed the inner planets in their quest for energy and processor space, and will soon consume what is left of the earth.  The Accelerationista lose the election to the conservative party who prefer to stay put, but Amber and her family still manage to get a large number of people to make a break for it with the help of the space lobsters. In exchange the lobsters want to send a cohort of humans, including a version of Manfred off to explore a strange cloud that appears to be another version of the singularity out in the further depths of the universe

It’s a wild plot, but not as mind blowing as the deep philosophical questions Stross is raising with the world he has envisioned.

Right off the bat there’s the issue of economics, and here Stross attempted to bring to our attention problems that were largely off the public radar in 2005, but hold us in their grip today.

The protagonist of the story, Manfred Macx, doesn’t believe in the profit economy anymore. He gives his ideas away for free, and indeed Stross himself seemed to be following this philosophy, releasing the novel under a Creative Commons license.  In the novel copyright comes under the “protection” of mafias that will break your legs if you infringe on their copyright as they threaten to do to Manfred for giving away the musical legacy of the 20th century, again, for free. This battle between traditional copyright holders and the “sharing” economy has only become more acute since Stross published his novel, think SISPA and beyond.

Manfred’s attitude to money drives both the US government (and his ex-wife) crazy.  America is creaking under the weight of its debt as the baby boom generation retires en mass, but stubbornly refuses to die.  Since Accelerando was published debt politics and the consequences of demographic decline have come to the forefront of political debate in the US, but especially in Europe. One thing Stoss got definitively wrong, or better probably will have gotten wrong, is that he imagines a strong European supra-state in our near-future.  From our current angle it seems hard to imagine how even the relatively weak union Europe has now will survive the current crisis.

Stross also seems to be criticizing, or at least bringing to our attention, the hyper-innovative nature of financial instruments and legal contracts and doing this several years before the financial crisis of 2008 made financial exotica like Credit Default Swaps household terms. For, it is precisely in this world of virtual finance and “creative” law where Manfred excels at being innovative.  Manfred may be like Julian Asange in his nomadic lifestyle, and revolutionary ideology, which manages to piss-off just above everyone, but in other ways he resembles George Soros in that many of his best innovations are the result of Soros-like arbitrage, exploiting the gaps between reality and expectation and especially the differences between states.  Manfred displays this skill when he frees his daughter Amber from her mother by having Amber sell herself into slavery to a company based in Yemen, where her slave owner will trump the custody rights of her mother.

Stross also plays with the idea of how crazy the world of virtual trading, and image management on platforms such as FaceBook  have become, imagining bubbles and busts of bizarre bits of ether such as those traded in his “reputation market”.

Stross’s critique of capitalism may even run somewhat deeper for he has Manfred align himself with the old school communist Gianni to bring the command economy back from the dead using artificial intelligence able to link up with market mechanism- what exactly that means and would look like is really not all that clear, but that order is quickly superseded by another period of hyper-competition known as Economics 2.0

Indeed, this updated version of capitalism Stross portrays as the biggest threat to civilization as it approaches the singularity. Such hyper-capitalism built around  “corporations” that are in reality artificial intelligences might not be a phenomenon of human begun civilization alone,  Stross seems to be providing us with one possible explanation to Fermi’s Paradox – the silence of the universe seemingly so ripe for life.  Civilizations that reach the singularity are often so ravenous for resources, including the intelligence of the very beings that sparked the singularity in the first place, that they cannibalize themselves, and end up huddled around their parent star with little desire to explore or communicate after collapse.

The fate Stross paints for Economy 2.0 societies reminded me of a quote by Hannah Arendt who interpreted the spirit of Western capitalism and imperialism in the desire of the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes to “annex the planets”, and Thomas Hobbes conception of human kind’s limitless lust for more and more power that became the core assumption of the modern age:

But when the last war has come and every man has been provided for, no ultimate peace is established on earth: the power accumulating machine, without which the continual expansion would not have been achieved needs more material to devour in its never ending process. If the last victorious Commonwealth cannot proceed to” annex the planets” it can only proceed to destroy itself in order to begin anew the never-ending process of power generation*

I will leave off here until next time…

*Origins of Totalitarianism, Imperialism, 147