Listening to the Abyss

Black hole

In homage to the international team of scientists working on the Event Horizon Telescope who earlier this month gave us the first ever image of a black hole, below is an essay I wrote for Harvard’s BHI essay competition late last year. The weird reality of the universe we call home never ceases humble and astound me, nor when working together as a species, does our ingenuity at uncovering the sublime order of the natural world cease to be a source of hope and pride.

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“Of all the conceptions of the human mind, from unicorns to gargoyles to the hydrogen bomb, the most fantastic, perhaps, is the black hole…” Kip Thorne

In the last century we’ve experienced an expansion of cosmic horizons that dwarfs any that occurred before. It’s a universe far larger and weirder than we could have imagined held together by dark matter and propelled apart by dark energy neither of which we truly understand. And out of all the things in this wide Alice in Wonderland universe nothing is as mind- blowingly weird as black holes.

Our expanded horizon has been made possible by a revolution in the tools used by astronomers: vastly improved optical telescopes and the birth of radio, gamma ray, infrared, x-ray astronomy. Only in the last few years have we seen the rise of astronomy based on gravitational waves, the ripples of space-time. Gravitational wave detection gives us the ability not to see, but in some sense, listen to black holes. [i]The question is how many of us will pay any attention to what they are saying?

For what is striking about this recent expansion of our cosmic horizons is how little it has impacted the world outside of science itself, the world of artists, authors, philosophers. [ii]

Certainly, the popularity of movies such as Interstellar, suggests a public hunger for the question begging awe implied by contemporary cosmology, but a comparison with the past reveals just how meh our reaction has been. One could lay blame for this disinterest on our selfie and celebrity based culture, but the problem goes deeper than that, and goes beyond the old complaint about the “two cultures”. [iii] What I think we’ve lost is our ability to experience the natural sublime.

The only expansion of human imagination in terms of our place in the universe that even comes close to the one we’ve experienced in the last century was the one that ended our pre-Copernican view of the world. When Copernicus and those who followed him gave us a new cosmos with the earth no longer at its center and threw the meaning of humanity into question. Yet these discoveries didn’t just circulate among early scientists, but quickly obsessed theologians, poets and philosophers who wrestled with what the new post-Copernican world meant for humanity’s place the universe.

Many of their reflections express not so much joy at our expanded horizons as a sentiment akin to vertigo, as if people on a previously stable earth had been turned upside down and they were in danger of plunging into a sky that had become an infinite pit. In other words, they were seriously weirded out.

Take the famous 18th century fable of Carazan’s Dream. Carazan, a miserly Baghdad merchant is tossed “up” into hell upon his death. He finds not tortures, but a journey through the infinite blackness of space. It is “A dreadful region of eternal silence, loneliness, and darkness” that envelopes Carzan as he loses sight of the illumination of the last stars. He is filled with unbearable anguish as he realizes that even after traveling “ten-thousand times a thousand years” his journey into blackness would not be at an end. [iv]

The 18th century poet and children’s writer Anna Laetitia Barbauld in her poem “A Summer Evening’s Meditation” expressed something similar.

What hand unseen

Impells me onward thro’ the glowing orbs

Of habitable nature, far remote,

To the dread confines of eternal night,

To solitudes of vast unpeopled space [v]

In the 18th century Edmund Burke termed this strange mixture of foreboding and awe the sublime. [vi] It’s an experience that comes not just from looking up into an infinite sky, but whenever one experiences nature in a way that puts our limited human scale and power in perspective. Immanuel Kant brought the sublime into the realm of mathematics. Noting that phenomena for which our everyday imagination showed itself to be woefully insufficient proved tractable with the use of mathematical thinking. Math was a tool for grabbing hold of the weird. [vii]

Another philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer went even deeper. For him, the experience of the sublime had nothing to do with fear or anxiety. Instead, it was the result of a kind of tension that emerged from contemplating the scale of nature relative to our own limits while simultaneously understanding it. Nature that seems so beyond us is instead in us, indeed is us. [viii]

It’s only a short step from this psychologizing of the sublime found in nature to seeing the sublime as originating in technology itself. For what made the natural sublime perceivable in the first place wasn’t so much the capabilities of the individual human mind as the whole history of science and technology up until that point, the knowledge that allowed us to finally apprehend just how large and weird our cosmic home actually was. Thus the natural sublime emerged in parallel with the idea of the technological sublime that would eventually swallow it. [ix]

Starting in the 19th century technology seemed to liberate us from nature. Our own creations became global in scope and were often looked upon with the same quasi-religious awe once limited to natural phenomenon. Yet after the world wars, the creation of nuclear weapons, and the growing environmental consciousness of the 20th century many non-scientists, with good reason, abandoned this idea of the technological sublime. Unfortunately, because the most powerful examples of the sublime in nature are only perceivable through the technology they distrusted, the natural sublime was rejected as well. [x]

Among the technologists of Silicon Valley and elsewhere belief in the technological sublime never really went away, and we’re still under its spell. Though the technological infrastructure we have built across and above the earth has been of great benefit to the material wellbeing of billions of people, culturally, that same structure has proven almost black hole like in its ability to torque our attention back upon ourselves. [xi] The most vocal proponents of the technological sublime use this very language. Our destiny is to enter the technological “singularity” and any attempts to see beyond it are futile. In a rejection of the universe Copernicus gave us, we’re back at the center of events. [xii]

Black holes seem almost ready made to provide a rejoinder to this kind of anthropocentric hubris, and if attended to, may even help us recover our sense of the natural sublime.

They dwarf anything created by human civilization in a way almost impossible to express with the mass of the largest discovered being 17 billion times larger than that of the sun. [xiii] It’s such scale that allows them to exist in the first place. Under normal circumstances gravity is by far the weakest of the four forces, but with enough mass this weakling brakes out of its chains and becomes monstrous. The force of gravity becomes so large that space curves back upon itself, every path outward becomes a path inward towards the center, where even light itself is no longer fast enough to escape the compression of space that veers to infinity, the real singularity.

As objects get closer to the event horizon, beyond which nothing but radiation, escapesthey rotate this cosmic drain faster and faster, whole stars whipping around the black hole at speeds as fasts as 93,00 miles per hour. [xiv] As matter is pulled towards absolute blackness it gives rise to quasars, the brightest objects in the universe glowing with the light of millions of suns.

Falling into a black hole really would be like something out of Carazan’s Dream, only weirder.

From the perspective of an outside observer someone slipping into a massive black hole would slow to the point of being frozen only to be vaporized. Yet the person who actually fell in wouldn’t experience anything at all except the movement ever forward towards the singularity in the same way we can only move forward in time. But what does that even mean? Here we come upon our limits: the apparent irreconcilability of quantum mechanics and general relativity, the limits of computation in finite time. [xv]

Long after the last star has burned out black holes and their weirdness will survive. The only energy source in the universe will be their sluggardly Hawking radiation until, after quadrillions of years, they too melt away. [xvi] Perhaps future civilizations will float just outside the death grip of the event horizon to siphon off the energy of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, a mother lode with more energy than all of our galaxy’s billions of stars. [xvii] Perhaps space faring civilizations don’t head for the stars, but towards the black. [xvii] Maybe black holes are the womb of space-time giving rise to universes like and unlike our own. Or perhaps, if intelligences like ourselves survive, they will use the wonders of the abyss to create the world anew, which would mean that, in the very long run, the believers in the technological sublime were actually right after all.

[i] Levin, Janna. Black Hole Blues: and Other Songs from Outer Space. Anchor Books, a Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2017.

[ii] There are, of course, exceptions. An excellent example of which is: Robinson, Marilynne. What Are We Doing Here? FarrarStraus and Giroux, 2018.

[iii] Snow, C. P., and Stefan Collini. The Two Cultures. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[iv] Fisher, Anne. The Pleasing Instructor Or Entertaining Moralist. G. Robinson, 1777. p. 143

[v] Barbauld, and Lucy Aikin. The Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld: with a Memoir. Cambridge University Press, 2014. p.122

[vi] Burke wasn’t the first, but he was certainly the most influential figure to bring the sublime into the public discourse with his: Burke, Edmund, et al. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Printed for R. and and J. Taylor, 1772.

[viii] Kant, Immanuel, et al. Critique of Judgement. Oxford Univ. Press, 2008. p. 87

[ix] Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, 2010. p.230

[x] Miller, Perry. The Life of the Mind in America. from the Revolution to the Civil War. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.

[xi] A good recent example of this turn against the natural sublime is: Marris, Emma. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Bloomsbury, 2013.

[xi] A point beautifully made in: Billings, Lee. Five Billion Years of Solitude: the Search for Life among the Stars. Current, 2014.

[xii] Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Duckworth, 2016.

[xiii] Thomas, Jens, et al. “A 17-Billion-Solar-Mass Black Hole in a Group Galaxy with a Diffuse Core.” Nature, vol. 532, no. 7599, 2016, pp. 340–342., doi:10.1038/nature17197.

[xiv] The fastest rotation of a black hole by a star ever recorded: Kuulkers, E., et al. “MAXI J1659−152: the Shortest Orbital Period Black-Hole Transient in Outburst.” Astronomy & Astrophysics, vol. 552, 2013, doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201219447.

[xv] Harlow, Daniel, and Patrick Hayden. “Quantum Computation vs. Firewalls.” Journal of High Energy Physics, vol. 2013, no. 6, 2013, doi:10.1007/jhep06(2013)085.

[xvi] Adams, Fred, and Greg Laughlin. The Five Ages of the Universe: inside the Physics of Eternity. Touchstone, 2000.

[xvii] Lawrence, Albion, and Emil Martinec. “Black Hole Evaporation along Macroscopic Strings.” Physical Review D, vol. 50, no. 4, 1994, pp. 2680–2691., doi:10.1103/physrevd.50.2680.

[xviii] It been suggested that one solution to the Fermi Paradox is that the aliens are “hibernating” waiting for the Black Hole Era when the universe has cooled to make computation extremely efficient: Sandberg, et al. “That Is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Lie: the Aestivation Hypothesis for Resolving Fermi’s Paradox.” [1402.1128] Long Short-Term Memory Based Recurrent Neural Network Architectures for Large Vocabulary Speech Recognition, 27 Apr. 2017, arxiv.org/abs/1705.03394v1.

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Crushing the Stack

If in The Code Economy Philip Auerswald managed to give us a succinct history of the algorithm, while leaving us with code that floats like a ghost in the ether lacking any anchor in our very much material, economic and political world. Benjamin Bratton tries to bring us back to earth. Bratton’s recent book, The Stack: On software and sovereignty provides us with a sort of schematic with which we can grasp the political economy of code and thus anchor it to the wider world.

The problem is that Bratton, unlike Auerswald, has given us this schematic in the almost impenetrable language of postmodern theory beyond the grasp of even educated readers. Surely this is important for as Ian Bogost pointed out in his review of The Stack: “The book risks becoming a tome to own and display, rather than a tool to use.” This is a shame because the public certainly is in need of maps through which they can understand and seek to control the computational infrastructure that is now embedded in every aspect of our lives, including, and perhaps especially, in our politics. And the failure to understand and democratically regulate such technology leaves society subject to the whims of the often egomaniacal and anti-democratic nerds who design and run such systems.

In that spirit, I’ll try my best below to simplify The Stack into a map we can actually understand and therefore might be inclined to use.

In The Stack Bratton observers that we have entered the era of what he calls “planetary scale computation.” Our whole global system of processing and exchanging information, from undersea fiber-optic cables, satellites, cell-phone towers, server farms, corporate and personal computers along with our ubiquitous smartphones he see sees as “an accidental megastructure” that we have cobbled together without really understanding what we are building. Bratton’s goal, in a sense, is to map this structure by treating it as a “stack”, dissecting it into what he hopes are clearly discernible “layers.” There are six of these: Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface and User.

It is the Earth layer that I find both the most important and the most often missed when it comes to discussions of the political economy of code. Far too often the Stack is represented as something that literally is virtual, disconnected from the biosphere in a way that the other complex artificial systems upon which we have come to depend, such as the food system or the energy system, could never be as a matter of simple common sense. And yet the Stack, just like everything else human beings do, is dependent upon and effects the earth. As Bratton puts it in his Lovecraftian prose:

The Stack terraforms the host planet by drinking and vomiting its elemental juices and spitting up mobile phones. After its short career as a little computing brick within a larger megamachine, its fate at the dying end of the electronics component life cycle is just as sad. What is called “electronic waste” inverts the process that pulls entropic reserves of metal and oil from the ground and given form, and instead partially disassembles them and reburies them, sometimes a continent away and sometimes right next door. (p.83)

The rare earth minerals upon which much of modern technology depends come at the cost of environmental degradation and even civil war, as seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Huge areas of the earth are now wastelands festooned with the obsolescent silicon of our discarded computers and cell phones picked over by the world’s poorest for whatever wealth might be salvaged.

The Stack consumes upwards of 10 percent of the world’s energy. It’s an amount that is growing despite the major tech players efforts to diminish its footprint by relocating servers in the arctic, and, perhaps soon, under the sea. Although gains in efficiency have, at least temporarily, slowed the rate of growth in energy use.

The threat to the earth from the Stack, as Bratton sees it, is that its ever growing energy and material requirements will end up destroying the carbon based life that created it. It’s an apocalyptic scenario that is less fanciful than it sounds for the Stack is something like the nervous system for the fossil fuel based civilization we have built. Absent our abandonment of that form of civilization we really will create a world that is only inhabitable by machines and machine-like life forms such as bacteria. Wall-e might have been a prophecy and not just a cartoon.

Yet Bratton also sees the Stack as our potential savior, or at least the only way possible without a massive die off of human beings, to get out of this jam. A company like Exxon Mobil with its dependence on satellites and super-computers is only possible with the leverage of the Stack, but then again so is the IPCC.

For the Stack allows us to see nature, to have the tools to monitor, respond to, and perhaps even interfere with the processes of nature many of which the Stack itself is throwing out of kilter. The Stack might even give us the possibility of finding an alternative source of power and construction for itself. One that is compatible with our own survival along with the rest of  life on earth.

After the Earth layer comes the Cloud layer. It is here that Battron expands upon the ideas of Carl Schmitt. A jurist under the Nazi regime, Schmitt’s ideas about the international order have become popular among many on the left at least since the invasion of Iraq by the US in 2003 not as a prescription, but as a disturbingly prescient description of American politics and foreign policy in the wake of 9-11.

In his work The Nomos of the Earth Schmitt critiqued the American dominated international order that had begun with the US entry into WWI and reigned supreme during the Cold War  as a type of order that had, by slipping free the of the anchor of national sovereignty bound to clearly defined territories, set the world on the course of continuous interventions by states into each other’s domestic politics leading to the condition of permanent instability and the threat of total war.

Bratton updates Schmitt’s ideas for our era in which the control of infrastructure has superseded the occupation of territory as the route to power. Control over the nodes of  global networks, where assets are no longer measured in square miles, but in underwater cables, wireless towers, and satellites demands a distributed form of power, and hence helps explain the rise of multinational corporations to their current state of importance.

In terms of the Stack, these are the corporations that make up Bratton’s Cloud Layer, which include not only platforms such as Google and FaceBook, but the ISPs controlling much of the infrastructure upon which these companies (despite their best efforts to build such infrastructure themselves), continue to depend.

Bratton appears to see current geopolitics as a contest between two very different ideas regarding the future of the Cloud. There is the globalist vision found in Silicon Valley companies that aims to abandon the territorial limits of the nation-state and the Chinese model, which seeks to align the Cloud to the interests of the state. The first skirmish of this war Bratton notes was what he calls the Sino-Google War of 2009 in which Google under pressure from the Chinese government to censor its search results eventually withdrew from the country.

Unfortunately for Silicon Valley, along with those hoping we were witnessing the last gasp of the nation-state, not only did Google lose this war, it has recently moved to codify the terms of its surrender, while at the same time we have witnessed both a global resurgence of nationalism and the continuing role of the “deep-state” forcing the Cloud to conform to its interests.

Bratton also sees in the platform capitalism enabled by the Cloud the shape of a possible socialist future- a fulfillment of the dreams of rational, society-wide economic planning that was anticipated with the USSR’s Gosplan, and Project Cybersyn in pre-Pinochet Chile. The Stack isn’t the only book covering this increasingly important and interesting beat.

After the Cloud layer comes the City layer. It is in cities where the density of human population allows the technologies of the Stack to be most apparent. Cities, after all, are thick agglomerations of people and goods in motion all of which are looking for the most efficient path from point A to point B. Cities are composed privatized space made of innumerable walls that dictate entry and exit. They are the perfect laboratory for the logic and tools of the Stack. As Bratton puts it:

We recognize the city he describes as filled with suspicious responsive environments, from ATM PINs, to key cards and parking permits, e-tickets to branded entertainment, personalized recommendations from others who have purchased similar items, mobile social network transparencies, GPS-enabled monitoring of parolees, and customer phone tracking for retail layout optimization.  (p. 157)

Following the City layer we find the Address. In the Stack (or at least in the version of it dreamed up by salesmen for the Internet of Things), everything must have a location in the network, a link to which it can be connected to other persons and things. Something that lacks an address in some sense doesn’t exist for the Stack. An unconnected object or person fails to be a repository for information on which the Stack itself feeds.

We’ve only just entered the era in which our everyday objects speak to one another and in the process can reveal information we might have otherwise hidden about ourselves. What Bratton finds astounding is that in the Address layer we can see that the purpose of our communications infrastructure has become not for humans to communicate with other humans via machines, but for machines to communicate with other machines.

The next layer is that of the Interface. It is the world of programs and apps through which for most of us is the closest we get to code. Bratton says it better:

What are Apps? On the one hand, Apps are software applications and so operate within something like an application layer of a specific device-to-Cloud economy. However, because most of the real information processing is going on in the Cloud, and not in the device in your hand, the App is really more an interface to the real applications hidden away in data centers. As an interface, the App connects the remote device to oceans of data and brings those data to bear on the User’s immediate interests; as a data-gathering tool, the App sends data back to the central horde in response to how the User makes use of it. The App is also an interface between the User and his environment and the things within it, by aiding in looking, writing, subtitling, capturing, sorting, hearing, and linking things and events. (p.142)

The problem with apps is that they offer up an extremely narrow window on the world. Bratton is concerned about the political and social effects of such reality compression, a much darker version of Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble”, where the world itself is refracted into a shape that conforms to the individual’s particular fetishes, shattering a once shared social world.

The rise of filter bubbles are the first sign of a reality crisis Bratton thinks will only get worse with the perfection of augmented reality-there are already AR tours of the Grand Canyon that seek to prove creationism is true.

The Stack’s final layer is that of the User. Bratton here seems mainly concerned with expanding the definition of who or what constitutes one. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the use of bots since the 2016 election. California has even passed legislation to limit their use. Admittedly, these short, relatively easy to make programs that allow automated posts or calls are a major problem. Hell, over 90% of the phone calls I receive are now unsolicited robocalls, and given that I know I am not alone in this, such spam might just kill the phone call as a means of human communication. Ironically, the very reason we have cellphones in the first place.

Yet bots have also become the source of what many of us would consider not merely permissible, but desirable speech. It might upset me that countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia are vociferous users of bots to foster their interests among English speaking publics, or scammers using bots to pick people’s pockets, but I actually like the increasing use of bots by NGOs whose missions I support.

Bratton thus isn’t crazy for suggesting we give the bots some space in the form of “rights”. Things might move even further in this direction as bots become increasingly more sophisticated and personalized. Few would go so far as Jamie Susskind in his recent book Future Politics in suggesting we might replace representative government by a system of liquid democracy mediated by bots; one in which bots make political decisions for individuals based on the citizen’s preferences. But, here again, the proposal isn’t as ridiculous or reactionary as it might sound.

Given some issue to decide upon my bot could scan the position on the same by organizations and individuals I trust in regards to that issue. “My” votes on environmental policy could reflect some weighted measure between the views of the World Wildlife Fund, Bill Mckibben and the like, meaning I’d be more likely to make an informed vote than if I had pulled the lever on my own. This is not to say that I agree with this form of politics, or even believe it to be workable. Rather, I merely think that Bratton might be on to something here. That a key question in the User layer will be the place of bots- for good and ill.

The Stack, as Bratton has described it, is not without its problems and thus he ends his book with proposals for how we might build a better Stack. We could turn the Stack into a tool for the observation and management of the global environment. We could give Users design control over the interfaces that now dictate their lives, including the choice to enter and exit when we choose, a right that should be extended to the movement between states as well. We could use the power of platforms to revive something like centrally planned economies and their dream of eliminating waste and scarcity. We could harness the capacity of the Interface layer to build a world of plural utopias, extend and articulate the rights and responsibilities of users in a world full of bots.

Is Bratton right? Is this the world we are in, or at least headed towards. For my money, I think he gets some things spectacularly right, such as his explanation of the view of climate change within the political right:

“For those who would prefer neo-Feudalism and/or tooth-and-nail libertarianism, inaction on climate change is not denialism, rather it is action on behalf of a different strategic conclusion.” (p.306)

Yet, elsewhere I think his views are not only wrong, but sometimes contradictory. I think he largely misses how the Stack is in large part a product of American empire. He, therefore, misinterprets the 2009 spat between Google and China as a battle between two models of future politics, rather than seeing the current splintering of the internet for what it is: the emergence of peer competitors in the arena of information over which the US has for so long been a hegemon.

Bratton is also dismissive of privacy and enraptured by the Internet of Things in a way that can sometimes appear pollyannaish. After all, privacy isn’t just some antiquated right, but one of the few ways to keep hackable systems secure. That he views the IoT as something inevitable and almost metaphysical, rather than the mere marketing it so often is, leads me to believe he really hasn’t thought through what it means to surround ourselves with computers- that is to make everything in our environment hackable. Rather than being destined to plug everything into everything else, we may someday discover that this is not only unnecessary and dangerous, but denotes a serious misunderstanding of what computation is actually for.

Herein lies my main problem with the Stack: though radically different than Yuval Harari, Bratton too seems to have drank the Silicon Valley Kool Aid.  The Stack takes as its assumption that the apps flowing out of the likes of FaceBook and Google and the infrastructure behind them are not merely of world-historical, but of cosmic import. Matter is rearranging itself into a globe spanning intelligence with unlikely seeds like a Harvard nerd who wanted a website to rate hot-chicks. I just don’t buy it.

What I do buy is that the Stack as a concept, or something like it, will be a necessary tool for negotiating our era, where the borders between politics and technology have become completely blurred. One can imagine a much less loquacious and more reality-based version of Bratton’s book that used his layers to give us a better grasp of this situation. In the Earth layer we’d see the imperialism behind the rare-earth minerals underlying our technology, we’d see massive Chinese factories like those of FoxConn, the way in which earth destroying coal continues to be the primary energy source for the Stack.

In the Cloud layer we’d gain insight into server farms and monopolistic ISPs such as Comcast, and come to understand the fight over Net Neutrality. We’d be shown the contours of the global communications infrastructure and the way in which these are plugged into and policed by government actors such as the NSA.

In the City layer we’d interrogate idea of smart cities, along with the automation of inequality and digitization of citizenship along with exploring the role of computation in global finance. In the Address layer we’d uncover the scope of logistics and  find out how platforms such as Amazon work their magic, and ask whether it really was magic or just parasitism, and how we might use these insights for the public good, whether that meant nationalizing the platforms or breaking them into pieces.

In the User layer we’d take a hard look at the addictive psychology behind software, the owners and logic behind well-known companies such as FaceBook along with less well known such as MindGeek. Such an alternative version of the Stack, would not only better inform us as to what the Stack is, but suggest what we might actually do to build ourselves a better one.  

 

Utopia of the Wastelands

Part of the problem with utopia is the question of where do you put it. After all, what any imaginary ideal society ultimately ends up being is its “own world turned upside down”, which means that the world, as it is, must not have a place for anything like a paradise on earth, otherwise an author would have had no reason to dream up a utopia in the first place.

Authors have gotten around this problem by locating utopia on an unknown island, on the frontier, in the deep past, in the future, in outer space, or on some alternate historical timeline where everything has worked out for the good. Cory Doctorow is the first fiction author I’m aware of to have located his utopia in our own society’s garbage dumps.

His novel Walkawy depicts a world where individuals have abandoned a hyper-capitalist world not all that different from our own and relocated to the zones of destruction and decay familiar to anyone who has lived in the post-industrial wastelands of the US, Europe, or beyond. Anyone who has lived within walking distance of a man made disaster or regions deemed lost by the forces of capital rushing around the globe has first hand experience of the kind of environment walkaways hope to build their utopia in.    

Walkaways can find the space to build a new kind of society in these zones because capitalists- whom Doctorow delightfully calls “zottas” find little value in the material and human trash heap they have created. The utopia of the wastelands the walkaways build is indeed a blissfully bizarro world version of our own. Money counts for nothing there, nor do possessions. Merit is a matter of service to the collective good rather than a way to mark one off as deserving of special rewards.

A utopia that builds itself on the basis of capitalism’s trash would seem to have scarcity built into its very design. But it’s just not so. Perhaps no one but Doctorow could have made collective dumpster diving sound so sexy, high-tech, and well…cool.

The codebase originated with the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, had been field tested a lot. You told it the kind of building you wanted, gave it a scavenging range, and it directed its drones to inventory anything nearby, scanning multi-band, doing deep database scapes against urban planning and building-code sources to identify usable blocks for whatever you were making. This turned into a scavenger hunt inventory, and the refugees or aid workers (or in shameful incidents, the trafficked juvenile slaves) fanned out to retrieve the pieces the building needed to conjure itself into existence. p.45

And almost anything that can’t be ripped and re-fabricated from a pre-existing source can be created via 3D printing or crafted via the love and labor of willing walkaways.

The only rival for the leftist ethos in the wastelands are the “reputation economy freaks” whose own version of utopia isn’t so much and upside down version of the world of the zottas as one where the zottas’ false meritocracy- where the “best” come out on top- is supposed to be made real. Reputation freaks hope to make it real via the intricate measurement of every individual’s contribution, through the gamification of human action. Doctorow is having some fun here by showing the absurdity of the current Silicon Valley fad for neo-Taylorism and the “quantified self”.

We’ve known since Jesus that doing good for the recognition of being seen to be doing good doesn’t result in goodness but “in game-playing and stats-fiddling”. Virtue signaling didn’t need Twitter to come about- it’s as old as the Pharisees.

A major problem for contemporary utopianism on the left is what position to take on abundance, above all, how to square the older dream of truly universal material prosperity with the now equally strong utopian desire to be free of the dehumanizing machine– the global network of corporations and bureaucratic processes, laborers and devices which Marx himself pointed out had made our unprecedented era of abundance possible. Such a desire to be free from the machine, on the left, can be found in the desire to return to the craft economy and the organic. At its most pessimistic this newer branch of the left urges an exit from the machine on the basis that whatever prosperity is experienced today is being bought at the price of the destruction of the rest of nature, and ultimately, perhaps, the human species itself.              

Doctorow has mentioned a number of influences for the utopia of walkaways which are really positions on the abundance/scarcity question. He wants to preserve and universalize prosperity but on reconfigured, and more human foundations- a prospect perhaps only now possible given current technologies. Influences such as Leigh Philips, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry And Stuff, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A guide to our future, and Ronald Coase’s 1937 article The Nature of the Firm are all part of Walkaway’s source.  

Walkaway, in one sense, is an attempt to bridge this new gulf among the left between those, such as Philips, arguing that after asserting public control and ownership of the productive instruments of society, we need to go deeper into the machine so as to unleash what some have called “fully automated luxury communism” and figures such as Douglas Rushkoff urging a return to more organic forms of living and an economy based on craft.

In Walkaway ad hoc networks enabled by digital technology combined with advanced and ubiquitous 3D printing serve as an alternative to the huge centrally controlled industrial systems that provide the bulk of our food and products. In the novel Doctorow has given us a plausible version of a makers’ economy where technologically empowered craftsmen are once again the equals of the factory system that had swept them away starting in the 1700’s.

I’ll return to the question of whether I think such a path is plausible in a moment. Right now, I want to discuss one author and her work whose philosophy I think also lies at the root of the utopia Doctorow has imagined in Walkaway, namely; Rebecca Solnit and her amazing book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

In its essence, the argument Solnit makes in A Paradise in Hell is that human beings are essentially good. What undermines this goodness is that powerful minorities are often able to exploit for their own gain the fact that so few of us believe this very fact. Most of us know that if all the state’s police powers disappeared tomorrow we wouldn’t straight away set upon our neighbors to seize their goods and wives. Yet somehow we assume that in a crisis those around us would do just that, as if we personally were somehow the exception to Hobbes’ picture of humankind as being in a state a war of “all against all” absent the threat of violence by the state.

At least that’s what we learn in Hollywood disaster flicks. Get rid of the state and you unleash an even more violent mob.  In A Paradise built in Hell Solnit makes a strong empirical case that this is nothing like what human beings do in the face of actual disaster. Instead, time after time, and in varying circumstances and locations, crises give rise to responses of altruism and mutual aid. As a general rule when faced with the demand that we feed, clothe, heal, and protect our neighbors we do so not merely willingly, but joyfully. The surprising thing is that in doing so people in the midst of horrible privation have often reported experiencing a type of freedom unavailable in the world they inhabited before disaster struck. As Sonit put it:    

The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding. The very structure of our economy and society prevents these goals from being achieved.

Disaster demonstrates this, since among the factors determining whether you live or die are the health of your immediate community and the justness of your society. We need ties, but they along with purposefulness, immediacy, and agency also give us joy- the startling, sharp joy I found in the accounts of disaster survivors. These accounts demonstrate that the citizens any paradise would need- the people who are brave enough, and generous enough- already exist. The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being,so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay. If paradise now arises in hell, it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live in another way. (p.15)

Solnit helped answer for me questions I had stumbled into eons ago while reading the political theorist Hannah Arendt. Her argument was that we moderns only experienced genuine freedom under two conditions, and while I understood Arendt’s assertion that one of these conditions was revolution, I never grasped why it was she also claimed that the other condition in which freedom could be found was war.

In an introduction to the soldier Jesse Glenn Gray’s philosophical meditation on war The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle Arendt grapples with a story from the book where Gray encounters an isolated French hermit who has no real idea of the Second World War that is raging around him:

Who am I? What is my function in life?” This was fraternity, and it was possible because one of them, the old man and hermit, was blessed with “the gift of simplicity” and the other, soldier and philosopher, had been stripped of his normal sophistications, of all that is subtly false in what we teach and learn.

Both were outside civilization, outside tradition and culture, the soldier because war had thrown him into one of those lonely foxholes with nothing to keep him company but “watching the stars at night,” the hermit because it was “as though he had sprung from nature herself… her authentic child… (xii)

This “fraternity” between two human beings was made possible by the unraveling, or self-imposed exile from the world that by its nature embeds the individual in a particular history, culture, and set of power relations and their supporting modes of thought. On this reading the freedom experienced in war has little to do with the adrenaline rush of battle, or the fact that in war the individual is permitted to break the taboo of “thou shalt not kill”, rather, as in revolution and disaster, war can temporarily release the individual from the weight of history, set them free from the complicated structures that define life in modern society, structures which from their nature of being based on machines, demand that individuals become machine-like.

We’ve built these structures largely because they provide for our needs, keep us comfortable and safe in the face of a hostile nature. Yet such safety comes at the cost of each of us becoming a cog in a larger system, easily replaced if lost. Disaster, revolution, and war temporarily restore not merely our ability to act creatively, but to have our actions actually have consequences that change the shape of the world.

Walkaway depicts an escape route into a very similar realm of freedom, though if it emerges out of any of my triumvirate of disaster, revolution, and war it is in the form of a slow moving disaster in which the powers that be have allowed great zones of the world they find superfluous to their profit seeking objective, along with the people who inhabit them, to fall into decay. Science-fiction is always as much about the present as it is the future and the policy of Doctorow’s zottas towards the wastelands is but a ramped up version of the new imperialism practiced by capitalists today. The sociologist Saskia Sassen in a recent essay for e-flux said it best:

These are not old imperial modes where conquerors wanted it all. Today’s financial conquerors want specialized, and selective geographies: they need specific sites within national geographies. They do not want to deal with a whole country. They want instruments that allow them to cut across international borders and occupy only the sites of that territory that they need or desire for their own projects—differing radically from the older imperial land grabs.

As in Walkaway, Sassen seems to imagine a utopia based on the occupation of abandoned or yet to be colonized spaces. It’s a hopeful vision, yet I can’t help wondering if recent events might be warning us that this particular path to paradise might have shortcomings of its own. And I say all this as a person who has consistently argued that we need to renew our utopian imagination and create opportunities for alternatives to our society to be experimented with. Thus if I appear critical of Doctorow, Solnit or Sassen it’s not so much in order to challenge their perspective or goals as it is a means to be critically engage with myself.

Let’s imagine that the largely self-sufficient makers’ economy Doctorow depicts in Walkaway is a plausible alternative to the world of continent and globe straddling bureaucratic systems we currently depend upon for our wants and needs. Though I may completely agree with Limpopo, one of the main characters of the novel when she argues against the reputation freaks that:

“If you do things because you want someone else to pat you on the head, you won’t get as good as someone who does it for internal satisfaction”  (75)

I know that many others won’t. Indeed, the rivalry between the walkaways and the reputation freaks Doctorow depicts show just two of the possible and radically different forms of society constructed using the same technology. Many, many others are equally possible, and while from my perspective the society built by the walkaways is ideal, I know that many others would choose to build something else. And I know this even though I am in complete agreement with Solnit- that in a crisis human beings are more prone to feed their neighbors rather than prey upon them. The problem arises the moment these issues of basic survival, without which no society can exist, have been solved. For at that moment we run into the intractable question- what is the best way to live? The answer to which, far too often in human history, has been a rationalization of our own interest, even when that means the oppression of others for what is deemed to be the “greater good”. I know this because we’re already in a world where the same technology empowers both the very best and worst of people. Encryption protects dissidents against cruel states and creeps at the same time it shields hard core criminals and terrorists groups such as ISIS. Perhaps it has always been so.

A makers’- economy world where anything we wanted could be scavenged from civilization’s refuse or summoned out of the ether with 3D printers would just as likely lead to profound moral and political splintering as a “leap to freedom.”

One doesn’t have to adopt Marxism whole hog to agree that political and social systems are ultimately based on the “system of production” that underlies them. We’ve created for ourselves a globalized, liberal, world order because our own system of production- industrial capitalism- requires precisely this to function. A truly effective suite of maker-technologies might return us to something that more resembles feudalism than anything we’ve seen since the beginning of the modern world.

Splintering would not, of necessity, be a bad thing. Such a world would be littered with utopias and dystopias depending on one’s point of view. Whether or not such a pluralistic system would be better than our current global mono-culture, which has its benefits as well as its all too obvious risks and downsides would depend upon the mix of societies at any one time, along with the relationship between the different societies that inhabit the world.

A splintered world would be more diverse and free, but, unless coupled with a species shattering disaster, it wouldn’t release us from the problems and moral dilemmas we face from living in one world. Policies and technologies pursued by one society might still impact and threaten those living half a world away, we would still be aware of, and feel morally compelled to act, in the interest of sufferers (including animal sufferers) far removed from us. In other words, it’s impossible to see how we should, or even could, walk away from politics- the conflict between human groups- for no such conflict free zone can exist in a universe where individuals and groups must choose between mutually opposing options, and this is the case even when all of those options are good.

The only universe where we could escape these Sophie’s Choice type problems would be one that was wholly simulated and virtual. There’s no need to choose between options when one can fork and have both, no need to fret about the individual and collective impact and consumption on the environment when our desires are just built out of code.

Doctorow has called the central role played by uploading in Walkaway a McGuffin, yet the walkaways pursuit of defeating death by scanning their brains, along with the zottas efforts to prevent these outcasts from democratizing immortality, seems baked into the political logic of the novel. Human abundance, whether of the capitalist or socialist sort ultimately comes into conflict with the rest of nature. It’s a conflict that the virtualization of the human would seemingly solve. As the character Sita explains to Limpopo:

For hundreds of years, people have been trying to get everyone to live gently on the land, but their whole pitch was, “hold still and try not to breathe.” It was all hair-shirt, no glory in nature’s beauty. The environmental prescription has been to act as much as possible like you were already dead. Don’t reproduce. Don’t consume. Don’t trample the earth or you’ll compress the dirt and kill the plants. Every exhalation poisons the atmosphere with CO2. Is it any wonder we haven’t gotten there?

Now we’ve got a deal for humanity that’s better than anything before: lose the body. Walk away from it. Become an immortal being of pure thought and feeling, able to travel the universe at light speed, unkillable, consciously deciding how you want to live your life and making it stick, by fine-tuning your parameters so you’re the version of yourself that does the right thing, that knows and honors itself.  (195)

A virtualized humanity wouldn’t only solve the conflict between humanity and the rest of nature, it would seemingly solve the problem of humanity’s conflict with itself.

Virtualization would solve the issue of human contention because everyone could live in whatever imaginary social order one chose, including, disturbingly, one where you played the role of a tyrant or a sinister god. Perhaps solved is the wrong word.

Yet there are problems with believing virtualization truly would solve our perennial problem of scarcity, let alone the conflict between humanity and nature or the conflict between humans themselves. Even if what Doctorow has previously satirized as a “rapture of the nerds” was available for everyone any belief in a paradise made of electrons suffers from the fact that the material world is not something we can actually walk away from.

After all, running uploads requires all kinds of physical systems and above all the energy to run them. A lot of energy. As the physicist Caleb Scharf recently pointed out:

…our brains use energy at a rate of about 20 watts. If you wanted to upload yourself intact into a machine using current computing technology, you’d need a power supply roughly the same as that generated by the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric plant in China, the biggest in the world. To take our species, all 7.3 billion living minds, to machine form would require an energy flow of at least 140,000 petawatts. That’s about 800 times the total solar power hitting the top of Earth’s atmosphere. Clearly human transcendence might be a way off.

Of course, even if improvements in computations-per-joule have been leveling off, we should expect at some point, in the far future, to have drastically shrunk the gap between the human brain and a copy of it run on a computer, unless, as the neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis has argued the mind is something to complex and stochastic to be digitally simulated.

I suppose, after a long concerted effort, one could eventually put such energy harvesting systems in outer space, yet the quest might prove less one of the creation of new and better simulated worlds than the human retreat into a kind of cartoon. That’s because as Rudy Rucker long ago pointed out in his essay The Great Awakening:

We know that our present-day videogames and digital movies don’t fully match the richness of the real world. What’s not so well known is that no feasible VR can ever match nature because there are no shortcuts for nature’s computations. Due to a property of the natural world that I call the “principle of natural unpredictability,” fully simulating a bunch of particles for a certain period of time requires a system using about the same number of particles for about the same length of time. Naturally occurring systems don’t allow for drastic shortcuts.

Matter, just as it is, carries out outlandishly complex chaotic quantum computations by dint of sitting around. Matter isn’t dumb. Every particle everywhere and everywhen computes at the max possible flop. I think we tend to very seriously undervalue quotidian reality.

Virtualization would be more like Bitcoin than an escape from either scarcity or human caused environmental destruction- it would based on the unequal access to energy and materials necessary for the creation and maintenance of uploaded individuals and their worlds, and it wouldn’t do nature much good until much of this infrastructure was moved off of the earth. Until that time it would be perhaps even more destructive to the environment- because of its hunger for energy- than the world of biological humans we currently have.

Regardless of its effect on scarcity and environmental destruction, retreat into the great uploaded beyond wouldn’t solve the issue of human moral conflict unless we surrendered our moral responsibilities and adopted a laissez faire approach regardless of the consequences. (I find it weird how grappling with a world of uploaded humans results in a reality that is merely an intensified version of our own where we spend much of our time digitally engaged already.) Would we allow an individual to live in any digital world they chose? Would simulated persons have rights? Would we allow the sale of copies of oneself even if knew that copy would be mistreated or abused? If the answer to any of these question is no, then we’re back in the world of moral contention, a world we can seemingly escape only at the cost of our own soul.

If there is one fundamental flaw to the utopian imagination it is the belief that we can permanently escape this zone of dispute. The price of escaping has often come at the cost of withdrawing from the responsibilities of caring for the larger world and leaving those left behind to fend for themselves. Yet there is an even worse option whereby utopians attempt to enforce their particular version of the ideal society by force. The latter is the means by which the hope for a better world has given way to its opposite- to dystopia.

Ultimately, there is no possibility of walking away from the world we inhabit. Rather than leaving we must fight now and forever to build and preserve the kind of societies we want to live in. In his novel, Cory Doctorow has given us a compelling vision of what kind of society we should be fighting for whether or not we can ever enter the promised land.

Ursula Le Guin and The Dispossessed

 

“The State recognizes no coinage but power: and it issues the coins itself.” (272)

                                                 The Dispossessed 

The great science-fiction writer, poet, environmentalist and feminist Ursula Le Guin died last week at the age of 88 at a time when wisdom like hers was needed more than ever. Her last piece of advice, written in light of the panic and despondency triggered by the presidential election was to urge us to calm resistance to become like water, the perfect form to counteract the inflexible hardness of violence and force. It was a wisdom she took straight from the Taoist Lao Tzu whom she had beautifully translated and whose cyclical view of the world as birth and growth followed by inevitable decay and death followed by rebirth had for decades had resonance with her own.

Only a few years before she had seen the decay coming. In an interview with fellow science-fiction writer Naomi Alderman she noted that:

My country where I live is currently in this curious regressive mood. Apparently people are frightened and so they want to go back to what they perceive as the old certainties, and, of course among this is putting women back in their place. And it worries me when I see young women who aren’t worried about this who think they’ve sort of got it made, you know.

She also observed that the time for her to engage in our perpetual struggles for justice had now passed and the torch passed to the young:

But I really have to say, Naomi, at my age- 85- I don’t think it’s particularly my job to look ahead. I think the perspective from where I am in really extreme old age is… how much of the future can it include, or should it include. It’s really not my business anymore. It’s your business and the young-ins.”

Certainly she would have seen in the resistance to Trumpism so far, in the Women’s March, and the #MeToo movement the end to complacency and the basis for something new. The seeds Le Guin and other feminists of her generation had sown have apparently taken deeper root than she feared. Even if this reinvigorated call for equality came with questions and possible dangers as have all sharp moves towards justice before.

I myself had discovered Le Guin quite late in life and what brought me to her was the hope that she could reveal something deep about the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which in one sense, helped give birth to this blog. Below is one of the first post I ever published here on her anarchist version of Utopia. It is not my best work. Yet I still believe, and now more than ever, that The Dispossessed is a book no one who hopes for a better future that does not repeat the error of Utopias of the past should fail to read.    ___________________________

I just finished The Dispossessed, a 1974 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. This wonderful book tells the story of an “ambiguous” anarchist utopia. Though written during a period much different from our own, The Dispossessed  might have lessons for us today, especially for those in the OWS movement whose political philosophy and hopes represent what might be seen as a triumph of anarchism.

The novel is set on the anarchist colony on the moon of Anarres, founded as a breakaway settlement of a movement called Odonianism- a moral and political philosophy created by Odo a woman who railed against the capitalist system of Urras, the rich and beautiful mother planet.  The two worlds under “The Terms of the Closure of the Settlement of Anarres” have interactions limited to a space freighter that exchanges necessities between them 8 times a year. There is a “wall” between Anarres and Urras, and it is the efforts of the protagonist of The Dispossessed,  a brilliant physicist named Shevek to break down this wall between worlds that form the essence of the story.

Without doubt, Odonianism has created a moral utopia. The inhabitants of Anarres, constantly subject to a harsh climate, and in constant danger of scarcity and famine, are bound together tightly and suffer continuously for one another. The needs of the whole community come before all others, even those of family. As is the case with Shevek and his beloved partner Takver who separate in the name of the needs of the community.  Anarres is an organic community that in the words of Shevek arguing with a Urratzi social Darwinist:

Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species are those who are the most social. In human terms the most ethical.” (195)

The people of Anarres have no real government, though it can not really be said that they have politics either. Like Saint-Simon had suggested, without the class war endemic to the state, politics would become the mere “administration of things”.  A series of councils/syndicis make important decisions such as the allocation of work (though an individual is always free to refuse to go where a work syndic requests.  To my ears, these councils sound much like the “working groups” of the OWSM each tasked with a very particular need or goal of the movement. On Anarres they are a place where rotation and openness to debate mask the fact that they can be manipulated for political ends such as the machinations of the scientist Sabul who uses his ability to control the flow of information between Anarres and Urras, and even to control the publication of scientific papers to use the brilliance of Shevek for his own advantage, and take credit for what is mostly Shevek’s work.

It is this ability and desire to control the flow of knowledge and insight (including the insight brought by travelers from other worlds) whether stemming from the flawed human condition of someone like Sabul, or the tyranny of the majority implicit in an egalitarian society, that is the sin of Anarres. For, when combined with an internalized moral code that commands them not to be egoist, the Anarrresti are unable to express their own individual genius. Whether that be in a case like Shevek’s where he is constantly thwarted from constructing a theory that would allow faster- than- light communication, and therefore the enable the strong connection of interstellar peoples to become possible, or the comedy of a non-conformist playwright, such as Tirin, who writes a play about a comic character coming from Urras to Anarres. This suffocation of the spirit of the soul is the primary, and growing, flaw of Odo’s utopia.  As Shevek says:

That the social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience instead of striking a balance with it. We don’t cooperate –we obey. (291)

In an effort to break free from the control of knowledge, Shevek and those around him set up a printing syndicate of their own. This syndicate eventually starts communicating with the outside, with the Urratzi, which ultimately results in the ultimate attempt to breakdown walls- Shevek’s visit to Urras itself.

The capitalist nation of A-Io invites Shevek out of the belief that he is on the verge of discovering a unified theory of time which they will profit from.  Shevek’s journey is a disaster. What he discovers on Urras is a beautiful yet superficial world built on the oppression of the poor by the rich. Not surprising for the time period the novel was written, a Cold War rages between capitalist A-Io and the authoritarian communist nation of Thu. The two-powers fight proxy wars in less developed nations. When the poor rise up to protest the rich in A-Io they are brutally massacred, and Shevek flees to the embassy of the planet Earth. The ambassador of earth shelters Shevek, but expresses her admiration for Urras, with the civilization on earth having almost destroyed itself. Explains the ambassador:

My world, my earth is a ruin.  A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left and then we died…

But we destroyed the world first. There are no forest left on my earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot.” (347)

She admires Urras for it’s  beauty and material abundance, which has somehow avoided environmental catastrophe. She does not understand the moral criticism of Shevek- a man from a desert world of scarcity, and famine.

Earthlings were ultimately saved by an ancient, sage like people the Hainish. They return Shevek to Anarres, along with a member of the Hainish that wants to see the world anarchist have built. The walls Shevek sought to tear down continue to fall…

What might some of the lessons of this brilliant novel be for our own times? Here are my ideas:

1) For the OWSM itself: that the “administration of things” always has a political aspect. That even groups open to periodic, democratic debate are prone to capture by the politically savvy, and steps make sure they remain democratic need to be constant.

2) One of the flaws of Le Guin’s view of utopia is that it seems to leave no room for democratic politics itself.  Politics, therefore can only be in the form of manipulation (Sabul) or rebellion (Shevek) there is no space, it seems, for consensual decision making as opposed to a mere right to debate and be heard.

3) There is a conflict between the individual (the need for creativity, love of family) and the needs of the community that is existential and cannot be eliminated by any imaginable political system. The key is to strike the right balance between the individual and the community.

4) That the tyranny of the majority or groupthink is a real danger for any community and not just a mere bogeyman of conservative forces.

5) The most important thing we can do to preserve the freedom of the individual and health of the community is to keep the lines of communication and connection open. That includes openness to the viewpoints of ideological rivals.

______________________

The deep compassion of Ursula Le Guin is something all of us will miss.

 

How Copernicus Stole Christmas

The Bubble Nebula

For the last decade Alan Taylor at The Atlantic has created one of my favorite Christmas traditions. The Hubble Advent calendar counts down the twenty-five days preceding the holiday using spectacular photographs taken by the world’s most famous telescope. Above is the aptly named “Bubble Nebula”, which remains my favorite if for the only reason that I find it so beautiful. Yet the incongruity of these pictures of our truly awe inspiring universe with the traditional understanding of Advent itself is something never acknowledge. For it seems we can have either this beautiful universe presented to us by science or the equally awe inspiring birth of the savior of humanity which Advent counts its way to- not both.  Let me explain:

The “true meaning of Christmas” as Linus from Peanuts can tell you is that, God, the  most perfect being imaginable, becomes a mere creature through human birth.There is a whole celebratory scene around this nativity with shepherds, angels, and three wise men from the east, but that shouldn’t distract from the reality that the king of the universe spends his first moments in a stable filled with barnyard animals.  This is a version of God that is truly imminent-  in the world- and not like some form of super baby from Krypton, but as a weak and vulnerable one, of earthly flesh and bones, a god who, in child friendly language, “poops and pees” like ourselves.

Step back for a second to grasp the utter strangeness of this idea. This human baby, one of the most vulnerable creatures in nature is, according to the tale, the creator of the universe. A child who can not even speak in fact the omniscient intelligence that knows everything that is known, will be known, or knowable. This “royal birth” in a stable reeking of animal feces is the sovereign of the world, the founder of nations, destroyer of civilizations, the ultimate source of justice.

I came to the recognition of wonder at the strangeness of this tale long after I had ceased being a Christian the traditional sense of the word. I was brought to it by what was a certainly less than five minute segment on NPR by the playwright Peter Sagal who was reflecting on the Christmas holiday as a Jewish man married to a Christian. A clip which I unfortunately have been unable to find, but which has stuck with me ever since.

It is true that Christianity wasn’t the first religion to turn God into a baby, but the Christian version of the story is the one that made it down to our own day. Why would people imagine this strange and beautiful story? Why think of a God so like ourselves?

These questions start to open up once one realizes the types of gods a human god was meant to replace. We tend to see the Greek god Zeus as a somewhat cartoonish figure, with his seduction (and rape) of human women, and his hurtling of lightning bolts, but he was every bit as real a god for his worshipers in the ancient world as gods are for people today. Zeus actually has a lot in common with his contemporary, Yahweh. Both had a penchant for destroying the world by flood when they thought human beings got out of hand. Both based their sovereignty over the universe on appeals to their power rather than their justice. Zeus was the king of the Olympians because he was the only one strong enough to succeed in a divine coup against the Titans. Yahweh’s answer to the accusations of Job that God does not act with justice are answered not with an explanation, but with a terrifying display of divine power.

If Western religions tended to see in human suffering some sort of divine architect with a higher purpose, Hinduism, which is less a single religions than a constellation of religious and philosophical traditions, tended to embrace the creative and destructive aspects of existence at once without a necessary design or purpose behind them. The creation of the new was the product of the destruction of the old so that all of its major deities, oversimplified as the difference between two of the major Hindu gods- Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer, who were both merely manifestations of the one all-embracing god- Brahman. Hinduism too, found need of a personal god, a human god, that bridged the gap between the both traditional gods such as Shiva, or deep and all embracing ideas such as Brahman and found it in the figure of Krishna a manifestation of Vishnu who enters the world as a human being to set it, for a time, aright.

Christ and Krishna are distinct in that the birth, life, crucifixion, resurrection,  and promised return of the messiah in the Christian telling represents a kind of play in which the destructive elements of existence are to be overcome once and for all. Unlike in the Krishna tales God shows up in person only only twice- once to begin the climax to the end of history and a final time to close the book.

This brings me back to the picture of the universe that began with Copernicus and which is on such awesome display in the Hubble photographs.  The overthrow of the Ptolemaic version of the solar system by the heliocentric model of Copernicus had deep theological implications that would call into question the promise of Christianity that the nativity represented the beginning of a path that would bring to an end the endless cycle of creation and destruction- of birth and death- that seemed to be the existential features of the world in which human beings inhabited.

These theological implications were not at first grasped- at least not by most. Newton could sincerely believe that the model of the universe he was building atop the Copernican system was “proof” of the Christian version of God. The philosopher, Spinoza, seemed to grasp the theological implications of the new cosmology with a much clearer eye seeing that in place of the moral architect found in Judaism and Christianity, the new science seemed to point towards a divinity that was both wondrous and beyond good and evil in the sense that all of its aspects- bountiful or destructive from the human perspective- were but different aspects of its same underlying reality.

But, it was the iconoclast, Giordano Bruno, who tried more than any other to grapple with the theological implications of the Copernican revolution for Christianity. Bruno almost immediately grasped what Copernicus never addressed that the end of the Ptolemaic system meant a universe that had to be much bigger than previously conceived, indeed it was likely infinite in space and time. This meant many suns like our own and therefore many earths like our own, and many intelligent creatures like ourselves. And what did Bruno think this meant for the nativity?:

I can imagine an infinite number of worlds like the earth, with a Garden of Eden on each one. In all these Gardens of Eden, half the Adams and Eves will not eat the fruit of knowledge, but half will. But half of infinity is infinity, so an infinite number of worlds will fall from grace and there will be an infinite number of crucifixions. Therefore, either there is one unique Jesus who goes from one world to another, or there are an infinite number of Jesuses. Since a single Jesus visiting an infinite number of earths one at a time would take an infinite amount of time, there must be an infinite number of Jesuses. Therefore, God must create an infinite number of Christs.  *

It is the very scale of our modern vision of the Universe that makes the idea of a singular salvation impossible. With up to a trillion galaxies between 10 sextillion and 1 septillion stars a conservative estimate, giving one planet for each star, would give us an equal number of planets, and even if only a tiny, tiny, fraction of those planets support life, and yet a smaller fraction of those have advanced civilizations we would still have many, many fellow creatures in the universe other than ourselves whom it would be greatly unjust for God, should such a being exist, to have offered neither a soul nor a path to salvation. Should God not have put other intelligent species in the Universe or made it all for “us” it would represent the most colossal waste of real estate imaginable.

The trouble with trying to wed the inexpressibly prolific Universe science has shown us with a Christian narrative that holds to the position that Christ is the primary or sole path to salvation can be seen in the life and work of the Christian technologist- Kevin Kelly. Kelly had his modern “Road to Damascus” moment in  which he hit upon a “technological metaphor” for God  in 1986 while watching Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality enter the world he had created.

I had this vision of the unbounded God binding himself to his creation. When we make these virtual worlds in the future—worlds whose virtual beings will have autonomy to commit evil, murder, hurt, and destroy options—it’s not unthinkable that the game creator would go in to try to fix the world from the inside. That’s the story of Jesus’ redemption to me. We have an unbounded God who enters this world in the same way that you would go into virtual reality and bind yourself to a limited being and try to redeem the actions of the other beings since they are your creations. So I would begin there. For some technological people, that makes the faith a little more understandable.

Given his extensive travels in Asia, as shown in his beautiful website, Asia Grace, it somewhat amazes me that Kelly does not see in Krishna or the Buddha figures who attempt to “fix” the world in the same way as Kelly’s Christ. His conclusion, I think, was the wrong one to draw in being so narrow. Christianity represents not the way but one of many ways to an ethical life and deeper understanding of the paradox of the human condition and our place within the wide cosmos.

What the scientific version of the Universe has shown us is not, as someone like Lawrence Krauss, in his A Universe from Nothing would have it, that God doesn’t exist, or that spirituality is born of ignorance and exploitation as is the view of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, but that the scale of creation is so vast, its possibilities and diversity so beyond human intelligence, that any narrative we create to give it meaning can capture almost nothing of its fullness.  It supports not the clockwork demiurge God of Newton or the intelligent designer and miracle worker of literalists, but something more akin to the mystical tradition found in all the world’s religious faiths. It is the adoption of a perspective of deep humility regarding our own knowledge- both religious and scientific- and tolerance for those whose views are different than our own.

Copernicus may have stole Christmas, but he left it where we could find it.

This post has gone through several Christmas iterations.  “God vs the Big Brain: a Xmas story,” and the original “How Copernicus Stole Xmas”.

 

Forgotten October

Soviet Train poster

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. This stupendous event, which  so shaped the history of the last century has, like few events of similar magnitude that continue to haunt the present, suffered the sad fate of being either being absent mindedly or deliberately forgotten. The lessons of October have been forgotten and brushed aside as a tragic cul de sac of of history for those who believe capitalism’s current reign to have been the  preordained “end of history” and even by Russia’s current autocrats themselves who see in the revolution a dangerous object lesson for those who might be encouraged to throw off the yoke of the vile.

When the weird fiction author and Marxist China Mieville published his vorticose, short history of the Russian Revolution bluntly titled October he did not expect to have the market almost all to himself. But he did. Publishers and historians seemed to doubt whether this century old event could garner any widespread interest. Who cares about what happened in a backward country a century ago? What’s the point engaging with communist revolution when we know how the story turned out? Gulags or Stalin’s demonic psyche are more dramatic material. And besides, communism was a failure, capitalism won the cold war. Even the Russians with their luxury apartments in London and their goldplated candidate in the White House admit the truth of capital’s triumph.

As anyone who has had the good fortune to read his novel The City and the City knows, Mieville is a freaking brilliant fiction writer. His demonstrated artistic skill in fleshing out characters, and more importantly, conveying reality in a new register came across in October, but sadly not enough. If his goal as an admitted partisan for Marxism was to convey the brilliance and courage of the major figures of the Russian Revolution- Lenin, Trotsky- it was only partially achieved for the revolution seemed less characterized by human agency than it was by factionalism and chaos. The Bolsheviks, almost in spite of themselves, ended up the last man standing after the accumulated simple mindedness of Russian czars and above everything the pain and devastation wrought by the First World War built up to the point of causing complete social collapse.

Lenin was without doubt a brave man, but his brilliance as a revolutionary consisted mainly in seeing the impossibility of coalitions between various factions holding while centripetal forces were tearing the Russian empire apart. A society incapable of coalitions between its strongest social forces is forced to chose between the Scylla of anarchy and the Charybdis of tyranny. We know how Lenin chose.

One catches a glimpse of Mieville’s brilliance only in October’s epilogue when he reflects on the legacy of the Russian Revolution. After, with brutal honesty, admitting the crimes of Soviet Communism in the decades following the revolution, Mieville grapples with what the revolution meant. What the revolution revealed was that other futures were possible.

The revolution of 1917 is a revolution of trains. History proceeds in screams of cold metal. The tsar’s wheeled palace, shunted into sidings forever; Lenin’s sealed stateless carriage; Guchkov and Shulgin’s meandering abdication express…. “

Revolutions, Marx said, are the locomotives of history. ‘Put the locomotive into top gear’, Lenin exhorted himself in a private note, scant weeks after the October revolution, ‘and keep it on the rails.’ But how could you keep it there if there really was only one true way and it was blocked?

Mieville quotes Bruno Schulz’ story ‘The Age of Genius’:

Have you ever heard of parallel streams of time within a two-track time? Yes, there are such branch lines of time, somewhat illegal and suspect, but when, like us, one is burdened with contraband of supernumerary events that cannot be registered, one cannot be too fussy. Let us try to find at some point of history such a branch line, a blind track onto which we can shunt these illegal events. There is nothing to fear. (319)

Mieville’s point, I take it, is that the Russian Revolution offers up to us an attempt to breach an alternative future from the junction of 1917. The failure to actually constitute an alternative to the capitalist order that is our own doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and the opportunity remains to diverge again in the direction of the future that was lost.

That is certainly true, but there is something else, something even more poignant and beyond his own authorial fetishes, to  Mieville’s choice of railroads and switchmen as images for lost and alternative futures.

Perhaps the greatest novelist during the most brutal phase of Soviet history was Andrei Platonov. The son of a railway worker Platonov too saw in the locomotive a potent analogy for the world brought forth by the revolution. Early in the revolution Platonov had written to his wife:

Even though I had not yet completed technical school, I was hurriedly put on a locomotive to help the driver. The remark about the revolution being the locomotive of history was transformed inside me into a feeling that was strange and good: remembering this sentence, I worked very diligently on the locomotive . . . ‘

Platonov never lost his faith in Marxism or his affection for the revolution, but the deep humanity on display in his novels ultimately allowed him to grasp the cruelty and absurdity of the Soviet system. He would turn his experience on the locomotive into a harrowing scene in his story Chevengur a frightened engineer drives his train to collision:

The locomotive was quivering with tension and swaying its entire body, searching for a chance to hurl itself down the embankment and escape the power and pent-up speed that were suffocating it. Sometimes Dvanov felt that the locomotive had already left the rails and the coaches were about to follow and he was dying in the quiet dust of soft soil, and Aleksandr put his hands to his chest to keep his heart from terror.

Platonov would compose an even more powerful metaphor in what became his most well-known novel The Foundation Pit. There, instead of revolutionaries driving trains off their tracks, Platonov imagined them digging a giant hole, the first step in laying the foundation of a longed for utopian arcology that would house the dispossessed. It is a hilarious, absurdist tale the likes of Kafka or Samuel Beckett and perhaps the best reflection on the cruelties of bureaucracy ever written.

Andrei had a real example to go on when writing The Foundation Pit. The planned Palace of the Soviets that was to tower 1,362 feet which would be topped by a 6,000 ton statue of Lenin, so large that there was to be a library in his head. With the ravages of World War II the colossus was never built although the Cathedral of Christ the Savior had been leveled to make room for the imagined temple to the new gods.

The point Platonov, who remained a Marxist until the end of his days, seemed to be making with his fiction was to remind the world what the revolution was for. The why of the revolution was to find an alternative to the human crushing nature of both autocracy and capitalism. What it appeared to be doing instead was to combine the worst aspects of both.

There is a history to how this happened, how the revolution went from being a moment of revolution to one of subjugation under far worse chains. At it’s root lie the sweeping aside of real human beings in the quest for an idol of technological and economic progress.

You can see the revolution go off the rails, the humanism Platonov clung to die in an interview of Lenin by none other than H.G. Wells. The model for the Soviet future that Lenin put forward in that interview was drawn from the apparent power of the planned economy that had been wielded by all the capitalist countries during the First World War. Lenin seconded the irrationality of capitalism which cannibalized the productive forces of its own societies a reality he had learned from reading Chiozza Money’s book The Triumph of Nationalization which told the story of the success of economic planning during the war, and its dissolution in the war’s aftermath as capitalism reasserted itself.  In Lenin’s vision, the Soviet Union would be the first nation modernized and ran from above, the harbinger of the post-revolutionary society that would soon overthrow capitalism and run the globe. It was an argument dear to Well’s cold technocratic heart, even if he had little interest in Marxism or social justice.

The seeds for this dictatorship of the experts could be traced well before the Russian Revolution in the dispute between the anarchist Bakunin and Marx. Bakuin opposed Marx’s idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” because as he predicted in his Statism and Anarchy it would leave the oppressive nature of the state intact:

… no state, however democratic – not even the reddest republic – can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves…

Dictatorship of the proletariat would inevitably mean a despotism under the technocrats:

If science were to dictate the laws, the overwhelming majority, many millions of men, would be ruled by one or two hundred experts. Actually it would be even fewer than that, because not all of science is concerned with the administration of society. This would be the task of sociology – the science of sciences – which presupposes in the case of a well-trained sociologist that he have an adequate knowledge of all the other sciences. How many such people are there in Russia – in all Europe? Twenty or thirty – and these twenty or thirty would rule the world? Can anyone imagine a more absurd and abject despotism?

Lenin’s experiment with “war communism”, technocratic management of the economy, ended in starvation, social collapse and rebellion. Yet if the man’s true genius lie anywhere it was in his flexibility in the face of events.

With the New Economic Policy he reversed course and adopted a limited form of capitalism. He also, in the face of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion that grew out of the failure of war communism, put an end to the “soviets” the councils of average citizens and workers who arose out of the revolution to take control of their fate and he imposed the centralized control of society by the Bolsheviks. For a time the nascent Soviet Union would have the worse of both worlds: an economy based on capitalist economics with all political power concentrated in the hands of one party. A world not all that dissimilar to the one found in China today. The NEP itself would be killed by Stalin who returned to Lenin’s idea of modernization from above only this time with a cruelty and speed Lenin could never have imagined.

It’s with the lost opportunity of the soviets that I so wish Mieville would have focused his considerable talents and attention. For a time, the collapse of the old autocratic regime during the revolution really did open up new spaces of freedom where citizens took control over their own economic and political affairs through the soviets and enabled rapid progressive reforms that would take decades elsewhere to unfold. In October Mieville does draw our attention to these human possibilities opened up by the revolution.

October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ protections and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalization of homosexuality, 100 years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the flourishing of adult schools. A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory. And though these moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise. (317)

Who were the people who occupied this temporary space of freedom, and how was their freedom gained and lost? What does this real freedom look like? It is into their utopias I wish Mieville would have taken us rather than focus on the “great men” of history who ultimately drove the revolution to its doom.

The source of the lost and now forgotten freedom of the October Revolution Mieville seems to find in the hopeless and besieged revolutionaries in a world where the expected communists revolutions in Europe failed to arrive and the capitalist powers remained implacably hostile to the revolutionary society.

There’s certainly much too that, when Stalin abandoned the NEP in 1928 and began the forced, rapid modernization of the Soviet Union he did so in large part for geopolitical reasons. All of the big powers at this time understood that power of a unified, fully industrialized, continental state; namely, the then isolationist United States. Multiple powers during the 1930’s: Japan, Germany, the USSR, the British Empire would struggle with how to configure themselves into something on par with the US, both to protect themselves and to project power. This was how the Nazi jurists Carl Schmitt understood German expansionism.

And yet, all the pieces for the type of totalitarian society the Soviet Union became were already in place before these imperatives became apparent. On the left, Bakunin had warned of the potential for technocratic despotism within Marxism itself just as on the right Dostoyevsky had predicted something similar with his parable of The Grand Inquisitor and warned us that the quest after material prosperity might ultimately mean the death of our humanity.

In light of the seeming success of systems where ruling elites took control of both economics and information during the First World War Lenin had tried to move the Soviet Union in the direction of a centrally controlled economy. Coupled with the collapse of capitalism in the depression in the 1930’s Stalin’s economics of “the five year plan” didn’t appear retrograde but a glimpse of the future. His iteration of the theme particularly brutal- collectivization resulting in perhaps 12 million deaths- because of the speed at which Soviet society be industrialized relied on the corpse of its overwhelmingly larger agricultural sector. Nevertheless, the idea that the society of the future would be technocratically managed was nearly universal from the 1930’s onward with H.G. Wells being a particularly vocal proponent of this view.

We know how this idea began to unravel in Western countries with revolts against “the establishment” starting in the 1960’s, how the Chinese in the late 1970’s adopted a version of Lenin’s NEP, and how the sclerotic bureaucracy that the Soviet Union had become imploded a decade later. Still, one might legitimately wonder given the rise and spectacular success of behemoth companies that are essentially planning algorithms; most notably Amazon and Wal Mart, whether the types of command economics dreamed up in the early 20th century were just computationally premature. Thanks to Moore’s Law might we have the capacity to rationally manage our economies in a way previously impossible? Might this be done in a way that retained the humanism of figures like Platonov? Those are big questions that will have to wait for another day.

 

 

Yuval Harari Drinks the Kool Aid

Like everything else in life, a book’s publication can have good or bad timing. Good timing happens when a newly published book seems just a little bit ahead of the prevailing zeitgeist, when it seems to have anticipated events or realizations almost no else seemed to be grappling with on the day of its publication, but have now burst upon the public with a sudden irresistible force.

In this authors, to the extent they are still read, or even just talked about, play the role formerly occupied by prophets or Oracles. Such authorial prophecy is  a role rapidly disappearing, to be replaced, many predict, by artificial intelligence and big data. It probably won’t matter much. Neither are very good at predicting the future anyway.

A prophetic book badly timed doesn’t mean it’s analysis is wrong, but perhaps just premature. Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow is either one or the other. It’s either badly timed and right because it’s premature, or badly timed and wrong because its analysis is deeply flawed.

For those who haven’t read the book, or as a reminder for those who have, Harari’s essential point in Homo Deus is that “Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, wealth and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity.” (21) Harari believes this even if he seems to doubt the wisdom of such goals, and even in light of the fact that he admits this same humanity is facing ecological catastrophe and a crisis of ever mounting inequality between, if not within, societies.

The fact that Harari could draw this conclusion regarding what humanity should do next stems from the fact that he sees liberal humanism as the only real game left in town. He sees the revanche de deus in the Middle East and elsewhere as little but a sideshow, the real future of religion is now being forged in Silicon Valley.

Liberal humanism he defines as a twofold belief which on the one side suggests human sovereignty over nature, and on the other, that the only truth, other than the hard truths of science which such humanism believes in, is the truth that emerges from within the individual herself.

It is this reliance upon the emotions welling up from the self which Harari believes will ultimately be undone by the application of the discovery of science, which Harari holds is that, at rock bottom, the individual is nothing but “algorithms”. Once artificial algorithms are perfected they will be able to know the individual better than that individual knows herself. Liberal humanism will then give way to what Harari calls “Dataism”.

Harari’s timing proved to be horribly wrong because almost the moment proclaimed the victory of Liberal humanism all of its supposedly dead rivals, on both the right (especially) and the left (which included a renewed prospect of nuclear war) seemed to spring zombie-like from the grave as if to show that word of their demise had been greatly exaggerated. Of course, all of these rivals (to mix my undead metaphors) were merely mummified versions of early 20th century collective insanities, which meant they were also forms of humanism. Whether one chose to call them illiberal humanisms or variants of in-humanism being a matter of taste, all continued to have the human as their starting point.

Yet at the same time nature herself seemed determined to put paid to the idea that any supposed transcendence of humanity over nature had occurred in the first place. The sheer insignificance of human societies in the face of storms where an “average hurricane’s wind energy equals about half of the world’s electricity production in a year. The energy it releases as it forms clouds is 200 times the world’s annual electricity use,” and “The heat energy of a fully formed hurricane is “equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes,”  has recently been made all too clear. The idea that we’ve achieved the god-like status of reigning supreme over nature isn’t only a fantasy, it’s proving to be an increasingly dangerous one.

That said, Harari remains a compassionate thinker. He’s no Steven Pinker brushing under the rug past and present human and animal suffering so he can make make his case that things have never been better.  Also, unlike Pinker and his fellow travelers convinced of the notion of liberal progress, Harari maintains his sense of the tragic. Sure, 21st century peoples will achieve the world humanists have dreamed of since the Renaissance, but such a victory, he predicts, will prove Pyrrhic. Such individuals freed from the fear of scarcity, emotional pain, and perhaps even death itself, will soon afterward find themselves reduced to puppets with artificial intelligence pulling the strings.

Harari has drank the Silicon Valley Kool Aid. His cup may be half empty when compared to that of other prophets of big data whose juice is pouring over the styrofoam edge, but it’s the same drink just the same.

Here’s Harrai manifesting all of his charm as a writer on this coming Dataism in all its artificial saccharine glory:

“Many of us would be happy to transfer much of our decision making processes into the hands of such a system, or at least consult with it whenever we make important choices. Google will advise us which movie to see, where to go on holiday, what to study in college, which job offer to accept, and even whom to date and marry. ‘Listen Google’, I will say ‘both John and Paul are courting me. I like both of them, but in different ways, and it’s so hard for me to make up my mind. Given everything you know, what do you advise me to do?’

And Google will answer: ‘Well, I’ve known you since the day you were born. I have read all your emails, recorded all your phone calls, and know your favorite films, your DNA and the entire biometric history of your heart. I have exact data about each date you went on, and, if you want, I can show you second-by-second graphs of your heart rate, blood pressure and sugar levels whenever you went on a date with John or Paul. If necessary, I can even provide you with an accurate mathematical ranking of every sexual encounter you had with either of them. And naturally, I know them as well as I know you. Based on all this information, on my superb algorithms, and on decade’s worth of statistics about millions of relationships- I advise you to go with John, with an 87 percent probability that you will be more satisfied with him in the long run.” (342)

Though at times in Homo Deus Harari seems  distressed by his own predictions, in the quote above he might as well be writing an advertisement for Google. Here he merely echoes the hype for the company expressed by Executive Chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Eric Schmidt. It was Schmidt who gave us such descriptions of what Google’s ultimate aims were as:

We don’t need you to  type at all because we know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less guess what you’re thinking about.

And that the limits on how far into the lives of its customers the company would peer, would be “to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it”. In the pre-Snowden Silicon Valley salad days Schmidt had also dryly observed:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

It’s not that Harari is wrong in suggesting that entities such as Google won’t continue to use technology to get right under their customer’s skin, it’s that he takes their claims to know us better than we know ourselves, or at least be on the road to such knowledge, as something other than extremely clever PR.

My doubts about Google et al’s potential to achieve the omnipotence of Laplace’s Demon  doesn’t stem from any romantic commitment to human emotions but from the science of emotion itself. As the cognitive neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has been vocally trying to inform a public suffused with antiquated notions about how the brain actually  works: physiologists have never been able to discover a direct correlation between a bodily state and a perceived emotion. A reported emotion, like anger, will not just manifest itself in a physiologically distinct way in two different individuals, at different times anger can physiologically manifest itself differently in the same individual.

Barrett also draws our attention to the fact that there is little evidence that particular areas of the brain are responsible for a specific emotion, implying, to my lights, that much of current FMRI scanning based on blood flows and the like may face the same fate as phrenology.

Thus the kinds of passive “biometric monitoring” Harari depicts seems unlikely to lead to an AI that can see into a person’s soul in the way he assumes, which doesn’t mean algorithmic-centric corporations won’t do their damnedest to make us think they can do just that. And many individuals probably will flatten and distort aspects of life that do not lend themselves to quantification in a quixotic quest for certainty, flattening their pocketbooks at the same time.

True believers in the “quantified self” will likely be fooled into obsessive self measurement by the success of such methods in sports along with the increasing application to them of such neo-Taylorist methods in the workplace. Yet, while perfecting one’s long-short technique, or improving at some routine task, are easily reducible to metrics, most of life, and almost all of the interesting parts about living, are not. A person who believed in his AI’s “87 percent probability” would likely think they are dealing with science when in reality they are confronting a 21st century version of the Oracle at Delphi, sadly minus the hallucinogens.

Even were we able to reach deep inside the brain to determine the wishes and needs of our “true selves”, we’d still be left with these conundrums. The decisions of an invasive AI that could override our emotions would either leave us feeling that we had surrendered our free will to become mere puppets, or would be indistinguishable from the biologically evolved emotional self we were trying to usurp. For the fact of the matter is the emotions we so often confuse with the self are nothing but the unending wave of internal contentment and desire that oscillates since the day we are born. As a good Buddhist Harari should know this. Personhood consists not in this ebb and flow, but emerges as a consequence of our commitments and life projects, and they remain real commitments and legitimate projects only to the extent we are free to break or abandon them.

Harari’s central assumption in Homo Deus, that humanity is on the verge of obtaining God like certainty and control, is, of course, a social property much more so than civilization’s longed for gift to individuals. The same kind of sovereignty he predicts individuals will gain over the contingencies of existence and their biology he believes they will collectively exercise over nature itself. Yet even collectively and at the global scale such control is an illusion.

The truth implied in the idea of the Anthropocene is not that humanity now lords over nature, but that we have reached such a scale that we have ourselves become part of nature’s force. Everything we do at scale, whatever its intention, results in unforeseen consequences we are then forced to react to and so on and so on in cycle that is now clearly inescapable. Our eternal incapacity to be self-sustaining is the surest sign that we are not God. As individuals we are inextricably entangled within societies with both entangled by nature herself. This is not a position from which either omniscience or omnipotence are in the offing.

Harari may have made his claims as a warning, giving himself the role of ironic prophet preaching not from a Levantine hillside but a California TED stage. Yet he is likely warning us about the wrong things. As we increasingly struggle with the problems generated by our entanglement, as we buckle as nature reacts, sometimes violently, to the scale of our assaults and torque, as we confront a world in which individuals and cultures are wound ever more tightly, and uncomfortably, together we might become tempted to look for saviors. One might then read Homo Deus and falsely conclude the entities of Dataism should fill such a role, not because of their benevolence, but on account of their purported knowledge and power.