Utopia Now!

the-holy-city-shakers

Given all the chaos and pessimism lately and in light of the fact that with the inauguration of Trump we will be walking into very dangerous times, it’s perhaps a good moment for a little bit of hope, though the progressive rallies over the last few days certainly make me feel hopeful.

As his inauguration speech made clear, Trump’s victory signals the end of the liberal order that has defined the world since the end of the Second World War. An order based on the twin pillars of American hegemony and capitalist economics, a transformation that presents both grave dangers and opportunities to think the world anew.

David Graber managed to articulate what this opportunity means in a recent issue of The Baffler though here he was talking about similar political upheavals in the United Kingdom post-Brexit. According to Graber, what marks the teen years of the 21st century is that we’re starting to finally imagine genuinely radical alternatives to the world we currently live in. He writes:

It’s not just the predictable arrival of the economic luminaries to hold court with the new shadow chancellor—everyone from Joseph Stiglitz and Ann Pettifor, to Yanis Varoufakis and Thomas Piketty. Genuinely radical ideas are being debated and proposed. Should the left be pursuing accelerationism, pushing the contradictions of capitalism forward with rapid growth and development, or should it aim toward a total shift of values and radical de-growth? Or should we be moving toward what Novara, the media initiative that emerged from the 2010 student movement, began cheerfully referring to as FALC—or Fully Automated Luxury Communism—encouraging technologies like 3-D printing to aim for a world of Star Trek–style replicators where everything is free? Should the central bank enact “quantitative easing for the people,” or a universal citizen’s income policy, or should we go the way of Modern Money Theory and universal jobs guarantees?

The question remains of how to give any such new progressive order(s) the light and air they need to survive given the fact that reactionary forces are now in control of all the  suffocating powers of the deep state.

One idea making the rounds, and one potential source of hope, is the federal system of US politics itself, which has previously been the purview of the right.  Instead, of conservative defenders of state’s rights progressives might be able to pursue their agenda and protect their populations at the state and local level. Indeed, a movement advocating secession by greens and the left has been slowly growing for at least a decade.

None of which is a bad idea in so far as such initiatives also have a national, and even global, component which succeeds in establishing alliances across civil society to oppose and thwart any component of the Trump administration’s policies that threaten to unravel political, social, and economic protections. Combined with such alliances small areas could be used as staging grounds for progressive experiments  (such as universal basic income) and examples of truly just and sustainable forms of society.

The danger here is that sovereignty continues to be located in the federal government and the Trump administration may use this power to aggressively pursue, under the concealment of nationalism, the same kinds of neo-liberal deconstruction of state protections the US has pushed on less developed countries since the end of the cold war and strangle such experiments in the crib.

More on that another time. What’s important for my purposes now is how the very loss of national control by the progressive movement, for what may prove a very extended period, offers up an opportunity for experimentation on the level of cities and regions that hasn’t existed since the New Deal.

One place I think we might look for model of how we could approach this period  should be early 19th century utopianism. Like most of us, though for much different reasons, these utopians wanted nothing to do with the violence required by revolution. The reason in their case being that they had just come through the bloodletting of the French Revolution and had no stomach for a repeat of the Terror, which ultimately ended up in the victory of the right (Napoleon) anyway.

Our own squeamishness to violence might have to do with the profound change in norms that has occurred since the 19th century, but it’s just as likely a consequence of the fact that to engage in violence, by which I don’t mean punching neo-Nazis in the face but going toe-to-toe with the power apparatus of the security state, is to oppose the state where it is at its strongest, and therefore merely ends up bolstering what Nietzsche so brilliantly called “that coldest of all cold monsters” along with elites dependent on the power of the state who use revolutionary violence, or even the mere hint of it, as a justification for further oppression.

Violence may have lost it’s effectiveness as a means of propelling political change because, having lost all of its authority, the state rests on little but the threat of even greater levels of violence, a form of power which has now been largely mechanized. The key towards the future is thus not revolution but lies in establishing new sources of real authority assuming, that is, one has given up on saving the Republic itself.

Also like the 19th century utopians we find ourselves at the very beginning of a technological and social transformation which potentially could make real the dream of utopians from time immemorial, that is, the dream of a world free of scarcity, poverty and the necessity that most of adult life be consumed by work.

The fact that automation and resource constraints present both utopian and dystopian possibilities which are matters of political choice and therefore our capacity to ultimately decide the type of society in which we want to live is the subject of another popular book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism by Jacobin editor Peter Frase.

Even when acknowledging the degree of hype around today’s artificial intelligence and its threat to employment along with its often overly optimistic or pessimistic timeline (depending on one’s perspective) it’s clear that the need for human labor to achieve current levels of production and services is either declining or on is the verge of a sharp decline.

While looking to the future is surely among the best thing we can do in our circumstance it is always helpful to explore the space of possibilities open to us by reflecting on the past,   for we have been in quite a similar situation before. As early as 1802, as seen in  James Reynolds’ utopian novel Equality, it was recognized that the application of machine power when combined with new ways to organize labor were going to usher in an unprecedented period of abundance with the question being how the proceeds of such a leap in productivity were to be distributed.

Reynolds was only among the first in what would be a golden age of utopianism much of which tried to establish a balance between the traditional needs and aspirations found in society and the new age of the machine. Because of its status as a frontier and the birthplace of the democratic age in the early 19th century the US became the staging ground for a number of these utopian experiments many of which had originated in Europe. No book is perhaps better at giving us a tour of this utopian landscape than the recent Paradise Now: the story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings.

In part the upsurge in utopian experiments in the early 19th century was driven by renewed millenarian expectations as seen in groups such as the Mormons and especially the Shakers whose austere aesthetic makes them appear almost modern. Yet experiments in religious utopianism had been tried before. What made the 19th century truly different was that it was the first time utopias based on solely secular ideas were attempted and thus anticipated the way in which the 20th century would be defined in terms of rival secular ideologies rather than religious tensions and conflict.

The most widely known of these early 19th century utopians was of course the British industrialist and reformer, Robert Owen. The son of a saddler, Owen moved to Manchester when he was seventeen- in 1788. Ir was the equivalent of moving to Silicon Valley in 1970, for Manchester was among the first places on earth to feel the effects of the industrial revolution:

The new textile machines churned out unprecedented profits and material abundance but they did so by eroding traditional economies, squeezing out the artisan class, and forcing everyone into the factories. (89)

Owen respond very differently to the social effects of industrial technologies than his contemporaries the Luddites who chose to smash the machines as a tool of immiseration. Instead, Owen saw in technology the beginnings of a new type of abundance if only human beings could get the political and social questions right.

By 1799, by then a budding industrialist, Owen bought a massive textile mill in New Lanark Scotland. It became his vehicle for social experiments and transformation, a first step in creating what Owen called The New Moral World.  At New Lanark Owen halted the employment of orphans, sold coal and fuel to the workers at cost rather than for profit. He established a worker’s savings bank along with a free medical clinic. He planted community gardens and provided created an insurance fund. He also paid wages even during crises when the factory was idle.

The price for all this, for the workers, was a loss of privacy and self-direction. Owen policed worker behavior- and was especially keen on preventing drunkenness and adultery by his employees- with a degree of paternalism only utopians are capable of. Yet in spite of these social obligations Owen’s operation was extremely profitable. This divergence from other factory owners who treated their workers as disposable talking animals employing children, paying subsistence wages and failing to provide any insurance, or other form of social support was just the beginning.

In 1816 Owen established at The Institute for the Formation of Character in New Lanark which educated children of the community as young as 2, and offered enrichment courses to adults during the evenings. In the school Owen banned religious instruction, rote learning, and corporal punishment, and aimed to foster what the Rousseau inspired Owen believed were the natural virtues of the individual- virtues which he believed had been crushed by the form of civilization his experiments aimed at finding an alternative to. (91- 92)

In 1825 Owen began an even more ambitious project to test his ideas, this time in New Harmony Indiana. His settlement attracted intellectuals and reformers who hoped to realize his dream of a society founded on equality and shared prosperity. Owen a communist reformer who publicly denounced organized religion visited sitting and ex-presidents and spoke before a Congress that was at least politely open-minded in the face of his radical views. Jennings reflects that:

The fact that Owen’s ideas were given a civil hearing suggest that in 1825, American capitalism had not yet secured itself as a sacrosanct national ideology. (110)

In this respect, in  terms of openness to alternative socio-economic models to our own, we’ve only gone backwards since the founding. Though in terms of racial inclusion (New Harmony excluded non-whites), we are light years ahead of the 19th century.

Yet, despite Owen’s renown New Harmony proved extremely short lived, the experiment having ended by 1827 largely due to its failure to attract and retain the kinds of skilled laborers that might have made the community viable.

Fourierism is yet another early 19th century utopian movement Jennings helps uncover. It was a movement based on the ideas of Charles Fourier, the French thinker who was both a genius and very much a loon who imagined a “lemonade sea”. Despite, perhaps because of his weirdness, Fourier managed to get much about the future strangely right, such as his idea that individuals should pursue employment in those tasks they believed emotionally resonated with their character, that human sexuality was nothing to be ashamed of, that destructive instincts, rather than be suppressed, should be harnessed for the good of society, and that human happiness and the full expression of human capabilities is the very purpose of society. All these ideas which were radical in the 19th century have become common to the point of being cliches.

Eventually, Fouriest ideas for individual utopian communities which he call phalanxes would spread into prominent groups of American utopians including the artistic and intellectual commune of Brook Farm, which became a sort of temporary home and mecca for Transcendentalists like Nathaniel Hawthorne who even wrote a satire on the utopia’s pleasures and folly.

In addition to these Jennings informs us about the Icarian movement founder by another French philosopher Étienne Cabet. It’s a movement which more than any of the other mention above Jennings thinks did indeed have many of the pro-totalitarian flaws liberals normally associate with the word Utopia. Icarian communities based on Cabet’s novel Voyage et aventures de lord William Carisdall en Icarie were not only among the first stirrings of communism, Cabet even gave the movement its name. Lewis Mumford would find more similarities between Icarians and Soviet communists than anything he found in Marx. (259)

Still, it is how Jennings understands the decline of the utopian movement in America during the latter half of the 19th century that I think has the most relevance for us today. Utopianism declined not so much because the hope for a more just social order declined (indeed, the American Civil War even in light of its carnage became a war for a more just order), but because the locus of reform shifted from the local level to that of the national state. Rising middle class prosperity (created through both rapid growth and the labor movement) likewise diminished the desire for utopian experiments because American society had succeeded in achieving many of its dreams. One should include here the fact that the kinds of sexual equality imagined by many of the utopians was also achieved through the movement for suffrage combined with social change.

For Jennings no utopian moment in America has come close to that of the early 19th century, and he sees the communalism of the 1960’s as an attempt at escape from technological society rather than create a different, better, and more human future.

The alternative to not seeing the human world as something constructed by our choices is to either succumb to fatalism or to misconceive our moral project as the construction of a never existent past. Without any possible knowledge of Trump and his voters Jennings foresaw our year of “Make America Great Again”:

Instead of articulating extravagant dreams about the future, let alone experimenting with those dreams, we have made our past into a sort of utopia: a high white wall onto which we project our collective longings and anxieties. (382)

We’ve been drawing the wrong lessons from the wrong past all along.

 

Should Facebook Censor the News?

book-burning-1492

In the era of information wars knowledge of the past is perhaps the only way we can remain anchored to reality. Such collective memory shouldn’t only consist of an accurate record of the facts, but would also include a sense of the history of knowledge and inforwar itself.

When not seen from the point of false omniscience we call the present, history has always been the unwieldy struggle of rival forces, shifting alliances, and enemies that cannot be clearly distinguished along purely ideological or religious lines. There is not, nor has there ever been, a direction to history, it being as Churchill lamented “one damned thing after another”. It’s perhaps the fact that we’ve been forced to re-learn this that makes the present so damned painful. Many of those who thought we were headed towards a brighter future instead find themselves slipping back into nightfall.

At least part of the reason for our shock over the 2016 election wasn’t just the outcome but the fact that it happened when it did at all. Stable, even sclerotic, societies such as ours don’t usually play Russian roulette with their future whatever the imagined benefits that might come if the chamber is found empty. Almost from the start of the 21st century we had experienced shocks none of which gave rise to even minor reforms let alone the kind of political earthquake Trump’s election represents.

As a reminder, since 2000’s we’ve gone through a presidential election whose outcome was decided not by the voters but by the US Supreme Court, the bursting of the 90’s tech bubble, the 9-11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession, two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with nearly a decade of lackluster economic growth despite unprecedented measures being taken by the world’s major central banks. And yet it is now when none of these crises are as acute as they been in the past that their consequent political upheaval has occurred.

What I think such questions regarding timing miss is the fact that not only has the breakdown in trust between elites (especially in the media and the academy) and a large portion of the American (indeed Western) citizenry been occurring across these different crises, but that this erosion has been running in parallel with a transformation of the communications landscape that has upended the ability of elites to as Noam Chomsky characterized it “manufacture consent”.

Since the Second World War, and only starting to unwind the 1980’s ,there was only a marginal difference between Republicans and Democrats (it was Nixon, after all, whom we have to thank for the EPA and Jimmy Carter who started what we now think of as Reagan’s arms buildup). American elites were in overall agreement over the fundamental questions regarding society and possessed means the likes of which had never been seen before to ensure the rest of society also held these assumptions as sacrosanct.

This was perhaps an odd situation give that liberal elites in Western democracies were able to reach such mutual agreement and gain such a degree of public acquiescence absent the types of control over information and speech that had been present both historically and which was so pronounced in the Communist societies that were their penultimate rival. It was the shape of this occluded form of control which political theorists such as Herbert Marcuse among others tried to uncover.

None of these others is more important for my purposes than Noam Chomsky and his book Manufacturing Consent first published in 1981. Ever like the owl of Minerva this revelatory book appeared on the very eve when the conditions it depicted were about to be transformed into something radically different.

In that work Chomsky argues that five features of the 20th century media landscape resulted in a world in which the media, rather than challenge elites, instead helped to consolidate elite control over the public. These five features were:

1) Size and concentrated ownership of media outlets

2) Advertising as the main source of revenue

3) Media reliance on government and corporate “experts”

4) “Flak” individuals experienced when they stepped outside of elite norms.

5) Anti-communism as an inviolable national religion.

By 2016 all of the elements Chomsky had described in Manufacturing Consent had been either been radically transformed or were no longer in existence.

The internet had permitted the rise of alternative or even conspiratorial media of which Breitbart and Infowars were just two prominent right wing examples. While advertising remained a primary source of revenue the cost of producing and distributing media (minus the kinds of editorial constraints of mainstream media) effectively shrank to zero with advertising’s role having shifted to content distributors such as FaceBook that refused to bear any editorial responsibilities.

2016 was also the year of the revolt against experts. The consequence, no doubt, of their repeated failures from the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the financial collapse that had not been foreseen by the phony experts and pseudo-scientists into whose hands we had placed our future- we call them economists.

It was also a year in which standard norms regarding political discourse collapsed, and the national religion of anti-communism was such an ancient memory that a former KGB operative could hack the American election in favor of the Republican candidate and very few within the GOP would be upset about it.

In some ways at least this merely returns us to the pre-cold war era before the kinds of media/elite alliance Chomsky describes in Manufacturing Consent had taken hold. We’ve been moving in that direction for quite some time now with the rise of openly partisan cable news in the 1980’s and 90’s.

In order to get our bearing we might have to look back even further to the period of Yellow Journalism when figures like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer battled for readership using the tools of sensationalism and scandal. Indeed, it was Pulitzer’s shame over his abuse of the truth during this period that convinced him to foster professionalism and standards of evidence through instruments such as the Columbia School of Journalism.

Yet we may have to look even further back. For one of the historical conditions that made the manufacturing of consent possible was the fact that in the late 1800’s information production itself had become industrialized. Those who had access to capital could produce such a flood of material that the effect was to drown out anyone who merely had access to the older, much smaller, means of publishing and distribution.

This centralization continued through post-print form of media. Radio was really only democratizing on a local level, which is why up until the 1950’s culture could still emerge from regional diversity- just ask Wolfman Jack.  National, not to mention international, broadcasts required access to limited in number (and therefore expensive) telephone lines. Television production and distribution was even more capital intensive. And then the internet changed everything. We’re now back to something that resembles the pre-industrial type media world with both its possibility for a truly public form of speech and its lack of any editorial bearing or control.

And yet, though media and speech have become decentralized and slipped completely outside the bonds of control in another they are more susceptible to censorship and oversight via centralized mediators than ever. A concerted effort by Google, Twitter, and especially Facebook, could in reality asphyxiate the platforms of the Alt-right should they so choose. The question is, even if it was politically possible at the moment, should we want them to?

My guess, from where we stand today, is that launching on such a course would not only ultimately fail but would come back to haunt us. Preventing the ugliest of sentiments from being spoken openly does not prevent people from having them, and perhaps it’s the opposite. After all, politics in countries with much stricter hate speech laws than the US have not merely gone down the same dark path as ourselves, but one that is perhaps even darker. The kinds of censorship in the name of social stability and elite interest Facebook is flirting with to secure its foothold in China should give us pause. For not only is this the opposite of the technologically enabled democratic future many of us long for, which would entail real democratic control over such editorial decisions and transparency regarding how those decisions were made, we can never be sure such a weapon used against frankly despicable enemies won’t someday be used by the very same elites to define the despicable- as us.

Imagining the Anthropocene

Mining operations near Green Valley, Arizona. (NASA)

 

Almost a year ago now, while reading an article by the historian Yuval Harari in the British newspaper The Guardian, I had a visceral experience of what it means to live in the Anthropocene. Harari’s piece was about the horrors of industrial meat production, and as evidence of the scale of the monstrosity, he listed a set of facts that I had either not known, or had never taken the time to fully contemplate. Facts such as that the world’s domesticated animals, taken together, weigh not only double that of all the human beings on earth, but are seven times the weight of all of the world’s large land animals combined, or that there are more chickens in Europe than all of that continent’s wild birds taken together.  It struck me while reading Harri’s piece the degree to which we as a species had changed much of nature into something mechanically hellish, and I shuddered at the thought.

If one conducted a kind of moral forensics of the human impact on nature certainly industrial farming would be among its darkest aspects. Luckily for us, such a forensics would also result in some signs of human benevolence, such as the millions of acres many of the world’s nations have set aside for the protection of wildlife, or our growing propensity to establish animal rights.

While a moral forensics would give us an idea of our impact on the natural world right now, the proposed geological epoch known as the Anthropocene is measured in the duration of the geological and atmospheric scars we are leaving behind, for geological epochs are marked off by the differences in the layers that have been put down by planet transforming processes. Collectively we have become just such a process, and hypothetical geologists living in the deep future will be able to read evidence of how we have shaped and changed the earth and the rest of life upon it. Whether that evidence ultimately comes to reflect our uncontrolled and self-destructive avariciousness and shortsightedness, or our benevolence and foresight, remains up to us to decide.

Communicating the idea that the Anthropocene is both the period of greatest danger and a historical opportunity to right our relationship to the planet and to one another isn’t easy in an age of ever sharper ideological divisions and politics performed in 140 characters. Nevertheless, such communication is something Steven Bradshaw’s newly released documentary ANTHROPOCENE does brilliantly introducing viewers to the idea in a way that retains its complexity while at the same time conveying the concept in the visceral way only a well done film can accomplish.

ANTHROPOCENE  conveys the perspective of seven members of the working group on the Anthropocene, along with an environmental expert, on what it means to say we have entered the Anthropocene. Among them are some of the leading figures of twenty-first century environmentalism: Will Steffen, Erle Ellis, Jan Zalasiewicz, Andrew Revkin, John McNeil, Monica Berger Gonzalez, Eric Odada, and Davor Vidas.

The working group was established by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, “the only body concerned with stratigraphy on a global scale”. Its task is to establish whether we have truly exited the geological epoch in which humans have lived since our beginnings- the Holocene- and caused the onset of a new epoch the Anthropocene.

It was the Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen who in 2000 helped revive the term “anthropocene” and propel it to its current unprecedented traction. The idea of the Anthropocene may be academic, but such ideas have consequences and conveying them to the larger public, as Bradshaw’s documentary sets out to do, is extremely important in light of these consequences. Only when we have some intuitive sense of the scale of humanity’s impact on the planet since the industrial revolution can we overcome the much older sense of being dwarfed by nature and that anything we are capable of doing pales in comparison to what nature herself does to us.

Bradshaw’s ANTHROPOCENE tells the story of the development of humanity into a force capable of shaping the whole of nature in the form of chapters of a book. While the early chapters set the stage and introduce us to a human species that has always shaped, and, as with the extinction of megafauna, severely disrupted, nature to our own interests, the rising action of the story does not occur until as late as the 1950’s with the “Great Acceleration”, when human population growth and energy use began their exponential rise. And though the developed countries have since fallen off of this exponential curve, the majority of the world’s population is only now undergoing a Great Acceleration of their own.

While human beings prior to the contemporary period that began around the middle of the last century have always had an outsized impact, only after 1950 has our effect been such to both leave behind evidence that will be discoverable millions of years into the future, and which are of a completely different order than the kinds of scars left by non-human natural processes.

Many of these scars will be located in what the documentary calls “sacrifice zones” areas such as islands in the Pacific where countries tested the most powerful nuclear weapons ever built.  Sacrifice zones are also comprised of the vast areas of the earth that have been scared by our resource extraction, whole mountains torn into in the quest for coal or precious metals. In addition there will be the huge swaths of territory where we have disposed the waste of human civilization. Our plastics and toxins will likely far out last us, while those aspects we most identify with the pinnacle of urbanism- being built of concrete and glass- may survive for less time than the stone monuments of prior civilizations.

Still, much of the underbelly of cities along with other structures and artifacts that become subsumed by tectonic plates will form an event layer, which will speak of the strange species who dominated a world only to lose it, that is ourselves.

It will not only be these debris and artifacts which will call out from the geological  strata the sheer fact of our past existence, that is, what is there, but we will also be legible through what is absent. If we succeed in causing what some are calling the sixth great extinction then many the anthropocene strata will be a kind of dead-zone lacking the great diversity of plants and animals found in the strata before it.

The idea of a planet scared for millions of years by our technological civilization is certainly disturbing, yet the ultimate message of Bradshaw’s documentary neither surrenders to the dystopian spirit of the times, nor does  it counsel stoic resignation to our self-destruction. The message I took from the film was much more nuanced: we have spent the last few centuries transforming a nature we believed separate from us only to learn that this distinction was like a child playing pretend. If we can mature quickly enough we can foster a world good for both ourselves and the rest of life. But should we fail to grow up in time the earth will shrug free from our weight, and the life that remains will continue into the deep future without us.

* Bullfrog Films is the distributor the documentary ANTHROPOCENE and holds the license to to public performance rights. The DVD is featured in their catalog:  http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/anthro.html

 

 

The Deeper Meaning of the Anthropocene

TheSublime1938

Last year when I wrote a review of E.O. Wilson’s book The Meaning of Human Existence I felt sure it would be the then 85  year old’s last major work. I was wrong having underestimated Professor Wilson’s already impressive intellectual stamina. Perhaps his latest book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life  is indeed his last, the final book that concludes the trilogy of The Social Conquest of Earth and the Meaning of Human Existence. This has less to do with his mental staying power ,which I will not make the mistake of underestimating again, than because it’s hard to imagine what might follow Half Earth, for with it Wilson has less started a conversation than attempted to launch a crusade.

The argument Wilson makes in Half Earth isn’t all that difficult to understand, and for those who are concerned with the health of the planet, and especially the well being of the flora and fauna with which we share the earth, might initially be hard to disagree with. Powerfully, Wilson reminds us that we are at the beginning of the sixth great extinction a mass death of species on par with other great dyings such as the one that killed the dinosaurs.

The difference between the mass extinction of our own time when compared to those that occurred in the past is that rather than being the consequence of mindless processes like a meteor strike or bacteria breathing poison, it is the result of the actions of a species that actually knows what it is doing- that is us. Wilson’s answer to the crisis we are causing is apparent in the very title of his book. He is urging us to declare half of the earth’s surface a wildlife preserve where large scale human settlement and development will be prohibited.

Any polemic such as the one Wilson has written requires an enemy, but rather than a take aim at the capitlist/industrial system, or the aspiration to endless consumption, Wilson’s enemy is a relatively new and yet to be influential movement within environmentalism that aims to normalize our perspective on the natural world.

Despite the fact he that definitely has a political and ideological target with which he takes umbrage being a scientist rather than a philosopher he fails to clearly define what exactly it is. Instead he labels anyone who holds doubts about the major assumptions of the environmental movement as believers in the “Anthropocene”- the idea that human beings have become so technologically powerful that we now constitute a geological force.
The problem with this is that Wilson’s beef is really only with a small subset of people who believe in the Anthropocene, indeed, Wilson himself seems to believe in it, which shows you just how confused his argument is.

The subset he opposes would include thinkers like Emma Marris or Jedediah Purdy who have been arguing that we need to untangle ourselves from ideas about nature that we inherited from 19th century romanticism. These concepts regarding the purity of the natural as opposed to the artificiality of the man made- the idea that not only is humanity distinct from nature but that anything caused by our agency is somehow unnatural- are now both ubiquitous and have become the subject of increasing doubts.

While mass extinction is certainly real and constitutes an enormous tragedy, it does not necessarily follow that the best way to counter such extinction is to declare half of the earth off limits to humans. Much better for both human and animal welfare would be to make the human artifice more compatible with the needs of wildlife. Though the idea of a pure, wild and natural place free from human impact, and above all dark and quiet, is one I certainly understand and find attractive, our desire that it exist is certainly much less a matter of environmental science than a particular type of spiritual desire.

As Daniel Duane pointed out in a recent New York Times article the places we deem to be the most natural, that is the national parks, which have been put aside for the very purpose of preserving wilderness, are instead among the most human- managed landscapes on earth. And technology, though it can never lead to complete mastery, makes this nature increasingly easy to manage:

More and more, though, as we humans devour habitat, and as hardworking biologists — thank heaven — use the best tools available to protect whatever wild creatures remain, we approach that perhaps inevitable time when every predator-prey interaction, every live birth and every death in every species supported by the terrestrial biosphere, will be monitored and manipulated by the human hive mind.

Yet even were we to adopt Wilson’s half earth proposal whole cloth we would still face scenarios where we will want to act against the dictates of nature. There are, for instance , good arguments to intervene on behalf of, say, bats whose populations have been decimated by the white nose fungus or great apes who are threatened extinction as a consequence of viral infections. Where and why such interventions occur are more than merely scientific questions ,and they arise not from the human desire to undo the damage we have done, but from the damage nature inflicts upon herself.

From the opposite angle, climate change will not respect any artificial borders we establish between the natural and the human worlds. It seem clear that we have a moral duty to limit the suffering nature experiences as a consequence of our action or inaction. We are in the midst of discovering the burden of our moral responsibility. Perhaps this discovery points to a need to expand the moral boundaries of the Anthropocene itself.

Rather than abandoning or merely continuing to narrowly apply the idea of the Anthropocene to the environment alone, maybe we should extend it to embrace other aspects of human agency that have expanded since the birth of the modern world. For what has happened, especially since the industrial revolution, is that areas previously outside the human ability to effect through action have come increasingly not so much under our control as our ability to influence, both for good and ill.

It’s not just nature that is now shaped by our choices, that has become a matter of moral and political dispute, but poverty and hunger, along with disease. Some even now interpret death itself in moral and political terms. With his half earth proposal Wilson wants to do away with a world where the state of the biosphere has become a matter of moral and political dispute. This dismissal of human political capacity and rights seems to run like a red thread through Wilson’s thinking, and ends, as I have pointed out elsewhere, in treating human like animals in a game preserve.

Indeed, the American ideal of wilderness as an edenic world unsullied by the hands of man that Wilson wants to see over half the earth has had negative political consequences even in the richest of nations. The recent violent standoff in Oregon emerged out of the resentments of a West where the federal government owns nearly 50 percent of the land. Such resentments have made the West, which might culturally lean much differently, a bulwark of the political right. As Robert Fletcher and Bram Büscher have argued in Aeon Wilson’s prescription could result in grave injustices in the developing world against native peoples in the same way the demands of environmentalists for wilderness stripped of humans resulted in the violent expulsion of Native Americans from large swaths of the American West.

Eden, it seems, refuses to be reestablished despite our best efforts and intentions. Welcome to the Fall.

 

The one percent discovers transhumanism: Davos 2016

Land of OZ

The World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland just wrapped up its annual gathering. It isn’t hard to make fun of this yearly coming together of the global economic and cultural elites who rule the world, or at least think they do. A comment by one of the journalists covering the event summed up how even those who really do in some sense have the fate of the world in their hands are as blinded by glitz as the rest of us: rather than want to discuss policy the question he had most been asked was if he had seen Kevin Spacey or Bono. Nevertheless, 2016’s WEF might go down in history as one of the most important, for it was the year when the world’s rich and powerful acknowledged that we had entered an age of transhumanist revolution.

The theme of this year’s WEF was what Klaus Schwab calls The Fourth Industrial Revolution a period of deeply transformative change, which Schwab believes we are merely at the beginning of. The three revolutions which preceded the current one were the first industrial revolution which occurred between 1760 and 1840 and brought us the stream engine and railroads. The second industrial revolution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought us mass production and electricity. The third computer or digital revolution brought us mainframes, personal computers, the Internet, and mobile technologies, and began in the 1960’s.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution whose beginning all of us are lucky enough to see includes artificial intelligence and machine learning, the “Internet of things” and it’s ubiquitous sensors, along with big data. In addition to these technologies that grow directly out of Moore’s Law, the Fourth Industrial Revolution includes rapid advances in the biological sciences that portend everything from enormous gains in human longevity to “designer babies”. Here we find our rapidly increasing knowledge of the human brain, the new neuroscience, that will likely upend not only our treatment of mental and neurodegenerative diseases such as alzheimer’s but include areas from criminal justice to advertising.

If you have had any relationship to, or even knowledge of, transhumanism over the past generation or so then all of this should be very familiar to you. Yet to the extent that the kinds of people who attend or follow Davos have an outsized impact on the shape of our world, how they understand these transhumanist issues, and how they come to feel such issues should be responded to, might be a better indication of the near term future of transhumanism as anything that has occurred on the level of us poor plebs.

So what was the 1 percent’s take on the fourth industrial revolution? Below is a rundown of some of the most interesting sessions.

One session titled “The Transformation of Tomorrow”  managed to capture what I think are some of the contradictions of those who in some respects feel themselves responsible for the governance of the world. Two of panel members were Sheryl Sandberg COO of Facebook, and the much lesser known president of Rwanda Paul Kagame.  That pairing itself is kind of mind bending.  Kagame has been a darling of technocrats for his successful governance of Rwanda. He is also a repressive autocrat who has been accused of multiple human rights abuses and to the dismay of the Obama administration managed to secure through a referendum his rule of Rwanda into the 2030s.

Kagame did not have much to say other than that Rwanda would be a friendly place for Western countries wishing to export the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For her part Sandberg was faced with questions that have emerged as it has become increasingly clear that social media has proven to be a tool for both good and ill as groups like Daesh have proven masterful users of the connectivity brought by the democratization of media. Not only that, but the kinds of filter bubbles offered by this media landscape have often been found to be inimical to public discourse and a shared search for Truth.

Silicon Valley has begun to adopt the role of actively policing their networks for political speech they wish to counter. Sandberg did not discuss this but rather focused on attempts to understand how discourses such as that of Daesh manage to capture the imagination of some and to short-circuit such narratives of hate through things such as “like attacks” where the negativity of websites is essentially flooded by crowds posting messages of love.

It’s a nice thought, but as the very presence of Kagame on the same stage with Sandberg while she was making these comments makes clear: it seems blind to the underlying political issues and portends a quite frightening potential for a new and democratically unaccountable form of power. Here elites would use their control over technology and media platforms to enforce their own version of the world in a time when both democratic politics and international relations are failing.

Another panel dealt with “The State of Artificial Intelligence.” The takeaway here was that no one took Ray Kurzweil ’s 2029 – 2045 for human and greater level AI seriously, but everyone was convinced that the prospect of disruption to the labor force from AI was a real one that was not being taken seriously enough by policy makers.

In related session titled “A World Without Work” the panelists were largely in agreement that the adoption of AI would further push the labor force in the direction of bifurcation and would thus tend, absent public policy pushing in a contrary direction, to result in increasing inequality.

In the near term future AI seems poised to take middle income jobs- anything that deals with the routine processing of information. Where AI will struggle making inroads is in low skilled, low paying jobs that require a high level of mobility- jobs like cleaners and nurses. Given how reliant Western countries have become on immigrant labor for these tasks we might be looking at the re- emergence of an openly racist politics as a white middle class finds itself crushed between cheap immigrant labor and super efficient robots. According to those on the panel, AI will also continue to struggle with highly creative and entrepreneurial tasks, which means those at the top of the pyramid aren’t going anywhere.

At some point the only solution to technological unemployment short of smashing the machines or dismantling capitalism might be the adoption of a universal basic income, which again all panelist seemed to support. Though as one of the members of the panel Erik Brynjolfsson pointed out such a publicly guaranteed income would provide us will only one of Voltaire’s  three purposes of work which is to save us from “the great evils of boredom, vice and need.” Brynjolfsson also wisely observed that the question that confronts us over the next generation is whether we want to protect the past from the future or the future from the past.

The discussions at Davos also covered the topic of increasing longevity. The conclusions drawn by the panel “What if you are still alive in 2100?” were that aging itself is highly malleable, but that there was no one gene or set of genes that would prove to be a magic bullet in slowing or stopping the aging clock. Nevertheless, there is no reason human beings shouldn’t be able to live past the 120 year limit that has so far been a ceiling on human longevity.

Yet even the great success of increased longevity itself poses problems. Even extending current longevity estimates of those middle-aged today merely to 85 would bankrupt state pension systems as they are now structured. Here we will probably need changes such as workplace daycare for the elderly and cities re-engineered for the frail and old.

By 2050 upwards of 130 million people may suffer from dementia. Perhaps surprisingly technology rather than pharmaceuticals is proving to be the first order of defense in dealing with dementia by allowing those suffering from it to outsource their minds.

Many of the vulnerable and at need elderly will live in some of the poorest countries (on a per capita basis at least) on earth: China, India and Nigeria. Countries will need to significantly bolster and sometimes even build social security systems to support a tidal wave of the old.

Living to “even” 150 the panelists concluded would have a revolutionary effect on human social life. Perhaps it will lead to the abandonment of work life balance for women (and one should hope men as well) so that parent can focus their time on their children during their younger years. Extended longevity would make the idea of choosing a permanent career as early as one’s 20s untenable and result in much longer period of career exploration and may make lifelong monogamy untenable.

Lastly, there was a revealing panel on neuroscience and the law entitled “What if your brain confesses?” panelists there argued that Neuroscience is being increasing used and misused by criminal defense. Only in very few cases – such as those that result from tumors- can we draw a clear line between underlying neurological structure and specific behavior.

We can currently “read minds” in limited domains but our methods lack the kinds of precision and depth that would be necessary for standards questions of guilt and innocence. Eventually we should get there, but getting information in, as in Matrix kung-fu style uploading, will prove much harder than getting it out. We’re also getting much better at decoding thoughts from behavior- dark opportunities for marketing and other manipulation. Yet we could also be able to use this more granular knowledge of human psychology to structure judicial procedures to be much more free from human cognitive biases.

The fact that elites have begun to seriously discuss these issues is extremely important, but letting them take ownership of the response to these transformations would surely be a mistake. For just like any elite they are largely blinded to opportunities for the new by their desire to preserve the status quo despite how much the revolutionary the changes we face open up opportunities for a world much different and better than our own.

 

The Revenge of the Pagans: Ovid as prophet of the posthuman

Study of a woman with ram horns, Jean-Léon Gérôme

I would argue that as far as imagining the future is concerned many of us, in the West at least, have had our vision blurred from what amounts to a 2,000 year philosophical hangover called Christianity. But no one ever seems to care about this point. The most common response I’ve gotten from a certain sect of singularitarians and transhumanists upon pointing out that both their goals and predictions seem to have been ripped from a man on the street’s version of Christianity has been- who cares?

“Sure”, they’ll argue, “God’s” appearance in the form of a form of artificial superintelligence that promises to grant us personal immortality or destroy us all might sound a lot like Christ in the Book of Revelation, and certainly, the goal of personal immortality might resemble the “good news” of Christianity, but what we’re talking about is the real deal. Not some mumbo-jumbo about a spiritual world and the soul, but the natural consequence of our scientific and technological mastery over nature.”

Initial assumptions, however, should always be unpacked. Using science and technology to pursue a world fleshed out by the religious imagination provides no guarantee that such a destination is actually reachable via those routes. In fact using religiously derived prophecy to divine the future in such a way might give us a very distorted notion of where we are headed or even the destination we should attempt to reach.

This gap between hope and reality is likely to be pregnant with all sorts of sparks and potent frictions. At the moment my bet for where these frictions will become apparent centers on the monotheistic bent of technological predictions especially in the singularitarian eschatology. That, and what freedom from death would really do to our notions of the self should we ever obtain some materialistic version of Christian immortality.

On monotheism: whether one takes a largely rosy or pessimistic position on the potential arrival of superintelligence, such superintelligence is most often conceived in the singular. In this view, it seems there can be only one superintelligence just like in Judaism, Islam and Christianity there can be only one God. (Please don’t make me talk about the Trinity.) How exactly the first superintelligence manages to abort all its near rivals before they too obtain something like a similar state is unclear to me, but the time between the appearance of the first superintelligence and whatever stable order follows certainly seems the most dangerous, if superintelligence proves to be something like the movie The Highlander and “there can be only one”.

Here we could be left with the dead stability of the desert with only one intellect left standing “god” again alone and by itself. Then again, perhaps the whole idea of a lone intellect, a Boltzmann Brain, floating there in space and not embedded within a world of other intellects is simply unintelligible. Perhaps, intelligence can only ever exists as Wittgenstein would have said in a social world meaning a world where intelligence is plural.

What seems more likely to emerge as the ultimate outcome for any Cambrian explosion of artificial intelligence isn’t some metallic version of God,  but the kind of “balance of power” you find in ecology or international relations whereby there are multiple competitors none of whom proves capable or willing of overpowering or destroying its peers or even the vast majority its lessers, thus allowing a kind of blooming of diversity as players occupy and conform to niches. That’s not the totalizing God of monotheism whose distortions were tragically on display recently in Paris, it’s more like the gods found in the classical paganism that preceded Christianity.

James Hughes has discussed the challenges to our Christian derived notion of selfhood material immortality (should it ever arrive) might bring either in the form of indefinite biological lifespan or the much further off notion of uploading as moving us closer to the notion of immortality found in Buddhism. We can find something similar if we place ourselves in the religious world Christianity replaced and might understand the future as a sort of la revanche des païens.

The figure who best gives us insight into this pagan horizon is Ovid, a Roman poet who lived in the half century before Christ burst onto the scene and replaced that worldview with radically new ones. He was located on one of those hinges of history in which one period begin to slides into a very different future. The poet’s world was one in which what we call the “pagan” gods (Ovid would not have recognized the term-the whole idea of something called paganism was invented by Christianity) were losing their grip on the human imagination, and were being replaced by both philosophy (Stoicism, Neo-platonism) and mystery cults that saw the gods in either more abstract/ rational/ethical or mystical ecstatic ways.

The very fact that the pagan gods were disappearing over the imaginative horizon meant that Ovid was free to exercise his creativity and playfulness in retelling their tales which is what he does in his most famous work, the epic The Metamorphosis.

The central, overriding theme of The Metamorphosis is just what the title implies- transformative change. To get a grasp of Ovid’s proto-posthumanism it’s perhaps best to start near the very end of his epic work in Book 15, and with the figure of Pythagoras.The Metamorphosis begins with the story of the world’s creation and ends with the mysterious man from Samos whom Ovid displays admonishing us to abandon our consumption of meat and adopt a life of vegetarianism.

O human race! Do not, I beg you, and concentrate your minds on my admonitions! When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.

Greatly distinct from the notion that the soul was only a possession of human beings, and all the evil this would cause, Ovid illustrates the belief that there is no clear line that separates the human from the animal and that for us such a lack of a boundary has clear moral implications.

What would have been more striking here, though, for Ovid’s pagan audience was that after having told in a new key the story of the Greco-Roman gods Ovid was undermining the major ceremony by which these gods were worship which was in the form of animal sacrifices where the gods were thought to feed off of the smoke. We may picture something exotic and outside of our experience, but perhaps it was more like my uncle Tom’s pig roasts.      

In any case, the rationale behind Ovid’s pythagorean injunction that we refrain from eating meat was based on the belief in the oneness of animal life and especially the fact that the soul was thought to move between different types of animals from one life to the next. We might find such beliefs in such metempsychosis silly, but it is very close to the de-privileging of the psychological status of mankind found in posthumanism.

It its own way it’s also much closer to the actual truth of the matter animals are thrown into the world just like we are as is clear from a passage in her book Deep Play by the poet science writer Diane Ackerman that I’ve used before:

The moment a newborn opens its eyes discovery begins. I learned this with a laugh one morning in New Mexico where I worked through the seasons of a large cattle ranch. One day, I delivered a calf. When it lifted up its fluffy head and looked at me its eyes held the absolute bewilderment of the newly born. A moment before it had enjoyed the even, black  nowhere of the womb and suddenly its world was full of color, movement and noise. I’ve never seen anything so shocked to be alive. (141-142)

And while the calf may never grasp and abstract the strangeness of being thrown in such a way and abstract it into German as Geworfenheit in the way Heidegger did, or will never compose a great rock song about it, the experience of surprise and Being is there all the same.    

The recognition of what me might call such spiritual equality between human beings and animals for those who take a particularly Christian derived take on sigulartainism and transhumanism would appear to pose the same sorts of dilemma Christian parents face when asked to justify the absence of something like “doggie heaven” for their the beloved, deceased pets of their children.

I am not sure exactly how Frank Tipler and his Omega Point cosmology, which posits that a material superintelligence in the Universe’s future will resurrect the dead in the same way promised by Christianity deals with all the deceased animals of the past besides human beings, but even if he and fellow travelers admit that some animals might be resurrected, once one starts talking about any cutoff point you’ve got to wonder whether the human species at this stage would really be on the right side of it.

Yet the main spiritual orientation we might find helpful to draw from Ovid for the future isn’t so much this challenging of singulartarian assumptions as it has to do with a world in which the boundaries between the self and other are no longer as sharp as they once appeared, and where even the idea of a permanent self no longer makes sense.

Ovid gives us the beautiful Caenis of Thessaly who wished to be, and was, transformed into a man after her brutal rape by the god Neptune. He gives us another rape story that of the male Hermaphroditus by the female nymph Salmacis. Upon the prayer of Salmacis that the two never be departed they were transformed so that:

Now the entwined bodies of the two were joined together, and one form covered both. Just as when someone grafts a twig into the bark, they see both grow joined together, and develop as one, so when they were mated together in a close embrace, they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.

In Ovid humans become animals or even plants as part of the unfolding of their spiritual fate. The daughters of Minyas become bats, Arachne is transformed into a spider, Narcissus is changed into a flower. We might never experience such transformations in actuality, but as our understanding of the brain, not just in humans but in all other animals, improves along with our ability to create increasingly believable virtual worlds not just through projection, but by directly interfering with the brain, rest assured we will imaginatively. Such understanding and technology should give us greater access into the experience not merely of fellow human beings but our fellow animals as well.

Virtual reality could allow us the closest thing possible to a first hand experience of humanitarian crises, analog and augmented live action role playing games allow us to personally experience what it’s like to be the other- of another class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, not to mention inhabit the worlds of creatures that have never existed. We will eventually reach a place where all new sexual and emotional experiences open up for us in ways that will likely challenge any notion of a stable self across time.

We will likely expand these experiences in ways that allow us to enter into the minds of animals as well, so that Thomas Nagel’s famous question “What is it like to be a bat?” becomes in a sense answerable. Our treatment of animals might gain a great deal of moral depth were we to actually experience what it is like to live and die in the slaughter house, or to be hunted for our tusks.

Assuming our survival, given enough time it seems almost inevitable that we will someday be able to directly share our thoughts and experiences with one another. Given the sheer scale of deep time it seems highly inconceivable that should we ever obtain something like material immortality what we think of as our individuality could be preserved across the vast stretches of time in front of us, unless, that is, yet another Christian assumption- that of a timeless end of history- is adopted as well.

If we are forced to turn to religious concepts in order to peer over this historical horizon I think it better to turn to ideas regarding transformation, change, and even magic. If we are lucky, we are not entering the era of history’s climax at an Omega Point, but an age of metamorphosis.