The Flash Crash of Reality

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

                                                                                                 H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu  

“All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control.”

John von Neumann

For at least as long as there has been a form of written language to record such a thing, human beings have lusted after divination. The classical Greeks had their trippy Oracle at Delphi, while the Romans scanned entrails for hidden patterns, or more beautifully, sought out the shape of the future in the murmurations of birds. All ancient cultures, it seems, looked for the signs of fate in the movement of the heavens. The ancient Chinese script may have even originated in a praxis of prophecy, a search for meaning in the branching patterns of “oracle bones” and tortoise shells, signaling that perhaps written language itself originated not with accountants but with prophets seeking to overcome the temporal confines of the second law, in whose measure we are forever condemned.

The promise of computation was that this power of divination was at our fingertips at last. Computers would allow us to outrun time, and thus in seeing the future we’d finally be able to change it or deftly avoid its blows- the goal of all seers in the first place.

Indeed, the binary language underlying computation sprung from the fecund imagination of Gottfried Leibniz who got the idea after he encountered the most famous form of Chinese divination, the I-Ching. The desire to create computing machines emerged with the Newtonian worldview and instantiated its premise; namely, that the world could be fully described in terms of equations whose outcome was preordained. What computers promised was the ability to calculate these equations, offering us a power born of asymmetric information- a kind of leverage via time travel.

Perhaps we should have known that time would not be so easily subdued. Outlining exactly how our recent efforts to know and therefore control the future have failed is the point of James Bridle’s wonderful book  New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future.

With the kind of clarity demanded of an effective manifesto, Bridle neatly breaks his book up into ten “C’s”: Chasm, Computation, Climate, Calculation, Complexity, Cognition, Complicity, Conspiracy, Concurrency, and Cloud.

Chasm defines what Bridle believes to be our problem. Our language is no longer up to the task of navigating the world which the complex systems upon which we are dependent have wrought. This failure of language, which amounts to a failure of thought, Bridle traces to the origins of computation itself.

Computation

To vastly oversimplify his argument, the problem with computation is that the detailed models it provides too often tempt us into confusing our map with the territory. Sometimes this leads us to mistrust our own judgement and defer to the “intelligence” of machines- a situation that in the most tragic of circumstances has resulted in what those in the National Parks Service call “death by GPS”. While in other cases our confusion of the model with reality results in the surrender of power to the minority of individuals capable of creating and the corporations which own and run such models.

Computation was invented under the aforementioned premise born with the success of calculus, that everything, including  history itself, could be contained in an equation. It was also seen as a solution to the growing complexity of society. Echoing Stanislaw Lem, one of the founders of modern computers, Vannevar Bush with his “memex” foresaw something like the internet in the 1940s. The mechanization of knowledge the only possible lifeboat in the deluge of information modernity had brought.

Climate

One of the first projected purposes of computers would be not just to predict, but to actually control the weather. And while we’ve certainly gotten better at the former, the best we’ve gotten from the later is Kurt Vonnegut’s humorous takedown of the premise in his novel Cat’s Cradle, which was actually based on his chemist brother’s work on weather control for General Electric. It is somewhat ironic, then, that the very fossil fuel based civilization upon which our computational infrastructure depends is not only making the weather less “controllable” and predictable, but is undermining the climatic stability of the Holocene, which facilitated the rise of a species capable of imagining and building something as sophisticated as computers in the first place.

Our new dark age is not just a product of our misplaced faith in computation, but in the growing unpredictability of the world itself. A reality whose existential importance is most apparent in the case of climate change. Our rapidly morphing climate threatens the very communications infrastructure that allows us to see and respond to its challenges. Essential servers and power sources will likely be drowned under the rising seas, cooling dependent processors taxed by increasing temperatures. Most disturbingly, rising CO2  levels are likely to make human beings dumber. As Bridle writes:

“At 1,000 ppm, human cognitive ability drops by 21 per cent.33 At higher atmospheric concentrations, CO2 stops us from thinking clearly. Outdoor CO2 already reaches 500 ppm”

An unstable climate undermines the bedrock, predictable natural cycles from which civilization itself emerged, that is, those of agriculture.  In a way our very success at controlling nature, by making it predictable is destabilizing the regularity of nature that made its predictability possible in the first place.

It is here that computation reveals its double edged nature, for while computation is the essential tool we need to see and respond to the “hyperobject” that is climate change, it is also one of the sources of this growing natural instability itself. Much of the energy of modern computation directly traceable to fossil fuels, a fact the demon coal lobby has eagerly pointed out.

Calculation

What the explosion of computation has allowed, of course, is an exponential expansion of the power and range of calculation. While one can quibble over whether or not the driving force behind the fact that everything is now software, that is Moore’s Law, has finally proved Ray Kurzweil and his ilk wrong and bent towards the asymptote, the fact is that nothing else in our era has followed the semiconductor’s exponential curve. Indeed, as Bridle shows, precisely the opposite.

For all their astounding benefits, machine learning and big data have not, as Chris Anderson predicted, resulted in the “End of Theory”. Science still needs theory, experiment, and dare I say, humans to make progress, and what is clear is that many areas outside ICT itself progress has not merely slowed but stalled.

Over the past sixty years, rather than experience Moore’s Law type increases, the pharmaceutical industry has suffered the opposite. The so-called Eroom’s Law where: “The number of new drugs approved per billion US dollars spent on research and development has halved every nine years since 1950.”

Part of this stems from the fact that the low hanging fruit of discovery, not just in pharmaceuticals but elsewhere, have already been picked, along with the fact that the problems we’re dealing with are becoming exponentially harder to solve. Yet some portion of the slowdown in research progress is surely a consequence of technology itself, or at least the ways in which computers are being relied upon and deployed. Ease of sharing when combined with status hunting inevitably leads to widespread gaming. Scientists are little different from the rest of us, seeking ways to top Google’s Page Rank, Youtube recommendations, Instagram and Twitter feeds, or the sorting algorithms of Amazon, though for scientists the summit of recognition consists of prestigious journals where publication can make or break a career.

Data being easy to come by, while experimentation and theory remain difficult, has meant that “proof” is often conflated with what turn out to be spurious p-values, or “p-hacking”. The age of big data has also been the age of science’s “replication crisis”, where seemingly ever more findings disappear upon scrutiny.

What all this calculation has resulted in is an almost suffocating level of complexity, which is the source of much of our in-egalitarian turn. Connectivity and transparency were supposed to level the playing field, instead, in areas such as financial markets where the sheer amount of information to be processed has ended up barring new entrants, calculation has provided the ultimate asymmetric advantage to those with the highest capacity to identify and respond within nanoseconds to changing market conditions.

Asymmetries of information lie behind both our largest corporate successes and the rising inequality that they have brought in their wake. Companies such as WalMart and Amazon are in essences logistics operations built on the unique ability of these entities to see and respond first or most vigorously to consumer needs. As Bridle points out this rule of logistics has resulted in a bizarre scrambling of politics, the irony that:

“The complaint of the Right against communism – that we’d all have to buy our goods from a single state supplier – has been supplanted by the necessity of buying everything from Amazon.”

Yet unlike the corporate giants of old such as General Motors, our 21st century behemoths don’t actually employ all that many people, and in their lust after automation, seem determined to employ even less. The workplace, and the larger society, these companies are building seem even more designed around the logic of machines than factories in the heyday of heavy industry. The ‘chaotic storage’ deployed in Amazon’s warehouses is like something dreamed up by Kafka, but that’s because it emerges out of the alien “mind” of an algorithm, a real world analog to Google’s Deep Dream.

The world in this way becomes less and less sensible, except to the tiny number of human engineers who, for the moment, retain control over its systems. This is a problem that is only going to get worse with the spread of the Internet of Things. An extension of computation not out of necessity, but because capitalism in its current form seems hell bent on turning all products into services so as to procure a permanent revenue stream. It’s not a good idea. As Bridle puts it:

“We are inserting opaque and poorly understood computation at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – respiration, food, sleep, and homeostasis – at the precise point, that is, where we are most vulnerable.”

What we should know by now, if anything, is that the more connected things are, the more hackable they become, and the more susceptible to rapid and often unexplainable crashes. Turning reality into a type of computer simulations comes with the danger the world at large might experience the kind of “flash crash” now limited to the stock market. Bridle wonders if we’ve already experienced just such a flash crash of reality:

“Or perhaps the flash crash in reality looks exactly like everything we are experiencing right now: rising economic inequality, the breakdown of the nation-state and the militarisation of borders, totalising global surveillance and the curtailment of individual freedoms, the triumph of transnational corporations and neurocognitive capitalism, the rise of far-right groups and nativist ideologies, and the utter degradation of the natural environment. None of these are the direct result of novel technologies, but all of them are the product of a general inability to perceive the wider, networked effects of individual and corporate actions accelerated by opaque, technologically augmented complexity.”

Cognition

It’s perhaps somewhat startling that even as we place ourselves in greater and greater dependence on artificial intelligence we’re still not really certain how or even if machines can think. Of course, we’re far from understanding how human beings exhibit intelligence, but we’ve never been confronted with this issue of inscrutability when it comes to our machines. Indeed, almost the whole point of machines is to replace the “herding cats” element of the organic world with the deterministic reliability of classical physics. Machines are supposed to be precise, predictable, legible, and above all, under the complete control of the human beings who use them.

The question of legibility today hasn’t gone far beyond the traditional debate between the two schools of AI that have rivaled each other since the field’s birth. There are those who believe intelligence is merely the product of connections between different parts of the brain and those who think intelligence has more to do with the mind’s capacity to manipulate symbols. In our era of deep learning the Connectionists hold sway, but it’s not clear if we are getting any closer to machines actually understanding anything, a lack of comprehension that can result in the new comedy genre of silly or disturbing mistakes made by computers, but that also presents us with real world dangers as we place more and more of our decision making upon machines that have no idea what any of the data they are processing actually means even as these programs discover dangerous hacks such as deception that are as old as life itself.

Complicity

Of course, no techno-social system can exist unless it serves the interest of at least some group in a position of power. Bridle draws an analogy between the society in ancient Egypt and our own. There, the power of the priests was premised on their ability to predict the rise and fall of the Nile. To the public this predictive power was shrouded in the language of the religious castes’ ability to commune with the gods, all the while the priests were secretly using the much more prosaic technology of nilometers hidden underground.

Who are the priests of the current moment? Bridle makes a good case that it’s the “three letter agencies”, the NSA, MI5 and their ilk that are the priests of our age. It’s in the interest of these agencies, born in the militarized atmosphere of the Cold War and the War on Terrorism that the logic of radical transparency continues to unfold- where the goal is to see all and to know all.

Who knows how vulnerable these agencies have made our communications architecture in trying to see through it? Who can say, Bridle wonders, if the strongest encryption tools available haven’t already been made useless by some genius mathematician working for the security state? And here is the cruel irony of it all, that the agencies whose quest is to see into everything are completely opaque to the publics they supposedly server. There really is a “deep state” though given our bizzaro-land media landscape our grappling with it quickly gives way conspiracy theories and lunatic cults like Q-Anon.

Conspiracy

The hunt for conspiracy stems from the understandable need of the human mind to simplify. It is the search for clear agency where all we can see are blurred lines. Ironically, believers in conspiracy hold more expansive ideas of power and freedom than those who explain the world in terms of “social forces” or other necessary abstractions. For a conspiracists the world is indeed controllable it’s just a matter that those doing the controlling happen to be terrifying.  None of this makes conspiracy anything but an unhinged way of dealing with reality, just a likely one whenever a large number of individuals feel the world is spinning out of control.

The internet ends up being a double boon for conspiracists politics because it both fragments the shared notion that of reality that existed in the age of print and mass media while allowing individuals who fall under some particular conspiracy’s spell to find one another and validate their own worldview. Yet it’s not just a matter of fragmented media and the rise of filter bubbles that plague us but a kind of shattering of our sense of reality itself.

Concurrency

It is certainly a terrible thing that our current communications and media landscape has fractured into digital tribes with the gap of language and assumptions between us seemingly unbridgeable, and emotion-driven political frictions resulting in what some have called “a cold civil war.” It’s perhaps even more terrifying that this same landscape has spontaneously given way to a kind of disturbed collective unconscious that is amplified, and sometimes created, by AI into what amounts to the lucid dreams of a madman that millions of people, many of them children, experience at once.

Youtube isn’t so much a television channel as it is a portal to the twilight zone, where one can move from videos of strangers compulsively wrapping and unwrapping products to cartoons of Peppa the Pig murdering her parents. Like its sister “tubes” in the porn industry, Youtube has seemingly found a way to jack straight into the human lizard brain. As is the case with slot machines, the system has been designed with addiction in mind, only the trick here is to hook into whatever tangle of weirdness or depravity exists in the individual human soul- and pull.

The even crazier thing about these sites is that the majority of viewers, and perhaps soon creators, are humans but bots. As Bridle writes:

“It’s not just trolls, or just automation; it’s not just human actors playing out an algorithmic logic, or algorithms mindlessly responding to recommendation engines. It’s a vast and almost completely hidden matrix of interactions between desires and rewards, technologies and audiences, tropes and masks.”

Cloud

Bridle thinks one thing is certain, we will never again return to the feeling of being completely in control, and the very illusion that we can be, if we only had the right technical tweak, or the right political leader, is perhaps the greatest danger of our new dark age.

In a sense we’re stuck with complexity and it’s this complex human/machine artifice which has emerged without anyone having deliberately built it that is the source of all the ills he has detailed.

The historian George Dyson recently composed a very similar diagnosis. In his essay Childhood’s End Dyson argued that we are leaving the age of digital and going back to the era of analog. He didn’t mean that we’d shortly be cancelling our subscriptions to Spotify and rediscovering the beauty of LP’s (though plenty of us are doing that), but something much deeper. Rather than, being a model of the world’s knowledge, in some sense, now Google was the world’s knowledge. Rather than represent the world’s social graph, now FaceBook was the world’s social graph.

The problem with analogue systems when compared to digital is that they are hard to precisely control, and thus are full of surprises, some of which are far from good. Our quest to assert control over nature and society hasn’t worked out as planned. According to Dyson:

“Nature’s answer to those who sought to control nature through programmable machines is to allow us to build machines whose nature is beyond programmable control.”

Bridle’s answer to our situation is to urge us to think, precisely the kind of meditation on the present he has provided with his book. It’s not as wanting a solution as one might suppose, and for me had clear echoes with the perspective put forward by Roy Scranton in his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene where he wrote:

“We must practice suspending stress-semantic chains of social exhaustion through critical thought, contemplation, philosophical debate, and posing impertinent questions…

We must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection.”

I’m down with that. Yet the problem I had with Scranton is ultimately the same one I had with Bridle. Where is the politics? Where is human agency? For it is one thing to say that we live in a complex world roamed by “hyperobjects” we at best partly control, but it quite another to discount our capacity for continuous intervention, especially our ability to “act in concert”, that is politically, to steer the world towards desirable ends.

Perhaps what the arrival of a new dark age means is that we’re regaining a sense of humility. Starting about two centuries ago human beings got it into their heads that they had finally gotten nature under their thumb. What we are learning in the 21st century was not only was this view incorrect, but that the human made world itself seems to have a mind of its own. What this means is that we’re likely barred forever from the promised land, condemned to a state of adaptation and response to nature’s cruelty and human injustice, which will only end with our personal death or the extinction of the species, and yet still contains all the joy and wonder of what it means to be a human being cast into a living world.

 

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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.

 

Is Pope Francis the World’s Most Powerful Transhumanist?

Francis-with-book-

I remember once while on a trip to Arizona asking a long-time resident of Phoenix why anyone would want to live in such a godforsaken place. I wasn’t at all fooled by the green lawns and the swimming pools and knew that we were standing in the middle of a desert over the bones of the Hohokam Indians whose civilization had shriveled up under the brutality of the Sonora sun. The person I was speaking to had a quick retort to my east coast skepticism. Where I lived, he observed, was no more natural than where he did, for the constant need for air conditioning during much of the year in a place like Phoenix was but the flip side of the need for heat in the cold months in the backwoods of my native Pennsylvania. Everywhere humankind lives is in some sense “unnatural”, every place we have successfully settled it was because we had been able to wrestle nature’s arm behind her back and make her cry “uncle”.

Sometime around then, back in 2006, James Lovelock published what was probably the most frightening book I have ever read- The Revenge of Gaia. There he predicted the death of billions of human beings and the retreat of global civilization to the poles as the climate as we had known it throughout the 100,000 or so years of of species history collapsed under the weight of anthropogenic climate change. It was not a work of dystopian fiction.

Lovelock has since backed off from this particular version of apocalyptic nightmare, but not because we have changed our course or discovered some fundamental error in the models that lead to his dark predictions. Instead, it is because he thinks the pace of warming is somewhat slower than predicted due to sulfuric pollution and its reflection of sunlight that act like the sunshields people put on their car windows. Lovelock is also less frightened out of the realization that air conditioning allows large scale societies- he is particularly fond of Singapore, but he also could have cited the Arabian Gulf or American Southwest- to seemingly thrive in conditions much hotter than those which any large human population could have survived in the past. We are not the poor Hohokam.

The problem with this more sanguine view of things is in thinking Singapore like levels of adaptation are either already here or even remotely on the horizon. This is the reality brought home over the last several weeks as the death toll from an historic heat wave sweeping over India and Pakistan has risen into the thousands. Most societies, or at least those with the most people, lack the ability to effectively respond to the current and predicted impacts of climate change, and are unlikely to develop it soon. The societal effects and death toll of a biblical scale deluge are much different if one is in Texas or Bangladesh. Major droughts can cause collapse and civil war in the fragile states of the Middle East that do not happen under similar environmental pressures between Arizona or Nevada- though Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent novel The Water Knife helps us imagine this were so. Nor has something like the drought in California sparked or fed the refugee flows or ethnic religious tensions it has elsewhere and which are but a prelude of what will likely happen should we continue down this path.

It is this fact that the negative impacts of the Anthropocene now fall on the world’s poor, and given the scale of the future impacts of climate change will be devastating for the poor and their societies because they lack the resources to adjust and respond to these changes, that is the moral insight behind Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home . It could not have been more timely.

I have to say that much of the document has a beauty that is striking. Parts such as this:

The Psalms frequently exhort us to praise God the Creator, “who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures for ever” (Ps 136:6). They also invite other creatures to join us in this praise: “Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created” (Ps 148:3-5). We do not only exist by God’s mighty power; we also live with him and beside him. This is why we adore him.

Lines like these reminded me of the poetry of Walt Whitman, or perhaps better even that most eloquent atheist Lucretius. And there are points in the letter where the relationship of God to non-human animals is portrayed in almost post-humanist terms, which makes a lot of sense given the pope’s namesake. But the purpose of Laudato Si isn’t to serve as poetry or even as a reminder to Christians that care for the natural world is not only not incompatible with their faith but a logical extension of it. Rather, the purpose of the pope’s letter is to serve as a moral indictment and a call to action. Pope Francis has, rightly and justly, connected our obligations to the global environment with our obligations to the world’s poor.

The problem with religious documents, even beautiful and uplifting documents such as the Laudato Si is that as a type they do not grapple with historical or moral ambiguity. Such documents by their nature try to establish continuity with the past, as in claiming the church contained whatever teaching is being communicated all along. They also by their very nature try to establish firm moral lines not only for the present and future but also in the past rather than grapple with the fact that we are more often confronted with much more ambiguous moral trade-offs -and always have been.

What  Laudato Si lacks is ironically the same acknowledgement that New Atheists so critical of Christianity often lack, namely the recognition that the history of our understanding of nature or the universe through science is part and parcel of the history of Christianity itself. It was Christians, after all, who having won over the Roman elites in the 3rd century AD managed to do what all the natural philosophers since Thales had never managed to, namely, to rid nature of “gods” as an explanation for everyday occurrences thus opening up a space for our understanding of nature as something free of intention. Only such a dis-enchanted nature could be considered predictable and machine-like by thinkers such as Newton, or made a subject for “interrogation” as it was by the philosopher Francis Bacon in the 17th century. And it’s with Bacon that we see how morally complicated the whole conquest of nature narrative Pope Francis grapples with in Laudato Si actually is.

It was Christianity that inspired Bacon’s quest for scientific knowledge – his search for what he believes to be the lost true knowledge of Adam that will give us mastery over nature. The very purpose of this mastery for him was a Christian and charitable one “the relief of man’s estate”. And yet such mastery and relief cannot be won without treating nature as an object to be tamed or forced into the constraints of a machine. The universe as clock.

Tragically, it wouldn’t only be the natural world that the West would subjugate in its quest to escape the pain and privation often inflicted by nature, it would be other human beings as well. The conquest and exploitation of non-Western societies that began, not coincidentally, at the same time as the Scientific Revolution would be justified on the grounds that civilization itself and human progress found such conquest necessary as a means of escaping the trap of nature.

For a long time indeed the argument that the “civilized” had a right to exploit and take from “savages” was a biblical one. When responding to his own rhetorical question of how it could be that English settlers in the New World had the right to seize the lands of the Indians who also were “sons of Adam” the Puritan John Winthrop answered:

That which is common to all is proper to none… Why may not Christians have liberty to dwell among them in their wastelands and woods (leaving such places as they have manured for their corne) as lawfully as Abraham did among the Sodomites? (117)  

The point Winthrop was making was drawn from God’s command of Adam to a life of labor, which was considered the birth of society by John Locke and made the basis of property- that anything not developed and claimed was without value or ownership and there for the taking.

This was not just a matter of Protestant reinterpretations of the Bible. Before Winthrop the Catholic Columbus and Spanish understood their mission and the distinction between them and Native American along millenarian lines. In 1493 Pope Alexander IV gave the New World to Spain and Portugal (as if he owned them). During the opening phase of the modern world Christianity and any globalizing scientific and capitalist project were essentially indistinguishable.

Centuries later when the relationship between Christianity and science was severed by Charles Darwin and the deep time being uncovered by geology in the 19th century neither abandoned the idea of remaking what for the first time in history was truly “one world” in their own image. Yet whereas Christianity pursued its mission among the poor (in which it was soon joined by a global socialist movement) science (for a brief time) became associated with a capitalist globalization through imperialism that was based upon the biological chimera of race- the so-called “white man’s burden”. This new “scientific” racism freed itself from the need to grapple, as even a brutally racist regime like the Confederate States needed to do, with the biblical claim that all of humankind shared in the legacy of Adam and possessed souls worthy of dignity and salvation.  It was a purely imaginary speciation that ended in death camps.

The moral fate of science and society would have been dark indeed had the Nazis racial state managed to win the Second World War, and been allowed to construct a society in which individuals reduced to the status of mere animals without personhood. Society proved only a little less dark when totalitarian systems in the USSR and China seized the reigns of the narrative of socialist liberation and reduced the individual to an equally expendable cog in the machine not of nature but of history. Luckily, communism was like a fever that swept over the world through the 20th century and then, just as quickly as it came, it broke and was gone.

Instead of the nightmare of a global racist regime or its communist twin or something else we find ourselves in a very mixed situation with one state predominant -the United States- yet increasingly unable to impose its will on the wider world. During the period of US hegemony some form of capitalism and the quest for modernity has become the norm. This has not all been bad, for during this period conditions have indeed undeniably improved for vast numbers of humanity. Still the foundation of such a world in the millenarian narrative of the United States, that it was a country with a “divine mission” to bring freedom to the world was just another variant of the Christian, Eurocentric, Nazi, Communist narrative that has defined the West since Joachim de Fiore if not before. And like all those others it has resulted in a great amount of unnecessary pain and will not be sustained indefinitely.

We are entering an unprecedented period where the states with the largest economies (along with comes the prospect of the most powerful militaries) China and at some point India- continue to be the home of 10s of millions of the extremely poor. Because of this they are unlikely to accept and cannot be compelled to accept restraints on their growth whose scale dwarfs that of the already unsustainable environmental course we are already on. These great and ancient civilization/states are joined by states much weaker some of which were merely conjured up by Western imperialist at the height of their power. They are states that are extremely vulnerable to crisis and collapse. Many of these vulnerable states are in Africa (many of those in the Middle East have collapsed) where by the end of this century a much greater portion of humanity will be found and which by then will have long replaced Europe as the seat of the Christianity and the church. We are having a great deal of difficulty figuring out how we are going to extend the benefits of progress to them without wrecking the earth.

Pope Francis wants us to see this dilemma sharply. He is attempting to focus our attention on the moral impact of the environmental, consumer and political choices we have made and will make especially as we approach the end of the year and the climate summit in Paris. Let us pray that we begin to change course, for if he doesn’t, those of us still alive to see it and our children and descendants are doomed.

Though I am no great fan of the idea that this century is somehow the most important one in terms of human survival, we really do appear to be entering a clear danger zone between now and into the early years of the 22nd century. It is by sometime between now and then that human population growth will have hopefully peaked, and alternatives to the carbon economy perfected and fully deployed. Though the effects of climate change will likely last millennia with the halting of new carbon emissions the climate should at least stabilize into a new state. We will either have established effective methods of response and adaptation or be faced with the after effect of natural disasters- immense human suffering, societal collapse, refugee flows and conflicts.  We will also either have figured out a more equitable economic system and created sustainable prosperity for all or tragically have failed to do so.

What the failure to adapt to climate change and limit its impact and/ or the failure to further extend the advances of modernity into the developing world would mean was the failure of the scientific project as the “relief of man’s estate” begun by figures like Francis Bacon. Science after a long period of hope will have resulted in something quite the opposite of paradise.

However, even before these issues are decided there is the danger that we will revive something resembling the artificial religious and racial division of humanity into groups where a minority lays claim to the long legacy of human technological and cultural advancement as purely its own. This, at least, is how I read the argument of the sociologist Steve Fuller who wants us to reframe our current political disputes from left vs right to what he “up- wingers” vs “down wingers” where up wingers are those pursuing human enhancement and evolution through technology (like himself) and down wingers those arguing in some sense against technology and for the preservation of human nature – as he characterizes Pope Francis.

The problem with such a reframing is that it forces us to once again divide the world into the savage and the civilized, the retrograde and the advancing.  At its most ethical this means forgetting about the suffering or fate of those who stand on the “savage” side of this ledger and taking care of oneself and one’s own. At its least ethical it means treating other human beings as sub-human, or perhaps “sub-post human”, and is merely a revival of the Christian justification for crimes against “infidels” or white’s rationale for crimes against everyone else. It is the claim in effect that you are not as full a creature as us, and therefore do not possess equivalent rights.  Ultimately the idea that we can or should split humanity up in such a way is based on a chronological fantasy.

The belief that there is an escape hatch from our shared global fate for any significant segment of humanity during the short time frame of a century is a dangerous illusion. Everywhere else in the solar system including empty space itself is a worse place to live than the earth even when she is in deep crisis. We might re-engineer some human beings to live beyond earth, but for the foreseeable future, it won’t be many. As Ken Stanley Robison never tires of reminding us,the stars are too far away- there won’t be a real life version of Interstellar. The potential escape hatch of uploading or human merger with artificial intelligence is a long, long ways off. Regardless of how much we learn about delaying the aging clock for likely well past this century we will remain biological beings whose fate will depend on the survival of our earthly home which we evolved to live in.

In light of this Fuller is a mental time traveler who has confused a future he has visited in his head with the real world. What this “up-winger” has forgotten and the “down-winger” Pope Francis has not is that without our efforts to preserve our world and make it more just there will either be no place to build our imagined futures upon or there will be no right to claim it represents the latest chapter in the long story of our progress.

In this sense, and even in spite of his suspicion of technology, this popular and influential pope might just prove to be one of the most important figures for the fate of any form of post-humanity. For it is likely that it will only be through our care for humanity as a whole, right now, that whatever comes after us will have the space and security to actually appear in our tomorrow.

Capitalism vs. the Climate: a rejoinder

Naomi Klein has an interesting and much discussed recent article in The Nation. To grossly oversimplify, her argument goes as follows. Segments of the right are vehemently opposed to any acknowledgement, let alone measures to address the climate crisis, because the way in which climate change would need to be dealt with given its scale would mean the overthrow of the capitalist based order, and the imposition of a truly revolutionary progressive agenda.

So let’s summarize. Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless it is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at a minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as “people” under the law. In short, climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative.

Everything in the above agenda I fully support, but then Klein makes what I feel is a grave error that could doom any effort to transform society in a way that would address the scale of our environmental predicament. She, is, in effect as blinded by ideology as the right wing she wishes to dethrone.

This can be see is the way that she throws overboard a whole group of scientists and thinkers who are asking themselves one fundamental question: how can we halt or contain climate change and allow technological civilization to survive?

Far from learning from past mistakes, a powerful faction in the environmental movement is pushing to go even further down the same disastrous road, arguing that the way to win on climate is to make the cause more palatable to conservative values. This can be heard from the studiously centrist Breakthrough Institute, which is calling for the movement to embrace industrial agriculture and nuclear power instead of organic farming and decentralized renewables. It can also be heard from several of the researchers studying the rise in climate denial. Some, like Yale’s Kahan, point out that while those who poll as highly “hierarchical” and “individualist” bridle at any mention of regulation, they tend to like big, centralized technologies that confirm their belief that humans can dominate nature. So, he and others argue, environmentalists should start emphasizing responses such as nuclear power and geoengineering (deliberately intervening in the climate system to counteract global warming), as well as playing up concerns about national security.

She has articulated the essence of our dilemma, but fails to see it as a dilemma, that we are trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea. By characterizing the crisis of Anthropcene as a issue of progressives vs capitalist, Klein misses the ugly truth of the matter. We may have little choice but to “double down” on the very need for technology that got us into this crisis. Like her, I pray that we can create some alternative decentralized and sustainable economic and political system, and think the search for such a path should begin immediately. Like her, I admire the poet-farmer Wendell Barry, unlike Klein and Barry, I realize we do not have 50 years to figure out whether sustainable poly-culture can supplant our massive reliance on mono-culture. 9 billion mouths to feed, the product of technological civilization’s success, is doubtless going to require a huge amount of genetic engineering in the name of increased yields (and hopefully lowered environmental impact). This is the case whether or not I like or embrace that fact. In the same vein coming up with some ideas as to how a massive geo-engineering is a necessary form of insurance give our desperate situation.

Nuclear energy, is much less a PR device to win over “hierarchical” and “individualist” opponents to the policies necessary to stem global warming, than the only solution we have at our fingertips that would allow us to contain on the our impact on the planet without abandoning the majority of human beings that would be imperiled were our technological civilization to be abruptly unplugged. This is the conclusion not of technological junkies, but of deep environmentalist such as the revered James Lovelock.

Klein thinks the right will be unmoved by the kind of environmental genocide unleashed by allowing climate change to run its course.

As the world warms, the reigning ideology that tells us it’s everyone for themselves, that victims deserve their fate, that we can master nature, will take us to a very cold place indeed. And it will only get colder, as theories of racial superiority, barely under the surface in parts of the denial movement, make a raging comeback. These theories are not optional: they are necessary to justify the hardening of hearts to the largely blameless victims of climate change in the global South, and in predominately African-American cities like New Orleans.

Oddly enough, this critique exactly mirrors what some on the right (with a good deal of justification) see as the callousness of radical environmentalism which recognizes the potential human cost of jettisoning technological civilization in the midst of 9 billion people alive on earth. To quote perhaps the most famous radical environmentalist- Ted Kaczynski- better know as the “Unibomber”.

For those who realize the need to do away with the techno-industrial system, if you work for its collapse, in effect you are killing a lot of people. If it collapses, there is going to be mass starvation, there aren’t going to be any more spare parts or fuel for farm equipment, there won’t be any more pesticide or fertilizer on which modern agriculture is dependent. So there isn’t going to be enough food to go around, so then what happens. This is something, that as far as I’ve read, I haven’t seen any radicals facing up to.

Far from abandoning the world’s poor to the ravages of climate on the basis of an atavistic racism, the spread of Christianity, perhaps detrimental in any other ways, may make such coldness less not more likely from the right than from the left. This, after all, is what happened in the best (perhaps only) example of a localized, Third World climate crisis that we know- in Darfur- where developed world Christians were the loudest voice is bringing an end to the slaughter.  The world is a complicated place, and any ideology- left or right- blinds us to the opportunities and dangers in its complexity.

Given the scale of the change in human living that will be required to mitigate the impact of not just global warming, but the Anthopocence more generally, Klein misses the fact that the most necessary allies for such a change, are exactly the ones that the left will find so difficult to deal with (and for many good reasons) that is the religious. After all, from both a humanist and a religious perspective what is required is nothing less than a spiritual revolution in how humanity relates to nature, even if we have to take the fight politically for those who can not, or refuse to see, the dangers we face.