The Wicked Problem

“She was asked what she had learned from the Holocaust, and she said that 10 percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and that 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and that the remaining 80 percent could be moved in either direction.”  Kurt Vonnegut

It seems certain that human beings need stories to live, and need to share some of these stories in order to coexist with one another. In our postmodern era these shared stories- meta-narratives- are passe, the voluntary suspension of disbelief has become impossible, the wizard behind the curtain has been unmasked. Today’s apparent true believers are instead almost cartoonish versions of the adherents of the fanatical belief systems, political ideologies and unquestionable cultural assumptions and prejudices of past eras. Not even their most vocal adherents really believe in them, except, perhaps, for those who put their faith in conspiracy theories, which at the root are little but the panicked to the point of derangement search for answers after realizing the world is a scam.      

Yet just because we live in an age when all stories have an aura of fantasy doesn’t mean we’ve stopped making them, or even stopped looking for an overarching story that might explain to us our predicament and provide us with some guidance. The realization that the map is never the territory doesn’t imply that maps are useless, only that every map demands interrogation during its use and as a prerequisite to our trust.   

I recently had the pleasure of picking up a fresh version of one of these meta-narratives or maps, a book by the astrobiologist Adam Frank called Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. Frank’s viewpoint, I think, is a somewhat common one among secular, environmentally conscious persons. He thinks that we as a species have been going through the equivalent of adolescence, unless we learn to use our newly developed capacities wisely we’re doomed to a bad end. 

The difference between Frank and others on this score is that he wants us to see this story in a cosmic context. We are, he argues, very unlikely to be the first species in the universe to experience growing up in this sense. Recent discoveries showing the ubiquity of planets, for Frank, puts the odds in favor of life, and even intelligence and technological civilization developing throughout the universe many times before 

Using what we already know about earth and the thermodynamic costs of energy use Frank is able to create sophisticated mathematical models that show how technological civilizations can rise only to collapse due to the impact of energy use on their planetary environment, and why any technological civilization that survives will need to have found a way to align its system of energy use with the boundaries of its biosphere.      

Frank’s is an interesting and certainly humane viewpoint, yet it leads to all sorts of questions. Does the idea of adolescence and maturation even make any sense when applied to our species? If anything, doesn’t history shows the development of civilization to be cyclical rather than progressive? To get a real sense of our predicament wouldn’t it be better to turn to the actual history of human societies rather than look to the fates of purely imagined alien civilizations? 

Indeed, for a book on how our technological civilization can avoid what is an otherwise inevitable collapse Light of the Stars is surprisingly thin on the rise and fall of real human societies over the course of history. To the extent such history plays any role at all in Frank’s model it focuses on the kinds of outright collapse seen in places like Easter Island, which have recently become the focus of historians and anthropologists such as Jared Diamond.         

By focusing on the binary division between extinction and redemption Frank’s is just one more voice urging us to “immanentize the eschaton”, but one can ask if what we face is less a sort of juncture between utopian or dystopian outcomes or more something like the rolling apocalypse of William Gibson’s “Jackpot”. That is, not the “utopia or oblivion” version of alternative futures that probably made sense during the mutually assured destruction madness of the Cold War, but the perhaps permanent end to the golden age climatic, technological and economic conditions of the past as bets on the human future that had been placed long ago draw dead. 

Whiggish tales of perpetual progress we’re popular a few years ago, but have run into hard times of late, and for good reasons. Instead, we have the return of cyclical narratives, stories of rise and fall. The Age of Trump lends itself to comparison with the fall of Rome– a declining empire with a vain, corrupt, incompetent, and increasingly deranged leadership. Trump is like the love child of Nero and Caligula as someone joked on Twitter, which is both funny and disturbing because it’s true.              

Personally I’m much more inclined towards these cyclical versions of history than I am linear ones, though admittedly this is some sort of deep seated cognitive bias for I tend to find cyclic cosmologies more intriguing as well. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any alternatives besides a history with a clear beginning, middle, and end and one that circles back upon itself. It may be a limit of culture, or human cognition rather than a true reflection of the world, but how to see beyond it in a way that doesn’t deny time and change entirely I cannot fathom.   

These days it’s hard to mention cyclical history without being confused for a fanboy of Oswald Spengler and getting spammed by Jordan Peterson with invitations to join the Intellectual Dark Web. Nevertheless, there are good (and strange to say), progressive versions of such histories if you know where to find them.      

A recent example of these is Bas Van Bavel’s The Invisible Hand? How Market Economies Have Emerged and Declined since AD 500. In a kind of modern version of the theory of societies transition from barbarism to decadence and finally back to barbarism by the 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun, Bavel traces the way in which prosperous economies have time and time again been undone by elite capture. Every thriving economy eventually gives way to a revolt of the winners who use their wealth to influence politics in their favor in an effort to institutionalize their position. Eventually, this has the effect of undermining the very efficiency that had allowed the economy to prosper in the first place.   

Though largely focused on the distant past, Bavel is clearly saying something about our own post-Keynesian era where plutocrats and predators use the state as a means of pursuing their own interest. And like most cyclical versions of history his view of our capacity to break free from this vicious cycle is deeply pessimistic. 

“None of the different types of states or government systems in the long run was able to sustain or protect the relatively broad distribution of property and power found in these societies that became dominated by factor markets, for instance by devising redistributive mechanisms. Rather, in all these cases, the state increasingly came under the influence of those who benefited most from the market system and would resist redistribution.” (271)

How this elite capture of our politics will intersect with global climate change is anybody’s guess, right now it doesn’t look good, but as long as a large portion of this elite has its wealth tied up in the carbon economy, or worse, think their wealth somehow gives them an escape hatch from the earth’s environmental crisis, the move towards decarbonization will continue to be too little and too late.      

One downside to cyclical theories of history, for me at least, is that far too often they become reduced to virtue politics. In a sort of inversion of the way old school liberal like Steven Pinker sees moderns as morally superior to people in the past, old school conservatives who by their nature are in thrall to their ancestors tend to view those who came before as better versions of ourselves. 

Though it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue that the time in which we live hasn’t produced a greater share of despicable characters than in times past, on reflection that’s very unlikely to be the case. What separates us from our ancestors isn’t their superior virtue, but the degree of autonomy and interdependence that makes such virtues necessary in the first place. A lack of autonomy along with the fact that each of us is now interchangeable with another of similar skills (of which there are many) is a reflection of our society’s complexity, and for this reason it’s the stories told about the unsustainability of this complexity that I find the most compelling.  

The granddaddy of this view idea that it is unsustainable complexity which makes the fall of societies inevitable was certainly Joseph Tainter and his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies.  Tainter thought that societies begin to decline once they reach the point where increasing complexity only results in an ever thinner marginal return. Although, “fall” isn’t quite the right word here, rather, Tainter broke from the moralism that had colored prior histories of rise and fall. Instead, he viewed the move towards simplicity we characterize as decline as something natural, even good, just another stage in the life cycle of societies. 

More recent works on decline due to complexity are perhaps not as non-judgemental as Tainter’s, but have something of his spirit nonetheless. There is James Bridle’s excellent book New Dark Age, Samo Burja’s idea of the importance of what he calls “intellectual dark matter” and the dangers of its decay. Outside of historians and social scientists, the video game developer Johnathan Blow has done some important work on the need to remove complexity from bloated systems, while the programmer Casey Murtori has been arguing for the need to simplify software.      

To return to Adam Frank’s book- he’s right, the stories we tell ourselves are extremely important in that they serve as a guide to our actions. The dilemma is that we can never be sure if we’re telling ourselves the right one. The problem with either/or stories that focus on opposing outcomes- like human extinction/ or technologically enabled harmony with the biosphere- is that they’re likely focusing on the tails of the graph, whereas the meat lies in the middle with all the scenarios that exclude the two. 

Within that graph on the negative side, though far short of species extinction, lies the possibility that we’ve reached a point of no return when it comes to climate change, not in terms of the need to decarbonize, but in Roy Scranton’s sense of having set in motion feedback loops which we will not be able to stop and that will make human civilization as currently constituted impossible. Also here would be found the possibility that we’ve reached a plateau of sustainable complexity for a civilization. 

These two possibilities might be correlated. The tangled complexity of the carbon economy, including its political aspects, makes addressing climate change extremely difficult. To replace fossil fuels requires not just a new energy system, but new ways to grow our food, produce our chemicals, build our roads. It requires the deconstruction of vast industries that possess a huge amount of political power during precisely the time when wealth has seized control of politics, and the willful surrender of power and wealth by hydrocarbon states, including now, the most powerful country on the planet.  

If being faced with a problem of seemingly intractable complexity is the story we tell ourselves, then we should probably start preparing for scenarios in which we fail to crack the code before the bomb goes off. That would mean planning for a humane retreat by simplifying and localizing whatever can be, increasing our capacity to aid one another across borders, including ways to absorb refugees fleeing deteriorating conditions, and making preparations to shorten as much as possible, any period of intellectual and scientific darkness and suffering that would occur in conditions of systemic breakdown.        

Perhaps the most important story Frank provides is a way of getting ourselves out of an older one. Almost since the dawn of human space exploration science-fiction writers, and figures influenced by science-fiction such as Elon Musk, have been obsessed with- the Kardashev scale. This idea that technological civilizations can be grouped into types where the lowest tap the full energy of their home planet, the next up the energy of their sun, with the last using all the energy of their galaxy. It’s an idea that basically extends the industrial revolution into outer space and Frank will have none of it. A mature civilization, in his view, wouldn’t use all the energy of its biosphere because to do so would leave them without a world in which they could live. Instead, what he calls a Class 5 civilization would maximize the efficient use of energy for both itself and the rest of the living world. It’s an end state rather than a beginning, but perhaps we might have reached that destination without the painful, and increasingly unlikely, transition we will now need to make in order to do so. 

There’s an interesting section in Light of the Stars where Frank discusses the possible energy paths to modernization. He doesn’t just list fossil fuels, but also hydro, wind, solar and nuclear and possible sources of energy a civilization could tap to become technological. I might have once wondered whether an industrial revolution was even possible had fossil fuels not allowed us to take the first step, but I didn’t need to wonder. The answer was yes, a green industrial revolution was at least possible. In fact, it almost happened.    

No book has changed my understanding of the industrial revolution more than Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital. There I learned that the early days of industrialization in the United Kingdom consisted of battle over whether water or coal would power the dawning age of machines, a battle water only just barely lost. What mattered in coal’s victory over water, according to Malm’s story, wasn’t so much coal’s superiority as a fuel source as it was the political economy of fossil fuels. The distributed nature of river to power water wheels left employers at a disadvantage to labor, whereas coal allowed factories to be concentrated in one place- cities- where labor was easy to find and thus easily dismissed. This is quite the opposite to what happened in the mines themselves where concentration in giving the working class access to vital choke points empowered labor, a situation that eventually led to coal being supplanted by oil, a form of energy impervious to national strikes.

But we probably shouldn’t take the idea of a green industrial revolution all that far. Water might have been capable of providing the same amount of energy for stationary machines as steam derived from burning coal, but it would not have had the same potential when it came to generating heat for locomotion or the generation of steel. At least not within the constraints of 19th century technology.   

In another one of those strange, and all too common, mountains emerging from mole-hills moments of human history, it may have been a simple case of greed that birthed the industrial revolution. The greed of owners wanting to capture the maximum income from their workers drove them to choose coal as their source of power, a choice which soon birthed a whole, and otherwise unlikely, infrastructure for steel and the world shrinking machines built from it.            

In other words, energy transitions are political and moral and have always been so. In a way looking to hypothetical civilizations in the cosmos that may have succeeded or failed in these transitions lends itself to ignoring these questions of values and politics at the core of our dilemma, and thus fails to provide the kind of map to the future Frank was hoping for. He assumes an already politically empowered “we” exists when in fact it is something that needs to be built in light of the very real divisions between countries and classes, the old and the young, humans and non-humans ,and even between those living in the present and those yet to be born.  

The outcome of such a conflict isn’t really a matter of our species maturing, for history likely has no such telos, no set terminus or promised land to arrive at- only a perpetual rise and fall. Nonetheless, one might consider it to be a story, and there really are villians and heros in the tale. Whether that story will ultimately be deemed to have been a triumph, a tragedy, or more likely something in between, is a matter of which 10 percent all of us among the swayable 80 ultimately side for. 

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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.

 

Three Anthopocenes

The Moirai by James-Goetz 2 --1915-1946

A few weeks back I read an interesting essay by Jedediah Purdy on Aeon written in the halcyon days of 2015. An article which, given the news, captured something essential and got me a little depressed. Within the space of the last three weeks hurricanes of almost unprecedented magnitude slammed into Houston, then, Florida, then Puerto Rico. All were bad, but the last looked something like something straight out of a Hollywood apocalyptic. It wasn’t just the scale of the storm that hit it which made the situation in Puerto Rico so much more dire, it was the lack of resources to deal with the aftermath, along with the highly racialized response of the American government to hurricane Maria’s destruction. A delayed, politicized rescue, which was inexcusable given the fact that Puerto Ricans are as much US citizens as any of my Pennsylvanian neighbors.

Purdy knew this was coming. The argument in his 2015 essay essentially boils down to the claim that it’s less climate change that is the problem than the structural inequality of the world in which this change is happening. As he puts it:

Planetary changes will amplify the inequalities that sort out those who get news from those who get catastrophes; but these inequalities, arising as they do from a post-natural nature, will feel as if they were built into the world itself. Indeed, nature has always served to launder the inequalities that humans produce.

In his essay Purdy makes the case for what he calls a “democratic Anthropocene” where these inequalities are addressed as opposed to both the catastrophism of a vocal segment of the environmental movement, or the view known as Ecomodernism that wants us to double down on green technology, but leaves late capitalism itself unaddressed. Purdy’s is a view I found remarkably similar to that expressed by Pope Francis in his Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.  

A world transformed by climate change that refuses to address inequality will be one where the wealthy in Phoenix hide from a 120 degree heat in air conditioned domes, while the poor in India and other poor countries die from the heat of the summer sun. The situation in Puerto Rico makes me doubt we will be moral enough to prevent that from happening. And yet, when grappling with Purdy’s argument I couldn’t help thinking that this split between three wings of the environmental movement all of which agree that climate change is happening and demands a human response isn’t all that productive. His division is based on the idea that we can know exactly what kind of climate changed world we are moving into, which we can’t. And precisely because we can’t, the best path forward is to take a little wisdom from each.

Depending upon whether one is a proponent of the democratic Anthropocene, argues for a rapid and broad application of green technology, or thinks we’re headed for a civilization destroying catastrophe depends on which climate change trajectory one thinks we’re on. The possible scenarios have been meticulously laid out by the IPCC. Here’s their 2014 projections.

2014 IPCC projections

Perhaps surprisingly, both Purdy and the Ecomodernists seem to share the assumption that we are headed for the lower to mid-range estimates of the IPCC in terms of the global rise in temperature.

If we do stay in the low to middle temperature range then it really is a political dispute, which is really about whether we keep global capitalism or jettison it for an also global, but democratic, alternative. Yet there’s no apparent reason why such democratic globalism can’t also be based on green technology. The fact that many green technologists now seem unconcerned with questions of political economy is likely an accident of history. The fact that they live in an era where the state can’t seem to get anything done. Had the need to rapidly respond to climate change occurred in the political and economic conditions of the middle of the 20th century Ecomodernists would be arguing for massive action by states.

Still, any rise in the 4-5 degree Celsius range, let alone above it, would make a democratic Anthropocene almost inconceivable- the world’s ice sheets would disappear, coastal cities in the developed world would be slowly drowned sending a flood of refugees into the interior. Industrial food systems would fail. Not merely would the advanced countries be unlikely to save those facing even worse crises in the developing world, they themselves would likely break apart into cities and regions struggling just to save their own communities. Rather than being global, democracy would, at best, be found at the level of cities and small states.

Global warming above the IPCC mid-range would transform the perspective of Ecomodernists as well. Having found that the shift to a non-fossil fuel economy had proven far too late, they would likely embrace geoengineering as the only solution.

Scientists are a clever bunch, but sometimes clever by half. A few years ago some of them were arguing that we had a cheap way to hold off global warming while we got our act together. We could, volcano like, spew sulfates into the atmosphere to cool the earth. The orange sky we’d get as a consequence might put the fear of God in us, and inspire a change in our ways. Fortunately, other scientists pointed out that the acid rain from our sulfuric sunshade might also kill all the world’s trees.

It’s the view that we’re irreversibly on the course to a civilization shattering 5 degree or higher temperature that is truly radical and gives us a glimpse of a world radically different than our own. In a widely debated article in The New York Review back in July called The Uninhabitable Earth David Wallace-Wells laid out just how ugly things could get if we exceeded the IPCC’s projections.

Surely this blindness will not last — the world we are about to inhabit will not permit it. In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size.    

Critics of Wallace-Wells accused him of engaging in disaster-porn, of robbing us of the confidence that climate change was a tractable problem, or even the faith that our species had a future at all. Yet that was precisely the point. Civilization needs its Noahs in the unlikely event the storm proves a deluge.  

We might actually be very lucky that those prophesying disaster are so good at storytelling. For while both the Ecomodernists and proponents of a democratic Anthropocene have given us excellent novelists- Ramez Naam, Kim Stanley Robinson– among those warning of catastrophe can be counted some of the best new novelists of our young century, writers such as Paolo Bacigalupi, Paul Kingsnorth, and Roy Scranton.

It is Roy Scranton’s non-fiction meditation on what he believes to be our civilization’s inevitable collapse, Learning to die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization that I’ll primarily deal with here. Purdy has been trenchantly dismissive of the case Scranton makes that we need to “learn to die” as “a suggestive but, upon scrutiny, meaningless gesture”. That is unfair.   

Scranton is working under the assumption that not only will we reach the high end of the IPCC’s projection, we might even blow beyond them. This really would bring death, not only to billions of human beings but to our civilization as we have known it. It would constitute a dark age far more substantial than any collapse from history, and might even result in the death of our species, especially if accompanied by wars between nuclear powers.

The idea that industrial civilization and the biosphere might ultimately prove incompatible is no less philosophically coherent than the views of either Purdy or the Ecomodernists. Purdy, as he argues in his book After Nature, wants us to jettison the sharp division between ourselves and the natural world to embrace a more full version of the world where we accept our human impact and relate to the world as beings within it. It’s an attractive view parts of which he sees implicit in the writings of Thoreau. The problem is we have long left the world of Thoreau’s “stone tools and potsherds” to enter the period of what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”, entities of such scale and complexity that they they escape our ability to fully control or even understand.

Whenever I want to get a better picture of the scale of human-created hyperobjects I think back to an observation made by Yuval Harari 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.

The answer of Ecomodernists to the development and environmental destruction wreaked by hyperobjects is to argue that we are already and need to continue decoupling from nature. The littorialization of humanity- the mass movement all over the world of populations to the coasts combined with the emptying out and rewilding of the interiors of the continents Ecomodernists point to as evidence that civilization is evolving in ways more sustainable for the rest of the natural world. They’re made even more optimistic due to the fact that urbanization has been linked to a decline in population growth.  

Yet such decoupling remains a faith. It’s not clear that we could ever hermetically seal human civilization from the biosphere, or what the ethical costs to such a separation would be. It’s not even clear if we should  as a matter of aesthetics and human flourishing.

Scranton’s Learning to die is premised on the fact that both Purdy and the Ecomodernists are wrong. The effects of industrial civilization on the rest of nature and their threat to our way of life are far more substantial than any idea of a democratic Anthropocene contains, and we are too late to innovate our way out of the path we are on with our utter dependence on a carbon based economy to sustain the vast technological web in which we are entangled.

Is the catastrophe of 5 degrees or warmer temperature destroying our civilization likely? Probably not, but there are too many unknowns to simply dismiss the warning as mere fiction: the move away from fossil fuels could stall or collapse due to economic, political or technological factors, negative feedback loops might prove far more sensitive than scientists currently estimate, human-made warming could engender far more potent natural warming such as the release of methane from melting permafrost, natural carbon sinks could fail- the list goes on and on. (Of course, equally unknowable lucky accidents could await us as well).   

What’s the most meaningful thing you can do if you think your civilization is about to collapse? Build an archive. Scranton is urging us to do something very similar to what people in the days before the cloud would do when their house was burning down and beyond preserving: they saved the photo albums. He wants us to save what he sees as the most valuable thing our civilization has created- its reflection upon itself. The literature and philosophy we have crafted over the millennia as we have grappled with what it meant to be human.    

Like the authors he praises, Scranton’s reflections in Learning to die are ones I find myself continuously returning to for spiritual subsistence drawn to passages such as these:

We are born half-blind, confused, wired into a world we don’t understand. Within the night of this world, we apprehend our future as a field of freedom. We face this freedom as individuals, fully in the present, yet our actions are determined by the past and take on their full meaning only in the future. As we gain in wisdom, individual consciousness reveals its complex entanglements with collective life, history, and the universe. (94)

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This astonishing cosmos is our home. There is no other. There is no Heaven, no Hell, no Judgement, no Elysium. We humans are precocious multicellular energy machines building hives on a rock in space, machines made up of and connected to countless other machines, each of us a microcosm. Trillions and trillions of microorganisms live on our skin and in our stomachs, mouths, intestines, and respiratory tracts while we spin through our lives in innumerable intersecting orbits, shaped and pulled by forces beyond our reckoning. We are machines of machines in machines, and all seeking homeostatic perpetuation and our lives and deaths pass through this great cycle like mosquitoes rising and falling in a puddle drying in the summer sun.  (112)

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We are finite and limited machines, but we are not merely machines: we are vibrating bodies of energy, condensations of stellar dust and fire, at once matter and life, extension and thought, moment and frequency. The iron in our blood, the oxygen we breathe, and the carbon of which we are composed were all created in the dying hearts of stars. We are creatures of light, and can find in our history the lineaments of photohumanism going back ancient days, a form thought more powerful than any electronic web, more profound than any merely social media. As was written in the Book of Proverbs, “The human spirit is the lamp of God, searching all the innermost parts.” (115)

Yet I would have little doubt that the survival of our humanist legacy, not as a dead archive but as a living tradition, would have required deliberate effort even absent the existential dangers posed by climate change. Much of our cultural heritage has already been disparaged by the new intelligentsia born in the late 1960’s as being little but the patriarchal reflection of “dead white men”. Our over-priced universities have already become hyper-utilitarian, a post-college course in the “great books” billed as a way to make one’s resume more interesting. The tradition, and this includes the extension of the literary tradition brought about by film, requires the kind of focus and reflection increasingly less likely in a world flooded with ever changing entertainment. For those still exposed to this depth in college and now employed in the desperate hope of paying off their college loans and creating a life, many simply do not have the time such engagement requires. In some respects we are already in a new Dark Age. 

These too are political questions and it is here where Scranton’s almost Calvinist fatalism ultimately fails us. His belief that the time when political action could have halted climate change has passed does not mean that every attempt at politics will also prove a failure. Not only do the individuals who wish to preserve the legacy of photohumanism outside of the universities have a clear project in front of them, those who believe we have been too late when it comes to action on climate change do so as well, and both projects are, thankfully, far more tractable than the other problem before us.

If those who are now proclaiming that there is no escape from our fate really do believe so then they need to start advocating and raising funds for efforts to prepare us for the end of our world. We need something like what Lewis Dartnell does for individuals in his book The Knowledge, but at the level of groups. Cohorts need to be prepared to preserve and reboot all kinds of social legacies, such as medical and agricultural knowledge and not just the beauty of human religion, literature and philosophy.

Given its relatively low costs when compared to, say, transforming our entire energy infrastructure, or reversing the inequality between advanced and developing countries,   such a project of preparing for the worst need not conflict with either Ecomodernism or those hoping for a democratic Anthropocene. Until we really can be sure which of the three Anthropocenes we have wrought the most prudent option remains some combination of the technological, the democratic, and the search for shelter.