Wednesday, January 29, 2020

So Are We the Disease, Then?

As I continue to worry this matter about the wisdom of Terraforming Earth, I may have at least located the crux of the matter, at least to my own satisfaction.

On the one hand, terraforming might mean that we would become Earth's master, and for our own very anthropocentric reasons. It's hard to see how that isn't what it would mean, no matter what Bratton says about a new Copernican turn.

On the other hand, to conceive of us as a disease that is destroying Earth both romanticizes Earth as Nature in a way to valorize all the benighted beliefs that Benjamin H. Bratton derides, and undoes, once again, our most recent and necessary Copernican turn away from man at the center. Man the despoiler.

I, frankly, see no alternative but to reaffirm my deeply held and perhaps nearly religious belief in the God of Irony. At the core of Bratton's line of thinking is not just conundrum but paradox, pure and simple.

The only way out of paradox is, perhaps, higher generality. Zeno's paradox is resolved by the destabilizing of position in quantum interpretations of reality, for instance. The only way out of paradox is to find the fault in our misuse of language. Language was never meant for truth, it was meant for conspiracy. (of course, language doesn't "mean." We do that, sometimes.)

If we conceive of ourselves as a pox on the planet, then to cure ourselves would surely mean to destroy the planet. If we are but a part of the planetary evolution, then why should we do anything at all apart from what we're already doing?

The trick being, of course, not to see ourselves as one-dimensional. We are neither disease nor anti-disease. We are both at once. The change from one to the other is the very essence of a change in moral stance, and not a change in essence.

I struggled really hard with these matters quite a while ago reading Stephen Jay Gould (R.I.P.) It's a Wonderful Life. I gather that argument remains rather radically unfinished? Not sure. I have no easy way to find out if notions of human cognition as a kind of apex to evolutionary processes is back in vogue or not.

How could I? Research has all moved to the 'Net, in part because the library can't be current enough. The Net is so current that it's a perpetual game of whack-a-mole. Nothing stays still long enough to hold in memory. The news changes minute to minute against algorithms used to predict what you, the hapless reader, might be interested in.

The solution is to take a longer view and to stand back from the moment. To turn away from any and all awareness of perpetual emergency. But . . .

Well, I've noted here that when I once did actually drown, I experienced what might have been the life-changing apprehension of my entire life being present to me in that instant. Eternity in the moment. Does this happen during waterboarding? Not likely, when it's being done to you, any more than you might tickle your attacker away. But genuine emergency does have its salutary function, perhaps.

I continue to frame the big questions morally rather than technically, which surely removes me from the celebrated realm of hard-core materialism that Bratton seems to maintain is all there is that worthy of being celebrated as a realm at all.

And yet I think that sort of materialism straight-jackets science in the same way that evolutionists once imposed their cultural prejudices upon the Burgess Shale that Stephen Jay Gould wrote about; their prejudice being that mankind was some sort of inevitable apex creature resulting from the wonderful processes of evolution. The Burgess gestalt was turned into the Burgess progression.

Now, has Gould's affirmation of the primacy of accident itself been unseated? I'm asking (because I'm not sure I have the energy to find out). I seem to remember that Gould didn't think we were anything all that special. His was the most forceful Copernican re-turn I've ever heard, certainly including Bratton's.

What would the vaccine against man as coronavirus-grade terminal disease look like? Here, I do maintain that the "good" would be the continuance of evolution, not the continuance of mankind as mankind is now behaving (I think, but am not certain, that Bratton and I would agree on that). So the project is not to cure "us" but to cure the planet of "us" as disease. A kind of re-subsumption of mankind's fortunes within the greater good, as it were. And re-subsumption of mankind in the evolutionary processes.

Surely the vaccine would stop the automated processes of economic growth based on oil extraction. Surely, therefore, it would re-engage control over our ways of living by man as moral creature rather than as apex-predator.

We habitually think of morality as an [artificial] imposition on nature, perhaps equated with something as now-seeming pernicious as God-given dominion. And yet morality may remain the most likely frame for how our behaviors must change if we (and the planet, perhaps) are not to remain but a footnote to more cosmic processes of life's evolution.

Or, to ask another way, does life even matter? If so, might morality matter even more than the amoral processes which are all that "science" is allowed to deal with? Or must the province of morality truly be ceded to those creepy, mean and nasty religionists? Why?

If human life taken as a whole has already become an autonomous non-thinking non-feeling amoral force (as it does seem to have become) then the conclusion is already foregone. We are already dead, but then we will never have been anything but the moral equivalent of a mindless germ-like disease process.

While praying to some God or other (I know that phrasing makes no sense) would seem like not only the best but the only thing to do, aren't there ways in which even that could be construed as a positive harm? To the extent that it turns away from what is real (not materialistically real, just plain real)?

We are responsible for this mess, brother Job! God didn't put us here. We did.

Once upon a time while living aboard a sailboat through the dead of a very cold winter, it was revealed to me - this is true and you can read all about it here, though you have to start at the end/bottom if you want to shart at the beginning - it was revealed to me that cosmically, evolution has always been a morality tale.

I'm kidding when I say "revealed." It took a lot of work, actually, and that work is on ongoing and almost utterly unrewarding (well, except for the incredible and unending intrinsic rewards, of course).

My work was via excursions through classical Chinese literature and relativistic and quantum physics. Alas, but I am no expert in either of those fields, though statistically speaking I am almost certain to know and understand more than you do.

I continue to try and stay clear of what I don't or can't understand, which also entails not falling prey to claims that I can't understand when those are made by "experts" who think they already do. That is a tough tightrope to walk.

Along the way to becoming expert in anything, one must accept institutional identifications which - as I would maintain - limit as much as expand one's understanding. I am trying to make that a very modest statement.

I say nothing about my own claims to truthiness, especially since, as far as I can tell, I continue in abject failure to convince a single other soul, boo hoo. But discourse groups become hermetic as they become arcane - meaning simply that they are closed to outsiders and that initiation is onerous and likely impossible within a single life-time where you can only make it as a sub-specialist and trust in the greater whole. Of the discipline? Of the family? Of the nation?

The turn from Man as Chosen to man as disease is recent. As is the turn that Bratton adverts to from future as something to look forward to, to future as something to prevent. The morality tale is about hubris, of course. I am not so optimistic, clearly, as Benjamin H. Bratton is, at least to the extent that his apparent optimism seems to depend on a more sanguine estimation of the innate goodness of man the animal than I can form based on my (mediated) observations.

Or then again, wait. My estimations of the animal are much more sanguine than his are when I limit myself to face-to-face interactions with my fellow man. Could it be? I don't know. I really don't.

But here are a few things that I do know: As individuals, we feel helpless to do anything about whatever it is that we see going wrong. So we abdicate any moral obligation beyond the local and face-to-face. Sometimes we even think that it would be immoral to act beyond that level, apart from registering opinion.

The main thing is that we can't agree about what is going wrong.

Of course, there is a small subset among us who are excited enough by the whiz-bang of "modern" life that they don't think anything is going wrong. They must have a kind of faith (that I can't have) in the innate goodness of technology's manifest destiny. I confess that I find such a stance irresponsible in the extreme, and remain happy that Bratton joins me on the responsible side (the side of the good, of course) insofar as I am capable to read him.

To the extent that materialism forces me to see myself as an individual above all else, I can't be a materialist. I'm hoping that makes me more and not less of a realist. It certainly doesn't make me a spiritualist.

Materialism falls out from the scientific method. As pattern-recognizing creatures, we have managed by way of linguistic conspiracy to form theoretical structures - conjectures really - about how the world works. These can be tested experimentally and thereby validated. In Bratton's cosmos, the technology invented as a result of newly developed materialistic understanding comes along with new fields for accident. In his mentor (in these matters) Paul Virilio's terms, 'the possibility for derailment comes along with the railroad.' (Yet another media theorist?)

Projection is the work of the cognitive portion of our conscious minds. It's how we stay alive. We impose simplified structures on the stuff of raw perception - call those simplified structures Platonic narrative forms, if you will - and then calculate the extent to which they predict what might happen. We get in trouble when the conscious mind overrides the decision handed up by the preconscious mind. The preconscious mind sorts far more input than our conscious mind could possibly "contain." Likely more than any computer or network could, for at least a while yet.

But what I'm calling the "preconscious" mind here is actually maidservant to the seat of consciousness, which is the seat of affect, which is how we feel about our prospects (for sex, survival, peace . . .) according to pattern assessments returned there from the cognitive "portion" of the mind. Affect triggers the decisions and is felt, by consciousness then, as free will. The preconscious mind is just an input processor which automates our responses when matches are solid. The conscious mind does the work when autonomous resolutions have not been canned yet. The conscious mind is the robot of our wants.

As I have said elsewhere, including in my therapist's office once, the unconscious and fate are technically indistinguishable. The greater field for accident in our daily lived lives is not in the statistically small (as proven by our continued living) error between the conjecture and the actual in the Platonic narrative projections (I LOVE this convoluted usage of both Plato's cave, along with his ideas to which we must uncover - reveal - access by means of dialog) that we project along our futures in order to survive. The greater field for accident is in the affective tenor. We can apparently override our feelings by our ideals, false those these may be, to disastrous result for conscious me!

Or in other words once we start to trust our gear more than we trust ourselves, we are dead. Once the mechanism - the technology, including the tech in our heads - becomes autonomous we would only reasonably relinquish control if we trust that its autonomous behavior leaves us in a preferable affective state. There's a lower bar for a chair than for a self-driving car. Taking control of my own breathing would leave me in a very distressed state, unless, of course, I was SCUBA diving and wanting to conserve air.

Our gear can only be a projection of our conscious needs and desires until we have locked out from consciousness the sensory inputs that those depend on, or transform them into a conscious sensation the way I do while breathing through a regulator.

And you thought that the accelerated conscious control required to stay alive while driving had no use other than to make petro-addicted life more comfortable and fun?? No, please, it is a consciousness-raising experience.

Autonomous cars are not just kill-joy, they are literal death (of the planet, I mean) by turning us into a pure disease process. They give us more time on-screen. The important difference from trains and trolleys is not the potential for global warming, though that IS great. The difference is that at  least the possibility for socializing exists on the trolley. Of course, we are too afraid to exercise that possibility just now.

There will be nothing to living left but to enjoy the fruits of our accurate projections into our futures. We will have escaped the pressures of evolution, which means that we will have escaped life, which means that we will have become cosmically irrelevant which means that we will be dead.

I did recently take a weak stab at a typology for technology, trying to find a cogent way to distinguish information and communications technologies from other, perhaps older, sorts. Now I think that an important criterion for classification regards whether and how technology directly harnesses enthusiasms.

Sitting down and relaxing is a homeostatic pleasure. Racing cars is a lust. Sitting down and driving a car seems more like an addiction.

The homeostasis that our affect-centered mind demands of the results of cognitive processes includes cravings, like hunger and sex, which while they seem to nudge us away from homeostasis are in fact necessary to survival as a species. The discomfort of hunger leads to the pleasure of eating. The uncertainty of cognitive dissonance leads to the work of learning. Survival depends on these things.

Many of us have puzzled about the progression of automobiles from functional to sexy. The connection, of course, is about what sells. What attracts us with promise of consummatory pleasure in the same way that a gorgeous (whatever that might mean) human body might.

Now that cars have become fashion accessories, even to the extent of announcing our politics, after always having announced our socioeconomic desirability for mating - A Tesla is more like an iPhone than like a model T - I think we're avoiding the obvious about what makes information technology different.

A nice chair promises comfort. Now our very phones - that we have with us and before us nearly all the time - provide us with a zillion ways to be tempted. In the face of such temptation and short the means to fulfill it, we can always turn to heroin or its surrogates, and many do.

The main accomplishment of information technology has been to provide a way for the scientific methodology, which is itself a distillation of the methods of the cognitive portions of our brain, to predict our purchasing behaviors in ways to enrich media titans, large and small.

Along the way, our economic system has magically become a zero-sum game, since those with the money either destroy jobs or reduce them to gigs, where once again, in a kind of nightmare almost retro inversion of Marx, you have to provide your own means for production. It's the pipeline that matters - the pathways to eyeballs - and as McKenzie Wark would have us understand, the Vectorialists are the new Capitalists, and it's worse! We are becoming serfs on the wrong side of an information divide, unless we are soul-less coders on the inside.

No, we cannot design for survival. Plastics, Benjamin, plastics. A real builder doesn't want a material that never pushes back. A real maker wants an uncarved block which contains its own designing reveals. The artist is never an engineer. We don't need a plan. We need a process that's fun to drive!

In our perpetual naivete, we once did think that the Internet would return power to the people. We simply didn't have enough imagination to foresee the way that it would harness the lowest parts of humanity toward empire. We are now a conspiracy of dunces, led by a clown, and we have ourselves to blame for falling asleep at the switch.

Realistically, we will never complete the standard model of physics. Meaning simply that we will never have a completed understanding of the workings of the cosmos. That seems obvious to me. It has been for as long as I can remember. I guess that makes me outcast. But really? Isn't everyone just acting as though we will, just like the Republicans are acting as though Trump is innocent. Because it's the party line which lets scientists among us continue with their research without having to worry about life more locally? (Don't forget how tied the Democrats are to Silicon Valley)

I'm not sure that I see the moral distinction between climate change denial and perpetual avoidance of responsibility by virtue of a belief in the ameliorative power of "progress."

What will be less obvious to you (meaning only that it is equally obvious to me) is that we already have enough knowledge to understand why it is so, that science cannot lead to universal and full understanding. We resist that particular knowledge - knowledge of knowledge's limits - not because it would destroy what we already do know and hold so dear (it wouldn't). But that it would make us responsible. That's the thing we want least of all (as well as, not incidentally, the thing that Bratton is urging upon us).

As an individual, I am an embodiment of mind. As mind, I have a center, which as the word is meant in Chinese, means a center of both emotion and cognition. The (classical) Chinese cosmos is in no way Platonic, and so cognitive mental constructs have no ontological (epistemological? phenomenological? I can never keep the -ologies straight) priority. There are no forms that are antecedent to or apart from mind's conception of them. There is no eternal abstraction.

In any case, emotion is as much a part of my center as is cognition, and there is no moral action without both. If mind is an aspect of cosmos, which I do believe that it is, then perhaps God can be conceived as its center. Not the man-made God of contemporary Christianity or Islam, of course, but the nameless God. The God whose motive is love.

But I am also no individual. I am not apart from the rest of creation to which I am not connected by my understanding alone. I am physically and bodily no more an individual than is the biota within my body owned by me. As McKenzie Wark just tweeted, my body is a spaceship for all forms of germs. I think she was feeling sick.

Spaceship earth is breaking out in a coronavirus fever. We have tried to box the wild for our own pleasures, beyond any reasonable limits. Of course the virus must cross that boundary. In an artificial sense, it's only natural!

Apart from all that is alive in the cosmos, I am and ever have been nothing. I am but a surfacing bubble from an ocean of aliveness. This is what I mean by Irony. We have to accept it both ways. As radical individuals we are indeed a pox upon the planet, but we are also emotive moral hearts, which the cosmos lacks without us.

As part of a communal whole, the planet will thrive along with that remainder among us who will seed the subsequent bread (I just put bread in the oven, so that makes a handy metaphor). Life requires the leaven of moral consciousness.

Neither apex creature, nor inessential, mankind matters in the cosmos to the extent that we maintain a centered xin (heart/mind) which is, of course, redundant. Aligning with cosmos is not the same as conquest of it by means of understanding.

Let us pray, Virginia, let us pray.

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