Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book Review: Ishmael

Ishmael Full Text Link

Modern man's original sin, which nettles me each time I fly home, or drive further than is essentially necessary:
"You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live."
This book held sadness for me but some wise lessons and hope.
   It asks what myths our culture has.  A myth doesn't have to be completely fantastical to be a myth, just a story of the world that captures culture's beliefs and values.  Some civilized myths I see are a tidy linear notion of progress, a belief in the exceptionalism, superiority, and unity of any nation, and the idea that we all have access to the same opportunities and gifts in life.  The core myth that Ishmael examines is the evil human conception that the world is made for us; that the natural world has value solely as its useful or enjoyable to people.  As Ishmael points out, this belief has had severe consequences in an ecological instant.  Like any belief or model that diverges too far from reality, it must eventually and painfully deflate.

I think the implicit belief that the world exists for our use and convenience does seem to be reflected in many of our actions, and we may be heading towards a point when that belief could collapse.  Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis estimates that our species is consuming or displacing 40% of the biomass of the planet.  This is such a large percentage where we can no longer count on the rest of the system to stabilize itself and our contributions to the load; we can easily throw the entire system out of balance.

Another critical message of Ishmael is that our window of time of recorded history is a minuscule slice of time on evolutionary, planetary, and cosmic scope.  Events we think of as ancient history are a few hundreds of generations ago; stories enacted by creatures so genetically near to us as to be indistinguishable.  Our few thousand years of experience of abjuring our place in nature and trying to chart our own history weigh against the few million years of stability achieved by mankind prior to that, and the hundreds of millions of years organized life has survived and thrived prior to that.  If that stability seems threatened now, our lack of perspective, alienation and self-centered values are to blame.

Many of creation myths we are familiar the place man somewhere between gods and animals, showing our powerful tendencies to place ourselves above the herd.  Accepting that instead we are short-lived conscious animals produced after epochs of selection and made of the same cosmic muck as the rest of the world actually feels pretty liberating.

It's not too late to redeem ourselves, though the world is churning forward recklessly fast.  We can accept our place in natural life as a fascinating and unusually social twig on the great evolutionary tree of life hundreds of millions of years old, and recognize that though we live and die in a few score trips around the sun, this planet or others can play host to thriving life for a few billion years.  We are not the final culmination of natural or intelligent life (nor is evolution the kind of optimization process that produces a final culmination) but we are clever, powerful and perhaps wise enough to act as stewards, not masters, of this bequeathment of life, for a time.

In terms of what forms our society might take to meet such ends I'm not sure.
How can we undo the hateful parts of the future we are barreling towards?  Still on my reading list,
Whole Earth Discipline proposes nuclear power and dense urbanism.  Population-wise we are likely already over our planets sustainable carrying capacity, so I think slowing or reversing that growth is essential.  I think much of the work to be done is social and spiritual as Gary Snyder suggests (; we need to undo fearful and compulsive thinking, both individually and collectively, to enable us to live in the world compassionately and without avarice.  Goal is that we may be able to demand less from the ecological web we are begrudgingly part of, without abandoning the knowledge, technology, or connectivity we have gained to date, so that we and untold generations to follow may live peaceful, prosperous, meaningful and fulfilled lives that our ancestors, foragers or farmers, would be proud of.

Ishmael spends a fair bit of time discussing the conflict between "Leavers" & "Takers", low-population foraging people and sedentary, domination-oriented agriculturalists.  One recent take I read about this conflict and transition (Coevolution of farming and private property during the early Holocene) which is discussed here: talks about how the development of agriculture is closely tied to property rights; a farmer can gather in times of plenty and then not be compelled to share that surplus in times of famine.  Agriculture and property rights are a bit of a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, but they compose an evolutionarily stable strategy in simulation, which may, for moral and ecological better or worse, explain their dominating spread.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Book Review: Topiary

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What a disturbing book!  Not a great classic, but a potentially powerful tale in our time.  Contrary to some reviewers I found this non-traditional parable readable, and what I understood I found disturbing.  Topiary is set in a nightmarish version of our own world and New York City in particular, where the technocratic engines of society (reduced from their familiar branding to singular titular entities: The Nation, The City, The University, Big Media, Tree of Knowledge Incorporated, The Network, The Infocracy) churn forward like a monstrous machine with no organic life left in them at all.

The identity of the protagonist resonated with me.  He is a younger man (and a bit of a hack in school, not a true artist) who worked at an ad agency (rather The Ad Agency!) producing pure talk and false images to incite desire. Lost and disillusioned by this work, he quits become Plantman, the maintainer of corporate flora.  His travels then take him through the offices and personalities of this nightmarish world, maintaining the few spots of life still found among the high rises where only money lives.  Though I have more hope for its value, I feel a bit lost and disillusioned in corporate knowledge work myself.  It sometimes runs contrary to the values and environment I held dear growing up, and those that people have lived with for a hundreds of thousands of years; perhaps I'm also meant to be a Plantman?

One of the issues I struggle with in my work (system software development) is separating out the accidental difficulties from the essential.  One item that stresses me greatly that seems almost entirely accidental is the working conditions; a cubicle to sit in in a nearly windowless building for roughly fixed hours per day.  Our buildings are interspersed with green walkways, and one can escape with a laptop to work outside the usual box, but I keenly feel the alienation and isolation from our ecosphere that Plantman mourns.

This novel is as a trip through our own contemporary society, particularly the elements perceived as admirable, powerful and influential, without the benefit of our myths, heroes and culture to cover the sharp edges.  Plantman is particularly critical of the role of media in both commercialism and nationalism.

With shame, I remember my attitudes as a younger man when America first invaded Iraq.  Even without television, I remember listening to radio coverage of our devastating opening bombardment (Shock and Awe?  What egotistical merda of a name is that?) with cheerful, tidy nationalistic pride.  Over the course of Topiary, The Nation wages a highly televised, one-sided The War with a Rogue Regime.  It blasts on prime-time in HD, and shows on giant televisions in the gym for employees to pump their body too.  There is little discussion about what weighty concern, grave necessity, or painful tortured moral cause led The Nation into war; it is nearly a media production to unite The Nation and The Citizens.

The crass, self-conscious use of artistic methods and expressions to incite desires and drive sales for private profit is a subject of intense criticism in Topiary.  Plantman's first soul-draining job is as a copy-writer.

As I see the world, we put a dangerous load of fragile ecosystems and non-renewable resources that may well doom us.  Buddhism and other traditions teach that one of the primary weaknesses of human nature is our predilection to desire that which we do not have; we always want more, more, more!  Even with little natural encouragement.  We also have a foolish proclivity to always seek novelty and fit images, roles, and groups that our presented to us.

To then dedicate the talents, energy, and effort of intelligent, driven people to exacerbate these natural weaknesses, spurring higher consumption and greater drain on our shared planetary resources, is irresponsible and unethical.  Consumeristic drives say that a product can balm some wound inside of us, can provide meaning, or makes us the people that we want to be.  In Topiary, Plantman's prime work as a copy-writer is EARN, a polished but completely crass ad campaign for a designer perfume that comports to be bottled sexual desire.  The cynical centerpiece is a print of a naturalistic wedding of unattainably beautiful beings entitled "EARN the moment.  Forever".

Many of cultural criticisms I've mentioned are well-worn to astute observers, but Topiary, aided by it's non-traditional syntax and narrative structure and dystopian subversion of modern life, relays them with a freshness and immersively disturbing quality that is like plunging your head into an ice-cold bucket and being held under unable to breathe.  The overriding arc of the book is that the frenzy, complexity, impersonal economics, and mechanization of modernity squeezes out the life in the world and in us.  Topiary highlights the scope of the changes we should make in how we live, the consequences each of us face for acting without caring or thinking, and the despair that could await us if we don't act to live our lives and change our world for the better.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Great Divorce Review

 I'm doubtful of literal supernatural truth to a Christian afterlife, but I thought that The Great Divorce was a thought-provoking exploration of the limits and traps of human nature, behavior and cognition.  In the same way that from a cosmic perspective, we live in a vast, profound,ancient and wonder-rich universe, but we spend much of our time bound in small human struggles and to tied to earthly pursuits and possessions, the shades in The Great Divorce each had their own ball & chain binding them to their condemned state; their own attachments preventing them from realizing salvation, each one a cautionary tale about cognitive, social and behavioral traps that keep us from realizing the greatness of the universe, and our belonging to it.
    I found the narrative structure of the story effective.  The structural similarity to Dante's Inferno, with the narrator finding himself without explanation in this strange land with his mentor, is a natural choice.  The manner in which the world around him has no immediate explanation, but all the people speculate about it to each other.  This evoked for me how we all find ourselves on earth, in a vast and complicated social and natural world with no obvious meaning, but we all search for such meaning and understanding together over our lives.  Their abrupt, contextualizing openings are similar as well:.  The Great Divorce starts  "I seemed to be standing in a busy queue by the side of a long, mean street"; Dante's Inferno "In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost."  These both are apt ways to begin dream-parables (what were you doing before you find yourself in a dream-world?) The contrast is that this is a tale based off a modern world much like our own.
    I found the  strange behavior of changing scales, time & dimensions in The Great Divorce evocative.  Hell/Purgatory is present but seems immaterial, and new streets and houses can be simply wished into existence.  There are few social ties or bonds of affection to hold people together and souls seem bitter and unpleasant, so the city sprawls and the world stretches on millions of miles almost empty, and curves in some odd way.  One of the residents uses a telescope to look across it, like the city itself is a cosmic sphere.
    Yet when the bus departs out of Hell/Purgatory, looking back what seemed to have been a vast chasm looks in retrospect to be a miniscule crack.  I thought (somewhat ironically) about Richard Dawkin's Middle World idea ; that we experience the universe as we do because our brain's are tuned for existence at certain scale, timespans, and energy levels, and we perceive time, scales, and energy levels with respect to that.  We can reason abstractly about behavior at other scales (especially using science and mathematics, tools that do not rely so heavily on our intuitions) but the conclusions about the universe we arrive at may "do violence to our common sense".  We might imagine that from an alien perspective, rather than "in the trenches", our own moral trajectory as individuals or a species might appear very differently.
    At the end of the story, before the narrator awakens, he has a flash of an illusion that what he is seeing is another perspective of mighty and vast immortal souls and ideals interacting with the finite and temporal chessboard of existence we inhabit; another slice of the intersection between the eternal and the everyday.  I feel a similar perplexity (that almost interferes with  my work and projects) when I try to understand how mathematical truths are derived from reality.  It's hard to imagine Platonic ideals existing beyond physical reality, but The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences begs explanation to our minds.  This similarity may not have be foreign to Lewis's mind; in the Screwtape Letters he writes:
Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can't touch and see
   Another idea I found evocative from The Great Divorce was that salvation or damnation were retrospective; if a soul arrived in heaven, time in Hell retrospectively became Purgatory, and earthly agony became glorious trials.  However, for souls stuck in Hell, even their prior pleasures or triumphs were poisoned and soured into their downfall.  I found traces of how happy older people have described earlier times of struggle in this metaphor.  The other secular idea it reminded me of is that selfish concerns that give us immediate temporal pleasure are ultimately shortsighted and unsatisfying.  In a glorious, mysterious universe without obvious anthropomorphic divinity and great doubt about the existence of individual immortal souls, a high aim we can hope for is to understand our own place and belonging to the cosmos and work to bring about a joyful future for other people, life-forms and intelligence who come after us and share the world with us, and savor our own brief time on the planet.  Even if immortal ideals don't independently exist in a Platonic sense, we can still strive towards them.  It's not a traditional after-life but it may be the best we got.