This week’s recommended articles, essays, and blog posts cover: various possible modes of doom that await us (or that are facing us right now), including climate change, economic collapse, and some other usual suspects; the hijacking of global culture by money and its possibly psychopathic servants; the historical role of alchemy in giving birth to our modern-day economic system driven by credit-based currency; a philosophy professor who has taken it on himself to publicize the anti-technological cultural critique of Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, since in many ways these critiques may be pointedly on-target; an essay from no less authoritative a source than MIT Tech Review explaining why Facebook is not the new Google but the new AOL, and why it may collapse and bring down much of the rest of the Web with it; a 2008 report from The Wall Street Journal about one rather shocking way (in my opinion, at least) that American megachurches have begun to exploit corporate marketing tactics; and excellent essays (plus a video) about the life, thought, and work of Philip K. Dick, Whitley Strieber, and Ray Bradbury.
* * *
Daniel Baird, The Walrus, January 2012
Teaser: Prophecies of impending doom — based on hard science as well as Scripture — abound. Where does our appetite for retribution come from?
Why all the doom? Why the persistent predictions of volcanic eruptions, mega-earthquakes, tidal waves, new ice ages, the obliteration of life as we know it, and even the annihilation of the earth itself?… The ever-expanding cadre of bestselling science, strategic, political, and business writers who make a living prophesying the less-than-happy human future would not ally themselves with literal readings of Isaiah or the Revelation of St. John, much less with eccentrics like Harold Camping, but the stories they propose seem remarkably similar. Although they appear secular, they are Biblical tales of the pillaging of the earth by human greed and vice and the inevitable reckoning…The last time there was this much anxiety about the end of the world was after the Second World War and the advent of the atomic age…Our problems [now] are vaguer and more systematic, not so much a matter of policy as of how we live, and seem to come from every direction at once…While we may be unable to reliably prophesy the future and the prospect of ruined cities, anarchy, and mass death still seems a remote, nightmarish vision (fodder for Hollywood producers and unhinged radio hosts), most of us sense that the huge, overcomplicated world we have created is unsustainable in the long run, and the practical solutions commonly proposed — smaller, self-contained communities; eco-friendly architecture; smart cars; banking regulations — pale before the encroaching tsunami of problems. It is easy to feel overwhelmed, confused, weary, and crushingly sad. In this context, the idea of the Apocalypse can be comforting.
* * *
Game Over for the Climate
James Hansen, The New York Times, May 9, 2012
[NOTE: This piece from NASA’s perennial climate change doomsayer strikes me with particularly personal relevance, since I lived through last year’s apocalyptic Texas drought, which he holds up as an illustration of where things are headed. And let me tell you, it truly was hair-raising down here.]
Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening. That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.” If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate…Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk. That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels. If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically…The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather, as I predicted would happen by now in the journal Science in 1981. Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change.
* * *
Heist of the century: Wall Street’s role in the financial crisis
Charles Ferguson, The Guardian, May 20, 2012
Teaser: Wall Street bankers could have averted the global financial crisis, so why didn’t they? In this exclusive extract from his book Inside Job, Charles Ferguson argues that they should be prosecuted.
It is no exaggeration to say that since the 1980s, much of the global financial sector has become criminalised, creating an industry culture that tolerates or even encourages systematic fraud. The behaviour that caused the mortgage bubble and financial crisis of 2008 was a natural outcome and continuation of this pattern, rather than some kind of economic accident. This behaviour is criminal. We are talking about deliberate concealment of financial transactions that aided terrorism, nuclear weapons proliferation and large-scale tax evasion; assisting in major financial frauds and in concealment of criminal assets; and committing frauds that substantially worsened the worst financial bubbles and crises since the Depression. And yet none of this conduct has been punished in any significant way…The Obama government has rationalised its failure to prosecute anyone (literally, anyone at all) for bubble-related crimes by saying that while much of Wall Street’s behaviour was unwise or unethical, it wasn’t illegal. With apologies for my vulgarity, this is complete horseshit. When the government is really serious about something – preventing another 9/11, or pursuing major organised crime figures –- it has many tools at its disposal and often uses them…When did Wall Street insiders know there was a really serious sub-prime mortgage bubble, and that they could game it? Many of the clever ones knew by about 2004…[M]any on Wall Street realised there was a huge bubble by late 2006, because that’s when they started massively betting on its collapse…Almost all the prospectuses and sales material on mortgage-backed bonds sold from 2005 until 2007 were a compound of falsehoods. And as the bubble peaked and started to collapse, executives repeatedly lied about their companies’ financial condition. In some cases, they also concealed other material information, such as the extent to which executives were selling or hedging their own stock holdings because they knew their firms were about to collapse.
* * *
The Crisis of European Democracy
Amartya Sen, The New York Times, May 22, 2012
[NOTE: The author of this piece is a Nobel laureate and a Harvard professor of economics and philosophy. In case, you know, this might add just a little bit of weight to her (vastly significant) analysis and opinion here.]
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Europe’s current malaise is the replacement of democratic commitments by financial dictates — from leaders of the European Union and the European Central Bank, and indirectly from credit-rating agencies, whose judgments have been notoriously unsound. Participatory public discussion — the “government by discussion” expounded by democratic theorists like John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot — could have identified appropriate reforms over a reasonable span of time, without threatening the foundations of Europe’s system of social justice. In contrast, drastic cuts in public services with very little general discussion of their necessity, efficacy or balance have been revolting to a large section of the European population and have played into the hands of extremists on both ends of the political spectrum. Europe cannot revive itself without addressing two areas of political legitimacy. First, Europe cannot hand itself over to the unilateral views — or good intentions — of experts without public reasoning and informed consent of its citizens. Given the transparent disdain for the public, it is no surprise that in election after election the public has shown its dissatisfaction by voting out incumbents. Second, both democracy and the chance of creating good policy are undermined when ineffective and blatantly unjust policies are dictated by leaders. The obvious failure of the austerity mandates imposed so far has undermined not only public participation — a value in itself — but also the possibility of arriving at a sensible, and sensibly timed, solution. This is a surely a far cry from the “united democratic Europe” that the pioneers of European unity sought.
* * *
Capitalists and Other Psychopaths
William Deresiewicz, The New York Times, May 12, 2012
There is an ongoing debate in this country about the rich: who they are, what their social role may be, whether they are good or bad. Well, consider the following. A 2010 study found that 4 percent of a sample of corporate managers met a clinical threshold for being labeled psychopaths, compared with 1 percent for the population at large. (However, the sample was not representative, as the study’s authors have noted.) Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law. The only thing that puzzles me about these claims is that anyone would find them surprising. Wall Street is capitalism in its purest form, and capitalism is predicated on bad behavior. This should hardly be news…[J]ust open up the business section on an average day. Shafting your workers, hurting your customers, destroying the land. Leaving the public to pick up the tab. These aren’t anomalies; this is how the system works: you get away with what you can and try to weasel out when you get caught…There are ethical corporations, yes, and ethical businesspeople, but ethics in capitalism is purely optional, purely extrinsic. To expect morality in the market is to commit a category error. Capitalist values are antithetical to Christian ones. (How the loudest Christians in our public life can also be the most bellicose proponents of an unbridled free market is a matter for their own consciences.) Capitalist values are also antithetical to democratic ones. Like Christian ethics, the principles of republican government require us to consider the interests of others. Capitalism, which entails the single-minded pursuit of profit, would have us believe that it’s every man for himself.
* * *
The Alchemical Roots of the Financial Revolution
Carl Wennerlind, berfrois, March 14, 2012
[NOTE: Read and consider this one carefully. The direct link it identifies between alchemy, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the Baconian project of improving humankind through the application of science, and the transformation of society and culture through the creation of a credit money system is deeply illuminating.]
Spinoza was just one of many seventeenth century intellectual luminaries who seriously engaged with alchemical thought and practice: others included John Locke, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. In England, confidence in the utility of alchemy was widespread. It was therefore unsurprising that metallic transmutation was pursued as a solution to the stubborn scarcity of money problem that had severely curtailed England’s commerce for decades…Despite many reports of successful transmutations, efforts to find the lever that would give mankind control over the money stock failed to materialize. At this point, the same social reformers who had pursued alchemical transmutations switched their attention to the promotion of a generally circulating credit currency, authoring some of the first proposals for such a currency…I suggest that the new political economy that laid the foundation for the Financial Revolution was greatly influenced by the Scientific Revolution, which included alchemical, as well as, Baconian and probabilistic thinking…The Hartlibians were fully committed to the Baconian project of using knowledge to gain control over nature for utilitarian purposes… By shifting to a worldview in which the only constant was continuous change, growth and improvement, the role and responsibility of money consequently changed. The main challenge now was to find a way to expand the money stock so that it could keep pace with the ever growing world of goods. For this to be possible, a much more flexible monetary system had to be developed. The Hartlibians’ first attempt at establishing a method to expand the money stock was to employ their alchemical knowledge in the transmutation of lead into gold…The failure of alchemical transmutation to provide mankind with a lever to control the money stock encouraged members of the Hartlib Circle to focus on another expedient promising to generate the same set of benefits as alchemy. They turned their attention towards finding a way to establishing a widely circulating credit currency, either by creating a bank or by reconfiguring the existing network of private credit instruments so that they would circulate more widely. In addition to offering solutions to the same problems, metallic transmutation and credit money shared the same underlying idea of using an expansion in the money stock to facilitate the infinite improvement process. As such, the idea of making money through metallic transmutation or credit were both rooted in the same alchemical and Baconian worldview and were part of the same universal reform project.
* * *
The Unabomber’s Pen Pal
Jeffrey R. Young, The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 20, 2012
Media profiles from the time of his capture, several months after the manifesto’s publication, paint Kaczynski as a kind of comic-book villain, a scruffy loner in a hooded sweatshirt whose failure in relationships drove him to insane acts of violence. But when David F. Skrbina, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Michigan here, read the manifesto in The Washington Post on the day it was published, he saw value in the message. He was particularly impressed by its clarity of argument and its references to major scholars on the philosophy of technology. He saw a thinker who wrongly turned to violence but had an argument worthy of further consideration. That argument certainly wasn’t perfect in Skrbina’s view, and he had some questions. Why not just reform the current system rather than knock it down? What was Kaczynski’s vision of how people should live? In November 2003, Skrbina mailed a letter to Kaczynski, then as now in a supermax prison in Colorado, asking those and other questions designed “to challenge him on his views, to press him.” So began a correspondence that has spanned more than 150 letters and has led Skrbina to help compile a book of Kaczynski’s writings, called Technological Slavery, released in 2010. The book is a kind of complete works of this violent tech skeptic, including the original manifesto, letters to Skrbina answering the professor’s questions, and other essays written from the Unabomber’s prison cell. Today, Skrbina is something like a friend to Kaczynski. And he’s more than that. The philosophy lecturer from Dearborn serves as the Unabomber’s intellectual sparring partner, a distributor of his writings to a private e-mail list of contacts, and at times even an advocate for his anti-tech message.
* * *
The Facebook Fallacy
Michael Wolff, MIT Technology Review, May 22, 2012
Teaser: For all its valuation, the social network is just another ad-supported site. Without an earth-changing idea, it will collapse and take down the Web.
Facebook is not only on course to go bust, but will take the rest of the ad-supported Web with it. Given its vast cash reserves and the glacial pace of business reckonings, that will sound hyperbolic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. At the heart of the Internet business is one of the great business fallacies of our time: that the Web, with all its targeting abilities, can be a more efficient, and hence more profitable, advertising medium than traditional media. Facebook, with its 900 million users, valuation of around $100 billion, and the bulk of its business in traditional display advertising, is now at the heart of the heart of the fallacy…I don’t know anyone in the ad-Web business who isn’t engaged in a relentless, demoralizing, no-exit operation to realign costs with falling per-user revenues, or who isn’t manically inflating traffic to compensate for ever-lower per-user value…Facebook, however, has convinced large numbers of otherwise intelligent people that the magic of the medium will reinvent advertising in a heretofore unimaginably profitable way, or that the company will create something new that isn’t advertising, which will produce even more wonderful profits…Facebook has the scale, the platform, and the brand to be the new Google. It only lacks the big idea. Right now, it doesn’t actually know how to embed its usefulness into world commerce (or even, really, what its usefulness is)…But so far, the sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way eludes Facebook…The math is sickeningly inevitable. Absent an earth-shaking idea, Facebook will look forward to slowing or declining growth in a tapped-out market, and ever-falling ad rates, both on the Web and (especially) in mobile. Facebook isn’t Google; it’s Yahoo or AOL…You see where this is going. As Facebook gluts an already glutted market, the fallacy of the Web as a profitable ad medium can no longer be overlooked. The crash will come. And Facebook — that putative transformer of worlds, which is, in reality, only an ad-driven site — will fall with everybody else.
* * *
The Mystery Worshipper
Alexandra Alter, The Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2008
Teaser: To try to keep their flocks, churches are turning to undercover inspectors, who note water stains, dull sermons and poor hospitality.
[A] new breed of church consultants [is] aiming to equip pastors with modern marketing practices. Pastors say mystery worshippers…offer insight into how newcomers judge churches — a critical measure at a time when mainline denominations continue to shed members and nearly half of American adults switch religious affiliations. In an increasingly diverse and fluid religious landscape, churches competing for souls are turning to corporate marketing strategies such as focus groups, customer-satisfaction surveys and product giveaways. At least half a dozen consulting companies have introduced secret-church-shopper services in recent years…So far, secret-shopper services mainly target Christian churches, where declining “brand loyalty” among worshippers has become a common motif…Church leaders say they’re seeking new ways to assess their services and evaluate everything from the style of music to how comfortable the pews are as they court fickle churchgoers…Some theologians warn that mystery-worshipper services will drive “spiritual consumerism”…Others say that church shopping has become necessary for churches seeking to compete in an increasingly mobile and consumer-oriented society. “My competition is Cracker Barrel restaurant down the street,” says Pete Wilson, pastor of CrossPoint Church in Nashville, Tenn., who regularly enlists a secret shopper to evaluate his 2,000-person congregation.
* * *
Philip K. Dick, Sci-Fi Philosopher
Simon Critchley, Opinionator, The New York Times, May 2012
[NOTE: This three-part series of essays on Dick’s esoteric/quasi-gnostic philosophy and body of work — written by a philosophy professor — is utterly captivating, although Critchley’s general dismissiveness toward the possible accuracy and reality of Dick’s vision in the third part is, I think, unwarranted.]
Excerpt from Part 1:
Was Dick seriously bonkers? Was he psychotic? Was he schizophrenic? (He writes, “The schizophrenic is a leap ahead that failed.”) Were the visions simply the effect of a series of brain seizures that some call T.L.E. — temporal lobe epilepsy? Could we now explain and explain away Dick’s revelatory experience by some better neuroscientific story about the brain? Perhaps. But the problem is that each of these causal explanations misses the richness of the phenomena that Dick was trying to describe and also overlooks his unique means for describing them. The fact is that after Dick experienced the events of what he came to call “2-3-74” (the events of February and March of that year), he devoted the rest of his life to trying to understand what had happened to him. For Dick, understanding meant writing. Suffering from what we might call “chronic hypergraphia,” between 2-3-74 and his death, Dick wrote more than 8,000 pages about his experience. He often wrote all night, producing 20 single-spaced, narrow-margined pages at a go, largely handwritten and littered with extraordinary diagrams and cryptic sketches…In a later remark in “Exegesis,” Dick writes, “I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist.” He interestingly goes on to add, “The core of my writing is not art but truth.” We seem to be facing an apparent paradox, where the concern with truth, the classical goal of the philosopher, is not judged to be in opposition to fiction, but itself a work a fiction. Dick saw his fiction writing as the creative attempt to describe what he discerned as the true reality. He adds, “I am basically analytical, not creative; my writing is simply a creative way of handling analysis.”
* * *
Aliens, Predictions & the Secret School: Decoding the Work of Whitley Strieber
Louis Proud, New Dawn, May 17, 2012 (originally published in New Dawn Special Issue #4)
Anyone who knows anything about the subject of UFOs and alien abduction would have heard of Louis Whitley Strieber, the successful horror novelist, who, in 1987, published a book called Communion which still stands as one of the most terrifying, factual and powerful accounts of alien abduction ever written. But far from being just an abductee and author, Strieber is also something of an undeclared mystic and prophet. It seems he has much to say about humanity’s spiritual, political and environmental future. Is he, as some have claimed, nothing but a prophet of doom, or do his words contain genuine wisdom and an important message?…Strieber was already a successful author before he decided to risk his reputation by publishing Communion. His previous books, of which there are many, deal with issues like nuclear war and environmental catastrophe. Along with childhood friend James Kunetka, Strieber wrote the 1984 New York Times bestselling novel Warday, which concerns the subject of nuclear holocaust. He also wrote a number of highly acclaimed horror novels, such as The Hunger and The Wolfen, both of which were adapted into films. When Communion was first published, it quickly shot to number 1 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. It then went on to become an international bestseller. Although Strieber allegedly received six figures from publishing company William Morrow (now an imprint of HarperCollins), it seems unlikely that Communion was a hoax, and that he wrote it for the money – which is what some critics have claimed. In a 1987 interview for the San Francisco Examiner, Strieber said: “I didn’t need to write it. I could have written another novel… Why would I hold myself up to the ridicule that a book like Communion brings? I felt that I had to write this book.”
* * *
This short 2008 film from the National Endowment for the arts features Ray Bradbury as he discusses his life, literary loves and Fahrenheit 451.
Selected excerpts (transcriptions courtesy of the inimitable Maria Popova):
“Books are smart and brilliant and wise. Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it. You do what you want, what you love. Imagination should be the center of your life.”
“Alone at night, when I was twelve years old, I looked at the planet Mars and I said, ‘Take me home!’ And the planet Mars took me home, and I never came back. So I’ve written every day in the last 75 years. I’ve never stopped writing.”
“If you know how to read, you have a complete education about life, then you know how to vote within a democracy. But if you don’t know how to read, you don’t know how to decide. That’s the great thing about our country — we’re a democracy of readers, and we should keep it that way.”