This week’s recommendations encompass the spiritual past and future of money and capitalism; the use of neuroscience by tech companies to profit from Internet addiction; the future of books, libraries, and old movies in an age of digital instant gratification and a perpetually shrinking historical awareness; the deep appeal of fairy tales; thoughts on a new future for the debate over paranormal abilities; a riveting first-person account of what it’s like to live with cosmically horrifying panic attacks, and of the way these impact a person’s worldview; and a nice compilation of speech excerpts from Robert Anton Wilson about the nature of reality.
The Etherealization of Capitalism
William Irwin Thompson, Seven Pillars House of Wisdom, January 26, 2011
[NOTE: This essay about money and capitalism’s deep spiritual and material past and future, written by one of the greatest living philosophers of evolutionary spirituality, is so lucid and profound, all at once, that it truly exhilarates. It reaches all the way from our neolithic past to Wall Street’s casino capitalism of the present to a quantum shift in our relationship to money and materiality that shimmers just beyond the temporal horizon. And it encompasses both an expectation of catastrophic collapse for 21st century planetary culture and a hope of what this apocalyptic clearing-away might bring.]
In human culture we are reaching criticality when the Earth will flash with a new economy and a new planetary culture … Capitalism as well as hypercapitalism will both fail in this century because a market is not a good model for a planetary ecology. In the shift from economics to ecology as the governing science of a new planetary culture, we will also experience another transformation of values … From the impact of the coming environmental catastrophes and diebacks of billions of human beings that I think are coming in this century, life will take on a new value. Just as the Black Death almost halved the population of Europe and reduced the work force, so did it also increase the value of the individual. The price of labor went up. So in the not too distant future the shift from an industrial growth mentality of accumulation in an economy to an ecology of symbiosis will enhance the value of consciousness, a consciousness not just of humans, but of the bacteria in our guts, the whales in the sea, and the cloud — thermodynamic and electronic — on our new horizon. The identity of the individual will derive not from territorial nation-states, but from states of consciousness. The noetic polity will replace the industrial nation-state … A transformation of consciousness will dawn on us when we realize, in the etherealization of capitalism, that if money is a consensual instrument—whether cowrie shells, coins, writing on paper, or pulses in a computer–that allows a cultural process to come into being, then one can transcend the physical instrument to proceed directly to the consensual cultural process … In religious terms, it is like the shift from the economy of men to the ontology of angels, or what the Neoplatonists called the Celestial Intelligences. So on this Epiphany of a new decade, let us think of the wise men bringing the gold of the past, the incense of the present, and the myrrh of the future — to the starchild marking in the zodiacal precession the beginning of a new era.
Exploiting the Neuroscience of Internet Addiction
Bill Davidow, The Atlantic, July 18, 2012
[NOTE: At the end of this piece, the author presents some practical ways that he and his family are responding the challenge and danger of Internet addiction and the cynical creation and exploitation of it by profit-seeking entities.]
Teaser: Much of what we do online releases dopamine into the brain’s pleasure centers, resulting in obsessive pleasure-seeking behavior. Technology companies face the option to exploit our addictions for profit.
In the Internet Age, more and more companies live by the mantra “create an obsession, then exploit it.” … Thanks to neuroscience, we’re beginning to understand that achieving a goal or anticipating the reward of new content for completing a task can excite the neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain’s pleasure centers. This in turn causes the experience to be perceived as pleasurable. As a result, some people can become obsessed with these pleasure-seeking experiences and engage in compulsive behavior such as a need to keep playing a game, constantly check email, or compulsively gamble online … By the time Web 2.0 rolled around, the key to success was to create obsessions. Internet gaming companies now openly discuss compulsion loops that directly result in obsessions, and the goal of other applications is the same: to create the compulsion to gather thousands of friends on Facebook, thousands of followers on Twitter, or be pleasantly surprised to discover from Foursquare that a friend you haven’t seen for years is nearby … Many Internet companies are learning what the tobacco industry has long known — addiction is good for business.
How Google is becoming an extension of your mind
Stephen Shankland, CNET, July 16, 2012
[NOTE: I bailed on Google a few months ago in protest and creeped-out disturbance over its controversial decision to overhaul and consolidate its many privacy policies. That’s not to say I’ll never return, if I should sense a change. This article offers some of the most cogent and nuanced thinking I’ve yet encountered on the whole issue. I highly recommend it.]
Teaser: Google could have us all headed for a mind-blowing future — if the company can back away from targeted advertising and better help users manage their personal information.
It’s time to think of Google as much more than just a search engine, and that should both excite and spook you. Search remains critical to the company’s financial and technological future, but Google also is using the search business’ cash to transform itself into something much broader than just a place to point your browser when asking for directions on the Internet. What it’s now becoming is an extension of your mind, an omnipresent digital assistant that figures out what you need and supplies it before you even realize you need it … Imagine Google playing a customized audio commentary based on what you look at while on a tourist trip and then sharing photo highlights with your friends as you go. Or Google taking over your car when it concludes based on your steering response time and blink rate that you’re no longer fit to drive. Or your Google glasses automatically beaming audio and video to the police when you say a phrase that indicates you’re being mugged. Exciting? I think so. But it’s also, potentially, a profoundly creepy change. For a Google-augmented life, you must grant the Googlebot unprecedented privileges to monitor your personal information and behavior. What medicine do you take? What ads did you just glance at while walking by the bus stop? What’s your credit card number? And as Google works to integrate social data into its services, you’ll have to decide how much you’ll share with your contacts’ Google accounts — and the best way to ask them to share their data with your Google account. It’ll be foolhardy to be as cavalier with tomorrow’s Google as you might be with it today. I think some of those sci-fi possibilities I just described could be real within three to five years, so now is a good time to start thinking about where your Google comfort zone ends. Me? I’m immersed in Google services, but I worry that handy new features will arrive in a steady stream of minor changes that are all but imperceptible until one day I wake up and realize that Google has access to everything that makes me who I am.
The Bookless Library
David A. Bell, The New Republic, July 12, 2012
Teaser: Don’t deny the change. Direct it wisely.
[NOTE: After reading the excerpts below, click through and pay special attention to the middle part of this essay (not excerpted below) where Bell lays out a dystopian “nightmare scenario” set two decades into a future where New York’s libraries are demolished in the midst of a devastating economic crisis as the city’s mayor strikes a deal with “Googlezon” to provide books, and the work of real human librarians is replaced by a cloud software package.]
It has been clear for some time now that [the rise of widely available e-books] would pose one of the greatest challenges that modern libraries — from institutions like the NYPL on down — have ever encountered. Put bluntly, one of their core functions now faces the prospect of obsolescence. What role will libraries have when patrons no longer need to go to them to consult or to borrow books? … [L]ibraries are not just repositories of books. They are communities, sources of expertise, and homes to lovingly compiled collections that amount to far more than the sum of their individual printed parts. Their physical spaces, especially in grand temples of learning like the New York Public Library, subtly influence the way that reading and writing takes place in them. And yet it is foolish to think that libraries can remain the same with the new technology on the scene … [I]t will inevitably become harder and harder for most libraries to justify keeping physical copies of digitized public domain books on their shelves. The books take up space. They must be kept at a proper temperature. The process of checking them out, checking them in, and re-shelving them involves human labor. All of these things incur significant expenses, at a time when most library budgets are shrinking … If libraries are to survive, and thereby preserve their expertise, their communal functions, their specialized collections, and the access they provide to physical books, they must find new roles to play … Like it or not, the great public libraries of the world simply will not remain what they were, not in an age of severe cost pressures in which a greater and greater proportion of citizens carry about the equivalent of a score of research libraries in their pockets and purses. The transformation is upon us.
Will Your Children Inherit Your E-Books?
Amanda Katz, NPR, June 21, 2012
[A]s far as posterity goes, the e-book system has some genuine superiorities over the old economy. Annotations exist in the cloud, so if your house burns down they are preserved. Your marginalia is accessible to more than just someone who holds the volume itself — biographers of the future will surely appreciate not having to count on a generous widow bequeathing them their subject’s reading copy. With e-books, there’s no need to fight over a single physical library copy; no trees need be cut down; unsold books need not be pulped; you don’t need to lug books from apartment to apartment; pages will never be dotted with mildew. But what do we lose as we bid farewell to what may turn out to have been a brief period in which common people owned physical books? … [W]hen I think of sorting through the boxes of my grandmother’s books — even the ones we couldn’t keep, or didn’t want — and what we found there, I am grateful not to have been handed her Amazon password instead. Among all the gifts of the electronic age, one of the most paradoxical might be to illuminate something we are beginning to trade away: the particular history, visible and invisible, that can be passed down through the vessel of an old book, inscribed by the hands and the minds of readers who are gone.
Millennials seem to have little use for old movies
Neal Gabler, Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2012
[NOTE: You would be forgiven for thinking, as some commenters on this widely circulated op-ed have thought, that the author is exaggerating or taking a one-sided view of things. You would be forgiven for dismissing him on the suspicion that he’s simply falling prey to the perennial temptation for adults to wring their hands over the ignorance, laziness etc., etc., of the younger generation. But the thing is, I’ve worked every day for the past 11 years in direct contact with the millennial generation he’s talking about, and have devoted a considerable portion of this time to introducing older films to them. And I can tell you that he’s onto something. Not just the literary but the cinematic past is rapidly becoming a closed book, as it were, to the young among us. The present moment, measured now in a scrolling window of no more than five to 10 years, is becoming All That Is for many people. There are exceptions, of course. But there’s also the rule, which is very real.]
Teaser: For young people, the focus seems to be on what can be talked about now — new movies serve an immediate social function. Old films are being forgotten.
[T]he new “Spider-Man” betrays … something important about the young audience’s relationship to film. Young people, so-called millennials, don’t seem to think of movies as art the way so many boomers did. They think of them as fashion, and like fashion, movies have to be new and cool to warrant attention. Living in a world of the here-and-now, obsessed with whatever is current, kids seem no more interested in seeing their parents’ movies than they are in wearing their parents’ clothes. Indeed, novelty may be the new narcissism. It obliterates the past in the fascination with the present … [T]o be sure, there is still a legion of young movie fanatics who appreciate and even love the films of Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford, Capra, Welles, Truffaut and others. But among many rank-and-file millennials, the attitude doesn’t seem to be so generous. They find old movies hopelessly passé — technically primitive, politically incorrect, narratively dull, slowly paced. In short, old-fashioned. Even Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man is a Model T next to Andrew Garfield’s rocket ship of a movie … [M]illennials seem to have a hard time relating to movies that are only a few years old. A friend of mine who teaches in the New York University Cinema Studies graduate program told me he was appalled at how little interest his students — future critics and film scholars, no less — had in old movies. For them, “classics” are movies made in the last five years, and Scorsese is like Washington or Lincoln: ancient … And yet another friend, this one a high school teacher in California heading a film class, said his students were bored by “The Godfather.” He won’t be teaching the course again because there wasn’t sufficient interest … All of this makes it tough not only for old movies to survive but for movie history to matter. There is a sense that if you can’t tweet about it or post a comment about it on your Facebook wall, it has no value. Once, not so long ago, old and new movies, middle-aged audiences and young audiences, happily coexisted. Movies brought us together. Now a chasm widens between the new and the old, one aesthetic and another, one generation and another. It widens until the past recedes into nothingness, leaving us with an endless stream of the very latest with no regard for what came before. Old movies are now like dinosaurs, and like dinosaurs, they are threatened with extinction.
Once upon a Time: The Lure of the Fairy Tale
Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, July 23, 2012
[Y]ou could say that the Grimm tales are no different from other art. They merely concretize and then expand our experience of life … The reason that most people value fairy tales, I would say, is that they do not detain us with hope but simply validate what is. Even people who have never known hunger, let alone a murderous stepmother, still have a sense — from dreams, from books, from news broadcasts — of utter blackness, the erasure of safety and comfort and trust. Fairy tales tell us that such knowledge, or fear, is not fantastic but realistic. Maybe, after this life, we will go to Heaven, as the two little girls who starved to death hoped to. Or maybe not. Though Wilhelm tried to Christianize the tales, they still invoke nature, more than God, as life’s driving force, and nature is not kind.
Let These Waters Pour Back to the Ocean: Rethinking the Psi Debate
David Metcalfe, Reality Sandwich, March 23, 2012
[NOTE: Yes, this is by the same David Metcalfe who is part of our teem and writes De Umbris Idearum.]
Psi phenomena, synchronicity, and all manner of mysteries are no longer socially unacceptable … The current glut of media on paranormal topics, even the most trivial, is building a climate of acceptance that can eventually support actual growth in our understanding of these phenomena … What is at stake in this debate is not a mere matter of rationality vs. irrationality, it is the opening or closing of the gates through which we are free to encounter the very depth of our consciousness, and our potential as human beings to be more than meager carriers for market messages and base commodity … Whether they would like to admit it or not, every time a skeptic comes home to their dog inexplicably waiting for them, Rupert Sheldrake’s research on telepathy in animals is confirmed. Every time a skeptic watches a movie, a play, a television or internet show, or listens to music, they are most likely encountering the results of some anomalous inspiration as can be seen by the current research into the narrative nature of the paranormal and the interstices of culture and psi. The last bastions of skeptical security, the corporations and mainline academy, are falling under their own weight and irrelevance, watching as more agile innovation is occurring in the private sector and through loose collaborations. This has always been the case; the largest collective project in the history of the United States, the Manhattan Project, was conducted through a loose knit group of amateurs, academics and industry leaders operating under the guidance of an ideal, not a corporate mandate … Psi is the unknown factor that gives room for rebirth, the very seat of possibility and change. The clock is striking the hour, and the time, the door is open. Let’s leave the skeptics to their gnawing solipsism, the true believers to their phantasms, and follow the forerunners as we step back into reality. These candles are lit with an invisible flame, we can see it now: Sanctitas, Scientia et Sapientia: sanctity comes through science and wisdom.
Paul Vandevelder, Opinionator, The New York Times, July 15, 2012
[NOTE: This excellently written essay, which offers a firsthand account of living with cosmically horrifying and debilitating panic attacks, is like a punch in the gut, especially if you’re someone who has experienced anything like what the author describes. It’s an entry in the Times‘ online series “Anxiety: We Worry,” which is inspired by the fact that “Nearly one in five Americans suffer from anxiety. For many, it is not a disorder, but a part of the human condition. This series explores how we navigate the worried mind, through essay, art and memoir.”]
Even if I live to be a thousand years old I won’t forget my first panic attack, that first surreal journey into the paranormal dimensions of my cerebral cortex. Decades later, the memory is all white heat and jagged edges … The initial tremor of voltage wormed its way up the back of my neck in a vertiginous rush of heat. Before I could grab the table to steady myself, the snake uncoiled itself inside my head and struck my prefrontal cortex with a ferocity that made my heart pummel my ribs, trying to break out … What I couldn’t know at that moment was that I’d crossed a frontera, a border crossing separating my old life from the new, and there was no way back, any more than I could return to my mother’s womb or rewrite my genome. This was the new me, a verdict with no appeals, no chance at parole. My brain had betrayed me, and in this new life I would have to learn how to function in a suspended state between the deadening banality of the exterior world and the theater of the absurd that tormented me from within. I was now living with an intimate stranger, trapped, it seemed, between two profoundly distorted mirrors with no way out … As a journalist I covered wars, presidential campaigns, natural disasters, you name it, all with the Joker on my back and that book in my camera bag … You haven’t explored the farthest reaches of the existentially surreal until you’ve had a grand mal panic attack during an 8.2 earthquake in a war zone in the middle of the night. Alone, in a foreign country. Peak experience … When I paid my 10 bucks a few years ago to see “Batman: The Dark Knight,” one glance at the hideous feral leer of Heath Ledger’s Joker took me right back to that July day in New York City … His Joker was no illusion, no dark fantasy of his imagination. His Joker, whom he described as a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy,” was the real deal, the mocking personification of the intimate beast trapped between two mirrors in both of our heads.
Thank you to The Oz Mix for calling attention to the following excellent compilation of excerpts from talks by Brother RAW, and also for identifying some of its highlights:
- Wilson’s take on the origins of all prejudice, bigotry and ignorance: not taking into account that “every perception is a gamble,” and not realizing that what we consider “reality” comes down to an interpretation of the signals we receive. He says that in philosophy, “what I perceive is reality is called naive realism.”
- “Every reality tunnel might tell us something interesting about our world.”
- “We are trapped in linguistic constructs.” This leads to a short discussion of e-prime (the attempt to remove the word “is” from speech and writing) and the value of that for getting out of angry or negative emotional states.
- The advantage of knowing your own Cosmic Schmuckness.
- People arguing about words “should be put in a nice quiet home in the country with kindly doctors and beautiful nurses and good sedatives. Instead, they end up in government mansions and start bombing one another or leading a religious crusade for the one true faith and kill each other with swords.”
- Why it’s more fun to be an optimist than paranoid.