This week: the dystopian potential of the “big data” revolution, and the need for a deliberate preservation of the sphere of the specifically human in the new reality of a true “information society.” The ubiquitous danger of untested chemicals in the products comprising most Americans’ daily lives. S. T. Joshi on H. P. Lovecraft’s enduring worth. British writer, feminist, and mystical Christian Sara Maitland’s dedication to finding and living in pure silence amid a noisy, clanging world. Douglas Rushkoff on the real “end of the world” as the West’s age-old infatuation with the future gives way to a bewildered, dehumanizing, and potentially transformative and revivifying culture of “present shock.” Marilynne Robinson on religion, science, art, and the miraculous. Richard Heinberg on the lie of a comprehensive “scientific account” of our world and experience, and the enduring presence of anomalies that show everything isn’t as fully understood as we’re commonly told.
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The Rise of Big Data
Kenneth Neil Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2013
[EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve directed you before to Cukier and Mayer-Schoenberger’s analysis of and prognosis for the new era that has apparently dawned all around us, in which “big data,” defined as our newfound ability to crunch vast and previously unmanageable (and even unrecognizable and unknowable) amounts of information, “will transform how we live, work, and think.” The fact that these men, one of whom is Data Editor for The Economist and the other of whom is Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, aren’t ardent techno-utopians about this development but are seriously examining and considering its profound and often troubling implications, is evidenced by this recent piece in Foreign Affairs, which, along with presenting the basic case for the idea that we truly have entered this new era, contains a stark warning about the dystopian possibilities that now greet us. This, in turn, is channeled from their new book about the subject, which bears the appropriate title Big Data.]
States will need to help protect their citizens and their markets from new vulnerabilities caused by big data. But there is another potential dark side: big data could become Big Brother. In all countries, but particularly in nondemocratic ones, big data exacerbates the existing asymmetry of power between the state and the people. The asymmetry could well become so great that it leads to big-data authoritarianism, a possibility vividly imagined in science-fiction movies such as Minority Report. That 2002 film took place in a near-future dystopia in which the character played by Tom Cruise headed a “Precrime” police unit that relied on clairvoyants whose visions identified people who were about to commit crimes. The plot revolves around the system’s obvious potential for error and, worse yet, its denial of free will.
Although the idea of identifying potential wrongdoers before they have committed a crime seems fanciful, big data has allowed some authorities to take it seriously. In 2007, the Department of Homeland Security launched a research project called FAST (Future Attribute Screening Technology), aimed at identifying potential terrorists by analyzing data about individuals’ vital signs, body language, and other physiological patterns. Police forces in many cities, including Los Angeles, Memphis, Richmond, and Santa Cruz, have adopted “predictive policing” software, which analyzes data on previous crimes to identify where and when the next ones might be committed.
For the moment, these systems do not identify specific individuals as suspects. But that is the direction in which things seem to be heading.
. . . Ultimately, big data marks the moment when the “information society” finally fulfills the promise implied by its name. The data take center stage. All those digital bits that have been gathered can now be harnessed in novel ways to serve new purposes and unlock new forms of value. But this requires a new way of thinking and will challenge institutions and identities. In a world where data shape decisions more and more, what purpose will remain for people, or for intuition, or for going against the facts? If everyone appeals to the data and harnesses big-data tools, perhaps what will become the central point of differentiation is unpredictability: the human element of instinct, risk taking, accidents, and even error. If so, then there will be a special need to carve out a place for the human: to reserve space for intuition, common sense, and serendipity to ensure that they are not crowded out by data and machine-made answers.
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Think Those Chemicals Have Been Tested?
Ian Urbina, The New York Times, April 13, 2013
Many Americans assume that the chemicals in their shampoos, detergents and other consumer products have been thoroughly tested and proved to be safe. This assumption is wrong. Unlike pharmaceuticals or pesticides, industrial chemicals do not have to be tested before they are put on the market. Under the law regulating chemicals, producers are only rarely required to provide the federal government with the information necessary to assess safety.
. . . [T]he overwhelming majority of chemicals in use today have never been independently tested for safety. In its history, the E.P.A. has mandated safety testing for only a small percentage of the 85,000 industrial chemicals available for use today. And once chemicals are in use, the burden on the E.P.A. is so high that it has succeeded in banning or restricting only five substances, and often only in specific applications: polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxin, hexavalent chromium, asbestos and chlorofluorocarbons.
Part of the growing pressure to update federal rules on chemical safety comes from advances in the science of biomonitoring, which tells us more about the chemicals to which we are exposed daily, like the bisphenol A (BPA) in can linings and hard plastics, the flame retardants in couches, the stain-resistant coatings on textiles and the nonylphenols in detergents, shampoos and paints. Hazardous chemicals have become so ubiquitous that scientists now talk about babies being born pre-polluted, sometimes with hundreds of synthetic chemicals showing up in their blood.
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The Lovecraft Expert: An Interview with S. T. Joshi
Tea Krulos, Innsmouth Free Press, April 17, 2013
Krulos: What is it about Lovecraft’s life and work that has given him such a lasting legacy while other pulp horror writers from the era have languished in obscurity and are mostly forgotten (outside of devoted horror fans?)
Joshi: It is not merely that Lovecraft’s tales form a roughly coherent single entity – a kind of loose novel in which each story comprises a chapter. It is that his work is founded upon a deeply held philosophy of life – a philosophy that saw human beings and all Earth life as a transient phenomenon of no consequence to the immense spatial and temporal vortices of the cosmos. Lovecraft also had the talent to convey his message in stories that are meticulously constructed and written with a prose of extraordinary evocativeness and resonance. It is precisely because his stories do not deal with the mundane aspects of human life – social relations, class distinctions, love and marriage and children – but instead deal with broader issues (Who are we? Why are we here? What is our place in the universe?) that they have survived. They are “timeless” in a way that many stories – whether genre or mainstream – are not.
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All Quiet on the Western Front
The Scotsman,, November 6, 2008
[EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m currently reading A Book of Silence, the book by Sara Maitland that is the focus of this profile and interview. It is astonishingly absorbing and beautifully written. It also features her extended reflections on, among other things, the experiences of “voice hearing” that can accompany deep and extended silence, the religious and mystical reality and implications of silence as a positive phenomenon, the real soul peril that often accompanies extended silence and isolation, and much more. This interview accesses several of those matters.]
Her new work, the non-fiction A Book of Silence, chronicles her journey towards a quieter life, a quest that has brought her here to Dirniemow, a converted shepherd’s cottage miles from anywhere, accessed by a thin ribbon of road with more sheep than cars upon it, and a final steep climb up a muddy track.
. . . . The rolling countryside feels aquatic, wind blowing the brown grass in rippling waves, and Maitland’s schedule is almost as empty as her view. She prays for three hours each day, reads, smokes and sews, and says as little as possible. Tuesdays and Thursdays are spent in total silence — the phone is unplugged, the computer switched off, and she speaks to no one at all. Each Sunday she drives 22 miles into Newton Stewart to attend Mass and pick up groceries. Once a month she does a big shop and stocks the deep freeze. She tries not to leave the hill at all during the week, but sometimes she goes out and walks for miles on the Merrick and other hills in the area. She has spent the last two Christmases alone, and hopes that her son Adam will not want to visit this year. Her life is, by modern standards, one of extraordinary isolation and self-denial. Maitland lives more like an early Christian monk or biblical hermit than a 21st-century woman. When she mentions the credit crunch it sounds anachronistic; I’d be more prepared for her to discuss, as if it was hot news, the martyrdom of St Bartholomew.
. . . . I’m keen to understand what the silence she experiences is like, and so when she pauses before replying to questions I listen carefully. Wind is the dominant sound. There’s also the noise of rain slamming against the window, Zoe whining and the regular ping of a wrought-iron bell outside the door moving in the gale. Other than that, nothing. Maitland assures me that the fridge and computer make slight murmurs, and that while she prays she can hear her stomach rumbling.
Does she hear God speak? “When I’m lucky,” she laughs. “I mostly don’t hear God speak in words, like voice-hearing. It’s not at all similar to that. More often, I feel the presence of God, which is extremely lovely, but you don’t realise you’ve felt it until afterwards. It’s an overwhelming feeling of joy.”
But why has Maitland chosen to live like this? She insists that it’s simple: “Silence makes me happy.” She swears that, though she does enjoy being alone and independent, it’s not because she’s misanthropic. What she finds tiresome are “thin” friendships; her own relationships and conversations with friends are intense and intimate. Visits to big towns and cities, because of the noise levels, make her panicky and exhausted. “I don’t like being in big groups of people any more. I mean, I go to Mass, but that’s not exactly a cocktail party.”
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Turtles from the Shells
Douglas Rushkoff, The New Inquiry, March 11, 2013
Teaser: The end of the world really did happen, just like the Mayans said, but not in the way we thought.
A civilization based on growing as it moved forward is finally being forced to consider an alternative. This reconsideration has been coming for a while now. Even middle-class Americans have pulled their retirement savings out of mutual funds, suspecting that the stock markets might not continue expanding — especially after the limits of colonialism had been reached and the earth’s resources had been nearly tapped. It’s as if Western society were full-grown. The prenatal chi has been spent. No matter how many Wired magazine and Global Business Network futurists write about long booms, long nows and long tails, it turns out the economy isn’t like the universe and doesn’t expand forever. Like the Mayans were trying to tell us, the long trek toward the future is finally ending.
No, 2012 didn’t augur the end of times, but the end of time. We went from a future focused society to a present-based one. The leaning forward that had characterized our civilization since the invention of farming and text became more of a standing-up. The myths that had been pulling us forward spiritually and economically just stopped making sense. Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” may have been an appropriate structure for George Lucas’s Star Wars or Steve Case’s AOL business plan, but it was no longer an appropriate map for a culture that can no longer keep its gaze on the distant horizon.
. . . Our real-time technologies urgently ping us with news from the world and our friends. We desperately try to keep up, as if an empty inbox and up-to-the-second Twitter participation means we are finally in the “now” of an always-on digital culture. But these technologies are rear-view mirrors that evict us from the now. The more likes and followers and retweets, the better we seem to be doing in the faux “now,” but it actually tracks how divorced we are from the real one. In other words, we finally arrive back in the present, only to surrender our potential postnarrative freedom for a new sort of temporal imprisonment. That’s what I mean by Present Shock: I fear we are so unaccustomed to life in the present—to living for its own sake—that we would rather not embrace its possibilities.
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Reclaiming a Sense of the Sacred
Marilynne Robinson, The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 12, 2012
For almost as long as there has been science in the West, there has been a significant strain in scientific thought which assumed that the physical and material preclude the spiritual. The assumption persists among us still, vigorous as ever, that if a thing can be “explained,” associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual. But the “physical” in this sense is only a disappearingly thin slice of being, selected, for our purposes, out of the totality of being by the fact that we perceive it as solid, substantial. We all know that if we were the size of atoms, chairs and tables would appear to us as loose clouds of energy. It seems to me very amazing that the arbitrarily selected “physical” world we inhabit is coherent and lawful. An older vocabulary would offer the word “miraculous.” Knowing what we know now, an earlier generation might see divine providence in the fact of a world coherent enough to be experienced by us as complete in itself, and as a basis upon which all claims to reality can be tested. A truly theological age would see in this divine providence intent on making a human habitation within the wild roar of the cosmos.
. . . The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading of them at all. Be that as it may, the effect of this idea, which is very broadly assumed to be true, is again to reinforce the notion that science and religion are struggling for possession of a single piece of turf, and science holds the high ground and gets to choose the weapons.
In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music, and religion tell us that. And what they tell us is true, not after the fashion of a magisterium that is legitimate only so long as it does not overlap the autonomous republic of science. It is true because it takes account of the universal variable, human nature, which shapes everything it touches, science as surely and profoundly as anything else. And it is true in the tentative, suggestive, ambivalent, self-contradictory style of the testimony of a hundred thousand witnesses, who might, taken all together, agree on no more than the shared sense that something of great moment has happened, is happening, will happen, here and among us.
. . . Of course science must not be judged by the claims certain of its proponents have made for it. It is not in fact a standard of reasonableness or truth or objectivity. It is human, and has always been one strategy among others in the more general project of human self-awareness and self-assertion. Our problem with ourselves, which is much larger and vastly older than science, has by no means gone into abeyance since we learned to make penicillin or to split the atom.
. . . Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom. Nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again.
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Morsels of Knowledge, Banquets of Ignorance
Richard Heinberg, New Dawn, June 1994 (reprinted online April 17, 2013)
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Long-time Teeming Brain readers will recall Richard Heinberg from his references in many previous articles, including one of the most popular pieces we’ve ever published here, “Zombies, Digital Media, and Cultural Preservation in the New Dark Age,” which was written largely as a response to one of Heinberg’s essays. He is widely recognized as one of the most insightful and eloquent writers and thinkers about the tangle of ecological, spiritual, and energy-based crises afflicting industrial society and infinite growth-based economies, but before he became known for that particular conglomeration of subjects and themes, he wrote and published extensively about more pointedly philosophical and sometimes even esoteric matters. For the past year and more, New Dawn, the venerable magazine about “mysteries, esotericism, spirituality and healing,” has been digitally reprinting various articles and essays from issues long past, and recently they dug out a piece by none other than Heinberg that was first published 19 years ago. Or rather, it was first published by Heinberg himself in his equally venerable Museletter, which is still going strong today (despite the note at the end of the New Dawn piece that says it has ceased publication), and then reprinted by New Dawn. The timing for the piece’s reappearance is particularly apt, since, as the following excerpts demonstrate, Heinberg’s subject and message are even more pertinent now than they were in 1994.]
The goal of the founders of Western science was to create a system of inquiry based on evidence, one in which theories would be continually tested, discarded, and replaced according to the impersonal dictates of fact and reason. Science was meant to stand above culture. This was, and is, a laudable ideal. But science’s quest for objectivity has always had to contend with two unalterable obstacles: the fact that scientists themselves are human beings with prejudices, fears, and ambitions; and the fact that the practice of science takes place within a cultural context wherein the economic goals of elites, class power relations, and a host of shared unconscious assumptions cast an unavoidable and mostly invisible influence on the proceedings. Science does not stand above culture; it swims in it.
. . . [W]hen a lengthy series of theoretical presuppositions is necessary to form the concepts which lead to experimental and equipment design in a typical research project, which then yields data that must be processed according to the same theoretical presuppositions in order to make sense, then it should be clear to us that even many of the “observed facts” of modern science are largely hypothetical.
That’s not the impression one gets when reading science articles in news magazines, or when watching television science documentaries, in which we are told repeatedly that scientists now “know” that the Universe began fifteen billion years ago in a Big Bang; that life on this planet evolved first from terrestrial chemical processes and then by way of competition and natural selection; that atoms are made up of tiny charged particles; and so on.
. . . In virtually every field, widely-accepted views are plagued by internal contradictions; and in many cases these problems are hardly peripheral, but pertain to bedrock issues. Moreover, they tend to compound one another: a scientist in one discipline (such as astronomy), in order to clear up a problem, will often rely on “facts” from another discipline (such as physics), believing that the conclusions he reaches thereby are solidly supported — when in reality they may be resting upon the flimsiest of foundations. This process snowballs from discipline to discipline, specialist relying upon specialist.
When one begins to see the same pattern of anomaly, dogma, and denial in one field after another, the overall picture one gets is of a scientific world-view that is virtually a house of cards. We have created a system of knowledge consisting of millions of observed facts arranged in such a way as to give an essentially false view of the nature of reality. My point is not that science has made no valuable contributions — it has! — but that we always need to see those contributions in context and to appreciate their limitations and the tradeoffs we have made for their sake. The legendary Lao Tze reputedly wrote, “To know how little one knows is to have genuine knowledge.” Ironically, we in the industrialized world — who pride ourselves on living in an “information society” — are perhaps further from having genuine knowledge than were people in most “primitive” cultures throughout history.