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Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Dehumanization: Surrendering to the Death of Democracy

 

Greetings, Teeming Brainers. I’m just peeking in from the digital wings, amid much ongoing blog silence, to observe that many of the issues and developments — sociocultural, technological, and more — that I began furiously tracking here way back in 2006 are continuing to head in pretty much the same direction. A case in point is provided by the alarming information, presented in a frankly alarmed tone, that appears in this new piece from Scientific American (originally published in SA’s German-language sister publication, Spektrum der Wissenschaft):

Everything started quite harmlessly. Search engines and recommendation platforms began to offer us personalised suggestions for products and services. This information is based on personal and meta-data that has been gathered from previous searches, purchases and mobility behaviour, as well as social interactions. While officially, the identity of the user is protected, it can, in practice, be inferred quite easily. Today, algorithms know pretty well what we do, what we think and how we feel — possibly even better than our friends and family or even ourselves. Often the recommendations we are offered fit so well that the resulting decisions feel as if they were our own, even though they are actually not our decisions. In fact, we are being remotely controlled ever more successfully in this manner. The more is known about us, the less likely our choices are to be free and not predetermined by others.

But it won’t stop there. Some software platforms are moving towards “persuasive computing.” In the future, using sophisticated manipulation technologies, these platforms will be able to steer us through entire courses of action, be it for the execution of complex work processes or to generate free content for Internet platforms, from which corporations earn billions. The trend goes from programming computers to programming people. . . .

[I]t can be said that we are now at a crossroads. Big data, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and behavioral economics are shaping our society — for better or worse. If such widespread technologies are not compatible with our society’s core values, sooner or later they will cause extensive damage. They could lead to an automated society with totalitarian features. In the worst case, a centralized artificial intelligence would control what we know, what we think and how we act. We are at the historic moment, where we have to decide on the right path — a path that allows us all to benefit from the digital revolution

Oh, and for a concrete illustration of all the above, check this out:

How would behavioural and social control impact our lives? The concept of a Citizen Score, which is now being implemented in China, gives an idea. There, all citizens are rated on a one-dimensional ranking scale. Everything they do gives plus or minus points. This is not only aimed at mass surveillance. The score depends on an individual’s clicks on the Internet and their politically-correct conduct or not, and it determines their credit terms, their access to certain jobs, and travel visas. Therefore, the Citizen Score is about behavioural and social control. Even the behaviour of friends and acquaintances affects this score, i.e. the principle of clan liability is also applied: everyone becomes both a guardian of virtue and a kind of snooping informant, at the same time; unorthodox thinkers are isolated. Were similar principles to spread in democratic countries, it would be ultimately irrelevant whether it was the state or influential companies that set the rules. In both cases, the pillars of democracy would be directly threatened.

FULL ARTICLE: Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?

Of course, none of this is real news to anybody who has been paying attention. It’s just something that people like me, and maybe like you, find troubling enough to highlight and comment on. And maybe, in the end, Cipher from The Matrix will turn out to have been right: Maybe ignorance really is bliss. Because from where I’m sitting, there doesn’t appear to be anything one can do to stop this streamrollering, metastasizing, runaway train-like dystopian trend. Talking about it is just that: talk. Which is one reason why I’ve lost a portion of the will that originally kept me blogging here for so many years. You can only play the role of Cassandra for so long before the intrinsic attraction begins to dissipate. Read the rest of this entry

Forces that we cannot contain: The cosmic horror of the nuclear age

Riveting and unsettling: Here’s Robert Stolz, Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia, drawing on a recent interview with nuclear engineer and anti-nuclear activist Dr. Hiroake Koide to write in The Asia-Pacific Journal about the truly cosmic-horrific implications of radiation exposure in our present nuclear age, as related not just to events like Fukushima and Chernobyl but to the entire unfolding of this new era that began with the extensive nuclear tests that were conducted in the middle decades of the twentieth century. And he writes in ways that recall the dark musings of, say, Eugene Thacker on the literal unthinkability of the forces we have now unleashed, complete with references to the deep tradition of cosmic and supernatural horror fiction, including a direct quote from Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race.

Because of the very nature of radiation, namely its spatial and temporal scales, in many ways we lack a language adequate to a world lorded over by radiation. The literary genre called Cosmic Horror of Algernon Blackwood or H. P. Lovecraft has long attempted to grasp the frightening realities of unleashing a force that operates on such a-human scales and temporalities as plutonium-239 (half-life over 24,000 years) or uranium-235 (half-life over 700 million years). The Horror writer and arch-pessimist Thomas Ligotti perhaps comes closest to describing the implications of unleashing truly astronomical forces into human everyday life when he writes:

“Such is the motif of supernatural horror: Something terrible in its being comes forward and makes its claim as a shareholder in our reality, or what we think is our reality and ours alone. It may be an emissary from the grave, or an esoteric monstrosity. . . . It may be the offspring of a scientific experiment with unintended consequences. . . . Or it may be a world unto itself of pure morbidity, one suffused with a profound sense of doom without a name — Edgar Allan Poe’s world.”

In our present of 2016 the sense of doom does have a name: Hoshanō sekai — Radiation’s World. Radiation’s World announces that the earth — or at least large parts of it — is no longer exclusively ours. We have rendered huge spaces of the planet off-limits for time periods beyond any scale of recorded history. Parallel to but different than the rapacious depletion of the natural world from forests to cod stocks to fossil fuels that took millennia to build up but are consumed in decades, as we mine deeper temporalities in pursuit of open-ended consumption we have also unleashed anti-human temporalities incompatible with continued production or consumption. It is these spaces that are now ruled by radiation and are no longer part of human society. Like the old Horror trope, we have unleashed forces that we cannot contain. But unlike Horror, there is no discrete monster to kill at the end. Pessimism is surely called for.

— Robert Stolz, “Nuclear Disasters: A Much Greater Event Has Already Taken Place,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 14, Issue 16, No. 3 (March 5, 2o16)

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Teeming Links – July 25, 2014

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What happens in a world where war has become perpetual, live-reported popcorn entertainment? Answer: we’re as far as we ever were from understanding anything about it. “Far from offering insights into the mysteries of history and politics, these spectacles give us a sense that we are further away than ever from understanding their causes, their implications, and their consequences. Combat makes for a disappointing program — we approach it with great expectations, prepared to encounter essential truths of human existence, but we leave empty-handed.”

Novelist William Boyd reflects on how mortality shapes human existence: “I am convinced that what makes our species unique among the fauna of this small planet circling its insignificant star is that we know we are trapped in time, caught briefly between these two eternities of darkness, the prenatal darkness and the posthumous one.”

Philosopher and journalist Steven Cave meditates on the reality, mystery, and meaning of death, from humans to flies: “Perhaps, as Tennyson believed, death’s relentless reaping should lead us to question the existence of some higher meaning — one above, beyond or external to us. But whoever thought there was such a thing anyway? Not the frogs and tadpoles. . . . Because life is so teeming with intentions and meanings, the death of each creature really is a catastrophe. But we must live with it anyway.”

Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project and co-author of Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, discusses his defeatist position on climate change and the liberation to be found in giving up hope.

Journalist Matt Stroud delves into the unbelievable life and death of Michael C. Ruppert: “After decades of struggle, the notorious doomsayer finally found fame and recognition. Then he shot himself.” (Also see my reflections, in a post published five years ago, on Ruppert’s startling ascent to mainstream fame via the movie Collapse.)

Historian and writer Rebecca Onion looks at how 1980s childhoods changed the way America thought about nuclear Armageddonwith an extended analysis of the role of the 1983 television movie The Day After, which utterly freaked out my 13-year-old self.

Jacob Silverman reflects on the dystopian plight of office drones in the digital tech age: “[They are] more gadgeted-out than ever, but still facing the same struggle for essential benefits, wages, and dignity that workers have for generations. . . . Such are the perverse rewards we reap when we permit tech culture to become our culture. The profits and power flow to the platform owners and their political sponsors. We get the surveillance, the data mining, the soaring inequality, and the canned pep talks from bosses who have been upsold on analytics software. Without Gchat, Twitter, and Facebook — the great release valves of workaday ennui — the roofs of metropolitan skyscrapers would surely be filled with pallid young faces, wondering about the quickest way down.”

Seriously? We’re now entertaining the possibility of robot caregivers? Sociologist and tech expert Zeynep Tufekci is right: this is how to fail the third machine age.

You’ve seen me mention my love of My Dinner with Andre many times here. That’s why I’m so pleased to call attention to this brand new interview from On Point with “The Inscrutable, Ubiquitous Wallace Shawn.” It’s highly recommendable both for the way it offends common radio sensibilities (the whole thing gets off to a rocky start as the interviewer adopts a somewhat glib approach that apparently annoys Mr. Shawn) and for the depth of Shawn’s carefully expressed thoughts on everything from the heady joys of being a writer and articulating things you never knew were in your soul, to the changing nature of conversation in an age when everybody is perpetually interrupted by phone calls and text messages. There is also, of course, some discussion of his portrayal of Vizzini in The Princess Bride. (Oh, and also see the recent pieces on Shawn, and also Andre Gregory, and their new collaboration, in The Wall Street Journal, Vulture, and Salon.)

When I was a kid, my mother actually walked out of the theater during the heart-ripping scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Well, guess what? George Lucas and Steven Spielberg hate that movie’s notorious grimness and violence, too. Grantland unearths the history of why Temple of Doom turned out that way.

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – July 18, 2014

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William Binney, the ex-NSA code-breaker and whistleblower, says the NSA’s ultimate goal is total population control: “Binney recently told the German NSA inquiry committee that his former employer had a ‘totalitarian mentality’ that was the ‘greatest threat’ to US society since that country’s US Civil War in the 19th century.”

“New research finds having a mobile device within easy reach divides your attention, even if you’re not actively looking at it.” (This explains a lot about an increasing number of my daily interactions with people who literally cannot maintain interpersonal attention for more than 30 seconds.)

There just has to be a Ligottian corporate horror story buried somewhere in this: Financial Times reports that businesses are increasingly using big data, including social media footprints, plus complex algorithms to make hiring decisions.

You can still be a passionate reader, but it’s getting ever harder to make a career of it: “A less-heralded casualty of the digital age is the disintegration of the lower rungs of the [publishing] ladder that have long led young, smart readers into the caste of professional tastemakers.”

Steven Poole says that, whereas the disciplined cultivation of spontaneous, effortless action along the lines of Taoism’s wu wei is a great thing, the counterfeit cult of consumer “spontaneity” encourages psychological and social chaos and numbs us to morally reprehensible sociopolitical conditions.

John Michael Greer lays out, in his characteristic elegant prose and with his characteristic lucidity, a vision of the deindustrial dark age that may await us.

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli argues cogently that science, philosophy, and the humanities in general all need each other: “Restricting our vision of reality today to just the core content of science or the core content of the humanities is being blind to the complexity of reality, which we can grasp from a number of points of view.”

Astrophysicist, author, and NPR science blogger Adam Frank reflects on the “science vs. religion” debate in light of Eastern philosophy.

If you “hear voices,” is it brain disease, communication from discarnate spirits, or perhaps the very voice of God? Tanya Luhrmann and three co-authors of a new study observe the profound impact of cultural assumptions on the subjective experience of voice hearing.

The ancient history of dream interpretation points to humanity’s insatiable hunger for the divine. For the ancients, every slumber held the promise of the numinous.”

Speaking of dreams, a recent study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping finds that psychedelic mushrooms put the brain in a waking dream state, with profound worldview-altering effects: “[T]he mushroom compounds could be unlocking brain states usually only experienced when we dream, changes in activity that could help unlock permanent shifts in perspective.”

David Luke reflects on psychedelics, parapsychology, and exceptional human experience: “Psychedelic researchers since the time of Huxley and Osmond have been fascinated by exploring the apparently parapsychological affects of these drugs. Rightly so, because the implications of such research for understanding our capabilities as a species and for understanding reality itself are deeply profound.” (I’m happy to report that David will be contributing an article on the relationship between drugs and the paranormal to my paranormal encyclopedia.)

Finally, it looks like my adolescence (and also a significant portion of my twenties) wasn’t so egregiously misspent after all, since Dungeons and Dragons has now influenced a generation of writers: “As [Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot] Díaz said, ‘It’s been a formative narrative media for all sorts of writers.’ ”

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – July 11, 2014

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Apologies for the dearth of posts during the week leading up to now. I have reached crunch time on both the mummy encyclopedia and the paranormal encyclopedia, and, in combination with the fact that just this week I started a new day job at a new (to me) college, my time will be limited in the near future. That said, weekly Teeming Links will continue appearing every Friday. I also have a number of great features lined up for publication, including a very long interview with psychedelic research pioneer James Fadiman (finished and currently in the editing and formatting stage) and the third installment of Dominik Irtenkauf’s “Sounds of Apocalypse” series.

 

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Niall Ferguson wonders whether the powers that be will transform the supposed “libertarian utopia” of the Internet into a totalitarian dystopia worthy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: “[T]he suspicion cannot be dismissed that, despite all the hype of the Information Age and all the brouhaha about Messrs. Snowden and Assange, the old hierarchies and new networks are in the process of reaching a quiet accommodation with one another, much as thrones and telephones did a century ago.”

Writer and former Omni editor-in-chief Keith Ferrell describes what he has learned from an experiment in living like an 11th-century farmer, or rather, like a post-apocalyptic survivor: “Our modern era’s dependence upon technology and, especially, chemical and motorised technology, has divorced most of us from soil and seeds and fundamental skills. . . . Planning and long-practised rhythms were at the core of the 11th-century farmer’s life; improvisation, much of it desperate, would be the heart of the post-apocalyptic farmer’s existence.”

In a world where the dominating goals of tech development are mobilility and sociality, Nicholas Carr wonders what kinds of alternative technologies and devices we might have if the guiding values were to be stationary and solitary. (Personally, I can think of one such technology, though not an electronic one: the paper book.)

Speaking of which, Andrew Erdmann uses the vehicle of Hal Ashby’s classic 1979 film Being There to reflect on our collective descent into aliteracy and electronically induced infantile idiocy: “I consider myself fortunate that I experienced reading and thinking before the Internet, and the written word before PowerPoint. I like to think that these experiences afford me some self-defense despite my own use of the Blackberry and other technologies.”

Roberto Bolaño says books are the only homeland for the true writer.

Javier Marías says the only real reason to write a novel is because this “allows the novelist to spend much of his time in a fictional world, which is really the only or at least the most bearable place to be.”

The Vatican has formally recognized the International Association of Exorcists and approved their statutes.

In response to the above, Chris French, the prominent skeptic and specialist in the psychology of paranormal beliefs and psychological states, argues in The Guardian that possession is better understood in psychological rather than supernatural terms. (Chris, btw, is writing the entry on anomalistic psychology for my paranormal encyclopedia.)

BBC journalist David Robson offers a firsthand, participatory account of how scientists are using hypnosis to simulate possession and understand why some people believe they’re inhabited by paranormal beings.

Over at Boing Boing, Don Jolly profiles Shannon Taggart, photographer of séances, spirits, and ectoplasm: “Taggart is not a ‘believer,’ in the traditional sense, nor does she seem to debunk her subject. Rather, she presents a world where belief and unbelief are radically mediated by technology — and raises the possibility that in the age of omnipresent electronic image what is ‘true’ may be a much harder debate than the skeptics suppose.” (Shannon, btw, is writing the entries on thoughtography and Kirlian photography for my paranormal encyclopedia.)

Philosopher Bernardo Kastrup absolutely nails, in his typically lucid fashion, the reason why scientific materialism is baloney:

It’s a philosophical and not a logical interpretation of science. Science itself is just a study of the patterns and the regularities that we can observe in reality. It doesn’t carry with it an interpretation. . . . Scientific materialism is when you load the scientific observations of the regularities of nature with an ontological interpretation and you say, “What you’re observing here is matter outside of mind that has an existence that would still go on even if nobody were looking at it.” That is already an interpretation. It’s not really pure science anymore, and the essence of scientific materialism is [the idea] that the real world is outside of mind, it’s independent of mind, and particular arrangements of elements in that real world, namely, subatomic particles, generate mind, generate subjective experience. Now of course the only carrier of reality anyone can know is subjective experience. So materialism is a kind of projection, an abstraction and then a projection onto the world of something that is fundamentally beyond knowledge.

Awesomeness alert: Guillermo del Toro hints — nay, states — that there is still life in his At the Mountains of Madness dream project.

Journalist and novelist Joseph L. Flatley offers an engaging exploration of the real-life occult influence of Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon (with much info about, e.g., the origin of the Simonomicon and the theories of Donald Tyson).

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Gary Oldman: “Our world has gone to hell”

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Maybe you’ve heard about ongoing flap over actor Gary Oldman’s recent interview for Playboy, in which he slams political correctness and speaks in defense of Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin regarding their famous public takedowns for expressing anti-semitic sentiments (in Gibson’s case) and using anti-gay slurs (in Baldwin’s case). Or rather, he speaks against what he perceives as the hypocrisy of those who have condemned them. This has resulted in a public relations crisis for Oldman that is still unfolding, and that has involved a demand for an apology from the Anti-Defamation League, Oldman’s issuance of the requested apology in a form that some described as groveling and over-the-top, and the ADL’s rejection of the apology as insufficient. Oldman has also gone on Jimmy Kimmel’s show to apologize yet again.

The entire Playboy interview is available for free reading (at least currently), and without commenting on the controversy I wanted to highlight an aspect of it that I find to be quite fascinating: Oldman’s utterly dire diagnosis of, and prognosis for, the state and soul of American culture. Aspects of this are scattered throughout the interview, and they enfold the part that got him in trouble. But here is perhaps the central portion, which occurs when the interviewer, having just listened to Oldman’s description of the darkly post-apocalyptic future that’s depicted by his new movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, asks about his real-world thoughts on the future:

PLAYBOY: What’s your view of the future? Are you optimistic about where society is heading?

OLDMAN: [Pauses] You’re asking Gary?

PLAYBOY: Yes.

OLDMAN: I think we’re up shit creek without a paddle or a compass.

PLAYBOY: How so?

OLDMAN: Culturally, politically, everywhere you look. I look at the world, I look at our leadership and I look at every aspect of our culture and wonder what will make it better. I have no idea. Any night of the week you only need to turn on one of these news channels and watch for half an hour. Read the newspaper. Go online. Our world has gone to hell. [Oldman refers briefly to the prevalence of things like frivolous lawsuits and “helicopter parents” who raise catastrophically narcissistic children.] These are just tiny examples, grains of sand in a vast desert of what’s fucked-up in our world right now.

He goes on to talk intermittently and in some detail about, among other topics, the ridiculous ineffectiveness of America’s political leadership and what he views as the cesspool of heavily hyped triviality and low quality that makes up current mass entertainment. Great lines include his observation that “Reality TV to me is the museum of social decay.”

Personally, I think the following analysis in a blog post at The Economist (titled, winningly, “What’s wrong with Gary Oldman?“) hits the nail on the head regarding the real significance of the whole matter:

What’s being lost in the outrage, however, is perhaps more significant. It is plain from the very outset of his interview that Mr Oldman’s ill-considered remarks are fuelled by a potent, all-encompassing frustration — a near-despair over America’s cultural and political institutions. He sees a world rotten with corruption, hypocrisy and vanity, one that celebrates its pathologies rather than face up to them. Political correctness, for Mr Oldman, is merely a symptom of the disease. So he drops an f-bomb on the Pope (“Oh, fuck the pope! [laughs and puts head in hands] So this interview has gone very badly”), he doubts that stable love and lasting marriage can survive modern life, and he cries out for “real leadership,” though “it’s nowhere in sight.”

Most important of all, Mr Oldman puts no faith in either of America’s prevailing ideological camps, whose comprehensive doctrines are the last refuge for many angry and fearful folk. “I’m probably a libertarian,” he guesses, “if I had to put myself in any category. But you don’t come out and talk about these things, for obvious reasons.”

There’s more to that caveat than a guilty conscience. What’s truly scandalous about Mr Oldman’s worldview is his unflinching claim that the American social order is built on an interconnected system of frauds. This idea is ultimately too big of a challenge for most people to process, much less accept. And Mr Oldman’s diatribe did not exactly suggest a way forward. But his views reflect the gut instinct of a growing number of independent voters, as well as the Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren wings of the Republican and Democratic parties. Rather than a fox in the cultural henhouse, perhaps Mr Oldman can be seen as a canary in the coal mine.

Photo of Gary Oldman by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Gary Oldman) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Teeming Links – June 6, 2014

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MUST READ: Tom Englehardt’s hypothetical commencement address to the class of 2014 about the Big Brotherness of the world into which (and in which) they’re graduating: “That bright and shiny world of online wonders has — as no one could have failed to notice by now — also managed to drop the most oppressive powers of the state and the corporation directly into your lap, or rather your laptop, iPad, and smartphone. You — yes, I mean you with that smartphone in your pocket or purse — are a walking Stasi file.”

But remember, they’re not “Generation Y,” they’re Generation Omega, and they didn’t create the current disaster; they’re just inheriting it: “Stories about Millennials’ character flaws aren’t just wrong; they’re cover for the real perpetrators of crimes against the future. . . . The world we’ve inherited is rotten, and it’s getting rottener. We are living in the twilight of a world order on the brink of economic, ecological and ethical collapse. We are the last generation who will live in this version of the world.”

The Anxieties of Big Data: “Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us.”

Lewis Lapham observes that the word “revolution” is everywhere in America now but seems to apply only to new techno-gadgets, since America’s spirit of rebellion has been swallowed by a culture of bread and digital circuses: “Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change? All is not lost, however, for the magic word that stormed the Bastille and marched on the tsar’s winter palace; let it give up its career as a noun, and as an adjective it can look forward to no end of on-camera promotional appearances with an up-and-coming surgical procedure, breakfast cereal, or video game.”

And speaking of revolutionary, check out these mindblowing new jobs of the digi-media-fied future!!! “Our venture-funded vertical-driven content prosumer phablet platisher is rapidly growing and we need to add some Ninja Rockstar Content Associates A.S.A.P. See below for a list of open positions!” (My personal favorite from the list: Neologizer: “Reimaginatorialize the verbalsphere! If you are a slang-slinger who is equahome in brandegy and advertorial, a total expert in brandtech and techvertoribrand, and a first-class synergymnast, then this will be your rockupation!”)

The Exorcists Next Door: On the Christian “deliverance” ministry of two North Texas suburbanites. “Pastors and Christian mental-health professionals from all over the country quietly refer clients they just can’t help to the Pollards, after trying everything. In the 15 years or so since the Pollards started their ministry, there has been no shortage of tortured souls.”

The Entity: The True Accounts of Doris Bither: A nicely balanced consideration of the details and different possible interpretations surrounding the most famous modern-day case of paranormal assault.

The Unlimited Mind of Dr. John C. Lilly: “[H]e is perhaps most famous for his experiments with psychoactive drugs and the isolation tank, which he invented at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland in 1954. . . . He is capturing the imagination of a new generation of internet savvy alternatives and conscious hipsters — a younger crowd who are enthusiastically embracing the work and do-it-yourself ethic of eccentric 20th century notables such as Nikola Tesla, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Phillip K. Dick, Alan Watts, Ram Dass and Terrence McKenna.”

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – May 30, 2014

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Remember America’s “new oil boom” based on fracking? Well, you can say goodbye to it: the Energy Information Agency just downwardly revised its estimate of the amount of technically recoverable oil in America’s #1 shale reserve by 96 percent .

Check it out: a straightforward business interview with Ilidio F. Santos, an environmental consultant for the Angolan oil company Sonangol E&P, suddenly turns all doomer when Santos says human civilization is done for: “The more you study, the more you read, the more you discuss the environmental problems of the planet and its inhabitants (be they human or other), the more you understand that this is a lost cause. The human civilization is doomed in the decades to come, as there is no way that the people who have the power to stop the suicidal path understand the urgency and nature of the problem. Those who do not know about it at least live oblivious to the horror that will come to this planet in a few decades.” The interviewer responds by saying, “You are scaring me, Ilidio.” To which Santos replies, “Be scared!”

Superbug threat as grave as climate change, say scientists: “Superbugs resistant to drugs pose a serious worldwide threat and demand a response on the same scale as efforts to combat climate change, infectious disease specialists said on Thursday.”

Adventures in the Land of Illness: A superb essay by Sam Harris, available in both audio and text form, about his recent experiences with ill health: “It has been interesting for me, as a proponent of science and skepticism, to experience the feelings of vulnerability and desperation that come with an illness for which science has no clear remedy or even a diagnosis. . . . As someone who will soon release a book about meditation, the illusion of the self, and the transcendence of unnecessary suffering, I feel I should offer some account of how my own mind has fared when tested in this way.”

CNN reports 50 percent chance of Armageddon-level asteroid strike in 2041. Or actually not. Seriously, not. (Maybe CNN should consider a name change and pay for the rights to an old HBO series title: “Not Necessarily the News.”)

Astronomer and astrobiologist Caleb Scharf explains why searching for extraterrestrial life yields enormous benefits here on earth: “[T]he cosmic sprawl can help us disentangle the complex terrestrial systems and histories of which we are a part. This is not a frivolous exercise. On the contrary, it could be the key to overcoming our scientific ignorance.”

The psychology of Soylent and the prison of first-world food choices: “Why are some repulsed by Soylent, but others desperate to receive their orders?”

The Internet as we know it is dying: Andrew Leonard explains how “Facebook and Google are killing the classic Internet and reinventing it in their image,” with nods to Amazon as well.

Dear graduates: A commencement speech for the mediocre: “Invariably, commencement speakers tend to be the lucky few, the ones who followed their dreams and still managed to land on their feet: Most of us won’t become Steve Jobs or Neil Gaiman, regardless of how hard we try or how much passion we might hold. It’s far more likely to get stuck working as a waiter or bartender, or on some other dead-end career path. Most people will have to choose between ‘doing what they love,’ and pursuing the more mundane promise of a stable paycheck and a promising career path. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making the latter choice; in fact, I’d usually recommend it.”

It’s been nearly 90 years since John Maynard Keynes started predicting the rise of a technologically enabled leisure society. And yet life in today’s high-tech America is a plague of busyness.

The Rise of Nintendo: A Story in 8 Bits: “From ‘Donkey Kong’ to the NES — how a Japanese company took over the American living room.”

A Beautiful Man: On Peter Parker and the Amazing Spider-Man: “[I]t’s not so much that Spider-Man was the superhero who could be you, though Lee used that very phrase in the comics. Spider-Man was one of the few superheroes who was more interesting than the supervillains he fought. . . . In his New York, he could be a most beautiful man, like Don Quixote or Jean Valjean or Samuel Pickwick — Dostoevsky’s three famous examples of the archetype — a figure whose greatest creation, born out of neurosis and genius, is himself.”

The Survivor: On Magneto, Mutants, and the Holocaust: “Magneto stands as . . . a rebuke to everyone who wishes to contain the lessons of the Holocaust, to everyone who has a simple explanation for its occurrence, to everyone who wishes to valorize victimhood, to everyone who believes that survival is an unmitigated blessing. The X-Men movies and the comics tell you things you don’t want to hear, that Hitler won World War II, that the Holocaust never stopped happening, that it continues to happen and that it will keep happening.”

The Rosicrucian Vision: “Although the Rosicrucian philosophy was presented as a total package of religion, science, etc., it tended to divide into three different streams: first, there was the scientific, philosophical stream; secondly, the social and political stream; thirdly, the Hermetic-Cabalistic-Alchemical stream. . . .When we look at something like Rosicrucianism, or at the Templars or at Freemasonry or at the legends of the Holy Grail, we are looking at the tip of an iceberg. I believe that behind these phenomena lies a very ancient current. What precise form it takes I know not, but I believe that every so often in human history this current comes to the surface.”

The Elf Whisperer of Iceland: “The whole affair, from the cause célèbre behind the protest (Save the Elves?!) to the government’s eventual acquiescence, is indicative of the unusual and complicated relationship Iceland has with elves and other hidden people. Jónsdóttir was advocating for the lives of invisible tiny beings that most of us associate with building Santa’s toys . . . and the government listened.”

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Eckhart Tolle on enlightenment, ego, and apocalyptic collapse

 

Eckhhart_Tolle

Eckhart Tolle

I have sometimes wondered about the reactions of my readers whenever I mention the writings of Eckhart Tolle with approval, as I have done several times. Tolle is a best-selling writer whose books occupy the same general “mind/body/spirit” publishing niche as those of Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, etc. He’s a speaker who has now appeared at Google’s headquarters, the Wisdom 2.0 Conference, and other trendy signature places and events representing the front line of tech culture’s faux fusion with spirituality. He has famously been associated with Oprah Winfrey. (One of the most read posts here at The Teeming Brain, by the way, continues to be “Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, and the fundamentalist hijacking of Christianity.”) The organization that is set up to promote his work puts out a veritably relentless flood of merchandising associated with his books and teachings. All of the marketing markers point toward his being another fluffy new-gen spiritual guru of the kind whose apparent mission is to make money by encouraging the wealthy and the upper middle class to feel good about themselves by exploring their own specialness.

The thing is, he’s more than that. As I and a bunch of other people discovered well over a decade ago when Tolle’s The Power of Now became a grassroots publishing phenomenon at the turn of the millennium, he is a writer and teacher of frankly astonishing power who manages to communicate to a general audience, in exquisitely lucid prose and spoken words, the same nondual spiritual message that was formerly propounded to a much more rarefied audience by the likes of J. Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi, and others (and indeed, Tolle has named Krishnamurti and Maharshi as being among his primary influences). Say what you will in criticism of the various directions his “brand” has taken in recent years — and a number of such criticisms, some that I view as valid, have indeed been offered — the man himself appears to be the genuine article, as in someone who experienced a profound spiritual awakening/transformation (arising out of intense personal suffering, by the way) and then found that other people wanted to hear about it, and that he was gifted to convey it in words and personal presence. I sometimes wonder whether, in both sociological and religious or spiritual terms, his presence in modern digital mass media culture, including the various aspects of it that invite criticism, might not represent the arrival of a new guru/anti-guru model that’s valid for the present age.

And in a way, I said all of that to say this: hey, look, Eckhart is talking about apocalyptic collapse again. I’ve quoted his apocalyptic observations before. Now here’s a new one, appearing in a recent interview for The Huffington Post that was conducted by Arianna Huffington herself (who has headlined with him at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference). I never fail to find it fascinating when he says things like what’s quoted below, because although on one level he might be taken as just another spiritual guru who is barking about the supposed imminent end of the world and possible advent of a new spiritual age involving a forward leap in consciousness, on another he is truly saying something insightful when he links the age-old nondual realization about the fraught relationship between ego and world, self and other, inner and outer — and about the ground reality that encompasses and gives rise to both — to the quite real disruptions that are visibly attending our ongoing journey into formerly unknown realms and configurations of technological, ecological, economic, and sociological reality on a new planetary scale. Which is all to say that I find his words well worth attending to, not least because he offers not a rosy optimism but an honest recognition that we may well fail the challenge:

Collectively, we are at a point where the old — I call it the old, dysfunctional, egoic state of consciousness — has become extremely dangerous. We can go back 100 years ago, which is 1914, when World War I started, and that was the first time humans fully realized how insane warfare was because of all the advances in technology that had happened by that time. Millions upon millions of people died in World War I from chemical warfare, tanks, poison gas, machine guns and all the other clever inventions of the egoic mind. That was the first time we realized the magnitude of the dysfunction in the collective consciousness, as it became amplified by the advances in science and technology.

We have reached a point now where if there’s no shift in consciousness away from the dysfunctional, egoic state that generates all that insanity, then humans would most likely destroy themselves, or at least bring about a complete collapse of civilization. We have arrived at a point of great danger, collectively, but danger also means great opportunity for change. There’s a fundamental universal truth, and that is humans do not change until they reach a point of crisis. That applies not only to individuals, but it also applies to humanity as a whole. It’s only when we reach a state of crisis, the suffering that it produces creates the impetus behind the shift in consciousness. This is the point that we have reached now, and we’ve been moving towards this for the past 100 years. This is why so many people are now ready to undergo that shift.

So this is a very important moment in human history, where there is a possibility of almost a quantum leap in human consciousness. There’s also the possibility, of course, that humans are not going to make it, that the shift won’t happen, in which case there would be a regression in human evolution that could throw us back several thousand years. Hopefully, that’s not going to happen, but it could happen, and even that would not be ultimately tragic, because I believe that consciousness is destined to grow and flower on this planet. I’m fairly confident that it is happening already, but we must not underestimate the gravitational pull, so to speak, of the old, dysfunctional consciousness that is still here and operates, as you can see when you watch the daily news. Most things you see on the daily news are reflections of the old, dysfunctional consciousness, or, rather, unconsciousness. We have reached a very interesting point in human evolution. It’s quite amazing to be alive at this time.

 

MORE: “A Conversation with Eckhart Tolle

Image by Kyle Hoobin (twitter.com/kylehoobin), via Gregcaletta at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Teeming Links – April 25, 2014

FireHead

We’re entering an age of energy impoverishment. Richard Heinberg explains: “It’s hard to overstate just how serious a threat our energy crisis is to every aspect of our current way of life. But the problem is hidden from view by oil and natural gas production numbers that look and feel just fine. . . . Quite simply, we must learn to be successfully and happily poorer. For people in wealthy industrialized countries, this requires a major adjustment in thinking.”

A new stone age by 2114? Jared Diamond ruminates: “In this globalized world, it’s no longer possible for societies to collapse one by one. A collapse that we face, if there is going to be a collapse, it will be a global collapse.”

The zombies are already here — and they’re our digitally addicted children.

Here's_Your_Zombie_Apocalypse

Education is not the answer“It clearly is not the case that plausible increases in education quality and attainment will have a substantial impact on inequality. This will require much deeper structural changes in the economy.”

The secret history of life-hacking: The popular modern cult of self-optimization is, ironically, the descendent of Frederick Taylor’s much-despised “scientific management” of the early 20th century. But today instead of being “managed” at work by iron-fisted supervisors with stopwatches in their hands who enforce a faux gospel of maximum efficiency, we do it to ourselves, everywhere and endlessly.

The alchemy of writing: This recent Expanding Mind interview (click through or use the player below) features some great thoughts on the preternaturally inspired approach to writing from the Reverend Nemu, author of the Nemu’s End trilogy, a three-volume revision of the formerly published single-volume megabook  Nemu’s End: History, Psychology, and Poetry of the Apocalypse.

Jeffrey Kripal on horror and religion (from a great 2012 Skeptiko interview titled “Dr. Jeffrey Kripal on Science Fiction as a Trojan Horse for the Paranormal”):

It’s a common misconception that religion is about the good. It’s about being peaceful and good to each other and holiness is some kind of state of equanimity and all positive things. In fact, if you look at the history of religion, if you even look at the Bible, a lot of encounters with the Divine or the sacred are incredibly terrifying, often very dangerous, and some are actually deadly. So the sacred is not just for good; the sacred is both profoundly attractive but also often terrifying and destructive.

So horror, the modern genre of horror films and horror fiction, are calling up these ancient religious impulses. I think the reason that horror is so powerful is that to get a profound religious experience, you somehow have to suppress the ego function. You somehow have to do something pretty dramatic to the person. One way to do something really dramatic to the person to get them out of themselves, as it were, is to scare the living crap out of them because that’s a form of ecstasy. It’s a mild form of ecstasy. So horror fiction often has these religious qualities to it. I think that’s why some people, lots of people actually, like to go and be terrified watching a movie or reading a book.

 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net