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
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)
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?
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
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.