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Teeming Links – April 11, 2014

FireHead

Apparently, the whole of West Virginia has now become a sacrifice zone for the coal industry.

Did you know there’s an average of one train derailment every single day in America? This is why the oil transport industry is basically a giant, horrible, environmentally apocalyptic accident just waiting to happen.

You know all that propaganda in the past handful of years that scornfully dismisses warnings about peak oil and fossil fuels because of a “new oil boom”? Don’t be fooled: the era of world-changing energy transition is indeed upon us.

In light of the above, here’s a caution, clarification, and reality check: futurologists are almost always wrong, especially when they sound like techno-utopians and/or doomsday preachers.

Welcome to the new Gilded Age: “We haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to ‘patrimonial capitalism,’ in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.”

Welcome to the end of night: “An eternal electric day is creeping across the globe, but our brains and bodies cannot cope in a world without darkness.”

Beware modern medicine, which decreases our chance of a good death: “Death used to be a spiritual ordeal; now it’s a technological flailing. We’ve taken a domestic and religious event, in which the most important factor was the dying person’s state of mind, and moved it into the hospital and mechanized it, putting patients, families, doctors, and nurses at the mercy of technology.”

If you keep planning, but failing, to ditch Facebook and other social media, maybe this explains: “It is hard to resist a technology that is also a tool of pleasure. The Luddites smashed their power looms, but who wants to smash Facebook — with all one’s photos, birthday greetings, and invitations? New digital technologies, particularly social media, make money by encouraging us to spend our lives on their platforms.”

Worried about the rise of Big Data? Then good news! The whole field may be total bullshit: “At worst, according to David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge university, [the major claims about Big Data] can be ‘complete bollocks. Absolute nonsense.'”

Check it out: a fascinating examination of psychedelic, shamanic, and magickal themes in video game culture.

My first publication in print form came in the 2002 Del Rey horror anthology The Children of Cthulhu, where I was honored to share book space with many authors whom I had long admired. Among these was Alan Dean Foster, some of whose earlier work, including several of his Star Wars novels and the story basis he provided for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, played an important part in my science fiction education during adolescence. Then in 2011 I had the distinct pleasure of meeting and chatting with him at MythosCon.  So he’s always on my radar, and that’s why it’s nice to come across some high praise for his classic novelization of Alien, which is now out in a 35th Anniversary Edition.

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Flying cars and the “world of tomorrow” that never was

You know all of those excellent articles and essays that have appeared in recent months to explore the rosy science fiction-esque visions of our real-world future that characterized American culture during most of the 20th century? (Recall that we noted one of the best of them, David Graeber’s “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” in a past installment of Recommended Reading.) Now CBS News has gotten in on the act by producing a really nice little video piece on the very same topic, just under seven minutes long, together with an accompanying article. They’re well worth watching and reading in order to help get your bearings on the lost myth of a Jetsons-like future and the hard practical reality of a 21st century in which we aren’t all flying to work in hovercars and living in colonies on the moon. Both pieces also provide some interesting fodder for reflection about the ways we still tend to envision our future, and not only that, but our present (see below).

The world of tomorrow: Trains zooming from coast to coast via vacuum tubes . . . gleaming cities in the sky . . . and, of course, flying cars. That was what the future was supposed to hold for us. “I grew up expecting to live on the Moon, to be able to travel in rockets,” said writer and illustrator Ron Miller. “When ‘2001’ came out, there was a future that looked really possible. So in 30 odd years we could probably have space stations, and passenger liners going to and from space stations, run by Pan Am!”

But Pan Am doesn’t even exist anymore. “I feel, in a way, I was promised this future, and it’s never paid off,” Miller laughed. “I’m not on the Moon. I’ve never ridden in a rocket. I haven’t been to a space station. I don’t have a flying car.”

. . . It seems as if visions of the future tend to be more dystopian than utopian — decidedly downbeat, like George Orwell’s “1984,” Ray Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451,” and a raft of apocalyptic blockbusters. “Most utopias are boring,” said Miller. “Dystopia’s got to be more interesting, because everything goes wrong, and there’s problems that are horrible, and you have to solve them, which doesn’t take place in utopia [where] everything’s already solved.”

“Looking back, does it seem that people were more optimistic about the future than they are now?” [CBS reporter Mo] Rocca asked.

“I think sometimes people were a little too optimistic in the past, and they’re too pessimistic today,” replied [architectural historian John] Kriskiewicz. “You know, we all walk around with the entire Internet in our pocket, in our phones. I mean it’s incredible. Life expectancies have gone up. Disease has fallen around the world dramatically. The cars we drive, the homes we live in, are so much more efficient and safer and capable. We tend to really romanticize the past and catastrophize the present.”

— “The future isn’t what it used to be,” CBS News, April 28, 2013

Of course, for a reality check on those final comments, one can do worse than to recall these insightful observations by Graeber in that other “flying cars” article mentioned above:

The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies — largely, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco called the “hyper-real,” the ability to make imitations that are more realistic than originals. The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche — all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would. Surely, if we were vacationing in geodesic domes on Mars or toting about pocket-size nuclear fusion plants or telekinetic mind-reading devices no one would ever have been talking like this. The postmodern moment was a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and to dress it up as something epochal, exciting, and new.

Humility and Silence: Where True Science and True Spirituality Meet

It is said that we live in an age of light, but it would be truer to say that we are living in an age of twilight; here and there a luminous ray pierces through the mists of darkness, but does not light to full clearness either our reason or our hearts. Men are not of one mind, scientists dispute, and where there is discord truth is not yet apprehended.

– From The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary, by Karl von Eckhartshausen

What is it about the pursuit of truth that leads to so many conflicts? Eckhartshausen was writing in the late 18th century, and yet his statement reads no less true after 300-some years of “progress.”

An opinionated conflict rages today as it did during the Enlightenment — highlighted in many public disputes, provoked by writers such as Richard Dawkins — over trivial matters that have already been settled and problems that have already been overcome by leading thinkers across the history of intellectual endeavor. Yet, at heart, anyone who honestly applies to a study of existence, including even Dawkins himself, cannot help being seduced beyond conflict by the beauty of life.

Jerry L. Martin, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, posted a quote from Richard Dawkins on his Facebook page that draws out this truth:

There’s poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.

To this Martin added a simple, appended question:

Is he right?

And I have to respond: certainly. Science is one of the most direct, beautiful, and complete means of accessing the glory of existence, a raw and unequaled poetry! However, this assertion comes with the caveat that it only true when viewed through a proper interpretation. Read the rest of this entry

Science, Philosophy, Theology: If the Mirrors We Make Are Monstrous, So Too Are We

Stephen Hawking is a remarkable person whom I’ve known for 40 years, and for that reason any oracular statement he makes gets exaggerated publicity. I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic … I would support peaceful co-existence between religion and science because they concern different domains … Anyone who takes theology seriously knows that it’s not a matter of using it to explain things that scientists are mystified by.

— Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal & Past President of the Royal Society, “We shouldn’t attach any weight to what Hawking says about God,” The Independent, September 27, 2010

The web-magazine io9 recently posted a list by the futurist author George Dvorsky on “9 Historical Figures Who May Have Predicted Our Future,”  and if you had the opportunity to read some of my recent comments on cultural amnesia (“Haunted by Our Amnesia” and “Connecticut Vampires in a Naive Skeptic’s Court“), you might have an inkling as to what I’m going to point out regarding not just one or two of the figures listed, but the majority of them.

Yes, these prophets of scientific progress were each in their own way connected to those streams of thought which are often relegated to the status of “pseudo-science” or, as the enthusiastic (but often illiterate and condescending) debunking crowd affectionately calls it, “woo.” This is made evident in the very first person that Dvorsky lists: Robert Boyle. After listing Boyle’s scientific accomplishments, he adds the caveat, “Not bad for a pre-Enlightenment thinker surrounded by magical and superstitious beliefs.” However, let’s pause here and reflect on the fact that Boyle was a dedicated alchemist.

17th-century natural philosopher and alchemist Robert Boyle pointing to a closed book in reference to the alchemical notion of Mutus Liber

Alchemy, cosmism, Freemasonry, and evolutionary mysticism all find their way into Dvorsky’s list, but is not to say that those listed were exemplars of the weaker strains of these philosophies and worldviews, which rightfully draw the ire of serious thinkers. On the contrary, these figures mark the exception, where science, philosophy, and often theology commingle in such a way as to transmute reality and open up possibilities that fundamentalists in any of these areas are not capable of accessing. Read the rest of this entry