Can we see the downside of progress?

Progress, for all of its good, brings us new technologies and threats against which we can’t deter, environmental problems, biodiversity loss, and so on. That we cannot avoid believing in progress may also prove to be our undoing.

—Tyler Cowen, in an interview with Sean Illing on Vox

What “Local Control” Really Means

“In December 1890, on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, tribal police arrested and killed Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in similar circumstances to the earlier death of his fellow Custer battle comrade, Crazy Horse. Two weeks later, jittery Army soldiers opened fire on some 300 unarmed members of the Sioux tribe. Their bodies, mostly very small, very wrinkled, or with breasts, froze solid on the Dakota tundra. Ten months later Chief Charlo, leader of the last band of Salish in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, led his people on a tearful, forced march to a new reservation across the river bridge nearest the future site of Hellgate High School, where I would sit a century later and listen to a pair of neo-Nazis hold forth on misunderstood swastikas, miscegenation and what could be done with public lands were it not for federal conservation laws.”

—Nate Schweber, “A Racist Runs Through It

The Homeostasis of a Porter

Porter

A number of years ago, I hiked the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu. I thought I was pretty cool because I hiked the whole thing in my sandals and moved along at a good clip in comparison to other gringos.

But I was rarely quicker than the porters who carried pounds of equipment and food on their backs, all wearing sandals far less technologically crafted than mine. Their sandals are made from discarded tire treads.

The porters not only lug around everyone else’s stuff, but they then set up the camp and cook the food. And sleep all together on the ground in the main tent.

Their calves are like steel, and their mere presence neatly undercuts any fleeting grandiousness a gringo may feel for trudging up a mountainous pass. Porters literally run up and down tiny, steep ancient stairs carved into rock, as you can see in the photo above.

Why do I bring this up?

Because I recently read a book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, and the following passage made me harken back to those porters:

“The reason most people don’t possess … extraordinary physical abilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of ‘good enough.”

For a porter, homeostasis is constant physical activity that is extreme for most people.

What is your homoeostasis? And in what way is it either softening or steeling you for infinity?

We’re battling our own habits

History also shows that if we want to tame antibiotic resistance, we have to be ready to fight for a long time — perhaps forever. The problem is that we’re not really fighting against bacteria. We’re battling our own habits, which are deeply ingrained and hard to change.

 

—Carl Zimmer, “The surprising history of the war on superbugs — and what it means for the world today

Consumerism Meets Ayahuasca

By Awkipuma (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Awkipuma (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“If cocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale.”

—Ariel Levy, “The Drug of Choice in the Age of Kale

The Cluetrain anti-Manifesto: People are Corporations

I have no idea who recommended The Cluetrain Manifesto, but it ended up on my Goodreads “want to read” list, and it arrived in my local library a few days ago. I honestly thought it was a fiction book from the title, something along the lines of The Monkey Wrench Gang, perhaps.

Turns out The Cluetrain Manifesto is a breathless paean to the Internet circa 2001, about how the internet will revolutionize business (though the version I’m reading has been updated with some sobered hedging by the authors ten years later).

The primary thesis of the authors is that markets are at heart conversations, and that businesses will either enable the freewheeling conversations empowered by the Net, or fight a losing battle for control.

I don’t want to wave away the advances that the internet has engendered, as I think it’s too easy to downplay, especially for you young whippersnappers who don’t even recall rotary phones. It really has been transformative. But from the vantage point of 2016, we can also see that the breathless prognosticating of the original Cluetrain hasn’t quite panned out. We’re seeing the once wide open, seemingly endless forests of internet anarchy, Grateful Dead-and-Phish-tape-trading freedom turn into gated communities as glossy, ad riven, and manipulative as the corporate fiefdoms of old.

So what went wrong? Why aren’t we living in an unmitigated bliss of genuine, heartfelt connection to one another across digital divides?

While markets have indeed become more about peer to peer sharing, people themselves have become more like corporations. 

Ever heard the term “personal brand”? That’s right – as individuals, we now carefully cultivate and craft our online personas, targeting our messaging, delivering elevator pitches to our friends, and twisting our faces and extending our arms to capture selfies at perfectly calibrated angles.

Successful businesses today support our social posturing, while gathering our data, as defined by every click, post, and geospatial movement. Successful online personas, such as Kim Kardashian, harness the hall of mirrors to their advantage.

In this manner, we market ourselves while allowing ourselves to be marketed. The damning thing about all of this is that the internet of yore – that wild, ecstatic beast – is still right here around us but we gild ourselves into gated, controlled, glossy realms like moths to bulb. 

Why? Because that’s where all the cool kids are.

Outside of the Cluetrain, I’ve been grappling with this lately in terms of my use of Facebook. I deeply appreciate how the platform enables me to interact and relate to others. I’m not always the most personable person in everyday life, and Facebook helps me to communicate different aspects of myself with people I wouldn’t otherwise.

But it’s also a gated community designed to keep me posting and clicking so it can stay in business.

This is the Faustian bargain we make. And if I assume some kind of radical stance on Facebook and delete my account or just stop using it (both of which I’m considering), well, I’ve also then got to justify why I am still actively using Google services, or Twitter, or Instagram, or …

… Or even why I am so tethered to a smartphone in the first place. Do I really need to be notified the minute I get an email? Do I really need GPS instead of a map? 

Are the things I’m actually spending my time on each day adding meaning to my existence?

Would I do more of the things I really want to do if I didn’t have addictive attachments to social media? Would my relationships with people around me be more positive?

I don’t know. But I do remember the internet of the early 90s, back when I would spend summer nights chatting to random strangers on IRC. And yes, even then, we vied for social status with any nerdy signifier we could lay claim to, whether it was our handle, our ASCII graphic skills, our quick wit with a keyboard, or our creative use of asides. Even without the like buttons and the notifications, we found ways to develop and curate our online personas.

The difference is that nobody was really watching, outside of the Cheers-like regulars we came to know at our regular watering holes.

There was a freedom to it, and a loneliness.

Do I still have the wherewithal for that kind of thing? I’m not sure.

But surely in a day and age in which wildernesses both virtual and real are ever diminishing, it’s worth escaping from the everyday mall of mirrors–even if only for a blog post B&B–and exploring.

Knowledge of Self Comes From Bodies

IMG_20160426_180337

Humans did not develop a second, inward-looking mindreading system (an inner sense); rather, they gained self-knowledge by directing the outward-looking system upon themselves. And because the system is outward-looking, it has access only to sensory inputs and must draw its conclusions from them alone.

—Keith Frankish, “Whatever you think, you don’t necessarily know your mind” on Aeon, speaking about a theory called “Interpretive Sensory-Access (ISA) theory”