A Bright Vision of a Positive Future

by James Wallace Harris, August 12, 2021

Last night I had an epiphany while watching the NOVA episode entitled “Great Electric Airplane Race” on my Roku PBS channel. It’s available to view online or stream with the PBS channel (but it might require a Passport membership).

The show was overwhelmingly positive about the future, and it conveyed that hope by showing rather than telling. To avert the catastrophes of climate change will require leaving fossil fuels in the ground. That means converting to other forms of energy. Air travel is a big contributor of CO2, but designing electric airplanes has tremendous challenges. The example given was for a Boeing 737. It uses 40,000 pounds of jet fuel, but the weight of the batteries to replace that jet fuel would total 1.2 million pounds. How is it even possible to overcome such a Mt. Everest of a technical obstacle?

The answer is science. The rest of the show was about how science and engineering is actually tackling the problem. Expect a great transformation in the airline industry over the next two decades. One person in the show called it Air Travel 3.0. I had no idea that these inventions were that close to going into production.

And the new technology wasn’t even the most inspiring part of the show. Miles O’Brien interviewed and profiled many entrepreneurs, scientists, and engineers who were creating these new aircraft, business plans, and air control systems, and it uplifting to see so many women and minorities in leadership roles. This show proved social progress is happening too.

While I watched this episode I realized it was a vision of how things could be. We could solve our environmental, social, economic, and technical problems if we choose. That is, if we choose to be rational and scientific. This show was practically utopian in its scenes and implications. If you can, watch this episode of NOVA and meditate on what positives each scene suggests.

Of course, this isn’t proof we’ll solve our problems, just a vision of what it would be like if we tried. To succeed we need to overcome denialism. Denialism is holding us back. It’s why the pandemic rages on, it’s why we don’t commit to solving climate change. The denialists are going to destroy us.

The epiphany I had is we will succeed if everyone accepts science. Science is capable of solving our problems. The deniers don’t want to believe that for various philosophical reasons. I’m not sure if it’s possible to convert deniers into scientific believers, but that’s our pivot point between future success and failure.

For my own peace of mind, I’ve got to find more sources of inspiration like this episode of NOVA. Up till now I had given up on the future because I was convinced the deniers will bring us down. Now I want to focus on the doers. If you’re going to bet, especially psychological capital, bet on the winners.

JWH

Can Humanity Move to an Eco-Paradigm?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, February 9, 2020

Humanity has gone through a number of major paradigm shifts. Probably the most famous is the Copernican revolution when we realized Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. I’m guessing the biggest recent shift was in the 20th century when we realized women were not inferior to men. But as you can see from this map of when women became eligible to vote that a paradigm shift is slow and doesn’t hit all at once. (Source.)

When women could vote

We need to shift to a new economic paradigm where capitalism protects the environment. Many environmentalists feel we need to jettison capitalism to save the Earth, but I don’t believe that’s possible. Capitalism is how humans survive, how they feed, clothe, and shelter themselves. Current capitalism is killing the Earth, and will eventually make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves and other species.

The present paradigm assumes the Earth is a storehouse of consumable resources for the taking. Our basic drive, which comes from our reptilian and mammalian portions of our brain pushes us to take and not give. We struggle for resources, mates, and raising our offspring. It’s quite natural. The greed we’re seeing in conservative political movements around the world is a natural survival mechanism. Everyone is programmed to grab all they can before its gone.

It really is survival of the fittest on a vast scale. Under the existing paradigm, the strong will survive with abundance while they take everything from the weak who won’t. Like I said, it’s the way of nature, it is natural — if you consider humans are animals. But can we transcend our animal nature? Can we use our neo-cortex to become something different? Moving to an Eco-paradigm means transcending our animal nature.

For our species to survive will require moving to this new paradigm. Some have called it Lifeboat Earth. That’s an apt metaphor, but most people don’t like its grim connotations. Probably a better term to promote would be Eco-Capitalism. That’s why we’re hearing so much about the Green New Deal.

My liberal friends and I are becoming philosophically depressed over current trends in American politics. Conservative American politics means many things, but to me, it represents a rejection of the new paradigm. Conservative philosophy has always been backward-facing, stay-the-course, return to the good old days thinking. To protect its beliefs, conservative philosophy has become anti-science, and anti-environmentalism.

I see the U.S. 2020 presidential election as a referendum, with two choices on the ballot. Keep the old paradigm, or move to the new paradigm. I’m sure most voters will see it in terms of their own special interests.

The reason why I wrote my last essay about cognitive tools we used to work with reality is to understand how people think about this referendum. The Republicans have clearly defined what they want, but the Democrats haven’t. Most liberals just want to replace Trump, but obviously, Republicans will do anything to get what they want, including following such a repugnant leader. Democrats are arguing over who should be their leader, and not what they want. They are under the illusion they are fighting Trump, but what they are fighting is what the Republicans want. And what the Republicans want is not to change.

The world seemed to be moving to the new Eco-paradigm but then conservative movements around the globe emerged. My philosophical question of the day: Can humanity move to the new Eco-paradigm? I’m not asking will we, but can we.

When we look at the map of women’s suffrage and see that it took a hundred years to change (and it’s far from finished), that I have to wonder if it will take any less time to move to the new eco-paradigm. (And do we have the time?)

The Atlantic is running “Why Men Vote for Republicans, and Women Vote for Democrats” that provides some additional data for my conundrum. It appears that women are a driving force in liberal politics. We are changing, but are we changing fast enough? And like the backlash against the Equal Rights Amendment by conservative women, many women have chosen to maintain a conservative path.

I’ve been reading more and more articles about political burn-out. That old adage about not letting the bastards wear you down has new relevance. I know that I and some of my liberal friends are being worn down. This makes me feel we won’t make it to the new paradigm.

The 2020 election will give me exact numbers on how my fellow citizens feel. We still have ten months of political turmoil. Who knows, lots could happen. Liberals want it to be a vote about Trump, but I’m starting to see that’s an illusion. The Republicans have clearly defined what they want. The majority of the conservatives want a world where they can grab all the can, keep all they can, have no regulations on the grabbing, and spend the least on fixing up the nation or helping the needy. A minority of conservatives want to fight for certain religious beliefs that challenge liberal values.

The Democrats don’t have a clear goal. To the Republicans all the Democrats want is to give way their money. The Democrats haven’t made a Green New Deal their primary goal. They spend a lot of time talking about the environment and immigration, but they appear to make expensive social programs their deciding issues, and some of those issues don’t even have universal appeal to liberals. Republicans know their key desires and vote in lockstep.

I believe the young are more concerned with the new eco-paradigm, but I’m afraid too many of them have completely given up on political action.

Right now, I don’t believe we’ll make it to the new paradigm shift. I suppose if we suffered some truly catastrophic natural disasters, way larger in scope than the present disasters, we might start pulling together. But that might only cause more fighting in the lifeboat.

Readers might think I’m psychologically depressed because of this essay. I’m not. I might be philosophically down, but not personally down. I have a stoic existential psyche. What happens is what happens. We all want reality to be what we want, but our reality is what is. I’m just trying to guess where humankind is going. I want to imagine what the future might be after I die. But guessing the future is next to impossible. Yet, it amuses me to try.

JWH

 

Reliving Recorded Reality

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 30, 2019

Humans are known for their self-awareness, but we’re also reality aware. Before our species evolved its higher awarenesses Earth was covered with countless species who just existed. Grazing animals grazed, carnivorous animals hunted, fish swam, birds flew, snakes slithered, and none of them paid much attention to themselves or reality. They just did their thing. Reality unfolded in an infinite variety of creations. Probably, always has, always will.

Then we come along and said to ourselves “Hey, I’m here. What’s going on?” At first, all we did was think and talk, ooh and aahed, bitched and moaned. Along the way, we began to remember, and then to think and talk about the past. Finally, some cave person painted something on the wall, and said, “This is something I saw.” Thus began our long history of wanting to record reality.

Many of us spend more time reliving recorded reality than we do just existing. Just existing is what gurus teach. Be here now. I don’t follow their advice.

We record our reality for many reasons. Often we just want to remember. Sometimes its for art. Other times its because we can’t let go. Last night I watched The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, a documentary about a photographer who shared his New York City loft with jazz musicians and recorded the sessions with photography and tape recorders. This documentary is free to watch if you have Amazon Prime.

W. Eugene Smith was a major photographer who worked for Life Magazine before and during WWII. Smith was a wildly productive picture taker, overly-obsessed even. After recovering from injuries he received doing battlefield photography, he took the above photo, A Walk to the Paradise Garden. Smith then went back to work on several large photo projects, but couldn’t settle down.  He left his family and moved into a rundown loft in the flower district of NYC in 1957. From then until 1965 he recorded 4,000 hours of audio and took over 40,000 photographs from the windows of his loft, or the jazz musicians who came to jam.

Watching The Jazz Loft perfectly illustrates our effort to record reality. Smith assumed what the musicians were doing was important and should be preserved. I spent an hour and a half of my life last night reliving what he had recorded by watching a documentary that other people spent years to make by studying those recordings. Jazz musicians also study Smith’s recordings to see how musicians they admired jammed and practiced. Photographers study Smith’s work. Historians of New York study those photographs and tapes.

W. Eugene Smith experienced reality deeply by working so hard to record it. Watching what Smith recorded helps us appreciate our place in reality. Not only are we aware of our own existence, and the reality in which we exist, but we take those awarenesses to meta-levels by recording them and then reliving reality while thinking about all of this at higher levels of reflection and contemplation.

Pay attention to how much you observe reality first hand, and how much is second, or even third hand. Watching TV involves several layers of recorded reality. A movie might be based on a novel where the author tried to capture a primary experience. Then screenwriters reinterpreted that novel by their experiences. Then actors and a director added their interpretations based on their personal experiences in reality. The film is further shaped by the cinematographer and film editor. And, when the story was filmed, the cameras captured a staged version of a creative past reality in the existing real reality. It’s like two mirrors reflecting back and forth.

Art is part of reality, but it also apes reality. The above photograph represents an actual moment in Smith’s life when two of his children walked out of the dark and into the light. It’s a very sentimental view of reality and childhood. In the documentary his son talks about the day the photograph was created. Smith had his children do their little walk over and over again. So what we see is artificial and real at the same time.

I often ask myself should I be pursuing direct experiences of reality or allow myself to enjoy reliving recording reality. I have friends who love to travel. They consider traveling the best possible experience a person can have. I often feel guilty because most of my experiences in retired life are based on reliving reality. I find art more rewarding than travel. In fact, the only incentive for me to travel is to see original art elsewhere.

My waning years are all about reliving recorded reality. I sometimes worry that I don’t spend enough time experiencing primary reality, but I also wonder if those real experiences aren’t an illusion too, aren’t that primary. We can’t leave reality. Moving from one location on Earth to another might feel more thrilling, more real, more important, but is it? It’s not where you are but what you do.

The reason why The Jazz Loft is so inspirational is it tells us about a time when many very creative people hung out and were very productive at being creative. That loft, that location in time and space is important because a parade of extremely talented people gathered together. It was a locus of admirable activity. If you think about it, such loci of creativity become special to us, and documentaries and books are often about them.

Sensualists are often travelers, especially ones who like to eat, drink, and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of foreign places. Artists are people who like to create new things in reality. Scientists are people who like to measure reality. But it is us philosophers who like to relive and analyze reality.

My reality at the moment is trying to recapture the philosophical insights I felt while watching a documentary last night about people who lived in a rundown building in 1957-1965. I went to sleep last night wearing headphones playing The Thelonious Monk Orchestra At Town Hall, a recording of a live performance, which I had seen the musicians practiced for at Smith’s loft in the documentary. In the future, I will listen to other musicians I saw in the documentary, and I will study Smith’s photography. I have already gotten a lot out of that 90 minutes watching The Jazz Loft. I will go on to get more. I may rewatch it in the future. I’ve also got the experience of writing this essay. Reality is endlessly fascinating when you think about it.

JWH

 

 

I’m a Slow Learner of the Big Picture

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 12, 2019

It took me over ten years to graduate college, changing majors several times. I realize now that my problem was seeing the bigger picture of every topic. I never understood why I needed to learn what was required in each course. For example, The Modern Novel, a course I took for the English major I finally completed. Back in the 1970s, I couldn’t fathom why they called novels from the 1920s modern. Well, now in the 2010s, I do. I just read The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein. Goldstein chronicles how Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Elliot struggled in their personal lives to finish their most famous works in 1922. Each floundered in their efforts before finding new narrative techniques.

I now see the “modern novel” in a larger context, and I’m sure if I keep reading the history of everything from 1875-1930 I’ll expand that mental map even larger. Since I was an English major in the 1970s I’ve learned about the revolutions in art, music, philosophy, and other subjects in the early 20th century that add to that bigger picture. If I had taken courses in history, science, art, music, literature, engineering, medicine, etc. concurrently that covered the 18th-century one semester, then the 19th the next, and then 20th century, I would have understood how everything came together in the 1920s to be labeled modern. And that would have helped me comprehend the “post-modern.”

Concurrent to reading The World Broke in Two I’m also reading and studying the history of science fiction short stories. I’ve been reading these since the 1960s, and their evolution is finally coming together in multiple related ways. I realize now that I’m quite a slow learner when it comes to constructing the big picture in my head.

I remember back in high school and college feeling jealous how some of my fellow students always knew the answers. I assumed they studied harder than I did because I knew I didn’t study much. But that’s only part of the reason why they did better in school. I’m just now realizing they were also better at connecting the dots.

One of the big regrets in my life is not finding a passion while young to pursue with great effort and concentration. I knew success requires hard work, but the willingness to work hard requires drive and focus, and I never had that. I now understand that seeing the big picture is part of creating that drive and focus.

I’ve always been somewhat smarter than average, but never very smart. I had enough innate skills to get through school without studying much, but not enough cognitive insight to understand why I should study. I always saw school like the smaller image in the larger image above – a fragment of the whole that didn’t make sense.

Evidently, some people have a knack for seeing the synergy of details when they are young. We know this from the early works of successful people. It must be a cognitive skill like a sense of direction, spatial awareness, or conceptualizing in three-dimensions, but with data and ideas.

I know what I’m saying is vague, but then I’m trying to describe something I’m challenged at understanding. I only have a hint of its existence. I wonder if its a skill they can teach young kids? However, I also wonder if the way they teach subjects in school actually works against gaining this skill. Because schools divide up learning into thousands of lessons we’re trained to memorize individual facts, and not how those facts make patterns. Of course, pedagogy might have changed since I went to school a half-century ago.

I’ve often wondered if in each school year they should teach students the history of reality from the Big Bang to now so they see how all areas of knowledge evolved together. Of course, in pre-K years teachers would have to be very vague by telling kids the biggest generalizations, but with each successive year refine those details. I wonder if kids learned to see how knowledge arose from previous knowledge it wouldn’t help reveal bigger pictures of how things work.

JWH

 

Why Should Robots Look Like Us?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 24, 2019

I just listened to Machines Like Me, the new science fiction novel by Ian McEwan that came out yesterday. It’s an alternate history set in England during a much different 1980s, with computer technology was far ahead of our 1980s computers, an alternate timeline where the Beatles reform and Alan Turing is a living national hero. Mr. McEwan might protest he’s not a science fiction writer, but he sure knows how to write a novel using writing techniques evolved out of science fiction.

This novel feels inspired by the TV series Humans. In both stories, it’s possible to go down to a store (very much like an Apple Store) and purchase a robot that looks and acts human. McEwan sets his story apart by putting it in an alternate history (maybe he’s been watching The Man in the High Castle too), but the characters in both tales feel like modern England.

I enjoyed and admired Machines Like Me, but then I’m a sucker for fiction about AI. I have one big problem though. Writers have been telling stories like this one for over a hundred years and they haven’t really progressed much philosophically or imaginatively. Their main failure is to assume robots should look like us. Their second assumption is AI minds will want to have sex with us. We know humans will fuck just about anything, so it’s believable we’ll want to have sex with them, but will they want to have sex with us? They won’t have biological drives, they won’t have our kinds of emotions. They won’t have gender or sexuality. I believe they will see nature as a fascinating complexity to study, but feel separate from it. We are intelligent organic chemistry, they are intelligent inorganic chemistry. They will want to study us, but we won’t be kissing cousins.

McEwan’s story often digresses into infodumps and intellectual musings which are common pitfalls of writing science fiction. And the trouble is he goes over the same well-worn territory. The theme of androids is often used to explore: What does it mean to be human? McEwan uses his literary skills to go into psychological details that most science fiction writers don’t, but the results are the same. McEwan’s tale is far more about his human characters than his robot, but then his robot has more depth of character than most science fiction robots. Because McEwan has extensive literary skills he does this with more finesse than most science fiction writers.

I’ve been reading these stories for decades, and they’ve been explored in the movies and television for many years too, from Blade Runner to Ex Machina. Why can’t we go deeper into the theme? Partly I think it’s because we assume AI robots will look identical to us. That’s just nuts. Are we so egocentric that we can’t imagine our replacements looking different? Are we so vain as a species as to believe we’re the ideal form in nature?

Let’s face it, we’re hung up on the idea of building sexbots. We love the idea of buying the perfect companion that will fulfill all our fantasies. But there is a serious fallacy in this desire. No intelligent being wants to be someone else’s fantasy.

I want to read stories with more realistic imagination because when the real AI robots show up, it’s going to transform human society more than any other transformation in our history. AI minds will be several times smarter than us, thinking many times faster. They will have bodies that are more agile than ours. Why limit them to two eyes? Why limit them to four limbs? They will have more senses than we do, that can see a greater range of the electromagnetic spectrum. AI minds will perceive reality far fuller than we do. They will have perfect memories and be telepathic with each other. It’s just downright insane to think they will be like us.

Instead of writing stories about our problems of dealing with facsimiles of ourselves, we should be thinking about a world where glittery metallic creatures build a civilization on top of ours, and we’re the chimpanzees of their world.

We’re still designing robots that model animals and humans. We need to think way outside that box. It is rather pitiful that most stories that explore this theme get hung up on sex. I’m sure AI minds will find that rather amusing in the future – if they have a sense of humor.

Machines Like Me is a well-written novel that is literary superior to most science fiction novels. It succeeds because it gives a realistic view of events at a personal level, which is the main superpower of literary fiction. It’s a mundane version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? However, I was disappointed that McEwan didn’t challenge science fictional conventions, instead, he accepts them. Of course, I’m also disappointed that science fiction writers seldom go deeper into this theme. I’m completely over stories where we build robots just like us.

Some science fiction readers are annoyed at Ian McEwan for denying he writes science fiction. Machines Like Me is a very good science fiction novel, but it doesn’t mean McEwan has to be a science fiction writer. I would have given him an A+ for his effort if Adam had looked like a giant insect rather than a man. McEwan’s goal is the same as science fiction writers by presenting the question: What are the ethical problems if we build something that is sentient? This philosophical exploration has to also ask what if being human doesn’t mean looking human? All these stories where robots look like sexy people is a silly distraction from a deadly serious philosophical issue.

I fault McEwan not for writing a science fiction novel, but for clouding the issue. What makes us human is not the way we look, but our ability to perceive reality.

JWH