Will We Reach Herd Intelligence Before We Crash Our Civilization?

by James Wallace Harris, 4/19/21

  • Collapsed: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  • Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben
  • Seaspiracy – a documentary on Netflix

All indicators point to the collapse of civilization sometimes this century. Despite all the press about this perfect storm of self destruction, few people are willing to worry, and even fewer willing to do anything. Must the conclusion be that failure is our only option?

Most of humanity is either preoccupied with personal problems, or if they contemplate the future at all, assume our species will muddle through as it always has in the past. All the evidence suggests otherwise, that the biosphere cannot absorb the impacts of Homo sapiens without a significant destabilization of its system, which in turn will alter the course of civilization.

Civilizations have always come and gone, and so have species. Nothing lasts forever, not even the Earth or the Sun. It’s rather disheartening to consider what we could have become. We almost had the intelligence to create a global civilization that could have lasted thousands, if not millions of years. Theoretically, we still have a chance, but few people who think about such things give that chance much hope. It would have required everyone pulling together towards a common cause, and we’re just not that kind of species.

However, don’t worry, don’t get depressed or do anything irrational. No need to become a prepper assuming an Armageddon is just around every corner. The collapse of civilization will probably be so slow you might not even notice it. Humans are very adaptable to hard times and excellent at rationalizing things aren’t what they seem. Just take every day one day at a time and enjoy the passing parade of history.

As an individual who reads many books and watch many documentaries like the ones above, I keep thinking we should be doing something. But I realize there’s a problem with that assumption. First, we all need to be doing the same thing, and second, we should all stop what we’ve been doing our whole lives. Now is that going to happen? Is humanity a ship that can be steered or a bullet on a trajectory? It really comes down to the Serenity Prayer,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

It’s the last line that’s so hard to achieve. What can we change, and what can’t we change? Theoretically we could change everything in society if we could just change ourselves. Is it Pollyannaish to think we could, and fatalistic to think we can’t? I wonder if people have always believed in God just to redirect that burden of responsibility?

If you read the above books maybe you will also ask who is smart enough to understand and solve these problems? If we built giant AI minds that could think their way through these immense challenges, would we take their advice? Aren’t we too egotistical to listen? Or even if a God spoke directly to the world would we obey? I’m not sure that’s in our nature either.

Maybe the only path an individual can take and stay sane is learning to accept and endure. But that doesn’t seem to be the way either because too many people today are angry. Anger means still trying to control. If you watch the news pay attention to anger. Too many hate what’s happening to them. And it’s on both sides of the political spectrum. All the people who fight for freedom and all the people who want rules and regulations are motivated by anger. That’s what I dread about the collapse of civilization, living with all these angry people. And the only solution to that is find a place away from them, but that’s not really possible either, is it?

This is a strange book review. But I find it’s getting harder and harder to review books like these by talking about the issues they cover. I’m down to evaluating their emotional impact. The penultimate question is: Can we do anything? The answer is yes. The ultimate question is: Will we? I used to hope that was a yes too, but my faith is fading.

JWH

The Future Is About Jobs

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, 1/16/21

Most people assume the best possible society will be one where everyone has a good job and can be self reliant along with the freedom to make what they want out of their life. That was the direction America was taking until a revolution in the 1970s, when a few people had a new vision of the future. Since then the best possible society was decided in favor of the wellbeing of corporations over a the last five decades. Unfortunately, corporate success depends on having fewer employees. They have chosen profits and automation over people. The citizens of America want jobs, but the citizens of corporations want profits. Whose future will win out?

If you put your faith in politicians and think they will bring happiness to Americans with more jobs then you are deluded. The past four years were Trump feeding his massive ego which distracted us from the real issues. But electing Biden is not going to save us either. Arguing over partisan politics is like brawling in the ballroom of the Titanic an hour before hitting the iceberg.

If we stay on our present course America will collapse economically before climate change can do us in. If we want to avoid both hells then we must decide on a better final destination. It will require cooperation. It will also require knowledge, but not the kind of knowledge you can get off the internet or cable news. The amount of knowledge needed will require studying books, lots of books, and not books written by egomaniacs trying to become rich.

The problems we’re facing and will face are so enormous that it will take a significant percentage of the population working together to solve them. If we want that future where everyone has a good job it will require a new kind of education. We used to believe higher education guaranteed a successful future. But the kind of education I’m talking about is not technical job training or academic enrichment. What we need is to educate ourselves about a holistic understanding of our present reality. However, most citizens of this society have chosen to deny reality, or accept it and just enjoy themselves as much as possible before the apocalypse.

Remember in The Matrix when Neo was told he’d need a lot of guns to overthrow the machines, and rows and rows or armaments sped past him? Yeah, well we need to read lots of books, rows and rows of bookcases. At a guess, a good portion of the voting population needs to start reading one important nonfiction book a month to alter our path and avoid the twin icebergs of climate change and wealth inequality. Will that happen? I doubt it.

We’re now more polarized politically than anytime in my lifetime. The country is almost perfectly divided into two opposing philosophies. The conservatives want free market capitalism with winners take all. The liberals want capitalism supplemented with socialism to protect the losers. Strangely, I see it as the Darwinians v. Christians, even though the conservatives see themselves as Christian, I see them as advocates of survival of the fittest, while liberals want to follow the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, yet expect the Darwinians to pay for the sick, lame, and homeless.

If we continue on the current path blazed by libertarian free-market true believers, all the wealth will be sucked out of the middle and lower classes, and probably even from the lower upper classes. The future promises a small wealthy class with their robots and corporations, and a vast lower class, struggling to survive off a small basic income. If you believe in trickle down economics then why are the richest cities in America being overrun by homeless encampments and decay? If you don’t believe me watch these videos about L.A., San Francisco, and Miami.

These are just a few images that show the result of our present economic policies. They are like the early signs of climate change that everyone wants to ignore. I’m old enough to look back over 50-60 years of history and change. Most people believe things stay the same. They don’t. The societal erosion you see in these films will spread like kudzu unless we change course. But how?

In physics we’ve learned that space and time are really one thing and we should refer to it as spacetime. And we’ve also learned that the mind and body are not separate and should refer to it as the mindbody. Well, the same is true for politics and economy, it’s really the politicaleconomy. When new concepts emerge they go through a phase first as two words, then as two-words, and finally as oneword. We’re still thinking in the political economy phase, but after reading Evil Geniuses by Kurt Andersen I’m going to think of it as the politicaleconomy, and even bypass the hyphen phase.

If you only see politics in terms of liberal and conservative, or Democrats and Republicans then you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. If you only look at the economy in terms of gains and losses then you’re not even seeing the tip. Evil Geniuses will not give you a complete holistic view of current politicaleconomic reality, but it will hint at it. Andersen is a synthesizer who has written a history of the politicaleconomy beginning in the late 1950s to show how our present state of the politicaleconomy evolved. It’s very complicated, and like Einstein working to develop a Grand Unified Theory Andersen does not succeed.

It comes down to simplex, complex, and multiplex. Most humans want simplex answers to explain reality. The more we study reality, the more complex reality appears. Focusing on single systems causing complexity in our minds. It’s only until we try to see how multiple systems work together that we develop multiplexity of thinking.

Personally, I’m smart enough to see complexity and intuit a bit of multiplexity. I believe Andersen is able to mentally juggle several complexities and visualize a certain level of multiplexity to be able to write about it. I envy him that ability. I envy that because simplex thinking is very satisfying. Complex thinking is stressful, even painful and discordant. It’s only until we get into the multiplexity stage do things become calm again, and we hear the harmony of relationships between system interactions.

Reading Evil Geniuses and exploring the individual observations Andersen makes has reduced some of the political anxiety I acquired from 2016-2020. Donald Trump wasn’t the real issue even though we’ve agonized over his impact for years. He was just a rash and not the underlying disease. Most Americans are riled up politically but are looking for answers in all the wrong places. We keep trying to cure symptoms and not the disease. Until we think of the politicaleconomy as one holistic system that includes all life on Earth we’re going to stay the course towards extinction. We need to be working towards a new word, the politicaleconomybiosphere.

I cannot properly review this book without restating almost everything that’s in it, and Kurt Andersen has already done that, so just read it. Don’t expect to accept everything he says. I haven’t yet. But if you’re like me, do expect to want to read his sources, or at least other books about the issues covered. For example, I bought a Milton Friedman book to understand the other side of things. One book ain’t going to cut it. If you’ve ever gotten fascinated by a subject and had to read everything you can about it, that’s how I feel now about the politicaleconomy.

Reading Evil Geniuses made me realize I wasn’t paying proper attention to the history of the last fifty years. Andersen chronicles no secret cabal of conspirators, all those evil geniuses were working completely out in the open. Another realization I take away from the book is don’t assume the nightly news will tell us what we need to know. Following the sensational stories on TV and the internet is watching the delusional argue over how many angels fit on the head of a pin.

Understanding comes from longer essays, like those in The Atlantic or The Economist, or from good solidly researched books. And that reading never ends, because there’s always need for deeper insights. For example, I think I need to read The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon to understand the history before the history outlined in Evil Geniuses and Dark Money by Jane Mayer. But it’s also important to read opposing views, like Age of Discovery by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna.

That’s a lot of relentless reading. Is it practical to imagine that a significant portion of the voting public will do this kind of reading? No, not really. That’s why the movers and shakers of the economic right were able to achieve their goals. They used their knowledge to change just a few institutions and people to alter the course of history. Can liberals make such surgical decisions to reflate the wealth of the middle and lower classes? I won’t know until I read a lot more. If you know of any books that offer such insights, let me know.

JWH

Will Americans Ever Be United?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 30, 2020

We might be the United States, but we’re hardly a united people. Hasn’t the melting pot of the world produced a particularly unhomogenized population?

If you pick any year in our history and study it, divisiveness is the norm. This has got me to wondering, are there topics of agreement that we mostly share?

For example, if we pass a law that means we want 100% of the people to abide by the law. Yet, a law can be passed by only a fraction of the population. Does it really make sense for 50% of the people to say how 100% of the people should act? But we’ll probably never get 100% agreement on anything. So, shouldn’t we think harder about what percentage of the vote equals a proper majority?

Would it be fair to require an 80% majority? That would still mean 20% of the population would oppose the law and would probably be unhappy. But it would also mean 80% of the population would be happy.

What we have is a happiness v. unhappiness ratio. Right now, we have a 50/50 ratio, which explains why our society is so polarized. Wouldn’t America be somewhat happier with a 60/40 ratio? And even happier with a 75/25 ratio?

We’re never going to have a 100% happy society. But shouldn’t we try to reduce the unhappy portion of the equation? My guess if we agreed to make 60% the required majority to win any vote, we’d see a shift in the contentment of the nation.

Ideally though, we’d eventually need to increase that to 75%, but right now that would be an impossibility. Just developing a 60% consensus would take a tremendous effort, mainly in learning how to make compromises.

Can We Elect a Leader That Will Make Us Better People?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 26, 2019

If Democrats win the 2020 election will we become better people? We assume whoever we elect will change the country for the better but isn’t it “we the people” rather than a single leader that will make that happen? Liberals believe Donald Trump has brought out the worst in us. But conservatives feel the future is brighter than its been in years. Which is it? Trump gave the rich a gigantic tax cut but added a staggering amount to the national debt. Trump is fighting for economic fairness with our trading partners yet Wall Street is in a panic, our farmers are going broke, and our allies think we’ve gone nuts. Trump has rolled back on all kinds of regulations just when we need more regulations to save the environment. Trump has revealed the hidden racism and xenophobia we thought we’d had overcome.

However, if a Democrat is elected in 2020 will any of this change? Can a new president pass sweeping laws that will halt climate change, stop greed, or end hatred of other people?

I’ve been reading two books that are so positive about the future I almost think they were written by someone named Pollyanna: The Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku and Moonshots: Creating a World of Abundance by Naveen Jain. Kaku is a physicist that sees a glowing science-fictional future of mankind colonizing the Moon and Mars. Jain is an entrepreneur that pleads with us to think positive and overcome our self-fulfilling pessimism.

Positive books

I have to wonder if Jain is right. Can we be better people if we think positive? His book is quite inspirational, but I wonder if he isn’t selling snake oil. There’s a huge industry out there selling success, with costly seminars, courses, and books that people buy to convince themselves to become rich by willpower. Both books show how we’ve accomplished so much in the past so why not believe we’ll do the same tomorrow.

Doesn’t chasing abundance ignore the price of abundance? Trump says I can make you richer by cutting taxes. That appears to be true. But how rich will we all be if he runs the economy into the ground? When the Republicans deny climate change are they saying, “Don’t spoil the magic of abundance by bringing in reality!”

And I’m not just questioning the conservatives. If we elect a Democrat will that person stop global warming, halt illegal immigration, eliminate gun violence, dissolve racism and reduce xenophobia? Isn’t that also magical thinking? What Trump revealed is society can make people speak and act politically correct but still think political incorrectness in their hearts.

The only way to stop climate change is for everyone to use 90% less of fossil fuels. That means driving less, flying less, eating less meat, heating and air conditioning less, and I mean a whole lot less. The only way to keep the oceans from filling up with plastics is to stop using 90% of the plastics we use now. The only way to end racism is to fully integrate, make everyone truly equal under the law, and bring about economic equality. The only way to end sexism is for everyone to live by the Golden Rule.

However, if we quit using fossil fuels the economy will collapse. How do we shop when practically everything comes in a plastic container? The government has been trying to bring about integration for decades and we haven’t allowed it. And who really lives by the Golden Rule? I don’t think Elizabeth, Kamala, or Bernie can pass laws to change these traits. We have to change ourselves. But if we could do that wouldn’t we have done so already?

I’m an atheist, but I do read the Bible. The most common thread in the Old Testament is the prophets constantly pleading with the people to follow God’s will. They never do. The Bible is one long story of people failing to live righteously, failing to change. Hasn’t laws replaced scripture as a method of social engineering? Can we vote in righteousness? Haven’t we already decided religion failed and our best hope is law and order?

If you look at history, people are better under laws. Isn’t the social unrest we’re seeing, the mad shooters, the road rages, the street gangs, the political corruption really a rebellion against laws? Republicans hate regulations but isn’t that because those laws hinder their greed? Conservatives want libertarian laws for themselves, but law and order for everyone else.

One interesting insight that Naveen Jain points out in his book is Americans are extremely pessimistic about the future, but the Chinese are practically glowing with optimism. Why would that be? Isn’t China an extremely regulated society with a rigid Big Brother government? Shouldn’t living under an Orwellian rule crush the Chinese people’s spirit? Why do they have hope when we don’t?

I don’t think people are going to change. But I do think society changes. And I think society suppresses human nature, controls greed, and codifies the Golden Rule. I wonder if the followers of Trump love him because he apparently frees them from the growing burden of rules. Trump is all for regulating people he doesn’t like but isn’t he loved for deregulating human nature in his true believers?

Essayists are those folks making running commentary on the side-lines of history. We don’t have the answers. We’re just trying to guess what’s happening from making consistent observations. I believe both conservatives and liberals wished the world was more orderly, just, and fair. The conservatives want to be free to pursue their dreams of abundance and hate regulations that hinder their success. They don’t want to see limitations. Liberals see life on Earth like being in a lifeboat. We must share our resources fairly. Conservatives hate that attitude because it assumes there isn’t unlimited abundance for all. How does picking a new leader change this dynamic?

Have we reached a stage in society where laws are no longer effective? Many people will say they were never effective, but if you study history and other societies around the globe it’s obvious that’s not true. What might be true is we’ve reached a new stage where they are becoming ineffective because too many people are ready to revolt. We are getting very close to “It’s every man for themselves” panic. (I wanted to rephrase that old saying to not show gender bias, but when society collapses, women will lose all their political gains and the bias will be true again.)

I got a clue from this New York Times article, “How Guilty Should You Feel About Your Vacation?” In Sweden, air travel is down because enough of their citizens worry about its impact on the climate. Some of their citizens have voluntarily acted on their own for the good of all. But that’s from a smaller, less dense country than ours, and one that’s socialistic, which means they are more concerned with the common good. We are more concerned with individual freedoms and opportunity. Our nationalistic psyche is different. We believe we should grab all we can take, to go for the gusto. We have revised greed from sin into a virtue. Are Americas fundamentally different from citizens of other societies?

I’m not sure if we vote in Harris, Sanders or Warren that will change. I’ve been thinking about how I’d have to live to walk my talk. I already feel I do a great deal to be environmental, but I doubt its enough. If I used 1/7,000,000,000 of my share of sustainable resources, what would that be? And if I polluted 1/7,000,000,000 share of sustainable waste, what would it be? And what’s the difference between choosing on my own to live environmentally, and voting in a person that will pass laws that make us?

Even though I’m an atheist, I would say that difference would be finding the Kingdom of Heaven within, and being a slave in Paradise.

JWH

[Damn, I write about weird shit sometimes, don’t I? No wonder some writers feel they are channeling a muse. Sometimes I feel its all pointless philosophy and I should go play in my science fictional worlds.]

Like and Sharing Society

by James Wallace Harris

Today we like each other by clicking a Facebook icon and share by inviting others to view images and videos that trigger our strong emotions. Oh, we still share by getting together for an activity or like each other with hugs and kisses, but it seems less often, doesn’t it?

In David Brooks’ latest column at The New York Times he says:

When communication styles change, so do people. In 1982, the scholar Walter Ong described the way, centuries ago, a shift from an oral to a printed culture transformed human consciousness. Once, storytelling was a shared experience, with emphasis on proverb, parable and myth. With the onset of the printing press it became a more private experience, the content of that storytelling more realistic and linear.

As L.M. Sacasas argues in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the shift from printed to electronic communication is similarly consequential. I would say the big difference is this: Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods.

That is, up until recently most of the attention a person received came from family and friends and was pretty stable. But now most of the attention a person receives can come from far and wide and is tremendously volatile.

In primitive societies, whole groups would live in one big room. Over time families moved into their own separate dwellings, but often were multigenerational. Then we invented the nuclear family. And now people often live alone in apartments. We connect by computers to create virtual social bonds. It’s kind of weird when you think about it.

This also reminds of the classic 1909 science fiction story by E. M. Forster called “The Machine Stops.” Eighty years before the WWW Forster imagined humans ultimately living alone in rooms connected to each other by a machine. Read this story, it will amaze you.

These trends sound like a sad progression of human evolution, but I believe there are reasons why we’ve chosen our paths. Primitive people worked together with a common goal of survival. Everyone had to contribute. The same was true to a lesser degree during the era of multigenerational families. Even during the early era of nuclear families, we had much to keep us together. But once everyone had a different job that took them into a different direction, and we developed our own personal interests and goals, things came apart. Even as late as the 1950s and 1960s families still had a lot of shared experiences. With only one television parents and kids would gather around it in the evenings. They ate their dinners together while watching Ed Sullivan or Lassie. Kids would go to school, and parents would go to work, but they still found countless shared interests to spend time together.

What separated me from my family in 1962 was a clock radio. But also my father worked two jobs and my mother one, so they disappeared for most of the day. Yet, when they were home, I began retreating to my room to listen to Top 40 Rock ‘n’ Roll and reading science fiction while they watched The Beverly Hillbillies with my sister.

Brooks dates our divergence with the computer, but I think it came earlier with other technologies. When I got that clock radio and my sister got a portable record player we went our different ways. By the 1970s many families had multiple television sets, so each family member took to their separate rooms to watch only what they loved. We stopped making the effort to sit through shows other people loved. In the 1980s personal computers came out and we divided again. Walkmans, MP3 players, audiobooks, tablets, smartphones, they’ve all given us ways to isolate ourselves into pursing highly unique art forms.

Anthologies-web

Think about all the interests and hobbies that only you love. Above is a photo of what currently separates me from other people. My fascination with reading old science fiction short stories and studying their history culls me off from the rest of humanity. By Brooks’ distinction, I’m defined by both print and digital technologies, but I also love hearing these stories read by professional narrators, so that connects me with an oral tradition too. But when I listen, I’m wearing headphones that shut me off from the rest of reality, although I’d love to know someone who’d like to listen to the stories with me.

When Susan, my wife comes home from work we sometimes eat together, and sometimes not. We faithfully watch the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy that we recorded on our TiVo, and then she goes to the living room to watch her shows and I stay in the den to watch mine. We got married in 1978, and through 2008, we had one television set, and we’d watched the same shows together every night.

In 2008 Susan took a job out of town, and for ten years we watched television separately and we learned exactly the kind of TV that resonated with our personalities. I developed a number of friends who came over to watch TV with me, and I learned that friendship was a VENN diagram of shared TV shows. No two people have exact tastes. When Susan moved back permanently last year she brought her own TV, so we had two. We also had two Rokus, and subscriptions to several streaming TV services that allowed us to watch exactly what we want to watch when we wanted to watch. We had also learned to binge-watch different kinds of shows. Taste in TV now separates us.

We do find other ways to share. We’ve been doing game nights with friends. Last night was a game night, and the four of us all talked about the TV shows we watched. It was kind of funny because our tastes overlapped in various combinations. If I wanted companionship to watch my TV shows, I might need to call a dozen different people, and some nights I’d still be watching TV alone.

When TV was broadcast, most of my friends watched the same shows. Now with over 500 scripted TV shows being produced every year, friends connect by the few unique shows we each share a love to watch. And I often feel I disappoint people when I tell them I don’t like the shows they love. It was damn surprising how much The Game of Thrones united people.

I really enjoy having friends over to watch shows together, but that seldom happens anymore. For ten years my TV buddy Janis and I shared a love of several shows and we’d get together and watch them 3-4 times a week. But Janis has moved to Mexico, and most of my other friends don’t want to come over to watch TV that regularly.

I have a handful of internet friends who also love the old science fiction anthologies, and we have a group email address we use to discuss them. I’m also in two online book clubs where we discuss books daily by email. I guess these replace my water cooler friends from my work days.

Facebook is constantly attacked in the news nowadays, but it’s a very useful tool for keeping up with family and friends. Knowing that someone else likes the same cat videos as I do is nice. Not much of a bond, but at least it’s a shared affinity. What really bonds people is raising a family or a career that forces you to work intimately with other people. Susan and I never had kids, and my work days are over. My friend Mike and I work on a computer/web project together, and that’s a great way to connect.

It’s funny, but I think the single thing that brings me and my friends together now is our collective worry about getting old, and our constant talk of bodily functions. Nothing bonds aging baby boomers like a conversation about constipation.

Lately, I’ve wondered about retirement villages. Would moving to a 55+ community would create new kinds of social bonds? I’ve wondered if it would create the social structures I had back in my K-12 years. Would playing Pickleball and Four Square everyday undo all the specialized isolation that TV and computers created? Who knows, maybe I could find other people to watch Perry Mason, or even share a love of 1950s science fiction like these guys:

JWH