Imagine Living Only in the Real World and Rejecting All Screens

by James Wallace Harris, 3/18/21

I grew up in the 1950s with the television screen. In the 1980s I became addicted to the computer screen. In the 2010s I started looking at the smartphone screen all the time. After having someone impersonate me with a fake Instagram account on Facebook last night I got disgusted with the internet I wondered if I shouldn’t abandon the online world. Then I thought, what would it be like to live just in the real world, without any screens, not even the TV screen? Much of what I find disturbing about the world comes through screens.

That’s a scary thought, giving up screens. I spend hours every day staring at them. My favorite past time right now is discussing science fiction short stories with folks on Facebook. If I didn’t use screens I could still read books but I couldn’t connect with the other people who love to read the same kind of things I do. Of course, what if we considered book pages to be like screens and abandoned them too?

Before screens there were books, newspapers, and magazines. I can imagine giving up screens, even giving up watching television, but I can’t imagine giving up the printed page. Isn’t that weird?

I’m trying to imagine life without screens or pages. It kind of blows my mind. My world would get very small. I’d probably keep up the house and yard way better than I do now. I’d probably get into gardening, cooking, and making things. I’d want to spend more time with people face-to-face. I assume life would slow way down. I guess I’d crave hearing about the world beyond my little place in it by talking to people and listening to their stories about events beyond my sight.

Without pages from books, magazines, and newspapers I’d be a lot more ignorant. Pages and screens inform us, connect us to the wider world. I can see now thinking about this, that screens really are an extension of pages. Screens add movement to the static type, illustrations and photos in printed matter.

When I watch YouTube videos created by amateurs I realize they are sending a highly constructed recorded speech with visuals which is more evolved than the printed essay, and an essay is more evolved than a lecture, and a lecture is more evolved than conversation.

The real world is nature. Plants and animals, earth and sky. Pages and screens are our way of communicating about nature. But hasn’t the abstraction of our communication moved us away from nature?

As much as I find nature beautiful and fascinating, I’m far more wrapped up in pages and screens, which if you think about it, is our way of reacting to nature. So what if we gave up abstraction and just dwelled in the natural world? (It might feel like living in a Ursula K. Le Guin novel. Even her futuristic human societies dwelling on far away worlds seem like medieval times on Earth.)

To be honest, it’s too late for me. I’m far too addicted to abstraction. I much prefer the fantasy of fiction on the page or screen to living actively in the real world. I much prefer the abstraction of nonfiction, news programs, and documentaries to studying reality first hand.

Should I feel guilty about that?

JWH

To The Bearers of False Witness Against Our Democracy

by James Wallace Harris, 2/23/21

When I was in school back in the 1950s and 1960s we were taught that America was the best example of democracy, and it was our most valuable export. The history I was taught, also claimed we inspired a slow worldwide conversion to democracy since the founding of America. Those lessons were something we took very seriously, and for most Americans it was politically sacred. We looked down on those corrupt government and leaders in other countries that undermined democracy as barbarians. And most of all, we believed America was impervious to any such corruption.

Well, we were wrong. Conservatives have taken up the weapon of denialism, first wielding it against science, then journalism, and now democracy. Denialism is a weapon of mass destruction. Donald Trump spent months carpet bombing America with denialism against democracy, claiming our system of voting is corrupt and full of fraud. It was Trump’s backup plan in case he lost the election, and his followers embraced that plan wholeheartedly. Even now the Republican party is doing everything it can to undermine democracy so they can win back power in 2022.

There was no significant voter fraud in 2020, even the conservative judges Donald Trump appointed affirmed that. Anyone who knows anything about our voting systems knows it’s well monitored. But even more important armies of Americans volunteer to support our voting system each election, and to claim it is corrupt and fraudulent is to insult their dedication. That’s goes beyond anything I can imagine to undermine our national unity.

Donald Trump shat all over American democracy and his followers have embraced his acts as the way to get what they want. The only systemic fraud in American democracy are the efforts by Republicans to disenfranchise people of color and immigrants, and to undermine our voting systems. This is down to Earth evil. If you follow the news, it is quite obvious that the Republicans have decided their #1 tool for winning elections in the future is by controlling them.

I just read this quote in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari:

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda maestro and perhaps the most accomplished media-wizard of the modern age, allegedly explained his method succinctly: “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”

Donald Trump told his lie about election fraud so many times that it has become true to millions of people. Those lies are bearing false witness against democracy. By Republicans playing this one trump card over and over is causing their party members to believe it too. Harari went on to say:

In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote, “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly — it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Can any present-day fake-news peddler improve on that?

I definitely do not mean to imply any connection between Trump and the Nazis. It’s just that the Nazis wrote the manual on public manipulation. Anybody who manipulates other people use a fraction of the techniques the Nazis perfected. We all need to study those techniques to become aware of how we’re being manipulated, either by politicians, corporations, or even by our coworkers, family, and friends.

Harari in an earlier chapter worked to understand why people believe what they do. He said as a species we’re not rational, but depend on myths and group thinking to understand reality. Most Americans don’t understand our democracy and voting systems so it’s easier to sway their opinion with disinformation. Trump treats his followers not as individuals but as a group mind. This comes from from the same book:

Not only rationality, but individuality too is a myth. Humans rarely think for themselves. Rather, we think in groups. Just as it takes a tribe to raise a child, it also takes a tribe to invent a tool, solve a conflict, or cure a disease. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, an atom bomb, or an aircraft. What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.

The Republican Party has learned the power of group thinking. That’s why they are so passionate about party loyalty. Unity consistently achieves success and they know it. The trouble is people who do think for themselves can break up groups, and the group is all important to Republicans. What’s amusing is individual Republicans who do think for themselves are always jockeying for control of the party, but it seems that it was Trump who rolled out the attack on democracy and the others had to fall in line. It’s another reason why so many Republicans want to retain Trump as a leader, his successes worked, so why rock the boat.

Harari went on to say:

Yet like many other human traits that made sense in past ages but cause trouble in the modern age, the knowledge illusion has its downside. The world is becoming ever more complex, and people fail to realize just how ignorant they are of what’s going on. Consequently, some people who know next to nothing about meteorology or biology nevertheless propose policies regarding climate change and genetically modified crops, while others hold extremely strong views about what should be done in Iraq or Ukraine without being able to locate these countries on a map. People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming news feeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.

Conservatives, like any group seeking power, have used techniques and insights into how people form opinions to shape party member’s opinions. It’s how they get their coalition to do their bidding. Harari also noted that once people form opinions they seldom change them. Once the denialism of democracy bomb was dropped there was no going back. The rank and file had to follow. This is destroying our democracy with lies and even false witnessing in courts of law and the courts of public opinion.

Even some Republicans realized this is going too far. It’s like dismantling a passenger jet in flight. We all depend on our democracy for security and happiness, even the people who no longer believe in it. I plead with all rational Republicans to stop denying democracy. Stop undermining our way of life.

I have never believed in hell because I could never imagine any compassionate God would condemn any human soul to it for eternity. Christianity teaches forgiveness, and I can forgive the people who can’t think for themselves and spread lies about democracy. They don’t know any better. But I don’t have enough forgiveness to forgive those who are capable of thinking, who know what they are doing, and who bear false witness against democracy. They can go to hell – forever.

JWH

How to Save The World by Reading Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/21

Many people have the inner confidence that the world will always muddle through. That we’ll solve our problems naturally through the unfolding of uncontrolled events. Other people believe as the population of humans grow, we’ll eventually reach a breaking point and things will fall apart. If you read Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you know the history of the world is a history of failed civilizations. Whatever goes up must come down, and if you’re the kind of person that uses numbers and graphs to anticipate the future, it doesn’t look good.

Kim Stanley Robinson has written a science fiction “novel” where he imagines humanity intentionally solving our big problems. The book is called The Ministry for the Future. It’s hard to recommend this book because people who expect a novel to work in a certain way could have difficulty reading it. I’ve already written about how The Ministry for the Future isn’t structured like a typical novel so you might want to read that essay before buying it.

The Ministry for the Future imagines how humanity could save itself. It’s just one possible scenario, but it does offer more hope than I’ve seen elsewhere. Now, it’s not entirely Pollyannaish, because it also assumes a massive economic depression and worldwide acts of terrorism will force us to change at times too, warning us there are no easy solutions, and to expect a bumpy ride.

The chief task to saving our planet is reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. Robinson suggests this can mainly be done by inventing a new worldwide currency he calls the carbon coin. Like the gold standard, this currency will be based on carbon kept out of the atmosphere. Once worldwide financial institutions back the carbon coin, and people and corporations realize future wealth depends on it, there will be an incentive to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. At one point, Robinson says we’ll pay Saudi Arabia to keep its oil in the ground and that will create more worldwide wealth. That’s hard to believe, especially if you watch this film. (Really, watch this film.)

Robinson also imagines many giant geoengineering projects, including pumping water out from under glaciers to slow their pace into the oceans. He also assumes we’ll pursue different kinds of carbon sequestering combined with switching to renewable energy sources. These are all technical solutions that we’re considering today, but Robinson also has several chapters about why many of our current big ideas will fail.

The whole goal is to get CO2 back down to 350 ppm. Near the end of the novel, which spans many decades, CO2 peaks at 475 ppm. Robinson promotes the success of the real 350.org movement in the book. Last month we were averaging 413.95 ppm of CO2, so we’re currently about half-way to Robinson’s future in real life. To get back to 350 ppm we’ll have to stop using all fossil fuels and retrieve a lot of CO2 already in the atmosphere and put it away somewhere safe. Generally, that’s into trees, or sequestered. So, Robinson imagines the world reforesting on a vast level. But can you really imagine that we’ll stop taking oil, gas, and coal out of the ground? That’s trillions of dollars in wealth that people have invested trillions of dollars to own.

Concurrent with the CO2 problem is the extinction problem. Robinson also embraces Half-Earth Project to give half the Earth back to wildlife based on E. O. Wilson’s book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Within Robinson’s novel, huge tracts land are purchased to create wildlife corridors to connect the larger national parks around the world. This is a beautiful vision that I hope comes true. But to achieve it would require buying up small towns and destroying roads on a vast scale. That adds another giant expenditure for saving the world. Robinson claims this will add jobs and eventually grow the economy, but will people see saving animals as an investment?

Robinson foresees two horrible sources of good for the earth that are evils for people. A giant worldwide depression will slow the release of CO2, and he imagines vast networks of ecoterrorists that will stop air and sea travel by any machines that run on fossil fuel. Robinson pictures us returning to clipper ships and dirigibles, as well as new kinds of electric planes and ships that use renewable resources.

In this book Robinson doesn’t dwell on rising seas and other natural disasters like he has in her earlier novels, but he does focus on the refugee problems. He imagines we’ll eventually develop a global citizenship status that will allow us to fairly resettle the millions of refugees. Will we be that wise and kind?

All of this is just a tip of the iceberg among Robinson’s speculations. Overall, The Ministry for the Future is a very hopeful story, but you must read between the lines to account for all the horrors. However, his first chapter is an extremely dramatic scene of one terrifying ecocatastrophe, and I can’t recommend reading it highly enough. It’s available online to read.

After finishing The Ministry for the Future, I keep asking myself: Will we really save ourselves? Robinson believes we’ll more than muddle through, and even find triumph in our achievements. Robinson is almost gung-ho for the future. Americans can’t even pull together in a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, so why expect us to pull together at far greater challenges? Will we muddle through despite ourselves? I don’t think so. Humans have always muddled through in the past because there were always been an abundance of options and resources. Solving climate change is where the Ponzi scheme of Capitalism finally comes due. Saving ourselves will require moving to a new paradigm for the politicaleconomy. I’m not sure that will happen. In fact, I seriously doubt it. Why? Because it will require humans to work together at a level of cooperation that we’ve never shown in the past.

Kim Stanley Robinson is an optimist. I’m a pessimist looking for hope. I believe it’s important to read science fiction novels like The Ministry for the Future because we need to all ask ourselves if such dreams are possible. Are we capable of making these kinds of changes in our lives? My hope says its theoretically possible. My pessimism says no.

If you haven’t really thought about how we’ll save ourselves in the future, then you might want to read The Ministry for the Future. It’s not a fun page turner, but I believe it covers most of what you’ll need to consider.

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.