Monday, October 24, 2016

October Rains

"Regardless of whether this prospect pleases you or distresses you, the technosphere is going to fail you."

We penned this piece in mid-October, when the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced. We are inside China at this time and China is not on speaking terms with Google, so we have not been able post to blogger, or even moderate comments coming in from postings we set for timed release when we departed the USA in September. That is until now, which must mean we are back in US air space.

Bob Dylan is now the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. When we were 17 and he was 22, he wrote:
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

In recent years the senators and congressmen have been doing more than their share of hall blocking, and now they are trying to hide the embarrassment of the current presidential campaign behind a smokescreen of Cold War newspeak.

It was not enough to blame Russia for everything from doping in sports to Wikileaks. The NY Times and the K-street crowd keeps pushing NATO to the point where it is beginning to rub the Bear the wrong way. Illegally imposed sanctions for opposing the rape of Ukraine, specious accusations about a passenger jet downing or the US-sponsored ambush of a UN aid convoy, and wingnut accusations of Russian aggression in the Middle East go unchallenged in the Western press. According to the Clinton campaign, we are supposed to believe Russia is taking a hand in the US election, tilting the polls in favor of Putin’s best buddy, The Donald. Meanwhile, in the skies over Damascus, the Blue Angels are about to test their metal against the aeronautically and metallurgically superior Red Air Force. The Cold War is about to get hot, and all the Joint Chiefs need is a nod from the new POTUS. Either of the candidates will do.

In Shrinking the Technosphere (New Society Publishers, October 18, 2016), Dmitry Orlov observed:
The Russians, with Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi help, are swiftly rubbing out America’s pet terrorists with equanimity and poise, while their erstwhile supporters in Washington are visibly demoralized and spouting preposterous nonsense. But there are still some important lessons to be extracted from all this—and we should extract them before it all gets covered by a thick layer of dust.
***
Regardless of whether this prospect pleases you or distresses you, the technosphere is going to fail you. There is simply not enough easy-to-exploit, concentrated, conveniently located nonrenewable natural resources left to sustain a global industrial order. … The technosphere, as a single, integrated, emergent intelligence, is in extremis. As it enters its death agony, its previous depredations may come to seem mild compared to what happens next.
In reviewing Orlov’s book for a cover blurb, we picked up our worn copy of Ivan Illich's essays.  "Specific diseconomy" is a term he used, as a measure of the degree of institutional counterproductivity that is occurring — referring to the exact degree to which, for example, the medical industry induces illness, educational institutions induce ignorance, the judicial system perpetuates injustice, or national defense may make a nation less secure. When specific diseconomy is on the increase, this means an institution or industry is increasingly counterproductive to its original intentions.

Illich wrote:

I choose the term "conviviality" to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society's members.

This parallels how Orlov breaks down Vladimir Putin’s September 28, 2015 address to the UN General Assembly, in which he proposed “implementing naturelike technologies, which will make it possible to restore the balance between the biosphere and the technosphere.

We take the liberty of providing a long Orlov excerpt here, both because Putin is in the news these days and because we think we may have reason to revisit this subject in future essays.

Since Putin seems to have an uncanny ability to make his words stick by altering reality to conform with them, it makes sense to carefully parse the phrase “implementing naturelike technologies” with the goal of gaining a better of understanding of what Putin meant by it, and what he might be up to. This particular phrase is harder to parse than the previous two [earlier discussed in Technosphere], because the Russian original, внедрение природоподобных технологий, is laden with meanings that its English translation does not directly convey. 
“Внедрéние” (vnedrénie) can be translated in any number of ways: implementation; introduction; inoculation, implantation (of views, ideas); entrenchment (especially of culture); enacting; advent; launch; incorporation; adoption; inculcation, instillation; indoctrination. Translating it as “implementation” does not do it justice. It is derived from the word “нéдра” (nédra) which means “the nether regions” and is etymologically connected to the Old English word neðera through a common Indo-European root. In Russian, it can refer to all sorts of unfathomable depths, from the nether regions of the Earth (where coal, oil, gas and various ores and minerals are found) to the nether regions of human psyche, as in the phrase “недра подсознательного” (nédra podsoznátel’nogo, the nether-regions of the subconscious). It can very well mean “implantation” or “indoctrination.” 
The word “природоподóбный” (priródo-podóbnyi) translates directly as “naturelike,” although in Russian it has less of an overtone of accidental resemblance and more of a sense of active conformance or assimilation: “beseeming of nature.” This word could previously only be found in a few techno-grandiose articles by Russian academics in which they promote vaporous initiatives for driving the development of nanotechnology or quantum microelectronics by simulating evolutionary processes, or some such. The basic thrust of their proposals seems to be that even if our devices become too complex for human brains to design, we can let them design themselves, by letting them evolve like bacteria in a Petri dish. But it is hard to see how this interpretation of the word is at all relevant. Also, based on what Putin said next, we can be sure that this is not what he had in mind: 
“We need qualitatively different approaches. The discussion should involve principally new, naturelike technologies, which do not injure the environment but exist in harmony with it and will allow us to restore the balance between the biosphere and the technosphere which mankind has disturbed.” 
These were the two sentences that made an alarm bell go off in my head. I had thought that same thought before, but I had never heard it expressed quite so cleanly and crisply, and certainly not before the United Nations General Assembly. And so I thought, “OK, why don’t I start working on that?”

But what did he mean by “technologies”? Did he merely mean that what we need is a new generation of eco-friendly gewgaws and gizmos that are slightly more energy-efficient than the current crop? Again, let’s see what may have been lost in translation. In Russian, the word технолóгии (tekhnológii) does not directly imply industrial technology, and can relate to any art or craft. Since it is obvious that industrial technology is not particularly naturelike, it stands to reason that he meant some other type of technology, and one type immediately leapt to my mind: political technologies. In Russian, this term is written as one word, политтехнолóгии (polit-tekhnológii), and it is a word that sees a lot of use in Russian public life. At its best, it is the art of rapidly shifting the common political and cultural mindset in some generally beneficial or productive direction. At its worst, it is an underhanded attempt to manipulate public opinion for private benefit.

Putin is a consummate political technologist. His current domestic approval rating stands at 89%—the remaining 11% disapprove of him because they wish him to take a more hard-line stance against Western aggression. It makes sense, therefore, to examine his proposal from the point of view of political technology, discarding the notion that what he meant by “technology” is some sort of new, slightly more eco-friendly industrial plant and equipment. If his initiative succeeds in making 89% of the world’s population speak out in favor of rapidly adopting naturelike, ecosystem-compatible lifestyles, while the remaining 11% rise up in opposition because they believe that the rate of their adoption isn’t fast enough, then perhaps climate catastrophe will be averted or, at least, its worst- case scenario—the one that includes near-term human extinction. I hope you will agree that, given the scarcity of other such proposals from supposed world leaders, and given the success of his previous initiatives, this new one might be worth a try. 

In Easy Rider, there is a surreal experience at a commune where the Kid and Captain America stop before going on to Mardi Gras. The scenes of domes, naked children playing in dirt, gardening and tai chi seem out of a Fellini film. Dennis Hopper directs Laszlo Kovac's camera to make a 360-degree pan across the faces of the hippies, some serious, some grinning, others just zoned out. Wyatt likes the vibes and wants to stay, but the Kid is creeped out and wants to hit the road.

Later, after the bad trip in New Orleans that winds up in a cemetery where Wyatt confronts his demons, there is catharsis. “We blew it,” he tells the Kid. They hop on their low-riders and motor back towards the commune.

Shortly after that is the famous scene of them getting blown away with a shotgun stuck out a window by some rednecks in a pickup truck on a southern backcountry road. It was open season on hippies. Who knew?

Orlov’s book, providing a healthy dollop of real-world narrative, in the end offers serious advice. You can skip the cemetery trip. Get a tiny house up a long dirt road or a house boat. Tune in, turn off, drop out. If enough people do that, who will they send to the Russian front?
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it's a hard, and it's a hard
And it's a hard, ha-ha-ha-hard
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall

4 comments:

Kelpie Wilson said...

Dang Albert. You nailed it.

solarsmith said...

I have, in a metaphorical sense, got myself a tiny house up a long dirt road, and I'm happy there. But I worry about the rest of the near-peoplefield of the 300 million other gringos, about of one third of them who can be rabidly mindless on occasion. Etymologically, the English "worry about" is of ambiguous usage, and can mean either "being concerned for their fate", or "worry about their discovering my long dirt road, raping my dog, eating my garden, burning my house, and using me for target practice". Or both.
Does Mahayana mean anything anymore, for those who know what I mean?

Dennis Mitchell said...

We had a nice little spot up the dirt road...then the bastards paved it!

Mark said...

+Solarsmith ~ Having produced 7 billion lucky humans, all with the best conditions for attaining liberation in the 6 realms, we approach an evolutionary bottleneck where intuition will be selected. Intuition is developed according to the teachings of the lineages. There are a number of such lineages in the Mahayana. There are esoteric teachings besides the Buddha's that lead to intuition.

Today I'm OK, sitting by the woodstove, watching the first snow falling with a cat in the chair next to me. When I go to sleep tonight, I don't know if I will wake up in the next world, or the next day. Having lived with this knowledge, for a number of years, why have hope or fear? All the esoteric teachings agree: There is no beginning, and no end. Practice like this.

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