Monthly Archives: April 2015

Fear and Inevitability in Social Complexification…

Fear and Inevitability in Social Complexification

or

How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Post-Industrial Nightmare

By Bruce Carter

…modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence. This is not accidental or a result of the arbitrariness of arrogant bureaucrats. It is necessary and inevitable in any technologically advanced society. The system HAS TO regulate human behavior closely in order to function… The result is a sense of powerlessness on the part of the average person. — [Kaczynski, Industrial Society and its Future]

The world that we’re creating for ourselves is getting more complicated every day. It’s a process that we typically take for granted, enjoying the increased wealth it provides, and when we do take notice of it, the most common response is a looming sense of dread. We seem to be sliding into a dystopia – not in the classical sense of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, where the problem is too much social order – but rather a more conventional dystopia, such as those described by William Gibson in Idoru and elsewhere, where the problem is too much chaos, a society that seems endlessly alien and strange even to the very people who comprise it.

But the fact is, we now already live in and rely upon a society and an economy which in a very real sense we do not understand. No one person can fathom the intricate and constantly shifting networks of exchange and contract that tie us to one another. This is true not only of society as a whole, but even for any one person.

Take the typical economics 101 example of a farmer owning a cow and selling the milk to his neighbor. In the world we’ve created, the farmer is employee and part owner of an incorporated entity which owns the cow and the milk, which in turn is partly owned by an agribusiness corporation, which in turn is traded on an open exchange market, with thousands of people holding a tiny piece of it, and those pieces changing hands every second. The milk is also conceptually bundled, sliced, and traded in tiny pieces on a commodities exchange (not the milk that exists now, but some future milk; today’s milk was sold months before it ever existed). Furthermore, all of these entities are tied together by secured loans, insurance policies, vendor/client contracts, regulations, subsidies, derivatives, bonds, and a myriad of other abstract agreements, many of which are themselves sliced up and sold as assets on their own trading markets as well. To merely answer the question “who owns this cow,” or “who owns that milk” would require a massive effort of financial analysis at any given moment, and even that will likely change in the next moment.

If such a simple question requires such a complex answer, imagine how more complex the answer would be to the question “what real, tangible value is created from this insurance adjuster working on that spreadsheet?” Then imagine the range of jobs that we each perform today, and you’ve got a vague sense of the staggering scope of trying to concretely answer the simple question “why do we do what we do every day?” This is Marxist alienation taken to Camus’ nausea levels. Not only are we separated from the wealth that we create through work, we’re more often than not separated from even having any clue how a great deal of the work that we ourselves do creates any real wealth for anyone anywhere at all. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, and this is our own day to day activities!

And what’s worse, we need that complexity. Intricate and complex methods of organizing the work that we do, of directing human activity, are required to leverage the immense productivity gains that technology affords us. It grants efficiency, flexibility and hyper-specialization in the creation of value. As such, each technological advance leads to a corresponding increase in the complexity of our aggregate behavior. Information technology takes this process to a much higher level, inserting decision-like causal changes into the system without any persons making decisions. We can track and manage decisionary processes without even knowing what they are, at least not in any detail. And more importantly, we can do so far more efficiently than if we actually understood any of them.

As with scientific and technological advances, advances in organizational complexity are simply inevitable. If we don’t do them someone else will, and then they’ll buy us. Economic competition is like running a race in which the people at the back of the pack are constantly forced to drop out, every financial quarter. There is no option for any corporation or country other than to do whatever it takes to win that race, because only those who win continue to exist.

But it’s not entirely unreasonable to fear what we don’t understand. It’s no wonder so many of us find it intolerable. Since we rely so thoroughly on this Baroque web of social contract, our lack of understanding of its permutations causes the justifiable fear that it may fail us and we won’t even see its failure coming, or be able to prevent it. This is often the case with economic recessions, but at least those aren’t complete failures; enough of the system exists so that it can recover. We have yet to see a market crash that can reasonably described as “fully post-apocalyptic.” But because we don’t understand it, no one can assert with certainty that such a thing might not happen at any moment. Our own social order is like a Sword of Damocles hanging over our head all the time. Or at least we suspect it might be, and without being able to understand it we have no way of ruling that out as a possibility.

When considering economic crashes, there seems to be something of a paradox (I use this not in the strict logical sense, but more in the strongly-counterintuitive sense). Per Adam Smith, all of the wealth in a society derives from its natural resources combined with the capabilities of its people – their skills and ability to work. But before and after an economic downturn, those don’t change. We still have all of the resources we did before; our people still have the same willingness and ability to work as they did before. If that is all that wealth is made of, then where did all the wealth go when an economy crashes? Some numbers in some computers somewhere change and now suddenly millions of people are poorer than they were yesterday? If nothing tangible was lost, then how can we say that anything was? The answer to all this is that what is lost are those myriad contractual agreements by which we organize our work. What is lost is that organization that governs our ability to cooperate. And without it, we’re less able to direct our activity in ways to effectively provide value to one another.

As such, a society without complex organization looks very much like a completely collapsed economy. Materially it looks like a pre-industrial society or a third world nation. However, unlike those we aren’t already prepared to live without it. In the Victorian era (as well as in third world countries), most households, even those in cities, rely in great part on subsistence farming, with most of their household goods being home-made. We hypothetically could choose to live like that. But I don’t want to, and I think that most people aren’t prepared to live that way either.

As abstract as all this sounds, this analysis is important because that sense of dread is very common. The rise in libertarian and anarchist sentiment today is a direct psychological response to it. We wish we weren’t so reliant on millions of strangers, and so we assert that we are not, that we are each self-reliant individuals needing no one and helping no one unless by specific intentional choice in each instance. But that’s conflating hope with belief. The fact is, we are not self-reliant at all – or at least very, very few of us could be described as such. We might blind ourselves to the benefits we get from society, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t getting them. So long as we are part of society, we are part of society. It is patently false to stand up in the middle of a crowd and shout that you’re not a part of it. It rises to ridiculous levels when more and more of the crowd starts agreeing with you, chanting along together that they are all lone individuals and that there is no crowd at all.

Nor can we fight against or otherwise prevent the ongoing march of complexification. To do so would be as futile as a Luddite sabotaging a factory to put a stop to technological advancement and scientific discovery. Or in even more extreme cases, to exercise radical freedom and lash out violently solely because you can do nothing else, with no hope of achieving a tangible goal, like Camus’ Meursault. Or the Unabomber (who did so for the very reasons described here). As things stand, a complex economy cannot be radically reformed or revolted against without millions of real human beings suffering massive deprivation. That would be bad. Destroying the system because we’re afraid it might fail us is like setting fire to the ship we’re sailing on to prevent it from potentially hitting a rock and sinking. There is no land in sight.

So what’s the solution? As with many problems in philosophy, the solution is to realize that the problem isn’t really a problem. This is how it is. Certainly we should try to understand our society as much as we can, and manage it as well as we can, to whatever degree that we can. But to rail against its very being is not only futile but self-defeating: we are it, and it is us. We need it because we are it, and thus we need each other. The fact that we’re all in this together shouldn’t be terrifying, even if the details are confusing. To the degree that we’re alienated from the value of our labor we’re also bound to one another, and ethically speaking that’s not a bad thing at all. Quite the contrary.

Our knee-jerk reaction of fear and anger at being part of a system that is too big and intricate for any of us to understand is an inevitable consequence of having organized ourselves into a society consisting of millions of people, as opposed to the small autonomous tribes that our brains are evolved to be comfortable with in a state of nature. But there’s no logical reason to give in to that fear and anger just because we’re experiencing it, because the fear and anger are not logical. We are human animals, and therefore have ingrained emotional responses arising from instinct; but we are also sentient beings, and therefore can rise above those responses by examining that which we fear with a rational perspective.

In short: get over it.

Ep 10: Cyberpunk and Dystopia; Whats to love about what we fear?

The guys discuss the state of mega-corp’s and merging of very large companies

Bruce brings up the reduction in wages and the rise of available technologies

Sean talks about the tragic elements of Cyberpunk

Sean wonders what there is to like about tragedy

Bruce brings up the idea of noir romanticism

Sean talks about flawed characters and Ryver talks about the hopefulness embedded in tragedy

The guys discuss theories of tragedy in philology

Ryver asks us to consider historical forces as a central focus of the need for tragedy

Sean suggests schadenfreude as a possible explanation

Ryver talks about the focus of old tragedy being the world ending in some sense

Sean juxtaposes worlds ending with cyberpunk’s sense that the world just drones on without us

Bruce and Sean discuss the ideas of utopia and dystopia as less grand notions and more slight changes in trajectory

Ryver gives some examples of each and identifies some commonalities between them

Sean analogizes the concepts to Startrek vs Star Wars

Ryver talks a little about how scarcity and desire weave into the landscape of cyberpunk

Bruce brings up the prevalence of technologies that are amazing and yet treated as unimpressive

Sean paraphrases a quote “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” by G.K. Chesterton to discuss the technologies of the cyberpunk aesthetic

The whole group discusses the incredible ability of cyberpunk to predict future conditions and the humanistic elements that weave us into the story

Bruce brings up “1984” and “Brave New World” as archetypes of dystopian fiction that shape cyberpunk

Sean talks about Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and the duality of the Terrible Reality and the Beautiful Illusion as they are presented and how they influenced Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy

Bruce brings up H.P. Lovecraft and Ryver refines the concepts involved in dread

The guys discuss the notion of existential dread and how it relates to “Soylent Green”

Sean refocuses the discussion onto what what gets out of dread

Ryver talks about the satisfaction of being manipulated instead of being at the whim of uncaring unthinking forces

Sean suggests that the reason we connect so strongly is that we are all the people who would make the choices that lead to a cyberpunk future

Bruce suggests that the cyberpunk hero is the existentialist hero: condemned to freedom and burdened by the knowledge of whats really going on

Ryver disagrees and cites 1984 as a character who escapes the burden of absolute freedom

Sean brings up the famous Satre quote “Hell is other people” and suggest that if we are the background characters then we are the means by which the hero is made to suffer

The guys mull over the idea of what a hero or protagonist is in the cyberpunk genre

Ryver brings up the idea that our complacency is the force which makes cyberpunk possible

Sean talks about the rabble-rouser and journalism specifically the quote that the job of the press is “To afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.” and how it relates to the cyberpunk state of affairs

Ryver talks about this as it relates to the notion of stagnation and growth

Bruce talks about this as an appeal of cyberpunk

Ryver takes the last word to recommend some great cyberpunk literature.

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Ep9: Dune as Nietzschean Fable; Should You Drink the Water of Life?

The Philosophers focus will cover the David Lynch movie, with some bits from the books to flesh it out.

Bruce brings up that Paul Atreides does not fit the part of a Nietzschean hero at the start.

The Philosophers discusses why Paul does not meet the criteria in greater detail.

Ryver compares this story to the Golden Bough.

Sean talks about the Chosen One legends of the various groups in the Dune Universe.

Bruce sets forth the criteria of being a Nietzschean Hero.

Ryver sets us down the path of Paul’s journey, starting with his first Trials on Arrakis.

Sean explains the division of identity between Paul Atreides and Paul Muad’Dib.

Sean explains the Sardaukar guard.

The Philosophers discuss the stripping of all of Paul’s advantages.

Ryver talks about Paul’s introspection in the desert.

Sean talks about Paul’s meeting with the Fremen, and the similarities between the Fremen and the Sardaukar.

Ryver and Sean gives a breakdown of the meeting with the Fremen.

Sean talks about how the Fremen react to Paul’s mother.

Sean explains the Weirding Way.

Ryver compares the Weirding Way to an example of Nietzschean aphorisms.

Sean and Ryver discuss the importance of water to the lives and culture of the Fremen.

Ryver talks about the importance of Spice to the peoples of the Landsraad.

Sean discusses Spice as a luxury good.

Bruce talks about the important of Spice to the Guild Navigators.

Ryver explains the outward signs of constantly being around the Spice.

Sean points out that Paul is discovered early on to seemingly innately possess some of the skills necessary to survive in the desert.

Ryver points out that this may have something to do with his emerging prescience. Sean concedes the possibility.

Ryver explains a Montage in a rather lengthy fashion.

Ryver talks about the rise to power amongst the Fremen,

Bruce points out the connection between this story and elements found in stories like Dances with Wolves or the Last Samurai.

Sean points out that many of these similarities don’t really hold up to Paul’s actual journey.

Ryver explains the difference between the Fremen and the idea of the “Noble Savage”.

Sean explains that the source of hardness amongst the Fremen likely stems from the fact that they live on a planet that is actively trying to kill them, a planet on which these people are not only born, but thrive. Ryver sums this up as Space Australia.

Ryver talks about The Golden Bough again.

Bruce talks about the early signs of Paul being the Chosen One, but that there is a key element that cannot be preordained, but that must be tested.

Sean talks about the tests of the Bene Gesserit, and the prohibition that Paul’s mother not produce male children.

Ryver and Sean talk about these tests as a test of Metal.

Bruce brings up the ritual of the Water of Life.

Sean and Ryver explain the ritual in greater detail, and the horrifying death that is always been the result of males undergoing this ritual.

Ryver and Bruce discuss Paul’s undertaking of the ritual.

Ryver talks about the Golden Bough again, and how it relates to the story of Dune.

Sean discusses the meanings behind the rituals of the Bene Gesserit, and the passing of knowledge of the Reverend Mothers.

Sean talks about the transformation of Paul Muad’Dib into the Übermensch.

Ryver compares a scene from the end of the story to a great Nietzsche quote

Bruce talks about Paul’s desire to tear down the existing social structure, rather than retake his place in it.

Sean brings us to the final battle.

Ryver and Sean talk about Paul’s name becoming “a killing word”.

Bruce includes “riding around a giant sand worm” in Paul’s list of assets.

Ryver explains that there is a difference between the atomics used in the final battle and what we consider nuclear weapons.

The Philosopher discuss this as an indication of Paul casting off the moral restrictions of the society he comes from.

Sean talks about the scene in the throne room at the end of the movie, and the implications of the battle therein. Paul’s enemy is destroyed completely through his Will alone.

Ryver brings up The Golden Bough again, comparing this to the moment of Ascension.

Sean explains the significance of Paul bringing Rain to Arrakis with his Will alone.

Bruce and Sean talk about the importance of Paul’s willingness to battle Fade in the throne room.

The Philosophers give a detailed recap the movie from the point of Nietzschean analysis.

Sean discusses the way in which “That which is done for Love occurs beyond Good and Evil” is the story of Paul from even the moment of his conception.

 

Ryver takes The Last Word, and discusses The Golden Bough and how it relates to Dune.

And as always please give us your honest review on iTunes and Stitcher. It helps us make the show better with every one we get to read.

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Ep 8.5: Muad’Dib and Desire; Why we Love the Quizat Haderach?

In this episode the Philosophers Learn a valuable lesson about the true meaning of Kwanzaa

Professor Metal finds out that his twin brother (Believed to be dead after a tragic bouncy castle accident some 25 years ago) has amnesia. But more than that he’s been working as the Professors personal gardner all this time going by the name Aðalvíkingur!

Steve gets a special visit from the Harlem Globetrotters

And we all learn a little something about sexual harassment in the workplace!

 

Note: For anyone who might have been confused (and how could you not be considering the content) Episode 8.5 was our little April fools joke. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.