aka, a strategic context for community rights in anti-militia planning
aka, the militia movement as a public health crisis of male-pattern violence
- Militia overview
- Public Health Overview: Trauma and Crisis
- The role of the government
- Crisis Intervention
- Risk Reduction
- Primary Prevention
This essay looks at the militia movement as a public health rather than legal crisis, and similarly adopts the public health model of primary, secondary and tertiary prevention (also called prevention, risk reduction and crisis intervention, respectively) to help understand and prioritize intervention strategies for application in the appropriate context. Community Rights work is an important component of long-term, primary prevention efforts, but must occur alongside secondary and tertiary efforts or else it will tend to falter needlessly. The purpose of anti-militia planning is to identify both the core problems contributing to militia movements’ targeting of communities, as well as comprehensive short-, medium- and long-range remedies. Lastly, the planning process will explore and pursue strategies for implementation of such remedies in solidarity with those most negatively impacted by the militia movement and federal interventionism.
Despite the well-meaning intentions of many of the rank and file among them, militia movements consist of armed groups of primarily-white men with roots in white supremacy and ties to corporate interests who use fear, intimidation and force (including the threat of force) to infiltrate and co-opt communities as part of an aggressive doomsday settler-homesteader mentality. The aggressive approach leverages the “bystander effect” to create a sense of isolation among people who do not necessarily agree with their ideology to maintain silence and passive compliance. Over time, the community begins to accept and identify with the militia, in a process mirroring Stockholm Syndrome. Militias combine these negative tactics alongside aid tactics, such as emergency preparedness training, that address real material needs of the community. In this sense, militias exploit longstanding community vulnerabilities stemming from intersecting class, race and gender oppression in order to impose themselves on said communities. The combination of aid framed by brutality has a longstanding history of use by right-wing groups throughout world history in order to gain a foothold within a population (including, more recently, by Islamic extremists, but also Christians and other world religions, political movements and, perhaps most notably, nation-states including the US).
Public Health Overview: Trauma and Crisis
Many communities remain mired in crisis. In these frequent and common cases, people trying to offer long-term solutions targeting the corporate basis of exploitation meet considerable resistance. Militia invasion of communities can resemble a large-scale domestic violence situation in its complexity, intractability and trauma. Effective, longstanding and resilient results and evaluation and triage of liberation strategies requires a coordinated responses among all tertiary (crisis response), secondary (risk management) and primary (proactive) prevention strategies in order to acheive .
To ground the discussion further, prematurely proactive discussions of corporatocracy often create an unappealing abstract sort of disconnect for many communities mired in crisis of a current militia invasion (especially one involving a federal response) or do not yet feel (or acknowledge) the public health threats and trace the ultimate agents pulling strings to extract profit from them at their expense. Such communities tend to exist and self-locate on a day-to-day, sometimes even hour-to-hour basis of survival, and cannot begin to fathom let alone pursue a fifteen or twenty year campaign to seize democratic control of their health, safety and welfare and that of the natural communities within their jurisdiction. Nevertheless, it remains a goal for more fundamental work to move communities toward a level of readiness where they can consider, plan and sustain such a campaign, if they so choose.
The work begins with tertiary prevention, consisting of crisis intervention and abatement. This is tricky work, as it requires supporting a community and its ability to survive through and respond to a crisis without enabling, escalating or prolonging the crisis itself. Once a crisis can be abated to give a community some space, or in communities not currently experiencing crisis, it makes sense to move toward secondary prevention to build the community’s “immune system,” decreasing its vulnerability to corporatocratic or militia targeting and attack in the first place. This work involves empowering communities to effectively identify and respond to such threats, and is equally tricky in that much internalized oppression creates a bait-and-switch where community members misidentify and blame symptoms of the problem for the problem itself. In such cases, classism, racism (including anti-immigration) and sexism (including homophobia) rear their ugly heads. Militias and corporations jump on these as opportunities to “divide and conquer,” even deliberately confusing the promotion of internal conflict with “community self-defense,” whereas actual effective community self-defense involves developing the capacity for and then building solidarity with and between the marginal populations that such invaders so often exploit for political and economic gain. When solidarity proliferates, such populations “disappear into” the community and no longer become marginal, which eliminates some of the most significant community vulnerabilities and also helps identify the actual threats among the people and institutions who seek to break solidarity (or who do so as a matter of course as they seek to extract value). Solidarity also helps identify and address outstanding economic and ecological vulnerabilities by eliminating the complication of socially-constructed internal weaknesses, allowing focus on external and imposed threatening forces, institutions and processes.
Only when crisis abates and solidarity proliferates within a community can a community begin to consider primary prevention, which includes proactive campaigns to claim democratic control over the health, safety and welfare of both human and non-human communities within a given jurisdiction, and place decision-making power in the hands of those ultimately affected the most (esp. in material as well as economic terms) by such decisions. It involves giving everyone — including non-human entities — a political and legal voice, especially with equal say to “not in my back yard,” (NIMBY). Once everyone has equal access to NIMBY, then only fair decisions can occur, focusing the remaining concern on effective implementation. Such proactivity often occurs only when communities bump up against external, imposed political and legal institutions and processes that either directly threaten their health, safety and welfare or limit their ability to defend themselves or pursue their best interests. Many communities mired in crisis have yet to get to this point where they “meet” and acknowledge and confront the powerful interests at the root of many of the crises they face. Crisis abatement and risk reduction can help communities shift focus to longer-term risk management and prevention work, but so can crisis escalation. As a result, some heavily-exploited communities may make some of the longer-term work a higher priority. It is important to support that work with decolonization and other capacity building work in order to maximize its sustainability and chance for success.
The role of the government
Thus far, communities have depended heavily on the federal government for support in fighting militia infiltration. This can be problematic on many levels. First, it makes communities a continuous battleground between militia and federal law enforcement, which plays into the militia strategy to provoke and escalate conflict, intensify anti-federal sentiment and create martyrs of federal violence to recruit more people into the militia movements. In addition to strategic folly, the siting of this conflict within communities has a disempowering and traumatic effect on the community that long outlasts the end of the conflict itself, as any inhabitant of a warzone can attest. Third, dependence on federal intervention does nothing to resolve the underlying problems that militias target for exploitation, such as poverty, food insecurity, housing costs, infrastructure, and other material needs; class oppression (esp. few living wage jobs) and longstanding racism and sexism.
Resolving these long-term issues is far outside the scope of the intervening federal agencies, barring some sort of coordinated interagency homeland security plan that includes long-term community economic development and empowerment work, but more likely would manifest as temporary or permanent philanthropic dependency or corporate trojan horse. At best, government intervention is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. More often, it’s like spraying poisons over a land to control a pest problem: as long as the niche the pest exploits remains open, and the pest has no predators or competitors, it will continue to proliferate, requiring more spraying and resulting in toxification of the landscape. We can say the same for frequent and prolonged federal intervention. The authoritarian remedy can negatively impact communities far beyond ground zero.
Fourth, authoritarian interventionism supports the continuing militarization of domestic police forces — the increasing technical capacity for excessive use of force against peaceful populations, nonviolent civil disobedience activists, and activists targeting property and infrastructure of the elite and their exploitative institutions. Likewise, it lays the foundation for justifying the actual use of such excessive force by leveraging the “climate of instability” that militias create or intensify as a need for excessive authoritarian measures, and by equating nonviolent movements who challenge the federal regime with militias, even though the former do not use the latter’s tactics of intimidation and fear to terrorize populations into isolated passivity. Militias and government repression feed off each-other.
Many of the tactics of brutality fit well within familiar parameters of male-pattern violence: domination, bullying, stalking, harassment, threats, sexual violence, coercion, appeals to authority. Militias recruit from the ranks of white working men frustrated with the economic climate and the erosion of gender and racial privilege, who feel their place in the world is threatened, tend to overcompensate and as such are ready, willing and able to lash out in order to reassert white male privilege in the social hierarchy to make up for intensifying class oppression. They often target and “make examples of” women and gender and other minorities as a “defense” tactic, especially those seen as leaders of an opposition. This has a circular logic to it, as the opposition includes anyone who resists or stands up to their bullying and coercion, including countering sacred myths of white male supremacy, e.g., that “white men built the modern world.”
Effective counters to militia infiltration must disrupt their use of the bystander effect by connecting and activating bystanders in the short term to create a strong voice of accountability and moral contrast. A small part of this short-term approach may include defensive countermeasures, which in turn include armed self-defense as a backup to nonviolent self-defense tactics, such as de-escalation or redirection, among others. Physical self-defense remains an important last resort tactic when attempts to de-escalate aggression fail to stop an attack.
Outside support can be critical to jumpstart this process in a given community subject to militia pressure and control, so long as the “outsiders” don’t mimic militial co-optation of communities as an ideological battleground for their own agendas. Many left-wing responses to right-wing presence often provide a “kinder, gentler” form of coercion rather than a fundamental contrast. Survivors of domestic or intimate partner violence have encountered a similar situation when they meet an advocate who thinks they “know better” than (and thus try to make decisions for and impose upon) the survivor. While the decisions may appear different and “more progressive” in substance, the power dynamic of domination and control remain eerily familiar. Instead, it is important to embrace an empowerment model for community liberation from militia control, which may also mean supporting communities in making their own decisions that the outsiders don’t necessarily agree with in order to build a more fundamental relationship of trust and solidarity. In this way, radicalized left-wing outsiders often provide solidarity and support for conservative members of communities under siege by militias, even through they may vote very differently.
In the medium term, communities need additional options for enhancing their material welfare and meeting basic needs that have no transactional conditions attached to them (e.g., “we’ll help feed you, but in return you need to attend religious service or read our pamphlet, or otherwise join or aid our cause”), as such conditions replicate the militia behavior in question. Alternatives for material welfare may range from substantive similarity to radically-different in form from militial aid, especially where militia aid depends upon or is mediated by corporate profit or consumer activity (e.g., expensive and often ineffective consumerist “turnkey” solutions). Appropriate technologies factor largely into counter-aid strategies, as do mutual-aid networks within and between communities. Included in this medium-term approach is a strategic need to disrupt the corporate funding and support that militias receive, to disrupt their capacity to leverage aid as a compliance and coercion tactic, e.g., providing effective aid options without the attached burden of coercion.
In the long term, anti-militia efforts must address the intersecting race, class and gender oppressions that create the conditions that make communities vulnerable to militia/corporate infiltration and exploitation in the first place. Ideally, the short-term strategies of bystander activation, empowerment toward trust and solidarity, and alternative aid provision will build a foundational capacity that better allows communities and their members to address difficult questions about their place and role in the existing economic order of society that leaves them both dependent on and vulnerable to division and exploitation. Only through an intact social fabric — network of strong, mutually-supportive and empowering relationships — can a community begin to address such fundamental issues and increase its resilience. This means decolonization work, identifying and eliminating internalized oppressions that leave a community divided, and also enhance social capacity to rebuild the social fabric of horizontal relationships.
Such relationships themselves remain possible only with immense human development work to increase the social capacity of community members. In the context of patriarchy, men remain particularly vulnerable to stunted development of social “soft skills” whereas patriarchies tend to target women for stunted development of technical “hard skills,” creating an artificial bifurcation of capacities and gendered co-dependence on a centralized authority figure to connect and mediate. In the history of urbanization, the rural survival need for horizontal interdependence has provided a buffer effect for rural communities (simply put, men learn how to “get along” with others out of necessity, and women learn to use hammers out of necessity, etc), whereas urban populations historically consist of ex-rural populations ironically moving out of survival necessity to the city after elements of urban economic and political institutions (e.g., bankers, corporations, etc) have laid waste to the rural land and community, rendering them increasingly susceptible to social atrophy, gendered bifurcation and dependence on centralized institutions. As elements of urbanization and centralized institutions infiltrate rural communities and interject themselves amongst horizontal social ties, or as rural communities grow in scale and complexity, they begin exhibiting this gender bifurcation again. Men remain particularly susceptible to antisocial behavior as a byproduct of how patriarchies define the narrow range of masculinity and “masculine behavior.”
Making balanced human development a goal will ultimately lay the foundation for solidarity between diverse autonomous liberatory struggles against centralized authorities and other arbitrary, persistent and imposed social hierarchies. Men in particular who refuse to do “soft skills” social capacity work (however it manifests) quickly become liabilities rather than assets to liberatory struggle and form the core population that militias target to join their ranks. Men may dismiss the importance of such work without seeing how it impacts race and (especially, for white men) class struggles. Even if they do acknowledge it, most won’t engage in the difficult (and often painful and embarassing) personal work until strong peer networks and social norms are already in place. This requires organizers to identify and activate “organic leaders” within the community to break the status quo and build critical mass toward that end. As the oldest and perhaps most deeply-internalized and ubiquitous oppression, people often dismiss, minimize, marginalize or abandon gender justice. Rather than fight this tendency, it may be easier to “connect the dots” inevitably back to gender justice, for example, by using more accessible and acceptable economic and racial justice struggles as an entrypoint. “So we agree we need to do the class work, but we can’t do that without the race work, and here’s why. And we can’t do either of those without the gender work, and here’s why…”
This last strategy focuses on the external threats to community security, such as economic exploitation, political manipulation, legal impositions, environmental destruction, outsider intervention whose interests do not align in solidarity with the welfare of the community or land (e.g., absentee landlords and speculators).
Corporate profiteers use militias and the individual men therein as pawns in furthering the agenda of the merger of state and corporate interests to further accumulate and secure wealth and power into the hands of a ruling elite. Militias are in one respect unofficial corporate armies who exploit oppressions and their attached identities to ensure people remain divided, in fear of and in conflict with one-another rather than united in their mutual interests. Neutralizing militias also strengthens the community against corporate control and exploitation. The final strategy of a counter-militia campaign will target the corporate roots of the US political and legal system — such as the US Commerce Clause, corporate personhood, Dylan’s rule, and pre-emption — that enable corporate rule through a top-down legal hierarchy and effectively neutralize or eliminate the legal capacities of people to protect themselves and their inherent rights from harms incurred in the unaccountable pursuit of corporate profit. Such harms leave communities further susceptible to militia infiltration and subsequent corporate exploitation and control, producing a positive feedback loop. This long-range work must occur alongside the short and moderate-term work, otherwise it will struggle unnecessarily not only against internalized oppressions but also the people’s own priorities and interests.
Additionally, if specific threats can be identified, work may target that threat (e.g., a corporate bottling facility or a pipeline). The community rights framework provides an organizing context with room for both direct action against specific threats as well as a larger vision of freedom from harm and exploitation, and democratic control over community health, safety and welfare, and even combines these two sometimes-conflicting activities. It can be a useful tool for organizing communities toward a constructive vision of collective liberation and solidarity that does not include scapegoating and other forms of horizontal violence that so often occur in oppressive “remedies” (e.g., “deport the Mexicans”), in part because the fundamental remedy includes recognizing the inherent worth and autonomy of everyone — including the non-human landscape. But this can be very difficult for people to grasp unless they are in dire need of a remedy and have tried everything else to no avail (CELDF works with many of these communities), or they have gone through many of the crisis intervention and risk reduction activities mentioned above.
The militia movements are highly coordinated and organized and often well-funded, with some wealthy, powerful and influential sponsors. While effective resistance needn’t mimic or match the organizing tactics and strategies or structures of militia groups and movements, it does need to coordinate across various time and spatial scales. In other words, resistance to militias needs to provide a means for ongoing coordination between communities and allow for both proactive and reactive measures across short, medium and long time frames.
To learn more about the militia movement in Oregon, visit http://www.rop.org/up-in-arms
To learn more about community rights, visit http://celdf.org
In our society, statistically-speaking, guns don’t kill people. Men kill people. #malepatternviolence
I am not in any way affiliated with CELDF or ROP. I appreciate the work they do.
Beyond technological morality and the tip of the iceberg, part twoMay 19, 2019
Part Two of a two part series exploring the human relationship with technology.
From moral dualism to contextual ethics
In part one, I introduced the concept of vulnerabilities, the hackers who try to understand them, and the economic and social context in which those hackers operate. I end in a transition from software/hardware hacking to explain how corporations like Facebook have successfully hacked and exploited vulnerabilities in the human psyche for profit.
In part two, I will explore the deeper history of the human relationship with technology, and what it means for the development of a more humane outcome that acknowledges and respects and appreciates humans holistically: mind, body, spirit, relationships, environment.
The innate human vulnerabilities I mention in part one didn’t come out of nowhere. Likewise, they aren’t as simple as software to patch. Lastly, we need to be careful what we label as “buggy behavior,” as it is highly situation-dependent, and we will quickly end up in a victim-blaming, socially-darwinistic tailspin of naively labeling more sensitive or susceptible people as “weak.” What we often consider weakness or vulnerability in today’s social climate have, for most of our species’ existence, served us as strengths.
For example, consider breathing process and fight or flight (sympathetic nervous response). When we perceive a threat or stressor, our body prepares to fight or flight, and floods itself with oxygen and adrenaline that it expects to use in an amazing feat of confrontation or escape. This maximized our chance of surviving physically-dangerous encounters. But in a modern context, both chronic and acute stressors are often socially-constructed rather than directly physical. In this context, fight or flight doesn’t serve us well in two ways: 1. physical fight or flight often gets us into even more trouble, and therefore causes more stress damage from social consequences we are trying to avoid in the first place, and 2. the flood of oxygen in what is a “sedentary stress” situation (such as checking email) becomes excessive. Instead of helping us get out of a bad situation, it often perpetuates and extends or even creates the bad situation by translating into oxidative stress and inflammation, which can lead to depression, anxiety and irritability. Where does depression, anxiety and irritability get us? It quickly becomes a vicious cycle. In the past, our evolutionary stress response helped us avoid further stress. Currently, it contributes to greater stress, provoking more frequent and severe stress responses. Our health and relationships suffer.
I call this vicious cycle of previously-good characteristics becoming liabilities in today’s modern world “evolutionary dysregulation.” In this particular case, physical stress responses have become virtual, decoupling the stress with the actual need for more oxygen. Our evolved response does not actually match our modern sociocultural circumstances. We are simply not well-adapted to the circumstances we have created.
Breath is a drug. It is not good or bad. How we breathe matters. Likewise, technology is also a drug. How we “technify” matters. In the same way that breath work is important, we can mitigate bad outcomes in part through education and training. But while this helps us respond more effectively to bad situations, it doesn’t address the bad situation itself. What other leverage points do we have? If we created the circumstances in which we suffer, can’t we also create circumstances that help us suffer?
1. We can’t really mess with our evolutionary heritage. It is what it is. We are a long way from gene hacking, and can barely wrap our minds around the ethics of software hacking. So we have to work with it. That means we need to focus more on other opportunities, such as…
2. Environmental factors (context). Contextual factors determine whether something is beneficial or detrimental. In other words, nothing is inherently “good” or “bad.” This occurs in two ways with regards to genetics:
a. The behavior or gene or other characteristic itself doesn’t change, but will become an asset or liability purely due to change in context. Example: sickle-cell anemia in a malaria-prone context makes sickle-cells beneficial due to their innate resistance to infection, even though it comes at the cost of decreased red blood cell function otherwise.
b. The behavior or gene expression actually changes (epigenetically) based on context. This describes epigenetics: not only do which genes you have matter, but also whether/when and where/how they express themselves. Different circumstances can turn certain genes on or off, or change when or how they activate. Thus, while we can’t directly hack our genes, we can hack how the genes we do have express, by working with the circumstances in which those genes exist. That means our diet, lifestyle, social and ecological context.
A signficant part of our lifestyle includes the type, amount, frequency and duration of our exposure to various technologies throughout our lives, especially during heavy development phases (childhood and adolescence). We (as individuals and as a species) can have an immensely positive impact on our lives by changing when, where, how and to what extent we engage with a given type of technology, and also the type of technology we engage with. What do technologies that only engage us on our terms, to our benefit, look and act like? In what socioeconomic context do they make sense?
We can ascribe two major labels to technology: informational (IT) and mechanical (MT). A chainsaw is mechanical. And a computer, smartphone or TV is obviously informational. But these are not hard distinctions. IT involves MT, and MT involves IT. A chainsaw mediates our relationship with the rest of the world, as does Facebook. It acts as an “informational server and filter.” It takes in information, rejects certain types of information as invalid (which therefore becomes non-existent), and formats the remaining information for compatibility and distribution. It then redistributes that information to interested parties. Facebook takes information from users and clients (advertisers). Then it filters, formats (transforms) and redistributes it to users and clients. A chainsaw takes in information from our senses, and then filters it and redistributes to our hands to operate the chainsaw.
Thanks to the leadership of the Center for Humane Technology (CHT), we can now clearly sub-categorize the IT label based on how it interacts with our sociobiological programming: Does it attempt to hijack our vulnerabilities, as a proxy for black hat work, or does it attempt to expose and “patch” our vulnerabilities with good habits, as a proxy for white hat work? Does it distract us from life, or help us develop and share our gifts? The lines aren’t always so clear. I wouldn’t call a chainsaw (or Facebook) inherently bad, but it does have a tendency to hijack our perception to make itself useful. I have seen this over and over again with both MT and IT. My permaculture instructor, Toby Hemenway (RIP 2016), first made me aware of this phenomenon in 2006. In the same way that, “if all you have is a hammer, then all your problems start looking like nails,” likewise, “spend enough time behind a chainsaw, and a forest starts to look like a collection of trees (with some other “unimportant” stuff thrown in), and then the trees start looking like board-feet.” Before you know it, you are clear-cutting forests.
Technology enables the extractive economy. But does technology determine extraction? If so, it seems we would be doomed as a species to self-extinguish…We need a better understanding of our vulnerabilities with technology, precisely because we evolved to depend on technology for our survival. Our bodies are designed to develop and make use of technology. We are mostly hairless — we need clothes and foot protection. Our big brains and dextrous hands imagine, build and wield tools that enhance our strengths and mitigate our weaknesses. To naively dismiss technology as inherently “bad” would call into question the basis for the existence of our species. Likewise, to naively embrace all technology as inherently or innately “good” has gotten us into our current situation. A simple moral philosophy of bad/good ignores and distracts from the actual depth and complexity of the issue. Other species can make and use tools, but they don’t depend on them to the level we do. Who, for example, disputes “clothing” as a basic human need alongside food and shelter? What other species also uses clothing to protect itself from environmental hazards?
As we depend on technology, we must reconcile our relationship with it. To accomplish that, we must also understand our historical relationship with it. (what follows is a very dense condensation of a much more complex topic that ignores interesting nuances and does not apply to all humans everywhere at all times, but certainly applies to the species as a whole)
Humans have excessive brains per body weight compared most other species. We are also weaker and slower than almost every other species, per body weight or size. At our best, we can’t climb, run, jump, bite, scratch or hit to compete with most other large species, prey or predator. So how do we survive? With the same brain that makes us so vulnerable. We invent — and heavily rely on — tools of defense and assault.
The large brain we have also happens to require an incredible amount of calories per body weight. We evolved to meet this caloric need through animal fats. While vulnerable to other more adept predators, we may have used rocks to smash open bones and eat the nutritious marrow leftover from a kill after a succession of more dangerous predators took what they wanted. Predators kept our population and behavior regulated, until we began using weapons. First blunt weapons such as rocks, then later, the edge, which became knives and spear tips and bows and arrows that gave us ranged attacks and made us deadly predators and competitors almost overnight. Through these inventions, we escaped predator regulation and our ecological niche changed from prey/scavenger to apex predator, almost overnight. We could not only hunt and kill our own prey, but we could effectively defend the food from competitors. But we maintained a prey animal/scavenger mentality inappropriate to our new role as apex predator. Whereas predators ask, “What do we need, when do we need it?” A scavenger might ask, “What can I get?” Technologically-empowered with an answer of, “Anything we want,” that question becomes pathological. Similarly, our fear of apex predators became problematic when we became an apex and often the top predator.
Free from regulation, our population grew exponentially, and bands of hunters split and migrated. We invented clothing to protect ourselves from increasingly extreme conditions as we searched for more food. We began a phase of migratory overkill lasting thousands of years, following and decimating herds of prey species and the other predator species dependent on them. Everywhere we went, massive extinctions and loss of biodiversity followed, without exception. The Bible as well as anthropological record both echo this story. While technology freed us, we could not embrace the responsibility that came with such freedom. We struggle with it today.
From population growth, overkill and extinction we entered a period of prolonged food scarcity and desperation that still marks our psyche. We design and operate entire societies based on the presumption of scarcity. With few or no large animals left, we began eating lower on the food chain, making use of foods with increasingly less balanced and bioavailable nutrition and greater toxicity. We began to eat more of what our disappearing prey used to eat: the parts and children (seeds) of plants. Our control and use of fire allowed us to more efficiently hunt remaining prey and cook increasingly difficult-to-digest food substitutes, even as our use of fire in hunting and ecosystem management contributed to more overkill and extinction, creating fire-adapted and desertifying landscapes. Our dependence on these new carbohydrate-rich food sources enabled sedentary, permanent human settlement through agricultural development with intensified ecological degradation. Sedentary, carbohydrate-rich populations exploded. We began replacing and converting land and biodiversity into more humans and technomass into constructs we now call “cities” — the basis of civilization.
Settlements grew in social complexity, developing institutions and hierarchies. Populations in excess of Dunbar’s Number (the social carrying capacity of the human brain) became common, and the increased social alienation and stress required dedicated administrative attention and tools to retain social order. Humans evolved with linguistic capacity and a capacity for symbolic thought and understanding. We combined these two capacities to create the written language, the predecessor and foundation of all modern IT. As an administrative and accounting tool, writing has in its origins an association with sociopolitical power. It still holds that same sway today. We say, “knowledge is power,” and we tend to associate literacy with (access to) knowledge and power.
Literacy became linked to power and prestige in the first race to the bottom, where literate people of influence soon found their eyesight suffering, due to atrophy of the focal muscles. Eye problems and other chronic illness in civilization stem from two main causes: malnutrition and technological ergonomics (how often we blink and change focal points). IT, starting with the written language, decreased blinking (lubrication and moisture) and initiated the atrophy of the optical focal apparatus by putting us in front of non-fluctuating, near focal points for increasing times at increasing frequencies. A secondary impact of decreased moisture and increased focal muscle atrophy is the enhanced stiffening of the focal membrane with age. Modern multimedia technology intensified the problem, with more attention-grabbing features like strategically-designed flicker that have even demonstrably lowered our blink rate, causing the eye itself to dry out and become brittle.
In a physical sense, and as an example of fundamentally-unergonomic technology design, reading and writing is not really good for us. Literacy is literally bad for our eyes, locking us into a near-sighted state of increasing blindness. It can also be bad for our posture, neck, shoulders, and is strongly-correlated with chronic illness linked to physical inactivity. We also suffer regular and widespread hearing loss from loud noises of technological origin. Today’s typical civilized humans enjoy a fraction of the physical and sensory capacities that our ancestors and indigenous cousins enjoy(ed). Some part of our collective consciousness must understand this, as the popularized depiction of aliens as bald little pot-bellied figures with very large heads and advanced technology caricatures and predicts the relationship between technological development and physical degeneration.
Our (mis)use of technology in our role as a brand-new apex predator helped our species play a central role in the global extinction of most of the world’s modern megafauna, both predators and prey (about 70-90% extinction rates wherever we migrated). It did not seem to concern us that the speed of this transition into severely-augmented capacities gave most other species very little chance to adapt, until it was too late and entire populations and even species disappeared. This pattern of extinction occurred with simple technologies such as blades and spears and clothing and shelter (which allowed us to inhabit harsh climates and biomes away from the tropics), long before the appearance of the first civilization. If a piece of technology is inherently good, you needn’t consider when, where or how to use it. You just use it.
It soon became common for humans to have relatively little direct interaction with and feel alienated or independent from the rest of the biosphere. From this alienation, we developed the erroneous belief that technology is inherently “good,” even to the point of being capable of providing salvation: “Technology will save us.” More technology. New technology. Better technology. Technology will deliver us from scarcity, rather than reproduce it. And to some extent, as this account attests, it has. Technological advancement has opened new resources for us to exploit. But our relationship with it up to this point also entraps and threatens to destroy us and everything we love.
Our struggle to design and use technology ethically goes back thousands of years, at least. You might even say that it is baked into our DNA. By extension, the modern problems with technology we face today evolved out of our struggling relationship with the world and our place in it. The problem of Facebook manipulating our perspective has had thousands of years to develop, neither recent nor original. While humans are a fundamentally technological (and tech-dependent) species, we are not fundamentally literate. We created a new way to communicate where we really craved greater connection, a tragic pattern that prototyped all social media to follow. We became a highly communicative, although not necessarily more connected, species. The written language has had a profound impact on our cultural psychology and evolution. The rest, as they say, is history…written history, to be exact.
Do not mistake me for arguing against or hating technology. I write this essay on a modern Core i5 laptop running linux kernel version 5.0. I am not a luddite. Nor do I think our species can afford or acheive ludditism without millions of years of evolutionary development toward that capacity. The point of this brief history was to highlight how deep and integrated our struggles with technology are in our identity and even existence as a species. The modern problems of technological addiction and the negative impacts of technology on our development are outgrowths of this more fundamental issue that runs in the history of our species. This is a problem that is embedded within the developmental journey of our species, a species-wide crisis of identity bigger than any government or non-profit or certainly any single person, no matter how much breath work or change in diet and lifestyle we (try to) do, no matter what positions of socioeconomic privilege anyone holds. These are structural issues that we have to work with highly coordinated collaborative attention to change.
I believe the root problem of technology is fundamentally relational. We can think of technology as an amplifier of impact, for better or worse. We have often suffered from unintended consequences past whenever we engaged with technology naively, both in terms of unexpected or excessive outcomes. Blaming or giving credit to technology has rendered us blind to the relationship between technology and context, unable to assess when, where and how a given technology may prove appropriate. An outgrowth of this context-blindness has enabled the naive “more is better” mentality. Specifically, more power and more technology. If an axe works, a chainsaw must work better. If “chopping down as many trees as quickly as possible” is the only value reflected in the use scenario, then that is true. If the use scenario also represents our values of safety, health and fitness, resilient thriving ecosystems and renewable energy sources, then our answer might change.
We, humans, can create, modify and destroy those use scenarios. We haven’t addressed the issue of an ethical relationship with our technical capacities only to the ironic extent that we haven’t turned our technical capacities toward that task, yet. I see that beginning to change, which gives me hope. We are beginning to hack into the barriers and threats to our development and existence as a species. We are beginning to hook ourselves into the problem of technological addiction and abuse. The main components of this paradigm of struggle involve our innate characteristics, our beliefs about technology, and the circumstances in which technological design and use occurs. Circumstances include the state of ecosystems, culture, laws, economy, socioeconomic psychology and the extant sum of technomass with which we currently exist, and a holistic and accurate understanding of the consequences of making and using that technology in a given context.
As we cannot ethically or effectively modify our genetic evolutionary heritage, our first barrier is moving past the falsely-dualistic “technology good/bad” belief paradigm. We must acknowledge our technological dependence and end our worship/fear of technology. In doing so, we shift from a falsely-dualistic moral philosophy of technology to an ethical philosophy capable of considering both use and context in addition to inherent design. Instead of blaming ourselves or the technology, we must accept responsibility to pursue the opportunities available to us from this point. Once we transcend the dualism, we can begin to engage differently with our understanding of the current and appropriate role(s) of technology in human existence. We are neither victim nor perpetrator, nor is this a question of individual willpower.
We also need to consider the context of the technology itself. Just like every tool has a technique, a way in which it was designed to be used, it also has an appropriate context which determines whether and to what extent it can contribute to general welfare. The context interacts with the design and use to determine appropriateness. For example, in the context of the Cold War, a nuclear stockpile made sense in the context of an arms race, to get us from “assured destruction” (hegemony) to mutually-assured destruction (stalemate). The stalemate gave way to detente, and eventually, the demand for nuclear non-proliferation. Our ongoing struggle to implement nuclear non-proliferation and decommission nuclear weapons indicates the extent to which the Cold War persists.
It also made sense to develop nuclear weapon capabilities in the context of where several warring nations were attempting to gain strategic superiority. In this context, all outcomes except one affirm the existence of nuclear development. All nations would have to back out of it together in order for it to matter, which is impossible in the context of a power struggle. Unilaterally backing out would affirm the superiority of any nations who didn’t. And participating only further spurred the arms race. In this context, it becomes a bit more understandable why nations such as Iran, Pakistan and North Korea are developing nukes, when the US, Russia, UK, France, China, and Israel all have them. Our ongoing struggle to decomission nuclear weapons indicates the extent to which nations still struggle and compete for power and control. Until the relationships between nations change away from power struggles, nuclear weapons will persist.
The example of nuclear proliferation exemplifies the parable of the tribes: one tribe mobilizes for power, and surrounding tribes must either do the same or perish. Nuclear proliferation remains one of the most universally-held examples of “inherent technological evil” and a “race to the bottom” from the old morally-dualistic paradigm. This example demonstrates how a technology can (re)create and affirm the context in which it makes sense for it to exist and operate. We can say the same of assault weapons, cars, literacy and social media. As a young teenager, I saw an overnight transition one year when, where and how all my friends and cohort socialized. It came about due to a new invention: AOL Instant Messenger. Friends used to hang out in the neighborhood after school. But then some of them stopped. And the rest of us asked what they were doing. They were going home immediately after school. And then getting on the computer to use AOL IM to chat with each other. It emphasized some substantive benefits. It made chatting with multiple people from multiple cliques at the same time very easy. I felt like I could take time and space to compose my interactions on my terms, and it was easier to say “goodbye” online than on the phone or in person. In reflection, I ended up making the transition simply because everyone else had made the transition, not because I felt it was a superior way to socialize. I wonder whether everyone else felt the same.
All history is naturalized. But it is not deterministic. While development and use of technology itself may be baked into our DNA, what we develop, how we use it, and to what effect, is not. But we have some catching up to do. As entemologist EO Wilson reflected, our modern struggle emerges from the fact that we have paleolithic emotions (and bodies and genes), medieval socioeconomic institutions, and god-like technology. We need to redirect the capacities we have used to create that god-like technology toward the redesign of our institutions to respect and affirm rather than manipulate our emotions (and bodies and genes). We are a clever species. We just aren’t very wise, yet. That is our struggle, and that helps describe the struggle and mission of the CHT: the pursuit of technological wisdom and ethics to steer us away from our historic tendencies.
What, fundamentally, were we trying to accomplish with developing and using AOL IM or nuclear weapons? To what extent did we actually accomplish it? How do we feel about the outcomes? By understanding the context in which our current technological struggles make sense, we can begin to explore context shifts and the work necessary to bring them about. That means clarifying our values and matching our education (structure and process as well as content), economy and institutions (such as government, law and organizational structure) to our values.
The comparison between AOL IM and nuclear weapons may feel jarring, but I wonder whether we could use something like a “social media non-proliferation treaty” in a context where everyone is trying to “out-hook” or “out-proliferate” everyone else. Nuclear proliferation in this example serves as an analogy for how the “race to the bottom” occurs as a social construction. To undo that social construction and change our behavior, we need to move away from the context in which such behavior makes logical sense. This partly comes in the form of a completely novel psychoeconomic model of an IT marketplace, transforming competition for attention and dependency to competition (and even competitive collaboration) for demonstrative positive (humane) outcomes.
Context shift differs from merely writing new apps or designing new technologies, such as Loop Habit Tracker, which aim to use the “hooked” model of addiction for higher purpose. Doing so helps contribute to that context shift, but has severe limits ignoring the context of an overall race to the bottom of the brain stem. It is not enough to add some good into a harmful context. We must at some point also directly address the contextual factors that lead to undesired tendencies in order to continue past harm reduction toward positive outcomes that address our core existential and developmental needs.
This means creating an economic context that seeks, values and rewards (socially, financially, psychologically, spiritually) humane tech design. Part of this transition can involve “hooking” Silicon Valley with Humane Technology habits using the hooked model itself to reinforce more traditional efforts to empower well-meaning allies with education and training, policy and design work and other transformative tactics and strategies. It also involves a transformation of economic production, uncoupling it from socioecological degeneration and recoupling it to socioecological regeneration. The Regen Network exemplifies this sort of work.
Likewise, policy in large part forms the legal context in which markets operate. Populist responses to the issue of accountability typically involve more targeted regulation of markets (e.g., https://www.npr.org/2019/05/09/721685211/facebook-co-founder-hughes-says-zuckerberg-must-be-held-accountable)
I do not oppose regulation. However, micromanaging markets through highly-specific regulation is a futile game of whack-a-mole. What are the conditions we need to bring about to create and use IT (and other technology) in ways that enhance the pursuit of human quality of life rather than exploiting it? The Community Rights movement has made strange bedfellows of the political left and right as it explores a very similar question about the relationship between liberty, rights, prosperity, sovereignty and quality of life. The Community Rights movement works to create a legal context based completely on recognizing and protecting the inalienable rights of natural entities to exist and flourish, especially wherever they conflict with legal fictions (such as governments and corporations). Likewise, a discussion of regulation ignores the extent to which economic transformation may address issues of ethical behavior. Economic transformation does not serve as an alternative to policy work, but depends upon it. As the Community Rights movement demonstrates, we must use laws and other policy process far beyond targeted regulation to change the fundamental behavior of markets.
Finally, we must clarify our values to find our sense of belonging in nature and with the land and planet that ultimately birthed us and supports our existence more fundamentally than any technology. Only then will we be able to ask question about what our technology needs to accomplish to support our existence and values and affirm our sense of belonging and connection. Once we start asking that question, we can start looking at how design interacts with intended outcomes appropriate to context. In this phase of human transition and development, we have a contextually-appropriate need for technologies of transition and development. We need to make sure our proposed solutions are not band-aids sitting on top of poorly-designed and targeted reward systems. Understanding this, we can use principles of biomimicry to design technological and other contexts that better meet our evolved needs and support our individual and collective development. Permaculture and other ecological design sciences, have much to offer in this respect, by way of pattern languages and design principles for appropriate technology and human habitat.
For example, oral traditions were optimal in uncivilized societies of relatively small groups with high amount of trust, as they affirmed connection to and between land and people using innate capacities. Literacy evolved merely as a means to a greater end of the problem of storing and transmitting knowledge and experience in a manner that builds and maintains trust (i.e., through the “written record”) in the context of complex social structures where people interact regularly with others whom they know only in very shallow ways. However, our modern technology capacity has given us the opportunity to turn our focus back to the more fundamental problems of humane social structure and knowledge systems appropriate to our needs and the needs of the planet. Combined with modern understandings of biomimicry (using nature as inspiration for solving complex human problems), we can guide information technology to honor our evolutionary roots in oral tradition, and also create new ways of distributing and engaging with information that help rather than harm our bodies, relationships and landscapes, and that helps create sociobiologically-appropriate conditions for our lives that foster connection, belonging, purpose and fulfillment — a switch from dopamine-centric responses to serotonin-centric responses. A paradigm shift from scarcity to abundance.
Our relationship with technology is a never-ending, iterative process requiring constant monitoring, planning, and intervention, because it represents a type II chaotic system: Not only is it inherently difficult to predict outcomes and trends (like weather reports), but also the interactions that arise from our understanding of the system change the way it behaves. Imagine if accurately predicting the weather actually caused the weather itself to change. That is the amount of complexity we are dealing with. The ony framework I have encountered up to this point that can help us ethically and effectively engage with such unpredictable and chaotic systems is something called Holistic Management, which is a decision making framework for managing complexity. At its most general, managing holistically involves four components:
1. Understand the most important elements of our context (Whole Under Management, WUM) with regards to our decision-making, and “checking” our decisions against that understanding.
2. Maintain access to a full set of management tools (keep your options open)
3. Explore and understand the appropriate application of tools to context
4. Create a feedback loop through ecological, social and financial planning and monitoring.
Without any of these components, management becomes completely reductionist. Reductionism simplifies complexity and destroys life processes, including ecosystem and quality of life. Therefore, the management process itself also requires monitoring as to whether it trends holistic or reductionist (as per the four criteria above). Given the complexity of the Whole Under Management, we will likely never achieve even a momentarily perfect implementation of HM. Monitoring management itself not only allows us to move toward more holistic approaches, but also allows us to assess the quality of adoption rates among those of us claiming to manage holistically. Thus monitoring management itself supports higher rates and quality of adoption and implementation, ensuring the integrity of management.
The recent WhatsApp debacle and even the bigger question of Facebook and its role and impact in society represents merely the tip of the iceberg of the challenges we face as a species in our relationship with technology. There is lots more to do to bring about a revolution of humane technology, but the current work of CHT gives me hope that enough people are interested and willing to try and bridge the gap between our ability to design and create technology and our ability to use it appropriately.
Leave a Comment » | Stopping the Destruction, Unsolicited commentary | Tagged: AOL IM, Center for Humane Technology, cold war, community rights, dunbar's number, EO Wilson, epigenetics, Holistic Management, Loop Habit Tracker, nuclear proliferation, permaculture, Regen Network, toby hemenway | Permalink
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