Beyond technological morality and the tip of the iceberg, part two

May 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.,

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.

An ode to old white liberals (OWLs)

February 25, 2017


for David Rakoff (I ask that the reader channel the gentle cadence his voice humming softly in their ear)
and Phil Ochs (for obvious reasons)
to honor the youth (that they may one day similarly smote my mole hill of praise upon the mountain of their triumph)
in memory of Toby Hemenway’s beautiful vision of direct action toward collective liberatory struggle.

Ye Olde Whyte Liberals
the literally self-appointed gatekeepers of progress
the practice of Deep Green Navel Gazing, or
the weighty philosophy of the Practicality Police
(choose either one to)
sandwich yourself between:

a Salem Sustainability Circle Jerk
(not even the courtesy of a reach-around)
i crash the celebration of mediocrity
(how’s your relationship?  sustainable? meh…
but even still, mediocrity is a better goal than what we currently have, so)
I’m glad you all agree, what do you plan to do about it, though?

while comfortable, pampered straight middle class white men
tell me what “we” can get (who is “we?”)
without any discussion of what we, the people, need
because justice for the homeless, and
clean, breathable air, and drinkable water are impractical.
Sanctuary and respect for the rights of (migrant) workers is impractical
(someone might slap our wrists).
Women who want the vote are impractical.  They got their wrists slapped.
Abolishing slavery is impractical.  Sorry, are “we” being too uppity?

Are? Were?  I fail to see the distinction between
Yesterday and today’s guardians of the status quo
self-styled “allies,” the first enemies of justice,
and the first to (pro)claim victory whenever it prevails.
In spite of, not because of their participation.
But not according to history, as they write it:
white-washed, man-washed, class-washed
clean and pure
in a rich, soapy lather of unexamined privilege.

Liberal?  conservative, with a small “c.”  But only if “we” are (were?) lucky.
Otherwise, reactionary.  Like the rest of the establishment types:

I pledge allegiance
To the Status Quo, and
the injustice for which it stands.
One Pyramid Scheme
Under Fraud
With Liberty and Justice
For OWLs
In the State of Denial.

“State of denial?”
their reproachful echo arrives on-time
almost gasping with well-practiced confusion
at the mere suggestion of imperfection
yet the condescending correction inevitably comes with dough-eyed precision:
“Dearheart…this is Oregon.”

Civilization or “human nature?”

November 13, 2016

View at

This article contains interesting political analysis that I don’t disagree with. The way this article is framed, however, makes it complete bullshit, and it’s a shame that it’s getting shared widely like an expert opinion. Social darwinism and aside, it’s also a great example of the narcissistic chauvinism inherent in the historiography of civil society:

“So zooming out, we humans have a habit of going into phases of mass destruction, generally self imposed to some extent or another. This handy list shows all the wars over time.”

Nope, it only goes back to 1200 BC, well within the scope of colonizing, bloody, brutal exploitative civil society, which is the same failed model of human culture that modern civil societies use. This article says nothing about human nature, but chauvinistically projects one specific, bloody human culture that tends toward exploitation, belligerence and ecological collapse upon all humanity and human cultures. Civil society says very little about humanity as a “species” through time and space (and very little of that is anything good).

Let’s go back 6,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 years (still a blink of the eye), or look at contemporary cultures who do not base themselves on the insane model of annual agriculture and patriarchy, and compare notes. Anthropologists also describe this divide as “desert” and “forest” cultures. Toby Hemenway makes this point in his summary analysis “How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth but not Civilization” (lecture given at Duke University Nicholas School of Environment):  The Alice Walker poem “Democratic Womanism” makes the same point: we have been mired in patriarchy and civilization for thousands of years, and have been working as long to evolve past it, with increasing sophistication and effectiveness (even as civilization spreads its tendrils to threaten every corner of the planet).

In general, Toby Hemenway’s work on the problem of civilization provide a much better “birds’ eye” zoomed out perspective on the problem than the article that prompted this post, which talks about civilization as if it’s the only form of human social structure that has ever existed or will ever exist. In addition to the above lecture, you can listen to Toby’s talk on Liberation Permaculture ( for a bit more of a constructive, actionable (vs critical and disempowering) analysis.

Maybe a Trump presidency isn’t that bad.  If it took a Trump presidency to slap all these comfortably numb white and/or male and/or middle class folks awake, activate them and leave them without much of an excuse to fall asleep again, then maybe some net good can come out of all of this compared to a Sanders or Clinton presidency.  It won’t be pretty.  Already kids are getting attacked at their school simply for having Spanish-sounding names and darker skin, and male supremacists are calling for death squads and concentration camps.  If you aren’t satisfied with Trump, then the best way to protest his presidency is to get active and involved with the working class, gender and race struggles within your community, in solidarity with those who have struggled long before Trump ever got elected.  And start building a different system.  Starting with you and your relationships.

Ship gets new captain, still sinks

July 16, 2015

I have studied the presidency carefully; I have seen that our best presidents were the do-nothing presidents: Millard Fillmore, Warren G. Harding. When you have a president who does things, we are all in serious trouble. If he does anything at all — if he gets up at night to go to the bathroom — somehow, mystically, trouble will ensue. I guarantee that if I am elected, I will take over the White House, hang out, shoot pool, scratch my ass, and not do a damn thing. Which is to say, if you want something done, don’t come to me to do it for you; you got to get together and figure out how to do it yourselves. Is that a deal? — Utah Phillips

I see and hear lots of liberals touting Bernie Sanders’ platform:

Bernie Sanders' platform

…and mine the fuck out of the arctic and continue breakign native treaties and killing unarmed black people and generally keep the destructive super-trawler that is US Society afloat a bit longer, delaying the inevitable and prolonging the damage, making it a bit better for a few others while we oppress the shit out of even more people and dismantle even more life support systems. We need to stop trying to save the ship. It belongs at the bottom of the ocean.

I agree, it’s better than Hillary Clinton’s.  Actually, I find it impressive.  And that concerns me.   I like Bernie Sanders.  I think he’s a nice guy and he’s make a great president of the US.  And that scares me.  Liberalism in general scares me, because it’s fundamentally dishonest.  <rant>Liberalism is really just conservative in disguise.  Liberals don’t want change.  They want things like stability (like conservatives), but they want everyone else to just be numb and happy and in denial (cue the Brave New World reference to soma), because that’s what they want, and that’s the only way they can get it (besides just killing themselves).  They want to keep Today’s Society pretty-much the way it is, with a few tweaks here and there.  Maybe add a bit more padding on those infamously hard, uncomfortable seats.  “Numb brains, not butts!” may be their rallying cry.  The most irritating thing I find while searching the sea of clenched boomer-age liberal assholes is the an entrenched, itchy and borderline-hemerrhoidal belief that, “Everything will be alright if just…”  The bitter red pill (of uncomfortable truths) may be nourishing but proves too tough to swallow, so they opt over and over again for the smooth blue pill (of convenient bullshit), even though it only comes in the form of a suppository.   No wonder why they want more padding on those seats…</rant>

what asshole thought a rowboat would accurately represent industrial commodity culture?

Notice the liberals at the Far Right.  What asshole thought a rowboat would accurately represent industrial commodity culture?

Now, I like that picture above.  I think it provides a useful analogy for thinking about social privilege and hierarchy.  And it’s sinking.  But a rowboat?  C’mon, cartoonists!  We live in a civilization.  Civilization does not pride itself on its rowboats!   Consider an even more accurate picture of Today’s Society, where the cute and innocent rowboat depicted above looks more like a hybrid of a USS Super Tanker carrying an ocean full of crude oil, or a USS Super Trawler picking and scraping the ocean clean of every last bit of life, all with the inevitable fate of the USS Titanic (The “USS” really stands for United Society of Sociopaths).  No matter who helms it, a Super Trawler will still dredge the ocean floor.  No matter who helms the Titanic, it will stay its charted course…and sink.  And liberals don’t want the ship to sink.  They think it’s a pretty OK ship.  Maybe it has a few holes to patch, or some seats to pad.

Regardless of what liberals think, even as the ship sinks, as long as it operates it will continue to subjugate and destroy its crew and its environment.  Given that, I can think of four questions more relevant for us to ask and discuss than “So, who’dja vote for?” (kang or kodos?  coke or pepsi?):

  • How soon will the ship sink?
  • How much damage will its sinking cause?
  • How much more damage will the ship do as long as it continues to operate?
  • What do you want to do about it?

Electing Sanders doesn’t help.  He doesn’t sink the ship or lessen its destruction.  He hires and fires a few people, polishes the brass, and adds some padding to those infamously uncomfortable seats (cue cheers from hemerrhoidal liberals everywhere).  And the ship continues to operate, business as usual, maybe even better than ever! (ref. Utah Phillips quote, above)

We’re asking Sanders to become captain of the societal equivalent of a sociopathic Super Trawler.  Then we’re asking him to save us from that sociopath in two conflicting ways:  to keep from it sinking on one hand, and keep it from operating as normal on the other.  Neither do liberals want to abandon ship, nor do they want to sink with it.  So they resort to magical thinking, supported by their steady diet of bullshit blue-pill suppositories…Bernie will save us.  He’ll make things right.  He’ll… I don’t expect any miracles from Bernie. I do expect things to continue getting worse regardless of who gets elected. (ref. Utah Phillips quote, above)

You can dress a sociopath up in a smart new suit and expect him to behave less sociopathic, but all you will do is help him hide in plain sight.   You can give a sociopath a tool like a hammer, and he will find a way to use it as a weapon of control and misery.  You can educate him, and he will use his knowledge to manipulate others and consolidate his power.  We live in a society that behaves like a rampaging sociopath.  There exists no magical “tweak” or “reform” or “policy” or “political platform” that will make it less destructive, let alone turn it into an emotionally healthy being capable of relating in deep and meaningful ways with others.  When we try to reform, we settle for symbolic change, empower the destruction and blind ourselves to its continuation.

Is it actually any better that Sanders gets elected instead of Clinton or their Republican counterpart?  In other words, what impact does who gets elected president have on the four questions I ask above?  I repeat those questions here for your convenience (you’re welcome), along with some thoughts on them from me (I’m sorry):

  • How soon will the ship sink?  Will it sink sooner or later?  I tend to think later.  Electing a liberal is really electing an expert conservative who stabilizes society without fixing any of its fundamental ills.  We delay the inevitable.  We prolong the misery.
  • How much damage will its sinking cause?  The society keeps growing, so I tend to think that the longer we wait, the bigger the crash.  The higher the fall.  The less prepared we are, the more harm the crash and fall will do to its peoples and environments.   So how does electing Bernie slow the destruction and growth and empower the people?
  • How much more damage will the ship do as long as it continues to operate?  Will electing someone like Bernie Sanders actually reign in the destruction, somehow?  How will Bernie change the classism, racism, sexism embedded into the fabric of our society?  Will Bernie slow down deforestation, help dismantle dams, protect our rivers from poisoning?  Will his policies thwart our industrial, commodity-based economy?   Or will his policies simply make a few people more comfortable existing within such a terrifying, destructive system…for a time?
  • What do you want to do about it?  Do you think voting is enough?

So go ahead and vote for Bernie.  Just go ahead and vote.  Or not.  I really don’t care who you vote for, or whether you vote.  Donald Rumsfeld, Donald Trump, or that other unsung ‘murrican fascist, Mickey Mouse.  But I do care about what you do with the rest of the hours in your day:  How are you helping to stop the destruction?   Study and practice permaculture? Join and support Black Lives Matter!?  Or do you want to do something more explicitly political?  Organize your community to adopt a Community Bill of Rights as we work to change the legal foundations of this country to something more fundamentally just. And men in particular, please, please join or support your local feminist organization, because the revolution really does start at home (but doesn’t end there).  And any number of other radical, transformative things, including those less constructive (rivers must flow free to support terrestrial ecosystems, super trawlers must sink to have sustainable fisheries, and those pretentious colonial marbled houses and engraved enscriptions of empire need to come down sometime…the sooner, the better!).