Turmoil in the West

June 22, 2016

We are almost halfway through 2016. India is the fastest-growing economy in the world. June 21, the mid-year solstice, is now celebrated as International Yoga Day. The Indian prime minister was just in the United States, cementing his country’s new role as America’s ally throughout the “Indo-Pacific region”. And a few hours from now, India’s former colonial ruler will vote on whether to extricate itself from the European Union.

This post is not about India, it is about the political turmoil roiling the US and the EU. But I led with India to put those events in perspective.

I am going to argue that North America and western Europe are experiencing a comprehensive systemic crisis, comparable in many ways to that which was experienced by Russia and eastern Europe several decades ago. But my first point is that life goes on for those countries outside the system. China, India, and postcommunist Russia, are making their own way in the world now. For them, the turmoil in the West is an external event. It affects them, but it does not define them.

So – what are the elements of the West’s crisis? Debt and economic stagnation, endless war with the Muslim world, societies riddled with surveillance, and an out-of-touch elite. When you put it like that, the similarities with the last years of the Soviet Union are obvious. In Russia, Gorbachev let the European satellite states slip away, and then Yeltsin pulled the plug on the Soviet Union itself, in the name of Russian national revival.

It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump will get the chance to do something similar, in the name of “America First” nationalism. But both the Trump movement and the Brexit campaign show the native working class of the US and the UK, grabbing at an unexpected chance to overturn a political order in which neither side of the “mainstream” really cares about them.

But this is about more than just politics. The system that is being challenged also encompasses the media, the universities, and the big banks and corporations. It includes the inculcation of progressive values at home, and the maintenance of a military hegemony far beyond its North Atlantic core.

The progressive values of open borders and open genders show the contradictions in the system most starkly. The West denigrates masculinity, and encourages mass immigration, yet also thinks it can keep the Middle East under control. But as we have recently seen, LGBT and ISIS cannot coexist within the same system. Their conflict is the outward manifestation of the cognitive dissonance within the elite.

It’s hard to say how far along the West is, in recapitulating the Russian experience. Do we have a further lost decade in front of us? Are we on the brink of change akin to 1989-1991? Or were the Obama years already akin to the Russian 1990s? Maybe the 2008 “financial crisis” and the 2011 “Arab spring” were already the collapse of the western system, and we just didn’t realize it.

The Arctic

January 6, 2016

Despite an intention to keep this blog going, I have been so comfortably immersed in other matters that I didn’t comment on the Paris climate conference.

But this got my attention: the Arctic 30 degrees Centigrade hotter than usual! I know the ups and downs are amplified there, but for a moment that gave me a feeling of superstitious terror. Like turning on a Geiger counter and discovering you have been invisibly drenched with radiation: the first spooky indication that something terribly wrong has happened.

I have no sense at all for what this really means. But it occurs to me, don’t deserts show extremes of temperature too, in certain places? Very hot in the day, far below zero at night? Or maybe I am thinking of Mars…

Update: Possibly it was due to warm air from the Atlantic that flowed into the Arctic.

Update 2: I am telling myself that what this means, is that the border between the Arctic atmosphere, and the next zone down, has become more porous, with major air masses sometimes moving across. Thus, a year or three ago, I think North America had anomalous cold as Arctic air came South, and this year the anomalous flow is in the other direction.


June 3, 2015

I have slightly expanded a theme of this blog, and turned it into a proposition about this period in history. The proposition is that we can view the past, present, and future of Earth as passage through three ages: the age of nuclear cold war, the age of global warming, and the age of singularity.

What defines an age is the dominant factor, actual or potential, in the events of that period. There will be many other things happening and the dominant factor may have nothing to do with them; the dominant factor is dominant because it transcends everything else. It can affect other things, but other things cannot affect it (much). While dominant, it evolves according to an internal logic of its own.

The age of nuclear cold war was the period in which the threat of unrestricted nuclear warfare between America and Russia was the dominant factor. I can’t say exactly when it began or exactly what preceded it. Perhaps what came before it was a “European world order” dominated by relations among the European maritime empires. Perhaps the nuclear age began in 1945, or only when the superpowers began to accumulate thousands of nuclear weapons. But it’s clear that the possibility of mutual nuclear war loomed over many other world events, like decolonization, the population explosion, the space race, and the spread of television.

Those other processes had their own logic and momentum, but if the superpowers had actually nuked each other in an atomic World War Three, it would have been a divide in history like few others. Much of the northern hemisphere would be radioactively poisoned. There might have been a “nuclear winter” lasting for months. The postwar world might have been dominated by big neo-medieval Third World states.

Anyway, that never happened, and after the Soviet Union abolished itself at the end of 1991, even though the nuclear arsenals still existed, the odds of massive nuclear war became so low, that it’s fair to say that the dominant factor in Earthly events became something else.

I say the new dominant factor was global warming, even though the high point of global warming as a political concern didn’t arrive for another fifteen years, because the physical process of accumulating excess carbon dioxide was already happening in 1991 (and for years before), and it already implied an upward change in the atmosphere’s equilibrium temperature, that was far beyond humanity’s ability to affect. So even as the population explosion continued, and the Internet spread, and a peculiar world war against terrorism took shape, and the economic balance of the world shifted… the most decisive thing happening was that steady increase in CO2 parts-per-million; decisive, more for what it implied about the future, than for what it was causing in the present.

But just as planetary nuclear war never actually happened – and not because the nuclear weapons were actually abolished – my thesis on this blog has been that the true global warming apocalypse will never arrive, and not because of political action (at least, not in any form currently considered). Instead, the progress of technology will eventually produce, in some place and time, a concentration of technological power which will become the new dominant factor. For that event I have used the name “singularity”.

The technical capacity which would decisively indicate the end of the age of global warming, and the beginning of the age of singularity, would be the ability to draw down all that excess CO2, in a relatively short time. That would imply that the shift in climate equilibrium caused by more than a century of coal- and oil-burning, was no longer beyond reach, that now some other factor could dominate over that process. (In that regard, a false dawn could come about through aerosol geoengineering, but that is simply a palliative cooling that masks the spike in temperatures, which would come back quickly if the population of cooling aerosol particles was not regularly replenished.)

However, such a radical capability is not going to come about in isolation, just as a biotech revolution would not provide the ability to rejuvenate the human body, while leaving all else unchanged, and just as an artificial intelligence revolution would not merely produce the capacity to imitate human nature with silicon chips. Sustainability, longevity, and computers we can talk with, look like they would merely be side effects or symptoms of a much broader explosion of possibilities, and that broader context is what would truly characterize the next age.

I don’t have the time or energy to develop significant new thoughts about that next age today. I will say that Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation may still be the most important single statement about what that age could be like, and the quest for “friendly artificial intelligence” may be the best single idea so far, for those who want the age of singularity to turn out well rather than badly. I definitely have differences, to put it mildly, with some of the details contained in those manifestos, and it may be that other visions and impulses will end up having a stronger influence on how events unfold, anyway. But they still have value as a starting point for anyone wanting to come to terms with the future that we face.

Between two worlds

April 24, 2015

“Between two worlds” is the title of an exhibition of the works of David Lynch, currently showing in my hometown, Brisbane. But I shall also use it to title this brief reflection on Maria Konovalenko’s post on “Fighting Death”. (One of Maria’s favorite bands, Nickelback, plays in Brisbane soon, too.)

What Maria says is sensible – and the fact that it is not regarded as sensible, tells you that there is psychological resistance in humanity; and ‘diagnosing’ the cause of this, might be regarded as important work in itself. But instead I want to take Maria’s view for granted, and look outward from it, at what it says about the human condition.

We, humanity, have risen from an abyss, wrote F.M. Esfandiary (who I have suggested is Maria’s precursor). He meant, I suppose, that we came from Darwin’s world of natural selection, evolution through variation and death, and its outgrowth as human history and culture, the world of killing and gods where these conscious animals called humans found themselves.

That is the abyss, the terrible world that produced us and contains us. And we have risen from it, to the extent that we resist that order of things, first through humaneness, love, justice, knowledge, everything that ameliorates; and now, potentially, through an overthrowing even of the aging process, thanks to hard-won knowledge of natural cause and effect, and of how to intervene in it.

(I have imputed a lot of extra detail in interpreting F.M.’s remark, but I am sure he would agree with it all.)

So that is where we are. It might be regarded as a strange miracle just to have this possibility of escape from the abyss, when its quadrillions of former residents did not. But let us look further ahead… The capacity to rejuvenate the human body is not coming about because there is a single ontological switch waiting to be flipped, from world with aging to world without. It is coming as a side effect of a broader knowledge and power, which opens a riotous Pandora’s box of new material and biological forms.

This radical explosion of possibility includes many outcomes just as unfriendly to human aspiration, as that natural abyss from which we came. The movement to create Friendly artificial intelligence is a movement to tackle this challenge, by way of the values and goals of the superhuman intelligences one might expect to be the hegemons of a posthuman world (a movement which Maria knows and supports and gives prominence in her ideals).

So once again, we are between two worlds. In David Lynch, there is the world of daily life, and there is an unseen world that intervenes mysteriously, meaningfully, and supernaturally in the mundane. It could be that the title of the Lynch exhibition refers, or also refers, to some other polarity, like that between happiness and horror…

But either way, there is also an existential polarity in the world according to transhumanism. We come from the abyss, we fight to transform the world, but this transformation itself creates the problem of posthuman conditions that could be hostile to us, or just alien to us. We exist suspended between the abyss and the unknown.

One traditional template for interpreting this state of affairs is tragedy: that sense that human effort is simply doomed, that decision to be heroic even in the face of doom. The human condition in the abyss has always been tragic – our whole past is sad, wrote Esfandiary in 1970 – and transhumanism is simply our final tragedy, the attempt to escape the abyss. In it, all the themes already known to human experience find renewed expression: love, joy, pain, sadness, and more.

Such is the life of those humans who would face the challenges of transhumanity. But there is another dimension to the situation too, that other sense of being between two worlds: the uncanny. It is simply strange to even be in this situation, to be the product of billions of years of traveling through the galaxy, to be briefly alive at the time of the great attempted escape from the abyss.

One may deal with this strangeness in different ways. One may simply submit to this worldview that life has handed to you, and tell yourself to accept it (“think like reality “). One may look for reasons why this is normality: perhaps some “great filter” philosophy, and hypothesis about cosmic demographics, which says that the majority of sentient beings live in such circumstances. One may even have doubts about the correctness of this picture of reality, and look for another.

I have no conclusion. These are words written in the dark on a handheld device, words soon to be added to this blog for the edification of search engines. There are things unsaid. There is transition.

Carbon dioxide approaching 400 parts per million

May 1, 2013

It went up by 5 parts per million in just two years.

Science and future politics

January 19, 2013

Recently I got into a discussion with a young blogger, “Emily”. It started out as a debate about whether string theory is science; but it turned out that she also had strong views about the need for scientists to assert themselves in politics and public life. The discussion was happening here, but I’m having trouble posting my comments, so the next round goes here instead.

Read the rest of this entry »

A climate politics prophecy

October 30, 2012

The biggest Atlantic storm on record, shutting down the northeast USA on the eve of a presidential election, offers a good occasion to revisit the original theme of this blog. Before the financial crisis of 2008, if this had happened, the headlines would be screaming about this event as a taste of the future, and everyone would be asking what to do. But the global recession destroyed the new climate politics that had developed after Al Gore’s film, and the whole issue has returned to the realm of invisible ineffectual diplomacy inhabited by other lost causes, like global nuclear disarmament.

The American Right of the 1990s led the opposition to the first attempt to make a global system of emissions reduction – the Kyoto protocol – and as a result they have ensured that the long-term geopolitics of climate will simply be about geoengineering, rather than about finetuning a global system of carbon credits.

Perhaps such a system would have collapsed for some other reason, such as the rise of the BRICs, but let’s attribute cause and effect correctly: it was the resistance from the Right, within the American political system, to globalist regulation and liberal statism, which prevented an effective American-led climate protocol from ever coming into existence. The recession of the late 2000s simply delivered the death blow to an already ineffective system.

So the future is going to be about sulfate aerosols and nanotechnological carbon capture. Sure, there will be countries with carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes, and alternative sources of energy like renewables and nuclear power will continue to get plenty of attention. Weather catastrophes will of course keep happening and keep getting bigger, and who should pay for damage past, present, and future will be an increasingly acrimonious issue in international relations.

But the attempt to regulate the overall human impact on planetary climate through political economy has failed. It may take a few more years for that to sink in, but when it does, that will be the day that geoengineering openly becomes the central issue of climate politics, because it will be the only alternative to “adaptation” left. The politics of geoengineering will look new, because it is about centralized high-impact adjustments of climate that can be carried out by any entrepreneurial technological power, and it may be part of a general politics of advanced technology that the human race will have to develop, in order to deal with other issues.

That is my intuitive diagnosis and prognosis of the situation. I welcome comment, correction, and improvement, in order to bring it closer to reality.

How to write science fiction

May 24, 2012

This message is brought to you by the vagaries of packet-switching communication. It started life as a comment on the blog of Charlie Stross, an eminent science-fiction writer from Scotland, but network problems gave me enough time to think of posting it here instead.

Charlie wrote:

“to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of […] SF.”

That is the core opportunity right there. I have elided the words “cyberpunk dystopian”, because that’s just one sensibility, and many sensibilities coexist on the planet, as Dirk Bruere (comment #83) points out.

But the proof that there’s still work to be done in SF, is that, even before we consider all the other options for literature, you can always make literature just out of representing reality well. And representing contemporary reality accurately is already enough to produce SF.

And then think five years, ten years, fifty years ahead. The future will happen, just as “today” and “this year” in your own life are happening, when once they were imaginary unknowns. Most people who talk about the future and write about the future may just be using it as a stage on which to project their hopes and fears, but that doesn’t mean that the real future, that will one day arrive, is itself just the product of overheated imagination.

The principle that simply depicting the present accurately and well is enough to generate SF, applies even more to the real future. I don’t care how boring or depressing the future you think might really be coming looks to you; if it’s described well, it can still make for worthy literature. I certainly don’t believe that SF has already depicted all the basic possibilities about the future that ought to be taken seriously. On the contrary, the present moment is absolutely full of novel developments that have not been properly assimilated and analyzed and their consequences deduced. An intelligent worldly person, who sits down and thinks about the present and its implications for the future, without hope or fear or other egocentric distortions, should be capable of having new insights and new ideas which, in the hands of someone who can write, would make for good literature.

For a futurist living in a society of future shock, there’s always something to be found by totally starting over, dumping every idea about the future you ever had before this moment as just a fact about your own past psychology, and looking out on the world afresh.

And this is only what’s possible even if you confine yourself to representational realism. If we consider the various ways in which literature may consciously stray from adherence to reality or likely-reality – for the sake of entertainment, edification, symbolism, exploration… – the possibilities of the present moment are even greater.

Here, however, there is a special trap. Let me group together all the disparate genres that aren’t just 100% factual transcription of how you think things are going to be, or could be, as “non-realist”. Because non-realism is not completely tethered to the evolving reality of the world, it doesn’t face the same imperative to keep changing that realism does. Non-realist SF, therefore, faces a particular species of risk – that it will just recycle yesterday’s non-realisms. This is where awareness of the reality surrounding previous non-realism can help: the historical and cultural context, the lives and psychologies of the authors. Understanding how non-reality has its roots in reality is the best prescription for doing it yourself and doing it differently.

And this advice is relevant even for those who might aspire to write realist SF. After all, we don’t actually know the future, and even the steeliest attempt to discipline one’s imaginings in the light of past historical experience, is still basically an act of imagination, not of knowledge. So even the realists ought to spend some time understanding the historical context of their realist precursors.

I learnt a lot of this from Bruce Sterling, by the way.

I’ll say one more thing about historical context. People in the “West” or the “developed world” know by now that they are living cheek by jowl in a world with other peoples who have other histories. Their histories are part of our historical context, now. So the idealized version of this quest for historical knowledge, in preparation for writing good new SF of a sort that has never been written before, would not just involve reviewing the precursors and cultural context of western SF. It would involve some sort of survey of all those other cultures which maybe didn’t produce Amazing Stories and OMNI magazine, but who in the real world are now making rockets and robots and genetics labs anyway. That’s just reality, now, and there must be at least as much conceptual mileage to be obtained by investigating how, in reality, that situation came to pass, as there is to be obtained by reflecting on the wisdom and folly of those who produced the western SF canon, old and new.

A brief update

January 25, 2011

I started this blog to cheer up people worried about the climate. I wanted to argue, using a negative-feedback model, that humanity would inevitably fix things in time.

Now I would emphasize differently: No program of emissions reduction is capable of making a difference to the planet’s temperature trajectory before we arrive in the era of advanced nanotechnology, because that era is at most just a few decades away. Advanced nanotechnology will be capable of the enormous task of drawing down the half trillion tonnes of carbon that have been added to the atmosphere, but it will also be capable of destroying all life on Earth. Dealing with the enormous new powers arising from nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will be the real challenge to human survival, and this time I have no argument at all that we’ll make it.

So, the cheer has gone and this is what’s left. It’s a little sad for the people who have devoted their lives to stopping climate change. That process is real, already doing damage, slowly getting worse, and if it ran to its completion in a world like the present, I suspect we really would get the hundreds of millions of climate refugees discussed in the worst scenarios. But the world of the present will not stay that way, and technological change will overtake climate change as the decisive factor.

Right now, climate politics is in the doldrums. Copenhagen was an anticlimax, and the global financial malaise has made people suspicious of a scheme like cap-and-trade, and just more worried about personal factors like employment and retirement. But the floods and the fires will keep happening, so the topic won’t go away, and there is bound to be a political revival eventually. Perhaps next time a simple carbon tax will be favored, rather than the trading of emissions permits, and there may also be more emphasis on direct action by the state. My slightly sad prediction is that whatever is done won’t matter, because it can’t make a difference before the nanotechnology era arrives, and then the game truly changes.

Anyway, that’s what I’m off doing now – trying to be relevant for what really comes next.

Digression on life

May 2, 2010

There is a Chinese saying that you should be Buddhist in your youth, Confucian as an adult, and Taoist in your old age. I thought that was the saying; I got it from the final days of Robert Anton Wilson; but actually he said something a little different.

Now let me illustrate how this works for a blogger. Vichy Fournier is not a Buddhist, but she’s a fabulous example of wisdom in someone young. Her power is to see and to state abstract truths.

Curtis Yarvin illustrates the second stage so well, he even uses a Confucian alias. He is also concerned with ideas, but he’s always connecting them to current events.

And Bruce Sterling gets to be the exemplar of Tao. Sorry Bruce! He’s still pretty engaged with the world, but mostly aesthetically.

Even a wise person must start out with more knowledge than experience. Only when they have come to truly know the particulars of their time and place – a learning which may take decades to acquire – can they act powerfully on the world. And eventually, the endless transformations of the world will in any case overwhelm their will to shape it. At that time, if they have retained understanding, they can at least relate to life as a drama and a spectacle.

Or, you can ignore all that and just keep trying, because no-one really knows what comes next or what the limits are. For that path, see Celia Green.