I am Pleased With Myself

I know this is a shocking thing to say, but it can’t be helped. I am – and for the first time in my life. I am 77.

My mother certainly was not pleased with me – she thought I was somehow disgusting – and this is what made her pregnancy with me so horrible. I was to blame – and to blame for nearly everything.

This gave me a lot of power – which I did not mind at all – even if the terms were onerous.

After living in Costa Rica for 12 years – a place where people still like each other – I gradually absorbed some of their friendliness. Ticos don’t know how to think – but they do know how to feel.

It also helped to move from the Central Metropolitan Area (commonly referred to as San Jose) which is just another megalopolis like those found in any underdeveloped country – to the little scenic coffee town of Orosi. I do like scenic beauty, and we have a lot of it here.

With the added benefit of high-speed Internet!

I can’t really claim credit for this. But I can take advantage of it.

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Framing the Twentieth Century

Today, I got an email from Jeremy Adelman, who teaches an excellent MOOC on world history at Princeton.

The MOOCs are changing the landscape of higher education. It is here that the dominant institutions are staking their ground. The History department at Princeton is saying to every other history department in the entire world “Beat this, if you can!” Princeton is not interested in making money – but in achieving dominance – the same motivation that is behind Amazon and Google.

This is from today’s email to its students:

We are now turning to the twentieth century in this course.  Finally.  I know that many of you have been waiting patiently to get to more recent developments.  It is important, however, to dwell on more distant times; they give us perspective on our age, the age of people we have known, our great-grandparents, our grandparents, and our parents – even some of us!  Specifically, we reached back to the 14th century for two reasons.  The first, is to recover the multiple roads that globalization has taken.  The institutions, the actors, the technologies, and the ideologies of integration and disintegration have varied.  Why is this important?  Because it reminds us – and it has been said by a great historian, Eric Hobsbawm, that the role of the historian is to remind societies of things they would rather forget – that our globalization is just one more experiment among many.  There is little that is natural or predestined about it; globalization has taken many forms and scales.

The second reason we go so far back is to explore the making of the concepts and categories that shape the way we understand our world.  In some respects our history of the world in this course is also a history of concepts that have made our world a world – like the idea of universal rights, notions of discovery, divisions of labor, scientific knowledge, and concepts of “others,” have all come from global interactions.  We need to understand where these ideas came from if we are to understand our age as the product of history.  As we will see, the twentieth century was a clashing of these contradictory motives and understandings.  It helps to know where they came from.

This week’s lectures leave us in 1914.  The long processes unleashed by the age of revolutions, of national integrations, free trade, new forms of capital flow and accelerated migration, came to a climax – and a collision!  How?  Explaining this requires understanding what was happening globally.  Accordingly, this week’s lectures look more closely at how people began to think about land in deeply cultural ways, with profound environmental effects of the enclosure of the world (lecture 15); we also look at the discontents and troubles brewing simultaneously around the world on the eve of the First World War (lecture 16).

The Inner and Outer Self

The human situation is complicated, we can all agree on that. But in the last 500 years or so it has become much more complicated. But we cannot agree on that. Why? That is the subject of this posting.

Every organism is part of something much larger. All life is closely related – we are all built of cells, which are much the same the world over. Except for one kind of cells – nerves, which in the human brain have become incredibly complicated.

Actually, the right world to use here is not complicated, but complex. And complexity theory tells us something amazing – as systems become more complex new behaviors appear – out of nowhere. These are called emergent properties.

The human brain is full of these properties – as is human behavior, which is derived, somehow, from our over-developed brains. I want to talk about two of them – the inner self and the way we have become extended – the external self.

We have always been part of our technologies – this is what civilization amounted to: a complex of new technologies – including writing. And they have never been under control – we become whatever our technologies want us to become.

You may object that technologies do not have minds, and cannot will anything. You are right, technically. But practically, the combination of technology and people always results in people modifying their behavior to make maximum use of the newest, most successful, technology. This is what makes a technology successful.

This is most easily seen in warfare – a very human activity. A man with a spear is much more powerful than a man without one. And a phalanx of men armed with spears is more powerful yet. In such a situation the individual man disappears – and only the group remains. A transformation many find hard to resist.

This is the basis of the individual – group conflict. Which is usually resolved to benefit the group.

Modern history began with the Middle Ages – from which it emerged. Modernism was an incredibly complicated (or actually, complex) development – that people are now ignorant of – as they are of most everything. This posting is about how modern history evolved into post-modern history. Another very complicated development – which I can only scratch the surface of.

The big change involved the creation of mass production and mass man. This was a very clever idea – although not a new one. The Greeks had pottery factories operated by slaves, and hundreds of thousand of their pots still exist.

But the Industrial Revolution had something new – energy from fossil fuels – first coal, and then oil. And an explosion of new machines. This, as always, made a new kind of people – the human mass. Here again, this was nothing new. Ancient Rome was full of useless people who demanded bread and circuses – and got them.

But their modern counterpart was different – they could be put to work in the factories, manufacturing mass-produced commodities – at very low prices – to the immense profit of a few. This became know as Capitalism – whose most obvious feature was its ruthlessness.

But this is not what I started to write about. Completely unnoticed, something else was happening – people were extending themselves outward and becoming part of their technologies – which were themselves becoming more and more extended. As I said, this very important development has not been noticed – except for a few, and these have been ignored.

People could not resist this shameful new development – and they didn’t want anyone calling their attention to it. What was shameful about it? It meant they were abandoning their inner selves – which, after all, were their real selves.

Now I must start of the development of today’s subject – the difference between the inner and outer self. The outer self is all our possessions – which possess us. In the Computer world, this means we are networked all over the place. The Economy is also networked, which in practice means it can be manipulated by a few to their benefit. But this is nothing compared to the damage to our inner selves.

Every person, in the course of his (or her) normal development, develops his own personality. In Jungian terms, this is called individuation. And every individual is different. And is accepted as being different. In my little town in Costa Rica I can see this just by walking down the street, and taking note of the people there.

By contrast, if I go a two hour bus ride away to the Central Metropolitan Area (where most of the people live and most of the jobs are) the people have become homogenized – where everyone is much the same. And where everyone studiously ignores this.

I summarize – when people develop in externalized self, they lose their inner self. And cease to function as normal human beings.

You might ask “If you are right, why hasn’t this been noticed?” The answer seems to be “This is normal human behavior (which made it invisible to us) – but carried to extremes – which produced effects that we could not have anticipated.”

Of course, you will ask “What’s the solution?” My answer is “I don’t know, but the first step would be recognizing where we are – which seems impossible.”

Thinking Has Become Painful

It is painful because it can get you into trouble, and because you discover too many things you don’t want to know. One discovery can lead to another, as it almost always does, and before you know it you are in deep shit. Not someplace you want to be.

The only sensible solution is to not think at all – the solution used by almost everyone. It is much easier – and safer – to latch onto someone else’s thinking and call it your own – after making sure, of course, that everyone else has decided to do this also. Doesn’t this imbecility bother people? Not at all, because all this is unconscious behavior which can be indulged in freely. As a culture, we have agreed not to notice it.

Someone like me can talk about it as much as he wants, without bothering them in the least. They have all agreed not to follow unwanted thoughts into forbidden waters.

Isn’t this dangerous behavior? Isn’t a culture that cannot think bound to get into big trouble? Absolutely; and we are in big trouble because of this. But it all happened by degrees, over a long period of time.

Initially, we made certain decisions about how we were going behave and what we were going to believe. Decisions made at the beginning of the modern era, that seemed sensible and necessary at the time. Northern Europe made one set of decisions that Southern Europe rejected. The Reformation started in the North, which was countered in the South by the Counter-Reformation.

All of this has conveniently been forgotten, swept under the rug, and ignored. Everyone, North and South, is demanding “What has this got to do with us now?” The answer, dear friends, is: everything. These are the decisions and biases that formed the present – that we are determined to ignore. Every schoolchild should know about them – but instead the educational establishment ignores them completely. Even Philosophy has ignored them – with only a few exceptions (such as Ortega y Gasset). Even Buddhism, which was initially formed to solve this kind of initial problem, has been unable to comprehend how they developed.

The end result is that we are in really bad shape – so bad, it is painful to think about it. So we don’t think.

Real People Don’t Read Poetry

Instead, they avoid it like the plague – while remaining completely oblivious to this – and nearly everything else. They have no objection to poetry, they say, they think it is wonderful – they just never get around to reading it.

As part of my innate stubbornness, I am determined to make it part of my life. Although sometimes, as part of the herd, I find myself rejecting it too. In one of my better moments, after reading an excellent review of it, I bought the book Dickinson – which contains a selection of Emily Dickinson’s poems, and a commentary on each of them.

As the author, Helen Vendler, says in her Introduction, Dickinson has survived four “Ages” – The Age of Publication (after her death, when her poems were “cleaned up”), the Age of Biography, the Age of Editing, and the Age of Commentary. In her poem listed as number 930, she says

The Poets light but lamps –
Themselves go out –

Poetic influence does not die with the death of writer.

The Infantile Need for Certainty

I lead a strange life. I am about as socially isolated as a man can get. I don’t live in a desert island, but culturally Orosi, Costa Rica might as well be. The gringo drifters who end up here are sorry specimens of humanity. To balance this, I have a fast Internet connection right to my bedroom, and I get my mail flown in from Miami to the nearest large town, where I go once a week to get it and shop at the Wal-Mart supermarket.

I end up with one or two large bags of good stuff that I stash on the overhead racks of the bus for the ride home. The locals never do this: shop in Cartago, where the prices and selection are much better, and then lug the stuff home. They are extremely local, and live in their own little world – except when they go to work, when they get on that same bus again at five in the morning, for a three-hour ride to work, and the another three-hour ride home again in the evening. Life in the undeveloped world is tough.

Last week, I loaded up on books from Amazon – five substantial ones in all. Two of them were promptly trashed and carted off by the garbage truck this morning. I am very picky about my reading. Life is too short to waste it on trash, which is now turned out in amazing quantities.

The book I am going to write about now is The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty. From the Preface:

Most people would identify science with certainty. Certainty, they feel, is a state of affairs with no downside, so the most desirable situation would be one of absolute certainty. Scientific results and theories seem to promise such certainty. The popular belief in scientific certainty has two aspects: first, that a state of objective certainty exists and second, that scientific kinds of activities are the methods through which this this state can be accessed. Yet I will make the case the absolute certainty is illusory and that the human need for certainty has often been abused with noxious consequences.

This is an understatement, the need for certainty was one of the driving forces behind the construction of the Modern World – as another book, Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity points out. The Reformation caused some of the worst wars in history – and the need to overcome these conflicts, that were tearing Europe apart, drove us to replace religious certainty with scientific certainty.

This is what another book called The Heroic Model of Science. This was the model in vogue when I was in high school, I was going to become a scientist myself and become a hero. But it didn’t quite work out that way. I return to The Blind Spot again:

Yet modern civilization is in crisis! We face not just one crisis but a series of interconnected crises – the economic crisis, the environmental crisis, the the crisis in relations between the secular and religious worlds, especially the world of religious fundamentalism. There is a deep connection between these crises and the modern world of science and technology. In fact, a better way to think about the present situation is that what looks like a series of disparate crises, is really one crisis that manifests itself in various ways – one all-encompassing crisis that arises from inner contradictions that are inherent in modern culture…

The problem lies not with science but with the point of view I call the “science of certainty,” a particular approach to science in which the need for certainty, power, and control are dominant.

He is overlooking the elephant in the living room, the amazing ignorance and self-destructiveness of mass man. This seems like a cop-out to me, but perhaps he does not want to be ridden out of town on a rail, covered with tar and feathers.

The Only Important Thing in Our World Should be Us

It should not be our things, which have become more important than we are.

Before now, I (and many other people) have addressed this problem by talking about technology. This was a mistake.  Using this particular word drags in all kinds of connotations, and we end up talking about something bigger that life. Technology, I suspect, has taken the place of God in our minds – without our being aware of it at all.

We need to back off, and get in touch with our basics again. But we cannot do this, because we have lost touch with them. To do this, we have to go back to our beginnings, and recognize our built-in attachment to our things (which easily becomes an addiction).

This is not easy, because we are such clever devils. We have invented language, for example, which is both a curse and a blessing. We have invented music, and all kinds of social activities associated with it, such as dancing. And most important of all – we have invented greed and power, which are now embodied in the world of business – which has taken the place of religion.

It is not easy to separate our precious things from this matrix – but this is exactly what we have to do. Consider them by themselves, unattached to everything else. For example, consider the car. This has become something we cannot resist because we did not carefully note how it was affecting us. We just fell in love with it, and did whatever it demanded.

That last sentence is important –  it indicates that our extensions (to use McLuhan’s term) rule us, instead of us ruling them. Every step of the way we should have been asking ourselves “How is this affecting us?” But we never thought to ask that, and kept adding technology on top of technology until we were lost to sight. At the time, we didn’t think about this, but felt we had to.

Probably most would agree with my line of reasoning here – but that only shows the limitations of reason. Our emotions easily override our reason. This is where the rubber hits the road, to use a modern metaphor. This is where our unconscious drives take over.

Does this mean we are doomed? Probably, but not absolutely. There is nothing set in concrete about our future. The cards may be stacked against us – but there are always wild cards in the deck.

This in continued on Using the Computer to Empower Our Minds.