Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Nile Dam and Unintended Consequences

Memento mori Pompeii mosaic (30 BCE - 40 CE). Image Source: Ancient Rome.

In June 2009, economists declared that the Great Recession ended. But to many people, it still does not feel that way. Perhaps that is because the global economy is undergoing a painful transition. The gears are grinding, but there is no sensation of everyone barreling forward. Progress reports coming from tech sectors are deceptive: the virtual economy massively expanded over the past twenty-five years. High tech computing - with hardware's planned obsolescence and non-physical wares like Facebook acquiring value, based on the marketing promises of Big Data - pumped up bubbles around illusions of productivity. Financial speculation in the 1990s and 2000s depended on the exponential expansion of our ability to speculate.

The Web is one of the most marvelous inventions ever created. But it is less clear what it is worth in tangible terms. It presides over a rapture of meta-fakery that is amazing and seductive. It is a locus of exploding creativity as much as it is the cradle of surveillance and an abyss of hypnotic and addictive information. Armed with sleek gadgets, we follow the Web's siren call ever further away from old modes of economic production, in which people made real things which were built to last.

Pretty soon, we will be 3D printing most consumer goods in what is called 'additive manufacturing,' where creation is modulated first and foremost through computers, not human skills. And we will literally absorb the mechanistic components which have so enthralled us; the aim will be to intimately enhance our bodies and minds with bionic gadgets. Research shows the path that opens before us:
In animal studies, scientists have shown that a monkey with a brain implant can control a robot arm 7,000 miles away. The monkey's mental signals were sent over the internet, from Duke University in North Carolina, to the robot arm in Japan. ... The 7,000-mile-away prosthetic arm makes an important point: These new prostheses aren't just going to restore missing human abilities. They're going to enhance our abilities, giving us powers we never had before, and augmenting other capabilities we have. While the current generation of prostheses is still primitive, we can already see this taking shape when a monkey moves a robotic arm on the other side of the planet just by thinking about it.

Another study, in 2012, demonstrated that we can boost intelligence -- at least one sort -- in monkeys. Scientists at Wake Forest University implanted specialized brain chips in a set of monkeys and trained those monkeys to perform a picture-matching game. When the implant was activated, it raised their scores by an average of 10 points on a 100-point scale. The implant makes monkeys smarter.
Author Ramez Naam has argued, "We're in the midst of a bionic revolution, yet most of us don't know it."

Ironically, the transhuman faith in the impermanent, the enhanced and the virtual aspects of the Tech Revolution grew out of an electronic engineering mentality that stressed tangibility. This mentality focuses on how things will work predictably within expected limits. It is precisely that confidence which makes engineers so indispensable now. It was this confidence that prompted Gen X software engineer and multi-millionaire Marc Andreesen to dismiss the value of the liberal arts:
Andreessen, the co-founder of Netscape, board member of Facebook and HP, and current Most Powerful Man in Silicon Valley, has always been a provocateur. ... But Andreessen's ... idea ... "The idea of the middle class itself is a myth” — is the kind of statement you don't often hear policy-makers or business elites on the East Coast making. Andreessen, who has made hundreds of millions of dollars off the back of his tech investments, says that the phenomenon of "people with a high-school education earning college-level wages" was an "artifact" from the post-WWII era that has not translated well into the 21st century. To build today's economy, he says, we need to lower the minimum wage, discourage college students from majoring in English and other humanities (which he says will doom them "to a future of shoe sales"), and encourage them to pick science, technology, engineering, and mathematics instead. That's not hard to argue with. After all, the logical outcome of Andressen’s vision would be a bifurcated society in which there are engineers who invent things and get very rich, factory workers who build those things and stay very poor, and creative liberal-arts majors who work in low-paying service jobs on the margin.
Engineers who share this stereotyped confidence are less good at anticipating the unpredictable outcomes which arise in the grey areas around their products and policies. The unintended consequences of pragmatically-driven innovations were once confined to local messes such as the introduction of cane toads in Australia. Technology magnifies the unseen implications of bright ideas and spreads them internationally, as for example, in the case of the near-collapse of the global economy.

Only the best among the new engineering superclass (who are not necessarily its most successful or wealthiest members) are likely to contemplate whether something should be done, just because it can now be done.

The Great Recession showed that a vacuum had opened under the kind of mentality that Andreesen exemplifies. Critics argue that the engineering approach to building new realities and economies has led us into one big 'Progress Trap.' The term was coined in 2004 by Ronald Wright to describe innovations that generated unexpected problems. Wright sees two stages to the Tech Revolution, with the second act only just beginning to initiate a focus on the Revolution's spiritual, moral and philosophical aspects:
If we don't develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we'll screw up the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don't get too bad, because if they do it'll come back to haunt us. So you know, kind of half of being God has just been handed to us and then the question is whether we'll master the other half of being God, the moral half.
In other words, you can't play god without having empathy, a soul or consciousness. Jim Thomas, ETC group activist and commentator in the Canadian 2011 documentary Surviving Progress, elaborates on the engineering mindset which has come to dominate our understanding of high tech production:
Biologists have pointed out that these engineering approaches is all very well, and the engineers can try to treat life as though it was some sort of computer or engineering substrate, but ultimately the microbes are gonna end up laughing at them ... that life doesn’t work like that.
Curiously, right at the moment where the engineering leaders of the Tech Revolution should stop, pause and reflect on unintended consequences, they are ploughing billions into overriding the physical limits of silicon. Why is there this fear in the tech industry of slowing down? Of reaching a natural boundary? Of hitting a wall and being obliged to consider how far we have come, and how quickly?

Steve Jobs was one of the first computer technicians who grasped that tech would demand spiritual reflection. But rather than seat Apple's empire in a true humane context, he imbued his products with petty narcissistic messages, plain for the world to see: iPad, iPod, iPhone, iTunes. Me. Me. Me and My Apple.  He even named his company, not after a fad diet he was following (so the harmless little story goes), but in honour of the first mythologized egotistical act, masquerading as a quest for knowledge. This was the biting of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the 'apple' in the Garden of Eden.

The symbolism around Apple branding is astonishing in its prescience; it testifies to Jobs's awareness that we were all about to lose our innocence, forever. For Jobs, there was only one way to gloss over that shocking moment, to keep people from turning back: the intimate incorporation of tech into daily life, until the two were separable, until tech became organic. In other words, we become the tech, and tech becomes us.

Jobs was also aware that the first generation to grow up with tech would be the guinea pigs to test whether human beings would accept that level of tech integration. This point was recognized by others at the time:
Kurt Vonnegut, another genius in the ability to comprehend our time, understood this too. He famously told the Syracuse University graduating class of 1994, the first Internet generation, that they weren’t “Generation X,” as the marketing people wanted to call them. No, this first Internet generation, Vonnegut said, was “Generation A, as much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve so long ago.”
You can even see in Generation X's trademark skepticism an awareness that they were being force-fed certain ideas like foie gras geese. Even when Gen Xers, pushed by the recession of the early 90s, ultimately accepted the foreign entity that was tech innovation as the only way forward, they retained a sensibility that their successors lack. They often betray a sense of uncertainty around the grand illusion created by leaders of the tech industry in the 1980s and 1990s. Even those Xers who are the most ardent Apple enthusiasts will acknowledge a snafu feeling of underlying malaise in the world which Apple played such a big part in creating.

Apple's innately self-referential credo skated over tech's biggest questions, while superficially answering them with a glossy formula that everyone loved. Other companies such as Commodore, whose founder built his tech around a radically different message, fell by the wayside. The opportunity was lost: instead of providing tech with a true philosophical cushion, Jobs gave his enthusiastic customers the illusion of knowledge and creativity, and the moral reassurance of empty mirrors. This made it all the more likely that when technology does hit an undisputed moral wall (say, cloning a world leader), people will transform it into a dangerous cult, rather than find in it the basis for ethically-informed growth.

We have reached another of these crossroads. The limits of silicon are testing the mettle of Jobs's ideas. Right at the moment where Tech barons should invite thinkers from the arts and the liberal arts to weigh in on how they are doing, a number of arrogant public statements - like those from Andreesen - have been made declaring the humanities studies as worthless to the new economy. Humanities grads are unemployable. The liberal arts are not grounded in the 'real world.'

Really? Wiki defines the liberal arts simply:
The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (a citizen) to know in order to take an active part in civic life.
In the history of civilized societies, there can be no profit without the added dimension of knowing what larger purpose the profit serves. Accomplishments and industry are geared toward building something greater than ourselves. Even in a secular, rationalized order, we have to believe in something. We must ask: why are the leaders of a broken economy, of an impoverished, rhetorically-degraded politics, of a technological progress trap, suddenly insisting at this moment that knowing how to think for yourself is impractical and worthless? Why are they warning that real creativity - grounded in art, imagination and ethics - is a sure ticket to degradation and poverty?

Are philosophy, law, history, linguistics, literature, theology, mathematics and the creative arts really under judgement here? Or are the founding principles of limitless technological-human integration currently facing harder questions?

Recent events might indicate the latter. Jim Thomas has warned against the unintended consequences that will emerge around fields like synthetic biology:
What we’re seeing alongside the development of synthetic biology is a massive corporate grab on plant life. Literally speaking, that means a grab on land, and a grab on seas, as well, where people are being moved off of land to make way for the growing of plant life that can be transformed into plastics, chemicals, fuels and so forth. What drives synthetic biology is not an attempt to ... save the planet, or ... help humanity but an attempt to ... increase the bottom line for certain very large corporations.
It is interesting that, right at the moment when engineers would have to face some of the unexpected moral and philosophical consequences of their success, they have suddenly veered back toward their roots in the manufacturing might that was the pride of capitalists and socialists alike during the 20th century. This will pump the economy, and get everyone's minds off the yawning moral vacuum.

Part of the engineering shift comes from Thomas's predicted corporate grab on plant life, land and seas. Engineers behind the new modes of technological production are aware that even a virtual economy needs massive amounts of resources and energy.

Infrastructure, neglected in the past forty years while the computing boom took off (a process documented in the photographs of Gen X urbex explorers), is suddenly front and centre. Granted, it has taken a few bridge and overpass collapses to shift the focus of investment on civil engineering. It is a lateral move, to ensure our virtual future.

The renaissance of enormous civil engineering big building projects is on the horizon. A good example is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is currently damming the Blue Nile River, much to the alarm of Egypt's people and leaders. The project was handed, against no other bidding competition, by the Ethiopian government to Salini Costruttori Spa, a Rome-based construction company.

Salini - known for highway, airport construction and electro-mechanical projects in Italy and parts of Eastern Europe - is getting nearly USD $5 billion (95 percent of the Ethiopian government’s 2011 budget) to complete the job. Salini is on the move: in June 2013, it captured a 90 per cent stake in its bigger rival, Impreglio, which was previously Italy's largest construction group:
Under the 2013-2016 business plan, Salini Impregilo will generate core earnings of 1 billion euros in 2016 with an order backlog seen rising to 26 billion euros. Pietro Salini said the plan was conservative.
Maybe the argument that the recession is over, even beyond the simple economic definitions, is true. What common people have not understood was that when we came out of the Great Recession, they would be left behind. During the recession, the economic power balance shifted; the entire social order changed, possibly for a long time. Big economies are functioning. But there are no longer any guarantees for the 99 per cent. As tech mogul Andreesen promised, membership in the middle class is becoming a myth.

How fortunate, then, that Pietro Salini, CEO of Salini Impreglio, has a sense of civic duty and awareness of the value of history, art and archaeology. This week, he promised 20 million euros (USD $26 million) to restore the ancient city of Pompeii: "It would be a crime to let Pompeii crumble," he said.

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