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.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Positive Thinking and Negative Capability

Image Source: Thee Online.

Yesterday's post notwithstanding, this post highlights a Millennial search for positives. In his 2009 book, Pronoia, Californian astrologer and Baby Boomer New Age thinker Rob Brezsny asserts that negative reporting (like this story) and toxic entertainment are rampant in the new Millennium's global society. Brezsny suggests an antidote in the opposing coined term, "pronoia ... [which] John Perry Barlow defined as 'the suspicion the Universe is a conspiracy on your behalf':
[P]ronoia is ... utterly at odds with conventional wisdom. The 19th-century poet John Keats [1795-1821] said that if something is not beautiful, it is probably not true. But the vast majority of modern storytellers - journalists, filmmakers, novelists, talk-show hosts, and poets - assert the opposite: If something is not ugly, it is probably not true.

In a world that equates pessimism with acumen and regards stories about things falling apart as having the highest entertainment value, pronoia is deviant. It is a taboo so taboo that it's not even recognized as a taboo.

The average American child sees 20,000 simulated murders before reaching age 18. This is considered normal. There are thousands of films, television shows, and electronic games that depict people doing terrible things to each other. If you read newspapers and news sites on the Internet, you have every right to believe that Bad Nasty Things compose 90 percent of the human experience. The authors of thousands of books published this year will hope to lure you in through the glamour of killing, addiction, self-hatred, sexual pathology, shame, betrayal, extortion, robbery, cancer, arson, and torture.

But you will be hard-pressed to find more than a few novels, films, news stories, and TV shows that dare to depict life as a gift whose purpose is to enrich the human soul.

If you cultivate an affinity for pronoia, people you respect may wonder if you have not lost your way. You might appear to them as naive, eccentric, unrealistic, misguided, or even stupid. Your reputation could suffer and your social status could decline.

But that may be relatively easy to deal with compared to your struggle to create a new relationship with yourself. For starters, you will have to acknowledge that what you previously considered a strong-willed faculty - the ability to discern the weakness in everything - might actually be a mark of cowardice and laziness. Far from being evidence of your power and uniqueness, your drive to produce hard-edged opinions stoked by hostility is likely a sign that you've been brainwashed by the pedestrian influences of pop nihilism.
Does Keats's assertion that 'if something is not beautiful, it is probably not true' imply that widespread Millennial nihilism and negativity are lies? - Or do they initiate searches for a new baseline, for new values and new truths? Is negativity symptomatic of larger, positive growth? In some ways, we can view the push and pull between negativity and positivity in our time as a conflict between surviving strains of Enlightenment and Romanticism; in the Millennium, these strains trend between externally-imposed, alienating, hyper-rationalized mechanization and inward-looking, self-involved hyper-naturalism.

When Brezsny positively invokes Keats, he also points to Keats's famous idea of negative capability, a primal Romantic reaction against Enlightenment rationality (see comments here and here). Negative capability involves a Romantic immersion in imagination, the anti-rational, the legendary. It concerns an intuitive jump in the apprehension of the natural world at its most mysterious, which treats nature as something transcendent, not as series of secrets unlocked by science. Keats's 1819 poem Ode to a Nightingale (hear it here) expressed a Romantic search for natural beauty transformed by imagination into a healing, immortal myth; this imaginative process eases the daily sufferings and ultimately mortal troubles upon which reason fixates. But negative capability also embraces uncertainty and strife; it refers to the self-doubt one experiences when one is pushed past one's limits and beyond one's expectations by extreme experiences or emotions. In the negative realm, one must exist beyond the conventional, the labeled, beyond the boundaries of settled norms. Negative capability enables survival through a period of unknowing.

Out of the same Romantic movement to which Keats adhered came the Byronic hero. The Byronic hero is a predecessor of the Postmodern, broken anti-hero. Whether he is a criminal acting as hero, or a flawed, fallen hero, the anti-hero is the standard protagonist in Millennial fiction and entertainment. In today's stories, the drama hinges on whether the broken hero can become heroic. In other words, our epics explore how we may transform our negative world into a positive one. Our favoured tropes imply that only alienated people have moved past moribund limitations to attain the broader view necessary to achieve that transformation.

Often, broken norms or normlessness are taken today as signs of cultural collapse, political failure and societal doom. But Keats suggested that the ability to cope in a realm of social and cultural uncertainty is a negative art, which ultimately rewards with positive beauty and regeneration.

Source: Citation is © Brezsny, Rob (2009). Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia, Revised and Expanded: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings. North Atlantic Books and Televisionary Publishing. ISBN 1-55643-818-4, pp. 61-62.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Where Are We Going? No Really, Where Are We Going?

Google Glass: 2012 preview, for release to consumers in 2014. Image Source: Extreme Tech.

The first twenty years of the Internet involved playing mental catch-up as the industry excitedly released each new application, operating system, or gadget. Except for think pieces at Wired, which launched in 1993 as a glossy magazine, few tried to grasp the implications as the sites and services rolled out - AOL (1991); Amazon (1994); eBay (1995); Yahoo! (1995); Craigslist (1995); Netflix (1997); PayPal (1998); Google (1998); Wikipedia (2001); Second Life (2003); Blogger (2003); Linked In (2003); Skype (2003); Facebook (2004); Digg (2004); YouTube (2005); Reddit (2005); Twitter (2006); Tumblr (2007); Pixlr (2008); Kickstarter (2009); Pinterest (2010); Instagram (2010). These are just the giants, with no mention of the porn sites, which do join the giants in the top rankings for traffic. See the Alexa Top 500 Global Sites for hundreds more of the most world's most popular Web hubs. There are also thousands more Web apps and services which you will have never heard of, unless they meet your particular needs.

The book reader of the future, from Everyday Science and Mechanics magazine (April 1935). Image Source: Paleofuture.

As great as these sites, services and devices are, if you are lucky, you can remember what life was like before they came along. It was far from perfect. But all someone had to do to become inaccessible was not answer the telephone. Now it takes a lot of willpower, excuses and effort to disconnect.

Wireless Emergency Alert System: "'Many people do not realize that they carry a potentially life-saving tool with them in their pockets or purses every day,' said W. Craig Fugate, administrator of FEMA." Image Source: NYT.

On the night of 5-6 August, a friend who lives in California was wakened in the middle of the night by cell phones in the house ringing an alarm he had never heard before: this was the state amber alert for a child abduction:
California issued its first cellphone Amber Alert late Monday, as phones in Southern California received an alert of two missing children in San Diego.

The timing differed from phone to phone but sometime between late Monday and early Tuesday many mobile phones across Southern California received an alert regarding James Lee DiMaggio, suspected of killing Christina Anderson, 44, and kidnapping one or both of her children, Hannah, 16, and Ethan, 8, the Los Angeles Times reported. ...

Some cellphones received only a text message, others buzzed and beeped as part of the Wireless Emergency Alert program, a cellphone equivalent of the Emergency Alert System that creates a high-pitched test tone on television.
The amber alert frightened many people when their mobile phones began ringing strangely (listen here). The system also warns the public about any other kind of major threat:
When you get an Amber Alert on your phone, you will definitely know. The sound is somewhere between a squeal, a siren and a series of tones. Even if you have your phone on silent or vibrate, or have enabled a "Do Not Disturb" or "Sleep" setting, your device may make this sound. The alert will appear as a text message including all pertinent information. ...
At the end of 2012, CTIA-The Wireless Association announced the transition from a Wireless Amber Alert program to a Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program. ... Now, the WEA program sends messages to users within the area of the suspected abduction. For example, if a child in Orlando is abducted, all eligible devices within that area will broadcast the alert. A representative from the California Highway Patrol told HLN that Amber Alerts have previously been issued through wireless carriers regionally, but Monday's alert was the first to be broadcast statewide. It is of note that the WEA system also broadcasts other types of emergency alerts, such as severe weather warnings and imminent threat alerts.
To my friend, the alert brought home the point that mobile phones have erased privacy and are just "personal tracking devices that we also use as telephones." Smartphones are good for tracking criminals. They're also good for tracking everyone else.

A system like this can be a very powerful tool, as Orson Welles discovered in 1938. The Emergency Alert even entered the English language: This is only a test. - Or - This is not a test. In February 2013, hackers hacked a Montana TV station's Emergency Alert System and aired a fake zombie apocalypse warning to demonstrate the system's vulnerabilities. Ars Technica reported in June 2013 that the TV and radio Emergency Alert System is generally hackable. I could not find comment online about whether the Wireless Emergency Alerts program is also hackable, but presumably it is.

Some would argue that worrying about the future is pointless and unhealthy. In a July post, Maria Popova noted that anxiety is often associated with contemplation of the future; also, recent psychological research links the suicidal mind with an over-contemplation of the future:
In Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception ... BBC’s Claudia Hammond explores the psychology of mitigating our worries: Ad Kerkhof is a Dutch clinical psychologist who has worked in the field of suicide prevention for 30 years. He has observed that before attempting suicide people often experience a period of extreme rumination about the future. They sometimes reported that these obsessive thoughts had become so overwhelming that they felt death was the only way to escape. Kerkhof has developed techniques which help suicidal people to reduce this rumination and is now applying the same methods to people who worry on a more everyday basis. He has found that people worry about one topic more than any other — the future, often believing that the more hours they spend contemplating it, the more likely they are to find a solution to their problems. But this isn’t the case.
But what happens when the future becomes the present? As the technological future approached over the past 20 years, there seemed barely time to digest what was happening. It was enough to just keep up with the changes. There is a need to stand back, to see the big picture, to contemplate how we are changing as human beings, to understand what is happening to society, politics, the economy.

Devin Coldewey a Seattle-based writer and photographer, has a number of interesting articles for Tech Crunch (here) in which he tries to make sense of the impact of the Technological Revolution with reference to the past. In 2009, he compared Google and its many services to the construction of Roman roads (here). It was a metaphor-laden piece and pretty clumsy in its historical analogy. Nevertheless, Coldewey's comparison - between Google's messy-but-often-cool labs projects and the Roman road system - was intriguing. But Coldewey misunderstood the potential parallel in his historical comparison. The Roman road system was technologically revolutionary, but the purpose the roads served was not revolutionary at all. The Romans were building an empire. And so is Google.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Artificial Photosynthesis: A New Energy Source?

Daniel Nocera ponders the artificial leaf: "Nocera’s leaf is simply a silicon wafer coated with catalysts that use sunlight to split water to into hydrogen and oxygen components." Image Source: PF Pictures via ABC News.

BBC reports on how a Harvard / former MIT chemist has created an artificial leaf which uses solar power to create hydrogen fuel to generate electricity:
Imagine if you could draw energy from almost unlimited sources found in nature – water and light. That’s one possibility if Harvard professor Daniel Nocera’s idea for a device that can harness and store energy from the Sun comes to fruition.
Adam Shaw travels to Boston to meet Nocera who has developed an artificial leaf that replicates photosynthesis. Silicon wafers are coated on each side with a different catalyst – one side produces hydrogen, the other produces oxygen. A barrier between them allows the gases to be collected separately, and stored in a fuel cell that generates electricity.
The catalysts are cheap, earth-abundant materials and form by self-assembly, which should make manufacture cheaper. The challenge is overcoming the high engineering costs needed for the light-harvesting infrastructure to make it commercially scalable. If this can be overcome, this small piece of technology could have enormous potential.
Professor Nocera's invention dates from 2011 and will soon be ready for the market.

Nocera asks Harvard students to start a "new epoch of humankind," which he calls the Sustainocene. He tells them that the world is out of balance: "You can't ... have environmental integrity or ecological sustainability if you have a big divide between the poor, the have nots, and the rich, the haves." He claims our culture - due to the energy crisis - is exhibiting
"gross societal imbalances and poverty, that's also a world out of balance, the haves and the have nots. And I'm here to tell you tonight, the haves - I don't care about anymore ... because you guys aren't going to make a difference. It's all these silent voices that we don't hear anymore. And you're going to have to get them in balance with us. And that's what the Sustainocene seeks to do. And it's to do that by looking at the energy, food and water problem."
Nocera insists that if the energy problem can be solved first, then water and food concerns can also be solved; moreover, allowing individuals to take control of their own energy sources offers a revolutionary political potential for how human affairs can be organized.

See Nocera explaining his new energy system below the jump.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Genes, Food and Physiology: A Millennial History of the Physical and Metaphysical

Earlier this month, an online lecture series - Marc David's Eating Psychology -  presented an interview with alternative health author, Sayer Ji. Ji commented on the ancient, connected history of plants and humans and the corresponding impact on human evolution. Ji regards the essential interaction between humans and food as a physical history that runs back thousands of years; in addition, he feels that this interaction is so fundamentally tied to the essence of human (and plant and animal) life that it contains a spiritual or metaphysical dimension, which is reflected in our minds and cultures.