Friday, July 24, 2015

The Secret Behind ol' Necessity and Ma Invention

Necessity is the mother of invention, but necessity and invention have raised a terrifying grandchild: Consumption.

The word conjures images of old-time diseases, but believe me - it's happening right now. If you are reading this right now, you're a consumer. I'm a consumer. Most of this earth is being consumed by a unthinking, unfeeling, nigh-unstoppable force of Consumption for Consumption's sake. It's going to kill us.  I quote Brower and McPhee:

Compare the six days of the book of Genesis 
To the four billion years of geologic time
On this scale, one day equals about 666 million years.
All day Monday, until Tuesday noon, 
Creation was busy getting the Earth going.
Life began on Tuesday noon,
And the beautiful organic wholeness of it 
developed over the next four days.
At 4 PM Saturday the big reptiles came;
Five hours later, when the redwoods appeared, 
there were no more big reptiles.

At three minutes before midnight, man appeared.
At one-fourth of a second before midnight, Christ revolted.
At one-fortieth of a second before midnight, the Industrial Revolution began.

We are surrounded by people who think 
that what we have been doing 
for one-fortieth of a second 
can go on indefinitely.
They are considered normal.
But they are Stark. Raving. Mad.

This is the danger of Consumption.  To carry the metaphor, Capitalism and Addiction have fathered Consumption, but they take no responsibility for controlling their children. Only Necessity and Invention can stop us now.

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein

So, dear reader, we're faced with a dire abstraction, so what?  Well, as the 2016 presidential election begins coming to a boil this year, more and more candidates are being quoted on the 'issues'. A lot of millennials are posting about the economy, about the lack of jobs, about student debt and shrinking opportunities, about distrust for power. Even Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs is telling people to skip a University Degree and go into a trade. And a shocking thing was mentioned on a friend's facebook, a Jeb Bush paraphrase- "Let's work harder to get ourselves out of this rut." 

There's a classic scene in Indiana Jones where Indiana faces an increasingly frenetic series of attackers, culminating in a swashbuckling sword expert. As the two daunting foes face off, Indiana is so exhausted, he simply pulls a revolver and shoots his attacker.

In real life Harrison Ford was actually crippled with an intestinal bug and was supposed to go through another impressive series of fight scenes.  Necessity truly is the mother of invention, but how do we balance perseverance with thoughtfulness in the quest to solve our big issues?  What do we do when hard work simply isn't enough?

Tell me, reader. Is work really the answer?

So I posted the following reply to the goal of  "4 percent growth as far as the eye can see...  a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise ... people need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families":

Respectfully, I must make an impassioned plea. This is super retro thinking. We now live in an information-based economic system where the real crises are distribution of wealth and responsible growth, and creating citizens who have the tools to solve the most pressing and complex social problems. We are no longer a manufacturing economy, where more material goods equals greater prosperity. The only way we can compete with hungrier centers of manufacturing, with India and China, is to automate - which means fewer jobs, not more. Yvon Chouinard talks of how we need more thinkers, how we need to learn to be happy with less, not more, and how a craft economy (think Etsy, think farmer's markets) will have to evolve in order to employ the large part of the population who are superfluous to survival. We work ourselves to death on a mouse's wheel - but if we realigned our goals to focus on healthcare, education, food and happiness - then we could all work a hell of lot less, not more. The protestant work ethic is damning us all.

I hope the reader is acquainted with Sisyphus. 

This poor soul who, being too cunning for his own good,
was famed as the craftiest of all men, and even deemed
himself craftier than the gods, tricking them too.  

The gods eventually caught up with Sisyphus, dooming him to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill, only to see his efforts wasted at the last moment. So it is that the laws of physics will eventually catch up with man in our thirst to suck life out of nature.  So it is that the greatest prosperity is not remotely synonymous with the greatest satisfaction - and as our wealth increases happiness remains only inches out of reach.

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and 
you are the easiest person to fool." - Richard P. Feynman

Can we stop to think of the huge advancements which have been gifted to our generation?  The technology of the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries are surely godlike powers.  We have sanitation, running water, more than enough food, books, electricity, movies, medicines, fossil fuels, the might of industrial power and the knowledge of the internet with the swift justice of machine learning algorithms and the awesome communication of social media.  Maybe we are more like Prometheus, another Greek legend - clever enough to steal fire but not ready for the consequences of a global economy: death by vanity, global warming and drug resistant mega-infection.  

And I am painfully aware that much of the gifts heaped upon me are pearls to swine. I realize that even a tiny fraction of my wealth could so improve the human condition of so many and yet I am numb to it.

Bill Nye talks about the root to global success being the education of poor young mothers. I think that is much closer to the true answer.  

Honestly, we are so much better at deeply knowing the world around us - at knowing why plants thrive or die, and how to control diseases and populations, at how to harness our own destinies and avoid our human pitfalls and achieve happiness.  And yet, none if these things is truly necessary - we are lulled into complacency by our own success at survival.  There's only one necessary thing.

 As Richard Dawkins puts it:

“We are survival machines – 
robot vehicles blindly programmed 
to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. 

This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.” 

So maybe it's time to take a long hard look in the mirror at how we are approaching the solutions to our problems.  Hard work might not be the answer.  There is talk of us now entering a sharing economy, something which can bring with it either huge risk, or huge reward.  

Machines can make our sharing economy a global community. They can make both communism and capitalism fair to the people. The beauty of machines is that they are programmed by people, but cannot change their minds like people.  We have the power to program machines which treat us all as equals, machines which approach fairness, machines which can drive our cars more safely than we can diagnose our diseases more accurately, and invest our wealth more intelligently

Even our political process can be improved with code - what if Apple encouraged every iTunes user to input political preferences, just like a dating site does with sexual proclivities and personal tastes? What if iTunes then recommended a candidate based on their past voting record and position statements? Would you vote that way?

In 2016, I will vote for whomever shows the greatest zeal for technology, and the highest calling to education and truth.  

In the meantime, a little camp wisdom:

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