Ideas

Civil War 2.0 Will Be Livestreamed

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

The events of this summer are a taste of what’s to come in the fall, and even more so, November 9, 2016.

Someone is going to win the Presidential election, and regardless of whether it’s Trump or Clinton, the loser’s supporters are going to feel existential angst about America, and their place in it, far beyond the usual.

Pat Buchanan advises us to take a Chill Pill; “For when a real powder keg blew in the ’60s, I was there. And this is not it.” And yet…in “The ’60s” (and the early ’70s, which is when some of the worst SHTF) we had the evening TV news and the papers. The crazy spread slower then. This time, any and every incident is going to be magnified and extremely accelerated. (more…)

Dreams, consciousness and sanity

It’s interesting that before he became the first human to die live on the Web, Tim Leary changed his tune (and the title of one of his books) from Exo-Psychology to Info-Psychology.

Leary acknowledged that his one-time obsession with space exploration and the future of humanity off-planet was at least partly the result of his time in jail in the 1960s and 70s and the natural tendency of the mind to want to free itself by flying high above the prison grounds. For an old dude, he seems to have rapidly grasped the possibilities of the Web and some of the changes to our lives that digital world would bring. He apparently continued to consume plenty of drugs up until the end. The funny thing, to me, is that there’s no indication that in all his years of psychonauting he ever deeply explored the free, easily available and abundant resource that’s provided to us every night: The Dreamscape. (more…)

Sometimes our political rhetoric ties us up in knots

Reprinted from the Press and Journal

If you were paying attention in philosophy class, you’ll remember Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction. Without this ontological law, Plato’s most famous student thought that we could never know anything about the things we already understand – for instance, the science of mathematics would mean nothing if it couldn’t be differentiated from biology.

Aristotle, smart as he was, would be baffled by today’s political rhetoric. His logical approach to the world does not fit well with our discourse over public affairs.

Too often, politicians choose subterfuge over truth and circumlocution over clear language. This makes the act of governing extremely difficult.

Some examples: In a recent Republican candidate debate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio defended his call for a bigger Pentagon budget by declaring, “We can’t even have an economy if we’re not safe.”

We can’t? Last I checked, economies are nothing but the sum total of individuals trading goods and services. Even in the most rudimentary societies, barter still existed. And let’s not forget that in order for the military to function, tax dollars must be collected from business to finance its operations.

All that said, Rubio has a point: If we’re dead, we aren’t buying and selling things. So in a sense, you can’t have an economy without a certain degree of safety.

Confusing, right?

(more…)

Social class in America: the inequality we ignore

When Paul Fussell wrote Class in 1983, social class in America was “notably embarrassing”; sociologist Paul Blumberg, three years earlier, had called it “America’s forbidden thought”. Today, with the focus of media, academic, and political rhetoric on matters of race and sex, class consciousness—to use an admittedly dangerous term—seems absent from the public mind. Rather than being forbidden, the matter of social class as something which can transcend race has been all but forgotten.

But certain questions are only answerable in terms of socioeconomic class. When one asks, as the Washington Post did recently, why the country’s “most progressive cities” are losing their Black residents; or, as the Atlantic has asked, why “blue” cities are often unaffordable for middle-class families; or why the poorest county in the country—Owsley County, Kentucky—is about 98% non-Hispanic White; the progressive cries of racial injustice fall flat.

When I was growing up in suburban areas of the peripheral South, there was no “social class” per se—there were merely different kinds of people. Some lived in houses, others lived in trailers; some moved a lot, others didn’t; some always had money in their pocket, others didn’t. But more importantly to me as a kid, some people looked and acted very differently from others; some read books and others didn’t; some listened to the music I liked and others didn’t. These latter differences, especially the petty disagreements between subcultures which are so important to post-WWII Western youth, did much to cloud my vision of the socioeconomic divisions which were at the root of so many of them.

Such divisions are, ultimately, a matter of differences in shared experience–vocational experience in particular. Differences in shared experience are related to nearness and similarity; people are especially likely to form group identities with those to whom they perceive themselves to be geographically close and similar in culture or likeness. If someone lives far away and has no relation to you, you probably don’t perceive any deep commonality with them–unless you simulate nearness with the help of, say, the Internet.

To draw a useful map of class in the United States, then, means knowing what are the most socially divisive differences in vocational experience–in other words, the differences which are most likely to determine: 1) what kinds of people you live near and 2) what your (sub)cultural norms are, not to mention 3) your material conditions. Some of these might be: whether you have gone to college, whether you own a business, what your credentials are, etc. We can develop such a map in greater detail in the future, but for now we can distinguish an educated class–those living in what Charles Murray calls superZIPs–and an uneducated one. The two are easy to tell apart:

Several teenage church members spent a weekend helping to repair an elderly woman’s small house on a winding country road. For some, the experience was an eye-opener.

“I don’t usually encounter people who aren’t like us,” Zach Hannan, a River Hill High School senior who hopes to become a doctor, said as he joined adults replacing a damaged kitchen floor. He added, “I’m not used to seeing small houses.”

Hannan said that he has accompanied his parents, both psychologists, on cruises to Europe and Alaska and that most of his friends have been to Europe, too. Working nearby, Brandon Pelletier, who headed to Ohio State University this fall to study business, said his friends all have smartphones and shop for high-end clothes at the local mall.

So why, with all this in mind, are “America’s most progressive cities” in the process of “losing African Americans”? For the same reason that Chicanos in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago want “White hipsters” to stop moving in: the educated class is culturally unlike the urban minorities in places like Chicago and Austin, and, more to the point, it makes use of material conditions–gainful employment, home ownership, stable location, etc.–that the uneducated, of any race, urban or rural, do not enjoy in the same proportion. It wields greater social capital as well as economic capital, and both are dependent on social networks which members of the uneducated classes tend not to belong to. This means that, as happily egalitarian as the gentry might be, gentrification doesn’t somehow induct poor Blacks into their ranks. Eric Tang at the Washington Post answers his own question, and does so in terms of class:

It’s not that these cities are no longer liberal, per se, but that the brand of (neo)liberalism they now celebrate is unaccountable to the concerns championed by lower-waged workers[.]
[…]
It’s a liberalism that has, quite literally, left no room for the low-waged worker, particularly African Americans.

Not to mention poor and rural Whites, who not only do not benefit from affirmative action, but are discriminated against by universities. Whatever “White privilege” the educated class has, poor Whites are missing out.

Progressivism, then, is a signal of class; perhaps the greatest impediment to its acceptance by more Americans is economic insecurity. After all, if you went to a good school and make more money than most of the country, bloating the bureaucracy a little more doesn’t sound so bad. But if your livelihood is threatened by possible layoffs, high rent, and debt–in other words, if you’re one of an increasing number among the uneducated middle classes–voting Democrat may be simply unaffordable.

One doesn’t get the sense that middle- and working-class people are as conscious of this as they were, say, a century ago. Americans seem no longer to be as suspicious of the very wealthy as they once were. With the neoliberal GOP moving leftward on social issues and the Democrats losing their economic populism, we are left with two brands of big-government quasi-libertarianism: one for the dwindling middle class, and one for the gentry and their expanding class of dependents. Huey Long and William Jennings Bryan would find both parties hostile to what they stood for; more to the point, so would most of the American political establishment prior to the late 20th century.

To think that the implementation of egalitarian ideas would cause such an ever-growing class divide–an increasingly racial one at that!

Predicting the (Virtual) Future

Writing at his Forbes blog Modeled Behavior, Adam Ozimek offers a few speculative thoughts on what the year 2045 might look like.  While his piece is brief and interesting throughout, and should therefore be read in full, his prediction concerning virtual reality caught my attention.

My second prediction is we will spend a disturbing (to us) amount of time in virtual reality. Right now humans spend a tremendous amount of time staring at screens that basically amount to a moving flat picture. Perhaps eventually brains will adapt and learn to not trust virtual reality, but the early reports are suggesting the coming VR is very good at tricking us into feeling strong emotional and even physical responses. What will happen to the demand for the virtual world when it goes from flat moving pictures to immersive experiences capable of inducing emotional responses that closely mimic real life? I believe it will explode, for good and for bad. Importantly, our sphere of empathy will expand as we have the opportunity to “walk in other people’s shoes” in a very realistic way.

This is dead-on in my view.  The answer to his question “what will happen to demand?” is that it will explode, of course. We can probably shave fifteen years off the predictive timeframe as well and find virtual reality use to be not only common in wealthier nations but quite consuming as well, especially among the younger demographics.

Widespread use of virtual reality matters…a lot…and for a variety of reasons.   The most important is that, a lot of sticky and tough questions notwithstanding, certain VR experiences could amount to a referendum on actual reality.  About a year ago, on this blog, I made the case that even early versions of VR technology were likely to meet the minimum hurdles to become just that.  Effectively, they’d be real-life incarnations of low-level experience machines, famed philosopher Robert Nozick’s term for his made-up contraptions that can trick you into believing you are actually experiencing any thing you can imagine happening in reality, all while your physical body floats, lifeless, in the machine.  His point was that most people would not choose to live in the machine the rest of their lives, but rather, people value something beyond just felt experiences alone; most people aren’t hedonists.  Here’s the gist of why VR might actually qualify as an experience machine sometime soon:

More interesting for the philosophical ramifications of early VR however, is that it does not have to match Nozick’s experience inventory to claim the title of “an” experience machine. Once the realism requirement is met in a single experience, any experience, then we have a limited version of the full-blown thing.

Unraveling Nozick’s selection criterion revealed that those who choose not to plug into a prototype machine could be doing so for multiple reasons, which spoils the thought experiment. The flip side is that, by logical extension, those who do in fact choose to plug into a crude, work-in-progress machine have answered Nozick’s fundamental question. If your benchmark for plugging in is already met with the options of experiences A, B, and C, then the additional options of experiences D or E won’t cause you to change your mind. This simple point allows for virtual reality to provide hard data on the thought experiment in the (very?) near future. If there is even one experience that today’s VR can clear the realism hurdle on, then I submit that we are already beyond the hypothetical.

As Adam correctly points out, virtual reality will deliver both benefits and costs to humankind.  Since his only example (increasing empathy) lands on the benefit side of the equation, allow me to offer an opposing one to balance the scales:  Widespread use of certain VR experiences in 2045 will represent hard evidence that, contra Nozick, many people are merely closet hedonists, and the fundamental value of acting in reality will be, directionally, devalued and marginalized relative to today.

Of course, this prediction doesn’t merely balance the scales, it sends one end crashing down under tremendous weight.  Any benefits introduced by VR in the “real” world will implicitly be marginalized as well since they occur in actual reality.  If, on average, members of global society determine reality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, whether they realize they are saying so or not, then those benefits are undermined to some extent.

In the end, the thorny philosophical issues that VR raises require more investigation, and soon, in my opinion.  In the meantime, if we are slouching towards hidden referendums on reality, then that should be discussed in detail as well.  And if others aren’t quite as concerned about the consequences, then shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

(Image source)