Philosophy

Lessons from living with an Amazonian tribe

Or, how to unlearn your first-world problems:

  • You learn to ignore the mosquitoes. And hunger. And all the other stuff too.
  • Everyone depends on everyone else
  • Lack of distraction leads to deeper thinking
  • Everything else seems easier afterward

The shape of time

I thought I’d posted about this before, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of the “B-Theory” of time, and world lines, and the possibility of our actions in the present forming something visible outside of time. So here’s a post that includes all those words that I can add to when I find new stuff.

  • The Growing Block universe is another formulation: “The present is an objective property, to be compared with a moving spotlight. By the passage of time more of the world comes into being; therefore, the block universe is said to be growing. The growth of the block is supposed to happen in the present, a very thin slice of spacetime, where more of spacetime is continually coming into being.”
“Pretty good. The ending was a bit predictable.”- New Yorker

Anything and everything

Carson tonight, from under a towel:

Dad, I can’t see anything! I can only see everything.

He must have been reading William Blake and Wallace Stevens.

So perfect no one will need to be good

So much for futurism?

They constantly try to escape

From the darkness outside and within

By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

But the man that is shall shadow

The man that pretends to be.

T.S. Eliot

Big and small world

“In my room, the world is beyond my understanding; But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.” – Wallace Stevens

Theses of Technology

Some surprisingly good theses of technology by Alan Jacobs. He’s really not a fan of Kevin Kelly. A few of my favorites:

  • To “pay” attention is not a metaphor: Attending to something is an economic exercise, an exchange with uncertain returns.
  • Mindfulness reduces mental health to a single, simple technique that delivers its user from the obligation to ask any awkward questions about what his or her mind is and is not attending to.
  • The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.
  • Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.
  • [Kevin] Kelly tells us “What Technology Wants,” but it doesn’t: We want, with technology as our instrument.
  • The contemporary version of the pathetic fallacy is to attribute agency not to nature but to algorithms—as though humans don’t write algorithms. But they do.
  • What does it say about our understanding of human intelligence that we think it is something that can be assessed by a one-off “test” [the Turing Test]—and one that is no test at all, but an impression of the moment?
  • The chief purpose of technology under capitalism is to make commonplace actions one had long done painlessly seem intolerable.
  • Embrace the now intolerable.
  • Everyone should sometimes write by hand, to recall what it’s like to have second thoughts before the first ones are completely recorded.
  • To shift from typing to (hand)writing to speaking is to be instructed in the relations among minds, bodies, and technologies.
  • The always-connected forget the pleasures of disconnection, then become impervious to them.

The impact of the future

I recently read an article bemoaning the recent spate of dystopian and utopian movies; arguing that by visualizing dire fictional situations and how those characters get out of them, we dull our responses to the real-world dangers all around us. Rather than learning helpful attitudes and strategies, we learn to be spectators.

At least that’s what I think it said, because I couldn’t find the article again when looking for it. I did find several other interesting pieces referencing this topic, however, that are worth noting.

Todd Mitchell writes that “post-apocalyptic books offer us an escape from denial“–specifically, the denial of deep-seated problems in our society, environment, and selves. He views it as a starting point for action:

In some ways this is similar to the Greek notion of catharsis, but it’s not quite the same thing. Where catharsis offers an audience a way to release emotion (and blow off some steam), dystopian and post-apocalyptic books offer us a way to escape the constant cultural need to deny the underlying problems of our society.

Noah Berlatsky uses Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (on my nightstand now) to argue that dystopias, to the utopian protagonists, are not “not a nightmare of the future, but a nightmare that there is a future at all—and a past, and a series of exciting events connecting the two. To be in history is to be in a dystopic narrative illusion.” To those who imagine a better world, a dynamic system is terrible–far better to get to a perfect place and never change a thing.

Claire Evans writes that what we need isn’t more far-future utopias or dystopias–rather, we need “something new: a form of science fiction that tackles the radical changes of our pressing and strange reality.”

But purely apocalyptic stories don’t help us reckon with reality’s slower, but equally devastating, emergencies – forests that vanish acre by acre, sea levels that rise a few millimeters each year, demand for consumer goods that gradually leech the planet’s resources…

The point is to show them not just how the story ends but how we might get through the middle – while we still have a shot at changing it.

In response to the newest installments of Star Trek and Mad Max, Brogan Morris writes that dystopias and utopias face different challenges in impacting society. Utopias can give us a free pass to sit back and let problems inevitably solve themselves:

Glorious utopian visions like Star Trek’s, though, all too often fail to address contemporary issues. Such optimism tends to ignore problems by implying the future is rosy regardless of our actions today…

Interstellar’s conclusion is troublingly cheerful, though: when an advanced, spacetime-manipulating future race comes to the rescue at the eleventh hour, humanity is saved. A sideswiping twist, to be sure, but one based in impossible pseudo-science, offering hope that’s totally out of our reach. It suggests our survival as a species is inevitable, if only we sit back and wait for something other than ourselves to save us.

While dystopias can leave us too depressed to act:

In Fury Road, what’s left of the human race continues to wage war and wring the Earth dry of fossil fuels, even though the planet is already a desert as a consequence of man’s actions (and simultaneous inaction)…its subtext couldn’t be more serious: we either divest and disarm, or lose the world to more chaos, more hardship, more despair.

The best approach seems to be providing hope without a free pass; challenge without despair; a thread of possibility leading out of the darkness:

It’s difficult to measure the impact of dystopian fiction on film. We know 1983’s speculative nuclear holocaust drama The Day After so depressed Ronald Reagan that it convinced him to rethink his ideas on nuclear proliferation…Such concrete examples of dystopian cinema having a direct meaningful influence, however, are rare. The best dystopian films instead tend to contribute to ongoing discussions or create indelible images of our fears of tomorrow.

In Stuart Candy’s 2010 thesis The Futures of Everyday Life, he notes that there isn’t yet a great framework for measuring the impact of futures work (especially the experiential kind he practices):

To discuss such seemingly disparate configurations in terms of their experiential features and impact enables a perspective which has X-ray glasses with respect to conventional boundaries of discipline, medium and setting; boundaries that hide their fundamental comparability…

A valuable next step in the research agenda suggested by this would be to design and implement more systematic evaluations, such as ethnographic observation or post-intervention questionnaires of participants across different conditions.

Futurist pioneer Fred Polak noted in The Image of the Future that in order to imagine a different world, we must mentally separate ourselves into the real and “The Other”:

Man is only able to conceive of the existence of The Other, the something which is basically different from the here and now, because his mental structure has a dividing property built into it. … It is the capacity for mental division which enables man to be a citizen of two worlds, this world and an imagined world.

Does imagining the “other” living in a different world cause us to draw closer to it, or to give up our hope of reaching that place? The key seems to be connecting our real selves to that imagined place, perhaps through experiences of the type Candy designs.

The Kony 2012 phenomenon gives new insight into these issues. As Dinaw Mengestu writes, Joseph Kony turned out to be more than “a click away”:

The most common defense of Kony 2012 is that it raises awareness. This is the new activist model – to raise awareness through the power of our celebrities…[But] no one denies that Kony should be brought to justice. Millions of Americans may not have known that before, but millions of Africans have, and thousands of people have been working valiantly for years to do just that.

Change has never come with a click, or a tweet; lives are not saved by bracelets. We all want solutions, but why should we think or expect an easy one exists for a twenty-year-old conflict in Uganda when we have none for the wars we’re engaged in now…

If we care, then we should care enough to say that we need to know more, that we don’t have an easy answer, but that we’re going to stay and work until we find one. You can’t put that on a t-shirt or a poster. You can’t tweet that, but you can live by it.

At the end of the day, there is change that you feel, and change that you live. We need to find ways to create more of the latter.

Future strangers

Couched in an article about procrastination is this fascinating study result:

Using fMRI, Hershfield and colleagues studied brain activity changes when people imagine their future and consider their present…their neural activity when they described themselves in a decade was similar to that when they described Matt Damon or Natalie Portman.

If our future selves are truly strangers to us, that affects how we design behavior change and plan for the future. We need to build empathy with ourselves the same ways we build it with others–through trying new experiences, challenging our beliefs, and cultivating curiosity about the unknown. This points to an experiential futures approach to design, as well as a need for individual, interactive tools for people to explore their own possible futures. And it suggests that successful approaches will address the emotional side of decisions as much or more than rational thoughts.

It’s an important aspect to consider when designing the future. After all, the next stranger you encounter could be…you!

The problem with the future

Too busy to rest

Elizabeth Kolbert summarizes the new book Overwhelmed with a comparison to what John Maynard Keynes expected our society to become.

By 2028, he predicted, the “standard of life” in Europe and the United States would be so improved that no one would need to worry about making money. “Our grandchildren,” Keynes reckoned, would work about three hours a day, and even this reduced schedule would represent more labor than was actually necessary…

In the future, Keynes imagined, the fruits of capitalism would redeem capitalism…

It is, to say the least, disappointing that things haven’t turned out that way—that inequality has grown, that leisure is scarce, that even the rich complain of being overwhelmed. And yet so much of what we do, collectively and individually, suggests that we still believe more wealth is the answer. Reexamining this belief would probably be a good idea—that is, if anyone had the time for it.