Regional Gods and local heroes

Despite the cultural arc of history of the past 500 years — the efforts toward emancipation and the relentless rise of science and technology — humanity appears terribly, one might even say, hopelessly, stuck. The habits and predispositions of our past — religious conflict, otherworldly superstitions, clannishly suspicious tribalism, and irrational hero-worship — all combine into a dark, sludgy stickiness from which we find ourselves unable to escape.

Though psychological insights point to dark, shame-filled recesses of the unconscious to explain why humanity suffers so, such insightful explanations, though undoubtedly significant, have not dramatically altered our cyclical paroxysms of fear-induced violence, investments in instruments of death, and genocidal impulses. Like ignorant cave-dwellers, we continue to fuel conflicts based upon regional gods and local heroes.

Fifties songwriter Tom Lehrer poked fun at our enlightened pretentiousness with his lyrics to “National Brotherhood Week”: “Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics / and the Catholics hate the Protestants / and the Hindus hate the Muslims / and everybody hates the Jews…” It was biting then, and not funny today as the rise of religious extremism, hatred and faith-based terror continue to spread across the globe. Though the names of gods differ, excuses for such violence and intolerance are always the same, “Just following God’s word.”

Depredations of religious warfare should not be confused with genuine spiritual seeking, but they often are, particularly when institutional power melds with regional politics. Thus leaders who through charisma, calls to devotion, access to wealth, and brute exercise of authority, induce obedience of the public. Donald Trump, Narenda Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, Kim Jung Un, and Vladmir Putin are just the latest crop of local heroes driving civilization to the brink. One hundred years ago such leaders caused great harm, but their effects were often softened by the limits of their reach. Today, the risks are higher as an interdependent, globalized economy and ever more powerful tools of death sit poised to rain destruction upon the world.

Among insightful thinkers, such as Buckminster Fuller, who coined the term “Spaceship Earth”, Professor Kurt von Meier addressed these cultural issues in 1979, writing, “Transcending belief is the task of consciousness in coming to recognize itself. All of which prompts a few searching inquiries–specifically about the four “great killers” in the present history of our watery planet. They may be identified as pollution, population, climatic change, mismanagement of the earth’s resources.” Presciently, in considering energy, he noted, “The problem is not running short of fossil fuels, it is burning them.”

Regrettably, the insights and wisdom of thoughtful scholars and scientists largely go unheeded and forgotten. So wrapped up are we in our own personal struggles with belief, identity, relationships and freedom that only those issues that touch on our lives directly get much attention. Though communication is now global and nearly instantaneous, violence between Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan generally feels distant and Americans pay it scant attention until a bloody massacre tops the morning headlines.

Ultimately, climate change may soften our devotion to belief, though it’s likely rising tides and unusually severe weather will be considered “the will of God” by many. And heroes will continue to rise and fall, subjecting the world to the effects of their distorted personalities and perceptions. Society is, after all, simply human psychology writ large, and with over seven billion people on earth, it is writ very large, indeed.

Theft and corruption

Whenever there is wealth and property, (and for the past 5,000 years when has there not been?), theft and corruption accompany it. Greek mythology prominently features Hermes’ theft of Apollo’s cattle, and virtually all major religions include prohibitions against theft. The Ten Commandments includes it on the list in various forms, Islam’s punishment of thievery is harsh, and Buddhists and Hindus believe thieves suffer rebirth as rats or jackals. And as for corruption, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” speaks to the corruption of truth through false testimony.

American law largely focuses upon property and the consequences of theft and corruption. By swearing to “tell the truth and nothing but the truth” a witness promises not to lie; perjury — lying under oath — is a punishable offense.

Despite laws, precepts and prohibitions, however, theft and corruption are not just likely to happen, they predictably do. Accordingly, wealth is protected through systems and methods of accountability designed to uncover attempts to gain it unlawfully from others. Nonetheless, credit card fraud, for example, the theft of private wealth, runs into the billions each year.

Public wealth is comprised of collective funds and property safeguarded by governmental or non-profit institutions. Public wealth is particularly vulnerable to theft and corruption, and in order to insure it is safeguarded, standards and regulations are imposed. Government and non-profits are constituted specifically for public benefit, and trustfulness is at the very heart of their ability to function. Nobody wants to think that anyone working in government or non-profits could in any way be dishonest, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.

It is precisely for these reasons that proper financial accounting and the arms-length services of outside auditors is required of government entities. The notion that “it can’t happen here” is naive and untrue; it can happen and does. Though most employees in government and non-profits are hardworking and honest, history teaches that vigilance and compliance with proper accounting procedures is essential. The amounts of money and material flowing through government is massive, and the temptation to steal it is massive as well. Unless processes and procedures to insure honest compliance are properly and consistently applied, the weakest links in the chain of public trust will be broken.

Betrayal of the public trust is so endemic that an entirely new legal category of employee was created, namely the “whistleblower.” Whistleblowers make public the secrets about theft,  corruption and dishonesty that organizations prefer to keep hidden and under wraps, and prior to the passage of laws to protect the jobs of whistleblowers, telling secrets was a risky endeavor. Even with “whistleblower protection” laws in place, workplace relationships, long-standing codes of silence and job vulnerability make speaking up too challenging for many. Seen as a betrayal, some people feel whistleblowing is akin to snitching, being “a rat.” Most workers feel it’s easier and safer to “keep your trap shut.”

An essential job of citizenship is to make sure government and institutions properly protect the publics’ wealth. This means paying attention, asking questions and speaking up publicly to draw attention to potential problems. It means accepting responsibility for keeping track of not just one’s own possessions, but public possessions as well: money, equipment and other assets.

It’s unfortunate that worrying about theft and corruption occupies much of our space and time; however, given the lure of temptation, worry we citizens must.

The instrumentality of machine intelligence

Grain being ground to flour using grinding stones

Generally, we divide the history of human culture between the Paleolithic and Neolithic, “Paleolithic” meaning “Old Stone Age” and “Neolithic” meaning “New Stone Age.” The Old Stone Age included the use of tools, particularly wood, stone, flint and obsidian to fashion tools and weapons using techniques of stone flaking to produce sharp edges for cutting and points for piercing. Evidence of such Paleolithic industry is widespread, and indications are that Old Stone Age cultures survived for tens or hundreds of thousands of years utilizing such technology.

The nature of pre-paleolithic human culture is unknown; all that remains are teeth and bones. Fire — observing, creating, and sustaining it — was presumably the primary technology used.

The Neolithic, the New Stone Age, introduced grinding stone technology; with the domestication of grain came the development of fixed agriculture and cities, which promoted the need for large scale production methods and the beginnings of the use of machines. Those first machines, moving devices with energy supplied by animals or people, set the stage for all that followed. From moving wheels with water, steam, coal and oil to today’s solid state digital computers, all have their roots in the Neolithic. The grinding wheel represents an early form of the instrumentality of machine intelligence and its imperatives.

Each new technology not only renders earlier technologies obsolete, but also transforms and replaces cultures dependent upon those earlier technologies. In this way, the evolution of machine intelligence profoundly influences the evolution of human culture; the instrumentality of machines and their imperatives molds the psychology of people. The most obvious example of this is the clock, instrumentality originally used to facilitate tracking hours of prayer that now dominates all aspects of modern human life and effectively transforms human beings into machine-like, virtual slaves to technology.

With digital technology, machine intelligence engendered cyber-self identity. People have always maintained multiple identities, simultaneously individuals, members of families, groups, tribes, religions and nations. To this set of multiple identities, we can now include cyber-selves, digital, immaterial representations of each person existing in tandem with actual physical selves. As we act and function as physical beings, so too our cyber-selves act out their identities. In this sense, our cyber-selves propagate cyber-lives, existing within cyber-space where as information they travel, change form, are queried and categorized, especially when it comes to financial matters. Each time our material selves choose to purchase something using a credit card, our cyber-selves are altered.

The imperatives of machine intelligence are progressively making the reality of our cyber-selves more powerful than our physical selves. Our surrender to technology is growing as rapidly as the evolution of machine intelligence, which with the development of AI (artificially intelligent thinking machines) is rapid indeed. AI is machine intelligence explicitly turned inwards; rather than simply relying on the mechanisms of cultural change, AI machine intelligence is effectively designing itself to merge with human beings and ultimately to become indistinguishable from people themselves.

The ancient Greeks used the word “techne” to describe methodology, a term that’s at the root of our words “technique” and “technology.” Those with “techne” skills were able to invent strategies and methods to overcome others and even challenge the Olympian gods. The “techne” of machine intelligence is doing just that, remolding humanity into its own image and moving towards the god-like design of life itself.

The limits of freedom

The word “freedom” implies “no limits,” the presumption that free will alone constrains human action; but of course, we all know that with freedom comes limitations. Though English philosopher Thomas Hobbes built an entire belief system on the premise of the autonomous individual, he acknowledged that human social experience bears a deep imprint on individual autonomy.

The Reformation elevated the role of the individual in Christian life by rejecting the claim that intercession of a Catholic Pope was required by individuals to establish a relationship to God. We can draw a line connecting the Reformation, the rise of individualism, the Age of Enlightenment and the experiment in American Democracy, all of which incorporated, to greater or lesser degrees, freedom.

Today’s world displays varying degrees of personal, political and religious freedom ranging from very little to quite a lot. We American’s like to think we enjoy quite a lot of freedom, and for those of us who are not occupying the ethnic, religious, racial or gender margins of society, it’s true. And yet, it may be that the degree of personal freedom we enjoy is going to destroy not only human culture, but most life forms on planet Earth. Having conflated individual freedom with the concept of “rights” we now find ourselves in a bind. Our freedom to pollute, poison, and profit from the exploitation of nature has taken an enormous toll on our planet and unless that freedom and the “right” to wreak havoc is constrained, the Earth’s 6th Great Extinction may soon be upon us.

We can see that resistance to constraining our particularly American style of freedom is mighty. Oil companies, agri-business, and global capitalism have never taken the long view in determining the ecological impacts of their quest for profit. Having thoroughly corrupted American politics they suffer few constraints and are working hard to eliminate those remaining; the dismantling of the EPA and its regulations is but one example of the ways in which corporations’ claims to freedom are marched out to muster political and consumer support.

But even on the individual consumer level, constraints on freedom are resisted; such is the unfortunate legacy of liberty. Accordingly, each of us is free to consume beyond our means, produce waste and garbage for which we take no responsibility and bear no appropriate cost, burn fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gasses, and discard endocrine-disrupting plastics that have now entered the global food chain. This is the downside of freedom in America, and a similar ethic has taken hold in the rest of the world.

People are notoriously poor at giving things up, even when such consumption is harmful. The wealthy have enough to give to charity, but it does not translate into their changing their own habits of consumption; giving money away is easier than giving up driving, air-travel or plastic wrap. Consumerism could be the most powerful political weapon on the planet if people were willing to stop consuming particular products en masse, but that would mean changing personal habits, and history indicates consumers won’t do that easily, if at all. Instead, like watching a slow-motion train wreck, America continues to lead the world in consumption and waste while the Earth gets hotter, the ice caps melt, and plant and animal species disappear.

Freedom’s just another word for everything to lose.

Society recapitulates phylogeny

I recall my high school biology teacher, Mr. Ricci, explaining the phrase “Ontology Recapitulates Phylogeny”, as much because his long, snagged teeth made saying it nearly impossible for him to say, an amusing moment for us sophomores, as for the sheer poetry of its sound. It’s meaning — that as a fetus develops it physically displays its evolutionary genetic path — was made memorable by slides of human embryos varyingly displaying decidedly inhuman features such as proto-gills and tails. Embedded within the human genome is the history of animal life on earth.

It’s not mere history, however. Our physical selves have evolved, but various pre-human features remain embedded deeply within and under layers of accumulated change. This is true, particularly, of the human brain, which retains primordial structures and neural networks buried under masses of evolutionarily acquired nerve tissues such as the cerebellum and cerebral cortex. The “reptile brain,” in this sense, literally refers to the oldest brain structures organized with archaic threat and aggression networks vital to survival of any animal organism and still active in everyday human life.

So, too, the “mammalian brain” is at work, stimulating bonding hormones like Oxytocin that operate on the emotional centers of the brain, making matters of trust and security central to our human lives. While birds and some reptiles often protect and feed their young for a short while, mammals experience relatively long periods of dependence and human beings have the longest period of child-rearing dependence of all mammals, by far.

Thus, socially, we witness the manifestation of our genetic inheritance in observing the ways we treat and mis-treat each other, partially due to the over-sized influence of one part of the brain — like the reptile part — or another. Add to this matter of genetics both epi-genetics, the influence of environment and experience on living things, and the vagaries of chance. Epi-genetic “memory” — the effect of experiences such as severe hunger, physical abuse, feeling loved — is transferred from parent to child and to successive generations just as surely as physical genes themselves, inhibiting and exciting gene expression, ie: turning genes “on” or “off.” How we raise our children resonates through future family history.

Chance, spontaneous genetic mutation, may account for the ascent of Homo sapiens altogether. Current human genome studies indicate the inclusion of many more “junk” genes than previously predicted. Embedded in each of us is not only the genetic history of all animals, but non-animal life as well such as viruses. Our cellular mitochondria — the organelles within each living cell that are essential in supplying energy — appear to have been shanghaied by primitive animal life from bacteria, and contain their own DNA. In short, people are a genetic melting pot, largely erasing the validity of hard boundaries and distinctions human society outwardly prefers.

We are not as autonomously human as we suppose. And the implications? Chill, people. Yes, the world can be threatening and dangerous, and five hundred years ago being killed by a wild animal was a legitimate threat. Today our greatest threats reside in our imagination and the ways in which it stimulates our primitive reptile brains. Better we rely upon our mammalian brain, upon confidence in trust and security, and our capacities for reason, understanding and empathy. For to fall prey to fear-based reptilian patterns of behavior, from an evolutionary standpoint, is tantamount to moving backwards.

Eating out side of the box

It’s come to this; shopping, food preparation and cooking are so burdensome that corporate America has concluded a smart profit’s to be made from a niche target market, namely, those adults who are unwilling to eat frozen dinners or have Grub Hub deliver restaurant take-out but are too busy, inexperienced or lazy to shop, prep and cook for themselves or their families.

Enter the geniuses who figured out that meal-planning and ingredients delivered in a cardboard box could reassure those who’ve never really mastered shopping and cooking but who want to feel like responsible adults in the kitchen. Given the number of ads from companies who have entered the meal-kit space, there are plenty of guilt-ridden people out there willing and able to pay a premium price to eat at home.

Most all of us are a long ways away from the days when we’d pick veggies from our home gardens and lop the head off a chicken to be plucked and butchered. The trajectory from America’s agrarian past to today’s sanitized, pre-packaged food kits parallels the ways in which our relationship to nature has been thoroughly altered. We now rely on an industrial food production system, virtual food factories cranking out edibles the same way we crank out automobiles. In a spacious realm between fast-food and home cooking, a vast market of food illiterates awaits salvation, easy targets for the latest in time-saving devices.

Set aside the fact that most Americans don’t know how to properly use a kitchen knife to slice an onion; our relationship to food is like much else in modern life: objectified. We’re losing our hands-on experience of the world in favor of manufactured or virtual experience. In many if not most cases, these experiences are in response to the profit motives of others. Our loss is others’ gain, capitalism’s classic scenario.

I’ve been shopping and cooking for my family since I left home at eighteen. I grew up in a house where food prep and cooking were on display every day, and luckily for me, my mother was a fantastic cook. She’d learned from her mother and grandmother and used to tell me tales of homemade cottage cheese hanging in cheesecloth over her childhood kitchen sink. Every night our family sat down around the dinner table while my mother served up yet another wonderful meal made from scratch. Admittedly, in the 1950s a middle-class housewife had far less household financial responsibility than today and far more time to shop and cook.

Today’s meal-kit industry has stepped into our present social chasm, but although their television commercials feature happy-looking homemakers wielding spatulas while assembling and serving an attractive dish, no attention is paid to honoring techniques of the humble kitchen knife. I suspect many of these meals end up unprepared and discarded in the trash or served looking far less attractive than they do on TV. And do these budding home chefs know what good food actually tastes like?

Cooking shows are very popular today–not Julia Child type shows–but cooking competitions, contests about who can eat the most, or sensationalist displays of eating grilled beetle grubs. Food as entertainment fits neatly into the new meal-kit concept as image replaces authenticity. Eating frozen dinners or delivered pizza gets old fast, and self-image improvement drives some people to explore actually buying and preparing food for themselves. Who knows, perhaps a spin down the supermarket produce aisles is next?

Screen time — then and now

Much is being made at present about the effects of screen time, particularly on children. Screen time, of course, refers to the time spent engaged with one’s smart phone, iPad or laptop, which by all accounts has skyrocketed to epidemic proportions. Issues of attention deficits and addictive behavior have arisen, not to mention the effects of the content delivered on such devices. Ironically these very same concerns were expressed while I was growing up in the 1950s and televisions were found in most every living room in America.

Early television programming was graphically and technologically unsophisticated; much of it was modeled on theatrical principles and even included programs with curtained stages where performers would speak to the “audience.” The Ed Sullivan Show, which featured a variety of performers, is one such example, and the Jack Benny Program began and ended on a curtained stage, as well. Content was king; the technology itself was a simple, one-way information and entertainment delivery system much like its predecessor, radio.

I’d come home after school and plunk myself down in front of the TV to watch such fare as Sky King or The Three Stooges, televised Hollywood one-reel movie shorts from the 30s and 40s. There was some original kids programming, but it too was pretty mild. For younger kids, Howdy Doody–the marionette puppet–and a wide-ranging cast of stereotypical characters like Chief Thunderthud and Mr. Bluster, served as appropriate children’s fare, alongside the Mickey Mouse Club. Captain Kangaroo served as the period’s softer, more “educational” character. “Watching stupid TV again, I see,” my father would say as he arrived home from a day’s work. Yet, no blood was shown; the televised violence of the 1950s was antiseptic. That content has completely changed, and current television is a blood-fest of bullets, gore, dismemberment, zombies, torture and deadly explosions.

Screen time today includes something entirely different. Content is delivered–movies, television series, pod-casts and the like; however, the other elements of modern technology have no precedent, namely it’s virtually instantaneous feedback mechanism. Digital wireless technology has enabled an extendable, interconnected social network, a globalized feedback loop that can be customized by each individual. Customization allows creation of “tribal” networks, false identities, fake news, affinity groups, cyber-bullying, security hacks, “phishing”, credit scams, identity theft, black markets for drugs and weapons, and 24/7 encrypted messaging. Much of this hides behind a curtain of technology ignorance on the part of most screen-users, whose private lives are unwittingly exploited.

I grew up part of America’s TV Generation–looking back–a time of innocence. Those growing up today are immersed within a complex and far from innocent media environment which shows signs of ever more sophisticated manipulation. The readiness with which new technologies are embraced insures that those who prey on others will suffer no shortage of unwitting victims. The lure of the screen is too powerful; resistance is futile.

Media critic Marshall McLuhan foresaw all this coming; presciently, in his 1972 book “Understanding Media” he wrote of re-tribalization engendered by electronic media and subsequent fragmentation of society. We are just now witnessing the fulfillment of his prophesy as traditional standards of modernity are discarded in favor of long-standing resentments, ethnic conflicts, gender dynamics and political allegiances. Ironically, the technology that with one hand unifies the world simultaneously tears it asunder with the other.