Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Delusion of Control

I'm sure most of my readers have heard at least a little of the hullaballoo surrounding the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. It’s been entertaining to watch, not least because so many politicians in the United States who like to use Vatican pronouncements as window dressing for their own agendas have been left scrambling for cover now that the wind from Rome is blowing out of a noticeably different quarter.

Take Rick Santorum, a loudly Catholic Republican who used to be in the US Senate and now spends his time entertaining a variety of faux-conservative venues with his signature flavor of hate speech. Santorum loves to denounce fellow Catholics who disagree with Vatican edicts as “cafeteria Catholics,” and announced a while back that John F. Kennedy’s famous defense of the separation of church and state made him sick to his stomach. In the wake of Laudato Si, care to guess who’s elbowing his way to the head of the cafeteria line? Yes, that would be Santorum, who’s been insisting since the encyclical came out that the Pope is wrong and American Catholics shouldn’t be obliged to listen to him.

What makes all the yelling about Laudato Si a source of wry amusement to me is that it’s not actually a radical document at all. It’s a statement of plain common sense. It should have been obvious all along that treating the air as a gaseous sewer was a really dumb idea, and in particular, that dumping billions upon billions of tons of infrared-reflecting gases into the atmosphere would change its capacity for heat retention in unwelcome ways. It should have been just as obvious that all the other ways we maltreat the only habitable planet we’ve got were guaranteed to end just as badly. That this wasn’t obvious—that huge numbers of people find it impossible to realize that you can only wet your bed so many times before you have to sleep in a damp spot—deserves much more attention than it’s received so far.

It’s really a curious blindness, when you think about it. Since our distant ancestors climbed unsteadily down from the trees of late Pliocene Africa, the capacity to anticipate threats and do something about them has been central to the success of our species. A rustle in the grass might indicate the approach of a leopard, a series of unusually dry seasons might turn the local water hole into undrinkable mud: those of our ancestors who paid attention to such things, and took constructive action in response to them, were more likely to survive and leave offspring than those who shrugged and went on with business as usual. That’s why traditional societies around the world are hedged about with a dizzying assortment of taboos and customs meant to guard against every conceivable source of danger.

Somehow, though, we got from that to our present situation, where substantial majorities across the world’s industrial nations seem unable to notice that something bad can actually happen to them, where thoughtstoppers of the “I’m sure they’ll think of something” variety take the place of thinking about the future, and where, when something bad does happen to someone, the immediate response is to find some way to blame the victim for what happened, so that everyone else can continue to believe that the same thing can’t happen to them. A world where Laudato Si is controversial, not to mention necessary, is a world that’s become dangerously detached from the most basic requirements of collective survival.

For quite some time now, I’ve been wondering just what lies behind the bizarre paralogic with which most people these days turn blank and uncomprehending eyes on their onrushing fate. The process of writing last week’s blog post on the astonishing stupidity of US foreign policy, though, seems to have helped me push through to clarity on the subject. I may be wrong, but I think I’ve figured it out.

Let’s begin with the issue at the center of last week’s post, the realy remarkable cluelessness with which US policy toward Russia and China has convinced both nations they have nothing to gain from cooperating with a US-led global order, and are better off allying with each other and opposing the US instead. US politicians and diplomats made that happen, and the way they did it was set out in detail in a recent and thoughtful article by Paul R. Pillar in the online edition of The National Interest.

Pillar’s article pointed out that the United States has evolved a uniquely counterproductive notion of how negotiation works. Elsewhere on the planet, people understand that when you negotiate, you’re seeking a compromise where you get whatever you most need out of the situation, while the other side gets enough of its own agenda met to be willing to cooperate. To the US, by contrast, negotiation means that the other side complies with US demands, and that’s the end of it. The idea that other countries might have their own interests, and might expect to receive some substantive benefit in exchange for cooperation with the US, has apparently never entered the heads of official Washington—and the absence of that idea has resulted in the cascading failures of US foreign policy in recent years.

It’s only fair to point out that the United States isn’t the only practitioner of this kind of self-defeating behavior. A first-rate example has been unfolding in Europe in recent months—yes, that would be the ongoing non-negotiations between the Greek government and the so-called troika, the coalition of unelected bureaucrats who are trying to force Greece to keep pursuing a failed economic policy at all costs. The attitude of the troika is simple: the only outcome they’re willing to accept is capitulation on the part of the Greek government, and they’re not willing to give anything in return. Every time the Greek government has tried to point out to the troika that negotiation usually involves some degree of give and take, the bureaucrats simply give them a blank look and reiterate their previous demands.

That attitude has had drastic political consequences. It’s already convinced Greeks to elect a radical leftist government in place of the compliant centrists who ruled the country in the recent past. If the leftists fold, the neofascist Golden Dawn party is waiting in the wings. The problem with the troika’s stance is simple: the policies they’re insisting that Greece must accept have never—not once in the history of market economies—produced anything but mass impoverishment and national bankruptcy. The Greeks, among many other people, know this; they know that Greece will not return to prosperity until it defaults on its foreign debts the way Russia did in 1998, and scores of other countries have done as well.

If the troika won’t settle for a negotiated debt-relief program, and the current Greek government won’t default, the Greeks will elect someone else who will, no matter who that someone else happens to be; it’s that, after all, or continue along a course that’s already caused the Greek economy to lose a quarter of its precrisis GDP, and shows no sign of stopping anywhere this side of failed-state status. That this could quite easily hand Greece over to a fascist despot is just one of the potential problems with the troika’s strategy. It’s astonishing that so few people in Europe seem to be able to remember what happened the last time an international political establishment committed itself to the preservation of a failed economic orthodoxy no matter what; those of my readers who don’t know what I’m talking about may want to pick up any good book on the rise of fascism in Europe between the wars.

Let’s step back from specifics, though, and notice the thinking that underlies the dysfunctional behavior in Washington and Brussels alike. In both cases, the people who think they’re in charge have lost track of the fact that Russia, China, and Greece have needs, concerns, and interests of their own, and aren’t simply dolls that the US or EU can pose at will. These other nations can, perhaps, be bullied by threats over the short term, but that’s a strategy with a short shelf life.  Successful diplomacy depends on giving the other guy reasons to want to cooperate with you, while demanding cooperation at gunpoint guarantees that the other guy is going to look for ways to shoot back.

The same sort of thinking in a different context underlies the brutal stupidity of American drone attacks in the Middle East. Some wag in the media pointed out a while back that the US went to war against an enemy 5,000 strong, we’ve killed 10,000 of them, and now there are only 20,000 left. That’s a good summary of the situation; the US drone campaign has been a total failure by every objective measure, having worked out consistently to the benefit of the Muslim extremist groups against which it’s aimed, and yet nobody in official Washington seems capable of noticing this fact.

It’s hard to miss the conclusion, in fact, that the Obama administration thinks that in pursuing its drone-strike program, it’s playing some kind of video game, which the United States can win if it can rack up enough points. Notice the way that every report that a drone has taken out some al-Qaeda leader gets hailed in the media: hey, we nailed a commander, doesn’t that boost our score by five hundred? In the real world, meanwhile the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by US drone strikes has become a core factor convincing Muslims around the world that the United States is just as evil as the jihadis claim, and thus sending young men by the thousands to join the jihadi ranks. Has anyone in the Obama administration caught on to this straightforward arithmetic of failure? Surely you jest.

For that matter, I wonder how many of my readers recall the much-ballyhooed “surge” in Afghanistan several years back.  The “surge” was discussed at great length in the US media before it was enacted on Afghan soil; talking heads of every persuasion babbled learnedly about how many troops would be sent, how long they’d stay, and so on. It apparently never occurred to anybody in the Pentagon or the White House that the Taliban could visit websites and read newspapers, and get a pretty good idea of what the US forces in Afghanistan were about to do. That’s exactly what happened, too; the Taliban simply hunkered down for the duration, and popped back up the moment the extra troops went home.

Both these examples of US military failure are driven by the same problem discussed earlier in the context of diplomacy: an inability to recognize that the other side will reliably respond to US actions in ways that further its own agenda, rather than playing along with the US. More broadly, it’s the same failure of thought that leads so many people to assume that the biosphere is somehow obligated to give us all the resources we want and take all the abuse we choose to dump on it, without ever responding in ways that might inconvenience us.

We can sum up all these forms of acquired stupidity in a single sentence: most people these days seem to have lost the ability to grasp that the other side can learn.

The entire concept of learning has been so poisoned by certain bad habits of contemporary thought that it’s probably necessary to pause here. Learning, in particular, isn’t the same thing as rote imitation. If you memorize a set of phrases in a foreign language, for example, that doesn’t mean you’ve learned that language. To learn the language means to grasp the underlying structure, so that you can come up with your own phrases and say whatever you want, not just what you’ve been taught to say.

In the same way, if you memorize a set of disconnected factoids about history, you haven’t learned history. This is something of a loaded topic right now in the US, because recent “reforms” in the American  public school system have replaced learning with rote memorization of disconnected factoids that are then regurgitated for multiple choice tests. This way of handling education penalizes those children who figure out how to learn, since they might well come up with answers that differ from the ones the test expects. That’s one of many ways that US education these days actively discourages learning—but that’s a subject for another post.

To learn is to grasp the underlying structure of a given subject of knowledge, so that the learner can come up with original responses to it. That’s what Russia and China did; they grasped the underlying structure of US diplomacy, figured out that they had nothing to gain by cooperating with that structure, and came up with a creative response, which was to ally against the United States. That’s what Greece is doing, too.  Bit by bit, the Greeks seem to be figuring out the underlying structure of troika policy, which amounts to the systematic looting of southern Europe for the benefit of Germany and a few of its allies, and are trying to come up with a response that doesn’t simply amount to unilateral submission.

That’s also what the jihadis and the Taliban are doing in the face of US military activity. If life hands you lemons, as the saying goes, make lemonade; if the US hands you drone strikes that routinely slaughter noncombatants, you can make very successful propaganda out of it—and if the US hands you a surge, you roll your eyes, hole up in your mountain fastnesses, and wait for the Americans to get bored or distracted, knowing that this won’t take long. That’s how learning works, but that’s something that US planners seem congenitally unable to take into account.

The same analysis, interestingly enough, makes just as much sense when applied to nonhuman nature. As Ervin Laszlo pointed out a long time ago in Introduction to Systems Philosophy, any sufficiently complex system behaves in ways that approximate intelligence.  Consider the way that bacteria respond to antibiotics. Individually, bacteria are as dumb as politicians, but their behavior on the species level shows an eerie similarity to learning; faced with antibiotics, a species of bacteria “tries out” different biochemical approaches until it finds one that sidesteps the antibiotic. In the same way, insects and weeds “try out” different responses to pesticides and herbicides until they find whatever allows them to munch on crops or flourish in the fields no matter how much poison the farmer sprays on them.

We can even apply the same logic to the environmental crisis as a whole. Complex systems tend to seek equilibrium, and will respond to anything that pushes them away from equilibrium by pushing back the other way. Any field biologist can show you plenty of examples: if conditions allow more rabbits to be born in a season, for instance, the population of hawks and foxes rises accordingly, reducing the rabbit surplus to a level the ecosystem can support. As humanity has put increasing pressure on the biosphere, the biosphere has begun to push back with increasing force, in an increasing number of ways; is it too much to think of this as a kind of learning, in which the biosphere “tries out” different ways to balance out the abusive behavior of humanity, until it finds one or more that work?

Now of course it’s long been a commonplace of modern thought that natural systems can’t possibly learn. The notion that nature is static, timeless, and unresponsive, a passive stage on which human beings alone play active roles, is welded into modern thought, unshaken even by the realities of biological evolution or the rising tide of evidence that natural systems are in fact quite able to adapt their way around human meddling. There’s a long and complex history to the notion of passive nature, but that’s a subject for another day; what interests me just now is that since 1990 or so, the governing classes of the United States, and some other Western nations as well, have applied the same frankly delusional logic to everything in the world other than themselves.

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” neoconservative guru Karl Rove is credited as saying to reporter Ron Suskind. “We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” That seems to be the thinking that governs the US government these days, on both sides of the supposed partisan divide. Obama says we’re in a recovery, and if the economy fails to act accordingly, why, rooms full of industrious flacks churn out elaborately fudged statistics to erase that unwelcome reality. That history’s self-proclaimed actors might turn out to be just one more set of flotsam awash on history’s vast tides has never entered their darkest dream.

Let’s step back from specifics again, though. What’s the source of this bizarre paralogic—the delusion that leads politicians to think that they create reality, and that everyone and everything else can only fill the roles they’ve been assigned by history’s actors?  I think I know. I think it comes from a simple but remarkably powerful fact, which is that the people in question, along with most people in the privileged classes of the industrial world, spend most of their time, from childhood on, dealing with machines.

We can define a machine as a subset of the universe that’s been deprived of the capacity to learn. The whole point of building a machine is that it does what you want, when you want it, and nothing else. Flip the switch on, and it turns on and goes through whatever rigidly defined set of behaviors it’s been designed to do; flip the switch off, and it stops. It may be fitted with controls, so you can manipulate its behavior in various tightly limited ways; nowadays, especially when computer technology is involved, the set of behaviors assigned to it may be complex enough that an outside observer may be fooled into thinking that there’s learning going on. There’s no inner life behind the facade, though.  It can’t learn, and to the extent that it pretends to learn, what happens is the product of the sort of rote memorization described above as the antithesis of learning.

A machine that learned would be capable of making its own decisions and coming up with a creative response to your actions—and that’s the opposite of what machines are meant to do, because that response might well involve frustrating your intentions so the machine can get what it wants instead. That’s why the trope of machines going to war against human beings has so large a presence in popular culture: it’s exactly because we expect machines not to act like people, not to pursue their own needs and interests, that the thought of machines acting the way we do gets so reliable a frisson of horror.

The habit of thought that treats the rest of the cosmos as a collection of machines, existing only to fulfill whatever purpose they might be assigned by their operators, is another matter entirely. Its origins can be traced back to the dawning of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, when a handful of thinkers first began to suggest that the universe might not be a vast organism—as everybody in the western world had presupposed for millennia before then—but might instead be a vast machine. It’s indicative that one immediate and popular response to this idea was to insist that other living things were simply “meat machines” who didn’t actually suffer pain under the vivisector’s knife, but had been designed by God to imitate sounds of pain in order to inspire feelings of pity in human beings.

The delusion of control—the conviction, apparently immune to correction by mere facts, that the world is a machine incapable of doing anything but the things we want it to do—pervades contemporary life in the world’s industrial societies. People in those societies spend so much more time dealing with machines than they do interacting with other people and other living things without a machine interface getting in the way, that it’s no wonder that this delusion is so widespread. As long as it retains its grip, though, we can expect the industrial world, and especially its privileged classes, to stumble onward from one preventable disaster to another. That’s the inner secret of the delusion of control, after all: those who insist on seeing the world in mechanical terms end up behaving mechanically themselves. Those who deny all other things the ability to learn lose the ability to learn from their own mistakes, and lurch robotically onward along a trajectory that leads straight to the scrapheap of the future.


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Ed Ryan, CPA said...

Industrial age humans came to the conclusion that they were exempt from all the rules that apply to all the rest of the inhabitants of Earth. Cornucopian economists assured us that the good times would always continue to roll no matter what since, well, humans are special. Malthus was ridiculed, the authors of Limits to Growth were ridiculed, as is anyone who presents an argument against the cornucopian model. Malthus was a bit ahead of his time, but the Limits to Growth model looks dead on target for a 2050 peak. Maybe sooner the way the climate change disaster is picking up speed. How long before refugees from the west coast begin to move?

JimK said...

I would have thought that a machine is something that doesn't have its own will. The inability to learn seems to fit well, though. So it raises the question: what is the relationship between will and learning? Maybe the third term involved is: responsibility, the ability to respond. Responsibility requires both will and learning. Machines are not responsible for what they do. If I am not totally alone and just stuck in a machine universe, maybe instead I need to learn to dance with the universe, let it lead too, follow where it wants to take me.

Carolyn said...

For those in the Twin Cities area (Minneaoolis/St. Paul), I invite you to join me this Sunday at 3pm for a discussion of the themes covered in The Archdruid Report. The meeting will take place at the Barnes and Noble cafe downtown on the corner of 8th Street and Nicollet Mall. Future meetups may be elsewhere; we're trying out a few different locations. Please RSVP at the group's page on Meetup if you can, so I'll know how many to expect.

Purple Tortoise said...

Note: "infrared-reflecting gases" should be "infrared-absorbing gases"

Taoist_Sage said...

Another thought provoking essay! Bravo! This why I so much look forward to the middle of the week. And yet, this can be viewed from another aspect too; mainly psychological. It seems to me that the majority of people's behavior and not just our "beloved" elites can be explained by two psychological concepts - delusion and self-centeredness. Self-centeredness is somewhat obvious. When you are only concerned about your own interests and goals to the exclusion of all else and never giving any thought to any probable responses or consequences which might arise from your actions.I see this countless times in people everyday. I, too, was guilty of this in my teens and twenties until it occurred to me that my life would go a lot easier if I recognize that other people have their own agendas and my actions will have consequences that I might not like if I continue ignoring this basic fact. Unfortunately, it looks like very few people come to the same realization.
Another realization I had was that at the core of self-centeredness is deprivation. The person is so deprived of authentic self-esteem that they have to have a substitute in order to get on in the world. And this is were delusion comes into play. They fashion an image of themselves that doesn't necessarily correspond to who they actually are but as they would like the world to see them. And, unfortunately for them, this image of themselves is not too stable and needs constant affirmations from others. But, it does convey one advantage to the person in that it makes them impervious to the truth. But for everyone else who has to deal with them, it leaves them baffled at their cluelessness.

Calm Center of Tranquility said...

JMG - I think this one was your best column yet of the year. Thank you.

A while back you asked us to consider under what circumstances we might end up choosing a facist government for ourselves. I must admit, if your proposed Fred Halliot spoke in the way Pope Francis has done since becoming pope... he would get my vote.

John Michael Greer said...

Ed, yes, but I want to explore the reasoning behind that self-destructive sense of exceptionalism. I think there are specific roots to it, related to the myth of the machine and the way that interactions with machines provide a false model for making sense of the rest of the world. As for climate refugees, I give it a year before they start moving in significant numbers.

Jim, excellent! Yes, you can define a machine in several different ways -- lack of will, lack of responsibility, lack of an inner life, lack of the capacity to learn, all are ways of talking about the same thing: the state to which a certain mode of thinking in the Western world would like to reduce the whole cosmos. More on this down the road a bit.

Tortoise, of course you're quite right; thank you.

Sage, yes, but you'll doubtless have noticed that delusion and self-centeredness are common to human beings everywhere, while the specific fantasy of reducing the cosmos to the status of a machine is more or less unique to the modern western world. I think the fantasy deserves study in its own right.

Center, you're welcome -- and be aware that the Fred Halliots of our future may in fact say that. BTW, it's "fascist" with two esses, not "facist" with one -- I'm pretty sure a facist is someone who has weird beliefs about other people's faces. ;-)

Ray Wharton said...

Not all that long ago I was pondering a similar line of thought myself. Some of my nerd buddies were talking about the virtues of video games, and how they taught problem solving skills, which of course made our generation far smarter than any of the previous generations. Six or seven years ago, when was still living in the 'college machine' I would have been constructing crafty arguments to support their point, but since I started trying to live outside of the script I was given by the education system I have been unable to avoid learning better.

The point I wanted to make was that my generation (and if I am an exception it is in all too limited of contexts by all too narrow of margins) are on average quite idiotic; meaning to convey a touch of the old Greek flavor of that word for a person who is mentally disconnected from other. I also wanted to suggest that video games made it worse, and that they did so in a way that is very similar to the way that standardized tests make the problem worse; implying that it is only the fact that video games are addictive and tests are agonizing which makes one feel good and the other feel bad for learning.

With video games one does encounter interesting riddles and challenges and has an opportunity to experiment to discover solutions. This feels very much like learning, especially joined with a captivating (as in captive) narrative. And there are a certain subset of problems that one can learn to figure out by playing enough video games. The kind of problem that can be imagined, pitched, implemented and sold by human beings, who happen to be employed in the production of video games. Even games where unintended features become an important part of actual play follow this rule, because the unintended feature has to make sense in the context of the logic of the game space.

The kind of problems invented by a person with any motive other than creating entertainment of you, very rarely are encountered; the kind of problems that can exist in substantial portion of reality not subject to human ordering are unknown to the gamer.

Of course standardized tests are precisely the same thing, with the exception that inspead of being the kind of problems invented by the kind of human tasked with entertaining you, it is the kind of problems invented by the kind of human tasked with judging you like a show dog.

I think this is why so much of the thought around us exists in the context of deciding if something is entertaining, or worrying about being judged. I think those are the most mentally stimulating kinds of machine relationships most people are put into.

Ray Wharton said...

Follow up:

I never cast these pearls before my friends, I didn't see a benefit in opening this can of worms at this time with them. But the reason I was interested in the point is that our machine trained generation is capable of the innate human power of learning, and once thrown into reality can catch up on learning remarkably fast, but the learning curve at the beginning is brutal. Working with some very clever and interesting friends in the garden, college age, can be harder than most 5 year olds. If they do not have command line computer code clear directions they freeze up like a Windows ME machine at the slightest disruption, and often proceed to do counter productive things until you find them and reset them to a new task. If you make the slightest sign of being able to perceive their dysfunction the judgment code triggers and things can go down hill quickly.

I ain't trying to be mean here, shoot outside of a few contexts where I have been deprogrammed by the school of hard knocks this whole analysis could be applied to me; and besides I have seen many folk shake off the worst of this, and once most folk get a real good taste of actual learning, they are eager for more, because learning, real learning, feels real good.

As a final thought, I think that the severity of the problem I perceived is stronger correlated to social status during upbringing that it is to taste in video games; of course the social systems we live in are the most impactful game most people play, the games and gadgets are all mostly a diversion from the stuff that really move us... slightly different line of thought than your post, but games and machines are very similar in that both have to exist with in a human defined logical space... excepting the good games that are on the fly fun or the cool machines that are stuff rigger together on the fly to get something done.

Bob Patterson said...

Very good. Just as the Romans clung to their glorious history of military and economic might, so too does the US. The problem is that the military has only engaged pre-selected targets on its own timetables and locations. The US economy has been hollowed out, by ruthless exploitation of resources, financial manipulaion to benefit the elite, and outsourcing to maintain political power by those elities and maintain domestic tranquility.

If you were to remove all the financial paper wealth of the US and compare true wealth to Russia, I think the Russians might even come out ahead. When you have had the lies piled on lies, manipulations piled on manipulation, false story after false story told, it ias hard to determine where actual strengths lie.

The Treasury and the Fed. control the US and World economy...or do they? The US military is stong enough to control any forseeable conflict....or is it? The US is so powerful that it does not have to actually negotiate with any foreign country....or does it?

Dammerung said...

I'm not gonna lie, I've been thinking about cashing in my chips a lot lately. Not even intentionally, as such - CG Jung pointed out there's a thousand ways that your subconscious can end your life if you feel you've lost any potential of making it mean anything.

Living in this society is like an EMT doing triage. A lot will die, and you've got to decide on the spot which of the wounded might recover with adequate attention, and which would be technically curable but only if you take resources from too many other people to try. It's like staying behind and trying to hold an indefensible position for just long enough to allow the majority of forces to retreat and regroup a good distance away from the front. It's like leaving a sinking ship for a lifeboat that's already too full of passengers and which may be overcome by the icy water at any moment.

It's hard, and there's not a lot of credit that comes with succeeding.

peakfuture said...

Beautifully put, JMG!

You made a few comments that really stood out this week:

1) "I may be wrong" - the mark of rational people (and that of the Buddhists!) is that they consider that yes, they *could* be wrong. And if they are shown to be wrong, they'll change.

2) On negotiation - At one point in my career, a company offered me a position, but no negotiation on *anything*. After things fell through (naturally!), it reminded me that the people who won't negotiate are treating you like that of two other groups - terrorists and hostage takers. No wonder why folks around the world feel slighted.

3) "Individually, bacteria are as dumb as politicians." Ha! Yeah, but politicians don't seem to learn, as they traditionally ignore the idea in item 1!

Although a lot of technical/computer types deal with machines, some of them (especially in maker/hacker spaces, as they evolve and get smarter!) are starting to learn the 'monkey' stuff of human interaction. A lot of this is realizing that people are not machines, and that when you do things like create rules, they have to be used by humans. This 'squishy' emotional stuff is sometimes tough to learn, but once you figure some of it out, it makes life *so* much easier - and fun. Being able to interact with people in my technical world as *humans* (with all the attendant emotions/ego) has not only made my life more pleasant, but people tend to hire folks who they can get along with.

I wonder if the folks who prefer machine-like/mathematical interactions have been introduced to the mathematics of chaos theory. It might just get their minds thinking that even systems that have very simple and well defined rules can go off the rails. There's a great short piece in the book _Jurassic Park_ on this. Controlling a chaotic system is not the same as controlling a linear one.

Your thesis does make a heck of a lot of sense. To play the part of the 'loyal opposition'; JMG (or anyone else) - can you see a weak point in this theory? It is no wonder some folks in the computer world are a bit queasy about machines that can learn (AI).

Dave Zoom said...

Intresting piece from the U K met office for your perrusal.

Afghanistan " The Graveyard of Empires " Alexander the great was the last person to conquer that area , his armies decendants still know how to fight .
The USA has adopted the old British way of negotiation known as Gun Boat Deplomacy , it works well enough against third world armies / navies it gets you into a real fight against a first world military .

fudoshindotcom said...

One statement I've heard repeated several times in the media regarding the drought in California is, "Water is a fundamental human right."

I cannot fathom how any reasonably intelligent person could possibly say such a thing with a straight face. I'm curious to know what authority they believe guaranteed them this "right".

Interestingly, these same people seem wholly unable to grasp that the natural state of California's central valley is arid desert made farmable only through a massive infrastructure of artificial irrigation canals.

How dare Nature infringe on a fundamental human right! Bad, bad Nature!

I apologize, I can't even begin to compose a coherent reply to such an absurd notion.

Pinku-Sensei said...

Not only was I one of your readers who heard about Pope Francis' encyclical about the environment, I wrote about it in conjunction with Congressional Climate Message Day on Monday. There, I also pointed out how the pseudoconservatives among U.S. Catholics, who had denounced people who disagreed with the Vatican on birth control and abortion as cafeteria Catholics, were now even worse offenders when it came to church teachings on charity and dignity for the poor and concern for the environments than the liberals, who got tired of the conservatives acting like a character from "Seinfeld" telling them "No sex for you!"

As for Putin, you're right, the current American leadership has become so used to being what the French called "the hyperpower" in a unipolar world that they don't know how to deal with what has now become a multipower world, even though that had been foreseen by people like Kissenger since the early 1970s as their future, which is now our present. As for the American people, most of them have a hard time paying attention to foreign policy other than "killing terrorists" and those that do have nearly as hard a time taking Putin seriously. In particular, people who look at Putin and just see a hypocritical homophobic autocrat love to poke fun at his antics by lampooning him as riding a sparklepony or singing "Macho Man" with The Village People--and, yes, I'm guilty of that, too.

Oh, well, what should I expect out of a citizenry that was more concerned about Twinkies disappearing than about a big predator going extinct and a significant number of whom might vote for a cartoon of a rich man for President--and I don't mean The Penguin.

Harry J. Lerwill said...

It's not just on a national political level that the fear that someone else may get what they want is an anathema. We are currently sitting on four hundred 15 inch flat screen monitors that have no use.

A year ago, we were approached by someone who wanted to buy them for a reasonable price with the hopes of selling them on with a $ 2 - $ 5 profit. We didn't sell them because the idea of someone else making money was offensive to our CFO. We didn't have the connections for that market, so they are still taking up shelf space and are worth a fraction of what they were worth just a year ago.

Blueback said...
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Greg Belvedere said...


This can explain so much modern behavior, especially cases where people treat subjects like objects. It definitely sheds light on why so many people buy into hardcore materialism and techno utopian dreams that ignore the way complex systems work.

I remember when you discussed this in the previously, but I think this week's blog adds a new facet to the idea.

I prefer the way I feel when I get to spend more time with living things, but machines certainly do give an illusion of control.

Tony f. whelKs said...

Ever since his election, I sort of expected Francis might be bit of a stirrer ;-) The choice of the name itself gave that away. If there's anyone in the Christian tradition that has given due regard to non-human life, and the non-mechanistic universe, it was St Francis (although that's not to overlook the early Celtic Church, of course...).

The hubbub from the Santorums (or should that be Santora?) of this world do not surprise me. As you've pointed out before, these faux-Christians do a good job of imitating Satanism. So, for America's catholics the Party line is now 'The Pope is infallible, unless he's a g-d-m Commie', is it? Reminds me of Archbishop Camara: "When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a Communist."

It must take some truly impressive mental gymnastics to be a 'Bible believing conservative' these days. On one hand evolutionary theory is evil because God made the world; the foetus is sacred because God made it.... yet somehow the world should be subjected to our Dominion, without joining the dots between 'conservatism' and 'conservation'. I guess it points to those difficulties with negotiation, and perceiving everything as soulless, mindless machines - including, I suspect, themselves. Theology has become something to be twisted into shape to support political programmes - that's not unique to our time, of course - but we should recognise those who do so as 'agenda-benders'...

Could Francis be the vanguard of a new religious sensibility that takes his church into the space it needs to occupy in a collapsing world? Or will entrenched power centres succeed in subverting his influence?

Nestorian said...

Since I grew up in a Catholic milieu that was quite traditionalist, I find the widespread "Cafeteria Catholicism" attending Pope Francis's latest encyclical among allegedly "orthodox" Catholics infuriatingly nauseating in its hypocrisy.

For anyone who is interested, I pressed this line of criticism pretty forcefully in a series of discussion posts over at the website of "First Things," which is arguably the most influential "conservative" Catholic publication in the US. Look for the posts by "Nestorian" and various interlocutors at the following URL:

Autumn Crow said...

Yes, this, exactly, regarding the source of the thought trap the US politicos are in.

Reading this article made me remember when I was growing up and first learning to play chess (say age 9 or 10). I learned all the rules quickly enough as the precocious youngster I was, but I regularly lost to anyone who had even a modicum of skill or training in the game. And I continued to struggle even into my late teens. The reason was simple: I was so preoccupied with the intricate details of my own strategy, of my own desired responses out of the other player, that I failed to see obvious avenues of counterattack that the other player could choose.

I think the reason was, in part, that I was among the first generation to grow up with computers as a facet of everyday life (I was already typing in programs by that age). The rapid response of the computer to every action, every command, and the declaration of anything unexpected happening as an "error" or otherwise invalid, conditioned me from a young age to think of anything I interacted with as largely mechanical in nature. Further still, I learned that if the computer does something unexpected, it is because of some mistake I made somewhere in the implementation (or some poor decision by another human, somewhere). The concept that humans were not in control of everything never entered my mind.

But on a happier note, I have just eaten some of the first crop of food from my garden that I have ever (successfully) brought to harvest. And it of course, required me to think outside of my old comfort zone -- my garden is not a machine and is not composed of machines. A lot more to learn, and unlearn for me of course -- but I wonder if mandatory hands-on gardening time for our politicians would help bring them to their senses!

rapier said...

Orwell said that power is not a means it is an end.

Machines confer power to the user and the power of machines, including information and communications machines, has risen to stupendous heights. The power of the car or the IPod is intensely satisfying and people crave them along with the thousands of other things tiny and huge that fill our lives.

The almost god like power available to the average person in the developed world pales in comparison to the power given to the elites of this world. It is impossible for most to imagine life without that power and few would want to. While most can't or won't imagine machine power disappearing I would say most if forced to would choose drive their car so to speak right off the cliff rather than face another kind of world.

I see a large portion of suicide pact in our culture, if only in a diffuse and inchoate sort of way.

I believe there is a large component of

Silent Otto said...

This post hearks me back to the jewish qabalists tree of life , and in particular the sphere of "yesod " and its elucidation as being "the machinery of the universe " as well as being the store of images and hall of mirrors , the place of the moon , the instincts , the freudian ID , tides and unconscious biological processes . A well balanced organism or civilisation would have this sphere integrated smoothly into its being as it operates in balanced harmony with all the others combined to produce a vessel capable of effortlessly traversing the stormy seas of primate evolution .When civilisations and cultures reach their apotheosis they have centred themselves in the sun sphere of the old qabalists ,"Tiphereth " , the realm of ideas , beauty , harmony , creativity and cohesion . From this wheel house all the energies of the entity flow smoothly .

When we collectively centre ourselves below decks in the moon sphere Yesod like we have , we have effectively left the vessel on autopilot while crew and passengers gather in the hold to consume all the ships stores of food and alcohol while the vessel itself becomes a flying dutchman which veers about wildly in increasingly tempestuous seas , careering ever closer to treacherous shoals while its hapless occupants continue to party hearty , resssuring themselves that "something will turn up " as they gorge themselves uproariously on the finite and painstakingly harvested fruits of a saner and more rational time ....

Cherokee Organics said...


Well, it's a long way from no-where down here and whilst I noted in the comments last week about the reaction to the winds from Rome, it left virtually no impression on either me or the media here. As an interesting side note, the label of "Communist" as a derogatory term has little weight or social meaning here and I never understood the US obsession with that particular bogey man.

Learning - Score!

Machines - Score!

Delusion of control - Score!

Nuff said really. Three astute observations in one essay. It is a real pleasure when you get a break through intuition on a complex problem that has been on your mind.

And you ended the essay with: what you contemplate, you imitate. Oh that's good!

Interestingly too, nature here completely fails to be controlled and the only sensible approach is to ask what can I do to assist the least worst outcome, whilst achieving my own production / output? It is more of a service (but not quite servile) approach.

As an interesting side note to you, Eucalyptus tree species can hybridise within just three generations - talk about adaptable to suddenly changing conditions - it is useful to ask how and why they developed that particular ability!



PS: There is a new blog entry up for the farm here: Worst day eva!. Who would have thought that fog and mist could envelope the farm for a record breaking 4 days. For those people that spruik a future based on renewable energy there is a real wakeup call as the system only produced 0.375kWh on one of those days. Try powering anything with that! There was a bit of frost too just for good measure. The chicken house and enclosure project was started and a very big tree fell over in some huge winds. Plus lots of house construction stuff and cool photos.

Denys said...

Love this post. It so explains the bad behavior I see in adults - act according to the script or I will be snide,, pout, scream, stomp my feet, etc. They are used to interacting with machines and giving rote responses and everything else short circuits them. It's also why groups of people can react as one given the right media inputs.

Ben said...

You may have hit the nail on the proverbial head. Though maybe collective boneheadedness is as much the product of an educational system that demands rote memorization and compounded by our industrial addiction to mechanization?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Vincent,

Thanks for the thoughtful reply and I trust that you meditated on the meaning of this weeks essay?

Most of your points are valid, but there is a flaw in your thinking. You are describing the system as it exists right now.

That point of view completely ignores the other actors in the great machinations going on.

Also, I'd like to point out that that point of view which you presented largely ignores the increasing weaknesses which are being introduced to those systems and as such does not consider that many of the policies being pursued may be largely self defeating and as such have a finite end run.

You also failed to consider that those same economic policies may appear to be being applied to the military which is the ultimate source of economic might. Those policies can work within the military, but it may not be wise to pursue them.

You know it pains me to quote our Federal Treasurer, Joe Hockey, but here goes:"The world can no longer rely on methadone every day. Sooner or later we need to wean ourselves off and that’s what tapering is about... Australia is a very good friend of the US. We call each other mates and we are mates but a good mate calls it as they see it. It is important for the U.S. Congress to pass the IMF reforms that deliver the reform agenda because it sends a message to the world that the U.S. is a very active and engaged global citizen." - He is referring to the excessive use of the printing presses in the US and tapering is a quaint term for backing off the printing press.

I await your reply.



Tom Schmidt said...

First, absolutely superb column. And thanks for the link to the 2012 column; I'll read that next, JMG. You wrote:
What’s the source of this bizarre paralogic—the delusion that leads politicians to think that they create reality, and that everyone and everything else can only fill the roles they’ve been assigned by history’s actors?

For a believing Christian, the 10 Commandments are Law. For a scientist, Gravity, 2nd Thermodynamics, Conservation of Energy: these are laws. As the saying goes, you cannot break the Law; you can only break yourself against the Law.

Consider the Kennedies and their numerous "tragedies." With a legal positivist outlook on the law, the law is whatever the government says it is (I recall here that a Texas legislator once passed a bill to declare Pi at 3 to make things easier for his kid.), and the law only applies to the little people. So you can pull all sorts of shenanigans in the White House, you can (maybe) rape a girl on Palm Beach, and you can get away with it: you can "break" the "law" with no consequences. This gives you a sense of limitless power, and a sense that ALL laws are not Law, but just man-made rules.

This is why you take off in a plane with your wife and sister-in-law with inadequate training; as a Kennedy, you can avoid the consequences. This is why you play touch football while skiing downhill: Gravity is just a rule, and rules don't apply to you.

The scary thing is they make these sorts of decisions for the rest of us.

Yupped said...

Reliance on machines being the cause of our delusion of control is an interesting idea. But I'm not convinced it's the root cause, or at least there is twist to add to it. The twist is that the personalities of those who are able to climb the greasy pole of leadership in our highly complex, machine-enabled societies almost guarantee that they won't learn or reconsider. They just can't do quiet reflection and reconsideration. The words "oh dear, I messed up, I was wrong, how silly am I?" are just not in their vocabularies.

Now my own life, if I'm honest about it, has been a continual series of semi-failures in terms of my ability to really control events. Despite my awesome plans (in relationships, careers, children and certainly gardening) events usually unfold in ways that I hadn't anticipated. Not always bad ways, but certainly not what I was aiming for. At an earlier stage in my life, I found this deeply frustrating; but in later years I just came to enjoy the ride with all its ups and downs and round and rounds. (I think coming to that realization is one of the main high points of life, btw). Unfortunately, though, the types of people who are capable of running large organizations seem to be temperamentally the least likely to yield to this realization. So these driven, highly capable personalities continue to pretend, to themselves and others, that they can indeed control the world; and they also seem to have unlimited capacity for sweeping repeated failures under their psychological rugs. That's my theory, at least. So I think we're at peak Admiral Farragut in that regard.

In other news, we have finally found a new place to live. Old farmhouse on a couple of acre on the edge of a southern new england town. It needs a bit of work. But when I was looking around the yard I found the largest stand of elderberries I'd ever seen, along with several old patches of medicinal herbs and some beautiful but overgrown fruit trees. So, another journey is starting, one which almost certainly won't end up where we think it should.

spinozarina smith said...

Interesting – the aspects of not comprehending that others can and will learn.

I would suggest that the privileged classes are also generally surrounded by sycophants – a type of self-serving “machine” that spews acceptance and agreement 24/7 in a predictable, reliable way AND mechanized manner


Derv said...

Just read the first few paragraphs and wanted to comment quickly. I'll finish the rest afterward and maybe comment again (if you'll pardon me), but I had two thoughts.

First, as a sedevacantist Catholic, it doesn't matter to me what Bergoglio says, anymore than I would care about a declaration from the Coptic miaphysite pope or an imam. But I think I can understand where at least some of the annoyance comes from here. Obviously a huge portion of it is backlash against the encyclical on account of it contradicting the views of deniers. That's beyond dispute.
But another part has to do with the danger involved in the whole endeavor, and the feeling that Bergoglio has grossly overstepped his boundaries. The papacy is considered infallible by Catholics when it either speaks infallibly (ex cathedra statements, which are rare), or when it is laying down rules for universal practice (the ordinary and universal magisterium). Encyclicals, moreover, have been reserved exclusively to issues of faith and morals for a very long time. To many, this seems far too political and specific to fall under the scope of papal infallibility, and yet has been issued in precisely that form.
As unlikely as it is, for instance, let's say that one day it turns out there really isn't anthropogenic climate change. We would then be in a position where the supposed papacy's infallibility has failed, which is more than a little concerning.
Many would argue that the whole document is outside of the "faith and morals" sphere, which is their grounds for ignoring it, but this is of course contrary to Bergoglio/Francis' whole intention. He thinks it is very much a moral issue. So from the Catholic mindset, this is a huge, huge mess. The closest parallel I can even think of is Pope Leo XIII's declarations promoting unions, and it's not a perfect fit. The fallout from all this could be substantial.

Secondly, I think the reason we are blind to these dangerous shifts to our survivability is because the nature of the threats has changed. We as a species have rarely ever had to face the situation where our actions are so large that they begin to damage the very systems on which they depend. Understanding the threat of a jaguar is a thing we've long understood; understanding the threat of killing every jaguar is the kind of problem we've universally failed to deal with rationally. It's really the flaw of our whole era, from climate change to corporations so large they dwarf nations to overfishing and so on. We have a moral system in the West that is fundamentally individualistic, and a set of problems that are fundamentally collective in nature.

Just my two cents. I'll get back to reading now.

RepubAnon said...

I'd suggest that the problem here is not video games, or multiple-choice tests. Instead, it's a concept from ancient Greece: hubris.

Learning is a two-edged sword: things which give you a short-term advantage can also lead to your long-term destruction. Consider, for example, the way that Republican politicians have learned not to make any concessions to Democrats. Those who compromise are not re-elected - and it's not at all clear that they'll keep winning elections via this tactic. It will, or course, lead to their ultimate destruction, either by the voters waking up, or a massive defeat when the rest of the world turns against their arrogance. (Imagine China dumping all their US Bond holdings, waiting a few months, and then invading Taiwan once the economic collapse reached a sufficient level of disorder.)

"Pride goeth before a fall" is another example of the arrogance problem in history. The myth of American superiority will at some point be busted... and although I expect the Republicans will successfully find a scapegoat to blame, they'll have an increasingly difficult time conducting necessary negotiations with other countries when their base demands a no compromise position.

In short, people in the US are in for an educational experience in the long-term effects of short-term thinking. It will make for what the Chinese curse called "interesting times."

druidgarden said...

Another aspect of learning, at least in many contemprary theories, is the idea of metacognition. In a nutshell, metacognition assumes that human beings (and others beings, although you wont have many learning researchers admitting to that) can think about their thinking, can evalute their progress, adapt their behavior, and evalute outcomes after the fact. We know this concept is critical to effective learning (as is abstraction, which JMG mentioned in his post). As a learning researcher, I have witnessed so many times how terrible modern Americans are in being metacognitivey aware. Getting people to be metacognitive and self reflective--even in somethinig as simple as learning various subject matter in a college setting--is like pulling teeth. Most learners see exercises designed to teach metacognitive awareness as the most pointless exercise, busywork, useless. But without it, we cease to learn from our behaviors, we make the same mistakes over and over, and attribute the outcomes of those mistakes to others, and we fail to develop abstract understandings. That seems to be part of what is happening on a larger scale here.

Blueback said...
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bigsky generation said...

I am an engineer, and hence i speak blasphamy. I design, build, and ensure safe operation of machines all day, almost every day. They happen to be wind turbines but machines all the same. And I take issue..., no really, I don't,JJ.

Pretty much since I got out of high school over 30 years ago, (same area, Pacific northwest, but North of the 49th - and we call it the southwest), I've been adamant about getting back to the rhythms of the human. And hence the natural world. Excuse the pun, but nothing new under the sun there. Vancouver Peak Oil Executive even made a promotional advertisement on the matter. Look up "This is Insane Day" on YouTube. My idea, Jon and Vandy's ambition to make the piece.

You well know we are heretics. Some small comfort there actually. Our minds are not well adapted to a sick society.

Steve Carrow said...

Interesting expansion or reapplication of the concepts you shared in the Jan.25 and Feb. 1 posts from 2012. At this scaled up level, I wonder if the tendency for psychopaths to be more common in the top of power structures exacerbates the problem of thinking of the rest of the world on an I-it basis instead of the I-Thou basis?

M said...

The machine-like behaviour of people chained to electronics constitutes a degradation of their well-being and of their dignity which, for most people in the long run, becomes intolerable. Observations of the sickening effect of programmed environments show that people in them become indolent, impotent, narcissistic and apolitical. The political process breaks down, because people cease to be able to govern themselves; they demand to be managed.

Yes, this is from Ivan Illich, whose view of the world resonates with yours on many fronts, though you weave it, along with many other viewpoints, into a rich and broad historical tapestry. It's from a speech he gave in Japan in the early eighties, Silence of the Commons. A slight aside: One of the last sentences in the piece: Just as traffic does, computers call for police, and for ever more of them, and in ever more subtle forms.. This was 1982. Talk about prescient. (And talk about going over to the dark side--the name at the bottom, the guy who first published the piece, is Stewart Brand.)

There are events that have the potential to jar us from both the cultural myths of growth and progress and the notion that others cannot learn--for instance, 9-11.

That event pierced our cultural veil of How Things Are, and, if only briefly, forced us to think of others patiently planning a series of complex actions, and learning from a previous attempt at the same deed. (A week after 9-11 I wrote an essay that touched on the role of technology in the event.)

Most of this torn veil was rather quickly repaired with the stock tales of heroism and evil, of justice and righteousness vs. terror and barbarism. But it may be that it also began the process for some of pulling back more of the veil.

Unfortunately no one has as yet been able to dress up dilemmas like climate change, peak oil, soil degradation, etc., etc., etc., etc. into a suitably alarming bogey man costume that demands a response Right Now. (Of course the response to 9-11 was immediate but, not unlike our bumbling with Russia and China today, also just what the perpetrators could have hoped for, so there's that.)

lessertruth said...

In the words of Frank Herbert: “I point out to you, Marcus Claire Luyseyal, a lesson from past over-machined societies which you appear not to have learned. The devices themselves condition the users to employ each other the way they employ machines.”

Derv said...

Ok, I finished. :) I think I want to expand on my second thought a bit.

I'm not sure I buy your thesis. I think the one I suggested actually explains our circumstance quite well. In the context of government, that's because we have a system that is, at its heart, a machine, I suppose. But this goes into what I mentioned, namely our blindness toward the whole systems effects created by our actions, which has led to everything from extinctions to revolutions.

When a government or set of rulers gets sufficiently large, and there is no real "king" of sorts, then there is no one doing the long-term planning. There are only people playing their roles.

1: My role as ambassador is to apply pressure to the Chinese government so that they cave to the policy set by the State Department. The big picture planning happens elsewhere.
2: My role at the State Department is to conceive of the ideal goals and outcomes of this relationship with China, and convey those. The big picture planning and implementation happens elsewhere.
3: My role as president is to follow the recommendations of my advisors and to act in the best interests of the United States in a way my constituents understand. The big picture planning is done by my staff and the American people.
4: My role as voter is to choose the candidate who best represents my interests. The big picture planning is done by them after they're elected.

And so on. NOBODY is planning. If anyone does, power is sufficiently distributed that inertia from other agencies prevents anything from getting done. Everyone plays their role in the system, expecting the system to then take care of itself, and none of them ever doubt that they're doing their duty and everything is fine - if something terrible happens, well, they did their part. Our system disposed of "true statesmen" because they aren't a useful part of the system. Instead those people write blog posts about where the true statesmen went.

In just the same way, a corporation can be comprised of thoroughly decent individuals, each doing their part as they see it, and the organization as a whole can be utterly evil in its actions. The people can try their best to live a morally and socially responsible life, and society as a whole can be a wasteful, unsustainable disaster. A woman can be murdered in the street, and if enough people are looking on, nobody does anything because surely someone already has.

We just don't think in systems, at all, especially not on the proper individual role within a system that's gotten bigger than it can be to function properly. It's only ever a learned behavior, and a difficult one to learn at that. We needn't worry about the fall of Rome because Rome is eternal and far bigger than you or me.

So no one worries about Rome. And that's why Rome falls.

Paul Davidson said...

It does take time, but the other side eventually does learn. It seems some foreign companies are finally learning about the shale-gas boondoggle that you've been pointing out over the years. I came across this interesting tidbit in the Yomiuri Shinbun yesterday, which I'll summarize here, not having found the English on-line yet.

The Japanese trading company Itochu sold off its 25% percent share in the shale company Samson Resources for what normally would be a considered an extreme loss. They invested 78 billion yen, lost 100 billion yen on top of that and then sold off their share for one dollar. That's right $1. Had the buyer waited a few weeks he might have gotten Itochu to pay him to take its share of the company off its hands.

Here's the original article. Haven't seen it yet in any English newspapers.

Ray Wharton said...

@ Blueback

I feel that contempt all the time, but as often as not it is triggered by my own 'over civilized' side as it is triggered by the sad state of my dear and beloved friends. Just now I finished irrigating for the day, no big task, I just have to check the pump every half hour and clean some filters, it is my study time during this season, blessings be upon pump filters! The only thing is the one must check each and every half hour or the farm could be really screwed. How I long for more friends I could trust with such a task... there are some, but too few. What about raising animals, they want feed even when there is a really awesome show playing in Boulder, how bothersome, no?

I look out on the acres, not my own obviously, that I am trusted to keep alive with the wind, weeds, heat and the hail until the farmer return from their ten day mid season vacation. I can see much that would be good to get done, and I chip away at some things to good effect, but there is far more worth doing than I could personally achieve even if I broke myself completely against the task. So contempt for the ill raised friends who help me in their ill ways, maybe, but never as much as love and gratitude that my friends are at least trying to be more than they were raised to be. Comedic and tragic in the trying, but trying at very least. I exhaust myself trying to get friends to the fields to give them a taste of the work so bitter and sweet I am trying to grow equal to, trying to teach the little things I have learned, petty but far better than their idealistic imaginings of what farm life is. I call their egos brittle in part because I am honest, but in equal measure to put a protective wrapping around my own glass ego. And, heck even though I waste much effort arranging work events that no one actually shows up to, and have to fix the work done by some folks, and bite my tongue before I shatter some poor college kid with a magnificently blunt truth, I would lie if I said that I didn't get good work and better ideas out of them from time to time; enough to break even on it any way.

I guess what I am trying to say is that it is easy to hate on the whole stinky mess, but checking the gag reflex and cleaning it up one at a time might, just might, make the situation a little bit better. Though of course if I had the same skill set as Conan...

Martin Lair said...

Thank you JMG, I think it is one of my favorite posts so far.
The reason I first listened to the peak oil scene aproximately a year ago was to find a refutation to Ray kurzweil's future which honestly terrfied me (S**tless) hum" in an deeply obsessive manner" to the point that I couldn't sleep.
The thing that made it scary to me was the idea of this huge, unstopable and impersonal system deprived of humanity and spirituality that would slowly replace us into machines.
The way those pundits talked about it with conviction, like members of a cult, was really disturbing to me.
But it is kind of their true nature, thinking about it, as the transhumanists are people taking the cult of progress to its farthest, long past drinking the cool-aid, they're now injecting it to themselves via intravenous in cutting-edge nano-capsules.
Anyway, thank you for all your work it,really made a difference in my life and also some of my friend's at school with whom I practice Druidery and Escrime.

Clay Dennis said...


I am not sure I agree with the machine analogy, as I have spent my life working with machines including troubleshooting and fixing very complicated ones such as metal cutting lasers and 5 axis machine tools. Having actual hands on experience with machines makes one very realistic about the outcome of pretending or having unrealistic expectations. In fact the more you deal with complex and tempramental machines the more you realize that care, patience and good karma are rewarded while haste, beligerance and ignorance result in messy failure. I think that the machine analogy only applies to those who are one step removed from machines and interact with them in insulated manner, such as riding in an elevator.
I would propose that another source of the clueless nature of the elites is the nature of the rackets and relationships they were involved with as they climbed to power. As the powerfull have successfully acheived monopolies or oligopolies in both business and government they have aquired the ability to dictact terms to those lower on the totem pole. A good example is commercial banking. If one takes out a business loan from a bank the bank is never interested in negotiating after the intial papers are signed. They dictate all relationships, terms and consequences from that point on regardless of the needs of the borrower. The same is true of insurance companies, airlines, large landlords, railroads, and most utilities. Theses attitudes have permeated the elites as they have moved from banking to statesmanship to politics. They assume that the citizens of Greece are just like someone who has not paid their mortgage, or taken an oversize bottle of shampoo in the TSA screening line. They then even assume that someone like Putin must be handeled in the same way you handle a malcontent at the DMV. I agree that they seem to miss that their opponents can learn, but they also ignorently assume a power position even if they don't have one.

John Michael Greer said...

Ray, that makes perfect sense. All the problems in a computer game are created by human beings; they're designed to be solved, and to be entertaining, in the course of game play. Thus they differ in every imaginable sense from the real problems people face in the real world.

Bob, exactly. The widening chasm between appearance and reality is a huge issue here.

Dammerung, I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but please get some counseling. That really isn't a useful way of thinking.

Peakfuture, oh, there are lots of weak points. The one that I'm exploring right now is this: where did the idea of the machine come from? It's not an obvious or a natural thing, and the cultural forces that led an entire civilization to redefine the world in terms of this very odd concept need much more exploration before I can consider this more than a very tentative hypothesis.

Dave, thanks for the link. I note that the article states that the effect of a solar minimum would be a small fraction of the effect of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, so would mostly just add some unpredictability to what's already a highly unpredictable system.

Fudoshin, excellent! That earns you tonight's gold star. I wonder if any of the people who insist that human beings have the right to receive water from nature have ever wondered if there's anything that nature has a right to receive from human beings...

Pinku-sensei, yes, I saw your comments on that. It's really quite funny to watch the pseudoconservatives doing everything they accuse the liberals of doing.

Harry, that's fascinating. It suggests that the basic corporate mentality has shifted from "making sure we win" to "making sure that everyone else loses" -- and it's axiomatic in organizational theory that when that point is reached by competing interests in an organization, the inevitable result is total destruction of the organization.

Blueback, yes, I've watched the paralogic involved over and over again. That's one of the things that inspired this post.

Greg, and the illusion of control is addictive. That's one of the things that has to be addressed as well.

Tony, good question. I wouldn't be at all surprised if one outcome of Francis' papacy is a permanent, ruinous schism in the Roman Catholic church -- there have been pressures building toward that for a long time, and he might just be the spark that sets it off.

Nestorian, many thanks for this! Glad to see you taking a good whack at 'em.

John Michael Greer said...

Crow, I'm coming to think that sanity is a function of interaction with natural systems. More on this in an upcoming post.

Rapier, Orwell had a point. As I noted above, the illusion of power -- which is what we're talking about, of course -- is addictive.

Otto, good. It's not accidental that Yesod is considered "the automatic consciousness," either -- one could as well term it "the mechanical consciousness"...

Cherokee, how big of a Roman Catholic population do you have in Oz? Here it's a quarter of the population -- thus the difference in media coverage, I suspect.

Denys, exactly. Next question: how might each of us best go to work getting rid of those counterproductive reactions in ourselves?

Ben, I'm sure that's also a part of it. There's a machine-mindedness that transcends any individual machine.

Tom, nicely put -- and I won't argue for a moment about the Kennedys. You could add several more examples to the list, of course.

Yupped, congrats on the farmhouse! As for the broader issue, I note that an ability to learn from failure is by no means absent from the ruling classes of other historical societies -- though admittedly it usually goes away for good about the time the whole shebang begins sliding toward the dumpster.

Spinny, and that's also an issue!

Derv, I certainly don't intend to argue about the legitimacy of an institution to which I have even less connection than you do! Still, I think you're missing a central point. What Francis is saying, and what I'm also saying, is that morality extends beyond the sphere of today's humanity. How we treat the biosphere is a moral issue; what kind of world we leave to futurte generations is also a moral issue -- one could argue, in fact, that it's among the most profound moral issues there is. The fact that our civilization doesn't get that, when so many other human societies have treated it as a matter of course, is to my mind something that needs careful examination.

RepubAnon, here again, hubris is ancient; the stunning blindness of today's Americans to the consequences of their own immediate actions is, I think, something at least a little unusual in history.

Colin Flood said...

Bravo! I was worried a few posts back that you were just going to start repeating yourself -- it's when you bring your keen analytical powers to current events that I'm drawn back in.

And seriously, I know you think socialism and anarchism have nothing to offer because you don't see any evidence of a mass movement, but you've said yourself, and I'm paraphrasing, that the power structure seems invincible until the day before it collapses. Maybe you could address the state of the US radical left at some point? As a participant, your perspective interests me.

Either way, keep it up.

John Michael Greer said...

Druidgarden, that's an excellent point. It would be most interesting to see whether there are studies exploring the correlation between inadequate metacognition and amount of exposure to certain technologies -- television, for example, or as Ray suggested above, video games.

Blueback, but most Americans these days are fragile hothouse flowers. They've been raised in a wholly artificial environment, sheltered from contact with reality, and fed a constant diet of artificial mental stimulants in the form of TV programs, internet content, video games, etc. Of course they crumple when they brush up against challenges to their frail self-concept -- so would anybody raised in those profoundly debilitating conditions. As a side note, btw, I grant you Conan, but Elric? He was another hothouse flower; without exotic drugs or the black sword Stormbringer, he was a weakling (which was one of Moorcock's very clever touches in those novels -- he really went to town, standing the cliches of Weird Tales-era heroic fantasy on their head.)

Bigsky, I don't know many engineers who are delusional about technology -- no doubt because they actually have to deal with its dysfunctions and bad habits, day in and day out. It's the people who don't know how to vacuum the dust out of the grilles on the back of their computers who seem to think that technology is as invincible as it is omnibenevolent.

Steve, I'm far from sure I buy the claim that sociopathy is any more common at the top of the social ladder than at its bottom.

M, the problem there is that the response to the events of 9/11 was a matter of defending business as usual against disruption. The challenge we face now is that of abandoning business as usual, because it's become the cause of its own disruption!

Lessertruth, Herbert was very much on the ball when he talked about machines.

Derv, and that's also part of the problem. I'm not convinced that it explains the peculiar detachment we see in today's Americans, though. What exactly is a corporation, by the way? Lewis Mumford argued that it's simply another kind of machine...

Paul, thanks for the data point! I wonder how many of the other foreign investors who were sold bogus fracking investments are waking up now to find that they took a major bath on the deal.

Martin, good -- if you recognize the horror at the heart of Kurzweil's hideous faux-utopia, you're ahead of the game. Druidry and escrime? Now that sounds like a sensible course of study to me... ;-)

Clay, you have to deal with the ways machines mess up. Most people don't. I admit that my hypothesis is going to need much more reflection and consideration, though!

Repent said...

Amazing and topical essay!

I heard that the fellow on the Nobel prize board who was most responsible for awarding Obama with the Nobel peace prize was recently forced to resign. At minute 5:50 in the following podcast Simon Black indicates that the US is now creating 260 pages of new bureaucratic rules daily, which essentially become enforceable laws:

(NOT worth listening to the whole presentation)

Clearly we are well beyond diminishing returns on complexity and the gradual decent of civilization has begun. I remain shocked that so many people in charge have no clue as to the destination that we're headed in? They are still running the system like it still is in its peak mid-twentieth century glory and that America still has the international prestige that it once had back then. Now its reputation is clearly in tatters and the government has lost nearly all international creditability, and soon domestic authority will fade as well.

I don't know if I've posted this here before, but as of today 543 people, everyone from teenagers to seniors have been killed by police this year alone and it's only June:

I would like a return to sanity.

Mark Rice said...

The New York Times has been acting in it's role to limit the range of "acceptable" discorse in the "progressive" direction. There have been several Op Ed pieces against the encyclical including this one..

The Pope is described as a "catastrophist" in the battle between catastrophists and "dynamists". A dyanamist is one who believes in the civic religion of progress. In mainstream media, not believing in the civic religion of progress is beyond the bounds of acceptable discussion.

CJ said...

Fudoshin and JMG: I'm going to have to nibble on that gold star and check whether or not it's real gold. Are people talking about water as a human right suggesting that nature is obliged to provide it? That is never how I understood it. Isn't it rather that humans have the right to not be deprived of water by other humans? For example, having their only source of water cut off because they can't pay the bill, or a river dammed up, etc. When we demand our "rights," we're generally demanding something from other people, not from nature. It is often indigenous peoples (who tend to be much more aware of how nature works than industrialized peoples) who are deprived of their water rights *by other people*. Let's not conflate their plights with some caricatured straw man who thinks the universe owes him wifi and latte.

Jo said...

I am wondering about a chicken and egg situation in response to this week's essay. All traditional societies, plus Western European society up until the point of the Renaissance had a world view that centred around God/gods/spirits etc, with the community's needs coming next in order of importance, and then the needs of the individual coming in a distant third. The Renaissance was the beginning of the process of reversing that order until with the rise of humanism in the West, the individual became firmly established in the centre of the universe.

My question was this - did the cult of the individual, or the popularisation of the view of a mechanistic universe come first? But in writing this comment, an answer presents itself - in a traditional, pre-industrial society, a community must organise itself around the very real limits of its local environment. Its religion provides rules governing the distribution and preservation of its limited resources, so community MUST come before the individual.

The Renaissance saw the beginning of the Western European empire, where the global South was plundered to the very great advantage of the North. Once Western Europe had a huge and global resource base, it no longer required the local, communal, organic societal structure based on religion in order for it to survive. Thus there was almost a requirement for science to be 'invented', because the acquisition of wealth by individuals at the expense of the community is unthinkably immoral in a traditional society. The wealthy and powerful nouveau riche of the Renaissance were a completely new phenomenon in European history - they had wealth without responsibility, unlike the feudal lords before them. The invention of the mechanistic universe absolutely suited their agenda, because it removed any requirement for them to be responsible to or for the rest of their community. If this is indeed the case, then really, the rise of Science as we know it, ie, 'progress' and technology which is not tied to the limits of the natural world, or the good of the community in any way, was impossible without the wealth that the global South provided, and continued until now with the aid of the limitless(!) wealth that fossil fuels have provided.

This paved the way for the mess we now find ourselves in. If the individual is at the centre of the universe, then the earth is now host to billions of individual universes. Inevitably those little private universes bump into other private universes fairly frequently, at which point the mightiest universe wins. Currently we are all at the mercy of some very mighty individual universes indeed, who have been conditioned to believe that the individual's rights are paramount, but that some individuals are more individual than others..

And now, the cult of the individual is starting to crumble. It's a long way off yet, as you have noted in this series of posts: denial, etc - but already, the limits to growth are becoming uncomfortably apparent. Which means the end of the road for the individual. Because dividing scarce resources and observing the laws of nature are going to become a big part of our future. Which is why the encyclical of Pope Francis is so fascinating. In effect he is declaring that the age of the individual is over, that it is our collective religious responsibility to put community and the laws of nature ahead of our individual desires.

Some very powerful people are going to be so mad at him. I hate to think about what generally happens when an honest man speaks the uncomfortable truth to powerful people...

Derv said...


I wasn't trying to argue that interaction with the biosphere doesn't have a moral element. Not in the least. I was trying to say that Francis/Bergoglio is saying that, and those who are claiming they need not listen to him are basing it off the presumption that there can be no moral element to interaction with the biosphere. Anyone who accepts the idea that is has a moral character wouldn't have a problem with the overall thrust or message of the encyclical (nor do I, though I have other religious problems with it as a sedevacantist that I won't get into), while those who deny this think the encyclical is wildly outside the purview of the papacy, since it doesn't concern faith or morals. So it's a deeply fundamental dispute, and will lead to massive disruptions. That's all I was trying to say. But I've prattled on enough about this when it's not the topic of this blog, so I'll tap out here.

As far as detachment goes, the machine thinking may well play a role. But the short-sightedness and foolishness of many actors in our present system is, I think, more easily explained by the shortfalls of human thinking in massive systems. I mean, how can a tax code make sense, for instance, when it is too long for any individual to even know, let alone organize (70,000+ pages)? How can 435 congressman, 100 senators, a president, and 9 supreme court justices, alongside thousands upon thousands of lower level politicians and bureaucrats, each pursuing their own personal agenda and simply trying to fulfill their individual roles, actually make sensible plans? Perhaps they could when they were guided by statesmen and a coherent ideology, but both are gone, as I said, which is an inevitable byproduct of our system.


Derv said...

I suppose I'm arguing the same point with you, but rather the other way round. It isn't machine interaction that has led to a machine-like system and navel-gazing strategic planning. Rather, it's a system of complex rules, mechanisms, structures, institutions, and titles that has grown so unwieldy that it's become machine-like. Take, for instance, mandatory minimums and standardized testing. They take personal judgment and discernment entirely out of human processes in the name of "fairness," but really end up creating a mechanical system of "justice" and "education" that entirely fails in its purpose.

I guess I think you may be making the mistake that I've seen you (correctly) criticize others for making, in that you're acting as though our situation is unique when it's really just a part of the ordinary decline of a civilization. Were the Romans any less short-sighted, self-absorbed, and certain of their own invincibility? They made countless foreign policy blunders during the Great Migration, nearly all of which were rooted in the assumption of Rome's invincibility. They all simply played the part they believed they were supposed to play, because Rome had gotten too big for any one man to understand or direct (hence Diocletian's division). Everyone from Seneca to Cicero complained about the self-centeredness of the early imperial Roman character.

I think, as a civilization rolls over its apex into decline, the people are trapped. They see everything is going wrong, but don't know what to do about it. They feel utterly powerless, and believe this massive system is so utterly beyond them that it's useless to try and direct, change, or even understand it. So they keep their heads down and play their part, hoping to make a decent life for themselves. They've lost faith in the system, the state ideology, and often their religion, so they have no greater purpose to which they feel beholden. Naturally they become self-absorbed, then, and care only for themselves and their own. And whether they have faith in some bright future or are certain of its demise, it's all beyond them, so they just live their lives.

And that's how it goes, until things finally fall apart, and someone comes along to give them some new cause to believe in. Granted, navel-gazing has become easier than it's ever been today with a thousand distractions at hand. But I'd argue that it's just a fancier version of these two forces: the uncontrollable and incomprehensible size of "the system," and the sense of powerlessness that devolves inevitably into apathy and selfishness. I don't think it's unique to our era or civilization. I just think it's especially noticeable, and doubly so to an archdruid. :)

John D. Wheeler said...

Thank you very much for this post. I found upon reflection it made me realize the problem I have with most of the anthropogenic global warming crowd -- and most preppers, for that matter: they still have the delusion of control, they still are in the mindset that the world is a machine. They are further along than most in the general populace in understanding/believing that the machine is breaking down, but many still think if they can just get things right (e.g. CO2 350ppm), everything will be okay. It doesn't occur to them that the systems might react in unpredictable ways, and simply returning to the past, while better than continuing ahead in our present course, may not be adequate.

John Michael Greer said...

Colin, I'll consider it, but as far as I can see, as long as what passes for a radical left in the US remains wedded to a consensus model of organization that guarantees failure, and a cornucopian vision of economics that assumes that everyone can have a middle class lifestyle, it's doomed to complete irrelevance.

Repent, no argument there -- the number of Americans who haven't noticed that anything has changed in the global balance of power since the 1980s is astonishing.

Mark, well, of course. Faith in progress is the established religion of our culture, and has no tolerance for heresy.

CJ, I'm sorry to say that I've met far too many people -- not just straw men -- whose idea of rights breezes right past the reality of natural limits, and insists that all people everywhere have a right to various things that the earth cannot possibly provide to seven billion human beings.

Jo, that's the problem I'm wrestling with right now, and am probably going to have to take to Theodore Roszak, Lewis Mumford, and similar thinkers to sort out. The concept of the machine had to exist, in at least a nascent form, before machines themselves could be designed and built; the question then becomes where the idea of depriving the world of its capacity to learn came from, and why it took over so large a part of the western world's collective imagination when it did.

Derv, good. As it happens, I'm not saying that it's different this time; I'm trying to grapple with the specific form taken in our time by a more general pathology, which has taken many other forms in the past. The reason's entirely pragmatic in nature, too: very often, if you can dredge up such an unspoken and unrecognized pattern from the crawlspaces of the imagination and name it, it loses some of its power over those who are willing to attend. If you will, I'm trying to find the true name of the particular evil spirit that's currently obsessing modern American society, so that it can be banished in proper form!

John, excellent! Yes, precisely; the delusion of control is just as common among those who think they're opposing the existing order of things as it is among the defenders of business as usual -- which is why so many of the former category instinctively go looking for some kind of machine to fix things, whether that's an electric car, a geoengineering device, or what have you.

beetleswamp said...

You are making me want to watch Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive again. About the part of negotiating and nature I can't help but think of surfing. Many other sports are all about domination, but if you try and dominate the ocean you end up fish food. In surfing it's the best negotiator with the best understanding of the prevailing conditions as well as the physical ability to survive the ocean's demands who gets the best waves. Not to say there aren't successful surfers who also happen to be dominating jerks, but the ones with the longest careers seem to be the ones who tap into that higher understanding and make it part of their lifestyle out of the water as well.

Greybeard said...

Interesting, thank you. The single currency across much of Europe removed a barrier to the wealth pump. It not only removed the breakwater that separate currencies give, a breakwater that softens the economic winds but it removes the ability of monetary control leaving simple fiscal control in place. In a country that doesn't collect taxes too well, that is disastrous.

It used to puzzle me as to why Greece didn't stick two fingers up and go back to the Drachma. The Greek people may need some persuading but that should be possible, however Greece needs help beyond its economy. They cannot alone deal with the huge numbers of refugees / migrants that have been arriving on their shores and I suspect they know that this will worsen over the coming year, hence their need to keep the EU happy and to play ball.

Hawkcreek said...

Great essay, as usual you keep me thinking.
I always thought that the stupid things our gov did was just because they were ... stupid.
I learned in an old statistics class that half of our population was below average IQ. Not trying to be funny on that, it just seemed to fit what I have observed in life.
Many of the people I thought were the dumbest were sometimes the best at convincing others to do things for them. I thought this might just be a protective adaptation or something.
You don't have to solve problems if you can always ride on the coattails of the problem solvers. Maybe bleached teeth and a friendly smile are a better survival technique than the ability to use a sword well?
Thanks again for a good dose of my mid-week education.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Fudoshin--Even though you have been awarded a gold star, I challenge your assertion that "the natural state of California's central valley is arid desert made farmable only through a massive infrastructure of artificial irrigation canals." The Central Valley is a place where it normally does not rain at all during the hottest months of the year, but the native oaks and grasses are adapted to that. It's a Mediterranean climate; winter, not summer, is the season when the hills turn green.

The Central Valley has two medium sized rivers running through the northern and middle parts of it. Before the Gold Rush, it had marshes, and John Muir called it "one great bee pasture". Pre-European settlement, the Central Valley supported herds of tule elk and flocks of migratory birds. (The ducks and geese still visit, wintering in the rice fields, but the elk are confined to a few inadequate refuges.) Anyone who has spent a winter in the Sacramento Valley or points north is well acquainted with tule fog (named for the reeds in those marshes), low lying belts of chilly moisture that cling to the ground for weeks on end. Local sources of water are not large enough to supply both water intensive crops like rice and cotton and an urban population. Farming and ranching took place before big water projects were built; it relied on shallow wells and the right to draw water from local rivers and creeks.

South of the San Joaquin watershed, the valley is (so I read; I haven't spent much time down there) pretty dry. However, the real this-was-desert-before-we-irrigated-it lands of California are not in the valley at all. They are south of it in and around Los Angeles and San Diego. Even there, the Owens River watered farms in the Owens Valley before a water project redirected all that water to LA. Bear in mind the scale; California is about as large as France and I reckon our Central Valley could swallow New England.

Scotlyn said...

Phew! excellent, if hair-raising, post. The mechano-morphising of life has even infected the religious creationists, ever since Paley presented a watch (a made thing) as an illustration of design in living things (begotten beings). The living world endlessly begets itself, filling itself with new lives, purposes and creative responses. We, her children are begotten, not made.

Along with Terry Pratchett, I'd take a step further and say, not JUST stupidity, but "evil begins when you treat people [and all living systems] as things"...

deedl said...

The ability of humans to feel empathy, to set oneself into someone elses place is – at least to this large extend – one of the key qualities of our species. It is one of the very reasons we emerged as the super hunters, erasing large parts of the worlds megafauna in stone age times. Also it may seem odd first place to feel empathy in the activity of hunting, which is killing other beings, the advantage is twofold.

The first advantage is the cooperation with other hunters. Coordinating a hunting party in a complex environment by looks and short gestures is only possible when most of the information that has to be communicated is anticipated by the receiver, who uses empathy to anticipate messages from the sender. This ability humans share with the other successful team hunter of the northern hemisphere - the wolf. The close link between wolf/dog and human is caused by the ability to communicate between species by gestures and understand each other. This link is missing to all other species (e.g. cats).

The second advantage is the empathy with the prey. Understanding the sensual perception of the prey and its needs to draw conclusions of action from this perception gives the hunter the ability to anticipate the behavior of the prey.

So empathy is a key ability in dealing with both your allies and your enemies. The US seem to have lost this ability for both aspects. They stopped cooperating with allies and they stopped anticipating their prey behavior. While the Russians and Chinese seem to still utilize these abilities (that every human inherently should have) and team up as wolves and humans once did, the only role left to play seems to be the part of the megafauna – big and plentiful, but stupid and to slow to adapt.

Chloe said...


There's at least one other reason the US in particular struggles to grasp that the people it's dealing with are not entirely pliable to its will - and probably the troika too. That is, for the extent of recent memory, they always have been. They could be compared to a parent of the, "I'm in charge, do as I say school" who might succeed in raising their child to be a doormat but is more likely to get a shock when the kid grows up.

There's no excuse as regards the biosphere, though. As a plethora of weather gods attests, humans have always been at the whim of the environment. (Arguably this itself causes some of the mental block, but while "nothing we do can be having that much of an effect" is an argument people use, it's not the root of the issue.)

The planning inability seems curious at first glance, but humans do deal with different kinds of threats differently. An immediate, obvious threat (such as a leopard) is simple enough to deal with, but long-term, indirect threats are not. That might be why traditional societies have so many customs in that regard to begin with; because even knowing the facts, people would not take appropriate action to the return of a threat that was last an issue in their great-great-grandparent's day or which is caused by something they can't see happening. And that pretty much sums up the current predicament: both societally (since the start of the Industrial Revolution) and individually, we've never faced a major decrease in resource availability before.

Oh, and it's late Miocene, not late Pliocene. The end of the Pliocene does mark the point at which our ancestors stopped being bipedal-but-otherwise-typical apes and started being something-like-human.

peter said...

We have been studying the same phenomenon in the corporate world for the last 7 years or so. There is no evidence of either the willingness or capacity to learn anything beyond simple factoids in the vast majority of the (usually senior) managers we tend to work with (as coaches). After considering and abandoning a large number of hypotheses as to the why, we have currently settled on the model of adult cognitive development by Jane Loevinger and William Torbert's 'action logics', which expands on Loevinger's model. What we know from the research is that some 70%+ of managers operate from the Expert and Achiever logic in Torbert's system (E5 and E6 in Loevinger's). Both these levels operate from a self-generated model of the world which is essentially closed to non-confirming feedback in the case of the Expert and which evolves to accepting (forced) feedback at the Achiever level. If you couple this with the ability of organisations (especially those incorporating limited liability) to shield individuals from the consequences of their actions, the normal assumption-action-response-learning loop will be suspended and individuals fail to progress to the next level (where feedback is seen as valuable and learning becomes self-directed).

This theory also explains the complete absence of any systems thinking in most of the elites - this ability does not develop until the later stages. It nicely explains why some leaders are able to be transformational and most simply can't. It also squares with the research done in 'Good to Great' - the leaders of great companies tend to operate from the highest levels in this system (Alchemist), which then explains why the very same companies go back over once the CEO is replaced.

If you are familiar with Spiral Dynamics, these models trace the same development along the same axis, but in my view are more detailed and better tested.

Marc L Bernstein said...

I'm often posting articles to facebook written by Chris Martenson, Paul Craig Roberts (recently a guest article by Vladimir Putin, interviewed by Charlie Rose), Steve Lendman, (occasionally) Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, etc. All of them complain about the seeming stupidity of the Washington establishment, an example of the "senility of the elites" as you have put it. I'm glad to see that you have joined the party as well, although it's not a whole lot of fun to watch the unfolding of the slow-motion wreck of industrial civilization with the USA leading the pack. Ron Paul, Steve Lendman and Paul Craig Roberts regard Washington and NATO policies as reckless. Never have senile elites been so dangerous as they are today, with such dangerous toys to play with.

There is an unreal nature to the buildup of arms by NATO in the European nations not far from the Ukraine. It's as if those responsible were playing a board game rather than taking into consideration the real possibility of an escalation into a nuclear exchange. It seems strange to read articles written by Pat Buchanan, but apparently he has not abandoned reason and keeps his eyes wide open.

a little off-topic but interesting :
recent article by Henry Giroux comparing Huxley and Orwell -

Lawrence Krauss on the encyclical -

Krauss does not say anything that I had not already thought of but it's reassuring to have a mentally sharp physicist reaffirm my own ideas.

People in our society not only are accustomed to working with machines, they are accustomed to spending the vast majority of their time living, traversing and working within man-made structures. This also gives such persons a sense of artificiality about the world around them. Machines don't learn, and neither do buildings, homes or shopping malls.

Compound F said...

a beautiful post, taken altogether.

You said,

[many humans believe] that the world is a machine incapable of doing anything but the things we want it to do.

but what if the true case, including human behavior, is

that the world is a machine incapable of doing anything but the things it [natural law] wants to do.

That is to say, everything [natural law] is pure fatalism, squared and cubed, to a fair-thee-well, making free will the delusion.

From whence comes magic, and changing consciousness through acts of will?

Donald Mackay said...

I'm okay with you sleeping in your own wet spot. Farting in a crowded elevator is
out of line.

Phil Knight said...

It's interesting that Spengler pointed out that the British ruling class viewed their stewardship of society as being akin to riding a horse. I think they still do, by and large, which is why they have proved so enduring.

The general unwillingness of the Left in Britain to enter the mindset of the British ruling class and appreciate the organic way that it views power relations has been one of the major reasons for its consistent failure. It always amuses me that the Left believes that demonstrations or riots upset or frighten the upper class, while I believe the opposite is the case - they present an exciting, challenging opportunity to demonstrate mastery, much as would a particularly frisky colt.

I think the US elite should also inculcate themselves into equine culture if they value their own survival.

YCS said...

Hi Cherokee and JMG,
News might not reach the nicer parts of Australia but in Canberra, the Pope's encyclical has stirred the faux-Catholic (a.k.a. satanist) 42% or so in the Liberal Party.

When Greens Senator Larissa Waters asked George Brandis if his party's Catholics were going to follow their faith in policy, like they have so many times before to shoot down marriage equality, they decided to heap abuses on her, question her marriage status, and give a shoutout to their sponsors in the coal industry.

If the Pope wants to put his money where his mouth is and start excommunicating members for not following the church's position (as has happened many times in the recent past), the Australian Liberal Party Catholics (and probably most of Labor too) are right on top on the list.

- YCS (I'm travelling in China soon so unfortunately I might not be able to respond)

ed boyle said...

There is in history a sort of back and forth between powers. Economic structure, technology, military tactics are constantly adapted between competitive powers as a response to success of other side. USA could be weak, like russia in the 90s, then adapt in a chameleon like way to the eurasian success strategy and ske a comeback in 2060s. This is how long term history is built. Europe lost its power and became an ecomic unit based on trade with one currency. Total integration is idea, US of Europe. Chinese adapted to free market, russia to free market and democracy. Now eurasians, latin americans, etc. must counter US control of all spheres of life and diplomatic divide and conquer plus subterfuge of CIA paid NGOs, fifth column pro american press and govt. hacks. Any tendency on earth tjhat denies USA industrial, banking, military dictates will be answered with a full court press. Colour revolution, assassination, paid inernet trolls, s+p downgrades, sanctions, political diffamation campaign, etc. In cold war russia was master of intrigue. KGB ex Putin has mastered cold war tactics and now modern US imperialistic tactics. China, Russia used to admire USA ideals, now understand US elite are same as old European coloniasts. Democracy capitalism are just manipulative powr structures, most efficient to maintain power, control techologically, economically, militarily by giving own populations carrot and stick. Communism was too simple with planne economy. Development could not keep pace. America is smart but could be beat at its own game as dollar loses power, social welfare states in western countries implode, military technology becomes bogged down in complexity, financial intetests. Cold War II is incomparably more complicated and interesting than CWI and The GreatGame of 19th century as all parts of world involved in a constant process of complicated process of give and take, learning, growing.

Jo said...

@ JMG: "The concept of the machine had to exist, in at least a nascent form, before machines themselves could be designed and built; the question then becomes where the idea of depriving the world of its capacity to learn came from, and why it took over so large a part of the western world's collective imagination when it did."

SO, my thoughts on this are that the answer may be in the title of your essay - the delusion of control. The theme common to the literature and philosophy of traditional societies is that we are all at the mercies of the gods (ie nature eg floods, plague, drought, famine etc). Humans have no control in this scenario, and they know it. They are inescapably tied to the vagaries of Nature.

BUT, if a society is wealthy enough, and enough of its sources of wealth derive from far enough away that local conditions don't matter any more.. then humans suddenly cease to be at the mercies of the gods. They HAVE CONTROL. And control is intoxicating. Imagine how exhilarating it would be, if you had always lived according to the vagaries of Fate, to know that you will not starve during the next drought..

I think that a desire for control may be part of the human condition. It is part of the ability to see pattern and impose order on chaos. That is how human society functions. But traditional societies impose strict limits on control, because the edge you have in a subsistence society is being able to respond intelligently to whatever Nature throws at you. In other words, you need flexibility, you need to pay very close attention to the very complex patterns of nature, you need to be constantly vigilant and thoughtful. This is very hard work, and requires enormous skill and high order thinking of every person in the community.

Control, on the other hand, is comparatively easy. If you think of society or the universe in mechanistic terms, only the person who designs the system has to think hard - everyone else just conforms to the pattern laid down by someone else. Our society is at once incredibly complex, but also requires almost no original thought from individuals. We are probably the most incompetent humans who ever lived.

So the strongest individuals in our modern, global, individualistic society have all the control - fossil fuels have meant that nature can be safely ignored most of the time. We have swapped our capacity to think and learn from the world around us for the tyranny of central control in a mechanistic society BECAUSE IT IS EASY. We have toys. We have control over our personal environments. And the capacity for clear judgement based on careful observation of the world around us has shrivelled from lack of use. Because control, or being controlled turned out to be too intoxicating..

You can see this in older, semi-global societies as well, like the Romans. They had a very mechanistic, controlling view of life. They loved hierarchy, and look at their feats of engineering to tame nature, and their arrow-straight roads. Sadly for them they couldn't achieve the total control we have due to lack of fossil fuels to exploit.

Well, that concludes my evening lecture; I need to go to a cheese-making workshop now. I must say, that even if you shoot my ideas down in flames, I just love the mental exercise that your weekly essays provide. They greatly enhance the capacity for original thought of my shrivelled industrial-age brain..

Les said...

Thanks for another fascinating line of thought.

It occurs to me that the absolutely rigid line of unreason you highlight must arise from something more than merely machine interaction – there must be a reinforcing feedback loop that promotes the idea that people respond predictably like machines.

I would suggest that the source of this feedback loop is to be found in the treatment by the US of its weaker allies.

I live in Australia and can’t really speak for the other suckers, um allies, but I have seen over the years many instances of our government’s utter capitulation to US directives – in “free” trade agreements, defence “co-operation,” the hosting of spy bases, the fawning over US leaders, should they deign to visit us, to name but a few. The TPP is but the most recent of a long series of “bend over” moments for us.

So from the US negotiators point of view, if the Aussies will let us royally screw them over, why not the Russkies, Chinks and towel-heads? (not derogatory terms I would ever use, but trying to “think” from the point of view of a member of the US negotiating team…)

Anyway, to end on a more positive note, I can report that the missus, a couple of mates and I set up a new weekly farmers market in a town near our farms a couple of weeks ago and the response has been amazing – there seems to be a significant minority of the population who are looking for alternatives to buying the essentials from large supermarket chains. Makes me feel much more positive about this weird world we’re building for ourselves.

If any of you do the FaceSpace thing, one of our more markety stallholders set us up a page here:
Come over and say hi!


Leo Knight said...

Another thought provoking essay as usual. Thank you.

I just finished reading James Howard Kunstler's "World Made by Hand" novels. My mind is still blown.

Regarding "negotiation," I have friends who work in commercial real estate. The type of take it or leave it attitude happens all the time. Clients ask for alterations to the standard boilerplate lease. Owners simply refuse. They would rather let a property sit vacant than keep track of Individual deals. More often than not, the client knuckles under.

M said...

You mention Lewis Mumford and his thought that the corporation is a machine. Illich also regarded large institutions--education, health care, transportation--as machines, or--the term he used--tools. He believed that society must put limits on its tools. But that would seem to go up against something fundamental in human nature--once you replace the bicycle with a car, or the telegraph with a smart phone, it appears virtually impossible to put the cat back in the bag, or use the more "powerful" (ie, destructive) tool in a properly scaled, convivial manner. It does appear to be a kind of addiction, something hard-wired into our lizard brain.

It also probably has something to do with systems and how they behave, going from simple to more complex despite the undesirable results. We tend to look at "indigenous people" as examples that counter this, but we may just be looking at them in an early part of their civilizational arc--one that the arc of "western" civilization has now interrupted.

nuku said...

JMG and Clay:
I’ll preface this with the proviso that I’m speaking of machines as tools for accomplishing real work in the real world, not as toys or for gaming.
As a person who has spent a lifetime dealing intimately with various kinds of mechanical machines and have occasionally made my own tools, I would like to second Clay’s observations that, when you get up close and personal, machines have their own “personalities“, need maintenance, and don’t always do exactly what you want them to do. Every lathe is different, there’s always a bit of “play” in the system and the craftsman gets to know that through experience and works/dances with it.
However, with the rise of the “throwaway” mentality and machines which can’t be fixed, or are so complex that the user has NO idea of what is going on in the “black box”, we have a whole generation of people whose interaction with machines is qualitatively different. For these folks, when the machine doesn’t do what you want, you just bin it and buy a new one.
As JMG pointed out, its the folks who are interacting with machines in this new way who can imagine that a machine is totally under their control and that they don’t have to work “with“ the machine.

Andy Brown said...

Fascinating. I'm looking forward to wading in to the commentaries when I get the chance. But what struck me immediately was your convincing insight that the idea of the machine is a metaphor for removing the capacity for surprise, creativity and resistance. It's the culmination of an obsession with "power over" (as I think Starhawk put it). It has some pretty obvious overlap with issues of power and oppression.

I have been overseeing a research project asking people about the experience of being a working person in the US these days. What is interesting is that although the client is interested mostly in workplace policies and regulations for improving working conditions - the problem that workers themselves come back to repeatedly is their anger at not being treated as human beings - at being treated as "numbers" or "robots".

And that comes back to the real underlying question that remains from your analysis - why are we so insistent at misapplying the machine approach in places where it doesn't work? You can treat the American worker like a machine - you can even re-tool the educational, entertainment and criminal justice systems to try to create robots - but (I sincerely hope) that's only going to create a brittle, self-destructive edifice. (One reason I gave up on academic anthropology was the growing sense that if I did contribute to our knowledge of how humans worked - that insight would be used to more firmly control people.)

I suppose the simplest answer for why we misapply "machinism" is in the adage that when all you have is a hammer - then everything looks like a nail - and so we have the sad and ludicrous sight of us whacking at the quicksand we're in with a hammer. How did we end up with just a hammer? I think that has something to do with trying to remove from the equation - surprise, creativity and ultimately uncomfortable realities.

nuku said...

JMG, just after I read your post, I got out my well worn copy of “Where the Wasteland Ends” to see if Roszak could shed some further light on your meditations. Seems to me Roszak does a pretty good analysis of the historical/philisophical orgins of “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare” that is contemporary Western Civilization, and by extension the USA, but I’m getting the sense you are suggesting there is some specifically uniquely American varient to this disease.
I wish I could help in that quest, but I stopped being part of the American experience 35 years ago...

fudoshindotcom said...

Nibble away! As it happens I have more use for stars than I do for gold, so a few gnaw marks makes no difference to me.

Yes, I have heard the same statement used several times to argue that no person should deprive another of water. I was talking about the four or five times I've heard it in reference to some supposed human birthright.

Denys said...

@Tony Whelks
"Santora" - love this term for the bullies of the Republican party. I now have a much more pleasant term to use while pondering what they are doing/saying.

I've been thinking about what to do about this behavior among adults for the past six months or so. Where I am at is that there is great distrust and dislike among us, sowed by the media (individual oddities and tragedies are played so much that they seem everywhere), and by our own schooling. The compulsion of school, curriculum, testing and constant ranking and sorting of children made us fearful of thinking on our own, being different, and made us accept as normal the lack of freedom and say in our own lives (an the ability of our parents to have influence in our lives as children - our own parents were powerless with school administrators and teachers). In families siblings are sorted and ranked different than each other and one is seen as "better" in the eyes of the school causing a riff in family harmony. We all know that what school counts as achievement - straight A's, captain of a team, club involvement - mean nothing in the real work of work and family. If those school achievements actually meant something, then everywhere we would forever be asked for our report cards and school achievements. As a society we fill children's lives with meaningless activity and then wonder why they grow up hollow, selfish, and mean-spiritied.

If Jesus command to "love one another as God loves you" does not spur people to different way of being with other people, I am at a loss as to what to do among the Christians around us. They feel righteous in their indignation and their lips move with constant negativity. Its clear they feel that something is not right in the world and they keep fervantly praying for relief. But praying doesn't bring real relief, action does. Jesus was clear on that. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, free the captive, take care of the widow & orphan - all doing, not talking. We are a nation of talkers.

I don't know if this happened everywhere, but in the three days after 9/11, people around here were incredibly caring. Everywhere I went with my then one year old, people were kind, took time to say hello, and helped each other. We were glad to be with each other. We were bonded together.

And maybe that is it - we have no bonds that hold us together anymore. We really don't need each other - food comes from the store, and it is checked out by a machine, kids now have iPads (which teachers and parents clamor for btw) and learn from apps, senile citizens go to nursing homes, children go to daycare, the poor are fed by the food bank, a visiting nurse takes care of the sick - all the work Jesus commanded us to do is paid work now. All of life is a transaction and once the transaction occurs, nothing is owed to anyone. No feelings of empathy, thankfulness, compassion required.

So I am still struggling with this and still looking to figure a thing I can do around it. All I do now is try not to get caught up in other people's stories about good guy/bad guy and keep associating with many different groups of people. In the meantime, we garden, raise chickens, homeschool, and enjoy the beautiful hop cones forming in time to brew beer in August.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

The real conservative Catholics get it, but you have to have a concept of Logos or order, which is not merely moral, but actually imbues all levels of reality, down to the physical. This of course was the ancient teaching of the Church, and will be again, when the faux liberaux get done with their orgy.

adualism said...

"any sufficiently complex system behaves in ways that approximate intelligence"

The problem with this idea is that intelligence varies in quality. In theory democracy would produce better answers, but as we see, the voters always select the wrong answer.

While I agree with the thesis of this article -- that Rome II depends on the assumption of its power -- this is also balanced by worldwide human incompetence. China and Russia are in trouble because they poorly planned and executed their economic growth. They depend on the USA and now are seeing the high cost of that gambit.

luna said...

I've recently thought that one of the reasons certain conspiracy theories are so popular is because people find it hard to believe that US is not always all-powerful and in control.

For example the 9-11 attacks were an inside job, ISIS is secretly funded and supported by the CIA, etc. Plots devised for the US's secret agenda (eg. a nefarious pretext to invade oil-rich foreign countries etc).

It seems easier to believe this than to believe the US could be wrong-footed by a bunch of outsiders with their own ideas. Much easier to believe "it was all part of the program!"

Denys said...

@Jo @JMG
I am reading the book Medieval Origins of the Modern State by Joseph Strayer. The author makes a case that the thing we are loyal to above family, local community and religious organization - the state - hold moral authority with its institutional structure and its theoretical legal supremacy. "Subjects accept the idea that the interests of the state must prevail, that the preservation of the state is the highest social good."

Perhaps there is something you can find in the book to help.

Lou Nelms said...

The interests of man are almost totally defined now by what is best for the machine or what is required to keep the wheels on the machine. We are largely blind its effect on how we look at the world, how it determines or limits the debate within our politics, how we understand our freedoms and how we see our impact on the earth. Much of mankind now interfaces with nature primarily through technological lens or filters. And it is no stretch that spiritual connections with earth are lost in the process and replaced by beliefs in immortality handed down by the gods of empire for the sake of the growth machine. That all of this seeds man with the delusion that we are exempt from limits is no great mystery. We live in a fantasy world of needing a second world and expecting one.

Tom Schmidt said...


Do you have any links to good meta cognitive exercises? You've piqued my interest and I would like to try one. Thanks,

Twilight said...

As one who was once more comfortable with machines than with the difficulties of interacting with other thinking beings, I think this thesis rings true. At least in part, though as you know there are always many things at work. A good portion of the US “negotiation” strategy is simple hubris, the delusional belief that we are in a position of power so extreme that we need not worry about anyone else's concerns. You covered the reality of this well in Twilight's Last Gleaming.

Lately I have come to another understanding of so much of what we experience daily in the US these days, and I think it impacts on this discussion. People and societies can have genuinely differing views about things caused by background or ideology. These differences can be large enough to lead to wars, but it does not mean either side is necessarily lying – rather they can both have genuinely incompatible views.

However, if I stand in front of you and tell you something we both know to be false, and it is clear that I know it's false too, then something else is happening - it is about power. If I get you to go along with my falsehood, then you have surrendered the most basic liberty and allowed me to define your reality. The obvious falsity is not a bug in this negotiation, it is in fact the entire point.

Of course as you've described there are many motivations for all the nonsense that is going on now, but I see this power-projection tactic used often in the empire, in all manner of topics, both externally and internally. It is one of the things that becomes obvious when one has not watched TV for a long time, and then is subjected to it. The steady stream of obvious lies, often coordinated through multiple sources, cannot be an accident.

Clay Dennis said...


After sleeping on it I have come around to your way of thinking on this. Only I would rephrase the thesis as, Distance from the natural world, creates this delusion of control and not necessarily only interacting with machines. By distance from the natural world I don't just mean farming or hunting, but from working directly with things in their natural state. So a woodworker who makes windsor chairs by collecting green wood branches and bending or shaping them by hand ( or even with a powered bandsaw) is totaly different than one who uses standardized sheets of particle board to make bookshelves. Or someone who heats up frozen food for dinner as opposed to the messy work of cleaning and preparing vegetables from the garden. I had just not thought of the fact the moving away from the natural world means an increasing reliance on machines, even though on further thought it is obvioius.
Perhaps this is why our society has not produced another Jefferson or Lincoln or that the last president who seemed to get it , despite some other flaws, was a peanut farmer. This effects ordinary people too, and not just the elites. It is just that the average american is not in a position to dictate terms to his employer, landlord or busdriver. A place you can see this effect is in choice of transportation. Going up the ladder in terms of distance from the natureal world ( and I am leaving out walking for clarity) we have the following. Caring for, hitching up, and driving a team of horses on a wagon is an extreme exercise in negotiation and cooperation between the horses and the teamster. Next up is riding a bike in an urban environment which requires cooperation with traffic, the weather, gravity, personal conditioning and canny attention to safe and unsafe routes on a real time basis. Then there is traveling by mass transit which requires subtile negotiation with time schedules, your fellow travelers and delays. Then finally there is the most common form of transportation in America ,the automobile, which can credit its success to the removal of interactions and negotiations with others. Perhaps more than anything else the automobile is making us insane.

Ahavah said...

I wonder if the concept of a golem might be part if the genesis of the computer or machine mentality - a created being that could not speak and performed tasks for you, and could be turned on and off simply by inserting or removing the secret letters...

Foo Bar said...

"A machine that learned would be capable of making its own decisions and coming up with a creative response to your actions—and that’s the opposite of what machines are meant to do, because that response might well involve frustrating your intentions so the machine can get what it wants instead"

I think that more leaders should be made to take care of their very own cat. Especially those in the EU and the US.

Nothing will frustrate your intentions quite the way a cat will. It really does encourage lateral thinking when governing one.

Perhaps that's why dogs are so much more popular amongst that set.

Ed Ryan, CPA said...

The myth of the machine is very deep in human culture. The Trojan horse as an example of machine imagery. I don't believe we can get past that. Maybe recognize the pattern at some point.

Phil Harris said...

Talking about “crawl spaces of the imagination” (JMG): seems like a place worth looking. Smile. I had a dream last night or night before. I had connected with former colleagues – vaguely biological science - in some modest little town on the edge of the Scottish Highlands under one of our mobile low grey skies, and was attending a presentation by Pope Francis in a small church / town hall. Somehow I could not visualise him, but he seemed radiant enough. Afterwards he was meeting ‘organisers’ et al (not me) back stage in the usual way. I caught a glimpse of an emerging Vladimir Putin who had just nipped in there to pay respects. VP nodded to a couple of respectably dressed unostentatious young guys standing at the back near the exit and unobtrusively but swiftly headed their way – busy guy.

And we headed out from this homely scene into the usual weather to do whatever it was our project had in mind.

Note that we have a small and scattered Russian Orthodox community across Scotland and I was privileged to attend some months ago a small personal memorial service, held ecumenically in an Episcopalian Church. This though is the land of John Knox as well as of a significant Catholic minority, mostly originally migrant, and of the later Scottish Enlightenment; for example Hume & Smith. These last two are the guys who got it wrong in fundamental ways – reason, utility, moral rules and the ‘passions’ and ‘sympathy’, and whose insights pervade much of our view of the world perpetuated in the crawl spaces of places of learning. if I read correctly: After Virtue; 3rd Ed 2007, Alastair MacIntyre suggests these H&S formulations with Kant & Diderot et al, and their successes and failures “are far more influential in history than academic historians have generally taken them to be.” He, AM, stands by historical enquiry to show whether his own argument and story-telling is misplaced. You.JMG, seem well placed in this regard to contribute to the enquiry.

I loved BTW Ray’s account above of sensitivity of conditioned young people – more difficult than 5 year-olds. “If they do not have command line computer code clear directions they freeze up like a Windows ME machine at the slightest disruption, and often proceed to do counter productive things until you find them and reset them to a new task. If you make the slightest sign of being able to perceive their dysfunction the judgment code triggers and things can go down hill quickly.”
Phil H

k-dog said...

Machines; traffic lights are machines. In South Africa they are called red robots. Americans politicians are like the driver at the end of a long line of cars making a left turn out of a left turn lane. They all hope to make it through before the light turns red. The last driver behaves exactly like the car in front of him. The politician behaving exactly like the criminal politicians ahead of him responds to the habit impulse and follows their example hoping to make it through and achieve success while success may still be had.

Americans interacting with machines all day long are indeed empathetically challenged but another analogy to machines is appropriate here. Americans are one of the least free people on the planet. They are driven by habit, rote and accepted pattern. That 'education' should be reduced to rote memorization is only to be expected. Responding to their habit impulse people feel free, they imagine themselves free, but true freedom is actually hard work. Predisposed to avoid work of any kind hard or otherwise, Americans the clever have sacrificed freedom to the pursuit of creature comfort, status, and the endless pursuit of entertainment. Freedom involves choices, hard choices, sometimes uncomfortable choices. It involves considering alternatives and alternative ways of looking at things. It involves rational thought. All of which is antithetical to a country that just wants to kick back and listen to the band play on, and on and on.

RPC said...

Well, this was a tour de force! But...I think it understates the situation. The people you're describing aren't even successfully dealing with the world as a machine. In engineer-speak, the feedback loop is open. It's as if one were driving an automobile and the brakes failed. A sensible person (i.e. someone who sensed their environment) would try to downshift and/or use the hand brake; the people you're describing just keep driving as if the brakes still worked. I see the problem as one of believing the owner's manual and the advertising rather than personal experience. We all laugh at the politician who said "Sometimes you have to put your principles aside to get things done" but if your principles don't correspond to reality, who's going to yield first?

carol.b said...

This is quite brilliant, and makes sense of my lifelong discomfort around members of the ruling class. It occurs to me that your observation that these people spend most of their lives around machines can be extended even to much of their interaction with other humans, because they mostly encounter people in a service capacity. The dehumanizing nature of service is precisely that it reduces a person to a more or less mechanical entity, deprived of the right to think and act creatively. Even more than the actual machinery in their environment, years of regular interactions with human beings that express few dissenting opinions and have almost no opportunity to act freely is likely to build up a pretty distorted conception of other people.

peacegarden said...

Powerful stuff! I like your reasoning…I’ve heard many, many people working in health care,er, I mean chronic dis-ease management, say the body itself a wondrous machine or the brain is hard-wired like a computer.

The illusion of control is a perfect name for what is happening now. Thank you for parsing it out for us…now we can assimilate and start applying the knowledge as we meet ever more expressions of it in our daily lives.


Dave Stoessel said...

A fine essay! Read with the comments, one gets the hopeful feel that the owl of Minerva is indeed flying. The answer to whether we can make our complicated civilization "work" is No. The Chamber of Commerce is not interested in that answer. It took 9-11 to alter my world view of progress. My children; 11,9, and 4 would not grow up in the world I was familiar with. Who could imagine that people would cheer the tragedy in the streets? Well, maybe WE were not so innocent--that we were in some way complicit. So what lessons did I have for my children? What was the American Project? I thought perhaps it was helping establish a substantially just, environmentally sustainable, multicultural society. Is a grand civilization still possible? My answer is, not without sacrificial leadership. We obviously have not had that. Selfishness and pride are ancient vices but explain much of our current predicament. Leadership imagines that it can do both good and well. Elites have a vision that has gradually turned into a delusion. So how to politically wake up our clueless overseers? Would it help? or would waking from the dream send it all crashing down? Nothing is truer than that we need to at least wake up.
On a side note--I like watching your slow increase in members of the site. Two or three or ten new members is satisfying to see. It's a pretty slow increase unfortunately. You are no doubt privy to better numbers but I don't detect that you are mainstream yet.

winingwizzard said...

Hubris, digital (black/white) thinking, TV, de/il-lusions of control, hypercomplexity... all of these things make people insane. I have long felt that digital in general is much more removed from nature. There were analog computers once - even analog fluidic computers, which make more sense IMHO, as we are analog. There is rarely one right and one wrong, yet we persist in trying to interface with our world and fellow people in this fashion.

My grandfather and father taught me to appreciate the 'control illusion' using the collapsing circle exercise - you know; putting things I can control in a circle, then proceeding to show me that the only thing that is really mine to control is - me. The delusion of control produces wrong analyses and decisions, just as digital thinking does.

TV - ahhh...what can anyone say? As with digital, begun with the best of intentions but how things go awry. Now the 'internet of things' glows and slithers into every digital device as well. Yet all I really wanted was something to keep food fresh longer and get rid of washing my clothes on rocks.

Power - another illusion quickly shattered when consequences are possible. Consequences are far removed from those rich in resources (money). I think that will eventually change - shunning and casting out will make comebacks when the individual is seen to be far weaker than community. But we have a generation or so before that, unless something truly ugly hurries up instead of slouching this way...

When I was young, I met a 'surfer dude' in Cairns, Oz. What he told me, amidst some very amazing storm waves and organic entertainment, was: "Life is like riding waves. The key is to keep your balance and steer in a general direction. The rest comes naturally!" It's been 30 years and that remains crystal clear in my head. Wonder why?

Ed-M said...


55 comments already!

Well it seems to me the United States has never had much experience in proper negotiation. Other than negotiations with the French monarchy during the War of Independence, the settlements of the Barbary Wars and the War of 1813, and the multitudinous treaties made with the Indians (which we then welched on), when has the US ever engaged in good faith negotiations?

donalfagan said...

I am reminded of a scifi short story - I don't recall the author - in which an average guy is kidnapped by aliens. These aliens had been monitoring Earth for quite some time, waiting for us to wage thermonuclear war, after which they would swoop in and help us rebuild for which they would gratefully accept repayment (our natural resources). They told the hapless guy they were there to help, and could he explain why there hadn't been a war yet, unlike on so many other planets. Times being what they were, the author made the cold war nuclear stalemate into a human virtue. And the average guy made the aliens feel guilty by calling them vultures. They described themselves as a cooperative species rather than competitive like Earthers, and the image of themselves as carrion birds upset them so much that they dropped him off and left orbit.

Of course Earthers can be cooperative as well as competitive, but it does seem to be out of fashion right now. As you've pointed out we used to have all sorts of societies and benevolent organizations in the US, so I'm hoping that those sorts of 'machines' may be rebuilt. I doubt any aliens will swoop in to save us from climate change.

Beatrice Salmon-Hawk said...

An xcellent analysis of the situation in Europe. It reminded me of the demonstration against the second Iraq war in London when a million people descended to the streets. I was one of them and when I realised that it would make no difference to anything because there was no negotiation to be had, I took to the hills and started learning to grow vegetables, etc. Mr Blair said God had told him to invade Iraq. Nobody laughed! Well then, wasn't that an amazing political analysis. Pointless then to look at history, etc. Now it seems the Pope's God has changed its mind. Bully for it. Too late, I snarl whilst I go back to making cheese! Joking apart, my lack of political engagement saddens me I watch with some dread as fascism rises.

Dave Zoom said...

Dave, thanks for the link. I note that the article states that the effect of a solar minimum would be a small fraction of the effect of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, so would mostly just add some unpredictability to what's already a highly unpredictable system.

You will notice they are focusing on a very small part of the spectrum , IMHO the met office is begining to make itself a get out , british civil servants do this "never paint yourself into a corner" " never get into a position where you can be held accountable " they are masters of this ! .

The Croatoan 117 said...

Colin, I have a question for you as a self identified member of the radical left. In your ideal future, where leftists have achieved power, what happens to traditional conservatives and others who don't support leftist ideologies? This is a rhetorical question for you to contemplate. If you read the history of a large percentage of 20th century leftist movements it becomes clear they are extremely efficient at filling ditches with their former neighbors.

over the hill and down the other side said...

I've been following this site for a while, with great interest.

About "the Machine." Doesn't it follow from a belief in determinism?

Implacable laws that rule a "computer simulation"?

Not much place for ideas of individual responsibility/free will.

HalFiore said...

Gold star or not, it's incorrect for fudoshin to refer to California's Central Valley as a desert. Prior to all of the ditching, diking, and drainage that was done in the 19th and 20th centuries, a significant area of the Valley was under water for large parts of the year. The main mode of transportation for the Ohlone Indians was a boat made of tule reeds. Other areas were sage/creosote bush desert, and there was everything in between that can be supported in a Mediterranean climate. Bermuda grass and all of the usual introduced European annual grasses do very well in the winter months, along with a vast suite of range forbs and legumes.

The main thing agricultural development did to the Valley was in distributing the water, and a large chunk of the annual Sierra runoff, over a wider area and into the summer growing season.

Minor point, maybe, but it's one of my pet peeves when I see it referred to as such.

I also think the characterization of the call for a "right to water" a bit of a misrepresentation or over-simplification. Of course, it would be absurdity for anyone to expect for God or Nature to deliver as much water as a vast overpopulation demands just because we want it. But to expect a very complex system of water development and delivery, mostly financed by public monies, to be so managed as to deliver fair proportions to the owners of the system is not unreasonable, even if couched in terms of "rights" which admittedly make no kind of sense.

dltrammel said...

One of the things that stands out to me with the attitudes of the "Big" people over the last few decades, (as opposed to all the rest of us "little" people), is how any sort of offense generates a demand for a huge payment from the offender for their "pain and suffering".

(YOU made me feel BAD!!!)

As if every interaction with the real world must be pleasing. Or at least abide by the few preset options. Heaven forbid if something goes wrong and you have to think.

Bruno Bolzon said...

JMG, not just American society. The whole Western world is currently being obsessed by this evil spirit that hasn't been given a name yet. I believe that spirit has been summoned somewhere in the late sixteenth early seventeenth centuries, by the sorcerers Descartes and Bacon, in the wake of the demise of the medieval world view of the world as the Creation, in which the imprinting of God's hand could be seen, and of the conception of humanity as having been given a Mandate from Heaven to act as God's shepherds (and not as the Lord of Creation, as Santorum-minded people seem to think). That's a pretty sketchy sum of it, of course. Thoughts?

Ed-M said...

RepubAnon, yes, I can see that happening -- the Republicons marginalizing the Democrats and bringing the country to utter ruin all by themselves. As for the voters waking up, well... the same Repubs have come up and implemented a contingency plan: gerrymandering. Draw up the Congressional districts ( and on the state level, too) to maximize the number of safe GOP districts and minimize the number of Demo majority districts. And a few years ago they came up with a new card up their sleeve: apportion Electoral College members by the Congressional districts.

With the Democrats powerless to do anything, just who will the Republicons pick to be the scapegoats when their hubris turns into their own nemesis?

Hello... said...

part 1/2

(from Erika)


I know what you mean about different ways of checking out. I'm an artist living through the End of San Francisco, and without my best friend "Thor" on here (James), i'd be strung out on whatever i could ingest and living under a bridge.

i've lost a lot of people to suicides. as most were artists, they were carried out suicides with quiet drama (drugs mixed together in a closed car parked on the side of highway 1 while watching the sunset) or explosive romance (a motorcyclist dressed in all her leathers and drove her motorcycle off the cliff and her body was later found stuck in a tree). i could go on. point is that the drama is short and forgotten or it leaves a bitter taste in all our lives.

i don't know about therapy these days, as i think the therapists are insane as they seem to be there to fit you into the status quo while barely making themselves in reality.

so do what you must and what you're here to do, but consider a LIVING SUICIDE.

i'm serious.

enough changed when i decided to live FOR james simply because it'd smear all his investments of love into me, and i knew it'd ruin his life with an inability to EVER trust loving anyone again.

living suicide as i defined it meant that all i'd "lived" for before was also dead. trying to make it in this society, and all the poison that went with that way of being and thinking.

so i had to cut EVERYONE out of my life and only let certain special folks back in after a time.

living suicide means for me that i'm not here as i WAS. something major had to change.

i'm protective of the people and ideas and jobs i take on now because this is a new way of living that gives the finger to the old way.

artists used to be good at flipping what was destroyed or dead or decaying into new things. we've been taught to stunt our powers so we spend our artistic powers wearing cute tutus and spinning on the coffee table for our parents into ETERNITY.

there's no god in "will you love me now?"

so do what you will, but i offer up another way to "check out" and stick around to enjoy the show.

i think part of the despair comes from this culture that teaches you you're NOTHING if you're not insatiably dancing on the coffee table in a tutu for praise.

a lot of us "who've considered suicide when the rainbow wasn't enuf" are still here because we loved the romance of suicide, but decided to put it off for later until we realized we were finally accidentally LAUGHING in the "later" and not taking ourselves so fucking seriously.

it's all ego. suicides of many kinds have at the core that childish ego hit of "they'll be sorry!"

and yes, they will. but they will go on and will have a scowl of rage at you for not hanging in there.

everyone's got it bad. i learned that when i had to stop hating the techies so much for ruining this city. and by techies, i mean ALL the ancillary stuff that comes with them and makes us slaves at their beck and call so's we can keep our tiny places to sleep another month.

it's all "ew" and no one's running off with any real cheese and laughing. elon musk? i look at elon musk and he's like a naked terrified baby, marrying girls who do it as a "fluke".

how SAD!


Hello... said...

part 2/2 continued....

(from Erika)

and Denys---

i LOVE your comments. you're a tough insightful woman who apparently has never twisted herself out of shape to just "get along". i love that and look forward to your comments.

and you millenials out there... i love hearing from you guys, too. you remind me of the beats in the fifties. the first quiet rage before everything blew up.

you all are poets and it's tragic what's been done to you (as well as all of us), but i'm heartened by your struggle to reclaim your humanity in all this. that you can even access it or know it's even THERE is exciting to me because i see how zombiefied all the young folks are here in san francisco now.

it's unrecognizable. talk about "judgement" triggers. oh my oh my... you've GOT it.

touchiest bunch of people. and it's not just the younger. it's EVERYONE. everyone's gotten pissy and demanding in this town.

so consider suicide LATER. things are only going to get more interesting. how could you MISS this?

it's gonna be an adventure and people who've weathered the suicidal tendencies are gonna be necessary for later.

and when you live out a suicide, you GET to "not care" as if you're not there but you're THERE. i think it's my own version of "dance like no one's watching" and it's FREEING to live that way.

and i love my family. it pains me to not have them in my life.

but i had to do it to be my real self and love my stretchmarks and everyone else's stretchmarks.

i'm a loner but know and talk to many many people -- however i'm super careful about who's coming into my life.

i say what i think i see in eyes now, too. i'm DEAD! but in my new "DEADNESS" i'm more alive than i'd EVER dared to be because now that i'm already dead life's not too short to admit my vulnerabilities and tap into others'.

it's actually thrilling now that i'm on the other side of "not giving a damn." now i'm naked and give MORE of a damn.

people are WILD when you can tap into themselves beyond the rote mechanics of available/expected responsives.

it's my form of gardening in the wild and trying to form love with many. all it means is that i'm more naked and vulnerable than EVER, but somehow i've become stronger and incredibly resilient because i've come out of the despair.

it sounds like smack, i know.

but things had gotten so bleak for me, the world seemed empty and endless and heartless like the old Tron grid in outerspace. i had no GROUND.

i'm just winging it. that's all we CAN do, yeah?

so that's MY KIND of SUICIDE. i hope to inspire you on whatever kind of suicide you consider than enables you to honor the life you've been given and not squash your precious self like a bug.

once you do this, it's hard to even kill bugs. life is so ...

YOU fill in the blanks. anything i say will just sound flat, pedantic, and bring this to a crash.

and also stick around for love affairs. my form of suicide has me going for the good stuff now like i jumped off the golden gate, like another friend who left her 2-year-old behind, but i got ONE more chance already.

sort of like the commenter here to admits to finally ENJOYING the ride instead of trying to choke and control life.

best wishes to you on your journey here, continued or not--



in san francisco

onething said...

A most interesting train of thought here, John.

I've been pondering this sort of thing in what I call theories of deadness. Full deadness is at one end of the spectrum and full life at the other. Not to pick on anyone, just my observations...full on deadness award goes to scientific materialism, which ultimately does mean that people are only machines, as even life is really a predictable interaction of chemicals. Consciousness is an illusion.

The Christian sects have some amount of deadness in them as well, despite the fundamental belief that life is real. The most obvious and, so far as I know, universal belief is that animals have no souls. Logically, the vivisectionists were right. If there is no soul, (consciousness) then who is in there really, to feel pain?

Various Christian sects believe that upon death, you go to sleep. Without the body, I do not know why they would sleep. And some believe that even in the afterlife and in heaven, we are not actual eternal beings, but only are kept alive by the will of God. Since existence itself, not contingent existence but real existence, would be the fundamental nature of God, I do wonder in what important sense do they think we are in God's image, if not in having a real soul?

My daughter visited for a few days. We went to the pond yesterday, and as we were leaving, my 35-month-old grandson said good-bye to the pond. My daughter said "It's a pond." I'm meaning to talk with her about that.

That Europeans in the middle ages did not think this way was news to me, that I learned from you. But it flabbergasts me that people can be so easily swayed to pick up new memes and thought patterns from, I guess, those they perceive to be in authority. One thing people do is, they find out that angels aren't pushing the planets (or, at least, there are forces that seem to be adequate to explain their motion) and thus assume that the cosmos is a dead machine, instead of looking deeper into the workings of things. This arises partly from compartmentalized thought, rather than holistic thought.

On the other hand, my spiritual mentor, a monk on Mount Athos, wrote about 80 years ago:

"Weep with me, all ye wild beasts and birds. Weep with me, forests and desert. Weep with me, every creature created by God, and comfort me in my grief and sorrow."

Thomas Prentice said...

This one is indeed, "The Master's Piece."

Nice coinages: paralogic, acquired stupidity

How about AASS: "American Acquired Stupidity Syndrome"

The US/EU/IMF negotiating position of comply or else is the essential logic of capitalism with respect to organized labor and virtually every other commodity or aspect of one corporation dealing with another, with labor, with consumers, with government (TPP), with sewage injected into the environment, with off-the-books and all "externalizations" in a closed, centralized, monopolized "capitalis" market economy and particularly with respect to pricing. I am waiting for real Adam Smith capitalism at the grocery: goods baked in the morning half-off in the afternoon; strawberries picked over and left at day's end half off on the morrow, et cetera and full and complete product labeling about GMOs, the TOTAL ingredients, how much fertilizer and pesticides used and brands, where the product came from, was it produced/picked by slave labor, that sort of thing. Surely with all this algorithmic technology SOMETHING this SIMPLE could be done ... ?

I wish this essay and last week's essay as well as the five stages of collapse could be mass blasted to out to hundreds of millions of people. But would I be negative in saying that "it wouldnt do any good anyway because they wouldn't read it and if they read it, they would just go back to watching "Big Brother's New Houseguests" and making the trains run on time like Mussolini and Eichmann did ... ?

And I agree: "Laudato si" is good. Very good.

Denis Landry said...

Mister Archdruid, This is OT but it's from the U.S. News & World Report of all places:
Americans Have Lost Confidence ... in Everything.
From Dogone
Only 8 percent have confidence in Congress, down by 16 points from a long-term average of 24 percent – the lowest of all institutions rated.
33 percent have confidence in the presidency, a drop from a historical average of 43 percent.
32 percent have confidence in the Supreme Court, down from 44.
28 percent have confidence in banks, down from 40 percent.
21 percent have confidence in big business, down from 24 percent.
24 percent have confidence in organized labor, down from 26.
24 percent have confidence in newspapers, down from 32 percent.
21 percent have confidence in television news, down from 30 percent.
52 percent of Americans […] are confident in the police [57 percent historically]
By the looks of it, John Q.Public is not that dumb and is getting tired of being lied to.
What does this amount to, at the eve of another three ring circus election.
Its like pulled straight out of your 'Twilight's Last Gleaming' novel, and it gives me chill down my spine.
something is going to give but when?

Hello... said...

OH MY GOD i can't believe you wrote this, My Dear John Michael Greer!--

"If you will, I'm trying to find the true name of the particular evil spirit that's currently obsessing modern American society, so that it can be banished in proper form!"

as a half-colored girl who gets treated more and more like a nigra in san francisco every day, in private, we'd say "White people!" in exasperation for ALL THIS forked-tongue/manifest destiny/winner-take-all/controlling way of living and being. the hungry ghostness of all this insatiable quest for progress where even white folks aren't safe from white folks (when finally i got that a few years ago, i was stark naked terrified because the dissonance and lack of logic makes you unable to have polite water cooler conversations about tv shows EVER AGAIN).

i'm sure most of the readers are white here, so please don't get too touchy off the bat. there are no proper words as even my own personal use of "indian" for even the original white tribes (vikings etc) who were once living WITH the earth instead of opposition to it, is odd.

WE NEED NEW WORDS, and one in particular. "eat the RICH" doesn't even cut it anymore.

what's made me decide to finally officially find a new word is that my Thor/james (a blonde white boy) has come to seriously hate that term even as he, himself, has used it out of frustration when a downtrodden group just wants to be in the proverbial Big House like everyone else, when it's on fire (as King noticed back in the day).

it's also class, but WHAT do you SCREAM when it is running over your foot and over all our feet and children and lives? you can't scream long passages. it gets diluted fast to no effect.

"white" is also dangerous because like james said, it's dangerous even in jest, to say all of ANYONE because the chaos of a revolution fails to distinguish differences. (i even call other colored folk white when they forget the rest of us field negroes out here) we need to set our sights to the north star so we get it right this time.

or try, at least.

yes. we need a word so that we can focus on and banish it.

brilliant! we've been discussing this all week. as someone who used to say 'but it's just COMEDY', i no longer believe that.

anyhow, i like how druidism is a return to the basic "indian" many have forgotten.

don't leave ALL the dancing in the sun to us colored girls! we ALL oughta' be dancing in the sun to the drums...



Greg Belvedere said...

It certainly is addictive and like any lifestyle change it can be tough to change. Many people don't fully realize the extent of their habit.

I think it might be worthwhile for you to explore this machine idea in regards to internet "discourse" and trolling. I have read a few pieces about trolls who, predictably, lead lives in which they are very disempowered. In a Smithsonian interview, Jaron Lanier referenced a story about a notoriously vile troll called Violentacrez who spent his days caring for his disabled wife. A female journalist confronted a troll who stole her dad's identity to torment her and his actions actually became clear to him. Their exchange actually revealed how his feelings of vulnerability led him to troll her.

I look forward to see how this hypothesis develops. I might need to write about how it pertains to parenting at some point. But I need to let it walk around in my head a bit more. Just a reminder to all, Stay at Homestead Dad comes out every Tuesday.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Well done, sir, well done.

To continue the discussion re machines, it seems to me American education was always about creating workers who could fit a vast machine-shaped society composed of factory workers who literally became part of the assembly line machine, or women in secretarial pools, or cubicle workers: the emphasis on punctuality, rote learning, even, in the upper grades, changing classes promptly every 55 minutes. Only the shape has changed as machines and their requirements have changed.

It seems to me that some of the inability to comprehend "the other's" systemic change and response to changing conditions (aka learning)--or inability even to understand that something like that might independently happen in response to individual or societal actions--has to do with extreme materialism and reductionism that goes further than Newtonian mechanics and Cartesian duality. Skinner's behavioral psychology was a late-stage example of this: learning was not by volition and free will, but merely a manifestation of physical pleasure and pain centers, so if you controlled the source of pleasure and pain--the reward "system," you controlled the responses and "learning," and thus the outcomes--and the subjects--of your efforts. (American educators loved this.) Behavioral conditioning at its finest. In my view, though, logical, simplistic and wrong--but able to garner effects--if the subject is less powerful than the operator. Even though game theory has become popular in some arenas, this approach remains pervasive in many realms. A very bad kind of magic still employed by all kinds of powerful players.

If you apply that philosophical/psychological approach to "passive" Nature, ecosystem functioning and so forth (not to mention when dealing with other countries) and couple it with a denial of the inherent worth and capability of creative response of "the other"--well, we're beginning to live with the results now. And the kicking and screaming we're hearing from denialists as well as the technology-will-save us crowd is the kicking and screaming that those clinging to an outmoded paradigm always evince. None of the ecologists I know, nor the people in the ecological restoration circles I frequent would ever subscribe to the mechanistic/Skinnerian view. Nature is too dynamic, response to conditions too evident, systems thinking too vital to understanding process, biological boundaries too blurry. Maybe Nature is starting to practice some operant conditioning on us?

I write this as a person who appreciates machines, well-made tools and mechanical systems, though I understand an oak woodland savanna better that the processes that brought me the excellent tempered stainless steel soil knife I got for my birthday or the laptop on which I'm writing this. And with the ecosystem in question, not actually all that well--it is a lifetime of study.

I, too, admit to enjoying the squirming of the faux cons regarding the encyclical. I am in the middle of reading "Laudato Si" right now. The moral and spiritual components involved in caring for the earth, linking earthcare and climate change with environmental justice, critique of modern economics and the more logical interpretation of the bible (the living Earth is a gift to be cared for not destroyed in the name of "dominion")? Speaking as a Quaker, duh!--or as you say, common sense. Collapse now and avoid the rush!

jeffinwa said...

"...I'm trying to find the true name of the particular evil spirit that's currently obsessing modern American society, so that it can be banished in proper form!"

Aw shucks Archdruid, now you've gone and opened that closet door I've kept so tightly shut these many years ;~) Kidding about keeping that door shut but that statement did give me chills.

Making real what Jollywood tells us is make believe.

Take some of that evil spirits' power away by naming it; classic!

As an aside, the Pope sure stepped in a very public way on a lot of toes; good for him.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

JMG, you commented to Autumn Crow, " I'm coming to think that sanity is a function of interaction with natural systems." Oh yes, I agree and look forward to reading your post on that.

The people I've met who work with kids and youth in inner city gardens have that philosophy, as do others I know who work on the "Leave No Child Inside," movement sparked by a book by Richard Louv (which I never read because the thesis seemed so obvious to me, and true from my own experience).

There are studies conducted in Chicago that in certain housing projects the mere presence of trees near an apartment building had a positive effect on psychological health and social patterns of the residents. Other studies show that being out in nature reduces ADHD symptoms in children (more obviousness, but people have to document it or other people won't change the way they run children's programs). I can provide references if needed to any interested, but at the moment am not where I can get them.

I just learned a new word yesterday: "solastalgia," or the feeling of loss when one's land/ecosystem is changed/damaged by environmental destruction of one sort or another.

A society so divorced from natural systems as ours is in big, big trouble. Ok, more obviousness. :)

Karim said...

Greetings all!

JMG wrote :"those who insist on seeing the world in mechanical terms end up behaving mechanically themselves."

A tragic case of imitating what you contemplate! I can't help noticing that in the West the pendulum has swung to such an extent that many scientists have accepted the insane notion that there is no such thing as free will in humans.

It follows trivially that you will believe such things if you see machines everywhere as by definition they have no free will.

As Jacques Ellul once said (I think) we are becoming a society of insects.

Could it be that free will and the capacity to learn are somehow linked? Or am I stretching it too far?

I am thinking of a kind of spectrum with mechanistic behaviour at one extreme, the capacity to learn further along and free will at the other end.

As we get away from mechanistic behaviour, we increase the capacity to learn and eventually we enter the realm of systems endowed with free will/consciousness.

Lawfish1964 said...

Autumn Crow - well said.

I think gardening should be taught in school. After all, food is kind of important.

I like your analogy. My garden is not a machine either. Sometimes I do a lot of input and get no output (failed potato crop this year). Sometimes it seems the garden has a life of its own and things just grow like crazy (beans, tomatoes). I think that's part of why it's so captivating to me. Gardening is not something that can be mastered. It can only be studied. I've always loved the learning process, so anything which offers continual opportunities to learn is right up my alley.

RogerCO said...

Yep, as so often you manage to say more or less concisely what is in one's head. The machine//organic dichotomy like the science culture//arts culture dichotomy has been with me since teenage. Whilst science (of the single-vision flavour) and mechanics have their uses it has long seemed to me that the human world has them out of balance.
The only possible response to it is to spend more time being a part of what is going on in my field (literally a field, but only legally "mine") and continuing to learn from that.

We need to get people to reconnect with the non-machine world - but it's an uphill struggle when two out of three people you pass in the street are literally plugged in to their machine through the ears and deliberately trying to exclude the mess that is reality.

In personal life it is easy enough - ditch the mass media, be sceptical about inappropriate technology etc etc, but can this counter-current prevail. Will there be a world left for us to inhabit once things have run their course?

What is the Archdruidical position on whether it is worth expending energy physically trying to change the society that is crushing us?

hapibeli said...

I have a phrase that comes to me periodically for some 20+ years; "Neither Calvinist no Cartesian be". It is all about man as machine, whether for some spiritual deity, or as JMG says, the belief in the "progress" deity.
An old and dear friend of mine used to say that man began his downfall when he became agrarian. He lived his philosophy as much as he could.
I would argue with him about the many positive aspects of "modern civilization".
Now, as the years have gone by, I have more acceptance for his thoughts on the matter.
Other than clothes washing machines and some other niceties :-) :-), we have been, and are continuing to make our lives in the world unlikely.
We are not consumers, programmed to buy and exploit. We may do so, but it is against our better natures. and the great majority of us, as JMG points out, seem to be wired not to follow more enlightened paths. Pity that!

Turmarion said...

It's really interesting--some of the ideas you express here remind me of Morris Berman's book The Re-Enchantment of the World, which changed my life when I read it in the 80's. He makes the same point as you do, that there was a shift from universe-as-interconnected-being to universe-as-machine. He connects it to Newton--he explore's Newton's psychological history, and argues that he became increasingly rigid--perhaps borderline autistic--in wanting to cram everything into a mechanical system. Berman also discusses Gregory Bateman's theories on schizophrenic-type thought as being produced by double-bind conditioning--damned if you do and damned if you don't. I wonder if that ties in with some of this as well, especially in the way we're forced to deny our interconnection to nature, and to objectify everything.

Christophe said...

JMG - "I'm coming to think that sanity is a function of interaction with natural systems. More on this in an upcoming post."

That's a post I will be looking out for. Any useful definition of sanity is highly dependent on being able to relate to, model, and reflect reality. And the reality that matters to humans is very much the complex natural systems of which we are a part and for which our genetic signatures were selected.

Despite the ubiquity of the human-influenced environments most of us find ourselves in, scratch their surface and uncontrolled, natural systems are driving them. Beneath the bureaucratic gridlock of our governments are the primate status negotiations that lurk within all human interactions. Behind the impressive veneers of our monumental architecture are the continuous stresses that inexorably urge all building materials to return to ground level, the same stresses that the Babylonians and Chaldeans tried to keep at bay long enough to build up their artificial environments in their day.

We interact with natural systems all day, every day, but our secular religion of humanism requires us to deny their power over us and to vaunt our imagined power over them. Playing god rarely pleases the gods.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

In other words, Sir, you are inquiring into the nature and cause of what you have called Biophobia, for surely it was hubris and biophobia, (along with Calvinism and Cartesianism as enabling philosophies), which lead to the Rise of the machines?

Moshe Braner said...

Talking about machines vs. humans, note who they blame for the accidents:

"Google has so far reported 12 accidents involving the [self-driving car] prototypes. ... accidents were mostly a result of human error by the drivers of the other cars involved."

JR said...

Delusion/ self-deception/ and denial play a prominent role in your previous posts on our eras of demise. Complementing such delusion seems to be outright "stupidity" in multiple American and European institutions. This phenomenon has greatly worsened in the last couple of decades and is now just plain unbelievable! I just can't get my mind around it, and i appreciate your trying to help. How can this phenomenon be accounted for? "Delusion of control" is part of it, and you are on to something when you speak of a hypertrophied mentality of mechanical control as a mode of thought importantly involved. But this is an elusive and complex thing which deserves deeper analysis and discussion.
The delusion of control you speak of involves having a purely, or primarily instrumental orientation of the mind, it seems to me. Can't instrumental thinking crowd out other types of thinking in certain circumstances? Can't instrumental thinking erode value commitments and exclude an active imagination? Imagination involves seeking out and seeing alternatives, using alternative terms and metaphors, and formulating questions in an enlarged context. Alternative strategies for thinking and dealing with changing situations are handicapped by an atrophied imagination and exclusively instrumental (how do I fix the status quo in front of me) mentality. The exclusive use of the validity of technique and the machine as a predictable means of controlling, first, natural processes and then, many other things to achieve economic and political ends is what instrumental thinking is.
A slippery subject. Should it initially be approached historically - from the late Middle Ages I mean?
What do you think?

Jason Heppenstall said...

As for things being non-negotiable, as I write there is an important meeting going down in Brussels with all the EU big-wigs. Initially, the main focus of the meeting was going to be about what a bad, bad man Putin was. But that idea got supplanted by the inconvenient arrival of thousands of desperate refugees fleeing across the Med and arriving on Europe's southern shores.

Change of plan for the focus. How can these migrants be persuaded to stay at home? Who is going to house them? Who should pay for it all?

Then Greece 'happened' and the focus has had to change once more.

Events, events ...

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

I wonder if our tendency to treat everything as a machine and get frustrated when it doesn't do our bidding is applicable to understanding the sheer amount of hostility that seems to be the norm many places on the Internet: we treat the people on the other end of the net as machines, and the communication is mediated by a machine, delivering a double-whammy of frustration when it's not what we want.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Foo Bar--A quote from Robert Heinlein has stayed with me, "Anyone who thinks protocol is unimportant has never dealt with a cat."

Agent Provocateur said...


I'm reasonably certain you are basically correct that "machine thinking" and understanding the universe to be a dead thing we can dispose of as we wish has a good deal to do with the environmental crisis. I am less certain that this type of thinking is completely unique to our era.

Certainly you need machines to have "machine thinking"; but the indifference of the elite to the interests of others is by no means restricted to our time. The sort communal thinking Jo referred to fits best with hunter gatherer societies. Anything more complicated and you almost by definition have a minority elite preying on a majority. Gilgamesh for instant ... Not a nice guy. You can't prey off others and at the same time have due regards for their interests or truly respect them; hence the contempt nobility has always has for the peasants.

I guess I think it is just simpler than what you suggest. Some people are just evil; period. If you make your living preying off of others, you will become evil even if you weren't initially. If you are born into the rentier class, or just work your way in, you must regards others as simply means to your ends. You must treat them and all other things outside of your "self" as dead and disposable. Extreme amounts of available energy to work these ends just just makes for extreme results.

William Knight said...

Erika - thanks for sharing that.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

The following is tentative and subject to correction by the better informed.

As an interested non-Christian observer, I think that John Paul II's efforts on behalf of the poor and Pope Francis' efforts to help the poor and protect the terrestrial ecosystem have been handicapped by the RCC's lacking any coherent, doctrinally supported economic theory of its own since the end of the Middle Ages. Medieval economic ideas are not adequate to analyze or reform the current global economy. Marxist-influenced political and theological movements which attempted to update Catholic economics were rejected by the hierarchy, leaving intellectual confusion.

IMO, in the absence of an economic theory which would support common people having some political power, exhortations to be charitable and refrain from usury and grinding the faces of the poor are merely nagging, and practical men and women will ignore it. Given that the process by which a man becomes Pope does not include any consultation with the laity, I don't think even a well-intended Pope will change this.

If the Church had got such a theory and took it seriously, a Pope could issue an encyclical as sweeping as the latest one is reported to be and it would fit more neatly under the heading of faith and morals.

Nicholas Carter said...

An alternative interpretation had occurred to me, having less to do with paralogical architecture and more to do with motivated cognition. Namely, the Imperial Wealth Pump. It has, as you have noted in previous essays, been the source of irresistible power on the world scale, and irresistibly tempting wealth at home. The maintenance of the wealth pump is the primary concern of the American Imperial State and it's overseas vassals. But, as pumps are wont to do, the Wealth Pump is tearing apart debtor nations at an alarming rate, and menacing recalcitrant outsiders into circling the wagons.
At this point though, there's nothing to do with the Pump but Pump: the thirst is too severe, the victims too anemic, and anything short of full tilt sucking will be a wasted effort. The choice is between putting down the Pump, and draining down to the bottom.
Putting down the Pump is a non-starter. The largess and glory it brings have addicted its constituents. The job of the presidency, the state department, the IMF, at this late day, is to keep the Pump working as hard as needed; it is quite outside their powers to suggest it be turned off.
So the Greeks cannot be offered compromise, as that would involve taking our fangs out of the victim. The Russians and the Chinese cannot be bribed or accommodated, as that would involve sharing already thin porridge, not to mention empowering the nation that might be next on the menu. That the fattened goose of the environment is stripped down to the bones cannot be discussed in polite company, as no festive mood could resist the palling thought of the end of the feast.
It's not that doubling down is the best strategy, in truth or the minds of the players. But the choice is between doubling down and leaving the table, and we can't bear to leave.

jean-vivien said...

Maybe the latest craze in IT about machine learning, and predictive software, taps into that illusion of control which wants to treat everything like a machine. We are indeed standing at an historic moment, when machines can acquire the capacity to learn... and yet the ability to reach that ultimate goal of industrial society is precis ely what will cause its downfall : far from projecting us into a cornucopian future, automatization has completely upset the usual way by which society distributes wealth among individuals. The way I see it, rampant automatization decreases the availability of productive labor for humans, and therefore the wealth produced will have less means of being redistributed among the majority of individuals.
Besides, as you pointed out brillantly in this week's essay, trying to automate everything must ultimately lead to automating your own behaviour. Somehow having machines assisting us to take decisions would be like always using a wheelchair whereas your legs were perfectly valid. The muscles would end up atrophied, and so would our brain functions.
Overall, that illusion of control tied to the machine-oriented worldview may also explain why the subjects you discuss in your other blog are so fascinating and yet so subversive to a person living in an affluent industrial society : the idea that there are forces in the cosmos that you cannot bind and control to machinery is very subversive, and yet the fact that there might be forces hidden from our everyday perceptions is also a means of escaping from all the frustrations engendered by an industrial lifestyle.
Which is why I always wonder, why have some areas of science got to be turned into cash crops ? If the machine learning community was just pursuing a philosophical goal of general AI, it would make for a fascinating hobby and it would constitute a great collective project, like reaching the Moon. Maybe that is so because it is not a subject matter where backyard tinkerers can excel... Instead what we have got is a glut of startups, each trying to come up with its own derisive application of really advanced AI concepts to really mundane tasks. Interestingly one of the main drivers behind the glut is marketing, which would benefit hugely from machine learnign advances. But marketing itself is like trying to believe in the economical value of something you really cannot control... In the end nobody is being very honest : noone really wants to see one's life completely automated, and everyone actually wants, on some level, to believe in a world that one cannot control, as it brings money to the table.

John Michael Greer said...

Beetleswamp, that makes perfect sense to me. Maybe our politicians should be forced to learn surfing.

Greybeard, true enough. I wonder if an independent Greece could control its own borders better than the EU is doing.

Hawkcreek, well, it's true that there has never yet been a government that's smarter than the people it governs.

Scotlyn, good. If anything, the fundamentalists have gone further in the machine-direction than most soi-disant rationalists; if all truth is found in the pages of a book, and the world is an artifact made for a specific temporary purpose, there are few barriers to the sort of folly I've discussed.

Deedl, that's a fascinating analysis, and a useful piece of the puzzle. Thank you.

Chloe, hmm! Clearly I need to review the latest news in hominin evolution; I thought bipedality was a Pliocene product.

Peter, interesting. I find linear models of cognitive development less than convincing -- it seems to me, based on observation of others and also my experience of my own Aspergers-syndrome idiosyncrasies, that cognitive development is much more multidimensional than that -- but the invincible ignorance of those who think they already know it all is certainly a major factor.

Marc, and of course the built environment is also a huge issue. Wasn't it Walter Gropius who called a house "a machine for living"?

Compound F, let's take the logic the other direction. Since magic -- defined as the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will -- is practiced to good effect by every human society, and can be practiced here and now with equally good effect, any model of the universe that denies the existence of will, consciousness, or both is a bunch of malarkey. QED!

Donald, and standing in an elevator munching bean burritos when you know what the consequences are going to be is another thing still!

Troy Sanchez said...

I have noticed that those outside the upper and middle classes of the anglosphere seem to get innately what is going on because they have already been there. Latin America had CIA installed despots that enabled the USA to loot for decades. I have a theory that Iraq was one of the best things to happen to Latin America as it consumed CIA resources that kept despots in power. Profligate use of the worlds resources failed to make the USA and the client states happy. The combination of rigid education in the anglosphere and the media/marketing socially programming people everywhere to be consumerist and aspirant on a sort of rapper to Hyacinth Bucket continuum (conspicuous consumption to pretending to have class pedigree) guaranteed dissatisfaction and tantrums on the way back down. As for neo cons, I like the joke-
Why don't they teach evolution in Dixieland schools? They don't want to speculate about events that haven't happened to them yet.

Revelin said...

"I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace." (Richard Brautigan 1967)

I wholeheartedly second the motion that the modern West's machine world fantasy deserves a study or two. The Adam Curtis three-part documentary which borrows its title from the above poem (All watched over by machines of loving grace) deals with this very question and is well worth viewing.

By the by, after years of reading ADR, a belated heartfelt thank you for the words, wisdom, and all-round public service.

Jeannette Sage said...

Two causes of the American ignorance in foreign policy are, imo:

- a lack of theoretical knowledge of the world outside the American borders.
This finds its cause in the school curricula, where geography is not a subject in itself; topics are treated very superficially, here and there in the social science program. For a country with so much geography, this is remarkable to say the least. For instance, when our youngest daughter was in 6th grade (Massachusetts public school), she had received less knowledge of where to find American cities than I had at her age, and I was born and raised in a European country (Netherlands aka Holland). Names of rivers or mountain ranges were a big unknown to her. Nothing was done on topography of other continents. Most Americans I have met during the six years that we lived in your country, did not know where Holland was located. Was I from Poland maybe? Did I like Danish pastry? (from Denmark, not Holland) Was Holland north of Spain? (well, yes, if you forget about France and Belgium) Is Holland maybe an island next to Iceland? I had to say that I was from Greater Amsterdam to make myself clear.

- a lack of practical knowledge of the world outside the American borders.
Americans used to travel a lot (seventies), but this is no longer the case. Many of them have never or hardly ever left their country. For those who do travel, safe options like organized trips are preferred over more adventurous options. As a result, there is very little interaction with the locals, and very little to no understanding of the couleur locale. But no one bothers, and so someone can potentially be in Foreign Politics for the sheer reason of being able to see three different countries from her window:
(1.22 min, Sarah Palin interview)
Foreigners fully grasped the extent of American ignorance after this statement!

Along the same line, Rick Santorum showed off his ignorance when he scorned the Dutch (= people from Holland, not Germany where Germans live, no misunderstanding please) for killing the elderly people:
If it was not so insulting, it would be hilarious!
So when he makes statements about the Catholic church, it is wise to take his large imagination into account, that clearly makes him say things straight from the "heart", without checking his facts or using his god-given reasoning capabilities.

Rita said...

You might be interested to know that the Facebook group "The Christian Left" has started referring to to the Christian Right as Satanists. There is a meme going around that combines a photo of Santorum claiming Ayn Rand as a prophet of capitalism with a photo of Anton LaVey with the statement that his style of Satanism was Objectivism with more ritual. Not exactly on topic, but amusing.

sgage said...

Turmarion said...

"Berman also discusses Gregory Bateman's theories on schizophrenic-type thought as being produced by double-bind conditioning--damned if you do and damned if you don't."

That would be Gregory Bateson.

sgage said...

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

"In other words, Sir, you are inquiring into the nature and cause of what you have called Biophobia, for surely it was hubris and biophobia, (along with Calvinism and Cartesianism as enabling philosophies), which lead to the Rise of the machines?"

I have always thought of it as 'control freakery'.

Patricia Mathews said...

@Tony Whelks: "Santora" as the plural of "Santorum." LOVE IT! Because this declension puts our Rick firmly into the neuter gender.

@Foo Bar: too true! I know precisely who runs my own menage: Shadow Cat. Who is now singing me the castrato aria from THE HUNGER GAINS in purest Siamese.

Amen to all the other comments about being overmechanized, and it's assuredly been going on since the 1930s at least, and Watsonian Behaviorism as the period's Latest in Child Rearing Theory. But at least the machines of the day were analog.

Now that everything has been digitized, I'm seeing a quiet revolt among the upper-middle-class young. Gardens, Sustainability Studies (with all the limitations of being based on that crazy Triple Bottom Line (to which I always say "Pick one"), and people like my granddaughter, who bicycles to the Bosque School in Albuquerque, going out to the riverbank and getting her hands dirty and calling it "science" (which is assuredly is, but NOT digitized!) and still keeping up a rigorous academic curriculum which, yes, includes Reason and Critical Thinking, Civics, etc. Her cousin wanted a copy of a book called BAD ARGUMENTS for his birthday, or at least his parents suggested that. It really gives me hope, for whatever it may be worth.

Oops - my will is being overridden by the Master Of The House, whose needs do not wait on my convenience.

Cherokee Organics said...


And yet you are describing many of the conditions of sociopathy: Inability to consider other peoples agendas; Inability to empathise with others; escalation of negative actions that provide the perpetrator with positive feedback; self defeating behaviour and I've noticed that they generally consider themselves to be smarter than the rest of the population. I should know as I grew up around one and can mostly predict what they're going to do in any given situation.

One of the interesting things about them too is that they generally follow fixed patterns that worked in the past despite evidence to the contrary or even changing circumstances. Of course most people live their lives by patterns without even realising it, but sociopaths follow them very rigidly.

Just sayin, but possibly such a condition could be pervasive across a culture?

PS: The whole Catholic / Protestant thing down here died decades ago and people fixate their disdain on other religions now.

Hi Dammerung,

What? How do you even know that your feelings are actually your emotions? I put it to you that if you’ve invested your emotions in pursuing status, then you are surely being fed those emotions. Truly. Look at a stand of toothpaste in a super market and you will feel that you are somehow missing out and the sheer choice will be perceived in your mind as dissatisfaction. Activity is the answer for you, get off the couch and do something with your life.



onething said...

"We have a moral system in the West that is fundamentally individualistic, and a set of problems that are fundamentally collective in nature."

Excellent point.

I went to check it out, but couldn't get the comments to load. Do I have to join up?

sgage said...

@ jean-vivien,

"The muscles would end up atrophied, and so would our brain functions."

Every automation is an amputation. (Marshall McLuhan, I think)

Stuart said...

JMG-- it is neat to hear you thinking out loud about the problem of where and when the machine-oriented spirit has its origin. Where my mind goes, and where I've recently begun to wrestle with the problem in my own way, is the figure of Prospero. (It might be merely a function of my interests that I regard the Shakespeare canon as the mythic axis for English-speaking modernity, but I honestly can't think of a better place to start looking.)

On the one hand, Prospero is the answer to the question which is Dr. Faustus (consider their names!), an answer earned with twenty years of bitter struggle by the greatest artistic spirit the English world has produced. I am disinclined to propose that a better answer could have been found. But! The Tempest portrays a world that is *entirely* within Prospero's command-- being exiled with nothing but his magic, he has ousted the witch Sycorax, enslaved her unruly son, and bound the powerful flower-storm genius of the place. The action of the play, so unlike any other Shakespeare in this respect, is never outside Prospero's control: he orchestrates a mystical wedding of perfectly prepared and positioned elements, with the intent of effecting a "brave new world," healed of its trauma and immunised against unruly evil. That is, if taken literally (a troubling caveat!), a machine-world.

So what to do with this figure? I think we can agree that Prospero-the-machinist, Prospero the heroic technocrat, stands as the paragon of a spirit that in the present day must be viewed as evil, for the reasons you're articulating. But to my mind it is actually very difficult to credibly cast Prospero as a villain, especially in light of the whole canon. For one thing, simply rejecting Prospero does nothing to address the evils he mastered-- you almost inevitably end up reconstituting Prospero as the answer, or worse, regressing to an inferior version of him (Hamlet or Macbeth, say). Another tactic, which you could say post-modern political thought has generally tried, is to take Prospero's island as given but to critique Prospero's rule from the perspective of one character or another. Someone will, in effect, inhabit Sycorax or Caliban or Ariel or Miranda or Ferdinand (or Trinculo!) and ask why Prospero should be in charge. But for a couple of reasons that should be evident, that again only reconstitutes Prospero, so is no answer.

What is especially interesting, given what you have written this week about learning, is that the Prospero we actually see on stage is not a magician: he's an educator, even a gardener of souls. This is perhaps the beginning of a way to reimagine him-- while taken literally he's an image of the Faustian Will dominating a machine-world, from another perspective what he portrays is that Will wholly directed towards an interior and moral purpose, with the effect that upon surrendering his books and staff he is at home in the world rather than alienated and damned as Faustus was.

A related path, which I'm sort of exploring, is to imagine that the protagonist of the Tempest is not Prospero at all, but rather the hidden magician who tells us the story of Prospero. A concealed Merlin, if you will. This involves a certain amount of working backwards-- not regression exactly, more like reconstruction, in that there are figures and scenarios in the just-previous romances that suggest what the secret protagonist and his modus might be like. (Spoiler alert-- in a word, surprisingly druidy.)

sgage said...

@ Stuart,

"(Spoiler alert-- in a word, surprisingly druidy.)"

A spoiler alert for a Shakespeare play - I love it! ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, the US elite is too busy watching PowerPoint presentations and issuing orders to cringing subordinates to have time for horses. If they had time, they'd probably insist that the horses be replaced by mechanical robo-horses who could be turned on and off, and would do exactly as they were told.

YCS, funny. I hope the Greens keep on hammering on that issue, and bring it up over and over again whenever the Liberals try to push their agenda on religious grounds.

Ed, of course -- the US, or one or more of the successor states that occupy its current territory once the present mess is over with, could well stage a comeback fifty years or a century down the line. History's a tangled web; that's one of the reasons fantasies about the US as the permanent hyperpower are so misplaced.

Jo, I think that's certainly part of it, but I'm far from sure that's all of it. All empires get obsessive about control; not too many of them insist that the whole cosmos ought to be subject to their will. More on this as the discussion proceeds!

Les, congrats on the farmer's market! As far as the feedback loop, though, most countries in the world are nowhere near as compliant as Australia, which in some ways never seems to have gotten over being a colony. There's a selective logic in Washington that sees the Australia-like countries as normal and everything else as unacceptable, and I'm not sure that depends on there being a lot of examples of the first class.

Leo, I suspect if property owners couldn't write off losses from unleased properties, they'd be a lot more interested in cutting deals!

M, stop right there. "Civilizational arc"? That's the old delusion that everyone in the world is destined to become like us. Not so; many of the world's indigenous societies have been around far longer than the cultures of western Europe where the industrial revolution happened, and have cultures that are as complex -- or more complex -- than ours. They just didn't go in for machines.

Nuku, that's a useful point. Once again, the people I know who glorify machines the most aren't people who spend time getting grease on their hands -- just as nobody I've ever met who works in a data center buys into the fantasies about deindustrial internets.

Andy, that's indeed fascinating -- thank you. It's the process that led us to drop every tool other than a hammer that's interesting me just now.

Nuku, I think the disease is at its worst in the US just now, but I don't think it's uniquely American in any other sense.

Denys, good. Yes, all of those are part of the same pattern, aspects of a society that has ended up, in effect, trying to turn its inmates into identical, interchangeable parts with no connection to one another except through whatever social function they're supposed to exercise. There's a connection here with the misuse of logic -- specifically, the use of categories as identities -- which may need another dose of Korzybski to clarify. Hmm...

sgage said...

@ JMG.

"There's a connection here with the misuse of logic -- specifically, the use of categories as identities -- which may need another dose of Korzybski to clarify. Hmm... "

Ah, the good Count K.! Back in the 70's during my long and checkered college career, I had some electives to use up, so I took a couple of courses in General Semantics. Categories as identities, logical types, etc. (as so wonderfully explicated and elaborated by Bateson).

Remember, folks, a chair is not 'chairs'. A person is not 'people'.

JMG, I think you could do a bang-up post on Korzybski/GS/Bateson, etc. I think it would provide some really useful and interesting cognitive tools for the crew here...

sgage said...

Another great line from Korzybski:

"Always remember never to say 'always' or 'never'"

Beware totalizing...

John Michael Greer said...

Matthew, nicely put. Yes, you have to start from the recognition that the cosmos has its own order, which is not put there by human beings, does not exist for the convenience of human beings, and may not even be fully comprehensible by human beings; once you grasp that, you have a shot at the humility necessary for survival in the real world.

Adualism, of course there are grades and degrees of intelligence; so? There's a rough though inexact correlation between degrees of complexity and grades of intelligence, which is why a functioning democracy tends to make fewer really stupid decisions than an autocracy does -- autocracy is a much simpler system, thus contains far less institutional intelligence.

Luna, excellent! You get this evening's gold star. Yes, that's been my take on conspiracy theories for a long time now; they're a way to avoid the far more terrifying possibility that nobody is in charge...

Denys, interesting. I'll put it on the get-to list.

Lou, true enough. The next question is how to help people snap out of it.

Twilight, that's a good point, and a fascinating one. At what point along the spectrum of Enlightenment culture did we make the transition from elites who believed their own hype to elites who deliberately manipulated falsehoods in the way you've outlined?

Clay, I think that's an important suggestion -- that it's not simply interacting with machines, but the entire artificial environment that does it. Since the built environment -- machines included -- consists of human concepts projected into the world of experience, those who spend their time mostly interacting with manufactured things are literally living inside a solid hallucination, a world from which the natural order has been excluded in order to impose an arbitrary human order on it. Hmm.

Ahavah, thank you! Yes, very likely that's in there. IIRC Moshe Idel has written something on the origins of the golem legend out of Cabalistic mysticism; I'll have to see if I can find that.

Foo Bar, have pity on the poor cats! I couldn't bear to see one condemned to live with a politician... ;-)

Ed, ah, but notice what the Greek legend of the Trojan horse implies: "don't trust a machine, it's probably booby-trapped." Not bad advice, all things considered.

Phil, one of the things I like most about MacIntyre is precisely that he uses history to elucidate the origins and trajectory of concepts. That seems like a very valuable tool in the present case, too.

K-dog, that is to say, a great many Americans have accepted the role assigned them in society, as machines. Of course you're right about freedom; look at whatever a nation glorifies, and you can usually be sure that it's the quality that nation most lacks.

John Michael Greer said...

RPC, good. That's what I was trying to address in the last paragraph of the post: the pursuit of the mechanical seems to have locked the elite into a mechanical pursuit of already-failed goals through the mechanical repetition of already-failed strategies. You're right, though, that that reality has to be included in the analysis.

Carol, another very good point. Thank you.

Peacegarden, I've heard the same kind of drivel myself. I'm pretty sure that's why US health care these days is so bad at providing health.

Dave, excellent! Exactly; there's no way to sustain an unsustainable level of complexity. As for this site, it gets between a quarter and a third of a million unique page views a month these days, which I think is considered fairly good for an unadvertised blog on the fringes of the fringe; I'm certainly delighted to have reached so large an audience, having started with the assumption that maybe fifteen people would read these posts.

Wizzard, I'm getting the sense that surfer dudes are worth listening to!

Ed-M, no nation anywhere ever engages in good faith negotiations. The question is whether the US has ever conducted its negotiations on the basis of a cold recognition that the other side has its own agenda and won't simply do whatever we say, and the answer is yes, up until fairly recently, that was common. I want to know what changed.

Donalfagan, somehow I missed that story. As for cooperation, that happens when people realize they need it, and it'll have to be relearnt in a big way as the institutions that replaced cooperative action fall apart.

Beatrice, don't fret about your lack of political engagement. These days, far more often than not, "political engagement" means that you get to be coopted into the service of someone else's craving for unearned power.

Dave, since the climate is pretty seriously spinning out of control at this point, I don't think that's likely to be a factor.

Over the hill, of course; the whole notion of rigid determinism and the denial of free will is an invention of what, a few centuries back, used to be known as "the mechanical philosophy" -- the belief, new and controversial in those days, that the cosmos was nothing but a giant machine. When you hear someone insist that free will doesn't exist, btw, look around and you'll usually have no trouble finding the behavior that person is trying to excuse.

Doctor Westchester said...


Just to let you know: Putin’s Plot to Get Texas to Secede.

As Zero Hedge likes to put it - tin hat conspiracy theory is now tin hat conspiracy fact. Seems like I read about something similar in a recent novel...

FiftyNiner said...

I had started to write this last evening and talked myself out of it--but here goes. I am not going to try to speak to any specifics of your situation, because I do not know them, but I can only offer some of what I have learned in the time I've been here in this wonderful thing we call LIFE. I will be 63 years old on Saturday. My hope is that I get to live a few more years and learn a little more each day. I am third from a family of seven children--the second died in infancy. My father was a WWII veteran who came down with severe PTSD which started ten to twelve years after the war. The stress of his condition eventually drove my mother into her own cycle of depression and two decades of amitryptline, which was way too long for her to have taken it.
I came to know finally as an adult that I too had suffered from depression when I realized that I had made a hard-and-fast decision at age ten never to become a father. My family was always going to be my birth family. I now care for my two brothers, one older than I and the other younger, who are both disabled and housebound.
A little more than a year ago, my doctor had me on medications for blood pressure; a statin drug; and a SSRI. I made the decision to come off the drugs and I have. I educated myself, I changed my diet and my physical routine and the last BP reading I had was 124/72. But by all means get active. Try to do at least one thing each day that you have really loved in the past: have your favorite meal; take a day trip; visit a friend you have not seen for a while; love an animal.("For a person who has never loved an animal, a part of the soul remains unawakened." Anatole France.)
I now take minerals that are almost non existent in the SAD(Standard American Diet) because the soils have become so depleted in the last century. Take magnesium; potassium; selenium; and zinc everyday. Never take iron; copper; or calcium unless you consult your doctor.
I know the above sounds like meddlesome advice of the overly concerned, but now for what I really want to say: I came a long time ago to the realization that I loved the "Soul", for lack of a better term that is within me. The way that I relate to that soul confirms the duality that pervades the philosophy and history of our culture. I was certainly brought up in the Christian sensibilities of the rural South, but I have never practiced any faith. Allow yourself the space to honestly assess your deepest concerns for yourself and for the the human race. To be honest, that concern is why we are all readers of JMG's amazing essays of the current state of the world. Despair could overwhelm us all if we allow it. Despair can become the solitary companion for those of us who tend to be "solitary souls". Constant learning and striving is our task. There are doubtless people for whom you will become an indispensable source of advice and counsel in the future we are about to enter.
All the Best

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

JMG, you wrote, "Clay, I think that's an important suggestion -- that it's not simply interacting with machines, but the entire artificial environment that does it. Since the built environment -- machines included -- consists of human concepts projected into the world of experience, those who spend their time mostly interacting with manufactured things are literally living inside a solid hallucination, a world from which the natural order has been excluded in order to impose an arbitrary human order on it. Hmm."

IMO this is an essential insight. I grew up in the mostly artificial environment of mid-century suburbia, but my parents paid for two weeks of no-frills Girl Scout summer camp every year, and then a high school friend and her father took me on a couple of long backpacking trips in the High Sierra, where the hand of man was visible only in the trails we walked, the trail signs, and the stuff we carried with us. On return from any of these ten day to two week trips, I always experienced some culture shock, as the comic strips, all the printed advertisements and most of what the people around me were concerned with seemed completely pointless.

Any immersion into a radically different physical and cultural situation is likely to have that effect when one returns. What kept it from totally wearing off me is that after several post-trip repeats (and perhaps some marijuana), I realized that the entire built environment of a city and the culture that creates it and keeps it running is functionally a Disney Fantasyland or a stage set taking up a tiny corner of an immense real world, way beyond human scale in every direction. Also that it is no use telling people this as long as their entire life experience has been within environments that are mostly built or modified by human beings. What you inhabit and interact with every day is what is real to you, even if it's a maximum security prison or a royal court.

Most people cannot grasp that their material surrounding are exactly what you call them, a solid hallucination, until they get well away from it long enough to stop looking at it, imagining it and pining for it, and start paying attention to the parts of the physical world that human beings did not build. Until the night sky is the visible cosmos, not a couple of dim stars glimpsed between buildings, and the animals and plants around you are carrying on their lives without much interest in you.

People who live in huts and tend goats are probably not under the spell of this illusion. City dwellers live in a double or triple dream. The first dream is the one all human beings are born into, the habits our minds use to make patterns out of sense impressions. The second is the built environment, to the extent it screens off the natural world. The third is the stories our culture and art tell us to make sense of our lives, or to comfort and distract us. Waking up even momentarily from any of these dreams requires either a sustained effort of will or the equivalent of a loud bang.

Varun Bhaskar said...


Isn't the source of this fantasy what it has always been? The desire of people to have control over the uncontrollable? I mean in ancient times it was just a divide between the civilized and the savage. How is that so different from today? We are the machines, they the craftsmen. Same tune, different words.

Varun Bhaskar said...


That's an Asimov short story...can't recall its name but I remember the Aliens were some kind of monkey.

Grebulocities said...

I just finished a book by David Keith, describing how climate change might be slowed by dumping sulfuric acid aerosols into the stratosphere. I knew of this geoengineering scheme before, but what surprises and frightens me is the economics of it: a couple of billion dollars a year would be enough to offset a large portion of additional global warming, provided the scheme is kept up in future years.

He does concede that there are huge uncertainties, that the correct approach is to start small and scale it up, that an abrupt stop to this scheme would cause extremely rapid climate change, and that done poorly it could drive down global precipitation, perhaps even disrupting monsoons and endangering billions of lives.

To me, it is a no-brainer that this "medicine" is worse than the disease, possibly much worse. But the idea of geoengineering the climate is catching on rapidly among the technophiles. As a really blatant example of machine thinking being used where whole systems thinking is required, it's hard to beat geoengineering. It's so cheap that any significant nation could do it unilaterally, as could even a single multi-billionaire.

As denying or ignoring climate change becomes impossible in the face of reality, I think we're going to see the implementation of a lot of Very Bad Ideas like this one and the rapid nuclear buildout that you depicted in Star's Reach. I think you hit the nail on the head regarding the delusion of control and inappropriate machine thinking. The powers that be seem very likely to try these sorts of things if for no other reason than to keep up the delusion of control.

Mark said...

@ hello

IMO the name of the evil spirit is Mammon, the god of money. His followers I would call Mammonists.

It is they who depleted the oceans of fish, the forests of trees, the rivers of water, the ground of soil. They have taken the humanity from human beings, and life from the living world. All these living beings they have stolen and sold them for money. They call this process progress.

This leaves us all with some stains on our hands. Most will deny this last observation, and argue this is too simple, you can't live without money. Yes, true, and I keep a cash cushion. But you can live without credit or debt; you don't have to sell your soul, and when you go out to pick berry’s, YOU LEAVE SOME FOR OTHER BEINGS, GIVING THANKS TO THE BERRY’S FOR GETTING WHAT YOU NEED TODAY !!!!

This is exactly what Mammonist's don't do. Because they are infected with psychic superiority complex.

Which do you have more of, berry stains, or mammon stains? That's all I'm askin'.

winingwizzard said...

Surfing, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, walking, foraging - ANY thing that places one firmly within an ecosystem is a grounding rod. As Beetleswamp says - Nature cannot be beaten, nor intimidated - she just is. The challenge for us is to introduce children and grandchildren to their world - NOT to place them in the Matrix where they have to choose a red or blue pill just to see reality.

Away from city and interstate, where 70% (more?? not sure) of folks live, there is still wonder. Canada has more, but the US still has plenty. It is hidden away. like the waterfall hidden on my property - no realtor had ever walked the property in the 6 years it was listed; the former owner was 87 years old and had held it for timber harvest for 20 years without ever laying eyes on it; I dug up a horse-drawn seeder when putting in my water line...

My 23-year-old had NEVER seen the Milky Way until I took him out of the city for a week of pup tent living at age 12 - how many others sit content to view it on TV or from Hubble? That singular trip changed his view of our world - enlightenment should be our duty, especially those of us who are already outside the Matrix.

It is up to each of us to surf, kayak, canoe, stroll, climb and run with nature in spite of where everyone else may THINK they are going. It is incumbent on us to take those we care about along, to let them see where we come from and where we belong, rather than where we are today. You don't have to know the way or have a master plan - few ever do, and even vociferous planners will have their edges softened by Nature.

Soapbox away - just had the urge to say it, because there are "WAY OUT" signs everywhere, but most cannot or simply will not read them.

Graeme Bushell said...

Dear JMG,

Thank you for this. This week's post is prompting some rather uncomfortable self-reflection. I think you've really on to something with this idea.


Jo said...

@ JMG: "All empires get obsessive about control; not too many of them insist that the whole cosmos ought to be subject to their will."

But this is my contention - as humans we all try to control as much of our surrounding environment as we can. In our fossil-fueled global society we can control more of our environment than any society before us. The US is currently the empire at the apex of the pyramid of control, and also, coincidentally, occupying that position at the very moment in history when we also have more control over the environment via fossil fuels than any historical society. In effect, we have harnessed nature, it is now one of our many client states.

Often those at the apex of the control pyramid are blindsided by world events - look at how surprised the French aristocrats were to see that guillotine being set up, or the British who couldn't imagine that its colonies weren't completely delighted to be exploited.. I don't think the US is unique in any way in that respect, but it is unique in its opportunity for actually having a good crack at bending the cosmos to its will.. over the last fifty years it has been able to do exactly that in many senses of the word - harnessing a billion years of sunlight will do that for an empire. Its mistake is not realising that the conditions of its dominance cannot possibly continue - but you are all over that..

But if an empire which dominates the whole world creates an artificial environment for itself in which it is cocooned in every way from the reality of the limits of the natural world, then the arrogance of an unassailable empire is coupled with the conviction that its control extends over, not only other nations (therefore they may be safely ignored) but also over nature (therefore it may be safely ignored as well).

In order for the US to open a dialogue with other nations, or with the natural world, it first needs to cede its place at the the top of the control pyramid, step out of the machine and acknowledge that neither world politics nor nature is obliged to fall in with US interests..

The alternative is a rude awakening when it is toppled by both..

Candace said...

The things that come to mind for the uniquely American extreme of mechanization are - the way I was taught that Diests were largely responsible for the writing of the constitution, the deification of the independent automotive lifestyle and the first use of the atomic bomb.

I think for many it is the underlying fear that there is no god, that makes people want to believe that they can impose their own will on everything. If consciousness is snuffed out at death and. your existence is utterly inconsequencial then it's up to you to do all of the caring for yourself.

Since god is dead or off some great distance away from everything then someone has to be in charge to keep out chaos. We are god and the world should respond accordingly.

I don't have a coherent rational for why these thoughts occured to me while I was reading your post and the comments. this is where my mind went.

Since there is no god it is necessary for Man to replace God in the scheme of things. -- Not Descartes. ;-)

Svencow said...

Thanks for another thoughtful essay. I'm a little late to the party, but in regards to Clay's critique of your hypothesis - I think the key is the degree to which your experience is mediated by machines. You've touched on similar themes before in these pages so you've probably already had this thought, it may just need adding to this particular hypothesis. Our perception through our senses is already one layer of mediation of what I will call for now raw reality. Riding in a car is a layer of mediation in that you are traveling around in a protected, climate-controlled environment at inhuman speed. Cinema, TV, computers, and smartphones are another layer of mediation, and the ones that are the most threatening, because they pose as a sort of toxic mimic of a real environment. All of these put an additional layer of mediation on top of our perceptual mediation and therefore put us at additional remove from raw reality, which is part of their toxicity; because it seems most of our spiritual sentiments try to address the fact that we cannot reach that reality, much less comprehend it. To varying extent all motor-mechanized environments and especially those that create virtuality are toxic mimics, in that they mediate reality to too great an extent or attempt to replace it wholesale while at the same time creating bi-products (pollution, sedentarism, etc) that threaten the body's existence within reality. Even being indoors with artificial lighting and climate could be considered a toxic mimic.

Ray Wharton said...

A thought came to me today "There are only interested observers. The uninterested one's ain't observing." I immediately felt like it might tie back to this conversation.

A machine is still a system, and therefore still able to learn, interested in the world around it. It participates and is subject to the world is all that really means. But it is designed such that it is extremely limited in its interests and the ways in can interact with the world around it are all determined to a very high degree. It has only one right answer to the question "how do I live?" every other answer is a malfunction. Malfunctions, learning to not do their assigned function, are all they can learn, if what you are working with acts like it is learning, something is wrong with it says machine logic.

This, to me, explains a gradient in the effect that you are describing which I feel like I preceive in relation to class, the wealthier one is the more likely on is to interact with Machines that haven't learned. This lap top I am using has learned all kinds of weird tricks, I have to negotiate with it, deal with it, and care for it, because the thing is breaking and only connects if I follow the right rituals and superstitions. The boss's computer next to me is new and well protected from any undesigned for change, it is obedient. Mechanics are constantly dealing with the weird behaviors that machines prove themselves able to learn, many of which are mystifying; all the better for mechanics. Apple users are nearly completely hidden from this, and encouraged to upgrade often before their machine learn to be free of their prewritten fates.

This logic requires the absolute rightness of the one answer in the machines design. Machines don't just serve us, the must do so in an unsurprising way. It requires machines to be disinterested systems, isolated and alone except for the assigned imputs and functions. It implies that users will become disinterested systems, because (if the mechanics keep the machines tamed) they only need to mind known imputs and functions. This isolation and aloneness, this separation from whole systems means a civil machine is a solipsist.

Controlling flows of information is the most essential thing to be able to make machines, each effect must be carefully protected from any unintentional cause. Doubt, suspecting toward any unknown source of information. How did we learn to doubt so?

There is an idea of there only being "one answer" which I think play a big part in all this. That objective truth thing. Where did we learn the notion that there is only one right answer? That is is wrong to be interested, involved, in other answers. Someone who knew more about the history of dogmatism in the west than I could go from here I bet...

Ray Wharton said...

From the Pope's new work.

"106. The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.[86]"

Vincent said...

page 1

@Cherokee Organics

Actually, Chris, the thinking flaw comes from confusing personal finances with those of our respective federal governments. You and I are constrained in what we can spend by living within our means. If we spend more than our income we eventually go bankrupt. Likewise for local governments, e.g. state, city, county, territory, etc. These municipalities’ spending is constrained by their income. They must either raise taxes, or cut spending, to balance their fiscal budget.

I think we both agree on this. What is counter intuitive to this accounting principle is it does not apply to federal governments that issues their own currency. Such governments do not need to balance their budget, cut spending or even collect taxes, plus they will never run out of money because they create in the first place.

Inflation, you say. Of course you can have demand inflation when an economy overheats – business is great; hey, let’s raise prices. But, we are talking about supply inflation from too much “money printing”.

Japan, the poster child of money printing, just can’t seem to generate any kind of inflation, and investors are willing to accept a paltry 1.46 percent on Japanese 30 year bonds. Here in the US, it was estimated that banks, since 2009, are bailed out to the tune of $12,000,000,000,000 – wow, that’s a lot of zeroes ($12 trillion). Additionally, since 2003, our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are reported to add an additional $2 trillion to our deficit. Overall, the US has a $17 trillion national debt. Where’s the inflation?

When did you hear Grandma say, “I wish the government would pay off its debt so I can get rid of my savings bond?” In actuality, Australia and the US have no intention of ever paying off their debt. Our children and grandchildren, along with institutions and pension funds, will happily hold government bonds, just as Grandma does, today. As a practical matter, governments only need to pay the interest on its debt, which can easily be paid from tax receipts.

OK, you say, this can’t go on, we are headed down the wrong path, it is unsustainable, and there will be hell to pay in the future. Unfortunately, you only give vague generalities, such as increasing weaknesses, other actors, and unnamed policies, so I am unable to address your concerns specifically. However, I have heard many similar above arguments since the 1960s. I have seen YouTube video of politicians as far back as the 1940s saying the same thing. At least they had a point, since the world was on a gold standard and you needed that commodity to balance your books. Countries, such as Greece, who no longer issue their own currency, are basically on a gold standard within the framework of the Euro. Greece’s spending is now constrained just like any municipality, or you and I. They must take the austerity formula of cutting spending and raising taxes.

When people claim “money printing” causes inflation, they are only looking at the supply side of the supply and demand equation. What happens when a central bank creates demand for money? During the 1970s the US experienced high inflation, at one point reaching double digits, with many claiming inflation was out of control. Our Federal Reserve (central bank) radically raised interest rates creating a demand for US dollars, causing a recession, which brought inflation back down to acceptable levels. Concurrently, the (President) Reagan Administration legislated large tax cuts and increased spending creating the largest budget deficits in our country’s history. Go figure?

Vincent said...

Page 2

My opinion is the 70s high inflation rate was caused by the OPEC oil embargos and not by “money printing” from the domestic, Great Society (social welfare spending) program and Vietnam War, which caused high deficits. Substitute Peak Oil for OPEC and you can see how the oil supply and demand dynamic will affect the world monetary system. Currency collapse, or hyperinflation, and all the other bad things Very Serious People are predicting will come not from printing, Quantitative Easing, welfare spending, or the myriad policy decisions being made, but from the shortage of oil, which I think, arranges some of the puzzle pieces to how John Michael Greer’s theory for the decline of industrial civilization plays out. I leave this to his and your imaginations.

Chris, I will address Mr. Hockey’s political misstatement in a subsequent post.

John Michael Greer said...

HalFiore, again, I've heard quite a few people insist that people have a right to water, or what have you, in ways that make it clear that the concept of physical limits isn't on their radar screens at all. Yes, Californians are among them.

Dltrammel, yes, I've seen that too. I really have to wonder how they're going to like the really rather ugly future they're facing.

Bruno, that's pretty much what I've been thinking, too. The US has a really bad case of it just now, but it's not unique to us, unfortunately.

Onething, "theories of deadness" is a good workable label, because it's exactly the claim that "x is dead" -- meaning of course that x is incapable of learning, responding, taking willed action, etc. -- that marks the sort of thinking I'm trying to discuss here. I don't think it's accidental that the first civilization in world history to believe that the world is mere dead matter also seems to be the first to try to kill as much of it as possible...

Thomas, you'll wait a good long time, since Adam Smith capitalism is as imaginary as Marx' glorious communist future!

Denis, yes, I saw that. Nations don't generally survive that kind of collapse of popular faith in the legitimacy of their basic institutions.

Hello/Erika, oh, I remember, and do my share of dancing.

Greg, internet trolls are fascinating because they take the rules that most people apply to everything but human beings, and apply them to human beings. I'll consider a post on the subject, in among everything else!

Adrian, thank you. Yes, Skinnerian behaviorism came to mind to me, too -- the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of materialism. As Robert Heinlein once pointed out, if people were the sort of automatons described in Skinnerian theory, they would never have been able to invent so baroquely counterfactual a paradigm as Skinnerian theory...

Jeffinwa, just one of the services I offer. ;-)

Adrian, thanks for the tips -- I'll look into those, time permitting, before the post on sanity and natural environments.

Karim, you're not stretching it too far at all. The capacity to learn and the capacity to will are intimately intertwined, since real learning includes the ability to use the resulting knowledge freely in the service of the individual will.

John Michael Greer said...

RogerCO, there isn't an official Archdruidical position on that or anything else, and if there was one, I'd be the first to recommend that you disregard it and try to figure out what works for you.

Hapibeli, it's good advice, since the Cartesians and the Calvinists were two sides of the same dead and deadly coin.

Turmarion, I've read that, and found it interesting but unconvincing in its treatment of Newton's personality -- post-mortem psychoanalysis is a challenge even at the best of times, i.e., when the sound of axes being ground isn't audible in the background. Bateson's double-bind theory, on the other hand, is highly relevant -- though some other aspects of his theory of schizogenesis may be even more so.

Christophe, that's an excellent point. The artificial environment thus functions as a kind of screen obscuring the real workings of nature -- at its peak, perhaps, in the artificial worlds of TV, video games, etc., where the natural processes involved (mostly lots of electrons moving around) have nothing in common with the wholly fictive world being presented to the viewers.

Matthew, yes, this is another way of talking about the same thing. The entire project of this blog, you know, is basically the working out of a single thought, one that's complex, counterintuitive, and forbidden enough that it's taken years of work to begin to parse it.

Moshe, of course! It's part of the fantasy that machines never make mistakes. Tell that to the Blue Screen of Death sometime...

JR, excellent! Yes, it has to be approached historically, at least in part -- or at least that's my natural bias. But it also has to be pinned down in the present, in thoughts that we all recognize.

Jason, good. I wonder if anyone there will realize that what's really nonnegotiable is the need to break out of the maze of abstractions and deal with the real world for a change.

James, that's a good point. It also fascinates me that so many people expect machines to do whatever they want and then get so furious when that doesn't happen. A Batesonian double-bind at work? Possibly.

Agent, but you'll notice what happened to Gilgamesh when he tried to apply the same sort of attitude toward the gods of nature. We've lost the sense of human limits that pervades the epic of Gilgamesh. I should probably do a post about him, for that matter -- most people don't realize that the poem is among other things a savage critique of his original state of arrogance.

Unknown Deborah, the devil's bargain that Christianity made in the early modern era -- giving the churches control over people's minds and the state control over their bodies and wealth -- precludes that. If any pope were to try to proclaim an economic system other than the one we've got, you can bet that Catholic churches would lose their tax exempt status in a heartbeat.

John Michael Greer said...

Nicholas, here again, that's true of every society. I want to focus on the specific psychosis that's running rampant in ours.

Jean-Vivien, the whole point of science in the modern world is to make more money for the already rich. Didn't you get that memo?

Troy, makes sense -- the upper and middle classes of what you're calling the Anglosphere (would "the inhabitants of Gringostan" be a suitable synonym?) are the only people who've benefited more than they've lost from the existing order. Much of the screaming right now comes from the fact that some members of the middle classes are being thrown under the bus; they watched all those other people go the same way, but managed to convince themselves that it couldn't happen to them. Oh well...

Revelin, you're welcome and thank you -- but I've got to confess I've hated that Brautigan poem since I first read it, which was quite a few years ago!

Jeannette, the fascinating thing is that this level of geographical ignorance is not that many decades old. Schoolchildren in the US as a matter of course used to learn US and world geography in detail: "Name the capital city, major rivers, and important agricultural products of Hungary, and three countries that border it" used to be the kind of question you got on grade school tests all the time. It would be an interesting exploration to find out when and why that got dropped like a hot rock.

Rita, good heavens -- I'm delighted. I hope they find my blog post on the subject useful.

Cherokee, that's the question -- what has caused an entire culture to be afflicted with a set of behavior patterns normally found in a minority of mentally ill people?

Stuart, nicely framed. The thing about Prospero, of course, is that once he's gotten what he wants, he dumps his books overboard and quits the wizard business, in a way distinctly different from Faust's method! The place I'd start tackling the question you've raised is by looking at Prospero and Faust in the context of varying attitudes toward magic in the culture of the time, and seeing what third option is being neglected in the binary that unites those two.

Sgage, hmm. I'll consider it.

Doctor W., funny. Also interesting, given the role of Texas in the secession fever in my novel Twilight's Last Gleaming...

Deborah, exactly. I suspect that there's a threshold level of contact with natural systems, below which you start getting aberrations.

Varun, here again, I'm not interested in the general form taken in every civilization just now, but in the specific manifestation taken in ours.

John Michael Greer said...

Grebulocities, yes, I expect some spectacularly stupid and counterproductive things to come out of the geoengineering craze as well. It never seems to occur to anyone that we could make things much, much worse that way -- another example of the same acquired stupidity we've been discussing.

Wizzard, no argument there. Thing is, you can get out by the simple expedient of taking a hand lens and spending half an hour on your belly on a patch of grass that hasn't been sprayed or planted in some lawn-grass monoculture, or by sitting very quietly and very still in a bit of urban green belt until the animals get used to your presence and start going about their business. As you say, there are exit doors all over the place...

Graeme, you're most welcome!

Jo, but the dream of controlling nature came before the technology, and guided its development. Other societies didn't have that dream; to a Roman, the thought that human beings ought to rule the cosmos would have been appalling if it wasn't so silly, and the same is true of many, many other civilizations. That's why I want to track the thread of the idea.

Candace, good. That was basically the thesis of my book After Progress -- that faith in progress was an ersatz religion that replaced faith in the Christian god, and now that progress is dead, we're in a world of hurt.

Svencow, thank you. Yes, mediation is another important piece of the puzzle.

Ray, malfunction as learning -- oh man. That's good. I think it can be applied more broadly; in our society, if human beings learn something, that counts as a malfunction...

Brian Kaller said...


I haven’t written back in a while, but I continue to read your columns each week, and immensely enjoyed “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” – thank you.

I’m reading and re-reading Laudato Si myself, and am interested in comparing it with the media coverage. Most pundits have focused on the idea that the Catholic Church has now taken a side in this controversy – which sounds strange to me, since there isn’t any controversy among scientists, and the Church has been speaking out on environmental crises since at least the 1980s, and on valuing Nature for centuries. In the ugly world of media pop culture, of course, climate change remains controversial and the 1980s were a long time ago. It reminds me of a few years ago, when I read articles that the Church had “come out” in favour of evolution – with which, of course, it had never actually disagreed.

To regular readers of this blog, of course, Laudato Si contains no new information or insight, but it’s gratifying to hear that the leader of the world’s largest religion (arguably) is putting his weight behind them. Moreover, the largely non-religious media class often ignore the fact that the pope isn’t just another celebrity; people devote their lives to their faith.

Largely ignored by most media was the fact that the encyclical dealt with many other ecological issues, predicted a difficult future, specifically expressed scepticism of techno-fixes, called for a return to moderation and austerity, and had strong words against inequality, individualism, consumerism and many other aspects of modern society. It's not a radical departure for the Church, but it’s an uncomfortable read for all political factions in the US today.

As for people treating the world like machines, I would only suggest that it’s more specifically the virtual world of computers. People have been using machines for centuries without experiencing effects to this extent, because clockwork mechanisms and copper wires still employ the laws of reality – ignore them and you lose a limb, or your life.

In recent years, though, modern Westerners have spent more and more of their lives staring at glowing rectangles – televisions, then computers, and finally hand-held devices – and gave most of their thoughts to the increasingly vivid world on the other side of the screen. Today, many people I know explain thoughts and feelings though references to video games or other virtual realities, and the remaining newspapers have been systematically redesigned to resemble web sites.

If I may inject a personal note to the group, I will be visiting the United States next month, and will be in Missouri and Minnesota in July and August; anyone on this list who would like me to give a talk to their group, or just meet, feel free to e-mail me at

Finally, Happy belated Solstice, JMG.

Revelin said...

Oh granted, I share your feelings re the Brautigan poem and what it embodies, my first encounter with it left me with a distinct queasy feeling; the machine hums on and we ho hum with it. Ah, those hippies!

I wonder though whether it is 'control' or actually loss of control (and, ultimately, responsibility/consciousness) that we in the west seek through the machine.

Twilight said...

At what point along the spectrum of Enlightenment culture did we make the transition from elites who believed their own hype to elites who deliberately manipulated falsehoods in the way you've outlined?

That's a good question. In our case it seems to have accelerated sometime in the 1980's, with the "greed is good" rationalization, the rise of debt/credit, and the abandonment of any sense of altruism or pretense of working for some common good. This would be tied in with the phase of a society's life cycle where there is no core vision, mission or direction, so I would think it should be fairly common in the historical record?

When there is no common goal or mission, then relationships devolve into competition for personal power and social dominance. Perhaps modern mass media has just amplified the intrigues and maneuvers that would have been confined to the court and capital into absurdity.

donalfagan said...

@ Varun,

Thanks, I found the title:

It was in Nine Tomorrows along with The Last Question, Spell My Name with an S and The Ugly Little Boy - all great stories.

BTW, Greg Laden of Science Blogs has accused Andy Revkin of Dot Earth of pandering to climate change deniers. Not a huge surprise as the Gray Lady has eviscerated their environmental desk. What is more interesting are the comments about the commenter cliques and astroturfing at DotEarth, and the Times in general.

sgage said...

@ Jo,

"But this is my contention - as humans we all try to control as much of our surrounding environment as we can."

No, not all of us.

Keith Huddleston said...

Another way to look at it is how machine media condition users to only see discreteness. At that point the "gaming" aspect becomes almost inevitable.

I think back to how the dynamic of a prisoner's dilemma completely changes when you move from "one-shot" to an iterated version. Another pull of media conditioning is to force us to live in only the now (an ADD "now" at that -- not a mindful or spiritually aware now -- but an isolated, very empty and hungry now). Our cultural leaders don't even see long term relationships.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Patricia Matthews,

When speaking of sustainability studies, you referred to "that crazy Triple Bottom Line...pick one." Very respectfully, if I may clarify: speaking as a sustainability professional whose day job it is to help an institution achieve greater sustainability, and working with people who do not share many of the concerns evinced in this forum, yet want to do the right thing, the TBL offers a way forward, and a way to help them more easily grasp the whole picture. A facilities manager will more easily be persuaded to take energy efficiency measures because it helps the economy portion of the TBL than because it helps the ecosystem. Institution-wide use of non-toxic paints or cleaning supplies helps employee health--part of the "people" portion, even as it helps the ecosystem.

Really, TBL is a graohical shortcut to holistic and systems thinking for people who are not trained in those modes of thought. Like other shortcuts it can be and has been misused. Greenwashing abounds, of course. Yet if the TBL is used properly its use can be productive.

Looked at in one way, the TBL can be said to undergird much of the discussion in this forum as we grapple with issues of economy, society, and environment every day.

Ray Wharton said...

Thank's JMG, learning, outside of a fixed set of interests, is heresy. Last night I started to suspect that the earliest form of this issue I could think of was the concept of heresy. If that is the case the extreme imbalances that this demon we are trying to name come from a pathology of trying not to be a heretic. The engine the idles up or down at any cause other than the throttle I control is an insufferable heretic. The materialist who sees the Universe as a machine must limit what inputs they count as valid to maintain that conclusion, all other inputs are forbidden.

Now it would be very easy to run with this into some grade school hating on the Catholic Church's history, but I think that would miss a deep point for the same of hooting at a primate out group. So please don't, mirroring the same heretic shaming behavior back to the Church is what I suspect triggered the depth of recursion needed for the Western Machine to take over our dreams.

Learning something heretical is the biggest malfunction one can make. Learning something according to central dogma, already fixed and itself no longer learning (either in a book or in the vivisected nature), is learning to function (as a... Catholic, muffler, graduate student, ambassador, secretary.)

The Catholic Church's wiser member have long had more subtle forms of these concepts, but I fear that the group tied all too tightly to Europe's power structure at the time leading to the reformation used crude forms of the concept which once folded over by the convulsions of that time birthed the bad spirit you are interested in to counter spelling. The fact the the Catholic Church has always, and this week most wonderfully) been very wary of modernity I think also indecated that the Machine is from the reformation's formative event. I hope the Pope can cast a counter spell, if he were to hit just the right notes hard enough, I think he is better placed to nit the root than some other people...

I wish I knew more about the way that belief and religion were so closely tied in the west, and how and why that differs from other cultures. What's with the creeds?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

As I continue to think about the idea of controlling nature, I've been thinking more about the 17th century, when, as you say, this paradigm emerged. Here are some very sketchy thoughts.

As detailed in Parker's book on the period, Global Crisis, the 17th century was a time of extreme weather, failed harvests, war, revolution, migration. During that period a third of the human population of the world died--disease, starvation, war, lowered birthrates--the usual horsemen that lie in wait for social disruption to occur so they can ride in.

I believe that to many people, the whole order of things--of Nature--had been completely upended. The 16th century had been one of favorable climate, good harvests and population expansion. Now disaster. So what to do? The earth is smaller than expected and no longer the center of the universe. The music of the spheres falls silent. Europeans discover they can colonize and subjugate whole peoples. You've got the human-centered ideas of the Renaissance swirling around, God is apparently not doing much for anyone, and the Catholic church has been successfully revolted against.

Bacon's ideas about nature in which he explicitly says (I forget where) something like if we can learn nature's secrets we can better control her get very popular among other natural philosophers. And don't forget he was writing at a time of unparalleled English wealth and power, prior to the civil war and other 17th century disasters. There must not have been any perceivable limits--English exceptionalism, if you will.

Then with 17th cent. upheaval, there is very good reason to try to exert control, since the usual methods are not working. And, empirical scientific method does get results! Successful experiments do give an apparent confirmation of power and require an objective, even amoral, attitude to carry out. The idea of "objective truth" becomes redefined. Then, why not flip from investigation to application? Why not create machines--enhanced tools--that can do things for us, much as our slaves do things for us. Why not use guns to kill people--so much more powerful and efficient and less up close and personal than the sharp implements and blunt objects used previously. (At least in theory: at the time, American Indians' bows and arrows are much faster and deadlier than Europeans' slow-loaded, single-shot matchlocks.) Think of the wealth and power that can be gained!

So maybe in the 17th century there is a unique confluence of factors--material, cultural, religious and philosophical-- that had not existed before that give rise to this new complex of notions that removed God(s) from the functioning of the universe and put humans (mostly men) at the center of things to experiment on and do what they would with the newly inert materials around them. Scientific method run amuck!

People do seem to have been aware that this was happening, at least in some quarters. William Penn and others, while very interested in natural philosophy and promoting scientific education in the young, warned against objectification of Nature and people.

Denys said...

Found an online course on general semantics for those interested -

RPC said...

Derv, Leo XIII didn't promote unions, he promoted guilds, which are "different animals."

Deborah, look up the encyclicals "Rerum Novarum," "Quadragesimo anno," and "Centismus Annus" for starters. Searches on "Catholic social teaching" and "Distributism" will be fruitful as well.

PRiZM said...

Jeanneate, JMG, and all..

Just to give some perspective, when I was in the 4th grade (about 1991) I only needed to know the 50 US States and where they were located. Capital cities were a bonus. I think it is important to note that I attended school in Texas at that time. Different states, and different locales should have different educational requirements, if regulations were being followed (and I do know Texas likes to show off their independence so they were probably different).

It would be interesting to note some regional differences in educational requirements. When I moved to Northeast Minnesota in 1998, I found education was FAR behind what I learned in Texas but if I had moved to a more populated area, maybe I would have had different requirements. That said, the teachers adapted well, and gave me the great option of reading and writing essays about various American authors, since I'd already studied US Literature. I'm really curious about education, and the future, when comparing small towns versus big cities..

kittenlopez said...

(from erika again/diff acct as i keep forgetting/losing passwords)


oh my my my! that was beautiful what you wrote to Dammerung (and thus, to us all).
Thank you. i'm glad you ignored your initial desire NOT to write. you almost wasted your gold by keeping it private. i keep on learning things always get so much more interesting (WILD!) when we go ahead and DO what we were inspired to do or say out of Love.

thanks for that reminder this morning.
i need it daily. moment by moment. so i don't get lazy.

I see a need for a lot of "mid-wifing" people to the other side of This Illusion. We need to rediscover the shaman, medicine man again as we fashion RELEVANT roles in this new arena.


and Dear John Michael Greer, thank YOU for creating the kind of Home and Heart we need. You show by your own kindness and this house of yours. Your demeanor. Your gentleness, humility, strength, openness... All that supposedly "non-Dad" stuff you eschewed before.


Thank you very much. So many of us NEED this. Whatever "it" all is.


and MARK!
i'm a writer/performer girl. "mammon" just doesn't cut it.
when a truck is rolling backwords, crushing over your foot, "Mammon" isn't satisfying to yell out like a swear word.

[if i'm gonna stop yelling "aaargh! white people!" (even james just caught himself saying it again ten minutes ago. he first said it when gays around here got more into bourgeois marriage fights instead of fighting poverty among the gay homeless kids streaming here because they didn't get the news yet that this new dead San Francisco hasn't been a gay mecca for awhile. --he said, "well, gay people just wanna be white now," and i laughed until even the sofa blew out my nose.--THAT's the power the new word needs to have... so it can be defeated!]

in a pinch i offered the cute word "golem" in one of our now-many discussions about this (to ME; but james hates "golem"--it's too cute for him. i do love the character, i must admit. he's so pathetically beautiful in his helplessness to his addiction--yet he's ONLY cute because he's eternally powerless).

we/you need a word that's gutteral or like a great big wet monty python fish being slapped across your face.

when you say the word, it should come out as a thrust with your whole body (like a good swear word that can be overheard your crushing toes and screams). or it should make you laugh hard and absurdly like Mel Brooks' taking the pxss out of hitler with his "springtime for hitler" song and dance routine.

that's a MIGHTY tall order indeed. writing's one of the hardest things i've ever done. specificity can be so... DANGEROUS (and time consuming). and maddening.



Roger said...

You're right that we've forgotten that the other side can learn. We also seem to have lost the ability to learn about and FROM the other side. People that defeat the most advanced military apparently have nothing to teach us.

You see, the donkey-rider and his dusty compadres are an altogether tougher proposition than we think. The record of military success against such people is close to zero as far as I can see.

Such spectacles. Multi-million dollar weapons systems against toothless illiterates, armoured troop-carriers against hoofed farm animals, napalm, drone strikes, B-52s and seven ton Daisy Cutters against barefoot tribesmen. Hoo-boy we gonna smoke some camels.

And the half-starved peasants win. How many times have we seen it? Vietnam, Afghanistan, a tie squeaked out in Korea.

OK, I'm exaggerating. I know, Iraq is more than donkey-riders. And ISIS has pick-up trucks.

I'm not being condescending nor disparaging when I use the term "donkey-riders". My parents were donkey-riders. The donkey-riders beat the best military that money can buy. They have something we don't (or refuse to) grok.

It's not as if there wasn't a pre-existing record of failure. The Vietnamese showed the French what's what in the 1950s, the Afghans did likewise to the Soviets. It's bad when you don't learn from your own mistakes. It's worse when you don't learn from other people's mistakes.

I saw a documentary about one of the Asian wars. And one US soldier looked into the camera and said "you people have no idea". Never will have either. Least of all Washington.

Glenn said...


Most everyone has given it a shot, though I'd like to read Bill Pullian's thoughts on the subject.

So I give my version. The non-negotiating malfunction displayed by the U.S. is because we are the most extreme manifestation of the mechanist, capitalistic culture that started developing in the West 400 some years ago. As for why it's the U.S. in particular, look at the lands the Europeans conquered or took over during and after the Renaissance. Mid-continent N. America was quite simply, the richest in various resources, including a disproportionate amount of fossil fuel, and we were the first to exploit oil. Australia and Canada were easy to conquer, but lack much in the way of agricultural land, same with S. Africa. Closer to the equator, there were more people already and the guns, germs and steel equation was more equitable in terms of the germs exchange.

So, I think a good deal of what accounts for U.S. intransigence is geographical determinism.

Our indigenes were too easy to defeat, and we have been too rich and too successful in war for too long (and it's been too long since we suffered its negative efffects on our own soil), and so we have become arrogant and filled with hubris.


in the Bramblepatch (with berries coming a month early this year)
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Beatrice Salmon-Hawk said... beautifully put! Your post brought courage to my heart. Thank you!

Mark Rice said...

The lost art of trying to understand our enemy's thought process makes me think of the Fog Of War with establishment figure Robert McNamara. He had 11 lessons including:

Lesson #1: Empathize with your enemy.

Lesson #3: There’s something beyond one’s self.

Lesson #8: Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.

. said...

Hello JMG,

I found this comment while reading a NYT article about the ongoing destruction of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Troubled Delta System Is California’s Water Battleground

Joe G Houston -

"Amazing that Mr. Zeigler is skeptical about engineering solutions to drought. Amazing someone can believe in the science of global warming and not the science of engineering. Have we really reached the point when we are willing to surrender to the whims of nature?"

I guess recognizing that human actions have actual consequences in our environment is "surrender".

The other Tom said...

This entire conversation makes me think about the early 90s, when it seemed to me that everyone everywhere was becoming more distant, more mechanical, less intuitive, less open, less empathetic and too busy to pay attention.
Could it be only a coincidence that this was when online activity/cell phones became ubiquitous?
As usual for me, I adopted or rejected new technologies slowly, carefully, wanting to get the big picture. In my adult life I have not owned a TV.
After reading your post, JMG, I can see that the internalized machine thinking was already there, but in the 90s, it seemed to me, it suddenly intensified and deepened to the point that I felt estranged from almost everyone--a very frightening situation. I don't have any immediate family and when my friends and acquaintances drift into virtual reality it is a real nightmare. I had conversations at the time, trying to point out that all talking sounds like a menu, a multiple choice, a set of channels. Acronyms and categories and a reductive, pseudo-rationalism was the norm. Of course, nobody knew what I was talking about because I was talking to people who had been absorbed by their machines. Eventually I had to go even further to the edges, the periphery, where people were still skeptical and intuitive enough to have their own thoughts.
I have always liked the concept of "edges" as an all purpose metaphor. Edges are where the animals and edible plants are, along the edges of watercourses and fields. Edges of the mind are where the most interesting thoughts are, as the most aware and interesting people are on the edges of society. And peripheral vision is where you see motion, or anything unusual, in the woods. Along the edges is a good place to be.
In the mainstream, it now seems impossible to have an unrehearsed, self-aware conversation. Almost everyone resembles a little, self-contained bureaucracy. It is my duty to plant seeds of doubt everywhere, so that maybe one out of a thousand will grow.
@Foo Bar
Yes, I've had the privilege of living with cats too. Cats are like violins. You have to study them and have a deep understanding. Otherwise the results are terrible.
I'm glad you're still dancing. As the false certainty of our age crumbles, I think your niche will be more secure. Your original mind will be needed by those who are not used to making their own trail. Please keep dancing.

Justin W. McCarthy said...


I read the post and had several waves of synchronicity: I felt the machine punchline coming, I said the same thing sometime back. I also have a friend who has just asked me to help review his phd thesis. I see you are still grappling with this idea somewhat, one distinction he held, and I wonder what you think, is a delineation from a machine like a toaster and what he calls a computational object, which is essentially a machine that portals into a abstractions and models. I.e. a computer or ipad that connects to whatever model is being rendered, whether a statistical chart, controller for a factory machine, or social media web site.

Fwiw, I agree with you. My last synchronicity is that I recently came out on top of a long political fight at work with a former superior. His way of managing and doing work or issuing directives is primarily through machines, which was causing headaches for everyone, and my more human centric approach is what tipped the resolution in my favor. In retrospect, I now see some of his more outrageous behaviors and actions as a consequence of me not behaving according to the script he tried to program me into via his machine. Just a fascinating thing to think about in the context of your post. I don't think the machines are a causal mechanism, I think its our way of inhabiting them, and I think its primarily machines that affect abstract changes at issue, such as computational objects, rather than machines that affect material change, like a lawnmower.

jim said...

I am not sure if this is the true name for that evil spirit, but Eric Drexler came up with the idea and name of Grey Goo. Grey Goo (also know as an ecophage) is a microscopic machine that mindlessly self replicates until it eats the entire ecosystem. It kind of fits the bill for an evil sprit that turned the way we think of the world from a living system into a dead machine. In the eyes of the person possessed by the evil spirit of grey goo the earth is transformed from Gaia into a mud ball.

J.D. Smith said...

Two thoughts come to mind.

As for mediation, anthropologist Edward T. Hall discussed extension transference, largely what we gain from our extra-somatic adaptations and what we lose by using. The simplest example is a stick. You can poke at fruit on a tree branch, but you can't feel the stem or control the picking as well.

Second, the delusion of control brings to mind the Blue Ă–yster Cult song "Godzilla," which features the refrain "History shows again and again/How nature points up the folly of man."

whomever said...

Bob Patterson: RFID chips in passports have been around for a while now. See

A couple of amusing things: Firstly, they really aren't that secure, there's already been plenty of attacks on them. Secondly, people at the time also pointed out that this would let people build an American-detecting bomb (or pick your nationality). Of course all of this has been ignored.

The US government largely shoved this standard onto the rest of the world; fun fact: A lot of countries scrambled to get them ready to comply, while of course the US took forever to get them working.

Stepping back, and going back to the theme of the post: I work with some of the top computer security people in the world, and they are all pretty glum; we all know that it's a red-queen race, and it's not a matter of "can they break in", it's "how much can we slow them down". The fact that governments around the world are among the people attacking us is just the cherry on top. Governments are running scared, and scared people do scary things. Generally, actually, working in the computer industry I think people here are well aware of the imperfections of the machines we have created, but it's not clear what the next step is. Lets not also forget they pay our salary, and Upton Sinclairs famous quote about convincing people comes to mind.

jean-vivien said...

Once again, your posts here do tie in with the ones at your other blog. I see much of the imaginary life enjoyed by people living the affluent life basically consisting in enclosing the little imaginary people that have received countless names through the ages, and making them to our image. This is why we no longer have tale telling evenings spent under the influence of gnomes or fairies... but simply and passively watch tiny little humans moving inside an almost equally tiny little box.

The notion that our imagination can be mecanized this way and still content us is seconded by the notion that it has no bearing on actual, physical reality. In losing touch with the elves, we have also lost touch with some important aspects of reality. Maybe it would warrant a post of its own on the Well Of Galabes...

In the meantime, in light of one of your last posts there, Conjuring in the House Of Mirrors, I would like to humbly borrow some jargon from the field of computer interface design, and thus propose to derive, from the term "wysiwyg", standing for the ohrase What You See Is What You Get, the more punchy line "wywiwywi", standing for What You Worship Is What You Will Imitate.

I feel it does apply here, worship a machine and you'll get a world that acts as stupidly towards you as machines can do at their best... what you contemplate is what you imitate. Wywiwywi !

Ed-M said...


I'm not sure that "my way or the highway" style of so-called negotiation is all that recent for the US. For example, the Allies in Second World War wanted nothing less than unconditional surrender from the Axis powers. Naturally, they kept on fighting until they could no longer fight. But it wasn't the Second War where success went to the American elites' heads. Right after the First was concluded, then US President Woodrow Wilson announced that it should be well-known by then that America "is the Saviour of the World."

What is recent, though, is the application of "my way or the highway" method of so-called negotiation to the exclusion of all others. I think the transition started in the 1980s when Reagan fired all the PATCO unionized air traffic controllers.

Ed-M said...

JMG and Grebocities,

We've already done geoengineering accidentally on purpose through the combustion of fossil fuels, particularly coal, by not just the addition of CO2 into the atmosphere but also aerosols, which are responsible for the Global Dimming of the Sun's rays by 20% since 1937 or so, which has so far attenuated global warming by 1.2 C (2.2 F) or more.

Ricardo Rolo said...

Well, Mr Greer, Laudato Si in itself is nothing extraordinary inside the Catholic Theology. It basically states that because God made us caretakers of the planet according to the Bible, we have to take care of the planet and of our fellow humans. Nothing revolutionary, but it appears to be too much for some ( like a friend of mine used to say ) "baby bath Catholics" ( people that just consider themselves catholic because their progenitors asked a priest to wash their heads when they were children ). On the other hand, I've seen some Dawkinesque "atheists" that only a couple of weeks ago would spew venom about the Catholic Church historic meddling with scientific results are now cheering Francis stance. Oh well, tribal thought is tribal thought ...

On Greece, well, as I'm in one of the countries in Europe that is in line for the chopping block Greece is and , while the situation is far more complicated than you probably see from that side of the Atlantic ( the Greek governement also wants to have it's cake and eat it, just like the Bruxelles Eurocrats ), the situation is pretty much what you say, to the point that apparently just yesterday Ms Merkel stormed out of the reunion table, fuming in how Germany would not be blackmailed by the greek governement. Yeah, the exact same person that called the Greeks lazy bums and that mused at a time about Greece paying up the debt in Ionian islands ( while at the same time stating that the WW II war reparations that Germany still owns to Greece will never be paid up ) ...

More, the whole situation is made worse because the "IMF" loans that the EU gave to Greece were actually paid mostly by the other EU countries in dificulties ( say, Portugal ) as a requisite for those countries to receive "help"as well ( or did you though that Germany and France would spend their own money to bail out those half-Arabs of the south ? Nah ... let them bailout eachother with the money they don't have ) and those countries are counting with those loans being paid back for themselves to not default , so if Greece defaults the IMF loans pay up, there will be other 3 or 4 more Greece-like situations popping out. As you can see we also have in this side of the pond people so convinced of their power over the reality that think that broke people ( that they indirectly or not have made broke, mind that ) can get out of debt by loaning money between them and that it will even be enough leftovers for cashing out some for themselves. Rove would be proud :D

And to end, about your musings about the increasing tendency to see the world as a machine-like contraoption ... well, it is just good and ol'Reductionism and TBH while the current European strain is as you say a product of the breakdown of the medieval Scholastics into the modern Scientism ( not Science because, let's be honest, people that that think that anything in Nature is like a simple machine clearly never worked with either Nature or machines ( especially complex machines made in cold northern Europe in far warmer climates :D ) and thus they don't deserve to be called scientists ... ). As you already talked in other articles in other words, societies in crisis tend to start defining everything to the lowest denominator terms and a simple machine model is the lowest complexity model you can find for anything. It is the same process that ended making the poorer strata of a lot of societies little more that their job, to the point that they didn't even had names and were only know for their ( most likely hereditary ) job ( like in late Rome or in Sengoku Jidai Japan ): I don't care for what is happening inside that black box you call head ( like Skinner would put ), for me you are just a walking tool that makes a job... that let's be honest, is the same thing that looking at a forest and simply see a bunch of wood-making machines that also release oxygen and have some marginal side benefits like harboring game ;)

Varun Bhaskar said...


Well, like most answers to questions about an environment I don't think there is a single causal event that can explain why our culture is so obsessed with machine thinking but I'll try to explain my theory.

Let's start with the core feature of dehumanization, which is a standard trait across time and space. Traditionally, that us-other mentality allowed one group to co-opt the power of another group by the normal means. Conquered people would be subjugated and the upper class would go about ordering their servants with the belief that their control was more-or-less absolute. Now this standard didn't include the non-human world (expect possibly domesticated animals) because the non-human world was clearly out-side of the control of ancient technologies. So there was the non-human world that could not be controlled and the human world, divided between the controlled and the controllers. Keep in mind also that the controllers were a rather small sub-set of the population and so the delusion of control was limited to a very small portion of the population.

Fast forward to the dawn of the industrial revolution, where two things changed. The first was a world view that placed nature under the dominion of man (the whole abrahamic thing), the second was the gradual emergence of technology that could actually “tame” nature. Now we all know that technology couldn't actually tame nature, but it provided a very visible facsimile of control. Oceans that were once highly dangerous became easy to cross, land masses could be crossed in days when once it took months or years, whole rivers dammed and diverted, eventually we learned to fly, and caused whole deserts to bloom. Even with all of these changes we still viewed the world as given to us, and thus parts of it were to remain outside our control. While all these technological changes were happening we also began to understand the forces of nature. Sicknesses were caused by bacteria, rain by the hydrological cycle, and so on. The once terrifying and mysterious forces of the divine stopped being mysterious and lost some of their power over our psyches. And why not? We could understand them and we were increasingly able to mimic the forces of most of the elements, couldn't we to some degree tame them? As the industrial world entered it's post-religious phase our power seemed to grow and amplify, all thanks to our machines. And who built, and who controlled the machines? Not god because there was no god.

The unexpected part was how far the power spread, before only the rich had access to so much power. Suddenly even a middle-rung worker had access to more wealth and power than they could dream about. The delusion of control spread. All because they, or we, were the masters of the machine. We started worshiping our tools because the gave us control over the greater machine (nature). We always worship the source of power, and we always imitate what we worship.

Nature became the barbarian other and we sought to control it the way we've always sought to control the barbarian other. We fear the machine rising up, whether in the form of AI or crazy weather patters (there are as many of the latter in pop-culture as the former), because what else do oppressed servants do? We convince ourselves that we control the machine, and if nature is a machine then surely we must control it. The barbarian had to be civilized, or mechanized in this case. Every aspect of our lives was changed to imitate the source of our power (read: not nature). Things that allowed people to behave in a non-mechanical way, such as education, were gradually altered to reflect the new philosophy.

I think I lost my logical train somewhere in that thinking...



Chloe said...


The Miocene/Pliocene boundary lies at around 5 million years ago, and the Pliocene/Pleistocene at 2.5 million (but the geologists apparently had a change of heart about this not long back, so older publications will give you a different date). The earliest evidence of bipedalism (Sahelanthropus tchadensis and Orrorin tugenensis) is older than that - 6-7 million years - but the earliest *good* evidence (Ardipithecus) is about 4-5 million years. You could argue that bipedalism can't be proven until the Pliocene, but it would definitely be very early Pliocene, not late, and I'd tend to go with the late Miocene. That's actually one of the more settled issues in the field at the moment; *why* our ancestors became bipedal is another question...

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