I think the emphasis over the past year has been on quality over quantity, and that's a good thing. I wrote a number of very long pieces which had to be broken into a series of multiple posts, which seemed to get a good response. I think some of the major topics are beginning to be defined. The longer works are good, as they are starting to allow me to form a thesis for a book attempt. If there were a theme, I would say it's partially how we got to here, from a historical standpoint. It's also partially, why the world is so messed up, and what the alternatives are beyond the simple binary thinking presented to us. It's a simple trick: present "alternatives" which all benefit the same people, and you keep people from even thinking outside the narrow range of what the powers-that-be deem acceptable.
A true attempt to explain the world around us takes into account government, politics, social relations, and particularly economics. I emphasize our relations with the actual world--things like topsoil, fresh water and fossil fuels, our relationship to technology and how that changes our social relations (not always for the better), and our human nature as social animals. We are small-social-group savanna predator apes adrift in what amounts to an artificially-controlled feedlot.
This year, I'm going to something a bit different. Last year I collected some of my favorite facts. This year I've excerpted a few paragraphs which I thought turned out particularly well along with the stories (and fixed some of the typos - the benefits of review). So without further ado:
By far my favorite thing to write last year was this Tomorrowland/Mad Max review. Even reading it now, I still think it's a lot of fun:
It strikes me that in America today we have people with devices straight out of Tomorrowland walking around looking they just stepped straight out of Mad Max. I thought of this during a recent trip to Target. Much of the American public, especially in economically depressed areas, look like extras from Max Max as James Howard Kunstler often likes to point out. Giant bloated and distended bodies, shaved heads, outlandish hairstyles, long scraggly beards, elaborate tattoos covering much of the body, piercings in every orifice, and garish ill-fitting clothing, including leather biker-wear are all de rigeur everywhere in modern-day Middle America, as any trip to Wal-mart will prove. Yet these same people have computers straight out of Tomrrowland in their pockets, swipe credit cards to pay for merchandise from the other side the world, have artificial pacemakers and titanium hips implanted inside them, and find their way around with satellite navigation.
And again I'm thinking of Dubai. Nowhere on earth looks more like the actual Tomorrowland than Dubai, except surrounded by the parched deserts of Mad Max rather than amber waves of grain. But most of us will never set foot in Dubai. It's for an international jet-set elite. Just like the interdimensional Tomorrowland, it is inaccessible to most of us.
And that's the problem. We don't see tent cities surrounding Tomorrowland; in Tomorroland there are no homeless spikes. Its tall buildings are not reed-like Pikettyscrapers designed to optimize sales for footloose absentee owners which lie darkened and empty half the time. But Tomorrowland does depict scientists and elites living in a world separate from the rest of us, and that's looking uncomfortably like the real world. From gated houses in the Hollywood hills, to"enterprise zones" like Guragon in India, to Google's human terrarium in California, to Bangkok where a few malls use more energy than entire provinces, to plans to set up seasteading "tech-incubators" outside of international laws and labor regulations, the rich are seceding from society, and in place of technologies to benefit us all, they see us as just another resource to be extracted, used, and thrown away if inconvenient. Anyone outside of Tomorrowland had better fend for themselves, is the new reality; and most of us are on outside. Rather than technocrats with a conscience, the tech elite are behaving more like Immortan Joe. It's Tommorrowland's technology coupled with Mad Max's social relations. It's like a movie where Tomorrowland is surrounded by the oil-guzzling hot-rod barbarians of Mad Max.Movie Review: Tomorrowland and Mad Max: Fury Road
I apparently wrote a lot about architecture at the beginning of the year. I've got stuff piling up again; time to do that again soon:
What strikes me about this image is how isolated it looks. It is a unitary object on the landscape with no context. It is a world apart - a pleasure dome for the tech elite to live far away from the rest of us mere mortals. It looks like a film still from one of those 1970's post-apocalyptic utopian films - Logan's Run, Parts: the Clonus Horror, or possibly Zardoz (hey, these guys invented a food called Soylent so they wouldn't have to eat real food anymore - gets in the way of working). I guess the rest of us can look forward to being hunted down by Sean Connery supplied with guns by a giant floating stone head. Will the Exterminators break into the Google Vortex and kill the Immortal inhabitants who long for death?
Indeed, all of these campuses - Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon - look they are designed to create some sort of techno-utopian world apart. Instead of embedding businesses in the city, they are ethereal realms more suited to the elves of J.R.R. Tolkien than modern business. To me they just reinforce the elitism and megalomania that seems to drive computer programming these days. What kind of divorced-from-reality groupthink is this going to encourage? Is anyone here even going to interact with another real human being who isn't tech "genius?" It's amazing the lengths that they will go to separate themselves from the rest of us. It's bad enough that the tech industry gives off this air of elitism, of not being part of the wider society that it impacts, even as people are being priced out of homes in nearby cities and losing jobs to automation, without seemingly reinforcing it with their architectural choices. What sort of impression is this architecture trying to convey: Snobbishness? Elitism? Technological superiority? I doubt the rest of us rabble will be allowed to set up our homeless tents in these parks, and the only way to get there will be via Google private shuttle bus or the self-driving car.Retro Futuristic Tech Elite Utopian Architecture
Fascism and Architects
Someone needs to write a book, "How Architecture Got Weird." The important thing is that your betters like it. So now rather than just being snookered by fast talkers into goofy fashions, austere apartments and blank canvasses in their art collection, the one percent will now be able to remake the entire built world that we all inhabit as abstract pieces of modernist sculpture according to their whims. Progress!Inequality in Modern Architecture
See, this is the problem with the starchitecture system - all the work goes to "brand name" architects regardless of whether they are even qualified or the best choice. And this starves work from smaller, scrappier firms who don't have the name recognition or fancy degrees from Harvard and Yale. Thus, the stars get ever more work, and there are less and less opportunities for the rest of us to make a living, since the stars crowd out everyone else. It's the "superstar effect" in architecture, except in architecture, it's difficult to really define how the "superstars" are better, unlike say, opera or baseball. Architecture should be a somewhat conservative profession. There are only so many ways to do a window and roof that is airtight and doesn't leak. Within that, there are myriads of possibilities. Architects used to know this. So much of the field revolves around what has stood the test of time. Now it just springs fully-formed from the head of the lone "genius" and fixed with liquid waterproofing and spray foam insulation.The Uselessness of Architects
Architecture In The Toilet
Simple versus complex building
I imagined the possibility of a technological civilization starting without fossil fuels:
Civilization Without Fossil Fuels
I still think this would make a great premise for a novel/short story.
I wondered whether Peak Oil is the ultimate cause behind our economic doldrums, or if it is something else:
Is Peak Oil Behind Economic Disintegration?
This entry emerged on the most popular list for a time, and I'm glad it did;
Getting paid for what you actually accomplish. What a concept! Instead, most of us are chained to our desks for forty hours a week regardless of what we actually accomplish. What sense does this make? In fact, all we do is “fiddle around on computers all day” (as David Graeber puts it) and actually accomplish very little. Yet we must sit there and put in our forty hours regardless of whether there is four hours of work to do or forty. Not to mention the odd idea of selling a concept as ephemeral as time – how bizarre that is. One’s time on this earth is so limited; something feels wrong about selling it to the lowest bidder. Indeed, before the invention of precise timekeeping that wasn’t even possible. The clocks that were designed to help monks time their prayers evolved into shackles for the working class.
As Emma Griffin points out, those work patterns make sense when you work in a factory where every second the machine isn’t running it’s a loss of profit. This is also why agricultural societies have always been more leisurely than industrial ones--working harder won’t make the plants grow any faster, after all – once the land you’ve got is seeded and watered, it’s several months minimum before you harvest your crop with little to do but pull weeds and wait. By contrast, a machine never gets tired, and you will give out before it does, hence the Stakhanovite working hours of the early Industrial Revolution (only ameliorated by brutal strikes where workers often sacrificed their lives in a hail of government-sponsored gunfire).
But in case you haven’t noticed, not a lot of people are working in factories anymore. Yet, bizarrely, the entire structure of society is designed as if we do! We all get into our cars and head to work at the exact same time every day (causing epic traffic jams), and file home at the exact same time (causing yet another traffic jam). We all work Monday-Friday (with a few exceptions). During that time we’re chained to a desk for eight hours regardless of what we actually accomplish. It doesn’t matter if there’s four hours of work to do or forty – we’re parked there whether we like it or not. But there is no spinning machine, no power loom, no drill press, no drop forger. No machine at all except sometimes a computer which can go anywhere and work anytime. We’re not producing any goods at all!Modern Work Patterns Make No Sense
On a related note, I couldn't help but rant about what our workplaces are like now, prompted by the all the stories about Amazon (and my own life, honestly):
And thanks to being instutionalized from birth, the “successful” are carefully selected for their devotion to overwork, blind enthusiasm, and hoop-jumping, while the skeptical and critical thinkers are weeded out and cast aside, no matter their innate intelligence or talent. That explains everything from the early start times (which make no logical sense), to the crushing amounts of homework, to the constant assessment exams, to the extracurricular activities as a sign of “leadership,” to the obsession with GPA, to the “pep rallies” in dystopian American schools. The sheep are weeded from the goats early on, and all the goats can look forward to is a jail sentence, or maybe earning just enough to have a studio apartment and a meal at Little Caesars. It’s social engineering on a massive scale. Of course, you can always be drugged into submission. This probably explains the inability of our clueless, cloistered leaders inside the bubble to see the collapse coming; after all the “best and brightest” are promoted to be meritocratic technocrats, and the rest of society who can’t keep up will just roll over and die, right?
The psychological damage done to workers and students is immense. Now, instead of breaking their bodies, capitalists are determined to break workers’ souls.The White-Collar Gulag (Semi-Rant)
And I wondered whether the supposed benefits from computer technology on productivity are more imagined that real. Certain people argue that computers can't possibly be replacing jobs, because where is all the super-productivity? Maybe this explains it:
Is it possible the sheer volume of something like email engendered by ubiquitous computers is actually making us less productive? That is, we spend so much time answering emails that we don’t get anything done? If so, the efficiencies created by the computer have made us less productive. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but is anyone considering this? I have a hard time going through my email, but I know people who literally spend half their day doing nothing but answering emails. I suspect many of us know people like this. In the olden days, these same people would have spent their day not answering emails, (since it didn’t exist), but doing productive tasks such as drafting, calculating, etc. Thus it seems to me they are less productive thanks to the computer. The sheer ease of what the computer allows us to do overwhelms us and makes us spend our time in less productive tasks.
Have the complexity increases eaten up any benefit from automation? Just as work expands to fill the time allotted to it, complexity expands to maximally utilize the tools available to it. Often times when we work on existing buildings, we look at construction sets from the past few decades. A set of construction documents from the '50s through the '70s might consist of twenty sheets or less from each discipline. No telecommunications, no auto-operated doors, straightforward structural design of beams and columns, not many “custom” details. Today, it’s not uncommon to send out monster construction sets of over a 1,000 pages produced by dozens of specialists to document a single building. Moving columns around, which would have engendered a long series of recalculations, is done willy-nilly now thanks to computers. Design is done at the last minute. To coordinate this complexity, you need a lot more people, hence all the “supervisory” jobs that do nothing but go to meetings and answer emails. If our buildings were as simple as they were in the 1960’s, for example, we could produce those documents in a matter of weeks or months. Instead, these hyper-complex buildings take us years to design and document, even with 3-D BIM modelling. So if you measure, you would see no productivity gain at all, despite all the people working.
The other problem is diminishing marginal returns. This is particularly pronounced in service industries, since their customer base is inherently limited, and expansion is difficult...Computers aren’t going to increase the efficiency of taco makers, sales associates, sandwich artists or bedpan washers very much.
So if the Deloitte report is correct, and the new jobs being created by computers and automation are predominantly service jobs—like those at Waldo’s Tex-Mex World--then it is no surprise that the productivity is decreasing. It is possible that these types of jobs are eating up any productivity gains we get from computers and automation. So the growing unproductive industries would cancel out the growing productive industries, especially when we shift employees from one to the other, which we are doing and have done (manufacturing to service).
The mechanism is this – efficiency gains in manufacturing means less and less people involved in manufacturing. Computers mean more efficiency in “professional/technical” services pushing much of the workforce into the service economy and expanding that sector. Because that sector is vulnerable to Baumol’s cost disease and diminishing marginal returns, when productivity is measured as a whole across the entire economy, it appears to diminish, even where we can define what efficiency is (Sandwiches made? Bedpans changed?). If you measured it in just certain areas, we might see an increase, keeping in mind the caveats above (determining what output is, increasing complexity, useless busywork that is brought about because of the computer, etc.).The Productivity Paradox, Possible Solutions
Our notions of Left and Right are seriously flawed in the current American political atmosphere. Things have gone topsy-turvy, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey:
It is much of the “Left” that has embraced local economies, face-to-face transactions, “slow” culture (food, money, banking, etc.), walkable communities, communal ownership, tiny houses, appropriate technology, alternative energy, community gardens, cohousing, timebanking, gift/barter economies, organic (traditional) agriculture, homesteading, craft production, homeschooling, degrowth, etc. They are aware of planetary limits, against consumerism, for self-reliance, into community organizing and likely to throw away their television set.
Meanwhile, the “Right,” especially the Libertarian right championed by the captains of industry and Silicon Valley, embraces a strident rhetoric of unlimited growth and never-ending progress through technology. Artificial intelligence, GMO crops, frozen embryos, nootropic drugs, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, lab-grown meat, nuclear power, fracking, geoengineering, robot labor, space exploration, self-driving cars, hypersonic air travel, kilometer-high skyscrapers, urban sprawl, life extension, the “internet of things,” holographic advertising, Google glass, cybernetic implants, and so on. The Libertarian Right has cornucopianism as one of its fundamental driving tenets.
The right also combines this with free market fundamentalism that asserts that the market makes us more moral and less violent, and a constant demonization of the past as a Malthusian nightmare of unremitting poverty and violence that the “free market” saved us from by encouraging unlimited private wealth accumulation. Furthermore, it will continue to expand living standards in perpetuity and eventually solve all problems, as long as we don’t “interfere” in the “natural” workings of the Market. Economic growth, unlimited global trade, shrinking government, privatization, deregulation, corporatism, financialization, anti-unionism, crytocurrencies, open borders, natalism, “voluntary cities,“ free trade zones, urbanization, cap-and-trade, etc. are all embraced and championed by a lot of people we tend to think of as the “right” in America.
We have lefties moving to organic farming communes and canning food, and righties defending automobile-centered suburban sprawl and arguing for nuclear power. Leftists seem to want to be the Amish, while the Right wants to be the Jetsons.
What’s going on here?Myths of Left and Right
And I got to the core of what I believe defines the conservative (there's that problem again!) mindset. Just-Worldism, the Cult of Personal Failure and Horatio Alger yardstick keep people stuck in their miserable bucket of crabs:
If you mention some situation where someone is being taken advantage of, fallen on hard times, working harder for less, getting screwed over by their employer or big business, losing their job or home, plunged into poverty and/or heavy debt, having trouble paying rent, feeding their kids, or anything whatsoever, it is as sure as night follows the day that some wag will pop up and go over that person's story with a fine-toothed comb, examining it under a microscope for any possible way that it is that person's own fault for their current circumstances or for what happened to them. In other words, that person deserved their fate because of 'X.' Substitute anything you like for the 'X' - it doesn't really matter. There is always something.The Core of the Conservative Mindset
I call this "the cult of individual failure," and it is rampant in America. They MUST find some way, somehow, that a person brought it upon themselves by their own failings...
And the thing is, you can always play this game, and it always works, because there is no one on this earth who has made an optimal decision every single time one is faced with a decision. People are human. That is, you can always find something to condemn a person, any person, even if they did most things right. There is always some box they didn't check, some arbitrary barrier they didn't cross, to show that they are deserving of their plight. And as things get worse and worse, the people who aren't yet affected can sit in judgement on whomever is not as fortunate as they are to rationalize how much better, harder-working and more morally upright they are. Note that when Christ says, "he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone," what he is actually pointing out is that no one is without sin and therefore unable to cast judgement on anyone else. Conservatives do not get this message, and prefer to fling rocks with the enthusiasm of a major-league baseball pitcher. In fact, they need to do so.
This is the logical conclusion of the "Every man for himself," "Sink or swim," and "The devil take the hindmost," attitudes that are at the very core of America's black heart.
Americans love this, because it justifies the ideology noted above - the just-world fallacy of "you get what you deserve." This is their core belief, the foundation of their faith, and they will do anything---and I do mean anything---to maintain that belief. It is unshakable, and no amount of evidence will convince them otherwise. In all times and in all places, the cream rises to the top, and the scum sinks to the bottom, just as it should be. Success and comfort are only for the people who meet an arbitrary standard of virtue set by the winners.
While the triumphalists say we've managed to avoid collapse, and in fact have never had it better, in reality, the collapse is all around us, as I pointed out years ago. We're already in it!
People underestimated the ability of extend and pretend. People underestimated the ability of elites to suck wealth into imperial centers even as the living standards of most people deteriorate. People underestimated how normal it all looks from one day to the next. It's less of a wildfire than a glacier. It's like walking across a minefield - if you're not the one who steps on the mine, you just keep pressing forward, and avoid looking too hard to what's going on around you.Why Are People Overlooking Collapse?
Often times you hear about a "dieoff" due to our situation. I think this study confirms beyond a doubt that the dieoff is already happening. Yet, consider that, before this study became popularized, you would have never heard about it in the mainstream press. Still doubt the collapse is real?
It's not people dying in the streets, though, unlike some of the more feverish TEOTWAKI peak oil predictions. From the research, elevated levels of suicide and drug abuse are the prime culprits. It's the million little deaths that go unnoticed in the obituary columns of decaying communities all across this formerly prosperous nation. Someone overdosed in a back alley. Or a meth lab exploded. Or maybe they were killed in a car accident, or decapitated while driving their motorcycle too fast. Or they were shot by police. Or they are dying of liver failure by age 40. Or, increasingly, they are ground down slowly by the many chronic diseases such as diabetes that are symptomatic of the chronic stress and horrid (yet highly profitable) junk food diet of most Americans. It's a dieoff all right, but it's never framed as such. You can see it all around you: the overcrowded jails filled with unemployed people, the overcrowded hospitals filled with sick, obese people, the folks standing on the medians and freeway offramps with cardboard signs and living their cars, all while the media just goes on reporting about spectator sports and celebrity gossip as though nothing bad is happening. Ignorance really is bliss.
The obvious analogy here is Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, as many people writing about the study have pointed out: The Dying Russians (New York Review of Books). But there was no "collapse" of the United States. Or was there? Instead, we're told by the media and politicians that everything in every way is getting better and better for everyone. Just look at the latest iPhone! Television screens are huge! Even the very poor have indoor plumbing! And you can Google anything you like, so what are you complaining about, loser?
Everything is famed as personal failure, thus the dieoff is just a million stories of individual failure with no overall pattern. Nothing to see here, move along. Study and "work hard" (whatever that means), and you'll be okay. Certainly that fear is behind the epidemic of overwork, presenteeism and grinding hours of unpaid overtime Americans are putting in at work in the hope of not being next. It's like being the model prisoner in a concentration camp, though. Ask the turkeys this month if being a good turkey had any effect on their ultimate fate. The Parable of the Happy Turkey (Global Guerrillas)
Up until now, Americans have been happy turkeys. Thus, they cannot comprehend what is happening to them. In America it is taken for granted that the ultimate locus of control is on the individual, and that there is no such thing as society. That belief has been heavily promoted over the past thirty years, along with the "create your own reality" and other assorted positive thinking nonsense (thanks Oprah!), and I think we can see why.
And since we see this always as personal failure and are not allowed to see it as systemic failure, the poor and formerly middle classes take it out on themselves instead of the system. After all, America is the land of opportunity; if you don't "make it' (whatever that means), you have no one to blame but yourself! Of course it is not true; the musical chairs job market and winner-take-all economy means that only a tiny number of people even have a shot at the middle class anymore, and a lot of that is due to geography, pre-existing social connections and luck.
They don't have to kill you if they can get you to kill yourself.The Dying Americans
And the longer series this year:
Postcapitalism, by Paul Mason:
Postcapitalism – Initial Thoughts
Postcapitalism - What is Capitalism?
Postcapitalism - Critical Views
Postcapitalism - Alternatives
The Secret History of Oil and Money:
The Secret History of Oil and Money - Introduction
The Secret History of Oil and Money - Part 1
The Secret History of Oil and Money - Part 2
The Secret History of Oil and Money - Part 3
The Secret History of Oil and Money - Part 4
The Secret History of Oil and Money - Part 5
The Secret History of Oil and Money - Part 6
The Secret History of Oil and Money - Part 7
The Rise of States, Inequality and Economics:
The Rise of States, Inequality and Economics
The Rise of States, Inequality, and Economics - part 2
The Rise of States, Inequality, and Economics - part 3
The Rise of States, Inequality, and Economics - part 4
The Rise of States, Inequality, and Economics - part 5
The Rise of States, Inequality, and Economics - part 6
The Rise of States, Inequality, and Economics - conclusion
Inequality and Economics - Odds and Ends (Money as an IOU)
From the conclusion:
We also see that intensification is a dead end! How people can not perceive the difference between genuine innovation and intensification is beyond me. Growing meat in a Petri dish, building skyscrapers to grow salad, aquaponically farming fish in artificial lakes, trolling the sea floor for antibiotics, harnessing every spare joule of waste heat, insect ranching and mining asteroids are measures of desperation, not prosperity! Yet because these things use technology in a novel way, we are told they are great innovations and testimonies to how clever we are and how we can solve any problem. They are really testimonies to how badly we've fucked everything up and how much our backs are against the wall.
We've seen that intensification leads to one road - poverty for the many and more power for the few who supervise the intensification. They use their position to enhance their wealth and status, and then create institutions that pass this wealth and status along to the next generation, creating inequality of outcomes that persists for generation after generation. Instead of the natural wealth available for all, we become dependent on artificial substitutes controlled by corporations. We eat our laboratory-grown meat, drink our Soylent shakes, eat genetically-modified corn, drink desalinated seawater from Nestle, live in our superinsulated boxes or human anthills, and install air filters to keep the outside air breathable. And this is all considered "progress" because it adds to GDP!
We've seen that there is nothing "natural" about markets, and that they are always and everywhere an artificial creation sustained by institutions of our own creation. Laissez-faire was planned, as Karl Polanyi pointed out. But markets give power to the people with the most money, which is why the pseudoscience of economics has transformed into merely a justification of existing markets. They portray markets and usury as the fountainhead of all our prosperity, and not, for example, the compounding effects of innovation, a series of one-off developments like mass education and women entering the workforce, the exploitation of certain key technological breakthroughs like chemistry and electricity, population growth enabled by the same, or the harnessing of millions of years of solar energy stored in prehistoric plant matter. Because money can be quantified, they can use sophisticated equations to describe these artificial markets, and then claim to be the only valid social science because of the "rigor" and precision of those equations. Yet they ignore not only human psychology (paying lip-service via "behavioral economics"), but also the actual study of the real resources those prices describe!
Money is not a natural consequence of our desire to truck barter and exchange (exogenous). Markets and socialism are not in opposition, they are complimentary, as we've seen. Without a functioning society there is no Market, and yet markets alone cannot produce a functioning society. Market fundamentalism is just a technique to convince us that our impoverishment is "moral" and justified (hey, people in China are buying toasters!). As long as this malignant philosophy rules the day, we cannot make headway.If you liked those, you'll like some new stuff I've been working on. I've already mostly written a long piece on Paul Colinvaux's book, "The Fates of Nations," folding in a lot of extra stuff and current events into a multi-part review of the book. That will dribble out over a few weeks sometime soon.
And the fun facts series:
Fun Facts (December)
Fun Facts (August)
Fun Facts (June)
Fun Facts (May)
Fun Facts (March)
Finally, I know this blog is in need of a serious facelift. The designer in me cringes. I've learned a lot this past year about Wordpress and Bootstrap.css. I would prefer to run my own Wordpress server with a dedicated URL. Sadly, money is tight right now, so it will have to wait. I'm also thinking of moving over to Wordpress.com (Wordpress.org manages the software, .com has the free blog space). Or I could just fiddle with the Blogger template, but I'd prefer to have more control. We'll see. Any suggestions, let me know in the comments.
Thanks, and have a great year. Get your seedlings ready. Should be quite an interesting ride.