How To Avoid Seeing The Amish

I highly recommend this recent NBC segment on the Amish and their ever-evolving stance towards mainstream (or as they call it, “English”) technology. As much as any such short piece can do, it serves as a master class in propaganda as it is really carried out. Here we see propaganda not as brightly-highlighted howlers from officially acknowledged evildoers—as in certain selections of Pravda or Völkischer Beobachter that students are taught to look at in smug incredulity, with the purpose of reassuring us that propaganda as such will always announce itself as laughable absurdity to astute and balanced citizens like ourselves. Instead, here we have propaganda in its natural form, subtle and perfectly workaday—the art, first and foremost, of presenting and building up, as innocuously as possible, unspoken assumptions.

In the case in question, it’s fascinating to watch the ubiquitous narrative of “breakneck technological progress”, of our own cultural superiority through connectedness and virtuality, of the inevitability of these things, as if governed by natural laws—here represented by the scripting of the voiceover and by the reporter—as it crashes headlong into a culture that has found remarkable success and fulfillment, in large part, precisely by being skeptical of this narrative.

At the outset, we hear the motto, on voiceover: “Like it or not, this is a technological world“, says a woman from the Mennonite Order. Note that this Order, though related to the Amish Orders, is in fact distinct and typically far more permissive on technological usage. But this vital difference is not mentioned, immediately giving the impression that the Amish as a whole have already bought into the motto, and that now, slowly but surely like a child making first steps, they will begin to “come to their senses”; in short, to be more like us. The world is, and must be, a technological one only; no other conceptualization is valid, no other direction is possible.

Again, with the telltale assumptiveness of propaganda, the announcer pronounces the Amish to be “stuck” in the 1850s. Stuck! Pity the poor souls—one thinks of a lame horse “stuck” in the barn, or a genetically ill child with withered legs “stuck” in a wheelchair—victims of fate, needing our enlightened help! Yet this characterization in fact says far more about the announcer’s ignorance or deception than about the Amish themselves, as the Amish restriction of certain technologies is, on the one hand, very much a conscious and deliberate choice—made with full awareness of the gadgetry available among the “English”—and on the other, is not and never has been anywhere near an absolute rejection, within or across the Orders. This wide variation in technological usage also renders the segment’s title, “Amish opening up to modern tech in some communities”, almost as empty as saying “Iowans opening up to soybeans in some communities”.

“In our lives, it can feel like technological change is inexorable,” continues the narrator, “There’s always more and more, and more is always better. But here’s this community that says ‘no, we’re going to take this, but not that.’ And I wonder if we don’t all crave that kind of control sometimes.” Here the mood seems charitable—as if the writers of the segment were willing, for a moment, to entertain that heterodox idea that the Amish may have things to teach us. But this would be to miss the subtext of tongue-in-cheek parental forebearance: “if only we did not have to be so grown up in our wholesale subjection to the technological; if only we could be picky about it, like these sentimental anachronists in their sweet little mouse-holes!”

“Is the boundary between Amish and not-Amish kind of blurring?” is the closing (and leading) question. Let us leave that question aside to ponder the next time we see the sober black horse-drawn buggy being drawn along the roadside. Ask then: Have they added a turbocharger yet? GPS? Are the children in back watching Surprise Egg videos all the way home? Does this look like an “inexorable” caving to an exclusively “technological world”?

Most of all though, media phenomena such as this suggest how the triumphal parade of Faustian progress—the “march towards infinity” that dominates our own world-view and expectations—has begun to clash with the perceived reality of our experience. Notwithstanding the many believers who will reverentially look at an iPhone X and swear it is as far removed from an iPhone 4 as the iPhone 4 was removed from a rotary phone, the reality over the last few decades seems to be that life has not changed very much for the better for those under the sway of the technological faith. The cataract of wonderments has become a trickle. Exactly because of this, the vision of breakneck progress must all the more be maintained in thought as obligatory slogans and propaganda; at the very least, this drowns out the anxiety of having to consider that there may be equally trenchant alternative points of view. A more penetrating and serious journalist, then, whether or not s/he agreed with every aspect of Amish culture, would strive to see in the Amish a quite sincerely held instance of such points of view, and one that has done quite well for centuries—not a quaint case of delusion whose demise can safely be timed to the arrival of 5G connectivity.

But this is part and parcel with a not-too-subtly condescending evangelism of our technocentric way of life. For it is the peculiar fate of the West that this way of life, this continual demanding of new accelerants and stimulants, is the only thing we widely put faith or hope in now—and so it must be defended with all the delusionality of those fundamentalists we love to scorn. Here arises the superb overarching irony of the segment, missed by both sides: the irony of watching one fundamentalism squint across at another, while at least one (guess which) denies it is a fundamentalism at all.

In his classic study “When Prophecy Fails”, Leon Festinger recounted in detail the arc of a UFO cult that became convinced that a great disaster was imminent and that true believers would be evacuated beforehand by a flying saucer. When the apocalypse failed to occur, the members of the group shifted from self-contained self-assurance to aggressive attempts to gain publicity and converts. Festinger saw this shift to the goal of conversion as a way of managing the cognitive dissonance of the failed prophecy: after all, if I can convince others to join in my discredited belief, then maybe I was still right to believe in it.

In a similar way, as the technological prophecy of unbounded progress and unlimited wonders through science and machinery falls conspicuously shy of its (undeniably immense) past accomplishments, and particularly as the environmental and social side-effects of this prophecy become more dire, the Faustian peoples’ need to believe will have to be compensated more and more not just by hyping so-so or disappointing technologies, but by a perceived longing for conversion on the part of outsiders.

It is true that in the past the West became a focus for the aspirations of much of the rest of the world, and that these huge populations often eagerly embraced Western technologies, techniques and artifacts. But their motives were never what we told ourselves: what these peoples saw was not the Western (and especially American) creed of infinity-seeking, or even a world of ever more intricate and invasive gadgetry, but simply abundant food, fast rides, entertainments, sexy pictures—and above all wealth, copious, fulsome, glutting, undreamt-of wealth, the kind a man might slaver after for a lifetime and never tire of. Now, we see this wealth has been to a great degree transmitted already, and with that, the prestige of the West has entered a slow dive. The Amish double our cognitive dissonance over this, for not only do they not care a whit for the infinity-seeking creed, but they tend to eye with a half-bored skepticism even the wealth-accumulating offspring of that creed. After all, their very ethic emphasizes an entirely different kind of wealth—the wealth of the community, of physical heartiness, of simplicity, of satiety, of justice to family, God, and fellow men. To think that propaganda would spare them for that blasphemy is to think naively.


Four Poems

// 1
The farther out,
the more contingent, more illusory:
Society bobs and rises. Smiles all around.
(A handshake, while we finish these documents.)

The closer,
the more empty, and the clearer too,
a demonic clearness, tautology’s looking-glass.
(Alphabets, lookup-tables, and just-because.)

Where lies the teacher
of the perfect world? Where is his army
sundering the deep, O mystic column?

He has won many battles—too many—
and so, full of goodness, retires to his academy;
so now let him rest, in that endless middle distance.

// 2
Bethany, wildwood, barrier islands:
People are drawn to haunting, floating places,
Waiting half-naked in the sun, as if possessed
By a taming, or a brave covering-up,
Projections of a play-acted life.

In the quiet cumuli of years
Thoughts of here keep turning, piling up.
Underfoot I see white shores,
Sea-foam, sea-creatures, clear as lenses,
Dredged-up epithets from the primordial;
I recall joy, aging friends, simmering shrimp,
Dinners amidst faces drawn tight, keen as a syringe-tip.

I remember madness
In the mirror:
A me who was not me, the still ocean
In the window calling us down to its edge
With visions of a parallel time, new selves,

And out there, past the little hill, the sand
That spoke crisply of all things burning:
Of passions lost
and caught midair,
But mostly of life, rigged out
In all its solitary beauty,

Like the sail
Of some coast-hugging ship,
Tacking carefully, yet almost lost, all but plunging
Full tilt into a blue infinity.

// 3
In the winter’s dark sanctum, I see
Parts returning of me.
A heavy black snow is falling on everything.
Where now is the secret fire?
She has left everything in a pile,
In these ashes at my feet.

Truly, the nightmare begins
When we cease dreaming
That we share the same dream.

// 4
Is nothing but the gift
Of painting with rules:
Peeking through the symbols, suckling-faced, the new cosmos beams.

Is a powerful magic fife:
Well-played, it soothes man’s madness,
Ill-played, it dances him towards death.

But engrossed in canvas,
Wrestling a verse,
Or lip curled in thought
Over the keyboard:
The artist’s distant look
Is like the child humanity,
Straining to descry
Some truer calling.

The New Prosperity: Aristocrats and Corporatists

The economy and the market are back in good times—so the tribunes and augurs have been singing. Except, that is, for Friday and especially Monday, when the Dow dropped as much as 1,500 points and ended down over 1,100 points, both records in its history. Even so we are already being told eyes forward, keep on moving—and that “the fundamentals are strong”.

What fundamentals, exactly? Everything but how people are doing, it seems.

We just learned the US life expectancy dropped, for a second year in a row. We’ve also got epochal levels of global debt, falling energy quality (lower EROI due to our much-touted reliance on fracking), a return of great-power geopolitical rivalry, declining global power (“post-primacy”), severe legislative gridlock, totally dysfunctional healthcare (showy moves by Buffett and Bezos notwithstanding), stagnating innovation, basic infrastructure disasters like Flint, New Orleans and Puerto Rico, opiates flooding the streets, climate instability causing record costs

Maybe most significant among these “non-fundamental” issues is the continuing explosion of inequality; as recently (and repeatedly) documented by Oxfam, nearly all gains of the post-crash “recovery” have gone to a sliver of the world’s population, while the rest have stood still or backtracked. In the US, for example, real household income has remained stagnant since the 1970s. A large majority have less than $1000 in savings.

Make no mistake, America and the world are standing still in their own trash, perhaps even edging backwards.

What luck that none of it is fundamental!


What apparently is fundamental is the grand fact that we are now immersed in a new kind of economy—one where the concept of earning an honest profit has gradually been engineered out of existence. All the globe is awash in shadowmoney. Even wildly unprofitable companies like Netflix and Tesla, whose debt is rated “junk” (assuming the ratings agencies are trustworthy), continue to be able to issue debt at rates not much higher than the Fed. This last fact tells us either that these companies’ debt is wildly under-risked, or that the Federal reserve’s debt is, or both.

Politically too, nothing of the situation in this country is normal any more. From Antifa riots and white supremacists feeling the first thrilling stabs of power and visibility, to final, total regulatory capture within the government, to the pre-Alzheimer’s tweeting habits of President Donald J. Trump, the masterpiece perpetual-motion markets have been content to treat anything and everything as normal-by-fiat, or normal-by-groupthink. The fundamentals are strong.

Elsewhere we read that personal indebtedness in the country has for the first time surpassed what it was on the eve of the financial crisis… but that this is really a good sign. Prudence, saving, and self-sufficiency, we are told, are destructive to American growth, and if these illiberal character flaws taint the public mind too much it may be even be time to punish the reactionaries responsible with bail-ins. So far, the public has been most obliging, binging again and again on cheap credit to buy new cars and (now) largely useless higher education.

In Bitcoin and the cryptos, meanwhile, we have an especially pure example of the obsession of the Age of Virtuality: an entity that has no net merit, that lacks even the fiat currency’s backing by a powerful nation-state—and that is in fact highly parasitic, given the huge waste in electricity and hence CO2 production it brings—but can nonetheless become a symbol of futurity.

That symbolism is all that is needed, for it promises a complete escape into the Virtual, now tacitly our civilization’s only goal and hope. Through such tokenistic thinking, many now believe that there needed be no decline in the markets, ever; after all, correction and price discovery depends on there being some observer-independent standard of correctness, itself equipped with some concept of limitation or scarcity. These concepts are absent in Virtuality, or can be treated as infinitely plastic, or dismissed as outdated, or ignored altogether. Lead us not into solvency, but let there be bubbles in everything, is the new credo.

Even so, as in the stock market recently, a few drops’ worth of cold reality at least seems to have leaked through the cracks of the cryptos. For now these virtual parasite-currencies are collapsing mercilessly across the board, and have become so unstable and proved so difficult to use that even attendees of cryptocurrency conferences are still required to pay in national currencies. (Here again we face an example of the nagging concept which many in our culture seem to have been educated specifically not to understand: that a thing is new is no assurance that it is better.)

Another interesting sign of the times can be found when we ask: what is it that most think triggered the recent flash-crashes in the Dow? Along with fears that the central banks may begin to charge interest on loans at a rate even half of what was normal just 10 years ago, the “wake-up call” took the form of nothing less shocking than reports of a modest increase in wages.

It’s hard to think of a more clear-cut example of how the imperatives of instinctive class enmity are at work in the decisions being made in this country: working people’s wages briefly edge up to a slightly less than starvation level, and the markets immediately panic.


For a long time now, the central question about this stock market, fueled as it is by central bank cash infusions as far as the eye can see, has seemed to be: is it a market at all, or an engineered aristocracy, a system contrived to generate mad money and infinite security for the investor class, and cement the rest of the world in debt-serfdom?

If it is such, then reality may take a long, long time indeed to leak in. Much as many doomers might yearn to see the captains of finance finally get the messy downfall they deserve for (redoing) what happened in 2008—to have the whole thing implode under the weight of its own wishful thinking and corruption—the glum truth of history is that such systems can go on for centuries. Or, given the madness already on full view in our latest presidential cycle, the knives could come out next year in a crash or a revolution. Whether we are convinced of perpetual-motion or not, we fool ourselves if we think that such designs can have predictable endings, especially once such high stakes are gambled so wildly.

In hindsight—though it’s giving the viziers of finance far too much credit to say it was planned as such—the Financial Crisis appears more and more to have been a perhaps inadvertent, de facto coup by the financial sector and large corporations in general. For the “bailouts” and near-decade of free-money “quantitative easing” policy that followed the Crisis marked not a return to true economic health, but an unprecedented merging of the interests of big companies and the agencies supposed to restrain them into one big, self-stimulating, noncompetitive blob—true proto-fascistic corporatism. Top it off with a billionaire, proto-fascistic president from a dynasty of big money and the framing is almost complete.

Imagine something like that plot device in some movie heists, where the ingenious bank robbers splice a repeating loop of “nothing happening” into the security camera feed, then make their move unseen. But in this case, the effect of the “heist” was to allow the full replacement of market systems, complete with their nasty tantrums and hard lessons even for the rich investor, by a new kind of wired-in, risk-free aristocracy, an investor/ownership class of “Architects” that creates limitlessly redeemable bubbles of virtuality for itself while securing the immiseration, through mass surveillance and debt serfdom, of the poorer classes, their natural enemies. 

Going further, in 2008, it appears somewhere the tape-splicing was botched: some guard saw the same fly buzz past the lens over and over, and that was the tipoff for calamity. The triggers malfunctioned, some Architects actually got burned financially, and so the bubble abruptly became important and known to all and the crisis took hold.

Ironically, the problem with 2008 was that too many of the old, non-virtual forms of market accountability still worked, forcing ugly (if curtailed) consequences, though mostly on the rest of us. This time the Architects are confident they will not fail. 

Now the coup is quietly put aside, and the Crisis itself tacitly treated as if it did not happen. Certainly as far as mainstream economic thought goes this is the case—the sooner 2008 is forgotten or waved off as a no-fault “fluke”, the better. Here is more false progress: we shall act as though problems have been solved, when in reality we have simply decided to force the problems into unconsciousness and declare victory. “The fundamentals are strong!”

2008 ought to have been made into a harsh cautionary example for the elites of this nation against their outrages of corruption and cronyism, and strict laws should have restored the sanity and “boringness” of the banking sector—but because of the no-fault approach of the already pitifully-indentured government, the teaching moment ended up being twisted into opposite, a $60 trillion (and how much more more?) bill for inverse-reforming an already disastrous system into something worse. If an aristocracy is too soon to call, call the result the “band-aid” economy, or the “see no evil” economy: the handling of the crisis amounted to a solemn oath to the financial sector that there really would be no limits, that going forward any behavior however insane would be accommodated and excused.

Like so many issues we face, the problem is a moral one. For, despite plenty of hand-wringing ten years ago about the “moral hazard” of TBTF and the grumbling about letting the perpetrators get off scot-free (even granting that the TBTF banks are now better capitalized), we see now that moral hazard is nigh-unmentionable—and it’s also the only game in town.

With that elimination of “moral hazard” has gone, characteristically, any reasonable pretense of “free markets” or “animal spirits”. We have slid, over the course of the past 40 years, from a mixed-economy with at least some market-based accountability into a corporatism redolent of the Fascist era, according to Edmund S. Phelps. Patronage has replaced competition, he observes, clogging the arteries of the old capitalist spirits (though he also continues to believe, much in keeping with the faith of the Age of Virtuality, that the dearth of major innovations since the 1960s is merely due to sociological incentive rather than hard scientific limits, a matter I have at addressed elsewhere). In this way the market has, at least for a while longer, wound up without any teeth at all: those corporate entities too big to fail know they will, with a wink and a nod, be refinanced at lovely terms by their comrades in the Treasury and Federal Reserve. They know it, and everyone invested in their heavily-repurchased stocks knows it.


What we see so far, though, is not yet enough like the aristocracies of old to stabilize itself for long as such, for at least the aristocracies were steadied by generations of social custom, family ties and often feudally-based loyalties, all of which are highly attenuated or absent in the US. If instead the direction is towards proto-fascist corporatism, then given the outcome of the fascist governments known to history the prospects of long-term stability are worse still.

What we have so far seen is instead a gargantuan levitation, a contrivance against gravity and reality, mainly achieved by tossing the weight of 90-95% of the people right out the airlock. In such a situation, where principles and accountability have been suspended, there is also a levitation in time itself, in that there is no deeper history to correct a certain pattern of conduct (many traders now in the markets already are too young to remember a time when declines were understood to be part and parcel of capitalism). And so the direction of drift will invariably be towards increasing excesses, and increasing excuses to dismiss any problem as “not fundamental”. The result will be moral, and likely financial, ruin. Why should any citizen bother making honest profits when corporations and financiers can borrow (or burrow) their money for free, indefinitely?

But as with climate change, no one gives a damn, for now, as long as there is still gas in the tank and the cheap-money doesn’t turn into inflation and wages don’t actually rise. And so the ride may yet go on, possibly for quite a while, until reality seeps in in that surprising way it does, corroding through the system in places where we least expect it. There is no reason to expect a “correction” or two, however spectacular, to accomplish that.

And yet deep down people also do give a damn. For much of what is holding up today’s market is actually a terror deeper than that of 2008—for the debts and chicanery are only more vast now, the bailouts and free money have created only a tepid recovery in the real economy, and less-than-nil in quality of life.

As Phelps notes, there have been no recent developments or discoveries to open grand new areas of the economy, only dubious re-modelings of old ideas like fracking, vac-trains, ride-sharing and indistinguishably-fancier smartphones that people are starting to get sort of bored of anyway. Behind this, in turn, lie certain unbearable truths about the dire condition of the scientific enterprise, out of which, like a huge Christmas-stocking, our economy has over the decades gotten used to pulling one magic money-making toy after another, to slake our unblinking need for novelty.

Yet these ideas must be thrust into unconsciousness, or waved off as not “fundamental” enough—for if the reality of the current Everything Bubble is so much as allowed to be acknowledged, this time the resulting swan dive will mean there will not even be a hope of fake recovery. Even the ruse of capitalism, like the absent king whose image is still enshrined over every door in the land, would fall, never to be revived. What, then, would we believe in?


Above all the show must go on—meaning, in the larger scope, the ever-accelerating consumption of a finite material base, disguised temporarily by addictive virtual tokening. And so it will. “Needs” of the most arbitrary and artificial type, designed on high and then pushed on a population made dejected and impressionable by false dreams and false education, will continue to be manufactured and dressed monotonously as innovation. For however absurd this prospect seems, it is the only stability our system now knows; and the very poverty of thought that it has created in us can no longer produce its own antidote, only intensifications and repetitions.

It is a sad fact that most of the time human beings prefer not to think, then act, but to act, then rationalize. What cannot be rationalized, in turn, is excluded from awareness, added to the pile of things too bothersome to waste time on. Such reflexive mental triage is sometimes necessary in order not to be crippled by self-doubt; yet in the amounts that have become habitual in our economic system and other parts of our national (and global) life, they are the telltale of a sickly and spreading unconsciousness. For consciousness is nothing at all without the ability to recognize, and step outside of, one’s prior ways of thought.

So it is natural that our Homo Ignoramus economists will go on to say after this record drop, and perhaps many more to come, that the “fundamentals” are fine. But what fundamentals are they even conscious of anymore?

Sarewitz’s New Science

Just got through reading an interesting assessment of the problems facing contemporary science, by Daniel Sarewitz, at The New Atlantis.

The article is both spot-on and frustrating. Spot-on, in that Sarewitz very nicely gathers together a list of the forces behind why science is failing—particularly, diminishing returns due to crippling complexity and ambiguity of the remaining problems. He sees such problems as bedeviled by what he calls “trans-scientific” issues that fundamentally are too messy to ever be decided by science. This creates a world where scientists can “research” a problem indefinitely without creating any stable or useful gain in knowledge—which, it bears noting, sounds exactly like the “ironic science” that John Horgan was warning of over 20 years ago.

But then, having thus placed himself on the verge of a powerful but unpleasant conclusion—that science as a vital, vanguard-progressive enterprise is destined to transform largely into an archival, practical, and often sophistic one—Sarewitz seems to blink and change tack, deciding to argue that Progress could surely be restarted if only science became more command-and-control or goal-oriented, and specifically more focused on technological deliverables. His model is the Pentagon’s supposedly no-nonsense results-oriented approach to improving jet engine efficiency and information technology.

Underlying this belief, the credulous “as if” assumptions Sarewitz must make are so numerous as to be hard even to list. As if research labs don’t clamor to snap up the newest technologies as soon as they are able! As if there aren’t currently legions of scientists very much searching and desiring to cure breast cancer! As if Einstein in his patent office or Fleming in his lab only performed their wonders by being set strict objectives by a somehow all-knowing boss! As if the answer to a problem of wicked complexity is to introduce an additional layer of managers and deadlines! And most of all, as if there have not been legions of failed and wasteful but very much “problem-solving” focused initiatives undertaken by engineers and defense agencies, even in the heyday of such initiatives!

That the examples Sarewitz cites—a cancer vaccine initiative that hasn’t found anything yet and a, ahem, woodpecker preservation initiative—are (with all due respect to our feathered friends) almost the opposite of compelling, or that the very trans-scientific nature of the problems crippling science would be just as intractable under any management style or incentive system, seems not to occur to him.

In the end, though his searingly clear-sighted assessment richly describes academic science’s abysmal if not terminal condition, Sarewitz’s remedy boils down to a mere ignoring of his own conclusions, and a contrived faith in can-doism. He can see the fatal contradictions in today’s research culture, and he can see their tracks leading up to the doors of Technology and Big Defense, but he cannot countenance that these precious bastions, too, have been blighted. Thus the necessary reckoning with the limits of our deepest assumptions is put off, and the conditioned reflexive belief in the eternal technological fix rears up, wearily and tediously, once again.

Some Thoughts on the Economy-as-Organism

Watching the markets and cryptocurrencies explode upwards lately for little or no apparent reason, it seems more and more like it may be in the nature of money to eventually be driven to hallucinatory status by speculation, fantasy, regulatory capture and limitless debt. It is invented out of nowhere by the trillions of dollars for the benefit of the ultra rich and the ultra large companies.

Thermodynamics or energy-based accounting is unbiased in principle, having as it does some sort of grounding in physical laws,  and it seems to offer an alternative to the money-centered view, but it is essentially impossible to straightforwardly apply it to a process as complicated as a whole economy.

So what is real? What do we look at as an indicator of societal robustness? Of diminishing returns? Perhaps none such exists; as long as there is new stuff to dig out of the earth and new things to covet, the growth continues, and money flows are simply a rationalization or fig leaf for the deeper trend.

Given these bafflements, it may be that the only system we know of that is complex enough to be usefully comparable to an economy, or any sort of guide to it, is the metabolic/genetic life of a growing organism (probably not ecosystems, as these don’t grow and multiply or have distinct pathways comparable to economic sectors). Call it the econo-organism.

In this view, money is not the source of change nor the energy that propels it, only a kind of anabolic hormone that tells the econo-organism, “make more stuff”. (There is no catabolic hormone, or if there is, it appears to be a Thing That Must Not Be Spoken Of.)

Moreover, because many resources are essential to the econo-organism (non-substitutable), higher prices are not a given if such prices threaten the organism. For the resource MUST continue to be produced “economically” for the economy to survive.

So the price will be kept low, if necessary by money infusions to the producers. But by that point money has, again, become meaningless, or at least now reflects reality in a completely unintentional way. The signal has become pathological, rather like runaway inflammation.

Growth is a reflexive urge of the econo-organism. Only when every last pore of ground has been scoured will the econo-organism tip from triumphal log-growth into profound illness or quiescence.

Or equivalently, there may be a hidden threshold where a given resource becomes too dilute for even new technology to exploit it to net advantage, even with invisible subsidy. Then something like a vital cofactor deficiency will take hold, despite adjustments by the system.

For example, copper, an indispensable and largely non-substitutable element for the econo-organism, is now mined from porphyry deposits that may contain as little as 0.15% copper. The first deposits to be exploited on the other hand were up to 10-30% copper, but have since been depleted.

It is impressive on the one hand that the econo-organism has evolved or deployed a way of getting enough copper from deposits that seem rather dilute.

But on the other hand, that also means it now has to move and crush and chemically treat about 660 parts rock to get at 1 part copper (probably more since extraction isn’t totally efficient), versus 3-10 parts rock in the old days. At what point does diluteness, with its costs in energy and environmental damage, overcome the combined powers of cleverness and increased scale?

(Similarly with fracking and wind power: the econo-organism manages to keep up with its energy needs, but at the expense of much larger land use.)

This is analogous to an organism that begins to express higher levels of a high-affinity transporter to absorb a trace mineral it’s not been getting enough of through the usual lower-affinity one (or perhaps a goiter where the iodine-absorbing organ becomes disproportionately expanded due to iodine deprivation). The organism may switch on pathways that let it conserve and reuse more of the mineral. Or there may even be a mutation (innovation) that increases the transporter affinity even more.

These are all clever and helpful responses on the part of the (econo)organism. Yet eventually, if there is just no mineral at all, or not enough to sustain the pathway it is needed for, the organism will die–or at least stop growing.

The earth is mostly dilute, but it is also quite big. That is what makes it hard to tell whether there is a big problem, or a minor problem, or no problem at all. However the econo-organism is quite different from a natural organism not only in lacking a catabolic signal, but in having apparently no ability to switch to a quiescent state. Either it grows, or it begins to fall apart.

Reading List Roundup: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie

Young Haroun lives in a sad city—one “so ruinously sad”, in fact, that it’s forgotten its name. His father Rashid is a prodigious storyteller, celebrated for his apparently limitless ability to spin witty yarns on the spot, which puts him much in demand in Sad City and wins him nicknames like “the Ocean of Notions”. But then Haroun’s mother gets fed up with her husband’s airy happy-go-luckiness and takes off with his exact antithesis: the oily, conniving and bureaucratic Mr. Sengupta, “a skinny, scrawny, measly, weaselly, snivelling clerical type”. “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” she grouses before flying the coop—a refrain which becomes a kind of leitmotif for weary adult pragmatism throughout the book.

And so begins an avalanche of increasingly wild and surreal events that turns out to be no less than a voyage into the center of the storytelling psyche—the Wellspring of the Sea of Stories.

“Haroun and the Sea of Stories” is of course rich in imagination—at times almost defiantly so—and it teems with strange and memorable characters and images that testify to a virtuosic creative mind at work. Within a few pages of the start, it plunges the reader into a fantasy world of such whack-a-mole vibrancy and surreally intricate texture as to have an almost synesthetic quality, as smells and colors and sounds seem to blur and merge and emerge with new-born intensities and meanings. Neologisms and odd poetic rhythms explode across the page, some annoying and some unforgettable (such as “P2C2E”, or Process Too Complicated To Explain, which becomes another leitmotif of sorts, this time for the inscrutability of technical-bureaucratic thinking). It also has the distinct advantage of having at least three characters named “Butt”.

Given this defiant high-spiritedness, its childlike directness and audacity, and its too-real-to-be-real vividness, I found myself wondering if “Haroun” might have originated as a treatment for animated or Pixar movie. But the last is impossible: “Haroun” was written five years before Toy Story launched the now-ubiquitous phenomenon of digital feature films.

But the connection with Pixar feels apt in another way, as probably the harshest criticism one could level against “Haroun” is that, in its very florid imaginativeness, it sometimes tips into a kind of literary version of the “uncanny valley”—a term for digital animations where the rendering is detailed enough for the characters to closely resemble real human beings, yet not detailed enough to make those peoples’ motions and expressions appear lifelike. The result is something that the mind sees neither as cartoon or person, but more like a zombie (see Zemeckis’s “The Polar Express” for some shudderingly creepy examples).

There are places in “Haroun”, then, where the reader will have time deciding whether they’re enjoying a light Saturday morning cartoon, or a coded vision of madness and menace. Examples range from creepy rhyming fish to manic robotic birds to a prince-rescues-princess story that goes grotesquely wrong to an evil black ship of darkness that begins to nightmarishly melt around our protagonists, not to mention the oddly sickening description of the “Disconnector Tool”, which plays a key role in the plot: “…it had the general outline of a wrench, but it was somehow more fluid than solid, and was made up of thousands of little veins flowing with differently coloured liquids…”

This uncanniness extends to most of “Haroun”s characters too. For all their number, color and antic fancy, most are paper-thin confections, robotic and often eerily repetitive in speech, giving no hint of development or subjective awareness.

All this may be another way of saying that “Haroun” is a deeper and darker work than it itself wants to be. So there is darkness and macabre aplenty in these story-waters, something like the books of Dr. Seuss, whose dizzying unsteady landscapes and grotesque, pained-looking creatures I always shied away from as a kid.

But then, maybe conjuring uncanniness was at least partly Mr. Rushdie’s intention. Part of the “uncanny valley” in “Haroun” might have to do with the fact that it seems to hit its deepest themes and reflections in considering (however fancifully) the relation of people to their own “shadows” (and even stories all have shadowy “anti-stories”). In “Haroun”, the shadows can even dominate:

“…in the Land of Chup, a Shadow very often has a stronger personality than the Person, or Self, or Substance to whom or to which it is joined! So often the Shadow leads, and it is the Person or Self or Substance that follows”.

As any Jungian would tell you, the Shadow is an archetype, representing the repressed negative contents of the personality—the “dark side” of ourselves that we don’t want to face. “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is”, said Jung. And while Jung thought it crucial to face the shadow and own up to its contents, thus integrating the psyche, the super-villain of the story, khattam-Shud, has done the opposite, to an incredible extreme: “…he has done what no other Chupwala has ever dreamt of—that is, he has separated himself from his Shadow!”

In this light, it might be that this creepy uncanniness in “Haroun” is a kind of masterstroke, as it forms the “shadow” to the book’s otherwise blindingly illuminated surfaces.

Of course, this journey into darkness is a brief and vigorous one, winning straight through to a happy ending that, without spoiling too much, is so unabashedly formulaic that it somehow miraculously ends up being note-perfect.

And so, putting it together, “Haroun” is a madcap, ripping yarn—a manically irreverent, shimmery-shiny, somewhat unkempt (and proud of it, thank you), multi-billion-colored nose-thumbing at Disenchantment, Bureaucracy and Conformity in all its creeping forms. If you’re looking for an inoculant against the smug instrumental mundanity of our own times, against the little Mr. Sengupta in all of us that tries, now and then, to obstruct (or deconstruct) our own Sea of Stories, you could do far worse than to spend a few hours with this little volume.

Milling it Over

Reading the comment section of this article on recent developments in wind power was an eye-opener. What most struck me, though, was not the breathless good news about the Renewable Future that will snappily pull us free of our energy/climate tarpit—a narrative that has become a kind of received wisdom in many circles. Instead, what most amazed was how readily ostensibly “green-minded” citizens can go excitedly all-in on the prospect of covering colossal regions of the planet with machinery and building projects for energy extraction. The trick to this counterintuitive transformation, it turns out, is just to tell them it’s going to be for wind, tidal or solar power.

The technocratic glee is hard to miss. One commenter, without a trace of irony, extols how “…Better materials and designs are creating economical, mammoth, skyscraper sized windmills that will dot the Earth’s oceans. The future is now.” Others revel, surreally, in the modest proposal of building an India-sized windmill farm in the North Atlantic. After all, what’s a few measly million square kilometers of construction work in the middle of the ocean, if it lets us avoid serious questioning of our motives and lifestyle? (And of course we know from offshore oil platforms how very cheap and easy it is to maintain even a few complex machine-outposts in the ocean, right?)

The whole thoughtscape around this issue, being peppered with delusions and fervent wishes, very readily breeds false opposites. While the “new” fossil fuels, particularly fracking, are often anathema to the fashionably green-minded, the renewable megaprojects’ attitude towards the land is in some ways extremely similar. Fracking, in terms of covering the planet’s surface with machinery and extractive processes as extensively as possible, is already on the way to something analogous to covering the Atlantic in an India-sized windfarm, except we instead cover the West and Midwest of the USA with tens of thousands of square miles of pumpjacks, support equipment, access roads and tailing ponds. The amount of the earth and carbon such processes consume, “green” or not, is gigantic compared to the old types of fields, or often to “old” renewables like hydropower. There is also the continual activity necessary to offset declines—in the Permian it is currently 3/4 of the total new production per month, while windmills will have an operational life of 20 years and need continual upkeep/replacement.

There is something in this spectacle that reeks of late-stage can-doism, of the beseiged optimist’s inability to contemplate clearly the forces that threaten (or limit) his system. At large in their dreams of mega-megaprojects to save the Earth by technological feats even grander than those that caused the energy and climate problems in the first place, hardly a single one of these armchair-green warriors will bear to contemplate the points that Vaclav Smil most forcefully makes, and that should be evident to any intelligent person of even moderate probity: 1) that renewables remain massively dependent on fossil fuel energy and feedstocks, 2) that the true pragmatic/technical core of our problem is our “grossly irrational” and profligate use of energy, and hence that 3) we must first focus on using dramatically less. This just isn’t the techno-escape fantasy these people want to hear; rather, what they want and crave turns out to be just more technological dominion-over-the-earth and ever increasing luxury, in a feel-good green disguise.

Yet Smil’s caveats on renewables’ limitations, while sobering, are still centered on an instrumental or technocratic considerations, though in his favor he also notes that there is no technical solution to global warming. There is another layer even deeper than conservation, which Erik Lindberg diagnoses superbly with this crie du cour:

“…Liberal environmentalism, then, is not really directed towards ‘saving humanity’ in any of many ways this phrase might be used.[iv]  Rather, it is geared towards saving the liberal, capitalist, and consumerist world order; it hopes to preserve our freedom to consume[v] as we currently do.  The argument is only how we might best do that.  For this reason, the ‘debate’ between the fossil fuel Cornucopians and the wind and solar Cornucopians is about as interesting and relevant as the ‘less filling/tastes great’ mock argument of actors and celebrities pretending to be Miller Lite drinkers a few decades ago. The swilling will continue either way.”

None of this is to say that technologies that can reduce carbon emissions are “bad” or should not be pursued, but to entreat our consideration of a more subtle yet extremely important point: that the current emphasis and goals of the transition are as wrongheaded as ever. Quoting Thoreau, Lindberg calls this transition “an improved means to an unimproved end”. Perhaps it will all even out somehow, perhaps it is an incremental movement in the right direction. But shifts in thinking often do not happen until they are forced, especially when the old ways are propped up by the vast inertia born of vast luxuries long since taken as a birthright. Instead, it is as if for many, our energy lifestyle expectations and our stance towards nature itself cannot yet be discussed without a kind of primal terror shutting off consideration. (The Last Man blinks.)

The Shadow of Knowing-All


The inscrutability of neural networks is yet another interesting example of the vertiginous struggle we constantly face in reconciling contrasting scales of the same objects. (This is itself likely a side-effect of our basically Faustian world-view, with its preoccupation with breaking down scales and limits in search of constant expansion). Everywhere we see pieces that are not like the whole: and the more we pursue understanding through reduction and through concepts, the more we notice simple small pieces combining into much larger entities that in turn seem blissfully indifferent to the character of their constituents. Indeed we are waylaid by this same surprised, amazed uneasiness—often given the name “emergence”—in the guise of countless diverse objects and topics, from fractals and photomontages to economics, psychology and molecular biology.

In one sense, this quality of neural networks is greatly liberating and exciting, for it gives us a clue that the insistence that our concepts, reasons, and above all our words must exhaust all of reality may itself be mistaken. Every component of the network is rigorously rule-based—everywhere there is mere computation by simple and wholly determined parts—yet for all that we can make no more sense of the larger outcome than we can of a person who says, “I just like it!” There is no “explanation” of the data to be found in model, beyond the model itself (much as there is no “explanation” of an object to be found from its imprint in silly putty); it simply is what it was trained to be.

At the same time, even considering this liberating quality, neural networks may also be a dangerous example of statistical thinking as a totalizing or prejudicial doctrine, or more broadly of how the very tools we use to “understand” can by their nature blind us to anything outside of their scope. Through this doctrine, the concept of “emergence” remains rooted in a reductive understanding and so is viewed always with suspicion if not embarrassment, as if it could be banished if only we were smart enough, or if we but found new and better words. Whereas what really cries out to be discovered here are not simply “things that are too messy to reduce”, but things for which reduction cannot even be applied in principle—things wholly outside its scope, things for which “words fail us”.

Reading List Roundup: The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (first 100 pages)

Every now and then there comes a book whose critical reception can’t but make you wonder if you somehow live in a parallel universe.

As a case in point, for years I have heard about “The Emperor of All Maladies”, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s so-called “biography of cancer”, as if it were some rite-of-passage in science writing, a study so masterful and compelling that even those whose lives had never been touched by the disease could scarcely put the book down without having been deeply moved if not awed. Friends of mine mentioned the prospect of reading it in tones of reverence similar to setting out from Everest Base Camp (though notably, without letting on whether they had actually done so). The opening pages of reviews offer a crystal gallery of elite paeans hardly to be surpassed, and of course there is the Pulitzer, king of literary trinkets, which Mukherjee won for the work.

Yet instead of a crystalline gem, a rousing and haunting accomplishment, “Emperor” is a turbid, uneven, meandering, yet self-congratulatory bore, a thoroughly sophomoric effort that, for a claimed “biography” of cancer, takes curiously little interest in characterization while proudly displaying its linguistic and even factual ineptitude.

One of the most insufferable aspects of the text, with which the reader will find herself pelted from the very first few pages, is Mukherjee’s crutch-like reliance on labored, mixed, garish or just plain erroneous metaphors and images where actual content and structure is called for. These in fact comprise such a disproportionate part of the text that, in the same way one might stop and gawk at a vegetable garden filled with misshapen gourds and monster rutebegas, we may as well go ahead consider a few of their endless varieties. They range from the ludicrously overblown:

[A single case of] “acute leukemia still sends a shiver down the hospital’s spine” (3).

…to the awkwardly obvious:

[Of the outbreak of WWII:] “by 1939, those skirmishes had fully ignited” (26)

…to the flabbily poetic:

“…surgeons were left to hack their way through the body like sailors sent to sea without a map—the blind leading the ill” (51)

[with the advent of WWII,] “the social outcry about cancer also drifted into silence” (26)

[the choice between surgery and radiation is] “a choice between the hot ray and the cold knife” (23)

…to the floridly surrealistic:

“a malnourished biological factory oddly reminiscent of the cloth factories of Bombay” (29) [of bone marrow in leukemia]

“their chromosomes condensing and un-condensing, like tiny clenched and unclenched fists” (33)

[Of surgeon George Pack, a.k.a. “Pack the Knife”:] “the surgeon and his favorite instrument had, like some ghoulish centaur, somehow fused into the same creature” (70)

…and last but not least, there are my favorites, the unintentionally comic:

[Of a surgeon:] “the fierce, hot blast of his intellect” (40)

[Of an early anesthetic drug] “…the fast food of surgical anesthesia (62)

“…a beaker with arms, legs, eyes, brain, and soul” (83) [this could also go under surrealistic]

As authorial tics go, Mukherjee’s knack for always finding the most irritating turn of phrase and then carrying on as though a Wordsworthian mot juste had just occurred was almost enough to impel me to put the darned thing down for good—but not quite. “Emperor” does offer some interesting material, for example on Galen’s notion of the enigmatic fourth bodily humor “black bile”; the medical madness of radical mastectomy and its protagonist, the reclusive surgeon W. S. Halstead; and the first chemotherapy agents. There is particular potential, by the way of “biography” of cancer, in this quote about its putative personality or even philosophy:

“The cancer cell is a desperate individualist, ‘in every possible sense, a nonconformist’… [metastasis] captures the peculiar instability of modernity” (38).

Yet this is not elaborated in any detail. Indeed, even in its brighter spots “Emperor” is badly uneven: the sections either lack depth on the one hand, so that one feels one still has not really learned even the basics let alone the roots of the subject or, on the other hand, they stray into interminable drudgery and stenography. Mukherjee’s long and eye-reddening discussion of the dye industry in 19th century Germany or his strangely hagiographic history of the first big-money cancer research fundraising drives surely count among the latter; his discussion of Galen or the history of cancer in antiquity count among the former. (Mukherjee caps this discussion with yet another trademark malaprop-as-mot-juste, informing us that it was not Helen’s face, but “Atossa’s tumor, that quietly launched a thousand ships” (42).)

Combined with its issues of continuity—the sections seem minimally connected to one another and follow little evident progression—we might conclude that “Emperor” was badly in need of an editor at least as unstinting as Pack the Knife was, and this is certainly part of the problem. But there are also issues of tone. The work is brimming with a fawning/triumphal air that strangely jars with the sober reality that over a century and unbelievable sums spent on cancer research have often borne a stubborn stagnation in outcomes as their chief fruit. The “breakthroughs” Mukherjee mentions, such as aminopterin, a derivative of vitamin B9, are extremely poisonous substances, and their successes are only temporary, leading children on to deaths hardly less cruel given the brief (often only weeks) false hopes they inspired. The surgeries, such as Halstead’s radical mastectomies—in which surgeons essentially raced for the honor of having removed more tissue than any previously had—left a generation of women horridly deformed, and seem at best ethically fraught and at worst the ghoulish results of depraved recluses with scalpels (there is surely a bizarre sexual dimension here of men deconstructing women, crippling or even emasculating them to “save” them). Yet, Mukherjee seems so enraptured by his own field that these horrors do anything but bother him: he sees the mastectomies part of “an incandescent century of cancer surgery” (58)… and extols the “nearly godlike creative spirit” (59) of the butchers… I mean, surgeons.

So what really finally did it for me, what inspired me to say bye-bye to Mukherjee after 100 pages of valiant effort? Probably that would be the little matter of the factual errors; “Emperor” appears to be riddled with them. Here are a few that I noticed with my fact-checker hat on, and in just a few pages of each other no less:

>That radium emits X-rays (74): incorrect term; radium emits gamma rays.

>That cancer is “inevitably waiting to explode out of its confinement” (79). Incorrect; does Mukherjee somehow not know about indolent cancers, the extremely slow-moving kinds you are “likelier to die with than of”, and on the basis of which many unnecessary surgeries continue to be performed?

>“…rusty carmines from Turkish madder root” (81) Incorrect: carmine dye actually is derived from an insect, the cochineal.

>That nitrogen mustards used in chemo are the same as the mustard gas used in WWI (88): Incorrect; the gas used in WWI was sulfur mustard.

Some of these may seem like niggling errors, but not all, plus we’re inevitably left to wonder what else Mukherjee might have gotten wrong, especially on finer details of cancer treatment that are even harder for the lay reader to catch. It was at this point that I lost all confidence and firmly decided that finishing “Emperor” was simply not worth sinking any more time into.

When one encounters a work of such middling quality and poor organization, replete with basic errors of execution, that nevertheless receives such wild praise as “Emperor” has, it is impossible not to wonder if there were other factors at work in its rise—whether favor(s) owed, or a very fortunate choice of agent. But amusing as the political-conspiracy hypothesis sounds (almost as much fun as my parallel-universe one), I would have to guess that “Emperor of All Maladies” is simply one more instance of that most well-accustomed fixture of bien-pensant literary circles: the “received” masterpiece that almost everyone receives, but almost no one actually reads.

And so, as a word to the wise, if you just want to learn a bit about cancer and have a decent (“fun” is not quite the right word for this subject) time doing it, I would say skip the whole “Emperor” trainwreck. Instead, try George Johnson’s “Cancer Chronicles”, a cohesive, often poetic, and mercifully much shorter reflection on cancer, its origins, its human impact, and the current research climate. Or, if you simply must read Mukherjee, go with his far better-written (and better organized) long-form article in the New Yorker, “Cancer’s Invasion Equation“.

New Strange Things, Part 3 (further notes, ruminations & amplifications)

“For there are strange objects in the great abyss, and the seeker of dreams must take care not to stir up tor meet the wrong ones.” 

“And then to the sound of obscure harmonies there floated into that room from the deep all the dreams and memories of earth’s sunken Mighty Ones.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Strange High House in the Mist”

“They are warming up the old horrors,” wrote the poet Robinson Jeffers on the eve of WWII, “and all that they say is echoes of echoes.” Those words came from a time when the world seemed, as now, balanced on the verge of vast transformations, when strange old ideas and urges seemed to well up from unexplainable depths, and when at the same time the long-trusted sources of stability and rationality were becoming depleted and powerless.

Yet although our present situation bears certain ominous echoes of the 1930s, it also of course is its own unique circumstance. So instead of drawing misleadingly exact historical parallels, it may be best to consider the general features that suggest the Old Gods, the archetypes, these repressed Dionysian and collective urges. What are the forces at hand this time around? What shapes do they take? What are the best ways to name them? What do we see right now?

The most obvious resonances of this at present are probably, of course, the tide of conservative nationalist populism, the rise of tribal umbrage in the face of the globalist and multiculturalist project of human interchangeability. We already see Brexit, the ascension of right-wing parties in Europe such as the Front National and Alternative For Germany (AfD), and of course the rise of Trump, as well as the recent elevation of Erdogan to near-dictatorial status in the recent constitutional referendum in Turkey, along with a host of other illiberal trends around the world. More and more we see the nation not through the liberal conception of a rational, enlightened organization of human beings for just ends, but in the much older and perhaps more honest garb of blood and soil, of Volk versus Volk, of ressentiment writ large.

Returning again to Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious and the strange mass madness whereby it can well up within a people—unbeknownst to the blandly unsuspecting individuals that make it up—and also to Ernest Becker’s contention that human beings require, in order to avoid the extreme discomfort of contemplating their own death, a form of symbolic, socially-mediated immortality project, whereby that discomfort is transmuted or, more likely, submerged into unconsciousness: these two go together here not only because of that continuing unconscious presence of mortal anxiety, but because many of the scarier facets of the collective unconscious have to do with certain untidy facts of the human condition, of which the challenge of living with the foreknowledge of death, in turn, is one of the most powerful. Therefore, if the slow implosion of the Faustian-Progress immortality-myth and the ebb of its diversionary post-WWII rain of plenitude both continue as they have, more and more societies will face an upwelling of unconscious existential terror into conscious life, with a simultaneous thirst for any and all possible remedies—from magic to megalomaniacs.

There are already strong indications that such an upwelling of mortality-angst (and other unassuaged unconscious contents) tends to give momentum to classically authoritarian measures and to the exclusion of outsiders. Even the most resolute bleeding-heart progressives become measurably more authoritarian when so much as contemplating a deadly threat. Hence we might say that one of those archetypal figures bound to wake up is The Father, or The Leader, who in such cases functions like the carrier of authoritarianism: the one who shepherds and protects the tribe, the one who sternly wields and guards its laws and customs. This is a singular figure, if not heroic then at least supremely unintimidated, onto whom we can project the Everyman from the threat of existential peril, whom we can all admire however grudgingly, and whose influence almost supernatually reduces our anxiety. (Most of these retro-converted societies will then try to re-inflate models that cannot be sustained under today’s conditions of ecological and resource strain, which will feed further into crisis and delusion.)

Yet what is striking is that even on the other side—among the people who would stand against the uprising of the father-tribal-leader, those who beseech unification and equality of all humanity and so forth, there has been a peculiar change in register. Here, there is a feeling that the project of liberalism has somehow re-incarnated itself outside of the individual, and relocated itself in the guise of a kind of supra-personal entity, a global thrust towards organization for organization’s sake, to which ideological trappings and personal identities are only a local signature or a mere commodity, but certainly not the essential thing. In short, by running from one super-entity of the mind-world, we seem to inadvertently wind up in the arms of another.

* * *

This other essential thing, the concept of which has lately been approximated by a host of such colorful names as “the Human Colossus”, the “Technosphere”, and of course, “the Singularity”, has without much remark accreted around itself a distinct flavor of the mystical. There is increasing, and startlingly irony-free, talk about an AI takeover, or a literal fusion of man and machine, possibly as a new paradise or even as a dire necessity. One might not even exaggerate in suggesting that this urge represents another collective “God” or archetype-like force, and that although it garlands itself today in the sparkling luminosities and the eerie, hereafter-redolent whiteness that is the trope of a thousand Internet commercials and Apple stores, we would be wise to question the much-assumed novelty of it. (In this last article, it is said of Kurzweil, the original exponent of the Singularity mythos, that “…He has such an urge to merge that he sometimes uses the word ‘we’ when talking about super-intelligent future beings”.)

Indeed, that this talk of a new digital or AI universe is undertaken in such a millennarian earnestness, or that it wraps itself in the magic cloth of the (not-so-)latest technology (“With the era of mass communication upon us, the collective human organism—the Human Colossus—rose into existence”), does not mean it is not drenched in subconscious god-yearning, with all its hallmarks. There is the dissolving of the self in a being infinitely greater; the transcending of mortal limitations and perhaps mortality itself; the satisfactions of certainty and shared sentiment. In concert with this, the image of human beings as but components in this vast supra-entity—not something so parochial as a country, or a religion, or even necessarily “humanity”, but a world information economy—has taken on increasing power in policy and common parlance, so that even the remarkable forces of reaction unleashed across the world of late seem almost to come to heel when faced off against it.

With its corollary of the supra-personal emergence born of human interchangeabilty, the purification of data and light, then, we seem to be confronted, in the very heart of the rationalists’ playground, with another Lovecraftian Old God of sorts. This being stands in opposition to e.g. the traditional god of Western religion, the overbearing Yahweh or Allah, which one might call “God of conservatism”; for that god is conceived as something hard and essential and integral, like a singular individual, a lone Father or a Godhead which might inflame the world of nature and the human heart but could never be dissolved within it. By contrast in this strange data-cloaked figure we seem to have a god of solubility, a self-organizing yearning for the erosion of individuality forms into a great, ecstatic mass of quickening thought—into a truly collective form of consciousness.

One is tempted to say that in the rise of this oceanic quality of digital communion and futurism or “singularity” we witness the “Ancient One of Liberalism”, a kind of Dionysian immersion, a melting of boundaries and categories. It is limitlessly inclusive, concerned purely with abstract forms of increasing organization flowing out of their own unquestioned justifications; it sanctifies progression above all else, that is until such time as its own mysticised apotheosis is reached; and on the other hand it is relentless in its dismissal of the parochial, the individual, the idiosyncratic, and in general those non-systematizable natural and human barbarisms that stand against its absolute and unquestioned development. All this takes shape under the auspices of rationality, of supreme objectivity, of algorithms and the driest utilitarian humanism. The often-cited contradiction between the economic and the cultural arms of the liberal is illusory, for in fact converge on the same point: whether in the economic dream of globalization and consolidation through competitive individualism, or in the cultural dream of an absolute equivocation and interpenetration of beliefs and histories, the goal of this god is always homogeneity in the name of heterogeneity.

Psychologically, akin to such contradictions in the liberal-progressive advance itself, this god promises the ecstasy of a great communion at some unspecified but impending future time, a shared purpose that is so great that it would grow to embrace the universe. Yet it becomes simultaneously somehow horrible in its anonymizing reduction of the individual to data—or, in its more glowingly humanistic mode, to an “asset” that must be grown exponentially to increase “human capital”. To those hearing it from the ideological inside, such language is the promise of certitude, communion and redemption, the brass ring to immortal heroism-through-consumption-production. To those hearing from the outside, in a world with over 7.5 billion people and rising, dogged by snowballing inequality and environmental depletion, such language could hardly fail to be seen as a sign of neurosis and fixation, of a profound irrationality concealed in rational trappings. The conversion of the individual to “asset” is one tentacle of an idea that spreads itself over all nature and thought, delivering it over to that vast and tragic homogeneity that Heidegger called “standing-reserve”—into resources for measurement, standardization and exploitation for the sake of a single unexamined drive to expansion.

* * *

Yet if nothing else, the path of the Ancient One of Liberality seemed to bring great plenitude and opportunity to whosoever followed it—a stability and a confidence of living, as embodied in the pervasive, emergent imperative of growth. Its boons and novelties were many, and appeared almost as if on schedule—dramatic new medicines, unheard-of computational powers, stupendous entertainments, ever-accelerating rates of travel (for a time), terrifying new kinds of energy and force. It was an acceleration of the kind that seemingly could dispel the primal darkness of man’s condition, perhaps indefinitely. The hoary old promises of religion, the “vast moth-eaten musical brocade” in Larkin’s poem, would be replaced by a sleek and exhilarating expansion into a veritable immortality.

Now, as a succession of bubbles and faddish false-progress gradually replaces this feeling of acceleration with the strangely sickening calm of forcelessness, of the zero-gravity unreality of our Trumpian moment, what ought we to expect in the future, given this disintegration of the faith in progress and the awakening of the primal unconscious powers embodied by the Ancient Ones, in such strangely antithetical forms, all while bandying the still-dear if faded watchwords of “reason” and “progress”? And moreover, how might we head it off or moderate the development? Returning to “Psychology and Religion”, Jung writes:

“The change of character that is brought about by the uprush of collective forces is amazing. A gentle and reasonable being can be transformed into a maniac or a savage beast […] As a matter of fact, we are always living upon a volcano and there is, as far as we know, no human means of protection against a possible outburst which will destroy everybody within its reach” (16).

So we see that our metaphors must grow in intensity and ominousness. The dissolved psychic pressure now becomes a volcano, its lava laced with hydrogen. The barrier between the inner world and outside reality blurs and percolates, creating a kind of demonic possession, and out of this murk the archetypal Ancient Ones arise and assume power within human psyches to wreak great changes, and more often than not, havoc. The god-drunkenness of the conservative becomes a madness for conquest, persecution and purity of the kind that history knows all too well already and that figures in many a humanist tirade; the god-drunkenness of the progressive reveals itself as an anonymizing, nihilistic drive to mass dissolution that pleads its own objective inevitability even as it sends out its tentacles for still more to consume.

In the mass entertainments, too, there is an unmistakably growing fascination with horrific battles, with new levels of gore and depersonalization, an obsession with rendering the end of the world in not just greater detail, but violence and grotesquerie. Most of all, there is a return to the past, a looking-backwards that almost proposes to become a looking-homewards—not just Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the gleefully murderous verisimilitude of Game of Thrones. On the other hand, our “futuristic” mass visions, though seldom less grotesque than these, have ironically come to consist entirely sentimental comfort food, almost wholly dominated by re-boots of re-boots of superhero and sci-fi creations—Spiderman, Superman, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars—that often date back 50 years or more. The very vitality of our ability to project into the future some kind of novelty or renewal seems to have ebbed.

The paradox of this is that the attempt to recover genuine feeling through these methods in itself ends up deepening the numbness and anomie, as well as the yearnings for the Old Gods. To take an extreme case of this, arguably itself an especially drastic form of “entertainment”, consider the US opiates crisis, which has surpassed automotive accidents to become the largest cause of death among the under-50 (NYT); here, too appears another example of this numbing inability to feel, this yearning for extreme measures simply to make life endurable.

Yet these visions and obsessions, too, all suggest strange collective longings and resurgent passions, which the moving image or the drug tries to supplicate and then charm back to its unconscious prison before the resurgence becomes a Jungian eruption. The great heroes and terrible warriors are inexplicably satisfying to watch, but of course we should never aspire to be like them; the magic and wonders of other worlds, the potency of the spoken word to open up new realities and make contact with new beings certainly are fun, but of course we would never pretend such things have power in the real world. The lights come up; the trip ends; and the machine is still in place. The questions and torments of humanity when faced to death or purpose are not to be quelled.

And so this attempt at supplication itself becomes must more and more demanding, more and more violent, so long as the deeper issues it is meant to placate go on unaddressed, until the entertainments merge seamlessly with a great civic chaos and a state of dangerous unfocused potentials. This, surely, is a development that has became all too evident of late, with the rise of a television reality star with no detectable qualifications to the leadership of (what remains of) the free world, by way of a campaign cycle that broke all previous bounds of made-for-TV, adrenaline-milking sordidness.

Yet if Trump really was the first major monster birthed by the rousing Ancient Ones out of the global unconscious, he is likely yet to be far surpassed—although good arguments can be made that his resolute denial of global warming imperils the world more than any prior leader has managed to do, he does not yet match the great human capacity for symbol-drunken madness and savagery by a long shot. This capacity has manifested in countless ways through history, too many to count—from the singular monstrosities of the world wars, Taiping, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Stalinism, ISIS (another new monster), to countless more local travails of cults, group suicides, pogroms and witch-hunts—and its manifestations will surely grow extremely complex; the aforementioned emergence of racial bullying and alt-right white supremacy in the US, and the chaos produced by Islamist attacks and right-wing rage in Europe, augur to be but the tip of the iceberg.

• • •

Alongside all of this are the reverberations of the global financial crisis, which though now a decade past surely has its part to play in the collective unease. The deeper question surrounding the events of 2007-2008 has been scrupulously avoided by the mainstream, but its reflections that stretch forward and backward through time like a financial Big Bang. Why did our economy come to the point where it had to depend on something so flagrantly ridiculous as people buying houses with money that didn’t exist? Or, more abstractly and fundamentally: how it is that a civilization that so defined itself by enlightened progress and by its triumphant march on infinity and immortality would come to depend so desperately on sheer graft and illusion?

The answer to the first, more innocuous part of the question is sometimes packaged in bland terms such as “secular stagnation”, but these all amount to the basic notion that mechanisms of normal growth had already checked out, leaving the economy to search for an ever more absurd and precarious sequence of substitutes. The answer to the second aspect is in turn that, by 2007, the arch-narrative of progress and the march on immortality had already become largely illusory.

Now, economically, the questions of 2017 seem even more insistent. Ten years on, our economy is still fueled on the illusion of progress, on the immortality-substitute of limitless growth—yet with growth and profits sputtering, inequality still increasing, life expectancies flattening or falling. The separation between the markets’ unlimited buoyancy and the actual conditions of life have only deepened the consternation and cognitive dissonance in the collective imagination. The vast majority of the stock market’s rise, meanwhile, seems to owe to two dubious expedients: one, the election of a corrupt oligarchic TV star to the presidency, which fills the investor class with hopes of abject plunder free of any remnant of regulation; two, corporations’ practice of inflating stock values by borrowing immense sums at low interest rates to bid up their own shares.

Similarly to how one cannot really address our current world problems without considering the underlying motives of growth, energy use, and population—including the Faustian “march on infinity” so penetratingly described by Spengler—we will not be able to understand, much less contain, the wild paranoiac tendencies embodied by Trumpism and its offspring until we look at it with a recognition of a) the unconscious archaic powers, resentments and even gods that we have lost touch with, and which the fruits of our folly have begun to nudge awake and b) the need for new ways of acknowledging and mediating such forces to steer them away from further destructive “outbursts”. There is hardly room to accomplish all this properly here, and the process itself is still in embryo; but one can at least set out to sketch it in very broad strokes.

• • •

In brief, here are a few other “creatures of the deep” that have been suppressed, ostensibly for ever and ever, by the combined progressivism of the Enlightenment and post-WWII technocracy, but that seem likely to resurface as that progressivism comes up more and more empty-handed. Ranked approximately from the most local and personal to the most universal and fundamental, they include:

Basic discomfort as an inevitable aspect of human existence, to be eluded only temporarily, through luck or at the expense of others. In the age of postwar globalization, these “others” could very often be sequestered away in third-world nations oceans away, and to this was owed a tremendous expansion of comforts and luxuries in the daily life of first-world citizenry. But this comfort, too s nicely expressed here:

“The affirmation of basic human freedoms could become widespread moral concerns only because modern humans were increasingly comfortable at a material level – in large part thanks to the economic benefits afforded by the conquest, colonisation and enslavement of others”; and “the thing calling itself ‘humanity’ is better seen as a hiatus and an intensification of an essential and transcendental fragility.” This fragility, this discomfort, goes hand and hand with mortality, while in complement to this transcendental fragility stands the transcendental and frightening power of the Old Ones. For the powerlessness man feels he soon accrues to the power of his gods.

Increasing tribalism. Sebastian Junger wrote in his “Of Homecoming and Belonging” of a deep lack of belonging and good old-fashioned tribal identity in today’s society. Now there is talk about the dangers of a single national (or any other kind of) identity, with David Brooks admitting that “Rebinding the nation means finding shared identities, not just contrasting ones. ” On the other wing of the growing cultural divide, in a recent interview, Jon Stewart, describing what makes America special, explained that America is “not normal”, because “what’s normal… is tribal”.

We are now deep in self-examination about the overreach of identity politics, the coddling atmosphere which has slowly grown from assuring personal safety and legal protections for minorities to encouraging nearly everyone to cultivate their their own fashionable minority status, with an accompanying sense of grievance at others’ exercise of free speech. Yet, our retreat into what the National Review perfectly characterized as “extraordinarily precise and insulated subcultures” has continued apace. It is not enough to embrace, as David Brooks says, a “conglomeration of identities”, for this leads to no identity at all. Identity is meaningless without some kind of touchstone outside of the self.

Tribalism is already oozing out in the very places and forms that claim most loudly to reject it, for instance in the strange, inchoate self-segregation of universities under the very banners of “inclusion, safety and diversity”. Accusations of “cultural appropriation” that fly when outsiders wear the wrong articles of clothing or costumes or write about subjects too far outside their own tribal experiences, too, suggest an emergent yearning for exclusivity and the belonging it can engender. Much as the project of interchangeability may engender anomie and resentment, this “Old One” of tribal yearning can be no less appalling.

Increased class-based division, and at its extreme, caste systems and peonage. This is related to tribalism but concerned with more abstract flows of material and labor. Emergence of a new system reminiscent of feudalism as automation along with the hollow men who become the courtiers. Money is the symbol of an billionaire’s power, not the source of it. They will not be destroyed by a collapse in the economic system, nor even by faith in money; rather, the affairs are increasingly contrived in such a way that they will be the only ones standing, likely with new, startling powers.

Religious reawakenings. Standing on the crux between the personal and the collective scales. A return to religious fervor as a force in everyday politics and life with a form and intensity difficult to conceive Essentially, this would be the “Second Religiosity” described by Spengler. A rush back into old “Judeo-Christian values” as the proper glue of the nation, as espoused by Bannon and others such as Michael Flynn.

• Increased legitimacy of political positions once considered extreme; the right wing becoming admissible, quietly legitimated or too large to ignore, and also in some cases the far left. Recent examples include Bannon’s referencing of Fascist thinkers such as Julius Evola, or Trump’s alleged readings of “Mein Kampf” and the emergence of the once-unthinkable Marine Le Pen to the last round of the French presidential election.

Autocracy as vitality, with democracy coming to be seen as decadent (with attendant revolts against decadence which, in keeping with the principle of inverse reform, only worsen it), increasingly unpopular, and even passé. Democracy seen not an eternal apotheosis for human affairs, but subject to change and decline, dependent on biophysical bounties and limitations like any other historical phase, and now entering its autumn. In its place, the ancient, archetypal longing for monarchs and strongmen—the perceived simplicity and clarity of mass submission (and transference) before a single, pseudo-heroic champion. This longing is of a piece with tribalism; for this single leader, to be successful, must strive to personify the tribe itself.

The failure of Data, on an epic scale: resoundingly a refutation of the new data-rich approach to polling and campaigning, as recently in the cases of Trump, Sanders, Brexit, and Jeremy Corbyn, but also everywhere else. People are more inscrutable than the modelers, with their abundance of clock-cycles and terabytes of stored minutia, had assumed. We see the world deviating more and more from the Enlightenment ideal of a clockwork mechanism, or a statistically tame-able manifold of information, even as this idea is hawked more and more obsessively by the luminaries of our time. The notion of the world as computation, of reality as simulation, and ultimately as information in sufficiently vast quantities as interchangeable with vision or thought was an Enlightenment-style project, but the world, it turns out, is as opaque and spirit-laden as ever.

We are submerged in data, and our lives increasingly managed by it in minute details, with or without our approval. Yet they fail to convince; for all that they catalogue our wants, they are blind to our yearnings.

In this way, technology seems detached from what’s happening, not integral or in the driver’s seat, as is commonly claimed. The retreat from reality into Data has, unsurprisingly, done little to change reality. While computation and data will continue in great abundance, they will more and more take on the quality of a lovable shibboleth, or an ironic pastime.

* * *

But probably the greatest change of all, in both scale and scope, is the gradual loosening if not overthrow of objective truth. The Greco-Enlightenment conviction in of some knowable “objective” reality, as a manifold completely outside of and indifferent to our personal wishes and needs, had the effect of compelling upon man a kind of puritanism of the mind, a stern abjuring of the juiciest of beliefs and experiences and indeed of the Old Ones themselves. And just as with puritanism, the vow of objectivity that binds too tightly would eventually snap itself, or else gradually loosen into its opposite, much as tribalism now sneaks into our civic life under the guise of inclusion. So, too, the devotion of truth is wont to be sidestepped by even the well-meaning, in their quest for more colorful, comfortable, fun, or easy-to-grasp habits of thought, or to sustain the appurtenances that mark out objectivity as a source of prestige and praise.

It is not only everyday citizens who are abandoning Truth, or politicians who have always treated it gingerly like a beaker of acid, nor think-tankers who have learned the old sophistic art of tailoring arguments to the measure of their patrons; it is also scientists and journalists, the erstwhile guardians of Ideas. For the downfall of truth (or its diminution into a value which must be be “defended”, which is much the same thing save with special pleading) is not accomplished simply in the name of laziness or tendentiousness, but out of a gathering frustration with the limitations that go along with an objective reality that is, by its very nature, finite and bound by unflinching laws.

Both the enabler and the sign of all the rest is the declining clout of that supreme Enlightenment usufruct, science. Over recent years, the scientific enterprise has brandished its catalogue of past discoveries and revolutions, or repackaged them to seem new, like talismans, all to keep its authority and prestige intact, and to drive the Ancient Ones back into their subconscious lairs. These talismans now encompass hundreds of billions a year in national budgets, and tens of thousands of massive institutes filled with complex instrumentation. Yet in fact systemic setbacks have become more and more evident to those who look closely or are familiar with scientific culture. Entire fields have increasingly become entranced by bizarre speculations, untethered by actual empirical evidence or accountability, yet which are expressed with an expectation of semi-religious amazement (roughly, what I have elsewhere called “nihilistic awe”).

In physics, palpable tension has built as notions such as multiverses, string theory, the world-as-simulation, and black hole information have failed to find a whit of experimental confirmation, increasingly bringing up discussions not of objective physical reality but of social dynamics among scientists themselves, a much more uncomfortable subject. The enormous LHC, at a cost of $15 billion or so, has so far failed to discover any exciting new physics beyond the Higgs boson, which was postulated in the early 1960s, while the BICEP2 debacle is well-known by now. Most recent developmens, such as the much-trumpeted results of the multi-billion dollar LIGO experiment regarding gravitational waves, remain unsettlingly unconvincing compared to the expansive claims made long after victory was declared and one and only one interpretation deemed possible. (We are now hearing that there are strange correlations in the noise in the LIGO data that “should not be there”, and call into question the whole assumption that the two multi-billion dollar LIGO detectors truly were gathering data independently of each other.)

In the biomedical, neuroscience, and psychology fields, too, there has been quiet panic as the investigations of John Ioannidis and others has implied that vast sections of the scientific literature in these fields are simply false or non-reproducible, products of an ethic of publication for its own sake. Choked with the incalculable complexity and heterogeneity of human health and of living things in general, the gears of Progress have slowed to a craw.

In medicine, the appearance of solid progress and rational development of treatments seems to be hastily dissolving, as drugs that win FDA approval with heavy backing by flush pharmaceutical companies and even become widely popular, often stop working or must be withdrawn after the placebo effect offered by novelty wears out. Even on the innocuous question of what is healthy, the appearance of a scientific consensus has faced growing fatigue and skepticism from the public as scientific studies have turned fat from good to bad to good again, to name just one example.

* * *

Nicolas Taleb recently encapsulated the growing mood of contempt and mistrust on the part of the general population at the increasing unreliability and brittleness of the scientific, economic and technocratic clerisy:

“With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.”

To sum up his contempt, Taleb proposes the humorous shorthand “IYI” (“Intellectual Yet Idiot”) to describe this layer of hapless intelligentsia. Yet the problem is hardly confined to the IYIs. For the IYIs once were not IYIs at all, but truly powerful figures, the initiates and oracles of the scientific and technological mysteries—acolytes of Truth, in a non-ironic sense that is hard to grasp today.

In their place, we see personality and will supplanting truth. The condition of truth ceases to be the intrinsic and inviolable state of some observer-independent Reality, but instead becomes a measure of one’s force of belief and dynamism of personality. Conversely, lying becomes what Trump has called “truthful hyperbole”; one does not “tell a lie”, but instead uses speech to express and rejoice in one’s sheer will—yet another of the satisfactions of the authoritarian.

The IYI may yet serve as Master of Ceremonies, the perfect useful idiot, helping to conjure forth the Ancient Ones in the name of a forgotten truth, just as the Jungian volcano prepares to erupt.