Interaction Effects: Human and Digital

How do humans communicate, emote, interact, and bond (or not) in the “Age of Digital Devises,” and what’s next? What, if anything, will be required of us in our “digital freedom”?

Often, it seems, the dog trains the master as much as the master trains the dog. Who is in control? Whenever we become involved with another, be it a person, a pet or a tool, certain obligations ensue, even if unconsciously. We have purposes and seek their achievement, but the means often become the end. When does a tool become an addiction? And, who is the dealer? Is this drug not such a thrill anymore? Well, here, I have another more potent.

Remember the PDA? (That’s the Personal Digital Assistant, for you really young ones.) It came along after the cell phone. But back then, a cell phone was still pretty clunky and didn’t do much else but communicate with other phone users. Gradually, the cell phone got smarter and eventually it was able to do just about anything a laptop computer could do, except serve up a large image display. So, why not a tablet, a clumsy marriage of the two? But, oh, it’s new!

So, where are we going with all this? What has anyone actually thought through, except on the sales side? Does anyone actually want to control and integrate her/his entire “digital life”? And what of substance do you want so carefully articulated? Do you really want all things known to your personal “devices” fully synchronized on the corporate “cloud”? Do you know how much electricity those server farms use? To whom does that matter?

Why not throw in the HVAC system with the garage door, your soon to be delivered self-driving car, Netflix account, and washing machine, along with your wearables, smartphones, laptops, and remaining desktops? It’s all out there on Facebook anyway, right? So, flesh out your full submersion into the “internet of things,” and help complete the circle of surveillance and control. But just remember, it won’t be just you who is doing the surveilling.

Texting while driving, eating, studying, working, just about anything ….texting-while-eating

Attaching identity to one’s device(s)…

Smarting the phone…

Computing the World…

Sharing every imaginary importance and all the unbounded unimportances of daily life… and to what end?  “No sé lo que significa,” as we say south of that imaginary WALL of expanded exclusion. Will your devices build bridges to beggars with mobile apps?

They thought radio and TV would ‘corrupt our youth.’ Then came the credit card, the computer, the cell phone, laptop, tablet, smartphone, and all the new wearable devices. Oh, we must not forget the pager and Blackberry! All that digital freedom, and nowhere to go… What is left to do in the actual world? Certainly not find a good job.

The whole sequence of digital-devise development, all the innovations in communication technology – if not content – have massively expanded the quantity of communications. We pay the NSA to store and search that swelling trivialized human database. Searching for tidbits legitimizes surveilling us all. We routinely contribute to increasing the indeterminacy of meaning, while also expanding central control, which, of course, optimizes opportunity for tyranny.

A whole new universe of meaning is emerging out there as we enter the New Great Transformation of how humans must relate to the world and each other if our species is to survive. It is not so surprising that most of us have not yet noticed the urgency of the lives we have digitally forgone.

Is that a fork in the road just ahead, or is it a dead end? Look up from your screen; it’s going to be a wild ride.

PS: I wrote this on my iPhone.

The “Jobs” Illusion(s) and the Work We Must Do

Politicians love to talk about “job creation.” They wallow in social illusion in order to appear to care about the economic future of the people and the nation. At the same time, they pander to the interests of job destruction, whether through automation, international outsourcing, or simply unlivable wages. At the same time, they facilitate the financialization of an empty uber-economy, producing vast sums of phantom wealth for their benefactors on Wall Street.

Political Economy of Job Loss

Many of the jobs lost in recent decades in the U.S. are due to mobile corporate capital seeking to exploit immobile pools of desperate labor in any country where wages are cheapest. The international trade agreements the pandering politicians promote, enable the mobility of corporate capital seeking to exploit cheap labor abroad. They override worker protections as well as restrictions on environmental pollution. Above all, they nullify national sovereignty over such matters of domestic policy by ceding authority to international corporate tribunals. As with other job losses due to automated production, we often hear that “those jobs are never coming back.”

One of the core values held by corporations has always been to reduce the costs of labor and materials in order to increase profits. Nobody should be surprised at that. It is an almost natural part of doing business. However, achieving business success does not require a corporation to refuse its employees a livable wage. Consider Walmart and Costco. Walmart grew to be one of the largest most profitable corporations in the world by squeezing the wages of its employees to the point where many are on food stamps. (Its purchasing power allows it to squeeze its suppliers with similar ruthlessness.) In effect, the American taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s profits. Costco, on the other hand, pays its employees a living wage with benefits. The difference in energy and cheerfulness between Walmart and Costco employees is obvious to anyone who visits both stores.

What Infrastructure?

Politicians also like to trumpet our need to “rebuild the nation’s infrastructure,” primarily its decaying roads and bridges. Trump emphasizes the need to modernize U.S. airports. I suppose he wants executive lounges at our international airports to emulate the decadent opulence of Trump Towers.

old-bridge

Old Infrastructure,  Paradigm Lost.

The hard-to-imagine “president elect” offers programs that would subsidize the construction industry work already ongoing, rather than directly fund new public infrastructure and infrastructure repair.

Rarely mentioned are dilapidated schools or poor teacher pay. Politicians love to characterize teachers as overpaid, lazy, and arrogant. Nevertheless, the education of America’s youth is one of the most important forms of infrastructure I can imagine. In other industrialized nations, especially in northern Europe, teachers are highly respected and well paid. Their focus is on the well being of students. Student learning consequently rises far above that common in the U.S. Should we be surprised? Education, if the heavy administrative overburden were eliminated, could be a relatively carbon neutral investment in the future.

Enter climate change. The heating of the earth’s atmosphere due to ever-growing emissions from two hundred years of burning fossil fuels continues producing now obvious catastrophic consequences. Yet political resistance and denial prevail. We ignore much of our own participation in the production of carbon emissions due to a number of complex social psychological forces.[1] The politics of short-term economic interests encourage denial and ignorance in attempting to continue on the path of fossil-fueled affluence. It follows from facing the hard facts of climate disruption that a new great transformation of the entire global economy is necessary. That is the most massive transformation of infrastructure imaginable. It is a leap into the relatively unknown. By comparison, the current talk of “rebuilding America’s infrastructure” seems as trivial as it is misguided. It seriously misses the mark when it comes to the infrastructure work that we must do.

The Climate Crisis and the Work We Must Do

Right off the bat, we might ask why such a benign sounding term as “climate change” has dominated any discussion. First, it was global warming. Then Senator Inhofe held up a snowball in Washington, D.C., as if that proved that global warming was a hoax. Gradually climate change became the dominant term. When I had used the term “climate disruption” a couple of years ago, a Sierra Club activist told that they too preferred “disruption” because “change” did not convey well the reality of climate impacts. I now prefer “climate destabilization,” which seems an even more accurate way to describe the effects of industrial civilization on climate systems. The new world of unstable climate systems requires a new paradigm. “Rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure” merely affirms the old paradigm.

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Wind Turbines in Holland, 2016

The science is undeniable, yet politicians routinely deny it in favor of providing political cover for the economic interests of their biggest donors. Those donors, of course, are the very corporations that extract and emit the carbon that warms the atmosphere and destabilizes global climate systems. The same politicians favor reducing corporate taxes and the taxes on the highest incomes, as if the income tax system were somehow abusing those powerful special interests.

The share of taxes paid by the largest corporations and the super-rich has steadily declined ever since the 1950s. Back then, taxes on corporations and the very rich were much higher, the economy was robust, and the national debt was small. In fact, the power elites get away with not paying anything near their “fair share,” as the nation’s infrastructure crumbles and the national debt grows.

Meanwhile, as politicians cling to their old paradigm and its corruption, the nation’s most urgent infrastructure need goes almost entirely unnoticed, rarely mentioned, and routinely denied. Yet, the facts require us to take action now to re-stabilize the climate systems upon which human life depends. We cannot afford not to take drastic action now. We must redirect the nation’s wealth to transform the economy from carbon excess to carbon neutral and to recapture carbon. We must be rapidly reduce net carbon emissions to less than zero by re-establishing ecological systems of carbon storage – tropical forests, for example – not by industrial illusions of “geo-engineering” symptom suppression while denying the root problem.

Deniers distort the uncertainty about the exact location of particular individual effects of global warming. They falsely claim that scientists do not really know whether climate change is real and/or “man-made.” The science of CO2 is long standing, never challenged until it became politically expedient to do so. The global climate system is extremely complex, making it far more difficult to predict an individual weather event than to document the overall trend of increasingly extreme weather, rising seas, and melting glaciers. They use variations in weather to deny the overall trend of increasingly severe droughts, floods, and storms that already disrupt climate cycles and agricultural production.

The short-term economic interests of the most powerful institutions and individuals in the nation prevail. In fact, we need institutional support to build out carbon neutral infrastructure rapidly. It has become extremely urgent, yet political decision makers largely ignore the issue. If ever a massive “jobs program” were possible, we could easily create it by executing a national economic policy of replacing all fossil-fuel based energy systems with new carbon-neutral systems of energy production and use.

Think of it. Stop production of all fossil-fuel burning cars. Build out a national network of electric vehicle charging stations while ramping up electric car production. Require all consumer products to be carbon-neutral, with temporary exceptions where life and health require them. Replace all coal and natural gas burning plants with solar and wind electricity generating systems, which are already more cost effective. Stop all natural gas and oil fracking operations; their total carbon pollution rivals that of coal.

Job losses? Well, they would be trivial in the oil industry compared to the job creation involved in the transformation to carbon neutral energy production and use. Yes, many people would have to change occupations, move to another location, and re-tool some skills. But that has always accompanied economic change. Are we not that resilient?

Continuing on our current path of carbon emissions will lead to a 4-degree Centigrade increase in average global temperatures above pre-industrial levels in the next several decades. That will be extremely catastrophic, resulting in societal collapse and may well also lead to human extinction. The UN agreements set a 2-degree limit, while acknowledging that 1.5 degrees is probably necessary. The actual “commitments” of the signing nations did not even reach the 2-degree Celsius target. The only conclusion I can reach from all this is that the people, where we live, must mobilize ourselves and begin the work that we must do. We must also pressure the institutions that are now obstacles to redirect their destructive policies toward the well being of people and planet. This is beginning to happen at places like Standing Rock, where the destructive forces of extractive capital directly threaten people. We must all find our own Standing Rock. Social movements create their own jobs. So little time, so much to do.

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[1] George, Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It: why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) provides a wealth of information on the scientific basis for understanding the tendency to ignore or deny the overwhelming facts of climate disruption and its catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

The Greatest Challenge Ever to Human Ingenuity

We usually think of innovation as creating new technologies to solve problems or improve some industrial process, or invent new products. Throughout the Industrial Age, economic growth and productivity have resulted from innovations in the production of goods and services. The integration of new technologies with labor and new energy sources, first coal, then oil, and later nuclear power, resulted in rapid development. Cheap energy has been so plentiful in the industrial nations for most of that time that we have been comfortably complacent, assuming its permanence.

But now, the fossil-fuel driven growth economy has just about run its course. Resource depletion, overpopulation, over-consumption, financial crises, and peak everything leave little room for the continued economic expansionism on which social stability has been based for over 200 years. On top of that, the ultimate planetary limits imposed by accelerating climate disruption call upon humanity to innovate in heretofore unimagined ways.

One of the standard rationales used by business elites to argue for special tax breaks and subsidies is that they are needed to stimulate innovation. Even the Banksters throw up the idea that “financial innovation” will stimulate investment and job growth, to justify avoiding public regulation. They manipulate markets and sell fraudulent derivatives to pension funds and municipalities. Their overextended speculations caused the world banking crisis of 2008-9, from which we still suffer. It will happen again without real controls in place. That kind of innovation we can do without. Yet Attorney General Erik Holder cowers before the power of Jamie Diamond, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, one of the biggest offenders and one of Wall Street’s most powerful firms. Crime without punishment.  These are artifacts of a corrupt and dying system.

Of course, looking at the actual cases of innovation and ingenuity in the real world of business, technology, or social sectors, which lead to actual benefits to society, we see a very different picture. Innovations come from the creativity of persons in situations. In contrast, financial manipulators operate in an abstract electronic environment. Some people are quite ingenious in creating new ways to acquire money. But money does not cause real-world innovation. Today, the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced calls for ingenuity and innovation of a completely different kind at a much grander scale than even the financial elite can imagine.

The Challenge
This time, a huge dose of human ingenuity is required by the rapid emergence of extreme circumstances. Yet, the elements of this crisis of humanity are barely recognized and are mostly seen as a vague future threat. Major innovations at scale are needed because of the severity and urgency of the need for massive collective action to abandon fossil-fuel and create an unprecedented societal transformation to reset our relation to the earth systems on which we depend for life.

Awareness is a very big challenge. We do, after all, live in a bubble, experientially quite isolated from the natural environment. Consider the overwhelming inundation of our senses by the images and symbols of consumer culture – from inside the bubble. Being “connected” has become both an essential resource and a source of endless thought-numbing consumerist propaganda. The total effect of nearly universal engagement with mass media is to shape much of the consciousness and beliefs of most people most of the time. That consciousness is closely tied to the fossil-fueled growth economy and its needs.

The one critical benefit of social media is what may remain of “net neutrality.” The Internet has been a major resource for the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Arab Spring movement, and the Peoples Climate Marches. These all indicate a broad awareness that something is very wrong. Naturally, social media venues are targets for corporate control, even though the Internet was created by government and universities funded by the taxpayers for public purposes. But social communication will be critical resource in shaping the new transformations required for human survival as environmental and economic disturbances accelerate in response to the climate disruptions that are already inevitable. Only if we are able to develop rapid methods for changing the relationship of human economies to energy systems will the great new challenge be met.

Ingenious Innovation
The 1% of the “1%” has a lock on the economic and political institutions. That is clear, and it is not about to change on its own. But as has been demonstrated in various historical examples, major social change can occur when large numbers of people recognize the problem and stand together in opposition to dictatorial regimes holding all the military power. We are not used to calling our government “dictatorial,” although various conspiracy theories seem to be on the rise. It is more accurate to view the new situation as “inverted totalitarianism,” as Sheldon Wolin describes it. A shell or façade of democracy is operated by the “deep state” (as former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren calls it) a plutocratic corporate-government institutional complex that works in its own interests, not the public interest.

In any case, the comprehensive transformation of society necessary to respond adequately to the crisis of rapidly destabilizing earth systems will not come from that entrenched corporate-state. Therefore it must arise from below. Many small local efforts are underway, from efforts to establish municipal solar utilities to public banking initiatives, but so much more is needed. We do have some examples of social transformation, but, as the title of Naomi Kline’s new book puts it so well, This Changes Everything.

Every situation is different – especially this one. Today contrasts with the familiar examples of the Collapse of small societies detailed by Jared Diamond. The problem of likely societal collapse due to environmental destruction at present is planetary. System failures caused by human actions can only be fixed by human action. Looming earth-system failures can only be fixed by community actions all over the globe involving innovative ways to quickly withdraw from the fossil-fuel energy systems and create ingenious non-destructive ways of life. That may be the greatest challenge to human ingenuity ever.

Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part II: Infrastructure of an Ecological Economy

Almost everyone agrees that much of America’s infrastructure (highways, bridges, electrical grid, power plants, etc.) is in desperate need of repair or replacement. Economic ideologists of corporate “free enterprise” oppose public investment as they attempt to drive corporate taxes to near zero. Nevertheless, we must find a way to move beyond these old powerful forces and ask the more important question. What infrastructure? Here is where we must part with the economic ideology of general “growth” as the answer to every economic problem. Climate disruption forces economic policy to be driven by the immediate need for carbon-neutral infrastructure.

Ecological Energy Production
First and foremost, we must radically reduce carbon emissions to reduce the effects of greenhouse gases. If we don’t, climate chaos will soon turn into economic and social chaos. Simply repairing existing infrastructure would add a lot of carbon and stimulate more carbon-producing activity. Under current conditions, almost any construction or reconstruction process would worsen climate disruption because it relies on fossil-fuel energy. To develop “carbon neutral” industry or products will inevitably involve some carbon emissions too. The only way to minimize that is to go to the root of the problem: energy production. Some predict that within two or three years, half of automobile production will be electric cars. Great. But if the energy to produce them continues to be from coal-fired power plants, well, not so great.

So, in considering the upgrading of U.S. economic infrastructure, the first priority must be to convert energy production from burning fossil-fuels to the proven renewable energy sources: solar, wind, and to a lesser extent, geo-thermal technologies. Hydro-electric generation is great, but there is little opportunity for it. To be clear, nuclear power is a non-renewable, highly expensive and dangerous, and an economically futile path. That is why neither big investors nor big insurance companies will touch it without government guarantees and subsidies. For an ecological economy, nuclear power is simply off the table.

Strong Systems: Distributed and Human Scale
So called “economies of scale” are over-rated. At a certain stage in the industrializing era, bigger factories that took advantage of labor-saving technologies were more cost-effective. But beyond a certain point, returns diminish and size becomes a burden. The power grid is a good example. The big investor-owned utilities have profited from their monopolies — by law, not by efficiency. The giant electric grid with long transmission lines is very inefficient and vulnerable. Now, “smart-grid” technology is available and can better manage a grid, reducing waste. But size is still a problem.

Systems analysts have long known that the larger and more complex a system, the more vulnerable to disruption it is. Smaller self-sufficient power grids, interconnected for backup, are much more reliable, efficient, and defensible. With today’s advanced science and technology, small local systems have advantages that were not available to small tribes and communities of the pre-industrial world. Today, large complex systems are vulnerable to climate chaos, terrorist attacks, and internal system failures, not to mention internal corruption.

Whether it’s power grids, industrial production, food production, or other economic activity, small local systems are the most effective. But they are strongly resisted by powerful existing institutions. The problem, of course, is that the entire trajectory of the industrial and industrializing worlds has led to centralization and gigantism. Concentration of wealth, income, and political power in the hands of an integrated power elite has been the result. This has prevented the establishment of a rational economic policy to serve the public interest. Distributed power, whether electrical, economic, or political, conflicts with the interests of the power elites. Yet, this is exactly what is needed to not only respond effectively to climate chaos, but to establish viable economies for human societies.

The Hard Part: Achieving an Ecological Society
The power elites have a firm grip on the existing national economic and political institutions. That is clear. That renders electoral politics nearly moot for effecting sufficient change quickly enough. In the little time left before climate disruption engulfs the world in economic, political, and social chaos, radical changes are necessary. Any time extreme changes must be accomplished in a short time, a lot of unknowns arise. Uncertainty breeds anxiety. Anxiety causes resistance. Add in all the corporate propaganda and political stagnation is a likely result. That is the state of the national political scene today; not so, local communities.

Despite all the denial propaganda, many people are directly experiencing the immediate impact of the initial stages of climate disruption. Drought, floods, extreme storms, and other extreme weather events are confronting people’s lives directly. Awareness is rapidly growing. The U.S. may be lagging behind most countries in responding to the threat, but public awareness is catching up quickly.

An uncountable number of small groups all across the country are taking action in their local communities to spur adoption of solar energy, resist fracking, and establish community action networks to accelerate societal response to climate disruption, from the grass-roots up. That is exactly the last best hope for human mitigation of global warming and for adaptation to the effects that are already upon us. Part III of this essay will discuss the particulars of the localized political and economic actions that may bring about an ecological society.