Aesthetics Abandoned

One of the many drawbacks of living in the intermediated world of industrial consumerism is that we have pretty much abandoned aesthetics. Form and function are mostly industrial products too. Marketing psychology drives them, like almost everything else.

Diverse commercial and political interests present a pre-formed world to us on the flat digital screens of our many “devices,” from smartphones to laptops. Most of the time some “middleman,” either an institution or a technology, mediates between the person and her/his perception of the world and action toward it. The various institutional purveyors of images and text mediate (shape and frame) these forms to fit their needs by selling us some product or promoting some idea, project, or political strategy.

Alienated Beauty

“Beauty” is presented to “the eye of the beholder” pre-defined by an intermediary, or it may be lost entirely in the forms of intermediated function. We see little that is directly in front of us in its natural form. More and more control is no longer direct. Beauty is subordinated to control.

I have recently become much more aware of the importance of the fact that we live in an intermediated world. The sense that so-called “self-driving” cars fit in some inevitable path of progress is an iconic cultural indicator of the dominance of intermediation and the subordination of aesthetics to system control. The implications are many and in some cases profound, sometimes even deadly. Here is one example.

Increasingly Intermediated Aviation

In aviation, pilots now benefit from a plethora of real-time digital information and images on “Primary Flight Displays” (flat-panel screens) in the cockpit, including navigational data and even moving maps with three-dimensional terrain depiction. Pilots enter flight plans into a GPS (Global Positioning System), which links them to map data and current weather data regularly updated and depicted on a screen during the flight. The screen displays the current position and actual track of the aircraft over land including any deviation from the flight plan, in real time. These displays do have a certain aesthetic appeal.

Airliner above clowdsThe GPS transmits both flight-plan and current position data to the autopilot, which signals servos that control ailerons, rudder, and elevators, thereby directing the aircraft along the designated route. The pilot is reduced to a technician who programs the automated systems that actually fly the aircraft on a flight path determined mostly by the airline and the FAA.

That is the epitome of intermediation. The airline pilot is left with little to do but manage and monitor the system that flies the airplane. He does make judgments and may request from Air Traffic Control a deviation in altitude or direction to avoid thunderstorms or turbulence. Both the system-generated situational data and the flight systems intermediate between data, the actor, and the action.

Such complex systems diminish human control and the beauty of flying. No wonder so many airline pilots own old-fashioned biplanes or small experimental aircraft they fly when off duty. They miss the direct experience of flying lost in their professional work.  stearman-640x300Flying a Stearman PT-17/N2S Biplane is a Direct Experience

The complexity and power of intricate automated systems really are quite amazing. However, the separation of human action from direct experience has its downside. In the case of flying, airline pilots who often have the latest complex automated systems in their airliners can get “rusty” in the hands-on skills of directly flying the aircraft.

The problem arises when some system falters, whether due to mechanical or electronic failure or due to extreme weather. Over-reliance on automated systems in some instances has caused pilots to misread direct signs of an emergency, causing fatal crashes. Similar downsides occur in countless other areas of modern life.

Aesthetics is Experience

What about aesthetics in all this? Well, it is all about direct perception. The image is not the thing itself. The map is not the land. Maps, of course, provide guides to navigating the land, but the distinction is important. We can appreciate the beauty of the product of a fine cartographer.

We can even build some beauty into maps generated by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) using “big data.” We can even revel in the beauty and technical prowess of an automotive moving map display depicting our travel on unfamiliar roads as it leads us on the quickest route to our destination in unknown territory.

I have not nearly as much fun with the GPS in my pickup truck as I do with the one in my little airplane. In aircraft, most GPS units are far more complex, powerful, and expensive than those assisting automotive navigation. But the primary aesthetic experience, to the extent that there is one, is in the actual travel itself. Driving through a redwood forest in Northern California or flying over Monument Valley in Utah provides a direct experience of natural beauty. So does flying among puffy white clouds after a storm. Most pilots fly because they love the aesthetic experience.

However, our overreliance on technologies and institutions that mediate the relations between us and our world can cause us to crash, either literally or figuratively. We do have a tendency to see the map as the terrain itself. It is, after all, a substitute for looking out the window.

Too many people too often rely on biased interpretations of life presented to them by powerful institutions through technologies of so-called smart devices. They uncritically accept the intermediation of their life experiences through imagery specifically designed to manipulate their behavior, either for marketing or for political purposes. Perception and aesthetic interpretation increasingly alienate us from direct experience of life itself.

Losing Aesthetic Experience

Navigational equipment is just one of many examples of the intermediation of human action by powerful technology. Many other examples reflect similar conditions and outcomes, at least as many driven by institutional dynamics as by technology itself. In most cases, the technology or institution provides some useful function while diminishing our control.

So, don’t get me wrong; I’m not giving up my GPS. Some complex actions are not possible without intermediation. Yet, intermediation is a game changer in the evolution of human action and in the ability of humanity to mitigate or adapt to the planetary changes that the growth of intermediation has caused. We live in a system of our own making that largely controls us and is fast destroying the world on which we depend.

The same processes increasingly occur within complex institutions, whether corporations to government agencies. In more and more areas of human interaction, goals and actions are increasingly intermediated by complex procedures, paperwork, “red tape,” technical requirements, and bureaucratic obstacles, than ever before. The resulting loss of human control over action and events suppresses aesthetics as it destroys the world on which it depends.

The Apple Core: Machine Meets Fruit

I just bought an apple corer- peeler-slicer, a mechanical devise you attach to a counter top to core and peel apples or pears in preparation for canning or cooking. It is an interesting technology. It has multiple moving parts, and it is all hand-powered. It has no digital controls and it is constructed it entirely from metals. Only the pad at the end of the screw that holds it to the kitchen counter top and the crank handle are plastic.

Apple.Mate.3

It cores! It peals! It slices!   Photo: R. Christie

I suspect someone designed and patented it in the late nineteenth century and that the patent has long run out. I found no patent notice in the paperwork, or on the box, or machine itself. Oh, there is the “Made in China” label! Could I be less surprised? All that international shipping and it is still only twenty-eight bucks. I bought it at a local upscale cookery store.

You will probably not find such devises at big-box stores, which are only interested in mass-appeal items. Who now processes their own fruit? Besides, mass consumer culture demands that all appliances by digitally controlled and electrically powered. Some might consider my new gadget an archaic throwback. Surely, one could have designed an automated electricity-driven device to perform the same function without my hand cranking it.

But why?

Apple.Harvest

Our apple Harvest, 2017.   Photo: R. Christie

We have only a couple of fruit trees, one apple and one pear. Several years after planting them, they finally have begun to bear fruit, beyond the one or two seen in recent years until last year and this. Suddenly, in mid-summer we now face baskets full of ripe apples and pears. We have a wine and root cellar, so we can store the fruit for a while as we prepare to can and cook with what we didn’t give away to our friends. Last year, we peeled and cored by hand all the fruit we canned, using kitchen knives for the work. That proved immensely “labor-intensive” and time consuming, so we decided to mechanize the process this year, mostly to save time.

Innovation in technology has played a central role in driving industrial development and economic growth for the past two centuries. The invention of complex mechanical tools and devices allowed craftsmen to make many products efficiently by hand, without steam or fossil-fuel power in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Then came the steady onslaught of increasingly automated machinery driven by fossil-fueled engines or fossil-fuel driven electrical motors.

The latest innovations have achieved remarkable success in microelectronics and the miniaturization and acceleration of the speed of electronic technology in processing information. Computer Aided Design (CAD) feeds Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM), now implemented abroad, where the remaining needed human labor is cheapest. We see it everywhere. Automated information processing drives much of industrial production. Industry needs less labor and more intellect to produce more and more consumer products. Those products, in turn, involve more and more abstract engagement of the user with images and symbols built into the product. Products themselves are increasingly detached from the material world, although some involve more and more control at a distance, as in the case of drones.

We know deep down that this cannot last. We are rapidly reaching the material, ecological, and climate limits of fossil-fueled economic growth. Economic growth itself is near terminal. The road ahead requires massive downsizing of energy production, use, and waste. Those who adapt to the use of new as well as clever old technologies driven by human power for human use are far more likely to survive in relatively comfortable and interesting engagement with the real world than those who insist on living in an automated bubble of shrinking life expectancy.

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.

Capital Contradiction: The Fundamental Flaw that Dooms the Corporate-Growth Economy

The corporate cheerleaders of the last stages of the dying unlimited-growth economy still argue that “growth” is necessary for a healthy economy. The role of growth in our economic culture seemed secure, until the cracks in its foundation grew ominous. Now it’s a big question.

As the argument goes, capital growth spurs technological innovation, which will allow people to work less and enjoy life more. A happy prospect – as I remember it from the 1960s. Industrial technology certainly has reduced the amount of labor needed as a component of production. So much can be produced with so much less labor than before industrial and office operations were automated.

Is All “Growth” Good?
But what are the benefits of labor-saving industrial technology for people? Who works less and enjoys life more today? Not even the capitalists, but of course they are driven not by need but by desire. The rest of us mostly work more for less pay, just to make ends meet, if that. All the benefits of efficiency have gone to the power elites. Their concerted efforts since the 1950s have destroyed the unions. So, little leverage remains for paying workers a living wage.  People don’t work less – if they have a job – they just earn less for the work they do and usually work more.

One result of less and less labor needed per unit of production is that more and more gets produced. But since less and less labor is needed, fewer and fewer jobs are available for workers. The quantity of goods produced grows right past the need for them to be consumed.  As population grows, there are more people looking for work.  But there are not more jobs. Unemployment and poverty result from overproduction when workers have a smaller and smaller role in the economy. More and more workers, regardless of education, find little meaningful employment. Many become trapped as “wage slaves” in jobs with below-subsistence buying power. This is worsened by the ability of capital to seek the lowest wage labor internationally, while most workers must find jobs where they live.

Overproduction causes pressures for people to over-consume. Many of the goods produced are not really needed – they result from manufactured wants. Less understood is the fact that many people, being under-employed or unemployed, cannot buy them anyway. The consequent loss of demand for goods is a drag on production, further weakening the demand for labor. But behavioral manipulation through marketing can be very effective in spurring consumption, as long as buyers have money. So, with depressed wages, heavily marketed easier credit availability has encouraged many to consume “beyond their means,” especially for food and rent.

A Crisis Delayed
At the dawn of the “age of automation,” back in the 1960s, enthusiasts promoted the myth that people would need to work less and have more leisure time. But many feared that factory automation and office automation would take away jobs. The great economic expansion of the 1960s through the 1980s generated more jobs and the impact of automation was dampened and delayed. The dot-com boom of the 1990s further delayed the impact of computer-aided design, production, and middle-management functions on jobs.  Capital increasingly outsourced the labor it needed to China and other low-wage nations.

But as more of the well paid manufacturing and technical jobs were lost to automation and to international outsourcing, wages continued to be depressed. Left to its own devices, capital finds ways to reproduce itself. As buying power was lost due to lower wages, consumer credit and second mortgage requirements were loosened and these forms of debt were heavily promoted. Consumption was increasingly driven by debt rather than income.

As corporate lobbying took over Washington, business tax loopholes proliferated.  With loss of revenue, government debt soared too, right along with consumer debt. Without new economic growth and rising wages, debt service becomes an increasing burden. While the corporate economy grew, wages continued to flat-line or decline, leaving worker-consumers in an ever-growing squeeze.

The march of labor-reducing technology is always assumed to be inevitable and good. Yet, with “free markets” in labor and with capital able to move globally to find the cheapest labor, a severe imbalance occurs.

Half truths are sometimes just false. For the claims of a comfortable life with fewer hours of work to be realized, the entire organization of the economy would have to be revised. Money would have to circulate much more freely among all the people. The means of distributing income and wealth would have to be altered so that not all of the benefits of increased productivity go to the top 1%.

The Time is Now
What the growth cheerleaders ignore is that we have reached a tipping point where the power of capital over labor has caused extremely depressed wages and high unemployment-underemployment. So, consumer demand is depressed. That in turn discourages investment in production – corporations are now sitting on huge piles of cash, afraid to invest without consumer demand. Well, corporations need production of a lot of the objects of artificially created ‘wants’ that marketing has generated in order to boost sales and profits. But workers have lost the necessary buying power. It’s a dead end.

As a society, we can no longer afford to produce all that stuff the remaining middle class workers keep in a storage locker because there is no more room in the garage. We need appropriate production of the objects needed in a post-growth stable ecological economy. That will in fact require a complete overhaul of the organization of the economy.

The inevitability of economic progress, whether in the predictions of Karl Marx or the vision of Adam Smith, is and always has been an ideological flaw in the thinking of those who have a particular interest in economic history. Anything is possible and some possibilities are far more problematic than others. The old assumptions must go. Only an ecological economy can work now.  How we can make that happen remains to be seen.

Science and Our Sanity: We Need the One to Keep the Other

The world has become so complex these days that it is often hard to find solid ground to stand on. The barrage of all kinds of claims to the truth is unrelenting. Not only arguments of fact and complex detail, but subtle and not so subtle images of glory or destruction compete for our attention. Every manner of powerful interests attempts to influence our emotions as a way to get to our intellect. Images often have more emotional impact and exert more power than words do.

We are bombarded with, in Carl Sagan’s words, “pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.” Some especially egregious congressional apologists for ‘climate denial’ come to mind. But it is when we recognize propaganda and weigh it against the available evidence that we can retain our sanity and make reasoned decisions.

Marketing Democracy
Propaganda is everywhere. Marketing is its most pervasive form of ‘communication.’ Unfortunately, marketing is in part based on some fairly solid scientific evidence of how human beings can be influenced. Also unfortunately, the science of marketing has invaded the political arena in some very powerful ways. Nothing is off limits in the art and science of political persuasion. On top of that, the power of persuasion is exercised in extremely lopsided ways because of the accelerated impact of money on access to the channels of mass communications.

When money talks, democracy walks. When communication is controlled by a hierarchy of elites, democratic political deliberation is not on the agenda and is nearly impossible. Any debate that occurs is framed in the ideological terms chosen by the power elites. After all, they own the channels of mass communication. As U.S. society reaches unparalleled levels of hierarchy, communication is more and more controlled by the increasingly powerful plutocracy. No amount of ‘democratic’ formality can change that. Sheldon Wolin calls this “Managed Democracy,” with democratic appearing social formations which are actually controlled by the corporate state.

The congress has become the paid agent of the corporate elite. The cultural acceptance of directly observable political corruption never ceases to amaze. The pandering to corporate interests by both the congress and the Supreme Court is nearly grotesque. The president’s actions seem bounded by his obeisance to the Wall Street bankers who got him elected. It’s all such a tidy package.

The so-called ‘debate’ over the reality of anthropogenic climate chaos demonstrates the power of marketing over the power of facts. What is demonstrable scientific fact becomes politically debated by the crude application of pseudoscience and superstition. On top of that, crass rhetorical tricks and media filtration of information suppress even the most urgent real-world crisis. Interestingly, the recent surge of climate disruption all over the world, but especially in the U.S., has placed powerfully experienced facts right in the face of propaganda. When disruptive climate events become a personal experience, no amount of Koch brothers’ propaganda can override the factuality of damage to one’s farm, business, or household.

Science and Sanity
The powerful fossil-fuel corporate lobby will force congressional inaction and manipulate state legislators as long as it can. The petroleum-industrial-congressional complex would squeeze the last possible profits out of the petro-industrial era before being forced to change by the power of facts. If allowed, it would continue its insane course until the consequences bring down not just the whole economy, but threaten the survival of humanity. However, the evidence is now overwhelming and ordinary people can understand direct evidence of danger to them and their families. Threats to survival stimulate very sane responses, like paying attention to the science of climate change.

Years ago, Carl Sagan deplored the “decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media,” which constricts any meaning into 10 second sound bites. The result has been the blurring of facts with vague impressions and imagery, shaped for emotional impact rather than conveyance of information. Sanity may yet be saved by the direct experience of people. Although the U.S. education system has been ‘dumbed down’ for generations, the native intelligence of people cannot be overridden by propaganda in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Science shall prevail, and if it does soon enough, our sanity may yet survive.