The ambiguous dreams of the techno-optimists

“Here’s one of my scenarios.  Let’s say there comes a time when human consciousness is readily uploadable into digital form, virtualized and so on, and pretty soon we have a box of a trillion souls.  There are a trillion souls in the box, all virtualized.  In the box, there will be molecular computing going on — maybe derived from biology, maybe not.  But the  box will be doing all kinds of elaborate stuff.  And there’s a rock sitting next to the box.  Inside a rock, there is always all kinds of elaborate stuff going on, all kinds of subatomic particles doing all kinds of things.  What’s the difference between the rock and box of a trillion souls? The answer is that the details of what’s happening in the box were derived from the long history of human civilization, including whatever people watched on YouTube the day before.  Whereas the rock has its long geological history but not that particular history of our civilization.

Realizing that there isn’t a genuine distinction between human intelligence and mere computation leads you to imagine that future — the endpoint of our civilization as a box of a trillion souls, each of them endlessly playing a video game, forever.  What is the ‘purpose’ of that?”

  — Stephan Wolfram, in Possible Minds, 25 Ways of Looking at AI, edited by John Brockton.

What is the purpose indeed.

Let’s just say that I hope we don’t have to wait until we’ve uploaded ourselves into some kind of general artificial intelligence to ask what the point of all this is. What is the purpose of all of our civilizational striving, our technological competitions, our race towards AI? Is it technological enabled ‘immortality’? Do we really want to put our souls in a box? But is this not the telos that our civilization seems to have chosen – this strange sterile vision of a purified, virtualized selves somehow made incorruptible through information technology? Our powers of symbolizing, of turning life into symbols, are turned upon ourselves. Do we not already treat each other – with our social media and big data – as symbols to be manipulated for profit?

As Jeff Bezos is quoted as saying in defense of his Blue Origin space project in the New York Times: “‘We will run out of energy,” Mr. Bezos said. “This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen.’ At that point, to remain on Earth would require rationing and declining opportunities. But the rest of the solar system offers virtually limitless resources. ‘Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘This is an easy choice. We know what we want. We just have to get busy.’”

In other words, if we refuse to renounce the cult of growth and figure out how to live within the limits set by this planet in these humble, imperfect, contingent biological bodies, then ipso facto we must escape both bodies and planet in a technological rapture, more or less as described by Bezos and Wolfram.

Perhaps it’s just me but I don’t find these visions appealing. Nor am I convinced that such goals will bring the best ROI, if we must speak in such terms. Why are we allowing ourselves to be led towards goals (AI, space colonialism) that are, at best, questionable and by leaders who seem rather stunted in their understanding of the possibilities and purpose of Life on Earth?

Four Earthly Ways of Being

I was at dinner with four women a few weeks ago to discuss  protecting a nearby place of significance – what we would call a wahi pana.  It is a ravishingly beautiful spot: a hanging valley overlooking the ocean, with groves of ancient native trees, flowers, ferns, orange trees, ginger, and bamboo.  Most of the time there is a stream running through it, which, in this semi-arid district with its porous volcanic soils, is a wonder in itself.  Naturally, this spot so blessed by nature was inhabited and beloved by the kanaka maoli  – the native Hawaiians – for long centuries, until contact with the West decimated their population and nearly destroyed their culture.  More recently, in the last few decades, it has been a religious retreat site.  The Tibetan Buddhist philanthropists who currently own the land have other priorities on the mainland U.S. and so were talking of putting the property on the market.  It was feared that the land could fall into the hands of owners who would treat it in the usual American way and plop down a trophy house so as to command  the most sweeping view of the coastline.  This would be a gut-wrenching desecration of the tangible and  intangible qualities of the little valley. Continue reading “Four Earthly Ways of Being”

Life on Earth Day

Earth Day is a opportunity to think big, as big as a planet, to let our thoughts unfurl into the still lovely expanses of this earth.  It is a chance to remember our kinship, all our relations, to this extended family of ours, Life on Earth.  It is an opportunity to remember that the most essential thing about us is that we are alive, as animals among animals, connected to plants, winds and rain.  And to contemplate what an astonishing blessing and mystery it is to be alive on a living planet. Continue reading “Life on Earth Day”

Taiwan and the Taming of Trash

Taiwan is a small country on a large-ish island, much blessed by nature, but struggling with the impact of a dense human population and rapid economic growth. Returning, for the first time in  more than twenty years, to a country that I had lived in, off and on, for about a year, was most interesting.  When I was last in Taiwan it was in the throes of its “Asian tiger” phase, and now has become, at least according to the taxi driver that picked my daughter and I up at the airport,  much less dynamic.  In the best tradition of the Taiwan citizenry, our driver was not at all shy about criticizing his government vigorously and with considerable sophistication.

Taiwan, also called the Republic of China (ROC) as opposed to mainland China, which is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is always under more or less explicit threat of invasion or bombing by the PRC.  Taiwan’s leaders must  walk a thin line between asserting Taiwan’s right to exist as  a country, which assertion is backed, more or less discretely, by the US,  and provoking Beijing with too unequivocal and evident an existence.   Alongside the global geo-politics are the more local politics that  derive from waves of migration into Taiwan, with the indigenous  Austronesian people of Taiwan  having been displaced by successive sub-cultures of Han Chinese, as well as brief colonial occupations by the Dutch in the 17th  century and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Taiwan is fascinating agriculturally as it has admirably fertile, well-watered alluvial plains on its western coast, which are intensively farmed in small plots (by American standards) usually of only an acre or two – much rice, some taro, vegetables, and fruit orchards.  The excellence of Taiwanese plant breeding is a long-acknowledged fact in tropical agriculture circles.

Taiwan is a place that I found simultaneously delightful, disturbing and dystopian twenty years ago, and still find so, but for mostly different reasons this time around.   One thing that is not so different and, unfortunately, much worse is the air quality in Taiwan. There are many explanations for Taiwan’s terrible air quality, such as major petrochemical processing facilities with footprints in the thousands of acres,  large coal-burning electrical plants, trash incineration plants, the high tail-pipe emissions from the vast herds of scooters,  second-hand pollution from the factories in mainland China, and the fine dust blown up out of the river-beds in dry, windy weather.

On the plus side, I was astounded by their success in addressing solid waste – trash, basically – and in the cleanliness of the rivers and streams.  I have one unforgettably dystopian memory of Taiwan in the 1990’s, a scene glimpsed from the window of a bus –   a man wandering through a vast, burning wasteland of trash in the outskirts of Taipei as the sun struggled to rise through the smoke .  I also remember black, sulfurous waterways fouled with plastic trash, and the lovely white sand beaches of southern Taiwan littered by giant, surreal blocks of white styrofoam.  None of that now, at least that I could see on this quick week-long trip.  Quite an amazing feat, to change the everyday practices of everyday people so drastically, to effect social change so broadly, from big businesses to ordinary folks out in the country.   This has been done through sustained policy efforts  and clever design solutions over the last few decades that continue to evolve, energized by the demands of a politically active populace that demanded government action. Not only that but Taiwan  has developed an outstanding network of buses, metros, trains, and bullet trains.  Which is not to say that Taiwan has become an un-mitigated paradise – far from it –  but there is much to learn from their successes.

Last but not least, for all our taxi drivers critical comments about the stagnant economy, the incompetent government, and the worsening air pollution, there was in him and generally in the people of Taiwan a gentle pride in their country, a sense of collective responsibility for being kind to each other and of representing their country well that my daughter and I felt wistfully envious of and wished, of all things, that we could bring back to the US.

On Love and Barley

I’ve had little time to think and write of late, as many small crises converge – from a sick elder dog to local political struggles to broken equipment to minor family exigencies, but there are always moments of grace amidst the scurrying and chaos, and one of the moments was seeing this photo in the bathroom of my veterinarian’s office.  I immediately titled this photo in my head: The Richest Woman in the World.  She is a dignified elder of native Hawaiian heritage.  She is poor in material things – her house is old and ramshackle, there are no window panes and the foundation is buckling. This kind of house was and still is common in the area where I grew up – South Kona and Ka’u – although nowadays most such houses are either fixed up or abandoned and slowly falling down.   But she is rich in a boundless peace and a connection to the world around her, she is rich in that native heritage and community which is so deeply place-based and family-centered, and she is rich in the companionship of  her skinny but contented cats who sit at her feet amid the dust of her yard.   It reminded me of Basho’s haiku:

Girl cat, so/thin on love/and barley.

Guest Post: Living Like It Matters

SILVER LININGS IN THE VERY DARK CLOUD OF CLIMATE CATASTROPHE

Elizabeth West

We actually do not have all the time in the world, so I am going to be bold.  What you do after you finish reading this is your business and ultimately, that is exactly as it should be. We may all be facets of a larger Oneness, tiny sparks of the Divine dwelling in human form, but for the moment—allowing the potential truth of a larger connection–we are very clearly individuals, each with our own experience and outlook. We have our own ways of coping and to some extent, each of us charts a unique course through this life. We are often granted some choice about how we live and how we die, though most of us vastly prefer to focus on the former.  

Even there, we tend to let life happen, getting pulled from one urgency to another amusement without full consciousness of how we spend the time. “Where did the time go?” is a plaintive query, often-expressed. “Time flies!” When you are having fun, when you are busy, when you aren’t fully present.  Life happens to us  more often than most of us would like to admit.  But still, we can always meet it–our life—where we find it today and choose differently how we experience the flow of time, how we interact with the circumstances we have been given and crafted for ourselves.  Such is the beauty of being alive. Continue reading “Guest Post: Living Like It Matters”

Whiplash & the Breath of the Sea

Last week was tough in a way that I hadn’t expected.

I had two events to go to: the first, a climate change conference put on by our state’s climate change commission, and the second, an agricultural bank board meeting.  It was unexpectedly tough to think about the world  in such disparate ways within a few days of each other.  Tough to reconcile their differences, or not to reconcile but bear those differences when they were not reconcilable.  That was the hardest part and it took a toll on me.

There were two different visions of the world that undergirded these two different meetings, two different ideological positions that were the common, unspoken background of most of the attendees at each meeting, and two different set of blindspots. Continue reading “Whiplash & the Breath of the Sea”

Anima Monday

Happy New Year everyone!

I have been super remiss in not giving a shout-out to the amazingly talented folks at Anima Monday, which I like to think of as a sister-blog. (I’ve been super distracted, more on that later.)  I’m in love with all of them over there.  Go visit now!

This week they have posted an interview with Emma Restall Orr, whose book, The Wakeful World,  takes animism to the gladiator ring of Western philosophy in the Academy.  Not for the faint of heart, such an endeavor!  And Orr does it admirably, with heart as well as intellectual rigor.

But the contributors to Anima Monday are her equal in their wild, fierce, generous, and humble insights into what it means to live in this world, fully alive, fully present, and in love with life, in all its glory and pain.

Animists of the world unite!  🙂

 

The Shimmer of Life

I was there. I saw it one day, the shimmer – “the brilliant shimmer of the biosphere.” I saw it in leaves after the rain – later, in a fishes’ scales and an animal’s fur, in the iridescent skin of my own infant daughter.  I saw it and drank it in, in wonder and desire and gratitude.  Mostly wonder. 

Shimmer is what I care about.  I didn’t have a word for it until I read Deborah Rose Bird’s essay: “Shimmer: When Everything You Love is Being Trashed” in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet

Trees and stars are masters of shimmer, that is why trees are beyond value. 

You can’t know when it will come upon you, it’s like grace that way but more wild. Wild as any newborn, wild as any animal.  You know it is shimmer because it’s all that you can see (or hear or smell or touch or otherwise sense.) It’s more than you can sense – a revelation or a vision – but it’s just there in the fleeting moment and the ordinary thing that you passed a hundred times but now it is revealed to you as if it were the burning bush or the shining void.  Or the melody that the world is making that you hear and yet don’t hear. That is playing through you.  Or the smell of a memory that echoes through the rooms of time. 

Shimmer is the world being itself and for once you happen to be there with it.  For once, you see it. 

Yes, shimmer is love.  The appearance of love to a mortal being through some kind of miracle.  

And shimmer is what we stand to lose. 

****

Thank you to the indigenous people of Australia for their gift of shimmer, and to Deborah Bird Rose for carrying it into English. 

The Mushroom at the End of the World

How (capitalist) money and nature intertwine and bring multiple life-worlds into being is one of the themes of Anna Tsingʻs book on the matsutake mushroom, highly valued in Japanese culture and cuisine as a signal of autumn and a nostalgic reminder of the rural bounty of pre-industrial Japan.   Tsing, who teaches anthropology at UC Santa Cruz and at Aarhus University in Denmark, is part of a network of thinkers who are forging new ways to write about human interactions with nature.  Like the South American anthropologists associated with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, the Santa Cruz cohort centered around Donna Hathaway have built a framework that allows the conversation between humans and non-humans in making landscapes and worlds to be taken seriously in academia.  This is one step to making such thinking possible in the wider culture, rather than marginalized as the ravings of women and mystics  or backwardness of indigenous people and cultures.  Tsingʻs book, which has won numerous awards, is a lively and personal account of the people who interact with the matsutake mushroom, whether immigrant Lao or Mien mushroom foragers in the regrowth forests of Oregon, Yunnanese middlemen who use traditional ethnic ties to construct a supply chain, or the Japanese customers who relish the mushroom resonance with rural ways of life.  Tsingʻs  project is a study of the Anthropocene and “The Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet” (the title of her more recent edited volume) and the kind of “arts of noticing” and  thinking that she champions as so urgently necessary to  change the way we think about and relate to our world.