The Essential Latour

“It would certainly be a shame to lose too quickly all the benefit of what Covid-19 has revealed to be essential. In the midst of the chaos, of the world crisis that is to come, of the grief and suffering, there is at least one thing that everyone has been able to grasp: something is wrong with the economy.”

“Underneath the capitalists are the workers, and underneath the workers are living things!”

For a quick, painless intro to the relevance of Latour to the moment, he recently did a Guardian interview.  Even better is this essay just translated into English.

Also the Gedankenausstellungen (thought exhibition) “Critical Zones“.

Nothing changes everything

There might be a scene where two people are casually talking; then, from some detail in the conversation, the characters suddenly comprehend each other’s true feelings. In that instant, action stops, actors freeze, and from stage left wooden clappers go battari! 

The two characters resume speaking as though nothing has happened; however, in the instant of that battari!, everything has changed. 

(Kabuki’s stop-start moments, described by Alex Kerr in Lost Japan.)

Continue reading “Nothing changes everything”

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?

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.

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.