Monday, January 30, 2012

UN Tells It Like It Is

The world can no longer afford to ignore the environmental cost of economic growth and must redefine the very concept of national wealth, a UN panel of heads of state and environment ministers said Monday.
Link

Now, the UN is only the UN, but at least this will get some press. Please spread this as far as your circle of friends, online and otherwise, allows.

Once we recognise, across all sectors of society, that Perpetual Growth is a poison, and that our monetary system forces it upon us, we see clearly the depth of change necessary. I am for negative interest money, guaranteed income, expansion of the commons and open education (a deep revolution in education) as first steps to put humanity on a path which has the best chance of giving rise to a far more sustainable and socially healthy system. Such ideas need to be widely aired and discussed, but I think something like them will prove to be essential once we have accepted that Perpetual Growth is our primary problem.

I think this report is very good news.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Leader's Prayer

Our Leader, who’s art is power,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy nation come,
thy will be done
to us, as desired by power.
Give us this day our daily dose,
And forbid us all trespassing,
as we fear those who trespass against us.
And lead us not from addiction,
but surround us with evil.
For thine is the Nation, the Power and the Money,
for ever and ever.

Amen

Thursday, January 26, 2012

To Belong or Not to Belong, That is the Value

According to Tor Hernes, co-author and co-editor of “Autopoietic Organization Theory”, there is among scientists today a growing “desire to relax the demand on theory as a means of prediction, [ … to see theory instead] as a means of providing plausible explanations of evolutions and particular phenomena.”(My emphasis.) Plausible explanations of particular phenomena. In other words, we are asked to embrace uncertainty, or, less poetically, to accept that total exactness is impossible. Theory, or hypothesis, is a core component of the scientific method. To request that it need not yield totally accurate predictions, merely plausible predictions, is to question the efficacy of Falsificationism. In Falsificationism, a theory must be testable to be falsifiable. If a theory is not falsifiable—that is, if it cannot be proven wrong—that theory cannot be scientific. A theory asserting God created the world, or that luck is part of successful gambling, is not falsifiable for all sorts of reasons, and therefore not scientific. It can be neither proved nor disproved because it can make no accurate prediction. Thus, to soften this foundation stone is to soften science, to step away from David Hume’s admonition to consign the unmeasurable to fire:
“Let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames; for it contains nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
Hume, that ‘pragmatic’ philosopher, wanted nothing to do with fripperies such as love, or caring, or friendship, or luck, because such subjective experiences cannot be measured. The position is that if a thing cannot be measured, it cannot therefore exist. If it cannot exist, yet we think it does, it must then be an illusion. That in itself is a very strong assertion, a very aggressive theory, which, irony of ironies, is itself not falsifiable. For we cannot prove or disprove a theory that unmeasurable things cannot exist—we can’t measure them! So, Hernes’ soft-sounding request is evidence of a softening at science’s heart (albeit small evidence) I consider noteworthy and important. This is the deep background of this post.

The more immediate background is the ‘urge to belong’ Jeremy Rifkin cites as a primary human drive more fundamental to us than greed and selfishness. This is an interesting assertion, one I tend to agree with. However, it is not as controversial as it first seems, nor all that disruptive to current neo-Darwinian theory, since the urge to belong is likely an emergent property of being a social animal, which we humans most certainly are (even psychopaths ‘need’ a society to interact with, to feed on, and are darkly fascinated by our empathy, our rich emotions). Furthermore, the need to belong can be seen as the underpinning of selfishness and greed. For example, we may be producing hoards of unhealthily greedy and immaturely selfish people, simply because they feel like they don’t belong, strongly suspect society does not need them. This problem correlates closely with valuewhat do we value, how do we measure it, and how do we distribute what we have so measured (reward and punishment)? (Economics attempts to answer these questions.) But value is a subjective phenomenon impossible to measure (even with money), a delicious challenge which has been too far from our cultural mind for far too long. Economics is, in my opinion, the sequestering of richly subjective value assessments from the wider culture into the hands of the owners of wealth, where value has been standardised into money. And that process is one of the many consequences of elitism, which is itself, I suspect, an immature stage of human development which emerged from specialisation and humanity’s Ascent, its battle to control and master all of nature.

This post takes a brief look at these two phenomena, and ekes out a connection between them. To belong we must be valued, in some way, by the group to which we wish to belong. Do we need to accurately and explicitly measure value (money) in order to measure belonging, or can we have a far more open society (say, one built around resource-based economics) which thrives in the absence of an explicit and standardised measure of value?

Those like me, who hope for some form of anarchist/RBE (resource-based economy) world, are happy to see the urge to belong characterised as a stronger driver of human behaviour than competition, selfishness, or greed, since such a future mode would be built on cooperation and sharing. But, isn’t belonging a survival urge? We ‘belong’ when we are important to our group in some way, whether as a leader or entertainer or thinker or scientist or whatever; we feel we belong when what we contribute to our group visibly (this is subtly different from ‘explicitly’) helps it thrive and enjoy life. It is difficult imagining someone truly belonging to a group while being of no use to it whatsoever, contributing absolutely nothing. Always taking, never giving. We have to contribute to belong, and we need to belong. Can everyone everywhere belong to some group somewhere, be important to some people somehow? For the first time since our ‘primitive’ beginnings, I think so, and the Internet is key here, but—this is a huge “BUT!!!”—, not while money is our sole measure of value; money is just too crude and clumsy—air has a value of zero in money’s eyes, for example.

But regardless of our opinion on that, the urge to belong probably stems from the urge to survive, where, very importantly, the quality of survival is highly significant, ‘valuable,’ we could almost say vital. Humans aren’t really alive, when all they do is survive. And it is not only fear and scarcity fuelling the need to belong. Even though belonging to a group means better protection from the ravages of the wild, or the ‘safety in numbers’ principle of each relying on and helping the other, the question today should be, relying on each other for what, and to achieve what quality of life? That asked, is a quality-based inter-dependency of people constructively and sustainably binding? Could such an open and abundant society keep us healthily cohesive, when something vague and unmeasurable like quality of life is the implied reward and motivator, and not something immediate and palpable like blank survival? If existential angst were largely removed via technological development, could we humans cope with that much comfort, freedom of movement, absence of oppression? In “The Matrix”, the AI Computer Overlords construct a perfect virtual reality for their human slaves, but it backfires horribly. Entire crops are lost. Humans, concludes the AI machine, need misery and suffering to thrive. The film’s joke is funny, because we all have that kind of fear somewhere inside us. Things can be too good to be true.

In a full-on, Venus Project, resource-based economy, in which we “constantly maximise existing and future technologies with the sole purpose of enhancing all human life and protecting the environment” (Jacque Fresco), there would be close to no existential angst, certainly not for material reasons. Societal ‘interbeingness’ (to coin an Eisensteinian phrase), or interdependence, would be pleasure- and project-based, functionally speaking, not fear- and scarcity-based. We would not be meeting base needs like food and shelter by contributing and being important—such things would be available for ‘free.’ We would contribute to meet social needs like kudos, joy, belonging, reputation, respect. Our reasons for contributing, the manner in which we feel we make ourselves useful to some group or other, would be greatly different to today, where job and income are symbols and proof of our contribution to society. There would be new symbols for sure, but far richer, more contextualized, less fixed, less linear, than $, € and ¥.

Is all this a pipe dream? Are humans in fact unhealthily greedy and immaturely selfish 'by design'? Is it our ‘wiring’ makes us so? I say no, and one look at the Piraha or other ‘primitive’ peoples confirms this. We lived for hundreds of thousands of years without money-symbols of success and motivation, without ‘exact’ measures of value. All sorts of discoveries, such as taming fire, grain and beast; farming and metallurgy; specialisation; states, nation states and corporations; and elitism separate us from ‘primitives,’ but our genes are largely unchanged. These discoveries, these bio-social pressures, are recent phenomena on a biological time-frame. We are not ‘wired’ to be unhealthily greedy, immaturely selfish. Such are reasonable behavioural adjustments to environmental conditions.

(For the record, I do not think The Venus Project is going to flower as suggested by Jacque Fresco, but it does represent a powerful set of ideas, which brings into sharp relief the important questions of motivation and value. On the other hand, I do believe that our developmental arc is—if we seize this opportunity creatively—generally towards The Venus Project, or at least towards a recourse-based economics (no one yet knows what such a thing will look like), but the path thither (to use archaic language), should we tread it, will be Eisensteinian, or like this.)

Again, we are obliged to recall that we are social animals, not wolverines or tigers or trapdoor spiders, that therefore our social needs are neither weak nor ignorable. On a broader note, and by way of suggesting we are very flexible social animals, richly varied, I strongly suspect relationships—society’s glue—would necessarily be more supple; marriage would wither away, and blind loyalty—staying true to one partner, ideology, etc., no matter what—would be much rarer, perhaps non-existent. One consequence of this should be that Big Brother entities and institutions become impossible. The social soil suggested by the principles and trains of thought of resource-based economics could not be a breeding ground for systems of paranoia and control. Systems emerge from and are sustained by environmental conditions enabling them. They adapt to new environmental conditions, or die. Similarly, social systems emerge from and are sustained by an enabling social environment. Even institutional power to manipulate perception and paradigm via propaganda is not total, nor immortal.

If our general trajectory now (for sure a very turbulent one) is ever less economic activity for humans (this is key), and less disruptive susceptibility to vagaries of nature such as famine and drought (assuming the spread of all sorts of positive technological outcomes for a moment, including technologies like permaculture and wise management of commons), that trajectory will generate more ‘leisure’ time alongside an intelligently shared abundance. In such an atmosphere of abundance and ease, what pressures would be felt by people to acquiesce to group demands? Principally, the ‘inner’ (human-systemic) urge to belong, as shaped by the general sharing and cooperation of honest and transparent social structures made necessary by a new economic and environmental reality. Greed and selfishness would find new forms of expression. We would be ‘greedy’ for accomplishment, new adventures, stimulating challenges; ‘selfish’ in our support of those systems enabling and sustaining our quality of life.

If, on the other hand, our trajectory is forced towards generating ever more work and economic activity, a.k.a., the Pillage of Perpetual Growth, humanity will implode in the frenzy, and do deeper harm to ecosystems everywhere.

For my part, I believe there will be less and less economic activity for humans, less Growth—because of technological unemployment, falling population growth, the Internet, the death of consumerism, Open Source, global warming, soil fertility, water tables, and other such variables. Therefore, the RBE trajectory—‘high-tech’ style—seems the more logical … assuming sufficient, clean energy sources.

On energy briefly. After fossil fuels are exhausted, or become too energy-costly to extract, there are many who believe the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) humans enjoy will return to some 1.n to 1 ratio evident elsewhere in nature. Today, oil yields somewhere between 10-15 to 1. It yielded about 100-1 a century ago. If what awaits us is pre-fossil fuel energy, humanity goes ‘back’ to tilling the fields. Or, if we’re luckier, ‘forwards’ to permaculture. But I simply cannot believe an EROEI of 1.n awaits humanity after fossil fuels are no longer sufficiently available to us. Wind reliably delivers around 20, solar around 5 to 1 and rising, and new technologies promise more than that, including cold fusion (now re-branded as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) to make it more palatable). A steady state economics would need an EROIE about 10-1 (I dimly recall reading somewhere, but don’t quote me on that). Without consumerism; wasteful suburban sprawl; moronic Monday-Friday, nine-to-five work weeks; with intelligently designed cities, transportation systems, super-efficient housing, etc., our energy consumption would fall dramatically. (Far more troubling than energy are concerns like water and soil. These are not (quite yet) deal breakers, as far as I’m aware. Global warming might be.)

Obviously, I cannot know how all this pans out, but toying with ideas, encouraging critical thinking, discussion, and ‘independent’ study, helps us arrive at better ‘decisions.’ How ‘problematic’ is it that the urge to belong is ‘selfish?’ Well, taking care of that which takes care of us makes very clear sense. We are social. It therefore makes sense to take care of the society we cannot help but want to belong to. ‘Exactly’ how we do this, that devil in the detail, cannot be known. Ever. Even now. For who can explain exactly how it all works today, let alone in a distant tomorrow?

And is all this simply a new way of saying ‘enlightened self-interest,’ that tired, old chestnut? Have I just laid out yet another (updated?) take on Smith’s Invisible Hand? Perhaps. But a new perspective on, or perception of, an old devil helps sometimes. We don’t snap over to completely new ways of being, we slowly and disjointedly transcend, or emerge from, current ones. Maybe the market doesn’t take care of business, but ‘enlightened’ or long term self-interest might make a better fist of it, as money is demoted, and wealth (real value) promoted. Somehow. Ditto embracing uncertainty. How does that really work? How do we bring that into science? Again, I don’t know. Somehow, there is always a mystery ingredient X involved. When you plan, you cannot cross all the Ts and dot all the Is in advance, and know, 100%, you’re right. X was, is and always will be.

In conclusion, I believe we are in the midst of a sweet irony. It is science and its methodologies which have yielded the potential wisdom to ‘return’ to far more ‘anarchic,’ far less state-run, social systems; federated communities interconnected with Internet and database management technologies. But, we will only plant our feet firmly on that path, after we give up on the religious dogma that only the measurable exists. Money is the conduit between the two, since value—which money purports to measure—cannot be measured. I find it absolutely fascinating, and detect here the poetic mind of god at work, that money—a symbol measuring the unmeasurable as economics struggles to be ‘scientific’—stands between us and our continuing development, and that a softening of science’s heart can help light the way.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Franz Hörmann on the Future of Money and Politics

It’s been a while since I translated any Hörmann output, so I thought I’d raise his profile a little once again, not because his profile or anyone else’s is important, but rather because the idea-domain he represents is gathering focus, generating momentum—at least, it strongly seems that way to me. It’s not that this or that person is totally correct, it’s that we all contribute, bring ourselves to the game, learn, teach, change, compromise. This takes time, discussion and effort. What Hörmann does particularly well is get across fresh perspectives quickly and incisively. He commands a broad landscape too, does not just speak from the position of an economist or sociologist, but rather as a human fascinated with all of reality, imparting what he has learned in as open, fresh and engaging a way as he is able.

There’s also though—in direct contradiction to my above assertion that the idea-domain Franz Hörmann, Charles Eisenstein, Peter Joseph, Jacque Fresco and others represent is coalescing, finding form—an apparent period of retrenchment, stability, business as normal, now taking place, which, somewhat eerily in my view, has been emanating from the mainstream these last few weeks. This is probably just me, but the world feels strangely fragile, on tenterhooks, as if it daren’t breathe too loudly for fear of waking the now slumbering monster under the bed. The markets are happy enough, with the Dow having achieved close to it’s highs of pre-August, prior to the 20% mini-crash that began in mid-summer. Europe limps on, bowed but not defeated, Japan floats above its floor somehow, UK markets vibrate robustly enough between US and European crises, while China continues to defy every doom-laden prediction hurled its way. Brazil, India, Russia and Argentina are also keeping up appearances pretty well. And Iran has not yet been attacked. At least not with bombs. Good stuff, I suppose. But it all feels very staged, troubled, fake, and hollow. The vital juice has run dry. Everything and everyone is a nervous paper tiger, wondering when the first rip will show.

Hörmann boldly predicted the end of the money system last year. It did not happen. At least, it did not happen in a way we can all agree on. My feeling is that the entire financial system is indeed broken beyond repair, that TPTB’s ability to lend it the mechanical appearance of life is itself evidence of this breakdown. Enormous amounts of money have been poured into the markets’ cup, given to the speculators to keep their game going, so the bewitching lights of the casino can twinkle on. Yet we know money is not air, not water, not food, that so-called ‘efficient markets’ do not deliver as advertised. We are in a twilight zone, an unreality, a post-dream fog we dare not disturb. Of those tasked with keeping this system ‘functional’ a while longer, then a bit longer than that, then just another minute or two, not one wants out of bed and into the work of building the new. In this lull, this eery hush before the storm, Hörmann is quietly putting together a political party, in Austria, with various scientists, to try and create a platform for introducing their ideas to a wider public. Part of that process is conducting interviews then posted on YouTube. What follows is excerpts from one of the most recent (recorded in Vienna on 19th December 2011).

Interviewer (I): You predicted a great crash which—and I don’t know whether to say ‘shame’ or ‘thank goodness’—has not happened yet. Your thoughts on this?

Franz Hörmann (FH): Well, that’s a good question. Did it really happen? It’s a question of how we define what we mean by ‘crash.’ The Euro, for example, still exists in its current form today only because the German Constitution and the Treaty of Lisbon and other agreements have been transgressed. The rules have simply been ignored. When we say ‘currency,’ we’re talking about a set of rules, with a particular priority which gets ranked one way or the other. Then there’s constitutional rules, and international rules, which have their own ranking. Then the question is, which is more important? Do we see the Treaty of Lisbon as more important than the Euro? Or, do we say the continuation of the illusion of the Euro, as a set of rules, is more important to us than some treaty that represents the people, then transgress there? Had we upheld the German Constitution and the Treaty of Lisbon there would be no more Euro in its current form, and we would have had a ‘crash.’ So it’s a question of how we define ‘crash.’ Politicians, and those who control—or think they control—the money system, take ever more ridiculous measures—for example falsifying national economic data and similar tricks—just to keep the illusion, the facade of a functioning money system going, for the people, or a tiny group of the people who benefit particularly well from it. But it’s as plain as day that this will lead to ever more absurd outcomes, and that this can’t be kept going much longer. The next question is how the broader public will take all this. The longer we draw this game out, the more absurd, the more grotesque the ‘crash’ will be.

[snip]

I: Aren’t you worried that a [political] party of scientists will be inaccessible to the broader public, a public which has not studied to the same level?

FH: Not at all. We’re pulling representatives from all social classes on board with us. One fundamental aim we have is creating a new form of language whose ‘job’ it is to help bring together the now divided classes. [Earlier in the interview Hörmann singles out the different way in which the different classes communicate as a fundamental societal problem, citing ‘information asymmetry’ as an ‘economic good’ generating profit, a term other members of society think of negatively as ‘deception’ and ‘fraud.’] This is a key goal of our political movement. One part of that will be psychological rehabilitation, healing our wounds. Regardless of which social class we come from, we come with wounds and a fixed sense of who the Enemy Other is. This has to be healed, transformed, and this has to happen with the help of specialist psychologists, who can help us heal our sense of injury and forgive those we see as our enemies. Only thereafter will it be possible for society to work cooperatively. We already know a deep level of cooperation is possible, as Open Source is showing us the way here.

[snip]

I: How can you prevent corruption and cynical manipulation of the new system, seeing as such an enormous network will have to be computer-controlled to a large degree?

FH: In the new system, money has a different function, and cannot be anonymously exchanged between people, or companies, or institutions, etc. Such will no longer be possible. All exchanges will consist of a plan, a contract and a process. And plan, contract and process are parts of the same data structure. Each person is connected to this data structure via a unique identifier, and a person can only complete a process if the corresponding contract authorizes them to do so, and contracts can only arise if they mirror the [mumbled]. The whole thing is self-organizing, tightly interconnected, so it’s simply impossible, on a whim, to exchange some enormous money amount, anonymously transfer money somewhere... That just doesn’t make sense any more. [This is a very quickly spoken section, and, as the interview was conducted in a bar, there is plenty of loudly recorded background noise interfering too.] And for the daily needs of the people, we’ll set up, as quickly as possible, a comprehensive guaranteed provision, not income, since an income means we’d be furnishing people with purchasing power. Guaranteed income would be injections of purchasing power into an economy which might not be able to back it [i.e. it would be inflationary]. Obviously we want to avoid a consequent raising of prices by companies. We must, therefore, ensure price stability with regulated prices, by democratically deciding, within this system, to increase the production of required goods and services, and not raise prices, where demand is higher than supply. And in this rather careful manner, we can protect the people, then, in the next step, we can attempt to allocate resources optimally. Today we don’t have this at all. We have sub-optimal resource allocation, because the finance sector—which, in truth, contributes the least to society—is able to assign to itself ownership of the majority of the resources, and not, for example, to workers.

I: Isn’t there a danger that we’ll just be creating some monstrous Big Brother state, monitoring our every transaction and economic move?

FH: If we monitor everything, we have to be careful about who is doing the monitoring. When ‘democracy’ monitors itself, in a social network, monitoring then makes sense, because it prevents abuse. That should be our goal. It prevents abuse and, by extension, exploitation. Just think about the children forced into slave labour in Asia. That sort of thing would be flat out impossible in such a social network. We can only produce on the basis of democratically reached decisions. [I just want to point out at this stage that Hörmann realizes there is a danger of the tyranny of the majority over the minority; a deep revolution in education is the most important aspect of his project. Without the correct educational soil, everything he proposes is impossible.] Democratic decisions aren’t set in stone, are not laws made permanent because they are written down in hundreds of pages, they exist electronically as a database, a ‘rulebase,’ from which the contracts are generated. Thus it is impossible for the contracts to transgress the principles giving rise to them. This security concept is absolutely vital to the project. That is, rules will be decided in electronic form, with everyone’s contribution involved, small groups (areas) at a time [very mumbled section, and a machine makes a loud noise at this point], [guessed: in pyramid-like form, decisions pulled upwards…], or you can cede your decision to an expert you trust, as in the ‘liquid democracy’ concept… There are so many possibilities in this area we must experiment with, develop, to find out what works best. But this is an exciting new area. For the first time in history, we have the opportunity to make all laws transparent and simple to understand, to ensure that contracts cannot be transgressed. We actually have the requisite technology for this today, so we must take this opportunity to bring it about. This kind of opportunity doesn’t come around very often!

To transcend the foreseeable need of the people, we propose founding a democratic national bank, which would create money out of thin air, against its capital; a legal tender money with purchasing power for particular purposes democratically decided. That is, only on a scale and for purposes which are democratically legitimated. Because the bank’s capital will be distributed to the people, the bank furnishes the people with their purchasing power. Then, of course, the amounts in circulation must accord with the amount of goods and services available, so as to prevent inflation and deflation. This implies the price mechanism must be included [in the design]. If we want to take care of everyone, we take care too of businesses and business owners, who are no longer to be driven by the profit motive of today’s paradigm. On top of this we have the guaranteed basic provision, and we’ll also be able to, if necessary, distribute luxury goods in other ways, albeit with cooperative principles, not competitive. With cooperative practices, we can more rapidly render disliked work superfluous. [I suspect he’s talking about automation here.] We'll have first to apply ourselves most to those jobs no one wants to do, make ourselves redundant, as it were, for which successes we can reward the ‘guilty’ parties, and free many more to pursue other, more enjoyable careers in which they want to work harder, contribute more, thus benefiting society more.

Long-term, we could build a system in which a backend manages the resources, and only at the front end, at the user interface, would money be used (though it wouldn’t look like today's money). One day, perhaps there’d be no more money at all. Even in today’s system, money is, seen in a certain light, a user interface between person and society. When I do something for society, I earn money. When I want something from society, I pay money. Money is thus a user interface, and a user interface can be personalized! In our proposed system, we will, with the help of trained psychological assistants, be able to create, for everyone, an individual money system which corresponds to that person’s psychological development and stage of life. Whether he or she wants to [mumbled] and doesn’t need to buy that much, or if he or she selects some super qualification to take, they’ll be protected and financed by society, since society knows it is benefited by those it usefully supports.


And that’s enough from me (Toby). The interview, as I said, was conducted in a bar. It’s been very arduous trying to make sense of the various mumbled parts. My brain hurts. Obviously these are fragments of a much larger and very comprehensive programme of ideas, but I think there’s a benefit from such a fragmented presentation to the non-German speaker, in that we are forced to do more of our own thinking when there are gaps to fill in. Asking questions, trying to answer them via discussion and argument, is far more educational and constructive than being asked to follow, with 100% loyalty, some pre-written formula handed down to us by some Great One. As I argued in my recent post, we get the system we deserve. To deserve a better system, we have to build it. Obviously. And want to. And know how to (at least, have a good idea of how to). Hence, Hörmann’s ideas, even in bits and pieces, should (hopefully) encourage thought and debate, not blind loyalty, and, for those interested, inspire further learning and research.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

On Interest, Cyclicality and Sonnets

More nuance today from the man who likes to drive his readership to distraction with prevarication and belligerent fence-sitting. Confession: I am no conviction politician. I believe there are alternatives, even to the alternatives. TINA (There Is No Alternative) can go hang. Which is of course conviction of sorts, but I remain widely open as to implementation and evolution of the new, not to mention being something of a moral relativist.

In that vein, you are today to be treated to a kind of homage to the dying system I have spent so much of my time and energy battling and critiquing these last years. It was a damn good system in many ways, particularly at driving growth, and at generating and sustaining elitism (which has been mostly appropriate for this ‘post-primitive’ portion of the human journey). Nothing which flourishes out to the global scale and produces the degree of cohesion it produced can be called utterly defective, even considering its rapacious heart, its sociopathic soul, its inflexible limbs, its machine-like viscera. For it to be ‘bad’ in net effect, for it to be seen, generally, as broken, requires an evolution of consciousness in the vast majority of us; first we must learn the necessary perceptive abilities culturally. Until that happens, what was once ‘good’ will continue its collapse, something like ‘human nature’ will cop the blame, yet another iteration of this paradigm will be tried again, and the TINA Brigade will have been proven right. Speaking brutally, until humanity builds a flourishing alternative, there is no alternative. We have to earn it. Ideas on pages aren’t enough.

So, what is dying, why is it dying, and why was it ‘good?’ Charles Eisenstein’s analysis in “The Ascent of Humanity” is as thorough an analysis of our paradigm as I have seen, and I strongly agree with it. In his thesis, humanity emerged from undifferentiated unison with its environment, many thousands of years ago, to begin the long, slow process we call Civilization. With the advent of technologies like taming fire, domesticating seeds and animals, humans unwittingly initiated for themselves a developmental arc characterized by ever increasing ‘separation’ from and opposition to Not-Self, indeed created an ever more clearly delineated Not-Self. In the Bible, the myth which echoes this is Adam and Eve’s eviction from Eden. Today we might see a baby’s eviction from its mother’s womb as a similar break. Thus we begin a sense of Us and Them when the area within the warmth and light of the ‘controlled’ fire is safe, the darkness beyond dangerous; when some aspects of nature become clear enemies—insect pests, winter, adverse weather—and others friends—wheat, chicken, dog, horse. The pattern is one of increasingly sophisticated control of both wanted and unwanted variables, so as to maximize the former and minimize the latter. We are still engaged in this fight against Not-Self today, looking for the perfect life, the perfect partner, job, city, system, etc.

One of the many emergent properties of this developmental arc has been elitism (the state), which, to me, is a necessary social dynamic for keeping increasingly complex societies cohesive (specialization plays an enormous role here). Of course there are negatives, but nothing is perfect, so that goes without saying. And there is no master plan. Shit just happens. Early humans taming fire, domesticating seed and beast, had not the slightest idea where their experimentation would lead. It is not better or worse to be differentiated, just as there is nothing ‘ignoble’ about undifferentiated ‘savages.’ Shit just happens, and beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. So, for one thousand and one reasons, elitism emerged and bedded down, no master plan necessary. You can’t make omelets without breaking eggs.

As a brief aside, for a long time I believed elitism’s structure was wedded to growth and therefore inherently unsustainable. I no longer hold that opinion. Elitism is doomed because it suffers poor information flow. As to growth, there is a far simpler explanation for our systemic addiction to it. It is because we tend not to kill our children or old folk when population pressures might recommend such measures (rabbits eat their young); we are inventive, have powerful emotions, and seek solutions that offer the ‘hope’ of letting as many of us live as possible. This simple dynamic is sufficient to explain why the human race has been multiplying, and continues to want to. That we thrive exponentially like bacteria today is an explosive consequence of science, fossil fuels and good hygiene. Elitism (hierarchical state structures of rulers and ruled) is a ‘necessary’ emergent property of differentiated social animals with abstract language dealing with the challenges of increasingly complex tribal life (specialization), population pressures, and war (and other things too, but those are the main factors I feel). We thrived because we wanted to, and could. In many ways, our ‘control’ of nature has proven very effective. Mainly, we still see our continuing expansion as Good, but this is changing quickly. I believe there are two main driving factors for this shift of perception; technological unemployment and Peak Growth (a complex term which includes fossil fuel depletion, climate change, peak debt, etc.).

While we have earned no ‘better’ system; while we have not made it clear to ourselves, culturally, globally even, that an open, egalitarian-hierarchical hybrid based on abundance and sharing is now the more ‘sensible’ arrangement; while we prefer our comfort zones to the perils of change, we will not be able to transcend what, to me and some others, is a broken (not ‘evil’) paradigm. We must evolve out of where we are and into what we might be, which takes doing, trial and error, experimentation, and time. As always, we accumulate wisdom along the way, stand on giants’ shoulders, who themselves stood on others’ shoulders, but cannot know where it will take us, just as our long dead forebears playing with fire could not see far by its light. Clearly, the vast majority of us do not yet want to put in the degree of effort deep change requires, again for a thousand and one reasons. So, competition, scarcity, ‘I’m all right, Jack,’ classism, property, greed, short-termism, etc., will be with us for a while yet, warts and all. Indeed, they are some of the key elements which drove us here, cooked us into what we culturally are. They are the main ingredients of our current stew, and, like the frog which cannot tell it is being cooked alive because the water’s temperature increases so slowly, so we too fail to discern how hot it is getting. This too is changing. We are waking up and smelling the fire.

And yet, back in the day, with the knowledge and ignorance of the time, what ‘better’ money system could humanity have designed, what better social arrangement? Like nature, our system is cyclical; boom and bust, spring and winter, growth and decay. It has an incentive built in; the absence in the money supply of the interest owed acts as a constant flame, keeps things cooking, and fosters growth, rather like the sun around which all earthly life revolves. Believing in human Ascent, a system which helps drive us forward is no bad thing, especially when we ‘know’ humans tend to laziness ‘by nature.’ If we believe, more or less, that we ought to grow our economy forever, with boom and bust included, as fulfillment of our Destiny, then a fiat, usurious, debt-based money system is a ‘good’ way to go. There are casualties of course, but as science developed and fossil fuels were available, population growth these last 150 years is proof humanity did a ‘good’ job of ‘dominating’ nature, generally speaking. What would Malthus say if he saw all seven billion of us now?

What this system has not delivered, is precisely that escape from the Enemy Wild we thought we sought. Today we can look on jealously at ‘primitives’ seemingly at one with their environment, enjoying an easy leisure we can only dream of, a peace of mind which remains out of reach, even on expensive holidays in the sun, even in clean, gated communities protected by armed guards. We brought the wild with us, built concrete jungles every bit as uncontrollable as the ‘unclean’ jungles we fled. There was no separation after all. We are beasts too (which is no bad thing). Still we scrabble towards an illusory ‘top,’ in blind pursuit of something we left behind, pursuing it because we don’t see it right there, under our noses, where it always was.

And yet, that we increasingly see our manic system as unsustainable—though a sign of hope perhaps—is not (yet) as important as our general inability to see reality as a whole in which we are embedded, at a sufficiently deep and broad scale to bring about lasting change. But this too is changing. We are becoming one. To be cute, I’d say we’re becoming an Updated One. Differentiation and spicy variety included.

Positive interest and its development was pretty clever, considering the times. You have a money supply that is generated by and responsive to economic activity (or the promise of it), which can only be an amount too little to cover what’s owed, whereby competition is ensured. The money supply is fine-tunable via various mechanisms; credit-money destruction upon debt repayment, recycling the interest earned back into the system, and encouraging further economic activity with further loans, always keeping things scarce, always encouraging entrepreneurship and inventiveness. What’s not to like? Look at the nature of the challenges the money-system addresses. We have extreme specialization already baked into our cultural and socioeconomic DNA, inevitable hierarchy as a direct consequence thereof, social complexity beyond human comprehension, and a need to keep as many people as possible ‘provably’ useful to society to prevent pointless and bloody revolution. To meet these challenges, we have high powered and credit money in a positive interest-bearing debt system using expunging, default, bonds and taxation as tools to drain money from the economy; private sector credit-extension, and public sector government borrowing, to inject money into the economy; the separation of powers (or the notion thereof, which has its potency even in today’s advanced stage of corruption and breakdown); waged labour; and representative democracy. If we accept that nothing’s perfect, we have to agree it’s a pretty good system, surely? Could you organize a country or planet any better? Could I? Can we? I’m not talking about talking the talk, but walking the walk.

Peter Joseph criticizes consumerism for being cyclical. But so’s nature. Our money system is prone to collapse, but look at forest fires. Great swathes of people are poor, but who really believes life is fair? We’re consuming resources too fast, but so do locusts (fascinating creatures by the way). They suffer population collapse, then start up again when conditions permit. What’s wrong with that? What if human population collapses to about 2 billion and we start the game again? Would that be bad? Why are humans more important to Universe than locusts? Do we have a special destiny? Must we survive? Must there be seven billion of us, or two, or twenty?

Such questions are unhelpful, for the most part. We cannot not want to survive, and we are special, just as are locusts, just as is grass, simply because we can perceive specialness. That ability has evolved in us. As we are of Universe, all we do is of Universe. We ask philosophical questions, we muse, we care, we care not, we struggle to overcome with inventiveness, can imagine the future, want the best for our children’s children, and ‘know’ we want the best. This is our nature, our nurture. There are alternatives.

Dinosaurs died out, furry little mammals didn’t. In time, the furry mammals evolved into apes, now there’s homo sapiens sapiens. Change is the only constant. Change is nature, Universe. And now we say we love life. We know joy. We believe deeply still in a bunch of stuff that is the dying paradigm, but that’s changing. In competing to maximize self-interest, we have rendered ourselves virtually economically redundant, but why should the economy be the only thing that matters? That’s an addressable challenge, because value is no absolute and is very poorly measured with a linear scale like $ or €. We can learn to do ‘better,’ are learning to do ‘better.’ We know burning through fossil fuels to power our creature comforts is highly unsustainable. We are concerned with fairness and justice, suffer when confronted with ongoing and obvious injustice. But we do not want a grey, featureless future of conformity and uniformity. We want to spread joy, live rich, meaningful lives, even if most today are very narcissistic and immature in that endeavour. And it is for simple reasons like wanting to live and loving joy that I put my shoulder to this wheel and push.

And then there is the panda. Billions of cells working in harmony to be a cute animal which has a very hard time turning out new pandas, and is very fussy about it’s food. It is at the edge of its time on earth, kept alive by human intervention. Changing the ‘flawed’ wisdom of the panda, a wisdom it acquired over millions of years of evolution, is hard. Getting it to like a wider variety of food stuffs, or be more fertile and prolific, isn’t easy. All those cells evolved to operate in a particular way. The cells of human society are held together by a paradigm, by beliefs, which evolved over many millennia to become the corpus of structures that make up society today, the ideas, the mores, the expectations. And while it’s easier to change a paradigm than a panda, it certainly isn’t a snap. But the more important message of this comparison is not the relative difficulty, but the absence of a victim, the absence of evil doers. Whom should we blame for the panda’s fate? For humanity’s? ‘Blame’ is a perception-filter we created, but maybe soon we won’t need that filter any more. It’s complex out there. Things evolve, cope, adapt, as they happen to, not as our short-sighted egos desire, from nucleated cells to fissiparous human societies, fractious, avaricious, creative, destructive, evolving.

I am not writing this in a vacuum. The ideas I draw on have been available to humanity for thousands of years. We could call them our genetic social potential, a vein of fertility we have not quite learned to tap. Whether we do or not is up to the gods, up to us, up to chance. Whether we do or not is neither good nor bad. Shit just happens, and nothing can stop that.

Partly because I believe in progress—not that progress is Good or Bad, but that wisdom accumulates and humans now cast value judgments upon those accumulations—I also believe the momentum is sufficiently in the direction of ‘improvement’ to be ‘hopeful’ about coming decades. Species go extinct, and humans might too. But I don’t think so. Universe evolved this way, is finding more exquisite expressions of interbeing as it goes, and we are in that, of that. The appreciation of Universal complexity I have learned these last years is a gift given I share with others. The experiences of joy discovery unleashes, life unleashes, in and amongst the horrors, are gifts we share. Without sharing—sharing too is a gift—, even in the form of competitive enmity, there can be nothing. Without interbeing, nothing can be. We are. This core and simple reality, as it dovetails with change and evolution, is why I am excited about this period. It’s not that the old is Bad and the new Good, or vice versa, but that we can be involved, and can enjoy the struggle of that involvement.
Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

On Equality

In recent months I’ve been giving the word ‘equality’ a hard time. I’m taking a closer look at it here today, since it’s central to our sense of what’s morally right and wrong. When we think of fairness, equality is never far from our thoughts. Why?

The standard literature on this topic distinguishes between equality and diversity, asserting the two notions are not mutually exclusive:
Equality is about ‘creating a fairer society, where everyone can participate and has the opportunity to fulfil their potential’ (DoH, 2004).
[...snip...]
Diversity literally means difference. When it is used as a contrast or addition to equality, it is about recognising individual as well as group differences, treating people as individuals, and placing positive value on diversity in the community and in the workforce.
Source

Equality means treating people in a way that is appropriate for their needs. For example, if Michael Flanders wanted to board the plane, it would be no good saying to him, “you have the same stairs as everybody else”. What is needed is a way of getting on the plane that will suit everybody’s needs without showing them up and treating them in a way that is worse than other people.
Source

Equality is all about making sure everyone is treated fairly and given the same life opportunities. It is not about treating everyone the same as they may have different needs to achieve the same outcomes.
Diversity is about recognising and valuing individual differences and raising awareness about them.
Source

And so on. Is this a sound argument? Or perhaps, asked in a better way, is this a constructive position to hold?

In “The Spirit Level” authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett present reams of data which show, very clearly, that all sorts of measures, from inventiveness to mental health to crime, tend to suffer in countries which have wide income gaps; where income distribution is grossly unequal. And as I have cited here before, recent science suggests the human brain is ‘wired’ for fairness. So, for the moment, equating equality with fairness seems, well, fair enough, at least at the level of income (though I’ll conclude this post with two quotes from “The Spirit Level” which expand on this, and demonstrate just how important fairness is to us). More importantly perhaps, it is plain that fairness is simply a big deal to homo sapiens sapiens. For example, as parents we know our children are different, but we try to treat them equally, or fairly.

But fair to whom, and how? To absolutely everyone and everything on the planet, equally? If we take the example of a man in a wheelchair told to use the stairs to board a plane because everyone else does, it seems obvious such handling of that man’s needs is discriminatory. But is airline travel fair from the environment’s point of view? And what is a fair amount of luggage? If rich people are accustomed to traveling with 100 pounds of luggage per person, should the poor pay for this ‘need’ by being allowed less luggage allowance, so that the plane can take off safely, with as many passengers on board as possible, so that the airline can make a ‘fair’ profit? Or am I being unnecessarily awkward?

If we don’t contemplate the practical implications of implementing an idea, we are not confronting the devilish detail. For when we seek equal opportunities, no matter how well we argue our case philosophically, or poetically, we have to translate our words into actions, make them ‘real.’ It is when we start to do this that complexity breaks in. Always have a plan, a backup plan, and a backup for that backup (if time permits!), but the more people we try to please, the less likely it is we can stick to any plan, no matter how well thought through, and the less likely it is that everyone will think the implementation of that plan fair. If we can’t please all the people all the time, can we really hope for a system which delivers truly equal opportunities to absolutely everyone? I don’t think we can, but what sort of a ‘problem’ is this?

Recognising we can’t please all the people all the time, we recognise too that muddling through is all we’ve got. This applies to equal opportunities as it applies to capitalism, schooling, factory work, civil engineering, and so on. It’s complex out there. All sorts of ‘random’ stuff happens that throws spanners in cogs every minute of every day in an endless variety of ways. Yesterday my daughter bought the wrong type of monthly train ticket, which meant my wife and I having to buy the correct one that evening for her next journey to school, then driving to the nearest BVG office (in Steglitz) next morning, to hand in the incorrect ticket for a refund. Steglitz is enjoying a spate of roadworks at the moment, and too many cars have to drive through the borough anyway, so there was lots of traffic, honking of horns, screeching wheels and angry drivers. I would not have wanted to be headed for a meeting. Maybe someone was, was very late, and lost their job through no ‘fault’ of their own. Shit happens. It doesn’t matter how much we want equal opportunities, nor how good our institutions and laws and other systems ‘ensuring’ them are; life’s complexity gets in the way. Equal opportunities can be desired and aimed for, but never delivered. We muddle through.

Even when it comes to something as ‘simple’ as getting everyone who wants to fly onto an airplane, what would this require in practice (I’m not even going to look at purchasing power or environmental health)? What about mentally handicapped people on long flights, screaming, groaning, etc? Even a screaming baby can make a twelve hour flight an ordeal for some passengers. My own daughter, under two years old, screamed non-stop for about six hours when we drove to Toronto from New Jersey. The only thing that would have appeased her would have been to not make that journey. Had we been on an airplane it would have been an even worse experience. How about obese people who don’t fit into economy-sized seats, which are narrow so that poorer passengers can afford the tickets? Should poor obese people pay more? Should we be charged by our size? Should we insist on less obesity? If yes, how? These are irritating questions, but when we strive for fairness, they are exactly the kinds of issues we are confronted with. As David Graeber points out, one person’s rights are another person’s obligations. The right to free speech requires sometimes being obliged to ‘endure’ speech we passionately disagree with. In practice, democracy means sometimes having to go along with things we dislike, maybe deeply.

There can be no lasting balance (change is the only constant), but, seeing as fairness (whatever that really is) is obviously a big deal for us humans, tending towards more fairness is ‘better’ for humans than tending away from it (see “The Spirit Level” for evidence). But again, within which system? Representative democracy? Direct democracy? Technocracy? A resourced-based economy? And how do we test, or experiment with, whole, living societies? We can’t, and yet when you think about it, that’s all we’re ever doing. No one really knows.

When it comes to a fairer society, we are wise to remember that if getting all people who want it on airplanes is difficult, getting all of society to cooperate with our ideas of how it should be is orders of magnitude more so. For naïve idealists like me, contemplating the devilish details is therefore very healthy. While we might indeed celebrate diversity and fight for ‘equality’ without being too conflicted, it is complexity—not diversity in the sense suggested by the above quotes (though diversity and complexity are obviously profoundly related)—which makes the latter so damned elusive. I dimly recall Jacque Fresco saying that the more justice you seek, the more disappointed you’ll be. What happens is what happens, not what ought to. We don’t get to control that. Winds blow down trees crushing families in cars, and that’s that. We are then tasked with dealing with it. Humans flip out, fail, fight wars when negotiation might have been wiser, compromise when proud defiance might have been wiser, and so on. Tragedy will always be with us, and we deal with each horror and upset as we do, not as we ought. And like I say, we are as much a part of nature as weather, and ‘control’—both of self and not-self—is as much an idea as fairness. I’m quite sure we understand neither control nor fairness. As absolutes I’m convinced they don’t ‘exist,’ but as sufficiencies we tend towards and are guided by, I’m equally convinced they are powerful ideas indeed.

As we slowly reorient ourselves into a new relationship with opposites, with Cartesian Dualism and binary thinking, we also, by extension, ‘redesign’ (or re-define) society. As biosocial pressures such as technological unemployment and the end of growth work on us, change how we think, force us from our addictive comfort zones, so we will come to muddle through in new ways, develop new relationships with what is permissible, valuable, acceptable. Part of this, I predict, will be more globalization (internet-, not corporate-based I hope), part will be re-localization. Whatever emerges in coming decades, it will be the highly complex adaptions and reactions to the consequences of the biosocial pressures I just mentioned (and others of course), reactions to those reactions, and so on, that nudge and shuffle us, jointly and separately, wherever it is our jostling, arguing, competing, cooperating and doing take us. And while we cannot know in advance any ‘final’ detail, nor can there be an ‘outcome,’ I feel confident that more appeals to fairness—more intelligent and wiser attempts at fairer systems and institutions—will be both required and desired, despite and in the face of life’s complexity. It’s been this way since forever, of course. What makes me put fingers to keyboard is the depth of the changes required, and the global nature of the challenge. My reading is that both are unprecedented in scale and implication. If we do well, there’s no telling what new wonders we might create. If we fail to adapt wisely, we might well go the way of the dodo, and at least civilization is threatened. But such is true for all species confronted with fundamentally existential challenges. No living system has any special right to survive forever. All are generated and sustained (or crushed) by the momentum they co-evolve alongside and within, generating change as they adapt, or fail to adapt, to change.

Finally, those two promised quotes from “The Spirit Level”:
In 2004, World Bank economists Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey reported the results of a remarkable experiment. They took 321 high-caste and 321 low-caste 11 to 12 years old boys from scattered rural villages in India, and set them the task of solving mazes. First, the boys did the puzzles without being aware of each other's caste. Under this condition the low-caste boys did just as well with the mazes as the high-caste boys, indeed slightly better.
Then, the experiment was repeated, but this time each boy was asked to confirm an announcement of his name, village, father’s and grandfather’s name, and caste. After this public announcement of caste, the boys did more mazes, and this time there was a large caste gap in how well they did—the performance of the low-caste boys dropped significantly.
[...snip...]
Jane Elliot, an American schoolteacher, conducted an experiment with her students in 1968, in an effort to teach them about racial inequality and injustice. She told them that scientists had shown that people with blue eyes were more intelligent and more likely to succeed than people with brown eyes, who were lazy and stupid. She divided her class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed groups, and gave the blue-eyed group extra privileges, praise and attention. The blue-eyed group quickly asserted its superiority over the brown-eyed children, treating them contemptuously, and the school performance improved. The brown-eyed group just as quickly adopted a submissive timidity, and their marks declined. After a few days, Elliot told the children had got the information mixed up and that actually it was brown eyes that indicated superiority. The classroom situation rapidly reversed.

In conclusion, I’d say human nature, that hoary old chestnut, as it emerges from and grows through its supporting environments—social and ecological (to separate for argument what is not separate)—means we cannot help but want, on the whole and over time, equality as is relates to fairness. That’s out of our control. This has been true of us since hunter gatherer times, and remains true today. Simple things like shunning and conformity are powerful evidence of this drive, which Jeremy Rifkin calls the drive to belong. Equally, we can never deliver truly equal opportunities or societal fairness because life is simply too complex, and control of all variables to ensure or fix in place desired outcomes is flat out impossible. And while morality is important to me, it is not moral considerations which motivate my thinking, but rather pragmatic (that from a confessed idealist who believes matter is what we can see of spirit!). Equally (to overuse that beat upon word), it is not neatness or squeaky clean cities and societies I seek (mess is beautiful), but wise-as-possible adaptions to change. Maturity, if you like. A tall order for sure, but them’s the breaks.

The New Care Bears?


I found this today and think it is an absolutely excellent cartoon. If that don't say it all, I don't know what does.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Technology, Growth and Employment

This post puts me back in old territory after a long journey through inner landscapes, prompted in part by my own personal transformation—which is unending of course—as well as the Occupy movement, which is, for me, part of The Venus Project, The Zeitgeist Movement and all other attempts to self-educate, together, into the new; to make sense for ourselves of where we are, and of the nature of the challenges we face. And although economic matters such as money and labour prompt us to ask the deeper questions, it will soon prove to be a transformation of consciousness—which is anyway ongoing and perpetual—, value, and meaning we are wrestling with. Key battlegrounds are selfishness-altruism, competition-cooperation, rights-obligations, scarcity-abundance, work-pleasure, waste-food, and more broadly that dichotomies themselves are illusions, scales, perception-filters with which we have co-evolved, learned, grown wiser. It is my sense that we are now coming to experience dichotomies as embedded ‘tools,’ as interwoven through our reality as life and as subtle as language, rather than as insoluble Platonic absolutes. All institutions and their driving ideologies are thus on the table; everything is caught up in this transformation. We are tasked with doing good work, both for and in ourselves, and for and in the network which enables us—where “both” suggests a separation not there.

That broad backdrop denoted, it is appropriate to zero in on, anew, a topic which is now finding more column inches in the mainstream than previously; technological unemployment. I’ve written on this before, but that was then, and this is now. Today I begin by pointing out that employment itself is a technology. Exchanging labour and time for a wage is new in human history, particularly as fused with self-worth and ‘independence.’ Typically we do not penetrate that concept, that how we value ourselves is reflexively, autonomically associated with our ‘job’ or ‘career.’ We tend to leave that association unexamined (though I ought to point out that introspection itself is also a new phenomenon; the word ‘self-conscious’ didn’t appear until 1690). However, feeling that we have a place, are somehow contributing to the network which sustains us, is a ‘deep’ urge arising from being a social animal capable of abstract language. This urge is present in humans of hunter gatherer groups to city metropolises. That combination—social + abstract language—makes homo sapiens sapiens myth- and symbol-based creatures. We exist in language, as Fritjof Capra stated. Language is a landscape, a repository of accumulated wisdom we are steered by when we understand, communicate, learn, do. ‘Technological unemployment’ is an expression with a rich history and layered symbology, bound up in value, identity, utility, Cartesian Dualism (nature-nurture). Its shifting meaning to us is as important as the ‘problem’ it has perceived into existence.

What is the problem it identifies, exactly? There are many answers, what follows is mine.

Systemically, socioeconomically, we equip consumers with purchasing power via the labour each worker exchanges for money. Money has purchasing power enabling those holding it to take ‘ownership’ of the goods and services their and other workers’ labour has helped to produce. Jobs and careers (in the contemporary sense) are ‘inventions’ for allotting or distributing (via wages) symbols of value which also have the power to affect exchange. We get purchasing power—a vital component to the spiraling cyclicality of consumerism—via wages. The fewer people equipped with lasting purchasing power the fewer consumers there are. This is of course a big and ongoing problem in a growth-based system.

The human realm in which this cyclical distribution takes place is called ‘the economy,’ which, quite by chance it seems, must grow, or spiral outwards, forever. The surface reason for this is to be found in the design of the usury-based money system; the deeper reason we have a usury-based money system in the first place lies in our sense of ourselves as Masters of Nature, the Good Ones, Separate, growing and conquering the Idle Resources of the Wild. We have been multiplying, battling Enemy Nature all the way, fulfilling our Destiny of Ascent. But now, as Charles Eisenstein points out, our once unshakable belief in our Dominion is crumbling. Hold that thought.

Parallel with our briefly explained system of value-distribution, we have increasing ‘efficiency’ and ‘competition.’ In the allegedly hot melee which is evolution we have ‘technological advances.’ Change is nature, nature is ongoing accrual of wisdom, we are of nature, nature is a ‘technological’ process we are embedded in (“technological” meaning the perceiving and ‘solving’ of ‘problems’). Change is the only constant. In my view there is nothing ‘unnatural’ about computers and robots. There is nothing ‘better’ about the past than the present or future, other than what we perceive, imagine. Efficiency and competition are, in part, doing economically better than the Other; producers strive to deliver goods and services for sale to consumers at lower costs so as to increase profits, get their hands on more purchasing power, and enjoy life more. Part of this has been automation, which is millennia old, including tamed fire, store, pickling, pulleys and anything else which Makes Life Easier. But as we Make Life Easier we shrink—after some juncture, slowly and fitfully at first but now very obviously—the economic usefulness of human labour, on balance and over time. As Andrew McAfee recently pointed out, “The list of things humans are demonstrably better at than computers is shrinking pretty dramatically.” We humans are less and less necessary to economic production, and yet we are still socially, 'humanly' important to each other. “Humans need humans.”

So it comes down to value; how to value each other, how to reward, punish, share our ingenuity. What is value? Whence does it arise? Should we ‘measure’ it? If so, then how? If strangers exchange smiles on a bus should they then use a smart phone application for measuring smile effectiveness, then bill each other accordingly—since both strangers derived ‘value’ from the exchange—to keep the ‘economy’ going? What of the wide gamut of human activity should we include in the economic realm, should we call labour, should earn money? If humans become economically redundant, should we commit mass suicide because we have thus become useless? How dominant in terms of power and decision making should the economic realm be? How unquestioningly should we idolize it? Youth unemployment in Greece is 45%, 49% in Spain. In the States, the labour participation rate is at 64%, close to how it is was during the Great Depression. The Great Depression. Useless people everywhere, starving because they were useless, are useless. Meanwhile, I hear factory production is at around 40% capacity across the planet, but we don’t need more humans to produce more, we need them to buy more. Why? To appease Perpetual Growth. We don’t need to buy more, Perpetual Growth does. How ‘useless’ have we become? Where is our vaunted imagination?

As our unshakable faith in our Manifest Destiny crumbles, as we tire of consumerism, no longer want more and more; as population growth slows, to zero and less in some western lands; as our ingenuity and restlessness render us economically redundant, every pillar that supports the usury- and growth-based system cracks more deeply, loses strength. Without Growth, we have Recession or Depression. That these concepts stand in opposition to each other tells its own story. That we can converse about greed, about consuming too much, about a simpler life, yet still demand jobs, decent wages, a Return to Normal, tells another. But more and more of us are seeing through the veil, experimenting with different ideas, perceptions. The Story of Ascent unravels as we peer through its mists, and as we peer, we seek and we probe, adding fuel to the process of creating the New, which is gathering strength. The energy we want to contribute to Ascent is shrinking, thus the Old is deflating. The New is gaining strength as a direct consequence of this, struggling to its feet, getting ready to walk, becoming more visible, more charismatic, clearer. And nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

Technological unemployment will remain a ‘problem’ while we too tightly and rigidly associate utility with job and career, while we distribute purchasing power (value) via labour, while we measure value exclusively via market processes and call only its result True Value, while we insist ownership of property in larger amounts is what life is about, and while we battle to sustain our usury-based money system. Because the old associations are so deep, the direction which is taking us away from them appears to lead nowhere, for now. But it’s always like that. You could make a good case that Rome’s collapse was in part due to ‘technological’ unemployment: “In AD 28 there were three million slaves and four million people in Italy.” (Rifkin, “The Empathic Civilization”, p229.) Systemically, machines and slaves are producers we don’t pay, we don’t furnish with purchasing power. In this system, that is a problem.

But what the ‘goal’ might look like is not the issue at this stage, nor any stage. Is there agreement on the goal of the current paradigm? The journey is the destination. There is no ending, no Final State, no perfection. Everything is always emerging, changing, learning. As we probe, question, create new interpretations and ideas, so we imagine different ways of being, cut new paths. Imagination, folks, imagination! Isn’t that the source of value? Drink of its spring, do not be too afraid, be open to change. Isn’t that what the challenge of crisis demands?