What We Retain: Part III of a Series of Essays Inspired by the Book, “The Dawn of Everything”


Part I

Part II

Retaining Technology, Politics and Economy

Technology isn’t the problem by itself. Technological solutions are often necessary. But not as a primary focus. I can almost picture a sane (by no means Utopian) world, which steals an element from Amish culture – not a wholly luddite element, but the element in their culture that is considerate in its rate of adopting new technologies. Otherwise, technological development becomes an accelerating end in itself, which has a hypnotic and reductive effect on human consciousness (as noted in several essays).

But how could such a carefully considered approach to technology be organized?

It wouldn’t work as a top-down imposition, as it would for the Amish, who are pretty much stuck within a narrow system. Any top-down imposition of rules is a reductive strategy in itself, which bends eventually towards dictatorship. But profound shifts in social realities (such as our relationship to technology) would begin on a grassroots level, preceding the imposition of new laws. The Civil Rights era, for example, represented an alteration in the balance of attitudes towards white privilege, and this started to happen prior to any changes in law.

Let me ramble a while in this direction and see if we can return to this question.

Most grassroots social movements still feel compelled to beseech “authorities” for changes in top-down rules, still end up trying to persuade the kings and queens of commerce and government to give their permission for any grassroots shift that is already happening. Governments and titans of commerce yielded to the Civil Rights movement, for instance, because they felt the implicit threat to the whole system of power if they didn’t yield. Or they yielded to the grassroots movement of smoking grass, for instance, because they were lured there by the promise of controlling the revenue stream.

But beseeching these authoritative bodies also keeps us narrowly tied to the harness of commerce, and government, so that nothing significant in that sense ever changes. We earn a certain freedom of movement, yes, but still within the old reins (or reigns) – still trapped in systems of control (and machine intelligence is that system). Trying to live without a cell phone, for instance, is becoming almost impossible. Everything is being streamlined to assist the management of people on a grand scale, primarily it seems via apps on phones. (Not because the Bilderbergs have a broad vision they’re trying to enact, but precisely because they don’t have one, or have only a desacralized vision of manipulated self-interest, where a cosmic lens might once have been). At any rate, we’re still reined to the system, but hats off to those who are trying to build a community off-grid.

Still, we also have to be careful not to prematurely throw off these reins too directly either, because the authorities are far weaker than they look, and would resort to extreme violence (the fragile do this). Maybe there’s a way to participate as much as necessary in the system to keep it from going haywire, while no longer falling for the propaganda anymore, the patriotism, the excessive commitment to a corporation, party, so-called leader, none of that claptrap. Give to Rome what is Rome’s if you will. Spit out the electronic bit every chance we get and focus elsewhere as much as possible. Neighborhood gardens in abandoned cities, new forms of education, a barter economy emerging. Then the force that through the grassroots drives the common good gets diverted from supporting the concrete structures of divisive control, which allows these structures to wither more gently away, or become structural relics overgrown and repurposed by a new life. But outright rebellion seems more childish than heroic — the narrow frame exalting itself again by grabbing the “reigns” (becoming the controlling tyrant in their turn), or by openly embracing a narrow, defeated lens to its ultimate end in a suicidal Götterdämmerung.

See, we’ve discounted the more exciting possibility that a shift in societal values (which would drive a more cautious and patient approach to technology across the board) happens without leaders or ruling bodies (without any impetus from a narrow origin, such as “Great Men of history” and other famous hooligans). And yet this has already happened on a grand scale many times in the past. Ancient peoples managed to alter their social organizations without authoritative leadership, because their values changed. And some were societies of hundreds of thousands of people cooperating without any loss of personal autonomy (read “The Dawn of Everything” for the nuances of all this). How did they manage to do this and not us?

I think this happened in the same way any healthy ecosystem grows towards a balanced maturity (or climax stage) without top-down planning or control. (It’s also how these essays develop, not by following a plan, but by feeling the collapsing structure of a previous vision and writing my way blindly into an order that didn’t occur to me until it crawls off the page). Planning and control can become pop-up events like Occupy, forming in the absence of authorities, emerging as part of spontaneous, communal brainstorms, like in those rare, beautiful moments in life when people come together for a work bee to help someone, and everyone pitches in where they see a need, and this involves impromptu planning sessions, large and small, involving every participant. Different leaders emerge for a transient moment, when their particular skill comes to the fore. But everyone in these uniquely communal situations contributes their own idiosyncratic skills and insights, like a big potluck, a primordial soup of innovation constantly simmering, from which everyone takes harmonious inspiration. That’s not Utopian, that’s a healthy life, a clear communal lens, which only seems far-fetched because we’ve been stuck in a toxic environment for too long and have forgotten what a healthy society looks like.

When human beings regain that sanity-preserving capacity to recognize narrow needs from a wider vantage point, then the idiosyncratic lens of the Self finds a meaningful role in a community. Those who retain a reductive, or overly self-centered mentality stand out in such cultures as fragmented or insane elements (see Kingswit).

In our culture, this insane element is more often than not encouraged. The cultural current itself is partially insane. So it’s difficult for any of us in this environment to even imagine how this could possibly work. But all it takes is a shift in context – a hurricane or blizzard, or the Dead End that fast approaches — and the narrow frame immediately turns off as a primary focus and people find themselves back in an empathetic world. For us, the green roots of a healthy community only show up in these extreme contexts. But it’s an indication that life is waiting to restore itself once we get our heads out of our asses.

Pulling our heads out of our asses (dropping an obsessively personal vantage point) is how the nutrients of meaning finally start to flow again. The plans will manifest in the same way a forest manifests its intricate relationships. We just have to see how blindly narrow and self-destructive everything has become, and this flow of nutritious honesty begins to grow broader ideas and a cooperative spirit from the ground up. Call this anarchism if you wish, but it’s what happens when we stop relying on “special people” to lead us, or special machines to guide us, and relearn how to trust our own mysterious roots in the common, creative mud of life itself.

Machine intelligence, after all, is only a narrow spectrum of the genius of life itself. And when we get too enthused by these clever derivations, they become demiurges in the nasty Gnostic sense.

So the problem isn’t even our relationship to technology per se. The problem also manifests as a focus on capitalistic solutions, which are strongly rooted in a narrow frame of mind, a system designed to provoke self-interest and keep that motive primary. Capitalistic solutions – such as carbon markets – are clear examples of what the last essay called narrow “surrogates” of wider approaches.

Capitalism is also an extraordinarily “sticky” way of seeing the world, because it’s a kind of global dopamine-generating system that becomes highly addictive to organizations themselves. Like a virus, capitalism appropriates and alters the motive of everything it touches. So it’s almost impossible to reform capitalism and reduce its role to a seasonal or secondary function. Supremacy and internecine competitiveness are its founding principles.

Some form of exchange will remain, but it’s impossible to plan an economic system (from the top-down) without imposing yet another deadening system of control.

That’s why capitalism isn’t the main problem either. The problem also includes any top-down socially engineered solutions, as if everything could be resolved on a political, governmental, monetary or technological level. As with technology, sometimes political or social movements prove necessary, perhaps as a provisional or seasonal form of cooperation. But as a primary focus, politics and social movements still root themselves in an excessively narrow framework of us against them, which becomes a self-sustaining group identity. To say nothing of more regressive movements, which celebrate the Us against Them mentality as an end in itself.

Without a wider vision than the capitalistic, social, political or technological – without a cosmic vantage point, which is not dogmatic and narrowly focused on a particular Ism – our communal lens also degrades into a babble of competing interest groups.

[The cosmic vantage point is explored in the next chapter — “What Is Radically New“].

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