The January 8, 2007
The Solstice Festivals for 2006 are past, and the dismal dark of January has
settled in. Dark, but not the usual accompanying cold: warming the cockles of
our collective heart are the furnaces of environmental exhaustion at the poles,
and conflagration in the cradle of civilization. The candle burns at both ends,
and we try to light it in the middle.
The Almanack sees all this heat, shedding no light, as the product of twin human
avatars: emergence and competition.
Emergence, the process of complexity building on itself, has resulted in
increasing technological development, and consequent resource consumption. The
increase has only recently been perceived as exponential. We've been counting on
technology to rescue us from consumption, but there is no good indicator of which
curve is leading. The no-limit bet is survival, and a lot of bettors are
Competition is older than life, and we count on it, in the form of natural
selection, to weed out the weak and inefficient, which by our own definition, we
aren't. We are humans, after all, the very top of the food chain, heir of the
mammal mantle and crown of the animal kingdom. And elect of God, according to
our most aggressive religions. Subdue and multiply, Genesis tells us.
Like a trebuchet launching dead pigs, Y2K loosed the proxies for these avatars,
Islamism stinking up the place on behalf of old-fashioned, blatant, hostile
competition, and Western Consumerism polluting for emergence. Of course, both
are competitive, and emergent, and their weapons are turned inward as well as
outward. They are locked in a battle neither can win, and there is a good chance
that all of humanity will lose.
At least, that is the conventional wisdom, if such a gloomy world-view can be
called 'wisdom'. If we buy into all the symbolic rhetoric, there is simply no
good end at any of the visible forks in the road, Good and Evil will simply
devour each other, and the world with them.
The Almanack takes another view: There is no news in emergence and competition,
they're the rules of the game, and have been since the Big Bang. And there is no
reality in the battle between Islam and the West; religions don't fight
hemispheres. (No, the Almanack is not a Crusades-denier. That was a coalition
of mercenaries sponsored by bored monarchs seeking adventure, and they attacked
countries that seemed to have easy money. Religion was an excuse.)
The only news is the thing that differentiates humans from all other present and
prior life forms: our ability to use symbols. The ability to abstract things
and events, and recursively build on our abstractions, is what gives us religion,
art, science and free will, the capacity to influence our destiny. But this
ability is not evenly distributed. Some people are better at it than others,
which gives them a serious advantage in the Competition. They are more Emergent,
so they become our artists and leaders, our advertisers, politicians and
preachers, and sometimes cynics.
Seeing symbols for what they are has become the focus of the Almanack. The
zero-th rule is: The symbol is not the thing. Confusing symbols with reality
has gotten humans into trouble for as long as we have known we were human, but
we still do it. To give credit where it's due, even the Old Testament warns
against idolatry. The Almanack for Dec 24 built the argument that religion
itself is the product of symbols, applied to dreams. Personifying sects,
ideologies, whole religions, classes of criminal behavior, sociological
problems, and anything else that has a word for it, has become accepted
practice. It makes complex ideas fit into a box with a name. ('Lockbox',
anyone?) If you don't like what's in the box, you can trash it, or make war on
it: the 'War on Poverty', the 'War on Terrorism'. It's a near-perfect
rhetorical device for religious and political leaders bent on cynical mischief-
making. Few in the audience will penetrate the device, and fewer will have the
patience to exchange a simple idea for a complex one.
The problem is that the symbol 'poverty', for example, is not at the same
abstraction level as the symbol 'Canada'. You can actually have a war with
Canada (perish the thought), but poverty is omnipresent, relative (if I'm rich,
someone must be poor), and abstract at four or five levels. You might relieve
the effects of poverty in some scope, but you cannot make war on it. In defense
of LBJ, he seems to have intended the 'War on Poverty' phrase as a slogan
signifying a major policy initiative, and real resources were spent on it. But
even a teenager sensed the patronizing oversimplification of the device.
The 'War on Terrorism', on the other hand, is a superstition enhanced to
religious proportions, so that its orthodoxy cannot be questioned. Terror is the
new Satan. Confess to terrorism and be 'renditioned', or rot in Gitmo. Throw
her in the river, if she floats, burn her for a witch.
The Almanack does not in any way endorse or defend terrorism; it is a nasty
assortment of criminal tactics. But that's the point: an assortment of tactics
is not an appropriate abstraction upon which to declare war. The declaration
itself becomes a rhetorical device to break down communication and enforce
primitive compliance, with what we can't be sure. It's certainly not a means of
improving our response to stealthy criminals, or preventing mishaps to our
infrastructure, or redressing political grievances, real or imagined. If we did
those things well, terrorism would not be a serious threat.
The further point is that when we communicate, everything becomes a symbol. When
we lose the distinction between symbol and reality, bad things happen. People
drive off the road seeing the 'reality' of the conversation they're having. We
don't respond to the disaster of the melting Arctic because the response might
damage the 'reality' of our economic interests. Populations are easy to
slaughter given the 'reality' that they are evil. All these things are happening
around us, but they only become important when the thing becomes real for us,
instead of the symbol.
We can control both emergence and competition, if we will. They are first-level
abstractions of reality, and they need no proxies. See them for what they are,
not as vested interests would define them.
Question the symbols. Have faith in reality.
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