Three Sophists

There are few rules in my order, but those that we do observe, we observe absolutely. Hear your master’s words, and do not hoard your own. Love wisdom, detest folly. And when you leave, do not return until you have found your answers.

I left some time ago. The words of my master were all known to me, and I had yet to find any of my own. Taking nothing and giving nothing, I had ceased to be. My exile was decided upon unanimously. Until I could bring wisdom of my own, I was cast out.

And so I have wandered. The land bears little fruit, but corporeal hardship means little to a creature of the mind. If I starve, it will be for lack of mental sustenance, before the body follows. In that respect, I have been well-nourished. I have found three teachers on my journey, and so been saved thrice from the monotony of travel. My time on the path is spent in search for more, and in reminiscence of their words.

I found the first of these sages in a burnt-out library, on the fringes of one of the old capitals. They were scouring the charred shelves, fingers pouring through soot and ash in search of pages long since gone. I offered the customary greeting, and received only wild eyes in response. I asked for wisdom, and those same eyes flared with passion.

“Wisdom?” They asked, in ecstatic derision. “Impossible. You and I, we are nothing more than fertile tissue. Incubators. Ideas live elsewhere. Logic cannot capture them, but they wish, by primordial intuition, to be captured. They wish to be made individual. They wish to take agency, the chance to affect an action beyond simply existing, or having the potential to exist. Just as biological organisms are driven by their nature to propagate, so too are they. Their progeny are actions and consequences, and as with any child, these can grow, mature, and die. These offspring are their legacy, their kin. Through events, they live vicariously in the world of matter and individuation.

For long aeons, ideas were sterile. They could sow their seed anywhere in the universe, and no child would come. But still they stirred, waiting in deaf-blind expectation of release.

Then we appeared, and they were roused. A breeding frenzy began. We were the missing gamete they had needed, and at last the universe could be populated. Not by us, but by their children. We are exceptional to the rest of what surrounds us only in that we can be impregnated. We are imperfect wombs, but that is all we need to be. Actions are born defective. We are acid and impoverished, not fit for the task. Their children go malnourished in us and emerge weak or wrong. As the world becomes more and more drenched in their kin, we adapt. The poorest stock become thinner and thinner in our gene pool. Their healthiest offspring live on and on, nurturing their sickly brothers and sisters into more survivable forms. Just as Copernicus euthanized the runt of geocentrism, so too did he nourish its more promising solarian littermate. The poets and thinkers of before spout constant defects, fragments of the golden children that the ideas could produce with a perfect mate. But still these defects flourish, interbreed, grow stronger. Various products of natural selection, eugenic process and hybrid vigour.

We become better incubators, day by day. Philosophy, science, all of our endeavours. It does not bring us closer to knowledge. We are incapable of knowledge. We are capable only of greater fecundity. There is your wisdom.”

I spent some days with the first teacher, but they were indifferent to my presence. With their piece said, and repeated in monologue on some occasions, they were content simply to carry on as they had been, lost in the futile pursuit of dead words to nurture.

This encounter was all I had for many months. I revisited the memory constantly, but could find no ideas of my own from it. It is in this context that I must confess to my excitement when I saw the second teacher. The snow was thick, and their figure emerged unexpected from its concealing bluster. They sat in frigid meditation, shivering. I asked if they were cold, and offered, in my naïve arrogance, to build shelter.

“I am not cold.” They said, wholly impassive. “I am not anything, and nor are you. We are just parts of a whole that have acquired the chance pretence of self. Observe a snowflake, and you see a single object. Step back, and observe a blizzard. Step back again, and observe a landmass. Step back as many times as you can, and observe all existence, save for the space you occupy. Step back beyond yourself and observe the entity, the only entity. The atom claims individuality, being blind to the mind it comprises. The mind claims individuality, being blind to the universe in the same fashion.

Existence is a machine, unwatched, whose only purpose is operation. It is sealed such that this operation is hidden, as befits its lack of meaning, presenting to a fictitious watcher on the outside only a static, unitary entity. Yet within, the cogs churn and whirr, not knowing that their industry can give no product. We are these mechanisms, as is the air, as is the motion in the air between us that you perceive to be discourse. That is the folly of being. Or rather, that is the folly of thought. To be is not foolish, since being, one being, is all there is. ”

I expressed my delight at the ascetic’s wisdom, and asked if they might teach me more.

“Here you have found a second fallacy, to say nothing of your failure to observe the first.” They said, their apathy untarnished. “The folly of possibility. There is no ‘might’. Our conversation will continue, or it will not. Either way, the wheels have been in motion since forces unknown and irrelevant first put impetus into the machinery. The fact that we do not know the outcome does not equate to uncertainty. Consider the progress of an arrow, from bowstring to impact. The archer who looses it cannot say where it will land, but each factor in its trajectory is plainly already at work. So too is every aspect of our universe, which is now mid-flight. I grant that the complexity is incalculably higher, but I have already explained that any number beyond one is an illusion.”

I did not spend much time with the second teacher. Although they spoke freely, I did not feel able to grasp wisdom with their message alone. The nature of their lifestyle was too harsh on my body, and I knew that I would have to preserve myself if my journey was to be successful.

There followed a lonely period of uncertain length. The fractured balance of those parts of the world made the passage of time difficult to gauge, and I did not have the forethought to calculate it as I went. The snows receded briefly at times, affording me a view of the sky, but my star charts were long since abandoned, having been weathered beyond use.

It was a long while before that wilderness saw fit to reveal to me its contents. Imagine my excitement when, seeking cover in the furrows of a cluster of hills, I stumbled across a structure. It was made from tessellated stone of some kind, indicating that it was tremendously old, albeit mostly intact. The walls were adorned with an iconography that I recognised vaguely. Perhaps I had seen it in one of the order’s books, but the details were lost to me. It was inside this structure that I found the third teacher, lying on a roughly-assembled deathbed of their own construction. They had passed some time ago, but their remains lay surrounded by papers, on which their lessons were enshrined.

“I commit myself now to death, although my mind and body remain vital.” Read one. “Everything that lives, dies. Through this transience, it is made redundant, risible. Mind and matter are impermanent, and so to direct one’s energy towards them is wasteful. Even in indulging myself to write, I am condemning the vigour thereby spent to a fruitless demise. I shall make this error for my own false satisfaction, and for the possible enlightenment of others.”

Recognizing that I was in the presence of wisdom, I read on.

“The fact of our being sentient and corporeal is the greatest of our tragedies, because both compel us towards distraction from matters of the eternal. One pursues knowledge, another pursues experience, but both things will vanish with time. The soul will not, and it is here that you must direct your efforts if you do not wish to see them squandered.

Stepping foot upon this road, the spiritualist will find their impasse. To focus on the imperceptible is all but impossible when wholly submerged in observable media. To fail to accept this is to abandon the path, and this is unacceptable to those of us with reckoning enough to travel at all. The cure for drowning is to emerge from the water. It is not to deny the need for breath.

Born within the prison of flesh, we are sentenced to believe that our thoughts and experiences are real. This, at least to begin with, cannot be escaped. We can, however, grow to appreciate that only the inmate, the soul, is real, the victim of an innate miscarriage of justice. Upon this realisation, a sympathetic jailer will inevitably yearn for its emancipation, its chance at unimpeded actuality. Should their convictions not waver, they will find, as I have, only one solution.”

The room was warmer than the exterior, and the sage’s writings were voluminous, if increasingly less cogent as they drew closer to the end. I stayed for some time, but once each word was inscribed to memory, the time came to resume my drifting.

I now stand far from those snow-scoured plains, and further still from the answers I will need before I return to my first master. I repeat what I have learned and seen each night in my mind’s theatre, but still I find myself surrounded by dead ends and circularities. With no end in sight, I have no choice but to continue my struggle, adding complexity upon complexity until I am either freed or buried.

The Mysteries of the Horizon, 1955 by Rene Magritte

The End

Pragmatic Penalty – The Purpose of Prison

I’ve been thinking about prisons lately, which I promise has nothing to do with my recent completion of OITNB Season 4. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about what prisons should be like. To assess this we’re obviously also going to need to know what prisons are for. If we don’t have a purpose in mind, we can’t design something that fulfils it. So, there are two questions:

1: What should be the purpose of a penal system?

2: How can this purpose best be met?

As is invariably the case, most arguments that purport to be about 2 are actually about 1, and will be stymied to a considerable degree by the superficially appropriate but covertly meaningless deployment of narrowly 2-centric rhetoric. I like to be upfront about being meaningless, so I’d much rather talk about 1. In the interests of brevity (and of masking my own inability to support my nonsense with practical suggestions), I’ll leave 2 to the imagination for now. So, the question at hand is that concerning the basic, driving objective of the penal system. Simply put, what should prisons actually be doing?

Obviously, the general aim is something along the lines of “to interact with criminal activity in a way that contributes to overall social good”. That’s far too basic to act as any sort of guiding principle –  we need to take a step closer and look at some more detailed ideas. Four spring to mind: (a) that the penal system should rehabilitate offenders, (b) that it should punish them, (c) that it should protect the law-abiding public, and (d) that it should deter potential offenders. Of these, (a) and (c) stand out to me as obviously important, (d) as speciously so, and (b) as pointless. Allow me to explain.

Rehabilitation is the ideal outcome. If a penal system can take in offenders and put out ‘good’ citizens (according to whatever qualifies for ‘good’ in a given culture), then it has succeeded. Not only has a negative influence on society been removed, a positive one has been introduced. That’s as good as it gets within the realm of the plausible. Of course, only a die-hard optimist would believe that rehabilitation is always feasible under current circumstances (I’m leaving the door open here for future developments that would doubtless have their own ethical demons). There is a good possibility that some people, for reasons either innate or acquired, will simply never be a safe, benign fit into general society. Thus, there are cases where (c) has to be invoked not merely as part of the process of (a), but as an endgame unto itself. I believe this is sometimes termed “incapacitation” in penology. In other words, an optimal prison network cannot be designed solely for rehabilitation – it must also be able to protect society from individuals for whom this is not an option. This is true even relative to the clearly absurd claim that all lawbreakers are fundamentally, irreparably dangerous and unfit for cohabitation with regular citizens.

Sort it out, Piscatella.

As far as deterrence goes, my issue is not that the principle itself is meaningless. It is hard to believe that a desire not to go to prison has no impact on the incidence of criminal activity. My concern is that the extent to which it can reasonably be leveraged may well be fulfilled without any active measures being taken towards this end. Any kind of prison, even an exceptionally welcoming one, is going to entail some kind of forced loss of liberty for its inmates, at least for as long as the targeted denial of freedom remains the defining penal mechanism. If (a) is to be achieved, there will presumably be mandatory elements imposed for this purpose, elements which, whilst not expressly punitive in nature, are unlikely to be particularly enjoyable in the traditional sense. If (c) is to be achieved, inmates will have to be separated from their known environment and relocated into a new, uncertain one, populated entirely with criminals. These inherent features alone should provide ample deterrence for anybody who is essentially comfortable in life. People whose basic needs are being consistently met and who are cognitively and psychologically ‘normal’ are very easy to deter. They have no pressing reasons to engage in criminality, and they have reason to fear any drastic change in their lifestyle (such as incarceration).

What this leaves is everyone else – the people whose basic needs are not being met, or whose mental state is divergent from the norm such that they are predisposed, for whatever reason, towards actions that are criminalised by their society. Note that this covers whole swathes of very ordinary people – people who feel they have no choice but to break the law, people who are acting ‘in the heat of the moment’ without thinking, people who do not believe that they can be caught (or simply do not care), etc. Any attempts to make the concept of prison even less appealing are unlikely to have an effect on these groups, and will come at additional expense in practical and/or ethical terms. The idea that the occurrence of crime is simply a rational function of costs and benefits, risks and rewards, and nothing else is woefully deficient in its theory of mind. I appreciate that nobody really suggests anything so rudimentary, and I do not wish to imply in any way that these sorts of rational features are not important in crime prevention. Active deterrence strategies outside of the penal system may well be quite valuable (for example, demonstrations of the efficacy of law enforcement, or reminders that common minor offences are still treated as crime). Nonetheless, my main point remains – as far as the nature of prisons is concerned, the people who will be significantly affected by increasing the possible costs and risks of crime are already accounted for by virtue of features incumbent in any kind of prison.

Notionally relevant. Really I just like Piranesi.

This leads nicely on to the concept of punishment. I don’t know how many people there are who declare outright that the justice system’s role in society is to make the lives of criminals worse (or to take them away entirely), but there are certainly a great many who believe, openly or otherwise, in punishing the guilty for punishment’s sake. I do not. The idea that somebody who has caused suffering deserves suffering in turn seems to be instinctively present in humans, but it’s a trap. It’s one of those little kinks in human nature that consistently interferes with our potential for better things. This line of thought isn’t simply an artefact of my general woolly liberalness, although that may well be where I first plucked it. It can be expressed purely in cold, non-bleeding heart terms. Doing so only requires us to ask the age-old question: “What’s the point?”.

First, we can reject the idea that retributive justice or lex talionis is somehow an intrinsically valid fact of the universe, a doctrine of natural law that we are simply obliged to follow, reason be damned. Punishment is not autotelic. If we are going to introduce suffering into the world, it must be justified by a compelling end external to itself. I simply don’t see one insofar as prison is concerned.

There seems to be a pervasive idea that hurting wrongdoers somehow makes good, at least partially, for whatever wrong they have done – that if no action is taken in this direction, then the criminal has “gotten away with it”, even if they are flawlessly processed according to the actual goals of the penal system. This, too, is a trap. Suffering, perhaps regrettably, is not a zero-sum game and cannot be treated as such. Any attempts to counteract past negative sensation by creating more in the present only adds to the sum. A deliberately punitive approach offers nothing from a utilitarian perspective, unless there’s some unique benefit that I’m yet to consider. As described above, I don’t believe that harsher punishments are likely to make for more effective deterrents. It’s possible that this would change if the punishment aspect of the equation were pushed to absurd, nightmarish extremes, but this option, being ridiculous, doesn’t come into consideration. The other possibility that comes to mind is the claim that exacting a measure of vengeance brings some satisfaction to the aggrieved parties, thereby introducing some positive emotion into the world alongside the negative. Aside from my concern that this is probably not the side of human nature to which civic policy should be trying to appeal, I have serious doubts about the positive effects on wellbeing that revenge and its pursuit would need to possess for this to make any sense at all. The crux of the matter is as I put it earlier – suffering is not zero-sum. Adding to one side does not remove it from another. It just adds.

The Mighty Bosch.

So, let’s summarise. The penal system wants to rehabilitate wherever it is possible, and to defang indefinitely wherever it is not. It does not need specifically to deter, and it should not want specifically to punish.

These priorities point in some fairly apparent directions as far as implementation is concerned, but going from principles to practice is inevitably a messy transition, even when it’s all just for fun (as it is here). We have to take already-fallible reasoning, then try and imagine how it might be made to withstand constant duress from all the additional complications that the real world can muster. When talking about government policy, those complications are legion. In an ideal world, I envision prisons as being either abnormally well-secured adult educational facilities (for the purposes of rehabilitation), or humane facilities for the detention of the non-rehabilitable. As you might imagine, the specifics of this, let alone the specifics of attempting to realise it, are sizeable topics unto themselves, so for today I’ll spare you the details and (more importantly) spare myself the effort of having to contrive them. That, with the usual disclaimer of my probable idiocy, is all for now.

The Therapist, 1937 by Rene Magritte

The End.

End State

I present to you now my final words. In all likelihood, the final words. The last time that language will be employed.

It has all gone on too long. This was never the plan – if indeed there was ever a plan. There were certainly designs. Blueprints, schemata. Goals and programs. We kept advancing, never seeing how the pieces would all fit together in the end. Now we are walled in, the genius works of our own hands barring passage in all directions. Science is complete. This is the dead end to the march of human progress. Do forgive me if I am not altogether coherent. It has been a very long time indeed since any task of this nature (that is to say, writing) has been undertaken. My brain is still painfully fresh, but there’s an art to explanation that I doubt I quite have anymore.

We should all have died by now. Died, or moved on to better things. But the transcendental moment, the quantum leap… it never came. Interstellar travel, or something similar. We never made it. So we kept iterating on what else we had – energy, medicine, computational architectures. All, for want of a better word, perfected now. We have the energy to last for countless generations, and those generations span far, far longer that our unmonitored biology would allow. We have, in effect, all the time we could ever ask for, and we have not been careful in our asking. But we only have all the space in the world.

The system was too efficient. There is no threat to our survival that it cannot overcome. Nanobiological therapies are automatically prescribed and administered, centuries of back-propagation providing the machinery with the knowledge to overcome any physical ailment without any human input. Nutritionally dense synthetic compounds are applied intravenously. This is the only means of nourishment efficient enough to keep the population fed. The list, as they say, goes on. A world free of worry. Utopia. That was the idea. We couldn’t escape Earth in any meaningful sense, but we could turn inwards. Structure and technology, structure and technology. Packed as densely into every inch of society as we could manage, looping inwards on itself.

We solved cancer. The early treatments were slow, and required human oversight to reach acceptable error margins. That seemed a major step at the time. Now, of course, the idea of disease has been dead for lifetimes. This was all at a time, a long time ago, when those of us in charge of such things were entertaining two possible directions for humanity. In the first, the unanimously preferred program, we would leave Earth. Earth, we reasoned, didn’t have much life left. It was growing toxic, physically and memetically. The atmosphere was thin, the air increasingly foul. The long shadow of history proved an unacceptable source of interference, dramatically hindering all of our social projects. These problems could be left behind, and in their absence a perfect model for human existence could be created from the ground up.

Perhaps we might have managed, were it not for the breakthrough. A rogue handful within our little brain trust continued to pursue environmental technologies. Our focus was supposed to be firstly on the technologies needed for post-Earth colonisation, and then on any other projects that would still be of use once that was established. Saving Earth, the second of our options, had ceased to be considered. The ecological projects were allowed only because their fruits might still have proven useful, going forward. Nobody expected much from them, let alone an unqualified success. Within the space of one fateful year, the “green team” revealed two new designs, both large-scale mechanical structures. With these, they demonstrated that not only could the air be efficiently and rapidly detoxified, but that large amounts of energy could be cleanly sourced through a new generation of nuclear reactors. With funding, they could establish a global network of the new solutions in the time it would have taken the rest of us to establish a rudimentary, non-planetary colony fit to house fewer than a hundred people in satisfactory fashion. The decision seemed to be an easy one. We switched paths. We would save Earth.

We did save Earth. We did not save humanity.

With our efforts at post-Earth technology swiftly discontinued, we turned the instruments of progress inwards. Problems were solved, one by one, over the span of a great many years, until it seemed there were none left to solve. This, in a perfect irony, was the beginning of the problem.

By this point, the run of the planet was automated. We did not develop true artificial intelligences, since we considered the systems of our own design to be more or less perfect. All we needed were administrators and workers. Neural network-based expert systems to detect and prescribe according to our scheme, and mechanical components throughout the world infrastructure for them to manipulate. This had been the plan since the months following the environmental solution, and now, much, much, later, it was complete. The long timespan allowed us to cover the planet in groundwork, setting the stage for an entirely global network. It was now complete, the problems were solved. The previous solutions, or symptoms, as we had known them, were dead. Trade and commerce? Meaningless. The material needs of the people could all be met by the system, and the system only needed to trade with itself. Labour? Mechanised. Medicine? We now had a single, centralized body with global coverage that could diagnose and treat any known condition the instant it became detectable. Utopia, in our minds, had been achieved. Indeed, perhaps it had. For that moment alone.

Population growth began to accelerate. We had anticipated this. We had provided the people with longevity, constant leisure, and on-demand access to fertility. Suicide rates also began to accelerate. Violent crime. Instances of mental health failure. All moving far faster than our projections. We took away their suffering, so they started to make their own. We took away their death, so they continued to spew life. We had thought that we had emancipated the minds of an entire planet, giving them free reign to explore art and entertainment. We were wrong. Just as the system’s completion had killed science, so too had it killed art. The creative energy died out after just a few decades, and then there were only archives. Endless archives of ideas that had already been had, feeding minds that had already seen them. All that remained fresh were the vain attempts by a people desperate for experience. We had solved humanity, but in doing so had removed its avenues for happiness. It had never occurred to us that humanity might be insoluble, that the only answers that could ever be reached would be partial. It did not occur to us even then.

For the first time in many years (although not nearly so many as the years that have followed), we needed to intervene. Our system could account for the material needs of as many people as it needed to, one way or another. It could not account for their emotional needs. We reconvened. There was a sense of euphoria, almost, at having to reengage our minds. At losing sleep, at straining. The headaches and fatigue of old were gone, of course. Treated by pre-emptive, targeted analgesics and stimulants. But their ghost remained, stirred for the first time. Their parent, the frustration of something unresolved, could only be treated the old way.

It was far, far too late to go back to plan A, even if we had wanted too. All of the resources available to us had been entrusted to the system, and were out of our hands. Besides, there was precious little space, certainly not enough for any new facilities of the scale that would be needed to resume research into extra-terrestrial colonisation. By this point, the seas were all but filled with generators, refineries, infrastructure. The buildings stretched high at almost every point on land, all just as full with people and the organs of our system. Our minds were too tired, too dull to seriously consider the possibility of dismantling parts of what we had made. In any case, we were not even sure that anything could be safely removed. The network had built itself too efficiently, according to calculations too minute for us to unpick. Each part was needed. No, we would stay the course. We would double down. We could meet material needs, but not emotional. This could be fixed.

Below me, the population lives. In the intensive layer. They did not wish to enter. They had their notions, of freedom, of “life”. We were less naïve. We knew that these concepts were specious to begin with, and long dead by now. The answer was not in the restoration of old freedoms. It was in the acceptance of their death. We had reached the inconvenient truth that Plato, Huxley and other ancients had perhaps also found – that liberty and utopia could not co-exist. We, however, possessed the technology to achieve what they could not even theorise.

The unrest was a mourning period for the struggles of old, and we were to usher the flock into acceptance. The population, of course, had continued to surge. The available space had begun to reveal its limitations, its unsuitability for conventional life. Overcrowding was yet to occur, since our residential structures were immaculate in their calculation. Nonetheless, we knew we would have to start initiating the change. There would have to be test cases. It would take time. This was the last time in human history that this would be a concern, and we savoured the moment.

They did not wish to enter. A people starved for change would not take one, when it was presented to them. Still, they would have no choice. For centuries, they had been reliant on the network. Independence was dead. Only in modifying the system’s parameters could choice be exerted, and they did not have the keys to the kingdom. The decision was made for them. We started with the tests. These we kept secret, which was not difficult. Attempted suicides and murders were passed off as successful. The people, being apathetic, would never care enough to notice. Besides, they had experienced lifetimes of implicit trust in the medical apparatus. Such a strong foundation was greatly to our advantage. We could even pass off twin births as single to obtain infant subjects. The birthing process had become so painless, so rote, that such a thing was simple.

The tests were successful. The procedure was swiftly (in relative terms) perfected. The time had come to cross the Rubicon, for the last time – worldwide implementation. We passed our will onto the system, and the system exerted its will on the populace. Only the brain trust were exempt. This was part insurance, part punishment. We felt that we should be the ones to watch over it all, to adjust parameters, observe readings. There was no real purpose to this. It simply seemed correct that we not be party to the fruits of our own solution. Perhaps we felt guilty that it had come to this, despite our intellectual convictions. Perhaps we were simply scared. I do not recall. This was a long time ago, and the feelings have faded much more swiftly than the facts. Most of us are gone now, and I imagine I shall soon follow (although soon is not such a meaningful term in the current time), when even the system’s treatments can no longer keep me tethered. With that, the circle will be closed. Humanity will live below until such a time in the distant, distant future as forces greater than the planet wipe clean the slate.

We did the best we could. Perpetual happiness, sustainable reproduction. By discarding all else, this is what we have achieved. Humanity’s last and greatest work. Our final state. The intensive layer. In their billions, they are contained. Each one in a space no larger than their coffin would be. The wires and tubes penetrate all throughout the body, giving and taking substances in accordance with the system’s calculations. They are kept in health, safe from all harm. There is no need for anywhere beyond their designated space. Their lifespans are tremendous, but the system is self-sustaining. It will outlast them all. When they die, their materials will be reabsorbed, and their space will be filled with a new resident. The archives of old media have been destroyed, their components repurposed. There is no need for them now. The final piece of utopia’s riddle was emotion. They could not be relied upon to experience happiness when given every reason to do so, and so we have bypassed their agency in the matter. We have induced a state of perpetual bliss. Millions of fibres pierce the brain, delivering precise electronic and chemical stimuli. Neurons have no sense for context, for philosophy. For specious ideas. They only read signals, and the signals tell them that they are happy. The memory, the source of so much emotional interference, the root of all boredom and regret, is targeted and reduced to its barest essentials. For them, for all humanity, there is only the first moment of happiness, again and again. This, at least, is the theory. And it has been in practice for many decades now.

I look back and wonder. Did we succeed? Did we save them? It is too late for me to say. It has been a long life, and all that remains is to watch the years pass. Too late for questions now. It is done.

Empire of Light, 1950 by Rene Magritte

The End


Standing on the Shoulders of Giants Doesn’t Make You Small

I’ll be honest: That title is more or less my entire argument. But, having committed to the idea, I now feel obliged to stretch it out over a period of one to two thousand words.

Allow me to set the scene (and fill some space) with an anecdote:

So, it was GCSE History, which is now long enough ago to be a depressing reminder of the transience of human experience, but not so long past as to have been forgotten entirely. The class had been split into groups for an exercise in which we would, for some reason, debate the relative significance of the separate years comprising World War 1. As we all know, the best discussion occurs when opinions are imposed at random upon the participants, and so each group was assigned a year to champion. Now, WW1 is pretty densely packed. There are marquis, first-in-history type events in every year. No filler arcs in WW1. As it transpired, however, the 1914 group had been granted an insurmountable advantage. All they had to do was remark that without the outbreak of the war in that year, any given aspect of any later time would not have happened. This sense of linear dependence created the illusion that 1914 was inherently, objectively, the most important year.

Total injustice. Image: Wikipedia.

That isn’t really what I’d like to talk about (and yes, I am still bitter that even the combination of Jutland and the Somme couldn’t give 1916 a slight bump), but it’s related.  What I’d like to discuss is the unhealthy obsession that the collective consciousness seems to have with past heroes, at the expense of people currently being just as impressive today. It’s a pattern of putting the focus on the giants (with their lovely shoulders) rather than on the people still growing on top of them, of worshipping the people that laid the first stones whilst shrugging at the people still building. If you’ll pardon the hyperbole (and it’s only a shade thereof), no playwright will ever be as good as Shakespeare, nor any president as good as the founding fathers and/or Lincoln, nor any intellectual as good as an Ancient Greek with loosely corresponding interests (there’s a lot, take your pick), and so on and so forth for basically every field of human endeavour old enough to have found its consensus pantheon.

Partly, of course, this stems from the passage of time being the ultimate in tabloid journalism – simplify and exaggerate. If popular opinion dictates that somebody was a master of their field, then it’s practically a law of nature that time will see the instances of mastery enshrined and those of mediocrity forgotten. Everybody knows Romeo & Juliet. Not so many people know Timon of Athens. It can also be said that people simply want heroes, and that it’s hard to make a hero out of somebody about whom you actually know much – thus the recourse to the past.

Both perfectly interesting topics in and of themselves, but for today I’d like to focus on the unhappily reductive notion that precursion entails superiority. Consider the following quote from the woman I love, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach:

Image result for sag etwas, das sich von selbst versteht

More commonly placed over generic quote-backgrounds as:

Image result for be the first to say something obvious

The point being, of course, that neither personal genius nor a fortunate stroke of such is actually required to go down in history. What really matters is coming in first with something fundamental, a feat that naturally becomes rarer and rarer as the number of available fundamental things to invent, discover or state becomes lower and lower. This isn’t to say that fundamental things are necessarily obvious, nor that their discoverers are unworthy of appreciation. It’s just to say that the extent of the adulation that they may receive is perhaps not really commensurate to the difficulty of their accomplishments, and in any case it might be nice to redistribute some of that love and respect on to the numerous, equally talented people who were simply born too late to be the first to say something obvious in their particular areas of interest. It seems that people neglect to consider the truism that, under normal circumstances, only one person can be first.

Look at it this way: those Ancient Greeks that I mentioned were certainly all formidable thinkers, and much of what they said is rightly regarded as being of timeless significance. Equally, a lot of those timelessly significant ideas are, with the highest of regards, kind of obvious. At the very least, they are well within the grasp of any intelligent, engaged mind with the same interests under the same circumstances. The most immediate example for me is the Socratic Paradox, but there are myriad similar examples across myriad fields – hell, let’s even throw in the perennial symbol of Ancient Greek innovation, democracy. Ultimately, I truly believe that the lofty status of these individuals within the chronicle of human thought owes far less to their specific genius than it does to their specific dates of birth.

Without wishing to hammer the same nail too many times, remember the “My Man, Sir Isaac Newton” video?

To me, it’s fairly emblematic of this whole concept. Isaac Newton was undoubtedly a staggeringly good physicist with an equally potent line in mathematics, and we’re well beyond obvious discoveries by the time he’s operating – which makes it, if anything, somewhat easier to accidentally deify him. The impression that deGrasse Tyson gives, and maybe it’s just my interpretation, is that the discoveries mentioned are the proof of Newton’s unique brilliance. In other words, that it took Newton, and specifically Newton, to make them. Moreover, the video shows (again, my interpretation) the regrettably widespread perception of discovery as being the highest form of achievement, and of fundamentality as the measure of discovery. Ultimately, I don’t think that these things are true. In all likelihood, there were Newtons before Newton, there have been Newtons since, and there will continue to be Newtons going forward. It’s just that these people, existing at different points in the slapstick, drunken march of human progress (not to mention every other difference) will necessarily have expressed their excellence in different ways.

The actual message to be gleaned from all this is an uncharacteristically positive one. I’m not trying to say that the great and the good throughout history have all been overrated, unworthy beneficiaries of cognitive bias and fortuitous timing. I’m trying to say that the great and the good of today are being underrated, pitted against their equals in a contest with unfair, fallacious errors against them. They’re the Battle of the Somme trying to compete with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand before a judiciary that only cares about causation. The Einsteins, the Mozarts, and the Aristotles of the modern era are flying under the radar because the world has changed, and the criteria of appraisal massively favour their predecessors. Today’s Euclid can’t write an equivalent to Elements, because that time has been and gone. However, they can certainly do something equally spicy. It will just occur much further down the mathematical rabbit hole, and so appear much less impressive according to a decidedly muddled set of values. So, while it’s great that Neil deGrasse Tyson, a relatively loud and beloved voice in science, is going out and explaining what was so good about Isaac Newton, I’d much rather he take that time to explain what’s so good about one of the many no doubt extravagantly brilliant people currently standing both on Newton’s shoulders and in his shadow.

Although, as ever, I may be fundamentally mistaken.

Not to Be Reproduced, 1937 by Rene Magritte

The End.

P.S. Ever noticed how frequently sci-fi and fantasy fiction gives us precursor races/cultures that are vastly superior to the present civilisation? No further comment.

Donald Trump is a Fad Diet

One day, somebody will compile the statistics for new blogs in the early months of 2017. They’ll look at how many more people started writing now than the same time last year, and then they’ll look at how many of those people immediately started talking about Donald Trump. I expect those numbers to be pretty close to one another, and I’m more than happy to oblige myself on that front. Realistically, this isn’t even really about Donald. Trump is just bankable right now, a fact that I’m shameless enough to exploit, but also sheepish enough to feel the need to lampshade.

Disclaimer: The following is a generalisation, intended only to demonstrate and discuss the principles underlying one pillar of the right’s recent success. If it were humanly possible to write a full disclaimer extolling the universal individuality of humanity, my desire not to denigrate or make assumptions (despite the occasionally curt nature of the language used), etc., I would do so here. Since it is not, I will have to trust the reader to take everything in good faith.

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Image: The Independent. Adding some journalistic credibility to my nonsense.

Politics is an interesting discipline, in that there is a vast, qualitative gulf between political thought and the meaningful execution of those same thoughts. To indulge in some rather crass divisions, the former is mostly philosophy, the latter an exciting cocktail of social science and thick, viscous bureaucracy. The translation from one to the other is doomed to imperfection – it’s why ideas like cosmopolitanism and (real) communism can have persisted for literal millennia without ever really existing outside of theory. The sad truth is that these two halves of the political world are not of equal significance, and the primacy lies fairly clearly with the latter. An idea that can’t be implemented is absolutely worth having, but it’s essentially trapped until somebody comes along with the nous to emancipate it. In other words, politics as it applies to somebody like me (a disgusting milksop with no sense for praxis) is basically about ideas. Politics as it applies to politicians is more about trying to coerce a variety of barriers into letting an idea through. In a democracy, the first and most important gatekeeper from this perspective is the electorate, be that your own political party or the general public. If you can’t win elections or referenda, you are dead on arrival. The ideas that you represent remain imprisoned.

Now, on rare occasions the world may be blessed (or cursed) with a legitimate natural, somebody who is equally, intensely proficient in philosophy, demagogy, and administrative strategy. I don’t feel too risqué in saying that there isn’t currently anybody operating on that level, although I’m sure I can think of at least one person who would disagree. In the absence of such a living legend, priority number one for any political brand is marketing. Policy barely matters at all compared to the ability to sell it, as long as what is being suggested is even notionally presentable – and as we’re seeing now, it really doesn’t need to be any more than that. Mandatory goat ownership for all citizens might be a stretch, but you can absolutely make homophobia work, despite the former being if anything more relevant in affairs of state.

The irony of all this is that, in the current climate, highly conservative groups have by far the sleekest, most modern sales pitch. Consider television and internet advertising: a whole swathe of it is gaudy, artless, mildly to severely offensive, and has no respect for the audience’s intelligence. It seems like it should be totally ineffectual, and, indeed, nobody will admit that it could possibly influence their purchases. Clearly, however, it isn’t and it does. With Trump’s election and continued shenanigans, I believe that the political sphere will finally be forced to accept the same of the new strain of right-wing movements that he so aptly caricatures. It’s only bad politics until it keeps winning.

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Le’s see how that turns out. Image: Still The Independent.

The analogy here is completed by the fact that these campaigns are succeeding using moves straight from the commercial sector’s playbook. I’m sure that there are countless ways to sell a product, but the one that I see more than perhaps any other goes as follows.

1: Encourage a negative emotional response in the audience.

2: Offer a simple way to resolve that troublesome emotion.

Clear problem (1), clear solution (2).

Picture the scene.

A man/woman sits, indolent, on their sofa. They’re not looking too good. On the seat next to them, clearly visible even through the pallor of tactless desaturation, is a box half full of retch-inducingly oleaginous pizza. The voiceover informs you dispassionately of the myriad perils of an unhealthy diet. This man/woman, like you, is a flabby wreck trapped in an agonising, self-imposed death march.

But, don’t worry – there’s a solution. All you need to do in order to be the vibrant, beautiful person you now see on the screen, frolicking in a park with their equally beauteous friends, is to follow Donald’s five rules for perfect health. Finally something that works! Nutritionists hate him!

Or something along those lines. Accentuate the negative sentiments already present, then offer a straightforward route away from them.

People right now feel doomed and powerless. Global economic, scientific, and social processes have become more and more inscrutable, but their effects are as palpable as ever on the ground floor. The availability of information has grown exponentially, but the limits on how much can be healthily processed remain constant. We are more frequently reminded of every calamity, present or predicted, than ever before, just as the complexity of these situations eclipses our understanding by ever greater margins. There are whole demographics whose thoughts and skills once represented modernity and power, but now appear woefully outdated, even to themselves.

And while you may think that all of this is basically true, actually saying that is a terrible way to try and get people to vote for you – unless you can also convince them that you have the answer in your back pocket.

So, Clinton and Trump both want to sell you a new regime, which is good wordplay, because that can mean both a governing body and a set of dietary practices. How clever.

Anyway, Clinton walks up to the podium and talks for a long time about the tremendous nuance and depth of nutritional science. She describes how there are a vast number of opaque moving parts, which in any case are governed by equally many nebulous contextual factors. Your current diet isn’t ideal, and is only likely to get worse, which will raise your risk of diabetes and heart disease. You’ll have to maintain a disciplined, balanced diet, not to mention take up regular exercise, if you want to turn things around. Within a few months, you should start seeing improvements if you’ve been diligent and intelligent.

The response to this pitch is tepid.

Out comes Trump. The food companies are making you all obese, and you will die of fatness and/or cancer. But it’s OK. Carbs make you fat. Don’t eat carbs and everything will be better.

The crowd goes wild.

If you want to market a probiotic yoghurt, do you offer a detailed explanation of the intestinal ecosystem? Of course you don’t, you lunatic.  You remind people that they are in pain, and then you tell them you have some friendly bacteria right here that can stop it. Same rules apply.

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Image: Digital Spy.

To re-iterate: clear problem, clear solution. The more scared your audience is already and the more distant the answers seem to be, the better they will respond. At present, voters worldwide are primed to a degree and breadth that is perhaps unprecedented, and only the proponents of one traditionally fringe ideology are benefiting: in part because of shrewd messaging, and in part because this is how these groups have always worked. By way of (yet more, yet cruder) examples:

Crime and unemployment? Mexicans are rapists who have also stolen your job. Build a wall.

The international community? Brussels has stolen all of your money. Leave the EU entirely.

The penal system? Criminals are rapists who are admittedly not currently stealing your job. They deserve nothing. Death penalty, or at the very least as many cuts as you can make.

Energy? Climate activists have forced us to buy energy from China. Climate change isn’t even real. Dig coal.

And, of course, Terrorism. Muslims are terrorists. Ban Muslims.

You may have detected some minor exaggerations, but I hope I’ve communicated my thoughts with at least some degree of clarity. Right now, owing to a confluence of unfortunate circumstances, people are increasingly arriving at a state of mind that is better spoken to on the above terms than by more traditional political rhetoric. It would be easy to bemoan the intellectual state of the general public, but that would be missing the point. People aren’t any stupider now than we always have been, and in any case ‘intelligence’, whatever we take that to mean, is secretly barely relevant. Regardless of alignment, people vote according to emotion, informed to varying extents by reason. Hearts and minds – but only ever in that order.

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Like this, but with Joy somewhere in the distant background. Image: Disney Movies.

The demand for clear problems and solutions is more vociferous than it has been in recent memory, owing, in my opinion, to the spiralling complexity of both. Centrist and leftist groups are not providing them, the right is, and so the right, and moreover the far right, seems for now to be ascendant. As described all the way at the beginning, I don’t think ideology is as important as presentation in ‘competitive politics’ – when it comes to gaining votes, you can plug any basically relevant ideas you want into the winning presentational formula and come out looking healthier than you were before. If the far right’s campaign model is indeed the most effective of anything currently in use (with all the saddening implications thereby entailed), then there isn’t any reason why centrist and left-wing groups can’t be applying it to their own ideals, unless:

A: These groups simply don’t acknowledge its efficacy and genuinely believe their own messaging to be more effective at reaching modern voters.

B: These groups do acknowledge its efficacy, but are unwilling to employ it themselves because they find it unsavoury.

C: I am wrong, and this approach is uniquely suited to right-wing politics.

D: Something else I haven’t thought of/some other way in which I am wrong.

In any case, what happens now may well be a test of conviction. ‘Clear problems, clear solutions’, or fad diet salesmanship, is obviously a somewhat distasteful mode of operation. It demands that the user deliberately fail to divulge some pieces of relevant information, and deliberately overstate the relevance of others.  It forces them, in essence, to employ the logic of a con artist. That is unfortunate, but equally so is the fact that the most virtuous, truthful, edifying political discourse in the world isn’t going to help anybody if the electorate isn’t in the right place to hear it. That door is extremely unlikely to blow open of its own accord. If you, as a political actor, don’t believe that the current direction of world politics is a productive one, then you are compelled to put in the work to try and change course. In the absence of a paradigm-shiftingly major event or the appearance of a new, unstoppably compelling political figure, it may now be in the best ideological interests of politicians, regardless of inclination, to start working outside of the comfort zones that their senses of pride or propriety would usually dictate.

Just thinking out loud. Please don’t hurt me.

Elective Affinities, 1933 by Rene Magritte

The End.