A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Change Your Ways

“If’n you want to live in this town, Mister, you gotta change your ways!” Some version of this admonition has long been common in small town life around the world. ‘Critical mass’ population growth and the related anonymity have led to the different strategy of finding others of similar behavior rather than ‘fitting in’ to the more heterogeneous whole. So, rather than individuals adapting to a community whose contact with reality is broadly and environmentally based, individuals adapt to a community of interest representing a point of view and behaviors that are supported within their communities of interest – behaviors thus extended in their range of possibility well beyond the adaptations associated with a heterogeneous community. It is, then, the various communities of interest that must adapt together to form the larger total community that has in our origins been the point or points of environmental relationship. This strains the human capacity to fit into biophysical reality.

Immediate adaptation is always the primary concern. Only a small percentage of people are so composed by their nature and experience to bring consciousness process to longer term views of fitting into the environmental order. This was a very functional design in small communities. A thousand people could have their Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph or Tolstoy plugged into the universe of experience and possibility while they continued to worry about their numbers of horses, getting just the right colors on a war shirt or bringing in a grain crop. But a convention of funeral directors tend to focus on their issues, Wall Street investors on theirs, war protesters on theirs, the LGBT community on theirs, teachers on theirs, politicians on theirs, and so on. Power relations come to dominate environmental relations, and soon enough only the power relations are seen as “reality.”

Once a critical mass is reached there is no limit to the form of the presentment of the community of interest’s idea or ideology. The process of adaptation takes on the perverse character of a positive feedback system rather than a negative one: success in the community of interest comes with increasingly narrow and strident positioning and is not supported by accommodating and inclusive views. When everyone is essential alike only stark differences in the most dramatic directions make one visible. And in such a situation the deviance of the views is measured from the most recent extreme not from some total community standard.

It is no wonder that genetically nearly identical humans, also with the vast majority of their life experience quite similar, can come to an almost total impasse of understanding. We are ultimately limited by our capacity and experience; when our adaptation, from some real perspective, is to madness, then we believe and act in madness. Our present social and political design is created by and supports the creation of social units that adapt into states of madness [1].

I am not suggesting that we can return to small, environmentally based communities (with all their short comings by our enlightened present standards). I am not suggesting that we should return to them. I am suggesting that we must reconstruct the incentive systems associated with such communities. There is no absolute guide to truth, no prefect way to be an animal in the ecosystem, not even a perfect way to be a species of animal in an ecosystem. There is a process of adaptation that brings much of the organism’s actions into some homeostatic relationship with the biophysical space. The human unit of the ecosystem community was in such a state of dynamic equilibrium; that is, the incentives on individuals were such that the community functioned as an adaptive unit in the environment.

Humans today, in large numbers, believe that they are independent of biophysical reality, that we are special in ways that have defeated biology, chemistry and physics: this is, of course, madness. And the many who believe this have come to it by the incentives that have formed along with our great numbers.

There are only two ways to address the fact that: “If’n we all are to keep living here, we gotta change our ways.” First, such changes will not come from the leaders arrived at by the present incentive system – not from presidents, congressmen, coup formed dictators, corporate types or even most activist leaders. This has to come from millions and millions of people who simply can’t see how to go on as we are going.

Much of the world’s population is, in a way similar to keeping of slaves illiterate of written language and geography, being kept ignorant of economics, politics, business and even their best interests. Vast fortunes are being spent to control the flow of information and to maintain an amorphous emotional state of uncertainty and mild desperation. But the fortunes are only a pittance compared to the amounts that can be sucked out of millions and billions of small transactions driven by the incentives created by such control and fear.

The Great Many are, however, fully formed humans with all the capacities therein. Education, real education, so called grass-roots action, is the only way. People speaking to other people with as much honesty as they can muster, people simply letting their worries and concerns be part of a local social context would begin to change our incentives.

This will happen, this has to happen, because nothing else can happen. The madness and the electronic isolation of our lives, the fear of economic insecurity, of accident, of sickness, can only be kept silent so long. Sure, some will die alone in tiny rooms, silent to the end, but we are, finally, a noisy species.

I am calling for and presaging a great and messy time, a dangerous time, when we begin again to adapt to each other and the immediacies of our world, independent of the institutions of madness that have led us so far toward our destruction. I cannot see clearly how we can do this and yet I know that we will have to; no other action, other than individual and personal defeat, is available. This fact is staring more and more of us in the face everyday.

[1] Madness is here defined as the failure to act and believe with an appreciation of biophysical reality. This comports generally with the psychiatric notion of insanity as the failure to function in reality. In my view the biology, chemistry and physics of the planet is the base reality of living existence and must be the base reality of our actions.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Where is the Anger?

Where is the anger that there are people who don’t have time to prepare food from fresh raw beginnings? Where is the anger that people are not receiving education sufficient to allow them to read the labels on the foods that they eat and drink? Where is the anger that people are forced to abandon their children to TV, Video games, peers and gangs rather than walking or driving them to school and greeting them at the door in the afternoon, rather than visiting the schools to see the lives those ‘oh so precious children' are living during the day? Where is the anger that people can work two minimum wage jobs and still not be able to afford a safe place to live or safe and wholesome food to eat?

Where is the anger that other humans have so gamed the economic designs that they collect for themselves hundreds, thousands and millions of times as much of the substance of the world as others of their kind? Where is the anger that the people who do so justify their greed by denying that they are like the rest, justify their accumulation by claims of superiority rather than fortuity (from the root word that gives us ‘fortune’)? Where is the anger that one percent of the world’s people have gathered to themselves, depending on how it is measured, between 50 and 90 percent of the productivity of the planet’s natural systems?

Where is the anger that our media has so distorted the process of reporting to us the events of the world, the very information that allows us to act responsibly and meaningfully, that lies cannot be separated from the truth? Where is the anger that we are ignored by power and denied the information that would inform us sufficiently that we could demand to be heard?

Where is the anger that those with economic and political power can decide that we should live or die for their interests and not for ours? Where is the anger that the US congress is preparing to pass laws that will enrich insurance executives and others in the economic elite by controlling the delivery of healthcare services? Where is the anger that billions of dollars are being lavished on congress to buy a decision that will collect hundreds of billions from us all in tiny life determining bits?

Where is the anger that our sons and daughters are being chewed up physically and mentally in wars for economic domination – our children as foot soldiers for the economic elite? Where is the anger that the human capacity for adaptation and invention is being turned to tools for soulless wars where our children are in spotless rooms driving machines thousands of miles away, delivering dirty and soulless death and maiming for reasons that they and we do not understand, delivering death to people and to lands that we cannot even find on the map?

Where is the anger that thousands of species of living things – living things whose genetic legacy of survival, billions of years of continuity, is the same as ours – are being removed from the universe forever every year as a consequence of our mad expansion into every nook and cranny of the living space? Where is the anger (and the fear) that this will doom us as surely as shooting holes in our lifeboat will doom all therein?

I feel the anger beginning. I see it in the completely insane bigotry of the hard right – beginning to bubble like the first sizzling sound of a heating pot. I can see that mad anger infecting the nascent frustration of the above questions; can see the options clarified to real action rather than hopeful impotence. If it comes as I suspect it will, it will come messy and it will come dangerous, and it will change all that we know: for the better or for the worse; that part will be up to us.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Planning Ahead: smoke signals and cell phones

I once lived, for several years, in a small log cabin in the mountains of northern New Mexico. No running water, no gas. We had electricity and a phone – I had a business in town and these were essential – but cooking and heating were fueled with wood; I cut, hauled and split every cord. Oak, maple, piñon, juniper, and pine mostly, with the occasional fruit wood when an apricot or apple tree died. I also built a room on the cabin, selecting the trees from the forest above the cabin, cutting, hauling, peeling, sorting, stacking and drying them for a year before building.

“A watched pot never boils.” The cooking stove was also the major source of heat. It was a big white Home Comfort stove with warming boxes and a water-heating tank. I had heard that saying applied metaphorically since I was a child, but using a wood stove made clear its origin.

In the winter I would get up at 5 am and light the stove with the coals from the previous evening. A little pile of dried oak twigs and a few splinters of sap-filled pine or piñon were prepared and ready, and several finger sized and somewhat larger sticks of maple were in the wood box ready to bring the stove to life. A few pieces of this year’s oak (a wetter wood) topped off the mix to make a fire that would grow hot and sustain.

It was a way of life that spread its activities and connections across the days and seasons. Unless the woodlot was growing with all the right woods through out the summer and fall, the late winter days would be uncomfortable and rushed. I learned the first winter when I had to cut wood in the dark to stay warm for the evening and the next day: there was no getting ahead. A cold day and cold night demanded its payment of fuel. The next winter the woodlot was tended, saws sharpened and axes ready.

It was a life lived in the moment by planning ahead. The year had a form and a function, and each day was its moment. It was not a world of day-minders and to-do lists (although my business world often slipped into the mountains with its calendars, lists and even computers…), but was, in its very design, its own image and expression of the future. There was no need to write on the calendar, “pick apples”, or “gather raspberries.” The woodpile, to the experienced eye, laid out the year’s work, reforming it exactly with every subtraction and addition. The water in the various gravity flow devices ‘wrote’ the time and amount of the next trip to the spring.

And many other things required a thoughtfulness of preparation for such a life to be comfortable and inconsequential: food, cars, outhouse, medical supplies, tools in general and special tools in particular, protection and all the minor and major emergencies of ourselves and others who came within our region of opportunity and responsibility. Often little things like being able to tell the condition of the fire in the wood stove from the smoke and lines of heat coming from the kitchen chimney helped clarify how a ski trip up the mountain would go.

I am struck by the difference in the construction of experience created by a central heating system, a water heater, running water, paved roads, mechanics and cell phones. I find that I cannot explain the gracefulness of my life in the mountain cabin to young people (I have ‘un-retired’ for a time to teach in high school).

My grown children humor me. I say things like, “I’ll be there at 9 next Saturday morning.”, speaking of some event several days in the future. They play along and show up. But that is not how they do things: much of their world is arranged across town and cross-country in the last 15 to 30 minutes on a cell phone. Even their jobs have flex-schedules that instant-everywhere-communication organizes within a half-day window. The question, ‘What will you be doing in six months?’, is meet with bewilderment by many of the people I know; what they will be doing in the next hour or two requires a little flurry of phone calls.

I can almost hear some particularly precocious student telling me that the immediacy of walking by a ripe raspberry is the same as the immediacy of a cell phone call, and I would certainly see their point: both are cued and happening in the moment. But the raspberry has been growing in that spot year after year; it leafed out in the spring, bloomed in the late spring-early summer and fruited in the late summer. Birds, squirrels, bears and I have been watching. I can’t speak for the bears, but I am reminded by an increasing recollection of a taste sensation as the flowers fall away and the berries grow and ripen. I don’t think that this is how a cell phone is organized in the cognitive space [1].

I find that I really don’t like planning ahead and do much better when immersed in an environment like the mountain cabin where living in the moment is the plan to make a possible, even comfortable, future. The chill of a particularly cold winter night can be viscerally recalled on a warm summer day; a walk with an axe and saw into a beautiful stand of small oaks just seems to happen.

A cell phone seems to serve the same humanly mental need. It helps to avoid planning ahead, but also allows, even encourages, disconnection from the larger experience of the living space. I have seen my daughters decide that they want something to eat, get in a car without any idea of where they are going, call for takeout on the way, arrange to meet a friend, add to their order, change location for the meeting, change which friends they are meeting and then decide to go to a movie all over a couple of hours without anyone (of the now 3,4,5 people) having a commitment to an action more than 20 minutes into the future. This has to influence the shape and form of the cognitive space.

Without judging (though I personally prefer cutting firewood in June for the first fall fires on cool late September mornings), it is still vitally important that we consider the consequences of the objects and functions that we add so quickly into our daily lives. Cell phones are only one example. These things change us, change how we think, change our daily patterns, change what and the way that we believe, change what we hold to be important and ultimate change who we are as a species.

[1] I had a cell phone in the 1990s, a big thing in a carrying bag with a hand set separate from the receiver; so while generally ignorant of the mentality, I am not completely so. I see that some students become visibly shaken and nervous when separated from their phone as though I had turned off their pace-maker. This convinces me that I don’t really have a grasp of the deeper reality of the instrument.