Archive for the ‘Science and Technology’ Category


Rise of the Planet of the Apps

March 2, 2013
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

Our local paper recently featured a story about our zoo’s cutting edge program that gives iPads to our orangutans, Teak, Bella, Segundo, and Amber. The stated purpose is to provide mental stimulation that helps prevent boredom and depression. Without the slightest sense of irony, the zoo officials go on to explain that “Freedom of choice is critical to their well-being.” Good grief, of course they are bored and depressed. They are prisoners. If the doors were opened I doubt they’d stick around to play with the iPads. A friend suggested that for amusement the orangutans be shown Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Or was that Planet of the Apps?

As I reflected on this my mind turned to my own students, iPads in hand as they chart a brave new world of education. As with the apes, many students have regarded their formal education as a form of imprisonment. No less an authority than Professor A. Cooper gave expression to the general sentiment in his seminal work School’s Out For Summer.  Indeed, like prison, the reward of graduation is to finally “get out.” I suspect this may be as true for doctoral candidates as for high schoolers. Of course, the iPad is being promoted as a form of engagement, which it certainly is. But to what degree is it liberating? We have probably all read critiques of our cyber-age and the anomie it engenders. Are we happier, more fulfilled, living better lives than before? Is cyber community a complement to or a substitute for earlier forms of community?

Framing this in a Beckerian perspective, do the iPads reflect a genuflection at the altar of our new god Technos who has stepped into the void created by the demise of standard brand religious and cultural myths?  Facing myriad problems, insofar as we place faith in anything, we seem to place our faith in technology, even for our orangutans. One of Becker’s most compelling images is that of the philistine, which he borrowed from Kierkegaard. The modern philistine loses himself in the minutia of the daily routine and thereby represses existential anxiety. Does our technology allow us to maintain a distracted existence? Watching my students jump around the internet on their down time, that seems to be the case. I’m always mentally comparing these students to their predecessors in terms of their general awareness of the world and the issues we face. I should hasten to add that I am not talking down today’s  kids. They are simply what I see before me and I suspect the same distracted consciousness exists across generations.

I recently read The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter In A Distracted Time by David Ulin.  He makes the case for reading as a type of depth experience that leads to both a clearer understanding of self and at the same time a sort of negation of self as we turn the reins of our consciousness over to another. It is this sort of dialectical inner conversation between the author and the reader that produces the consciousness of an avid reader, at once adventurous and discriminating. He goes on to analyze the availability of such an experience on iPads, Kindles, and the like. I return here to the freedom of choice offered to the orangutans on their iPads. What is the difference between amusement and insight, between accessing data and entering the mind of another?  Like the orangutans, we are prisoners of a sort, confined by our mortal condition. Unlike the orangutan, our boredom and depression—and I would add here our self-conscious anxiety—is unlikely to be assuaged by the amusement the iPad provides. No, we are a different kind of prisoner and require something deeper. This may seem completely obvious, but I see people losing themselves in the surface components of technology as surely as Kierkegaard observed the philistines of his day. As we chart a course forward, how will we mediate technological change so as to live rich and productive lives? For me, it will entail a self-conscious effort to continue in-depth reading as well as pursuing in-depth conversations that involve eye-contact. Without such a self-conscious effort we may find ourselves more and more like the orangutans, prisoners of a lower order. Okay, enough of that. It’s time to check Facebook.


Peak Complexity, Peak Oil, Peak Terror

October 17, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

I was fortunate to hear University of Washington professor Phillip Hansten’s talk at the recent EBF Fall Conference. His topic was what he refers to as “premature factulation,” which he defines as “the process of coming to conclusions without adequate study or contemplation; usually applied to complex concepts or situations.” The diagram below represents the basic dynamic.

Premature Factulation

Hansten’s book Premature Factulation provides many examples of this process as well as prescriptions for dealing more successfully with complex issues. Peppered with quotes from great thinkers across the ages, this book has the synthetic feel of Becker’s work and I recommend it.

As I looked at the Hansten diagram, M. King Hubbert’s famous oil depletion curve appeared in my mind’s eye. Hubbert’s Peak, as it is called, explains that the rate at which oil can be extracted follows a Bell curve and further, calculates that such a peak has already been reached. Indeed, global production of oil reached its apex in 2005. The economic downturn that followed shortly thereafter reflects our inability to project future growth based on cheap energy. Economic contraction is the new reality, regardless of which political party is victorious or what the consumers want. The laws of physics seem to stand quite independent of human desire.

As I compared the two models, the first thing that struck me was the role of complexity in the first half of the curve. The dramatic growth curve that has accompanied the age of oil really took off in the post-WWII era with the Green Revolution quadrupling global population and the advent of modern consumer culture more than quadrupling our, for lack of a better term, stuff. Indeed, our Apollonian ascent, which has provided the basic template for progress and heroism, has been fueled by vast amounts of cheap, easy-to-get oil. As we pass through this gate of history, we bear witness to the consequences of the collapsing hyper-complexity, from our undecipherable financial instruments to our interconnected food and energy delivery systems, to our far-flung military superstructure and beyond. The stop-and-start nature of our economic recovery is evidence of the change as a recalibration ensues and we continually adjust to the new normal, downscaling and localizing. Elsewhere I have suggested the emergent localism as an opportunity for a more practical heroism of scale involving more face-to-face interactions. At the same time, it is potentially an opportunity for panic and terror on scale that is horrific.

When considering the potential for panic and horror I often direct my students toward reflecting on our biggest symbols, like the cross or the flag, as a way of understanding symbolic immortality and its consequences. Reflecting again, in light of Hansten’s presentation, the very complexity of our symbolic immortality system really comes to the fore. It’s not just the archetypal symbols, it’s all the little stuff we take for granted; the designer label, the exclusive membership, the branded product loyalty.  I’m guessing that this is where the early apprehension of panic will register. Ernest Becker’s ideas would be most useful at this point in the process, giving the better angels of our nature, if not ground to stand on, at least ground to hover over. Here, at the tipping point, Becker’s work could paradoxically be a life saver. The question is how to get the word out.  I have advocated getting Becker in the hands of artists, the re-mythologizers who could get these ideas to a mass audience.

While still maintaining this view, Hansten’s model provided new insight.

Since encountering Becker I’ve been frustrated, as I’m sure some of you have as well, by the difficulty of getting folks to pick up on his work. The ideas are so important, the argument so well crafted, and with the Mortality Salience Hypothesis so demonstrable, how can people not get it? The voice of Becker whispers, “Yes, Bill, it’s called denial.” Okay, I get that. Still … this is where Hansten’s model is helpful. Upon reaching peak complexity in the problem-solving process, and having done the requisite reflection, an ideational breakthrough occurs, which Hansten calls “enlightened simplification.” As it is applied in the real world, it becomes “authentic simplicity.”  What might this mean for our problem of peak oil and peak terror? It indicates that there may be a point at which a significant part of our culture of denial can give way to more authentic realism. One reason that denial is so readily available to moderns is the very complexity of our world. We can readily be the Kierkegaardian philistine, distracted by the trivial. As the nature of our predicament becomes more apparent, we will have less time for trivia and necessarily more focused on the basics. Much like the addict who must hit bottom to escape his own denial, so too our culture must sober up to move forward. Becker’s ideas, I believe, will find a more receptive audience as the crisis deepens. The power and simplicity of his core insights will match the “authentic simplicity” our earthier society will require.


Your iPhone, Creaturely Motives, and Prosthetic Identity

September 18, 2012

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

When tech makes you feel superhuman.

Recently psychiatrist John Wynn posted a nifty essay about people’s passionate identification with the late Steve Jobs and the remarkable iPhone.  Here’s an excerpt:

Saying, in essence, “I revere Steve Jobs, therefore I will buy the phone he designed,” can be translated as, “my life feels fuller, more meaningful and secure, because of my affiliation with this powerful figure.” Carrying and using the device we are reminded throughout the day of our seamless participation in a world of brilliant innovation and beauty. Adding apps, chatting with Siri, video-chatting with friends and loved ones all deepens our sense of participation with Mr. Jobs, his beautiful designs, and the infinite future of technological advance and aesthetic refinement.

 The iPhone is a totem, an emblematic object of spiritual significance that conveys power and safety to the bearer. We’ve come a long way since amulets and rabbit feet warded off bad luck; now we have infinite contact with an infinite world of information, creativity and connection. New owners fondle their iPhones, show them to whoever will look, and ponder adding any of over 500,000 apps — to equipment that already just received over 200 enhancements. Perhaps the “i” in iPhone stands for “infinite,” as in the infinite pursuit of technology as an end in itself. . . . [The] passion surrounding the inventor’s death shows us that the phone is invested with much more power: it comforts and reassures us by warding off our own fears of death, and our awareness of our mortality.1

This argument explains the magic of the iphone as partly an effect of transference—hero-worship. From helpless infancy on, we’re disposed to identify with powerful figures who can protect us and fulfill our needs.  In a way, Steve Jobs has joined the “immortal” Albert Einstein as a larger-than-life and ambiguously superhuman hero.  His gizmo, the iphone, has a similar kind of special potency that makes it a “totem” or fetish, ambiguously supernatural.  As the psychiatrist reminds us, “Consciously nobody is saying to himself, ‘I bought this thing so I can live forever.’ But nevertheless, the machine can arouse feelings of special powers and confidence that makes you feel exceptional.

And exceptional is how you want to feel when you’re one of billions of bipeds under stress and wide open to the infirmities and terrors of flesh you’re heir to.

Suppose we expand on this account.  Suppose we use the iPhone to think about technology in relation to creaturely motives and prosthetic identity.

A few blogs back (“Semper Fido“) we were remarking on our peculiar vulnerability among the animals. We’re brainy but with no armor, feeble claws, prolonged helpless childhood—and we know we die. In response we find ingenious ways to magnify our capability and feel bigger than enemies and death. Among our creaturely motives are appetites for more life—more food, sex, more discoveries, more self-expansion. The marginal creature wants to be bigger and more meaningful. Feeling like a bigshot—feeling more important—promises to protect morale.  As in slang, “Keep your spirits up, big fella.”

How do we cope with these limits?

Among animals, we’re virtuoso tool-makers, continually expanding our selves through prosthetic engagement with the world.  We develop relationships which magnify our adaptive powers and symbolically make up for our creaturely limits. Your fist won’t bag a gazelle for supper, but a stick, a stone, a flint, or a bullet could feed you. The executive brain may imagine that you are your mind, and the tool is a handy external convenience. But in fact tool-use is a creaturely motive, built into us as it is in some of our primate cousins. In this sense, whatever else you are, you are your tools and tool-using motives as well.  And once you start thinking in this direction, you see that almost everything in our lives has the character of a tool, from art to theology and dandruff shampoo. You can also see that an intense identification with tools risks reducing the self to an apparatus for use. The potency of the tool can become the potency of the self, as in the fanatical attitudes of some gun owners toward their weapons.

I like the term “prosthetic” to describe our relationship to tools.  As partly symbolic creatures, we routinely imagine ourselves surpassing our actual biological limits. In this sense a tool such as the wheel is compensating for a biological lack the way an artificial limb does. It’s making up for something missing. To put it another way, our lifelong childlike flexibility as animals means that we’re  always potential as well as actual creatures. Which is another way of characterizing us as problem-solving animals.  It’s how we’re built.

Is it any wonder people identify with their iPhones? The gizmo magnifies you, and it embodies you.  It substantiates you. Let’s keep in mind that the self is not a thing.  It’s an event, and an evanescent biochemical and symbolic event at that. It’s a halo of possibilities. It can’t be weighed or X-rayed or ribbon-wrapped. As social animals, we live by continually substantiating one another. Every “Hello” corroborates that you and the other dude exist. When you press the flesh in a handshake or a hug, you’re making more real the envelope of the self. When the corroboration is really strong, fortified by endorphins and the symbolic vitamins of intimacy, you actually feel as if, in the wisdom of slang, you’re “getting real.”  Meaning, more real, more alive, bigger, pregnant with possibility. There’s more you.

Back to the iPhone. By expanding your voice over unimaginable distances, potentially everywhere, the machine puts you in the world. It may record you and your relationships with others as sound or a photo. With its ever-increasing new apps, the device even mimics our own extraordinary adaptability as animals, and our capacity for multiplicity and overlays of experience.

Critics can object that the phone is “just” electrons and facsimiles of “real life.” You’re not really nose to nose with your sweetie a thousand miles away, so don’t get carried away, pal. But the truth is, real life is also a facsimile. Again, the self is not an object but an event continually recreated in an imaginative zone of symbolic fizz and overlays of tacitness.

In the most basic sense, we live by enabling fictions. We readily invoke a “me,” but we have to keep simplifying our “life stories,” making them artificially consistent so that the self and the overwhelming world will be manageable. We continually finesse our ambivalence so we can get up in the morning and reach for a tool such as hot coffee that enables us to get started. If you’re on this expedition up da Nile, you know in the back of your mind that you have to simplify yourself and the world, but you accept this falsification because our sense of “as if” keeps us from feeling turned into a mechanism.  Like intuition, “as ifness” gives life space three dimensions and color.

With its programs and purposeful apps, the iphone suddenly appears as a fabulously ambivalent enabling fiction.  It expands you, it makes you real. It also simplifies you, making you usefully artificial as denial does. It proves you’re alive even as it potentially dissolves your voice and identity into the aether.

Modernism is a period of radical prosthetic development in human identity.  Only within the past century or so have we become creatures whose bare feet rarely if ever touch the ground; who can see inside our bodies; artificially propagate ourselves in a petri dish; walk on the moon.  In this framework our prosthetic dimension calls into question the kind of animal we are.  What is the ground of our experience?  Where does self stop and tool begin? If a house or clothes function as a prosthetic shell, where does self stop and environment begin? And since other people can extend our wills as tools do, in a host of relationships from slavery to parenting, we sometimes need to ask, Where does self leave off and other begin?2  

One of these days we can carry this investigation further by exploring how we use others as tools to form our personalities, just as we use fire and microscopes.  We think through others.  Since we’re here on da Nile, we could say that we swim in other people.

Why bother with the idea of prosthetic identity at all? Why not go with Winnicott and object relations theory, say? Or another vocabulary altogether? For me, prosthesis emphasizes identity-formation as a creative act, inherently social and systemic in its mutuality. Prosthetic relationships can provide a way to think about symbiotic qualities in family and cultural systems as well as in our psychosomatic endowment. Insofar as they invite us to think in terms of interdependent behavioral systems rather than individual conflicts, they open toward evolutionary and ethological perspectives.  They foreground concerns which are apt to be deemphasized in criticism and psychology based on intrapsychic or interpersonal conflict.

There’s a further twist worth mentioning, especially in an election season, at a stressful historical moment. Prosthetic behavior can open up perspectives beyond the melodramatic heroic rescue and victim-enemy tropes we’re given to. Listen closely enough, and you’re likely to hear chauvinism or self-concern in most accounts of our struggles. Prosthetic relationships remind us that we live in systems. Prosthetic behavior can call attention to our character as experimental, problem-solving animals continually adapting to a world which, like the swollen, organic soup of the river ahead, is bigger than we are, and always bringing more life.


2. This is from my Post-Traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the 90s (1999), p.175

 This essay is cross-posted from Psychology Today.


Of Gout and Global Warming

July 27, 2012

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

[Please welcome our newest contributor, Phil Hansten! -ed.]

What we can’t think about: The possibility that climatologists are correct to warn of potential catastrophic climate change.

“Prediction is very difficult. Especially if it’s about the future.” This sounds like a quote from Yogi Berra… you know, the guy who said things like “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” But actually the quote is from the Danish Physicist, Niels Bohr. And he is right. Prediction is indeed difficult, particularly in complex systems such as climate change, or how combinations of chemicals will react in a particular human body. After spending the past 50 years trying to predict outcomes in people taking interacting drugs, I think the principles involved are almost identical to those that could be profitably used in dealing with the risk of climate change. Since climate change denial is a central focus of EBF, I thought we might explore this idea.

Prediction of Magnitude. Suppose you are on colchicine for gout, and you start clarithromycin for a sinus infection. Clarithromycin can produce colchicine toxicity, which in turn can cause fatal bone marrow suppression. Some people have less serious reactions, but we cannot determine ahead of time how bad it will be in any given person; there are too many variables. Climatologists have the same dilemma; they know that the CO2 buildup is risking catastrophe, but they cannot make precise predictions of timing and magnitude; again… too many variables. Precise prediction of outcomes, however, is not required for a rational assessment of risk.

Tipping Point. There is another similarity. Once serious colchicine toxicity begins, it is difficult to stop. Colchicine can inhibit its own elimination by the kidneys, and dialysis doesn’t work. So by the time a serious reaction is detected, it is often too late. Climatologists tell us a similar story; we may get to a point where mutually reinforcing effects are set into motion, and no amount of remedial action will stop the inexorable march to disaster.

Threshold for Action. There is scientific consensus among experts regarding both climate change and colchicine. Some refuse to accept the science, usually because they don’t understand it or they benefit from their denial. But it is not a matter of whether the specific predictions of climatologists will prove true 30 years from now…  rather, the question is whether global warming presents a non-trivial risk of catastrophe. The threshold for taking action when dealing with complex problems that can potentially lead to disastrous outcomes often occurs long before definitive scientific data are available. One can always say, “the jury is still out” to justify inaction; look at the delaying tactics of Big Tobacco after the health risks of cigarettes became clear. But in science, the jury is always still out, so the question is not about juries… the question is whether or not the data suggest we should take vigorous action.

But despite all the similarities, there is one striking difference between colchicine and climate change; ignoring a colchicine-clarithromycin drug interaction puts one person at risk of death; ignoring climate change could be fatal to billions.


Choosing our illusions without care

June 14, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

It is poetic justice that the Ernest Becker Foundation’s home base, Seattle, also provides us with the leitmotif of our age, expressed in the final lyrics of Nirvana’s song Smells Like Teen Spirit: “the denial, the denial, the denial, the denial, the denial.” We are indeed a culture of denial and the EBF Fall Conference dealt with climate change denial and the reluctance of many to accept the findings of science. This denial certainly comports with what Becker says about the unwillingness to challenge the cultural systems through which people experience an ersatz immortality. There has recently been a whole spate of books dealing with this denial. I’m thinking here of Benjamin Barber’s book Consumed and Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion. One recent addition has really caught my eye, James Kunstler’s Too Much Magic. Author of The Long Emergency, Kunstler  is a leading analyst of peak oil and its repercussions for a society premised  on constant growth and expansion. Subtitled “Wishful Thinking About Technology And The Fate Of The Nation,” Too Much Magic examines the irrational faith that we moderns have in Technology to save the day. The appeal of such a belief is that it doesn’t require any real change on our part. “They will come up with something” has become the background mantra for a culture unwilling to face the death of a particular lifestyle, which Kunstler refers to as “happy motoring.” Fantasies of flying cars of the future, algae-based energy and the like are systematically chronicled and refuted. The political implications of our cultural reset are analyzed as well. The overall picture is not pretty. Insightfully, Kunstler also connects our denial to the generational cycles described by historians Bill Strauss and Neil Howe in their book The Fourth Turning. Our culture of denial is reflective of a “third turning” wherein systems become sclerotic and more and more effort has to be put into maintaining them. The banking bailout is a prime example of this.


The aspect of Too Much Magic that really caught my attention was the way it demonstrates our Janus-like relationship to technology and how it can be a form of death denial. On the one hand, some deny science because it is a threat to their immortality ideology. On the other hand, many of the same people have a childlike faith that technology will save us. Ken Wilber has a wonderful image for this contradiction, people happily sawing off the tree limb on which they sit. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Kunstler’s description of Disney World. Born in the gee-whiz era of scientific miracles following WWII,  the Disney experience simultaneously trades on our nostalgia for a simpler, bygone America of the small town. Listen to Kuntler’s description. “I was amused to discover some years ago, on a visit to Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, how much of the overarching metaphor in old Walt’s kinetic semiology of thrill rides and wish fulfillment galleries revolved around the invocation of death.”  Later he writes, “From Main Street, the Disney World visitor moves on to the many rides featuring brushes with death, haunted houses, animatronic corpses, holographic ghosts, screaming mummies, ghouls, skeletons, coffins, graveyards and all the other stock trappings of our national bent for necromancy. The place is drenched with signifiers of mortality.” Wow!  I wonder if Kunstler has read The Denial of Death. He certainly seems to be barking up the same tree. There are some dots to be connected here, namely our techno-utopianism, our cultural paralysis, and our death denial. Kunstler’s new book is an important contribution to the conversation.


Cell Phone Denial

July 21, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

First, a bit of disclosure.  Influenced by Neil Postman, I tend to be a late adopter when it comes to technology. Getting the lay of the land and assessing emergent positives and negatives of given technologies has lead to an unusual situation. I don’t own a cell phone and have no desire to possess one. Being a late adopter I fell into the situation naturally and, observing it, decided to maintain it. Recognizing that this is not a luxury available to all, this is not a judgment. The broader philosophical debate is fun but not the point here. Rather, it is to set up the typical dialog which follows below. Before departing this introduction I’d like to share the visceral side of my non-usage. It comes from seeing people talk and text during musical performances, particularly in more intimate club type settings.  Singer Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco expresses  the concern with great eloquence at the following location:  There are even clear tie-ins to Ernest  Becker’s work.

In my high school classes,  when my students learn of my cell phone choice they are fairly incredulous, wonder  tinged with pity.  This is certainly understandable insofar as cell phones have constituted so much of their environment. Cell phones wallpaper and mediate their experienced reality. The interesting part of the conversation comes when they invariably ask, “But what about if ………. ?”. There follow the standard emergencies of the broken down car, sick person or simply generic ‘emergency’. My stock answer is to ask what people did before cell phones. They generally fall mute at this point and I leave them to chew on it a bit.

While much has been written about the importance and the pros and cons of social networking through technology, I wonder if Becker has something to add to the conversation. Becker uses  Kierkegaard to express the fear and trembling , the terror, that follows from realizing our mortality. He goes on to use psychoanalytic insights to explain how we cope with this terror through various forms of repression.
Returning to my students and their cell phone dependency, could it be the case that their use of the technology marks a kind of repression?  Without being reductive and suggesting a simple one to one cause effect relationship, might it not be the case that  cell phones can act as a sort of psychological crutch, shielding them from the ‘throwness’ of life?  Kierkegaard relates the fictional account of a man who confidently plans a dinner date but who dies in a freak accident before he can attend. His point is that such an event is always possible for any of us and yet we must repress this knowledge and live as though our future actions are guaranteed. To fully accept the conditional nature of our existence might allow the fear and trembling and sickness unto death to overwhelm us. Perhaps for my students the very existence of the cell phone represents a psychological lifeline in the ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ game of life. Their pejorative use of the word random as in ‘That’s so random’, points in the same direction, a reaction to the dizzying pace of postmodern life.

Another element that may come into play with use of technology is what  Kierkegaard refers  to as philistinism, a way of repressing the dual terror of life and death by losing oneself  in the routine of daily life. To quote  Kierkegaard, “Philistinism tranquilizes itself in the trivial.” Technology allows us to  bury ourselves in the minutia of trivia in new ways.  As the 24 hour news cycle has spawned infotainment, the ever present cell phone has enabled a new dimension of philistinism. Or so the argument goes. Perhaps my instincts on this are off base. Hmmmm….  How could we test this?  A death prime followed by a measurement of how quickly one turns to the cell phone?  That could be interesting. Incidentally, the title of this post is intended as a double entendre.  I can be in denial too.

Finally, on a trip to Mammoth Cave today I passed a tiny cemetery and took a picture I’d like to share.


The Psychic Bartender: Face to Face Book

June 30, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

It’s deadly quiet in the bar.  Where are the customers?  Isn’t anybody thirsty?  Ah, right.  They’re home “doing” Facebook.

You can see why Facebook is popular.  It makes personal two of the core themes of American culture: broadcasting and advertising.  It enables you to broadcast your life to an audience, graciously idealizing yourself – and them – through “favorite” photos and edited accounts of everyday news.  Like tattoos and piercings, the process displays you.  It gets you shelf space as friends and other customers troll the aisles of the interpersonal supermarket appreciating “my” familiar and admired products.  You can make yourself a feature page in a virtual number of People magazine.  And it’s a marketplace, a form of eBay, where the transactions can go both ways.

Since the number of your “friends” can be calculated, it keeps score of your expanding personality and its deepening confirmation as folks notice you and confirm that, yes indeedy, you do exist.  In the process you’re expanding the boundaries of your life and maybe forming up your life story by getting in touch with long lost childhood pals.

And unlike the nattering here at the bar, there are no unpleasant reminders of what you don’t want to think about.

You hear praise but also complaints about Facebook in the bar.  It keeps personal life superficial and airbrushed, and it keeps it vicarious.  In massaging your life story for your army of friends, you’re accepting that your personality is an enabling fiction.  In a small way you’re your own PR agent, offering yourself as a local “Lady Gaga” or some other invented celebrity.

To be fair, you do have to keep the fictionalizing within the unspoken limits of manners and polite sanity – though your friends may not have reliable ways of checking up to see if “you” really is the “you” you say are.  Not that you can’t be an attractive liar or sociopath in nose to nose conversation.  The critics fear that you’re making people endlessly distractible and trivial.  They fear that your techno-infatuation over the internet is symptomatic of The End of Robust Real Life. As in the 1890s, the fear is that all this virtual reality and facsimile is making you effete, spineless, and infantile.  Men are no longer real men, and women are – well, you get the picture.

Are the critics onto something?

What do we know?  We’re psychic bartenders, not psychics.  Instead of crystal balls we have only a sink full of unwashed glasses.  What interests us as we rinse the butts out of last night’s glasses is the underlying fear out there that selves are becoming trivialized and emptied out.

In particular we wonder what it means that Facebook seems to be showing us people frantic to celebrate — or prove to the world — that they’re real.  After all, Facebook has become the multibillion dollar device for exclaiming “Look at me!  I exist!  I’m me!”

I know, I know.  You’re wondering if this fear is related to the popular fascination with autism, especially Asperger’s syndrome, in which the sufferer can be “almost” social: capable of facsimile intimacy with you.  Asperger’s folks are “almost” real.  In one direction they’re a marker for our fear that everything’s turning into a facsimile of real life.  If you’re autistic, in theory you can’t understand other people’s motives.  But even with Facebook friends, you have to keep everybody’s motives pretty simple. You airbrush your life to mask some of your embarrassing pimples and shameful motives.

While you were surfing the internet, the Matrix has taken over.  That’s the worry.

Look around you.  Lots of bruising competition for jobs and status in a sick economy.  Whose elbow just bloodied your nose?  The rich and powerful pull a lever and you jump through a hoop to pay the rent.  People who invade other countries and kill education budgets call themselves “conservative.”  The headlines show you “kill team” soldiers — Support Our Troops — grinning over the corpse of an innocent Afghan kid that they bagged like an elephant in order to feel heroic.  The manicured newscaster reports another workplace or schoolyard rampage motivated by WKW  (Who Knows What).  Prime time will spotlight yet another serial murderer who could be living in your garden shed or under your bed.

So yes, maybe the bipeds are all becoming psychopaths or sociopaths or superficiopaths, insensitive to other people.  Maybe our genes are degenerating or poisoned. It’s a street of random killers out there.

And the rage to make things right again can be potent.  If you enjoy rage for revenge, watch Dexter, the autistic TV vigilante, who exacts cruel vengeance on tacitly austistic predators.

But wait a minute.  Maybe this preoccupation with autism and psychos is a sign of our raised expectations.  We live in psychologized societies, with all sorts of reminders to be worried about our mental well-being. We take mood vitamins, psychotropic elixirs, payment holidays.  Erotic life is more explicit and voluptuously advertised than ever before, so of course it’s also more superficial and rubber-stamped, which can give you gnawing hunger pangs and make everyday intimacy a romp with a sex doll or a replay of The Stepford Wives.  Who isn’t worried about “commitment”?

And to add insult to injury, everything is insured these days. You’re continually told that, as the merchandisers put it, everything comes with a “lifetime guarantee.”  If you find that you’re not insured — if you lose you health or your house or your family — you feel like a loser.  You’re a failure.  You’re nobody, socially dead, and maybe enraged enough to go on a rampage like one of those psychos we were just talking about.   Or maybe Facebook will make you feel connected and worthwhile again.

In a way there’s nothing new about the activity.  When have people not advertised themselves?  True, Facebook tends to be trivial, but that’s nothing new either.  Our swapping of little gifts and gossip is a form of grooming such as our primate cousins enjoy.  It relaxes and affirms the ephemeral self of the only animal on the planet that is burdened by awareness that everybody dies and that communication is never more than approximate.  In this sense Facebook is another face of the denial that makes life possible.  So in this bracing context we’re all looking for “lifetime guarantees,” and Facebook is part of the fine print.

The problem of course is that denial always has its limits.  Once you become aware of denial, it’s harder to keep it going.  Once you become aware that the fine print is just fine print, and the warranty is unlikely to save you, then you need some other sort of network to sustain you  — say, friendship, or maybe a spot at the bar, with the other curious customers and your good-natured psychic bartender.

Call it face to face book.


Cross-Species Altruism? Something to think about…

May 19, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

I had a very strange experience earlier this week that has really stuck with me. I don’t want to over-interpret it, but it really got me thinking. Here’s what happened:

Every morning at about the same time, I walk my dog along a bicycle-walking path near my house. The path, which runs for miles through our town, was once a railroad line track the city repossessed and made into a recreation facility. Wooded on both sides of the trail, it is normal to see lots of squirrels, and while many people feed them and they are quite tame, they always stay way clear of anyone walking a dog. But on this morning, as I was walking from north toward the south, a couple of squirrels came right at my dog from behind us, chattering away. We turned around and my dog immediately went for them, but was on a 20ft leash and the squirrels kept outside of her grasp. I just stopped and let her pull on the leash, the squirrels kept chattering away. I remember thinking that was pretty unusual behavior, but I have seen squirrels in our yard tease the dog when they know she is tied up or behind the sliding glass door­–in other words, that they have a pretty good sense of where she can get to and will taunt her outside of that line.

Back to the story… this scene of chattering and tugging went for some 30 or 45 seconds, and finally I started to pull the dog away, turning south again, to get on with our walk. And when I did, down the trail about 40 yards ahead–just about where we would have been had we not been interrupted by the squirrels–I saw a mother duck crossing the path, trailed by about a dozen little tiny ducklings. Now I am a rather skeptical sort of guy, but for the life of me, it looked unmistakably at that moment like the squirrels had run purposeful interference in order to keep the dog away from the ducklings. It was simply astonishing!

Now, the skeptic in me says that this had to be just a string of coincidences. How could it be otherwise? But all week I have been considering the implications if this was just what it seemed, that is, a case of cross-species altruism–one species (squirrels) putting themselves at potentially mortal risk, in order to increase the survival probability of a completely different species (ducks). Now of course there are many examples of dogs and other companion animals defending their masters even at the cost of their own lives. I don’t know much about the media diet of kids today, but guys my age were literally raised on “Old Yeller” and “Lassie” tales like this!  But this was a case of “wild” animals, not defending “their own” but the young of another species. Talking about this experience this week, one person reminded me of a YouTube video in which a deer protected a kitten, even charging at a dog in the process. But I was never quite clear if that video was staged, and in any case, these were tamed pet animals. Another person pointed toward fairly well-documented cases in which dolphins have surrounded human swimmers to protect them from shark attacks. I wonder how many other experiences of cross-species altruism there are out there.

So what’s the difference? Why has this experience sparked such interest in me? Because if it be true that cross-species altruism is more than a mere fluke occurrence, that is, if it be true that unrelated species “in the wild” are motivated to put themselves at risk in service of mutual survival, then this brings into question the fundamental assumptions about altruism stemming from sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, assumptions fast becoming axial truth in educated circles and spilling into many other disciplines, including moral philosophy itself. According to this view, the “grand synthesis” of genetics and natural selection dictates that over time all living species are driven to exhibit only those characteristics and behaviors that promote “getting their DNA into the next generation.” Ultimately, characteristics and behaviors are interpreted as genetic “survival strategies.” Charles Darwin noted that altruistic behavior was the thorn in the side of his theory of natural selection, but Darwin was not acquainted with genetics. But in light of genetics, we see that altruism is just another manifestation of the “selfish gene,” following a genetic survival strategy scripted by millions of years of evolution. Altruism is really just self-interest in disguise. Even in the most selfless and morally admirable acts, if we properly pull the curtain back, we see that same selfish gene behind it directing the behavior, maximizing its odds of being in that pool of DNA that will be replicated into the next generation.

This is quite convincing in explaining altruistic behavior among close relatives, for example, parents giving up their lives to ensure the survival of their own children. It becomes a bit more strained when looking at altruism favoring those who are not close relatives, but even there, a bit of fancy math adequately preserves the point, since genetically speaking all individual members within a species are carriers of similar DNA. But–and here is the kicker–if any noticeable aspect of what is going on the drama of the evolution of life on this planet is cross-species altruism, then minimally we must conclude that the processes are much more complicated than our synthetic theories have outlined thus far. In that case, perhaps the much-ballyhooed deflation of altruism in our behavioristic theorizing is itself an aspect of our denial.


Product of the Ukraine (Strawberries from Chernobyl)

April 28, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

Today is the 25 year anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In my last post, I coined the term Irrational Radiation Stigma (IRS) to describe an unconscious reaction that might be created by the tragic nuclear catastrophe in Japan. I hypothesized that Terror Management Theory (TMT) could be used to develop hypotheses concerning the possible observable effects of unconscious stigma. Limiting such hypotheses to the economic arena, TMT might predict that for some window of time, Japanese goods might be seen as vaguely undesirable. Knowledge of the Japanese origin of goods might conjure up unconscious images of contamination, death, and the inevitability of death, and hence to a decrease in preference for Japanese products. The effects could be measured in terms of the price and volume of sold Japanese goods over the last few months, compared with averages for those months in other years. Perhaps certain goods might be more likely to stimulate such anxieties, consumables that go into our bodies, such as food and drink; perhaps next strongly affected would be food containers and cookware, or clothing that goes close to the skin. How do you feel about strawberries from Chernobyl, or anywhere in the Ukraine (once the Chernobyl association has been made salient)? Of course, what I am calling IRS would be mainly unconscious, so even though some of you are denying any feelings about it, in the super, you are still likely to walk past those red, juicy Chernobyl berries.

A non-zero significant difference between pre and post Fukushima is the safest scientific bet, because this hypothesis would pick up the effect of aversions and any counter-reaction (conscious or otherwise) to IRS. For example, one might predict that the degree of IRS effects would vary with the extent to which countries are committed to nuclear energy. Familiarity with a potential threat might lead to acclimation, or to sensitization, like living in a seismically active zone, versus living on the edge of an active volcano. Consumers in nuclear dependent France might show little to no IRS effect while countries that have avoided a nuclear energy strategy, such as perhaps Canada, would show more of an aversion. On the other hand, people living with a nuclear power plant in their back yards–say residents of New York City, which has nuclear plants closer to it than the distance of Fukushima stay-out zone–might show the strongest effects.

Of course, another way to test such effects is to conduct social psychology experiments. Imagine subjects (college sophomores, who else?) playing some variant of  the TV game show “The Price Is Right.” The country of origin of the goods could be easily varied, and the prominence of the Fukushima situation could manipulate by exposing the subjects to some advertisement related material (preferably visual) prior to playing the pricing game.

One legitimate goal of such a research project (or even this arm-chair version of one) is to prevent IRS by making its possibility conscious. Almost three weeks ago, I saw the first buy-to-support-Japan sign in the window of a record store in my Seattle neighborhood. Record stores themselves are going extinct, so my guess is that the buy-to-support-Japan movement is huge by now via the ASI (artificial social intelligence) communication media that is replacing brick and mortar, at least in the recorded music business. Of course people can and do consciously examine humanitarian concerns and respond with charity and compassion. That kind of conscious decision-making, which often is grounded as much in emotional empathy and sympathy than reason, is the antithesis to IRS. In the not so long run, conscious decisions will carry the day, because Fukushima, half a world away, is not a direct threat to us. Researchers, act quickly while compassion is still gathering its wits about the degree and significance of human need in Japan.


Depositing Religion On The Doorstep of Psychology

April 11, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

The title of this blog is a reversal of Ernest Becker’s famous statement that psychology deposits us on the doorstep of religion. He was speaking to the impossibility of psychology fully answering the existential dilemma that is at the heart of the human condition. While I believe Becker was correct on this, I think it is also true that psychology can help us frame our questions in a clearer way and so point us to more productive outcomes. A case in point is the recent talk given by social critic Naomi Klein on the question of climate change denial.  Klein’s talk can be found here:

Her main point is that climate change deniers, both the scientists and those who readily accept their findings, are ideologically driven to defend a certain worldview. Of what does this worldview consist? Briefly, it is composed of a strain of Christian faith, laissez-faire economics, and frontier rugged individualism. These elements stand over and against not only any attempt to regulate polluting companies, but any attempt to rein in the consumer appetite for more, more, more. To quote Klein, “When they say climate change is a threat to the American way of life … infinite growth, infinite expansion is embedded into people’s definition of themselves and of their country. It is their mythology that is under threat.” Klein goes on to argue that scientific facts by themselves cannot address the anxiety experienced by the climate deniers whose worldview is threatened. She counsels addressing the underlying ethics and values of the competing worldviews. She says that we should realize that there is an ideological war going on and should be willing to fight it on that level. It is at this point in her argument that we can benefit from the insights of Becker because if irrationality can appear in the scientific arena, it most certainly can appear in an ideological war. Moving from scientific fact to ideological debate does not address the anxiety that undergirds the conflict. This is where religion is deposited on the doorstep of psychology.

A recent study by Jessica Tracy, Joshua Hart, and Jason Martens points to the psychological foundation of climate denial. The study is entitled “Death and Science: The Existential  Underpinnings  Of Belief In Intelligent Design And Discomfort With Evolution.”  It can be found here:

While climate change and evolutionary theory are distinct topics, I suggest the psychological dynamics are very similar. The study is highly detailed with nuanced findings and it is impossible to do it justice in this short space. For our purposes, a very brief summary must suffice. In short, the researchers tested how the meaningful worldview held by subjects correlated with acceptance or rejection of both evolutionary theory (ET) and Intelligent Design Theory (IDT). By exposing subjects to mortality salience questions—questions that make them aware of their inevitable death—the researchers found that subjects moved toward the theory that best supported their worldview. Those lacking strong natural science backgrounds were more likely to be drawn to an IDT that tacitly supported traditional western cosmogony. Conversely, those with a strong natural science background were more likely to accept ET. In both cases, subjects gravitated to the view that supported existential meaning. One major takeaway of this study is its confirmation of the idea that society functions to give people a meaningful worldview and a significant role to play within that worldview. To quote the study, “The present research suggests that the attitudes toward scientific (or seemingly scientific) views and ideologies can be partly shaped by unconscious psychological motives to maintain security and ward off existential angst through the cultivation of meaning and purpose.”

The upshot of all this is that meaning trumps reason. That might be fine were the stakes not so high. When ecological devastation lies in the balance, our need for comfort cannot be allowed to trump reason. Here, the insights of Becker are so important in allowing us to understand the underlying motives and name them clearly. As Confucius said, “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” Becker’s work gives us the language to name “the truth of things.” One positive finding of the “Death And Science” study is that subjects could be moved toward that more accurate naming and find existential meaning in the ET worldview through education.

One final thought: There have been studies suggesting that imagining oneself flying or in flight can act to assuage our mortality anxiety. If we could somehow get the climate deniers and IDT proponents up in airplanes and then reintroduce them to Darwin’s naturalism …