Kindle Highlights: April and May, 2022

Again presented largely without commentary (and in the case of May, largely without highlights… getting married and preparing to start a new job apparently takes away a lot of your reading and writing time). The main books involved here are Jeremy Lent’s The Web of Meaning, Lionel Snell’s SSOTBME Revised, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s substantial The Ministry for the Future, the latter two of which I’m still chipping away at.

Is there a common thread between them? Probably not. Web of Meaning is an attempt to bridge traditional knowledge and current scientific understanding, while shedding the faulty scientific and cultural assumptions we’ve built up over the past few centuries. SSOTBME is a primer on magic, which is ultimately about other lenses to view the world, so somewhat compatable with Lent’s Web. Robinson’s Ministry is an outlier, a speculative near-future that acknowledges the dangers of our path while still holding onto a narrow optimism. It’s quite bleak in places, but hopeful enough to keep me reading.

These Highlight posts are more for my own reference than anything I imagine anyone else would get something out of reading.


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 32 | location 489-493 | Added on Friday, 1 April 2022 23:08:02

How would you make sense of your present experiences if you were oblivious to their antecedents or future implications? Researchers have discovered that this is how the right hemisphere perceives reality. It focuses on spatial patterns between things. It readily accepts an ambiguous or incomplete situation without trying to impose coherent meaning on it. It savors fluid, indeterminate and vague conditions. It’s also more closely connected with internal bodily experience, making its perception of the world more vibrant, filled with smell, sound and sensation.


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 68 | location 1037-1038 | Added on Sunday, 3 April 2022 22:07:51

‘Only in the mirror of other life can we understand our own lives. Only in the eyes of the other can we become ourselves.’


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 90 | location 1366-1371 | Added on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 02:00:09

our instincts honed us to act amicably with our in-group but to treat those who seemed different from us with suspicion. Nowadays, most of us live in cosmopolitan societies and interact daily both with intimate acquaintances and strangers. Sapolsky’s wise rule is to rely on our intuition when we’re engaging with our in-group of family and friends, but when interacting with those who appear different from us, to ‘keep intuitions as far away as possible’. Instead, he suggests, we should utilize the theory of mind that evolution bequeathed to us. ‘Think, reason, and question,’ he writes. ‘Take their perspective, try to think what they think, try to feel what they feel. Take a deep breath, and then do it all again.’


SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 28-28 | Added on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 02:33:39

Magic processes data in parallel (ie as ‘sympathies’) where Science would process data in sequence (ie as ‘causes’). Thus sympathetic Magic is the core of all Magic. To invoke a god or spirit you bring together qualities, objects and actions sympathetic to that spirit. To precipitate an event you bring together gods and spirits sympathetic to that event


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 108 | location 1649-1650 | Added on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 21:06:48

‘What is the heart, but a spring,’ wrote Thomas Hobbes, ‘and the nerves but so many strings?’ Descartes boldly declared, ‘I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.’


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 129 | location 1963-1966 | Added on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 22:09:39

We can trace the holarchy of life from the microscopic components of a cell to the cell itself, many of which combine to form tissues, which make up organs such as the liver or skin, which are part of an organism. Organisms combine to form populations, which in conjunction with other organisms create ecosystems. The ultimate self-organized system containing all these holons is known by biologists as the biosphere – the interconnected web of all life on Earth.


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 129 | location 1970-1974 | Added on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 22:10:04

Stuart Kauffman puts it in these terms: What is the weave? No one yet knows … But the tapestry has an overall design, an architecture, a woven cadence and rhythm that reflect underlying law – principles of self-organization … We enter new territory … We are seeking a new conceptual framework that does not yet exist.53


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 133 | location 2025-2026 | Added on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 22:14:40

As another early systems theorist, Norbert Wiener, put it, ‘We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.’


Instapaper: Sunday, Apr. 3rd (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 657-659 | Added on Thursday, 7 April 2022 00:14:03

For Chambers, who didn’t ask to be labeled hopepunk but likes the term “very much,” the simple act of being kind in her writing, of imagining futures in which decency triumphs and people are allowed to cry tears of joy, qualifies as more than sufficiently rebellious in the 21st century.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Apr. 6th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 98-100 | Added on Thursday, 7 April 2022 08:48:59

In a nutshell, he has shown that it’s possible to eliminate 70 percent to 80 percent of US carbon emissions by 2035 through rapid deployment of existing electrification technologies, with little-to-no carbon capture and sequestration.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Apr. 6th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 267-270 | Added on Thursday, 7 April 2022 09:05:19

The Green New Deal made some lofty demands for rapid industrial mobilization and decarbonization. The response of its critics was often that it lacked a detailed roadmap to accomplish its goals. Griffith has provided that roadmap, with detail down to the machine level. It is possible to substantially decarbonize the US economy by 2035 — we know what to build, how fast to build it, and where to put it.


Instapaper: Wednesday, Apr. 6th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 431-433 | Added on Thursday, 7 April 2022 09:35:45

“If we stay [focused] on the coast,” he adds, “like any coastal people—out of necessity, salvaging and reusing is, [and] was, just part of life. Right? So the circular economy, if you call it that, has been going on forever.”


Instapaper: Wednesday, Apr. 6th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 444-445 | Added on Thursday, 7 April 2022 09:37:12

Sci-fi often paints the future as an increasingly virtual dystopia. But a book like The Diamond Age pulses with inventive possibilities that could lead to more grounded, ecologically sound possibilities, too.


SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 36-36 | Added on Thursday, 7 April 2022 23:37:00

Because we are so steeped in the idea of causality, it is correct that I should approach the Magical position from a starting point of causality, even though it is ultimately irrelevant. So in answer to the question “what does the Magician have in place of an idea of causality?”, I will answer that the Magician does not deny a connection between events, but rather assumes that every event is connected to every other. This assumption makes the search for a chain of causes ridiculous: the links are too numerous and complex for analysis.


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 161 | location 2465-2467 | Added on Saturday, 9 April 2022 07:59:33

The notes aren’t competing or cooperating with each other, but the way in which their differences act upon each other creates a blended experience that is richer and more beautiful than any of them alone. Could it be that the best description of how nature works is, in fact, a harmonic meshwork of life?


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 165 | location 2527-2530 | Added on Saturday, 9 April 2022 08:04:56

Geneticist Mae-Wan Ho captures this idea with her portrayal of life as ‘quantum jazz’. She describes it as ‘an incredible hive of activity at every level of magnification in the organism … locally appearing as though completely chaotic, and yet perfectly coordinated as a whole. This exquisite music is played in endless variations subject to our changes of mood and physiology, each organism and species with its own repertoire.’


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 174 | location 2663-2664 | Added on Tuesday, 12 April 2022 22:12:05

We’re back to Weber’s First Law of Desire: ‘Everything that lives wants more of life. Organisms are beings whose own existence means something to them.’


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 181 | location 2773-2777 | Added on Tuesday, 12 April 2022 22:25:56

In this case the embryo produces a large number of neurons – vastly more than it ultimately needs – all of which are committed to destroying themselves (called apoptosis) unless they receive certain survival factor proteins, which they can only get from other neurons. As a result, neurons that connect with plenty of neighbors stay alive, whereas those that formed in the wrong place or wandered in the wrong direction eventually kill themselves, recycling their components for the cells that were more successful.


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 185 | location 2828-2831 | Added on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 08:30:10

As described evocatively by embryologist Karl Ernst von Baer, living organisms – animals, plants, bacteria or fungi – can be understood as the thoughts of nature. Ever since life began, it has continually applied its thoughts for greater learning, etching its successes into the genomes of its organisms, then using those achievements as building blocks for its next adventure.41


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 190 | location 2905-2907 | Added on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 08:37:18

Leslie White, who portrayed the rise of human civilization as a series of enhancements in energy utilization. Agriculture, White explained, harnessed the negentropy of horses, cows and sheep, who spent their days consuming the sun’s energy stored in plants, and then made it available to humans in the form of work, milk, wool and meat.


Instapaper: Monday, Apr. 11th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 439-440 | Added on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 09:36:21

Unlike the Enlightenment, where progress was analytic and came from taking things apart, progress in the Age of Entanglement is synthetic and comes from putting things together.


Instapaper: Monday, Apr. 11th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 458-461 | Added on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 09:38:56

For example, it may be difficult to tell the purpose of a particular line of code in an evolved program. In fact, the very concept of it having a specific purpose is probably ill-formed. The notion of functional decomposition comes from the engineering process of arranging components to embody causes and effects, so functional intention is an artifact of the engineering process. Simulated biological processes do not understand the system in the same sense that a human designer does. Instead, they discover what works without understanding,


SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 43-43 | Added on Thursday, 14 April 2022 23:15:32

. SCIENCE Truth Yes Yes Conditional Absolute MAGIC Wholeness No No Unconditional RelativeRelationship by distinction is a particularly Scientific notion of relationship. As Magical thinking relies more on spacial, pattern recognition abilities, it is more inclined to ask where Magic ‘stands relative to’ Science. This is a different approach to relationship


SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 44-44 | Added on Thursday, 14 April 2022 23:17:28

concluded that, in the terms of my recent volume of essays — What I Did In My Holidays — Dawkins had evoked a demon. Like myself, he is a champion of the notion that ideas can replicate and evolve within the ecology of human culture in a manner akin to the Darwinian model. The demon he had evoked was the apparent fear that New Age ideas might now be proving fitter to survive than his own ideas. Having demoted ‘goodness’ or ‘godliness’ and replaced it with ‘fitness’ as the key determinant, he has to face the possibility that Science’s ‘Truth’ might not be enough to save it from extinction. He can thus appear as a tribal shaman dancing a devil dance to protect his mind-children from a stronger foe.


SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 46-46 | Added on Thursday, 14 April 2022 23:29:21

The Magical method is to act ‘as if ’ a theory is correct until it has done its job, and only then to replace it with another theory. A theory only fails if it cannot take hold in the mind and allow one to act ‘as if ’. As long as this approach is carried out properly — with a Magician’s understanding that the theory is being accepted only because it is ‘working’, not because it is ‘true’ — then there is little danger of delusion


SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 57-57 | Added on Thursday, 14 April 2022 23:58:25

Magic, in turn, inherits unconscious skepticism from Science. Just as the ‘open minded’ Scientist is deep down a total believer in material reality, so also the ‘gullible’ Magician deep down does not really believe in anything


SSOTBME 148×216 – Lionel Snell

  • Your Highlight on page 60-60 | Added on Friday, 15 April 2022 00:05:15

it strikes me that you could play with this cycle as a conversational gambit in the presence of anyone who is strongly polarised towards one of my four directions of thought. This is how you do it. If you want to irritate the speaker, question his ideas from the perspective of the previous quadrant. To offend or disturb, use the opposite quadrant. To intrigue and stimulate, use the following quadrant.


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 200 | location 3066-3069 | Added on Friday, 15 April 2022 07:44:09

In the words of entomologist Lewis Thomas, a single ant is not much more than a ‘ganglion on legs’. However, ‘four ants together, or ten, encircling a dead moth on a path, begin to look more like an idea’. It’s only when you see ‘the dense mass of thousands of ants, crowded together around the Hill, blackening the ground, that you begin to see the whole beast, and now you observe it thinking, planning, calculating. It is an intelligence.’


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 212 | location 3240-3242 | Added on Friday, 15 April 2022 09:01:50

Wanderer, the road is your footsteps, nothing else; wanderer, there is no path, you lay down a path in walking.


Instapaper: Friday, Apr. 15th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 460-463 | Added on Sunday, 17 April 2022 08:23:06

If you spend enough time with GPT-3, conjuring new prompts to explore its capabilities and its failings, you end up feeling as if you are interacting with a kind of child prodigy whose brilliance is shadowed by some obvious limitations: capable of astonishing leaps of inference; possessing deep domain expertise in a vast range of fields, but shockingly clueless about many basic facts; prone to strange, senseless digressions; unencumbered by etiquette and social norms.


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 239 | location 3662-3664 | Added on Sunday, 17 April 2022 08:51:07

Becoming a fully integrated organism means not just integrating within, but also integrating fractally with community, society and the entire ecosystem. We exist in a holarchy. Just as a single cell can’t flourish in a diseased organism, so the well-being of an individual human requires a healthy society.


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 286 | location 4374-4376 | Added on Tuesday, 19 April 2022 08:26:18

You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s breast? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again.


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 300 | location 4592-4597 | Added on Tuesday, 19 April 2022 08:58:38

The next time you go for a hike in nature and marvel at its beauty, take a moment to realize that you are looking at a pale, shrunken wraith of what it once was. An accumulation of studies around the world measuring the declines of species and ecosystems indicates that overall we’ve lost around 90 percent of nature’s profusion. We live, MacKinnon observes, in a ‘ten percent world’. Those of us who gain sustenance from the sacred beauty of nature sometimes like to think of it as a temple. But, as MacKinnon notes, ‘a greater truth should be foremost in mind: Nature is not a temple, but a ruin. A beautiful ruin, but a ruin all the same.’


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 305 | location 4672-4674 | Added on Tuesday, 19 April 2022 09:08:57

Stories abound of Western visitors observing native people leaving some of the harvest and misunderstanding this as either laziness or inefficiency. ‘We Indians like to leave something for the one who comes after,’ explained a Native American to a Western observer in the 1930s.


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 312 | location 4781-4782 | Added on Tuesday, 19 April 2022 09:20:04

Whether we call it shi, tending, or conscious symbiosis, the pivotal lesson is the same: there is an alternative to the dichotomy that views civilization as either the triumph of humans over nature or the inevitable ruination of life’s plenitude.


Instapaper: Friday, Apr. 15th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 779-781 | Added on Wednesday, 20 April 2022 22:42:43

Once social-media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the major transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics.


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 348 | location 5335-5337 | Added on Thursday, 21 April 2022 22:58:24

‘When we embrace integration as a central drive in our lives, we cultivate meaning and connection, happiness and health … Beginning with integration within, extending integration to those you are connected with, and moving integration into our larger world: these may just be the reasons we are here … in this life.’


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 371 | location 5675-5676 | Added on Friday, 22 April 2022 09:03:15

‘Heaven and earth are my coffin, the sun and moon are my burial jades, the stars and planets are my burial jewelry. Ten thousand things make up my sacrificial feast. Is not my funeral preparation complete? What can be added upon this?’


The Web of Meaning (Jeremy Lent)

  • Your Highlight on page 407 | location 6234-6236 | Added on Saturday, 23 April 2022 09:44:31

Hope, in the resounding words of dissident statesman Václav Havel, is ‘a state of mind, not a state of the world’. It is a ‘deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times … an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.’


Meditations (Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius)

  • Your Highlight on page 43 | location 600-602 | Added on Thursday, 28 April 2022 23:22:32

At what time soever thou wilt, it is in thy power to retire into thyself, and to be at rest, and free from all businesses. A man cannot any whither retire better than to his own soul; he especially who is beforehand provided of such things within, which whensoever he doth withdraw himself to look in, may presently afford unto him perfect ease and tranquillity.


Meditations (Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius)

  • Your Highlight on page 44 | location 625-625 | Added on Thursday, 28 April 2022 23:27:35

This world is mere change, and this life, opinion.


The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 58 | location 879-886 | Added on Saturday, 30 April 2022 09:54:49

There was scientifically supported evidence to show that if the Earth’s available resources were divided up equally among all eight billion humans, everyone would be fine. They would all be at adequacy, and the scientific evidence very robustly supported the contention that people living at adequacy, and confident they would stay there (a crucial point), were healthier and thus happier than rich people. So the upshot of that equal division would be an improvement for all. Rich people would often snort at this last study, then go off and lose sleep over their bodyguards, tax lawyers, legal risks—children crazy with arrogance, love not at all fungible—over-eating and over-indulgence generally, resulting health problems, ennui and existential angst—in short, an insomniac faceplant into the realization that science was once again right, that money couldn’t buy health or love or happiness.


The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 74 | location 1135-1137 | Added on Sunday, 1 May 2022 09:41:30

Also, the two billion poorest people on the planet still lack access to basics like toilets, housing, food, health care, education, and so on. This means that fully one-quarter of humanity, enough to equal the entire human population of the year 1960, is immiserated in ways that the poorest people of the feudal era or the Upper Paleolithic were not.


The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 124 | location 1887-1887 | Added on Monday, 2 May 2022 23:21:21

Say the order of your time feels unjust and unsustainable and yet massively entrenched, but also falling apart before your eyes.


The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 124 | location 1891-1892 | Added on Monday, 2 May 2022 23:21:57

we are all definitely always falling apart, and not massively entrenched in anything at all.


The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 148 | location 2264-2264 | Added on Tuesday, 3 May 2022 23:07:18

Demonstrations are parties. People party and then go home. Nothing changes.


The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 158 | location 2415-2416 | Added on Wednesday, 4 May 2022 08:43:06

Robustness and resilience are in general inefficient; but they are robust, they are resilient. And we need that by design.


The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 202 | location 3092-3095 | Added on Sunday, 8 May 2022 09:24:58

These SAPs were instruments of the postwar American economic empire, which was unlike the older empires in that it did not insist on ownership of its economic colonies; it only owned their debts and their profits, no more than that. The best empire yet, in terms of efficiency, and the neoliberal order was all about efficiency, in its purest economic definition: the speed and frictionlessness with which money moved from the poor to the rich.


The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 209 | location 3190-3192 | Added on Sunday, 8 May 2022 09:39:48

But what if it wasn’t a mistake? What if you had been forced, by being taken hostage, to focus for once on the reality of the other—on their desperation, which had to have been extreme to drive them to their own rash act? What if you saw that you might do the same sort of thing in the other’s shoes?


The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 234 | location 3575-3576 | Added on Monday, 9 May 2022 22:31:27

Simply talking was the strongest social media of all of course, it was obvious once we rediscovered it, but those posters made the city itself our text, as it had been more than once before.


The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 276 | location 4220-4222 | Added on Wednesday, 18 May 2022 08:47:40

Shorting civilization and imagining living on in some fortress island of the mind was another fantasy of escape, one of many that rich people entertained, as ridiculous as retreating to Mars. Money was worthless if there was no civilization to back


The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 278 | location 4260-4262 | Added on Wednesday, 18 May 2022 08:51:36

On the other hand, all central banks were undemocratic technocracies, not that dissimilar to China’s top-down system. They were run by financial elites who did what they felt was best without consulting even their own legislatures, much less the citizens of their countries.


The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)

  • Your Highlight on page 283 | location 4333-4337 | Added on Wednesday, 18 May 2022 09:00:48

They were only really doing things to try to ameliorate the situation they were falling into after it was too late for those things to succeed. They kept closing the barn door after the horses were out, or after the barn had burned down. At that point their actions, which a few years or decades earlier might have been quite effective, weren’t enough. Maybe even close to useless. Over and again it was a case of too little too late, with nothing stronger anyone could think of to apply to the worsening situation.


Instapaper: Thursday, May. 19th (Instapaper)

  • Your Highlight at location 44-44 | Added on Sunday, 22 May 2022 22:16:59

The correct response to uncertainty is mythmaking.

Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time

(I’m trying to get in the habit of distilling some of the key concepts from the books I read, instead of just letting them wash over me before moving onto the next. I’m pushing 40, my memory isn’t what it used to be, and the act of summarizing is still one of the best ways for me to internalize a lesson.)

In trying to pin down the traits that have helped humanity thrive over our 35,000 post-Ice Age years, Gaia Vince lists four key technologies: Fire, Language, Beauty and Time. Really, though, she’s listing four aspects of a single technology. While I never would have thought to connect them in this way, Vince makes a compelling case that those four ideas, broadly defined, are all ways of offloading the work of evolutionary adaptation to external energy sources:

When humans began deliberately accessing resources of energy beyond their own muscle power, they transcended the realm of biological life and entered a new state of being.

In this reading, fire takes on many roles that would otherwise have to be done by the body: cooking food is a sort of pre-digestion, making it easier for our stomachs to break down tough meats and vegetables; it wards off predators overnight, allowing for more rest; it alters landscapes, creating grasslands that are more favourable to the endurance hunting techniques humans favour and making things more difficult for the other predators we compete with. The list goes on, but the commonality is that instead of relying on the energy we’re able to create with our own bodies, we outsource those energy needs to transcend our physical limitations.

Of course, that consumptive outsourcing has gotten us into all kinds of trouble over the millenia, and is at the root of most of our current environmental and cultural issues. There’s no denying that it has let us accomplish far more than we ever could have with our bodies alone.

Vince’s list of technologies gets more abstract as it goes, which is appropriate given that abstraction is such a seemingly unique human trait. Language offloads the energy requirements of teaching, allows for complex thoughts, and seems to structure how we percieve the world to such an extent that multilingual people will give different answers to questions of preference or opinion depending what language they are speaking at the time. It also allows for a “cumulative culture,” where knowledge gained by one person and one generation can be built on by the next, which is the key to the exponential growth of our technological sophistication.

Beauty, in Vince’s telling, is a tool for binding us as cooperative societies, promoting trade, specialization, and community. Time is the most tenuous of the topics, allowing for a conception of a future that led to multi-generational mega-projects and monoliths, and eventually to the predictive systems of science. It also moved us out of touch with our own natural bodily cycles as we increasingly defined reality and dictated behaviour through more objective, external measurements of time.

Humanity isn’t particularly well adapted to most of the environments we inhabit—at least not physically. Instead, we have a “developing bath” of culture, environment, and genetics, all of which influence each other, and which allow us to adapt to new situations at a pace that genetic evolution alone could never manage. As Vince says,

Local knowledge is indispensable because of an evolutionary trade-off, in which our species gave up innate adaptation to an ancestral habitat in return for the culturally adaptive versatility to survive any environment.

In her conclusion, Vince makes the argument that humanity is on the verge of transcending again, into a superorganism she calls Homo omnis, or Homni. Comparing humanity to a slime mold isn’t immediately flattering, but it’s an interesting thought; the mold is a collection of individual organisms that can, in times of stress, act as if it is one larger organism, capable of things that the individual units never could.

The book’s ending is a hopeful one, focusing on humanity’s collective triumphs while still nodding towards the (largely self-created) challenges we face. Homni seems a step too far for me, mostly because recent years have challenged my belief in our potential for collective action. But maybe that’s just me focusing too much on the short term, unable to pull back and see our deep history, or project into our deep future. I hope there’s at least some truth to it, that the pattern of transcending our limitations continues. Because Vince is right; our potential is tremendous.

What I Read in January 2022

Non-fiction

New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (James Bridle, 2018)

Read in preparation for Bridle’s upcoming Ways of Being, which sounds like a more optimistic expansions of New Dark Age’s themes. Not that I think Bridle was wrong to be concerned about the consequences of our current technological direction, and New Dark Age makes an excellent case that the desire to conflate the real with the computable is causing more harm than good. Well-chosen examples make for an enjoyable read, but Bridle’s critiques have permeated the culture over the last few years. Diagnosing the problem is important, but dark as things get, the future never truly ends, and I’m looking forward to something with a little more hope.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (David Graeber & David Wengrow, 2021)

If there’s one key arguments I took from this—and given its massive scope, it’s probably foolish to reduce it to a single message—but if there is, it’s that society and humanity are much more malleable than we usually think. The Davids take it as their task to complicate our notion of pre-history. Instead of a straightforward progression from utopian foraging cultures to hierarchical farming states, they point out that there’s been an incredible variety in how societies organize. Some societies even change their models seasonally, choosing different structures, hierarchies, and even identities throughout the year.

Given all that variety, the question is: how did we get so stuck in one model of society, and how do we start imagining a way forward? I’ve seen grumblings that Dawn of Everything’s history isn’t as radical as it presents itself, and that it isn’t as accurate as it should be, but taken as a prompt for imagining better futures, it’s still well worth a read.

My View of the World (Erwin Schrödinger, 1951)

Maria Popova’s Marginalian blog prompted this one, and while her summary does a fantastic job capturing both the meaning and the spirit of Schrödinger’s essays, I’m still glad to have read its entirety. Popular memory of cultural figures tends to reduce them to a single idea, and for Schrödinger it’s the one thought experiment; if it wasn’t for Popova’s post I would never have guessed he was writing on notions of panpsychism or universal consciousness while he was also helping redefine our understand of the nature of reality. His writing is wonderfully poetic in places (“What is it that has called you so suddenly out of nothingness to enjoy for a brief while a spectacle which remains quite indifferent to you?”), a touch overly technical in others, but I guess that’s to be expected for someone with such wide-roaming thoughts.

Fiction

The Taiga Syndrome (Cristina Rivera Garza, 2018)

Referenced in Jack Young’s phenomenal essay, Making sense of our multispecies world: Body-Forest as community, Garza’s book is something like a detective story, a poem, a fairy tale, and a collection of cryptic koans. Difficult to pin down, in other words, but fortunately it’s short enough to be read in one sitting, which makes it more inviting for future re-reading. Given how obliquely it approaches its subjects, it strikes me as one that will reward time spent percolating in the unconscious, too.

Einstein’s Monsters

A few weeks back, I finally read the opening essay in Martin Amis’ Einstein’s Monsters, a book I’ve had on my shelf for years but never quite got around to. Reading about how nuclear anxiety felt during the cold war, it’s hard not to compare it to climate anxiety, different as they are in some respects.

Amis makes a point about the strange effect nuclear weapons have on the experience of time, erasing the future and past, leaving only an anxious present. If that feeling ever went away, I think it’s come back in recent years, although with less of the sense that the world only exists because of the happy accident that there hasn’t been an unhappy accident.

(On that note, the fact we’re alive at all after nearly a century of the bomb seems like a strong argument for the multiverse view where consciousness and experience compress into the threads of reality where life continues. At the very least, it reinforces the incredible fact that I’m only here now because this is a reality where humanity hasn’t yet ended itself, which is an unlikely but necessary plot contrivance.)

The similarities are in the sense of futility and anger, the strange knowledge that all of this can end, the frustration at how politics and institutions can pervert language to discuss “acceptable” losses, their seemingly inhuman acceptance of apocalypse for the sake of a system. The chief difference being scales of time. The nuclear balance required (and still requires) an eternity of days where no one triggered the end. A statistical impossibility, given enough time. An eternity of getting it right to avoid an instant of getting it wrong, followed by an eternity of nothing.

Climate change compresses time in a different way. The effects of action and inaction are remote. You can argue the effects of inaction are immediate because they’re here now, but those aren’t the effects of today’s inaction, they’re the cost of decades passed without concern for today. We’re dealing with the hangover of a night out 30 years ago, and we’ll go out drinking again tonight because staying sober won’t prevent tomorrow’s pain. The relationship between yesterday and today and tomorrow are somehow beyond our grasp.

But the biggest similarity is in how we are seemingly powerless in the face of systems we created, and which we continue to perpetuate. To get at the absurdity of humans using the threat of nuclear weapons as a source of security, Amis uses the metaphor of a children’s party guarded by thousand-foot sentinels covered in poison and razor blades, so obviously monstrous and beyond any scale the children can control–although it’s within the children’s power to ask them to leave. At least for climate change, there is some obvious benefit to sustaining our problematic behaviour, short-sighted as it may be. Instead of the sentinels, it’s more like we’re running a gas generator in the house, and it’s slowly filling the rooms with carbon monoxide. The house is big, so we can believe the fumes won’t get to us in our lifetime. And if we turn it off, we’ll get colder; we won’t have light to read by; our experience will be harder and poorer. So we let it run a little longer, and then longer still.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine

I wanted to make some notes to myself on John Higgs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine. I’ve gotten pretty used to using my Kindle to highlight the important bits of what I’ve been reading, so having to return a physical book to a library feels like more of a loss these days, and I want to at least capture the arc of its argument for myself.

Going mostly from memory, with chapter titles as prompts:

  1. Relativity: Deleting the omphalos
    The “omphalos” is a pillar or anchor for a culture, something so central that it works as a reference point for everything else. Relativity established that in physics, there is no such thing as an objective frame of reference, location, movement, etc, can all be defined only in reference to arbitrary points. This is a major blow to the idea of an objective, understandable universe, as in a very real way, nothing can be described purely objectively.
  2. Modernism: The shock of the new
    At the same time that physics is erasing the omphalos of objectivity, Modernism in art is tackling something similar. Cubism is erasing the objectivity of the author by compressing multiple perspectives onto a single canvas. Duchamp (or probably Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven) are provoking fights over whether anything can objectively be called art. Joyce and Eliot are creating literature that embodies multiple perspectives in single works, in multifaceted, unpredictable ways. As with physics, the single, fixed perspective is seen as inadequate to describe/portray reality.
  3. War: Hoist that rag
    The horrors of the first world war shatter the illusion that the leadership of empires know what they’re doing. While democratization was already in process and would still proceed in fits and starts, this is a death knell for the idea of monarchy (a single, hereditary line of leadership) as omphalos, as well as illustrating the danger of nationalism subsuming individual identities.
  4. Individualism: Do what thou wilt
    With so many anchor points already removed, what’s left? Individualism. Like Descartes arriving at the self as the only objective truth, figures like Ayn Rand and Alistair Crowley preach the gospel of individualism. In that world view, culture has no fixed truth, just the interests of every person as a world unto themselves.
  5. The Id: Under the paving stones, the beach
    But even the foundation of individualism is flawed, as psychoanalysis shows that we don’t even know ourselves. We are dominated by impulses that are necessarily invisible to us, and that don’t obey the laws of civilization. Surrealists tried to tap into this for artistic purposes, despots manipulated society’s id into acts of genocide; without the omphalos of older times to act as ego, the id runs unchecked.
  6. Uncertainty: We search for new omphalos, but in vain. In math, it’s proven that no system of logic can be complete, provable, and internally consistent. In physics, there are limits to what we can know built into the structure of reality. There is randomness inherent in the universe. Complete, objective knowledge is fundamentally impossible.
  7. Science Fiction: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away
    I think the argument here was that sci-fi is a reflection of a society’s aspirations, and the sci-fi of the 20th century was obsessed with individualism, and especially Campbelll’s monomyth: a special, chosen figure on a hero’s journey. The cultural dominance of Star Wsrs shows the resonance of this idea. On the other hand, by the early 20th century, different visions of storytelling, more reflective of multiple perspectives, are rising, and maybe a sign that individualism’s rule is waning.
  8. Nihilism: I stick my neck out for nobody
    The quote is from Casablanca, seen as a metaphor for America in WWII, going from self-interested isolationism to the realization that there are things worth fighting for. The chapter is more on existentialism than nihilism, but in any case, a reaction to the idea that everything is meaningless. Not by denying it, but by embracing the freedom to make our own meanings, to revel in the absurdity of it all.
  9. Space: We came in peace for all mankind
    A conflicted portrait of the space race, and the figures involved, like von Braun and his willingness to commit atrocities if it meant advancing a rocket program, or the Crowley-aligned fanaticism of Jack Parsons, not to mention the government’s portrayal of the space race as a humanitarian cause despite its obvious military motivations. But: the view from space also helped erase some individualist ideas by showing the connectedness and frailty of our planet. “In the twentieth century mankind went to the moon and in doing so they discovered the earth.”
  10. Sex: Nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)
    This is the point where I really started to lose the thread of the book as a single narrative of the 20th century and not just a list of interesting things that happened. It talks about birth control, sexuality in literature, feminism, the acceptance of sex as a part of life, the objectification that was still rampant in a lot of so-called progressive movements… too many themes for me to reduce to a single through-line.
  11. Teenagers: Wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom
    Mostly on rock ‘n’ roll and the hedonism it inspired, the Keith Richards quote “we had to do what we wanted to do”. An interesting insight on how “the day the music died” cleared the way for a new generation to move the music forward without the baggage of elder statesmen. The main idea seems to be on how the teenage stage involves an embrae of individualism to an extent that can seem unhealthy, but is necessary to become a functioning adult, part of an argument that the 20th century may represent just such a teenage period for humanity.
  12. Chaos: A butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo
    Chaos theory is discovered, showing that small discrepancies lead to massive changes. Fractals are discovered, showing that infinite complexity can exist within simple formulas. Strange attractors mean that systems gravitate towards certain stable states, but what can make them flip is unpredictable. The question emerges: if all that is true, then why does order dominate? Why does the environment seem to self-regulate? The Gaia hypothesis emerges, seeing the world a s a single entity, not conscious, but able through its many complex systems to sustain itself. A view of the earth that’s also reflected in the complex, conflicting beliefs of modern paganism, and that runs counter to the omphalos of Christianity.
  13. Growth: Today’s investor does not profit from yesterday’s growth
    A whole lot going on in this chapter. The ideal of unfettered economic growth and its consequences for the environment. Corporations as exempt from the cycle of life and death that is supposed to keep a check on unfettered growth, something more like a cancer. The belief that, for the sake of economic growth, everything must be owned, including rainwater in Bolivia. Neoliberalism and its ties to excessive individualism of the Randian sort. “Ideology beat science. Individualism beat environmentalism.”
  14. Postmodernism: I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here
    The ultimate relativity of everything, after all omphalos have been destroyed. But the chapter also has a pretty cynical view of postmodernism, citing the Sokal hoax as essentially an excuse for everyone to admit that, even if it has a core of truth, most of post-modernism is gibberish. The worry is that in throwing out postmodernism, we lose the insights that led to it; it’s an attempt to grapple with the relativity of everything that was demonstrated in science, art, and culture.
  15. Network: A planet of individuals
    If the 20th century was our teenage period, or a period of deconstruction from our previous (false) omphalos, with an overadjustment into id and individualism, what comes next? The power of the network. Everything is still fragmented and individual, but the network provides context. There’s a poorly defined but promising sort of collectivity involved. “The network is a beheaded deity. It is a communion. There is no need for an omphalos any more. Hold tight.”

Given that it was published in 2016, I wonder if Higgs’ optimism about the network still holds. Enthusiasm for the utopian internet was already waning by that point, but it’s almost nonexistent in 2021.

Still, I like the main thrust of the book, the 20th century as a period of decentering, and finding out what happens when what we thought was core to our society is no longer generally accepted. The teenage century seems like a pretty accurate description, and while a lot of traits established in teenagerhood do tend to live on in the adult, they’re hopefully moderated and channeled in productive ways. It’s a way to look at that century more optimistically, even if there’s a strong risk we won’t outgrow it before it’s too late.