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30 June 2008

Happy 10K Day to Me

Well, today is my 10,000th day on this planet - quite an achievement in some respects. I had hoped to make a big deal about it; get some friends together, have a party, maybe brew some chicha, etc. But things just didn't work out this time. C'est la vie. Maybe it will work out better for my 15K day (when I'm about 40 years old, I suspect).
In any case, I'm thinking of all of you, my friends, and I hope you're having a wonderful Summer.

28 June 2008

Independence is a Lie


I'm getting really sick of hearing about this value we have in the US of independence. People are supposed to be independent, conjuring up the old rugged individualism fantasies that our nation was built on. The problem is that nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, is truly independent. Everyone needs something from somebody at some point in their lives whether it's a home cooked meal, a piece of clothing, reassurance, love, or a kind smile.
The only reason that we're able to see ourselves as independent is that our social relations have become so abstracted - you need a new shirt? Just go down to the shirt store and buy one. You don't have to know who made it, where it was made, what the working conditions were like, how much they were paid, or anything. All you need to know is how much cash to put down to claim it as your own.
Not too long ago, and you can still see this many places around the world, families - parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren, etc. - lived together all in the same house or close by. They took care of each other when life was rough, they played together, they worked together, they dreamed, laughed and cried together. But now, here in the US, we live in a fragmented world. If we live with our parents into our twenties then there's something wrong with us. In a relationship, if we show our partner that we need them and act vulnerable then, again, there's something wrong with us and we risk driving the other person away because we threaten their own sense of independence.
It's an illusion anyway, though. We can never separate ourselves from the people around us and everyone needs some kind of social support. The strongest, most confident, most apparently independent people are that way precisely because they have that underlying social network to hold them up.
I would like to hear less talk of independence and more of caring and helping, of supporting each other rather than leaving each to his or herself to deal with the vagaries of life on their own. We need more dependence and less independence.
PS - sorry this post is a little rough - it's kind of off the cuff.

25 June 2008

Shameless Self Promotion Wednesday

The past month or so I've been visiting the Rad Geek website (on the links list) every Sunday to post about my latest blog entries on their "Shameless Self Promotion Sundays." I like the idea so much that I've decided to give it a try here, but on Wednesdays so I don't compete with the Rad Geek. Basically, anyone who wants to can leave a brief description of their latest work and a link to their website in order to catch other people's interest. I'll try it out for a couple of weeks, and see what kind of response I get. So let us all know what you've been up to!

20 June 2008

The Story of Stuff


I meant to post this video a few months ago with some of my own thoughts on consumerism and our culture of consumption, but I was busy and never got it together enough to post. In the last month of posts I've addressed most of the issues that I wanted to originally - the filling of needs, abstractionism versus materialism, and feedback systems (covered in the Bateson post) - so I'm not going to rehash those here. I just want to point out, with regard to the linear system that she illustrates, that linear systems like that are generally very rare or non-existent in the real world. Every relationship involves feedback. The video is a good, concise explanation of the consumer system, and I just wanted to share it with all of you. I hope you enjoy it (click on the graphic above to view it).

15 June 2008

Gregory Bateson


Even for an anthropology student, at least at the undergraduate level, I'm pretty familiar with most anthropological theory and the major players in the field. I'm not bragging about how smart or dedicated I am, just pointing out how pathetic my life is. There is no-one, though, who impresses me more than Gregory Bateson. His ideas and the way he viewed the world were truly unique, and, as a result of his idiosyncratic vision he was able to lay the foundation for a vast theoretical framework which has gone largely unappreciated so far. Here I would like to introduce you all to some of his ideas in a very basic way and direct you to further readings to find out more. I really believe that, if we were to use some of the analytical tools that he developed, and apply them to our own society, then we would have a better understanding of how to proceed toward a sustainable future.
I first encountered Bateson when I was a teenager. One of my high school teachers recommended his books to me on a regular basis, particularly Steps to an Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. I picked up copies of both at one time and tried to read them, but back then it just seemed like overly scientific chatter - I had no idea what he was saying, and the little I did understand seemed uninteresting to me. Things have changed since that time, though. Just as a side thought, it seems to me that I am a completely different person than I was just a short while ago - so much so that I really think that I've been replaced by somebody else, and that my memories were engineered to give me the illusion of continuity. That might make a good sci-fi story at some point, but for now, on with Bateson. Recently, when I picked up Bateson again (because I had been coming across references to him fairly frequently) I found him far more readable and much more interesting than I had before. It's true that he does use a lot of scientific or simply obscure terminology, but if you're willing to do some work push through all of that then there are some significant rewards. Here are just a few of his ideas, as I interpret them, which are revolutionary to say the least.

Logical Types
Bateson didn't invent the idea of logical types - it's actually been around in western philosophy for a long time. The most prominent explication of the concept was written in the early twentieth century by Bertrand Russell and Albert North Whitehead - I forget the name of the book at the moment. Bateson borrowed the concept from them and began to apply it to all kinds of different themes.
Fundamentally speaking, the theory of logical types explains the relationship between classes and their components. For example, "apples" is a class of objects with certain general characteristics, "granny smith apples" is a narrower class of objects that falls into the category of apples, but doesn't include all kinds of apples. These classes can be further narrowed until you get to a particular apple on a particular day at a particular time and place (and you could probably go even further if you liked). Thus, we can create a hierarchy of orders of abstraction. On the first order is the particular apple with all of its particular characteristics, on the next order are "granny smiths" with various characteristics that define those (green, bitter, hard, etc.) and on the highest order of abstraction are "apples" with a different set of characteristics (roundish fruit, thin skinned, grows on trees, etc.). Each lower class includes the characteristics of the one above it, but adds a few more to narrow the scope a little more.
There a lot of applications of this concept, and Bateson used it in almost everything he did, but I'll only explain one here, for the sake of brevity - the concept of deutero-learning. Deutero-learning is essentially learning to learn or learning to deal with classes of circumstances rather than particular circumstances. For example, in one particular case we may be asked to learn the fact "the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th 1776," so we write it down, study it, look up more information about it, etc. and get it memorized. This set of actions can be applied to the memorization of any kind of fact not just this one, so making this a habit would be deutero-learning. This type of learning is, often by necessity, unconscious. We aren't aware of how we do it, or what exactly it is that we do, but it's there anyway. Deutero-learning is learning on a higher order of abstraction from first order learning. It is more generalizable, and so more likely to become habitual. There are even higher orders of learning, natural selection, for example, but the higher the order of learning, the more abstract it becomes and the more rigid it becomes. So it's best to keep the lower orders more flexible and the higher orders more generalized. Bateson went on to use this idea and a more complicated extension of logical typing in communication to explain the origins of schizophrenia in what became his most well known theory - the double-bind theory of schizophrenia.

Cybernetics
When most people think of cybernetics they think of robots and computers, at least I do. However, cybernetics mainly deals with recursive or feedback systems. The best example of a cybernetic system is the thermostat. As the room cools down a switch is triggered (by the cold) which turns on a heater. As the heater warms the room the switch is then turned off (by the heat) causing the heater to shut off, and allowing the room to cool down again. The process is then repeated endlessly, keeping the room within a certain range of temperature. Cybernetic systems remain in equilibrium as long as they are not self-reinforcing. If the thermostat, instead of turning off the heater as it got hotter, continually turned it higher then you would get a system where the heater would heat up the room causing the thermostat to turn the heater up causing the room to get even hotter and the thermostat to turn the heater up even more endlessly until something breaks.
This concept of feedback helps to explain a variety of things including biological systems, ecosystems, social interactions and behavior. One way that Bateson used it was to explain how different groups interact with each other and how those relations can escalate beyond control, what he called schismogenesis. He defined two types of schismogenic relationships - complementary and symmetrical. A complementary relationship is where the actions of one person or group bring about a different action in response from a second person or group. For example if the first person exhibits pride then the other may exhibit adoration, this then causes the first person to feel more pride and the second to display more adoration until the system becomes unstable and "something breaks" - this break is the schismogenesis where one party breaks off to form their own independent group. The symmetrical relationship can also lead to schismogenesis. In this case the first person's behavior is responded to by the second person with the same type of behavior. Boasting is a good example here. Person one makes a boast causing person two to make his own boast, forcing person one to make an even grander boast which person two must then top and continuing until the two parties break off. Another good example of this is the nuclear arms race. Schismogenic relationships can relationships can attain a certain level of equilibrium in a number of different ways. One is to inject a small amount of the opposite form of relationship - so two groups engaged in a complementary relationship would inject a small amount of symmetrical interaction, which helps to neutralize the runaway effects of the complementary feedback (and vice versa). An example of this is when two groups are engaged in a dominance-submission relationship (complementary) such as that of an empire to any of its colonies then they may engage in some form of competitive game (a soccer tournament, for example) and this competition (a symmetrical interaction) will take the edge off the dominance submission for a while - kind of a cathartic or orgasmic experience to relieve the tension.
This kind of analysis could be used for relationships between individuals as well as between large groups such as nations. Gaining a better understanding of how these relationships work and how to maintain equilibrium within them could lead to more enlightened foreign policy and better psychological treatments, among other things.

Teleological Versus Stochastic Processes
Again, these concepts are not new to Bateson, they were around for a long time, but Bateson explained them in a more complete way and applied them to areas where they had never been applied before. The best way to explain the two is to look at different theories of evolution. Most people aren't aware of it, but there were actually several different theories of evolution put forward around the same time as Darwin. Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection, however, proved to be the best explanation for the evidence. One competing view of evolution was put forward by a guy named Lamarck, and so is often referred to as Lamarckian evolution. Lamarckian evolution is teleological because it is purpose and end driven. The most often cited example is that of the Giraffe's neck. Why does the giraffe have such a long neck? Lamarck would say that long ago the giraffe had an ordinary neck, but then this particular giraffe wanted to reach some particularly tasty leaves at the top of a tree. In order to do this it had to stretch its neck, making it slightly longer in the process. This trait was then passed down to the next generation which again had to stretch its neck a little further which was passed to the next generation, continuing until the present day where the giraffe has a very long neck and can reach the leaves on the very tops of the trees. So essentially, the giraffe saw an end, the leaves on the trees and a long neck to reach them, and purposefully adapted itself to those circumstances gradually over its own life as well as over several generations until it achieved that end. There are many flaws with this theory, including the problem of inheritance of acquired characteristics, but the important thing here is that it's an example of a teleological model.
Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection, however, is stochastic. A stochastic process is one characterized by underlying (lower order) randomness which is filtered through a (higher order) set of simple rules to create a seemingly ordered system. For Darwin, the randomness was provided by variation within a species - no two chimpanzees are exactly alike. The set of rules was natural selection - competition for scarce resources, variable reproductive success and the heritablity of traits. These two combined explain most of the diversity of life on the planet as well as the complex but ordered interaction of organisms in ecosystems.
There are several other examples of stochastic and teleological processes - one that occurs to me is capitalism, which is stochastic versus Marxism which is teleological. It's important to recognize that social and cultural change is stochastic rather than teleological. Revolutionaries would have us believe that it is the latter, that they can set a desired end and direct the culture to that end. What ends up happening, though, is a lot of violence, bloodshed or misdirection. The revolutionary force gets caught up in fighting ideas and things that it views as being counter-revolutionary, forcing people to accept a particular doctrine with which they may or may not agree, or its grand design is revealed as being inconsistent with on-the-ground realities. For this reason, those of us who are seeking a transformation in culture must seek it through stochastic processes by recognizing that we can't direct or predict the ends, we can only preserve and encourage diversity within the system (the problem with capitalism is that it tends to discourage lower order diversity, this diminishing the "gene pool" upon which it relies).

Further Reading
All of these different concepts intertwine within Bateson's work to form a larger picture of the world. As I mentioned before, understanding and using these tools that he's laid out for us will give us a much better understanding of the world in which we live. Unfortunately, little has been done in the way of applying or testing his theories - the only recognition he got was from the counter-culture movement of the sixties and seventies which saw him as a kind of scientific guru (a role he wasn't very fond of, I suspect). I hope I've sparked some interest in those of you who read this. I know it was a long post, and probably not very exciting, but maybe some part of it caught your attention and you'll want to delve deeper. Well, here is a list of some books that explain this stuff further:
Steps to an Ecology of Mind
by Gregory Bateson
Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
by Gregory Bateson
Angels Fear: Toward and Epistemology of the Sacred
by Gregory Bateson
Naven
by Gregory Bateson
Ecology, Meaning and Religion
by Roy Rappaport (he applies some of Batesons ideas to ecological anthropology)
A Recursive Vision: Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson
by Peter Harries-Jones
Here is an essay by the Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen which uses Bateson's concept of flexibility (which is based on all three of the above ideas) to analyze the "new work."
Here is a site dedicated to Gregory Bateson with some interviews, essays and such (by the way, he was married to Margaret Mead and their daughter Mary Catherine Bateson continues to develop some of his ideas).

09 June 2008

Ten Things To Do Before the Collapse


I figure we've got at least a few years before civilization falls apart and leaves us scrambling to survive, so I've been thinking a lot about how I would like to prepare for the big event. I figure, it's best to get started with this stuff before the collapse because then I'll be a step ahead when it happens, and if it doesn't happen in my lifetime, then at least I'll have some cool skills to show off. Here I've come up with a list of ten things I'd like to learn or do while there's still time.

1) Garden - we're going to need a lot of food and we won't be able to rely on the current large scale, processed food infrastructure to supply it, so the more gardens we can get going now the more food we'll have when things hit the fan. Medicinal plant gardens would be nice to have too.

2) Learn to hunt - I seriously doubt that vegetarianism will be a viable option after the fall, and one of the best sources of food will likely be hunted meat. Therefore, it will be important to know how to track, hunt, and kill an animal as well as how to skin and butcher it and preserve the meat.

3) Learn to shoot a gun and a bow - In conjunction with learning to hunt, it's important to know how to handle a gun safely and effectively. However, I'm almost afraid to suggest, it might be useful to know for self defense purposes as well. Hopefully it won't come to that, but it's good to be prepared. As bullets and powder become more and more scarce, the bow will be the next best thing - easily made from simple materials, effective and deadly in a variety of situations.

4) Lean flintknapping, arrow fletching and similar skills - the ability to make your own tools from materials that are easily found in nature (rock, wood, bone, etc.) could be one of the most useful things to have. In this same vein, the ability to fix industrial machines with easily found materials would be useful as well, at least in the early stages.
5) Learn about edible and useful wild plants - another source of food and medicine.
6) Work on team building, strategy and tactics - again, I hope it doesn't come to this, but the ability to organize as a group for the purpose of armed combat might be useful. This could be done with games such as ultimate frisbee, soccer, paintball, etc. Anything that involves several people and requires organized effort.

7) Get in Shape - A lot of us have become very slothful and out of shape with the abundant food and lack of physical activity. People who are physically fit - those who can run or bike long distances, lift heavy objects, climb or jump well - are going to have a great advantage.

8) Learn Self Defense - learning some hand to hand combat techniques may be necessary. This is especially true for women, but men will do well to learn too.

9) Build community networks - As I've said time and again, no one ever survives without a complex network of community support. Even hermits rely on goods produced by the community. We've become atomized and individuated, so we have to build from scratch a lot of those structures that will break down during and after the fall, but rebuild them on a local, sustainable level. The key is to get out into your community and help out the organizations that exist. Also, if you see a need that isn't being filled on the local level then start putting something together to fill that need. Most importantly, get out and make friends, talk to people and build relationships.

10) Enjoy some of the things I'll miss - I don't mean to be glutinous, but just to cherish the small things that won't be around afterward - ice cream and chocolate, for example. Enjoy them - don't consume them.

I'm sure there's a lot more that I could do, but this is what I came up with in a few minutes at work. I'd love to hear what other people think about my list or if you have any suggestions for additions to the list.

06 June 2008

Mark Osborne's "More"


Hey everyone. I just came across this video and thought that it goes well with the theme that's been going on here for the past few weeks. It's a video called More by Mark Osborne. In my opinion it's about how we seek to fill those empty spaces inside of us (brought about by the alienation and individuation of modern life) with products (advertising works by implanting in our minds the idea that product X equals happiness, social life, sex, love, comfort, etc). It always fails because those products don't fill those spaces - they can't. But instead of looking for the actual things that will fill those holes we continue to buy products that we mistakenly think will fill them for us, thus driving the consumer economy.
It's not our fault though - there are a lot of things going into this relationship that are beyond our control. For example, for the most part we simply lack those social structures that would fill the spaces - in a lot of cases they need to be rebuilt or rediscovered. The modern system requires the disintegration of social networks (family, community, etc.) otherwise no-one would buy the products and no one would be willing to work for it.
That's all for now. A warning, though, the video is a little depressing.
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