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Human Tech [Reverse Timeline III]



“The modern mind is forced towards the future by a certain sense of fatigue, not unmixed with terror, with which it regards the past. It is propelled towards the coming time; it is, in the exact words of the popular phrase, knocked into the middle of next week. And the goad which drives it on thus eagerly is not an affectation for futurity. Futurity does not exist, because it is still future. Rather it is a fear of the past; a fear not merely of the evil in the past, but of the good in the past also. The brain breaks down under the unbearable virtue of mankind. There have been so many flaming faiths that we cannot hold; so many harsh heroisms that we cannot imitate; so many great efforts of monumental building or of military glory which seem to us at once sublime and pathetic. The future is a refuge from the fierce competition of our forefathers. The older generation, not the younger, is knocking at our door. It is agreeable to escape, as Henley said, into the Street of By-and-Bye, where stands the Hostelry of Never. It is pleasant to play with children, especially unborn children. The future is a blank wall on which every man can write his own name as large as he likes; the past I find already covered with illegible scribbles, such as Plato, Isaiah, Shakespeare, Michael Angelo, Napoleon. I can make the future as narrow as myself; the past is obliged to be as broad and turbulent as humanity. And the upshot of this modern attitude is really this: that men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.”

  • G.K.Chesterton


Man’s attitude towards himself; his attitude towards the machine; and his relationship towards the landscape - all three are mirrored in the use of the machine. Landscape creates man. Man creates machines. Machines create a landscape. Crucially machines also influence man. Man's perceptions and actions also influence the landscape. And changing landscapes [physical and psychic] render redundant certain machines.

So we have an interface of a triangular nature in which man assumes he has his place at the top of a pyramid. In control. As we begin to pull apart the triad - and separate man from his false perceptions - another reality begins to become dimly, then all the more clearly, seen through the smog of industry.


No-Place


“Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading—the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the "gourmet mansardic" junk-food joints, the Orwellian office "parks" featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the unglasses worn by chaingang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call "growth." - James Howard Kunstler - Geography of Nowhere


“Modernism did its immense damage in these ways: by divorcing the practice of building from the history and traditional meanings of building; by promoting a species of urbanism that destroyed age-old social arrangements and, with them, urban life as a general proposition; and by creating a physical setting for man that failed to respect the limits of scale, growth, and the consumption of natural resources, or to respect the lives of other living things. The result of Modernism, especially in America, is a crisis of the human habitat: cities ruined by corporate gigantism and abstract renewal schemes, public buildings and public spaces unworthy of human affection, vast sprawling suburbs that lack any sense of community, housing that the un-rich cannot afford to live

in, a slavish obeisance to the needs of automobiles and their dependent industries at the expense of human needs, and a gathering ecological calamity that we have only begun to measure. “ - James Howard Kunstler - Geography of Nowhere




At this point in the series we turn our attention to the man-made landscape. The choice of this as a jumping off point is two-fold:


1] Because it can lend us great insight into how we see the world and as extension of this what we value [and what is hidden from our value systems but is of deep value], 2] Because the man-made landscape is the very playing board that we have to interact with on a day to day basis.


[SIGNIFICANCE OF PLACE]


The man made environment is an extension of natural structures and phenomena. Animal paths and natural clearings become roads and pathways. At first shelter would have taken the form of caves, lean-tos and rock faces which gradually morphed into the purposefully designed man made houses we know today. Augmenting natural phenomena to ease passage or find shelter from the elements. That is to say that place-making is something we do naturally. Likely it has been a staple for humans before we became anatomical humans - but the act of altering and accommodating the environment to serve us sped up drastically as we approached ‘our final form.’ The more severe the climate, the more acute the need for negotiating it with such adaptations. Gracefully adapting to the environment made survival more likely for our ancestors. Today the equation is rarely quite that dire in a pure physical survival sense - but skillful adaptation can still make the difference between thriving and scraping by.


The question of geography and place-making is ultimately a question of adaptively dealing with the primal needs: shelter, food, leisure and safety. A place that is suitable for human habitation supplies these staples in an easy manner.


Where our ancestors, by and large, had to contend with the landscape ‘as it was given’ *) - which gives access to a certain set of strategies and actions. The case for a human continuum [see the last essay in this series] came about because of such an environment. What we have today is a landscape that largely has its features as a consequence of human culture. In one way or another, our landscape has its shape and essential features because of human choice of action or inaction. Few truly wild places remain. In most cases the untouched places remain untouched because they have climates that are so inhospitable that the price of staying there is too high. The places that are wild and fertile have been decreasing rapidly in the last centuries.


[This piece will not go into the specifics of this particular issue, but only in passing to suggest that we would do well to keep some places truly wild, and doing so may be vital to us in ways that we have yet to realise.]


For this piece, though, we will focus on the use of land that is currently within the human domain. And given that an increasing amount of land has come fully under human control, the consequences of these choices of what is being done to it are all the more important.


Whether we are talking about a wild or man-made environment, its geography sets the parameters by which humans make and do their living. Rich soils, ample rainfall and an agreeable climate makes for more abundant crops and a rich animal life - and while those factors are still important as far as growing food is concerned - other factors have to be accounted for today. We should still appreciate that most major cities have grown up around places that function as natural hubs: outlets of major rivers into lakes or the ocean, natural harbours, the intersection of a trade route. All this speaks to relationships.


We may not be very cognisant of it on a day to day basis, but good places matter. Humans have always opted to congregate in place of natural abundance and beauty. A subconscious natural geomancy quality of the species. Gradually this morphed into places of cultural abundance. One feeding the other. Places that made sense, not only because of natural features, but as much because of cultural activity and/or spiritual significance. This transition likely took thousands of years. Arguably, it is the auspicious combination of natural geography and local cultural customs that make for truly worthwhile living spaces.




[ From a mosque in Samarkand - a major city on the silk road ]


Man may be able to survive on a relatively simple diet, but his deeper fulfilment comes about from different foods altogether. As human culture enriched, so too did the importance of making places that not only allow for - but conserve, too - the development of living cultures. It is this feature of the man made environment to which we are going to turn next. The human environment is capable of both bringing out the very best, and the very worst in us. A poorly built environment: one that is devoid of beauty, lacks human appropriate scale and features that are inherent to civic life, sabotages interactions and robs us of the possibility for worthwhile experiences. Meanwhile a rich environment uplifts and is a feature for the embiggening of the spirit.


To make sense of the reverse timeline principle on a societal level we have to investigate the physical environment. The ‘fabric of life’.


[SUBURBIA]


One way of characterising places that make for a good human habitat is to look at its opposite - a negative example. What then is a place that has time and time again proven disastrous, a place that consistently fails to develop a thriving human culture? The answer? ... Suburbia.


The study of this phenomenon was the centrepiece of the excellent “Geography of Nowhere.” Within its pages James Howard Kunstler goes into fine detail about the American man-made landscape. To understand the problem of space making, we have to understand this (still unfolding) process. It is useful to start by making a small note about the title itself. “Nowhere” needs to be understood as ‘a place that is no place’. More often than not the majority of these qualifications apply: no relationship to local geography; no history; no anchoring in a local tradition of building; no local economy which it is in support of; has not developed organically. Fundamentally, it is a ‘place’ which is neither the country-side nor the city. Being any of those things it would make it something particular - somewhere - only it's not so it ‘nowhere.’ ‘Nowhere’ is when something that should be a place is simply a ‘space’. Suburbia is the home as a product. Generic houses that exist only as vehicles for the consumption of other generic products. Roads with no charm - mere transportation belts to take us back and forth to those places that have neither history nor future. A copy of a copy of a …


The pattern he describes has been playing out all across the world. In some places the damage of the process - has been somewhat more curtailed because of older development patterns more firmly in place. And so the ‘Geography of Nowhere’ is now the ‘Geography of Everywhere’.


Many will of course recognize some of these features, but fail to see that there is any particular problem with this arrangement. The details of this living arrangement deserves some discussion to tease apart further. As we shall see, it is a living arrangement that is a fundamental rupture with ways of living that has stood the test of time.


[A WORLD MADE FOR CARS]


Suburbia as a human habitat is only viable to live in if you have a car or you are effectively reduced to a second-rate citizen without access to common features of civic life. The walkable distance to the basic amenities are often such that even able-bodied people will abstain walking from a practical perspective ie. will be forced to utilise a car for simple purchases.

This is “accomplished” in a number of different ways: by having minimum sizes of houses and their lots, a sprawling pattern is achieved that makes distances impractical to traverse by foot. Add to this that mixed-use areas (small commercial, small industry and residential) often are prohibited by law [note also how neighbours often ‘snitch’ on people operating small business from residential dwellings. This level of active tribe-weakening would have grave consequences in other, older, human living arrangements]. Even if there was a base of customers to create a small centre where your day-to-day needs could be met - and could form the basis of small scale enterprise is prevented from developing.


During the late 19th century and early 20th century a number of transport methods existed side by side in many places: train or light rail; horse drawn carriages; automobiles; bicycle and walking. Each having a particular use and facility. Nowadays, in many places that are now bogged down in car traffic, train systems that were established are discarded as the car became the dominant mode of transport. The destruction of other modes of transport was furnished by straddling the other systems with disadvantages or investing so little in them that they failed in short order. A mixed use system became a monoculture. As it is within agricultural systems, monocultures of traffic are much more prone to disturbances; and when they do occur, no other system exists to pick up the slack [they are anti-antifragile]. Keeping a monoculture going can only be achieved by placing the costs elsewhere. The loss of time, energy, resources to the arrangement of happy motoring is stupendous - yet it is continuously funded.


A knock-on effect of having an environment that is designed and built for cars is that it is de facto an environment that excludes large sections of the population. Particularly the youngest generation. If the car is dominant, it is no longer safe to be outside in the streets playing. And even if you did go outside - there are no places reachable by foot that are worth interacting with. For children to do anything they have to be driven, mostly by their parents. This arrangement prevents children from developing the agency by doing things for themselves. Places that they can go to often take the form of a ‘service’: a sport, the cinema, extra-curricular classes. Self-initiated activities take the back seat under such circumstances. This leads to less self-reliant adults and a weakened civilisation.


[THE ECOLOGY OF SUBURBIA]




An immaculately mowed green lawn. A few flower beds. maybe a tree or two

but nothing too big

or wild looking. It certainly looks lush and inviting; good for ‘entertaining’. Unfortunately the image of the suburban house and its natural surroundings has more to do with a well-manicured image than a rich natural environment. It is a soylent landscape. The apparent green-ness hides a landscape that supports much less life than climax vegetation could. It is manicured to ‘look alive’ - but its inherent fecundity has been neutered significantly. Life deliberately curtailed. It is civilised vegetation. A lawnscape is inherently less productive in terms of retaining carbon, attracting bees, providing shelter for animals or supplying decaying matter that can give life to fungi. And it provides no food! Seen from a biological-ecological perspective, the unrelenting pursuit of the perfect lawn is true insanity. Homicidal horticulture. Of course, this landscape does support some life - and thankfully some people are relatively lazy - and so some land is left to its own devices much of the time, where ‘weeds’ creep in without the rule of demiurgic landscaping to euthanize them.


As touched on in the preceding paragraphs, suburbia is neither country, nor city. Neither fully set aside for buildings, nor fully for growing food or a refuge for wildlife. In that sense it is a landscape that, because it lacks density, relatively more space is required to house a given population. The development of Suburbia has meant an ongoing destruction of open spaces. Many acres of good agricultural land will never be brought under plough again - Nor be forest, or glen. An agricultural bardo space.


This does not preclude suburban spaces from being gainfully used in alternate ways. Some are certainly making good use of their land by adopting high-density gardening, or allowing a panoply of species to flourish. There is also a reasonable historical precedence for alternate uses of allotments. During the Second World War there was food scarcity in the UK. Much of this need was quickly met by an huge increase in urban gardening - as the government [for once] incentivized and encouraged the practice. Even so, much good agricultural land is now likely too tied up in suburbia to return to productive use for a good many years.


[COMMUNITY AND ECONOMY]


Much has been made of the term ‘community’. I spent some space discussing the topic in the last instalment of this essay series. It has an intimate connection with our tribal origin and should be thought of as an extended family. A natural extension of this is that a community isn't something that is voluntary or optional. It develops organically over time - as a consequence of particular relationships between people and place. Kunstler puts it quite succinctly: ‘The economy is the community’. If we consider the economy as ‘things that people do for each other’ - it becomes clear that the extended family or the tribe forms an integral part of earlier forms of community: a community based on the non-financial economy.

Such relationships cannot be imposed [or bureaucratised] but have to develop organically over a long period. The cohesion that comes about from small communities also has much to do with decision making being something that you can see happening. You will likely know the people making the decisions. It also means that if people misbehave, there is a higher degree of transparency.


You can still have a community with a money-based economy. But it has to be the relationships of people living close together. A local economy is only a local economy if the money spent there stays there, and isn’t pumped and wealth-funnelled abroad. If ‘local’ stores are owned and operated by a large chain, its surplus will not stay locally. The jobs are then more often than not exploitative rather than generative. The jobs created will almost always be minimum wage jobs. This is largely a process of extraction that sucks what little energy remains from the periphery to the centre. And the centre may not even be in one’s own country, let alone municipality.


In a community the place of living is the centre, the community and the economy. It is not a community if you have to drive for 15 minutes to get to it [with the possible exception of people who live in the most rural hinterlands]. The introduction of suburbia has done much to destroy local economies. Things don't relate to each other in a way that allows for small businesses to service the community. The place of living is for living only. The workplace is somewhere faraway. Children don't understand what their parents do for a living.

Retrofitting houses to function as a house and a small business is banned by zoning laws in many places.


[HUMAN HABITAT]


The direction of development of the human habitat and built environment has changed dramatically with the gradual victory of the automobile. This transformation has two strands of unfoldment: a direct and an indirect thread.

1] The direct consequence is one of making the environment suitable for the car only, streets and roads that make automobile transport at speeds higher than 30-40km/h possible. That leaves less space for other purposes and cleaves the landscape - not to mention the effects from pollution and noise. The environment from the perspective of getting from A to B in a vehicle - is the human habitat seen from a traffic engineering perspective.


2] Ironically, the indirect consequence is arguably more profound and has more widespread consequences. By making an environment for the car the structures within the human landscape no longer have a relationship and scale that are appropriate to humans. This is true in the pragmatic aspect of distance between commerce and our living areas, as well as the relationship between commerce and the person who wants to buy an axe for cutting firewood. In an environment where the car isn't dominant, shops are usually placed up against the street so that the passersby can see what is being sold - if there is a car park it is to the back of the shop. In a car dominant culture the shop sits in the middle of the car park and the pedestrian has to traverse an inhospitable and dangerous environment to even see what is being sold.


This sort of arrangement has led to a phenomenon known as ‘food deserts’: you may be in a ‘city’ but there are no places to buy real human food within reasonable walking distance. No green grocers, bakers or butchers. At best a corner store selling mostly soft drinks, cigarettes and vaping supplies, and prepackaged food-like-items. The closest thing to food you will find is usually sold at fast-food vendors. Said food is neither cheap, nor provides any real sustenance. These fast-food places usually only further the alienation and ongoing destruction of what might remain of a local economy.


By increasing physical distance, other types of distancing are also furthered. In suburbia - and other living arrangements like it - we are much less likely to encounter people outside of our class. Only people within the same income bracket will be able to live there; and because there is no local economy to speak of, there are less encounters total. The ones’ we do have a chance to partake in are often scripted to ridiculous degrees. Consider the enforced fake-politeness of chain-store experiences. Even within the residential areas themselves with houses off-set from the street you can go months without meeting your neighbour.


Residential areas often lack sidewalks - but to be fair, it is no great loss - there is nothing to walk to. It is an insular environment. Individual islands of human occupation. Each house is a producer of comfortable amnesia. Civic features of life are an afterthought. Or are cancelled for disturbing residents “peace” [think the destruction of live music venues in australia]


[AGRICULTUREBUSINESS]


A living culture ought to aim for the harmonious development of humans; establishing symbiotic traditions, as well as furnishing people with a gainful form of employment. That is both nourishing for the soul of the employed person, as well as being integral to the community. This is what the word vocation speaks to; something that is more than just a way of making a buck - it has a teaching and formative quality inherent to it. More often than not, modern business ventures provide none of these benefits - and as for the community few would want to have an enormous pig farm within ear shot or smelling distance of their house.


The movement from agriculture to agribusiness is often hailed as a great achievement. It certainly is an achievement of efficiency: what before required the participation of the bulk of the population is now handled by as little as 2% in some places. Of course this green revolution appears somewhat less magical if we consider that it is being achieved with a massive input of fossil fuels, fertilisers and agrotoxins. Such techniques likewise have negative effects upon the environment; soil erosion and a panoply of pollution; which we still have no understanding of the long term effects of what happens when we no longer have clean aquifers. Ultimately the justification for any negative effects is that there are no alternatives - if there is a recognition of other ways of doing things they are deemed ‘uneconomical’. While this euphemism does have some support in practical concerns - and which does need to be addressed practically - the primary emphasis here is how a way of life simply became a means of production.


It speaks volumes that farmers often no longer keep a garden. They are industrial producers of one commodity. Or a small handful. The way of life - the formative nature of work is almost completely removed. It is no coincidence that there has been a flight from the rural hinterlands as the destruction of the rural economy forced many to search for a better life elsewhere. A similar process can be seen at work in many crafts and trades as these went through a similar arc. Artisan workers gave way to more efficient industrial building techniques.


[Adaptations to a less than ideal geography]


While there are significant problems with the modern environment - particularly the damages done by the collective car-obsession - much can still be done with what is. The design may originally have been intended for other uses; but much can be done to retrofit and otherwise upcycle what we have been given. High density urban gardening uses more manual inputs than traditional gardening and often utilises vertical space to greater effect. Similarly, the way we interact with the urban and suburban environments can be stretched to suit our needs - one such example is parkour, where the obstacles affords utility and challenges.


[Everything I want to do is illegal]




[A great book cover in its own right - the title and the imagery speaks to the severe legal hurdles that exist for pioneers who want to spearhead sustainable agriculture outside of the industrial agricultural model.]


Much energy is sunk into our built environment, both figuratively and metaphorically. The energy required to fundamentally change the layout [that has been pushed for the past 100 years] means that it will be a Herculean task to change it into a more appropriate to human scale. While the immediate and physical nature cannot be overstated - this change is as equally a perceptual one, and possibly one of greater magnitude - so much of our collective cultural story is vested in the idea of suburbia and happy motoring. Revolts from this ideal often leads to even more insular orientation and isolating from society - and such only further compounds the issue at hand.


Many keen-eyed people with strong visions for better ways of making home, of land use, and of different agricultural models are stopped short. Not because their ideas are uneconomic or impractical - but because the now vested way of doing things makes alternatives impossible or down-right illegal. Planning laws, zoning, building codes all form boundaries to alternative ways of doing and being. Some may be well intentioned, but can lead to Kafkaesque scenarios. As one author on alternative and sustainable agriculture aptly named a book ‘Everything I want to do is illegal’. The psychology of previous investment and concording of a civilization will actively try to suppress expressions that don't conform to the core beliefs and mythology.


One way to counter such problems and allow for more adaptive responses would be to look at the basic problems of: who makes decisions and who has to abide by them. Poor architecture, lack of building tradition and urban planning that affect the disenfranchised classes is not something the people who have made these decisions have to live with on a day to day basis. That is not to say that sensible planning isn't possible, or that functional planning hasn't occurred - but it is the exception rather than the rule. Or, oftentimes, it is the result of an older pattern already being in place which keeps things in check.


[No Pride of Place]


Our landscape and architecture are an unsubtle message about how we should feel, think and be.


Places that aren't worth caring about lead to a certain type of resignation that is both unnatural and damning to the spirit. A place that lacks life is a place that one cannot feel a sense of pride for - and thus want to vest energy into. It becomes a place like any other. The earth ceases to be a sacred place and becomes a commodity of space to be sold when the opportune moment arises. The investment in our current arrangement is tremendous. What has it produced though? A geography that is so bad that you want to escape from it. The car - a symbol of freedom and escape. But escape to where? Often simple another contrived, consumer herding local. Not often to the wilds, but to some ‘tame wilderness’ - where one can ‘glamp’ with many of the creature comforts of suburbia close at hand.


The Myth of The Machine




[A land for machines]


It should be clear from the foregoing passages that understanding the man-made landscape is to understand man's relationship to machines. It is also from this vantage point that we can begin to appreciate how the machine and the car changed the scale and the use of the landscape. This change gradually morphed into a use [abuse] of the environment that was for the machine first, and man second. Profound changes in the environment meant that the ways in which we use it changed permanently. However, man was changed by the machine in ways that go beyond the physical landscape; the broader landscape of work - and even man's view of himself is intimately tied with the machine.


[Work for machines]


But before we launch into the meat of that discussion - we have to take a slight detour into language - as always: ‘gentlemen, define your terms.’


“The symptoms of accelerated crisis are widely recognized. Multiple attempts have been made to explain them. I believe that this crisis is rooted in a major twofold experiment which has failed, and I claim that the resolution of the crisis begins with a recognition of the failure. For a hundred years we have tried to make machines work for men and to school men for life in their service. Now it turns out that machines do not "work" and that people cannot be schooled for a life at the service of machines. The hypothesis on which the experiment was built must now be discarded. The hypothesis was that machines can replace slaves. The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men. Neither a dictatorial proletariat nor a leisure mass can escape the dominion of constantly expanding industrial tools.” - Ivan Illich - Tools For Conviviality


Piercing insights can be gleaned by knowing the origin of the words that we use. Hidden or deeper meanings often elude us; or have been forgotten. Clear communication - or even thought - is difficult if we are not aware of the meaning of the words we use and their subtleties. As often happens, we may use the same words but mean entirely different things when using them. Everyone nods - but nothing is understood. Communication is scrambled, as each infers their own belief system biases. Let us then consider three common words that are essential to make any sense of man and his relationship with machines.

Firstly, we turn to the word ‘robot’. Robot was coined by the Czech playwright Capek in the 1920 ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ in Czech the word signifies ‘forced labour’. When someone or something is done robotically, then it is done in a forced way. More often than not it is done in one way - and one way only. A person being ‘robotic’ then carries with them always, the same neurotic and behaviorally constrained mode of being. Of course, most of the time we mean ‘an automated and pre-programmed apparatus’. Essential to this then is the lack of choice. A paucity of freedom.


The second word is ‘machine’ . As we use it, it came from the French and means ‘structure’. However in the original Greek origin ‘makhana’ is derived from ‘mekhos’ and means ‘contrivance’. In English, as it is spoken today, ‘machine’ has a meaning that is closely related to robotic - ie. it is a contrivance that produces a reliable and predictable result. A ‘contrivance’ indicates a design or idea towards some singular purpose. One can infer what a machine is supposed to do is determined by its schemata. By its programming.


Arguably the most difficult and ambiguous word [and also the most important ] is left for last: ‘Technology’. Technology comes from tekhnologia - ‘systematic treatment’ - and derives again from the combination of tekne ‘art;craft’ and logia -which originates from logos - knowledge. From this vantage point, ‘technology’ is an almost impossibly broad term. The most straight-forward interpretation of the word is the knowledge of how to do something. More accurately ‘knowledge of doing something well’. The ‘science of art’ is another way to rephrase it. The interpretations are many. In any case, the origin of the word suggests ‘skilled and systematic ability’. Perhaps there is within the word already a tension of sorts. Where does the domain of tekne end and logos begin [?] What is their mutual relationship? How do we reconcile and integrate them? How do these resolve in the person heavily vested [patterned] in technology?


The use of the word in day-to-day language and popular meaning is of a more singular nature: ‘technology, you know, things that can do stuff.’ If you question people to define technology you may also get a definition of ‘tech-tech’; certainly it has a meaning that is more imbued with images and notions of ’gizmos’ and other very particular types of technology. But I digress. The point at hand is simply this: we use the word technology rather freely - but the meaning that is inherent to that use does not at all follow from the word itself . Vested with the stories and the preferences of our cultures and epoch of civilisation.


That there is art and craft vested in technology - that there is someone who has to create and use the technology is part of a more encompassing understanding of technology. Looking only at technology as a producer of a series of end products leads to a stunted understanding.


[ Labour Saving Devices and Appropriate Tech ]


“The idea of intermediate technology does not imply simply a 'going back' in history to methods now out-dated although a systematic study of methods employed in the developed countries, say, a hundred years ago could indeed yield highly suggestive results. It is too often assumed that the achievement of western science, pure and applied, lies mainly in the apparatus and machinery that have been developed from it, and that a rejection of the apparatus and machinery would be tantamount to a rejection of science. This is an excessively superficial view. The real achievement lies in the accumulation of precise knowledge, and this knowledge can be applied in a great variety of ways, of which the current application in modern industry is only one. The development of an intermediate technology, therefore, means a genuine forward movement into new territory, where the enormous cost and complication of production methods for the sake of labour saving and job elimination is avoided and technology is made appropriate for labour surplus societies,”

  • E.F.Schumacher - Small is Beautiful


An understanding of how to go about creating a harmonious relationship between man and his machines (and that such a thing is desirable). An understanding of how man can avoid inadvertently curtailing his own development in the pursuit of more advanced technology, and not as a result, to become increasingly robotic himself. These are the questions that have been asked by many renegade thinkers over the past centuries. The particular rendition of technology that this line of thinking pursues is mostly known as appropriate technology. It is also known as ‘intermediate technology’ in other places. It is the outline of this very thing that we turn our attention to next.


Our foray into human geography showed that there are known and adaptive patterns to use the land. That these can be tapped into - or that they can be disregarded at great cost to both the human and non human world. Similarly, there are a great variety of ways in which technology - in that broader sense of the word - can be utilised.

The car


The unrelenting pursuit of one particular type of machine/technology for transport changed the way in which our landscape was organised in part because there was no questioning of that singular model. This view does not put the car itself as a negative force - but the unquestioning and widespread implementation of the car may well be viewed as a negative force. Often, it is argued that it is because the car is the best option; because it represents ‘progress’ or gives the most utility for the highest number of people. These are ‘false freedoms’ - diversions from looking soberly at what amounts to poor collective decisions. This consideration needs to be seen as part of a larger analysis: the analysis of man and his relationship to his tools more broadly.


There are ways in which technology can be used which produces widespread negative effects (both directly and indirectly). Then there are technologies that have roughly a net neutral effect. Then there are technologies that have a more or less net benevolent effect.


To put it differently: technologies that are appropriate to a particular set of circumstances.


[Users and Non-Users]


Machines and technologies alike have effects that go beyond their immediate purposes. A car is not just something that gets us from point A to point B. Certainly it does have this utility. It also has many wider reaching effects.


An often cited example of the two-faced nature of technology is planned and perceived obsolescence. In the first case the apparatus is rendered functionally inoperable by design after a certain period- not because it is technically infeasible to create something which could last longer. Older machines often out last newer models precisely because planned obsolescence had not caught on as a design principle before. In the second case: the apparatus is rendered undesirable by pushing newer features to consumers as essential. The older model now has the optics of ‘not being up to the task’. If nothing else, these examples show clearly that there is an awareness of some of the broader aspects and the context in which tools are being used. Issues of marketing manipulation and status also affect the consumption patterns.


Technologies can have negative effects that are more nefarious too: a drug that gives cancer; a car that is dangerous.


“A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one” - Fight Club.


Whilst a car with faulty brakes may be shown to be dangerous quite easily, a drug that is dangerous may take much time and investigation to be shown as dangerous. The more money invested in the drug's genesis, the slower the findings will be to come to light [one always needs “more studies”]. In both cases how the negative effects fall to the end-user are pretty straight-forward.


The effects of many technologies are not localised to the user. The negative effects of the car on the built landscape has already been dealt with in some detail. Other collateral, such as car accidents where non-car users are hurt; or the various types of ecosystem devastation and pollution generated from car use and manufacture, also need to be considered. Co2 emissions; impact of used cars; environmental damage from extraction of oil and clearing of vegetation for road infrastructure; the impact from the extraction of rare earth minerals - to mention the most obvious factors.


Other flow-on effects from technologies are more subtly maleficent - in that they penalise only the non-users of technologies. As was the case with the car. In many places the non-user of cars are reduced to second-class citizens. Non-users may be penalised in other ways, too. For instance by being barred from access to services. In the case where services move online and the in person services become either removed entirely or are increasingly restricted. In the case of pollution non-users are straddled with the negative consequences that have resulted from users. In other cases they receive no benefit from government funds, just as the non-smoker gets no ‘smoke break’ from labour.


Another way to think about this phenomenon is that many of the benefits or outputs of the machine don't go to the people, places or environments that have to bear the burden of its downsides. This type of asymmetry is a particular grim modern problem. The asymmetry can be a financial one; say CEOs of major companies getting bonuses as their companies fail and need a bail-out. Meanwhile the failing economy hurts people everywhere. It especially hurts those who are least able to bear such unnecessary collateral. The downsides do not go away and so they are to be shouldered by someone else (who got none of the spoils). The same is true if we are talking about environmental issues. Jobs and financial profits of the company rarely experience any downside from practices that pollute the environment - unless severe neglect and intent can be proven. Often such negative downsides take years or even decades to manifest at what point it is unclear who or what is at fault.


The masses will never become the designers of industry. The few counter-examples that exist only serve to prove and draw emphasis to the rule. A completely mechanised society, requiring no inputs is appalling as an idea and a blight to the human spirit. What is being deified is not creativity but “innovation”. The former is invested with the human spirit of enterprise, problem solving and ingenuity coupled with community health and individual member actualisation goals. It enkindles the spirit as it crafts. It is a sacred materialism, not a profane consumerism. The latter depletes and snuffs the human spirit. Only seems to produce creative output by ‘virtue’ of the pace of novelty assaulting the senses. What actually happens is a narrowing of options within a sea of ‘novelty’. A swarm of 1’s and 0’s that gives the illusion of life by its motion.


[Maximum Efficiency or not?]


Pursuing maximal efficiency and high technological complexity means that tasks have to be specialised (usually both for the individual and the organisation). This has obvious financial and structural benefits in terms of cost savings, as any textbook of economics 101 will tell you. What is less often realised is that these upsides come with hidden downsides that at times are catastrophic.


And while this essay isn’t about present day news-stories, it should be remarked that one of hallmark issues with maximum efficiency is that by necessity concentrates production of things to very few places. With globalism this is then often coupled with long supply lines. Depending on specialised production elsewhere, and just-in-time deliveries. This makes sense in terms of specialised production and maximal efficiency. However, it reduces resiliency greatly. Redundancy may cost more in the short term - and be less efficient - but it will mean things will keep on working even in less than ideal circumstances. Decentralised production and lower levels of absolute technical advancement does away with many of the problems of over-efficiency.


On a historical note, Gandhi identified clearly how liberation from the British would have to involve re-localizing production in key areas. Rather than being dependent on industrial products from abroad. The case that is most often cited in this regard is textiles. Whereas Ghandi argued that a relocalization of textile production would be advantageous. It certainly meant a decrease in relative efficiency seen from a pure technological efficiency perspective. But in a situation where many were lacking useful employment - gainful employment for many was a positive move.


[Labour saving]


When considering efficiency and the benefits of less technologically advanced solutions, we inevitably arrive at the question of labour saving devices and their utility. There is more than one question of importance to consider here. To keep things concise we will look at what their net effects are. We can state it thusly: Is it always a good thing that labour is being saved? Does the labour saving devices in actual fact save any time - the promise of these devices is as much what they do rather than their strict utilitarian effect. Filling and emptying a dishwasher may not actually be much faster than washing by hand [and often does an inferior clean] - and yet it is sold with the promise of rendering us with much more free time for leisure.

Despite having a life full of labour saving devices, actual free time does not appear to be increasing at any appreciable rate - some new devilry must be at work here.

Worthwhile manual skills are being removed by labour saving devices. This has a negative impact, not just on survival value but also for seemingly oblique things like health and neuroplastic effects. People buy dishwashers and then also fork out thick wads of cash for ‘complex’ and ‘science-based’ neuroplasticity exercises, when they could simply pay more attention and use novel techniques whilst washing the dishes. The fact that most white goods are cumbersome, inelegant, expensive, break down regularly and carry a heavy environmental impact adds insult to injury.


[Tool use]


Related to labour saving devices is the question of tools more broadly. Certain tools offer the user the possibility of integrating them into his own self-image. The proprioceptive faculties practically extends into the tool. So much feeling and “touch” vested in the tool that it becomes an extension of man himself. Much art and craft is the result of this higher level of skill acquisition. And to varying degrees we have all felt it when a manual skill goes from being clumsy to being second nature. Whether or not tools are the quintessential human skill is less important than the fact that we do readily make use of tools; and derive health benefits and satisfaction from doing so.


While there are exceptions, by-and-large the tools that offer the best possibilities are hand held tools. This means also that tools that don't have the possibility of such skill acquisition robs the user of something that could be a formative element. A manual skill that literally changes the user - where the tool becomes an extension of himself. The acquisition of the skill is an education. Not because some educational board decided that it was worth a certain amount of educational credit, but simply because man and his tools have entered into a higher order relationship for millenia and it is profoundly linked to multiple bodily systems. Skills that cannot be doled out, only acquired through sweat and hard work.


Another benefit of manual skills and hand held tools more generally is that they are by and large democratic. A high grade manual tool may carry a high price [as fine tools should], but almost everyone can afford to get their hands on basic tools and begin practising a craft. The same cannot be said for expensive purpose made machinery that can produce and put out a large quantity of lower quality but comparable items. Within this setup manual skills are lost as automation continues to and increasingly dominates.


[Work]


Work within the context of appropriate technology is both about what is being produced and the jobs’ effect on the worker and the environment. This does mean that such an analysis has to be the domain of advanced computational models. As Schumacher details in Small is Beautiful, such models have to have value-based inputs and these inputs invariably show the preferences of the people who created the model in the first place. More often than not back-of-the-envelope calculations can arrive at the necessary conclusions just as well.


In a world of maximal efficiency, maximal technological advancement and labour saving at all cost; the workplace inevitably becomes incredibly capital intensive. In plain English: establishing a workplace becomes increasingly expensive. If the relative capital for establishing a workplace increases, the general tendency will then be to further displace inequality upwards. As only those with access to a surplus of capital can generate workplaces and derive income from them.


The importance of work in a larger sense then becomes lost. In the marketplace of careerism and the all-important-bottomline: the logic of what you do for a living is not determined by the formative element of the work itself. Within the context of appropriate technology the emphasis would necessarily be on vocations rather than careers. Vocations and crafts allow for the necessary productive element while embedding educational and formative elements into the fabric of everyday life.


The banality of evil is perhaps best encapsulated in the phrase ‘I was just doing my job’ whenever ‘just doing the job’ means doing something that is either actively or passively hurting yourself or other people. Such a logic goes beyond the obvious atrocities perpetrated by diabolic regimes into the arguably more mundane life denying stasis imposed by bureaucracies, institutions or large corporations. When common sense is completely abandoned because it has been deemed inefficient.


It is from this vantage point that we need to reevaluate statements related to whether something is ‘uneconomic’ or ‘inefficient’. In the most narrow sense it means that for the amount of capital/work input relatively less output is produced. But could it be that part of the reason is because it fulfils other objectives as well, or perhaps has effects on the worker and his environment that another mode of production cannot equal despite higher ‘efficiency.’ If the product or process negatively affects other people, that is rarely accounted for [either from ignorance or more nefarious neglecting of the material that would drop the camouflage of the endeavour]. Properly understood there are many different types of economies possible; as well there being many different economic arrangements running in tandem now. To say that something is ‘uneconomic’ only means that it is uneconomic in one of these economies. And so statements about ‘we cannot afford’ to produce things in such and such ways should be looked at in a larger context to avail the truth of the statement. Enslavement to a singular model when there is a cornucopia of other options is simply insanity. But as the old adage goes: ‘some economies are more equal than others.’


[Technology is not Value Neutral]


It is a truism that there are no ‘evil technologies’, only evil uses of technology. On the surface level it is true that it is the negligent use of certain technologies itself that is the primary issue. The appreciation of using technologies where the direct impact of the technology has net benefit can happen. The proof usually amounts to the fact that direct use can be seen to be motivated from a morally sound or corrupt perspective. There is the submerged iceberg of indirect consequences and the consequences for non-users of the technology [as already discussed] - which is not usually factored into analysis of technological virtue.


When we include these factors into our categorization of technology, we end up with three broad categories: maleficent [-], neutral [0] and positive [+]. It should become clear that there are certain technologies that always have a net negative impact. Super-highways from this larger view are almost always away from an evil piece of tech. Nuclear weapons are another example of a piece of tech that it is hard to argue as anything but evil [possibly useful in dissfusing incoming meteorites of cataclysmic mass]. This is independent of whether they are wielded by a kingdom of philosopher-kings, a modern technocracy or in the domain of a despotic madman.


Beyond this - technology and the preference for certain technologies always show up in our preferences as a society. What this means in more plain language is that: technology does not occur in a vacuum. And how they are seen and utilised has much to do with a society and its preferences. These preferences then become embedded into the technology - often at a subliminal level. This is what is meant by ‘technology is not value neutral’. It already has a value structure fused to the metaphysics of its creators. It is born of one particular way of seeing and experiencing the world. It is born of a particular line of economic thinking. A line of thinking that is always envisioned by its makers as being the one and only true way of thinking economically. There are a galaxy of ways of expressing and making technologies.


[Man as machine]


Man’s relationship with the machine is not an accident but the direct result of a definite metaphysical perspective. Bluntly put: seeing technology as an independent entity or as something that just happens and cannot be stopped is only possible from the vantage point of a particular worldview. Only in a world that is seen as fundamentally mechanistic can technology be seen as the way that things work and the road to progress. It is no more difficult to see the world as alive - and ensouled - than its opposite. It is much more convenient for economic and certain metaphysical positions to see technologies as neutral - and therefore beyond value and moral questions. Unless some technologies are seen for what they are - destructive and against fundamental human conditions and yet others of a more neutral or two faced nature - the future ahead is grim, indeed.


The enforced ‘forward’ motion is symbolic of the movement of the machine just as man in its service is possessed of this ‘forward’. There is curiously little choice as to whether the aims of the machine are worth pursuing. Of whether the new option necessarily is the better one. Following the ‘logic of the machine’ the only goal is for the machine's levers and pulleys to move at an ever increasing rate. This is what the cult of ever increasing economic growth signifies.

Mechanicometastasis.


[Every human problem gets restated as a technical problem]


If we pay attention to the discourse du jour, almost all the major problems that humanity faces gets phrased, couched and discoursed on as if they are questions or concerns that has to have a more advanced technological solution. Be it: ways to extract carbon from the atmosphere; food production; questions of how to deal with old age and sickness. If the problem is obviously created by excess use of certain technologies (ie. a form of pollution) there is not a moment's hesitation as to whether utilising another form of advanced technology might have other unintended technologies that we are yet unaware of. No one seems to notice that it's like a doctor prescribing two more drugs to counteract the side effects of his first prescription.

[The language of the machine]


Another way of ascertaining how far the mutation of man into machine has gone is to have a look at our language. When we use analogies such as ‘hardware’ or ‘software’ to describe human qualities. That we talk about tv scheduled as ‘programming’ we are talking about the changing of man into machine. This is not merely an analogy. The extent that we employ a machine-like logic - which in its unidimensionality and inability to deal with the messiness and multifaceted nature of real life, always leaves something out - is the extent to which we have become possessed by technology. No matter how multifaceted or advanced a computation we are talking about; the transformation of life into neat quantities is a reductionism that ultimately does away with what it is supposed to describe.


[The hyper machine]


The current concern about AI [artificial intelligence] is phrased as if it is a new risk. Both the believers and the naysayers treat the threat of AI as if it is a novel threat of the hyper-technological age. The risk of a ‘runaway’ train style problem (unless ‘its’ aims are directly correlated with ours) will compete for resources with us and inevitably lead to conflict. Only, this situation has already transpired in industrial civilization. A distributed and constantly expanding hyper machine does not need wifi, AI or Instagram. It can work plenty fine on telegraph cables and steam power. Perhaps, we are confused by modern day technological advances and think primarily about AseI as a technical problem ie. a coding issue. This style of enslavement of man to his tools was foreseen long before AI was anything but a futurists wet-dream.


What perhaps is a uniquely modern take on this situation is a type of unbridled enthusiasm. If AI is coming we will simply merge with it: Implantable chips, ‘augmented reality’ and meta verse all rolled into one. The supposition that we have any control over such a process, or that it will in any way gainfully change us as human beings seems to be questions that aren't worth a moment's reflection. In reality we cannot become automatons fast enough.


We have cast ourselves at the altar of tech. We have forged a golem that demands continual sacrifices. The irony, of course, being that the golem has no sentience in the ways that we recognize it. Only in a culture where we deify only the intellect (by discarding the many other deeper features of being a human being) can the trajectory towards AI, cyborg-chic and technological salvationism become desirable pathways [rather than totally insane notions].


[Yes G thank you]


Man, in his ‘primitive state’ was in a greater state of balance. With his tools and himself and his tribe. He exercised a larger degree of control of them; could easily come by them - and becoming a master of them, would have less indirect negative consequences on the milieux at large. His knowledge would not outstrip his wisdom to the point where he became tyrannised by it. Where it ceased to serve his day-to-day function and instead enslaved and weakened his body and spirit. Gurdjieff once stated that essence develops better under harsher conditions of life. Whereas the false personality more easily and virulently takes ascendancy in cultures that separate humanity from the elements, honest labour and meaningful work.


Further, it is precisely this harmonic wisdom of body, essence and the integration of centres that allows for a non-fragmentary use of tech-technology. Asinine mentation that masquerades as ‘intelligence’ is deification of the intellect [the mental centre] without balancing forces from elsewhere in the organism. Real human technology involves the balancing of centres within oneself and reconnecting between man and the earth. This is no technology of homogeneity, though. No mere accumulation of knowledge, or even a centrist weighing of seemingly disparate realms. No: this is a technology of transmutation.


Thus, tools in the broad sense may be used for ends that are in alignment and help with the development of man’s being or may ultimately become an impediment. The point at hand is neither to suggest that tools and technology are ultimately a negative force. Suggesting that we will do away with them altogether at this point is obviously naive. Seeing tools and their larger impact is useful if it can help us dehypnotize from identification with the machine.


For humans to stop acting in ways that are mechanical cannot be brought about by the use of machines themselves. This is the function of human technologies. Much of what has been written on the forefront of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in the last 100 years - the works of Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, Carl Jung, R.D.Laing and Alexander Lowen all speaks to what happens on a physical-psychological level when we internalise this process and in a non metaphorical sense devivify ourselves. Expecting the machine to stop its forward march, or focusing entirely on that is unlikely to yield good results for an individual. If we can perceive the truth in the dangers of the internalising of the process of machination, then the real work at hand is on reversing the process of influence within ourselves. The foregoing passages have largely focused on how civilization through its tools and technologies prefers a certain way of being and living [more accurately: non-Being and half-life]. Even so, the direction of the influence does not move in one way only. We do not have to be victims of our circumstances, the individuals who operate from different principles, they too exert a force.


It is all too easy to only point out the ills of something and leave little in the way of positive suggestions or adaptive strategies. The remainder of this essay should be understood as the beginnings of an outline of such strategies. The most difficult aspect of this is repatterning the things we have already internalised. It is easy to change a set of clothes. It is much more difficult to change a set of deeply held beliefs. Pressing against something deeply held almost invariably creates a reaction.


Limits


Now, one does not have to be a believer in total equality, whatever that may mean, to be able to see that the existence of inordinately rich people in any society today is a very great evil.

  • E.F.Schumacher - Small is Beautiful


Part of the inherent issue in coming to grips with man and his relationship to his tools reaches beyond the tools and into the deeper substrata of our societies mythology. The preferences of a society are a key determinant of not only what we do with our tools, but also what classes of tools we pursue [which ones are valued].


A society that has as one of its governing principles an unrelenting pursuit of expansion will invariably opt for ways of doing things that disregard limits of all types. It will do so subliminally. Thoughts and perspectives against this will not be entertained - most times they are not even entertainable [do not enter into the consciousness of the populace or governance]. Focusing our attention only on the tools avoids taking a sober look at the way of thinking that brought their dominance, and the deeper secularly religious architecture of modern civilization.


Seeing, acknowledging and understanding limits at all levels of perception is then the unpopular but very much necessary next step.


In the human physiological domain cells that fail to obey natural limits of growth and decay are known as metastasis - as cancers. The cancer's desire to grow becomes a liability for the health of the whole organism. Cancer pursues its goals to the detriment of the integrity and function of the whole individual - often this process is terminal, and ironically also limits the longevity of the cancer itself.


An interesting point in this regard is that we often recognise the importance of limits in the case of cancer, just not in other domains of our lives or in society in general. In domains where the principle is obscenely obvious, we fail entirely to implement anything ameliorating. We do not notice the inconsistency and may nod along to some soothsaying economist proclaiming that the economy needs to be expanding at such and such rate. Not questioning what the implications are when you are stating that something needs to be kept growing indefinitely. In a culture where technological progress and economic growth are God - limits of any kind are blasphemy. And so we don't.


Most things exist within limits. Any healthy being exists within a definite physiological range proper to an individual and his predestiny - nature abhors imbalance and excess. Suffering results when we continually seek to violate these limits and Laws of Nature. Limits to growth apply equally to the size of social groups (as discussed in essay 2), the size of the economy and our interactions with the planet.


Similar principles are at work within a community or society at large. They rest in themselves when functioning naturally. Obviously, things can be made to function outside of natural equilibrium, but it always comes at the cost of extra energy and/or making permanent inroads into a resource pool. In the case of the individual stricken by the sicknesses of excess, supportive measures have to be applied to keep the organism functioning. In the case of a society it creates alienation and drives the process of institutionalisation. In the case of the tools and what drove the movement of appropriate technology is the idea that tools have a range within which they generate a positive outcome.


Closely related to the concept of limits then are the ideas of proportion and scale. One of the reasons that there are limits is that in order for that entity to function properly it has to operate in relation to something else. In the case of the human body the different parts of the body stand in relation to each other in a particular pattern. When such patterns are harmonious and coherent we recognize them as beautiful and pleasing.


When the pattern is violated and one element of the larger whole develops disproportionately it creates tension. Its further growth can be sustained by a stealing energy from somewhere else - this is true whether we are talking about a country that is continually expanding by usurpring energy from elsewhere (we call this an empire); a cancer that is growing by taking excess energy from the rest of the body; an financial economy that is expanding into every human domain pushing aside non-financial arrangements. All are exhaustive processes that, because they violate a natural balance, depletes their host. On a deeper level this is the demiurgic nature of man. The great hubris against the gods and Nature herself by not heeding limits.


Human Ecology



“The sign of a healthy economy should be a drinkable river. “ - Li An Phoa


“You are only afraid if you are not in harmony with yourself. People are afraid because they have never owned up to themselves. A whole society composed of men afraid of the unknown within them!”

  • Herman Hesse

The heeding of limits is learning a lesson of maturity. In an individual's life, the move from child to adult involves learning a series of lessons. As so often happens; if we fail to learn these lessons we will grow into an adult body but behaviour and understanding does not match the physical shape. Even then, following Rolf and Reich-Lowen - our ‘adult bodies’ are anything but fully mature, in spite of their size and fertility. In the same way a culture can choose to learn lessons that are appropriate to a particular time of its development - or it can double down on whatever addiction has taken its fancy. It should be obvious what road our culture has opted for. Much like a teenager going for another round of videogames and sugary drinks.


When considering what expressing a mature pattern might look like, it is useful to cast the net far and wide - and as much as possible avoid elements that draw only on the imagination of our cultures tendency towards endless self-referential circlejerk. The suggested more than metaphor here is to consider ecology. What might it mean to have a true, human ecology[?] What lessons can be drawn from such an exercise. How may we see things in a new light?


A mature pattern in terms of an ecology in a particular place is often labelled climax community. Climax refers to a point of zenith where that given land supports the maximum possible number of species [plants, animals, fungi etc]. A series of successive stages antedated the arrival of the state of climax community, paving the way for its arrival. Because of the high number of species there is often a high degree of robustness and resilience to such a system. This means that when disturbances in external factors occur they have a relatively smaller impact than in less diverse systems. The system can be said to be antifragile.


That is not to say that ‘everything is better’ within a climax community. From a human perspective what we call ‘yields’ may actually be more scarce. You can feed yourself off a relatively small garden indefinitely; but to get to a similar number of calories from an old growth forest you will need a vast area. This is one reason why hunter-gatherers often spanned very large areas, taking advantage of natural resources as they become available. What is obviously better within a climax community from a yield perspective is that they will keep going indefinitely. It is a self sufficient, self correcting and self improving system. The aforementioned garden allotment if pursued intensively enough will often require outside inputs in terms of fertilisers (be they organic or chemical). This may not be apparent within a short period of time, like a human lifetime. But becomes incredibly important over longer durations.


To return to our metaphor of adulthood: Inevitably there are consequences to bad decisions. Whether we are talking about an individual or a culture. The lessons that we need to learn are no more popular when heeded collectively than when we faced them individually. Two such come to mind. The first: you cannot always get what you want and even more rarely when you want it . The second, which is related to the first: Be aware that you're not the only person in the world. They are rather obvious lessons on a personal level and as such hardly worth commenting on.


On a collective level things get more interesting. Both lessons speak to patience of things having a natural unfoldment. The graceful option is to go with the ebb and flow. In terms of collective decision that may mean something like not making decisions that will make things worse in the future; be it by over-utilising soils, straddling the young with a hostile built environment and so forth.


There are quite a few inevitable push backs in a debate whenever ecology is used as an explanatory metaphor for how we may gainfully adapt to our circumstances in the present day. Let us have a look at two of the more common ones: the first, is that this would be to legitimise some neo-feudal arrangement (or some other dark ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario); secondarily that it is a desire to restrict all the colourful expressions of human culture into a straight jacket of one size fits all of old style conservatism.


The first objection is in some ways the easiest to answer. At the moment the forces driving and shaping society are in large part in the grips of hyper-competitive market forces,where the major players (big corporations and industries) are aided in their continual growth and expansion by governments. Smaller and locally founded individuals and businesses have been the ones to pay the price for this development. In this light it is unclear exactly why a reversal of this trend would be a negative development.


The second point is harder to address in part because it sits closer to the core value structure of modernity. That is that the newest things necessarily have a ‘higher truth value’. Globalism has done much to enact a vision of the world that has the same basic set of rules governing in all places. A return to a human ecology then is quite the opposite: it is a return to a multitude of different ways of doing things. One way of looking at this is that climax communities differ from region to region, whilst machines are the same everywhere.


[Institutionalisation of values]


To bring about a human ecology we must realise what the primary hindrances are. It is hardly a revolutionary statement that there are enough physical resources for the betterment of a great many on this planet. At least as far as needs go, as often pointed out the ‘wants’ are another story entirely. What is less often talked about is how any talk about any better way of doing things assumes them to take place within the same context as has brought about their arising. To use a perhaps overused phrase ‘a problem cannot be solved by the same type of thinking that created it in the first place.’ Problems of a practical nature are less important to address if the fundamental problem set that created them remains in place.


Where we are now in the early 21st century, values (what is good, true, right and wrong) are increasingly being usurped by institutions. Be they commercial or governmental. What is meant by this? Institutions orchestrate what Illich called a ‘radical monopoly’ over the creation of values. A radical monopoly over values is far more insidious and harder to counter than laws. Humans become consumers of a series of “life” products: health, education, spirituality and so forth. In a very much circular fashion, the institutions are the creators of these products (as well as the creator for their demand.) It is civilization’s great con game. That the sum total of these in some way amount to ‘reality’ or the contents of a good life. This is only true from the limited vantage point of the machine.


[What is a consumer?]


Closely related to the process of institutionalisation is the concept of a consumer. One cannot exist without the other. To deal with the inevitable first, speaking against the sanctity of consumerism does not mean that what is being suggested is communism, anarchism or anti-materialism. [and such knee-jerk reactions are as much part of what it means to be a consumer of canned opinions.]


Apart from the obvious consumption of materials and pre-packaged products; a consumer is someone who is entirely removed from the process of creation. On a mundane level of the transaction of goods for items of worth, be it monetary or otherwise, by having that interaction scripted and mediated by bureaucracies or large corporations, it removes a layer of human interaction: haggling and negotiation which helps to create an energetically just transaction. On a deeper level someone who is not making and interrogating his world has to a large extent given up his or her own agency and has shunted responsibility elsewhere.


[Learned helplessness]


Bureaucracy means that we do not utilise our own power to negotiate for goods. Some bureaucrats are paid to make sure that everything is divided up sufficiently. How far can the intermediation of individual skills and aptitudes be taken?


Many people are afraid to answer their telephone. The thought of having to negotiate with others for goods, services, their lives … impossible. One of Reich’s patients was afraid of ever being surprised - a deep seated pathology, and an unnatural state for any living creature. Many of the things we - rightly - identify as being at odds with proper human conduct: chatbot friends, sex robot ‘girlfriend’ and instagram-life are only secondarily about not answering the call and limitations of reality.


In the main they are about life being orderly. Flat and smoothed out. Controlled and moderated and unsurprising. All surprises have neatly been dealt with; put aside to favour one particular type of possibly mildly pleasant, but otherwise deadening experience. We have become comfortably numb.When it comes right down to it, the reality is that our civilization is just creating more and more SSRI’s in non pill form. But, as Lowen and others have pointed out - fear cannot be dealt with in this way. It becomes embodied and sunken into the soma. Fused to the soul. The organism then cannot help but respond to the organic world in fear and apprehension.


On a very basic level the fear itself is a portal back to an organic reality. Which makes it obvious that despite all our clever machinations, we have lost touch with basic tenets of reality. There are tried and true ways of dealing with this problem. Many of which have many other positive corollaries beyond fear. Martial arts are the most obvious example. The ability to learn to fight is a positive, modulator of the fear response. Dealing with having stress hormones in the bloodstream not negatively affecting behaviour is likely to be much more useful over the course of a lifetime than cotton-wooling one's life.


On the flip side of this the emotional posture of someone who has completed the process of institutionalisation is to have all of his own wants, desires, impulses - his inherent genius supplanted by the wants and desires of the machine. It is a posture of learned helplessness. He has learned to depend on having his opinion and goals implanted from elsewhere. This creates the illusion of social stability, but has the unfortunate consequence of robbing him of his being - and the society of any defence mechanisms in true crises.


The false values of pseudo civilization take many faces. A thousand flavours of the same basic deflated emotional posture. The answers that they point to for our current predicament are almost always a further complexification of some guise or other. Untangle the complexity, the hyper-nuance and ‘the emerging sensibilities’ and what we encounter beneath all of it is a thinly veiled nihilism. A maze of words that goes nowhere. At its centre is the fear of life. Humble humanity and simple compassion is replaced by ‘ironic sincerity’. Such nihilism can only come about when people don’t have the guts and courage to hold a conviction. The right combination of words and nuance have cybernetically replaced the backbone.


Fear of Life [Unlife]


“Gurdjieff says that men are only partly to blame. Cosmic laws are the cause, but man, because of the abnormal life he has made for himself, is also greatly to blame, and is responsible for the horrors of modern war. Life is becoming more complicated, more stupid, more unsatisfying physically, emotionally and mentally, and the only remedies offered by our experts are more money, more psychology, more education, more science, more government, more chemical fertilizers, more poison sprays, more injections, more drugs – everything but plain common sense. We are threatened with another flood, a flood of the false values of pseudo-civilization which may drown all who have not an ark.”

  • C.S.Nott - Journey Through This World

At this point in the essay it would be all too easy to wrap it up and call it a job well done. But there is one more step that must be taken to save it from being fated as just another item for the cultural compost heaps of societal and cultural critiques. Just another ‘interesting viewpoint’. Just another layer of nuance to add to an emerging sensibility. No. There is a deeper meaning at work here that needs to be drawn out into the light. We are talking about a pattern: the preceding paragraphs, passages and pages the necessary foot work up a mountain to see clearly the terrain in all directions. To make the whole clearly visible. As the pattern begins to come into view one sees the cultural idea of perpetual progress having severe holes in it. That in many instances we are regressing rather than progressing.


But even that isn't taking things far enough.


The thing that often gets pushed aside when these points get brought up is that living cultures have ways of binding transformational and sexual energies. This is one reason why Reich’s work was burnt in the 1950s USA. Today psychedelics have had a culturally conditioned veil on scientific enquiry lifted [in place since Leary et al]. But very rarely will Reichs books be featured even in secondhand bookstores that pride themselves on being ‘alternative’ - let alone seriously discussed outside of some smug joke about orgone accumulators. Psychedelics, just as Aldous Huxley predicted, are already being co-opted by institutions and bureaucracies in the hopes of further medically enforcing obedience to the pattern-norms: LSD therapy to help lift that depression and get you back in the office cubicle. Psilocybin microdosing for “creativity”. In ancient times the ways in which they were handled such energies was a large part of the specifics of a particular culture. We call this by many names the ecstatic, the spiritual, the transcendent. This is true whether we are talking about animistic cultures with their shamans, the yogic, the tantric, the iantromantic or any other of the many viable religious or spiritual pathways.


What needs to be pointed out here is that examples selected (and many more could have been singled out, but a line has to be drawn somewhere) point to something near totally absent in terms of depth of our current civilization. How, from this vantage point, civilization is vampiric - it literally usurps the life energies from its inhabitants. Perpetually it binds the human spirit. Sexual and transformational energies get routed into surrogate activities. This is why the institutionalisation of values is so pernicious - because it binds this very life energy to a few particular types of mechanised outlets. Institutions (almost) never have their own dissolution as a specific goal - and if they do it is never worked towards - the dictatorship of the proletariat becomes the dictatorship of the state apparatus.


The flipside is that these primordial energies don't go away just because we don't pay them any attention or scoff at their existence as superstitions of previous ‘lesser’ civilisations. As much as the atheist and rational materialist would like to pretend otherwise. In fact, atheism and rational materialism could both easily be classified as pathological mental disorders generated by excessively head-bound life energies, if viewed from the vantage point of any number of future sane and balanced civilisations.


A particular grim example will have to be utilized to cast light on this phenomenon: Many have marvelled at how the nazi phenomenon for instance could come about. Certainly the largely reactionary nature of the phenomenon was against the economic and social interest of large swathes of the lower middle classes or workers whose support was necessary for the rise of the Third Reich. Both Wilhelm Reich and later on Berman go into great detail deciphering the phenomenon. While the exact conclusions reached differ [Reich wrote his initial observations prior to the conclusion of the second world war - whereas Berman had the benefit of hindsight as well as a larger body of work in psychology and psychoanalytic theory to draw on.] What is clear from both authors' work is that what we are really looking at here is what Reich called the ‘mass psychology’ or the psychology of repression. It was known to the Nazi leaders that that simple and clear psychologically evocative communication was much more effective than rationally based arguments. The number of PhD’s in the Nazi ranks speaks volumes to how even intelligent people aren’t immune to this type of propaganda [see footnotes].


“We are always convinced that the modern world is a reasonable world, basing our opinion on economic, political, and psychological factors. But if we may forget for a moment that we are living in the year of Our Lord 1936, and, laying aside our well-meaning, all-too-human reasonableness, may burden God or the gods with the responsibility for contemporary events instead of man, we would find Wotan quite suitable as a casual hypothesis. In fact, I venture the heretical suggestion that the unfathomable depths of Wotan’s character explain more of National Socialism than all three reasonable factors put together. There is no doubt that each of these factors explains an important aspect of what is going on in Germany, but Wotan explains yet more. He is particularly enlightening in regard to a general phenomenon which is so strang