Archive for May, 2011

The Future of Tech

May 30, 2011

In my previous post, I wrote about the extent of my involvement with computers. It’s not that I’m a tech enthusiast. I’m not. In fact, I believe that the modern world’s devotion to technology has gotten way out of hand and is causing great harm. I wrote that post so that readers would know that I’m not simply some Luddite writing from my cave.

A lot of people believe that humanity is merely at the beginning of a period of great advancement, and it’s all due to the glories of technology. The age of science and industry goes back something like 150 years, and I think we’re actually nearer its end than its beginning. I have two reasons for believing this. One  is that we’ve entered an era of resource and energy depletion (not to mention climate change), which is due to our profligate use of those resources. It’s going to make it impossible to continue with the fantasy. The other reason is spiritual, or, if you prefer, psychological. The world is rapidly approaching the point of nervous breakdown.

As for the first reason—I’ve written about the Peak Oil theory elsewhere on this blog. Everything the theory describes seems to be coming true. There is no question as to whether or not we’re going to run out of oil one day. There’s only so much. The question has always been when. But Peak Oil says that it isn’t so much a matter of running out of oil as it is the growing expense (both financially and ecologically) of extracting the harder-to-get oil. Our economy is built on the assumption that there will always be cheap oil, which is impossible. And when resources become truly scarce, where will we put them? Into information technology and consumer gadgets? Or into the growth and transportation of food? You can’t eat information. Current agricultural practices use petroleum products to run farm machinery, make fertilizer, build and maintain the roads that transport the food, fuel the trucks that haul it, create the electricity for refrigeration, and more. At the moment, we have enough electrical power to maintain the enormous grid of servers that keeps the Internet running. But we’re not going to be able to maintain that situation indefinitely. From what I read, even if we could solve the safety and waste issues, nuclear power can’t really do what its supporters say it does. A lot of people believe that the free market can solve the issue. But the faith in free markets is wishful thinking. The old game—constant economic growth—was a bubble, and it’s gone forever.

When I was growing up I used to see articles on how the coming revolution in automation was going to create a huge problem for us: What to do with all that leisure time? But, of course, that’s not what happened. The leisure time bit was just a selling point. They’ve been piling on the work, and the pace of daily life has been sped up to a point that it far exceeds anything that’s natural and healthy. That which is unnatural and unhealthy is unsustainable. They keep making more gadgets that we don’t really need whose ultimate affect is diversion—diversion from boredom. None of these devices really satisfy. We have not become smarter, healthier, kinder, or closer on account of it. No machine can bring about a greater sense of well-being. I know that perfectly well from experience. Anybody who pushes this idea, if he really believes it, is out of touch with reality.

I often hear people describe some new gadget as “magical.” But they are not magic. Magic is where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. With machines, the whole exactly equals the sum of the parts. An example: You can program a machine to play a piece of music exactly in tempo, no missed notes, etc., but the resulting music will not be magic. When I was a musician I would occasionally reach a place where something extra came into play. It was like the music was playing me rather me playing the music. It always astonished me, and it was something the audience could feel as well. That’s magic, and it comes from a place that no machine can access. It’s the place that makes life worth living.

The tech trip is a knowledge trip. But there’s something more important than knowledge: wisdom. And that’s what we’re here to find. Most people doubt this, I think. We’ve become so involved with gaining knowledge (or information) and money that we don’t see anything else. We don’t even know what wisdom is. Technically, it’s seeing cause and effect on down to the most subtle levels in the here and now. The only way to see with that kind of clarity is to take the inner journey. But a culture that believes that the only thing you’ll find within yourself is blood vessels, bone, and nerve endings won’t take the trip. Still, technology cannot continue to be the dominant force in our lives. We’ll die of boredom. It’s starting to break down, though, and as it does, we’ll have no choice but to look for that which goes deep. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing.

Two last things: I’m not saying we drop technology entirely. We have such a dualistic mindset that whenever you criticize tech there will be someone who says, “What do you want to do? Go back to the Stone Age?” We should integrate what is truly useful and makes sense to keep. But in a sane world, there wouldn’t be that much. I think it was Gary Snyder who responded to someone’s “What do you want to do? Go back to the Stone Age?” remark with “No, but I wouldn’t mind going back to, say, the 1950s.” He was joking. But it makes the point. And for those who will say, “You’re here using a computer and the Internet. Aren’t you being kind of hypocritical?” I’m here because this is where the camp fire is right now and I want to speak to people. But I intend to make my way back to reality as soon as the way is clear. It’s healthier and it’s where you meet your real friends.

Me ‘n Computers (Computers and I)

May 25, 2011

I want to write something about where I see technology taking us. But before I do that, I want to describe my own involvement with the stuff.

In 1982, I started hearing a lot about computers. The word was that they were going to change everything and if you didn’t have one, you were going to be left behind. That didn’t make any sense to me, but the idea was so widespread and came up so persistently that it tended to worry me. The way the media wrote about them, without a computer I’d be unable to do something as simple as buying groceries. But in those days, I couldn’t afford a computer. I couldn’t afford rent! The computer revolution started without me.

Around 1995 I mentioned to someone that I was considering writing a book about the parrots. He told me, “If you’re going to write a book, you’ll need a computer” and he offered to give me his old one. Having no idea what computers did or what a word processor was, his statement made no sense to me. But I jumped at the chance to finally learn about them. I don’t remember any of its specs—it came with DOS 3.3—but it was fairly primitive, one of the first commercially available machines (a 088?). I bought a book and started learning the operating system and the included word processor, WordPerfect 5.1. After awhile, I started learning how to write batch files. One day I found myself in a bookstore reading about a prank batch file that made the victim believe his hard drive was being reformatted. By then I was deep enough into it that I had tears of laughter running down my cheeks as I read the list of commands. There were a lot of people willing to part with their old machines as they bought new ones. So I kept upgrading until, just as Windows 98 was being released, I made it to a Windows 95 machine. I stayed there for a couple years working on the book.

When I got my advance from the publisher, I decided it was time to get a brand new computer. This was around the time that Judy and I were coming together. Because of her film work, she was heavily into Macs, and wanting to be compatible with her equipment, I switched from Windows to Mac. Judy doesn’t particularly like computers and she needed someone to help her figure out computer issues, so I started learning programs. While I’m not an expert at anything—not even word processing—I’ve learned how to make my way around a machine and how to find answers and fixes to most problems. I can do basic operations in Photoshop (I develop Judy’s RAW images for a photography job she has); I’ve helped set up and I’ve logged into databases (Filemaker Pro); I understand the essentials of CSS and HTML, and I use Dreamweaver to make Judy’s and my web sites; I’ve done a tremendous amount of research for my book using the Internet and I’ve gotten quite good at ferreting out obscure bits of information; I’ve used the computer to plan and pay for research trips for my book; and I even have Windows 7 running in a separate partition on my Mac so that I can use the dictation program Dragon Naturally Speaking to transcribe Judy’s film interviews.

So that’s my background. In my next post I’ll write about where I see all this going.

Progress Report #62

May 24, 2011

For the purpose of developing the outline, I’ve divided the book up into ten periods—the tenth representing the point at which I stopped work on the second draft. I’ve just finished outlining period eight. So I have two more periods to outline before I reach the point where I have to decide how the second draft proceeds to its ending. These periods probably won’t show up as named entities in the final manuscript. They’re intended simply to help me see the story arc. My hunch is that I’ll be dividing the remainder of the story into two periods—three at the most—and then I can go ahead and finish the second draft. I figure that will take me six months more. At that point, I get to start work on the final version of the book. I’ve been so absorbed by the outline work that I haven’t had time to write any new posts. I have an idea for one that I’ll try to get to soon. Things are going well. I’ll eventually have to cut out some material from this outline, but as my vision for the book clarifies, that becomes easier to do.

Our Real Religion

May 13, 2011

You often hear that Americans are a religious people. That notion is often based on polls in which people say that they believe in God. But I don’t think it’s true. My sense is that, in a gathering of Americans, if someone were to say that he was an atheist, the response would be, at most, an earnest attempt by a handful of people to convince the guy that God does exist. If, on the other hand, the guy were to say that he was against capitalism, then he would encounter real hostility.

Comrades in Arms

May 11, 2011

In the late ’70s here in North Beach, famous bohemian neighborhood of San Francisco, there used to be a group of guys who sat in the cafes and talked ideas. All their ideas were preposterous, yet they saw themselves as cutting-edge visionaries whose views would eventually alter all intellectual fields. The reality was that they did little more than drink coffee and shoot the shit. Every now and then a local newspaper would do a story on them. I was amazed that anybody took them seriously. One of them must have known a journalist. At that time they were all left-wingers of one sort or another. Today, they all seem to have become right-wingers. (I will repeat: I dislike those terms, but I use them to keep this story short.) I once asked one of them, “Why the change?” He admitted confidentially that it was because there was more money in being a right-winger. Anyway, every time I see or hear Newt Gingrich, I can’t help but think of those guys.

A Fourteen Percenter

May 10, 2011

It’s taken me until the age of 59 to see clearly that there is no one in public life who speaks for me. No one. No religious leader, no artist, no thinker, and certainly no politician. There used to be a few, but they’ve all gone into retirement or died. I’ve begun to think of myself as a “14 percenter.” After 9/11, I was of the 14 per cent, according to one poll, who opposed the invasion of Afghanistan. And I saw recently that 14 percent opposed the killing of Bin Laden. We tend to think that, whatever the issue, the majority must be right. I don’t think so. Because of our obsession with wealth and power, the truth gets buried. So if no one else is going to do it, I need to start making a stronger effort to say what I want to hear said.

The Death of Bin Laden

May 5, 2011

My view of this affair is much too complicated to go into right now. My book is putting a special claim on my attention. But I do want to say this: I’ve never celebrated the death of anyone, and I’m not going to start now. It’s interesting to see how much of this is just a media event. All the news organizations have America celebrating victory. But the morning after, as I was riding my bike along Fisherman’s Wharf on my way out of town, I took the time to study the faces in the crowd. They all had the same bored expressions I always see down there. And these weren’t the supposedly America-hating San Franciscans of Republican imagination. San Franciscans seldom go to Fisherman’s Wharf. They were all tourists, and they come from every corner of the nation.

A Deep View of Karma

May 2, 2011

“There must needs be offenses, but woe unto him by whom the offenses come.”