Scary Good Ideas

Idea 1: Build Anything

Commentary upon the recent Popular Science interview of Joi Ito, entitled “Making Gadgets Great.”

(Aside: this interview is notably longer on the web than in the magazine print version, where I originally read it.  That says something about our current media culture.  Maybe several somethings.)

There is a great deal about Joi Ito and his current work at the MIT Media Lab that should be applauded.  In the first place, he’s building things, rather than merely “providing services” or spinning out impossible ideas.

In the second, he eschews hyperspecialization, and keeps his focus broad:

I think the Media Lab is unique in its ability to be multi-disciplinary but execution-oriented.

That combination is rare, and is a Really Good Idea.  We need more places like this.

In the third place, he’s leveraging the increasing cheapness of technology to make this execution really practical.  One of the cool things about technology (in fact perhaps its defining benefit) is that the more of it you have, the cheaper it gets.  This is true of lots of things, but probably more so of technology than, say, sheep or lumber or granite.

Never Say Never

But what Ito is up to is also pretty scary, in a number of respects.  For instance:

It’s a risk-taking, extremely creative, build-oriented, multi-disciplinary place where there isn’t a single thing that we would ever say we would never do.

Of course the obvious counterfactual is “What if I floated an idea for a specially ingenious device for killing large numbers of people at once?”

To be fair, Ito would (probably) say no.  But then again, maybe he would just ask how much money was in it.  Who knows?  The point is that, while he may possess them, moral constraints are nowhere to be found on the basic grid he uses for assessing new ideas.   This to me is scary.

Neoteny

MJ: Your investment fund is named Neoteny. What does that mean?

JI: “Neoteny” is the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood. As a child you learn, you have wonder, you’re curious, and every day’s a new day. But at some point you become an adult. And as an adult you focus on producing, reproducing, protecting. In the old days, the world didn’t change very much, so once you became a plumber, you didn’t really need to learn that much more about plumbing. Today you have to keep learning, and learning is somewhat of a childlike behavior. We want the Media Lab to be more like kindergarten and less like a lumber mill.

Again, there’s plenty here worth lauding.  There should be no argument that “work” should include as much like “learning” as possible, because learning is fun, and work—to the degree that it prohibits discovery and invention and improvement—is not.  Of course the issue is a lot muddier than this, because a lot of the imaginative and creative learning has been stripped out of our schools, and at the same time a lot of it is still being done at the adult level (in colleges and seminars and research labs and lots of places); but Ito is correct that whatever is good about childhood learning is something that adults can and should benefit from.  Kids like colors and stories and music and rhyme: but it’s not because they’re kids, it’s because they’re human.  The fact that college students can learn without such fun mnemonic aids doesn’t mean they should have to, or that it’s the best way.

But there’s something creepy here too.  Neoteny is in fact a disease, or a disorder.  Irrespective of Joi Ito’s juvenile philosophizing, when you witness it in nature, it’s pretty obviously not right.

Take the axolotl, a salamander that develops reproductive capacity but never loses its gills, and so never leaves the water.  It’s curious, and maybe even cute, and is anyhow an amazing example of genetic flexibility.  But it also doesn’t live up to its classification as an “amphibian.”  And there’s a lot of the world it never sees.

Neoteny in humans is even scarier.  And sadder.

Because the waters that it lives in are increasingly polluted, the axolotl is in danger of extinction.

Idea 2: Precision Pesticides

Commentary upon the article “Small Business Owner Exports Earth-friendly Pesticide,” in which the Small Business Administration touts one of its success stories.

Better Death

A little-known fact is that less than 1 percent of the insecticide in a traditional spray application actually hits its target….

That’s reason enough right there to build a better mousetrap.  And there’s no need to recount all the badness that accrues from traditional pesticide methods.

Higher kill rates and lower pollution levels are pretty appealing, I have to admit.  And joining a poison with a female pheromone is pretty specially ingenious means of killing large numbers of insects at once, too.

And since we do live in a fallen world, and since pests really are pests, there may be a place for such a thing.

But What If

But what if all this is just a science fiction story waiting to be told?

What if this pest fills an ecological niche, say as a food source for a bird that also gobbles up the crop’s secondary and tertiary pests? Or those of the field next door?  What if it is adopted so broadly, and works so well, that a few dozen species of pest simply go extinct?

Or what if, conversely, the synthetic version of the pheromone doesn’t attract every male of the species equally, but only the weakest and stupidest?  Do we really want to kick natural selection up to that very unnatural level?

What if a targeted assault on a given species holds no less hubris, in its essence, than a broadcast assault?

And what if this pheromone should happen to attract not only the crop’s major pest, but also its primary pollinator?

A Fable

Once upon a time, Hawaii had a rat problem.  The rats were eating all the sugar cane.  Some clever orc realized that mongooses eat rats.  So they imported mongooses.

The mongooses ignored the rats, and ate the eggs of the native birds.

A Future

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom. 8:19-25)

Someday the remnant of mankind—those that have the faith and hope of a child!—will grow up.

Someday the adoption will be completed, and death and faith and hope will be done away, and the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the mongoose with the bird of Paradise.

For now we wait with patience, and yet say Marana Tha.

On Resisting Zombification

Original version: August 31, 2011

I finally finished reading John Médaille’s “Will There Be Zombies?” article over at Front Porch Republic.  It is good.  It clearly identifies the problem—the end of the world—and does so in a persuasive way.  It understands and explains the interdependencies of all the failing cultural systems, while maintaining both a sense of humor and a (non-utopian) sense of hope—and, what’s more, a basic plan of action.

I urge anyone reading this post to read the article.  Before you read these ramblings, in fact.

Done?  Ok, here we go.

1. Survivalism Is Insufficient.

It’s easy to preach (sell?) a message of “head-for-the-hills survivalism,” but that kind of libertarian self-sufficiency is not particularly compelling, being compatible neither with Christianity, nor long-term living, nor any sort of cultural upbuilding.  Of course it’s legitimate to move to a new location out of concerns for physical safety or spiritual health; and of course preparing for a possible crisis (of whatever kind) could be very prudent.  But not if the goal of it all ends with mere “survival.”  People want more, obviously, than mere survival.  They want a full, rich life with eternal significance.

Médaille is a rarity, in that he deals with the whole problem, not just an isolated portion, and in that his worldview is robust enough to see that (a) whatever happens, it’s not The End, and (b) there are things we can do about it, now, during, and afterward.  Which I consider very refreshing.

2. Technology and The Present Crisis

I can’t judge all of Médaille’s factual/historical interpretations.  As is evident from the comments section, plenty of people have a different perspective on many of the issues he deals with (oil, the collapse of empires, etc.).  But I think, in the main, he’s right: there are unique crises in our era which, in some ways, are without precedent.

Most of these unique crises, it seems to me, are unique to us because they are bound up with technology.  Now, it’s no good criticizing technology-as-such: technology has been around since Adam first levered a stone out of his field with a stick, and human beings are obviously, by design, technical creatures.  But we’re also social, rational, and skeptical creatures, and socialism, rationalism, and skepticism haven’t worked out so well.  Technologicism is showing the same cracks.  Like the pursuit of most things—all things, probably, apart from love of God and love of neighbor—the pursuit of technology is subject to the law of diminishing returns: the more of it you have, the less it buys you.

One reason for this is precisely what Médaille has identified: in order to fulfill its (present, erroneous) purpose of providing man with absolute control over nature, technology has had to become a version of magic.  And magic always requires a magician—that is, a man who works by obscure means and, as a result, holds some degree of power over lesser mortals.  In seeking power, we have put ourselves at the mercy of others who are more powerful than we are.

However, the system is now so big that we’re no longer ruled by a small cadre of priests.  Now we have a priesthood-of-all-baccalaureates.  Almost everybody (except those who compose the welfare state) is a minor wizard of something; and so everyone is at the mercy (or mercilessness) of everyone else.  As Médaille says:

…no matter how many doctorates one holds in computer science, at some point the system disappears into a world of magic. Thus the hardware engineer finds operating systems bewildering, while the systems programmer is mystified by telecommunications, and the communications engineer can’t help you with applications. Expertise is one area is matched by ignorance in other areas, so that to each practitioner of the computer arts, at some point the whole thing fades into a world of wizardry. This is why, when you call him for help, and after pressing “1” for English, Sanjay in Mumbai often appears to be bewildered by your problem; he is not always the wizard to help you, but you both know a wizard is required.

An Anecdote

For about two weeks this month our internet connection was, literally, on the blink.  Multiple times per day, with no predictable pattern, the “DSL” light on our modem would cease to shine steadily and begin blinking.  This told us that we were no longer connected to the internet.  It did not tell us anything else.  After placing perhaps four calls to Verizon’s Sanjays in Mumbai (who all courteously, efficiently, and semi-intelligibly asked me the identical series of diagnostic questions, all to no avail), and after receiving two equally courteous but equally unhelpful computerized calls informing me that the “problem on the line has been resolved” (the first of which occurred while the modem light was cheerfully blinking away), the issue was “escalated” to the network technicians at the Home Office.

A week later one of these magi called to tell me that the problem was a “card” of some type, which would occasionally stop functioning, with the result that all of the cards below it would similarly fail to functionrather like a string of Christmas lights, I gather.  This is a device whose name I do not know, whose function I cannot divine, whose location I am wholly ignorant of, and which I could not repair if I had the design manual, because the failing component was in all likelihood invisible to the naked eye.  Fortunately this wizard, or one of his fellows, eventually found the time to heed my prayers, and had a replacement handy (and fortunately he did not require any additional sacrifices or libations in repayment for his service).

During this period, my jobwhich is performed 100% on the computer and 80% onlinewas thus rendered very difficult to perform.  For the latter half of it I was on vacation and computer free, but for the first half I did my work at Starbucks, drinking tea and eating muffins, and thus bolstering the local economy.

Despite my tone, I don’t really mean to criticize Verizon in all of this.  Their folks were pleasant, and as helpful as they could be given the unusual issuenot to mention the strike they were experiencing at the time.  But all these elements illustrate that they are a part of a system that is very obviously, to use Médaille’s term, “brittle.”

Supernatural Magic

With technology, we have succeeded in taking magic out of the domain of the occultic witch-doctor, de-demonizing it, and making it considerably more democratic.  Thus we’ve (perhaps) circumvented the explicit prohibitions of Scripture against sorcery and have thereby made magic acceptable to Christendom (or at least “family friendly”).  But in many ways the end goals are still the same: godlike sway over the natural word and thus (we think) over our circumstances and our destinies; glorification of self in the eyes of our neighbors, who are left in awe of (or at least dependence on) our own small sphere of arcane knowledge; and transcendence of the moral law.  In fact, by whatever means possible, we want to be as God.

Resistance

My own life—or lifestyle, I should say, to be perfectly accurate—is pretty firmly bound up with technology right now.  I don’t know how to extricate it; though, given some sudden “crash,” I would probably figure it out.  But I can resist its pull:

  • I can refuse to buy a new car simply because it’s new and (purportedly) requires less maintenance: my old car is not tremendously reliable, but it works, and also we don’t drive very much.
  • I can refuse to buy a new computer simply because they get “faster” and “cheaper” all the time: the laptop my company provided meets all my current needs, and I didn’t have to pay for it; I’ll buy a new computer when I actually need one.
  • I can refuse to own a microwave: it would simply take up valuable counter space, bias us towards leftovers or pre-packaged “foods,” produce unhealthy and less-tasty outcomes, and discourage planning ahead.  We put ours in storage on top of the dryer, and after several months of not missing it, gave it away.  (I’ll admit, we replaced it with a toaster oven which is just as computerized, bulky, and difficult to repair.  But it’s more versatile and more healthy.)
  • I can eat lettuce from my garden, instead of from the grocery store, during whichever months of the year I can manage to grow it.
  • I can leave the GPS off when I actually know the way to where I’m going.
  • I can let the calculator rest and (try to) do an occasional multiplication problem in my head.
  • I can be content with no FiOS, no cable, no television for that matter, and (as my father-in-law would call it) a “dumb phone.”  This last costs about one-fifth as much per month as its more highly evolved successors and, if it doesn’t actually diminish the time I spend staring at a screen, it at least keeps me from staring at a small one and being reduced to the two fingers I used before I was taught to type.
  • And I can refuse to sign up for Facebook.

(I use the first person in all of this, but really my wife has been the motive force behind many of these practices, and we agree on and implement them together.  It probably says something about people in general, and also about the gravitational pull of the tech, that this kind of resistance is easier and/or more necessary in the context of a family, versus bachelorhood.)

I don’t want to brag about all the bits of technology I decline to use, as if there’s a particular virtue in being spartan or technophobic; there isn’t.  Even self-sufficiency (so called) is as much a temptation as a benefit.  So really I’m not condemning any of these technologies.  (Not even Facebook: I’ve seen my wife, for example, make a conscious effort to use it well—i.e., to resist or transcend the bent, perhaps even the design, of the technology.  Most of the time she succeeds; it just takes discipline.)  But I am criticizing the cumulative force that these “improvements” apply to our lives.  I am criticizing the “zombifying” effect they tend to produce, when they are used as their creators, or at least marketers, too often intend: that is to say, without intentionality, deliberation, or restraint, and not in response to any actual need.  I feel that zombification at work in myself, and I don’t like it.  Therefore I have begun to resist.

3. Neighborliness

I am not a particularly good neighbor.  I am not even an especially good friend.  I am not adept at forging deep, meaningful relationships.  Maybe this skill takes a lifetime to learn, and maybe no one is expert at it, but I do feel that many people are better at it than I am.  I have not been well taught, and I haven’t made sufficient effort to learn.  I really do try to care for people—at least when they have a specific need that I know, or think, I can meet.  But as much as I denounce individualism, I find I would rather trot off with David to the playground down the street, than make an effort to help him play with the rather obnoxious and rowdy boys next door.

This specific set of neighbors, I’ll say as an aside, is a curious case study: whatever their faults of laziness, dissipation, irresponsibility, inconsideration, and general annoyingness, they are, without doubt, vastly more “neighborly” and communal than we are.  We like our privacy.  They probably never lock their doors and have perhaps a couple of dozen persons who commonly turn up on their back porch at all hours of the day.  True, they spend most of their time smoking, drinking, and talking in elevated tones about not-very-elevated topics, but I suspect that when one of them has a need, he doesn’t call an expert (a magician, that is): he calls one of his friends.  They are Godless, and for that and other reasons they are evidently not very happy; but also I suspect they do not experience the same hectic loneliness that plagues most of the townhome-dwellers in our area, who commute an hour east towards D.C. every day to perform mechanical tasks in support of governmental ends they are often ignorant of, or do not believe in, so that they can be oversalaried with taxpayer dollars, so they can collect things they don’t have time to enjoy.  Our neighbors buy cheap beer, I have no doubt—and probably more than their bodies or wallets can afford—but they do seem to enjoy it.

Should we try to make them our best friends?  Well, no: the influence of friendship goes both ways, invariably.  But I do envy them their multitude of friends-within-walking-distance.

4. Learning Community

Our parents’ generation, it seems, got a solid dose of “anti-establishment” worked into their psyches.  It still crops up in various forms: homeschooling, alternative health practices, home churches and/or chronic church-shopping (or mere non-attendance), scorn of the government, and so on.  Now, granted, most of the establishments had serious problems (and still do), so these reactions were understandable and in many cases unavoidable (and in some cases good).  But the unintended result is that we, their children, are just plain bad at forming, reforming, or living with establishments, organizations, church congregations, neighborhoods, or communities of whatever kind.  If Médaille is correct, and I suspect he is, we are going to have to change this.  Or at least we will have to go a long way towards equipping our children to change it.  Which will mean that, among other things:

  • We must settle in a (good-but-not-perfect) community and stay in it long enough to learn how to work out problems.
  • We must teach our children how to research, study, observe, build, garden, repair, invent, maintain, share, befriend, and self-govern.  And teach.
  • We must strip all the “fat” out of our lives and simplifying (i.e., focusing) to the point where we actually have time and energy to do these things.  This will mean we have to find the above activities more compelling, desirable, and positively fun than our own continued “entertainment.”  Entertainment—or rather let us say re-creation—is well and good and vital to life, but as Médaille points out, we’ve outsourced far too much of this, too.  We must learn to coax music out of other instruments than the radio or the portable DVD player.  We must stop buying, and start making.  And when we do, I suspect we’ll find that most of what we lose in terms of efficiency, ease, and expense, we gain back in terms of quality, fun, and fulfillment.
  • We must spend less time “friending” and “following” our acquaintances, and more time being friends to them.  We both need it.  And moreover this is the primary distinctive of the Church, as far as the world is concerned: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Love is what draws people to Christ.  It is very possible to love someone through a computer (such is the common grace of God), but it is impossible, or nearly so, to do it wholistically.  I can give you truth, Scripture, prayer, encouragement, a listening ear, and good advice; but I cannot give you a hug or a bag of my surplus tomatoes.

And all this, I’ll say again, is a broader vision than simply “surviving the crisis,” which is valid enough for the short term, but which is fundamentally a self-centered goal; a means, not an end.  God does not call us to survive.  He calls us to make disciples.  I’ll quote at some length from a letter I recently received from Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio (to which I subscribe, and which I recommend heartily):

Without some vision of the specific form our cultural lives ought to take, being involved in cultural activity can become merely a fancy form of evangelism.  I’ve got nothing against evangelism, but I’m more interested (as were Jesus and Paul) in moving beyond the making of converts to the building of disciples, to the encouragement of the followers of Jesus to honor his authority in all things.  The discipleship enjoined in the Great Commission is finally a task of enculturation, of encouraging some forms of life while discouraging—in fact, renouncing—other forms as unfitting for the Kingdom.”The work of cultural analysis that Mars Hill Audio has pursued for almost twenty years has always assumed that some cultural forms are truly better than others.  The people I have interviewed have insights into cultural life that I hope will be taken up into the form of life practiced by Christians as an expression of faithfulness and a witness to world.  The content of these interviews may be intellectually stimulating, but if that’s all they are, we haven’t really done our work.  (The “we” in that last sentence includes you, by the way.)  The cultural reform we hope to advance has to be visible in our own communities before it can be effected in society.

The obvious prerequisites to all of this are (a) evangelism, and (b) community.  We must improve at both.

5. Neither Utopia nor Dystopia, but Kingdom

One last point.  Médaille, for all his apocalyptic banter, is not an alarmist, nor a doomsday prophet.  (I hope none of my own comments have trended that way either.)  Alarmism is out of the equation because the kinds of things Médaille is arguing for are precisely the kinds of things we should be doing in any event, whether cultural collapse is imminent, or generations ahead, or ten years behind.  Because our kingdom is not of this world, our task does not change with the ebb and flow of empires.  Christ calls us to build the Kingdom, but he does not call us to build heaven on earth: heaven is coming by storm, soon enough.  Thus the means of preventing, delaying, preparing for, mitigating, weathering, recovering from, or repairing a “crash” are all one and the same: build the Kingdom.  Build healthy communities composed of serious disciples of the coming Lord.

I could probably go on—it’s a big topic—but this train of thought has grown about as long as the engine can pull.

Thanks again to JMK for sending the article in the first place.  Keep similar stuff in the pipeline, please.