Archive for March, 2011

Reflection on Hare Krishna

March 31, 2011

This is a text I wrote as a reflection regarding a visit by a member of the Hare Krishna. (Originally in Swedish):

“It was a very interesting man who came and visited. Mukunda Das was dressed in a sort of white garb, which looked simple but very durable. Around the neck he carried a necklace with wooden pearls, which would symbolise the eternal rebirth, the pearls as bodies and the thread representing the soul. One also gets the impression that he is very skilled in using metaphors to describe his thoughts and ideas. His speech and demeanour was also incredibly calm. One got the impression that he was a very deep and insightful man.

This sort of metaphorical and living language aided in giving a very educative performance from the start, where he presented himself and explained some of what Hare Krishna is about. This sort of calm rhythm also remained when it was time for questions and he got to answer them. One got the impression the he gave elaborate answers whenever he was asked anything. Unfortunately there was the tendency than whenever anyone asked a more direct question which questioned some of these questions, he answered very evasively, had a tendency to change subject to things not entirely related to what it was about from the start. No straight answers. Personally I think that this sort of direct dialog between people is not always a good way to present concepts, but I think no one was very convinced by him, even if one could argue that there are no straight answers within religion.

Something which I found very interesting was that Hare Krishna seems to see itself as just one answer among many, that all religions are true, or at least that there is a grain of truth (that was at least my impression, too bad I didn’t get the chance to clear this up). From a pragmatic point of view one could see that as good, because it encourages peace and greater understanding among religions. But I still think there is something, I am almost tempted to say insolent about saying that. If one asked all, say, Christians or Muslims about this, probably many would protest. It has the effect that their (those who don’t agree) own belief is seen as by something else, which can’t be seen as very humble. Going one step further there are other religions, for example Baha’i, which also believe that there have been avatars on Earth in form of other religions’ prophets. Their take on it is significantly different compared to Hare Krishna’s.

Another interesting thing was the dig at science. He argues that science doesn’t have all the answers (which it actually doesn’t have, and will never do, which is not a reason to fill the empty holes with just about anything) and that it is in the end dependent on the senses. The last one is interesting because that’s what Hare Krishna’s whole world view is built upon. One claims that the god(s) communicate with people in different ways, in an utterly subjective way. From that point of view it is actually logical to claim that everyone which have religious experiences have had contact with god, because if religious experiences of other religions are denied, the step is not logically far to denying them all. Mukunda Das mentions a scientific article he read once (I don’t remember the context). If one actually takes science seriously, neuroscience crushes beyond all reasonable doubt his claim that memories are transferred from person to person after death.

I also found it interesting that he emphasized that the Self, the Atma, was different from other denomination within Hinduism, which deny the Self. There is thus something fundamental, but still irreconcilable with other closely related religions, which says something about Hare Krishna’s claims of universality. But this, that some believe and some don’t believe in the Self, can be compared with Buddhism. In the West Buddhists meditate to find themselves. In the East they deny the Self and instead try to become one with everything. One can draw parallels with “the Western civilization”. For the Western civilization to conquer the world, it was forced to empty itself of contents, be as universal as possible, in order to penetrate cultural barriers and minds.

One last thing I found interesting was that about god as the highest intelligence. He simply stated that there is no higher intelligence than god. I think he could have dug deeper than that about why it was so, but he ignored it. Particularly, the personal contact with god and the avatars I didn’t find very humble, because it implied that an incredibly powerful human (I say human as per the metaphor with small flames and large flames he used) care about small humans. One can compare it with those who believe aliens came and built the Pyramids. That one with the aliens deny the old Egyptians’ craftsmanship and wisdom and the one about the highest intelligence denies the fundamental self-organization of the universe, where small things with time become more complex.”

Something I didn’t mention in this, but  which I also got thinking of was the simplistic view on materialism he employed. He vaguely mentioned something about society being too materialistic, yet he means that Hare Krishna is supposed to be some sort of “guide” in life, to bring meaning to people. I’m currently reading First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizek and found one part which might be relevant (p. 66):

“Western Buddhism” is just such a fetish: it enables you to fully participate in the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you’re not really in it, that you are well aware how worthless the whole spectacle is, since what really matters is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always withdraw… In a further specification, one should note that a fetish can function in two opposed ways: one the one hand its role may remain unconscious; on the other, one may think that the fetish really matters, as in the case of the Western Buddhist unaware that the “truth” of his existance lies in the very social relations he tends to dismiss as a mere game.

Replace “Western Buddhism” with “Hare Krishna” and it still works.

Sixth Sense

March 19, 2011

A new sort of cell phone is in development, with those working on it describing it as a sixth sense. It projects a new image on any surface, which one can interact with in a manner of ways using one’s fingers. It is not difficult to be awed by its sheer awesomeness, and indeed it gives a sense of the future being here. It’s enough to make any nerd jitter in excitement. Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt to reflect a bit on some of the consequences it could have.

Added Complexity

A mobile phone used to be primarily for mobile phone calls. A mobile telephone, basically, being different from cordless phones in the sheer vastness of geographical range it could be used. But as phones developed they began to have “additional services” such as being able to send text messages, play music, alarm clock (how many still use an  actual alarm clock, as opposed to mobile phones or radios?) have an inbuilt camera, internet access etc.  This new device being so much broader in available uses, can it even be called a mobile phone?

They aren’t bashful in the video about the sort of future availability they want; mass-produced sixth sense phones so cheap (and of so short lifespan and quality) everyone will have it. Of course, if contemporary cell phone devices are of any indication, they will also be quite complicated to use. A guy called Antoine de Saint-Expury once said Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but then there is nothing more to take away”. But then again, I doubt perfection is what they’re after. Anyway, I can see that maybe many of the current motions, voluntary or involutary, could be interpreted by this device to mean something. Perhaps similar to the sometimes inconvenient times the cell phone rings?

Connoisseur As Norm

I am reminded of a quote from Anti-Dühring:

Just as in the modern state it is presumed that every citizen is competent to pass judgment on all the issues on which he is called to vote; and just as in economics it is assumed that every consumer is a connoisseur of all the commodities which he has occasion to buy for his maintenance — so similar assumptions are now to be made in science.

The sixth sense phones could possibly fulfill the above bolded part. We can see in the TED video how the consumer checks products he is interested in buying. This could perhaps be seen as similar to the “self-scanning” process currently being built into many supermarkets. It can think of two consequences of this: The producer puts more responsibility on the part of the consumer, and it can be seen as a way for the consumer to “redeem” hirself by buying green products.

Of course, I can see this having the effect of rendering many professions specialized in informing the consumer becoming more unnecessary. Seeing the broad picture, this is a good thing, freeing people for other activities. The information society abolishes itself. From a more immediate viewpoint though, in light of current norms and values, it could lead to unemployment, which is unfortunate.

Erik Henriksson

The talker at the start of the video talks about the problem of not being able to easily check up on the identity of the people she’s talking to on TED, implying that sixth sense phones is the solution to that. Further along, we see how the device is used to project a “tag cloud” on one of the MIT students. This can be seen as a further step in the commodification of actual people. I see tendencies in contemporary societies towards the common person being a seller of hirself, everyone being an entrepreneur. You make a trademark out of yourself. This sort of vulgar individualism leads to, among other things, a greater amount of conformism. You are not free to be who you are, as you find yourself being more conventional, sellable, making sure you have the right tags. One consequence I can think of: The transperson which has succeeded in emulating the appearances of the biological sex sie wants to be, might find hirself having the “trans” tag.

I can also be seen it being misused by regimes to further bolster their power. It is not far-fetched to imagine these devices being used to quickly and handily identify people. Information technology is often assumed to be tools for democracy and revolution, but I think you’ll find it a two-edged sword. This is of course part of a greater tendency towards less anonymousness both on the internet, and also now in “meatspace”.

Perhaps this RSA Animate video could be of relevance:

Posthumanism

The title says it all, really: Developing a sixth sense. A rather daring vocabulary, but I’d wager with a lot of truth. A human is composed of many factors, social, biological, technological etc., and cannot be seen as seperate from these factors. Is the walking stick of a blind man part of him or not? From a posthuman perspective, the answer would be yes. We are all cyborgs. Technology can be seen as a way for humans to extend their power. From this perspective, this sixth sense, true to the phrase, could be empowering for humanity. And that’s what makes it awesome. As with all technologies, however, it can be used for both good and bad, and that is worthwhile examining.

Update: It appears that this TED talk was from 2009, so one can assume this technology has developed a bit since then.

F*cking Cars

March 14, 2011

No, this title does not allude to autosexuality (hurr hurr) but rather expresses the utmost contempt, yes disgust I have of cars. I don’t really know where to begin. A must read on cars: The Social Ideology of the Motorcar. Written in 1973 but still very actual. It starts out as thus:

The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one. That is how in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratised. If everyone can have luxury, no one gets any advantages from it. On the contrary, everyone diddles, cheats, and frustrates everyone else, and is diddled, cheated, and frustrated in return.

The car, in essence, started as luxury good for the bourgeois, one of the toys they could play with. The point with a car, though, is that it isn’t for the masses. But as capitalism entered the post-war period, its golden age, the latter part of “a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage” started to be fulfilled. The result is disastruous, and wrong on so many levels.

As I briefly touched upon in a previous blog entry, car as a mass means of transportation is incredibly bad for cities. While you could travel pretty well in a car if you were the only one driving, when everyone does it, it leads to disaster. The roads in the inner cities (as well as other places) get full, the city gets full of parking spots specifically for these steel bubbles, and it becomes a more dangerous place to live in. Another result of this is so called urban sprawl, which, to quote Wikipedia, is characterized by the following:

  • High car dependence
  • Inadequate facilities, e.g.: cultural, emergency, health, and so forth
  • Low public support for sprawl
  • High per-person infrastructure costs
  • Inefficient street layouts
  • Inflated costs for public transportation
  • Lost time and productivity for commuting
  • High levels of racial and socioeconomic segregation
  • Low diversity of housing and business types
  • High rates of obesity due to less walking and biking
  • Less space for conservation and parks
  • High per-capita use of energy, land, and water
  • Perceived low aesthetic value

Cars, in other words, have made cities, which possibly could have been pleasant places to live, into f*cking hell holes. Or as The Social Ideology of the Motorcar puts it:

Maybe you are saying, “But at least in this way you can escape the hell of the city once the workday is over.” There we are, now we know: “the city,” the great city which for generations was considered a marvel, the only place worth living, is now considered to be a “hell.” Everyone wants to escape from it, to live in the country. Why this reversal? For only one reason. The car has made the big city uninhabitable. It has made it stinking, noisy, suffocating, dusty, so congested that nobody wants to go out in the evening anymore. Thus, since cars have killed the city, we need faster cars to escape on superhighways to suburbs that are even farther away. What an impeccable circular argument: give us more cars so that we can escape the destruction caused by cars.

The car is so deeply ingrained, ideologically, on both the left and right. It’s not merely a means of transportation. As “Bil Sweden” (yes, that’s what they’re actually called (“bil” meaning car like the bil in automobile)) puts it: ” The car is a symbol of freedom”. If it is a symbol of freedom they’re after I’d like to build a Statue of Liberty or something instead. But the truth is that the car is one of those things the neoliberal society worships. As Fossilized Subjectivities: Petroprivatism, Neoliberalism and Entrepreneurial Life puts it:

As postwar accumulation was materialized through the construction of vast sprawling suburban housing tracts, liberal ideas of government intervention and the social safety net were slowly transfixed into more and more privatist forms of politics. As many suburban historians have shown,7 the political victories of the right in the United States – and with it the neoliberalization of American capitalism – depended upon the mobilization of a pettybourgeois strata of white suburban homeowners increasingly distrustful of government handouts, high taxes, and the redistribution of wealth. While this suburban geography was in many ways laid during the immediate postwar period, sprawl and suburban and ex-urban development intensified and expanded after the crisis of the 1970s (Garreau 1991; Duany et al. 2001). Underlying the suburban geography of private homeownership is what Evan McKenzie refers to as an “ideology of hostile privatism.”(McKenzie 1994:19). The hostility itself emerges from what Edsall and Edsall (1992: 147) call “conservative egalitarianism” which posits that everyone has an equal opportunity to work hard and succeed in life and, moreover, that life success was itself purely a product of entrepreneurial life choices.

The car thus is an integral part of the creepy and twisted world view of the neoliberal. And they will stop at nothing to defend it.

This has so far been about the negative effects of the car right now. Let us ponder what happens when peak oil, which is when the demand of oil outpaces production, occurs (it may have already occured, or is occuring right now). The car enthusiast is not at all fazed about the prospects of mass automobility. The electric car is the salvation, they say. There are currently about 900 million-1 billion cars. One has to question if it is economically defensible ever to replace such a large amount.

It’s not just about building electric cars, as if that wasn’t bad enough ( for example: lithium, a resource badly needed for other things such as electronics, are used for batteries), it’s also about the infrastructure needed to use these electric cars, and most importantly: the electricity used for driving them. The energy needed for this are simply very hard to come by in the postfossil era. One litre of oil contains about 26 tonnes of plant and animals, compressed over the ages. Common sense should dictate that it would be simply nuts to try to continue with mass automobility. But no, gotta have f*cking cars, gotta continue with everything as before. This obsession with cars will have very bad effects for the future if it continues.

The only good car is a dead car.

21st Century Stories

March 7, 2011

I read through this Let’s Play of Scratches today.

We get to follow the adventures of Michael Arthate, author of Vanishing Town, which has decided to move into a manor in the hinterlands of rural England. The original game, which is a point-and-click adventure game, the first commercial adventure game of Argentina actually, is not actually a 3D game, but pre-rendered into 2D images. The LP being screen-shot based (rather than video-based or hybrid), thus fits well.

Why I’m writing about this Let’s Play is because of how this Let’s Play spins two media – literature and video games – into something awesome. To elaborate, it has some of the advantages of both.

Like literature, one can pause and reflect on the story, inhale the atmosphere. The author of the LP manages to build on the existing story, and avoids being meta. It’s not like the fast-paced movie. As a Let’s Play, it also takes advantage of a video game’s potential for alternative ways of playing and ending – sometimes as simple as to where and when a screenshot is taken.

Unlike literature, this LP is accompanied by many more images than you’d find in any novel, or children’s book for that matter. I really like the screenshots too, the game has some really good graphics. More importants than images, however, is the music. The author of the LP has taken care to post links to handy webpages where relevant music of the game is – and has taken pains to have backup links too. The game music is really good (though I may be a bit biased, being a fan of video game music and all), and it really gives it atmosphere. You must read the LP with that music on. I’d like to see a book made of paper use such multi-media to its advantage.

It also seems that reading the LP might be better than playing the actual game. I get a bit of mixed messages. Gamespot gives the game a score of 2 out of 5 while IGN gives it 7.7 out of 10. IGN’s review seems to be the most elaborate review of the two. I’ve not played the game, and I must admit I don’t have much of a desire to play it either, but the LP, by taking out the interactivity, while still leaving some left (as in, you can read it through at your own pace, unlike a movie), actually makes the game into something different, by taking out the element of loading screens, having to figure out the vague clues to puzzles, pixel hunting, loading screens and so on. That, to me, is good.

The e-book can have much to learn by this. The current e-book is a digitalized version of the paper book, taking no advantages of the inherent capabilities of the computer, internet and so on, essentially being an inferior paper book. I’d say the authors of tomorrow should take a look at this Let’s Play, and look at the potentials of the e-book. It is ironic that something so innocuous as the Let’s Play genre (which has only existed since flippin’ 2007 – though its elder brother, the After Action Report, is substantially older) ends up being far more pragmatic than the current best-sellers.

P.S. What annoys me about the LP is that sometimes there are words spelled wrong or left out entirely – which I admittedly do sometimes. It kills the atmosphere a bit. Also, in the last chapter, the author decided it would be better to have a video than screenshots and text. Which is understandable, as I presume there’s some fast-paced action involved. The problem is that the video was erased back in 2009. I’m left wondering how it all actually ended. Still, I recommend reading the LP!

P.P.S. Blackwood Manor reminds me a bit of my house when I first moved into it fourteen years ago. Well, except mine was slightly smaller, more dilapidated and not filled to the brim with paintings and art.