Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Hellenistic Scientific Revolution

June 9, 2011

Today I wrote one hell of a forum post over at the alternative history forums, writing under the psuedonym. The background was that I had just finished reading Lucio Russo’s The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why It Had to Be Reborn, and as it was a timeline about a world without Rome, I listed some things I had learnt from the book to help the thread maker out. I provide what I wrote in this blog post in its entirety, as well as some additional comments I have in mind seperate from the forum post provided after the “footnotes”:
Military technology:

  • Non-gunpowder[1] siege weapons that made the medieval trebuchets pale in comparison[2].
  • There were repeating catapults, and repeating crossbows wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

Naval technology:

  • There was, as mentioned the ability to sail the open seas, which was possible because they possessed 1) a coordinate system, ie a scientific theory of cartography 2) reliable and 3) a method to locate the ship with respect to the coordinate system
  • It seems that there was a push towards building larger ships. The descriptions of some of them make me think of Zheng He’s treasure ships.[3]
  • Canal-digging was pretty advanced, as there was a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
  • Ships had lead-plating to protect from barnacles, of which none of the British and Dutch ships had as late as the seventeenth century.
  • Very advanced catoptrics, the ability to build lighthouses. Pharos in Alexandria would be the most famous example, but many others had started to built throughout the Mediterranean.

Water engineering (this area should not be underestimated):

  • In aqueducts, pressure pipes (simply called “syphons”) were used, which overcame depressions in the terrain.[4]
  • The Archimedean screw, a tool for lifting water.

Alternative (from muscle power, that is) energy sources[5]:

  • The water mill was known, and used throughout the whole Mediterranean. Horizontal ones to boot, which are more effective than vertical ones.
  • Windmills were in use, and so wide-spread that there were quite a few place-names named after them (anemourion)[6]
  • The possibilites of steam power had started to be explored[7].

Intricate machinery:

  • The Antikythera mechanism was found on a shipwreck outside the islet of Antikythera, between Peloponnesus and Crete. It was a sort of perpetual calendar that allowed the calculation of the phases of the moon, past and future. Two features stand out: 1) It uses at least thirty gears, which makes it almost seem like clockwork. 2) “[…] the presence of a differential turntable, a mechanism that allows the addition or subtraction of angular velocities. The differential was used to compute the synodic lunar cycle (moon phase cycle), by subtracting the effects of the sun’s movement from those of the sidereal lunar movement”.

Medicine, biology, botany, zoology etc:

  • Anatomical knowledge was quite developed[8].
  • Diagnosis, pathology etc. had been developed.
  • There was measurement of the pulse.
  • Mental illnesses had started to become explored.
  • Biological classification was in full swing[9], also fuelled by the conquests of Alexander the Great, who himself ensured that flora and fauna was sent back for study.
  • Fossils were widely studied, and many were identified as being of species no longer extant.
  • There had been developments towards an evolutionary theory[10].

Chemistry:

  • The problems with understanding what rate of progress Hellenistic chemistry was at is that it later morphed into alchemy – “a syncretism of Greek natural philosophy, Egyptian magic, allusions to Judaism and Christianity, craftsmen’s recipes and empirical chemistry”.
  • What we can be quite certain of is that the artficial pigment industries, cosmetics and fragrance industries were quite developed.
  • The conception of a molecule had forerunner in the oncos.

Art, music etc.:

  • There is the possibility of primitive motion pictures[11].
  • Figurative art was pretty advanced, with there starting to be more emphasis on painting rather than sculpture. An example of the new figurative art:

 

  • The novel.[12]
  • The first keyboard instrument: the Ctesibius water organ.
  • More advanced music started to develop.
  • Greater interest in preserving cultural heritage, with traditional Greek songs etc. started to be written down.
  • The birth of Greek grammar.

Some advances in agriculture:

  • Plants from outside Hellenistic kingdoms started to be cultivated, and preexisting plants were improved through seeds imported from different countries.
  • “Animals from elsewhere were acclimated, breeds were improved through crosses, and wild animals such as hares, dormice and boars began being raised, as did fish species”.
  • Egg incubators.[13]
  • There were animal-powdered automatic harvesters with teeth and blades. Very simple, but beyond the ken of medieval and early modern Europe.
  • Egypt’s population around 1 B.C. was eight million, with a half million in Alexandria, and they were major exporters of grain. An estimate of Egypt’s agricultural capacity in 1836 had it that eight million was the maximum population that could be fed if all land capable was cultivated…
  • The production of olive oil throughout North Africa was very advanced, aided by the invention of the screw press.

Some advances regarding metals:

  • There were drainage installations in mines, from Andalusia to Afghanistan.
  • In early Hellenistic times iron came into common use for tools and machinery of every kind.
  • “From the little information we have about metallurgical procedures we can glean certain technological innovations in the area of metal refining. Polybius tells us about a new blacksmith’s bellow, perhaps fed by the Ctesibian pump”.
  • The clearest example of advances in metallurgy would be the Colossus on Rhodes; when in the Renaissance they wanted to build a similar structure, they had no idea how to go about it.

Lucio Russo also has written a word of caution, useful to alternate history writers:

Quote:
I think there can be no doubt about the importance that ancient science and Hellenistic technology could potentially have had for production processes, but in assessing the extent of applications actually deployed in Antiquity we must avoid certain traps that lurk in making comparisons, whether explicit or implicit, with our own age.
In Chaplin’s movie Modern Times, the tokens of modernity are screws, gears, transmission belts, valves, steam engines, automata: a smorgasbord of inventions from ancient Alexandria. How can one say that these innovations were useless back then? Yet, though so much of the technology that made up the movie’s factory goes back to the third century B.C., it is clear that in that century there were no factories like Chaplin’s.
The Western world has experienced since the late seventeenth century a unique phenomenon in human history, characterized by an exponential increase in several technological and economical indicators, and the source of achievements and problems without parallel. (This growth certainly cannot continue for long at the same exponential pace.) The primitivists are right in warning us against the pitfalls of “modernizing” Antiquity by reading into it the accoutrements of modern life. There was certainly no Hellenistic Industrial Revolution, there were no stock brokers in Alexandria and the Mouseion was not the Royal Society. On the other hand, using today’s Western world as a sort of universal standard, lumping all ages other than ours into an undifferentiated “underdeveloped” category, can be highly misleading. If we think that biology has predetermined a unique possible path for the human race, culminating in the “economic rationalism” of today, it may be possible to define other civilizations by how far they are from ours; but human history is much more complex than that.
The application of scientific technology to production does not necessarily mark the beginning of the process in which we find ourselves now, where technology itself grows exponentially. Having made this clear, I think it must be agreed that scientific technology did have in Antiquity important applications to production. The Mouseion’s economic role was not comparable to that of the Royal Society, but that does not mean this role was insignificant, nor does it imply a lack of wisdom or foresight on part of the ancient scientists. The process of exponential development starting with what is usually called the Industrial Revolution as triggered by a plethora of economic, social, political, cultural and demographic factors that we have not yet understood in depth. It is more sensible to try to figure out what happened in Europe in the late seventeenth century than to ask why the same thing did not happen two thousand years earlier. Hellenistic scientific development was violently arrested by the Roman conquest. We may wish to speculate on what might have happened had this interruption not taken place. Nothing authorizes us to conclude that things would have gone the way it did in seventeenth century Europe; we do know, however, that the recovery of ancient knowledge and technology played a major role in the modern scientific take-off.

[1] “The introduction of firearms in the modern age concerned primarily large-bore guns used against fixed positions; as a personal weapon, the arquebus took centuries to supplant the pike. So the role of gunpowder was to replace the catapult, the technology of which had been lost”.
[2] Fortification overall did change as well, because walls started to become “thicker and started being surrounded by moats, but were complemented by towers capable of hosting catapults”. The advances in siege outpaced advances in defense, though, as shown by a rapidly increasing amount of victorious sieges.
[3] “Merchantmen also got bigger. Hiero II of Syracuse had a cargo ship built, the Syracusia […] Thus we know that the ship, whose construction had required as much wood as sixty quadriremes, had on board, among other things, a gymnasium, a library, hanging gardens and twenty horse-stalls.”
[4] “The most remarkable syphon was at Pergamum; it pushed water uphill to a height of perhaps 190 meters from the deepest point, and the pressure at the bottom must have been almost 20 atmospheres.”
[5] Whoever holds Iberia is in a good position, as both wind and water energy is plentiful there, and there’s even coal in the north.
[6] “Many scholars have felt that the Heronian passage can be disregarded because it is not confirmed by other writings. Heron presumably meant anemourion in a moment of distraction, forgetting that it had not been invented yet. We know that he was given to such lapses.”
[7] “The first steam engine actually built in modern times seems to have been the one described in 1615 by Salomon de Caus; it operated an ornamental fountain intermittently. Thus the inheritance from Heron was so complete that it even concerned the end to which the machine was put. Heronian technology hung on for another century in various hands, until it became convenient to start building steam engines – which is to say, when the rapidly growing energy needs of nascent industrialization no longer could be met by watermills alone.”
[8] There’s even evidence of there being dissections of “condemned men” while they were still alive!
[9] It would not be seen again until Carl von Linné (Carolus Linnaeus).
[10] “We have seen, then, that the bases of modern evolutionism, namely the notions of mutation and natural selection, were both present in Hellenistic thought.”
[11] “This is consistent with Heron’s remark that an early automatic playlet merely showed, by way of motion, a face with blinking eyes – something that is of course easy to accomplish with an alternation of just two images. Heron also says that with still automata one can either show a character in motion, or a character appearing or disappearing.”
[12] “The Hellenistic origin of the novel has long been obscured. It was thought that Greek-language novels first appeared in the late imperial age; this changed in 1945 when a papyrus was found in Oxyrynchus that dates from the first century B.C. and contains fragments of the Novel of Nivus. Now many scholars think that the novel originated in the second century B.C.”
[13] “In the early sixteenth century Thomas More wrote admiringly that in Utopia “vast numbers of eggs are laid in a gentle and equal heat, in order to be hatched”, but incubators would remain a mere literary memory still long after that.”

———————-

History, both in the past and into the future is not deterministic, there is nothing inevitable about our situation. At the same time, it is not completely random, either. The term convergence can be of help, with some forms of possibilities being more probable than others. The similarities between the feudalism of Europe and Japan is striking. Yet, there is much variation, too, in this convergence, especially in how different civilizations interact, mix, with each other.

The Greek city-states had throughout the centuries developed science, and democracy. Macedonia then united all of Greece, and set out to conquer vast swaths of the world under Alexander the Great. Of course, war is never a pleasant matter, and many of the Greek cities’ democracies had been halted in the process. But the mixing between ancient civilizations and Greek culture, becoming known as Hellenistic civilization, is still incredible. The Greeks were technologically inferior to the civilizations they became rulers of, but the scientific culture they carried with them had very impressive results. The future looked bright, indeed.

Unfortunately, the mixing of different cultures can go both ways. The Roman conquest of Mediterranean can very well be considered the most somber event in history. A pre-scientific, militaristic culture, the Romans could not understand anything of the scientific methodology the Greeks used, and were not interested in preserving it. These were not the Romans of Virgil; indeed, any cultivation they had was through what they adopted from the Greeks. By the time anyone in the Roman empire actually cared about Hellenistic civilizations again, they simply could not comprehend these writings. The decline after that unstoppable. After that the Roman empire slowly collapsed, and in its place came the dark ages, and it got even worse, somehow. It was only through the Renaissance and the (very partial) recovery of Hellenistic knowledge that Europe started to wake up from her horrible nightmare.

I’ll end with a quote from Peter Englund’s essay On a Stroll in the Hilbert Room:

And we are lonely, lonelier than any generation have been on this side of Nicolaus Copernicus, when he twisted around the whole solar system with help of a goose quill pen and threw us all out into an infinite universe. Lonelier, but paradoxically also stronger, because now there are no excuses anymore, no musts, no historical metaphysics to cling onto or blame. We ourselves form our destiny. What happens in the future is thus driven by ourselves. […] What is needed is merely a reason large enough to not be tempted by repressions, and as critical that it doubts everything, even itself. History is made by humans.

 

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Happiness Redux

May 27, 2011

You remember that blog post I wrote about happiness? No? Anyway, I wrote a forum post today which was more or less a continuation of it. Being too lazy to write a proper blog post, here it is.

———-

On a bit of a different note, the whole good emotions, bad emotions thing sounds a bit like hedonism. It’s not something I know much about, but to my understanding it says that the attainment of pleasure and happiness is what to strive for, and to avoid pain. I think that idea may have been around for a while. I also wonder about this whole culture of happiness thing I’ve heard a little bit about- apparently people prize happiness, and being happy is seen as priority. Happiness as a goal… not something that’s unheard of, but perhaps something that’s not too healthy. Again, it might be a matter of the individual.
Ah, the word “happiness” can be a bit confusing, because the English language has two somewhat similar, yet very different concepts as homonyms. Using the two Swedish words can clear up some linguistic entanglement: glädje and lycka. Glädje is an emotion; it makes me happy to pet a cat, for example. I do not believe that lycka, the sort of happiness baked into for example the phrase “the pursuit of happiness”, is an emotion, however. I believe it can be construed as, at its heart, contentment.

When yet more governments come out and say that this “happiness” should be the true goal, and not GDP (I’m very sceptical about GDP as well, though, which is hardly controversial). Bhutan would be the clearest example, but we’ve also got the Tories in Britain and of course China – which have a vision about what they call “Harmonious society”. Basically, it’s about having a “good leader, a good mother and a good worker”. Which of course sounds very similar to corporative fascism.

Now, while it’s easy to drag up “Godwin’s Law”, I don’t think this is merely guilt by association, it has a strong basis in fascist “thinking” (if that word can be used). What we must conceive of here is fascism ‘more radical than Hitler’ – ultra right as opposed to extreme right. What strikes me is how similar these “ultra right” fascists are with what we might call the hippie movement. There’s this same obsession with Eastern mysticism and paganism, the same conception of this mythical ‘nature’, Mother Earth, which is supposedly in balance, as opposed to the chaotic civilization (never mind that there have been five so-called “super extinctions” – which are just what they sound like). There was even a Swiss health resort in the interwar which was like a fascist hippie haven. It’s not strange that Hitler had a copy of Bhagavad Gita with him wherever he went.

Now, what’s significant about all the major non-Abrahamic religions/philosophies is their conception of a hierarchical society, everyone having their place in the organic whole, and the conception of time as cyclical, as opposed to linear. What’s significant about early Christianity is its radical rejection of this. We can take the book of Job as an example, by far the most awesome story in the Bible. Some have said it’s a story about the infinite ways of God, but it should be seen as a story about the impotent god. We have Job being told three different theories about why God would test him, only for God to turn up by the end of the story and basically tell him that there was no reason for it. What appears here is the conception of that of things actually not always happening for a reason – all that talk about it raining in the desert, even when there’s no one around and all that. By this incredible impotence of God, it lies the crown on the humans – the basic message is that a clean slate, radical change possible, the choice lies in your hands.

How Christianity is actually conceived of and practiced is very different in the present of course, but I believe this paved the way for much of its success. Speaking of hedonism, I’d say deontological morality is basically hedonism, in a round-about way. It lies down a set of rules which should be followed, and beyond that everything is permitted. The oft-quoted saying attributed to Fjodor Dostojevsky (actually something Sartre made up in a letter) of “If there is no God, everything is permitted” is false. To quote Jaques Lacan instead: “If there is no God, everything is prohibited. In the utter lack of objective meaning morality must be “made up”. Somewhat incisively, it can be said that the only true Christian is an atheist.

TLDR; Happiness sucks.

 

 

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.

Modern Life

October 13, 2010

A forum post I originally wrote on a topic about suicide. I was much inspired by Lasse Berg’s excellent book Gryning över Kalahari.

The modern life is weird. Thousands, millions individuals living close to each other. Grey urban landscapes of concrete and steel, where neither birds nor silence can be heard, where grass may not be stepped upon, and the horizon and the wandering antilope hordes have disappeared. Time is not measured by the movement of the sun or the seasons, but digitally, on the second. The most social primate of all has adopted an isolated orangutan life, and a hectical one at that. Now, I’m not saying natural=good, but that despite all the flexibility of our species, it is not obvious if a person living all too unnaturally is capable of life.

If human history was boiled down into one year, we have been hunter-gatherers since 1st of January. Suddenly on the morning of the day before New Years’ Eve, we start to live radically different. The transition to agriculture actually decreased our life quality at first. We are adapted to laziness, but now suddenly the human day was filled with hard work during long days. With agriculture we also traded an equal co-existance we knew well with hierarchical order-structures, in bigger and bigger organizations where we rarely meet the people who decide our daily life. Our new existance means the increased atomization of individuals. It is not only in West the large families vanish. Even in Third World cities the daily interactions in the small society disappears. Left are hard-working individuals for who family and friends become a burden, or at least a matter of planning. Moments of silent contemplation disappear in the wake of globalization and rationalization.

That obvious belonging, that you are nice and you just exist, becomes a desperate hunt for dignity and belonging which only qualified prestations can give. We sell ourselves. Our very strongest drive is to belong, to be respected. But our search for the approval of the group can in today’s commercialized society be easily turned towards us when we daily are reminded that we are not good enough, that we are not beautiful or smart, we don’t own the things which means we count. Peer pressure has such a strong impact on us, so strong it can override our will to live. If you don’t belong, you are dead on the inside. Living death is a fate worse than death itself. Bullying, something which in the past was as close to sin you could come, is now something we often see in schools and at work. And then there is the motto of media: “If you aren’t seen, you don’t exist”. Perhaps it is this reasoning which makes people commit suicide by webcam, or what is partly behind the school shootings in America, Finland and elsewhere. To exist for just a short while is better than not existing at all.

It is not possible to turn the clock back and become hunter-gatherers, we are too many, and there are hardly many who would want to. But a long-term solution would be one that is sustainable at least a couple hundred thousand years more. That life will probably look a lot more different than today. Our already incredible technology would give the whole of humanity a good life materially, but above all a good life for our souls. There we will all belong, feel needed and appeciated, and have the ability to show our inner goodness. There are no bullying bosses and frightened servants there. An impossible utopia? Well, maybe. Would be a pity in that case. But it would stop that assembly line of corpses which capitalist realism creates, and be a better way of preventing suicides than propping people full of anti-depressants. Suicides are just the tip of the iceberg of a fundamental flaw in our society.

Happiness

May 18, 2010

I’d like to speak a bit about happiness. By “happiness”, Merriam-Webster has the following definitions:

– a state of well-being and contentment
– a pleasurable or satisfying experience

I am speaking about “happiness” in the first sense, that of contentment and tranquility.

One of the most happy countries in the world is Bhutan, and is the happiest country in Asia. At the same time, it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, with GDP per capita being the 124th in the world. Analphabetism is rampant compared to more developed countries, with a literacy rate 59.5%. This is not exactly firm ground for a prosperous and humanistic society. Nearly half of the Bhutanese live off less than $1 a day and two-thirds live on substinence farming. Despite this, in 2005 45% of the Bhutanese reported being happy, 52% reported being very happy and only 3% unhappy. I highly doubt anyone, if they found themselves in the shoes of an average Bhutanese person would not be at least a little bit discontent. Why, then, are the Bhutanese so happy? In my mind it has to do with two things. Firstly, the lack of information about the outside world. Internet and television has been introduced very recently and is not available to large parts of the population. I am of the firm opinion that information should be a human right. Secondly, and it ties in with a lack of information, is the cultural paradigm in Bhutan. Roughly 75% of the population is Buddhist, with 24% being Hinduists and 1% accounting for everything else. Given Bhutan’s remote geographical position and considering that it has been isolated from the world until the early 1960’s, consequently its cultural heritage and traditions have remained intact. Simply put, they don’t know what they’re missing out on.

In the wake of WWII, the Western economies grew at a tremendous pace, and the welfare system was expanded. There was, and is, material affluence of the likes of which humanity had never seen before. Even a “poor” person in the Western world is more affluent than a feudal lord was during the Middle Ages. Despite this, people were not necessarily more content. What is so strange about that, really? With an increased economical base and a strong democratic tradition, it is quite natural that people demand more in terms of civil rights, equality and welfare. But “happiness” is about that… just being content with what you have, content with things being as they are. This pursuit of contentment is quite depressing, but also highly dangerous. Our society is not perfect, and perhaps never will be. But we can always strive towards improving conditions and work more progressively. Why, it is one of the strongest reasons why I am a socialist. Indeed, the very notion of “happiness” seems hostile to any societal progress.

Taking happiness to the very extreme, imagine if through scientific means one was able to overstimulate the happiness area of the human brain. The subject would experience extreme bliss, contentment, happiness. It seems like an incredibly cruel thing to do though, reducing the human to basically a vegetable. Many people say that in an ideal world, everybody would be happy, but for me it seems like a hellish dystopia. It is this pursuit of happiness for its own sake which is not only misguided and ignorant, but at the same time it is incredibly dangerous. Indeed, it might be one the greatest obstacles for humanity as a whole.

As a final note, 1984 and Brave New World have been combatants for the throne of dystopia novels. Having read both, I would say 1984 was more relevant during the Cold War, but Brave New World is more relevant in our time, even though Brave New World was earlier. I suppose this image says it all.

This is also a quite good article about why happiness is overrated.

As for the second definition, that of a pleasurable or satisfying experience, nothing wrong with that. *happily strokes cat*

Forum Look-Out

March 24, 2010

In Swedish class, I’ve received the task of holding an oral presentation about: “Your “look-out” will be about some trait typical of the society of today. Describe the phenomenon and reason in a personal manner about it: what does this time typical trait say about people of today? Why has it arisen? Are there any dangers regarding it? Can it be further developed/create new possibilities? The phenomenon doesn’t have to include all people, but can be limited to a smaller group for example young people.” So that’s what I’m up against. Being a heavy procrastinator, as you should’ve guessed, the presentation is tomorrow (in the moment of writing) and I haven’t started yet. I’ve decided, therefore, to publish the raw draft (read: more or less final version) on my blog. Aren’t you lucky! Mind you, this won’t be the best school work I’ve ever done. Now, with pure, unbridled procrastination planting a smug smirk on my face, and the energy of stimming working its way down my arms into my fingers, let’s spin this [expletive removed]. Hoo-hah! (The bad news, of course, is that its in Swedish and therefore incomprehensible to most of you. English translation coming… eventually. :P)

Vad säger ordet “forum” dig? I ordets allmänna, och bredaste betydelse så betyder det en offentlig mötesplats. Men, mer specifikt, så är internetforum en diskussionsplats på en hemsida. Diskussionen går till så att man gör så kallade trådar. När en ny tråd görs så skapar författaren till tråden en inledning, som kallas Original Post, där författaren förklarar vad ämnet går ut på, möjligen lägger denne också fram sin egen åsikt om saken, och om det är speciella omständigheter angående tråden (till exempel om det är en lek) så klargörs också detta. Och sedan, om andra på forumet känner sig manade, kan de också skriva inlägg.

Hur skiljer sig då detta mot andra diskussionsmedium på nätet? Det finns ju till exempel bloggar och chattar. En blogg skrivs ju bara av en person, och även fast den diskussion som kan uppstå i bloggar har vissa likheter med den sorts diskussion som pågår på forum, så har den inte samma fokus, inte samma system som forum har. Och chatt forum? Där finns ju samma dynamik i diskussionen som det finns på forum, men till skillnad från forum, och för att inte säga bloggar, så publiceras ju aldrig chattmeddelandena någonstans. Dessutom pågår diskussionen i realtid. Medan forumdiskussioner ibland kan vara väldigt aktiva, så är diskussionerna mer långvariga och för att inte nämna konkreta.

Det är både enkelt och svårt att skapa ett forum. Den sorts skål som alla kan göra, exoskelettet, är enkelt att göra. Att attrahera folk som faktiskt är intresserade av forumet och faktiskt vill vara med där, det är betydligt svårare. Om det är få som är där så kommer få att vara där, en sorts ond cirkel. Hos internetforum och deras popularitet så har uttrycket “framgång föder framgång” aldrig varit mer sant. Så hur uppstår dessa populära forum med mer än tiotusen medlemmar? Viktigt är den inriktning som forumet har. Ett forum kan handla om datorer, husdjur, personlighetstyper, vad som helst. Ämnet kommer att i hög grad bestämma vilka sorts personer som kommer dit. En annan faktor är vilka personer, vilken grupp som skapade forumet från första början. Om det är ett forum som har baserats på en populär hemsida så kommer detta forum ha ett stort övertag. Och det är så många hemsidor börjar, som en del av en hemsida.

Det som jag är intresserad av i det här sammanhanget är när ett forum föder ett annat, ett mer abstrakt koncept. På engelska så kallar man det ett “community”, och på svenska skulle man kunna kalla det en gemenskap. Det är när ett forum handlar inte enbart om de diskussioner som pågår på forum, utan också skapar ett komplext socialt nät mellan olika medlemmar på sidan. Det kan vara av vikt att skilja mellan flyktiga medlemmar och regelbundna medlemmar. Flyktiga medlemmar, som verkar utgöra huvuddelen av medlemmarna på forum, är några som går med i ett forum, kanske gör ett par inlägg, och sedan lämnar forumet. De fortsätter i regel att finnas kvar i medlemsregistret, men de finns inte kvar. Regelbundna medlemmar kanske inte stannar kvar på ett forum för evigt, men de är i alla fall där en längre tidsperiod, och gör ett flertal inlägg. Det är de som utgör själva själen i ett forum.

Den här gemenskapen jag talar om, hur uppstår den? Det kanske kan vara ett omtvistat ämne, men själv tror jag så här: När forum först grundades, så såg man vikten av att införa regler, för att inte diskussionerna skulle sammanfalla i anarki. Man såg också snabbt att det vore mycket praktiskt att folk som gör inlägg och trådar bör ha namn, för att minska förvirringen och kunna stoppa de som säger taskiga saker och förstör för andra, med anonymitetens hjälp. Det var nu i alla fall olika författare som stod bakom inlägg. Alla medlemmar är ju inte likadana, och man märker snabbt att olika medlemmar har olika personlighet, bakgrund, åsikter och så vidare. Som den sociala primat som människan är så ville den ha mer konkreta och urskiljande drag som utmärker medlemmar. Det kom i olika former: Avatarer, små ikoner som finns av tradition vänster om inlägget. Signaturer, ett stycke text nedanför inlägget som automatiskt häftas vid varje inlägg, som kan innehålla länkar, bilder och så vidare. Det finns många exempel.

Forum blev mer personliga. På gott och ont. Till exempel så uppstod det troll och spammare. Troll är folk som retar upp andra medlemmar och förstör för hela forumet, för deras eget nöjes skull. Spammare är sådana som gör meningslösa och extremt korkade inlägg. Och så fanns det ju förstås de tillfällen då medlemmar bryter mot forumreglarna, men inte spammar eller trollar. Ett mycket vanligt sätt att bekämpa detta är att bannlysa medlemmen i fråga, antingen temporärt eller permanent. Men då kom förstås frågan vilka som bestämmer vilka som har brutit mot reglerna och eventuella straff. Det är då en sorts hierarki uppstår på ett forum. Administratörerna är högst upp, det är de som ser till att forumet fungerar som det ska. Oftast så är det de som utser så kallade moderatörer. Moderatörerna är de som ser till att reglerna följs. Det finns ett starkt autokratiskt element på de flesta forum. Men på vissa forum så kan medlemmarna själva rösta om moderatörer och regeländringar. Det är som ett samhällsexperiment i vissa avseenden.

Ibland så uppstår en särskild sorts gemenskap. Sammanbundna av ett visst ämne, men ändå diskuterar man mycket annat. Kanske är det för att en viss sorts människor, sådana som har liknande intressen eller värderingar, möts tillsammans. Då finns det en samhörighet inte bara på forumet, men också i chattrum, på YouTube, Facebook, bloggar och så vidare. Ibland så anordnar vissa medlemmar till och med möten ansikte mot ansikte tillsammans. Det är då det inte bara rör sig om ett forum, det inte bara rör sig om en gemenskap, utan någonting mycket mer.

Nail Soup

March 11, 2010

I suppose you’ve all heard of the story about the old man making soup out of a stone? In Sweden, instead of a stone, there’s a nail. I’m not sure what the reason for this odd cultural difference is, but I suppose details in oral stories shift shape a lot as they get passed along the generations. It’s like that whispering game, but more slow and far-reaching. Apparently in Russia they have an axe instead, which just shows how awesome they are.

In any case, I think the nail seems to be a good metaphor for religion. Religion is one of the most prevailing cultural structures in our civilization. It seems to be an effective motivator for people to do things – be they good or bad. Religion has a memetical quality into it, it’s an idea that spreads like a virus, the success of the memes battling it out against each other. That it is a meme doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true or not, of course; many other ideas like political ideologies are memetical.

I often hear people say that while science is of course an invaluable tool for understanding the world, religion apparently has a lot to offer which the scientific, materialist peeps won’t understand. What is that, I ask? What does religion have to offer to our understanding? Nothing. It has no explanatory power. There are of course quite a few religious people who dispute this, but many religionists have given up the struggle against scientific knowledge, and instead started to focus on the sociological aspects. Religion, they argue, gives people hope. They give people meaning. They give people inspiration. But surely that is not something which is unique to religion? Me, and many nonreligious people have all those things. As a counter to this, I have gotten the response that while I can do that, not everybody can. They have me believe that without religion, they wouldn’t be able to have this hope. It all reminds me of the old, well-known folk tale:

Once upon a time there was a tramp walking through a deep forest. He made his living selling a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Now he was cold and tired and hungry and what was even worse, he had nothing left to sell. All he owned were the ragged clothes he wore and an old, bent nail.

When he came out of the forest he saw a little cottage, with smoke rising from the chimney. He knocked on the door, the door opened and a woman looked at him suspiciously.
– Please, could you be as good as to give a poor man shelter for the night, he asked.
– I know your kind, she said, if I let you in you won´t leave before you have eaten everything I have. And I tell you, I´m so poor I haven´t had a bite for three days. So you just go away!
But the tramp was a clever fellow, and the woman was so greedy that she immediately invited him when he said that of course he didn´t want to eat the little she had. On the contrary, he wanted her to share his evening meal.
– But first I want to see the food you say you want to share, she said.
– This is all I need, he said, and took an old, bent nail out of his pocket. Just bring me a pot and some water, and I´ll cook the best soup you ever tasted with this nail.
The woman brought a pot and looked with amazement as the tramp made a fire, cooked some water and dropped the nail in it.
– The soup might be a little thin, he said, you see I have been using the nail for seven days now. It is a pity you don´t have a little salt, that would surely make the soup taste like a soup fit for any gentleman´s house. But what we lack, we don´t have.
– Now that I come to think of it, said the woman. I might have a little salt left since Christmas.
– How lucky, said the tramp and put the salt in the pot. Well I was thinking that perhaps you could even serve this soup to the priest, if we only had some vegetables also. But what we lack, we don´t have.
– Now that I come to think of it, said the woman. I might have some vegetables in the cellar.
The tramp praised the wisdom of the woman and the excellent taste of the soup.
– I think it would even be fit to serve the king, if we only had a little meat to add, said the tramp. But there is no use longing for the impossible. What we lack, we don´t have.
– Now that I come to think of it, said the woman. There might be some dried meat left somewhere.
The tramp happily added the meat to the by now sweet-smelling soup, the woman made the table with her finest silver spoons and her best plates. When she came to think of it, there was actually some wine left since her husband´s funeral.

So she felt almost like a queen when they shared the soup the tramp had cooked with his nail. The next morning the tramp left without his nail, because the woman wouldn´t let him go before he agreed to sell it. And still to this day, the nail has been very useful. Not only can you make a wonderful soup, but you can also use it for cooking tales with. True, what we lack we don’t have, but if you add a little of this and a little of that it will certainly be a story fit for telling to a king!


(image)

To put the nail in more concrete terms, we might instead call it a crutch. Because that’s what it is. People are of course entirely healthy and don’t need the crutch, but they feel they need the crutch, so they cling onto it. I say you don’t have to. You can pick up that crutch, and toss it aside, and walk with greater steadiness as well as more freely. Because I cannot believe that people would need it, I have higher hopes of humanity than that. I’m not asking you to stop having the head up in the clouds; but rather to stand with both feet firmly on the ground at the same time. The nail will only contaminate your soup.