Dispatches Tagline

Dangerous Knowledge Part 1: Tired of Searching

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011: Problems & Solutions, Society.

An older artist friend recently told me, “You’re a searcher. You’ll always be searching.” That made me want to cry. I’m really, really tired of searching. I want to find what I’m looking for and be content.

I was planning to start this blog by telling the story of my intellectual journey, as a way of explaining my radical philosophy and scandalous opinions. But after a few episodes I realized the story just couldn’t be told in anything shorter than a book. And in fact, the story was not over.

More to the point, my philosophy doesn’t seem to be doing me much good. My life is still conflicted and contradictory. Maybe that mess is the real story I should be telling, in case other people are facing similar dilemmas.

Like many of my colleagues, I was a beneficiary of the dotcom boom and a victim of the dotcom bust. In 2002 I found myself out of work, broke, and in debt. Yes, everyone said the boom would come back, but I wasn’t holding my breath, and in any event, I had never intended this to be my life’s work.

Overwhelmed by life’s challenges, seeking guidance and social support, some of my friends had latched onto gurus or joined cults. But I thought I had already learned a lot of life lessons that might be useful. I decided to apply my skills and experience as an artist, scientist, philosopher and information architect to the questions that kept bugging me: What was the meaning of all these powerful, mystical dreams and visions I’d had? How could I sum up everything that I had learned in culture, society, and the natural world, and how did it all fit together? Had I accumulated any wisdom that might be useful to others? What should I do with the rest of my life, for my community and habitat as well as for my own benefit?

My youthful studies in philosophy, and many subsequent arguments with very smart people, had shown that verbal communication is fraught with difficulties; words are slippery and emotionally charged. But in early childhood, even before I learned to read and write, I’d begun to explore and make sense of my world by making pictures of it. Maturing in the bohemian milieu of San Francisco, I used art to investigate the human wreckage festering all around me. And as I fell in love with the deserts of the Southwest and studied Native American pictographs and petroglyphs, my art morphed into mysterious symbolic narratives evoking mystical dreams and visions. Finally, during the dotcom boom, I used storyboard drawings and diagrams to communicate effectively with entrepreneurs, corporate executives, writers, designers, and engineers. My inquiry would combine all of this into a new kind of art project: research through art, art as a way of investigating, perhaps even comprehending, human experience in a way that science and academia could scarcely attempt, because of their deep investment in conventional paradigms.

So – I spent much of the next five years on a project which became known as Pictures of Knowledge: a visual philosophy based primarily on direct observation and shareable experience. I summarized and organized everything I’d ever observed and learned firsthand. I delved deeper into science for points of reference. I developed a symbol lexicon and a series of fundamental pictures or models, in the timeless tradition of Tibetan mandalas or Navajo sand paintings. I talked to everyone I knew and shared my work with people in different places.

To sustain this project I had to evoke my roots in the old “counterculture” – I had to question everything, taking nothing for granted, accepting none of the assumptions which are at the root of our dominant social and cultural paradigms. If you’re not prepared to go this far, you’re probably not going to like my observations. I had to ask questions that undermine most people’s identities and ways of life, their sense of self-worth, their value systems and worldviews.

The next post will summarize what I learned!

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Dangerous Knowledge Part 2: Wealth and Power vs. The Good Life

Thursday, December 8th, 2011: Problems & Solutions, Society.

Some of the dangerous insights of Pictures of Knowledge:

1. Humans are animals, and we’re not qualitatively different from other animals. Ants build huge agricultural societies with effective division of labor; birds make and use tools. We have no idea what other animals are thinking, but we’re equally ignorant of most of what goes on in our own brains. It’s okay, get over it!

2. Like certain other animals, humans habitually strive to dominate whatever ecosystem they inhabit. We develop technologies which extend our powers, ultimately leading to habitat destruction and population collapse. Since, like other animals, we’re mostly unaware of what we’re doing, these outcomes always take most of us by surprise. Jared Diamond collected tons of data on these phenomena, but as a scientist, he’s too deeply invested in a linear perception of time to recognize the cyclical pattern, and as a successful pundit, he’s too deeply invested in our large-scale institutions to admit their bankruptcy.

3. Humans are no more able to manage or shape their own evolution than other animals. Sorry, new agers – we’re not on the brink of a quantum leap in consciousness. It’s more like the other way around. The only way for us to avoid our habitual destructive tendencies is to adopt strict social controls on our behavior, so our neighbors can help keep us in line. And even then, there are no guarantees that we’ll succeed.

4. Humans are social animals, unable to thrive without community support and cooperation. Hence the health of the community is more important than the welfare of the individual. Sorry, libertarians – you should have paid more attention in biology class. A healthy community will produce healthy individuals – not vice versa.

5. As animals, we get all of our basic physical needs from ecosystems. The complete workings of these systems are beyond our comprehension, but we can observe that the health of our habitat – its ability to provide for our needs – is dependent on the work of the uncountable other entities – from insects and birds to clouds and geological processes – which all work together with us in the cycles of productivity. The best we can do is strive to understand our part and do it well, and allow them to do their parts without trying to control or manage the ecosystem. Thus we need to tend our own small piece of land and leave the bulk of the habitat unmanaged or “wild.”

6. As with other animal communities, the highest priorities for a human community should be to provide a steady supply of healthy food and raise healthy children. The majority of active adults in a healthy community will be food providers. Such a community is led by the people who have direct experience and wisdom in these fundamental roles, not by a specialized “leader” class or by people in parasitic “meta-roles” like lawyers, warriors, merchants or technologists. In a healthy community, these roles wouldn’t even exist!

7. Only small-scale communities can be accountable, hence effective in these basic activities of life, and only rural communities, embedded in productive habitat and surrounded by wild, unmanaged habitat, can sustainably provide for their needs. Yes, I know, big cities are stimulating, with all the bright lights and colorful immigrants forced into exile by economic imperialism! But cities exist primarily to concentrate labor and facilitate the transformation of rural resources into wealth, all for the benefit of elites. And nations do that on an even bigger scale. Just say no to large-scale societies!

8. It seems that the most successful way for a community to ensure the good behavior of its members is not through a secular legal apparatus, but through what we typically call a religion: the adoption of a set of rules which acknowledges an overarching, unknowable mystery, encourages compassion, and restrains hubris, greed, and aggression. Sorry, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – you shouldn’t have skipped that sociology class. It’s not about reason vs. superstition, it’s about humility and caring for each other.

9. Human experience is cyclical, not progressive. What we think of as progress is simply the mis-apprehended up slope of a long cycle ending in collapse.

  1. The short cycles, like day/night and the seasons, drive the normal productivity of the habitat, and the best thing we can do is achieve stability in those cycles, sustaining, doing as good from year to year, not trying to improve (“progress”) through technological innovation or the accumulation of wealth and power.
  2. The generational cycles literally renew the community. I can only wish that my parents lived as good a life as I live, and that my children will live as good a life as I live. If generations continually strive to improve on each other, it’s a sign that the community is in deep trouble.
  3. The long cycles, defined by events like large-scale drought, fire, epidemic, invasion & conquest, both destroy and renew habitats or communities, and the healthy response is to learn and adapt or migrate, rather than trying to fight or control the environment. The lessons and adaptations of long cycles represent an accumulating trove of wisdom to be passed from generation to generation.

10. Our destructive proclivities inevitably lead the majority of humans into large-scale, hierarchical societies. Small, healthy communities are typically in the minority, but they represent the best hope of our species. As individuals and families, the best we can do is strive to be part of these minority communities, or more realistically, leave them alone. On their part, the best they can do is strive to adapt to the majority societies and find a state of grace within or without them, retaining as much of their autonomy as possible. The Old Order Amish are a good example of this. They vote and pay taxes, but they won’t fight in our wars, and if we start interfering too much in their affairs, they’ll move somewhere else.

11. Money and a consumer market economy are fundamentally destructive because they create a parasitic class of consumers, alienated from producers, and facilitate an elite class which controls resources without accountability. No community should ever allow its members to accumulate wealth that gives them power over others or enables them to avoid the work of basic sustenance. Even the poorest among us can be charitable; philanthropy is no justification of wealth.

Had enough? But wait, there’s more!

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Dangerous Knowledge Part 3: Nurturing Roots

Friday, December 9th, 2011: Problems & Solutions, Society.

The insights of Pictures of Knowledge accumulated with the force of a powerful revelation. But what could I do with them? I was living in a vast metropolitan area where food-producing habitat had long been replaced by buildings and streets and parking lots, and society had been segregated into slums, working-class ghettos, middle-class suburbs, yuppie neighborhoods, and affluent enclaves. It was clear that I couldn’t just go out and create the kind of community I’ve just described, and I didn’t know anyone else who was either interested or prepared to try. Was it possible to find a subsistence community of people who took good care of each other, and somehow join it?

Joining a traditional culture like the Amish or the Hopi was clearly not an option for a mature, overeducated white man. I spent some time looking into “intentional communities,” but the few that seemed attractive were still young and unstable, dependent on the consumer economy, lacking institutions that would continue nourishing them through the cycle of the generations.

I searched for years, and eventually found this compromise: a rural county with abundant natural resources and a long prehistoric heritage of both farming and sophisticated art, a place with small family farms and ranches and idealistic young people going into farming while they try to raise kids outside the mainstream culture. A remote Western town that surprises urbanites with its openness, tolerance, and community activism. A place with a small, historic downtown where country folks mix with townies and gather frequently for festivals and celebrations. A working town that’s not pretty, not restored or gentrified, but affordable and egalitarian, with dark skies, no traffic jams, and a vast mountain wilderness at our doorstep.

Working with new friends, I started a harvest festival to celebrate local agriculture. I dreamed of starting my own farm and raising livestock, but instead, I ended up in town. Now, for the first time since childhood, I live in a place where literally all of life’s basic resources – from food to health care to building materials – are available within walking distance, from people I know personally and see regularly.

Poor Max, never satisfied! As good as it is, it’s still not my dream village. It’s still an American town, too big for everyone to know everyone else and make decisions by consensus. Although it’s socially unstratified and far less segregated than any community I knew in California, it’s still divided into Anglo and Latino, liberal and conservative. I’m also 1500 miles from my family and my childhood roots, and my heart is torn.

Moving here enabled me to rediscover myself as an artist, but that was both a blessing and a curse, because although I reserve my highest respect for traditional cultures, my own work connects more with what’s going on in the cities, and I feel culturally isolated. There’s a lesson there, but it’s a hard one.

I started out as a child in a rural environment, with a loving family, eating local food, surrounded by remnants and fragments of a healthy, sustainable way of life, but since I was a talented child of talented, educated parents, the damage was already done. The seductive glamour of the arts, sciences and technology, loved by my parents and promoted by the media and the educational system, drove me relentlessly toward the big city and the great university and the cutting edge of art and science and a habitual craving for intellectual challenges and urban sophistication. An exciting but fundamentally destructive culture has uprooted me and shaped me into a misfit, a mass of contradictions.

As reluctant products of a dysfunctional society, what can we do to live a more meaningful life?

At the most fundamental level, we can stop thinking of ourselves as part of a global population, a nation, or any society that’s so big that the members can’t know each other personally and be accountable to each other. Caring, cooperation, and consensus only work face to face, and that’s where we should be focusing, close to home.

We can certainly avoid the national media – that’s a no-brainer – and, instead of taking inspiration from celebrities and media pundits, work to build the kind of local community that will nurture and sustain inspiring people. Getting out of the imperial city – whether it’s rooftop-garden Brooklyn or the Ninth Ward of New Orleans – will dramatically reduce the pressure to consume. Avoid affluence and social stratification and get close to food, family farms, places where young people are getting into farming instead of technology.

Our kids are a tougher question. But it might help to stop thinking of them as individuals with unlimited potential for advancement, and more as an integral part of our immediate community, a new generation to carry on the roles of the aging generation, caring for our habitat and caring for their neighbors. Give them an inspiring community to belong to, instead of sending them off to college and saddling them with huge loans in hopes of a “promising career” where they actually have to start over in a distant place, losing the context and support systems of their family and neighborhood, losing their roots. That’s one way the destructive market economy thrives: luring us away from our roots, our families, our social support, isolating us so we’re forced to pay for everything we need.

The mobility of our society is really a killer, from the consumption of non-renewable resources to pollution and climate change, from the rapid spread of disease and invasive species to the more gradual breakdown of families and communities. So many of my urban friends are currently just “parking” in a job-related location until such time as they can retire to the small community of their dreams. Then, like me, their children won’t even have a childhood home and neighborhood to go back to, and this will become accepted as normal. Roots are worth nurturing, for a lot of vital reasons.


I Am an Animal!

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012: Odds & Ends, Society.

In David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man, when cornered by an angry mob, the title character cries out “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” Socially, it’s a powerful and poignant moment, but in the larger context of ecology, it’s an unfortunate choice of words. Human beings, of course, are animals in every sense, and our urge to differentiate ourselves from other animals is one thing that leads us astray.

But in another sense it’s a powerful comment on identity and labeling, and how people who are insecure in their own identities use labeling to assert control over a social situation, empowering themselves and bullying or manipulating others.

In the mid-90s, I was fortunate to witness a moving performance by the brilliant transsexual media theorist Sandy Stone, in which she dramatized her life journey from male to female. The experience had all the more impact on me because I had never heard of Stone and didn’t know she had been a man until it was revealed in her performance. I followed up by reading her book, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, which discussed the ways in which people were beginning to use online avatars to craft new personal identities. In her view, new media and communications technologies were empowering people who had previously been victims of labeling.

I was surprised by her treatment of personal identity as a discrete phenomenon, because for me, identity had always been boundless, timeless, and in continual flux. One self with manifold manifestations. Labels were often convenient in specific contexts and discourse, but I never took them seriously unless others were using them to manipulate. In childhood, I was bullied and called “peewee” and “Tiny Tim” because I was small. Growing up, I ignored the warnings of my elders about “Jack of all trades, master of none.” To continually varying degrees, I was a passionate “artist” while I was making art, a gardener while gardening, a carpenter while building, and so forth.

My favorite example is the label “engineer.” At the end of my second year in college, I had just finished an intensive studio art program and had been accepted at a handful of art schools, but the economy was in a deep recession, and coming from a family with very limited financial resources, I was under crushing pressure to find a reliable career. My math and science skills enabled me to finish an engineering degree, although my heart wasn’t in it and I rebelled after graduation, rejecting job offers and becoming a vagabond and manual laborer, camping for a while in the hothouse environment of CalArts, broadening my horizons as an artist and playing in a band.

Desperate for financial security, I did eventually take a day job at an engineering firm, but only worked as an engineer for two years before moving into a part-time administrative position that allowed me to put most of my time and energy into the arts. Even so, I kept quitting, going broke, and begging to be rehired. That, and my education, are now decades in the past, and I could never resurrect that tentative beginning of an engineering career without going back to school. My expertise consisted of book learning that was quickly and carelessly forgotten.

Yet my father, who spent most of his working life as an engineer, would never let me forget it, nor will some of my old friends in the arts, to my dismay. My father, like all fathers I suppose, clung selectively to his favorite parts of my past. According to him I had made a terrible mistake by not marrying Victoria, and an even worse mistake by throwing away my potential on the arts instead of engineering.

Ironically, my artist friends have tried to diminish me from the opposite direction. Perhaps envious of my manifold skills – which truthfully have been a mixed blessing – they tell me smugly, again and again, “But you’re an engineer!” or “But you could go back to your engineering job!” Implying that they’re the real artists and I’m just a poser.

Of course, those are people for whom commercial success in the arts has been as elusive as it has for me, and they depend on day jobs they would equally resist as labels. But in the stratosphere of the arts, Damien Hirst spent as many years as a construction worker as I did as an engineer, and Moby has probably spent more time waiting tables, but no one would now call him a waiter.

Labels should never be used as a cage or a putdown, and identity is always relative to context. I am not an engineer! I am an animal!

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Space Tourists vs. Future Farmers

Saturday, February 18th, 2012: Odds & Ends, Society.

Taking the sporadic glance at my junk mail folder, I discovered that I’m on the self-promotion mailing list of the ex-girlfriend of an old pal. The ex-GF is a former self-styled internet “product evangelist” who has now elevated herself to the role of “futurist” and philosopher. She proudly proclaims herself a member of an international network of young futurists, many of them university-educated in “future studies.” The email linked to a recently completed video commercial based on her work.

In the slick commercial, four fashionably dressed young urban professionals are finishing a meal in a generic-looking upscale restaurant. One woman enthusiastically describes her recent trip to space. The waiter arrives with a handheld electronic bill/scanner device, and our yuppies proceed to divide up the price items in futuristically convenient ways, paying with various forms of scannable credit, including credits toward space flight. The implication is that technology is giving young urban professionals more personal freedom, including of course the freedom to travel in space.

But not all of us are yuppies. Human life doesn’t reach its full potential in the sanitized context of spacecraft or upscale urban bistros, and electronic credit is ultimately only a symbol which disguises our dependence on physical resources that are extracted from earthly ecosystems by rural communities. The freedom of the ex-GF’s “integrated mobile payments, credit cards, private coins and corporate space currency” is also the freedom from having to grow your own food, build your own shelter, make your own clothes, chop your own firewood. And this personal freedom, sometimes more patriotically termed “liberty,” is also a dependence on the labors of the rural providers, and an exploitation of them by means of a market economy that remotely, and unaccountably, manipulates their labors and their natural resources.

For a more balanced and realistic take on space travel, check out the poignant but even-handed 2009 documentary film Space Tourists, which shows an American billionaire enjoying her trip to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket, while peasants, out herding their flocks on the steppe below, collect discarded rocket parts to use as temporary shelter from the earthly elements.

I had my own fling with futurism as a teenage science fiction fan. What it all boils down to is adolescent insecurity – a craving for power and speed; adolescent rebellion – a need to distinguish yourself from your elders; and a fear of death resulting from urban society’s avoidance and denial of the role of death in the community and ecosystem. The primary themes of futurism are space travel, immortality, and a continual increase in personal power and convenience through technological progress. Any social or ecological consequences of these personal advantages can presumably be solved through engineering, in the same way that Nazism gave us the master race and nuclear power gave us unlimited cheap energy.

In the language of the Occupy movement, futurism is for the 1%. But statistics can be made to tell any story. The 99% is supposed to stand for the rest of us who are not rich, but one thing most of us have in common with the rich is that we’re primarily consumers of resources originally produced by rural farmers and miners under perennially exploitative conditions. And I’m not talking about Apple’s factory workers in China, who are also primarily consumers striving to increase their “quality of life,” meaning increased consumption of manufactured goods. You can reverse the Occupy statistics to observe that in today’s unsustainable human ecology, rural providers are the 1% exploited by the rest of us.

For the ex-GF, the future means perpetually young, fashionable, affluent urban consumers taking vacations in space. For this recovered futurist, the future is today, where, in my rural community far from the exaggerated consumer dreams and temptations of the city, young farmers and parents grow food for their neighbors and help raise each other’s children to become healthy providers for the next generation.

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