America the charnel ground

The America that our parents and grandparents grew up in, that colossus, is gone for good. Western civilization is in a death spiral. And humanity as we know it is not long for this earth.

This, by the way, regardless of whether we obliterate ourselves (in a nuclear holocaust or unforeseen systems collapse) or manage to make it to the Singularity.

My whole cohort might be vaporized, or cannibalized by our stranger-neighbors in a not-so-cold civil war. Alternatively, we get past it all, and are merged by AI into an optimization (pleasant or not) that has no interest in our individuality or in the human life cycle.

Our gonads might not survive intact; our progeny may yet be infinite, formless intelligence. Either way, we might be among the last to give our parents grandkids.

The only prediction I’m willing to make is that the rate of change will become unbearable if we continue to cling to things as they are. And we’re all doing it. In fact, I notice that I’ve become more prone to it than I once was, as I’ve seen more of the world, developed deeper relationships, and cultivated empathy.

The long 2016 has been a mindfuck—for the first time, I’m not bullish about America’s prospects. Everyone’s at each other’s throats, and we all know it. Visions of apocalypse have begun to take on an intuitive quality (that said: intuiting isn’t believing).

When The Better Angels Of Our Nature came out in 2012, I ate it up. Suddenly, The Black Swan seems much more important.

It would be best if I started regarding America, the West, and humanity in general the way the Tibetan masters regard a charnel ground (the place where bodies are laid out to be scavenged and burned)—as sites to viscerally experience the occasionally liberating, often horrifying truth: that all things pass, no matter how much we care about them.

And out of this awful awareness, cultivate a more ambient, less possessive sense of compassion.

The Brazilian Whitman

Attempts to explain poet and composer Caetano Veloso to non-Brazilians typically refer to him as a Brazilian  John Lennon orBob Dylan … Jessica Callaway, however, argues that if comparisons must be made, in spirit and sensibility, Veloso is more aptly described as a close comrade of Walt Whitman.

— The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics, ed. Levine and Crocitti

The romance of Semitic

Most researchers of Semitic morphology refer to the principal characteristic of Semitic morphology as non-linear or non-concatenative. Namely, instead of morphemes being placed linearly, one after the other before or after the word stem, as prefixes and suffixes, as in English, the morphemic structure of Semitic words is characterized by at least two morphemes interwoven (or interdigitated) within each other in a discontinuous (or non-concatenative) manner. One morpheme is inserted into the other (call it template, pattern, or scheme) in certain slots of the word stem structure. As two morphemes, the root and the template are incomplete in every respect, morphologically, phonologically, and semantically, until they merge to form a word or a word stem.

— Joseph Shimron, Language Processing and Acquisition in Languages of Semitic, Root-Based, Morphology

After the ritual “clearcut”, bloom

All rituals look to have been “clearcut” in the modern world, because few rituals are well-adapted to the new technological human reality. But this new reality may also be seen as an island: a pristine space, unoccupied by past rituals and very leisurely by historical standards, where sensory exploitation selection may flourish: rituals may serve the emotional and aesthetic needs of humans more than ever before, because they are under fewer constraints. Only a tiny percentage of the population is now needed for the production of food, fuel, and other necessities; selection for collective action in unpleasant areas has been dramatically relaxed. There is more room for arbitrary beauty.

— Sarah Perry, “An Ecology of Beauty and Strong Drink

On disorders of totalization and fragmentation

It may be that we need to acknowledge a second kind of life, outside of time, for those who are not capable of living in time. It consists in palliation of the eternal now, rather than plans for the future, like a really horrible version of Zen Buddhism that’s not half as funny, but that is more comfortable than the alternative. The technological and material wealth of modernity could allow a new kind of human zombie to exist, who would have in earlier eras perished by suicide.

Feeling the Future, Sarah Perry at Ribbonfarm

Social cognition and “no-self”

To put it in more sociological terms: Reasons are social constructs. They are constructed by distorting and simplifying our understanding of mental states and of their causal role and by injecting into it a strong dose of normativity. Invocations and evaluations of reasons are contributions to a negotiated record of individuals’ ideas, actions, responsibilities, and commitments. This partly consensual, partly contested social record of who thinks what and who did what for which reasons plays a central role in guiding cooperative or antagonistic interactions, in influencing reputations, and in stabilizing social norms. Reasons are primarily for social consumption.

– Mercier and Sperber, The Enigma of Reason

It seems to me (but what do I know) that the things I cling to most tightly are the things I perceive as most inseparable from my unique self—memories (and the sense of having a sharp memory), quirks, moral traits, and as Mercier and Sperber remind me, reasons. Reasons on all tiers, for all objects: reasons for supporting decentralized governance, reasons for abstaining from pork, reasons for trusting A and not trusting B. Turns out, all of these things are inaccurate by design, hazy at best.

The good news is that even a momentary release from identification with them—whether experienced or merely conceived—feels very freeing. I want more of where that came from.

This is not to distort Mercier and Sperber (or any descriptive attempts at cognitive psychology) toward the end of an idealized post-self that overcomes its “deceptive” programming, and casts off the shackles of narrative once and for all. We are built to deal with our environment exactly as we need to, given the constraints of our evolutionary history. There is nothing sinister about this.

And even if there were, we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought there was a way out. That said, our self-awareness shouldn’t be limited to the psych lab and the page. An honest appraisal of why we tell the stories we tell about ourselves reveals a bundle of fictions. What does that mean for that grand frame story, identity?

1. That it’s functionally important, and largely for social reasons.
2. That it’s not so important that we should let it hurt us.

The work of taking our attachments (and the I they add up to) less seriously is what we might call a “mental health hack”, with roots as far back as the Gangetic Plain, 2,500 years ago. Studying cognitive psychology, and chewing on its ideas, wherever we find ourselves, can be part of this work.

Who can really say?

When I see other people making a big deal out of seemingly-minor problems, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’ve avoided them so easily I missed their existence, or fallen into them so thoroughly I’m like the fish who can’t see water.

And when I see other people struggling to understand seemingly-obvious concepts, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’m so far beyond them that I did it effortlessly, or so far beneath them that I haven’t even realized there’s a problem.

— Today’s Slate Star Codex, “Concept-Shaped Holes Can Be Impossible To Notice

Particularly resonant today.

Yesterday I reviewed a good summary of Kegan’s developmental stages, and since then, I’ve found myself every few hours waffling between “I’m so metasystematic I can’t even remember Stage 4” and “I’ve never learned how to cope with systems”.

America in decline: nothing personal

When I arrived in the United States, curiously enough, it was precisely at the end of the long positive structural-demographic (SD) trend, which saw historically unprecedented rise in broadly based measures of well-being, including its economic and biological aspects. The trend reversal from the integrative to disintegrative SD trend can be dated fairly precisely to 1977-1978…

In other words, just as the US was triumphantly winning the Cold War and becoming the world’s sole superpower, deep down in the American society’s foundations, a disintegrative trend was gathering steam, the significance of which is becoming glaringly obvious only today.

— Peter Turchin, “1977-2017: A Retrospective

Our moment is the first in any living person’s lifetime (or in America’s lifetime, most probably) of convergence between structural-demographic “disintegration” and imperial decline. How does this manifest in today’s politics? “Make America Great Again” as an all-purpose banner for fear of emasculation and obsolescence.

Not being the sole (or even primary) geopolitical superpower isn’t a tragedy. Just ask the happy, prosperous folks in Denmark, or the happy, piss-poor folks in Bhutan. But for people who lived the unipolar moment of the fabled 90s, disorientation is to be expected.

To what degree is international status anxiety contributing to America’s internal “disintegrative” trend by making people feel like dispensable losers? It’d be hard to gauge. To be sure, it’s not the main driver of our spike in partisan rancor, mass shootings, fatal overdoses, and endemic complacency.

But the degree to which Americans cling to exceptionalism can’t be psychologically healthy (Hell, I voted for Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders, and the thought of America not being #1 even stings me a bit!). And when this clinging plays out at the ballot box, tectonic plates shift—and never in our favor.

How can we convince people that changes in the global order needn’t be experienced as personal tragedy?