Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Emerson, Nature
Brought to Mind After an Hour Spent Alone, Hypnotized by South River Falls

"In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature."

-- Emerson, Nature


Blogger The Mystic said...

And yet, here we are, typing about it on computers in cities that pollute to the extent that we are destroying that which we use our technology to document.

Watch the series on Discovery - Planet Earth. It'll make you want to eat, go to the gym, and try to recapture whatever slight bit of real life that one might be able to capture while living in this ridiculous world.

We didn't think when we began mechanizing our lives. We just thought "Oh, that makes this MUCH easier" - but only insofar as it makes it easier to sit around and do nothing but maintain our machinery while it lives our lives for us.

The disease of machinery owns us.

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spending a day alone in the woods is much more pleasant when you know you'll be spending the night in a comfortable home with a warm meal on the table. Machinery and a structured economy make it a lot easier to acquire the latter.

That said, there's no doubt we could all simplify our lives and find a better work-family-nature balance.

3:54 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I dunno, I think it's somewhat of a myth that comfortable homes and meals were that much harder to come by before machinery took the process over. Hunter-gatherer societies are generally thought to be pretty successful. The Native Americans that inhabited the Great Plains did exceptionally well. The problem is, we only have a few remaining tribes in very harsh environments (jungle, mainly) with whom we can compare our current state of mechanized living.

I don't think that if you saw the success of the hunter-gatherer tribes in the Americas that you would still think machinery and world economy are a better way to feed and shelter oneself. It seems many, many times worse to me.

6:33 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I hate to post so much, but I do feel pretty strongly on this topic..

So, also, I'd like to ask what you mean by "a lot easier"? In our mechanized world, the poverty rate in America alone is 12.5%. One in eight Americans is below the poverty line. That means they don't have the assurance of a warm meal or a comfortable home.

Further, half of the world's population lives on under 2 dollars a day of income. 24000 people die each day due to starvation. How can this possibly be better than the world was before machinery?

In the wild, if you are starving, you will be killed before you simply starve to death. Something will eat you. However, currently, you just waste away until you finally die from a total lack of nutrition. Everything about the current world's situation seems far worse off than the world of the Mesolithic/Neolithic, or even Native America.

1:46 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Ironic that it took going to prison for Ted Kaczynski to have access to a computer.

4:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mystic,

I appreciate your comments, and I will follow up very soon.

Right now, I have to go to work...

6:06 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

You know, this has turned out to be way more interesting than I thought.

I've gotta agree with first anonymous, though...the woods are a lot better when you've got comfy, high-tech sleeping quarters awaiting you that night.

Is technology worth the trade-off?

I'm immediately inclined to say 'yes' (sidebar: I'd probably rather starve than get eaten by a bear...but who knows? I've never had to face either.).

Of course *we're* doing the technology thing in a fairly dumb-ass way. We simply waste an enormous amount of our time and resources.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mystic,

First I’d like to properly introduce myself. My name is Richard and I was the first anonymous. I’m pleased to chat with you, and I’m willing to reconsider my thinking on this topic as I learn more about your thoughts.

I share a lot of your concerns about the state of the world, but I think the root causes are more human nature than technological. Murder, war, rape, famine, slavery, disease, poverty, and inequality have been with us much longer than even our most basic machines and technology. I would even suggest that most of these evils have been with us since before we were even recognizably human. I believe that technology and economic systems that allow for specialization and trade can be part of the solution to these problems, but only if they are used wisely by the people who wield them.

Let me suggest just a couple of ways in which I think technology and, for lack of a better term, the modern economic system have made life better.

Medical science: Many of the great killer diseases have been eliminated or controlled. Lifespans around the world have increased dramatically. I wouldn’t ask any woman I cared for to give birth in a hunter-gatherer society if she could give birth in a modern hospital instead.

Agricultural productivity: For most of human history, most humans spent almost all of their time acquiring food and shelter. The average time and income devoted to food has fallen dramatically, though not uniformly, around the world. I appreciate the value of a hard day’s work in the field. I’ve done plenty myself. But if a tractor will allow the children of a farmer to go to school instead of work the fields, I’m all for it.

Art and Music: I have to admit, I’m not the best person to praise the achievements of art, culture, and music. In my grouchier moments I’m the one thinking “they should get a real job” when I see some particularly inscrutable object d’art. But I do believe that art is a crucial part of the human experience and has great value. Technology and modern economic systems have made possible wonderful art and music that would not have been possible in hunter-gatherer societies. Even more, it has made it possible to share that art and music on a scale that was once unimaginable. Today, kids in rural Missouri can hear Mozart or Beethoven without having to travel to the concert halls of Europe. Better yet, those same kids can share their talent through MySpace or YouTube with the rest of the world.

Even Plant Earth is an example of the benefits of technology. [Thanks for the tip BTW, I’ve Tivoed it in high definition.] That series could not have been produced and shared with the world without technology and some kind of economic system to get the crews to those remote and beautiful locations.

Note that I’m saying technology has made many things better and not perfect. I’ve got lots of criticisms of each of the items I’ve suggested. But the strong condemnation of machines you’ve outlined seems to overreach, IMHO.

With my highest regards,

5:09 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Good to speak with you, Richard. I'll address your points individually and as clearly as I can:

Medical Science: Honestly, I think this is the worst product of technology. I'm not sure what "great killer diseases" you're referencing, but there are many studies done by (*sigh*) anthropologists on this issue and the general consensus, while I don't always agree with anthropologists, seems to be that the frequent movement to healthy areas and low population density severely inhibits the spread of disease in hunter-gatherer societies. This does make sense to me. It's not totally conclusive that hunter-gatherers are better off as far as contagious disease is concerned, but it is pretty near conclusive that as far as degenerative disease is concerned, they were much better off. The activity keeps that at bay very well. Also, should contagious disease strike, a small population may be eliminated, but the pandemics such as the black plague would certainly be more easily avoided.

Further, though, I just don't see the benefit to medical science. Certainly it cures people of their afflictions currently, but, and not at all to be unsympathetic towards suffering, to keep those alive who are afflicted by disease easily is to do a disservice in the long run. To keep "curing" disease that those who are afflicted cannot fight on their own pretty much dooms future generations to the same plight, does it not? Supporting weak immune systems with modern medicine just leads to the proliferation of weakened immune systems, dooming future generations to reliance upon antibiotics for survival. Braces to correct teeth simply leads to those with horrible dental structure to be able to procreate and create more offspring with horrible dental structure, damning them to the reliance on medicine to "cure" their woes. That seems to be the trend supported by modern medicine.

Agricultural Productivity: You said "For most of human history, most humans spent almost all of their time acquiring food and shelter." I strongly disagree with this, and I do think that it's a belief that pervades our society and provides a lot of support (wrongly) for our current means of living.

Certainly to acquire the vast amount of things that we have (computers, houses, cars, etc.), one must have agriculture in order to produce massive amounts of food so that others can produce these massive amounts of goods that we want. One needs to remember that we have increased our wants many, many times past the wants of the hunter-gatherer society, which lives on subsistance and expects no more than shelter, food, water, and human companionship (not that they wouldn't want computers if they knew about them, but that they simply don't know about them). Raising the amount of wants definitely made us go the agricultural path in order to lessen the time involved in procuring foodstuffs so that we could produce material goods, but that doesn't mean that we were struggling to meet our needs, which were much more basic, via hunter-gatherer behavior in any way. I think that people often think "I couldn't live like this as a hunter-gatherer, therefore they must've been struggling to survive". True, you couldn't live as you are now living, but that doesn't mean that they used to have to struggle to live as they lived.

The hunt for food in a wild area (take the Cheyenne Native Americans, for example) was often so successful (since they followed a Buffalo Herd, they knew where the food was, and they were very skilled in getting it) that most of their time did not need to be spent gathering food (one buffalo fed quite a few people for quite some time, for instance). Hunter-gatherers live amongst plenty in an enivronment rich with different kinds of food - both flora and fauna alike. It was even easier to have leisure time because they met their required ends and went no further, amassing no unnecessary surplus. Today, a farmer must work the field to harvest as much product as possible to make as much money as possible, regardless of his own needs, as the value of his product is relative to the needs of the entire economical system. A hunter-gatherer member would only need to hunt/gather enough with his/her party to sustain their selves. This leads to much leisure time.

Arts: I agree with you somewhat about the arts. Certainly distribution is much easier, but as for production, I'm not convinced. I think that amazing things can be produced with natural media despite the glory that technology does bring to the artistic side of man. I have to say, though, I'm not convinced that art needs technology and machinery to advance - I think we could do just fine without it.

So there ya go. I'm sorry if the tone was overly negative, but know I'm not sitting over here thinking "what a moron", as I could just as easily be shown to be wrong. I'm just sayin' - this is how it looks to me.

Thanks for the response, though - adding talking points only strengthens the discussion.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response, Mystic.

I think some of our differences could be solved by empiricism and some are philosophical. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to devote to properly addressing the remaining empirical and philosophical questions. I don’t usually spend time on ‘blog posts, but your comments were so sincere and heartfelt that I felt obligated to expand on my first post (which was a rarity itself).

I’d like to leave things on a positive note by clarifying a couple of points from my previous post and noting where I agree with your latest post. Some of the “great killer diseases” I was referring to are technically not diseases. I was thinking of infection and contagious diseases, certainly. But I was also thinking of deaths from childhood diseases, deaths from pregnancy and childbirth, and deaths from traumatic injuries. You are certainly correct that lower population density would also reduce many of these diseases, but I think there are also benefits from living in villages, towns, and cities.

I think we have a philosophical difference on the value of treating people who suffer from diseases and conditions that can’t be cured and may be passed along to future generations.

Regarding agricultural productivity, I think the data from the last couple hundred years shows that a smaller percentage of the population is engaged in food production and that families are spending a smaller portion of their income on food. I can’t speak to earlier time periods.

I strongly agree with your observation that desires steadily ratchet up, and that’s a big part of the problem with both society and human nature. I would add that the competitive nature to display status is a serious problem. Sadly, I think this is a human trait that’s not related to technology.

Finally, I agree that great art can be produced with little or no technology. Technology is certainly not a prerequisite for art, but I think we agree that some art has benefited from it.

This has been a great conversation, Mystic, but I’m going to leave it to others to pick up from here. Perhaps we’ll have a dialogue on another topic sometime down the road.

Best wishes,

6:47 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

=) Fair enough, Richard.

Over the last couple of hundred years, you're right about the agriculture. However, that's comparing technology now to technology then, not agriculture now to hunter-gatherer then. I agree that technology has improved, and so less time needs to be spent making food agriculturally, but my point about hunter-gatherers stands, I think.

I do think that the ratcheting of desire is related to technology, because you can't want that which you know nothing of. As I was saying about the tribesmen that expect only food, water, shelter, etc. - it's not that they would necessarily scoff at computers, but that they don't know about them to desire them. I think that's a good thing - it's like not doing heroin prevents you from knowing what it feels like, and, in turn, you don't desire it. You would if you knew what it felt like, and it would cast a shadow over the rest of your life, just like technology.

I'm glad you were here to respond, though. Good talking to you - and I'm glad you TiVo'd Planet Earth. It's amazing.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Although I'm more sympathetic with the mystic than one might think, I've got to agree with Richard on this.

Life before electricity and antibiotics was fairly damned hard so far as I can tell.

Still, we're a bunch of spoiled, wasteful wankers...so much so that the Mystic might end up being right in the end. That is, it may be the case that humans are so naturally selfish and acquisitive that, once technology gets to this point, we just use everything up and leave the planet a smog-shrouded cinder.

And, as always:
Maybe *everybody*'s like that and *that*'s why SETI hasn't found any LGMs yet.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

im from mexicoand im a 13 year old girl and im very interested in these topic. I had to do a hw about hunter gatherer societies now living and i ended up here.I think the mystic was wright in all the things he said about "natural selection" because we´ve lost it, and now we are overpopulating the world with all this help, like medicine ad things that make you live suffering beggin for more but not dead.
I think i may be a "misantropic"(misantropa in spanish so im not very shure of how to translate it)because i hate what humans have become. if we had just stayed like nomadic people it would be alright, but now we end withs species almost every day. We´ve hurt the WHOLE PLANET in so many aspects and helped in so little. We are no longer important in the food chain or to the enviroment because we´ve destroyed it. Humans now think th world belongs to them, when they´ve forgotten they belong to the world. He have to remember that we are sharing the planet with all living and non-living beigns.

May be this comment had almost nothing to do with the topic, but im just saying how i feel about the horrible industrial human we´ve becomed.

thank you for reding the post of a mexican girl and sorry if you couldnt understand me well


9:30 PM  

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