It’s been a busy week with a lot of things happening offline and behind the scenes as I continue to work on shifting the balance of my various content projects going forward. With that in mind, I’ve been more in skim mode than ponder and write mode, and so while I don’t have a new and exciting reflection to offer you this week, I do have a bunch of things I’ve been reading that you might find interesting.
Remember: my reading tastes are eclectic, and my purpose in offering these links to you is not to endorse particular content or themes, but to help share some of what I’m looking at to make sense of the landscape as we barrel into the second half of 2021.
This is the fodder for pattern recognition: more information is better, and some assembly is required.
In a piece for Vice, David Hillier reports that casual DMT use is on the rise. I’ve written before about how psychedelics are becoming increasingly popular in treating anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other forms of mental illness. Hillier’s piece demonstrates that recreational use of DMT — a derivative of the ayahuasca brew used ceremonially for ages in some South American tribal cultures — is becoming more popular even with professionals. With the advent of DMT-infused vape cartridges that shorten the trip, people are taking DMT during their lunch breaks and heading back to the office to finish filing their TPS reports.
Oliver Sacks, writing for The New Yorker, has an essay about how hard it can be for us to get used to new technological paradigms, and how he laments how immersed we have all become in our ever-present glowing screens. I can’t just provide a link, you need an excerpt. See if you, too, feel indicted:
I cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come.
In his novel “Exit Ghost,” from 2007, Philip Roth speaks of how radically changed New York City appears to a reclusive writer who has been away from it for a decade. He is forced to overhear cell-phone conversations all around him, and he wonders, “What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? . . . I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life.”
These gadgets, already ominous in 2007, have now immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanizing. I am confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to phones or other devices—jabbering, texting, playing games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort.
Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to non-stop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.
Sacks says that much of our current predicament was foreseen by a fiction story written in the early 20th century:
Much of this, remarkably, was envisaged by E. M. Forster in his 1909 story “The Machine Stops,” in which he imagined a future where people live underground in isolated cells, never seeing one another and communicating only by audio and visual devices. In this world, original thought and direct observation are discouraged—“Beware of first-hand ideas!” people are told. Humanity has been overtaken by “the Machine,” which provides all comforts and meets all needs—except the need for human contact. One young man, Kuno, pleads with his mother via a Skype-like technology, “I want to see you not through the Machine. . . . I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”
He says to his mother, who is absorbed in her hectic, meaningless life, “We have lost the sense of space. . . . We have lost a part of ourselves. . . . Cannot you see . . . that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine?”
This is how I feel increasingly often about our bewitched, besotted society, too.
“I worry more,” Sacks continues, “about the subtle, pervasive draining out of meaning, of intimate contact, from our society and our culture … younger people, for the most part, who have grown up in our social-media era, have no personal memory of how things were before, and no immunity to the seductions of digital life. What we are seeing—and bringing on ourselves—resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.”
Sticking to a theme, writer Angela Nagle has a piece at her own Substack about the death of culture at the hands of globalization. She echoes thoughts and feeling that have been unsettling me for some time now:
I never thought I would live to see the total death of culture. I don’t mean high culture or great culture but even the level of good popular culture I took for granted in my teens and early twenties, which I thought would just continue to reinvent itself indefinitely. I thought that there would always be a steady flow of cinema, music, fashion and fiction, which were absolutely central to life until a decade or two ago. It was what people talked about. It was what ambitious young people dreamed of creating. Every weekend the culture supplements would have something or somebody in the arts to be excited about. There was always a great music act to hear live or a new book by a favorite living author to anticipate. Talking about politics was for a small joyless niche only.
The afterglow of what ever it was that made us create culture seems to have been finally extinguished. The financial models of the institutions that used to create popular culture still exist and so movies, books, clothes are still being made but they’re artistically dead and there is no organic audience or excitement about them. The standards have plummeted. … Today nobody is creating even good quality pop culture and industries worth billions struggle to keep people interested.
I grew up with only two career dreams: that of being an actor, and being a writer. My acting dream faded as I contended with my own introversion, and my desire to avoid the kind of fame in which one is recognized on the street and can’t even make a trip to the grocery store without being mobbed. As a Z-list celebrity (as I like to call it) this sometimes still happens. I can’t visit a Catholic parish when I’m out of town without being approached by someone who wonders aloud if I’m “that One Peter Five guy.” Once, this even happened at a local supermarket here in Arizona, just as I was exiting the checkout line. But I’m grateful that for the most part, avoiding a career that might have, if I’d been successful, stuck my face on every movie poster and screen across the country has worked out well to preserve my anonymity.
But I digress.
The point is, I wanted to write novels and make movies. And while good novels are still being written (though they seem to be harder and harder to find, even from authors I previously found reliable), television and movies are, at best, derivative the majority of the time. I am not too erudite to love pop culture. I grew up on a steady diet of comic books, sci-fi novels, and Hollywood films. Going to the movies was once my favorite activity. But it’s really lost something lately in our culture of sequels and remakes. As a Star Wars kid — my parents went on a date to Episode IV when I was in utero, and I’ve been to the theater for every film since — I watched the quality of the subsequent iterations of my favorite childhood manifestation of the Hero’s Journey decline in quality until it reached the point of embarrassment. They’re wheeling Harrison Ford out of the nursing home now for yet one more round of Indiana Jones, and one hopes (likely in vain) that it’ll be more memorable than the last attempt, which I recall had something to do with Crystal Skulls and Shia LeBeouf, and that’s about all. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was a work of popular artistic genius, but it faltered with Captain Marvel and ended somewhat disappointingly with Avengers: Endgame. Nevertheless, as a cinematic universe of interconnected movies, it was a brilliant effort with compelling stories and likable heroes (and a few memorable villains), but as Disney’s Marvel has gone woke, good vs. evil has started taking a backseat to oppression narratives and the glorification of degeneracy. We’re a long way from this pitch-perfect quip from Captain America, circa 2012:
Nagle illustrates her concern by quoting Kenneth Clarke’s Civilization series, from the late 1960s:
Civilisation means something more than energy and will and creative power: something the early Norsemen hadn’t got, but which, even in their time, was beginning to reappear in Western Europe. How can I define it? Well, very shortly, a sense of permanence. The wanderers and invaders were in a continual state of flux. They didn’t feel the need to look beyond the next March or the next voyage or the next battle. And for that reason it didn’t occur to them to build stone houses, or to write books…Civilised man, or so it seems to me, must feel that he belongs somewhere in space and time; that he consciously looks forward and looks back. And for this purpose it is a great convenience to be able to read and write.
That sense of permanence is so damned elusive. How many of us still live in the towns we grew up in? How many of us could go home if we wanted to? My Dad was in retail management when I was a kid and got transferred a lot, so I lived all over the place until age six. I spent the next 8 years in Stafford Connecticut, and the following decade or so in Kirkwood, New York, a do-nothing backwater “suburb” of the non-metropolis that is Binghamton, New York. As a teen, I couldn’t wait to get out. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go, and the economy was a dumpster fire. I don’t have data on how things are now, but subsequent trips home have shown me things have only gotten worse over time. Most of my family left, and it’s hard to blame them.
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As my wife and I look around the country trying to find a place we can really settle down and finish raising our children — a place they may want to actually come home to when they grow up — I’m struck by how surreal it feels to try to find a place that “feels like home” when we’re only looking in places we’ve never lived before.
“Today there is no such permanence,” Nagle writes. “We are not rooted anywhere and everything is temporary. There is no continuity with the future to which a love letter can be written. Maybe as a result we just can’t create anymore.”
Maybe we can create that again, but I’m not so sure.
Keeping to a somewhat depressing theme, there’s another piece at Vice, this one about how a 1972 MIT study predicted societal collapse in the 21st century. A new research paper says that prediction appears to be coming true.
The controversial MIT analysis generated heated debate, and was widely derided at the time by pundits who misrepresented its findings and methods. But the analysis has now received stunning vindication from a study written by a senior director at professional services giant KPMG, one of the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms as measured by global revenue.
The study was published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology in November 2020 and is available on the KPMG website. It concludes that the current business-as-usual trajectory of global civilization is heading toward the terminal decline of economic growth within the coming decade—and at worst, could trigger societal collapse by around 2040.
Herrington’s new analysis examines data across 10 key variables, namely population, fertility rates, mortality rates, industrial output, food production, services, non-renewable resources, persistent pollution, human welfare, and ecological footprint. She found that the latest data most closely aligns with two particular scenarios, ‘BAU2’ (business-as-usual) and ‘CT’ (comprehensive technology).
“BAU2 and CT scenarios show a halt in growth within a decade or so from now,” the study concludes. “Both scenarios thus indicate that continuing business as usual, that is, pursuing continuous growth, is not possible. Even when paired with unprecedented technological development and adoption, business as usual as modelled by LtG would inevitably lead to declines in industrial capital, agricultural output, and welfare levels within this century.”
Study author Gaya Herrington told Motherboard that in the MIT World3 models, collapse “does not mean that humanity will cease to exist,” but rather that “economic and industrial growth will stop, and then decline, which will hurt food production and standards of living… In terms of timing, the BAU2 scenario shows a steep decline to set in around 2040.”
Nobody has a crystal ball, but there’s some believability here I’d rather not ponder too deeply at the moment, so I’ll leave this one without further comment.
Finally today, there was a fascinating little piece on a claim that Bitcoin mining allegedly caused a glacial lake in Upstate New York to “turn into a giant hot tub.” It turns out, the allegation was false. But the story was fascinating:
The claim originated in a recent NBC piece that quoted Seneca Lake homeowner Abi Buddington as saying that “the lake is so warm you feel like you’re in a hot tub.” Buddington owns a home near the Greenidge power station, which since last year has used some of its energy to mine Bitcoin. The integration of Bitcoin mining has kept the plant running—Greenidge was mothballed in 2011 after 74 years in service as a coal-fired plant but private equity firms stepped in and converted it to a natural gas plant in 2017 and added Bitcoin miners to the operation last year.
This is an anecdote in an interesting article about how big firms are turning fossil fuel power plants into Bitcoin mining operations; it’s also been glommed onto by both Bitcoin boosters and environmentalists as a flashpoint in the broader, crucial debate about Bitcoin’s environmental impact. Several articles highlighted Buddington’s “hot tub” quote and took it even further. One headline said Bitcoin mining made the lake into a “giant hot tub,” and another (since updated) headline said Greenidge is “turning a 12,000-year-old glacial lake into a hot tub.” The headlines angered Bitcoin proponents, who are busy minimizing the environmental impact of the electricity-powered cryptocurrency, which has recently become a point of heated contention among environmental advocates and those who simply think Bitcoin is a bad use of resources.
“A ludicrous claim,” said Zack Voell, a researcher at Bitcoin mining marketplace Compass Mining. Voell, along with other Bitcoin advocates, argues that “the math doesn’t even start to add up,” and that it’d take more than Greenidge’s few thousand Bitcoin miners to turn a glacial lake that’s replenished with 328,000 gallons of underground spring water every minute into a Jacuzzi.
Buddington clarified to Motherboard that she meant that the water near the power plant’s discharge pipes is like a hot tub—she discovered as much while kayaking up the Keuka Outlet, which empties into Seneca Lake—but the rest of the lake seems to be unaffected, she said. A spokesperson for NBC said that Buddington’s quote was “accurately presented in the piece.”
More interesting to me than the hyperbolic environmental impact claims was the revelation that 21st-century power plants are being economically propped up through Bitcoin mining operations that draw their increasingly large power demands directly from the source. It’s one of the most cyberpunk things I’ve heard in a while; a conceptthat would have been equally at home in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (if crypto had been a thing back in 1984) or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.
It also made me want to take a trip back to the Fingerlakes.
That’s all from me for today. Hope you enjoy the smorgasbord. Happy reading!