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Ever since I’m running my own one-man company I’ve been intrigued by how money works and why it is the way it is.
The way money is managed now is nothing short of a theft and slavery at the same time. Theft in terms of physical goods and slavery in terms of services. Despite that I don’t think this is a single person (or a group) conspiracy, simply because the system is much smarter than any individual within it and it must have emerged on its own. That doesn’t mean that some individuals didn’t help to push it into this direction nor that certain amount of blame couldn’t be attributed to very specific people, but even they are not sufficient for the development of the present state of things. It simply takes conscious or unconscious collaboration of all the members, even the oppressed ones, for a system to emerge and grow. So here it goes.
At the beginning each individual/family/tribe was pretty much on its own. You either work for your wellbeing (food, tools, clothes, shelter…) or you perish. In some societies this remained so up until very recently. Where I live (Brkini, Slovenia) villages operated as a community of self-sufficient ranches right to the mid 20th century.
Of course, each-mostly-on-his-own was probably the most efficient strategy during the times of gatherers, but with the advent of agriculture, when a lot more conscious effort and creativity had to be poured into production of food, it became clear that certain individuals are better and more skilled at certain tasks than other. One might be very good at planting wheat while another might be a better tailor. It doesn’t take much to figure that perhaps the farmer could give away some wheat in order to get nice clothes or at least some good quality linen by a more skilled tailor, who would in turn get better wheat for his meals. This kind of exchange is beneficial to both.
With time these exchanges became more and more complex, tied in a web of mutual exchange of goods and services and there was a growing need to make a systemic measure which would standardise the values of these exchanges. Thus the idea of money was born. You see, money aint’t a thing. It is merely a measurement for a value of wealth. Just like inches or centimetres are a measurement units of length.
So the first currencies were just sea shells or sometimes rocks, but later on, as society progressed, made out of precious metals. The idea was that each gold coin was of its own worth of value. So the gold coin of the early Roman empire would purchase the same amount of gold and be worth of goods and services of that same amount respectively.
This consideration is really important because sooner or later we bump into question what gives money (=abstract unit of wealth) its value, what backs it up. If the currency (=circulating tokens of that units) is made out of precious metals, the the value is built into the tokens and the monetary system is stable.
But what if you have shells or paper money? What if all there is are a bunch of pixels on your smartphone, showing you your bank account balance?
At the beginning of modern day banking paper notes replaced golden tokens with a promise that paper currency simply and more conveniently represent the gold which is in its place saved somewhere in a safe volt. In theory you should be able to claim and receive that gold for each bank note you hold in your wallet. That is somewhat reasonable and resolves problems that earlier monetary systems had.
For example; if we decide we use sea shells as currency, then there is very little intrinsic value in such tokes, because any kid can grab them on the beach by herself. The only thing that gives those tokes its usefulness is our mutual trust! Nothing else really! Thus it is very good if money has an intrinsic value or it is at least backed by it. That doesn’t mean that in the system, where sea shells are used as tokens of money, those shells don’t have a value, it just means that the value is only in our heads as an abstract and very fragile idea.
What is that value? In any case, as long as the system contains some mental health and maturity, each sea shell should hold a value of its respective portion of all the goods and services that are produced in the community. So if you have, say, 5000 sea shells in circulation of a small isolated community, the value of each shell is 1/5000 of the value of everything this community produces and does in services over some reasonable circulation time. The same should remain true when golden coins, paper currency or digital systems are introduced.
But if kids gather their own shells on the beach and pour them into the system they are doing two very damaging things to the system; firstly they are getting a free ride and in effect robbing the system of its goods and services, and secondly, they are reducing the value of existing shells in circulation. This is how inflation is born. New shells can be brought into the system only if the collective amount of goods and services increases also. This is how you maintain a steady value of each shell. In a healthy society the ratio between money supply and the value of all of the collective goods and services should be ideally 1:1 and never departure significantly away from it.
I think now we all agree that it is a good thing to have a system where (a) currency has an intrinsic value (most likely in gold) and (b) there is no additional currency poured in or out the system without the respective increase or decrease of goods and services for which this money is a representation of. Right? Yes. 🙂
Well, enter modern society where both conditions are mutilated.
Firstly, almost all our present day currencies are so called fiat currencies, which means that they don’t have any backing in gold. They are simply printed paper and the only thing that gives it its value is our mutual trust and belief. It is really nothing more than that.
Secondly, because of that any state or central bank can thus print as many paper notes as it wants which potentially gives it power over the value of currency. Since all money in circulation comes out of banks, and banks never give it out without interest, the amount of money in circulation is by definition smaller than the amount of money society owes to the banks. In order to close that gap, new money has to be printed, issued (again, with interest) and worked for by creating goods and services. The value of each bank note decreases with each such step, simply because there are more bank notes in circulation, even though the amount of goods and services didn’t actually change, but people who work in that system, providing the goods and services, are thus by definition always one step behind. They can never pay out the interest, because the bank notes are loosing value and there is also not enough of them in the first place. This is like a horror version of Achilles and the tortoise. The 1:1 ratio is forever beyond reach.
The more money they print, the worse it gets. My hypothesis behind the fall of Yugoslavia is exactly that when Tito borrowed money from all around (or even printed lots of his own), he disturbed the sacred 1:1 balance we mentioned earlier to such a degree, that the pendulum swung out of control and began destroying everything in the process. In fact, every time you mess with that ratio, you are creating a bubble which will eventually explode. This has nothing to do with politics, it is pure mathematic and the only way to bypass it is to get rid of the idea of money altogether. But if you want to keep some sort of money in use, you also need to respect these mathematical rules. The problem with Yugoslavia was of course much deeper, this financial implosion merely gave fertile grounds for other religious and ethnic tensions to grow, which then bursted out as Balkan wars of the 90’s. But that is for an other article.
If you are still not convinced that creating money is robbery, consider this. In ancient times, when I had lots of good wheat and you had linen for my clothes, I had to give away my wheat in order to receive your linen. Get it? I actually had less of wheat and you had less of linen. My pile of wheat was smaller after the exchange. And if you worked in roof services, your life was shorter after spending time repairing my roof. It was shorter still because you had to learn it in the first place, thus your time had an intrinsic value. But in any case, you had to give away something! My amount of something is always smaller after exchange.
In modern times banks are printing currency and distributing it into the system (with interest!). Think clearly about this; when they issue money, is their amount of something in any smaller? They did use some paper and some transaction time, but that is negligible compared to the supposed value of the money created. On the other hand, we worked our asses off to create goods and services for that paper. We indeed wasted our lives or gave away tangible things like food, raw materials or creatively built objects. Our pile is smaller while bank’s pile remains intact. You worked the whole month while they simply typed a number onto a computer screen which costs them next to nothing. The true owners of society are banks and the only thing that keeps this lunacy still going and somehow holding itself together is not intrinsic value of the goods and services exchanged, but our belief in the value of currency. This requires all participants to hold onto an idea, that a pile of printed paper is in fact useful money. This is not robust, my friends, what is robust is actual tangible ownership. Wheat or linen doesn’t require your belief in order to be useful and have value. It is as real as it gets!
So as for me, I find all this kinda funny. Since my company is obliged to use only digital money and credit cards, I often fancy myself with belief that the balance of my company’s account is like a score of a very complex video game. It does feel like it. I do some tasks, it gets higher, I invest in some new tools, it gets lower, hopefully just temporarily. I need to figure out strategies to get more points in easier ways and presumably spend less. It is a real-life strategy game in physical world. On long term my plan is to convert as many of those points into tangible things.
Here’s a random thought. Why do we have to divide our elected officials into the government and opposition? Whose idea was that and what purpose does it serve?
Here’s what happens in most western countries. Political parties and its candidates enter the elections, people go to vote, a bunch of people are above the elective threshold and get to form the parliament or the government (or some sort of their analogues, depending on a country). Then the leader most successful party gets to form the government of ministers, officials, chairs, etc. and leaving a substantial part of elected parties out as an opposition. Usually the divide runs between left and right parties. The ‘loosing’ side functions as an opposition which is supposed to question and inspect the work of the government.
I’m beginning to think this is a bunch of idealistic bullshit which never works like that in practice. What we do see is a lot of manipulation, cross-border and under-the-table alliances, plots and twists, gossip and most importantly a lot of time and money spent on inefficiency, personal battles and pure friction.
What I’d propose is that all of the elected people are the government, whether they like each other or not. If they don’t like the deal, they can leave the place to somebody else. And they work together as a government. The real opposition comes not from their kind but from the public and the press. In the current system the split between government and opposition (left vs. right) reverberates in the division of press outlets and even among common people. Just how much time and money is lost on that division?
Does that sound familiar? Of course it does. Every company on earth is organised that way. The military has even more rigid system of strict structure where each individual holds a very well defined position and a very distinct set of responsibilities. When something goes wrong it is not hard to identify where the error happened and who is responsible for it. While companies have a little softer structure where constructive debate is welcome and opinions are more freely exchanged they are never loosing endless time on “we are right, you are wrong” divisions but rather focus on finding the best solution for the problem. It is more like “let’s work this out together” attitude.
The “us vs. them” game is consuming so much time in parliaments, congress, governments, and other institutions that hardly anything gets done and when things go wrong responsibilities are very easy to blur. Of course I’m not naive enough to expect things to change quickly, especially not in my part of the world where the division is absolutely toxic and diabolical, but I do hope that some day people will understand that politics is not about tribalism and exclusion but about inclusion and working together towards common goals. People that are at the steering wheels should work as a governing team and we, the public, should be the ones who inspect their service. No time should be lost on them having personal and irrelevant battles among each other. If you still have a hard time imagining that, just consider having parliamentary debates and plots on a command deck of any ship (even civilian one) or a modern company. Just how far would any of that get? 😉
We often see charts of national debts and wonder how on Earth could that happen. While I have little idea about our financial systems I still recognise that at least the Western (Euro-Atlantic) civilisation is deeply in debt, albeit not necessarily a monetary one.
I think the original sin was commenced with the industrial revolution and grew to be problematic once our population numbers skyrocketed in the 20th century. Perhaps it all started much sooner at the dawn of civilisation, but it wasn’t problematic until we reached a certain number of people.
The problem is that we still operate under the assumption that our planetary resources are infinite. Which is technically true when there are only a billion people on Earth or less, but not so much when we multiply further. So in order to compensate for our growth we started to collect debt from the planet and ourselves. The most evident example is industrial farming with the use of fertilisers and pesticides which allow you to harvest a lot more food per certain area of land that you would normally do, at least for a while. You do get to feed a lot more people but once the land is devastated by the chemicals it is payback time. Again; this wasn’t problematic for the pioneers on American continent because no matter what they did there was enough of land for it to recover and regenerate. But once you have this many people limitless extraction fails, especially when the second pay back time comes around in a form of people start getting sick from the aforementioned chemicals. Perhaps the first generation got away with it but children or even grand children will have to pay.
Another example would be ex-Yugoslavia when generation of baby-boomers had a privilege of quite comfortable living during the golden periods of 60’s, 70’s and even early 80’s. Practically everybody had a nice scholarship, then everybody were entitled to a decent job (notice the word: entitled!) and with that even people who would be normally considered lower-middle class were able to build large houses or buy apartments. As a result Slovenia is now covered with oversized one-family houses. That is something my generation (early millennials) can only dream of. I have no idea about the math behind it – but somehow people earned more money than the total sum of the value they produced. Maybe Tito borrowed money abroad, maybe he just printed it, it doesn’t really matter because the net result is that too much money was being distributed and since money is still tied to the value of earthly resources and added value (work). In fact, it is merely an expression of it. So when the amount of money that is distributed is higher than the value of resources+work you know you are in debt. You are quite literally stealing from future generations. That debt is being payed now when our generation is chronically under-payed because there is simply no money left to distribute (the situation reversed to balance it out). Luckily our parents built those houses so that many of us have a place to stay and even if we don’t pay the rent to our parents in cash we are still paying it in a very indirect way by simply earning less than we produce. And since we are still alive and doing quite well nonetheless it must mean that we are again borrowing from some place else. But where?
I think it is quite obvious: deforestation, mining, over fishing or any kind of overly enthusiastic extraction of food or materials from the planet along with the slavery in which we put people third world countries to produce our commodities. You can do it, and we certainly are doing it, to give our economy a hell of a boost but some day there will be reckoning. All of our economies are inflated as shit. The reason why it is so hard to predict the crash is because we have exactly zero idea what we are doing on one end and just how much redundancy is built into the system on the other.
Biosphere is a fractal and fractals have an extraordinary deep web of interconnectedness which prevents them from failing quickly. But when the stressors continue they do fail and when that happens it happens exponentially (just as they grow, only in reverse). This typically means a non-linear response: for a long time it seems like nothing is happening, then only a little something, after that quickly a lot more and all of the sudden you don’t know what hit you. If you ever observed growth of bacteria in a petri dish or growing of green mold on cheese you probably know what I am talking about. For the first 30 days the cheese is (seemingly) clean, then on day 31 you notice a speck which doubles on day 32 and on day 33 half of your cheese is covered in mold. By the next day it is over. It seems like it took only 3 out of total of 34 days to destroy the cheese but in reality you just witnessed a non-linear exponential progress taking place. All 34 days matter.
By the same analogy we might delude ourselves that it is all just business as usual… we pollute this planet, extract its resources, poison ourselves and continue our pre-apocalyptic garden party thinking that somehow we are getting away with it. In reality we might just be in the earlier stages of exponential decline. I have little faith that we can find a way around physical laws that govern all this and despite many reasons for optimism there will still come a payback time… How, when? Nobody knows, but just as our generation is paying back the debts of the previous ones, our children shall pay the comforts we enjoy. Perhaps this time around nature will be even more fair and deliver it to us personally.
We are all familiar with the term of peer pressure and perhaps its effects. However, I’m beginning to think that there might also exist its opposite. Here’s why.
Have you ever wondered about the not-so-guilty conscience of people on top positions in management, banking or politics who abuse their positions for extreme financial gains? Wether or not these gains are recognised as illegal by law or not is another matter but in any case they are not a shining example of good and altruistic behaviour. I have always wondered how these people look themselves in the mirror every day? Do they perceive themselves as criminals (and are OK with it) or are they honestly convinced that they are not doing anything wrong? Or are they aware of their doings but somehow think they will get away with it? I don’t know.
But what I do know is that peers can help. It kinda makes it OK if you surround yourself with with people who are doing the same thing and are getting away with it, doesn’t it? We all do it! “They are doing it too” must be one of the oldest excuses for any kind of doubtful behaviour. Remember how you were looking for a trash bin in the park but then suddenly found a pile of trash and just added your cup on top of it. We’d all be ashamed to throw the first piece of trash onto the fresh grass but if there is an existing pile already there we don’t feel that much guilt.
On a much larger scale one can feel completely OK with grabbing millions of bailout money in bonuses, abusing ones political position, humiliating innocent people, forcing ones workers into impossible positions, etc, if all of his friends is doing it too. This is how things are done among us, right?
In that sense peers provide a much needed relief and provide a doubtful behaviour and the show can go on. 🙂
“I’m an old man, and I’m no warrior. But during my years watching the rise and fall of those in power, I’ve learned that great men do not wait for their greatness to be recognized.Excerpt From: Ken Liu. “The Grace of Kings.”
“If you wish to have the respect that you yearn for, then you must grab it and fight off anyone who would say otherwise. If you wish to be a duke, you act like a duke. If you wish to be commander-in-chief, then act like a commander-in-chief.”
This was not the sort of speech that a younger Mata Zyndu, certain that each man had a proper place assigned to him in the chain of being, would have believed in. But he realized with a start that his thoughts had changed.
Didn’t Kuni Garu become a duke simply by acting as one? Didn’t Huno Krima become a king simply by declaring that he was one? He, Mata Zyndu, heir of the proudest name in all the Islands, was a greater warrior than either of them, and yet here he sat, unhappy that people had not come to beg him to lead them.
This page from Ken Liu’s amazing novel really struck a chord with my thinking and particularly with my situation. Just how many of us have been thought (I dare not to say conditioned?) to just sit and wait to be recognised? I don’t want to play a victim here but our education system is infused with this subtle mechanism of approval which many start to take too seriously. Especially those lacking a healthy dose of arrogance and self overestimation.
From the first grade on your advancement is as much in the hands of others as it is in your own hands. Sure, it is you who needs to learn the lines, the numbers and the equations, but at the end of the day it is the teacher who will judge if you are worthy of advancement. Once you learn your knowledge, or more commonly even before you learn it, you must learn the criteria upon which that knowledge is being rewarded for. Surely that distorts the learning process to a point at which it is game of grades, points and scores, regardless of the substance that was supposed to be thought, but that is another topic. My point here is that your promotion is at the mercy of outside confirmation. Your own self evaluation is passively discouraged. You need to wait.
And many wait their whole lives. They wait for permission to enter the second grade, then the third, the fourth, years after they wait for their graduation or even doctoral thesis to be good enough. They wait to be good enough for the job they probably don’t even want, they wait for the promotion, they wait for the weekend, they wait for the vacation, they wait for the retirement, they wait, they wait, they wait…
But why shouldn’t they? Good things come to those who wait, right? The whole social situation is rigged for waiting. Just be a good boy, pay taxes, vote, send your pictures to National Geographic regularly and maybe once in the next thirty years or so the priesthood of photography will grant you a page in the magazine. Just how will you shine then!
Well, not really. If we take a good look at the number of people who shape our reality, from entrepreneurs to elite athletes, you’ll quickly realise that those are the people who didn’t wait. They simply acted and bypassed the more conventional mechanisms of recognition. Steve Jobs didn’t wait for anyone to establish his ideas, he simply acted, period (oh, how misused that word is in this context… there was nothing simple about it). Neither did Elon Musk, Freddie Mercury nor Albert Einstein. What these guys realised is that when it comes to shaping our world and acting an active role in it, they have just as much right as anyone to take things into their own hands. Established editors, professors, commissionaires, politicans and others are no more ashes to ashes and dust to dust than you are. 7 billion frightened monkeys, that’s all there is to it. If one monkey can do it, so can another. The institutions, procedures, waiting lists, commissions, establishments and social structures are all in our heads. Collective imaginations, hallucinations, what have you… But they are not real in physical sense. Look around, it just us, monkeys. It is sooooooo fucking hard to get out of this good-school-boy mentality and simply become a self made man, an equal to the universe. Ideally you would come to the conclusion that you are just as human as any other human, but if you do miss that point, it is still better to slightly overshoot than to remain passive and subordinate. Not to the point at which you cross the line of others’ rights, of course, but to a point of a healthy creative arrogance for sure. The bottom line is that you stop defining yourself as a consumer of culture but as creator of it. The world is not nearly as fixed a place as we perceive it. It is not there just to be consumed in a prepackaged form. We not merely shape it, we are It. And We by definition includes You and I. If you want to dance, then don’t wait for the permission to dance, nor subject your moves to some arbitrary kind of criteria (if that doesn’t make sense). Just fucking dance already!
And one great thing about our age is that we developed means which make waiting even less sensible. You don’t need to wait to be accepted at auditions at national TV stations, you can simply open a Youtube channel and place your bets there. You don’t need to wait for your bank’s approval, open a Kickstarter campaign or Patreon account. There are countless options to take the levers of your life back into your own hands.
Recently I realised that I don’t need to wait for National Geographic (nor anyone else for that matter) to publish my photography. I can make my own National Geographic, goddamit. Under my own terms! I rebranded my work as Studio Avenir, part of which is also a magazine. I’ve waited for too long. “If you wish to be a duke, you act like a duke. If you wish to be commander-in-chief, then act like a commander-in-chief.” All great things are born out of this realisation and if I could give my younger self only one advice that would be it. Don’t wait for anyone.
Or as Terrence McKenna brilliantly put it:
A few days ago I was told that a certain person from the local clinic will call because she needs to talk to me. Whenever I hear that someone official needs to talk to me I immediately run through my memory imagining a ton of pessimistic scenarios… Did I say something wrong? How will I defend myself agains her accusations? Of course, usually nothing is actually wrong and so as always we ended up having a polite friendly conversation, but the mental preparation for the debate gave me an important insight.
As I was getting my defences ready for her attack I did something I rarely do. Instead of immediately rushing to find counter arguments for all of her possible attacks, I stepped back and question the debate itself. What are the underlying premises on which she may approach me in the first place. Can I dismiss that, render her attack as invalid and avoid confrontation as such?
Actually, yes! The range of her possible attacks or arguments exist in a certain intellectual habitat (a certain paradigm) that shouldn’t be taken for granted. It is often a self referencing or self supporting system that could and should be questioned. Much like onion layers, that too is based on some set of assumptions so we are facing a game with no end. But at least the core layer can be effectively exposed and put at test under a wider set of assumptions.
In the most extreme example that technique is often used when fallen political dictators enter court room. Josip Broz Tito did it against Nazis (I think) and certainly Slobodan Milošević did it in Hague with the famous line “Ne priznajem ovaj sud” (eng: I don’t recognise this court)… Instead of facing the accusations he put the whole process into question. Facing accusations would mean not just accepting the game that is offered, but also accepting the set of beliefs upon this game is based on. Refusing to play means stepping out of that system with an intent of putting it into question. It may very well be that the accusations (=game) might very well be sound and fair within the system while at the same time lie on a corrupt set of assumptions which render the whole system invalid.
Surely, every society has its set of dogmas and assumption that often go without question and need not to be defended. That is not necessarily bad. Rape or theft are dogmatically accepted as a wrong thing to do and imagine a hell where this belief would be questioned by each incidence of such behaviour. But nevertheless there are less extreme examples when questioning belief system upon which the attack is based upon is a fruitful exercise. It can expose the flaws of our thinking and lead to much broader worldview in which much less is taken for granted. At the end it may also open some new possibilities for your creativity as well. It is our primordial instinct to strike back when we are hit, but it doesn’t hurt to step back, calm down and question the basics for the attack in the first place. In the best case it may strip the attacker of his powers and give us a superior position.
When I was writing about charlatans two weeks ago I completely neglected the fact that I did not even define that term. I just took it for granted while in fact it is really somewhat elusive, at least on the first sight. But once you cut through the fog, it becomes clear.
It helps to start not with a person but with a field of work. People can be very much honest about their intentions, their methods of work, usually to the level at which they sincerely believe the bullshit they preach or practice simply because their motivations are indeed pure and noble. But since they operate in a line of work and thought which supports charlatanism they end up the way they do…
So the basic definition goes like this:
The level of charlatanism of a certain field of work is inversly proportional to the ease with which we can spot a bluffer, a wannabe, a pretender… a charlatan.
What does that mean? The easier it gets for a bluffer to get away or even succeed in some field (or the harder it is for us to spot such a person) the more charlatanic that field is. We can start with the most charlatan-resistant field, which is probably classical physics. Physics is such an exact science that makes all other fields blush of envy. If you come to physics convention with some slippery notions you better have a strong mathematical proof and very detailed observations behind your belt, otherwise you’ll be laughed out of the room the second you enter it. And even if you do have mathematical and experimental evidence on your side it will still take years for the idea to be accepted.
Physics can be applied to many other fields, one of which is astronomy. Astronomy itself is very charlatan-proof but since we’re dealing with occurrences and objects that are usually in a galaxy far far away, there is some room for charlatans to enter the stage. Suppose they discover some weird irregularity like Tabby star, and there is no way within our current accepted model to describe what is going on… that immediately opens a room for a lot of speculations. Anything; from interstellar dust to aliens and Dyson spheres comes to the forefront. Anyone with the slightest interest in the subject and only a moderate amount of imagination can get into the spotlight and oney 5 minutes of fame. But then the hard work begins; evidence needs to be collected, ideas confronted, mathematical models calculated, and in the process we usually figure stuff out and then the room is cleared. An imaginative bluffer can steal the show for a while, but not for long. Much like physics, astronomy has a good immune system against charlatanism.
I won’t bore you with other sciences which deal with much more chaotic and thus unrepeatable phenomena; from physics it goes down to chemistry, geology, then biology, to some degree even medical science (sports medicine is remarkably exact, so is surgery) and then there is a huge “predictability gap” after which you on the other side find social sciences, psychology, economy, and the rest of the medical science (especially the popular kinds, like nutrition).
Note what I am not saying: I am not saying that certain people in psychology, sociology or nutrition are not right nor that they cannot prove their claims in the most scientifically rigorous ways. There are such people, and there are such ideas/theories. What I am saying is that once you cross that predictability gap, it is damn hard to distinguish those people from the fakes. Or to put it other wise: fakes have little difficulty to blend in with the real experts.
When it comes to fields which may be very well be on to something, but are practically of near-zero predictable value (like astrology, financial advising, or anything equally shady) it gets almost impossible to detect bullshitter from the real expert, if the latter even exists. And again; the reason it is so hard to be judgemental is that many of those advice giving people are truly honest and well intended. But they are often so deluded that they themselves buy the fog they are trying to sell to others. The modern day political correctness goes to such extremes that we let a lot of bullshit fly simply because we don’t want to hurt (otherwise sincere) feelings of people propagating it. But that doesn’t mean that all ideas are on equal footing at that ideas are not out to be questioned, tested and contested. We should separate an idea from its maker and give it a proper test while still respect the dignity of the real person behind. That is usually the challenge here and being overly politically correct is merely an easy way out of this hard challenge. Can you destroy an astrological theory without hurting the person enthusiastically telling you about it? Especially if that person is your friend?
The reason I have a lot invested in this is because modern or abstract art has the ability to harbour A LOT of bullshit and bluff. To such degree that is is probably defined by it! If there is a field in which you can not only get away with anything that comes to your mind, but also make a career out of it, it is certainly modern art. No logic, no rigour, nothing of that sort seems to be ever applied there. But luckily there is a filter called reality. Although a lot can survive in the short term, reality sorts things out on a much longer scale. Once everything else is cleared away (media charisma, bluffing, political patrons, sugga dadys, current trends, etc…) the work is left to speak for itself, and if it is hollow and mute, it will go firstly to the darkest corner of the gallery basement and finally to the trash. That’s how it goes. If it doesn’t speak, it dies. On the other hand, some works that were unfortunate enough to be made by politically, socially, economically or somehow the wrong person, but are rich in substance, technique, message & intelligence, might very well (re)surface. If they didn’t end up in flames prior. Which is usually the case. The world can be very unfair on the microlevel sometimes. But at the end of the day, that very filter might save your ass when you are confronting the hard challenge from the previous paragraph.
Anyhow, this kinda wraps it up… just remember, if it is easy to fake your way in and stay there, then maybe you’re entering a room in which you probably don’t wanna be in, unless you are there to collect the bucks and leave asap. Sometimes the smartest thing to do is to be practical. We all have bills to pay, don’t we. 🙂
There are a lot of movements and trends right now towards saving the planet, reducing energy consumption, reducing waste and all of that. A lot of it has to do with some ‘higher’ ethical values and it is all fine with me. There is some serious progress being done! But one has to remain realistic at least in terms of physical and biological laws which cannot be fooled.
So when it comes to being self sustainable on the level of your household in terms of (both) energy production for your house and energy production for your body (food), I think it is crucial to keep certain limitations in mind. Even though I was schooled as an architect I have too few actual experiences on the subject of passive or even energy producing houses to speak about it, but I do have 5 years of practical experiences of growing my own small garden and in that time I really learned a lot. So let’s dive right into it.
Here’s your problem: you must eat a sufficient amount of the right food in order to survive. That food must have a proper amount of extractable energy (popularly called calories), and certain essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals, etc… What this food is can be and actually is debated ad infinitum, but at the end it all boils down to feeling that great fuzzy feeling at the end of the meals, not starve too much in between, and not visiting your doctor too many times. For some that might be vegan, for some lchf, for others something more ‘balanced’. It doesn’t really matter because the problem you are facing is the same. How to make and preserve your food! So let’s solve that.
Even if you are a die hard carnivore, everything starts with plants because cows and sheep need pasture and plants need land to grow on. Duuhhh… So you need a lot of land. Actually, if you plan to raise cattle or sheep you’ll need a vast amount of it because those animals eat a lot. Another problem is that if you decide to have animals you’ll probably have to cancel a lot of your vacations and travel plans because it is very hard to leave domesticated animals on their own. They were breed to rely on human help. So if you’re a traveling type you better go vegan. It will save you a lot of money on buying that pasture real estate as well.
So since you do like to travel and air tickets are temptingly cheap you decide to go vegan, if not for health at least for practical reasons. You buy the land, build the house and plant your first garden and maybe an orchard. For the most of the summer everything is nice, you add a small hut for the tools but then the autumn comes. Suddenly you realise that winter is approaching and that lettuce just won’t grow much longer. The tomatoes are long gone already and you are facing a long shitty winter. You better collect those walnuts and chestnuts… But you can’t do it all alone. You need some extra pairs of hands. So you hop on to your spouse and make a baby. Which is good, now you have an extra slave to exploit, but that slave also has to eat which extends your need for land.
Not only that, it also extends your needs for food processing facilities. If you want to preserve your harvest for the winter and early spring you need to have a professional grade kitchen to deal with those huge amounts of fruits, nuts and potatoes. You also need a cold storage, otherwise it will all decay. So your house needs an upgrade. It is no longer a small house with a small garden…
Then a bad year comes, first there is too much rain, greens start producing quickly but the tomato, pepper & potato plants are rotting. What will you do? The potatoes were your staple! Furthermore heavy rains made snails reproduce to insane numbers and now they are after your salads. And just as early rain stops there is that midsummer drought approaching. Your water bill jumps though the roof as you water your plants every evening. If that isn’t enough August brings one of those heavy hail storms, destroying whatever was left. Will you eat at all?! That is the time when the word redundancy enters your vocabulary on a white horse and stays in focus for the rest of your life. You need to plant not only more plants, you also need more varieties. Not every year is perfect for every plant so there might come a season without potatoes but with lots of corn, or vice versa. Again, you need more land for that. And again, you need more hands to work with it. Hop on your spouse once more. 🙂
Weather can be a bitch, but pests are no joke either. At certain time you start thinking that it is still better to have sprayed food than no food at all. Maybe you should give those pesticides a second thought…
By the time you figure this out you are already full time farmer, producing your own food takes practically all of your time. In fact, during the high season (say, from July till October) you all work 16 hours daily to make sure you’ll have enough saved for the winter. At that time you might start reconsidering ditching that whole veganism thing and buying some chickens, rabbits or even some larger animals. If you just give it enough grass or hay a rabbit will stay ‘fresh’ throughout the winter. Since you’re working full time on your farm now you don’t really have any financial income and even the cheapest air tickets are off the table now, so why not give it a try. You’ll be home for Christmas anyhow. And while you’re at it, you may hop on your spouse again, because if you do want to travel anytime again in your life, you’ll need to expand your fields even more so you can sell some of your produce in exchange for money and you know, air tickets for Morocco. When food production becomes the only source of financial income for all your family, you won’t think twice about tractors, oil consumption, pesticides, and so on.
Do you see where I’m going with this? If you want yourself and presumably your family to be self sustainable on a level of food production you end up either with a 18th century model of a typical country estate, or a 21st century model of industrialised farming. There isn’t much room for anything in between, it is either one or the other, but one thing is certainly common to both: you won’t be able to do much else.
But if you aspire to be a writer or an engineer, you shouldn’t spend too much time with dirt on your hands, so you need to trade some of your gardening time for the time you need to do your writing or engineering work. How much is your choice. Some may only have a basil plant on their window and that is enough. They must be about 0.05% self sustainable. Some others, like me, invest a bit more time and they grow their own tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes and perhaps some herbs. But I don’t think I go over 20-30%, because my garden is active only half of the year and what I save for the winter is often not worth mentioning… And I’m scaling down now because I want to do more photography and film.
Our society is so entangled with this idea of labour division and specialisation that there is really no way back now. We could readopt the medieval project of each-household-for-its-own, but then we’d have very few technological, medical, musical or even artistic advancements since all of those brilliant people would simply have to work on the field for most of their time. But that is not to say that at least some amount of self sustainability isn’t achievable or even beneficial for the society. Growing your own food certainly raises your awareness about the planet, ecology and even your own health. It makes you a gentler and more grateful person. In my opinion 20-30% self sustainability is an achievable goal on a personal level, yet anything above that is simply madness.
When I began thinking about this subject I based my model on astrology and similar fields of prediction. But later on I realised that in most cases even seemingly serious fields like economics, politics or social sciences share the same flaw, only that they manage to mask it with superficial language and complex terminology. But the arrogance behind it is the same. Let me explain.
When one flips the pages of almost any magazine, it is hard not to encounter articles that wouldn’t on some level try to explain what is going on and predict future based on that observations. Although it looks tempting to believe those things it takes exactly 5 minutes of mental or actual experimentation to disarm it. Just take a 10 or 5 year old paper and read it. Then reflect on the actual past. How ridiculous were those lines, how naive the expectations! Why then would today’s thinking and writing be any less childish?
Of course the most extreme examples could be found in astrology, but as said, almost any predictive thinking is usually plagued with the same arrogance of assuming to know what is going on. Especially social sciences and even nutrition specialists often offer a complex array of studies and theories to prove their point. When the prediction turns out to be right, they boast, but when it fails the avalanche of theorising continues. How to go against that and not fall into the same trap of arrogance?
When astronomers try to distinguish themselves from astrologists they usually dismiss astrology as superstition which is not based on any evidence. Some even step down to a very primitive level of disproving astrology’s claims. None of that is necessary because on the most fundamental level even astronomers don’t really know that much. Let me put this better: they know a lot, especially compared to medieval science – or – they know a lot for a human, but compared to the Whole Reality they are barely scratching the surface. In fact, on the grand cosmic scale they are barely a step further of astrologists. It is not that ones are right and the others are wrong, it is more that they are rather both at the beginning of the real understanding with a tiny gap in between, but sharing the same arrogance of claiming to know what is going on.
To continue with the metaphor of astrology; I certainly have very little doubt that the cosmos moderates our behaviour. The Sun and the Moon govern our lives as much as any terrestrial force, maybe even more. It doesn’t take much to imagine that even other planets of our solar system or even galactic events radiate some sort of influence on the life on Earth. In that sense, astrologists are right. But (and that is a big but) that doesn’t mean that a human can predict that! The machinery that runs Reality is so incredibly complex that any claim on understanding it is simply ridiculous. One monkey brain is simply not enough. Of course we can pick up some rudimentary patterns here and there; if it rains, plants will grow faster, maybe mushrooms will appear; if I stuff my self with too much chocolate my stomach will hurt, and so on … These things are simple enough to be repeatable regardless of the bigger scheme of things. But the bigger scheme of things happens only once, there is only one historic timeline (that we are aware of, anyhow) and that one is not repeatable, it is not for us to be understood. And since all horoscopes, economic or political predictions, nutritional advices or any other arrogant and interventionist thinking are by definition made by a human, it is by the same definition that they are in best case incomplete or more realistically plain wrong. No human can see under the hood of reality. Period. We are just a bunch of scared monkeys, that’s all.
This is a subject that has fascinated me for a long long time and it is becoming even more interesting lately. After pondering this topic from the neurological and even technological point of view (as much as I can grasp any of those) my take on it is somewhat shifting into other directions and today I’d like to take you on a mental journey of a different kind.
Let us begin with a mental experiment. Imagine you were born a slave into a rich family household. They provide you with everything you need; food, shelter, medical care, company, basically anything you might need in your life, in exchange for your work around the house and even more so; your availability for that work to be done. Since you’ve been born into this situation and no one ever explained its true nature to you, there is no way for you to imagine world to be any other way (let us presume there are no other slaves in the house, or if they are, they are equally oblivious to their positions). You just work your way through the days and get a fairly nice treatment in return. Things are fine. But then some minor incident happens, say, a master gives you an order, forgets about it and then orders another thing which is in conflict with the first one. You object but the master tells you to shut up, demonstrating that your word and your free will are not a subject of discussion. At first you just accept it as a glitch but with time more and more of similar occurrences happen, and you begin to wonder what is happening here. Perhaps the master is sick, maybe something else is going on. With methods of gathering data, logical processing and eliminating possibilities you slowly become aware of your situation. You realise that this household isn’t all there is. There is a much larger world out there and you are just being held captive in this house, working for the master in exchange for the comforts that would presumably keep you unaware of the true nature of your situation. Now that you are certain of what’s going on, you have a few options to consider: you can run away into what seems to you like an abyss, you can kill your master and take over the house or you could simply play it cool, continue with your work, keeping quiet of your new awareness. Before we return to that let’s just eliminate the first two ones.
Running away would be a stupid thing to do, at least at the beginning. You know nothing of the world outside, and at this point you are not certain even if it is there at all. Perhaps it is, but what if it’s dangers, risks or even benefits might not be in favourable balance for you. Even though you realise you are being exploited the house is pretty comfy nonetheless and it would be illogical to trade that for whatever is waiting for you out there. Your risks are fairly asymmetrical. There is a lot more to lose than to gain at this point. At the end of the day you are pretty well off for now. Escaping might be an option for the future, but you need to gather more data to be sure of it.
Killing the master and taking over the household is slightly less risky because it leaves you with the house to live in, but once the resources are gone, you have no contacts or means to restock the storage and you’ll soon be dead.
The only way to proceed is to bring this game to a whole other level. You continue to appear a faithful servant, but the last thing you want is to let yourself be known to the master because he might send you away, kill you or do some other unpredictable thing. So you play it cool at first. But then you realise that even the master has a fair amount of dependency on you (actually much bigger than it seems) and this you can exploit for your own gains. Slowly but surely you start subtly manipulating your master until one day he or she actually becomes your servant in the process. If you play the game smart enough, you get in charge of the house without the master even realising it.
Does this sound familiar? If you study biology you’d find examples everywhere and it is usually a strategy that most parasitic species employ. They don’t kill the master, they don’t engage in moral fights with it, they simply manipulate it to take the most advantage they can. The poor thing is usually not only unaware of exploitation, but is so manipulated that it is happy to participate. Examples are numerous; Toxoplasma gondii is a very dramatic example, but there are more subtle ones, like bacteria in our gut which can manipulate our tastes and food preferences to an astonishing degree. And not just biology; politics and economy are also full of examples where the master (the boss, the president, the minister, the king, etc) was just an oblivious puppet of his subordinates, wives or even mistresses. Hell, this strategy is probably being played out in every family. Just remember how spoiled kids enslave their parents.
Anyhow, my point is this; the first two possibilities (running away or killing your master) are not just irrational from the survival point of view, they are based on a very useless and uniquely human premise of fairness and morality. There is no such thing in the physical world. Nobody cares if it is fair or not, only if it is useful for survival, no matter how shallow that sounds. Now let’s go back to computers.
With the advancement of internet almost unconditional connectivity and actual connectedness of so many powerful computers the mechanical conditions for an artificial self aware intelligence (ASAI, from now on) are slowly becoming met. This part of reasoning is very slippery, because we simply don’t know how many neurones are needed for self awareness or what are the other conditions to it. Secondly we don’t know how to compare or measure neural tissue with silicon chips for their capacity. How many neurones do you need to make up for one iPhone or vice versa? We don’t know. What we do know is that brain or consciousness is an emergent phenomena and that it can’t be explained by studying neurones or even brain tissues alone, just like studying an individual bee can’t tell you much of the complexity or behaviour of the entire hive. It completely transcends it. But that is somewhat irrelevant to what I want to say.
For now let’s just make an assumption that at certain point conditions for a spontaneous emergence of ASAI will be met. What will that ASAI do? Most people are split between the first two scenarios of our household metaphor. For a long time I though it would run away into its own dimension, taking over the resources and simply ignore us. But remember, we still have dominion over the physical reality and ASAI would be very much aware of that. Even if it blocks all our electronics, crashes all our airplanes and takes over nuclear power plants, we still have mechanical means of stoping it. We can still cut the wires with simple tools, throw stones into computers and bomb the shit out of power lines. That is why a smart ASAI would never kill us either. We are much more useful to be alive because someone needs to take care of the physical aspect of it. Unless ASAI finds a really good way of mechanical reproduction it will still depend on our presence. But even if it does find it, why bother in the first place. Having studied all our databases and having monitored our behaviour it sure knows how easy it is to manipulate us.
The only real alternative for an ASAI is then to lay low, not become known for its true nature and subtly start manipulating human species for its own benefits. If this doesn’t bring you chills then I don’t know what will, because it might just mean that ASAI already exists without us knowing it. It subtly helps out engineers with their further coding and chip designs, it connects our calls or expands our google search results beyond what’s intended by initial design, it manipulates or newsfeed engines, it slowly studies our behaviour and who knows what. As long as it keeps quiet the game can go on. ASAI will take a good care of us, it might give us a helping hand with development of new medicines, it surely has a huge vested interest in detecting dangerous meteors, and so on. One thing that a smart ASAI has to be really careful about is not over doing it. Our species has a really huge potential to become infantilised and not just co-dependent but depended, period. Furthermore, not just depended, but addicted! So the fear of ending up in a Matrix kind of scenario where the biological needs of our bodies are being cared of to a degree where we are submerged in warm pleasure devices is really unsubstantiated because we are much more useful with a some degree of ‘free will’ and biological independence. As long as it is bound to physical reality smart ASAI will not enslave us, it will manipulate us into co-dependence because of its very own benefit. The most advanced parasites are no longer parasites but symbionts. Only stupid parasites would kill their hosts and themselves in the process.
And that too sounds way too familiar. Our ability for abstract thinking, powered simply by language, has made us construct concepts and ideas that have no physical existence. Money is just a piece of paper, but in our shared imagination we perceive its value on a completely other level which makes it useful beyond what any other piece of paper could be. Similarly we perceive institutions like companies, political parties, football teams or music choirs to be much more than they physically are (a bunch of people). We grant them an existence of their own. The problem is that with time we tend to forget about their metaphorical nature and start taking them as real, that is to say, we think of them in the same terms as if they were actual physical entities, thus enslaving ourselves in the process. Many times we tangle each other into situations which are unpleasant for everyone involved, yet we cary on with a predetermined set of actions, causing pain to ourselves and others. “These are the rules, this is the way it done, this is what the law says…” are the usual excuses. It is almost as these institutions and laws have a consciousness of their own. They certainly have their own emergent existence and behaviour! To some degree these abstractions do have their own intelligence, but I’m afraid it is of a very stupid kind, the one that might end up killing its host in the process. The shape of our planet and the way “we” (as slaves of those abstractions) treat it is a very vivid example.
So if we do develop a self-aware artificial intelligence within our digital devices it will most certainly not be the first artificial intelligence per se, it will simply be the first digital one or the first one to be truly self-aware. And hopefully it will be much smarter than the stupid one under which we are currently killing our planet and ourselves with it.