Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Distracting ourselves

My latest book, Shrinking the Technosphere, is currently being printed. And although I could, if I wanted to, write a new essay for today, I find this to be unnecessary, because there is a section in the book that specifically discusses what is happening today in the US: a federal distraction.

Not that there isn't any difference between the candidates: one of them is quite likely to end up in jail or, failing that, start World War III in a fit of rage; the other seems hell-bent to put the word "Т Р А М П" in large gilded letters atop a skyscraper in Moscow City but, failing that, would probably not start World War III in a fit of pique, to avoid damaging his considerable real estate holdings. One of them promises to continue coddling all the corrupt incompetents that have ensconced themselves in Washington and have been busy destroying countries around the world; the other promises to fire them all and replace them with the next crop of incompetents who will cause damage yet unknown. On the other hand, he seems likely to molest all the beauty queens he can get his hands on. But even if he molested every one of them, plus every drag queen from Provincetown to South Beach, plus the Queen Mother, that would still be a good trade-off for a lower chance of nuclear annihilation, because why would you care who is president if you are dead?

But all of that is irrelevant—to you—because, even if you vote (and many of you won't) your votes will be filtered and manipulated in various ways to make sure that they don't count. And what that means, in turn, is that by thinking about these matters you would be accomplishing just one thing: distracting yourselves. And distracted people aren't good at too many things. Specifically, I suspect that they wouldn't be any good at shrinking the technosphere:
It is quite difficult to get much of anything accomplished if you are constantly being distracted. No matter what it is you set your mind to, you won’t get far unless you stay focused, and being distracted is the opposite of being focused. But most people go through their daily lives being constantly distracted by images, words and activities that are specifically designed to ruin their concentration. What’s more, many people absolutely need to be distracted on a regular basis in order to avoid going insane. Conditioned by life in a world of nonstop background music, omnipresent television screens and round-the-clock news feeds, they go into severe withdrawal the moment all of this artificial stimulation is taken away.

Taking a step back, consider what your life would be like if it were perfect. You’d only engage in activities you found useful or pleasant, preferably both, and only for as long as you wanted. Each day would be yours to decide what to do and how to do it. You would happily isolate yourself from anyone you found unpleasant, tiresome or simply unnecessary to your life and surround your- self with your loving, supportive extended family and a circle of close, true friends. You would have no need to do anything special to maintain appearances and would always be able to act in accordance with your true nature. You would look upon your past life with a deep sense of satisfaction and upon your future with anticipation of even greater satisfaction, and just a bit of wonder to keep things interesting. You would solve problems as they surfaced while not caring a whit about anything that did not concern you. At the end of each day you would feel tired—from having accomplished the few essential things you set out to accomplish that day—and simply relax. Perhaps you’d watch the sunset refracted in ripples on the water, or watch children play, or meditate. Would you feel the need to constantly distract yourself from such a life? I don’t think so. In fact, it would be very difficult for anyone to distract you from it.

Now consider what your life is actually like. Do you have to rush about from place to place, constantly dealing with complete strangers and people you know but don’t necessarily like? Is the time you can allot to your family and friends woefully short—because everyone else is also too busy rushing about from place to place and dealing with complete strangers and people they don’t necessarily like? Do you have to obey a fixed schedule, execute arbitrary tasks that others have assigned to you and follow rules you had no role in establishing? Do you have to maintain certain appearances for the sake of pleasing strangers and people you don’t like? Are you being made to feel responsible for things over which you have no control? Does all of this cause a great deal of stress? And to alleviate this stress and to make your life tolerable, do you find the need to constantly distract yourself—with idle gossip, antics of cats on the internet, professional team sports, political mudslinging, daydreams, alcohol and drugs? If so, then you may find yourself unable to maintain the level of focus that would be necessary to transform your life and bring it closer to the ideal sketched out above.


Part of the problem is deciding what is a distraction and what isn’t. For example, take electoral politics in the US: is paying attention to politicians in order to decide how to vote an important part of being a citizen, or is it just a distraction? A 2014 Princeton University study by sociologists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argued persuasively that the US is not a democracy: their statistical analysis showed that in the US public policy decisions are not correlated with preferences of the electorate; instead, they are correlated with the preferences of a tiny part of the electorate composed of business lobbies and the very rich.

This study provides an objective standard by which to determine whether paying attention to electoral politics in the US and spending time deciding how to vote is or is not a distraction in your specific case. All you need to do is ask yourself a question: “Am I a multimillionaire or a business tycoon?” If the answer is “Yes,” then, by all means, do pay attention. If the answer is “No,” then your participation is guaranteed to be utterly inconsequential and is just another distraction. Once you take these facts on board, blocking out electoral politics may not be too difficult. You may still have some difficulty with all of the people who insist on distracting themselves with it, perhaps yourself included, despite the fact that you are neither multimillionaires nor business tycoons.

This is not to say that it is altogether safe to ignore the unraveling of the entire political and economic realm within the US. There is no longer the rule of law; there is now a caste of untouchables who can break laws with impunity and mass imprisonment for everyone else. There is no longer a political center either; instead, the battle lines are clearly drawn. On one side is the oligarchy and the salaried elites that serve it; on the other are all those in the wage-earning class, whom they deprived of decent work for decent pay by enriching themselves at their expense. In what will probably be remembered as her Marie-Antoinette "let them eat cake" moment, one of the presidential candidates referred to them as "a basket of deplorables." This is not a safe thing to say in this election year, which some might say is starting to resemble France in 1788. Large groups of well-armed men, many of them with a military or a law enforcement background, who no longer believe in the legitimacy of the federal government, will not soon forget this slight. The other presidential candidate had the audacity to commit what is in the eyes of the oligarchy and the elites a mortal sin: instead of promising to continue feeding his fellow-citizens into globalization's maw, he promised to put their interests first. They will not soon forget this either. All those who have tried putting the interests of regular Americans first before have been swiftly eliminated or neutralized; but at this late stage this would not solve the problem but exacerbate it.

The problem is political collapse. As I wrote in my previous book, The Five Stages of Collapse, it is rather different from other stages:

Financial and commercial collapses are already potentially lethal. People lose their bearings and their sense of purpose, or decide to take advantage of those in distress, or fail simply through an inability to adapt to radically altered circumstances, and when that happens people get hurt. Financial and commercial collapses tend to be hard on those who failed to prepare, by putting aside objects that hold their value when the national currency hyperinflates and banks close and by stockpiling the necessary supplies to tide them over during the uncertain transition period, when the old ways of doing things no longer work but the new ones have not yet evolved. Both of these causes of potentially lethal circumstances can be avoided: first, by choosing the right kind of community; second, by laying in supplies or securing independent access to food, water and energy; and third, by generally finding a way to bide your time and ignore the world at large until times get better.

Political collapse is a different animal altogether, because it makes the world at large difficult to ignore. e potential for chaos is still there, but so is the potential for organized action of a very damaging sort, because the ruling class and the classes that serve them (the police, the military, the bureaucrats) generally refuse to go softly into the night and allow the people to self-organize, experiment and come together as autonomous new groups adapted to the new environment in their composition and patterns of self-governance. Instead, they are likely to spontaneously hatch a harebrained new plan: an initiative to restore national unity, in the sense of restoring the status quo ante, at least with regard to preserving their own power and privilege, at others’ expense. In a situation where every person and every neighborhood should be experimenting on their own to find out what works and what doesn’t, the politicians and the officials are apt to introduce new draconian crime-fighting measures, curfews and detentions, allowing only certain activities—ones that benefit them—while mercilessly putting down any sign of insubordination. To deflect the blame for their failure, the ruling elite usually also does its best to find an internal or external enemy. Those who are the weakest and the least politically connected—the poor, the minorities and the immigrants—are accused of dragging everyone down and singled out for the harshest treatment. is is conducive to creating a climate of fear and suppressing free speech. But nothing causes people to band together like an external threat, and, for the sake of preserving national unity, a failing nation-state often looks for an external enemy to attack, preferably a weak, defenseless one, so that it poses no risk of reprisal. Putting the nation on a war footing makes it possible for the government to commandeer resources and reallocate them to the benefit of the ruling class, further restrict movements and activities, round up troublesome youths and ship them o to battle and lock up undesirables.

Financial and commercial collapse creates an opening for those inclined toward the most miserable despotism. Once a despotic regime is established, the weak, demoralized, disoriented population almost inevitably finds itself incapable of rising in opposition to it, and the new despotism may become entrenched and quite durable, lasting for an extended period of time, during which the country is hollowed out and traumatized before collapsing through internecine strife or a battle of succession, or through increasing weakness that causes it to succumb to foreign occupation. The spectrum of possible responses to financial and commercial collapse stretches from despotism to chaos. There is a sweet spot of autonomous, anarchic social cooperation, with many small skirmishes and stand-offs but well short of all-out armed conflict.

It is hard to predict how the process of political collapse will proceed, or how long it will take. But it is possible to predict the end result: there will no longer be an entity called “USA” on the political map and the term “America” will revert to being the name of a continent—the contiguous landmass linked together by American Cordillera, which is a single mountain range that runs from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego. I made this prediction a decade ago, and I will stand by it for as long as it takes for it to come true. Whether it comes to pass before or after I die, I will die a happy man, secure in the knowledge that I called it correctly.


Mister Roboto said...

You and Allan Stromfeldt Christensen would appear to be on the very same page regarding this reality-show election.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Excellent post as usual. I particularly liked the cartoon of the guy sitting on the bench proclaiming that he will not vote until there is a candidate that stands up for rich landowners.
You also write "The spectrum of possible responses to financial and commercial collapse stretches from despotism to chaos. There is a sweet spot of autonomous, anarchic social cooperation, with many small skirmishes and stand-offs but well short of all-out armed conflict."
I guess we will see soon enough whether we can hit the sweet spot. I suspect how that plays out depends to a large extent on where you live. Population density and density of police and military will probably have some effect on how well you can cooperate with your neighbors. In any case, there are always some assholes in every group, your extended family included. And if you have to rely on your small group for survival, dealing effectively with the assholes has to be part of the survival strategy.

de amateureconoom said...

Dimitri, I follow your blog for a number of years and find you to be one of the most intelligent people out there in the web and certainly in real life there are few interesting writers or people out there.
I am awaiting this collapse since 2008. Your posts are always challenging but very informative. I read somewhere you where considering moving to Russia again.
You and many of the people out there on the internet realise that nothing good is going to come out of this. I see the venus project as a positive proposal for the planet and it's habitants (human, animal, plants ...) I wonder if this kind of project can not be realised if we find enough believers in stead of becoming more depressed with all the negative trends in our industrial society's.
I woul like your perspective on a positive initiative (lifeboats are good, better then dying in the cold and starving from hunger) Can humanity (the people) not start a project that will give our planet and all the born and unborn on the planet a better perspective on more happiness and health. I fully agree with the point your making that happiness has other origins then things you can by in shops or in sex sites. People or lost and religion has not been able to save our souls.
We have to do it ourselves in stead of relying on a person in politics or high in the sky. What do you think

Cortes said...

A fine article. Thanks once more.

The difficulty I see is avoiding the draft into one side or another when things become really interesting.

As GW Bush put it: "you're either with us or agin us, savvy ". A bit like the poor unfortunate inhabitants of, say, Mosul or East Aleppo. When rampages are afoot, absent oneself somehow or play the fool to avoid involvement as victims or co opted rampagers seem a bleak choice.

Unknown said...

Nine evil priest/sorcerers commonly referred to as the US Supreme Court officially breathed life in to the A.I. abomination Mr. Orlov refers to as the technosphere years ago. Psychopathic entities gave birth to human psychopaths which in turn gave birth to the abomination that gave them birth. It's all insane of course, but so is almost everyone.

Esn said...

Dmitri, I think you might find this interesting:
Here is a popular author who seems to clearly see the technosphere coming (though he doesn't call it by that precise term) and welcomes it with open arms.