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Surviving the 21st Century

The aim of some of these blog posts is to give you helicopter view, to look at the world in a way that informs and triggers your inborn sense of self preservation. This may be attempted in a subtle inviting way or in a jarring confrontational way. Most people feel safe in our dutch society, and to many the presentation of a threat is a priori unpleasant. Yet there are many and perhaps some of us are more desensitzed so can consider and discuss them more easily than others. Apart from that we try to unspin some news and show that the desire to earn money causes a lot of information distortion, from oil execs ignoring climate warnings to university professors advocating nuclear energy.

We also think that it is interesting to explore what can be said or concluded about our world, beyond the facts and what some try to make the narrative. There certainly is a big difference between every day lives or the business environment and the likely consequences of innovations we see today, which suggests we exercise our minds a bit more about possibilities and unexpected sideeffects of all human activity and especially scientific research (for profit and non profit). We have nanotechnology, genomics, artificial intelligence and the economic and banking system to name a few areas where serious risks can or are coming from. Man is only as powerfull as his tools, and these tools become more easily available each day. Would it be inconcievable for someone to make a deadly virus in some basement years ago, now it isn’t because the equipment needed is ever smaller and more easily available, as is the knowledge.

A world where some can create an entire environment for others to live in is a strong distortion of the world humans evolved in. The limits and characteristics of human beings become visible. Economic forces play with the needs of people, because making them insecure allows someone to employ them more cheaply. Google really knows every website you visit, and if you use social media we know that there are companies that listen to your mobile when you don’t know, that use your financial data to mine, not because we are paranoid, but because we got offered the job to develop these systems. The cloud is a playground for people to use data about your behaviour for whatever purpose, mainly to entice you to spend money.

One can not be blamed for becoming a bit cynical and basically viewing individuals as very weak and faulty mechanisms, now falling prey to organizations thought up in the minds of the brightest, tested against reality over many years, and persisting because they create advantages for some individuals over others. It used to be the baker that knew you would come in to buy bread because you did not have the tools or skills to make such lovely bread, the baker had his task and you had yours. Now you are expected to work for and spend money on what you think is best for you, and some people you will never see or hear are putting online adds on every webpage you browse and can almost calculate the time it takes before you will buy some product you don’t really need. Complexity is used to make things to hard for you to make a good judgement and simplicity is used to make things to easy for your own good. This is because others want to determine what you decide in a certain way, usually against your own (financial) interest.

We can see that our legal system has fallen prey to the same forces as ourselves. The tenacity and persistence always wins from political generations. We have had climate change in the news since 1912, but every time the awareness grew action was taken to weaken it and sway people to not care about it. Reagan knew, but didn’t want to do anything because the US was just getting used to the oil standard, meaning unlimited wealth as long as dollars where printed. Clinton’s Larry Summers put the thing in overdrive some more. The US legal system has basically gone through ups and downs in terms of its ability to protect citizens, but generally it has been down, because protected citizens are not great consumers. Being a great consumer however does not mean having a great life for such consumer, because you can consume clothes, cars, life insurance, cancer treatment and funeral services. A consumer is simply a ‘destructive endpoint for goods and services’.

What happens to us when the process of getting us to buy certain things becomes automated? What if it becomes flexible, intelligent, persistent without the need for human intervention. Let’s say an airline wants to sell us a ticket to New York. It can insert pictures of New York in our browsing experience. It can do more, it can check what music we like, where we have been recently and insert links to those aspects of our personality in the context of New York in our browsing experience. Say we like Bruce Springsteen, then the airline can actually fund the promotor of Bruce Springsteen to put an add to Bruce in New York in our browsing experience. Offer combined tickets. Today we don’t expect it but it is completely possible we are chased by the same deal when we go shopping in real life. Digital TV allows the adds to be targeted too. Paying for a drink in the cinema may trigger register to print some add on the receipt, etc. etc.

All this happens in a context where the media are putting the fear in us because they need attantion and it is not like they are easy to ignore. Pharmaceutical companies are tracking your use of medicine, insurers are hoping to lean your exact genomic makeup, facebook wants to know what you did today and lobbyists are trying to weaken your position every day of the week, in some cases in a governmental system that is openly corrupt. People are not winning. Right now the majority in the rich countries are not winning because they are pushed out and the majority of people in the world are not winning because they are suffering from climate change without ever even having enjoyed SUVs or Whoppers. They are bombed to bits and if some security firm needs a terrorist they can be turned into one in a heartbeat. Many in Guantanamo Bay where sold to the US, so someone got money by accusing whomever was arrested of terrorism.

How can a human being still prevail in this environment, and how can we ensure human beings still hold the reigns? The second question is easy to answer. Humans no longer hold the reigns, because economic principles and rules are applied and who does not apply them does not qualify for the job. So economics is in no matter who is executing it’s ‘script’. How a human can previal (meaning apply his own moral standard), most likely by isolating himself or seeking an economically uninteresting hideout. As the old italian said in Catch 22 : Move with the regimes, be weak, and survive (all he really needed was some bread and wine). Only today if you do that life on our planet will not survive. The economy has no memory, no vision of the future, it is a process without anyone in control (only people that will ‘save it’), and humans are secondary to its survival.

Instead of constantly allowing the economy to assimilate the latest and newest technology (and supressing whatever reduces its cashflow) and sell it as a pannacea and sign of ‘progress’ we should be more vigilant about what people are allowed to know and own. The most intelligent amongst us want globalization because it feeds this vision of a world where all can live interesting lives in harmony. But this vision creates much suffering and requires us to burn fossil oil that should not be burned. So global community, fine, but not at the cost of the global community. One can pretend that wars come about because of true political differences, but lately they have been happening for three reasons : 1. sell arms 2. control fossil reserves 3. prevent the economic development of oil/gas rich regions (therfore reducing the competition for oil). For arms trading the same rules apply as for any other industry that has infiltrated government with its representatives. It can only be stopped by an organization on the basis of equal consequences for all. However, any attempt will run in fierce resistence from people who want arms sales to continue to parties that protect or can conquer energy resources (nothing changed since Napoleon. War is a racket).

We think that two factors can bring humans back into the game. The first is to replace the energy sources that create the incentives that now shape our consumer economy. The second is to reduce our dependence (emotional and physical) on technology. The first factor is the most important, because it will break the world up in regions that are more autonomous, that are less of a threat to other regions, that will have regional governments with real power instead of puppet governments like that of Australia and Canada today. We need diversity to evolve and adapt, not uniformity in order to push mass produced goods most efficiently. It is not back to the cave but forward to a technological society that serves  the human individual.


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