Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Friday, May 27, 2005
What Is Human?
A lot of people are talking about the immediate liklihood of humanity soiling and depleting the planet so horribly that we all end up dying of famine, plague, and war. Call this the bioapocalyptic side, in the question of whether or not humanity survives the coming century or so.
Many others have pointed out the possibility that the planet gets whacked by a big rock, or the Sun decides to do something unexpected, or a random burst of gamma rays from ten million light years away just happens to intersect our planet and boil off the oceans. Or, really, any of a hundred other natural catastrophes that could wipe out the species in a geological eyeblink. There's not much to be done about it: no matter how advanced the species (or what descends from it) becomes, there will always be natural disasters sufficiently bad to wipe it out. I will, however, point out the 65 million year extinction cycle, stretching back hundreds of millions of years and due, oh, any time now. Lets call this scenario the cosmocalypse, because in the end it includes the possibility that the universe itself simply ceases to be.
Then there are those who have been discussing the imminent possibility that mankind might begin drastically accelerating its evolution. So drastically that in a few hundred years, while intelligent activity is unquestionably far more abundant than it is even now, there won't be much that we today would recognize to be human, exactly. Most of those who talk about this (I'm guilty of being one of them myself, occasionally) call themselves transhumanists, but over on the extreme you can find, as always, the most entetainingly loony, at the technocalypse Yahoo! group. It's not even necessary to read the posts: just look at the collection of memes gathered under their keywords. At any rate, because we're talking about the possibility of humanity becoming extinct here, I'm going to go ahead and label this the technocalyptic side of the argument.
So, assuming we avoid a bioapocalypse and a cosmocalypse, we're left with a best-case scenario of a technocalypse. To a certain extent the latter of course comes down to a question of what is human. Is it Homo sapiens sapiens, and nothing else? Or, going backwards, would we include Neandertal man? What about Homo erectus, which innovated the use of both watercraft and fire, used tools throughout its history, and almost certainly possessed a rudimentary language of some sort? I myself would draw the line when the Australopithecines were the only hominids around. Any further back and you're in ape country.
What if we apply the same principle looking forward? What are the traits that define 'human'? Despite the fact that H. sapiens and H. erectus are morphologically almost identical, the human is unlikely to be purely taxonomic. Ask yourself if a person who just happened to have four arms, while being utterly normal otherwise, would be considered human. Most would say yes. Then start adding extra body-parts, sensory capabilities, and anything else you can think of. At what point does the creature stop being human? Or does it, so long as it also continues to talk and use tools? Morphology, in and of itself, could be completely beside the point when it comes to what matters about humanity.
My anthropology prof maintained that the single thing that separates humans from animals is fire. Or, more properly, the harnessing of energy outside the body in order to process matter, also outside the body (using this definition we can throw nuclear reactors into the same pile as camp-fires.) Everything else - language, tool use - is a matter of degree rather than kind. Her argument was that fire was unique, and extremely powerful as an adaptation. It is also, crucially, cultural rather than biological.
What if purely memetic criteria were to be used? Take the wholly cultural man, one who consists only of tools: an upload, utterly faithful to the mind of the original but in fact software running on manufactured circuitry. Is that entity human? Would a society composed solely of them be a human civilization? There are those who would answer it would be, so long as the entities inhabiting the computers (and probably robots) thought of themselves human, and expect to survive for millenia in just such a state. But what about when you start tinkering with the entity's thought processes? Increasing memory, speed, intelligence, and connectivity with others? Does a point come at which the structure of its mind is so different that, although the principle things defining our species (fire, and to a lesser degree language and tool use) are more abundant than ever before, there's nothing remotely human left? There's a compelling argument that there is, and to those who expect to achieve immortality through uploading I have this to say: how long do you think you'd remain you, living life inside an environment you control utterly, your mind running at such speeds that a year can last a subjective millenia ... or a subjective million years.
Of course it's also possible that not everyone will choose to transcend their humanity through technology. In the Orions arm scenario, humanity swarms by the trillions, like bacteria in an ecology of intelligence.
So in the end, there's no way of really knowing how long, or whether, the species will survive, and maybe it's best to act as we've always acted, as though ours (or our kids', or our grandkids') is the last generation that will ever be. But it sure is fun to think about, eh?
Saturday, May 07, 2005
Friday, May 06, 2005
A Week With the Bond Marketing Group: Day 2
"It's Matt," I remind him, but he's already back in the office.
For some reason, I'm 'Scott' to him for the rest of the week. I give up correcting him after the second or third time. This is kind of weird, as my older brother's name is Scott and my dad occasionally makes the same mistake.
He comes out moments later with a middle aged brown guy in tow. "Hi Scott, this is Allen. He'll be taking you out into the field today." We shake, exchange pleasantries, and I trail along behind him towards the parking lot.
Allen is a middle-aged Trinidadian Mormon of East Indian extraction (I swear to God I'm not making that up) and he, almost alone amongst the money-goblins at the BMG, turns out to be actually a pretty decent guy. He'd been a Master's student in kinesiology or something at U of T before starting his career in door to door sales, and had designed his own line of basketball sportswear which, apparently, is still available on the website. On the drive out to the field (which turns out to be Burlington) he breaks down how the business works for me, and I do my best to ask questions and appear somewhat interested in their management opportunities. During the ride I manage to turn the conversation around to his own background, and we discuss the perils of academia, the sciences, and such other actuall engaging topics. Allen turns out to Know His Shit, so in addition to being a nice guy I have to give him props for being one smart fortune cookie.
There are three others in the car, all white kids about my age. The driver is a hulking, stoop-shouldered college student I'll just call Asshole. The second, Cryptopsy Choirboy, is a long-haired pretty-boy with supernaturally good bone structure, full of charm that's not yet completely artificial; he comes by his name by virtue of his second life, moonlighting as the lead singer of a local death metal band that shall remain anonymous. The third was so completely anonymous that I'm not even going to bother giving him a name; he's a scruffy looking high school student who, up until two days before, had worn his hair down past his shoulders (and, yes, he'd shaved it for the job, in a futile attempt to look presentable. Dumbass.)
By the time we're in Burlington I'm starting to really want a smoke, but so far as I know no one around me smokes and I don't want to look bad so I just ignore the cravings. We drop off Cryptopsy Choirboy and Dumbass at their territory (or 'T' as the BMG tribe refers to it) and then drive to our own. Asshole is still new at the job (it's his second day, and he'll only come back for one more) so Allen gets to drag both of us around until lunch.
So begins the arudous work of trudging from house to house, ringing doorbells and talking to suburbanite pricks in an attempt to sell them coupons.
Yes, coupons. That's why this counts as 'marketing', not 'sales'. In case the BMG or one of its many sibling companies has never darkened your doorway, here's how it works: they go to a local business and talk them into taking their advertising budget and spending the money on 'free' stuff for the customers. Then the Bondies take around these coupon sheets, and sell them at prices in the $30 range. The distributor (ie door to door salesman) gets 40% of that, the remainder being divvied up between the boss at the office and his boss at the parent company down in Salt Lake City or something.
We do this for two and a half hours, and I watch as Allen (Asshole is hopeless) manages to talk two or three reluctant homeowners into buying coupons for 'free' golf ('free' because it's actually buy-one-get-one, so you only recoup your investment if you spend more money at the golf course.) Then we break for lunch, heading back to Asshole's beat-up SUV, picking up Cryptopsy Choirboy and Dumbass, and going to a strip mall to eat at the first random sub shop we find. I'm broke, though, so I packed my own lunch; while they're ordering, I sit down, take out my sandwich and start to eat; the manager, an immigrant who obviously does not understand the cardinal rule of North American capitalism (that Thou Shalt Not Piss Off Your Customers) shouts at me, and while I'm prepared to just sit on the sidewalk my erstwhile colleagues are all "Fuck you, buddy!" and we end up going to Subway instead. When we get there Allen buys me a drink (see what I said about him being a decent guy?)
Over lunch, I take a cursory look at an info-sheet on the BMG's Ponzi scheme management training program, pretend to be interested and, as soon as I'm done wolfing down my sandwich and granola bars, run outside for a desperately needed infusion of nicotine. Dumbass comes out shortly after, closely followed by Cryptopsy Choirboy (who, I am somewhat horrified to see, is smoking a menthol bitch-stick. I see several others at the end of the day smoking the same cigarettes, and for a couple of days am half-convinced that this is yet another aspect of Bondie weirdness. Turns out CC just ran out of smokes on his way out the door, and had to grab some from his girlfriend.)
After lunch, it's back out to our 'T's. This time Asshole goes out on his own, and proves, in true asshole fashion, unable to follow the simple directions on a map, which results in Allen getting told off by a few homeowners who have already been bothered and, regardless of how polite they were the first time around, are in no mood for continued harassment. I trudge along after Allen, moving from door to door, smiling and saying hi to people when they answer the door, and watching Allen deliver his pitch, which is of course basically invariant from person to person. Every once in a while someone will try to throw him with a "What are you selling?" but, like a pro, he dodges that bullet and plows right on (somewhat pointlessly, as the odds of anyone who says that actually buying what you're selling are basically nil.)
We have fifteen minutes to go before the end of our time in the field, and Allen's still sitting on only three or four pieces (which comes out to like $50, which is pretty shit for a 12 hour work day.) I'm ready to just go home, but he pushes on and manages to sell four more pieces in the next twenty five minutes to two different people; for ten of those minutes, Asshole is sitting outside in his ugly white SUV, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and waiting for us to get out so he can go the fuck home. Cryptopsy Choirboy and Dumbass have been kept waiting a full half hour, and are mildly pissed as, had they known, "We could have sold more pieces, man!"
Of course, there's no smoking in the car, and I haven't had one since lunch, so by the time we get back to the office (which is like 9:00) I'm basically chewing off my arm. I smoke a cigarette in about a minute on the walk from the car to the office, go in, and fill out a bullshit questionaire that Allen hands me. I'm supposed to ask questions, so I think for a bit and write down 'foreign management opportunities?' Allen (who's trying to build up his own team so he can climb the BMG's ad hoc corporate ladder) reviews it for me and makes some suggestions, and then takes it in. I wait for about five minutes, and then get called into Buzz's office.
Buzz is bouncing up and down in his chair like a schoolboy with his first erection, and if I didn't know he was a Mormon I'd swear to god he'd just done like six lines of coke. He rehashes the day with me, goes over the questionairre, then asks, "So, you're interested in starting a franchise overseas?" and I can see the glint in his eyes as he imagines a faithful, ambitious young vassal carrying the franchise over to some benighted backwater.
"Uh, yeah. Definately."
"Yeah? So where?" He's entirely too excited about this. Shit. I think for a second, casting about for something to say.
"Chile," I say, which is obviously complete bullshit. Nothing against Chile, I'd love to visit, but live there? Please.
"Chile? That's great! We had a guy go down to Mexico, totally virgin territory, just a few years back. He made a fortune!" Riiight. I have this picture in my head of barefoot teenagers running around in Mexico City's slums, trying to extract devalued peso's from unemployed piece workers so they can get discounts at Pablo's Taco Stand. Mexico. Yup. That's where the money is all right. Must explain why the Mexicans are leaving in droves.
Buzz offers me a job, we shake, and I go back out into the front office. Allen is talking to the only other girl in the office besides Sorry, a 19-year-old blonde I'll call Anoxia; she's cruising on the high of just having rung her first bell (ie, she made $100 in one day) and she's running around giving everyone high fives and going "Yes!!!" at the top of her lungs. I extract myself as soon as is polite, and go home to gorge, get high, and pass out.
Thursday, May 05, 2005
A Week With The Bond Marketing Group: Day 1
1 a.m. I am sitting in my bathrobe searching through Monster. Amongst the many (well, not so many) jobs that I found and applied to was this: Entry Level With A Twist!!!! This sets off alarm bells deep in the most primal levels of my amygdala, but I'm uncomfortably low on cash so I suck it in and punch the number into my cell. I get ahold of a perky and, I later learn, actually sort-of-cute receptionist who promptly offers me an interview later that same day. The alarm bells are getting pretty loud at this point, but what the hell, I'm desperate so I accept.
3 a.m. Dressed professionally in my best suit (thanks, grandpa!) I show up at the jurry-rigged office of the Bond Marketing Group. I sit in the room for a bit, flirt a little with the receptionist (a very little: she's juggling phone calls three at a time for most of it.) Finally I get in to see the chieftain of this odd tribe, a large and suspiciously energetic Mormon whom I will refer to as Buzz. Buzz talks a bit about my resume, obviously-isn't-really-listening as I give my responses to his stock questions, very carefully does not call what his company does door-to-door sales (it's 'marketing'.) At the end, he offers me a 'Day of Observation' (abbreviated to 'Day of O') in the field with one of his leaders.
I've done this sort of thing before, so I'm thinking how bad can it be? "Sure," I say, "I'll show up tomorrow at 11."
"Good to hear, buddy!" Enthuses Buzz, sticking out his meaty hand. I shake.
Thus ends my first day's involvement with the Bond Marketing Group. Swing by tomorrow to find out how day 2 went.
Monday, May 02, 2005
Weapons of Mass Misinformation
There. Done? Okay, lets continue.
It turns out the troops in Iraq are composing their own soundtrack, mostly in the key of hip-hop. Sixty years from now, when the veterans from Iraq get together, they'll be listening to their own music.
That got me to thinking, though: how important is it, really, that so much of the media (and the film industry, and music industry, etc) is completely against the war? A lot of conservatives make a big deal about it, and worry, as Steyn does, that the total unwillingness of media elites to get behind their country shows a sort of rot at the moral core of Western culture. Islamists, they say, are successfully exploiting that weakness, and if they can't win on the battlefield, they'll win by dragging things out so long that we just collapse.
And maybe they're right. Certainly, media elites are hostile to the war; and, also certainly, the Islamists are exploiting - or at least attempting to exploit - that hostility.
But Western culture is a complex beast, and all is not necessarily as it appears. What if the media's hostility serves as a kind of civilization-level fake out? I'm not talking conspiracy, here; just a sort of epihenomenon. Convince the enemy that we really don't want to fight, that we're softer than we really are, and thus more easily goad them into doing something rash which gives us all the excuse we need to eat their culture. Such a tactic could never have worked fifty or sixty years ago: people basically believed what the broadcasts and broadsheets said, and the enemy had access to that same information. Thanks to the internet, though, news can flow in far more complex ways, and the 'traditional' sources (ie, newspapers and network TV) can be given a hefty dose of misleading spin without seriously impeding the flow of information to those citizens who actually matter (one way or another, they'll find out what they want to know.) Odds are the enemy will look at the traditional sources first, and place the most trust in them as national barometers. Again, I emphasize that I'm not talking conspiracy here (though it's not impossible to believe that the Bush administration might, perhaps sensing this very principle, subtly encourage such behaviour); I am sure the newsmen who daily distort the picture out of Iraq believe sincerely in what they are doing and saying.
So, which is it? Is the media's odd behaviour a symptom of imminent collapse? Or just the re-purposing of an obsolete communications tool from intelligence dissemination to Weapon of Mass Misinformation?
Sunday, May 01, 2005
Hillary and Victoria
In a way, this makes sense. With their super-majority, the GOP is likely to succumb to the same arrogance that any party too long in power is prone to. They are already showing signs, as Bush is likely only too aware (and need only look north of the Border to see an extreme example of this principle at work.) The odds of the next president being a Republican are slim. Unfortunately, the front runner for the Democrats is Hillary Clinton, a woman who inspires the same irrational hatred amongst the GOP core that Bush does. That irrational hatred has done wonders to marginalize the Democrats, so it makes sense that Bush would want to keep the same from happening the the Republicans.
This also means that Hillary is all but a shoe-in. One can only speculate what the effect of the first female president will be ... and since we're speculating here I'm going to go ahead and do just that.
Generally, politics is a man's game. This isn't some development of the patriarchy; it's just the way things are. Democracy, dictatorship, monarchy, or village counsel, it is almost invariably men who play at politics. This doesn't mean that women never play; however, it does mean that the women who do tend to be very, very good at it. Think of Queen Elizabeth (I, not II.) Or Queen Victoria. Or Boudicaea, or Cleopatra (okay, okay, so the last two weren't exactly successful in the long run. But you have to admit, they both gave the Romans a run for their money, not something many were able to do during their expansionary phase.) As a general rule, women who get to be head of state are a group of really mean, dangerous bitches.
My guess is that Hillary will prove to be the American Victoria. Think the U.S. empire has been expanding too far, too fast? You haven't seen anything yet.
A lot of people think the U.S. may be on the point of collapse, that the evil American Empire has reached the limits of its power, and that it's all downhill from here. Now, I fully expect this to happen at some point, and probably within my lifetime. But not right away. The U.S. still has too many advantages: demographically, it's far younger than most potential rivals (ie, Europe and China.) It has more experience at the bleeding edge of technological development than all but a handful of small countries, all of which are close U.S. allies. Both of these advantages are far more important than the fleeting powers of economic or military supremacy. The U.S. does have liabilities, namely its dependence on foreign oil (which, we are told is Peaking), and it's massive foreign debt. Neither of these are likely to seriously impede any U.S. expansion. The latter could do nothing, or it could create the sort of short-term economic crisis that is recovered from after a year or two. The former, on the other hand, is unlikely to create serious stress for at least another decade, enough time for technological fixes (hydrogen economy) and social adaptations (keeping to high-density urban living, in order to lower the use of oil) to be made.
So, that clears up the question of the U.S.'s fundamental fitness for continued hegemony.
The situation today reminds me most of two previous times in history. The first, during the second century B.C., when Rome sacked Carthage - it's only major rival - and proceeded to carve out an empire for itself that covered the entire known world and lasted for centuries. And the second, two centuries ago when the British took Paris, removed Napolean, and proceeded to enjoy the nineteenth century as the proud owners of the largest empire the world had ever seen. The parallels with the U.S. and the Soviet Union are almost too obvious to point out.
The British got about a third of the planet, and they didn't even want that much. But things were slower back then: they had sailing ships, not jetplanes and satellites. Historically, each empire has been successively longer, and successively shorter lived: the speed with which information, people, and material can be moved limits both size and lifespan. So now that the U.S. is free to expand, just how far will it expand? Could this be the Big One? The uber-Empire that swallows the entire world?
All that out of one little piece of political reporting. Isn't speculation fun?