Category Archives: The quiet revolution

Just being naive

You don’t live in the real world, they tell me. You don’t understand how it really is. You’re naive and an idiot. Well, maybe I am. But nonetheless I continue to believe that the world of soil and trees is the real world, while the world of economics, is fantasy. I believe that most people are ok, and that if you treat people kindly, most of them will be able to be kinder people.

The thing about my naivety is that the evidence backs it up. Under austerity, crime has gone up because more people are desperate. Resources are in fact finite where the logic of economics involves infinite growth. Everywhere universal basic income has been trialled, all kinds of social benefits follow. Both crime stats and hospital admissions go down.

What we do when we are grasping, and cynical about each other, living in the dog eat dog logic of a brutal real world, is we make everything worse. We make our own reality, collectively, and if we push this way, this is what we get. It is not inevitable, or necessary, it is a choice.

Other choices are available.

If we choose to be kinder to each other and to other species, things would be different. If we choose to live responsibly and within our means, we could change our relationship with the planet. From the dog-eat-dog perspective that would just be setting ourselves up to be beaten by other countries, passed by their willingness to exploit more than we do. We’d be weak, the underdog, the dog who is eaten in the dog-eat-dog world. Step back a moment and this looks more like a choice between destroying ourselves to ‘win’ some imaginary game that delivers nothing in terms of happiness, and not doing that.

The UK is the 5th biggest economy in the world, and yet we cannot, apparently, feed our hungry, home our people, keep our children out of poverty or protect our landscapes. It’s an odd sort of wealth that cannot achieve these things. It makes me ask what on earth a measure of wealth means given that life expectancy has gone down of late. From where I’m sat, it doesn’t look like wealth at all, it looks like terrible poverty and misery for many people. But hey, keep telling me about this real world you live in.

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Do nothing, it’s lovely!

If you life is filled with noise and activity, then doing nothing can be one of the most beautiful gifts you can give yourself. To lie in bed for a few extra hours and just let your mind wander. To sit by a window and gaze out of it, and notice what goes by. To watch a fire, or enjoy candle light. Snuggle with a pet, a person, or interesting combinations thereof!

Many of us are under a lot of pressure to be doing. Be busy. Be productive. Make money. Spend money. If all you get to do is run round franticly, you’ll barely know who you are, how you feel and what you want. You can end up with an emptiness on the inside, and only more noise, activity and consumption to try and fill it with. Stillness and silence can be scary at first, if it means sitting down with yourself for a while. However, once you get past that fear, the gifts it brings are many, and large.

If we want to deal with the rampant consumerism that is killing the planet and that will destroy us if we don’t tackle it, we need to deal with the reasons we’re so fond of the consumerism in the first place. Stopping, being quiet, being alone with ourselves, being in an unstimulating place with others – is key to this. Talk to the people around you. Listen to them. Go to bed early. Turn off the noise, the lights, the distractions and listen to your heart for a while. Find out what you really need.


Social justice isn’t just for Christmas

Christmas is a time for giving, for charity, for doing a shift at the local homeless shelter. If you’ve had any contact with the Christian messages associated with the season, you’ll be familiar with the charitable aspect.

However, if your giving and your social justice activities are just for Christmas, pause and ask yourself why that is. Equally, if those around you only seem to care seasonally, see if you can start a conversation about why that might be. Homeless people will still be cold and suffering in January. Charities will still need supporting.

The trouble with having a charitable dabble over the festive period is that it can ease our consciences and make us feel better about ourselves. It has a similar function to those old Lord of Misrule, Twelfth Night and Saturnalia celebrations. You get it all out of your system over a few days, and by this means, the status quo is maintained over the rest of the year.

Just as pretending a twelve year old is the Bishop for one day of the year isn’t actually a cultural revolution, a bit of seasonal charity isn’t social justice. If we want radical change, we have to commit to it as a whole year round thing. We have to start calling out the people who think they can rock up at a shelter or a food bank in December and thus qualify as decent human beings. Especially when they happen to be politicians whose policies created all the misery in the first place.


Manners, respect and political correctness

Every time I encounter someone expressing the idea that ‘this political correctness has gone too far now’ I immediately wonder who it is they’re prejudiced against. Who do they want to blame, shame, attack or abuse? This is in part because I’ve never found a problem in critiquing behaviour, especially individual behaviour.

It is basic good manners to use the words people prefer you to use – to not describe their race, religion, cultural heritage, body shape, disability, orientation or anything else in terms that are designed to put them down. If you want to use offensive language, the problem is not people being offended, the problem is that you have no manners. If you have a problem with something someone is doing, it is totally possible to talk about that without using offensive language. It’s actually more powerful to avoid language that people can latch onto. Your point may be derailed if you make it badly.

I think often the problem is that some of us are reluctant to listen to anyone else. It can be hard to hear that someone else has far bigger problems than you do. It can undermine your sense of entitlement and your feelings of importance. And of course this is often exactly the point. The feelings of entitlement and importance, and the need to be ‘above’ someone else is often a big part of what’s causing the real problems. If your white guilt is more important than the experiences of people suffering from racial abuse. If your hurt male ego is more important than women being raped and murdered. If feeling normal as a heterosexual is more important than queer people being imprisoned… these are huge imbalances, and need facing.

It’s the people who complain about political correctness, who, in my experience, are most likely to try and weaponise their own offence. And it works, because they’ve got enough power to do that. This is the scenario if you are offended by homeless people begging, or by images of starving child victims of war, or by paying your fair share of taxes. If you are offended by having to include people who are not like you, and offended by resources going to people who are not like you, your problem is probably you.

I also know that the people who want to be allowed to be un-pc are not likely to be moved by any of these points. So, I shall call them out where I can for being ill mannered, because it might be more effective. I’m also going to try laughing, because laughter is a powerful thing, and people don’t enjoy being told how funny and outdated their ideas are. My experience of anti-pc people is that they want to be taken seriously, and have their opinions respected, which may mean that giggling disrespect is the most effective means I have for getting them to stop with that shit.


Changing the words

There’s a relationship between how we think and the words we use, and it’s circular in nature. However, when your culture has habits of language that encourage certain ideas, it can be worth stopping to look at those. When I was a young person, it was totally reasonable to write books in which the assumed reader was male. That puts over a message that women don’t really count.

When we take nature words out of children’s dictionaries to replace them with the language of the internet, that’s both a reflection of what’s going on, and a furthering of it. When we don’t have words to talk about things, those things are harder to share and explain. The words we have and the words we use, matter. They shape our thinking and our interactions, they are the basis of our culture.

I was interested to see PETA challenging some of the animal abuse norms in language recently. I’ve dropped ‘killing two birds with one stone’ from my own way of talking because it’s not what I want to say. They advocated against describing test subjects as guinea pigs, but I’m inclined to go the other way. Let’s be lab rats and test beagles when we are subject to experiments ourselves. It’s a good way of reminding each other that this stuff happens.

Sadly, the PETA alternative phrases were awful and sounded forced and silly. You don’t get meaningful language shifts by dictating in this way. It’s better to open it up and invite people to reconsider and then see what happens. Where the power lies is in looking at habits of speech and what they suggest, and being willing to rethink them. Why do we use animal names as insults? (bitch, catty, cow, mare, bullshit, etc) Why do we call especially nasty humans animals? The idea that animals are inferior to humans is woven through our speech. It’s worth thinking about and watching for.


The Employment Problem

A guest blog from Stephen Palmer.

Blog originally posted 15/4/17

In recent months much has been written by various media publications about the likelihood of jobs being “taken” by robots and other automated systems, including by AI (or AGI – Artificial General Intelligence – as it is often called now). There are various possible scenarios: hyper-rich individuals owning AGIs and thereby removing the need for employees, resulting in mass unemployment; a huge change in the types of jobs being done, as with the change from manufacturing to services in the case of Britain over the past few decades; or perhaps a strengthening of the exploitation effects inherent in the capitalist system. In my novel No Grave For A Fox I had the latter option prevalent, with the nexus embodied in various android-type bodies. In Beautiful Intelligence the effect was not so obvious, the main employment effect being a decentralising one.

But in the Factory Girl trilogy I also considered these options, despite the 1910-11 setting. The automata (or horas as they are sometimes known) which are one of the mysteries of the novels are owned by Sir Tantalus Blackmore, a classic Victorian entrepreneur who exploits everything and everybody to become as rich as possible – or so it seems at first glance. But, whatever his motives, Sir Tantalus does own outright the ability to utilise the automata made by his Factory. In this regard he is deemed one of the sources of the wave of mass unemployment affecting my alternate Britain, as shown in this early conversation between Kora and Dr Spellman:

They stepped out of the hansom cab, waiting on the pavement while the automaton lifted Dr Spellman’s luggage off the rack. “Will you pay it?” Kora asked. “No.” “Why not? You paid the one in London.” “Yes,” said Dr Spellman, “but he was human.” “That is not fair. How can the Factory make money if nobody pays the automata?” Dr Spellman chuckled. “A very good point! You’re not daft, are you? Well, you see, the local Council pays your father for the automata who do all the work.”

In other words Sir Tantalus has a monopoly, which even extends to public use, as exemplified by the Sheffield Town Council having to pay him.

Although there was unemployment in Edwardian times, I did have in mind future possibilities when I was preparing the scenario for the three novels. Sir Tantalus is a private individual. He has broken the link between people giving their labour in return for a salary. Labouring individuals can associate into unions, which gives them power, since, if the business is dependent on labour, they can go on strike. This is not the case with Sir Tantalus or with any private individual who might use an AGI. If, rather than changing the mode of employment, an AGI owner bypasses labour entirely via their AGI then that labour loses its power of strike; and this is perhaps the worst danger of future AGI use. Such an owner would have the ability to accumulate capital without any hindrance – and that has never happened before.

Sir Tantalus enjoys exactly this option. Although there is mystery behind the creation of the automata, he in essence – especially in the early days of his operation – can accumulate as much capital as he likes, since the automata, like AGIs, have no power of strike.

And Sir Tantalus does what any self-obsessed Victorian entrepreneur would do in the circumstances – he sucks up to nobility:

Roka … nodded. “Is [Sir Tantalus in Parliament], then?” “Not in Parliament, no. What he does is far more cunning. He influences from behind the scenes to get what he wants. Why, he’d like to be a lord, you know, but…” “But what?” Dr Spellman shrugged, standing up to continue walking. “He was born into a poor Yorkshire family. Real lords don’t want him anywhere near them.” “That’s not fair.” Dr Spellman chuckled. “It’s one of his weak points, his obsession with nobility. His envy eats him up, Roka.”

Regarding unemployment, there are two sides to the argument in the Factory Girl novels, one which sees the automata as beneficial (pro-hora) and one which sees them as usurping (anti-hora).

Rather surprisingly, Sir Tantalus stands in the latter category:

Sir Tantalus continued, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder whether the achievement of hora emancipation – of Abolition, as Parliament would have it – would in fact be a hollow victory. In Sheffield you perhaps do not see the cruel tide of unemployment that affects London, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. My Factory gives work to more people than you can imagine, and I am glad for that. But as an older man, with little time remaining to him, I can see that there are too many horas in the world today. They do all the work we ask them to. But what of the little man? What of the ordinary man? It is for them that I worry.”

Later in the trilogy the reason for this becomes clear. But others are pro-hora:

“Regardless of the origin of the hora,” Lenin continued, “the hora is a worker, and as such acquires rights such as any worker should enjoy. Though we use the hora as an automatic worker to do tasks such as we do not wish to do, the hora is part of the great commonality of the working class – and it is being exploited by capitalist masters. In the essential regard about which I speak, the hora is akin to the man.

The above speech by Lenin should not perhaps be too surprising. (Lenin lived in Britain for a few years from 1902, so I thought it would be appropriate to have him play a small part in my novel.) But there is another aspect to these considerations which I wanted to use as a main part of the plot, and that is the way capitalism, unlike nature, posits no limit to growth. Though Lenin rightly saw automata as workers, he did not in my novels grasp the dangers of their mode of manufacture. He only saw the end result – employment in Sir Tantalus’ Factory for the men of south Yorkshire, and a force of hora workers who deserved rights. But the danger becomes clear in the third volume, The Girl With No Soul:

Agricultural fields lay littered with inutile horas, thousands of them, their steel exteriors glittering in the sunlight. In distant lanes he saw hundreds more walking apparently at random. The sheer quantity horrified him, and he realised that the Factory was still over-producing. What was Sir Tantalus doing inside?

The outer streets of the city were also strewn with horas, and with hora parts, as if a kind of grisly mechanical fury had ripped through the place. Through a gap in the blinds he observed lines of men at soup kitchens, elsewhere rubble and shattered glass; and everywhere a chaotic press of people with pale, starved faces. Police patrolled the streets in groups – never alone – and there were even a few army officers in uniform.

Over-production – a small, curious, and mostly ignored effect in the first novel – has by the time of the third novel become an overpowering concern. As Erasmus later says:

“Roka – you already know this to be true. You, a Marxist, can see the madness of capitalism, which uses resources as if they are unlimited. Capitalism posits no natural limit to economic growth, and therefore dooms the culture in which it exists – and its environment too. Now do you see?” She nodded. “Capitalism is cancer…“

This is the equivalent of the first option presented in the introduction to this post. A proliferation of automata, like a proliferation of AGIs with nobody to control their creation or use, swiftly gets out of hand. Humanity is blithely doing itself out of an existence. At a time of global population explosion that’s not wise…

The second option is a change in employment styles. In Edwardian times, with severe social stratification, there was little chance for such ‘portfolio careers’ as they’re known today. Most people, especially on the lower rungs of the ladder, had a trade for life. It is in fact the far-sighted men of the Malthus Brigade who change the options for the malformed horas which they collect and adapt:

AutoRoka continued, “Malthus wrote about a future where disease and famine checked the growth of population, suggesting there was a limit to such growth.” Roka said, “Do you believe then that people will all die of starvation in the future?” The man [Ernest] shook his head. “Not people. We’re talkin’ about automata. Thee not noticed ‘ow many of them there are these days?” Roka shook her head. “It’s why the police waste so much time gatherin’ up the loose ones. Soon we’ll be drownin’ beneath them.” Roka grimaced at the image. “You really believe that?” “Oh, aye. It’s inevitable. So we’re takin’ malformed automata, which otherwise would do nowt, to make a force.”

And Ernest sees further, albeit under the spell of mass unemployment:

“ … The whole bloody Empire is built on automata labour, thee sees. No automata – no Empire. No nothin’, in fact.” “I suppose so,” Roka agreed.

Employment not only brings a salary to an employee, it offers far more. Human beings live in entwined worlds of meaning, and employment is one of the main sources of purpose in life. In previous centuries it was obvious to some that making an individual perform the same task over and over again militated against humanity. We cannot do production-line work and remain sane.

If we create a future in which AGIs dispense medical diagnoses, direct trade deals and trade itself, drive cars, trains and planes, or perhaps run all our personal finances, we are creating a future with far less space for meaning. We’ll be making stressed, anxious zombies of ourselves – and there’ll be billions of those.

 

My review of The Factory Girl Trilogy over here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/05/13/the-factory-girl-trilogy-review/


Good humans are not a scarcity

A rather toxic idea I’ve encountered recently is the notion that good humans are in short supply. Which leads to the idea that as good humans are in short supply, we should cling tightly to any half-way decent humans who cross our path. Even if we don’t really get on that well. Even if we’ve uncovered massive differences. Even if one of us has serious doubts that the other one even is a particularly good person.

If you accept the idea that good people are scarce, life is scarier. You may be more persuaded to stick with the people who you already have, regardless of how good they are for you.

It is a standard issue trick from bullies and abusers, to encourage the victim to think that they can’t do any better. No one else would put up with them, or understand them better, or care for them more than the bully does. Good people are in short supply – if I tell you this and I tell you that I am ‘good people’ and I encourage you to be afraid that without me, you will feel even more sad and alone… I am not your friend.

At the same time, we can on the whole afford to think better of the people around us. The haters, trolls and Nazis may be loud right now, and they may drown out quieter voices, but they are not as numerous as they want us to think. Most of the people around you are probably more decent than not, kinder than not. If we can’t believe in the goodness of each other, we become more vulnerable to the minority of people who peddle hate.

Good people are everywhere. Most of them don’t go round advertising themselves as ‘good people’. Many are quiet about the good they do, or under-estimate its worth. There are also a lot of people who would be good if they had any idea what to do, what to trust or believe in, how to navigate in these strange times… if we look after each other and put faith in each other’s goodness, we can collectively overcome this, and make more good happen between us.


When there aren’t two sides to a story

Suggesting that there are always two sides to a story may sound entirely reasonable, but I think it’s a notion that could stand some scrutiny. That the Flat Earth Society persists in stating that the world is flat, does not mean that they have an argument worth listening to. When the science is all on one side, and unsupported opinion dominates on the other, we are not looking at a two sided story, we’re looking at fact and fantasy. This is very much the case with climate change, where there is a consensus amongst the vast majority of scientists, and yet the other side of the story – a tiny minority – is given a platform to speak.

We live in an era that doesn’t discriminate between evidence based information, and opinion. It doesn’t help that the opinion side of any story will usually claim that there would be evidence to support their version if only the evidence side did their job properly. If the ‘facts’ are skewed by biased researchers, of course we shouldn’t trust them. The way that the tobacco industry successfully hid the dangers of smoking for so long is a case in point about how asserted ‘facts’ can turn out to be nothing more than marketing.

So, how do you tell if you’re seeing something reliable and evidence-based, or something that’s been paid for? Actual science tends to be wary of asserting facts. It offers theories that are open to change as new things are learned. Science tends to deal in probabilities, not certainties, so proper science can sound a bit cautious, even when its 97% sure about things. People working based on opinion tend to sound a lot more confident, which in turn can seem far more persuasive.

If you’re looking at something evidence led, there may be uncertainty over how best to interpret the data. You may get more than one possible interpretation. You may get questions raised about whatever hasn’t properly been studied. If someone asserts that they know what the data would look like if only someone did the proper research, there’s every reason to be wary.

When considering whether there could be two sides to a story, we have to consider the reliability of our sources. This is not an easy process, and the less education you have, the harder it can be to assess what might be reliable. You can end up mistrusting all authority and so called ‘experts’ if you’ve got no means of telling which ones are being as fair as they can be, and which ones are playing you for their own ends. That mistrust can then be played on by people who do not want you listening to good information, and people who want opinions to be as important as evidence. When those of us who have the privilege of better education and sharper thinking skills denigrate people who are more easily persuaded by less rational things, we feed into this. Denigrate a person and they have no reason to trust you.

Not all opinions have equal weight, either. The opinions of people who want more than their fair share and who want to hurt and harm others do not deserve to be accepted as valid. The opinions of people who are known to lie and manipulate for their own ends, do not deserve to be taken as seriously as the opinions of someone who has always acted well. People who have done the wrong thing, or who wish to exploit others, will say whatever they think it takes to get them what they want. It is in their interests to persuade you that there were two sides to this story all along. The apparently less tolerant person who won’t accept there could be two sides isn’t always the bad guy.

People who are working with evidence can and will show you their evidence. It takes more work on our part than listening to a sound bite. People who have no evidence will ask you to accept that they know best. They may offer that which is clearly too good to be true. They will assert that their evidence exists and that only prejudice keeps the data from being properly collected. They will be more likely to rubbish their opponent than tackle the details of the argument.

Sometimes there aren’t two sides to a story. Sometimes there is no debate to be had, and nothing worthy of being explored. Sometimes there is evidence on one side, and noise on the other. If you aren’t sure who to trust, ask who will benefit and in what ways, should you believe them.


Breaking your social contract

Following on from yesterday’s blog about social contracts, but not requiring you to have read it…

Civilization is, in practice, underpinned by co-operation. There will always be those who try to compete and exploit, and to a degree, that can be coped with. A grouping of people that goes too far into power hunger or exploitation is likely to experience conflict. The laws held by countries, and the rules held by groups of people exist to try and keep everyone co-operative enough for things to work.  Crimes are things that have the capacity to undermine your culture.

Any culture, community or civilization has the right to resist behaviours that will undermine its viability. This is not at all the same as having the right to make laws and rules that destroy the freedom of others. There’s only so much rigid control you can inflict on a group before it will shatter under the pressure of that.  Those who wish to restrict reasonable freedoms will often justify what they do as being a way of upholding and protecting culture, but that doesn’t make it so. Those who do not want their ‘freedom’ to break social contracts restricted, will call any effort to protect the basis of society an encroachment on their rights.

I think these are the things we need to bear in mind when talking about the right to free speech and the limits of tolerance. If we allow the kind of speech that undermines social bonds we move towards a more oppressive arrangement and if we keep moving that way, we get massive social unrest and violence. If we tolerate people who want to make society intolerable for some, then we’re moving our group towards a state of unviability.

We can afford to accommodate any amount of difference if that difference doesn’t prevent anyone else from quietly getting on with their own lives. Women wearing headscarves are not stopping anyone getting on with their own lives. Women forced to wear headscarves are being prevented from getting on with their own lives. Being LGBT doesn’t stop anyone else from quietly getting on with their own life. If being LGBT is illegal, or encounters violence, then people aren’t being allowed to quietly get on with their own lives.

Tolerance must be limited by whether being tolerant will undermine the feasibility of your people. Tolerance that allows people the maximum freedom it can to live in their own ways, is a good thing. Tolerance that allows people to restrict the freedoms of others is problematic and sows the seeds of its own destruction. The only freedoms we should not allow each other are the freedoms to harm each other. As the intention of hate speech is to bring harmful practices into a culture, hate speech should not be tolerated.

Intolerant societies have violence hardwired into them, and/or break down into violence. Peaceful societies are inclusive, and only restrict freedoms in so far as that’s necessary to prevent harm.


Social contracts

Social contracts underpin our lives, but we don’t talk about them much. To participate in civilization and to benefit from it, we have to agree to contribute what we can or at the very least, not go round ruining things for other people. We benefit from all manner of things that belong to, or are funded by everyone – as do private companies, who often use the idea of their private-ness to suggest they shouldn’t have to contribute as much. They use the road networks, the police, the fire services, the education of their employees and so forth.

At the moment, our social contract obliges us to pay for participation with health – when the work demanded of us makes us ill, when the cities we live in have such bad air pollution that it kills people. Participation comes at a high price. I think government and industries alike are failing to hold up their side of the contract, because profit is put before health – especially where air pollution is concerned.

Any practice that allows a few to profit from the natural resources of the world while damaging the environment for everyone else, breaks the unwritten contract. There is no mutual good or benefit here. Why are some people allowed to profit to an obscene degree while others are exploited? Why are some people allowed to accumulate vast wealth at the cost of making others ill? The greater the distance between the richest and the poorest in society, the more strain there is on that unwritten contract that in theory binds us all together.

Poor, vulnerable and under-privileged people who seem to have broken the social contract, are punished for it. Having the resources you need to survive taken from you, being a case in point. That we have food banks feeding people who would otherwise go hungry and even starve, is itself a manifestation of the social contract, upheld by people who believe that we all have a duty to contribute to society and to help those who have less than us. There are a great many individual people trying to hold our social contracts in place despite the way those in power are ripping to shreds that which was never put on paper.

Humans have always depended on co-operation to survive. We all depend on each other. We depend on the people around us to respect us and not assault us. We depend on each other for food, for amenities, for shared resources. And yet all too often we are persuaded to think of ourselves as isolated individuals who can act alone with no consequences. If we don’t see the threads binding us together, we can do massive damage to everything we depend on. If we don’t see the importance of working for the common good, what we get is exploitation, and benefit for the few at a high cost to the many.

When we see society in terms of winners and losers, we make ourselves poorer. Most of us lose. When we see society in terms of co-operation and mutual support, more people are able to win. What would happen if we aspired to make sure that everyone was winning at life? What would happen if we started to see piles of wealth as weird, and offering assistance where needed, as normal? Why not aspire to a world in which everyone has enough and lives peacefully, rather than heading towards a world where a few powerful individuals get to be kings and queens of their own infertile piles of plastic rubbish?