No Matter Where You Go

CavemanIt didn’t start this way.

It used to be that when you didn’t agree with the group, you’d wander off somewhere else on the planet and do your own thing. It could be about anything – if you saw more good in the risk of leaving the group than the bad of staying, you could wander off. Do your own thing, whatever it was, wherever you went. It was all pretty straightforward. If you got a group together that agreed on this, you’d have your own little starter tribe moving off to another part of the world.

No matter where you go…

The beauty of the world was that we hadn’t quite figured out that it was round, much less finite. It was all pretty infinite since we were using our feet back then. Then more you disagreed, the further you and your group walked. Maybe you were very angry but you find somewhere relatively near that was hospitable, and because of that you ended up closer than you probably should have to your original tribe. So you came up with a tree branch that you could whack other people with, or you figured out how to sharpen it. If you encountered people that you didn’t like, it was a simple matter of whacking them over the head or introducing them to your sharp and pointy stick. Eventually they would do the same.

Maybe you reconciled. Maybe you didn’t. At some point, you either ran out of people or one group moved further away than another. Things moved on. Nobody remembers Ug’s last stand where he was surrounded by pointy sticks, all begun because he believed in picking the fruits a little earlier than they did. Ug felt strongly enough to die for it. He’s not in your history books. Ug also had strong feelings about quantum mechanics, but we’ll never know.

If only Ug had wandered away, we might know.

And so diversity in thought came to the world as people moved just far enough away from each other to not get on each other’s nerves. They created little genetic pockets that caused a change in appearance, however small, even as they figured out how to make metal to chop down forests so that they could use that new invention, fertilizer. Populations grew, and soon the distance that was far enough some time ago was no longer far enough away for some. Wars were waged, walls were built, and conquerors decided that their way of life was so good that people wouldn’t mind a little violence to have their way of life.

As luck would have it, during that violence many people who disagreed with the invading way of life would be removed from the planet…. or the invading force who was convinced of how awesome their way of life was were removed. None of this was decided on merits. It was decided by technology, by aggression, and by strategy. There are some that say that this hasn’t changed very much since.

During all of this, one of the descendants of the folks that killed Ug – remember Ug? – figured out that things floated and, with a little work, they could make things that could take them over water. On a planet mainly covered in water, this was a pretty big deal though they didn’t know it at the time. Some guy would later be accused of proving the Earth was round the same year that the globe was invented, all because he was lost. He wasn’t the first, of course, but the people who wrote the history books wanted him to appear first – so he did. We know better now.

And so some people got to wander again, finding different lands where – surprise – they found different people who had been minding their own business and fighting with each other for as long as  they could remember. This was inconvenient, so after a while they conquered them if they didn’t slaughter them. Or, maybe it was time to have some slaves again – slave technology had been around for a long time and hadn’t changed much. For slave owners, who had the authority and power granted to them by themselves, sea faring meant being able to travel with the comforts of slavery to do things that they wanted to do without getting too dirty or sweaty. That these were other human beings didn’t mean too much to them. In fact, they denied it despite obvious indications that this was so.

Populations grew. There was no real place left to wander, and when you get enough people packed closely together for a long enough period of time, they find things to fight over. They did. World Wars came and went, bringing aircraft into the mix even as they started flying around. And so things went.

Meanwhile, with people all over occupying more and more land, there needed to be more effective ways to communicate. Before you know it, there were wires running and people tapping away in code to let other people know something that someone thought was important.

This evolved to the Internet, which you are likely using right now. Connecting the world that had been made of wanderers, it demonstrates how far apart people have grown more often than not.

…there you are.
– Confucius


Stay On the PathThe trouble with society and it’s war of narratives is that it’s all on a defined path. Some people are happy keeping their hands and feet inside their moving lives, content to watch as they meet waypoints on the path. They judge themselves and others by what society determines is a right path and a wrong path. What many fail to acknowledge is that these paths don’t work for everyone and that the paths were decided long ago and may not even be relevant anymore.

The human species is amazingly boring that way. It’s sort of like watching a colony of ants; everyone has their place and does what they need to do to sustain the colony. Where this falters in mankind is the concept of individuality. Where we tell children and later adults that they can do anything. That if they work really hard and follow the dictates of society, they will prosper. It’s plain to see that this is not working out very well for a majority of people around the world who, not unlike drones, go off searching for food for queens.

Are we no more than that?

It would seem so.

But then there are those who find other paths.

The Rains of Cultural Change

Rain of numbersThe rains have come.

In the tropical island calendar, the rains mark ‘Wet Season’ – a time of traffic, accidents and water-filled potholes ranging in size and depth up to Olympic size swimming pool. A time of umbrellas, of inconveniently wet feet, and of replacing windshield wipers.

It was not always so. In Trinidad and Tobago, corporate attire so many attempt to use to forget the agrarian roots is something I often view as a pretentious veil. I did not grow up in an agricultural environment, despite my roots, despite the roots of anyone of East Indian or African descent in this country. I grew up in the “fix things” sector where weather meant either you worked dry or wet – but you worked.

The planet is 71% water. If you’re afraid of getting wet, it’s safe to assume you’re on the wrong planet.

Now, though, the rains mark the end of one part of my agricultural project and the beginning of another. There’s little in project management literature that talks about, “when it begins to rain”, but there should be.

It has been a race. Clearing bush,  getting land brush-cut and plowed, clearing as much of the hill as I could and making my space on my land. Having the pond dug, then dealing with a suicidal hog plum tree. Getting the hill graded and moving stones. Finding things to plant from wherever I could find them and planting them.

The rain is soaking in. There will be some more things planted when the sun dries the top layers a bit. It makes no sense wandering through the field with five pounds of mud on each boot while sliding down the hill. I do not enjoy doing laundry that much.

Now comes the maintenance – keeping the crops in good health. Cutting grass. Spraying when absolutely necessary. The molding of trees, trees that I am happy to say I have planted more of than I have cut down. Before the land fasted, now the land is to be nourished so as to grow things.

Cassava. Eddoes. Corn. Peas. Sweet potato. And the longer term trees – where I plant at least one for each tree I have taken down, the stumps a memorial to that. Each tree I plant, I remove a stump, and so I keep track.

No one says I have to. I simply know I should.

Meanwhile, I visit places where people drive cars that they can barely afford, attempting to convince each other and themselves on how well they are doing, how successful they are. The latest fashions parade like price tags, the smiles gleam too white – unnaturally white – and all the while, they see the rain as a problem. An inconvenience.

Only a few have followed the business side far enough through to understand the importance of the rain – how it affects the crops, the food – how that in turn affects pricing, how that in turn affects the purchasing power of a currency, how that in turn allows for more disposable income to buy things.

It also means things that have not been maintained may flood. It means that the plastic bottles that Trinidad and Tobago so loves in drains present a problem, and while work has been done to clear them, it’s a matter of finding out the hard way. Unfortunately, flooded fields mean less to people than flooded parts of Port of Spain, where the imported goods sector will weep because of lack of foot traffic, etc. People forget where the food comes from.

The food comes partly from the rain – not the plastic bottles woven into the drains, discarded by humans who then complain about the effects of their presence. The food sustains the society.

Our agrarian ancestors understood those things. They kept drains clear. They did not throw things on the ground that would end up in drains. They had the cultural capital to understand poor habits in society can create great obstacles. They knew about these things.

Somewhere, that cultural capital seems to have divested itself. To progress? It would seem not.

That capital still exists, but it is being sold for a chance to act like an inconvenienced overseer on a plantation of plastics. Look at how many have jumped at this opportunity.

Perhaps they should be reaping what they sew; and yet, we all seem to have reaped what they sew.

Scorned Dreams

Commercial Seafront

“ I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. Goddamn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
Tyler Durden (Fight Club, 1999)

People are angry. At the turn of the millenium, though, just about every model showed that there would be more social unrest.

Every day, my generation and those after are inundated with marketing about how products and services are going to make their lives better – with the goalpost of better being set culturally by old ideas that bureaucracies were built to attain. They grew like trees, twisting and turning with the weather of domestic politics in every nation until the Internet, where global politics still sways them like a hurricane force wind.

These are largely all flawed systems that some have grown to depend on. The systems are sometimes failures, based on notions that no longer seem to apply in society, but citizens around the world were told that the benefits of the systems outweighed any negatives. There are generations now that beg to differ.

And they’re angry. Sad. Disillusioned. In the U.S., I’ve seen people my age working 2 and sometimes 3 fast food jobs at a time in a downturned economy where the banking systems quite literally strip-mined people of latent wealth through bad mortgages and loans. In the Caribbean and Latin America, I’ve seen the shifts of global politics make economies tumbleweeds. In Trinidad and Tobago, where the economy was never diversified as it should have, I contrast the people at Starbucks with the people that still use outdoor latrines almost daily.

And they are all told that the world is better than the lives that they have – and they are all lead to believe that things are better than their situation and that if they work just a little harder so that they can spend just a little more, they’ll rise to better lives.

Ahh, marketing. Immigration becomes an issue for the mass media producing countries- the world looks so much better on a flat screen, which used to be only a large white screen for a projector but now includes wall displays, computers and yes, even phones. “We’re wonderful. You’re not allowed here. Special terms and conditions apply.”

And if you do get there, a different reality sets in.

People all around are figuring this stuff out – that they can’t have what is being branded as developed nations. Terrorists, for all the wrong reasons and for imagined good ones, started attacking these ‘evils’ that they see just like a crab drags other crabs down in the barrel. “It is our reality, let us share it with you…” – horrible atrocities, branded under religious fervor but really just really, really bad marketing that directly kills people – a waste of life – too combat the overly good marketing that indirectly robs the majority of the human population with a sense of value.

Every bright eyed idealist and gilded futurist looks forward optimistically. I do so myself, though I’m careful with expressing my thoughts since all these flawed systems came from people not thinking things through beyond political terms, or because of emergencies.

We have been walking into thorny bushes. It might be time to reassess the systems we’re using that lead to all these injuries on our more sensitive parts of society.

The History Rhythm.

Dance!The cliché, “History repeats itself”, is a dull echo of a George Santayana quote and is in itself, timeless – but it has a rhythm of usage throughout history, I’m sure.

I’m sure of this because the study of history is simply the study of mankind dancing to it’s own rhythm.

It’s apparently a really great beat to dance to, so mankind dances.

A culture repeats things, and all around the world, cultures repeated things. As the world began to change, bureaucracies were formed – largely to govern – but bureaucracies were to keep things from changing quickly1. And so they did, and so they do, and so they will. They govern the rhythm of a society, the rhythm the society dances too.

Maybe if we got better DJs we’d have better choreography.

1 Gleick, James Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, Pantheon Books, 1999.

The Technology Dumb

technology and societyIt’s not something new for me to write about – in fact, most of my writing has centered around the constant conflict I feel between technology and… well, just about everything else. I am, at heart, a technology person. By no stretch am I a Luddite, as a Beowulf cluster of Pine64s a few feet away shows.

Our technology seems to continue to surpass our humanity, which really isn’t anything new. But it has become more prevalent and less noticeable because of it’s very nature.

I wrote recently on LinkedIn about technology, democracy and ethics. Almost a month later, “How Technology Disrupted the Truth1 was written about the Brexit vote in Europe… or the part that wants to be a former part that isn’t yet. As I’ve puttered around Facebook between studying, reading and not-writing-enough, I’ve noted a few other things.

People aren’t just having issues related to their writing – they’re having trouble with their reading comprehension. I read about it and went introspective about it. I’ve been writing less over the last few years, true, but I also noted that my writing mistakes had increased – and my capacity to find them required me to not be interacting with the Internet. That’s me, and it’s impossible to extrapolate anything of use from my own experience2, but I see it in all sorts of things from people I know.

And then we get into the misleading headlines that have been popping around social networks, that people share without even considering the larger impact it will have. Where gossip has always been a human problem, we not only have increased it exponentially – we’ve made it a solid business model for clickbait companies.

Some say that all of this is even making us stupid, which is a catchy headline, but for those who make the effort to read the link:

…What we seem to be sacrificing in our surfing and searching is our capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection. The web never encourages us to slow down. It keeps us in a state of perpetual mental locomotion. The rise of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, which pump out streams of brief messages, has only exacerbated the problem.

There’s nothing wrong with absorbing information quickly and in bits and pieces. We’ve always skimmed newspapers more than we’ve read them, and we routinely run our eyes over books and magazines to get the gist of a piece of writing and decide whether it warrants more thorough reading. The ability to scan and browse is as important as the ability to read deeply and think attentively. What’s disturbing is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of thought. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for further study, it’s becoming an end in itself — our preferred method of both learning and analysis. Dazzled by the net’s treasures, we have been blind to the damage we may be doing to our intellectual lives and even our culture…

Skimming doesn’t really help with critical thought when clickbait headlines travel faster than the speed of light. So what’s the answer?

Slow down. Don’t read everything. And take the trouble to read actual writing instead of the drivel that passes for it… if you can tell the difference in modern writing anymore.

1 And I’m tired of letting ‘disruptive’ being batted around so much; I’ll write about that on
2 People who write knowing that would lead to an intense recovery of memory usage on the Internet, I’m sure. We’re all individuals but not one of us has an omniscient perspective.

The Elephants On Parade.

Afterwards Tom and Eric weren't exactly sure at which point during their discussion the elephant had entered the roomIt has been a crazy week around the world, and the facade’s paint has worn thin enough for it to become more undeniable that what was painted over is a bit rotten. The trouble isn’t necessarily the elephants in the rooms, the trouble is the rooms can no longer hold the elephants.

It’s easy to talk about the slaying of innocents when the rhetoric dehumanizes broad swaths of people by a flawed design while people argue over the intent. Whether the intent was there or not when these systems were designed, the elephants threaten to get out of their rooms and that can mean the end of structures as we know them. As it should be, maybe, but the bureaucracy has it’s carpenters, welders and construction workers with Law texts and legal precedents given voice with those armed with cattle prods.

I imagine using a cattle prod on an elephant isn’t too smart, but then I have a bias toward self-preservation.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Society’s self-image and it’s increasingly apparent conflicts between groups within it makes me wonder whether people realize what they’re pretending to be. Cognitive dissonance is a currency traded upon by politicians, be they professional or otherwise, and the tools of society are mocked. We design solutions that create new problems; we create movements that by their very names are divisive.

Equality. Is that such a hard concept? Why is it that every ‘solution’ actually attempts to elevate some group above others to make things more fair when there are many groups who are treated unfairly? It’s an engine that opposes itself, burning itself out and boiling over into more wear and less actual progress than could happen if people worked all together.

Maybe when the elephants get out, they might see each other for elephants. Maybe the walls that separate them blind them to the fact that they are not alone, which some might argue is by design? And when the structures do come down, as they will over time, what will be left?

Society remains conflicted. Should we fix this and make a bigger door? Whatever should we do? Yet the focus seems to be now shifting between whether the elephants should be in rooms at all, or whether the elephants should be kept separate. Oddly, the elephants themselves seem intent on keeping themselves separate while well-wishers seem intent on freeing them.

There’s more than one elephant, and would they actually work together… but instead, they maintain the divisions built around them. At that rate, they will ever struggle and never parade except when let out for their exercise. Whenever that happens.