The Dark Side of the Summer of Love

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Researching for my talk at TEDx this year, I came across scanned pages of this superb article in Playboy magazine. Who knew what crazy stuff was out there on the Interwebs?!

Seriously, it’s a very fine piece that gets under the skin of what was really going on at the time, through the story of a doctor who opened a free clinic in Haight-Ashbury that acted as a kind of barometer of what was going down out on the streets beyond. Much of it was a very long way from the ‘peace and love’ ideal that has become the myth.

The Haight was becoming a giant behavioural sink of human guinea pigs living on top of one another and dosing themselves with a bewildering array of chemicals… but one drug stands out as the most destructive, a drug that then, as now, had a reputation as one of the most socially corrosive.

I’ve put them together into a PDF… nothing too explicit I promise, though if your boss would be offended by a few bikinis, it’s probably NSFW. Apologies – the resolution on the last page was a little poor, but the text still readable.

(Illustration by the award-winning Japanese artist, Yuko Shimizu)


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Robots Should Pay Tax | How Much Does a Stormtrooper Make Each Month?

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Chances are, your job is under threat. Chances are, in 20 years, you could be being replaced by a robot. Automation is coming, and it won’t look much like Star Wars.

The problem is, what happened to C3PO’s human predecessor? Or his 6 million predecessors – the highly trained, skilled translators to and from those languages that he (do we use human pronouns for robots?) claims to be able to speak.

The answer, history tells us, is that they went through tough times. Periods of automation bring periods of economic challenge as those whose skilled labour is deemed surplus to requirements – weavers, farm hands, bank branch staff, cab drivers – are thrown back into the pool and told to re-skill. As they do this, the state is expected to pick up the pieces. As this piece in The Guardian notes:

Conventional thinking says that the owners of the machines should reap the rewards, while the state picks up the costs of the ensuing human wreckage.

That doesn’t feel acceptable. This is not Victorian England. If Capitalism wants to rule the world, it’s going to have to do so a little more benevolently, because people are getting pretty fed up with the regime as it currently stands. People like Bill Gates, who has weighed into the debate, and sent Silicon Valley into apoplexy in the process, by suggesting that robots should pay taxes:

“Right now the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

That is, under the hood, one of the most radical statements I’ve heard in a while. It strikes at the heart of the economic assumptions being made about an technologically efficient future that cares not one jot about the people it will make redundant.

Wages are something you never hear about in Star Wars. How much does a Stormtrooper make each month? Does that include healthcare? Where do the Rebels get their funding from? Who supports the families of shot-down squadron leaders?

Hollywood has never liked to do sensible economics. (Just check out the incredible house the linguistics professor lives in in Arrival. She makes how much?) But that it doesn’t is resonant with our own blinkered view of the future: technology will progress and make our lives better and somehow it’ll all get paid for. Someone is paying for C3PO on Premium, because he never spouts ads after 3 hours translation work.

Gates’ intervention is timely and perhaps more important than we think.


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A White House Where He Is Adored

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Very interesting read here about Trump’s ‘Southern White House.’ 

‘He comes down here because he needs constant applause,’ one Palm Beach resident notes. ‘He’s adored within the confines of that club.’

What is becoming clear is that Trump is not adored among the worker-bees of the White House. His solution – flying off to where he really is the adored big man – is remarkable for its highlighting of his desperate need for adoration. 

On top of which we have this extraordinary, irony-free world where the man who campaigned to ‘drain the swamp’ flies off to a drained swamp where he has created a members club that offers access to him as President for a vastly wealthy elite…

There is no drainage in this administration. It stinks.


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A Theology of Human Machines | Solving the ‘Modest Problem of Death’

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A fascinating read in the latest New Republic, reviewing Irish writer Mark O’Connor’s new book, To Be A Machine – subtitled ‘Adventures among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers and Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death.’ Anna Wiener writes:

O’Connell is less interested in evaluating technology than in the people who make it and its philosophical implications. As he places the quest for immortality under the microscope, he follows the individuals—tech visionaries, billionaires, and futurists—who are trying to eradicate, or dramatically postpone, death. “I wanted to know,” he writes, “what it might be like to have faith in technology sufficient to allow a belief in the prospect of your own immortality.”

All of which makes for a fascinating review… though perhaps an incomplete one. Wiener notes that, “it is tempting to see transhumanism […] as merely the latest rebranding of a very old desire”… but goes no further to explore that ancient drive.

It’s this very point about the deep and dogged roots of this desire that I take aim at in Getting High. I haven’t read O’Connor’s book yet, but I hope he does too because it strikes me that until we are clear about the essential ‘why’ of transhumanism, we are unlikely to create technologies that have a postive impact on all in society, and very likely to do great harm.

Avoiding death has long been a project powered by the twin engines of religion and technology. As I argue in my book, what this boils down to is that they are, in fact, thus one and the same thing: the technology of religion is the religion of technology.

But this throws up some interesting questions. Those of us exploring theologies around the ‘death of God’ are basically encouraging people who have grown up with a hope for perfect eternity to abandon that, and accept life as imperfect and finite.

Yet what this piece makes clear – and what I argue passionately in Getting High – is that our task cannot be limited to the traditionally religious sphere. Why? Because the technologists are now promising exactly what priests once did, so our death of God thinking has to now apply itself to the machine age, to the cyborg era. As I write:

In our desperate drive to get high, technology and religion are one and the same. ‘Be perfect,’ the gospel says, ‘just as your father in heaven is perfect.’

The pomp around temple rites is done in the name of the Most High, but is, in reality, performed to sustain the status of his Royal Highness.

Fundamentalist and extremist versions of this model continue to blight lives across the globe, but even where traditional religious belief has waned, Nero remains strong. With acid and Apollo done, the big technology companies continue his game, shoring up their stock valuations by assuring us that we are slowly being lifted up to powerful godhood, that death will soon be put to the sword, that even if the sun dies a new utopia is coming.

It is not.

Promising life and no death, these technologies – just as religions did, and still do – actually suffocate what life we do have. And Wiener recognises this:

A quest for immortality may be the ultimate example of overpromising and under-delivering…

This over-promise is precisely what religion has prospered on for so long, because the promise concerns what happens post-mortem… and thus tends to have very few returning to get their money back. The promise of technology has to function in a different way, and does so via the culture of permanent upgrade: this iPhone, this new iteration, this — the big glossy tech companies insist — is what is leading us onto perfection, and those who refuse to buy into it will be left behind.

Left behind. Recognise that phrase? Wiener’s conclusion is important:

As transhumanism gradually alters the length and quality of human life, it will also alter political and cultural life. If the average human life were to span 100 healthy years, then society, the economy, and the environment would be drastically transformed. How long would childhood last? What would the political landscape look like if baby boomers were able to vote for another 50 years? O’Connell’s foray into transhumanism comes at a moment when our democratic institutions look weaker than ever.

With weak politics and very strong leaders in technology, it is more vital than ever that our theology of human machines is spot on. We need to face this ‘modest problem of death’ with more courage than simply facing the death of our inherited religion. We need to face the potential death of labour as we know it, of our environment as we know it, and of political systems as we know them.

In a future such as this, smart theologians should not waste their talents on the small matter of religion. Ray Kurzweil, one of the most radical transhumanists, who wants to upload himself as a digital consciousness, says ‘people ask me if God exists… and I say, “not yet.”‘ How will we go about saving ourselves from this new divine power? How will we insist that overcoming our fear of death might well be what saves our lives?

 


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A Gandhi for the West?

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I watched Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi this week.

I remember being taken to it by my parents back in 1982. There was an intermission half way through as the reels were changed. I was 10 years old and as the film opened with his assassination, then jumped back in time, I remember being blown away by the power of this mixed up chronology.

Now, all these years later, watching someone break the hold of an oppressive economic elite through radical, inclusive, non-violent empowerment of the poor and dispossessed… it struck me how the West needs him now as much as India needed him then.


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Manchester by the Sea | American Men and Emotional Shut-Down

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I went to see Manchester by the Sea yesterday evening. Central London cinema. Quite excited. Heard lots of great stuff about the film. Really thought I’d love it. Didn’t.

To be clear, I thought the performances were excellent. I thought the cinematography was great. It’s just that the drama left me cold. I wanted to care.  I didn’t.

A quick thought that came to me during the film: may be I’m done with watching films about American guys going through tough times who are emotionally backward, who struggle to express what they’re going through. If I was meant to bawl in pity, and ache at the pathos, I didn’t. This may have something to do with Trump. In which case: America, may be we’re done give a sh*t about your stories, which would certainly be a thing.

In many ways, this film owed a lot to Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon was originally going to play the lead. But GWH offers so much more depth than this did. If you’re going to make a film about a guy numbed with grief, you need the film itself not to be numb.

That said, it’s been universally lauded by critics, and will probably win a bunch of Oscars, so what do I know? This much: La La Land was better, and I can’t wait to see Moonlight 😉


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Hans Rosling

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So sad to hear of his death yesterday. This video – that I’ve used countless times in lessons – captures the man and his message perfectly. A brilliant communicator.

 


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