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"Everything you can imagine is real."— Pablo Picasso

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A Box Of Stories





Q: What kind of things make you worry?

Cormac McCarthy: “If you think about some of the things that are being talked about by thoughtful, intelligent scientists, you realize that in 100 years the human race won’t even be recognizable. We may indeed be part machine and we may have computers implanted. It’s more than theoretically possible to implant a chip in the brain that would contain all the information in all the libraries in the world. As people who have talked about this say, it’s just a matter of figuring out the wiring. Now there’s a problem you can take to bed with you at night. (…)

Well, I don’t know what of our culture is going to survive, or if we survive. If you look at the Greek plays, they’re really good. And there’s just a handful of them. Well, how good would they be if there were 2,500 of them? But that’s the future looking back at us. Anything you can think of, there’s going to be millions of them. Just the sheer number of things will devalue them. I don’t care whether it’s art, literature, poetry or drama, whatever. The sheer volume of it will wash it out. I mean, if you had thousands of Greek plays to read, would they be that good? I don’t think so.” “
Cormac McCarthy, an American novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, interviewed by John Jurgensen in Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy, The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 20, 2009. Photo: Cormac McCarthy
Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.
Ayn Rand, Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter (1905-1982), The Fountainhead, Bobbs Merrill,1943, p. 715.
They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.
— a career U.S. intelligence officer on the U.S. government, in a Washington Post exclusive (June 6, 2013) on how the NSA and FBI is tapping into the central servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

“Only the understanding of evolution offers a chance to get a real understanding of the human species. We are determined by the interplay between individual and group selection where individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. We’re all in constant conflict between self-sacrifice for the group on the one hand and egoism and selfishness on the other. I go so far as to say that all the subjects of humanities, from law to the creative arts are based upon this play of individual versus group selection. (…) And it is very creative and probably the source of our striving, our inventiveness and imagination. It’s that eternal conflict that makes us unique. (…)

Q: (…) [W]ill we reach a higher state of humanity?

Do we really want to improve ourselves? Humans are a very young species, in geologic terms, and that’s probably why we’re such a mess. We’re still living with all this aggression and ability to go to war. But do we really want to change ourselves? We’re right on the edge of an era of being able to actually alter the human genome. But do we want that? Do we want to create a race that’s more rational and free of many of these emotions? My response is no, because the only thing that distinguishes us from super-intelligent robots are our imperfect, sloppy, maybe even dangerous emotions. They are what makes us human.” “

Edward O. Wilson, American biologist, researcher (sociobiologybiodiversity), theorist (consiliencebiophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author, Interview with Edward O. Wilson: The Origin of Morals, originally in P. Bethge, J. Grolle, Wir sind ein Schlamassel, Der Spiegel, 8/2013. (Photo: Edward O. Wilson in Puerto Rico, NYT)

See also: ☞ E. O. Wilson on human evolution, altruism and a ‘new Enlightenment’, Lapidarium notes

Alex (sandy) Pentland: Reinventing Society In The Wake Of Big Data

“While it may be useful to reason about the averages, social phenomena are really made up of millions of small transactions between individuals. There are patterns in those individual transactions that are not just averages, they’re the things that are responsible for the flash crash and the Arab spring. You need to get down into these new patterns, these micro-patterns, because they don’t just average out to the classical way of understanding society. We’re entering a new era of social physics, where it’s the details of all the particles—the you and me—that actually determine the outcome.

Reasoning about markets and classes may get you half of the way there, but it’s this new capability of looking at the details, which is only possible through Big Data, that will give us the other 50 percent of the story. We can potentially design companies, organizations, and societies that are more fair, stable and efficient as we get to really understand human physics at this fine-grain scale. This new computational social science offers incredible possibilities.

This is the first time in human history that we have the ability to see enough about ourselves that we can hope to actually build social systems that work qualitatively better than the systems we’ve always had. That’s a remarkable change. It’s like the phase transition that happened when writing was developed or when education became ubiquitous, or perhaps when people began being tied together via the Internet.

The fact that we can now begin to actually look at the dynamics of social interactions and how they play out, and are not just limited to reasoning about averages like market indices is for me simply astonishing. To be able to see the details of variations in the market and the beginnings of political revolutions, to predict them, and even control them, is definitely a case of Promethean fire. Big Data can be used for good or bad, but either way it brings us to interesting times. We’re going to reinvent what it means to have a human society.” “
Alex (sandy) Pentland, PhD, the Toshiba Professor at MIT, a serial entrepreneur, and is one of the most cited authors in computer science, Reinventing Society In The Wake Of Big Data, Edge, Aug 30, 2012.
Right now we’re living in what Carl Sagan correctly termed a demon-haunted world. We have created a Star Wars civilisation but we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. That’s dangerous.
E. O. Wilson, American biologist, researcher in sociobiology, biodiversity, theorist, naturalist and author, E. O. Wilson: from altruism to a new Enlightenment, New Scientist, 24 April 2012.
The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years provides a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, perceptiveness over I.Q.
David Brooks, journalist, a political and cultural commentator, Social Animal, The New Yorker, 17 Jan 2011

Social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers

“If we think that humans have evolved as social learners, we might be surprised to find out that being social learners has made us less intelligent than we might like to think we are. And here’s the reason why. (…) I can choose among the best of those ideas, without having to go through the process of innovation myself. So, for example, if I’m trying to make a better spear, I really have no idea how to make that better spear. But if I notice that somebody else in my society has made a very good spear, I can simply copy him without having to understand why. (…) We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species. But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves. (…)

As our societies get larger and larger, there’s no need, in fact, there’s even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers. (…) If we imagine that there’s some small probability that someone is a creator or an innovator, and the rest of us are followers, we can see that one or two people in a band is enough for the rest of us to copy, and so we can get on fine. And, because social learning is so efficient and so rapid, we don’t need all to be innovators. We can copy the best innovations, and all of us benefit from those. (…)

I want to go further, and suggest that our mechanism for generating ideas maybe couldn’t even be much better than random itself. And this really gives us a different view of ourselves as intelligent organisms. Rather than thinking that we know the answers to everything, could it be the case that the mechanism that our brain uses for coming up with new ideas is a little bit like the mechanism that our genes use for coming up with new genetic variance, which is to randomly mutate ideas that we have, or to randomly mutate genes that we have. (…)

We think of ourselves as so intelligent. But when we really ask ourselves about the nature of any evolutionary process, we have to ask ourselves whether it could be any better than random, because in fact, random might be the best strategy. (…)

We know they’re random in the genetic case. We think they’re random in the case of neurons exploring connections in our brain. And I want to suggest that our own creative process might be pretty close to random itself. And that our brains might be whirring around at a subconscious level, creating ideas over and over and over again, and part of our subconscious mind is testing those ideas. And the ones that leak into our consciousness might feel like they’re well-formed, but they might have sorted through literally a random array of ideas before they got to our consciousness. (…)

Maybe curiosity means trying out all sorts of ideas in your mind. Maybe curiosity is a passion for trying out ideas. Maybe Einstein’s ideas were just as random as everybody else’s, but he kept persisting at them. (…) We might even wonder if the people in our history and in our lives that we say are the great innovators really are more innovative, or are just lucky.” “
Mark Pagel, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Reading University, England and The Santa Fe Institute, ☞ Infinite Stupidity. Social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers, Edge, Dec 16, 2011
If the world is to change for the better it must start with a change in human consciousness, in the very humanness of modern man.
Václav Havel, Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician. Former President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic, (1936-2011), Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala (English translation by Paul Wilson), 1990, Ch. 1 : Growing Up “Outside”, p. 11.
In the future, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it may be that the most important things historians will see are not technological advancements or the Internet, but the fact that for the first time a substantial and rapidly growing number of people had choices.
Peter Drucker, an influential writer, management consultant, and self-described “social ecologist” (1909-2005), cited in Esko Kilp, The competitive edge of the social business, Social Enterprise Today, Nov 22, 2011.

Zygmunt Bauman: ‘Modern society stopped questioning itself’

“What is wrong with the society we live in - said Cornelius Castoriadis - is that it stopped questioning itself. This is a kind of society which no longer recognizes any alternative to itself and thereby feels absolved from the duty to examine, demonstrate, justify (let alone prove) the validity of its outspoken and tacit assumptions.

This does not mean, though, that our society, has suppressed (or is likely to suppress, barring a major upheaval) critical thought as such. It has not made its members reticent (let alone afraid) of voicing it either. If anything, the opposite is the case: our society — a society of “free individuals” — has made the critique of reality, the disaffection with “what is” and the voicing of disaffection, both an unavoidable and an obligatory part of every member’s life-business.

As Anthony Giddens keeps reminding us, we are all engaged nowadays in “life-politics”; we are “reflexive beings” who look closely at every move we take, who are seldom satisfied with its results and always eager to correct them. Somehow, however, that reflexion does not reach far enough to embrace the complex mechanisms which connect our moves with their results and decide their outcomes, let alone the conditions which hold such mechanisms in full swing.

We are perhaps more “critically predisposed,” much bolder and intransigent in our criticism than our ancestors managed to be in their daily lives, but our critique, so to speak, is “toothless,” unable to affect the agenda set for our “life-political” choices. The unprecedented freedom which our society offers its members has arrived, as Leo Strauss warned a long while ago, together with unprecedented impotence.’ “

‘The Trouble with Being Human These Days’
Zygmunt Bauman, world-renowned  Polish sociologist and philosopher, one of the creators of the “postmodernism” concept. Professor of sociology at the University of Leeds, Liquid Modernity, Polity Press, 2000.
See also: ☞ Zygmunt Bauman: Europe’s task consists of passing on to all the art of everyone learning from everyone
Iain McGilchrist on how the ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society

“The left hemisphere is detail-oriented, prefers mechanisms to living things, and is inclined to self-interest. It misunderstands whatever is not explicit, lacks empathy and is unreasonably certain of itself, whereas the right hemisphere has greater breadth, flexibility and generosity, but lacks certainty.

It is vital that the two hemispheres work together, but McGilchrist argues that the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in the modern world, resulting in a society where a rigid and bureaucratic obsession with structure and self-interest hold sway. (…)

Whatever the relationship between consciousness and the brain – unless the brain plays no role in bringing the world as we experience it into being, a position that must have few adherents – its structure has to be significant. It might even give us clues to understanding the structure of the world it mediates, the world we know. (…)

The structure and experience of our mental world. In this sense the brain is – in fact it has to be – a metaphor of the world. (…)

I believe that there are two fundamentally opposed realities rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. But the relationship between them is no more symmetrical than that of the chambers of the heart – in fact, less so; more like that of the artist to the critic, or a king to his counsellor. (…)

I hold that, like the Master and his emissary in the story, though the cerebral hemispheres should co-operate, they have for some time been in a state of conflict. The subsequent battles between them are recorded in the history of philosophy, and played out in the seismic shifts that characterise the history of Western culture. At present the domain – our civilisation – finds itself in the hands of the vizier, who, however gifted, is effectively an ambitious regional bureaucrat with his own interests at heart. Meanwhile the Master, the one whose wisdom gave the people peace and security, is led away in chains. The Master is betrayed by his emissary.” “
Steven Pinker: ‘Today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on Earth’

“Drawing on the work of the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley, Steven Pinker recently concluded that the chance of our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors meeting a bloody end was somewhere between 15% and 60%. In the 20th century, which included two world wars and the mass killers Stalin and Hitler, the likelihood of a European or American dying a violent death was less than 1%.

Pinker shows that, with notable exceptions, the long-term trend for murder and violence has been going down since humans first developed agriculture 10,000 years ago. And it has dropped steeply since the Middle Ages. It may come as a surprise to fans of Inspector Morse but Oxford in the 1300s, Pinker tells us, was 110 times more murderous than it is today. With a nod to the German sociologist Norbert Elias, Pinker calls this movement away from killing the “civilising process”.”