On this 100th aniversary of the tragic sinking of the Titanic, it seems fitting to write a tribute to that historic event, but one which takes what lessons it may offer and applies them to our own ship of state today.

A story on the PBS Newshour yesterday (Friday, 4/13/12; about an interesting New Yorker article (“Unsinkable: Why We Can’t Let Go of the Titanic,” by Daniel Mendelsohn; got me to thinking about the parallels between that ill-fated vessel, and our perhaps equally tragic nation. The parallels Mendelsohn drew were to Greek tragedy, to the themes of hubris, of Man v. Nature, of something glorious and admired and full of a sense of its own exceptionalism going down in flames, or icy waters, as the case may be. It is about too much smugness and too little pragmatism.

As Mendelsohn aptly put it: It’s too perfect, too much like a story, the “unsinkable” ship sinking on its maiden voyage. Like Oedipus, the flawless hero, swept up and sucked down by forces that grab hold of all those who eschew humility, the great Titanic was doomed by its own sense of perfection, or the sense of those who had invested their identities into it. It was about the limits of technology, about class and injustice, about the bracing, icy reality confronting the dreamed up ideal. It was, of course, the ideal of unsinkability rather than the reality of unpredictability which sank.

The United States is, in many ways, “the Titanic Nation,” this great ship of state launched by the culmination of European development, by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, full of a sense of its own exceptionalism, bigger than life, “unsinkable.” We are still on our maiden voyage, for the first couple of centuries in the history of a nation is still its infancy. And we are careening toward the icebergs of our hubris, of our uncompromising belief in our own exceptionalism, in our scoffing at the demands of pragmatic reality in deference to the oversimplified ideal we believe will always trump it.

Despite what many say, despite what many cling to, despite the satisfaction it may give to entertain the notion, in the final analysis, America is not an ideal; it is a nation, a product of history, a living, breathing, thriving and striving and faltering and self-correcting society, a work in progress, an on-going challenge to be met with a modicum of humility and a heavy dose of pragmatism. And it is the increasing rather than decreasing loss of this awareness that sends us hurtling toward unseen icebergs, destined, perhaps, to collide with them and rip ourselves to shreds in the process.

But we have not collided yet. We have not sunk yet, and do not have to. We can regain our humanity, our recognition of being nothing more or less than a nation struggling with the challenges of thriving in a complex and subtle world, a nation guided by wonderful values and founding principals, but a nation that is not invulnerable because of them, or beyond improvement in deference to them. Sometimes, we need to correct our course, to re-chart our trajectory, to avoid the obstacles that those who designed and launched us could not possibly have anticipated. Their design, and the course they charted for us, remain our foundation, but they do not remain the limits of who and what we are.

There are those in America today, too many, too loud, too smug, too full of hubris and folly, too natonally self-destructive, who insist that we must not evolve, that we must not develop our political economy to confront the challenges of today, that we must not adapt and grow and steer our course through the ever-dangerous waters of history. There are those who offend the spirit and character of the brilliant but historical and fallible men who drafted our Constitution by reducing it to a shallow sacred document, stripping it of its meaning, stripping it of its intent, and seeing in it only a mirror of their own blind ideology, whether its specific clauses actually mirror that ideology or not. (See. e.g., Right-Wing New-Speak.)

There are those who insist that a century-old non-empirical Austrian economic philosopher got everything right, and the entire empirical and analytical discipline of economics as it has developed ever since has gotten everything wrong, and who claim that theirs is the only reasonable position imaginable, all others being error. There are those who are as lost in their own blind ideologies, as insulated from reason and evidence, as any Medieval Inquisitor ever was, and who insist that that is what America is, that that is what America was meant to be. And they are steering us straight toward those icebergs of human folly, of ignorance, of hubris, of believing that an act of admirable engineering, whether technological or social institutional, whether a historically unprecedented giant ocean liner or a historically unprecedented national Constitution, once accomplished, need no longer be piloted in response to the realities as they are encountered, and can not possibly fail if only left to barrel ahead blindly.

As the economist and dynamical systems analyst Brian Arthur noted in his wonderful book, The Nature of Technology, these feats of engineering, of historical innovation, are not faits accompli, but are rather always works in progress, always tested and honed and refined by the reality of life and the challenges that it poses. The brilliance of our nation is not that we got it right once and for all, and only must adhere to that perfect, unsinkable design, but rather that we accomplished something admirable on which we can build, which we can continue to steer, which will take us farther than we ever imagined if only we continue the work rather then rest on ancient laurels.

We are, indeed, a Titanic Nation. But ours is one Greek Tragedy whose ending hasn’t yet been written. We are the ones who will write it. We are the ones who will determine whether it is written by our hubris and folly, or by our wisdom and humility. We are the ones who will either steer it into the icebergs that lay before us, or will continue to navigate our way among them, refining our institutions and developing our humanity to confront a reality that was not part of or foreseen by our original design, but rather is a part of what continues to make us . . . or break us.

As I like to say, let’s write our story well.

(See “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V) for all five parts combined and revised)

(Opening scene: Angels, represented by twinkling stars, are talking about a troubled soul on Earth. They review this soul’s life, and the circumstances that led to its present difficulties….)

It was conceived with great hopes in a simpler time, by a variety of generous parents, and a few original sins. England (via the British Empire), in which modern democracy developed; The Enlightenment, characterized by a fluorescence of rationalistic philosophy; a wide-open new land, with an easily displaced indigenous population; abundant imported and bred slave labor. It developed a grandiose vision for itself, one comprised of the somewhat incompatible “manifest destiny” and protection of liberty, and a faith in its own exceptionalism.

But, as often happens, life presented unforeseen challenges which diverted this soul, the sovereign American People, from its youthful dreams. It gradually was forced to confront its original sins, brutally divided by one of them. Innovations complicated the landscape in which its dreams had been formed. It had to cope with a world comprised of other people with interests of their own, people less convinced of the benevolence of this popular sovereignty than that populace itself was.

But despite this diversion from its original dreams, it was the same soul, peforming many good deeds, born of pragmatism rather than idealism, that were not part of the original plan. It grew to address a changing world, doing what needed to be done to increase the welfare of those who depended on it. It intervened in the home of its parents when brutality racked the latter’s fields and towns, and then watched those parents, unencumbered by youthful dreams, combine the best fruits of their child’s aspirations with the reduced purism that comes from maturity.

But something in the people clung to the purity of youthful dreams, sulking with resistance to adulthood’s demands, an error that sometimes characterizes youth. Just at the point when both the people and their government were on the verge of following the mature wisdom of moderation and adaptation, the dreamer within, childish and narcissistic rather than noble and generous, rebelled, and rent this soul in an internal conflict over whether mature moderation would prevail, or childish purism.

The childish purism rebelled in a moment of crisis, and a large faction of the people said, “Government is not the solution, it’s the problem! The world would be better off without this government we’ve allowed to grow and grow, displacing the purity we had believed in and tried to implement in our youth! We would be better off if we had not allowed the lessons of life to adapt those youthful dreams to the demands of reality!”

And so this soul’s guardian angel decided to show it what the world would have been like without that modern government it now wished dead….

(Continued in “Wonderful Life,” Part II)

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I almost titled this post “Knowledge AND Power,” as a play on my previous post a week or so ago titled “Knowledge is Power,” but decided to be less cute and more descriptively precise. published today an article on a Boulder company’s contribution to smart grid technology ( “Power Tagging,” the name of both the technology and the company, involves embedding “a digital signal deep in the flow of electrons that can be read through the noise.” The larger implication is the gradual evolution of more efficient energy delivery systems, by, for instance, incorporating real-time cybernetic feedback loops that allow energy delivery to adjust to conditions, much as a thermostat turns on and off the heat or air conditioning in a home. But the implications of a smart grid, and particularly of this new technology, are that the more information flows with the energy itself, the more efficiently the demands on the system (e.g., producing exactly the right amount of energy to balance the grid in real-time, a physical requirement of energy production and distribution) can be met.

More generally, information and energy are the intertwined life-blood of human and natural systems. The biosphere on Earth is fueled, ultimately, by the sun (starting with photosynthesis, at the start of the food chain), and evolves through the reproduction, occasional mutation, and competition for reproductive success of packets of information (genes). Human systems are embedded in, and echo, this pattern (as I discuss in my post “The Politics of Consciousness”: In our earliest form, on the African savanna, our fuel came from that solar-powered food-chain and, eventually, the combustion of some of its products (i.e., fire). Our early development involved ways in which to utilize that energy source (feeding domesticated animals, and using fire in the preparation of food and tools, for instance). Much of human history thereafter can be understood in terms of the evolution of energy sources and the technologies for utilizing them (from levers and pulleys to nuclear reactors and solar panels).

Parallel to, and informing, this evolution of energy sources and technologies, is our own cultural evolution involving the innovation, diffusion, and synthesis of ideas. But just as our own evolutionary process is an echo of Nature’s, we in turn have created a technological echo of our own, by creating information technologies which vastly accelerate the reproduction, mutation, competition, and evolution of human cognitive information. And now, we are increasingly taking steps which will allow that information to operate independently of us, just as a thermostat does, with technological systems reacting to information that no human being need ever be aware of.

The potentials for increased efficiency and efficacy in how we address the challenges and opportunities which face us are enormous. Despite the hyperbole that has sometimes surrounded the Computer Revolution, few recognize just how dramatic a threshold we have entered in just the past few decades. From a historical perspective, it may come to eclipse the Industrial Revolution in importance, just as the Industrial Revolution in many ways eclipsed the Renaissance and Enlightenment which were preludes to it.

Just as our own echo of natural evolution is a vastly accelerated process, so too the technological echo we have created promises a new quantum acceleration once again. Human history is an acceleration of natural history due to the increased rate of information-packet reproduction (as fast as we can communicate), mutation (as fast as we can modify), and selection (as fast as we can choose what to believe or what technology to utilize). The secondary evolutionary echo that may occur as a result of information technologies operating autonomously could be another quantum acceleration still, communicating, processing, modifying, and selecting information not only at the accelerated speed that modern computers can, but with the accelerating acceleration (i.e., increasing nth order rates of change) produced by the accumulating innovations themselves. We’ve already begun to experience the first whisper of this new acceleration, with the rapid communications and data processing capacities of modern computers, ushering in new wonders of comprehension and capacity at an accelerating rate. But that is still restrained by our own cognitive speed, still the bottleneck through which our computer-augmented data processing must pass. It is when the evolutionary process of self-replicating, mutating, adapting packets of information by-pass us completely that the new echo begins in earnest.

In a book about speculative future possibilities that I read decades ago (and can remember neither the title nor the author), one idea the author floated was the prospect of robotic combination space-faring/mining machines that could self-replicate with the materials that they mined from extraterrestrial bodies, bringing back virtually unlimited material resources to Earth. (Obviously, we would also need to invent self-replicated garbage collectors removing the equally prolific production of waste, else be even more deluged by garbage than we already are!) Now, imagine combining such machines with any variety of self-replicating and self-disposing/recycling machines to perform any variety of tasks. Finally, imagine their ability to process information about changing conditions or potential design improvements diagnosed from experience, and self-modify when reproducing in order to adapt to this information.

Such an accelerated process may well also accelerate our ability to safely and cleanly tap and utilize the universe’s abundant supply of energy sufficiently to meet any demands placed upon it. Both drivers of evolution, of progress, -information and energy- would be placed on autonomous growth curves, with problem-solving algorithms incorporated into them. It is even conceivable that self-replicated computerized machines could create not only their own off-spring, but their own novel inventions as well, new self-replicating computerized machines to accomplish new tasks newly identified.

Of course, the immediate future offers prospects more modest than these far-fetched possibilities, but dramatic prospects nonetheless, and prospects that will become increasingly dramatic with the passage of time. What it requires of us is a willingness to progress, an understanding that we have not yet arrived at our final condition, that our lot in life can indeed be dramatically improved, and that it is incumbent upon us to facilitate our advance toward an ever-more robust, sustainable, and fair social order to the best of our abilities.

But, as Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and great potential for disastrous unintended consequences. This is true on several dimensions; technological, environmental, and social institutional. As some have noted, we may be on the brink of creating what is essential mechanical life-forms, and unleashing forces we will no longer be able to control. The most common and imminent concern involves nanotechnology: The creation of microscopic machines that can be used, for instance, to target diseases in the body, and can be programmed to reproduce and adapt to changing conditions by reprogramming themselves as they do so. Michael Crichton, in one of his typically scientifically-almost-plausible-but-extreme renditions of this concept, wrote the novel Prey, which depicted swarms of such nanites becoming very effective predators.

Clearly, more dramatically exploiting Nature, both on Earth and beyond, means more dramatically risking the destabilization of the complex systems which comprise us. We must always remain vigilent, and increasingly so, that our increasingly robust harvesting of Nature’s bounty is not done at the expense of the stability and sustainability of the systems which produce that bounty.

And the fear that informs conservatives, that the more we act with a concentrated will, the more we risk losing ourselves to the center of power thus created, takes on new dimensions as well in a future such as the one I have outlined. Vigilantly avoiding the possible pitfalls of falling prey to our own technological and institutional inventions is one more demand upon us, and one we must keep forever at the forefront of our contemplations. But the liberating possibilities of both a more effective and expansive social institutional context, and a more effective and expansive technological context, both  facilitating the provision of needs and wants and opportunities beyond all but our wildest dreams (just as the present is beyond all but the wildest dreams of those of generations and centuries and millenia past), freeing us to grow and celebrate life in ways more profound and subtle than merely meeting the demands of survival which were forever our first and most formidable shackles, is a dream not to be denied.

Despite the risks involved, I find the path we are on more exciting than frightening, one which, when combined with our inevitable increasing mimicry of nature in the production of more organic and organic-like technologies and social institutions, holds the promise for a very bright future indeed.

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The challenges and opportunities posed to humanity by our dependence upon, and articulation with, the natural environment are immense, urgent, and of enduring consequence. The set of interrelated issues involving energy, natural resources, environmental contamination and climate change, and their impacts on the biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and even the lithosphere, as well as on human political, economic, demographic, and cultural systems, are complex, intertwined, and systemic.

I’d like to start a far-ranging and detail-laden discussion here concerning these issues and system dynamics, exploring how human actions alter the systems in which we are ensconced, and thus alter the context of our own existence. The rapid deforestation and desertification of the world not only releases carbon into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming, which in turn increases the frequency and ferocity of forest fires, increasing the deforestation which increases global warming, in an accelerating feed-back loop; it also eliminates rich repositories of biodiversity, at enormous costs to humanity and to the natural world. Our dependence on fossil fuels, also contributing to global warming, contributes as well to volatile and dysfunctional relations among nations and cultures, forcing petroleum dependent developed and developing nations to pander to the sometimes tyrannical and violence-exporting regimes of oil-rich countries.

Considering just global climate change, both well-known aspects (e.g., rising sea levels as a result of global warming, and the threat that poses to low-lying coastal areas), and less well known aspects (e.g., feedback loops such as those involving the albedo effect through decreasing ice caps reflecting less heat into space, thus causing accelerated global warming; and potentially catastrophic chain-reaction effects, such as those involving disrupted marine food chains due to decreased protophytoplankton production), the breadth and complexity of interacting systemic dynamics demand more from us than the superficial and barely informed popular concern and denial that dominate popular discourse on the topic.

In addition to the immense body of systemic theory, empirical observation, and informed speculation concerning how our actions impact our natural context, and how the resulting changes in our natural context impact our existence in return, there is the entire subset of thought and action regarding our actual and potential responses to this reality. The New Energy Economy, focusing on more extensive use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and the technical problems of storage and transmission involved, provides a basis for discussion. Within that framework, specific policy issues, such as the efficacy of cap-and-trade carbon markets, or carbon taxes, or taxes and subsidies more generally, come into play. The history of these efforts, including the intense international negotiations culminating in the tentatively promising Kyoto Protocol and disappointing Copenhagen Accord which followed, and current possibilities, such as more decentralized interconnected carbon markets, belong in the conversation.

As always, I invite any and all to participate, hopefully bringing some combination of expertly informed knowledge and insight, on the one hand, and popular perception and curiosity on the other.

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