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Robots Can Stand the Heat

Eighty two percent of the wealth generated last year went to the richest one percent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth, according to a new Oxfam report released today.

— Oxfam International, January 22, 2018

It turns out that hunting and gathering is a good way to live. A study from 1966 found that it took a Ju/’hoansi only about seventeen hours a week, on average, to find an adequate supply of food; another nineteen hours were spent on domestic activities and chores. The average caloric intake of the hunter-gatherers was twenty-three hundred a day, close to the recommended amount.

— John Lanchester, “How Civilization Started,” The New Yorker, Sept. 18, 2017

When the Earth gets too hot for humans, robots can stand the heat. That is a scenario remote from everyday concerns and routines, a sci-fi movie. And yet the robot you could say is an active part of our Hi-Tech Dreaming. Robotics and AI are after all what Larry Page says Alphabet/Google is really after. And so if we fear a too hot planet the fear is at once displaced by high expectations and gleeful anticipation of a robotic future.

Data from the Hubble and Kepler space telescopes tell us that there are as many as 1 billion rocky Earth-sized worlds in our Milky Way galaxy. If we had to become space voyagers in the next hundred years and escape a planet too hot for habitation, as Stephen Hawkings predicts and advises, robots could shut down during the longer than human life span journey to whatever habitable planet is out there.  Upon arrival at a new planet, robots could boot back up.

Somehow, our human consciousness, housed in a bio-chip, would be there and a new anthropocene age would begin on another planet.

I’m not so comforted by that future scenario, perhaps because I’ve spent days binging on the second series of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II and I’m full of wonder, awe and admiration for the other creatures that share this planet with us. But most especially I am awed by the grandeur of this planet Earth, a grandeur that “will flame out, like shining from shook foil” gathering to a greatness.” What this second Planet Earth series shows us is a threatened planet, the always hard battle of survival its creatures face becoming each day harder as a warming planet creates new conditions of hardship and extinction looms in a future much darker than robots colonizing new planet. I am mobilized on behalf of these lives, o f this planet.

Those who mock the plight of polar bears swimming toward ice that melts under them or the tears of “wilderweenies” shed over a bird’s lost habitat are also mobilized, but differently.

They are  mobilized  to see this ardent concern for the environment as a disinterest in jobs, an unconcern for a human worker’s survival, which we believe necessitates an opening up of the planet’s body to whatever devastation produces a profit, which we are told will trickle down to wages which rise as profits do. This trickling down has not occurred, not in any way proportional to the rise of capital accrued by few. And while the planet moves toward uninhabitability, the few promise their progeny that they will be able to buy passage on an Elon Musk SpaceX rocket of the future to a spa-like space station built by Alphabet’s robots and stocked by Amazon/Whole Foods. Thus, the future is insured.

What psychology is operating in the present is transparently clear:  What darkness our work and profiting is leading us to is not a great fear in an après moi climate, and the “Moi” here is the 1% cited in the first epigraph above.

And yet we are riddled with fears.

We are now fearful of unstoppable fires that burn more ferociously, unshifting rain that raises water to flood levels in no time, mud that sweeps through homes like a lava flow, droughts that turn long time cropping producing land to a vacant derelict like a closed shopping mall, snow and ice in the south and not in the north, layers of thaws and re-freezes that radically disrupt seasonal rhythms that are the instinctual heartbeat of the planet and all its inhabitants.

We are fearful that the heartening “bright promise” of the young can neither be fulfilled nor survive the future our misguided sense of progress has created. Progress toward a robot who can stand a rise in temperature humans cannot and who can survive the chaos starvation and mass migrations from uninhabitable regions to those barely inhabitable is, I suggest, not a progress that is encouraging, not a progress we can relate to our young to encourage them to look hopefully to the future.

Our present politics is built on the repressed grounds of such fears. We cannot face them, perhaps because they promise a future we cannot change, or because, true to form, there is no profit in it but rather chaos.

“And when I love thee not,” Othello tells Desdemona, “Chaos is come again.” And what we must keep on loving is what makes us happy, a pursuit we have declared at the nation’s founding as equal to life and liberty.

Inevitably, happiness has not reached us as a Taoist sense of inner happiness but as directed toward getting and spending, the world, as Wordsworth tells us, being too much with us, leaving us out of tune with Nature.

We have, in fact, a rich and long legacy of admonitions regarding a progress path of dominating the planet and turning all its resources to profit, a mission as assiduously followed as a Wall Street mission to privatize all that was once public, to turn every mind toward winning in the way Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street describes it: “Greed is good; Money never sleeps.”

Nevertheless, we live after all that has been heard and laid aside. We live now in a way to defend and protect ourselves from the Big Picture and so focus on the details, on the minutiae, on busy work, on whatever makes it seem as if these matters are the ones to focus on, consuming us the way innumerable apps will consume us, the way yet another visit to Facebook, another venting on Twitter consume us.

We skirt around or block out clear evidence revealing that capitalism, pared down to financier’s money approach to making money, boosted by cybertech and thus efficiently globalized, has led to a plutocratic order in which almost all has drifted upward and nothing trickled downward.

Connected with that, like the sequencing of a nightmare, this looting has been done at the expense of the livable conditions of this Goldilocks planet. And we are caught in an imaginary that tells us this is progress and if it is not, we cannot do anything about it.

Faced with this dark abyss, this worlding of our own creation that cannot be faced, we stage quarrels, burning issues, explosive marches, angry divisions that occupy us. We stage what we can still hope to possible resolve and reconcile, shadowed by the looming presence of what creates so great an ontological dread that every degree of order would fall apart were we to engage in an open confrontation.

Although Democrats now know that a substantial portion of the populace was not reached by their identity politics nor by Sanders’s direct assault on plutocracy, they now stand behind the Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants who face deportation if the immigration law is not changed. The bigger picture shows us that there are some 21% of all children living in families in the U.S. who are below the poverty line. Some 15 million children have dreams confined by poverty itself.

The way our own plutocratic order tells us that the lives of the impoverished, women, immigrants, ethnic and racial minorities can matter is for them to have what matters in a plutocratic society: money.

We fear disrupting that plutocratic order, the Losers ensnared in a classic false consciousness by which they identify with Winners. We fear upsetting the stock market’s record breaking drive, which promises somehow to settle the plutocratic order into some equitable arrangement of labor and capital. We fear dismantling a plutocracy, making all life, human, and all other creatures, matter more than money. And yet this rapacious economic order is driving us toward our own extinction. In the face of this drama of disaster, we scramble for distractions.

LGBTQ rights, opiod epidemic, Black Lives Matter, bullying, political correctness, #MeToo, and the Resistance to Trump, school shootings, the many dangers to our electoral process created by “social media” and cyber terrorism, nuclear weapons in the hands of the unstable, including our own president, are each worthy of attention. But we are not at a place and a time where we can spend time going down those paths.

They are not on any road that connects with the all out, focused effort that must be made to stop our plutocracy creating economic order and all its endeavors accelerating global warming.

It is as besides the point to dream of robots somehow advancing our humanity as it is to spend valuable time in divisive twitter haranguing over what is newly viral.

We are trying hard not to look at what threatens us the most and so we go down roads that never lead to confronting our new economic Feudal order. We try hard to ignore the many signals the planet is giving us that our time on it is coming to an end.

In an update in 1990 of his 1980 Cosmos series, Carl Sagan spoke of the” Venus Effect,” an over-heating of the planet with a 99% CO2 sunlight absorbing atmosphere, which the Earth’s CO2 accumulation was heading toward. His four recommendations — more efficient use of fossil fuels, research and development of alternative energy sources, reforestation, and curbing world population growth by bringing those in poverty to self-sufficiency — have been treated like a hard regimen to lose weight, drink less, or call your mother more often.

It has been far easier to establish a deep and abiding personal connection with a Smartphone or your Facebook page than with matters with which you are not personally involved. To be personally happy, you do not need to think about any of this. And now we are so full of fear, so numbed and so distracted by a blanket of white noise we cannot penetrate that we are no longer capable of thinking about any of this.

We have stupefied ourselves as a means to escape the apocalyptic nightmare our own minds have created.

If deep ontological fear explains why we don’t put global warming to the center of our lives, our legislation and our discourse, deep numbing explains why yet another school shooting has become a norm, why a degenerate president’s assault on a Constitutional order leaves us wondering who might win, and why wage earners who punch a clock every day and make up 59% of the U.S. work force can be scheduled for extinction as a matter of social progress.

Undoubtedly, punching a clock at more than one job and steering a survival course for a family day by day numbs the power of attentiveness to the issues threatening human life on this planet. But is it not the job of those elected who have the time to lead us toward such attentiveness? Is it not the job of every educator in every grade to do so?  Is it not a matter for every religious institution to sermonize?

The second epigraph to this essay points out that our imagining of progress needs to face the fact that hunter gatherers worked less, were healthier and each knew far more of the planet Earth than is now the case. It tells us that we had something that worked between human and planet and in the excitement of so much real progress, we somehow managed to lose that beneficial symbiosis we had at the very start.

More articles by:

Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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