Friday, March 27, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 19

Section 13: The Lesson of Japan:

Japan shut itself off from the influence of the world between the years 1543 and 1879 by giving up the gun and reverting to the sword.  From having more guns than any other country it succeeded in eliminating them almost entirely.  The Samurai, a group among the ruling class, benefited by reverting to the sword.  But, when Commodore Perry arrived with his ships in 1853, the rulers of Japan realised that they had to revert to the gun again if they were to survive.  It then began to build up one of the world’s biggest navies.  This navy went on to destroy the Russian Imperial Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima – the first time a modern European power was defeated in war by an Asian people.  The lesson of Japan is simple: “Any country that renounces technology makes itself a prey of others that do not.” (Op.cit., 178)

Section 14: Russia in the Vanguard:

Russia had always aped the West, so argues Gray.  For them there is one simple equation: being modern = being like the West.  With respect to Russia, our author writes tongue-in-cheek, I believe.  However, I hasten to add that my understanding of politics and economics is singularly lacking, so I may be somewhat misrepresenting our author.  What is the tone of the following piece?  Is it sarcastic, ironic, tongue-in-cheek or serious?:

Every attempt to modernise Russia on a Western model has failed.  This does not mean that Russia is not modern.  Quite to the contrary, it has pioneered what may prove to be the most advanced form of capitalism.  A hypermodern economy has arisen from the ashes of the Soviet State – a mafia-based anarcho-capitalism that is expanding throughout the West… drugs, pornography, prostitution cyber-fraud and the like – are the true growth sectors in the most advanced economies.  Russian anarcho-capitalism shows many signs of surpassing Western capitalism in this new phase of development.  (Ibid., 179)

Section 15: “Western Values”

Gray praises Japan and China, both of which, while embracing a western-style economy, have not embraced western values. He commends the Japanese by pointing to the fact that on a per capita basis Japan has a tenth of the prison population that the US has.  He gives no statistics for China.  He also suggests that the Russians, who embraced western values more heartily were eventually scorned by the west and were “treated worst than the Axis powers at the end of the Second World War.” (Ibid., 179)

Section 16: Future War:

Gray’s message in this section is to forget the ideological conflicts of the twentieth century and read Malthus once again.  Why?  Quite simply with the unbridled growth of the population of the human animal, wars will be fought over dwindling natural resources. On Thomas Robert Malthus the WIKI is singularly good:

The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus FRS (13 February 1766 – 23 December 1834) was an English scholar who did influential work in political economy and demography.  Malthus came to prominence for drawing attention to the potential dangers of population growth: "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man".  As an Anglican clergyman, Malthus saw this situation as divinely imposed to teach virtuous behaviour: he regarded optimistic ideas of social reform as doomed to failure. He thus presented to the reader a dystopian, negative, view of the world, in contrast to the utopias of writers such as Rousseau and William Godwin. A disaster occurring as a consequence of population growth outstripping resources is known as a Malthusian catastrophe. (See this link: Malthus)

It is interesting that Gray quotes E.O. Wilson, the American biologist and sociobiologist as stating that the genocidal war between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda was partly a struggle for water.  He quotes Wilson as stating:

The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi set out to solve the population problem in the most direct way. (Quoted ibid., 181)

There is also a war of survival going on between the West and Central Asia “with the great powers vying for control of oil as they did in the nineteenth century.  In the Persian Gulf, poor and rapidly growing populations need high and rising oil prices to survive.  At the same time, rich countries need stable or falling oil prices if they are to continue to prosper.  The result is a classical Malthusian conflict.” (Ibid., 181)

Section 17: War as Play:

Here I am struck by the profundity and deep sense that Freud made with most of his much criticised theories.  he was probably criticised harshly because he cut through to the very kernel of the human animal.  If anything, the first great psychiatrist saw into the very heart of things.  I am reminded of his stating that there were two very fundamental instincts in the human animal, viz., the life instinct and the death instinct.  Anyone acquainted with war, or indeed with violence in any of its multitude of forms, will readily agree with the learned doctor.   I am surprised that Gray does not quote Freud more often.  However, he does quote a wonderful scene from Bertrand Russell’s writings.  It was during the Great War and Russell had been in an English railway station: “It was crowded with soldiers, almost all of them drunk, half of them accompanied by drunken prostitutes, the other half by wives or sweethearts, all despairing, all reckless, all mad.” (Quoted ibid., 182)  Such experiences led this great philosopher to revise his more naive view of human nature.  He went on elsewhere to say: “I had supposed that most people liked money better than anything else, but I discovered that they liked destruction even better.” (Quoted ibid., 182)  Gray calls this bloody enchantment with war “the play of war.”

Section 18: Yet Another Utopia:

I notice that Gray uses his profoundly sarcastic black humour to speak of humanity as “homo rapiens.”  Yes, that is indeed “rapiens” not “sapiens.”  In fact, this is the second time he has used this phrase in the book.  When I first came upon it I thought it was a typological error.  Now I realise it is in fact an intended and sarcastic one:

So longer as population grows, progress will consist in labouring to keep up with it.  There is only one way that humanity can limit its labours, and that is by limiting its numbers.  (Ibid., 184)

Section 19: Posthuman Evolution:

Once again Gray almost outdoes himself with his gripping titles.  The central message here is that we humans could possibly, and probably according to our author, and the authors he quotes, be replaced by the artefacts and technologies we ourselves have created.

Section 20: The Soul in the Machine:

Here our author posits the development of “conscious machines.” (Ibid., 187)  He also argues that these machines will not alone become conscious, but that they inevitably will become spiritual.  They will ne able to think and to feel (having developed emotions) and will be full of the errors and illusions that go with self-awareness.  (See ibid., 187)   This section is particularly if delightfully and profoundly black and pessimistic – if I am not totally wrong to use the world “delightfully” here.  I suppose I use this word because at least our man Gray is provocative and playfully courageous in his thought.  I loved this passage especially in which he alludes to that old cogitator, Descartes:

Descartes described animals as machines.  The great cogitator would have been nearer the truth if he had described himself as a machine.  Consciousness may be the human attribute that machines can most easily reproduce.  It may be in their capacity for consciousness that humans and the machines that are now devising are most alike.  (Ibid., 188)

The so called inanimate machines may/will become animate, that is, they may/will develop souls.  This will be a new “animism” as it were.

Above a picture of an advertisement I took at Howth Dart Station - it illustrates our over-riding concern with technology.

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