Tag Archives: jon swan

Last Holiday

Now comes a guest essay by our roaming poet-correspondent Jon Swan, with images added by DP:

An ancient film – it came out in 1950 – called Last Holiday and featuring Alec Guinness, tells the story of a modest farm-equipment salesman who, diagnosed as having a fatal form of cancer, withdraws his life’s savings, buys a set of handsome second-hand clothes and a car, and drives off to spend his last holiday at a posh resort, where he meets and charms influential people, falls in love, and encounters a cancer specialist who assures him that he has been misdiagnosed and has years to live. Overjoyed, our hero hurries back home to prepare for his new life and, swerving to avoid a dog lying in the middle of the road, crashes, and is killed.

Now, here we are – nearly three quarters of a century later and it seems that all those who can afford to travel are hurrying off to spend one last, or next to last, or just one more holiday – in Amsterdam, for example, which was visited by 18 million people in 2016 (a million more than the total population of the Netherlands); or Barcelona (population: 1.7 million), which last year attracted more than 32 million tourists; or the sinking city of Venice (permanent population: 55,000), which annually attracts 20 million milling tourists; and so on. These massive visitations substantiate the observation of German novelist and poet Hans-Magnus Enzensberger: “Tourists destroy what they are looking for by finding it.”

 

WE FOUND THE CANAL!

 

It’s not only the presence of so many people in such little space that creates havoc with local customs and prices, as well as the costly problem of collecting and disposing of waste; it’s the way the hordes are arriving, especially those disgorged by cruise ships.In a recent report, NABU, Germany’s Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, pointed out that, while cruise ship companies try to make cruising appear an environmentally friendly tourism sector, “one cruise ship emits as many air pollutants as millions of cars.” The press release explained: “This is because sea-going vessels use heavy fuel oil for their engines, a fuel that on land would have to be disposed of as hazardous waste. Heavy fuel oil can contain up to 3,500 times more sulphur than diesel that is used for land traffic vehicles.”

Furthermore, NABU reported,cruise ships lack the kind of exhaust- abatement technologies that are standard in trucks or passenger cars, and the stuff they spew from their snow-white chimneys – black carbon, in particular — contributes “massively” to global warming. “Almost 50 percent of the warming of the Arctic is attributed to black carbon,” the report points out. Coincidentally, an August 29 Rolling Stone article by Jeff Goodell noted: “The Arctic has been heating up faster than any other place on the planet. Last winter, temperatures in the Arctic were 45 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.” The article bore the headline: “The Melting Arctic Is a Real-Time Horror Story — Why Doesn’t Anyone Care?”

 

CRYSTAL SERENITY ON ICE

 

While the cruise ships befoul the air at one level, the airplanes that ferry the well-to-do to their vacationland dreams are laying down layers of global-warming C02 in the skies above. In July 2017 The New York Times published an article by Tatiana Schlossberg that bore the headline Flying is Bad for the Planet. You Can Help Make It Better and that starts off by stating:  “Take one round-trip flight between New York and California, and you’ve generated about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that your car emits over an entire year.” According to some estimates, Schlossberg notes, “about 20,000 planes are in use around the world, serving three billion passengers annually. By 2040, more than 50,000 planes could be in service.” Meanwhile, perversely if not irrationally, to encourage “brand loyalty,” airlines reward frequent fliers with so-called free miles.

On July 5 of this year Medium, an on-line platform, published an article by Douglas Rushkoff, a highly regarded media theorist, which bore the headline Survival of the Richest, with the subhead stating The Wealthy Are Planning to Leave Us Behind. It was promptly picked up by The Guardian, which ran the piece under the headline How Tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse. The article describes the author’s surprise at being invited, for a hefty fee, not to give a talk but to take part in a series of one-on-one meetings with hedge-fund millionaires anxious to know, for instance, which region will be safest during the coming climate crisis, or how do I maintain authority over my security force after The Event – this being their euphemism for environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, and so on.  Aware that they would need armed guards to protect their compounds, they wanted to know how would they pay the guards once money was worthless.

They were, Rushkoff writes, “preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with … insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion.”

 

SURVIVAL SUPPOSITORY

 

Both those wealthy enough to cruise or fly in pursuit of happiness and the super-rich are, in all likelihood, not unaware of the diagnosis for our survival as a species on planet Earth – doomed unless we radically alter our priorities, including reducing our dependence on fossil fuels — but appear unable to break the habits that have become symbolic of affluence and proof of our standing in society, or are just part of doing business as usual. We have been everywhere, and now look where we are – our foot on the pedal, going faster and faster, unable – unwilling — to swerve in time to avoid the smash-up of our civilization, not to mention the demise of our reckless species.

 

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The Ultimate Exit

In the ever-expanding Annals of Hubris and Delusion, we turn to recent comments made by two distinguished physicists who appear to have caught the same strain of Space Fever presently burning through the ranks of the world’s billionaires. First up: Freeman Dyson, in the pages of the New York Review of Books:

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Words shocking in their shallowness, from a scientist of such stature: what evidence can Dyson summon to justify his view that humans merit such an expanded role, as “creators of a living universe”?

The historical and environmental record actually suggests the opposite, namely that we destroy and contaminate everything that comes within our grasp. Untethered from any empirically grounded evidence, Dyson sounds like a fairground barker, urging dim punters to pony up for the ET Fun House.

Then we have Stephen Hawking, writing in the Guardian:

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Oh my. First, Hawking takes note of the “ever-increasing risk” of being wiped out; yet somehow this does not diminish his ardor for signing up for one of Dyson’s Ark “seeds”, conveyed we suppose by the likes of Bezos and Musk.

Rather than confront the limitless appetite for violence and environmental damage exhibited in centuries of human behavior, and the consequent implications for evolutionary biology, Dyson and Hawking become mouthpieces for a Grand Exit Strategy for those who have amassed sufficient plunder: ad astra!

DP correspondent Jon Swan writes:

It is more thrilling to imagine finding life –  even if it is only a speck of bacteria – deep within a frozen ocean of another planet, which Congress has directed NASA to do in its Europa mission, the centerpiece of its Ocean Worlds Exploration Program, than to try to heal a wounded planet. And more thrilling yet to imagine establishing human colonies in space, as billionaire Elon Musk hopes to do on Mars, and as do even such respected scientists as Freeman Dyson and Stephen Hawking, who, in his latest book, writes, “I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go to space.” 

There can be little doubt that our species will wiped out on the planet that gave birth to us if we turn away from the reality that surrounds us and focus our hopes and dreams — and spend our treasure — on starting a new life in outer space. But is a species that is willing to turn its back on the plight of seven, eight, and soon nine billion lives and to spend billions on providing for the escape of a privileged few worth preserving?  

A very good question; and as the Cold War heats up all over again, we suggest a far more plausible endgame for the human adventure, one more consistent with the scientific and historical evidence:

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Under Wraps Perhaps

Now comes corresponding poet Jon Swan with a a few reflections on our most entrenched habits of thought and behavior, by way of an individual named Destin Sandlin who apparently aspires to be smarter every day. His video demonstration of the backwards-brain bicycle has received over twelve million views, which we suppose fits the definition of having “gone viral”.

The images are by Andrew Krieger, whose quietly subversive dispatches from the mysterious Deep Ellum we shall be exploring more thoroughly in a future post.

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Square Wheel Study (Aggressive), 2006

SQUARE WHEEL STUDY (AGGRESSIVE), 2006

 

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Square Wheel Bike Repair Platform in Deep Ellum, 2006

SQUARE WHEEL BIKE REPAIR PLATFORM IN DEEP ELLUM, 2006

 

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In Their Own Persons

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HISTORY IS A FROG

Here at DP, we are firm believers in anticipatory history. We prefer a truthfully imagined future to deceitful revisions of the past. Among the books shelved at arm’s length, we find a collection of Mark Twain with writings that imagine both pasts and futures, such as this excerpt from Outlines of History (suppressed.):

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Writing for Tomdispatch, Alfred McCoy provides a brilliant summary of how command and control techniques hatched at the margins inevitably return for homeland deployment.

Now comes another anticipatory historian known to some as that great advocate for the Rights of Earthworms, the Honorable Keith Harding, and to others as the poet Jon Swan, who sends us the following report:

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HAPPINESS IS A PERSONAL ALGORITHM

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FULLY ORGANIC

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SHOP UNTIL YOU DROP

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FEEDLOT 2020

FEEDLOT 2024


This Flexible Being

FLEXIBILITY CLASS

FLEXIBILITY CLASS

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Evolutionary psychologists tell us that neuroplasticity and malleability of consciousness provide humans with certain survival advantages. Whether as individuals or in groups, being able to “go with the flow” (and to understand where and what the flow consists of) often presents the key to assuring genetic posterity. Of course, such flexibility may also set the stage for moral dilemmas, when by conscience or conviction an individual chooses to swim against the flow, even at the risk of being swept away and becoming the washed out end of the line.

In the world of ideas, the varied media of connection and communication shape the direction and intensity of the flow – sometimes even the taste of the water. Given the prevailing ubiquity of the internet, it is not surprising that the phrase, “the smartest person in the room is the room”, should become one of the more irritating commonplaces of recent years.

By their own intrinsic nature, most interactive networks will rank the value of individual contributions to the flow, one way or another; those ideas that “click” with the consensual inclinations of the network will bob up magically from the bit torrents, while dissenting or contrary views will achieve minimal splash (no thumbs up), and be shunted off.

With the number of potential participants limited only by demographics, global networks (scientific, financial, political, administrative or whatever) eventually become so complex that no single individual comprehend them, resulting in a tendency to abdicate all agency to collective “wisdom”, typically expressed as an algorithm. Thus the network becomes ever stronger while the solitary labors of individual minds are systematically devalued, and fade to black.

A number of years ago, Nicolas Carr posed the rhetorical question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Are individual citizens becoming more simple-minded as the social brain becomes ever more complex, while acting on our behalf? Is such networked complexity really “intelligent”, or something else altogether?

PROTOTYPE FOR THE WIRED ESSENCE

MEDIUM FOR A PAST SINGULARITY

Carr argues that the media we use for research and communication will inevitably have strong impacts on our plastic, flexible neurobiology. Through constant exposure to the network and its own evolutionary imperatives, the neural pathways that are conducive to slow, deep philosophical reflection will be diminished in favor of the sparky buzz created by instant feedback. Through time, individual intelligence may thereby become extremely narrow, fast and thin – pancake subjectivity.

Qualities such as moral discernment and cross-cultural empathy require neural pathways that may no longer be present for network participants; nor may the ability to distinguish virtue from tyranny. Carr suggests that such intellectual qualities depend on a very different sort of media environment, one that supports solitude and reflection, and one where idiosyncrasy, dissonance and polyphony are valued rather than diminished.

David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know (for which the phrase “smartest person in the room is the room” provides part of the lengthy subtitle) has the virtue of logic and lucidity in describing how and why the room got so smart, so fast. Yet for all his nuanced and persuasive examples, Weinberger omits one extremely important dimension – the close entanglement of knowledge with relationships of power. Considering the intimate ontological affiliation between the internet and the vast apparatus of national security, such a glaring omission makes the author sound like a naive cheerleader at a Steubenville pep rally.

In the past, forgetting that knowledge and power often wrap each other in death embraces has not worked out very well for intellectuals, above all when the orderly voice (and all-seeing eye) of the One flattens the clamor of distinct individual voices. In her masterful study, Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt describes

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Principles of action govern individuals, one by one; when there is only the One (the condensed expression of all singularities into one throbbing Singularity), individuals are robbed of their autonomy and become nothing but storage vessels, conveying the essence of a totalized power.

From the scattering and splintering of thought assembled into an illusion of community emerges the sort of ecstatic groupthink oblivion that typically ends in a bloodbath. This is not to say that networked media and communications will lead inexorably to totalitarianism; rather, there is a sort of alignment of cognitive rhythms that may quite suddenly and violently explode into a fury of state terror and enforced conformity.

Flexibility and autonomy are erased, and from then on, the writing will be straight and uniform. Those who see it coming will be the first to disappear.

FULLY NETWORKED AND ON THE MOVE

FULLY NETWORKED AND ON THE MOVE

In closing, Jon Swan, one of our favorite poets here at DP, and a man who scrupulously avoids smart rooms, releases a new poem into the flow:

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AGAINST THE FLOW

AGAINST THE FLOW