Collective Senescence

When I learn a new song – something I do unconsciously, every time I am exposed to new music – is some other song erased in my memory to make room? No. I seem to have unlimited capacity for memorizing music, even as my memory is like a sieve elsewhere. How does my brain do that? Does it re-use existing pathways, or create ever-more byzantine new ones? I imagine my mind’s architecture as ever-expanding fractals, filling the same space with more and more curves and crevices.

The older I get, the more byzantine my mind’s labyrinth, all to store the unceasing stream of new information. Now, when I forget the name of something, I imagine the word stuck in a crevice of the fractal. When I was younger and my pathways less intricate, there weren’t enough curves and bends for words to get caught. Now they snag on every corner.

What is information? In my life, it includes experiences. Every day is different; every day impresses new memories. Do the old ones disappear? Certainly my memories are difficult to access, especially names. But I know they’re in there somewhere. I’ve had deeply stored knowledge return to consciousness when revisiting geographical places, homes I’d been in before but never thought about since. If you asked me to recall my friend’s house in San Francisco between visits, I’d have come up blank; but revisiting, I knew where everything was. I took delight in long-buried memories flooding my consciousness as I rode a bus from the airport to the Presidio two years ago. Sometimes that visit felt like walking through my own dreams, geography and symbols shaped by my lifetime of accumulated experience.

Then there is the information of stories, words, music, numbers, images: Culture. Culture is collective, a living thing like a tree or forest that grows in the soil of human minds. Cultural information is experienced through exposure – reading, listening, tasting – and stored in everyone who experiences it.

How many songs will I store in my lifetime? How to even count? Some of them are surely buried too deeply in my mind to recall at will, but they are still there. All that information embedded in our minds’ labyrinths, that we are not aware of, is what Jung called the Collective Subconscious. Like the webs of biological life on this planet, they are too vast and complex for us to comprehend. We are only aware of a tiny bit at a time.

As I age, I find comfort in routine. Every day resembling the next makes memory storage easier. A curve of the fractal is already structured to store much of the day, with only a few details to be slotted elsewhere. Too much information at once can be traumatic. Moving house is traumatic for me, having to learn a new space. Moving to a new region is more so: having to make new friends, locate new food sources, learn new roads. Moving to a new country is more traumatic still, with new regulations, currencies, bureaucracies, and, most daunting of all for an older person, new language. All of these require new memory structures, new tunnels excavated in the catacombs. A young mind, like an “uncarved block,” takes this on with relative ease. An old mind has already been carved to delicate tracery, every branch with more branches, like the fragile intricate lace of an autumn leaf. Carve more into that, and you’ll tear a hole.

Even without trauma, the mere accumulation of experience over time leads, inevitably, to structural collapse. From the outside, this may look like senility. I increasingly believe that senility is an inevitable phase of consciousness. Live long enough, you will develop dementia. At least that’s how it looks from the outside; I don’t know what dementia is like from the inside, although I’ve read some reports from writers in its early stages. Surely some of the “blocks” our experience carves are more robust than others; a crumblier material may suffer early-onset dementia, while the most solid will die of other causes before their veins of memory fractals become to fine to sustain.

But what of our collective mind? We store information collectively too, as Culture. An ever-expanding human population is one way to increase storage capacity. But consider that many of us are storing the same things: the same languages (the number of living languages is decreasing even as the population increases), same songs, same movies, same stories. This is due to media. Literacy/writing was a great early cultural storage invention, allowing far greater numbers to be exposed to the same information. The printing press increased this exposure exponentially. Then phonographs, movies, radio, and television, leading up to, of course, the Internet, the greatest information-exposure system ever created.

Many of us, like me, spend hours a day “scrolling” information online. The density of words, pictures, and sounds is…well, it’s insane. Individually, I am storing this stuff; it’s shaping my neural pathways in ways I don’t know. I may not know exactly what it’s doing, but I know it’s doing something, accelerating the rate of tunneling of my memory labyrinth, increasing the complexity of my mental fractal. If I am wasting my attention on social media, it is because there is a cost: every stupid piece of (mis)information, adds that much complexity to my neural pathways, that much fragility to the overall structure, and brings me that much closer to senility.

Likewise, collectively, we have massively increased our exposure to information. Our collective memory structure, whatever it is, is collectively growing ever-more complex.

Collectively, we are becoming senile.

Complexity is fun (beneficial, desirable) for a while, but eventually and inevitably it leads to collapse. I’m not against complexity; it’s inevitable. Culture is a life form, and all life forms die. There is no way to stop this. Death is a consequence of life; dementia is a consequence of consciousness.

 

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My Bicycling Origin Story

Athena hurling the Javelin

I’m about to hit my 5,000th bike mile for 2020, and I’m buying yet another new-to-me used obscure recumbent, a rare Easy Racers Ti Javelin. A friend in an online chatroom today asked,

Have you always been this into cycling? Or is it something you developed as an adult?

Always somewhat, but this year I’m doing it way more. I have the pandemic to thank. No travel, and I’m not spending money on anything else really, so why not. Most of my socializing is happening on rides with friends; it’s outdoors, safely distanced, yet intimate because you get to know people through conversation and a little shared adventure.

Tell us your cycling origin story!!! How did you get to be so into it!

Like most kids in the 70’s, I was raised to ride bikes; that’s how kids got around back then, before parents drove them everywhere. Started with the typical banana seat kiddie bike, moved up to a Raleigh 3-speed. Lived adjacent to a college campus where biking was the way people got around. Even my Dad biked to work. Now everybody drives on campus, it’s horrible.

When I turned 18 or so I got my first grown-up bike with drop handlebars, what we then called a “ten speed”. It was a Ross. I moved with it to Santa Cruz, CA, in 1987, where I biked to get around. I always disliked cars and fought with my Dad over driving. He said I would “have to”; I said I wouldn’t until solar cars were available. I got my driver’s license and everything, but refused to own a car, and I really hated driving in California, because of the hills and the fact that my friends drove stick shifts I couldn’t manage. So I just stopped driving altogether.

I rode that Ross all around Santa Cruz, building up my leg muscles to get up the hills. In 1991, I moved to San Francisco and got a Univega hybrid. I noticed how rapidly consumer bikes were improving, going down in cost and up in quality. I biked a lot in San Francisco. Then my bike got stolen off Valencia Street in broad daylight. Thieves froze and smashed the urban U-lock. Actually that might have been the Ross that got stolen, maybe I replaced it with the Univega. I painted that (replacement?) Univega with dots of nail polish all over, to make it look distinctive and therefore less appealing to thieves. It never got stolen, but I didn’t ride it long, because in 1999 I discovered Brompton folding bikes while living in Europe.

I got my first Brompton on a trip to the Netherlands in 1999, and took it on trains all over the place the Summer I was based in Veyrier, Switzerland (near Geneva). The Brompton came with me back to San Francisco and became my primary bike. I never had to lock it outside; I folded it up and took it indoors with me, even to go shopping.

When I moved to NYC in 2002, the Brompton came with me, and it was perfect for that city. Bromptons were still obscure in the US back then, but now they’re very popular. NYC has at least 2 Brompton dealers now. I upgraded to a newer Brompton in 2011, and when I moved back to Urbana, IL in 2012, continued to ride it.

In 2013 or 2014 a friend of my Momz’s offered her fancy carbon road bike in trade for an art quilt. It was my first ever high end road bike, so light I could lift it with one hand. I started doing longer rides, which for me then meant up to 30 miles. I bruised my nether regions on that thing, actual bruises along my vulva. I also contended with back and hand pain. Looking at my hands vibrating on the handlebars, I despaired I would have to give up cycling to protect my “money makers.”

Then I discovered recumbents.

A friend had a Rans Rocket he let me try. It took me about half an hour of scooting around with my feet before I could even pedal it. Like learning to ride a bike all over again. But I knew if I could master a ‘bent, I could ride without endangering my precious aging hands.

I rode that Rans Rocket on a local “Moonlight Bike Drive,” a big group ride that went every month from Urbana to rural Sidney, IL, for ice cream and a return ride after dark, about 25 miles round trip from my home. At the ice cream break another rider talked to me about recumbents, and asked if I’d ever ridden a Tour Easy. I hadn’t; I figured my sense of balance was good enough I should be on racier models. He gave me his contact info anyway. He had a Tour Easy I could borrow, he said. On the way back, with a failing headlight, I fell while starting from a stop, and skinned my elbow.

Turns out the Rans Rocket is a notoriously “squirrelly” bike, and the Tour Easy is at least as fast. I emailed Dennis and borrowed his Tour Easy and half a year later he sold it to me when he moved away from town. By then I’d bought some other recumbents via the internet, which is really the only way I could try them as there are no dealers here. I had a Performer Toscana and a HPVelotechnik Grasshopper. But that Tour Easy was a lot better for me. I eventually sold my other ‘bents and became the Easy Racers (maker of the Tour Easy) connoisseur I am today. I took longer and longer rides, both because I was so comfortable and feeling no pain, and because spending all that money and time on bikes incentivized me.

Somewhere around then I got my velomobile, Frosty, which was also a game-changer, because now I could ride in colder weather.

So that’s how I became the total obsessive you see before you today. The End.

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Witnessing a Miracle

The COVID-19 pandemic is a miracle.

I mean this in the biblical sense. Biblical miracles are horrific, bringing death and destruction. The Ten Plagues of Exodus were miracles, or at least “wonders.” The miracles of Revelation are even worse.

A miracle isn’t a fluffybunny event. It is an act of God.

The COVID pandemic is a power greater than ourselves. We can’t stop it; we understand very little about it. It brings us to our knees.

I am in awe of it. I have watched humanity killing the planet my whole life, with obvious warnings of dire consequences. But this Spring’s COVID shutdowns were the first time I saw humanity do anything about it. It was short-lived, but amazing: flights grounded, industry slowed, pollution abated enough to reveal long-hidden mountains for the first time in years.

All of that ended after only a few months. Nothing to see here, folks; go back to paying attention to MONEY. And so contrails again fill the skies, mountains retreat back into smoggy shrouds, and the gears of commerce grind away.

Biblical miracles are famously unheeded, which is why it took all Ten Plagues for Pharaoh to relent. God makes clear commandments; humans don’t follow them. This is the whole story of the Old Testament. Even after occupying the Promised Land, the Hebrews can’t get their shit together, and Jerusalem falls over and over again. The New Testament is no better, especially the ending.

The COVID-19 virus makes its demands pretty clear: Avoid crowds. Stop industrial slaughterhouses and factory farming. Don’t go to (non-essential) work. Spend time with your children; actually raise them. Stay home from school. Stay home, but go outside; look at the sky, feel the sun, breathe the fresh air. Attend to Reality over money. Don’t go to bars, don’t party, don’t crowd into spectacles like sportsball. Calm the fuck down. Take a goddamn break from your hyper-consumer lifestyle.

We still need food and shelter and medicine, the sustenance and maintenance of our lives, and the virus doesn’t seem to have anything against these. The virus clarifies what is essential and non-essential. It turns out much of human activity isn’t essential. We already knew that; the virus urges us to stop denying it.

The pandemic makes another biblical suggestion: a Jubilee cancellation of debt. We can’t stop the gears of commerce, we argue, because we’re all in debt – if we don’t earn money, we will die! Our society won’t forgive debts, but what if we simply froze them, until a vaccine or cure is found? A year (or however long it takes) out of commercial time. Don’t end, but suspend the non-essential economy. All debts, for everyone, everywhere, frozen*. A global time-out. That would be a miracle.

I don’t believe in the biblical god. But I do believe in Nature, and natural consequences. The coronavirus is just one of many disastrous and inevitable natural consequences of human activity. Animal agriculture and overpopulation and global industrialization will do this; it’s a wonder it’s taken so long. It’s also a wonder how gentle the virus is, all things considered. It could have been more like ebola, with a much higher death rate. Plagues of the past have been far deadlier. The Black Death killed 50% of some European regions. We are getting off lightly here.

My response to this miracle is awe. Others respond with denial, or panic, or exploitation. So it has been written; so it ever was, and ever will be. I have long felt like I’m living in a dystopian novel, but right now I also feel like I’m living in a biblical prophecy. What a wonder, to witness these times!

*What about money to run the essential services? Our economic system accumulates vast reservoirs of money in billionaires. If these reservoirs can’t be used, then what exactly is this system for?

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“What is the difference between virtue signaling and actually believing in something and wanting to spread the word about it?”

Last week, on various social media, I shared this brief thought:

I’m starting to find virtue signaling frightening, rather than just annoying, because virtue signalers are the same people who cancel (ie lie, denounce, and attack). Virtue signaling and cancel culture are two sides of the same increasingly troubling coin.

This led someone on fecebook to ask:

“What is the difference between virtue signalling and actually believing in something and wanting to spread the word about it? Asking seriously. I have only seen virtue signalling used as a phrase by Republicans who don’t believe in the cause being promoted.”

To which I replied:

That’s a great question! I am not a Republican, and I actually agree with the messages being used right now to signal tribal loyalty. Like a religious behavior – “praise Jesus!” – one can only ask oneself what one’s motives are.

The signaling happening at the moment has many layers. Yes, the messages are good. It’s also a “safe” time to share them. Suddenly it has become very important for white people to express their concern for black lives, when in fact we’ve been aware of police brutality for years or decades. It would have been much riskier to share these messages 60 years ago, but we weren’t alive then. (Funny, then, that expressing righteousness at that time was quite different, even though we are not inherently superior to our forebears.) It was not risky, say, last year, yet far fewer were doing that then, because there wasn’t a “movement” directing our attention.

It’s pretty clear that there are social rewards for white liberals to share BLM messages at the moment, and, increasingly, social punishments for not (“silence is violence!”), and most of us want to feel safe, so we know what to do. Even asking questions can get you publicly denounced right now. I do not expect people to deeply examine their motives, but I do examine mine, and when even a message I agree with is mixed with so much threat and reward, I pause. All mobs feel righteous. I am extremely wary of mobs and sensitive to mob behavior, and do not want to be part of them.

Another layer is White Guilt, which Shelby Steele wrote very eloquently about 20 years ago. White liberals are hungry to discharge guilt, and ironically use black people, and what should be a black liberation movement for black people, to do it. This isn’t all bad; white people can be useful to this movement, but the white liberal hunger is there, and it’s ruthless, and it causes problems. All we can do is examine our motives.

The social rewards for virtue signaling, and threats for not, come from other white people. White people use black people and a black movement to signal to other white people, and maintain or raise our status in white society. I have some black friends, but most of my social contacts are white. Like any good white liberal, I have anxiety about this. If only I could fix my society’s history of segregation by racially integrating my social life more! Like any good white liberal, I tried harder when I was younger, only to discover that most (healthy) black people don’t particularly like being used by white people this way, and that white hunger to discharge guilt is not a solid base for friendship.

But don’t we want to be “ALLIES”?? The best allies are like that asshole at your dinner party who tries to be “helpful” by getting in your way in the kitchen. (The worst allies are far worse.) I used to be a liberal feminist who thought we needed male “allies” to liberate women. Now I understand that women’s liberation is for and by women, and any man claiming to be a “feminist” is usually a misogynist using women to manage his male guilt. From the outside, it looks to me like a surplus of white “allies” has the same corrosive effect on any movement for black liberation, which should be for and by black people. Like that performative “helpful” dinner guest in your kitchen, like men claiming to be feminists, white liberals who want to help black liberation should just get out of the way.

Any involvement I have in black liberation is only going to come at the request of black people – specifically black women, specifically black radical feminists, whose narratives about current events differ from the mainstream and “alternative” media’s. Unsurprisingly, no one has asked me yet. I’m here if they do, but meanwhile my white guilt is my problem to deal with, not theirs.

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The Human Threat

I’m one of those self-unemployed introverts who is adjusting quite well to our pandemic lockdown. I feel especially peaceful because forced quarantine has temporarily quieted many of the garden-variety “alpha” humans, the ones who thrive on dominating others. They have to stay at home too, and haven’t been able to conduct their usual bullying and stirring up trouble. Under “normal” circumstances, they have power over other people, and the other people just aren’t available to lord it over right now.

But that will end. I don’t dread getting sick as much as I dread what the alphas will start doing. Of the lockdown, they warn us, “this is not sustainable!” and “people will start going crazy!” I know they are right. At least half of Americans are expected to get COVID-19 before a vaccine is available (if one ever is) so I’ve made my uneasy peace with that. But human beings have always hurt me more than any disease. Humans have always been the biggest danger to humans. I appreciate that, in this brief moment, the human threat is made visible, and keeping distance is the rule of the day. I sense on the horizon the impending doom of our newfound boundaries being violated by angry, entitled, self-righteous alphas.

They are already abusing whoever is unlucky enough to be quarantined with them. Wife-battering and child abuse is on the rise. (I am immensely grateful I live only with my Momz, an excellent woman of 78.) Their rage and sense of impotence is building, and soon more will leave the confines of their homes to violate others. Then all the “nice” alphas will up their social policing, virtue-signaling, tribe-forming, scapegoating, and witch-hunting in response. The COVID-19 coronavirus is “novel,” but human behavior is not. I have enjoyed my little respite from it.

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Answers from a Pandemic

100 years without a pandemic has made us stupid. It’s made me stupid, anyway.

So many questions about human nature that puzzled me, I now see answered. Why are we so tribal? Why does language change so quickly? Why are we so xenophobic – so fearful of people who look different from us even slightly?

Answer: communicable diseases.

The Andaman Islanders  had the right idea. They may or may not have known the missionary attempting to evangelize them was full of contagions that could kill them; but they had instincts, and culture, that protected them from infection.

Doesn’t it make sense, evolutionarily, that groups survived that shut out/fought off/killed outsiders? Doesn’t it make sense that language would fracture rapidly, to make ingroups and outgroups develop quickly? The fracturing of humanity protects it from diseases. “Civilization” doesn’t like that, but biology does. And our innate cultural instincts (like language) assisted us biologically.

Deadly communicable diseases are a part of life we’ve been alienated from in the 20th and 21st centuries. Antibiotics especially have transformed the world, allowing human population to explode, and also permitting factory farming on a grotesque scale. We know that antibiotics have a limited life that is ending soon, and our current viral pandemic is just a tiny taste of what’s to come once bacterial diseases return in force. But for over 100 years, we’ve merrily reproduced and exploited without the natural constraint of disease that was a former bedrock of biological reality.

Xenophobia is maladaptive for global civilization, but it’s perfectly adapted for keeping tribal cells of humans hygienically sealed off from each other. “Racism” is only a thing in Civilization, in which humans enslave each other for commerce and power. Without slavery and exploitation, there’s no racism, because there’s nothing pushing diverse groups of humans on top of each other. There’s only “others,” the in-group and the out-groups. The xenophobic aspects of human nature seem appalling in Civilization, but must have worked very well in prehistoric tribal life. Groups were no larger than 150 humans, and most much smaller than that, each with their own dialects, and similar physical traits.

Of course humans would mate outside the tribe, to prevent inbreeding, so curiosity about the “exotic” is another adaptive trait. The exotic is SEXY. Sexy, exploitable, and sadly aiding and abetting racism when repurposed in Civilization. But my understanding is that tribes had very rigid protocols governing permeation through inter-tribal breeding. They were not cosmopolitan. From a biological standpoint, cosmopolitanism = death. But Civilization loves cosmopolitanism: diversity means more markets and an extension of power. Open borders are a boon for global capitalism, but tribal intermarriages were anything but that.

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