On The Complexities of Life

I have been pondering many thoughts of late, dealing with the “known knowns” and the “known unknowns” with regards to the fate of most humans on this planet.

Donald Rumsfeld made complex work out of that statement, in case you didn’t know.

As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

He was speaking of entirely different matters with an entirely different perspective and worldview then my own. I’ll leave aside the threats of terrorism and concentrate upon the known knowns of the human future.

We live in a complex world, made even more complex by our worldviews.  That is to say, how we approach living from day to day.  Some lives are more complex then others, others more simple.  Most of us have come to rely upon our technology to a great degree.  There isn’t much difference between a computer scientist who makes his living writing complex computer code and the housewife who microwaves her husband’s breakfast.  The dependencies of these lives are essentially identical as far as daily living is concerned.

But the future holds an entirely different set of expectations then the past-future did.  The known knowns here are that our future, whatever it may actually and truly prove to be, will not be like the future we have now all experienced.  We’ve arrived already in other words at “the future” for the most part, we achieved many things in the process.  We’ve conquered the globe, mastered the atom, and broke the genetic code. We built a complex civilization that quickly outpaced our social structures and cultural ability to adapt, but we didn’t stop there and wait for society to catch up.  We’re still pushing the boundaries with technology, but unfortunately, we have left many of our social “norms” and cultural expectations in the dust, far, far behind.

Because of this, our worldviews have yet to catch up to our technology.  Even the most futuristic among us has trouble with long-held beliefs and social norms inscribed since childhood.  Technology, once thought of as the panacea to our problems within civilization, has come to represent something else entirely – a blunt-edged instrument of social conditioning and dependency.  In many ways too numerous to count, we’ve been literally forced to accept advancing technology as part of our day-to-day existence.  We’ve almost no choice in the matter.  Rapid development and deployment of technological advancements such as the car, the stop light, the electronic cash register and a million other devices are now a ubiquitous part of our lives.

It was probably always like this.  The steam engined revolutionized industry and transportation.  Both were long since in existence, but they took gigantic leaps forward in human consciousness and human activities with the advent of the steam engine.  After that, one technology swiftly replaced another and now we envision a future of nano-size “robots” that could replace every conceivable human and non-human task we could possibly imagine.

But we’re not ready for that, not yet, nor are we really even ready for the technology advancements we already have, with many, many more waiting in the wings so to speak.  We’re still carrying around the baggage of our social constructs and belief systems that refuse to budge from their ancient and traditional roots.  This dichotomy between what exists in our heads and what exists in the outside world creates tension, friction between how things are in the “real world” and how things are in our heads.

Most of us have managed to dance that ethereal line fairly well, living with and using technology wherever it may be applicable in our lives, but existing “within” ourselves in the reality we have long embraced.  The computer scientist sees no reason to resolve any possible conflicts between our internal reality and the work he performs, nor does the housewife.  She does not need to understand “how” a microwave oven works and doesn’t care, it only needs to work when required.

This, in point of fact, is how we view most technology today, it only needs to work when required.  Specialists and inventors, designers and machine fabricators are engaged in the “how” these things work, most often dividing themselves up to narrow, vertical disciplines to accomplish their chosen tasks.  We don’t care they do it, the how they do this is up to them, we’re just happy to have the new fangled toys that go faster, drive farther, fly higher or bring amazing pictures to us from out of the ether.  They just need to work — and in a very short period of time, we find ourselves totally dependent upon them always working.

And so we built our civilization, creating an unending chain of dependencies and expectations for nearly all of the humans on this entire planet.

This is all fine and dandy as long as we can continue this process.  As long as we can mine, manufacture and then train the “replacement humans” we need to keep all these toys and technologies humming along, we will all be fine.  And of course, as long as we can find the raw resources and the mineral required and the energy sources required, we’ll be fine.  Should anything disrupt this chain of events, then we would have a rather major problem on our hands, because most of us simply have no idea at all what we would do if say, the deliveries at Safeway stopped coming, or the fuel trucks stopped delivering.

There is a massive chain of just-in-time delivery systems at work here, keeping us all alive.  A mysterious process to some, but real nonetheless.  They must all work in cooperation, extracting resources, running factories, consuming fuel and energy, delivering products and making replacement, many which are quite essential and very, very necessary for our day-to-day existence.  And of course, many that are not essential, but speak quietly on this, because we’ve demonstrated ourselves to be pretty much incapable of existence or happiness without our toys.

But it is what is behind all of this activity, all this production, all this mining and manufacturing and processing and delivering and financial shenanigans that I’m most interested in today.  Because of what we have built, literally from out of the ground into towering skyscrapers and institutions that dot the global landscape, we have created for ourselves a highly complex and constantly evolving world of change, adaption and dependency that up to now, has sustained us all since our birth.

Along the way, our worldviews changed and adapted too, but not by so much, and nothing at all compared to the change we have seen since we were all children.  It’s been said that by the time you are five years old, you will have already fully developed your personality and characteristics for life.  These traits have a pretty important role to play upon your beliefs, but they are not the only ones.  Parents, schools and various institutions and organizations (notably, all human constructs not yet replaced by either technology or machinery) also have a big influence upon our beliefs and world views.  After that comes experience, as we age and grow older and more “experienced” we either consciously or subconsciously modify our beliefs, but as noted already, we’re literally light-years “behind” the technological revolution that has already taken place.

Science fiction writers and philosophers have long noted this “lack” in the works that they write.  Human societies and indeed, individual humans have not yet caught up to the technological revolution that keeps us all alive.  This is probably, in my opinion, a good thing, because our human-based beliefs are the very things that have kept us from doing something incredibly stupid with the technology we already have (most of the time).

Imagine if you will, what a “technology belief system” would have us do.  Instead of restraint or concern for possible impacts that could arise, a technology based belief system would seek to constantly expand and improve itself without regards to costs or impacts or long-term effects.  The human and non-human costs could be quite catastrophic, as technology would become the ultimate self-serving “robot” with regard to nothing other then itself.

We already know that this would be quite devastating if this were allowed to occur.  It is our human orientation and biological sense of life and being alive that has actually held technological advancements in check, some of which are purely self-servings, such as greed.  Technological advancements such as 100 mpg engines or the cure for cancer or anti-gravity machines would revolutionize the world once again, but the human orientation for greed prevents these solutions from being developed.

Greed is not the only emotion “putting on the brakes” so to speak, but avarice, jealousy, hatred and even love.  Our world has long since divided itself up along the lines of “turf” and what we allow so that we can “stay in control”.  Even love plays a large role in this incessant turf war, but this is a natural human instinct and we have institutionalized its acceptance into our society.

So this is, in part, the complexities of life.  What it means to be alive and living today, or tomorrow, or yesterday.  This is not going to change anytime soon either.  Technology is racing ahead, and we are lagging behind.  As I said, probably a good thing, because now we have reached an impasse, a colossal chasm of diverging returns for the human animal, and indeed, all life on Earth.

We are quite literally, boxed into a corner, having created a civilization that is highly dependent upon the production capacity of technology, and the just-in-time delivery system supported by technology, and the near-total dependency of the entire human civilization on this technology.  The dilemma is as complex as life itself.

Here are the “known knowns”:

We are running out of resources.  Our manufacturing, processing and production facilities are going to come up short.  We already know that most of the natural resources that could have been easily discovered and “harvested” are now irrecoverably gone.  Even most renewable resources are in severe and catastrophic decline.

This “known” ties directly in with this known:  we are entirely dependent upon this production to sustain us, even from day to day.  Without which, we would quite literally and with horrific effects, catastrophically collapse (die off) by the hundreds of millions in short order.

There is another known:  we’re making very little real progress to deal with this issue of declining resources and overdependencies.  I’ve covered this point from time to time, but this needs to be emphasized again.  Most “solutions” being submitted such as “sustainable growth” are oxymoron’s at best, ill-guided and fated to failure.

There are many other actual knows: how much oil we can extract, the decline of productive species (human usable) and habitat, the difficulties of deep sea oil drilling, human population expansion, soil depletion rates and many others.

And now we have the “known unknowns”, such as how severe climate change impacts will become, immigration “upsets”, catastrophic crop failures, rising sea levels, fresh water depletion rates, emerging diseases, ocean acidification and so on.  Much work has been done on these known unknowns, but none are absolutely certain.  Some have high probabilities and current assessments are constantly being refined.

And still, we have our social “knowns” and even the social “unknowns” to deal with too.  Which nations are progressing towards adaption and which are not?  How will humanity adapt to this changing world?  What changes do we need to make within our civilization? What do we not yet understand or comprehend?

Indeed, life is getting more complex in many ways, and in some ways, it’s going to simplify.  But even that scares the living daylights out of most of us. We are not culturally conditioned to accept anything different.  Many people view these changes as going backwards, a concept entirely foreign to our way of thinking.  Our social structures have yet to make even minor adaptions to these changes, while the real world in many ways already is.  Once again, we find ourselves “behind” and this time, it bodes not well for us.

And then there are the “unknown unknowns”, the things which we do not yet comprehend nor understand.  We’re not even able to predict with any degree of accuracy what they may be, we only know that we don’t know enough, understand enough to rule these unknown unknowns out of the rules of probability and how they could come to affect us all.

Complex indeed, but in truth, all real nonetheless, and I’ve only given the briefest cursory view of what is taking place.

We’re going to have to change in ways which we cannot even imagine today, but within those that we can imagine, and with those changes that we can understand, we already know that if we are going to survive, let alone thrive on this planet, those changes are going to be all-encompassing to everything that we have come to know and understand today, including our belief systems.  Our technology might help us through this, but then again, it might even make things go from bad to worse, depending on how stupid we get.  It all depends — on our belief systems.

So we have come full-circle, in a sense, chasing our missing tail, allowing technology to sustain us (only as long as the resources and energy last), but restraining our technological development by those same beliefs that have kept us from adapting culturally.  And now, that very technology, coupled with our avarice and lusts, is swiftly bringing about the destruction of our civilization, and we find that our beliefs are still woefully inadequate to help us much.  A real conundrum as they say.

If we believe that we can infinitely grow, then we will perish. If we believe that technology will endlessly solve our problems, we will also perish.  However, if we believe that we can adapt ourselves, restraining both technology and civilization to exist within the boundaries as prescribed by natural laws and renewable resources, then we might survive.  But first, we would need to overcome our lusts, our avarice and greed, jealousy and hatred.  So this is indeed an iffy proposition, one that is not at all certain and among the “known unknowns”.

We can know however, the “known knowns”, that we constantly fool ourselves into believing what can be demonstratively proven to be false, a perfect example of how our belief systems constantly fail us.  Why this is important should already be obvious — it’s one of the primary reasons why society did not adapt at pace with the technological changes.  If it had, we would potentially be in an entirely different place today.  We may have developed sustainable technologies instead of highly dependent ones — and a civilization to match it.  But we were held back — and still are.

I don’t propose to solve this, it’s complex enough to just try and comprehend this.  But that is always a good place to start.

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