Trauma and social dysfunction at scale

The Overton window of industrialised society

We live in a time of exponential changes in communication technology. Just a few decades ago humans only needed to learn one or two languages and perhaps the jargon of a particular profession to be equipped for a successful life. Today thousands of new apps (little languages) become available every month, far more than anyone can ever learn to use, appreciate, and trust. More and more people are realising that quantity does not equal quality when it comes to digital technologies.

The disciplines of design and engineering play increasingly important roles in a world where communication between people and all forms of economic activity are by default being mediated via digital technologies.

To understand the full implications of the new technologies that we are churning out every month, is it enough for designers to be familiar with the latest in pop-psychology and for engineers to be familiar with the latest economic fads and monetisation models? What if some important considerations about human limitations and delusions have fallen between the cracks?

Being able to design, build, and use technology does not equate to understanding all the implications.

Maladaptive evolution of corporations

Do technologies make us smarter?

Successful software products that are used by many thousands or millions of customers are best thought of as a domain specific language system that complements human cognitive abilities and that facilitates and mediates collaboration and/or social competition between humans. In a networked world with ubiquitous Internet connectivity and pervasive use of Internet enabled personal devices, software plays a significant role in guiding – or even forcing – human cultural evolution.

Software product design conducted in isolation, without giving customers and marginalised groups the ability to shape the design, is a form of social engineering, whether intentional or not. All users of the Internet are familiar with the social externalities.

The huge opportunities and dangers of mediating human communication and collaboration and/or social competition via software platforms can not be overstated. The language systems that we create with the help of software can either amplify the unique human capacity for compassion and creative collaboration or they can amplify social competition and the brutal power politics that characterise primate dominance hierarchies.

For a number of years Jaron Lanier has been warning that the Internet as it currently evolves might destroy our world [1]. Online social media platforms dictate the possible communication and collaboration patterns, and in doing so typically maximise the “return on investment” for the owners of the platform, in the metrics of success prescribed by the neoliberal cult of busyness. In developed countries, their arrival has corresponded to bizarre political dysfunction, while in the developing world, ethnic rivalries that had been waning have been re-ignited in the most grotesque fashion.

Our laws and social norms have been shaped by the metaphor of society as a factory and on the metaphor of people as machines. These metaphors have not only warped our relationship with the natural world and our conception of humanity. They have led to techno-cults in which technology corporations have taken on the role of sacred places of worship, and CEOs are the high priests, praising the divine qualities of artificially intelligent technologies [2]. In the emerging technoverse, biological life is perceived as becoming irrelevant.

Maladaptive evolution of governments

Can better regulation help?

Some of the most faithful disciples of the techno-cults are found within our government institutions and amongst our politicians. How come?

  1. When society is a factory, the only things that count in are things that can be measured. It is no coincidence that scientific management (Taylorism) was conceived in the wake of the invention of the steam engine and machine assisted manufacturing, to complement the the laws of physics that governed the mechanics and the productivity of the machines on the factory floor.
  2. The discipline of economics allowed the scientific approach to managing humans to be extended to the scale of nation states – another conceptual building block for organising human activities in industrialised societies. There are a number of parallels between the impact of the development of economic theories on human society and the social impact of the development of the Internet. Neither the Internet nor economics draw directly on an evidence based understanding of physics, biology, and human behaviour. Both the Internet and economic theories are best understood as prescriptive rather than as observational tools – as language systems that are based on specific European/North American cultural conventions that are assumed as “sensible” (common sense) or “obvious” (self-evident). With these language systems in place you can measure data flows and economic performance, but only in terms of the scope and the preconceived categories afforded by the formal protocols and languages.
  3. The introduction of a formal economic language system and the introduction of formal protocols for digital communication have shaped human culture around the social ideologies espoused by early industrialists and early information technology entrepreneurs. Over course of the last two centuries governments have become increasingly dependent on economists and information technology entrepreneurs in order to understand and engage with society [3], and also to understand what what technological options are on the horizon. In this process anything that lies beyond the scope of what is deemed relevant or acceptable is discounted as non-essential or unproductive. In multiple bottom line approaches the conveniently simplistic thinking becomes evident when metrics from the natural world are translated into monetary metrics – as if a monetary number can adequately represent the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of entire ecosystems in the name of economic “progress”.

In industrialised societies governments increasingly find themselves in the role of pretending to be “in control”. Technology corporations and management consultants gladly assist governments in the pretend game of “managing the economy”. Since the Cold War empires have increasingly shifted their focus from overt conventional war to economic warfare and psychological warfare.

Corporations and governments have shared interest in managing public perceptions [4] and in supporting each other [5]. Furthermore, the judiciary often lacks transparency. In Aotearoa New Zealand for example, you can complain if you’re unhappy with a judge’s behaviour, but the complaints system is secretive, ineffective and broken [6]. Since the Judicial Conduct Commissioner’s inception in 2005, 3201 complaints have been made, and 95 percent were either dismissed because they were not about a judge’s conduct, or no further action was taken because the commissioner concluded the conduct was not concerning. Just two complaints prompted the commissioner to recommend a panel, but neither panel ever went ahead.

Maladaptive evolution of our participation in the natural world

Can civilisation be saved?

All of the above would be funny if the consequences of the industrialised “way of life” for the living planet would be less profound.

Industrial development has only been possible by exploiting the energy stored in fossil fuels and due to extreme transformation of our environment, leading to severe environmental consequences that humanity is experiencing around the globe: shifting and unpredictable climate, extreme weather events, and biodiversity collapse [7]. Humanity is paying the consequences for so-called technical and technological “progress”. Fossil fuels allow every human alive today to consume as much energy (directly and indirectly via the goods we consume) as if we all had 200 human slaves working for us. In rich industrialised countries the number of “energy slaves” per capita is even greater, between 600 and 1,000.

The extreme levels of energy consumption of the industrialised way of life are largely hidden in our daily lives. Most of the energy is consumed by industrialised production processes, by industrialised agriculture, and by the global supply chains that deliver goods from all over the planet to our door step. We activate this chain of energy consumption via 1-Click® from our mobile phones and web browsers.

Minerals are mined at scale in places far from our major population centres. Industrialised production has been off-shored to China and “less developed” countries with cheap labour, but over the last decade climate related extreme weather events and disasters have started to remind us of the many externalities that are not accounted for in our economic models.

It is more important than ever to understand that no techno-cult will ever be capable of replacing our 1.6 trillion fossil fuel energy slaves with 1.6 trillion “renewable” energy slaves. Within the short span of 200 years we have released most of the carbon from several hundred million years worth of biological growth, irreversibly changing the atmosphere and the oceans for many thousand years to come.

There is no silver bullet. The envisaged goal of industrial scale transition away from fossil fuels into non-fossil fuel systems is a much larger task than current thinking allows for. To achieve this objective, among other things, an unprecedented demand for minerals would be required [8]. Most minerals required for the renewable energy transition have not been mined in bulk quantities before. Beyond the inevitable ecological damage, the amount of energy required to mine these minerals may well turn out to be prohibitive [9] once we run out of fossil fuels or commit to leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

So-called “green” technologies such as biofuel have a negative energy return on investment and are simply part of the feel-good green campaigns of some of our governments. The familiar fossil fuel companies are increasingly re-branding themselves as energy transition companies, but of course driven by the profit motive. The last thing any of these corporations wants to see is a significant drop and a consistent downward trend in overall global energy consumption. Green industrialised growth is an oxymoron. The only growth that can ever be green is biological growth of plants.

Beyond raw energy consumption the industrialised human resource footprint on the planet has accelerated the rate of extinctions to more than 1,000 times of the historical background rate [10]. Amphibians have estimated extinction rates up to 45,000 times their natural speed. Most of these extinctions are unrecorded, so we do not even know what species we are losing.

We have replaced biodiversity with vast monocultures of industrialised agriculture and horticulture that can only be maintained with significant inputs of fertiliser, which in turn is produced via fossil fuel intensive industrialised processes. Croplands and grazing lands cover more than one third of the Earth´s land surface [11]. Furthermore, intensified land-management systems often result in high levels of land degradation, including soil erosion, fertility loss, excessive ground and surface water extraction, salinization, and eutrophication of aquatic systems.

Maladaptive evolution of our participation in society

Should civilisation be saved?

The level of disillusion with busyness as usual is growing, and not only in rich industrialised countries. 80% of employees are disengaged at work. Many people feel stuck in bullshit jobs. It is getting harder for the techno-cults to get employees excited about “disrupting the market” with “the next big thing”.

The climate crisis provided a welcome busyness opportunity for corporations to present themselves wrapped in clean and green feel-good credentials. Bright Green Lies [12] is a timely book to remind people that a green energy “transition” is not going to prevent biodiversity collapse and is not even going to prevent catastrophic levels of temperature increases and ocean acidification due to the massive amounts of carbon that we have already released.

The collective intelligence of industrialised civilisation can be summed up in five words:

Consistently too little too late

The sooner we unplug from the collective delusion, the fewer people will die or suffer needlessly. A radical reduction in energy and resource consumption can play out over the next two generations, and it can be the most civilised project of mutual aid humans have ever undertaken. Along the way we can learn a lot from indigenous societies.

You may wonder which aspects of Western industrialised knowledge may be worthwhile to retain (and for how long), given that cultural evolution is a dynamic process that unfolds over multiple generations. A few sets of knowledge are good candidates for preserving and cultivating in a global knowledge commons. However, any tools and sets of knowledge that are incompatible with a path of radical energy decent are legacy technologies that are only relevant from a historic perspective – to warn future generations about technological approaches that have lead to existential risks.

Trauma

The power of language

Language systems have been used throughout human cultural evolution to transmit cultural knowledge and understanding. They not only record lived experience, they also shape lived experience. In the absence of written language language systems evolve through daily use, and everyone in a local community contributes to language evolution. Those with particular areas of expertise and skills pass on their knowledge and new levels of understanding to peers and curious children by inventing appropriate symbolic representations and metaphors that are accessible to others.

Language systems are the most powerful cultural tools at our disposal. When the power of language and access to communication is equally distributed throughout society, language evolves in tandem with local needs and reflects the human understanding of the web of relationships within the local ecosystem.

Written language developed and symbolic notations for tracking who owes what to whom emerged when humans invented agriculture and when access to land became increasingly important. Written language allowed social power relationships to be codified and conveyed across space and time. This was the first significant step that allowed some people – those with access to written language, i.e. those who made the rules – to wield power over other people. Written language was the tool that very quickly gave rise to organised religions and to religious texts, some of which are still used to this day.

The language systems of economics and the protocols of the Internet are the main linguistic inventions of the industrialised era and the digital era. Over the last two decades digital data has frequently been described as the new oil. The intent was very obvious – systematic exploration and economic exploitation. In whatever domain data reservoirs were not yet available, social media and systematic gamification of social interactions offered the prospect of creating new valuable data reservoirs on-demand.

From one angle the critique of Jaron Lanier is only skin deep, not questioning the underlying project of civilisation and anthropocentrism. From another angle he drills right into the very foundations of our social operating system. If we can learn anything from the last 200 years, it is that the power of language needs to be distributed equally. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise and collaborate accordingly, respecting the limits of human scale.

Those who examine human collective behaviour in terms of energy consumption and ecological impact in terms of biodiversity loss are broadening the sphere of discourse. We can no longer understand and make sense of the dynamics in our rapidly changing environment by attempting to shift the Overton window of industrialised civilisation. The notion of a tiny window is yet another convenient linguistic metaphor that allows corporations to translate incremental shifts in public perception into further profits and consolidated power within the carcass of a dying planet.

The planetary ecosystem is dying a death of a thousand cuts. Humans are simply one of the many externalities on the entrepreneurial exit path that involves liquidation of all biological life.

Collective trauma in 2021

The discipline of psychology is just as much a product of the ideology of industrialised civilisation as the discipline of economics – they are two sides of the same coin. In particular the pseudoscience of behaviourism is still with us today, and is used to justify and perpetuate untold harm.

In a desperate attempt to squash the sphere of discourse, and in the face of unprecedented climate disasters, the neurological makeup of 1 out of 6 people is pathologised, targeting especially those who refuse to participate in the pretend game of “normality”. The trauma caused by industrialised civilisation is ignored, and entire populations are encouraged to believe that getting back to busyness as usual should be our top priority.

What’s happening right now around the world fits both definitions of the word “trauma”: Climate change is a deeply distressing and disturbing experience. It’s also a physical injury. An injury, after more than 30 years of ignored warnings and broken promises, that can now be considered intentional.

Climate change isn’t something that’s just happening to us. It’s being done to us.

Climate change isn’t a natural occurrence that we need to be ‘resilient’ to. It’s a trauma that’s being inflicted on us against our will. It’s exhausting.

The consensus is clear: The vast majority of the world’s population now views climate change as an “emergency”, according to nearly two-thirds of the 1.2 million respondents in 50 countries in the largest poll ever taken on climate change, earlier this year. A recent survey of young people found 56% of respondents think that humanity is ‘doomed’. Children around the world are experiencing climate anxiety — something that no generation of humans before us have ever had to deal with.

Yet world leaders are acting at anything but an emergency pace. In fact, rather than “building back better”, 2021 has seen skyrocketing emissions growth around the world as factories, travel, and farms switch back into business as usual mode even as the Covid pandemic continues to rage on. At this growth rate, 2022 will have the highest emissions of any year in human history — a horrifically shocking fact that should provoke outrage on every street of every city in the world.

– Eric Holthaus, meteorologist, [13]

References

[1] Jaron Lanier. 2018. How the Internet Failed and How to Recreate It.

[2] Jaron Lanier. 2018. Who is Civilization for?

[3] Mariana Mazzucato. 2018. The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. Public Affairs.

[4] Philip Martin Patterson. 2020. Virtue and the Three Monkey Defence: Regulating Ethical Conduct in the Australian Public Service.

[5] Richie Merzian. 2021. BS climate solutions: Carbon Capture & “Clean” Hydrogen. Juice Media.

[6] Anusha Bradley. 2021. Judges, bullying and a ‘broken’ complaints system. RNZ.

[7] Jean-Marc Jancovici. 2021. Will Technology Save Us From Climate Change? MIT Media Lab.

[8] Simon P. Michaux. 2021. Geological Survey of Finland The Mining of Minerals and the Limits to Growth.

[9] Bridget Burdett and Mike Joy. 2021. Transportation Group Chairs Conversation: 2. Engineering New Zealand.

[10] Elizabeth Boakes and David Redding. 2018. Extinction is a Natural Process, But it’s Happening at 1,000 Times the Normal Speed. The conversation.

[11] IPBES. 20218. The assessment report on LAND DEGRADATION AND RESTORATION.

[12] Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, & Max Wilbert. 2021. Bright Green Lies.

[13] Eric Holthaus. 2021. Let’s stop talking about climate ‘resilience’ and start talking about climate trauma.

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