Society has already become Skynet
I was having a discussion with a friend about the institutional issues of the presidency, about just how much an individual, no matter how bright or savvy, can effect the course of government given our modern state of complexity and the very size of our governing institutions, and he said:
What’s most amazing about this is that, apparently, Vice President Cheney more or less took the power of the NSC out of the NSC — where, it is said, President G. W. Bush never once said anything as Chair of the Council!
Now, as I surmise, President Obama is moving to restore power to the NSC — and, accordingly, he can only make “conservative” appointments. Obama, I believe, is trying to restore a kind of balance of power that existed before Bush’s 9/11 expansion of the powers of the Executive through an extraordinary chain of command lying outside any explicit authorization of Congress or even of any Executive Orders — published, secret or otherwise.
It’s a fascinating process, I am sure, but it’s something that even those on the inside probably cannot really fully describe . . . and, if they could describe it, they would never think to make any of it public.
As nearly as we can tell, the Obama Administration took charge of the U.S. security apparatus in or about the end of May, 2009:
…”but it’s something that even those on the inside probably cannot fully describe…” he said.
I think that captures what I was trying to say the power of institutions as it tends to supersede individual attempts to effect them. Along with that bit about the NSC, his whole description takes examples from the now vast Federal bureaucracy in an attempt to illustrate something we keep trying to make sense of as if by making sense it becomes comprehensible.
He does so by illustration, something in the order of examining a hangnail on an elephant’s toe, done by feel, by the three blind men. His examples illustrate clearly enough that the “ship of state” is huge, is designed to somehow keep itself integrated and continuous as the administrations come and go, and most pertinent to my own observations, remain in the process beyond the ability of “we the people” to examine it, to fully understand what’s going on.
And even if we could examine “it,” whatever it might be, we may perhaps become vaguely aware of a darker concern, murky under the surface in the cloudy water of our sensate feelings… after all this effort of looking: what would it matter if we could see it whole? We get to vote on a President, he chooses his VP after we nominate him, we don’t even vote through a party for that person. We vote on our two Senators from our state. We vote on a Representative in the House. The Federal bureaucracy is beyond all that, and much of it is secret.
Kafka’s vision of bureaucracy is not only alive and well, it has become a giant monstrous network enclosing the globe in its grip, somehow effecting changes in living networks, but exactly how and how that how can be dealt with is now on the order of the mystery of the natural world that was once operated for us by all forms of putative gods. We once told ourselves stories around campfires about those mystically powerful beings which were once the mythology that helped us to inform our visions of the world.
So now, instead of our own stories we tell live around the community fires, we have television.
The image of institutions — of bureaucracies as a kind of extension of the technology that arose out of the industrial revolution and became the model of society, and of each person participating — are in some way also a part of that technological model, which is conceptually a model of a machine.
Skynet, as it is called in the mythology that entertains us, where the cybernetic machines from the future sent back to terminate the future human leader of the resistance.
Today’s society has been fictionalized as if it were the future coming back to destroy our humanity. But in reality, it can be envisioned as a machine simply through understanding the rational, objectifying structures of its institutions and how they function as a machine-like inhumane system.
We vote into the office of the presidency, one person, who, according to the Constitution, is supposed to be in charge of that gigantic machine. That’s his job description.
Can we really expect him to know what it’s all about? Can we really expect one human being to know? And then to decide correctly what the machinery should do, eventually?
Machinery has logic, that logic has momentum ontologically. It has paths it has to follow by prescriptions that are set for years into the future. By law, thanks to the help of the Senators and the Representatives who create the laws, with this bureaucratic machinery of state in mind, machinery neither they nor us who vote them in comprehends entirely.
What does this ship of state actually look like? We give it names and labels, but it really is not a ship or a state. There is land, and we have ways of measuring and platting that land. We create titles, and we protect ownership through various bureaucratic measures, and by that I include police forces, judicial systems and even the military.
And though my friend quoted me, and went off on what he quoted, he neglected to quote my conclusion, which I think is still a valid conclusion and worth repeating. “We have become Skynet.”
He noted that these intricately designed institutions, institutions that employ these experts, like the War Czar he illustrated, Douglas Edward Lute, they know their jobs, they understand some small segment of the world that involves their jobs and their expertise, but no one really knows the whole system, not completely, and if anyone did, they couldn’t tell us what that is any more than we can fully tell ourselves.
To that effect, I said:
I have two main issues of concern, one is the presidency itself, which has a job description of sorts, set out by the Constitution. And the other is that I don’t believe any individual is suited to fill that job description anymore.
That’s why I think of the Presidency as an Administration, a team, not an individual. And so another element of the “figurehead” question comes to fore. If you put that together along with my criticism of Obama and what he’s been doing so far in his term, I think it’s fair to say that my criticism is based on a deeper criticism of modern society, which is what I’d call systemic concern.
The system I’m questioning here, is the adequacy of the institutions of government to achieve a basic and necessary governing purpose.
So when I criticize Obama, it’s with an eye to the institution, not the man. And I think that speaks to what I would call ‘Obama the figurehead’ rather than Obama the actor everyone makes him out to be and therefore wants to blame in a personal manner.
I think, then, Obama the figurehead we vote into place is merely another example of why our institutions ultimately must fail us — that’s if one even considers a we the people demos of this organization we call the United States to be relevant anymore.
And this gets us to the matter of Skynet.
A probably relatively microscopic number of us have been trying to get a handle on this, just to see if there might be some way to re-envision the way 7 billion people are coming to be organized as a kind of system of interlinked social machines on this planet. With an especially difficult to determine overall purpose — but with a little bit more easy to describe effect, based on some modern measuring devices we, as the whole of the human species have developed.
That effect appears to be somewhat akin to a parasitic disease attacking a body (in this case the body is that of the planet, it’s biosphere, not its skeleton, the skeleton that would remain should the biosphere die away). As a result of this somewhat tenuous conclusion, a few of us are coming to a gut wrenching sensation, maybe ultimately inchoate in full potential realization, that the massive, globally conceived human project in motion right now needs to be broken down into more locally self directed and manageable segments.
Localization is lateral and horizontal in nature, not vertical and hierarchical, and this subscribes to principles we find in nature where ecology finds a balance along with stability through diversity. Climax ecologies are lateral and horizontal through diversity. If a species disappears, the whole ecology does not collapse like a house of cards. A mono culture, like the fields of crops humans maintain are vertically organized, and subject to many pressures to collapse.
It takes energy to maintain monocultures, and if you understand that simple principle you can begin to recognize the potential long term instability of our machine-like bureaucratic organization taking place on a world scale now.
That global project has a name we are all now using, neoliberalism.
It’s counter, a horizontal and lateral movement that we want to share in, also has names. One is to see it organically as a rhizome, networks of relationships but with no macro hierarchical organizing principle. An older version of that is labeled anarchy.
These are potentially relationships of inner vision; a personal vision in its very nature — always personal. And this is the true source of personal responsibility for ourselves and for the planet.
What this amounts to is a rebellion because the personal vision is ultimately not legitimate in the machine-like networks we call “institutions.” Those institutionalized visions can be codified through legal rules. And people conform to those visions rather than creating their own. Conforming to those visions effects their behavior so that it becomes like the institutions themselves.
The personal and self actuated ethical and moral cannot be part of that. And so our precious personal selves are then at risk, always at risk.
The term I envision and use myself for this lateral management visionary perspective is “localization.” Those segments of localizing order need to have a primary organizing principle, which we identify as “sustainability.” And that principle can, even must, be defined if the vision is to be shared.
It would be defined in terms of the basic life principles of the earth as best we understand them. Our best modern methods of understanding come through ecology and environmental studies, which involve attempting to understand through a rational though non reductionist, holistic way many of us label “systems thinking.”
That may inevitably be its greatest weakness as a method because rational is sometimes as far as modern thinking minds are willing to take things. And rational is incomplete, because we are more than rational beings.
So I’m willing to add story telling, art, myth making, and all sorts of ways to this modern method of understanding. It goes finally around the bend to opinion. Out greatest freedom is to think for ourselves and develop our own opinions that we can act on.
It’s in the opinion of most of us who look at this, that either we do what we think needs to be done intentionally or it comes about on its own. If it comes about on its own, that could very well be in the form of catastrophic collapse. And catastrophic collapse in the minds of many is where we are headed.
Catastrophic collapse on a global scale this time. And if you want to correlate the concept of Skynet, the machine world, intent upon destroying the humans, there you have it.
The species has had many of its smaller experiments, such as the Roman Empire, or the Soviet Union, collapse. We now may have a chance for a grand collapse such as never before experienced. But right now, it’s just a very small number of us thinking that way. We have very little effect on the way others think.
And here’s the Grand Conundrum we must struggle through: if we had any power to influence and control the macro machine system that’s killing us all, it would be contradictory to what we see as the solution.
All we can do to change the huge ship of state system, then, is to occasionally vote about something we can’t even really see or understand in any depth.
Personally, I don’t think a large system of global human societies, of the nature that’s evolved, is manageable by us mere humans. Maybe one of these days we’ll come up with a version of Skynet, from the science fiction concept that became the Terminator franchise. Actually, I think that metaphor of the humans against the machines is what we are looking at right now, if you can see that societies together become a kind of machine.
And the machine is killing us.
It’s killing us spiritually, and it’s killing life on the planet every day. And conceivably we need all that life for all of us to survive.
Meanwhile, I live in a semi rainforest in Southwestern Washington. Most of the trees in my sparsely populated county of 21,000 or so people are younger than forty years of age. All the climax eco systems that were here 150 years ago are gone. The lumber that makes up many of the buildings up and down the West Coast and who knows where else was once standing timber here; the other organisms, many species never even known to us, are simply gone, their homes amongst the standing timber gone.
My Willapa watershed is just one small area of the very vast Continent that Europeans “discovered” not that long ago and done this to, and it was called progress.
We still have a very fecund base for rebuilding here, and much life remains here, though much of it’s at the early stages of succession and has lots of changing in store before it can ever become a climax level of succession again.
Meanwhile, some of us are here trying to make a local economy of human beings that can have a vital and revitalizing role in the Willapa Watershed someday. That’s our solution. We do not feel entirely powerless.