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Psycho History

April 10, 2009

Making good headway in Computer Power and Human Reason.  I’ll stay “on message” when I write up my review, but I didn’t want to skip some of the things in the book that might be “off topic,” since it’s interesting how much of a book written in 1976 is applicable today.  Weizenbaum quotes Hannah Arendt from 1972 on the policy makers in the Pentagon, many of whom have been in power ever since:

They were eager to find formulas, preferably expressed in a pseudo-mathematical language, that would unify the most disparate phenomena with which reality presented them; that is, they were eager to discover laws by which to explain and predict political and historical facts as though they were as necessary, and thus as reliable, as the physicists once believed natural phenomena to be.

Weizenbaum adds:

…so too have nearly all political confrontations, such as those between races and those between the governed and their governors, come to be perceived as mere failures of communication.  Such rips in the social fabric can then be systematically repaired by the expert application of the latest information-handling techniques.

There’s no better description of the Neocons, with their disdain for the “reality-based community” and their ill- or uninformed assertion that we would be greeted as liberators by Iraqis throwing flowers.  As P.W. Singer noted in Wired for War, Rummy ‘N’ Friends believed wars could be won without troops, without cultural understanding, without historical context; that logistics (and torture) would prevail through the “expert application of the latest information-handling techniques.”

He’s also prescient on the derivatives market, as he discusses how experience was replaced in Man’s mind by routine regulated by machinery – i.e., with the coming of the clock, instead of working from sunup to sundown and eating when hungry, we started working 9 to 5 and eating at 12.

Gradually…experience of reality had to be representable as numbers in order to appear legitimate in the eyes of the common wisdom.  Today enormously intricate manipulations of often huge sets of numbers are thought capable of producing new aspects of reality. [Italics mine] These are validated by comparing the newly derived numbers with pointer readings on still more instruments that mediate between man and nature, and which, of course, produce still more numbers.

I’m also reading, for relaxation, David Marusek’s Counting Heads, which is turning out to be great, a Neal Asher/William Gibson style/level of SF awesomeness.  I almost didn’t read it after I brought it home, when I discovered too late how tiny and cramped the type is – I’d rather have paid more for a book 100 pages longer, heavier and more readable.  But I’m glad I started it because now I’m hooked.  In addition to interesting AI characters, Marusek has a fantastic passage on loneliness worthy of quoting nearly in its entirety:

In truth, there’s not much to say about loneliness, for it’s not a broad subject.  Any child, alone in her room, can journey across its entire breadth, from border to border, in a hour.

Though not broad, our subject is deep.  Loneliness is deeper than the ocean.  But here, too, there is no mystery. Our intrepid child is liable to fall quickly to the very bottom without even trying.  And since the depth of loneliness cannot sustain human life, the child will swim to the surface again in short order, no worse for wear.

Some of us, though, can bring breathing aids down with us for longer stays:  imaginary friends, drugs and alcohol, mind-numbing entertainment, hobbies, ironclad routine, and pets…with the help of these aids, a poor sap can survive the airless depths of loneliness long enough to experience its true horror – duration.

…most pain loses its edge over time…Even the loss of a loved one, perhaps life’s most wrenching pain, is blunted in time.  It recedes into the background, where it can be borne with lesser pains.  Not so our friend loneliness, which grows only more keen and insistent with each passing hour.  Loneliness is as needle sharp now as it was an hour ago, or a week.

[Loneliness is] the secret you cannot tell anyone.  Why?

Because to confess your loneliness is to confess your failure as a human being.  To confess would only cause others to pity and avoid you, afraid that what you have is catching.  Your condition is caused by a lack of human relationship, and yet to admit it only drives your possible rescuers farther away (while attracting cats).

So you attempt to hide your loneliness in public, to behave, in fact, as though you have too many friends already, and thus you hope to attract people who will unwittingly save you.  But it never works that way.  Your condition is written all over your face, in the hunch of your shoulders, in the hollowness of your laugh.  You fool no one.

Believe me in this; I’ve tried all the tricks of the lonely man.

Reading in one page what it took the authors of Loneliness a whole book to say only confirms for me what Jonah Lehrer said in Proust Was a Neuroscientist – that artists affirm, then scientists confirm.  It also makes me wish that Loneliness had delved into literary explorations of the subject more than it did.

And, of course, it’s comforting to know that the subject can be addressed by a novelist without his head exploding, that another person, another writer, in confronting his own feelings (for who could write something like that save from experience?) has eased my own fear about confronting my own in the chapters to come.

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