Aengus Anderson: So, we’re breaking back in, which is always a sad thing to inflict on the listeners. Sorry folks.
Micah Saul: We apologize, but actually we think this one’s going to be pretty good.
Anderson: A lot of things have been developing in the project since we’ve last checked in. And it also feels like we’re at a point where the project has reached enough of a stage of maturity where we can really plot some big themes in the project. So that’s kind of what we want to do now, especially if you’re a new listener and you’re jumping in pretty recently. So we can kind of synthesize some information for you as maybe you go back and listen to some earlier conversations.
Saul: Exactly. We feel that this is a good point to sort of take stock, do sort of a quick précis, if you will, of where we’ve gotten so far. Because I think we’ve got some really interesting places we weren’t necessarily expecting to get. And we’re seeing some interesting poles between different large groups of thinkers that we weren’t necessarily expecting.
Anderson: And our own ideas have been evolving this whole time. So, let’s jump right into it, shall we?
Saul: Sounds good. In many ways it seems the biggest rift between groups of thinkers in the project so far is their stance on technology. We have a large group of tech optimists. People like Max More, Ariel Waldman, Robert Zubrin. And then we have those that are a little more skeptical of tech. Jan Lundberg, Carolyn Raffensperger…
Anderson: Johns Zerzan.
Saul: Of course, John Zerzan.
Anderson: So, people who are sort of skeptical of tech maybe through the uses, and people who are skeptical of tech as an enterprise.
Saul: Right. I think going into the project, we really expected the main rift to be biocentrism and anthropocentrism. And it’s interesting there’s some overlap between that polarity and this polarity. But it’s not quite as neat as you’d expect it to be.
Anderson: We certainly see it with people like Max More and Robert Zubrin, who are strong anthropocentrists and strong tech optimists. But there are definitely a lot of edge cases even in that world. I mean, I think you could make an argument that in many ways Wes Jackson is a tech optimist.
Anderson: He’s very nuanced in his thinking about technology. But he’s a biocentrist. Or the same way with Carolyn Raffensperger, you know, who for spiritual reasons is a biocentrist but is also still very interested in technological development.
Saul: There’ve been some surprises there for us.
Anderson: In our minds, of course, the question that’s always sort of playing out is, how do you have people talk to each other? Do people talk to each other? What are the issues that stop conversation dead? And biocentrists, anthropocentrists…often they do seem to be very at loggerheads. You know, you can find common causes. I mean, there are a lot of ways that anthropocentrists can follow goals that seem common with biocentrists because it is truly in the self-interest of man to have a biosphere. But they’re not always things you can square. And I think that’s the same with… Maybe less so with the tech people than with the biocentrists and anthropocentrists, though.
Saul: I think so. I think it’s…biocentrism anthropocentrism are so related to that arational notion of good or value, where the tech optimist and tech skeptics… Your relation with tech, with a couple exceptions, doesn’t really seem quite as ingrained and deep-seated of a belief. Obviously, the exceptions I’m thinking of are Robert Zubrin, who would argue that technology is what makes us human. Zerzan, who would argue that technology is what’s making us not human.
Anderson: That’s a great summary of those two.
Saul: So I thought it was also interesting within the tech optimist side, speaking of human and not human, there is a rift even within that group of how they be look at technological change, and how they look at whether or not it should have limits. So, we’ve got people like Max More and… I think we can say coming up in the future we’re going to be talking with some more really interesting posthumanists who believe that basically tech and scientific investigation should have no limits. You just sort of…go forth. And then there are people like Robert Zubrin who are really uncomfortable with whether or not that can lead to us losing what makes us human. Which I thought was interesting considering his belief that we are fundamentally technological animals.
Anderson: Yeah. Because we started this project interested in fundamentally new ideas, right. And I think Robert Zubrin’s ideas about technology are not fundamentally new. It is not the Star Trek future where we go into space as what we are with technology around us. What’s fundamentally new is the idea that’s threatening his idea. It’s the technology that is being pushed by transhumanists, which is what changes us so deeply that we can’t predict what we’ll be. Human has no more meaning, in their universe. And that is a fundamentally new idea.
Saul: Yeah, absolutely. What other big themes should we bring up here?
Anderson: You want to jump into teleology?
Saul: Yeah, let’s do it.
Anderson: Or historical progressivism? This is another one where we’ve been trying to figure out the right word for this. And we’ve talked about this periodically, but my academic background is in history. And something that’s always interesting for historians to look at with accounts of the past is of course, how does it explain how we’ve gotten to where we are. And the idea of teleology is so fascinating, which is taking the point we’re at now, looking to the past, and creating a narrative or an explanation that leads you directly to where you are. It’s a complete self-fulfilling narrative. Which is, for historians, really bad practice.
We’ve seen a lot of thinkers who use teleological explanations, and a fair number of thinkers who reject them. Probably fewer who reject them, though. Because I think teleology and the idea of progressing somewhere, which is again different but related, that’s a really tempting way to tell a story.
Saul: And I think what’s interesting is it’s common across all of the other poles. It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are. You can easily use teleological thinking to explain your beliefs.
Anderson: Yes. For example, in terms of our more biocentrist thinkers, David Korten, there’s an immediate sense of progress that he works with. And the explanation he gives us is one that is in many ways sort of teleological. The idea that the ecosphere as consciousness is a thing that is growing to sort of realize itself, right? But when you take that attitude, you look to the past, you say, “Well, science has gotten us to this point where we can now recognize the supraorganism that we’re a part of.”
Saul: Which is interesting because it’s actually, and I don’t think we noticed it at the time when we were talking about Zubrin, but Zubrin says something very similar.
Saul: “We are the biosphere’s way of spreading itself throughout the universe.”
Saul: Wes Jackson also says something very similar. “We are nature’s way of looking at itself.”
Anderson: Which is kind of remarkable because there are some very different perspectives on how to live, but a common structural theme for creating a narrative. So let’s throw out some non-teleological thinkers, so people have a sense of the opposite perspective.
Saul: Yeah, exactly. How you you do narrative without that sense.
Anderson: Right, which is a real challenge.
Saul: I think…Morton.
Anderson: He’s probably the poster boy for it.
Saul: Unsurprisingly. But with Morton you definitely get the idea that we’re not progressing towards anything. There is not a clear, direct line to be drawn and that everything is just relationships and everything is just change.
Anderson: You can’t even know what’s out there. You couldn’t know what was going on if there was anything going on, and there probably isn’t anything going on. You just exist. And you adapt in different directions, depending on the needs and the circumstances, and that’s that. His choices of the words “spooky” and “eerie” and “disquieting” and “weird…” You know, he uses all of those words regularly. In a way that’s apt for us as a people who are used to narratives that seem very linear, that progress forwards, that maybe do indulge in teleology.
Saul: Yeah. I think that’s one of the reasons that…well, that you and I found Morton so interesting, and I think other people have as well. Because he’s not just challenging our worldview, he’s challenging how we tell stories.
Saul: And that’s something that so deeply ingrained that when you do things differently, it feels…it feels…weird.
Anderson: Absolutely. It’s funny, you know, to have had that conversation with David Korten about changing the narrative. And he goes beneath a lot of the ways we see the world, and he breaks it down into a couple of really big narratives, right. And Timothy Morton goes one level beneath that, and breaks down narrative.
Saul: Right. As you would expect from… Well, he’s he’s definitely of the postmodern or post-postmodern schools of philosophy.
Anderson: Which of course is interesting and you know, what do you do with someone like Timothy Morton’s obliteration of our sort of narrative structure? Like, if you’re living in a world in which you are conscious of this gigantic mesh, and you are also conscious of your inability to know what’s going on, how do you turn that into some sort of useful action? Morton is interesting because he is at once very postmodern, but at once also very concerned that postmodern thought is far too detached and is not dealing with the crisis of the now.
And I think that’s something else that we should probably begin to wind this conversation down with, is how different people have talked about conversations in the project. We mentioned a little bit in the end of last episode with Carolyn Raffensperger, the idea that the conversation is not between the different thinkers we are talking to, but it is between them and well, you, the folks who are listening to this. So there’s a conversation model in which people are basically lobbying for the undecided.
Other people, like Cameron, are pushing for an idea of we need to force people to think they need to have the Conversation. There are other people who think the Conversation is happening, and they are having is. And there are still other people, perhaps Joseph Tainter would be a good example, who think that y’know, conversation might be the best shot we have, but it’s honestly kind of irrelevant and the fix is in.
Saul: His closing comments remain to me the most disturbing sentence we’ve had so far in this project.
Anderson: You mean “try to go have this conversation at Walmart and see how far you get,” essentially? I’m paraphrasing.
Saul: Yes, exactly. It was just the biggest smackdown of the thesis of this project, which is something that I absolutely want to believe matters.
Anderson: And that does tie in with our earlier interstitial, the second status update we did, where we were talking about elitism. And so here’s here’s another disturbing prospect. Say the Conversation does matter. But also let’s say that Joseph Tainter is partially right, and that in the Walmart the Conversation is never going to be something that happens. Maybe the Conversation just happens top-down. In a way then, Carolyn Raffensperger’s model begins to look less like just lobbying for people in a way that seems, I don’t know, like a depressing fight over scraps, and more optimistic in that well, it is granting agency to a lot of people. Whereas maybe there’s another option in which the Conversation is this elite thing that is ultimately imposed on Joseph Tainter’s folks in Walmart.
Saul: You know, that’s just one of many questions I think we’ve been having recently about the Conversation. And I think our ideas of what the Conversation is have certainly shifted over the course of this project.
Anderson: If I was to put you on the spot right now, how have your ideas about the Conversation changed? Well, I think when we originally framed it, the idea was that “in times of great change, great minds come together and have The Conversation. Out of that we get these new ideas.” I think actually that is a fundamentally elitist idea. The examples we would give I feel fit into that mold, or at least the commonly held perspective of those examples. I’m thinking you know, the framing of the founding documents of the United States.
But then the question is, is that sort of popularly-held prospective correct? And do they maybe just represent sort of the zeitgeist? Could you have the Constitution without a bunch of other people, both elite, non-elite, known, not known, having these ideas of personal liberty and the relationship that the state should have with the individual citizens? If that wasn’t already happening, could the Constitution actually have been drafted?
Anderson: And I’m honestly surprised that we haven’t run into more of a discussion of that. And that’s something that I think I want to bring up in some of our later conversations. What about all the people whose minds have to be opened to these new ideas? You can’t just have an elite conversation and then an imposed ideology. I mean, maybe you can, but… I think there are ample historical examples. Let’s say if you look at the French Revolution, you see an immense number of reforms that are coming from the elite. And many of them seem…well, some of them seem mildly rational, whether they be calendar reforms or legal reforms. And yet a lot of that stuff does not stick beyond the revolution. Because no one wanted it.
Anderson: There does have to be a zeitgeist, and maybe that’s what gives the elites almost permission to have the Conversation.
Saul: Something else we were talking about is the question of when the Conversation happens. Does the conversation happen before the change? Does the Conversation happened during the change? Or have we invented the idea of the Conversation to sort of justify the changes that happened?
Anderson: And a good historical determinist would probably say it’s the last one of those. The Conversation is the garnish that historians put on a narrative of the past, which changes for other reasons. Maybe there’s an economic thing that changes ideas. Maybe there’s a technological development, or a famine. And minds change and it’s sort of this quiet inchoate, unreflective, natural movement. And then, the frippery of the conversation about it just tossed on at the end.
Anderson: There’s something sort of grossly disempowering about that, but there’s something that’s also… I like how it disempowers elites.
Saul: I feel like we’ve just subjected our listeners to phone conversations you and I have when we’re not necessarily working on the project, or in between episodes.
Anderson: And you’ve probably spotted many of these themes. You probably spotted a lot of themes that we didn’t mention. You’ve probably spotted a lot of themes we aren’t even aware of. And of course, there is always space on the web site to write to us about them. And it would be great if you did, because [laughs] you already know how serious our blind spots are.
Saul: Exactly. And you also know… Well, maybe you don’t. I assume. I assume you know. You should also know that the interviewees aren’t talking to each other. They don’t listen to the project. With a few exceptions. And so in order for this to really work as a conversation, we really need you to be a part of that.
Anderson: And actually, as we’ve been talking about our changing thoughts, this has been, the thing that you just mentioned with the interviewees maybe tuning into their own conversations, probably not tuning into the other ones. (Again with a few very notable exceptions.) One of the things we wanted to learn with this project was, could we spark a conversation? I mean, and this is the total naïve conceit, right, and we know that. But, we thought well what the hell, let’s give it a try. Maybe some of these people will be curious about each other. Maybe if in conversation I bring up all of these other people, the interviewees will go back and listen to one or two of them. Maybe their curiosity will be piqued. I don’t think that’s happened. And if it has, they’ve never mentioned anything.
Saul: I think you are being a little too hard on the project, though. Because, as you said, there are a few notable exceptions to that rule. And I think the fact that Lawrence Torcello is actually listening…I think that’s a win. And I think that it does give me some hope that we are doing something in terms of sparking a conversation.
Anderson: And you know, we can say exactly the same thing about David Miller, who listened as well.
Anderson: And Tim Cannon, who we’re going to be talking to down the road with Grindhouse Wetware.
Anderson: And those moments totally make it worthwhile. I mean, this would be worthwhile even if no one cared, because it’s a really fun project to work on. But it is interesting, and I think dismaying to some extent, to see how isolated within their own communities a lot of these thinkers are.
You know, there’s a topic that bobbing up here and there that I want to devote an entire conversation to, which is the idea of there being simply too much information to navigate and comprehend. And I think the people we are talking to illustrate that. Because they are engaged, and they are curious. And I think really they would like to know, but this is just one tiny little blip on the radar for them. It’s a conversation that comes and goes, and they have lives that are very deep and rich and complicated. And there just isn’t time.
Saul: Which I think is a perfect time to once again thank our listeners for putting up with us. We know how busy everybody is, and we know… Well, I know for a fact I can’t do anything else when I’m listening to this, or I just miss the whole thing. So thank you for taking the time out and actually listening.
Anderson: And that maybe some of you share our sort of naïve hope that we can try to engage in this kind of conversation.
Saul: Right. And I think on that note, we should stop taking your time and let you get back to your far more important lives.
Anderson: And we’ll get back to our massively unimportant ones.
You’re listening The Conversation and this is our third status update. It was recorded September 6, 2012 in both San Francisco, California and Hartford, Connecticut.
Anderson: So thanks for listening I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.