Thursday, December 08, 2005

Response to our "anonymous Modernist"...

For those of you who missed it, there was a very long and very interesting rant posted in response to the previous blog entry. I highly recommend it for people who have time. SOme parts are hilarious. I decided to respond here at the top level, instead of down in comments.

Dear Anonymous,

Your long and erudite plaint about the rise of cowardice and backward thinking vs. modernist confidence -- was fascinating and -- in many places -- remarkably illuminating. And pretty good writing.

Still, it makes me wonder.... were you aware of how deeply we already went into this topic, months ago? Especially my lengthy screed on “Modernism and its Enemies.” Indeed, that essay was the principal reason that I started this blog, in the first place.

(See also

In any event, it seems you have come to the right place. Although I have lately become fiery-political... because I think the short term calamity of American Democracy is overwhelmingly important right now, in rescuing a civilization from monsters... nevertheless, the OVERALL topic here is still the same. What must be done in order to tap the great reserves of pro-enlightenment attitudes that still surge and flux beneath the surface of a majority of Americans?

THAT is where you and I part company. I see all the same things that you do. Like the fact that John Stewart on Comedy Central is the last voice of modernism left on the air. Or that “reclaiming Christmas” has become the latest in-your-face aggressive Culture War offensive, aimed at keeping the coalitions of the right and left unified in insipid opposition over symbols. Still, I refuse the sick-sweet attractions of cynicism.

Take a gander at so-called “Intelligent Design.” Would they have retreated so far from older “Creationism”... using every trick to dress it up in scientific-sounding and rationalist language, eschewing every reference to religion and even dropping all mention of the age of the Earth/universe (!)... if they did not realize how deeply and strongly science and enlightenment still hold attraction to the American majority? (See my article on this in the next SKEPTIC Magazine.) Yes, 15% think the sun revolves around the Earth. Hey, 15% believe anything. This is not a world of alphas or slans. We are cavemen who have been to the moon and actually changed our minds about racism and sexism and half-broken several other really nasty habits. I find that worthy of some respect.

Here’s the trick. Expect little! Then encourage yourself to be surprised at how full the glass is!

I mean it. That mental strategy is more likely to:

1. leave you optimistic enough to keep trying, instead of shaking your head sadly in despair...

2. make you more persuasive, because people listen to enthusiasm and hope...

3. help you come up with fresh ideas...

4. preserve you from the sick allure of self-righteous indignation. (

Truly, your pessimism was refreshing because it cheered me up! In contrast. Seriously, you reeeeeeeally must do that little exercise I recommend. Go to a street corner and do a slow 360, taking your time to notice all the technologies, institutions, laws, and ad hoc character interactions that you see at work. Do this VERY slowly, in order to notice all the little things we take for granted, street lights and sewers and people who could have hurt or stolen things, but instead took gracious turns, negotiating stop signs with tiny finger flicks of courtesy... Remember these are genetic CAVEMEN whose later ancestors mostly lived under oppressive cabals of feudal lords and incantation-mad clergy. This modernist experiment is still new! And yet, see how many ways they do it well! If you look -- really look -- then, completing your 360-degree turn, you’ll have to admit a really eerie truth.

That your neighbors simply CANNOT be as stupid as they look!

Yes, they look very,very,very,very, stupid. And - often - they really are. But enlightenment civ’s trick is to hold the bad stuff accountable while giving the good stuff freedom to interact. It works astonishingly well. For cavemen.

Moreover, the enemies of the Enlightenment are doing what they are doing for one reason, above all others. Because they are scared. Because if things keep going this way, we may reach a tipping point where feudalism and dogmatism and oppression and retro-nostalgism will lose their final chance. We’ll emerge into light where faith will survive, but not exclusionary hellfire, demure decency will thrive, but not oppressive prudity, cultural traditions will be cherished, but not used as weapons, lively market capitalism will flourish, but not aristocratic kleptocracy, multiculturalism and social nets will be maintained, but not at the cost of PC gestapo-policing of thoughts and speech.

This is the horror that drives anti-engineering loonies of the left and anti-science loonies of the right. This is why they have colluded (unconsciously) to create “culture war”, in order to distract Americans from the Great Project. They are doing this because they were losing!

Take that message and cheer up. Then help us figure out how to win this struggle.

A few specific comments :

It would seem to me that the painting at: (“Stuffing the technological genie back in the bottle”) was meant to be satirical.

You portray the internet as driving reactionary impulses because: “The internet, which turned from a thoughtful discussion salon into a combination red light district / spam factory / plague quarantine zone.

It is now estimated that the time before an unprotected PC connected to the internet gets infected by a worm or virus has dropped to 20 minutes...and still falling.

Please. Soon after the Gutenberg Bible, the biggest uses of printing presses soon became (1) religious hate tracts and (2) porn. Yes, the Thirty Years War resulted. Not something we dare repeat, with atom bombs, plagues and nano-weaponry. But eventually printing did a lot of good.

I do share your loathing of the cabal among electronics makers to make DVD players vastly less usable than VCRs were. These people deserve to go to the same place as those who designed the HP OfficeJet G85 “all in one” printer... somewhere abused purchasers and users get a chance to get even with engineers who betrayed their central tribal mission and our trust.

All told, I wish you would refine your posting. Run it past some friends in order to tone it down from a howl of despair into something that sounds more like a reasoned indictment. Organize, then POST IT online in a way that makes it perpetually accessible, as I have done with many of my rants! People (including me) can then refer to it. But then, it would require that you no longer be “anonymous.” ;-)

Some other items...

This offered by Chris Phoenix: “Marshall Brain wrote a column claiming that technologies like solar
Stirling dishes could solve our energy problems. I calculated that to keep our oil use constant (instead of growing at 2% per year) would probably require $50 to 100 billion worth of solar Stirling dishes installed each year. That doesn't count the land cost, financing, maintenance, infrastructure to replace oil with electricity, etc. And that's just to keep our oil use constant, not to deal with maybe a 5% per year decline in supply.”

Also: “Two of Greenland's largest glaciers are retreating at an alarming pace, most likely because of climate warming, scientists said Wednesday.One of the glaciers, Kangerdlugssuaq, is currently moving about 9 miles a year compared to 3 miles a year in 2001, said Gordon Hamilton of the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute.

The other glacier, Helheim, is retreating at about 7 miles a year — up from 4 miles a year during the same period.

"It's quite a staggering rate of increase," Hamilton said at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting.


Rob Perkins said...

Ah, the G85...

Hang the PSC 750 right up there with it. The *machine itself* is sublime. The *software drivers* were designed by Fidel Castro's Secret Software Development Infiltration Team.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it! ;)

Anonymous said...

David, you may like the following cartoon panel:

One of the things modernism.the Enlightnement will need to rise above its challenges is a sense of humor. Stuff like this is a start.


(P.S. My biggest gripe with modernity/The Enlightment? I'm not a scientist/engineer (didn't have the math skills for it) and feel dissocnnected from it, as though I don't have anything valuable to contribute. I don't want to be "just a cheerleader" for it.)

Anonymous said...

The Enlightenment needs more than scientists and engineers... philosophers are at the root... and those of us who merely pass on the information are part of the network.

(I'm a librarian. Passing information on is what I do.)

There is a great advantage to being a pessimist: you may be wrong, but you're NEVER disappointed. The problem with being a cynic is that you're right too often.
Subject Change...
You've left clues that you live in North San Diego county... was Randy Cunningham your congressman? And are you re-regestering Republican to vote in the (critical) primary that will be the REAL election for that seat? Just asking.

Anonymous said...

Another slightly off topic...

Yesterday I was over at Borders, and I started flipping through Tammy Bruce's new book, "The New American Revolution":

... when I realized that Bruce, while holding a similiar philosophy to Dr. Brin, comes to a completely different conclusion regarding who the most dangerous segment of the American political compass is. She's a classical liberal who is concerned that "the left" is destroying America; while I think she is incorrect, she strikes me as very hard to argue with (though I did write a ringing refutation of her Bush endorsement last October).

The problem is, reading someone like Bruce (like reading Rand) always seems to leave me with a feeling that I'm all wrong; while I don't find the conservatives- especially religious conservatives- all that convincing, their libertarian/classical liberal counterparts, who seem to swing to the hard right in America (for some reason; European classical liberals tend to push politics that are similiar to America's Democrats or New Democrats)...

Rik said...

It's like D-Fens... falling down, going down... What if the entire predicament is their freaking out, out of a sense of weakness?
Why do people yearn for the Living God of Antiquity? TV and film have great fun with biblical literalism (or literal biblicism), think: Buffy, Xena and yes, even LOTR and Narnia, but Talk of the Gods is just spielerei. How to think about the godhead has been a matter of interpretation and re-interpretation, just go read Jack Miles and Karen Armstrong.

Why would anyone want a god who punishes folks for the next 20.000 year for silly things about sex? Why believe god schedules some to die and some to survive in, say, a planecrash? You'd apprehend a god like that and have him shot.

We are living in an Ultramodern World. Scientific materialism is racing on and mounting success on success. Irrelevant that nature can still pound us with every disaster imaginable: middlefinger to the old gal, we got science, you don't! If you believe 'you' are a soul, who can be transferred to an eternal tropical paradise, why disbelieve 'you' can be transferred to a machine? You can pretty much count on an even crazier Culture 'War', with genmod, fablabs and what have you.

In short, we're plagued by an old way to thinking - metaphysical side to religion was formulated in the days of Philo of Alexandria (contemporary of Joshua)- which is extremely strong and has virtually nothing to offer us anymore. That's why I compared it to D-Fens - Michael Douglas's character in 'Falling Down': it *is* defending itself, the only way it knows. It is familiar, it is old, it is traditional (premodern) and it has nowhere to go. ...falling down, going down...

* * *

Go Dr. B.
Write ASAP
in the proposed direction
Of your essay about religion!

couldn't resist! ;) ;) ;)

michael vassar said...

Anonymous non-Engineer. Everyone who makes a living doing something without significant rent-seeking or guild-protection component is playing a part. It's a mistake to see scientists and engineers as even the main players. A typical scientist just fills a spot that another scientist could fill. A typical manager of a business, even a small one like a local bagel shop, is not doing that. They are demonstrably making the lives of others better. Collectively MUCH MUCH better.

That, by the way, is part of why America's libertarians lean right. The left generally hates such people, for being wealthy without being deep. They hate them while sipping the starbucks lattes that they condemn. The Democrats are NOT left, not at all, but the Republicans tell the public that they are and the Democrats don't deny it because they don't want Nader to split the vote (Nader does tell the public that the Democrats are not Left, but since he's a nut, people ignore him). The Republics spout transparent classical liberal rhetoric, the Democrats don't so the Libertarians vote for those who pay them lip service.
Still, it's perfectly fair to say that the libertarians tend to be foolish not to see this themselves.

michael vassar said...

Pushing a bit further, a person doesn't really have to be that smart to be an important scientist. Dedication and luck matter a lot, but even luck is dispensible. Kinsey, for instance, made a huge impact simply by insisting that a subject was worthy of scientific study despite the negative attention that he knew he would recieve for it. Even if they make some errors, people like Susan Clancy do a great public service by mentioning that the emperor may not be wearing clothes.
Even mathematical sciences like engineering, economics, and physics can sometimes recieve significant contributions from a mathematically ignorant determined rationalist if such a person can make it clear that they aren't a crank.

David Brin said...

Hawker, you nailed it on all counts.

Nicq, the simple answer to Bruce is that lefty dingbats don’t have any power! Except the negative power to destroy liberalism, which brought us civil rights and rambunctious women. The movement that defeated Hitler & Communism, and took us to the moon, and started environmentalism and introduced transparency....

Thats a lot of good will that those moronic left wing dogmatists have frittered away with their PC imbecillity and indignation drug highs. Is that her point? Well then, I can see it...

...and I still answer feh! Anyone who thinks that Nancy Pelosi is one millionth the threat to the enlightenment that Cheney-Delay-Frist et al represent simply does not know a damned thing about human history.


Yes, there were commisars in the USSR. Any other examples?

Meanwhile, the right’s modality is classic, ubiquitous and obligate in 99% of past urban cultures. They know how to do this thing that they are trying to do! They have tons of examples of past cabals, between aristocracies and rationalizing clergies, to use as guides. And Plato and Machiavelli to lay it all out far better and more pragmatically than Marx (that dreamer) ever could. If you want to see where the left would take us, you have to squint real hard... and assume they really haven’t a clue. But the right knows damned well where they want to take us.

We’ve been there before.

Go have a look at this:

Anonymous said...

"Yes, there were commisars in the USSR. Any other examples?"

Mao's China. Communist Vietnam. North Korea. Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

Just to name the most egregious examples.

(Of course, note that all four are Asian- and all four are a product of a strange combination of native asian aristocratic and romantic ideas with a half- no- quarter-understood European industrial age philosophy that wasn't even meant for them. Cargo-cult Communism. But the damage done by them is unmistakable.)

To a less egregious extent, we could use the example of French, German, and British socialism of the late 20th century, or the stifling but relatively benign communism of Castro's Cuba (honestly, if you had to pick any totalitarian regime of the 20th century to live under- wouldn't his be the one? Sure, you're stuck under an indignant dictator- but at least you're under an indignant dictator with little millitary ambition in a tropical paridise.). These systems undoubtably suck; though their aristocratic-feudal alternatives on the other side would be even worse.

(As for European-style socialism, it has quite a few downsides, but it has a few upsides as well. While I don't favor it, I don't think it the absolute evil that many on the right do; and anyway, much of the European social safety "featherbeds" are being scaled back, or will have to be scaled back in the next few years.)

But, other than these examples of "soft socialism", I wonder if the primary examples of leftist horror-Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il, etc.-just examples of the same old aristocratic impulse bubbling up, more kleptocratic and power-mad than truly "collectivist". At least that's what Trotsky thought. (Trotsky considered his adversary, Stalin, to be a far-right totalitarian who had abandoned Democratic Socialism.)

Of course, folks on the "right" call them all left-collectivists, including figures often considered "right", like Hitler and Mussolini.

(One possible distinction- hard-right figures will subsume institutions into the aegis of the state, while hard-left figures set out to destroy institutions. Both positions are utterly mad. But what's the distinction? Some libs try to say that the Right is libertarian, while the "Left" is statist. I think that there is a Statist Right and a Statist Left, as well as a Libertarian Right and a Libertarian Left. The Libertarian Right is what we usually think of as a Libertarian in the American sense, while a Left-Libertarian is more of an anti-institutional liberal; anarcho-socialists, communitarian hippies, etc... someone for social innovation and breakdown of institutions while highly distrustful of the state)

Anonymous said...

I was discussing left versus right with someone the other day over lunch. And I was thinking that the left complains that the right is going to basically end the world and vice versa and there's endless discussions and criticism about what is wrong with this or that government.

At the end of the day we're doing pretty good really! My theory is that the very fact these discussions occur so frequency is a sign that we are doing well. What cultures in years past even allowed people enough 1) freedom and 2) free time to spend untold hours reading about or discussing every little issue or nuance of government to death.

Really we have a pretty decent society going here (well for me here is Canada, but you know what I mean, the modern world as a whole). People don't have "real" problems to worry about so they start making up stuff to get uptight about.

David Brin said...

You are threatening to bring us into the hoary old tussle over a better "axis" system for the new century.

I have my own favorite 3-D coordinate system.

Start by acknowledging a single discrete trait to stand for left-right. Not statism... but propertarianism. On the left you think personal property is suspect. On the right it's sacred. This is the best of all shadow simplifications of the horrid left-right cliche, since in fact there were many left & right statists. Still, Stalin did not actually "own" very much at all.

He didn't have to! The "up-down" axis would be "To what degree should the state or party have to power to coerce cooperation?"

Finally, the in-out dimensions should be "To what do you attribute differences among human beings? Nature or nurture?"

Now we really start to separate birds who are not of-a-feather!

Stalin, at top-left-in, says nobody should own anything, but he has the right to coerce/kill you... but because he believes all is nurture -- (Lysenkoism= infinite human reprogramability) -- he won't kill your children, only re-educate them to hate you.

Hitler is top-middle-out. Actually moderate syndicalist re: property. But he claims the right to coerce/kill you... an because he believes all is nature (race) explaining all differences, he must also kill your kids.

Classic aristocrats are top-right-out... They will kill you to defend their sacred and inherited right to own you and everything in sight.

Libertarians and anarchists differ over the sacredness of property. Down at the bottom, they will howl at each other for hours, while buying each other beers. So will Stalin & Hitler. Clearly the most important of these three axes is the one about coercion. All else is commentary.

Anonymous said...


David B. has made a point that the 'left/right' axis is too simple... and I'm beginning to believe that a three dimensional drawing might not cover all the variants.
(for a two dimensional version, see )

It is interesting that 'the right' (using the oversimplyfied term) tries to paint all the totalitarianisms as 'leftist', usually as part of the effort to discredit the left. I've had 'righties' point out that NAZI stands for "National Socialism"... to which I point out that the Communist Chinese call themselves Republican.

Gee, I hope I'm not too far off the wall with this... I feel like I've left the topic.


Anonymous said...

Too slow. David answered better than I did before I did.

Tony Fisk said...

HawkerHurricane said:
I'm beginning to believe that a three dimensional drawing might not cover all the variants.

You're probably right! However, if you've got the New Scietist article on morality to hand, check out the little 'morality compass' questionnaire and wonder at how much more space even two dimensions gives you.

Woozle said...

My attempt to document the whole Dimensions of Morality thread is here.

Woozle said...

(, well, to document the conclusions, anyway. Not a blow-by-blow; just picking out the meat.)

wkwillis said...

Well, we could build 50 to 100 billion dollars worth of solar power units every year to replace the natural gas we burn for air conditioning power, or we could import 50 to 100 billion dollars of liquified natural gas every year to replace the domestic natural gas that we burned up for air conditioning power.
I'd go with the solar, but that's me. Also I'm an inventor in the solar power field so I got a dog in the fight.