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Why Decline to Accept the End of Man?

There are at least two clearly distinct ways of interpreting the word “end” in William Faulkner’s statement “I decline to accept the end of man.”

“End” could mean something like the downfall, obsolescence, or ruin of man. This would certainly be something worth rejecting.

Alternatively, “end” could be interpreted as a teleological projection of the developmental trajectory of mankind. In this far more interesting frame, Faulkner could be declining to accept the limitations of our cultural imagination.

It is this second sense of “the end of man” that I find so fascinating. Today one can find immensely variegated projections of mankind’s proper role on the planet.

Environmental indicators have produced a growing awareness that the modernist view of man’s end being conquest of nature and cessation of strife took precedence over the ethical aspiration to be good stewards of nature, leading western civilization to ignore the ecological impacts of its machinations.

Many civil society groups and religious organizations are beginning to speak out about the dangers of emerging technologies such as synthetic biology, arguing in effect that care must be taken to counteract mankind’s tendency to irreversibly alter the natural order through forms of ethical transgression. Often these groups would like to confine scientific experimentation to the laboratory. However, the logistical needs of an increasing human population combined with economic incentives provide an impetus to bring successful experiments beyond the laboratory, into the marketplace, into earth’s ecosystems.

Varieties of transhumanists, Singularitarians, posthumanists and others are beginning to gain attention with arguments that the end of man lay in some form of technology-enabled transcendence of the limitations of evolutionary biology. Developments in the GRIN technologies — genetics, robotics, information technology, nanotechnology — contribute a sense of urgency to such questions.

I could go on, discussing the competing values and visions of mankind’s “end” at work in thousands of unique cultural milieus, from the Horn of Africa to Taiwan and Teleuse.

It is the Prevail Project’s desire to build capacity for hosting the global conversation about the end of man. There are many reasons for declining to accept the end of man. If mankind is to thrive, overcome, and indeed continue, whither culture? Whither the body? What can be expected of man?

In developing a clear view of our ambition to become a digital clearinghouse for this capacity building, The Prevail Project has been forced to face its own contemporary limitations, from resource scarcity to the practical difficulties of developing a solid network of visionary content contributors. We are working to address these limitations in hopes of returning anew in the near future.

The Prevail Project lives.

Six reasons why firefighters are the most respected profession, and what this means for politics

Science policy scholars huddled in brownstone buildings, occasionally on the verge of hyperventilation, frequently express disbelief that firemen are more admired and respected than professional scientists, especially in the United States. This lament is frequently accompanied by discussions of policy gridlock related to climate science. These scholars seem to disregard the following characteristics of firefighting when they poo-poo the public’s ignorance and lack of respect for evidence, facticity, and advice.

1) Firefighters are in some sense professional scientists, of the “applied” variety. How would firemen save houses and victims from an inferno without understanding through a collective act of research and investigation what is the likely trajectory of the winds, the impact of chemical suppressants and water, etc.? When fire crews announce the inferno 80% contained, this is considered credible partly because onlookers can see less pointy red flames and smoke when they drive by on the freeway.

2) Firefighters respond regardless of what caused the fire. This is universally respected because everyone knows fire is hot. Fire is hot and dangerous. When you see a cigarette butt burning on a pile of loose mulch, you stomp on it out of civic duty. There is a civil allegiance the public can feel for firefighters. Do other professional scientists deserve more empathy, more sympathy?

3) The fires are not predicted in the future. They happen in the present, and often they happened in the past and have grown beyond control. In the words of a famous science policy writer, this is a form of “tornado politics” where everyone with eyes can agree something must be done, regardless of its likely or rumored causes. Firemen are tornado politicians, uncomplicated in their aspect. We appreciate their matter-of-fact agenda for its clarity.

4) If a fire is small but dangerous, capable of growing to a raging beast, there are procedures for containment. Firefighters take care of this with scientific precision, despite the common knowledge that wind conditions and precipitation patterns can shift on a dime, chaotically and without notice. There are further procedures for responding to forces of nature that extend beyond the powers of firefighters. There are strategies for fire mitigation that presuppose nature’s eventual cooperation. This produces a quality of perseverence that people find appealing. Firemen have this quality of perseverence in the face of chaos and heroic obstacles.

5) Firemen do not rant about their lack of perceived honor. When they take the podium they possess an unmistakable gait, beyond any capacity for fabrication or embellishment. Their credentials and evidence are written in the lines of their face. There is ax-handled passion fighting alongside intellect and tribal allegiance when fires are doused and outsmarted. Honor, respect, and admiration are communicated through narratives of fires fought.

6) No professional scientist operating without bias would withhold admiration and respect for firefighters.

As a result of these considerations — and there are more besides these — science policy scholars must needs face up to the realities of both human culture and contemporary science policy. Despite the tremendous difficulties these professional scientists face when communicating to the public and acting on chaotic ecosystems, whiners will typically score lower on the respect and admiration index than the smoke-streaked faces of male and female firefighters.

The contrast couldn’t be clearer. The firefighter vs. the de-territorialized polar bear. The domestic inferno vs. the wilderness imperilled.

This is the no-spin zone. You decide.

Celebrating the Independence of Rip Van Winkle

Independence Day celebrates the discord of jangling souls with dissonant convictions airing a racket of reasons in the tumultuous din of democratic fora. It isn’t discord per se that is noteworthy; it is the resilience afforded by the interplay of discord and institutions that animates this republic.

There will always be those free riders, however, for whom simple contentment and tranquility are the only governments worth enduring.

Washington Irving’s famous literary creation Rip Van Winkle, one of those free riders, awakes after 20 years of liquor-induced slumber to find the Revolutionary War over and gone. General Washington’s sword occupyies the place of King George’s scepter on town placards. Analyzing this story for his book Common as Air, Lewis Hyde isolates the reign of discordant views in an emergent public sphere as a startling cultural shift in Rip’s world.

Hyde does not, however, highlight the literary value of Rip Van Winkle’s habitual idleness; and it is the habitual idleness afforded by independence that I, for one, always celebrate on the Fourth of July. It is Rip’s capacity to enjoy life outside the din of voices for days on end that makes him a narrative anchor for a tale of discordant temporal frames.

“The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor,” writes Washington Irving. “His children, too, were as ragged and wild as if they belonged to nobody.”

He was, however, “universally popular” with the village-folk on account of his willingness to distribute the burdens of physical toil among neighbors.

Van Winkle’s favorite thing to do, once Dame Van Winkle had driven him from the house with her fiery lectures, was to convene with local sages, philosophers, and gossip historians at the local inn, where they would have a dapper gentleman read the latest newspaper. After a while, Dame Van Winkle would accuse even these men at the inn of encouraging her “hen-pecked husband’s” idleness. There was nothing for old Rip to do: he set out for the mountaintops with his dog and his rifle, away from that woman!

“The terrors of Dame Van Winkle” send Rip into the Catskills, where he meets a “short square-built old fellow” carrying a keg full of liquor up the mountainside. Together, these two proceed to a hollow in a ravine, shaped like an amphitheater, where Rip encounters a committee of bearded strangers, like “figures in an old Flemish painting,” amusing themselves with a game of nine-pin.

“He was naturally a thirsty soul,” and so drank himself unconscious at this bizarre gathering.

So far, a very beautiful American story — worthy of a cinematic treatment, I should think, in the near future.

Upon waking, Rip Van Winkle descends the mountain to witness the future he slept through. Strange names adorned the new houses — “every thing was strange.” When he happened upon his favorite village inn, Rip is crowded round by villagers curious whether his party affiliation is “Federal or Democrat.”

“Alas! gentlemen,” cried Rip, somewhat dismayed, “I am a poor quiet man, a native of the place, and a loyal subject of the king, God bless him!”

You can imagine the uproar that caused.

Suddenly thereafter, Rip is pointed to the location of his son, Rip Van Winkle the Second (as it were) — “apparently as lazy, and certainly as ragged” as his old man.

The situation gets sorted, and Rip resumes “his old walks and habits.” He is happiest to be free of the tyranny of his wife, Dame Van Winkle — “the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him.”

To authenticate the whole affair, the narrator claims the following: “I have seen a certificate on the subject taken before a country justice and signed with a cross, in the justice’s own handwriting. The story, therefore, is beyond the possibility of doubt.”

But what does this story teach us?

Two important themes emerge: civic republicanism and personal joy. Civic republicanism refers to the capacity to assist others in the performance of productive labor, whether this be carrying a wheelbarrow for your neighbor or contributing an invention or artistic product for the enjoyment of the public. Author Lewis Hyde places the story of Rip Van Winkle within a crucial sweep of time when the very form of the public sphere was taking shape. Men like Benjamin Franklin were publishing technical details of profitable inventions anonymously in newspapers, without asking for a penny in return. Others were building bridges in their hometowns out of a sense of civic duty. For Hyde, it is this lost history of civic republicanism that might offer today’s globalized nation-states and international economy alternative visions of independence to celebrate.

Rip Van Winkle himself was a man of the town, a public person. If he invented a lightning rod or a cooking stove, he would no doubt share the invention with the townsfolk, regardless of the personal profits to be made. Dame Van Winkle would throw a fit, and perhaps for good reason! After all, the house was falling apart.

This is the enduring question of the commons. It is a realm reliant upon tranquil personalities who consider personal identity a pluralistic and public construction, whose existence pre-dates and grounds the emergence of the private estate. The Founding Fathers were steeped in civic republicanism and the pluralistic interpretation of personal identity: Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, Thomas Paine, &c.

Beyond that, the enduring feature of Washington Irving’s tale is Rip Van Winkle’s enduring sense of personal joy. Despite waking up 20 years in the future, Rip manages to befriend the new villagers and become once again “universally popular” for his willingness to assist his neighbors. His idleness, once ridiculed, now is accepted as a natural feature of his advanced age. The fool has persisted in his folly and found wisdom, it seems.

Indeed, “it is a common wish of all hen-pecked husbands in the neighborhood, when life hangs heavy on their hands, that they might have a quieting draught out of Rip Van Winkle’s flagon.”

And my!, the enormity of what can happen in 20 years’ time. Governments can fall, names can change, and clothing and tools and houses!

Questioning Technology

Kevin Kelly over at The Technium got an interesting request from a reader: what questions about technology would you ask a Chinese peasant?

The 15 questions.

Would your grandparents be happy or worried about today’s technology?

Is it possible to have too much technology?

Can you tell me what the internet is? What is your description?

What kinds of problems today do you expect technology will solve in 5 years?

Is there a technology you think we should un-invent?

If you could implant your phone into your head, would you?

What does China need to become the world’s center of technological innovation?

Are there any downsides to having lots of cheap technology?

What’s one invention you wish scientists would invent today?

What’s more important to your town or village: to have a hospital or to have cell phone coverage?

What are computers good for?

Should China save the old traditional ways of doing things, or just use the modern ways?

Are children getting smarter or dumber?

If you could have a car but it made the air hard to breath, would you get one?

What invention invented during your lifetime surprised you (did not expect) the most?

These are all good questions, and if I might add a few of my own.

16) Where does technological change come from?

17) Do you trust the people and corporations responsible for your technology?

18) Can you imagine going through a day without using 20th century technology?

19) Do you think you are keeping up with the pace of technology?

20) Is technological change making the world a better place?