Accumulated Surplus

“A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

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“[The study] finds that according to the historical record even advanced, complex civilisations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilisation:

“The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”

“By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.

“These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”

Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with “Elites” based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:

“… accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”

Text: Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’? The Guardian.

Subconscious Driving

“Highway hypnosis, also known as white line fever, is a mental state in which a person can drive a truck or automobile great distances, responding to external events in the expected manner with no recollection of having consciously done so. In this state, the driver’s conscious mind is apparently fully focused elsewhere, with seemingly direct processing of the masses of information needed to drive safely. Highway hypnosis is just one manifestation of a relatively commonplace experience, where the conscious and unconscious minds appear to concentrate on different things.

“The concept of “highway hypnosis” was first described in a 1921 article that mentioned the phenomenon of “road hypnotism”: driving in a trance-like state while gazing at a fixed point. A 1929 study Sleeping with the Eyes Open by Miles also dealt with the subject, suggesting that it was possible for the motorists to fall asleep with eyes open. The idea that the unaccountable automobile accidents could be explained by this phenomenon became popular in the 1950s.The term “highway hypnosis” was coined by GW Williams in 1963. Building on the theories of Ernest Hilgard that hypnosis is an altered state of awareness, some theorists hold that the consciousness can develop hypnotic dissociation. In the example of highway hypnosis, one stream of consciousness is driving the car while the other stream of consciousness is dealing with other matters. Amnesia can even develop for the dissociated consciousness that drove the automobile. The phenomenon is an example of automaticity in cognitive psychology…” [1]

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“It does not take a hypnotist to induce a hypnotic state of mind. In fact, we are all constantly moving in and out of these fluid hypnotic states as we engage in normal daily activities, such as day dreaming, studying, watching television, and even driving our cars. These transitions are so natural that they usually go undetected, except at times when we are startled to discover that we have driven 50 miles past our destination on the freeway.

“Let’s take that driving example further. Think about it for a moment. When you drive, you are in many ways driving subconsciously. If you were to consciously think about all of the dangers associated with your driving, you would immediately stop the car and leap out of the vehicle! Your heart would be pounding fiercely and you would break out in a cold sweat. Driving is the most dangerous activity we engage in, and yet we do it every day, scarcely giving a second thought to the daring high-speed maneuvers we execute in our attempts to be the first to get where we want to go.

“We accomplish this dramatic feat by turning the task of driving over to our subconscious mind and autonomic nervous system. The subconscious is quite skilled at driving, just as it is at walking, swimming, or riding a bike. Once it knows how to do something, it just does it; it doesn’t need to think about it again. When you drive, your subconscious mind handles most of the driving while your conscious mind entertains higher cognitive functions such as contemplating your golf score, anticipating your evening date, or deciding what you will have for dinner.

“This is a natural process that in effect minimizes the dangers of driving on a conscious level so that you can function behind the wheel. It does a fine job. So good, in fact, that many people not only minimize their fear of the danger of driving, but they actually become totally oblivious to those dangers. These people then carelessly speed, tailgate, swerve recklessly in and out of lanes, read, talk on the phone, eat, and even apply makeup while driving. They are totally hypnotized at this point, operating on a purely subconscious level, totally oblivious to the danger that they are creating for others as well as themselves….” [2]

Texts: [1] Highway Hypnosis, Wikipedia. [2] Most People Hypnotized While Driving Their Cars, via 24/7 Press Releases.

Pic: Dennis Hopper, Double Standard. 1961. Gelatin silver print.

Augmented Reality

“Early cinema held an instant fascination with the train, as is evident from the numerous actualities of engines entering and leaving stations, including the famous Lumière brothers film L’Arrivée d’un Train (1896). In the train, cinema found a technology to rival its own wonders, and early train films are often records of one modern technology marvelling at the other. It was a relationship that in a way began decades earlier; through the train carriage window, passengers were offered a cinematic experience years before the emergence of cinema itself. With the ‘phantom ride’, these two technologies were fused together to produce an all-new cinema spectacle.

“Phantom rides were films shot from the very front of moving trains. The films would present the journey from the train’s perspective, capturing the approaching track, surrounding landscape and the passage through tunnels. To obtain these films, cameramen would literally tie themselves and their cameras to the buffer of a speeding train. From this position, the film would appear to be moving by aid of an invisible force, hence the name ‘phantom ride’ by which they soon came to be known. The first phantom ride, The Haverstraw Tunnel, was made in America in 1897. The concept quickly caught on in Britain and would become one of the most popular forms of early cinema…

“As was standard practice at the time, the films would only last a few minutes at most, and would have been part of a programme of similarly short actualities, comedies and trick-films. But in 1906 a number of specialised cinemas, under the banner ‘Hale’s Tours of the World‘, opened across Britain, styling themselves in the manner of a train carriage and offering trips to ‘the Colonies or any part of the world (without luggage!)’ for sixpence. These cinemas took the realism of phantom rides to another level: the benches would shake and the images would be accompanied by the sounds of hissing steam and train whistles. In effect, the Hale’s Tour is an ancestor of the sophisticated rides simulating space travel or flight in many fairgrounds and amusement parks today. There were four of these cinemas in London (two of them on Oxford Street), while others appeared in Nottingham, Manchester, Blackpool, Leeds, Liverpool and Bristol.”

Text: Christian Hayes, Phantom Rides, BFI Screen Online.
Video: View from an Engine Front – Barnstaple (1898)

The Stranger

“The idea of creating messages to send on interstellar space probes seems both obvious and completely absurd. On the one hand, we might ask, ‘why not?’ On the other, saying ‘yes’ to messages on space probes and taking the ensuing questions seriously opens up a mind-boggling series of problems. Trying to communicate with aliens asks us to consider the limits of representation, the status of the ‘universal’ and the West’s generally ethnocentric, even anthropocentric, assumptions about other beings and cultures. It asks us to address the problem of multiplicities speaking univocally, and involves the indignities associated with speaking for others. If we try to speak to aliens, every manner of formal and ethical conundrum follows. Irresolvable paradoxes and contradictions emerge; one way or another, trying to communicate with aliens means asking, and answering, impossible questions.

“So who is the audience for the Golden Record (besides, of course, those of us here on earth)? Human imagination of extraterrestrials from both scientific literature and popular culture generally falls into two categories. The first is what we might call the ‘alien-stranger’ — this is an extraterrestrial that is not human, but which shares many characteristics with humans (roughly similar senses, language, capacity for abstract and symbolic thought, individuals organised into social units and so forth). The alien-stranger is the alien of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and the panoply of beings in the Star Trek franchise that emerged in the mid-1960s.

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“Lomberg’s ‘insoluble problem’ emerges in relation to a different figure of the alien, a figure we might call the ‘alien-alien’. This is an alien that is truly and radically nonhuman, with few if any overlaps in communication strategies, thought and sense experience. In literature and film, the figure of the alien-alien appears in stories such as Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961) and Fiasco (1987), and to an extent in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972). Humans can barely recognise the alien-alien as a life form, let alone meaningfully communicate with it. Stories in which humans encounter the alien-alien usually end in one of two ways: either the humans and alien-alien can’t recognise one another and, confused, go their separate ways, or they kill each other, often without even realising it. To design a message for the figure of the alien-alien is by definition impossible; doing so would mean being able to think radically unhuman thoughts, and to imagine beyond the limits of human imagination.

“Therefore the audience for the Golden Record can only be the alien-stranger, a species broadly similar to humans. If this is so, then Samaras’s critique of the Golden Record may hold. Perhaps it is true that the LP recapitulates some of the more troubling legacies of humanism, echoing the French mission civilisatrice, used to justify European colonial rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or even the more recent US ‘liberations’ of Afghanistan and Iraq. But could it have been otherwise? Is it even theoretically possible to compose a message for extraterrestrials with the stated goals of the Golden Record group, namely ‘a full picture of earth and its inhabitants’? Of course not. Any ‘complete’ representation of earth’s geologic, biological, chemical, scientific and cultural diversity would inevitably result in a map of the type envisioned by Jorge Luis Borges in his short story ‘Del rigor en la ciencia’ (‘On Exactitude in Science’, 1946) — a representation at least the size, or even a great deal larger, than that which it seeks to represent…”

Text: ‘Friends of Space, How Are You All? Have You Eaten Yet?’ Or, Why Talk to Aliens Even if We Can’t, Trevor Paglen. Afterall.org.

Image: David Bowie, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1976.