Thursday, February 15, 2018

A walk on Hampton Beach today

Jean Stimmell©2018

Among the dunes
solitary in winter 
I feel in my element
a prehistoric person
before all the shit happened

Stories we tell ourselves

Chairs Conversing on Pleasant Pond
Jean Stimmell©2011

According to a recent NYT’s article, scientists are in a race against time, studying the last, remaining groups of hunter-gatherers before they disappear, co-opted by our modern ways.

These foragers reflect our species’ earliest successful way of life, before the invention of agriculture. Scientists are studying them closely to solve a riddle that has long puzzled evolutionary biologists: How did humans learn cooperative behavior such as food-sharing, the care of others, the coordination of tasks, and the acceptance of social norms?

In a word: what made them successful?

There’s no question: we have a world to learn from hunter-gatherers when it comes to sustainability. They have been around for 90 percent of human history without leaving any environmental footprint at all.

In addition, this study confirms other admirable traits, recorded in previous studies as typical for foraging people: “the values of gender equality, friendship and the social acceptance of difference.

The behavior of these alleged “primitives” stands in stark contrast to the polarized food fights and divisive twitter storms that plague our modern, “civilized” society.

On top of that, what gave one tribe the advantage over another, according to the scientists, is an added, magic ingredient: Individuals who lived in camps with more skilled storytellers, cooperated more with one another and, hence, were more successful in foraging.

In other words, success depended on good story telling!

“When asked to choose with whom they would most like to live, they overwhelmingly favored gifted storytellers over those who were known for their skill in hunting, fishing…or medicine. Life, most of those polled agreed, is simply better in the company of good stories.”

This makes perfect sense to me as a writer and a psychotherapist. Our stories are what give our lives meaning. As the poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, the universe is made of stories, not atoms.

David Loy. Buddhist author and teacher who has written extensively on the subject, says: “If the world is made of stories, stories are not just stories. They teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible.”2

But stories can have a dark side, something we are all painfully aware of today as we struggle with our modern media, clogged, as it is, with conspiracy theories and fake news.

By comparing the stories that hunter-gatherers tell with the stories we tell in contemporary America, we can get a sense of what has gone awry.

Hunter-gatherer stories favor cooperation and compromise with each other; they are humble about themselves and their place in the world, knowing that they are only a slim, single strand within the infinite web of nature. Conversely, modern society’s stories favor the primacy of economics: cut-throat competition and survival of the fittest.

British philosopher Alan Watts sheds light on how this change took place. In tribes without formal institutions, social roles were largely undifferentiated; every one was more or less on equal ground.

However as institutions grew more formal, work became separated from family and different classes were formed. Slowly stories changed from promoting cooperation in society to promoting conflict: learning how to control society by pitting groups of us against each other.

No longer do we listen to the skilled storytellers in our midst who personify our essential humanness. Instead, we have fallen under the sway of corporate PR masters who spin webs of control and deploy technicians bearing algorithms that disempower us all.

The story we are living out today, like it or not, is the story of capitalism It is our new religion. We worship the high priests of finance who bow down to the mystical, hidden hand of the marketplace –which they claim if left unregulated by the government – will lead to perfect equilibrium between parties – a shining nirvana beyond the grasp of mere mortals.

But that isn’t the people’s story; it is a myth told by storytellers of the moneyed class to promote their self-interest. Rather than leading to perfect competition between parties, it leads inevitably to oligarchy with the preponderance of wealth in the hands of the few.

One statistic says it all: “The three richest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom half of our country combined –that’s 160 million of us.”4

But we should never give up hope because we, the people, will ultimately tell our own stories. As the late, great Ursula Le Guin said not long before she died: “The power of capitalism seems inescapable– but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any power can be resisted and changed by human beings.

2 David Loy, “The World is Made of Stories, page 3.

3 Watts, Alan. Tao of Philosophy (Alan Watts Love Of Wisdom) (Kindle Locations 83-85). Tuttle
Publishing. Kindle Edition.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Back to the Future with E. B. White

Published in the Concord Monitor: 2/1/18
Fred and Fave guarding our homestead
Back to the Future with E. B. White

They seemed so innocent at first: a way for us lonely human beings, adrift in a strange, new world, to break through our isolation and connect to one another. But now the truth has been sniffed out. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Finally, the pundits of the world, like a pack of hound dogs snoozing by the woodstove, have been roused into action by the smell of a predator who, somehow, sauntered unchallenged into our homes.

I am talking about the algorithms used by social media behemoths like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google. Algorithms are mathematical models used by these companies to manage, and take advantage of, the “big data” now collected on all of us from cradle to grave.

Sure, these algorithms influence what we buy, but, beyond that, they are shaping our very future; they are at work everywhere: scoring teachers and students, sorting resumes, granting (or denying) loans, evaluating workers, targeting voters, setting parole, and monitoring our health.

We have been lulled into compliancy, thinking because algorithms are mathematically based, they must be unbiased. But that is far from the truth.

It is now coming to light that these alleged scientific equations are saturated in the moral and cultural assumptions of the power elite – mainly conservative white men.  Rather than being impartial, they reinforce the existing status quo.

These algorithms fail to take into account socio-economic and poverty-related issues, like for instance, low test scores in poor school districts, or the predictive-policing software used to allocate police resources in poor neighborhoods. They privilege large global companies that can take advantage of ‘big data’ to increase market share against local businesses who can’t – or won’t.

We are now entering a brave new world where algorithms are starting to mold the content of what we think and who we think we are.

Depressed by the dysfunctions of our modern world, I decided to re-read One Man’s Meat by E. B. White, one of my favorite authors. The first essay I came across was written in 1938. Reading it made me realize the evils of social media go back further than I had realized.

White writes about how recently he had attended an early demonstration of a new-fangled invention, still in the beginning stages of development. Though at this point, television was only a gleam in some mogul’s eye, White was amazingly prescient about where this would lead.

He predicts that together with radio, magazines and the movies (that’s without him having an inkling about emails, tweets, and Facebook) we would forget the in-the-flesh reality we embody in favor of the secondary and the remote.

Media sights and sounds, he says, will become more familiar than the original:

“A door closing, heard over the air; a face contorted, seen in a panel of light – these will emerge as the real and the true; and when we bang the door of our own cell or look into another’s face the impression will be of mere artifice. I like to dwell on this quaint time, when the solid world becomes make-believe…”[1]

White attributes his remarkable clear sightedness to the decision he had recently made to reinvent himself by radically downsizing: moving from his desk job in the heart of Manhattan to working a saltwater farm in rural Maine.

As he explains it, “once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me.”

We already have a long pedigree of people moving to NH to do just that: downsize and return to the land. The last wave was the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s.  I say it is high time to redouble our efforts toward that end:

Ditch the digital devices for face-to-face encounters with our neighbors, dig gardens in the dirt, cut firewood, buy locally, raise barns and Cain together while we still have time.

We need to hurry before social media mammoths like Facebook and Amazon hoodwink us with beguiling algorithms, while bribing our politicians to pass laws mandating we buy everything: all our necessities, our gadgets, our love and companionship from the dancing pixels of our new internet god.

If this comes to pass, we will have sold our souls to the devil.

[1] One Man’s Meat by E. B. White. Tilbury House Publishers: Gardiner, Maine. 1938, page3