Thursday, March 29, 2012

There Are No More Frontiers (And That's A Little Scary)

Alaska's official state nickname is one of only two that doesn't follow the formula "The X State". It is called "The Last Frontier". (Not to be confused with Space, which is not a U.S. state, but is "the final frontier".) (The other is New Mexico, "Land of Enchantment".) (OK, done with parentheses, for the rest of the piece.) Unfortunately, the name no longer fits. The parts of Alaska that are going to be inhabited are already inhabited. There will be no Klondike v2.0. For that matter, much of the mountainous part of the rest of the country, though expanding in population, is no longer pushing tentacles of human settlement into the wilderness. The United States has reached something of an equilibrium.

"B'ars" are significantly less afraid of three-year-olds, though, so that's a bonus.
Image via Wikipedia.

That obviously bothers some people, like Peter Thiel, who started his career by created PayPal and is continuing it by creating controversy. His new, big, strange project is an artificial island in international waters, not regulated by US law (recent seasteading news). Thiel believes that minimal government will create a paradise, and this is the only viable way to make it happen. In other words: "It's 2012, where's my moon colony? Oh well, an artificial island works too."

The history of humanity seems to have had two phases: one where a young nation devises a new, better form of governance, and another where said nation does all kinds of crazy crap that tests the integrity of that form, causing some people to leave, colonize a new place, and start over at phase #1. We're neck-deep in phase #2, it seems. In the United States, this means you live in a place that is governed by entities who have a vested interest in keeping ideological conflict at a simmer—motivating the party bases—without allowing a full rolling boil. As long as the Fifth Party System remains in place, there will be no peace.

The BBC posted predictions for 2112 the other day, including one that surprised me quite a bit: That California would eventually secede from the Union. This struck me as two things: 1) unlikely and 2) unfortunately so. Now, I'm not one to argue for the secession of any part of the US, but it seems like we'd all be better off if there were some way for different ideological communities to engage in the level of self-governance they seek. California seems a very unlikely target for that for a number of reasons, but it's sort of sad that there's no way to vent the pressure of the ideological battle for dominance.

There's a saying regarding internet services: "If you're not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product." It seems clear that the same holds true for modern politics. If you're not receiving a subsidy, kickback, or special project, you're not a constituent. You're a flyer.

Handbills don't explore new frontiers.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Storytelling Is the Most Important Human Activity, Ever

Since the dawn of the humanity that we now recognize, progress has been part of life. If you were a Mesopotamian farmer tucked away in the deep recesses of the BCE years, progress may have been so slow as to present you with an illusion of constancy. If you're my son or daughter, it will likely be so quick that it becomes background noise, like the motion of a plane on an intercontinental flight. We've tamed a good chunk of the elements, cured a load of diseases, and can reliably deliver either three pizzas or a month's worth of internet connection to many locations and for the same price.

We got there by telling stories. It may appear that we got here by doing science to things, refining our beliefs and moral codes, and creating political change, but those are all just flavors of storytelling. It's what humans do, and it's why we are so prolific. In fact, it's pretty much all humans do.

CC license, by Scholastic, Inc.

Politics is the easy example: Both wide-sweeping changes and small-scale elections depend upon narratives to function. The U.S. Declaration of Independence contains a number of narratives that shaped the Revolution, but it was in turn built upon the narratives of a number of colonists who felt they were getting a raw deal. (Those narratives, or a version thereof, are still taught in US History courses from K to 12.) Elections depend upon narratives, too, and this much should be obvious. Candidates tell stories about what they will do, what the city, county, state, or nation should do. And they get elected based on how well the narratives they tell, and the narratives told about them, thrive.

Science, however, is also all about the narrative. The scientific method requires experimentation, precisely because it wishes to produce useful narratives, which describe things that appear to be constant and accurate to a standardized human perception of the world. We've long idealized experimentation as the heart and soul of science, but it is the narrative constructed around the experiment—the story—that makes science available and useful to the whole of humanity. Newton did extensive experimentation on the effects of gravity, but it is the apocryphal narrative of his apple that sticks in the collective memory.

Religion, too, of course. If you're a skeptic, you believe that religion is a set of narratives created by man to explain the inexplicable. If you're a believer, it's that God delivered narratives to man in order to help us imagine the unimaginable. Either way, the story is foremost.

And so on. Mathematics consists of narratives about abstract concepts, presented in a symbolic language. Art often uses a literal narrative to communicate a figurative narrative, and identifying that figurative narrative is part of (if not most of) the joy of artistic endeavor.

Our economy, and therefore the quality of life we enjoy, depends almost entirely upon the narratives we tell: the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell the rest of the world, and the ones told and believed by every other human being on the planet. Belief, or conviction, the state of holding a narrative as truth, is the most important force in our world. Affecting beliefs is a huge human responsibility, as is adopting them.

In our modern world, ideas spread very quickly. Narratives shared through the Internet are often adopted and propagated very quickly, with the potential for drastic change to the human universe literally overnight.

It is very important that we exercise wisdom in sharing narratives of any sort, and rigorously examine the narratives we have chosen to accept.