Monday, June 21, 2010

The Limits of Doom-and-Gloom

Perhaps because I am often viewed as a "doom-and-gloomer" blogger, I am acutely aware of the limits of doom-and-gloom thinking.

"Doom-and-gloom" in the service of truth and dismantling catastrophically false hopes is positive, but a doom-and-gloom perspective without limits is not.

Indulge me for a moment of meandering.

Some readers prefer the charts-and-data entries here on, while others move on as soon as they discern a chart. Why do I publish both types of analyses? Each serves a critical role but is insufficient in itself to offer an integrated understanding of our plight and possible solutions.

Without any charts-and-data analyses, then coverage of housing, global finance, China, etc. soon deteriorates into a fact-free repetitive rant. But charts-and-data analyses alone are intrinsically inadequate to the task of probing the politics of experience which illuminates the cultural and social trends which drive the data.

Data, after all, can and is routinely massaged or manipulated to support whatever thesis is being presented--usually a defense of the status quo (a.k.a. "extend and pretend.")

Another interesting aspect of this site is that many readers who write me say they like the site because it is humanistic and positive in tone. This is of course a matter of perception; one person's positive tone (downsizing expectations and energy-consumption, for instance) is another person's "trying to go back to the 19th century" (i.e. downsizing is a negative dismissal of technology's promise).

As the writer/proprietor, I can only report that the overwhelming majority of you perceive the site as positive despite the 'doom and gloom" often presented here.

I do not consider an exploration of reality and a dismantling of P.R., manipulated data, self-serving "extend and pretend" misinformation and all the other full-court defenses of the status quo to be negative. What is terribly negative is to misrepresent our situation in order to benefit those feeding at the trough of the status quo.

It is a terribly negative disservice to tell potential homebuyers, for instance, that the housing bust is over, and housing has resumed its "natural" upward rise in value. Who makes such a claim? Those who stand to benefit from the facsimile of "growth" (all the result of government stimulus and the outright socialization of the U.S. mortgage market) being taken as if it were private, "organic" growth.

This kind of deception is viewed as "positive" in the Mainstream Media, even though the peddling of illusions and false hopes are immensely destructive to those who fall for the con/P.R./propaganda.

Thus British Petroleum fed a lapdog Mainstream Media the "facts" that the oil well was leaking aa mere 1,000 barrels a day at the start of the disaster, when their own internal estimates suggested the outflow was dozens of times larger.

Was pumping out misinformation and glossing over the hard realities really providing a "positive" service to the public? Obviously not; lies, misrepresentations, distortions and other manipulation is necessarily destructive of trust. Now the public has lost whatever little faith they might have had in BP, the Mainstream Media and the agencies of the Federal government tasked with safeguarding the nation's waters and providing oversight to the oil industry.

There is little more destructive and negative than misleading "positive spin."

Thus I consider it my sacred duty to present the facts as they can discerned or gathered, and to provide a context free of spin, hype, marketing, and other defenses of the Elites who profit from the status quo never being challenged.

For example: if my friends had listened to any one of my dozens of warnings posted here about the housing bubble in 2005, 2006 and 2007, they would not now be debt-serfs, toiling endlessly just to pay their mortgages and property taxes.

The hype that "housing never goes down," etc. has destroyed untold millions of households' wealth. Meanwhile the "doom and gloom" served up here and elsewhere would have saved these households from a needless financial disaster that will be unfolding for decades.

On the other hand, readers also report that they are deeply depressed by the constant negativity of our "news" and overall situation. Absorbing hour after hour of negative "news" and analysis is spiritually and psychologically wearing. What is the "payoff" for absorbing all this negativity?

If it doesn't help us avoid a needless disaster in our own lives, then perhaps it doesn't serve a positive purpose.

Human nature has been selected to respond to threats in a limited number of ways: fight or flight, collaboration, experimentation, rituals, voting with our feet, etc. If we feel we have no control over the situation, then the stress becomes corrosive. This has been studied in the workplace, and it was found that those jobs in which the worker had little to no control caused the sort of destructive stress that leads to physical and mental health breakdowns.

Those jobs in which workers had a large amount of control over their work and work environment may have the same level of stress, but the workers did not experience the same negative consequences. Stress/problems need not be negative; they can be spurs to learning, experimentation and innovation.

We can see the "no control" negativity in the "news" with which we are hammered constantly. Sudan is a wretched mess, replete with death, rape, hunger and every evil known to humanity. So is The Congo, and a hundred other places beyond our control. Where the U.S. has conquered/occupied territory (Iraq and Afghanistan), there is still only 6 hours of electricity a day in Basra, and car bombs are killing dozens in Baghdad. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are riddled with a systemic corruption which mocks the lofty goals set by a naive (or was that hubris and naivete just P.R. for our consumption?) American occupation and adminstration.

Even when it is our own nation which is nominally "in charge" ( be it Iraq, Afghanistan or the oil-fouled waters of the Gulf), we as citizens have little to no control. Our "control" is limited to rejecting the current slate of Elites defending the status quo (Republicrat or Demopublican, take your pick) at the ballot box or "taking to the streets" in peaceful demonstrations of our displeasure.

Since the status quo has essentially no need for our approval of anything--98% of all incumbents handily win re-election, and their replacements are soon strapped into the grid of special interests, party "discipline" and bureaucracies which constitute the interlocking status quo--then demonstrations are safely ignored, discounted or demonized.

There is another uglier side to a fascination with doom-and-gloom reports. Whether we confess to it or not, there is an addictive aspect to doom and gloom which goes hand in hand with the distractive, addictive qualities of the TV and Web.

Nicolas Carr has made a bit of a splash recently with his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr first launched his critique in a 2008 article for The Atlantic titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

I think I beat Mr. Carr to the subject by three years, as I wrote Flattening the Knowledge Curve: The "Googling" Effect in May 2005. My point was that information is not the same as knowledge. (As reader Walt Howard kindly posted years ago on another blog about "This guy is THE leading visionary on reality. He routinely discusses things which no one else has talked about, yet, turn out to be quite relevant months later."
(This ends our shameless plug.)

Carr summarized his views in this article: As technology advances, deep reading suffers:

Reading from a screen is very different from reading from a book. A book provides a shield against distraction, allowing us to focus our entire attention on an author's narrative or argument. When text is put onto a screen, it enters what the science fiction writer Cory Doctorow terms an "ecosystem of interruption technologies." The words have to compete for our attention with links, e-mails, texts, tweets, Facebook updates, videos, ads and all the other visual stimuli that pour through our computers.

Media profits from our addiction to misery and distraction. So naturally, they provide us with gripping images of misery (full-color doom and gloom, baby) and multiple distractions (200 channels of marketing, linkfests, etc.)

What exactly will I gain from watching a brief bit of video on the miseries suffered by people in Sudan? Isn't this the acme of "eye-catching news" over which I have no control? Isn't this a blatant exploitation of the human "survival technique" to focus on threats, injury, trauma, lest it somehow overtake us?

Why does the freeway slow down to a crawl at an accident? Not because the damaged vehicles are blocking the roadway--it's "looky-lou's" craning their necks to see if there's any blood, or to ogle the twisted steel and torn plastic.

We can't help ourselves, and so the media plays relentlessly to this instinct. Breathless "news": if it bleeds, it leads.

What did I learn in a three-minute video segment on the multiple, overlapping miseries of Sudan? Did I actually acquire any real knowledge, or did all I really "consume" was a shallow, superficial, very possibly distorted or sensationalized visual depiction of an extended "car crash" on the other side of the world?

Cui bono--to whose benefit? Am I a "better citizen" as a result of absorbing this emotionally disturbing and traumatizing "news" about a situation over which I have no control? I don't think so.

There is another disturbing element to the entire "doom and gloom" culture which my friend G.F.B. observed has some characteristics in common with the joys of horror movies: the more ghastly and awful the "news," the more we revel in it, and the more we enjoy the vicarious thrills of spiraling disaster, mayhem and fear.

Is it any wonder that so many people concerned about the future have horror-film-like images playing in their brains about roving mobs of heavily armed, hunger-crazed bad guys who must be mowed down, Rambo-style, and of a dystopian future that plays up the very worst instincts of humanity and deletes any of the good ones? Little wonder there; positive instincts detract from the drama and the fear.

The vast, pervasive ignorance of the American public about history plays perfectly into a TV-movie-based "reality" that is utterly divorced from real life. As I note here repeatedly, when disaster has struck major cities filled with armed citizens (for example, the city of San Francisco burning down in 1906), virtually none of the horror-movie visions of deranged violence played out.

A few dozen suspected looters did get shot by authorities, but the other 350,000 displaced residents rather boringly got on with their lives.

When readers write me about being dispirited and depressed by our many predicaments and problems, I always recommend turning off the TV and the Internet. Why burden ourselves with a deranging mishmash of superficial, sensationalized, distorted-for-dramtic purposes visuals and horror-film accounts or "analyses" which thrill and captivate us with their "but wait, it gets worse--much worse!" narrative.

We always have some level of control in our lives, and it is a positive, enriching practice to focus on that. Our control begins with limiting the flow of sewage that flows into our brains from the Web and the media. That which we cannot control in any realistic fashion and which has essentially no impact on our lived experience should be minimized, and viewed with vigilant skepticism: is this actually knowledge, or it is merely superficial "information" designed to ensnare our wandering, context-deprived, manic attention?

We also control what we opt into and opt out of every day, with every dollar we spend and with every minute we invest in tasks, interests, reading and projects.

I am aware of the puzzling deaths of many bee hives in the past years; I noticed the absence of honey bees and bumblebees in our own garden. My "action" and "solution": to keep some flowering plants growing year-round, so any wandering bee or other pollinator (moth, etc.) would have something to eat and/or something to benefit their "household."

Yes, yes, oh yes, it is small, but isn't it meaningful to the insects which feed on my garden year-round? Isn't the pleasure I extract from watching the insects flit from one poppy blossom to the next of some value? I do not need an "expert" or media/Web article to confirm this is so; I experience it myself. My experience does not need to be mediated by the marketing/media complex.

If I pay off my credit card and never run a balance, isn't that striking a small but eventually mortal blow to the system of debt servitude which we proudly proclaim as the "wonder of consumer credit"? How about if I pay off my mortgage and remove it from the pool of debt which Wall Street can slice and dice into debt-backed securities? Absolutely, that is individual control with a cumulatively massive impact.

If I vote against the compromised, Elite-captured incumbent, regardless of party affiliation, won't this endless rejection of the status quo eventually inspire a non-capturable person to seek public office?

If 4% of us pay off all our credit cards and mortgages, then the Pareto principle suggests this will exert a profoundly outsized influence on 64% of the somnambulant, media-ensnared debt serfs that share our land. And should the number of people who actively vote out incumbents and reduce their debt-serfdom to zero rises to 20%, then they will exert outsized influence on fully 80% of the populace.

No, we are not powerless and without control. Yes, we are powerless to stop the oil leak, and most of us are not able by reason of locale or other duties to volunteer to sop up oil on beaches. But we can "stop the madness" and limit our complicity by using as little oil as possible. There are other power sources at hand; Spain and Germany get about 1/3 of their electricity from wind, solar, etc., compared to 4% in the U.S., because they have made energy which they control a national priority via subsidies, policies, etc.

Meanwhile, we subsidize offshore drilling to the tune of billions of dollars and mock "alt energy" as "uneconomical." Cui bono, indeed.

Doom and gloom is only valuable if it works in a positive fashion to dispel and dismantle destructive half-truths, frauds, embezzlements, propaganda and misinformation designed to serve and protect the fiefdoms of the status quo.

It is easy to confuse this sort of clarity-producing skepticism with a dystopian, media-induced solipsism in which there is no control and no positive instincts; in that deranged state, there is only fear and the emotionally corrosive thrill of "But wait! It gets worse!"

The subtext of this site is always: we do have control, even if it the apparent absence of action: that is, not buying a house can be a very positive action. If we tend even a single plant, the pyschic rewards of that infintesimal (on the planetary stage) nurturing pays far more dividends to the individual than hours of media consumption and distraction.

If we do indeed want to learn actual knowledge, then here's a rule of thumb: read at least 250 pages of a book devoted to the subject by an author whose bias or point of departure you can assess. Better yet, read 500 pages from several sources. After 500 pages from books, then you will have the foundations of a context to organize future information on the subject.

That's why I strictly limit my time online and devote a certain amount of time every day to reading non-superficial periodicals and books. Reading deeply is another way of gaining control, for with knowledge we loose the bounds of derangement, distraction and manipulation which the marketing/media complex thrives on.

Let them peddle it all they want; it's within our control whether to "consume" it or not. The same can be said of all the manufactured/processed foods which are relentlessly marketed; we have control. We don't have to buy it or eat it.

The easiest control, and perhaps the greatest power we each possess, is simple: turn it off, limit our exposure and build redoubts of knowledge against the inch-deep flood of superficiality, distraction, hafl-truths and context-free "facts" which pass for "news" and "information."

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