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Matt McIrvin's Steam-Operated World of Yesteryear

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Let's go drink some coffee and plant a vegetable garden, like the monkeys do
The generally wonderful BldgBlog has an interview with science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson has many interesting things to say, some of which I agree with—I particularly like what he says about collapse-of-civilization fantasies. But this part rubbed me the wrong way, about the danger of pleasures that aren't what he thinks of as basic primate activities:
And there’s an addictive side to this. People try to do stupid technological replacements for natural primate actions, but it doesn’t quite give them the buzz that they hoped it would. Even though it looks quite magical, the sense of accomplishment is not there. So they do it again, hoping that the activity, like a drug, will somehow satisfy the urge that it’s supposedly meant to satisfy. But it doesn’t. So they do it more and more – and they fall down a rabbit hole, pursuing a destructive and high carbon-burn activity, when they could just go out for a walk, or plant a garden, or sit down at a table with a friend and drink some coffee and talk for an hour. All of these unboosted, straight-forward primate activities are actually intensely satisfying to the totality of the mind-body that we are.
I think jwgh complained about this type of argument in a comment somewhere recently: "My pleasures are genuine, and I engage in them all the time because they truly gladden the soul. Your pleasures are counterfeit, and you engage in them all the time because your subconscious dissatisfaction with them drives you to compulsive addictive behavior."

Also, I'm not sure the distinction he draws is genuine. Consider: we all know that there are people who have a never-satiated compulsive appetite for sex, and that's about as natural a primate pleasure as there is. I consider it entirely logically possible that we could have genuine pleasures that speak to the essence of being human and that are also wasteful and destructive.

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I'm reminded of autopope's comments on environmentalism as mortification of the flesh. There are some things you're not supposed to enjoy - so if you think you enjoy them, you must be wrong in some way.

I liked that essay as far as it went, but I still stand by what I said in the comments, that the world is also filled with astroturf industry PR groups who abuse this kind of rhetoric so you do have to watch out. Also, I'm afraid that I'm pretty skeptical about the geoengineering schemes for carbon remediation that I've seen so far.

I think it is mistake to equate happiness with the experience of pleasure.

Sitting down at a table with a friend, drinking coffee, and talking for an hour is technically a primate activity in that we do it and we're primates, I guess.

That's what I was thinking. We used to sit down together and pick bugs out of each other's fur. Our communications, food procurement, and hygiene habits have changed as we evolved into something else. Why shouldn't we 'substitute' new behaviours for old ones? If it's pleasurable and cements social bonds, what's the big deal? I think it's quite natural.

We sat down to talk about the circumstances of The Party. . Well, everybody but me found a chair and sat down.

I don't want to make artificial distinctions between 'natural'/ 'unnatural' human behaviours, but I do think there is a rather large grain of truth in the argument. It has much less to do with 'primate' behaviours being unsatisfied, and more to do with our physical nature being shoved aside and trivialized. There's a common sentiment that there actually is some sort of division between the mind and the body, and the mind is the only part that seems to be highly valued these days (bodies are supposed to be gorgeous, but in an ornamental way, not in a useful way). I'm a bit of an exercise fanatic these days, but I didn't recognize as such the urges my body had for vigorous activity until my mid-twenties. Even though we know we should be concerned for our health (almost entirely issues of 'the body'), it's kind of an irritating demand that our pesky meat sack keeps making. Anyone who exercises for the sheer joy of it rather than treating it as a chore come across as kind of childish. Physical activity that is not done as pure maintenance, in sanctioned locations, is seen as quaint. It's not just exercise. Many people also find a great deal of satisfaction to be had from doing any sort of craft work, much of which can be quite technological in nature. However, the industrial and commercial structures of modern societies relegate that sort of work to an indulgence.

It's not that the more physical occupations are superior in any way, but rather that they are still a very real need, and they're largely ignored in modern societies. Arguably, the most satisfying activities are both physically and mentally engaging, but only the mental aspects appear to be sanctioned. I'm sure I'd be equally frustrated by the state of things if I lived in a society of hard-labouring dullards.

Arguably, the most satisfying activities are both physically and mentally engaging, but only the mental aspects appear to be sanctioned.

See, I would say that in some aspects of our culture, the physical stuff is sanctioned and the mental is tossed aside. We admire jocks who play basketball for the challenge and the glory and the physical high, but we laugh at people who do math problems and watch National Geographic specials for fun. Or we roll our eyes at people who discuss the deeper cultural meanings of romance novels instead of just reading them and having their emotions obediently dragged around.

Every culture or subculture assigns value judgements to the physical, mental, and emotional, and very few people acknowlege that they're all important aspects of being a healthy human.

In my case, I use technology not to replace the primate bonding, but partly because I can not otherwise bond with my little primate clan. My family lives in various parts of Utah, and my friend, Anna, in San Diego, while I live in Boston. And yet, we all played hide-and-seek in Stormwind during a session of World of Warcraft to celebrate my sister's birthday. (Three people in this group were over 30, one over 50. Nobody was under 20, unless you count my niece sitting on her mother's lap. That's right. We used the internet to play hide and seek. We're grown adults. And yes, whenever one of us has a birthday, they get a party in WoW.) Similarly, I play Scrabble with a writing friend in Toronto via Facebook. My parents have very few friends from their teen years whose whereabouts they know, let alone keep up with. I have multiple friendships which are maintained through this technology. No offense to KSR, but I think my relationships are more deep and satisfying because I have this tech.

I consider it entirely logically possible that we could have genuine pleasures that speak to the essence of being human and that are also wasteful and destructive.


Writers are storytellers, not scientists; they're always tempted to tell these kinds of tales based on faulty induction from their own small sets of anecdotal observations or, worse, their own stories.

KSR is a bad writer, so it doesn't surprise me that his stories are silly.

The whole passage seems like a ramble and isn't very coherent. But in his defense, I think he's really saying that the people complain about how they want to escape from the "trap" of technology, while still engaging primarily in technology-boosted activities, are behaving like addicts. They are the ones who could escape at any time by taking a walk or chatting with neighbors, but they don't, and they bitch about it instead.

He's sort of got a point, even if he's stupid. But he overlooks this: what are people going to talk about, over coffee? Probably how fed up they are with civilization, which is where Robinson heard this kind of stuff in the first place. Those "addicts" are already engaged in at least one primate activity (complaining.) So, obviously, engaging in primate activities doesn't keep you from complaining.

Part of the reason I was annoyed was that I liked where he was going just before that, that if you're feeling burned out by technology and feel you're down the rabbit hole, you can still just take a walk or talk to somebody instead of fantasizing about smashing the world. But then he had to go and overgeneralize it.

When I was in grad school I'm pretty sure there were times when I overdosed on taking walks and sitting around shooting the breeze, as avoidant maneuvers.

Is KSR an Anglican? The Archbishop of Canterbury is known as the Primate, and his job is to swan around in a purple dress, planting gardens and drinking coffee while others in purple dresses gibber and hoot, throw mud and insults at each other and scrabble for positions on precarious ledges. Basic primate activity, nothing to get confused about.

Other primates plant gardens?!!!1!??

There are bonobo coffee-houses? And I never heard about the colobus walking tour tradition, either--I say!


An aside:

If your icon is supposed to make people immediately bounce off to find a copy of Ansible #240, then stare at it blankly as they realise they have no idea which bit of the issue the icon actually refers to...

...well, it works. Just thought you'd like to know.

Hippies and commercials

I think the Hippie "movement", loosely construed, for all its faults, had a good insight: things advertisers promise us as consequences of using their products are generally either impossible or more easily available otherwise. Advertisers, like religions before them, hack our brains by targeting the very primate drives that pre-date (hyphen optional) them. (Religious example: kashrut or halal rules push the religion into the "adults show me what's safe to eat" programming, way down in the mind of any being who must be taught that.)

This is part of the threat that a freer attitude toward sex and euphoriants poses to modern life: how can you get the rats to keep on pushing the lever when they can get the pleasure hit elsewhere?

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