November 29, 2012

Protest Dreams

[Note: This is an updated version of an essay I posted last May, when "Killing Me Softly" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.]

Brad Pitt's latest movie, which opens tomorrow, is being described as an attack on capitalism, at least as it's currently practiced in America.

When "Killing Them Softly" premiered at Cannes last spring, an article in the Los Angeles Times called it a "post-Occupy" film and "what the documentary 'Inside Job' might look like if it was a fictional feature."

"Inside Job," you may recall, is director Charles Ferguson's Oscar-winning examination of how Wall Street speculation and duplicity led to our current economic crisis. The action in "Killing Them Softly" takes place during the stock and housing market crashes that got the current crisis rolling; visible in the background are clips of presidential candidates Obama and McCain making promises (still unfulfilled) of economic reform. Director Andrew Dominik's underlying theme, according to the Times, "is that U.S. capitalism is deeply flawed, and that government, whether Democrat or Republican, has let down its people."

I mention this here because "Killing Them Softly" demonstrates a theme I've written about in this space: the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and technology. It also demonstrates the contradictions inherent in trying to use the tools of that symbiotic relationship to attack it.  

"Killing Them Softly" was financed by Megan Ellison, the daughter of Larry Ellison, the co-founder and chief executive officer of the software company, Oracle. The third richest man in America, Ellison is reportedly worth more than $35 billion, a fortune produced by that magically powerful combination of – you guessed it – technology and capitalism. Brad Pitt, of course, is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, an icon whose stature is a product of that same magical combination (in addition to good looks and acting talent).

As I noted in my earlier commentary, you can argue that capitalism is the driving force behind technology or you can argue that technology is the driving force behind capitalism. That's what I mean when I say the relationship between the two is symbiotic. Sometimes technology stimulates capitalism, other times capitalism stimulates technology. At their present state of development in advanced technological/capitalist societies, neither could exist without the other.

I'm an admirer of Brad Pitt, who, like George Clooney, has gone out of his way to use his Hollywood clout to make meaningful movies, both as works of cinematic art and as commentaries on important issues of the day. Not every film Pitt and Clooney make fits that category, but they're obviously trying. The problem, as I'm sure they know, is that those films owe their existence to a system that's responsible, in many ways, for the injustices they're trying to address. If the films are successful they also feed that system.

There's also a contradiction implicit in addressing real-life issues through a technological medium that sells dreams. "Killing Them Softly," says the Times, "is a hit-man movie, albeit an arthouse one, and contains many of the schemes and stylized violence you might expect from a film with that label." This is reminiscent of "The Godfather," surely one of the most profitable anti-capitalist films in Hollywood history. I'm not saying that art can't have an impact. I am saying that we don't strike a meaningful blow against the empire by spending ten dollars or more to watch a make-believe assassin pretend to kill people. 

My favorite example of this contradiction is the DreamWorks logo, a silhouette of a boy with a fishing pole, sitting, one imagines, by a peaceful lake on a summer's afternoon, lost in a reverie. This, of course, is exactly the sort of old-fashioned pastime that DreamWorks, with all the technological and marketing power at its disposal, is doing its best to make obsolete. Boys won't be spending their summer afternoons lolling peacefully by lakes if DreamWorks has anything to say about it. Rather, they'll be sitting inside multiplexes in shopping malls, hypnotized by reveries conjured for them by the latest extravaganzas of computer animation. 

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 15, 2012

Everything is Connected (Petraeus Scandal Edition)

As many have noted, technology – specifically, email accounts – played a central role in the ongoing scandal involving the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus. "Harassing" emails sent to socialite Jill Kelley led to the FBI's discovery of emails that revealed Petraeus' affair with Paula Broadwell; other emails led to the discovery of questionable exchanges between Kelly and another top-ranking official, General John R. Allen; subsequent searches found classified documents on the hard drives of individuals who weren't authorized to have them.

With the indispensible assistance of the media, reverberations have been ricocheting furiously up and down the corridors of power and gossip from Washington and Langley to Florida, Afghanistan, and Libya since the scandal broke last Friday. It's not the first time these elements have combined to produce a sensation, but it’s the messiest we've seen lately. 

The Petraeus scandal demonstrates the dynamics of a phenomenon known in organization theory as the "tightly coupled system." The concept was introduced by Charles Perrow in his 1999 book, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. Computer programmers use the term to describe systems in which central processing units share some or all of the system’s memory and input/output resources.

The elements at play in the Petraeus scandal are more heavily weighted toward the human than the examples Perrow deals with in his book, which include nuclear and petrochemical plants, airplanes, mines, and weapons systems. Nonetheless, because his emphasis is so strongly systemic, and because the systems in question always rely on some combination of technology and human beings, his ideas can be fairly applied.

Interconnections too complicated to imagine

As the name implies, tight coupling describes a system in which an intimate connection exists, intentionally or not, between its component parts. This connection creates a potentially volatile interdependence as changes in one element of the system quickly reverberate throughout, setting off a chain reaction of associated effects. A simple example is a freeway at rush hour, when a stalled car in one lane causes a backup that stretches for miles.

The stalled car example demonstrates, as does the Petraeus scandal, that in tightly coupled systems small events can quickly mushroom into crises on a different order of magnitude. After-the-fact accident analyses, Perrow says, consistently reveal "the banality and triviality behind most catastrophes."

Perrow writes somewhat ruefully that all too often it's the human factor that introduces the fatal flaw into technological systems that are, because of their complexity, already primed for error. "Time and again warnings are ignored, unnecessary risks taken, sloppy work done, deception and downright lying practiced," he says. "Routine sins" plus technology equal "very nonroutine" consequences.

Perrow also stresses that, as careful as we think we are, it's impossible to anticipate every consequence of any action taken within a tightly coupled system – the potential reverberations are beyond our comprehension. What we see isn't only unexpected, he adds, it's often, at least for awhile, "incomprehensible." This can be true either because we're not aware of the consequences as they gather momentum, or because we're aware of them but can't bring ourselves to believe they're really happening. One assumes the principles in the Petraeus scandal have experienced both conditions.


Note: An earlier essay in this space discussed the part that the dynamics of tightly coupled systems played in the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

"Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.  

Photo Credit: Washington Post/ISAF via Reuters; Image,

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 11, 2012

Everything is Connected (Global Chaos Edition)

Queens, New York, after Hurricane Sandy
So much for denial. A report commissioned by the CIA and other security agencies confronts head on what our political leaders are afraid to mention: The various forms of chaos that will be unleashed by global warming. 

Among developments the report says that the nation's defense and intelligence establishments need to prepare for, according to the New York Times:

  • large populations displaced by flood and famine,
  • rampant spread of disease,
  • increasing conflict over decreasing resources,
  • relief agencies overwhelmed by the scope and scale of need, and
  • the necessity of military action to curb violence or protect vital interests.

The report predicts that global warming will impose what the Times describes as "unparalleled strains" on government resources in the coming years. These strains will be the result of "more frequent but unpredictable crises in water supplies, food markets, energy supply chains and public health systems."

The National Research Council, which the Times calls "the nation’s top scientific research group," produced the report. It was originally to be presented to intelligence officials on the day Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, but had to be delayed because the federal government was shut down. Lead author John D. Steinbruner told the Times that Sandy provided a preview of the sorts of disruptions we can expect to see more of in the future. 

"You can debate the specific contribution of global warming to that storm," he said. "But we’re saying climate extremes are going to be more frequent, and this was an example of what they could mean. We’re also saying it could get a whole lot worse than that.” 

Post-Sandy repairs, Bronx, New York
The report says the U.S. military is not taking adequate steps to prepare for the disruptions that are expected to occur. It specifically warns of the collapse of "globally integrated systems that provide for human well-being." That's a reference to a condition I've written about frequently in this space, "technological autonomy," a shorthand way of describing the fact that nations around the world are now utterly dependent on massively complex, tightly coupled technological systems that are highly vulnerable to chain-reaction breakdowns.

The Times article ends by noting that even as the urgency of preparing for global warming has grown, the willingness of politicians to provide the funding necessary to do so has declined. 

"Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch. 

Photo Credits: Queens destruction: Spencer Platt - AFP/Getty Images; Bronx power lines: Don Emmert - AFP/Getty Images.

November 4, 2012

On Mitt (Romney) and Martin (Heidegger)

I avoid political commentary in this space because that's not what it's here for, and there are plenty of places to go for that. I try to keep my focus on technology and its effects, which as focuses go is plenty expansive enough. 

My comments here are not as much a departure from that policy as they might seem. The intention isn't to denounce Mitt Romney, but rather to note how clearly some of his campaign statements echo the ideas contained in Martin Heidegger's seminal essay, "The Question Concerning Technology." (Yes, I borrowed his title for my blog.) 

When Romney was interviewed in January by members of the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal, he was asked about the federal government's massive landholdings in Nevada. If elected President, would he be willing to turn over some portion of those holdings to the state? Here's his response:
I don’t know the reason that the federal government owns such a large share of Nevada.  And when I was in Utah at the Olympics there I heard a similar refrain there.  What they were concerned about was that the government would step in and say, “We’re taking this” — which by the way has extraordinary coal reserves — “and we’re not going to let you develop these coal reserves.”  I mean, it drove the people nuts. 
Unless there’s a valid, and legitimate, and compelling governmental purpose, I don’t know why the government owns so much of this land. So I haven’t studied it, what the purpose is of the land, so I don’t want to say, "Oh, I’m about to hand it over." But where government ownership of land is designed to satisfy, let’s say, the most extreme environmentalists, from keeping a population from developing their coal, their gold, their other resources for the benefit of the state, I would find that to be unacceptable.
Again, the point here isn't to paint Romney as some sort of right-wing fanatic. To the contrary, he's far from the only politician, Republican or Democrat, to see economic growth as the cure for all that ails us. It was specifically his inability to comprehend the "purpose" of undeveloped public lands that made me think of Heidegger. 

Nuclear power on the Rhine, one of Heidegger's examples
of nature transformed into "standing reserve"
Heidegger was among those who defined technology as a way of thinking as well as a collection of machines. From a technological perspective, he said, nature has no value simply for what it is. Rather its worth is contained entirely in its usefulness as a means to produce something else. A river, a mountain, a forest – all are merely repositories of potential power, or what Heidegger called "standing reserve." This standing reserve must be extracted aggressively, by "setting upon" the natural world in "a revealing that challenges." Technology's aggression is narrow as well as relentless: It "blocks the shining forth and holding sway of truth.”

It would be easy for any politician to dismiss Heidegger as an ivory tower academic hopelessly removed from real-world concerns. And of course Heidegger's own political affiliations hardly inspire confidence in his epistemology. That's unfortunate, because his insights into the nature of technology are profound and important.

To argue today that a form of truth "shines forth" in nature, and that such a truth has value that can't be measured in dollars, seems hopelessly na├»ve. Even environmentalists felt compelled to respond to Romney's comments by pointing out that Nevada's national parks attract tourists who contribute millions to the state's economy. For conservatives in particular, conservation seems to have become a dirty word. The tragedy is that all too often in our history, "natural resources" development leaves precious little that is "natural" behind.  

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 1, 2012

Everything is Connected

Gridlock, NYC

According to the New York Times, it's too early for climate scientists to say with assurance that Hurricane Sandy was a manifestation of global warming. Whatever their ultimate verdict, the storm provided some alluring previews of what we can look forward to as climate change takes hold. 

Case in point: massive gridlock in New York City as a result of Sandy's impact on subways and trains.

The New York Post headlined its story on the situation "Now Sandy is Driving Us Mad." Here's an excerpt: 
An unprecedented crush of cars, trucks and pedestrians clogged the streets of Manhattan from river to river yesterday, bringing the city to a virtual halt — leading Mayor Bloomberg to impose emergency High Occupancy Vehicle restrictions to avoid similar chaos today.

An endless line of cars poured into the city throughout the day — but many drivers ditched their vehicles when they landed in a gridlock nightmare, and concluded their commutes on foot.

Bloomberg responded to the traffic hell by ordering carpooling on all major crossings except the George Washington Bridge.


"Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.  

Photo credit:: Andrew Gombert/European Pressphoto Agency via New York Times