Conserving Liberty

After my post Friday on Speaker Ryan, at Barnes & Noble that night I found myself disrupted in my technology research by a couple railing on about public sector unions. The particular focus of their wrath were police unions that negotiated full-pay retirement packages starting at fifty. As is well known in the West, some officers exercise that option and then take another assignment elsewhere, effectively double-dipping.

Now I agree that this seems unethical, and you’d think that some legislator would find a way to define “retirement” as excluding “leaving to take work elsewhere.” And the six-figure salaries being quoted ($200K) don’t sound like the compensation expected by a beat cop. Again, you’d think that redefinition of terms would be beneficial. There does come a day when a man can’t chase down an eighteen-year-old any longer, but that doesn’t apply to those pushing figures around on spread-sheets.

What was astonishing to me, though, was the framing of the discussion that brought such outrage to the conversation. During the 2008 down-turn, because of the pension obligations, Pheonix couldn’t afford to hire officers to replace those taking early retirement. This was set against the context of civilians that lost their homes in the mortgage melt-down.

For some reason, the couple ranting against the police union seemed to feel that was the union’s fault. Really? Not the financial wizards on Wall Street that stole another $500 billion from the public purse? What gall, to redirect anger against corporate financial fraud against the unions that seek only to secure the survival of the middle class that lost their homes!

This is what drives me crazy about conservative business owners. They rail about regulation as though it’s a confiscatory plot by the poor. Yes, we have the onerous terms of Sorvanes-Oxley that put a CEO at risk of jail if the corporate annual reports contains false information – but that was motivated by Enron’s manipulation or energy markets in California. Yes, we have the Affordable Care Act that requires all employers of more than fifty to provide health-care benefits, but that’s against the context of insurance company manipulations that denied coverage to many with pre-existing or chronic health conditions. And yes, we have rising taxes on fossil fuels, but that reflects a race against time against temperature rises that threaten to wipe out civilization as we know it, a race that has been road-blocked by oil companies (led by the Koch Brothers) propagating fraudulent science in an attempt to prevent governmental action to stimulate replacement of fossil fuels with renewable sources.

Let me focus the point: did nobody in the business world know about these transgressions, some simply moral, but in the last case rising to the level of crimes against humanity? Where were your voices speaking in outrage? Or were you all among those business leaders celebrating the “success” of practices that allowed executives to build huge estates and buy private jets with the gains from stock options that transferred hundreds of billions of dollars from share-holders funds into personal bank accounts?

Corporate America benefits every day from the investment made by middle-class America in roads, schools, emergency services and governmental process. They provide a steady steam of educated employees. They ensure the free movement of goods and safe working conditions. Access to those benefits is not a right, it is a privilege. Securing great wealth from that system comes therefore with a responsibility: to raise your voice when your peers abuse the public trust. Do so, and you’ll find that a lot of regulation would go away, because the cost of cleaning up from long-running abuse would be modest compared to the benefits that accrue from a freely running economy.

The Soul of Technology

My father, once holder of an open fascination with Darth Vader as the ultimate integration of man and machine, for many years sought to keep me focused on technology by disputing the validity of my spiritual experience. He’s mellowing in the last few months of his life, and we’ve had some great conversations. Sunday afternoon’s brought us around to Elon Musk’s ambition to terraform Mars. He asked my opinion of the idea, and I said that I felt a certain sympathy for Mr. Musk. I countered the claim that we needed an escape route from the mess that we were making of Earth. We’re going to have to solve our problems here, and when we do, the personality of Mr. Musk – from wherever it is at that point – is going to look back on this life and say “Wow. What a boondoggle that was! What a complete waste of my time!” He seems like a man with good intentions, and I’d just like for him to be able to look back and be proud of what he has accomplished.

When I was blogging out at Gaia, one of the most persistent voices in the “Question of the Day” group was a Kiwi nearing the end of his life. Every question produced a number of lengthy posts on the same topic: the necessity of investment in digital technologies that would allow us to monitor everything, and then to link the information to a master control system that would ensure the well-being of everyone on earth. When pressed, he claimed that this was important to him because if it didn’t happen really soon, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to live forever. I offered him the observation that he seemed to need God so deeply that he believe that mankind must create him.

The protagonist in both Ma and Golem is an alien named Corin Taphinal, come to Earth to try to protect life from destruction at humanity’s hands. He describes the situation this way:

The digital technology of [Earth’s] civilization had fascinated him. It was based upon the conversion of the most mystically inert substance in the universe – amorphous silicon – into precisely contaminated crystals. Its proponents spoke of blanketing the globe in digital sensors, constructing communications networks and data centers to aggregate the data, and the development of expert systems algorithms to assure the stability of human communities in the face of massive ecosystem disruption.

Why, in the name of all that was sacred, would anyone choose such methods? Over billions of years, the insinuation of Life into any planet’s surface established a far more sensitive and detailed sensory apparatus, supported by the most widely and freely distributed source of energy available, with representatives far better adapted to local conditions than people.

With this background, you might ask, “Why, Brian, do you work in technology?” Is it just to pay the bills?

I’ll protest my own rhetoric: that’s just going too far. Just because I don’t believe that technology is the ultimate solution to our problems doesn’t mean that I don’t find merit in its pursuit.

First, the world is an unstable place. I’m not just talking about natural disasters: for large parts of the year, seasonal variation makes life pretty tough for most animals. Technology stabilizes local conditions, allowing us to focus on developing our personalities. I appreciate that I don’t have to think full-time about weather, but can rely upon sensors and actuators controlled by computers to do it for me. That our solutions are making the challenge more difficult (global climate change) doesn’t mean that the technology isn’t valuable. The problem is that most of us, rather than developing our personalities, use our freedom from existential threat to indulge our procreative urges.

The solution to that is education. While knowledge is dangerous (life is incredibly vulnerable in engineering terms), I believe that understanding empowers us to make far better choices. We know that when the value of a woman’s mind has been affirmed through education they become pretty determined to limit the number of their children. The response of traditionalists has been to beat women down with fear. In that case, the best means of breaking down the rationale of political demagogues is disintermediation: bringing people together to demonstrate that the “enemy” is a lot like us. Communications technology addresses both of these problems, providing open access to knowledge in the privacy of the home and bridging the distance that separates us.

And finally – motivating my particular fascination with programming – software rescues philosophy from academic obscurity. The purpose of philosophy is to strengthen our ability to describe experience and thus to negotiate solutions. Through linkage to our financial and industrial infrastructure, software allows us almost instantly to express the solutions we negotiate. That is not just a one-off experience when (as in object-oriented design or COBOL) the software is defined using terms understood in the application domain. These act as sign-posts for the maintenance developer given the task of implementing new requirements.

I spoke, however, of rescuing philosophy, and I mean that. Software encodes philosophy, not as a book on a shelf, but as an agent for delivering solutions to the philosopher’s constituency. With the Affordable Health Care Act, software allowed us to implement social programs, assess their effectiveness, and adjust the rules to achieve better results. This is a demanding test of our philosophy, both as regards the degree in which they reflect the truth, and its value in organizing the use of our intelligence when conditions change.

As I have offered before (see The Trust Mind), I believe that eventually we will be freed from the material infrastructure we use to distribute power. However, as I see the long period from the Covenant of the Flood (in which humanity was authorized to create Law) to Jesus as an exercise in demonstrating the fallibility of fixed systems of rules, so I see this era (as articulated by Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization) as a proving ground for our compassion. As technology accelerates the pace of change and resources become more and more scarce, only ideas of real merit will survive. Every thinking being will be confronted with the necessity of disciplining his thoughts.

While the demagogues continue to rant and rave on television, conditions are evolving under which every individual will find such blathering contradicted by direct personal experience. Then we will progress beyond the “birthing pains” mentioned by Jesus into the full flowering of the influence of Christ in our lives. When our ideas are angelic, they will be received and implemented by angels. Life will be vastly different then, and our digital infrastructure, with all its energetic excess, will largely fall away.

I see my work as intimately connected to the manifestation of that future. My work in motion control creates systems that relieve people of drudgery, thus liberating their energies for mindful and compassionate engagement with the world around them. My work in as a software developer builds discipline that is essential in organizing and propagating ideas that I believe are of merit. It’s not enough that those ideas are clever – they actually have to work.

Will the Pope Speak for Life?

The Republican climate-change deniers were busy this week pre-empting the expected declaration by Pope Francis that responding to global climate change is a moral necessity. The foundation of their argument was that the Pope is not a scientist, and he should leave scientific matters up to those that understand the issues.

But is that the authority upon which the Pope Francis will issue his declaration? I certainly hope not. I think that the Pope should boldly speak for God, because in my meditations on this matter, it is clear where God stands on the issue.

To establish the scriptural basis for this assertion, I re-iterate the Book of Revelation. God sits on his throne surrounded by the twenty-four principal angels (in whose image we are made). In one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible, John describes (NIV Rev.4:9-11)

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives forever and ever. They lay down their crowns before the throne and say:

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created,
and have their being.”

What this is telling us is that the virtues of the angels are expressed and tied to life on earth. When life flourishes, the joy of its expression flows up through the angels to God. This is not just the joy of humanity, but the joy of all forms of life. The power of that gratitude is enough to force the angels to surrender their sovereign independence in deference to unconditional love.

But it is not limited thus. If joy and thanks is transmitted, so too must pain. I have felt this pain, a great crying out from the heart of life as it succumbs everywhere to humanity’s merciless exploitation of the bounty of the earth. Reading this passage, can anyone doubt that God would not hear and heed that grieving?

Pope Francis does not need the authority of science to speak out on this issue. That’s too bad for those who have purchased “scientific” opinions. No, if Pope Francis speaks, he will speak with religious authority, the authority of a true representative of God on earth. He will speak for all of Life. He will speak the truth of God’s anguish for the hypocrisy of those that claim to speak in his name while carelessly murdering his creation.