Thursday 15 May 2008

Are we locked in a delusional pattern of cruel fantasy?

Not my words but those of philosopher John Gray in "Black Mass" his latest book. I must admit I am starting to like these "talking heads" books I used to run a mile from opinion based literature, generally because it wasn't my opinion and lets face it whose else's matters. :)

As Martin Amis recently put it "Opposition to religion [currently] occupies the high ground, intellectually and morally" most famously in the Dawkin's Polemic "The God Delusion" and the self-abusing secular banality of Hutchin's "God is not great" both of which I have read and enjoyed both disagreeing and agreeing with in equal measure.

I was passing through an airport bookshop and picked up "Black Mass -Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia" which just leapt out as a title that said "Read me and harumph at the page quite a bit" so I did just that, except there were far fewer Harumphs than I thought there would be.

Now I am not suggesting that Prof Gray is right in all his positions but I found myself either agreeing with or being challenged by him a lot more that Hitchens, Dawkin and to some extent Dennett.

"Progress is a myth" was one of the statements that made (given my ubergeek status) me first go "nonsense" and then think further on his reasoning. Progress in society is not like progress in science. Science is by nature cumulative for example we will never go back to alchemy, the same is not true about politics or ethics where things can and do come back often under different names time and time again. Torture that was prohibited by international law until 2 or 3 years is back as "professional interrogation technique"

When the Spanish Inquisition used it that was regarded by history as an awful heinous abuse of canon power.

Henri Alleg wrote of the very same thing in his book "the question" in the '50s and his documented experiences of water-boarding at the hands of the French in North Africa where soundly condemned as torture by the world at the time. (The book has a forward by JP Satre which makes it more than worth a read ;-) )

When The Khmer Rogue used it in Cambodia it was to quote The Times "a foul, inhuman action that highlights the iniquity of the regime that permits it", few at the time disagreed.

Whether or not this is torture under current law is not the point, whether or not it is warranted is not the question, either it is a barbaric torture or it is not. Prof Gray's point is well made, past evils may be exiled but it is only a temporary respite.

In an interview in a magazine (hard copy only) He even had some words about web2 and the whole social network "thing". He posits the interesting notion that it is a "social black hole" into which our lives are slowly disappearing sucked in by the gravitational pull of
(1) the duplication of yourself in the profile of every network you join
(2) congestion (like we got on Twitter 2night) and how many friends do you really have or for that matter need? Has the human requirement and capacity for social interaction grown exponentially over the last 2-3 years?
(3) Noise - he made the analogy that joining a new social network was a bit like sticking your head in a beehive - potentially rewarding but likely to cause you pain.
(4) Time - Time is like land, "they aint making any more of it" So as social networks soak up minute after minute of your time you develop what he calls "continuous partial attention". Gone are the days when in rural Ireland we measured time in phrases like "2 shakes of lambs tail" or "The time it takes to milk a good jersey cow" a measurement that equates a useful activity with the time it took to do it. What would the modern equivalent be. "the time it takes to check Facebook, Twitter, Email and all my IM accounts?" it doesn't have the same .. hmmm.. ring or kudos ... BTW my best guess is 25 mins, to milk the cow manually.
(5) Rejection - both of yourself by others and when you reject a network that is now "not cool"

As a user I perhaps don't agree with all of that.. but he does pose some interesting challenges that we may need to face before long as to how we see and define ourselves in the world both real and virtual....... much to ponder on before I can even consider an answer to the question inthe title of this post.

An recent article by the main himself can be found here

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