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  • Ecocide cometh

    Gene Miller

    Mahler, artificial intelligence, and Victoria's genius for safety


    “URLICHT,” or “Primal Light,” is a brief vocal and orchestral introduction to the fourth and final movement of Gustav Mahler’s massive Second Symphony, “The Resurrection.” Against a spectrally beautiful orchestral accompaniment, the mezzo-soprano sings:

    O Röschen rot,

    (O red rose)

    Der Mensch liegt in gößter Not

    (Humankind stands in great distress)

    Der Mensch liegt in gößter Pein

    (Humankind suffers great pain)

    Je lieber möcht ich im Himmel sein.

    (Ever would I prefer to be in heaven.)

    Mahler composed his Resurrection Symphony 130 years ago, between 1888 and 1894, the latter by coincidence the very year that Red Rose became a tea company in New Brunswick, Canada. (“Only in Canada, you say? Pity.”) History does not record if beverage company founder Theodore Harding Estabrooks was aware of the German composer’s music and lyrics; for that matter, neither does it tell us if Mahler was a tea-drinker. It’s clear, though, that each man had a different conception of grounds for pity.



    Gustav Mahler (Photograph by Moritz Nähr)


    “Urlicht” laments the paradoxes and pain of life itself, addressing God as the embodiment of certainty, and Heaven as the house which doubt may not enter. From humanity’s beginnings, civilizations and cultures shared an instinctive belief in a force set in opposition to life’s randomness and chaos, its sideways threats and unpredictability; and all had (holdouts still have) a religion filled with rules, rewards and peeks at some Hell and Heaven to help manage life’s contradictions and our own worst tendencies. As you will have observed, Heaven, God’s house, regardless of religious doctrine, is all Answer and no Question, placing it at complete odds with generally silent, answerless reality.

    Could you pass me the caramel popcorn, please? No, the whole bag, thanks.

    Social historian Morris Berman helps us to understand faith-based, communitarian (Middle-Eastern and other) culture’s contempt-filled perception of the West: “Faustian cultures such as those of the West never experience a moment’s peace. Their adoration of progress… is but a pseudo-faith devised by people who have lost all inner strength and now believe that economic success will save them. [The West] operates in a world of unacknowledged spiritual despair.”

    Powerful stuff, and a perspective resonantly explored by dozens of today’s prominent social thinkers and critics. But it’s also possible that argumentation between faithful and faithless cultures is yesterday’s rock fight, given technological and futurological trends. We appear to be poised before a novel human chapter likely to render much or all of human civilization “post-historical,” by which I mean freed (or adrift) from all conventional navigation, personal and social.

    People’s offhand view of the AI and robotics-dominated near-future is that it’ll be like the present but with lots more whiz-bang—cell phones that cook breakfast, maybe. But I sense a discontinuous near-future less about rocket cars whisking us Jetsons-style to some orbital Wal-Mart, and more a time of shocking and stressful species evolution. (Read Sean Silcoff’s Sept. 7, 2018 Globe and Mail story “She looks like a human. Can she be taught to think like one too?” and Science Daily’s piece about Artificial Intelligence starting to show “subjective” indications of prejudice and preference.)

    History doesn’t make mistakes; it operates as a record of evolutionary favourabilities, choices and foreclosures. Nature permits a tolerance, within limits, of all living forms, but evolution, “the development of living forms of greater complexity,” is not known for forbearance or mercy. With AI, we are culturally table-setting for a post-human era—represented by AI with ever-more-human qualities and super-human capacities—essentially, an expanded and profoundly altered definition of “living form.” In this view, AI is not accident but inevitability… the embodiment of our species’ evolutionary mission: to perfect ourselves, to triumph over nature by outstripping its creative talents and “monopoly,” its controls, limits, rules, ambiguities, indifference, our physical frailty, the sheer (or mere) meat of us… and all that vegetative, biological stupidity.

    From the perspective of such looming possibilities, it seems both inspired and prescriptive that sci-fi has featured beings who communicate telepathically, who can move or immobilize things with their minds, levitate, release lightning bolts from their outstretched palms, time-travel, move about the universe at will, know the future; that is, everything “bio-logical” us can’t.

    The convergence of this almost magical robotics/AI evolutionary climax with human-caused biospheric collapse is itself the stuff of top-drawer sci-fi: that is, we are consciously— you might say intentionally—crafting a suicidal last human chapter worthy of its nickname: ecocide. I’m speculating that climate change is, in its deepest expression, a goodbye note, a knowing act of human self-extinction; in other words, we don’t care, even though our environmental misbehaviour will kill us.

    How to account for this?

    We are an unstable mix of gratitude (love and celebration of life) and implosive anger (conscious foreknowledge of decay and death). We had to labour for 200,000 years to perfect our capacities, to be able, in a final ecocidal act, to show Mommy Nature what we think of her plan and her domination.

    Civilizations, confronting unanticipated and novel structures of thought and opportunity, allow more room for risk. People dismiss climate warnings as fiction or lefty hand-wringer hysteria because humility, a “sense of right place”—the reflex that you’re part of some living (and social) endeavour larger than yourself—has evaporated. The liberations and empowerments of consumerism married to the irresistible masteries of technology, combined with other evolutionary conceits, have fostered a state of triumph (however illusory), rendering each of us ever-more-autonomous—gig citizens, if I may coin that term. Why form or practice values based on mutuality and interdependency—responsibility for and connection with others, and with a living world—when your experience tells you that nearly all relationships are voluntary and transactional? Why practice humility or self-subordination? Why give up all that freedom and personal power, even if, culturally, socially, it simply produces competition of all against all?

    This rangy and fretful preamble lands us, unsurprisingly, at Victoria’s doorstep.

    I invite you first, in this global atmosphere of specific and growing threat, to consider how community safety is manufactured and sustained—where it comes from, how it’s reinforced, what story, so to speak, supports it, and second, to give serious thought to what city and community actually mean; that is, the singular purpose of a city or a particular place (really, the people gathered within, including you). Nobody says that Victoria’s a small Toronto or a big Prince Rupert. Victoria is, well, itself—but what does that mean?

    This city seems to trigger a powerful sense of yearning in people; it tugs deeply on our hearts. People in our city of strongly delineated and self-declared communities crave authorship over physical and social change. Life here is intensely and appealingly local, a compelling reason for Victoria’s magical appeal. I believe Victoria, through a thousand bits of “body English,” covenants with its citizens to keep threat and worry at bay—no small or common thing, or condition to be assumed, as we near the dangerous clarities of 2020.

    I contend the work of citizens here is to sustain and to bring new energy to the civic story—that is, to invest effort and to reap the harvest of pleasures of such continuity (stability, social sanity, identity). Victoria, by cultivating its past, its customs, as living memory and social practice, persuasively advances the project of human safety for those who live here, which is a noble and exemplary thing to do in these ambiguous and clearly parlous times.

    There are synonyms for all the above: “community” and “citizenship,” by which I mean structures of cooperation, activities— duties calling for a certain amount of self-subordination, even—for civic engagement, city-making.

    Victoria was the stern parent for long years. It hit me like a force of nature when I got here in 1970. There was a legible social landscape, and behavioural borders at which disapproval stood like a sentry (dim, remnant echoes remain). The place had edges and limits, ensuring certainty, and a subtle security and comfort. Yes, it was a bit stuffy and suffocating, un-modern; trendy Vancouver made jokes at our expense, but at least we knew where the corners were. (Now, Vancouver’s just another identity-less urban nowhere.)

    And we in Victoria today are left with… what? Pricey real estate (always a sign of devitalized cultural certainty). Now, to our shame (and rue), we practice the dark architectural art of creating buildings that render people anonymous, absent, unconnected strangers with diminishing grounds (or call) for civic allegiance… just when Victoria, in this rudderless world, needs the strongest possible and most widely shared sense of community identity.

    The skills of creating and sustaining civic community are so vulnerable to ambush by the world’s anxious novelties, leaving people with the vague sense that “things were better when,” but with little idea of how to constructively adapt, or to re-cast and renew those conditions.

    As 2020—that year of perfect and terrifying visual focus—looms, ask yourself, really, what tools beside the intentional practice of community—our connection to each other—do we have to face the dark?

    Founder of Open Space and Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is now a small-time real estate developer, currently promoting his affordable housing concept ASH.


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