Monday, February 14, 2011

In the Shadow of the Blue Ridge

I'll be speaking on Friday at Virginia Tech. My title is "Alexis de Tocqueville and the American Dream," and I'll be focusing in particular on those passages in Tocqueville about American restlessness (particularly the American disinclination to stay put). And yet, when people speak of "The American Dream," they often evoke a vague image of owning a house surrounded by a white picket fence in a wholesome home town. What is it we actually dream about?

“Alexis de Tocqueville and the American Dream” will take place at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the War Memorial Hall 124 (GYM 124) at 11:10 a.m. Go here for more info. And thanks to the good people at I.S.I. for their sponsorship.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tell Us Something We Don't Know

Wiki Leaks is slipping. In a case of stating the obvious, their latest "disclosure" shows the U.S. Government having reached the conclusion that the Saudi's have been significantly overstating the amount of their oil "reserves," and that we can expect a shortfall of promised deliveries within a year. Why would they do such a thing? Could it have to do with their certain knowledge that the revelation of their dramatically falling production rates would cause a spike in oil prices, at once causing the world to spiral into a deeper recession while also providing a (late, even belated) effort to develop "alternatives"?

Charmingly, the Yahoo news doesn't have a clue. They suggest that the upshot of this disclosure reveals that the Saudis will face "peak oil," missing the point that as go the Saudi's, so goes the world. And, "Yahoo" draws the conclusion that this will be bad news for SUV drivers. Not to mention industrial civilization.

Yea, this is really news, at least for those who haven't been paying attention...

To our young people - this is as good a time as any to revisit Wendell Berry's prescient and sage advice to the graduates of Bellarmine University in May, 2007:

What more than you have so far learned will you need to know in order to live at home? (I don’t mean “home” as a house for sale.) If you decide, or if you are required by circumstances, to live all your life in one place, what will you need to know about it and about yourself? At present our economy and society are founded on the assumption that energy will always be unlimited and cheap; but what will you have to learn to live in a world in which energy is limited and expensive? What will you have to know – and know how to do – when your community can no longer be supplied by cheap transportation? Will you be satisfied to live in a world owned or controlled by a few great corporations? If not, would you consider the alternative: self-employment in a small local enterprise owned by you, offering honest goods or services to your neighbors and responsible stewardship to your community?

Even to ask such questions, let alone answer them, you will have to refuse certain assumptions that the proponents of STEM and the predestinarians of the global economy wish you to take for granted.

Brave 'Net World

Amid the widespread elation over the role of the internet - including and especially Facebook and Twitter - in helping to foment the popular uprising in Egypt against the longstanding autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarek, the New York Times ran this bracing review of a new book questioning the internet's inherent democratic qualities. Reviewing Evgeny Morozov's book The Net Delusion, technologist Lee Siegel rightly notes that, while the internet's democratic bonafides are still in question, the internet has shown itself to be unquestionably useful in information-gathering, an activity that ends up especially benefiting corporations and governments - i.e., those institutions that are increasingly organized to gather as much private information about people as possible.

Here's Siegel, who in this passage moves between the ways the internet supports both large corporations and centralizing governments:

Morozov urges the cyberutopians to open their eyes to the fact that the ­asocial pursuit of profit is what drives social media. “Not surprisingly,” he writes, “the dangerous fascination with solving previously intractable social problems with the help of technology allows vested interests to disguise what essentially amounts to advertising for their commercial products in the language of freedom and liberation.” In 2007, when he was at the State Department, Jared Cohen wrote with tragic wrongheadedness that “the Internet is a place where Iranian youth can . . . say anything they want as they operate free from the grips of the police-state apparatus.” Thanks to the exciting new technology, many of those freely texting Iranian youths are in prison or dead. Cohen himself now works for Google as the director of “Google Ideas.”

For Morozov, technology is a vacuum waiting to be filled with the strongest temperament. And the Internet, he maintains, is “a much more capricious technology” than radio or television. Neither radio nor TV has “keyword-based filtering,” which allows regimes to use URLs and text to identify and suppress dangerous Web sites, or, like marketers, to collect information on the people who visit them — a tactic Morozov sardonically calls the “customization of censorship.”

I keep hearing people speaking of the rise of social networking and connectivity as a new form of evolution. Their view echoes the millenarian hopes of Marshall McLuhan, who wrote at the dawning of the internet age of a new "pentacostalism" that would allow us to transcend the limits of individual consciousness: "The computer promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favour of a general cosmic consciousness."

Perhaps without realizing it, he echoed the utopian hopes of Richard M. Bucke, whose popular and influential 1901 book Cosmic Consciousness sought scientifically to prove humanity's evolutionary ascent to a condition of shared and universal consciousness. Arguing that we were on the cusp of a universal attainment of our final evolutionary step, Bucke's work faded into obscurity with the intervention of World War I and later, World War II and a series of savage and brutal wars and genocides that seemed, if anything, to suggest that Spengler was the better prophet of the age.

Still, the dream is not easily abandoned, and we are well-advised to remind ourselves of the pitfalls accompanying our fantasies. Above all, the prism of progress too often allows us to dismiss as superfluous or unimportant the brutal truths that contradict the fantasy. It would seem Morozov's book, and Siegel's able review, is a helpful first corrective, reminding us that the oppressions and manipulations of the internet are not ancillary, but perhaps more central its current and future role than our techno-optimists are willing to admit.

(h/t, Cory Andrews)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hayward-Deneen Wager Update

I haven't written much of late here about "peak oil," though my concerns and interest in the subject have not waned. I've been working on some other projects (ultimately connected), and in general have posted here less.

That said, I have been following the price of oil, and as I predicted, with the increase of economic activity (I won't deign to call it a "recovery"), the price of oil has been steadily rising. It has now settled in at about $90/barrel, and may yet spike if there are concerns about the security of the Suez canal.

Since it's February 2, I have a note to myself on the second of each month to check in on the gauntlet that was thrown by Steven Hayward at AEI on June 2, 2008 (so, 2 years, 8 months ago). At that time Steve was confident that on three years from that date, oil prices would be below $75 a barrel. I was confident that it would be well above that price. He was feeling pretty good about his position a year ago, in the midst of the economic crisis (though, truth be told, this was not the reason he thought that oil prices would come down - he thought that we would come up with a cheaper alternative within three years' time. I suppose, though, the market did speak - in part in response to $150/barrel oil, the world's economy cratered).

With four months to go until the three year mark, I'm starting to feel pretty good about my chances. Unless there's a severe "double dip," I don't foresee oil dropping much below current levels. And, just about the time the snow will melt, we'll begin hearing more about the beginning of the "summer driving season," making doubtful the prospect of a $15 drop in oil prices. So, Steve, I hope you've saved up for my book or the dinner or both - I have to look back at the specifics of the wager, but there's a nice space on my bookshelf for the new Tocqueville bilingual edition of Democracy in America at Liberty Fund, and/or I've been wanting to try a few new restaurants in D.C....