Alaska Robotics


Tuesday, May 4th 2010 by Pat

Update: I posted this essay a while back but deleted it because I thought it was too meandering and boring. I got a few positive emails from the people who caught it on the RSS feed (including my naked friend!) so I decided to resurrect the post. I added a sketch of a flying whale-fish for anyone who, like me, feels a little better about large blocks of text when they are accompanied by such creatures.

I went to dinner with a group from Oceana last night. My girlfriend and cousin work there so I slipped in as a guest. I should clarify, my cousin and girlfriend are two separate people. Just didn’t want any confusion. Moving on.

We dove into conversation about oil spills, war, human nature, tea parties and shrimping. The nice thing about a massive oil spill is that it launches some great conversations, the kind of conversations that almost always end up in the realm of overwhelming questions that can’t be answered seriously. I had a friend who always ended these kind of conversations by stripping off her clothes and going to live in the woods. I haven’t heard from her in a while but she’s smart so she probably figured out how to make fire and hunt and then eventually built a little house and started the whole industrial revolution over again from scratch. Human nature.

One thing we talked about during dinner, an offshoot of the discussion about war, was isolationism. We were actually talking about non-interventionism but I didn’t know the difference. I do now. I suggested that it was perhaps a return as a nation to the idea of isolationism (non-interventionism) that was leading to an uptick in the desire for Energy Independence. If you listen to the news, if you listen to smart young people, if you listen to Sarah Palin or Barack Obama, you’ll hear Energy Independence come up a lot.

As a phrase it works well. It’s iconic, like a smiley face, we can project our own feelings and images onto the template. When some people think about energy independence they will think about clean, renewable energy, an endless resource that will allow our nation to step back from the wars and squabbles of the world. It’s something transcendent, it allows us time for tea and a good book, maybe we could take a yoga class.

Other people see energy independence as security. Stable jobs and stable prices. Industry. Oil wells up and down the coast, coal, natural gas, nuclear plants, and industry. Loads of jobs and plenty of opportunnity for anyone willing to work hard.

Here’s another iconic phrase that came up at dinner — Privatize Profit, Socialize Risk. It’s either the problem with America or one hell of a business plan. I guess it’s been bouncing around for a while but it was the first time I’d heard it and it really hooked me. I admire the simplicity and broadness. It encapsulates an idea and well encapsulated ideas are the ones that fly. The ones that nudge us in one direction or another.

Iconic phrases and encapsulations have the ability to gather meaning and like a sail they catch social winds we might not see otherwise. The broad and indecipherable motions of a nation or a world, the thoughts of the hive mind, a staggeringly huge and invisible decision making machine that spans a population. “Drill Baby Drill,” isn’t about oil, it’s about strength and fear and progress. It’s a kite and it shows us the direction of the wind.

I have a lot of friends who are indecisive, they see benefits and drawbacks to both sides of a decision and as a result they can’t be asked what they want to eat. Stack all those indecisive brains into a decision making machine and I can see why we move so slowly, why decisions are made over the course of generations or never made at all.

So how do we make better and smoother decisions as a stack of brains? We invent systems like politics and religion to guide and organize our thoughts.

Politics, the screeching turkey gobble of rhetoric and warm honey of conviction. It’s a big cornbread encrusted turkey-honey pie which actually sounds delicious and goes not one inch towards describing the process. Politics just seems to be a system for handing off decisions to people who are more than happy to make them for you and don’t always represent your best interests.

Religion for me has been a similar experience, full of uplifting icons and noble ideals but with too many inflexible answers and too much willingness to free the individual from the burden of decision making.

Are there better systems for organizing a stack of brains? We’ve invented these tools for broad and lighting fast (literally lightning fast!) communication. That’s kind of cool. I can write an aimless essay, fire it into the fiber, and it becomes some little blip in a global discussion. If it were less of an abstract spaghetti idea, it might even start new discussions and nudge global perception in one way or another.

If I could only winnow it down to something iconic. Something people can say when they don’t have their own words for a broad idea.

I enjoyed the Chicken Parmesan, the broccoli was great. Jim thought I ate his salad but he was wrong. When dinner was over we all went home, packing along our updated and archived bits of the collective, I felt a little overwhelmed, I thought maybe it would be nice to go live in the woods.

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