Category Archives: Society

‘God is dead’

I know I know… you don’t need to shout it I am not so superannuated that I am deaf to your cries. Months I can hear you say, without so much as a drunken ramble or intellectual fart on this blog and then in my first two words I have blasphemed, thereby offending the bulk of the worlds population and sending that little man at the end of my road into an apoplectic spin as he lurches between picketing my drive with signs predicting hell fire will rain down on Sydney and taking matters into his own hands and immolating me on the spot, in an attempt to save mankind. The atheists among you, or those would be atheists who are too timid to actually commit to this belief for fear of social ostracism, are probably chortling into your cups.

Of course, what most of you have done is what we all do when faced with language. You have taken a word, in this case God, wrapped it in meaning, in this case a term denoting an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent being, and formed two basic factions: those for God and those against. You have also felt a surge of passion course through your veins. Perhaps anger at taking the Lords name in vain. Perhaps curious interest in what on the face of it is another attack on an imaginarily being. Perhaps boredom at yet another pseudo-scholarly twazzok desperately trying to demonstrate his intellectual superiority by discussing a topic in which he can use words like immolate and omniscient. The first two passions I shall come to in a moment, as for the third… what can one say other than a writer who never sends readers to the dictionary is like a painter who only uses primary colours. The result, a work which lacks light and shade.

But I seem to be nesting into sub arguments, so where was I… ahh that’s right, ‘God is dead’. The more observant of you, and persistent for getting this far without clicking on an add for some new diet pill or an Oedipus syndrome compensator, will have seen ‘God is dead’ as a reference to Nietzsche; whose great pronouncement struck a raw nerve when The Gay Science was published in 1882. Given that God is being put full frame almost everywhere you look, even atheists seem to talk, write and think of little else, it would seem Nietzsche missed his mark.

All in all modern times present a striking FU stance to anyone who claims we are living in a secular age. Oh yes, people will wave the latest statistics in my face showing a decline in church attendance, but that only shows a disenchantment, even resentment, toward organized religion not with the concept of God.  So much so that science, once the bastion of heretical, godless and generally profane thinkers, has taken to name the particle which binds all life: the God Particle.

To be fair, most serious scientists are not calling it the God Particle. They term it the ‘Englert-Brout-Higgs-Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble mechanism’ or Higgs boson for short. This is a hypothetical massive scalar elementary particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model of particle physics. The existence of the particle is postulated as a means of resolving inconsistencies in current theoretical physics, and attempts are being made to confirm the existence of the particle by experimentation, using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN and the Tevatron at Fermilab: or so the science journals tell me.

It is through the study of such physics that Stephen Hawking, taking an alternate tack it should be remembered from his 1988 analysis A Breif History of Time, can argue in his latest book The Grand Design: ‘because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing… spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist… It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.’ Hawking went on to write ‘philosophy is dead’. This suggests an inexorable march away from prophets and God at one end of the spectrum, through to the philosophers and Nietzsche asserting that ‘God is dead’, to the scientists and Hawking affirming that ‘philosophy is dead’. Though I sense that just as Nietzsche missed the mark with God, Hawking has missed the mark with philosophy.

What does all this mean for you and me, those of the laity who do not worship at the altar of science or religion? It means, in short, that the farther the great thinkers travel the more it comes down to our personal choice. The prophets who halted after the first step, accepting a divine cause for everything are in no better position today to prove the existence of a divine creator than the skeptics, who have theoretically travelled to the outer limits of the universe, can prove there is no God. Perhaps this is as well, for it illuminates the way to the meaning of life: the meaning is our meaning. Things matter because they matter to us. Our life has purpose because we believe it does.  It is not so much something which can be proved, it is simply accepted. For no amount of success can make us feel content, nor any level of failure can cause us to give up hope if we choose to feel otherwise.

Age, Evil And A Better World

Age hit me the other day. To be precise it hit my right hamstring. It was cold and I got up too quickly. These were the words of old men, who I have mocked remorselessly over the years, coming from the mouth of a babe (here I mean it in the child sense); or one who use to be a babe. Now age gnaws at me in winter, an ever present reminder that after the heady immortality of youth, I grow old and wither on the vine.

Yet there are several great upsides to this changing of seasons. I get to wear tweed, spend a quiet night at home with a port and a good book, shunning the strobe lights and shoddy DJ’ing at the local club. I also have the privilege and delight of making comments like ‘for those of you old enough to remember…’. Or in the more jocular words of the inimitable Stephen Fry: ‘for those of my age, weight and shoe size’. Thankfully weight has not yet become an issue. Lamentably my weight remains as constant and low as my bank account. But I seem to be nesting in a sub argument. So let us return to age and its upside, remembrance.

Simon Schama wrote ‘history is a living instruction, or it is nothing. Not a spare time luxury, but a requirement of informed citizenship’. History, both recent and ancient, holds the key to who we are and is a powerful tool to explain why. Throughout the narrative of our world, there is the ever present aspect of evil. Evil has taken many shapes and many forms in its long and ignoble history. My father knows its most recent history well and fought it during the Second World War, when the hordes of Nazi ideology ran over the face of the earth. He, and millions like him, fought to make a ‘better’ world. But when he sees the massacre of civilians in ongoing wars, the bombing of markets and state sanctioned genocides, he does wonder if it made that much of a difference. But when he sees headlines like ‘5 Things Apple Must Do to Look Less Evil’ he knows it did make a difference.

That some people believe they are under oppressive censorship because their news app is at the mercy of ‘notoriously temperamental App Store reviewers’ it is a better world. For many censorship is being dragged from their home in the middle of the night and beaten to death.

That some believe the biggest problem is that App store rules are not published, causing developers to censor themselves, hurting innovation and generating conformity, it is a better world. For some unpublished rules make their very existence a crime. See police take them to a place of execution or force them to languish in prison for nothing more than having been brought into this world.

Life is far from perfect. But for some of us it is a far, far better place than it ever has been. We have the wonders of medical science to improve our physical being. We have nearly unbridled access to other peoples thoughts, lifting our consciousness to new heights. For some of us it is an amazing place. And if some of us labored as ceaselessly toward helping the lives of others as we spend complaining about our own lot. If we took as much responsibility as we do care. If we realized we are given gifts and resources not just for our own enrichment, but so that we have the power to help others. We stand a chance of creating a better world for all, not just for some.

In the final analysis does it matter if Apple is less ‘evil’ in the greater context of the world? For me it does, because it shows that in some sunny corner of the globe, triviality has vanquished genuine suffering. In such places it is a better world.

Is this what Warhol meant?

In 1968 the doyen of pop art, Andy Warhol, said: ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.’ Broadly speaking there are two ways this statement can be read. That fame is fleeting or that everyone will get a piece of it. The rise of MyFace and SpaceTube seems to shift the emphasis to the everyone, as herds of individuals flock to sites so they can show the world just how many Mentos (or should that be Mentos’) they can shove up their nose. Where the prophecy breaks down is that the fame is not fleeting, far from it. The net makes permanent what should have long since faded from memory as a vaguely amusing party trick.

Make no mistake, that photo you edited last week of your mate, sticking his head on the torso of a porno star, thereby making him dance inappropriately with a goat, will float around cyberspace for eternity. While it is funny for your close circle of friends, it is less funny when his boss hops online to poke his wife (behave) and sees the image pop up in his ‘news feed’. Or maybe that is the amusing part of the joke, that people who don’t know the inside story get to laugh at someone else’s misfortune? It certainly seems to be if the popularity of ‘Funniest Home Videos’ or ‘Celebrity Truck Stop Pees’ is anything to go by. Joseph Conrad put his finger on this type of material when he wrote it was ‘Invariably written by fools for the reading of imbeciles’.

Where this type of celebrity breaks down is when the focus stops being someone else and starts being you. It does not take a bevy of underfunded university students or the stupefying weight of the Bureau of Statistics to remind us that where other people are concerned everything, and I do mean everything, is up for grabs, while in our own castle everything should be kept sub rosa. As ever hypocrisy knows no bounds.

The ‘boy wonder’ and co-founder of the most prolific social networking site discovered this when his brain child ran amuck, making public his most private photos. He may bleat that privacy is no longer a social norm, but the combined weight of all his programmers labored ceaselessly to tighten the privacy settings as a result. Unfortunately all the Kings horses and all the Kings men couldn’t put Humpty together again.

What this means for you and me, who have not yet had our 15 minutes of fame, is that we still have something of a choice. It is a choice that happens every time we pick a pervasive news feed from an article of genuine interest. It is a choice that happens when we insist every aspect of Nicole Kidman’s life be made public (after all she wanted to be famous) rather than simply enjoying the films she makes. It is a choice that happens when we hold up our friends to ridicule, but become angry and bitter when they do the same to us.

In short we are standing on the edge of a precipice. The new connectivity of the world is a glory to behold. The channels, one of which I am exploiting right now, allow us to be more than another pebble on the beach. They give us an opportunity to matter, not just to our family and friends but to the wider world. A world in which we, more than ever, struggle to find meaning.

Let us give to others what we crave for ourselves. The right to privacy while granting the right to a voice. If people have something interesting and relevant that they want to contribute, let them do so on their terms, have their 15 minutes the way they would like to have it. After all it is what you will want when you get your moment in the sun.

If we can’t create a society which not only allows a private and public life but encourages it, then stop the world because I want to get off.

The Minnow, The Whale And The Deep Blue Sea

It has been over a year since Gao Zhisheng, a Chinese human rights lawyer, was taken from his home. In China the detainment of human rights activists, without legal representation or outside scrutiny, is not an uncommon occurrence. But it is generally only for a few days or weeks. It is unusual for someone to be gone for this long.

Recently Gao contacted reporters, intimating that he had been released some months ago and was living a quiet life in a Buddhist mountain retreat, Wutai mountain. But fears as to his true whereabouts and safety persist.

At the other end of the freedom of speech spectrum sits a row between China and Google. Google have alleged that China, through covert operations, have tried to hack the accounts of human rights activists.

These events put me in mind of the story of the minnow, the whale and the deep blue sea.

A philosopher and his student were walking by the waters. Looking out over the shimmering waves, the student’s eye met with a most wondrous and terrifying sight; a whale, larger than Leviathan. The massive creature was chasing minnows, surging out of the ocean as it went before crashing down into the sea, dispersing the waters into waves that echoed from their epicenter. The student stared in wonder, but soon noticed the philosopher gazing past the mighty beast. The student asked the old man:

‘Are you not moved by the majesty of the creature. Its awe-inspiring power, swallowing schools of fish in a single gulp of its almighty mouth.’

Reflecting for a moment the old philosopher replied:
‘I am moved by the majesty of nature.’

‘That creature is nature’, replied the student.

‘No’, retorted the old man, ‘that creature is but a small part of nature and far from almighty. See how it is dwarfed by the immensity of the deep blue sea.’

Meditating on the philosophers words the student soon continued.
‘Yes, the deep blue sea is greater than the whale, but the whale has control of its power. It consumes the minnow when it needs nourishment, but can remain dormant if it chooses. The deep blue sea, while vast, has no control. It just happens. Surely that is a bad thing, power without control.’

‘Ahh’ replied the philosopher, ‘but what control does a leviathan have? It may destroy a minnow without even realizing it. As to the deep blue sea, it is controlled.’

‘By what.’

‘It is controlled by an even greater force which impels its motion. Commands the tides to change, holds our very earth in orbit.’

‘But gravity is an even more uncertain and uncontrollable forced’ exclaimed the student.

‘Uncontrollable it is true’ replied the philosopher, ‘but uncertain? Surely it is very certain. The captain of a ship can count on the ebb and flow of the tide. What would the effect be if tidal movements were stopped, simply because a leviathan decided it didn’t want the waters to recede from one area?’

‘The effect’, replied the student, ‘would be that the waters would not rise in another place.’

‘Just so’, noted the philosopher. ‘That would mean ships in other places would become stranded, unable to move. Their goods would never reach their destinations and people would starve. Better for the tides to ebb and flow. This natural cycle may court with disaster, but it also ensures balance. And balance is what survival is all about.’

Leviathans over the ages have tried to contain and control the freedoms many of us enjoy. At times without heed of the consequences, at others by claiming they are doing what is best. But what is best?

Like the tides of the ocean freedom, of information must be allowed to ebb and flow. There are innumerable pitfalls to this. Many will use the right to free speech as a crutch to spread intolerance and hatred. But, such freedom also allows people to seek the truth and see intolerance and hatred in its true light, denying such bigoted views the shadows required to conceal their obvious faults. Through this process people can achieve the wisdom to govern their lives more effectively.

Shutting off information flow and preventing a free and frank exchange of views hurts many and helps few. George Orwell wrote, in his classic 1984:

Who controls the past controls the future.
Who controls the present controls the past.

It has always been, and will continue to be, a black day for humanity when those who can prevent such maledictions sit idly by and allow the present to be controlled in an egregious manner. The past to be rewritten and control of the future to be relinquished.

Truth and Beauty

Never before in the history of the world has so much information been so easily accessible. Name virtually any topic and a quick Googie or Wickle search will yield pages and pages of information, or bytes and bytes for those too young to remember what a page is. A recent article claimed that more information was added to the corpus of human ‘knowledge’ in the last year than was amassed in the last five thousand years. While I can’t validate this claim, it is probably not that far from the truth.

But this gets us to the nub of our problem, what is truth? John Keats wrote, in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

As far as truisms go this is as good as any, clad as our modern world is in the raiment of glamour. But I am getting ahead of myself. To slow things down a bit it is prudent to give our thoughts pause for a moment and contemplate some of the jargon I have just bandied about. By jargon I mean words which have no meaning, or to be fair, less meaning than they should. The words of which I write are knowledge and truth. The word truth I would like you to make particular effort to remember for I will return to it shortly. Truth, truth, remember that.

As mentioned we now have faster access to more information in the comfort of our living room than an Emperor such as Napoleon would have had in the entirety of his mighty Empire. But we should take care not to confuse quantity with quality. In fact in today’s continuous feed society more is definitely less, when it comes to the ability of a person to reach their own conclusions on the basis of what they read, see and hear. To further understand this idea let us look at what we mean by information and knowledge.

Assimilation of knowledge is different to the acquisition of information. There is a process to assimilating knowledge that is being lost with the speed and ease of finding information. It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, or so Robert Louis Stevenson thought, but the net is set to ruin this proverb as it provides such an instantaneous answer that we run the risk of not understanding the true value of the answer. In much the same way that understanding the value of money is important, so too is understanding the value of knowledge.

This becomes all the more poignant, here I mean poignant in the sharply perceptive sense of the word, as on no subject does it seem possible to have only one view. So we have to choose a conclusion based on the information available. Are humans here as a result of evolution or because a divine creator made us? Was the Copenhagen summit in 2009 the first time in history that, in the words of President Obama, ‘all of the world’s major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change’ or just another round in the diplomatic junket circuit which was all ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’?

Because there is so much material, much of it loaded with bias and ill informed speculation, on any one topic it would be easy for an individual to draw a poor conclusion and then act upon ‘false knowledge’ (in the last decade the second Iraq war was the most startling example of this). Again I return to this idea of knowledge, as opposed to information, for it is the information that generally remains constant but the conclusions drawn which radically differ.

Such leaps of imagination move from troubled waters into overwhelmingly Tsunami like conditions once people go beyond drawing poor conclusions and take the dangerous step of starting with a conclusion and then seeking facts which support it.

This leads us to that word, I bade you upon pain of slapping not to forget, truth. Near countless jottings, articles, monographs and books have been written on the nature of truth and it is neither within the scope of this short blog to cover the ground again nor try in a few short sentences to set a new definition. My intent is to reawaken the idea that truth is the prize and the prize is truth. What matters it how many facts we can remember, how much information we bookmark or streams of content we digg if conclusions drawn are not our own and fall at the hurdle of rigorous analysis? In short we fail when our ideas are long on information, short on knowledge and non-existent on the scale of Truth.

That most esteemed Professor of law, Ronald Dworkin, made such a point in a recent interview with the BBC. He said that it was better for a student who wrote a sound entrance examination, to an Oxford or Harvard, to be admitted over a student who scored top marks if he/she was ‘interesting’. Those who understand the reason for the answer not just the facts of the answer. He extended this line of thought further by saying that such entrance tests should seek to weed out those people who are only interested in personal gain and favor those, perhaps with lower marks, who seek to benefit society and humanity at large.

In days gone by, the slower pace of information transmission, and life in general, gave more leniency to inaccurate assessment. People had time to reflect and statements made and even decisions taken could often be revoked before too much damage was done. 24 hour news requires 24 hour responses. Up-to-the-minute reporting forces the pace of up-to-the-minute statements and up-to-the-minute decisions. Yet while our decisions are happening faster the quality of those decisions is not necessarily improving and the consequences are more far reaching given the difficulty in retraction.

The only path out of this quagmire of reason is to seek the truth. To not be content with ‘knowing the information’, but to interrogate the information. Ask if it stands the test of scrutiny. Question the reality that is presented and ask ‘is it the truth’? And always, always think critically.

Life of a Whirlwind

This article must begin with a confession. A confession of a sin. For it is a great linguistic sin to take the easy path in writing. And the easiest of these paths in the wood, the road most travelled if you will, is that of the rant. Rants pervade almost everything in our daily life, people complaining about service in a cafe, the price of petrol, public transport, or our glorious leaders. Fill your pen with bile, summon up the blood, let hubris reign and the article will write itself. Alas this is what I have done, but I feel I can’t restrain myself any longer. So I hope you will forgive me this little vice.

Dinner Friday? No, what about the beach Saturday? Still busy? Next week not good for you either? The week after you say. Super, what day? You are busy on all of them? Hmm, ok I get the hint. What it isn’t a hint? You want to spend time with me you are just too busy! Well I understand, life is busy. This oft quoted phrase has gone from the everyday, through the forests of cliche and emerged in the sun lit uplands of meaningless twaddle. This is not to say that I am holier than thou. I am just as guilty of being a grad A twazzer and trumpeting out this line to all and sundry. But this is just the point. It is now so universally accepted that ‘life is busy’, we all bleat it out lest we have it bleated to us. I cast it to you ere you to it cast I.

Then there are those who elevate ‘being busy’ to the worst kind of art form. Not only are they too busy to see their friends and family. But they don’t have the time to call, text or even Twitter an update. A thirty second exercise which instantly informs the entire planet, well the entire part that is not too busy to join, of your happenings. Who are these people? The President of the United Sates is a busy man. But if he did not keep in touch with people, or touch base to use that ghastly management metaphor, then he would not have garnered enough support to run for office. So if we have truly become that self centered that we do nothing unless it is self serving, then we should still be keeping in touch with the people who should matter to us because they may be ‘useful’ in the future.

If this is the case, then maybe it is best we are all ‘busy’. If it is such a chore to say hi, exchange a few pleasantries and then get on with the daily grind maybe we should confine ourselves to a void. Flounce down in front of the TV and remain distant from those who care about us.

But if not, if we really do care but are that poor with our time management or feel that we don’t have enough to say to justify a phone call, then join one of the social networking sites. Create a FaceBook or Twitter account. Or if you have one (as everyone seems to do these days) use it. They even suggest people from your friends list you have not poked, messaged or sent some new and banal Farmville pet. Trust me, you are not that busy you can’t type out a sentence. People do care, but they get frustrated to the point of not caring when there is nothing but a gaping void of silence from you.

There I go, burning bridges, frothing at the mouth and calling my friends and family lazy. But then if you are reading this I can’t be calling you lazy as you have taken time out of your busy life to read that I care about you. What is even more wonderful is that you clearly care about me else you would not have persevered though my rant; which if you have done you are a friend in deed and the world is all the richer for it.

What’s so interesting…

The other day I finished my final exam for this years round of University study. I write this years round for study is a life long passion as well as being something of a vacation. It is a glistening oasis in my working week. In this sense the great bard was right, ‘all that glisters is not gold’. Musing on my exam questions and answers I decided to go for a celebratory slap-up supper at my favorite wood-fired pizza place in Lavender Bay.

While waiting for my McMahons Point Special, my attention was arrested by a well groomed anxious woman. I write arrested as she engaged me in conversation with loud cries; somewhat necessary I should hasten to add as my aural senses were otherwise occupied by my iPhone pumping out a Bach cantata. Torn from my reverie, I discovered that her troubled cries were not occasioned by physical distress. Rather it was an emotional torment at being in the company of another who did not display a cordial level of interest in her.

Removing my earphones and lifting my eyes from the screen, absorbed as I was in a series of FaceBook status updates, I glanced momentarily to heaven; neglecting to realise that if the good Lord was not disposed to prevent this scene in the first instance he was unlikely to extricate me in the second. My gaze having returned from its etherial sojourn to this most earthy scene I was met by a face yielding a frustrated countenance. Momentarily my companion in the queue for dinner paused, torn between pressing on and feelings of remorse at having crashed into my solitude. Steeled by my bemused smile she pressed on. ‘What’s so interesting in that screen?’ A cloud darkened my brow, but this soon passed as I realised this demand hid a more profound truth than at first I thought.

More effectively than ever we are connected to friends and family thousands of miles away, yet seldom has the gaping void between us and the ‘others’ in our immediate vicinity been wider. We traipse the streets with music or podcasts subsuming our auditory senses. We sit alone, eyes glued to movies, applications or documents on a dazzling array of mobile devices so that we seldom look at those around us. In trying to be closer to some people we are getting farther away from everyone else.