Why the Back to Nature Movement Failed

modern caveman on computer

The paleo diet has been popular for a while now, and it prescribes a “back to nature” way of eating that’s interesting. The premise is that humans evolved in an environment devoid of processed foods and high-glycemic carbs, so we should eat a diet that more closely mimics our paleolithic ancestors. I’m not going to try to defend the paleo diet per se, some people lose weight on it, whatever.  But it’s an interesting framework for considering what environments we as humans are adapted to and how we can apply that to the problems of modern life.

Consider depression. Two of the top cures for depression are exercise and light therapy.  It’s clear that humans evolved for at least 100,000 years, largely outdoors, moving around in the sunlight.  Depression is probably best thought of as a disease of modern life, where we’re living indoors and are largely sedentary.

Another aspect of modern, developed cultures is social isolation.  Humans are social animals, and we arguably evolved in tribes of roughly 150 members, according to the Dunbar number.  (I know that Dunbar has been supplanted by newer research, let’s just use this number as a starting point.)

Depression is probably best thought of as a disease of modern life, where we’re living indoors and are largely sedentary. . . Another aspect of modern, developed cultures is social isolation. . . So let’s consider these three aspects of an evolved human lifestyle: 1) Living outdoors in the sun, 2) Moving around continually, and 3) Being surrounded by a community of other humans invested in our survival.  These are all things that many of us struggle with in modern life.

So let’s take these three aspects of an evolved human lifestyle: 1) Living outdoors in the sun, 2) Moving around continually, and 3) Being surrounded by a community of other humans invested in our survival.  These are all things that many of us struggle with in modern life.  Sure, maybe some people still live in tight-knit, traditional farm communities that fulfill these needs, but, here in the US, economic forces have largely broken the cohesion of these rural places and we see drug abuse epidemics as a consequence.

Transhumanists can rightly argue that our need for sunlight, exercise, and social support are just kludgy legacy code tied to our messy biological bodies.  Maybe we can upgrade humans to be more machine-like with replaceable parts and we can do away with these outdated needs.  That’s a valid argument.  I don’t happen to agree with it, but it’s coherent at least.  For the sake of this discussion, I ask my transhumanist friends to acknowledge that these human 2.0 upgrades don’t seem to be right around the corner, so it probably makes sense to make accommodations for the hardware we humans are running right now.

Hippies tried to solve the problems of modern life in the sixties with their back to nature movement. . . But what ever happened to that movement, anyway? . . I asked a fellow named Frosty, an old hippie scientist at one of my clients, who said that when his friends from the city showed up at the rural commune, they blanched at how much work needed to be done.  They didn’t have the skills needed to build structures by hand, grow food, or dig latrines.  And then they would look around and ask, “Where’s the bar?”  They wanted to get drunk and hang out.  Who can blame them?

Hippies tried to solve the problems of modern life in the sixties with their back to nature movement.  Good old Stewart Brand was in the thick of it with his Whole Earth Catalog.  Many long-haired freaks trekked out to the middle of nowhere to build geodesic domes out of logs and get naked in the mud together.  Awesome!

But what ever happened to that movement, anyway?  What went wrong?  Brand himself said at a Long Now talk that the hippies discovered that the cities were where the action was.  I’m fortunate to work with these old hippie scientists at one of my clients, and I asked a fellow named Frosty why the back to nature movement didn’t properly take hold.  He laughed and said that when his friends from the city showed up at the rural commune, they blanched at how much work needed to be done.  They didn’t have the skills needed to build structures by hand, grow food, or dig latrines.  And then they would look around and ask, “Where’s the bar?”  They wanted to get drunk and hang out.  Who can blame them?

Twentieth century communists in Asia attempted their own versions of the back to nature movement.  They took what appears to be a sound hypothesis and effectively implemented it as genocide.  Mao’s Cultural Revolution forced the relocation of city dwellers to the countryside, resulting in disaster.  Pol Pot’s Year Zero also involved a violent reset of the clock, trying to turn back time and force modern people to live as our ancestors did, also a terrible failure.  So yes, as Scott Alexander says, we “see the skulls.”  We need to learn the lessons of previous failed attempts before we can rectify the problems with modern life.

Cities are where the power is accumulating.  Cities are more energy efficient.  Cities are where the action is.  But how can we remake our lifestyles to fit them? . . We see the first glimmers of a solution with Silicon Valley’s obsession with social, mobile, and augmented reality. . . Maybe augmented reality will give us the ability to move freely around the city, connect with our communities, and still do modern work, but while getting exercise and sunlight at the same time.  Call it the “Back to the City, But Working Outside, Walking Around Movement?”  Not catchy, but you get the picture.

We can’t turn back the clock.  We have to start where we are and assume that progress will keep happening whether we like it or not.  Cities are where the power is accumulating.  Cities are more energy efficient.  Cities are where the action is.  But how can we remake our lifestyles to fit them?  We see the first glimmers of a solution with Silicon Valley’s obsession with social, mobile, and augmented reality.  Perhaps we can find our communities via social network technology.  I certainly feel vastly enriched by my East Bay Futurists Meetup.  I’ve made good friends there, who help me grow and teach me a lot.  Mobile technology has made it easier and easier for people to do real work on the move.  Maybe augmented reality will close the loop and give us the ability to move freely around the city, connect with our communities, and still do modern work, but while getting exercise and sunlight at the same time.  Call it the “Back to the City, But Working Outside, Walking Around Movement?”  Ahh, well, not catchy, but you get the picture.  We just need to start redesigning our cities a little bit.  Step One: More parks!

What the Corporate Lunch Reveals

a depressing corporate lunch restaurant

Last night I was thinking about the SMELL of an office.  Normally offices don’t smell like much, except for at lunchtime, when there’s this nauseating smell of microwaved meals.  It’s a savory smell of preformed chicken, warm plastic, and ramen noodle spice packets.  It wouldn’t even bother me so much, except that it’s been designed in a lab to tug at my appetite.  So I breathe it in and am tricked for just a moment into thinking that it’s something I could eat.  Is that a carbohydrate, mushy noodles with a hint of sweetness?  Especially since this smell is wafting through the cube farm around noon and maybe I haven’t eaten yet.  But then it pervades my palate, and the stale, processed nature of it hits me.  Are the amino acids of that savory protein intact?  Probably not.

There is nothing fresh to eat in an office.  Oh sure, they bring in some delivered produce once a week, encased in plastic, the apples turning brown moments after I cut into them, leached of all antioxidants by months in cold storage.  Everything is on a conveyor belt, really.  The workers are moved into the building by rapid transit systems.  The frozen meal energy units are stamped out and packaged using some hellish alchemy that approximates nutrition to the minimum federally mandated standards.  The work product generated by these meals is emails and documents, packets of drudgery routed across vast global computer networks and spewed into the faces of recipients via glowing screens, lighting up our faces with blue light as we digest the mediocrity.  And afterwards, we eliminate the waste product in a corporate bathroom, squatting side by side in merciless stalls with huge gaps that deny us privacy.  All systems optimal and functioning as designed.

But when I try to go out for lunch, my frugal companions scowl at my madness.  How will I ever afford a house in the Bay Area if I squander my dollars on such extravagance?  No, no, we office drones must scrimp and save every penny.  Get a CostCo card and a big freezer.  Buy in bulk.  How will I afford children?  And I ignore them because I want a breath of fresh air, at least.  I know the food at the restaurants won’t be any better, though I did have a client down on Second Street in San Francisco with an organic salad place across the street.  SF systems require somewhat better fuel inputs to produce slightly less mundane work output.

But the average corporate lunch place, even here in the Bay Area, is nothing like that.  Lunch in the corporate world illustrates the depth of our descent.  White bread sandwiches with processed meats, canned soups, iceberg lettuce salads with trans fat dressings.  And don’t get me started on the decor.  Fluorescent lighting, travel photos of a beach with palm trees, faded by the sun coming in the window, a damaged dream of escape from the grinding routine of a systemized society.  So eat quickly or maybe just take your food to go and eat at your desk.  So much to do, so little time.  Choke down the calories, get on with it.   You do want your job, don’t you?

I notice the rare smokers I pass as I come back from lunch.  Only the smokers seem to take regular outdoor breaks in the corporate world, driven by the monkey on their backs to suck down carcinogens.  Do you know that nicotine actually improves cognitive function somewhat?  I assume the benefits are largely offset by the reduced lung function, but I haven’t looked into it.

And the higher up the status tree we climb, the fiercer the competition becomes.  In the ruthless furnace of Silicon Valley startup culture, white bread sandwiches are replaced by intermittent fasting.  Nicotine is a lowly nootropic.  Get your uridine stack in place and drive that motivation.  Pop the Modafinil and FOCUS, people, FOCUS.  Ship that code.  Build your brand.  Sink or swim, motherfucker.  Always Be Closing.  The Bay is a churning mass of wrestling bodies, competitors striving and scratching all around you, clutching at any advantage.  Is it any surprise that the psychopaths inevitably rise to the top?

But these modernists look at me askance when I say that maybe these systems are failing.  They are unsustainable environmentally and financially.  They are bereft of meaning, commoditizing all human experience.  It may be that the gears of these mighty systems around us will simply fall apart and fail as a consequence.  Humans have needs unfulfilled by these processes.  We need better nutrition, we need to be outside moving around basically all of the time.  We need some meaning, a supportive community, we need to cut each other some slack.  That’s my futurism.

The Robot Lord Scenario

A robot slices a ball of dough and drops the strips into a pot to make noodles at a food stall in Beijing. - photo by AP

A robot slices a ball of dough and drops the strips into a pot to make noodles at a food stall in Beijing. – photo by AP

I just finished reading Rise of the Robots, by Martin Ford. This is a nonfiction book in which Ford predicts that all jobs will soon be automated away, and that this will lead to an economic crash, since no one will have any money to buy anything.  I’ve written about this idea before, and Ford’s position hasn’t changed much since his previous book, Lights in the Tunnel.

Economists call the idea that automation makes jobs disappear the “Luddite fallacy,” and have long dismissed that this can happen.  Because, up until now, whenever jobs were taken away by automation in one area, new jobs were created in another, so there was nothing to worry about.  Luddites are named after Ned Ludd, who, along with his followers, smashed some weaving machines at some point in English history in order to save the jobs of weavers.  But progress rolled on and weavers apparently found other jobs to do.  Just as automation on the farm put farmhands out of work, new jobs opened up in factories.  This pattern has been repeated over and over since the Industrial Revolution.

So why should we even listen to Ford and his ranting that jobs are actually disappearing, not just changing?  Well, for one because he does a decent job of documenting actual job stagnation.  I had assumed that we were just sending jobs (such as call center jobs) overseas, i.e. offshoring.  And while this feels painful to us, if it means that even poorer and hungrier people in other countries get more food, then that doesn’t seem like a bad tradeoff.  But while Ford acknowledges that maybe offshoring is the cause of employment stagnation in the US, most of our money is spent on services that can’t be offshored.  So he insists that jobs are being taken by machines, not by starving foreigners.

He documents an impressive array of recent machine accomplishments, from making hamburgers to composing emotionally compelling music.  I don’t doubt that this is happening.  There is almost nothing that humans do to earn money that machines won’t be able to do more cheaply at some point.  The key question is WHEN this will happen.  Ford thinks that this could happen somewhat soon, and that we’d better whip out the guaranteed minimum income pretty quickly, so we don’t have a massive social collapse.  He even digs up Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, who is worshipped by free market libertarians, and who thought that the guaranteed minimum income was a good idea, in order to overcome their objections to this idea.

Unsurprisingly, he fails to placate the free market libertarian Robin Hanson, who rationalists know and love from his OvercomingBias blog.  Hanson wrote  a nice takedown piece of Ford’s book on Reason.com.  Hanson focuses on Ford’s egalitarian streak and is most annoyed that anyone would object to his beloved economic inequality, which he holds near and dear to his heart, as any proper conservative should.  Ford and Hanson have locked horns before, and I do find their sparring entertaining, but I don’t feel that Hanson properly dissects the core of Ford’s argument.

To me, the basic question is this: Can our world  economy continue to function in the absence of consumers at the bottom?

In Ford’s view, the economy will stall if there are only rich consumers, because the rich spend a smaller percentage of their income than the poor do.  This is called the “marginal propensity to consume” or something.  Yet, somehow, consumer spending has increased even as wages have remained stagnant, and also, the rich have made up a greater percentage of consumer spending.  Ford says that this is because debt has increased.  Hanson replies with the apparent non sequitur that debt hasn’t increased as much as inequality.  Uh, what?  Debt needs to increase enough to cover consumer spending, not to match inequality.  But the fact is that if consumer spending increases, and the percentage that the rich contribute to consumer spending also increases, well, maybe we don’t need poor people to run the economy.

I don’t really understand these economics.  But it does sort of seem that the Fed is just printing money and trucking it directly into the bank accounts of the super rich, who aren’t spending much, so that would explain how inflation is held in check.  Then again, deflation from automation would balance all that quantitative easing.  Um, I think I will shut up now.

Anyway, I figured that of course you need a lot of poor consumers because they will cover the space of all possible desires for products better than a few rich consumers, and thus provide a broader base for innovation.  But then again, the poor are just cattle that herd together like idiotic conformists, all consuming the same garbage media like Taylor Swift and wearing the same outfits from the mall.  Whereas the rich value eccentricities?  They probably spend more money on Cristal and superyachts than fine art and health extension.  I don’t know.  Next topic.

If it does play out that the poor are automated out of work, and yet the economy keeps running based on the demands of a tiny, super rich elite, we could end up with what Noah Smith calls the Robot Lord scenario:

“The day that robot armies become more cost-effective than human infantry is the day when people power becomes obsolete.  With robot armies, the few will be able to do whatever they want to the many.  And unlike the tyrannies of Stalin and Mao, robot enforced tyranny will be robust to shifts in popular opinion.  The rabble may think whatever they please, but the Robot Lords will have the guns.  Forever.”

Nice!  Noah is a futurist after my own heart.  Who is going to force the super rich to hand out guaranteed incomes if they can sequester themselves in gated communities protected by autonomous weapon systems?  Sick as this may seem, it’s a remarkably American way for things to play out.  So what would happen to the lumpen masses?  This is grist for a great sci-fi novel.  Ragged, unaugmented humans trying to scrape out a meager existence in the trash heaps of the super rich transhuman aristocrats.  I guess the film Elysium examines this sort of scenario.  I haven’t seen it, but I might check it out in spite of the Hollywood stench that surrounds it.  Bruce Sterling sees this trend of “dematerialization” as more than just a Silicon Valley buzzword and imagines a “favela chic” scenario:

“You have lost everything material, no job or prospects, but you are wired to the gills and really big on Facebook.”

It’s not clear to me how the government fits into this scenario.  Governments do like to stockpile weapons and other real assets.  It is hard to see how they would go away entirely.  Maybe they will be the ones handing out the food bars while we fervently click the “like” buttons to trigger neurotransmitter spikes with our VR headsets on.

Nonetheless, we can imagine that hackers will play some unique role in this fully automated future.  They might be like Merlin, working magic for the future kings of capital.  Or perhaps some will be like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to feed the poor.  Still others will be like Loki, wreaking havoc and glorying in the chaos, as hackers have always done.  But maybe the aristos will simply be replaced by hackers in the end.  After all, when all you have are robots to protect you, you better not be vulnerable to any SQL injection attacks, or you will get owned by super class a hackers.  I better book my trip to Las Vegas for DefCon this year.  I’ve got a lot of studying up to do if I want to survive the next feudal age.