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Weekly Commentary - october 17, 2021

The railroad killed time and digital technology killed truth

On November 18, 1883, the railroad companies in the United States and Canada self-adopted a new standardized “time” system that consisted of four time zones (East, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) so that all clocks within each one of those zones were synchronized.

In other words, the railway killed multidimensional and kairological time and reduced it to a one-dimensional, mechanical, and chronological time. We are all still trapped inside that time, a time that controls everything (think computers) regardless of nature’s time or our psychological time.

Now, digital technology (which become commercially available in 1991) has had a similarly deadly effect on another element that was once an integral part of being human: truth.

Digital technology in general and more specifically social networks and programs and applications that allow creating "deepfakes" (something like “very realistic fakes”) have caused that everything is now just an “opinion” so nothing (not even the truth, whatever it may be) causes anybody to change his/her mind.

We must be clear: we are no longer facing a relativistic approach to truth where everyone has or believes they have their own truth. Now we are facing a situation where truth has become irrelevant and unnecessary.

As Shelly Palmer (a recognized technology expert) said in a recent interview, the arrival of deepfakes marks "the end of the truth” because technological advances have reached the point where “you really won’t be able to tell what is real and what is fake.”

At the same time, according to Palmer, this lack of distinction between what is real and what is fake or false, although solidified and promoted by digital technology, is not based on any technology, but on something totally human, that is, the uncritical adoption of some dogma or ideology.

As the aforementioned expert suggests, it is useless to propose laws to regulate new technologies if the source of disconnection from reality (and, therefore, from time and from truth) is deep within each one of us.  

We have killed so much time that, after objectifying and quantifying it, we have reduced what used to be time for study and meditation (scholé, in Greek) to the “free time” that work leaves us, that is, to a time of rest and recovery of energy to return to work. And now that initially railway time has been computerized, globalized, and digitized.

And we have killed the truth so much (aletheia, in Greek) that nothing remains of the unveiling and lack of forgetfulness inherent to the truth of existence and it all comes down to "I believe that ..." and the unpleasant expression "We agree to disagree ", where "I believe that ..." should be understood as" I am not going to think" and "disagreeing" as "I am not going to think either".

But can we live without time and without truth? Rather, what have we become by killing time and truth? Murderers of God, as Nietzsche said in Also Spoke Zarathustra? “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” 

Facebook is back! (thanks to a rapid divine intervention)

"Facebook is back!" wrote a female "pastor" (quotes used to indicate sarcasm) last Monday, October 4, after that well-known social network stopped operating for several hours. But the message continued with this statement: “Christ did the miracle! God heard us!"

I must say that I am totally in favor of asking the divinity to intervene in those situations in which it seems that there is no other solution than precisely the direct intervention of the divinity, that is, a miracle. But can Facebook's returning to normal operations be considered a miracle?

Also, if God can perform the miracle of reactivating Facebook, does that mean that Facebook enjoys a privileged position in God's eyes and that if another social network goes down then there will be no divine intervention?

In other words, is Christ so concerned to see Facebook operating normally that he even works a miracle for that to happen, perhaps fearing that without Facebook there is no other effective way to proclaim the message of salvation?

Be that as it may, I must confess that the overlapping of "Facebook" with "God heard us!" is (in the best of cases) problematic for me because it reveals the extent to which social networks have become a kind of virtual cave that, keeping us locked inside, now appears as if it were the totality of our reality.

Paraphrasing Wittgenstein (and asking him to forgive us), the message of the aforementioned "pastor" seems to express that "the limits of my Facebook are the limits of my world." And although it is reckless to appropriate Wittgenstein's words, I consider that this comparison between "social networks" and "my world" is a reality for many people.

In addition, extending to social networks what Byung-Chul Han says about smartphones, it could be said that social networks, far from being a communication technology, are a control mechanism, with virtual chains that fulfill the same functions as the real chains mentioned by Plato in his Allegory of the Cave.

Be that as it may, when someone considers an outage of Facebook services so dramatic that divine intervention should be implored and when someone celebrates the restoration of Facebook services as a divine miracle, an existential line has been crossed and something (or a lot) has been lost of the sense of transcendence. 

But it is not only what the "pastor" said, because many of her followers added numerous comments supporting and reaffirming that God intervened in favor of Facebook. Of course, no one asked for a similar divine intervention to end wars, poverty, disease, or discrimination.

We live in such a strange time that if Facebook suddenly “falls”, people immediately pray for God to intervene, but if someone “falls” due to the blows of life, God is no longer needed, and that person (hungry, helpless) must solve his/her problems on their own.

We need real miracles in our lives, whether Facebook works or not. Perhaps expanding our minds, hearts, and courage to act will indeed take a divine miracle. 

Interpersonal dialogue no longer exists (perhaps due to lack of sufficient introspection)

Among the many consequences of the current pandemic is the acceleration of the adoption and use of virtual meeting platforms by people who before the pandemic used practically no technology. The purpose, it has been said, is to foster dialogue between people when face-to-face meetings are not possible or desirable.

But that desired dialogue no longer exists. Its increasing non-existence is not due to the fact that in videoconferencing people are reduced to small squares on the screen or because the level of participation is limited both by the technology in use (which is often unidirectional) and by the options that technology offers not to participate.

The non-existence of dialogue is due to the fact that before the dialogue begins the alleged interlocutors have already decided not to listen to each other and, therefore, nothing that is said is relevant to the other.

In that way, the dialogue is no longer even a succession of alternating monologues, but rather a cacophonic overlay of sounds uttered by narcissists (whether they admit it or not), unable to open their minds and hearts to others or to themselves.

Recently, for example, I filled out an online order for a certain restaurant, and at the appointed time, it went to get the food. Behind the counter, a young lady (probably still in high school) asked for my name, and I gave it to her. She immediately told me that I had probably ordered from another restaurant.

I said “No” and emphasized that I had ordered the food at the restaurant where we were. She then told me that I had probably ordered from the same restaurant chain, but elsewhere. I said “No” and showed her the order confirmation message, stating that I was in the right place.

She then told me that the request was made over the phone and that it had not been processed. I showed her once more that the order had been placed online and that it was confirmed. The young woman told me that she could not help me because she did not understand what was happening and called someone else to help me.

This second person, also very young, asked me exactly the same questions. My answers were obviously the same. And then, unable to help me, the second person went to call a third one and then a fourth one came and finally a fifth one. None of those five people accepted that the order had been made online and without errors. 

When everything seemed useless and my frustration was almost uncontrollable, the supervisor of the place arrived, asked me to see the confirmation number, turned around, said "Francisco?", I said "Yes", and he immediately gave me the food, which it had been there the whole time.

One more thing: these young people, so incapable of dialogue because they are locked inside their virtual echo chambers, are the ones who represent the future of humanity and the planet. 

From stability to risk and from progress to fear

The recent United Nations report on the plight of humanity due to the plight of the planet (and refusing to see the challenge does not solve it) led me to think of a book I read some time ago about the transition from a stable society to a society in constant risk.

Almost 30 years ago, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck warned in his book The Risk Society that the “new modernity” was (is) similar to “building a civilization on a volcano” where, due to lack of social stability, everything becomes political, everything becomes fragmentary and conflictive, and, ultimately, even science is a reason to return to obscurantism.

Obviously, Beck was right: we are now living and undergoing that transformation from global human society, previously relatively stable, to a society that constantly lives on the edge of the precipice, never knowing where the next conflict will arise, where the next virus will come from, or how long the current madness will last.

In other words, we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex. and ambiguous world (VUCA), first described as such in 1987 by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus within the framework of their leadership theory. in highly unstable conditions and situations. 

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) revisited the issue in 2014 stating that the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of today's world have been mistakenly taken as the basis of inaction and fatalism, while in reality they are an invitation to restructure resources, design experiments, train for the new future and learn to receive, interpret, and share relevant information.

Although that advice is absolutely true, there is nevertheless a factor that complicates its implementation: the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences. But even before the pandemic, in 2018, another German thinker, Hartmut Rosa, warned that "we are no longer moved by the idea of progress, but by the threat of disaster."

This threat of disaster has already materialized: the coronavirus has arrived, the world's climate has changed, and what seemed unthinkable (the extinction of humanity) now seems a real possibility. As Rosa rightly says, we are faced with a world in which we can no longer inhabit and to which we no longer belong. In other words, we are exhausted from the world. (The "burnout society" that Byung-Chul Han talks about).

Rosa describes this situation as "the new poverty", which is no longer a "poverty" because it lacks money or resources, but an existential poverty because it lacks a life with purpose.

In the middle of the last century, the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis characterized “poverty” not as the luck of money, but as the inability of one generation to prepare the next generation for its own future. Those who only want to repeat the past and perpetuate the present leave no room for the future to emerge.

We have become so “impoverished” that we now live in an unstable, risky, stagnant world on the brink of disaster. And then we call ourselves "smart," "modern," and "advanced." What a great self-deception!

The world changes really fast between just a couple of phone calls (and we don’t see it).

"How are you, Francisco? We haven't spoken in several weeks,” a friend told me in a recent phone call. "I'm fine and I hope you and your family are all fine too," I replied. And then he said, "Any news?"

The conversation continued for several minutes, focusing on the more trivial topics that abound in such conversations. However, a thought came to my mind, and it continued there for some time even after I had finished talking to my friend: Why is he asking if there is "something new"? There have been a lot of changes since we last spoke!

In the few weeks between the conversations with my friend, scientists discovered a new form of quark (one of the building blocks of matter) that until now was not known to exist. And other scientists created a "time crystal", that is, a stable but fluctuating structure at the same time.

In another remarkable advance, scientists claim to have discovered the area of the human brain that "filters" reality, allowing some signals to reach our consciousness and other signals, similar in intensity and duration, to go unnoticed.

In addition, experiments are already underway to determine how the DNA of humans living permanently on Mars will change, and therefore to determine whether those changes can or should be made before those people travel to Mars. In other words, we are about to create real Martians.

This is not science fiction. The technological tool CRISPR, used to edit genes, is already used to stop rare diseases, so it is anticipated that in the near future CRISPR will be used for "other therapeutic purposes."

And those are just some of the many advances that will surely in a short time completely transform our lives. Meanwhile, my friend and I talked about trivia, as if nothing had happened in the world during the few weeks between our two conversations.

Obviously, we cannot be continually "running" after every technological advance or every scientific discovery, in the same way that it is ridiculous to "chase" every new fad or every new "idol."

The examples listed above are not an invitation to read science and technology stories (although I think it is beneficial to do so), but to expand our awareness about the speed of transformation and the irreversible impact of that transformation in our lives and in our future.

However, despite the fact that every day we move further and further away from a stable and known past to arrive at a future in constant fluctuation ("Everything flows", said Heraclitus) and unknown only to those who do not want to know it, despite of that, we refuse to expand our consciousness.

So, "news" now is what happens to this "celebrity" or that one, or to some intentionally controversial statement, or to a new trend on social media. Thus, the vision of the truly new is lost and then the consciousness of the future is closed. When that happens, we are trapped in the illusion of the present. 

A brief and modest defense of philosophy in the 21st century

A report from the World Economic Forum lists some of the skills required for jobs in the 21st century. It seems to me all of those skills are within the realm of philosophy. And many of the issues that overwhelm and worry us today are, without any doubt, philosophical issues. Like it or not, we need philosophy.

The World Economic Forum report specifies that new jobs require skills such as complex problem solving, the ability to follow a decision-making process in complicated situations, developing a strategic vision, and two must-have skills: critical thinking and expertise in multilevel communication.

Let's be honest: none of these skills or abilities is the exclusive domain of philosophy, but, at the same time, all of them are deeply connected with the thinking, knowledge, and practice of philosophy, understood here as a discipline for life and not only as a mere academic exercise.

From its very origins, philosophy has analyzed complex problems (what could be more complex than finding a purpose and meaning for our mortal lives?), has promoted critical thinking, and has sought answers and ethical and even metaphysical foundations to key questions, such as “What should I do?" and "What am I really saying when I say what I think I am saying?"

Therefore, the discipline that philosophy imposes on the mind serves as a foundation and helps develop many of the skills listed above, such as problem solving, decision making, strategic vision and critical thinking. Let's be honest: philosophy doesn't solve problems, but it does provide a framework and some tools to do so. 

At the same time, our current life is bombarded by challenges that until not long ago were considered unthinkable and believed to happen only in science fiction, such as ecological extinction (including human extinction), post-human ontology (Are we the last fully biological generation of humans?), the omnipresent digital horizon (Do we think or just post?), the technocontrol of biology and politics, and the arrival of superhuman artificial intelligence.

Simultaneously, the profound social changes, the undeniable climate change (whatever its origins and causes), the fragmentation of art and discourse, and the nakedness and incapacity of the current way of life left in evidence by the pandemic fill us with anguish as see that we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.

All the topics mentioned in the last two paragraphs are philosophical topics (exceeding the merely academic) because they are topics that do not seek answers just to satisfy a curiosity, but rather seek answers to determine if we are asking the right questions. 

In our context, where people believe that getting just a few "Likes" means they have been forgotten by the universe, philosophy is more urgent than ever, being forced to leave the classrooms and the books where (unfortunately) was previously relegated.

In ancient times, philosophers were the physicians of the soul. They were said to heal the soul. In Greek, "healing the soul" is said (not by chance) "psychotherapy", “psyche” meaning both “soul” and “mind”. 

The system never reveals to us all of the future possibilities

I recently learned, and I regret not having done it sooner, that the system in which one lives (whatever system it is and at any time in human history) never presents us with all future possibilities due to the complexity and multiplicity of those possibilities. In other words, the system always reduces and limits the future and our future.

However, when cracks arise in the system, as they do today, those cracks invite us to expand previously unexplored possibilities. In other words, when the system no longer offers answers to increasingly existentially disturbing questions, in that moment and if one really pays attention, a new future emerges.

At the same time, as the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann explains well in his book Trust and Power, this connection with future possibilities can be misleading in the sense of making us believe that the future means a “return to normality” (a phrase that you hear a lot in this time of pandemic), but not a new future.

In other words, even exploring options before even thought for the future, even in the midst of that change in consciousness, we can decide that the best option is to go back to the past, that is, to remain trapped within the same system that limits us in as for our options for the future.

To paraphrase Luhmann, we confuse familiarity with normality and normality with security. So, we erase the future and make it a repetition of the past or an extension of the present. In this way, the same system that cracks gives us a glimpse that it is possible to escape from the system creates the illusion that the only escape is not to escape.

This situation had already been explored, obviously, by Plato in his famous Allegory of the Cave, when the prisoners inside the cave do not even know that they are prisoners and, therefore, do nothing to escape. They settle for seeing shadows of reality, believing that this is the whole of reality.

In fact, even when any of these prisoners are rescued and released outside the cave, not even that experience allows the former prisoner to appreciate their freedom and therefore desperately seeks to return to their chains.

Beyond the metaphors used by Plato and the multiple levels of interpretation of his Allegory of the Cave, the truth is that this is our existential reality: we see what they let us see and what we can see and, therefore, we confuse the future with tomorrow, and we assume that tomorrow is "again today", as regrettably happened to Sisyphus.

Meanwhile, as Luhmann points out, the "world" (if you will, the universe, or the totality of reality) is always much larger than any system that tries to contain or explain it. And when we forget that basic difference, when we confuse the "world" with the system, we believe that the end of the system is the end of the world.

The future is not tomorrow, but an expansion of consciousness. 

Should I hug my Teddy bear, or should I plant my apple tree?

I recently read that, according to NASA, starting in 2030 the moon will wobble in such a way that it will cause large tides on Earth. And when I had not yet recovered from that news, I read another story that indicates that the studies done in 1972 by MIT experts are correct: humanity will disappear in 2040 or shortly after. So, what options do we have?

An obvious option is to stop paying attention to those predictions (even if they are based on the best available scientific knowledge) and deny their reality and their veracity. That is, act like little children: close your eyes so as not to see what we do not want to see, trusting that, by not seeing it, the problem will disappear.

This attitude of refusing to see reality and believing (wrongly) that something ceases to exist if we do not see it is what I call "hugging the teddy bear", that is, assuming that nothing is going to happen or that whatever is going to happen will happen without us being able to do anything about it.

And when closing our eyes to reality or using any activity or addictive substance to avoid seeing it does not work as we would like, then, in addition to hugging the teddy bear, we start looking for culprits (better said, scapegoats) who we will hold responsible for what what's happening to us. And if that doesn't work either, we'll start with attacks and even destruction.

The other option is to open our eyes to reality and recognize two things: we ourselves are the main reason and cause of the serious problems afflicting us, and we humans are no longer the most intelligent or most “necessary” species on this planet.

This attitude is what I call "planting the apple tree", in reference to the phrase "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree", an expression thought to be (without proof) from the reformer Martin Luther and used last century by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This attitude, as reflected by the fact of planting the apple tree, allows to maintain composure and, at the same time and for that reason, to maintain an open mind, an open heart, and an open will. For this reason, instead of looking for culprits, we look for companions on the path of life. And those acts of destruction become acts of co-creation.

In other words, faced with inevitable changes that are beyond our control and that, apparently, will not be beneficial for the future of humanity, we can adopt two positions: despair or hopelessness. Despair paralyzes and blinds us. The desperate person will try anything, regardless of cost or consequences.

However, the hopeless person, having become aware of his/her place in the universe, feels liberated from the need to "take control" and, for that reason, he/she faces and awaits the new reality with his totality of his/her being, now also transformed.  

When the storm comes, we must feel it with body and soul

Recently, I have repeatedly heard that expression that says that the best way to cope with a storm (that is, the chaos we now live in) is to be close to the storm. I must say that, at first, it seemed like a wrong suggestion because, after all, isn't it better to get away from the storm and find a safe place?

But then I heard an interview with a maritime safety expert and that interview helped me better understand the deep meaning of the mentioned phrase.

Last April, Australia's National Radio interviewed Brad Roberts, an officer with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. In this context, Roberts explained that ship captains prefer to be near the storm because that way they can "feel" it in a strictly literal way, that is, feel it with their body.

"Feeling" the storm with the body leads to the storm "making sense", not as if it were talking about a dictionary definition or a historical or scientific explanation, but in the sense (used here intentionally) that the ship's captain "connects" with the storm.

At the same time, the more experienced captains “feel” their boats as extensions of themselves, a feeling that they know how to convey to their crew. That allows the captains to connect with the ship and its crew as if they were all “one organism,” explained Roberts. 

That way, when a storm hits and the storm becomes unavoidable, the captain, his crew, and the ship act in unity not to fight the storm, but to know where to be at each moment of the storm, so that the storm do not sink the ship.

According to Roberts, his research indicates that those captains who "seek shelter" or decide to "wait for rescue to arrive" tend to face greater problems and worse consequences than those who decide to face the storm. (By the way, Roberts based his research in the new discipline of neurophenomenology.)

The latter, Roberts emphasizes, use not only their instruments or their knowledge to decide, but also their own bodies. And, according to Roberts, that practice of "embodied knowledge" (or "incorporated" if this word is understood in its sense of "in the body") can be applied to almost any circumstance in life.

Unfortunately, I add, we have not been educated to "pay attention" to our own body, much less to access the knowledge and wisdom of the body. For this reason, we are no longer part of a tradition in which the body is one of the "souls" (manifestations of being) of each one of us, and not just a purely material element. 

In fact, we are taught to reject our body, for example by not letting it rest or modifying it to align with more socially accepted body types.

As a consequence of belittling our body, when the storms of life (personal or global) arrive, we are no longer connected or even with ourselves to respond adequately to the storm. Let's learn the lessons of the wise sailors. 

The new reality unfolds faster than we can understand it

Until just under 100 years ago, the Milky Way was believed to be the entire universe, that is, it was not known that the Milky Way was just one galaxy among countless others, but it was assumed to be all that existed. Then Andromeda measurements confirmed that Andromeda was another galaxy and not a nebula within the Milky Way. Suddenly, the universe “expanded”.

The progression seems clear, starting with the ancient times when human beings assumed that there was nothing beyond the village or city that they knew (or at least there was nothing good). Then, it was assumed that nothing existed beyond one's own country (or at least one's own territory was the only truly civilized one).

Later it was argued that this continent or that other one was the only ones and when finally, the entire planet was explored, it was believed that there were no other planets similar to earth anywhere else in the universe (that is, at that time, the Milky Way.) Finally, the Milky Way was also dethroned as "the whole and only universe." And now it's our universe's turn.

The growing idea of a multiverse, a kind of sea of universes among which ours is only a bubble, is accompanied by the idea of an oscillating universe (that is, the universe expands and contracts, creating successive “universes”). and the idea of the multidimensionality of the universe (within our own universe there would be dimensions that we still do not perceive.)

In other words, in the same way that a baby can only see during the first months of his life up to half a meter away before his eyes "learn" to see greater distances, we, as humanity, only see what we see. Perception allows us to see what we see now, and we won't be able to see anything else until we learn to see it.

Therefore, I believe that, with the constant, profound and irreversible changes that we are facing, and with the constant scientific and technological advances, we are almost forced to expand our awareness of what is and what is not real and, as consciousness, to begin to see what we did not see before. For example, earth has a pulse. 

For example, commercial space flights are already a reality, as are artificial human organs and virtual doctors (even surgeons). All these elements are interconnected because for long-distance space travel or for permanent human colonies in space, artificial organs and virtual doctors will be necessary.

However, most of us continue our lives ignoring the arrival of the new reality and ignoring that this new reality is not only already here but it affects us. For example, due to the aforementioned changes, it is estimated that in the near future hundreds of millions of people around the world will have to learn our jobs to find employment.

Whether we are ready or not, the multiverse, the multidimensional universe and the new future await us. So, let’s prepare ourselves for the new reality. 

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