What price a camera?

My brief foray into underwater photography has been put on indefinite hold. Indefinite because I need to figure out if having your battery pop out while the camera is submerged in the Pacific Ocean means the camera may not work any longer. Time – and visiting someone who might know what to do about such things – will tell. Without another battery to check and see if the thing will even turn on, I’ll just have to live with that unknown for the time being.

Of one thing I am certain: the SD card is not allowing me to download the photos I took today. This day was dedicated largely to aquatic pursuits. I headed to a nearby beach that was supposed to have good snorkeling and I was ready to snap some good shots. After my first effort a couple of days ago, I felt better prepared – more aware of the difficulties of trying to achieve wonders with a $90 second-hand camera. Not that it was a bad camera, but it was one of those waterproof point and shoot types that can take a shot underwater but that certainly weren’t intended for deep sea adventures. In other words, a camera perfectly suited for someone like me with no previous experience.

And today was a good day to be in the water. While the beach was fairly crowded, it’s a big ocean and there were plenty of fish in that sea. And I actually managed quite a few good shots today. I know this because I checked them out while sitting on the shore after the first of a couple of sessions checking out the aquatic scene. This particular location was essentially a small reef which afforded some protection from the waves. The swell was still substantial but not so much that it made it unpleasant. The water was clear and the fish, as I say, were abundant.

All of this was in preparation for tonight, though. I had been following the Lonely Planet guide inasmuch as it suggested certain things as must-dos on the Big Island of Hawai’i. I had settled on three essentials and two were complete. First was a trip to Volcanoes National Park; second was seeing a sunset from Mauna Kea, the highest peak on the island (although I didn’t climb the final 4000 feet to the summit, a smaller peak near the Visitor’s Centre afforded all the view I needed). Both of these proved worthy of the recommendation and I would add my voice to the multitudes who have come before me recommending the same things.

The final must-do was night-snorkeling with Manta Rays. If you are unfamiliar with these marvels, I can’t offer you any snapshots I took because . . . my camera is awash in salt water, my SD card is dead, and my battery is somewhere on the ocean floor. But do I ever wish I had my own snapshots to show you.

Assuming my tour was similar to all the others, we didn’t go far from shore, just off the point from where I am staying actually. After a brief orientation that took us to within a few minutes of sunset, we were ready to head into the water.

I had planned on bringing my own snorkel gear but I’m glad I didn’t. The company’s equipment proved fine and the wetsuit they supplied provided some relief from something I hadn’t expected: getting cold in the water.

Manta Rays are attracted to light in the water, not for the light’s sake, but because plankton, which they feed upon, are. So the set-up is as follows: tethered to the boat, long, narrow platforms with lights on the underside float in the water. On either side are handholds for snorkelers to grab on to while flotation devices are held at your ankles to keep you level on the water. And then you wait.

On this night, I was beginning to wonder if this was money well-spent as we laid in the water for a half-hour or so with nothing much happening. Fish were plentiful and interesting but they were not, in this case, the main attraction.

And then the first one came, followed by others. Someone let out a whoop and it didn’t take long to figure out why. These indescribably graceful creatures with their sometimes 12 to 14 foot “wingspans” dance a ballet for you without even thinking about it. For the next half hour, we were treated to an experience difficult to describe. Their “dance” involves moves I would tend to associate with early twentieth century aircraft doing loops silently in slow-motion. They do long, arcing somersaults and even brush against your body sometimes as they go by. Sinuous is a word that pops into my head when I try to find the proper adjective to describe their passage through the water.

But finally, words just won’t do it. As with so many things in travel for me, I can see the pictures and read the commentaries and descriptions, but nothing ever compares to the real thing. It might have cost me a camera but it was worth it. Good for you Lonely Planet; you got it right.

What can you learn from a volcano?

To see the world in a grain of sand,
A heaven in a wildflower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

– William Blake, from Auguries of Innocence


If I was going to spend the best part of a day at Volcanoes National Park and still be back before dark I knew I would have to be on the road early so, before the stroke of 6 am, I was on the road. And it was dark and the first 20 miles or so of the main highway was narrow and twisting with a speed limit of 35 mph. I’m glad I was doing it now rather than on the return journey, though.

According to Lonely Planet, I should have been a couple of hours getting to the main gate of the park but I meandered and didn’t arrive until around 9:30. Along the way, I managed stops to see some great surf, a black sand beach and green sea turtles lounging on the same. Just another day on the Big Island.

For some reason I hadn’t paid much attention to temperatures – assuming I suppose that it must be hot and glorious everywhere – so I was somewhat surprised when the external temperature was registering as low as 14 degrees Celsius by the time I was at the park. That being said, considering I was now at elevation around 4000 ft, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Fortunately, coming from Saint John, New Brunswick, where a warm summer’s day tops out around 18-22 if you live along the coast, it wasn’t that big a deal.

I headed straight for the visitor’s centre because I had a plan. After yesterday’s grueling trek down and back to the Captain Cook Monument, I was looking for something a little bit easier and I thought I had found it in the Kilauea Iki trail, a 4+ mile loop that took you down to and across the caldera and back up the other side. I had certainly heard the word caldera before but I had never thought much about what it meant. I was about to find out.

I always say that I love traveling anywhere – and I do – but I have been to some places that stick with me for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s the magnificence of human achievement (cathedrals in Europe, the Angkor complex, Macchu Pichu), others, the beauty of nature (the Fundy Trail, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, the Canadian Rockies) and still others for quite specific reasons. Kilauea Iki falls into the last category.

The Kilauea Iki trail begins from a parking lot a short drive from the Visitor’s Centre. Immediately upon arrival you can look down some 400 feet and see your destination. As I discovered, a caldera results when a vent for lava collapses. This is not your gushing down the mountainside brand of volcanic activity. Think of water backing up in a drain. The water is still trying to get out but it has nowhere to go so it simply fills the tub.

From above, the caldera doesn’t look like much. By now I’m accustomed to the ripples and eddies of solidified lava although it certainly looks interesting. So off I go, guide in hand, down the trail.


As you descend, the enormity of what you are approaching begins to assert itself. You are at one end of the caldera and the other end is very far away. When you step out of the surrounding vegetation, the first impression is size. What looks from above like a rippling but smooth surface is, in fact, what I might imagine a battlefield would look like after the bomb fused all the earth.


You enter the caldera at the level of the “bath tub ring”. No, I didn’t make that up. When you look at the “high lava mark” – where the molten lava reached before the eruption slackened and the lava began to drain a bit – it takes your breath away. More than anything for me, the analogy, “bath tub ring” is so apropos! If you’ve ever laid in the tub after a long day of hard and dirty labour, you know what such a ring looks like. Here’s one that encircles a hardened lake around a mile from end to end.


As you begin the trek across this broken land, you pass the vent from where the lava poured. This is the most broken part of the caldera, a huge conglomeration of broken lava that reminds me of asphalt, if it were a couple or more feet thick and the size of a chunk of four lane highway. They build up in small mountains here and there and ripple as you might imagine the ocean would if flash frozen.

The trail across is marked with piles of rock and you are not allowed to venture outside its limits but I was forced off the path briefly in order to retrieve my sunglasses. I had my Tilley hat on – my companion for many years now – and it has never blown off, anywhere. Now it has.


Of all the things I might have expected as I went down to the Caldera, wind wasn’t one of them. Was I ever wrong. Once past the initial entry point, you enter the open plain, you might say. The wind was strong and gusting the rest of the way and one gust caught the hat and away it sailed, even though I had the chin strap on. My sunglasses were perched on the hat and they flew further and down the side of one ridge. It looked safe enough and, after some hesitation, I made a quick trip down and back.

I mention this not because I was doing anything especially dangerous but because it is an object lesson in what makes this trip across the caldera so remarkable. With every step, I grew increasingly aware of the power that could fuel the event that created this landscape. Steam was venting in the distance, the land looked broken and tortured, yet, other than the wind, all was calm and serene. Somewhere beneath my feet Pele, the goddess of fire, was slumbering.


When I was done with Kilauea Iki, I spent time doing a few other things, last of which was a trip to the Jagger Museum where you can view the Halema’uma’u crater, currently venting gas. Also, you can see the larger caldera, of which Kilauea Iki is but a small part. Driving down Chain of Craters Rd. provides an even clearer view of the enormity and extent of past eruptions and lava flows. Power and grandeur everywhere I look. And yet this is but a speck on a tiny planet amidst a universe beyond comprehension. All I can say is “wow!” and that just doesn’t quite capture it. Thank god for poets.

1300 feet is a long way down . . . and up!

DSCF1177Kealakekua Bay

My first full day on the Big Island of Hawai’i and I had a plan. I was going to get up early so I could hit the road and make my way down the highway some 90-100 miles to the volcanoes. My thinking was “I’ve been there before but it was some time ago and a visit was on my to-do list so I might as well get it over with”. As so often happens with travel – if you’re open to possibilities – my plans changed.

After I was on the highway for 5 minutes or so I saw a sign for a Sunday farmer’s market. It opened at 9 and it was just after 8 so, if I wanted to go, I would have to forego the volcanoes unless I wanted to arrive at Volcanoes National Park much later than I had hoped. Now, a ¼ mile or so before the market, I saw a sign for Kealakekua Bay some four miles down a road to the right so I decided that would be a good way to kill some time before the market opened. It turned out to be a fateful choice.

Narrow and twisting the whole way, the road took me down the side of the mountain (everything seems mountainous around here) to a beautiful bay where the surf was breaking against a beach composed entirely of lava boulders. That didn’t stop some intrepid snorkelers who had found their way out into the water. I envied them but I wasn’t comfortable snorkeling alone in a place with such obviously turbulent waters. It got me thinking though.

So I checked my Lonely Planet guide and, sure enough, it identified the northern end of Kealakekua Bay as a primo snorkeling spot, although it wasn’t exactly easy to access. The choices were being transported there by one of the tour companies or hiking for an hour down the Captain Cook Monument walking trail, a path that drops some 1300 feet from the trailhead to the bay. I was quite pleased actually: I could kill two birds with one hike – get my exercise in and have my first chance to snorkel.

Having come up with a plan, I retraced my route in time to be there when the market opened. I’m glad I went. A great selection of local crafts complemented some produce and a food vendor or two. It was small but worth the time.

From there it was back to the hotel to change and pick up my snorkel gear, all of which put me back at the trailhead at around 10. I parked on the shoulder and headed out.

Just for the record, I am not a hiker, if being one means that everywhere you go you seek out opportunities for hiking. I like a hike every once in a while but I don’t live and breathe it. This, as it turns out, would have to qualify as the toughest hike I’ve ever taken.


The trail begins as a path through rather long grasses. Immediately apparent is the fact that this is a descent. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that no straight and level portions were about to appear. This was going DOWN. 1300 feet, it turns out, is a long drop and the path made that evident. Adding to the adventure was a varied and sometimes treacherous trailbed of loose lava, large boulders, and lava faces with both smooth and jagged surfaces. In some ways, the trip down was harder than the trip back, at least as far as footing went.


Water and the coastline appear after you’ve traveled about halfway. On either side of the trail itself are vast fields of lava. I can’t help calling it a scene of devastation. It’s what I might imagine some alien landscape would look like. Far below is the water and cliffs but, by now, I’m halfway there.


When I finally arrive at my destination, it does not disappoint. The monument to Captain Cook is there, placed by the government of Australia, and the waters are, indeed, calm enough for some good snorkeling. It’s my first time using my underwater camera so that is an extra thrill, but the fish and the coral are the attractions.



Eventually, the time comes to steel myself for the journey back to the top. As it turns out, it is as gruelling as I had feared it might be but I have plenty of water and I stop many times along the way. That may very well be the longest climb I have ever made without any level places to provide relief. It was all downhill on the way and it was very much all uphill going back.


Flying the friendly skies

airline awards

Imagine how proud I was to hear that Air Canada has held on to its title as best airline in North America. I keep promising myself that I’m going to find the source of this particular award because it’s puzzling to me. I can’t help wondering what the criteria might be. Is it like the non-competitive athletics now played in some schools? Does everyone win? What is it, exactly, that so sets Air Canada apart that it deserves an award, not just for one year, but for five years in a row? Granted I don’t fly every week on business so I’m probably not the expert to depend on for an evaluation, but I’m out enough, and have flown on sufficient airlines over the years, to be able to have some sense of what goes on when flying.

Now don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I’m really even complaining. As I wrote on this blog yesterday, I don’t really ask much of airline travel. I don’t even mind flying economy on the really long flights, the ones to or from Asia, for example, that can run some 12 to 15 hours, depending on where you’re departing from and where you’re going. I’m with R. L. Stevenson on this one: travel is its own reward. I decided some time ago I wasn’t going to turn this marvel of our age – being able to arrive virtually anywhere on the planet inside of a couple of days – into a burden.

As for Air Canada, since I still haven’t been able to get it together and find out who is presenting this award or what the critieria are, I can’t help trying to guess. I’m over the Pacific Ocean at the moment on a United flight that offers the washroom free of charge and that’s about it. I’ve been aware of the many ways in which airlines are working to make ends meet but an absolute lack of free onboard entertainment surprised me. Now, to be fair, you can watch a series of infomercials on the little screen in the seat-back in front of you but, all of my natural good-nature and optimism notwithstanding, even I am hard-pressed to think of that as being anything other than stingy. If this were a quick flight such as the Saint John-Toronto leg where they don’t have the onboard equipment to provide anything anyway, I could understand. But this is almost six hours in the air with not so much as an option to listen to elevator music. Maybe United is in even worse shape than other carriers.

So score one for Air Canada there. From Toronto to Los Angeles, a solid selection of music and other forms of entertainment is available. If you need headphones, there’s a charge but the product itself is free. So what else might separate Canada’s national airline from the competition?

Friendly flight attendants? Exceptional and thoughtful service? Careful baggage handlers? Never mind that last one since most of us wouldn’t have much sense of how good or bad our baggage is handled until after the fact. As for the first two, I can’t say I’ve seen much difference among airlines in North America. As is so often the case with such folks, it’s hit and miss. Overall I find those working in airports and on planes about as competent and friendly as the general mix found in just about every service industry. I’m sure most of us can think of the exceptional server in a restaurant – both the exceptionally good and the exceptionally bad – but the vast majority falls into that forgettable category of the “ordinary” where so much of our lives are lived.

And that’s a pretty good place to live, especially when so many people’s ordinary, in so many of those parts of the world I’ve visited (or hope to visit some day), can be so fraught with difficulties that I can read about but have little expectation of ever experiencing.

So congratulations Air Canada on a job well done. Someone out there thinks you are doing a great job and who am I to disagree. Until it matters enough to me that I take the time to look into it, the specific reasons will have to remain a mystery. And that’s really okay. As I said, I’m just amazed that I live in a time when the world is just waiting to be discovered. I may be stuck in economy for a long time to come but I don’t mind. I’m flying 34,000 feet above the earth at the moment. Not a bad place to be.

On the road again

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.
– Robert Louis Stevenson


I’m a guest at the Maple Leaf Lounge, Pearson International Airport, Toronto, for the moment. I have a 6 hour layover between flights, just shy of being enough to justify a quick escape from the airport, especially when your next flight is to the U.S. Getting through security these days always has the potential to be a chore but getting to the States takes the cake (although I’ve heard Israel is the toughest).

Before I even have the chance to start taking everything out of my pockets and divesting myself of everything including my boots, my boarding pass has been checked three times. It will be checked once more just before the scanner. Today, at that juncture, I thought I had lost my passport for a moment and I – the guy who prides himself on the adopted motto for travel, “go with the flow” – actually started to freak out just a little bit. Fortunately, I held it together long enough to find my missing passport in the deepest recesses of a shirt I commonly wear when I’m flying. It has pockets galore, all sealable, and I do my best to decide clearly beforehand where everything will go. I can hear my Aunt Fran intoning the old adage “a place for everything and everything in its place.” She left out the part about how too many things and too many places to hide them can lead to confusion.

I’m very deliberate about such things. I’ve traveled enough to believe that solid organization is at least one important factor in how much enjoyment I can expect to have doing what many find a chore. Bottom line for me: not only do I love the destinations; I enjoy the getting there as well, as long as I have everything in hand in preparation. iPad? Check. eReader? Check. iPod and headphones? Charged and ready to go. Snacks? Itinerary? Any paperwork I might need? If I’ve made sure all of that is in place before I leave the house, I am pretty confident things from that point will be all good.

Especially before I retired, opportunities to spend time in airports were welcomed and a source of pleasant anticipation. An airport is one place where, when I choose to “go with the flow”, I can truly relax. Nothing will bring you any closer to departure time, and the time you do have at your disposal is entirely without responsibility. It has an effect similar to that which a golf course has on me. After I hit (or mishit) that first tee shot and head down the fairway, the real world fades behind me and a silence of sorts descends. All of the concerns and distractions of the world park themselves for a time. It feels good.

So the Maple Leaf Lounge is a bonus. It’s not because I’m so well traveled; rather, I happen to have the right credit card at the moment so I’m granted free access. I haven’t been to airport lounges all that often but, this one, I must say, is especially nice. For one thing, it is large yet divided in such a way that you don’t feel like one of the huddled masses. And the food is pretty good. Soups, an excellent hummus, salads, good bread: overall, plenty to make for a reasonable lunch.

And comfort. Granted, no daybeds or other options for getting horizontal but the chairs are people-friendly and varied and the overall atmosphere is relaxed. The contrast to the seating at departure gates is pronounced. The seating at the gates seem designed, by virtue of wafer-thin padding, to discourage settling in. Kicking back in the lounge can’t help feeling a bit luxurious. I always say that I’m not one to actively seek luxury. That being said, if it presents itself and I’m available, it would be impolite to say no.

The sun is setting over Toronto now and the lights of the city in the distance are beginning to assert themselves. Departure approaches and I need to get some exercise so it’s time to leave and go for a stroll. Next stop Los Angeles for a few hours rest and time adjustment. Tomorrow, Kona International and the Big Island of Hawai’i. I’m looking forward to my arrival but, for me, getting there is always part of the fun.

Our very own Brave New World

Humanity will not make much further progress until it learns to embrace complexity and contradiction instead of instinctively trying to solve them.
– Rick Docksai (http://www.wfs.org/content/cautions-about-techno-faith)

Techno man 2

Anyone reading the last number of these blogs might be wondering by now, just what does this guy mean by “an ideology of technological humanity”? As my last blog on ideology argued, I am suggesting we have a fixed and increasingly pervasive view of humanity that shapes public discourse, policy, institutions and much of the day-to-day of modern life. If you suspect hyperbole is at work in such a statement, I want to assure you that I am not exaggerating. This ideology has gained the power and prominence it possesses because it supplies a roadmap of sorts through our increasingly complex lives.

If you consider the paradigm shifts I talked about in an earlier blog – the loss of Earth’s place at the centre of the universe, the advent of the theory of evolution, and Freud’s unveiling of our inscrutable inner life – each one was an undermining of a particular certainty or deeply held truth. The effects of each may have taken time to be felt (the ripples continue to spread as far as I’m concerned), but by the middle of the 20th century, the developed Western world was living with a deeply felt sense of uncertainty. God’s guarantee of human primacy had been compromised, we couldn’t claim inherent ascendancy in the “creation”, and we couldn’t even expect to really know ourselves, especially in light of all the misery humanity had visited upon itself in the first half of the century.

Above all else, ideology promises certainty. It lays out a set of assumptions, held to be inviolable truths, which give purpose and meaning to the world. Putting it another way, it promises that the world is comprehensible and meaningful, even if that meaning does not extend beyond our immediate existence.

Technological humanity is an ideology supremely suited to an increasingly post-religious Western world. Some will object to that characterization but I won’t withdraw it. While a majority in the world today would claim some brand of belief in a deity, anyone of my generation would know that religious practice, the formulation of laws and policies based on religious precepts, and daily life in general are not suffused with the religious sensibility that was waning but still strong when we were growing up in the 1950s and 60s.

In the midst of this crisis, technological innovation advanced with increasing speed and the standard of living of the developed world rose to heights previously unimaginable. Even if external validations of our superiority were fading, advances in standard of living and the phenomenal development of consumer society with its endless array of new and better products couldn’t help but have us swelling with pride. Sure there were problems: pollution and environmental concerns, poverty and famine, inequities, wars, extremism, etc. But still, for all of the mayhem, things were getting better and better. The notion of “progress” that had emerged with the Renaissance, regardless of any setbacks, was reaffirmed based upon the wondrous new things we were able to achieve.

Techno man

The ideology taking root as a consequence of all this is what I can only call a “faith” in the power of science to unlock every “mystery”, whether current or yet to come. I’m happy to see that the word “scientification” has made the urban dictionary, but I prefer the term “scientism” to describe the trend I am suggesting. This is science as faith, as belief, as ideology. In my use, the term asserts that science – an empirical method – provides the best – maybe even the only – avenue to truth. It would hold that all things (most importantly, human beings) can be viewed as mechanisms open to adjustment and to improvement. All we need do is find what makes the mechanism “tick”.

One result of this increasingly triumphant viewpoint is the subjection of all human behavior to “scientific” analysis. I have long been suspicious of the notion of “research” in the social sciences. From all I remember of my high school science classes (and my ongoing interest in such things ever since), the scientific method demands two thing more than anything else: control and clarity. In order for the results of any experiment to be considered valid, anything which might affect the result must be identified and controlled. Failure to recognize potentially intrusive elements can lead to the purported results of any experiment being discounted or, at the very least, seriously undermined.

When applied to human behavior – the purview of psychology, sociology and other social sciences – such a research model inherently lacks certainty. Valid social science research speaks more of trends and of possibilities than it does of absolutes. When we imagine human beings as nothing more than a rather complex amalgam of neurons firing and chemicals mingling in order to produce an “outcome”, we can claim a scientific validity for our research that doesn’t really exist. Still, when an entire society has become increasingly satisfied with such a technological model of humanity, voices raising objections aren’t given much of a hearing. Purveyors of the new orthodoxy of ideological techno-faith feel no obligation to listen to heretics.

Ideology and the ideologue

The ultimate end of any ideology is totalitarianism. – Tom Robbins



At this point I need to revisit my use of the term “ideology”, especially because of my desire to avoid confusing the term with idealist, something I would encourage anyone to become. Ideology is one of those concepts open to various shades of meaning. At its most innocuous, it simply refers to any body or system of belief held as a guide to living by individuals, groups, peoples, parties, etc. Inasmuch as we are all governed, whether consciously or not, by certain assumptions about how the world and everything and everyone in it works, we can all be considered followers of some kind of ideology, even if most of us probably don’t spend much time trying to define the particulars of ours.

Ideology becomes of concern (and potentially terrifying) when it leads to the creation of ideologues, individuals who see the world exclusively through the lens of a particular, fixed point of view. The harmless ideologue might be the person who sees absolutely everything through a positive lens. While that can sound innocuous, the potential for detrimental consequences is possible even in that instance. Such an ideologue becomes, potentially, the person we might all know who refuses to look at reality and constructs elaborate facades and rationales in order to preserve a “positive outlook”.

Examples of more distressing examples are easy to find. I’ve referenced in an earlier blog my continuing interest in the Holocaust and, in particular, my quest to somehow understand how anyone could reach a place where the systematic murder of millions could be viewed not only as acceptable but even as a benefit. I still don’t understand it on a deep level; however, my investigations lead me to believe that the Hitlers and the Himmlers and their many imitators, for all that they might have recognized that the world at large might disagree with them, were “true believers”. Somehow, they were able to embrace an ideology defined by the belief that eradication of the world’s Jewish population was “good”. One account I’ve read of a visit by Himmler to a concentration camp where he watched the execution of inmates tells of how upset Himmler was and, further, how concerned he was for the well-being of the executioners who were tasked with “this unpleasant but necessary work”.

We are living in an era when radical Islamism is able to justify broadcasted beheadings, suicide bombings, targeted executions or any other method that they imagine advances the possibility of some kind of success. The ideology and the fulfillment of its ends trumps all other considerations.

Another example that has always been powerful for me: Josef Stalin. Stalin purportedly was directly responsible for some 20 million deaths over the course of his 30 odd years as absolute ruler of the former Soviet Union. Many have written at length of these “atrocities” but if you can imagine, for even a moment, that all that Stalin did was in service of the advancement of Soviet communism, do his crimes become necessary and good? Certainly a central tenet of Leninist communist ideology is that the individual is not as important as the furthering of the ultimate goal, the creation of the communist utopia. This falls into that same category as the Holocaust for me. Could anyone actually believe that mass murder on such a scale could be justified? The answer to me is far more straightforward than you might think: if people can strap explosives to children and detonate them in the midst of an unsuspecting crowd because they believe God wants them to do so, what CAN’T ideology find a way to justify?

I know I have been depending on extreme examples in this blog but I want to make clear how much the embracing of an ideology can trump what the rest of us might think of as “reality” or clear moral positions, positions that most of us take for granted. For example, surely no one can justify the deliberate sacrifice/murder of children to a cause? And yet, it happens with frightening regularity these days.

Ideologies, when they become the lens through which we view the world, can predetermine what we see. Of greatest concern for my purposes is what I have come to regard as the ideology of technological humanity – a belief, in simplest terms, that human beings are mechanisms subject to adjustment and to continuous improvement. While that doesn’t sound so bad, I want to argue it is at the root of any number of problems we encounter these days. As you might expect, considering my background, I became convinced of this, initially, through my experiences in education.

We have the technology

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom. ~Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Quotations, 1988

technological man

So if you’ve stuck with me over these last few blogs, I want to say a heartfelt thank you. When I started on this topic, I suggested it was complicated, and a central point of my starting this blog continues to be my contention that we have little time for complexity and the ensuing subtlety complexity demands. That being said, my almost thirty years as a teacher, taken in conjunction with my experiences in politics, has convinced me that trends accumulating through the process I have described over the last few blogs have come to dominate important elements of modern life (education being the one of longest standing concern for me). So where are we?

As the 20th century was dawning, we were on the verge of a technological revolution that would make all previous marvels pale in comparison. My grandmother was born in 1889 and died in 1982. Compare the changes she saw in her lifetime to those of someone who lived a similar span a hundred years earlier. We’ve probably all heard some version of how advancement has accelerated as time has passed. One I recall is that, between the dawn of civilization and 1850, the sum of human knowledge doubled. Since then, that doubling has increased in speed. Check out the link I’ve included below for one version based on Buckminster Fuller’s “Knowledge Doubling Curve”. Regardless of the details, it isn’t hard to see that technology has come to dominate our lives to an ever-increasing degree.

In the meantime, the Copernican revolution, the theory of evolution, and Freud had undermined virtually every assumption regarding humanity’s status as the chosen ones. Little wonder that as the century progressed, however much it might be disguised, humanity’s latest efforts to reinforce just how special we are would ultimately find a home in the most apparent evidence of our superiority: technological advancement.

Just so you know, I love technology and all the gizmos it has given us. While I still find being tied to a cellphone unsettling at times, I would never suggest that we throw it all away and go back to some imagined idyllic past where all was well with the world or, at least, substantially better. As you may have surmised, my contention is that this existence is always problematic for human beings. Alone among the living on this planet, we are conscious of mortality and we seek meaning and purpose for our lives. Where we go to find that meaning and how we grapple with the mystery of existence is far more central to living than we probably realize. As conventional religious practice has waned in the Western world, we have looked for an alternative.

So, to put it bluntly, I believe technology has become ideological. The 20th century saw incredible advancements – at ever increasing speed – in virtually every sphere of human activity. Scientific understanding of the natural world made such progress possible and, initially, it was regarded as a fundamental good. In the midst of all of this, however, the human race saw examples of just how destructive technology could be in the hands of those who wanted to use it for destructive purposes, either deliberately or indifferently. Two world wars, the development of nuclear arms, global warming, irresponsible uses of technology in general, all have one thing in common: human beings are the ones at the controls. If we can’t put technology back in the box, what are we to do? How do we avoid self-destruction, something that we seem to be prone to given the proper circumstances?

And so we have the IDEOLOGY of technological humanity. What has technology told us, especially in the last 30 years or so? Put simply, everything that exists in the world can be made better. We have come to expect that technological innovation is without boundaries. Take the television. Just when you think you have purchased the TV for the ages, the next upgrade comes along. The same applies to cars, phones, crop yields, etc, etc, etc. As science focuses on human beings themselves, is it any wonder that a similar “technological model” of personhood should take root in our consciousness? We have arrived at a place where we imagine ourselves as organic commodities which, through rigorous application of a scientific method, can be “improved”. In this uncertain world, we have found a “belief system” (an ideology) that tells us we can control our destiny – make humanity intrinsically “better”. Needless to say, I don’t agree.



What a piece of work!

Hamlet: What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how
express and admirable, in action how like an angel,
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?

Continuing from yesterday, it is important to note that religious sentiments did not suddenly cease to matter. In fact, as Newton illustrates, many of the greatest minds – scientific and otherwise – looked for ways to incorporate this new paradigm (bounded always by the orthodox views of the time) that placed humanity as but a speck amidst a universe of unimaginable immensity. While the Renaissance is commonly thought of as a reawakening of interest in Ancient Greek and Roman learning, what that means in real terms can be seen through an examination of painting. The shift from medieval iconography to Renaissance shows a dramatic change in interest in the human form. In the former, human beings are two-dimensional and indistinct – a medium for the theological principle. Renaissance artists are still using the religious theme, but the greater appeal is now in the detailed, three-dimensional human being – the “reality”, if you like, of the figures rendered.

Medieval crucifixionPietro Cavallini (1259 – c. 1330)

Renaissance crucifixionMatthias Grunewald (c. 1470 – 1528)

Because of our abiding self-interest, even if our preeminence in creation couldn’t be supported by the universe’s design in itself, surely the inherent nobility of the human form could substitute? Add to that the emerging sense of human capability as evidenced through the burgeoning arts in general, as well as rapidly advancing scientific discovery, and a revised picture of human value begins to emerge. Proof of God’s favour can be found in our obvious superiority to all other created things. Alone among the creatures of the world, we can reason and examine and, most importantly for the development of technological humanity, we can PROGRESS.

This sense of possibility found concrete realization in the Industrial Revolution and in many other spheres of activity, especially the scientific. Rather than being stuck with a mysterious and unknowable universe – a reflection of God’s inscrutability – human beings, through science, were unlocking “mysteries” with increasing speed (something that continues to accelerate in certain ways in our time). So even if our central place in creation had been undermined, mounting evidence suggested we were still at the top of the creator’s creations, to put it one way.

Such self-confidence was being challenged, by writers and thinkers alike, as the realities of urban life in factories and other consequences of rapid industrialization were becoming evident. Charles Dickens is the name most associated with critiques of this era but he certainly wasn’t alone. Two more “paradigm shifts” are especially important in the midst of all this, though: evolution and Freudian psychology.

The first one, considering how it can still manage to be contentious among fundamentalist religious groups, is easy to grasp. Human beings, for the most part, had never thought to question the fixed nature of themselves. Even without the religious element to support the idea, humanity’s inherent ascendancy over all other things was clear. However we managed it, who could question that human beings were, in some way, qualitatively superior to all other living things? And then along came Darwin suggesting that we were simply the top of a rather elaborate food chain, nature’s fortunate winner of the natural selection sweepstakes, you might say. To go from God’s image to the best ape nature could fashion in the course of 400 years or so couldn’t help but be a blow to the collective ego.

So what was left? At least we had the primacy of reason, of the mind. We were conscious beings who could fashion our destinies with forethought, hard work, and education. And then came Freud, providing another undermining of the self with his suggestion that we were not as “in control” as we thought. In fact, we, and our actions, were, possibly, no more than the product of unseen urges and forces at work within us of which we might not even be aware. It wasn’t enough that the world and everything outside of us was becoming increasingly unknown; that same mystery now extended to us. In essence, as a species, we were becoming the living embodiment of the old saying “the more you know, the more you realize how little you know.”

Not your ancestors’ universe

If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea.
-Ronald Wright

Ptolemaic unverse
A term we hear used with some frequency these days is “paradigm shift” as in “(the concern, topic, person, etc) needs/is undergoing/experienced a paradigm shift”. In its original meaning, the term was intended to describe changes in fundamental scientific understanding but its more common usage concerns any perceived change in basic assumptions. As for me, I’ve made use of the term within a fairly narrow band, primarily because “basic assumptions” (basic in the sense that humanity as a whole tends to buy into them) can be hard to find. For the purposes of this complicated argument, I am suggesting that our conceptions of human identity have undergone two or three paradigm shifts as a result of science itself.

Language and how we use it can reveal a great deal about our conceptions of self. Of greatest importance for my purposes is the notion of “self-centredness”, a term I’m confident we all understand. I ask you to think about the term and where it comes from. Why is the “centre” so important to this critique of personality? Consider further all the ways in which we suggest the predominance of something through the use of the term: centre of attention, central character, health centre, political centre, city centre, etc.

While early Greeks and others in the ancient world posited a world view with the earth circling the sun, the prevailing view of the middle ages saw earth occupying that place. Copernicus theorized that the earth wasn’t at the centre and Galileo suffered at the hands of a church unwilling to accept what he presented as scientific proof of the same. Have you ever wondered why it mattered? What was at stake? Religious authority alone?

Inasmuch as the Western world was dominated by the church, in many aspects of life and culture, the religious principle was important but, putting religion aside for a moment, consider our sense of self in relation to our position in the cosmos. If all of us – humanity – are placed at the centre of “creation”, doesn’t that suggest something about our place in the scheme of things? Again, granted, this comes out of a religious conception of a “created” universe, but more importantly, it speaks volumes re humanity’s perception of its importance in the midst of this thing called the cosmos. We are the “centre of the universe”. If that doesn’t contribute to ego (leaping ahead a few centuries), I can’t imagine what would.

Whether theologically or in some other way, it isn’t that hard to see meaning expressed through our placement at the “centre” of all things. For the church at the time, this conception had theological significance: it suggested our importance in the order of creation. Even if you imagine that we exist these days in a post-religious time, the legacy of humanity’s exalted sense of self isn’t hard to see.

Imagine then the paradigm shift in perception/conception required as it begins to dawn on you that rather than being a resident at the centre of all things around which the entirety of creation revolves, you are at home on a small planet in an obscure solar system in a universe that calculates galaxies in the billions. Not that the average person would give it much thought but, with the passage of time, this shift inevitably became the accepted view of the nature of physical reality for all but a few outliers.

You are here
Without meaning to do so, Copernicus – and all those who came after him – not only altered our understanding of the universe, but also dealt a crippling blow to our longstanding sense of self-importance, even if no one made especial note of it immediately. We could still argue that human beings were pretty special but now we needed to base that upon something other than inherent preeminence. As with so many things, this shift came with consequences, both good and bad. (to be continued)