The Many, the Few, the Stuff

Is there a lot or a little?

Who has it?

These are the basic questions of how we struggle and endure on this pale blue dot. As flesh-and-blood creatures, humans are dependent on all kinds of stuff for our basic survival. Food and water, soaps and medicines, walls and roofs, clothes and shoes. We’re also dependent on other flesh-and-blood humans. To get, give, and exchange stuff with. To nurture us and teach us. For communication and community. For friendship and love.

Our existence is thoroughly material. Stuff and people. Things and bodies. We can only survive by sheer will for so long before we must sip water and chew food. If you left a newborn by itself, it wouldn’t make it very long without nourishment and the protective care of a guardian.

Loneliness at any age is disorienting and dispiriting. We are wired for touch, talk, and relationships. Poverty and homelessness are agonizing and imperiling. Everyone needs a baseline of stuff to protect and care for their body, and a safe place to rest and call home.

Whether there’s a lot or a little, and if it’s evenly distributed or held by just a few, make a significant difference in the quality of our lives and how much struggle it takes to get by. If there is abundance & equality, it’s much easier for everyone to meet their bodily needs and move beyond surviving to thriving. If there is scarcity & inequality, we’re much more likely to come to blows with neighbors or a police state, to have fewer trusting and supportive relationships, to scapegoat others for the lack of stuff or its uneven distribution, and to claw and scrape just to make it another day. Abundance & equality is the future we should fight for. Scarcity & inequality may be the future we end up with.

Today, we’re faced with abundance & inequality, but the kind of abundance there is can’t last forever. We extract, process, and ship far more than the planet can support and renew. It’s overabundance. And yet, much of the bounty is wasted–while too many needlessly go hungry or lack other stuff all humans need and deserve.

Even in the allegedly best and richest country in history, the average American struggles to cover their needs paycheck-to-paycheck, while the Few in the upper class makes tens or hundreds of times more and fortress themselves with excess. The inequality between the Many and the Few is stark and ingrained.

Even amongst the struggle of the Many, some have a much harder time of it than others. In a society with a patriarchal, white racial frame, being black or brown or a woman frequently adds additional obstacles to meeting material needs. Individual people have an individual experience within the broader tug-of-war between the Many and the Few. We need to pay attention as each person points out the intersecting injustices they encounter simply for being who they are.

To have a future of (sustainable) abundance shared equally, there’s a lot of work to do. Protesting and pressuring the Few. Voting better people into office. Imagining better futures. Right now, there’s more stuff out there than the planet can support, with an elite Few controlling and enjoying most of the overabundance. This isn’t coincidence. It’s the long-term result of extracting, storing, and selling stuff without laws and distribution channels that ensure everyone’s needs are met. The result of pursuing more and more, without reasonable restrictions to prevent a small group of people from ending up with it all–and wrecking the Earth along the way.

It’s immoral and insane—making the lives of the Many much more difficult than they should be. There’s solidarity to be found in the universals of our material struggle. If we can achieve that solidarity, we can start building a different, humane arrangement of stuff that gives everyone a chance to thrive.

This Week in Upgrades: July 25

Oh, hello! Here we are at the start of another week. How are you doing? Rested? Eager? Ready to keep the world new?

We’re in the midst of a fire-pocalypse in the LA area. Wildfires are common in California, but the Sand fire in Santa Clarita is uncommonly dire. Looks like the end of the world when the smoke-obscured sun glows an ominous red-orange, and ash is snowing down on you. Very unsettling.

What else happened this week?

Amazon is looking to use lampposts as part of their drone delivery network. Maybe drones are better than pooping pigeons?

We learned more about how wild birds and humans team up to get honey. Wonderful things happen when we work with nature instead of trying to subdue it.

Here’s everything you’d want to know about campfires. Just keep them contained, OK?

When we’re at ease, humans gravitate toward equality. In stress, hierarchy. Very interesting.

Do you remember what it was like to be small and the world seemed full of magic? We’re learning more about how kids understand fantasy, reality, and pretending.

Here’s Tesla’s “Masterplan Part Two”. Ambitious, but encouraging for society if they can make it happen. “The first time, possibly ever, that a green product with significant environmental credentials has been the thing everybody wanted.”

In the midst of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, members of the media try to explain why the media is failing us. This American presidential election has been a wild and depressing ride. Hopefully, a lot of beneficial change–media included–emerges out of the ashes.

Have a great week!

 

A Healthy Scrutiny of Authority

I’ve been on a bit of a Noam Chomsky kick lately. (I’m a nerd). First, I came across the recent documentary Requiem for the American Dream, which is essentially an extended Chomsky interview with infographics and historical film clips. It’s quite insightful about the current state of the American economy and the struggles of the middle class. I’ve also been reading through Chomsky’s most recent book, Who Rules the World?an unflinching examination of the notion of American exceptionalism. The thing that sticks with me the most about his overarching perspective and recurring critiques is the need to scrutinize people and institutions with power and authority.

Now, to be clear, I’m not an anarchist or pessimist. If you’ve read through some of the pieces I’ve written for Upgraded Humans thus far, I hope you have the sense I believe that for whatever problems we face there are interesting and plausible solutions worth trying, and that human nature can evolve toward the good and the just. We need many of the structures and habits that exist in society. They just need to be constantly examined and reshaped around what’s good for people.

And one of the things that’s quite good for people is a broadly egalitarian society. We’ve seen over the last few decades–especially in terms of income, wealth, and opportunity–a dramatic and devastating rise in inequality. It’s the root of many of our present ills. The average American has been hurt by the current socio-economic arrangement, while a minority elite has benefitted immensely. They’ve been able to build reputation, power, and wealth. From a self-interested and self-centered standpoint, it probably makes sense to them to maintain the status quo. But immense authority and influence in the hands of a few is not a natural social relationship and not one that usually benefits the rest of humanity.

Which is why it makes sense that no matter what socio-economic arrangement we find ourselves in, or how well or terribly it’s working out for the average person, it’s crucial that the general public constantly examines and critiques people and institutions of authority. To quote Spider-Man (which was quoting earlier and less cool sources): with great power comes great responsibility. Some people and institutions of authority truly have an elevated social consciousness and use their influence and resources for good. A philanthropic billionaire can do some great things to help large numbers of people. News media can bring difficult, hidden truths into the light. A coach can change the life trajectory of a child with a rocky upbringing. Fantastic.

But often, people and institutions of authority shouldn’t have the power they have, or abuse legitimate power and use it for manipulative or destructive ends. With any person or organization in power, we must ask: why do they deserve our attention, faith, or allegiance?

Do they have a lot of experience in the field they have authority in? If so, is it experience worth praising and embracing? Or are there serious questions about motive, expertise, judgment, and ethics?

Have they been consistent, or are they easily swayed and play favorites? Do they seem to be working from a thoughtful, moral center? Are they aware of the profound consequences of their actions?

Too often, we allow people and institutions of authority to carry on without critique. We look up to them with godlike reverence, taking their words and actions as infallible. We fail to consider that as human beings, authority figures–presidents, coaches, corporations, academics, scientists, news networks, judges, CEOs, bankers, and the rest–are always at the whim of our limited, sometimes misguided, sometimes egotistical human nature.

This week, President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima and gave a heartfelt speech about the bombing in 1945, the power of military technology, and the need for moral progress. There was moving rhetoric and symbolic gestures. At the same time, most media barely mentioned–if at all–that the Obama administration has actually moved to upgrade America’s nuclear arms rather than reduce them, and continues to carry out a dubious drone warfare program that has killed hundreds if not thousands of innocent people. The Hiroshima visit is literally historic in the sense that President Obama is the first sitting president to visit since it happened. And some real healing and reflection may have taken place. But actions are always more important than words. Americans need to hold the administration accountable if it truly believes in a “moral revolution” of military technology and diplomacy that will lead to greater peace in the world.

Or take another example. Through the course of this election, Donald Trump has received virtually wall-to-wall free coverage on almost every major media source. Instead of focusing on real policy conversations about what the United States needs right now, more often than not CNN, NBC, The New York Times, and other go-to media sources are filled up with the latest absurdity involving Trump on the campaign trail. Many have remarked about the reality-show nature the rise of Donald Trump has contributed to this election. Those major media outlets are just as responsible as anyone else for that happening. On many occasions throughout the presidential campaign, CNN may as well have been Access Hollywood–unhelpfully distracting the public with segments closer to entertainment gossip than substantive truth-telling. If these go-to sources are failing in their basic journalistic responsibilities, how can the average person be in tune with what’s actually going on in the world and what we need to talk about most?

Or this: without a doubt, coaches can have a profoundly positive influence on others’ lives. But at the same time, coaches are often fanatically turned into revered demigods with little or no accountability. Baylor University is now in recovery precisely because of this complex. While football players raped and beat other students for years, the coach and school president (and apparently the local police, on occasion) looked the other way. With great power comes great responsibility, and coaches have a responsibility to humanity, dignity, and justice–not just to winning.

Does power always corrupt? That’s a big question for another time. Because of our human nature, we all need the balancing effect of thoughtful observation and critique from others–whether we possess real authority ourselves or not.

For now, it seems clear that for every person or institution of authority, every other person needs to ask why they have that power and whether they’re using it responsibly. They should be working toward advancing equality, justice, and the common good. And we should maintain a healthy skepticism about whether they’re actually doing that.

 

This Week in Upgrades: April 18

Hello, good people. How was your Monday? Still grinding it out? Maybe I can help.

These links may be going up late, but there’s some great stuff in here to get your week on the right track. Stuff like…

100 years of film in 100 shots. Fantastic.

Or, every Disney song ranked worst to best. Do you agree?

I 100% agree that top sheets are a scam.

Hopefully we all can agree there should be more women on American currency, and it seems like it’s finally going to happen on the $20. Long-forgotten Hamilton stays on the $10, a woman gets the bill everyone has in their wallet. Win-win?

Speaking of Hamilton, as the musical’s popularity booms, more critics have weighed in and not everyone’s a fan. Is the musical actually racist, though?

In fascinating science things, the tree of life just got a whole lot more interesting.

Homo sapiens is pretty interesting on its own (hence this whole blog). Maybe we’re not as civilized as we think?

One thing’s for sure: the automobile is a sham.

Here’s another good reason to take it easy on the fast food. Eat well and cook!

Have an awesome week! You got this.

Kimmy Schmidt
via GIPHY

A Letter to the US of A

America,

What a time to be alive.

Kendrick Lamar and the Broadway musical Hamilton have set new standards for artistry, social commentary, and transcendent performance.

The National Park Service, “America’s Best Idea,” is celebrating its 100th year.

Automakers are about to release the first truly affordable electric cars. They’re also testing self-driving ones. We will soon see roads full of cars that do not require gasoline or humans.

Astronaut Scott Kelly just returned from a yearlong mission on the International Space Station so that we can better understand what will happen to human bodies when we start journeying to Mars and beyond.

At the same time, in recent months, we have also seen some of the most jagged edges of human nature tearing through our country. Too much of the campaign for the next president has unleashed undercurrents of discrimination and hatred. Self-interest and fear of the other have led to everything from rhetorical jabs that make people uncomfortable in their own skin, to full-on physical violence that damages bodies. Space has been opened up for many Americans to feel good about being their worst selves.

What are we doing? What are you doing?

It’s not just one person or one candidate. There’s plenty to decry about Donald Trump. As the leader of an impassioned movement, he could certainly do much more to be a unifier as he boasts. What’s unifying about promoting walls, bans, and deportations, and scapegoating and insulting people of all kinds? At the same time, he is just one individual at the forefront of the movement. There’s a collective of millions of Americans retreating to tribalism, voting for authoritarianism, and inciting violence.

No one should be subject to discomfort, injustice, or danger because their genetics and worldview are different than someone else’s. But many are experiencing exactly that.

We can’t even dialogue about some of the most urgent issues we’re facing–climate change, socioeconomic inequality, suboptimal education, and overpriced healthcare–because we’re stuck in the quicksand of primal power plays and eye-for-an-eye blows.

We are at another watershed moment as a country. The things that divide and damage are rampant. We can either reject an us-versus-them ideology and work together for the flourishing and equality of all. Or we can let the brokenness become deeper fault lines–causing more serious shockwaves than we’ve seen yet.

What do you choose? What will we choose?

America has a complicated, sometimes messy history that’s brought us to where we are. We’ve already been down paths of our worst selves. We’re wiser and stronger than that now.

It’s time to wake up and strive to be our best selves to each other. That’s making America great.

 

This Week in Upgrades: February 8

Good Monday to you! I hope you’re well. Here in Southern California we’re set to break record high temperatures. I wasn’t prepared for 90° weather and fire warnings in February. Are you having unseasonal weather? I don’t think this is the way things are supposed to be.

Did you watch the Super Bowl? What did you think about the game and the rest of the spectacle? Plenty to talk about: the Broncos’ incredible defenseblatant product plugging, and the implications of Beyonce’s performance.

I’d imagine many fans are already starting to think about the next NFL season. Here’s how we might be watching games in augmented reality in the future. Is that awesome or overwhelming?

The New Hampshire primary is tomorrow, and I’ll keep reminding everyone to vote until we all have. Things are just starting to get good.

Lots of interesting human things in the last week. Here are just some of them:

Do you use cologne, perfume, body spray, or other body products with a scent? Fragrance may be making us really sick.

Are paper books immortal? Amazon will open at least 300 actual bookstores.

Google is providing free gigabit Internet to public housing in Kansas City. Well done.

I love the National Parks, and I’m happy whenever others go. But nature is not for Yelp-ing.

I am not a wine person, but I admire people like Madeline Puckette who are de-snobbing the craft.

Your moment of heartfelt silliness: James Corden carpool karaoke with Chris Martin.

You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythm. But do you know how it works and how to find your daily flow?

Are you familiar with the genre “competence porn?” From The Martian to Sherlock Holmes, we love the power of rational problem-solving.

One of the more important aging discoveries ever.” Will we see therapies for people based on this research in the near future?

The sooner we can move beyond racial stereotypes and outright racism the better. Really like BuzzFeed‘s “I’m…, but I’m not…” videos. Recently, “I’m Native, but I’m not…” and “I’m Black, but I’m not…”

The trailer for Netflix’s Cooked, based on Michael Pollan’s book. Looking forward to watching this.

Have a great week!

How to Adult: Voting

If you can believe it, the actual choosing part of the presidential race is going to begin on Monday with the Iowa caucuses. If to this point you haven’t kept up with the latest Donald Trump theatrics or been watching social media overflow with #FeeltheBern it’s OK. Nothing super important has happened just yet, because no one has voted yet.

But with Iowa officially getting the ball rolling in just a few days, now is a good time to figure out who you’re going to vote for if you haven’t.

Yes, you should definitely vote. Common cynicism about how my vote doesn’t mean anything or the government is broken and isn’t going to be fixed is understandable. But how do you expect things to ever change if you don’t raise your voice? Though it’s an incredibly lofty and hackneyed-sounding ideal, the American government truly is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. Voter turnout in the 2014 midterm election was just over 1/3 of eligible voters–the lowest since World War II. How can anyone expect our government to function properly and be representative of the general population if only a handful of people are participating? How might our country’s future be impacted if 60% or even 75% of eligible voters show up? Changing the status quo begins with your vote.

So, where to start? If you already know which presidential candidate you like, then you should plan to vote for them in the primary in your state when it happens. Here’s a calendar if you don’t know when yours is. A few states have caucuses because they’re old-school. Here’s a short video explaining the difference between caucuses and primaries. Make sure you register properly ahead of time if you need to.

If you don’t know who you’re going to vote for, now’s the time to sift through everything you can get your hands on. Push beyond surface features like political party (the person you end up liking best may be in a party you’ve never voted for or don’t generally agree with), religious affiliation, gender, home state, the amount of media coverage, someone’s outraged Facebook post, and the like.

Try to watch a number of speeches and debates candidates have participated in. They’re easy to YouTube nowadays. Ask yourself:

Is a particular person consistent in their message, or do they seem to change their mind a lot about their convictions and intentions?

Are there issues they have been fighting for a long time for and made good progress on?

When they speak, does it seem like they marginalize or belittle certain people, or do they seem like a candidate who is trying to represent everyone’s best interests no matter their ethnicity, age, gender, income, etc.?  

Look into each candidate’s position on specific issues–especially ones that are most important to you. If you care a lot about climate change, who seems to have the best plan to address it in the coming years, and a history of good environmental policy? If you care a lot about healthcare, who seems to have the best ideas about ensuring affordability, access, and quality of care? If you care a lot about immigration, who seems to have the empathy and strategy to address it? If you have a lot of student debt, who has the best plan to ease that burden?

Try not to let only one issue drive your decision-making. Our president needs to be someone who can lead and make sound judgments on a number of different aspects of American society.

If you dig and research and ponder and are still not sure, talk to people you trust about who they really like. Listen for good reasons to be for a particular candidate as opposed to choosing one by default because they’re against and vilifying others who are running. I can’t stand so-and-so, so I’m voting for… is not a wise way to choose.

Take time and figure out who you think the best person is to lead America for the next four years. We need a society where more people are engaged in the democracy we have so that things genuinely function for the well-being of everyone. That engagement, and voting, specifically, is part of being an adult. If you wish things were different, you can’t just stand on the sideline and Like witty posts about the failures and absurdities. Show up to your polling place so you can post a #iVoted instead. The sticker is pretty cool too.