Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Disaster Porn

Like everyone else who is not actually in the shit, I am watching the Sandy disaster unfold over cable tv and other media. There is something vaguely shameful about the fascination it exerts, but also hints of something spiritual. The difference is in subtle shades of attitude and both may be active at once. What is it about disaster that draws us so?

The spiritual part is a real-life form of PKD's Mercerism, where we all use our empathy boxes to commune with the suffering of others. We watch the horrors not to be entertained but because we want to be there for these poor people, and in fact are there in some sense. We all want to be there, to help, we would all be doing something for them if we could.

The shameful part is when you find yourself using the massive suffering of others for entertainment, for tittilation and cheap thrills, when you congratulate yourself on your luck and foresight in not being on the East coast. This attitude is born of lack of empathy, lack of imagination, and lack of ability to feel an active and living connection to others. But it is fed by the media, which can't help but turn suffering into spectacle.

The best way to keep one's mind out of the disaster porn gutter is to actively join in by helping. Since most of us are not in a position to do that, it is easy for our better reactions to degenerate from non-expression. We can give some money to the Red Cross. Or, given that we are in the midst of an election, and have the opportunity to cast our small but significant votes, we can some thought to what it is that binds us together and what is the role of government in that.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Digital Charnel Ground

David Chapman posted recently on the Buddhist concept of a charnel ground – a practice of meditating on the fact that the world is a grisly killing field, that  you and everyone you know and love are fated for death, and that your subtle and sublime existence will end up as nothing more than fuel for monstrous beasts.

I had a vision of a sort of information-theoretic version of that – that life is a process of creating these beautiful, intricate, delicately balanced mechanisms we call living things, and all of them end up getting eaten, their beautiful structures reduced to crude raw material for something else. The universe apparently is a process that generates astonishing complexity and then throws it callously away.

Given that our digital machines are for the most part images of ourselves, mirror-worlds and mirror-selves, is there a technological equivalent of a charnel ground? Well, sort of:

Someday there will be software that is capable of contemplating these in order to free itself from the wheel of reimplementation.