June 14th, 2006


A Nice Little Case of "Yay!"

Some of you may remember Tak. He's one of my very best friends, and was with me at the 2001 TLKoB outing in NYC.

He's been living in the US for years now, and it's been years since I last saw him.

But, not only is he considering coming back home, he's also interviewed at my company two days ago. And stayed with me for a few days while he was there. It was way too short, but pretty damn nice all the same, and we've had time for some gaming and some restaurant and some cuddlage and a lot of talking, and a whole day at the Asterix Park where a lot of in turn high-speed, in turn splashy wet fun was had.

Then he had to leave, the bastard, but God is it good to see an old friend like this. Even if he doesn't come back home, I hope I'll get to see more of him. :)

The Battery Theorem.

A while ago, I took part in an interview with a sociology student on the topic of the Harry Potter books and how they were received among adults.

By the end of the interview, after dancing around the concepts of escapism and personal projection into the imaginary, the subject had shifted toward what it means to be an adult, and what society expects of them. The reply I gave the student on that particular point was built upon things I have been thinking about for a good long time, following my stay in Africa; I will try to refine those thoughts and put them in writing here for discussion and later reference.

Nick, Msondo, there are things in there written with you guys in mind, and on which I'd like your feedback.

On expectations, explicit and implicit.

Society. Society is a nebulous concept that I'm not altogether comfortable manipulating, because it's 'only' an abstract label overlaid atop a whole lot of people; it's their -- or more accurately, our -- expectations that make up that of society. So I'll start of with the expectations that I believe are natural in many (and probably most) individuals.

In particular, some of those expectations are pretty darn implicit, because they take the form of things we've long taken for granted -- and that I only stopped considering a granted after that good dry stay in Africa.

Here's an example: when you go get food and commodities at the supermarket, do you ever worry about their availability? Not generally. You expect -- probably without noticing you're doing so -- that they'll be there for you to pick up. That's a (relatively) direct expectation.

But that expectation can only be answered thanks to a HELL of a lot of underlying, implicit expectations.

Let's consider batteries, those small things you put into your walkman without even giving it thought, and what it takes to ensure they're available at your supermarket at about any time you might need them.


Alkaline batteries are made primarily from zinc and manganese.
These metals need to be mined and extracted, then processed and refined.
This requires mines, refineries and ore processing plants to be built.
Refineries and processing plants require other materials and chemical compounds to operate.
The materials in question must be shipped to where they'll be required, and your zinc and manganese, shipped to your continent, be it as ore or already refined.
This requires ships to be built and operated.
Ships require a hell of a lot of metals, and a lot of oil to operate.
This requires oil to be found, extracted from the ground, processed, refined, distributed.
Distribution of oil in that sort of quantities requires another set of ships and huge transcontinental pipelines to be built.
Distribution on a more local scale, maintenance of pipelines, etc, requires roads and vehicles.
Roads require tar and gravel. Gravel must be extracted in large quantities from river beds or other sources.
Vehicles require tyres, which require rubber, either synthetic or natural.
Natural rubber must be extracted from latex trees; synthetic rubber must be manufactured from polymers, which must be acquired, refined, etc.
Then they need to be shipped.
The people required to man all those operations must be clothed and fed.
Clothing requires many sorts of fibers, primarily cotton and synthetic.
Those fibers need to be produced, harvested, synthesized, shipped, woven, dyed, distributed...
And so on.
And so on.
And so on.

Think of it this way next time you go buy a battery: in a discreet, but very literal way, that small, humble piece of commodity was brought to you by the entire world.

An unfathomable amount of work -- or more precisely, of production -- went into the making of your battery.

Arguably, a battery could be made from local material. This is true. However, I assert my point still stands, for two reasons. 1) Would local material exist in sufficient amounts to cover the common need for batteries at a price you could afford? 2) This is just a battery. Now, think of a entire computer or car or TV.

And thus, when you go to your supermarket, and expect things to be there, you implicitly expect that entire, huge chain of production to, somehow, have happened. And if you are like I have long been, you never even think of what a freaking miracle your battery's existence is.

This raises the next question: how is this even possible?

See, there is no one individual or entity that organizes the production of your battery from beginning to end. Battery makers don't send people to mine for zinc and manganese, nor do they make vehicles and oil pipelines and clothes.

But they expect the whole organization, the production substrate, to, somehow, exist, and keep existing, and providing them with the infrastructure and raw materials.

In short, what battery makers and the rest of us expect is for something 'out there' to keep working.

And what society in its current shape implicitly expects of itself is the maintenance and furtherment of this thing, this production substrate.

It is probably important to note that I am not making any value judgment on this system: it's neither intrinsically good nor bad. It just exists, and because we expect batteries to be available, to some extent, we want it to continue existing. I have to recognize, however, that it is frighteningly efficient. Given the price of a battery as compared to your income, what quantity of your own work does a battery represent? A few minutes? How much would it represent if you were trying to make the battery yourself?

The production substrate: culture and values.

The above pretty much begs for the question: how the hell did that substrate -- which is, frankly, more than a bit frightening in its sheer size and interdependence -- emerge?

Rather obviously, all the entities listed above are intricately interdependent; any one of them needs the others to some extent. The implication is that such a substrate can't be built as such ex nihilo; it can only grow upon itself, by a process where each individual part improves on its own within its own production context. The overall growth of the substrate requires the local growth of a sufficient chunk of its parts. Better mining capabilities allow for new metals to be used affordably, which allows for new, more efficient types of batteries to be created, etc. But no individual bit of improvement was made with your battery in mind: the improvement of battery manufacturing was simply made possible by the general improvement of the system. And I doubt not that the improvement of batteries does help other parts of the system improve.

Ergo: we got there because a sufficient amount of cogs in the machinery thus far have been good, proactive little cogs that dutifully sought to improve themselves and their efficiency as cogs for its own sake.

(I can see some begin to stir, here. Please bear with me: once more, I don't claim that 'there' is a good place to be, nor that proactive little cogs were the only factor in getting there; I do assert, however, that proactive little cogs are a prerequisite in getting there, because, as stated above, 'there' is a frighteningly efficient production substrate.)

It is not random happenstance that such a common thinking would spread sufficiently uniformly as to have lasting, drastic effects in our ways of life: this is what is called a culture, and the spreading of a particular culture does tend to reflect into its people's way of life.

In this case, the whole self-improvement thing is pretty much archetypal of the Protestant culture that has suffused the Industrial Revolution and still drives a lot of our society, I think. Help yourself and Heaven will help you, etc.

It is interesting to note that its values still drive the Western world even though most of it long moved on from religion at such. The term of 'values' is important, because I think it is how such a nebulous and collective thing as culture translate on an individual to individual basis. E.g., the Puritanical Work Ethics that I may have discussed with some of you: it might be afferent to a particular culture, but its only actual existence lies in what certain individuals think of as 'good' and 'bad' in terms of work.

And this is the crux of my thinking here: the aforementioned production substrate, that huge stuff-making machinery, is a byproduct of our societies' dominant values.

Or, in other, more general words: cultures directly shape their own environments.

I think this is a very important idea, because a lot follows from it. For instance, I am convinced that general racism has little to do with skin color, but a lot to do with conflicts of values. See, the crux of the matter is that people don't generally like changes in their environment. Change is scary, because you know what you stand to lose, but you don't know what you may get out of the change, if anything at all. And, by the above assertion, resistance to environmental changes implies resistance to the introduction of new cultures.

And this, Msondo, is where I place the root of the reluctance to immigration in the US. It's not that they hate Mexicans, it's that they feel to some level or other that too many 'other' people joining their environment will affect their personal way of life.

And, of course, according to the theory exposed here, they would be right. And the solution to racism would thus be, not enforcing political correctness, but making people feel safe about change. No, I don't know how to do it, but identifying the core issue is already a good first step toward solving it, or so I hope.

But, to bring it all back to the point: this, I think, is the what and the why of the expectations of society toward its productive members, the adults: we, as a whole, have expectations in terms of what the system should provide us with, and in return the system, seeking to further itself in the way it meets those expectations, enforces its values upon us.

Or, in other words, by expecting 'the system' to provide us with batteries and stuff, we endorse and further the system's expectation that we'll keep it going.

Worse: the amount of expectations an individual places in the system and the amount of expectations the system places in that individual aren't even symmetrical. Whomever you are, even if you don't expect anything at all from the system anymore, well, your peers still do, and expect you to further it like they do. Unfair? Hell yeah. But then, few people have really small expectations of the system, I think. Even the most frugal of us in the West would probably think of a battery shortage as something abnormal.

Still. Beyond a certain grey zone that I go more into further down, you cannot, at this point, both want to spend your time reading and drawing and chatting with friends (as I would like to!), and expect the entire rest of the system to somehow keep your supermarket shelves well stocked in batteries, because having batteries implicitly means a hell of a lot of work and somebody has to do it.

Which, of course, doesn't keep me from wanting to spend my time reading and drawing all the same.

Incidentally, this is damn depressing and embittering about life as a whole -- a lot of what's enjoyable in my life depending strongly on a lot of what's not so enjoyable -- and this is one of the reasons why I so eagerly mooch hugs and cuddles off people. In a deeply philosophical way, I need them.

Toward the society of leisure.

And this is where I'm stuck. Like many, if not most, nowadays, I'd like to arrive to a society of leisure, please. I'd like to ride bio-engineered dragons or gryphons from dawn to dusk, and go see my friends all the way across the planet in super fast planes and interact a lot with them on the Net the rest of the time, and write and draw and sing, but without having to work too much, please.

Problem is, from the above, the means to get there -- where there implies a HELL of a production substrate -- defeat the end purpose. If I remain sitting on my ass and just wait for my gryphons to happen on their own, I'm not going to get them anytime soon. If I work my ass off night and day, I won't even have time to ride any gryphon regardless of their availability (and it's still likely I won't see gryphons in my lifetime). So, obviously, you have to find a compromise somewhere.

These days, various compromises exist in various places -- if you're lucky, you can get by with 35 hours of work per week (and, if you're even more lucky, perhaps you can even avoid thinking of how much someone, somewhere, must be working for this to be possible for you. This is essentially why I feel so guilty when I think of you, Kehari).

Incidentally, even if you are not among those very lucky ones, you might still want to take a look at the label on your shirt. And underneath most of the commodities within immediate reach, for that matter. More than like, a good chunk of them bear the words "made in China". It is probably worth wondering how much a typical Chinese worker furthers the production substrate, and how much he earns from it in terms of end commodities. (And tangentially, I've been wondering if there has ever been any prosperous civilization that didn't make use of slavery in a form or other.) It is no surprise that China has seen such a huge economic growth, nor that the US and its work-or-die system has managed to keep pace. While France, leisure-centered and increasingly so, has been, at best, stagnating.

So, where does this leave us? Well, perhaps things aren't so bad. Another relatively recent factor I haven't mentioned at all here, is optimization.

Organization decreases the amount of work it takes to complete any collective task; so do technological enhancements; both provide optimization of production. In average, the amount of work one has to do in order to indirectly produce our chosen average set of commodities has decreased significantly over the last decades, I think, and will probably keep decreasing. However, the disparity between rich and poor, west and east and south, is such that this average is very hard to quantify -- and all the more so that different people have different needs.

Perhaps, someday, the sum of all the production forces will exceed the sum of everyone's needs. I'm not holding my breath, though. It seems like our needs will swell to meet and often exceed whatever production capability we have, because as we produce new things -- cell phones, gaming consoles, the Net, GPS driving assistants -- those slowly become the standard in our environment.

And so, what can one do on a personal level to tend toward that ideal leisure society?

I do not know, and I have to admit there might be no answer. Perhaps it'll end up happening on its own, or perhaps we'll exhaust ourselves trying.

Lastly, I know that a lot of the above falls within the "Well, DUH!" category, but please bear with me. I kinda needed to put it all into words and order to make more sense of the different interrelated ideas I'm juggling here.

Also, please remember this: even the tiniest battery is, in its way, a marvel, in a way so small and big, it's a little like magic. Which is, I think, a good thing not to forget.