Our BS Culture

I’ve known about Aldus Huxley’s soma as long as I’ve been a serious reader of science fiction, but it wasn’t until I finally read his 1932 novel, Brave New World, that I had a full picture of it. There is a direct avatar in the modern drug Xanax (and perhaps more so in marijuana), but it’s the metaphorical versions of soma that caught my eye these past decades.

The point of soma is that it is an external coping mechanism — a tool for promoting one’s own happiness with and in life. It can be the sledgehammer of a drug (or the gunshot of a lobotomy, to be extreme), but I see many metaphorical versions of it in our culture now.

When I look around, I see a seriously soma-soaked society.

To my eyes, our self-indulgent addiction to (metaphorical) soma has had catastrophic effects on our culture. The socio-political catastrophe of the last decade or so, culminating in the last four years of what is now, without doubt, by far the worst POTUS in American history, is the all-too-real proof of the thesis here.

It is, I think, a natural visceral and intellectual reaction to reject Huxley’s vision of a soma-stoned society of happily consuming ants. Western culture reveres the idea of the sovereign mind — our literature is drenched in the notion of the rugged individual.

But I would argue the very success of our species has already put us on the road Huxley identified back in 1932. I think it was apparent by then, and, as growth curves tend to do, the trend has accelerated along with the technology and capitalism that fuels it. By now it has become a serious social problem.

I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: POTUS #45, and the culture that enables him, is the proof of the pudding.

So, for that matter, is the strong polarization of our society.

Jerry Seinfeld did a comedy special for Netflix recently, and his theme was that modern culture boils down to two words: Great! or Sucks! (As he brilliantly points out later, sometimes, when used ironically, Great!=Sucks! We seem to have lost all sense of nuance and perspective.)

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The problem is distractions and bullshit. We all need distractions — play, and laughter, are critical for good mental health — but bullshit is a problem if we get too lost in it.

As I said in the last post, it’s fine (really; it’s fine)… Unless one loses sight of the fact that it’s BS. Unless one gets lost in the BS and takes it too seriously.

And there are so many many many forms of BS:

Benign BS, harmless BS, entertaining BS, dangerous BS, evil BS, insane BS, crazy BS, silly BS, stupid BS, fun BS, stinking (steaming) BS, charming BS, childish BS, conniving BS, spiritual BS, religious BS, artistic BS, predictive BS, warning BS, analytic BS, honest BS, speculative BS, science BS, mathematical BS, political BS, actual BS, scam BS, spam BS, total BS, utter BS, and complete BS.

The list is not at all exhaustive.

FWIW, my favorite form of BS is science fiction BS, but I also love imaginary awesome private detective BS. And I get a big kick out of Asian “Kung Fu” BS.

[I do not know how I lived so many decades without ever seeing this, but, given I also have an interest in quantum physics BS, this wonderful tee-shirt seen on a physicist: ΨΦ (Those are the two symbols physicists use most often for the wave-function.)]

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Between computer technology, the seeming magic of quantum physics, and science fiction, people really have come to believe “anything is possible!” A disconnection from physical reality enables and feeds this. (The Wieseltier 10-Word Triplet was never more apt, especially the part about physical reality.)

The disconnect, ironically, comes from the technology and science, which increasingly has become more and more opaque to more and more people. Many see it as impossible to fully understand, so they surrender ever understanding any of it.

The point is that our culture has lost much of its physical grounding and replaced it with noise and nonsense. It is, perhaps, not surprising that we’ve lost touch with reality this badly.

[Synchronicity: Monthly gathering of the circle Friday night, and “Scott” mentioned how he once had a single tool that was all he needed to work on his car. Actually, he would have needed wrenches and screwdrivers and whatnot, but the point was this thing (old car techs will remember these) had a meter with leads and various useful gauges and a strobe light for timing and, other than the usual tools any tech has, was all one needed for a lot of car maintenance. (I used to gap my VW Bug’s points with a matchbook cover. The world is ever so much more complex now!)]

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This year seems to be the back-breaking straw. I’m very disturbed by the physical reality disconnect so prominent in the socio-political environment, that I find myself increasingly averse to BS of all kinds.

A label I’ve had on a whiteboard for years reads: Lies & Illusions (Smoke & Mirrors). Our culture has become both lost in, and dependent on, fantasy. The effects are plainly visible.

The exception is fiction, which is acknowledged BS. (Further, fiction is a kind of superposition of truth and lies. Observed the right way, fiction delivers deep truths. Observed other ways, it’s complete BS.)

But we have carried what are clearly fictions into the real world. One example that catches my eye is the search (and hope) for “Planet Nine” (poor Pluto ought to be planet #9, but that seems a lost battle… for now).

As with SUSY and ST, it’s not that Planet Nine isn’t logical — it’s that there’s no physical evidence it exists. And there’s no mystery that only a Planet Nine can solve (such as was the case with Neptune).

Factually, right now, Planet Nine is wishful thinking — a fantasy about an extension to reality as we know it. Losing sight of that is, I feel, dangerous. Far better to call it by its other name, Planet X (which will work out nicely once Pluto is restored to proper planet-osity).

I was bemused by recent news-gasm headlines about how spotting an exoplanet with the same class of orbit as the putative Planet X was an affirmation of the hope we have one, too. Yet did anyone ever really doubt the orbit was possible? Spotting something similar in a distant system says nothing about our own system.

[Or, to be as fair as possible, very little. If one did doubt the possibility of a Planet X, this observation would erase that, but I don’t think anyone really doubted the possibility.]

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So I find myself increasing disengaged from speculative BS as well as wishful BS (like Planet X or SUSY).

In my mind, there’s too strong a connection to where I see our culture. My mind rejects what it sees as notions of noise and nonsense. It insists on disengagement.

So I no longer read newsfeed articles containing the words “may,” “could,” “might,” or other such. The future is notoriously hard to predict, and I’m just not interested in the BS.

[One of the more tooth-grating bits of future BS to me is the cool-looking but utterly ridiculous transparent paper or video display that appears in far too many ΨΦ visuals. Ever try to read an overhead transparency?]

[[As a related tangent, Star Wars is a good example of the great disconnect between image and substance. Think about the very deliberate imagery of the Empire’s fascism. Contrast that with the Disney marketed and merchandised version: Fuzzy Funny Furry Fascism. The look with none of the substance. It represents a complete decoupling of what fascism means.]]

[[[As an aside, a video I watched recently noted that “fascism” and “socialism” have simply become labels we use to attack with. For most they have little other content. Few can define them accurately. (Granted, the former actually is a bit of a challenge.)]]]

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I’m also a bit exhausted by speculative physics BS.

I won’t be coy; the star of that show has to be the MWI. I’ll save that for another time because here I’m talking about any and all “interpretations” of quantum mechanics as well as speculative cosmologies. (One of the many issues I have with the MWI is that it’s both an interpretation and a cosmology.)

I credit both Max Tegmark and Roger Penrose for being clear their ideas are speculative BS. There are others that seem downright evangelistic about views they accept as truth (Sean Carroll with regard to the MWI is an example, but so are many in string theory, SUSY, MOND, and other speculative physics).

The problem with all of these is the lack of physicality.

None of them are currently physically real (and no one can say about the future).

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What may not be clear is my fundamental agnosticism on many of these topics. If I generally oppose any mode of thinking, it’s gnosticism — certainty in a worldview. Science and reality are always provisional and contingent.

Ultimately, scientifically, we can only go by our instruments and observations along with the mathematics we can ground in those.

Anything beyond that is just BS.

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One thing I do like about the concept of soma: it’s another handle on what, since high school, I’ve portentously called “The Death of a Liberal Arts Education” (which does sound a bit grandiose).

That said, soma-soaked or soma-stoned seems to lack nuance. A phrase popular for a while was “post-factual” (and the more erudite “post-empirical”). More plainly, there is “post-truth” (but what is “truth”).

As a final aside, Huxley seems to have named soma after the ancient Vedic ritual beverage (which some argue was hallucinogenic). As described by Huxley it bares more than a passing resemblance to marijuana. People are calmed with low doses and take “soma vacations” (from their bed) under heavy doses. Consider that in light of so many states legalizing marijuana.

The movie Idiocracy arguably came true before its time. Maybe Huxley’s Brave New World is a little closer than we realize.

Stay physically real, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

8 responses to “Our BS Culture

  • Wyrd Smythe

    If you’re wondering about the picture, it’s my old Soma Cube. (Remember those?)

    It’s kind of interesting how much the name Soma has been used!

  • Anonymole

    Lots of stuff in this one… More of a personal diary entry?

  • Anthony Garner

    Yes. I have almost given up on popular science (as a non scientist I am unable to digest hard science). I know you have an interest in qualia and sentience but that is also one of the areas of science most infected by BS and I have given up on most of the tenuous and speculative theories out there. Perhaps in a world whose mysteries we have barely begun to plum we have only our own unreliable senses and opinions to rely on. The world is indeed in a parlous state, but when has that nor been the case?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I think there are matters of scale. Since we invented the atom bomb, it’s been possible for one person to destroy the planet. And, as we’ve seen, social media can give individuals tremendous power. It used to be one needed a bigger army, but it’s not about armies anymore.

      One of my favorite quotes, due to Carl Sagan in 1995 (so this isn’t a new trend):

      We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements — transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting, profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

      From his book, Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

      We’ve created a technocracy of sorts that disenfranchises people, and it’s not really the average person’s fault they can’t keep up without dedicated effort (and who has the time — one more reason so set aside the speculative BS).

      In the post, I didn’t get into the study of consciousness, but I agree completely, that field is badly infected with wishful thinking and guesswork, too. (It’s not surprising people tend to conflate our two greatest mysteries. It so often seems like one has something to do with the other.) I’ve pretty much tuned out entirely until significant new advances happen.

      One thing about the study of consciousness (and this was originally part of the previous post about words and clarity) is that so many discussions start with, or run afoul of, the lack of any definition for “consciousness”. I know at least one person who denies its objective existence. Many others think it’s nothing more than wetware, while those opposing think there’s more to it. Ideas spans the gamut.

      I’ve found I’m a much happier person staying in the physical world. There is more than enough to occupy my interests without adding science fiction to my science. (And there is so much literature and art and music to explore, too.)

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    […] gone beyond my rope when it comes to what I’m going to begin always referring to as “fantasy bullshit” […]

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    […] As I wrote at the end of last year, I’ve become overly sensitized to our love of all the various forms of bullshit, from the most innocent, such as comic books, to the most malign, such as much of right-wing politics today. […]

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    […] I’ve written before (more than once, and more than twice) about my perception of how our attachment to fantasy of all types seems a form of dangerous soma, a form of lotus-eating. […]

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