Soundtrack by Czech band: Interpretace. Here’s a link:
Soundtrack by Czech band: Interpretace. Here’s a link:
Last week, I wrote about how the Greeks unlocked the key to music theory when Pythagoras discovered the Golden Mean. The Greeks elevated the study of music to an intellectual pursuit on par with geometry, science and philosophy, and this new attitude and knowledge about music spurred the development of precision crafted musical instruments, which, in turn, inspired the precision machines that powered the industrial revolution. Besides demanding better instruments and inspiring precision craftsmanship, this new, highly intellectual attitude towards music yielded many technological applications as well as well as producing a lot of mind-blowingly beautiful music.
The Romans also embraced the classical approach to education, and when a decadent Roman Empire turned Christian, in the 4th Century, the Catholic Church put the power of music to work for the Holy Roman Empire to maintain, and even expand the extent of their power by spreading this new religion all over the world. The Roman Catholic Church used music as a sort of psy-ops propaganda tool to win over hearts and minds, and to break down resistance to Roman rule.
Rome started sending missionaries armed with hymnals instead of Centurions with swords to their colonies abroad, but the Catholic Church burned folk instruments all over Europe in the Middle Ages, calling them tools of “the Devil’s music.” The church denounced folk music as profane and blasphemous and banned it from “The House of God,” but the Catholics built classical music into the architecture of the stone cathedrals they built for European peasants to pray in.
The Catholics built huge cisterns into the foundations of their cathedrals to power the enormous pipe organs they installed inside them, and then built soaring stone bell towers to house huge bell carillons high overhead. The bells woke everyone up, got them out of bed and brought them to church, where they heard choirs, accompanied by a pipe organ with banks of deep bass pipes resonating in optimally designed halls. This was the first time most Europeans ever heard a musical bass note so low and full that they could feel it in their chest. While Catholic Mass mesmerized the peasants, nuns busily taught their kids catchy little songs about Jesus. The Catholics put classical music to work as a tool of empire, and used it to subjugate people with other cultural traditions.
Of course, the Catholics used this music to reaffirm their own faith as well. I’m sure that hearing music with tight harmonies, pure tones and rhythmic discipline must have seemed absolutely heavenly, and miraculous. Honestly, it still seems that way to me. There’s just something about how music makes you feel, that encourages you to continue doing whatever it was that made you feel that way. That’s how musicians learn to play, but when someone presents music to you, in a way you do not understand, and in a form you can not replicate, music becomes a kind of magic that inspires awe.
Awe can be a powerful tool for an empire that seeks to express power abroad. You’ll recall that inspiring awe was an essential component of the US military’s recent offensive in Iraq, code named “Operation Shock and…” Despite the violence, clerical sexual depredation, and economic pillage, somehow, music always restored people’s faith in God, by inspiring awe.
The Roman Catholic Church demonstrated the true power of music, and it’s ability to inspire awe, as a tool for empire, and it serves them well to this day, but subsequent empires have not failed to learn from the Romans. Music had been weaponized. Music became political because music has power and anyone who wants power, needs music. That is the “gospel truth” as taught by the Holy Roman Empire.
By about 1600, medieval craftsmen had made great strides in the field of instrument building. They called their crowning achievement, the “piano-forte.” “Piano,” in musical parlance, meaning played quietly, and “forte” meaning played loudly. This room filling instrument had an elegant ivory keyboard, and employed a complex system of hammers and dampers to sound an enormous iron rack of tuned strings. It was the first keyboard instrument that allowed players to vary the volume of the note sounded by how forcefully they played. Today, we simply call it a “piano.”
It takes an empire to build a piano. While the instruments of our indigenous ancestors were likely built and played by the same hands, from materials on hand, no one could ever build a piano from materials on hand. One lifetime is not long enough to learn all of the skills necessary to build a piano from scratch. It takes skilled machinists, cabinetmakers, wood-workers, felt-makers, blacksmiths, iron workers and more to build a piano, not to mention ivory, exotic woods, metal and materials from all over the world. Today, most piano players have never even tuned a piano, let alone built one. The piano is a product of hierarchy and empire and you would be hard pressed to find a better ambassador for either.
The piano became the king of precision crafted classical musical instruments, but of course, only kings, and popes, could afford them. Most kings and popes really didn’t play the piano very well, so they hired people to play it for them, and to teach them and their kids to play. Johan Sebastian Bach got one of those jobs, and elegantly mapped out the complete melodic and harmonic potential of the twelve tone chromatic scale, on the piano. He’s been teaching the whole world how to make music ever since.
People recognize J S Bach as the “Father of Classical Music” but his music represents the culmination of hundreds of years of technology, mindset and discipline, that includes the piano. With more than a seven-octave range, the piano became the principle instrument of composers, who wrote arrangements for entire symphony orchestras, while sitting in front of it. We should not underestimate how much the piano shaped the golden age of classical music that followed.
The piano, despite it’s amazing ingenuity, has limits, like any instrument in the real world. The piano offers an impressive seven-octave range, but it cannot change pitch continuously, the way a guitar player can bend a note note up, or the way a violin player can add vibrato, for example. The piano can play loudly or quietly, and you can let the sound ring, or damp it off, but the piano only makes one sound. If you play violin, you can pluck the string, or you can bow it, to create two distinctly different sounds. Horn players use mutes to change the tone of their instruments, and organ players can often choose from a multitude of voices. Also, a piano cannot start a note quietly, and then make it louder, as a horn player might do, nor can the piano articulate words and syllables into a pitch the way a human singer can. Those are just a few musical limitations of the piano.
The piano makes many musical compromises in order to give the player the maximum flexibility for melody and harmony. Classical music is all about melody and harmony. Add in rhythm and dynamics, and you’ve described the complete palette of classical music. I bring this up to point out that in order to delve deeply into these four elements, the classical music tradition completely overlooked not only sounds and techniques, but whole ways of looking at and appreciating music. For example, overtone music, such as Tuvan throat singing sounds alien to us, because our classical tradition choked that whole approach to music out of western civilization.
Everything but melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics got squeezed out of classical music, as it ascended to it’s pinnacle with composers like Mozart and Beethoven, who composed their masterpieces at the piano. It was an age of empire, and these composers produced music for kings, emperors, and even God himself. Our classical music tradition strongly reflects this. That’s why classical music sounds so grand, reverent, and orderly, and why it is so very careful not to offend the ear.
Flash forward to the turn of the 20th Century at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Several new inventions greatly increase the reach and the power of classical music, but they also would eventually change the way we relate to music. Radio, the phonograph, and eventually the tape recorder revolutionized music even more than the piano.
Before long, even people who never learned to play an instrument, could experience the sound of a full orchestra in the comfort of their own home, thanks to the magic of radio. By the 1970s, electronic sound reproduction technology reached it’s zenith. If you had a decent stereo, most bands’ records probably sounded better in your living room than the same band did playing live at a concert hall. It no longer made sense, if you wanted music in your life, to learn to play an instrument. For the price of a single musical instrument, you could buy a whole sound reproduction system that would allow you to listen to studio polished performances by the world’s most renowned artists, right in your own living room, right out of the box, and with no practice.
By this time governments, churches, and corporations all started using music to express power and influence people’s behavior, and our modern technological media helped them do it. Where once, the only way you would hear music was if you made an instrument yourself, and learned to play it, by the 1970’s when the FM band opened up, anyone with a radio had their choice of music, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Suddenly, music was just there, everywhere, all the time, everywhere you went. Classical music had become an institution. Kids still learn to play an instrument and read music in school as part of their classical education, and charitable foundations continue to keep symphony orchestras playing in most major metropolitan areas, so long as they keep playing the old classics, but the playing field has changed. Disciplined performers and precision machines no longer impress us. We take them for granted. Not only that, we’ve heard it all before, and we no longer feel any connection to it.
We don’t know how any of it works anymore. We don’t know where it comes from, how it is made or why it works, just like all of the high-tech gadgets we surround ourselves with these days. The proliferation of artificially flawless, studio produced music has the same effect on our self esteem as seeing images of people with artificially flawless complexions and perfect smiles in the media. We no longer believe we are capable or worthy of a direct relationship with music, so mostly, we leave it to the professionals, and consume music passively, second-hand.
Meanwhile, the whole classical music game got stale. Composers got tired of grand, reverent, orderly and inoffensive and started looking for ways to make classical music more aggressive and challenging. Some sought to subvert the classical system of tonality, while others looked for ways to add new sounds to the repertoire, and still others looked for entirely new ways to approach music.
Some of these composers embraced this new sound reproduction and sound production technology and incorporated it in creative ways into their music. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Iannis Xenakis’s Diamorphosis, and saw the written score to it in an elementary school music class. Xenakis composed this piece on magnetic tape, from a variety of recorded and electronically generated sounds.
Karlheinz Stockhausen composed pieces full of weird electronic sounds that came at the audience from all directions with discreet multi-channel sound systems,
and John Cage used microphones and electronic transducers to amplify ordinary household vibrations into bizarre sounding compositions.
I love all of that weird music, by the way, and it still turns me on. That music is rebellious in a very intellectual kind of way. These composers all recognized just how finite the tradition of classical music really was, and they understood the oppressive nature of classical music, as only a classically trained musician would, so they went exploring, to see what else they could do with music. I still love that music because of that rebelliousness, and how earnestly revolutionary it all sounds, in that deeply intellectual, symbolic and inconsequential way that privileged people embrace radical ideas. Still, it spoke to me at an impressionable age and I still love it because of the nostalgia I have for it, and for what it was in it’s time.
Today, empires of all shapes and size compete for your attention with music, but music no longer wows the peasants as much as it once did. Marketers continue to use music to ambush us and invade our space, because they know how powerfully music can convey their message. As a result, we’ve become music resistant. Music has become a pervasive noise that we learn to tune out, and we resent catchy jingles that stick in our head. We get subjected to so much weaponized music these days, that we no longer trust music, and we no longer respect music. We assume that anyone who makes music these days, has an agenda, and serves an empire, or wants to build one.
That’s too bad, because we need music to build culture. Our culture has disconnected us from the musical process, in order to subject us more completely to its power to inspire awe and manipulate behavior. At the same time, music has died in our culture. Classical music has long since exhausted itself and folk music has succumbed to the lure of capitalism. When the music of your culture dies, your culture dies too. You might not notice it for a while, especially when there are so many great recordings of it to replay, but there’s no real future in our culture anymore.
Stockhausen, Cage and others saw it clearly decades ago. They saw that it was over, and because they knew it was over, they had no enthusiasm for musical convention. Instead, they cast aside everything they had been so painstakingly taught about music, since they were school-children and they went looking for whole different approach, starting from scratch. They weren’t afraid to offend the ear, they showed no reverence for tradition, and to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been able to use any of their music to sell anything. That’s what makes them some of the most important composers of the 20th Century.
This has been a very brief and very broad overview of the last 40,000 years of music in our culture. From this perspective, anything that’s happened since then is still today’s news, so I think this is a good place to end. I’ll tell you what I still find compelling about music next week.
Scientists speculate that music preceded language in our early human ancestors, and that singing together in groups may have spawned the development of the earliest human language. I say “speculate” because very little of those ancient human cultures has survived the ravages of time, so we paint the portraits of these ancestors from the pile of stone tools we’ve recovered, some skeletons, and a few carvings, sculptures and cave paintings. Among those very early artifacts, however, archeologists in Europe have unearthed several bone flutes that they estimate to be about 40,000 years old, give or take a millennium or two.
Here we see the earliest incontrovertible evidence of music in humans, and it predates the earliest evidence of language by many thousands of years. We will probably never know whether these flutes were played as solo instruments, or what other instruments may have accompanied them, because instruments made of wood, skin or plant material would not have survived the eons, but we can tell what key they played in, and what their scale sounded like. Today, we can, pretty accurately, recreate the sounds of those early instruments because we understand the physics of sound and have made careful replicas of these early instruments.
In those days, however, people made music with whatever sounds they could make, and they must have thought about music differently that we do today. Anthropologists have not found any indigenous cultures which do not incorporate music. However, they have found that the music of indigenous people around the world varies widely, and that different cultures use music in very different ways and for different purposes. For tens of thousands of years, thousands of distinctly different ancestral cultures each developed their own musical tradition, along with their own instruments and scales, for their own purposes.
For indigenous people, and for our ancient ancestors, music was simply the audible portion of their culture. The song and the dance were not different things. Music entwined itself into these cultures in many different ways. Many cultures, including ours, use music for war. Nobody makes war quite like we do, but lots of cultures make music for it. Many cultures use music for healing and for medicine. Many cultures use music for ribald celebrations, but also for sacred rituals and magic.
In Australia, some cultures use music to connect their cultural history to the geography of the land in a way that allows them to navigate long distances, by song. We have plenty of evidence that indigenous people incorporate music into their culture in ways that civilized people simply do not understand. I think that this is an important point to make here. As I describe what happens to music as it becomes more “civilized,” please understand that I do not believe that modern civilization constitutes an “advance” in human culture in any way, over any other way of life.
While music probably had a lot to do with the development of language in humans, I see no evidence that music gave us the idea to start farming. Adopting the farming lifestyle, was undoubtedly the stupidest decision in the history of civilization, and I believe that it was something our ancestors did when they were drunk. That’s not to say that they didn’t sing, and make music about that too, but in the cultural transformation that lead to modern civilization, we lost a lot of the world’s musical diversity, as well as cultural diversity, not to mention biological diversity.
As early farmers burned the forests and exhausted the soil beneath them to grow grain crops to make beer, they displaced, and assimilated what was left of those indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures. Farmers destroyed the habitat that hunter-gatherer tribes needed to survive. When those indigenous tribes could no longer find enough game to hunt, they either starved to death, or went to work for the farmers and started drinking beer. That is the story of civilization. Ancient language scholars tell us that civilized farming people in the Nile River Valley, developed the first written language, primarily to keep track of people’s bar tabs, establishing a tradition for civilized people that continues to this day. No longer do we hunt and gather. Civilized people build pyramids and drink beer.
Civilization became a melting pot where all of these, once functional, self-sustaining cultural entities, became assimilated by this new way of life. Through this assimilation, functional cultures get reduced to ethnicities. Through assimilation, a way of seeing the world, and all of the subtle knowledge about how to live in it, gets reduced to a recognizable costume, some quaint customs and a few catchy tunes or favorite recipes. This happened to thousands of distinct and unique human cultures as civilization continued to expand around the world.
Fast forward to about 2,500 years ago, in Greece, where Pythagoras has just discovered the Golden Mean by mapping the harmonic overtone series on his monochord. Ancient Athens must have been a pretty quiet place back then because a monochord, a simple, one-string, musical instrument/physics experiment, is not very loud.
Pythagoras would have had to listen very closely to hear the upper harmonics he mapped out on that string. By now, too many of us live in environments so loud that we probably would have never heard those upper overtones, had not Jimi Hendrix introduced us to them at earsplitting sound levels with his electric guitar.
But Pythagoras listened closely to his very quiet instrument, and by mapping the harmonic overtone series, he unlocked the key to understanding all of the different scales he heard in the folk songs sung by his slaves, or by the nomadic people who sometimes came through town, or of the songs he learned to sing as a child. These idiosyncratic musical idioms being all that was left many, once thriving hunter-gatherer cultures, that got subsumed by this new way of doing things.
The Greeks figured out that if they added five half-steps into their seven-note harmonically derived scale, they could recreate all of the folk scales they heard around them. In so doing, the Greeks gave us modes and keys and music theory and harmony, but the problem was, music theory was still mostly theoretical. You could dream of an instrument that would allow you to play music in any key, but in reality, you didn’t have many options, except singing.
You can play a string instrument in any key, and you can tune a string to any pitch, but string instruments of the day were not very loud. A flute can make a louder noise than a string, but no flautist has enough fingers to cover twelve holes, as is necessary to play in this new, “chromatic,” 12 tone scale, so Greek discoveries about music theory mostly presented technological challenges to future instrument makers and musicians.
I’m sure singers took it all in stride, and percussionists just ignored it, but besides changing the way we thought about music, the Greeks also gave us another way of looking at the world, and at music. Before Pythagoras and the Greeks, people happily played the traditional music of their ancestor’s culture with traditional instruments, because that culture nourished them and kept them alive. After Pythagoras, however, the Greeks saw music in an entirely new way. People still played and sang old folk songs, but they began to think about music as something new and hi-tech, with serious potential for development. Music’s appeal had transcended it’s tribal cultural roots, captured the imagination of civilized people, and began to shape our vision of the future.
The Greeks ushered in the age of classical thinking, which eventually brought us the age of classical music. Since then, music has continued on two tracks. On one hand, we have folk music, what’s left of our traditional indigenous music, as interpreted and expressed by their assimilated descendants, and passed on, generation to generation. On the other hand, the Greeks adopted this new approach to music, and taught it, along with geometry and philosophy as part of a classical education.
The Greeks taught music as a strict discipline, not unlike geometry or logic, but with an added emotional dimension, and they understood that learning to sing and/or play a musical instrument was prerequisite to understanding the important knowledge to be uncovered through the study of music. Thus, the classical approach to music education was born. Soon, little kids started carrying violins to school and quickly learned to hate practicing.
Over the following centuries luthiers rose to the challenge of developing louder string instruments that project a clear tone, and wind instrument makers developed mechanical contraptions to enable wind instruments to play the chromatic scale. Flutes and reed instruments sprouted a system of finely crafted keys that allowed players to cover several tone holes with one finger.
Most brass instruments added a few valves that lengthened the air column when depressed.
One notable exception, the trombone, evolved a continuous fast-action slide, allowing it to change pitch fluidly, despite inhabiting an increasingly fixed-pitch musical world.
The physics of sound are unforgiving, and the demands of music, uncompromising. Together, they motivated instrument makers to create some of the first precision crafted machines the world has ever seen. At the same time, musical scholars developed a way of writing music that all classically trained musicians learned to read, called “Standard Notation.”
With these new precision instruments, Standard Notation, and a pool of classically trained musicians, creative composers could show off, not only their own creativity, but also the discipline of the musicians as well as the precision craftsmanship of the instruments, with a brand new form of musical expression that must have blown people’s minds.
Classical music demonstrated the potential of this rigidly structured, strictly disciplined and precision crafted approach to making music, first in chamber music, then in larger ensembles, and eventually in huge symphony orchestras with more than 100 musicians. Classical music so wowed audiences with the seemingly magical potential of this classical approach to music, that it inspired the development of a whole wave of precision machines for every possible application, as well as the disciplined workforce that worked a highly structured schedule to create them. In this way, classical music inspired the Industrial Revolution, leading to the next major transformation in civilized society, away from the farm, and towards an urban manufacturing and service oriented economy.
As civilized humans, inspired by classical music, continued to produce ever more precise machines for more and more purposes, they eventually developed a machine that could faithfully reproduce, mechanically, a live musical performance. Suddenly, an event in time could instantly be transformed into an object in space. Eventually, we had machines that could reproduce music faithfully, and allow it to be edited after the fact, and we developed the means to amplify even the smallest sound to room-filling volume.
Having met the technological challenges that classical music demanded of early instrument makers, and having fulfilled the promise of classical music, by impressing audiences everywhere with tight harmonies, clear intonation and rhythmic precision, classical music then inspired a whole culture to go absolutely apeshit in developing new precision machinery for every imaginable purpose, including, eventually, the tape recorder, microphone, amplifier and speaker, which would eventually push classical music itself to the sidelines of cultural relevance.
That’s enough for this week. Next week, I’ll explain why classical music no longer inspires us as much as it once did, and why fewer of us know how to read music anymore. I’ll also talk about how technology has changed the way we experience music and perceive the world, and finally, I’ll talk about how music continues to shape our future, and why it continues to inspire me.
“The goose is dead,” I heard Ed Denson tell the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. He didn’t say “the goose is gonna die if…” He said “the goose is dead.” I’ve heard a lot of that kind of talk lately, but when Ed Denson says “the goose is dead,” I believe him, because he’s the goose’s lawyer. Ed went to the supervisors to complain about the excessive county taxes on legal cannabis, but it appears that the confluence of legalization and regulation created the perfect storm for Humboldt County’s cannabis industry, otherwise known as “the goose that lays golden eggs.”
They could also call it “the goose that eats people, sucks the rivers dry, and turns the community into a ghetto,” but you know how much people around here prefer to focus on the positive. Whatever you call it, Humboldt County’s cannabis heyday is over. The price of black market cannabis collapsed last year in the face of a historic glut in supply. Meanwhile, the CA state regulators dealt the fatal blow to Humboldt’s so called “small farmers” when they decided to license grows larger than one acre. Suddenly, Humboldt County growers are too remote, too dispersed and too small to produce cannabis, competitively in the free market.
The bubble burst. Although it happened suddenly, it didn’t take a genius to see it coming. Anna Hamilton saw it coming a decade ago, and she warned everyone about it. She asked “What’s after pot?” and the community resoundingly replied, “More pot!” Unfortunately, “more pot” quickly turned into “too much pot,” leading to the current collapse in price. It’s a classic small farmer mistake, and it’s why small farmers usually struggle financially, and fail often. Today, the goose still sucks the rivers dry, and it still eats people, but it doesn’t lay golden eggs anymore.
Eventually, life as a small farmer will rehabilitate a lot of black market growers. The people who played smart, paid their land off, love it, and know how to live close to it, will survive on honest labor and thrift. For the rest of Humboldt County’s 12,000+ black market cannabis growers out there, the people who moved here to grow weed, because they thought they could make money at it, it’s just a matter of time. You can tell haw smart they are by how quickly they scram. The smart ones have already left.
A lot of growers will move on to the next sleazy scam. Don’t be surprised if you see them in the health care industry, or working for Big Pharma, but only the smart ones will make that transition seamlessly. Most of Humboldt County growers will not respond well to the economic downturn. Generations of living the low-status, highly secretive, life of a black market drug dealer left us with limited skills, substance abuse problems and chronically low self-esteem, issues we could always cover up, when we had plenty of money. Without money, it’s gonna be a bitch.
A lot of people still don’t know what hit them. They will crumble along with the black market cannabis industry here in Humboldt County. Broken-down cars will continue to accumulate on broken-down homesteads, occupied by broken-down people who have no idea what else to do. We won’t see quite so many big shiny new trucks in town, or cocky young men driving them. Instead, we’ll see more hollow, addicted and despondent young men, hitchhiking and asking for help. We’ll all feel the pinch, but it will be worse for some parts of Humboldt County than it will be for others.
Arcata will be fine. They took steps to run black market growers out of their residential neighborhoods years ago. They also have the college and a strong arts community that will all help buffer and mitigate the impacts of economic upheaval. McKinleyville seems to have inherited most of Arcata’s old indoor grows, and problems, which they are likely to see more of. Eureka and Fortuna have enough economic diversity to withstand the shock, if people, especially in Eureka, could learn to be more humane to each other.
Life up in rural North East Humboldt has always been pretty hardscrabble, and will remain so, but here in Southern Humboldt, where the black market cannabis industry choked out most of our economic diversity decades ago, we will feel the impacts of this collapse most acutely. Despite Anna Hamilton’s warnings, we remain ill prepared for it. Here, instead of facing reality, and preparing for the inevitable, we put our energy into cultivating a mythology about ourselves as growers of superior cannabis, in a region narrowly suited to it. Unfortunately, that myth only fooled us.
The goose has become a liability. Our dream of becoming the Napa County of cannabis just got buried in bushels of bud from Bakersfield. Now, it’s about survival. It’s about recovery. It’s about reality. For the first time in a long time, we’ll have the financial poverty to match our cultural poverty. Ultimately, that’s a good thing. When you build culture, it attracts money, which brings prosperity. A fountain of money, on the other hand, divorced from culture, breeds dependence and weakens communities. It’s time we got back to building culture, here in Southern Humboldt, instead of just growing money.
We live in an age of rapid technological development. Our lives change in response to each new invention, but does technology really make our lives better, or do we consistently sacrifice our quality of life and ecological sustainability to support and encourage new technology? Through science fiction we explore our fear that one day super-intelligent robots will enslave humanity, but in reality, we’ve been slaves to technology since the invention of the plow and the aqueduct.
Our steadfast, unwavering commitment to technology has only deepened our addiction to it. Our minds have become so dominated by technology that we’ve learned to think of ourselves as machines. We use mechanical logic to convince ourselves to ignore the strong emotional signals our bodies send us about what has become of our lives. Dissatisfaction with a technological lifestyle can lead to a lot of emotions, like anxiety, despondence, depression, rage, etc, that can be difficult to comprehend, especially if you try to be logical about it. When that doesn’t work, we can diagnose these uncomfortable feelings as a mental illness, and treat your condition technologically, with drugs.
Only sound mechanical logic, untainted by primitive emotions can be considered truly sane in our modern high-tech culture. Could super-intelligent robots possibly enslave us more completely? We’ve turned humanity into willing servants of technology, desperate to sacrifice the planet, and our remaining time upon it, to produce that mythical super-intelligent robot in the vain hope that it will somehow save us from ourselves.
That’s the truth behind our madness. We have a vague sense of dissatisfaction, depression and dread about it, but we no longer have any way of understanding those feelings. Logically we know that we must press forward, because the next technological advance can change everything, this time, for the better, we hope. In the meantime, we’ll amuse ourselves with every new toy that comes along.
There are no super-intelligent robots in our technological future. Technology won’t destroy us by becoming smarter than us, technology will destroy us by making us dumber than it. Technology will completely eradicate human intelligence, if it hasn’t done so already, leaving nothing but crass consumerism and marketing statistics in it’s wake. As we’ve watched the ascendancy of technology in rapt amazement, our culture has devolved, and been reshaped to serve corporate capitalism. Based entirely on crass consumption, we inhabit a completely dysfunctional, totally destructive and universally traumatic culture that exudes toxicity in every form, but hey, don’t we have some cool toys?
Technology won’t save us. Technology is killing us and making us wish we were dead. Mechanical logic is not intelligence, and thinking logically is not intelligent. Logic has no vision, and logic has no heart. Logic does not rule the universe and logic does not dictate how we should live our lives. Logic is a human faculty useful in constructing contraptions and traps, and now we’re caught in one, but there is much more to human intelligence.
Real human intelligence is concerned with building culture, not machines. How you live, how you treat other people and how you raise your kids matters a hell of a lot more than what kind of machines you have. We probably could solve some of the intractable social and ecological problems our mindless devotion to machines has created, by looking for cultural, rather than technological solutions, but I’m not even sure we know how to use those muscles anymore.
Technology has failed us. The myriad array of electronic gadgets at our disposal only distract us from the bitter truth about our wretched condition. If we do, somehow, save humanity from self-induced extinction, we won’t do it by fleeing our own pollution to infest another planet with our poisonous technology; we will do it by rebuilding a life-affirming culture here on Earth.
Right now, I see a lot of people scrambling frantically to find their niche in the legal marijuana market. In our eagerness to compete in this rapidly evolving market, we should be very careful not to overlook the infected wounds still festering in this county from the War on Drugs, nor should we miss the opportunity to take pride in our heritage, for our role in the marijuana underground, because that is the story of the Humboldt brand.
I realize that’s a lot to pack into one sentence, but we need to think about this. Even if a lot of Humboldt County cannabis farmers do well in the legal market, we still have a whole lot of people in Humboldt County who grew up in the black market, and have no other marketable skills or education. They have been traumatized by the War on Drugs, and a lot of them have developed problems with drugs and alcohol as a result. They are never going to become weed tycoons in the legal market, but they were born and raised here in Humboldt County. They grew up in the marijuana underground. They fought the War on Drugs, and they built the Humboldt brand. You can’t sweep them under the rug without sweeping the Humboldt brand away with them.
The County didn’t haul sacks of chicken shit up the side of a mountain in the rain; they did. The County doesn’t have a panic attack every time it hears a helicopter; they do. The County didn’t grow the best marijuana anyone anyone had ever tasted; they did. Humboldt County never got arrested for marijuana. Humboldt County never had a gun stuck in its face over marijuana, and Humboldt County was never denied a job, kicked out of school, or had a Workman’s Comp claim denied because it smoked marijuana; but they did.
Their sweat, their tears and the wounds they suffered in the War on Drugs, as well as the addictions they developed as a result of that pain, built the Humboldt brand. Unless we acknowledge that suffering, the Humboldt brand is worthless. On the other hand, the more we acknowledge that suffering, and treat the wounds we have suffered in the War on Drugs, as a community, the more we can celebrate the accomplishments of the marijuana underground, and the ingenuity and courage it took to fight the War on Drugs, and the more the Humboldt brand is genuinely worth. It seems paradoxical, but we can’t expect other people to respect us for what we do here, if we can’t even respect ourselves, our community, our environment, and our heritage.
We can’t hide the problems the War on Drugs has created in our community behind the money the War on Drugs brought to us. Instead of trying to hide the poverty and addiction we see around us, or beating it to death on the streets of Garberville and Redway, we need to recognize how much our community has suffered in the War on Drugs. We need to show the world what prohibition has done to us, because unless they see the damage that was done to us, they cannot appreciate the heroic effort it took to fight the War on Drugs. For the world to recognize the War on Drugs as a real war, the world has to see real casualties, and we’ve got them.
The more we focus on how the War on Drugs affects us, and take stock of what it cost, the easier it will be for people to understand who we are and identify with us. Most cannabis consumers don’t know what it is like to enjoy a six-figure, tax-free, income from a black market commodity, but they do know what it is like to be terrorized by cops. Millions of people all over the country have been busted for marijuana and had their lives turned upside-down by it. From that perspective, they understand what we’ve been through. They’re traumatized too. They know that Humboldt County was ground zero in the War on Drugs, and they’ve seen how the War on Drugs has affected themselves, their family, and friends. If we can respect and acknowledge our own truth, they will recognize it as our strength, and draw strength from it.
Marijuana culture survived, endured and ultimately prevailed, after more than 40 years of war, because marijuana culture is strong, and Humboldt County is at the heart of marijuana culture. Marijuana is medicine, and that is why Humboldt County should be a place of healing for the wounds of the War on Drugs. We were at the center of it; we are at the heart of it, and we need it the most. The more we look after the people among us who are suffering, and the more we pull together as a community, the more we demonstrate the strength of marijuana culture to the world around us, and the more attractive it becomes. By acknowledging the violence and trauma of the War on Drugs, and working to heal our own wounds as a community, we rebuild the strength of marijuana culture, and reestablish Humboldt County as its heart, legitimately and honestly. That’s how we build the Humboldt brand.
We can’t truthfully say that Humboldt grown weed is of higher quality than weed grown in a warehouse in Oakland, or anywhere else for that matter. These days, everybody’s weed is plenty strong, if you can just keep the pesticides out of it. As this industry professionalizes, quality becomes a baseline expectation. Brand loyalty will be built on other factors including price, taste, convenience, packaging, and a whole slew of psychological factors. Whether you smoke Marlboros or Winstons probably has more to do with how you feel about cowboys and race-cars than it does with any difference in quality. Similarly, successful cannabis marketing depends more on understanding cannabis users and their culture, than it does with producing higher quality marijuana.
I hear a lot of debate about vaccines these days, and I think it’s an interesting topic because of what it reveals about our current zeitgeist. I’ve hesitated to say anything about the subject, because the decision of whether or not to vaccinate children is generally made by parents, and it’s hard for me to think of anyone crazy enough to bring a child into this world as capable of making intelligent decisions. However, I can see why an intelligent parent, if in fact they exist, might reasonably, or even wisely, choose not to have their child immunized as thoroughly as the State of California now demands for all public school students.
I understand the value of vaccines. My dad had polio. He had a withered left leg and walked with a severe limp from the time he was five years old. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Today, they’ve nearly wiped polio out with the Salk and Sabin Vaccines, but still, cases do turn up, especially in densely populated areas with poor sanitation. Polio remains a threat, in part because many people who live in areas still affected by polio, resist immunization themselves, and refuse to immunize their children. I understand how wonderful it would be to live in a world where no one ever got polio again, but I also understand why even the people most effected by polio would vehemently resist taking the vaccine.
Polio is a terrible disease, but polio is not an evil disease. My dad got polio because he grew up in Philadelphia, trapped in a maze of concrete, teeming with malnourished, alcoholic humans, choked with soot, sewage and industrial waste. My dad got sick because of the wretched conditions he endured as a child. Instead of making life better for children, the Salk Vaccine made it possible for more children to endure and survive such horrid conditions. That’s what vaccines do. Vaccines allow people to survive in unhealthy conditions, and as conditions deteriorate, we require more and more vaccines to endure them.
We use vaccines to override nature’s population control functions. Meanwhile, overpopulation remains the biggest threat to life on Earth and the leading cause of poverty and human suffering. While vaccines save lives, they don’t make life better, and they don’t lead to a brighter future. Also, the risk, benefit analysis of all vaccines is not the same. Your veterinarian will tell you that before your doctor will, but it’s true. I caught mumps, measles and chicken pox in public school, along with all of my class mates, and we all survived. Not every vaccine fights a disease as terrible as polio or small pox, and not every vaccine is as effective as the Salk vaccine, but every vaccine has it’s own distinct list of side-effects and interactions.
I don’t want to debate the science of vaccines, because the people who believe in Science, are eager to bludgeon people with it. In truth, I think the difference between the pro-vaccination and anti-vaccination camps has more to do with perspective and values than it does with facts and science. I think it’s an issue upon which reasonable people can disagree, and where we disagree, says a lot about where we are, as a culture.
As science has ascended to the status of religion in our culture, it is not enough for science to describe our world to us. Science needs to inspire us with the promise of a brighter future, and save us from impending doom. Science needed a mythology, and vaccines have become a critical part of the mythology behind Science, the religion. Here’s how the story goes:
Through vaccines, Science has saved millions of lives. Small pox, rabies, polio, tuberculosis, these diseases plagued mankind before the advent of Science, but once scientists developed vaccines for these diseases, people stopped dying from them. Fewer people dying means more lives saved. The mathematical calculation of how many lives vaccines have saved is a critical component to the mythology of this new religion.
This calculation must be unassailable in it’s methodology, and honest about it’s margin of error, and it must show that vaccines have saved millions of lives, and the number of lives saved by vaccines must continue to rise. Science needs to save a lot of lives with vaccines, because from time to time, science kills and maims a lot of people. From thalidomide babies, surgical accidents and the known side-effects of prescribed medications, to DDT, Love Canal, and Fukushima, science has killed and maimed a whole lot of people. For Science to serve as our religion, the number of lives destroyed by science must seem insignificant compared to the number of lives it has saved, and giving someone a vaccine is about the cheapest and easiest way to “save” someone that Science can get.
From another, equally scientific, perspective, one may ask: In a world where a hundred or more species of plant and animal go extinct every day, why should we care so much about saving human lives? Why should we support and participate in these efforts to override nature’s population control systems when it inevitably leads to a lower quality of life, and more environmental destruction? Maybe the better world you envision for your child is not one which hosts the largest possible human population. You may, quite reasonably, feel that what’s best for your child’s future is not what the Church of Science demands of you.
It’s not that people don’t believe the statistics, or understand the concept. I think they do understand. They understand that technological fixes, like vaccines, usually cover up, and spawn bigger problems than they solve. People have seen enough to know that science doesn’t make life better. People have seen enough of science to recognize the pattern that starts with a great discovery, followed by promises of a brighter future, succeeded by “God help us. What have we done?” I think we have entered an age where people regret science.
The anti-vaccination movement tells me that death and disease no longer frighten us as much as the horrors unleashed by science, and that people no longer believe that Science will bring them a better tomorrow. People have learned to mistrust Science, not because of superstition, or lack of understanding, but because of experience. We’ve seen enough of Science to recognize it for what it is, and now that we understand science, we realize that we’d better trust nature.