» DESIGNING OUR OWN DEMISE: An interview with robotics expert Hans Moravec

interview originally conducted for Britannica.com, by Brian Awehali

Hans Moravec is a leader in robotics research, founder of the robotics program at Carnegie Mellon University, and the author of several books, including Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence and Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind.

Moravec is in firm belief that machines will acquire human levels of intelligence by the year 2040, and that by the middle part of this century, they will be our intellectual superiors.

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» HELD HOSTAGE TO HOPE: Derrick Jensen on Civilization & Its Discontents

“It’s not just false hope that’s the problem, it’s hope itself…’Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.’”

A free-ranging interview with the author of A Language Older Than Words, Welcome to the Machine, and The Culture of Make Believe about civilization, violence, activism, pacifism, reasons for optimism, and why hope is a bad thing.

A counterpoint interview about Malthusian economics and cults of catastrophism is also offered, with social historian Iain Boal, “We’re Not Doomed; That’s the Problem.”:

Many people believe, at least a little, that the end of human beings–whether by ecological disaster, the collapse of the oil economy, or nuclear extinction–is inevitable. For some, this projected collapse represents a just termination for a species they consider parasitic and pathologically unable to establish an equilibrium with the natural world and the creatures who  depend upon it. Others laments the tragedy of our fate.

But what role do faith and belief play in all of this? What if the capitalist realities of scarcity and collapse have been mistakenly interpreted as natural inevitabilities?  

>> READ THE FULL ARTICLE (PDF; 8 pages)

[From the online release of Tipping the Sacred Cow - The Best of LiP: Informed Revolt.] 

» LITTERBUG WORLD: Overproduction, Waste & the Limits of Recycling

Heather Rogers’ film and book, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, explore the “sinister success” of capitalism by looking at the life cycle of our waste.  They examine the realities of planned-in obsolescence and waste-by-design in our market economy, asking deep questions from a fresh perspective. Rogers contends that recycling is far from an actual solution, and is at best a band-aid approach—a much harder look, she argues, needs to be taken at our addiction to waste.

This interview by Ariane Conrad originally appeared in LiP magazine and was anthologized in Tipping the Sacred Cow. (AK Press) [PDF; available as of May 2011]

* * *

What inspired or motivated you to make Gone Tomorrow?

Heather Rogers: Two things: I wanted to know what happened to my garbage, because it seemed like it disappeared, but I knew that it didn’t. I wanted to find out where it went. I also realized that “waste disposal” is a process through which the market’s relations to labor and nature is made apparent. [Gone Tomorrow] is a way of understanding that garbage is something everyone makes—everyone can relate to it. It’s a way of connecting daily life and our daily interaction with waste to larger environmental crises.

In your film, you document several of the major shifts that occurred in the attitude towards garbage in the U.S.. Can you talk a little bit more about the most significant shifts?

It’s not so commonly known anymore, but in the 19th century there was a huge amount of re-use going on. A lot of it came from the fact that people couldn’t afford to buy manufactured goods because they were so expensive. One of the big shifts came with the Industrial Revolution, when commodities suddenly became much cheaper. The spatial component of the Industrial Revolution transformed the way people lived, so that suddenly people were leaving the countryside and concentrating in cities, to go work in the factories. They didn’t have places to save and store their waste like they had in the countryside, so it wasn’t as easy to save fat, for example, or scraps of materials to re-use and repair. That, in conjunction with commodities becoming cheaper, meant that people bought more of the things they needed instead of making them themselves.

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» DANGEROUS WORDS: A Profile of Chinese Poet and People’s Historian Liao Yiwu (廖亦武)

Three months after this was written, Liao Yiwu escaped China and sought asylum in Germany. He has also since released a vivid memoir of his years in detention, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison.

interview and photos by Brian Awehali

“Why should the government fear me?” says Liao smiling, the first day we meet, along with an interpreter and several friends at a riverside teahouse outside of Chengdu, in Sichuan province. “I’m just a guy who tells stories.”

Liao Yiwu ( 廖亦武 ) in Wenjiang, Chengdu, July 2010, released under CC-by-2.0 with permission of the photographer Brian Awehali

Liao Yiwu ( 廖亦武 ) in Wenjiang, Chengdu, July 2010, released under CC-by-2.0 with permission of the photographer Brian Awehali

When I was in China last year, I heard and read many colorful stories. Here’s a strictly true one: a PRC official, speaking to a visiting US official sometime in 2010, says, in somewhat condescending fashion, “We are very impressed with the gains your country has made in its short 200-year history,” to which the US official replies,  “Yes, we are very impressed with the gains of your 60-year-old country as well.”

There are, after all, people, and then there are states. There’s the massive 5,000-year-old “culture” of China, made up of many different peoples, incorporated and renegade, spread over every conceivable terrain and holding as many or more distinct and idiosyncratic beliefs and practices as they hold in common, and then there’s the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its fractious apparatus.

Beginning around 1958, under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the PRC, a roughly thirty year war was declared on the culture, traditions, infrastructure and very memory of China: temples, libraries, museums and universities were razed; millions of intellectuals, professors, specialized workers, landowners, landlords and other “liberal bourgeois elements” were imprisoned or murdered. Thirty million people—the number almost defies comprehension—starved to death after the government outlawed private farms and forced farmers in the country to send unreasonable quotas of their harvest to the cities to feed urban workers during the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to rapidly transform China into an industrial power. Compounding the stark material realities of life under Mao, during the Cultural Revolution, family members and neighbors were turned murderously against each other in series of state-directed ideological campaigns and “purges,” and official records and memories not echoing the government’s line were destroyed.

Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) was born in 1958, almost ten years after the founding of the PRC, and his often principally embattled life and many volumes of work both cast extraordinary light on the traumatic and complex collision between the Chinese people and their modern state. He’s been imprisoned and tortured for writing and distributing his poetry, and though his work has received significant international attention and acclaim, it’s also completely banned in China.

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» MADNESS & MASS SOCIETY: Pharmaceuticals, Psychiatry & the Rebellion of True Community

Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" detail, raven vs. mob

Brian Awehali interviews Dr. Bruce Levine

Author and clinical psychologist Bruce E. Levine wants to tell you that many forms of depression, discontent, and a whole raft of diagnosed mental illness are nothing more than natural responses to the oppression of institutional society. In his book, Commonsense Rebellion, Levine contends that the vast majority of mental disorders are, to put it simply, profit-driven fabrications with no established biochemical or genetic causes. This interview with Dr. Levine was conducted several years ago for publication in LiP: Informed Revolt, but the growth of corporate pharmaceutical “solutions” to deviant behaviors has only grown since then. Dr. Levine’s newest book, Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite, (Chelsea Green, 2011) is an exploration of the political psychology of demoralization and the strategies and tactics used by oppressed peoples to gain power in the United States.

Awehali: Bruce, you’re a critic of both psychiatry—the medical science of identifying and treating mental illness with drugs—and psychology—the study of human behavior, thought, and development. Are there substantial differences between the two?

Bruce Levine: When I first started out as a psychologist in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was fairly commonplace to dissent from psychiatry—that’s why people became psychologists. They saw the pseudo-science of not only the treatments but of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) itself. Unfortunately, over the years, psychology itself has slowly aped psychiatry, and there isn’t that sharp a distinction between the two anymore. The American Psychological Association (APA)—the professional group for psychologists—now fights for prescription rights for psychologists. So I guess any psychologist who maintains a position that depression isn’t primarily an innate biochemical disease, and that the DSM is a nonscientific instrument of diagnosis, is a dissident!

I should say that back in the 1970s and 1980s, before psychiatrists had the backing of the drug companies, they had very little power. In fact, they were falling apart, as evidenced by so many movies that were making fun of them, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—which could never come out today. But back in those days, when [psychiatrists] weren’t in bed with the drug companies and didn’t have much political power, you saw movies like that come out. Now, psychiatrists have the media power; they’re able to describe the playing field of the controversy.

Let me ask you a blunt question, first: Do you think there’s ever any basis for diagnosing someone as mentally ill?

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» LIFE AFTER DEATH: A Gleefully Morbid Exploration of Cadavers, Body Donation & Human Composting

Erin Wiegand interviews Mary Roach


With one book written on cadavers (Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers) and another on ghosts (Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife), you might expect Mary Roach to be a pretty disturbed individual. She’s not. While her subject matter tends towards the macabre, Roach is simply one of those writers who’s fascinated by the unusual, the unlikely, and the more-than-a-little-disturbing.

Whether she’s writing about post-death opportunities for employment or the origins of ectoplasm, she has the uncanny ability to satisfy the morbid curiosity you never knew you had…

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» THE RIVER VS. WATER, INC..: An interview with Vandana Shiva

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecologist, activist, and author of hundreds of papers and articles and more than 15 books. She is the founder and director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in India. Her work runs the gamut from establishing community seed banks to defending farmers and everyone else who eats food from the dire socioeconomic, environmental, and health consequences of genetically modified crops; from writing and agitating about water privatization to writing and agitating about corporate thievery of natural knowledge. This interview by Antonia Juhasz, about the ongoing struggle over the privatization of common resources and the need for a “living democracy,”  originally appeared in LiP magazine.

“I really hope that living democracy, articulated as the broader democracy of all life, will help us transcend these polarizations and work to protect all species while defending every human right of every excluded community.”

[From the online release of Tipping the Sacred Cow - The Best of LiP: Informed Revolt.] 

Read the rest [PDF; 10 pages]

» ART & FREEDOMS: Half a Day with Chinese People’s Historian Liao Yiwu (廖亦武)

by Brian Awehali

[This is a continuation of my post, "The Corpse Walker: Liao Yiwu's Notes from China's Underclass" To read my long-form profile of Liao, “Drift to Live,” click here. To read recent (July 2011) updates about Liao’s departure from China and his subsequent asylum in Germany, click here.]

Excerpts from “Massacre” (by Liao Yiwu, translated by Wen Huang)

Dedicated to those who were killed on June 4, 1989 in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

A massacre is happening
In this nation of Utopia
Where the Prime Minister catches a cold
The masses have to sneeze to follow
Martial law is declared and enforced
The aging toothless state machine is rolling over
Those who dare to resist and refuse to sneeze
Fallen by the thousands are the barehanded and unarmed
Armored assassins are swimming in blood
Setting fire to houses with windows and doors locked
Polish your military boots with the skirt of a slain girl
Boot owners don’t even tremble
Robots without hearts never tremble
Their brain is programmed with one process
A flawed command
Represent the nation to dismember the constitution
Represent the constitution to slaughter justice…

Liao Yiwu, 2010. Photo by Brian Awehali

[Earlier this year] we joined Liao and two writer friends he’d shared imprisonment with for tea. Liao was sturdy and bald, his skin ruddy with black rimmed glasses, wore flowing linen pants and navy flip flops which displayed several blackened toenails, and he walked with a limp. I’ll call the other two PB and RG: PB, who said he had eaten much more bitterness in his life than Liao and suffered much more greatly than him, had a typical black bowl cut, glasses, pasty white skin and a shirt tucked into a belt that said “Playboy” on it over the bunny icon. He said that he wrote about his stories of being in prison every day, and that altogether he had been in for seven years. The other one, RG, who said that it was hard to describe what he writes about, had longer hair down to his ears, was pudgy with rimless glasses and wore a plaid shirt. Of the three, RG smiled the most and spoke the least.

We talked about things like Twitter in China. You can say a lot more in 120 Chinese characters than you can in 120 English characters, and Twitter is used for more overtly political purposes in China, to get around the Great Firewall, and less for inane things about where someone’s eating or what someone’s wearing. We also talked about the difficulties of publishing in China. PB had written many stories about his prison experiences, but was resigned to just sharing them with friends and family because he didn’t think he would ever find a publisher; Liao is only published by overseas presses.

At one point Liao said that Chinese view the government as the police. When I asked about Chinese anarchists, Liao replied that all smart Chinese were anarchists (“no government people”) because the government just took their money and land and enforced rules and laws. They were just the police, and didn’t care if the people were hungry or not. I asked about this because I was just then reading Yale Agrarian Studies professor James C. Scott’s excellent book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland East Asia, which details how between 80 and 100 million people in East Asia fled the Han Chinese state and took to the hills (“shatter zones”) to be self-determining over the past few centuries. This includes Tibetans, the Wa, the Kachin, the Lahu and a staggering range of other East Asian “hill peoples.” I’m not positive, but given our linguistic challenges, Liao was probably characterizing “smart Chinese” as more anti-authoritarian than anarchist, but was nonetheless making a deeper point about power than can be got at by conceiving of things in terms of so-called “capitalism” or “communism.”

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» BAD VIBES: Poison Pleasure Products?

interview by Brian Awehali and Lisa Jervis

When Jennifer Pritchett, Jesse Jacobsen, and Jessica Giordani opened up their Minneapolis-based sex toy store, The Smitten Kitten, in August 2003, they wanted to open a fun, sex-positive feminist business while saving fellow Minneapolites the slight inconvenience of having to drive eight and a half hours to Chicago just to buy a leather harness or sparkly purple butt plug. However, their entry into the sex toy business [online at smittenkittenonline .com] quickly brought them face-to-face with some unpleasant health- and ethics-related realities of the industry. Most major sex toy vendors, they discovered, were selling highly toxic products to customers—including porous “jelly” toys, which are susceptible to mildew and mold.

READ THE INTERVIEW (PDF)

» REMOTE CONTROL HIP HOP: An interview with Jeff Chang

Brian Awehali interviews Jeff Chang

Jeff Chang, aka DJ Zen, has been at the epicenter of hip hop for over a decade. In 1993, he co-founded SoleSides (later, Quannum Projects), a staggeringly protean independent label out of Davis, California, whose brainiac impact hit hard, twisting heads in the underground and beyond while helping launch the careers of Blackalicious, DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, and Lateef the Truth Speaker. His writing has appeared in the Village Voice, Vibe, Spin, The Nation, Mother Jones, the Washington Post, and more. He was also an organizer of the National Hip Hop Political Convention in 2004.

Chang’s book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (St. Martin’s Press), is a near-encyclopedic and always lyrical exploration of how a generation marginalized by deindustrialization, globalization, and planned shrinkage turned their abandonment into a vibrant multiracial movement that dramatically transformed America’s musical and cultural landscape. Hip hop’s ongoing struggle to translate its considerable influence into serious polycultural political power is nothing less than the battle to define the soul of the United States in the 21st century.

READ THE FULL INTERVIEW (PDF)