Spaceship Earth

When Eric Davis quipped that he follows new religions in the way that normal people follow sports he helpfully identified the nerd tribe I belong to. This explains why words like telos and eschatology bubble up in casual conversations around the Root Simple compound much to Kelly’s annoyance. It also means that I’ve seen every single hippie cult documentary ever made and, of course, immediately dropped a few bucks to stream the new documentary Spaceship Earth, a film centering on the not well known Synergia Ranch commune, the folks behind the Biosphere 2 project.

The Synergians were originally an avant-garde theater troupe led by a charismatic leader, John Allen, and they would likely object to me lumping them in with new religious groups, preferring to think of themselves more as ecologists or proto-space colonists. To which I’d counter that what do you call a group that thinks we’ll all someday head to a new Eden up in the heavens if not a group with eschatological hankerings?

The best part of Spaceship Earth was getting to see the background history of the Biosphere project from the viewpoint of the Synergians. After initially cheer-leading the Biosphere project, the mainstream press quickly turned on the group, focusing instead on a lurid reality show narrative, and concluding that a culty avant guarde theater troupe with a charismatic leader had no business taking up a science project. True, the Biosphere project was not science in the strict definition of the term. It attempted to do too much all at once without controlling for variables. And, with its colonizing space aspirations, it smacked more of scientism than science. But why shouldn’t artists be allowed the latitude to engage in an interdisciplinary folly? Perhaps we could use a bit less specialization and more interdisciplinary zaniness to explore the thorny problems we all face.

I wish that Spaceship Earth had focused more on the flawed ideas of the Biospherians/Synergians. Those ideas centered on the cybernetic notions of Norbert Wiener and (this might trigger some folks but I just gotta say it) deeply flawed thoughtstylings of huckster Buckminster Fuller (1, 2,) made popular by the Whole Earth Catalog utopians of the 1970s. The Biospherians/Synergians thought that they could create a complex, self-guiding model of the Earth and use that idea to escape our very real and material problems down here on dusty old Earth. Spaceship Earth doesn’t really explore this ideology. Maybe it’s because those ideas have gone mainstream, unfortunately. If you’re a fish you don’t recognize the water. We swim in an ideological sea polluted by automated control systems such as the failed algorithmic editing project going on over at Facebook, Twitter and Google as well as worshiping space colony charlatans like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. This cybernetic ideology has birthed an internet that promulgates rumors that Wayfair is sending out children in boxes and that pedophile rings are operating in the basements of pizza restaurants. Worse cybernetic monsters, I fear, are yet to come.

Exploring this scary new world is a lane occupied by documentarian Adam Curtis. If you pair Spaceship Earth on a double feature with the second episode of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and throw in a reading of Thomas Pynchon’s notorious Gravity’s Rainbow you’ll have enough fodder for a marathon discussion of the nightmares birthed by hippie commune notions of self guiding systems of control. At the end of this long discussion you might just all start gathering up the sledgehammers for the coming Neo-Luddite rebellion. Resist those algorithms! But I digress, comrades.

The Synergian sailboat Heraclitus.

Ideological quibbles aside, Spaceship Earth is a very well crafted documentary. The Synergians were not the stereotypical anyone-can-drop-in sort of commune. John Allen got an M.B.A. at Harvard and knows how to start successful businesses and raise money. He surrounded himself with equally ambitious and talented people. The Synergians had the resources to buy 16mm film cameras and shoot lots of footage. They built their own sailboat and sailed it around the world. Then, pairing with bazillionaire oil scion Ed Bass, they put together the ambitious Biosphere 2 project. The footage of all these antics make Spaceship Earth a fascinating documentary to watch. For added entertainment, weirdo Steve Bannon pops up at the end in the way that the vengeful singing statue shows up in act II of Don Giovanni to pull everyone down to hell.

Spaceship Earth also disrupts the stereotype of the Drop City sort of drug and insanity fueled 1970s commune. I suspect that there were other M.B.A. run communes like the Synergians that we’ve never heard about. The Synergians have some things in common with the commune known as The Farm that, after having a major meltdown, ended up not so much growing food, but instead launching entrepreneurial projects such as designing and selling electronics, running a midwife school and operating a soy dairy among many other activities. You can see in these groups both the ideological and economic origins of Silicon Valley.

It should also be noted that any film that depicts people sealing themselves up in a pod makes for perfect pandemic viewing, at least for those of us non-essential types. And what could be more non-essential than hippie avant-garde thespians? For us urban homesteader types, it’s also good to have a reminder that hubris in the face of complexity is an occupational hazard of anyone who attempts to garden, keep animals, cook from scratch or otherwise interact with things other than laptops and iPhones.

You can stream Spaceship Earth via the YouTubes for here.

If you haven’t seen Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace do a little googling and you’ll find it on the interwebs in its entirety.

The New Homemade Kitchen

I have many fond memories of teaching bread baking classes for the late Joseph Shuldiner’s cheekily named Institute of Domestic Technology. Joseph had a unique formula for the curriculum of the IDT. I’d summarize as “stuff that you’d never think of doing from scratch but once you find out how easy it is your life will be transformed.” In addition to the aforementioned bread baking, the IDT offered classes in mustard, cheese making, jam making, coffee roasting, cocktail crating and much more.

Joseph gathered the recipes and collected wisdom of these classes into his posthumously published book The New Homemade Kitchen: 250 Recipes and Ideas for Reinventing the Art of Preserving, Canning, Fermenting, Dehydrating, and More just released this month by Chronicle. The section on cocktails is a good example of the IDT’s methods. Yes, you get a Martini recipe. But you’ll also be making your own vermouth and it will be easier than you think.

Then there’s the life changing chapter on coffee roasting. One of the perks of teaching at the IDT was getting to sit in on the other classes. This was how I learned to roast my own coffee in a Whirley-Pop roaster. Like a lot of IDT obsessions, roasting your own coffee simultaneously up-scales and bomb proofs your pantry. Green coffee can sit around for a long time and knowing how to roast it is a useful skill in our current crappening. In short, this book is very quarantine friendly both in the sense of having skills handy when supply chains are broken and having something more productive to do than binging Netflix.

In addition to coffee you’ll find chapters on pickles and preserves, baking, dairy, meat and fish, cocktails, fermentation and dehydration. You’ll also learn how to make your own mustard, ketchup, harissa, sriracha, preserved lemons, vanilla extract and much more.

Joseph was a gifted artist, designer, activist and photographer and the book reflects his ability to represent and explain, in clear language, information that can seem intimidating. I learned a lot about how to teach from working for Joseph. Many of the classes took place at the Altadena home of Gloria Putnam and Stephen Rudicel. They tended to be day long affairs with a lunch served to students and an after-party for the instructors. At the end of the day, over glasses of wine, we would review the classes we taught and figure out ways to make information clearer. Joseph was a team player with a thoughtful leadership style. I can still hear his laugh and miss him greatly. This book, for me, is a kind of time capsule of those happy days teaching at the IDT that felt more like attending a lively party than work. And I have this book to remember Joseph’s joyous spirit and knowledge.

The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour

I’ve sprinkled references in the past few posts to a book I just finished reading, The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour. The central thesis of the book is that we are all writing more than we ever have in history in the form of tweets, Facebook updates, texts, emails etc. Seymour contends, however, that we are not so much writing as being written by the platforms we use and that we all have a propensity for trolling and narcissism that tech companies exploit with a kind of algorithmic agnosticism.

Seymour chronicles the horrors of these platforms: the trolling, doxing, mob hate that we all, at this point, are familiar with. It’s hard to imagine anyone now coming to Mark Zuckerberg’s defense. But Seymour notes that this mass violence is nothing new and only breaks out thanks to pre-existing conditions, within all of us, that Silicon Valley exploits for a business model built on the unholy combination of gambling addiction psychology and mass surveillance.

Paul Klee, The Twittering Machine.

What separates Seymour’s book from others chronicling our current dystopia is a nuanced analysis of the crisis combined with a admonition not to fall into the simplistic “backlash” style of criticism of the sort I’ve been guilty of on this blog. Seymour says,

The backlash style, despite having the advantage that it disputes the inevitability of our assimilation into the Borg, is reactionary. It is compromised by a subtending fantasy that it could somehow be sufficient to exhort others to quit which is further underpinned by a fantasy that the frequent flights into mob irrationality, paranoia, nihilism and sadism characteristic of social media could be solved simply by ‘going back’. As though these phenomena had no deeper and father-reaching roots.

Seymour retells the often mis-reported history of the Luddites who were not opposed to technology, but instead against the ownership of the machines of production by the upper classes. He suggests that we need to develop a Neo-Luddite “escapology.” He leaves it to us to develop that alternative but implies that it might just an internet owned by all and stripped of exploitation and “gamified capitalism”–an internet that, in his words, leaves space for and encourages a sense of reverie, a stroll in the park with a pen and notepad or a quiet time in a church with our eyes closed. With Seymour’s nuanced and insightful analysis we might just be able to start mapping creative ways out of our predicament.

Go Plant a Million Trees

Kelly and I interviewed Akiva Silver, of Twisted Tree Farm, for the next episode of the sporadic Root Simple Podcast. Silver is the author of Trees of Power: Ten Essential Aboreal Allies (Amazon, library). The book celebrates the power of trees to feed us and solve a lot of the world’s problems including climate change and soil erosion. In the book Silver makes the provocative suggestion that we might all be better off with a greater emphasis on tree crops instead of clearing land for monotonous fields of wheat, corn and soybeans. He has an interventionist, Johnny Appleseed like passion at odds with the hands-off, leave-no-trace branch of environmentalism. Silver says, “Instead of trying to have as little impact as possible, I want to have a huge impact. I want to leave behind millions of trees, a bunch of ponds, enriched soil and wild stories.”

In our own small urban yard, we’re beginning to see the fruits, literally, of our own small-scale arboreal efforts that we began over ten years ago. This month we had a abundant crop of Mission figs, avocados, olives and pomegranates. And that pathetic vegetable garden I blogged about? My heretical thinking is to give up annual vegetables entirely and use the space to plant two small citrus trees. If I want vegetables I’ll put in artichokes which grow well here and return every year without any effort. We’ll outsource the misery of growing annual vegetables to the vendors of the farmer’s market.

Watch for our interview with Silver next Wednesday. In the meantime read his book and then go plant some trees.

Digital Götterdämmerung

I approach most productivity books with wariness. Most of the authors of these tomes, I suspect, report directly to creepy old Wotan and just want to make us feel better about all the hours we spend chained to our digital workstations. I’m especially distrustful of prophets who claim to have a cure for digital addiction.

Typically, when the mainstream media does a story on why we’re all glued to our iPhones, it will begin with the reporter spending an hour in a M.R.I. machine while scrolling through their Facebook feed. The conclusion? By golly, various parts of the brain light up in response to pictures of babies and rants about our reptilian overlords! It’s all in the brain and there’s not much we can do about that so move along and never mind. What seemed to have eluded these incredulous reporters, until recently, is that there’s a whole bunch of oligarchs up in Valhalla exploiting our biologically based addictions so that they can make a buck and sell our information to . . . who knows?

While I patiently await the coming oligarch Götterdämmerung–spoiler: Brunhilde burns down Valhalla–until that glorious day we’re all left with a practical problem: we just can’t seem to stop looking at our phones.

Cal Newport has some suggestions while we wait around in front of Apple headquarters for the right moment to get the torches lit. The cornerstone of his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Amazon, library) is the suggestion to take a one month break from addictive apps, websites and other digital media. Use that time to figure out some life goals. At the end of the month carefully add back the digital tools you find useful.

I just started the one month digital fast and, already, I feel like I’m regaining a long lost pre-internet memory of when I used to read more, learn new skills and get stuff done.

Newport is flexible about what you abstain from during the one month period. He acknowledges that many people have jobs that require them to use social media so you have to write your own rules. In my case I gave up Facebook over a year ago but I’ve found myself spending way too much time looking at things like Twitter, NextDoor (which has turned into 8chan for grumpy old home owners), YouTube and a random assortment of click-baity websites. And I’ve spent way too much time randomly googling trivia (whatever happened to Sheila E?). So my rules for this month banish all the aforementioned websites and random Googling. I’m allowing myself to look only at Fine Woodworking, Lost Art Press and write this blog. The rest of my time I’m building furniture, practicing drawing and reading.

While the digital de-clutter forms the centerpiece of Newport’s strategy he has a lot of other common sense suggestions:

  • Consider experimenting with periods when you leave your phone at home. Even though I was a late adapter even to having a flip phone, it’s hard for me to remember all the time I used to have away from a mobile phone.
  • Delete social media from your phone. If you have to use it for a job log in only on a desktop computer or laptop but not on your phone.
  • Dumb down your smart phone by removing all addictive apps.
  • Use an app like Freedom to block additive services.
  • Take long walks.
  • Don’t click the like button (i.e. don’t fall into the cheap tricks the Silicon Valley reptilians set for us).
  • Consolidate texting by turning on the do not disturb function of your smart phone for set periods in a day. Then deal with those texts all at once.
  • Take up a high quality hobby. Newport actually mentions woodworking and I can vouch for the usefulness of this particular skill. But your hobby could also be something like sewing, welding, cooking, gardening, volunteering or learning a musical instrument.
  • Reclaim conversation by shutting off the phone.
  • Join something and be a part of a face to face group.
  • Take up a sport.

Newport contends that at the end of the month long digital fast you’ll find that services you looked at compulsively will lose their charm. This has already happened to me with Instagram. I took a long break this year and when I peeked at it recently I was horrified by what I saw which included privacy invading pictures of children in hospital rooms and an image of a distant acquaintance pole dancing that I can’t un-see. Newport says that “Online interactions all have an exhausting element of performance” where we end up at a “point where the line between real and performed is blurring.” I can feel how these services feed my own desire to perform rather than just be me. It’s a relief not to have to constantly preen and “peacock” for the camera.

Unlike me, Newport isn’t a Luddite. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who have to use social media for a job, Newport contends that most people can get what they need out of a social media service in as little as a half hour or 45 minutes a week of focused use.

My research on digital minimalism has revealed the existence of a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services–dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set buy these companies can spring shut.

He’s also realistic that we might all need to carve out some time for low-quality web surfing but that this time needs to be contained rather than sprinkled throughout the day.

During the one month fast Newport suggests developing a long term plan with what to do with our spare hours. In addition to my quixotic furniture building mission I’ve vowed to improve my drawing skills and finish reading a few long books on my literary bucket list. I’ve already feel like I’ve reclaimed, for the first time since the appearance of the accursed interwebs and the un-smart smart phone, a greater focus and attentiveness.