Utopia USA interview with Robert Anton Wilson
By Lance Bauscher
22 Feb 2001
Can you talk about the book you’re currently working on, The Tale of the Tribe?
Well, it’s about Ezra Pound and James Joyce, whom I regard as the two major innovators of twentieth century literature. And oddly they both had a very powerful influence on Marshall McLuhan who has influenced how we think about all media, especially internet, even though internet didn’t begin to develop until after McLuhan was dead.
“The tale of the tribe” was Pound’s definition of the topic of The Cantos, his long epic poem that he spent 50 years writing. It also fits Finnegan’s Wake very well, and the book describes how The Cantos and Finnegan’s Wake influenced McLuhan’s ideas, and how internet has been shaped not only by the development of technology but by the ideas McLuhan got from Pound and Joyce. It gets more complicated, but that’s a good enough introduction to it.
Where does your faith in the incredible promise of internet come from?
Some commentator on McLuhan, whose name I can’t remember, pointed out that every communication system before internet has had gate keepers. That is to say, to get a book published throughout most of history you not only needed to get a publisher, you had to get the government censors to approve it. That is still true in most countries. The same with movies, television, etc.
Internet belongs to the people that use it. Nobody has found an effective way of policing it, and they never will as far as I can see. Any way of controlling internet would involve creating a world government and the people who most want to censor opinions are the most opposed to world government. So they can’t do it that way. If they try to do it any other way they’ll wreck most major corporations that depend so much on internet to do business. So it can’t be done.
Internet is going to remain free, and I believe, I’ve believed since I was in my early twenties, that everything that accelerates the flow of information and communication benefits the human race, and every communication jam damages us. So internet is the greatest tool, or device, or gimmick, or whatever you want to call it, for accelerating the flow of information between peoples. It is, I think, the most revolutionary force in the history of humanity since the invention of the wheel–especially when Asia and Africa get online in a major way. That’s what I really look forward to.
Have you considered how virtual reality is going to merge with internet?
I have had a few experiences with virtually reality, and as a matter of fact I wrote a little thing way back in the mid-80’s about virtual sex. I can see that coming eventually. Smith just got this new machine delivered and he hasn’t gotten out of his house in two weeks.
At my age I am more interested in getting virtual reality out of Euclidean space and into Riemannian space. My first experiences with virtual reality I thought, “now if they could program it for Riemannian space you’d understand relativity right away and you wouldn’t have to struggle with all the mathematics. And it can be done, you can make a virtual reality of any sort that you want. Also I ‘d like to experience Lobachevskian space.
Riemannian space is the geometry Einstein used in the general theory of relativity. It’s based on the conception, more or less, of a spherical time-space continuum. Lobachevskian space is sorta like a saddle that goes on forever, there is a peak in the middle but then it shrinks to nothing, but only at an infinite distance. Very interesting type of space because nobody has ever found any use for it as far as I know. Mathematically it’s just as valid as the other kinds of space. I mean, mathematically it is self-consistent–that’s all you need in mathematics. And somebody will find a use for it someday, but I’m rambling now.
What do you see happening right now with the acceleration of technology and information?
Well, way back in 1933 Korzybski wrote Science and Sanity, a book which has had a profound influence on my whole life, and he said there was an acceleration factor in knowledge and technology. Now it’s accelerating faster and faster all the time, and throughout my life I‘ve seen that happening more and more.
When I was a child, women all over the United States had goiter, which was a disease, a swelling of the neck, which looked as bad as cancer. Although it wasn’t that fatal it was very destructive to their good looks. Goiter disappeared during W.W.II, somebody found the cure for it. Small pox disappeared in the 1960’s. We got space satellites. We got things I don’t like, like nuclear weapons, but the acceleration is going faster all the time. And I quite confidently expect that the breakthroughs in biotechnology, or biotech as everybody is calling it these days, in the next twenty years–everything we consider human, normal, etc. is going to have to be redefined.
What does chaos have to do with all this?
Chaos turns me on. Chaos math turns me on because I have basically a scientific orientation as distinguished from a religious orientation. There are some things in science I always had doubts about. I always thought the universe was not as orderly as Newton or Einstein would have us think. Along comes chaos math and explains the things that have bothered me all these years that doesn’t quite fit into the Newtonian or Einsteinium paradigm. So they convinced me science can deal with the chaotic after all and can include even more than I thought it could.
The other thing about chaos is that there are a lot of lines of thought in the biological and behavioral sciences that indicate that chaos leads to creativity. There is even a kind of psychotherapy called “chaos therapy,” which is based on getting the patient so damned confused that they can’t hold on to their delusions and neurosis anymore and have to start changing. So I think chaos works the same way on the social level.
Chaos does not necessarily mean riot, insurrection, explosions and things like that. Chaos just means totally unpredictable at an accelerating rate, which is what’s happening all the time. And I think that is forcing rapid learning on the part of those who are still capable of learning. And it’s those people who the future depends on.
Those who can’t learn, well, they’ll die eventually. Meanwhile, they just serve as a roadblock, a temporary roadblock. Dying dinosaurs. We got one of them in the White House right now, and he appointed a whole bunch of other dinosaurs to his cabinet. But it doesn’t bother me as much as it does most of my friends because I think politics is always the last place, the very last place, where important changes register. They register in science, then in technology, then in economics and in social affairs. And then finally the politicians have to adjust to them. Especially in this country where almost all our politicians are lawyers.
Lawyers are trained to find precedence for anything they want to do. In other words, if you want to do cloning, you have to look up all the other precedences that have to do with “uncloning,” the thing that happened before cloning. Lawyers whether they are good hearted or not, and there are a lot of liberal and libertarian lawyers I admire–I don’t mean to put down the whole profession–but this thing about looking for precedence…that means the past is governing the future, which means we’re strangling the future to make it fit the past. Science is not based on precedence. Science is based on experience and experiment. And science moves very fast, while the law drags centuries and sometimes millenniums behind.
And then we have the problem of corruption and the law, too. I have to admit I have the reputation as a cynic, but the last election even startled me. I wasn’t surprised that they stole an election. That happens a lot–not only in the United States–it happens all over, elections are stolen regularly. This case it went up to the Supreme Court and it turned out that 5 out of 9 of the Supreme Court were in on stealing the election. They collaborated in the worst theft of an election in American political history, and the whole world was watching and they didn’t even give a damn. They just went ahead and did it anyway because they have the power to do it. And I realized how naïve I was. I’ve been cynical of Congress and the executive branch and all its bureaucratic subdivisions for a long long time, but I always thought the Supreme Court is really guided, rightly or wrongly, by what they really think the Constitution says. Now I realize they are as crooked as the other two branches in the government. That was a shock to me. Even at my age I can be shocked.
Do you feel there is any need for government?
That’s a hard question, because at present I‘m afraid there probably is to some exten. But I’d like to see it limited. I’d like to see it pushed back to the level of the Constitution, what we usually call Jeffersonian democracy. I think it can be reduced even further. But I certainly don’t like the continuous growth of the government interfering with everything.
What amazes me most is the piss police. Even Kafka and Orwell–who wrote the craziest, most far out satires on totalitarianism that their wild surrealist imaginations could imagine–they did not include piss police. And yet we got them and the American public just gullibly and submissively accepts it.
Why do they accept it?
Well, because they’ve been beaten down so long and they’re so pessimistic, and they are so worried about how to pay the mortgage. This is the only country in the industrial world that doesn’t have national health insurance. They are worried about paying the doctor bills, they are worried about the mortgages, they are worried about crime and so many other things. I think basically there is an attitude of hopeless–I think Thoreou called it “quiet desperation.”
And besides, you stick your neck out and you get yourself into trouble. Most guys with wives and families and most women with husbands and families don’t want to stick their neck out too far.
I remember the first time I got arrested, which was for an anti-segregation demonstration at a barber shop. All I could think of was “this isn’t very fair to my kids. I am too damn idealistic. What if I am separated from my kids for five years while they are so young?” I was thinking in terms of probably a five year prison term. I shouldn’t do that to my kids! I must be a nut for doing this! Meanwhile, I am still doing it. So I can understand why most people don’t want to stick their necks out, especially if they have children.
There is a little bit more to it than that. It what I call the “snafu principal.” Communication only occurs between equals–real communication, that is–because when you are dealing with people above you in a hierarchy, you learn not to tell them anything they don’t want to hear. If you tell them anything they don’t want to hear, the response is, “One more word Bumstead and I’ll fire you!” Or in the military, “One more word and you’re court-martialed.” It’s throughout the whole system.
So the higher up in the hierarchy you go, the more lies are being told to flatter those above them. So those at the top have no idea what is going on at all. Those at the bottom have to adjust to the rules made by those at the top who don’t know what’s going on. Those at the top can write rules about this, that and the other, while those at the bottom have got to adjust reality to fit the rules as much as they can.
I‘ve been teaching this for over 30 years, almost 40 years. More and more I have been asking at my workshops, can anybody hold up their hand and say that they have told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when dealing with somebody from the government. Nobody has ever held up their hand. Everybody lies when they are dealing with the government! You never know what they are going to come down on you for, so you tell them what you think they want to hear.
I think that is true of a lot of public opinion polls too. People think that might be a front for the CIA or somebody. So those at the top don’t have any idea what’s going on, what the people really want or anything like that.
Meanwhile, since nobody wants to feel like a coward and a liar all the time, it’s easier to stop noticing how reality differs from what those at the top say, and try to make yourself believe that what they say does correspond to reality. Even if that means bumping your knees against things they say aren’t there or falling down stairs they claim don’t exist and so on.
So I call this the burden of omniscience: those on the top are supposed to be doing the seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and all the sensing, apprehending and conceptualizing for the whole society and those at the bottom have to adjust to what those at the top think based on all the misinformation flowing up in a hierarchy where any speaking of the truth can get you punished.
I see anarchism as the theoretical ideal to which we are all gradually evolving to a point where everybody can tell the truth to everybody else and nobody can get punished for it. That can only happen without hierarchy and without people having the authority to punish other people.
I don’t think we can ever abolish hierarchy entirely, but we can make it temporary and rotating. Like a symphony orchestra needs a conductor, but that doesn’t mean he is going to take over the lives of the musicians, telling them what to eat and what to smoke and what to drink and so on–where they can travel and where they can’t travel. And a baseball team probably needs a manager, and so on. There are probably lots of places where we need a temporary hierarchy, but it doesn’t have to cover lifetimes or even four years. And it doesn’t have to cover as much as the hierarchies we’ve got with current corporations, bureaucracies, and governments.
You know I think I began realize the danger of hierarchy and developed the snafu principal about communication when I was working for the second largest engineering firm in the United States. I listened to the engineers bitching all the time about how the financial interests wouldn’t them do any of the work that seemed really important for them to improve their output. And I was reading William Faulkner’s Go Down Moses, which is still one of my favorite novels, and there was a sentence in there which was like a mini satori for me. And the sentence goes: “To the sheriff, Lucas was just another nigger and they both knew that; to Lucas the sheriff was an ignorant redneck with no cause for pride in his ancestors, nor any hope for it in his prosperity. But only one of them new that.” And I suddenly realized, yeah, every power situation means the people on top are not being told what the people on the bottom are really noticing. Then I could see how this applied to this engineering firm. And then how it applied to corporations in general and so on.
I tend to shy away from the word anarchist, because most people think it means bomb throwing. And a lot of people who consider themselves anarchists seem to think that too. But I can’t use libertarian, because the people who got their grip on that word are even less rational by my standards. I guess “decentralist” is the word I’d have to pick out for myself. Decentralist grassroots Jeffersonian something or other.
What else about the philosophy and practice of anarchism interests you?
I very early in my life decided I didn’t believe in the capitalist system. Fredrick Saudi, the physicist, said, “Economics? It should be called banditry.” I mean it’s the science of robbing and looting, organized. And on the other hand, Marxist socialism is even worse. Of course there is democratic socialism, such as you find in northern Europe, and I find a lot to admire in that, a great deal.
But there are also other alternatives and one of the alternatives that attracts me is Native American anarchism, sometimes called individualist anarchism, or mutualist anarchism, which is based on the idea of voluntary association, which is the forerunner of the affinity group we hear so much about these days. Or the dropout commune and so on.
The happiest people on the planet seem to be those who live in tribal societies with a membership of about 120. I don’t think we are going to go back to the tribal level, but I think power has to be decentralized to the point where every 120 people are making their own decisions, about their local affairs. For international affairs, we could have some kind of giant computer where we can all put in our opinions.
I don’t trust politicians. As a matter of fact what I like best about Hannibal Lecter is that he’s found a practical use for a politician which nobody else has done before.
The idea of representative government after we overthrew the monarchy was: we’ll have representatives who will represent us. In the first place, they don’t represent us! They represent the corporations who pay their campaign finance. And in the second place we don’t need anybody to represent us. Now that we’ve got internet we can represent ourselves. So I think all those people should be thrown the hell out of office and forced to make a living as honest men and women do, rather than by lying to the gullible and selling them out to the corporations, and we can represent ourselves through internet.
As a matter of fact, Buckminster Fuller–one of the most brilliant people of the twentieth century, often compared to Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin for the extent of the fields in which he was an expert, he was an expert in at least a dozen fields–one of his last books has that theme. He calls it desovernization: getting rid of human representatives and representing ourselves though electronic media. So I am not as original as I sometimes think I am.
What do tribal societies have that we generally don’t?
There are different types of tribes, I was generalizing too much. But let’s just say certain tribes. What they don’t have is the bureaucracy, the hierarchy, the complexities. If there’s a disagreement in the tribe, you know who your disagreeing with. You know who to talk to about it. If you can’t get satisfaction out of the person you’re disagreeing with, you go to their family.
In the Trobrian islands, when a woman wants a divorce–this is before the Christian missionaries got in, when Malinowski studied them–when a woman wants a divorce she puts her husband’s shoes outside the door. That means he’s not allowed in. If he wants the marriage to continue, his parents go and talk to her parents and try to negotiate a second trial. Now, if you try that in California today, you get lawyers involved, and judges and the whole goddamn government bureaucracy. Things are much more complicated just because of the size, and the a inexorable growth of power wherever it’s allowed to grow.
Also tribal groups tend to have what anthropologists call an animalistic view, which is a view that everything is alive. Nobody has that view in our society except for people who have done a lot of acid.
Do you have hope for a technological utopia where everyone’s basic needs are met?
Yeah. I haven’t been into the innards of the World Game computers in Philadelphia, but Bucky Fuller claimed, and Leonard Gable who runs the World Game Institute now also claims, that we could feed the whole planet, right now, today, starting today, if we used our technology most intelligently. In other words, all the people starving on this planet, and I forget the statistic, but its pretty damned horrifying, all the people starving on this planet is all unnecessary. It’s only held together, to quote Bucky again, by fear, ignorance, greed and zoning laws.
I‘m pretty sure we could do it now, but as a matter of fact, people said that even before Fuller. Another engineer, named major Charles Douglas, claimed as far back as 1919 that if we used our technology intelligently and changed the present financial system so we don’t pay usury at 60% for every new change in technology, we could have a society better than any utopia in science fiction ever imagined. There is a lot of supporting data for that. As a matter of fact, just look at the a condition of people on welfare in the United States today. It looks pretty ugly, but just compare them to the people without welfare in London in Dickens novels. Everybody is better off than they were 100 years ago. If we only used our science and technology intelligently our whole world could be immeasurably improved. But first we got to get rid of the fear, ignorance, greed and zoning laws.
Is virtual reality only accessible via computers?
That’s an interesting question. I think we live in virtual reality anyway. As a matter of fact, even without talking about LSD or other controversial subjects, you can easily demonstrate to yourself that everybody creates their own reality, simply by sitting down with four friends, being quiet for say two minutes, and have each one report what sounds they heard. You’ll find everybody in the room heard different sounds. You can duplicate this with vision too. Have everybody describe the room they just came out of. They’ll all describe it differently.
We all live what ethnologists call a different umwelt. Every animal has a different umwelt. The human animal like other animals has a generalized human umwelt, things the human brain and nervous system can recognize, but each individual has their own individualized umwelt. A painter does not see the woods the way a poet does, and neither of them see it the way a logger does. The painter sees the colors, the poet sees something else, and the logger sees a chance to cut down the trees and make money. We all see everything differently.
I’ve got dozens of demonstrations of that which I use in my workshops, and nobody has ever gotten up in any my workshops and said, “that’s not true we were all seeing the same thing!” No, everybody sees things differently. And hears things differently. And smells things differently. And tastes things differently. The classic example is ordering a pizza for a group of five. Nobody wants the same things on the pizza. You end up buying three small pizzas.
Do you think that technological virtual reality will enable people to more easily or deeply experience what you’ve just described?
Yes. I have a strong feeling that since Americans aren’t as paranoid about machines as they are about chemicals, virtual reality will do for the masses what LSD only did only did for those who were brave enough, intelligent enough, or just plain kooky enough to experiment in that area. I keep going back to that don’t I, I wonder why. Honest, I haven’t done acid in two days, and I want to tell you, it’s great to be clean! No, I just made that up. It’s a joke.
Once you realize that the world you perceive can change dramatically, and not only with drugs but with yoga and with various other types of exercises like hypno-tapes, audio tapes, neurolinguistic programming–there are all sorts of devices for changing you perceived world–once people realize that, they’ll realize if they are living in a sad and ugly world, well that’s because they got a sad and ugly program in their brain. And if they’re living in a happy cheerful world that’s because they programmed their brain properly.
You know the old slogan that goes back to the dawn age of computers when dinosaurs and Richard Nixon still roamed the earth, “GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.” Well if your getting garbage out that’s because the software in your brain consists mostly of garbage. You better replace it with more up-to-date software.
Do you think that the current anti-corporate globalization movement is a flash in the pan? Do you see a resemblance to the labor union movements of 1930’s?
That’s interesting. My wife Arlen used to say that the great days of labor organizing are not behind us, they’re ahead of us. She meant the third world. All the jobs that are disappearing here are going to the third world at slave-level wages. A friend of mine has a parody of the Nike slogan, “We made our money the old fashioned way: slave labor in the orient.” Well, that’s not going to last so long, especially with the internet and communications advancing greatly. Those people are going to get organized and start fighting for their rights. Meanwhile people here losing their jobs all the time are getting more and more pissed off.
I don’t think this is a flash in the pan. I think the people who run this planet have disgracefully mismanaged it, as William Burroughs said once. And I think they are going to have to give it an inch at a time or maybe they’ll collapse all at once in a big rush like the Soviet Union did. I always think of that–when I feel hopeless I think of how thoroughly the Soviet Union changed in a couple of months.
And the same thing happened in the Union of South Africa. I remember as things kept heating up in South Africa throughout the 70’s and 80’s. It was obvious, the blacks were the majority. The whites were the minority–they held they’re superior position simply because they held most of the guns. But the blacks were learning where to buy guns. And it seemed to me the whites were so goddamn pigheaded they wouldn’t give up until most of them were shot dead. It was going to be a blood bath. And I thought why don’t we ever learn anything from history. Well the white South Africans showed me that we can learn something from history: they allowed power sharing before they all got killed, which is a striking sign of intelligence from a ruling elite. Most ruling elites don’t find out until their heads get chopped off. Like the French royal family in 1789.
So I think there is a chance that the power elite today might learn before its late. They can’t have a meeting anywhere without protesters showing up. Now they’re having meetings practically on desert islands.
I’m in favor of globalization. The thing is where is it coming from? The ground up or the top down. If it’s coming from the top down I am as fervently against it as anybody in Seattle or any of the other places since then. But I think globalization is inevitable, it just has to be from the grassroots. The 92 chemical elements are scattered at random around this planet. To make the maximum use of science and technology we need all 92. So we are going to have to accomplish that by one country conquering the whole world, which is the traditional way, or by working out a system where everybody gets a fair share by negotiation. I think one country conquering the whole, which seems to be the policy now in force, is not only dangerous, but it gets more dangerous everyday as the explosive power increases. As more and more people protest against it, I think eventually were going to have to negotiate our way to a fair deal for everybody.
To quote Bucky Fuller one more time, in the last half the 20th century, the majority of the scientists of the United States have been recruited to, directly or indirectly, contribute to delivering more and more explosive power, over longer and longer distances, in shorter and shorter times, to kill more and more people. And now we’re spending even more money under Bush. We’re going to reach the point where pretty soon we’re going to just press a button and we can release zero-energy and destroy the whole universe not just this planet. That is the most perverted form of human intelligence imaginable and that can’t go on forever because more and more people are more and more dissatisfied with that.
What you gotta do is talk to a couple of intelligent people from northern Europe. They pay higher taxes than we do, but they rarely complain because they get something for their taxes. They get universal health care, they get much better unemployment if they loose their job. They have all sorts of social services that we don’t have, which is worthwhile. But here, everybody is pissed off about their tax bills, which is comparatively low, because they get nothing for it! All that happens to the tax money is that it goes to pay the interest on the national debt and then to build bigger bombs, to go faster, to kill more people.
What most excites you about the approaching future?
What most excites me is solving the communication jam on this planet: letting everybody talk honestly to everybody else. I think of intelligence in terms of feedback. Feedback used to mean the noise you get when two electronic systems interact. But then the more generalized meaning became that of information flowing back and correcting itself, which is due to work of Claude Shannon and Norman Wiener in the 1940’s. They saw internet before it existed. They worked out, from the computers they already had, they worked out the trajectories of the way we were headed.
Every animal, to the extent that it has adequate feedback, that’s the measure of its intelligence. And so that, to get back to an earlier theme, is why I like internet and hate censorship. Every form of censorship is cutting down on the feedback within the social organism, which means the social organism is much more stupid than any individual in it.
Do you consider yourself a futurist?
I’ve been called a futurist often enough. I’m a non-fundamentalist futurist. I don’t think you can predict the future very accurately, but you can consider a penumbra of scenarios. Which is something, curiously enough, an African shaman told William Seabrook back in the 30’s: “the future is fan shaped.” There is not one future, there are many futures. I’d like to help steer us to the most desirable future.
Is this perspective a foundation of your optimism?
There are a lot of reasons for my optimism. One is, as long as things are unknown you might as well assume the best, because if you assume the worst you’re just making yourself miserable and ruining your digestion. It can even lead to ulcers. In extreme cases it even leads to heart attacks. I think pessimism is very, very dangerous, on health grounds. There’s actually research showing that optimists recover from diseases much faster than pessimists. So it’s a health measure, I try to preserve my optimism as a way of guarding my health.
Then again because the literary establishment, especially in New York–the people who define themselves as “the intellectuals,” who think there is nobody with any brains anywhere in the country–they’re all so resolutely pessimistic. I feel somebody has got to raise a dissenting voice, just so there will be a dialogue at least. So I try to present a case for optimism.
And then again, the current world of chaos looks like the beginning of a change to a higher level of coherence, and intelligence, and feedback throughout the whole planet. Wait until Africa and Asia come online.
Barbara Marx Hubbard runs seminars in which people are divided up into like 20 groups and each groups deals with specific problems of concern to that group in relation to the city where they live. And after a couple of hours some of the walls come down and groups compare their solutions and see if the solution that is satisfactory to one group are satisfactory to another. And people come out of it absolutely delighted with the possibilities of what communication can achieve, once you start talking to other people.
Another grounds for my optimism, is that people always do the most intelligent thing, after they’ve have tried all the stupid alternatives and none of them have worked. And I think that the present system on the planet has obviously shown that it doesn’t work. And the only alternative is more communication, and more honesty and more fair dealing. But it begins with honest communication. People saying what they really think and feel.
You know why Hannibal Lecter is so charming in spite of his bad habits? Because he thoroughly enjoys life. Most people don’t. Once they start communicating with one another they will start to enjoy life a little more, because they’ll feel less alone and less hopeless.
How is today’s counterculture different from the counterculture of the late 60’s and early 70’s?
It seems to me we’ve got the same spectrum. We’ve got some bright people and we got a bunch of idiots. The sixties counterculture, which is fashionable to put down currently, had a lot of very bright people who had a lot of high goals, but it had a lot of idiots and sloganeers. We had Jerry Ruben telling kids to kill their parents to show their solidarity with the third world. All sorts of stupidity of that sort. So when I look around today and see stupidity in the counter culture, well it’s always been that way.
As a matter of fact, Bernard Shaw and his introduction to Androcles and the Lion, points out that every revolutionary movement attracts those who are too good for the current state of society and those who aren’t even good enough to adjust to the current state of society. That’s the way he portrays the early Christians in that play. He got that from dealing with the feminist and socialist movements of his own youth. You get the best and the worst in the counterculture always.
Your wife Arlen used the term “stone age feedback” to describe the influence of aboriginal cultures on 18th century thinking. Could you elucidate this for us?
Well, it was in the 18th century that most of what we now consider progressive ideas first began to dawn on various European and American thinkers. And much of this came from studying stone age tribes. Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage was based on reports from Captain Cook’s voyages in the South Pacific. Everybody knew how of wonderful the Tahitians and the Hawaiians were, but they mostly forgot about the tribe in New Guinea that was so paranoid they wouldn’t communicate with them. Every attempt to communicate led them to throw spears at them until they gave up trying to communicate with them. So Rousseau forgot about them and assumed that all savages were peaceful and friendly. Which is largely true but not entirely.
The American Indians, or whatever they’re called now–it used to be Native
Americans, I think now we’re supposed to say indigenous peoples. I have a lot of friends in that group and I never know what to call them. I just call them by their first name. I can’t keep up with political correctness. The Iroquois Federation had a some influence on the U. S. Constitution. And also from studying various tribal or stone age societies, socialism and anarchism occurred to various people depending on which tribes they had heard the most about.
Have you participated in many social or political protests?
I still do by email. I sign all sorts of petitions and send all sorts of letters. Back in the 60’s I was on the streets, I got tear-gassed quite a bit. I am proud to say I never got maced. In those days I could still run faster than the average cop.
Was this activity in the 60’s exhilarating for you?
My memory of the sixties was mostly I was overly optimistic. I’m still an optimist on principal for the reasons I gave, but in the sixties I really thought the movement was getting bigger and bigger all the time. And even the people who were not part of “the movement” were moving. The statistics on the opposition to the Vietnam War were rising and rising–about 67% shortly before the war had ended. I think it went even higher than that. I remember when it hit 67%, I thought “my god, we really are making changes!” And segregation ended which I thought meant racism would end with it. I was too optimistic about a lot of things.
So it was a very exhilarating time. I felt something very dramatic was changing. Changes for the better were occurring. I still feel I’m participating in changes for the better. Although I think that the tactics have changed from the streets to the internet to a great extent.
Oh, you know the main difference between Clinton and Bush from an internet point of view? When I sent email to Clinton, I would get a three paragraph answer saying nothing. When I send one to Bush I get a one sentence answer saying nothing. Bush’s letter says, “The president wishes to thank you for your views.” Clinton’s letter said the same thing, but in about 100 words in three paragraphs. No comment. At least Bush has a little more brevity than Clinton.
When I was researching for my historical novels I had a pretty low opinion of the past in general and the condition of the people in the past. But when I researched them I found out how the French were living before the revolution–you just got to read Engles, The Condition of the Working Class in England, or read the novels by Charles Dickens. I think by in large the advance of technology has been an advantage to most people on the planet.
Of course, that doesn’t mean all technology. I coined the word “sombunol”–some but not all–to avoid over-generalizing. I use it in writing, but it’s hard to remember to use it in speech because most people don’t know what I mean, I have to stop and explain. You should never talk about all of anything outside of mathematics. In mathematics you can talk about all circles, because circles only exist in our imagination in the human mindscape. When you start talking about all Jews you’re likely to go as crazy as Adolph Hitler. Or you start talking about all TV repair people for that matter. They’re not all crooks, just most of them. So you should never use the word “all” outside of mathematics.
What’s your most serious concern about our planet?
The stupidity problem. Ideally we should have a pill that makes people more creative and more curious. And the only way to get most people to use it is if it gives people a hedonic boom along with that. The problem is that if such a pill did exist the government would ban it right away. Some people think that it did exist in the 1960’s and that the government did ban it, so I feel fairly safe in making that prediction.
But there are lots of other techniques from hypno-tapes to brainwave machines, to yoga, to neurolinguistic programming, and new things that are being discovered all the time. The thing is they got to have a hook on them so people will want to use them. When the majority finds an intelligence raising device that they enjoy using…well I think they have to some extent in internet. Even the people who spend 18 hours a day with nothing but the porn sites, eventually they gotta spend at one hour looking at the rest of it– so it would broaden their perspectives considerably.
Can you speak a little bit about pattern recognition, perhaps in relation to the left brain / right brain models of thinking?
Well, we have more cells in our brain connected with pattern recognition rather than with logical sequencing, which I think is a very important fact to know. I think this explains why I find Chinese culture and Chinese ideograms and poetry so congenial, because it all deals with patterns. It doesn’t deal with logical structures. I think logical structures generally turn out to be highly artificial. They have too many “all’s” in them to begin with. You can’t have a logical structure without an “all.” “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is a mortal.” Well we don’t know that all men are mortal anymore with the breakthroughs with biotechnology. There maybe people alive today who will never die.
So no wonder logic plays a small part with most peoples’ lives. Most of the brain is involved with pattern recognition which is much more important–both artistically and just in terms of survival. If you’re a monkey running through the jungle, if you stop to think things out logically, you’ll get eaten by the first predator to come along. With pattern recognition you know which animals are safe to approach and which ones you should run away from.
We need to study pattern recognition in the human brain much more because that’s most of what the brain is concerned with and most of what art is concerned with. The missing part of most scientific descriptions of human beings is the importance of pattern recognition.
They used to call it right brain and left brain, but then they found that they weren’t so divided. But those are two definite functions: the pattern recognition and the linear linking. The pattern recognition is much more important for survival. We’ve been talking so much about science, but I basically regard myself more as an artist rather than a scientist. To me, like I said, the problem with science when studying human beings is that they don’t stress pattern recognition enough.
Children taught art at an early age tend to live longer and they tend to understand science better than those who are given the traditional form of education based on linear thinking–the Gutenburg fix, as McLuhen called it, or the Aristotelian mind set as Korzybski called it.
Any advice to young people looking to change things?
Yeah, don’t feel superior to the people you are trying to change. That’s the worst possible stance to take. You’ll never convince anybody as long as you feel superior to them. All you’ll do is insult them. I think that was the major error of the 60’s and I blame it especially on Abby Hoffman and Jerry Ruben. It was the major mistake of the 60’s–talking from a position of superiority when you didn’t have any of the qualities that people looked for in leaders like. They had charisma, but Arlen used to say, the only place for charisma is in show business. Once it gets loose in politics or religion all hell breaks loose.