Saturday, January 26, 2013

Savers and Destroyers

This was until recently a beautiful old stand of oleanders

"It is a familiar fact that the technological applications of science can create serious ethical dilemmas. This applies at both ends of the moral scale of our efforts to destroy one another and to save one another. We have sophisticated weapons that kill people without damaging buildings; we have sophisticated medical technology which is so expensive that its use has to be rationed, forcing us to choose who shall live." A.C. Grayling, Thinking of Answers

For me, what is most compelling about some popular entertainments, from the Terminator movies to The Walking Dead to The Road to some forms of heavy metal music, is the fidelity with which they portray the fundamental and possibly irremediable destructive heart of the human creature. Even in extreme situations where it's painfully obvious that we ought to drop our competitive animal destroying souls beside the road and band together against a common foe, humans invariably turn on one another, turn on everyone and everything out of fear and misunderstanding and plain old cussed violent nature, and rage until there's nothing and no one left. 

The only really good thing about the Terminator 3 movie is the moment when John and Kate are trying to decide whether or not to destroy themselves, who for all they know at that moment are about to become the last boy and girl on the planet. It's not good because of what they decide (it's an American movie and we know what they'll do), it's good because they have to make a choice at all. They happen to choose not to hug the C4 but instead to work together and fight on, but you really do get the impression that it's a close thing for them: they could have quite plausibly just flipped a coin to decide the future of humanity.

In the Walking Dead, there's almost no one left alive, and it's not all clear that anyone who is currently alive is going to survive five more minutes. In that scenario, when a common cause is so clear and obvious to everyone, still the worst in people is what drives everyone, rather than our better angels, such that whenever two or more living humans meet, the main question is always who will destroy who first, and that's before the zombies show up to pick up the pieces. 

I rode my bicycle past those oleanders, paused in their shade, more than a thousand times

Jared Diamond probes and reviews our dark destructive heart not only in Collapse, but also in Guns, Germs and Steel. Across cultures, through history, from people wearing animal skins and carrying sharpened sticks through to technologists with satellites and joystick-controlled killing drones, he shows us what we always do, everywhere, no matter what: consume and destroy. Wherever we go, the sharp stick is in our hand, and our hungry mouths are gaping open with sharp teeth and hunger.

Diamond seems like a hopeful dude, and indeed he closes out Collapse with a section called "Reasons for Hope." Like most of us, he knows about and has seen our better angels, and wants them, against all the evidence he provides, to eke out a win. However, the key reason for hopefulness, he says, against the fearsome prospect that impact equals number of humans times impact per human, is our interconnectedness, our ability to instantly communicate anything almost anywhere, to see and know what's really happening, which in 2005 he represented with "archeologists and television," but now is more obviously smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Wikipedia. Or in other words, Skynet.

These trucks are hauling dirt to build a bicycle path beside a canal.

The reason that we are able to continue on at all is that we have evolved savvy survival abilities based on the core ability to assess and recognize a destroyer as soon as we see one, faster than we even realize. Or, rather as it often seems, to assume the default position which is not that far from the truth that everyone we meet is a destroyer until proven otherwise, that the only one out there known to be a saver is Number One, along with, while we need them and they prove useful and until they turn on us, fellow members of our own small in-groups.

This, I believe, is the source of much cyclist indignation on the road: we are so clearly not destroyers in any meaningful sense from the perspective of drivers, yet the Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) mechanisms of many drivers obviously fires red instantly upon acquisition of a two-wheeled human-powered target. Shifting the perspective around, cyclists, many of whom are also sometimes drivers themselves at other times, ride out with their IFF jammed on red, having been knocked about so many times previously.

I try hard to overcome this tendency in myself. I've written many times here about my thoughts on this, and how I urge my own better angels to be front and center when conflict appears imminent. But if I am utterly honest, my IFF is no more acute than any other human's. It's more or less broken, too. 

When the T-X in Terminator 3 overcomes Arnold's model 101 processor and turns it against the very human he was sent to protect, the 101 tries to fight it, tries to prevent himself from destroying John Conner, but you know it's a losing battle. The T-X algorithm is too strong, it's programming too smart for the primitive 101 subroutines to overcome. It's a close thing, when you feel like the humanity which has somehow infiltrated the machine as it has marched and blasted down its assigned path of duty seems like the only thing which can save John, and thus us, but you see all that fragile sentiment being crushed in the flickering failing IFF lights of the 101's visual display, and you know John is hosed. The only thing that saves John is the 101 destroying himself, to supply John and Kate with the opportunity to flip that coin themselves. Yeah, that about covers it. 

Mean-looking red fish, one of the Canal Creatures in Scottsdale. IFF.

Therein lies the raw beauty and poetry, the innermost mystery, of the thing for me. That, in spite of all this, people still sometimes do better. Sometimes. That, sometimes, suppressing my broken IFF seems to cause interactions with others to work out for the best. And that many, many times, in many, many interactions on the road on my bicycle, I am happily overcome by small yet crystal clear gestures from others (including drivers) which are so very clearly products not of the dark destructive heart but of a saver, of a better angel. 

The woman in the SUV yesterday, in the rain, in a construction zone, who stopped at the four-way and insisted that I proceed through the intersection while she smiled and waved at me, clearly taking care of me for no apparent reason. The construction guy operating the massive crane who saw me riding up, swung the crane out of the way, and insisted that I ride on while he waited for me to pass by. Or everyone out there who lives up to the Duty of Care, tamps down the faulty IFF, and operates in a civil and cooperative manner, in spite of the weight of evolution and history urging them in other directions. It happens. It's still happening, and I don't claim to fully understand it, but I like it better than the alternatives.

I would rather save than destroy, I truly would. Sometimes on my bicycle, that seems almost possible.


  1. It's a cruel, cruel, world, but I'm sure you'll find other oleanders to rest beneath.

    1. It's true, anniebikes, there are many others to rest beneath on a hot summer day, I just felt that I will miss these now that they're gone.

  2. Do you know the motive behind the Oleander cutting?

    1. Not sure Steve, it looked like maybe there was a fire, based on that scorched gate in the background, but I didn't see anything specific.


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