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◌  On Julie and Peter’s rural v. city

11 June 2009

a boat and lichen

My mother said that the good things about rural life are not the things that outsiders tend to suppose, my brother asked questions and argued that rural living is not sustainable, and Mom replied with some advantages of rurality. My father and sister are, I suspect, too confident in their views to publish them, so that leaves me.

(Interested strangers should know that Peter and I are in cities, but for most of our youths lived with the family in a remote sub-hamlet.)

Mom’s most important point, to me, is around the idea that:

it’s by being physically in the presence of non-human life that their voices can become audible.

The question, I think, is why we should be listening. And I want an answer that avoids esthetics, because so much work on the experience of nature has been dismissed as being about personal taste. Walden seems to be remembered as saying that ponds are nice, not as an experiment on consciousness. I want a sketch of nature’s importance to humanity in terms that will make sense even to serious extropians and h+ers who have no taste for the outdoors.

Hear me, nerds. One of our big problems now, one of the things between us and Singularity, is getting a grip on complex systems. Because we’re newly fast and prolific at making things with behavior, we’re desperate for a pattern language about large interactions of heterogenous agents. This isn’t just computer networks – think of nanotech. Obviously, we should be running a vast ab-initio simulation of the laws of physics on a random arrangement of fundamental particles. As this grinds through huge timescales, scribbling on probable neighborhoods of phase space, patterns and meta-patterns will emerge, and it will become a giant exhibit of adaptive behavior – a generator of things that can work in our universe. So how much would you pay for this kind of simulation? $1e10? $1e15? $1e20? What if I told you it’s included in every purchase of the regular universe‽

The thing about nature is that it’s old – it’s the age of a pattern, not whether a person was involved, that makes it natural. Tautologically, nature is full of stuff that works. As we find ways to compete with it (if you care to put it in those terms), we need nature’s example. For a huge and field-tested library of nanotech, look in a cell, and so on.

To think these thoughts in less nerdy but more mystical ways, look at our need for otherness. We have an evolved desire to understand ourselves partly in terms of what we aren’t and what we are within. We invent things to fulfill this: gods, unknowable truth, aliens, villains, hallucinations, and basically everything else that’s fictional but not boring. To be satisfied, we need mysteries so badly that we will make fake ones if we have to. Nature’s advantage is that it’s the real mystery: the one that this drive evolved for, and one we don’t have to be at all deceptive to make awesome and terrifying.

So we have a duty to interact with seals because they know things that we don’t. They are our elders; they are dense with information. They are not, as some hippies would have you believe, like grandparents who teach deliberate and clear lessons. They do not tell you whether to use a paper or a plastic bag, or to hug trees, or to avoid boom-bust cycles. It’s the other way around – what’s valuable is that they don’t speak our language; that they’re doing something alien to us, something we have to twist and strain ourselves to understand as anything other than failing to be human, and yet it works.

I hope everyone agrees that to meet intelligent extraterrestrial life would be the best thing that humans ever did. And that, if it were not so dangerous and possibly unethical, making first contact would be the apotheosis of travel. Well, being in nature is a microcosm of these. It’s encountering something with which you are deeply connected, yet which is new. It’s like meeting a long-lost relative. Experiencing nature is good because it shows humans non-humans.

I see big holes in Peter’s argument that:

The act of living on the island is not a solution, it’s a splurge that cannot be shared in its present form

Yeah, but look, the act of living on the International Space Station is not a solution, blah blah. The act of living in an Antarctic scientific base, blah blah. Living a normal lifestyle in Seattle, even with the sacrifice of being in a crowded building, blah blah. The imperative to live exactly as you want 6.7 billion people to live is a weak one. If anything, there’s a stronger imperative to experience the strange and report back.

To say that the very process of living on an unspoiled island requires the exclusion of society at large in reply to a blog post is slightly absurd. Clearly Mom is spreading insights found in her unusual position. In 2009, living in a relatively uninhabited place has very little to do with how much your ideas can get out to benefit society. There are cultural heavyweights who have done work directly attributable to rural life just within walking distance of Mom.

More biting is Peter’s charge of smugness, cultishness, dogma, and tribalism. I agree. There’s a small-community groupthink or nonviolent mafia mentality that I think is a continuous disaster. Worse, I think a lot of islanders think it’s the best part of life there. But then, I think the advantages that city people give for life in the city are often just as wrong.

The smugness may be permanent. One of the things that makes rural life worthwhile is that it’s unusual, and that makes people defensive of it. I see similar smugness in groups of friends, the military, selective colleges, and professions. Groups just tend to have infuriating self-images.