78) Magic, Motorcycles, and Mandelbrot: Part 2 – Motorcycles

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If you’ve never experienced the full, bird-like ecstasy of cruising down back roads on a sweet bike, then you’re gonna have to find your own metaphor for ego + pleasure + control + domination + scientific materialism + technology + adrenaline + Good Times.  For me, “motorcycle” works fine.  

As a teenager, around when my belief in magic was going into hiding, and my belief in God-Religion was having its last gasps, I shifted my attention to Motorcycles, both literally and figuratively speaking.  

First of all, I did ride motorcycles, from the dirt bikes of childhood to the street bike of early adulthood (which I ultimately crashed — a long story for another time….).  So in the literal sense, my emergence into adulthood and all the “structuring” that goes along with that really was intertwined with the experiences of riding motorcycles. 

And figuratively, if “motorcycles” stands for science and technology, for power and ego, achievement and independence, and all that heart-pumping, feel-great-about-yourself stuff, then yes, this is also what flares into life during adolescence. 

Anyone who has ever revved their engine and peeled through an intersection, knows that rush, that admittedly ridiculous but powerful rush you feel in that moment.  Like, Yeahhhh!!  I’m bad-ASS!!  (Even though the person in the car behind you is probably rolling their eyes.  Or laughing at you for being an idiot.)

I think this is the same basic feeling-pattern you get from the command & control mentality.  From anger.  From competition.  Obviously it’s not all bad, but there’s an intoxifying effect that exerting power has on a person.  Once you start exerting power, you get off on the experience, the thrill of it, and it tends to escalate from there.  

One of the central features of Adult Life is the need to gain a position of competence in some domains that are important to you.  Whether it’s career, family, your renown as a crossword champion or your work with a philanthropic organization, so much of Adult Life revolves around establishing for yourself this Competence – thing.  And that striving for Competence, the striving for Power, the striving for Domination — all of those are different, sure, but in real practice, they sure do bleed together a lot of the time.   

There’s a hungry-ghost kind of thing that happens with the exertion of power.  You start to feel more entitled to exert power, because after all, you are pretty smart to have gotten all this power in the first place, and you start to depreciate “the other,” assuming more and more that other people just don’t have the same perspective as you, the same depth of understanding.  They “don’t get it.”  So, maybe you still need them as minions, to carry out your bidding, but you don’t really need people questioning your decisions anymore…..

Or the exertion of power creates a separation between you and the thing-you’ve-just-exerted-power-over. It’s like, instead of having a relationship, you are suddenly having a competition of some sort. Instead of approaching each other out of simple goodwill, now we approach out of need and through manipulation. I’m not saying that people can never have relationships across hierarchical levels of power, because obviously that happens all the time. I’m saying that the presence of hierarchical power differences in relationships adds a powerful dynamic to the relationship which veers towards inauthenticity and decorum, rather than authenticity and emotion. Thus, in a subtle, all-pervasive way, the exertion of power is like a film that separates people from making pure, authentic contact with each other.

Also, unfortunately, the exertion of power doesn’t tend to just fix some problem and then, yay it’s happy world forever!  No, it tends to create bigger problems.

In some ways, this is straightforward. For example, you exert enormous power to create something like airplanes. But this creates air forces, and eventually, nuclear missiles. And that creates nuclear energy. But that creates Chernobyl and Fukushima. Etc. So, more power exerted leads to the need to exert more power in order to create the problems that have been ‘scaled up.’ (This was a core part of Thomas Homer-Dixon’s, The Ingenuity Gap, which is a brilliant piece of work I’d recommend to anybody.)

Power creates bigger problems in less straightforward ways as well. For one, the exertion of power legitimizes, and then stimulates greater exertion of power.  A few examples:

  • the escalation of violence in a domestic conflict situation or abusive relationship
  • the escalation of police brutality in a government
  • the escalation of anger in an argument
  • the escalation of militaries into huge wars

But it’s not all about violence either. There’s a more fundamental way in which power escalates, which is because of “economy of scale.” In short, it’s more efficient to do things at a larger scale, provided you can control the problem that disasters are also “more efficient” at larger scales as well. Thus, brainstorming turns into groupthink. A patchwork quilt of independent businesses blanketing the world becomes a landscape of behemoth buildings of Walmarts, stomping huge footprints over the landscape and homogenizing the supply chain to a profound degree. Then Amazon does the same thing in the virtual space. In farming, the same thing happens, with small farms turning into monolithic agribusinesses, and landscapes of hundreds of crops and hundreds of varieties of each one, become humongous rectangles of corn that you can see from space.

“Economy of scale” examples are everywhere. And thus, Power tends to grow.

When you take this up to the international level, it’s extremely clear that exerting Power over greater swaths of the world has, over the long haul, created problems whereby mega-Powers now square off against mega-Powers, and that has escalated to an already scary degree.  

— how many countries have nuclear weapons?  And how many times over can we basically destroy the world with nukes?  (God only knows….how is this even a question that is meaningful to ask?  We can wipe out the planet?  Multiple times over?  And………why do we need to be able to do that at the press of a few buttons?)

— how many thousands of times faster are we changing the climate than happens naturally?  — (about 40 thousand?)  

— how much of wildlife have we destroyed in the past forty years?  (60%+?)

— how much of the Great Barrier Reef, the biggest living organism on the planet, is still more or less healthy and not-dying?  — (only ~ 5-10%?)

But when you have the technology, you feel you can FIX the problem, MASTER the universe.  Can we build it?  Yes we can!  (Bob the Builder)

As a society, as we become more embedded in the Motorcycle mentality, we become more susceptible to Big Ideas, Simple Narratives, Nice Slogans, and the Quick, Clean, Exertion of POWER to Fix Everything. Bob the Builder’s “Yes we can!” turns into Obama’s. And Trump is just the narcissistic side of the same coin — he promises to fix everything, and do it Bigly! There’s nothing a big enough Wall can’t fix, right?

When you drive a motorcycle, you feel the allure of power directly.  Indeed, it’s purring right between your legs, like you’re riding some kind of wild beast, powered by a rocket engine.  You yearn to go faster, accelerate more, lean in harder to those corners…..RrrrrrrAAAAArrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…..

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