Tuesday, 27 December 2011

String Theory and the demise of Civilization

I have a book written by one of the scientific minds I admire, Lee Smolin, called, The Trouble with Physics (2006). In it, he speaks of the long lull in which particle physics slumbers, that not much novel thought has been advanced since the 1930's. He is critical of string theory in that it has no real experimentally-verifiable claims, nor does it offer any suggestions of its emperical veracity. And yet string theory has been able to assert an unhealthy monopoly over the theoretical discourse (which bases our modern technological advances) - "unhealthy" because it is like that proverbial pied piper which drowns out almost all voices of dissension/reason with its ghostly tune of hidden dimensions and multifarious modes of M.

I've been reading Confidence Men by Ron Suskind (2011) who talks about the rise of "financial engineers" in almost direct proportion to the demise of the manufacturing sector of North America, the demise of the "prudent man". -the "prudent man" is actually a US legal standard from a 1800's landmark decision called Harvard College v. Armory from a case in which a money manager squandered a widow's inheritance. The "prudent man" established that a fiduciary duty applies to investors who must invest assets of a trust as a "prudent man" might his own money (Suskind, p. 539).

Suskind, like Smolin, paints a picture of hyper-abstraction and overly complicated math and logic overtaking and overwhelming hard-won results of knowledge and plunder of its wealth and prudence (ie, not ideological conservatism because neither science nor economics is defined by dogmatic thinking but both are, in fact, fed by the ineffable human spirit of discovery).

Smolin's criticisms of string theories (for there are at least five under the rubric of M-theory (what it is no one really knows)), like Suskind's telling of Capitalism's sad narrative of wandering in the wilderness and losing its way in pursuit of mirages points to something of a collapse of systems of thought under the weight of mindless pursuit of vain-glory (dilettantism, really) and demogoguery, of swine's ears' transmutation into silk purses, of magical thinking trumping rationality and hard work.

The time scales differ but in the nights of book burning Goebbels is said to have made speeches about burning the past and of a "new" culture arising like a phoenix from the ashes, which is much like the greed of Wall Street wanting deregulation and repealing of financial safe-guards; much like the jealousy and mysticism of string theories over "old school" particle physics, that which likes to portray itself as a 24th century framework in the 20th century. At any rate, both views seem very much averse to verification, and, in fact, see such things as hampering their flights of fancy.

Quoting Suskind:

"What was happening was that Volcker was struggling to overlook the demonstrable facts: that by passing over him and his like-minded kindred for top Treasury and White House posts, Obama had shown his preference, one quite different from Volcker's, on almost all these issues. The president's preference, Volker felt, was 'first, do no harm' - a phrase he'd heard often in 1980, when he began to pinch off the money supply. The 'do no harm' school, he said, 'always sounds reasonable' in that it calls for delay, until matters worsen to the point 'where there'll be consensus that we need to act in a forceful way. But you never get that consensus, because many of the actors, the institutions and so forth, will follow their own self-interests right off the cliff.' Every policy of consequence, meanwhile, is going to 'do some harm, short term - something government, mind you, can and should help cushion.' But there's no other way 'to create the larger good, something you look back on with pride.'

That idea of accomplishment, something you could be proud of, reminded him of a breakfast he'd gone to a few months before that had helped him 'see things more clearly, even at my age.' It was a breakfast of 'right-thinking citizens' who were worried about the crumbling infrastructure in the country.

'At the end of the breakfast, this old gray-haired old man says, 'I know something about this. I'm a professor of civil engineering at Princeton. And I was up at Yale the other day and they've given up teaching civil engineering. There are just two old geezers like me up at Harvard, and once they're gone that'll be it. There's hardly an elite university in the United States that pays attention to civil engineering. What's the result? We hardly know how to build bridges; they tend to fall down. It's cost twice as much to build that new bridge across the Potomac as it would cost if it was built in Europe...I assure you, I know...and besides our bridges are ugly and theirs are beautiful.'" (pp. 535-356)

I knew a person who was really into Peter Drucker and the notions of the "new" information age and the shift from manufacturing and real assets to "services industry" and the "knowledge worker". What always struck me as so much "building bridges in the air" about Drucker, and, in fact, the whole ISO Standards movement for that matter, is the cult of the consultant much like the cult of the pop psychologists who sell snake oil and psuedo-Freudian psychology to the gullible and novelty seeker, the unsatisfied with self and reality. I just didn't have the language or framework for my initial impressions, though I've been reading about it in various sources like Hermann Hesse's Magister Ludi and Max Weber's works.

Truly, this is the "age of feuilleton"*, a secular gematria of pop cultural icons by corporatist consent.


*In Hesse's novel, viewed retrospectively from a future scholarly society (Castalia) this age, so called, is generally but not simply portrayed as having an overweening, trivializing, or obfuscating character associated with the arbitrary and primitive nature of social production prior to the historical denouement which resulted in the creation of Castalia. The bourgeois Feuilleton of the Belle Epoque, particularly France of the Dreyfus Affair period, and those of Fascist Germany, characteristic of the genre, served to effect Kulturpolitik and above all to establish norms, tastes, and form effective social identity, in particular expressing a underlying antisemitism. Glasperlenspiel was written during WWII and Hesse would have been reacting in part to these real historical developments. (Wikipedia entry)

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