Breathless in Babylon: Economic Dislocation Never Looked So Good

Zero MarginalA Review of The Zero Marginal Cost Society by Jeremy Rifkin

Declaring the end of capitalism has long been it’s own mini intellectual industry. And with the economic adversity brought on by the Great Recession of 2008, it’s an industry that has seen exponential growth. One of the recent, and more thoughtful, entries into this genre is Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society: the Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons and the Eclipse of Capitalism. “The capitalist era is passing” Rifkin writes on the very first page, “not quickly, but inevitably.” The architect of it’s demise, according to Rifkin, is not so much an alternative system or the public outrage over the 2008 financial crisis, but rather a sort of bug in the very system of capitalist enterprise, one that carries with it the seeds of capitalism’s fall from preeminence.  And that bug has everything to do with technology.

As technology evolves and the information economy becomes increasingly central to overall economic output, marginal costs begin to fall. Marginal cost simply means the amount it costs to produce every additional unit of a product beyond the fixed costs it cost to produce the original unit. In capitalism, profit is made on those margins. But as information technology works it way through the economy, margins collapse. For example, in a wired world, once an original song is recorded and put online, the production cost to sell each additional unit approaches zero. Copies can be made cheaply and easily and distributed anywhere in the blink of an eye. No need to pay a record company or agents. As new technologies improve production processes and reduce distribution costs, those middlemen are cut out, adoption rates scale laterally, and vertically integrated companies of a bygone age get flattened. “The near zero marginal cost phenomenon has already wreaked havoc on the publishing, communications and entertainment industries as more and more information is being made available nearly free to billions of people.” Rikfin writes.

Read more…

The Rise of the High Net Worth Individual (HNWI)


There are times in life and history when economics takes a backseat to other ways of conceiving the human experience. Not today. In second decade of the new millennium, the headlines scream of markets and mayhem, of dramatic wealth and economic disparity, of debt and dislocation, technological transformation and disruption. News shows debate not just political horse races, but economic papers of university professors and the competition to become chairman of the United States Federal Reserve. Ben Bernanke is a practically household name. Janet Yellen and Christine Lagarde are two of the most powerful women in the world. “Super” Mario Draghi is a rock star in Europe. Economics, the so-called “dismal science” is having its coming out party. Ideologues are so yesterday. In an era of financial tightrope walking, technocrats, it seems, have all the advantages.

But while central bankers try to steady the economic ship, a number of books inspired by the events of the last decade are seeking to reflect on the longer-term trends, good and bad, of our current economic challenges. Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future was covered in a previous blog. The Plutocrats; The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else by Cynthia Freeland is another such example. She is a financial journalist attempting to understand the new transnational class of high net worth individuals (HNWI), billionaires and multi-millionaires who have benefited so dramatically from the upheavals of the last decade. Through her pen, we get a glimpse into a world that many of us rarely see, a culture of enormous wealth and privilege, a trans-national social class of HNWI that operate largely free of the constraints of any particular geographical country. Indeed, a HNWI in New York may have much more in common with a HNWI in London than his or her fellow New Yorkers. Ditto for a similar person in Paris, Hong Kong or Mumbai. Untethered by national boundaries, these individuals also hold great power in world affairs and their ascension is worthy of reflection for all of us.


Chrystia Freeland

Despite the seeming implication of the book’s title, Freeland’s book is not a populist credo decrying the rise of the 1% of the 1%. She works to delve into the historical context of today’s plutocratic class, and points out that they are not necessarily the same as the robber barons and aristocrats of another era. Most are self-made and hardworking. Many come from humble circumstances. Many have adopted great charitable works, and embarked upon world-changing social enterprises. But for all of their good intentions, their rise to power has come at the same time as the rest of middle class in the developed world is feeling the economic screws tighten. This has not been, at least in the West, a rising tide that lifts all boats. Income disparity between the rich and everyone else is increasing. In what many are calling a second Gilded Age, the middle class is in danger of being hollowed out, and in the developing world that is a huge concern—not just economically, but politically and socially.

It has not always been this way. Freeland points out that the first industrial revolution transformed the economic landscape in the 19th century, creating wealth at an unprecedented scale. At the same time, it also created a new class of super-wealthy, and inspired the “first coherent political ideology of class warfare”—Marxism. That ideology was strongest in Europe, whose citizens suffered more from the economic dislocations of the time. But Marxism as applied economics was also a dramatic failure. As she points out, the working class, ironically enough, actually fared worst in those countries where Marxism succeeded. It’s a point that can hardly be overstated. In the US and Europe, various kinds of middle ground were found that negotiated the tensions between the dislocations of the market forces and the need to protect and further the gains of the industrial revolution. She calls it a “compromise between the Plutocrats and everyone else” that actually worked—at least for a time. Income disparity declined over much of the 20th century and a rising tide helped make the West eventually become the economic model for the world.

Ironically, it was partially the threat of communism, Freeland suggests, that brought the Plutocratic leaders of industry to the bargaining table during the post-war era. She refers to this time period as the “Treaty of Detroit” a term from MIT researchers Frank Levy and Peter Temin that refers to the contract between the UAW and the big three automakers in 1950. It is also “shorthand to describe the broader set of political, social and economic institutions that were established in the United States during the postwar era: strong unions, high taxes and a high minimum wage.” Freeland points out that this was a “golden age” for the middle class—in the US at least.

In the late 70’s the Treaty of Detroit gave way to the “Washington Consensus”—cutting taxes, reining in unions, globalization, cutting social sending, reforming regulation, privatization—trends that have reflected the last few decades of international politics and certainly are found in both parties in the US. The collapse of communism gave tremendous weight and validation to this approach and it has arguably been critical in helping to lead the economic rise of the rest of the world. Freeland suggests that as the rest of the globalizing world goes through there own version of the 19th century industrial revolution, they are experiencing what is in essence their own Gilded Age, even as the industrialized world is going through a second Gilded Age. And it is the complex interaction between these twin Gilded Ages in the globalizing world economy that is producing the unprecedented rise of a new plutocratic class and raising a host of questions and issues that policy makers will be struggling with for the next decades.

Two points in The Plutocrats particularly stood out in my reading. First, rent-seeking behavior must be actively discouraged. Rent-seeking means that one is achieving wealth almost entirely through political connections. Crony capitalism is another name for similar behavior and its corrosive affect on society hardly needs repeating, though it is easier to complain about than to effectively respond to. Rent-seeking is entirely different than wealth achieved by creating new products, businesses, technologies and market efficiencies. The latter is likely welcome in any economy no matter what billionaires are or are not created in the process. This difference between growing the overall economic pie and appropriating it to oneself through political muscle is everything when it comes to social impact of the plutocratic class.

This leads to a second critical point in Freeland’s analysis, which is that, once established, there is a natural tendency for any plutocratic class to seek to political power. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. Former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, energy titan David Koch and financier George Soros are just a few of the examples on different sides of the political spectrum. But legitimate political activity can quickly lead to inappropriate forms of political influence. Freeland is well traveled in this territory. Her first book, Sale of the Century: the Inside Story of the Russian Revolution chronicled the rise of the Russian plutocrats and the way they plundered state resources through political connections. And even if power and wealth is achieved through playing the economic game fairly, once in power, the tendency can be overwhelming to use that power and influence to tilt the rules toward plutocratic favor.  Even a completely meritocratic rise of a plutocratic class can morph into crony capitalism. Indeed, what started out as a legitimate and socially respected rise to wealth and power can lead to the creation of a privileged class whose opportunities dwarf the rest of the society. Americans have always been kind to meritocratic plutocrats, but the antipathy to protected privilege is also deeply felt in this country and can cause all kinds of social and political backlashes. Given the deep relationship between politics and money today, these trends are all the more important to pay attention to.

Freeland’s book is cautionary but not pessimistic. In some ways, the plutocratic class is neither good not bad, but raises a host of issues that society must grapple with. Are these economic transformations merely a balancing out of West vs. East, an inevitable corrective to years of the West’s economic superiority? Are we all, in a sense, slowly meeting in the middle? Or does the rise of income disparity represent a dangerous degradation of our economic system? Or perhaps it is simply the temporary consequence of impersonal and historical economic forces, beyond the reach of even the most able technocrats and policy makers? These are the issues and questions that are naturally raised as she travels through the worlds of the 1%—interviewing, wondering, questioning and seeking answers.

Like Lanier, Freeland points out that many of the great advances of our century have been dependent upon the health of the developed world’s middle class. Problems with the middle class are indicative of problems with modernity itself.  All of us, including the new plutocrats, need to take heed. How do we shape the rise of extraordinary new wealth in the developing world and simultaneously moderate the difficult economic issues facing the developed world—Europe, America, and Japan? How do we accurately diagnose, much less respond effectively to the issues of income inequality, which involve so many factors and are by nature, multi-dimensional and touch upon economic issues, but also sociological, psychological, historical and cultural factors. The Plutocrats provides yet another informational piece of this critical puzzle. Let’s hope at least a few of the best minds of our generations (and the next) are paying attention.

A rising tide that lifts all boats is the dream and the true aspirational potential of modernist capitalism, but we must not assume this beneficent outcome is inevitable. Like generations before, it will be up to enlightened policymakers to make those choices (even if they are choices of restraint) that look far into the future, moderate the political extremes that accompany any Gilded Age, and respond to the desire for life, liberty, fairness and opportunity—for a few and for all.

New Year’s Thoughts

New YearsHappy New Year! Out with 2013, in with the new. Let’s all hope 2014 will be better in all kinds of ways. Maybe the economy will finally get some liftoff. Perhaps those in Washington will finally decide to stop throwing food at each other and solve some problems. I hope that what was for me a year of transition in 2013 could turn into a year of opportunities and new directions in 2014. I wish my readers well in their own transitions, opportunities, and new directions—and I wanted to introduce the year with some tidbits, books, articles, and quotes that have recently captured my interest.


Two Areas of Real Innovation 

It often seems to me that there are two areas of deep and transformative innovation happening right now in our economy. Yes, the tech sector is certainly one of them. That’s the one that most people would point to. It’s amazing what is happening here in the Bay Area where the denizens of Silicon Valley work to change the world and, in some significant ways, actually succeed. Here is a link to a recent article about Google’s new Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil (who was profiled in my book, Evolutionaries).

Ray talking about his favorite subject –the future.


Ray Kurzweil

The other area where tremendous innovation is happening and rapidly changing the world is the energy industry. The US is increasing its oil and gas supply with technologies that are changing the game of oil and gas extraction. That is, in turn, helping our economy, changing the dynamics of world energy, and affecting the cost of energy in big ways, along with reducing our carbon footprint dramatically. (A good link on the subject).

Now, I understand that this is controversial. Many people are deeply worried about the environmental costs of fracking. I’ve heard both sides of the story, including a passionate Christmas defense of the overall ethics of fracking by a family member who is a top expert in the field. I’m not an expert and won’t comment further here, but what is certain is that the technological changes are having a huge effect on the economics of energy, shocking experts, changing the picture of the world economy, and making everyone re-think their assumptions about energy in the 21st century. Those of you who follow me may know that I come from the oil patch, a small town in OK where oil was akin to life, economically speaking, and I have been fascinated for the last few years by how the worldwide energy industry is developing. Given the economic issues facing the US and the world, our utter dependence on relatively cheap and available energy, and the potentially enormous challenges of Climate Change, the subject is critical. Then throw in various thoughts about the world’s oil supply and peak oil (which may have been overplayed in the short term, but are still a concern over the next years and decades) and the need to find ways to switch our energy use away from carbon and toward clean alternatives, and you have a subject that touches all of our lives directly.

Over Christmas I read a fascinating book about Big Oil. Private Empire: Exxon Mobile and American PowerPrivate Empire

This was my vacation reading…all 624 pages. Private Empire is an informative journey through the heart of ExxonMobile over the last few decades and by extension a look at the oil and gas industry. For those of you who are not familiar with Steve Coll, let me say a few words of praise. He is an exhaustive researcher who gives a truly kaleidoscopic view of the subject at hand. Ghost Wars is the other book of his I have read and I would highly recommend it as well. Of course, ExxonMobile is the enemy of environmentalists everywhere, and often demonized as the epitome of a bad corporate actor. The truth, as often happens, is much more complicated. They certainly deserve that reputation in some respects, and the CEO became a poster child for climate change denial in the early years of the century for pushing the company to fund questionable science and anti-Climate Change think tanks, as Coll clearly documents. In doing so, he likely tarnished their corporate brand for a generation. At the same time, one can’t help but come away from Coll’s book impressed by this corporate behemoth. The ExxonMobile he portrays is an extremely complex, fiercely independent, unabashedly arrogant, my-way-or-the-highway highly competent global company that made huge changes to their operations after the Valdez spill, where the book begins. Coll’s book is a remarkable window into the global geopolitics and economics of Big Oil.


Talking about TED

TED talksTED has been around a while now and has become something of a household name. It is one of the key mediums through which ideas spread in our culture. A “TED talk” is now a thing in and of itself. But TED has come under some criticism recently, the most striking perhaps being this article/TEDx talk about TED itself. The quote below is from a blistering Guardian article. These are criticisms that should be paid attention to:

“Innovation” defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo.

One TED speaker said recently, “If you remove this boundary … the only boundary left is our imagination”. Wrong.
If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.”


Biking the Skyway


Envisioning a SkyCycle above the streets of London

Love this idea…Are you listening, San Francisco and Oakland?

 London’s SkyCycle Would Create a Sky-High Transportation Alternative

 “Not only would SkyCycle relieve traffic congestion, but the architects hope it would also bring new life to the underutilized industrial areas next to the railway lines. Like other cities that are building up instead of out, SunCycle would create a new urban space by “vertically layering the city to create new social spaces and amenities on these cycling high streets.”


A Final Quote to Start the New Year (from Karl Popper)

Karl Popper

Karl Popper

“Specialization may be a great temptation for the scientist. For the philosopher, it is the mortal sin.”

Love this. (And thank you Willa Geertsema for finding it). New Year’s resolution: Read more Karl Popper. 


Happy New Year!


Economics and Technology — Heavenly Match or Dangerous Duo?

Who Owns the FutureIn our post Great Recession world, it is difficult to think deeply about the future of culture without considering economics realities. While there are many ways to look at the economic disruptions of the last years, when it comes to understanding the deeper historical forces driving economic events, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier’s quirky and brilliant book, Who Owns the Future, is a revelation. He has thought deeply about the cultural impact of the information economy and the rise of powerful companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon. His economic insights are original, his social analysis intriguing and even his more existential considerations are provocative (though that is mostly the subject of his previous book, You are Not a Gadget).

Lanier asks a question that also lurks behind today’s headlines and has never been far from the lips of thoughtful economists. Are middle classes natural? They are part of the lifeblood of capitalism, but are they an inevitable result of the rise of wealth that has accompanied modernism and the industrial revolution? Or are they more tenuous creations, dependent on fortuitous policies and politics, made possible by the wealth that capitalism’s creates, but still dependent on the moderating, shaping influence of human institutions? Lanier writes:

Marx argued that finance was inherently hopeless technology and that market systems will always degrade into the rut of plutocracy. A Keynesian economist would accept that ruts exist but would also add that falling into ruts can be staved off indefinitely with interventions in order to survive…Great wealth is a naturally persistent, generation to generation, as is deep poverty, but a middle-class status has not proven to be stable without a little help. All the examples of long-term stable middle classes we know of relied on Keynesian interventions as well as persistent mechanism like social safety nets to moderate market outcomes.

Lanier worries that the increasing speed of technological change could be tipping that tenuous balance, changing the fundamental equation, destroying middle class jobs in sector after sector of our economy at a rate that far exceeds new job creation.  The argument usually employed is that as certain sectors lose jobs as a result of technological change, new industries are simultaneously created. Buggy whips producers are long gone. Electric car battery factories are on the rise. The once mighty GM went bankrupt a few years ago, but Apple and Google are thriving. Creative destruction is all part of a healthy economy. To impede that process is to restrict the wealth creating mechanism that built modernity. That is all certainly true, but as Lanier points out the social consequences of “creative destruction” may be changing as technology moves forward. Google and Apple employ a small percentage of the people that GM did at its height. And there is concern that an information economy, despite its many significant positives, might not be able to easily sustain the job creation capacity that our industrial economy once did.

Who Owns the Future introduces us to new terms like the idea of a “siren server”. Lanier defines them as “elite computers…on a network…characterized by narcissism, hyperamplified risk aversion and extreme information asymmetry.” Think Amazon, Google, Facebook, Orbitz. The powerful influence of a siren server can create whole industries all built to work around the preferences of that information node. Entire companies are structured around Google’s search algorithms. Millions moderate their behavior to fit the parameters of Amazon’s preferences. Wal-Mart, he suggests, was siren server from a slightly earlier era.  Their success was driven, not just by the China price, or by small town economics, but by achieving unmatched market efficiencies driven by information asymmetry. Now Amazon is playing that exact game in a new decade, and improving it. Lanier points out that those who own or are very close to siren servers are making most of the great fortunes of our age. We can debate the pros and cons of these informational economic engines, but even the distinction, which he draws out over the course of the book, makes you think about the forces shaping our lives in new ways.


Lanier is also suspicious of “free” economy, pointing out that as more and more services become free, we all benefit, but we also pay a hidden cost. Music is becoming free but musicians, with the exception of celebrities and stars, struggle to make a living. News is free but journalism has suffered greatly. Education looks to be headed the same way. More and more technology companies provide free services and use advertising as their primary business model. Is that sustainable over the long run? Can an information economy built on “free” provide the islands of middle class wealth that have been so essential to the stability of the developed world? Or will the fast-rising waters of massive technological disruption swamp them?

While Lanier’s concerns are many, he is far from a Luddite. The issue for him is not whether we go forward, but how we go forward. Are there ways to best shape outcomes in the information economy in ways that produce not a race to the bottom or a winner take all economy, but the bell curve—some rich, some poor, most in the middle—that is the sign of societal health.

In the developed world, it’s easy to forget that the great advances of our century—social, political and economic—have been dependent upon the health of our unprecedented middle classes. If they begin to falter, the political implications could be far-reaching. The wrath of America’s so-called “Tea Party” and Occupy Wall Street’s activism point to kind of anger that will proliferate if a winner take all system become the norm of our economy. Lanier points out that when it last looked like capitalism might destroy the middle class and create a plutocracy, we developed policies that curtailed the disparities, bolstered the labor movement and also staved off the over-reaction of a socialist revolution—all while encouraging the forward-looking growth of our economy. The information revolution for all its many wonders and opportunities presents new but related challenges to our global policymakers. How do we embrace the future being created in technological hubs around the world while actively promoting the best possible outcomes of those changes? Lanier ‘s work is indispensable in that critical conversation.

Do the Laws of Physics Evolve?

time_rebornI’m happy to se Lee Smolin’s new book making a very interesting point about time. In his new work, Time Reborn, he apparently (haven’t read it yet) makes some radical and interesting statements about the nature of time, and mentions how even the laws of physics might not be final, fixed and immutable, but actually evolve over time.

Now those of you who have read my book, Evolutionaries, will remember this section where I talk about “breaking the spell of solidity” in relationship to way we think about the world around us. I even mentioned this is regards to the laws of physics, not because I wanted to weigh in on matters of physics I know little about, but because 1) It’s a natural question to ask once you start down a robustly evolutionary thought process, and 2) Some important thinkers have already started that inquiry. By “breaking the spell of solidity” I mean making the effort to question whether so many of the things in the physical universe that we think are fixed, immutable, and unchanging are actually that way given are emerging understanding of how so much of what we once thought was fixed, unchanging, or even God-given is natural and evolving. As we start to integrate a deeper understanding of time and evolution into our view of reality, I believe we will be asking this essential question in regards to many issues. In this particular chapter, I was talking mostly about culture and human psychology, and about Ken Wilber’s philosophy, but also gave a nod to Charles Peirce who was one of the first thinkers to deeply incorporate a profoundly developmental view of reality into his thinking. Of course, it should be said that Rupert Sheldrake has been talking about this as well for years, and that was even part of his TED talk that was banned by TEDx scientific censorship team (and subsequently re-instated). But given how much Sheldrake is reviled by many in the scientific community, he is unlikely to get much credit. But Smolin has impeccable credentials in the scientific community and in physics and so his nod to Peirce and his re-imagining of the nature of time should provoke a lot of discussion.

First, here is a quote from my book:

I found it remarkable to discover, in the course of my research, that all the way back in the nineteenth century Peirce was questioning the spell of solidity even as it applied to the most sacred cows of the physical sciences: the laws of nature. For Peirce, the entire universe and all of its forces and creations were subject to evolution. Indeed, Peirce’s work was one of the first to begin to theorize how something as ostensibly absolute as a law might be created through the processes of evolution. Perhaps the laws of nature are not un- changing, applying to everything for all time, he suggested. Perhaps they didn’t pre-date the universe. Perhaps they, too, evolved along with the forms and structures of our cosmos.

Peirce suspected that many of the seemingly fixed structures of our universe are in fact better described as habits—habits that have become so deeply embedded in nature that they behave like laws, fixed and unchangeable. In 1915, the Mid-West Quarterly, a publication of the University of Nebraska, published the following description of Peirce’s ideas as presented in his lectures at Johns Hopkins University.

May not the laws of the universe be the acquired habits of the universe? May there not still be a possibility of the modification of these habits? May there not be the possibility, forever, of the formation of new habits, new laws? May not law be evolved from a primordial chaos, a universe of chance? In the play of chance still apparent may we not see the continual renewal of the life of the universe, a continual renewal of the capacity for habit forming and growth?

Peirce suggested all of this before science had any sense of cosmological evolution, of the deep-time developmental history of our universe. Questions concerning the laws of physics are even more fascinating today, particularly in the context of our current under- standing of Big Bang Theory. Did those laws exist in some timeless void prior to the initial cosmic emergence? Did they pop into existence at the moment of that great conflagration? Were they gifts, perhaps, of a previous universe, a sort of cosmically inherited informational DNA designed to help structure the evolution of our own realm of time and space? When it comes to such issues that get at the heart of our cosmic origins, we still have far more questions than answers.

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake is another thinker who has suggested that the laws of nature may not be immutable and eternal but are more like habits. And he points out that most physicists have not thought deeply about these questions in light of our new cosmology. “Although cosmology is now evolutionary,” he writes, “old habits of thought die hard. Most scientists take eternal laws of Nature for granted—not because they have thought about them in the context of the Big Bang, but because they haven’t.” Lately, it seems, a few more physicists have stepped into the breach with interesting speculations about the source of the laws of nature, such as Templeton Prize winner Paul Davies and science writer James Gardner. But wherever such speculations ultimately lead us, what is important for our discussion is that once again the spell of solidity is broken and we can at least begin to consider the possibility that certain characteristics of the universe that seem immutable and unchanging might better be considered as evolutionary—things that develop over time through habitual repetition until they become more and more established. Eventually, in a cognitive illusion that fools us again and again, they seem fixed, eternal and unchanging, when actually they are nothing of the sort.


Now here is Smolin. In his recent interview he states:

 Now some of this is not new. The American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, identified this issue that I’ve just mentioned in the late 19th century.LEE SMOLIN However, his thinking has not influenced most physicists. Indeed, I was thinking about laws evolving before I read Charles Sanders Peirce. But something that he said encapsulates what I think is a very important conclusion that I came to through a painful route. And other people have more recently come to it, which is that the only way to explain how the laws of nature might have been selected is if there’s a dynamical process by which laws can change and evolve in time. And so I’ve been searching to try to identify and make hypotheses about that process where the laws must have changed and evolved in time because the situation we’re in is: Either we become kind of mystics, well, just those are the laws full stop, or we have to explain the laws. And if we want to explain the laws, there needs to be some history, some process of evolution, some dynamics by which laws change.

This is for some people a very surprising idea and it still is a surprising idea in spite of the fact that I’ve been thinking about it since the late 80’s, but if you look back, there are precedents: Dirac, you can find in his writings, a place where Dirac says the laws must have been different earlier in the universe than now; they must have changed. Even Feynman has … I found a video online where Feynman has a great way…and I wish I could do a Feynman Brooklyn accent, it sort of goes: “Here are the laws we say; here are the laws, but how do they get to be that way in time? Maybe physics really has a historical component. ” Because you see, he’s saying physics is different from the other subjects. There is no historical component to physics as there is to biology, genealogy, astrophysics, and so forth. But Feynman ends up saying, “Maybe there is a historical component.” And then in the conversation his interviewer says, “But how do you do it?” And Feynman goes, “Oh, no, it’s much too hard, I can’t think about that.”


I look forward to reading Time Reborn.

Follow the Money!

A Review of Michael Lewis’s Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

The world of Global Finance can be maddeningly frustrating to understand. Unfortunately, its complexity is not matched by its insignificance. Indeed, the effects of decisions and actions in banks, markets and government policy circles around the world are highly consequential. They can easily enrich and impoverish, uplift or condemn, unleash or constrain the peoples of our small planet. As we saw in the recent Great Recession, obscure and only recently invented financial instruments like “Credit Default Swaps” can suddenly become central to vast global economic shifts and changes. And decisions made in Central Banks around our globe can easily trump those made in the Parliaments and Congresses of even our most robust democracies.

Given these realities, we need good guides to this territory of global finances, journalists like Michael Lewis, author of Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. Lewis’s smart, popular style help us cut through the complexity, and even better, tells us the frightening story of what actually happens when entire countries are empowered by easy money, such as happened in first decade or our new millennium.  The author of The Big Short and Moneyball, Lewis is first and foremost a masterful storyteller and his narrative is funny and entertaining amidst his deeply disturbing recounting of the debt fueled hysteria that gripped so many countries in the last decade. His breezy and darkly humorous book is not a full accounting of our economic issues, but rather a travelogue of sorts, a recent tour through the financial disaster zones of the developed West. Like a Weather Channel journalist after big storm, he gives us an on-the-ground perspective of what happened, what was lost, what was learned, and what the future may hold. Through his eyes, we see the impact of the Great Recession on economies of Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Germany and finally back to the US.

Lewis is hardly the first to point out that one of the unintended consequences of the new Euro Zone was new access to easy (borrowed) money for much of Europe. Countries like Greece, whose currencies were once tied to the budget situation of their own country, were suddenly judged by the Eurozone overall. In practice, that meant they were judged by the pristine budgets of Germany. As crazy as it sounds in retrospect, the Greeks were able to borrow money as if they were the Germans, but spend it as if they were Greeks.  And spend it they did. The result was massive accumulation of debt. And they weren’t alone. The overall theme was repeated across Europe and America with different cultural variations. As Lewis writes:

 The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007…wasn’t just money. It was temptation. It offered entire societies the chcance to reveal aspects of their chracters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire coutnries were told, “the lights are out, you can do whatever you want and no one will ever know.” What they wanted to do with the money was dark and varied. Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a theretofore suppressed megalomania. Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish.

Very few things reveal character like easy money—lots and lots of it. This is true of individuals, but it also true of cultures. And that is perhaps the most fascinating part of Lewis’s book. Through stories, interviews, and he brings us deep into the cultural affects of what happened, and we see the fascinating, bizarre and strange rationalizations that led the Icelanders to think they were savvy investment bankers, the Greeks to think they could just lie to themselves and just about everyone else about the true state of their finances, and the Germans to wake up one day and realize, much to their dismay, that the rest of the world did not relate to money like the Germans. It is an amazing and dismaying journey and Lewis never allows the story to lag or to get bogged down in charts or numbers. The financial facts are thankfully easy to follow, but stories and the people and the cultural insight are what the reader is ultimately left with.

Boomerang is not a story with a simple beginning and ending. Today, the financial unraveling of that debt tsunami is still working its way through the global economy. And economists argue about the cultural costs of things like austerity on the European social fabric, and that easy money presents a moral hazard for the US banking and financial system. What one sees through Lewis’s journalism, however, is not just how economic policy influences cultural behavior but also the opposite: how the qualities of any given national character enormously influence their economic long term success and failure. Ultimately, he tracks the all too human tendency to profit handsomely from the bubble and then to point the fingers at others when the music stops. “Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans,” he writes, “and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans.”

Lewis’s last concern is American municipalities, the cities and towns who have spent money with great profligacy in the good times, and are gasping for air not that times have turned tough. They have tied themselves into future pension obligations that are compromising existing budgets. As I read the news in my new hometown of Oakland, CA I see the reality of this every day, in budgetary challenges, for example, which have understaffed and decimated the police dept. in one of the more violent cities in the country.  The nearby San Jose is the city featured in the book. It shows us that the mismanagement of government and of our budgetary policies is not a uniquely federal issue. But Boomerang is not a call for austerity, or for less government, but a call for greater rationality in economic lives, for living within our means, for being less avaricious in the good times, and for the human character and ingenuity needed to struggle through the bad.

Progress or Pessimism: How Should We Think about the Future?

optimistic_pessimisticOver the last eight months, I’ve been traveling a great deal. In the context of a recent book tour, I’ve had the chance to speak to many different groups of people in cities around the United States about the future of consciousness and culture. In those talks, dinner conversations, salon discussions, bookstores Q&As and media interviews, I’ve had a unique opportunity to engage with people from all ages and many walks of life. We’ve pursued questions that get at the heart of the human endeavor, and I’ve appreciated hearing how they think about the big questions—where we’ve come from, where we are going, and what it all means. And among all the different attitudes and ideas about the future I encountered, one thing stood out. I was surprised to find out how many people are quite pessimistic. They express a quiet but real despair about humanity’s potential.

Between the challenges posed by climate change, the economic difficulties of developed and developing nations, the dangerous mix of technology and terrorism, the ongoing poverty and suffering of billions of our fellow humans, and the seeming inability of governments to respond to these significant issues and others, people find themselves losing faith in our collective future. They are pessimistic, not that we could respond to the issues that beset us, but that we will. We may have the ability, but they observe that we lack the political or social will and global solidarity to make the choices necessary to put us on a positive track forward.

If once is an example, twice is a coincidence, and three times or more is a trend, then pessimism is a serious trend out there among many progressives. But what makes this anecdotal observation particularly interesting is that there is another active trend establishing itself on the front pages of our media these days and influencing the edges of our culture as well. Optimism. I see it every day, in books and articles by some of the smartest, best informed, most forward-thinking of our culture’s intelligentsia. There is a resurgence of a kind of unbridled optimism about the possibilities of the future—from “rational optimist” Matt Ridley’s debunking of apocalyptic thinking to Steven Pinker’s assertions that violence has been decreasing throughout history in his bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature, to Steven Johnson’s trumpeting of technology and peer networks in Future Perfect, to Peter Diamandis’ techno-inspired optimism expressed in his book Abundance. These thinkers argue that we simply don’t appreciate how good things are in comparison to how they have been historically, and how much better they are likely to become in the near and far future. They point out how far the modern world has come, how much technology and industry have already transformed human culture for the better, and they allude to new economic, social, and technological revolutions on the horizon. While they vary in tone and content, the overall message stands in stark contrast to the perspectives of so many whom I met on the road this last year. Pessimism is misguided, they tell us. Optimism is the only rational conclusion to be drawn from the trajectory of history.

So how do we negotiate the conundrum of these contradictory conclusions? Should we feel exuberant or terrified about the future? Should we feel encouraged or alarmed by the trends of history? Is optimism or pessimism the rational conclusion of our moment? My own problem is that I identify to some degree with both positions. I find myself embracing the optimist’s convictions while simultaneously being moved by the pessimist’s concerns. Is that a tenable place to stand? Am I being sensible or schizophrenic? Am I trying to have it both ways, or is there a way to integrate these two opposing values?

The Power of Innovation

“Ever since Thomas Robert Malthus,” Matt Ridley writes in his recent Wired article, “doomsayers have tended to underestimate the power of innovation.” He is optimismright. There is a longstanding tendency in human behavior to see the world around us as being in decline, no matter when we are living. In so doing, we often fail to see the actual movement of progress, technological and otherwise. We imagine Golden Ages past, when life was simpler, easier, and more peaceful, despite the fact that there is little evidence that such a time ever existed. We forget how much technology and innovation have changed our world and we look to the past through rose-colored glasses. And we also inappropriately project the problems of the present onto the future, forgetting that life is never static and the world is ever in motion, missing the small but significant changes that are improving our world every day. In Future Perfect, Johnson notes that the media tends to focus on the dramatic, bad or good, missing deeper, but less sexy historical narratives of incremental change. “You can always get bandwidth by declaring yourself a utopian. You can always get bandwidth by mourning the downward trend lines for some pressing social issue,” writes Johnson, “But declaring that things are slightly better than they were a year ago…never makes the front page.”

The most famous contemporary example of failing to take into account technological innovation is Paul Erlich and his concerns about the “Population Bomb” in the 1970s. His alarmist writings about human population failed to take into account the kind of technological breakthroughs that have steered us away from the mass calamity and famines he predicted decades ago. In his Wired article, Ridley points to Erlich’s failure again and again, trumpeting the power of innovation over the all-too-human tendency toward apocalypticism. He makes a convincing case that such an approach to the future is rife with irrational conclusions, and out of touch with modernity’s ability to innovate its way out of danger. And he concludes by mentioning climate change in the current list of over-the-top prognostications of future apocalypses.

Defending Modernism

My concern with Ridley’s thinking, and many of the authors I have mentioned here, is not their scholarship or careful research, or even their general conclusions. It is that there is a subtle but powerful agenda behind their work, one that we should surface in order to better understand the context of their thinking. They are defenders of a modernist worldview’s promise of scientific and technological innovation providing material abundance and leading us forward in history. They are attempting to rescue modernity and the values of the Western Enlightenment from the assaults of those who don’t appreciate just how far and how fast human culture has come in the last couple hundred years. These optimists are reminding us that the modernist values of democracy, industrialization, economic prosperity, and techno-futurism have created conditions for human culture that are so positive relative to the past that we actually begin to forget just how messed up the world was before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And I applaud their efforts, albeit with caution.

There is not the time here to fully explain the history of these motives, but suffice to say that much of European and American intellectual scholarship over the last several decades has not been kind to the previous several centuries of human civilization. It has placed many of humanity’s ills at the doorstep of industrialization and held modernity responsible for much of what is wrong with the contemporary human condition. And the idea of progress, so central to the modernist worldview, was all but left for dead after the two World Wars.

Pinker, Ridley, Johnson and others are bucking this trend with a vengeance. They are attempting to provide a rational basis for a sense of progress in history and laying the foundation for a positive futurism. They have debunked significant errors in contemporary thinking about both the past and the future. But it’s this more defensive part of their work that concerns me. Modernity is not without significant problems, and we need to confront them. Pessimistic and apocalyptic thinking may indeed run counter to reality, but that doesn’t mean reality is inherently sunny. Progress, technological or otherwise, can be brutally disruptive if unmanaged by capable hands. We are entering a period in which the global scale of human impact needs a global scale of intelligent response. Optimism can carry with it a concurrent blindness, especially when it’s driven by the need to prove wrong all of those countercultural thinkers who are telling us that capitalism has failed and modernity’s promise is a mirage.

The Middle Way

Today, we face challenges unlike any that humanity has ever dealt with, problems caused by our own incapacity to appreciate the far-reaching consequences, both good and bad, of our technological revolutions. Climate change is just one such problem, and Ridley can’t help but play it down in his article, given how environmentalists have trafficked in exactly the kind of sky-is-falling thinking he is decrying. But we can’t let ideology trump sober science or cause us to turn away from the potential magnitude of the issue. We may not have cause for panic, but that doesn’t mean there is not reason for real concern, not just on climate change but on a whole host of issues. Just because a case can often be overstated doesn’t mean it’s invalid. Just because the environmental movement has tended toward a kind of eco-apocalypticism doesn’t mean that climate change is a paper tiger. Yes, pessimists can often look at history ass-backwards and draw negative conclusions about modernity that are unwarranted, but that doesn’t mean that everything else they say is wrong and can be dismissed as false prophecy. And here is the delicate part: If we’re more concerned about defending modernity than actually embracing the world as it is and the evidence as we find it, we may downplay and dismiss critical issues that need our attention.

I love the energy and data-driven enthusiasm of the optimists and I recommend their work (especially to the pessimists). The message of progress in history is encouraging and so often under-appreciated in today’s cultural climate. But the pessimists should not be summarily dismissed. The specific content of many of their concerns can be embraced, even if we decide not to embrace the context of their fears. I want my optimism to be infused with realism, to be able to stand unflinching in the face of the pessimists concerns, to embrace their legitimate issues even while rejecting all the sky-is-falling rhetoric that has often been the currency of those who are drawing our attention to the problems that confront our society. Ultimately, we can’t be pessimists and optimists at the same time, and given the choice, I far prefer the latter. But there are real dangers to optimism, no less so in the form it travels in today. By recognizing them, we can give others and ourselves justifiable faith in the future while fully confronting the dangers ahead.

Doubling Down on Guns

Image: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks next to former Rep. Gabby Giffords on commonsense measures to reduce gun violence, in WashingtonIt’s been a double dose of disaster the last few days, watching events unfold from Boston to Washington. First the horror at the Boston marathon, and then the decision by the highest deliberative body in the land to shuck all reason and abandon responsibility for curbing gun violence while doubling down on our existing gun laws, or lack of them. The first is horribly incomprehensible. Unfortunately, the second is all too comprehensible, given the state of our Congress. Could there be a more dramatic example of the dysfunction at the heart of our national political system? How does what seems like such a reasonable no-brainer not even garner 60 votes. My city is awash in guns (Oakland) only because people can drive up to the Nevada gun show and buy any firearm they want sans background check. How is it that 90% of the public support a critical bill, and not even 55% of the Senate? For those of us who feel that as we should not simply allow our society to be shaped by unmitigated brute forces of nature of culture, but that we must make some effort to shape them toward more productive and positive ends, this was not a good day. For those hoping that amidst the haze of money and power, Congress was still capable of being accountable to something other than the fat contributions and the next election, this was not an encouraging outcome.

The questions come fast and furious. Are politicians running that scared? Does the NRA have that much power? Is the fear of getting “primaried” so intense as to commit what so many have to know is a vote against good conscience, basic safety and decent governance? And honestly, if that is what it requires these days to stay in power, why do they care about keeping their job!? If you have to destroy reason and good conscience to do your job, maybe you shouldn’t have that job. I don’t want to impugn people’s motive too strongly, and I’m sure some voted their conscience, if we can call it that. But if most accounts are to be believed, this was not an issue of deep division. Most supported the bill. This was a straightforward survival vote.  Our elected representatives made a simple bet. “The people will forget. The NRA will not.” I feel insulted, and you may too. But somewhere, our senators are simply surrendering to a painful truth—that on some issues, the voice of money and power speaks a thousand decibels louder than the voice of the quiet multitudes. Where have we gone wrong when the outsized voice of a few hundred thousand matters so much more than the justified outrage of a few hundred million? The tyranny of the majority is one thing, but this is tyranny of a backward minority. This isn’t your democracy, this vote is quietly telling us. Underneath the rhetoric, outrage and justification, we the people are being mocked.

Still, what they don’t realize is that they are making a larger gamble. They are playing with the future of the Republican Party. Yes, while some democrats are to begun violence blamed, this is overwhelmingly a GOP issue. The Republicans are not getting closer to the mainstream, they are not getting closer to responsible governance, they are not getting nearer to making pragmatic steps toward more centrist policies. And with each step they take further down that road, especially at this point, after this last election, the alienation factor only grows that much stronger. And so while they may win individual battles, and retain their individual seats, they are losing the collective war. They are ignoring so much of what America is today, shredding their national contract with so many in this nation, and climbing that much more deeply into the bed with a few. And I sit back and watch this unfold, and I think: Don’t they know this is killing their party? I know I spend more time in progressive circles, and that colors perception, but as Dylan said, you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing. The social conservative wing of the Republican Party is riding the momentum of past culture war victories but that momentum is fading fast. And however much that may not seem true in the backstreets of Bozeman, or the deserts of Arizona or the Bible Belt sensibilities of my own home state of Oklahoman, it is true. The generations are a’ changin.  The baby boomers are moving on. The country is evolving. These may be real victories for the NRA and real victories for the Senators who will keep their seats, but for the Republican party as a whole this is a pyrrhic victory, and one drenched in the worst kind of compromise, survival for nothing but its own sake. We need a healthy Republican party, one that champions meritocracy and individual achievement, our religious heritage and civic duty, genuinely free markets and open societies, freedom and restrained, accountable government. But that seems more of a fantasy than ever. The people who voted against what seemed to be such a reasonable, sensible bill are doubling down on the past. And doubling down on death.

Q&A with Steve McIntosh

Below are five questions and answers with philosopher, author, and the co-founder of the Institute of Cultural Evolution, Steve McIntosh.

Evolutions-Purpose-bookcoverWhy did you write Evolution’s Purpose? 

After my first book, Integral Consciousness, came out in 2007 I spent much of my time writing articles and giving interviews. But eventually I realized that the best way to continue my work in integral philosophy was to write another book.  So I went on kind of vision quest to decide what the focus of the next book should be and I came to the realization that the most basic truth about integral philosophy is that consciousness evolves. And as I contemplated this foundational truth I came to see more clearly how the scientific and historical story of our evolutionary origins is actually a profound spiritual teaching.

This lead to a significant period of research which helped me appreciate that from the beginning the core of integral philosophy has been about discerning the spiritual significance of evolution—this is what Whitehead and Teilhard and Wilber all have in common.  And I realized that there was more to discover in this quest to learn evolution’s spiritual teaching. Thus, I decided that the best way to contribute to the emergence of the evolutionary worldview was to work to further develop the core of integral philosophy by focusing on the meaning and value of evolution itself, which is why I wrote Evolution’s Purpose.

Why do you feel evolution is a subject for philosophy to address as well as a science? What can philosophy add to our growing scientific knowledge of our origins?

The empirical facts of evolution inevitably connect with one kind of philosophy or another, they cannot stand alone without a reality frame. And at this point in history our evolutionary creation story is too significant to be left to the impoverished philosophy of scientism.  Because of its immense symbolic significance, the enlarged understanding of evolution that is now before us deserves a philosophy that can come to terms with the value that evolution generates.

Further, if we can effectively communicate the deeper truths of evolution’s value generation and its spiritual significance, this can provide a kind of spiritual leadership for our culture that we currently lack. Properly understood, the spiritual teachings of evolution can help us move beyond the shortcomings of the current culture of progressive spirituality by giving us a standard of comparative excellence.  That is, the spiritual lessons of evolution will thus serve as a “true tone” or “concert pitch” that can help “tune up” all the spiritual lines of development that will come to “play in the orchestra” of emerging evolutionary spiritual culture.

What should the average person know about evolution that they don’t usually hear from today’s experts?

That we are agents of evolution. That we embody the all levels of emergence within us—we know what it feels like to be evolution happening.  So again I think the average person should know that the scientific and historical story of our evolutionary origins is actually a profound spiritual teaching.

Who would you say are the three most important but under-appreciated thinkers when it comes to understanding the nature of evolution? Why are each important?

Well, I can start by mentioning Andrew Cohen and yourself (Carter Phipps), who are both doing important work in the unfolding emergence of the evolutionary worldview.  Beyond that I can cite Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who is very under appreciated in our culture.  Perhaps more than any other writer, Teilhard really showed the confluence of the truths revealed by science and spirituality.

The last chapter of the book is called “The Promise of a New Evolutionary Worldview”. What do you feel is the single most significant and/or exciting promise of an evolutionary orientation to the world around us?

The emergence of the evolutionary worldview could well turn out to be a kind of “second enlightenment;” a new way of seeing and knowing the world that can give us new powers to evolve consciousness and improve the human condition by healing the wounds of history.

In Search of Mutants and Mystics

I came of age in the early 1980s, so for me, like many in my generation, the Star Wars trilogy represented something more than a great series of movies. It was an archetypal drama, a modern mythology, as Joseph Campbell famously suggested, brought to life on the Big Screen. As Luke, Hans, and Leia battled evil in a galaxy far, far away, there were more than a few young boys and girls who felt their own impressionable souls embracing not only the drama but also the myth and even the mysticism.

My own mystical sensibilities have taken many twists and turns since those youthful days, but there is little doubt that the ideas contained in those movies still carry with them a lot of cultural currency. For example, the notion of a living energy field; a mystical, immanent “force” that connects everything, binds us all together and even offers us super-human capacities, may seem like a nice science fiction fantasy for twelve years olds, but it also calls to mind contemporary visions of spiritual realities. This is no accident.  Lucas was influenced by Eastern mysticism, and has called himself a “Buddhist Methodist.” We might say that even in its pop culture form, Lucas’s vision has been very influential in how we as a society think about spiritual and metaphysical realities, and at the same time, Star Wars was itself a pop-culture expression of the changing perception of those same realities. And here’s the kicker. At least some of this can be traced to comic books.

Lucas was a comic book reader in his childhood, and it has often been suggested that his remarkable imagination and storytelling capacity was forged in contemplation of those brightly colored pages of far-flung heroism. Indeed, there is more than a passing connection between the mysticism of the Obi Wan Kenobi, the changing face of Western culture in the 20th century, and the visions of generations of comic book creators who first impressed themselves on Lucas’s young mind. This nexus between comic books, science fiction, pop culture, mysticism, and how all of them influence each other and work together to create emerging cultural myths is the subject of Jeffrey Kripal’s fascinating new book, Mutants and Mystics.

Kripal is one of the more prolific and respected scholars of mysticism in the U.S. He began his publishing career in 1995 with a controversial first book, Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (Chicago, 1995). In Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, he tracks the history of that great cradle of the human potential movement and how it rose from family vacation spot for Michael Murphy and family to enormously influential purveyor of East-meets-West visions of human transformation. In his latest work, Mutants and Mystics, Kripal returns to the territory of human transformation and it’s evolutionary significance, though this time following less-traveled paths. In fact, Kripal may be the first scholar to connect the dots between Eastern mysticism, evolutionary spirituality, pulp fiction, the paranormal, the modern obsession with UFOs and aliens, science fiction, and the whole genre of superhero comic books. To a skeptical mind, that list might sound unlikely—a strained and superficial linking of areas of study that are already strange enough when tackled on their own. But one doesn’t have to get too far into Kripal’s book to see not only that he is quite serious but that the connection is more profound than casual comic book readers would ever guess. In fact, one starts to see the whole superhero comic book, pulp fiction, and science fiction genres as both vehicles and repositories for a whole subterranean mystical/paranormal message. This set of “mythical themes,” as Kripal puts it, were deliberately injected into the bloodstream of American culture through this most unlikely conduit, embraced explicitly by many of the creators and woven deeply into the texts of their creations.

For Kripal, these pop-cultural literary creations and the stories they convey, when taken as a whole, constitute a broad narrative, a super-story fusion that is telling us something about where we are and where we are going as a human race, and is also secretly shaping much of pop culture. “These modern mythologies,” he writes, “can be fruitfully read as cultural transformations of real paranormal experiences.” They have two distinct components: a public mythical level and a personal paranormal level. They are attempts, in other words, to come to terms with real individual experiences, and they also represent a sort of collective desire to understand something deeper and subtler about the nature and destiny of human society. Like an impressionist painting they are capturing some essence, some truth about private and public cultural realities—not always literal truths, but real and significant nonetheless.

By the term “paranormal” Kripal is talking about ESP, clairvoyance, and so forth, but he also includes a whole range of esoteric, mystical, spiritual, trans-rational and otherwise supra-normal experiences and synchronicities that are actually quite common, but simply fall outside the range of conventional discourse on what it means to be human. Whatever we think about the particular legitimacy of these sometimes hard-to-believe experiences, Kripal’s goal is not simply to prove them true or affirm them as real. He seeks to place them in a larger cultural narrative of great symbolic and mythical, if not literal, significance.

So is Kripal himself a believer in the paranormal? Well, yes and no. For him, the question itself is flawed. In an important paragraph at the beginning of the book, Kripal states clearly where he stands (even if the result is necessarily ambiguous)  “I want to suggest that the psyche and our social consensus of what reality is somehow ‘make each other up’ within a constant loop of Consciousness and Culture and that the Culture through which Consciousness often manifests itself most dramatically as the paranormal is that form in which the imagination (and so the image) are given freest and boldest reign: popular culture. You will find here, then, no proofs or debunkings of this or that extraordinary experience. . . . I am neither a denying debunker nor a true believer, and anyone who reads me as either is misreading me.”

Kripal organizes the book around seven orienting “Mythemes,” or general narrative areas that make up this super-story informing our collective culture. Each mytheme comprises a chapter, and in each chapter, Kripal examines the writers, thinkers, and historical figures that best represent that dimension of the over-arching narrative. For example, in the mytheme of “Orientation”, Kripal examines the nature of place and perspective in these works and the tendency to see knowledge coming from afar, from the Orient, or from a long time ago, or a secret society (Rosicrucians) or a secret lost civilization (like Atlantis). In the mytheme of “Radiation”, he looks at the new scientific understanding, so often highlighted in the pages of these works, that at the heart of matter are powerful, immaterial forces that affect us in unpredictable ways. Such subtle but powerful forces are all over the comic book and science fiction landscape, and several super heroes are well known for getting their power from radiation, like Spider-Man. Or the Fantastic Four.

As he works his way through these mythemes one by one he take us through an impressive and often surprising journey into the heart of sci-fi and comic book history and mythology. On that level alone, the book is something of a scholarly breakthrough. Along the way, he encounters some of the pioneers of these many overlapping fields, individuals like Frederic Myers, Michael Murphy, John Keel, Charles Fort, Ray Palmer, Phillip K. Dick, Sri Aurobindo, and Carl Jung. And we also encounter a whole host of extraordinary and sometimes strange purveyors of these mythemes, some who deserve to be better known and respected by history, some who simply leave us shaking our heads at the brilliant and bizarre personalities that have had such an outsized influence on pop culture. Kripal has done a simply outstanding job of uncovering the incredible connections, surprising histories, and remarkable paranormal experiences that were the actual background of so many of the superheroes and science fiction fantasies that many of us were raised on.

Both mutants and mystics abound in these pages, and their outlandish and unexpected stories keep the narrative engaging throughout. Indeed, Mutants and Mystics is easy to read and Kripal’s knowledge of the field vast. One can’t help but be impressed by a scholar who can make an extensive analysis of Whitley Strieber’s Communion on one page, X-Men on the next, and the mystical experiences of Ray Palmer and Gopi Krishna on yet another. In that sheer breadth, quality, and volume of history lies the book’s most powerful and convincing argument. But it is also the source of what is perhaps its most questionable characteristic. Amidst the raucous and enjoyable cacophony of characters crisscrossing the pages, the book can feel a bit like a mass of compelling but untamed information, a wide-angle shot that needs to be brought into focus—so much raw data, more explanation and context needed. Compounding this issue is the fact that Kripal makes little effort to distinguish between the less credible and more credible individuals inhabiting his super-story. Clearly there is a world of difference between the integrity of a Frederic Myers and the patently paranoid ramblings of a schizophrenic who thought he’d uncovered the key to the language of Atlantis. This will understandably frustrate the discerning reader. I certainly felt this way, wanting him to more directly acknowledge that person A is probably trustworthy, while this other person B…well, not so much.

Yet I suspect that ranking his sources on some kind of scale of credibility would have distracted attention from Kripal’s primary purpose—demonstrating the sheer pervasiveness of this mythical, paranormal super-story underlying our society and ultimately the human experience. His purpose is not to separate legitimate experience from delusional, but to see how they all arise from and operate within a larger narrative. Indeed, the book functions primarily as an eye-opening guide to an important evolutionary subtext hiding beneath pop culture and hidden in the biographies of the people who created it. Amidst these outcasts and underground travelers; these esoteric rebels and artistic misfits; these pioneers of the strange, the unseen, and the impossible; are secrets and mysteries galore. And even as we have loved and embraced their creations—such vision, such imagination! —we have failed to see the depth behind the painted smile, the mystic and the madness behind the entertaining mask. Kripal tears the mask away. He attempts to shows us that we may are all part of an extraordinary story, much grander, much greater than any one of his mutants or mystics could alone grasp. It is a story not yet fully understood, much less written, but influential, fundamental, and somehow informing much more of our reality then we yet realize. If only we could put aside being either dismissive skeptics or uncritical believers long enough to notice.