Vikings (the Show) Revisited

The new season of Vikings is upon us, and so I thought it fit to revisit my initial reaction to the show when it first aired, back in March of 2013: Musings on Vikings, the Show.

Then, I wondered what would’ve happened if the Vikings hadn’t created “permanent” settlements and eventually a far-flung maritime empire, and instead had just continued to troll the waters for unsuspecting and undefended villages. Of course, this strategy comes with an expiration date; eventually word will get out and people will build walls and defensive tactics will outrun offensive ones (e.g. let’s build our town a little inland from the river, so that we have time to raise the gates when Norse raiders come ashore, yeah?). The real question, though, becomes: will viking, as a verb (as it was always intended) come back into style when the oceans rise and population density reaches tipping points and mono-cropped, soil-stripped fields blow away in the dust?

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to read about—but finding almost nothing, hard-science-wise, on—Jared Diamond’s claim that the Greenland Norse, especially, could not and would not transition from an agrarian diet to one based on seafood (see, for example: “Why Did the Vikings Vanish?”). Which doesn’t make any sense, which is why it would be fascinating to read about. But the little I’ve read has pointed, of course, to evidence that the Norse did fish, quite extensively, and that they would basically eat anything as long as it kept their communities going. Their settlements collapsed for the same reason all settlements ultimately collapse: overshoot.

The Ethics of Water

Here’s an unintentionally useful essay on the origin of morality: Where Do Morals Come From?

It’s got everything from game theory to nihilism to erudite, ivory-tower ontology. It even mentions Nietzsche—if only to refute him. The conclusion:

We are all anthropologists now. What are we to do? Stay home? Go native? Be hybrid? Keane does not venture an answer to these questions.

However we answer these questions for ourselves, we cannot escape the phenomenological tension between the first-, second-, and third-person perspectives on ethical life. Some will seek refuge in the first person. They will seek to be “true to themselves,” to “listen to their inner voice,” and they will respond to challenges with a mix of apology and indignation. Others will immerse themselves in the second person. They will value loyalty to the “tribe,” and respond to “outsiders” with a mix of indifference and hostility. Still others—intellectuals, mostly—will take shelter in the third person. They will place a high value on toleration and acceptance, and they will respond to challenges with a phlegmatic aloofness. The problem is that none of us can stand still in any perspective for very long. The affordances of our minds and our languages, and the demands of social cooperation and interaction, will not permit it for long. We cannot escape ethical life. Nor can we find peace in it, either.

What is an ethical life: this life we can neither escape nor rest in? The best attempt at an answer that I can recall comes from Derrick Jensen, who wrote that morality should be based on water: whatever leads to more potable water for future generations of humans and non-humans is “good.” That answer is simple (and as was written above the blackboard in my World Cultures class in high school: “For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, ready, and wrong,” or something like that). But so, too, are all the other just-as-wrong answers, and at least it doesn’t require page upon page of postmodern, snake-eating-its-own-tail “reasoning.”



“Facebook is very, very good at enabling impulsive behavior, which is exactly why it has been so successful and also exactly what is wrong with it. It’s like a bar with no closing time, and the walls are all one-way mirrors, and the bouncers are all drunk too, and the people who own the bar are charging admission to spectators to place bets on us all.”  – from There Are So Many Things Wrong With This

“When I Consider How My Light Is Spent” Revisited

The first poem I posted on Coming Soon: A Vast Desert was John Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.” You can read the poem and my initial commentary here (this was March 2013).

Then, I thought the poem was about being human in both an indifferent universe in general and specifically in a society set up inhumanely: “Or, as a friend once wrote in a letter to me about not following our natural inclinations to be outside, seek sunlight, eat real food, and so on—in short, to put ourselves into cubicles: Why are we constantly at odds with ourselves?”

I still think the question of existence is central to our understanding of alienation, in that we seek so many things and will “post o’er Land and Ocean without rest” to get them, but among those things we don’t usually include simple happiness, or quiet contentment, or the freedom of boredom. We seek to use our talents in order to impress others, to be validated externally (and constantly)—and all the while we find ourselves less happy, less connected (see: previous post about the downsides of the internet (there are few upsides)). Why wake up every day and do it all over again, is the key question: to be or not to be, as Shakespeare (and then Nietzsche, and then Camus) asked. Can’t life’s purpose just be happiness?

Reading Infinite Jest (I’m about 1/3 of the way through, thankyouverymuch) has brought this question off the back burner, which itself strikes me as silly because what’s more important than asking why we should get up every day and do X over and over when A.) we can at any time choose to “eliminate our own map” as D.F.W. puts it, and B.) even the longest life, chosen, is but a half-wink in geological time, i.e. meaningless at a certain not-even-infinite scale? Some say it’s a gift; others say it’s a test. But both of those scenarios require explanatory magic tricks. Nietzsche (and then Camus) thought it was a blank canvas, our life, and that human-assigned meaning was not only adequate but actually superior to naïve or desperate overtures to the capricious but binding blueprints laid down by some sky-parent; all the better to create an existence, knowing full-well one can end it at any time, if nothing else than as a middle finger to cosmic serfdom, but also perhaps as the only avenue to worldly, real joy. Camus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Hopelessly Hooked

Here’s a great article documenting many of the probably thousands of reasons that the internet is bad for us: We Are Hopelessly Hooked

It reads like something that could’ve been written by Jerry Mander or Ivan Illich. Constant use of—and need for—digital technology, i.e. “devices,” has broken down social units, has hobbled solidarity, and has completely destroyed connections with ecosystems. That last one is not just bad for humans but for all life, since the one thing one should know about ecosystems, if nothing else, is that they are interconnected.

Devices have also made people kind of boring, while simultaneously creating the illusion that everyone is suddenly living fascinating lives. Yes I realize I just wrote that sentence on a blog.

Of course one always has to end a critique of technology on a positive note, because what a bummer, to realize that it’s already too late, and that undemocratic “advances” cannot be ameliorated—let alone dismantled—with “democratic” means. And yet:

Despite the picture she paints of digital damage to nearly every kind of human relationship, Turkle remains optimistic that we can gain control of technology or, as her book’s title has it, reclaim conversation. Even teenagers who don’t remember a time before social media express nostalgia for life without it. One place they still experience friendship without divided attention is at device-free summer camps, where they return after six weeks more thoughtful and empathetic—only to plunge back into the “machine zone.”

How can we enjoy the pleasures and benefits of mobile and social media while countering its self-depleting and antisocial aspects? Turkle keeps her discussion of remedy general, perhaps because there aren’t many good solutions at the moment.

Harris wants engineers to consider human values like the notion of “time well spent” in the design of consumer technology. Most of his proposals are “nudge”-style tweaks and signals to encourage more conscious choices. For example, Gmail or Facebook might begin a session by asking you how much time you want to spend with it that day, and reminding you when you’re nearing the limit. Messaging apps might be reengineered to privilege attention over interruption. iTunes could downgrade games that are frequently deleted because users find them too addictive.

These are helpful suggestions—more thoughtful apps, and apps to control our apps.

Yes, let’s fight the problem with the problem, again.