Mar 27, 2015

The Problem with the Future

Today on Cracked, we find an article discussing the Mars One project, arguing that the whole thing is, in the long run, good for us. The author makes some fair points, such as the distinction between a failed venture and an actual scam. Unfortunately, she completely misses the most important way in which Mars One can teach us a few things about ourselves: our unhealthy relationship with the future.

Hint: that's actually a mirror

I assume most are familiar with the concept that science fiction is not about the future: the future is simply used as a mask that allows us to take an objective look at the present. Whether a given metaphor was intentional by the author or not, sci-fi/fantasy is just that: a series of metaphors that tell us about ourselves. One of the reasons Lord of the Rings is so popular is the wide array of lenses through which it can be seen, regardless of Tolkien's intentions: a historical metaphor, a social critique, a psychoanalytic novel, and so on.

The problem comes exactly when we start to take visions of the future as fact more than as symbolism, and the Mars One project shows exactly that. Everyone's watched enough sci-fi flicks nowadays to have seen myriad possibilities of space travel and so on. We seem to assume, however, that the way things will naturally play out. Just a matter of time until we're all beaming around the stars in our star cruisers, tripping out in the holodeck to pass the time. But the fact is that we have absolutely no clue what the future actually holds for us.

Waiting for the iPhone

One of the points the Cracked article makes is that, regardless of whether Mars One was snake oil, we'll eventually get to Mars anyway:

"If you gave $30 from your grocery money to a group that may or may not be moving us toward Mars, you're on the plus side of history, I promise." 

First of all, not too many people nowadays can afford to slash 30 bucks from their grocery money, so this comment seems kind of insensitive. What's really revealing, though, is the "I promise". This type of phrasing, in this context, seems to indicate that the author is trying to reassure herself more than anyone else. "I do believe in Mars, I do, I do!"

SFF has never, to my knowledge, been so popular across the deck, but the reason behind this is unfortunately sinister. People have an intuition that the lifestyle they've had for decades is going away, and they're right. The rich hoard more and more of the dwindling resources of our planet, while John Doe just lost his job because he can't afford repairs on his car. It becomes clear every day that so much of what we're living through is a charade, from politicians being self-serving tools of faceless corporations to doctors prescribing ineffective drugs in order to enjoy a paid vacation to Cabo. But we're all way too unsure of ourselves to actually recognize this intuition for what lies in store for us.

We're onto you, Obama

It's becoming increasingly clear that humans aren't meant to get off the Earth. There hasn't been a manned Moon mission in decades. The ISS has been out in orbit for a while now, but if there's been some return on the billions of dollars invested, I'm not aware of it. The problems are not only physical (propulsion), but also physiological (radiation exposure) and psychological. However, it seems that the space grass will always be greener.

And why should we want to get out of here? Why is it so much easier, in the minds of so many people, to get out of Earth than to take care of it? This is exactly what ruined Interstellar for me: cinematographically it was incredible, of course, I'll admit I was quite awed by the soundtrack and sound effects; however, the idea that underlies the whole film is that "we should abandon our home rather than take care of it" - and this is a concept by which I cannot abide.

It's the same thinking that feeds these fantasies of leaving the Earth, to the point that most people, or at least most secular Westerners, assume it's inevitable. But this thinking betrays the same fallacy that the religious are accused of making: that salvation lies outside of ourselves. They've just replaced "God" with "science" and "heaven" with...well, the heavens. We see this in the crumbling infrastructure of the United States, and how it makes people move rather than take care of what they already have. And the reason for all this is very simple: for us to take better care of our surroundings, we need to change, and that is the last thing we want to do.

You deserve that wasteland, Matthew McConaughey

This intuitive need for change is so strong that those who are unable to deal with it are projecting this desire to the outside world. "We need a change in the two-party system." "We need a reform in education." "We must overhaul our prison system." All of these are projections of a need for inner change, because these inner changes require sacrifices that many are not willing to make. Lots of people make a big fuss about climate change, but how many have actually traded their car for a bike and dumped their ACs?

Space exploration is an incredible metaphor, not a reality, at least not for now. It is pointless to focus on some distant date as the time when "things will be right." The fact is that we have no idea what the future holds in store for us. Think about how life must have been like a thousand years ago - could anyone at that time imagine even a fraction of what we have today? So why worry about the eventual destruction of Earth, which is probably billions of years away?

They say that "depression is too much past, anxiety is too much future," and this is clearly what's going on. How many people today don't exhibit the classic symptoms of anxiety, restlessness, fatigue, lack of concentration? We are constantly thinking about the future, to the point that it loses all practicality. One of the issues that plague the credibility of climate scientists is their insistence on making grandiose pronouncements about some distant future, when we can barely tell what's going to happen tomorrow.

So forget about the future. Mars One is a clear example of Freud's "frantic activity as a defense against impotence." We see bankers and CEOs and senators getting away with all kinds of egregious crimes, and we are mostly powerless to do anything about it, so instead we focus our attention on the unreal, and in this point the future has a leg up on more classic fantasies: it might happen. That it probably won't is entirely beside the point.

Or Anti-Interstellar

Space exploration must be taken for the metaphor that it is. It is not outer space we are destined to explore, but rather inner space. We are meant to navigate the constellations of our souls, to investigate the hidden planets of our minds and bodies. The idea that unexplained phenomena are to a large extent the interference of "extraterrestrial beings" is much more a reflection of our state of mind than any truly objective analysis - the thousands of years of mystical and spiritual experiences on the part of mankind belie any need to go looking for answers "out there".

The very title of the article I mentioned shows me what's wrong: "4 Reasons the Mars One Fiasco Was Actually Good for Humanity". I'm sorry, what? Who the hell are to judge what's good or what's bad for humanity? We have a hard enough time doing that for ourselves, how are we to objectively prescribe good and bad for everyone? These are all empty arguments, projections of inner struggles. Instead of judging what Mars One means for humanity, perhaps we should take a dose of humility and wonder what it means for us.

EDIT: The same day I post this, I see this image on Facebook:

Mar 14, 2015

Weird Brazil: New Akhetaton

In this new series, we'll be taking a look at the esoteric, the paranormal and the odd in various places throughout Brazil. I thought I'd start with Brasilia, since this is one place I actually have a first-hand experience with - a whole lifetime's, in fact.

Brasilia might at first glance seem be different, a bit quirky, but it all goes way farther than that. As I've always said to anyone who'll listen, Brasilia is the weirdest city in the world, in the sense that there is no other place, at least in modern times, that is even close to similar to it. Now, perhaps that's a bit dramatic, but I'll let you be the judge of that.

Now, when it comes to ages-old cities, it's hard to see a lot of intentionality when it comes to the designs and patterns of the city. They grow organically, and have the marks of hundreds of generations and their respective beliefs and methods. However, cities such as Washington D.C. or Brasília, which were planned to be capitals of nations, have a coherent vision behind them.

Brasilia was founded in 1960 by President Juscelino Kubitschek (who bears many resemblances to another famous JK, John Kennedy - in fact, JFK was sworn into office 11 days before Kubitschek stepped down), following a mandate from the 1891 Constitution that a new capital city should be founded at the heart of the country. Brasília was, actually, Kubitschek's meal ticket in the presidential campaign.

What few people know, however, is the inspiration behind Kubitschek's vision for Brasília:

"Taken by my admiration for that autocratic visionary, Akhenaton, whose almost legendary existence I had happened upon in my readings in Diamantina, I took advantage of my stay in Egypt to undertake an excursion to the place where there had been Tell El-Amarna/Akhetaton."

Akhetaton, or "Aton's Horizon", was Akhenaton's dream of a city dedicated to the Sun God, Aton. As I'm sure many of you know, Akhenaton was an Egyptian pharaoh who broke off with the ages-old religion of the region, eschewing an entire pantheon in favor of only one god. He built a new capital city, with an overtly solar motif. Whether you see the triumph of monotheism in the past 2,000 years as a result of Akhenaton's actions of not, his city did not last long.

Many Spiritists believe that Juscelino Kubitchek was the reincarnation of a pharaoh, if not of Akhenaton himself. Kubitschek's home state of Minas Gerais* is a hotbed of Spiritism, and Kubitschek himself was a Spiritist - his ascension to the presidency was akin to, say, a Catholic president getting elected in a highly Protestant country. It is doubtful, though, that he believed himself to actually be a pharaoh.

Or is it?

The Solar symbolism in Brasilia is absolutely undeniable, though. Probably the city's most famous building is the National Congress building, and on April 21st, the date of Brasília's founding, the Sun rises exactly between the two towers. Astronomical alignments were, of course, a noteworthy feature of Egyptian architecture. In Brazil it's quite significant as well, as can be attested by the flag, which features 27 stars representing 26 states and the federal district (as seen in the sky at Rio de Janeiro on November 15th, 1889) - the flag deserves a whole post of its own, though.

The residence of the President in Brasília is called the Palace of Dawn, or Palace of the Rising Sun if you prefer. As a matter of fact, the city is all about the rising Sun. One of the guiding principles behind the city in that one can see the horizon at all times, regardless of where one is.** This why, in the original Brasília, buildings taller than six floors were only allowed to be built along the smaller vertical axis. The weather contributes as well: Brasília's climate is the cerrado, the South American savannah. Thus, the Sun shines practically all year long, and rain is relatively scarce (it's so dry here that often the air humidity is so low that it would be grounds for a state of emergency anywhere else - that's why I always get sick the first few days I'm in a coastal city).

There's even a saying here that says that, since Brasília is a thousand kilometers away from the nearest ocean, "the sky is Brasília's sea". And indeed it is. Since it's so dry, the city is extremely dusty, and these reddish dust particles create an unparalleled sky when mixed with the sunrise or sunset light.

The very name of the city suggests Solar light. Brasília is evidently derived from Brazil, which was taken from the characteristic pau brasil, or brazilwood. This tree was highly sought after because a red dye can be produced from it - the root br- suggests fire, as in the words 'bright', 'brilliant', 'brazier', 'brave', 'brown' and so on (and my own name, Bruno). 'Brasília' is pronounced the same way as "Bras Ilha", which essentially translates to "fire island".

Below is the sketch that won Lucio Costa the contest for the design of the city, the so-called Pilot Plan:

It's called the Pilot Plan due to its similarity to the shape of a bird, the supposed inspiration for its design. The this bird faces the East and the rising Sun tell me that it's clearly phoenix symbolism. Each wing (the neighborhoods are actually called South Wing, where I live, and North Wing), is roughly eight by two kilometers, which happen to be the dimensions of the original Tell Al-Amarna (it also faces the same direction).

Juscelino Kubitschek himself died under mysterious circumstances, after the military seized power the U.S.-backed coup in 1964. There was a brouhaha recently about exhuming his corpse for another autopsy, but nothing was found - officially. His legacy, however, clearly lives on. He enjoys the same hero-president status in Brazil as JFK does in the US, though we are much less historically-minded as a people. Below is the cover of a TIME magazine edition depicting Kubitschek as a Solar hero:

The weirdness, though, goes way beyond that. Brasília is surrounded by places full of mystical connotations, such as the Chapada dos Veadeiros, which features a so-called "UFO airport", and the Snorer's Sierra, where legend says there is a portal to the Inner Earth (or to Atlantis, depending on your source). As Chris Knowles pointed out recently, much of the architecture seen these days seems oddly "ufoidal", and this is no less true in Brasília.

Since Brasília was built in a mostly uninhabited region, there are people from all corners of the country, lured by the positivist vision of a Solar utopia. Syncretism pretty much runs wild here, to the point that many practices and beliefs are hard to describe. I probably have more friends who pray to orixas than friends who go to church. Sadly, evangelicalism is widespread, and I'm pretty sure their techniques were imported through the same channels that fed the military in the 1960s.

There is certainly much more, but that's for a future post. Suffice it to say that there is much more to this odd city than might appear, and unfortunately people usually can't see beyond the superficial layers. There's even an effect in Brasília where strangeness is the standard to the point that people aren't aware of just how palpable the weirdness is.

Akhenaton's Solar city as a monument to the future may not have turned out quite the way he imagined it, but it's clear that after all these years his dreams have yet to fade away.

* The capital of Minas Gerais translates to Beautiful Horizon

** Brasília was the first modern city to be declared a UN World Heritage Site