deus ex machina

Thursday 2013.08.22

I’ve been taking a few moments now and then to contemplate a Latin phrase that I have seen pop up now and then over my lifetime, that seems to be becoming more relevant lately. The phrase deus ex machina more or less translates to “god from a machine” or “deity from the machinery”, referring to a kind of ancient dramatic theatrical device where a character of some sort of god, a deity, appears in a play, actually lowered into the scene by ropes or something in original practice, to somehow magically resolve some dramatic situation and neatly save the day. As described by one definition: a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved, with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to move the story forward when the writer has “painted himself into a corner” and sees no other way out, to surprise the audience, to bring a happy ending into the tale, or as a comedic device.

I came across somebody using that term not long ago, and it immediately occurred to me that this idea fits amazingly well in trying to understand and explain a lot of behavior and attitudes in what we have going on around us now. I also think the “painted into a corner” metaphor really has a mighty resonance to it.

We have a pretty serious array of ways we’ve painted ourselves into various corners. In place of taking a good look at where we are, figuring this out, and figuring out how to proceed in line with reality and reason, there are loads of people waiting for a deux ex machina, or, maybe many, the plural of the Latin, dei ex machina. People are looking, or waiting, for some magic wand “solutions”, and this is only making things worse.


Tuning in to CBNC to check in on the circus, I noticed a couple of things. Two different items popped up within a half hour or so of each other. One was a report on some new technological systems to track people wandering through corporate retail stores that were experimenting with using the stuff. (That’s a topic of its own!) What caught my attention was a passing comment from one of the CNBC talking heads, some words to the effect of saying that retail stores (“brick and mortar” stores, that is, actual physical places of business staffed by functioning human beings where people can go buy things that are physically present) are maybe almost extinct. You know, that’s passe, dude. Within the same short period of time the same people were reporting that the Amazon website was down, showing only a front “Oops!” error page.

I wonder how many people noticed the juxtaposition of these two items and contemplated for a while about what it might suggest. It did not strike me as a particularly subtle thing

We’ve had years now of being bombarded by happy hype chatter about the wonders of Amazon and “e-commerce” as miracles of a brave new Net World, even while amazingly many people seem to be oblivious to the basic idea that whatever shiny new techno-wonders are in action, we still have the basic matter of, well, matter, of stuff that has to get from there to here.

It seems almost inevitable that if I read some article or hear some talking head going on about some aspect of retail commerce in America today, they always end up rattling on about the usual batch of corporate chain “big box” stores. The general presumption of status quo normal now is that this simply is the entire retail commerce world and way of things. That’s a massive subject about all kinds of increasing dysfunction in American commerce and life, in itself.

But putting that aside for a moment, in recent years, we’ve been seeing a phenomenon that isn’t exactly a news flash to anybody even vaguely aware of what’s happening. I am, of course, talking about the whole notion of The Net, the World Wide Web riding around the digital streams of the internet, as the sort of Brave New Mall of our wonderfully advanced and advancing society. Just sit on your ass in your underwear (or whatever), play your role as Consumer consuming stuff, buying stuff by simply staring at a screen and wiggling a finger occasionally on a mouse button, and maybe occasionally moving fingers to type in your credit card number. Hey, presto! Stuff just magically comes to your door!

Looking at all this objectively and realistically, this whole system of personal computers with the internet and the WWW is amazingly useful as a toolset for people who need to acquire something and are able to find things and research. That’s great, although I think that an awful lot of people, especially the young, who can’t remember that not existing, take it entirely too much for granted as simply there, a natural normal factor in life. What’s not so good is the presumptions that come with it all in the minds of too many people. Add to the “bathrobe shopping magic” factor the likelihood that somebody is “net shopping” stuff made on the opposite side of the world, and we have an astonishing set of circumstances. We have a pretty substantial number of people around us (or, rather than “people”, “consumers”) who seem to operate with vague notions that stuff made on the opposite side of the planet just simply appears at their door with the arrival of package delivery service guy. It’s just magic! Distance and transportation is a subject ignored as negligible, trivial.

It can almost seem like a bizarre joke to encounter something that I’ve encountered more than once. It’s not some weird anomaly. That is, finding someone talking about this kind of thing, in conjunction with some sort of conversation about “energy issues”, and making some statement to the effect that this wonderful brave new world of “e-commerce” and online shopping for consumers is great stuff to help solve our “energy issues”, because, by God, they can sit there in their own living room and go clickety click, armed with the all powerful credit card, and buy stuff that arrives into their hot little hands without even leaving their home, so that they get their stuff without burning a single drop of fuel in their car (or personal transportation light truck, as the case may be)! Presto! Look at that amazing reduced petroleum fuel consumption!

And they’re not kidding.

Things like this make for a real “holy fucking shit!” episode of stunned shock. Vignettes like that can leave a lad sitting in raw disbelief, just thinking “oh my god, where do I even begin?”. Seriously, in a situation like that, how is it even possible to sort out the knots? We’re talking about levels of cognitive dissonance that make it virtually impossible.

It’s in the same sort of general realm as something I’ve described before, I’m pretty sure. Go around and take a sampling of Americans, and ask them, “right, so, you’re a living human, still alive, so obviously you eat food, so, then, where does your food come from?“. See how many people answer “well, the grocery store, of course!“, and not just that, but also look at you as if you are just simply the weirdest creature they have ever encountered, and perhaps they should back away slowly, as you are clearly some kind of deranged lunatic.

People in this kind of mindset are all primed and ready for deux ex machina magic. They might even expect it. No, wait, they probably expect it. No, hang on, that still might not be quite right. They’ll demand it. Where’s my magic fix?!

I’ve already spent an astonishing amount of time trying to do what I can to make people understand the dilemmas of our circumstances in petroleum and other hydrocarbons, and a significant chunk of that has been making my own observations of the cliches of opposing teams of denial and magical wishes of the deux ex machina type. There they are; we get the bunch trying to shout down reality by chattering that the market and innovation in exploration and extraction technology will give us all the hydrocarbon deposit resources we want, somehow. The “other team” in the dodgeball game shouts that we’ll just switch everything over to green renewable energy.

We’ve painted ourselves into some pretty serious corners by decades of acting as if the hydrocarbon deposits of the planet are infinite, anc compounding the problems by spending decades laying out everything and arranging systems to completely depend on these assumptions. Rather than facing this and figuring out what we should be doing to deal with this, people argue about which magic solution deux ex machina will drop out of the stage scenery and bring in the happy ending.

This kind of wishful thinking mental block is definitely getting in the way in a lot of areas, all the things I’ve been hammering on here for a while now. Many people still, somehow, seem to think that the dysfunctional lunacy and fraud in Wall Street and banking and finance, all that we’ve been seeing played out for years now, is still the basis of a functional economy, rather than things and work of actual value.

James Kunstler’s latest Monday note nails something squarely on the head, neatly and simply, in the sentence “If you prepare for anything, prepare for a world without financial pretense.“. Since people seem to demand neat short and simple, well, then, there you go. Try that for size.

Chris Nelder wrote a short article last year that gives us a little glimpse of what “solutions” actually are. All energy and climate solutions are local.

Waiting for some neat magical fixes to drop out of nowhere into the scene is not helpful.

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