February 26th, 2010 by Clark Humphrey

(Warning: This installment is going to ramble even further afield than usual.)

A few days ago, I wrote something critical of Jaron Lanier’s rant against digital culture, You Are Not a Gadget.

In one part of his book, Lanier blamed the economic crash of ’08 on the computer technology that had made the housing bubble’s suspect “investment products” possible.

I wrote that blame for the bubble shouldn’t be laid on Net tech, but that it might instead be laid on Net business culture, on the “Get Big Fast” mentality of unalloyed hustle seen in the first dot-com mania.

What really went on on Wall Street and the other global finance capitals is a little more complicated than that. But not much.

Several commentators have noted links between the speculators and the philosophies of Ayn Rand. “The great recession is all her fault,” alleged Andrew Corsello in a GQ essay last fall. Slate’s Johann Hari, reviewing two recent Rand biographies, blames “this fifth-rate Nietzsche of the mini-malls” for the speculators’ sociopathic levels of selfishness, and even for the Bush-Cheney Republicans’ highly organized cruelty (“…by drilling into the basest human instincts”).

Some French radicals, meanwhile, have created a movement they call “Post-Autistic Economics.” Their premise, as best I can figure it out (I’ve always been lousy at understanding Euro-intellectual theorizing) is that geeky math-heavy economic and political planning is the enemy of any attempt to build a more humane society.

Some critics of the P.A.E. gang have apparently alleged that to call the global elite’s machinations “autistic” is an insult to real autistics. I’d agree.

It’s also an insult to those who love math and abstractions and game theory and techy or trivia-y stuff, a.k.a. nerds. This is a group in which I consider myself a member (despite my lack of prowess at software coding and my indifference toward Dungeons & Dragons).

As Benjamin Nugent expresses in his new book American Nerd: The Story of My People (a great and funny tribute to braniacs from assorted times and places), a guy’s inability at the unwritten rules of social engagement does NOT mean he’s insensitive or that he doesn’t care about people. It just means he’s lousy at communicating his care.

And care, ultimately, is what will get us out of this mess. It’s the only thing that can.

Which brings us to yet another book.

Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis attempts nothing less than the re-direction of how the whole planet thinks and relates.

Rifkin (himself an experienced economics and history nerd) sees social networking and Web 2.0 sites as helping to bring people together—a togetherness he thinks we’ll desperately need if we’re going to save the planet, reduce poverty and disease, etc.

In geekess supreme Arianna Huffington’s interpretation, Rifkin’s book…

…challenges the conventional view of human nature embedded in our educational systems, business practices, and political culture—a view that sees human nature as detached, rational, and objective, and sees individuals as autonomous agents in pursuit primarily of material self-interest. And it seeks to replace that view with a counter-narrative that allows humanity to see itself as an extended family living in a shared and interconnected world.

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