Wired for Good and Evil

Battle in Heaven

It seems almost as long as we could speak human beings have been arguing over what, if anything, makes us different from other living creatures. Mark Pagel’s recent book Wired for Culture: The Origins of the Human Social Mind is just the latest incantation of this millennia old debate, and as it has always been, the answers he comes up with have implications for our relationship with our fellow animals, and, above all, our relationship with one another, even if Pagel doesn’t draw many such implications.

As is the case with so many of the ideas regarding human nature, Aristotle got there first. A good bet to make when anyone comes up with a really interesting idea regarding what we are as a species is that either Plato or Aristotle had already come up with it, or discussed it. Which is either a sign of how little progress we have made understanding ourselves, or symptomatic of the fact that the fundamental questions for all our gee-whiz science and technology remain important even if ultimately never fully answerable.

Aristotle had classified human beings as being unique in the sense that we were a zóon politikón variously translated as a social animal or a political animal. His famous quote on this score of course being: “He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.” (Politics Book I)

He did recognize that other animals were social in a similar way to human beings, animals such as storks (who knew), but especially social insects such as bees and ants. He even understood bees (the Greeks were prodigious beekeepers) and ants as living under different types of political regimes. Misogynists that he was he thought bees lived under a king instead of a queen and thought the ants more democratic and anarchical. (History of Animals).       

Yet Aristotle’s definition of mankind as zóon politikón is deeper than that. As he says in his Politics:

That man is much more a political animal than any kind of bee or any herd animal is clear. For, as we assert, nature does nothing in vain, and man alone among the animals has speech….Speech serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful and hence also the just and unjust. For it is peculiar to man as compared to the other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things of this sort; and partnership in these things is what makes a household and a city.  (Politics Book 1).

Human beings are shaped in a way animals are not by the culture of their community, the particular way their society has defined what is good and what is just. We live socially in order to live up to their potential for virtue- ideas that speech alone makes manifest and allows us to resolve. Aristotle didn’t just mean talk but discussion, debate, conversation all guided by reason. Because he doesn’t think women and slaves are really capable of such conversations he excludes them from full membership in human society.More on that at the end, but now back to Pagel’s Wired for Culture.

One of the things Pagel thinks makes human beings unique among all other animals is the fact that we alone are hyper-social or ultra-social. The only animals that even come close are the eusocial insects- Aristotle’s ants and bees. As E.O. Wilson pointed out in his The Social Conquest of Earth it is the eusocial species, including us, which, pound-for-pound absolutely dominate life on earth. In the spirit of a 1950’s B-movie all the ants in the world added together are actually heavier than us.

Eusociality makes a great deal of sense for insects colonies and hives given how closely related these groups are, indeed, in many ways they might be said to constitute one body and just as cells in our body sacrifice themselves for the survival of the whole, eusocial insects often do the same. Human beings, however, are different, after all, if you put your life at risk by saving the children of non-relatives from a fire, you’ve done absolutely nothing for your reproductive potential, and may even have lost your chance to reproduce. Yet, sacrifices and cooperation like this are done by human beings all the time, though the vast majority in a less heroic key. We are thus, hypersocial- willing to cooperate with and help non-relatives in ways no other animals do. What gives?

Pagel’s solution to this evolutionary conundrum is very similar to Wilson’s though he uses different lingo. Pagel sees us as naturally members of what he calls cultural survival vehicles, we evolved to be raised in them, and to be loyal to them because that was the best, perhaps the only way, of securing our own survival. These cultural survival vehicles themselves became the selective environment in which we evolved. Societies where individuals hoarded their cooperation or refused to makes sacrifices for the survival of the group overtime were driven out of existence by those where individuals had such qualities.

The fact that we have evolved to be cooperative and giving within our particular cultural survival vehicle Pagel sees as the origin of our angelic qualities our altruism and heroism and just general benevolence. No other animal helps its equivalent of little old ladies cross the street, or at least to nothing like the extent we do.   

Yet, if having evolved to live in cultural survival vehicles has made us capable of being angels, for Pagel, it has also given rise to our demonic capacities as well. No other species is a giving as we are, but, then again, no other species has invented torture devices and practices like the iron maiden or breaking on the wheel like we have either. Nor does any other species go to war with fellow members of its species so commonly or so savagely as human beings.

Pagel thinks that our natural benevolence can be easily turned off under two circumstance both of which represent a threat to our particular cultural survival vehicle.

We can be incredibly cruel when we think someone threatens the survival of our group by violating its norms. There is a sort of natural proclivity in human nature to burn “witches” which is why we need to be particularly on guard whenever some part of our society is labeled as vile and marked for punishment- The Scarlet Letter should be required reading in high school.

There is also a natural proclivity for members of one cultural survival vehicle to demonize and treat cruelly their rivals- a weakness we need to be particularly aware of in judging the heated rhetoric in the run up to war.

Pagel also breaks with Richard Dawkins over the later’s view of the evolutionary value of religion. Dawkins in his book The God Virus and subsequently has tended to view religion as a net negative- being a suicide bomber is not a successful reproductive strategy, nor is celibacy. Dawkins has tended to see ideas his “memes” as in a way distinct from the person they inhabit. Like genes, his memes don’t care all that much about the well being of the person who has them- they just want to make more of themselves- a goal that easily conflicts with the goal of genes to reproduce.

Pagel quite nicely closes the gap between memes and genes which had left human beings torn in two directions at once. Memes need living minds to exists, so any meme that had too large a negative effect on the reproductive success of genes should have lain its own grave quite quickly. But if genes are being selected for because they protect not the individual but the group one can see how memes that might adversely impact an individual’s chance of reproductive success can nonetheless aid in the survival of the group. For religions to have survived for so long and to be so universal they must be promoting group survival rather than being a detriment to it, and because human beings need these groups to live religion must on average, though not in every particular case, be promoting the survival of the individual at least to reproductive age.

One of the more counterintuitive, and therefore interesting claims Pagel makes is that what really separates human beings from other species is our imitativeness as opposed to our inventiveness. It the reverse of the trope found in the 60’s-70’s books and films that built around the 1963 novel La Planète des singes- The Planet of the Apes. If you remember, the apes there are able to imitate human technology, but aren’t able to invent it- “monkey see, monkey do”. Perhaps it should be “human see human do” for if Pagel is right our advantage as a species really lies in our ability to copy one another. If I see you doing something enough times I am pretty likely to be able to repeat it though I might not have a clue what it was I was actually doing.

Pagel thinks that all we need is innovation through minor tweaks combined with our ability to rapidly copy one another to have technological evolution take off. In his view geniuses are not really required for human advancement, though they might speed the process along. He doesn’t really apply his ideas to understand modern history, but such a view could explain what the scientific revolution which corresponded with the widespread adoption of the printing press was really all about. The printing press allowed ideas to be deciminated more rapidly whereas the scientific method proved a way to sift those that worked from those that didn’t.

This makes me wonder if something rather silly like Youtube hasn’t even further revved up cultural evolution in this imitative sense. What I’ve found is that instead of turning to “elders” or “experts” when I want to do something new, I just turn to Youtube and find some nice or ambitious soul who has filmed through the steps.

The idea that human beings are the great imitator has some very unanticipated consequences for the rationality of human being visa-vi other animals. Laurie Santos of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Yale has shown that human beings can be less not more rational than animals when it comes to certain tasks due to our proclivity for imitation. Monkeys will solve a puzzle by themselves and aren’t thrown off by other monkeys doing something different whereas a human being will copy a wrong procedure done by another human being even when able to independently work the puzzle out. Santos speculates that such irrationality may give us the plasticity necessary to innovate even if much of this innovation tends not to work. One more sign that human beings can be thankful for at least some of their irrationality.

This might have implications for machine intelligence that neither Pagel nor Santos draw. Machines might be said to be rational in the way animals are rational but this does not mean that they possess something like human thought. The key to making artificial intelligence more human like might be in making them, in some sense, less rational or as Jeff Steibel stated it for machine intelligence to be truly human like it will need to be “loopy”, “iterative”, and able to make mistakes.

To return to Pagel, he also sees implications for human consciousness and our sense of self in the idea that we are “wired for culture”. We still have no idea why it is human beings have a self, or think they have one, and we have never been able to locate the sense of self in the brain. Pagel thinks its pretty self-evident why a creature that is enmeshed in a society of like creatures with less than perfectly aligned needs would evolve a sense of self. We need one in order to negotiate our preferences, and our rights.

Language, for Pagel, is not so much a means for discovering and discussing the truth as it is an instrument wielded by the individual to gain in his own interest through persuasion and sometimes outright deception. Pagel’s views seem to be seconded by Steven Pinker who in a fascinating talk back in 2007 laid out how the use of language seems to be structured by the type of relationship it represents. In a polite dinner conversation you don’t say “give me the salt”, but “please pass me the salt” because the former is a command of the type most found in a dominance/submission relationship. The language of seduction is not “come up to my place so I can @#!% you”, but “would you like to come up and see my new prints.” Language is a type of constant negotiation and renegotiation between individuals one that is necessary because relationships between human beings are not ordinarily based on coercion where no speech is necessary besides the grunt of a command.

All of which brings me back to Aristotle and to the question of evil along with the sole glaring oversight of Pagel’s otherwise remarkable book. The problem moderns often have with the brilliant Aristotle is his justification of slavery and the subordination of women. That is, Aristotle clearly articulates what makes a society human- our interdependence, our capacity for speech, the way our “telos” is to be shaped and tuned by the culture in which we are raised like a precious instrument. At the same time he turns around and allows this society to compel by force the actions of those deliberately excluded from the opportunity for speech which he characterizes as a “natural” defect.

Pagel’s cultural survival vehicles miss this sort of internal oppression that is distinct both from the moral anger of the community against those who have violated its norms or its violence towards those outside of it. Aren’t there minature cultural survival vehicles in the form of one group or another that fosters its own genetic interest through oppression and exploitation? It got me thinking if any example of what a more religious age would have called “evil” as opposed to mere “badness” couldn’t be understood as a form of either oppression or exploitation, and I am unable to come up with any.

Such sad reflections dampen Pagel’s optimism towards the end of Wired for Culture that the world’s great global cities are a harbinger of us transcending the state of war between our various cultural survival vehicles and moving towards a global culture. We might need to delve more deeply into our evolutionary proclivities to fight within our own and against other cultural survival vehicles inside our societies as much as outside before we put our trust in such a positive outcome for the human story.

If Pagel is right and we are wired, if we have co-evolved, to compete in the name of our own particular cultural survival vehicle against other such communities then we may have in a very real sense co-evolved with and for war. A subject I will turn to next time by jumping off another very recent and excellent book.

The Danger of Using Science as a God Killing Machine

Gravitational Waves

Big news this year for those interested in big questions, or potentially big news, as long as the findings hold up. Scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics may have come as close as we have ever ever to seeing the beginning of time in our universe.  They may have breached our former boundary in peering backwards into the depth of time, beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background, the light echo of the Big Bang- taking us within an intimate distance of the very breath of creation.

Up until now we have not been able to peer any closer to the birth of our universe than 300,000 or so years distance from the Big Bang. One of the more amazing things about our universe, to me at least, is that given its scale and the finite speed of light,  looking outward also means looking backward in time. If you want to travel into the past stand underneath a starry sky on a clear night and look up.  We rely on light and radiation for this kind of time travel, but get too close to beginning of the universe and the scene becomes blindingly opaque. Scientists need a whole new way of seeing to look back further, and they may just have proven that one of these new ways of seeing actually works.

What the Harvard-Smithsonian scientists hope they have seen isn’t light or radiation, but the lensing effect of  gravitational waves predicted by the controversial Inflationary Model of the Big Bang, which claims that the Big Bang was followed by a quick burst in which the universe expanded incredibly fast. One prediction of the Inflationary Model is that this rapid expansion would have created ripples in spacetime- gravitational waves, the waves whose indirect effect scientist hope they have observed.

If they’re right, in one fell swoop, they may have given an evidential boost to a major theory on how our universe was born, and given us a way of peering deeper than we ever have into the strobiloid of time, a fertile territory, we should hope, for testing, revising and creating theories about the origin of our cosmos, its nature, and ultimate destiny. Even more tentatively, the discovery might also allow physicists to move closer to understanding how to unify gravity with quantum mechanics the holy grail of physics since the early 20th century.

Science writer George Johnson may, therefore, have been a little premature when he recently asked:

As the effort to understand the world has advanced, the low-hanging fruits (like Newton’s apple) have been plucked. Scientists are reaching higher and deeper into the tree. But with finite arms in an infinite universe, are there limits — physical and mental — to how far they can go?

The answer is almost definitely yes, but, it seems, not today, although our very discovery may ironically take us closer to Johnson’s limits. The reason being that, one of the many hopes for gravitational lensing is that it might allow us to discover experimental evidence for theories that we live in a multiverse- ours just one of perhaps an infinite number of universes. Yet, with no way to actually access these universes, we might find ourselves, in some sense,  stuck in the root-cap of our “local” spacetime and the tree of knowledge rather than grasping towards the canopy. But for now, let’s hope, the scientists at Harvard/Smithsonian have helped us jump up to an even deeper branch.
For human beings in general, but for Americans and American scientists in particular, this potential discovery should have resulted in almost universal celebration and pride. If the discovery holds, we are very near to being able to “see” the very beginning of our universe. American science had taken it on the chin when Europeans using their Large Hadron Collider (LHC) were able to discover the Higgs Boson a fundamental particle that had been dubbed in the popular imagination with the most inaccurate name in the history of science as “the God particle”. Americans would very likely have gotten there first had their own and even more massive particle collider the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) not been canceled back in the 1990’s under a regime of shortsighted public investments and fiscal misallocation that continues to this day.

Harvard and even more so the Smithsonian are venerable American institutions. Indeed, the Smithsonian is in many ways a uniquely American hybrid not only in terms of its mix of public and private support but in its general devotion to the preservation, expansion and popularization of all human knowledge, a place where science and the humanities exist side- by- side and in partnership and which serves as an institution of collective memory for all Americans.

As is so often the case, any recognition of the potential for the discovery by the scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics being something that should be shared across the plurality of society was blown almost immediately, for right out of the gate, it became yet another weapon in the current atheists vs religious iteration of the culture war. It was the brilliant physicist and grating atheists Lawrence Krauss who took this route in his summary of the discovery for the New Yorker. I didn’t have any problem with his physics- the man is a great physicist and science writer, but he of course took the opportunity to get in a dig at the religious.

For some people, the possibility that the laws of physics might illuminate even the creation of our own universe, without the need for supernatural intervention or any demonstration of purpose, is truly terrifying. But Monday’s announcement heralds the possible beginning of a new era, where even such cosmic existential questions are becoming accessible to experiment.

What should have been a profound discovery for all of us, and a source of conversations between the wonderstruck is treated here instead as another notch on the New Atheists’ belt, another opportunity to get into the same stupid fight, with not so much the same ignorant people, as caricatures of those people. Sometimes I swear a lot of this rhetoric, on both sides of the theists and atheist debate, is just an advertising ploy to sell more books, TV shows, and speaking events.  

For God’s sake, the Catholic Church has held the Big Bang to be consistent with Church doctrine since 1951. Pat Robertson openly professes belief in evolution and the Big Bang. Scientists should be booking spots on EWTN and the 700 Club to present this amazing discovery for the real enemy of science isn’t religion it’s ignorance. It’s not some theist Christian, Muslim or Jew who holds God ultimately responsible, somehow, for the Big Bang, but the members of the public, religious or not, who think the Big Bang is just a funny name for an even funnier TV show.

Science will always possess a gap in its knowledge into which those so inclined will attempt to stuff their version of a creator. If George Johnson is right we may reach a place where that gap, rather than moving with scientific theories that every generation probe ever deeper into the mysteries of nature may stabilize as we come up against the limits of our knowledge. God, for those who need a creating intelligence, will live there.

There is no doubt something forced and artificial in this “God of the gaps”, but theologians of the theistic religions have found it a game they need to play clinging as they do to the need for God to be a kind of demiurge and ultimate architect of all existence. Other versions of God where “he” is not such an engineer in the sky, God as perhaps love, or relationship, or process, or metaphor, or the ineffable would better fit with the version of  reality given us by science, and thus, be more truthful, but the game of the gaps is one theologians may ultimately win in any case.

Religions and the persons who belong to them will either reconcile their faith with the findings of science or they will not, and though I wish they would reconcile, so that religions would hold within them our comprehensive wisdom and acquired knowledge as they have done in the past, their doing so is not necessary for religions to survive or even for their believers to be “rational.”

For the majority of religious people, for the non-theologians, it simply does not matter if the Big Bang was inflationary or not, or even if there was a Big Bang at all. What matters is that they are able to deal with loss and grief, can orient themselves morally to others, that they are surrounded by a mutually supportive community that acts in the world in the same way, that is, that they can negotiate our human world.

Krauss, Dawkins et al often take the position that they are administering hard truths and that people who cling to something else need to be snapped out of their child-like illusions. Hard truths, however, are a relative thing. Some people can actually draw comfort from the “meaninglessness” of their life, which science seems to show them. As fiction author Jennifer Percy wrote of her astronomy loving father:

This brand of science terrified me—but my dad found comfort in going to the stars. He flees from what messy realm of human existence, what he calls “dysfunctional reality” or “people problems.” When you imagine that we’re just bodies on a rock, small concerns become insignificant. He keeps an image above his desk, taken by the Hubble space telescope, that from a distance looks like an image of stars—but if you look more closely, they are not stars, they are whole galaxies. My dad sees that, imagining the tiny earth inside one of these galaxies—and suddenly, the rough day, the troubles at work, they disappear.

Percy felt something to be missing in her father’s outlook, which was as much as a shield against the adversity of human life as any religion, but one that she felt only did so by being blind to the actual world around him. Percy found this missing human element in literature which drew her away from a science career and towards the craft of fiction.

The choice of fiction rather than religion or spirituality may seem odd at first blush, but it makes perfect sense to me. Both are ways of compressing reality by telling stories which allow us to make sense of our experience, something that despite our idiosyncrasies,  is always part of the universal human experience. Religion, philosophy, art, music, literature, and sometimes science itself, are all means of grappling with the questions, dilemmas and challenges life throws at us.

In his book Wired for CultureMark Pagel points out how the benefits of religion and art to our survival must be much greater than they are in Dawkins’ terms “a virus of the mind” that uses us for its purposes and to our detriment. Had religion been predominantly harmful or even indifferent to human welfare it’s very hard to explain why it is so universal across human societies. We have had religion and art around for so long because they work.

Unlike the religious, Percy’s beloved fiction is largely free from the critique of New Atheists who demand that science be the sole method of obtaining truth. This is because fiction, by its very nature, makes no truth claims on the physical world, nor does it ask us to do anything much in response to it. Religion comes in for criticism by the New Atheists wherever it seems or appears to make truth claims on material existence, including its influence on our actions, but religion does other things as well which are best seen by looking at two forms of fiction that most resemble religion’s purposeful storytelling, that is, fairy tales and myths.

My girls love fairy tales and I love reading them to them. What surprised me when I re-encountered these stories as a parent was just how powerful they were, while at the same time being so simple. I hadn’t really had a way of understanding this until I picked up Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales As long as one can get through  Bettelheim’ dated Freudian psychology his book shows why fairy tales hit us like they do, why their simplification of life is important, and why, as adults we need to outgrow their black and white thinking.

Fairy tales establish the foundation for our moral psychology. They teach us the difference between good and evil, between aiming to be a good person and aiming to do others harm. They teach us to see our own often chaotic emotional lives as a normal expression of the human condition, and also, and somewhat falsely, teach us to never surrender our hope.

Myths are a whole different animal from fairy tales. They are the stories of once living religions that have become detached and now float freely from the practices and rituals that once made them, in a sense, real. The stories alone, however, remain deep with meaning and much of this meaning, especially when it comes to the Greek myths, has to do with the tragic nature of human existence. What you learn from myths is that even the best of intentions can result in something we would not have chosen- think Pandora who freed the ills of the world from the trap of their jar out of compassion- or that sometimes even the good can be unjustly punished- as in Prometheus the fire bringer chained to his rock.

Religion is yet something different from either fairy tales or myths. The “truth” of a religion is not to be found or sought in its cosmology but in its reflection on the human condition and the way it asks us to orient ourselves to the world and guides our actions in it. The truth of a faith becomes real through its practice- a Christian washing the feet of the poor in imitation of Christ makes the truth of Christianity in some sense real and a part of our world, just as Jews who ask for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement, make the covenant real.

Some atheists, the philosopher Alain Botton most notably have taken notice that the atheists accusation against religion- that it’s a fairy tale adults are suckered into believing in- is a conversation so exhausted it is no longer interesting. In his book Religion for Atheists he tries to show what atheists and secular persons can learn from religion, things like a sense of community and compassion, religion’s realistic, and therefore pessimistic, view of human nature, religions’ command of architectural space and holistic approach to education, which is especially focused on improving the moral character of the young.

Yet Botton’s suggestion of how secular groups and persons might mimic the practices of religion such as his “stations of life” rather than “stations of the cross” fell flat with me.There is something in the enchantment of religion which resembles the enchantment of fairy tales that fails rather than succeeds by running too close to reality- though it can not go too far from reality either. There is a genius in organic things which emerge from collective effort, unplanned, and over long stretches of time that can not be recreated deliberately without resulting in a cartoonish and disneyfied, version of reality or conversely something so true to life and uncompressed we can not view it without instinctively turning away in horror or falling into boredom.

I personally do not have the constitution to practice any religion and look instead for meaning to literature, poetry, and philosophy, though I look at religion as a rich source of all three.  I also sometimes look to science, and do indeed, like Jennifer Percy’s father, find some strange comfort in my own insignificance in light of the vastness of it all.

The dangers of me, or Krauss, or Dawkins or anyone else trying to turn this taste for insignificance into the only truth, the one shown to us by science is that we turn what is really a universal human endeavor, the quest to know our origins, into a means of stopping rather than starting a conversation we should all be parties to, and threaten the broad social support needed to fund and see through our quest to understand our world and how it came to be. For, the majority of people (outside of Europe) continue to turn to religion to give their lives meaning, which might mean that if we persist in treating science as a God killing machine, or better, a meaning killing machine, we run the risk of those who need such forms of meaning in order to live turning around and killing science.

Waiting for World War III

The Consequences of War Paul Rubens

Everyone alive today owes their life to a man most of us have never heard of, and that I didn’t even know existed until last week. On September, 26 1983, just past mid-night, Soviet lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov was alerted by his satellite early warning system that an attack from an American ICBM was underway. Normal protocol should have resulted in Petrov giving the order to fire Russian missiles at the US in response. Petrov instead did nothing, unable to explain to himself why the US would launch only one missile rather than a massive first strike in the hope of knocking out Russia’s capacity to retaliate. Then, something that made greater sense- more missiles appeared on Petrov’s radar screen, yet he continued to do nothing. And then more. He refused to give the order to fire, and he waited, and waited.

No news ever came in that night of the devastation of Soviet cities and military installations due to the detonation of American nuclear warheads, because, as we know, there never was such an attack. What Petrov had seen was a computer error, an electronic mirage, and we are here, thank God, because he believed in the feelings in his gut over the data illusion on his screen.

That is the story as told by Christopher Coker in his book Warrior Geeks: How 21st Century Technology is Changing the Way We Fight and Think About War. More on that book another time, but now to myself. During the same time Petrov was saving us through morally induced paralysis I was a budding cold warrior, a passionate supporter of Ronald Reagan and his massive defense buildup. I had drawn up detailed war scenarios calculating precisely the relative strengths of the two opposing power blocs, was a resident expert in Soviet history and geography. I sincerely thought World War Three was inevitable in my lifetime. I was 11 years old.

Anyone even slightly younger than me has no memory of living in a world where you went to sleep never certain we wouldn’t blow the whole thing up over night. I was a weird kid, as I am a weird adult, and no doubt hypersensitive to the panic induced by too close a relationship with modern media. Yet, if the conversations I have had with people in my age group over the course of my lifetime are any indication, I was not totally alone in my weirdness. Other kids too would hear jets rumbling overhead at night and wonder if the sounds were missiles coming to put an end to us all, were haunted by movies like The Day After or inspired by Red Dawn. Other kids staged wars in their neighborhoods fighting against “robot”like Russians.

During the early 1980′s world war wasn’t something stuck in a black and white movie, but a brutal and epic thing our grandfathers told us about, that some of our teachers had fought in. A reality that, with the end of detente and in light of the heated rhetoric of the Reagan years, felt as much part of the future as part of the past. It was not just a future of our imaginations, and being saved by Stanislav Petrov wasn’t the only time we dodged the bullet in those tense years.

Whatever the fear brought on by 9-11, this anxiety that we might just be fool enough to completely blow up our own world is long gone. The last twenty three years since the fall of the Soviet Union have been, in this sense, some of the most blessed in human history, a time when the prospect of the big powers pulverizing each other to death has receded from the realm of possibility. I am starting to fear its absence cannot last.

Perhaps it’s Russian aggression against Ukraine that has revived my pre-teen anxieties, it’s seizure of Crimea, veiled threats to conquer the Russophone eastern regions of the country, Putin’s jingoistic speech before the Kremlin. Of course, of course, I don’t think world war will come from the crisis in Ukraine now matter how bad it gets there. Rather, I am afraid we were wrong to write the possibility of war between the big powers out of human history permanently. That one of these times, and when we do not expect it, 10 years or 20 years or 100 years from now one of these dust ups will result in actual clashes between the armed forces of the big powers, a dangerous game that the longer we played it would hold the real risk of ending in the very nightmare we had avoided the night Petrov refused to fire.

Disputes over which the big powers might come to blows are not hard to come up with. There is China’s dispute with Japan, the Philippines, other, and ultimately the United States, over islands in the Pacific, there is the lingering desire for China to incorporate Taiwan, there is the legacy conflict on the Korean peninsula, clashes between India and China, disputes over resources and trade routes through an arctic opened up by global warming, or possible future fights over unilateral geoengineering. Then there are frictions largely unanticipated , as we now see, Russia’s panic induced aggression against Ukraine which brings it back into collision with NATO.

Still, precise predictions about the future is a game for fools. Hell, I can still remember when “experts” in all seriousness predicted a coming American war with Japan. I am aiming, rather, for something more general.   The danger I see is that the big powers start to engage in increasingly risky behavior precisely because they think world war is now impossible. That all of us will have concluded that limited and lukewarm retaliation is the only rational response to aggression given that the existential stakes are gone. As a foolish eleven year old I saw the risk of global catastrophe worth taking if the alternative was totalitarian chains. I am an adult now, hopefully much wiser, and with children of my own, whose lives I would not risk to save Ukraine from dismemberment along ethnic/linguistic lines or to stop China from asserting its rising power in the Pacific. I am certainly not alone in this, but fear such sanity will make me party to an avalanche. That the decline of the fear that states may go too far in aggressive action may lead them to go so far they accidentally spark a scale of war we have deemed inconceivable.

My current war pessimism over the long term might also stem from the year I am in, 2014, a solemn centenary of the beginning of the First World War. Back when I was in high school, World War I was presented with an air of tragic determinism. It was preordained, or so we were taught, the product of an unstable system alliance system, growing nationalism and imperialism. It was a war that was in some sense “wanted” by those who had fought it. Historians today have called this determinism into question. Christopher Clark in his massive The Sleepwalkers details just how important human mistakes and misperceptions were to the outbreak of the war, the degree to which opportunities to escape the tragedy were squandered because no one knew just how enormous the tragedy they were unleashing would become.

Another historian, Holger Afflerbach, in his essay The Topos of Improbable War in Europe Before 1914 shows how few were the voices in Europe that expected a continental or world war. Even the German military that wanted conflict was more afraid until the war broke out, and did not end quickly, that conflict would be averted at the last minute rather than stopped. The very certainty that a world war could not be fought, it part because of the belief that modern weapons had become too terrible, led to risk taking and refusal to compromise, which made such a war more likely as the crisis that began with the assassination of Archduke Fransferdinad unfolded.

If World War II can be considered an attempt by the aggrieved side to re-fight the First World War, what followed  Japan’s surrender was very different, a difference perhaps largely due to one element- the presence of nuclear weapons. What dissuaded big states in the Cold War era from directly fighting one another was likelihood that the potential costs of doing so were too high relative to the benefits that would accrue from any victory. The cost in a nuclear age was destruction itself.

Yet, for those costs to be an effective deterrent the threat of their use had to be real. Both sides justified their possible suicide in a nuclear holocaust on the grounds that they were engaged in a Manichean struggle where the total victory of the opposing side was presented as being in some sense worse than the destruction of the world itself. Yes, I know this was crazy, yet, by some miracle, we’re still here, and whether largely despite of or because of this insanity we cannot truly know.

Still, maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps I should not be so uncertain over the reason why there have been no wars between the big powers in the modern era, perhaps my anxiety that the real threat of nuclear annihilation might have been responsible is just my eleven year old self coming back to haunt me. It’s just possible that nuclear weapons had nothing to do with the long peace between great powers. Some have argued that there were other reasons big states have seemingly stopped fighting other big states since the end of World War II, that what changed were not so much weapons but norms regarding war. Steven Pinker most famously makes this case in his Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.

Sadly, I have my doubts regarding Pinker’s argument. Here’s me from an earlier piece:

His evidence against the “nuclear peace” is that more nations have abandoned nuclear weapons programs than have developed such weapons. The fact is perhaps surprising but nonetheless accurate. It becomes a little less surprising, and a little less encouraging in Pinker’s sense, when you actually look at the list of countries who have abandoned them and why. Three of them: Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine are former Soviet republics and were under enormous Russian and US pressure- not to mention financial incentives- to give up their weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two of them- South Africa and Libya- were attempting to escape the condition of being international pariahs. Another two- Iraq and Syria had their nuclear programs derailed by foreign powers. Three of them: Argentina, Brazil, and Algeria faced no external existential threat that would justify the expense and isolation that would come as a consequence of  their development of nuclear weapons and five others: Egypt, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany were woven tightly into the US security umbrella.

I am sure you have noticed that Ukraine is on that list. Had Ukraine not given up its nuclear weapons it is almost certain that it would not have seen Crimea seized by the Russians, or find itself facing the threat by Moscow to split the country in two.

A little more on Pinker: he spends a good part of his over 800 page book showing us just how savagely violent human societies were in the past. Tribal societies had homicide rates that rival or exceed the worst inner cities. Human are natural Hobbesians given to “a war of all against all”, but, in his view we have been socialized out of such violence, and not just as individuals, but in terms of states.

Pinker’s idea of original human societies being so violent and civilization as a kind of domestication of mankind away from this violence left me with many unanswered questions. If we were indeed so naturally violent how or why did we establish societies in the first place? Contrary to his claim, didn’t the institutionalization of violence in the form of war between states actually make our situation worse? How could so many of us cringe from violence at even a very early age, if we were naturally wired to be killers?

I couldn’t resolve any of these questions until I had read Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture. What Pagel showed is that most of us are indeed naturally “wired” to be repulsed by violence the problem is this repulsion has a very sensitive off switch. The way it can be turned off is when our community is threatened either by those who had violated community norms, so-called moral anger, or when violence is directed towards rival groups outside of the community. In such cases we can be far more savage than the most vicious of animals with our creativity and inventiveness turned to the expression of cruelty.

Modern society is one that has cordoned off violence. We don’t have public hangings anymore and cringe at the death of civilians at the hands of our military (when we are told about them.) Yet this attitude towards violence is so new we can not reasonably expect it has become permanent.

I have no intention of picking on the Russians, and Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech would have done just as well or better here, but to keep things current: Putin in his bellicose oration before the Kremlin pressed multiple sides of the Pagel’s violence “off switch”:

He presented his opponents as an evil rival “tribe”:

However, those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.

And called for the defense of the community and the innocent:

Let me say one other thing too. Millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people live in Ukraine and will continue to do so. Russia will always defend their interests using political, diplomatic and legal means. But it should be above all in Ukraine’s own interest to ensure that these people’s rights and interests are fully protected. This is the guarantee of Ukraine’s state stability and territorial integrity.

What this should show us, and Americans certainly shouldn’t need a lesson in here, is that norms against violence (though violence in Ukraine has so far, thankfully been low), can be easily turned off given the right circumstance. Putin, by demonizing his Ukrainian opponents, and claiming that Russia would stand in defense of the rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine was rallying the Russian population for a possible escalation of violence should his conditions not be met. His speech was met with a standing ovation. It is this ease by which our instincts for violence can be turned on that suggests Pinker may have been too optimistic in thinking war was becoming a thing of the past if we are depending  on a change in norms alone.

Then there is sheer chance. Pinker’s theory of the decline of violence in general relies on Gaussian bell curves, averages over long stretches of time, but if we should have learned anything from Nassim Taleb and his black swans and the financial crisis, its the fat tails that should worry us most. The occurrence of a highly improbable event that flips our model of the world and the world itself on its head and collapses the Gaussian curve. Had Stanislav Petrov decided to fire his ICBMS rather than sit on his hands, Pinker’s decline of violence, up to that point, would have looked like statistical noise masking the movement towards the real event- an unprecedented expression of human violence that would have killed the majority of the human race.

Like major financial crises that happen once in a century, or natural disasters that appear over longer stretches of time, anything we’ve once experienced can happen again with the probability of recurrence often growing over time.  If human decision making is the primary factor involved, as it is in economic crises and war, the probability of such occurrences may increase as the generation whose errors in judgement brought on the economic crisis or war recedes from the scene taking their acquired wisdom and caution with them.

And we are losing sight of this possibility. Among military theorists rather than defense contractors, Colin S. Grey is one of an extreme minority trying to remind us the war between the big powers is not impossible as he writes in Another Bloody Century

If we, grant with some reservations, that there is a trend away from interstate warfare, there hovers in the background the thought that this is a trend that might be reversed abruptly. No country that is a significant player in international security, not least the United States, has yet reorganized and transformed its regular military establishment to reflect the apparent demise  of ‘old’ (interstate wars and the rise of new ones.

Grey, for one, does not think that we’ll see a replay of 20th century world wars with massive, industrial armies fighting it out on land and sea. The technology today is simply far too different than it was in the first half of the last century. War has evolved and is evolving into something very different, but interstate war will likely return.

We might not see the recurrence of world war but merely skirmishes between the big powers. This would be more of a return to normalcy than anything else. World wars, involving the whole of society, especially civilians, are a very modern phenomenon dating perhaps no earlier than the French Revolution. In itself a return to direct clashes between the big powers would be very bad, but not so bad as slippage into something much worse, something that might happen because escalation had gone beyond the point of control.

The evolution of 21st century war may make such great power skirmishes more likely. Cyber-attacks have, so far at least, come with little real world consequences for the attacking country. As was the case with the German officer corps in World War I, professional soldiers, who have replaced draftees and individuals seeking a way out of poverty as the basis of modern militaries seem likely more eager to fight so as to display their skills, and may in time be neurologically re-engineered so as to deal with the stresses of combat. It is at least conceivable that professional soldiers might be the first class to have full legal access to technological and biological enhancements being made possible by advances in prosthetics, mind-computer interfaces and neuroscience.

Governments as well as publics may become more willing to engage in direct conflict as relatively inexpensive and expendable drones and robots replace airmen and soldiers. Ever more of warfighting might come to resemble a videogame with soldiers located far from the battlefield.  Both war and the international environment in which wars are waged has evolved and is evolving into something very unlike that which we have experienced since the end of the Cold War. The father out it comes the more likely that the next big war will be a transhumanist or post-human version of war, and there are things we can do now that might help us avoid it- subjects I will turn to in the near future.

How the Web Will Implode

Jeff Stibel is either a genius when it comes to titles, or has one hell of an editor. The name of his recent book Breakpoint: Why the web will implode, search will be obsolete, and everything you need to know about technology is in your brain was about as intriguing as I had found a title, at least since The Joys of X. In many ways, the book delivers on the promise of its title, making an incredibly compelling argument for how we should be looking at the trend lines in technology, a book which is chalk full of surprising and original observations. The problem is that the book then turns round to come up with almost the opposite conclusions one would expect. It wasn’t the Internet that imploded but my head.

Stibel’s argument in Breakpoint is that all throughout nature and neurology, economics and technology we see this common pattern of slow growth rising quickly to an exponential pace followed by a rapid plateau, a “breakpoint” at which the rate of increase collapses, or even a sharp decline occurs, and future growth slows to a snail’s pace. One might think such breakpoints were a bad thing for whatever it is undergoing them, and when they are followed by a crash they usually are, but in many cases it just ain’t so. When ant colonies undergo a breakpoint they are keeping themselves within a size that their pheromonal communication systems can handle. The human brain grows rapidly in connections between birth and five after which it loses a great deal of those connections through pruning- a process that allows the brain to discard useless information and solidify the types of knowledge it needs- such as the common language being spoken in its environment.

His thesis leads Stibel to all sorts of fascinating observations. Here are just a few: Precision takes a huge amount of energy, and human brains are error prone because they are trading this precision for efficiency. The example is mine, not Stibel’s, but it captures his point: if I did the math right, IBM’s Watson consumed about 4,000 times as much energy as its human opponents, and the machine, as impressive as it was, it couldn’t drive itself there, or get its kids to school that morning, or compose a love poem about Alex Trebek. It could only answer trivia questions.

Stibel points out how the energy consumption of computers and the web are approaching what are likely hard energy ceilings. Continuing on its current trajectory the Internet will consume, in relatively short order, 20% of the world energy, about as much as the percentage of calories that are needed to run the human brain. A prospect that makes the Internet’s growth  rate under current conditions ultimately unsustainable runless we really are determined to fry ourselves with global warming.

Indeed, this 20% mark seems to be a kind of boundary for intelligence, at least if the human brain is any indication. As always with, for me at least, new and surprising observations, Stibel points out how the human brain has been steadily shrinking and losing connections over time. Pound for pound, our modern brain is actually “dumber” than our cave man ancestors. (Not sure how this gels with the Flynn effect.) Big brains are expensive for bodies to maintain, and its caloric ravenousness relative to other essential bodily functions must not be favored by evolution otherwise we’d see more of our lopsided brain to body ratio in nature.  As we’ve been able to offload functions to our tools and to our cultures, evolution has been shedding some of this cost in raw thinking prowess and slowly moving us back towards a more “natural” ratio.             

If the Internet is going to survive it’s going to have to become more energy efficient as well.  Stibel sees this already happening. Mobile has allowed targeted apps rather than websites to be the primary way we get information. Cloud computing allows computational prowess and memory to be distributed and brought together as needed. The need for increased efficiency, Stibel believes, will continue to change the nature of search too. Increasing personalization will allow for ever more targeted information, so that the individual can find just what they are looking for. This becoming “brainlike”, he speculates may actually result in the emergence of something like consciousness from the web.

It is on these last two points, on personalization, and the emergence of consciousness from the Internet that he lost me. Indeed, had Stibel held fast to his idea of the importance of breakpoints he may have seen both personalization and emergent consciousness from the Internet in a much different light.

The quote below captures Steibel’s view of personalization:

We’re moving towards search becoming a kind of personal assistant that knows an awful lot about you. As a side note, some of you may be feeling quite uncomfortable at this point with your new virtual friend. My advice: get used to it. The benefits will be worth it. As Kevin Kelly has said: “Total personalization in this new world will require total transparency. That is going to be the price. If you want to have total personalization, you have to be totally transparent. “ (93)

I suppose the question one should ask of Steibel is transparent to whom and for what? The answer, can be seen in the example of he gives of transparency in action:

Imagine that the Internet can read your thoughts. Your personal computer, now a personal assistant, knows you skipped breakfast, just as your brain knows you skipped breakfast. She also knows that you have back to back meetings, but that your schedule just cleared. So she offers the suggestion “It’s 11:00am and you should really eat before your next meeting. D’Amore’s Pizza Express can deliver to you within 25 minutes. Shall I order your favorite, a large thin crust pizza, light on the cheese with extra red pepper flakes on the side?” (97)

The answer, as Stibel’s example makes apparent, is that one is transparent to advertisers and for them. In the example of D’Amore’s”, what is presented as something that works for you is actually a device on loan to a restaurant- it is their “personal assistant”.

Transparent individuals become a kind of territory mined for resources by those capable of performing the data mining. For the individual being “mined” such extraction can be good or bad, and part of our problem, now and in the future, will be to give the individual the ability to control this mining and refract it in directions that better suit our interest. To decide for ourselves when it is good and we want its benefits ,and are therefore are willing to pay its costs, and when it is bad and we are not.

Stibel thinks personalization is part of the coming “obsolescence of search” and a response of the web to the need for increased efficiency as a way to avoid, for a time, reaching its breakpoint. Yet, looking at our digital data as a sort of contested territory gives us a different version of the web’s breakpoint than the one that Stibel gives us even if it flows naturally from his logic. The fact that corporations and other groups are attempting to court individuals on the basis of having gathered and analysed a host of intimate and not so intimate details on those individuals sparks all kinds of efforts to limit, protect, monopolize, subvert, or steal such information. This is the real “implosion” of the web.

We would do well to remember that the Internet really got its public start as a means of open exchange between scientists and academics, a community of common interest and mutual trust. Trust essentially entails the free flow of information- transparency- and as human beings we probably agree that transparency exists along a spectrum with more information provided to those closest to you and less the further out you go.

Reflecting its origins, the culture of the Internet in its initial years had this sense of widespread transparency and trust baked  into our understanding of it. This period in Eden, even if it just imagined, could not last forever. It has been a long time since the Internet was a community of trust, and it can’t be, it’s just too damned big, even if it took a long time for us to realize this.

The scales have now fallen from our eyes, and we all know that the web has been a boon for all sorts of cyber-criminals and creeps and spooks, a theater of war between states. Recent events surrounding mass surveillance by state security services have amplified this cynicism and decline of trust. Trust, for humans, is like pheromones in Seibel’s ants- it gives the limits of how large a human community can be before breaking off to form a new one, unless some other way of keeping a community together is applied. So far, human societies have discovered three means of keeping societies that have grown beyond the capacity of circles of trust intact: ethnicity, religion and law.

Signs that trust has unraveled are not hard to find. There has been an incredible spike in interest in anti-transparent technologies with “crypto-parties” now being a phenomenon in tech circles. A lot of this interest is coming from private citizens, and sometimes, yes, criminals. Technologies that offer a bubble of protection for individuals against government and corporate snooping seem to be all the rage. Yet even more interest is coming from governments and businesses themselves. Some now seem to want exclusive powers to a “mining territory”- to spy on, and sometimes protect, their own citizens and customers in a domain with established borders. There are, in other words,  splintering pressures building against the Internet, or, as Steven Levy stated there are increased rumblings of:

… a movement to balkanize the Internet—a long-standing effort that would potentially destroy the web itself. The basic notion is that the personal data of a nation’s citizens should be stored on servers within its borders. For some proponents of the idea it’s a form of protectionism, a prod for nationals to use local IT services. For others it’s a way to make it easier for a country to snoop on its own citizens. The idea never posed much of a threat, until the NSA leaks—and the fears of foreign surveillance they sparked—caused some countries to seriously pursue it. After learning that the NSA had bugged her, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff began pushing a law requiring that the personal data of Brazilians be stored inside the country. Malaysia recently enacted a similar law, and India is also pursuing data protectionism.

As John Schinasi points out in his paper Practicing Privacy Online: Examining Data Protection Regulations Through Google’s Global Expansion, even before the Snowden revelations, which sparked the widespread breakdown of public trust, or even just heated public debate regarding such trust, there were huge differences between different regimes of trust on the Internet, with the US being an area where information was exchanged most freely and privacy against corporations considered contrary to the spirit of American capitalism.

Europe, on the other had, on account of its history, had in the early years of the Internet taken a different stand adhering to an EU directive that was deeply cognizant of the dangers of too much trust being granted to corporations and the state. The problem was this directive is so antiquated, dating from 1995, it not only failed to reflect the Internet as it has evolved, but severely compromised the way the Internet in Europe now works. The way the directive was implemented turned Europe into a patchwork quilt of privacy laws, which was onerous for American companies, but which they were able to often circumvent being largely self-policing in any case under the so-called Safe Harbor provisions.

Then there is the whole different ball game of China, which  Schinasi characterizes as a place where the Internet is seen without apology or sense of limits by officialdom as a tool of for monitoring its own citizens placing huge restrictions on the extension of trust to entities beyond its borders. China under its current regime seems dedicated to carving out its own highly controlled space on the Internet a partnership between its Internet giants and its control freak government , something which we can hope the desire of such companies to go global might help eventually temper.

The US and Europe, in a process largely sparked by the Snowden revelations appear to be drifting apart. Just last week, on March 12, 2014 the European parliament by an overwhelming majority of 621 to 10 (I didn’t forget a zero), passed a law that aims at bringing some uniformity to the chaos of European privacy laws and that would severely restrict the way personal data is used and collected, essentially upending the American transparency model. (Snowden himself testified to the parliament by video link). The Safe Harbor provisions, while not yet abandoned ,as that would take a decision of the European Council rather than the parliament, have not been nixed, but given the broad support for the other changes are clearly in jeopardy. If these trends continue they would constitute something of a breaking apart and consolidation of the Internet- a sad end to the utopian hopes of a global and transparent society that sprung from the Internet’s birth.

Yet, if Steibel’s thesis about breakpoints is correct, it may also be part of a “natural” process.  Where Steibel was really good was when it came to, well… ants. As he repeatedly shows, ants have this amazing capacity to know when their colony, their network, has grown too large and when it’s time to split up and send out a new queen. Human beings are really good at this formation into separate groups too. In fact as Mark Pagel points out in his Wired for Culture its one of the two things human beings are naturally wired to do: to form groups which breakup once they have exceeded the number of people that any one individual can know on a deep level- a number that remains even in the era of FaceBook “friends” right around where it was when we were setting out from Africa 60,000 years ago- about 150.

If we go by the example of ants and human beings the natural breakpoint(s) for the Internet is where bonds of trust become too loose. Where trust is absent, such as in large scale human societies, we have, as mentioned, come up with three major solutions of which only law, rather than ethnicity or religion, is applicable to the Internet.

What we are seeing- the Internet moving towards splitting itself off into rival spheres of trust, deception, protection and control. The only thing that could keep it together as a universal entity would be the adoption of global international law, as opposed to mere law within and between a limited number of countries, which regulated how the Internet is used, limited states from using the tools of cyber-espionage and what often amounts to the same thing cyber-war, international agreements on how exactly corporations could use customer information, and how citizens should be informed regarding the use of their data by companies and the state would all allow the universal promise of the Internet to survive. This would be the kind of “Magna Carta for the Internet” that Sir Tim Berners-Lee the man who wrote the first draft of the first proposal for what would become the world wide web” is calling for with his Web We Want initiative.

If we get to the destination proposed by Berners-Lee our arrival might have been as much from the push of self-interest from multinational corporations as from the pull of noble efforts by defenders of the world’s civil liberties. For, it plausible that to the desire of Internet giants to be global companies may lead help spur the adoption of higher limits against government spying in the name of corporate protections against “industrial” espionage, protections that might intersect with the desire to protect global civil society as seen in the efforts of Berners-Lee and others and that will help establish a firmer ground for the protection of political freedom for individual citizens everywhere. We’ll probably need both push and pull to stem, let alone rollback, the current regime of mass surveillance we have allowed to be built around us.

Thus, those interested in political freedom should throw their support behind Berners-Lee’s efforts. The erection of a “territory” in which higher standards of data protection prevail, as seen in the current moves of the EU, at this juncture, isn’t contrary to a data regime such as that which Berners-Lee proposed where “Bill of Rights for the Internet” is adhered to, but helps this process along. By creating an alternative to the current transparency model being promoted by American corporations and abused by its security services, one which is embraced by Chinese state capitalism as a tool of the authoritarian state, the EU’s efforts, if successful, would offer a region where the privacy (including corporate privacy) necessary for political freedom continues to be held sacred and protected.

Even if efforts such as those of Berners-Lee to globalize these protections should fail, which sadly appears ultimately most likely, efforts such as those of the EU would create a bubble of  protection- a 21st century version of the medieval fortress and city walls.  We would do well to remember that underneath our definition of the law lies an understanding of law as a type of wall hence the fact that we can speak of both being “breached”. Law, like the rules of a sports game are simply a set of rules that are agreed to within a certain defined arena. The more bound the arena the easier it is to establish a set of clear defined and adhered to rules.

To return to Stiebel, all this has implications for the other idea he explored and about which I also have doubts- the emergence of consciousness from the Internet. As he states:

It took millions of years for human to gain intelligence, but it may only take a century for the Internet. The convergence of computer networks and neural networks is the key to creating real intelligence from artificial machines.

I largely agree with Steibel, especially when he echoes Dan Dennett in saying that artificial intelligence will be about as much like our human consciousness as the airplane is to a bird. Some similarities in terms of underlying principle, but huge differences in engineering and manifestation.  Meaning the path to machine intelligence probably doesn’t lie in brute computational force tried since the 1950′s or the current obsession with reverse engineering the brain, but in networks. Thing is, I just wishes he had said “internets” as in the plural rather than “Internet” singular, or just “networks”, again plural. For my taste, Stiebel has a tone when he’s talking about the emergence of intelligence from the Internet that leans a little too closely to Teilhard de Chardin and his Noosphere or Kevin Kelly and his Technium, all of which could have been avoided had Steibel just stuck with the logic of his breakpoints.

Indeed, given the amount of space he had given to showing how anomalous our human intelligence was and how networks (ants and others) could show intelligent behavior without human type consciousness at all, I was left to wonder why our networks would ever become conscious in the way we are in the first place. If intelligence could emerge from networked computers as Stibel suggests it seems more likely to emerge from well bounded constellations of such computers rather than the network as a global whole- as in our current Internet. If the emergence of AI resembles, which is not the same as replicates, the evolution and principles of the brain it will probably require the same sorts of sharp boundaries we have, the pruning that takes place as we individualize, similar sorts of self-referential goals to ourselves, and some degree of opacity visa-vi other similar entities.

To be fair to Stibel, he admits that we may have already undergone the singularity in something like this sense. What he does not see is that ants or immune systems or economies give us alternative models of how something can be incredibly intelligent and complex but not conscious in the human sense- perhaps human type consciousness is a very strange anomaly rather than an almost pre-determined evolutionary path once the rising complexity train gains enough momentum. AI in this understanding would merely entail truly purposeful coordinated action and goal seeking by complex units, a dangerous situation indeed given that these large units will often be rivals, but one not existentially distinct from what human beings have known since we were advanced enough technologically to live in large cities or fight with massive armies or produce and trade with continent and world straddling corporations.

 Be all that as it may, Stibel’s Breakpoint was still a fascinating read. He not only left me with lots of cool and bizarre tidbits about the world I had not known before, he gave me a new way to think about the old problem of whither our society was headed and if in fact we might be approaching limits to the development of civilization which the scientific and industrial revolution had seemed to suggest we had freed ourselves eternally from. Stibel’s breakpoints were another way for me to understand Joseph A. Tainter’s idea of how and why complex societies collapse and why such collapse should not of necessity fill us with pessimism and doom. Here’s me on Tainter:

The only long lasting solution Tainter sees for  increasing marginal utility is for a society to become less complex that is less integrated more based on what can be provided locally than on sprawling networks and specialization. Tainter wanted to move us away from seeing the evolution of the Roman Empire into the feudal system as the “death” of a civilization. Rather, he sees the societies human beings have built to be extremely adaptable and resilient. When the problem of increasing complexity becomes impossible to solve societies move towards less complexity.

Exponential trends might not be leading us to a stark choice between global society and singularity or our own destruction. We might just be approaching some of Stibel’s breakpoints, and as long as we can keep your wits about us, and not act out of a heightened fear of losing dwindling advantages for us and ours, breakpoints aren’t all necessarily bad- and can even sometimes- be good.

Cracks in the Cult of Radical Transparency

MC Escher Eye Reflection

FaceBook turns ten this year, yes only ten, which means if the company were a person she wouldn’t even remember when Friends was a hit TV show- a reference meant to jolt anyone over 24 with the recognition of just how new the whole transparency culture, which FaceBook is the poster child for, is. Nothing so young can be considered a permanent addition to the human condition, but mere epiphenomenon, like the fads and fashions we foolishly embraced, a mullet and tidied jeans, we have now left behind, lost in the haze of the stupidities and mistakes in judgement of our youth.

The idea behind the cult of radical transparency was that “sharing” would make the world a better place. Private-life was now passe, our photos, our experiences, our thoughts, our opinions were to be endlessly shared not just with an ever expanding group of “friends” but with the world. Transparency would lead to individual authenticity, an end to hypocrisy, to open and accountable government. It would even allow us to re- stitch together our divided selves our work- self with our family-self with our social-self or as Mark Zuckerberg himself stated it:

The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.”

Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.

Yet, radical transparency has come in for a thumping lately. We can largely thank Edward Snowden ,whose revelations of how the US government used the ubiquitous sharing and monitoring technologies used by FaceBook, Google et al to spy on foreign and American citizens alike, has cast a pall over the whole transparency project. Still, both the Silicon Valley giants and much of the technorati appear to be treating the whole transparency question as a public relations problem or an issue of government surveillance alone. They continue to vigorously pursue their business model which is based on developing the tools for personalization.

A technorati semi-royalty like Kevin Kelly put the matter this way in Jeff Stibel’s book , Breakpoint:

Total personalization in this new world will require total transparency. That is going to be the price. If you want total personalization, you have to be totally transparent (93)

Or as Kelly put it over at The Edge:

I don’t see any counter force to the forces of surveillance and self-tracking, so I’m trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched.

It’s suggesting that it wants to monitor, it wants to track, and that you really can’t stop the tracking. So maybe what we have to do is work with this tracking—try to bring symmetry or have areas where there’s no tracking in a temporary basis. I don’t know, but this is the question I’m asking myself: how are we going to live in a world of ubiquitous tracking?

The problem with this, of course, is that technology in and of itself doesn’t “want” anything. Self- tracking as in the “quantified-self” or surveillance of individuals by corporations and governments is not just an avenue being opened up by technological developments, it is a goal being pursued actively by both private sector companies, and the security state who are in light of that goal pushing technological evolution further in that direction. Indeed, Silicon Valley companies are so mesmerized with their ideal of a personalized economy that they are doubling down on forcing the transparency upon the public it requires even as cracks are beginning to show in the model’s foundation.

Let’s look at the cracks: people under 30, who have never lived in a world where the private and public had sharp boundaries might be more interested in privacy than their elders, many of whom are old enough to remember Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover and should, therefore, know better. Europeans, who were never as comfortable with corporate snooping as their American counterparts (Germany gave Google Street View the boot) are even less comfortable now that they know these companies were willing to act as spying tools for the US Government. There is an increasing desire among Europeans to build their own Internet with their own (higher) privacy standards.

The biggest market in the world, China, has already pressured Google to such an extent that it left country. It has its own public/private spying infrastructure in the form of front companies that work with US firms such as Microsoft, along with it own companies like Baidu, persons with sensitive information to hide; namely, criminals or terrorists are onto the fact that they are being watched and are embracing technologies to hide their data, including developing technologies that are anti-transparent. If technology wants anything here, in Kelly’s phraseology, it is an arms race between the watched and the watcher.

Fans of transparency, who are at the same time defenders of civil liberties, sometimes make the case that everything would be alright if the field was leveled and everyone: individual, corporation and government alike was made transparent.  Yet, even if the powers unleashed by transparency were totally taken out of the hands of government and put in the hands of corporations and citizens, there would still be problems because there are issues of asymmetry that universal transparency does not address. We can already see what our government is really like: want to understand D.C. ? Read This Town- and yet such knowledge seems to change nothing. It is still the big-wigs who go on as usual and call the shots. And even if we could wave a magic wand and rid ourselves of all invasive government snooping  private-sector transparency has the same asymmetries.

Personalization, as imagined by Silicon Valley would work something like this example, which I’ve essentially ripped and twisted from Stibel’s Breakpoint. I wake up in the morning and haven’t had time for breakfast which is known by my health monitoring system.  This fact is integrated with my tracking system which knows that in my morning commute I pass The Donut Shop which has a two for one special on my favorite doughnut the Boston Cream. Facts known by my purchase tracking or perhaps gleaned from the fact that I once “liked” a comment by a “friend” on FaceBook who had posted about eating said donut. All this information is integrated, and I am pinged before passing The Donut Shop. Me being me, and lacking any self control, I stop and buy my donuts on the way to work.

Really?

What personalization means is constant bombardment by whatever advertiser has paid enough for my information at the moment to suggest for me what I should buy. The fruit and vegetable vender down the street is likely invisible to me in such a scenario if he hasn’t paid for such suggestions, which is unlikely because he is, well… Amish. This is the first asymmetry. The second asymmetry is between me and The Donut Shop. What possible piece of information could they share with me that would make the relationship more equal? Pictures of people made obese by their obsession with the Boston Cream? Nobody advertises to destroy their own business. The information “shared” with me is partial and distorted.

The biggest danger of the cult of radical transparency is not, I think, in Western countries where traditions of civil liberty and market competition (meaning as ubiquitous surveillance gets more “creepy” there will be a rising number of alternative businesses that offer “non-creepy” services), although this does not mean that things will work themselves out- we have to push back. Rather, the bigger danger lies in authoritarian countries, especially China, where radical transparency could be pursued to its logical limit both by companies and the security state or, most disturbing of all, the collusion of the two.

Yet, even there, I tend to have a faith that, over the long run, the more ornery aspects of human nature will ultimately rule the day, that people will find ways to tune out, to ignore, to play tricks on and be subversive against anything that tries to assert control over individual decisions.

The question of transparency is thus political, cultural, and psychological rather than technological. A great example of the push against it is Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle, which not only gives a first hand account of absurdity of the cult of radical transparency, but brings into relief questions which I believe will prove deeper and more long lasting for the human condition than current debates over FaceBook privacy settings, or the NSA’s spy-a-thon.

These other, deeper and more existential questions deal with the boundary between self and community, the tension between solitude and togetherness. They are questions that have been with us from our very beginning on the African savanna, and will likely never be fully resolved until our species is no more. These questions along with The Circle itself is where I will turn next time…      

Erasmus reads Kahneman, or why perfect rationality is less than it’s cracked up to be

sergei-kirillov-a-jester-with-the-crown-of-monomakh-1999

The last decade or so has seen a renaissance is the idea that human beings are something far short of rational creatures. Here are just a few prominent examples: there was Nassim Taleb with his The Black Swan, published before the onset of the financial crisis, which presented Wall Street traders caught in the grip of their optimistic narrative fallacies, that led them to “dance” their way right over a cliff. There was the work of Philip Tetlock which proved that the advice of most so-called experts was about as accurate as chimps throwing darts. There were explorations into how hard-wired our ideological biases are with work such as that of Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind.

There was a sustained retreat from the utilitarian calculator of homo economicus, seen in the rise of behavioral economics, popularized in the book, Nudge which took human irrational quirks at face value and tried to find wrap arounds, subtle ways to trick the irrational mind into doing things in its own long term interest. Among all of these none of the uncoverings of the less than fully rational actors most of us, no all of us, are have been more influential than the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist with a Nobel Laureate in Economics and author of the bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow.

The surprising thing, to me at least, is that we forgot we were less than fully rational in the first place. We have known this since before we had even understood what rationality, meaning holding to the principle of non-self contradiction, was. How else do you explain Ulysses’ pact, where the hero had himself chained to his ship’s mast so he could both hear the sweet song of the sirens and not plunge to his own death? If the Enlightenment had made us forget the weakness of our rational souls Nietzsche and Freud eventually reminded us.

The 20th century and its horrors should have laid to rest the Enlightenment idea that with increasing education would come a golden age of human rationality, as Germany, perhaps Europe’s most enlightened state became the home of its most heinous regime. Though perhaps one might say that what the mid-20th century faced was not so much a crisis of irrationality as the experience of the moral dangers and absurdities into which closed rational systems that held to their premises as axiomatic articles of faith could lead. Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism had something of this crazed hyper-rational quality as did the Cold War nuclear suicide pact of mutually assured destruction. (MAD)

As far as domestic politics and society were concerned, however, the US largely avoided the breakdown in the Enlightenment ideal of human rationality as the basis for modern society. It was a while before we got the news. It took a series of institutional failures- 9/11, the financial crisis, the botched, unnecessary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to wake us up to our own thick headedness.

Human folly has now come in for a pretty severe beating, but something in me has always hated a weakling being picked on, and finds it much more compelling to root for the underdog. What if we’ve been too tough on our less than perfect rationality? What if our inability to be efficient probability calculators or computers isn’t always a design flaw but sometimes one of our strengths?

I am not the first person to propose such a heresy of irrationalism. Way back in 1509 the humanist Desiderius Erasmus wrote his riotous, The Praise of Folly with something like this in mind. The book has what amounts to three parts all in the form of a speech by the goddess of Folly. The first part attempts to show how, in the world of everyday people, Folly makes the world go round and guides most of what human beings do. The second part is a critique of the society that surrounded Erasmus, a world of inept and corrupt kings, princes and popes and philosophers. The third part attempts to show how all good Christians, including Christ himself, are fools, and here Erasmus means fool as a compliment. As we all should know, good hearted people, who are for that very reason nieve, often end up being crushed by the calculating and rapacious.

It’s the lessons of the first part of The Praise of Folly that I am mostly interested in here. Many of Erasmus’ intuitions not only can be backed up by the empirical psychological studies of  Daniel Kahneman, they allow us to flip the import of Kahneman’s findings on their head. Foolish, no?

Here are some examples: take the very simple act of a person opening their own business. The fact that anyone engages in such a risk while believing in their likely success  is an example of what Kahneman calls an optimism bias. Overconfident entrepreneurs are blind to the fact, as Kahneman puts it:

The chances that a small business will survive in the United States are about 35%. But the individuals who open such businesses do not believe statistics apply to them. (256)

Optimism bias may result in the majority of entrepreneurs going under, but what would we do without it? Their sheer creative-destructive churn surely has some positive net effect on our economy and the employment picture, and those 35% of successful businesses are most likely adding long lasting and beneficial tweaks to modern life,  and even sometimes revolutions born in garages.

Yet, optimism bias doesn’t only result in entrepreneurial risk. Erasmus describes such foolishness this way:

To these (fools) are to be added those plodding virtuosos that plunder the most inward recesses of nature for the pillage of a new invention and rake over sea and land for the turning up some hitherto latent mystery and are so continually tickled with the hopes of success that they spare for no cost nor pains but trudge on and upon a defeat in one attempt courageously tack about to another and fall upon new experiments never giving over till they have calcined their whole estate to ashes and have not money enough left unmelted to purchase one crucible or limbeck…

That is, optimism bias isn’t just something to be found in business risks. Musicians and actors dreaming of becoming stars, struggling fiction authors and explorers and scientists all can be said to be biased towards the prospect of their own success. Were human beings accurate probability calculators where would we get our artists? Where would our explorers have come from? Instead of culture we would all (if it weren’t already too much the case) be trapped permanently in cubicles of practicality.

Optimism bias is just one of the many human cognitive flaws Kahneman identifies. Take this one, error of affective forecasting and its role in those oh, so important of human institutions, marriage and children. For Kahneman, many people base their decision to get married on how they feel when in the swirl of romance thinking that marriage will somehow secure this happiness indefinitely. Yet the fact is, married persons, according to Kahneman:

Unless they think happy thoughts about their marriage for much of the day, it will not directly influence their happiness. Even newlyweds who are lucky enough to enjoy a state of happy preoccupation with their love will eventually return to earth, and their experienced happiness will again depend, as it does for the rest of us, on the environment and activities of the present moment. (400)

Unless one is under the impression that we no longer need marriage or children, again, one can be genuinely pleased that, at least in some cases, we suffer from the cognitive error of affective forecasting. Perhaps societies, such as Japan, that are in the process of erasing themselves as they forego marriage and even more so childbearing might be said to suffer from too much reason.

Yet another error Kahneman brings our attention to is the focusing illusion. Our world is what we attend to and our feelings towards it have less to do with objective reality than what it is we are paying attention to. Something like focusing illusion accounts for a fact that many of us in good health would find hard to believe;namely, the fact that paraplegics are no more miserable than the rest of us. Kahneman explains it this way:

Most of the time, however, paraplegics work, read, enjoy jokes and friends, and get angry when they read about politics in the newspaper.

Adaption to a new situation, whether good or bad, consists, in large part, of thinking less and less about it. In that sense, most long-term circumstances, including paraplegia and marriage, are part-time states that one inhabits only when one attends to them. (405)  

Erasmus identifies something like the focusing illusion in states like dementia where the old are made no longer capable of reflecting on the breakdown of their body and impending death, but he captured it best, I think in these lines:

But there is another sort of madness that proceeds from Folly so far from being any way injurious or distasteful that it is thoroughly good desirable and this happens when harmless mistake in the judgment of the mind is freed from those cares would otherwise gratingly afflict it smoothed over with a content and faction it could not under other so happily enjoy. (78)

We may complain against our hedonic setpoints, but as the psychologists Dan Gilbert points out they not only offer us resilience on the downside- we will adjust to almost anything life throws at us- such set points should caution us that in any one thing- the perfect job, the perfect spouse lies the key to happiness. But that might leave us with a question, what exactly is this self we are trying to win happiness for?

A good deal of Kahneman’s research deals with the disjunction between two selves in the human person, what he calls the experiencing self and the remembering self. It appears that the remembering self usually gets the last laugh in that it guides our behavior. The most infamous example of this is Kahneman’s colonoscopy study where the pain of the procedure was tracked minute by minute and then compared with questions later on related to decisions in the future.

The surprising thing was that future decisions were biased not by the frequency or duration of pain over the course of the procedure but how the procedure ended. The conclusion dictated how much negative emotion was associated with the procedure, that is, the experiencing self seemed to have lost its voice over how the procedure was judged and how it would be approached in the future.

Kahneman may have found an area where the dominance of the remembering self over the experiencing self are irrational, but again, perhaps it is generally good that endings, that closure is the basis upon which events are judged. It’s not the daily pain and sacrifice that goes into Olympic training that counts so much as outcomes, and the meaning of some life event does really change based on its ultimate outcome. There is some wisdom in the words of Solon that we should  “Count no man happy until the end is known”which doesn’t mean no one can be happy until they are dead, but that we can’t judge the meaning of a life until its story has concluded.

“Okay then”, you might be thinking, “what is the point of all this, that we should try to be irrational”? Not exactly. My point is we perhaps should take a slight breather from the critique of human nature from standpoint of its less than full rationality, that our flaws, sometimes, and just sometimes, are what makes life enjoyable and interesting. Sometimes our individual rationality may serve larger social goods of which we are foolishly oblivious.

When Erasmus wrote his Praise of Folly he was clear to separate the foolishness of everyday people from the folly of those in power, whether that power be political power, or intellectual power such as that of the scholastic theologians. Part of what distinguished the fool on the street from the fool on the throne or cloister was the claim of the latter to be following the dictates of reason- the reason of state or the internal logic of a theology that argued over angels on the head of pins. The fool on the street knew he was a fool or at least experienced the world as opaque, whereas the fools in power thought they had all the answers. For Erasmus, the very certainty of those in power along with the mindlessness of their goals made them, instead, even bigger fools than the rest of us.

One of our main weapons against power has always been to laugh at the foolishness of those who wield it. We could turn even a psychopathically rational monster like Hitler into a buffoon because even he, after all, was one of us. Perhaps if we ever do manage to create machines vastly more intelligent than ourselves we will have lost something by no longer being able to make jokes at the expense of our overlords. Hyper-rational characters like DATA from Star Trek or Sheldon from the Big Bang are funny because they are either endearingly trying to enter the mixed-up world of human irrationality, or because their total rationality, in a human context, is itself a form of folly. Super-intelligent machines might not want to become flawed humans, and though they might still be fools just like their creators, likely wouldn’t get the joke.

Welcome to the New Age of Revolution

Fall of the Bastille

Last week the prime minister of Ukraine, Mykola Azarov, resigned under pressure from a series of intense riots that had spread from Kiev to the rest of the country. Photographs from the riots in The Atlantic blew my mind, like something out of a dystopian steampunk flic. Many of the rioters were dressed in gas masks that looked as if they had been salvaged from World War I. As weapons they wielded homemade swords, molotov cocktails, and fireworks. To protect their heads some wore kitchen pots and spaghetti strainers.

The protestors were met by riot police in hypermodern black suits of armor, armed with truncheons, tear gas, and shotguns, not all of them firing only rubber bullets. Orthodox priests with crosses and icons in their hands, sometimes placed themselves perilously between the rioters and the police, hoping to bring calm to a situation that was spinning out of control.

Even for Ukraine, it was cold during the weeks of the riots. A situation that caused the blasts from water cannons used by the police to crystalize shortly after contact. The detritus of protesters covered in sheets of ice like they had be shot with some kind of high tech freeze gun.

Students of mine from the Ukraine were largely in sympathy with the protestors, but feared civil war unless something changed quickly. The protests had been brought on by a backdoor deal with Russia to walk away from talks aimed at Ukraine joining the European Union. Protests over that agreement led to the passage of an anti-protest law that only further inflamed the rioters. The resignation of the Russophile prime minister  seemed to calm the situation for a time, but with the return of the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych  to work (he was supposedly ill during the heaviest of the protests) the situation has once again become volatile. It was Yanukovych who was responsible  for cutting the deal with Russia and pushing through draconian limits on the freedom of assembly which had sparked the protests in the first place.

Ukraine, it seem, is a country being torn in two, a conflict born of demographics and history.  Its eastern, largely Russian speaking population looking towards Russia and its western, largely Ukrainian speaking population looking towards Europe. In this play both Russia and the West are no doubt trying to influence the outcome of events in their favor, and thus exacerbating the instability.

Yet, while such high levels of tension are new, the problem they reveal is deep in historical terms- the cultural tug of war over Ukraine between Russia and Europe, East and West, stretches at least as far back as the 14th century when western Ukraine was brought into the European cultural orbit by the Poles. Since then, and often with great brutality on the Russian side, the question of Ukrainian identity, Slavic or Western, has been negotiated and renegotiated over centuries- a question that will perhaps never be fully resolved and whose very tension may be what it actually means to be Ukrainian.

Where Ukraine goes from here is anybody’s guess, but despite its demographic and historical particularities, its recent experience adds to the growing list of mass protests that have toppled governments, or at least managed to pressure governments into reversing course, that have been occurring regularly since perhaps 2008 with riots in Greece.

I won’t compile a comprehensive list but will simply state the mass protests and riots I can cite from memory. There was the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran that was subsequently crushed by the Iranian government. There was the 2010 Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia which toppled the government there and began what came to be the horribly misnamed “Arab Spring”. By 2011 mass protests had overthrown Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and riots had broken out in London. 2012 saw a lull in mass protests, but in 2013 they came back with a vengeance. There were massive riots in Brazil over government cutbacks for the poor combined with extravagant spending in preparation for the 2014 World Cup, there were huge riots in Turkey which shook the government of the increasingly authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and a military coup in the form of mass protests that toppled the democratically elected Islamist president in Egypt. Protesters in Thailand have be “occupying” the capital since early January. And now we have Ukraine.

These are just some of the protests that were widely covered in the media. Sometimes, quite large, or at least numerous protests are taking place in a country and they are barely reported in the news at all.  Between 2006-2010 there were 180,000 reported “mass incidents” in China. It seems the majority of these protests are related to local issues and not against the national government, but the PRC has been adept at keeping them free of the prying eyes of Western media.

The abortive 2009 riots in Iran that were the first to be called a “Twitter Revolution” by Western media and digerati.  The new age of revolution often explained in terms of the impact of the communications revolution, and social media. We have had time to find out that just how little a role Western, and overwhelmingly English language media platforms, such as Twitter and FaceBook, have played in this new upsurge of revolutionary energy, but that’s not the whole story.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say technology has been irrelevant in bringing about our new revolutionary era, I’d just put the finger on another technology, namely mobile phones. In 2008 the number of mobile devices had, in the space of a decade, gone from a rich world luxury into the hands of 4 billion people. By 2013, 6 billion of the world’s 7 billion people had some sort of mobile device, more people than had access to working toilets.

It is the very disjunction between the number of people able to communicate and hence act en masse and those lacking what we in the developed world consider necessities that should get our attention- a potentially explosive situation. And yet, we have known since Alexis de Tocqueville that revolutions are less the product of the poor who have always known misery than stem from a rising middle class whose ambitions have been frustrated.

Questions I would ask a visitor from the near future if I wanted to gauge the state of the world a decade or two hence would be if the rising middle class in the developing world had put down solid foundations, and if, and to what extent, it had been cut off at the legs from either the derailment of the juggernaut of the Chinese economy, rising capacity of automation, or both?

The former fear seems to be behind the recent steep declines in the financial markets where the largest blows have been suffered by developing economies. The latter is a longer term risk for developing economies, which if they do not develop quickly enough may find themselves permanently locked out of what has been the traditional development arch of capitalist economic development moving from agriculture to manufacturing to services.

Automation threatens the wage competitiveness of developing economy workers on all stages of that scale. Poor textile workers in Bangladesh competing with first world robots, Indians earning a middle class wage working at call centers or doing grunt legal or medical work increasingly in competition with more and more sophisticated ,and in the long run less expensive, bots.

Intimately related to this would be my last question for our near future time traveler; namely, does the global trend towards increasing inequality continue, increase, or dissipate? With the exception of government incompetence and corruption combined with mobile enabled youth, rising inequality appears to be the only macro trend that these revolts share, though, this must not be the dominant factor, otherwise, protests would be the largest and most frequent in the country with the fastest growing inequality- the US.

Revolutions, as in the mobilization of a group of people massive enough and active enough to actually overthrow a government are a modern phenomenon and are so for a reason. Only since the printing press and mass literacy has the net of communication been thrown wide enough where revolution, as opposed to mere riots, has become possible. The Internet and even more so mobile technology have thrown that net even further, or better deeper, with literacy no longer being necessary, and with the capacity for intergroup communication now in real time and no longer in need of or under the direction of a center- as was the case in the era of radio and television.

Technology hasn’t resulted in the “end of history”, but quite the opposite. Mobile technology appears to facilitate the formation of crowds, but what these crowds mobilize around are usually deep seated divisions which the society in which protests occur have yet to resolve or against widely unpopular decisions made over the people’s head.

For many years now we have seen this phenomenon from financial markets one of the first area to develop deep, rapidly changing interconnections based on the digital revolution. Only a few years back, democracy seemed to have come under the thumb of much more rapidly moving markets, but now, perhaps, a populist analog has emerged.

What I wonder is how the state will respond to this, or how this new trend of popular mobilization may intersect with yet another contemporary trend- mass surveillance by the state itself?

The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz came up with his now famous concept of the “fog of war” defined as “the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. The term seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability, adversary capability, and adversary intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign.”  If one understands revolution as a kind of fever pitch exchange of information leading to action leading to exchange of information and so on, then, all revolutions in the past could be said to have taken place with all players under such a fog.

Past revolutions have only been transparent to historians. From a bird’s eye view and in hindsight scholars of the mother of all revolutions, the French, can see the effects of Jean-Paul Marat’s pamphlets and screeds inviting violence, the published speeches of the moralistic tyrant Robespierre, the plotting letters of Marie-Antoinette to the Austrians or the counter-revolutionary communique of General Lafayette. To the actors in the French Revolution itself the motivations and effects of other players were always opaque, the origin, in part, of the revolution’s paranoia and Reign of Terror which Robespierre saw as a means of unmasking conspirators and hypocrites.

With the new capacity of governments to see into communication, revolutions might be said to be becoming transparent in real time. Insecure governments that might be toppled by mass protest would seem to have an interest in developing the capacity to monitor the communication and track the movement of their citizens. Moore’s Law has made what remained an unachievable goal of total surveillance by the state relatively cheap.

During revolutionary situations foreign governments (with the US at the top of the list), may have the inclination to peer into revolutions through digital surveillance and in some cases will likely use this knowledge to interfere so as to shape outcomes in its own favor. States that are repressive towards their own people, such as China, will likewise try to use these surveillance tools to ensure revolutions never happen or to steer them toward preferred outcomes if they should occur despite best efforts.

One can only hope that the ability to see into a revolution while it is happening does not engender the illusion that we can also control its outcome, for as the riots and revolutions of the past few years have shown, moves against a government may be enabled by technology imported from outside, but the fate of such actions is decided by people on the ground who alone might be said have full responsibility for the future of the society in which revolution has occurred.

Foreign governments are engaged in a dangerous form of hubris if they think they can steer outcomes in their favor oblivious to local conditions and governments that think technology gives them a tool by which they can ignore the cries of their citizens are allowing the very basis on which they stand to rot underneath them and eventually collapse. A truth those who consider themselves part of a new global elite should heed when it comes to the issue of inequality.

The Dark Side of a World Without Boundaries

Peter Blume: The Eternal City

Peter Blume: The Eternal City

The problem I see with Nicolelis’ view of the future of neuroscience, which I discussed last time, is not that I find it unlikely that a good deal of his optimistic predictions will someday come to pass, it is that he spends no time at all talking about the darker potential of such technology.

Of course, the benefit to paralyzed, or persons otherwise locked tightly in the straitjacket of their own skull, of technologies to communicate directly from the human brain to machines or to other human beings is undeniable. The potential to expand the range of human experience through directly experiencing the thoughts and emotions of others is, also, of course, great. Next weekend being Super Bowl Sunday, I can’t help but think how cool it would be to experience the game through the eyes of Peyton Manning, or Russell Wilson. How amazing would a concert or an orchestra be if experienced likewise in this way?

Still, one need not necessarily be a professional dystopian and unbudgeable cassandra to come up with all kinds of quite frightening scenarios that might arise through the erosion of boundaries between human minds, all one needs to do is pay attention to less sanguine developments of the latest iteration of a once believed to be utopian technology, that is, the Internet and the social Web, to get an idea of some of the possible dangers.

The Internet was at one time prophesied to user in a golden age of transparency and democratic governance, and promised the empowerment of individuals and small companies. Its legacy, at least at this juncture, is much more mixed. There is little disputing that the Internet and its successor mobile technologies have vastly improved our lives, yet it is also the case that these technologies have led to an explosion in the activities of surveillance and control, by nefarious individuals and criminal groups, corporations and the state. Nicolelis’ vision of eroded boundaries between human minds is but the logical conclusion of the trend towards transparency. Given how recently we’ve been burned by techno-utopianism in precisely this area a little skepticism is certainly in order.

The first question that might arise is whether direct brain-to-brain communication (especially when invasive technologies are required) will ever out-compete the kinds of mediated mind-to-mind technology we have had for quite sometime time, that is, both spoken and written language. Except in very special circumstances, not all of them good, language seem to retain its advantages over direct brain-to-brain communication, and, in cases where the advantage of language over such direct communication are used it be may be less of a gain in communicative capacity than a signal that normalcy has broken down.

Couples in the first rush of new love may want to fuse their minds for a time, but a couple that been together for decades? Seems less likely, though there might be cases of pathological jealousy or smothering control bordering on abuse when one half of a couple would demand such a thing. The communion with fellow human beings offered by religion might gain something from the ability of individuals to bridge the chasm that separates them from others, but such technologies would also be a “godsend” for fanatics and cultists. I can not decide whether a mega-church such as Yoido Full Gospel Church in a world where Nicolelis’ brain-nets are possible would represent a blessed leap in human empathetic capacity or a curse.

Nicolelis seems to assume that the capacity to form brain-nets will result in some kind of idealized and global neural version of FaceBook, but human history seems to show that communication technology is just as often used to hermetically seal group off from group and becomes a weapon in the primary human moral dilemma ,which is not the separation of individual from individual, so much as the rivalry between different groups. We seem unable to exit ourselves from such rivalry even when the stakes are merely imagined- as many of us will do next Sunday, and has Nicolelis himself should have known from his beloved soccer where the rivalry expressed in violent play has a tendency to slip into violent riots in the real world.

Direct brain-to-brain communication would seem to have real advantages over language when persons are joined together in teams acting as a unit in response to a rapidly changing situation. Groups such as fire-fighters. By far the greatest value of such capacities would be found in small military units such as Platoons, members who are already bonded in a close experiential and deep emotional bond, as in on display in the documentary- Restrepo. Whatever their virtuous courage, armed bands killing one another are about as far as you can get from the global kumbaya of Nicolelis’ brain-net.

If such technologies were non-invasive, would they be used by employers to monitor the absence of sustained attention while on the job? What of poor dissidents under the thumb of a madman like Kim Jong Un .Imagine such technologies in the hands of a pimp, or even, the kinds of slave owners who, despite our obliviousness, still exist.

One of the problems with the transparency paradigm, and the new craze for an “Internet of things” where everything in the environment of an individual is transformed into Web connected computers is the fact that anything that is a computer, by that very fact, becomes hackable. If someone is worried about their digital data being sucked up and sold on an elaborate black market, about webcams being used as spying tools, if one has concern that connecting one’s home to the web might make one vulnerable, how much more so should be worried if our very thoughts could be hacked? The opportunities for abuse seem legion.

Everything is shaped by personal experience. Nicolelis whose views of the collective mind were forged by the crowds that overthrew the Brazilian military dictatorship and his beloved soccer games. But the crowd is not always wise. I being a person who has always valued solitude and time with individuals and small groups over the electric energy of crowds have no interest in being part of a hive mind to any degree more than the limited extent I might be said to already be in such a mind by writing a piece such as this.

It is a sad fact, but nonetheless true, that should anything like Nicolelis’ brain-net ever be created it can not be under the assumptions of the innate goodness of everyone. As our experience with the Internet should have taught us, an open system with even a minority of bad actors leads to a world of constant headaches and sometimes what amount to very real dangers.

Knowledge and Power, Or Dark Thoughts In Winter

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For people in cold climes, winter, with its short days and hibernation inducing frigidity,  is a season to let one’s pessimistic imagination roam. It may be overly deterministic, but I often wonder whether those who live in climates that do not vary with the seasons, so that they live where it is almost always warm and sunny, or always cold and grim, experience less often over the course of a year the full spectrum of human sentiments and end up being either too utopian for reality to justify, or too dystopian for those lucky enough to be here and have a world to complain about in the first place.

The novel I wrote about last time, A Canticle for Leibowitz, is a winter book because it is such a supremely pessimistic one. It presents a world that reaches a stage of technological maturity only to destroy itself again, and again.

What we would consider progress occurs only in terms of Mankind’s technological not its moral capacity. The novel ends with yet another nuclear holocaust only this time the monks who hope to preserve knowledge set out not for the deserts of earth, but the newly discovered planets around nearby stars -the seeds of a new civilization, but in all likelihood not the beginning of an eternal spring.

It’s a cliche to say that among the biggest problems facing us is that our moral or ethical progress has not kept pace with our technological and scientific progress, but labeling something a cliche doesn’t of necessity mean it isn’t true. Miller, the author of  A Canticle for Leibowitz was tapping into a deep historical anxiety that this disjunction between our technological and moral capacity constituted the ultimate danger for us, and defined the problem in a certain, and I believe ultimately very useful way.

Yet, despite Miller’s and others’ anxiety we are still here, so the fear that the chasm between our technological and moral capacity will destroy us remains just that, an anxiety based on a projected future. It is a fear with a long backstory.

All cultures might have hubris myths or warnings about unbridled curiosity, remember Pandora and her jar, or Icarus and his melted wings, but Christianity had turned this warning against pride into the keystone for a whole religious cosmology. That is, in the Christian narrative, especially in the writings of Augustine, death, and with it the need for salvation, comes into the world out of the twin sins of Eve’s pride and curiosity.

It was an ancient anxiety, embedded right in the heart of Christianity, and which burst into consciousness with renewed vigor, during the emergence of modern science, an event that occurred at the same time as Christian revival and balkanization. A kind of contradiction that many thinkers during the early days of the scientific revolution from Isaac Newton, to Francis Bacon, to John Milton to Thomas More found themselves faced with; namely, if the original sin of our first parents was a sin of curiosity, how could a deeply religious age justify its rekindled quest for knowledge?

It is probably hard for most of us to get our minds around just how religious many of the figures during the scientific revolution were given our own mythology regarding the intractable war between science and religion, and the categories into which secular persons, who tend to rely on science, and religious persons, who far too often exhibit an anti-scientific bias, now often fall. Yet, a scientific giant like Newton was in great measure a Christian fundamentalist by today’s standards. One of the most influential publicists for the “new science” was Francis Bacon who saw as the task of science bringing back the state of knowledge found in the “prelapsarian” world, that is, the world before the fall of Adam and Eve.

As I have written about previously, Bacon was one of the first to confront the contradiction between the urge for new (in his view actually old) knowledge and the traditional Christian narrative regarding forbidden knowledge and the sin of pride. His answer was that the millennium was at hand and therefore a moral revival of humanity was taking place that would parallel and buffer the revival of knowledge. Knowledge was to be used for “the improvement of man’s estate”, and his new science was understood as the ultimate tool of Christian charity. In Bacon’s view, such science would only prove ruinous were it used for the sinful purposes of the lust for individual and group aggrandizement and power.

Others were not so optimistic.

Thomas More, for instance, who is credited with creating the modern genre of utopia wasn’t sketching out a blueprint for a perfect world as he was critiquing his own native England, while at the same time suggesting that no perfect world was possible due to Man’s sinfulness, or what his dear friend, Erasmus called “folly”.

Yet, the person who best captured the religious tensions and anxieties present when a largely Christian Europe embarked on its scientific revolution was the blind poet, John Milton. We don’t normally associate Milton with the scientific revolution, but we should. Milton, not only visited the imprisoned Galileo, he made the astronomer and his ideas into recurring themes, presented in a positive light, in his Paradise Lost. Milton also wrote a stunning defense on the freedom of thought, the Areopagitica, which would have made Galileo a free man.

Paradise Lost is, yes, a story in the old Christian vein of warnings against hubris and unbridled curiosity, but it is also a story about power. Namely, how the conclusion that we are “self-begot”, most likely led not to a state of utopian-anarchic godlessness, but the false belief that we ourselves could take the place of God, that is, the discovery of knowledge was tainted not when we, like Adam in Milton’s work, sought answers to our questions regarding the nature of the world, but the minute this knowledge was used as a tool of power against and rule over others.

From the time of Milton to the World Wars of the 20th century the balance between a science that had “improved man’s estate” and that which had served as the tool of power leaned largely in the direction of the former, though Romantics like Percy and Mary Shelley gave us warnings.

The idea that science and technology were tools for the improvement of the conditions of living for the mass of mankind rather than instruments in the pursuit of the perennial human vices of greed and ambition was not the case, of course, if one lived in a non-scientifically empowered non-Western civilization and were at the ends of the barrels of Western gun boats, a fact that we in the West need should not forget now that the scientific revolution and its technology for good and ill is now global. In the West itself, however, this other, darker side, of science and technology was largely occulted even in the face of the human devastation of 19th century wars.

The Second World War, and especially, the development of nuclear weapons brought this existential problem back fully into consciousness, and A Canticle for Leibowitz is a near pitch-perfect representative of this thinking, almost the exact opposite of another near contemporary Catholic thinker, Teilhard de Chardin’s view of technology as the means to godhead in his Phenomenon of Man.

There are multiple voices of conscience in A Canticle for Leibowitz all of which convey a similar underlying message, that knowledge usurped by power constitutes the gravest of dangers.  There is the ageless, wandering Jew on the search for a messiah that never manifests himself and therefore remains in a fallen world in which he lives a life of eternal exile. There is the Poet who in his farcical way condemns the alliance between the holders of knowledge, both the Memorabilia, and the new and secular collegium, and the new centers of military power.

And then there are the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz itself. Here is a dialogue between the abbot Dom Paulo and the lead scholar of the new collegium, Thon Taddeo, on the later’s closeness with the rising satrap,  Hannegan. It is a dialogue which captures the essential message behind A Canticle for Leibowitz. 

Thon Taddeo:

Let’s be frank with each other, Father. I can’t fight the prince that makes my work possible- no matter what I think of his policies or his politics. I appear to support him, superficially, or at least to overlook him- for the sake of the collegium. If he extends his lands, the collegium may incidentally profit. If the collegium prospers, mankind will profit from our work.

What can I do about it? Hannegan is prince, not I.

Dom Paulo:

But you promise to begin restoring Man’s control over nature. But who will govern the use of that power to control natural forces? Who will use it? To what end? How will you hold him in check.  Such decisions can still be made. But if you and your group don’t make them now, others will soon make them for you. (206)

And, of course, the wrong decisions are made and power and knowledge are aligned a choice which unfolds in the book’s final section as another abbot, Dom Zerchi reflects on a world on the eve of another nuclear holocaust:

Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again, and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall?

Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork helpless to stop its swing? (245)

The problem, to state it simply, is that we are not creatures that are wholly, innately good, a fact which did not constitute a danger to human civilization or even earthly life until the 20th century. Our quenchless curiosity has driven a progressive expansion of the scale of our powers which has reached the stage where it has the dangers of intersecting with our flaws, and not just our capacity to engage in evil actions, but our foolishness and our greed, to harms billions of persons, or even destroy life on earth.  This is the tragic view of the potential dangers of our newly acquired knowledge.

The Christian genealogy of this tragic view provides the theological cosmology behind A Canticle for Leibowitz, yet we shouldn’t be confused into thinking Christianity is the only place where such sober pessimism can be found.

Take Hinduism: Once, when asked what he thought of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gandhi responded that Gibbon was excellent at compiling “vast masses of facts”, but that the truth he revealed by doing so was nothing compared to the ancient Hindu classic the Mahabharata. According to Pankaj Mishra, Gandhi’s held that:

 The truth lay in the Mahabharata‘s portrait of the elemental human forces of greed and hatred: how they disguise themselves as self-righteousness and lead to a destructive war in which there are no victors, only survivors inheriting an immense wasteland.

Buddhism contains similar lessons about how the root of human suffering was to be found in our consciousness (or illusion) of our own separateness when combined with our desire.

Religions, because they in part contain Mankind’s longest reflections on human nature tend to capture this tragic condition of ultimately destructive competition between sentient beings with differing desires and wills, a condition which we may find are not only possessed by our fellow animals, but may be part of our legacy to any sentient machines that are our creations as well. Original sin indeed!

Yet recently, religion has been joined by secular psychology that is reviving Freudian pessimism though on a much more empirically sound basis. Contemporary psychology, the most well known of which is the work of Daniel Kahneman, has revealed the extent to which human beings are riddled with cognitive and moral faults which stand in the way of rational assessment and moral decisions- truths about which the world religions have long been aware.

The question becomes, then, what, if anything, can we do about this? Yet, right out of the gate we might stumble on the assumption behind the claim that our technological knowledge has advanced while our moral nature has remained intractably the same. That assumption is claim that the Enlightenment project of reforming human nature has failed.

For the moment I am only interested in two diametrically opposed responses to this perceived failure. The first wants to return to the pre-Enlightenment past, to a world built around the assumptions of Mankind’s sinfulness and free of the optimistic assumptions regarding democracy, equality and pluralism while the second thinks we should use the tools of the type of progress that clearly is working- our scientific and technological progress- to reach in and change human nature so that it better conforms to where we would like Mankind to be in the moral sense.

A thinker like, Glenn W. Olsen, the author of The Turn to Transcendence: The Role of Religion in the Twenty-first Century, is a very erudite and sophisticated version, not exactly of fundamentalism, but a recent reactionary move against modernity. His conclusion is the the Enlightenment project of reforming Mankind into rational and moral creatures has largely failed, so it might be best to revive at least some of the features of the pre-Enlightenment social-religious order that were built on less optimistic assumptions regarding Mankind’s animal nature, but more optimistic ones about our ultimate spiritual transcendence of those conditions which occur largely in the world to come.

Like the much less erudite fellow travelers of Olsen that go by the nom de guerre of neo-reactionaries, Olsen thinks this need to revive pre-Enlightenment forms of orientation to the world will require abandoning our faith in democracy, equality, and pluralism.  

A totally opposite view, though equally pessimistic in its assumptions regarding human nature, is that of those who propose using the tools of modern science, especially modern neuroscience and neuropharmacology, to cure human beings of their cognitive and moral flaws. Firmly in this camp is someone like the bio-ethicist, Julian Savulescu who argues that using these tools might be our only clear escape route from a future filled with terrorism and war.

Both of these perspectives have been countered by Steven Pinker in his monumental The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker’s is the example par excellence for the argument that the Enlightenment wasn’t a failure at all- but actually worked. People today are much less violent and more tolerant than at any time in the past. Rather than seeing our world as one that has suffered moral decay at worst, and the failure of progressive assumptions regarding human nature at best, Pinker presents a world where we are in every sense morally more advanced than our ancestors who had no compunction in torturing people on The Wheel or enslaving millions of individuals. So much for the nostalgia of neo-reactionaries.

And Pinker’s argument seems to undermine the logic behind the push for moral enhancement as well, for if current “technologies” such as universal education are working, in that violence has been in almost precipitous decline, why the need to push something far more radical and intrusive?

Here I’ll add my own two-cents, for I can indeed see an argument for cognitive and moral enhancement as a humane alternative to our barbaric policy of mass incarceration where many of the people we currently lock up and conceal in order to hide from ourselves our own particular variety of barbarism are there because of deficits of cognition and self-control. Unlike Savulescu, however, I do not see this as an answer to our concerns with security whether in the form of state-vs-state war or a catastrophic version of terrorism. Were we so powerfully that we could universally implement such moral enhancements and ensure that they were not used instead to tie individuals even closer together in groups that stood  in rivalry against other groups then we would not have these security concerns in the first place.

Our problem is not that the Enlightenment has failed but that it has succeeded in creating educated publics who now live in an economic and political system from which they feel increasingly alienated. These are problems of structure and power that do not easily lend themselves to any sort of technological fix, but ones that require political solutions and change. Yet, even if we could solve these problems other more deeply rooted and existential dangers might remain.

The real danger to us, as it has always been, is less a matter of individual against individual than tribe against tribe, nation against nation, group against group. Reason does not solve the problem here, because reason is baked into the very nature of our conflict, as each group, whether corporation, religious sect, or country pursues its own rational good whose consequence is often to the detriment of other groups.

The danger becomes even more acute when we realize that as artificial intelligence increases in capability many of our decisions will be handed over to machines, who, with all rationality, and no sense of a moral universe that demands something different,  continue the war of all against all that has been our lot since the rebellion of “Lucifer’s angels in heaven”.

Preparing for a New Dark Age

Monk Scribe

Back what now itself seems a millennium ago, when I was a senior in high school and freshman in college, I used to go to yard sales. I wasn’t looking for knickknacks or used appliances, but for cheap music and mostly for books. If memory serves me you could usually get a paperback for 50 cents, four of them for a dollar, and a hard cover for a buck.

I have no idea what made me purchase the particular books I did, and especially works of fiction. At that point in my life I didn’t so much know what literature was as I had heard rumors that there was something out there called literature I’d likely be interested in. Unlike Stephen Greenblatt, who I wrote about last time, I certainly didn’t buy books for the sexually suggestive covers, and thankfully, for given the area I was living at the time, I would now be surrounded by shelves of harlequin romances- though, come to think of it, it might have made me more skillful in love.

I don’t buy so many books anymore, having become a Kindle man where I press a button and wallah a work I’m after appears magically on my little screen. I also live in an area with very good libraries- both public and university- which for a bibliophile like myself is about as good as Florida for a person who worships the sun.

Yet, I still have maybe a hundred books surrounding me that I own but have never read. Sometimes, I’ll rummage through my shelves to pick out a book I probably haven’t even opened since I bought it, and the untouched pages will be brittle and break under  my clumsy fingers. The other day, I came across Walter M. Miller, Jrs’ novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. I’ve been working on a story with Catholic and dystopian/utopian technological themes and thought it might be a good idea to read this science-fiction classic before I proceeded any further into the labyrinth of the tale I was crafting because I knew it dealt with similar ideas.

I did not anticipate the power for me of this wonderful little novel. It touched on themes I had been thinking about for sometime- the search for a long range view that looked to the past as well as the future, the tension between knowledge and power, and the understanding that this tension was an existential component of the human condition, the brake on all our utopian aspirations, and perhaps the “original sin” that would ultimately sink us.            

I will look at the deeper lessons of A Canticle for Leibowitz sometime in the future, for now I just want to talk about its suggestions for the long range human future and specifically one aspect of that long range future- how do we preserve human knowledge so as to avoid ever going through another long dark age?   

A Canticle for Leibowitz was published in 1960. Had Miller sketched out rather than merely stated the apocalyptic conditions that precede the world portrayed in the novel it would have certainly given our own generations versions of the apocalypse with shows like The Walking Dead a run for their money. The novel occurs after the world has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust known as The Flame Deluge. After the horrors unleashed by the war, including the creation hordes of radioactive mutants from “the demon Fall Out” , the masses seek revenge on the holders of knowledge they deem responsible- murdering them and destroying their works Khmer Rouge style in a world-wide intellectual genocide known as the Simplification.

A Jewish electrical engineer, Isaac Edward Leibowitz,,who had been working for the US military in the run up to the war joins the Catholic Church, perhaps the only long lived institution able to survive the Simplification, and founds a monastic order and monastery known as the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. The order is committed to preserving human knowledge from the Simplification by book smuggling (booklegging) and afterwards aims to store and preserve this knowledge in their Utah desert monastery, a collection of thoughts from the past which they call the Memorabilia.

Unlike our own apocalyptic anxieties which seem so artificial, as if we’ve become addicted to the adrenaline high of scarring ourselves nearly to death, the fears Miller was giving voice to were frighteningly real. Three years after his novel’s publication we really did almost destroy ourselves in a Flame Deluge with the Cuban Missile Crisis and only escaped our own destruction by a hair’s breath.

Yet, even with these real world anxieties, or perhaps because they were so real, A Canticle for Leibowitz is a rip-roaring funny book, Canterbury Tales funny or even Monty Python funny. Especially the first part, which deals with a hapless monk- Francis- who discovers original manuscripts of the soon to be sainted Lebowitz himself. The rest of the book is not as humorous, much more tragic, as we watch humanity make the same mistake over again with knowledge being used in the name of the lust for power, and that lust for power enabled by knowledge again nearly destroying us.    

Miller, of course, was playing with real history, the way the Christian monasteries had preserved knowledge in Western Europe after the fall of Rome. It was a theme explored, though from a much different angle, by Isaac Asimov some years earlier in his Foundation Series where the preservation of knowledge through the establishment of two different “foundations” at the ends of the galaxy is a deliberate effort to shorten a galactic dark age from tens of thousands to a “mere” thousand years.

Monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz risked themselves to gather and preserve their Memorabilia, knowledge which they did not understand, willing to wait thousands of years if necessary for the day when “an Interrogator would come, and things would be fitted together again.”  (62)

If I take the picture presented by Stephen Greenblatt in his The Swerve: How the World Became Modern as historically accurate, the reasons our  historical monks ended up preserving knowledge was much more accidental than their analogous novelization by Miller. According to Greenblatt, the monasteries ended up preserving knowledge due to a contingent rule of some orders that monks spend some of their time reading. To read, of course, requires something written and monasteries became one of the few places in the early middle ages to not only collect but preserve books through copying.

Still, according to Greenblatt, we shouldn’t be confused that they were doing so in anticipation of a rebirth of learning, and weren’t all that intellectually engaged with the books they preserved and copied. During reading or copying monks were forbidden to discuss the books they had in front of them, which is probably good for us. They became instead immense hive-mind photocopiers cloning and shelving a hodge podge of surviving works from the ancients, a task which had someone not done with detail and regularity would have quickly led to the disappearance of the vast intellectual heritage of the classical world.  The thoughts preserved on papyrus and animals skins would have in a short time been eaten away by literal book worms.

There is an argument out there, Francis Fukuyama’s is the one that comes to mind, that we are unlikely to experience the kinds of cyclical declines and dark ages seen in prior periods of human history because knowledge is now global. I think there are some other holes in that argument, but for now I won’t quibble, and want to focus on only one chasm- the possibility that the entire globe could experience some hammer blow that would shatter civilization everywhere all at one go.

These are catastrophic risks, things that we should be intensely focused on avoiding in the first place, as The Global Catastrophic Risks Institute, and Future of Humanity Institute among others, have been urging us to, but which we should also implement ways of absorbing the hit should it come. Basically catastrophic risks are disasters, natural or man-made that would have the effect of devastating human civilization on a global not just a local scale. They are not likely but have a chance that is less than zero.

Though we dogged the bullet that haunted Miller, we might still be faced with the threat of global thermonuclear war at some point in the future. Current saber rattling in the Pacific is not a good sign. We could be whacked by a massive object from outer space such as the one which wiped out the dinosaurs, or zapped by a gamma-ray burst, or crushed by the super-intelligences we are trying to build in an AI apocalypse, there could be a super-pandemic, perhaps created deliberately by some group of technologically proficient, nihilistic maniacs trying to kill us all, or a truly runaway greenhouse effect triggered by a methane release in the warming artic. In other words, there are a lot of things that might near push us back to the stone age even if no one of them are particularly likely.

To return to my question above: in the face of a catastrophic scenario how could we preserve human knowledge so as to avoid ever going through another long dark age? The first issue that strikes me when I start thinking about this is the quite practical one of what medium would be best to store information for the long haul?

Right now, of course, we are all about digital copying and storage. Google has so far scanned a little over 20 million books, a service I love, and that has kept my acidic fingers off of a gem like the first publication of Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments, though the company’s public service in doing this has not been without controversy.

You’ve also got to hand it to the scandinavians who seem to do everything with meditative forethought. (I credit the six months of darkness.) The Norwegians not only have the Svalbard global seed bank which preserves the world’s agricultural inheritance in a Norad like facility in the icy north near the north pole, but are now aiming to digitize and make available all the world’s books in Norwegian.  Should a global catastrophe occur having done so might have cause in the words of Alexis Madrigal:

…Norwegians become to 27th-century humans what the Greeks were to the Renaissance. Everyone names the children of the space colonies Per and Henrik, Amalie and Sigrid. The capital of our new home planet will be christened Oslo.

Even absent Google, Americans aren’t totally left in the dust as archivers by our polar- bear- pale brethren up north. We have the quite respectable Internet Archive and the world oldest (although the word “old” seems strange here) digital library, Project Guttenberg.  

Yet, there are a number of possible catastrophic scenarios, such as an AI Apocalypse, where this capacity to easily store and recover digitized information might be irrevocably lost. You also need functioning electricity grids and/or battery production manufacturing capacity both of which seem at danger should a truly big-one occur. Disturbing on this score is the fact that a number of libraries are eliminating their physical collections as they embrace digitization, something that the Internet Archive is now trying to rectify by collecting actual physical copies of books.

Venerable institutions such as The Library of Congress and The Smithsonian Institution already have extensive physical collections, not just of books, but of physical artifacts as well, and should they somehow survive a global catastrophe, I picture them being our equivalent of the Library of Alexandria where people will flock to access not just books but working versions of vital technologies that might otherwise have been lost, such as electrical lighting, which the monk, Brother Kornhoer, in A Canticle for Leibowitz has to jerry- rig back into existence almost from scratch.

The use of paper as a medium to store our books and blueprints at first seems like the tried and true option, after all it served us so well in the past, but as anyone knows who has a book more than 50 years old, modern paper decays very fast. And using paper as our medium of storage also assumes that whatever catastrophic event has happened has left us with enough trees. Even the antique version of paper, sometimes made from animal skins, succumbs after a few centuries to the literal “book worm”, and you also need either printing presses or whole human institutions of scriveners such as the monasteries and monks to make copies.

The late classical world already had monastic institutions that were widespread before the loss of knowledge- a loss which took a long time to unfold. Our own loss of knowledge, should it (however unlikely) occur, seems less likely to creep into being then come along with a bang, and in the age of Scarlett Johansson who wants to be a monk?

As always thinking about the deep future, the The Long Now Foundation has its Rosetta Project where it preserves the world’s languages on electroformed solid-nickel disk, a model which might serve as a template for long-term information storage. Here’s their description:

The Rosetta Disk fits in the palm of your hand, yet it contains over 13,000 pages of information on over 1,500 human languages. The pages are microscopically etched and then electroformed in solid nickel, a process that raises the text very slightly – about 100 nanometers – off of the surface of the disk. Each page is only 400 microns across – about the width of 5 human hairs – and can be read through a microscope at 650X as clearly as you would from print in a book. Individual pages are visible at a much lower magnification of 100X.

Something like the Rosetta Disk avoids the ravages of the book worm, and will certainly last a long time, but you do need a microscope to read it, and it’s pretty easy to imagine a future where microscopes are a rare or even non-existent tool. We could make larger versions of the Rosetta Disk so that the text is readable to the naked eye, but then we run into the limitations of cost: we can’t very well copy even more than a handful of the books in existence using this method.  And they would only be reproducible on a large scale basis it seems by using one of the other methods.

Then again, we could always look to nature. Life on earth has over 3 billion year leg up on human beings when it comes to storing and passing along information- it’s called DNA. You can put an amazingly large amount of information on an equally amazingly small segment of DNA as in about half a million DVDs of storage on half a gram!  In the beginning of 2013 researchers in the UK were able to encode Shakespeare’s sonnets, and MLK’s “I have a dream!” speech among other things on DNA. Much more than any medieval abbot, nature abhors copying errors, and therefore DNA makes not merely a great storage medium, as long as where it is stored is cool and dry it can last for thousands of years, but a means to make copies with near hundred percent fidelity.

DNA exceeds digital media for storage and copying and matches something like the Rosetta Disk for longevity, the problem is the technology to make, store, and read such DNA texts is relatively high tech, and therefore vulnerable or unworkable in many catastrophic scenarios. It’s also much less readily searchable than digital media or even indexed paper texts.

Perhaps what we need to make sure a good bulk of the world’s knowledge survives a global catastrophe is a tiered system of preservation with only the most essential technical and scientific information, including how to build and use other forms of information dissemination and storage, put on something like large Rosetta Disks, a second level of not as essential but important and culturally significant knowledge being stored on long-lasting paper, almost everything on digital media, and absolutely everything we could get our hands on stored on DNA.

All of these things would have to be done before the occurrence of any catastrophic event that lunged us backward into a new dark age. Once the lights went out we certainly shouldn’t expect, like Miller, that the Catholic Church would play the same role in preserving knowledge as it had in the past, for, as Mark Twain said, “history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes”.  Indeed, should we create the kinds of information preservation mechanisms I outlined above, we would need an organization already dedicated to those mechanisms to manage those efforts, and in today’s world such an organization seems likely to be secular.

I can imagine a type of global organization whose members were in their day-to-day reality scattered across differing organizations we have in place today for disseminating and storing knowledge: universities, major libraries, scientific institutions such as the Royal Society a small number of whom would in a pre-catastrophe world run the types of information preservation efforts I have sketched out who, in the unlikely case that a global catastrophic event occurred, would work slowly and over generations to re-establish the world’s learning.

I have already suggested ways we might pay for this.

The great bulk of what we would need to re-establish should a large chunk of the world’s knowledge be destroyed would be technological and scientific. Knowledge that would be essential would be things like, agricultural techniques and science, the Germ theory of disease and the techniques behind vaccinations, how to build and maintain infrastructure such as sewage and plumbing disposal, energy utilizing systems including electrical grids, civil engineering, and the technology behind knowledge behind storing and sharing information. Above all, the scientific method would need to be put firmly back in place.

One of the problems I foresee should an almost complete blackout occur are gaps in knowledge domains that are essentially unpredictable before hand. That is, it seems a safer bet to assume that not only will knowledge have been lost but the knowledge of how to understand whatever knowledge has remained might be lost as well.

It would certainly be an interesting interdisciplinary project to design the kinds of texts that would be necessary to re-establish some field of science should it almost completely disappear. To do so would probably require philosophers and historians of science, mathematicians, practitioners of the science itself, linguists, cultural anthropologists, and instructional designers who were adept at teaching complex ideas to those with minimum starting points in terms of literacy and numeracy.

Given that the source of a global catastrophe is perhaps most likely to come via our own scientifically induced prowess it’s quite sensible to ask if we should be making all this effort to salvage our scientific and technological capacity in the first place? This relationship between our knowledge and our possible destruction is a question dealt with on a profound level in A Canticle for Leibowitz, and I’ll turn to it next time. Yet, as we know man does not live on bread alone, so what of the preservation less material knowledge, the art and wisdom that is the legacy of our global civilization?

Hopefully we would be able to preserve at least some of our human cultural legacy. Thinking about what we might save from our culture under severe constraints in terms of number might be an interesting and perhaps even revealing parlor game ,so I’ll end this post by inviting you to play.

If you could save only 10 books, 10 songs, and 10 artworks from all of human history that should make it through a catastrophic event which would you choose?