Our Physicists Fetish

This week I’ve been enjoying listening to the latest Massey Lectures, a series of talks by the physicists, Neil Turok. For at least a certain segment of this blogs readers,these lectures are worth checking out. You can do so by clicking on the picture above. In his talks,Turok provides an overview of the history of humankind’s quest to understand the universe in which it lives from the ancient Greeks to our own day.

He also provides a vision of what he calls “our quantum future”. Turok states in his lecture and its accompanying book “We are analog beings,living in a digital world,facing a quantum future.” I was intrigued by what this phrase meant and was lucky enough to find an pre-lecture interview of Turok by the ever excellent Paul Kennedy of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s wonderful program- Ideas.

Turok’s point is that human beings have an analog form of intelligence whereas the current generation of computers that surround us are digital. (A distinction I touched on briefly in my post Turning and the Chinese Room 2 .) Turok sees digital computers and how they process information as essentially “stupid”. Our analog intelligence is built on a much more simple “digital” DNA, and what we’ve done in moving to the digital world is in some sense an evolutionary step backward.

Quantum computers, however, which Turok finds inevitable, will be an evolutionary advance of a whole different order, a new,and yet more natural form of intelligence. I am not quite sure how to imagine this, but my intuition is to imagine an intelligence that could write every possible book,compose every possible piece of music, solve any solvable problem in mathematics.

Turok seems to think that this new kind of intelligence will lack purpose and intentionality which will be the role of our analog minds that will exists within this sphere of quantum intelligence with us playing a role that is somewhat analogous to the role our genes play to our much more complex brains. Our genes provide us with imperatives “eat, mate, acquire, rule” and our brains are tasked with the particular job of figuring out how to do this. We will give quantum intelligence its intentionality, direction, purpose, the “what” it is to do, but the new form of intelligence will provide us with the how.

All fascinating stuff!

And yet, as I was watching Kennedy’s interview with Turok I found myself getting a little annoyed. A former student of the brilliant Marshall Mcluhan,Kennedy kept trying to have a conversation about how specialization had made it impossible for people of different knowledge domains to talk to one another, that the university had become a “multiversity” with people cordoned off into strict domains. Turok didn’t really seem to want to engage in this line of conversation and muttered something about an intellectual diversity of perspectives being good, but physics had to be “in the lead”, which sparked an association for me of how philosophy used to be called the “handmaiden” of theology. And that’s when I started to wonder if we were all, myself included, under the spell of what was little more than a new secular priesthood.

Why do we turn to physicists for meaning? Why are the religious views of an eminent scientist considered major news? Why do we think physicist are somehow able to divine the human future? Perhaps its because physics has taken over fundamental questions that used to be the domain of religion and philosophy: “how did the universe begin? how will it end?” Perhaps we are contaminated by a kind of intellectual radioactivity from that generation of scientist during the Second World War that, with the bomb, gave us the capability of destroying ourselves. Perhaps we are so overawed by the technology and rise in the standard of living science has given us that we think the intelligence behind this must be able to answer the existential questions of the human condition, must have access to some sort of divine wisdom.

I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that even the most brilliant of physicists have had a horrible track record when they stepped outside their domains. Isaac Newton’s intelligence was a gift to humanity, but he was nevertheless a horrible human being. His view of the future was based on his obsession with counting down the days to armageddon by applying numerology to the Bible. Einstein thought global catastrophe was imminent unless a world government was established immediately after World War II. The only surviving genius from the generation of scientist that gave us the bomb is Freeman Dyson who thinks global warming is nothing much to worry about.

Few of the most renowned scientists have been great in other domains of human thought and expression great philosophers, religious thinkers, poets, writers,composers or painters. Perhaps the only ones that fit the bill are Davinci and Goethe. The former a great anatomist, engineer and artist, the latter both a great scientist and a great writer. Human thought and expression is multifold and no domain should have a monopoly on meaning or purpose.

Physics here isn’t in the lead so much as it provides the background for the world we live in: “what is it?” “ how did it come to be?” “how will it end?” “what is possible within it?” Given the vast differences in timescales between human life and civilization and the “life-cycle” of the universe itself, the question of our future and role within the universe is not one that physicists are anymore qualified to answer than the rest of us.

Far too often, and Turok is as guilty here as any, physicists use the same deterministic language to describe the future of civilization as they do for the universe itself. Yet there is no real way of knowing this. Perhaps intelligent civilizations follow different paths and end up at as many different destinations as are possible within the boundaries of the laws of physics and biological evolution. This to me seems a more interesting prospect than every world following the same damned deterministic course to the Omega Point or Quantum intelligence or whathaveyou.

In any case, this speculation about the human future is a parlor game that all of us are free to play, but presenting a personal preference for a particular outcome for civilization as physics isn’t science- it’s setting oneself up as a modern day arbiter between us and the gods physicists have shown us are not there.

Iamus Returns

A reader, Dan Fair, kindly posted a link to the release of the full album composed by the artificial intelligence program, Iamus, on the comments section of my piece Turing and the Chinese Room Part 2 from several month back.

I took the time to listen to the whole album today (you can too by clicking on the picture above). Not being trained as a classical musician, or having much familiarity with the abstract style in which the album was composed makes it impossible for me to judge the quality of the work.

Over and above the question of quality, I am not sure how I feel about Iamus and “his”composition. As I mentioned to Dan, the optimistic side of me sees in this the potential to democratize human musical composition.

Yet, as I mentioned in the Turing post, the very knowledge that there is no emotional meaning being conveyed behind the work leaves it feeling emotionally dead and empty for me compared to to another composition composed, like those of Iamus, in honor of Alan Turing, this one created by a human being, Amanda Feery, entitled Turing’s Epitaph  that was gracefully shared by fellow blogger Andrew Gibson.

One way or another it seems, humans, and their ability to create and understand meaning will be necessary for the creations of machines to have anything real behind them.

But that’s what I think. What about you?

Response to James Cross

A fellow blogger, James Cross, who writes at Broad Speculations left some comments that I thought raised enough interesting questions to qualify for a response
in the form of a full blog entry.

Here is part of James’ response to my recent post:  The Shirky-Morozov Debate Or How Facebook Beat Linux.

I am interested in Shirky’s ideas but I am a little at a loss to understand how it would actually work. The Internet and social media have potential for making major changes in collaboration and political activity, but those things are mainly the theater aspect of politics whereas actual politics is about how resources are divided up and who has power.

Shirky’s position, or at least my understanding of it that I laid out in  The Shirky-Morozov Debate, was that Shirky: “sees the potential of governance to follow the open source model of software development found in collectively developed software such as Linux and Github that allow users to collaborate without being coordinated by anyone from above- as opposed to the top-down model followed by traditional software companies i.e. MicroSoft.”

James sees  potential for collaboration and political activity offered by the Internet as  “theater aspects of politics whereas actual politics is about how resources are divided up and who has power”. If I understand James correctly, Shirky et al are pushing on a string; the Internet and related technologies may offer real opportunities for collaboration and political activity, but at the end of the day these aren’t the things that actually count; real politics is about power and dividing up resources.

James’ position as stated in the quote above is a powerful and succinct summation of a realist’s conception of power. It put me in mind of the definition offered by Hans Morgenthau:

Power may comprise anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man. Thus power covers all social relationships, which serve that end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.  (Politics Among Nations)

With all due respect to both James and the late Morgenthau, while this understanding of power appears to gel with our commonsense notions, I do not think it is correct. For my part, I hold to the definition of power offered by Morgenthau’s friend, Hannah Arendt:

Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together (The Crisis of the Republic)

Under this understanding political activity and collaboration aren’t something separate from, less real, in James’ word “actual” than power, instead, political activity, collaboration, and power are all effectively synonymous.

This collaboration or political activity does not need to be understood in a purely positive way: a secret police may collaborate in a country to exercise political control, a conqueror needs the help of local “collaborators” to effectively rule over a conquered  territory. In a positive sense a minority group can join together and with others- collaborate- to secure political rights, a resistance can engage in political activity to overthrow a dictator.  In either sense, collaboration and political activity are the essence of politics not its surface.

Even if we substituted the word “authority” for “power” in James’ formulation so that he would read:   “actual politics is about how resources are divided up and who has authority” I do not think the view of political activity, collaboration, and power being synonymous would change.  Imagine, if you will, that tomorrow some major scandal breaks upon the Obama Administration that is so deep that it alienates not just the people who already oppose him, but the majority of Americans (such as myself) who voted for the man. In such a scenario, the authority of his position as president would be almost useless, and he would be essentially politically paralyzed, not because he had lost his actual position of power, but because he would have lost the base of political support- the political activity and collaboration- that makes such a position meaningful and effective.

Once you start to look at power in this way I think a whole new set of questions start to open up. The questions are no longer necessarily “who holds power?” or “what resources does some group control?”, but, “How open is the system?” “Can any group participate or is political activity- the exercise of power- limited to some select group(s)?” “What are the barriers to participation?”

But, for me, perhaps the most important question  is “what is meant by political participation?” That is, what kinds of political activity/collaboration are encouraged/permitted by the political system.

As mentioned, Clay Shirky, among others, has thought that the Internet in particular, and the communications revolution more generally, would have lowered the barriers to political participation in a way that would make something like truly citizen-directed government possible. An example he cites in one of his talks is the open source crafting of legislation in Utah where the people collectively wrote one of the state’s laws online.  In this view, the answer to the question of “what is meant by participation?” would be decentralized collaboration between citizens who work together to achieve self-chosen ends. It is a model of politics analogous to open-source software creation such as that found with Linx.

The problem with this view is that it is detached from reality.  Nothing like citizen-directed government has really emerged from the Internet, which is far from a “new” technology.  Indeed, if the Obama campaign in 2012 is any indication , in political terms, the Internet is best thought of as a tool of mobilization not direct participation in the form of discussion and debate. Participation is defined here almost purely in terms of mobilization.

In a really interesting way, these developments seems to have brought us back to the era before television when party machines and unions would get out the vote- only now mobilization is done using social media and GOTV efforts targeted at specific individuals.  My lament here is that this politics of mass mobilization has left all the characteristics of political participation Shirky had hoped the Internet would make possible in the dust. Rather than citizen-to-citizen debate and discussion issues are already decided upon in the higher echelons of the political party. Instead of groups being organized horizontally, we are back to the world of the pyramid, with the new technologies being used to foster mobilization receiving centralized direction from the party’s data rich “war-rooms”.

To be honest, I am not even sure you could have something like truly collaborative politics as in Shirky’s Utah legislation example on the mass level of a nation even if all of the technological-political trends would have played out the way he had hoped. If you think the process is ugly now- imagine the Federal budget being crafted as an open source project by the entire country!

Still, I continue to believe that the kinds of possibilities for citizen-directed government cyber-utopians have been preaching about for years still have some potential to be realized, only at a smaller scale. I think the first step in doing this is to remember that the kind of representational democracy we have isn’t the only form of democracy to have ever existed, or perhaps even the best for all purposes.

Lately, for a book I’m working on, I’ve been looking at the most famous democracy of them all, Athenian democracy, which at the very least, offers us an example of a system that tried to maximize the opportunity for individual citizens to engage in political activity.  In what follows immediately below I will not address the glaring flaws of Athenian democracy- imperialism, the condition of women, slavery. Rather, I just want to lay out the mechanics of how their participatory system worked.

Athenian democracy differed from modern democracy in many ways, but most especially in this: that the citizens themselves, rather than their representatives, gathered together in their assembly, called the Ekklêsia, to make political decisions.
The Athenian Ekklêsia included all male, Athenian citizens, of whatever class who were over 18 years of age. It met on a hillside, the Pnyx, south-west of the Agora or marketplace. The assembly began with the words of the herald that seemed to sum up
the whole world-view that underlie Athenian democracy: “Who wishes to speak?” Here, any Athenian citizen, of whatever station, was free to bring to discussion, debate, and a vote anything which they wished.  On the Pnyx, Athenians made decisions such as whether to start or end a war, when to ostracize a citizen ( most famously Socrates),  who to name as a general, whether to found a colony, inaugurate a religious festival, or literally any other question or issue that a member of the Ekklêsia wanted to discuss and decide upon.

Citizens of Athens bore direct responsibility for their decisions in a way citizens today might find hard to grasp.  Especially in decisions of war, Athenians were asked to make complex choices which were likely to have an immediate impact on either themselves or their children.

The Athenian courts or, Dikasteria, represents another of the sharp differences between Athenian democracy and our own.   Whereas our societies are guided by the input of persons deemed to be experts in some distinct domain of human knowledge: lawyers and judges on issues of law, economists in matters of economic policy, foreign policy professionals in areas of international affairs etc. Athenian democracy had a deep distrust of experts, or more clearly, a very narrow range of fields deemed by the Athenians to be capable of true expertise- generalship and water management topped their list, and they possessed a much more widespread faith in the ability of average citizens to come to reasoned decisions on public questions.

A Dikasteria was effectively judge and jury in one. It decided whether to take a case, what evidence was permissible, came down on the question of guilt or innocence, and decided upon the final sentence.

The only qualification for serving as a dikast was being over the age of 30, which suggests that the “expertise” being selected for was life-experience more than anything else.  Dikasteria for a particular trial were huge when compared to modern juries. They  could number anywhere from a low of 500 to a high of 6,000 members. Unlike in modern legal systems, there was no public prosecutor- Athenians brought other Athenians to trial.  Nor were there lawyers, Athenians prosecuted fellow citizens or defended themselves before the dikasts.

In still another sharp contrast to modern democracies, ancient Athens possessed no executive or permanent bureaucracy. What it had was The Council of 500, or Boule.  Members of this body, which was chosen by lot from members of the Ekklêsia served
for a period of one year.  The Boule acted in a coordinating and supervisory relative to the Ekklêsia engaging in such detail oriented tasks as the supervision of public finances, or the assessment of tribute from allies.

The way in which members of the Boule were chosen by lot was indicative of the way in which Athenians viewed the idea of elections.  The idea of electing someone to political office is based on the underlying assumption that someone is, in a sense, more qualified for some position than another person. Given the narrow definition of expertise held by Athenians, the idea that most public offices demanded anything more than requirements in the form of the personal characteristics of morality and judgement, that were possessed by almost everyone, was untenable. All citizens were deemed equally qualified for most public offices.  Election as a consequence was limited to the aforementioned experts such as generals and engineers.

The whole point of the Athenian system was to maximize the possibilities for citizens to engage in substantial political participation. Our system does not have this as a primary goal. Hell, we don’t even have off of work on election day!

Athens then, is at least one model of how politics in a society that put a premium on substantial participation could be organized. Today, I can imagine all sorts of ways that technology could be used today to increase the possibilities for citizens to engage in politics above and beyond voting in elections or working for campaigns while electoral contests are being fought. Technology could help make participation easier, and more compatible with the non-political aspects of modern human life.

For example, cities and towns could adopt something like the Athenian assembly rather than the mayoral and city-council systems now commonly used. Not everyone would have to physically attend an “assembly” if those who wished to participate in some sort of political debate and decision were able to do so virtually.  The key is to make participation as easy, integrated, and seamless with the rest of our lives as possible.  If I can receive updates via Twitter on fantasy football picks, why shouldn’t I be able to get an update on the town council meeting such as “ Proposition X will be held to a vote in so many days. Log-in and vote before such and such a date if you have a position on this issue”.  If I can spend hours of time in a virtual world such as World of WarCraft, can’t I spend a fraction of that in a virtual assembly whose decisions at least have some real world impact.

Would the majority of citizens participate in this sort of decision making?  Probably not, but I have no issue with such participation being self-selecting. If all debates concern you, participate all the time, if some, then just those, or if none, devote yourself to your private concerns, but remember that you now have no justification to complain. The point is to make it as easy as possible for those who want to to have their say- let the numbers shake out whatever way they do. Participation will likely vary over the course of life of the individual and with the general social mood of the society at large.

The limits to the political influence of experts found in Athens are no doubt impossible in our complex technological society, but I can imagine software systems, and expert services that provide information to citizens so they can test assumptions about the potential impact of their decisions from tax policy to water and resource management to zoning rules.  I can imagine the application of a blended model (real world/online) of the Athenian Dikasteria to non-criminal trials, and much of litigation supplanted by community based mediation.

And there I think is a very long background in response to James’ second comment:

I find myself in a rather odd political position of being a small government progressive. I want to find ways to organize society to accomplish progressive goals without an intrusive government.Do you or anyone else have ideas on that?”

A problem, I think, is that if the goal is meaningful participation where the individual can have a substantial impact on the society in which he or she lives, then the level at which many important decisions made by the government emerge will have to move downward. Right now, the level of government where an individual can most easily have an impact, municipal government, falls off the radar of most people. Part of the reason for this is certainly the role of national media which can only cover government at the Federal, and on rare occasions the state level. But, a large part of this inattention to municipal government probably also stems from the fact that almost all important political decisions are made at the higher levels of government.

In order to place real and substantial power at the level where individuals are actually able to shape it, one would have to shift many of the responsibilities and capacities now the prerogative of the Federal and state government, to a level closer to the individual. Oddly enough, this is a change in the direction of more democracy many conservatives would get behind. My guess is that the bottom level for such a unit would be a mid-sized city and its surroundings. If you go much smaller you cannot support the cultural institutions and ways of living that form the bones and sinews of a truly distinct community, go much larger to the level of a nation and the scale no longer supports a true sense of distinct community which is a matter of shared institutions and ways of living, not shared ancestry or ideology.

Perhaps oddly enough, libertarians are at the forefront of attempting to experiment with local level governance. There is Peter Thiel’s idea of utopian seasteading  and the grandson of Milton Friedman who is hoping to create cities based on libertarian principles from scratch in the Third World, at least partially inspired the similar idea
for charter cities of the economist, Paul Romer.

My guess, however, is that, at the end of the day, such experiments won’t work and any shift of responsibility to the municipal level will actually trend in the the direction of progressive government. Even the incredibly successful city-states whose economic performance these movements hope to emulate, such as Singapore, have governments that minimize social divisions and hold the well-being of the poor to be the responsibility of the community.

What the architect of Singaporean society, Lee Kuan Yew, understands is that no true community- as opposed to some gated enclave where wealthy people live- can be composed of only the rich. (It is a disaster for a community when it is composed of only the poor).  The wealthy seem more likely to pony-up if their money goes into the community where they and their children live.  To support progressive politics a community cannot be so small that the rich will simply put up and move, or so large that the wealthy cannot see that from their largess comes a community they and their children want to live in because of the quality of its cultural institutions, its schools, and general social and physical health.

This all may seem utopian, and perhaps, especially in terms of participatory politics it is.  Much of this, however, is echoed by someone like Jane Jacobs who saw a large part of the reason for the decline of the city in the 20th century in the shift of taxing authority away from the city to the Federal government. Though, I have yet to read the book, I believe they are also echoed by in Benjamin Barber’s recent If Mayors Ruled the World where he lays out just how much more effective the mayors of large cities have been at addressing endemic social problems than the ideologically driven national political parties. The danger here is paternalism as both Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, and the aforementioned Singapore of Lee Kuan Yew, seem to attest.

Relocating much of Federal authority to the level of cities might spur major innovations: in energy systems and climate policy, educational systems, food systems, criminal justice, tax policy, promoting economic equality, care for the elderly, health care, and the way we relate to and integrate technological and scientific innovation, which could prove scaleable and serve as solutions to the wider and more important national and international aspects of these issues. It might balance out the mind-numbing homogenization of modern industrial society: ”And each town looks the same to me the movies and the factories” (Simon & Garfunkel, Homeward Bound) from Shanghai, to Moscow, to London to New York.  As mentioned,  it might also put a brake on the tendency of the rich to avoid taxation because the effect of their taxes will be immediately manifest in the communities it which they live.

This century will be the first in which the majority of the human population will live in cities, if they can be allowed to get it right, things will work out for all of us- even for country dwellers like myself. One way to do that would be to relocate some of the powers of national governments regarding taxation, economic, and social policy back to the cities. Here also, I think a different, more participatory, and even more progressive form of democracy could find its 21st century home.

Thanks for inspiring this post James! As always, critical comments from everyone are desired.

The Shirky- Morozov Debate or how FaceBook beat Linux

One thing that struck me throughout the 2012 presidential contest was the Obama campaign’s novel use of Big-Data and targeted communication to mobilize voters. Many of these trends I found somewhat disturbing, namely, the practice of micro-mobilization through fear,  the application of manipulative techniques created in commercial advertising and behavioral economics to spur voter mobilization, and the  invasion of privacy opened up by the transparency culture and technology of social media.

These doubts and criticisms were made despite the fact that I am generally an Obama supporter, would ultimately cast my vote for the man, and was overall delighted by the progressive victories in the election, not least the push back against voter suppression which had been attempted, and only at the last minute thwarted, in my home state of Pennsylvania.

The sheer clarity of the success of the Obama campaign’s strategy makes me think that these techniques are largely a fait accompli, and will be rapidly picked up by Republicans to the extent they can. Political commentators have already turned their eyes to the strategy’s success,  completely ignoring the kinds of critical questions brought to our attention, for instance, by,Charles Duhigg, in The New York Times only a few weeks ago.

Given their effectiveness, there might be very little push-back from liberal voters regarding the way the 2012 campaign was waged, and such push-back might be seen as demands for unilateral disarmament on the part of Democrats should they come from Republicans- in which case the demand might quite rightly be seen as just another example of the GOP’s attempts at voter suppression. Or, should such push back against these techniques come from a minority of progressives in, or allied with, the Democratic party who are troubled by their implications, such complaints might be written off as geriatric whining by out of touch idealists who have no clue on how the new era of networked politics works. And this would largely be right, the campaigns of 2012, and the Obama campaign most especially, have likely brought us into a brand new political era.

A recent article in Time Magazine gives a good idea of how the new science of campaigning works: it is data driven, and builds upon techniques honed in the world’s of advertising and psychology to target both individuals and groups strategically.
Like the world’s of finance and government surveillance it is a new ecology where past, and bogus, claims by individuals to be able to “forecast the future” by ” gut-instinct” has fallen before Big Data and the cold brilliance of the quants.

That data-driven decision making played a huge role in creating a second term for the 44th President and will be one of the more closely studied elements of the 2012 cycle. It’s another sign that the role of the campaign pros in Washington who make decisions on hunches and experience is rapidly dwindling, being replaced by the work of quants and computer coders who can crack massive data sets for insight. As one official put it, the time of “guys sitting in a back room smoking cigars, saying ‘We always buy 60 Minutes’” is over. In politics, the era of big data has arrived.

One can feel for a political pundit such as Michael Gerson who attacked the political predictions of the data savvy Nate Silver in the same way one can feel sympathy for the thick-necked, testosterone heavy, Wall Street traders who were replaced by thinner-necked quants who had gotten their chops not on raucous trading floors but in courses on advanced physics.  And, at the end of the day, Silver was right. Gerson’s “observation” about the nature of American politics in his ridiculous critique of Silver-  given the actual reality of the 2012 campaign- is better understood as a lament than an observation:

An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community. In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.

Put another way: The most interesting and important thing about politics is not the measurement of opinion but the formation of opinion. Public opinion is the product — the outcome — of politics; it is not the substance of politics. If political punditry has any value in a democracy, it is in clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates, not in “scientific” assessments of public views.

My main objections here are that this is an aspirational statement- not one of fact, and that the role Gerson gives to pundits, to himself, is absolutely contrary to reality- unless one believes the kind of “clarity” found by paying attention to the talking heads on Fox News is actually an exercise in democratic deliberation.

Yet, there are other ways in which the type of political campaign seen in 2012 offer up interesting food for thought in that they seem to point towards an unlikely outcome in current debates over the role and effect of the new communications technology on politics.

In some sense Obama’s 2012 campaign seems to answer what I’ll call the “Clay Shirky- Evgeny Morozov Debate. I could also call it the Shirky-Gladwell debate, but I find Morozov to be a more articulate spokesman of techo-pessimism (or techno-realism, depending upon one’s preference) than the omnipresent Malcolm Gladwell.

Clay Shirky is a well known spokesperson for the idea that the technological revolution centered around the Internet and other communications networks is politically transformative and offers up the possibility of a new form of horizontal politics.

Shirky sees the potential of governance to follow the open source model of software development found in collectively developed software such as Linux and Github that allow users to collaborate without being coordinated by anyone from above- as opposed to the top-down model followed by traditional software companies i.e. MicroSoft.  Although Shirky does not discuss them in his talk- the hacktivists group of Anonymous and Wikileaks follow this same decentralized, and horizontal model. As of yet, no government has adopted anything but token elements of the open source model of governance though they have, in Shirky’s view embraced more openness- transparency.

In an article for the journal Foreign Affairs in 2011 entitled The Political Power of Social Media, an article written before either the Arab Spring or the Occupy Wall Street movements had exploded on the scene, Shirky made a reasoned case for the potential of social media to serve as a prime vector for political change. Social media, while in everyday life certainly dominated by nonsense such as “singing cats”, also brought the potential to mobilize the public- overnight- based on some grievance or concern.

Here, Shirky responded to criticisms of both Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov that his techno-optimism downplayed both the opiate like characteristics of social media, with its tendencies to distract people from political activity, along with the tendency of social media to create a shallow form of political commitment as people confuse signing an online petition or “liking” some person or group with actually doing something.

I do not agree with all  of what Morozov has to say in his side of this debate, but, that said, he is always like a bracing glass of cold water to the face- a defense against getting lost in daydreams. If you’ve never seen the man in action here is a great short documentary that has the pugnacious Belarusian surrounded by a sort of panopticon of video screens where he pokes holes in almost every techo-utopia shibboleth out there.

In his The Net Delusion Morozov had made the case that the new social media didn’t lend themselves to lasting political movements because all such movements are guided strategically and ideologically by a core group of people with real rather than superficial commitment who had sacrificed, sometimes literally everything, in the name of the movement. Social media’s very decentralization and the shallow sorts of political  activities it most often engenders are inimical to a truly effective political movement, and, at the same time, the very technologies that had given rise to social media have increased exponentially the state’s capacity for surveillance and the sphere of a-political distractions surrounding the individual.

And in early 2011 much of what Morozov said seemed right, but then came the Arab Spring, and then the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the former at the very least facilitated by social media, and the latter only made possible by it. If it was a prize fight, Morozov would have been on the mat, and Shirky shaking his fist with glee. And then…

It was the old-school Muslim Brotherhood not the tech-savvy tweeters who rose to prominence in post-Mubarak Egypt, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement faded almost as fast as it had appeared. Morozov was up off the mat.

And now we have had the 2012 presidential campaign, a contest fought and won using the tools of social media and Big Data. This suggests to me an outcome of the telecommunications revolution neither Shirky nor Morozov fully anticipated.

Shirky always sides with the tendency of the new media landscape to empower the individual and flatten hierarchies. This is not what was seen in the presidential race. Voters were instead “guided” by experts who were the only ones to grasp the strategic rationale of goading this individual rather than that and “nudging” them to act in some specific way.

Morozov, by contrasts, focuses his attention on the capacity of social media to pacify and distract the public in authoritarian states, and to ultimately hold the reins on the exchange of information.

What the Obama campaign suggests is that authoritarian countries might be able to use social media to foster a regime friendly political activity- that is to sponsor and facilitate the actions of large groups in its own interests, while short circuiting similar actions growing out of civil society which authoritarians find threatening.  Though, regime friendly political activity in this case is likely to be much more targeted and voluntary than the absurdities of 20th century totalitarianism that mobilized people for every reason under the sun.

The difference between authoritarian countries and democratic ones in respect to these technologies, at least so far, is this: that authoritarian countries will likely use them to exercise power whereas in democracies they are only used to win it.

If 2012 was a portent of the future, what Web 2.0 has brought us is not Shirky’s dream of “open-sourced government” which uses technology to actively engage citizens in not merely the debate over, but the crafting of policies and laws, an outcome which would have spelled the decline of the influence of political parties.  Instead, what we have is carefully targeted political mobilization based on the intimate knowledge of individual political preferences and psychological touch- points centrally directed by data-rich entities with a clear set of already decided upon political goals.  Its continuation would constitute the defeat of the political model based on Linux and the victory of  one based on FaceBook.

A Utopian Reading of Pinker’s Better Angels Of Our Nature

Thomas More created the first modern version of an ideal society, giving his work the name that would stick for all such imaginings ever since, Utopia, in the year 1516.
More was an Englishman, and it might be good to gaze for a moment at the conditions for England in that year in order to gain some perspective on the changes that have since taken place.The life expectancy of an individual living in England near the year 1516 was around 38 years. That was, if you could make it to your tenth birthday. For, three out of ten children died before even reaching that age. Indeed, merely surviving up until that point depended on whether your parents had chosen to keep you alive rather than kill you shortly after birth. For, despite the prohibitions of the Church, many infants (we have no idea how many) died at the hands of their own parents who were unable to care for their newborns from either the condition of the newborn herself or the abject poverty of the infant’s family.

Famines had, thankfully, become somewhat less common in the England of the 1500s
than in prior centuries, but the lives of the island’s poorer farmers had not become any easier. The Enclosure movement, which turned England’s subsistence farms into pasture for sheep tossed many of the peasantry out into the world to fend, if they could, for themselves.  Thomas More himself, coming at the issue from a Christian-Humanist perspective, thought enclosure was a humanitarian disaster that drove displaced English peasants into a life of crime driven not by the evils of human nature but by hunger and extreme poverty. An issue he explores in Utopia.

The “criminals” who were caught did not have an easy time of it, and the definition of criminal, in today’s legal jargon, was an “overbroad” term. Persons could be executed not merely for murder, or even rape, robbery, and theft,  but for infractions such as “sodomy, gossiping, stealing cabbages, picking up sticks on the Sabbath, talking back to parents, and criticizing the royal garden”. During the reign of Henry VIII, the portund king who ruled in the time of Thomas More, there were “more than ten executions in London per week”. (Pinker BA 149)

Executions and punishment were not quick affairs either. Here is the punishment for a thief:

Rogues and vagabonds are often stocked and whipped; scolds are ducked upon cucking-stools (a kind of one-person see-saw) in the water. Such felons as stand mute, and speak not at their arraignment, (that is confess) are pressed to death by huge weights laid upon a board, that lieth over their breast, and a sharp stone under their backs
That’s the light stuff, I will spare you the horror show.Disease was an ever present danger as well. The Plague is only the most infamous of the diseases in the early 1500s that prematurely killed countless numbers of people,  which included;  influenza, dysentery, cholera, small pox, and a mysterious disease with the innocuous name of “English Sweat” that started with the chills and killed a person within a day.

Many of these diseases found their vector in the almost non-existent sanitary conditions of the time. Many simply threw their waste, including human waste, out onto the street.

As a further indicator of the general lack of sanitation and personal hygiene,Thomas More’s great friend, Erasmus, wrote one of the first books on manners that commended people urinating in public to face a wall rather than piss into public sight, refrain from licking their food dishes, or wiping their snotty noses onto tablecloths.

The 1500s and 1600s would witness cultural pandemics as well. Witch mania in which would leave up to 80,000 women in Europe dead, a large number by burning. If this was on the one hand a reflection of how horribly off course European religious ideas were moving, it is also gives us a glimpse into just how vulnerable lower-class women, lacking the protections of being the “property” of well-born males, were to the madness of clergy and crowd.

Witch burning, and public executions would pale, however, before the surge of violence of the European Wars of Religion which were just stirring as Thomas More penned his Utopia, the bloody conflict between the Catholic Church and the new Protestant groups that were sprouting up all over Europe. We would not see casualty rates like this again until the Second World War with perhaps over 5 million killed. The culmination of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in England with the English Civil War (1642-1651) would kill a larger proportion of British citizens than World War I. (Pinker BA 142). These wars had a nationalistic or “nation-building” aspect as well, the prelude to the English Civil War was The Bishop’s War (1639-1640) a conflict that forcefully wed Scotland to England.

Thomas More himself would be caught up in the fanaticism of the European Religious Wars in many way abandoning the Christian-humanism that had informed his Utopia, for what some might call an extremist defense of Catholicism. For this, he paid with his life after having resisted the move by Henry VIII to declare himself head of the Church in England.  More was fortunately not killed in the typical way persons accused of treason were treated ,which would have been to be hung till near death, his body taken down and fastened to horses, to be pulled at until he was ripped into pieces. Rather, the executioner merely cut off his head.

If we had a time machine and brought Thomas More to England in the year 2012- almost 500 years after he wrote Utopia what would he see?

The life expectancy for an English male is now a little more than double what it was in 1516- 78 years (for women it is 82). A disturbing number, 36, infants are killed by their parents in England each year around, but we have every reason to suspect that this is not even near the number of infanticides per day in 1516.  The last peacetime famine in England proper was 1634. The last devastating pandemic was in 1918. The last act of capital punishment was in 1969. The last “witch” executed in 1684.
Today, according to British standards, the minimum provision of sanitary appliances for a private dwelling is: “One toilet for up to four people, two toilets for five people or more, a washbasin in or adjacent to every toilet, one bath or shower for up to four
people, one kitchen sink.”

The distinction in English attitudes to religion between the days of Thomas More and today can be seen in a great blog by a young ex-fundamentalist Christian, Jonny Scaramanga, called Leaving Fundamentalism which points out many of the absurdities of fundamentalism. In 1516, Jonny wouldn’t have lasted a day.

Of course, within the lifetime of people still living we did have The Second World War, which proportionally killed as many Europeans as the Wars of Religion, but we have seen nothing like it since. The very idea that Great Britain would fight another such conflict, especially against other European powers, within our lifetime, those of our children, or even the generation after them, seems, in a way it never has been before, ludicrous. Indeed, even in terms of nationalism we certainly live in a different age. Scotland looks likely to soon hold a referendum on independence from Great Britain, and absolutely no one thinks a verdict in favor of the Scotts going their own way will lead to civil war.

In other words, our time traveling Thomas More, were he to set foot in the England of today, would very likely think he had stepped into Utopia.

The side of this argument that takes note of the remarkable decline of violence in the modern era from the near end of judicial torture, of religious persecution, of slavery, of infanticide, of wife and children beating, of the use of the coercive power of the state to enforce moral norms (homosexuality, adultery), of the gratuitous abuse of animals, of genocide and politicide practiced by the big advanced powers, and the seeming disappearance of the willingness of those powers to go to war with one another is something meticulously laid out by Steven Pinker in his The Better Angels of Our Nature.  In part Pinker credits, or characterizes, this decline of violence to an expansion of human beings’ “circle of empathy”, an idea he borrows from the philosopher Peter Singer. Over time we have come to extend the kind of compassion human beings are naturally geared for, largely towards members of of own family or tribe, to other human beings, and even other animals.

Elsewhere I will offer an alternative reading of Pinker’s argument that sees these developments much less brightly than he does. For now, I will merely accept them as fact and turn my attention to Pinker’s attitude towards what I have called elsewhere “the utopian tradition”. For Pinker sees in utopia a major source of past violence, and as a consequence misses the very real and positive role the utopian imagination played in getting us to the conditions of today he so praises.

In setting out to identify both the reason the first half of the 20th century was so violent, and why, the world since has been so much less so, Pinker identifies a culprit in the rise and fall in the idea of utopia.

Why does the idea of utopia lead to violence?

“In utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite”.  The scale of such a promise leads to an abandonment of any limit on the price to be paid for utopia , especially in terms of the lives of others. Pinker: “How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain.” (BA 328)

Another way in which Pinker thinks utopia inspires violence because those who oppose such an infinite good can only be motivated by its opposite- absolute evil. Pinker: “They are the only things standing in the way of a plan that could lead to infinite goodness. You do the math.”

In the mind of Pinker, utopian ideas also lead to genocide because they need to force people into a strictly laid plan:

“In utopia, everything is there for a reason. What about the people? Well groups of people are diverse. Some of them stubbornly, perhaps essentially, cling to values that are out of place in a perfect world…. “If you are designing a perfect society on a clean sheet of paper, why not write these eyesores out of the plan from the start”. (BA 329)

Pinker loves citations, and seemingly every paragraph in his 802 page Better Angels  has at least one. Except, that is, for these paragraphs, so I am not sure where Pinker is getting his version of the utopian mindset he finds so dangerous. Instead he turns to the a work by Ben Kiernan, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. Seemingly on the basis of that work, Pinker claims of utopian ideologies: “Time and again, they hark back to a vanished agrarian paradise, which they seek to restore to a healthful substitute for the prevailing urban decadence”. He contrasts these utopian purists to the “intellectual bazaar of cosmopolitan cities” from which grew the implicitly non-utopian, healthy and rational ideas of the Enlightenment. (BA 329).

This theory of the agrarian-utopians vs the cosmopolitan-rationalists seems to make a lot of sense, nevertheless it is wrong. If any revolution was the Enlightenment’s revolution it was the American, and many of America’s Enlightenment heavy weights spoke against the “vices” of the city and the “virtue” of the countryside. Jefferson is best known for this, but an Enlightenment thinker Pinker appears to admire even more- James Madison- was an agro-phile as well. Here’s Madison:

“Tis not the country that peoples either the Bridewells or the Bedlams. These mansions of wretchedness are tenanted from the distresses and vices of overgrown cities” (If Men were Angels p. 90).

Pinker is certainly right in asserting that a certain group of utopian ideologies: French Revolutionaries, Soviet Communists, Maoists in China and elsewhere, and Islamic Jihadists are a group with an incalculable amount of blood on their hands. He uses a  quote from the most blood-soaked of the French Revolutionaries as evidence that the crimes of utopians arise from their denial of human nature.

Robespierre: “The French people seem to have outstripped the rest of humanity by two thousand years; one might be tempted to regard them, living amongst them, as a different species”. (BA 186)

Yet, what is revealing to me about this quote is not its supposed denial of human nature as its clear indication that underneath Robespierre’s utopian ideology lay an idea of universal history. That is, he thought himself and his fellow revolutionaries were the people of the future, that this was ultimately where history was taking the human race, the French had just gotten there first.

And, when you look at it that way you see that all of Pinker’s bloodsoaked utopian ideologies were determinist theories of history in one way or another French Revolutionaries, yes, but also Nazis with their theory of history as a Darwinian struggle, and Soviet Communists, and Maoists with their ideas of history as a class war, and Jihadists along with Christian millennialist both of whom see history moving us towards a divine showdown.

But wait a second, isn’t Pinker’s own theory a determinist theory of history? Not if one takes his hedging at face value, but Kant’s theory which serves as a foundation of Pinker’s ideas certainly was one. Yet, neither Kant’s nor Pinker’s theories really build a positive role for violence in the movement of history. Certainly this must be the main thing: ideas that give rise to extreme violence tend to be theories of history that look at violence as somehow deeply embedded in the unfolding of history. Though, even here we need to be historically careful, for the American Civil War which resulted in abolition was itself infused with a millenarian based violence, so there is more to the story than meets the eye.

Pinker’s belief that utopian ideas are primarily a source of ideologically based violence blinds him to the way in which the idea of utopia helped move his humanitarian revolutions along. The list below is not meant to be comprehensive, and though each of these works or communities have deep flaws, when viewed from a modern perspective they no doubt helped moves things step-by-step forward to the place we are today:

Plato, The Republic: Often today viewed as a source of totalitarianism (more on that in a minute) A large part of The Republic is devoted to limiting the horrors of war- including the horrors of genocide, rape, and enslavement. The book also made the case for the political equality of women.

Thomas More, Utopia (1516): Religious tolerance: rather than heretics being killed even atheists are tolerated and encouraged to talk out their ideas. Violence: In More’s Utopia slavery is legal, but one should remember how why these slaves exists- that Utopia tries to avoid killing its enemies in war, and no longer executes common criminals. More’s use of his Utopia to criticize the inhumanity of the Enclosure movement was discussed above.

Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1627): Imagined a society in which the general welfare of all would be raised by the application of the nascent scientific method.

Gabriel Plattes, A Description of the Famous Kingdom of Marciana (1641): Public health: “for they have an house or College of Experience where they deliver out yearly such medicines as they find out by experience and all such as shall be able to demonstrate any experiment for the health or wealth of men are honourably rewarded at the publick charge by which their skill in husbandy physick and surgery is most excellent”.

Margaret Cavendish, A Blazing World (1666): Womens’ rights, animal rights, and perhaps the first person to argue against the use of animals in scientific testing.

The Commowealth of Pennsylvania (1681): Religious Tolerance: In the 1700s no American colony so captured the European longing for utopia and paradise than my home state of Pennsylvania of which Voltaire said: ” So, William Penn might be said to have brought back the Golden Age which never existed save in Pennsylvania.”

Mary Astell,  A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694): Women’s rights, famous for her quote: “If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?”

David Hume, Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth (1742): The classical liberal’s utopian: separation of powers, extension of the franchise to all of the propertied, decentralization, separation of church and state.

Sarah Scott,  A Description of Millenium Hall and the Country Adjacent (1762): Women’s rights, universal education, and liberal economic equality.

Immanuel Kant, On Perpetual Peace (1802): Another classical liberal’s utopian: How the expansion of representative democracy, trade, and international law might result in the disappearance of war from human history.

Anonymous: Equality: a history of Lithconia (1802): Retirement, old age pensions.

Robert Owen’s Community at New Harmony (1824): In the midst of the horrendous working conditions of the early industrial revolution, Owen established experimental communities that tried to improve the general conditions of workers.

Northampton Association’s Abolitionist Utopia (1842): In 1842, a group of radical abolitionists and social reformers established the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian community in western Massachusetts organized around a collectively owned and operated silk mill. Members sought to challenge the prevailing social attitudes of their day by creating a society in which “the rights of all are equal without distinction of sex, color or condition, sect or religion.”

John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy 3rd Edition (1852): Usually considered among the classical liberals, Mill postulates here an end to the logic of endless economic growth instead giving way to concentration of human beings moral and intellectual growth.

Jean-Baptiste Andre-Godin’s Phalanstery for Workers Families (1871): Another utopian experiment in ways to alleviate the miserable conditions of industrial workers.

H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia (1905): Equal rights for women. Animal rights.

Aldous Huxley, Island (1962): Sexual liberation. Decriminalization of drug use.

The Civil Rights Movement 1960s: The Civil Rights Movement grew directly out three utopian claims. The first an Enlightenment claim of human equality, the second a Christian-millennialist claim of an age of universal brotherhood “I have a dream”,
and lastly the utopian aspirations of non-violence found in Ghandi.

1960’s Communes, Anti-War, and the birth of the Internet: The commune movement of the 1960s may seem in retrospect silly, and much of it was, but it did have some positive effects: it was part of the larger anti-war movement that put a premium on non-violence “all you need is love”, and many of its members went on to create what they thought would be the next liberating technology- the Internet.

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston (1975): Biodiversity: An increased status for natural animals, plants, and ecosystems.

So, if the utopian tradition played such an obvious role in the expansion of Pinker’s (and Singer’s) circle of empathy, indeed, if it played such an obvious role in the other utopian trends seen in modern life, how does Pinker miss it? My guess, is that his views have been biased by the work of two influential authors on the subject of utopia, the historian, Karl Popper, and Pinker himself.

Karl Popper was just the most prominent of scholars after the Second World War who in trying to understand what went wrong laid their finger on utopia. In his, Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper especially indicted Plato, Hegel, and Marx as three figures who had lead the world down a dangerous path to believing that utopian projects could be brought into reality, and that this had resulted in the great bloodshed of the 20th century.

Popper was reasonably reacting against what is called “The Authoritarian High Tide of Modernism”, which included among other things the belief by intellectuals that society could be re-engineered in whatever way they deemed. Popper wanted policy makers to adopt instead the viewpoint of “piecemeal social engineering” rather than think society’s problems might be fixed all at one go. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is more one of association. By bringing Plato, who had merely imagined an alternative society to his own, and by reading him out of his historical context with the eyes of a modern liberal whose society had morally and intellectually evolved by leaps and bounds over the world in the times of Plato- Popper seemed to indict the utopian tradition in its entirety.

Popper’s association of the attempt to redesign society whole cloth with inevitable violence is blind to the reality of what almost all real world utopias were- small scale experiments that grew out of the political, economic, and social problems of their day that while they almost universally would ultimately fail- killed no one, insofar as one makes exceptions for those few cases where the “utopia” in question was in reality a religious or New Age cult.

Just how far this downgrading of utopia has gone is reflected in the conservative writer, Mark Levin’s recent best selling book, Ameritopia, where Levin uses Popper’s mis-association of utopia with mass murder, to indict accomplishments in Western societies that utopian movements were often in the forefront of, such as old age pensions (Social Security), and government funded health care.

Still, if Popper was one of the influences that lead Pinker to his misreading of utopia there is also the influence of Pinker upon himself. Better Angels of Our Nature should be read in conjunction with his earlier book The Blank Slate to best understand where Pinker is coming from.

In The Blank Slate Pinker was responding to two phenomena in American academia in the 1990’s, the first was political correctness, and the second was the resistance to, or even the unwillingness to engage with, the rising fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology by many members of the academy.

I was a college student in the 1990s, so I know what Pinker means by political correctness. There was a general sense that any willingness to engage with conservative ideas or traditional morality somehow tainted one in the eyes of professors as a closet fascists, racists, misogynist, or homophobe. I think the reason for this is that many participants in the revolutionary 1960’s, unable to really change American society through the government, found themselves in the academy, something that encouraged groupthink, and given the resurgence of conservatism in the larger American society at the time led to a sense of siege that left made academics particularly prickly whenever such ideas found were expressed by students. Both the retirement of this generation of professors, and the obvious traction their ideas now have in the larger society seem likely to end this state of affairs.

But the primary thing Pinker is out to defend in his Blank Slate is the attitude towards the resurgence of the  human sciences of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology a
resurgence that began with the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology the New Synthesis in 1975. Academics, most notably the late Stephen Jay Gould were particularly concerned with any attempts to explain human nature in terms of evolution, both because it appeared to justify an oppressive status quo and because of the association of these ideas with both past US racism, and the genocidal nature of the Nazi regime, an argument Gould and others made in their 1975 essay, Against Sociobiology.  

This overreaction to Wilson is understandable given the historical context- it was, after all, only 30 years since the defeat of the Nazis, and less than that from the victories of both the Civil and the Woman’s’ Rights Movement. Again, time seems to have ironed out these differences and sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have joined the rank of mundane social sciences- though in some sense the dystopian anxieties of Gould and others regarding these fields might ultimately prove to have some basis.

Pinker, in some ways correctly, associates utopia with the idea of the human mind and character as a blank slate, and sets out in his work of the same title to disprove that view of human nature. Pinker divides the intellectual world into two camps- those with what he calls a “Tragic Vision” which is conservative and sees human nature as largely unchangeable and those with a “Utopian Vision” who see human nature as a “blank slate” upon which what humans are can be redefined. He himself thinks that science backs up the Tragic Vision, and therefore sides with it, writing:

“My own view is that the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook that until recently dominated large segments of intellectual life.” (BS 294)
The problem here is on the one hand the seeming incongruence with the argument Pinker lays out in his Better Angels, that human society had progressed away from violence and discrimination in the modern era;  far too short for any evolutionary changes to human beings to have truly taken place, and in seeming contradiction to every existent human society that had come before. Indeed, what Pinker sees as the false science based on the idea of the mind as a blank slate may have been wrong, but, nevertheless, was an an assumption behind many of the factors Pinker credits with leading to our current era of non-violence including universal education, non-coercive methods of child rearing, equal rights for women etc.The “new human sciences” might tell us what human nature is, but they can’t really define what human societies can or should be like. Much of the utopian tradition might be seen as both speculative and small scale experiments to explore how far the gap between what human beings are, and what they wish to be, can be extended outward. And in part we have that tradition to thank in breaking the bonds of the Tragic Vision of human nature and society and leading us to the much better society we have today, that Pinker has drawn our attention to.

Still, if Pinker’s Better Angels can be read from this utopian standpoint it be approached from a dystopian viewpoint as well. My subject next time….