A Valedictory for 2011

31 December 2011

Saturday


It seems appropriate on this, the last day of 2011, to reflect upon the year now almost expired, even as the new year is already being celebrated in time zones in advance of my own. As a night person who is always in better spirits and more energetic very late in the day that than early in the morning, it also seems strangely appropriate that I should be near the end of the global “day,” since the date line lies west of me, out in the Pacific Ocean, and the next large landmass on the other side of the date line lies near the beginning of the global “day” — it is quite literally the Land of the Rising Sun.

It was recently reported that a couple of islands in the Pacific — Samoa and Tokelau — decided to switch to the other side of the international date line, skipping Friday altogether and advancing a day in order to align their calendars with those of their major trading partners, Australia and New Zealand. If I had been a Samoan or a Tokelauer I would have been rather irritated with the date switch, as I would have enjoyed being on the very tail end of the global day.

What is to be said of 2011? Did 2011 reveal any new truths to the world, or exhibit any coherent pattern or structure?

Just a few days ago in The Stratfor Hack I said that I had come to the realization that it is just as important to deny the existence of historical patterns that are not in fact exhibited by events as it is to bear witness to historical patterns that are in fact exhibited in events. The more I think of this, the more I think it is more important to resist the attribution of illusory and fallacious historical patterns and trends, since we as human beings are much more likely to find order where there is none that to deny apparent order where there is, in fact, order.

In Futurism without Predictions I argued for discerning patterns in history as the appropriate form of futurism, as against the attempt to make detailed predictions. This is like the difference between being a day trader in the stock market and buying stocks on the basis of research and value. In Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology I argued that the well known phenomenon of confirmation bias has a basis in our evolutionary history, since believing viscerally in what one is doing is probably a condition for optimal exertion in the struggle of life.

If we put together the critique of prediction-based futurism, the need to discern patterns in history, and the need to transcend our evolutionary predetermination to find patterns where there are none, we come to the overriding importance of not finding patterns where there are none as one of the most important intellectual exercises in the understanding of history. This strikes me as an application of Copericanism to human history: the principle of mediocrity (or the cosmological principle, if you prefer) demands that we not assume that our perspective is special. Thus to claim for any particular year, such as the year just elapsed, that it was a watershed or an historical pivot or a time a great transition is probably to delude ourselves.

And this is exactly what I see in 2011. Certainly it was a year in which much changed, but there have been at least as many historical continuities as historical discontinuities, if not more continuities. 2011 was in year in which many people suffered horrible events and terrible calamities, but it was also a year in which many of the seven billion people on the planet lived a life largely undisturbed and not greatly differentiated from the previous year. If you were to run the numbers, I suspect that you would find that those who suffered a particularly terrible fate during the year (say, for example, the victims of the combined disasters of the Sendai earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear accident) would constitute a small minority of the world’s total population. This does not mean that their suffering was insignificant, only that it did not necessarily shape world events or constitute an historical pattern.

As I see it then, 2011 was a mixed bag, and in the same spirit of historical Copernicanism, I suspect that 2012 will be a similarly mixed bag. Even as I say this I expect that numerous predictions are being made for great historical watersheds in the coming year, just as numerous retrospectives will be identifying 2011 as the the year in which the world changed entire. But one year is very much like another. Few stand out as anything especially shocking or surprising. There is nothing new under the sun.

My perspective is deflationary (in the best tradition of recent analytical philosophy) but sometimes deflationism is necessary. The alternative is to be deluded, and I prefer not to be deluded.

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H a p p y N e w Y e a r !

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The Stratfor Hack

26 December 2011

Monday


I first received an e-mail on Christmas Eve from Strategic Forecasting that their website had been hacked and information had been compromised. I did some Google searches and found several websites with brief accounts of the hack, some complete with screenshots and more detail than the e-mail I received from Stratfor. I received a longer e-mail from Stratfor on Christmas Day saying that, “We have reason to believe that your personal and credit card data could have been included in the information that was illegally obtained and disclosed.” By today, Boxing Day, the story had made it to the BBC front page, ‘Anonymous’ hackers hit US security firm Stratfor.

It has been interesting and disturbing to me to see how this story has been reported. The focus has been on large corporations and political entities who have been subscribers to Stratfor; I have not seen one account in the press that mentions individuals who have subscribed to Stratfor, and for whom it would be a bit more difficult to pound the round peg of an individual into the square hole of nefarious corporate and governmental secrecy. I can imagine that if they got a subscriber list with names like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz that we would hear something about individual subscribers, but it is very much to the point that there are no such names: they already get their intelligence through government channels.

There are information freedom activists and transparency advocates who view such hacking activities as expressions of “freedom,” saying the “information wants to be free,” and that the information will ultimately wind up in the hands most capable of managing it, whatever hands those happen to be. There is also a tendency to lump to together such hacking activities with the recent “Occupy” protests and with the activities of Wikileaks in the recent past. On the video posted by the hackers on the Stratfor website (which I watched in its entirety) there were many pictures of the “Occupy” protesters. Also, the hackers included the full text of the anarchist pamphlet widely attributed to The Invisible Committee, and sometimes known as The Coming Insurrection. As I see it, this is a conflation, and an inexcusable conflation at that.

I have written several strongly-worded posts in favor of Wikileaks (Honesty as a Strategic Shock, Robert Baer on Wikileaks, and Once more, with feeling…); I do not believe that these leaks have compromised the safety of sources in the way that some critics of Wikileaks have alleged. Certainly Wikileaks has done far less damage to US security than infighting within the US federal government that has resulted in the outing of CIA agents under non-official cover (NOC), as in the Valeria Plame incident. Also, the ham-handedness of much US State Department and intelligence gathering operations usually manages to compromise US interests quite effectively without the intervention of any other forces, including politically hostile elements.

I have written a couple posts there were more or less critical of the “Occupy” protesters (Existential Due Diligence and Missing the Point), but was unable to go into much detail because of the lack of coherency of the “Occupy” protesters. The “Occupy” protesters are the ciphers or our time, and any media outlet seems to be able to read any kind of discontent whatsoever into their activities. They are, like the players in Hamlet, the abstract and brief chronicles of our time.

On my Tumblr blog, Grand Strategy Annex, I wrote about the news story Anonymous vs. Zetas Amid Mexico’s Cartel Violence, as it seemed to me at the time rather impressive that the Anonymous activists were willing to go up against the Mexican drug cartels, which are brutal organizations that will not scruple to kill and maim those who oppose them. Also, the public statement made by Anonymous at this time made it pretty clear that they were knowingly endangering themselves by their confrontation with the Mexican cartels, warning those not up to the fight to bail before they were in too deep.

All these movements strike me as very different social phenomena. Related, certainly, as all phenomena that share this world are related, but profoundly different. Strategic Forecasting is a private business that sells information to those who will pay for it; Wikileaks gives away information from those willing and able to give it away, and does so in what they believe to be the public interest; the “Occupy” protesters are an unfocused, disorganized collection of individuals with a variety of different complaints against present socio-economic conditions, which has only been given the coherence of a “movement” by mainstream media outlets looking for a story; finally, Anonymous is a collection of similarly unfocused hackers who perhaps have a vision of information freedom and transparency, but who fail to see the difference between Wikileaks and hacking vandalism.

It has been observed many times that human beings try to make sense of their experience. Sometimes they try too hard to make sense of their experience, and in so doing see patterns and meanings where there is neither pattern nor meaning. When Percival Lowell looked at Mars through a telescope, he thought he saw canals, and on this basis constructed a fanciful and beautiful and sad story of a dying Martian civilization building canals to bring water from the Martian poles thus to irrigate their dessicated planet.

Recently in my post on Futurism without Predictions I discussed a conception of understanding history that is based upon the recognition of patterns (or, if you like, you can call them strategic trends). Now I see that it is just as important to deny patterns that have no firm basis in fact, as it is important to project and extrapolate patterns and trends that are firmly rooted in events and experience.

Previously in A Reflection on Conspiracy Theories I discussed contemporary conspiracies, which have been given a new lease on life by the internet. With the resources of the internet, any individual can seek out vast amounts of highly specific information while more or less systematically avoiding any information that conflicts with their point of view. This has led to a hothouse in which conspiracy theories have flourished to the detriment of a rational conception of the world based in objective and verifiable realities. The essence of the contemporary conspiracy theory is discerning a pattern where there is no pattern in fact. This is as invidious to clear thinking as the failure to recognize realities that face us every day.

Some people today look at Wikileaks and Occupy protests and the Arab Spring and the hacks of Anonymous and they see one enormous movement differently expressed in different parts of the world, but all the tip of the iceberg that is about to sink the damaged and leaking ships of state that perilously cross the waters of history. Well, human history is filled with millennial expectation. Perhaps this is another relic of evolutionary psychology: those who have believed that something wonderful was right around the corner may have been strengthened with the intestinal fortitude necessary to keep plugging away.

Survival is all well and good — I am all for it, especially my own personal survival — but in the world today, changed as it has been by scientific, technical, and industrial revolutions, survival demands the ability to understand the counter-intuitive and to understand the realities behind appearances. I tried to make this point recently in Can Democracy Grow Up?, where I wrote:

“One of the crucial stages on the way to intellectual maturity is an ability to understand and to master counter-intuitive ideas. Science is largely constructed of counter-intuitive ideas. Mathematics consists of many spectacularly counter-intuitive ideas that only become more fantastic as work continues on them. Despite their character as social sciences, political science and economics also involve counter-intuitive ideas.”

One form that facile intuitive ideas can take is that of hasty generalization or apparent identification of a pattern. Where this is the case, it is the counter-intuitive idea to find the exception to the generalization or to call into question a pattern that is not adequately founded in objective evidence.

We, as human beings, overcame the first real test of counter-intuitive thinking when we resisted the temptation to escalate our wars during the Cold War, and, however brutal our proxy wars became, they remained below the nuclear threshold. In other words, with the nuclear arsenals of the Cold War we possessed the power to destroy our civilization and also very probably the power to exterminate our own species. The fact that we did not do so is to our credit.

Now we have a new technological challenge to our humanity: the internet has given as a weapon of mass destruction that targets not our bodies but our minds. The question now is whether we will once again rise to the challenge and, apparently contrary to the promptings of our instincts and the arguments of instrumental reason, restrain our destructiveness so that something of value can remain for future generations.

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