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Eusocial insect colonies achieve an impressive degree of social differentiation and specialization without the kind of intelligence found among mammals. Some scientists call this collective behavior social intelligence.

Eusocial insect colonies achieve an impressive degree of social differentiation and specialization without the kind of intelligence found among mammals. Some scientists call this collective behavior ‘social intelligence.’

In a couple of blog posts, Is encephalization the great filter? and Of Filters, Great and Small, I argued that encephalization is the great filter — clearly implying that this is a single filter that is more significant than another filters, and that encephalization is the great filter. The “great filter” is an idea due to Robin Hanson, according to whom, “The Great Silence implies that one or more of these steps [to visible colonization] are very improbable; there is a ‘Great Filter’ along the path between simple dead stuff and explosive life. The vast vast majority of stuff that starts along this path never makes it. In fact, so far nothing among the billion trillion stars in our whole past universe has made it all the way along this path.”

In the second of the two blog posts noted above, Of Filters, Great and Small, I considered the different possible structures that filters might take, and this is a more nuanced view of the great filter that departs from the idea that a single element of the great filter is uniquely responsible for the great silence and the Fermi paradox. The journey to higher forms of emergent complexity seems to be robust, and therefore likely to have been repeated elsewhere, but it is also a long journey of later emergent complexities multiply supervening upon earlier emergent complexities. This structure of emergent complexities over time is itself a structure more complex than any one of the emergent complexities taken in isolation. In so far as we understand the great filter in this content, we understand a more nuanced view than the idea of one step among many steps along this journey being the unique hurdle to the aggressive expansion of life in the universe, and therefore its visible traces discoverable through cosmology.

Even given this more nuanced view of the great filter, later forms of emergent complexity will be less common than earlier forms, and within the structure of the great filter we can identify particular emergent complexities where the iterated structure falters. If we place this stalling point at exponential encephalization, we might find a universe filled with complex life, but with few or no other intelligent species capable of building a civilization. This is the sense in which I wish my claim that encephalization is the great filter to be understood.

Recently I have had reason to revisit the idea that encephalization is the great filter, and this is primarily due to having read The Social Conquest of Earth by E. O. Wilson, which emphasizes the role of eusociality in the construction of complex societies. I think that Wilson is right about this. Wilson notes that eusociality has emerged on Earth only a handful of times, making it a rare form of emergent complexity: “Eusociality arose in ants once, three times independently in wasps, and at least four times — probably more, but it is hard to tell — in bees.” (p. 136) We can compare this rarity of eusociality as an adaptation to the rarity of intelligence as an adaptation.

The insects that have achieved robust eusociality — perhaps I should say arthropods — are very different from mammals. We must go back more than 500 million years to the split between protostomes and dueterostomes to find the last common ancestor of the two. With the arthropods we share being bilaterally symmetrical, but the split between us — hence the split between our brains and central nervous systems (CNS) — is about as old as the split between mammals and molluscs: chordata, mollusca, and arthropoda are distinct phyla. On the one hand, we know from a recent fossil find something about the CNS of the earliest chordates, which we thus have in common with most other terrestrial animalia (cf. How early a mind?); on the other hand, we also know that neural structures have evolved independently on Earth (cf. The ctenophore genome and the evolutionary origins of neural systems), so that we might speak of neurodiversity among terrestrial animalia. Different brains, when sufficiently complex, are substrates for different forms of emergent consciousness, i.e., different forms of mind.

It is not only dramatically different kinds of minds that might give rise to dramatically different forms of encephalization, and thus intelligence and civilization. Part of the differentness of eusocial insects is their reproductive specialization, which goes along with a genetic structure of a colony in which the superorganism of the colony benefits overall from a majority of individuals not reproducing. This is also dramatically different from human societies. It has been objected to Wilson’s thesis of the eusociality of human beings that human beings are not eusocial, but rather prosocial, and that human cooperative societies cannot be compared to insect cooperative societies because there is no parallel to reproductive specialization among human beings. This, I think, is an unnecessarily narrow conception of eusociality. All we have to do is to recognize that eusociality can take multiple forms (as minds and intelligence can take multiple forms, supervening upon multiple distinct neural structures), some of which involve reproductive specialization and some of which do not, in order for us to recognize human cooperative societies as eusocial.

The most developed brain of the molluscs is that of the octopus, a solitary hunter. Octopi have been hunting in the depths of the sea for hundreds of millions of years, and, apparently, they have never experienced competition on the basis of intelligence, and, perhaps because of this, have never experienced an encephalization event. (Recently in How early a mind? I quoted E. O. Wilson to the effect that, “A Homo sapiens level of intelligence can arise only on land, whether here on Earth or on any other conceivable planet.” ) So octopi have a respectable level of intelligence, but are far from being eusocial. The eusocial insects have a much less powerful brain than octopi or mammals, but they did make the breakthrough to eusociality. Only human beings made the breakthrough to both eusociality and high individual intelligence.

Since reading Wilson on the eusociality of human societies, I can come to think that human civilization is what happens when eusociality coincides with intelligence. Termite mounds and bee hives are what happens when eusociality coincides with insect-level intelligence. And this observation of the interaction of eusociality and intelligence immediately suggests two possible counterfactuals to human civilzation, which I will sketch below. Understand that, in this context, when I use the term “human civilization” I am using this is in its most generic signification, covering all the many different human civilizations that have existed, i.e., the class of all human civilizations (which is the class of all known civilizations constructed by a biological being both eusocial and intelligent).

I noted above that we can employ a conception of eusociality less narrow than that restricted to eusocial insects with reproductive specialization. Similarly, the other element in civilization — intelligence — ought also to be construed broadly. Many different kinds of intelligence interacting with many different kinds of eusociality suggest many different possibilities for civilization distinct from the class of human civilizations. At the present time I am not going to consider kinds of eusociality and intelligence as much as degrees of eusociality and intelligence, and I will assume that the insect transition to reproductive specialization represents eusociality taken to a higher degree than eusociality has progressed in human beings. Similarly, I will assume that human intelligence represents a higher degree of intelligence than now-extinct branches of the genus homo, i.e., our ancestors with lower degrees of encephalization and lower intelligence.

From these assumptions about degrees of eusociality and intelligence, two counterfactual classes of civilization are suggested:

High Eusociality/Low Intelligence

A species might be less intelligent than human beings (i.e., possess a lower degree of encephalization) but more eusocial than human beings, and be able to build a civilization.

Low Eusociality/High Intelligence

A species might be more intelligent than human beings (i.e., possessing a higher degree of encephalization, or a thicker neocortex) but less eusocial than human beings, and be able to build a civilization.

This formulation has the virtue of existing human civilization embodying the principle of mediocrity: our eusociality and intelligence are balanced; we are not as eusocial or as individualistic as we might have been, and we are not as intelligence or as unintelligent as we might have been. We are in the “Goldilocks zone” of coinciding eusociality and intelligence, and this human “sweet spot” for civilization may account for the fact that civilization emerged independently in widely separated geographical regions, not as a result of idea diffusion, but rather as a consequence of independent invention.

In the High Eusociality/Low Intelligence class of civilizations, we would see somewhat individually intelligent beings capable of a high degree of cooperation through eusociality forming socieites (superorganisms) quite early in their history. We can see the degree to which bees and ants and termites can develop societies based on eusociality and an almost negligible individual intelligence; with a degree of eusociality approaching this, but in a species endowed with more cognitive capacity, cities might be built that look like something between a human city and a termite mound, and this might happen spontaneously. If this had happened with an earlier human ancestor — a counterfactual ancestor with greater eusociality than any actual human ancestor — it could have preempted the emergence of human civilization by occurring millions of years earlier.

In the Low Eusociality/High Intelligence class of civilizations, civilization may have come about at the level of scattered bands of hunter-gatherers, or, at least, human beings in small groups may have been able to develop science and technology without large social institutions such as governments, universities, and corporations, which discipline unruly human beings and make it possible for them to work cooperatively together. One can imagine that a more intelligent (counterfactual) species of the genus homo might have been sufficiently intelligent to pursue science at a much earlier period of its history, and one can imagine members of such a species coming together for scientific purposes much as our ancestors came together at Göbekli Tepe (which I first wrote about in The Birth of Agriculture from the Spirit of Religion) possibly for religious rituals, even before they gathered in settlements for agriculture.

Both counterfactual scenarios I have described above could have resulted in civilization on Earth emerging tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years earlier than it did in fact emerge. I suppose it would be equally possible to formulate counterfactuals in which different classes of civilization emerged much later.

Each of the three classes of civilizations considered here — moderate eusociality/moderate intelligence, high eusociality/low intelligence, and low eusociality/high intelligence — have distinct advantages and disadvantages, in terms of the viability of the civilization that results. However, cognitive capability begins to play a much greater role in civilization after industrialization when civilization becomes technological and scientific. If a given civilization can survive to make the breakthrough to science-driven technology, all other things being equal, the species with the greatest intelligence will have the greatest advantage in deploying science to further the ends of that species. I suspect that a high eusociality/low intelligence civilization would be stagnant, and possibly so stagnant that the breakthrough to industrialization never occurs. I also suspect that human beings were just smart enough to make that breakthrough, as indicated by the single point of origin of the industrial revolution. Short of that threshold, any civilization remains cosmologically invisible, exclusively bound to its homeworld, and incapable of long-term existential risk mitigation. This scenario is consistent with the great silence, and may constitute another approach to the Fermi paradox.

The research questions that follow from these considerations include: Are there intrinsic limits to eusociality among beings whose biology is not consistent with reproductive specialization? Are there intrinsic limits to intelligence for biological beings of known biochemistry? How do eusociality and intelligence interact biologically and ecologically? Does either constitute a check upon the other?

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Cooperation among human beings has its limits -- as illustrated by the story of the Tower of Babel -- and one limit to cooperation is our level of eusociality.  With a higher or lower level of eusociality, civilization would have had a different structure.

Cooperation among human beings has its limits — as illustrated by the story of the Tower of Babel — and one limit to cooperation is our level of eusociality. With a higher or lower level of eusociality, civilization would have had a different structure.

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Power to the people!

27 February 2012

Monday


Like the Roman god Janus, who had two faces — one looking toward the past, the other looking to the future — all technology has at least two faces, and probably more. When a technology is new one often sees the technology presented either as a threat or a promise, when it is of course both. Internet technology is like this. Both themes are to be found in the popular media: the internet is dangerous and destabilizing (and possibly corrupts the youth, since it provides us with pornography in the privacy of our homes), and the internet is the stupor mundi that will usher in the millennium.

The many faces of any technological development is an important lesson for futurism, since most futurism takes the form of extrapolating a strategic trend developing in the present beyond its present dimensions. In so far as one extrapolates only a single face of a technology, the result is an extremely lop-sided prediction that doesn’t take into account the other faces of the same technology, which often have countervailing influences. This makes for interesting fiction but poor strategy. Strategic thinking needs greater balance. One way to achieve greater balance is through greater knowledge — deeper and wider knowledge.

The internet has vast resources of information for us, but it is a step beyond this information to acquire knowledge. Nevertheless, acquiring information is the first step. Almost everyone uses the internet today; not everyone uses it to inform themselves. Most people are content to use Facebook and to download music and pornography. If, however, you want to inform yourself, you are in a better position to do so now than ever before in human history.

Recently I have been thinking (and occasionally writing) about the extent to which the internet has vastly expanded open-source intelligence to the point that an individual who is suitably motivated can be almost as well-informed as someone with proprietary access to government intelligence. I was once again encouraged to reflect on this by a website that has been brought to my attention, Open Source GEOINT (OSGEOINT). The detail and breadth of information here is astonishing, and I was quite pleased to see that the site links to mine.

Open Source GEOINT (OSGEOINT) represents open source imagery intelligence or IMINT, made available through ever more widely available and accessible satellite and imaging technology. Government with satellites, of course, have much better resolution, and the publicly available imagery intelligence will always lag behind the best government intelligence, but there comes a point where this lag time means little — and it means less and less over time as the publicly available signals intelligence improves.

Genuine signals intelligence (SIGINT) — including electronic intelligence or ELINT and intercepting communications or COMINT — may not be on the open source horizon for some time, but there is a species of signals intelligence (albeit of a tawdry kind) in the newspapers that have tapped in the cell phone calls of celebrities. With this less-than-edifying example in mind, it would not be going too far out on a limb to predict that enterprising hackers may yet provide SIGINT by tapping into the communications of government officials. The Stratfor Hack and the release on Wikileaks of the stolen e-mails represent a kind of ELINT or COMINT.

The internet also provides us with human intelligence (HUMINT). In relation to the Wikileaks diplomatic cables, I mentioned in Once More, With Feeling… that once I had read some of the diplomatic cables that I realized there are many blogs and websites that provide equally incisive insight into the life of nation-states around the globe.

The internet can also provide us with analysis. That’s what I try to do, and there are many others who are also engaged in the task of analysis, though analysis tends to be more ideologically skewed than human intelligence, and far more ideologically skewed than signals or imagery intelligence. There is a simple test that, while not infallible, can be very helpful when it comes to analysis: if the writer is absolutely certain, voices no doubts or hesitation, and never acknowledges an error, then you can be pretty sure that that writer is self-deluded and that their analysis is more akin to ideological venting than to trying to get at the truth.

It is tempting to make the distinction that free content is worth what it cost — namely, nothing — whereas paid content is worth something and that is why people are willing to pay for it. This is not always wrong, but it is also not the whole story. It is also problematic in a context in which business models are being forced to adapt rapidly to technological changes. Many established institutions are going bankrupt because they cannot make money under the changed conditions imposed by the internet.

In the past couple of days I learned the term “paywall,” which refers to the distinction between free and paid content. Paid content is behind a “paywall,” while free content is available to all without restriction. Even sites primarily organized for paid content (like, for example, Strategic Forecasting) will offer some of their content for free. Since I stopped being a Stratfor subscriber I continue to receive their weekly free emails, and for the moment, in the wake of The Stratfor Hack, the site is offering all its intelligence for free. (This will end soon; enjoy it while it lasts.)

Despite website paywalls, a truly prodigious volume of open source intelligence is available. In order to access this information you must have an internet connection and you must either live in the country that does not restrict internet access or learn how to use a virtual private network (VPN). These are essentially economic qualifications. In most industrialized and semi-industrialized nation-states today (as well as urban area in non-industrialized regions) a computer and an internet connection is within reach of most working class individuals. A VPN would cost a little extra, and so would raise the economic bar a little, but not disastrously so.

After you have access to the information, you have to filter, sort, and judge that information. This is really the difficult part — the clincher of the whole thing. In a post I wrote some time ago I characterized objectivity as a talent. This is an unusual assertion, and although I still believe this to be the case, I should add the important qualification that, while objectivity is a talent, even those who do not possess much in the way of intuitive objectivity can cultivate objectivity through effort and application. The reader should be aware that I am fully aware that my focus on objectivity is not in fashion at the moment — there are many philosophers today who deny the very possibility of objectivity. I am unconcerned by this.

Of course, objectivity is only one of a range of intellectual virtues that one must cultivate in order to tease a coherent picture of the world from the vast amount of information available. Knowledge of the world is not a gift; you have to work for it. And the harder you work to inform yourself, the better informed you will be. Unless, of course, you take a dead end.

This is one problem (among many) with conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are dead ends with vast amounts of information associated, so if you can’t recognize a conspiracy theory you can waste a lot of time over it. This is where having the right instincts and intuitions is crucial. If you have a natural feeling for what is bogus and what is valid, you can save yourself a lot of time and only focus on the material that is worth your time. If you can’t recognize a waste of time for what it is, this comes with an opportunity cost: the time wasted could have been better spent on valid intelligence.

I have written about conspiracy theories previously (cf. A Reflection on Conspiracy Theories), but it is always important to point out the dangers of unwarranted speculation. If you follow a dead end, you not only waste your time, and possibly also the time of others, you also reduce and perhaps nullify the efficacy of all your actions, and in so doing you remove yourself from any possibility of effecting change or making a difference. The loonier your theory, the more the world ignores you, and rightly so. People want to accomplish practical ends, and they can only do so by practical means. Among these means are the ideas and theories used to make sense of the world. If the theories themselves don’t make sense, then they will never make sense of the world.

The batshit crazy conspiracy theories are easy to identify (if someone is talking about Illuminati or reptilians, that’s a pretty good sign that they’re batshit crazy); the more subtle conspiracy theories are less easy to identify, but they still have characteristics that can be recognized. I have recently come to realize that one of the distinctive things about conspiracy theories is really the lack of a theory. It is a typical technique of the conspiracy theory to selectively present a number of facts or events that prima facie seem to suggest a certain conclusion. The conspiracy theorist then leaves it to you to draw the conclusion. The implication here is that the facts speak for themselves. They do not. I have emphasized in several posts that the facts do not speak for themselves. Facts only can be attributed meaning and value in context, and the more context you have, the more meaning and value you can attribute to them.

Even the more subtle forms of conspiracy theories can be more than a little kooky. Recently a reader comment on my post Spooks and Skullduggery suggested that the mysterious cargo of the Thor Liberty might touch off the next global conflict:

I’m the host of Toronto’s Conspiracy Cafe program. I have been tracking Thor Liberty since it left Finland. It fell off the radar after a rendezvous with a ship called Global Star. Global Star was on the way to India to be scrapped. It has a Russian crew. It made a rendezvous last night with Gibraltar based Fehn Sky in the Mediterranean. Fehn Star sailed from El Ferrol Spain. That’s Spain’s main naval base. They have a contract to dismantle Russian nuclear subs. Global Star is heading for the Suez Canal and perhaps the start of WWIII.

While I am always happy to receive comments, I’m not at all sure how the author got from the various doings of the Thor Liberty after leaving Finland to WWIII. This is what logicians call a non sequiter, though it is at least introduced with a “perhaps.” Perhaps, and perhaps not. Most likely the latter.

Here’s an even kookier example, though in a specifically philosophical context. Below is a reader review from the Amazon.com website for Karl Jaspers The Origin of Goal of History:

This is one of the most significant works of the twentieth century yet it is not even in print. Deep sixed from the word go. Remarkable! Even books detailing the intellectual biography of Jaspers omit mention of it. The various efforts to subject the issues to scholarly study distort the original observations. What’s going on? The reason is not hard to find. It contains the first crystallization of something current science and religion don’t want to face, the phenomenon of synchronous parallel evolution, global in scale, and operating in a fashion that flagrantly contradicts received dogmas of religious, scientific and economic history. Check out the reviewer’s World History and the Eonic Effect for a discussion of this text. Meanwhile it should be reissued and the public deserves to know the existence of this line of historical evidence going back to the nineteenth century. It makes mincemeat of Darwinian thinking. Aha! Now we know why they deep sixed the book.

There are many important scholarly works from the twentieth century that aren’t in print. Fortunately, Jaspers’ work is well known and frequently cited despite its being out of print. Even dyed-in-the-wool Darwinians like me cite the book. I happened across this review on Amazon because I was linking to the book for a post I wrote, since I not infrequently cite Jaspers (Jaspers, like Leibniz, becomes more important to me the older I get). Also, the idea of an “Axial Age” is one of the few ideas of twentieth century philosophy to be widely known outside strictly philosophical circles (like Kuhn’s “paradigm shift”).

The lesson here is simple: don’t be a kook. That should be simple enough, but I’ve gone on at some length about conspiracy theories because I have found that it is apparently rather difficult not to be kook. It seems that the self-educated are especially vulnerable to conspiracy theories, and this has brought discredit onto many autodidacts. One of the valuable functions served by formal education is that an experienced and knowledgeable individual who has been through the process of education guides those who are less experienced and less knowledgeable through difficult epistemic waters where they might otherwise become lost.

I have discussed my views on autodidacticism elsewhere, so I won’t repeat them here. Suffice it to say that the opportunities for self-education in open source intelligence present all the promise and all the dangers of any other branch of scholarship, though with the difficulty of widespread dishonesty superadded. One must read Machiavelli as a primer to all this in order to understand that it is equally important to know the difference between what men say and what men do, and important again to know why these are different and must be kept separate.

With the increasing emergence and accessibility of sophisticated open source intelligence, we are only at the beginning of a curve which may take us in unprecedented directions. In the future we might well see the construction of an entire parallel open source intelligence network, stateless, existing on the internet, and open to all who can gain access. This “parallel” intelligence network is to be understood as dissidents behind the Iron Curtain understood their efforts toward the creation of a “parallel polis”, abandoning corrupt institutions beyond hope of reform and creating parallel institutions to which the disillusioned can turn when they, too, realize that established institutions lack sufficient credibility to bring about needed social change.

The industrialized nation-state system has been as predicated upon a distinction between an elite minority and a disenfranchised majority as any feudal, aristocratic, tyrannical, or despotic government of the past — though today that disenfranchisement is a de facto disenfranchisement. One historical difference between the elite minority and the disenfranchised majority has been the possession of proprietary knowledge by the elite minority. Historical conditions may shift to the point where imperfect knowledge in disequilibrium converges on de facto equality, so that the advantage the elite minority has had through its access to proprietary knowledge is taken out of the equation. Things are still far from equal between between the two social classes, even with intelligence no longer being a decisive inequality, but they will be less unequal than before. This could have profound social consequences.

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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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