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What if a technology requires a perfect government?

by MillMan Wed Jul 11th, 2007 at 04:00:25 AM EST

A comment by DeAnander got me thinking about the evolutionary processes that we cannot escape, along with their implications.

if a technology requires near-perfect government (honest, incorruptible, technologically adept, secure, with continuity, immune to crony capitalism and nepotism, transparent, genuinely servants of the people) in order to prevent its becoming lethal and sublethal for large numbers of citizens, is it a sensible option?  especially when the lethality of the technology has a run-time that exceeds the tenure in power of any government on Earth, ever?

"You are a young race and lay great stock by your own cleverness," Swarm said. "As usual, you fail to see that intelligence is not a survival trait."

- Bruce Sterling, Swarm


From this and related social organization issues stems my fatalism. "Survival of the fittest" is played out according to which person/group/species has the best plan to survive the next microsecond, not the next million years. There is no balance there - there can't be. Not balance in the sense I'd like to think of it, anyway. It's why technologies such as nuclear weapons and other forms of what appear to be complete insanity confer very real and necessary survival benefits. The problem is that these benefits are static over time - they only guarantee near-term survival, and these same technologies decrease, at an unlimited rate over time, what we would consider to be social and cultural robustness. Basically, as technology increases in complexity, any metric for stability decreases. That's the road humans have been traveling for millenia, and there is no getting off this dangerous train if you want to survive. Survive that next microsecond, anyway.

This is all nothing more than the same game species have been playing against themselves and other species since the time that some molecules happened to start copying themselves. The world without humans looks like a very balanced place to a lot of people, but it's not - it's a stalemated war between species, or put another way, a war moving a number of orders of magnitude slower than the "war" that humans are conducting against themselves and the planet.

Peter Watts (in the footnotes of his fantastic sci-fi novel Blindsight) inadvertently points out the implications of this intractable instability from a slightly different angle (emphasis mine):

While a number of people have pointed out the various costs and drawbacks of sentience, few if any have taken the next step and wondered out loud if the whole damn thing isn't more trouble than it's worth. Of course it is, people assume; otherwise natural selection would have weeded it out long ago.

On the other hand, the dodos and the Steller sea cows could have used exactly the same argument to prove their own superiority, a thousand years ago: if we're so unfit, why haven't we gone extinct? Why? Because natural selection takes time, and luck plays a role. The biggest boys on the block at any given time aren't necessarily the fittest, or the most efficient, and the game isn't over. The game is never over; there's no finish line this side of heat death. And so, neither can there be any winners. There are only those who haven't yet lost.

Tainter, describes the same evolutionary process operating from the level of the intra-species competition that our toolmaking race engages in at the end of "The Collapse of Complex Societies" (right as he tries to deny the implications, and again emphasis added by me):

Peer polity systems tend to evolve toward greater complexity in a lockstep fashion as, driven by competition, each partner imitates new organizational, technological, and military features developed by its competitor(s). The marginal return on such developments declines, as each new military breakthrough is met by some counter-measure, and so brings no increased advantage or security on a lasting basis. A society trapped in a competitive peer polity system must invest more and more for no increased return, and is thereby economically weakened. And yet the option of withdrawal or collapse does not exist. So it is that collapse (from declining marginal returns) is not in the immediate future for any contemporary nation [maybe he should have defined 'immediate' - MM]. This is not, however, due so much to anything we have accomplished as it is to the competitive spiral in which we have allowed ourselves to become trapped.

Here is the reason why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be equivalent to, and as foolhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option. Peer polity competition drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological.

This is why, as a practical matter, medium term policy planning should include, for example, building nuclear power plants well above sea level. It's why China won't voluntarily decrease fossil fuel use when they know the implications. It's why we don't stop fishing the oceans even when we know that all the world's fisheries will be gone in fifty years. It's the tragedy of the commons played out on on a global scale. Maybe we should start calling it the tragedy of the earth.

The UN and EU are the most advanced institutions we have for creating laws and social contracts at the global level, but they aren't powerful enough to create social contracts or enforce laws that limit human and economic growth to zero and to ensure that violence costs more than peace. More critically, these institutions promote the opposite of these goals. Both of these issues would have had to be taken care of before or as globalization became reality as well as before military technology was fully capable of destroying modern civilization in order to prevent what is most likely coming.

None of this bothers me much. I'm ok with the human race going extinct tomorrow or in a million years - no one can give me a compelling reason why we need to be here, or even that our overall existence is good from a conscious perspective as I think sentience is an extremely heavy burden. Also, from a personal perspective, I've been able to carve out an overall happy existence in this small slice of time I'm alive. I don't get to complain, just observe, and perhaps provide a tiny push against the encroaching dark clouds.

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Until now I've refrained from submitting a story on this "inescapable doom" topic when people like Jerome actually give a shit and work towards something better. Nonetheless, on occasion I need to get it out of my system.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Wed Jul 11th, 2007 at 04:02:13 AM EST
My life oscillates between pessimistic optimist to optimistic pessimist. Some say realist.

The scenarios for doom are there and, sadly, are far too real and plausible.  

"Governments" tend to be very good at 'muddling through', seeking a lowest common denominator.

The question, at the core, is whether we can 'muddle through' the challenges of the coming decades to generate a meaningfully, decent, sustainable life for humanity (and, well, enough other species).

To be blunt, as with Jerome, looking in the eyes of one's young children does not allow a blase throwing up of the hands to consider extinction within a generation as an acceptable alternative ... a 1000 generations can be intellectually considered, a generation for utter collapse is terrifyingly painful to consider. (Thus, as with Jerome, efforts re Global Warming, Peak Oil, Water challenges.)

Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart. NOW!!!

by a siegel (siegeadATgmailIGNORETHISdotPLEASEcom) on Wed Jul 11th, 2007 at 06:59:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah ... post above failed to state:  very interesting. Learned and gained valuable material from this discussion. Made me think.  Thank you.

Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart. NOW!!!
by a siegel (siegeadATgmailIGNORETHISdotPLEASEcom) on Wed Jul 11th, 2007 at 07:00:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
'Why can we not accept that the purpose of human life is simply to see?' - John Gray, from memory, in 'Straw Dogs'; a flawed book in some ways, full of right-wing conventional wisdom BS, but otherwise very good.

Extinction for the human race? I think it is very probable (not so much as I used to though ... my pessimism is mellowing. Or increasing? See below). If I thought that socialism and the prospect of overcoming the miserable divisions of class society was achievable, I would grieve over the prospect. On those days that I think it will never happen, I take great solace from the idea that one day there will be no more people. Seriously. If the whole thing is just going to go on as it is now, it's better that it ends as soon as possible.

Justice or death. If we can't make the right choices, our resident deus ex machina Mother Nature will see us right.

by wing26 on Wed Jul 11th, 2007 at 09:10:44 AM EST
"Survival of the fittest" is played out according to which person/group/species has the best plan to survive the next microsecond, not the next million years.

I think that there exist many survival patterns, not only "survival of fittest". They are employed in the Nature in various and variable proportions. Short term selfishness is not a universal answer to all survival problems. To survive for thousands of generalizations, you need to survive consequences of short-term optimal survival strategies (by your kind and other kinds) as well.

I think the greatest failure of human intelligence is the "recognition" of aggression and greed as undeniable drivers of any living. The world worked all fine without Chigaco economists and modern neocon planners. In the fast changing world, the assumption "It has always been like this" becomnes dangerous. If greed is such a perfect builder of well being, why the world is getting more greedy now? What was it "thinking" before?!

Yeah, you need to deal with the destructive drivers, but:

  1. more aggression and greed is not the only answer (though other answers are not easy);
  2. more aggression and greed causes more frequent and severe crisises.
We have to learn to deal with the greed cycles of ourselves. At the monent, there is just no adequate opposition to the greedy and "be fittest" memes.

Lucky are those "selfish" genes: they do not have to perceive and evaluate how really selfish they are. They can only be so much selfish most of the time as to perform their function as well as they did in thousands of generations before - discrete short-range functionality improvements within a finite alphabet are limited. Even the predator/prey "arm races" soon reach a stable equilibrium where Natural Selection does nothing new but rejects (with certain probabilities) less fit deviations, seen again many times over. The tiny fitness advantages ("chances of survival") may build over some time, and even escalate sometimes, but that does not mean that the "sleepy" genes or agents will be driven out - before long they might be crucial winners or the only survivors of "sudden" (but not unseen in Nature) predicaments.

Greed and bully are beaten by prudent survival patterns many times over... until a new folly group or species appears, of course. Then isolate the foolish again, let them collapse, feest on them... It's not all "stalemated war between species" - most species knew benefits of greed some times, but tasted those "tragedy of common" effects as well. The short-term selfish drive is almost ever persistent, but it is not so vigorous and uncontrolled as we are told to see. Slow declines can be overcome if only collapses of "oppressors" are regurlarly ensured.

The civilization just did not learn yet any other survival pattern but stupid aggression and greed.

We may not avoid this time a collapse with a 8 billion global population and the technology chaos we have. But at the next cycle, the Earth may harbour a human population of 20 billion, with vastly more complex technology yet better functioning environment, and still lazily growing. I don't think technology management is the problem that causes collapses. (We had isolated collapses with much more primitive technologies.) The problem is ethics management, so to speak.

by das monde on Wed Jul 11th, 2007 at 10:54:42 AM EST
I am reminded of a lecture on rainforests were the lecturer pointed out that these systems are way old (equator - no iceages) and actually creates part of their climate. The rainforests causes rain, not the other way around. And there is so many niches where species has found a resonably stable existence. It can contain so much life because the system is so complex and rich.

But then modern industrialised humans come along and chop it down to have acres for beef-cows or sugar to drives cars on. Next time the rainforest has to be more hostile to humans...

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Wed Jul 18th, 2007 at 01:17:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ah but we would not exist as these theoretically individual, competitive, differentiated beings (with sentience no less, not that that's so unique to us) if we were not at the same time symbiotic colonies of organisms.  this gets us back to an unexplored topic, the great divide between the symbiologists and the crude Darwinians (and that debate was heavily coloured and weighted by its taking place during the glory days of kleptocracy and the bootstrap of industrialism).

the cultures that have lived longest have managed to conceptualise their life as a symbiosis with their biotic infrastructure, not a cancerous infinite-growth paradigm or some (related) fantasy of somehow transcending biotic reality, being "above" it or dominating it utterly.  we're sitting around talking about "inevitable doom" as if it were normal for human beings to create a culture that burns out in 250 years or less, when we have excellent records of cultures that persisted for 10,000 years or more.  hell, even Rome took longer to fall than the US has existed as a nation-state.

as Wendell asked, "What Are People For?" -- we need to start answering that question better than we have so far.  I don't buy the inevitability argument any more than I buy Marxian notions of the ineluctable workings of History :-)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jul 11th, 2007 at 01:17:38 PM EST
the cultures that have lived longest have managed to conceptualise their life as a symbiosis with their biotic infrastructure, not a cancerous infinite-growth paradigm or some (related) fantasy of somehow transcending biotic reality, being "above" it or dominating it utterly.

That the latter can (and did, and does) dispatch the former without issue is part of the point I was making in writing this short essay. There is no shortage of answers to the question of how to live in balance on this planet, but for any of them to work, superior violence skills (that can be applied internally and externally) will have to be a permanent component of a "new way" in order to prevent being run over once again by challengers. Being able to balance those dual (and completely opposite) tasks takes a level of dedication and discipline on a planetary level that doesn't yet exist. Such a state of being may be possible, I just don't see it occurring before we're forced through a very chaotic period of contraction during which the current infinite growth paradigm also dies by (non-human) force.

we're sitting around talking about "inevitable doom" as if it were normal for human beings to create a culture that burns out in 250 years or less, when we have excellent records of cultures that persisted for 10,000 years or more.

I'm not sure what normal has to do with it - it succeeded because it defeated all other challengers. Whether such a way of being is the result of a social construction or biological dictate doesn't matter, because violence works. Again, here is my point stated another way: violence will ALWAYS score a win in the long run unless everyone agrees to not use it. There are ways to reduce violence, sure, but the concept of eliminating it seems as myth bound as one of the ideas I pumped with as a child - that sin can be eliminated by everyone giving their heart to jesus. To me, sin and violence are equivalent - they are chaos, and life (order) is a continual fight against the encroaching chaos. Chaos is the default state of the universe, not something you just throw out in the trash.

hell, even Rome took longer to fall than the US has existed as a nation-state.

We command far more energy than they did, rise and fall times can be greatly accelerated as a consequence.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Fri Jul 13th, 2007 at 12:11:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think a couple people touched on this, but there is a benefit to "sentience". Theoretically, some smart individuals can realize this kind of stuff, influence human societies and "someday" we will have a culture that encourages long-term, sustainable thinking -- from childhood. The brain is pretty malleable and many "instinctual" reactions that have bad consequences can be weakened. In other words, someday we might have a "star trek" future with no (well, minimal) poverty, pollution and so forth. But the abyss will always be there where we (as a collective) could fall back into the "bad", long-term destructive behaviors.

Or maybe I'm just trying to counter your pessimism with unsupportable optimism. :)

by R343L (reverse qw/ten.cinos@l343r/) on Wed Jul 11th, 2007 at 10:20:06 PM EST
When you start to think of Democracy, Economics, Communism etc. as technologies, the answer is pretty clear IMHO: you need to develop a new "government technology". The EU and the UN could be the beginning of an new form of political organisations (the technology of "supra-nationalism") which then evolves into something new again. It's not like the applicable theories "soft sciences" produces are that much different from the ones produced by "hard sciences".

"If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles." Sun Tzu
by Turambar (sersguenda at hotmail com) on Thu Jul 12th, 2007 at 05:21:30 AM EST
The EU and UN as currently constituted are part of the problem, not the solution IMHO.

Nothing top down is going to work, I suspect.

"Infra-nationalism" maybe: networked and definitely post - Nation State.

"Organisations" are not needed: frameworks within which we may "self-organise" are what is now possible, and lead to the possibility of a State which is not distinct from its citizens.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Thu Jul 12th, 2007 at 04:16:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Nothing top down is going to work, I suspect.

you-n-me both.  the culture of domination is the problem.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Jul 12th, 2007 at 08:19:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If you're thinking in the very long term - maybe. It's an optimistic outlook, but certainly possible. However, I think supra-nationalism will arrive first.

"At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality." Ché

"If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles." Sun Tzu

by Turambar (sersguenda at hotmail com) on Fri Jul 13th, 2007 at 01:15:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A "new 'government technology'" would surely involve innovations in applying new information technologies to governance. I would like to see far more innovative thought and discussion regarding how this might work and what systems we should aim to create. Knowledge is power, and systems that create different patterns of knowledge help create different patterns of power.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Sun Jul 15th, 2007 at 01:14:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
therapeutic, isn't it, to lay bare one's fatalism in public?

sentience as burden....i see it as relative to responsibility, in that we can choose to remain dumb, rejecting mental effort, eschewing challenge, and slip-slide along in a sort of falsely merry mediocrity, not asking ourselves hard questions, because we sense that the answers may cause us to face the consequences of our actions without the comforting embrace of oh-so-cozy denial we have to wrap ourselves in, in order to stave off...

the breakdown of the very premises we've built our houses of cards on...

or...

perhaps you can find joy through appropriate responsibility, and most importantly perhaps, by listening to yourself, as others hear you, but also to the quietest voice, the one that whispers deep in the nights' silences, when all the others have faded away.

and if that listening makes you take a road where your actions are more-of-a-piece with your beliefs, then there's a humble joy in that, being part of some positive change, starting small, and then scaling up to test the principles at higher levels.

gradually learning to believe your own senses, to reclaim them from bondage, (no, not that kind!), trusting your intuition in matters of small consequence, then upping the ante till whatever model you're developing reveals its flaws, and you can hone and tweak it some more, before signing up for the next chunk.

baby steps, frequently backwards when necessary, keep you on firmer ground than seven-league strides off the abyss.

into the breach, my friends!

little things can have huge effects, cumulatively, and trying to affect reality more than you have the experience to dare to, is hubris...

if there's anything millenial we coulf afford to learn from our transitory little blip inhabiting this planetary crust, it's surely to distrust grandiosity, the root precursor of all evil...

to nip that in the bud, children need to see plenty of unaffected, pleasureable, positive communication between adults in a relatively stable environment.

not surprising there are so many damaged souls, then, huh?

we start pumping kids' egos, to compensate for our own sense of failure, so early. it's primal, and i've seen it in many cultures foreign to home, wherever that was!

i think it starts with finding something transcendent in the tawdry, and working that groove, till it spreads.

if you keep referring to source as you know it, it helps keep on course, though with time that original philosophy might mutate, the fact that you took the time and trouble to establish that lifeline, somehow gives you backbone to carry more weight, and if you keep rejecting the seductions of people who enjoy to see if they can knock you off purpose, nothing personal, just to see if they can, you can learn a lot about patterns of human psychology, the dynamics of cause and effect...

it keeps coming back to the miracle of birth...how we come in so fresh and clean and beautiful, vessels that are then filled with local versions of the zeitgeist, seeds of love and hate that sprout 30 years later, decades-old strife that has bloodily riven tribes for vendetta'd generations patiently intoned to the sleeping child, old superstitions chanted in 'good faith', before the family meal, to be like talismans, st. christopher medallions to help across the river.

identity recapitulating, stuck in a time-eddy.

late night rambling, sorry, beside the builders are showing up in 5 hours.

ET gets more addictive, but the good news is that...ET gets better, so forswearing it for chores gives more of a virtuous glow.

must. sleeeep.

what hast thou wrought here jerome?

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Jul 12th, 2007 at 09:32:37 PM EST
ET gets more addictive, but the good news is that...ET gets better, so forswearing it for chores gives more of a virtuous glow.

must. sleeeep.

what hast thou wrought here jerome?

 

:D

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Thu Jul 12th, 2007 at 11:03:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Almost decided to leave ET after Jerome's harsh words about smokers...but I'm back...so, is ET more, or equally, addictive to smoking...?  

And what about the long term effects...?  Hmmm

by Solveig (link2ageataol.com) on Fri Jul 13th, 2007 at 06:42:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Never leave ET over what is said on an open thread.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jul 13th, 2007 at 07:07:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes -- hurrah for ET! My reading/posting ratio fluctuates under various pressures, but ET is indeed addictive. It's also a gateway drug: Last week, ET got me hooked on reading Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Sun Jul 15th, 2007 at 05:22:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The US and the Soviet Union each had the ability to nuke each other into oblivion seven times.
But they didn't.
We are still here.
In fact by comparison the destructive capacity of the cold war may even pale in comparison to the destructive capacity of not only nuclear but now genetic engineering, nanotech and any number of emerging technologies.
Yes, I think the humans are not ready for any of it.
by Lasthorseman on Sat Jul 14th, 2007 at 10:17:27 PM EST


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