The Edge annual question 2008 is 'What have you changed your mind about?' and Sean over at CV summarized some of the answers for the average blogger's short attention span (try to recall the title of this post). I find it a tough question, given that I change my mind constantly about a lot of things. I also change my mind about whether I should consider this mental flexibility (better days), immaturity (worse days), or irrelevant (most days).
Either way, this reminded me that I promised previously to answer The Edge 2006 question 'What is your most dangerous idea?' (seems I missed out on 2007?). I said then I'd write this post when I'm in a particularly cynical mood, so therefore the parental advisory banner. There's no cursing here, and no discussion of my sexual preferences, just a pessimistic world view. Since I'm all for economic writing this is a read one get two, and I'll take care of '06 and '08 together: My most dangerous idea is that mankind is running into a downward spiral of reinforced constant unhappiness, and I've changed my mind about whether this is a realistic scenario or not. Though I've changed my mind back and forth about this a couple of times currently the status is back to disaster.
The point is simple. Intelligence is no longer an evolutionary advantage if the content of thought becomes increasingly abstract and theoretical. Our societies get more and more complex, and desperately need intellectuals, scientists, and thinkers to help them find their way in a world that's getting increasingly confusing every day. Yet, our societies don't listen to these voices, politics refutes any scientific method, leaders repeat mistakes, ignore warnings, and stick to believes that are scientifically wrong. It's a problem that has been around since thousands of years, but it is a problem that can be ignored for a long time - as long as trial an error works fast enough. Unfortunately though, the tolerance for mistakes gets smaller every year, and the consequences of mistakes larger.
The saddest example is maybe the present global warming discussion. All these political problems, the fact that capitalism alone fails to protect common goods, these have been discussed already decades ago. It is quite ironic to me, reading as news what we have been taught at school. May it be about the best way to provide incentives, saving energy, or reducing garbage. The climate change and energy shortening issue has been around since at least the Club of Rome report '72. It was the time of Greenpeace, remember that? Jute statt Plastik?
The energy problems I consider the much worse part because it will hit rather suddenly, yet despite all the hot air nobody actually does something about it. The obvious way out if oil gets short is power from nuclear fission. Face it - and think about that this will be a global problem. How many nations do you want to have in this world experimenting with their first nuclear fission reactors? We have, for better or worse, a global economy, but no global political system. It's a small wonder negotiations fail as long as the global marketplace has no balance in a political decision making process. And that's not a particularly new insight either. But hey, liberalism is still en vogue, lets wait some more decades.
I've been around in the blogosphere for long enough to realize that a significant fraction of our readers will now grind their teeth and say, girl stick to physics, you don't know nothing. Another part will think, gag, she shouldn't. And that brings me to the reason why I changed my mind about whether we will be able to resolve the present problems in a timely manner.
It seems I constantly hear people who don't know nothing about political systems, but are completely convinced their own is the best, and everything else is worse. I constantly hear people who don't know nothing about economical systems but are completely convinced their own is the best, and everything else is worse. And why so? Because they've been told so since the day they were born. And apparently that mode of thinking - which every serious scientist would immediately reject - is completely appropriate when it comes to political questions, never mind that a significant part of them can be addressed scientifically as well. And here we have it again, that gap between natural and social sciences, that gap between politics and our intellectual elite. A lack of communication, paired with increasing specialization, resulting in a society that doesn't listen to its thinkers. Hey, it's only a theory.
And that is what worries me. Not that other people's opinions might differ from mine, but that they are neither willing nor able to ask whether what they've been told is true, or still true. And they live very well with their ignorance that unfortunately reflects in the management of our societies. It's the way discussions are lead, the absence of scientific argumentation, the emphasis on advertisement over reason, rethorics over content, our inability to learn, that's what worries me.
A society that doesn't listen to its thinkers in times like this is a society that is destined to fail.
Our evolutionary developed mechanisms to improve 'fitness' of the human race don't work when we don't experience the consequences of our doing, or in an environment that changes too rapidly, too globally, too detached from our senses. And it's us who we change our world too fast to actually adapt to it, too fast so we can't accurately rate and act on the consequences. We just can't rely on our intuition in many regards, because our brains were never meant to deal with such situations.
Who cares if company X exploits underaged workers on the other side of the world, if their products are cheap and look nice. If you want consumers to change their mind, tell them the story of H. (name changed), with plenty photos of malnourished and sick children. That's the way the human brain works, and that's the game we play today.
So, we have an obvious tension between the immediate short-term goals that our neurons award with gratification (a personal masseur? fame? cigarette break?) and the problems that are either spatially or temporarily distant and get neglected.
What we have done to make our societies function efficiently in such a rapidly changing environment is we implemented fast working feedback mechanisms quite similarly to evolution, call it the survival of the fittest company, or idea. This works quite well to direct a fairly complex system towards optimization, allows capital to be invested into further development which is to the benefit of everybody. But then we forget that it was us who set up these mechanisms in the first place, for our own well-being, and that we might have to readjust them from time to time, asking whether they still do what we want them to do.
Now, we are living in a society where making money has become a self-purposeful action, where it should instead be a feedback mechanism to direct the economy. I am not against capitalism - it works well in many regards, and as long as improving the circumstances of living is correlated with economical growth of some kind, it is a good tool. But this correlation has its limitation, and the more advanced societies have reached them. Do I really have to tell you that money doesn't equal happiness? How many people are there today selling stuff they know is crap? How many of the pills advertised to make you younger, slimmer, more attractive are just wasting your time and potentially your money? How many advertisements are just blatant lies, but 100% guaranteed?
How many people spend their day trying to find a smart way to rip you off...
... and they will actually argue they make our lives better because it's good for the economy? Never mind that energy and resources are wasted into producing crap if one just adds enough psychologists for an irresistible advertisement. That's what I mean with reinforced unhappiness: The presently realized 'optimization' process blindly lead towards economical growth, on the possible expenses of the quality of humans living in that environment because not all factors are appropriately weighted by monetary value. Look at your leaders who talk about the economy, the economy, the economy all the time (unless they are busy talking about religion that is). What they should be talking about are their people first place. And then in the second place how the economy can be used to make our lives better (and they shouldn't be talking about religion at all). Capitalism, operation for profit, and market economy are tools. Useful tools, but as all tools they have a range where they can be applied, and others where they are inappropriate.
Sadly, nothing of what I've just said is new in any regard. If you want to measure the status of happiness in your society, look at the amount of people who need anti-depressants to get through their days because the quality of their living has so tremendously improved. It's a combination of feeling 'unfit' for the environment, amplified by the hopelessness that comes from believing they can't change anything about it - neither themselves, nor the external circumstances. We have changed our environment so much that we ourselves no longer 'fit', and are unable to resolve the mismatch.
You might notice the reasoning is similar to that of my earlier post on the Marketplace of Ideas, where I wrote about the gap between primary goals and secondary criteria. Secondary criteria are handy quantities to measure success, and optimizing them provides a sensible mechanism towards improvement possibly for a long time. The danger though is that fulfilling the secondary criteria becomes a self-purposeful action, and their optimization is pursued even though it is not the actual goal. Here it is making money (secondary criteria) that is confused with improving quality of living (primary goal). In the scientific community there's a bunch of criteria like number of publications, potential to obtain grants, being in fashion, connections in the community (secondary criteria) that are being confused with good research (primary goal).
Want more examples where people loose their primary goals out of sight for the immediate reward? Look at a couple of science blogs with advertisement banners. Meant to promote scientific knowledge, their websites also feature advertisements for crackpottery, intelligent design, the new quantum mechanics or other metaphysics. Sure I understand it's nice to make money. Know your priorities.
So to end with, why is this dangerous? Well, when I read the book 'What is your most dangerous idea?' I was wondering what actually is 'dangerous'. It crossed my mind that one could destroy the planet, or maybe the whole universe (yeah). But actually, I think suffering is worse than dying, so the most dangerous idea seemed to me that we can maneuver our society into a state of constant unhappiness because we're too stupid to correct our actions, and find the way out. Like the fly in your room that constantly bumps against the glass, yet is unable to learn from its mistakes. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Actually, I think The Edge is one of the little efforts into the right direction, providing a forum for your societies' intellectuals to reach the public, as well as a possibility to bridge the communication gap that has developed between scientists of various disciplines. Let's hope enough people listen.
I just looked up the 2007 question. It was 'What are you optimistic about?' Ah well, I will come back to this when I have a better day.