Thursday, April 21, 2005

Modernism and "Sanity"

NoOne said: "Ask yourself if science has explained consciousness. Do we have an objective theory of subjectivity? No, we don't. And yet, we turn a blind eye to this huge gaping hole in our worldview. Or we try and cover the hole with bandaid by using terms such as epiphenomenalism, complexity theory etc. And then we (the ones connected to science) wonder why there's so much hostility toward us."

This is a huge topic.

The brief response. I see scientists as the LEAST-hated priesthood in human history. (You have no idea what common men/women thought of their priests, most of the time, but evidence suggests that average folk have always despised the moralistic bullying and patronizing insistence on secret knowledge. Scientists actively and enthusiastically try to share their "secrets" on PBS. Still, that makes them "least-hated"... not "best liked.")

The longer (though still brief) answer? Here is a short piece on sanity that I recently sent to the organizers of a conference that I'll be attending in June, concerning future threats such as advanced WMD.

"100 years ago we were told by confident and educated men that humanity was finally entering the era of understanding the human mind. Marx, Skinner & Freud were only a few of those offering simplistic, mechanistic models of human nature. These models not only proposed to explain and predict pathways chosen by societies and individuals, but offered means to channel those choices in desired ways. e.g. toward economic justice, rational order, or 'sanity'.

Humanity has since gone through a hellish process of discovering just how complex we really are. None of the models worked! And yet, old habits die hard. We are still coaxed to accept simple explanations from a narrow list of options, most of them occupying snug niches along a hoary-ridiculous left right political axis.

The good news is that all of those oversimplistic models also proved unworkable as methods of mass social control. As Aldous Huxley pointed out in Brave New World, our nature as inconveniently diverse, complicated and variable beings should mean there will always be some way to evade ultimate and systematic tyranny, even when it is empowered by advanced tools of science.

As we descended from the naive hopes of 1905 into the 20th Century's nadir of despair, it was practical men and women who found tortuous pathways leading upward, toward a decent society. Scientists - while still occasionally tempted by grand reductionism - have generally accepted the fantastic complexity of human nature and concentrated instead on the hard work of filling in the foundations of understanding, one brick or fact at a time.

Along the way, over-arching terms like "sanity" fell into deserved disrepute, because of their former role in helping elites to repress diversity, criticism and dissent.

And yet, the premise of this conference will be fundamentally faulty if the aim is somehow to anticipate and neutralize every kind of innovative WMD or other destructive failure modes FOR ALL TIME. This is not a game that can be won indefinitely by a dedicated professional protective class. The curve of accelerating accessibility to technological tools will increasingly favor what Thomas Friedman called the "super-empowerment of the angry young man."

If the world continues to be FULL of angry young men, there is no way that efforts at anticipatory prevention can succeed over the long run. Endeavors aimed at perceiving and neutralizing potential WMD in the near term can only be effective if they are aimed at buying time, so that a more long term solution can come into play. The solution of addressing the supply of likely users of WMD.

Careful appraisal suggests that there are only two possible classes of long term solution that have any hope of success -- (1) panopticon surveillance of everybody and severe social control, limiting individual volition and access to tools, or (2) a rapid and profound increase in the general level of human sanity, empowering autonomous citizens to solve problems rapidly and independent of supervision from above.

You almost never hear the latter approach discussed. (Perhaps because such an eventuality would undermine the position and privileges of the professional protective class.) Some will deny that human nature allows for possibility #2 at all. And yet, if you step back, is any other solution even remotely plausible, over a lengthy span of years?

Is it time, after a century of decline, to bring "sanity" back to the discussion table?

Yes, the word went into exile for some very good reasons. It was used by social elites in many cultures as a bludgeon to enforce conformity. Conformity of behavior, values and emotion. Dissidents against entrenched authority have all-too often been diagnosed as mentally ill. Harmless eccentricity was treated as dangerous deviancy.

But here is the ultimate irony. We have busily built a society whose modern standards and prevalent propaganda themes promote the very opposite of stodgy conformity! I have elsewhere relentlessly pointed out that the principal moral messages in modern film, music and art are (1) suspicion of authority, (2) tolerance of diversity, and (3) romantic appreciation of individual eccentricity.

Yes, there have recently arisen social forces deeply inimical to these teachings. But such forces face a long uphill struggle in any culture war against the three messages that fill almost every movie and song.

And so we face the irony that THIS culture's core values are rapidly coalescing around diversity, eccentricity and independence as central desiderata. So, might such a culture come up with a new and appropriate definition of sanity that is consistent with such values? A definition that does NOT preach conformity but rather relishes independence and flexibility of thought? One that cherishes diversity, yet nevertheless gently encourages palliative and caring attention to focus on people who need urgent help by the standards of a laid-back and tolerant civilization?

People wracked with anguish, for example. Or rage. Or the drug-high of relentless and unreasoning indignation. Inability to plan effective measures to achieve genuine self-interest. Inability to either cooperating with others or compete with them fairly? Might it be "mentally ill" to oppress and limit the options of others? (And that might include those who are too quick to accuse others of being mentally ill!)

Any of us would likely agree that those traits are sick in ways that truly merit attention. Attention that might increase society's overall safety without quashing creativity, eccentricity or freedom to disagree.

I contend that our long term safety from the proliferation of WMD will depend upon building a civilization in which very few of society's free and mature citizens will want to use them. In a culture that does not oppress, "insanity" will essentially boil down to the very same motivations and drives that we have the most reason to fear. Drives that will propel "angry young (or old) men (or women)" to use weapons of mass destruction against their neighbors during the coming century.

What long term solution can possibly work, other than SOME version of "sanity" becoming the norm during the next few decades?

Defining that word will certainly be a matter of extensive debate. But ultimately, it must be brought back from exile andincluded in the discussion, because all other measures are mere palliatives, buying time."


.
All right, it was more of a paper than a brief note. I'll be presenting it several places this summer. One can hope.

Comments welcome.

==See the next entry on Modernism ==

35 comments:

Frank said...

An increase in overall "sanity" means a decrease in the use of WMD ? And sanity should be defined using modern(ist) standards ?

Sounds plausible, but you don't say how this goal of increasing sanity should be achieved. Do you suggest that for instance every (potential) terrorist should be given psycho-therapy ?

Ken said...

I prefer option (3) myself:

The same power source that makes WMD's go boom are used to disperse the population. Personal aircraft make cities obsolete, and atomic weapons take about as much of a toll as pipe bombs do in our cities. Then, as energy becomes even cheaper and more concentrated, space travel also becomes cheaper and free-floating habitats scattered throughout the Earth-Moon system, and later the Solar System, become more feasible, and the new generation of WMD's fail to threaten millions.

It's certainly more pleasant that (1) and more feasible than (2).

Willey Nelson said...

Ken said...
"It's certainly more pleasant that (1) and more feasible than (2)."

Except your still stuck with alot of angry youths. It's a problem that has to be dealt with at some point. Making the living world bigger doesnt solve much for humanity.

Frank, I believe that anyone is a potential terrorist, accurate profiling just might prove impossible. If our future lies in the hands of young men, and women, then our goal must be to make growing up easier. Namely solving the desire to take personal frustrations into/out on the rest of the world.

firefall said...

I'm somewhat with frank on this - creating a new definition of sanity, while moderately useful of itself, I dont see as automatically leading to reducing the numbers of Angry Young Men. I'd rather aim (for 'western' society) at increasing the options available to the AYM, as an alleviation (along with a lower, wider, income pyramid).

But, there is also option (4) - simply accepting a given level of attrition in citylife from terrorist activities, as part of the nature of 'civilisation'. Dreadfully callous, of course .. but think of all the money saved.

Anna Paradox said...

I believe we are making progress toward a saner society. Here are two important improvements in social thought that shows that humans are, overall, getting wiser.

First, the don't drink and drive campaign. Not too long ago, "one for the road" seemed normal and acceptable -- now it seems wrong. It's complex -- we didn't solve the problem by outlawing either drinking or driving, but by learning that they don't mix. And alcohol-related accidents are measurably reducing.

Second, the development of a racially integrated society. Racism is again, at least in this country, becoming the aberration rather than the norm. That's one huge reason for young men to become angry slowing fading away.

I won't claim that either of these problems is completely solved. I do submit that we are making progress on them, and as we continue to do so, social misery will decline and violence along with it. See _Progress Paradox_ for supporting evidence. Where social justice increases, violence is decreasing.

It's not necessarily Dr. Brin's function to find the specific steps to take to increase sanity. There are plenty of researchers and social workers finding their specific problems and approaching them however they can. We're quite short on general futurists, especially of the optimistic variety. So if he can only spend his time on either the big picture or the details, I'm glad to have him work on the overview.

Nate said...

On the subject of sanity, I'm currently reading the O'Reilly book Mind Hacks, which is interesting. The kludges and piecemeal way the brain interprets things, though I'm not that far into it. After I get more into it, there might be some interesting stuff to tie into this subject.

On the subject of Angry Young Men, opportunities are probably one of the best ways to reduce their numbers. A lot of anger and rage comes from stuff people can't change (or think they can't change). When people feel they have other options that'll work, they're not usually going to jump to violence first.

But terrorism's not just Angry Young Men. That's part of it, but there's a lot of things that come down to essentially years of two (or more) sides constantly fighting, each fight giving new "reasons" to hate each other.

I'm not sure if I quite like the idea of a world of nuclear powered personal airplanes, no cities, and so on. Cities are probably a net good for the world, because more kinds of people tend to meet in them, which promotes tolerance and knowledge of a wider world, and also promotes new ideas and inventions to come out of the chaotic mix of sources. And being able to walk to interesting places instead of driving at least twenty minutes is nice too. Which is broadly irrelevant from the discussion, but hey.

Ken said...

"Cities are probably a net good for the world, because more kinds of people tend to meet in them, which promotes tolerance and knowledge of a wider world, and also promotes new ideas and inventions to come out of the chaotic mix of sources."

And more kinds of people tend to meet in them because cities bring lots of people within easy, cheap traveling distance of each other. So do widespread personal aircraft, which serve the same purpose as cities, namely bringing all those people within easy, cheap traveling distance of each other without requiring them to live physically close together. You still get all these different people meeting, trading, and inventing together the way they do in cities.

"Except your still stuck with alot of angry youths. It's a problem that has to be dealt with at some point. Making the living world bigger doesnt solve much for humanity. "

It does minimize the number of people that a single angry youth can kill.

If you want to solve the angry youth problem, the best way I can think of is to let them grow up faster, and let them grow up into the freest society we can come up with.

dchev said...

"(2) a rapid and profound increase in the general level of human sanity, empowering autonomous citizens to solve problems rapidly and independent of supervision from above."

I understand what you mean by sanity, but not how this ties into autonomous empowered citizens solving problems locally.

How do you suggest a sane citizen address the issue of insanity?

- Informant networks? ("Mary across the street is acting a little insane lately") like a neighborhood watch, but with the power to institutionalize you if you don't tolerate tolerance?

- arm everyone with stun guns and empower them to immobilize insane persons until the thought police arrive?

I'm not trying to be a jerk, I am honestly puzzled what that statement means in practice...

Mark said...

Personal aircraft? This is the information age, man, who cares about transportation? I work out of an office over one thousand miles away from my house. Now, give me a personal teleporter and perhaps I'll try physically commuting again.

David Brin said...

I am pleased to see most of you get my point and are curious over HOW this might work.

Most places that I raise it, people remain stuck with the assumption that "sanity" would be used as a bludgeon for conformity, even tho I went to great lengths to say exactly the opposite.

First, clearly we are already well along that path. The MOST appalling thing about the neocon madness is that it is happening at a time when safety, freedom and tolerance have been rising everywhere. (Maybe that's what has them worried.)

I do not feel it will need oppressive state intervention to increase average sanity levels. I see several needs.

1. accountability. If average people can easily spot dangerous activity (through transparency) then reaction is swift and better than state surveillance.

2. more caring. Often (as Stefan Jones points out below) all it takes is to NOTICE the lonely.

3. general rise in decency, wealth and understanding of how to raise kids better. Don't laugh. My sons have never been in a fight at school. Ever. What they call "bullying' makes me laugh until tears flow, compared to the awful shit I saw as a child.

As for fleeing into libertarian spacecraft, baloney. EACH of those spaceships could divert a comet to Earth. I ain't letting anybody out there until this sanity thing is settled. (And I am a sci fi guay and space pusher since way back!)

Here is Stefan.

Related to this:

A few years back (post-Afghanistan, pre-Iraq), I read an article about
a peace & development group's tactic for fighting terrorism. They
identified "angry young men" and . . . got them jobs and girlfriends!

These weren't "insane" myrmidons. They were poor (literally) alienated
saps, vulnerable to glamorous ideas and kitschy rewards and trivial
pay-offs to family.

A tougher problem are the sociopaths who prey on these goofballs. Guys
like Mahommad Atta, you have to watch forever. Sane, working societies
keep these people contained.

This makes revelations that the U.S. military and intelligence agencies
are using torture doubly troubling. We're not only condoning torture,
we're tolerating *torturers*. We're training and supporting them. When
their military careers are over, they'll probably go to work for the
growing private security and military contracting industry. A whole
corps of sociopathic creeps like G. Gordon Liddy, inculcated with the
worldview of the neoconservatives.

cryptochrome said...

The hallmark of progress in technology and science is empowerment. Who and how it empowers depends on the difficulty in realizing that invention. The overall trend is simple. The individual acquires greater power.

That power generally can be used for defense and offense. And historically, defense can generally be made stronger than offense. But as time has gone by that fact has changed. Therin lies my biggest concern. The modern concern over terrorists acquiring WMDs is shortsighted. Terrorists usually have something they want, something to protect, or someone to rat them out. The bigger dangers of the future are the disgruntled grad student, the precocious youth, and the ever popular independent asshole. The element of surprise has never had a complete defense against it.

And while the WMDs of today - CBN - are nasty, those of the future - GNR+Space - will likely be worse. (BTW, here's an article about reducing demand for wmd). Genomic weapons in particular should be a matter of very great concern, if and when somebody invents desktop plasmid-scale DNA synthesis. At that point, a lone person designing, producing, and releasing a devastating or targeted pathogen will be entirely feasible. Which is one reason why developing general tools to cure (not just vaccinate) all existing pathogens ought to be such a high priority now.

The sort of things you propose in the Transparent Society can help, as can promoting "sanity (whatever that is). Albeit at the cost of privacy and personal independence. But there still is no absolute defense, and as the destructive potential of individuals increases at some point we won't see one slip through the cracks that will destroy everything.

Frank said...

- cryptochrome said :

"But there still is no absolute defense, and as the destructive potential of individuals increases at some point we won't see one slip through the cracks that will destroy everything."

I need to get the hell away from this planet...

Anonymous said...

NoOne said:
"Ask yourself if science has explained consciousness. Do we have an objective theory of subjectivity? No, we don't. And yet, we turn a blind eye to this huge gaping hole in our worldview."

I can't turn a blind eye to the mystery of subjectivity, because it flies in the face of all scientific trends.

There is growing scientific evidence that all particles in the universe are connected -- through energy interactions, through chemistry, through mechanical causality, and now the strange phenomenon of "entanglement."

In other words: everything and everyone is connected. So why do we experience "subjectivity" at all?

This gives me existential worry. If I'm entangled with the universe and every living thing in it, why can't I FEEL that? What's the point of being "me" if that's just an elaborate illusion?

Would we be happier beings if we didn't have "subjectivity"? I would be you and you would be me... or maybe we'd all be insane.

-A.R.Yngve
http://yngve.bravehost.com

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering about the Angry OLD Man (AOM): the guy who despises individualism and wants everyone to think and behave as he does; the guy who can't stand that people have different priorities, wants, needs, goals. These are the guys that provide the Angry Young Man (AYM) with the resources to become an effective terrorist. Hitler and bin Laden are archetypes of the Angry Old Man.

Without the AOMs to organize and finance them, the AYMs dissolve into mere hooligans, thugs, and criminals. While still a terrible fate to condemn the AYMs to, and no picnic for the victims of their crimes, the aimless AYMs don't have the same effect as the ones who've been aimed. Our new definition of sanity has to account for the pathologies that lead to the production of AOMs as well as AYMs.

(PS, thanks for a great serial essay!)

Frank said...

@ David Brin:

Interesting idea that Disputation Arena, although perhaps a bit contrived, not especially emergent.

It occured to me that such an arena would need a publicly accesssible memory to prevent the same battle from being fought
over en over again. The best vessels for such a memory would probably be the people participating in the disputation, but they might not always be available for questioning. Search-engines and wikipedias can play a role here, but what about something more specialised like for instance Robert Horns' argumentation maps or an application like Freemind ?

polyparadigm said...

Since this is a sci-fi crowd, I'd like to remind you all that Neal Stephenson's Raven had two WMDs: nuclear & neurolinguistic.

I think angry old men like Rupert Murdoch are the ones to watch out for. On 9-12, I saw a crowd of young men and women jumping up and down at an intersection, exuberantly waving flags and signs, and chanting (I kid you not) "we want war". Not that Murdoch is essentially different from Hearst; it's an old problem.

I'm a solid believer in free speech, but I think what we need is a better infrastructure for virus definition distribution and some open-source, pragmatic antivirus software. Or, slightly more literally, a culture that's more willing to call bullshit when they see it. Kids have to tell each other "yeah, I saw him on TV last night, and I agreed with most of what he said up until he told us to blow ourselves up for the glory of the cause."

Based on the relative ineffectiveness of advertising on Western folks, I think we have a good start on the project of propaganda immunity. But I don't think we'll be safe from another Columbine until a broadcast of Die Hard makes most teens think of Walter Wink, and I don't think international terrorism will stop until every suicide-friendly Imam is marginalized by consensus opinions that equate him to the cardinals who lent support to the crusades.

More succinctly, I don't think insanity is to blame, so much as gullibility. I say this with all due compassion and humility, as one gullible sap to the rest.

Rik said...

Option (1) seems to me flatly impossible. Even now, surveillance is far from perfect. I think what you're witnessing is some sort of pent-up energy, much in the same way that made people claim "frissche und fröhliche" war, over 80 years ago. This has to do with, I think, the inability to act. It doesn't seem to matter very much any more. Perhaps this can explain the lower interest in politics. The erection and expansion of the present welfare states prevents anyone from thinking forward & securing his/her future. Of course, since 1905 the world has also become a much smaller space. It's not for nothing (and more than a little) that Tom Friedman's recent book uses the metaphor of "flatness".

Last but not least: there's a related discussion on futurepundit, about genmanip for everyone, and the possibility of socalled "velociraptors".

I hope this makes sense.

Rik said...

Option (1) seems to me flatly impossible. Even now, surveillance is far from perfect. I think what you're witnessing is some sort of pent-up energy, much in the same way that made people claim "frissche und fröhliche" war, over 80 years ago. This has to do with, I think, the inability to act. It doesn't seem to matter very much any more. Perhaps this can explain the lower interest in politics. The erection and expansion of the present welfare states prevents anyone from thinking forward & securing his/her future. Of course, since 1905 the world has also become a much smaller space. It's not for nothing (and more than a little) that Tom Friedman's recent book uses the metaphor of "flatness".

Last but not least: there's a related discussion on futurepundit, about genmanip for everyone, and the possibility of socalled "velociraptors".

I hope this makes sense.

David Brin said...

"The sort of things you propose in the Transparent Society can help, as can promoting "sanity (whatever that is). Albeit at the cost of privacy and personal independence. "


I agree that "privacy" going to have to be redefined. Though as humans I think we will always want some and in a transparent or accountable society, democracy will ensure that people have the power to vote themselves SOME privacy.

But personal independence is another matter. Control systems that rely upon top-down control must limit personal autonomy by the very fact that the paid protective elite is smaller than the population they are monitoring-protecting. Personal action-sovereignty MUST be limited under such a regime, even if corruption and elitism are utterly minimized.

The alternative (or supplementary) notion is flattened hierarchies and RECIPROCAL ACCOUNTABILITY, fostered by technologically empowered citizenship. In that case "personal independence" is part of the ideal of "sanity". And people gradually learn to leave each other alone, except when it seems reasonable to raise issues of mutual harm.

That applies to Angry Old or Young Men tinkering with WMD....


Re Disputation Arenas: "It occurred to me that such an arena would need a publicly accessible memory to prevent the same battle from being fought over en over again. The best vessels for such a memory would probably be the people participating in the disputation, but they might not always be available for questioning. Search-engines and wikipedias can play a role here, but what about something more specialised like for instance Robert Horns' argumentation maps or an application like Freemind ?"

I believe this is an area needing tremendous investment, patronage and innovation. Lack of memory is one of the great flaws I mention in my paper, preventing the Net from joining the other more mature "accountability arenas".

For one small contribution to the needed technology, see my own patented invention at www.holocenechat.com/ We are looking for investors! ;-) Or else lively Flash designers....


I agree about AOM (Angry Old Men)... In fact, I feel that satiability/sanity is what splits the monied aristocracy down the middle, today. Some billionaires "get it". They realize that their ABSOLUTE level of wealth rises most steeply in a diamond-shaped social order that is fully competitive (but compassionate) and meritocratic, even though it means that the middle class will enjoy the same toys, only a few years after the wealthy get them.

They understand that creating good and services and innovations are what capitalism is for, and the great justification of property. Earnings from innovation, production and capitalization should outweigh those from passive rents. (Adam Smith made this distinction, long ago, calling rents and passive investment legitimate; but they also make up also the great lure of lazy and those inclined to cheat. Most recent administration economic moves favor rents over stimulating small business or competitive innovation.)

The insatiable elites deeply resent the social diamond, in which servants get uppity and quit if you don't say please. They instinctively know that elites in nearly every other culture felt a greater sense of RELATIVE wealth over those below them on a social pyramid. They resent this. They want the feudal privileges back again, and do not care if society as a whole will be poorer.

(It is not in their real interest, since a million new university trained health researchers will do them more likely good than the same million angry young men. But try explaining self-interest to the indignant, especially those respoding to ancestral impulses.)


"More succinctly, I don't think insanity is to blame, so much as gullibility. I say this with all due compassion and humility, as one gullible sap to the rest."

Heh. Unless society chooses to call gullibility a symptom of insanity? Well, that may not be nice. Still, we already treat it as a problem. Schools try to cover some of the worst failure modes. Smoking, bullying, teen pregnancy....

But in the new Bankruptcy Bill, the GOP fought every effort to add tiny palliatives. Like assigning a sliver of the new payout billions into a campaign of education about credit management for the most economically vulnerable.

BAsically, though, I feel the sanity thing could make a HUGE difference, right off, if we assail INDIGNATION as a drug high. Modernists are capable of it, of course. We are huma, and I - especially - can rant till the moon goes down!

But modernism preaches that all ranters must eventually paus and let someone else rant a while... before getting down to negotiation.

The anti-modernists are on a high. They are addicts to the worst drug imaginable, because we secrete it within our own bodies. And we justify it with a million ideologies. And it feels soooooo good.

... more soon...

Anders Brink said...

I feel I must say something about the idea that if science can't explain psychology, we should ignore sanity.

Whoever said that science can explain it all? Where it cannot, one must resort to classical definitions.

Incoherent thinking is insane.

Incorrigibly chaotic behaviour is insane.

Wilful ignorance is insane.

Unjustified indignation is insane.

Random cruelty to innocents is insane.

This is not an exhaustive list of course.

steve mcclure (seattle area) said...

you will no doubt appreciate this

http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/05/05/issue/feature_earth.asp?p=1

Rik said...

Why does all of this sound as if we're heading back into the age of absolutism? Ok, an increase in sanity will ease all our troubles and so on. How in the world is any government going to increase sanity? Is it any business for governments at all?
We have a discussion about values and norms. I find it stupid. I say what you need is virtues (or vices) and that these are cultivated in the individual by him- or herself.
You could well call the Angry Young/Old Men the present 'counterculture'. The previous one never had a single chance of overthrowing the dominant order. So why should this one? Just because they have WMD's? Puhlease!
I think educating history has sunk to unprecedented depths, or else anyone would see how large periods of time (lumped together as, say, the classical age, 500 bc-500 ad), are anything but monolithic. Goodness is always fragile and developments go up and down.
So anyone might observe / suggest - if only as an amusement - that we live at present in a High Age of Modernity.

Tony Fisk said...

A bit late in the piece, I'm afraid, but here are a couple of observations and references that seem relevant:

1. on sanity and 'angry young people' (for women are also capable of running amok: eg Brenda Spencer).
An article in New Scientist a year or two ago reported that, at puberty, a noticeable growth in brain size (~1% by weight) occurred as a final layer of neurons was laid down in the cortex. (It hadn't been noticed previously because the layer is subsequently pruned right back: conservatism in action!). The article speculated about what effect all these extra neurons firing away would have on adolescent behaviour (the usual 'puberty blues' stuff, of course, and it also seems that ailments such as schizophrenia tend to manifest around this time).
One effect puberty does have on adolescent thinking is the discovery of what I've been calling the 'contrast knob'. Robert Winston, in his series on the Human Body, asked a simple moral question of some children about a boy caught stealing medicine for his grandmother because she couldn't afford it. Their initial response was quite definitely that stealing is wrong and that he ought to be punished. He then asked them the same question again a couple of years later, after their hormones had settled down, and they found the issue much less clear cut!

I could speculate further and wonder if new behaviours learnt and reinforced in this period tend to be 'locked down' after the 'neural bloom' is over. I certainly can recall little interest about religious matters among my peers when I was at (state) high school, and was quite astonished at how widespread it was at University! (OK! So maybe I led a sheltered life...)

2. On 'A tougher problem are the sociopaths who prey on these goofballs.'
There are those who, for whatever reason, have developed a mindset capable of blowing themselves up in a crowded market, and there are some poor simpletons who get bullied into it (as happened recently in Israel: fortunately for simpleton, the soldiers manning the checkpoint exercised commendably more restraint than we normally hear about).
But the problem certainly is tougher than rounding up a few nasty folk lurking in the background. A lecture by Robert Hare on 'Snakes in Suits', (see also New Scientist, August 21, 2004) suggests that psychopaths are endemic in the population (est. 1%). The term 'psychopath' has been rather sensationalised but here it is used to refer to someone without any social conscience or capacity to empathise (something most start to exhibit by age 4-5). They are charismatic(!) individuals who, lacking any restraint, gravititate toward positions of power, using and abusing their fellows without remorse or thought for anything but their own gratification.
A prime indicator is how charming and charismatic they may appear to those who are useful to them ('patrons'), and how utterly dismissive they are of those who have outlived their usefulness ('pawns'). A certain Mr Bolton being a case in point.
Such people pose a far greater risk to society than a few Unabombers or Anthrax mailers: ponder the fate of Enron, Andersons, and HIH, and their social effect.
Not all WMDs go boom!

3. 'Modernists are capable of (indignation), of course. We are huma, and I - especially - can rant till the moon goes down! '
There have been times when I wondered if you notice. Glad you do! ;-)

Meantime, I recall a nice bumper sticker along the lines of:
'Indulge in global construction and random acts of senseless kindness'

Anonymous said...

"My sons have never been in a fight at school. Ever. What they call "bullying' makes me laugh until tears flow, compared to the awful shit I saw as a child."

At the risk of suggesting schadenfreude, would you be willing to clarify both?

Secondly, I realize that this is a rambling rant, but I would find it helpful to have some idea to what conclusions you are heading.

As for me, depressed though I've been, I see a few things to note:

1)Bush and the Repubs miscalculated over the recent feeding tube debate.

2)Bush in general seems to be getting more flack over his nominations and more Repubs are breaking ranks; more Dems are standing up.

3)People in general seem to be rejecting his social security ideas.

4) Out here in California, The governor has backed down once or twice to the unions (police, firefighter) and the teachers and student are getting organized, noticed, and pissed.

Maybe the wave has broken (though we must not slack off.)

I still respectfully disagree with you on this being a modernist vs. romantic debate. To me, it's still imperialists versus everyone else. I wanted to be a futurist, and the future never came to be in the way I wanted. Fair enough, we have to work for it. Modernists embrace the present, Reactionaries try to bring back a b.s. view of the past, and people like me lament that we turn older and older without those damn smarter aliens showing up. (Sorry, but I'd rather broadcast to them on every channel available then sit around waiting for Godot.)

Long story short. My birthday's coming up; it's grumble time. I was under the impression that your family trip had spurred a few hope-filled ideas, and I respectfully await the optomistic results of your most recent solve et coagula (I really gotta stop posting while zonked on late night fatigue=)

Lastly, no offense intended to your most recent patented chat invention, but I'd much rather buy one of your "Kiln People Generators." Any backers yet?

Frank said...

Tony Fisk said:
"One effect puberty does have on adolescent thinking is the discovery of what I've been calling the 'contrast knob'."
and
"after their hormones had settled down, and they found the issue much less clear cut!"

I'm sure hormones can have an effect on a persons thinking, but my quess would be that experience playes a more important role. Children tend to have a very abstract view of the world, but can you blame them ? They have only been alive for a relatively short period. A view years of observing the world around them can do miracles, whereas growing up in a subculture completely isolated from mainstream ideologies (another way in wich secrets can make a situation worse) can be devastating for a future citizens development.

Don't get me wrong, interesting things have happened within subcultures in the past. It's the isolation that bothers me.

Tony Fisk said...

@Frank
My reference to hormones was a bit flippant but, to extend your thought, I would say that hormones affect how one judges experience.*

Although I thought the information of interest in itself, the point I wanted to make with it was not particularly clear.
What I wanted to suggest is that 'Angry Young (wo)men' syndrome may arise from aberrant behaviours and values learnt at a time when the brain is in a particularly plastic state.

The second point simply backed up one of David's later remarks that there is no shortage of people willing to channel that anger for their own ends. (trying to avoid obvious references here, I am!)

The effects of isolation is an interesting topic in itself. It seems to me that nurturing to maturity a meme of any stripe requires a little seclusion, to ensure that shortcomings are addressed in a supportive environment. (or is that my romantic side ensuring that I give you the 'man for life'?)

*The experiment I referred to was staged for the program 'The Human Body'. Winston is a well known London surgeon who is no stranger to making documentaries and I respect his authority in making observations such as this.
(aside, if anyone ever decides to check out the series be warned: the last episode, on death, is powerful stuff!)

Anonymous said...

" . . . and people like me lament that we turn older and older without those damn smarter aliens showing up . . ."

You think that would solve human problems?

We might learn some technical tricks from them, but they wouldn't know our minds and bodies well enough to help us better than we can help ourselves.

Yeah, maybe some of those technical tricks would reduce poverty and environmental problems. Reducing the physical causes of suffering and want might reduce the number of angry desperate people.

But we'd still be humans, and prone to due stupid and mean and selfish things. You deal with those things by being civilized, using the tools of civilizations, like laws and religion.



Stefan

John David Galt said...

You write:
And yet, the premise of this conference will be fundamentally faulty if the aim is somehow to anticipate and neutralize every kind of innovative WMD or other destructive failure modes FOR ALL TIME. This is not a game that can be won indefinitely by a dedicated professional protective class. The curve of accelerating accessibility to technological tools will increasingly favor what Thomas Friedman called the "super-empowerment of the angry young man."

This makes several unwarranted assumptions -- among them that weapons technology will always make offense easier and cheaper than defense, and that it will always be practical for almost anyone to be capable of harming those he disagrees with. These and related questions are determined partly by technology and partly by how we organize our lives, and they have changed several times just in the span of recorded history.

Yes, probability theory tells us that somebody, somewhere, will use WMD again. There's no possible way to prevent that. Even turning the entire world into the most stable government possible - a water-monopoly empire -- wouldn't prevent the rulers from doing it, nor could they ultimately be trusted not to. Democratic rule doesn't make rulers trustworthy either -- history is full of witch-hunts against the hated minority of the day. Today's persecuted pariahs are the drug users. Anyone could be tomorrow's.

It seems obvious to me, then, that seeking to find a wise solution and appoint a "philosopher-king" government to administer it is the wrong approach. The right way to minimize the harm done by WMDs is to encourage people to become less vulnerable, both by "sprawling" out our homes over larger areas (and, as soon as possible, to locations off Earth) and by adopting policies that deny terrorists the publicity they want -- as described by Dean Ing in "Soft Targets" way back in 1972, before most Americans believed they would ever become terrorist targets.

But don't centralize power, and especially don't give government more power to suppress so-called insanity (and it can't be anything but so-called, the very concept is arbitrary). That will only create the kind of static, "precautionary principle" based tyranny you portray in the Uplift series. And eventually some other interstellar civilization will kick our tail because their leaders have not similarly hobbled their progress, technologically or culturally.

Mark said...

This makes several unwarranted assumptions -- among them that weapons technology will always make offense easier and cheaper than defense...

That's an assumption, sure, but I don't think it is unwarranted. Destruction is usually easier the creation, defenses need to work every time, offenses only need to work once. Even if we could shoot down any enemy missile at will, will we ever know about that nuke on the fishing trawler headed for NY harbor?

All we can do is play the probability game. We need to both reduce both supply and demand, but we'll never eliminate either. We need to decrease the number of angry young men and catch the offending the angry old men. We need to keep power (money, weapons, etc.) away from those that will abuse it. And we need to do all that while increasing our own freedoms.

To eliminate the problem is impossible. But once you realize it's impossible, what's left might not be so hard.

Anonymous said...

Provocative as always, good old Davey Brin remarked:

"The curve of accelerating accessibility to technological tools will increasingly favor what Thomas Friedman called the `super-empowerment of the angry young man.'

"If the world continues to be FULL of angry young men, there is no way that efforts at anticipatory prevention can succeed over the long run."

Alas, here we run up against primate neurobiology. Statistical demographic studies show that worlwide, violent crime remains mainly the province of young men. 93% of all serial killers? Men, primarily twixt age 20 and 35. Studies of prison inmates reveal that violence drops drastically after age 50. Primate studies reveal much the same results -- from chimps on up through humans, young males remain the prime instigators of violence.

Unless someone wants to start fiddling 'n twiddling with the human genome, young males = violence. Indeed, when Anders Brink noted that
"Incoherent thinking is insane.
Incorrigibly chaotic behaviour is insane. Wilful ignorance is insane.
Unjustified indignation is insane.
Random cruelty to innocents is insane," he hit on a concise definition of "adolescent male."

Anyone who's spent any time around adolescents knows that young people are monsters. The novel "Lord Of The Flies," far from representing a fantasy, qualifies as documentary journalism. The main purpose of schooling in all advanced has nothing whatever to do with education; rather, the main function of schooling involves socializing young males so that they think twice before ripping mommy's heart out and roasting it on the barbecue, romaing around in rape gangs performing charming feats of derring-do like pedicadio, and so on.

It constantly amazes that otherwise sensible rational people seem to have forgotten exactly how young people behave. Amnesia? Frontal lobe injury? Repressed memory syndrome? Throughout school I watched innumerable kids getting their mouths bashed in with rocks, their heads beaten against walls, and in one memorable instance, their front teeth splintered by ramming the kid's face into a steel drinking fountain...all to the leering smirks and approbation of delighted adults.

If anyone doubts the nature of young homo sapien males, check this trend out:
http://www.boingboing.net/2005/04/28/happy_slapping_updat.html

Standard, typical, usual, and quotidian.

Ever since a maddened mob dragged the Greek scientist Hypatia from her chariot and scraped the flesh from her bones with sharpened oyster shells, rage and hatred and superstition and frenzy have been the standard response to common sense and sanity. Alas, things haven't improved in the last 2000 years. Which only goes to prove what neuroscience has long since shown us: namely, that human beings are a tiny little blob of frontal cortex perched atop a great big mountain of lizard brain.

The fantastic delusion that "an incease in overall sanity" is either possible or desirable harks back to the age-old chorus of followers of Rousseau, none of whom ever seem to have watched a crowd of young kids delightedly bashing a turtle to pulp with sharp rocks for the sheer joy of watching it squirm in agony. Or the adult version, a riot of soccer hooligans.

Incidentally, if you think nukes represent a scary development in WMDs, you ain't seen nothin' yet, kiddies. Just wait till some angry young man with an IQ of 180 gets his hot little hands of a near-future recordable disc containing the genetic sequence of the Marburg virus and a dirt-cheap tabletop DNA/RNA assembly unit. That's going to make Hypatia and the oyster shells look like an episode of Mr. Rogers.

Bottom line? "Smart primates, foolish choices." Evolution gave it a good try but homo sapiens just doesn't seem equipped for long-term survival as a species. Better luck next time, recombining RNA molecules...

Jon said...

"You think that would solve human problems?

We might learn some technical tricks from them, but they wouldn't know our minds and bodies well enough to help us better than we can help ourselves. "

My attitude is that if we can learn about "emergent order" by watching ants, devlop martial arts and related philosophies by watching animals, bond with our pets and learn from them, take nature hikes and learn about ourselves through the Jane Goodalls and Dian Fossey's of this world, then we can also learn by hanging out with and observing aliens. (And maybe, even, they'll give us a new outsiders perspective on us that will help us out. I'd really like to try.)

Ambi said...

Anonymous wrote:
"It constantly amazes that otherwise sensible rational people seem to have forgotten exactly how young people behave. Amnesia? Frontal lobe injury? Repressed memory syndrome? Throughout school I watched innumerable kids getting their mouths bashed in with rocks, their heads beaten against walls, and in one memorable instance, their front teeth splintered by ramming the kid's face into a steel drinking fountain...all to the leering smirks and approbation of delighted adults.

[...]Ever since a maddened mob dragged the Greek scientist Hypatia from her chariot and scraped the flesh from her bones with sharpened oyster shells, rage and hatred and superstition and frenzy have been the standard response to common sense and sanity. Alas, things haven't improved in the last 2000 years.[...]

The fantastic delusion that "an incease in overall sanity" is either possible or desirable harks back to the age-old chorus of followers of Rousseau, none of whom ever seem to have watched a crowd of young kids delightedly bashing a turtle to pulp with sharp rocks for the sheer joy of watching it squirm in agony. Or the adult version, a riot of soccer hooligans."

I must disagree here. While adolescent males tend towards agression, society in the form of parents, other adult role models and older peers have more influence on them.

During my school time I was beaten up many times (though always in a way that causes only pain, but no injuries), and looking back I notice a pattern: those who were agressive were the losers who felt they had no future to hope for, and were looking for someone they could put even below them.

What I observed since then seems to suggest the situation can get better as well as worse, depending on how adults and role models act. If children are cared for so they do not develop into losers with no future, it gets better. If on the other hand the violent ones become respected role models for the younger kids and continue to spew their venom as adults, the situation ends up as "Anonymous" described it above. And can still get worse.

jalf said...

Ok, so this is a bit late, but only just found the blog today. :)

Anyway, lots of good points here, but I fail to see why (2) is so infeasible. (Or why people can keep pushing alternatives.

The (3) that was suggested is, like David Brin originally said about any solution other than (2), simply going to buy us time. Expanding into space? Yes, that makes us less of a target until either 1) WMD's have been powerful enough to take out a bigger area (if neccesary, maybe a star or a solar system, if that's what it takes to hit millions of people), or 2) People put all that extra space to use by reproducing, meaning we'll end up with just as many people living just as crowded and bunched up in cities.

In the end, the problem haven't been solved, we've just gained a few years.

I don't believe in (1) either. Preventing people from getting access to WMD's (by destroying WMD's, or just by restricting people from getting access) might work most of the time, but it means there's always a risk that someone will slip through the safeguards, and given enough time, it will happen sooner or later.

(2) is really not such big challenge to solve in comparison. People who simply got beat up in school, or whose girlfriend left them might be angry young men, yes, but they're not the most likely group to take up a nuke and blow up New York. It's not all those individual angry young men who have to be dealt with (made non-unhappy?)

But if an entire country is living in poverty, and feel they're being exploited by the world's richest countries/corporations/people, that's dangerous. A handful of people in that country may be willing to go to extremes to "solve" the problem through terrorism.

If one of the world's biggest religions feel they're under attack by the world's lone superpower flaunting it's own religion, that's dangerous. Again, only a very few people would be willing to crash planes into buildings because of it, but that might just be enough.

And situations like these are relatively easy to deal with on a global scale. Poverty can be alleviated (or at least, richer countries/corporations/people could stop exploiting them), if the will to do so is present. Religions require nothing more than acceptance and tolerance to calm down.

Yes, I know, these simple solutions are hopelessly naive and the world's problems cant be solved just like that.

But my point is that (2) is not infeasible, because it doesn't have to target every single angry young man, but only those entire societies who, as Ambi said above, feel that they're "the losers who felt they had no future to hope for".

Christian said...

I apologize coming into this conversation at such a late stage, but I am one of those folks from the outside world that just heard about this blog.

David, you have hit the most primal, important point right on the head.

Sanity in regards to policy is the only way.

If we look at the history of the last century (and probably more), we see the same policies repeating themselves. From the verdammt Dulles Brothers' meddling with Iran's nascent democracy (at Churchill's urging) which eventually produced a fundamentalist theocracy with an anti-American agenda to supporting Saddam (again at Britain's urging) to keep Iran in control, from the creation of rage-filled freedom fighters in Afghanistan during the Cold War to Kissinger-inspired support for Suharto and an oppressive military in Indonesia, Nazi-led narcostates in Central and South America, to Reagan era support for Marcos in the Philippines and Nicaraguan death squads, to the neverending support for repressive dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and, de facto, in Egypt. We have produced the seeds of our problems today. And what is our solution? To do it again. Just look at that wonderful, democratic man in Uzbekistan who is our 'ally' in the war on terror. Or Pakistan. Look at the Neocons and see the children of Kissinger, the grandchildren of the Dulles Brothers. Sure, inspired perhaps with the zeal of Strauss, too. Believing they have a philosophical basis that actually compels them to create lies (let's call a spade a spade here... 'myths' is far too nice a word for this) to manipulate American society into their perfect, Platonic ideal.

The proof is there that by resorting to 'friendly' strong-arm dictators in the name of Realpolitik, we are continuously creating the very dangers we are ostensibly supposed to be fighting.

Looking at the IQs and educations of the men involved all this time, studying I can come to no other conclusion than that they desire a constantly renewing dichotomy in the world. The young men of rage, produced under the regimes and in the poverty-stricken, schoolless (unless it's mullah-taught), futureless neighborhoods that the US works to keep that way, are important to producing the eternal Other that can be used to scare people into the Straussian model.

Considering that these people in charge seem to exist at that top echelon decade after decade after decade, that they are intrinsically bound now with the arms industry, the oil and energy industry, that the media is cowed into not truly exposing them... I am afraid that I finally have lost all hope.

Short of bloody revolution, which is not something I have ever been able to get behind, there can be no meaningful change. And as you mention in another post, I do believe that the Republicans are looking to the Nuclear Option because they in fact expect not to leave power. By hook AND by crook. I believe that this is the year that media censorship becomes overt, open policy. Just look at the recent polls that were publicized, showing that a majority of the population, and especially younger people, believe that the media gets away with too much and that the government should have the right to restrict their speech. Look at the latest volley against Newsweek, which even on the surface is patently ridiculous in its so-called logic.

Consider, as you have, that the election process was totally shanghaied and that there is no reason on earth to believe that it won't happen again. After all, the PREVIOUS election was stolen as well.

I do not see Sanity returning anytime soon, short of a catastrophe so cataclysmic that the current powerstructure (including many in the Democratic Party... I don't believe that John Kerry had the slightest intention of turning our foreign policy on its head any more than Clinton did) is torn down by starving masses. And I cannot wish that state on anyone.

I hate to sound so pessimistic, but I just cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel any longer.

It doesn't matter that a fraction of the money spent on advanced WMD, on wars like Iraq (300 billion and counting), could be spent on alternative energy resource (to eventually delink policy from hot geographical areas), could be spent on schools, medical support and true pro-democracy pressure for the nations producing the angry young men (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia spring to mind). Those are the ways to defuse the anger. Not by dropping more daisycutters.

It doesn't matter that, as you have pointed out, the dominant propaganda triumvirate seems to push for respect of individual quirks and distrust of authority... because at the same time, there is another overwhelming wave of propaganda through so much of entertainment media that constantly reinforces 'we must not be pussies'. The way to not be that is constantly defined as being gung-ho and physically dominant. On principle.

I think the techniques you are asking for in your 'how' are fairly self-evident. A well-educated citizenry trained in critical throught. A transparent government. A responsible media. A fair election system.

How to achieve those things? I am depressed beyond words to say I fear it is impossible. I think that the entire structure is geared towards keeping up the destruction of those very strategies. And I don't think it will let itself be displaced short of all out war.

dave said...

I insist that motivation is the starting point for both defining sanity and exposing the basic cause of insanity.

Our most basic motivation is genetical inspired, rationalized, and culturally encouraged self-centered selfishness.

At birth, self-centeredness is due to the baby's dependence.

Thereafter, it is served by mothers, in particular, and, once in the man's world, especially in our economics, it is taught.

There is nothing that follows which can prevent a competition that destroys us.

I argue this from the Humanism of Abraham Maslow and the wisdom of Scripture:


Abraham Maslow's 15 Characteristics of a Sane Person are compared here with 1Co13:4-9;13)

1Cor. 13:4 (The altruistic attitude), charity, suffereth long (IN MEDITATIONS), and is kind(IN ITS ACCEPTANCE OF SELF AND OTHERS); charity, (Altruism), envieth not (BY RESISTING SUCH ENCULTURATION); charity, (the atruistic attitude), vaunteth not itself (BUT IS COMPASSIONATE), is not puffed up (BUT IS NATURAL, SPONTANEOUS AND SIMPLE),

1Cor. 13:5 Doth not behave itself unseemly (BUT IS CREATIVE), seeketh not her own (IN A MORE EFFICIENT VIEW OF REALITY), is not easily provoked (IT HAS A BIG BROTHER ATTITUDE), thinketh not evil (BUT DISCRIMINATES BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL);

1Cor. 13:6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity (BUT IS UNHOSTILE AND OPEN-MINDED IN HUMOR), but rejoiceth in the truth (THAT IS PROBLEM CENTERED);

1Cor. 13:7 Beareth all things (IN A DEMOCRATIC RESPONSE), believeth all things (AS REGARDS THE PEAK MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE), hopeth all things (THROUGH PERSONAL AUTONOMY), endureth all things (IN A CONTINUED FRESHNESS OF APPRECIATION).