I am on an elite advisory board having to do with nanotechnology. In that discussion I engaged in a review of some topics many of you have heard before, but I think I did it pretty well this time, summarizing a lot of ideas more compactly. Anyway, it should be archived and available - so I'll post it here before returning to the essay on gerrymandering.
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From the CTF discussion, the question rose: "Are nation-states really the right object of focus? Or is it is more likely to be a multi-national mega-company or a small group of hyper-rich individuals?"
Sometimes it makes sense to generalize a little, before getting back to specifics.
What are we talking about here? Will you bear with me through a riff that may seem a bit lectury. It really will become relevant to the topic at hand.
Each of us in this group was raised in a culture that’s featured a weird propaganda program Nearly every novel and hollywood film has promoted Suspicion of Authority (SOA). Often two subsidiary messages accompany SOA. These are:
-- Tolerance of Diversity (TOD) and
-- Personal Harmless Eccentricity (PHE).
Often, in a movie, the protagonist will bond with the audience in the 1st five minutes by:
(1) exhibiting some quirky eccentricity to establish individualism, and
(2) having a run-in with some dislikable authority figure (often over the eccentricity.)
And if you want to establish viewer dislike of an authority figure, by all means let him perform some act of intolerance commensurate with the comeuppance you plan him to receive later on. (If the intolerance was verbal, he may “learn a lesson.” If he kicks a dog, sucka gonna die.)
I raise this here because it is important for us to recognize the cultural roots of our worry. Not only do these three themes express Western/Enlightenment/American/Frontier/Californian value sets. They are also rooted in the Scientific Pragmatism that has been a successful guiding principle for a century. (Also called “modernism.”)
Suspicion of Authority is not, in itself, completely wise. Many people in our society take the SOA message and use it as an excuse to dive into cycles of addictive self-righteous indignation, often focusing extreme “suspicion of authority” toward on one side of an insipid, ill-defined and fundamentally unhelpful metaphor... the 300 year old French “left-right political axis.” (For more on Indignation addiction, see: Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry and Social Psychology.)
This simple-minded version of Suspicion of Authority tends to be blinkered and myopic. Such people tend to minimize or ignore the dangers posed by the authority figures on THEIR side.
That’s the immature version of SOA (which is fueling the so-called “Culture War.”
At its more mature end, Suspicion of Authority is simply an expression of the fundamental lesson of the Liberal Enlightenment -- that we are master self-deceivers. We fool ourselves - as Nobel laureate Richard Feynman said - all-too easily. Therefore, truth and decency cannot be delivered by hierarchically-empowered kings or priests, who have proved they can rationalize doing anything they want and calling it the Greater Good.
(Forgive me. CITOKATE = Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error. )
Elsewhere I talk about the four biggest “accountability arenas” -- Markets, Democracy, Science and Courts -- each of which handle the process of reciprocal accountability very differently.... but with similar underlying processes. (See: Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competitiveness for Society's Benefit.)
In fact, the SOA is a very important part of how these four arenas work. It empowers players to resent established centers of orthodoxy, giving many of them the balls to jump in the arena as challengers.
Can you see that this supplies a contextual framework for what we’ve been discussing?
What the previous discussion shows is that, in general, each of us fears seeing technological breakthroughs monopolized by some set of elites. (The difference between a liberal and a conservative is often over WHICH elites you fear trying to become Big Brother. The irony is that both sides are often right!)
Naturally, we feel less threatened by “the United States” developing such powers first, in part because it is home to most of us and partly because of Pax Americana’s (until recently) above average record as a fairly benign imperium, by historical standards.
Also (until recently), the principal modus for error-prevention (or palliation) in the US was open criticism. How many of those other elites instead base their methodology on secretive central control?
The prospect of others taking a leap in this massively empowering technological area naturally seems worrisome. Not only other nation states, but other elites, such as unaccountable multinationals, criminal gangs, terror groups, mad billionaires, mad scientists.... etc.
Having laid that out, let me ask this; is our fear best expressed in specific terms, e,g, about China, India or Rubert Murdoch getting disruptive technologies and taking over? Or might it be better to look at it the other way.
* What fundamental cultural tools should be in place, in order to assure that is DOES NOT MATTER who gets a disruptive technology first?
Implicit throughout our discussion has been some degree of fealty toward the basic assumptions of the liberal enlightenment. That competition, reciprocal accountability, openness, skepticism, criticism (error detection) and flattened access hierarchies, are all good things.
We can see from history that the rate of grievous ERROR in a society is inversely proportional to the presence of these traits... even though every one of them runs counter to human nature and the self-interests of leaders.
The question is this. Can openness and reciprocal accountability prevent terrible mistakes and abuse of nanotechnology? Ray Kurzweil thinks so. I agree, provisionally. In contrast, many thinkers, ranging from Francis Fukayama and Bill Joy to the Unabomber and Michael Crichton and Margaret Atwood believe our only hope is to reject and repress whole areas of endeavor.
The Fermi Paradox seems to be saying that SOME kind of worrisome mistake may wipe away intelligent life forms. Is this it? Nano stuff? Is Crichton right?
Hell, I am loyal to the Enlightenment.