Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Ritual of the Streetcorner -- Brin's exercise in humility.

I am finding the row over Intelligent Design vs Evolution fascinating and you are encouraged to continue it in comments here. Still, I think it’s important to answer one interlocutor who seemed to be replicating the old argument for cynicism.

In essence, it is always some variant on: “A cynic is an optimist who has snapped out of it and realized how awful people are.”One of the great cliches of all time. Heck, I’ve used it myself.

This is one of those shibboleths that I am resigned to having to face several times a year, for the rest of my life. Almost as much my trademark as CITOKATE... and based on similar underlying premises. I think many you have heard me (contrarian to all cliches) respond to this one with --

”What is a cynic who snaps out of it even FARTHER? Enough to realize that, despite the gruesomely stupid, self-delusional and abysmally corrupt aspects of human nature... things are getting phenomenally better. And have been for some time?

I mean, which is more amazing? That the Enlightenment is under threat from a collusive cabal of conniving aristocrats, imperialists and extremist nutjobs? Or the fact that this routine and utterly predictable alliance, which ruled every other urban culture for 4,000 years has been staved off repeatedly, till now, by a republic -- and a civilization -- that has kept combining redesign and renewal and revolution with an almost infinite capacity for resilience in the face of repetitious human nature?

Go do Brin’s Exercise... I command you! Go to a street corner, preferably one with a very busy four (or twelve!) way stop signage, where people must negotiate traffic rules every second, with little hand-flicks and nods. Do a slow 360. Notice all the things that are working! The quiet and efficient courtesies, the technologies, the tiny acts of honesty and cooperation. The hidden competence of a myriad professionals that make all the switches turn on time and fill the restaurants with food. Do not let a patch of one square degree pass your view without comment, or noticing something that you took for granted, before! If you finish the turn having counted less than a thousand miracles, start over!

People accuse me of being a flaming optimist, because I have a naively positive view of human nature. How absurd! No, friend. I am a flaming optimist because I understand just how wretched human nature is! I am uniquely qualified, as a student of all sciences, of history... and a licensed professional alternate world builder in Speculative History... and a person whose third cousins were all murdered by unprecedented rationalization and human savagery...

... as one who awakens every morning surprised that Cossacks have not yet burned my home, taken my wife and kids, tied me to a stake and ruined my proud civilization.

Not yet.

Hence the ferocity of my optimism, friends and co-rebels. Hence my deep and abiding disdain for cynicism. Because it isn’t helpful. And if it isn’t helpful in this fight, I have no time for it.

We have one hope. The Modernist Agenda -- combined with a little faith. It’s a program that’s worked so far. Indeed, we cannot properly fight for it without conceding -- indeed, AVOWING! -- that it has worked. Fantastically. Epochally. Better than any other program for living and working together.

Like everybody else, I am drawn to cynical contempt-for-the-masses around me. Masses who seem so dimwitted... who support imbecile politicians... who don’t know where Rwanda is or what happened there... who actually think we are at “war”... who raise such dopey, XBox-addicted brats...

...only then I do the exercise. I go to that street corner and start turning. And every time I finish one of those 360 degree rotations, noticing the myriad marvels all around me, the incredible courtesy and skill and competence that it takes to (ironically) make a civilization that is proof against the individual incompetence of countless fools...

... I find myself forced to make a concession. To accept that my inner drives must be wrong. To grasp that (as the best scientists say) I might be wrong.

And that is when I mutter, grudgingly --

”My neighbors simply... cannot be as stupid as they look.”

Yes, they look stupid. I am sure yours do, too. Perhaps, as individuals, they are. But when they are taken together, combined, made free to interact under rules that encourage decent cooperation and competition, something happens. We all get smarter than we ever deserved to be.

It is called an Emergent Property. And, friends, you live in comfort and wallow in information and freedom because of it. Moreover, the shortsighted dogmatists who hate complexity have no idea what it is that they are prescribing, when they offer their simplifying nostrums. What they are offering is to take it all away... and replace this marvel with rule by philosopher kings.

By platonist philosophers of left, right, libertarian and religious and weird. Dig deep and it's all the same thing. Dolts who would kill the goose that gives a flood of golden eggs.

Oh, yes, some of our neighbors are fools, after all.
.

35 comments:

fpoole said...

"Like everybody else, I am drawn to cynical contempt-for-the-masses around me. Masses who seem so dimwitted... who support imbecile politicians... who don't know where Rwanda is or what happened there... who actually think we are at 'war'... who raise such dopey, XBox-addicted brats..."

I love that line. I'll readily admit, though, that I all-too-often drown in that thinking. Reading this blog helps me snap out, though. :)

Offtopic: The title of this had me thinking of street preachers. Hahah.

Woozle said...

Towards the goal of saving civilization from cynics (the kind that assume Enlightenment can't last and either move to rebuild the system along more traditional lines or else stand aside in the belief that the first kind will inevitably prevail anyway):

There are certainly plenty of web sites which let people connect based on common interests, but what about tech (web sites or whatever) which brings people together based on similar values/politics/philosophy?

That way, moderation might have some hope of becoming a real political force (more so than it is now, anyway), going on the theory that most people really are somewhere in the moderate zone.

(Groups like MoveOn take small steps in this direction by having forums where agendas are suggested and evaluated, but it doesn't seem like they're really getting the idea somehow; they still see themselves as being like a party, with a pre-existing set of alignments and preferences.)

Kagehi said...

Your still missing the point here, this isn't about cynicism, its about reality. To put the ID vs. science (not just evolution) debate in your own terms, this isn't about Uplift vs. Wolflings. If you follow the thread of ID back through all its adherents and supporters, to the source, you find a few fringe people that think the, "Aliens might have done it.", idea compelling, because they do not know, comprehend or are willing to read the vast amount of evidence suggesting that if there ever where pregenitors, they where certifiable incompetents and we are lucky as humans that roughly 14% of our children are viable and survive at all. Nothing in biology suggests *design*. Everyone *not* in that small minority admit when pressed that they are talking about God. Not any God, but one very specific God. The God advocated by Phillip Johnson and other supposed scientists turned philosophers, who are *all* work at Discovery Institute. The same people that brought us the theory that Noah's flood was real and tried to prove it with various simulations, only to discover that if it was, *science* showed that much water and green house effects from it would have boiled the flesh for every living thing on the boat and reduced the boat itself to the consistency of leaves in a rain gutter. But this time, they where smart. Instead of even trying to do science, they have simply misquoted what ever science could be made to fit, claimed even the most vague reference to problems or slightly mythical sounding statement made is *proof* that people agree with them, then, in their own words, "You have to have people that talk a lot about the issue and get it up front... It becomes and issue they are used to hearing about, and you get a few more people and a few more, and then eventually you've legitimized is a regular part of the academic discussion. And that is my goal: to legitimize the argument over evolution...", Phillip Johnson.

In other words, lets skip the whole process of having a testable theory, doing actual research, publishing papers in real journals or doing anything real scientists do. This is a popularity contest to them, just like religion is. A saleman pitch. We need to convince people they *want* the new myst blue ID, so they buy it and all the accessories we want to sell with it.

Personally, I think that their argument, and apparently yours, that science is insufficient, since it deals with limited and narrow rules, is incredulous and narrow minded in and of itself. Why? Becasue for it to be true, it would presume a universe that is itself so uniform and featureless that no demand exists for complexity to deal with it. This is just insane. Just looking beaches, some have rocks, some not, some black sand, some white, some red, etc. Even on the level of individual grains the complexity grows exponentially. Why would life be *naturally* any less complex than the environment itself? What idiotic version of the universe would demand that shooting 20 balls with the same angle, height and speed would form a pyramid, unless some force itervened and scattered them? That is the sort of stupid argument that, "Its too complex for the simple rules of science to truely explain it", suggests. The problem is, there are other forces. The nearly infinitely complex structure of the surface the ball lands on, not to mention the ball itself, wind, plants in the way, random wandering bugs, earthquakes and even bloody cosmic rays. We use what we need to "generally" explain what is happening, based on those things we have discovered tend to have the most impact on the result we want, this doesn't mean that a million other things are not having an effect on the process or that we are trying to describe am n^x process using only n*x, it just means that most of the stuff in 'n' is too minor to worry about. We are not trying to simulate a universe when testing a planes wing in a wind tunnel, just trying to make sure it doesn't so drastically differ with respect to *known* and *significant* factors, that it will fail to fly. Or to put it another way, just because a biology doesn't need to know atomic theory, doesn't mean that it makes sense for them the get confused over some minor thing that does suddenly require it, and instead of consulting the relevant field, jump up and insist, "The world is more complex than science currently describes, I think we need to start examining Budhist chants for an answer!!", or what ever form of 'enlightenment' they favor. Its not an argument of complexity, its and argument of, "I am too damn lazy to bother to check if an answer exists, if some reasonable answer is possible or willing to learn enough to even ask the right question. Its much easier to just write it all off as Science not being 'open' enough."

Kagehi said...

Ok.. Never mind a lot of that. I read your response on the other thread and realized that maybe the problem is simply that you haven't yet had the displeaure of dealing with the kinds of people that support stuff like ID. People that won't listen, don't actually read anything you say, reject any source material you might give them without even reading it, rely entirely on sources that support their own views for truth, never say anything in response to you that doesn't amount to repeating what you have already tried to explain has problems, then is wrong and finally, once you are pissed, is just completely stupid. But as soon as you actually show an emotional reaction, they *do* listen, if only to your irritation with them, which is immediately transcribed by them into proof your one of the masses attacking them. I don't mind playing far with people that are on the other side, when like Tilde~ http://tildblog.blogspot.com/ they are half way open minded. But your using a loaded word when you say enlightenment. The might use the same dictionaries, attend the same English classes and even say thing that *sound* like what we are saying, but at some point is becomes blatently obvious that we might as well be trying to talk to them in Chinese, while they actually speak Spanish and both of us think we are talking to each other in English. They don't meen the same thing when saying things like enlightenment that we do, and knowing this your seeming defense of the idea that a middle ground is possible in that sense made me interpret it in *their* terms, not ours. Sorry about the error. But it shows the problem. Those that know the language have a hard time figuring out which side is being argued, the ones that don't, can't even comprehend what the argument is even about or why it is important.

D R Wilson said...

Just a quick thanks...I am drawn to your site...the need for a fix of reality is strong...your site is medicine in moderation.
Thanks again.

Adrian Cotter said...

Great post.

Woozle, you might want to check out this site:
http://www.worldchanging.com/

They've been the one source of information that has lifted me out of my cynicism.

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

I wish I'd found this blog the day it was started. The insights I see are many and great.

Especially this one - I'd come to a similar conclusion, but in a much less effectively communicable way.


My version stems from the field of AI, and the understanding of rational decision making that field has.


It goes like this:
If I believe I'm doomed ... then I'm doomed.
If I refuse to even consider the possibility that I'm doomed ... then maybe I'm not.
I would rather have a chance of being wrong and still have a chance of being happy, than I would have no chance of being wrong, and no chance of being happy.

Even if I would be a cynic - there's nothing gained from doing so. (In the general case - there are plenty of specific exceptions, but...)

Anonymous said...

I realize this is off-topic somewhat, but it certainly deals with one of pragmatism's core challeges -- that is, the ability to re-evaluate one's position when confronted with new data that may not fit the old model.

From an MSNBC article:
"Political bias affects brain activity, study finds"

Researchers asked staunch party members from both sides to evaluate information that threatened their preferred candidate prior to the 2004 Presidential election. The subjects' brains were monitored while they pondered.

The results were announced today.

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts."

Bias on both sides:
The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say.

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained.


Read the whole thing here:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11009379/from/RS.4/

-priMal

Anonymous said...

Are we all hard-wired for indignation-high?

-priMal

Tony Fisk said...

Quoth Brin:
Go to a street corner, preferably one with a very busy four (or twelve!) way stop signage, where people must negotiate traffic rules every second, with little hand-flicks and nods.

I've been meaning to refer you to an excerpt from the book 'A Force More Powerful' (which, unfortunately, I don't have to hand just now. I'll add it later, if anyone's interested).

It's an anecdote of what happened during Pope John Paul II's first visit to Poland (as pontiff!). The authorities of the day were... I suppose 'sulking' is the most polite description. Not quite game enough to restrict travel, they nonetheless tried to reduce the size of the audience by claiming that the mass influx of people to Warsaw would cause chaos and tragedy.

To press home their point, the police were called off the streets. (or was it the traffic lights suffering from a mysterious failure?)

Bereft of controls, guess what happened?

*Not* chaos! Instead, people 'found a new way of moving'. It arose quite spontaneously. And things chugged along just fine.

Not so dumb. (Not Poles, at least;-)

----
Off topic:

I had to have a slow, ironic laugh at dear George's comments on Iran (speaking at KSU):
"And I'm concerned about a non-transparent society's desire to develop a nuclear weapon. The world cannot be put in a position where we can be blackmailed by a nuclear weapon."

What was that about the burgeoning secrecy rate in the US? O' lordy! (naive question: When has Iran stated it's intention to build a nuclear weapon? )

(and, to respond to General Michael Hayden's comment: "Had this [secret wiretap] program *not* been in effect prior to 9/11, you would have still been able to detect some of the 9/11 al-Qaeda operatives in the United States.")

@priMal: Good find!

Big C said...

David,

This is a great pick-me-up for anytime I'm feeling discouraged and indulging my inner misanthrope. It's always sobering to remember how bad things were for most people in the past, and how fragile yet resilient our civilization is. I think you should put this somewhere on your website so people can print it out.

By the way, did you get the email I sent you yesterday? I took a shot at rewriting part 2 of your ID essay. If you didn't get it, let me know and I'll resend it.

Charles

Rob Perkins said...

@Kagehi --

Responding to your progressions in the last comments section. I confess I was simply unaware of sites such as those you describe, which shut out those who challenge ideas or approach them with a new thought.

Although, I confess as well that it isn't at all surprising that the Internet contains insular groups. And, it still leaves me wondering if a friendly "let's prove you right" approach, without any sort of criticism at all about why the ideas are wrong, would help them get behind the doing of the *science*.

Anonymous said...

It is so wonderful to calmly ponder my carefully chosen street corner, with beautiful trees, working stop signs, nice cars, infrastructure, life, vibrance, and the shining sun. But is it my street corner that matters at all? Why not visit the street corner on top of the world, where from it all street corners are visible?

We talk about ID vs. Creationism, but we must flee back to our street corner. Our lives are constructed so frailly upon the machinations that give us the street corner in the first place. Of course I can appreciate anew everything that goes into the system, but I hardly need a street corner. How about a return to the nearby forest? I see a harmony there beyond any I could fathom on any street corner. Further, I see longevity that will outlive us.

Where are we taking our lessons from? We return to our street corner to fool ourselves once again to believing that it is all necessarily thus, that without all this we would indeed be thrust into chaos, unable to discuss what are so honored to discuss.

It is as if we form our own little cabal to defeat the obvious cabalists who want to rue the day with their ineffectual ruminations about an intelligent creator. When will the masses realize the irrelevance of such postulation, that we do not recieve our notions from without, but are responsible for them? To throw our hands up and say "uncle", that someone threw a curveball a little too difficult for us to ever discover so we should give up now and make our own version up that just happens to coincide nicely with certain religious dogma.

I agree, however profoundly upset I am to be arguing thus, that the issue is indeed one of method, that we should find the best possible course of action to counter the ludicrous accusations and formulations of IDers. The stinking comes from all the underhandedness, that we must think in order to undermine a group who is attempting to undermine us. We are stuck at a fairly low level, at which point the high road looks like haughtiness (as described before in the "we know better than you so you should listen to us" argument). In fact, the scientists are exactly right, and stating so in the most explicit and easy to identify terms has been rendered useless.

So my big question is: How do we destroy ID?

I may sound drastic, but something built in order to specifically undermine science without proposing a viable alternative cannot peacefully coexist with science, by definition. It must be eradicated, and we should be asking ourselves how.

To come full circle, I elucidated the first thoughts here to show the ever-complicated roots of cynicism. I can look anywhere to find the justification for anything. I need not rely on my street corner, and valuing it above nature is IMHO fairly foolish, and stinks a little of a sort of self-righteous indignation that everything must be so callously anthropomorphized.

jbmoore said...

According to Jared Diamond's Collapse, civilizations usually fail at the height of their achievements and power. I am not saying that your outlook is wrong. I daresay that it may be right, but it is just one perspective among many. Yes, everything is working, but Hurricane Katrina and the East Coast blackout show that our underlying technological infrastructures are being allowed to decay. When the government fails to spend a measley $300 million to prevent $30 billion dollar messes, something is seriously wrong. All levels of government failed in New Orleans, not just the Federal. But then, it comes down to individuals. Everyone is generally doing his or her best to survive and eke out a living in this world. Most are too busy to bother about the big picture. They concern themselves with the immediate problem at hand. So then, you are caught in a quandry. Should I try to educate people about this or that problem that over time may become serious and hurt everyone? This sometimes is what leads to the downfall of a society - a number of small problems that gradually get worse, but the rate of change is below the radar screens of the society's leaders. One day they wake up and there are these insurmountable issues they missed that leads to their demise. This is documented history and fact. This is one way island civilizations die. The Earth has now become an island. Have we grown any wiser and learned from the Easter Islander's mistakes, or the mistakes of the Greenlanders?

John

David Brin said...

Michael, if only there were “nothing to be gained from cynicism.”

Alas, if so, why would it be the default position held by nearly every single person? Almost without exception? Even do-goody activists drip cynical interptretations of society, their enemies, and the gullibility of a dismally clueless public. Do you ever hear the word “civilization” spoken of in glowing terms?

Ever?

And, yes, please note! The very paragraph that I just wrote is... well... cynical!!!!

So, what is this sick-sweet trap that suckers in nearly all of us, differing only over degree, or details of dogma, or perhaps a bit of style?

Certainly cynicism was cooler on the shoolyard and playground. Fizzing enthusiasm was punished by sneers and curled lips and mockery. It begins there. (Though today, there is much less use of fists. So sayeth the rebel optimist.)

Then there is exceptionalism. Notice my maneuver. Am I a “ferocious optimist” out of pure conviction? Or because that niche is far less occupied? Giving me a wondrously well-supported excuse to heap a style of scorn that’s all my own, on all competing intellectuals, for their boring and unhelpful and insipid, me-too trait of cynicism?

Am I just doing what they do, only a bit more cleverly?

Instead of contempt for the masses, I exhibit contempt for those who display contempt for the masses!

Pretty clever, but is it honest?

Well, THIS message, analyzing my own trip, and clearly having fun doing so... maybe THIS is honest, hm? Have I risen above dismally predictable human nature now?

Or is this yet another layer of preening? Showing off my “fitness” the way a peacock does, by dropping defenses and displaying gaudy handicaps (in this case “honest self-appraisal)? In other words, might even my honesty be part of the same old game?

No, there are no gurus or wise men. Sometimes wise guys. Sometimes even a few mature grownups, like George Marshall. But evidence indicates that we are all fools, with the wisest being those who realize it.

The beautiful thing, the thing that sometimes can be wise, is civilization.

--
PriMal, thanks! That MSNBC article fits nicely into the case I am making at:
http://www.davidbrin.com/addiction.html

Steve said...

Dr. Brin,

Lovely response right above!

I think the only way out of the cynic mess is self-contemplation as you just did. Don't trust yourself about your own motivations! That way one sees the joke. If we can keep remembering that there is a joke, I think we notch down our indignation-addiction.

Scary bit about the brain scans! Perhaps this is the anodyne?

David Brin said...

My wife is reading Crichton's STATE OF FEAR. Can anyone offer a link to the best debunking site, for this piece of polemical self-indulgence?

Anonymous said...

Dave:

There are several out there. The ones I have at hand:

A good analysis of Crichton's reasoning by some actual climate scientists:

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=74

Chris Mooney's column points out that many of the scientists whose papers Crichton quotes as supporting his claims believe he is misinterpreting them!

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2005/02/06/checking_crichtons_footnotes/


Stefan

Anonymous said...

A "compare and contrast" list of quotes about freedom.

I'm posting this somewhat reluctantly, because I don't know all the sources. It is possible that some of the quotes near the bottom are out of context.

But still . . . even the ones up top are stirring.

Stefan

(Original found posted anonymously on "Firedoglake")

"Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech."
--Benjamin Franklin

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Be isolated, be ignored, be attacked, be in doubt, be frightened, but do not be silenced."
--Bertrand Russell

"When the people fear the government you have tyranny... when the government fears the people you have liberty."
--Thomas Jefferson

"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."
--Abraham Lincoln

"To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."
--Theodore Roosevelt

"Whenever 'A' attempts by law to impose his moral standards upon 'B', 'A' is most likely a scoundrel."
--H.L. Mencken

"Freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it."
--Mayor Rudolph Giuliani

"Today American's would be outraged if U.N. troops entered Los Angeles to restore order; tomorrow they will be grateful. This is especially true if they were told there was an outside threat from beyond, whether real or promulgated, that threatened our very existence. It is then that all peoples of the world will plead with world leaders to deliver them from this evil. The one thing every man fears is the unknown. When presented with this scenario, individual rights will be willingly relinquished for the guarantee of their well being granted to them by their world government."
--Henry Kissinger

"I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy, but that could change."
--Dan Quayle

"There ought to be limits on freedom."
--George W. Bush

"If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."
--George W. Bush

"A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there's no question about it."
--George W. Bush

"The government will make use of these powers only insofar as they are essential for carrying out vitally necessary measures...The number of cases in which an internal necessity exists for having recourse to such a law is in itself a limited one."
--Adolf Hitler

"I don't know that Atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."
--George H. W. Bush

"Oh, how I hate the phrase we have—a 'living document,’ we now have a Constitution that means whatever we want it to mean. The Constitution is not a living organism, for Pete's sake... We can take away rights just as we can grant new ones. Don't think that it's a one-way street."
--Antonin Scalia

reason said...

David - great post! Classic yes- but!

Julia said...

Great post! I'm counting it among the Good Things to have come along for me this morning. (Others include Tony at the coffee shop knowing my order, even though I don't go by there very often, and my daughter being in a good mood this morning.)

Francis said...

David,

I've been saying the same thing for a couple of years. I am a cynic and I am a sceptic - but I'm cynical even about cynicism and sceptical even about scepticism.

I think that the basic problem is that progress feels like the labours of Sysyphus - that rock moves achingly slowly (and a culture of instant gratification in both Britain and America really doesn't help) and we can't see round it to what's ahead. Also, when the rock slips backwards, that's big news and crushes people - and so is more noticable than the daily grind of pushing it up the hill.

It's only when you take a step back and look back over your shoulder that you realise just how far the rock has been pushed.

(Just to illustrate:
100 years ago, we had Apartheid, Jim Crow and were fighting over the right of women to vote.
200 years ago we had mass slavery
(I don't know much about the early 18th Century)
400 years ago we had the Holy Inquisition running rampant.
500 years ago, one of the world's most powerful empires (the Ottoman) was using captured and indoctrinated child slaves to run its armies (the Janisseries).

Finally, I think you place too much weight on The Enlightenment - yes, it was a big step. It just looks like the biggest because it was probably the most recent big philosophical step.

(And I don't usually praise civilisation until someone questions its value in the same way I don't praise drinking water unless some idiot questions its value.)

matzebrei said...

”My neighbors simply... cannot be as stupid as they look.”

I find myself having to repeat that all too often. The weird thing I've encountered is that sometimes they misinterpret this basic respect as a sign of weakness.

Oh, yes, some of our neighbors are fools, after all.

We all get to play the role of fool at various times; it has nothing to do with intelligence.

It is nice, however, that we live in a place where the damage that can be done by one fool *is* somewhat limited.

Kagehi said...

You know.. I do not comprehend the strange idea some have that nature is more stable than well... nature as we have reshaped it. First off, a forest and a city are still both part of the natural world. We just build more complex beaver damns and bird nests. Some species even manage, due to high levels of specialization, to out do us in specific, but more limited cases. Describing a city is outside nature is almost metaphysical.

The other problem with this is the supposed balance in "nature". Not quite. Its balanced in the same way one of those Jenga games is balanced or a house of cards. The only extra rule that keeps it from falling down is this one, "If something critical is removed, there is usually enough time for something else to come along and prop up the rest, before it all crashes down." Some ecosystems have many species that overlap, so losing one doesn't cause the whole system to collapse. The others just move into the gaps. In others... One single critical species is the keystone, like the coral reefs, without which virtually everything becomes vulnerable and dies. Cities and civilizations have the same flaws as anything else in nature, including the unfortunate tendency of things to start falling apart if 99 out of every 100 people decide to become telemarketers, instead of plumbers, and the remaining plumbers are not sufficient to fill the gap that leaves. Ecosystems are ecosystems, even if they are based on dollars and wires or grass and watering holes. When you start ignoring this fact, you invariably start to look at the system itself as the enemy, instead of the immediate problem. Ironically, the reason why we built aquaducts, buildings, libraries, roads, etc., was precisely because we found "nature" unpredictable, prone to causing us serious inconvenience and generally hostile. It is damn funny imho, when some one comes a long and says, "Man. Look at this mess we created, its unpredictable, prone to causing us serious inconvenience and in some cases generally hostile to survival!"

But its a bloody good joke, hoever unintended.

Brother Doug said...

Hey Brin I am really enjoying the posts you have been putting out, but I worry you may get burned out. Don’t forget about the next great novel or sequel to the transparent society.

I was recently given hope by reading about the Island of Ticopia In Jarrod Diamonds book Collapse. They had a successful zero population growth policy that has for thousands of years prevented an ecological disaster like that on Easter Island. So learning from mistakes and thinking about the future can work and make a livable society. Even in Stone Age pre-enlightenment societies.


Br.Doug

Brother Doug said...

Stefan could you please do me a favor and click on the “other” button for identity, instead of putting your name in the middle or end of your post. You post good stuff but I hate having to hunt down every anonymous post to see if it is you. Or at least put your name at the beginning.

Br. Doug

Hawker Hurricane said...

”My neighbors simply... cannot be as stupid as they look.”

To which I must add...
"They couldn't POSSIBLY be..."

The problem with being a cynic is that you are too often right.

Tony Fisk said...

Cynics should note that irritants receive more explicit attention than balms.
In the same way, dumb neighbours stick in the mind more than good ones.

Here's that excerpt I spoke of:
From 'A Force More Powerful' (Peter Ackerman & Jack Duvall)
It refers to the situation in Krakow just prior to the papal visit in 1979:
"In the days before the Pope came, there were chilling rumours about what would supposedly happen: Millions of peasants would swamp the city, sleeping anywhere, leaving behind 'disease, excrement and corpses'. Thousands would be crushed in the huge crowds. But when one writer ventured onto the streets, he found 'a different way of walking, a change in style and rhythm...the crowd undulated slowly, people moved without bumping into each other, made way for each other.... Civilians kept order;there was not a policeman in sight' A crowd had beheld itself and been strengthened by feeling its own presence."

My observation: 'Manners maketh (civilised) man.'

And Heinlein (drawing from Confucius?) often commented it was their absence that marked a civilisation's death knell. I have no idea what Diamond says on that in 'Collapse'.

ankh said...

>Crichton

Second the recommendation of

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=74

(Note, that link is to an unusual discussion on the site, which otherwise tries to stay focused on discussing nonfiction.

saxa82 said...

I think Dr. Brin has reached what some would call enlightenment- a state we should all aim for. Though I have been both a skeptic and a cynic at times in my life, I am really closer to a realist. I try to do what Dr. Brin does- "the 360" - from time to time. I find it keeps me centered when the world seems too crazy to believe. Yes, there was Sept. 11th; yes, there is the Iraq "war"; yes, there was Katrina. But, by golly, we are out of the Dark Ages, and there is a lot to be said for that! The mere fact that the world is still not perfect proves that we have room for improvement, for continued "evolution," let's say. So who's going to lead the charge?

David Brin said...

Re Jared Diamond's book COLLAPSE, see my review at http://www.davidbrin.com/

I highly recommend it... while suggesting it is biased and incomplete. Diamond is supplying plenty of needed CITOKATE. What he does not supply is any confidence in modern humanity's new suite of problem-solving tools. He seems to prescriberetro solutions, like Ticopia and Tokugawa Japan...

...over my dead body.

He is very valuable... and far too curmugeonly to understand that moving forward is the only answer. Adolescants solve the problems of adolescence by becoming adults. They do not do so by picking a rigid version of childhood to return to.

Indeed, his book should have been titled GROW UP!

Rik said...

(previous comment went up in smoke, so I'll try again...)

That all of you aren't buying Crightion is just fine. But that you do accept Jared Diamon! Guns, Germs & Steel was perfect (haven't read The Third Chimpanzee), but the premise of Collapse is flawed to begin with. Brin oughta take Diamond out on the street, to do a 360! You can't compare us (= the modern world) with Easter Island. We got us. We got science. & Best of all: we got extelligence. We have more stored media (from Holy Books to books to ebooks) than we know what to do with. The sheer quantity and the fact that it is manmade and constantly re-interpreted, makes it very strong. This doesn't make our world perfect, far from it.
It's not as if something is irretrievably lost - as in the old days from the destruction of a single copy/the original in ancient Alex or Byzantium - copies abound at present. I was reading my Stewart&Cohen 'Figments of Reality', where they talk games. In old games, there's only exploration and everyone's a pro. But you can also have explosion, when everyone suddenly finds himself an amateur once again: a whole new ballgame! If that frightens you, go find yourself another planet, because this is the way it works with humans on earth.

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

@David: Alas, if so, why would it be the default position held by nearly every single person? Almost without exception?

Because it feels good.
It accomplishes nothing, but it sure feels good.
I stand by my statement - cynicism has accomplished nothing whatsoever.


Skepticism, on the other hand, is very useful - but is also very different from cynicism.

You can question without denying, and most importantly - when you exercise skepticism, you are, if you do it properly, remaining open to the possibility of being wrong.

This is not so with cynicism - cynicism invariably assumes certainty.

And thus, for now, I stand by my claim that cynicism is functionless; it may make you feel good, but it still does not (I believe) accomplish anything.

If you can provide a counterexample... I'd be surprised.

David Brin said...

If you challenge me to be contrary, be assured your chances are good.

I was contrary to Diamond in my review. He DOES need to do a 360... several times.

And yet, he is more valuable than any of us here. He reaches millions, and gets them to think historically, to see the vast panoply of human errors and to apply CITOKATE upon what we may stupidly do to the Earth.

Adrian Cotter said...

Rik: in fact, Diamond's premise is not that we are the same as Easter Island, for precisely the things you talk about: we have a much deeper view of history, we can look at examples of where civilizations have failed and ones that haven't.

Whether or not we agree with his solutions is besides the point. He wants us to recognize there are problems with how our civilization operates and grapple with it -- otherwise, we may very well end up like Easter Island.

He actually (I've seen him speak a couple of times) is an optimist.