Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Questions I am frequently asked about… (Part V) Transparency, Privacy and the Information Age

I'll now complete my compilation of questions that I’m frequently asked by interviewers. They can all be found on my website. This final section is about… 

== PRIVACY AND TRANSPARENCY==  

Note that my tenure as an expert in these matters arose from the 1997 publication of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?  which won the American Library Association's Freedom of Speech Award and the McGannon Public Policy Prize.  It revealed many surprising aspects to a vexing and complex set of problems that we must negotiate and navigate in the coming decades, with nothing at stake... other than liberty, survival, and all the things that make life worth living.

For more detail, see a compilation of some articles and interviews  about transparency, freedom and technology .

--Do you worry about the loss of privacy as both the government and amateurs have more and more access to surveillance?

TinyTransparentI got some of my nicest letters based on Chapter 9 of The Transparent Society, where I disassemble my own theory, appraise and talk about all sorts of ways that a transparent society could go wrong! For example, you could have a really nasty version of majority-rule, such as Ray Bradbury shows in Fahrenheit 451. Even if transparency prevents Big Brother, will that mean we’ve traded top-down tyranny for the lateral kind? Oppression by hundreds of millions of judgmental Little Brothers? 

Serious concerns, Still, real life offers reason to hope. If you look at the last 50 years, whenever the public learns more about some eccentric group, it judges that group on one criterion: Is this group mean? 

Are they harmful and oppressive to others? When the answer is yes, the more we learn about the group, the less they’re tolerated. If the answer is no, the more we learn about the group, the more they’re tolerated. Look back. More exposure and information about others reduced racism, sexism, homophobia... but increased our aversion to groups like the KKK or Stalinists.  No other criterion explains this. 

9mlZmETE6m2NEkSrxM63fTl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVaiQDB_Rd1H6kmuBWtceBJIf that’s true and if it holds in the future—if people continue to defend others’ eccentricities because...

a) they think it’s cool to live in a world of harmless eccentrics and... 

b) for the sake of their own protection—then you would likely see a 51 percent or 60 percent or 70 percent dictatorship by a majority that insists on crushing just one thing… intolerance. Okay, that’s still group-think majority-imposed will. But the least harmful one you can imagine. 

As far as privacy itself is concerned, I have a simple answer to that. (It makes up Chapter Four of The Transparent Society.) Human beings want it. We naturally are built to want some privacy. Moreover, if we remain a free and knowing people, then sovereign citizens will demand a little privacy, though we’ll find that we must redefine the term for changing times. 

techtransThe question really boils down to: Will tomorrow’s citizens be free and knowing? Will new technologies empower us to exert reciprocal accountability, even upon the mighty? It may seem ironic, but for privacy and freedom to survive, we’ll need a civilization that is mostly open and transparent, so that each of us may catch the would-be voyeurs and Big Brothers.  So that most of us know most of what’s going on, most of the time. 

It can happen!  The proof is us.  Because it is already the method that we’ve used for 200 years. And to see this all laid out, have a look at one of the only public policy books from the 20th Century that’s still in print and selling more each year. 

--What do you foresee as tiny cameras proliferate? 

SousveillanceSurveillanceEssentially, this is the greatest of all human experiments.  In theory… sousveillance (looking at the mighty from below) should cancel our worst fears about the surveillance state, if we get into the habit of stripping the mighty naked. 

If that happens, we should eventually equilibrate into a situation where people - for their own sakes and because they believe in the Golden Rule, and because they will be caught if they violate it - eagerly and fiercely zoom in upon areas where others might be conniving or scheming or cheating or pursuing grossly-harmful deluded paths… 

… while looking away when none of these dangers apply. A socially sanctioned discretion based on “none of my business” and leaving each other alone… because you’ll want that other person to be your ally next time, when you are the one saying “make that guy leave me alone!” 

That is where it should wind up.  If we’re capable of calm, or rationality and acting in our own self-interest.  It is stylishly cynical for most people to guffaw, at this point, and assume this is a fairy tale. I can just hear some readers muttering “Humans aren’t like that!” 

Well, maybe not. But I have seen plenty of evidence that we are now more like that than our ancestors ever imagined they could be.  The goal may not be attainable.  But we’ve already taken strides in that direction.

-PrivacyAccountability copyWhat do you see as the major problem in achieving a more transparent society?

When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else.

-How will greater openness affect our society?

We already live in the openness experiment, and have for two hundred years. It is called the Enlightenment -- with "light" both a core word and a key concept in our turn away from 6,000 years of feudalism. All of the great enlightenment arenas -- markets, science and democracy -- flourish in direct proportion to how much their players (consumers, scientists and voters) know, in order to make good decisions. To whatever extent these arenas get clogged by secrecy, they fail.

imagesBut the next step in people empowerment is even more impressive -- those burgeoning "smart mobs" Howard Rheingold and Clay Shirky and Vernor Vinge talk about. (Also shown in my latest novel, Existence.) It's agile. It's wired. 

Every generation innovates, or the Enlightenment dies.

- In EARTH (1989) you forecast that a huge world issue in the 2010s and 2020s would be international banking secrecy. Now, daily revelations seem to be bearing that out.  Do you still foresee something like a "Helvetian War"?

An actual, physical war, waged by nations of the developing world against the great banking havens?  Well, not really.  That was an exaggerated metaphor for a novel that achieved dramatic effects. But I do still expect increasing radicalization and pressure from many newly rising nations, when they realize that their former, kleptocratic lords stole literally trillions that might save and give hope to millions of children back home, if the money were recovered.

NothingToHideThis issue won't go away. Just recently (April 2013) a cache of 2.5 million files has cracked open, spilling the secrets of more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts, exposing hidden dealings of politicians, con men and the mega-rich the world over. In my novel, Earth, I predicted this would be the core issue of our times.  I still think things will play out that way.






David Brin
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42 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your fellow SF writer Charlie Stross touches on many of the same issues and themes - and the technology driving them - in a recent youtube lecture:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-CI70y99gA

Between your vision and his, it sounds like we will be essentially living in an Enchanted World where uplifted Disney-like talking animals can be our friends, dragons like Smaug can be created by recombinant DNA, Moore's Law will make Magic Mirrors a reality and even appliances and toys will be sentient like the Brave Little Toaster and Toy Story.

Native peoples tended to view every tree and rock as having a soul, every animal a spirit force. DNA manipilation and microchips will make this a reality. We can even have AI put in our dinner plates and candlesticks like in Beauty and the Beast.

Has anyone written an SF novel based on the premise of a fantasy/magical world that was actually created by hard science?

shagggz said...

The assumption that people will default to just leaving others alone amid the broader sea of information on everyone else sounds questionable when we consider the rise of big data analytics, increasingly searchable by the masses. Also, how does the prospect of unbreakable cryptography mesh with the equiveillant society? The incipient rise of Bitcoin is just the tip of the iceberg...

PrairieDawn said...

I recently read Existence, and have been playing around with the idea of CiTOKATE (not sure if I have the capitalization right). In most respects, I can see that information being ubiquitously available should, in the long run, help to make people safer, in some ways freer, and make bad people and businesses more accountable.
I worry a little, though about those people who thrive on self righteous indignation, and to a lesser extent, people with a tendency to meddle in other people's personal lives. Many aspects of our lives tend to become overrun with fad knowledge (eating and raising children being two of the biggest culprits) and people can develop very strong opinions out of proportion to the actual harm (or benefit) of a given choice. Already we see people suggesting that every questionable parenting decision that someone in the public eye makes gets picked apart by random strangers who often don't know the whole story and who prescribe draconian responses. "She let her child go out without a jacket when it was fifty degrees outside? She should go to jail!" or "One...two...three...doesn't she know that having a third child is the worst thing you can do for the environment? And at her age!" I already find myself second guessing every decision I make about my children, and obsessing over every mark on them--this morning my mother in law accidently opened a door and bumped my toddler's head and I felt compelled to explain the mark to the daycare teacher. I worry that the feeling that everything one is doing (or eating)is constantly being scrutinized by well meaning (or just superior) otehr people would cause many people to become paralyzed.
Any ideas on how we could become less linclined to freely criticize everything everyone around us does at all times? Avoiding error is one thing, but if we make life a minefield of continuous criticism I can see some major negative effects on our mental health.

locumranch said...

The conclusions that David comes to in regard to transparency are WEIRD -- Western Educated Industrialized Rich & Democratic -- and, as such, they are rife with culturally suspect assumptions that do not apply to the non-western ethic.

In much of the world, there is no intrinsic human expectation of privacy, nor is there an innate desire for it. Privacy is merely the flipside of Shame, like Yin & Yang, and many societies do not share our need for privacy because they lack our sense of shame.

The Western Ethic (Judeo-Christian Culture) is Shame-Based. We are ashamed of our ignorance, our nakedness, our bodily functions, our base desires & our very humanity, and it is this sense of shame that compels us to both succeed & hide ourselves in privacy:

We perform our all-too-human bodily functions in "privies"; we disguise our bodily defects with clothing, makeup, toupees & cosmetic surgery; we privatize our pornography on an anonymous internet; and we clothe our ignorance with fearfully compulsive accomplishment, awards & "sheep skins".

Western Society is held together by a combination of shame & moral complicity as evidenced by the phrase "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone": Privacy is flipside of Shame; and Mercy is the flipside of Moral Complicity.

And what of Transparency?

It is the death of all of the above because there is NO SHAME without the expectation of privacy, NO SUCCESS without the shame of failure and NO MERCY without moral complicity, leaving US (the denizens of the WEIRD) at the merciless mercy of Kardashian shamelessness and a society in decline.

Shameless, merciless, devoid of accomplishment: It's a brave new world.


Best.

___

My error on the Hugos, tallying up total # nominations with awards.

David Brin said...

Shagggz sorry, anyone who relies on "unbreakable encryption" and who especially trusts bitcoin is someone I would love to sell a bridge. Such folks are romantics... and clueless about things like Back Doors. Of which the NSA has more than you can possibly imagine.

Tony Fisk said...

Has anyone written an SF novel based on the premise of a fantasy/magical world that was actually created by hard science?

Plenty! Just about all SF does this to a degree but, specifically, Dan Simmons "Olympus" springs to mind. Fritz Leiber's "Gather, Darkness" is another.

David Brin said...

PrairieDawn the situation you describe is deeply moving. But you base your worries on an assumption that your neighbors are mostly nosy, nasty, judgmental fools. Yes, many of them are. But if they bear down on you too hard they will be subject to criticism from those of your neighbors who find fault in intolerance, oppression, and nasty invasiveness.

Consider, if those things are deemed to be vile (and they are) then won't there by a synnergy that keeps other types of invasive criticism milder than you fear? Isn't it in your interest to help make that so?

David Brin said...

locumranch, your slagging of the west is soooooo... western! I bet you have never lived in any of the no-privacy cultures you extoll. You seem unaware of how privacy freed humans from vicious oppression by harpies and thugs and every nasty busybody. Jesus, have you ever watched a troop of chimpanzees? The tension levels... worrying every single minute about your status level and fighting like hell not to let it slip lower and shitting on everbody below you, in order to keep them there, while cowering from the shit falling on you.

THAT is what human life was like in most cultures before the enlightenment, with no breather, no space to be yourself and relax. Feh.

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. If the people above you weren't shitting on you at the moment, the petty gods in need of appeasement that we dreamed up filled in the gaps.

Is life any better for the Bonobos? For any of our cousins? 8)

Ian said...

"In much of the world, there is no intrinsic human expectation of privacy, nor is there an innate desire for it. Privacy is merely the flipside of Shame, like Yin & Yang, and many societies do not share our need for privacy because they lack our sense of shame."

Give examples, be specific.

Assuming that your reference to yin and yang is meant to infer that East Asian societies are amongst those that don't value privacy because of an alleged lack of shame, explain how this is consistent with the concept of Kao ("face").

Ian said...

"We perform our all-too-human bodily functions in "privies"; we disguise our bodily defects with clothing, makeup, toupees & cosmetic surgery; we privatize our pornography on an anonymous internet; and we clothe our ignorance with fearfully compulsive accomplishment, awards & "sheep skins"."

Got any examples of cultures that shit in public, don't wear clothes and wank openly?

GamesBook said...

@Ian. Actually, the Romans had communal toilets and baths (e.g. http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/hygienebaths/a/102310-Hygiene-In-Ancient-Rome.htm). As for clothing: "covering up defects" is NOT the opposite of "being naked". Clothing for utilitarian reasons ("its freezing cold outside") makes perfect sense - hence loin clothes for tribes living in tropical areas. I'm not sure about sexual customs though...

Robert said...

According to something I read years ago, there used to be a couple fairly promiscuous American Indian tribes on the East Coast prior to widespread colonization. This one ship visited, noted the behavior and such, and then years later returned. The women were dressed and sex wasn't on the menu. It seems they got hit by a rash of STDs and the like (and probably missionaries) and as a result "cleaned up their act."

Rob H.

atomsmith said...

I believe it was Herodotus that wrote of the Persians' amusing/weird idea that defecation was something to be done in private.

locumranch said...

David's right to call me out because I'm just as WEIRD as the rest of you, hiding my WEIRD shame in neurotic professionalism and professional self-distancing (called 'objectivity' by some), the difference being that I know that my weirdness is non-representative of humanity in general as I have traveled widely and even lived in Southeast Asia for a spell.

Living in his grotesquely huge California-style mansion, David forgets that the western conception of privacy presupposes an excess of affluence which does not exist in most of the Third World, making the concept of third world 'personal space' practically inconceivable. As a result, these 'normal' third world citizens are forced to perform their sleeping, lovemaking, ablutions & excreting in a 'single room' (gasp!) or a communal manner

Historical examples are legion: Diogenes the Cynic was infamous for public "wanking" (as Ian puts it); the Ancient Romans shared communal toilets, baths & orgies; people routinely shat in the street in Elizabethan England; and the Hindus celebrated sexual intimacy on a scale unthinkable in the 'enlightened' west.*

For more modern examples, look no further than the US Constitution (which contains no express 'right to privacy'), anti-sodomy laws, the excretory habits of the urban homeless or any privileged western preschooler, celebrity sex tapes, Chat Roulette, and Berlusconi's 'Bunga Bunga' parties.

David confuses the two non-homologous concepts of privacy and security, and it does my cynical heart good to see David reflexively reject many primate & sociological studies that prove that this so-called 'enlightened' expectation of privacy is both unnatural and quite WEIRD.

The 'Right to Privacy' is NOT necessarily enlightened, inherent or innate. Instead, it represents a cultural, largely urban adaption that decreases the likelihood that we will go 'amok' and kill either ourselves or others, but it does not eliminate this as a possibility. Asimov explores this paradigm in 'Caves of Steel' and 'Naked Sun'.


Best.
_____

* Japan, being a shame-based culture that embraces the concept of Kao ("face"), is unique in many respects because they practice sexual openness & communal bathing in a largely non-christian setting WITHOUT the expectation of cultural PRIVACY. Constantly exposed to public scrutiny, the suicide rate varies from 20 to 30 per 100,000 in many Asian cultures.

David Brin said...

I note that locumranch both failed to respond to my question about his living overseas... AND completely (I bet deliberately) misconstrued my pointing out how western he is. It is the reflex to fault and demean your OWN culture that is the WEIRDest offshoot of the Enlightenment experiment. I approve of it! It helps us to improve at a rapid pace! But it is so WEIRD that the young westerners who do this never ever ever try for the perspective to see how WEIRD their own criticize my own culture reflex is.

Name for me one other culture that had it, in such scale.

Always, rather than allow themselves to realize how wholesome and BETTER this reflex is, they instead egotistically imply that they (and a few favored others) invented it.

Jumper said...

Ian said it about as well as I could.

I find much of the stuff locumranch considers artificially induced to be innate to my species. But that's an essay for another day (or a dissertation for an anthropologist.)

My own musings are about front porches: what is it about some porches which makes them such that people actually sit on them, and what is it about some porches such that no one will sit on them? Indeed CAN'T sit on them for long?

Doris said...

The idea of privacy for me but scrutiny for you reminds me of some non-church-going people I know who think that everyone else should be religious because religion is for making everybody else behave properly.

Robert said...

Jumper: Mosquitoes and other bugs, humidity levels and air flow, and what there is to see. Why sit on the porch if there's nothing to look at, or if you get eaten alive?

Though I will say this: Expect more people to start sitting on porches in the next generation or two with the advent of inexpensive tablets and AR glasses. When the Internet is available where you are now, rather than at a specific computer in a room in the house, then people will go wherever they want to browse. So long as there's a signal!

Rob H.

locumranch said...

I seem to have stumbled into a time warp wherein certain individuals insist on defining their culture, cultural perspective and/or current affiliation in terms of "The Enlightenment":

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/

"The Enlightenment is the period in the history of western thought and culture, stretching roughly from the mid-decades of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century, characterized by dramatic revolutions in science, philosophy, society and politics (culminating) in the political upheaval of the French Revolution, in which the traditional hierarchical political and social orders (the French monarchy, the privileges of the French nobility, the political power and authority of the Catholic Church) were violently destroyed and replaced by a political and social order informed by the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality for all, founded, ostensibly, upon principles of human reason".

Although it was an exemplary historical period all and all, the 'Age of Enlightenment' ended long ago, leaving us poor moderns to live and let live in a Post-Enlightenment (Post-Industrial) economy wherein the service sector generates more (self-defined) wealth than either science or manufacturing, and the discipline of reason takes a back seat to the cause of cheery PC optimism, social sloganeering and political expediency.

I also fail to see how any current someone can define themselves as 'Enlightened' when they slavishly defend the current traditional hierarchical political and social order at the expense of reason, never asking if this social tail should 'wag the well-reasoned dog', never questioning the appropriateness of enlisting reason in support of a moribund society instead of using reason to create a society that serves reason.

But this is exactly what some of you are doing with your PC chant of 'My Culture Right or Wrong' even though you can't get there from here. Respect and remember the past, by all means, but realize that you can't get to the future by clinging to the past. Enlightenment, my posterior.


Best.

PrairieDawn said...

I think you're right. It's a matter both of knowing, oneself, when criticism is not really necessary (I have broken the habit of correcting other people's spelling all the time) and knowing when other people's criticism isn't worth one's time or relentless self examination. I suspect that for a while we may see an increase in people with social anxiety disorders, and different kinds of social anxiety disorder more related to ubiquitous surveillance and sousveillance (such as worrying whether one is pictured in a google street view in a grubby sweatshirt and pajama bottoms).
Sometimes it helps to just repeat the immortal words of Richard Feynman (or his wife), "What do you care what other people think?"

On a wholly unrelated note, my son and I have a theory that cobblies are quantum life forms. Are we anywhere near the right track? Just curious.

David Brin said...


Is locumranch for real?

"I also fail to see how any current someone can define themselves as 'Enlightened' when they slavishly defend the current traditional hierarchical political and social order at the expense of reason, never asking if this social tail should 'wag the well-reasoned dog', never questioning the appropriateness of enlisting reason in support of a moribund society instead of using reason to create a society that serves reason."

REEEEELLY?

Completely without any irony, even?

Prairie Dawn... very good! You have a smart son!

Ian said...

"Living in his grotesquely huge California-style mansion, David forgets that the western conception of privacy presupposes an excess of affluence which does not exist in most of the Third World, making the concept of third world 'personal space' practically inconceivable."

Take a look at the Kowloon tiger cages some time.

Soem of the poorest people in the world and they desperately cling to whatever scraps of privacy they can.

Hank Roberts said...

https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2013/04/sixth_movie-plo.html is worth a look

PrairieDawn said...

I think, Ian, that the idea is that where actual privacy, in the sense of being able to truly hide what you are doing, is impossible, we have to create the social illusion of privacy.

The example of the restaurant in an earlier blog entry comes to mind. Where there are no walls between tables, people make an effort not to stare at or listen obviously to each other, and it is considered very rude to comment on what someone at another table is doing (even if you are commenting on that person's rudeness). Where there are walls, no one knows who is peeking.

Miss Manners called it the principle of "It Never Happened." If you see or hear something you should not have, an embarrassing accident, or a temporary lapse of decorum, you ignore it like it wasn't there. You pretend you don't see that the rag your neighbor uses to cover the entry to the alcove they are using as a home is incomplete, and lets you catch a glimpse of them naked.

But...if what you see or hear is seriously evil or dangerous (a poice officer has shoved his way into the next door alcove and threatening the woman inside with rape, or the person at the restaurant table is choking) you take action.

Re: Cobblies. :D

Alfred Differ said...

locumranch:

You have to be careful trying to learn these things from quick reads of web pages. The snippet you provide describing the Enlightenment is mostly about the French variation of the movement. On the Continent they were enamored with rationalism and knew no bounds for reason. The Scots saw things different and argued for empiricism.

Some people argue the Enlightenment didn't survive on the Continent after the French revolution because the revolutionaries built an authoritarian world run by a different elite offering the illusion of equality. This can be debated, of course, but the Anglo variation went on for a few more decades before socialism consumed the core proponents.

The history of the movement is far more complicated than your single web page describes. It is from this era that liberalism in all its variations really emerges as a political force. Look at the world today and tell us that the decedent ideas aren't still revolutionizing the world by enticing people toward weirdness.

David Brin said...

Thanks Alfred. The assumption that there was only one branch of the Enlightenment... the platonist-rationalist Continental Branch... is spread by the Enlightenment's enemies because it is clear that the platonist branch led right into Hegel and Marx.

But dig it, as you say, there was another, empiricist branch, that carried forward the work of Galileo and Watt and Michael Faraday and Franklin and Adam Smith... finding out what works and then tweaking the rest to make it better.

That branch survived and thrived and was never discredited by European wars. Yes, the most gaudy parts -- modernist architecture and American imperial over-reach (vietnam) got their noses rightfully bloodied. But ambitious, can-do pragmatic problem solving still has an extremely good reputation and record, sullied only by outright lies spread by both right and left. Lies so wretched that they are virtually fact-free.

locumranch said...

The historical age known as 'The Enlightenment' was a wonderful experiment, culminating in (depending on particular reference) the US & French Revolutions. Then, it ended.

Other ages & philosophical schools followed, including Rationalism, Empiricism, Idealism & (my personal fave) Logical Positivism, many of which were not necessarily rational despite their self-identifying names.

Rationalisim (with its acausal Cartesian nonsense of 'Cogito ergo sum') set the cause of science back generations almost single-handedly, allowing many Enlightenment institutions to degrade, slowly but surely.

As David himself has noted, the fine ol' USA has become a parody of an Enlightenment institution, dominated by a 5% nouvelle aristocracy that owns or controls 90% of available resources, recreating the same type of intellectually calcified social, political, financial & education hierarchies that crushed innovation by the likes of Galileo.

It is therefore ridiculous to credit 'The Enlightenment' for our current level of technological achievement, just as it would be to credit Homo Habilis for the current accomplishments of Homo Sapiens.

When deprived of their proper definitions, words cease to have language meaning and become magical incantations instead -- nonsense terms, actually -- that inhibit discourse like 'Proactive', 'Privacy', 'Organic', 'Family Values', 'Libertarian' or 'Enlightenment'.

Such terms may have meant something once, but they no longer do through repeated misuse. They merely sound like they should mean something.

The 'Privacy' provided by the Kowloon tiger cages are the perfect example. They are 'cages' which are functionally transparent so they cannot be said to provide 'privacy' but, as cages, they can be said to provide 'security'.



Best.




Alfred Differ said...

I'm not sure where you are getting your history, but the Scottish variant of the Enlightenment survived the revolutions at the end of the 18th century. The French variant focused too much upon Equality at the expense of Liberty and displayed its flaws over the following decades. What German philosophers did with the French variant is nothing short of anti-enlightenment from the perspective of the earlier Scots, so it can be argued the Enlightenment died on the continent until a few Austrians tried to revive the corpse at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries. The Austrians went more for the Scottish variant, which really shouldn't surprise anyone considering the history of their interaction with German ideas. 8)

I might quibble with David a little on the issue of our variant thriving, but only on details I suspect. In England I think the Enlightenment died a slow death and was stone cold dead by the 20th century. It is only in the former British colonies that it is still alive and thriving and only in those nations where labor was in chronically short supply. What we've done with it, though, is nothing short of Earth-shaking. The US rose from a mostly agricultural nation to fight a 'world war' that lasted most of the 20th century against more than one European empire and we won. Those empires mostly fell apart and have mostly stopped fighting. Considering all the blood that has been spilled in Europe that is quite miraculous.

I'm not doing the nationalistic pride thing, though. I'm pointing out that the Enlightenment survived in a region of the world blessed with a wealth generating core (greater Mississippi River basin) and defendable borders. We've absorbed millions of immigrants from many places who mostly chose to come here knowing that they faced a struggle. Each generation adapted the Enlightenment institutions and adopted what worked for them making us a single nation utterly dependent upon empiricism to absorb them and grow. No other place on Earth has managed to do what we've done in the cultural sense. There is no way we could have done it without the Enlightenment lessons.

In the US the Enlightenment goes by many different names depending on which modern branch a person supports. For example, the issue of slavery split the liberals. Some saw certain wage earners as de facto slaves trapped by a 'voluntary' employment agreement that was a little bit too much like selling water at a high price to a man dying of thirst. Some liberals argued for freeing them by regulating the markets forcefully while others argued that such efforts would give the oligarchs access to government authority. We still fight over this, but those of us who hold to the Enlightenment (Scottish variant) argue for an empirical approach. Is regulation working? Is regulation worse than what the wage slaves were suffering without assistance? These things can be discussed and solutions can be attempted, but it takes a little courage to try a compromise and a little humility to avoid arguing for ideal designs for society when there is no possible way of falsifying those designs.

The Enlightenment is still alive and striding large across the world. The Empiricists among them have been proven to have a better approach than their intellectual siblings in the early days. Science stands as an existence proof for the value of these ideas.

David Brin said...

For lack of time I will merely say this. locumranch relentlessly evades and ignores my request that he look in a mirror. Is HIS phenomenon of relentless criticism of the failings of his own tribe/culture /nation a valid datum worthy of consideration?

Obviously he sees where that would go and scurries to change the subject. But it is THE crucial datum, since it is the most compelling difference between this culture and any that preceded it. Unless he is actually gonna claim that reflex is original to him. Ah, SOA (suspicion of authority) was always invented first by its most recent indignant addicts.

In fact, that indignant SOA habit is THE salient personality trait in current american life. It is the root of our relentless self-criticism and most of the campaigns of self-improvement that overcame (imperfectly) countless scourges of oppression and rationalized prejudice that no other previous culture even lifted its head to notice, let alone criticize.

Yes, it does good, until it metasticizes into utter blindness to any sign of progress and shrill sanctimony. At which point you get culture war.

I have proved my bona fides. I hate the growing wealth disparity and rise of New Lords... but my eye skewers it pragmatically, seeking context in the fights of every generation of americans before us. I have studied FDR and countless methods... instead of moaning and grunting and growling that it is hopeless and my own culture is eeeeeeevil.

If our parents could stymie the natural drift back to feudalism, so can we.

And I';ll not be lectured about the problem of the mad right by someone who has NOT fought it anywhere near as effectively as I have. Nor one who refuses to notice that there really is - also - a mad left.

Ian Gould said...

"The 'Privacy' provided by the Kowloon tiger cages are the perfect example. They are 'cages' which are functionally transparent so they cannot be said to provide 'privacy' but, as cages, they can be said to provide 'security'."

Unless, of course, people hang rags from the bars to create a modicum of privacy, which is exactly what they do.

Greg Byshenk said...

Certainly 'the Enlightenment' as a historical era was a particular period in the past, but to use this fact to argue that enlightenment no longer exists is as silly as saying that industry no longer exists because we are no longer in the "age of industry".

Ian said...

"... it can be argued the Enlightenment died on the continent until a few Austrians tried to revive the corpse at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries."

Only by a right-wing ideologue who disregards such trivialities as the spread of secularism and democracy.

LarryHart said...

Greg Byshenk:
Certainly 'the Enlightenment' as a historical era was a particular period in the past, but to use this fact to argue that enlightenment no longer exists is as silly as saying that industry no longer exists because we are no longer in the "age of industry".


Or that bronze hasn't existed since the Bronze Age.

Ian:

"... it can be argued the Enlightenment died on the continent until a few Austrians tried to revive the corpse at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries."

Only by a right-wing ideologue who disregards such trivialities as the spread of secularism and democracy


Right-wind ideologues don't disregard those things. They recognize that secularism and democracy are spreading. But they consider that to be a BAD thing, and are determined to stop it at all costs.

locumranch said...

"Look in the mirror" is always good advice and I admonish David to do the same. Mistakenly, he continues to attribute the "phenomenon of relentless (self) criticism" to a temporal hiccup that he calls 'The Enlightenment' when, truth be told, that particular enduring cultural characteristic predates the Age of Enlightenment by thousands of years.

Correctly, he states that the "SOA habit (of self-criticism) is THE salient personality trait in current american life", but he fails to recognize the downside to this type of self-criticism: It is disruptive, destabilizing & destructive by definition and (my) example; and it must be counterbalanced by the deliberate (majority-based) suppression of this disruptively 'creative' minority.

But it doesn't end there. Once the majority adopts the minority recommendation (albeit reluctantly), then that minority ceases to be creatively or disruptively relevant. Hence the problematic establishment (aka 'The Establishment') of a rigidly traditional hierarchical political and social order resistant to further change, unwilling to even entertain the irrational nature of their sacred belief system.

Thanks to Ian, btw, for supporting my thesis that the desire for privacy springs from a sense of shame by offering up the shameful excuse for housing that are the Kowloon Tiger cages, as well as the resulting desire for privacy show by their poor oppressed occupants.

Best.

David Brin said...

He did it again! Instead of looking at his own reflexes as an example of a phenomenon that is both pervasive and typical of his own culture, and examining the ramifications, locum swivels and points: "Oh, yeh? YOU look in a mirror, Brin!"

He declares counterfactuals like "all cultures were self-critical" and brushes the whole thing away, without citing even one example from history.

In fact, there were always folks who were critical of their societies and times... but except for stand-out individuals, that grouchiness was nearly always nostalgic. Decrying a decay FROM better values of the past.

locum is a (boringly typical) example of a very different ethos that is engaged in (wallowed in) by a MAJORITY of his fellow citizens, that we are not living up to standards that NO other culture in all of history ever came close to living up to and that his own culture has come vastly closer to.

Again, when it is moderate and based upon clear perspective, this habit of SOA and self-culture criticism is precisely HOW we have improved. From Franklin to Frederick Douglass to MLK to Nader to Lawrence Lessig, such critics have helped us take down impossible-seeming barriers.

WHiners- in contrast - accomplish nothing. They justify not-trying by grousing that it is impossible. Then they slag others who are trying vastly harder (and more effectively) than they are.

Ian said...

"Thanks to Ian, btw, for supporting my thesis that the desire for privacy springs from a sense of shame by offering up the shameful excuse for housing that are the Kowloon Tiger cages, as well as the resulting desire for privacy show by their poor oppressed occupants. "

Except of course your fundamental thesis is that privacy, like eating three times a day and voting is just a western cultural frippery that the lesser races don't want or need.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

In fact, there were always folks who were critical of their societies and times... but except for stand-out individuals, that grouchiness was nearly always nostalgic. Decrying a decay FROM better values of the past.


The modern flag-waving American right-winger is typical of just that attitude. If someone suggests that American society can improve itself by being more tolerant or more peaceful or more charitalbe, they're all "Go back to Russia!" and all mock-outraged at the fact that the speaker must "hate America" to be so critical. But when they insist that America needs to be more corporate-friendly or more socially-rigid, or more authoritarian that it currently is, suddenly THEIR criticisms of America are somehow justified and natural.

Feh!

Tangentially--there was a whole piece in today's Chicago Tribune about how prevalent the culture of nostalgia has become since around the 1980s and ever since. The author of the piece suggests that people are desperately grasping for something that nostalgia is FAILING to provide them. He even went so far as to suggest that the subconscious sense that this is the case is what makes zombies so popular these days.

LarryHart said...

locumranch, while it may be that shame implies a desire for privacy, I'm not sure at all that the opposite is true.

Criminals don't want the police searching their houses. This does NOT mean nor does it imply that anyone who prefers not to be searched by the police is a criminal.

sociotard said...

I think his point was that Privacy is a concept that works well in cultures with shame, that is less pronounced in cultures with less shame. So, in a perfectly egalitarian state where everyone accepts each other, locumranch would expect people to care very little about privacy.

Likewise, voting is a western cultural value that does not apply to some other cultures.

The point is not that Privacy or Voting are silly, but that we should not use them to infer anything about <<>>Human Nature<<>>.

(this has merely been my attempt to restate locumranches argument in an attempt to understand him)

That said, locumranch has not offered up a case example of a shameless society with no import placed on privacy.

David Brin said...

Interesting discussion guys. Now onward.....

locumranch said...

Sociotard has a nice grasp on things, though his phrasing lacks the inflammatory quality that I prefer. The responses of others were typical in all respects. They were reflexive, reacting to the assumed straw-man meaning behind my words rather than the words themselves.

I never said that "all cultures were self-critical". I merely stated that the "particular enduring cultural characteristic (of self-criticism) predates the Age of Enlightenment by thousands of years", never citing the singularly uninterrupted culture to which I was referring as I thought it obvious.

Likewise, I never said I was nostalgic for a prior Golden Age because I do not believe that such an age actually existed. I did imply, however, that it is equally foolish to be enamoured of (nostalgic for) a current Golden Age (aka 'The Present') which is only golden in the imagination of the dominant majority.

I never argued that privacy was "a western cultural frippery", nor did I refer to the population of the Third World as "lesser races". Those were Ian's words. I said that the western concept of privacy was WEIRD, being more reflective of western affluence than a fundamental aspect of human nature.

Nor can I cite a "case example of a shameless society with no import placed on privacy" as such a collection of utterly shameless individuals would represent an anarchy rather than a de facto society. I can only cite a society with much less shame and much less privacy than the western norm. It's called Thailand and I did reside there a spell.

Best.