Friday, September 30, 2005

Suspicion of Authority -- a prevalent meme

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, 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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One 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. (See my essay: Our Favorite Cliche: The Idiot Plot.)

I raise this here because it is important for us to recognize the cultural roots of our worry. Not only do these three themes -- Suspicion of Authority, Tolerance of Diversity, and Personal Harmless Eccentricity -- 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 my article: 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.

Instead, the Liberal Enlightenment says that both truth and good behavior can only come from markets of interaction, in which free players are empowered to hold each other accountable through criticism --  CITOKATE .

Forgive me. CITOKATE is my acronym for  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 Rupert 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 Fukuyama 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.


Anonymous said...

TMA! (Too Many Acronyms.)

I still haven't figured out what MM is.


Anonymous said...

Time for authority figures to be brain-scanned!,0,7044548.story?coll=la-home-headlines

"Study: Adept Liars' Brains Are Built Differently

By Robert Lee Hotz, Times Staff Writer

In the lexicon of lying, there are white lies and bare-faced lies. Facts can be fudged, forged or shaded. There are fibbers, fabricators and feckless fabulists. By whatever clinical term, the truth simply is not in some people.

Now scientists have an anatomical inkling why.

A new study from the University of Southern California, published in the October issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, suggests that the talent for compulsive deception is embedded in the structure of the brain itself.

People who habitually lie and cheat — pathological liars — appear to have much more white matter, which speeds communication between neurons, in the prefrontal cortex than normal people, the researchers found. They also have fewer actual neurons."

David Brin said...

MM was molecular manufacturing but that piece was clipped from a groupthink with common vernacular. sorry.

As for lie detection, remind me to post my article predicting this too!

In fact, in SUNDIVER I posit that applying brain lie detection to LEADERS was what caused them to clamp dopwn... then cause the people to rebel.

David Brin said...

Sorry, I just had to add this in a place where others could crib it:

The following was offered by a correspondent. No matter how tendentious and biased the source might be, can there be any doubts what has changed? This is no longer about political party, per se. It is about people refusing to recognize facts. That we are not ruled by “conservatives” but morons.

History of Recent Hurricanes Looking back a few years:
President: Nixon Category 5 Hurricane *Camille* (August 1969) Area: About the same area as that affected by Katrina

Response: Nixon prepared the National Guard in advance, ordering rescue ships from Tampa, FL and Houston, TX to stand waiting along with over a thousand regular military, 24+ helicopters to assist the Coast Guard and National Guard about as soon as the hurricane passed.

President: Bush (the Elder) Category 5 Hurricane *Andrew* (August 1992) Area: Florida

Response: In the middle of a re-election campaign, Bush ceased campaigning the day before the hurricane, went to Washington, and assembled one of the largest military forces ever mustered on U.S. soil. 7,000 National Guard And 22,000 regular military were sent in with the necessary equipment shortly after the hurricane passed through.

President: Clinton Category 3 Hurricane *Floyd* (September 1999) Area: Virginia and Carolinas

Response: Meeting with China's president Jiang in New Zealand, Clinton immediately declared the hurricane-affected areas as federal disasters, allowing the military and National Guard to move in and help. Clinton flew home immediately, one day before the hurricane hit, to help coordinate the rescue.

President: Bush (the Lesser) Category 5 Hurricane *Katrina* (August 2005) Area: Gulf Coast

Response: National Guard troops are down about 8,000 members because they are in Iraq with much of the needed rescue equipment. Bush was on vacation, riding his bike for two hours the day before the hurricane landed. On that day, Bush attended a birthday party for John McCain and played golf. The levees began to crack. While emergency 1.5-ton sandbags were ready to be placed to strengthen the levee and exclude water, there were insufficient helicopters and pilots to set them before the levees broke. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded for federal-level assistance and got none. Bush Went to San Diego to play guitar with a country singer and end his vacation early-- but not until the next day, because he had tickets to a San Diego Padres game.

Ah, but the Gulf Coast can feel better now that the Cronies - fueled by 100$B in no-bid reconscruction contracts - have started to arrive.

The one beneficiary of all this? The State of Arizona. Every time someone calls George W Bush a “conservative”, AZ gets more electricity by tapping the spin in Barry Goldwater’s grave.

John O'Neill said...

You need a period between these two sentences:

"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)."

Watch 'n Wait said...

Ah, David...You're going strong. I'm really enjoying reading your posts. Carry on!

Anonymous said...

That’s the immature version of SOA (which is fueling the socalled “Culture War.” ) parenthesis)

re liar detection: didn't Einstein have a lot of extra white matter in his brain ? Me thinks this method needs some work...

Anonymous said...

"What fundamental cultural tools should be in place, in order to assure that is DOES NOT MATTER who gets MM first?"

Well, you've come to the right question.

And yes, I think we can safely dispense with the idea of stopping new technology from being developed... that's rather like trying to hold back the tide with your hands.

So you propose "openness and reciprocal accountability"... without suggesting how to get it. And it sounds like this was probably the point of contention in the first place.

To take your Rupert Murdoch example, how do you know he doesn't have his own personal skunkworks working on MM right now? And a more important question, if he didn't want you to know, how COULD you know?

This used to be the bastion of national governments. Recall the Tuskegee Experiment and the DoE Radiation Experiments as a couple of known examples of stuff that nobody suspected at the time, because it was pretty effectively kept secret.

But the ability to keep secrets on that sort of scale is not limited to national governments anymore. Multinational corporations and wealthy individuals have the resources, and the ability and knowledge to control the flow of information to the point where they could be up to similar shenanigans and nobody would be the wiser.

So... how do you take away their ability to do that?

Anna Paradox said...

In "all-too", remove hyphen. Close or omit parenthesis mentioned above.

The last two paragraphs are too elliptical for a general audience. I'm not sure what the reference to Fermi's Paradox means, and if I hadn't been reading here, I'd miss the point of "Hell, I'm loyal to the Enlightenment." I like the point, and it's a good way to close, but it may need amplification to carry to readers who haven't already a strong history with your ideas.

There are also two pointers to other articles on your site. Not too long ago, when you mentioned four traits of sanity, I searched and was unable to find them. Maybe it's time to take all these essays, and digest and organize them into a single book that could give a general reader approaching your ideas for the first time an easy and thorough entry into them. Then get it in bookstores, or minimally available through print on demand at Amazon. We need these ideas in the wider forum of political discussion, and there are audiences that web publishing does not reach that print publication can.

Think about it -- would a book called "An Enlightenment Manifesto for the 21st Century" by David Brin spread the word better than this website?

Rob Perkins said...

I guess a book would be nice, for all those essays. I know a guy who has a share in a print-on-demand press, and a way to get ISBN numbers assigned to print-on-demand books, if David wants it.

jomama said...

As Palliard said the cat's out and running loose.

It's too late, and always has been, even if someone wanted to reign in discovery. Talking about controlling it is nothing more than pissing in the wind.

But, hey, everybody's gotta piss somewhere.

I pity the poor sumbitch that gets it wrong tho, if there is anyone left when it's all over.

Anonymous said...

"To take your Rupert Murdoch example, how do you know he doesn't have his own personal skunkworks working on MM right now? And a more important question, if he didn't want you to know, how COULD you know?"

I think the idea is that Rupert can't use his MM in a negative way without being held accountable for it. And Rupert knows that. So he won't.

Anonymous said...

Here's something else fundamental to worry about:

Unfortunately, Doyne Farmer is a heavy hitter (Chaos Theory, Santa Fe Institute, etc.) and can't easily be dismissed out of hand.

And if anyone still has any doubts about that, click the link just below to "google" him.

The thing NOT mentioned in that 1995 essay of his is that, just as we have the "learning edge" over most other organisms, computers have the "learning edge" over us.

That is, most other organisms have to go thru biological "natural selection" in order to develop significant new physical characteristics and behaviors. Behavior wise at least, we do it memetically, that is thru "learning." BUT it takes us a long childhood to get started -- and a lot of midnight oil for us old dogs to learn new tricks.

Computers, on the other hand, can "learn" any program -- or data -- fed them almost instantaneously.

Now give them a centrino chip - - -

I'm rooting for Azimov's Laws of Robotics,

how about you?

It now takes a team of Chess Masters to beat Deep Blue (or whatever they're calling it now). And rumors are that the next generation simply won't be beatable at all.

Shades of John Henry! (Early-American railroad myth.)

So now we have nano tech, AND computer tech to worry about.

None the less, health, happiness & long life,
L. Reichard White

P.S. Have heard rumors of AI so good at the U. of Missouri (I think) that already they're afraid to give it internet access. Anyone hear anything similar - - - or is this just more Urban Myth?

David Brin said...

sayeth Palliard: “But the ability to keep secrets on that sort of scale is not limited to national governments anymore. Multinational corporations and wealthy individuals have the resources, and the ability and knowledge to control the flow of information to the point where they could be up to similar shenanigans and nobody would be the wiser...... So... how do you take away their ability to do that?”

You have (you modernist) gone straight to the practical part of the problem. Suppose we can get support behind greater reciprocal accountability?

See where I discuss ways that a billionaire may, at whim, fund several types of efforts that would do to high level conspirators what Project Witness ( tries to do to local corrupt officials in the 3rd World. For example, a “Henchman’s Prize”... a million dollars plus a new identity to whoever on Earth blows the whistle on the ‘worst thing’, that year.

This hints at a conceptual problem that has arisen from propaganda. Both the L-R axis and Hollywood films preach that we cannot expect henchmen to turn on their masters, even when evil-deeds are afoot. But this is the fundamental and only long term hope of humanity for transparency.

If whistle-blowing becomes admired, even a spectator sport and route to celebrity, there will be no corner where conspirators can hide.

Anna: there is a place in EARTh where I summarize the four traits of a modernist definition of sanity. One has been discussed. SATIABILITY. (If you get what you say you want, it makes you marginally happier and allows you to shift ambitions a bit.

The other three (briefly) are EXTRAPOLATION OF CONSEQUENCES: an ability to ponder with some accuracy the consequences of proposed actions, revising as new evidence is revealed....

EXTRAPOLATION OF MOTIVATIONS: you look at other people and can guess their motives with at least a slim chance of reaching roughly correct conclusions, revising as new evidence is revealed....

ADAPTABILITY... willingness to revise belief or expectation sets when shown clear evidence you were wrong.

I wish i had time to write more.


The Fermi Paradox is one of the fundamental ideas that
we must always have on our shelf, serving as a
reminder to watch out for obligate failure modes...
failure modes that are SO severe... and such
unavboidable attractor states... that they would have
culled intelligent life out of a galaxy that should
otherwise teem with it.

I am not saying we need to shout "Fermi!" every time a
failure mode is mentioned. It simply reminds us of
the seriousness of the issues at hand. And of our
obligation - if there IS such a failure attractor mode
- to be the first/smartest race able to avoid it!

Given that nearly all other human civs emphasized
centralized - dogmatic and hierarchical decision
making systems... and that there are Darwinian reasons
why leaders want to do this... it may be that such
systems arise everywhere, and the result (as it has
been across Earth) is always catastrophically bad
decision making.

If so, the Western elightenment, emphasizing open
reciprocal accountability and vigorously competitive
error-discovery, may be unique not only on Earth but
galaxy wide! It is - i believe - the one great
weapon/tool we have for hoping to survive.


“ Think about it -- would a book called "An Enlightenment Manifesto for the 21st Century" by David Brin spread the word better than this website?”

You find the publisher. Seriously. I seem famous & successful. But all they want is rehashes. The Transparent Society only got published as a fluke. It is the ONLY book from that period still widely circulating... and still they don’t answer my mail.

In fact, Rob, I am looking for a GOOD pod publisher who would be willing to share costs, to produce a book collecting some articles and reviews.


L. Reichard White: you should get Ray Kurzweil’s book THE SINGULARITY IS COMING.

Asomov’s laws of robotics are hopeless. See FOUNDATION’S TRIUMPH.

Anonymous said...

Damn, Dr. Brin. You hit really close onto a story idea I have been messing around with for years! My fictional explanation of the Fermi paradox is that every other society finds a grandiose or banal reason to limit their technological development. Our intrepid explorers visit world after world only to find each one suicided, or a society that exibits the logical conclusion of the various anti-modern movements and can't even comprehend what the poor humans are going on about and why they would bother. My problem in writing it is two-fold. I suspect that it will end up rather preachy, and I would like to show modernist humans including a modernist-but-religious sub-group ("Go forth and name all things...") but I just can't get there from here. Well that and RealLife(tm) requiring that I make money occassionally.

Anonymous said...

"If whistle-blowing becomes admired, even a spectator sport and route to celebrity, there will be no corner where conspirators can hide."

Well... not only is that unlikely to work, but I'm not sure if it's such a good idea.

Unlikely to work, on the basis that Time Magazine made "The Whistleblowers" its "Persons of the Year" in 2002, and it hasn't done much for their sex appeal or getting the idea of whistleblowing widely discussed.

And not such a good idea, on the basis that ratting people out isn't a particularly good habit to get people into. Remember the proposal for "Operation TIPS", where John Poindexter proposed drafting citizens into our own Stasi? Do you want to live in a society where people are rewarded for turning you in for doing crap that is "technically" illegal but doesn't hurt anyone?

I'd like to have a better basis of societal cooperation than "If you don't hail the fuhrer, your neighbors will rat on you for cash prizes."

David Brin said...

There are many stages before one can write commercial fiction. One is accepting that it is in the Arts, not the professions. In professions, talent counts a lot, but lack of talent can be compensated-for with hard work and gradual accumulation of skills.

In the arts, talent is 50%. Without lots of it, all the skill you acquire and work you put in may equip you to teach the art in school, but not to perform.

Alas, you cannot find out if you have the talent till you spend a lot of time acquiring some skills! Through classes, workshopping and lots of practice. The arts are, therefore, intrinsically not "fair". They will always be pyramidal, even in a diamond shaped society.

Having said that, there are bits of advice I can offer. Go to and find the "advice" article in the right hand column. Believe me I would like nothing better than to see one of this community... with the values you just expressed... making it. Especially in today's poor SciFi market.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the advice, Dr. Brin. I will check it out. Both my wife and I are interested in writing. In addition to creating/running/making money with two businesses, raising genius girls, improving the local school, etc, etc. But as I think Heinlein said, "
A writer writes!"

I have to agree with you about the current state of SF. Every once in a while I'll go by Barnes and Nobel and look at the new books, then head to the used book store and look for some classic I may have missed so far. (John Varley is in my stack now. Whee! Stanislaw Lem was another interesting guy.) Where once there was exploration of what it means to be human, now it is mostly the same old stories recycled. I'd love to see a topic where people here could post their favorite sf authors (hint hint).

Perhaps the poor state of sf is a PLOT by the anti-modernists to kill off free-thinking. ;o) I know Spider Robinson is feeling persecuted. (Though personally I think it is because all his non-Callahan novels are really not that good IMHO).

David Brin said...

Did anyone else notice the implicit assumption made by Palliard... of a top-down hierarchical "tips" system, like the one that worked so well under communism? Aimed at intimidating the slightest eccentricity among the masses, no matter how innocent?

Oh, it certainly is worth fearing...

...and it has absolutely nothing to do with the bottom-up system that I proposed, which aimed at uncovering truly monstrous things perpetrated by people at the very TOP of society, elites with power and the means to do big things in secrecy.

Step back. Paillard fears abuse of power by elites, looking down at us, and siccing us against each other. Right! So what's the best way to prevent that?

Why, the method we've used for a hundred years... looking BACK at elites and siccing THEM against each other! Government against business against unions against journalists against professionals and a myriad lawyers against each other.

Indeed, the horror of our present situation is that serveral classes of elite have learned to avoid conflict with each other and instead to divide up the pie, the way aristos always have.

Paillard, your example is the OPPOSITE of what I meant.

Anonymous said...


your bottom to top total accoutability model would be just the right thing if it were not based on the common judgement of right and wrong of a vast majority of north americans. and this is very dangerous in this generation, and for the next 2 or 3 further. let me explain. the concept of right or wrong is a social concept, and most of it is aquired in early childhood and during first stages of education. this generation of north americans are primarly adepts of the religious concept of right or wrong (be it based on the bible, coran or torah),generously spiced with all the patriotic nonsense and media war sanitation they could get in their early formative years. they are now raising another generation of kids with their sense of emphaty totally twisted by gory reality shows, war media coverage and a new generation of patriotic nonsense. for them, other people mysery is entrtaining and enjoyable just by the fact that mummy and daddy enjoy watching "survivor" and "fear factor". the only history and geography they learn is that of the united states or of canada ( i disapprove the canadian school curriculum as a canadian citizen, so just give me a break). they can recite the name of all american presidents, but don't know the 7 world wonders, and zeus is a cartoon character. killing people is right if you are told you are at war with them. no matter how much access they will have to the tips, their sense of right and wrong will remain twisted.

in a sense, your accountabilty model is having clay feet to start with.

in the ideal world, the greater good should start by a better education, probably the "europen classic" some of us were fortunate enough to get. and it should start at a very early age, primary school or before. this would insure your "bottom" has the basics in order to keep accountable your "top". but, in my humble opinion, this will probably happen in a looong couple of generations.
in the meantime, let's keep as many people interested in your blog; who says you can't change the world one person at a time..

Anna Paradox said...

Thanks for the clarification on Fermi's Paradox and the four modernist traits of sanity.

It's disturbing that you can't find a publisher for more non-fiction. This deserves more attention.

One interesting thought about the four traits of sanity -- three of the four are exercised while playing good poker. It takes extrapolation of consequences, extrapolation of motivations, and adaptability to play at a high level. It's no help for satiability, though.

David Brin said...

Anna, excellent point about poker!

And yes, an ideal poker player is SATIABLE! "Know when to fold em."

Note, these four sanity traits are adaptive when you are in a survival struggle AGAINST others... but they also help you to adapt to times when it is better to cooperate...

and then adapt further (amid plenty) to becoming altruistic.

Remember, satiability PLUS p[lenitude make for satiation.

Empathy + satiation=> sympathy.

Sorry Carme, but the European education is PROFOUNDLY over-rated. In any event, your entire missive expresses contempt for the masses, assuming that the general market of give and take will not equiilibrate around a fairly moral society.

And yet, you live in a society in which that VER peocess resulted in repudiation of MOST racism, sexism and classism.

You are welcome to criticise how much of those things remain. After all, CITOKATE.

But to criticise without acknowledging how far we've come? And that we've come this way through a VERY modernist and practical and decent re-adjustment of shared values...? That is, well, romantic.

Anonymous said...

thanks, david, i was really not expecting an answer. and as i am a weekend blogger, your answer made ... my weekend. sorry if i was reading as contemptouos of the masses, this can't be, as i am of the masses, and allways will be. anyways, the criticism was not the point of my comment. looks like i ruffled some feathers though, and i was also disappointed that you actually were not commenting my idea, but dismissing my feelings. i'll keep stopping by and i'll keep lobbying for your "earth" to be included in the school curriculum.
you are a great guy