Saturday, April 16, 2022

Anticipating changes for the next few decades... and weeks

“The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ilya Prigogine was fond of saying that the future is not so much determined by what we do in the present as our image of the future determines what we do today.” So begins the latest missive of Noema Magazine.

The Near Future: The Pew Research Center’s annual Big Challenges Report top-features my musings on energy, local production/autonomy, transparency etc., along with other top seers, like the estimable Esther Dyson, Jamais Cascio, Amy Webb and Abigail deKosnick and many others. 

In this report, "Experts say the 'New Normal' in 2025 will be far more tech-driven, presenting more challenges" these pundits argue that changes resulting from disruptions from the pandemic are likely to worsen economic inequality, enhance the power of big tech firms, and multiply the spread of misinformation.

They also argue that changes have the potential to bring about new reforms aimed at ensuring greater social and racial equality and that tech advances have the power to enhance the quality of life for many.

Among the points I raise:

  • Advances in cost-effectiveness of sustainable energy supplies will be augmented by better storage systems. This will both reduce reliance on fossil fuels and allow cities and homes to be more autonomous.
  • Urban farming methods may move to industrial scale, allowing similar moves toward local autonomy (perhaps requiring a full decade or more to show significant impact). Meat use will decline for several reasons, ensuring some degree of food security, as well.
  • Local, small-scale, on-demand manufacturing may start to show effects in 2025. If all of the above take hold, there will be surplus oceanic shipping capacity across the planet. Some of it may be applied to ameliorate (not solve) acute water shortages. Innovative uses of such vessels may range all the way to those depicted in my novel ‘Earth.’
  • Full-scale diagnostic evaluations of diet, genes and microbiome will result in micro-biotic therapies and treatments. AI appraisals of other diagnostics will both advance detection of problems and become distributed to handheld devices cheaply available to all, even poor clinics.
  • Handheld devices will start to carry detection technologies that can appraise across the spectrum, allowing NGOs and even private parties to detect and report environmental problems.
  • Socially, this extension of citizen vision will go beyond the current trend of assigning accountability to police and other authorities. Despotisms will be empowered, as predicted in George Orwell's ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ But democracies will also be empowered, as in my nonfiction book, ‘The Transparent Society.’
  • I give odds that tsunamis of revelation will crack the shields protecting many elites from disclosure of past and present torts and turpitudes. The Panama Papers and Epstein cases exhibit how fear propels many elites to combine efforts at repression. But only a few more cracks may cause the dike to collapse, revealing networks of blackmail. This is only partly technologically driven and hence is not guaranteed. If it does happen, there will be dangerous spasms by all sorts of elites, desperate to either retain status or evade consequences. (I wrote that before the panic-frenzy we are seeing by Vladimire Putin, whose best option is to spill the entire KGB file of blackmail he holds over western elites.) But if the fever runs its course, the more transparent world will be cleaner and better run.
  • Some of those elites have grown aware of the power of ninety years of Hollywood propaganda for individualism, criticism, diversity, suspicion of authority and appreciation of eccentricity. Counter-propaganda pushing older, more traditional approaches to authority and conformity are already emerging, and they have the advantage of resonating with ancient human fears. Much will depend upon this meme war.

Of course, much will also depend upon short-term resolution of current crises. If our systems remain undermined and sabotaged by incited civil strife and distrust of expertise, then all bets are off. 

== The pertinence (again) of transparency ==

When they hear the "T-word" so many dive into fretting about the spread of ‘surveillance technologies that will empower Big Brother.’ These fears are well-grounded, but also utterly myopic. I recall what Ulysses Grant said to Union generals who were in a froth over Robert E. Lee's next moves. 

Paraphrasing Grant: "Stop worrying over how despots will use light against us, and start talking about how to use light against despotism!"

First, ubiquitous cameras and facial recognition are only the beginning. Nothing will stop them and any such thought of ‘protecting’ citizens from being seen by elites (e.g. billionaires or the police) is stunningly absurd, as the cameras get smaller, better, faster, cheaper, more mobile and vastly more numerous every month. Moore’s Law to the nth degree

Yes, despotisms will benefit from this trend. And hence, the only thing that matters is to prevent despotism altogether. And only one thing ever did that!

In contrast, a free society will be able to apply the very same burgeoning technologies toward accountability. We are seeing them applied to end centuries of abuse by ‘bad-apple’ police who are thugs, while empowering the truly professional cops to do their jobs better.  

Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were saved by crude technologies of light in their days. And history shows that assertive vision by and for the citizenry is the only method that has ever increased freedom and – yes – some degree of privacy.

And finally...

A new type of digital asset - known as a non-fungible token (NFT) - has exploded in popularity during the pandemic as enthusiasts and investors scramble to spend enormous sums of money on items that only exist online. “Blockchain technology allows the items to be publicly authenticated as one-of-a-kind, unlike traditional online objects which can be endlessly reproduced.”… “

 In October 2020, Miami-based art collector Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile spent almost $67,000 on a 10-second video artwork that he could have watched for free online. Last week, he sold it for $6.6 million. The video by digital artist Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, was authenticated by blockchain, which serves as a digital signature to certify who owns it and that it is the original work.”

The post-covid luxury spending boom has begun. It’s already reshaping the economy.

A sealed copy of Super Mario 64 sells for $1.56M in record-breaking auction That record didn’t last long. In August 2021, a rare copy of Super Mario Bros. sells for $2 million, the most ever paid for a video game. Until the next time...

On the other hand, a once $2 million image of the world's first tweet recently resold for $245.000 That's volatility!  What NFTs fundamentally prove and what we've seen with election interference, Russian oligarch yachts and the stoopid-oligarchs subsidies of Fox 'News'... that the rich simply have too much money. Period.

And when that happens, as Adam Smith himself said, the first thing destroyed is flat-fair-creative-competitive enterprise.




Addendum on Ukraine:

Real time we are awed by several things. 

By the doughty endurance, courage and ingenuity of the Ukrainian people. 

By yet another example of the topmost lesson from 6000 years of history, that despotism leads to psychotic leader-delusion... in this case endangering all our lives as Ras*-Putin plummets into full panic mode.

That Russians have a long way to go, before they become capable of seeing through the Strongman Hallucination, a version of which also captivates a very large minority of (confederate) Americans. 

And much else. But right now this armchair-general wants to conclude with a couple of amateur military observations, in the wake of Russia's setbacks in the north and at sea:

First: "Ukraine says between 2,500 to 3,000 of its troops have been killed, compared to Russia's 19,000."

Even if the disparity is half as great, it relates to the RF's worst problem. Very soon their troops will be outnumbered in the field. True, most of the new Ukrainian units are recently trained infantry battalions. But they are highly motivated volunteers in truly vast numbers, while the RF has not even dared to call up reservists, yet. Astonishingly, the much larger and more militaristic invader may be outnumbered soon at the front.
The RF retains a huge advantage in mechanized units and artillery. They may yet use them with great effectiveness. But of late a flaw in standard RF Battalion Battle Groups has become clear.... very few mobile infantry patrol flanks to protect the tanks from lurking infantry groups armed with manpads.

Also, large numbers of infantry companies may lurk behind any major blitz-thrust, ready to do partisan tactics. Do not draw hasty conclusions from such thrusts.

Much depends on the weather. If things remain soggy, either the Uks will get time to emplace new units... or RF must rush to use roads and solid ground in narrow channels. There will be a lot of artillery, so dig in, Ukrainians.

* "Ras" means 'prince" in Amharic/Ethiopian and is a root word for the Jamaican Rastafarianism. In this case it doubles as a comment on Putin's self-image and his similarity to a past figure he has emulated and should, all the way. Dance your way through this educational song!


Don Gisselbeck said...

As punishment for the Rasputin joke, you should watch Boney M's Rasputin.(I'm a "a little goes a long way" fan.)

janosik said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Brin said...

DG I had just inserted an addendum about that very same video!

Stephen Gould said...

"Ras" is also cognate with the Hebrew "rosh", "head".

Larry Hart said...

Stephen Gould:

"Ras" is also cognate with the Hebrew "rosh", "head".

You might be familiar with the Batman comic book villain Ra's Al Ghul, which at least in the comic books is translated as "Head of the demon."

* * *
Dr Brin in the main post:

That Russians have a long way to go, before they become capable of seeing through the Strongman Hallucination, a version of which also captivates a very large minority of (confederate) Americans.

I for one am fed up with hearing how superior the Russian character is to ours because they disdain comfort and pleasure and instead cut their teeth on adversity and hardship. It reminds me of Dave Sim, who thought that happiness was a warning sign, and made a point of separating himself from any "distraction" which made life bearable--then complained that life didn't seem worth the effort of living.

Star_Dragon said...

Two-and-a-half notes on NFTs:
1. They're almost always more of a url or pointer than the non-fungible thing being represented by the token, or any kind of marker of ownership or originality(There's a nasty trend of people selling NFTs which point to pirated artwork.)

2. Most NFT systems are "Proof-of-Work", which means that they're based on a system which requires people to prove that they've wasted absurd amounts of energy doing computations in order to move them.
2.5 Some NFT systems are "Proof-of-Stake", which means that the cryptocurrency acts somewhat like voting stock. With the things being voted on including whether transactions actually took place, like everybody else suddenly donating half their crypto to the guy who just got up to 50%+1 of the total # of cryptocoins.

And that's the best case, where the people making and selling the NFTs aren't doing a rug-pull or other simpler scam.

locumranch said...

Dr. Brin's Transparent Society' is a work of non-fiction in the same sense that Thomas More's 'Utopia' is a work of non-fiction, as both works describe a potential-but-yet-unrealized future that may exist someday, assuming certain social, political & technological preconditions.

Interestingly, both Brin and More prescribe similar approaches to privacy, politics, money, property & punishment, especially in regard to the disempowerment of elites through the use of bottom-up transparency, the primary difference between the two authors being that More wrote satire.

More invented the term 'Utopia' as a joke and, surprisingly, this joke became the goal of social reformers & other pragmatic incrementalists everywhere.

Thomas More knew that society could not exist in this way. He knew that people do not work hard with no desire for reward. He understood the limits of egalitarianism; he knew that a society in which every aspect of life was controlled by a government authority could not be successful; and he understood the rather peculiar mindset of the social reformer.

This incremental pursuit of the Utopian "No Place" is like attempting to divide by numbers which incrementally approach zero in order to finally divide by zero:

Both are undefined & forbidden mathematical functions.


gerold said...

We keep hearing dire prognostications predicting that new tech will continue to exacerbate wealth disparity as if that's some inexorable process with no possible solution - and yet the solution is ridiculously simple.

Tax the fuckin rich! And when I say rich, I mean the really really rich. Not some schmuck making $150k. Our economy and tax laws have skewed the wealth curve into stratospheric injustice and they can turn that right around.

Maybe some billionaires have convinced themselves they evade taxes out of some highly-principled disdain for government iniquity or "corruption." That can be solved by creating a new non-profit fund outside of normal federal channels. It would effectively be a wealth redistribution fund, but we can't call it that because their panties will get in a wad. Call it Fund America or something, but put that money to use. Instead of buying some trashy NFT or other status symbol of conspicuous consumption invest that money into building a better future.

Tony Fisk said...

Speaking of predictions, Ukraine Post announced the winner for a new stamp cover last month: a soldier giving the digital salute to a Russian warship with a profile strongly suggestive of the Moskva.

A grim statistic from Ukraine Independent: their daily toll of Russian infantry is about 10 times the number of Russian apvs.
An apv usually carries 10 men...

There's a reason why the Russian army is taking its time with an Eastern offensive

While there is some debate as whether or not the pee is prepared to go nuclear, his targetting of holding tanks for nitric acid suggests to me that chemical weapons are definitely on the table. Not to mention he controls a large nuclear plant in central Ukraine.

Alan Brooks said...

“...a very large minority of (confederate) Americans”

Prominent rightists are frequently to be found living in blue states. Geo F Will lives in Maryland. National Review is in NYC. American Spectator is located in DC. Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative is in New England. They admire red states from a distance—the further the distance, the more admiration there is.
I don’t get LoCum’s linkage of DB and More.
Thomas More was a Catholic who lived a half-millennia ago; he persecuted many ‘heretics’, sending some of their heads to the chopping block. More knew nothing of astrophysics or Keynesian economics. Civil Rights was unheard-of five hundred yrs ago. Maybe LoCum would care to elaborate his sketchy thesis?

Alfred Differ said...

Only to cynics would Transparent Society sound like a description of utopia.

Larry Hart said...

Karl Nehammer, the Austrian chancellor, spoke to NBC’s “Meet the Press” about his meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia last week. Mr. Nehammer said that Mr. Putin “believes he is winning the war,” despite evidence to the contrary. The Austrian leader added that Mr. Putin said he would cooperate with an international investigation into possible war crimes, but that he also “doesn’t trust the Western world."

Sounds a lot like Donald Trump's statement in 2016 that he'd accept the outcome of the election "if I win."

David Brin said...

Jon S I am more classically liberal than Elon, sure. I favor labor unions. They can have faults, too. But the decks have been stacked against them and toward oligarchy for way too long.

OTOH, Elon is NOT part of the current all-out war against civilization and all fact professions by neofeudalist oligarch-lords across all borders and types, from casino moguls and murder sheiks to petro boyars and inheritance brats and wall strteeet parasites.

He is busy being his own thing... which has delivered amazing and wonderful things WHILE his antics offer us plenty of head-smacking moments. (OMG, you can't find something better to do with $40 billion than TRITTER??? Do another amazing and wonderful thing!!)

SpaceX and Tesla are not a coal mine. His employees are folks who have options. They choose to be there because it's amazing and wonderful.


Again, locum is just a snore. I'd respond if his strawman portrayals of my beliefs were even in the same sector of horizon as those that I hold. He's just a yammering idiot. Zzzz

scidata said...

I don't think Musk did all that innovation just to become a shill for the GQP, but he is sloppy at times. He says he doesn't think people should be kicked off Twitter just for saying stuff that its board disagrees with it.
DT was banned for breaking clear rules against disseminating false information and promoting violence, after more warnings than anyone else would get.

Having said that, would letting DT back onto Twitter really help the Republicans? The primary silly season may cost them the Senate.

Alfred Differ said...

Musk is a relatively good example of the anarchist side of libertarianism. I don't mean people who would commit violence to achieve it, though. Not that kind of anarchist. Just the kind that has a profound case of SOA.

One doesn't have to be one of his fan boys to notice that his detractors have a hard time distinguishing between people intent on doing harm to our civilization and those intent on doing what they think best for us. Try drawing the Venn diagram of behaviors for each set. They aren't the same.

Paradoctor said...

Google defines that as:

Service-Oriented Architecture
State of the Art
Sarbanes-Oxley Act
Secretary of Agriculture
Source of Authority
Sex Offender Act
System Operating Agreement

Please help me out here. I think any acronym should be defined at least once in every text containing it.

Gator said...

Locum has apparently never heard of the Dirac delta function. Defined as the limit of dividing by a number which approaches zero. Mathematicians are clever enough to create coherent and consistent frameworks out of all sorts of things that don't match "common sense". In the same way Utopia may be a dream but it's good to have goals. :) We can approach by making the world a bit better in little steps even if we never achieve the end state.

Zepp Jamieson said...

People doing harm to society usually think they are doing what's best for us--and vice versa.
Musk's motives are his own, whatever they may be, but he is inconsistent. He espouses freedom, but his employees don't share in much of that freedom.

David Brin said...

Elon has many faults - the worst of which is harming his OWN effectiveness, which harms us all, because his PRAGMATIC outcomes have been spectacularly beneficial.

His employees may leave at any time. He is a very demanding boss, calling for employees to work as if they are at war. That's not admirable. But the ones I meet share his goals and if they quit, they are in huge demand elsehwere. So where do you get that nonsense?


SOA = Suspicion of Authority... commonly discussed here.

Alfred Differ said...

Zepp Jamieson,

People doing harm to society usually think they are doing what's best for us--and vice versa.

I'd put the chances as near certain. There aren't all that many comic book villains wandering about who actually intend to destroy society, right? Some, but not many.

My point is that a statement like "He intends to destroy civilization" is a judgement made by person B of person A. Doing this requires person B to use their own sense of what is good for civilization since using the set from person A essentially eliminates the judgement.

The point for drawing the Venn diagram is that you can't… without running into the question of whose values are used as measures.

We see working examples of this often in comments here. Locumranch uses his own understanding of what might make things better (or at least keep good we already have) and judges our host's descriptions of transparency, polemic judo moves, and what not as harmful to our civilization. Many of us reverse the situation and judge his preferences as harmful.

It is not possible to decide who is actually right because we don't have an objective set of "What's best for civilization" to use as measure. Instead, we argue about it and play the game of "incremental improvements" where those of us who are most persuasive get support from others and our intentions become implementations.


So… when we ponder what Musk is doing, consider whether he is persuasive enough to move people to implement his intentions. On some elements of his vision of the future, he has been spectacularly persuasive. On other elements… not so much.

If one believes he is harming civilization, it matters whether he is persuasive because for behaviors where he isn't, there isn't much need to say or do anything against him. On elements where he IS, an effective approach is to undermine belief among those who support him until his persuasion becomes ineffective.

Now… consider the assertion "There are no good billionaires." and ask who does it aim to persuade?

1) Those who believe it mostly don't work for Musk (and never will) thus don't contribute to his effectiveness.

2) The assertion obviously isn't aimed at me because it tempts me to write volumes pointing out how I think the assertion suggests an intent to harm civilization. Yes. I'm judging some of you.

3) Has anyone here tried it on people who actually work for him? I've worked for multi-millionaires before and learned a certain kind of caution regarding employment promises, but never judged them as harming civilization… much. The sub-prime guys were perilously close, but I know what they were trying to do as compared to what others outside thought they were trying to do. I know that because I worked for them. So… how many here actually know any of his employees and have tried this assertion on them?

gerold said...

Regarding the merits/demerits of Musk; after reading this my opinion of him went up a notch. Maybe a couple:

Providing secure internet comms to Ukraine was big.

Larry Hart said...

Logic-challenged Trump-appointed Florida judge rules that the Centers for Disease Control doesn't have jurisdiction over controlling the spread of a disease.

In a 59-page decision, Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump, voided the mandate — which also applies to airports, train stations and other transportation hubs — nationwide on several grounds, including that the agency had exceeded its legal authority under the Public Health Services Act of 1944.

David Brin said...

"It is not possible to decide who is actually right because we don't have an objective set of "What's best for civilization" to use as measure. Instead,"

While that's a fair point at some levels, the blatant conmsistency of BAD governance achieved by feual/autocratic/pyramidal rule... and the idiocy of wasting talent through prejudice... and the clear necessity of criticism of delusion... are proved trends.

Larry Hart said...

I was just re-watching the 2019 miniseries based on "Watchmen".

Earlier I had noticed the weird synchronicity of the line "Masks save lives,", even though the series aired at least a year before COVID-19 was a thing. This time around, I noticed the signs at the Nixonville enclave that said "Fuck {President] Redford!". Doubtless, had the show been written more recently, it would have used a version of "Let's go, Brandon!"

I wonder how much else that they made up came true anyway.

Larry Hart said...

Dr. Brin:

"It is not possible to decide who is actually right because we don't have an objective set of "What's best for civilization" to use as measure. Instead,"

While that's a fair point at some levels, the blatant conmsistency of BAD governance achieved by feual/autocratic/pyramidal rule... are proved trends.

Yup. Just as we can't know the exact shape of the earth, we know pretty well what it is not.

Alan Brooks said...

“Many of us reverse the situation, and judge his preferences as harmful”

I don’t do so, as what he is attempting to say is as yet a Mystery, not a threat. Is he trying to write here that nature is preferable to nurture? Is he saying rural denizens are morally preferable to metro dwellers? If so, it is only because the population density in rural areas is much lower—thus less bad-apples per square mile/kilometer.
Is he saying progress is, or might be, a ‘dead-end’? The politics of nostalgia derive from anticipating that progress isn’t worth the effort; and also from sentimentality for years when the observer was younger and life was simpler in some ways—but merely SOME ways.
The ‘50s were not as simple or ‘decent’ as rightists think; the years saw the development of hydrogen bombs and missiles to deliver them. Conscription of servicemen. The decade of Vito Genovese and other bad apples. Lynching and Jim Crow.
Persecution by bad-apple police can be diminished, but what of police bribery? People can always be ‘bought-out’; however with greater transparency, yes, graft can be reduced somewhat.

Cari Burstein said...

People doing harm to society usually think they are doing what's best for us--and vice versa. -- Zepp

I'd put the chances as near certain. There aren't all that many comic book villains wandering about who actually intend to destroy society, right? Some, but not many.. -- Alfred

I think this statement is perhaps a bit simplistic- it ignores some common motivations that aren't so clear cut. I think very few people are actively just trying to hurt society, but I would add a few more buckets:

1) People who are more concerned about what positive effects they think they are creating for "their people" and don't really care about the larger impacts to society or in some cases prefer the negative effects for people who aren't "their people". This is extremely common motivation in a variety of arenas.

2) People who are completely unconcerned about benefits to society as a whole. Often these people have been raised with very different value systems, where worrying about society as a whole is a sucker's game. I suppose you could argue these people think it's healthier for society to behave this way, but I'm not sure they really care that much about the health of society at all. I would definitely put Trump in this bucket. He may not be an active cartoon villain, but he definitely doesn't care much about things that don't benefit him personally.

3) People who are projecting their pain onto the greater world. Some people have been badly damaged in ways that twists them to actively want to create harm to others. These are perhaps the closest to cartoon villains but generally they are motivated by pain, which I consider a bit more specific than generic evil.

I'm probably missing some, but I think this covers a lot more of the common motivations for actions that may harm society. Of course as Alfred says a lot of this is based on judgements, and given that it's rather difficult to actually measure impacts of various actions on society in a vacuum, we could argue forever about what constitutes harms (although I'll agree with Brin as well that we have some ideas based on history).

On a vaguely related topic- anyone else been watching Servant of the People? (season 1 is currently on Netflix) It's a bit surreal to watch right now, but it's been fascinating seeing the show that essentially inspired Zelenskyy's election and the way they portray the degree of corruption that was considered just normal in their government previously and how difficult it is to climb out of that. It kind of makes me think of what it must be like for people in countries with real public health care systems to watch TV shows from the US where medical costs can drive people to do all sorts of crazy things.

Noise said...

Just out of curiosity, why can’t I find anything from you about Ken Burn’s Benjamin Franklin? Did you not like it?

matthew said...

my "There are no good billionaires" statement is based on
1) I know of no billionaire that has not used unlawful means to gain or keep their money. Name an exemplar and start googling. You will find criminal behavior. I have found no exception to this rule.
2) Extreme wealth represents more power in the hands of an individual than one person is capable of managing wisely. The more power, the greater the magnitude of mistakes that that individual will make. This is also easily researched and shown to be true.

Suspicion of Authority is as American as apple pie.
America also openly worships Authority derived from personal wealth.
These two concepts are warring in the USA psyche.
A lot of billionaires use the dynamic tension between these two things to drive our culture wars.

Jon S. said...

"Providing secure internet comms to Ukraine was big."

Don't make the mistake of thinking this was out of the goodness of his heart; those systems are provided by US government funds, not Musk's personal ridiculous fortune.

David Brin said...

Noise: haven't had a chance to see it yet. My hero! See the dedication to the Postman.

Matthew: You cynically assume all humans are incapable of achieving huge ambition without being corrupted.

Steve Jobs
George Soros

And again, judged by his fruits and not by his eccentricities... tentatively... Elon.

duncan cairncross said...

Soros - YES
Musk - YES

Not convinced about Steve Jobs

Alfred Differ said...

Cari Burstein,

Heh. My comic book villain quip was a bit tongue-in-cheek. I agree. It's far too simplistic to be more than a punch line.

My suspicion is there are more buckets than there are people because we have different views that shift with how many people we are considering when imagining consequences of our behaviors. The buckets we actually use are simplifications we craft as abstractions. Us and Them. Social and Personal. Kin/Stranger.

I've thought for some time that stereo-types are exemplars for each bucket. How many of us actually know a billionaire? How many have the experience to say what is truly common among them? Not many here, but we DO have our stereo-types we believe provide a base personality around which we can improvise our understanding of any single one of them when new information arrives. What could Musk mean when he says X on Twitter? Well… paste X into the stereo-type and interrogate it within your mind. Obviously… that's what he meant.

What I try to point out is our stereo-types for people are necessary to us due to the speed they provide when we try to make sense of chaos, but that doesn't mean they are correct. History is full of examples of erroneous stereo-types. We can't abandon them all, but we should be prepared to be wrong and ready for counter-evidence.

gerold said...

Noise re Ben Franklin: did the documentary discuss "Franklin rods"?

I just found out (from Andrew White: A History of the Warfare between Science and Theology - an oldie but goodie)'s%20aim%20was%20to%20show,and%20Europe%20were%20still%20under

that the invention of the lightning rod ca. 1755 triggered a jihad against Franklin. At the time the Church taught that lightning was sent by "demons of the air" and the only way to combat them was by prayer and the ringing of church bells. But this stance suffered from a serious defect: church towers were usually the tallest structures in town, so they were frequently struck by lightning. In fact the most dangerous profession during a lightning storm was bell ringer, and lots of them were killed every year.

Gradually people starting putting up lightning rods, despite sermons anathematizing Ben and his heretical Franklin rods. It took decades before churches finally installed them, but in the meantime he was reviled from many pulpits.

Seems like the kind of thing Burns should have covered, but I wouldn't be too surprised if he didn't. Somehow crap like that seems to drop down the memory hole. Can't go offending piety.

Alfred Differ said...


Allow me to try a variation on your positions so I may point toward a perception flaw.

1) I know of no American that has not used or leveraged unlawful means to gain or keep their money. Look through our history and you will find profoundly immoral people who gained at the expense of another's freedom and property.

2) Wealth concentration leads to more power in the hands of individuals than we are capable of managing wisely. Any wealth concentration leads to larger mistakes by individuals who have it.

You can assert there are no good billionaires, but behind you on the income scale are many more who might assert there are no good millionaires and many, many more who might assert the same for $100K.


I recognize the culture war you point out. I get it that rich people exploit it. I also get that groups of less-rich people do too. USians are barbarians. I get it… but I am one of them. I have no shame in admitting I am a full-throated barbarian willing to scream at the world when I know it is wrong.


As for your actual assertion about unlawful means, I'll point out the difficulty you'd have in finding any of us (at all) who haven't broken laws. As a result, I'm VERY unmoved by arguments pointing to criminal behavior UNLESS those crimes are specifically identified. Hand waving won't move me because there are just too many laws for me to believe we each haven't broken at least a few of them.

So… pick a billionaire and name the crime in some detail. For some of them I think that is quite possible, but I'd want to think about it like someone sitting on their jury. I might not be protesting with the libertarians around me right now, but there are a whole lot of laws for which I have no desire to be an enforcer.

gerold said...

Jon: it seems that Musk made the decision to send thousands of receiver stations to Ukraine. It doesn't appear that government funding was involved:

Alfred Differ said...

Ken Burns did have a segment in there about lightning rods and the impacts they had.

scidata said...

One of my favourite vehicles is the meeting between two (or more) aficonados of different times/cultures/paths. Voltaire and Seldon for example. Douglas Hofstadter uses this. I'd love to read a story about Elon Musk meeting Alan Watts (Mega Engineer vs Wu Wei Master). Sort of speculative Socratic dialectics or time-tripping CITOKATE. Positive sum discourse is kinda what we sapiens do.

And it goes beyond 90 years of Hollywood propaganda. The Enlightenment proper is well into its fourth century. You don't unravel that with a bit of romanticist hokery-pokery and political kabuki.

David Brin said...

scidata I wish I had your confidence. The Enlightenment is extremely powerful... an alternative that offers fantastic productivity and success compared to the Male Reproductive Strategy traps of feudalism etc that dominated 6000+ years and may be unavoidably common in the galaxy.

But effective or not, it is fragile and can be crushed by oligarchy. It has happened before.

scidata said...

The nice thing is that if you have facts, logic, and physics on your side, you don't have to convince anyone. The Enlightenment is not a proposition to be voted on. It's a brush fire that's impossible to extinguish everywhere at the same time, especially if we become multi-planetary, but even if not.

Paradoctor said...

Allow me to propose Suspicion Of Avarice as a necessary corrective to plutocracy.

And as for means justifying ends: Means tend to become ends in themselves.

David Brin said...

Geez, I don't like to say this but... there's not a single assertion of sentence in scidata's latest that is remotely true. History shows that enlightenment attractors need vigorous defense vs. the primal drivers of male reproduction imperative (feudalism.)

scidata said...

Long history needed vigorous defense. Short history (1690-) has stood up pretty well. It's getting harder and harder to 'burn all the books'.

David Brin said...

If 'burning all the books' were needed to stop this kind of alternative social state, then yeah, we'd be robust. But it's not.

Don Gisselbeck said...

For a significant fraction of the population, facts, logic and physics are of less than no value. The vast body of peer reviewed scientific literature is dismissed with a hand wave and "science is corrupt". For example, I have never made any headway with moon landing "skeptics" by referencing the January 30,1970 issue of Science and its 144 papers on the Apollo 11 mission.

David Brin said...

DG again and again. Wagers. Demand they bet five figures on whether you can detectably bounce laser light off the retroreflectors left on the moom by Apollo astronauts. It has to be that big a stake because you'll need help from someone with real targeting ability, either a pro or a truly top flight amateur. Of course they won't bet. They never, ever do! But that leaves you holding the battleground that they fled.

duncan cairncross said...

I'm with scidata on this

There are about 200 separate countries if/when the feudalists take over one of them the non feudalist countries burn right past them

Feudalism is only competitive in a static society -
America is one of over 100 "Enlightenment Countries"

gerold said...

Regarding Enlightenment robustness: it appears that each cycle of enlightenment triggers a reactionary response. A counter-enlightenment.

The 18th century enlightenment can reasonably be bracketed within 1650 - 1800. During the 19th century there was a wealth of technological and scientific progress which had enormous impacts on society, but the counter-enlightenment ran parallel to those scientists and engineers.

In the US I associate the push back with the "Great Awakenings"

They came in waves; the first in the mid-1700's as the Enlightenment was in full swing; the second starting around 1800; the third in the second half of the 1800's.

Notice that Trumptards, MAGAtards and Qanon refer to their own special madness as The Great Awakening. I don't know how aware they are of their predecessors, but all the hallmarks are there: worship of ignorance and hatred of knowledge.

But though every advance of knowledge produces a backlash of stupidity and fear it's an uneven battle. When it's physics vs. superstition and truth vs. lies, truth and physics have a big advantage.

David Brin said...

Duncan with genuine respect, sorry. If democracy and the enlightenment lose a powerful champion (ie the US) the whole thing will be crushed. As almost happened in 1940.

Glimmers of faux light or half-light may glow, as in Florence after the brilliant Medicis took over and indulgently ALLOWED creativity to continue a while. But the real deal... ? with impudent questioning of all elites? If its strength and purpose fail, the oligarchies will never let it rise again.


May be hard to keep up with comments while I am in Chicago & Champaigne... but carry on.

duncan cairncross said...

The USA is a very powerful champion

But Europe is also a massive power base - after the USA the most powerful on the planet

The only problem would be if the USA joined the forces of darkness - and even then the sheer incompetence of the Feudal system would ensure that the darkness would not fall

Modern society is simply too complex to run without your CITOKATE - as we are seeing with Russia

Larry Hart said...


Regarding Enlightenment robustness: it appears that each cycle of enlightenment triggers a reactionary response. A counter-enlightenment.

I forget now where I first heard the term "endarkenment", but I've been using it ever since.

* * *

@Dr Brin,

Sorry to nit-pick, but you will lose some cred in Champaign, Illinois if you spell the city name like the beverage.

I hope to see you in Rolling Meadows, or (back up plan) at U of I.

Larry Hart said...


Notice that Trumptards, MAGAtards and Qanon refer to their own special madness as The Great Awakening

Ironic, in that they despise "wokeness".

But irony is nothing new to these people. How else do they support Putin's obviously-fictional claim to "denazification" as a justification for war, when they've spent two years maligning "Antifa" for sparse acts of petty vandalism? So it's ok to destroy entire cities in order to fight Naziism, but it's egregious for a store window to be broken in the middle of a protest against fascism?

As Dave Sim once put it, "Strange f***ing planet, man."

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin:

If its strength and purpose fail, the oligarchies will never let it rise again.

I take some comfort in my oft-repeated quote from "Captain America" #177, cover-dated September 1974, and I didn't have to look that up:

"It's not a question of letting, mister! It's a question of getting out of our way!"

Jon S. said...

"DG again and again. Wagers. Demand they bet five figures on whether you can detectably bounce laser light off the retroreflectors left on the moom by Apollo astronauts."

Dr. Brin, again and again - wagers don't matter to them. They'll say any evidence you supply is faked, or just an outright lie, and their counter-"evidence" will be some steaming pile of conspiracy theory or some site like Birds Aren't Real that is intended as satire but is being taken seriously by the person you're trying to wager with. They'll then go around saying that you're the one welshing on the bet because you won't agree that they "won".

You're too used to dealing with intelligent, educated men of honor.

David Brin said...

Alas, Duncan, the human nature aspect of delusion is that even when a despot sees another despot making delusional mistakes, he snorts and puffs his chest saying “that’s not me!”

Also, it is easy for oligarchs to proclaim publicly “I am a man of the people! Look at Napoleon, who was a bit sincere. And the bastard prot in OS Card’s evil-treasonous novel EMPIRE. And almost any Republican.


Alas Jon, you don’t get it and I don’t expect you to. Every objecting they raise to wagering has an answer. And every cycle of their weaseling shows THEM to be the ones weaseling. Demand selection of a non-partisan panel of local senior retired military officers and their eyes widen with terror. Offer a joint expedition to knock on ten doors at a nearby research university and they’ll squirm. Offer to measure ocean acidification in person with them and a local community college chem teacher and he will panic.

“You're too used to dealing with intelligent, educated men of honor.”
Nothing better proves that you just don’t understand what I am talking about, at all. This is an AGGRESSIVE tactic, meant to humiliate the fanatical so that witnesses on the fence see untenable cowardice,

Question: have you actually TRIED any of this? Because I have seen not exceptions.

scidata said...

Re: Enlightenment

Please don't mistake my hope for complacency; like others here, this struggle is a central theme for me. As Tommy Douglas said, "Courage my friends, 'tis not too late to build a better world" - and he was no Pollyanna. Consider this: Perhaps the solution to the Fermi paradox is simple pessimism. We survived by assuming that the rustle in the grass is always a lion. It'd be ironic if that same negativity bias is what prevents us from escaping the filter.

An interesting question that comes up often in collapse-into-feudalism discussions (Foundation and others) is: What's the smallest population req'd to preserve or re-kindle enlightened civilization? Of course, the answer depends on their skill set and other factors. However, I suspect it's closer to hundreds than millions. For 'glimmers of faux light or half-light', tiny size may actually be a survival plus. Think of the wee timrous beasties that scurried about in the ashes 65 million years ago. It's not the size of the dog in the fight...

Unknown said...

Dr. Brin,

Re: Feudalism

Avram Davidson put it very well in his first Peregrine novel, set in the failing late Roman Empire -

"in times such as these, a man feels the need of something to cling to, even if it be another man's knees."


"The nice thing is that if you have facts, logic, and physics on your side, you don't have to convince anyone."

Gods, I wish. I spent one whole night shift trying to explain to a USAF captain with a perfectly good degree in meteorology that the laws of thermodynamics did NOT invalidate evolution. Didn't make a dent, because that was one way he was defending his fundamentalism from science.


David Brin said...

Pappenheimer, good contributions. Esp Avram's quote!

Alas, that kind of mind-set exists in the USAF. Any 'thermodynamic" argument against evolution also says that a city or company cannot gain complexity and reduce entropy. Even though those things have happened because of external application of energy from fossil fuels. If those fossil fuels accomplish nothing, they are wrecking God's creation to no effect.

Jon S. said...

Yes, Doctor, I have tried. Turns out that, at least in my experience, anyone still "on the fence" sees their arguments as being every bit as valid as mine, because they're unwilling to dig into the available data and learn for themselves. So all that happens is frustration all around, accusations that I'm refusing to honor my bets, and witnesses who either are still confused or, in some cases, fall off the fence - on the other side, because he's more willing to continue asserting things loudly and confidently (even though he's wrong) than I am.

As I said, you're too used to dealing with people of intelligence and honor, who won't lie loudly and often to suit themselves, or who as witnesses are willing to actually evaluate competing data sources rather than regarding some rando on Facebook as being easily equivalent to a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

David Brin said...

"As I said, you're too used to dealing with people of intelligence and honor"

YES! You HAVE said that! And it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my point and trying to explain it yet again seems futile.

Alfred Differ said...

Jon S,

We don't have to win the wagers on their terms. One of the points David makes about them (occasionally) is how they are perceived by onlookers. Wager with the uncle at a holiday dinner and the aunt notices. Maybe the cousins do too. If they vote, you might move one or two of them to see the insanity for what it is.


Steve Jobs — Yes.

Highly motivated people can be a bitch to work for, but that doesn't diminish the positive impact they have upon the public at large. Jobs (and many around him) have had a HUGE positive impact that is still rippling around the world.

Alan Brooks,

My harshest judgement of Locumranch is how he appears to get turned on by arguing his positions when essentially no one here agrees with him. He's actually helping our host makes points… and loves it. It's a kind of masochism I find moderately repulsive and all too common among my libertarian friends.

He reminds me of a guy I new in grad school. He was an undergrad friend of a friend and used to come home bruised and quite happy about it. Some guys love to fight and he was my first up-close-and-personal experience with that attitude. He seriously enjoyed it, but I found it appalling.

Gerold & Jon,

Musk moving the receiver stations to Ukraine fits well with his libertarian attitude. It's good business for him (they can take a loss for the PR) and it makes a point about liberty. Free people do not need (or ask for) permission or orders to do what they feel is right.


You don't unravel that with a bit of romanticist hokery-pokery and political kabuki.

I'm mostly with you on that attitude. There are ways to cause it all to unravel, but I don't think it's easy.

David's strong reaction likely comes from believing that many ARE trying to unravel it and doing so in an organized way. His description of a 'War on Smartypants' goes to that point. Fact users rely upon fact discovery, so attacks on the clade that go beyond hokery-pokery should be aimed at what we know. On that level, I agree with David. There are active efforts to attack us at that level, though I think they are likely to fail over the course of this generation.

scidata said...

The city-entropy thing is a bit easier if it's scaled down to a microprocessor. Raw sensor data in, highly ordered tables and decisions out, with an obvious external power supply. I even discussed this with air force types many years ago (flight simulators). If I can do it, without even any thermodynamics, you all should find it a breeze :)

Larry Hart said...



"The nice thing is that if you have facts, logic, and physics on your side, you don't have to convince anyone."

Gods, I wish.

If you're trying to convince the other guy, you're right that the assertion above is futile. However, I think scidata meant something more like, "If you have facts, logic, and physics on your side, the things you build and the plans you make will work and the other guy's won't work nearly as well."

I spent one whole night shift trying to explain to a USAF captain with a perfectly good degree in meteorology that the laws of thermodynamics did NOT invalidate evolution. Didn't make a dent, because that was one way he was defending his fundamentalism from science.

A long time ago, a director at my job at the time was named Bob. He posted on his door a form letter that he had received addressed to "Ob (last name)", with the scribbled note, "How do you misspell Bob?" A little later, he posted other form letters from other organizations, also addressed to "Ob". It was obvious that there was a mailing list being distributed out there.

Right-wing talking points like "Evolution violates the laws of thermodynamics," seem to be passed along like those mailing lists. You'll hear them from different sources, each one acting as if he came up with it independently. I saw that exact argument made on the old "Cerebus" list by a religious conservative. This was not a yokel--I mean someone who knew math and science. But as in your case, the guy had bought into the idea that the thermodynamic argument was a clear proof that evolution can't happen.

When I pointed out that the earth is not a closed system--that energy from the sun is constantly feeding into it--so local decreases in entropy can take place as long as it is offset by the entropy gained by the sun--he came back with, "But what if you include the sun in the system?" Somehow, he thought this was a slam dunk refutation, as well as one which had not occurred to anyone else.

Alfred Differ said...

The counter argument to use against the argument "Thermodynamics laws prohibit evolution" involves pointing to the energy gradient being used to do work and the disorganized energy (heat) that is dissipated by life after a very local reduction in entropy.

In the bigger system of the universe, entropy is still going up... but not uniformly. Someday it will all smooth out when the gradients are consumed, but we aren't there yet. *

A neat sub-argument emerges when we realize that consumption of one kind of gradient might generate a different short-lived kind with a smaller total energy budget. The O2 released by early photosynthesizing prokaryotes was mostly consumed by iron and non-organic chemistry... until those options were themselves consumed. After that, O2 built up in the air and a large oxidation gradient emerged to be consumed by eukaryotes.

One family of Fermi-paradox answers has to address how photosynthesis like we have on Earth destroys green-house warming AND creates a toxic oxygen gradient. If we had a giant answer book for how life developed here, I'd bet we'd find photosynthesis almost killed off everything... more than once. Who needs bombardment by asteroids, nukes, or feudal attractors when we have voracious plants?

* One of my professors pointed out that the heat death of the universe already occurred if you account for the energy in all the neutrinos whizzing about the place. Gradients available to us today are nano-scale gradients compared to the early universe.

His point was that we don't really know what comes after nano-scale gradients are gone. Could there be pico-gradients? Atto-gradients? Can you imagine life leveraging them? Since the cosmos appears to be open-ended, "life" in some form will have plenty of time to figure it out.

Alfred Differ said...


What's the smallest population req'd to preserve or re-kindle enlightened civilization?

Rebuilding a feudal state probably takes very few. We'd naturally settle into nomadic HG bands, so access to fertile land and resources to be domesticated is probably all that's needed as long as they remember that domestication was the primary trick we used.

Rebuilding an enlightenment civilization probably takes quite a bit more as it depends heavily on markets where specialization has occurred... and isn't discouraged. HG nomads traded between kin groups, but not the way feudal states do when the lords and priests don't quite have enough control* to steal all the profits.

I'd argue you need decent sized markets composed of a few million people who are free enough to try things and fail and not be destroyed socially by the failure. That means you need the people AND a couple of rare ideas they believe.

1. Let each other be (mostly) so each pursues what they think is best for them. (Liberty in the negative sense of not being coerced)

2. Dignify good-faith attempts by others whether they end in success or failure. (Dignity in our work recognized socially)

The stronger the ideas are, the fewer people you likely need... down to some limit where there isn't enough trade occurring to drive changes made by individuals.

* Before Europes Age of Discovery, the Indian Ocean was a giant trading lake between cultures that had little control over each other. They each had quite a bit of control of their own people, but that largely vanished after trade ships set to sea.

A little later in time you'll find the Dutch turned the Baltic and North Seas into trading lakes largely after Spain lost control of them. The Dutch also happened to be among the early adopters in Europe of Liberty and Dignity. Enlightenment history hinges critically on how they got free of Spain.

David Brin said...

Alfred is on, tonight.

David Brin said...



Larry Hart said...

Purely for the humor value. "The Onion" on Jesus converting to Islam:

In perhaps the oddest development, the Jews For Jesus organization announced Monday that it has split into three separate groups: Jews Still For Jesus, Jews For Allah, and Jews For Just Being Jews Again.

Mike G in Corvallis said...

Hi --

I'm almost certain that you've read this story (it appeared in Analog in the early 1960s), but people who attempt to predict The Near Future based on "if this goes on" extrapolations from current crises and trends would be well-served to read Christopher Anvil's short story "Gadget Versus Trend" regarding the hazards of such predictions. (There's a rather poorly formatted copy at .)


gerold said...

One evil Ukrainian): you're correct that the present-day origin of the Ukrainian nation is very recent. If we can speak of the birth of a national identity it helps to have a heroic legend, and to me that's the Euromaidan revolution and the war with Russia - especially the 2022 phase.

But people like to point to more ancient roots for what they build today, and old Scythia seems perfect for that. The homeland of the Scyths was the modern territory of Ukraine and their blood runs in the veins of the modern inhabitants.

That might sound like romantic bullshit to you, but people love that stuff. It gives them hope and courage in difficult times.

One evil Ukrainian) said...

Blogger gerold said...
But people like to point to more ancient roots for what they build today, and old Scythia seems perfect for that. The homeland of the Scyths was the modern territory of Ukraine and their blood runs in the veins of the modern inhabitants.

That might sound like romantic bullshit to you, but people love that stuff. It gives them hope and courage in difficult times.

Yeah. True.
That is more "Russian World" type of people who likes that.
And that means -- such ideas not just indiferent to a Ukrainian.
That is properly ANTI-Ukrainian ideas. Period.