Wed Jul 11th, 2007 at 04:00:25 AM EST
A comment by DeAnander got me thinking about the evolutionary processes that we cannot escape, along with their implications.
if a technology requires near-perfect government (honest, incorruptible, technologically adept, secure, with continuity, immune to crony capitalism and nepotism, transparent, genuinely servants of the people) in order to prevent its becoming lethal and sublethal for large numbers of citizens, is it a sensible option? especially when the lethality of the technology has a run-time that exceeds the tenure in power of any government on Earth, ever?
"You are a young race and lay great stock by your own cleverness," Swarm said. "As usual, you fail to see that intelligence is not a survival trait."
- Bruce Sterling, Swarm
From this and related social organization issues stems my fatalism. "Survival of the fittest" is played out according to which person/group/species has the best plan to survive the next microsecond, not the next million years. There is no balance there - there can't be. Not balance in the sense I'd like to think of it, anyway. It's why technologies such as nuclear weapons and other forms of what appear to be complete insanity confer very real and necessary survival benefits. The problem is that these benefits are static over time - they only guarantee near-term survival, and these same technologies decrease, at an unlimited rate over time, what we would consider to be social and cultural robustness. Basically, as technology increases in complexity, any metric for stability decreases. That's the road humans have been traveling for millenia, and there is no getting off this dangerous train if you want to survive. Survive that next microsecond, anyway.
This is all nothing more than the same game species have been playing against themselves and other species since the time that some molecules happened to start copying themselves. The world without humans looks like a very balanced place to a lot of people, but it's not - it's a stalemated war between species, or put another way, a war moving a number of orders of magnitude slower than the "war" that humans are conducting against themselves and the planet.
Peter Watts (in the footnotes of his fantastic sci-fi novel Blindsight) inadvertently points out the implications of this intractable instability from a slightly different angle (emphasis mine):
While a number of people have pointed out the various costs and drawbacks of sentience, few if any have taken the next step and wondered out loud if the whole damn thing isn't more trouble than it's worth. Of course it is, people assume; otherwise natural selection would have weeded it out long ago.
On the other hand, the dodos and the Steller sea cows could have used exactly the same argument to prove their own superiority, a thousand years ago: if we're so unfit, why haven't we gone extinct? Why? Because natural selection takes time, and luck plays a role. The biggest boys on the block at any given time aren't necessarily the fittest, or the most efficient, and the game isn't over. The game is never over; there's no finish line this side of heat death. And so, neither can there be any winners. There are only those who haven't yet lost.
Tainter, describes the same evolutionary process operating from the level of the intra-species competition that our toolmaking race engages in at the end of "The Collapse of Complex Societies" (right as he tries to deny the implications, and again emphasis added by me):
Peer polity systems tend to evolve toward greater complexity in a lockstep fashion as, driven by competition, each partner imitates new organizational, technological, and military features developed by its competitor(s). The marginal return on such developments declines, as each new military breakthrough is met by some counter-measure, and so brings no increased advantage or security on a lasting basis. A society trapped in a competitive peer polity system must invest more and more for no increased return, and is thereby economically weakened. And yet the option of withdrawal or collapse does not exist. So it is that collapse (from declining marginal returns) is not in the immediate future for any contemporary nation [maybe he should have defined 'immediate' - MM]. This is not, however, due so much to anything we have accomplished as it is to the competitive spiral in which we have allowed ourselves to become trapped.
Here is the reason why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be equivalent to, and as foolhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option. Peer polity competition drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological.
This is why, as a practical matter, medium term policy planning should include, for example, building nuclear power plants well above sea level. It's why China won't voluntarily decrease fossil fuel use when they know the implications. It's why we don't stop fishing the oceans even when we know that all the world's fisheries will be gone in fifty years. It's the tragedy of the commons played out on on a global scale. Maybe we should start calling it the tragedy of the earth.
The UN and EU are the most advanced institutions we have for creating laws and social contracts at the global level, but they aren't powerful enough to create social contracts or enforce laws that limit human and economic growth to zero and to ensure that violence costs more than peace. More critically, these institutions promote the opposite of these goals. Both of these issues would have had to be taken care of before or as globalization became reality as well as before military technology was fully capable of destroying modern civilization in order to prevent what is most likely coming.
None of this bothers me much. I'm ok with the human race going extinct tomorrow or in a million years - no one can give me a compelling reason why we need to be here, or even that our overall existence is good from a conscious perspective as I think sentience is an extremely heavy burden. Also, from a personal perspective, I've been able to carve out an overall happy existence in this small slice of time I'm alive. I don't get to complain, just observe, and perhaps provide a tiny push against the encroaching dark clouds.