We sometimes think (in our age of progress) that if we look back, we must see very primitive creatures.
But even if we go back ten thousand years, we don’t find primitive humans. We find modern humans. Genetically, we have not changed very much in 10,000 years. What has changed? We have learned a huge amount of chemistry, biology, etc. Of course we didn’t know which bits were useful. It took a hundred years to figure out. That’s how science works.
The discoveries of past centuries created some rapid changes. Example of progress: within a few hundred years we went from knowing what gunpowder was, to seizing guano Islands, to synthesizing ammonium nitrate to nuclear weapons.
Ancient impulses with modern weapons are weird. I have this picture in my head of an angry person saying “I’m going to get that guy. I’m going to go lay claim to a guano Island, refine potassium nitrate, make black powder, and use an explosion to propel a small metal ball through his body.” Then the pre-modern human says “I’d just hit him with this rock. Simpler.”
I believe in public funding for science and especially revolutionary, high-risk/high-reward projects. Most of those projects will fail. That scares the funding agencies. It looks like a lot of wasted money. But I think that’s the price for innovation.
We need to fill the beginning of the pipeline with lots of good ideas. When something works, there will be plenty of motivation to move it down the pipe. There are big rewards at the end of the pipe. I think that’s great. I just want there to be more support at the beginning.
For projects that do have support (and not necessarily government support), I also see the little human weaknesses as a real problem holding back important projects. The two projects that come to mind are Open Source Ecology and Paul Wheaton’s Permaculture community.
This article (brilliantly titled The Post-Apocalypse Survival Machine Nerd Farm) reminded me of what it was like to live with roommates. Not everyone is equally motivated. Not everyone wants to volunteer their hours getting up early to build a DIY tractor. And not everyone knows that about themselves. It sounds amazing: sustainable agriculture, technical puzzles, building great things, sharing new technology with the world… Utopia! But the reality is pooping in a bucket and getting up at 6AM to troubleshoot a burst hydraulic line.
The Permies community ran into a similar issue. The Wheaton Labs Farm invited a bunch of people to come out and live and plant and experiment with sustainable agriculture. But people didn’t want to do dishes or do the hand towel laundry. A lot of the unsustainable parts of our culture are a direct result of our coping with these little irresponsible things. Why use paper plates and paper towels? Because nobody wants to take care of the dishes and laundry.
The bottom line is that there are natural resources and technology… but getting people to cooperate and do the unpleasant work is the hard part. That’s no surprise, I suppose. It’s just funny that the difference between utopia and dystopia… at the micro level… is doing the dishes.
I read an essay in the Chronicle about apocalyptic thinking that solidified some ideas that I have been unable to organize in my mind. The gist is that Apocalyptic thinking is really just egotism. For example, take when Harold Camping predicted the world would end. That was more narcissistic than anything else. I feel some tension when I make that judgment: although I laugh at his conceit, I still love dystopian fiction. That makes me a little narcissistic, too.
I should watch Kathryn Schulz’ TED talk every time I’m mad about something political. Here is a paraphrase of my favorite part, about 4 minutes in.
How does it feel to be wrong? Most of us are doing everything we can to avoid thinking that we ourselves are wrong. Maybe we get it in the abstract – we’re fallible – but we can’t think in the present tense of something about which we are actually wrong. When we are wrong about something, but before we realize it, we’re like Wyle E Coyote right after he runs off a cliff but before he looks down. It does feel like something to be wrong: it feels like being right.
Evolution, capitalism and science are anti-fragile. Nassim Taleb introduced the idea to my consciousness.
Top-down optimized systems are always fragile. These three phenomena are not fragile. In fact, they gain from being shocked.
Evolution, capitalism and science also share this common algorithm: systematic, brutally honest trials of proposed solutions, followed by ruthless rejection of failures and amplification of successes. The human psyche may not be well-adapted to appreciate such systems. We seldom like honesty or rejection.