The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'civilisation'
While it may seem that we live in an age of unprecedented violence and atrocity, according to Steven Pinker, violence has been steadily declining over the past few centuries, and we are now living at the most peaceful time in the history of humanity so far.
The decline of violence, he tells us, is a fractal phenomenon - we see it over the centuries, the decades and the years. That said, we see a tipping point in the 16th century - the age of reason - particularly in England and Holland.
One on one death has plummeted through the middle ages, with an "elbow" of the curve in the 16th century. Despite a slight uptick in the 1960s - "perhaps those who thought that rock and roll would lead to a decline in moral values had it right" we've seen two orders of magnitude fall in one on one violence from the middle ages to today. State sponsored violence has also fallen sharply - we've seen a 90% reduction in genocide since the end of the cold war. State on state conflicts are dropping every decade.Pinker then calls bullshit on the Rousseauvian "noble savage" myth that, in some state of long-lost primordial innocence, our distant ancestors lived in blessed harmony with one another, and that ills such as warfare and violence are the result of the noxious effects of language/capitalism/agriculture/urbanisation.
Until 10,000 years ago, all humans were hunter gatherers. This is the group that some believe lived in primordial harmony - there's no evidence of this. Studying current hunter-gatherer tribes, the percent of male adults who die in violence is extraordinary - from 20 to 60% of all males. Even during the violent 20th century, with two world wars, less than 2% of males worldwide died in warfare.
The Middle Ages were filled with mutilation and torture as routine punishments for trangressions we'd punish with fines today. This was merely another charming feature of a time that featured pastimes like "cat burning", dropping cats into a fire for entertainment purposes. Some of the most creative inventions of the Middle Ages were fantastically cruel forms of corporal punishment.Pinker offers several reasons for the illusion that violence is increasing and the past was more idyllic: improved communications (we have more awareness of acts of violence, petty and enormous, than people had in earlier centuries), the cognitive illusion that makes memorable events (which include acts of spectacular brutality) seem more common, and the fact that popular standards of what's acceptable are changing faster than behaviour actually is. He also offers four explanations for why violence is becoming less common: the Hobbesian hypothesis (that states with monopolies on violence reduce it), a decline in the belief that life is cheap, the rise of more non-zero-sum games such as international trade, which make potential rivals more valuable alive than dead, and the hypothesis of the "expanding circle":
By default, we empathize with a small group of people, our friends and family. Everyone else is subhuman. But over time, we've seen this circle expand, from village to clan to tribe to nation to other races, both sexes and eventually other species. As we learn to expand our circles wider and wider, perhaps violence becomes increasingly unacceptable.
The Fermi Paradox is the observation that it is highly probable that, somewhere else in the universe, intelligent life would have arisen and made its presence known by now, and yet Earth seems to be alone in the universe. Since the paradox was first posed in the 1940s, a number of solutions have been proposed, many of them not cheering, and many reflected the Cold War era they originated in: perhaps any species that reaches a certain technical level inevitably develops the means to destroy itself, and does so. Perhaps in a universe of aliens competing for resources and having little means of achieving agreement, any species that broadcasts its presence is doomed to be preemptively annihilated by others, lest it develop the means to do so. Which means that all those broadcasts of Malcolm In The Middle we're carelessly sending out to space could be responded to by a barrage of planet-killing projectiles travelling at close to light speed.
Now evolutionary psychology has suggested a new possible solution to Fermi's Paradox: perhaps it's not so much a case of sentient species wiping themselves out upon attaining the means to do so, as of turning inwards and devoting all their energy to video games and virtual reality, things much more immediately gratifying than doing battle with the real universe:
Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot. They become like a self-stimulating rat, pressing a bar to deliver electricity to its brain's ventral tegmental area, which stimulates its nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which feels...ever so good.
The result is that we don't seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that have tended to promote survival, and luscious mates who have tended to produce bright, healthy babies. The modern result? Fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote real biological fitness, but it's even better at delivering fake fitness--subjective cues of survival and reproduction without the real-world effects. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity. The business of humanity has become entertainment, and entertainment is the business of feeding fake fitness cues to our brains.This comes down to the reward mechanisms that served our ancient ancestors' genes well being far too slow to adapt to technological hacks that short-circuit these reward mechanisms:
Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. With the invention of the printing press, people read more and have fewer kids. (Only a few curmudgeons lament this.) With the invention of Xbox 360, people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson's King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human. Teens today must find their way through a carnival of addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: iPods, DVDs, TiVo, Sirius Satellite Radio, Motorola cellphones, the Spice channel, EverQuest, instant messaging, MDMA, BC bud. The traditional staples of physical, mental and social development--athletics, homework, dating--are neglected. The few young people with the self-control to pursue the meritocratic path often get distracted at the last minute. Take, for example, the MIT graduates who apply to do computer game design for Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.The author posits the idea that all intelligent species that develop the technology to create computer simulations of this sort go through the "Great Temptation", and subsequently die out, and that this is happening to humanity, with our only hope of survival as a species would be to develop a puritanical opposition to virtual reality, a sort of biological fundamentalism:
Some individuals and families may start with an "irrational" Luddite abhorrence of entertainment technology, and they may evolve ever more self-control, conscientiousness and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratifica tion, child-rearing and environmental stewardship. They will combine the family values of the religious right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace left.
This, too, may be happening already. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists and anti-consumerism activists already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our creative-class dreamworlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded breeders will inherit the Earth as like-minded aliens may have inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve contact, it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-players. It will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who congratulate each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the Xbox.
A sobering interview a professor of psychology who has studied the psychology of genocide, or why ordinary people commit atrocities. Eye-opening, and not optimistic; basically, his thesis is that the line between everyday civilisation and genocide is rather thin; that it's very easy to dehumanise an "enemy", thus enabling ordinary people to commit atrocities against their now no-longer "human" foes and still see themselves as good people, and that genocide is not, as is widely believed, an intrinsically male specialisation.
And in the Holocaust you had incidences of this, too -- I'm thinking of Jan Gross' book, entitled "Neighbors," about a small village in Poland named Jedwabne where the Catholic half of the village killed the Jewish half simply because they were given permission to do so. You realize how thin this veneer of civilization is that we put up. We say we live as neighbors and in a community, but when something happens structurally that says now you have permission to persecute, to take from, to even kill people that you've lived with for years, the relative ease with which people can do that is incredible.
It's one thing to understand killing, but killing with brutality and killing with zest and killing by taking trophies as American soldiers did with massacres of American Indians, is another thing. Why is that necessary? You'll even notice that in executions throughout World War II, the person's back is always toward the executioner. There really is no logistical reason for that in terms of ease of killing, it's more just a psychological defense of not having to see the victim.
And, according to Waller, genocide and other atrocities are likely to increase as more people compete for fewer resources.