Thursday, 31 March 2011

What we need to learn from future robots on Mars... and Bees

On this weeks ever-excellent Skeptics Guide to the Universe, I heard tell of a possible future plan for exploring the surface of Mars. Rather than use a single rover, the idea is to use a swarm of robots that will spread out from the landing spot, search a wide area and then return to upload and share data and presumably recharge. Each robot would have searched for the same list of pre-defined information and used common measuring techniques so that when the data is shared, a consensus can be reached as to the value of each robots findings.  Should a particularly interesting spot have been found, a larger group could go to analyse in more depth, or perhaps nothing of interest was found and the search could continued elsewhere.

The inspiration for the idea came from bees. It is the same process that is involved in looking for a new place to start a hive.  Each bee will scout before reporting its findings back to the hive, which will then come to a collective decision.  In each case, consensus is possible because each individual is part of the same shared reality, which is in turn interpreted the same way, according to the same rules. So what the hell is it that robots and bees have that humans don't?! Well, the question actually needs to read, "What do we humans have that these bees and robots don't?"

Here's a thought experiment (I will use the robots for the comparison, since the concepts are more familiar to us, being tools of our creation, than the inner-workings of a bees brain): Clearly the robots represent a highly simplified model of what our society actually represents.  To make analogy true therefore, we would need robots that were looking for different things, with different measuring devices, and different concepts of what information was of most importance. Furthermore, instead of each robots having an equal voice, a small percentage of the robots spoke for all the others, thereby ensuring that all but a few of the observations were ignored and consensus remains an impossibility.

We humans do not all share the same software; we are not the Borg. Indeed, geographical separation alone has ensured radically different coneptions of what has value and how to measure that value, simply by virtue of the natural environment one inhabits. On top of that, more abstract separations have further undermined the unity of our judgement: Religion, race, sex, gender, wealth, even being ginger for crying out loud; All of these things and a thousand more have ensured that we are far from the robot ideal in terms of reaching consensus. All of these things I have mentioned, together they form culture, the software, our imagined community, our political identity.  It is thousands of years of top-down cultural (bio-political as Micahel Hardt and Antonio Negri call it) production, shaping our identities, passing from generation to generation; religious, nationalistic, commercial. It is what we believe, where we live, what we do... that is what we have that bees and robots do not.  That is what gets in the way of us sharing an understanding our reality, the same shared reality that makes consensus possible in bees and robots. 

Notice above that I blame top-down cultural production for our woes? Top-down production of our identities is, by definition, synonymous with political power, not in the strict 'state' defintion but political in terms of the power to govern peoples lives in any form. This includes the religious and commercial as well. Each time communication structures have progressed, the political structure has been forced to evolve, open-up, in a constant struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed. Yet always the oppressors had the power of identity creation, thereby ensuring that whenever the tension did finally break, the oppressed would, like an abused child, know nothing other than retribution-in-kind.  This no longer holds.  The internet is ushering in a new dawn of democratised cultural production, horizontally-derived identity that can, in all but a few countries, ignore all of the boundaries that stop us from reaching consensus (Anonyminity being the extreme conclusion).  Note here the I'm not saying that the Web is some sort of ready-made utpoia; all I am saying is that is can allow you to ignore those boundaries and that, since kids enjoying the internet have in many cases not yet internalised prejudice and ignorance quite yet, it can innoculate the young from the prejudice filled fear-politics used by their apparent elders.  Unfortunately, evolution is slow, condemning the Internets early years to cultural production whose authors were still very much of the top-down identity.

Another criticism would be that I am arguing for us to literally become the Borg, something that is further reinforced by the fact that I'm totally up for transhumanism. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Robots and bees have one primary function.  We do not; we have and should cherish our subjectivity. Consensus need only be reached in political arenas, in areas of societal organisation that has the power to impose identity upon us. We must work toward a complete split of past culture and politics, a counterintuitive notion yet only so to that part of us that has been directly formed from hundreds of years of top-down political identity.  To put it a less counterintuitive way: Do we want the fundamentalist religious, nationalistic or capitalistic ideologies of the few to determine the organisation of all of society? For all of past identity is the creation of the few, ensuring that public policy is determined by religious ideas thousand of years old, 18th Century political philosophy and institutions or wealth grabbing corporations fresh from the 19th century.  The alternative is to allow reality, evidence, to guide us, to recognise our own flaws and the insignificance of the individual, to harness, trust and give equal voice to all of the swarm.  If we were to work toward that then, far from becoming a mindless bee, you would become free in all the other areas of your life to be more than simply an indictrinated robot.  All that is being asked is that in political arenas, where people make decisions that are imposed upon others (whether willingly or not), that those decision makers leave their personal past, their personal judgement, their concept of right or wrong at the door, and allow the evidence to dictate the end results.  This could not fail to be more humanitarian, since all of the evidence points to us all being one system.

None of us should trust our own judgement.  We must all recognise our own pejudices, reflect on the perhaps instinctive rejection of the idea of splitting our known-culture and politics. Even our physiology works against us, showing patterns that aren't there, showing us a limited confabulation of reality. Slowly we are coming to realise these things, something epitomised by the exploding growth of the skeptic movement. Consensus is possible in science, precisely because it understood very early on that culture was an impediment to truth and thus attempted to filter out its effects. It has advanced tremendously, a testament to our ability to work together toward understanding ourselves and our environment. It is by defintion a step-by-step process evolution; but we are beginning to walk the right way.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

A look back to Athens and the writing that was on the wall.

Looking for a photo, I came across this blog I wrote about the Greece riots of 2008. I thought I'd repost it here since it seems quite prescient (if, given the subject, slightly more Eurocentric than reality turned out) given what 2011 has brought us thus far. That, and the fact that I am more certain than ever that the West too shall have their revolution unless drastic, I would say impossible in the States, reform takes place separating business and politics and addressing the enourmous social imbalances that have been allowed to occur....


9th December 2008

Athens burns... but how far will it go?

This is more than simply unrulely hooligans, this could be a warning for us all.

I have been following the protests which have effectively brought Greece to a debris strewn stand-still with much interest. Once again, as with Mumbai, twitter and Flkr have been keeping the world up to date with minute by minute eye-witness reporting. As with the mainstream, one obviously has to try to detect and filter bias from what is understandably emotional reporting. Having read many conflicting accounts I thought I'd try to collate my thoughts and see where it plays out..

The Greek government, like its economy, is in a pretty sorry state. With a majority of a whopping one whole seat and corruption rife throughout, Greece has witnessed a privatisation policy which, rather predictably, has led to a growing wealth gap, rising unemployment, a rise in violent crime and poverty and continued police brutality (something which amnesty international today condemned). I say predictably because as many people know (it was after all the central theme of Naomi Klein's new bestseller Shock Doctrine), this is what always happens when a state attempts to push such harmful reforms through. Some countries fare better than others... the UK for instance decided on going to war with Argentina to pull people onside (though they didn't skip the police brutality).

Many Articles speak of the selfish and destructive mob of holligans terrorising Greece. I do not doubt for one second that there are groups of youths who are, quite simply, cunts and who are quite rightly admonished for their behaviour. Yet these articles invariably fail to mention the thousands willing to face tear gas and riot police whilst remaining steadfastly non-violent. Nor do they mention the, in my mind at least, legitimate groups who are willing to stand up and fight for the kind of state that they feel people deserve.

Lets get this straight. When a corrupt government gets rich by privatising the state at the cost to the people, they have every right to demand change. If the state then uses the police to repress this dissent, people are fully justified in fighting back. I understand that the pros and cons of the free market is a decisive subject. It is roughly divided like this. Much of America believe it to be the economic ideal (overlooking their own heavy subsidising of key industries), as do the ruling corporate/political elites in charge of countries where and when it was enacted and a smattering of intellectuals around the world. On the otherside of the fence lie the millions of people who have suffered throughout the years: witnessing their rulers siphon billions of dollars, the WTO blackmailing them and depriving them of any future prosperity through outrageous debt, suffering military juntas and severe repression. Standing side by side with these victims of the silent economic war that we in the west have been sheltered from even seeing are those that have refused to be blind-folded. Anarchists are one of those groups.

Anarchists are not simply bitter hooligans. Sure, a minority have no objection to using violence. Yet as I outlined above, there are situations in which it is necessary (had it not been for the anarchists leading the uprising in Spain, Franco could have walked over Spain from the start). The simple fact is that anarchists, like a growing number of young people now that the internet is considered an integral part of our development, are well-read, politically aware and share a common theme of believing in the equality of all.

They are all aware of the effects of the free-market: how it has brought war and repression to numerous countries and millions of people, and here, before their eyes, unfettered greed has wrought a mighty blow upon the world under the banner of capitalism. The coming depression promises harsher economic conditions and a rise in poverty. To see infrastructure crumble for lack of money whilst $27 billion has found its way to Greek Banks in bail-outs is simply to much to bare.

Another thing of note about anarchists, and all actvists in general, is the incredible networking capabilities now available. Twitter and Flkr capture countless acts of police brutality and mob retaliations which are disseminated and read by people all over the world. It is in these networks of young, active groups which the most interesting developments lie. The solidarity felt at an international level, particularly in Germany and France, is really quite remarkable. For this reason I wonder whether this is really the extent of the hostilities. If we really are about to enter the kind of depression many fear, frustration at the vast sums given to banks, the vast bonuses and the greed which infects the financial sector and the universal corruption in politics will manifest itself in similar riots around Europe and beyond.

It will no longer simply be about how we can get back to being a stable credit-fuelled consumer society in a world which cannot afford to consume on an ever-expanding orgy of luxery-fucking. As liberal democracy attempts to hold on to the jet-set corporate mentality of placing profit over a fair and just society, it will come up against an ever increasing and ever more militant educated generation who place the planet and people first.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Dan Carlin smacks it once again.

If you haven't already discovered Dan Carlin, I suggest you check him out.  Be it his Common Sense political podcast or his Hardcore History podcast, both are excellent.  I have just gotten around to watching the short video introduction to the website and I was struck once again by what he said.

He talks about the relevance of social, digital media to our future descendants by reflecting on how different our historical knowledge of Alexandra the Great's times would be if they all had blogs and podcasts.  Our future selves will be able to look back on our own time and garner a three-dimensional image of our society, rather than a culture that is rigidly controlled by power structures that monopolised cultural creation (the 'Gatekeepers', as he calls them).

As ever with Dan (he can be rather downhearted and pessimistic at times, not that I can blame him for that), I can't help but feel he doesn't follow through with his clearly excellent grasp of History and apply those rules to the present time.  Just as Historians could only ever work with history written by the winners, so too has society only ever been able to form identities written by the winners.  Historians work with culture to construct identity.. precisely what we all do in the creation of our selves everyday of our lives.  Therefore, what is revolutionary to future historians is, ipso facto, revolutionary to us, today.

We too can now construct a three dimensional view of our world, bypassing the biases and interests of the Gatekeepers.  Indeed, with digital technology this revolution will be visualised, a 3D epic to end them all.  Our global shared identity is being born, spreading through wires and through the air, attracted to that which is most rational; our reality whose perceived order betrays our shared existence within it.

There are walls to be overcome, fundamentalists of religion, state and commerce, but we must remember that for all but the few with everything to lose, everyone will be exposed to attractor of the most rational in a time of global communication: our global, universal commonalities.

Monday, 7 March 2011

A Sociocultural Evolutionary View of Skepticism; Its Origin and Function.

I am going to give a talk on my theory of sociocultural evolution and how it applies to skepticism at our next Skeptics in the Pub meeting. As preparation I thought I would write a blog on the topic to try to flesh out my ideas.  Bare in mind, I have to take it right back to the beginning of civilisation and back again, but skepticism does appear eventually...

In the beginning there was instinct ;), and the abstract had yet to exist. Foresight and memory evolved alongside social living and created the first shared abstract notion of identity emerging from our knowledge of the world and our place within it.  Imagined communities did not exist beyond what was immediate, the 'other' incorporating everybody not of ones own nomadic tribal group.  Shared experience was limited to geographical space since communication was limited to speech, story and song.  As I see it, a few simple evolutionary maxims, once the domain of instinctive genetics but now rationalised by early humans through newly developed cognitive abilities into a cultural form, ensured the emergence of human civilisation:

1) Fear the unknown - The new and different is potentially a threat.  When applied to humans this would include cultural factors since such a difference would suggest genetic difference i.e from a  rival nomadic group, due to the limited extent of communication networks.

2) Do not waste energy fearing the known - The familiar can only become familiar if it hasn't already killed you. This is seen in various forms of habitualisation, and when applied to other humans would also include cultural familiarity since this would highly correspond to genetic similarity.

3) Defer to authority - Whether it is something akin to Blackmores imitate the best imitators, or simply an evolution from animalistic strength hierarchies, Authority has since the dawn of power structures been synonymous with exclusive knowledge/cultural production

4) Just as the brain constantly strives to rationalise our physical world, so too the brain strives to rationalise our cultural world.  Really, there is no clear distinction since both combine to make up our environment.

Then technology started.  Agriculture brought with it geographical stability and the concept of belonging to a certain area.  Power dynamics, once limited to shamans and the like within individual groups, began to grow along with the resources now available: overabundance of food, increased leisure time and specialisation leading to new weapons.  Instead of ruling a nomadic group, those first individuals to claim superiority now found it possible to rule over more than one group within a geographical locale.  The imposition of abstract knowledge (initially religion, understandable rationalisations given the lack of knowledge) from the exclusive few could now find form in art, artifacts, story, song etc which means, according to the above maxims, that enough common culture was produced and consumed by the different peoples to ensure a stable group identity (pretty much the definition of a group) under a common hierarchy. 

All over the world these cultural units formed.  Written language arrived, and with it came exclusive literacy and ability to construct and record abstract concepts.  Culture was either created by or influenced from a monopoly of the few creating the identity of the many, utterly saturating all of society.  Yet technological advance ensured the status-quo could not last.  Ships, mathematics and all manner of advances came from the opening up of these largely closed systems through trade (primarily around the Mediterranean and along land trade routes) creating cultural mixing (and bringing about the end of the Bronze Age).  Now huge empires were possible, encompassing a number of different religious identities. This did not produce for stable times, and as humanity tried to rationalise this state of affairs memes such as secular citizenship flourished. It was in effect the large scale adoption, a scaling-up, of old memes from Classical Greece and other localities that, due to their diversity, had found ways to accommodate such differences.  A new form of imagined community was created, that of the state, and it managed this not by replacing religion but by capturing a niche and constructing for itself a role separate from that of religion: politics.  Religion was relegated merely to matters of the esoteric (and even this was not free from the manipulating intrusion of political memes) and the rest of culture was monopolised by the state.  Once again, this monopolisation led to a permanent suffusion of state-memes within culture, becoming a part of all that came after.  Expanding empires made various degrees of attempts at imposing 'home' culture on plundered lands but in Europe, the close proximity of closed systems of 'others' meant the continual war of states, just as nomadic and religious closed systems fought before that.

This type of transition has happened once more since the emergence of the State.  Once again, technology was the driver.  As science led to revolutions in navigation, weapons, bureaucracy and the like, individuals began to escape the closed system of state's common vernaculars (derived from market forces after the invention of the printing press) and trade internationally.  This fresh autonomy, directly analogous to the Mediterranean traders, led once more to increased dissonance as people saw the actions of the state as counter to their desire to maintain peaceful trade. Multinational imagined communities arose such as traders and academics, the increased mixing leading to massive innovation, something the state needed to tap in order to achieve it's own aims.  Yet the memes of Commerce, those of individual freedom, were more rational than the status-quo of war, propaganda and fear espoused by the State.  Slowly, the States role was sidelined (just as Religion before it) as Commerce became the new producer of cultural, and therefore identity, production.  They had their monopoly, granted in recognition by the State (and fetishised in corporate personhood laws) in its new role as protector of Commerce, as well as in the large, inhibitive cost of production.  In this age of mass-production, imagined identity is formed by the wealthy few who censor and produce according to the narrow interests of state and commerce.  Commerce has become a fundamental identity, the democratic state now restricted to Public Service campaigns and press statements, funnelled to us through the corporate sphere.

Religion is what we believe.  The State is where we live.  Commerce is what we do.  These three monopolies, allowed to suffuse culture with their memes, have between them constructed our cultural environment and our identities.  Yet now we face a technological revolution to put all the others in the shade.  With each previous transition, cultural production has passed to more and more hands, from the Demi-God to Multinational CEO..  Yet it has always remained the foundation of the power dynamic, the exclusive domain of the few who rule over the multitude that are cast in their image.  These past transitions of imagined community have been quantitative revolutions only.  The Internet (presaged by universal education) has democratised cultural production and made it global; A truly qualitative revolution in the creation of imagined communities  Dissonance is once more rising as the communication network outstrips the reach of either religion, state or commerce.  Their 'official' imagined community narrative, based upon a now false notion of exclusivity and exploitation of the 'other', is now at odds with what we have come to understand for ourselves.  Yet this is misleading as I will come to soon... a better description would be to say that our selves are now produced by, and so now morally includes, the multitude itself: horizontally derived, global, democratising, open system (there is no one else that can be the closed-out 'other')  A new global identity is being formed based upon information, a basis which includes everybody regardless of belief, habitat or profession.  In the words of this Syrian journalist, "A real revolution is nothing like what we were taught about in our school books. No military coups, no revenge, no political bloodshed in the name of the revolution. Tunis first, then Egypt. I watched how young men and women declared their refusal of the reality that had been forced on them (my italics)

This is where skepticism comes in (finally).  The reason that we can form a universal imagined community is because we have universal commonalities.  Not only are we physically similar but we also share familiar real communities; we are all mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, we all need to eat and we all need to rationalise our existence.  This last point is key.  Because we all share the same reality, the scientific method reaches the same conclusions for everyone, creating a universal commonality based upon legitimate, agreed consensus (including agreed upon provisos, distinguishing it from dogma).  This creates an attractor, truth if you will, that objectivises creation of shared identity and thus insulates it from manipulation of the few, the powerful.  Updated: It's kind of analogous to Entropy in regard to time, in that the same false beliefs are far less likely to spontaneously appear the world over than an the ever more rational interpretation that is the scientific consensus, based as it is on a reality independent of subjectivity.  In terms of individual rationalisation, false beliefs demand a complex, specific, amalgamation of different memes in just the right order, with defense against dissonance, for the overall belief to hold up.  There are many different false possibilities, but only one consensus that attempts to describe reality objectively.  There is an asymetric drive towards belief in the rational, determined by our inate need to reason and our acumulating knowledge of the world; eventually objective reasoning will replace superstition.  I like the idea of skeptical thinking being analogous to high entropy, fits with the notion of broad, disparate knowledge as opposed to localised, low entropy dogma. The attractor chips away at this structure leaving only that which requires no dogma whatsoever, the ever-changing world of science.  

Up until now, science has retained, due to a need for trust, an exclusive network within which it works.  So long as cultural production via the scientific method remained exclusive, it remained alien and unknown to many of the multitude, resulting in the state and commerces ability to ring fence it for their own use.  This has limited the ability of science to influence the social sphere, since it was still produced by exclusive culture (even exclusive language), for exclusive groups. The Internet and open information memes are chipping at this closed structure, trying to open it up, something that I think is central to the aims of skepticism.

Skepticism can be to the social what the scientific method is to the physical.  Both seek to objectify thinking and behaviour by attempting to identify and work around our human limitations, both biological and psychological (or cultural, i.e. accumulated knowledge. The terms are to me largely interchangeable though psychological would also account for the effect of genetics too).  Objective knowledge of our world has reached a point whereby different people, applying skepticism, can come to universal conclusions of abstract notions (morality, ethics etc) in the social sphere (as the scientific method does for the physical world).  Previous forms of meta-subjectivity created for us by the few, the foundations of exclusive imagined identities, are mere constructs designed to maintain the status-quo; institutionalised culture rationalised (communicated down) in such terms as paternal (religion), duty (state, social contract) or theories of economics-as-freedom (commerce).  We must reject these dogmas, for that is what they are, and objectivize the subjective through the objectification of thought (applying skeptical rules).

This is what skepticism does.  It facilitates the emergence of a common identity through the universal acceptance (within the group) of agreed upon rules that are designed, from our objective knowledge of science, to recognise and mitigate our own mental flaws and biases.  These rules demand that we all recognise and mitigate those parts of our identity that are exclusive, that have come from an undemocratic sphere of cultural production, and instead accept the evidence of our shared reality.

This attractor of truth that is independent of humanity is a revolutionary concept when you consider its correlation with technology.  Hegel always imagined History as the story of mankind coming to know itself, but I think he underestimated the next step, getting to know each other.  So long as capitalism continues to connect people the dissonance will grow.  Yet the powerful, those purveyors of ideology, have come to believe their own dogma... how else do you rationalise greed so one is able to sleep soundly and be a good family man?  This makes them dangerous.  They have created a global gated community, inoculating themselves from the darker externalities their wealth accumulation demands.  Yet even they inhabit the self same world as the multitude and it remains to be seen how high the pull of the attractor can reach.  Each transition of imagined identity has brought with it increased reliance on the cooperation of the people and as the latter of the three, commerce can, reluctantly, change when forced to by the expanding moral spheres/communication structures of its consumers.  That those with the most to lose and of the most immoral nature (oil, weapons, finance) are the ones to have used their wealth to subvert the state, the supposed representatives of the very people that now exceed them in moral capacity, is not a coincidence.  They will be the last bastions of imposed identity, the most fundamentalist of opponents against the emerging global identity.

Everyone will always have reality in common.  This fact must not be allowed to be taken from us by the extreme post-modernists who represent the social equivalent to pseudo-scientists.  To endow validity to individual 'realities' is to erect walls where there need not be any.  Celebrating subjectivity is not the exclusive domain of those who deny a shared objective truth.  If it were so, we would be doomed to the constant threat of manipulation as we continue to allow belief to be a valid criteria for defining authority to which we are subservient.  We have tried that, indeed we have tried nothing else.  While it may have been moral according to the limited definition granted by limited communication technology in the past, it was still the cause of much pain and suffering as dissonance, caused by the attractor, began to contradict those belief systems.  The only way for us to reach a globally just and fair society is to base that society on universal commonalities of reality as it really is.  The public realm must be free from the ideologies of religion, state and commerce and be replaced with institutions that emerge from the complex network of independent minds.  The multitude must be allowed to communicate, to create global culture that eliminates the 'other' and renders the identities of the oppressors obsolete.

No longer will we be defined by what we believe, where we live or what we do.  We will be recognised for our unique set of knowledge and the social value that contributes.  In short, we will go from objectified subjectivity of the soul, to the subjectivised objectivity of a complex network.  We are a system, and a system is defined by the number of links, by relationships, more than by individual nodes. Ironically, we once knew that, as indigenous people do, but we didn't understand it.  That's why it all got a bit crazy for a few thousand years.  Now we are beginning to understand it, we are replicating that understanding in culture because it seems the most rational interpretation and eventually people will be able to grow in an environment where there is enough understanding that we can once again come to know what it is to be part of a system, both human and, inseparably, ecological. We can only know such things when we are allowed to live it, understanding clearly isn't enough.  As such, I predict that skepticism will grow to become a fundamental part of this new, information based, global identity and will eventually lead to the eradication of enforced, indoctrinated, false subjectivity to a true subjectivity whereby an individual is free to express themselves as they truly feel themselves to be, not as a call-centre worker from Hull who wishes she had the time and money to learn violin.

Thanks to @Mikeharris100 for his input!

Friday, 4 March 2011

David Cameron: A man on the wrong side of History

I just read this quote in todays Guardian.  Given everything I have written I don't need to tell you here why this is wrong.  This shit speaks for itself:

In February, Cameron criticised "state multiculturalism". He argued that the UK needed a stronger national identity to prevent people turning to all kinds of extremism and proposed an end to engagement with non-violent extremist groups as well as violent ones, on the basis that extremists often begin in non-violent groups.

This way is Fascism.  It is time for the Multitude to assert itself.