The collective

Let’s for the moment imagine that humanity can avoid a fall of civilization. Then one may ponder where humanity is heading to. There are some very strong hints.

Despite laws that prohibit the use of a cell phone while driving a car, I often see people busy typing on their cell phones while they are supposed to be focussing on the road. I’ve also often seen couples or groups of people sitting at tables in restaurants typing on cell phones instead of talking to each other. Why do people behave this way? And what does it have to do with where humanity is heading?

It reveals a very strong urge lying within the human psyche. Humans like to interact with other humans. Social media provide them with this capability on a scale that far exceeds the usual level of interaction. They become so attached to this new thing that they cannot stop interacting via social media to do mundane tasks such as driving cars. They would also rather interact via social media with a large number of “friends” than face-to-face with a few individuals.

Many years ago there was a TV series called Star Trek. One of the antagonists introduced in this series was the Borg. It consisted of a hive of mentally interconnect individuals – a group mind. It was know as the Collective. Its mode of operation was to attack civilizations and then absorb the individuals from those civilizations into itself. It would say “resistance is futile, you shall be assimilated.”

The Brog from Star Trek

So, when I see how attached people become to social media, I get the feeling humanity is becoming a collective. We are turning into the Borg. There is no fighting it. Unless this process is halted by a fall of civilization, humanity will eventually be a single being consisting of mentally interconnected individuals.

Perhaps such a state of existence is not a bad thing. I can think of a few benefits. Most people are generally more happy when they have constant interaction with other people. There are exceptions of course (like me). But there always need to be those that keep the systems running.

Speaking of which, those that develop technology should keep in mind this tendency toward the development of a collective. For one thing, it would help if the need to be connected to the collective does not interfere with mundane tasks. It would be better if cars can drive themselves. However, there are other tasks that cannot be delegated. For that purpose, cell phones need to be replaced by wearable devices. The screen can become a heads-up display in goggles that can be integrated into glasses if necessary. The keyboard needs to become integrated into gloves that sense finger motion. Or the keyboard can be dispensed with if voice-to-text technology matures. Then the microphone needs to be replaced by a ultra-sonic sensor that images the mouth cavity to determine what is being said. This way, people would not need to talk out load. With such technology, you can stay connected to the collective while doing your shopping.

At the end of the cold war, one would have expected that humanity would have pulled out all stops to develop space travel and colonize the moon and the other planets. Instead, technology shifted to the development of communication in the form of cell phones and the internet. That brought us to where we are today. The one recent exception to this trend was Elon Musk who developed space travel into a commercial enterprise. But now he is buying Twitter. Go figure!

A spaceship called Imminency III

So, our technology today causes ideas to be spread too fast to be properly tested. Is that really so bad? Perhaps the spreading of false information causes people to make bad decisions, such as whether or not one should get vaccinated during a pandemic or which president to vote for. But does that really threaten the survival of humanity? We seemed to be getting through this pandemic and although a large number of people died, it is still a tiny fraction of the total human population. Even bad presidents are eventually voted out of office. Although the next president has a lot of things that needs fixing, humanity still goes on.

So, what is really the issue with us losing the cultural mechanism? Granted. It may not be that humanity as a whole would become extinct as a result of the loss of the cultural mechanism, but there are some very seriously unpleasant states of existence before we get to extinction.

Perhaps the most important thing that is being maintained by the cultural mechanism is civilization. What do I mean by the term civilization? Basically, it is ability to live and work together with other people. Often civilization is seen as all the accomplishments such as art works of scientific achievements. However, these accomplishment are merely the symptoms of civilization. These accomplishments would not have been possible if people did not cooperate to achieve them. A single person could not have built the rocket with the capsule to land on the moon. The bigger the achievement, the larger the number of people that needed to be involved. It implies that all these people had to work together. That is only possible thanks to their level of civilization.

People are different. They have different views and convictions. If these people want to work together, they have to tolerate one another’s views, even if those views are very different. In a culture, the views and ideas may to a large extent be correlated. However, as the population of a culture increases the diversity in ideas will also increase. Therefore, the people in that culture can only maintain their cooperation if their level of civilization – the extent to which they can tolerate different views – also increases.

Warlords

So, what happens when people do not tolerate different views anymore? Does it not simply mean that they cannot work together to achieve those accomplishments anymore? Yes, that is one inevitable consequence, but there are several much more severe things that can happen. The break down of civilization effectively implies a fragmentation of the culture into several lesser subcultures. It may sound like a scenario for civil war, but there are many other ways that the fragmentation can manifest. The fragmentation may happen along class separation lines. The lower classes would them reorganize themselves into gangs, living by stealing their resources. If the government of the day can muster enough cooperation to keep these gangs in check, some form of normality can be maintain. On the other hand, if the fragmentation implies that such cooperation cannot be maintained, the gangs would become ever more powerful. The gang leaders would eventually emerge as warlords. The point where these warlords become more powerful than the government would indicate the stage where the civilization has effectively fallen.

OK so that is bad. When civilizations fall, life as we know it changes drastically. It would generally mean that life expectancy decreases. The human population would dwindle. Although it does not necessarily imply that humanity becomes extinct, it is a close second.

But why would the fast spreading of information lead to such an apocalyptic state of affairs? The reason is that there is a concomitant breakdown in cooperation. Why this is happening, I don’t know, but there is a clear increase in animosity observable in social media. Somehow, the fast spreading of information puts pressure on basic civilization. In some parts of the world there is also an observable increase in criminal activity. These observations are all pointing to an imminent fall of civilization.

That is why the spaceship is called Imminency.

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A spaceship called Imminency II

Granted. One day, if humanity needs to take a spaceship to another planet to survive, the knowledge of how that spaceship needs to be maintained would be a technology that humanity depends on for its survival. But what about today? Although there are a large variety of existing technologies, none of it involves the survival of humanity as a whole, right? That depends on how you define technology.

Technology

What is technology? It is the knowledge of how to use the resources at our disposal to make devices that serve specific purposes. Well, it does not have to involved physical devices. Technology can also be represented by methodology – techniques of how to do things. Often the use of specific tools requires some sophisticated knowledge.

If we see it broadly enough, almost all the knowledge that we have can to some extent be seen as some form of technology. Perhaps it would be a stretch to think of the waltz as a form of technology, but that may be the exception.

So what technology, seen in this broader sense, is vital for the survival of humanity today? Well, in this broad sense, the technology of acquiring and maintaining knowledge is in itself also a technology. In fact, the mechanism for the way humanity learns and uses knowledge can be seen as a technology. When viewed in this way, it is clear that such a technology would be something that humanity needs for its survival.

This technology has a name. It is called culture. One may think of culture as things like theater, cuisine, fashion, etc., but culture is much more than that. These things are high culture, which is just a tiny part of culture. One may think that culture is a fixed rigid thing, but that is not the case. It evolves and changes as time goes by. One may think of culture as just a collection of traditions and activities, but in fact, it is a mechanism.

Culture is the most important mechanism by which humanity maintains its survival in an ever changing world. If we lose it, we are in a serious situation. I’m not taking about “losing our cultures,” instead I’m referring to losing the mechanism of culture.

Culture is a feedback system that filters new ideas and maintains the best among them. For this to work, it is important that new ideas are tested before they are propagated through the population. This mechanism is under threat today. The rate at which ideas are propagated far outpaces the rate at which these ideas are tried and tested. The result is that false information is spread far and wide. People are responding to it with detrimental consequences. This process erodes the very mechanism of culture and thus threatens the survival of humanity.

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A spaceship called Imminency

What would happen if there is a technology that humanity depends on for its survival and then they forget how to maintain that technology? Yes, it is a rhetorical question. But why would there be such a technology? Humanity evolved as a species that survives without the need for any special technology. Don’t they?

To illustrate a scenario where such a thing can happen, I’ll tell a story. It is a story about a situation that can happen at some point in our future.

Far into the future, the people of earth realized that life on earth is doomed. To save humanity, they built a vast spaceship and called it Imminency. Then they loaded it with all the knowledge of mankind. A large number of people entered the spaceship, taking with them all the resources they would need for a long journey through space to a different planet where they hope to establish a new home for humanity. If this mission would fail, humanity would cease to exist.

The journey would take several generations to complete. Therefore, each new generation needs to be taught how to maintain the life support systems of the spaceship.

So, here we have that scenario that I talked about at the beginning.

For a while it worked, but humans are humans. Their ideas drift. The human mind is capable of much diversity. It is inventive and resourceful. So at some point some very clever people came up with reasons why children should not be taught all this knowledge of the technology. And so it happened that, after a few more generations, the knowledge of how to maintain the technology that keeps humanity alive got lost.

Slowly, the life support systems started to fail, but nobody knew how to solve the problem. They did not understand the technology and did not know how to fix the failing systems.

I don’t like stories with bad endings so I won’t leave this one in such a condition. Fortunately, in the vast libraries that was loaded onto the spaceship at the beginning the knowledge of how these systems work and how they are to be maintained still existed. Some young people then got hold of this knowledge and they started to fix the systems.

Obviously I have some other reason for telling your this story, but I’ll leave that for another day. In the meantime, you may think about this story and what it means.

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No to science pledge

As a physicist, I understand what science is about. I have a good understanding of the scientific method and what science has achieved. But, unlike many other physicists it seems, I also know about the limits of science.

So, recently, I saw this “pledge for science” where people are asked to add their support to say that they put their trust in science. Unfortunately, I could not find a fully worded statement of this pledge to understand exactly what is meant by it. What does it mean to put your trust in science?

To be honest, I think I know where this is coming from. With all the anti-vaxxers, followings on the heals of global warming denial, and all those kinds of trends and misinformation that is being spread via social media, it is not surprising that some reaction would follow from the scientific community. However, one needs to guard against an over-reaction.global-warming-effects-1576273649696

Science does not have a clean track record. It is unfortunately responsible for several serious problems in our world today. Take for instance global warming. It does not take much to realize that in as far as it is caused by human activity, it is with the aid of scientific development that this human activity is able to cause global warming.

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Another example is weapons of mass destruction. Through scientific investigation humanity achieved the point where it can cause unprecedented death and destruction. Not exactly a highpoint in human cultural achievement. Once this door was opened, nothing could close it again. Forever, humanity will have this sword having over its head.

One can proceed to list other negative effects of scientific development such as pollution and the hole in the ozone layer, but I think the message is clear by now. An unconditional trust in science is a very dangerous thing. Instead, one should rather support an effort to get people educated and informed, not only about science and the scientific method, but also about other aspects of culture. For instance, if people have better knowledge of history, they would have a better understanding of how ignorance can lead to terrible things.

Let me emphasize then, I do not support an unconditional pledge to put my trust in science. In fact, it is a dangerous thing to put one’s unconditional trust in any specific thing on this earth.