Thursday, July 14, 2005

Mass Mentation

When people evaluate problems at different scales, the application of common sense may fail to help. Non-scientists, and even most scientists, have real problems with visualizing, understanding, even processing things like quantum mechanics and relativity. Even Brownian motion is mind-boggling to us. I’ll bet a lot of people don’t believe in it. What would it be like to live in a world where the normal movement of molecules could push you around? Specialists think differently. New senses have to be learned. Engineers can almost feel the stresses in structures. Orbital physicists like to think about efficient orbits as systems of intersecting tunnels in space and time, kind of like the Metro gone mad. Chemists can spend a lifetime trying to hone their proprioceptive mental map of molecular interactions. The speed and complexity of events in this chemical world are difficult to imagine.

The difficulties of dealing within these privileged worlds are easy to underestimate. Every weekend mariner can express confident opinions on the handling problems of the Titanic or the Exxon Valdez. Every Little League coach rails against the mistakes of the big leaguers. And everybody who reads the paper can tell the President what to do.

Now, if the Internet has taught us anything, it is that these people are right. Everyone can add to the conversation. Everyone understands a different combination of things in a way that no one else can quite get the handle of. They can contribute. What’s more, people can contribute from the full range of their talents – not just the ones they advertise in the phonebook.

People may underestimate the challenges of whatever given task, but we underestimate the people. A story. My daughter was talking to my sister’s housepainter some months ago. The man speaks slowly and my sister thought he was impaired to some degree. But he answered every question my daughter asked about the house and then started telling her surprising things about the plants and trees. My sister, who was listening the whole time, was stunned. Her new insight into his capacity led to her giving the man a contract for landscaping. In my estimation, he turned her property into a work of art. So why does he paint houses? All the usual reasons I imagine, and others besides. People are easy to pigeonhole, but too complex to understand.

The Internet has started to link people through the content of their minds, unfiltered by previous prejudices. When the power of this immense net-mind is harnessed by an army of meme-aggregators, amazing things can happen. Nevertheless, it is apparent to non-fanatics that the Internet usually acts more like a sea of competing megaphones than the coordinated mentation of an intelligent being. The Internet seems to have an infinite capacity for blockhead political discourse and astoundingly intricate conspiracy theories.

It may seem like I’m taking both sides of the issue, but what I’m really trying to point out is that the skills of the individual, surprising though they may be, are inappropriate to the scale of society. Democracies are really not run by voters, thank God. They are run by systems – systems that make good use of the component individuals. These systems grew up out of history and tradition and habits. People who were good at thinking about systems contributed to the legal structure. Segregation of responsibilities by level of locality as well as functional and regional specialization emerged as needed over the years.

Individuals are plugged into this system in ways that have worked reasonably well given the restrictions of the past. The multiplicity of these systems has allowed a form of natural selection to work its way, producing institutions that conform to the collective social wisdom of the people and the leaders. Note, as an example, that Pennsylvania is now going to allow jurors to take notes. This is something that has been gaining acceptance and is now practiced in every other state and commonwealth. If there were no other models to copy from, this change might never have happened, at least in Pennsylvania. Institutions are conservative (especially in Pennsylvania), but experimentation takes place all the time. These institutions, as a consequence, represent centuries of stored intelligence.

Institutions are, however, currently in flux. Stored intelligence or not, they are threatened as much by new capacities and possibilities, as any change in the ancient and storied qualities of human beings. I believe that people are actually getting smarter over the years, at least more intelligent, but problems we face are growing faster, both in complexity and severity. Consequently, we need our institutions to be better. We need new institutions. We need our social networks to evolve.

We can no longer afford the self-destructive idiocy of the War on Drugs. We can’t keep using oil like it grows on trees. We can’t afford for segments of the country to exile themselves from modern science. All these things go wrong because of the disconnect between best knowledge and scope of government. Let there be no mistake, the U.S. has imposed a Tyranny of the Masses, restricted as best we can to protect individuals. The Executive has a modicum of independence, but the reins are a lot shorter than they seem. There is only a very limited capacity to rule and to make decisions, because it is not possible to hold the people’s trust for very long. This may be a good thing. The system also has a hard time picking truly qualified people.

The Internet as it stands, is only marginally useful in the political arena. However, it presents some hope that things can be improved. The Internet, as a model, has several interesting attributes that offer possibilities for improved governmental mechanisms. The first is variety. No one can be squelched on the Internet (at least not completely). All ideas can be discussed seriously and persuasion applied. Second, the Internet is inexpensive. Money does not buy a lot of status, at least not yet. Third, the Internet provides a mechanism for conferring trust and delegating intellectual authority. I know that Richard Fernandez, young as he may be, knows a lot more about military matters and Iraq than I do. I trust his judgment on many things and I post comments on his blog. So do a lot of other people. Please be aware that Richard Fernandez does not post comments on my blog. There are good reasons for that.

In summary, I believe that we should be looking to the Internet, not only as a tool, but as a source of inspiration for how to build new social networks and compress political distance.

7/14/2005 12:36 AM

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At Thursday, July 14, 2005 7:28:00 AM, Blogger mal said...

JJ, have you read "Earth" by David Brin?....around the space opera he explores some of these issues

At Thursday, July 14, 2005 7:30:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Thanks for the tip.


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