H/t Foresight Institute.
Oh my god... unlimited transparency, openness, and "democratization" are not automatically good things? That's the conclusion that Lawrence Lessig seems to have finally come to, years and years late, in a recent article at The New Republic. Here's a quote:
How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious. But I have increasingly come to worry that there is an error at the core of this unquestioned goodness. We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse. And I fear that the inevitable success of this movement --“- if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness“ -- will inspire not reform, but disgust. The "naked transparency movement," as I will call it here, is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.
You have "come to worry", only now? At the end of 2009? Not years ago, when the arguments were already out there that maybe transparency should be conducted intelligently and selectively rather than applied universally and unconditionally? You are the intellectual leader of the "naked transparency movement". You'd better speak more harshly to your followers in numerous other articles, or they won't get the point.
I am slapping my forehead right now. Transparency and openness have become a cult. Corporate marketing campaigns pander to this cult relentlessly. It is the ultimate ego trip. The thinking goes like this: everything is better when the common person, namely me, can stick my fingers in every pie and contribute to every decision-making process. This way of thinking is profoundly wrong. It assumes that everyone is equally good at everything. There is a reason we have experts and specialists. Though in some domains, experts are just as good as anyone (such as clinical psychology), in many domains, expert knowledge and skills matter.
Lawrence Lessig has been the #1 promoter of the idea of "perfect openness" "without any sensitivity to the idea" for years. Now he is backpedaling. For an example of Lessig's run-amok openness obsession, see his debate with Andrew Keen, where he behaves like a rude asshole. The core of Lessig's fanbase is a culture of nerds who think that everything is better when they personally get to control part of it.
There was a moment several months ago when I remember a transhumanist blogger remarking "what about the power of crowdsourcing?", or "so much for the power of crowdsourcing", or something along those lines, when a democratic poll on some topic obviously revealed a crappy answer. It's like he was genuinely shocked that "crowdsourcing" (a silly buzzword if I ever saw one) didn't automatically lead to the best answer. Surprise! We're in an era and memetic environment where even suggesting that unlimited transparency and "crowdsourcing" aren't obviously good things is certain to generate accusations of elitism and even Luddism.
One argument goes like this: the Internet has been making things more open, and the Internet has made a lot of things better. Therefore, more openness is always better, and both openness and betterness will continue indefinitely and inevitably. This (mistaken) way of thinking is called Whig history. The truth is that the Internet has made certain things more open, and made certain things better, but the correlation between these two is not precise, and just because something is a historical trend doesn't make it benevolent.
Would you prefer for the blueprints for an atom bomb to be transparent? How about the 1918 Spanish flu genome? The latter has already happened. Some people believe that the former circulates as well.
Politics Without Technology or Philosophical Subtlety is an Endless Cycle of Arguing and Moral Realist Fixations
The discussion about politics has created an astonishingly tense and uncomfortable atmosphere in this corner of the blogosphere. And how could it not? Human beings are political animals that have evolved for millions of years in environments where tribal politics could determine whether you had 10 children or were murdered before ever getting laid. We are slaves to our own political instincts.
When I say I want to move beyond politics, I should specify in more detail what I mean. I believe that modern day political issues have such strong moral valence that they are often opaque hurricanes of cognitive biases. What is most troublesome is the lack of distinction between facts and values along with moral realism. Facts about the world are objective and constant, while values are subjective and fickle. Because 99.9% of people take a moral realist stance, but moral values legitimately differ, there is an endless cycle of combat and retrenching, where everyone thinks they are right and little progress occurs. To quote Joshua Greene's Ph.D thesis:
In this essay I argue that ordinary moral thought and language is, while very natural, highly counterproductive and that as a result we would be wise to change the way we think and talk about moral matters. First, I argue on metaphysical grounds against moral realism, the view according to which there are first order moral truths. Second, I draw on principles of moral psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary theory to explain why moral realism appears to be true even though it is not. I then argue, based on the picture of moral psychology developed herein, that realist moral language and thought promotes misunderstanding and exacerbates conflict. I consider a number of standard views concerning the practical implications of moral anti-realism and reject them. I then sketch and defend a set of alternative revisionist proposals for improving moral discourse, chief among them the elimination of realist moral language, especially deontological language, and the promotion of an anti-realist utilitarian framework for discussing moral issues of public concern. I emphasize the importance of revising our moral practices, suggesting that our entrenched modes of moral thought may be responsible for our failure to solve a number of global social problems.
What people call "politics", I usually see as inevitable conflict between inflexible moral realist fundamentalists. It has gone on for all of human history and will continue forever unless we abandon moral realism.
I have substantial political knowledge, and frequently follow politics, but I speak about my (socially liberal, economically moderate) political views much more frequently offline than online. Why? Because politics is a huge niche occupied by millions of people. Anyone can do it. Pick a side and start shouting slogans. I do occasionally make political comments here, for instance when I expressed happiness that Obama won the Democratic nomination. But look right there -- by stating my support of Obama, I've already alienated a portion of my audience that I could have connected with via non-political arguments. I've given them a confirmation bias-ready excuse to dismiss my future opinions -- "well, Michael is an Obama-nut anyway, so I'll just ignore his point here instead of thinking about it more deeply". Politics makes people acquire permanent biases about the beliefs of others.
Over the past 500 years, there have been two primary approaches to making the world a better place -- playing politics and inventing new technologies. Politics has had nice breakthroughs on several fronts, such as the extension of the franchise to women and non-whites. (We have yet to extend that to children, who are considered the property of their parents, and animals, which are mostly considered dirt by meat-eaters.) But so has technology -- in fact, I'd say that massively increased wealth since the Industrial Revolution has contributed more to the lowering of crime and improvement of our standard of living than political progress has. Without machines, there is no amount of social reorganization that would allow people to live the wealthy and often healthy lives that people in the developed world do today. In the end, our modern lives are enabled by technology, though politics has certainly lent a helping hand to ensuring that the benefits of technology are widely distributed.
When I look at modern politics, I see arguments caused by material scarcity and inflexible underlying values. If our current level of technology were maintained indefinitely, I would bet that our political bickering and arguing could go on literally forever without resulting in substantial increases in standard of living or subjective happiness among all of us. Political reorganization and improvement cannot generate wealth from nothing. But improving our manufacturing, resource gathering, and energy base certainly can. Because intelligence is relevant to everything, I consider the improvement our underlying intelligence as the most crucial technological challenge currently facing our civilization. Once we are able to turn sand (silicon) into intelligent, benevolent agents (human-friendly AIs), we will be able to leverage that tremendous resource into improving our world.
I applaud certain political agendas, like gay marriage. But I applaud them for their utilitarian effects, not because they are aligned with a certain political ideology. The most important thing is human welfare -- does the policy improve it or not? I don't care if the policy is progressive or libertarian -- does it make life substantially better for us, or any minority? I strongly suspect that most humans, blinded by political instincts and moral realism, wouldn't even think of taking a quantitative utilitarian approach to political decision-making.
I believe that the idea of the necessity of research into the goal systems of advanced artificial intelligence is strong enough that it will easily survive misleading comparisons with pseudo-religiosity or political libertarianism. In fact, I think attacks on such a research program are symptomatic of its rapidly rising profile and credibility. Metaphorically speaking, the higher a fighter jet flies, the better a target it is for AA guns. But the validity of that research program, which rests mostly on arguments from cognitive science, philosophy, and evolutionary psychology, is an entirely separate thing than the discussion of whether we can or should move beyond "politics" or "politics as usual". The level of vitriol we've seen over the past few days alone ("Kick them hard, and repeatedly") and the general construction of straw men ("Peter Thiel wants to ban women from voting"), shows that things have already gotten out of hand, emotions have been heightened, and people have already picked sides.
Improved technology and intelligence is the sword that will cut through the 200,000 year old Gordian knot of human politics and moral realism. Only by creating an intelligence outside ourselves will we figure out how we actually look in the mirror.
I had hoped my essay on the limits of politics would provoke reactions, and I was not disappointed. But the most intense response has been aimed not at cyberspace, seasteading, or libertarian politics, but at a commonplace statistical observation about voting patterns that is often called the gender gap.
It would be absurd to suggest that women's votes will be taken away or that this would solve the political problems that vex us. While I don't think any class of people should be disenfranchised, I have little hope that voting will make things better.
Voting is not under siege in America, but many other rights are. In America, people are imprisoned for using even very mild drugs, tortured by our own government, and forced to bail out reckless financial companies.
I believe that politics is way too intense. That's why I'm a libertarian. Politics gets people angry, destroys relationships, and polarizes peoples' vision: the world is us versus them; good people versus the other. Politics is about interfering with other people's lives without their consent. That's probably why, in the past, libertarians have made little progress in the political sphere. Thus, I advocate focusing energy elsewhere, onto peaceful projects that some consider utopian.
Seems pretty reasonable to me.
Wow, maybe we should debate about politics more often. The recent bickering over politics between me, Mike Treder, and Phil Bowermaster has been making the rounds on h+ magazine, Next Big Future, and Bruce Sterling's Beyond the Beyond blog at Wired. Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit also responded to Mike Treder.
At Beyond the Beyond, Bruce Sterling asks, "Why aren't these advanced conceptualists arguing about suffrage for Artificial Intelligences?" My personal reason is that I don't think it will be a grey area. "Human-equivalent" AI will be inherently semi-godlike, due to such advantages as the ability to expand its own processing power, optimize its own intelligence at every level, code new cognitive modules to deal with specific tasks, split its mind into autonomic and deliberative threads, duplicate itself, learn very quickly and effectively, integrate directly with information technology, and the most mundane reason, the fact that smartness is what gives humans a fundamental advantage over every other animal (it certainly isn't brute strength, chimps have up to five times greater upper body strength than a man), and that increased smartness will give a slightly-smarter-than-any human intelligence a fundamental advantage over all humans.
Talking about extending voting rights to human-equivalent or human-surpassing AIs is like talking about extending the right to cheetahs to run. If AIs are programmed well enough that we aren't wiped out very quickly, then they'll likely be wise enough to help us analyze our most complex problems and advance possible solutions.
I'd go with global government being plausible, but I'm not entirely sure it's the most likely scenario. Personally, I tend to think that governance will become radically decentralised as the nation-state concept finally dissolves; molecular manufacturing would accelerate the erosion of geography that communications technology has already begun. Much as in the original comic books version of Watchmen, I think the only thing that could unite the planet into a single body would be an external existential threat on an equivalent scale to an alien invasion - and I don't consider one of those to be very likely at all!
I tend to think that governance will have to become more general to compensate for the erosion of local powers. For instance, in the 60s, when a lot more people began to drive and the interstates were recently built, there were a spike in traveling serial killers who would get off at a stop, kill some woman (or whoever) in her home, then move on to another far-away town. I see this as an instance of black hats taking advantage of an insufficiently developed white hat immune system. Eventually, communication between police agencies got better, and would-be killers must have realized that they couldn't skirt the law as easily by hopping from town to town.
In The Future, I see it as plausible that we'll have personalized, computer-guided aerospace transport with VTOL capabilities. This "VTOL launch" could be as simple as a hot air balloon or extensible legs a la Josh's air car.
So, when anyone can use their air car to get anywhere, how do we stop cocaine shipments? Or human trafficking? Or theft from a farm thousands of miles away? Or liabilities caused by accidents? In a human-only society, I only really see one solution -- that old bugaboo, transparency. In exchange for having an air car, you have to let people watch you (if they want, which I doubt they would) while you take a dump. :) The transparency would have to be augmented by at least low-level AI, which could quickly review tape if there were a complaint and forward it to the "proper authorities". (Who hopefully won't torture you and hold you incommunicado for whatever it is you did.)
It's partly from my appraisal of the likelihood of transparency that I would like the world to be a much more liberal place, governance-wise, by the time that happens. That means no Islamic military police, no Chinese communist stormtroopers, no journalist-killing Russian mafia, no evil Sudanese military, etc. Otherwise, the situation gets much, much worse for people in these countries.
The importance of the city state diminished when people acquired a penchant for traveling long distances and doing their business across cultures and continents. The new level of geopolitical organization became the nation. If you look at history, it consists of ever-higher salient levels of political organization -- the tribe, the village, the city state, the kingdom, and the nation. The more people travel around, the more they need to be held accountable at higher levels, if they're going to be held accountable at all. Is the old system of static borders really going to be preserved in an era where anyone can fly almost anywhere? Was that system held in place when satellites were introduced? No. In the future, it will look silly to restrict someone's movement over the surface of the Earth based on their nationality. The rigid, prison-like restrictions on movement today will seem downright primitive.
When anyone can go anywhere and commit any crime, they will need to be investigated and prosecuted from anywhere as well. This will mean global standards and global cooperation will be commonplace. No matter how much rigid countries like China and Russia try to enforce their own shtick, they will be forced to contribute and participate in emerging global systems of law enforcement and accountability. Global legal reasoning will need to converge to some extent, and I very much hope that it converges around classically liberal political attitudes.
That is why I disagree with Raven's idea that "governance will become radically decentralised as the nation-state concept finally dissolves". I think that governance will become simultaneously decentralized and centralized. To keep it nimble, it will need to be more distributed, but there will need to be unified global databases (formal or informal) for checking people's reputations and legal records. The nation-state concept will not "dissolve" per se, but the authority once held by nation states will be ceded either upwards or downwards.