|politics as if science mattered
||[Apr. 26th, 2010|04:42 pm]
Every time I wonder what it would look like to design a human operating system from scratch, the same kinds of objections stop me in my tracks.|
You can't design corruption out of human nature. You can't make rich people's voices count as much (or as little) as poor people's voices. You can't make a perfect system from flawed parts.
Yet I still have to wonder if it's not possible to wrap our scientific minds around these limits. Communication theory evolved out of the quest for noise-free transmissions. When it was proved that noise-free transmissions was mathematically impossible, we were able to design closer to that ideal, because we could define that limit.
So it makes sense to me, to try to puzzle out the limits to a human operating system, and work backward from there. Like Qwerty, the system we have is so bad that it wouldn't be that hard to design a better one.
(design isn't the problem, I know. Implementing it is the killer. Gotta start somewhere!)
One difficulty in designing stuff that works for everyone, is that you can't involve everyone in the design. It may be impossible to even represent everyone in the design. Illiterates are not deeply involved in literacy drives, only at the receiving end. Blind people can't work the computer displays used to design ADA accommodations. Children can't be asked what should be left out of their curricula when it's textbook time.
And most of the time, the people who are making these choices on everyone else's behalf, can tell themselves that they've listened enough, they've asked for enough public input, and conducted enough focus group sessions, that their asses are covered when someone complains.
Technically speaking, it's an impossible goal to include everyone in such design discussions.We intuitively know this, and we move forward with stuff when we get a feeling of consensus- when we've heard from everyone who matters.
That threshold of 'everyone who matters' may have some hard-wired elements to it. We evolved in tiny little bands, and got used to a certain scale of operating. There's nothing in the human evolutionary path to prepare us to make choices that impact an entire planet full of people we'll never meet.
Instead of trying to arrive at the best possible answer, we're satisfied with a defensible answer, one that has a reasonable chance of withstanding opposition.
If you serve on the board of an energy company, and there's a likelihood that the new energy resources on the chalkboard are going to bankrupt your grandchildren, is it reasonable to expect you to hold off and let some other concern have access to the goods?
One of the hard things about critiquing capitalism, is no one can think of an alternative.
And yet, that alternative clearly exists, even if no one knows it yet. There's some pretty simple logic that tells me it's not hopeless.
First, the counterexample: Humanity cannot think its way out of this, we're too attached to our bad habits, so the most anyone can do is fiddle while Rome burns. That's a self fulfilling prophecy, and it doesn't go anywhere truly interesting.If it's true, then there's no real disadvantage to believing the opposite: we've nothing to lose!
It's much more fun/interesting/game-opening to assume that it's not hopeless, that our choices matter. And if the threat is as dire as we're led to believe, then looking foolish is the least of our worries.
Being naive and optimistic is a survival-positive trait in this case.
Since there's every advantage, and no disadvantage to assuming there's a way through this crisis, then it makes sense to imagine a set of parameters somewhere in the middle of a hypothetical negotiation between you and the rest of the planet.
You don't have to actually hold that conversation with each and every other individual on the planet, to come up with some reasonable compromises- stuff like," I won't try to kill you if you don't try to kill me."
But as you get less abstract, it quickly gets muddier. How much is my labor worth compared to yours, and how unfair does it have to get before one of us decides not to trade?
The muddiest question of all, is do I even have time to think about this kind of stuff? Is it too expensive to even hold out hope that there's an alternative to what we've got now?
It reminds me of Shepard Book talking to Malcom Reynolds about their worldviews: "When I talk to you about faith, why do you always assume I'm talking about God?"
Often enough, Faith has meant God has meant someone's more correct than someone else.
In this case, Faith means Survival means all of us are better equipped to survive than a few of us.