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03 April 2007

Chaos theory

Harvard evolutionary psychologist Professor Stephen Pinker has carried out a historical body count through the millennia to prove we live in a progressively less violent and safer world. If you thought that barbarism, cruelty and horror were alive and well, in his essay “A History of Violence” Pinker argues the opposite: “something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler."

While this might seem slightly off topic, it raises an interesting point about accelerating change in the modern world. Where exactly has technological, social and economic progress been leading us? Are we more in charge of our own destinies, heading towards greater stability, or are we spinning further out of control?

I believe the evidence points to the latter.

All the revolutionary advances of the past 10,000 years simply don’t compare to the sheer scale and depth of transformation in the last century, or even fifty years. Our leaps forward in science, medicine and the economy have been so swift and spectacular that we are, in some senses, being overtaken and de-stabilised by our own rate of progress.

Global warming is a dramatic case in point. Last century was one of explosive world-wide economic expansion: global gross domestic product more than tripled in the 19th century but went up by a factor of twelve and a half in the 20th. Better living standards, together with advances in medical technology lowering infant mortality rates, triggered a global population eruption. From a planet sustaining two billion people in the late nineteen twenties, the US Census Bureau estimates that we hit the six and a half billion mark on Saturday, February 25, 2006.

As an unforeseen consequence of polluting technologies like the internal combustion engine that powered this record economic growth (and the over-population that helped finance) there’s now a universal consensus among serious scientists that mankind has contributed to altering the ecological balance of the entire planet for the first time in human history.

As with mother nature, so too with her most evolved species; patterns of human relations established over many thousands of years have been disrupted to an unparalleled degree. At a certain stage, technological, political and social transformations become so fast and so profound that they destroy the old rules and we just don’t know where we stand anymore.

We can see the effects of this all around us. We live in times of excessive state and public violence. From the Queensbury Rules in 1867 to Abu Ghraib in 2003, Western democracies have moved backwards from establishing protocols about boxing to breaking ones banning torture.

In less than two decades from the mid-80s to 2001, it is estimated that the number of companies making and selling small arms more than doubled from 240 to 500. At the time of writing, MachineGun.com sells 12,359 different kinds of rifles, handguns, shotguns, machine guns, ammunition and accessories and over 200 million such firearms - more guns than adults - are legally in the hands of American citizens. Not counting the likes of 125 million Kalashnikovs and 22 million more destructive weapons like shoulder powered rocket-launchers in circulation world-wide. Sadly, for a great many people happiness clearly is, as John Lennon once wrote, a warm gun.

A more intimate illustration of how this kind of chaos affects individuals can be found in writer and broadcaster Michael Ignatiev ’s Blood and Belonging: journeys into the new nationalism. He contrasts the traditions of Kurdistan, where “carrying a gun is a sign that a boy has ceased to be a child and must behave like a man”, with Bosnia after the long-held state monopoly on violence had disintegrated and there were no such established codes of behaviour. Without rules to live by and responsibilities to live up to, young men indulged in an orgy of indiscriminate brutality, using the lethal firepower now in their hands to: “hold up an aid convoy; terrorize a column of refugees, threaten a journalist; make some innocent civilians lie in a ditch with their hands over their heads, cowering beneath your gun sights”.

Pinker suggests that the rise of centralised state control and the decline of this kind of anarchy is one possible explanation for the kinder, gentler times he thinks we now enjoy. He also offers the hypothesis that our moral standards have risen. Modern atrocities, Pinker feels, are nothing to write home about compared to the horrors of human history, they just seem more unacceptable today because we know better. But surely this is an absolutely central point. We do know better so modern acts of barbarism are all the more grotesque given our superior moral codes.

There’s no doubt that statistically Pinker’s point about the long term decline in violence is true, although perhaps not as surprising as he makes out. Although his point about genocide is less convincing. You can find endless examples of large-scale massacres of populations in history and yes there are plenty of stories of mass civilian slaughter in the Bible. But the goal of systematically eliminating entire populations, though pioneered by European settler communities in the colonies, is surely a twentieth century phenomenon.

Also, while it’s true that the overall number of armed conflicts and military coups has declined in the last forty years, and not so many people get killed in battle since the wars are smaller, a fifth of the world's population still live in combat zones so disruptions to ordinary life (mass flights, refugees, and so on) remain disproportionately high and are increasing. For instance, according to the Human Security Report 2005, between 1977 and 2001 the global rape rate more than doubled. And with modern horrors like “ethnic cleansing”, widespread atrocities are far from things of the past.

Meanwhile, progress in information, nano and bio-technology is getting faster. The social, economic and cultural consequences of this cannot be anything other than profound. What we’ve got to look forward to, at least in the foreseeable future, is more of the same: escalating and destabilising global transformation.


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Both Grady Booch and Tim Berners-Lee highlighted in lectures I've seen this year that the advance of online brings undesired changes, and that some of those changes simply can't be anticipated, because they're emergent phenomena.

It's very important to be having this discussion. Does the internet make it easier for the ideas of extremists to be distributed? Definitely. The same technology that makes it possible for us to crack cancer genetics collaboratively is used to deliver execution videos from Iraq.

How we address this and minimise the downside is a difficult question, and one that Tim Berners-Lee suggests is within the remit of his Web Science discipline: it's a hybrid of philosophy, sociology and technology that will be available as a degree course soon.

Andy Hobsbawm

Of course most new technologies can be used for good or bad purposes. That said, the empowerment of individuals is a particular problem in a global village full of village idiots. Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy highlighted these dangers in 2005 with this NYT op-ed column: http://tinyurl.com/bt3d6

Eamonn Wilmott

Technology & the media provide us with more information in a day than any individual could ever get through in a lifetime (I'm sure there are some stats on that?) As such it's about filtering and the news organizations filtering for us. Sadly bad news sells and so it is in the interests of the major media groups to inundate us with murder, crime, fear, etc. Michael Moore talked about this is Bowling For Columbine. Being constantly assaulted by negative news feeds is erosive of the human spirit. Technology is an accelerator and can be used to distort information flow, but equally it can be used to generate a postive flow. Right now the day to day small vs big activity on the net is an important counter balance to the major media groups sensationalization of doom & gloom.

Ozoda Muminova

If anything the Internet is proving to aid democracy and human rights. It is probably the best platform for truely deliberative democracy, giving voice to minorities/disadvantaged/under-represented groups. And also political campaigning - exposing corrupt totalitarian regimes, as well as the flaws of established "democratic" governments - from Craig Murray's blog to Daily Kos to MySpace campaigns to save Iranian teenagers from death sentence.

The reason why some may feel technological and economic advances have rolled us back - may be, akin to H. G. Wells' Time Machine, comfort and complacency which led to decreased participation of masses in politics and public life. So hopefully, Internet's ability to mobilise masses will revert this trend.

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