“Nothing New Under the Sun” is the title of Robert Silverberg’s column for the June 2011 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Although the sobering thought that humanity keeps repeating certain types of mistakes is not one I particularly relish, I think it needs to be discussed.
“Anyone taken as an individual is tolerably sensible and reasonable—as a member of a crowd he at once becomes a blockhead.” – Friedrich Schiller as quoted by Bernard Baruch as quoted by Robert Silverberg.
In his article, Silverberg shares some excerpts from the mid-1800s book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, written by the Scottish lawyer and journalist Charles Mackay. Silverberg compares the South Sea Bubble disaster to the Internet dot-com bubble, with specific reference to failed companies such as Webvan (bankrupt in 2001), Boo.com (broke in 2000) and Flooz.com (died in 2001). England’s South Sea Bubble of 1720 was not blamed, according to Mackay, on the general public’s avarice or lust for gain. Instead, as with the recent economic crash of 2008, the “evil” bankers and executives are blamed. The collective insanity of a nation seems to be a major factor though. Perhaps it does take a cunning plan to fool the masses, but it also requires the masses to act idiotically as they urgently try to consume or become rich or whatever. My intention is not to get into the issues of blame for economic bubbles, but to note the special ability of a normally intelligent person to become less so in the context of a group.
Another popular delusion of humankind’s past is fortune-telling via astrology; unfortunately, it’s still quite popular. As Mackay wrote: “ Leaving out of view the oracles of pagan antiquity and religious predictions in general, and confining ourselves solely to the persons who, in modern times, have made themselves most conspicuous in foretelling the future, we shall find that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the golden age of these impostors. Many of them have been already mentioned in their character of alchymists. The union of the two pretensions is not at all surprising. It was to be expected that those who assumed a power so preposterous as that of prolonging the life of man for several centuries should pretend, at the same time, to foretell the events which were to mark that preternatural span of existence.”
Of course, most transhumanists would like to do exactly the same thing that those alchemists promised, which is to live for centuries (at least). And transhumanists are quite often found foretelling events or repeating the predictions of popular writers. I recommend that transhumanists, including me, be all the more alert to traditional delusions dressed in sexy technolust clothes.
“We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. ” – Charles Mackay
Humans are social animals, so surely there must be overall benefits to group intelligence? Well, even our relatives the chimps have group stupidity—they will keep copying the behavior of a leader even if a better strategy appears and they will copy the behavior of the dominant group member even if it results in less rewards than another way that they also learned. But what about the so-called “wisdom of crowds?” We don’t always have wisdom or higher intelligence emerging from groups because the system has to be set up correctly.
The main criteria that James Surowiecki listed in his book The Wisdom of Crowds are:
- Diversity of opinion
So first, every person should ideally have some private information or ideas that aren’t shared with the others. Second, people can’t allow others in the group to determine their opinions or decisions. Third, people shouldn’t be stuck in a closed central structure of wisdom; they must be able to draw from local knowledge and wisdom. Fourth, there has to be a part of the system that compiles judgments into a decision. It’s not necessarily easy to achieve all four of those criteria for a given problem and a given group.
The Future of Madness
“Pretend to be mad? Who would notice a madman around here?” – Capt. Blackadder (from Blackadder Goes Forth, set in the trenches of the First World War)
Silverberg’s essay presents the solemn attitude that humanity keeps on repeating its old mistakes. It sounds like a cliché (although perhaps not a popular enough one); in fact Silverberg says one falls back on clichés in this context. Does the adage of Alphonse Karr that Silverberg quotes —”The more things change, the more they remain the same.”— really describe human behavior?
It’s been said that a true science fiction story is one in which the world is irreversibly changed by the end. Can that happen in real life? Transhumanists very much want to instantiate science fiction’s promises. And it seems like certain technologies such as the Internet have transformed everything. Perhaps national delusions, group idiocy, Ponzi schemes, witch hunts, economic bubbles and so on are not actually a concern for us in the long run. But, let’s explore the premise that they are, just in case.
What would be some therapies for humankind’s collective insanity? One obvious answer for a transhumanist is to change the very nature of our intelligence at an individual level and/or in networked assistance via computer systems. But, what if we were to imagine reducing madness today, using today’s infrastructure?
Philosopher Daniel Dennett had a concept he called “Super Snopes.” Snopes.com is the popular debunking database which explains the truths and lies behind urban myths, chain emails and other popular delusions. Super Snopes would be some sort of more massive collection of truth utilizing the power of the Internet to counter the misinformation on the web. But Snopes, and maybe even a Super Snopes (if that’s even possible), don’t really address the serious delusions which can last for years. And how does one even know they have subscribed to a delusion if everybody they talk to (or follow) is deluded in the same way? What would motivate a person to even participate in a (Super) Snopes?
Perhaps one glimmer of hope is that the Internet and social media allow different groups to communicate. Everyone in the world is never under the exact same delusion. So if people with sufficient ideological differences were able to trade criticism in a way that overcame our primitive tribal nature, major delusions could be stopped before total disaster.
I suspect we have just begun to tap the power of constant global connections and social media. As Internet expert Clay Shirky points out, we have a “cognitive surplus” of billions of hours per year that’s largely been used to watch television. In this century, some of that time has shifted from passive consumption of media to video games (especially massively multiplayer games) and to actual content creation such as with Wikipedia and blogs. Yet the memes that run rampant are often not about debunking or skepticism, they are simply viral without regards to truth. Our system presently allows simple amplification of normal human social emotions and behaviors. It doesn’t take much cognitive power to go along with bandwagons repeating —and buying into— what everybody else says on Twitter or Facebook about a major news event.
And of course, as it always has been with news, social networks give the same attention to celebrity gossip and cat photos as they do to natural disasters and national revolutions. And the lifetime of a meme or popular event can be extremely short-lived. So, we have this powerful global networked community, but could it be used for the good of groups? Could it be used at longer time scales to stop, for instance, a decade-long delusion? Could we evolve our social web so that humans (or at least those online) are constantly ahead of the game when it comes to tricks and delusions?