The Future of Madness

“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.

Crowd Stupidity

“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.

Crowd Intelligence

“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
  • Independence
  • Decentralization
  • Aggregation

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?

26 Comments

  1. Madness is rare in individuals–but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.

    Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil ∫156.

  2. Hi Sam, I liked the article, You know Frank Zappa was once quoted as saying “there is more stupidity in the universe than hydrogen” 😉
    You won’t find me contradicting FZ, however, I happen to think that we as humans possess a fantastic common intellect. The wealth of human knowledge is vast, greater than could be understood by any one particular individual. We now have the means by which our individual intelligences may be linked together to form a type of hyper-intelligence. What is lacking IMO, is focus and motivation. I am looking to address this very subject in a project I am considering. Currently I am in the process of seeking opinions and planning an informational presentation. Stay Tuned, you may see something about it in these pages sometime soon…

  3. Well written but I would be delighted if the article concluded with more concrete suggestions. Maybe demands a part II?

    How to do better than the Net of a Billion Lies. 🙂

    Cheers,

    Eray

    • I was sitting on this article for 2 weeks because it didn’t have a conclusion, just questions, but then I decided to publish it anyway and get feedback.

      Any suggestions for the suggestions (for a sequel article)?

      • ok that’s a weird wording 🙂 you can make a tech review or suggest research directions for interested parties. try to go in some depth! it’s a cool subject 🙂 who knows maybe you’ll want to develop some software in the future 🙂

  4. One thing I see as being at the heart of this madness is the refusal on the most part to admit that we human beings are animals, and as such have instincts that dictate our behaviors at a ROOT level, which we then rationalize and justify in ways to make ourselves think they were not done instinctively.

    We are driven by the co-operative “pack” instincts to group together and work together for survival, and by the competitive “alpha” instinct to create pecking orders within the collective to establish reproductive “castes”

    Money and wealth is nothing more than a proxy for this “pecking order”, and the majority of our more problematic social issues all stem from the “pecking order” because everyone is trying to climb the ladder by shoving everyone else down it.

    The 4 items of the wisdom of crowds is a good rough outline of the methods by which we can minimize our instinctual weaknesses and maximize their strengths in the short term, but we need to find ways to harness our instincts to work FOR us, instead of denying we have them and allowing them to force US to work for THEM.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      Generally you’re right, although I don’t know if you can say that “everyone” is trying to climb the ladder. Most people, it seems, accept the rungs they are given. This makes sense (and I’m just speculating here)–if animals spent all their time trying to become the leader of a pack then they’d never get anything done. The members have to play their roles with only occasional changes.

      • Actually I think it is more like they accept the TIER they are in and the limited mobility possible within that tier.

        For example, what really is the difference between a camaro and a lamborghini? At a technical level they are not THAT different, but one is a “high end machine” for the middle class, while the other is a “high end machine” for the wealthy class.

        We’ve pretty well stratified the tiers and provided a means for limited mobility within them, but we’ve still kept it a zero sum game in which all social advance must be paid for by shoving someone else under the bus (figuratively, since in most cases we tend to be oblivious to who suffers for our advancement)

        The tiers remain stable, not the individual

    • I think that separation on continuousness and subconsciousness(instincts) exists only in your head. It’s just not scientific term, you are talking about something imaginary.

      • hummm so, when you see a really pretty girl naked and you instantly get aroused, you’ve made a “Conscious” choice?

  5. Did anyone see this in Edge. Arguement theory. kinda dope. http://edge.org/memberbio/hugo_mercier

  6. Did not know of ‘Super Snopes’, thanks Sam.

    I would add that studying cognitive biases will be important for lessening madness in the future. Not only will it help humans, it will help build better AI, what we can in turn interface and merge with.

    -Nikki

  7. I found this to be a well-considered article, raising points that do, indeed, bear reflection. The idea of how we reason in groups is currently a subject of research. One article I read recently: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/05/the-sad-reason-we-reason/
    Confirmation bias rears its ugly head in many ways, and when coupled to hatred, greed, or fear can be terrifyingly powerful.

  8. George Bernanos: Transhumanism ~ = SUICIDAL fools, with self genocide tendancies – and they think they are smart !!!!!!

    https://singularite.wordpress.com/2011/05/09/george-bernanos-transhumanistes-imbeciles-suicidaires/

    • I read that – it contains a whole bunch of ranting.

    • Perhaps you can summarize in a comment _why_ you think transhumanists are suicidal fools and how that is related to crowd madness.

      I can think of two things you might talk about:
      1. Individual suicides resulting from crowd madness, such as people committing suicide in Wall Street after a crash.

      2. Transhumanism, if successful, would cause a whole country or all of humanity to die due to actions that you would define as crazy.

      • You can find his two books related to the society :

        ” la france contre les robots ”

        ” la liberté pour quoi faire “

        • THE salute never is in the pursuit of growth nor in technology without cousciousness

          You spoke about decade of delusion : he spoke of delusion since 1900 !!! !!! Do you read ME ?

          This is not the first economic crisis : this is the third ( welcome to reality neo) : they were all simulacrum … there were no problem of energy or production … they were all intentionnal simulacrum ( the system is directed by oligarq so do more politics and don’t serve people that will kill you )

          The world is a simulacrum, the world you want is a simulacrum

          Everything most people want is not good for themself or humanity

          1) A materialist transhumanist is a FOOL, that help other people to get what they want. this is the ponzi scheme, in the society, in capitalism etc

          Technology will not save you from “you” : politics economy, psychology still exists : human is the great danger : you are the great danger

          The society and groups run after thing you cannot define … growth love, freedom, immortality

          You are like dogs running after a mecanical rabbit … the rabbit you want don’t exist, you will not get your rabbit

          You fools, will sell human being if it give “one hope” of immortality, in fact you may sell it and get nothing : that is madness

          time : everybody are mad because of time scale, time running out, but time will end … and there will be peace

          Before “immortality” for transhumanist : there was retirement , synonym of paradise : your parent worked for it : wall street sold their money 🙂 the paradise is not for you be carefull

          and they forget maybe the most important : “cousciousness and freedom” : in fact the fool may die , billion of people may die, stupid transhumanist may die

          but at the end you will understand that a society of mind is necessary : this will be the peace : this is the future ( forget technology)

          2) I see a cousciouness singularity

          forget capitalism : quid pro quo relationship with other cousciousness

          forget also infinite stupid growth … there will be no computronium with billion of billion of useless stupid uncousciouss “human being”

          ……….

          I don’t want to kill anybody on this planet : even if you give me immortality or worlds : this is rationnality , every other way of thinking is BEING MAD …

          big cousciousness are not big killer

          In other word : i bet for fun the first AGI will run far from this mad human being, he will find there is no need to kill human they will kill each other, and maybe after 6 billion death they will be more intelligent ?

          the only problem on earth is human being : and what it want

          • Carl Gustav Jung : « One thing is for sure, a great change of our psychological attitude is imminent, that is certain… because we need more… we need more psychology, we need more understanding of human nature because the only real danger that exists is man himself, he is the great danger, and we are pitifully unaware of it, we know nothing of man, far too little… His psyche should be studied because we are the origin of all coming evil »

            the psyche will be controlled in the futur … this is rationnal and MAD

            I for one welcome our new psyche overlord

            • Madness for einstein is :
              continuing to do the same thing, hoping for a different outcome.

              If you run after let say growth, and you are blind or stupid and think about SOCIETY ( you know the big thing ) and it reality : you ARE MAD

              you are mad

              http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Krishnamurti+ONU&aq=f

              define me a peacefull world where people can live in peace and live HOW THEY WANT ( in freedom ), define me what YOU WANT at this level

              and let see who is mad

              • a world , growt number

                that does not mean nothing for you …

                you win the power over world , and after ?

                do you want live alone ? to replicate ?

                Are you mad ?

                what you want ?

                this is a relevant question : peace ? venture ? ok

                war ? be the strongest in competition ? you loose you are mad

              • Everything related to replication ( and everything in human related to replication ) shall be considered as mad NOW

                because in the futur it means annihilation

                • Part of a adult psyche compared to a child is the capacity to define what it want, accept it and don’t run for ever

                  today with neotony, because of life in city , pop culture , and finally technology

                  people have “childish psyche”, and they are mad

                  • DO you think this is sanity : giving infinite power to childs ?

                    • Wow… 8 posts, replying to yourself, all unreadable nonsense.

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