Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Accelerando


Comments on our last exciting episode discussed, among many other thread drifts, the concept of an Accelerando, a speeding up of technological progress that is presumed, in many circles, to culminate in the Singularity. (See the comment thread, starting around #180.)


I will argue - and I've made this argument before - that the real Accelerando happened roughly a hundred years ago, say in the period from about 1880 to 1930.

The Industrial Revolution began a hundred years earlier, but most people in 1880, even in industrialized countries, still lived essentially postmedieval lives. (Cribbing from my own comment follows:) Railroads and steamships had transformed long distance travel, but on a day to day basis people walked, or if they were quite well off they used horses. They lived by the sun; the only artificial lighting was candles or oil lamps, the same as for centuries. A few large cities had gaslight; reputedly it made Paris the City of Lights.

By 1930, millions of people were living essentially modern lives. They drove cars to homes with electric lighting, talked on the phone, streamed entertainment content on the radio or played recorded media on the phonograph. To a person from the pre-industrial world a hand-crank telephone and an iPhone are equally magical; to a person from 1930 the iPhone is an nifty piece of 'midfuture' technology, not remotely magical. (Gee whiz, Tom, a wireless telephone with moving pictures! And it all fits in your pocket!)

Militarily a good part of the Accelerando played out in the course of World War I; people went in with cavalry and came out with tanks and aircraft. Commenter Tony handily expanded on this theme:

Murray and Millette made this point in their operational history of WWII, A War to be Won. They pointed out that a lieutenant in 1914 had little in common with the colonel that he himself had become by 1918. Yet that same colonel would have easily recognized the overall form, if not the detail, of war in the 1990s.
How do you measure an Accelerando? One handy benchmark is human travel speed. Here the Accelerando actually began a bit before the Industrial Revolution. Stagecoaches could maintain a steady speed of about 15-20 km/h by combining advanced carriage design with the infrastructure innovation of fresh horses for each stage. Ordinary travellers could thus maintain human running speed for hours.

The first steam locomotive ran in 1804. General purpose steam railroading began in 1825-30, and a locomotive appropriately called The Rocket reached 47 km/h in 1829. Rail speed data in the 19th century is amazingly sparse, but I would guess that locomotives exceeded 100 km/h by midcentury. The next doubling was reached in 1906 by a (steam!) racing car. The next doubling after that, to 400 km/h, was achieved in 1923 by an airplane.

Mach 1 was reached in 1947, and then of course things got wild. Yuri Gagarin reached orbital speed, a shade under 8 km/s, in 1961, an accelerando of 25x in 14 years, with another bump up to lunar insertion speed of 11 km/s in 1968.

Things have settled back a shade since then. Most of the 500+ human space travellers have piddled along at orbital speed, while since the retirement of Concorde the civil standard for long distance travel is high subsonic.

In this particular case the period 1880-1930 actually falls between stools - steam railroading was already pretty well developed by 1880, while aviation in 1930 was just starting to combine low drag airframes with high power engines.

Other technologies would give different results. Some, like computers, are still in the rapid transition phase of railroads around 1840 and airplanes around 1950. The overall Accelerando of the Industrial Revolution is a sort of weighted average of many individual and interrelated tech revolutions. And sometimes an older, mature-seeming tech gets a new power jolt, as has happened with railroad speed since the Japanese bullet trains of the 1960s.


Science fiction is the literary child of the Accelerando, and emerged as a distinct genre of Romance in just about the period 1880-1930. Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon in 1865; Hugo Gernsbach launched Amazing Stories in 1926.

In 1800 no one speculated about the world of 1900, because no one imagined it would be all that different from the world they already knew. And in 2000 there was only limited speculation about the world of 2100. Indeed the future has gone somewhat out of style, replaced in part by the enchantment of retro-futures.

The future has lost its magic not so much (if at all) because our technical progress has reached a 'decelerando,' but because we have learned to take technical progress for granted. It is a lot harder to get a Gee Whiz! reaction these days, a sort of psychological decelerando. As I've suggested in the last couple of posts, the challenge of interplanetary travel is not how to do it but why to spend the money.

(As a far more modest example of psychological discounting, where in this holiday retail season are the iPad rivals? Did Apple blow everyone else's tablet devices back to the drawing board, or has everyone else decided that tablets are a niche market they'll leave as an Apple playground? I haven't a clue.)

This is where I am supposed to wrap my arguments neatly in a bow, but I am not sure what the summation should be. So instead I will toss the question out for comments.



The image of a North American train c. 1900 comes from a public library site in Kansas.

325 comments:

«Oldest   ‹Older   201 – 325 of 325
Tony said...

Raymond:

"Other portions [of the gay community] argue that since marriage is an institution seemingly held in particular regard (and expectation) by society, and considered by many a fuller participation in said society, they should have the opportunity to participate equally."

I once read a long-winded diatribe about this. The author went into great detail about how bad his family, his firends, and his religion made him feel that he couldn't get married, because he was gay. The problem that such persons have is that marriage won't give them the comfort they think it will, because many -- perhaps the majority -- of people will regard it as a sham, even if a state sanctioned one.

Raymond said...

Tony:

"Would we make murder legal for the purpose of making it safer for the perpetrator?"

It occurs to me that we allow killing in self-defense, and in some areas of the US, for killing in defense of property. So from a certain point of view, yes, we do exactly that.

"The problem that such persons have is that marriage won't give them the comfort they think it will, because many -- perhaps the majority -- of people will regard it as a sham, even if a state sanctioned one."

For some people in some places, sure. Others will simply fuss over wedding presents. People get used to things. (But state sanction does help.)

Jim Baerg said...

Re: the gay marriage issue.

To the extent that I have followed the arguments, it seems one of that major reasons gays want marriage is so they can be counted as 'next of kin' for such purposes as hospital visiting rights & decision making about a partner who is eg: in a coma.

That's the one that took me from 'why do they care?' to 'yes that is something they should have'.

Tony said...

Re: Jim Baerg

The crisis access and authority issue is a red herring. Parents and spouses fight with each other over it, and they supposedly have well-defined legal standing. What we should do, for all cases, is make accomodations in the patient's rights policy. It really is up to the patient who should and shouldn't have access, and who makes crisis decisions for the patient. It could be included in (or be made a type of) the Durable Power of Attourney for Healthcare.

jollyreaper said...

The general rule on the net seems to follow Ayn Rand's formulation (of all things), "You have freedom of speech, just not in my house". Now the owner does have pretty absolute rights over their domain, but the exercise of these rights should be tempered with a bit of common sense and respect for others. Summarily deleting a post or banning a commentator because they don't agree with your political (social/religious/economic/artistic/ecological) point of view reduces your domain to something resembling an echo chamber, and prevents the airing of arguments for and against various viewpoints. (That is why we read Rocketpunk Manifesto, right?).

My dad always said that you never discussed the following in polite company: politics, women, and religion. Personally, I try to consider the venue. I won't talk politics at work unless it's with someone I already agree with and I won't be the one to broach the topic. It does no good, just gets people angry. Likewise I wouldn't bring any of that stuff up on a special interest newsgroup or blog. If we're talking about programming or old cars, politics isn't germane.

As far as rocketpunk goes, politics and religion are as germane as the rocket science. We're talking about futurism and science does not happen in a vacuum. The things we're jumping up and down about now will most certainly affect how our future will develop (or fail to develop.)

Now if the list owner says it's no longer on topic, it's his call. I just feel it's incredibly relevant.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"It occurs to me that we allow killing in self-defense, and in some areas of the US, for killing in defense of property. So from a certain point of view, yes, we do exactly that."

The point of view one would have to adopt is that an unborn human is a threat to its mother that justifies deadly force. Please excuse me if I find that a somewhat underwhelming argument.

"For some people in some places, sure. Others will simply fuss over wedding presents. People get used to things. (But state sanction does help.)"

I think you're handwaving here. Why would anyone consider a "marriage" something to celebrate when it formalizes the discontinuation of the family line? People go on about religion and all sorts of other things, but the reality is that homosexuality is a family disaster from the POV of the selfish gene. That's why it elicits such primal responses in people. And, coming from a highly family-oriented culture, I can't really find it in me to condemn people who feel that way.

jollyreaper said...


1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
2. And it harm none, do what thou wilt.

Jesus and LaVey in the same moral code? I guess they'd both have something to say about that...


Not that either of them were the first to come up with it. Those are some very, very old ideas.

tkinias said...

Tony:

Would we make murder legal for the purpose of making it safer for the perpetrator?

No, but we might, for example, not consider killing one human to protect the safety of another human not to be murder.

jollyreaper said...

I think you're handwaving here. Why would anyone consider a "marriage" something to celebrate when it formalizes the discontinuation of the family line? People go on about religion and all sorts of other things, but the reality is that homosexuality is a family disaster from the POV of the selfish gene. That's why it elicits such primal responses in people. And, coming from a highly family-oriented culture, I can't really find it in me to condemn people who feel that way.

That's one way to look at it. The other way to look at it is as an adaptive advantage. consider if a set of genes has a propensity for generating "unattached" adults, they assist in the raising of offspring and increase survival chances. I'm forgetting the exact culture that was referenced -- I want to say it was Polynesian, certainly one without a gay taboo -- gay and lesbian aunts and uncles were very useful in the raising of the large families common for those cultures.

While the anecdote isn't the same as 100% proof, it's at least a counter-hypothesis to the supposed uselessness of homosexuality.

As for the argument that marriage is about procreation, which is what you are arguing, then should we deny marriage to people who are sterile or have damaged genitals? If they can't bear children then the marriage is a sham, yes? What about couples who could conceive but don't have kids? Should they be fined for a sham marriage?

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"That's one way to look at it. The other way to look at it is as an adaptive advantage."

I'm talking about why people in our culture react the way they do. The fact is that when somebody comes out as a homosexual, they often severely downgrade their family's hopes for the future. The reason this is so is not speculation -- they make it impossible for offspring. Take my word for it, having gone through seven miscarriages for a total of eight fetuses with my ex-wife, and finally getting a vasectomy, it's a devastating experience for the whole family. I don't think too many people who glibly go on about the harmlessness of homosexuality know that much about what it does to families.

Now, I realize that it can't be avoided, because homosexuals are who they are. But I also quite fully understand that nobody confronted with such a situation wants to celebrate it, even if they eventually come to terms with it.

"As for the argument that marriage is about procreation, which is what you are arguing..."

I've stopped looking for simple, fully consistent answers long ago. I'm interested in doing the least harm. People who marry and don't have families are a drag on the procreation rationale of the institution. But they are still living as a family. I think the tradition of marriage being a heterosexual instiution is what tips it for me. It just doesn't seem right to open up to people who would never be biologically qualified, under any circumstances. If you want to call that illogical, go right ahead.

Raymond said...

Tony:

"The point of view one would have to adopt is that an unborn human is a threat to its mother that justifies deadly force."

That's exactly the reasoning behind a decision to abort due to probable lethal complications - the "safety of the mother" exemption.

And I was actually interested in the comparison with defense of property, but I probably didn't make that clear enough.

"It really is up to the patient who should and shouldn't have access, and who makes crisis decisions for the patient. It could be included in (or be made a type of) the Durable Power of Attourney for Healthcare."

That sounds like a great idea to me.

"Why would anyone consider a "marriage" something to celebrate when it formalizes the discontinuation of the family line? People go on about religion and all sorts of other things, but the reality is that homosexuality is a family disaster from the POV of the selfish gene."

"The fact is that when somebody comes out as a homosexual, they often severely downgrade their family's hopes for the future. The reason this is so is not speculation -- they make it impossible for offspring."

Not true. There's IVF and host mothers, plus adoption. It doesn't mean any sort of discontinuity of the family line, at least not any more. Quite a number of the queer marriages which have already happened are explicitly about raising children, and many of the rest are implicitly about allowing for the possibility.

"Take my word for it, having gone through seven miscarriages for a total of eight fetuses with my ex-wife, and finally getting a vasectomy, it's a devastating experience for the whole family."

I'm sorry for your loss. My family knows something about that too, and the effects get felt for decades. So don't take what I'm saying as anything against you or your ex-wife.

jollyreaper:

"The other way to look at it is as an adaptive advantage. consider if a set of genes has a propensity for generating "unattached" adults, they assist in the raising of offspring and increase survival chances."

We've documented similar behavior in a number of species, most likely for this exact reason. Milo and I mentioned it upthread.

Milo said...

Jedidia:

"People still marry, either out of tradition, or because of the inheritance law, which I think is the socially most important thing to the institution of marriage:"

Inheritance law? I take it this is one of those countries where they don't allow you to just leave your entire fortune to your cat? Because if you can leave your will to anyone you want (including, "coincidentially", your "roommate"), then again, you can just not marry and say you did.


"Someone who is not married can only inherit what's left over from the wealth of a deceased partner after all parties that have a legal right to that wealh have gotten their minimal share. Being a natural offspring of someone gives automatically gives you that right,"

What about adopted offspring?

(Of course the question of whether homosexuals can adopt children is another sticky issue, but it should be at least no harder than adopting as a single parent.)



Raymond:

"Other portions argue that since marriage is an institution seemingly held in particular regard (and expectation) by society, and considered by many a fuller participation in said society, they should have the opportunity to participate equally."

Again, though what is "regard"? I don't praise government marriage certificates as a sacred institution. I do hold high regard for "Aww, they look so sweet together!", which is what marriage really means to me. If your friends are willing to treat you as a married couple, who cares what society thinks? Even if the government does formally sign your marriage as legitimate, there will still be some people in society who refuse to acknowledge it as such.

What's important is if your parents are willing to attend and bless your gay wedding, not if a government functionary is. But the voters don't get to decide what your parents do.


"That's the kind of expanded (and desexualized) definition of marriage I'd support, frankly."

Given the cultural associations of the word "marriage", though, I would rather extend the existing inheritance law/etc. benefits to cohabitating groups in general instead of just married couples, than extend the meaning of the word "married" too far (which, culturally speaking, has definite sexual overtones - even though asexual sham marriages exist). Even easier would be to just scrap inheritance limits entirely - sure, it may sound silly for people to leave their entire fortune to their cat, but is it worse than people stupidly squandering their fortune while alive, something we do little to prevent?

jollyreaper said...


I've stopped looking for simple, fully consistent answers long ago. I'm interested in doing the least harm. People who marry and don't have families are a drag on the procreation rationale of the institution. But they are still living as a family. I think the tradition of marriage being a heterosexual instiution is what tips it for me. It just doesn't seem right to open up to people who would never be biologically qualified, under any circumstances. If you want to call that illogical, go right ahead.


Not only illogical, monstrous.

The case I'm thinking of that just proves how awful your manner of thinking is. Gay couple had been together a lifetime, growing old together. Can't have joint property rights as a couple so the household was in one man's name. When he died his family came in with lawyers and started looking that property over. He had a lot worth taking. His wishes were for it all to be left to his lover but found a sympathetic judge who ruled in their favor.

You don't have to like gay people any more than you have to like black people, Jews, Arabs or the Dutch. The only requirement of you as a citizen of the earth and a human being is to let them live their lives in peace and take for themselves what small happiness they can find. To do otherwise is, as I said, monstrous.

jollyreaper said...


We've documented similar behavior in a number of species, most likely for this exact reason. Milo and I mentioned it upthread.


Blogger needs a better interface. It's very hard to keep up with these monster threads. :)

Raymond said...

Milo:

"Again, though what is "regard"? I don't praise government marriage certificates as a sacred institution."

The irony of my position in this discussion is that a) I'm straight, and b) I don't really GAS about marriage, myself. I'm speaking of general perceptions of marriage being important and worth seeking, and the portrayals and assumptions of those who are not to be lesser.

"What's important is if your parents are willing to attend and bless your gay wedding, not if a government functionary is."

If there weren't so many things which confer advantages to married couples over other forms of association, I'd agree with you.

jollyreaper:

"Not only illogical, monstrous."

Keep a civil tongue, please. The only way we can have any sort of reasoned discussion is if everybody participating treats other points of view as just that: another point of view. I'd really rather not give Rick reason to bring the hammer down on this thread or any other.

Tony said...

Not only illogical, monstrous.

Keep a civil tongue, please.


No, no, let's have it all out in the air. People need to be seen for what they are. Nobody needs to fire back.

Milo said...

Raymond:

"It occurs to me that we allow killing in self-defense, and in some areas of the US, for killing in defense of property. So from a certain point of view, yes, we do exactly that."

Heh. I was about to comment on that, before realizing that Tony's analogy was talking not about the "abortion if the woman's life is in danger from a difficult pregnancy" exception but rather about the "medical abortion to prevent complications from coat hangers" argument, so the analogy would fall flat.

Still, what I had to say about this was: Actually, we do legalize killing in self-defense. However, this normally requires that the person you're killing is actively malicious against you, not accidentally endangering you by his mere existance. (Of course, in real life, situations where you have to kill an innocent to save yourself are pretty rare and require some contrived setups.)



jollyreaper:

"Now if the list owner says it's no longer on topic, it's his call. I just feel it's incredibly relevant."

Tech-related politics, like AI rights, genetic engineering ethics, whether you're willing to travel to Mars as a brain in a jar - and of course, whether you feel a doctrinal mandate to colonize space for its own sake - are relevant to rocketpunk. I'm not sure, however, how we ended up talking about gay marriage, which is only tangentially related to what life in a colony would be like. The majority of the people are still straight, so socially approved gay marriage wouldn't affect them much. Now, if we start making widespread use of cloning rather than breeding (why?), then that would make a more serious difference. In fiction universal cloning is very closely tied to dystopias...

*read read read* Okay, so we got on the subject because we were talking about the relevance of religion to determining values. And we were on that subject because... *read read read* Because Jollyreaper brought up the subject of whether an AI could be religious, resulting in Rick asking why humans are. Rick also said: "An interesting can of worms could be opened by...". How true! Tony, meanwhile, was less prophetic when he said "Keeping this as short as possible, in order to avoid derailing the topic...".



Tony:

"People go on about religion and all sorts of other things, but the reality is that homosexuality is a family disaster from the POV of the selfish gene."

So while we're at it, how about outlawing celibacy too?

Maybe going back to the days when your parents could force you into an arranged marriage?

Tony said...

Milo:

"So while we're at it, how about outlawing celibacy too?

Maybe going back to the days when your parents could force you into an arranged marriage?"


We got off on this tangent because I was addressing why families might not want to celebrate a gay marriage. I think my case is valid whether you're talking about gay marriage, gay coming out, or just the mere announcement/realiztion that a son or daughter will likely never have children. But of course none of that has anything to do with what should or shouldn't be illegal. It's just a sad time for a family that cares about its future generations.

(Yes, I know that some gay couples may choose to leap through technological hurdles to have biological children, but that is likely to be a very small minority, for reasons of gay culture.)

I don't see how the cause being homosexual orrientation makes it any better. What I do see is that gay people think their lifestyle is harmless. Problem is, people are hurt by life's dissapointments. Being gay can be one of them, to a gay person's family, whether homsexuals like it or not.

Milo said...

What about eloping with someone of the opposite gender that your parents don't approve of? That would disappoint them, too. Of course, the children (straight or otherwise) would also be similarly disappointed that their parents don't approve of their decisions. These people would still be disappointed regardless of what the voters and the government say.

The way we have chosen to resolve situations that will disappoint someone either way, in our society, is to say that people make their own decisions - they may alter their decisions to get along better with their parents if they wish, but they are not obliged to do so. So parents can't forbid their children from holding a wedding, but nor are they forced to attend it if they don't want to. (Again, the decision not to attend it might disappoint the children, but that's life for you. Sometimes people get disappointed.)

Scott said...

Problem is, people are hurt by life's dissapointments. Being gay can be one of them, to a gay person's family, whether homsexuals like it or not.
So, because I volunteered for military service and my seriously pacifist parents are hurt by this, it should be illegal for *me* (a legal adult and competent to make my own decisions) to enlist?

Are you trying to bring back mercenary families?

Tony said...

Milo:

"What about eloping..."

Elopements very often work out well in the end, and they certainly don't have the generational finality that the vast majority of homosexual coming outs do.

Look, we could cycle through a long laundry list of "what about..."s. The point I am making is that there's a very good reason families of homsexuals likely won't see homosexual marriage as a solution to the very real trauma that homosexuality causes them.

Tony said...

Scott:

"So, because I volunteered for military service and my seriously pacifist parents are hurt by this, it should be illegal for *me* (a legal adult and competent to make my own decisions) to enlist?"

No. I'm pointing out that the legality of your enlistment is no reason for them to celebrate, given the way they feel. Many homosexuals feel -- or at least claim they feel -- that a legal, state-sanctioned marriage would solve problems with their family, by making them just like everyone else in that respect. I'm just pointing out that that argument is most likely based on a misapprehension -- tragically so, for many families.

Milo said...

Tony:

"The point I am making is that there's a very good reason families of homosexuals likely won't see homosexual marriage as a solution to the very real trauma that homosexuality causes them."

Nor did I say they should, interestingly enough.

That is, however, no reason to prevent homosexuals from marrying without their parent's approval (something we allow to straight people), nor to prevent homosexual marriages when the parents are in fact perfectly okay with this (however common or rare these may be, I am certain the number is larger than zero).

The point is that if you want to try to resolve such a delicate situation with a minimum of hurt feelings, this is something that should be discussed with your parents, friends, and religious authorities whose input your parents respect. It is not something to be discussed on a political forum, because most likely your parents don't care what the voters think.

What is appropiate to discuss on a political forum is tax codes, which is considerably less romantic.

Scott said...

What is appropiate to discuss on a political forum is tax codes, which is considerably less romantic.
And only slightly less likely to lead to bloodshed.

Many homosexuals feel -- or at least claim they feel -- that a legal, state-sanctioned marriage would solve problems with their family, by making them just like everyone else in that respect. I'm just pointing out that that argument is most likely based on a misapprehension -- tragically so, for many families.
However, at least in the US, there are significant legally-recognized benefits to the spouse, not limited to estate and medical access. Most of the homosexuals I know are much more worried about the (lack of) legal rights of their partner than about some silly ceremony. Are some stuck in a family situation not so different from mine? no, not really. But I do not believe that those people are in the majority.

Anonymous said...

And when AI's demonstrate in front of local courthouses demanding the right to marry...And that will lead to AI's and Humans wanting to be married...and people (flesh and metal) will run screaming that it's the final sign of the Apocolipse!!!!!

If human's ever DO build humanoid AI's, they'll probibly be a lot like humans...which means that they'll be more interested in not getting fired, drinking motor oil (beer substitute), and if they're going to get any nookie that night (or the AI equivalent)...

(one T-500 turns to another and says:" So, why are we getting blasted to scrap while Skynet sits safe and sound up in orbit?")

Ferrell

Milo said...

Humanoid AI doesn't necessarily mean that they'll share every nuance of human emotion - even some humans are asexual, and there's no reason why AIs, without the backing of our evolutionary history, would not be likewise. Similarly, robotic bodies that look perfectly humanoid when wearing clothes might still be anatomically incorrect "down there".

The only reasons why we'd program AIs to have a sex drive are if either (A) we directly copied the human brain, and have no idea how to actually change anything, or (B) we're specifically hoping to be able to use these robots as sexbots/robot spouses. Humans aren't going to deliberately program a sex drive into robots and then tell them they're only supposed to practice it with other robots (although of course, it's very likely that some humans will program robots for sex while other humans decry this as immoral).

Brian said...

These last few comments are examples of why I think some colonies beyond Earth will be created so people can live by their own rules. Such as Libertarian colonies and Communist colonies. I am a moderate Liberal, but I would most likely live with the libertarians! :) I think it is plausible that there might one day be a war (or wars, plural) on Mars between libertarian colonies and communist and/or fascist colonies!! That would make for a good Hard SF movie or book! :)

Thucydides said...

I think it is plausible that there might one day be a war (or wars, plural) on Mars between libertarian colonies and communist and/or fascist colonies!! That would make for a good Hard SF movie or book! :)

But we already know how that will end:

Q: How many libertarians does it take to stop a Panzer division ?
A: None, obviously market forces will take care of it."

Tony said...

Re: Brian

"These last few comments are examples of why I think some colonies beyond Earth will be created so people can live by their own rules. Such as Libertarian colonies and Communist colonies."

What Libertarian colonies? Living off Earth takes a lot more cooperation than Libertarians can muster. While they're all busy deciding who the real John Galt is, it will be a race between suffocation and environmental posioning to see what kills tem in the end.

Come to think of it, this is a sufficient reason not to want to make a human-like AI. It would just increase the universe's population of idiots.

Rick said...

Welcome to a couple of new commenters!

And a general gloat about the commenters on this blog. Sharp, serious disagreement on abortion and gay rights, and nothing beyond a few snide remarks. I was sort of holding my breath when that stuff came up, but people here seem to have a good sense of handling explosive materials.

jollyreaper said...

And a general gloat about the commenters on this blog. Sharp, serious disagreement on abortion and gay rights, and nothing beyond a few snide remarks. I was sort of holding my breath when that stuff came up, but people here seem to have a good sense of handling explosive materials.

You do realize that a comment like that is an open invitation to getting DDOS'd by Anonymous, right? lol

Thucydides said...

Libertarian principles and libertarianism in general does not preclude cooperation, but the competing impulse of self satisfaction (or selfish behaviour) is very deep seated and virtually impossible to overcome. In any practical sense, Libertarianism only works in small, generally self selected groups.

Limited Republics (like "These United States" prior to the civil war, the early Res Publica Roma or the Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta demonstrate that large coercive State apparatus is not a prerequisite to a successful state, and Libertarian political thought is pretty explicitly about limiting the power of the State to a few clearly defined areas (protection of people and property, neutral arbitration of disputes, unfettered use of personal property are the most common tropes).

If we substitute "Republican" colonies for "Libertarian", I think we are closer to what is actually being suggested. The timocratic model of the Greek Polis might also be useful in a colony, since the voting members have a very real stake in the outcomes.

Geoffrey S H said...

Having broswed the British Daily Telegraph and Guardian commentator's forums for some years, it is VERY refreshing to have some political and moral discussion that doesn't devolve into mudslinging here.

Jedidia said...

darn, it took me a while to notice the second page...

Inheritance law? I take it this is one of those countries where they don't allow you to just leave your entire fortune to your cat?

One of those countries where you usually get advice from a lawyer to write your last will, because if you screw it, it's null and void. There's strictly regulated fractions for all closer relatives. It is allowed to override these in favour of the spouse or of the children, and that's that. Indeed, when you have children from a first marriage, you can't override them even for your current spouse, because they would not be legal inheritors of her, i.e. you'd be cheating them out of their rightfull inheritance. The rise of patchwork families made it all rather complicated.


What about adopted offspring?

That's where I draw my personal line (and I don't favour single adoptions either). If one of the parents get taken by tragedy, that's tragic. If there isn't a complement of a mother and a father to begin with, I'd consider it stupid. Reasons for this are majorly of psychological nature.

Milo said...

Jedidia:

"That's where I draw my personal line"

I was asking about the inheritance law in Switzerland, not your personal line. Are adopted offspring treated as having an inviolable right to inheritance, like natural offspring are?


"If one of the parents get taken by tragedy, that's tragic."

Really? Thanks for clearing that up.


"If there isn't a complement of a mother and a father to begin with, I'd consider it stupid. Reasons for this are majorly of psychological nature."

Having been raised by a single parent myself, I now have the right to laugh at you.

Geoffrey S H said...

Right- I'll get this back on topic.

Within the micro-environment of robotics, how much of an "accelerando" might there be? How much "robotisation" of life do we think there might be?

Rick said...

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm still waiting for our household robot that will do the dishes and laundry.

More seriously the issue will surely be - already is, and has been for some time - in the workplace, not the home, and it may not be a fun accelerando to live through.

Are we at the tipping point where the only jobs will be systems analyst or waiting tables? And how many people will be able to afford eating out at restaurants with table service?

Milo said...

Well, while a breakthrough in strong AI would be perfectly physically plausible, I wouldn't hold out for it happening anytime soon.

However, there are some areas - like robotic cars - where we appear to be making significant progress right now. The question is how much good these will really do. I doubt they'll significantly increase our society's interconnectedness - if they can even be assured road-safe (or, well, at least as road-safe as humans, which is sadly not that much).

Without strong AI, robots are best suited for doing things that humans could do, but find mind-numbingly tedious. This obviously includes mass production in factory assembly lines, which is perhaps the most important rold for industrial robots today. There has been talk on this blog about manufacturing being miniaturized into fabricators, which would certainly be useful in improving tech accessibility to ordinary people, and also particularly for extraterrestrial colonization.

There are still some jobs which humans find tedious, but are a little too complicated for robots to handle. Offhand, though, I can't name much in this area that I think an AI improvement is actually in the books soon.



Rick:

"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm still waiting for our household robot that will do the dishes and laundry."

We already have dishwashers and laundry machines. They're not perfectly autonomous - as befits any technology lacking strong AI - but they can handle much of the tedious grunt work. Not bad for such primitive robotics, eh?

What these machines can't do is walk around your house picking up clothes that need to be washed, or folding up the clean clothes and sorting them into the closets. They also have multiple settings and need human input to know the correct setting for washing a given batch of clothes. And, of course, when they run out of washing powder, they can't head out to the shops to buy a new package on their own.

So: do you expect AI improvements to enable any of these features in the near future?

Geoffrey S H said...

One thing I worry about is robots replacing ALL hard work tasks in human society,. Something we can do without, or less of. Some things though might enable use to appreciate our place in life or whatever.
Hard physical work that's done out of neccessity rather than choice (lumberjacks rather than gymn junkies) can deliver positive results- emotional as well as physical strength.

of course the drudgery of harvestng wheat or building cars is a good thing? But what happens if we lose ALL forms of hard physical work?

I don't want to sound like a Luddite... but I loathe that posible future.

Rick said...

There are two distinct questions re robotics, I believe. One is about strong AI, which we've already discussed. The other is manipulative tech and whether a robot's 'hands' can be both cheap and handy. But the hands are probably useless without a brain that we don't yet know how to make anyway.

Milo said...

Geoffrey S H:

"But what happens if we lose ALL forms of hard physical work?"

Some of us already have. Sure, we still have lumberjacks, but the majority of the people in the world are not lumberjacks. I gain no benefit from the fact that someone multiple kilometers from me has burly muscles. (Other than, of course, the fact that I have access to paper and wooden furniture.)



Rick:

"But the hands are probably useless without a brain that we don't yet know how to make anyway."

Yes, that's what I think. The advantage of hands is that they're versatile, not being designed for any one thing but being able to readily adapt and reshape themselves for what's needed. That isn't very useful, however, without the intelligence to make use of it.

We actually already have one good application for robotic hands: artificial limbs for crippled humans.

Anonymous said...

I just now saw a commercial for a highly reliable TV remote that stared a robot who had to deal with unreliable technology all day...what made it funny was that it probably will be true, in one form or another. And sooner than we think. My point is, that just because we develop some wonderful gadget (like an AI robot) we won't just throw out our other tech; we'll adapt the new stuff to work with the older tech until we can phase out or adapt the older tech.

On another tangent, there is a difference between how cultures' view the proper use and development of robots and AI; the Japanese seem to be on a path of developing humaniod research/entertainment robots, while the U.S. seems to be on a path of developing non-humaniod industrial robots.

Anyway, if we ever do develop "strong AI", we will most likely make it like ourselves, simply so we can relate to it on a practical level. If we don't, then we most likely won't develop "strong AI" even if we could...and just have brilliant expert systems that we can use as tools without becoming emotionally attached to them. AI's that act like us and look a little like us will wind up forming emotional attachments (good or bad); So, more than likely, we won't develop "strong AI"...unless we don't find ET and we get lonely.

Ferrell

Milo said...

Ferrell:

"Anyway, if we ever do develop "strong AI", we will most likely make it like ourselves, simply so we can relate to it on a practical level"

Only if we know how. If we make it by gradually adding complexity to an AI system until it gains sentience, there may be no telling what emotions it'll end up with.

Jedidia said...

Milo:

I was asking about the inheritance law in Switzerland, not your personal line. Are adopted offspring treated as having an inviolable right to inheritance, like natural offspring are?

Ah, sorry, little misinterpretation there. Yes, adopted offspring has full legal right of inheritance. But Neither Homosexuals nor Singles are allowed to adopt children (currently).


Really? Thanks for clearing that up.

Yeah, the sentence must sound pretty silly, but let's not forgett that english isn't my first language. I was merely trying to describe suboptimal conditions that result from things you have no controll over and suboptimal conditions one doesn't even care to optimise.


Having been raised by a single parent myself, I now have the right to laugh at you.


I don't know the law over there, but here everyone has the right to laugh at anyone for no reason whatsoever without repercussions ;).
Seriously, though, I knew that that line would probably be problematic, but I didn't want to make the post too long. Is it possible for a single parent to bring up children? certainly. It doesn't even have to mean that the children suffer any kind of "damage" in their developement, I have countless friends that are proof of that (resident of bosnia and hercegovina currently, there's plenty of families without fathers, for various reasons). I also have deep respect for any single parent that manages to raise his children alone. It's a stagering feat and requires devotion beyond what I can imagine.
But, as the silly tragic line above was supposed to point out, I find it irresponsible to just take these circumstances as a given and don't even try to provide a full family for a child in the first place.

Geoffrey S H said...

@Milo:

That was just an example. I'm sure that there is some form of physical activity you do that you benefit from in some way, that a robot would (according to a pro-robotist)arguably replace.

For me, work holidays in the countryside helping to repair pathways and walls etc can be extreemly rewarding if only for the sight of a new path that took much effort to do. A life of pure mental stimulation would drive me mad, personally.
Let's not also skip over the fact that a) some people find that sort of work much more rewarding than struggling over equations and theories, and b) mental stimulation itseelf is seen by some (on this very blog) as being somewhat lessened due to the advancement of computers.
While some may not see the advantatge of remembering tables of math, it can strengthen the memory, thus giving advantages later in life.

To get back to the topic of physical exertion, such work can push us beyond what we thought we could normally do, and ultimately have beneficial effects in terms of health and ability. Now, I'm not saying wer all become gymn junkies, perish the thought, but a world where none of this is possible, and is even viewed as an eccentricity... worries me alot.

Milo said...

Jededia:

"I find it irresponsible to just take these circumstances as a given and don't even try to provide a full family for a child in the first place."

A single parent can still be trying to find a spouse (although mine wasn't). In which case it's just a matter of not wanting to wait for something that might never happen due to circumstances not (entirely) within your control.



Geoffrey S H:

"I'm sure that there is some form of physical activity you do that you benefit from in some way, that a robot would (according to a pro-robotist) arguably replace."

The only physical activity of note I engage in is moving from point A to point B. (Which I probably don't do as much of as I should.) As long as I don't start getting carried around everywhere by a robotic harness, I'll be fine.


"Let's not also skip over the fact that a) some people find that sort of work much more rewarding than struggling over equations and theories"

Ah, right. Not everyone is as smart as average science fiction fans :(


"b) mental stimulation itseelf is seen by some (on this very blog) as being somewhat lessened due to the advancement of computers."

And I disagree. Computers have made it much easier to stimulate myself on a wide variety of subjects around the world, not just stuff I actually encounter offline. Before computers, space technology futures would have been discussed mainly by people actually employed in developing space technology, with only a few laymen being dedicated enough to go out of their way to find information about it.


"While some may not see the advantage of remembering tables of math, it can strengthen the memory, thus giving advantages later in life."

And I do have common arithmetic results memorized, simply because I run into calculations frequently enough that constantly reaching for a calculator gets tedious. Not to mention that I'm often thinking about stuff when I'm lying in bed, or on a bus, or somewhere else that technological assistance is not readily accessible.


"gym junkies"

I think the trick to healthy exercise is to find a sport that you enjoy (competitive or otherwise), not just lift a predetermined number of weights each day because you feel you need the exercise.

Scott said...

But, as the silly tragic line above was supposed to point out, I find it irresponsible to just take these circumstances as a given and don't even try to provide a full family for a child in the first place.
I would think that a child with one parent that loves them is utterly superior to every situation but two parents who love them (or 3-4, in the case of divorce&remarry).

Is raising a child alone an incredible amount of work? absolutely.

Does a parent that doesn't let the child know they're loved do catastrophic damage to the child? yes.
=====

To the physical work issue: As much as I hated stores loads in the Navy, I still liked the exercise. I really miss being able to do as much as I used to before I messed up my back. I can't even do a lot of my favorite activities anymore, and it drives me up the wall.

Physical exertion was a counterpoint to my usual mental exertions. I felt much more 'whole' when I did both than when I only did one or the other.

jollyreaper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jollyreaper said...

of course the drudgery of harvestng wheat or building cars is a good thing? But what happens if we lose ALL forms of hard physical work?

Don't look now but many of us are already working in sitting down jobs. Even when you're standing like as a waitress, it's not enough exercise to really count towards what we need as human beings.

People come home mentally tired from a long day of sitting in a chair and don't have the energy to go work at the gym. And they eat prepackaged bad food and that saps even more energy.

Geoffrey S H said...

There's probably something you do that's "hard physical work" that you don't know you do... until you're not doing it anymore.

Bear in mind I'm someone who can miss things right under his nose... so I am saying this from experiance.

If governments seek to try and resolve what is now crudely termed "the obesity crisis" (alittle insulting to those of an overwieght nature methinks... :( ), then more excercise might result. And, speaking from experiance working for various British rural insitutions, as well as the cadets, there is no exercise like nessesary (as opposed to voluntary) exercise.

Man, I've managed to get on and off topic again in about 24 hours... Blimey.

Rick said...

Sports and exercise as distinctive, identified activities date to just about the period when much larger numbers of people were starting to work indoors at office jobs. It looks like a cultural compensation process that continues today.

Geoffrey S H said...

True, but the optional factor in sports can mean that many do less exercise than they could.

Pity that.

Milo said...

Geoffrey S H:

"There's probably something you do that's "hard physical work" that you don't know you do... until you're not doing it anymore."

Unless constantly walking in circles in my room counts, I'd bet against that.

Notably, I don't do the walking-in-circles thing when I'm bored, but rather when I'm deep in thought. When my brain is busy, my body goes into autopilot because it has nothing better to do. When I'm bored, I'll more likely be at my computer trying to find something to do.

Anonymous said...

I've always found that when I need to work out a problem or plot out a story idea, it's always better when I've gone out for a walk. Thinking and walking might just be cross-wired in us humans. I could be wrong, but just maybe...

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

Many martial arts disciplines treat the mind and body as one. I personally use my study of the art of Aikido more as a focusing mechanism than as a practical means of defending myself against physical assault
(although it is probably more practical "on the street" than some other arts. On the other hand, if i really need an open hand means of protecting myself, I would be studying Krav Maga instead).

Although most Western cultures treat mind and body as separate units, I think most of us recognize that intricate physical activities (even playing music, sailing a small boat etc). can easily bring us into the "zone", where your mind and body are working seamlessly and you are hitting on all cylinders as far as performance is concerned.

Perhaps an overlooked means of achieving Accelerando would be to teach a reliable means of getting into the "zone" for prolonged periods of time while at work, in order to achieve far greater productivity (especially when doing planing or problem solving work).

Tony said...

Re: Thucydides

I think we need to be extremely skeptical of the claims made by Eastern disciplines of all kinds, but particularly Japanese ones. Yes, they work, but they don't work for the reasons their teachers give. Remember, those descriptions of how the mind and body work are metaphors (at best) for neurological and physiological processes that nobody in either the East or the West understood when those disciplines were developed. Also, in the case of Japan, there were cultural, political, and sociological factors not present on the Asian mainland that led to a much greater emphasis on the mind.

Many Japanese "way"s arose during the Edo period out of practical martial techniques. (See below for an explanation of the difference between ways and techniques.) These techniques were no longer useful for their intended purpose because the shogunate had declared peace against the land. So they were instead used as physical focuses for Zen buddhist navel gazing.

Which, again, is not to say they don't work, but let's not get carried away with how they reflect on the culture as a whole. Way followers can be and are ridiculed in mainstream Japanese culture. Most people are much more concerned with group wa, or harmonious interaction, than they are with individual mind-body harmony.

Re: the distinction between a "way" ("do" in Japanese) and a technique ("jutsu" in Japanese). The former is a full mind/body integration method, while the latter is a learned practical skill. Or, to put it another way, one is holistic package, in which the mind is married with the means, while the other is the physical method itself. Contrast kyudo ("the way of the bow") with kyujutsu ("bow technique").

As to the utility of intentionally "zoning" (to coin a term), I'd be skeptically very wary of that. Vernor Vinge described something very much like that in A Deepness in the Sky. It was used as a means of enslaving people. In this respect, and sticking with our Japanese theme, it is relevant to take note of the abuses that kaizen has led to, out of the perceived imperative for getting the most out of resources, regardless of the social, cultural, and personal cost.

Thucydides said...

I used Aikido as a (hopefully) easy to understand means of introducing the concept. My dojo teaches Yoshinkan Aikido, which is actually more hard edged than some of the other schools of Aikido. The Sensi often demonstrates how the techniques were derived from earlier forms (his term is Aki-Budo), where force is being redirected in order to do major damage to joints or drop the attacker onto your knee to break his spine. This is pretty "effect" oriented, and Yoshinkan Aikido is taught as a self defense technique for police and military forces because it can easily be learned as an effect based technique. Recreational users like myself use it to get mental stimulation along with their exercise.

Still, many people can "zone" without martial arts training, most of us may have heard of the "runner's high", or zoning when doing intricate and demanding work.

Vinge's version of "zoning" involved some sort of involuntary trigger (been a while, so I don't remember the details), so unless you are a power crazed dictator who doesn't mind a population of strung out meth tweakers doing the work (and are willing to tolerate the side effects), that does not sound particularly useful, nor was it what I was getting at.

If this sort of thing can be self induced or self directed, then people will focus on whatever provides motivation or satisfaction of personal goals. Perhaps this will lead to an explosion of what we consider recreational pursuits, as people strive to sing/swim/ski better than ever, not very useful from a Rocketpunk perspective, but not too unreasonable when we look at current spending patterns for things like consumer computer hardware and software (gaming consoles and games are runaway best sellers compared to productivity software). After a long day in the McGuffinite mines or plugged into a virtual reality workspace, this may be what most people will want.

Tony said...

Re: Thucydides

My comments weren't necessarily aimed at you in particular. For example, I'm pretty sure you knew the difference between a do and a jutsu without me telling you. Just pointing out for the readership in general that "Eastern" approaches to mind-body discipline aren't as magic or culturally defining as a lot of people want to make them out to be.

WRT "zoning" or whatever you want to call it, I can appreciate that personal, voluntary application would be the most effective approach. But once one can describe and quantify the neuro-biological mechanism, one can use it involuntarily. And, given human nature, I would expect such knowledge to be used for oppression by somebody, perhaps many somebodies.

As for personal application as a means of recreation, maybe, for some people. But most people are not that introspective. They want to go out, get drunk, and screw.

Thucydides said...

As for personal application as a means of recreation, maybe, for some people. But most people are not that introspective. They want to go out, get drunk, and screw.

Which is precisely why voluntary "zoning" will probably be used to enhance recreational pursuits ;)

Maybe this Rocketpunk future won't be so bad after all....

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Which is precisely why voluntary "zoning" will probably be used to enhance recreational pursuits ;)"

Except that it's inherrently anti-social. Nobody wants to drink or bump uglies with someone concentrating on the spiritual perfection of the experience. To put not too fine a point on it, I've been told, by women who should know, that guys who consciously try to use perfect technique are the biggest turnoff.

Thucydides said...

Taking this a bit farther, people who can work at peak efficiency will be in demand for many jobs; think of the social and political structure in "Dune", where Mentats, Spacing Guild navigators and Bene Gesserit adepts use heightened mental powers for their employers and own ends.

As noted, they may not be social beings. The example of Mentats is probably the best example of abilities that can be abused by others ("Twisted Mentants", for example), but as I recall, Mentants can also be self directed (I think Duke Leto is a mentant in the story).

Since Accelerando is supposed to be a dramatic reordering and expansion of powers, abilities and techniques across civilization, then it stands to reason that humans also need to enhance their abilities to match. (Speculation here, but perhaps the only "real" Accelerando was the development of "Behavioral modernity" 50,000 years ago).

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Taking this a bit farther, people who can work at peak efficiency will be in demand for many jobs; think of the social and political structure in "Dune", where Mentats, Spacing Guild navigators and Bene Gesserit adepts use heightened mental powers for their employers and own ends."

Ummm...I can't credit those character types with being anything other than typical Sixties proto-New Age mumbo-jumbo. Also, Mentats and Guild Navigators are human replacements for computers. If you have computers, you don't need them.

"I think Duke Leto is a mentant in the story"

Nope. Just a shrewd old scoundrel that fell in love with his mistress. He did, with the help of his house mentat, Thufir Hawat, surreptitiously prepare his son Paul to be a mentat, if he chose that course.

"Since Accelerando is supposed to be a dramatic reordering and expansion of powers, abilities and techniques across civilization, then it stands to reason that humans also need to enhance their abilities to match. (Speculation here, but perhaps the only "real" Accelerando was the development of "Behavioral modernity" 50,000 years ago)."

Back when I went to school, one of the things they taught about evolutionary biology was that there was only one essential difference between man and the animals. That difference was that animals adapted to fit their environment, while man adapted his environment to fit him. I guess they don't teach that any more...

Thucydides said...

That difference was that animals adapted to fit their environment, while man adapted his environment to fit him.

Anatomically modern-appearing humans originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, reaching full behavioral modernity around 50,000 years ago. So far as the fossil record can show, Homo Sapiens was more like an animal for much of our evolutionary history. There seems to be no obvious reasons that a Homo Sapiens of 200,000 years ago would not have the same capabilities as one from 50,000 years ago, yet up until that time there is no unambiguous evidence that early humans could adapt the environment to fit them (stone tools and a limited ability to exploit fire aside, these abilities go much farther back in the hominid family tree and are perhaps analogous to modern chimpanzee's use of primitive tools to open termite nests).

So something happened 50,000 years ago which led to Homo Sapiens becoming able to manipulate the environment on a large enough scale to adapt the environment to suit himself, leading to later progressions like agriculture and the harnessing of thermal energy.

Milo said...

Tony:

"That difference was that animals adapted to fit their environment, while man adapted his environment to fit him."

Not true.

Individual animals do not adapt themselves to fit the environment. Species do, over the course of generations of evolution, but then humans have adapted just as much over that time (during most of which we weren't humans yet).

Meanwhile, humans do adapt ourselves to fit the environment - we use different tools depending on where we are. If I'm in a desert, I do not expect to see many people crewing sailing ships while wearing coats.

Many animals, even stupid ones, do have minor forms of environmental adaptation as well - digging burrows, for example.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"So something happened 50,000 years ago which led to Homo Sapiens becoming able to manipulate the environment on a large enough scale to adapt the environment to suit himself, leading to later progressions like agriculture and the harnessing of thermal energy."

The human population was so small and so unconnected that one would expect it to take tens of thousands of years for behviorally modern innovations like spoken language and a corporate cultural memory to develop. One doesn't need to suppose some split second (in evolutionary terms) change that suddenly made humans smarter and more communicative. Heck, there are still anatomically modern humans who don't use symbolic tools like writing or painting, living in paleolithic conditions.

Tony said...

Re: Milo

"Man", in the context which I was using the term, means humans as a species.

Also, you're missing the difference between adaptive behaviors, like burrowing, with adapting the environment to one's desires, like using ships to cross seas or using air conditioning to live in the desert in high concentrations.

Thucydides said...

Heck, there are still anatomically modern humans who don't use symbolic tools like writing or painting, living in paleolithic conditions.

New York City dwellers aside ;), I don't entirely buy your argument that the population was so small and disconnected that cultural change could pass them by for 150,000 years. The changes that triggered behviorally modern humans gave them such an advantage that their descendants argue about it over the internet while speculating about traveling to distant planets. Even if only a small number of people developed the traits, they and their descendants would rapidly overrun the world and assimilate or outcompete humans who did not have these behaviours. I think this is in fact what did happen 50,000 years ago.

Those humans who did (and do not) use symbolic tools live in the most marginal of conditions, and only survived to the extent that behaviouraly modern humans did not encroach on their territories. Since the Kalahari Desert and Australian outback are such severe environments they are difficult to tame even with modern technology, it is easy to see why small groups of paleolithic tribes could continue to exist until the 20th centuries. It should also be noted that peoples who did have access to symbolic tools and no longer lived as paleolithic peoples could move into (less) marginal areas in much greater numbers, desert tribes around the world with some sort of symbolic culture exist in far greater numbers.

Thucydides said...

Only marginally related, but so interesting that I thought I'd share:

http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/mimssbits/26124/?nlid=3874

Tony said...

Re: Thucydides

The problem with an epiphanic shift in human behaviors is that there is no concrete difference between technological and rustic humans today. Both use language, both use tools. That one uses symbology and the other doesn't is the only obvious difference. but nobody can say for sure why that is. Then you have the case of Australian aboriginals, who had every modern behavioral tool, including symbology and even a proto-religious animistic worldview. But, to the best of my knowledge, they never adopted agriculture -- not even the garden agriculture of New Guinea -- and never formed large sedentary communities as a result.

The common thing in all modern rustic humans is that they are (or were) isolated and don't face outside competition. (Though internecine competition is quite common.) They also haven't developed agriculture beyond small gardens, though in more than a few places they could have.

This suggest very strongly that a combination of the development of crop type agriculture, plus outside competitive pressure was necessary for humans to advance. And both of those took population density, not some magickal idea popping into someone's head.

Rick said...

My impression is that the big difference with humans is that not that we adapt the environment to us, but that we adapt ourselves to the environment largely through cultural innovation rather than biological change. We can wear heavier clothing instead of growing fur.

Not to say that evolution was suspended. Inuit are physically better suited to polar conditions than Bushmen are - but a Bushman raised by Inuit would have enormously better prospects in a polar environment than would an Inuit raised by Bushmen.

Apparently we became biologically capable of cultural adaptation some 200,000 years ago, but from that point on everything had to be invented - no surprise that the early stages were slow. We basically had to learn how to think and express ourselves.

Tony said...

Rick

"My impression is that the big difference with humans is that not that we adapt the environment to us, but that we adapt ourselves to the environment largely through cultural innovation rather than biological change. We can wear heavier clothing instead of growing fur."

We actually do adapt the environment. We build roads, railroads, ports, airports, cities, towns, villages, hydro power dams, dams of all kinds, levees, canals, wells, etc. We've changed the face of whole continents with agriculture. In places like Israel and my own home state of California we suck whole rivers dry for the irrigation water to do it. In other places we created artificial lakes to back up hydro dams. In British Columbia we built a hydro dam for the sole purpose of powering aluminum smelters that used South American bauxite for raw material. We drive miles lon holes through mountains where passes are too high or don't exist at all.

Forgive me for the rant, but members of my family worked on many of the projects that turned the Southwestern US into the thriving region that it is today. And not a bit of it was man adapting to the arid desert, but man adpting the arid desert to his purposes, in many places by eliminiating it with water imported by the trillions of gallons, also by building roads and tunnels to connect the island communities that developed around the aqueduct outputs.

Perhaps it was the general crisis of faith in progress that stopped people from teaching kids these things, but it's not a failure of fact. A teacher in Phoenix, for example, may not teach the kiddies that their lives depend on an adapted environment, but their lives do indeed rely on the desert being converted into a city through technological adaptation.

Thucydides said...

I suppose we cam agree on the idea that no one knows what or how humans developed modern behaviours @ 50,000 years ago, since the evidence is lacking.

There is something to the idea that ideas need to percolate through the population to take root, ancient Greeks developed one off devices like steam engines and mechanical astronomical computers, but while pretty spectacular, they mede little difference in the larger scheme of things. Tanks were invented multiple times since Leonardo's time, but only appeared as a real item during the Great War.

OTOH the strongest counter is the 150,000 year span between the first appearance of anatomically modern humans and modern behaviour. Ideas don't take that long to circulate, and a human group with access to modern behaviour will out compete any group without these cognitive tools. The carrying capacity of the environment varies with culture, the desert tribes living in the Gobi desert or pre Columbian America lived in larger numbers than Bushmen tribes in orresponding tracts of desert because they could adapt the environment in many different ways.

So my argument is simply that if such behavioural tools existed, then the peoples possessing these tools would have quickly overrun the competition (even in non violent ways, like expanding in numbers and taking over hunting grounds and then being much better hunters and hunter-gatherers).

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"So my argument is simply that if such behavioural tools existed, then the peoples possessing these tools would have quickly overrun the competition (even in non violent ways, like expanding in numbers and taking over hunting grounds and then being much better hunters and hunter-gatherers)."

I think the disconnect here is in thinking that 150k years is a long time. It's not really that long at all on an evolutionary time scale. We also have to realize that many natural processes can take a very long time to develop a head of steam, then they happen seemingly all at once. A mudslide, for example, could take a few minutes to complete it's course, but only after days of rain have loaded the hillside to the point that it gives way. Not a perfect analogy, I know, but illustrative of the principle.

Thucydides said...

150K may not be all that long in evolutionary terms, but it is 42 times longer than all of civilization (using the figure of 3500 years of "civilized" existence).

Consider the advances in that short period. Even outliers like Ancient Greek steam engines eventually had enough time to come to fruition in that span. The 20,000 year period since behaviouraly modern humans arrived is about 6 times the length of all civilization, which seems sufficient time to build the critical mass of knowledge and technique needed to launch civilization and conquer the world...

While I admit to enjoying "alt history" as a sort of Science Fiction in reverse, the idea the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx were made at the end of the last Ice Age (10,000 years ago) begs the question, what were people doing in the 6500 years between the end of the Ice Age and the rise of Sumer, Ur and Egypt?

I think we are in agreement on most of this question, just differing on the amount of time needed to make the accumulation of critical mass of knowledge and technique.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"I think we are in agreement on most of this question, just differing on the amount of time needed to make the accumulation of critical mass of knowledge and technique."

Except it's a fundamental disagreement on how the world works, and it leads to wildy varying conclusions. If you will allow me to summarize, you are suggesting that some indefinable, unidentifiable something happened 50k years agao that suddenly altered the trajectory of human development, while I am suggesting that nothing out of the ordinary happened, humans just followed a trajectory that accelerated naturally.

jollyreaper said...

you will allow me to summarize, you are suggesting that some indefinable, unidentifiable something happened 50k years agao that suddenly altered the trajectory of human development

Guys, we all know what happened. Big, black, 1x3x9. Accompanied by the strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

But seriously, I do wonder about whether it was a slow build that kicked off 10k years ago or if we've had several builds and collapses. Ice ages and glaciers can ruin a lot of evidence. I'm a sucker for pre-human civilization theories but I'm not a true believer -- I'd just be really chuffed if it were true. The real kicker would be finding compelling evidence.

We know that our western method of industrialization has generated pollution that will be visible in the ice cores for tens of thousands of years in the future. We know that archaeological sites can persist for thousands of years after the civilization died off. Is it likely we could have seen advanced pre-historic (by our reckoning) civilizations that didn't leave much in the way of evidence? I'm thinking the answer would be no but I'd hope otherwise.

jollyreaper said...


New York City dwellers aside ;), I don't entirely buy your argument that the population was so small and disconnected that cultural change could pass them by for 150,000 years. The changes that triggered behviorally modern humans gave them such an advantage that their descendants argue about it over the internet while speculating about traveling to distant planets. Even if only a small number of people developed the traits, they and their descendants would rapidly overrun the world and assimilate or outcompete humans who did not have these behaviours. I think this is in fact what did happen 50,000 years ago.


The point about a critical population density is a good one. How long did it take for humans to spread across the land bridge into the Americas and make it all the way down to the tip of South America? The anthropologists say it was a few thousand years. And in nearer historical times we can see how rapidly a superior set of martial ideas can dominate a region, armies sweep across the plains and a superior culture can civilize those warriors in turn.

We really have no idea what happened over that chunk of time and to say definitively that it was a slow build as about as premature as saying there were many rises and falls of civilizations. We really don't know yet, can only speculate. Every idea is on the table.

Anonymous said...

Jollyreaper:
Some advicates of "alt. history" (who are heretical to mainstream achiologists)believe that those 'proto civilizations' did leave traces, but those traces are at the bottom of seas that filled up at the end of the Ice Age, or are now deep deserts, and so have not been discovered; these early attempts at civilization failed due to the drastic climatic transition at the end of the Ice Age. Personally, this theory always struck me as on par with UFO's built the Pyrimides or the Sphinx, but some people seem to think there is something to it.

Ferrell

jollyreaper said...

Close to woo-woo in some cases, yes, but certainly not in the same realm as ancient astronauts. It's within the realm of possibility accounts for why we aren't seeing obvious traces of these civilizations if they existed. So, if they're in the deep deserts or beneath the sea, let's start looking there. The alt.history guys could well be wrong but it's at least an idea worth entertaining as opposed to things like hollow earth theory, ancient astronauts, etc. I've watched those shows and they're fun from the Art Bell woo-woo angle but the proponents are looking for proof of something they already believe instead of coming up with a theory to match the evidence. While entertaining, they are on the same level as biblical archaeologists.

Tony said...

Re: Jollyreaper

There didn't have to be a sudden explosion 10k years ago, or 50k years ago, or whenever. It's in the nature of exponentially accelerating processes that almost all of the activity takes place in the last few percent of the timeline.

Rick said...

I tend to agree with the gradual buildup argument. During much of this period the human population was very small. And outwardly modern humans might still not have the full language capabilities of modern humans.

Regarding lost civilizations or proto civilizations, how elaborate are we talking about? Monumental stone architecture? Use of metals? Both leave durable traces that are hard to miss. Mud brick or timber architecture, not so much.

Anonymous said...

Not to advicate the theory, but during the last Ice Age, places like the Sahara were savannah and what are now fossil rivers ran through it. The Mediterrean basin had several deep, large salt lakes instead of the modern sea; the same with several other areas that are now shallow seas; they were fertile plains that would seem ideal for a developing agicultural civilization. If these civilizations reached a peak compirable to the early Egyptians, but were destroyed by the dramatic climatic shift at the end of the Ice Age, then yes, the evidance that they esisted would be at the bottom of the sea or burried in the deep desert. If these were 'pocket' civilizations, isolated city-states, or little clusters of farming villiges seperated from most of the rest of humanity. If they did develop a relitively superior civilization that was later destroyed by flooding or desertification, but whose people managed to escape to the lesser developed tribal people that lived in less-adversely affected areas, then this might provide the basis for ancient myths of knowledge-giving gods; or, the modern myths of ancient astronauts...

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

Ferrell,

The idea of really ancient proto-civilizations in out of the way places is the genesis of Alt history, and has "just" enough plausibility to continue to attract researchers and readers.

The problem is we now have the technology to actually find these hidden pockets of civilization. Space shuttle pictures and orbiting radar have identified previously unknown ruins of past civilizations in the deserts and jungles, and similar techniques uncovered the dinosaur killer's crater deep under the sea floor. It should be trivially easy to discover remains beyond those of a hunter gatherer civilization with orbital observation, but AFAIK, this has not happened. Atlantis is not in Antarctica, or anywhere else outside of our imaginations.

I am perfectly willing to believe that civilization did not spring up "full blown" 3500 years ago, but unwilling (without some pretty compelling evidence) to push back much past 5000 years, given the total lack of evidence past that point.

The only things that seem really clear is anatomically modern humans first appeared 200,000 years ago, behaviourally modern humans appeared 20,000 years ago and civilization made an unambiguous appearance 3500 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Thucydides said:"
Space shuttle pictures and orbiting radar have identified previously unknown ruins of past civilizations in the deserts and jungles, and similar techniques uncovered the dinosaur killer's crater deep under the sea floor. It should be trivially easy to discover remains beyond those of a hunter gatherer civilization with orbital observation, but AFAIK, this has not happened. Atlantis is not in Antarctica, or anywhere else outside of our imaginations."

Yeah, that was what always bugged me about that theory as well...

Ferrell

Rick said...

I'd push the dates for behavioral modernity and civilization back just slightly. IIRC, unambiguous art appears by about 40,000 years ago, give or take, while writing appears just short of 5000 years ago, but seems to have derived from systems of 'data processing' tokens and marks that can be traced back to around 10,000 years ago.

Which doesn't affect the broader discussion.

jollyreaper said...

I have nothing to go on but personal bias here but I find it curious that we could have anatomical humans for such a long stretch without advanced civilization. There's no way to prove this one way or the other, of course, not without finding a couple new earths we could drop people into and see what develops. I do agree that if there were significant pre-historic civilizations, anything the equal of the greats of antiquity, we should see some manner of proof. And with the world getting smaller and smaller, it takes some real intellectual hoop-jumping to keep those ruins plausibly hidden.

It's the thought experiment everyone comes up with when reading apocalypse fiction; if most of the population is killed off, how long will it take for the survivors to rebuild civilization? I suppose the strongest argument the asymptotic incrimentalists would put forward is that writing in combination with the spoken language created the glue that could hold a people together to make plans beyond the next foraging trip. They would say that if you're going to drop survivors off on empty earths to recreate civilization, you're going to also need an experimental group that consists of teenagers with hunting skills and no language spoken or written and see if they can even survive long enough to develop those before coming up with all the rest.

jollyreaper said...

Just a point of clarification -- I do know there's a difference between rebuilding and inventing for the first time. But one would have to wonder just how much would be lost in an apocalypse scenario. If it takes a thousand years for society to develop to the point where gentlemen of leisure can play at being scientists, it's very likely that they'd have bog all to go on for rebuilding civilization, just legends passed down and scraps of advanced artifacts. If the fallen civ was highly computerized, most of their books could well be lost.

The one scifi example I'm thinking of is a short story by a guy better known for civil war novels. A human sleeper ship is found by aliens. Aliens wake the humans and explain some history. Aliens are part of an alliance put together to fight a scary, awful, no good big bad race of monsters. Blah blah alien alliance knows that some of the monsters escaped and they've been looking ever since. Oh, and guess what? Those monsters look just like you. And look, you've started building starships and are going back out into space to conquer. But it's only considered proper to explain why you're killing someone before you do. Humans are killed. There's no record in the computers of where the new human world is but the name is Earth. Dramatic sting!

That got me to wondering what it would be like for a band of refugees just large enough to constitute a breeding population settling on a habitable world and trying to recreate their lost civilization, especially if the goal is to head back and hit the guys who made them refugees in the first place. Could it be a thousand years later that the aliens are sitting there gloating over their empire and then they're coming under attack from the descendants of a people they thought were wiped out yonks ago?

Milo said...

Jollyreaper:

"I do agree that if there were significant pre-historic civilizations, anything the equal of the greats of antiquity, we should see some manner of proof. And with the world getting smaller and smaller, it takes some real intellectual hoop-jumping to keep those ruins plausibly hidden."

The thing here is that more successful cultures tend to displace less successful ones. One would expect that given TENS OF THOUSANDS of years, any advanced civilization would be able to spread across, at least, wide swaths of the continent.

I think the only continent we don't know enough about to have already noticed such widespread ruins is Antarctica, which was unlikely to be any more survivable during the ice age than it is today.


"It's the thought experiment everyone comes up with when reading apocalypse fiction; if most of the population is killed off, how long will it take for the survivors to rebuild civilization?"

Post-apocalyptic fiction usually gives us more than just a breeding population to work with, though. Even though much knowledge is lost due to the deaths of most people who knew it and the destruction of the infrastructure for transmitting and making use of it, such settings still usually have partially-functioning wreckage of ancient technology that can eventually be reverse-engineered, ruins of libraries that can be scoured for data that people still remember how to decipher, etc. Even if we have no salvagable technology whatsoever, then post-apocalyptic humans will still start off already possessing language.

They will also have some idea of what the old life that they hope to rebuild was like, although unless they can manage to get their act together within a few generations, these memories are likely to be corrupted into religious tales of lost utopia too inaccurate to be much use as an ideal to strive for.

On the other hand, post-apocalyptic societies in stories frequently have to cope with the aftermath of whatever it was that caused the apocalypse in the first place, like nuclear fallout, which in some ways makes their lives harder than even Stone Age humans, and commonly hampers rebuilding efforts even if decent technology is still around.


"There's no record in the computers of where the new human world is but the name is Earth."

Oh wow, because we all know Earth is what the planet was already being called, thousands of years ago, before the English language ever existed.


"That got me to wondering what it would be like for a band of refugees just large enough to constitute a breeding population settling on a habitable world and trying to recreate their lost civilization, especially if the goal is to head back and hit the guys who made them refugees in the first place."

That sounds dubious if they have to reinvent all their technology themselves. By the time they developed a civilization advanced enough to pose a threat to anyone except themselves, they would have long since forgotten their original grudge... or if not that, then forgiven it since it's been so many generations that no-one alive now cares anymore. In fact, they would be proud to live in their new and glorious civilization, and so would be happy with how things worked out. The suffering of their ancestors would be long forgotten. Of course, maybe they would find their own reasons for going to war, but they wouldn't do it just for revenge.

If they have enough usable technology and encyclopedic information onboard their colony ship to build a civilization on a shorter time scale, then it's plausible. Still rather questionable, though.

Thucydides said...

I see I made a typing error, behaviourally modern humans are @ 50,000 years old, not 20 like I had in my last post. That extra 30K years gives us enough time to spread out over the world, develop agriculture, catch up on lost sleep etc.

The historical examples of dark ages, massive population losses etc. don't seem too promising for the idea of taking ages to rebuild; it only took @ 300 years from the destruction of the Mycenean palace culture (including complete loss of written language) to the development of Classical Greek civilization. Europe moved pretty quickly from the Black Death to the Renaissance (there is some thought that the loss of so much of the population spurred the development of technology and techniques to overcome labour shortages).

Given the high tech nature of interstellar travel, the "Orphans in the Sky" trope is pretty implausible as well. Primitive passengers will likely die without the crew to keep things running. Even if an efficient closed cycle ecology is developed, the end date will probably be in generations rather than years, but the end will still be a dead starship drifting through space. I would have to question the morality of any culture which chooses to isolate a human population on a planet in pre civilization conditions, and even then, they would probably leave observers to study the population, providing a source of contamination.

If some "Atlantean" civilization did exist, then we would have to suggest some overwhelming cataclysm that could kill people and erase all their works yet not drive humans (and probably many other species) to extinction in order to explain why there was no resurgent civilization 10,000 years ago or whenever.

Rick said...

What sort of progress "should" paleolithic humans display? The technologies that are actually useful to them are, basically, camping and wilderness survival, and to judge by their stone spearheads they had reached a high level of sophistication in these techs.

Bronze tools would be an improvement, but it takes a lot of progress in metallurgy to get to that point. Until then, metalwork is of decorative rather than utilitarian value.

For that matter, if you go by the standard modern interpretation of paleolithic art as intended for magic, then progress was slow because an awful lot of effort was being wasted.

Tony said...

Rick:

"For that matter, if you go by the standard modern interpretation of paleolithic art as intended for magic, then progress was slow because an awful lot of effort was being wasted."

That greatly depends on your perspective. From our perspective, time spent on sympathetic magic is time that could have been better spent on improving the technological toolset. From paleolithic man's perspective, improving technology didn't have as much effect as keeping the spirits on your side. One of the things that took so long in developing was a cultural database that confirmed rationality over magic. Even if one believes that something revolutionary happened in human behavior 50k years ago, it still took 99% of that time for people to even begin to abandon magic in favor of reason.

Milo said...

Although probably some paleolithic art was intended as magic - after all, so is some modern art - I am also quite confident that Upper Paleolithic* humans were in no way strangers to entertainment for its own sake. They were still humans.

That said it may be the case that specifically art in caves (which we have the most records of because they preserve well) was typically for religious purposes, as those were out-of-the-way locations that people might have ascribed ritual importance. Or, maybe they just wanted somewhere to huddle out of the rain. Who knows.

Archaeologists just have an unfortunate tendency to try to find a significance behind everything. This is the same kind of attitude that created religion in the first place, although they defend themselves by claiming that they're studying other people's religions rather than their own :)

(* Upper Paleolithic = the portion of the Stone Age that comes after the arrival of behavioral modernity that we've been talking about in this thread, and before the end of the last glacial period and with it the Pleistocene-Holocene transition. So, what I typically picture when people talk about "cavemen".)

Milo said...

(* ...So, roughly, 50000 BC to 10000 BC. Accidentally deleted that bit :( )

Milo said...

Tony:

"That greatly depends on your perspective. From our perspective, time spent on sympathetic magic is time that could have been better spent on improving the technological toolset. From paleolithic man's perspective, improving technology didn't have as much effect as keeping the spirits on your side."

That they believe they aren't wasting their time does not change the fact that they are wrong and are, in fact, wasting their time.


"Even if one believes that something revolutionary happened in human behavior 50k years ago, it still took 99% of that time for people to even begin to abandon magic in favor of reason."

Which people are we talking about? Quite a few of us still haven't entirely abandoned magic in favor of reason. Meanwhile, even prehistoric humans had enough reason in them to develop things like fire and stone tools, and learn how to make use of them. Given the poor technology base available, they didn't have much more use for the scientific method - they didn't yet have a means to make or record measurements accurate enough to rationally test the existance of spirits. (Testing whether praying before a hunting expedition increases your success chances, for example, would require knowledge of statistics, kind of tricky for a culture that hasn't yet invented writing or math. Note that the earliest uses for writing were things like recording religious texts, law codes, business transactions, and personal letters - despite the great advantage writing has posed to scientists, it was not specifically developed by them or for them.) Even if you went to a caveman and taught him nuclear physics, he'd go "Okay, so what? We don't have the tools to build a nuclear reactor anyway. Nor any kind of electronics that would need that much power." If you taught him a better way to bang rocks into other rocks to make sharper rocks, he'd be more interested, but there's only so much you can improve your rocks before you have to move on to something else.

Prehistoric humans weren't stupid. If they saw that one hunting strategy consistently had much better results than another (obviously enough so to notice even without written records), then they would formally or informally come to use the strategy that works better. This is the early seed of what would eventually be refined into the scientific method.

The thing is that when one strategy is about equally effective as another, then factors like placebo effect and confirmation bias may cause people to misperceive one of them as still being better. This is the basis of superstition. However, aside from wasting some time, superstition isn't actually that harmful - most people are perfectly capable of using superstitious solutions and real ones side-by-side. A warrior-priest may pray to his gods for victory before a battle, but he's still going to carry a sword and have some genuine skill at using it (to do otherwise would be disrespectful to the gods).

As such, I don't think "they were wasting their time on superstition" justifies developing an entire order of magnitude slower than more advanced civilizations. This can probably be chalked up to one or more of (A) the lack of enabling technologies, by which I mean things like tool materials and writing, not concious acknowledgement of the scientific process, (B) small scattered populations, which hampered exchange of ideas between cultures or even individual hunter-gatherer bands, and (C) the general difficulty of life, which kept people too busy worrying about where the next meal is coming from to have time left over for intellectual pursuits. (Necessity is the mother of invention, but at the same time, early advanced civilizations were typically found in fertile areas - although this may be due to (B) rather than (C).)

Tony said...

Milo:

"That they believe they aren't wasting their time does not change the fact that they are wrong and are, in fact, wasting their time."

"As such, I don't think "they were wasting their time on superstition" justifies developing an entire order of magnitude slower than more advanced civilizations..."

Can't have it both ways, Milo.

Milo said...

Yes I can. They were wasting time, just not so much time.

Tony said...

Milo:

"Yes I can. They were wasting time, just not so much time."

I'm affraid that very few people are going to be impressed by such nuance. By your own testimony they didn't have the tools to record or appreciate the data they would need to make data-based decisions. On the other hand, they were developing graphical communications skills, even if they were using them to communicate with nonexistent addressees.

Thucydides said...

Behaviourally modern humans did have access to various forms of record keeping. Bones have been found with marks corresponding to the lunar cycle, for example.

Musical instruments and tools like the Atlatl and boomerang required lots of development, essentially each iteration needed to be used and observed. Oral records would probably be used to compare various modifications ("that curved stick only went as far as the big tree when I threw it, but the straight one went to the next little tree past...")

Now this sort of record keeping (along with hunt dances and story telling) has limits, especially when to person who is the repository of the oral knowledge becomes sick, disabled or dies. It is also quite susceptible to magical thinking, since the record keeping is quite subjective. You remember the "wins" and tend to gloss over or forget the losses, so if you "win" after a good hunting dance then perhaps it is because of the dance (rather than the eagle eye of young Thaaag over there).

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Musical instruments and tools like the Atlatl and boomerang required lots of development, essentially each iteration needed to be used and observed."

True, but the technological artifacts in question are records in themselves. Though it's not guaranteed with any individual craftsman, over time and across the universe of craftsmen improvements in efficiency and quality would be preserved, while failed modifications or just poor overall designs would be discarded. Therefore any improvement any individual makes is not based on a vast lore or large database of examples, but on what he knows how to do and what he has been taught by his master(s). One simply doesn't need to presume a record keeping system in order to guarantee the preservation and improvement of craft techniques.

Thucydides said...

Actually I was replying to Milo's comment about early humans not having access to records and databases. They did, but much smaller and more fragmented ones than we would find useful.

Of course we have nothing to feel smug about. Most people have difficulty integrating the vast amounts of data that are out there, and a lot of publicly available data is suspect anyway. The manipulations of Wikipedia are probably the easiest to point to (read Jerry Pournelle about his attempts to correct his own biography for a simple example), but "google bombing" search engines by hackers, or the current Administration purchasing the use of the term "Obamacare" to control the first group of hits on Google are other examples of how data can be manipulated. (In Canada, we have the CBC and the various "Human Rights" commissions ignoring freedom of information requests, so this is hardly restricted to the US or dictatorial regimes).

This trope was mentioned in Pournelle's own CoDominium future history, the CoDominium targets scientific databases in order to disrupt or prevent weapons development that might threaten the rule of the CoDominium powers. Readers do not see this directly, but the social and economic stagnation is a driving force in many of the stories. Think of this as a "Decelerando"

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"...or the current Administration purchasing the use of the term "Obamacare" to control the first group of hits on Google are other examples of how data can be manipulated."

They're doing it on all of the big search engines. But the Administration is only getting itself a single link per response, clearly labeled as an ad. And they can't control counterinformation. On Bing an Yahoo!, right under the .gov link there is a "Repeal 'Obamacare' Now" sponsored link, leading to DemandObamacareRepeal.com. Hardly an effective manipulation, don't you think?

Rick said...

Looking up the finer points of Jerry Pournelle's opinions is just the sort of thing for which I would not depend on Wikipedia. That said, I can see a pretty strong case for not letting people edit the entries on themselves.

In craft trades in general, the artifacts are indeed the primary 'record.' Consider the problems in trying to reconstruct an Athenian trireme without prior examples to work from.

Magical thinking, of a sort, remains widespread in many areas of life, often in ways many of us tend to respect. The military is a good and relevant example. It is filled with rituals and the like, which we hesitate to interfere with because they may relate to unit cohesion and morale, intangible but shown by historical experience to be often crucial to success.

Tony said...

Rick:

"Magical thinking, of a sort, remains widespread in many areas of life, often in ways many of us tend to respect. The military is a good and relevant example. It is filled with rituals and the like, which we hesitate to interfere with because they may relate to unit cohesion and morale, intangible but shown by historical experience to be often crucial to success."

I don't think adherence to military tradition is so much magical thinking as it is simply being conservative about what has empirically been proven to work. Strangely enough, one kind of magical thinking that was very common when you and I were young was the elevation of Progress and Science to the status of Gods. Remember "Better living through chemistry"?

Rick said...

Boy, that sounds quaint now!

But I suspect that distinguishing pragmatic conservatism from magical thinking may be a distinction without a difference - or rather, the difference is between traditions we are sympathetic toward and ones we are not.

Tony said...

Rick:

"But I suspect that distinguishing pragmatic conservatism from magical thinking may be a distinction without a difference - or rather, the difference is between traditions we are sympathetic toward and ones we are not."

Hmmm... I think I would have to know what rituals you're talking about that are evidence of magical thinking. I know a lot of things, like close order drill, that seem meaningless to civlians but which still have real, practical uses.* Are you talking about things like that, or something else?

* Close order drill has five recognized justifications in the modern US service:

1. Move troops from one place to another in an organized manner.

2. Train troops to work as a team.

3. Train individuals to repsond to commands.

4. Give junior leaders an opportunity to practice handling troops.

5. Give troops and opportunity to become familiar with handling their personal weapons.

Thucydides said...

But I suspect that distinguishing pragmatic conservatism from magical thinking may be a distinction without a difference - or rather, the difference is between traditions we are sympathetic toward and ones we are not.

Pragmatic conservatism says "this was observed to work in the past, therefore we change this at our peril", while magical thinking is essentially saying "this will work because I say it will" without reference to contra examples, history or other empirical data.

To use the military example, there is a lot of discussion in military circles on revising the way the military is constituted, including using "Wal Mart" as an example of how a flattened hierarchy can deal with massive numbers of personnel and global logistics. Although there seems to be a lot of evidence that this should work, there is a great deal of hesitation to go towards this model, as many questions remain about cohesion under stress, redundancy and so on. Pragmatic conservatism says we need to retain what is known to work and move very cautiously when making changes.

On the other hand the record of attempted sudden and radical transformation is not a happy one (the French Revolution is probably the first well recorded one).

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"To use the military example, there is a lot of discussion in military circles on revising the way the military is constituted, including using "Wal Mart" as an example of how a flattened hierarchy can deal with massive numbers of personnel and global logistics."

The Wal-mart way of doing things relies on a predictable customer base and business climate, both of which change relatively slowly. Anybody that's been in combat for even a few minutes can tell you why that won't work in a military context.

Rick said...

I didn't have any specific examples in mind, but - to take a deliberately extreme case - the Aztecs might well have argued that large scale sacrifice of captives had worked out pretty well for them.

The 'missions' of Wal-Mart and the military are so entirely different that I'd be very skeptical of their cross applicability.

Tony said...

Re: Rick

There's a lot of barnyard fowl droppings that goes on in the military, but most of that happens away from combat. In my experience, the closer you get to the shooting, the more practical things get. A lot of what people perceive as military impracticality is really just peacetime routine and wartime away from the battlefield behavior.

Yet those things are important in maintaining the institution. The soldiers/sailors/airmen that put up with the peacetime BS for years on end are the ones that preserve the corporate memory and train the wartime troops in their jobs. They have my respect. After Desert Storm, I couldn't tolerate the peacetime routine any more, after having accepted it as the cost of doing business for the previous seven years. If the people that can take it -- and still prove useful after years of taking it -- do things that seem like magical thinking to outsiders, I'm not going to throw rocks.

jollyreaper said...

But I suspect that distinguishing pragmatic conservatism from magical thinking may be a distinction without a difference - or rather, the difference is between traditions we are sympathetic toward and ones we are not.

The thing that continues to astound me is that magic really does work -- it's confined to what goes on between human ears but damn it all, it works when it ought not to and there's no better word for it than magic.

Now some people might not be so astounded at this and just say hey, people can be convinced by bullshit and this is why bullshit artistry is the world's third oldest profession. But to me BS just isn't sufficient to describe it. I know with the people I associate with, the benefit of the doubt is given to someone until he is proven to be a bullshitter and then nobody ever takes what he says seriously. But for much of society, there doesn't ever seem to be a learning process. Even when one bullshitter falls, another one takes his place and nobody ever associates the entire field with being nothing but bullshit. We keep getting televangelists, infomercial real estate gurus, Wall Street bankers keep getting bailed out and people believe in the national myth despite all evidence pointing to its falsehood.

There's an old joke that a comedian told. He holds up a glass of water and declares "I am going to turn this water into wine. Ala-kazam, ala-kazing!" He flourishes his hand indicating the water. "It's wine now. I don't need all of you to believe me, just twelve."

It doesn't matter whether or not you can work miracles; if you can convince people you can and can keep them ignoring all evidence to the contrary, you've earned the right to call yourself a wizard.

Anonymous said...

Rick: I find myself in the odd and uncomfortable position of agreeing with Tony...
The way millitaries do things are because they work, and work on several different levels; practical, emotional, psychological, social. A successful national millitary organization needs these things; using the Wal-mart model would result in Mercs-R-Us, not a professional armed service. Sure, we can study the Wal-mart model to see if there is anything we can adapt to millitary use, but the core structure and traditions aren't going away; they are just too importaint for the long-term success of any millitary organization.

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

I see the Wal Mart model was a bit unfortunate; the parts the military are studying are concerned with logistics and managing large numbers of people with the smallest and fastest information chains possible.

Most military professionals will agree this might work down to the level of considering a base as a "Big Box store", and some might even think you could go farther down (a forward Operating Base [FOB] as a "Sam's Club"? probably not), but I don't know anyone who would think it applies to line units in the field.

The sticky factors include how far down you can carry this model (a base? a unit garrisoned in the base?) and the various interfaces to attach real units to the model. Obviously there vast differences between supplying soldiers and going shopping, for example.

However the larger social model of disintermediation which allows people to directly access information and resources and cutting out or reducing the role of the middleman will eventually have an impact on how future military forces are organized and operated. If Platoon commanders (or riflemen) can directly access information and energy using a concept like "Server Sky", then old models will have to change. They will just change slowly, tempered with experience.

Tony said...

Re: Thucydides

The problem with the Wal-mart model in military logistics is that request-delivery cycles are just too slow when they play out over intercontinental distances with needs generated by something as unpredicatble as combat. I once read that the key thing to remember about military affairs is that warfare is inherrently inefficien, and it's the least inefficient force wins. When a military man talks to you about "efficiency" what he means is that he wants his force to be 5% efficient where theenemy is only 3% efficient.

Precision guided munitions have spread the efficiency margin in asymmetrical warfare. But in a symmetrical conflict between technological equals? I think some people will be surprised how inefficient that's going to be.

WRT disintermediation, I think what has to be understood is that being able to transmit data more efficiently and quickly does not reduce the amount of data to be assimilated into information. In fact, in many cases it increases the amount of data available. Now, in stable environments where ad hoc self-organization can generate profits, that may be a good thing -- and certainly is a manageable thing, as any investor in Amazon can tell you. But all of this is based on individuals being able to choose what information they want, about what subjects, and how long they want to take to make decisions.

But when you start talking about highly dynamic, data-intensive environments, where data cannot be studied at leisure and decisions deferred, cutting out levels of organization is a recipe for disaster. A single person in authority can only assimilate so much, even with staff to help him. Also, some colonel or general sitting in a tent or command vehicle somewhere is going to be totally missing context about a firefight going on ten miles away, even if he can collect data about it in real time. So a big justification for retention of the traditional hierarchy is that intermediate leaders possess context that higher levels of command don't.

Thucydides said...

Also, some colonel or general sitting in a tent or command vehicle somewhere is going to be totally missing context about a firefight going on ten miles away, even if he can collect data about it in real time. So a big justification for retention of the traditional hierarchy is that intermediate leaders possess context that higher levels of command don't.

Which is entirely true, and also explains why experiments like Force XXI in the US and various models being studied in Canada haven't worked too well; the comand cell(s) are being drowned in a flood of data and the communications models allow the Colonel or General to interact directly down to platoon or even section (squad) level.

The Marines had a profound insight with the "Strategic Corporal" model; the actions of a low level element or even a single soldier might have strategic implications since they could be transmitted directly to voters or decision makers halfway around the world. The bear has been to find some way to empower the soldiers and low level leaders to act and react to this in "real time", rather than pass things up the chain and have the media get inside the OODA loop.

Tony said...

Re: Strategic Corporal

The underlying theory is valid. Anybody that lived in Southern California during the whole Rodney King affair and its aftermath -- including thetrial, the riots, the Christopher Commission, and everything else -- can tell you what a small number of people exercising force can cause. But I think there's a misapprehension that anything can be done about it opperationally. The knowledge that small events can have large effects is a spur to more carefully educate the junior leader and raise his awareness of the larger implications of what he is doing.

Anonymous said...

The problem with having EVERY soldier, tank, airplane, field gun, and truck sending data upstream is that, as noted by several others, you get drowned in data; you actually need to 'reduce' the data load at each level by synthisizing it into a composite that the next level can use, and so on up the chain, until that Col. or General CAN have an acurate 'Big Picture' view of the battlefield. And yes, that is as difficult as it sounds...

Ferrell

Tony said...

Ferrell:

"And yes, that is as difficult as it sounds..."

And the solutions may not be as straightforward as one might expect. General Mattis, in command of the 1st Marine Division in 2003, found that his best command tools were an Iridium phone and a 1/50,000 topo map. Because the Iridium phones were limited in distribution -- something like 70-80 were on issue within the division -- mattis couldn't invade micro levels of command, but he could talk to battalion and task force commanders when he needed to get the straight poop. IOW, it was a limitation of resources, and proper placement of those resources that were available, that helped him to run the operation successfully.

jollyreaper said...

The trick is integrating that data. Your classic example is the tracking board used by the RAF during the Blitz. You've got one giant room where all the information comes together. You have radio intercepts, radar plots, coastal spotters, all generating information. The staffers put the pieces together and put the markers on the plot. The general can see his available resources, the enemy formations, and plan on how he will mount his defense.

Of course, the integration process is all manual in the WWII example. Fast forward to today and imagine what something like Google Earth could look like with realtime inputs. The commanding officer knows the disposition of his units down to the foot and the positions are updated on his plot as they change. Reports automatically flow in from the soldiers in the field, sent from their very equipment. A commander can watch his line and see where the probing attacks are coming in and where the enemy decides to consolidate for his main push. His soldiers will be able to call down artillery on precise locations obtained by GPS and laser rangefinders.

Compare this with the comical affair of combat in the middle ages where entire battles could be delayed because the rival armies couldn't find each other. The fog of war can often become completely impenetrable and battles could turn on the strangest chance.

Tony said...

The RAF had a hierarchy of ops rooms, and the information presented to the commander at each level was intentionally kept as simple as possible. They had to work hard to maintain a balance between loss of valuable data through over-distillation, on the one hand, and information overload on the other. It should go without saying that in 1940 the ability to collect and communicate data was very elementary compared to what can be done today, or in the future.

The vision of complete situational awareness is a siren song, and that's all. There's no proof that the high level commander will be able to use data better simply because he has more of it, in a more timely manner. It's much more likely that he will either overreact to intentional diversions, because he sees them more quickly and in greater detail, or underreact to real threats because he doesn't want to act without enough data. Andthat hasn't changed since 1940.

jollyreaper said...

I don't work in the field but I have a friend who works in mobile software development. He's been out to the Army proving grounds and seen the systems they're playing around with. I'll ask him what the specific equipment is because I don't remember the details but he says the situational awareness is night and day.

Tony said...

I'm willing to bet the "situational awareness" is just more timely, more detailed, and possibly more granular data. That doesn't mean it can be integrated into any better, more actionable intelligence.

Intelligence and data are two different things, by the way. Data are raw atoms of knowledge. Intelligence -- and information in general -- is data processed into a meaningful picture. For example,

123 Any Street
Sometown
Someregion
456789

...are data.

123 Any Street, Sometown, Someregion 456789

Is a piece of information we call an address.

Now, adresses can be constructed from a simple set of data, using equally simple, widely accepted conventions that almost everybody knows. The more data you add to a military information processing task, the more conventions have to be developed, and either programmed into data aggregating software or taught to intelligence analysts. And it's not at all clear that conventions that apply today will apply tomorrow. Perhaps the paractical weight of different pieces of data will change. Perhaps data that used to be relevant to one thing is suddenly also relevant to something else entirely, or it's no longer relevant in its initial context, but is still relevant in another. Perhaps new sources of data have to be developed, because not enough data exists to carry out a task. After not too long at all, it becomes obvious that intermediate levels of data collection and filtering have to developed to strain out the data that is relevant to the higher echelons, and form it into reasonably assimilable forms of intelligence that the higher can use.

The idea that the commander of tomorrow will have Eye of God(TM) intelligence, and will actually be able to use it, is nonsense. At best, each level may be able to collect and process data more efficiently and pass up more complete and more timely intelligence. But, if done right, the actual volume won't increase. The quality, in terms of accuracy, completeness, and timeliness, will.

Rick said...

And that hasn't changed since 1940.

Probably not since 1940 BC.

Thucydides said...

The story of situational awareness is well told in Martin Van Crevald's "Comand in War". Limiting and focusing the commander's ability to reach down seems to be a valid lesson (there is a chapter on how micromanagment made life hell for the poor grunts fighting the Viet Nam war, ranging from battalion commanders orbiting overhead in helicopters "helping" platoon commanders in a firefight to LBJ personally approving targets to be bombed on a daily basis.

It seems that circumstances worked in General Mattis favour (one can only imagine what would have happened if the various high tech tools brought over had actually worked as advertised). Perhaps the fact the military ran out of bandwidth and had to revert back to FM radio (with some high tech refinements like IM) was a feature rather than a bug...

jollyreaper said...

Ok, my bad. I had the details on this one wrong. It wasn't from one of the live fire ranges, it was training software.

http://www.gameprodsvcs.com/projects/project_fsl

The relevant story here --

OK so the typical scenario is you have about 100 of your guys, the red-force is in the buildings, and you have to get them out. When I played I would get many of my troops killed. When a trained company commander did it, they would take a lot of time to advance, maintain dominant positions etc...

When we added the 2020 scenario, we had micro air vehicles ... I believe modeled as tiny helicopters ... and you would just find the opposing forces and lay in mortar fire on the GPS coordinates.

The key is this wasn't some drone at 1000's of feet, this was stuff we would fly into buildings. It was pretty effective.


So the next step would be to take it out of simulation and try it out on the live fire ranges.

A pretty scary thing pointed out to me concerning those quad rotors drones that can fly GPS routes, they have a several pound payload. Doesn't take all that much effort to strap on a nail-studded bomb and send it off. Politician is up on stage giving a speech, you press the button and off it flies. I've seen the demos of quads doing suicide dives where they come in at a few thousand feet, beyond where you would hear them, and then they cut the rotors and do a dead drop, powering up in the last hundred feet and coming to a halt right above your head. It's scary enough to see it in the video, I can only imagine the start it would give you in real life. It's like a swarm of angry, mechanical hornets materialized right above you. Add a bomb and kaboom, bye-bye target. So will we see hunter-killer MAV's patrolling events? Who knows.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"The relevant story here --..."

Funny how perspective and life experience moderates how people view the same account. I don't find the technology anywhere near as interesting as the fact that, regardless of the technology, the proper way to approach an attack is still slowly, methodically, and with fire and maneuver.

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