Sunday, June 29, 2003

Non-Crazy Ideas

I've been rereading and thinking about the penultimate chapter of Non-Zero. The title of the chapter is a backhanded acknowledgment of the fact that many would consider the ideas therein absurd. The author himself does not so much defend them as argue that they are worth thinking about seriously.

The technology we might need for a literal global consciousness is still in the realm of science fiction, which is probably just as well. The mechanism of the brain which directs our conscious attention is not really part of our consciousness itself. Are we really ready to have that power over other people's brains - and trust them with it over ours? Neurons seem prone to certain unwarranted intimacies with each other.

I think we should start practicing with collective intelligence first. This may sound rather similar, but it's something quite familiar. Whenever a group of people solve a problem no one individual would have been capable of solving, it is in a sense an act of collective intelligence. Some of the most interesting acts of collective intelligence involve computers and the internet, perhaps because they often have the most unexplored potential.

A few of my favorites are John Hiler on the blogosphere, this unique experiment chronicled by Kevin Kelly, and Cloudmakers. Anyone have an idea for building anything like these on a truly global scale? Oh yea, the problems it contemplates should relate to the survival of the species - one of the things you'd expect an intelligent mind to consider is it's own survival, right? Of course a real godmind would be interested in many bigger things than that, but we've got to start somewhere.

Of course it's only really possible if we (like neurons) are modular units capable of self assembling into a mind more capable than any of the components. If so, maybe it will bring us closer to being ready for step two ...

Saturday, May 10, 2003

In chapter 15, Robert Wright talks about international organizations gradually growing in power until they turn into something like a world government that can keep the peace globally. He wasn't naive though, especially considering the book was published before 9/11. He mentions that Immanuel Kant was talking about a similar idea right before Napoleon did his thing.

Sooner or later, every successful government comes to consider international chaos a threat. It seems that there are two memes for dealing with it knocking around the global brain. One is the one he discusses in chapter 15. He also mentions the other here and elsewhere - empire.

It seems that governments which give more freedom and more protection to their rights to citizens often become economically much stronger than their neighbors, so much so that they can defeat any likely combination. In the short term at least, while freedom and rights make for a strong nation, they are not the easiest way to deal with threats internationally. If you are militarily able to defeat any threat, why not do so? If you know you can win, but you're not sure what the outcome of multilateral negotiations will be, the choice seems clear. Somehow, when you feel threatened by another entity, negotiation doesn't provide the same lasting and complete sense of security as does a crushing military victory. Certainly, the leader who initiates such a campaign benefits from it, since successful democracies tend to get behind their leaders in wartime.

Rome arguably did very well from this policy. The fall of the Roman empire is worth studying, but Rome was an unchallenged superpower far longer than we have been. It seems that empires since the days of Rome have run into difficulty much faster though, even with similar economic and military preeminence. The British empire was closest to our era technologically, culturally, and morally. Like us and unlike the Romans, they had qualms about genocide for repeated troublemakers. Collective punishment was part of the key to the success of the Delenda est Carthago ethic - rebels might be willing to die, but as Stalin knew, less willing to bring death to their families and neighbors and countrymen.

In Roman times, land was much nearer to being the ultimate definition of wealth than it is today. When the Romans conquered a country, they always have to guard it completely at their own expense. Land could be expropriated, and most people knew something about farming, since most of the population was somehow engaged in it. Even with the risk that the colonists would be slaughtered before Roman troops could arrive to avenge them, many Romans would consider this a good deal. There are several reasons why this would not be practical for the United States today, especially in the countries it is currently concerned about.

The British empire ran into a problem that might not be inevitable, but seems likely to repeat itself if no thought is given to avoiding it. When other nations interfered in the administration of a conquered province, the easiest solution was to conquer these nations too. Of couse this created new borders, and new neighbors who might become troublesome enough to require military action. Each conquest seemed to new proof of power, a new asset and a new buffer. Yet in the long term British power was spread thinned and thinner, and the number of enemies they had to deal with multiplied, while the life blood of their soldiers was leeched away generation after generation.

History need not repeat itself - if we are determined that it not do so. What is most urgently required is to see faraway occupied countries as a military weakness rather than a military strength. If we disdain empire not merely on moral grounds but on practical ones, we are capable of avoiding the fate of the British empire. What is most strongly required is a public perception that a conquest is not a triumph, but the partial amelioration of a failure of a type of which too many can be fatal. If we are not willing to accept that Syria may ignore our demands, we must be careful indeed what demands we make. We must all unite in war time, but once the war is over we should not laud the leader who lead us into a successful war. Although a bloodless victory is better than a bloody one, every occupation must be seen as a burden.

Ultimately, a world government or anything remotely similar must have at least one of these prerequisites. Either no nation must be vastly stronger than all the others, or the strongest nation must see empire as a heavy burden, rather than an accomplishment which is only abstained from due to moral scruples.

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

The rewards of Forgiveness

Akma has been discussing the theory and practice of forgiveness in great and clarifying detail.

One of the interesting insights in Nonzero is the great survival value of forgiveness. In order to gain non-zero sum benefits, trust and communication are necessary, but how one acts towards betrayal is very important. Avoiding the cycle of revenge and mistrust that lead to war and other negative sum outcomes is important. Nonzero's discussion of iterated prisoners dilemmas, based on Axelrod's work is interesting, in that it explains the advantages of the 'Tit for Tat' strategy, but more recent research shows that more forgiving strategies win out in the long run, especially over generations.

The Templeton foundation has gathered a lot of research into forgiveness here. Much food for further thought:

For example, This experiment concludes:
...this study suggests that inadvertent transgressions can be overcome through overlooking some of the offenses of one's partner (which might have been prompted by one's own hurtful behavior), and also, by refraining from allowing one's own inadvertently hurtful behavior from starting a precedent for mutual hurt in the relationship. Thus, willingness to forgive the inadvertent transgressions of one's relationship partner, but especially contrition for one's own hurtful behavior, appear to be critical ingredients for long-term success in interpersonal relations.

Monday, May 13, 2002

Linking to Joho

Dave's latest JOHO is out.
In the email section he somehow repeats the original version of a little back and forth we had on my sadly-neglected Nonzero blog, implying I retracted it, when in fact we both forgot which blog it was on. Dave kindly corrected this in his blog at the time

Anyway, the point I was failing to make well by exaggerating and parodying was that Dave's orginal 'Web as Utopia' piece makes sense for those of us who are familiar with the web and have fond our place in it, but confuses those for whom it is an alien experience.

I know Dave doesn't really think that the web is 'a transcendent Platonic ideal of Socratic discourse'; I was exaggerating to make the point that we find online what we go looking for, and the web we see is a reflection of ourselves individually as well as collectively.

With 2 billion pages and counting, we can never see it all, and when we venture outside the well trodden paths of the personal web we know, we are more likely to make mistakes in our maps, and come back with 'here be dragons' written across entire continents and tales of men with no heads.

I think this effect, rather than malice or wilful misrepresentation is what is behind such things as journalists' clueless articles on weblogs or congressman fulminating against the net consisting mostly of porn and piracy.

This is part of what I got from reading SPLJ, and I'm glad I provoked Dave into such a clearly expressed retort about connection.

And talking of connecting, try out the Amazon connection browser that (appropriately enough) defaults to starting with SPLJ.

Just to make sure I don't lose this version, I'm 'syndicating' it to my own blog and nonzero too.

Friday, March 29, 2002

Trust and Communication

Over at blogtank, the tankies are meditating on online Trust. The Non-zero perspective is that Trust and Communication are strong catalysts for non-zero-sum activites, such as markets, conversations, and weblogs.

Gaspar mentioned the Prisoner's Dilemma, and Appendix 1 of Nonzero discusses Axelrod's iterated Prisoner's Dilemma experiments:
By showing how cooperation could evolve without formal communication, Axelrod had shown how reciprocal altruism could evolve in animals that don't do much talking—including chimpanzees and vampire bats. He had also shown how stable, cooperative relationships could form in a very small society of humans without much explicit discussion; so long as the same players encounter each other day after day—as in a small hunter-gatherer society—trust could develop even with little explicit commitment.

Of course, through cultural evolution, the settings for non-zero-sum games have gotten much less intimate than a hunter-gatherer society. Chances are you've never met the person who made your shoes. In fact, chances are that any one person who had a hand in making your shoes has never met all the other people who had a hand in it. A key feature of cultural evolution has been to make it possible for such non-zero-sum games to get played over great distances, among a large number of players. And in these kinds of situations, typically, there does need to be explicit communication (however circuitous), and there do need to be explicit means of sustaining trust. Hence the importance of evolving information technology in expanding the scope and complexity of social organization. Hence, too, the importance of evolving "technologies of trust" (often, though not always, in the form of laws enforced by a government) in helping to realize the non-zero-sum potential that new information technologies (and other technologies) create.

Thursday, March 21, 2002

The Long View

Doc Searls is goaded into stating his politics. They sound ready for the Nonzero underpinning:
I hate war, love markets, and trust business and government to do what each does best, and don't trust either to meddle in the others' work.
  I also think the world is basically a good place, and that the most powerful forces for change are what the great religions at their cores have always favored: kindness, generosity, mercy and forgiveness. [...]

  I also favor taking the long view — one that spans generations. [...] Simply yet cryptically put, I believe there is an Economics of Altruism that has been essential to business since markets first appeared, and that we're only beginning to recognize.

The non-zero-sum insight is what unifies altruism, markets, kindness and forgiveness, and is against war. All these things expand the non-zero-sumness in the world, which is what leads to interesting things, in the long term.

Global brains

AKMA sees the net as a mind we are building together. This is a persistent metaphor from Nonzero too:

gadgets that pile up at an ever faster rate as population grows are not just subsistence technologies. Even back during the Middle Paleolithic, more than 50,000 years ago, people were intrigued by ochre (for painting) and pyrite crystals. And, as we've seen, during the Mesolithic, such "prestige technologies" as jewelry became an appreciable chunk of gross domestic product.

Great effort went into getting these status symbols. They seem to have been traded over hundreds of miles, back in a time when hundreds of miles was nothing to sneeze at. Even by 30,000 B.C., long before the Mesolithic, beads made of pierced seashells were migrating 400 miles from their point of- origin. Later, regular networks of exchange blossomed, linking local invisible brains to distant invisible brains. The faint outlines of giant regional brains began to form. And the driving force wasn't periodic environmental "stress" but a more constant force: human vanity, powered by the status competition that is part of all known societies and seems to be innate.

The fitful but relentless tendency of invisible social brains to hook up with each other, and eventually submerge themselves into a larger brain, is a central theme of history. The culmination of that process— the construction of a single, planetary brain—is what we are witnessing today, with all its disruptive yet ultimately integrative effects...

Trust and communicationa re what we need for non-zero sum gains, and the net provides a whole new level of both.

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Wild Utopia

I don't see the Web as socratic. I see it as connective, and socratic dialogue is only one form of connecting, and a pretty paltry one at that. Yelling, joking, teasing, provoking, criticizing, grieving, and flirting are all forms of connecting. So is simultaneous masturbation (no, I don't mean blogging). What makes the Web utopian (in some sense) is that it's connective, not that it's polite, rational or even intelligent. At least that's what I meant to say. If I threw off the estimable Kevin Marks, I must have put it badly.

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Caliban's mirror

Dave, being a nice bloke, sees the web as utopia. A transcendent Platonic ideal of Socratic discourse, where those of good faith commune on the nature of the world.
Then there are those who see in the seedier side of the web the darkness of their own souls, for we are all fallen creatures, and the line between good and evil runs through all our hearts.

Friedrich spoke of those who fight against dragons becoming dragons, and that when you gaze into the abyss, you find the abyss gazing into you.

Oscar said
The artist creates beautiful things. Art aims to reveal art and conceal the artist. The critic translates impressions from the art into another medium. Criticism is a form of autobiography. People who look at something beautiful and find an ugly meaning are "corrupt without being charming." Cultivated people look at beautiful things and find beautiful meanings. The elect are those who see only beauty in beautiful things. Books can’t be moral or immoral; they are only well or badly written.
People of the nineteenth century who dislike realism are like Caliban who is enraged at seeing his own face in the mirror.
People of the nineteenth century who dislike romanticism are like Caliban enraged at not seeing himself in the mirror.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

They had the 20th Century ahead of them. Lets hope we can do better with the 21st.

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Quote of the day

Even if murderous extraterrestrials aren't a strict prerequiste for global governance, they would be a big timesaver
The book was written befoer the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but in many ways it anticipated them, as the increasing interconnectedness of the world enables small groups to advance their agenda.
Here the author expands on this.

Monday, March 11, 2002

Chapter Ten Our friends the barbarians explains why the sack of Rome by the barbarians was a good thing on the whole. Compared to what Romans did to captured cities, it was pretty mild. Rome had lost any technological lead it had, and its nasty side (slavery, debauchery) had taken hold. The barbarians were quick to adopt technological memes that helped them; less interested in the art that was lost. They can be viewed as another case of competition between rival societies.

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

I just read a bit that reminded me of Dave objecting to Dawkins' view of religion, but not quite being able to say why.

I can't be bothered to type the whole passage in this time, so I'll summarize wildly, You really should buy the book and read it (this is chapter 7, Age of Chiefdoms).

Dawkins compares memes to viruses, not just to genes. There aren't many prolific memes that are like viruses (Wright suggests the meme for injecting oneself with heroin). He says the brian has got quite good at rejecting memes that are bad for oneself, and retaining those that do some good (or are at worst benign).

Memes that manage to get through the various individual and cultural selection mechanisms are often those with non-zero-sum value to them, and most religions fit this mould (with the obvious exceptions of those like Heaven's Gate). Most religions are averse to theft and free-rider behaviour, thereby enhancing the trend to non-zero-sum exchanges.
I bought Nonzero by Robert Wright last night, and am enjoying it a lot. By applying the game theory concept of 'non-zero-sumness' to human and biological interaction, he shows how communication and trust are necessary to establish non-zero-sum exchanges, such as markets, information sharing (conversations) and reciprocal exchanges of hospitality. Here he is discussing the Shoshone Indians, traditionally regarded as 'the Irreducible minimum of human society':

A successful Shoshone rabbit hunt would culminate in a "fandango". Sounds like a spontaneous and carefree celebration - and indeed fandangos featured, as one anthropologist put it, "gambling, dancing...philandering". Still, as scholars have noted, the fandango was eminently utilitarian. First, it distributed fresh meat among the rabbit hunt's various kinds of workers. Second, it was an occasion for trading such valuables as volcanic glass. Third, it was a chance to build up a network of friends. (Even the ritual exchange of knickknacks, though economically trivial, can be a way to bond, forming conduits for future favor-swapping of greater moment). Fourth, the fandango was an opportunity to trade information about, say, the location of food.
All of these are non-zero functions, and the last is especially so. Giving people data, unlike giving them food or tools, has no inherent cost. If you know of a place where the supply of pine nuts far exceeds your own familiy's needs, it costs nothing to share the information with a friend. So too if you know the location of a den of poisonous snakes. Sometimes, of course, surrendering information is costly (as when the supply of nuts doesn't exceed your family's needs). Still, data are often of little or no cost and great benefit; swapping them is one of the oldest froms of non-zero-sum interaction. People by their nature come together to constitute a social information processing system and thus reap positive sums. The fandango, the academic conference, and the Internet are superficially different expressions of the same deep force.

More extracts at, but buy this and read it, you won't regret it.