Archive for January, 2006

Dangerous Ideas

The Edge has an interesting, and long, collection of mini-essays on the topic What is your dangerous idea? At that link you can find the answer to that question as written by a hundred or so different people. The answers range from false and insipid to truly interesting. I’m not sure that any of them are dangerous as such. But maybe some of them are.

Here are some dangerous ideas I thought of–at least, dangerous in the same sense that many of the answers given to the Edge. These are ideas that don’t appear in those essays–I thought of some others as I reading, then I found that somebody else thought of them too.

1. The well-known truth that people have a very difficult time dealing with timespans longer than the human lifespan. This is dangerous because it means that people fail to understand the ways that things change when those changes are stretched out over time. Who in the 18th century could have ever imagined that there would ever be no Passenger Pigeons? The flocks were so large they used to darken the sky for days! Who today can imagine that that ever really happened?

2. Technology continues to puts more and more power in the hands of individual people. But some people can not be trusted. Even just a hundred years ago a lunatic could only have a strictly local effect. Today Osama bin Laden has caused two wars acting almost single-handedly. Biotechnology will soon be able to produce any DNA sequence you care to write down. Human viruses are going to be harder to write than computer viruses, but the capability is going to exist. It’s hard to imagine that it won’t be exploited.

3. The Internet has made it possible to generate an unlimited number of copies of anything which can be written down, moving us from an economy of scarcity to an economy of abundance in some areas. This is causing economic disruption in many creative fields, and while it is clear what the end result will be it is not clear how many people are going to be hurt on the way. We are already able to produce enough food to feed everybody on the planet, but we don’t do it because it costs too much. Can we switch food production from an economy of scarcity to an economy of abundance? If nanotechnology pans out, we may be able to create many copies of many simple physical items, including food. Then we will have to switch. What will happen to the economy on the way?

4. I believe that there is no ultimate meaning to the universe, to life, or to our existence. This belief is not widely held. If it were, would people behave any differently? It’s possible to interpret the Buddha as saying this, but those ideas, if they were there, were rapidly obscured by an ever-growing cosmology; was that inevitable? (This idea is similar to Susan Blackmore’s dangerous idea. Susan Blackmore is an interesting person who converted from a belief in parapsychology to becoming a debunker who writes for The Skeptical Inquirer.)

5. Many people work hard to bring the benefits of scientifically developed medicine and agriculture to everybody in the world. They do not bring the rest of the science-based material culture. The result has been a population explosion, and indirectly much warfare and misery. The population explosion also happened in Europe, starting in the 19th century, but fortunately it turned out to be self-limiting–as people became materially richer, they started having fewer children. But today an increasing number of poor people have access to good medicine and food (relatively speaking–good compared to prescientific medicine, not compared to what we have in the U.S.) while remaining poor. Is that a bad idea? Would it be better to focus on improving material wealth simultaneously, or first? Is that morally acceptable?

6. There is a general belief in the U.S. that you get the best approaches by polling large groups of people. That is the basic idea of democracy. There is also a general belief in the U.S. that society works well when everybody acts in their own self-interest. That is the basic idea of capitalism. Putting those two ideas together strikes me as rather risky. How do we avoid mob rule in which the majority exercises their self-interest as the expense of the minority? It seems that this classic problem of democracy is being exacerbated by an increasing devotion to capitalism.

7. Similarly, many people today argue that the freer the market, the better. But history shows clearly that a free market tends to lead to oligopoly or monopoly. Thus, a truly free market is unstable; you need outside intervention. Even Adam Smith saw this. Why has this been forgotten?