Printed: 2019-06-24

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Is the world improving… despite our grouchy dogmas?

David Brin


June 01, 2013

Poverty and violence are decreasing worldwide, at truly amazing rates. And of course - as we have seen - this fact seems anathema to grouches of both the far left and the entire right. But it does prove that the Great Program instituted by George Marshall, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson and Dwight Eisenhower has been working, in a spectacular mix of good development assistance and the better half of capitalism.

I have described several times how Dr. Stephan Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, shows clearly that per capita rates of violence across the world have been plummeting (albeit with tragic unevenness) every decade since the Second World War. Even the recent, terribly unwise wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though in many ways regrettable and devastating to our U.S. economy, were nevertheless waged in a manner unlike what any other generation would have called "war," looking more like heavy-scale (sometimes fierce) SWAT team action than mass armies pounding and flattening everything in their path.
20130601_cna400But it is the fight against poverty that stands out even more. As reported in a recent Economist article, Towards the End of Poverty"In his inaugural address in 1949 Harry Truman said that “more than half the people in the world are living in conditions approaching misery. For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering of those people.” It has taken much longer than Truman hoped, but the world has lately been making extraordinary progress in lifting people out of extreme poverty. Between 1990 and 2010, their number fell by half as a share of the total population in developing countries, from 43% to 21%—a reduction of almost 1 billion people."
To be clear: I'm no pollyanna.  (1) These improvements are just enough to offer hope, not any excuse to let-up.  And (2) there are many areas that are not improving at a trajectory for success. Environmental worries top that list.  Nevertheless, violence and poverty are paramount, and the news in those areas is tentatively fantastic.
Why do we hear so little about this? Because amid today's callowly indignant political polarization and Phase Three of the American Civil War, good news serves the polemical interests of neither right nor left. The mania of the right is that "improvement" campaigns are manifestations of pushy do-gooder oppressors; things are rotten but that is the natural way of life and existence. Trying to "improve" people and the world is either nanny-frantic rudeness or else a commie plot.
The mania of the left is to hallucinate the most self-defeating fabulation of all. Not that we must improve… (I agree that we had better, a lot, or fail utterly)... but that chiding... and only chiding... will get us there.  That reflex, to emphasize only indignant finger-wagging, has been politically devastating, by alienating millions who naturally dislike being relentlessly guilt-tripped. Moreover it illogically and stupidly aims to motivate folks to take up progressive causes without ever admitting that earlier progressive campaigns to improve the world have actually … worked! 

Pause. Contemplate that sales pitch. Would you buy a product when those pushing it howl that it never worked? (This is why pragmatic liberals are essentially a different species from leftists.)
Feh. You can see how these right and left manias feed into each other. They are reciprocal addiction enablers. And extreme self-righteousness junkies are not the ones making a better world.  We are.
== Emissaries wanted! ==
1) Jay Lake is inviting folks who will be near Portland on June 27 to attend his "pre-mortem wake and roast, a somewhat morbid, deeply irreverent, but joyous celebration of me." Gawrsh, wish I could attend.  (And weep a little between jokes.) Volunteers wanted to proxy-me, praise a truly vivid life, and wish Jay happy trails.
2) Another METI - (Message to Extraterrestrials) - stunt appears to be underway, pushed ahead by fools who claim an arrogant right to speak for humanity, without ever discussing the issue in open debate with colleagues or the public. One group will be announcing their planned Yoohoo Shout at a news conference in New York City on June 11: 1pm at 500 Broadway (2nd fl).
For background on this vexing issue see: ShoutingCosmosShouting at the Cosmos: How SETI has taken a worrisome turn into dangerous territory. Here is the shouters' rationalization: The Benefits and Harms of Beaming into Space, which is based (the Benford boys assure me) upon fallacious physics.
Out of all the members of our SETI dissidents group (arguing that there should be discussion involving top people from many fields, before small groups arrogate to go screaming into the cosmos on humanity's behalf, based on faulty assumptions) none of us are able to attend the news conference on short notice, or ask inconvenient questions. Do we have any volunteers from out there in the community? Calm sciencey types preferred!  Get in touch via comments below.
At minimum, we could learn who is funding this and who owns the telescope.
== A miscellany of fascinations… 
Are All Telephone Calls Recorded And Accessible To The US Government? Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, hinted that the FBI would be able to discover the contents of past telephone conversations (in the context of the Tsarnaev bombings.) Consider the implications of that blithe, offhand remark. The blogosphere went ballistic in outrage!
My reaction: and you expected… what? If they cannot do it now, they certainly will. Nothing on Earth will prevent the mighty (and I am more scared of oligarchs than civil servants) from seeing and hearing us.  We must concentrate our efforts not on trying (futilely) to blind them, but on measures that allow us (or trusted representatives of us) to sousveil and reciprocally look at the  mighty. If we cannot hide from the mighty, then let us strip them naked.
grafzeppelinSee an amazing 90 minute documentary on the Graf Zeppelin's 1929 voyage around the world. Especially fascinating is the portion about the airship's brush with death, after leaving Japan and barely surviving a Pacific typhoon, blown off course and coming  down near an uninhabited island to do repairs. (That part is 55 minutes in.)  A terrific show about olden times that (I believe) may in some ways come again!
(See my own future zeppelins! 😉
You should know about the Cottingly fairies and other famous hoaxes!  Two little girls fooled the author of Sherlock Holmes.
And learn more about the online Museum of Hoaxes! 
Words that last: a research team has identified 23 “ultraconserved words” that have remained largely unchanged for 15,000 years, spanning not only Indo-European but several of the six other major language groups in Eurasia. Among them the root words for "hand" ("main") and "to give" ("donne").
==Mars Haiku==
MarsMavenNASA solicited "Haiku about Mars," -- to be sent aboard the Mars MAVEN Spacecraft. I whipped out two Mars haiku in about a minute….  So I'll just share them with you now.
Does Mars need women?
And incidental males too?
Let's supply them soon.
Snowy Olympus
Juts into vacuum above
The oceans we'll revive.
== More Miscellany ==
FUTUREWRONGIn "The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be: Why Futurists and Pundits So Often Get It Wrong," Christian Cantrell (author of Containment) offers  a welcome reality check, or dose of cold water in the face, concerning our excessive utopian expectations from technology. 

Indeed, his comments on declining quality of air travel hit home. I expect air travel to keep getting worse, until -- fed-up -- the middle class forms mobs with torches and pirchforks to burn down the corporate jetports and chase the rich back into First Class, where they belong.  That would end our decline into misery, overnight!  But read this cogent essay.
Ah, it won't be easy. Rich tourists  allegedly take advantage of a Disney rule that allows guests who need a wheelchair or motorized scooter to bring up to six guests to a “more convenient entrance.” Companies rent a disabled person to join the family and get them through to the head of the line.  Sigh.
Now come algorithms that will only let your browser come up with things that they think you'll like. My novel EARTH (1989) portrayed hackers in the 2020s deliberately tweaking this "nuremberg-ware" so that it would do the opposite.  Instead of helping people only see and hear and read what agrees with them, all saluting the same memes at the same time, the hacked relevance algorithms would let through different and provocative points of view.  Breaking folks out of the group-think "nuremberg rallies" of memic sameness.
What's the solution?  To introduce randomness into searches? Randomness won't work.  It just makes your searches less efficient.  What's needed is a small symbol showing if someone with very high reputation and credibility scores disagrees or finds fault.  You can click on the symbol, or not.  But just glimpsing the symbol, flashing over on the far right, would say "there is dissent to this; don't assume it's just given."  Of course for this to work, we need the desperately neglected cred-and-reputation system I designed.
Or take a simpler wholesome reality check. A feel-good public relations move that just might do some good… Coca-Cola has set up hyper-window vending machines in India and Pakistan that let you meet, play games or dance with folks in the other country, then toast them with Coke. I hope this isn't a one-off but that they will deploy dozens.  Also, I hope the screens are Gorilla Glass viz the inevitable hate attacks.  Clearly they must be set up in affluent and highly supervised shopping malls.  Still… what fun.
A Guardian analysis of the top 50 video games sold in 2012 found more than half contain violent content labels. One third have weapons that depict real-life firearms.
== Artistry Notes ==
I've quite enjoyed the web-comic called "Tragedy Series" by Benjamin Dewey.  Done in sepia with a Victorian-Steampunk ambiance, these little one-image postcard vignettes are lovely jolts of dark wit and sometimes even genuine irony.
Next year will see the english language publication of THE THREE BODY PROBLEM by the greatest sci fi author ever in China, Liu Cixin.  It takes a very dark view of METI, by the way.
I will speak more in coming months about this top-flight, truly exceptional series and its excellent translation by our own Ken Liu.  
But when you do read it, you may never think the same about "harmless" METI shouts into the cosmos.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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