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Technology is a liberator, especially when it’s risky

posted by Harry J. Bentham

technology is a liberator

As I said in the last post, the results are not always fantastic, but technology throughout history achieves a lot more good than bad.

That’s my argument in my thesis, Catalyst, from back in 2013. Each time I look back on that book authored by my younger self I try to question it, but I arrive at the same conclusions.

That book still sums up my view of technology, science, ethics, the development of civilization, and the future. My brand of futurism is captured in that book still, with the view that technology is a liberator. Even the more dangerous and uncertain technologies predicted in the future, such as nanotechnology and new, utilitarian artificial life forms, will be liberators. But not unless we liberate them, first.

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My thanks to everyone who bought Catalyst, and I encourage you never to put it down as the coming decades prove my predictions to be true. If you can’t hold it, you may soon be able to hear it, as I do indeed plan to produce an audio book version of it once I get the time, narrated in my own voice of course.

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Is ignorance a choice? Too much information

posted by Harry J. Bentham

is ignorance a choice

You may have heard the phrase, “in the age of information, ignorance is a choice”.

The quote is attributed to Donny Miller, a Christian spiritual writer. But is it true? Is ignorance a choice, or is something else going on in our overcrowded, speedy electronic environment?

Is it really up to you whether you read all the books in the world and pack all the information in the world into your brain?

Donny Miller isn’t exactly an expert on the “age of information”. He’s just an author, and by no means someone who had any significant grasp of science or the sheer volume of information actually at people’s fingertips today.

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Is ignorance a choice?

A better source of expertise on this question might be the late Carl Sagan, who wrote The Demon Haunted World. In that book, we find a guide to skepticism – the famous “baloney detection kit” – as well as something you might not have expected. Carl Sagan explains that ignorance isn’t really our fault. It is not a choice, but an accident, and it happened because the world became too complicated and the sum of knowledge became too great to know.

The amount of tasks expected of a person, the amount of knowledge the average adult is expected to fit in their head (how to operate machinery, how to drive a car, how to manage your finances) are greater than ever before in human history. This is one of the reasons why kids take so long to stop being kids (in many cases now, the kidding around doesn’t really stop until they are 30).

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I would also add the fact the growth of highly specialized fields of knowledge and the current progress towards a technological singularity show that the wealth of knowledge and the extent of technology are reaching escape velocity. Most people simply no longer have even a basic knowledge about each scientific or academic discipline anymore and don’t care. Even scientists don’t care about disciplines outside theirs.

Sociologists don’t care what biology says. Students can only pick one or two disciplines, and will find it very hard to study the natural and social sciences together. In current courses and training regimes, a person can only truly get good at one thing. The reason is that our brains are literally just too limited and our lives too short for us to really know everything or study every discipline. Knowledge is no longer any one person’s apparent responsibility. We have scientists for that. Once we reach the singularity, civilization may have become so technologically complex that it can’t be run effectively by humans at all, and must be handed over to highly advanced self-developing computers more capable than any human researcher.

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That wasn’t a digression.

A vast explosion in information and responsibility has taken place. And the result is that people are not more informed than ever, but more ignorant than ever. People are so confused by the sheer volume of information that they no longer know what to believe and can’t even form a coherent worldview. You might get one portion of your views of a television channel, another off a Twitter account, and yet another off a YouTube channel, where in the past people overwhelmingly only listened to their parents and possibly the official government media channel.

The world is in fact so overwhelmed by information now that you can’t find the answers, but it has also become greatly difficult to find “meaning” in the world. From this vacuum, we get new bizarre cults and movements. Deafened by the chorus of information, many people are only more driven to simplistic or wishful thinking. They turn to the simplest of philosophies and consciously close themselves off to all the noise on the internet, dismissing almost everything they read as wrong while focusing on their favorites.

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Add all this to the fact many people are so overworked and exhausted at the end of their shift that they don’t have time to even think about why their job exists, or whether it is really necessary at all. For them, the idea of reading all the books in the world, researching every conspiracy theory on the internet, and trying out every type of faith and spirituality to find the right one would be absolutely absurd. Their ignorance isn’t a choice, it’s because they literally just don’t have time at the end of the day. They can’t put their glasses on and read postdoctoral theses, when they can barely get their eyes to focus on the television screen.

Information is worthless

A vast majority of people are simply a product of their surroundings. Their worldview is dictated by the extent of their education, and this gets even more interesting. Content is worthless. Aristotle’s collected works are worthless. These need to be explained by scholars. There is no way you could make any sense of those without guidance. The internet is even worse.

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On the internet, anyone can publish. People can publish without any ability to order information. Like charlatans, they can only subject you to their own confusion, and muddle your already tired mind. They themselves don’t know the meanings of the words they are using, yet they can still preach their undergraduate definitions to grown adults.

Conspiracy theories are the worst outcome of all, and they are something Carl Sagan also writes of in his book. Conspiracy theories represent the tangled outgrowth of knowledge badly mapped by amateurs. Misunderstood realities, half truths, misquotes, jumbled and cherry-picked information all presented under the slogan “they don’t want you to know”. Maybe it’s all true, but if the conspiracy theorists are confused and don’t understand or study their own sources, do they really “know” anything at all?

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Information is actually worthless. Like the works of Aristotle, it is no good in its own right in the hands of a layman. Only the correct context, the correct instructions, and the ability to order and interpret information coherently (even if biased) results in a more helpful worldview. Any random bombardment with aphorisms and other random data will only cause you to misunderstand. You might as well be looking at a stray volume written in a foreign language.

The “age of information” is confusing. It’s surprising we know anything at all, and ignorance is an accident of birth, not a choice. We now stumble through a fog of confusion, misinformation, misnomers, and amateurish teaching. If anyone can tell you how the world works, no-one can.

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How old are stories? (a theory)

posted by Harry J. Bentham

How old are stories

In the start of the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick depicts a scene both reminiscent of human prehistory and evolution, and at the same time of mythology.

An ape-like human ancestor is depicted first using a bone as a weapon, representing the flare of humanity’s earliest adoption of technology. Humans are frail and pitiful creatures in their own right, and there is nothing remarkable about them. But in their handling of technology, in their potential to build and refine the use of tools, they stand apart from animals.

The Bible tells of the Tree of Knowledge, but the Bible is known to actually be a compilation of older parables credited to divine sources, likely pre-dating even the earliest cuneiform writing. Ancient Greek mythology tells of Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus, and of creating humans (creation of the first humans was not a divine act of creation in that mythology but was actually an offense aimed at Zeus). What if the myths about humans stealing fire, knowledge or the capacity to build technology in some great saga in the past are actually true?

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After all, how old are stories? Some such stories are so old, carried only by word of mouth if you go far back enough, that they could go back any length of time – even before humans were fully human (supposing you accept current biology to be accurate). They had no original author, or the author may have been so old that he was not human at all.

I wrote the same back in 2013, when I donated an essay to Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (OCRT):

If we take an evolutionary standpoint, there likely was a Prometheus “incident” in our evolution, and in this sense the parable of knowledge being “stolen” is describing a very definite reality.

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I believe we ought to look deeper into that hypothesis. It may be that the myths of one human first using fire and tools, with their parallels in other myths about usurping knowledge and technology, are ultimately talking about a real event. It would not have happened exactly the way the varied oral and written versions of these myths say it happened, but these accounts may actually be referencing a real event, as could much religious literature.

How old are stories such as fairy tales, fables and religious parables?

Remember, at one time in history, writing did not exist. All stories were conveyed orally. Before modern ideas about science and reason prevailed, people didn’t care if a story was accurate, as long as it offered some rudimentary explanation for them. Fiction is older than non-fiction. It was the original way “history” was told. It is possible, even, that the capacity to convey meaning by speech or crude pictures may predate the actual existence of modern humans as a species, supposing human ancestors had some capacity for abstract thought and inspiration. Already, recent digs have suggested that human-like intelligence and activity (including use of camp fires) was present much longer ago than was ever originally believed in the timescales of modern biology.

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This could mean various much-loved folklore tales including Little Red Riding Hood could really be true, at least according to some muse long ago, only that they are Chinese whispers from the dawn of time, telling about the adventures of creatures who did not yet have a fully developed form of language or weren’t even fully human.

This is a fascinating theory of mine, but it might never be proven true or false. It delves into something so obscure that it is a singularity in history, a place where all evidence vanishes and ultimately the conclusion could fall either way, although it makes for a great thing to think about.

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Prospects for Human Survival (lifeboathq)

posted by Harry J. Bentham

Prospects for Human Survival

As promised, I have published my review of the Lifeboat Foundation book Prospects for Human Survival (Willard Wells, 2015). It is more critical than the review of Visions of the Future (also 2015).

I think it is harder to predict existential risks than the equations put forward by Wells, as I argue in the opening parts of my essay. One problem is that maths can only be useful in evaluating what you don’t know from what you do know. One could have done a study of the gradual increase in explosive weapons, but at no point would such study have predicted the emergence of the nuke, which was developed secretively. What Wells does not consider is the unknowns, for which there is no equation. One cannot actually predict their probability, although we can hypothesize about their possibility.

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Read the full review at clubof.info and if you so desire, get the book via Amazon.

I can only apologize for not writing a longer post today but I am at the limit of what I can do in a day at this point. Tomorrow, I will find an exciting topic to write about, possibly expanding on discoveries I made in books recently.

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