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Runaway consumerism explains the Fermi Paradox
Geoffrey Miller, The World Question Center
The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that our galaxy holds 100 billion stars, that life evolved quickly and progressively on earth, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extra-terrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked simply, “So, where is everybody?”. That is, if extra-terrestrial intelligence is common, why haven’t we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi’s Paradox.
… I suggest a different, even darker solution to Fermi’s Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today.
The fundamental problem is that any evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. We don’t seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that tended to promote survival and luscious mates who tended to produce bright, healthy babies. Modern results: fast food and pornography.
… Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. The printing press is invented; people read more novels and have fewer kids; only a few curmudgeons lament this. The Xbox 360 is invented; people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human.
… Heritable variation in personality might allow some lineages to resist the Great Temptation and last longer. Those who persist will evolve more self-control, conscientiousness, and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs, and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratification, child-rearing, and environmental stewardship. They will combine the family values of the Religious Right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace Left.
Geoffrey Miller: Evolutionary Psychologist, University of New Mexico; Author, The Mating Mind
Recommended by Bill Henderson in response to Tim O’Reilly’s Fermi’s Paradox and the End of Cheap Oil and Andrew Leonard’s Peak oil explains lack of UFOs (Salon).
Other contributors point out that UFOs may well exist. If so, this would be encouraging. It would mean that some species managed to navigate through their equivalent of peak oil and The Great Temptation (described above). -BA
Gin, Television, and Social Surplus
Clay Shirky, WorldChanging
I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.
The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing– there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.
And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders–a lot of things we like–didn’t happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.
It wasn’t until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.
If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.
And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.
… [A television interviewer] heard this story [about a Wikipedia project] and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”
So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.
And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.
Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.
Clay Shirky is the author of the book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Here Comes Everybody is about what happens when people are given the tools to do things together, without needing traditional organizational structures.
(7 May 2008)
Long essay with a fascinating theme. I think he’s right. -BA
12-Stepping our way to Armageddon
Carolyn Baker, Speaking Truth to Power
I recently received an email from a reader, frustrated with my insistence on holding a vision of what is possible alongside the dismal, inevitable current realities of civilization’s collapse. Admonishing me to bear in mind America’s Oprah and NASCAR world view and therefore abdicate any sense of optimism I might have, this reader accused me of suggesting that we should 12 Step our way through Armageddon. Rather than being offended, however, I was overcome with gratitude for this reader’s image, frustrated with me as he may be, because in spite of the regular “wordsmithing” that I do as a writer, I always feel a sense of relief and validation when someone else gives words that I may not yet have for what I’ve been thinking, feeling, or doing.
With the image of the 12 Steps in mind, I decided to look more closely at them in relation to the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI) and notice how they might in fact be useful not only for recovering from addiction, but for navigating Armageddon. At first I felt shy about applying the Steps to the collapse of civilization, thinking that my readers would think I had seriously gone around the bend, but then someone sent me the “12 Steps Of Peak Oil” from a Vancouver newspaper. At that point, I realized how relevant the Steps might be not only to Peak Oil, but to Peak Civilization itself. Seasoned 12 Steppers argue that despite their 1930s origin, the Steps are applicable to any situation-no matter how monumental, and the collapse of civilization is about as big as it gets. So let’s take a closer look.
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless – that our lives had become unmanageable.
(9 May 2008)