Felix Writes: Food For Thought

DigitalThoughts / Food For Thought

In 1963, the infamous Milgram experiment conclusively demonstrated that the vast majority of people will submit without a thought to anyone they perceive as something of an authority figure. And they'll commit the most horrible atrocities on a simple order.

Are you worried yet?

A mere 8 years later, the controversial Stanford prison experiment made it quite clear that perfectly normal people, once in a position of authority, will promptly and hideously abuse it.

Are you scared yet?

For half a century now, we've known that abuse is fundamentally built into the very nature of man, and yet society is still organized in such a way as to maximize the opportunities for abuse.

But there's more.

For half a century now, we've known that the world is changing at an exponentially accelerating pace. For the past decade or so, that trend has become obvious. And yet...

Modern work relationships are still organized much like the industrial revolution shaped them after 1750.

Modern armies and justice systems are still organized essentially like Napoleon made them around 1800.

Public schools are still organized EXACTLY like in 1850. No, seriously. And the system was already harshly criticized back then, by anyone who wasn't a bureaucrat of the Austro-Hungarian persuasion.

Are we all completely out of our minds?

For the past two decades, the open source movement has conclusively demonstrated that peer production outperforms traditional hierarchies by many orders of magnitude. Why do we still have hierarchies, again?

The easy answer is "out of inertia". Hierachical organizations were more efficient before the Information Age, and habits change slowly. And indeed, in the absence of certain technologies, communication is both slow and difficult, so you want to minimize the number of required channels.

But that's not the correct answer. Before the 1848 upheavals in Europe, revolutionary cells already operated on a peer-to-peer system, and it worked, even though the most advanced means at their disposal were coach-carried letters and the Vigenère cipher. Then what gives?

The answer is that hierarchies are built into our animal selves. Look at how big apes are organized: one alpha male, surrounded by a small circle of favorites, with everyone else arranged into a gently-sloped pyramid.

Just like every single political system mankind has ever tested.

See, ever since the Renaissance, society has operated on the premise that man is a fundamentally rational being, who will act in its own best interest when left free. Capitalism was based on this premise. Communism, too.

And it's been thoroughly shattered by neuroscience.

We now know that people always choose the path of least resistance. (Just like everything else in nature... what a surprise. Not.) Soft security works. The carrot-and-stick method doesn't.

We now know just how imprecise memory is, and how easily our senses can be tricked. We know that the only real way to learn is by doing. We know what a scarce resource attention is, and how many people we can truly get to know.

Last but not least, we know that nobody's special. Talent is only a myth. So is originality.

You draw the conclusions.

2011-12-24