“Let me not be understood as saying that there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise for the redress of which no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say that although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still, while they continue in force, for the sake of example they should be religiously observed.”
“I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
by Ray Kurzweil
The mammalian brain has a distinct aptitude not found in any other class of animal. We are capable of hierarchical thinking, of understanding a structure composed of diverse elements arranged in a pattern, representing that arrangement with a symbol, and then using that symbol as an element in a yet more elaborate configuration.
Through an unending recursive process, we are capable of building ideas that are ever more complex. We call this vast array of recursively linked ideas knowledge.
by Edward O. Wilson
If the exact biological processes of concept formation can be defined, we might devise superior methods of inquiry into both the brain and the world outside it. As a consequence, we could expect to tighten the connectedness between the events and laws of nature and the physical basis of human thought processes. Might it be possible then to take the final step and devise an unassailable definition of objective truth? Perhaps not. The very idea is risky. It smells of absolutism, the dangerous Medusa of science and the humanities alike. Its premature acceptance is likely to be more paralyzing than its denial. But should we then be prepared to give up? Never! Better to steer by a lodestar than to drift across a meaningless sea. I think we will know if we come close to the goal of our predecessors, even if unattainable. Its glow will be caught in the elegance and beauty and power of our shared ideas and, in the best spirit of philosophical pragmatism, the wisdom of our conduct.
by Bruce Schneier
Freedoms we now take for granted were often at one time viewed as threatening or even criminal by the past power structure. Those changes might never have happened if the authorities had been able to achieve social control through surveillance. This is one of the main reasons all of us should care about the emerging architecture of surveillance, even if we are not personally chilled by its existence. We suffer the effects because people around us will be less likely to proclaim new political or social ideas, or act out of the ordinary. If J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. had been successful in silencing him, it would have affected far more people than King and his family. Of course, many things that are illegal will rightly remain illegal forever: theft, murder, and so on. Taken to the extreme, though, perfect enforcement could have unforeseen repercussions.
Today, almost the entire capacity of the Earth’s ‘life-support system for humans’ has been provided not for us but by us, using our ability to create new knowledge…. The Earth did provide the raw materials for our survival – just as the sun has provided the energy, and supernovae provided the elements, and so on. But a heap of raw materials is not the same thing as a life-support system. It takes knowledge to convert the one into the other, and biological evolution never provided us with enough knowledge to survive, let alone to thrive. In this respect, we differ from almost all other species. They do have all the knowledge that they need, genetically encoded in their brains. And that knowledge was indeed provided for them by evolution – and so, in the relevant sense, ‘by the biosphere’. So, their home environments do have the appearance of having been designed as life-support systems for them, albeit only in the desperately limited sense that I have described. But the biosphere no more provides humans with a life-support system than it provides us with radio telescopes.
Imagine a human who, every time they opened their mouth, had spent a solid year to ponder and research whether their response was going to be maximally effective. That is what a social AI would be like. With the ability to converse comes the ability to convince and to manipulate. With good statistics, valid social science theories, and the ability to read audience reactions in real time and with great accuracy, AIs could learn how to give the most convincing and moving of speeches. In short order, our whole political scene could become dominated by AIs or by AI-empowered humans image consultants—though AIs would be much more effective). Or, instead of giving a single speech to millions, the AI could carry on a million individual conversations with the electorate, swaying voters with personalized arguments on a plethora of hot-button issues.
by John Brockman
Humankind’s strongest social bonds and actions, including the capacities for cooperation and forgiveness, and for killing and allowing oneself to be killed, are born of commitment to causes and courses of action that are “ineffable”—that is, fundamentally immune to logical assessment for consistency and to empirical evaluation for costs and consequences.
If anything, evolution teaches that humans are creatures of passion and that reason itself is primarily aimed at social victory and political persuasion rather than philosophical or scientific truth. To insist that persistent rationality is the best means and hope for victory over enduring irrationality—that logical harnessing of facts could someday do away with the sacred and so end conflict—defies all that science teaches about our passion-driven nature. Throughout the history of our species, as for the most intractable conflicts and greatest collective expressions of joy today, utilitarian logic is a pale prospect to replace the sacred.
by Edward O. Wilson
HUMAN BEINGS CREATE cultures by means of malleable languages. We invent symbols that are intended to be understood among ourselves, and we thereby generate networks of communication many orders of magnitude greater than that of any animal. We have conquered the biosphere and laid waste to it like no other species in the history of life. We are unique in what we have wrought.
In summary, the human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be. To scrub it out, if such were possible, would make us less than human.
by Jaron Lanier
Surveillance by the technical few on the less technical many can be tolerated for now because of hopes for an endgame in which everything will become transparent to everyone. Network entrepreneurs and cyber-activists alike seem to imagine that today’s elite network servers in positions of information supremacy will eventually become eternally benign, or just dissolve. In the telling of digital utopias, when computing gets ultragood and ultracheap we won’t have to worry about the reach of elite network players descended from today’s derivatives funds, or Silicon Valley companies like Google or Facebook. In a future world of abundance, everyone will be motivated to be open and generous. Bizarrely, the endgame utopias of even the most ardent high-tech libertarians always seem to take socialist turns. The joys of life will be too cheap to meter, we imagine. So abundance will go ambient. This is what diverse cyber-enlightened business concerns and political groups all share in common, from Facebook to WikiLeaks. Eventually, they imagine, there will be no more secrets, no more barriers to access; all the world will be opened up as if the planet were transformed into a crystal ball. In the meantime, those true believers encrypt their servers even as they seek to gather the rest of the world’s information and find the best way to leverage it. It is all too easy to forget that “free” inevitably means that someone else will be deciding how you live.