Sunday, August 26, 2007

By Any Means Necessary

I gotta say, I'm not all that surprised that the person publicly advocating a military coups in the US is from the left side of the political spectrum. Counterintuitive - most people would expect it to be a rightwinger - but the left is the side that generally prefers to use the courts, rather than the voting booth, to get what they want.

It's saddening when people begin to lose faith in democracy, but, again, not surprising. If this view becomes widespread a coups is probably inevitable, given enough time.

Hat tip: Wretchard at the Belmont Club.

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The Risk Of Being A Simulation

The Lifeboat Foundation has a post, Risks Not Worth Worrying About (crossposted at Life, the Universe, and Everything), that's rather thought provoking.

I like Phil Bowermeister's take on the simulation argument, that if our world really is a simulation, the point of the simulation is to raise new civilizations up to the point that they can be released into the universe (whatever the real universe is, and assuming we survive, of course.)

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Lego: Not Just For Kids Anymore

Building a robot is one thing, but a factory? Now that's impressive.

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Preserving Secular Dominance

My buddy Jay posts his answer to an ethics test he just took: Multiculturalism vs the Will of the Community. The basic issue is a North African muslim immigrant family living in a small, otherwise homogeneous town. Their kid is constantly getting picked on in school: she stands out as different due to her religious dress (a modified school uniform every other student has to wear), and because of her religious practices, like running off to pray five times every day. Of course she's basically a good kid: the teacher gets along with her, as does the class' star pupil.

My take (admittedly after far less thought and time than Jay put into his) is that the kid should be put into the school uniform, at the very least. Uniforms are very symbolic things. If everyone has to wear one, but if one person is exempted due to religious reasons, that person - especially if they're already behaving oddly - stands out even more. Non-standard dress likely serves to intensify the scrutiny, criticism, and bullying.

Religion is a bullshit excuse here. "Hey, my religion - which was revealed to me last night after a heart-to-heart with God - says I have to wear a ten inch dildo around my neck to ward off evil spirits, and if you don't let me I'm taking you to a human rights tribunal!"

People using religion as a reason for flaunting rules everyone else has to keep has irked me for a long time, whether it's Sikhs who join the mounties or the army, and insist they be allowed to wear a turban with the uniform (the army's solution was to have military issue turbans on the official kit list, but never actually have it in inventory), or muslims forcing their daughters into hijabs while their sons are allowed to wear anything they please. We live, after all, in a secular society, one in which people are allowed absolute freedom of religion in exchange for the subordination of divine law to law made by committee. It's less exciting, but millennia of history seem to show it to be better than theocracy.

Allowing in immigrants is fine, indeed it's necessary and desirable. Allowing them to flout written and established law due to their religions is not, because that principle followed a little further out has ugly consequences. All memes are not created equal, after all: some are nice (new recipes are always good); some are useful or at least harmless (say, acupuncture or vegetarianism); and a few are barbarous relics with no place in a modern society. Multiculturalism should mean allowing the best in from all over the world, while rejecting the worst. Muslims themselves are attempting - in a shambolic sort of way - to harness the benefits of globalization (capital flows and technology) while screening out what they see as dangerous foreign influences (particularly lascivious Western fashions and lifestyles.) There's no reason Western countries shouldn't react the same way: we want your food, but you can leave the burqas and the honor killings back in the dark ages where they came from.

(I'll make an exception for this. Gotta be a google-bomb on 'burqa'.)

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Cheney on Iraq (13 years ago)

Saying that this 1994 clip of Dick Cheney makes him a complete hypocrite is easy. Maybe too easy. You might want to ask yourself, if he knew all this would happen ten years before going in anyways, why did he go in?

Ten years is a long time these days. Anyone who holds fast to all of their opinions and beliefs over such a period is either dead or insensate. Things change fast, and I'd like to think the guys nominally in charge aren't above changing with them.

Give it long enough, and the world makes hypocrites of us all.

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The Quantum Solution to the Fermi Paradox

Michael Anissimov at Accelerating Future has an interesting post on human longevity, in which he very correctly points out that if you really want immortality, existential risk is every bit as important as life extension technology.

One of the commenters mentioned the idea of Quantum Immortality, a thought experiment in which the many worlds interpretations offers continuity of consciousness even through events that should have a 100% chance of death (for instance, setting off a nuke right next to you: untold trillions of you die instantly, but in one parallel universe you survive.) Further down, another commenter mentions an idea I've toyed with myself, that this is exactly why we're all still here 60 years after the Manhattan Project.

Going further out, it could explain the Fermi paradox. Intelligent life might be so likely to extinguish itself when it develops that the probability of there being more than one species in any given universe is essentially nil. Every species survives, but in a branch of the multiverse that's so improbable that it never has contact with another species.

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The Sunlens

Greg Benford, physicist and science fiction writer, suggested a few years ago that global warming could be stopped by means of putting a giant fresnel lens in orbit at the L1 point between the Earth and the Sun. This would lower the amount of sunlight hitting the earth, thus cooling the entire planet a fractional but crucial amount; essentially, a parasol for the planet.

It's occurred to me that maybe a similar system could be used to increase the amount of sunlight hitting the earth, thus causing the entire planet to warm. But why, you ask, would you want to do such a thing?

Well, if a new ice age were to start, could be mighty handy....

Beyond that, a giant sunlens (albeit on an even vaster scale) could be useful for terraforming Mars

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Economics is the Shadow Cast on Society by Technology

Jay mentioned a Dewey quote from the Democracy and Education lecture which, coincidentally enough, had been echoing through my head all day: "Politics is the shadow cast on society by big business."

For a long time I've felt much the same way myself, though I phrased it to myself rather less poetically, as: economics determines politics. That's not the full formulation, though, because if economics determines politics, then technology determines economics.

It's not cut and dry, of course. There's mutual feedback at all levels: politics can affect economics (to a degree), and technology (to a much weaker degree.) Similarly, economics can feedback to technology. But The ultimate direction of influence is technology -> economics -> politics.

A large part of Chomsky's lecture deals with the political changes that occurred between the founding of the US, and it's eventual emergence as an industrial superpower, and he's pretty unflinching in his judgment that those political changes were mostly for the worse. He places the blame for this primarily at the feet of the big corporations that have sought to neuter democracy in favor of establishing a technocratic state whose elites operate in total isolation from the humors of the masses.

But when the US was founded, the industrial revolution had yet to begin. With the exception of printing presses, gunpowder, and transoceanic sailing vessels technology was not terribly more advanced than it had been at any time in the past 2000 years. Most of the American population - or at least those who were allowed to vote - consisted of farmers (who owned their own land), and tradesmen (who sold things they made with their own hands.)

Advances in technology rendered that world almost obsolete within a hundred years: a single person simply can't build or operate a factory, or even design the products it turns out. Larger, semi-permanent organizations, in which people of their own free will agree to participate - corporations, in other words - have to be created out of sheer economic necessity. The development of corporations was a pretty huge thing in terms of the ability to organize human action over a large scale, probably one of the greatest social innovations of the past few hundred years.

Of course, corporations came with some societal costs that mirror the benefits. They reaped enormous economic benefit by harnessing division of labor on scales undreamt of before, but by doing that replaced a society of independent tradesman (whose work was interesting and challenging) with a society of factory workers, whose work was repetitive and often dangerous. As a natural result, the workers demanded greater compensation, and the owners (also quite naturally) resisted, leading to one of the great political tensions of the 20th century. At the same time, corporations thrive best under conditions of stable regulatory oversight; they can adjust to almost any ruleset, so long as those rules don't change very much. It was only natural that they would seek to subvert democracy as far as they could.

Chomsky says all this happened because of the mendaciousness of rich men and powerful corporations (generally the same thing, at least for the past hundred years or so.) I'd say the ultimate source was in technology. Steam engines, electrical power, mass production, these were things without which corporations would have been basically impossible, save in a few isolated fields.

Smith's goal of “creative work freely undertaken in association with others" is partly met by corporations, at least if you omit the 'creative' part. I think maybe this century, we'll be able to do better.

Once again, it comes down to technology. The pieces aren't all in place yet, but then the industrial revolution wasn't invented all at the same time either. The internet allows spontaneous networks to form around information that is instantly and universally available, a capability that was most certainly not part of the last century's experience. The maturation of the next two big technologies - solar power and home fabrication - are all that is required to complete the setup for the next massive social revolution.

Economics change pretty radically when you add home fabrication to the internet. Suddenly it's not just about downloading music and porn and looking at pictures of cats; now you can download blueprints and make your own technology, anything from a hammer to a cell phone to a house, including another copy of the home fabricator, dependent only on how much time you have. Decent solar power means that you can go out anywhere you want with a fabricator, a few solar panels, some raw materials (when the technology is mature, this will mean: dirt and sand), and build your own house from scratch.

The cost of manufactured goods trends very steeply down in this scenario, at least from the point of view of corporations; there's no point in building a global supply chain to mass-produce your widgets if everyone can just make their own at a cost of energy and raw materials. Essentially, companies that make things are fucked, unless they can find a way to force people to pay for the CAD/CAM files they download. The current IP struggles are deeply important because of this; if manufacturing companies succeed where media companies are failing so spectacularly, it'll do untold harm to the global economy by raising the cost of goods far above their logical price. I expect this to become one of the defining political battles of the 21st century: the fight between people who want to get paid for their creative work, and the vastly larger number who want it all for free.

Basically, it's a fight between corporations and networks, and in the long run I expect the networks to win, replacing corporations as the dominant form of social organization. Getting paid for your work will cease to lose all meaning, after a while: with the plans for everything freely available, and the ability to make as much of it as you'd like, the main incentive for inventing something new (ie, adding to the archive of blueprints) will be social recognition. This would seem to me to be pretty close to creative work freely undertaken in association with others, and long before this century is done I think we'll be moving very rapidly in that direction.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Not sure what ‘Civil War’ you’re referring to, but I’m sure it’s not the American one. Can you specify this?

Also, you said: “Sure, you get longer periods of stable government, but at the expense of civil wars every thirty years or so.” Are you suggesting that democracy’s stability is disrupted by civil wars every thirty years or so (surely not), or that the termination of civil wars every thirty years or so is a negative consequence of it (also seems dubious)? I’m not sure what you meant by this statement. Please clarify.

On a different note, I was wondering if you could comment on Dewey’s much quoted phrase that: "politics is the shadow cast on society by big business"? And furthermore, if you would support Chomsky’s push toward reorienting democracies toward what Smith supported, which was, according to Chomsky: “creative work freely undertaken in association with others as the core value of a human life”? What do you think?

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Democracy and Education

Surprisingly, I found very little to disagree with in Chomsky's lecture. The man writes with power and insight, from a position of great knowledge. I have to admit, its made me question a lot of my assumptions. Something I'll have to chew on for a while.

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What Kings and Presidents Have in Common

Jay sends in this 1994 essay from Chomsky, Democracy and Education. This paragraph really popped out at me:

Independently of Jefferson and Bakunin, others were coming to the same understanding in the nineteenth century. One of the leading American intellectuals was Charles Francis Adams, who in 1880 described the rise of what is now called the "post-industrial society" by Daniel Bell and Robert Reich and John Kenneth Galbraith and others. This is 1880, remember. A society in which, Adams says, "the future is in the hands of our universities, our schools, our specialists, our scientific men and our writers and those who do the actual work of management in the ideological and economic institutions." Nowadays they're called the "technocratic elite" and the "action intellectuals" or the new class or some other similar term. Adams, back in 1880, concluded that "the first object of thinking citizens, therefore, should be not to keep one or another political party in power, but to insist on order and submission to law." Meaning that the elites should be permitted to function in what's called "technocratic isolation," by the World Bank -- I'm being a little anachronistic here, that's modern lingo -- or, as the London Economist puts the idea today, "policy should be insulated from politics." That's the case in free Poland, they assure their readers, so they don't have to be concerned about the fact that people are calling for something quite different in free elections. They can do what they like in the elections, but since policy is insulated from politics and technocratic insulation proceeds, it really doesn't matter. That's democracy.

I have to admit, that's pretty much what I see as the main social utility of modern democracies. As a rule, elections are all about blowing off steam, great spectacles in which power is symbolically shifted from one group of people to another, often fought bitterly over points of trivial importance. Bleak, yes, but it is better than living under one strongman after another. Sure, you get longer periods of stable government, but at the expense of civil wars every thirty years or so. Hereditary monarchs are superior to warlords for the same reason; the primary aim of any political system is the maintenance of civil order over as long a period of time as possible, regardless of how ridiculous the system used to maintain that stability may appear.

Roman emperors achieved stability for a few decades by means of buying the loyalty of the largest fraction of the Roman army; the problem with that was, armies can be defeated in battle, or their loyalty bought by someone with a heavier treasure-chest (at which point order breaks down and you get a civil war). Monarchs kept stability it for lifetimes by giving ultimate power to hereditary lines; of course, you can't always be sure the king will have boys, or even children (at which point order breaks down, and you get a civil war). Democratic States place ultimate power in the hands of a leader whose chosen by the people; instead of trying to keep the same guy in place for life, he's rotated regularly, but in an orderly fashion, with no blood being spilled. The only problem is ...... (
at which point order breaks down, and you get a civil war?).

Seriously, I'm not sure about what's necessary to bring out actual civil war conditions in a democracy. The failure states of warlord autocracies or monarchies are fairly obvious, and while democracy is obviously much more stable on the long term than either previous form of government, it too is imperfect, and bound to have a failure state.

I'm thinking an obvious candidate would be something like an election so closely contested that there was no clear winner. The sheer venom of the Bush years certainly points in favor of this. Still, no actual civil war broke out, and there are plenty of cases of close elections in which violence failed to materialize. Perhaps if too-close-to-call elections became a common occurrence, though - especially in a context of technocratic isolation, as Chomsky puts it - elections would cease to let off pressure, and social tensions might, after stewing for a decade or two, blow up into a civil war of dire proportions.

Then there's historical Civil War, which I'm not a historian of, and thus can't really say what touched it off. Anyone?

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The Great Happiness Space is a fascinating romp through the world of Tokyo's hostess bars.

The really weird thing? It's about male hosts, whose main clients are female hostesses.

Ah, Japan.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

American Foreign Policy subordinated to a third party???

Matt, (or sorry, am I not supposed to use your real name?), you said:

"Next time the US gets the itch to invade a country that will require a decade of occupation, the logical thing for it to do will be to go in without consulting a single other country. Just like in Iraq. Oh, wait, they spent a year trying to get UN approval for the invasion (or, more accurately, get that approval for the 17th time, as they already essentially had it from 16 previous resolutions passed by the general assembly over the preceding decade.)

I don't think it's too hard to see the US subordinating its foreign policy to a third party."

I was wondering why you don't think this is so hard? Especially in light of the occassions the US has overridden the UN's decisions. Can you link me to where I can see the historical record of the UN backing or denying support of American-initiated invasions? I'm sure this is a two-way street.

Or did you mean that the US could hand over it's foreign policy so it could pursue a neo-isolationist policy?

Just wanted you to expand on those ideas.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Demosphere and Space Colonization

Ever since the golden age of SF, a staple of the genre has been the colonization of space by humankind. Well before Yuri Gagarin became the first man to get flung around low earth orbit in a steel can, writers were dreaming of using rockets to visit the planets, and hyperdrives with which to build vast empires amidst the stars. It is a theme that has been returned to again and again. When men first set foot on the moon, it was to many a dream that tasted almost real; not yet a reality, but surely an inevitability. Humans would follow the ancient imperative of the species, and boldly colonize the farthest frontiers of the universe.

Has it all been a fantasy? Many are beginning to think so. Charlie Stross, one of the brighter lights of modern SF, wrote a lengthy essay, High Frontier Redux, which concludes:

Colonize the Gobi desert, colonise the North Atlantic in winter — then get back to me about the rest of the solar system!

Space, as Stross points out at great and detailed length, is a great deal more inhospitable than the most forbidding environments on Earth's surface. Even those places have oxygen, temperatures that are not fatally extreme (at least not immediately), and do not generally experience massive radiation fluxes. Added to this, of course, is the steep cost in time and energy of establishing colonies.

Of course, the resources of space in terms of energy and material are vast. The great expense of building colonies would be justified if those colonies could build and maintain solar power collectors, or mine out asteroids for their metals. Or rather, the expense would be justified, were it not that it would likely be much more cost-effective to do all that industrial work with robots. They require no shielding from the radiation, are quite comfortable in hard vacuum, and require no complicated life-support machinery. They don't get bored or tired, and best of all, there's very little danger of them getting any funny ideas about independence.

It's easy to foresee a future where human bodies never get much further than geosynchronous orbit. That's been the case ever since the Apollo program. All of the exploration has been done by automated probes; humans have done little more than whirl around in Earth orbit, doing experiments, repairs, and PR spots. Even the Apollo program was little more than a stunt; the manned Mars mission, if it actually happens, will amount to the same stunt on a vastly larger scale. For the foreseeable future, the only way in which most people will go to space will be as tourists (a tiny market for now, but this study at Space Future, Meeting the Needs of the New Millenium: Passenger Space Travel and World Economic Growth, predicts a vast increase in the size of that market.)

With robotics technology advanced enough to automate space industry - self-guiding, self-replicating, self-maintaining - the resources of the solar system could be harnessed without anyone ever having to leave the surface of the Earth. A population ten times larger than the current six and a half billion could be thousands of times wealthier, on a per capita basis. Humanity would sit at the center of a network of machinery that spanned the solar system, the resources of the solar system being sent back to them.

For anyone (like me) raised on a steady diet of martian colonies and galactic empires, there's a distinct lack of romance to this sterile, industrial cosmos. Yet it's very difficult to refute.

Charlie Stross isn't the serious intellect to examine space travel and find it wanting. Michael Anissimov, over at Accelerating Future, writes in Space Travel: Not For A Billion Years, that the Singularity will make space travel obsolete. With the computing power a post-human civilization will have at it's disposal, it'll be able to simulate so many more interesting, life-filled worlds than the universe could possibly provide, that exploring the universe becomes pointless (at least, if one is after novelty.) Not only that, but the internal clock-speed of a post-human civilization would make the moon, he says, 2/3 of a light year away.

My own recent speculations on the demosphere got me thinking about what effect a global polity would have on space migration. There's some reason for optimism. A global polity would likely spend a much smaller fraction of it's GDP (a figure likely to be significantly higher than current global GDP) on military hardware. If even a small part of the difference was to be diverted to space colonization, the high frontier could truly be opened.

Then again, a global polity would be just as capable of stifling any attempt of humans to move off the earth. In fact, I imagine it would have every incentive to do so. It's existence, after all, would guarantee peace and prosperity for a very long period of time, so long as it is able to stave off the pitfalls of civil war and outside invasion. The first cannot be ruled out entirely, but the second is impossible. Unless aliens invade ... or, say, those in control foolishly allow independent communities to establish themselves on other worlds. It might take centuries for those colonies to become large enough and independent enough to constitute a threat, but any global polity worthy of the name would have a perspective of millenia. Like Mandarin China banning the exploration of the oceans, the demosphere would prevent human migration into space for as far as the eye can see.

As if all this wasn't bad enough, there's always the Fermi Paradox. Lacking any reason to think that our planet is particularly special, there doesn't seem to be any reason life shouldn't be relatively common. Even one in a billion would mean the universe had trillions of living worlds. There's no reason to suppose our species was the first in the history of the universe or even the galaxy, and even with craft much slower than light there's been plenty of time for the galaxy to have been colonized. So why isn't it? Maybe they all just stayed home, for reasons similar to the ones above.

Space colonization might not be a dead idea, but it's been wounded pretty bad, and when you ask they doctor if the patient's gonna make it he gets that look on his face....

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I'm fat

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Another Response to a Response

Another response, forwarded by my friend from one of his:

well (standard disclaimer), i ain't no expert on international politics, but...

Relax, you seem to know plenty from what I can tell.

first, i'm not sure if that whole bit about the british empire still being in tact if the king had allowed parliamentary representation for colonies is serious.

Admittedly, that's pretty speculative. Then again alternate history always is.

it seems a huge stretch in any case. after all, britain just gave independence to all of those colonies (with the exception of the US).

Right, and that was the first exception, which set the precedent to follow (just with less bloodshed.) The idea of letting the colonies mature into independent nation-states - the whole white-man's burden thing of civilizing the natives - didn't really come along until after Britain conceded the War of Independence. Acceding to the colonists' request for representation would have set a completely different precedent.

in canada's case, it wasn't exactly a hard fought independence either. is it really plausible to think that Canadians, for example, would accept a central gov't from across the atlantic so long as they were able to send a few MPs to represent their interests?

As a Canadian, I can say: yes, that's pretty plausible. Canadians fought in a number of wars in which they had absolutely no direct interest (Boer, WWI, WWII) out of nothing more than a feeling of loyalty towards Great Britain. Accepting a distant central government was never much of an issue anywhere in the colonies; the British loosely administered a very large part of the planet for quite a long time, and there is no reason that loose administration could not have continued. With the precedent set by American representatives sitting in the House of Commons, there's every reason to believe the British - being relatively fair-minded - would have extended the same privileges to the Canadian and Australian colonies, and every reason (given those colonies' behaviour for decades following independence) would have accepted the deal.

anyway, i'm not sure if that was serious.

Presented, as I said, in speculation.

Anyhow, on to the meat of it:

he said "The US doesn't go in for direct control, but nevertheless it's been doing its best to draw up an international parliament for a hundred years now." I could be wrong, but I don't recall the US being the biggest backers of the League of Nations. I think they were reluctant to be a part of it and only agreed to membership on their own conditions (Wilson's 14 points).

I might have been wrong about that. I always thought Wilson was one of the LN's architects. It's certainly correct that the LN was a primarily European project, much more limited in scope than the UN.

Following ww1 the US became extremely insular. Clearly, their objective was not to govern the world or contribute to any such body. instead, they wanted europe to recover, but to deal with it's own problems. i thought the primary purpose of the League was to avoid having another devastating war in europe (which it obviously failed to do)...partly b/c of the terms of the War's peace.


This guy doesn't seem to think the EU is terribly effective (at whatever he thinks it ought to be achieving). but economic (and to some degree political) integration was the intention: the end was to avoid future wars in europe. If it's not in any country's interests--defined in whatever way you'd like to define interests-- to go to war, they won't. in this sense, the eu has been effective. this is admittedly a realist way of looking at international politics. i don't think this guy is taking a realist view, thus his idea to create the udse (which, in my opinion, is fancifully idealistic and completely ignores any reference to reality).

Er, no, I don't think the EU is ineffective. I'd say the EU is brilliant but flawed. It's the closest existing thing to the UDSE, the sole difference being that the decision-making power is mostly unelected. That guy seems to think that political integration without democracy is somehow a good thing; this guy thinks that not having an elected congress stunts the EUs potential.

why doesn't the un work? b/c it's not a government, it's just a forum for countries to meet. the international political scene is anarchic (i.e. there is no governing authority). he seems to suggest that this is because one doesn't YET exist. I would argue that this is b/c it's not in the interests of the power holders for it to exist (ie, the US). Why would the US ever subordinate its ability to make foreign policy to a third party?

Good point. Next time the US gets the itch to invade a country that will require a decade of occupation, the logical thing for it to do will be to go in without consulting a single other country. Just like in Iraq. Oh, wait, they spent a year trying to get UN approval for the invasion (or, more accurately, get that approval for the 17th time, as they already essentially had it from 16 previous resolutions passed by the general assembly over the preceding decade.)

I don't think it's too hard to see the US subordinating its foreign policy to a third party.

foreign policy is about national interests. the iraq war was a great example. the us decided that it was in its national interests to invade iraq. it went to the UN where france, russia, and china told it that it was not in their interests to invade iraq.

Russia and China are advanced thug-states that would not have been voting members in a UDSE. Remember, to get in you need two things: democracy and decent human rights. Narrow it to those sort of countries, and you've got a very different dynamic.

so, the US invaded iraq. i don't understand why the US would submit to any scheme which would undermine its ability to make these foreign policy decisions. Let's say that the US was actually under threat from Iraq, but France and Russia decided they didn't care because they had huge oil interests in the country. Would it then be decided that the invasion would not take place? Would the UN just decide policy based on a majority vote? Or would the UN simply be composed of philosopher kings, not political ambassadors from each country? I suppose that'd be nice.

And it'd be great if Optimus Prime took on Godzilla (seriously, it'd be cool), but that's off topic. Just like talking about the implausibility of the US submitting itself to the UN in anything but a symbolic way, in an attempt to dismiss the plausibility of the US submitting itself to a UDSE.

This guy (apparently a Master's of Political Science) exhibits the symptoms of expert's pessimism: deep knowledge of a subject leading to a great deal of skepticism that meaningful change can take place. It's the same kind of thing that leads to people saying things like 'The human genome project will take a thousand years', 'I could see a day where the world has five computers', or 'No heavier-than-air craft will ever be able to cross the Atlantic ocean.' OK, so those are all engineering analogies. People said the same kind of thing about the American political project, back when it was first getting started and for a long time afterwards. 'People governing themselves? Preposterous. It'll never work.'

A demosphere? I figure that's about equally preposterous.

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The Demosphere

A friend of mine who hasn't bothered to start a blog yet sent me this email in response to my latest post (and to a lengthy google chat):

Notice that the US is hardly consistent in overthrowing governments that aren't supported by the majority of people and replacing them with one that is. In fact, they often do exactly the opposite. I think you should amend your theories that the US is crusading for freedom and democracy in order to account for all these counter-examples. If you said somethine to the effect that the US was mainly looking out for it's own interests (i.e. usually its economic investments in one way or another), and then, only as a very ancillary reason, for the well being of the local people, then that would be much more realistic, but then again, it wouldn't sound nearly as honourable.

By the way, it doesn't surprise me that all these examples exist (I'm sure there are loads more that aren't mentioned), but I don't have time to become an expert on international politics. I think if you want to develop your current theories, you should at least bring up some of these counter-examples and try to knock them down rather than trying to forget about them (for the record I find it kind of disturbing that you are so willing to support the idea that we should forget about relevant history, as in your affirmation of my sarcastic suggestion regarding the history of Iran and Iraq). It will make you sound more fair, not to mention credible. I'll leave it to you to debunk all these crusades for freedom and democracy in disguise.

Finally, for what the anecdotal evidence is worth (sometimes it is worth a lot), I can attest that many Guatemalans explained to me in much greater detail than is given in the article, the history of their armed conflict and the US's involvement. In fact, I sat in on a seminar delineating the entire history at the language school I went to in Quetzaltenango (second biggest city in Guatemala - Mayan name: Xela). Though I certainly don't remember all the details, I can say that the US's overarching interest in United Fruit was indeed the name of their game, even when the government they overturned was elected by the people.

Here's my response:

All of which is very true. I wouldn't try to debate or deny any of it.

I also think it would be pretty hard to debate that a strategy like that pursued in South America, or to an arguably greater degree in the Mid-East over the past half century or so, is likely to prevail in the long run. If the true goal is a global democratic superstate (and as you know that's exactly what I think it is), undermining democracy is counterproductive. The hypocrisy leads to resentment against the US government, both in the target country for direct effects and in the home population (even despite the economic benefits they reap) due to cognitive dissonance.

Looking ahead maybe fifty years I see a world with two institutions that have never existed before: first, a legislative body elected by and responsible to the entire human species, and second, a free trade zone encompassing the entire planet. The second will arise pretty naturally from todays smaller free trade zones (Europe, Asia, and increasingly most of the Americas) merging with each other, a development that would be complementary to the creation of a UDSE. I hereby dub this entity, a global democratic free trade sphere, the demosphere.

I'm not too rigid on this: I could accept everything but a few islands or even a single sizable independent polity from remaining outside the prevailing framework. The free trade zone and the meta-democracy zone don't even have to be contiguous: I could see one polity joining the UDSE without participating in the trade pact, and another doing precisely the opposite. Nevertheless, I'd expect most of the world to belong to both.

The proliferation of free trade deals and the establishment of an international parliament open only to democratic states will conspire to change incentives drastically. Where in the twentieth century it was often more profitable to prop up any dictator who would ensure the smooth operation of US companies, it will instead become crucial to support democracy wherever it takes root, and to extend free trade wherever the opportunity presents. Far more money can be made by maximizing human capital and trading with it, than can be found by using them simply to scour their land for resources.

Indeed, it's very possible that exporting democracy directly could be made profitable. Iraq itself is providing a model of this: the amount of corporate activity in the country, from security to construction, is simply massive. Enormous economic activity is being generated by Iraq's reconstruction; at the moment, it all amounts to speculation, but if Iraq is successful in becoming a stable, democratic state the payoff in terms of mutual trade will far outstrip the investment in time and money. If the system has a moral hazard, this is it. With war profitable again, the democratic core of the UDSE might be tempted to overdue military integration. As the number of involved states and corporations increase, along with their available wealth and capacity for investment, there could well be a brief spike in the number of integrative wars, a bizarre postmodern World War III in which rich states are fighting in order to make the poor rich.

Such an event is best avoided, in my opinion; besides being largely unnecessary (there being a general movement towards free trade and national-scale democracy anyways), it risks creating a unified opposition that could make the formation of a demosphere more time-consuming and costly. At the same time, such a resistance would in itself make such a large-scale military intervention necessary (many believe the current Islamic threat is already such a resistance.) Human nature being what it is, military intervention will be necessary on occasion, but prudence suggests using it only when every other option has failed.

The 20th century was a transitory stage, bridging the mercantile European empires of the 19th century with the demosphere of the 21st. The US came of age in a world shaped by the first, and had to play by its rules while it was still just one of many. Now that it bestrides that world as a colossus, it has the opportunity to remake the world in a shape more to its liking. Given its national character (the best of it, not the worst) and its long-term best interests, along with the overall momentum of history from smaller polities to larger ones, that shape is almost certain to be a demosphere.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Next UN and the Last Empire

The American political project has it's roots in an attempt to send elected representatives to the House of Commons in London; for years before the Revolutionary War broke out, delegates were crossing the Atlantic to converse with everyone from the King on down, trying to get them to accept MPs from drawn from the 13 colonies. It's interesting to speculate about what might have happened, had King George agreed to the colonists demands. Perhaps the British Empire might still be around, uniting the world, the Parliament in London housing thousands of MPs from America, Canada, Australia maybe even India. Such an Imperial Parliament might eventually have absorbed the entire planet, functioning as a kind of UN with an army.

Of course, in our history King George refused, the colonists revolted, the Red Coats were set loose on them and eventually, two hundred years later, the power that dominates the world still speaks English. We have a UN, but it doesn't have an army; there's a massive army, but it's not under control of the UN. This reduces the use of both: one lacks power, the other credibility.

I can't help but wonder if that other world wouldn't have been more peaceful than ours. The combination of democratic politics and overwhelming force is a difficult one to resist; had the British Empire not suffered that schism, and succeeded in making London a new Rome, most of the Great Power wars over the past two centuries might have been avoided, either squelched by the imperial military or defused by politics.

Indeed this would seem to be a natural endpoint of human politics. Violence as a rule is most intense at the frontiers of a polity; outside it's a war, but inside it's a crime. Individual polities come and go, but the territorial reach of those polities has extended fairly steadily throughout history. The British Empire is the largest in history, and also the most recent. Following it's dissipation some sixty years ago (along with every other extant empire, whether European or Asian) two new empires - the Soviet and the American - immediately began expanding into the void.

A lot of people dispute the extension of the term 'Empire' to America, as America doesn't exercise direct political control over it's satellite states. Indeed, it regularly allows those states to oppose it. But then, attempting such control would be contrary to the whole American political system, which is predicated on individual freedom. What America does do is periodically invade countries and 'impose' democracy on them, making their political system similar enough to America's that they are converted from threat to ally, or at least neutral trading partner. It's been doing this steadily for a hundred years now, ever since it finished colonizing the Western half of the continent (the country's first imperial project) and began to turn its eyes increasingly abroad. America and Islam are remarkably alike in this one specific way, that both consist mainly of an idea that wants to take over the world.

The US doesn't go in for direct control, but nevertheless it's been doing its best to draw up an international parliament for a hundred years now. The League of Nations was the first, deeply flawed version. The UN was the second, and it's been passably more successful, but manifestly fails regularly at it's stated aim, the preservation of peace of stability. I have a feeling version three is on it's way within the next five or so years; it'll be one of the legacy projects of the next president, whoever it turns out to be. Identity is irrelevant when historical inevitability is in play, and the eventual unification of the planet under one political hegemony is one of those things that almost any conceivable history is likely to lead to. With no challengers, such an entity would likely survive for a very long time. Under it's auspices, war would become a distant memory, surviving mainly as policing actions: overwhelming, relentless, accurate, authorized by multiple layers of authority, based primarily on intelligence and evidence, and careful of minimizing inconvenience to the innocent (not unsurprisingly, behaviour the US military already strives to hone, though it has a ways to go.)

The UN's main problem is that the participating states all use wildly different political systems, most of them some form of authoritarianism (which is better than the prevailing totalitarianism decades ago, when the Soviet Union was a much bigger political influence, but still....) The reason the US works well is that it's political system is fractal, a democratically accountable continuum all the way from the PTA board up to the Office of the President. The EU suffers from a similar problem: as an appointed body attempting to sit atop democratic countries, it's effectiveness is severely diminished.

The main difference between the UN and whatever comes next will be that it has a bouncer outside, and he's asking for ID to make sure you're old enough (you better be a functioning democracy), and probably enforcing a dress code too (no egregious human rights violations.) I'm going to call this hypothetical entity the United Democratic States of Earth, or UDSE. That one thing - the enforcement of minimum standards - will be enough to make it a far stronger entity, for several excellent reasons. First, the nations that compose it would be drawn from the most developed, most powerful of the Earth's nations. Second, real democratic accountability would persuade the populations of those nations - especially the US population - to turn over a great deal of military responsibility to the UDSE, thus giving it the muscle to enforce it's beliefs. That combination of military power and democracy would make the UDSE essentially the same thing as the hypothetical Imperial Parliament.

Get the UDSE in place, apply Barnett's peace-waging strategies for a century, and at the end of it all the world could have reached Fukuyama's end of history: the total disappearance of interstate war, with liberal democracy, capitalism, and human rights prevailing more or less everywhere, under the auspices of a benevolent regime whose existence might prevail for thousands of years.

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Thursday, August 2, 2007

The iFly: You Will Be Assimilated

Imagine a future where the air is thick with robotic insects, gathering not food, but information. They're everywhere, following patterns of human interest: sparse where there's nothing to be seen, but swarming like locusts where there is.

I'm going to call them iFlies, for no other reason than I think it sounds catchy (though I refuse to copyright or trademark the term, because I think it would be very cool if Apple picked it up....) They're working on the prototypes now. Not too long before they're out of the labs and into the hands of the military, the police, emergency services ... put a camera and a mic on them, and you've got a swarm of little flying cameras, great for gathering intelligence for assault, arrest, or search-and-rescue. Journalists would love the things, too, for obvious reasons.

It won't be long between being issued to the military and being available to private citizens, probably a handful of years, and when they come out I predict massive popularity. Who wouldn't want a little flying camera (at this point in its history becoming the iFly, perhaps rolled out as a peripheral for your third generation iPhone, which, face it, you're going to have in a couple of years anyway) that could dart up much closer to something than you can get yourself, either practically or safely? Combine it with wearable displays, and it would be like having a roving eye. Great for spectating at sports events, live music, or for any of a hundred other uses where it might be nice to get a direct look at something 200 meters away.

Of course, these things would require pretty ubiquitous wireless in order to really shine. Instead of just buying one of these little iFlies, you could rent time on them from a company owning iFlies all over the world. You'd have your own, of course, that you carry with you (for those times when you want to see something close by), but you could also access units anywhere else. I'd imagine this would be the killer ap. You could be present at breaking news as soon as it breaks, typing the location into your phone and grabbing an available iFly (or piggybacking on someone else's, if all the local units are already taken.) Newsgathering would be changed almost beyond recognition; journalism would cease to be a profession so much as just something people do.

The iFly would lend itself to social viewing quite readily. Just as people now share music, they would be able to share video feeds, not just sequentially but simultaneously. This would be pointless right now: watching multiple screens at once is too taxing. But with a multitude of viewpoints all focused on essentially the same thing, it could work. The interface is simple to envision: in the center of your screen, you see the view from the iFly you're operating; surrounding it like a halo are shrunken views from others, the nearer the larger, fading off into a haze as they get farther away. A really seemless interface would simply track the direction of a persons attention, so that one could seemlessly slide one's viewpoint from one iFly to another. In effect, it would be as though humans have taken not just one idea from the insect kingdom (the mechanics of flight at their size scale), but through it another: viewing the world through compound eyes. Although this update of the compound eye is distributed across a vast area, in effect the entire surface of the earth; characteristically, technology has imitated nature, and improved on it.

Whoever gets the iFly out there, not necessarily first or best, but right, will change the world (and make an absolute killing, to boot.)

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Renew the Infrastructure? Alter the Monetary System

The Minneapolis bridge-collapse is surely a tragedy, one that will be forgotten within the week. But as this Popular Mechanics article Brittle America points out, it draws attention to a looming issue that is currently much ignored: the decay of infrastructure in the West. Not just bridges, but highways, roads, plumbing, the electrical grid ... much of it was built many decades ago, and beyond it's intended lifespan. At best, it's obsolete; at worst, crumbling.

I couldn't help but think of a video a friend sent me some weeks ago, Money as Debt by Paul Grignon. Much of the movie consists of a historical and logical vivisection of the financial world, but about an hour in he spends a few minutes describing an alternate sort of money supply, one created not as debt but as value. It would be backed up by the creation of infrastructure, being the best sort of collectively shared wealth. Instead of trading paper tokens representing promises to pay back to central banks, people would trade paper tokens standing in for shares in transportation systems, communication networks, and power grids.

One of the benefits of such a system (separate from those mentioned in the movie)? It would very much favor the creation of new infrastructure, and the renewal and maintenance of that already existing. Value-based currency would depreciate in value as the infrastructure backing it up aged (I can't really say why this is so, to be honest; it's just my intuitive economics speaking.) To maintain the economy, the infrastructure would require maintaining; to grow it, it would have to be extended or replaced. Definitely something to think about as technological change and environmental constraints continually raise the opportunity cost of using the antique crap we all inherited from our grandparents.

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