Alex Bosworth's Weblog

developing software, living the expat life in beijing, other fun stuff!

previous projects: alchemy, swik, open source stuff, now adylitica.

Fear and Civilization

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." - FDR summed it up nicely. 

Society has a flaw: paranoia. At the core of human psychology is a processing error, a bug: our ability to logically assess risk is out of whack. 

We are living in a golden age: from the Renaissance to modern times, the embrace of reason has carried us on a rapid wave of advances that have extended our lifespans beyond our twenties, has put a universe of information in our pockets, has enabled instant communication between anyone, anywhere in the world.

In computers, there has been a golden age: microchips. Every generation, like clockwork - smaller and smaller, faster and faster, cheaper and cheaper. But this golden age has been slowly winding down, because it is hitting fundamental limitations: the speed of light, available power, quantum uncertainties at microscopic scales all mean that the focus is now on low power chips and multiple cores, the well of infinite computing plenty has started to run dry.

The golden age of civilization is powered by human reason and civilizations across the world that support reason. At a level above capitalism vs communism, democracy vs dictatorship, there is realism. But in modern societies, progress has started to hit a limit to growth: our world has grown so complex, it is hard for regular people to understand what is going on, uncertainty is fear, so regular people are becoming afraid of dangers real and imagined. 

The problem is that psychologically speaking, people are likely to put equal weight on clear and present dangers that they would on imagined dangers or unlikely dangers. Very many people are killed by hamburgers, the flu and car crashes. Very few people are killed by sharks, airplanes and terrorists. Movies and politicians and newspapers and schools play into these fears, because that is what people want to hear about, because of a psychological failure of reason around the unknown. 

If reason is the driving force behind the advance of civilization, then a limit to reason is also a limit to that advance. 

This limit is slowly becoming more apparent as we work to advance within the framework of our societies’ ability to promote reason:

  1. SOPA - stop online piracy: there are pirates out there, they threaten established business models. What will happen when these business models change? Regular people and congresspeople don’t understand these issues: an irrational response that seems reasonable is to shut down progress to protect the past.
  2. "Shut down your electronic devices" - This is ludicrous even with back of the envelope math. Assuming a tiny fraction of people ignore this, we have a testbed of millions and millions of flights a year that take off and land without issue with an electronic device online. The FAA just approved the iPad for use during take off and landing - but only in the cockpit of the aircraft!
  3. "Take off your shoes" - the irony and cynicism of airport security could take ages to lay out. The most horrible example is that the 911 hijackers had no special devices and were actually stopped by airport security, who saw their box cutter and let them through anyway. Free and easy travel to anywhere in the world is progress that is being stopped by fear of an uncertain world.
  4. HIPAA - For the thousands of great web apps and smartphone apps and desktop apps that have come out, why is there still no great medical apps? The answer is: fear stopping innovation in this area. I can startup a new online business like Mint and take your bank account passwords directly from you and have the power to take your money, but if I want to store the fact that you have congenitally high blood pressure, I need to follow expensive protocols and pay for an independent auditor to make sure I am following some arbitrary and largely useless security rules.
  5. The stop and rollback of new drugs. More and more money has been rolling into the medical field, we are living longer than ever before, and spending huge amounts of money on healthcare. But where is this money going? Developing new drugs is extremely risky because it involves vast, vast sums of money to test them. People are afraid of drugs, so even a drug that saves many people but kills some can be banished from the marketplace, and worse the maker can be sued for all the profits made saving the majority of people for the minority that died, even if they warned of the risk and doctors studied and still recommended the drug.
  6. Banking - Even after many many years of telecommunication and the internet, we are still paying huge percentages of every online and credit card transaction to middle-men who essentially skim off the top of every transaction, don’t let small transactions go through at all, and charge usurious rates to the public for small loans. Attempts to innovate like facecash and bitcoin, etc face huge obstacles or get shut out before even getting started for not working within the established system, a new system of free and instant transactions at any level is a scary concept that society is quick to reject.
  7. Driverless cars - Google has been proving the concept that computers can drive cars better than people can. In addition to sensing and preventing accidents thousands of times faster than even the most alert person could, computer driven car systems could make highway systems many times more efficient than the current ‘waves of traffic' problem caused by irrational human drivers. Efforts are in place or underway to ban driverless cars from the road - both by scared people and by car companies who like their established business models.
  8. COPPA: children and the internet - The internet: what was supposed to be the best resource for children to learn, is shackled by outsized fear of its dangers. Google and many others simply block children from using their services, because it’s not cost or time effective to comply with societies’ demands that they perform arbitrary and useless measures to ‘protect’ children.

Taking a look at societies’ deficiencies is the job of entrepreneurs and even governments and large businesses: every deficiency represents an opportunity to improve and advance society. But many paths are now or have long been blocked by societal fears, and as society gets more advanced, fears and blocks multiply, and advances in many ‘scary’ areas slows and slows.

The good news is that if people in the US take leadership in fighting irrational fear, they will be rewarded for it, and the rest of the world can be rewarded too. Seeing a scary solution actually work out OK in practice is a great way to fight fear of the unknown and tear down barriers to progress. But some people and some societies always have to be the first to brave their way forward to break the static status quo and help the others get over their fears of the unknown.

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