A Talk By Mark Pesche

David Brin

DAVID BRIN [8.07.08]

Thanks for sharing Mark Pesce's entertaining and erudite missive on hyperpolitics. Alas, though, I must take on a number of his points. Certainly his conclusion.

First, Pesce, defines Hypermimesis:

Whenever any one of us displays a new behavior in a hyperconnected context, that behavior is ... transparent, visible and observed. If ... successful, it is copied...hyperconnectivity produces hypermimesis, ... where each behavioral innovation is distributed globally and instantaneously.

Pesce extrapolates this to a plague of omni-imitation—humanity's billions enslaving themselves to uniform fads, in a simplistic cascade of monkey-see, monkey-do in which cultural and individual distinctions vanish under corroding waves of impulsive mimicry. Much as Pohl and Kornbluth portrayed civilization homogenizing into a bland paste of dullard sameness, in The Marching Morons, Pesce forecasts a commonwealth where expertise is lost and democracy becomes a tyranny of lobotomized consensus. Of course, Pesce's thesis fits into the pattern of cyber-grouchery, also seen in Nicholas Carr's recent essay in The Atlantic, "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?"

He goes on to front-load an axiom we're expected to take for granted—that liberal civilization is fundamentally based on privacy, secrecy and ownership. Yet, none of these three are given core status in any of the foundation documents of the liberal Enlightenment, especially the U.S. Constitution. Secrecy, when mentioned, is disdained. The word "privacy" is absent, though implied in very general restrictions upon the state's power of search and seizure. Property is defended, but only in loose terms having to do with due process. These are, in fact, contingent rights, desirable but fluid, subject to whatever laws, definitions and processes each generation chooses.

Let me re-state this point, because it's obscure, but important. In the U.S. Constitution, property and privacy are protected primarily by requiring that laws be evenly applied through open due process. As the Jeffersonians insisted, citizens are free to negotiate and even redefine these terms, contingent to the needs of each generation. (Ask women, who were "chattel," if they approve this process of continuing re-definition.)

Other rights are not "contingent" but instead treated as timeless and essential, with definitions that are rigid, clear and emphatic, in order to span all generations. Topmost among these: the right to know and to speak, to argue and compete—in other words, the basic toolset by which each generation may strike anew its own consensus about law and custom... and then re-argue that consensus, a little later. Here is where constitutional protection is explicit and fierce! Because any dilution of the freedom to know and speak can render pragmatic liberty useless.

Pesce goes from one strange assumption to the next: "In Liberalism, knowledge is a scarce resource, managed by elites: the more scarce knowledge is, the more highly valued that knowledge, and the elites which conserve it." He then takes the neo-modern trait that Kevin Kelly and others are so proud of, the proliferation of "the free" and calls this trend a calamity, because a tide of general altruism will now trump the 'virtue of selfishness.'"

So, let's see if I'm following this right. Liberal/Enlightenment society is based not only upon secrecy and ownership, but also upon scarce knowledge, elite control and selfishness. But... weren't these traits of all human cultures? Certainly feudalism had plenty of all five. Indeed, if the Enlightenment emphasized anything, even at the beginning, it was opening the floodgates of knowledge and harnessing selfishness under straps and collars of binding rules. May I insert a passage written by James Madison, during the debates over the Constitution?

"There are two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other,by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. ...Of the first remedy, it is worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire... But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency. The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed."

Out of Pesce's list of liberal "fundamentals," I'll concede that selfishness serves an important, though crude, role in the Enlightenment, analogous to the heat driving its engines. But those engines—markets, democracy, courts and science—use widespread education and knowledge to convert that self-serving heat into direction and production and problem-solving and positive-sum games. Markets and science and democracy have always benefited from increasingly open information flows in the past and education levels are still rising. Heck, so are IQ scores. And this is bad?

Mark Pesce will need more than a just-so story about imitative human-monkeys, to convince me that knowledge will soon reverse its effects and become a toxin. Indeed, he goes on to somehow foresee increased knowledge leading to a decline in selfishness, which then leads, in turn, to anarchic civil war, a logical chain that seems perplexing.

I'll concede that his apocalyptic vision does climax in a vivid and eloquent anthem for the rising Renunciation Movement. "Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a rapid descent into the bellum omnia contra omnes, Thomas Hobbes' "war of all against all."...Hyperconnectivity begets hypermimesis begets hyperempowerment. After the arms race comes the war."

Wow. Look, I share some of Mark Pesce's cybergrouch skepticism toward techno-transcendentalists like Ray Kurzweil and Clay Shirky, who foresee a rosy, Aquarian age just ahead, one of accelerating openness and proliferating connectedness, unleashing human potential in something radiant and self-propelled, self-directed and exponentially cornucopian. Oy! Teilhard's bodhisattva has returned! And part of me wants to believe. After all, the Teilhardists helped bring us to this party. If I must simplistically choose between Teilhardists and Renunciators, I'll pick the optimists.

But even Mr. Singularity, Vernor Vinge, will tell you that it ain't gonna be easy. If these good things are going to happen, it won't be smooth, organic or automatic. Emergent properties help those who help themselves!

Above all, we'll need to improve the tools of enlightenment at an ever-accelerating pace, so that smart mobs become super-smart, and not mobs! At present, looking at today's lobotomizing social nets, avatar worlds and so-called "collaborationware," I have to give ten points to the grouches.

Nevertheless, returning to Pesce, I see no reason to expect that hyper-interconnectedness will result in "Hypermimesis." For sure, some millions, perhaps billions, will become couch —or net—potatoes. Unimaginative, fad-following and imitative. So? Those people will matter as little tomorrow as they do today. Meanwhile, a large minority will continue to feel repelled by homogeneity and sameness! They'll seek the different and surprising. Centrifugally driven by a need to be exceptional, even in a small way, they'll nurture hobbies that turn into avocations that transform into niches of profound expertise in an Age of Amateurs.

Already we are in an era when no worthwhile skill is ever lost, if it can draw the eye of some small band of amateurs. Today there are more expert flint-knappers than in the Paleolithic. More swordmakers than the Middle Ages. Vastly more surface area of hobbyist telescopes than instruments owned by all governments and universities, put together. Networks of neighbors have started setting up chemical sensors that will weave into hyper environmental-webs. Can you really look at this and see the same species of thoughtless, imitative monkeys that Mark Pesce sees?

Well, we are varied. We contain multitudes, including grouches, mystics and pragmatists. And that's the point.


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

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