now, into the breach comes John Brockman, the literary agent
and gadfly, whose online scientific salon, Edge.org, has become
one of the most interesting stopping places on the Web. He begins
every year by posing a question to his distinguished roster
of authors and invited guests. Last year he asked what sort
of counsel each would offer George W. Bush as the nation's top
science adviser. This time the question is "What's your law?"
Brockman, a New York literary agent, writer and impresario of
the online salon Edge, figures it is time for more scientists
to get in on the whole naming thing...As a New Year's exercise,
he asked scores of leading thinkers in the natural and social
sciences for "some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature,
some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed
in the universe that might as well be named after you."
Brockman has posted an intriguing question on his Edge website.
Brockman advises his would-be legislators to stick to the scientific
answers to the rule of law. Nature. Science. Society. All of
it obeys a set of codes...It's the thinker's challenge to put
words to these unwritten rules. Do so, and he or she may go
down in history. Like a Newton or, more recently, a Gordon Moore,
who in 1965 coined the most cited theory of the technological
age, an observation on how computers grow exponentially cheaper
and more powerful... Recently, John Brockman went looking for
thinkers of the 'Third Culture,' whether they, like Dawkins, study
evolutionary biology at Oxford or, like Alan Alda, portray scientists
on Broadway, know no taboos. Everything is permitted, and nothing
is excluded from this intellectual game."
responses are generally written in an engaging, casual style
(perhaps encouraged by the medium of e-mail), and are often
fascinating and thought - provoking.... These are all wonderful,
are interested in thinking smart,'" declares Brockman
on the site, "we are not interested in the anesthesiology
ARENA: Edge has been bringing together the world's foremost
scientific thinkers since 1998, and the response to September
11 was measured and uplifting."
Questions Have Disappeared?"
to this year's question are deliciously creative... the variety
astonishes. Edge continues to launch intellectual skyrockets
of stunning brilliance. Nobody in the world is doing what Edge
a year, John Brockman of New York, a writer and literary agent
who represents many scientists, poses a question in his online
journal, The Edge, and invites the thousand or so people on
his mailing list to answer it."
Is Today's Most Important Unreported Story?"
assume for a second that Ted Koppel, Charlie Rose and the editorial
high command at the New York Times have a handle on all
the pressing issues of the day.... a lengthy list of profound,
esoteric and outright entertaining responses.
Questions Are You Asking Yourself?"
site that has raised electronic discourse on the Web to a whole
new level.... Genuine learning seems to be going on here."
"To mark the first anniversary of [Edge], Brockman
posed a question: 'Simply reading the six million volumes in the
Widener Library does not necessarily lead to a complex and subtle
mind," he wrote, referring to the Harvard library. "How to avoid
the anesthesiology of wisdom?' "
to often lively, sometimes obscure and almost always ambitious
following are Lanier's Laws for Putting Machines
in their Place, distilled from comments I've posted
on Edge over the years. They are all stolen
from earlier laws that predate the appearance of
computers by decades or centuries.
Lanier's First Law
Humans change themselves through technology.
Example: Lanier's Law of Eternal Improvement for
Virtual Reality: Average human sensory perception
will gain acuity over successive generations in
tandem with the improving qualities of pervasive
Lanier's Second Law
Even though human nature is dynamic, you must
find a way to think of it as being distinct from
the rest of nature.
You can't have a categorical imperative without
categories. Or, You can't have a golden rule without
gold. You have to draw a Circle of Empathy around
yourself and others in order to be moral. If you
include too much in the circle, you become incompetent,
while if you include too little you become cruel.
This is the "Normal form" of the eternal
Lanier's Third Law
You can't rely completely on the level of rationality
humans are able to achieve to decide what to put
inside the circle. People are demonstrably insane
when it comes to attributing nonhuman sentience,
as can be seen at any dog show.
Lanier's Fourth Law
Lanier's Law of AI Unrecognizability.
You can't rely on experiment alone to decide what
to put in the circle. A Turing Test-like experiment
can't be designed to distinguish whether a computer
has gotten smarter or a person interacting with
that computer has gotten stupider (usually by lowering
or narrowing standards of human excellence in some
Lanier's Fifth Law
If you're inclined to put machines inside your circle,
you can't rely on metrics of technological sophistication
to decide which machines to choose. These metrics
have no objectivity.
For just one example, consider Lanier's retelling
of Parkinson's Law for the Post-dot-com Era: Software
inefficiency and inelegance will always expand to
the level made tolerable by Moore's Law. Put another
way, Lanier's corollary to Brand's Laws: Whether
Small Information wants to be free or expensive,
Big Information wants to be meaningless.
Lanier's Sixth Law
When one must make a choice despite almost but not
quite total uncertainty, work hard to make your
Best guess for Circle of Empathy: Danger of increasing
human stupidity is probably greater than potential
reality of machine sentience. Therefore choose not
to place machines in Circle of Empathy.
A scientific revolution is a complete surprise.
Especially to its authors.
Seife's Second Law
Each generation's scientific neologisms adorn the
labels of the next generation's quack cures.
are no clear-cut level distinctions in nature. Neural
software bleeds into neural firmware, neural firmware
bleeds into neural hardware, psychology bleeds into
biology and biology bleeds into physics. Body bleeds
into mind and mind bleeds into world. Philosophy
bleeds into science and science bleeds back.The
idea of levels is a useful fiction, great for hygienic
text-book writing and quick answers that defend
our local turf but seldom advance scientific understanding).
following is written by a non-scientist who supposes
it might be entertaining for scientists to see what
passes through the head of a curious layman while
trying to understand the people who try to understand
First Law of Laws
All laws are local.
In other words, something is always bound to come
along and make you rethink what you know by forcing
you to look at it in a broader context. I've arrived
at this notion after interviewing hundreds of scientists,
and also after being married for 46 years.
I don't mean that laws are not true and useful,
especially when they have been verified by experiment.
But they are likely to continue to be true only
within a certain frame, once another frame is discovered.
Some scientists will probably find this idea heretical
and others may find it obvious. According to this
law, they'll both be right (depending on the frame
they're working in).
Another way of saying this is that no matter how
much we know about something, it is just the tip
of the iceberg. And most disasters occur by coming
in contact with the other part of the iceberg.
Alda's Second Law
A law does not know how local it is.
Citizens of Lawville do not realize there are city
limits and are constantly surprised to find out
they live in a county.
When you're operating within the frame of a law,
you can't know where the edges of the frame are—where
dragons begin showing up.
I've just been interviewing astronomers about dark
matter and dark energy in the universe. These two
things make up something like 96% of the universe.
The part of the universe we can see or in some way
observe is only about 4%. That leaves a lot of universe
that needs to be rethought. And some people speculate
that dark energy may be leaking in from a whole
other universe; an even bigger change of frame,
if that turns out to be the case.
It’s now known that vast stretches of DNA
once thought to be Junk DNA because they don’t
code for proteins actually regulate or even silence
conventional genes. The conventional genes—what
we used to think were responsible for everything
we knew about heritability—account for only
2% of our DNA. Apparently, it’s not yet known
how much of the other 98% is active, but I think
the frame has just shifted here.
to Lawville; you are now leaving Lawville.
Anderson's Law of Causal Instinct
Humans are engineered to
seek for laws, whether or not they're actually there.
Anderson's Law of Skepticism
Most proposed laws, including
this one, will probably turn out to be vacuous.
No language spoken by
fewer than 100,000 people survives contact with
the outside world, while no language spoken by more
than one million people can be eliminated by such
Pimm's Second Law
With every change in language
(including first contact with humanity), a region's
biodiversity shrinks by 20%.
Motor Precocity Principle
Organisms spond before they respond (act before
This principle of neurobehavioral development and
evolution describes the tendency of the nervous
system to produce motor output before it receives
sensory input. Because motor systems often evolve
and develop before sensory systems, sensory input
cannot have the dominant influence on neural structure
and function predicted by some psychological and
evolutionary precocity of motor relative to sensory
systems also argues against the classical reflex
as a primal step in neurobehavioral evolution. Spontaneously
active motor processes are adaptive and can emerge
through natural selection unlike sensory processes
that are not adaptive without a behavior to guide.
Sensory systems evolved to control already existing
argument against the primacy of reflexes is that
they require the unlikely simultaneous evolution
of a sensory and a motor process. The tendency of
organisms to "spond before they respond"
requires the re-evaluation of many other traditional
neurobehavioral concepts and processes.
Self/Other Exclusionary Principle
The "self," the most basic sense of personhood,
is defined as that which is not "other."
"Other," the most primitive level of social
entity, is defined as a non-self, animate stimulus
on the surface of your skin.
is distinguished from other by a neurological cancellation
process. These definitions are attractive because
they permit a neurologically and computationally
based approach to problems that are traditionally
mired in personality and social theory. Although
our sense of identity involves more than self/non-self
discrimination, such a mechanism may be at its foundation
and a first step toward the evolution of personhood
and the neurological computation of its boundaries.
For a demonstration of this mechanism, consider
your inability to tickle yourself. Tickle requires
stimulation by a non-self animate entity on the
surface of your skin. Similar, self-produced stimulation
is cancelled and is not ticklish.
Without such a self/non-self discriminator, we would
be constantly be tickling ourselves by accident,
and the world would be filled with goosey people
lurching their way through life in a chain reaction
filled with tactile false alarms. Developing a similar
machine algorithm may lead to "ticklish"
robots whose performance is enhanced by their capacity
to distinguish touching from being touched, and,
provocatively, a computationally based construct
of machine personhood.
The future is over-forecasted and underpredicted.
The ability to learn is
inversely proportional to years of school, adjusted
male curve is an abrupt rise followed by an equally
abrupt fall. The female curve is a slow rise to
an extended asymptote. The areas under the curves
are roughly equal. These curves apply to all activities
at all time scales (e.g. attention to TV programs,
romantic love, career scientific productivity).
One should never blindly accept things as they are.
Jose Saramago writes in The Cave with his
usual quirky punctuation and sentence structure:
we often hear it said, or we say it ourselves,
I'll get used to it, we say or they say, with
what seems to be genuine acceptance ..., what
no one asks is at what cost do we get used to
Kasper's Second Law
to know where and how your thoughts arise and always
give credit to your teachers.
desire to believe in the paranormal is stronger
than all the evidence that it does not exist.
Humans are not in control of the web; the memes
successful human invention such as arithmetic or
the alphabet has a "neuronal niche"—a
set of cerebral processors that evolved for a distinct
purpose, but can be recycled to implement the new
difficulty of learning a new concept or technique
is directly related to the amount of recycling
needed—the distance between the evolutionary
older function and the new one.
When the old and the new functions are closely
related (isomorphic), an evolutionary old cerebral
processor can provide a fast, unconscious and
unexpected solution to a recent cultural problem—this
is what we call
The confusability of two ideas, however abstract,
is a direct function of the overlap in their neuronal
is a simple as it seems.
If you don't understand something, it's because
you aren't aware of its context.
A theory of everything starts with a theory of mind.
Quantum measurement hints that observers may create
microphysical properties. Computational theories
of perception hint that observers may create macrophysical
properties. The history of science suggests that
counterintuitive hints, if pursued, can lead to
Physical universes are user interfaces for minds.
Just as the virtual worlds experienced in VR arcades
are interfaces that allow the arcade user to interact
effectively with an unseen world of computers and
software, so also the physical world one experiences
daily is a species-specific user interface that
allows one to survive while interacting with a world
of which one may be substantially ignorant.
First Black Swan Law
The risk you know anything about today is not the
one that matters. What will hurt you next has to
look completely unplausible today. The more unplausible
the event the more it will hurt you.
Consider that had the WTC attack been deemed a reasonable
risk then we would have had tighter control of the
skies and it would have not taken place. It happened
because it was improbable. The awareness of a specific
danger makes you protect yourself from its precise
effect and may prevent the event itself from occurring.
Taleb's Second Black
Swan Law (corollary)
don't learn that we don't learn.
We don't learn the First Black Swan Law from experience,
yet we think that we learn something from it. Abstract
subject matters (and metarules) do not affect our
risk avoidance mechanisms; only vivid images do.
People did not learn from the WTC (and the succession
of similar events in history such as the formation
of financial bubbles) that we have a horrible track
record in forecasting such occurrences. They just
learned the specific task to avoid tall buildings
and Islamic terrorists—after the fact.
Law of Strange Behavior
To understand any apparently baffling behavior by
another human, ask: what status game is this individual
playing, to show off which heritable traits, in
which mating market?
Miller's Iron Law
In principle, there is an evolutionary trade-off
between any two positive traits. But in practice,
every good trait correlates positively with every
other good trait.
Miller's First Law
of Offspring Ingratitude
People who don't understand genetics attribute their
personal failings to the inane role models offered
by their parents.
Miller's Second Law
of Offspring Ingratitude
People who do understand genetics attribute their
personal failings to the inane mate-choice decisions
made by their parents.
Any attempt to define what is science is doomed
Scientists often attack what they consider irrational
creeds by first defining what counts as science
and then showing that those creeds don't fit
within the limits specified. While their motive
is often right, their approach is totally wrong.
Science has no method. It is opportunistic in
the extreme, with theory adapting with admirable
agility to the most amazing experimental discoveries,
no matter what previous 'corner stones' have
to be given up: quantum mechanics is the most
striking example. This opportunism is the only
reason that science has remained alive and well,
notwithstanding the human tendency for stagnation
that is exemplified so clearly through more
than a dozen successive generations of individual
In scientific software development, research
When writing a large software package or a whole
software environment, the most efficient way
to produce a robust product is to write documentation
simultaneously with the computer codes, on all
levels: from comment lines to manual pages to
narrative that explains the reasons for the
many choices made. Having to explain to yourselves
and your coworkers how you choose what why when
is the best guide to quickly discovering hidden
flaws and better alternatives, minimizing the
backtrack later. Therefore, the most efficient
way to write a large coherent body of software
as a research project is to view it as an educational
I have come across similar endorsements of documentation
in various places, including Donald Knuth's
idea of literate programming, and Gerald Sussman's
advice to write with utmost clarity for humans
first, and for computers as an afterthought.
Information wants to be free.
The rest of Brand's
Information also wants to be expensive.
Brand's Pace Law
In haste, mistakes cascade. With deliberation,
The past can only be known, not changed. The
future can only be changed, not known.
The only way to predict the future is to make
sure it stays exactly the same as the present.
Know when you are winning.
The key question is not what can I gain but
what do I have to lose.
and mind are not as separate as they appear
to be. Not only does the state of the body affect
the mind, but vice-versa.
Kosslyn's Second Law
individual and the group are not as separate
as they appear to be. A part of each mind spills
over into the minds of other people, who help
us think and regulate our emotions.
Many well defined manifolds lack unifying centers
that define or control them.
• Just because some things are genuinely
sacred does not mean that there is a god.
• Just because a corporation or a country
seems to be hierarchically structured does
not mean that any single leader is really
• Just because some behavior is conscious
and intentional does not entail a "ghost
in the machine," a homunculus, or a central
• Just because evolution appears to
be directional, from less order and complexity
toward greater order and complexity, that
does not presuppose either an alpha-designer
or an omega-telos.
Precursors to Ogilvy's Law:
1. Derridean Deconstruction, which is not
about taking things apart, but showing how
they were never all that unified in the
2. Wittgenstein's replacement of Platonic
Idease.g., that one thing which all
instances of 'game' or 'justice' have in
commonwith the much looser notion
of "family resemblances"
Lemma to Ogilvy's Law:
false unities does not degrade the values to
be found in their respective manifolds.
• Nietzsche's announcement of the death
of god does not mean that nothing is sacred.
• Skepticism regarding conspiracy theories
does not entail naiveté regarding power
or the impossibility of effective leadership.
• Seeing through Cartesianism in the
cognitive sciences does not entail eliminative
materialism, a lack of intentionality, or
the reduction of mind to matter.
• Dismissing teleology does not deny
a manifest directionality to evolution.
In each of these cases and many others like
them, the deconstructive turn should not be
confused with nihilism or deflationary debunking.
The value of Ogilvy's Law lies in its ability
to help predict which valleys harbor real
value, and which peaks are better left undefended