This talk was given in a book store in Berkeley.  There were about twelve attending in November 2000. The task was to offer 5 things I’ve learned in my life.

 

Five things.

 

#5

When we first come into the world, we can do little more, than cry and poop. Then, at around 3 to 6 months, we start babbling. All babies start babbling about the same way, even tho there are over 5000 languages in the world. The marvel of the human brain, is that between 12 and 18 months, every normal baby, learns to speak the local language.

For an adult to learn new things as fast as a baby learns to speak, would be like earning a Ph.D in rocket science in 6 months. This explosive learning rate only lasts a couple of years. By the time the child has reached puberty its developing mind has largely been programmed, in a particular ethnic milieu.

 

***It is, therefore, not surprising, to find beliefs and geography highly correlated; in other words, geographic accident, primarily determines what people believe and do.

 

#4

One of the greatest ideas of the 20th century is Cybernetics. { 1 } It was defined in 1947 by Norbert Weiner of MIT as “Communication and control in the animal and machine”

I’ll give some examples.

 

[a] An early example of a cybernetic circuit was in 1787, when James Watt developed a device to automatically regulate the speed of a steam engine. There was a system of linkages with a sliding sleeve around a vertical rod such that two short rods with iron balls on the ends would change the angle with a change in speed because of inertia. This arrangement would control the amount of steam entering the engine and thereby regulate the engine speed to some arbitrary amount depending upon where the balls were set along the rods. { 2}

 

[b] Another example is the auto pilot in airplanes. The computer has a sensor that detects variations in the attitude of the aircraft and automatically compensates to preserve the direction of flight and altitude. There can be an unlimited number of rules and circuits involved, including algorithms that react to how long, and how much, the attitude of the plane was off so that the computer can compensate for the deviation of the flight path.

 

It is also a useful model to understand aggregates of individuals such as social systems.

 

***All living systems must possess cybernetic circuits to maintain essential variables such as temperature, blood sugar and other vital functions.

 

#3

In 1961-2 Stanley Milgram of Yale University showed that 65% of normal people, would engage in substantial torture of a stranger, if they believed they were following legitimate instructions, of an authority figure. He was trying to understand how the guards in Nazi Germany could have committed the well known horrors of the holocaust. His book is called “Obediance to Authority”.

He asked ordinary people from the community to participate in a psychological experiment. He hired an actor in the next room to perform according to a set of instructions. The innocent subject was to test the man in the room (who was not visible- only sound was transmitted) for his ability to memorize sets of nonsense syllables. When the man gave the wrong answers the subject was to turn a knob and shock the man. The knob was clearly marked from ‘mild’ to ‘strong’ to ‘severe’ to ‘lethal’.  65% of the subjects were willing to administer the maximum shock even when the man complained of heart problems.

In chapter ten, Milgram offers a cybernetic explanation which he calls “The agentic shift”. The argument is that early man could not have survived without some kind of leadership for coordinating hunting, and defending territory. That is to say, he proposed that we have a genetic predisposition, to accept authority and do their bidding, as if it was our own desire. As Adolf Eichman so famously said “I was just doing my duty.”

 

What people are willing, and able to do was a great shock for me as I began to learn more of the incredible range of human belief and behavior. There is, for western sensibilities, the utterly horrible and unbelievable custom, of honor killing. I still carry the image of a handsome, young mid-east man who slit his sister’s throat because she was raped—and therefore dishonored the family. Another incredible ‘tradition’ is Genital mutilation. Over 80 million living women have suffered this atrocity. Now, the most painful thing for me, was to learn that it was done for the benefit of the women, primarily by the grandmothers!!! The explanation was that women in these societies had so few prerogatives, that controlling this gruesome ritual, to make their grand daughters more marriageable, was one of the only important roles the grandmothers retained.

 

***We live in a time of explosive technological change across the globe while utterly crazy traditions (cybernetically maintained), are preserved in the name of freedom and independence.

 

#2

Adelbert Ames devised a distorted room where a person looking through a peephole would see two windows, such that the room geometry made the windows look the same size but they were not. Almost all museums of science now have these amazing rooms on display, including the Exploratorium in San Francisco.  When a stranger places their head in the left windows it, the head, distorts and looks small. But when a person’ s head from your family, like mother or lover appeared in the same window, the room now distorts.

Another interesting experiment he demonstrated, was a smaller verson of the distorted room where the student used a long stick to try touching two different symbols on the far side of the box. This was published in the magazine, Scientific American, years ago.

 

The students were divided into two groups:

[a] The first group were shown all views of the box’ s topology and could ask any question to get as familiar with the experiment as they wished.

[b] The second group of students were told nothing except to look into the box and manipulate the stick so as to touch the symbols. The naïve, uninformed students (second group), learned to touch the symbols much sooner than the educated group.

 

***There is no objective reality out there, but rather a complex interaction involving a perceiver, predisposed by both neurological and psychological mechanisms, poorly understood and mostly unconscious.

 

#1

Technology is transforming so much of the world that global ecology is shifting in unpredictable and potentially catastrophic ways. Oceanic fisheries are now depleted in some areas. Large forested areas have been destroyed resulting in watershed degradation. Water tables under places like Beijing are dropping by meters a year. The mining of water in Arizona over the last 50 years cannot be replaced for an estimated 25,000 years. And a preponderance of evidence now tends to confirm global warming.

 

Industrial society tends to grow without regard to ecological health or human welfare. High energy technology, facilitated by high speed communications tend to enable whole regions to specialize in single products or crops. Such increased regional specialization is usually, if not always, accompanied by decreased ecological stability.

 

It seems likely that human evolution has selected us for our ability to think and solve short term problems like food an mating.

I believe our greatest threat can be understood the clash between our short term goals and ecology, which is long term.

 

***In other words: The missmatch between short term human purposes, selected in evolution, and very long term, planetary ecology, must be overcome if we are to survive as humans.