Slow Growth is Good Growth

I was reading Wired the other day when I came across a nice little piece that essentially outlined why the future hasn’t shown up yet, you know, as it was predicted in the 1960s. The main idea was that the current funding models for R&D fail. I gave a little “Huzzah!” and pumped my fist when I read it, mainly because it’s nice to have someone who actually gets paid to write these things validating what I’ve been saying since John first introduced me to the idea of the Singularity: progress only moves as fast as the money.

The article pointed out that there have been no widespread adoptions of significantly improved commercial airliners since the adoption of the Boeing 747 in 1970. The plane model that we usually fly on is, with certain fidgety improvements, 41 years old. Why do we not yet have teleportation or space-worthy shuttles for our mundane aerial commutes? Necessity is the mother of invention; the Queen of the Skies works well enough. Why would anyone in their right mind throw vast amounts of money down for the development of something new enough to qualify as serious progress?

The point of the article was to highlight ways of funding that have the potential to ramp progress up, but it’s something of a comfort to me that money and, by extension, belief in the necessity of innovation are limiting factors on progress. You know this about me if you’re a regular reader: While I’m not exactly a Luddite, I am a future-phobe. I am terrified of what certain landmarks of progress will mean for humanity because I have no faith in the ability of human ethics to keep up with the technological advances. It’s the robot overlord debate–you can read the re-hash here if you are not yet aware of the depths of my paranoia.

John, knowing the nature of my objection to rapid progress, was wondering aloud last night what it would take to deliberately engineer the ethics of humanity. How would you (1) determine what ethics are ideal and (2) persuade humanity to live by them? I cringed at that idea. The first thing that comes to mind is organized religion, which hypothetically is aimed to do just that, but is an inherently flawed system where belief in a higher power often leads people to rigid adherence to a dogma without considering the underlying ethical quandaries. I suppose one of the primary purposes of the legal system is to enforce a basic ethical code, but the law is only as good as the people who make it and the people who fight to improve it when problems present themselves–justice does not turn on a dime, and probably for good reason. John also mentioned the self-help industry as a semi-functional model for changing behavior, but self-help being a huge and profitable industry, the goal to sell books is going to color the content. People will be more likely to buy something they want to hear, which might mean validating anti-social tendencies in pursuit of individual “happiness” rather than paving the road to personal enlightenment. Weeding the sheep from the goats, so to speak, is a problem.

There’s a little detail of the Jesus that has come to embody the problem of trying to codify morality. As he’s being crucified, at the moment that he cries out for the last moment and dies, the heavy curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple is torn asunder. The Holy of Holies is the inner sanctum into which only certain priests were allowed under very specific conditions, because it is here that they speak directly to God. The tearing of the curtain is heavily symbolic of a key theological change between Judaism and Christianity: instead of going through a priest to speak to God, people now were responsible for their own relationship with God and, therefore, their own souls.

Sadly, the change didn’t stick. Protestants had to fight the battle with the Catholic church some fifteen hundred years later and they didn’t win anything like a conclusive battle. Martin Luther is my hero for taking up that fight, because that principle is one that I have come to deeply believe in, not because I think humans are particularly good at determining their own moral paths and deserve the right to choose, but because the way our brains are wired to learn is such that we are all but incapable of learning what we don’t already believe by any method other than experience (see Piaget, among others). Guided experience is better, of course. I believe good guidance to be, in fact, critical to turning experience of life into a strong internal sense of morality. The problem with so many of the systematic ways of teaching ethics is that rather than gently encouraging people to rationally think through the scenarios they encounter to reach an ethical end, systems of ethics tend to drill preset principles into one’s mind and then dole out either punishment or reward for the level of adherence, making the foundation for our ethics highly externalized and non-responsive to the need for change. To be effective and responsive to reality, learning must be a very individual process.

Which isn’t to say that teaching can’t be done more effectively. The problem of why we learn things (and why we don’t) is one of the most fundamental questions in education, which is one of the reasons I went into the field in the first place. I’m all in favor of refining methods for communicating good ideas, including better ethical standards, more effectively. Until we figure that out, though, I’m going to be glad for a bit of financial molasses slowing down the road to robot domination.


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