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A thesis
Posted: 18 May 2005 06:16 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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I have spent the past week parusing old posts in the science topic and discovered, to my delight, some thoughts expressed which parallel my own.  I decided to run the following up the flagpole to see who salutes it.  I'm hoping some of those old posters are still around.

{note: the cut and paste into the edit window screwed up the alignments in my diagrams below.  I tried to fix them but they aren't quite right.  I think you will be able to get the basic idea though.}

avoiceinthewilderness' improbable(?) thesis

What will the future of Homo sapiens be? Where are we headed as a species?

Consider a simple model.

population distribution
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  |                  **
  |                *  *
  |                *  *
  |                *    *
  |              **      **
  |            **        **
  |          ***          ***
  |      ***              ***
  |******                      ******
0 +—————————————————————
    low—-> general intelligence—-> high


The figure represents the proportion of population possessing some level of general intelligence. The infamous bell-shaped curve indicates that the bulk of a population (center of curve) are of medium general intelligence.  This is not the same as IQ, which is a normalized measure and many would assert is not actually an indicator of general intelligence. General intelligence is, rather, an aggregate (or composite) index of the multiple intelligences that Howard Gardner has described. Some people have higher numeracy intelligence, others have higher social intelligence, but everyone has some level of competency in all of these intelligences. An aggregation of measures in each of these is what is represented above.

{Gardner: Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Musical, Spatial, Bodily-kinesthetic, Naturalist, Intrpersonal, Existential Intelligences}

The thesis goes like this:

1) Intelligence is a measure of the capacity of the brain to process information (in each of the types given above).

2) Information is the "news of difference" that a brain receives about the environment.  Things changing (especially from a priori expectations) informs the brain which must process this information in such a way as to modify behavior to accommodate to the change, adapt to the change, or counteract the change as appropriate.

3) From psychology we have understanding that when people or animals are not able to process information in a timely fashion, they regress to various, often time non-adaptive, coping mechanisms and/or escapisms. Denial is a common such mechanism in humans. Aggressive behavior can either be a proper response to change, or it can be a pathological coping mechanism when it is the inappropriate adaptive/counteraction response.

4) In the 1970s Alvin Toffler advanced a thesis about the rate of change that was producing a phenomenon he called "Future Shock".  This was described as the result of information overload when too much change was occurring relative to the brain's capacity to process the information. Toffler contended that the rate of change itself was increasing (accelerated change) which would lead more and more members of the population to reach information overload.  And, since this change rate would not abate, there would never be a time to "catch up" with the processing, hence leading to increasing recourse to coping mechanisms.  In terms of the above graph, we can picture the information load as an index plotted along the same axis as intelligence, but over time (see sequence below).  We presume that the intelligence curve would be stationary over the last 10,000 to 12,000 years (since the time of the agricultural revolution which is credited with significantly altering the environment of humans).  But over that time, due to technology and social evolution, the information load has progressively moved to the right (again we presume that humans adapted evolutionarily to have an information processing capacity that represented the average load in prehistoric times).  Over much of history the information load has moved only slightly to the right, thus not significantly stressing the majority of the population. But over the last 500 years the change in the rate of change has begun to increase (acceleration) such that the information load has proceeded farther to the right and has exceeded the capacity of a majority of the population.  Hence, only a smaller proportion of humans have the information processing capacity to not suffer future shock and are able to deal with reality as it is, rather than how they would wish it to be.

population
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  |              *    *
  |            **      **
  |            **      **
  |        ***          ***
  |      ***              ***
  |******                    ******
0 +————————————————————
    low—-> general intelligence—-> high
  ###################
Information load - 12,000 ybp (pre aggriculture)


population
  |
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  |              **
  |              *  *
  |            *  *
  |            *    *
  |          **      **
  |          **        **
  |        ***          ***
  |      ***              ***
  |******                  ******
0 +————————————————————
    low—-> general intelligence—-> high
  #####################
Information load - 500 ybp (pre industrial revolution)


population
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  |                **
  |                *  *
  |              *  *
  |              *    *
  |            **      **  |
  |          **        **  |
  |        ***  population   |**
  |      ***    at risk       |  ***
  |******——————————->|    ******
0 +——————————————+—————-
    low—-> general intelligence—-> high
  ##############################
Information load, present|———-| change over last 500 years
                          |——-| change over last 100 years
                            |—-| change over last 50 years!

5) The majority of the world's population are at risk of being unable to process the amount of information generated by the globalization of modern technology and by the severe changes that are accompanying global climate change and resource depletion.

6) Non-adaptive coping mechanisms are already apparent in the behaviors of many people, especially in some of the developed countries, and especially in the United States (and MOST especially in the government of the US).

The good news is that information overload is a selective force if it can be translated into a differential breeding rate over a long enough period to cause a shift in the gene pool.  That is, the bell curve would actually migrate to the right so that the peak of the curve would, once again, center over the average information load.  The bad news is we don't have the luxury of that kind of time frame.  The change is continuing to accelerate and the momentum of global environment degradation will ensure that it will get worse in the future.

We are witnessing increasing fragmentation in culture and reliance on ideological thinking to bolster that fragmentation.  This is most acute in the religion sector where it is a given that no evidence of veracity is needed to justify one's beliefs.  People to the left of the information load index find it increasingly easy to fall back on religion and faith as a coping mechanism.  They (and here in particular we see this in fundamentalist Islam) are finding it easier and easier to justify violence against those who believe differently, especially secularists. The irony is that this comes even as science has produced significant advances in our collective understanding of how the Universe works, in the process eliminating the need to invoke a meddling god to cause things (miracles) to happen, including the origin of life and evolution of species.

What will happen to mankind? I think the answer is simple. Evolve or go extinct as a genus. The current species of Homo is the only extant, known representative of the genus.  If it dies out, without giving rise to a more adapted version then that will be the end of this line of evolution.  Unfortunately, it may also spell doom for the planet as a whole since our species will have left a huge mess.  In fact, the only hope for this world may be to evolve a "better" species of Homo that will, with wisdom, use its increased average intelligence to clean up the mess its predecessors left. It is feasible that technologies could be developed that could be used to mitigate the problems caused by the consumptive extravagances and overpopulation of so-called sapiens (I say so-called because sapiens is derived from Latin for "wise", which is clearly not an attribute of this species). In a sense, it is our responsibility to evolve so as to redeem ourselves.

How can we evolve if there isn't enough time? And how do we submit to natural selection?  In fact, we can't rely on the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection. I submit that competition for resources and an inability to think rationally about the options will drive the majority of humans to aggression and wars (making a further mess), thus eliminating a huge portion of the population.  What needs to be done is that we must ensure that it is the porportion of the population that fall to the right of the information load index.  That means we must actively select for people to the right of the index and ensure that they are protected from the strife. How this could be accomplished is, of course, problematic.

Assuming we had some way to screen for those to the right of the index, we could go one step further and possibly avoid the worst of the damage that would be done in allowing all-out war.  We could sterilize everyone to the left of the index.  I do mean everyone.  In fact, we might choose to sterilize everyone but a few from the far right.  This would have the effect of reducing the population load dramatically over the next 50 years.  It would reduce the pain and suffering of war, but it would generate its own problems with respect to mental anguish over childlessness, loss of new workers to support the aging population, etc.  The question might be posed as which is the lesser of two evils?

It is true that this action significantly reduces the variability in the population (generally seen as a bad thing).  However, we know from the study of evolution on islands that species do make it through bottlenecks and are often actually the better off for it.  The narrowing of variation on particularly adept adaptations can lead to rapid efflorescence of variation around those characteristics.

So my thesis is that Homo sapiens is about to go extinct whether we do anything or not.  It is a result of our own doing, or rather, our failure to do the right things with respect to population control and consumption. We have no one to blame (there is no god who let us do this to ourselves) but ourselves.  And if we truly believe in taking responsibility, then we have to consider the owning up to the consequences.  Do we exit the world with a bang, taking much if not all of life with us? Or do we choose to exit with dignity and allow (cause) a replacement species to take our place? All species eventually go extinct.  There is nothing remarkable about that. We now know that most often this is a cataclysmic event that precipitates just as the species reaches some kind of zenith in its environmental fit. So it should not be surprising that such a fate is in store for Homo sapiens.  What is different about this extinction is that we are self-witnesses.  We can understand what is happening and why.  We can take action to ensure the continuance of human intelligence and life on the Earth, or we can just roll over and die the way the dinosaurs did.

What should we do if I am right?

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Posted: 18 May 2005 06:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Well the BBCode really messed up my diagrams.  I will try to do them again.  If this doesn’t work you will have to use your imaginations!

population distribution
    
|
    |                             **
    |                            *  *
    |                           *    *
    |                        **       **
    |                      **           **
    |                    **               **
    |                 **                     **
    |            ***                            ***
    |       ***                                      ***
    |****                                                ****
    +------------------------------------------------------
      
Low -----------> general intelligence ------> high 
population distribution
    
|
    |                             **
    |                            *  *
    |                           *    *
    |                        **       **
    |                      **           **
    |                    **               **
    |                 **                     **
    |            ***                            ***
    |       ***                                      ***
    |****                                                ****
    +------------------------------------------------------
      
Low -----------> general intelligence ------> high
     
##############
      
Information load circa 12,000 ybp (prior to agriculture) 
population distribution
    
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    |                             **
    |                            *  *
    |                           *    *
    |                        **       **
    |                      **           **
    |                    **               **
    |                 **                     **
    |            ***                            ***
    |       ***                                      ***
    |****                                                ****
    +------------------------------------------------------
      
Low -----------> general intelligence ------> high
     
################
      
Information load circa 500 ybp (prior to industrial revolution) 
population distribution
    
|
    |                             **
    |                            *  *
    |                           *    *
    |                        **       **
    |                      **           **
    |                    **               **
    |                 **                     **
    |            ***                            ***
    |       ***                                      ***
    |****                                                ****
    +------------------------------------------------------
      
Low -----------> general intelligence ------> high
     
#####################
      
Information load now |----------| change over last 500 years
                                        
|--------| change over last 100 years
                                           
|------| change over last  50 years 

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Posted: 18 May 2005 09:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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I think you overstate the case considerably.

No species with 6 billion members and no predatory threats is ‘about to go extinct’ anytime soon. The dinosaurs didn’t just ‘roll over’ - they got whacked by a very large meteor that destroyed their ecology. This could happen to us too, but that’s a very different argument to the one you are making.

There is almost no chance of the human race going extinct. If we do finally screw our plant up enough to realise that we are in danger, we will respond then. The problem will all pseudo-scientific doomsday scenarios since Malthus is that they ignore the capability of our race to respond to danger, even if we do so a little late. Read Jared Diamond’s book - for all they societal failures he mentions, we are still thriving as a species. The successes are not as noteworthy as the failures, but they outnumber them considerably.

Your graphs look nice, but the data looks the same in each. What point are you trying to make with them?

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Posted: 19 May 2005 01:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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I think that the real problem (if it exists) would have to do with the rate of change, not the amount of information that we are processing.

After all, it is the fundamental neuroplasticity of the human brain that allows us to function in a technological society, and clearly the vast majority of us have the basic tools.

The bad news is that neuroplasticity decreases with age, and the rate of change has increased to the point where we are seeing people who are still in a state of decent physical health but who have lost the ability to keep up with changes in practical technology.  Think of it as the VCR’s blinking 12:00 phenomenon writ large.

Will this have an effect on us genetically?  I seriously doubt it.  Young people can adapt, and, as a rule, people have kids when they are young (as in less than 40).

I predict that people will learn a new “meta” knowledge for dealing with technology that will help ease the issue that we currently see with older people and new tools, or there will be drugs to enhance neuroplasticity, or both - long before there is an appreciable shift in population genetics.

Furthermore, computers are getting easier to use, not harder.  In a real sense, the amount of information that the average citizen will have to process might very well be on the verge of trending down.  Certainly we have little reason to expect a sudden reversal in the trend of the last two decades towards making virtually all information technology more intuitive.

That having been said, humanity will, presumably, hit the “thought barrier” at some point, and it will be very annoying.  I would strongly suspect that people will not wait for evolution when that day arrives, but will use drugs and/or computer implants to overcome the limitations as they identify them.

Just my .02, though, it is an interesting subject.

-Matt

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Posted: 19 May 2005 02:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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[quote author=“Nietzsche”]I think you overstate the case considerably.

Well of course I could be. And you apparently think so.  One way to look at it is that time will tell, heh?

[quote author=“Nietzsche”]
No species with 6 billion members and no predatory threats is ‘about to go extinct’ anytime soon. The dinosaurs didn’t just ‘roll over’ - they got whacked by a very large meteor that destroyed their ecology. This could happen to us too, but that’s a very different argument to the one you are making.

1) Is this a statement of logic based on evidence or of belief?
2) The meteor impact definitely acted as a trigger, but more recent work suggests that their time had come and the meteor may have only acted as a percipitating event.  Life is, after all, a complex, dynamic, non-linear system.  Chaos prevails.  There have been many mass extinction events that do not seem to have the same smoking gun that exists from 65m years ago.
3) You are right.  I am talking about a mass extinction of our making - we are the triggering event.

[quote author=“Nietzsche”]
There is almost no chance of the human race going extinct. If we do finally screw our plant up enough to realise that we are in danger, we will respond then. The problem will all pseudo-scientific doomsday scenarios since Malthus is that they ignore the capability of our race to respond to danger, even if we do so a little late. Read Jared Diamond’s book - for all they societal failures he mentions, we are still thriving as a species. The successes are not as noteworthy as the failures, but they outnumber them considerably.

I wish I had your certainty about this.  We actually have more than adequate evidence that we are screwing up our planet now.  And some people are responding (the Europeans for example).  But can you really state with certainty that we are responding in time? Or that we can and are responding sufficiently? 

The anti-Malthus arguements are trite and shallow.

In fact I have read most of Diamond’s books, including Collapse. And I have read Ehrlich and Meadows and many others. I suggest you look at the wider array of these.  In addition, a new generation of writers in economics and social sciences are producing works that bring the “traditional” assumptions into question.

[quote author=“Nietzsche”]
Your graphs look nice, but the data looks the same in each. What point are you trying to make with them?

I’m sorry the graphs just don’t translate to BBCode very well.  The first one is the general model of intelligence distribution - nothing more than a standard gaussian distribution of a trait really. 

The last three are meant to show a time-series where the information load is increasing at an accelerated pace.  Graphed differently you would see the I-load as an exponentially increasing curve on a linear time scale.

The point is that the rate of change is increasing so the information load is increasing.  This model comes from Gregory Bateson’s definition of information as “news of difference”. 

If I have overstated the case, then nothing lost.  But you may recall I noted that denial is one of the many coping mechanisms that psychologists have recognized.  To me, your statements sound too much like denial and not much like reasoned conclusions based on evidence.

But thank you for your response and an opportunity to (I hope) clarify my points.

Regarda

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Posted: 19 May 2005 03:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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[quote author=“psiconoclast”]I think that the real problem (if it exists) would have to do with the rate of change, not the amount of information that we are processing.

Hello psiconoclast.  I think I wasn’t sufficiently clear in my original post.  I attempted to argue that change == information and, via Toffler’s thesis,  rate of change == increasing information load.  The latter is a measure of the information processing capacity of the brain (in all of its different modes).  And from Toffler we get the argument that even the rate of change is changing (in a upward direction), hence change, and information load are accelerating.

[quote author=“psiconoclast”]After all, it is the fundamental neuroplasticity of the human brain that allows us to function in a technological society, and clearly the vast majority of us have the basic tools.

I agree, but note that the information load is rising exponentially.  Basic tools of adaptivity are limited.  Neural processing and information integration have limits (and, BTW, have been measured in laboratory conditions).

[quote author=“psiconoclast”]The bad news is that neuroplasticity decreases with age, and the rate of change has increased to the point where we are seeing people who are still in a state of decent physical health but who have lost the ability to keep up with changes in practical technology.  Think of it as the VCR’s blinking 12:00 phenomenon writ large.

Not quite sure what this has to do with my thesis.  But… oh well.

[quote author=“psiconoclast”]Will this have an effect on us genetically?  I seriously doubt it.  Young people can adapt, and, as a rule, people have kids when they are young (as in less than 40).

In fact my argument was that the current natural process of selection - information overload - cannot have an effect on us genetically. The rate of change far exceeds the rate of Darwinian selection.

[quote author=“psiconoclast”]I predict that people will learn a new “meta” knowledge for dealing with technology that will help ease the issue that we currently see with older people and new tools, or there will be drugs to enhance neuroplasticity, or both - long before there is an appreciable shift in population genetics.

Furthermore, computers are getting easier to use, not harder.  In a real sense, the amount of information that the average citizen will have to process might very well be on the verge of trending down.  Certainly we have little reason to expect a sudden reversal in the trend of the last two decades towards making virtually all information technology more intuitive.

That having been said, humanity will, presumably, hit the “thought barrier” at some point, and it will be very annoying.  I would strongly suspect that people will not wait for evolution when that day arrives, but will use drugs and/or computer implants to overcome the limitations as they identify them.

But my thesis isn’t just about changes in technology, rather it is about the changes in our culture and environment that are, to a large degree, enabled by technology, but not that changes in technology are hard to assimilate cognitively.

[quote author=“psiconoclast”]Just my .02, though, it is an interesting subject.

-Matt

I appreciate any input, even if only two cents worth.  Thank you for responding with your thoughts.  I hope I have clarified my thinking somewhat.

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Posted: 19 May 2005 05:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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What should we do if I am right?

Information overload is certainy growing, though I’m not convinced that it will lead to the extinction of a species.  Proving it is going to happen is a bit of a problem indeed. It even if there is proof, I don’t think much would or could be done. We have somewhat reached a point of no return. The human race is still doing very little about global warming even with the astounding evidence.

If your thesis is proven then I think some sort of anarchy might be the key to our survival. The movie “Fight Club” comes to mind. “Erase the debt and we all go back to 0”. We’d then be left with the strongest surviving to dry their catch on some abandoned interstate highway that is slowly being overtaken by the natural flora and fauna.

I think the answer to the above question isn’t but would be… Keep on Living. Sort of like: what should we do if I’m wrong? Answer: keep on living. Because I think ulimately that is what will happen regardless of having insight about the future.

I’m the first to admit that I’ve suffered from information overload, but I hardly think that I would ever fall back to believing in the supernatural. I think that even the most intelligent among us would and have experience information overload in some everyday circumstances. I don’t think the shift in information overload calls for drastic action, it just calls for the genus to specialize, which is what he are doing now. Specialization actually gives a person more intellectual prowness than the average person had 50 years ago. I think that specialization has its drawbacks though, but I think it works to keep people from having to resort to religion.

I think society is embracing or catching-on to technology and information at a necessary rate. It has been held back in the recent past by intellectual laziness, fear of change, and the “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but I think information overload is being dealt with as necessary.

——Adapt and modify——

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Posted: 19 May 2005 08:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Voice:

Your conclusion is a bit draconian, and I doubt that many people would accept sterilization, regardless of what the reason.  Information is increasing exponentially, and although we percieve a vast divide between the smartest human beings and the dumbest, the latest genetic evidence that I have read about indicates that there are maybe a couple hundred genes that determine one’s potential for intelligence.

So, by sterilizing vast sectors of the population, in order to select for a handful of genes, we would buy ourselves only a small amount of time (given that even the most brilliant of human minds are not that far behind the others when it comes to hitting the wall if exponential information increase continues), and that time would be paid for with a staggering amount of human biodiversity (not to mention a bunch of highly agitated people, unless of course they were killed, but that has its perils too).

I think that the answer to the problem is essentially the same as the cause of the problem: computers.  Computers are pushing this information out and around, true, but they are also increasing the ability for people to parse, process, and use the information.  In other words, the integration of computers and human brains has already begun.  Currrent advances in medicine seem to indicate that much closer integration is possible though, and the results should prove interesting.

The real question, I suppose, is whether the population in general will accept the inevitable implants or not, and whether the implants will be widely available, or reserved for a selct few.

I guess what I am getting at is that I’m on board with your notion that there is a(n) (potential) information processing crisis brewing, but I don’t see eye to eye with regards to all of the implications or with your proposed solution.

-Matt

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Posted: 19 May 2005 04:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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avoiceinthewilderness:

. . . my argument was that the current natural process of selection - information overload - cannot have an effect on us genetically. The rate of change far exceeds the rate of Darwinian selection.

Voice, it could be argued (and it is, by theoretical biological anthropologist, Robert Boyd, among others) that culture plays an enormous role in human evolution.

I would add that it was (and remains) words, with their amazing collectability, that catapulted us out of the trees and into skyscrapers. As I see things, one reason for this revolutionary effect was that words have allowed us to store and retrieve insight from the most capable members of our communities. No other animal can so efficiently build on genius, because they cannot directly and objectively pass down the brilliance of a single member of their species for the benefit of future generations. Non-human animals are as yet unable to make full use of an individual’s insight. Darwin’s theories only allow a tendency for this to happen, since the most competent individuals are also those most likely to breed and pass their genes to the next generation, which only allows a possibility of future generations to be as insightful. But through words, we can surpass Darwinian principle to ensure that the work of numbingly brilliant individuals such as Socrates, Beethoven and Einstein are preserved for posterity, and integrated into our society.

This is not a comment on your overall thesis, however. You may well be correct. It’s true that every species eventually leaves the picture. Nuclear warfare with its attendant radiation poisoning seems to me to be the more likely cause of our demise, but I certainly appreciated reading your detailed warning.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 19 May 2005 05:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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[quote author=“psiconoclast”]Voice:

Your conclusion is a bit draconian, and I doubt that many people would accept sterilization, regardless of what the reason.  Information is increasing exponentially, and although we percieve a vast divide between the smartest human beings and the dumbest, the latest genetic evidence that I have read about indicates that there are maybe a couple hundred genes that determine one’s potential for intelligence.

It is.  And I agree, few people will voluntarily submit to sterilization, certainly. As for the genes involved, it does appear daunting to tease out the relationships.  There was a post in the science topic, quite old now, that speculated that only a few genes might be involved in the further expansion of the prefrontal lobes, which are implicated in “thinking ahead” and decision making.  If that is true then it might not be as hard a task to discover which allelels affect the development of that part of the brain. Remember, I’m coming from the multiple intelligences model of Gardner’s, so we are not talking about finding all of the genes that impact overall intelligence.  Just the ones that improve foresight, etc.

[quote author=“psiconoclast”]So, by sterilizing vast sectors of the population, in order to select for a handful of genes, we would buy ourselves only a small amount of time (given that even the most brilliant of human minds are not that far behind the others when it comes to hitting the wall if exponential information increase continues), and that time would be paid for with a staggering amount of human biodiversity (not to mention a bunch of highly agitated people, unless of course they were killed, but that has its perils too).

I don’t know why we would only buy a small amount of time or why we would choose to let the information load continue to increase.  After all, we are the source of the change in information load.  If 90% of the population (and likely it would need to be more like 99%) were to suddenly stop reproducing, inside of 50 years the population would be reduced to nearly one third by attrition (assuming we don’t expand life extending medicine to 90% of the world population which seems unlikely).


[quote author=“psiconoclast”]I think that the answer to the problem is essentially the same as the cause of the problem: computers.  Computers are pushing this information out and around, true, but they are also increasing the ability for people to parse, process, and use the information.  In other words, the integration of computers and human brains has already begun.  Currrent advances in medicine seem to indicate that much closer integration is possible though, and the results should prove interesting.

The real question, I suppose, is whether the population in general will accept the inevitable implants or not, and whether the implants will be widely available, or reserved for a selct few.

I am not nearly as confident as you seem to be that technology will solve our problems.  I admit technology will be a necessary element in solving these problems, but I don’t think we can expect miracles. The integration of which you speak involves very primitive prosthetics (see last month’s issue of Scientific American).  I wouldn’t expect this to do much to improve our information processing (the thinking part).

[quote author=“psiconoclast”]I guess what I am getting at is that I’m on board with your notion that there is a(n) (potential) information processing crisis brewing, but I don’t see eye to eye with regards to all of the implications or with your proposed solution.

-Matt

I’m not sure what all of the implications are.  I’m just trying to get a conversation started about what I see as a possible, and obviously dangerous future for sapiens.  I just ask others to think about these things for a while.  I know we all will react with disbelief that our species could actually be coming to the end of its rope.  But when you look at the state of the world (e.g., Wackernagle, the developer of the Ecological Footprint, estimates we could already have overshot our resources by at least one whole Earth!) and understand the nature of exponential rates and momentum, its hard to think “Oh everything will work out OK. It always has in the past!”

Thank you for your thoughts.

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Posted: 19 May 2005 05:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Voice:

The point is that there is more than one way to deal with increasing information loads.

Even before computers, people developed social networks (schools, for instance) to organize many brains to help process things that needed processing.  Today, the Internet allows effectively unlimited ad-hoc organization of human brains and digital engines in many different configurations.

I think that the mistake to be made here is to assume that humanity must increase the cognitive potential of individual minds in order to progress.  That computers will eventually be medically integrated into human minds is almost inevitable, but certainly not essential for the trend of networks which mix humans and computers to continue to increase their potential.

With regard to humanity being at the end of its rope. . .  Well life is always a race against extinction, we are just more aware of it now.  As long as people only live on one planet, though, there is a very real chance that we will vanish in a single accident.  In order to guarantee future survival, people must forge independantly sustainable lives beyond the confines of our planet.

-Matt

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Posted: 19 May 2005 05:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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[quote author=“fencesitter”]Information overload is certainy growing, though I’m not convinced that it will lead to the extinction of a species.  Proving it is going to happen is a bit of a problem indeed. It even if there is proof, I don’t think much would or could be done. We have somewhat reached a point of no return. The human race is still doing very little about global warming even with the astounding evidence.

Information, in the sense that I am using it, is the measure of how improbable the state of the world that we observe is from moment to moment.  This improbability is based on each observer’s a priori expectation of what the world will do next.  We are talking about information in every sensory input, not just what we get from news or TV. If the world produces dramatic storms that cause massive damage and loss of life, it was because we were unprepared.  Why? Because we didn’t expect them.  We didn’t expect them because they had never happened in the past with such ferocity.  So we expect the future to be like the past, but when it isn’t that is informational.

Normal information processing means we learn from what happens to us.  We then prepare for the future.  We build stronger buildings, so to speak. But with information overload a different thing happens.  There is no learning.  We don’t prepare for the future.  Because we just can’t conceive that these storms will come again.  This isn’t a conscious choice.  When the brain has been overloaded it just can’t process the information and it is lost.  This is where the “coping” mechanisms, particularly denial, comes into play. 

Do you mean the thesis proves out in the long run to be correct.  Surely you don’t mean proof in the sense of a mathematical proof.

[quote author=“fencesitter”]If your thesis is proven then I think some sort of anarchy might be the key to our survival. The movie “Fight Club” comes to mind. “Erase the debt and we all go back to 0”. We’d then be left with the strongest surviving to dry their catch on some abandoned interstate highway that is slowly being overtaken by the natural flora and fauna.

In my mind that would be regressive.  It is true that at the micro level, evolution doesn’t have a direction, but for all of the history of evolution on this planet we seem to have progressed toward better information processing capacity as the environment became informationally richer.  If we revert to survival of the strongest, meanest sob on the block, what have we gained?  Couple that with the fact that this population has effectively used up the easy (and not so easy) to get resources so that any survivors of an anarchy scenario would not have any way to restart civilzation.  Of course that might be a good thing for the rest of the surviving biosphere.

[quote author=“fencesitter”]I think the answer to the above question isn’t but would be… Keep on Living. Sort of like: what should we do if I’m wrong? Answer: keep on living. Because I think ulimately that is what will happen regardless of having insight about the future.

I’m the first to admit that I’ve suffered from information overload, but I hardly think that I would ever fall back to believing in the supernatural.

Perhaps.  But I have known avowed atheists who, when the bullets were flying, started praying!

[quote author=“fencesitter”]I think that even the most intelligent among us would and have experience information overload in some everyday circumstances. I don’t think the shift in information overload calls for drastic action, it just calls for the genus to specialize, which is what he are doing now. Specialization actually gives a person more intellectual prowness than the average person had 50 years ago. I think that specialization has its drawbacks though, but I think it works to keep people from having to resort to religion.

As you say, specialization can only go so far and has its drawbacks.  Today, I see more demand for workers with wider varieties of skills and knowledge, not narrower.  The workplace today needs more and more integration.  A worker in the “knowledge economy” cannot afford to just specialize in the sense that an assembly line worker could 50 years ago.

[quote author=“fencesitter”]I think society is embracing or catching-on to technology and information at a necessary rate. It has been held back in the recent past by intellectual laziness, fear of change, and the “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but I think information overload is being dealt with as necessary.

——Adapt and modify——

I wish I could see the evidence for this last statement.  I see quite the opposite.  I see too many, supposedly educated people turning their backs on intellectual work that would serve them by becoming better citizens.  I offer as a simple example of my observation the nature of television programming in the US.  The popularity of these so-called reality shows saddens me.  The rejection of the dangers of global warming by a substantial number of people who ought to be able to investigate the scientific reports and reason through the consequences, but don’t bother because they just can’t believe such a calamity could be real, saddens me.

I suppose I could go on, but I will stop there.  Thank you for your thoughts.

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Posted: 19 May 2005 05:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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[quote author=“psiconoclast”]Voice:

The point is that there is more than one way to deal with increasing information loads.

Even before computers, people developed social networks (schools, for instance) to organize many brains to help process things that needed processing.  Today, the Internet allows effectively unlimited ad-hoc organization of human brains and digital engines in many different configurations.

I think that the mistake to be made here is to assume that humanity must increase the cognitive potential of individual minds in order to progress.  That computers will eventually be medically integrated into human minds is almost inevitable, but certainly not essential for the trend of networks which mix humans and computers to continue to increase their potential.

With regard to humanity being at the end of its rope. . .  Well life is always a race against extinction, we are just more aware of it now.  As long as people only live on one planet, though, there is a very real chance that we will vanish in a single accident.  In order to guarantee future survival, people must forge independantly sustainable lives beyond the confines of our planet.

-Matt

I hope you are right.  Please see my previous post to fencesitter re: what kind of information I am talking about.  The kind you are talking about, I think, is limited to human-generated, symbolic messages.  I am referring to a more general notion of information that I hope I explained in that post.  If it is unclear, please say so and I will try again.

I sense that you have a great faith in human ingenuity and the potential of technology.  As I say, I hope your beliefs bear out.  After working in the information technology arena (both commercial and academic) for nearly forty years, I’m having doubts.  All of the devices we are inventing will be useful, certainly, but the shere volume of data that we have to face is sometimes imponderable.  Also, I should say that every time we invent some new information processing capability we use it to generate much more information!  Its like every time we answer a question in science, we simply find ten times more questions to answer!  I realize that is both a problem and an opportunity.  But it is only the latter is we have the time to assimilate the new state of things.  My thesis is that the rate of generation has exceeded the rate of assimilation.  Well time will tell.

But I do appreciate your response and the opportunity to share my thoughts.

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Posted: 19 May 2005 09:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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Information, in the sense that I am using it, is the measure of how improbable the state of the world that we observe is from moment to moment.  This improbability is based on each observer’s a priori expectation of what the world will do next.  We are talking about information in every sensory input, not just what we get from news or TV. If the world produces dramatic storms that cause massive damage and loss of life, it was because we were unprepared.  Why? Because we didn’t expect them.  We didn’t expect them because they had never happened in the past with such ferocity.  So we expect the future to be like the past, but when it isn’t that is informational.

Normal information processing means we learn from what happens to us.  We then prepare for the future.  We build stronger buildings, so to speak. But with information overload a different thing happens.  There is no learning.  We don’t prepare for the future.  Because we just can’t conceive that these storms will come again.  This isn’t a conscious choice.  When the brain has been overloaded it just can’t process the information and it is lost.  This is where the “coping” mechanisms, particularly denial, comes into play.

I like your explaination of information. Basically I understand it as: we don’t learn from what happens to us or others because there are just too many things happening to us and around us to take preventative measures. ie. A levee that is struggling to hold back flood waters has too many holes forming to keep up with, so we’re left patching only the larger holes in the levee while all the time considering the small holes collateral damage without even having the ability (time) to conceive that making the levee thicker would solve all the problems. Eventually we can’t keep up with all the holes in the levee so we shut down and pray that the flood waters subside. The waters eventually subside and we are still left praying that they don’t come back, and if they do, god will take care of us again. And the levee remains vulnerable thus do the people.

Could you provide some actual significant examples of this information overload-causing-shutdowns currently taking place? An example where preventative measures are not even being conceived of? You’ve sparked my curiousity.

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Posted: 22 May 2005 03:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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[quote author=“fencesitter”]
I like your explaination of information. Basically I understand it as: we don’t learn from what happens to us or others because there are just too many things happening to us and around us to take preventative measures. ie. A levee that is struggling to hold back flood waters has too many holes forming to keep up with, so we’re left patching only the larger holes in the levee while all the time considering the small holes collateral damage without even having the ability (time) to conceive that making the levee thicker would solve all the problems. Eventually we can’t keep up with all the holes in the levee so we shut down and pray that the flood waters subside. The waters eventually subside and we are still left praying that they don’t come back, and if they do, god will take care of us again. And the levee remains vulnerable thus do the people.

Could you provide some actual significant examples of this information overload-causing-shutdowns currently taking place? An example where preventative measures are not even being conceived of? You’ve sparked my curiousity.

That is a pretty good capture of the idea behind information as I understand it.  Good analogy.

As for a specific example, the one that comes to my mind is the general public’s responses to warnings about climate change due to global warming.  In talking to many people about this, I have definitely seen no small number of people who, I believe are either in denial, or are simply overwhelmed by the information they have to process in order to arrive at an understanding of what is happening to our planet.  The sheer magnatude of the problem is overwhelming.  I know some very smart people who find it very easy to simply say something like, “if the president doesn’t think its a problem, then it isn’t a problem”.  To know whether it is a problem or not would require one to dig deep into the scientific literature on the issue.  They just don’t want to bother.  If it is worth knowing they’ll find out about it on the 6:00 news!  In my view they have effectively shut down on the information input side.

I don’t know if that is what you meant as an example.  There are many examples from clinical and animal psychology of individuals going into avoidance behaviors when overloaded.  Perhaps that is what you meant.

Thank you for your very nice analogy and your comments.

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Posted: 23 May 2005 12:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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There are lots of examples of this sort of thing, but I am going to play devil’s advocate here.

Voice:  Your smart friends know that the environment is an issue, but until the president does something about it, they are unwilling to look silly by not playing follow the leader.

Consider, if you will:  Do your smart friends believe that when they drive their cars it is good, neutral, or bad for the environment?  They know it is bad.  Does it stop them from hopping into their car on a whim?  Not at all.  They know that it is better for the planet to drive as little as possible.  This is not a case of information overload, it is a case of terminal selfishness, and anything that is said is simply a thinly veiled rationalization.

Consider the grocery store.  Does anyone really think that the proliferation of plastic grocery bags is good?  Does anyone really dispute that it would be better if one had cloth grocery bags that they could use over and over again?  Nope.  But people continue to get plastic grocery bags.  Again, terminal selfishmenss.  Why put oneself out for the good of future generations?

It gets even stranger when you consider the sorts of legislation that people suppoprt - people will actually pass some pretty draconian environmental regulations.  Clearly they believe that there is a problem, and that something should be done about it.  Just as clearly, most people would rather that someone else do something about it.

I’ll go one better, and advance a hypothesis:  Human beings are genetically predisposed to do as little work as possible.  Everyone remembers what it is like to be a kid, in a room full of kids, when an authority figure suddenly demands that the room be picked up.  The kids start milling around, but only some of them dive right in to do the work.  The kids that wait, or work a little bit more slowly are following a basic imperative, which is not to do work if someone else will do it.

The risk reward aspect of the above scenario maps very well to environmental issues.  If the authority figure promises treats to the kids for a quick job, more of the kids will work more quickly, after all, the work is really not that big of a deal, and the reward is immediate.  Imagine, though, that the authority figure tells the kids that the reward is a nice helping of vegetables, but that they can drink soda while cleaning the room to help them work.  The room would never get clean.

The human race is like those kids.  People know what needs to happen, but the risks have not become sufficiently manifest, and the cost of doing what needs to be done would be felt immediately.

That isn’t information overload, it is gambling of a sort that we all seem wired for.

-Matt

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