Humanity: Excessive ingenuity, insufficient wisdom

The pace of technological and societal change (“progress”) accelerated dramatically in the 20th Century. Misuse of new technologies caused horrible events, like the nuclear annihilation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But, overall, humanity benefited greatly from 20th Century technologies.

Unfortunately, the pace and breadth of technological change has now grown out of control. No one can possibly understand all the technological advances, their possible ramifications, and how various new technologies may interact with one another.

So I’ve long feared and expected that — in addition to many obvious possible threats, like nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants, chemical and biological weapons, environmental degradation, etc. — technological acceleration would produce an acceleration in the pace of emergent threats we hadn’t even contemplated as threats.

The Gulf of Mexico oil “volcano” is exactly the sort of surprise I’ve been expecting. As our drilling technology improved, we’ve drilled in places deeper and more remote than ever before. And that has — obviously — led to an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The housing bubble & collapse is another example. In “the old days” (just a generation or two back), a local savings & loan association would lend money to local home owners. They knew what they were lending out and to whom. Over the past decade, financial innovation created sophisticated “investment vehicles” so complicated that ratings agencies could rate collections of subprime junk mortgages full of liar loans as “AAA” safe and professional investors half way around the world scarfed them up for their pension funds. This worked only because the world is so large and complicated that investors didn’t have time to investigate what they were buying and instead relied completely on the “AAA” ratings, even though those ratings were completely tainted because the sellers of junk mortgages were paying the ratings agencies for those ratings. As complexity increases, understanding decreases and danger increases.

Another example is the Large Hadron Collider:

protons… were whipped to more than 99 percent of the speed of light and to record-high energy levels of 3.5 trillion electron volts apiece raced around a 17-mile underground magnetic track outside Geneva

Safe or unsafe? Who’s to know? We don’t have a complete unified theory of physics, so we’re smashing together particles at faster and faster speeds to see what happens. Could we create a tiny black hole that grows larger and larger, eventually swallowing up our planet? Even the experts don’t know for sure. We do, however, know enough not to trust “experts” to tell us it’s completely safe:

the first attempt to start the collider ended with an explosion that left part of its tunnel enveloped in frigid helium gas and soot when an electrical connection between two of the powerful magnets that steer the protons vaporized.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the collider was riddled with thousands of such joints, a result of what Lucio Rossi, head of magnets at CERN, said was a “lack of adequate risk analysis,” in a recent report in the online journal Superconductor Science and Technology. As a result, the collider, which was designed to accelerate protons to seven trillion electron volts, then smash them together to reveal particles and forces that reigned during the first trillionth of a second of time as we know it, can only be safely run for now at half power.

Darwinian evolution usually unfolds through a series of small, incremental changes. Many random mutations prove harmful and die out. Some random mutations prove beneficial and slowly spread throughout the gene pool. But large-scale mutations almost always prove harmful and lead to rapid death or, at least, rapid extinction from the gene pool.

The same is true with ecosystems. Ecosystems can adapt to small changes in climate but struggle with large changes, like a volcanic eruption that destroys all life for miles in every direction. Slow changes in temperature lead plants and animals to slowly migrate north/south or up/down. You can even see treelines on mountains above which trees find it impossible to survive. Global warming is slowly moving treelines higher and moving animals and plants northward (and the northern-most animals, like polar bears, are finding survival increasingly difficult).

Though adaptation responds well to slow changes, the faster the pace of change, the harder adaptation becomes.

And that’s a scary thought because humanity seems hell-bent on discovering everything it can and on instantly using everything it knows to exploit every resource on this planet for maximal profit.

If you think things are bad now, just wait. As our ingenuity drives an ever-quickening knowledge-and-technology explosion, we will use our newfound knowledge and technology in increasingly dangerous ways, often with no comprehension of how dangerous our actions are. If we don’t slow down, we’ll likely do ourselves in through a “known unknown” or an “unknown unknown.”

Posted by James on Tuesday, May 11, 2010