Friday, July 12, 2013

Monkeys with Flamethrowers

Good article about why technology won't save us: new technology will be wielded by warlike, hierarchical, hairless savannah apes:
If a Stone Age man were suddenly granted the ability to fly, what’s the first thing he would do? Glide over mountaintops and converse with eagles? Soar high into the heavens like Icarus to greet the gods? Or would baser emotions rule his response?

In the mid-1500s, Europeans colonized the fertile coastlines of New Guinea and for the next four centuries they presumed the rugged jungle highlands of the interior were uninhabited. But in 1938, an American zoologist flew his plane over a previously unexplored region known as the Baliem Valley. To his astonishment, lights twinkled in the darkness below: the cooking fires of the Dani.

The Dani were a Stone Age people, the last humans still living in the same conditions as when wooly rhinoceroses and Volkswagen-sized beavers roamed the Earth. The Dani had never invented the wheel, plow, or lever. Their weaponry consisted of stone-tipped spears.

After a tense period of mutual suspicion and wonder—and a struggle to learn each other's strange tongue—the scientist offered the Dani a transcendent gift: a ride in his airplane. These men who never guessed the world was round would now fly high above it, expanding their awareness of the universe and their place in it.

The two tattooed and loin clothed men who volunteered showed no concern at the prospect of leaving terra firma. In fact, they seemed downright eager. But when they arrived to board the plane they each carried a large and heavy stone. Baffled, the scientist asked to the purpose of this strange cargo. Perhaps they wanted to remain in contact with Mother Earth as they slipped her surly bonds?

"We want you to fly over the village to the south," explained the Dani men. "Our enemies. We are going to drop these stones on their heads."

The airplane didn't transform the nature of human hostility, it transformed the power of hostility. Even when our species attains revolutionary new technology, we are far more likely to adapt it to our existing habits than use it to expand our perceptions and behaviors. The brain of Stone Age man gazed upon a flying machine and instead of seeing a means to forever change his world he saw a way to strengthen a familiar method of attack.

Similarly, when European missionaries first encountered the Yanomamo people in the Amazon rainforest, these indigenous horticulturalists were living in a state of perpetual violence. If a Yanomamo man felt insulted by another man he might express his rage using ten-foot clubs, wooden spears, or curare-tipped arrows. The primary constraint upon such violence was the fact that one's opponent (and his vindictive family) possessed similar physical strength and weaponry. Into this retaliatory culture of sticks and stones the missionaries thrust a radical new technology: the shotgun.

The first indigenes to obtain shotguns were not more mature, intelligent, or moral than their brethren. They were simply lucky enough to reside near a missionary camp. These Yanomamo returned to their villages and promptly settled old scores. More than one hated chief had his head blown off. Lethal rage, always present and acceptable within Yanomamo society, was no longer counterbalanced by the threat of symmetric retaliation. The homicide rate—already far higher than the rate in modern urban ghettoes—quickly doubled. The shotgun revolutionized the power of rage.
A Billion Angry Brains: An Investigation of Online Hostility (Psychology Today)

Something to keep in mind the next time someone tells you how artificial intelligence, or genetic engineering, or thought-controlled computers or thorium reactors, or whatever, is going to make the world a better place. Heck, look at what most drones are used for. Despite all the articles about drones helping farmers or stopping crime, ninety-plus percent are used for killing.

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