1993: God, Man, & Information – Comments to Interval In-House (Full Text Online)

Briefings & Lectures



Tuesday, 9 March 1993

Robert David Steele

Executive Summary

Electromagnetic pollution–in the form of both increased levels of uncontrolled and misunderstood levels of emission, and in the form of broader and more intense bandwidth exploitation–constitutes the technical terror of the 21st century.[1]

There is another terror facing us in that era as well, and it is the terror of human isolation, of human irrelevance, of human disorientation, of human surrender to the madness of rationality run amok.

In essence, we face the prospects of technical and biological burn-out in the cultural equivalent of the Ice Age. Has man lost the ability to create civilization? It is in this context that we must consider the role of INTERVAL and the high priests of INTERVAL….hence the title of my rant, “God, Man, and Information: Comments to INTERVAL In-House”.

Civilization and the Devil

Will and Ariel Durant, writing in their wonderful little book The Lessons of History,[2] a book reflecting everything they had learned in the course of writing their history of civilization, concluded their work with the following remarks:

We have defined civilization as “social order promoting cultural creation.” It is political order secured through custom, morals, and law, and economic order secured through a continuity of production and exchange; it is cultural creation through freedom and facilities for the origination, expression, testing, and fruition of ideas, letters, manners, and arts. It is an intricate and precarious web of human relationships, laboriously built and readily destroyed.

Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man's understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.

History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use.

If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.

You at INTERVAL pretend, with some reason but no proof as yet, to be on a mission from God, at the heart of the revolution, intent on producing major change in the nature of community memory, of information flows, of the fundamental relationship between people, their environment, and information atmosphere within which those relationships evolve.

I recognize and applaud your basic premise, that information advances will relegate the term “computer” to oblivion. I am not so certain you are as sensitive to the socio-economic and ideo-cultural implications of what you are about. My comments, therefore, will focus on what I, as a disciple aspiring to serve God, would charge you–my fellow disciples–to accomplish as you proceed.

There is a devil in this schema, one articulated in that wonderful book of Lionel Tiger's The Manufacture of Evil: Ethics, Evolution, and the Industrial System.[3] It was his book which influenced the title and perhaps the content of my Whole Earth Review article on “E3I: Ethics, Ecology, Evolution, and Intelligence: An Alternative Paradigm for National Intelligence.”[4]

His discussion of the industrial system and its impact on human morality, on ethics, on kinship as a basis for restraint, is echoed in many ways in the books of Norman Cousins on The Pathology of Power,[5] and Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.[6] All three focus on the UNINTENDED OUTCOMES OF APPLIED HUMAN INTELLIGENCE. As you seek to apply information technology and endow man with the powers of a God, think carefully lest you also produce devils in equal or greater quantities.

Information Technology as the Devil's Instrument

We are talking about two things: on the one hand, the restoration of a sense of kinship among all peoples; and on the other, the elimination of poverty, pollution, and pestilence as physical impediments to the growth of all beings. You cannot be serve the Gods or be the stuff of legends if you do not seek such worthy objectives–anything less will relegate you to the category of successful nerds, and forever deny you the mantle of greatness to which you should aspire.

It is not enough to design and deliver ubiquitous multi-media personal communications devices, facilitate access to vast multi-media multi-lingual databases, or even catalogue and exploit gender and other differences necessary to “cast” people into more effective roles within complex organizations.

If what you do does not radically change the way individuals, from the tiniest baby to the oldest gray eagle, live their lives–how they eat, sleep, play, love, work, study, learn, and die–then you might as well accept the fact that you may be the brightest, but you will not be the best.

Alvin Toffler, in his mass media book PowerShift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century,[7] makes the point that information is a substitute for violence, for wealth, for capital, for labor, for time, and for space. That is your starting point. What can you do to create information tools and techniques which eliminate violence, create wealth, and nurture a spectacular order of magnitude increase in human progress, both in the sciences and in the arts? Or stated in another way, what can you do to avoid creating the tools of apocalypse, and empower man rather than destroy him?

Effecting Constructive, or Civilized, Change

This is what we are about. There are some obvious roadblocks. As Machiavelli put it so succinctly in The Prince:[8]

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.

For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it. You are as familiar as I with the difficulty of proposing new things, and with Pogo's even more succinct statement, “We have seen the enemy and he is us”. What I find interesting about Machiavelli's comment are two implied points: one, that the laws favor the status quo and are against change, and two, that mankind accepts change only when it is overwhelmed, or immersed in change it cannot deny.

Let me talk about the concept of change for a moment, just to give us a frame of reference for thinking about how you are going to try to produce major change.

Let's begin by sketching a simple matrix–across the top we will have the dimensions of life: political-legal, military, socio-economic, ideo-cultural, techno-demographic, and natural-geographic. Just think about that for a second. Change isn't just a matter of altering political communications, or economic calculations, or social relationships, or ideological constructs, or cultural beliefs. Nor is it only about changes in technique, or changes in demographic patterns, natural patterns, or geographic conditions. Change can occur across all those dimensions.

Now what about the other side of our matrix? Here I draw on Charles Hampden-Turner's excellent book from the 1970's, Radical Man,[9] in which he outlines a number of character traits which distinguish the radical person from the conventional “non-hacker”. As I go through these, consider how your tools and techniques might alter individual capabilities:

  • Perception is the ability to see discrepancies between what is and what might be; the ability to gather and appreciate undistorted information; the ability to aggregate the experiences of others.
  • Identity pertains to the ability of the individual to recognize both his own limitations and the limitations inherent in his environment–thus a sensitivity to external conditions, and especially the subtleties of nascent conditions, is vital.
  • Competence combined perception and identity into a personal ability to establish and achieve goals, a personal efficiency.
  • Investment requires the authentic and intense dedication of one's capacities to a common good.
  • Suspension refers to the ability to risk one's self and one's beliefs in open confrontation with others, permitting the recognition of unfiltered and unadulterated information; this must be complemented by adaptability.
  • Extroversion, a complementary trait to investment and suspension, is the active effort by an individual to inter-act with others, integrating their perspectives and goals with one's own; participation is critical.
  • Transcendence is external, reflecting one's success at making a contribution to others as demonstrated in their adoption of one's perspectives or objectives. Equality of opportunity, of access to information, is a foundation for the interaction that leads to transcendence.
  • Synergy comes about when extroversion on the part of many radical beings not only effects transcendence, but leads to a “larger than life” shift enhancing the abilities and perspectives of the group as a whole. Synergy is the actualization of community, and here I believe we start to show the relevance of this discussion to your mission.
  • Complexity is the reconciliation of dichotomies discovered in facing others and the environment, leading to more and more complex integrations–the balance represented by this trait is–in a word–sanity.

What I take from the above is that change comes from people, and that what you should be about is the empowerment of people qua radical beings, in relation to one another. You must avoid at all costs any techniques or tools which isolate individuals or give them the false perception that they can exist remotely, or in their own “virtual” worlds. That is a narcotic and narcisstic vision, and like narcotics and the pool of Narcissus, will ultimately lead to death by overdose or death by drowning.

Now quickly, a look at the concept of change. Change can be good, change can be bad. Besides types of change, we should be aware of the extent of change, the scope of change, the pattern of change, and the rate of change.

We've talked about the types of change–you can have political conspiracies and movements, legal abrogations, social uprisings, economic insurrections, ideological antistrophes, cultural renaissances–these are more or less major change patterns. In the minor change area we have technological strikes, demographic rebellions, natural catastrophes, geographic conquests, and military coups. I put them in the minor arena mostly because they have less to do with fundamental changes in people, and more to do with the external conditions of the people.

It seems to me that your focus should be on those tools and techniques which are politically and legally survivable, and which have profound effects on the socio-economic and ideo-cultural fabric of the Nation and the larger global environment within which its citizens seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

  • The extent of change can be negligible, moderate, significant, severe, or catastrophic. I would shoot for significant change, meaning a 50% change in how people live over the course of two generations.
  • The scope of change can be contained, scattered, or pervasive. Here nothing less than pervasive is acceptable. Your influence must reach from the Arctic tundra to Afghan campfires.
  • The pattern of change can be random, sporadic, or consistent. Initially you will have a random impact, then a sporadic impact, and ultimately–if you succeed–a consistent impact.
  • The rate of change can be slow, steady, fast, or rapid. I do not believe that slow change will be effective. Even steady change could lose momentum. I would shoot for change agents which shock the system and alter pre-conceptions. Your tools and technique must “radicalize” the people and cause them to demand fast change rather than incremental change in how they live and work.

What does this all mean? Is it enough to content yourself with creating a few Star Trekish tools, enabling global video-telecommunications (and I assume you will solve the simultaneous speaker-independent voice recognition and translation problem in passing), enabling access to multi-media databases, and thinking about casting people into complex environments?

Absolutely not. Those are worthy goals, but they are irrelevant and perhaps even dangerous in the absence of a broader philosophy of life. They are also nothing more than toys for the rich unless you can make them available to every human, however deprived of current goods and services. What is it we should pursue? I put it to you that you should pursue no goal less worthy than the total revitalization of the globe, the total integration of all peoples in all places, in health and prosperity.

The idea that we might be at the end of history is idiocy if not insanity. As Brent Scowcroft noted over a year ago before an intelligence community forum,[10] we are in fact resuming history where we left off in the early 1900's–the Balkans in turmoil, the roused Chinese giant, the backward Third World, the United States of America at the beginning of another “roaring twenties”. What comes next?

Power and Democracy

As I speculate about the future, I note with interest that power, and the relationships between people, have moved from foundations that are observable, measurable, and exhaustible, to foundations, just being recognized (but not necessarily understood) today, which are non-observable or intangible, not measurable in a quantitative sense, and inexhaustible. In the earliest days, physical strength, then consanguinity, then wealth and military violence were the sources of power. In the intermediate stage, the ability to control resources, generally tangible resources, provided the power to make change.

Now, as information becomes a substitute for time, for space, for capital, and for labor, it is the ability to control information, and exploit information, that grants the power to protect the status quo or to make change.[11]

Taking Limits to Growth[12]as a simplistic but useful model of how things can go bad, what does this mean to you? To me it means that I must regard information as a tool for altering the behavior of individuals and the organizations to which they belong, and in passing for increasing individual control over public and private organizations. Any tools I design must have, by definition, a direct positive impact on the behavior of their users and organizations at large.

Pollution, population growth, crime, drug dependencies, arms proliferation–these are fundamental behavioral problems caused by a disconnect between what people want for themselves, what the planet can provide, and what people are–largely out of ignorance–doing to their own habitat.

The reality is that wealth can be translated into information power, and that the apathy of the people is allowing private wealth to control public information. We are very, very close to private tyranny.

There are a few fundamental concepts in public administration, including the concepts of accountability, administrative ecology and power, incremental public choice, information networks and systems of cooperative effort, budgeting as a political manifestation of organized trade-offs, and the moral ambiguities of public choice.[13]

Accountability depends on openness. As John Ralston Saul argues so well in Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West,[14] secrecy and the cult of expertise have in fact undermined humanism and created a pathological civilization, a civilization of decline. Consider:[15]

The invention of the secret is perhaps the most damaging outgrowth of the power produced when control over knowledge was combined with the protective armor of civilization. Until recently very little was considered improper to know. Today the restricted lists are endless.

These restrictions have been counterbalanced over the last thirty years by an apparent explosion in individual freedoms. This breakdown of social order–rules of dress, sexual controls, speech patterns, family structures–have been seen as a great victory for the individual. On the other hand, it may simply be a reflection of the individual's frustration at being locked up inside a specialization. These acts of personal freedom are irrelevant to the exercise of power. So in lieu of taking a real part in the evolution of society, the individual struggles to appear as if no one has power over his personal evolution. Thus victories won for these individual liberties may actually be an acceptance of defeat by the individual.

Not since the etiquette-ridden courts of the eighteenth century has public debate been so locked into fixed positions, fixed formulas and fixed elites expert in rhetoric.

In fact, the question which arises is whether the rational approach has not removed from democracy its greatest single strength–the ability to act in an unconventional manner.

The ability to act in an unconventional manner. Let us hold that thought as we look at other fundamentals. Administrative ecology, administrative power, incremental public choice. Who is really in charge of our civilization and our commonweal? The Office of Technology Assessment not-withstanding, the reality is that our civilization and our government in particular, but all governments in general, are out of control. Each area of specialization, from defense to energy to agriculture, is the captive of mindless and amoral specialists who have no interest in holistic policy or the public good. In the absence of kinship, of family, of religion, or even of ideas, man has been domesticated in the worst sense of the word.

Where do we go from here? How do we liberate information, and in liberating information liberate man and restore the God-like capability of creating and nurturing civilization as the Durants have described civilization?

I am certain in my heart that if a Third World mother understood, explained in her own cultural context, that she would count on her first two children living and being prosperous, and that any additional children she had would impair the chances of the first two to achieve that prosperity, that this would alter her behavior. This is not a trivial problem, and it is certainly far more complex than simply programming the heuristics of a birth control counselor in New Delhi. What we are talking about here is the creation of a vast global information network which simultaneously takes in all available information about the state of the world in all its dimensions (remember–political, socio-economic, etcetera), and communicates to single individual human beings information they need and want in order to act with good sense.

Would corporations and individuals cheat on their taxes if they were certain they would be caught? Would people steal if they could rely on being able to earn enough for a day's shelter and food simply by sitting at a public terminal and thinking about a problem offering immediate pay-out at that terminal? In other words, if we had a global system for mining the intellect of all beings, however modestly endowed, would we in fact have discovered how to turn lead into gold?

Must our children be sentenced to twelve years of prison, to an educational gulag where rote learning keeps them from LIVING, from working at interesting occupations, from THINKING? Do we not have the tools and techniques NOW with which to liberate our children, and have the incoming kindergarten glass be the first generation to be empowered as a common population with the power to think their way to prosperity?

These are not trivial questions, and the answers are not easy ones. As you develop your information tools and your innovative ways of linking humans to humans and humans to data, bear in mind the fact that your foundation for the future is that mother in New Delhi, that individual now isolated and impoverished, who cannot yet understand the tools we have today, much less the tools of tomorrow. If you are to be Gods, your lighting must strike there, not here. It is easy to be a God on drugs, in isolation, within a virtual world. It is much more difficult to be a God among the terrors of reality. If the fertility of the simple undermines the general level of intelligence and civic commitment around the globe, then you must consider this fundamental biological imperative as you formulate your campaign plan for effecting change.

By all that has preceded, that change can only be true change, fundamental change, if it is unconventional in character. How does one empower people without regard to status or wealth or location? Could it be something as basic as integrating information processing tools into the water supply, or into basic grains? How do we enable every person to “jack in” to cyberspace? How do we balance our technical specializations with the general needs of the human population? Who, here at INTERVAL, is your ombudsman for humanity?

To conclude my rant, let us end as we began, with the Durants:[16]

The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionaries are philosophers and saints.

[1] I am indebted to Rob Tow, for extending the invitation to speak to INTERVAL in-house, for his guiding remarks about Paul Allen's “intent” in creating INTERVAL, and for his comments on the first draft of this paper.

[2] (Simon & Schuster, 1968), pages 87, 101-102.

[3] (Harper & Row, 1987)

[4]  (Fall 1992), with online discussion @ well.sf.ca.us, wer conference, topics 268 and 288.

[5] (W.W. Norton & Company, 1987)

[6] (Basic Books, 1984)

[7] (Bantam Books, 1990). For a superb review, see 2ndLt Michael J. Castagna, USMC, “Executive Book Report“, in Proceedings (Volume I) of the First International Symposium on “National Security & National Competitiveness: Open Source Solutions,” (OSS, 1992).

[8] (Modern Library Edition, 1940), p. 21.

[9] (Anchor Books, 1971)

[10] Speaking in his capacity as National Security Advisor to the President, to the Security Affairs Support Association, at the Defense Intelligence Agency, date unrecalled.

[11] Supra note 7, page 84.

[12] Dennis and Donnella Meadows and Jorgen Randers (Signet, 1972).

[13] A “primer” on these concepts is provided by Richard J. Stillman, II in Public Administration: Concepts and Cases (Houghton Mifflin, 1983). For an examination of how information technology and public administration concepts affect one another, see my paper, “Artificial Intelligence and Complex Public Organizations“, December 1986.

[14]  (Free Press, 1992)

[15] Page 29, last quote from page 27.

[16] Supra note 1, page 72.

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