Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Uneasiness in social media led to a conspiracy theory of my own making. But if it was true, what did it mean and what should we do?

I have a confession. I got pulled down the Rabbit Hole again. As before, my feelings were triggered by a series of events and words in the news, resulting in an overwhelming need to react. The reaction involved publicly sharing both the triggers and the emotional meaning I assigned to them, along with implicit and explicit cries for help to deal with them and options and insights for doing so. Because the reaction was public, it offended people who were not triggered while resonating with others who had been similarly triggered. 

Others have experienced the same thing as interacting groups formed along pre-existing values, biases, and identities, and moved to dominate, cooperate with, or isolate each another based on how much they had in common. This dynamic has been repeated with more and more frequency as feedback loops developed. Triggering events and communications have proliferated, like the effects of a virus that has found an efficient way of delivering its load to the most people, and is simultaneously mutating at such a rate that its impacts cannot be anticipated and therefore defended against. The end result may well be the dissolution of the society.

Intellectually, it is straightforward to deduce through basic logic and observation that the origin of the "infection" and "mutations" might be a very small group of people using psychology and information technology in a sophisticated version of the classic divide-and-rule strategy to hold onto personal power they perceive as jeopardized by most people collaborating with each other. They are gambling that whoever emerges victorious from the conflict will be easier to control than the unified group that was emerging before it; and judging from the experience so far, they could be right. This understanding, which needs to be verified, points to a solution that mirrors treatment of a runaway virus: isolate the source from the population; find and stop the means of transmission in the population; and then safely eradicate the contagion. 

If the problem has been accurately defined, then before such a solution is implemented two big questions need to be answered, in large part because avoiding them has significantly contributed to the emergence of the problem. 

The first question is whether the "problem" is really a problem. Part of the population, in addition to those directly responsible, wants to live in a smaller group that is at least selectively isolated from others, with unrestricted access to all the resources they might conceivably exploit. It is not uncommon for them to complain that they and their values are not respected by the majority, even though they identify with people who for many years have held most of the social and economic power in the world. Competition is the arbiter of what is right, in their minds, and the "problem" is in reality a means of creating the best world.

Needless to say, the majority think differently, myself included. Everyone has an inherent right to live the way they want to, to the extent it does not infringe on another's ability to do so – which means that someone, an agent of all of us such as a government, must track and police the impacts people have on each other. Constantly raising the baseline quality of everyone's lives is as close to a definition of "best" as we have, which includes universal access to basic resources which are considered common and therefore off-limits to private control.

The second question is whether the "source" is a proximate rather than ultimate cause of the problem. If the putative engineers of disruption have specific traits and experiences that can only exist now, then they are collectively the ultimate cause. If those traits and experiences can be manifest in other people, or if some other variable is responsible for their direct involvement, then they as the source are the proximate cause. 

Common wisdom appears to come down on the side of a mix of both answers. Every once in a while, a few people with certain traits get enough power to do serious damage to the majority and must be treated as ultimate causes of whatever problem they are dealing with. The actual ultimate cause may be a combination of genetic and environmental factors interacting over a range of experiences that manifests those traits, which in turn find expression under chance conditions; but that's irrelevant since we can't control it.

I expect that humanity's long evolutionary and cultural history has cultivated a range of traits and behaviors in all populations that offer the best chance of survival over a broad range of environmental conditions. As conditions change, those traits and behaviors that enable survival in those conditions become dominant. The world is definitely undergoing major environmental changes, some which are very obvious (such as climate change) and others which are not (such as chemical impacts on our microbiome), so we should expect and perhaps encourage corresponding adaptive changes in our biology and culture. 

My own research has exposed strong correlations, if not outright causation, between environmental impact and multiple biological and cultural variables. This reflects the tenor, if not the specifics, of more detailed studies than mine, and suggests that what I've called attention to is not so much a problem in itself as a symptom of a larger "disease" we are all suffering from, in different ways and to varying degrees. 

The competitive preferences of the minority and manipulations of those who stand the most to lose from stagnant growth may be proximate causes of the population peak and decline that my simulations imply are most probable. In what feels perverse to someone like me, a decline in population that concentrates consumption among a few, albeit not for long, might enable a smaller number of people to survive longer – but not much longer.

As I am drawn to peer again into the abyss of the Rabbit Hole, I am toying with the idea of focusing all of my public discussion on issues and perspective rather than on individual people (which could still include links to relevant information), including the asking of leading questions and proposal of meaningful answers. The solution I've proposed as an alternative to a population crash will no doubt be a topic I revisit over and over, and necessarily include the treatment of public sabotage as a problem.

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