Stones That Speak

We're accustomed to thinking of ourselves as having free will. We're quite convinced that we're very different from inanimate matter.

Clods of dirt are inert. They move wherever they get kicked, and they won't move at all unless acted upon by something else.

It's certainly true that human beings as individuals are more than merely reactive, and aren't constrained to act only when acted upon. They have "minds of their own."

They're capable of a rich variety of behaviors. Humanity, en masse, however, may be a different matter.

Mass behavior is more like bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic. Although each car has a driver with a mind, the overall flow of traffic hardly has any intelligence at all. Our species hasn't yet evolved an effective collective mind.

Just like any other physical process in nature, societies relentlessly follow the path of least effort. We shouldn't be at all surprised to observe how social change usually happens only when it must happen, and not a moment before.

Of course, mass behavior isn't easy to predict. It's actually very complex and often chaotic, as any social scientist can tell you.

Looking at the broad sweep of history, however, free will at the level of the entire species seems to be ominously missing. History seems mostly to be a story of compulsion and expediency rather than of foresight and enlightened self-management.

This runs against the prevailing view of human nature held in Western societies. According to that view, humans -- even masses of humans -- have free will and some measure of thoughtful control over their behavior.

The major religious tradition in the West has for many centuries encouraged the belief in free agency and culpability. If humans didn't have free will, then they wouldn't be accountable for their sins -- and there'd be no need for a savior from sin.

Even in our modern, secular world, traces of this view remain as a philosophical residue from the religious past.

Religion has failed to fulfill its promise to transform human nature. This probably has little to do with the particular religions themselves. Even though Marxism was atheistic, it failed, in part because it also tried to force people to do what was not natural for them.

In the end, the path of least resistance always proves irresistible.

It's written that God could command even stones to speak and they would praise him. Maybe we're more like "stones that speak" than we care to admit, and our famous free will is really a sham.

The first step toward gaining control of our destiny as a species is admitting that we're helplessly enthralled to the path of least effort, just like any other physical substance.

This chapter raises some questions about human nature and how we might learn to cope with the burden of freedom.

The apparent path of least effort

Sometimes the easiest way to reach a goal may require choosing a course of action that appears longer and harder than others. The real path of least effort might be hidden among a tangle of paths that appear easier, but that really lead nowhere, or that may even to disaster.

Collectively, humanity behaves like a bee that has flown in through an open car window. The bee stubbornly tries to fly through the windshield because it sees the light outside.

About the only thing that will convince us to stop banging up against the windshield is knowledge. The wisest way to help people do their best is by making useful knowledge as freely available as possible. The root of most of our problems is ignorance.

Human history is like water flowing down a hill, trying to reach the lowest point at the bottom. Suppose that partway down the hill there's a small ridge forming a little valley which traps water.

The water could go on flowing downhill -- as it "wants" to do -- if it could only flow uphill a little when it comes to the ridge. The water is too "stupid" to escape, though, because it can only flow downhill.

Knowledge, in that case, is like a siphon or pump that pulls the water out of the local low spot so that it can continue flowing toward its goal, the overall low point at the bottom of the hill.

The classic case of the prisoner's dilemma shows how this principle applies to getting people to cooperate to achieve common goals.

A prisoner faces a 10-year stay in the penitentiary. Partway into his term he hears about a planned jailbreak. He faces a dilemma: 1) he can do nothing; 2) he can report the plan to the warden; or 3) he can join his cellmates in the escape. The first case -- doing nothing -- involves no risk at all, but neither does it offer any advantage.

Anyone who reports a planned jailbreak to the warden gets his sentence reduced by 5 years. That means that any one of the cellmates could gain at least something for himself, without risking anything, by taking the second choice and going to the warden.

The third choice -- joining the cellmates in the escape -- is the most interesting. It's the riskiest of the three choices, though, because a failed jailbreak gets you another 5 years tacked onto your term.

If all the prisoners can be persuaded that it's in their best interest to keep quiet and join the escape, then everyone stands to gain the most: complete and immediate freedom. The problem is getting all the prisoners to see this.

How can you be sure that some cheater isn't going to take choice #2, and suddenly go to the warden for a smaller, but safer, gain?

Cooperation usually involves this kind of dilemma. Most societies end up using coercion, rather than education, to enforce cooperation. In my opinion, the very most critical problem facing humanity today is to find a way of effectively educating the masses.

Even in our supposedly modern secular world, there's still a strong tendency, when seeking to make needed changes in the behavior of whole societies, to overlook the role of education, and to try instead to persuade people to supplant their natural human instincts with some higher moral principles.

That has always failed. There's no particular reason for believing that appealing to any kind of morality will ever succeed in changing human nature.

The City will help us act with collective intelligence and foresight. We won't be condemned to coast blindly along the cheap path of least resistance, as we are now.

Although the depth and breadth of people's education will still vary quite a lot, with some people being better educated than others, the mean level of education will be very much higher because of the City. Not only will individuals be better educated, the human species collectively will be better informed.

Just as colonies of social insects function as a single, large animal, the human species also has a collective behavior. The City will inform -- give form to -- that collective behavior, enriching it with imagination and intuition. The City will be a kind of global mind.

Freedom and noise

A society can afford to give its citizens freedom only to the extent that they have access to useful knowledge.

Without knowledge to show individuals the benefits of cooperative, constructive behavior, it's likely that collective behavior will be destructive, as each individual seeks his own immediate self-interest at the expense of the greater good.

Even when individuals understand the benefits of cooperation, they still may not be able to resist the short-term gains from self-interested, socially destructive behavior.

After all, aren't some people with master's degrees also crooks? Without knowledge to enlighten people's behavior, a society will always have to resort to coercion or threat of punishment to enforce its rules.

Coercion can never be as efficient or as humane as voluntary compliance. Winning and preserving freedom depends on access to knowledge.

There's no doubt that modern technologies plunge people into a bewildering state of freedom. Most of those technologies either involve changing materials from one form to another, or else transporting materials or persons from one place to another.

Modern technologies give us a lot of power over our environment. When it comes to learning how to use those tools wisely, though, we're on our own. Without intellectual tools for coping with so much freedom, it can actually be paralyzing.

Just like an animal suddenly caught in the headlamps of a speeding car, you can become incapacitated when confronted by too many choices. That's the burden of freedom.

When you don't have access to enough useful knowledge -- collected, selected, connected, and corrected -- freedom becomes anti-information or noise.

Running a modern technological society requires a vast amount of know-how. Building a modern transportation infrastructure, for example, requires a staggering amount of expertise. It's hard to grasp how much knowledge it takes to design and produce motor vehicles or aircraft.

A reliable electrical power system also depends on the intricate knowledge of armies of engineers and technicians. The world's telecommunications systems are probably the most impressive human technological achievement of all. Together they are the product of awesome wizardry.

Running a modern economy also requires a lot of knowledge, much of it too subtle to learn through textbooks. Law enforcement agencies depend on a great deal of practical knowledge, but more and more, they also make use of very sophisticated technologies to fulfill increasingly more overwhelming responsibilities.

Imagine that a small country without any modern technology suddenly gained access to a vast supply of wealth, and the leaders decided to turn the country into a Switzerland within a decade's time.

Money wouldn't be a consideration, but they would have to develop their own industries without importing technologies from other countries. In other words, they would have to hire experts to come and supervise the construction of a modern technological country starting from scratch.

Those of us who take such things for granted would be shocked to see how many experts and how much money would be needed to build that new Switzerland.

The problem in poor countries, of course, is that they don't have access to the trillions of dollars it would take to buy that expertise. Everything is linked. Without the know-how reliable electrical power systems, it's nearly impossible to run competitive businesses or factories.

One grave mistake often made today is to assume that its the destiny of every developing nation to become like Switzerland. In many ways, Switzerland is the product of its history and geography.

What is appropriate for Switzerland may not be at all the right kind of technology, for example, a tropical country with a very different history. As carpenters like to say, you've got to have the right tool for the right job.

Each region has to develop its own tools and way of life to exploit its unique history and geography. The problem again becomes knowing how to do that.

Creativity through cultural technology

A society's culture is strongly influenced by the tools its people use. In fact, if you want to think of traditions, attitudes, and intellectual inventions as being mental tools, then culture could be defined as a society's "total toolkit."

It's interesting to note how a society's toolkit affects the way its people live and think. Likewise, the way people think and live will often influence what kinds of tools they end up making.

In other words, there's a kind of feedback loop between humans and their tools, each influencing the other.

Humans are intensely cultural animals. Culture is a kind of extension of our genes. A human who was somehow reared in isolation from other humans would seem a lot like an ape -- a very clever ape.

Since the discovery of genes, a debate has raged over whether we are controlled by genetics or by culture. The nature vs. nurture controversy is moot, however, because both sources of influence are active.

Biology appears intent on denying purists on both sides a clear victory. Certainly, genes determine a great deal about how we behave and even what kind of abilities and interests we have.

Random, unpredictable events in the mind -- some having to do with what we call the will -- also play a role.

We shouldn't overlook the importance of the cultural toolkit, however, because ours is the primate lineage that has specialize in toolmaking.

An early species of hominid, from which we've descended, was already so skillful at making tools that paleoanthropologists call it Homo habilis, "Man the handy." Since then, we've gotten handier than ever.

It's worth asking, then, what effects the City will have on human cultures. After all, the City will be a very powerful tool.

Not only will it magnify people's mental abilities (as telescopes and microscopes enhance their vision), it may also inspire them to develop new creative abilities.

How could this be so? Consider, first of all, the stultifying effect that language often exerts over creativity. Words can be very much like prisons. They can make thinking become rigid and conformist.

Once a concept or experience gets codified with a name, people often tend to deal with the name rather than the concept or experience itself. This can be disastrous for the creative process because a name only reflects a narrow aspect of the entire concept or experience.

The rest easily gets forgotten. In a process called metonymy, we often invent a name for something that refers to the specific interaction we might have with it.

For example, a food server may speak of a person dining at a certain table as "the Hamburger" or "the Mahi Mahi fish."

Language also captures habits of thought. Language is itself made up of speech habits creatively cobbled together. Often, the only way to jar yourself loose from stale habits of thought is to purposely rename things.

Suppose that a certain object is called a gronker because it gronks. Nobody ever thinks of using a gronker to plonk with, though, because everyone knows that a gronker doesn't plonk; it gronks! Yet, it may turn out that gronkers are even better at plonking than plonkers are.

By partly freeing people from the rigidity of language and the mental classifications inherent in terminology, their habits of thinking will probably become more flexible and open.

Just as living systems are open and evolving, cultural systems must be too. As soon as a cultural system loses its ability to cope with new knowledge, it begins to stagnate.

Even at the individual level, it's important to remain open-minded and free of dogmatism in order to keep evolving and adapting.

The City will be incredibly dynamic and diverse. It will thrive on diversity. The more diversity, the better, because diversity provides more possibilities from which to select.

In other words, the more diversity there is, the more knowledge that can be "collected." Diversity is the basis for new information and also for creativity.

One of the great problems in today's culture of mass production and consumption is that people often fail to understand the importance of diversity. Mass production aims for uniformity in order to cut manufacturing costs.

It's hard for a system of mass production to cope with diversity because it has to select out and eliminate any irregularities. For knowledge production, however, diversity is like the raw steel from which the finished products are made.

The City may also help lower the wall dividing people who tend to analyze from those who tend to synthesize. People who think analytically like to look for ways that things differ.

Synthesists enjoy finding ways that things are related. Synthesists work well with metaphor and usually don't get too involved with the grisly details of a subject.

Analysts delight in precision, on the other hand. They tend to become uncomfortable with shades of gray, preferring things to be black or white. Most people are both analysts and synthesists, although certain occupations call for more of one kind of thinking than the other.

Synthesists tend to be artists, and are at home in the murky waters of the humanities. Analysts are usually engineers and technicians, where their ability to "keep all their ducks in order" gives them an advantage.

Creativity requires using both of these cognitive styles. By supporting the side of each person that's weakest, the City may help people become more creative.

The unique talents and contributions of individuals are what shape a culture and add to its fermentation. This evolutionary process also works the other way around, however.

Culture also helps the people working within it to develop their talents and abilities. For each human ability, there's usually at least one cultural activity that develops that ability to impressive heights. Music develops sensitivity to patterns of rhythm, pitch, and harmony in sound.

Dance engages the sense of space and movement. Mathematics trains the mind to pick out forms and relationships.

Culture has its own momentum. When people acquire cultural knowledge, they also acquire the skills and interests needed to develop culture even further. A person who could somehow absorb an entire culture (it would actually be impossible to do this in a single lifetime) would have developed almost every human faculty.

Culture trains and refines the people who participate in it. Skills acquired in one cultural activity will usually enhance development in another activity.

Ideally, people should acquire a broad range of cultural experience so that they can take full advantage of this skill transference principle. In practice, though, they end up having to focus on a narrow field if they want to become proficient enough to make a contribution.

The people who are most creative are often cultural generalists who have also specialized. This is difficult to do because there isn't ordinarily enough time both to generalize and to specialize.

Having a more effective medium for transmitting cultural knowledge won't replace the need for training. That will still take time.

However, just as a teacher can usually help a student avoid taking too many wrong turns during training, the City and the Facer will also make training more direct and effective by presenting the knowledge to be acquired more appropriately and naturally.

If you've ever tried to learn a skill through training, you know the frustration of spending years to learn it in a certain way, only to find out later that there was a better way and that you have to "unlearn" what you've already done.

The City will powerfully improve the way culture gets passed from generation to generation. Cultural education will be much deeper, broader, and above all more natural.

In a literate society, such as ours, much of the time spent acquiring new knowledge and cultural skills is wasted on struggling to overcome the limitations of writing. Like fish who can't see the water in which they swim, we can't see how encumbered we are by literacy.

We just take it for granted that acquiring cultural knowledge is a painstaking process lasting many years.

The powerful mind tools provided by the City will stimulate the evolution of radically new kinds of culture. Although those cultures won't change human nature, they'll at least be able to redirect it and make it more creative and inquisitive.

Cultural knowledge bridges the chasm between, on the one hand, the individual's deep, instinctive drives for self-gratification and self-preservation, and on the other hand, the broader needs of whole societies.

The City's mind tools will make cultural wisdom intimately available to us in moments of decision and crisis.

We can only hope that those tools will give us the wisdom to handle the dangerous power we've acquired through the many technologies we've invented and will bravely continue to invent.

Michael Webb, 1992

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