Taming The Knowledge Explosion – Part 2

On the last page we talked about how the development of knowledge feeds back upon itself creating an ever accelerating process of knowledge acquisition which is often called the knowledge explosion.

On this page let’s explore why the accelerating nature of knowledge development matters, and how this process is related to our concerns about nuclear weapons.

A Factory Assembly Line

The knowledge explosion might be compared to a factory assembly line. For centuries this knowledge factory ran pretty slowly so we were able to keep up as each new knowledge product rolled off the end of the assembly line. About 500 years ago the assembly line started speeding up, and in the 20th century this ever accelerating knowledge development process began to dominate human society.

As powerful new technologies arrived on the scene in the 20th century they often raised complex questions which have to be addressed by human judgment.

As example, consider all the unanswered and often controversial questions which still surround the issues of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. 75 years after we learned how to split the atom we still haven’t figured out how to best manage the awesome nuclear powers which science has given us.

More And More Challenging Questions

And while we’ve been scratching our heads and debating all the options with nuclear technology, the knowledge explosion hasn’t slowed down and waited for us to catch up. It has instead continued to accelerate and deliver ever more knowledge and ever more powerful technology at an ever faster pace.

Since 1945 a tsunami of other new technologies like transistors, bar codes, lasers, solar cells, internet, genetic engineering, microwaves, fiber optics, television, space exploration, integrated circuits, computer-aided design, LEDs, e-commerce, AI, personal computers, mobile phones and more have exploded on to the scene.

All these new technologies have an impact upon society and thus require the application of human judgment so that their influence will hopefully be more positive than negative.

We’re increasingly faced with judgment questions our ancestors couldn’t have imagined. Should you let your kids watch violent TV programs? How much time is healthy to spend on the Internet? Do cell phones bring us together, or drive us apart? Should we spend money on going to Mars, or use it to improve schools?

Some of these new technologies, like artificial intelligence and genetic engineering for example, are incredibly powerful and raise profound questions about their impact upon the future of the human race. The larger such questions get the more challenging it is for us to evaluate the opportunities and the risks.

But wait, there’s no time for making thoughtful well considered judgments about AI and genetic engineering right now, because here comes even more new powerful technologies down the knowledge assembly line. More and more of them. Of ever larger scale. Faster, and faster, and faster.

Factory Workers, Falling Behind

We’re factory workers standing at the end of a knowledge assembly line which keeps going faster and faster, and delivering ever larger powers in to our hands. Our job is to make well considered judgments about how these new powers should fit in to our society. But the questions we must address keep getting bigger and bigger, and the time we have to find good answers keeps getting shorter and shorter.

Imagine that you’re on a game show and the questions you have to answer keep getting harder and harder, and they’re coming at you faster and faster. Even if you’re really smart sooner or later you’re not going to be able to keep up, right?

And so it is with an ever accelerating knowledge explosion. So long as the knowledge assembly line keeps running at an ever accelerating pace it’s only a matter of time until one or more of the new powers of ever growing scale slip from our control, crashing the assembly line and bring the knowledge development process to an end.

If this sounds like alarmist futuristic speculation, consider this. We currently have thousands of hydrogen bombs aimed down our own throats, and after 75 years we still have figured out how to pull this gun out of our mouth. As of today, right now, everything we care about can be erased in less than an hour.

Any reader willing to face this enormous fact will see that this article isn’t just speculating about the future, it’s also discussing the reality of where we are today. As you read this, we’re already right on the very edge of being out of control of our future.

The bottom line is that while it is the nature of knowledge to expand at an exponential rate, human wisdom grows incrementally at best. And so the gap between the power available to us and our ability to successfully manage that power is ever widening.

How do we regain control of our destiny? Let’s explore this question on the next page.

Focusing On The Bottom Line

Most of the information available on nuclear weapons seems to be expert level analysis of weapons systems and nuclear diplomacy.

While experts can be admired for their professional mastery of such technical information, one doesn’t need to be an expert to understand something crucial about the process of examining such details. Once we free our minds of a thousand details a quite simple bottom line comes in to view…

Expert Analysis Of Details Doesn’t Work

Experts have been grinding away on the technical and diplomatic details related to nuclear weapons for 75 years, and modern civilization is still only an hour away from being nuked in to radioactive rubble, just as has been the case every day since the 1950’s. 75 years of expert analysis, and we’re still right where we started.

Expert level analysis of weapons systems, particular geo-political situations, this treaty or that treaty, and other such details is not getting us where we need to go, the elimination of all nuclear weapons, the protection of modern civilization.

The experts will tell us that their work has led to great strides in reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons, which is true. But partial reductions don’t really matter because it would only take 50 nukes to destroy America’s fifty largest cities, which would in turn lead to a collapse of the food distribution system, mass starvation, social and political chaos, and who knows what other horrors.

Just fifty nukes. Game over.

To make matters worse, it’s possible that the experts, those we look to for answers, are the least qualified people to squarely face the failure of a focus on details, because their expert status, careers and thus bank accounts depend upon continuing such a focus.

If you doubt that such a bias for detail exists among the experts, try presenting this article to a group of experts, and see what happens.

What’s The Alternative?

If it’s true that expert analysis of details is getting us nowhere, what else is there?

What if we flipped our paradigm around? What if instead of trying to make incremental changes with this or that weapon, Country A or Country B, this treaty or that treaty, one detail or another, we started with the big picture?

What if we took a break from an expert focus on details and turned our attention to addressing the bottom line, which is…

The BOTTOM LINE: The existential threat to modern civilization arises from a marriage between the ever accelerating knowledge explosion and violent men.

   

Why Does The Bottom Line Matter?

Here’s why focusing on this all important bottom line matters.

Imagine for a moment that we succeeded at getting rid of all nuclear weapons. Civilization is saved, right? No, sorry, wrong, civilization is not saved.

If nukes were gone violent men seeking power would just turn their attention to other tools of mass chaos.

If he can’t have a nuke, he’ll reach for some other tool of horror, and the knowledge explosion will hand it to him.

As just one example, as the knowledge explosion proceeds it’s only a matter of time until some genetic engineer figures out how to create lethal viruses which can be targeted at specific populations.

If we did have a perfect success in ridding this planet of nuclear weapons we’d just be trading one tool of mass destruction for some others. And we’d be in that situation because we failed to focus on the bottom line machinery which is generating all the threats.

An Example Of Success

Here’s an example of a success which arose from a focus on the bottom line.

Saddam Hussein is dead.

Saddam Hussein is dead, thus there is no need in Iraq for on site WMD inspections, diplomacy, negotiation, treaties, sanctions, gradual reductions in WMD requiring verification, expert analysis, and all of that.

All these details were solved at once because one of the key elements of the threat generating machine, a violent man, was removed from the equation.

Here’s that bottom line equation again.

knowledge explosion + violent men = civilization collapse

In Iraq, instead of starting with the details and having experts work their way towards a solution (like we’re doing in Iran), we started with the bottom line, thus making the details irrelevant.

The Iraq WMD threat is solved. The bottom line approach worked.

The Iran WMD threat remains unsolved. (Obama’s treaty with Iran just kicked the threat can down the road a few years until after he was out of office.) Expert analysis of details is not working.

A Change Of Focus

What I’m suggesting is that we shift some focus from the expert analysis of details, which are just symptoms of the disease, to a better understanding of the underlying mechanism which is generating all the threats.

knowledge explosion + violent men = civilization collapse

Until we address this bottom line both we and the experts will be condemned to an eternal cycle of confronting threat after threat after threat as they roll off of the knowledge explosion assembly line, at a faster and faster pace, in to the waiting arms of violent men.

If we refuse to focus on the bottom line, it will only be a matter of time until we can’t keep up and lose control of the threat generating machine.