Tag Archives: 1984

1984 clock moves back to 23 June 1983

I set the time on my 1984 clock initially at 1st July 1983:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/inspired-by-the-doomsday-clock-the-1984-clock-is-at-july-1st-1983/

I think our recent referendum in the UK exposed a few of the nastier processes that were leading people to censor discussion of sensitive issues such as immigration, and the increasing contempt of some leaders for ordinary people. It also made many people more aware of the division caused by name-calling that fed self-censorship and I believe some learning from that will foster kinder future campaigns and more open discussion. People will have learned that name-calling and no-platforming areas of discussion is counterproductive. Freedom of speech is a little healthier today than a few days ago.

Brexit wasn’t about 1984 but the campaigning increased awareness in people of how leaders behave, the increased engagement in democracy, erosion of barriers to discussion and especially the potential consequences if you don’t bother to vote. Regardless of the outcome, which I think is wonderful in any case, it has increased resilience of the UK against the forces of 1984. It has also caused similar ripples in other countries that will bring increased awareness of dark forces.

In recognition of that, setting it back a week to not-entirely-coincidentally the day of the referendum seems appropriate.

The 1984 clock now shows 23 June 1983.

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Inspired by the Doomsday Clock, the 1984 clock is at July 1st 1983

The Doomsday clock was recently re-assessed and stays at 23.57. See http://thebulletin.org/timeline

I have occasionally written or ranted about 1984. The last weeks have taken us a little closer to Orwell’s dystopian future. So, even though we are long past 1984, the basket of concepts it introduces is well established in common culture.

The doomsday committee set far too pessimistic a time. Nuclear war and a few other risks are significant threats, and extinction level events are possible, but they are far from likely. My own estimate puts the combined risk from all threats growing to around 2% by about 2050. That is quite pessimistic enough I think, but surely that would give us reason to act, but doesn’t justify the level of urgency that extinction is happening any minute now. 11pm would have been quite enough to be a wake-up call but not enough to look like doom-mongering.

So I won’t make the same mistake with my 1984 clock. Before we start working out the time, we need to identify those ideas from 1984 that will be used. My choice would be:

Hijacking or perversion of language to limit debate and constrain it to those views considered acceptable

Use of language while reporting news of events or facts that omits, conceals, hides, distorts or otherwise impedes clear vision of inconvenient aspects of the truth while emphasizing those events, views or aspects that align with acceptable views

Hijacking or control of the media to emphasize acceptable views and block unacceptable ones

Making laws or selecting judiciary according to their individual views to achieve a bias

Blocking of views considered unacceptable or inconvenient by legal or procedural means

Imposing maximum surveillance, via state, social or private enterprises

Encouraging people to police their contacts to expose those holding or expressing inconvenient or unacceptable views

Shaming of those who express unacceptable views as widely as possible

Imposing extreme sanctions such as loss of job or liberty on those expressing unacceptable views

That’s enough to be going on with. Already, you should recognize many instances of each of these flags being raised in recent times. If you don’t follow the news, then I can assist you by highlighting a few instances, some as recent as this week. Please note that in this blog, I am not siding for or against any issue in the following text, I am just considering whether there is evidence of 1984. I make my views on the various issue very clear when I write blogs about those issues.

The Guardian has just decided to bar comments on any articles about race, Muslims, migrants or immigration. It is easy to see why they have done so even if I disagree with such a policy, but nonetheless it is a foundation stone in their 1984 wall.

Again on the migrant theme, which is a very rich seam for 1984 evidence, Denmark, Germany and Sweden have all attempted to censor  news of the involvement of migrants or Muslims in many recent attacks. Further back in time, the UK has had problems with police allowing child abuse to continue rather than address it because of the racial/religious origins of the culprits.

Choice of language by the media has deliberately conflated ‘migrants’ with ‘refugees’, conflated desperation  to escape violent oppression with searching for a wealthier life, and excessively biased coverage towards those events that solicit sympathy with migrants.

Moving to racism, Oriel College has just had an extremely embarrassing climb-down from considering removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, because he is considered racist by today’s standards by some students. Attempting to censor history is 1984-ish but so is the fact that involvement of the campaign instigators in their own anti-white racism such as links to the Black Supremacy movement has been largely concealed.

Attempted hijacking of language by the black community is evident in the recent enforcement of the phrase ‘people of color’, and illogical and highly manufactured simultaneous offence at use of the term ‘colored’. The rules only apply to white commentators, so it could be considered a black supremacy power struggle rather than an attempt to deal with any actual anti-black racism. Meanwhile, here in the UK, ‘black’ and ‘people of color’ seem both to be in equally common use so far.

David Cameron and some ministers have this week accused Oxford University of racism because it accepts too few black students. A range of potential causes were officially suggested but none include any criticism of the black community such as cultural issues that devalue educational achievement. In the same sentence, Cameron implied that it necessarily racist that a higher proportion of blacks are in prison. There was no mention that this could be caused by different crime incidence, as is quickly learned by inspection of official government statistics. This 1984-style distortion of the truth by marketing spin is one of Cameron’s most dominant characteristics.

Those statistics are inconvenient and ignoring them is 1984-ish already, but further 1984 evidence is that some statistics that show certain communities in a bad light are no longer collected.

Europe is another are where 1984-style operations are in vogue. Wild exaggeration of the benefits of staying in and extreme warnings of the dangers of leaving dominate most government output and media coverage. Even the initial decision to word the referendum question with a yes and no answer to capitalise on the well-known preference for voting yes is an abuse of language, but that at least was spotted early and the referendum question has been reworded with less bias, though ‘remain’ can still be considered a more positive word than ‘leave’ and remain still takes the first place on the voting slip, so it is still biased in favor of staying in the EU.

Gender is another area where language hijacking is becoming a key weapon. Attempts to force use of the terms ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ accompany attempts to pretend that the transgender community is far larger than reality. Creation of the term ‘transphobic’ clearly attempts to build on the huge success of the gay equality movement’s use of the term homophobic. This provides an easy weapon to use against anyone who doesn’t fully back all of the transgender community’s demands. Very 1984. As recently pointed out by Melanie Phillips, UK government response to such demands has been very politically correct, and will needlessly magnify the numbers experiencing gender dysphoria, but being accompanied by a thorough lack of understanding of the trans community, will very likely make things worse for many genuine transgender people.

As for surveillance, shaming, career destruction etc., we all see how well Twitter fills that role all by itself. Other media and the law add to that, but social media backlash is already a massive force even without official additions.

Climate change has even become a brick in the 1984 wall. Many media outlets censor views from scientists that don’t agree that doom caused by human emissions of CO2 is imminent. The language used, with words such as ‘denier’ are similarly evidence of 1984 influence.

Enough examples. If you look for them, you’ll soon spot them every day.

What time to set out clock then? I think we already see a large momentum towards 1984, with the rate of incidents of new policies pushing that direction increasing rapidly. A lot of pieces are already in place, though some need shaped or cemented. We are not there yet though, and we still have some freedom of expression, still escape being locked up for saying the wrong thing unless it is extreme. We don’t quite have the thought police, or even ID cards yet. I think we are close, but not so close we can’t recover. Let’s start with a comfortable enough margin so that movement in either direction can be taken account of in future assessments. We are getting close though, so I don’t want too big a margin. 6 month might be a nice compromise, then we can watch as it gets every closer without the next piece of evidence taking us all the way.

The 1984 clock is at July 1st 1983.

 

The future of freedom of speech

This is mainly about the UK, but some applies elsewhere too.

The UK Police are in trouble yet again for taking the side of criminals against the law-abiding population. Our police seem to have frequent trouble with understanding the purpose of their existence. This time in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, some police forces decided that their top priority was not to protect freedom of speech nor to protect law-abiding people from terrorists, but instead to visit the newsagents that were selling Charlie Hebdo and get the names of people buying copies. Charlie Hebdo has become synonymous with the right to exercise freedom of speech, and by taking names of its buyers, those police forces have clearly decided that Charlie Hebdo readers are the problem, not the terrorists. Some readers might indeed present a threat, but so might anyone in the population. Until there is evidence to suspect a crime, or at the very least plotting of a crime, it is absolutely no rightful business of the police what anyone does. Taking names of buyers treats them as potential suspects for future hate crimes. It is all very ‘Minority Report’, mixed with more than a touch of ‘Nineteen-eighty-four’. It is highly disturbing.

The Chief Constable has since clarified to the forces that this was overstepping the mark, and one of the offending forces has since apologised. The others presumably still think they were in the right. I haven’t yet heard any mention of them saying they have deleted the names from their records.

This behavior is wrong but not surprising. The UK police often seem to have socio-political agendas that direct their priorities and practices in upholding the law, individually and institutionally.

Our politicians often pay lip service to freedom of speech while legislating for the opposite. Clamping down on press freedom and creation of thought crimes (aka hate crimes) have both used the excuse of relatively small abuses of freedom to justify taking away our traditional freedom of speech. The government reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was not to ensure that freedom of speech is protected in the UK, but to increase surveillance powers and guard against any possible backlash. The police have also become notorious for checking social media in case anyone has said anything that could possibly be taken as offensive by anyone. Freedom of speech only remains in the UK provided you don’t say anything that anyone could claim to be offended by, unless you can claim to be a member of a preferred victim group, in which case it sometimes seems that you can do or say whatever you want. Some universities won’t even allow some topics to be discussed. Freedom of speech is under high downward pressure.

So where next? Privacy erosion is a related problem that becomes lethal to freedom when combined with a desire for increasing surveillance. Anyone commenting on social media already assumes that the police are copied in, but if government gets its way, that will be extended to list of the internet services or websites you visit, and anything you type into search. That isn’t the end though.

Our televisions and games consoles listen in to our conversation (to facilitate voice commands) and send some of the voice recording to the manufacturers. We should expect that many IoT devices will do so too. Some might send video, perhaps to facilitate gesture recognition, and the companies might keep that too. I don’t know whether they data mine any of it for potential advertising value or whether they are 100% benign and only use it to deliver the best possible service to the user. Your guess is as good as mine.

However, since the principle has already been demonstrated, we should expect that the police may one day force them to give up their accumulated data. They could run a smart search on the entire population to find any voice or video samples or photos that might indicate anything remotely suspicious, and could then use legislation to increase monitoring of the suspects. They could make an extensive suspicion database for the whole population, just in case it might be useful. Given that there is already strong pressure to classify a wide range of ordinary everyday relationship rows or financial quarrels as domestic abuse, this is a worrying prospect. The vast majority of the population have had arguments with a partner at some time, used a disparaging comment or called someone a name in the heat of the moment, said something in the privacy of their home that they would never dare say in public, used terminology that isn’t up to date or said something less than complimentary about someone on TV. All we need now to make the ‘Demolition Man’ automated fine printout a reality is more time and more of the same government and police attitudes as we are accustomed to.

The next generation of software for the TVs and games consoles could easily include monitoring of eye gaze direction, maybe some already do. It might need that for control (e.g look and blink), or to make games smarter or for other benign reasons. But when the future police get the records of everything you have watched, what image was showing on that particular part of the screen when you made that particular expression, or made that gesture or said that, then we will pretty much have the thought police. They could get a full statistical picture of your attitudes to a wide range of individuals, groups, practices, politics or policies, and a long list of ‘offences’ for anyone they don’t like this week. None of us are saints.

The technology is all entirely feasible in the near future. What will make it real or imaginary is the attitude of the authorities, the law of the land and especially the attitude of the police. Since we are seeing an increasing disconnect between the police and the intent behind the law of the land, I am not the only one that this will worry.

We’ve already lost much of our freedom of speech in the UK. If we do not protest loudly enough and defend what we have left, we will soon lose the rest, and then lose freedom of thought. Without the freedom to think what you want, you don’t have any freedom worth having.

 

Errones, infectious biases that corrupt thinking

I know it isn’t always obvious in some of my blogs what they have to do with the future. This one is about error tendencies, but of course making an error now affects the future, so they are relevant and in any case, there is even a future for error tendencies. A lot of the things I will talk about are getting worse, so there is a significant futures trend here too. Much of the future is determined by happenings filtered through human nature so anything that affects human nature strongly should be an important consideration in futurology. Enough justification for my human nature thinkings. On with the show.

Hormones are chemicals that tend to push the behavior of an organic process in a particular direction, including feelings and consequentially analysis. A man flooded with testosterone may be more inclined to make a more risky decision. A lot of interpersonal interactions and valuations are influenced by hormones too, to varying degrees.

In much the same way, many other forces can influence our thinking or perception and hence analysis of external stimuli such as physical facts or statistics. A good scientist or artist may learn to be more objective and to interpret what they observe with less bias, but for almost everyone, some perceptive biases remain, and after perception, many analytical biases result from learned thinking behaviors. Some of those thinking behaviors may be healthy, such as being able to consciously discount emotions to make more clinical decisions when required, or to take full account of them at other times. Others however are less healthy and introduce errors.

Error-forcing agents

There are many well-known examples of such error-forcing agents. One is the notorious halo effect that surrounds attractive women, that may lead many people to believe they are better or nicer in many other ways than women who are less attractive. Similarly, tall men are perceived to be better managers and leaders.

Another is that celebrities from every area find their opinions are valued far outside the fields where they are actually expert. Why should an actor or pop singer be any more knowledgeable or wiser than anyone else not trained in that field? Yet they are frequently asked for their opinions and listened to, perhaps at the expense of others.

When it’s a singer or actor encouraging people to help protect a rain forest, it’s pretty harmless. When they’re trying to tell us what we should eat or believe, then it can become dangerous. When it is a politician making pronouncements about which scientists we should believe on climate change, or which medicines should be made available, it can cause prolonged harm. The reason I am writing this blog now is that we are seeing a lot more of that recently – for example, politicians in many countries suddenly pretending they can speak authoritatively on which results to believe from climate science and astrophysics even when most scientists couldn’t. A few of them have some scientific understanding, but the vast majority don’t and many actually show very little competence when it comes to clear thinking even in their own jurisdictions, let alone outside.

Errones

These groups are important, because they are emitting what I will call errones, hormone-like thinking biases that lead us to make errors. Politicians get to be elected by being good at influencing people, celebs too become popular by appealing to our tastes. By overvaluing pronouncements from these groups, our thinking is biased in that direction without good reason. It is similar in effect to a hormone, in that we may not be consciously aware of it, but it influences our thinking all the same. So we may have held a reasonably well-thought-out opinion of something, and then a favored celebrity or politician makes a speech on it, and even though they have no particular expertise in the matter, our opinion changes in that direction. Our subsequent perceptions, interpretations, analyses and opinions on many other areas may subsequently be affected by the bias caused by that errone. Worse still, in our interactions with others, the errone may spread to them too. They are infectious. Similar to Richard Dawkins’ memes, which are ideas that self-perpetuate and spread through a population, errones may self-reinforce and spread organically too, but errones are not ideas like memes, but are biases in thinking more like hormones, hence the name errone.

Some general thinking errors are extremely common and we are familiar with them, but tat doesn’t stop us being affected sometimes if we don’t engage due care.

Consensus

Other errones are assembled over years of exposure to our culture. Some even have some basis in some situations, but become errones when we apply them elsewhere. Consensus is a useful concept when we apply it to things that are generally nice to eat, but it has no proper place in science and becomes an errone when cited there. As Einstein pointed out when confronted with a long list of scientists who disagreed with him, if he was wrong, even one would suffice. There was once a consensus that the Earth was flat, that there were four elements, that there was an ether, that everything was created by a god. In each case, successions of individuals challenged the consensus until eventually people were persuaded of the error.

Authority

Another well-known errone is attitude to authority. Most parents will be well familiar with the experience of their kid believing everything teacher tells them and refusing to believe them when they say the teacher is talking nonsense (in case you didn’t know, teachers are not always right about everything). In varying degrees, people believe their doctors, scientists, parents, politicians not by the quality of their actual output but by the prejudice springing from their authority. Even within a field, people with high authority can make mistakes. I was rather pleased a long time ago when I spotted a couple of mistakes in Stephen Hawking’s ‘A brief history of time’ even though he seemingly has an extra digit in his IQ. He later admitted those same errors and I was delighted. He had the best authority in the world on the subject, but still made a couple of errors. I am pleased I hadn’t just assumed he must have been right and accepted what he said.

Vested interest

Yet another errone with which you should be familiar is vested interest. People often have an ax to grind on a particular issue and it is therefore appropriate to challenge what they are saying, but it is a big error to dismiss something as wrong simply because someone has an interest in a particular outcome. A greengrocer is still telling the truth when they say that vegetables are good for you. The correct answer to 7+6 is 13 regardless of who says so. You shouldn’t listen to someone else telling you the answer is 15 who says ‘well he would say it is 13 wouldn’t he…’

These common errors in thinking are well documented, but we still make new ones.

Word association errones

Some errones can be summed up in single words. For example ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘synthetic’, ‘fair’, ‘progressive’, ‘right’, ‘left’ are all words we hear every day that activate a range of prejudicial processes that color our processing of any subsequent inputs. Arsenic is natural, foxgloves are natural, so is uranium. That doesn’t necessarily make them good things to eat. Not every idea from the right or left of politics is good or bad. Stupidity exists across the political spectrum, while even the extremes have occasional good ideas. But errones cause us to apply filters and make judgments that bad ideas or things are good or that good ideas or things are bad, merely because of their origin. This errone is traditionally known as ‘tarring everything with the same brush’ just because they fall in the same broad category.

Deliberate errone creation

In my view, single word errones are the most dangerous, and we add to the list occasionally. The currently fashionable word ‘Self-proclaimed’ (yeah, OK, it’s hyphenated) is intended to suggest that someone has no genuine right to a platform and therefore should be ignored. It is as much an insult as calling someone an idiot, but is more malign because it seeks to undermine not just a single statement or argument, but everything that person says. Political correctness is very rich with such words. People mostly think using words, so coloring their meaning gradually over time means that people will still think the same way using the same verbal reasoning, but since the meaning of the words they are using has changed slightly, they will end up with a result that sounds the same as it used to, but now means something quite different.

For example, we’ve seen exactly that happen over the last decade by the redefining of poverty to be having an income below a percentage of average income rather than the traditional definition of being unable to afford basic essentials. People still retain the same emotional connection to the words poor and poverty, and are still shocked as politicians cite ever worsening statistics of the numbers of people in poverty even as society gets wealthier. Under its new meaning, if everyone’s income increased 1000-fold overnight, exactly the same number of people would remain ‘in poverty’, even though they could now all afford to live in luxury. People wanting to talk about poverty in its original meaning now have to use different language. The original words have been captured as political weapons. This errone was created and spread very deliberately and has had exactly the effect desired. People now have the same attitude to low income as they once held to poor.

All very 1984

Capturing language and fencing off entire areas of potential thought by labelling them is a proven excellent technique for furthering a cause. It is of course the basis of Orwell’s 1984, by which the authorities enslave a population by enforcing a particular group-think, with words as their primary tool, and understanding of the techniques has been much practiced around the world. Orwell wrote his book to highlight the problem, but it hasn’t gone away, but rather got worse. Increasing understanding of human psychology and use of advanced marketing techniques have only added to its power and effectiveness. In absolutely 1984 style, ‘progressive’ sounds very loving and positive and ‘regressive’ very nasty and negative, but how has it come that we describe alternative tax policies in such terms? Tax is rightfully an issue for political parties to debate and decide, but surely democratic politics is there to allow people a mechanism to live alongside peacefully in mutual tolerance and respect, not for each side to treat the other as inferiors who should be scorned and ostracized. However, infection biases someone’s thinking and is therefore error forcing, and an errone.

Similarly, ‘traditional’ was once a word we used to describe normal or slightly old-fashioned views, but political correctness seeks to quickly replace traditional values by using descriptors such as ‘dinosaur’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’ for anyone who doesn’t follow their line. Most people are terrified of being labelled as such so will quickly fall in line with whatever the current demands for politically correct compliance are. Once someone does so, they adjust the external presentation of their own thinking to make the new status quo more acceptable to them, and seek to authenticate and justify themselves to others by proselytizing the errone, self censoring and controlling their own thinking according to the proscribed filters and value set. They basically accept the errone, build it into place and nurture it. Memes are powerful. Errones are worse because they get far deeper into places mere ideas can’t.

Thanks to the deliberate infection with such errones, it is no longer possible to hold a discussion or even to state statistical facts across a wide range of topics without demonstrating a me-too bias. If analysis and debate can no longer be done without deliberate introduction of systemic error,  when error is not seen as a problem but as a requirement, then I suggest we are in trouble. We should be able to agree at least on basic facts, and then argue what to do about them, but even facts now are heavily filtered and distorted at numerous stages before we are allowed access to them.

Old wives’ tales (no age or gender-related slur intended)

Not all errones are related to this kind of tribal-cultural-political warfare and deliberately fabricated and spread. Some are commonly held assumptions that are wrong, such as old wives’ tales or because people are not very good at thinking about exponential or non-linear systems. Take an example. Most environmentalists agree that rapid IT obsolescence is a big problem, resulting in massive waste and causing far more environmental impact than would be necessary if we just made things last longer. However, each generation of IT uses far less resource than the one it replaces, and in a few more generations of devices, we’ll be able to do all we do today in just a few grams of device. With far more people in the world wealthy enough and wanting all that function, doing it with today’s technology would have huge environmental impact, but with tomorrow’s, very much less. Thus slowing down the obsolescence cycle would have dire environmental consequences. The best way to help the environment is to progress quickly to ultra-low-impact IT. Similar errors exist across environmental policy world-wide, and the cause is the simple errone that reducing the impact of any part of a system will reduce the full system impact. That is very often incorrect. This same environmental errone has caused massive environmental and human damage already and will cause far more before it is done, by combining enthusiasm to act with what is now very commonly held analytical error.

Linear thinking

The Errone of linear thinking probably results from constant exposure to it in others, making it hard to avoid infection. Typical consequences are inability to take correctly account for future technology or future wealth, also typically assuming that everything except the problem you’re considering will remain the same, while your problem increases. A  related errone is not allowing for the fact that exponential growths generally only happen for a limited time, followed by eventual leveling off or even decline, especially when related to human systems such as population, obesity, debt etc. Many stories of doom are based on the assumption that some current exponential growth such as population or resource use will continue forever, which is nonsense, but the errone seems to have found some niches where it retains viability.

Errone communication

Errones spread through a population simply via exposure, using any medium. Watching an innocent TV program, reading a newspaper article or hearing a remark in a pub are all typical ways they spread. Just as some diseases can reduce resistance to other diseases, some errones such as the celebrity halo effect can lead to easier infection by others. People are far more likely to be infected by an errone from their favorite celebrity than a stranger. If you see them making an error in their reasoning but making it sound plausible because they believe it, there is a good chance you may be infected by it and also help to spread it. Also, like diseases, people have varying vulnerability to different types of errones.

Being smart won’t make you immune

Intelligence isn’t necessarily a defense and may even be essential to create vulnerability. Someone who is highly intelligent may actually be more susceptible to errones that are packaged in elaborate intellectual coatings, that may be useless for infecting less intelligent people who might just ignore them. A sophisticated economic errone may only be able to infect people with a high level of expertise in economics, since nobody else would understand it, but may nevertheless still be an errone, still wrong thinking. Similarly, some of the fine political theories across every point on the spectrum might be mind-numbingly dull to most people and therefore pass over with no effect, but may take root and flourish in certain political elites. Obviously lots of types of social and special interest groups have greater exposure and vulnerability to certain types of errones. There may well be some errones connected with basketball strategies but they can’t have an effect on me since I have zero knowledge of or interest in the game, and never have had any, so the basic platform for them to operate doesn’t exist in my brain.

Errones may interact with each other. Some may act as a platform for others, or fertilize them, or create a vulnerability or transmission path, or they may even be nested. It is possible to have an entire field of knowledge that is worse than useless and yet still riddled with errors. For example, someone may make some errone-type statistical errors when analyzing the effects of a homeopathic treatment. The fact that a whole field is nonsensical does not make it immune from extra errors within.

Perceptual errones are built into our brains too – some of which are part pre-programmed and part infectious. There are many well-known optical illusions that affect almost everyone. The mechanics of perception introduce the error, and that error may feed into other areas such as decision making. I suffer from vertigo, and even a simple picture of a large drop is quite enough to fool my brain into a fear reaction even though there is obviously no danger present. This phobia may not be part genetic and part infectious, and other phobias can be certainly be communicated, such as fear of spiders or snakes.

Group-think related errones

A very different class of errone is the collective one, closely related to group-think. The problem of ‘designed by committee’ is well known. A group of very smart people can collectively make really dumb decisions. There are many possible reasons and not all are errone-related. Agreeing with the boss or not challenging the idiot loud-mouth can both get bad results with no need for errones. Groupthink is where most people in the room shares the same prejudice, and that can often be an errone. If other people that you respect think something, you may just accept and adopt that view without thinking it through. If it is incorrect, or worse, if it is correct but only applies in certain conditions, and you don’t know that, or don’t know the conditions, then it can lead to later errors.

I once sat through an electronics lecture explaining why it was impossible to ever get more than 2.4kbit/s second through a copper telephone wire and no matter what happened, we never would, and you can’t change the laws of physics. That’s hard to believe today when ADSL easily delivers over 4Mbit/s to my home down the same copper wire. The physics wasn’t wrong, it just only applied to certain ways of doing things, and that lecturer obviously hadn’t understood that and thought it was a fundamental limit that would block any technique. I could use a similar excuse to explain why I failed a thermodynamics exam on my first attempt. It just seemed obviously wrong to me that you couldn’t get any energy from the waste heat from a power station. Our lecturer had delivered the correct thermodynamic equations for the first stage of a heat engine and then incorrectly left us knowing that that was it, and no additional heat could be used however clever anyone might be. I couldn’t see how that could possibly be right and that confusion remained for months afterwards until I finally saw it explained properly. Meanwhile, I was vulnerable to errors caused by knowing something that was wrong, that had been communicated to me by a poor lecturer. Well, that’s my side, but I have to admit it is theoretically possible that maybe I just didn’t listen properly. Either way, it’s still an errone.

Why I am mentioning this one in a group-think section is because misunderstandings and misapplications of thermodynamics have permeated large populations withing the climate change discussion community. Whichever side you are on, you will be familiar with some errors that affect the other lot, probably less so with the errones that you have been infected with. Just like me I guess.

On a larger scale, entire nations can be affected by errones. We don’t think of patriotism as an error, although it clearly affects our value judgments, but patriotism is just one aspect of our bias towards communities close to where we live. Whereas patriotism starts as a benign loyalty to your country, extending that loyalty into a belief in superiority is certainly a very common errone, thinking that anything and everyone in other countries must be less good than what you have close to home. The opposite exists too. In some countries, people assume that anything from abroad must be better. Of course, in some countries, they’re right.

The huge impacts of errones

Errones can be extremely expensive too. The banking crisis was caused in good measure by a widespread errone connected with valuation of complex derivatives. Once that happened, a different errone affected the rest of the population. Even though the bank crash was costly, it only directly accounted for a tiny fraction of the overall global economic crash. The rest was caused by a crisis of confidence, a confidence errone if you like. The economy had been sound, so there was absolutely no reason for any collapse, but once the errone that a recession was coming took hold, it became strongly self-fulfilling. Everyone shut their wallets, started being unduly careful with their spending and economies crashed. Those of us who challenged that assumption at the time were too few and too influential to prevent it. So errones can be an enormous problem.

Elsewhere economic errones are common. Housing bubbles, the web bubble, tulip bubbles, we don’t ever seem to learn and the bubble errone mutates and reappears again and again like flu viruses. Investment errones are pretty ubiquitous, even at government level. The UK created what is commonly known now as The Concorde Fallacy, an errone that makes people more inclined to throw money down the drain on a project if they already have spent a lot on it.

Still other errones affect people in their choice of where to live. People often discount liability to earthquakes, volcanoes,  hurricanes, tsuanmis and floods if they haven’t happened for a long time. When probability finally catches up, they are caught unprepared and often looking for someone to blame. The normality of everyday life quickly builds up into experience that pervades thinking and hides away thoughts of disaster. In stark contrast, other people fall easy prey to stories of doom and gloom, because they have been infected with errones that make them seem more dangerous or likely than in reality.

Health errones are an obvious problem. Scientists and nutritionists change advice on what to eat and drink from time to time as new research brings results, but the news of change in advice is not always accepted. Many people will not hear the news, others will not accept it because they are sick of changing advice from scientists, others will just hear and ignore it. The result is that outdated advice, sometimes wrong advice, can persist and continue to spread long after it has been proven wrong. What was once considered good advice essentially mutates into an errone. The current fat v sugar debate will be interesting to follow in this regard, since it will have ongoing effects throughout the entire food, sports, entertainment and leisure industries. We can be certain that some of the things we currently strongly believe are actually errones that lead to errors in many areas of our lives.

Looking at transport, everyone knows it is safer to fly than drive, but actually those stats only work for long trips. If you only want to travel 5km, it is safer to drive than to fly. 50km starts to favor flying and more than that certainly sees flying being safest. That errone probably has an immeasurably small impact in consequentially wrong decisions, but has managed to spread very successfully.

I could go on – there are a lot of errones around, and we keep making more of them. But enough for now.

The future of tribalism

Introduction

I often cite tribalism as a powerful force in determining how technology plays out. Tribalism conveys obvious evolutionary advantages and has become deeply ingrained in human nature. Even when there weren’t many humans, they used to fight each other for control of resources, and for other kinds of power too. Those that were successful are our ancestors; their genes survived. As individuals in a difficult world, people may not have survived well. In groups they did, and the best groups survived best. It’s very useful to have others who will help protect you and your family’s interests.

Tribalism has a dark side of course. I lived in Belfast throughout ‘the troubles’,  (a mixed-motivation tribal conflict of Irish and catholic v British and protestant, and people not fitting neatly into that often found themselves disliked by both sides. Recently, as immigration has increased, it is sadly evolving into racism.) It is holding Africa back, and the Middle East, and the Far East. In fact, most of the world suffers some significant manifestation of tribal conflict.

Clearly tribal forces can bring potential benefits and potential damage, and they need to be managed, carefully.

If the good side of tribalism is fostered, it brings benefits. In Europe, the EU’s greatest legacy has been its moderation of tribal conflict by harnessing combined efforts to common goals – we all want peace and prosperity. In the USA, this approach has evolved into a strong patriotic feeling that greatly helps maintain the economy, and peace and security. Regional tribalism seems to be useful.

I think though that the right balance is hard to achieve. Too much, wars happen; too little, things fall apart. Misdirected and mismanaged, other problems occur – rioting, abuse, exploitation, a long list.

The redefining of ‘racism’

In a modern world where there is no need to compete for basic existence, we can and should put ethnic tribalism aside – the many different races may look different but are barely distinguishable genetically and modern races are biologically irrelevant. The abuse of people just because they have a different skin colour is wrong, and thankfully is gradually becoming a thing of the past. Most decent people would want to keep it there. Nobody wants to be accused of being a racist, which has become one of the worst insults that can be thrown at someone. I’d think that was a good thing if the meaning of ‘racist’ stayed the same.

However, the meaning of racism has evolved, especially in the last decade, from being just about skin colour, to include any distinction based on skin colour, geography of residence or birth, religion, or even lifestyle choice. That to me is going too far. I certainly want  people to live peacefully side by side as far as possible, but I don’t see that that means all cultures and attitudes have to be considered equal. They aren’t. If for example, a national or religious group mistreats women or children,  I don’t respect that. It is wrong to mistreat women and children. We should be free to say so. Discrimination against wrong ideologies and attitudes is appropriate and is not racist, even if the incidence in a particular race is higher than in another. We must clearly separate race issues from ideological, political and behavioural ones. However, there are frequent attempts to blur them instead with more and more groups trying to wave a race card to get extra political leverage. Sadly, as other things are added under the race banner, its original meaning is diluted, and its value will inevitably fall as a consequence. When everything is classed as racist, nobody will care any more and it will have lost its force.

Racism has also expanded to include geographic region rather than race. People certainly are tribal about where they live, but that doesn’t make them racist. Nationalism and patriotism are not at all the same as racism. It isn’t just the UK as a whole  that is seeing increasing geographic tribal forces and desire to leave the EU. Within the UK, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Yorkshire, London, and Cornwall have all been looking at the issue of their own separation at some point, recognising their own tribal distinctions. Catalonia too. Geographic tribalism is just one dimension and apart from Rotherham Council and David Cameron, most of us think it is OK. So why are there already problems with making remarks about people who live in different areas, belong to the other tribes? If you want to say Northerners are friendly, I don’t think that is a racist comment, even though it clearly implies that others are less so. But why is it racist to say something about the Scots or Irish or Welsh? Why is it fine to have regional tribes such as the EU, and ones for some sub-areas, but not for others? It makes no sense. None.

The Politically Correct path to 1984 hell

With political correctness, it’s seems as though you get given an even bigger halo if you add even more factors to your list of things you shouldn’t discriminate against. Anti-racism became a general desire for protection of minorities, and has since grown up to become a generic anti-tribalism, and the less tribal you are, the holier. But where does the political correctness road end? It ends only when there is no right or wrong, and you aren’t allowed to say something is right or wrong without being punished. To stop before that is just being arbitrary. Criminals are just another minority, and research is even finding genetic biases for certain criminal behaviours. So if good sense doesn’t reassert itself over political correctness at some point, in the far future, if you want to mug and steal, take drugs, torture your animals to death for dinner, oppress your multiple wives and slaves, and sexually abuse your kids, that would all be fine, since all cultures and creeds must be treated equally. If you disagree, you are just a racist.

To me the biggest problem is the inclusion of religion, making it ‘racist’ and hate crime to criticise other religions. It makes absolutely no sense to me. Religion is about beliefs and people can believe in almost anything. If someone wants to believe something, they should be totally free to do so, and I should be free to say whatever I want about their beliefs. If someone says they genuinely believe 2+2=5, that’s fine with me, but I should be allowed to say they are an idiot and treat them accordingly. I won’t in case it’s a hate crime, but I should be allowed to. If they believe in Dawkins’ Great Spaghetti Monster, or are Jedi, still fine with me, but don’t expect me to support any privileges for them for doing so. Sadly, we’re already half way down that path.

(While we’re on the subject of hate crime, calling someone names just isn’t equivalent to physically assaulting someone or bypassing them for promotion. Growing up in Belfast, I frequently got called every name going with often significant hatred behind it, but I’d been taught the old rhyme about sticks and stones, and the names never did me any harm beyond brief annoyance. Misplaced homophobic abuse I received when I rented a house with some gays just made me laugh – it is hard to take abuse seriously when it comes from such pathetic abusers. Listening to the news the last few months, it seems name calling has become a career-destroying offence, certainly a far worse crime than expenses fraud, deliberate deception, murdering old people or ignoring paedophilia.)

Trying to bury tribalism

PC-devoted liberals in Europe seem to have been trying to bury tribalism completely, to pretend it doesn’t exist, or try to regulate it out of existence as if it is an evil that can be purged. It seems more and more tribal dimensions are to be covered in their extended hate crime category, wrapping it up with race as far as possible. In the UK, this has now reached extremes. The news this week that Rotherham council removed children from their foster parents because they belonged to the UK Independence Party is a good example. They accused the UKIP of racism because they favour focusing efforts on UK interests rather than those outside the UK. So now we have one tribe, Labour, using the power of office, and using innocent children as their weapon of convenience, to force their own tribal views onto members of another tribe, UKIP, with the excuse that that tribe has tribal views.

The real irony of the Rotherham case is that Liberals (and many would include Cameron in that category) are insulting a tribe just because they want to stay a distinct (geographically defined) tribe, i.e. the UK, while simultaneously trying every trick possible to force us all into tribal membership in a European Superstate. So, ‘it is racist if you want to be in your tribe but you must join our tribe and that isn’t racist’.

The lack of proper apologies from those responsible and Cameron saying that he didn’t mean that UKIP are all closet racists, that not all are – it doesn’t look good for the future of freedom of thought, does it?

1984

It is at Rotherham that we really must draw the line. If we don’t reject this style of thinking, if political correctness is to gradually outlaw all of the tribal dimensions, then we may find any political viewpoint except the current state-sanctioned line is labelled as racist. If we’re lucky, we may get an authorised opposition. Then we’ll all be locked in a 1984 hell, treated as cloned slaves belonging to the State.

If that happened, then we’d secretly be conspiring revolution, because people are tribal and most will not behave like that willingly. Then, new technologies will be used that can restrict the ease of conspiring by using more and more surveillance, making it deeper and more personal, eventually thought monitoring and thought control. My evolution chart for the future of humans includes homo zombius around 2075. It is technologically feasible. And socially. And politically.

In the short term, using all too familiar justifications such as crime control, anti-terrorism, and controlling media standards – while extending the rules to social media, government is grabbing more power to control the information we can get hold of, the messages we can spread, and access to technology. Apple recently and unhelpfully patented a system to allow police to turn off smartphones in an area. Government has tried a few times now to introduce screening of every use of communication such as web site access lists, all our messages, all social media and so on. Such measures often get blocked, and then reintroduced, again and again, just like ID cards, or the speed cameras that were meant to be disappearing but are breeding like rabbits. The government says what they want us to hear very loudly, and generally retracts it a week later very quietly. Eventually, the extra surveillance measures will stick. Individually, these can all be explained as sensible approaches to big problems. But they won’t stay in their boxes long. They all give extra power to future authorities, and some of those authorities will have staff like Rotherham social service chiefs.

But tribalism can’t be eliminated

Tribalism is a powerful force in human nature and reasserts itself here and there, from time to time. To deny it or to try to outlaw it is to invite at least as many problems as indulging it. And they will often be harder to deal with than the simple results of tribal conflicts that are usually open to negotiation. There are very many dimensions on which tribal forces can act, thanks to the richness of human culture. Race, gender, age, geography of birth and of residence, political ideology, religious creed, football club support, celebrity following, the list goes on and on. Government can try to block them, but like a river, it can’t stop it, only divert it or dam it for a short time before it spills over.

Football was one of the great diversions of course. Instead of tribes going to war with each other and fields full of corpses, football teams could kick a ball around a while and let of the same tribal pressures. But football is now a major front in the battle against racism, actual skin-colour style racism. I don’t know what that will cause. Will the racism go underground if it doesn’t have an outlet on the terraces, maybe increase BNP support? Who knows? I don’t. Did somehow those involved survive the forces that cured the rest of society of racism, or is it just that too much is being made of the small remnants that survived, perhaps rekindling flames by trying to blow them out? What will be the next phase of it? In Glasgow, the sectarian conflict had an outlet in Rangers v Celtic. Will sectarianism be the next front in the anti-tribalism war? Will that force pressure underground?

Tribal battles are brewing on many other fronts too.

Old people are becoming much more expensive, just as younger people are being fleeced. Those young people will find those older people voting themselves better pensions and health care, which they know won’t be available to those having to pay for them. Intergenerational conflicts are inevitable. The private v public sector battle hasn’t gone away, and will resurface many times over the next decade. The Europhile v Eurosceptic battles are just getting organised. Gay rights issues don’t stop with gay marriage and gender will bring entirely new problems in a decade or two as new genders come on the scene. Body augmentation, mental augmentation and customisation, even artificial intelligence are all fronts for future tribal conflicts.

Even fashion and pop music invoke tribalism. Every school-kid knows the feeling of being verbally or even physically abused because they have a different dress style or make-up style than some other group. Or because they prefer one artist over another. How long before there are demands to label these as hate crimes too? Or is that already history.

Tribalism will never go away. Human culture will continue to evolve, and whole new areas will often be created where tribalism can and will appear. Political correctness can try hard to keep up, but tribalism will outlive it by millennia.