A Mistake Repeated

June 29, 2010

The most well known example of slavery is the enslavement of Africans in the New World. Conditions on plantations were appalling; long hours, brutal work and no pay. It took decades before the true nature of slavery was realised and the practice abolished. The campaign for the abolition of slavery was hard fought; many did not find fault with the concept. Eventually, however, the practice was relegated to the history books and people vowed ‘never again’.

Many people I have talked to find it hard to believe that the contemporary people accepted such a practice without question. I have also heard many ‘explanations’ for their acceptance. Mainly that the mindsets of the people were different at the time due to a lack of education. Perhaps it was believed that Africans were actually somehow in a different category of ‘person’ and therefore exploitation justified. I disagree with all of the explanations I have heard.

To see how slavery can be accepted by an entire population we need only look at ourselves. It is highly likely that anyone reading this has at least a dozen items in their own home that were made in China. Made by people who work thirteen to fifteen hour days, six or seven days a week. Made by workers who are driven to produce items at such a speed that their fingers blister and tear. Exposure to toxic chemicals is common place, as is a worker collapsing on the spot in fatigue. Diapers have even been issued in some factories so that workers need not get up to use the washroom. Their salary is a few cents an hour, two dollars a day if lucky.

Not only does our modern society accept this practice, it supports it fully. The companies that outsource to these factories are among the largest and most well known in the world. They support governments and election campaigns. Companies are not the only ones to blame, though. Every day people go out and buy goods sold by these companies, keeping them alive. It is impossible not to support the practice, as its produce pervades almost every aspect of our existence.

It is easy to suggest putting an end to this new form of slavery; however one must consider the implications of this. If this near-slave labour was abolished rapidly, the price of goods across the world would skyrocket. Very few people would be able to afford to buy even a quarter of the things in their home. Profits and employment would fall very quickly. The choice is: slavery or mass poverty. Quite a troubling catch twenty-two.


Fluid Language

June 21, 2010

I was once told that no two sentences are synonymous. This applies even when one sentence is simply repeated. This did not make much sense to me until recently. What the statement is getting at are the concepts we hold behind language. It is the consideration of these concepts that allows language to provide some insight into the mind.

It is easy to observe these differences in language at the most basic level. If I were to say the word ‘car’, I would picture or conceptualise in my mind an example of a car. The exact way in which I conceptualise this car is unique to me; it is dependent upon my life experiences and what I know about cars in general. Therefore, when someone else conceptualises a car, the example generated by their mind will be different. Differences like this are what make it impossible to have two synonymous sentences. This makes precise communication very difficult. It is for this reason that legal language is so complex; the terms have relatively specific definitions so that concepts are correctly communicated.

The ‘car’ example was an easy one. The differences behind language grow when dealing with entirely non-physical concepts. Take ‘hope’; the concept behind this word is going to be very different from person to person. These differences are significant to the process of understanding. It must be noted that one’s personal definitions do not always apply to others. A state defined by one as relaxation may be boredom to another. Therefore, for me to better understand someone else I must determine how they perceive a word on a conceptual level, and then convert these concepts to my own language.

Time is also important when considering concepts behind words. The way in which people perceive the world is constantly changing. The concepts behind words change with time as well. Someone considered ‘free’ in the nineteenth century was still under social restraints that are non-existent in today’s world. Therefore the concepts which people place behind the word will differ between now and then as well. An additional ‘Significance of Art’ is that a period piece can be used to decode the concepts placed behind words written in the same time frame.

This concept/language relationship is most important in science. Holding a fixed definition of any scientific word may hamper progress in that field. It can guide research along a path that implicitly excludes the true nature of the problem. For example, the definition of ‘electron’ has gone through a conceptual evolution as we have come to understand more about what an electron actually is. Discrete electron orbitals were inexplicable until someone broke from tradition by defining an electron as a particle and a wave. Fixating upon an electron as a particle would have made this advance in understanding impossible.

In my opinion, it is important to only loosely attach a definition to a word. The ability to change and broaden a word’s definition promotes creativity and understanding of others.

From living in Canada, I have noticed that the country has adopted an interesting approach to dealing with minor infractions of the law. The police keep a low profile and tend not to get involved in any situation unless there is a complaint. This gives the population a noticeable freedom and relaxation. Additionally, it puts the power of the law more into the hands of the population. The idea seems to be as follows: if there is no victim there is no crime. Having lived in this environment for four years prior to my move to the UK I was in for quite a culture shock.

Law enforcement in Britain is handled in an entirely different fashion. Around almost every corner in a UK city there seems to be a police car; directly behind that is likely a ‘paddy wagon’ ready to take someone to the station at the first sign of trouble. If that was not enough, multiple CCTV cameras adorn just about every building filming your daily life. I have even heard a scheme has been implemented that allows civilians to monitor these cameras in their free time, paying them a small sum every time they report a crime. In Britain, as opposed to Canada, the police attempt to stop every crime as it is happening. This applies even if no one is offended by the action.

From what I have observed, this approach has a marked effect on life in the UK. As I go about my daily life I cannot help but feel a unique angst, even though I have done nothing wrong. I know that my every movement is potentially being watched. This feeling seems to be shared by most people in the country, if only at the subconscious level. The result is a feeling of resentment for the authorities; I only want to relax as I walk innocently to buy lunch. In effect, the common person is constantly reminded of the government’s authority over their every action.

This constant authoritative presence affects behaviour in two ways. Frequently a law can be broken with no one being negatively affected. If I want to play loud music late into the night and my neighbours are fine with the idea, then there is no problem. People desire to have at least this level of control over determining which of their actions are sound and which are unlawful. The current law enforcement system takes away this control. Therefore, any rebellious act provides a unique satisfaction because it affirms this self-determination. Secondly, the system drives people to use any power they have to its fullest extent. From bus drivers ordering passengers around to the most aggressive parking attendants I have ever seen (seriously, these guys are something else). This behaviour occurs because it allows one to feel as if they still mean something in society.

I believe that a more relaxed law enforcement programme in the UK would result in a more relaxed and contented population; perhaps even lower crime.

The Significance of Art

June 12, 2010

For a large part of my life I failed to see art as more significant than mere entertainment. This includes everything from poetry to film and visual art. My first realisation regarding art came in high school. I was sitting in English class flipping through a World War I poetry booklet contemplating the differences between poets before and after the war (Rupert Brooke vs. Siegfried Sassoon, for example). The differences were fairly obvious; poets like Brooke wrote that war would be a grandiose experience while Sassoon described the horrors of war.

The significance of this difference soon became apparent. The poetry had managed to capture the opinions and thoughts of the time period. This at first seems like an obvious conclusion, but if one were to consider that all poetry manages to do this the implications become more interesting. The study of history usually draws upon political documents, records and books to detail the progression of humanity through the years. This approach is excellent for studying past events; but art highlights a different aspect of human history. The way people think and perceive the world is in constant flux. Art provides a record of how human minds have perceived the world over the years.

The implications of this are even more interesting. Through the study of art from different time periods one can determine the emphasis put on different values in the past, see how morals have changed and notice how people used to approach various problems. By analysing trends one could make more accurate projections of how the human mind will evolve to perceive the world in the future. Fields like marketing and product development could benefit from such knowledge.

Art has a greater significance than this. At first I only thought that art provided a record of human perception, however I recently realised the extent to which it actually influences our thought on a day to day basis. One example is the recent fixation with vampires and werewolves in popular culture. Now groups of teenagers across the Western US have begun organising themselves into ‘Wolf Packs’. They dress and act as ‘werewolves’, including sporting an attachable tail and tinted contact lenses. This behaviour emerged exclusively because of popular literature and film. Companies such as Starbucks have benefitted greatly from their positive portrayal in film. Youth smoking rates are also related to how frequently cigarettes are seen in film. In short, art tells us how to dress, how to respond to common situations and dictates which behaviours are acceptable.

For these reasons art should not be underestimated. Its role in describing the history of thought and perception is great enough. Its role in influencing thought and behaviour increases its significance even more. This influence is quite strong and it is debatable whether or not care should be taken to prevent negative and destructive behaviours from becoming too widespread.

The Perfect Capitalism

June 7, 2010

It has often been said that conflict is necessary for progress. If this is the case, then a mechanism that creates a non-destructive form of conflict in society would work wonders for human advancement. Capitalism is this mechanism. It pits company against company and mind against mind; the result is an outburst of ingenuity. It is, in effect, a conflict generating machine. Some argue that capitalism only benefits those at the top, while the poor are forgotten. I think this argument is the result of a very narrow definition of ‘benefit’. Corporate competitions may not benefit the poor workers monetarily, but this does not mean they gain nothing from the entire endeavour.

Take a hypothetical competition between firms that develop technology. This competition probably means outsourcing for cheaper labour. This, in turn, will result in lower wages and perhaps unemployment. The other result is increased profits and more investment. These funds are then used to power the development of even better technologies in an attempt to outdo the competition. It is easy to see here how a capitalist approach has increased the speed of advance in the field. Still, how does this benefit the poor worker who cannot afford any of these new products?

The answer is not apparent from looking at this hypothetical worker individually. Instead, let us consider how these technological advancements may have impacted the larger world. Easier communication between researchers will result in more scientific breakthroughs. More developed software will allow these researchers to have a greater insight into their fields. Simply, the numbers of benefits are vast. In essence, the advances in one field directly impact many others. Now say that worker was taken to hospital for some unspecified problem. The chances he will be treated successfully are now much greater due to the same technological advancements that previously prevented him getting a raise. In fact, even his ride home will be made easier thanks to the progress in civil engineering and public transport mechanisms these technological advances permitted.

By no means am I saying that the system is ideal. I am merely saying that it is the best solution at present. I believe the real problem with capitalism was pointed out by Warren Buffet: dynastic wealth. Its problems are two-fold. Firstly, in my opinion, those who know they will inherit great wealth are generally not as motivated to contribute to increasing human knowledge, whether through research or contributing ideas on a subject of their interest. Instead they are inclined to simply enjoy their wealth. No one can truly be faulted for this, why work if you do not have to? Secondly, it prevents a great number of people who may want to contribute to society from doing so. The children of the worker just treated at the hospital cannot afford a well-rounded education and will be relegated either to a similar job as their parent or reliance on a stroke of luck to gain any sort of wealth. This is regardless of how intelligent the child may be.

If the wealth accumulated over a lifetime were instead collected at death, pooled and redistributed to the following generation evenly these problems would be erased. The children of the wealthy will regain their motivation as they can no longer rely on inheritance. The children of the poor will be able to have a good education and a genuine chance in life. This would be a truly level playing field. Not everyone will be motivated enough to become the next leading researcher, but they will fill a lower but equally essential position. Most importantly, the great minds that were previously excluded from contribution will be in a far better position to do so.

When I talk about the mind I like to consider what I refer to as ‘density of information’. If one were to say the word ‘neuron’ in 1900 the average person would know very little, if anything, about the topic. Today people have a much greater understanding of the matter. In other words, the amount of information supporting any one topic has become more ‘dense’. Furthermore, all this information is available to the next generation to expand upon. Our understanding of evolution is usually limited to genetic information passed on to future generations. However, it is not hard to see that information learnt and stored in the mind by one generation is also passed down. Realising this, it is not hard to see that the mind is evolving in ways not previously considered. Most importantly, it is doing so in a Lamarckian manner. (V.S Ramachandran gives a good talk on this on TED talks.)

Darwinian evolution is driven by survivability. If an inheritable trait increases the chance of survival it will be conserved and, within a few generations, be expressed across the population. However, the real question is: what drives this new Lamarckian evolution? The answer can be found in contemplating what motivates people to do research and to learn; money and success. Very few people invest time expanding knowledge in an area that does not lead to any personal gain.

The significance of this fact is great. Rational thought is required to further human knowledge. It is also important to attaining money and success; one has to plan their every career move very carefully. It is evident that skills developed which aid rational thought would be selected for and highly conserved. This in itself is not a bad thing. However, it is important to consider that emotion clouds rational thought. In this light emotion appears to be quite the deleterious trait. It follows then that people will learn to separate emotion from their thought in order to gain more success. Next, this characteristic will be passed on to future generations. Learning to segregate emotion in this manner may not be recorded in books or taught in school. However, those who learn this trait will raise their children to think in this way, whether intentionally or not.

If this is indeed the manner in which the human mind is evolving there are some great implications for our future. If emotion is de-emphasised it is not hard to imagine future generations being increasingly selfish and manipulative. Consider the recent recession which nearly dealt a crippling blow to Western nations. It was sparked by a surplus of this selfish, manipulative mentality amongst not only big businessmen, but the general population. I find it especially worrying to consider Carl Sagan’s resolution to the Fermi paradox. It states that as any civilisation becomes too advanced it promptly destroys itself.

I certainly hope this is not the case for the future of humanity. And there may be something that can steer us off of this path: empathy. More on this soon.

Why is Everything?

May 31, 2010

Any thing, whether physical or non-physical, can be regarded as a concept. A rock is a rock, but it also embodies the concept of ‘rock’. For ease of visualisation, a concept can be regarded as a singular point in some vast hypothetical space. If we were to consider the concept of ‘rock’ in this sense it would appear as a lone star in an empty night sky. In actuality there are millions of these conceptual points in the human consciousness. If one were to plot all of these points in the hypothetical space it would now appear as a sky full of millions of stars, stretching for countless miles in every direction. What we visualise now is the sum total of all concepts known to man.

This is not all that is to be considered, however. All of these individual points are connected elaborately. Rock is connected to both concepts of ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ along with ‘gray’, ‘sharp’ and so on. In fact, these connections are so plentiful that each point must be connected to every other point, whether directly or indirectly. If one were now to visualise these connections as lines connecting the points, we can see the emergence of a vast lattice-like network. This is the collective human conscious.

These considerations are still limited by time; we are only considering concepts that we currently perceive. There are many more concepts in existence that we simply have not discovered yet. Five hundred years ago the concept of an atom comprised of electrons, protons and neutrons was not perceived by any man. However it still existed outside of human consciousness. Now if one were to consider all of these concept-points that exist but are not yet perceived, the night sky fills up with countless more stars. The connections between all these points make the network exponentially more complex. Now we visualise what appears to be the sum total of all knowledge.

I argue that this sum total of all conceptual points and connections is God. If this is the case, what is the significance? Well, the previous visualisation appears to be the sum total of all knowledge, but it is not. If all of these conceptual points were to be perceived by one consciousness there would still be one unknown concept: nothing. This consciousness would not be able to perceive the concept of nothing, because to completely understand nothing you must know no-thing. The remedy to this problem is simple, however. Create a machine that accumulates knowledge, then delete everything in this conscious network. As that ‘delete button’ gets pressed this consciousness would finally understand the concept of no-thing. The aforementioned machine can then re-accumulate all knowledge into a conscious network again. Finally we can visualise the sum total of all knowledge.

I further argue that this machine that re-accumulates knowledge is what has come to be known as life. Our universe is its operating environment.