[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
I've been struggling a lot lately with something, namely that the world seems pretty screwed up and it's getting worse. This may partially be a perspective issue; current crisis situations appear more dire than past ones. However, I think even the space of time will reveal that the American political situation is as fractured as it has ever been, and the ideological divide between the halves of my country is wider than any we have ever seen.

Again, a possible perspective issue: I happen to believe that the side I am on is right, and the side they are on is wrong. I like to think of myself as an open-minded individual, capable of listening to all sides of an issue and understanding where everybody is coming from, but lately I have increasingly felt that there is no possible way that a growing number of conservative Americans have any kind of rational basis for believing the way they do. On issues ranging from disbelief in science (global warming, immunization of children), to a failure to accept the reality of a new and just social order (the fundamental rights of gay people as human beings), to a failure to accept the reality of an old and just social order (I feel an awful lot of Obama-hate stems from discomfort with a black president, even if nobody wants to admit this), those other people think a lot of things that I just can't comprehend. It's not that I don't understand the words they are using, or that I cannot follow the chains of statements intended to support their arguments. It's that I cannot place my mind in any kind of space where I could listen to those words and arguments, and conclude that the opinions they hold are in any way valid.

I refuse to believe that half of the United States is insane. That possibility is too horrifying to contemplate. I prefer to believe that something else is happening -- something wherein people with otherwise healthy minds are exhibiting symptoms of a heretofore underdescribed syndrome.


In 1970 Alvin Toffler wrote _Future_Shock_, a book that you should still read. That book meditated on what happens to people in an increasingly complex society. It coined the term 'information overload' and used it to explain a variety of social problems. _Future_Shock_ accurately predicted the confusing effect that the internet would have by suddenly opening the entire population up to download and upload massive amounts of information. This book resonates with me.

I think we're not so far off from our roots as proto-sapient hominids. Our onboard hardware and firmware evolved to help us process information and make rational decisions as part of our species' strategy to optimize survival. That hardware and firmware is pretty epically awesome, as can be seen from the fact that over about a million years' time, we've gone from being a little fish in the pond, to a big fish, to the only fish. Our brains have proven amazingly elastic and adaptive, allowing us to optimize our decisions and behaviors in an increasingly complex world of our own design.

But all things have limits. As science and technology have expanded our world's complexity with a geometric progression, our minds have had to keep up with the accelerating change. This is difficult. Just as solving a multi-variable equation is harder than solving a single-variable equation, our brains need to keep some things constant in order to be able to keep up. If everything in our world is a moving target, it becomes harder for our apparatus to keep track of all the variables.

Supposing you are building a bridge. You have learned the basics of bridge design and know what you are doing, so you set to work. You dig foundations for the footings, based on what you know about the soil's ability to support weight, and you design the spans based on how much load the bridge must handle. You design supports to handle wind and seismic loading.

As you build, you discover some of your initial conditions are changing, so your design must adjust midstream. Perhaps you learn that your bridge, originally designed to carry car traffic, must also now handle heavy 18-wheelers. Perhaps a major earthquake in the area has forced you to adjust your assumptions of what is the strongest seismic event that you could expect to see. You make your adjustments and move on.

But some things can change and we can deal; if all the things change, even the things we have come to regard as immutable constants, we can become overwhelmed. Suddenly the soil liquefies, making our foundations utterly inadequate. Impossible hurricane force winds arise. The gulf that our bridge must span suddenly doubles in width, and there is evidence that it may double again in a month. Good builders can adjust to some change, but what if you have no constants to deal with? Eventually one would throw in the towel and say: this isn't worth it. I can't do this.

I think this happens to people. What is more, I think this has always happened to people. Complex situations are nothing new. People have adapted to this by creating social contracts. In a complex, frightening world, long ago people dealt with the stress of uncertainty by putting the unknowns in a box and saying THIS IS HOW THINGS ARE. Rules for what is right and wrong were created. Some of these rules had value to an altruistic society -- thou shalt not kill, for instance. But other rules had another purpose -- they relieved strain on peoples' minds by taking the responsibility for determining truth away from the individual. Should I eat this fish or that oyster? I don't know... AH, but the words of the ancient prophet say that eating oysters is wrong! I am relieved of making a decision; I am free to eat a fish without needing to tax my mind's decision-making apparatus, which has limited resources. Those resources are freed up for use in other parts of my universe.

I believe that the same forces that taxed the minds of ancient humans are still at work. Furthermore, the strains placed on old cultures are much stronger today, because we have a much more complicated world where many more decisions must be made. We are exposed to news of the rest of the world, and we have shrunk that world such that things happening on the other side of the globe affect us directly over here. We have many sources for stimuli, and many streams of imput to our brains. I have no evidence to support this, but I believe that your average adult in the industrialized world makes many more daily decisions, small and large, than a similar adult in a poor agricultural country.

At some point that industrialized adult becomes overcome by the world. When that happens, they must do something to deal with the strain on their minds. If society has not provided them with some kind of social contract to relieve them of the responsibility of processing changes to the world and making resulting decisions, they must generate their own, or grasp for one. So: when scientists say that climate is changing and we need to do something different, but other parties say that it is not changing, and everything is fine, and further that those scientists must be evil for saying such things, who will the person under strain believe? By buying in to the absence of climate change, people are relieving themselves of the need to rationally process scientific information. Their brains can relax; the decision that everything is fine has been made by somebody else. They can now use their thinly-spread mental resources on some other part of universe-comprehension that is required.

I would go so far as to say that all forms of conservatism are potential species of this same phenomenon. If your worldview has been forged around the idea that GAYS ARE BAD, and you are presented with the option of repairing that notion in the face of basic ethics and data to the contrary, your brain has a decision to make. Will I allocate the mental resources to process this change and modify my opinions and behavior? If you have free resources to do this, your brain will probably do the right thing. But if your brain is already overtaxed, it may choose instead the default position of sticking to what you already know.

The more globally overarching the social contract, the less strain on the mind. If you choose to be conservative on some issues but not on others, the strain is relieved selectively. If, instead, your mind chooses for you to follow a general Tea Party agenda, the strain is relieved across the board for a variety of decisions. You tell yourself: I'm a Tea Party guy! Then you don't need to worry any more about anything of certan to Tea Party people. The lowest energy equation is therefore that one where people ascribe to conservative principles across the board.

I am not saying this is a conscious process. This decision making process is occurring somewhere deep in the core of your brain, as it is based on your resource-allocator's demands and not on what your raional mind says. These decisions are made before your rational mind even gets a chance to work on a problem. Your brain says: I can't deal with [x], so I'm going to toggle that over to [conservative default] and then I won't have to work on the problem.

I am not saying that conservatives are all stupid or insane. A great many conservatives are provably smart people. Some conservatives may be crazy, and some of them may also be evil mercenaries preying on the syndrome I have just described. But I believe the vast bulk of conservative Americans are just people whose brains have chosen a lower energy solution to the challenges that surround us.

I think this is a syndrome, fortunately, that takes care of itself. The complexity of the industrialized world in 2012 is many times more complex than the industrialized world in 1912. I think the upgrading of hardware and firmware isn't just genetic and based on slow evolution; we have the ability to stretch the parameters of our minds' capabilities over just a few short generations. Clearly we deal with more and more complexity every generation. But I feel that conservatism seems to be on the rise, so I wonder if we aren't approaching some sort of upper bound on our brains' ability to stretch themselves out.

These are just my thoughts on a worrying subject. With America as divided as we are, and with so little hope visible on the horizon for bridging the gaps, I am concerned about the future. Has this country succeeded so much that we have overcomplicated our lives more than anybody else in the world, and will a conservative backlash against this complexity ultimately drag us down? If the entire universe is Too Long / Didn't Read, what hope do we have for living in it?

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hwrnmnbsol

September 2012

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