Humans: Clever, But Not Wise….

The election of Donald Trump (aka “Agent Orange”) is only one of many, many signs that we humans aren’t as smart as we think we are.

Consider our ability to invent technologies we then prove unable to use wisely.

Actually, being destroyed or enslaved by the machines we’ve created is a favorite theme of science fiction. Robots who turn on their makers, unanticipated consequences of laboratory experiments, the dehumanizing substitution of human-machine interaction for human contact–all are familiar scenarios of “futuristic” fantasy.

Being overwhelmed by our own inventions, however, is neither “futuristic” nor “fantastic.” Anyone who doesn’t believe that human society is being inexorably changed by social media and the Internet hasn’t been paying attention.

The Guardian recently ran a chilling column about those changes, and about our tendency to see new threats and challenges in terms of the past, rather than as harbingers of our future.

Both sides of the political divide seem to be awakening to the possibility that letting the tech industry do whatever it wants hasn’t produced the best of all possible worlds. “I have found a flaw,” Alan Greenspan famously said in 2008 of his free-market worldview, as the global financial system imploded. A similar discovery may be dawning on our political class when it comes to its hands-off approach to Silicon Valley.

But the new taste for techno-skepticism is unlikely to lead to meaningful reform, for several reasons. One is money. The five biggest tech firms spend twice as much as Wall Street on lobbying Washington. It seems reasonable to assume that this insulates them from anything too painful in a political system as corrupt as ours.

The FCC’s decision to repeal Net Neutrality despite the fact that 83% of the public want to retain the policy would certainly seem to validate the author’s assertion that our government responds to money, not public opinion.

The columnist, Ben Tarnoff, is especially concerned that the focus on Russia’s efforts to weaponize the Internet and influence the election is diverting our attention from far more serious issues. It is unlikely that Russian game-playing had much of an effect on the Presidential election (racism aka White Nationalism clearly played a far greater role), and while Congress fixates on Russia, far more significant threats go unnoticed.

As Tarnoff sees it, the focus on Russia isn’t just misplaced because that country’s social media influence wasn’t really all that effective. It’s misplaced because the Russians used the Internet platforms in precisely the way they’re designed to be used.

As Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out, the business model of social media makes it a perfect tool for spreading propaganda. The majority of that propaganda isn’t coming from foreigners, however – it’s coming from homegrown, “legitimate” actors who pump vast sums of cash into shaping opinion on behalf of a candidate or cause.

Social media is a powerful weapon in the plutocratization of our politics. Never before has it been so easy for propagandists to purchase our attention with such precision. The core issue is an old one in American politics: money talks too much, to quote an Occupy slogan. And online, it talks even louder.

Unfortunately, the fixation on Russian “cyberwarfare” isn’t likely to bring us any closer to taking away money’s megaphone. Instead, it will probably be used as a pretext to make us less free in other ways – namely by justifying more authoritarian incursions by the state into the digital sphere….

The tragedy of 9/11 has long been weaponized to justify mass surveillance and state repression. The myth of the “cyber 9/11” will almost certainly be used for the same ends.

Tarnoff reminds readers that–as usual–America’s wounds are largely self-inflicted.  We could and should take note of Russia’s efforts to subvert our election without ignoring the “deep domestic roots” of that catastrophe. As he reminds us,

Russia didn’t singlehandedly produce the crisis of legitimacy that helped put a deranged reality television star into the White House. Nor did it create the most sophisticated machinery in human history for selling our attention to the highest bidder.

It’s odd to blame Russian trolls for the destruction of American democracy when American democracy has proven more than capable of destroying itself. And rarely is it more self-destructive than when it believes it is protecting itself from its enemies.

We Americans are really, really good at whiz-bang technology. Creating a society that is just, fair and free? Not so much.


  1. “The five biggest tech firms spend twice as much as Wall Street…”

    There is is again, right before our eyes. We all do it. We all buy into it. What is it? It is this society’s way of measuring anything and everything. How much was spent. How much it costs. How much was raised. How much money period.

    The success of Christmas is measured by how much MORE is spent this year than last. The effectiveness of medicine is measured by how much money the new hospital will cost (really not a hospital, more like a mall ). The new sports arena is the most expensive ever so it must be better than any other city’s. The salary of this CEO is the highest in the country so he must be the best. One worker earns less than $30,000 a year so the man earning $130,000 must be a better worker, more reliable, smarter, a better person, just a better worker. The new super sized church for the faithful costs over $3,000,000 so that religion must be right.

    When did we give up on measuring people, places and things using the ideals of honesty, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness?

  2. I will again quote the prophetic words of Alan Watts from the 1970’s: “Man is going to computerize himself out of existence.” That is proving true regarding the job market where one machine can do the work of ten men/women. Makes me wonder about the many recalls due to faulty, dangerous parts of all machinery, endangering lives because the computer didn’t “catch” the error.

    As for the social media; never before in this entire world has it been more dangerous, and that danger is coming from and almost hourly being spread by one man – Donald Trump. His lies and insults and threats world-wide have alienated our closest allies, angered our enemies and WILL lead us to nuclear war due to the pissing contest between he and Kim Jong-Un who may or may not be intelligent, but has no more humanity or common sense than Trump. Insulting and threatening the United Nations, who had the nerve to disagree with him, has quickly disappeared from the media as if it doesn’t matter…just excused as “Donald Trump will always be Donald Trump” attitude by our own government. Other nations around the world want him gone; we can only hope, and maybe during this religious season for so many religions, we can pray it doesn’t take nuclear war to get rid of him. There is no salvation from the pseudo-christianity from Pence; but there is a lesser chance of nuclear war which can begin by entering those computer codes and pressing that computer button.

    Happy Holidays to all of you here on the blog, and your families.

  3. When I was on FaceBook (I am no longer,) I told a number of friends of a theory I had that Humanity was in fact beginning to approach a state of mind similar to the times of the Medieval Period and perhaps more like the days of Noah (when violence filled the face of the Earth and men’s thoughts were continually evil – ) strangely it all mirrors what is presently upon us as a species: Over use of the Earth, Overpopulation, War and Technology run amok – did you know the Zohar mentions that in the days of Noah animals were hybridized and crossed and that it led to a disorder of the nature of things…? That is some advanced thinking from my point of view. And the Flood – We know scientifically the Earth had multiple world involving flood events in the past at varying spans apart. Do we think we are so ‘blessed’ that we can out wit the Planet – it is ‘alive’ too. But on a more to the point note: We are a ‘smart’ species but far from ‘wise’ – take for instance the Church is smart enough to disguise something very pertinent before the people’s eyes that is frequently quoted this time of the Year: “Peace on Earth – Good will towards men!” BS!!! – Anyone who knows the texts and the Greek written there knows – the translation is off – it reads instead “PEACE ON EARTH TO MEN OF GOOD WILL!”…, something we should all take to heart if anything this Year in particular! – Have a nice one!

  4. Manuel Colunga-Hernandez: Your comment about multiple world-wide floods is not correct. It is easy to show that there is not enough water on the planet (in any form, gas, liquid and ice) to flood everything. Ask yourself this. Where did all that water go when the so-called floods receded?

  5. I have nothing to add to Sheila’s and JoAnn’s excellent and perceptive analyses other than to note that we are outsmarting ourselves in another area – the rapidly increasing rate of immunity of germs to antibiotics. Perhaps those who say that we have a medieval brain other than the subpart that innovates and discovers have a point. Happy Holidays to all my fellow commentators on this blog and, of course, to Sheila.

  6. From the Guardian: ‘We’re under attack’: young conservatives gather to reject political correctness. The gathering was barely a stone’s throw from Donald Trump’s opulent winter retreat at Mar-a-Lago.

    About 3,000 students from campuses nationwide gathered on Trump’s doorstep at the Palm Beach County convention center for the four-day winter summit, hosted by Turning Point USA. Its leanings were signaled pretty clearly in the quasi-official motto that was printed on placards placed on every seat: “Big government sucks.” “There is, and there are, people at the highest levels of government that don’t want to let America be America,” Donald Trump Jr told his enthusiastic audience.

    The interesting point I found in the article was: Charlie Kirk, the 24-year-old founder and executive director of Turning Point USA, is seen as a rising star of the right.

    So how does a 24 year old put something like this together. I looked up Turning Point USA who sponsored the event in WIKI. Turning Point USA is noted for its Professor Watchlist, which lists college professors it alleges “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”Their motto is “Big Government Sucks.”

    Turning Point’s revenues were $78,890 in 2012, $443,859 in 2013, and $2,052,060 in 2014. Charlie Kirk has stated that TPUSA received $5,000,000 in 2016. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, TPUSA is not required to disclose its donors. An article on the donors is here: Who Funds Conservative Campus Group Turning Point USA? Donors Revealed

    Russian interference in our election via the internet is over hyped hot air , compared to what activities such as campaign donations and Koch Bros and others can set up.

  7. why i dont face,tweet or own credo,not to influence,but to give guidance to whoever to shape their own needs. i read orwells, 1984,when i was 11, as a fiction,but now i see how the world has shaped. big brother,tech… many a political comic has portrayed the likes of big brother,stepping aside for facebook, apple and face fighting over a key stroke,gates in a cloud looking down at the minions. we have garnered the self intrests of ones self. relying on whatever is there,is? maybe some further study,that cant be right? The interenet is probably the most powerful,influential,and demanding change of life. like the car,it needed gasoline, we now need more gigs. and to think, we are teathered to it with few recourses. like the cell phone,tell your boss your number isnt for his use,and see how that goes.or those workers on the way to work, buy up all those energy drinks,to prefrom for the boss,at their expense,(stupid) like the net, big corps have now gained a influential status,above us minions. thanks in part,to the,word speak,by them,devised by many online companies who,without even being in face to face conversation,can buy and sell, influence,via the web. we are seriously looking at algorithms as the next mind to TELL you what you need to know,and you will,think its human. theres a old b movie,i think it was THX1157 something like that,robert duvall, and based on 1984. maybe a netfix fix could give you some insight,if your not already for this. Im standing in the shadows,i watch the people who i get to deal with, shippers,recievers,company workers,truckstop employees,and wherever i shop,to keep my truck rolling. all here,the employee, the ones who just got saddled with trumps,right wing tax scam. whats another trillion and a half to pay off! chicken feed i guess the way they tell it.. (wordspeak)now,we have apple and face bringing money home to? im sure were going to get a break on our rates ,right? hold your turns to purple before death. we now see where the net can and will go. now for some tid bits, i must be awfully lonely out here(not) i get to see where you have issues, junk mail,junk people,misled information,fake news,(thats trumps mind,not mine) viruses,scam offers,scam political news,(typical fox hour)propaganda,and more propaganda,sites you never asked for..faces best, doling out your agenda,lifestyle,hobby,mind set,family matters,photos,and filing them with anyone anywhere THEY want..(for so called ad revenue,and targeting,but seriously,your privacy freely given here) and you think im lonely? your quite busy im sure after allowing some net giant decide your status,on line. and now you now why i dont face tweet, wishes,im headed south to warmer climes. p.s. im meeting with santa,were getting a BBQ lunch wherever he lands.

  8. I thought Omar Bradley’s warning from 1948 might be relevant:

    “Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it… Man is stumbling blindly through a spiritual darkness while toying with the precarious secrets of life and death. The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.”

  9. David – Thanks for the Bradley insight, which nicely sums up the current situation, but why must the smart be suicidal? Perhaps we need more social science and less STEM in our schools?

  10. Perhaps the human compulsion to create things that will destroy us – beginning with the concept of organized killing; war – is really a Darwinian aspect of life on Earth. Our evolution is maybe the major factor in the next mass extinction. The next one will be the sixth mass extinction and, one way or another, we humans will be its major cause: climate change, nuclear war. Take your pick.

    On another topic, how can our economic model of continuous, unregulated growth continue forever? If we don’t blow ourselves up, how will Wall Street – and all the “Wall Streets” around the world – deal with the exhaustion of resources or the clamoring needs of 12 billion people all wanting a car, cheap gas and an iPhone? Oh. I forgot. Twelve billion people will consume a lot of food putting even more stress on diminishing, arable land. Uh. Oh.

  11. ” One is money. The five biggest tech firms spend twice as much as Wall Street on lobbying Washington. It seems reasonable to assume that this insulates them from anything too painful in a political system as corrupt as ours.”

    So what has changed, we are a society that runs on money. What worries me is when IBM’s Watson takes over all the call center jobs, robots replace all the ware house jobs and sell driving cars , trucks and air planes take all the driving jobs. What are all the people going to do?

  12. Phil – Your concerns about automation at its intersection with humanity has enormous implications on the social and economic side of the coming collision.

  13. We are and always have been slaves to culture. We look around us and observe others we think are like us and emulate them. It saves us a lot of thinking. Like most of life it’s everything. Some good, some bad, some awful, some wonderful, everything.

    Because of this things spread like viruses. Nobody chooses which things but inexorably snow balls become avalanches but some just stay snow balls melting in the sun.

    Tragedies like Trump overrun us which cause us to try to figure out the explanation but it’s the sum of so many causes that the truth is its just plain old chaotic culture bumping around in our little corner of the universe.

    The topic today strikes me that way. A million little separate things occur and happen to touch each other in the right place and time and out of chaos emerges a powerful source that is not only unanticipated but out of our control. It engulfs us before running out of energy.

    Intelligence creates problems and solutions. It’s like a form of energy, in that what it does is cause change and change is bigger than we are as individuals. We like to assume we are in control but that’s largely an illusion.

    Someone once said “shit happens” and within a few days we all said it. Why? Nobody knows or knew that would happen.

  14. Happy Holidays to the Professor, the blog commenters and their families. Cheers!

    (Otherwise, I’m too depressed to add anything else to the discussion. I just want this freaking year to be over).

  15. Aging girl,

    Thanks for the greetings. I share your feelings. 2018 will give us new energy to defeat our domestic enemies, aka Republicans.

  16. 2018; I just realized we will be of legal age in this coming year. Hopefully; with age will come the wisdom needed to bring about change for the good of this nation.

  17. Right, so make sure to stand on your principles and vote against Donnelly. Democrats standing on their principles and refusing to vote for Democrats worked out well before.

  18. You’re right. We should never stand on principles. Hell,we should not have principles at all. We must vote for the Democrat Party…even when the Democrats vote for and side with the Republicans,it’s a good thing. It’s just good business to keep on keeping on! I’ve been so wrong. Vote for Democrats no matter what. They will save the day!

  19. Unfortunately,principles in this case means the lives of Puerto Ricans,et al. I understand their lives mean nothing to someone such as Over It. Perhaps it is racism? Perhaps Donnelly’s support for the Republican measures are rooted in racism as well? I guess some racism is tolerated as long as it’s subtle/measured under the Democrat brand name. Again,as Over It states,who needs principles? Some lives are more important than others. How do you sleep at night?

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