Fragile Societies, Resilient Citizens

Here are my notes from a recent David Brin lecture I had the pleasure of listening to.

Category: diary

My notes on David Brin's Lecture

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I recently had the pleasure of listening to a lecture by the Science Fiction author David Brin. It is amazing how one hour can pack so much. I only wish that I had brought my recorder.

Brin’s lecture thesis was that advanced society was inherently fragile, and that resilience and thoughtfulness are necessary to mitigate this fragility in times of catastrophe or calamity. I assert that ultimately, that requires that one balance one’s self-interest against the interests of others.

Fragility and Resilience

Societal Fragility comes from diverse sources, including external and internal human threats as well as environmental threats. He included ignorant progressiveness, which is changing society or implementing technology in the interest of progress without a full understanding what the ramifications are. The more advanced a society, the more inherently fragile it becomes. Ignorantly advancing a society leads to not incorporating adequate resilience.

Citizen Resilience is the buttress, or proof against Societal Fragility. There are two key factors: the citizen’s ability to act and the citizen’s willingness to act.

An example of ability to act is a firearm that bridges the time between when the emergency call is made and the police arrive. Or, the possession of residential solar power to offset power loss when there is a regional outage. Or, the ability to dig one’s self out of the snow when the plows are late. The concept of American Individualism encourages Citizen Resilience. Ability to act means one has the means to do so, which is having access to relevant technology.

There were two excellent examples of willingness to act. Hitler under-estimated the American’s willingness to fight when he declared war, thinking we were too decadent. Likewise, the brave sacrifice on United Airlines Flight 93 evidences willingness to act when they gave their lives to prevent greater calamity.

Brin asserted that Americans have been historically willing to act and still are, contrary to modern propaganda, and rattled off several other notorious examples.

Thoughtfulness:
The Zero- and Positive-Sum Societies

Brin described two societies: Zero- and Positive-Sum. The Zero-Sum Society is the ancient Feudal Attractor society where there are a few at the top with the wealth and power to control the many. The Positive-Sum Society is a construct of the Enlightenment, where there are a few very wealthy and a few very poor, but where those who are neither have most of the power. A higher proportion of wealth is shared than is found among the wealthy.

Where the Zero-Sum society is described as a triangle (△), the Positive-Sum Society is described as a lozenge (◊). The tendency of Zero-Sum is to limit society growth, the result of Positive-Sum is that all eventually rise in status. As a society of the Enlightenment, Americans should encourage Positive-Sum Philosophy.

The Zero-Sum Philosophy exists whenever a few exercise monopolistic control over a society sub-culture. In the commerce sub-culture, this is where one or two corporations exercise monopolistic control or where government does. Conversely, a thriving small business culture in commerce is more Positive-Sum.

Brin observed Zero-Sum Philosophy applied in the desire to regulate routine citizen access to Dangerous Technology. He pointed out that with any technology, there are always Good and Bad actors. The Good:Bad Actor Ratio (GBAR) tends to be greater when there is broad access to technology. Undue regulation restricts broad access, which disproportionately impacts the Good Actor. Undue regulation thus reduces the GBAR, ultimately favoring the Bad Actor.

Dangerous Technology is a pejorative applied by those seeking to regulate, when in reality a technology is only dangerous when used by Bad Actors. Undue regulation belongs to the Zero-Sum Philosophy and Society. To promote a Positive-Sum Society, Brin encouraged the broad dissemination of technologies, and avoiding the temptation to regulate.

The Protector Caste Should be Simultaneously Celebrated and Controlled

The Protector Caste comprises the military, law enforcement, emergency medical technician, firefighters, some scientists and others—those we rely upon to be vigilant and anticipatory while the rest of us live “normal” lives.

In Brin’s perspective, the Protector Caste should only be powerful enough to handle the routine. During times of calamity and catastrophe, the Protector Caste should only be powerful enough to give the Resilient Citizenry time to mobilize and act. It should never be powerful enough to exercise monopolistic control. The Resilient Citizenry should always have more effective power, because enough Good Actors will balance the Bad and not operate in a way that adversely interferes with another’s interests.

In World War 2, our military was small, and only held off long enough for the Resilient Citizen soldier to be trained and applied to action; which explains why the early period for the Americans and the British felt so desperate. We have since tended toward having a military that is capable of acting without engaging the resilient citizen; causing some resentment.

Technology Enables Positive-Sum Societies.

Electric companies act in their self-interests by restricting broad implementation of residential solar power. They seek regulations under the guise of the danger residential solar poses to the linemen. Conversely, mindful implementation of this technology would safeguard the linemen without the need for constrictive regulation—broad implementation sans endangerment. The result of the Zero-Sum regulation is a brittle electrical infrastructure that could not withstand a catastrophe.

Some label firearms a dangerous technology and advocate restriction to an elite—the very model of Zero-Sum philosophy at work. Where these regulations are more strictly applied applied, it has lowered the GBAR; more criminals per capita have firearms than citizens.1 Conversely, when society broke down during the LA Riots, private use of firearms were used to resist a riot. In times of protracted crisis, the broader access to this technology leads to a well-ordered society–a “well-ordered militia.”2

The early Enlightenment thinkers, our Founders, recognized the power of resilience and hard-coded it into our government. Most of the amendments in the Bill of Rights were enacted to open access to technology and thwart regulation in an effort to foster the Positive-Sum Philosophy belonging to the Enlightenment. Even the Copyright and Patent provisions of the U.S. Constitution were intended to open access and thwart regulation. Having open access to countervailing opinions is Positive-Sum, attempting to regulate or silence one’s opponents is Zero-Sum thinking.

Historically, other technologies were labeled dangerous. At one point, governments restricted presses, which focused propaganda power in the elite. Some assert that the commercial media similarly concentrates power, where social media and other avenues tend to be more egalitarian. Access to the Bible in the vernacular challenged the Zero-Sum power of the church elite. Amateur Radio exemplifies where there are enough regulations to foster a community needed during emergencies, but over-regulated by limiting access to those in HOAs; whose only harm is an unsightly skyline.

Brin insightfully observed that there are numerous technologies that we tend to no longer consider such; something that an avid player of the Civilization video game series recognizes. Education (literacy, numeracy, reasoning, rhetoric) is technology, and one that some consider too regulated by government…and needs to have broader access of means.

Where Zero-Sum Thinking Comes From

Brin optimistically asserted that Atheism encourages Positive-Sum and that religion is Zero-Sum. However, there are sufficient examples where Atheism has led to very Zero-Sum outcomes. Conversely, the Enlightenment movement emerged and matured in Protestant Christian regions. Yet, there are plenty of Zero-Sum thinkers among Protestants. I believe the true source of this conflict lay not in religion.

Rather, the root is in our natural tendency to have a strong belief (likely unfounded) that one’s interests, opinions and beliefs are superior to another’s, and that they therefore need to be controlled. This is literally the definition of self-righteousness. Zero-Sum Philosophy and behavior is self-righteous. Positive-Sum Philosophy is not, because it requires a recognition that others interests, opinions and beliefs have equal merit. A tendency to be self-righteous is a part of our human nature, and requires conscientious effort to overcome.

When our behavior balances our self-interest and other’s-interest, we are Good Actors and favor Resilience. As a Society, we need Good Actors who have access to the means to act to endure during calamity and catastrophe.

  1. Here’s an interesting thought experiment. You have three persons. Person A is a model citizen with a gun. Person B is a criminal with a gun who wants to harm Person A. Person C seeks to regulate guns, recognizing that Person B will not surrender their gun. Would Person C therefore be supporting Person B more than Person A?

  2. Militia as a legal term is distinct in that it is not compelled to government control, which contrasts the National Guard which is an element of government control. There are no legal repercussions if a citizen chooses not to act in a militia capacity, which is not true of the Guardsman.

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Photo Credit: Packard Automotive Plant, Detroit (Daquella manera/Flickr CC BY 2.0.)