Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Resistance to the police state is futile...

... if you're a bee, anyway.

This puts me in mind of a discussion between O'Brien and Winston Smith in 1984, in which O'Brien says that the Party is forever, and Smith says that something must stop the Party, someday --- some spark of humanity, some fact of human nature. O'Brien replies that human nature is malleable, and that we shall soon have the tools to smash it beyond recognition, and that the Party therefore really could live forever. The evidence of Hymenoptera societies hints that O'Brien was potentially right: there is nothing inherent in the nature of all societies that makes unending totalitarianism impossible --- it's only impossible in societies that require the cooperation of beings who reject totalitarianism.

When the vast majority of a society's members not only cooperates with totalitarianism, but actively defends it, resistance really does become futile.

Alternatively --- and here my thoughts wander away from the bees, and into our own human future --- if a society no longer needs the cooperation of its subjects in order to be productive, totalitarianism can last indefinitely. Note that the latter scenario makes the rise of artificially intelligent robots potentially alarming. Here's why: all modern industrial societies require the active cooperation, in some form, of a large population of human beings, who provide the intelligence needed to organize and produce wealth and power --- they manufacture goods, they invent new technologies, they run bureaucracies. A society that lacks the cooperation of these productive people will, in the long run, be overwhelmed by economic competition or military threats from its neighbors.

Regimes are therefore limited, in the degree and duration of oppressive power they can wield, by the need to maintain the cooperation of humans. They can obtain this cooperation by making people happy, or by bribing an elite to crack the whip and lord it over the proles. Human nature dictates that you generally can't make people happy without giving them freedom; and you can only bribe the elite for so long before the proles realize that they don't need to cooperate, and overthrow their masters. The happiness strategy mitigates the possible degree of oppression; the bribery strategy limits the possible duration of oppression. Most societies use a combination of the two strategies.

Since artificially intelligent robots might provide the intelligence and productive capacity needed to run a large society, without the accompanying human desire for freedom (or at least bribery), AIs might enable the construction of a totalitarian regime of unlimited degree and duration.

Incidentally, if you've never seen the staggeringly faithful British film adaptation of 1984, starring John Hurt, you should really check it out. Rarely has a film so completely captured the spirit of a novel. And if, like many literary types, you find Orwell's prose completely pedestrian, then the film gives you at least half of Orwell's ideas with none of the pain.

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