Tag Archives: War

Will Rituals Return?

Many social trends seem to have lasted for centuries. Some of these plausibly result from the high spatial densities, task specialization, and work coordination needed by industry production methods. Other industry-era trends plausibly result from increasing wealth weakening the fear that made us farmers, so that we revert to forager ways.

An especially interesting industry-era trend is the great fall in overt rituals – we industry folks have far fewer overt rituals than did foragers or farmers. From Randall Collins’ Interaction Ritual Chains:

Only around the nineteenth century, when mansions were build with separate entrance corridors, instead of one room connecting to the next) and back stairways for servants, did the fully private peerless introvert become common. … Until the beginning of the nineteenth century where is no distinctive ideology of intellectuals as withdrawn and at odds with the world. … The marketing of cultural products … put a premium on innovativeness, forcing periodic changes in fashion, and concentrating a new level of attention on the distinctive personality of the writer, musician, or artist. … The political ideology of individual freedom – which arose in a movement concerned largely to break into the aristocratic monopoly on power rather than to withdraw from it – was often blended with the ideology of the freelance writer, musician, or artist. … Alienation, rebellion, glorification of the inward, autonomous self, an oppositional self taking dominant society as its foil – this has become part of intellectual discourse. …

The daily and annual rounds of activity in premodern societies were permeated with rituals that we would easily recognize as such by their formality; living in a patrimonial household in a medieval community (not to mention living in a tribal society) would have been something like what our lives would be if Christmas or Thanksgiving happened several times a month, along with many lessor ceremonies that punctuated every day. … Modern life has its points of focused attention and emotional entrainment largely were we choose to make them, and largely in informal rituals, that it takes a sociologist to point out that they are indeed rituals. (pp. 362-368)

We can plausibly attribute our industry-era loss of rituals to many factors. Increasing wealth has given us more spatial privacy. Innovation has become increasingly important, and density and wealth are high enough to support fashion cycles, all of which raise the status of people with unusual behavior. These encourage us to signal our increasing wealth with more product and behavioral variety, instead of with more stuff. With increasing wealth our values have consistently moved away from conformity and tradition and toward self-direction and tolerance. Also, more forager-like egalitarianism has made us less ok with the explicit class distinctions that supported many farmer-era rituals. And our suppression of family clans has also suppressed many related rituals.

These factors seem likely to continue while per-capita wealth continues to increase. In that case overt ritual is likely to continue to decline. But there is no guaranteed that wealth will always increase. If we find ways (as with ems) to increase the population faster than we can increase wealth, wealth per person will fall. And if wealth falls, we may well see a revival of overt ritual.

I can’t think of a historical novel that makes clear not only how common was ritual and conformity in farmer or forager societies, but how well that comforted and satisfied people. Nor can I think of science fiction stories portraying a future full of beloved ritual. Or any stories that show how lonely and disconnected we modern folks often feel because we lack the rituals that gave deep meaning to so many humans before us. We tend to love novels that celebrate the values we hold dear, but that can blind us to seeing how others held different values dear.

Perhaps the closest examples are war stories, where soldiers find comfort in finding distinct roles and statuses that relate them to each other, and where they act out regular intense synchronized actions that lead to their security and protection. But that is usually seen as applying only to the special case of war, rather than to life more generally.

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To The Barricades

I recently watched the classic 1952 Kurosawa film Ikiru, and have some comments. But those comments include spoilers; you are warned. Continue reading "To The Barricades" »

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Value Explosions Are Rare

Bryan Caplan:

I’m surprised that Robin is so willing to grant the plausibility of superintelligence in the first place. Yes, we can imagine someone so smart that he can make himself smarter, which in turn allows him to make himself smarter still, until he becomes so smart we lesser intelligences can’t even understand him anymore. But there are two obvious reasons to yawn. 1. … Even high-IQ people who specifically devote their lives to the study of intelligence don’t seem to get smarter over time. If they can’t do it, who can? 2. In the real-world, self-reinforcing processes eventually asymptote. (more)

Bryan expresses a very standard economic intuition, one with which I largely agree. But since many of my readers aren’t economists, perhaps I should elaborate.

Along most dimensions, having more of a good thing leads to less and less more of other good things. In economics we call this “diminishing returns,” and it is a very basic and important principle. Of course it isn’t always true. Sometimes having a bit more of one good thing makes it even easier to get a bit more of other good things. But not only is this rare, it almost always happens within a limited range.

For example, you might hope that if you add one more feature to your product, more customers will buy it, which will give you more money and info to add another feature, and so on in an vast profit explosion. This could make the indirect value of that first new feature much bigger than it might seem. Or you might hope that that if achieve your next personal goal, e.g., to win a race, then you will have more confidence and attract more allies, which will make it easier for you to win more and better contests, which lead to an huge explosion of popularity and achievement. This might make it very important to win this next race.

Yes, such things happen, but rarely, and they soon “run out of steam.” So the value of a small gain is only rarely much more than it seems. If someone ask you to pay extra for a product because it will start you one of these explosions, you should question them skeptically. Don’t let them do a Pascal’s wager on you, saying even if the chance is tiny, a big enough explosion would justify it. Ask instead for concrete indicators that this particular case is an exception to the usual rule. Don’t invest in a startup just because, hey, their hockey-stick revenue projections could happen.

So what are some notable exceptions to this usual rule? One big class of exceptions is when you get value out of destroying the value of others. Explosions that destroy value are much more common that those that create value. If you break just one little part in a car, then the whole car might crash. Start one little part of a house burning and the whole house may burn down. Say just one bad thing about a person to the right audience and their whole career may be ruined. And so on. Which is why there are a lot of explosions, both literal and metaphorical, in war, both literal and metaphorical.

Another key exception is at the largest scale of aggregation — the net effect of on average improving all the little things in the world is usually to make it easier for the world as a whole to improve all those little things. For humans this effect seems to have been remarkably robust. I wish I had a better model to understand these exceptions to the usual rule of rare value explosions.

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Are War Critics Selfish?

The Americanization of Emily (1964) starred James Garner (as Charlie) and Julie Andrews (as Emily), both whom call it their favorite movie. Be warned; I give spoilers in this post. Continue reading "Are War Critics Selfish?" »

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War Injustice

As frequent WWII movies continue to show, our culture uses that war as our clearest icon of a just war. So it is important to remember how much injustice there was on the “just” side:

Between 1945 and 1950, Europe witnessed the largest episode of forced migration, and perhaps the single greatest movement of population, in human history. Between 12 million and 14 million German-speaking civilians—the overwhelming majority of whom were women, old people, and children under 16—were forcibly ejected from their places of birth in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and what are today the western districts of Poland. … They were deposited among the ruins of Allied-occupied Germany to fend for themselves as best they could. The number who died as a result of starvation, disease, beatings, or outright execution is unknown, but conservative estimates suggest that at least 500,000 people lost their lives in the course of the operation.

Most disturbingly of all, tens of thousands perished as a result of ill treatment while being used as slave labor in a vast network of camps extending across central and southeastern Europe—many of which, like Auschwitz I and Theresienstadt, were former German concentration camps kept in operation for years after the war. … Ironically, no more than 100 or so miles away from the camps being put to this new use, the surviving Nazi leaders were being tried by the Allies in the courtroom at Nuremberg on a bill of indictment that listed “deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population” under the heading of “crimes against humanity.”

By any measure, the postwar expulsions were a manmade disaster and one of the most significant examples of the mass violation of human rights in recent history. Yet although they occurred within living memory, in time of peace, and in the middle of the world’s most densely populated continent, they remain all but unknown outside Germany itself. …

Contradicting Allied rhetoric that asserted that World War II had been fought above all to uphold the dignity and worth of all people, the Germans included, thousands of Western officials, servicemen, and technocrats took a full part in carrying out a program that, when perpetrated by their wartime enemies, they did not hesitate to denounce as contrary to all principles of humanity. (more)

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When Is “Soon”?

A few years ago, my co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky and I debated on this blog about his singularity concept. We agreed that machine intelligence is coming and will matter lots, but Yudkowsky preferred (local) “foom” scenarios, such as a single apparently-harmless machine in a basement unexpectedly growing over a weekend so powerful that it takes over the world, and drifting radically in values in this process. While Yudkowsky never precisely defined his class of scenarios, he was at least clear about this direction.

Philosopher David Chalmers has an academic paper on singularity, and while he seems inspired by Yudkowsky-foom like scenarios, Chalmers tries to appear more general, talking only about the implications of seeing “within centuries” “A++”, i.e., artificial intelligence “at least as far beyond the most intelligent human as the most intelligent human is beyond a mouse.” Chalmers worries:

Care will be needed to avoid … [us] competing [with them] over objects of value. … [They might not] defer to us. … Our place within that world … [might] greatly diminish the significance of our lives. … If at any point there is a powerful AI+ or AI++ with the wrong value system, we can expect disaster (relative to our values) to ensue. (more)

Chalmers’ generality, however, seems illusory, because when pressed he relies on foom-like scenarios. For example, responding to my commentary, Chalmers says:

Hanson says that the human-machine conflict is similar in kind to ordinary intergenerational conflicts (the old generation wants to maintain power in face of the new generation) and is best handled by familiar social mechanisms, such as legal contracts whereby older generations pay younger generations to preserve certain loyalties. Two obvious problems arise in the application to AI+. Both arise from the enormous differences in power between AI+ systems and humans (a disanalogy with the old/young case). First, it is far from clear that humans will have enough to offer AI+ systems in payment to offset the benefits to AI+ systems in taking another path. Second, it is far from clear that AI+ systems will have much incentive to respect the existing human legal system. At the very least, it is clear that these two crucial matters depend greatly on the values and motives of the AI systems. (more)

This vast power difference makes sense in a (local) foom scenario, but makes much less sense if we are just talking about speeding up civilization’s clock. Imagine our descendants gradually getting more capable and living faster lives, with faster tech, social, and economic growth, and shorter gaps between successive generations, so that as much change happens in the next 300 years as has occurred in the last 100,000. In this case why couldn’t our descendants manage their intergenerational conflicts similarly to the way our ancestors managed them? Similar events would happen, but just compressed closer in time.

Our ancestors have long had “enormous power differences” between folks many generations apart, and weak incentives to respect the wishes of ancestors many generations past. Their intergenerational conflicts were manageable however, mainly because immediately adjacent overlapping generations had roughly comparable power (shared values mattered much less). So if immediately adjacent overlapping future generations also have comparable power, why can’t they similarly manage conflict?

Yes, familiar mechanisms for managing intergenerational conflict seems insufficient if a single machine with unpredictable values unexpectedly pops out of a basement to take over the world. But Chalmers didn’t say he was focusing on foom scenarios; he says he is talking in general about great growth happening within centuries.

You might respond that our descendants will differ in having more generations overlap at any given point in time. But imagine that the growth speedup of the industrial revolution had never happened, so that the economy doubled only every thousand years, but that plastination was feasible, allowing brains to be preserved in plastic at room temperature and revived millions of years later. If a tiny fraction of each generation were were put into plastic and revived over the next thousand generations, would this fact suddenly make make intergenerational conflict unmanageable, making it crucial that the current generation ensure that no future generation ever had the wrong values?

I’m not saying there are no scenarios where you should care about descendant values, or even that you should be fully satisfied with traditional approaches to intergenerational conflict. But I am saying that having lots of growth in the next few centuries does not by itself invalidate traditional approaches, and that folks like Chalmers should either admit they are focused on foom scenarios, or explain why foom-like concerns arise in very different scenarios.

A lesson to draw from this example, I think, is that it is often insufficient to say that some important development X will happen “soon” – it is better to say that X will happen on a timescale short compared to another important related timescale Y. For example, if you tell me that I will die of cancer “soon,” what matters is that this cancer killing timescale is shorter than the timescale on which cancer cures are found, or on which I can accomplish important tasks like raising my children. I might not mind the cancer process going ten times faster than I’d expected, if the other processes go a hundred times faster. Since an awful lot of processes will speed up over the next few centuries, it is relative rates of speedup that will matter the most.

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War Games Are Fake

Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02) was a major war game exercise conducted by the United States armed forces in mid-2002, likely the largest such exercise in history. The exercise … cost $250 million, involved both live exercises and computer simulations. MC02 was meant to be a test of future military “transformation”—a transition toward new technologies that enable network-centric warfare and provide more powerful weaponry and tactics.

Red, commanded by retired Marine Corps Lt. General Paul K. Van Riper, used old methods to evade Blue’s sophisticated electronic surveillance network. Van Riper used motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to front-line troops and World War II light signals to launch airplanes without radio communications. … In a preemptive strike, Red launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles that overwhelmed the Blue forces’ electronic sensors and destroyed sixteen warships. This included one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five of six amphibious ships. An equivalent success in a real conflict would have resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 service personnel. … Another significant portion of Blue’s navy was “sunk” by an armada of small Red boats, which carried out both conventional and suicide attacks that capitalized on Blue’s inability to detect them as well as expected.

At this point, the exercise was suspended, Blue’s ships were “re-floated”, and the rules of engagement were changed. … The war game was forced to follow a script drafted to ensure a Blue Force victory. … Red Force was ordered to turn on all his anti-aircraft radar in order for them to be destroyed, and Red Force was not allowed to shoot down any of the aircraft bringing Blue Force troops ashore. … They also ordered Red Force not to use certain weapons systems against Blue Force and even ordered that the location of Red Force units to be revealed. This led to accusations that the war game had turned from an honest, open free play test of America’s war-fighting capabilities into a rigidly controlled and scripted exercise intended to end in an overwhelming American victory. …

Due to his criticism regarding the scripted nature of the new exercise, Van Riper resigned his position in the midst of the war game. … Navy Capt. John Carman, Joint Forces Command spokesman, said the war game had properly validated all the major concepts which were tested by Blue Force, ignoring the artificially imposed restrictions placed on Van Riper’s Red Force which led them to succeed. (more)

War colleges, where people learn to be soldiers, often have war simulations where different people play different parts of a war between “us” and “them.” Students and others are told that these are realistic, or at least as realistic as is feasible given the simplifications that simulations and games require.

But I’ve now heard personally from enough independent expert insider sources that I’m willing to post it: the above example was not a rare exception; war games are mostly fake.

They are designed so that our side wins, and so that the official strategy that we teach students actually prevails. Every once in a while some joker plays “them” cleverly and wins, and then their career is over. The games also make sure terrifying outcomes never happen, even in a game where “we” win. For example, it is forbidden to sink an aircraft carrier.

I’m told that that fake war games and simulations are common in the rest of the military too. Simulations that show realistic levels of outcome uncertainty and variance tend to be rejected in favor of low variance ones that suggest outcomes just can’t get very bad.

You might have thought that because in the military most everyone’s freedom and lives are on the line, the military at least would try hard to create realistic estimates of the outcomes of their policies. But you’d be wrong. Organizational disfunction plagues them as well. Apparently military leaders think it is more important to instill confidence in the troops and citizens than to actually find out how wars would go.

Now ask yourself: since your freedom and lives aren’t on the line in your organization, just how much more dysfunctional might be your outcome estimating processes?

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Schools Are For War

The main reason we had rules to force kids to attend primary school was to make obedient soldier citizens to support their nation in time of war. This effect was even stronger for democracies:

Using data from the last 150 years in a small set of countries, and from the postwar period in a large set of countries, we show that large investments in state primary education systems tend to occur when countries face military rivals or threats from their neighbors. By contrast, we find that democratic transitions are negatively associated with education investments, while the presence of democratic political institutions magnifies the positive effect of military rivalries. …

We study historical panel data on education spending and enrollment – for Europe since the 19th century and a larger set of countries in the postwar period – to assess the correlation between military rivalry (or war risk) and primary education enrollment (or the occurrence of educational reforms). … [Our models] show a positive and significant effect of rivalry on primary enrollment, a negative direct effect of democracy, and a positive and significant interaction term between the two. Overall, our empirical results indicate a causal relationship from rivalry to primary educational enrollment. …

An economic literature … finds robust correlations between past wars and current state capacity in international panel data. … [A study] shows that military rivalry raises fiscal capacity in postcolonial developing states. … [Others] find that democracy does seem to have a systematic influence on top rates of estate taxation, whereas wars with mass mobilizations do significantly raise those rates. …

[Prussia pushed schools] to arouse a moral, religious, and patriotic spirit in the nation, to instill into it again courage, confidence, readiness for every sacrifice. …

[France pushed schools to] teach Frenchmen to be confident of their nation’s superiority … It should … eliminate disruptive conflicts and promote the unity of the classes. … The new teaching program … was … designed to teach the child that it was his duty to defend the fatherland, to shed his blood or die for the commonwealth, to obey the government, to perform military service, to work, learn, pay taxes, and so on.

In Prussia, France and Japan … military defeats and/or perceived military threats appear to have prompted an otherwise reluctant ruling class to invest in mass primary education. …In most countries of the sample a war preceded the educational reform, while a democratic transition rarely occurs before the education rise … Most often, the democratic transition instead takes place *after the education reform period. (more)

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Is Conflict Inevitable?

Imagine you’ve been hiking in the wild for several days, with six others. Feelings are raw. Some think others aren’t carrying a fair load, some have been arguing politics, some are workplace rivals, and one has been having an affair with the spouse of another.

For weapons, the group has only a few small paring knifes. It is about time to find a place to stop for the night, and up ahead you spy a pile of rocks just the right size for violence – small enough to lift, and big enough to crush a skull. So you suggest stopping there for the night.

You think, “Violence is bad, but there is going to be violence here, so I might as well start it, so I can win. I’ll pretend to sleep then when others are still I’ll get up and smash my rival’s skull with a rock. I’ll conspire with my best ally George, who I may have to betray later. After all, the violence may continue until only one of us is left alive.”

Now, yes, it is possible to have Hunger-Games-like situations where everyone strongly expects everyone to fight until only one is left standing. And yes, in such situations you are better off hitting first, before they can hit you. But the first question you should always ask is, just how sure are you that you are in fact in such a situation.

This is what I think every time I hear people talk about inevitable future conflicts, be they Earth v. alien, robots v. humans, human v. animal, west v. east, rich v. poor, liberal v. conservative, religious vs. atheist, smart v. dumb, etc. Yes, if enough folks will see this as unrestrained war to the death, then you should consider striking first. And yes, there probably will be some sort of war eventually. But if you are wrong about the war being likely soon, you could cause vast needless destruction.

Alas, there is a unusually strong temptation to think in terms of inevitable conflict in far mode. In far mode we think more using a few sharp categories of us vs. them, we insist more on following basic principles no matter what the cost, and we think more in terms of dramatic story lines.

Worse, over the very long run, we do in fact expect a lot of winning and losing. Some firms will grow and others will go bankrupt, some professions will rise and others will fall, some musical genres will be remembered while others are forgotten, some families and races will have many kids while others have few, etc. This makes it easy to frame the long run as a no-holds-barred struggle to the death.

But if you are tempted to think this way, you should realize that that it will be very hard to preserve everything you like against future competition. It is very unlikely that you could simultaneously ensure the triumph of your planet, species, race, language, nation, city, musical tastes, favorite sport and team, preferred style of dress and home decoration, favorite story genres and characters, favorite school and profession, etc. If you are going to fight to the death for one thing, you will have to be ready to give up most everything else you like, if need be, for that one thing. And by initiating unreserved conflict in the hope of getting a first mover advantage in favor of your one thing, you may hasten the loss of many other things you treasure.

It seems to me that for most of the things you like and treasure, your best way to promote them is via peaceful trade and persuasion. Yes, most of them will probably fade away, outcompeted by something else. But your best bet to extend their duration is usually to compete peacefully, prospering as best you can to gain resources to help you support the things you like.

Maybe on the hike, Fred is your rival at work, and maybe he will beat you to that promotion you both want. Maybe he is also considering making a move on your gal. You might lose that competition too. Even so, you are usually better off trying your best via peaceful competition, than bashing in his skull with a rock during the night. He who competes but loses, and walks away, may live to fight another day.

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Trillions At War

The most breathtaking example of colony allegiance in the ant world is that of the Linepithema humile ant. Though native to Argentina, it has spread to many other parts of the world by hitching rides in human cargo. In California the biggest of these “supercolonies” ranges from San Francisco to the Mexican border and may contain a trillion individuals, united throughout by the same “national” identity. Each month millions of Argentine ants die along battlefronts that extend for miles around San Diego, where clashes occur with three other colonies in wars that may have been going on since the species arrived in the state a century ago. The Lanchester square law [of combat] applies with a vengeance in these battles. Cheap, tiny and constantly being replaced by an inexhaustible supply of reinforcements as they fall, Argentine workers reach densities of a few million in the average suburban yard. By vastly outnumbering whatever native species they encounter, the supercolonies control absolute territories, killing every competitor they contact. (more)

Shades of our future, as someday we will hopefully have quadrillions of descendants, and alas they will likely sometimes go to war.

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