What’s so bad?

We humans love a good bit of misery. We note when bad luck befalls us, chronicle our ailments and often consider ourselves to be having a harder-than-average time of it all. The news and media constantly bombard us with stories of injustice, crime, health scares and why we are basically the worst country imaginable in every conceivable respect, and one only needs to spend a few minutes on any internet forum or discussion centre to find a thousand new and innovative reasons as to why you, and everything you stand for, is totally horrible and stupid and deserves to die. And/or that any faith in humanity you have is entirely misplaced.

However, optimists across the globe have pointed out that if the human race was actually as evil, despicable or otherwise useless a barrel of skunks as it often appears, we probably wouldn’t actually be around; or, at the very least, there certainly is nice and good stuff in this world that we humans are responsible for. So why are we so fixated on the bad? Why our attraction to misfortune? Are we all secretly schadenfreude junkies?

Part of the reason is of course traceable back to the simple fact that we humans are decidedly imperfect creatures, and that there is an awful lot of bad stuff in this world; these scare stories have to come from somewhere, after all. Take the two things that I feel most strongly about; climate change and slavery. In the two centuries since the industrial revolution, we have inflicted some catastrophic damage on our planet in the frankly rather shallow pursuit of profit and material wealth that always seem so far away; not only has this left vast scars of human neglect on many parts of our earth, but the constant pumping of pollutants into our atmosphere has sorely depleted our precious, irredeemable natural resources and is currently in the process of royally screwing with our global climate; it may be centuries before the turmoil calms down, and that’s assuming we ever manage to get our act together at all. On the other front, there are currently more slaves in existence today than at any other point in history (27 million, or roughly the combined population of Australia and New Zealand), a horrifying tribute to the sheer ruthlessness and disrespect of their fellow man of some people. The going rate of a slave today is 500 times less than it was in the days before William Wilberforce ended the Atlantic slave trade, at just $90, and this website allows you to calculate approximately how many slaves worldwide work to maintain your lifestyle. I got 40. I felt kinda sick.

However, as previously said there is also a fairly large quantity of awesome stuff in this world, so why doesn’t this seem to go as well-documented and studied as what’s going wrong. We never hear, for example, that X government department was really efficiently run this year, or that our road system is, on average, one of the best and safest in the world; it’s only ever the horror stories that get out.

Maybe it’s that we actively take pleasure in such pain; that we really do crave schadenfreude, or at the very least that negative feeling has a large emotional connotation. We use such emotion constantly in other situations after all; many films exploit or explore the world of the dark and horrifying in order to get under our skin and elicit a powerful emotional response, and music is often ‘designed’ to do the same thing. The emotions of hatred, of horror,  of loss, even fear, all elicit some primal response within us, and can create reciprocating emotions of catharsis, the sense of realisation and acceptance combined with a sense of purification of the soul. This emotion was the most sought-after feature of classical Greek tragedy, and required great influxes of negative emotion for it to work (hence why most theatre displays incorporated comedic satyrs to break the sheer monotony of depression); maybe we seek this sense of destructive satisfaction in our everyday lives too, revelling in the horror of the world because it makes us, in an almost perverse way, feel better about the world. And hey; I like a good mope now and again as much as the next man.

But to me, this isn’t the real reason, if only because it overlooks the most simple explanation; that bad stuff is interesting because it stands out. Humans are, in a surprising number of ways, like magpies, and we always get drawn to everything outside the norm. If it’s new, it’s unusual, so we find it intriguing and want to hear about it. Nowadays, we live a very sheltered existence in which an awful lot of stuff goes right for us, and the majority of experiences of life and other people fall into the decidedly ‘meh, OK’ category. Rarely are you ecstatic about the friendliness of the staff in your local newsagents, as most such people tend to be not much more than a means to the end; they are efficient and not horrible about allowing you to purchase something, as it should be. This is so commonplace, purely by virtue of being good business practice, that this is considered the norm, and it’s not as if there’s much they can do to elevate the experience and make it particularly enjoyable for you- but it’s far easier for them to be surly and unhelpful, making you note not to visit that shop again. This applies in countless other ways of life; the strictness of our national driving test means that the majority of people on any given road are going to behave in a predictable, safe fashion, meaning the guy who almost kills you pulling out onto the motorway sticks in your mind as an example of how standards are falling everywhere and the roads are hideously unsafe.

To me, the real proof of this theory is that we are capable of focusing on the good things in life too; when they too are somewhat dramatic and unusual. During last summer’s Olympics, an event that is unlikely to occur in Britain again in my lifetime, the news recorded various athletes’ medal success and the general awesomeness of the event every evening and everyone seemed positively taken aback by how great the event was and how much everyone had got behind it; it was genuinely touching to see people enjoying themselves so much. But in our current society, always striving to improve itself, finding examples of things hitting well below par is far easier than finding stuff acting above and beyond the call of awesome.

Although admittedly being happy the whole time would be kinda tiring. And impractical

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The Prisoner’s Dilemma

It’s a classic thought experiment, mathematical problem and a cause of much philosophical debate. Over the years it has found its way into every sphere of existence from serious lecturing to game shows to, on numerous occasions, real life. It has been argued as being the basis for all religion, and its place in our society. And to think that it, in its purest form, is nothing more than a story about two men in a jail- the prisoner’s dilemma.

The classic example of the dilemma goes roughly as follows; two convicts suspected of a crime are kept in single custody, separated from one another and unable to converse. Both are in fact guilty of the crime, but the police only have evidence to convict them for a small charge, worth a few months in jail if neither of them confess (the ‘cooperation’ option). However, if they ‘rat out’ on their partner, they should be able to get themselves charged with only a minor offence for complicity, worth a small fine, whilst their partner will get a couple of years behind bars. But, if both tell on one another, revealing their partnership in the crime, both can expect a sentence of around a year.

The puzzle comes under the title (in mathematics) of game theory, and was first formally quantified in the 1950s, although the vague principle was understood for years before that. The real interest of the puzzle comes in the strange self-conflicting logic of the situation; in all cases, the prisoner gets a reduced punishment if they rat out on their partner (a fine versus a prison sentence if their partner doesn’t tell on them, and one year rather than two if they do), but the consequence for both following the ‘logical’ path is a worse punishment if neither of them did. Basically, if one of them is a dick then they win, but if both of them are dicks then they both lose.

The basic principle of this can be applied to hundreds of situations; the current debate concerning climate change is one example. Climate change is a Bad Thing that looks set to cause untold trillions of dollars in damage over the coming years, and nobody actively wants to screw over the environment; however, solving the problem now is very expensive for any country, and everyone wants it to be somebody else’s problem. Therefore, the ‘cooperate’ situation is for everyone to introduce expensive measures to combat climate change, but the ‘being a dick’ situation is to let everyone else do that whilst you don’t bother and reap the benefits of both the mostly being fixed environment, and the relative economic boom you are experiencing whilst all the business rushes to invest in a country with less taxes being demanded. However, what we are stuck with now is the ‘everyone being a dick’ scenario where nobody wants to make a massive investment in sustainable energy and such for fear of nobody else doing it, and look what it’s doing to the planet.

But I digress; the point is that it is the logical ‘best’ thing to take the ‘cooperate’ option, but that it seems to make logical sense not to do so, and 90% of the moral and religious arguments made over the past couple of millennia can be reduced down to trying to make people pick the ‘cooperate’ option in all situations. That they don’t can be clearly evidenced by the fact that we still need armies for defensive purposes (it would be cheaper for us not to, but we can’t risk the consequences of someone raising an army to royally screw everyone over) and the ‘mutually assured destruction’ situation that developed between the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals during the Cold War.

Part of the problem with the prisoner’s dilemma situation concerns what is also called the ‘iterative prisoner’s dilemma’- aka, when the situation gets repeated over and over again. The reason this becomes a problem is because people can quickly learn what kind of behaviour you are likely to adopt, meaning that if you constantly take the ‘nice’ option people will learn that you can be easily be beaten by repeatedly taking the ‘arsehole’ option, meaning that the ‘cooperate’ option becomes the less attractive, logical one (even if it is the nice option). All this changes, however, if you then find yourself able to retaliate, making the whole business turn back into the giant pissing contest of ‘dick on the other guy’ we were trying to avoid. A huge amount of research and experimentation has been done into the ‘best’ strategy for an iterative prisoner’s dilemma, and they have found that a broadly ‘nice’, non-envious strategy, able to retaliate against an aggressive opponent but quick to forgive, is most usually the best; but since, in the real world, each successive policy change takes a large amount of resources, this is frequently difficult to implement. It is also a lot harder to model ‘successful’ strategies in continuous, rather than discrete, iterative prisoner’s dilemmas (is it dilemmas, or dilemmae?), such as feature most regularly in the real world.

To many, the prisoner’s dilemma is a somewhat depressing prospect. Present in almost all walks of life, there are countless examples of people picking the options that seem logical but work out negatively in the long run, simply because they haven’t realised the game theory of the situation. It is a puzzle that appears to show the logical benefit of selfishness, whilst simultaneously demonstrating its destructiveness and thus human nature’s natural predisposition to pursuing the ‘destructive’ option. But to me, it’s quite a comforting idea; not only does it show that ‘logic’ is not always as straightforward as it seems, justifying the fact that one viewpoint that seems blatantly, logically obvious to one person may not be the definitive correct one, but it also reveals to us the mathematics of kindness, and that the best way to play a game is the nice way.

Oh, and for a possibly unique, eminently successful and undoubtedly hilarious solution to the prisoner’s dilemma, I refer you here. It’s not a general solution, but it’s still a pretty cool one 🙂

The End of The World

As everyone who understands the concept of buying a new calendar when the old one runs out should be aware, the world is emphatically due to not end on December 21st this year thanks to a Mayan ‘prophecy’ that basically amounts to one guy’s arm getting really tired and deciding ‘sod carving the next year in, it’s ages off anyway’. Most of you should also be aware of the kind of cosmology theories that talk about the end of the world/the sun’s expansion/the universe committing suicide that are always hastily suffixed with an ‘in 200 billion years or so’, making the point that there’s really no need to worry and that the world is probably going to be fine for the foreseeable future; or at least, that by the time anything serious does happen we’re probably not going to be in a position to complain.

However, when thinking about this, we come across a rather interesting, if slightly macabre, gap; an area nobody really wants to talk about thanks to a mixture of lack of certainty and simple fear. At some point in the future, we as a race and a culture will surely not be here. Currently, we are. Therefore, between those two points, the human race is going to die.

Now, from a purely biological perspective there is nothing especially surprising or worrying about this; species die out all the time (in fact we humans are getting so good at inadvertent mass slaughter that between 2 and 20 species are going extinct every day), and others evolve and adapt to slowly change the face of the earth. We humans and our few thousand years of existence, and especially our mere two or three thousand of organised mass society, are the merest blip in the earth’s long and varied history. But we are also unique in more ways than one; the first race to, to a very great extent, remove ourselves from the endless fight for survival and start taking control of events once so far beyond our imagination as to be put down to the work of gods. If the human race is to die, as it surely will one day, we are simply getting too smart and too good at thinking about these things for it to be the kind of gradual decline & changing of a delicate ecosystem that characterises most ‘natural’ extinctions. If we are to go down, it’s going to be big and it’s going to be VERY messy.

In short, with the world staying as it is and as it has for the past few millennia we’re not going to be dying out very soon. However, this is also not very biologically unusual, for when a species go extinct it is usually the result of either another species with which they are engaging in direct competition out-competing them and causing them to starve, or a change in environmental conditions meaning they are no longer well-adapted for the environment they find themselves in. But once again, human beings appear to be showing a semblance of being rather above this; having carved out what isn’t so much an ecological niche as a categorical redefining of the way the world works there is no other creature that could be considered our biological competitor, and the thing that has always set humans apart ecologically is our ability to adapt. From the ice ages where we hunted mammoth, to the African deserts where the San people still live in isolation, there are very few things the earth can throw at us that are beyond the wit of humanity to live through. Especially a human race that is beginning to look upon terraforming and cultured food as a pretty neat idea.

So, if our environment is going to change sufficiently for us to begin dying out, things are going to have to change not only in the extreme, but very quickly as well (well, quickly in geographical terms at least). This required pace of change limits the number of potential extinction options to a very small, select list. Most of these you could make a disaster film out of (and in most cases one has), but one that is slightly less dramatic (although they still did end up making a film about it) is global warming.

Some people are adamant that global warming is either a) a myth, b) not anything to do with human activity or c) both (which kind of seems a contradiction in terms, but hey). These people can be safely categorized under ‘don’t know what they’re *%^&ing talking about’, as any scientific explanation that covers all the available facts cannot fail to reach the conclusion that global warming not only exists, but that it’s our fault. Not only that, but it could very well genuinely screw up the world- we are used to the idea that, in the long run, somebody will sort it out, we’ll come up with a solution and it’ll all be OK, but one day we might have to come to terms with a state of affairs where the combined efforts of our entire race are simply not enough. It’s like the way cancer always happens to someone else, until one morning you find a lump. One day, we might fail to save ourselves.

The extent to which global warming looks set to screw around with our climate is currently unclear, but some potential scenarios are extreme to say the least. Nothing is ever quite going to match up to the picture portrayed in The Day After Tomorrow (for the record, the Gulf Stream will take around a decade to shut down if/when it does so), but some scenarios are pretty horrific. Some predict the flooding of vast swathes of the earth’s surface, including most of our biggest cities, whilst others predict mass desertification, a collapse of many of the ecosystems we rely on, or the polar regions swarming across Northern Europe. The prospect of the human population being decimated is a very real one.

But destroyed? Totally? After thousands of years of human society slowly getting the better of and dominating all that surrounds it? I don’t know about you, but I find that quite unlikely- at the very least, it at least seems to me like it’s going to take more than just one wave of climate change to finish us off completely. So, if climate change is unlikely to kill us, then what else is left?

Well, in rather a nice, circular fashion, cosmology may have the answer, even if we don’t some how manage to pull off a miracle and hang around long enough to let the sun’s expansion get us. We may one day be able to blast asteroids out of existence. We might be able to stop the super-volcano that is Yellowstone National Park blowing itself to smithereens when it erupts as it is due to in the not-too-distant future (we also might fail at both of those things, and let either wipe us out, but ho hum). But could we ever prevent the sun emitting a gamma ray burst at us, of a power sufficient to cause the third largest extinction in earth’s history last time it happened? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see…

The Hidden Benefits

Corporations are having a rather rough time of it at the minute in the PR department. This is only to be expected given the current economic climate, and given the fact that almost exactly the same feelings of annoyance and distrust were expressed during the other two major economic downturns of the last 100 years. Big business has always been the all-pervasive face of ‘the man’, and when said man has let us down (either during a downturn or at any point in history when somebody is holding a guitar), they tend to be (often justifiably) the main victims of hatred. In essence, they are ‘the bad guys’.

However, no matter how cynical you are, there are a couple of glaring inconsistencies in this concept- things that can either (depending on your perspective) make the bad guys seem nice, make nice things seem secretly evil, or just make you go “WTF?”. Here we can find the proverbial shades of grey.

Let us consider, for instance, tourism. Nobody who lives anywhere even remotely pretty or interesting likes tourists, and some of the local nicknames for them, especially in coastal areas for some reason, are simultaneously interesting, hilarious and bizarre. They are an annoying bunch of people, seeming always to be asking dumb questions and trailing around places like flocks of lost sheep, and with roughly the same mental agility- although since the rest of us all act exactly the same when we are on holiday, then it’s probably better to tolerate them a little. Then there is the damage they can do to a local area, ranging from footpath erosion and littering to the case o the planet Bethselamin, “which is now so worried about the cumulative erosion of 10 billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave- so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt” (Douglas Adams again). The tourism industry is often accused of stifling local economies in places like Yorkshire or the Lake District, where entire towns can consist of nothing but second homes (sending the local housing market haywire), tea shops and B&B’s, with seemingly no way out of a spiral of dependence upon it.

However, what if I was to tell you that tourism is possibly the single most powerful force acting towards the preservation of biodiversity and the combating of climate change? You might think me mad, but consider this- why is there still Amazonian rainforest left? Why are there vast tracks of national path all over southern Africa? We might (and in fact should) be able to think of dozens of very good reasons for preserving these habitats, not least the benefits to making sure that all of our great planet’s inhabitants are allowed to survive without being crushed under the proverbial bulldozer that is civilisation, and the value to the environment of the carbon sink of the rainforests. But, unfortunately, when viewed from a purely clinical standpoint these arguments do not stand up. Consider the rainforest- depending on your perspective this is either a natural resource that is useful for all sorts of namby-pamby reasons like ensuring the planet doesn’t suffocate, or a source of a potentially huge amount of money. Timber is valuable stuff, especially given the types (such as mahogany) and sizes of trees one gets in the Amazon delta. Factor in that gain with the fact that many of the countries who own such rainforest are desperately poor and badly need the cash, and suddenly the plight of the Lesser Purple-Crested Cockroach seems less important.

And here tourists come to the rescue, for they are the sole financial justification for the preservation  of the rainforests. The idea of keeping all this natural biodiversity for people to have is all well and good, but this idea backed up by the prospect of people paying large sums of money to come and see it becomes doubly attractive, interesting governments in potential long-term financial gain rather than the quick buck that is to be gained from just using up their various natural resources from a purely industrial point of view.

Tourism is not the only industry that props up an entire section of life that we all know and love. Let me throw some names at you: Yahoo, Facebook, Google, Twitter. What do all of those (and many other besides) have in common? Firstly, that all are based on the internet, and secondly that the services offered by all three are entirely free. Contrast that against similarity three, that all are multi-billion dollar companies. How does this work? Answer, similarity 4: all gain their income from the advertising industry.

Advertising and marketing is another sect of modern business that we all hate, as adverts are always annoying by their presence, and can be downright offensively horrible in some cases. Aggressive marketing is basically the reason we can’t have nice things generally, and there is something particularly soulless about an industry whose sole purpose is to sell you things based on what they say, rather than what’s good about whatever they’re selling. They are perhaps the personification of the evils of big business, and yet without it, huge tracts of the internet, the home of the rebellion against modern consumer culture, would simply not be able to exist. Without advertising, the information Facebook has on its hundreds of millions of users would be financially useless, let alone the users themselves, and thus it would not be able to exist as a company or, probably, an entity at all, let alone one that has just completed one of the highest-value stock market flotations in commercial history. Google would exist perhaps merely as a neat idea, something a geek might have thought of in college and never been able to turn into a huge business that deals with a gigantic stake in web traffic as well as running its own social network, email service and even the web browser I am typing this on.

This doesn’t make advertisers and tourism companies suddenly all angels in the light of the world, and they are probably just as deserving of all the cynicism they get (equally deserving, probably, are Facebook and Google, but this would ruin my argument). But it’s worth thinking that, no matter how pushy or annoying they start to get, it may be a small price to pay for the benefits their very existence lends to us.