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A Cyber-Bestiary For Our Time

"... my needs are to have good, crisp information so I can make decisions on behalf of the American people." -- George W. Bush, April 4, 2006

At the dawn of the computer age a small light-seeking robot turtle was devised to propel itself toward a light. But when more than one light appeared in its field, the turtle had no way to decide which light to target, and would go into oscillation, run out of energy, and 'die, recalling Buridan's Ass, who starved between two bales of hay, from indecision .

Latterly, a robot guided by a live cockroach is supposed to avoid lighted objects by exploiting the cockroach's preference for dark places. But: " ... the light-feedback system ... didn't consistently give the desired object-avoidance behavior ... [At times] it appears the cockroach couldn't care less about the lights shining toward it and seems to enjoy driving the robot directly into walls at full speed. ... as it turns out, cockroaches are considerably complex insects with a mind of their own." (http://www.conceptlab.com/roachbot/)

Such experiments notwithstanding, this year some $3 billion of our military expenditures will go to DARPA for R&D on "Controlled Biological and Biomimetics Systems " like robolobsters, insect cyborgs, remote-controlled rats and sharks, and a "marsupial" robot aircraft for dumping baby robots into enemy terrain. 

Remember DARPA? -- the folks who couldn't get their psychic spies to come in with any useful information, and who designed the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program that was such a hit with the American people?

Presumably, these cyberbeasts will be used primarily to provide "good, crisp information" to guide decisions made on our behalf by a President we didn't elect, so that we can kill more people (terrorists, civilians, whatever) in wars we didn't want, and transfer more of our nation's wealth to Haliburton and other corporations.

We are, and have always been, in oscillation over abortion, immigration, health care, education, gay rights, and thousands of other small lights that beckon us in different directions. These issues are not going to be resolved: we don't want them resolved; we want our side to win. Too many of us are content to buzz back and forth until we use up all our power -- our wealth, our natural resources, and our friendly and compassionate relations with our neighbors.

That early robot turtle lacked an algorithm to decide among multiple signals. Our Constitution gave us good algorithms for collective decision-making, but many have been disconnected or short-circuited by the MSM , IT and the sheer complexity of our consumer society.

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The cockroach driving the robot is much more complex, but has more power than it has capacity to comprehend and too few algorithms to advise it. It gets "good crisp information" from the lights around it, but still drives into walls, and consumes a huge investment of human energy and money.

The squandering of even $3 billion of our nation's wealth on robotics and biomimetics is simply obscene, but is a drop in the bucket against the our expenditure of $463 billion on war and weapons -- plus an extra $170 billion for current wars -- to kill, torture or terrorize other humans, or destroy their livelihoods.

What are we to do? As citizens, parents, neighbors, voters, consumers, how can we deal with the surfeit of information and the dearth of algorithms to deal with it?

In " Democracy: Its Presumptions and Realities" (1932). Judge Learned Hand observes: "One difficulty ... in the traditional theory [of an informed, watchful and involved electorate] ... arises from our necessary preoccupations and our incapacity to understand and deal with the multitude of questions that increasingly call for an answer in a desperately complicated world. . . . That was not the presupposition of our traditional democracy, which assumed an intelligent attention and capacity in public affairs, and a will directed toward the general good. We have surely outgrown the conditions it assumed, and the theory has ceased to work."

What else is there? Can we reconnect the algorithms of civil society and traditions of democracy and deal with our desperately complicated world? Can we stop seeing war, violence, torture, force, criminalization, and punishment, and as the primary algorithms for effecting change?

Judge Hand again: "I see children playing on the grass; their voices are shrill and discordant as children's are; they are restive and quarrelsome; they cannot agree to any common plan; their play annoys them; it goes poorly. And one says, let us make Jack the master; Jack knows all about it; Jack will tell us what each is to do and we shall all agree. But Jack is like all the rest; Helen is discontented with her part and Henry with his, and soon they fall again into their old state. No, the children must learn to play by themselves; there is no Jack the master. And in the end slowly and with infinite disappointment they do learn a little; they learn to forbear, to reckon with one another, accept a little where they wanted much, to live and let live, to yield when they must yield; and perhaps, we may hope, not to take all they can. But the condition is that they shall be willing at least to listen to one another, to get the habit of pooling their wishes. Somehow or other they must do this, if the play is to go on; maybe it will not, but there is no Jack, in or out of the box, who can come to straighten the game."

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Caroline Arnold

Caroline Arnold retired in 1997 after 12 years on the staff of US Senator John Glenn. She previously served three terms on the Kent (Ohio) Board of Education. In retirement she is active with the Kent Environmental Council and sits on the board of Family & Community Services of Portage County. Her Letters From Washington has been published as an e-Book by the Knowledge Bank of the Ohio State University Library.  E-mail: csarnold@neo.rr.com

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