Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Mailing List for PPoP Book

Finally got off my butt and set up a Google Group to function as an announce-only mailing list for my upcoming book "The Pop Psychology of Programming". You can go sign up here (to my amusement, cutting and pasting a Google Groups signup box here in Blogger just produces glitchy non-functionality). I've been working with renewed vigor since viewing the movie "2012" since, obviously, I want to get this thing done before the world ends. Who even knew that neutrinos could mutate? The ancient Mayans, apparently.

This belief that someone else knows/knew a whole lot more than us is, I think, sometimes a way of relieving cognitive dissonance that arises when we ponder miraculous-looking accomplishments we can't understand. (Hmmm, either those folks know a lot more than me, or else -- maybe aliens did it!) The latter, of course, is exactly what some people believe firmly: there's no way humans could have come up with transistors and computers, it is more plausible that we simply gleaned that technology from downed alien spacecraft that now reside in Area 51.

Having grimly ground out my EE degree in college, I could tell these folks that there is extremely detailed and well-dated documentation on how all those technologies have evolved. There are no remarkably enormous leaps of intellect in this history, just determined grinding away at one problem at a time, with innumerable contributions from the serendipity that occurs in all our lives with some frequency.

Sadly, folks who believe we aren't smart enough to have invented computers have no interest in looking at this history. We live in a time where the very accessibility of information makes information more ignored than ever. All manner of detailed technological information is online, but most people would rather debate talking points hatched by political operatives than go spend hours studying, say, the chemistry of climate change or the mechanics of cancer that ensure earlier detection increases the harm done via increased unnecessary treatments.

On gloomy days, I suspect this is the limiting factor that keeps the human race from surviving en masse too much longer: genetic evolution can't move fast enough to help us survive the problems we are creating for ourselves. Darwin was emphatic in his belief that our hope lie in a moral evolution, that would operate via education, religion, culture, etc. Too be charitable, that viewpoint continues to look a bit iffy. Despite my natural pessimism, however, the book will argue that programmers may have a role in tipping the balance in favor of human survival.


Hans Gerwitz said...

Why does Darwin's (and Dawkins's) hope that we are post-genetic and evolve via culture look "fishy"? The last few thousand years seem to support this view as humanity moves at a breakneck pace, even if the direction isn't always admirable.

(Glad I'm not the only one who has encountered the "computers came from aliens" viewpoint. Amazing how resistant it is to offers to explain everything from electrons to software design.)

Ron Burk said...

I see (via unscientific personal sampling) an alarming percentage of young people who proudly refuse to get any kind of flu vaccine. In particular, they uniformly have no understanding that vaccination is not just for their health, but to prevent them vectoring disease to their more vulnerable friends and family.

My neighbor was old enough to recall having his house quarantined for scarlet fever, and I certainly use to walk on streets old enough to contain "don't spit on me" bricks. Thus, in the space of two generations, culture, education, and religion has failed to, not evolve, but just prevent the devolution of basic health information rather important to the species. If H1N1 were to acquire a mutation that upped its mortality rate to 1918 standards, obviously that would renew a basic grasp of the benefits versus risks of vaccine very quickly. But lurching from disaster to disaster, having to relearn the same rules over and over, does not support the idea that culture/eductation/religion has produced much evolution in the past 100 years.

More than one observer notes that the Dark Ages were, in fact, a time of significant technological innovation. It's just that the innovation was isolated to a small percentage of people, while most lived in the "demon-haunted world". It's easy for those of us immersed in technology to fail to grasp just how large of an ignorance exists in some large percentage of the population -- and how quickly that can produce disastrous consequences when any random demagogue chooses to turn people against their own self-interests.

While technology is certainly continuing the acceleration even Darwin could feel, evidence for the moral evolution Darwin hoped for just seems awfully slim. Armed tribes who move on horseback and punish via beheading have been within 60 miles of acquiring nuclear warheads in recent months. The Singularity may not arrive, but the ability of anyone with a grudge to inflict ever larger casualties on an ever smaller budget guarantees that more Predictable Surprises are on the horizon. Where is evidence of moral evolution that will counteract this?