Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Godlike Snafu Potential!


No species on earth can rival or even touch the ability of humans to mess things up. It makes no difference how perfect our situation may be, or how easy it is to maintain in perfection; when you turn around we've transmuted it into a vast mound of garbage, effortlessly. This is the origin of the Eden myth: that guilty feeling that, because things get worse every year, there must have been a time when we had it made in the shade, man - no death, plenty of food, no competition for a mate, and all we had to do to keep the ball rolling was lie back on the immortal greensward and enjoy it - and we
still messed it up. However, it seems clear that from the very moment that poison apple of knowledge hit our brain, we were no longer content to be indolent with the rest of the animals; knowing that in fact life is short and hard, we began working like demons to make it longer and more fun. These goals forced us down the path of endlessly increasing complexity, and quite soon we found out all about deleterious side effects and unintended consequences. It seems now that our technical abilities have so far outstripped our management abilities, our ability to see the whole elephant at once, that we really don't deserve to survive. One wonders how we got into this mess in the first place; I suppose it is just innate to us. The moment an object we build, whether huge or small, is more complex than the management ability of the builders, things begin to go wrong in that good old SNAFU way... [We take you now to the Serengeti Plains, c. 500,000 B.C. Note painted lions and kudu in the near distance.]

Og: [manager of tools development team] What this?
Shtug: [brilliant young researcher] New kind hammer. Not hold rock in hand. Shape right, tie to strong stick. Hits much harder.
Og: Hmm. Promising. How tie on? Bark? Vines?
Shtug: Hyena sinew. Test bench results show most strength.
Og: Ready for operational test? [raises stone hammer high]
Shtug: No! Topology committee not finished with knot experiments! [as Og brandishes the hammer, the rock flies off and lands on his foot. Enraged, he beats Shtug about the head and shoulders with the handle, and the hammer project is set back 5000 years]

And so it goes. But now, with technical advancements being made at bewildering speed every day, whether anyone wants them or not, the potential for rapid and hilarious mistakes is vastly magnified. Who would have predicted that management teams in California would have been unable to predict the intersections of projection plots involving population, land use, energy demand and generating capacity, nor understand the costs, in money and otherwise, of such intersections? One might think that, given the incredible advances in computers, mathematics and information management, the planning for something so critical and basic as electricity supply would not be a difficult task; but again, one would be all wrong! Granted, they did not suspect that a gang of crack-smoking simians was holed up in a tall building in Houston, pressing buttons on their keyboards at random, trying to think up the largest number in existence to put on the stupid Californians' electricity bill, and laughing until they spilled their martinis. But even I, a mere civilian, would make strenuous inquiries if I received an electric bill in May for ten million dollars, when my bill in April was $139.72. Is it possible that one ordinary individual is smarter overall than a huge organization crammed with every kind of specialist? It is not only possible, it is inevitable, according to Rockwell's Postulate #39, which states that the collective intelligence of a group varies with the negative root n = number of individuals. So a committee of two is only ¼ as smart as each individual alone, and a committee of four is only 1/16th as smart. Collective intelligence approaches zero very quickly. Ah, well, se la vie, eh, Bucky? (Note to math hobbyists: don't bother checking mine, as this is a highly refined type of math known as
rhetorical math.)

With the ongoing welding of the entire planetary civilization into one Gargantuan mechanical organism, our mind boggles (about all it can do anymore) at the
godlike snafu potential that we, a humble hairy biped species, have created. This boggling phenomenon is the basis for the enduring popularity of the Armageddon -of-the-week series of disaster films. We dearly love to watch the whole intricate house of cards come tumbling down when those deadly trumpets blow; we just don't want to be trapped under the debris, waiting helplessly for Bruce Willis or Kevin Costner to blow up the runaway B2 bomber moments before it crashes into the massive nuclear weapons stockpile and sets off a really long and lucrative worldwide ski season. Oh, the suffering, the horror! Why didn't we appreciate global warming when we had it? True statistic: our society spends as much on knee surgery necessitated by skiing as on the skiing itself.

Scene from last week's Bird Flu Wipes Out Humanity, on the Armageddon movie channel:

[Two young soldiers in full camo, flak jackets, M-16s, crouching in dense forest. Grizzled sergeant crawls up on elbows with binocs. Scans dense brush two feet away.]

Maggot 1: Sarge, I'm scared. I ain't gonna make it, Sarge.
Sarge: Shut up, maggot 1. We're all scared. The enemy is invisible, he's all around us. So just keep your gun oiled and your keister in gear.
Maggot 1: Thanks, Sarge, I...
Maggot 2:
What was that? [a slight rustling in the bushes]
All three: AAAH! A ROBIN!!
Maggot 1: Sarge! I'm hit! I've got a slight fever and a strange rash!
Sarge: MEDIC! MEDIC! Don't worry Maggot 1. We never leave a man behind. [Dons biohazard suit] And you know, that robin is roasting in hell right now. So your sacrifice will not have been in vain. I'm putting you down for the Purple Biohazard Cluster.

You can fill in the rest.