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Friday, September 21, 2007

The Psychological Anthropic Principle

In a 'A Nice Place to Visit', a classic episode of the 50's sci-fi anthology 'The Twilight Zone', a burglar is shot while escaping, and awakens to a jovial Santa Claus like figure who informs him that he is quite dead, and as a reward for his peculiar virtues, can have anything his heart desires. Naturally, he asks for the predictable stuff: wine, women, power, success. Soon, he become painfully bored with the all too certain largess of his new found 'life', and asks his angelic mentor to relieve him of his boredom, from this 'heaven'.

Be careful what you wish for....

To which the angel replied laughing: 'What made you think this was heaven?'

And that's the problem, not with the stuff mind you, but with its predictability. Human beings, as befits their heritage as foraging mammals, are not built to entertain predictable things. Give them sameness and they will rebel in pain, and die from boredom. And yet we perversely desire certainty, starting with a clear vision of God, and a place in heaven where it's all so damn predictable, which is a most ironic phrase to be sure.

In physics, we have discovered that the universe is exquisitely tuned for a life. The fact that we exist is almost literally a miracle. Move an electron's orbit an infinitesimal bit wider, and the whole universe would implode, explode, or be otherwise inhospitable to the likes of you and me. This is called the Anthropic Principle. But there is a psychological anthropic principle that makes our brief moment in time necessarily unpredictable. Indeed, just as a low oxygen level is not conducive to life, boredom is not conducive to living. In the near future, the highway to hell will be paved with not good intentions, but with good technology that makes the good life all too certain. Thankfully, I will not be around, but if the angels permit, I will be moaning anew about an uncertain stock market, traffic problems, and problematic kids. Ah, heaven!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Grid Lock

It is projected that in the year 2035 the increase in traffic in the Los Angeles area will finally overtake the capacity of the road system to move it. Then it will all stop. By 2050, the population of the state will almost double to 60 million. Presumably by this time not just all traffic but all movement will stop. That is when we discover the joys of walking. Of course, you can fit 150 million of so people in an area the size of Iowa, and they will survive, sort of. That's Bangladesh for you. The only problem is that you will live in a hut, walk to work, and be literally and continuously rubbing shoulders with your neighbors.

The Day the Traffic Stopped

For us to envision that nightmare scenario is to presage the collapse of society, if collapse is defined at the exponential increase of inconvenience. Ironically, it is our search for convenience that will get us there. To get places faster, to do things easier, and all of it with ever increasing simplicity and ease is the hallmark of technological progress, but comes at the cost of ecological destruction and the ever increasing delegation of inconvenience to a growing underclass.

The problem is that if everything becomes convenient, convenience is lost. And it won't be because of expanding technology, but expanding numbers of people. That's because exponential convenience require more people to turn down our beds, pick our strawberries, and mow our lawns. Like a Ponzi scheme, to get to our exalted level of convenience, we need to make inconvenient the lives of an underclass of folks who will do all the grunt work. Indeed, if we didn't have a growing underclass to do all the work and all the make work, society would 'collapse', which is another way of saying that life would be relatively more inconvenient when faced the prospect of mowing our own lawns and making our own beds.

But underclasses have a way of moving up the the economic chain, thus demanding an even larger underclass to pick vegetables, wash our cars, and mind the kids. So with a surge in immigrant labor, the population explodes, and as berry pickers migrate up the economic ladder to become SUV pickers, we need a larger and larger underclass to support the pyramid. There is invariably a limit to this, when all the traffic stops.

But do we need to go that far? Collapse occurs when a society consumes its own seed corn by over population that results in depletion of its natural resources, with the result that everybody dies, or worse, eats each other. This sort of thing happened on Easter Island and with Mezo-American Indians. It is unlikely of course that society will ever develop a taste for soylent green (IT'S PEOPLE!), but there is another solution.

Ultimately, if the law of social dynamics means the price of convenience is the exhaust plume of a lot of inconvenience shunted to someone else, it makes sense that that someone else is in Never Never land. Take up space on a road and invariably you will block someone in the passing lane, but if you're virtually on the road, you can widen the highway with an eye blink, or with a press of the A button on your keypad, blow the traffic ahead to bits. Make convenience virtual and you take your ease entirely in your mind's eye. Thus as the world teams with people abutting each other cheek by jowl, our homes will become Nintendo-ized, and we will abandon ourselves to limitless virtual pleasures, including no doubt many empty roads.