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How to build an authoritarian regime — and how to stop one
First, we have to understand the internet. Then we have to understand the audience.
Timothy Snyder: It's normal that when a new medium comes along, a new communications technology comes along, that this is very disorienting to our own hardware. The same thing was true when the book came along. I mean the book, as compared to the manuscript, was a very powerful technology, and one could even say even in our 21st century world, where we claim that everything is so new and everything has transcended everything, where everything transcends everything every 15 minutes, the book is still a pretty powerful technology even when stacked up against all the things that it's stacked up against now.
But think back to say the 16th century when the printing press is beginning to make hay, what happens is that people are overwhelmed by new ideas, specifically religious world views are challenged, and religions fracture, and people fight wars, and a third of the European population is killed. So we think about the book and we think "That's Enlightenment," but Enlightenment happens 150 years after the printing press, and in the meantime an awful lot of Europeans killing off a lot of other Europeans. So I like to take that as the starting point—that new media are going to be destabilizing.
And so the assumption that the Internet was going to come along and just take a basically good world and make it faster and more connected and cleaner and so on—that was something that we should have been skeptical about from the very beginning. And now we're seeing why we should be skeptical about it.
So does the Internet allow new things, or does the Internet create a channel for old things? I would say it's rather the latter. We know, because this is something that people have theorized about since the Enlightenment, that in order for there to be a democracy there has to be something between you and me and our fellow citizens, something between you and me and our leaders, which is: a factual world. We have to have this thing called the public sphere where you and I and our fellow citizens and our leaders agree that there are certain realities out there, and that from those realities we draw our own conclusions, our own evaluative conclusions about what would be better or worse, but we agree that the world is out there. And that it's important for you and I, as citizens, to formulate projects, but it's also important in moments of difficulty for you and I, as citizens, to resist our leaders. Because if we're going to resist our leaders we have to say, "On the basis of this set of facts, this is the state of affairs; it's intolerable; therefore we resist." If there are no facts we can't resist, it becomes impossible.
So there are a couple of centuries of Democratic theory which make that argument in one form or another. That's an old argument. And what follows from that is that if you want to build an authoritarian regime you try to make that factual world less salient, you try to make the world less about the facts that are between you and me and more about the emotions that will either divide us or bring us together, it doesn't really matter which.
Authoritarianism depends upon people getting used to hearing the things that they want to hear, and what it does is it takes that public sphere and dissolves it.
It says, "There aren't really truths out there, there aren't really experts out there who can tell you those truths, it's really all about how you feel about the world." And that's true in old authoritarianism and in new authoritarianism.
So Germans in the 1930s who were no less educated than we are, probably more educated than we are, more literate—they got themselves believing all kinds of things that they wanted to believe, and they believed in, many of them, right down to the bitter end, and they got themselves convinced that truth was not a matter of constant evaluation of evidence, but truth was a matter of some larger truth, something that made them feel like they were together and that others were against them. That's all old.
The technique that the Internet permits is that it allows anonymous distant actors to reach directly through our pupils into the parts of our brains where the action really is. That's new. And then there are other things which might be new, like machine learning. I mean having to deal with quadrillions of gigabytes of computing energy directed against my lonely cerebrum, that's something new, and that's probably only going to get worse. But the pattern is old, because what a social platform does (or what a Google search does) is that it learns what it is that you want to hear, and it gives you more of that thing and thereby slowly changes you. I mean it shifts you away from a person who thinks there are facts out there and more towards a person who just gets used to hearing the things that he or she wants to hear. You shift from being a person who could function in the public sphere—in a democracy—to a person who can't.
So the shift is old, it's familiar, but some of the techniques though are a little bit new, which doesn't mean that they are inevitably bad; it does mean that we have to recognize, as with the book, that you have to get a handle on these things. Tech is neither good or bad on its own, but you have to realize what the potential is and start to get a handle on what the negative possibilities are, because I think we're only beginning to start to see them.
People want there to be an easy answer, and that there ain't.
So until very recently people were still arguing, "Well Silicon Valley is going to somehow automatically solve this, incentive through the nature of technology is somehow automatically going to solve this." That's not true. That's the politics of inevitability. And then there are the doomsayers who say, "Yeah humans are basically irrational; this is how it always ends; there's nothing we can do about it except wait for some calamity." And that's the politics of eternity, and that's also very tempting, but they're both tempting in the same way, which is they say, "It's not our fault, we can't really do anything about it, we don't have responsibility."
And of course we do. So going back to the book, it helped to do things like establish authorship, it helped to do things like have a page of table of contents so it was clear what was being said. This may seem all totally boring now, but it really mattered to get the technology of the book under control.
We can get the technology of the Internet under control too, provided that we decide that that's an issue. Like looking at it from the point of view of the larger economy, why can't we think about the Internet the way that we think about other resources? Or why can't we think about our mind the way we think about other resources? If there's pollution we treat that as an externality and we internalize it. The destruction of factuality we could also treat as an externality; we could tax big companies, and we could use what we get from those big companies to support local news.
Because factuality isn't just a matter of being a crusader for it, it's a matter of producing facts, it's a matter of producing them not in DC or New York or Los Angeles or Beijing or Moscow, it's a matter of producing them where people actually live. And that has to be done, that has to be done by people, it has to be done by local reporters.
The trick is not to just say, "social platform bad! Internet bad," the trick is to say "how do you produce factuality in people's lives?" Because the way the destructive process goes is that first the local news goes away, and this was true in Russia a little before it was true in America, but in both cases you see basically the same pattern.
First the local news goes and then people start talking about "The Media". Instead of talking about reporters who they know, they're neighbors, they start talking about the media as something distant. And once that step is made, once people distrust they start looking for other things to trust, which are big conspiracy stories. Because if the media is far away from you anyway, why not believe something which makes the world makes sense?
So part of the answer has to be: how do we recycle some of these enormous profits back from these huge companies into the production of local news? Or to take a slightly different analogy, it's a little bit like reforestation: if you're going to make huge profits from clearing timber, okay; but after a while you realize you have to reforest. If you're going to make huge profits from driving people towards an us/them version of politics, maybe at a certain point you have to reforest, you have to replenish, you have to take some of those huge profits and actually educate people again by, for example, supporting local news.
So I think it's not technically that difficult to do things like this, and there are other ways to think about it economically, like for example, that fake news has an unfair competitive advantage over real news because, for example, you don't have to employ reporters—and you can try to correct for that.
So there are lots of things that one could do. I mean you could reclassify—which I think we should do, really—you can reclassify investigative journalism as a public good, which deserves positive public support from the state. I think that would be an excellent thing to do.
So these things can be rejigged, there are technical means, but I think the fundamental answer is we can't say "it's going to sort itself out" or that "it's not going to sort itself out," we have to think "Yeah, if we like democracy and freedom and the rule of law, those things depend on factuality. If we want factuality we actually have to go out there and find ways to recreate it in the 21st-century."
That's what I mean by history, is that history can define the problem for you, and then you have to say, "Am I going to take responsibility for it or not?"
- People are overwhelmed by new ideas brought upon by new technologies.
- Could new media—like the internet—ruin the world before rebuilding it?
- Get ready for a rocky century: there was 150 years after the book was invented before the Great Enlightenment.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.