Democracy

sandLThe First World nations enjoy a distillate of all the systems of government tried over the years which we call Democracy. It’s not everyone’s preferred choice: many of the famous, and many more of the influential, have passed less than flattering remarks about democracy. Some are funny, most are pithy, and nearly all are accurate to some degree but the ones to which I most closely identify are those of Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, ‘Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to chose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy therefore, is education,’ and Karl Marx’s observation that, ‘Democracy is the road to socialism,’ – wow. Had many of the United States Republican Conservatives read Marx they’ be all in a quandary unless, unless they turn to Plato, who was not at all keen on democracy, for his, ‘Tyranny naturally arises out of democracy.’ Aristotle and Socrates too, were none too enthusiastic about this system of government: The most notable drawback, they observed, being its tendency to generate sophism.

A word here about sophistry: originally from the Greek sophizesthai, to make wise – to teach. Once a respected profession in Ancient Greece sophism fell into disrepute because the teachers quickly saw they could earn more money teaching the sons of the rich than those of the poor – no education for daughters. In order to engender a comfortable life for their families the educators tended to pander to the wealthy: i.e. teach the rich man’s son what his father longed to hear. Imagine if that was the case today: we’d have elite schools, available only to rich kids, preaching the word their parents dictate in order to ensure future administrators are all of a mind.  We’d have the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer – how awful.

So back to democracy: is it the best for us today?

The answer is: it could be.

It could be if we pushed all the hucksters and bully pulpit orators, the sophists, into the backroom where they belong and let the proletariat express their opinions on topics various. This we can do. Through our wonderful Internet we can, and are, doing it. We have data processing on a massive scale. We have analytic algorithms writing their own scripts to further analyse our analyses. We just have to stop the blah, blah, poppycock of the sophists from filling our TV screens and bending our thought processes with their images of the cool, and the free, and the oh, so, happy. We just have to stop that silly spending to elect people who care not for we the people, but for themselves and what they can do to further their own agenda. If we don’t, if we don’t insist on integrity and honesty we’d best throw out the democratic process: didn’t FDR say that? Didn’t he say, ‘Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to chose wisely?’

The current system is far too cumbersome anyway with the arcane paper and physical transport process. I mean really, pieces of paper marked with ticks and crosses to be folded into a slot then removed for a physical reading and selection. Dear me. It is before that process starts though, before all the hucksters go about ‘Getting Out the Vote,’ that the real damage is done. The real damage is done behind locked doors where the electoral candidates are trained and scripted before setting out on voyages of deceit and deception in which they lie about their commitment to family and religion and promise a fair and competent administration not hitherto seen.

The truth is the necessity for elections is no longer there. That is not to say we no longer need them: we probably do, at least for a period of adjustment. We no longer need to actually vote formally because we already vote informally. We already tell those who care to listen our preferences, prejudices, and ambitions through our blogs, reading habits, search criteria and purchases. Why, then, do we need go to rallies and queue for the privilege of voting? It makes no sense.

Before you dive for the keyboard to plead the case for the computer illiterate recall Winston Churchill’s observation: ‘The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.’  So when the argument is raised about the inability of those who are not computer literate to vote you have to wonder if they should. It doesn’t take away their right to vote any more than the inability to write. The requirement for a driving test doesn’t take away the right to be a motorist, but it does insure you know what you’re doing. If help is needed, be it physical, logistic, financial . . . voters have only to ask and a volunteer will bring a notepad to the door within a few million nanoseconds.

The introduction of online voting will be the first, radical, step into the world of the modern democratic process and will of course raise many questions and uncertainties. Will it reveal your vote and thus alienate your right to secrecy at the ballot box? Yes and no. No to those unable to hack and crack the encryption – say 98% of the populace. Yes to all those clever folks who can, and to the data miners that normally come in the form of interrogative algorithms. I don’t see the problem with that anymore than with electronic filing of taxes or online banking and brokering.  If we are to have open government then surely open voting cannot be a handicap.

Within a short space of time the need for voting will fade as the majority view on many issues becomes readily available dynamically, as our shopping and reading habits are already. As I write social media, which has long since graduated from a ‘bit-of-fun’ for the less serious to an important monitor of current interests and values, is galloping ahead and is soon to be as integral an element of our lives as walking, talking and drinking tea . Twitter, facebook, Linkedin, Google . . . have all taken up their position and will, in all probability, coalesce into one or two global institutions fed by a plethora of specialist sites. National administrations have only to take up the mining tools developed by commercial interests to have ready access to current opinion and the needs of citizens. In this way  democracy can graduate to socialism beloved of Karl Marx, and the voter choose as wisely as FDR would have wished.

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Immortality

sandLThe Epic of Gilgamesh is the story of King Gilgamesh of Uruk’s quest to find the secret of eternal life. It is inspired by the death sentence placed on his friend, and possibly his lover, Enkidu, by Ishtar, a powerful goddess of the time. Ishtar’s motives lie in Gilgamesh’s rebuff of her advances and, possibly, her jealousy of Enkidu.  Her first reaction was to have Gilgamesh put to death, but that did not sit well with the other gods because of King Gilgamesh’s success as a warrior and builder of cities. She happened then, on a more effective revenge in the sentencing of his loved one.

Before dismissing this as nothing more than a good foundation for a compelling story remember that it was written about 4,600 years ago and is, by common consensus, credited with being the first story ever written. There are other contenders which, for the most part, seem be the same story in differing guises so The Epic of Gilgamesh then, in all its scripts and languages, is now accepted, at least by the majority of literary historians, as the beginning of the written story.

In the original The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in the Samarian language on twelve stone tablets using the Cuneiform script. There is some doubt as to whether it was ever intended as an epic, or became one as the tablets accumulated. There is little doubt though that events thus transcribed took place in Lower Mesopotamia, now Iraq, in the third millennia BCE – probably just after the great flood. The tablets tell of King Gilgamesh’s relationship with Enkidu, a man of the wild, and their adventures in the mountains and cedar forests of Mesopotamia and the Levant until the advent of Ishtar, and her sentencing of Enkidu. Heartbroken by the prospect of the loss of his friend, possibly his lover, Gilgamesh sets off in search for his ancestor, Utnapishtim, who, it was believed, held the secret of eternal life and could thus retrieve Enkidu from the underworld.

It turns out that Utnapishtim had, in fact, achieved immortality, but not because of some secret formulae or magic potion. He was immortalised, principally, by his work in building a boat, of length and volume specified by the gods of his land, to house two of every living creature in the hope they might survive the coming floods. This was about the time of the climatic optimum of the, current, Holocene Interglacial, a warming interval in the Quaternary Ice Age we are still enjoying. At that time the icecaps were receding so quickly the sea levels were rising and there was general flooding throughout the region. Utnapishtim’s immortality lies in saving the human race from extinction. His fame had to wait until the emergence of the various religions that high jacked his story under different names.

On learning of Gilgamesh’s purpose Utnapishtim and his wife set about teaching him a practical lesson in humility by demonstrating his physical weakness in not being able stay awake for lengthy periods, and his gullibility by sending him on a foolish errand. He finally went home with his tail between his legs. “So,” as later chroniclers would say, “Endeth the first lesson.”

The search for immortality continues to this day in various forms from magic potions to stem cells but, as Utnapishtim said to old Gilgamesh, “Life for which you look, you will never find, because that remains with the gods . . . ” but he did. For a comparatively short while he did because it was his story that inspired the expression “Since the Gilgamesh,” used broadly in the elegant world of literary and performing arts to mean from the very beginning, or, since the original. Sadly this has been misinterpreted in recent times to become “From the get-go,” which is neither artistic, nor edifying, or even remotely elegant. Immortality is, it seems, at best only short lived.

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Should we be concerned?

sandLIn his article published in the Guardian on 3rd October this year regarding the Snowden files, and to what extent citizens should be concerned, John Lanchester reminds us of a scale physicists use to put the levels of radiation risks in perspective. It’s affectionately referred to as the BED: the banana equivalent dose. That is the dose of radiation you are likely to receive from a banana. Serious radiation poisoning level starts around twenty million BED. Sleeping with another person results in half a BED – seems logical. A dental x-ray is worth ten times that – around fifty BED.  We could go on but as the point is already made we can return to the primary subject, terrorism, where Mr. Lanchester introduces us to another scale in order to gain a similar perspective. For this he substitutes the BED for the SDRD, standard daily road deaths, which comes out at a little less than seven a day in the UK where there have been fifty three deaths directly attributed to terrorism since 9/11. While agreeing that even one such death is unacceptable it is worth considering why we are prepared to go to such expense, and to sacrifice so much of our privacy, to further reduce what is one hundredth of an SDRD.

In defense of administration’s use of our time and money defending us against terrorism we might take a look at the current world of entertainment. CBS introduced Person of Interest, a fictional series based in New York about machine comprising data collection, from just about any digital source, analytical software, and communication capability through any digital device. Put this together with an imaginative writer, an ex-special forces hero and an intellectual giant, and you have a twenty three part series running into its third season. That its success cannot have received anything but a huge boost from the Snowden revelations takes nothing from the virtues of the production company which directs much to its efforts revealing the socially ambivalent nature of the governments’ use of the machine. That administrations forget who they are elected to serve is not a new theme: we see it in nearly every American entertainment in every format. That the technical feasibility is far from reality too, is not new, but the proximity to current reality takes a leap forward when we take a look at what NASA and Google are achieving by combining their rapidly developing algorithmic and quantum technologies.

Introducing modern quantum physics into the world of data processing, and into writing algorithms that write algorithms, brings the possibility of not just the current use of forecasting the composition of oil deposits before they are sampled, or the face recognition capability of a surveillance camera; it brings the reality of anticipating weather patterns and human behaviour to our desktops. It brings medical analysis to our smart phones and will, given just a tweak or two here and there, permit us to forecast the performance of a stock and the winner of a game – any game. Is that a stretch? Not at all.

If a gambler has access to all available data about a football team: including mental and physical conditions of all players, trainers, managers, and their immediate families, there is no reason to believe analytical algorithms could not be written to accurately forecast the outcome of a contest between it, and another team, about which an equal amount is known.

This short step from current reality literally brings a game changer to sports industries that rips at the very heart of sports fan. Who wants to watch, or even play, when the result is known? Come to that who would offer to sell a stock bound for success; who would buy one that was not? In a stroke then fear is eliminated from the betting industries. How would it fare in the down home comfort zones of perfecting parental skills, life partner choice – or lack there of, career selection – again, or lack there of, life span analysis, and the likelihood of creating an intelligent child. Would you want to have a child if you knew it would turn out short and fat and not very bright or worse – that you might give birth to a psychopath.

It is clear that fear can be removed from most equations once the ability to analyze the huge stocks of data becoming available is enabled. Greed, at first glance, is not – in fact it may appear to be advanced. Who can access the most and who can process faster might foster races driven by fear of losing, or will it? Can the ultimate race not be forecast? If so its outcome could surely be predicted: so why enter?

We are, then, with the initiation of quantum engineering, on the verge of a paradigm shift in human behaviour. The suddenness of it may shock us; it may, initially at least, discomfort us. It may send some, possibly many, into a state of seizure from which lengthy convalescence will be required but most will adjust, adapt, and pick up the new lifestyles. We did, after all, adjust from hunting and gathering to farming, from there to industrialization, then to mass production, to mass media, instant porridge, and the exponential nature of the of the growth of the microchip. Individuals will adapt okay. Industry, religions, and administrations might drag their feet, even fight a little rearguard action to defend their positions, but we’ll get there in the end which, once accepted, may well prove to be the beginning.

So in answer to Mr. Lanchester’s concerns: There is nothing to fear except. . . .

 

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