31 March 2008

Fear makes you stupid. This iterates...

I originally posted this on Making Light, as a comment in a thread about what the folks in security uniforms who try to forbid photography in public places are thinking.

Like most things I produce, it goes rapidly a bit meta.

The world is too complex to understand. Improved communications makes this much, much harder to ignore than the prevailing village-customs used to do, and don't think the rich and powerful don't have village customs and aren't cranky about it when they are forced to look outside and notice that they have no real idea just exactly what is going on.
Everybody is helpless, all the time. (This is not the same as hapless.) It used to be that most people worked, or had worked, the sort of hard manual labour job, or job with large livestock, or outside job that forces you to come to an accommodation with this awareness; the wind blows, blizzards happen, kicks from horses can kill you, plan and cope as you can.
The primary present cause of helplessness in the US (and increasingly in other "First World" nations) is not the environment, but large and indifferent organizations that regard individual people as something between an annoyance and a food source. It is not acceptable to publically acknowledge this, nor the erosion of the rule of law and mechanisms of rights which were intended to prevent such a state of affairs.
So everybody is aware that there's stuff going on they don't know about, and that some of it is (effectively) malicious, and that the mechanisms that are supposed to protect them aren't reliable.
You can react to that by trying to fix the mechanisms that protect you; you can react to that by working on the great 'build an external brain to understand this stuff with' project called science; you can react to that by striving to achieve a sort of balanced Zen detachment.
If you can believe that you can fix the mechanisms by making them very, very simple, simple enough that you're comfortable with understanding them even when you're frightened, that gets you away from feeling helpless and away from feeling confused and it's much, much easier than any of the three approaches which produce tangible good results. So it has a huge selective advantage, in an environment that is not yet all that actually dangerous -- it's much less work, so you have lots more energy and effort left over for other things.
So you get the whole "fear makes you stupid; iterate" process of people doing their best to solve the problem of not understanding what's going on, or why, by simplification through appeal to authority. Through the creation of authority; you don't have to understand, you just have to follow the rules. It's -- in a cognitive load sense, in a systematic sense of difficulties of decision and control -- very, very easy.
It's a long term utter disaster, but that doesn't keep it from spreading like a very sincere fungus in the short term.