Mar 07 2012

The Final Disillusion


CC-licensed image courtesy of lensfodder

Looking at the last ten thousand years the only conclusion is – how many people died because of tyranny and oppression? Of the unnatural deaths possibly more than half were directly or indirectly attributable to force or oppression by other humans. Can we conclude that this selection bottleneck had a distinctive effect on human genetics? If so, could this have led to distinctive cognitive bias that, when coupled with exponentially expanding technologies, lead to what is now commonly referred to as “existential risk” ?

When animals know they will soon become extinct they do no shed any tears or feel sorrow, much more they would feel for the loss of a favored companion or their imminent demise. Humans inhabit a new category of animal on this planet (and potentially in this part of the galaxy) that potentially feels more sorrow for the potential loss of its species than for the loss of itself. This in itself is a new degree of neurological ability – to extend concern to your entire species, and to all of life, and to all beautiful and valuable things that exist, beyond the mere temporal self – and to act upon this concern…

For humans tool use is a fundamental trait of psychology. Humans exert control (dominance, force) over all those aspects of the world they can affect, including other humans. This is self-evident. The question immediately arises – has the force of humans towards their fellow humans been a force of evolutionary pressure, and in what manner has our psychology developed features (or blind spots) make humans not act in an objective or fully rational manner? My answer is – yes. Humans have inflicted considerable recursive attrition and this selective mechanism has acted as a genomic bottleneck to the human species in the last ten thousand (or so) years.

The mechanism of this force has left indelible effects on the instinct of the human species. We can see this in human populations that have been affected more by this pressure, respectively less. Nomadic lineages of humans appear to have other behavioural urges. Might we then conclude that a prepensity for (say) ADHD was more prevalent – or even the norm – before the onset of this selective stage? How do we treat people with ADHD these days, and can we conclude society is still collectively (and unconsciously) conducting a genetic progrom of sorts towards what it considers “the undesirable”?

Envision for a second the image of townspeople chasing down the monster of Frankenstein. The commoners were really motivated by a a palpable rage or hatred for Frankenstein’s monster. Even though this image is only fiction, it is a nice diorama of this natural tendency in human beings to engage in “progroms”. One might conclude humans have a special affinity for persecution. One might even conclude modern society is the result of this instinct, and that we as a species demand comformity of one another, by force of death if necessary. Humans are just as prone to killing an aggressive house pet as they are to marginalize or punish malcontents and unadjusted specimen.

If I represent this mechanism as a self-reinforcing system feedback much of what happened in the last ten thousand years suddenly makes sense, albeit in a perverse new light.  Such a bottleneck of selective pressure must have left a range (or spectrum) of predispositions in human behaviour. It would also explain feelings of racial superiority, or the tendency of ‘imperial’ collectives of humans to behave so awful towards the other groups of humans they just happen to colonize.  Humans consistently explain such colonization as “bringing civilization”, whereas the net effect is more an outright process of eradication.  And after the process of colonization the force directed towards domestication  continued apace.

This process seems to have started at the end of the Pleistocene. I’ll argue that the force instinct is literally a self-reinforcing cycle of self-directed abuse, where one genetic lineage (the dominant strain in the human species) benefited more from the force than the less dominant populations of humans. In other words – the human species has developed a distinctive sub-genus of ‘alpha’ humans that naturally gravitates towards positions of dominance and power, and by and large the less dominant humans accept this and sometimes they don’t.

It is my belief that societal progress resulted not from this dominance itself, but rather from the tug-of-war between the two polar elemental tendencies in the human species. If one or the other genetic predisposition exerts societal control over the other, nothing much changes and society is static. Once there is conflict (or class struggle) consistently there has been an objective improvement in the collective state of human beings on this planet. In other words – all progress in the last ten thousand years has been made through emancipatory struggle.

It might for many people a frightful and cynical concept that the dialogue between feudal tyranny versus violent revolution has been such an engine of progress, and that dictators would have had such a great influence on the human social instincts. Humans are doing little else than constantly domesticate and subdue the world, even if this means humans eradicate the natural world.  So in effect there is a constant tendency of humans to engage in predation, but sadly we have not evolved a mechanism to constrain such brutality.

We can clearly see the result if this in animal species: worldwide you’d be hard-pressed to find any surviving predatory land animal species that do not cower in the face of humans.  Even the most effective top predators are cautious about attacking human beings. Clearly in the last thousands to tens of thousands of years humans have had a distinctive impact on the genetic traits of animal species. Animals instinctively know – attacking humans is bad news ..humans carry a grudge. Messing with any humans increases your chance of them coming after you “angry mob” style. Humans hunt down and kill what they perceive as “potential competitors” – or even anyone they consider “easy prey”. And this extends to inter-special rivalry : it seems to be difficult for humans to regard the majority of their fellow species as “equals”. Humans may actually have a genetic predisposition towards inter-species murder and racist prejudice. Humans have the ability to regard humans as non-humans. This is not unique, chimpanzees seem to do this as well. 

Hence I will argue that humans from before the age of widespread tool use (let’s simplify that as the onset of the Holocene, some 12.000 years ago) were of a different nature. I will argue that twelve thousand years of dictatorship, tribal wars and feudalism have acted as an evolutionary bottleneck, and have left humanity effectively “self-domesticated”. All throughout the last million years humans have been “neotenized”  (humans evolved more for bigger skulls, and many features of the human body evolved into more “childlike” states of the earlier specimen) and as a result behaviour itself shifted towards emphasizing the docile (or child-parent) axis of the human psychology. But the childlike features if more recent primates did not mean we have become more peaceful.

Pleistocene savages versus Holocene bullies

The single-most significant change in human society going from the Pleistocene (12000 years ago) to the Holocene was triggered by major ecological shifts as the ice ages ended. The world lost widespread coastal regions when glaciers and ice caps melted. This process compressed the largely migratory human populations together in the span of just a few generations or even decades. In other words – the end of ice ages flooded massive regions of land, and pushed humans together in more dry, warmer, and more constrained territories. The sudden disruption on more widespread migratory populations in to more condensed (and formerly barren) land would have caused new survival and food gathering strategies. This fits with the known understanding of what humans in fact did in the Holocene; there was an increase in population levels, and a sharp increase in tribal conflicts. And a winning strategy proved the  claiming of land, the development of animal husbandry and agriculture.

No doubt the processes in the Neolithic triggered considerable territorial disputes between humans that until that moment were mostly hunter-gatherers. It is easy to create a narrative (oversimplified or not) that depicts humans using new cohabitation or communal strategies, no longer gathering nourishment along migratory opportunistic food gathering, but instead left to claim a territory and grow food in one favourable spot. This had profound effects on how human sexuality and gender divisions operated.  While it can be argued that the Neolithic caused an increase in populations, this expansion of numbers was not always an expansion on general human well-being. Bone remains of before this process started were quite different in nature – Pleistocene humans seem to be stronger and bigger and had healthier diets over-all; they also died younger due to the severity of fluctuations in access to food, as well as natural dangers, lack of shelter, etc. For earlier Pleistocene populations social structures were smaller and more family oriented. This allowed for over-all stronger human populations, but also for more attrition from starvation and accident. In such a risky environment individuals live less long.

The Holocene was not necessarily an improvement. Humans in the later and decidedly larger Holocene were over-all more miserable. They were smaller and died young as well, but not from the same reasons – In the Holocene emerging territorial disputes women died young in ever more forced ‘serial childbirth’, domestic manual labour and infectious disease (childbirth in close proximity to cattle was a bad idea); whereas men died increasingly in armed confrontations. As the metal ages emerged, and as society diversified in to new structures some humans had access to more organized and increasingly abstract benefits of society. As the city state emerged we see the emergence of “hereditary leaders”, who would eventually become distinctive lineages of our Kings and other Feudal leaders. For any population having a Leader seemed to have some degree of benefit (since humanity kept these leaders around so long) but the only conclusion I can infer is that the leaders themselves benefited out of bounds from the arrangement. Of course “common folk” also had a fall-out benefit of enjoying the protection of being governed by a warrior elite, but I am pretty sure the feudal overlords enjoyed their benefits a great deal more.

There is a distinctive selective component to this. Recently there was study of human bones remains, of humans that were buried in the middle ages. When the genetic material of these bones were studied in close detail the genetic forensic evidence was rather startling – the bones found in burial sites or ossuaries where ‘rural’ people (“villains“) lived had genes that clearly had not survived (and passed on their genes) to people alive in to the 20th century. In essence, people living in the 20th century are by and large the survivors of medieval townsfolk and the upper classes. This led some researchers to conclude that modern western-european people had evolved for capitalism.  So clearly, if we can shamelessly argue that a marked tendency for “capitalism”, we can also argue that human beings are by nature and culturally predisposed to stratification, feudal persecution, mass-murder, genocidal wars and tyranny. And that opens up a major can of worms as soon as we ask how such a genetic pressure would affect the default substrate of human thinking. This kind of breeding pressure has distinctive effects on the psychology all animals we have so selected – thus, what would be the effects on human psychology?

Roman slave labour

Many mechanisms active in ancient Rome were oddly analogous with many societal trends in our day and age, with the difference that ancient Rome more or less perfected corporatism, slavery and the unabashed hierarchical society. The root word for “fascism” is derived from the “fasces”, the wand of office of various Roman dignitaries, and this seems quite apt. It is safe to say that by and large early imperial Rome was unabashedly cut-throat social Darwinism. Michael Parenti  represents Rome as gruesome from a modern western perspective, but a good look at how the modern west treats their slave labour in the third world may suggest this is only a flimsy cognitive bias. Contemporary humans are not that morally superior to pre-medieval Romans.

Rome thrived on working a major population of slaves literally to death. Rome as a coherent political entity kept prized slaves around, routinely killed off the less useless slaves when there were many slaves around, and also bred quality slaves based on docility and physical quality. This was a high-attrition process and it required the Roman slave economy to consistently take prisoners from foreign conquered populations, kill off any the uppity captured in the arenas, and keep the docile ones around for general exploitation. This taking prisoners from the conquered was routine habit rather than exceptional. Even enslavement of their own, for “honour’s” sake” was routine in the early republic. In this light early pre-Caesar Rome was a horrific society by today’s standards, not merely for its sheer ruthlessness (though contemporary/recent western  empire did probably not much better in Africa and Asia) but rather because Romans regarded their contemporary brutality as “the natural order”. In Rome state fascism and “punishing barbarians” exemplified state superiority and glory. To a Roman any foreigner was a mix of subhuman, disgusting, the enemy, a competitor, less intelligent, barely civilized or outright degenerate. To a Roman the universal declaration of human rights would probably not have made much sense.

Romans respected power first and foremost, even at the expense of their own cultural identity; Roman women would seek out barbarian gladiators to beget children rather than lie with their own born husbands (or with the knowledge of their husbands) to have “stronger” offspring. In this latter regard the social-Darwinist context was tempered by meritocratic and pragmatic considerations. Roman racism bowed to the latter Machiavellian political ideal of opportunism. But what we see is the emergence of private interests to govern over the Roman state ideal – as Romans became more staunchly self-interested, the Roman society turned from a fascist nationalist entity into a profit-centered plutocratic entity. This curious shift in attitudes is considered as one of the major causes of Rome’s collapse as a world power.

I don’t think this happened earlier in human society – “erosion of the state because of money interest”. Romans ended up trading and trafficking more with foreigners, often at the expense of these foreigners, but at the end equally at the expense of their own citizenry and plebeiate.

Japanese docility and the age of Samurai

To quote an example from recent personal experience and insight – In the last thousand years Japan has been (and I am oversimplifying here) a garden for natural selection of humans.  Japan has for a millennium been a distinctly stratified society with very clear boundaries between the upper classes (and their executive warrior castes), and the lower classes. Leaving ambiguity (yakuza, eta, burakumin, gaijin, shugenja) aside, in Japan, for close to ten centuries there has been a self-reinforcing system of increased lethality as sanction for bad behaviour. In Japan the rule was by and large draconian and even the slightest infringement of this rule could signify a sharply increased incidence for premature death. Such selective pressures must have a profound effect on humans, human physiology, human neurology and effectively, human behaviour. Recently I was engaging in an unnamed Japanese derived martial arts, and the style of this particular one emphasizes resistance to bullies, and the bullies were clearly samurai. The vast majority of defensive acts against the Samurai in this highly versatile martial art entail stylized and toolbox acts of lethal force against katana wielding, armoured adversaries. In effect the practitioners of this particular martial arts were the “terrorists” of late middle age Japan, as they fought well a established power hegemony. The whole way of moving, thinking, planning in this martial arts is a deeply ingrained cultural legacy of “efficient logistics of resistance”. Lethal if necessary.

Now look at Japanese society. What kind of society, what kind of modes of behaviour, and what kinds of societal order would one expect to end up with, relative to the rest of humanity, after conduction a millennium of genetic breeding based on a mostly unassailable elite that had full rights (in many instances and periods) to execute any underlings “at a whim” ? I’d argue that many of the deeply ingrained cultural aspects of Japanese society are to a “statistically distinct” degree predisposed to more docility. In the total hypothesis I advocate this would be quite hard to scientifically measure under the layer of cultural programming. But the effect would be literally genetically derived from these centuries of “selective breeding and culling”. All the “uppity” Japanese have been left executed a few centuries ago. In this regard I regard Japan as a poignant example of selective attrition by the governing elements of human society.

As a counterpoint I find that the urges of the people in European nation states were less subdued and more oriented towards open competition, as a result of the somewhat unique (pardon me the term) “balkanized” demographics of European states. But this is only a perception and it is hard to prove such an idea, and the notion itself (that people of European descent are more prone to competition) may carry a racist stigma.

Irrational apathy

So – if some humans genes benefited from exerting dominance, other humans may have been bred (or their genes may have somehow benefited) from the reverse – a docile state. Our current day and age seems to suffer from a pervasive crisis. We all enjoy democracy now, or so we would assume. Democracy seems the rational choice of history and we have seem to come to a somewhat preferred endpoint in history, relative to the awful mess we had before. I would argue that a democratic society, with just laws and human rights is a fundamental improvement over what seems the default for at least the last several thousand years.

It is not my intent to enter in to a debate on proper theology or scripture, but the “Old Testament” does seem to put a rather high emphasis on somewhat distasteful acts of tribal warfare, exterminating competing tribes, the capture of the women of said tribes and subordinating these woman as servile or sexual slaves, and more of the same. Suffice to say that most monotheistic religions do not favour democracy.  Another word for “submission” is “Islam”, and that in itself is an unashamedly atheist analysis. The Old Testament in part reads as a manual of conquest and defeat, if not in a few sections as a genocide manual. Now granted .. this book emerged (one way or another) in not the most civilized of human times and regions. It is still pretty much a mess in that particular spot on Earth, and I might speculate that the continued bloody genetic predispositions and cultural legacies of human beings in these regions is exclusive to that area. If I draw a circle around the globe, all areas with somewhat similar geographic and (fertile/warm/temperate) climatic opportunities seem to share the same mix of tribal conflict, conquest, subjugation, territorial enforcement and (curiously) the same overt emphasis on deeply ingrained (inviolate) religious and cultural law.

The converse of this is what now clearly has become a threat to the desirable state of democratic self-governance. It seems that the vast majority of people have sentiments or urges that conflict with the civil responsibility of democracy. In a democracy all who vote should (or must) take a responsibility to vote for a good leader, one way or another.

And it is becoming increasingly and poignantly clear that humans vote for awful leaders in stressful or ambiguous times. These leaders consistently emphasize aspects of “silverback” male sexuality.

It is almost as if the majorities humans have an instinct to expect autocratic governance in times of increased competition, scarcity or “perceived” threat of conflict. I would argue that humans have a troubling predisposition towards “blind faith“.  In other words humans over all have an irrational inclination towards taking their leaders for their honeyed voices and promises, and hope for the best.  I’d go as far as call this the “apathy gene”. I could also call it the “submission gene”. It is no coincidence that the world’s major religions use the iconography and symbology of this “submission” as the highest objective good. But more on religions later.

In our day and age this specific ‘submissive’ behaviour has deteriorated to such a degree that it sometimes approximates the state of apathy common in masochistic or total willing enslavement. I argue that in our current culture the pervasive lack of interest by the majorities of people amounts to a distinctive trance-like state of suspended volition of critical scrutiny I’d associate with cult membership.

By the sword or by the plough-share

The amazing Richard Dawkins described this macabre mechanism in The Selfish Gene. His work was deemed a fairly politically incorrect statement in the 1970s. My statement differentiates from Dawkin’s statement in little. I would however emphasize that humanity may be differentiating in to two lineages; one naturally gravitating towards submission, apathy, complacency and a religious sense of servitude – the other bloodline towards left brain fetishist rational and calculated governance – or outright violent dominance.  I’d go as far as suggest that in the latter category, if it actually did exist in the realm world, incidence of psychopatic disorders would be more common.

With “psychopaths”  I don’t necessarily mean serial killers, but rather to people with ‘markedly less affinity for conscience‘.  Being unconscionable, emotionally barren and strongly predisposed towards callous self-interest seems to be a plus on any executive‘s resume these days. But then again, these unique qualities always become more ostentatiously prominent in any era of exaggerated hubris.

…”I want to reach in, rip out their hearts and eat them before they die”…
- Richard S. Fuld, “The Gorilla”

The question arises in me how we can manage a cohesive society when the mechanism for management is based on direct opposition of self-interest with the majority of society itself. Such cavalier self-interest seems to carry the seeds of societal disintegration, if not imply outright the end of any society. And this is clearly the mechanism of the creation of any society (national or ethnic identity, a common cause against an outside threat) as well as the disintegration of most societies (the ascendancy of power of self-interested parties takes precedence over society itself).

An end to cohesion, whether it is the intensely predatory cohesion of the Roman empire or the allegedly more gentle cohesion at the heart of the formation of the democratic ideal, mostly implies the autumn or winter age of a culture. This process generally implies that too many people expect too much of society (and this can happen in the lower class echelons of a people as well as in the upper echelons) and society is abandoned as soon as it can’t live up to the collective expectations.

In the 20th century we have a fundamentally new situation, completely unexpected by any human being. Right now most people take science, progress and industry for granted, but no human being alive or dead could have predicted the changes humans have brought over this planet in just a few decades. This change was spurred on by scientific theory, and then by industry. In turn the current intensity of industrialization could not have emerged without access to large natural reserves of petro-chemically encased solar energy. Coal, Oil and natural Gas allowed an industrial revolution and an unprecedented change of the entire planetary surface and climate. Unfortunately (and even in more stark contrast with the hundreds of years before) in this age also allowed a population growth from just over a billion at the dawn of the industrial age to seven billion in the early 21st century.

And that is turning out to be a potentially very bad situation.

The problem of oil going away – aggravated affluence consolidation 

If access to cheap oil ends, there won’t be widespread mechanization or industry, period.

And the era of plentiful, cheap quality oil is pretty much ending. There are people in serious denial about this fact, but the facts have become acutely compelling in the last decade. In the coming decade global oil demand will not be met by supply, and the shortfall can not do much else than ratchett up global oil prices. An increase in demand for an essential product will mean first competition, and next it may very well imply the collapse of modern society to an essentially less desirable state of living where humans will have to consume substantially less, have less “rights” and perform more physical labour.

There is however a problem in this equation. Right now we have a lot of extremely rich people in the world, and we found ourselves in a situation when the vast majority of people can’t make ends meet any more.  I could say – the 99% of human beings on the planet are feeling the pinch of dwindling natural resources, whereas the very affluent 1% of human beings are actively using their assets to change the current system to protect their acquired interests, power, property, sense of prestige, affluence, security, etc. It is a sad thing that the losers in this mechanism are blamed, but that behaviour of “blaming the loser” seems to be a constant in human society. In any era of total diminishing affluence the very affluent are the last to lose theirs since they will be in the best bargaining position, and can buy the political process. That is pretty much what we are seeing.

The end of work is an end to mass-consumerism 

On closer scrutiny the problem is not (primarily) a lack of petrochemicals – we do have the ability to come up with alternatives – the problem is why gets to decide what the machines powered by all this cheap oil do. In an era of plentiful oil everyone gets to decide what machines perform in mechanized labour. In an era of plentiful cheap energy every single human has access to a very cheap and very powerful energy carrier to make equally cheap and ubiquitous machines do his or her bidding. In the 20th century we became accustomed to this glut of cheap energy and threw it around like there was no tomorrow. A stupid mechanized infrastructure is wasteful. Now we arrive in an era we can’t afford waste no longer, and precisely at that stage we have arrived at an era where machines are acquiring the system qualities to do independent labour. I’ll simply this as “robotization” (though that isn’t the whole story).

In the book “The End of Work, by Jeremy Rifkin the author describes an end to widespread employment of all humans. This was already obvious to Rifkin in the 1990s, and his unwelcome message caused him to be booed from USA centered academia. The US Times went as far as to label him “The Most Hated Man in Science.”

But Jeremy Rifkin was absolutely right. Later works, specifically “Lights in the Tunnel” by Martin Ford and the article “Robotic Nation” by Marshall Brain spelled it out even more blatantly obvious – not just robots are taking jobs away from the most “superfluous” of humans – a range of office appliances, logistical systems, efficiency measures, JIT management, new production processes (3D printers!) have already left many people world-wide competing with the result of investment in these means of labour, and increasingly on the losing end of this face-off. Robots are by and large owned by rather affluent investors, and clearly this is a self-reinforcing trend in society and industry. This whole issue has recently been highlighted by the publications of Frederico Pistono.

Corporations can secede from you – The feudal corporate state 

Corporations are essentially an organized gang with shared interests (in quite a few cases criminal) and these interests by definition do not include the interests of everyone outside the corporate entity. This makes the corporate person-hood  a particularly insidious development in human history, especially now has become clear corporations have expanded numerically and in numbers as to challenge the sovereignty of state – and all private people. In other words – where organized gangs can fulminate their self-interests, and do so exclusively, there is a cross-over point where corporate interests become effectively unaccountable, irreversible and will keep on expending at everyone else’s expense.

Without much doubt this is where in 2012 we have arrived – we have a geopolitical order that is thoroughly and irreversibly corporatized. This makes the current new world order fiercely “plutocratic”, as well as social-darwinist meritocratic. We also see precisely that happen. The formation of states inside the state (and transgressing the state) would be bad in itself – the very idea is an organizational monstrosity evolved to secede from democratic and legal oversight. Corporations are by nature exclusivity engines.

Now something like this would have happened in some form, regardless of the development of the corporate. Humans compete, and if we regard “democratic states” as means to protect the vulnerable from predation by the powerful (formerly – European autocrats), then a new generation of competitive humans would soon emerge and work to find ways to harvest a greater share of collective fruits of labour.

The corporation as a national and transnational vessel just happened to work nicely because it filled a niche in the necessity model of modern states. But soon the pathologically ambitious caused the original corporate charter to escape any prudent boundaries of legal constraint and corporations became much like unaccountability machines. Right now states tread with caution not to be regarded unfavourable by the corporate sector. Corporations (and their tax dollars) can actually leave – and by having corporations walk away the state loses it’s seat on the beggar’s banquet of scraps falling from the oligarch banquet. This places the corporate entity in a very favourable negotiations position world-wide, and in an age of automation this will only get worse, well within the next decades

In the end the corporate can only evolve to become state-less and fully seceded from any accountability of states and citizens – this would be the age of what I’d label “full Singaporization”. In literary history we also called this “Cyberpunk Dystopia”, but it exemplified nothing short of a kind of fascism where a small number of people are “on the inside” of scarce resources, and everyone else lives in the gutter. When we have arrived at that point money as it exists today won’t be a consideration. The insiders will have their own means of exchanging value, probably a “non-fiat” denominational currency backed by actual property, and those without property won’t have any say in the matter, or any share in the new mechanism of transactions. When that happens unions nor politicians nor violent protest will make one iota of difference.

Globalizing favelas 

This process of economic marginalization is a considerable danger to the majority of human beings on this planet. The threats imposed by widespread systemic marginalization are implicit rather than explicit. Poverty kills and destabilizes. Poor people fall prone to stupidity, emotion, fear, not because they are inherently stupid, but largely because the human mind can not function rationally in a pervasive context of humiliation, destitution, hunger and persecution. Poverty implies life-shortening stress. The poor can not acquire safe living environments. The poor can not procure safe conditions, sanitation, clean drinking water, security, proper education, living space, healthy food, dignity, humane medical care, uplifting entertainment or a range of other necessities to be a functional human being. If the majority of the world is reduced to widespread destitution the human spirit is broken and castrated, and reduced to the conditions of an average third world prison. This process is most visible in slums, ghettoes and favellas in Africa, south and middle America, the middle east and Asia. In the “externalized” and “outsourced” margins of society the destitute are left to their own devices, and reduced to the most dehumanized common denominator.

Encroaching poverty is real, even though conservatives bend themselves backwards to deny it. I don’t wish to belittle the actual people that live in these conditions (I am fairly underprivileged myself in the context of the Netherlands), but I wish something better for the masses of humanity. The centralization of wealth and the concentrated abuse of radically advancing, asymmetrical technologies creates an infrastructure of division, between lush paradisial gated communities  and occupied territories.  Once the walls of division are in place they become part of the judgement system of human beings, they ingrain in the fundamental psychology and they’ll have horrible consequences for generations. Once humans hold a subset of humans in contempt, the stigma clings and inevitably leads to attempts to kill.

Centralized power kills – absolute centralized power may kill everyone 

An existential risk  is a danger of a magnitude that it threatens the majority of human beings, all humans or even all life on the planet. Cognitive dissonance is the inability of people to deal with new ideas that are at odds with strong preconceived notions. I alleged that most people and especially the world’s economies remain unable to grasp that we can have existential threats manifest, and respectively, that the combination of centralized power and radical advances in technology can kill leave billions of humans prematurely dead before the end of this century.

The conclusion I postulate is that if you mix a sufficiently affluence-empowered elite with sufficiently advanced technologies, the problem is that only these macro-financial elites have access to the technologies, and only they increasingly reap the benefits. The rich get richer exponentially, while everyone else just gets relatively poorer along a linear regressive metric. The rising waters only serve to drown those at the bottom.

This is precisely what we see happen in our age, and it looks as if this deterioration is getting worse as time goes along. I argue that this has always caused massive death in human history if the process escalates far enough. In the past nearly every time a small elite of homo sapiens becomes too powerful relative to everyone else the end result has universally been the death of the least powerful, and the pervasive trend is that this process of extermination has become increasingly privatized, mechanized and sanitized. In the early 21st century I’d call the exterminations and genocides of the last century to have been conducted clumsily. Even the mass murders of the 1990s were still mostly hard work on part of the exterminators, but I shall say nothing more on this gruesome topic.

The Singleton Prometheus 

If humans believe they part of a winning team, they are willing to stick with the status quo because upsetting the status quo might cause their team to stop being the winning team. Ray Kurzweil is unabashedly optimistic on this. Ray may be right in his analysis that we are on a technological ascent towards ever more sophisticated tools, Ray seems completely colour blind to the fact that these new technologies benefit only a very small percentage of humans.  The poor in the third world have reaped some of the benefits, but this seems a process that won’t continue indefinitely.

Globalization, capitalism, big banking, automation – all these factors conspire to centralize power in the hands of the few, and intimidate, coerce or buy the political decision-making process. Austerity is just another word for a globalist process of asset consolidation in the hands of the few.

This leads to speculation that these ‘elites’ desire a one world government. Though it is hard to unambiguously prove that we are moving towards a one world system of political control, there are very serious arguments this order is emerging, and this order favours elites. Another word for one world decision-making entity is a “Singleton”, and a critical element for the sustainability of a Singleton is the development of ever more sophisticated cognitive tools – essentially Artificial Intelligence. We are clearly seeing the leadership of the world working hard to consolidate control over the Internet (SOPA, ACTA) and try take General Computing from consumer markets.

I am in strongly favor of humanity having access to Artificial Intelligence as a tool. What I would want avoid at any cost is to have an accountable and arguably immoral elite of humanity to have exclusive access to Artificial Intelligence and global communications. I am of the conviction this will literally lead to an existential threat to a significant percentage of human beings.

Occupying the future 

Despite widespread apathy of the electorate it has become critical to resist this process. The Occupy movement may be one of the most essential development in recent history. I assume not many occupiers know just how critical it is what they do, but the stakes are very high. I strongly urge anyone reading this article to take away one single message from this diatribe – you are almost certainly not part of the geopolitical elite, and you are not very likely to permanently enjoy the fruits of accelerating technological advances. Nobody is safe once full-blown automation and robotization commences. Unemployment rates will shoot up faster than any populace can retrain, or any government can artificially print money, or quell insurrection. The Rich can win this race only by duplicitous acts, and pushing for trojan horse legislation that benefit them and few other people.

I will make a hard statement here – I predict unemployment will from 2012 go up by at least a single % average worldwide per year. That means that by 2020 global average unemployment should be 10% higher than current (real, not doctored) statistics, and at least 20% higher by 2030. If I am right we will see widespread protests and a collapse to consumerism, and “the rich only turning energy and raw materials in to goods for their own consumption interest”. Those without anything more than a token janitorial job will be left unable to acquire anything of real value, and by 2035 the majority of humans would be without meaningful/paid employment.

The problem is that law enforcement, the military  and the range of security apparatus, corporate media as well as automated security systems is keeping up faster than the ability of normal people to protest, riot, sabotage or agitate.  I leave it up to the reader to visualise the consequences of a face-off between a globalist law enforcement apparatus of the 2030s and truly panicked populace. It could escalate in to mass-slaughter.

Universal Basic Income as a Core Human Right

In this possible terminal phase of human existence Democracy and Freedom are more than ‘values to be treasured’ – they may well be essential to survival.”
– Noam Chomsky.

States have a power to tax anyone, including the obscenely rich or corporations operating in their sovereign domain. States are still accountable to democratic oversight. In theory – if it were possible to convince the major worlds electorates of all of the above we’d still have a window of opportunity to turn this potential disaster around. In other words – if we could rely on voters not being apathetic, or if we could count on politicians not being corrupt, we could easily put the neo-feudal beast back in its cage. You will understand my next statements are not overly optimistic.

The only mechanism I can remotely envision to rectify an “power asymmetry collapse” of civilization (to put it in a dramatic choice of terms) is to rectify disparity with a tax and spend scheme commonly referred to as Basic Income. This would be quite hard to realize, since any basic income depends on international adoption, as well as a somewhat competent and sovereign government. Right now we have neither. Basic income as a concept is not yet politically viable and won’t be for a few years (as soon as unemployment numbers go beyond a certain point and an increasing range of producers will increasingly find they can’t sell any products). Once that moment arrives it may be too late and those with any money may have made sure their hold on global society is so tight, respectively their assets have moved beyond taxation.


Effectively I have provided ammunition to ‘demonize’ excessive affluence and disparity, as coupled with empowering technology. I might even have scorned many very affluent in this world. Let me emphasize I don’t intend to demonize or lambast wealth as such. Neither do I strictly advocate what some perceive as the logical opposite of wealth accumulation (capitalism?) and call it “socialism”. This is not the issue I speak out against, nor do I consider socialism the logical opposite of capitalism. Both socialism as well as capitalism allow the accumulation of excessive power in the hands of the few. It should be clear what I consider excessive – where the less fortunate suffer greatly as a result of the few becoming “excessively” rich. I’d argue the difference of use of power, wealth and (more recently) technology to increase power, wealth and technological industrial capability as distinctly undesirable. All humans arguably have instincts and urges that are predatorial towards other humans, especially genetically ‘somewhat’ different ones.

It is ironic that I as a human come up with the recursive value judgement stating “you can’t trust humans to judge other humans”, but that’s essentially what it I do say. As long as humans are likely to act instinctively predatorial we need some kind of functional protective mechanism in the hands of the electoral majority to make sure the naturally powerful do not proceed to push the vulnerable in to destitution, bondage, despair or outright extinction. Ideally I’d see the insurance mechanisms take the shape of well-formulated laws and democratic entitlements and human rights, but if these won’t suffice the next best alternative should be the ability to strike back at any potential tyrants with decisive force, and we should never let whatever system-du-jour rob us of either rights, or the power and freedom to retaliate decisively.

The rich should fear the majorities, as much as governments should fear their constituencies. In fact – all of power must be held in check by the less powerful and more numerous, for the consequences of disparity have been invariably lethal throughout history.

* Humanity 2.0
* Technoliberation

Aug 25 2011

Dillon Beresford and The Strange Case of the Stuxnet Worm

Cyber Security

Cyber security has come front and center recently with the threat of the Guy Fawkes cyber attack on Facebook and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s warning about the use of Chinese-made software. Malicious hackers are everywhere these days, it seems.

Dillon Beresford, a “good guy” hacker who works for security firm NSS Labs, demonstrated at the Black Hat Briefings conference in Las Vegas this month how he had successfully exploited flaws in commonly-used industrial computer systems made by Siemens that are used in thousands of industrial plants.

The Siemens Industrial Control Systems (ICS) is the same product targeted by Stuxnet, the sophisticated computer worm discovered last year to have crippled Iran’s nuclear program. It reprogrammed the computer-controlled centrifuges used to enrich uranium so that they spun out of control and destroyed themselves.

Beresford’s talk was given in lieu of one he had planned to give at TakedownCon in June. He cancelled that talk voluntarily after Siemens and ICS CERT (cyber emergency response team) raised concerns about the impact of a public disclosure of the security holes.  Here is the latest ICS CERT advisory.

The Washington Times quotes Vikram Phatak, chief technology officer of NSS Labs: Beresford’s work shows that “you don’t need Stuxnet to do real damage” to industrial plants. The demonstration showed vulnerabilities in the software and hardware used to run everything from nuclear power plants to manufacturing assembly lines to water treatment plants and prisons.

What is Stuxnet?
The cyber attack on the Iranian centrifuges allowed the Stuxnet worm to spread from one computer to another via infected USB sticks. The vulnerability was in the LNK file of Windows Explorer, a fundamental component of Microsoft Windows. When an infected USB stick was inserted into a computer, as Explorer automatically scanned the contents of the stick, Stuxnet awoke and dropped a large, partially encrypted file onto the computer.

It was subsequently discovered that the worm itself appeared to have included two major components. One was designed to send Iran’s nuclear centrifuges spinning wildly out of control. The second seemed right out of a spy thriller: Stuxnet secretly recorded what normal operations at the nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators, like a pre-recorded security tape, so that it would appear that everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing themselves apart.

The attacks were not fully successful: some parts of Iran’s operations ground to a halt, while others survived, according to the reports of international nuclear inspectors. The New York Times reported that it’s not clear the attacks are over yet: some experts believe the Stuxnet code contains the seeds for yet more versions and assaults.

Iran’s Nuclear Capabilities
Iran’s ability to produce bomb-ready enriched uranium became a major concern during the Bush administration. “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” said Senator John McCain, parodying The Beach Boys’ tune Barbara Ann.

President Obama spent 2009 trying to engage Iran diplomatically. Tehran initially accepted but then rejected an offer for an interim solution under which it would ship some uranium out of the country for enrichment. In June 2010, after months of lobbying by the Obama administration and Europe, the United Nations Security council voted to impose a new round of sanctions on Iran, which was the fourth such move.

The Cyber Attack on Iran’s Nuclear Centrifuges
Wired Magazine’s Threat Level reported that as early as January 2010, investigators with the International Atomic Energy Agency completed an inspection at the uranium enrichment plant outside Natanz in central Iran, when they realized that something wasn’t right in the cascade rooms where thousands of centrifuges were enriching uranium.

Workers had been replacing the units at an incredible rate: perhaps as many as 1,000 and 2,000 centrifuges were swapped out over a few months. This was, of course, due to Stuxnet.

Stuxnet, it turns out, was actually released June 2009. But it would be nearly a year before the inspectors would learn of this. It took dozens of computer security researchers around the world months of analysis and deconstruction to determine that a worm, a “zero-day” exploit, had occurred.

The zero day in the Iranian incident was dubbed “Stuxnet” by Microsoft from a combination of file names (.stub and MrxNet.sys) found in the code.

An Israeli Connection?
Israel’s never-acknowledged nuclear arms program is supposedly centered in The Dimona complex in the Negev desert. The New York Times reported that behind Dimona’s barbed wire, Israel spun nuclear centrifuges virtually identical to Iran’s at Natanz. Did they test the effectiveness of the Stuxnet computer worm before it infected the Iranian computers?

In January 2011, the retiring chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Meir Dagan, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton separately announced that they believed Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts had been set back by several years. Mrs. Clinton cited American-led sanctions, which have hurt Iran’s ability to buy components and do business around the world.

Officially, American nor Israeli officials won’t even acknowledge the existence of the Stuxnet worm.

But Israeli officials were reported as “grinning widely” when asked about its effects. President Obama’s chief WMD strategist, Gary Samore, sidestepped a Stuxnet question at a conference about Iran. He added, “with a smile,” “I’m glad to hear they are having troubles with their centrifuge machines, and the U.S. and its allies are doing everything we can to make it more complicated.”

Enter Dillon Beresford
Dillon Beresford is not just an everyday hacker. He has an extensive IT security background in exploit development, penetration testing, reverse code engineering, intrusion prevention systems, and intrusion detection systems.

After working with Siemens to identify the security breaches that allowed the Stuxnet incident to occur, he canceled a planned demonstration of the vulnerabilities (as mentioned earlier) at the TakeDownCon security conference in Texas in early June 2011, after Siemens and the Department of Homeland Security expressed concern about disclosing information before Siemens could patch the vulnerabilities.

The vulnerabilities affect the programmable logic controllers, or PLCs, in several Siemens SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems. Siemens PLC products are used in companies throughout the United States and the world.

It was a vulnerability in a PLC belonging to Siemens’ Step7 control system that was the target of the Stuxnet worm.

Beresford researched SCADA systems independently at home. He purchased SCADA products online with funding from NSS Labs, intending to examine systems belonging to multiple vendors. Beresford began with Siemens and found multiple vulnerabilities in the products very quickly.

Cyber Warfare?
The increasing attention to SCADA systems coming on the heels of Stuxnet and other cyber security incidents is bringing pressure to both the the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and firms like Siemens to take a hard look at the security of PLCs and other industrial control equipment.

Underscoring the importance of cyber security, ZDNet reports that DHS just issued a warning about using Chinese-made software, especially when it comes to the chemical, defense, and energy firms. Much of the concern comes from recent hacking attacks against companies like Lockheed Martin and Sony. It appears to have been traced back to a specific Beijing software company called Sunway ForceControl.

A huge Internet attack this month targeted 72 organizations, including the U.N., and analysts say it apparently originated in China.

The Daily Beast quotes Richard Clarke, the former top U.S. government official who famously held roles in counterterrorism and cybersecurity in the Clinton and Bush administrations: “What’s going on is very large-scale Chinese industrial espionage. They’re stealing our intellectual property. They’re getting our research and development for pennies on the dollar.”

What’s at stake goes beyond the ability to breach industrial control systems — even as scary as that is — into the realm of state secrets… and global military and economic dominance.