A Little Brother review of sorts…

20 08 2008

…and some thoughts about security and science.

I know Jacob already wrote on this book several months ago, but it was so good, I couldn’t resist talking about it again. It’s been hanging around on my hard drive while I’ve been rushing around doing other things (but with Pi-Con coming up this weekend, an event at which Cory Doctorow will be in attendance) I just had to start reading. I read it in a two several-hour sittings, and I really didn’t even want to split it up that much. I just wanted to keep reading and reading until it was done.

I know that if I start I could go on for hours about the book and never get on to the rest of the post, so I’m going to try to control myself, so I can turn some of the energy that this book gave me into other projects that don’t involve blogging. So all I will say is that this book is important. I want everyone in the world to read it. Everyone.

A concept has been coming to me in pieces over the past couple years, well probably over the whole span of my life, through books, movies, conversations, and news stories. Most recently Little Brother, Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, Kenneth Bower’s The Starship and the Canoe (a biography of Freeman Dyson), and Bruce Schneier’s Beyond Fear.

The concept is simple. The more people know, the more their quality of life improves. People who have proper access to the understanding that humans know possess are healthier, happier, and more secure. This all happens on a sliding scale, of course. “Developed” nations are certainly ahead of “developing” nations in quality of life, but almost no one in America is as healthy, happy and secure as they could be.

I was trying to figure out why people are generally content with their level of scientific and security-oriented understanding (which, when it comes down to it, is really the same thing). The answer is simple, people are worrying about other things. Most kids in America are worrying about getting through a school day without getting beat up, made fun of, looked at the wrong way, scrutinized or punished by well-meaning and misguided adults. They are blameless. Most adults are worrying about getting to work, getting a paycheck, getting food on the table, caring for children or family members, finding time to relax, party, and have sex. They are also blameless.

I think most people living in America today grew up with this concept of science as a force (for good or evil, or both) which operates outside their sphere of living. It’s something that other people are doing. This is dangerous in several ways. When scientists are those uncaring people steering us toward oblivion on a wasted Earth or in the event horizon of a black hole, they are remote sources of anxiety which paralyze us into a willful indifference. We escape into the palpable mundane of day to day life. Conversely, but no less dangerous, is the concept of scientists as those heroes out there somewhere thinking about all the things we can’t be bothered to think about, solving all our future problems. They divert asteroids and invent green technologies. This way of life lulls us into a false sense of security. The comforting thought that we don’t need to pay attention because things will sort themselves out in time. This is a way of thinking that has much in common with age-old human tendencies toward religion. It elevates scientists to gods and angels who have the power to divert any disaster as long as we put our faith in them.

I think the truth is that all these aspects of science coexist. There is the danger, the mind-numbing fear of uncertainty, and there is the hope. The combined efforts of Sagan, Schneier and Doctorow have revealed to me is that even the most well-funded science programs in the world, with full support from public and private institutions (which is far from the reality) would be useless if the general public did not concern itself with science. Many, perhaps most, of our politicians don’t fully understand the scientific issues that our society is grappling with. It would be irresponsible of us to expect them to. They are politicians. They know politics. But they are public servants and they (theoretically) represent us. If we don’t take the time to understand the scientific issues that confront us, and demand that they pursue courses of action that represent our needs and rights, then we can hardly be surprised when things go foul.

This is the beginning of a much larger discussion, but I’m running out of steam and attention span, so for now, I will end.

Do yourself a favor, read Little Brother. You don’t have to know anything about crypto or science. You just have to be someone who cares about freedom.

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