Why we don’t need machine-brain interfaces to control human beings and turn ourselves into drones
The only two characteristics that distinguish humans from other animals are not what many people imagine. Forget about using tools: plenty of other animals use tools too, and some species are more sophisticated tool-users than we are. For example, studies on New Caledonian Crows have demonstrated they can solve 21-step puzzles by shaping and using tools in a wide variety of ways. Personally I don’t know any human being who can solve a 21-step puzzle. Forget about language and intelligence: as we learn more about other species it’s becoming increasingly apparent that language and intelligence are far from uncommon, and that we humans are a great deal less intelligent than we’d like to believe.
So what are the two characteristics that really do stand us apart? The first is obvious: we are, to the best of our current knowledge, the only animal that fashions semi-indelible records of its musings. No other animal, as far as we know today, makes permanent records that can be accessed by later generations. Our entire civilization is predicated on the ability to record, store, and access vast quantities of information, so that a more-or-less continuous increase in total knowledge becomes possible. Yet we’ve only been doing this for a fraction of our evolutionary history. For 99% of our history as a species, we were no different from other primates: we learned by watching and copying our elders. In this way, nearly no net gain in knowledge is possible, which is why a human taken from 400,000 years ago and transported to 200,000 years ago would see no significant change in living conditions at all. It’s only in the last few thousand years that we’ve made significant changes to our way of life, and only in the last few hundred that these changes have compounded and accelerated dramatically.
The second, and defining, characteristic of human beings is that we live primarily in fantasy worlds. As best as we can tell, other animals live predominantly in the real world. We know from ethnographic studies that other primates do have fantasies; male baboons have been observed masturbating after seeing a pulchritudinous but unavailable female pass by, and the only coherent explanation for the behavior is that they are imagining copulating with her. But wish-fulfillment fantasies aside, our relatives are forced by prevailing conditions to deal with the real world as it imposes itself upon them.
We are not similarly constrained.
For reasons that are still unclear, it seems that around 70,000 years ago a genetic mutation occurred that altered the way in which the human brain works. Like all animals, our brains are primarily pattern-recognition machines. There’s never enough time in the real world to work things out from first principles, so the brain is a mechanism that hardwires a wide variety of shortcuts. For example, when light enters our eyes and then strikes the retina, nerves transmit signals to our visual cortex (located at the back of the head). As they pass along the chain of nerve fibers, signal processing occurs in distinct stages. Movement is processed. Edges are detected. Horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines are processed. Shapes are assembled. Then comes more detailed processing, so that we recognize distinct features such as faces. After that comes even more detailed processing, so we can recognize facial expressions, body language, and so forth. To us, this all seems automatic but in reality there are many steps and brain damage can disrupt each one, leading to difficulties in interpreting visual inputs.
In all of our sensory apparatus we see the same sort of multi-step processing whereby at each step a particular aspect of the input is processed before being passed to the next step. At every step our brains are detecting patterns, because it’s far faster to assign something to a predetermined pattern than to attempt to create a new pattern or category. The first few years of life involve humans detecting patterns and the brain hardwires itself so as to process such patterns automatically thereafter.
This is why acquiring a new skill takes significant time and effort, but after acquisition the skill comes to feel like second nature. When a beginner is attempting to learn to play Für Elise, each finger movement is conscious and the piece sounds clumsy and mechanical. When a concert pianist plays the same piece, the pianist is largely unaware of the mechanical actions required and can focus instead on tiny nuances of timing, attack, and decay. This is because the concert pianist’s brain has hardwired itself over many years of practice so that playing the piano is as effortless as walking or waving our arms is for the rest of us.
While we do notice ourselves acquiring skills such as playing a musical instrument, driving an automobile, or speaking a foreign language, we don’t notice ourselves hardwiring our brains for more quotidian matters. We rarely think about how we learned to speak our first language; we almost never consider how we learned the cultural moeurs associated with the place in which by sheer chance we happened to have been born and raised. Yet all of these patterns will profoundly influence our mental model of the world around us as we go through life.
There’s one more constraint: energy. When learning a new skill or concept, the human brain will consume up to 30% of the body’s blood glucose. That’s why people pulling an all-nighter usually snack on calorie-rich foods. But for 98% of our evolutionary history calories were scarce and uncertain. Blood glucose was far more often required for powering muscles than for powering brains. The most adaptive evolutionary strategy therefore was for our ancestors to avoid thinking whenever possible. Although we now live in a modern technologically complex inter-connected world in which food is over-abundant, our brains are still hardwired for the African savannah and the primordial forests of Eurasia where challenges were simple, the group was the unit of survival, and calories were scarce. In short: we’re adapted to live in small tightly-knit groups, be highly suspicious of non-group humans, and to avoid thinking whenever possible.
Patterns enable us to avoid doing much thinking. We don’t need to work out shapes and sounds laboriously because the hardwiring in our brain resolves sensory input into faces, expressions, tone of voice, meanings of words. It’s fast and automatic. Likewise the arbitrary cultural beliefs of our environment also provide us with patterns by means of which we can avoid thinking. Light skins good, dark skins bad. Neighbor good, foreigner bad. The god, ghoul, goblin, or ghost my religion favors is true, all the other gods, ghouls, goblins, or ghosts are false.
Whereas our hardwired sensory processing is grounded in real phenomenon such as photons and soundwaves, our cultural processing is grounded on arbitrary and almost always spurious notions. We hardwire these patterns not because they are useful shorthand representations of reality but because they are useful shorthand representations of the group in which we live and upon which we depend to a greater or lesser extent for our survival. In Hamlet’s words, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” We think the thoughts we’ve been conditioned to think by the culture we grow up in.
As a result, we humans spend most of our lives in a fantasy-world that only tangentially connects with reality. Most humans genuinely believe in magic, whether it’s the magic of gods, ghouls, goblins, or ghosts, or the magic of Meyers-Briggs, or the Power of Attraction, or detox footbaths, or the idea that “everything happens for a reason and was meant to be,” or the superiority of their particular group or nation, or Freudian psychotherapy, or some other similarly spurious nonsense. And these magical beliefs profoundly influence the way we act in the world.
Beliefs can, at times, over-ride the most seemingly fundamental human instincts. We are, like all living things, machines by means of which our DNA passes itself forward through time. Behaviors therefore are all in one way or another mechanisms to promote this outcome. Yet when we fill people’s heads with magical nonsense this can be sufficient to induce young fertile humans to turn themselves into flying mince in the mistaken belief that their particular magical goblin will reward them for their self-sacrifice in an imaginary afterlife. When we stop to consider this fact it is truly astonishing. A few million neurons, hardwired in a certain way, can defeat fundamental biological self-interest.
This is a very important point. In all other creatures, altruism is kinship-based according to basic mathematical principles. As J.B.S. Haldane put it, “I would gladly give up my life for two brothers or eight cousins” because in each case the quantity of identical DNA being passed forward in time would be equivalent to his own potential reproductive output. This is why military organizations stress “brotherhood” in order to ensure soldiers self-sacrifice in favor of group success, even though in reality there is little meaningful DNA overlap between them other than the very basic elements that all humans have in common. In other words, an entirely illusory idea (“band of brothers”) is sufficient to overcome normal self-interested behavior, where self-interested means passing on as much of one’s DNA as possible into the future.
These examples alone show the astonishing power of conceptual models: they can lead to behaviors that over-ride fundamental biological instincts.
Once we understand how readily the human brain adapts itself to cultural moeurs by hardwiring certain patterns, we see how easy it is to control the thoughts and actions of millions of people.
We humans are a group species, which means we accept what we’re told by purported authority figures, because groups always need leaders in order to ensure some degree of cohesion. Furthermore, we invest those authority figures with characteristics they don’t actually possess, because in our minds we associate authority with beneficial characteristics. This helps ensure group cohesion, so the illusion is adaptive. As a result however we are quite literally unable to distinguish between objective reality and the fantasy productions of our brains.
We also have confirmation bias, which is the habit of ignoring outcomes that don’t fit our mental models while over-emphasizing the outcomes that seem to support our mental models.
A simple example of confirmation bias is the rain dance. Obviously a group of humans performing a ritualistic dance has precisely zero real-world impact on the weather. But if the group dances often enough, by sheer statistical probability alone, occasionally the rain will fall within a few days of the most recent dance. The humans in the group will ignore all the many times the rain does not come, because “obviously” this was because (i) someone wasn’t doing the dance properly, or (ii) the gods knew it wasn’t the right time for the rains. But on the few occasions the rain does fall within a few days of the dance, then this proves to the members of the group beyond all doubt the efficacy of their ritual.
As we know, people who believe in invisible magical creatures generally perform supplications they believe to have efficacy. In formalized religions we call these supplications prayers, and in informal superstitious beliefs we call them rituals. In terms of mental patterns, however, there is no difference whatsoever between praying to an invisible magical god and wearing one’s lucky tie to the casino in the belief it will bring good luck.
As we’re looking at rain dances, prayer, and lucky charms it should be evident that a prerequisite for magical thinking is ignorance. When we know little and understand less, it’s easy to believe in simplistic ideas. In fact, due to our evolved avoidance of complexity in favor of simplicity, we are automatically drawn to simple ideas and automatically shun complexity. This is why, for example, conspiracy theories have such appeal. Even they though are self-evidently stupid and impossible, it is precisely their simplicity that gives them their appeal to those whose grasp of reality is at best tenuous and uninformed by real-world facts.
There is no real difference between believing in a conspiracy theory and believing in invisible magical creatures. Hence we see Evangelical Christians eagerly embracing QAnon, because when you are ignorant and able to embrace one sort of nonsense it’s easy to embrace similar nonsense. “Trust the Plan” is no different from “Trust in God’s Plan. ”In terms of mental processing, the two equally spurious beliefs are equivalent: both appear to provide easy-to-understand “explanations” for events beyond the comprehension of people whose cognitive abilities are extremely modest. The fact these “explanations” are inherently implausible and self-contradictory doesn’t matter because the people who embrace these beliefs lack the cognitive ability to discern the impossibility and the internal contradictions.
This is why people can believe in a flat Earth yet still use their car’s GPS navigation system. Obviously a moment’s though reveals that a flat Earth would not be consistent with the existence of satellite-dependent GPS systems, but as most people have no idea at all how GPS works it’s easy simply not to see the contradiction between belief in a flat Earth and belief that the GPS system will direct you reliably to your destination.
It is very fortunate for those who want to control others that the vast majority of humankind is almost entirely ignorant of even the most rudimentary facts about reality. When we know nothing and understand nothing, we can be induced to believe anything.
A belief in a flat Earth is impossible when we understand basic geometry. Racism is impossible when we understand genetics and know that any two Caucasian humans are likely to share more DNA with random individuals elsewhere in the world than with each other. In general, “different races” have less than 0.1% genetic difference on average, and it’s possible for two individuals from different “races” to share more DNA than two individuals from the same “race.”
Fortunately for populists everywhere, most people’s heads are filled with febrile nonsense about celebrities and Internet memes. Almost no one alive today has any meaningful understanding of reality. The hard work undertaken by a tiny few over the course of many centuries that has slowly revealed to us the nature of the universe in which we live has no impact on at least 99% of people alive today. We live in a world of technological marvels yet almost no one understands how our shiny toys actually work. We are essentially baboons stroking smartphones. We gawp at the screens but our brains are empty of understanding.
This is what makes propaganda such a powerful tool. It takes a lot of money and people and effort to invade a nation and subdue the inevitable opposition but it takes a tiny amount of money and very little effort indeed to suborn a nation’s citizens into acting against their own best interests. All one needs is a few simple soundbites, some amusing Internet memes, and the job is done.
Orwell, in his novel 1984, imagined that lies would have to be imposed on people and maintained through a regime of martial imposition akin to that experienced by citizens unfortunate enough to live under the iron rule of the USSR. In reality, we actively embrace lies provided they are simplistic enough. Simplicity appeals to us; complexity repels us. Good propagandists everywhere know this. Populism is, at heart, stories for ignorant simple-minded people. And because the majority of people anywhere on Earth are ignorant and simple-minded, it’s easy to see why populism triumphs. The lies of populism slot neatly into the simplicity-craving hardwiring of our brains like a key into a lock.
Populism appeals to our hardwired needs. Obese uneducated low-status white people embrace simplistic ideas about the “superior white race” because these people know nothing and understand nothing, but racism enables them to feel superior despite the fact they are clearly on the bottom rungs of society in every way imaginable. Obese uneducated low-status people adore patriotic nonsense because it enables them to believe they belong to a “superior” nation.
But how does propaganda penetrate into the brains of populations and work its insidious magic therein? How are toxic ideas introduced into the mainstream?
In the old days, subversive groups had to work hard to produce and disseminate propaganda. Often, a newspaper would be acquired for the purpose. Mussolini had Avanti and Goebbels had the Völkischer Beobachter. The Soviets had Правда and Известия. But today the makers of propaganda don’t have to go to the trouble and expense of creating their own organs of distribution because our free market system does the job for them.
Modern news organizations depend on grabbing people’s fleeting attention in order to monetize it, either by means of subscriptions or more usually by means of serving ads. The more eyeballs, the greater the revenue. But people aren’t interested in difficult topics and complicated reality. People want simplistic entertainment: celebrity gossip, lurid reports of accidents (ideally involving children or grandmothers for that all-important human interest angle), and other intellect-free content. So that’s what our media organizations dole out, every minute of every hour of every day. Now that we have multiple shiny screens in front of us during every waking moment, we gawp endlessly at empty spectacle.
As every editor knows, trash-filled tabloids outsell the few “serious” news sources by at least an order of magnitude. In the UK, the gutter-dwelling far-right propaganda tabloid the Daily Mail has a readership of 1,200,000, the tits-and-celebrity-gossip Sun has a readership of 2,600,000 million, the right-wing lowbrow Express has a readership 7,200,000 of while the Financial Times (the UK’s only legitimate newspaper) has a readership of just over one million. So the trash outlets have a combined readership of nearly seventeen million (several other UK tabloids, not enumerated here, are included in this total) while serious news has an audience fifteen times smaller. The story is the same in the USA, where the far-right propaganda outlet Fox News is the most watched TV channel in the country, and there are very few sources of accurate information to be found.
Even the editors of supposedly serious journals know what their audience wants and expects to hear and ensures stories are shaped accordingly. No editor will risk running a story that would alienate the audience because that would result in financial ruin, jobs destroyed, and careers wrecked. So everything we are exposed to is carefully crafted to conform to our pre-existing beliefs and prejudices. We receive narratives that at best are partial accounts of reality and far more often simply fabrications designed to elicit a predictable response.
When we look at English-language outlets renowned for their supposedly reality-based coverage we see that they too provide simplistic standard narratives. The BBC news is more gossip column than anything else these days, but it does serve additionally as the mouthpiece for the British government, dressed up as “independent” reporting that ensures awkward facts are never mentioned and emotionally-laden stories are slanted so as to encourage people to adopt the standard narrative. The Economist, a nominally highbrow journal, provides unchallenging fare for its readership and is always careful to avoid controversy that would result in fewer subscriptions.
As a result, we each live in a very solipsistic world, consuming the propaganda that best fits our existing prejudices and false beliefs and thus reinforcing those same prejudices and false beliefs. All that’s necessary is to tweak very slightly the propaganda and, abracadabra, people will acquire a new false belief that to them will be just as real as all the other spurious content they’ve absorbed over many years of uncritical consumption.
Our modern communication technologies could have delivered to us reliable useful information in volumes never before conceivable. Instead, the vast majority of people watch amusing videos on Youtube, avidly follow celebrity gossip, and participate in forums dedicated to spreading ever-wilder conspiracy theories and religionist nonsense.
Unfortunately one of our prevailing contemporary beliefs is the notion that democracy is a good thing. Give the people what they want! What could be more democratic than that? But what do people want, in reality? Free ice-cream forever. Today most of us are fat and an astonishing number of us are obese. We want junk and we consume junk in ever-greater proportions even as it makes us more and more sick. Even when people have limbs amputated due to Type II diabetes, they beg their relatives to smuggle sugar-laden soft drinks into the hospital so they can make themselves even more ill. We want trash entertainment and we consume trash content in ever-greater quantities even as it addles what remains of our minds and makes us envious, fearful, angry, and hateful.
Those who purvey trash know that it is far more profitable than attempting to give us things that are healthy. This is not the fault of The Patriarchy or Capitalism or any other lefty-trendy superficial nonsense. It is the fault of fundamental human nature left to its own devices. Until we recognize and accept that most of us are completely incapable of knowing what would truly benefit us, never mind seeking out such things, we will continue to feast on junk that makes us ever-more sick in our bodies and in our minds.
This is not a recipe for benevolent outcomes.
Thirty years ago I saw an obese African-American woman feeding her tiny infant Coca-Cola; ten years later I saw an obese Mexican woman feeding her tiny infant Coca-Cola. Both had succumbed to the most rudimentary marketing messages and were too ignorant to understand they were killing their babies. Fifteen years ago I saw dull-eyed Americans gawping at Fox News; those same dullards went on to vote for Trump. Ten years ago I saw dull-eyed Brits gawping at UKIP propaganda; those same dullards went on to vote for Brexit.
All over the world, populism is triumphing because it gives (a majority of) the people what they want, just as junk food has triumphed because it gives a majority of the people what they want. Controlling the minds of hundreds of millions of people turns out to require nothing more than crafting a few easy-to-chant slogans. Populism is slogan-based mind-control. And it works.
Hitler was a populist. Mussolini was a populist. Lenin was a populist. Chavez was a populist. Peron was a populist. Populism has the imprimatur of democracy, the validation of the majority, so it must be the best possible route to take.
But does anyone remember how well all that wonderful populism ended? If not, don’t worry: we’ve gone that way ourselves and the results are every day becoming easier and easier to see.