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A Proposal for a Minor Revolution in Human Affairs

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Two months ago I began writing a column for Skeptical Inquirer, the admirable old organ of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which, along with a handful of other institutions such as Michael Shermer's Skeptic magazine, ends up doing much of the heavy lifting necessary to ensure that skeptical thought gets something close to the level of influence on the public mindset that one might think it would warrant after the past few centuries. In the game of discovery, after all, skepticism rarely loses; it is easy to think of instances in which natural explanations have superseded supernatural ones even in the eyes of the religious, whereas it would be difficult to point to any affair in which, say, lightning bolts have indeed turned out to be the work of Zeus rather than nature.

Last month, I made the case that, despite dour predictions by certain scientists queried by the publication Edge, the internet does indeed constitute a net plus in terms of the effects it has on the mind and habits of its more reasonable users. Next month, I will try to better characterize the makeshift yet largely unified culture that the internet has made possible by providing for unlimited and real-time collaboration among the planet's erudite and reasonable individuals, all of whom now have the option - should they take it - to come together under a single entity or at least a series of interlocking associations, and thus accomplish all manner of things which would in earlier years be impossible due to the constraints of borders, language, distance, and - most damagingly - humanity's long record of governance by irrational mobs and, more often, unethical and non-technocratic elites.

I could spend hours working myself into a self-righteous frenzy over the squandered opportunities of the past, and every intelligent and observant person will agree with these sentiments - but to no end, for the most part, insomuch as that even many such people as these see fundamental change as difficult if not impossible to implement. For the most part, we judge the possibilities of the present and future based on the actualities of the past. This is rather understandable - or, rather, it would have been understandable twenty years ago. Today, the observant person who wishes to weigh his options must discard the past altogether, as we are blessed to exist in an age of unprecedented tumult and potential by virtue of the advent of the internet and the information age as a whole. To this exception I would add another exception in turn: look at the past ten years. Look at what has become possible with such unusual rapidity. Look, moreover, at what has become commonplace with such unwarranted casualness. And look, if you have the time, at what is coming to be - the phenomena that are now arising, largely unrecognized, within this virgin virtual territory, one which has happily become the particular playground of the internationalist man, the knowledgeable man, the ethical man. Never has so much human talent had such opportunity to engage in such collaboration without interference.

Of course, it remains to convince such individuals as these that this is the case, that we have this chance to remake the real world from the virtual one. In this month's column, I have tried to make that case; below, I have excerpted that portion which I deem most potentially convincing to those who might otherwise write off any revolutionary efforts as overly exuberant or otherwise unfounded. In short, anyone who writes off what is happening and what may happen next, if we cause it to, is a damned fool. No offense.

If you are a skeptic - and I use the term broadly such that I ensnare the reader against his will - take a moment to hear me out. Project PM, which I've been putting together for a couple of months and which should be launching in August, is guaranteed to accelerate the coming and necessary reorganization of certain social dynamics, particularly as relates to information flow and media; at the same time, it constitutes an experiment in human collaboration in general. We have an incredible array of talent on board already, and if you're an intelligent, intellectually honest person who would like to take responsibility for the future, we want you on board, too. I may be reached at; additional information to what may be found at the link directly above, meanwhile, will be available shortly.

If we acknowledge that things are not necessarily the way they should be but rather simply the way they are, we might go on to conclude that that which happens to be is not necessarily that which would be best. The totality of human society may therefore be expected to exist in something less than a state of perfection. The reader is invited to confirm this for himself.

We are aware, then, that society has suffered from imperfections in the past and may extrapolate from this that society suffers from imperfections in the present insomuch as the present is simply the past in gestation, which is to say that we may find great similarity in the now as compared to, say, the now minus ten years. Still, portions of the past may differ in some respects from the present--the past contains the Ottoman Empire, for instance, whereas the present does not. This is reassuring, as it would seem to indicate that the future may differ from the present as well, particularly if we give it cause to do so. Of course, we cannot help but give the future cause to take a certain form, as we influence it merely by existing in the present, which is the future's raw material. The present, incidentally, is the unconscious conspiracy of the past; it does not come to us through design. The exception is that small portion of a given present--breakfast, a cigarette, an overthrow of some flawed institution--which is the result of conscious planning in the past by self-aware beings. To the extent that we are able and willing to do so, then, we may conspire against the future in such a way that will bring about such things as these. To have breakfast later, one makes the appropriate preparations beforehand.

The reader may object that it is all well and good to point out that things are not perfect and perhaps ought to be changed, but there is a great difference between pointing out flaws and eradicating them. The difference, our objector continues, is akin to the difference between breakfast, cigarettes, and institutional overthrows; the first two may be successfully pursued by individuals whereas the third tends to require some degree of collaboration, which itself is more difficult to set into motion. Certainly these differences are real, and certainly the overthrowing of institutions is a business best pursued in tandem with other individuals--and certainly such arrangements require the cooperation of others and are difficult to bring about. But in a more fundamental sense, an institutional overthrow can be set in motion by way of an individual action just as fixing breakfast or obtaining a cigarette can be. If, for instance, an individual is able to devise a plan by which such an overthrow may be successfully accomplished and is able to convince others to adopt the plan in such a way as that the plan is perpetuated to the extent necessary to achieve the intended change, then, yes, an individual may cause an institution to be overthrown.

Now the reader may also object that, aside from the semantics of what constitutes individual action, there is still quite a bit of substantive difference between making breakfast or acquiring a cigarette and convincing others to adopt some plan to overthrow an institution. The former actions are quite easily accomplished every day by quite a few individuals; the latter, we might agree, is a great rarity--but we would be wrong because such a thing is not rare at all. Each day, one convinces others to collaborate on some or another thing, such as the preparation of breakfast. It is simply a matter of convincing others to join one in doing such a thing.

Again, the reader objects, this time noting that it is nothing more than a transparent rhetorical trick to compare the persuasion of others to join one in making breakfast to the persuasion of others to join one in attempting to pull off something so ambitious as the overthrow of an institution. There is, one would note, a major difference in terms of feasibility between the making of breakfast and the making of trouble. To overthrow something worth overthrowing, one would have to concoct a plan that would be sufficiently promising to incite the interest of others. One would have to locate those individuals who are in a position to ensure that the plan is disseminated to the extent necessary for implementation, and then one would have to contact them and convince them not only to agree with the plan but to act on it. To the extent that the plan requires resources, expertise, and infrastructure, all of these things must be secured, and this may require one to convince others to provide these things. To summarize, one must put in place the conditions by which the plan is not only possible but deemed desirable and viable by those whose cooperation is necessary to implement it. One must set things in motion.

I will admit at this point that one perhaps ought not to consider contributing to a project unless it is reasonably expected to succeed. Likewise, I will admit that such tasks as described above are easier stated than done. I am happy to admit that these things must be done because I have already done them all.