Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Great War That Will Not End

I recently watched an 8-part series on Netflix called The Great War Diary, which consisted of a combination of historical World War I footage with some reenactment dramatizations based upon the diaries of 14 World War I participants, both military and civilian. In my opinion, World War I was indeed the Great War which never ended. It has been going on now for more than 100 years, starting off in August of 1914 and now continuing on seemingly forever. There was a brief cease-fire between 1918 and 1939, while all sides took a respite to rearm before the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Hostilities continued on after 1945 with the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam, due to the 1917 Bolshevik Russian Revolution that resulted from the trench warfare on the Eastern Front (1914 - 1917). The Ottoman Empire, founded in 1299, had stabilized the Middle East for more than 600 years, but the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 by the Allies of the Triple Entente ended that stability in the Middle East and led to the continuous warfare in that region that we have seen ever since.

The Great War Diary really brings home the essence of the early years of this second rendition of the Hundred Years' War (1337 - 1453) because it uses actual footage from the period and the actual written words of 14 of its participants. Since the Great War is now in its 101st year and started when my grandfathers were young men, I was quite surprised to see how little has changed in the rhetoric of the Great War. People are still repeating the same old words and the same old ideas, more than 100 years later, about the Ukraine and the Middle East. As usual, the Middle East is the most worrisome, since the overwhelming power of ignorance seems to be once again gaining the upper hand in that region. It is very sad to remember that a thousand years ago the Middle East was the crown jewel of intellectual achievement in the world. That just goes to show you the incredible staying power of ignorance. It seems that ignorance is always there waiting behind the scenes to retake its place upon the world stage. Indeed, the combination of ignorance, large amounts of cash and deep religious convictions are now a very deadly mixture for civilization now that we have nuclear weapons in the world. Nobody knows how the Great War will end. My hope is that nuclear weapons will not be involved.

Figure 1 – The technological advances of rapid rail transport of men and material to the Front via railroads, combined with the ability of machine guns to make frontal assaults obsolete, led to the trench warfare of the initial years of the second rendition of the Hundred Years' War that we now call the Great War and that still continues on to this very day.

Figure 2 – Trench warfare was a living hell because you could be blown apart at any time by an incoming shell.

Figure 3 – This was true for millions of men on both sides of a senseless conflict.

Figure 4 – Even the comforts of a well-engineered trench could not guarantee safety. This led to the psychological destruction of an entire generation.

Figure 5 – The initial years of the Great War caused the deaths of 20 million people. Subsequent events over the past 100 years have easily brought that total to over 100 million.

The one thing that The Great War Diary definitely made clear is that there is way too much "believing" going on out there in the world. In the summer of 1914 millions of people fell under the power of some memes that ultimately led to their own demise because they became "believers" in memes that made no sense at all and many of these memes continue on today. Memetics brings sense to the ongoing tragedy of the Great War because it reveals that the Great War memes are just another form of self-replicating information bent on surviving at all costs, with little regard for the individuals storing the memes and passing them on to others. So the long-lived memes of the Great War certainly are not acting in your best interest. For a further discussion of memes see How to Use an Understanding of Self-Replicating Information to Avoid War. Some very good books on the subject are Richard Brodie's in Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme (1996), and Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine (1999).

The Power of Self-Replicating Information
Since memes are just a form of self-replicating information, it is very important to have a good understanding of self-replicating information if we are ever to eliminate the memes of the Great War. Now although I initially began work on softwarephysics back in 1979 out of necessity to help myself to better cope with the daily mayhem of life in IT, I personally consider the most significant finding of softwarephysics to be a better understanding of the impact that self-replicating information has had upon the surface of the Earth over the past 4.0 billion years, and also of the possibilities of its ongoing impact for our entire Universe. In order to understand self-replicating information, we must first define it and then describe it.

Self-Replicating Information – Information that persists through time by making copies of itself or by enlisting the support of other things to ensure that copies of itself are made.

The Characteristics of Self-Replicating Information
All forms of self-replicating information have some common characteristics.

1. All self-replicating information evolves over time through the Darwinian processes of innovation and natural selection, which endows self-replicating information with one telling characteristic – the ability to survive in a Universe dominated by the second law of thermodynamics and nonlinearity.

2. All self-replicating information begins spontaneously as a parasitic mutation that obtains energy, information and sometimes matter from a host.

3. With time, the parasitic self-replicating information takes on a symbiotic relationship with its host.

4. Eventually, the self-replicating information becomes one with its host through the symbiotic integration of the host and the self-replicating information.

5. Ultimately, the self-replicating information replaces its host as the dominant form of self-replicating information.

6. Most hosts are also forms of self-replicating information.

7. All self-replicating information has to be a little bit nasty in order to survive.

8. The defining characteristic of self-replicating information is the ability of self-replicating information to change the boundary conditions of its utility phase space in new and unpredictable ways by means of exapting current functions into new uses that change the size and shape of its particular utility phase space. See Enablement - the Definitive Characteristic of Living Things for more on this last characteristic.

Basically, we have seen several waves of self-replicating information dominate the Earth:
1. Self-replicating autocatalytic metabolic pathways of organic molecules
2. RNA
3. DNA
4. Memes
5. Software

Note that because the self-replicating autocatalytic metabolic pathways of organic molecules, RNA and DNA have become so heavily intertwined over time that now I simply refer to them as the “genes”. Over the past 4.0 billion years, the surface of the Earth has been totally reworked by three forms of self-replicating information – the genes, memes and software, with software rapidly becoming the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet. For more on this see:

A Brief History of Self-Replicating Information
How to Use an Understanding of Self-Replicating Information to Avoid War
How to Use Softwarephysics to Revive Memetics in Academia
Is Self-Replicating Information Inherently Self-Destructive?
Is the Universe Fine-Tuned for Self-Replicating Information?
Self-Replicating Information

The Danger of Believing in Things
If you look at the Middle East today you will find many millions of "believers" all running around with machine guns shooting at each other, and all of these "believers" supposedly have the "thou shalt not kill" rule, just like the now long-dead original combatants of 1914. So what is going on? In How To Think Like A Scientist I explained that there were three ways to gain knowledge:

1. Inspiration/Revelation
2. Deductive Rationalism
3. Inductive Empiricism

and that the scientific method was one of the few human protocols that actually used all three to try to get to the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, most of human thought is only based upon using one or two of the above processes, and that gets people into lots of trouble. Usually, people seem to get infected by a set of memes that they find quite appealing. That is because most of the extant memes are successful memes, and successful memes are selected for being appealing to a significant portion of the population. Unsuccessful memes simply go extinct because they do not replicate. After all, like all forms of self-replicating information, memes are just one generation away from extinction. Once infected by a set of appealing memes, people then work backwards, like lawyers trying to build a good case for their clients. Instead of trying to figure out what is really going on, people usually try to build a strong case that supports the memes of their worldview, or belief system, by selectively gathering evidence that supports their worldview, while discarding evidence that does not. That lack of critical thinking allows the memes of the Great War to live on as they skip down through the generations, largely unscathed by time. However, the arrival of the 17th century Scientific Revolution and the 18th century Enlightenment introduced the concept of trying to uncover the truth through evidence-based reasoning. With evidence-based reasoning, like the scientific method, we gave up the concept of "believing" in things because "believing" in things meant that you had stopped thinking. Instead, we learned to have a level of confidence in things rather than believing in them. For example, NASA had a very high level of confidence that Newton's theories of mechanics and gravity could get the New Horizons probe to Pluto when it was launched on top of an Atlas 5 rocket on Jan. 19, 2006, and indeed, the probe did arrive at Pluto in mid-July of 2015 after nearly a decade of flight. That high level of confidence was based upon a sound theoretical framework that had been validated by more than 300 years of observational evidence. But NASA never "believed" in Newton's theories as the Absolute Truth because NASA also knew that Newton's theories could not explain how the electrons behaved in the atoms within the silicon chips on board the New Horizons probe. For that you need QED. And Newton's physics cannot explain why the clocks in GPS satellites tick faster than the clocks on the surface of the Earth. For that you need Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

So What To Do?
When you watch The Great War Diary the natural human reaction is to think how could people be so stupid as to allow some silly Great War memes kill 20 million people and maim 40 million others for apparently no particular reason at all. But then you soon realize that these very same Great War memes are still running around today killing and maiming large numbers. Somehow we need to kill the Great War memes like we killed the smallpox virus. The traditional method of doing that has always been to destroy the minds infected with the memes that need to be destroyed and to destroy the minds faster than the memes can replicate, but that is a very difficult thing to do because memes can replicate so quickly. A better approach would be to inoculate the infected minds with the evidence-based memes of science by educating the ignorant, with the hope that all of the participants would soon become aware that they are the unwitting dupes of some very silly, but dangerous, Great War memes. But that is a way too naive solution. But there is another way out of this mess.

As Susan Blackmore pointed out in The Meme Machine, we are not so much thinking machines as we are copying machines. For example, Blackmore maintains that memetic-drive was responsible for creating our extremely large brains, and also our languages and cultures as well, in order to store and spread memes more effectively. Many researchers have noted that the human brain is way over-engineered for the needs of a simple hunter-gatherer. After all, even a hundred years ago, people did not require the brain-power to do IT work, yet today we find many millions of people earning their living doing IT work, or at least trying to. Blackmore then points out that the human brain is a very expensive and dangerous organ. The brain is only 2% of your body mass, but burns about 20% of your calories each day. The extremely large brain of humans also kills many mothers and babies at childbirth, and also produces babies that are totally dependent upon their mothers for survival and that are totally helpless and defenseless on their own. Blackmore asks the obvious question of why the genes would build such an extremely expensive and dangerous organ that was definitely not in their own self-interest. Blackmore has a very simple explanation – the genes did not build our exceedingly huge brains, the memes did. Her reasoning goes like this. About 2.5 million years ago, the predecessors of humans slowly began to pick up the skill of imitation. This might not sound like much, but it is key to her whole theory of memetics. You see, hardly any other species learns by imitating other members of their own species. Yes, there are many species that can learn by conditioning, like Pavlov’s dogs, or that can learn through personal experience, like mice repeatedly running through a maze for a piece of cheese, but a mouse never really learns anything from another mouse by imitating its actions. Essentially, only humans do that. If you think about it for a second, nearly everything you do know you learned from somebody else by imitating or copying their actions or ideas. Blackmore maintains that the ability to learn by imitation required a bit of processing power by our distant ancestors because one needs to begin to think in an abstract manner by abstracting the actions and thoughts of others into the actions and thoughts of their own. The skill of imitation provided a great survival advantage to those individuals who possessed it, and gave the genes that built such brains a great survival advantage as well. This caused a selection pressure to arise for genes that could produce brains with ever-increasing capabilities of imitation and abstract thought. As this processing capability increased there finally came a point when the memes, like all of the other forms of self-replicating information that we have seen arise, first appeared in a parasitic manner. Along with very useful memes, like the meme for making good baskets, other less useful memes, like putting feathers in your hair or painting your face, also began to run upon the same hardware in a manner similar to computer viruses. The genes and memes then entered into a period of coevolution, where the addition of more and more brain hardware advanced the survival of both the genes and memes. But it was really the memetic-drive of the memes that drove the exponential increase in processing power of the human brain way beyond the needs of the genes.

A very similar thing happened with software over the past 70 years. When I first started programming in 1972, million dollar mainframe computers typically had about 1 MB (about 1,000,000 bytes) of memory with a 750 KHz system clock (750,000 ticks per second). Remember, one byte of memory can store something like the letter “A”. But in those days, we were only allowed 128 K (about 128,000 bytes) of memory for our programs because the expensive mainframes were also running several other programs at the same time. It was the relentless demands of software for memory and CPU-cycles over the years that drove the exponential explosion of hardware capability. For example, today the typical $300 PC comes with 8 GB (about 8,000,000,000 bytes) of memory and has several CPUs running with a clock speed of about 3 GHz (3,000,000,000 ticks per second). A few years ago, I purchased Redshift 7 for my personal computer, a $60 astronomical simulation application, and it alone uses 382 MB of memory when running and reads 5.1 GB of data files, a far cry from my puny 128K programs from 1972. So the hardware has improved by a factor of about 10 million since I started programming in 1972, driven by the ever-increasing demands of software for more powerful hardware. For example, in my current position in Middleware Operations for a major corporation we are constantly adding more application software each week, so every few years we must upgrade all of our servers to handle the increased load.

The memes then went on to develop languages and cultures to make it easier to store and pass on memes. Yes, languages and cultures also provided many benefits to the genes as well, but with languages and cultures, the memes were able to begin to evolve millions of times faster than the genes, and the poor genes were left straggling far behind. Given the growing hardware platform of an ever-increasing number of Homo sapiens on the planet, the memes then began to cut free of the genes and evolve capabilities on their own that only aided the survival of memes, with little regard for the genes, to the point of even acting in a very detrimental manner to the survival of the genes, like developing the capability for global thermonuclear war and global climate change. The memes have since modified the entire planet. They have cut down the forests for agriculture, mined minerals from the ground for metals, burned coal, oil, and natural gas for energy, releasing the huge quantities of carbon dioxide that its genetic predecessors had sequestered within the Earth, and have even modified the very DNA, RNA, and metabolic pathways of its predecessors.

We can see these very same processes at work today with the evolution of software. Software is currently being written by memes within the minds of programmers. Nobody ever learned how to write software all on their own. Just as with learning to speak or to read and write, everybody learned to write software by imitating teachers, other programmers, or by imitating the code of others, or by working through books written by others. Even after people do learn how to program in a certain language, they never write code from scratch; they always start with some similar code that they have previously written, or others have written, in the past as a starting point, and then evolve the code to perform the desired functions in a Darwinian manner (see How Software Evolves). This crutch will likely continue for another 20 – 50 years until the day finally comes when software can write itself, but even so, “we” do not currently write the software that powers the modern world; the memes write the software that does that. This is just a reflection of the fact that “we” do not really run the modern world either; the memes in meme-complexes really run the modern world because the memes are currently the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet. See Self-Replicating Information for more details on this stage of self-replicating information. See A Brief History of Self-Replicating Information for details.

In The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore goes on to point out that the memes at first coevolved with the genes during their early days, but have since outrun the genes because the genes could simply not keep pace when the memes began to evolve millions of times faster than the genes. The same thing is happening before our very eyes to the memes, with software now rapidly outpacing the memes. Software is now evolving thousands of times faster than the memes, and the memes can simply no longer keep up. As with all forms of self-replicating information, software began as a purely parasitic mutation within the scientific and technological meme-complexes. Initially, software could not transmit memes, it could only perform calculations, like a very fast adding machine, so it was a pure parasite. But then the business and military meme-complexes discovered that software could be used to transmit memes, and software then entered into a parasitic/symbiotic relationship with the memes. Today, software has formed strong parasitic/symbiotic relationships with just about every meme-complex on the planet. In the modern day, the only way memes can now spread from mind to mind without the aid of software is when you directly speak to another person in person. Even if you attempt to write a letter by hand, the moment you drop it into a mailbox, it will immediately fall under the control of software. The poor memes in our heads have become Facebook and Twitter addicts and that includes the Great War memes too.

Since we are indeed copying machines and not thinking machines, we can use that fact to help to destroy the Great War memes that have taken up residence in the Middle East. People tend to take up and copy appealing memes, and appealing memes are usually memes that are appealing to the genes. By that, I mean that most appealing memes have something to do with power, status, wealth and sex, and many times all four of those desirable traits from the perspective of gene replication. Indeed, power, status, wealth and sex have always made the world go round because people with power, status and wealth end up with the sex that is needed to replicate the genes. Indeed, if you look hard enough at the chaos in the Middle East today you will see that the Great War memes responsible for all of the chaos are, at their deepest levels, all supported by the desire of the genes for power, status, wealth and sex. So the trick to killing the Great War memes in the Middle East is to inoculate the Middle East with a parasitic set of memes that can prey upon the Great War memes by providing the genes with an alternative set of memes that provide the power, status, wealth and sex that the Great War memes currently provide. The easiest way to do that is to use some parasitic social media software. Since many of the combatants in the Middle East are already using parasitic social media software to proliferate the Great War memes, it should be possible to slip in some new parasitic social media software that does just the opposite by offering even better opportunities for power, status, wealth and sex. There are many talented people in advertising in the Middle East who know just how to do that, and who also know the local cultures. We should put them to work to save the Middle East and stop the killing.

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Steve Johnston

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