Monthly Archives: November 2012

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Lord Rees on the risks of connectedness

On Friday I was lucky enough to see Martin, Lord Rees, Baron of Ludlow and Astronomer Royal, speak at Sydney University. I asked a question after the lecture, and Rees’s response was unexpected and interesting.

Rees had talked about how he is a technological optimist, but political pessimist. That is, he’s optimistic that science and technology will answer questions and produce solutions to the critical problems humanity will face over the next century as we overreach our planet’s resources. But he’s pessimistic that large groups of people and their representatives will act appropriately to implement the solutions, or even just refrain from directly causing a massive disaster.

So I asked what humans could to today to help ensure that societies and politicians in the future will take the right actions.

I’ll confess I had already thought about the answer I was looking for while listening to his lecture, a product of both what he said and my own recent musings. I was expecting something about widening the availability and understanding of the knowledge that scientific endeavour is providing – informing the masses – and perhaps a dash of increasing connectedness between humans over the globe: improving the cohesion in our global village, our sense of shared fate, even increasing empathy for our fellows.

Instead, after noting that he was far from alone in his political pessimism, Lord Rees suggested acting to minimise the risks of a highly networked society. When humans are so tightly connected in such complex, fragile systems, the impact of small mistakes or malicious deeds can be great. What will happen, for example, when biological viruses are as easy to create as their computer kin? Many humans showed a great desire to unleash computer viruses just because they could. In the global village, the village idiot has global reach. Our tight interconnectedness is dangerous.

The global economy and resource networks are similarly complex, fragile systems that we are far from fully understanding (and probably never will). So while I was going for greater interconnectedness as a gain, Rees is more keenly aware of the risks. Though I’m not sure he would actually disagree with the view I had formed: he happened to mention Facebook and thinks that it’s beneficial, privacy erosion and all. This social connectedness means that we are watching each other, humans paying attention to our friends’ and relatives’ behaviour. It’s harder to go rogue when your social network will notice and, likely, try to pull you back. And, I think, less likely, when such easy social connections increase our sense of belonging to a community, of being one of a tribe.

UPDATE: a video of Rees’s lecture is now available on the Sydney Ideas site.