Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Eliminating the masses

On Wed, Aug 4, 2010 at 09:21:20
Derrick asked this question:

With the rapid implementation of advanced automation, robotics and soon nanotechnologies will there still be a place for the human masses?

We have long since passed the point of sustainability, we pollute our ever shrinking supply of fresh water, deforest at accelerating rates and erode our agricultural land and every human disaster is serviced by emergency aid and the result is further breeding to add to the rescue mission next time.

For how long will the have continue to support the have not, will there still be a place for humanity's masses in the coming ages or are we in the process of eliminating ourselves?

It's unusual for me to be answering another question so quickly after posting a tentative answer (on human test tubes), but Ronny's question on Monday has put me in a mood which I'm having some difficulty shaking off.

In my answer to Ronny I said that I 'rather like looking into the abyss'. That is such a gob-smacking thing to say let alone mean. Did I mean it? Or was I just showing off? I feel as if I meant it. My mood is — quite buoyant.

How much can I do without? Work is piling up on my desk today, but I don't sense any strong ethical impulse to be getting on with it. Diogenes' question — remember Diogenes, the dog philosopher who lived in tub? — that question haunts me. I don't need any of this.

I've never had much money, but I could get by on a lot less than what I have. I don't own a car, don't go on holidays, keep one pair of shoes (whoever heard of a car, even the most expensive car, needing more than one set of tyres?). Computers would be more difficult to give up, but that wouldn't be too hard once I'd given up all that I need computers for.

Probably the hardest thing would be chocolate biscuits to have with my coffee. Or coffee — whoah, that's a thought!

OK, that's enough about me. What about the human race? What do we need? How much can we do without? Why do we need the masses?

Obviously, the world economy still requires a plentiful resource cheap labour but (as Marx allegedly foresaw) advances in technology will eventually make manual labour redundant. Imagine workforce of obedient robots who need nothing apart from a few drops of oil and a regular recharge. Well, that's pretty obvious.

Who are the 'masses'? Jose Ortega Y Gasset gives a pretty potent definition in his book Revolt of the Masses (1929). The main point to note is that one shouldn't make the mistake of identifying the masses with the 'have nots'. Ortega's typical 'mass man' is the self-satisfied bourgeois.

Get rid of them all, is the answer. Get rid of the have nots, for sure. But also get rid of the bourgeoisie. Who else? Anyone with an IQ under (hmm...) 135. That's a bit generous, I know; not enough to get into Mensa, but that's OK because we're eliminating Mensa members anyway (too smug and self-satisfied by half).

To be serious for one moment (as I'm trying to be, because it's a serious question): Here's a useful thought experiment. Imagine that human beings are the only intelligent life in the universe. I know that we're repeatedly told that the probability of alien intelligence is overwhelming — despite the complete lack of any concrete evidence — but it isn't a fact, it isn't something we know.

So, imagine we're all alone. Does that make you feel more important? Does it make you any less willing to let a few billions die? Not me. What about the survival of the human race. Surely, one would care about that. But why? Survive, for what purpose?

I don't know. That's the honest truth. I just don't know.

I can't think in such general terms. When I try, I lose all my bearings. There are persons whose survival, and happiness, I very much care about apart from my own survival and well being. Instead of starting at the 'big end' (the entire human race) and eliminating the ones whose survival doesn't seem to matter, maybe the thing to do is start at the other end, the small end, by writing a list of all those I do care about, all those who I would allow into the Ark, so to speak.

As each human being comes into focus, looks me in the eye, I feel as if I would have no choice but to let them in.

The solution to 'the world's problems' has been a topic of debate for a long while, certainly since Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population. Undoubtedly, technology must play an important part. But, as Derrick has so clearly seen, if we rely only on science and technology then there may very well come a time when human beings, or at any rate a large proportion of the human race, become simply redundant.

This isn't the place for a mealy-mouthed lecture on ethics. I parade my moral virtue for no man. So I will just say this. A heap of sand is made of individual grains. The masses are made of individual persons, and each person has a face. Whatever your ethical or political views may be, that is one fact which you should not allow yourself to forget.


  1. Ah. If you don't believe in the masses, but in the face and the individual then the thought of eliminating the masses is not a concern? Those faces you haven't seen?

  2. The perpetrators of mass extermination never see the faces, are these acts as a results of a flawed ideology, fear, greed or are the underlying causes far more sinister, are we seeing a master plan behind the atrocities of the 20th and 21st Century, a work in progress perhaps as they continue to occur.