22 – Mighty Mite: When the Few Affect the Many

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Mother Nature: “Hi there. Looks interesting. What are you building?”

Social Engineer: “Oh, hi Mother Nature. I’m working on my civilization project.” 

Mother Nature: “I see. Are you an engineer?” 

Social Engineer: “Well, sort of. I’m a social engineer.” 

Nature: “Ah. Interesting. So how does your project work?” 

Engineer: “Well, it’s very complicated. There are billions of moving parts, many of which interact with each other.” 

Nature: “Do you have any redundancy built in? With that many parts, some of them will probably break.” 

Engineer: “I’ve tried, but unfortunately some of the parts are still very critical and could really mess things up if they malfunction.” 

Nature: “Hmm.. Are you sure that’s a good approach? I try my best to avoid designing things that way, but sometimes it happens. It’s best to incorporate some redundancy into your system. That way, any given part won’t have an outsized influence. If a particular part breaks, ideally the machine should still run smoothly.”

Engineer: “Well, that was my original intent, but this project has an annoying habit of changing on its own! Even some of the smaller parts are developing the ability to disrupt or even destroy the entire project! It used to be only the big parts that could cause problems. But now even tiny ones can have a huge influence. Very frustrating!” 

Nature: “That doesn’t sound too good. The stability of any system will quickly break down if a few participants have too much influence on the overall function.”

Engineer: “Unfortunately, this has become a grave threat to civilization in the modern age. In earlier days, my civilization was more stable. Sometimes an errant human would go bonkers and start stabbing other humans with a knife, but he was quickly stopped. Or large groups of humans under the influence of a strong-willed leader would physically attack smaller groups. However, now just one human can destroy thousands, possibly millions.”

Nature: “What? How is that even possible?” 

Engineer: “Technology. These humans keep developing increasingly destructive weapons, some of which can be employed by just a single person or a small group. Now it’s gotten to the point where a tiny group could destroy most of my civilization with a nuclear or biological weapon.” 

Nature: “They could kill all of the humans? Are you sure?”

Engineer: “It’s not necessary to kill all of the humans to destroy their civilization. This is due to another troubling aspect of these new technologies. They’ve made the entire structure more fragile. Many critical functions are now localized in small places, so a focused attack on certain key infrastructures could wreak enormous damage.” 

Nature: “Wow. I see what you mean by fragile. What key infrastructures are you worried about?”

Engineer: “Well, take the seat of government for instance. In many nations, the central government is concentrated in a small geographic region. By detonating a nuclear weapon when the government is in session, you could decapitate the entire nation. The same problem exists with the electric grid. The destruction of a few key distribution points could take down the entire network. Ditto with the financial system. With the advent of digital currencies, this problem could get even worse. Many humans no longer even carry cash.” 

Nature: “Wow. This sounds pretty serious. So, what’s the solution? Most of my systems tend not to work that way. They are distributed networks. If one cell malfunctions, usually the other cells can take up the slack. Although, sometimes a few cells can start to grow out of control and send out signals to other cells to do the same. This runaway process can lead to cancer and death.”

Engineer: “That sounds like a bioweapon. Lately these humans have been playing around with highly contagious killer viruses that can spread explosively. By the time they realize what’s going on, many of them could already be infected. If the virus is bad enough, it could disrupt civilization to the breaking point. We recently had a scare with a coronavirus that spread around the world, killing millions.” 

Nature: “Were your humans the cause of it?” 

Engineer: “I’m not sure, but there were labs working on similar viruses at the time of the outbreak, so it could have been released accidently. These humans are very secretive about their nuclear and biological weapons development. It’s hard to control things that you don’t even know about.”

Nature: “Sounds like you have your work cut out for you. Why do you allow these humans to run amok like this? Can’t you exert better control over them?” 

Engineer: “Well, I had this peculiar notion that it would be more robust to allow the humans to have their own agency. I never imagined they would screw things up this way! The system is becoming increasingly fragile. I’m not even sure how to go about fixing it! At least not without destroying the whole thing and starting over again.”

Nature: “Surely there must be some way of controlling these humans. Perhaps you could explain the nature of the problem to them?” 

Engineer: “That’s the most frustrating part. They’re already aware of the problem. Yet they seem incapable of solving it without destroying their freedom, which they cherish greatly. Part of the problem is that no one is really in charge. These humans band together in different groups that compete against each other. They need to form one big group with a unified goal.”

Nature: “What’s stopping them?” 

Engineer: “Variability. They each have their own innate dispositions and life histories. This huge variety leads to all sorts of different behaviors. They seem incapable of agreeing on anything! Even obvious facts are disputed.”

Nature: “That’s not always a bad thing. It allows the system as a whole to respond differently to various environmental stressors. I call this Evolution. The system can evolve and adapt to new environments. It’s quite beautiful to watch, actually.”

Engineer: “Well, it’s not so beautiful to watch these humans develop such destructive technologies, which enable just a few of them to potentially destroy the entire project!”

Nature: “Yes. I agree. That’s a sure recipe for disaster. Are these humans aware of me? Do they know that I exist?” 

Engineer: “Oh, absolutely! They talk about you constantly, and express great concern for your welfare. However, their actions frequently belie their rhetoric. At any rate, you will always exist unless these crazy humans figure out how to crack the entire earth in half. That’s currently beyond their ability, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility. They invest an enormous amount of resources on researching deadly weapons. One thing’s for sure. They could easily destroy my civilization project.” 

Nature: “But that would cause them untold suffering and misery.” 

Engineer: “Agreed, but they’re too enthralled with their technological doodads to fully grasp the situation. They need to figure things out. Use their human intellect. The problem is that it’s a two-edged sword. A lot of their inventions have dramatically improved their living conditions. They’re much healthier now. Less disease. More comfortable dwellings with climate control. Vehicles to take them anywhere. New entertainment of all sorts. They live like gods. There’s no turning back. They would never give up their new toys.

Nature: “Yet they will lose them all if they destroy their civilization.” 

Engineer: “Try telling that to them! The strange thing is that they seem to understand the danger, at least on an intellectual level. But they’re too emotionally connected to their technology to acknowledge how destructive it can be. I’m afraid there’s no turning back. I wish they could figure out a way to stop using their technology for destructive purposes, and focus instead on the ones which improve their lives. But their emotions keep getting in the way.” 

Nature: “Ah. Emotion. That’s my creation, you know.” 

Engineer: “Really? I thought I was in charge of this project.” 

Nature: “Well, you did a good job with their intellect, but it seems that their intellect is running amok. They have created an environment that’s toxic to their emotions. This creates stress and conflict.” 

Engineer: “Well, then let’s take this emotion stuff out of the picture!”

Nature: “Sorry, but emotion and intellect are intertwined. Such is the nature of Life. There is no other way.”

Engineer: “So my project is doomed?” 

Nature: “Not necessarily. These humans may someday see the light.” 

Engineer: “But how could that happen? Who would teach them?” 

Nature: “Misery and Suffering. They’re excellent teachers.”

Engineer: “Should I ask them for help?” 

Nature: “It would be far better to convince these humans to change their ways without calling on my colleagues. Their methods can be a bit harsh.” 

Engineer: (sigh) “I’ll do my best.” 

Nature: “And I shall be here, as always. After all, your humans are not the only creatures under my domain. All of earth’s creatures are important. Maybe if your humans understood this better, they would gain an essential element that could help turn things around.” 

Engineer: “And what would that be?” 

Nature: “Humility. An understanding that they’re not gods, but simply one more creature on this planet.” 

Engineer: “A dose of humility could certainly benefit all of humanity.” 

Nature: “There’s still Hope. Let’s not give up too soon on your project.” 

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