In Praise of Complexity
This is going to be what is charitably called 'a rambling essay', so let me get to my thesis right away: we need more complexity in our thinking.
I realise I'm preaching to the choir here. h2g2ers are h2g2ers because they don't settle for pushing 'Like' buttons. They don't gravitate to the soundbite answers. They aren't all about the email forward. h2g2ers know that things can get complicated. That's why we write and read Guide Entries rather than Twitter tweets. But in a world where Russian (!) politicans brag that they're 'interfering with our brains', we need to pay close attention to the kind of rhetoric that surrounds us. We need to be on the alert for the seduction of simplification. Here are a couple of examples.
I saw the tweet: 'The last thing the #Opportunity Rover sent back to #NASA in 2018 was "my battery is low and it's getting dark".' And, like every other fool on the planet, I teared up. Then I sent Robbie Stamp a Skype message:
Even I am crying, and I bleepin' well know better....
Robbie tweeted back:
Oh my goodness – that is powerful….Already constructing the thoughts about animism and loss in my head!
In case you don't know, Robbie Stamp is recognised expert on the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. He paid close attention to the worldwide reaction to the demise of NASA's brave little robot because our attitudes toward machinery is important as we go forward in an increasingly computer-driven society. Robbie doesn't want us to give up our new toys: he wants to make sure that we humans stay in control of our tools. Call him the anti-Frankenstein.
Nobody's saying we shouldn't get a bit misty-eyed about Opportunity – as long as we remember to extend our sympathy to the hundreds of scientists for whom the end of this particular space project could be a life-changing event. They've got to move on. Their teams may break up. They may lose contact with friends they've worked with for the last 15 years. We also note with pride this human accomplishment of extending our knowledge this far into outer space. It's a complex and nuanced subject. Let's keep it that way.
Another issue: remembering the horrible parts of history – which, if we're honest, is a lot of history. A short time ago, there was a push on Twitter to get new followers for the Auschwitz Memorial Museum in Poland. I signed us up: this isn't an endorsement of an organisation. I felt that we could benefit from learning more. Since then, they've provided their followers with valuable information on a dark chapter in the human story.
One thing I noticed over the weeks that I followed the Auschwitz bulletins: every time some news agency or other organisation referred to Auschwitz as a 'Polish concentration/death camp', the Auschwitz museum corrected this statement. Auschwitz wasn't a Polish camp. It was a Nazi camp built in Poland. Fair enough, I thought. That is technically correct, but why so particular? Any educated person would know what was meant. I began to suspect that there was an agenda behind the repeated corrections.
I reasoned this way: the Auschwitz Memorial Museum is in Poland. Poland's government is probably touchy on the subject of the Holocaust. This government may be in a position to limit the budget and functioning of the museum. The museum people probably go out of their way not to offend the Polish government. And yes, any educated adult could figure this out.
Today as I write this, a Twitter argument has broken out on the subject. A writer has published an op/ed piece in the Israel newspaper Ha'aretz, accusing the museum of 'rewriting history' by covering up Polish complicity in the Holocaust. There were Poles who betrayed Jews. There were Poles who killed Jews. There were probably people of every nation in Europe who killed or betrayed Jews, as well as people from those same nations who helped save them.
The Auschwitz Memorial Museum responded by blocking the account of the opinion-writer. Charges and countercharges are being tweeted out. People are lining up on both sides of the issue. Tiptoeing around Polish government sensitivities is a valid thing to notice in an academic institution. How should such issues be dealt with? It's a knotty problem. There's complexity here. It might pay to be careful about statements from that source, but is it fair to accuse the museum workers of trying to 'rewrite history'?
The point I'm making is: life isn't simple. It isn't binary, either. It's not a matter of 'NASA good, little robots cute', or 'Nazis bad, everybody else be careful how you talk about them.' If we allow our natural impatience for quick solutions to cause us to run to the end of an argument without stopping to consider all the angles, the Russians will have won.