The problem of scale

I have a whole pile of posts I want to get done.  Lot’s of thoughts swimming around in my head looking for a place to get out.  They all seem connected, but I’m not sure how.  If I try to make the connections and develop some sort of master hypothesis or commentary, I’m afraid they will never get done.  So I’m jut going to start and see how the connections develop as the come out.  One connection is clear – they are all come from the serious thinking I’ve been doing lately about where we (as a community, a nation and a world) have been, are now and are headed.  Heady stuff and I am not pretending to have a clear picture.  There are some bright spots and lots of things to be worried about.
In this post I would like to talk about the issue of scale.  We humans seem to have issues with scale.  Things that are “human scale” are manageable, but as they start to get bigger our ability to comprehend them begins to fail.  As comprehension fails, higher order functions like judgement and reason start to fall away also.  Humans just don’t grok big ideas.
A simple example: without really even thinking anyone who has attended a few days of first grade can tell you what 1+1 is.  Continue on for a few more years in schooling and higher scale problems in geometry, algebra and calculus can just as easily be solved.  However, even some of the best mathematical minds we have known have been driven mad (to point of suicide in some cases) by trying to really ponder (and prove) the concept / reality of infinity.  Check out the bios of Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing…their stories are fascinating.
How about a few examples of this scale issue for non-Math geeks.
Example one: the national debt.  Everyone who has a “conservative” friend on Facebook has seen this image or something like it:

This is an attempt to solve the scale issue associated with the federal budget and deficit spending.  Most people have a hard time comprehending what having/spending a million dollars would be like.  Few people really get what its like to have a billion dollars worth of purchasing power.  No one really gets what it takes to raise / spend a trillion dollars – that’s one million million.  So this graphic tries to scale it down to a level where people can get it by simply lopping off some zeroes.  You tell me – is it effective?  Do you grok it better in thousands than in billions and trillions?  One suggestion for whoever is making these graphics: add a line for unfunded liabilities (label it something like “College Tuition you promised your Kids”)…it would be something like $1,230,000.  Not sure that chopping off 8 zeroes helps enough really comprehending that number.
Example 2: PRISM.  This has been all over the news, and I admit that I have not been able to keep up with all of it – although I do like the “where’s Waldo” angle to the Snowden story.  One thing that has disappointed me though is the lack of any substantive discussion about whether the NSA is actually breaking the law in what they are doing.  Instead we get coverage of Senators calling Snowden a traitor (which is an interesting conflict of interest, because if he’s not it may mean that they are), stories that Putin thinks of Snowden as an “unwelcome gift”…and videos of Snowden’s girlfriend “pole dancing” (sex sells I guess).

One reason that I think more people aren’t up in arms about the clear violation of their 4th ammendment rights that PRISM represents (besides the medias lack of attention) is the issue of scale.  If PRISM was focused on a few people, it would be wrong.  “Focus” it on everyone, and somehow that’s OK – at least it’s “fair”.  The scale issue also comes into play when people think about how much data they must be collecting (is zettabyte even a real word?), leading them to conclude that they really can’t do anything with it.  Some news outlets are trying to make people understand the issue by expanding what the NSA is doing from terrorism “prevention” to other societal ills – pornography, speeding, and piracy.  I’m not sure this approach will help anyone really grok how much their rights have been violated though since they all presume to stay at the same massive scale, which is what seems to cause the mind to fog and the moral compass to go wobbly.
So, let’s try to make the issue on human scale.  Imagine that one day you get a flyer from your neighbor for free internet access through a neighborhood wide WiFi network they have setup.  You try it out, find out that its just as fast the internet access you are paying for, plus you can get on a neighborhood only chat and forum that let’s you find out who’s having a party next weekend.  So you cancel your cable and happily use the free neighborhood net.  A few months later your neighbor asks you how you and your spouse liked that best selling novel you thought you had discretely purchased.  WTF?!?!  How did he know about that.  Well it turns out that your neighbor setup the “free” WiFi network so that every purchase anyone makes from Amazon nets him a little kickback…and a report of what was purchased.  While your name wasn’t on it, he noticed that the UPS truck came to your house 2 days after the purchase showed up in his report…so he put two and two together (that’s what the NSA calls meta data analysis).  Would that be OK with you?  So why is it OK if someone you don’t know does it to everyone on the planet? (BTW, I know the Amazon affiliate program doesn’t really work this way – at least I don’t think it does anyway…)
Example 3: What we are getting ready to do in Syria.  I hope we don’t, but I think we will.  There’s plenty to read on the subject and it’s a pretty dynamic situation so I won’t replay the details here.  The short summary is that there are a group of people that are unhappy with their leaders, they got restless and then angry and are now in revolt.  We (federal we) seem to be getting ready to go in and help them out.

Another though experiment to help with scale: imagine you are watching the news one day and hear about the plight of someone living across town who’s home owners association is after them because their lawn is getting too shaggy.  If they don’t mow it in the next 24 hours, the HOA will do it for them – and send them a bill for the service.  You decide that the homeowner is being unfairly picked on so you go sneak into the HOA’s shed and remove the spark plugs and valve stems from their mower.  Are you really going to be surprised when you get arrested the next day (of course the HOA had surveillance cameras – their board president works for the NSA!)?  Even if you didn’t get caught and arrested, do you really think you did the right thing?  What business of it is yours what’s going on across town?  And did you think about the little old lady who’s grass won’t get mowed now because you broke the HOAs mower?  I realize all analogies break down (and this one may be breaking down earlier than the others), but I think it still illustrates the point: why do we (federal we) think we can get away with things that we as individuals couldn’t?
So what are we humans to do about this scale issue?  As in many things, the first step is admitting we have a problem.  From there we can start to recognize when the scale of issues is causing us to judge right and wrong differently.  And then we can try to come up with smaller, more human scale models of what is going on to make an easier judgement.  We all have different moral compasses – my true north could be off your map, so this is not about coming to the same conclusions about these large scale issues.  This is about coming to your own personal conclusion about these issues using a consistent set of rules.  The laws of nature that govern a solar systems are not that much different from the laws of nature that govern molecules.  Figure out what your laws of nature are and then apply them consistently.  For there are those that already understand this human weakness are use it against us:

in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.







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