Human beings cope best with causal black-and-white relationships: “if I eat that bright-red berry, I get sick”; “if I see a sabre-toothed tiger chasing me, I must run”; “if I have a job and a family; I will be happy”. They are much worse at understanding probabilities and weighing up opportunity cost: “red berries (and families) can either be tasty or poisonous; if I take the risk of having one at random, I need to know how debilitating the poison might be, before judging whether the potential benefit of being lucky enough to get a tasty one is worth it”.
This more nuanced view of the world requires a high level of both insight and cognitive processing, and an acceptance of uncertainty and risk. Most people can intellectually grasp the necessity of such an approach but recoil from implementing it in their daily lives. It is much simpler to operate under certainties, and most people’s daily lives are so busy that they lack the opportunity for reflection.
Modern society reinforces this intellectual laziness. We cram a vast quantity of multi-tasked activity into a day, and still feel the need for more. Adults have become infantilised, desperate for the reassurance of an umbilical connection to an omniscient and omnipresent mother, except this parental figure is now the disembodied social network of the internet, mediated via our phones and laptops, by Twitter, Facebook, WordPress and other media.
I note in passing that Mark Zuckerberg, the inventor of Facebook, has just been named Time’s Person of the Year, which reflects how pervasive his worldview of “connectivity = benefit” has become.
The similarity of our relationship to the internet to that of the child to the parent under Bowlby’s Attachment Theory and Mary Ainsworth‘s Strange Situation experiments is striking. When separated from the connection to maternal, even womb-like, presence of the internet, even adults show all the signs of a child bereft of a maternal presence: feeling somewhat lost, alone, unsettled, uncertain and ultimately glad of reconnection. Anyone who has lost their mobile phone will be familiar with this phenomenon.
This child-like regression shows that we have ceded more and more active processing of the world to intemediaries, and now expect those systems to solve our problems for us. Our willingness to take personal responsibility and balance risk against reward has diminished. Nowhere is this more striking in our collective response to the risk of terrorist atrocity. Since 9/11, there has been an implicit assumption that preventing another terrorist attack has overriding importance.
This is absurd. Terrorism is a fact of life, and its probability of occurence cannot be reduced to zero. Reducing its risk comes at a cost, both financial and societal. We recently saw this in the furore about airport security measures such as body-scanning and pat-downs. Defenders of the policy always fell back on a variant of “we must do everything we can to protect our skies” without acknowledging that this simply isn’t true. A more accurate statement would be “we must do everything we can to protect our skies, providing that doing so doesn’t damage our ability to live our lives freely any more than we as a society are willing to accept”.
In other words, when judging how much security is required, one needs to quantity the extent of the damage caused by 9/11, and compare that to the small but cumulative damage caused by irritating large numbers of passengers. Quantifying these matters is complex, and touches upon the difficulty of assigning worth to non-tangibles, something I discussed yesterday. The refrain of “if it saves one life, it’s worth it” is plainly false, as if that were true, the way to achieve it would be to ban all air travel completely.
IATA is now planning the introduction of a much more sensible, risk/reward based approach to passenger screening. It sounds a far better way to deal with the issue than existing systems, but when it goes wrong – and no system can be perfect, as the risk is always higher than zero – it will face criticism that “we didn’t do enough” and the temptation will again be to add more layers, rather than deciding what level of risk is acceptable.
Leaving air travel aside, the more fundamental point is that the best way to progress as an intelligent society would be to encourage the understanding of probability, risk and opportunity cost. Not to mention encouraging independence of thought and a willingness to take personal responsibility for one’s actions. I have my doubts as to whether a critical mass of the population will do so. As rewarding as it is, such liberty is also frightening and that may be a step too far for most.