How This Shared Dream came about: one vector
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Presentation JSAAP Futuristic Small Arms Meeting
I belong to a think tank called Sigma, and several years ago the Pentagon-related Joint Services Small Arms Project called for speakers to talk about futuristic small arms.
I happen to think that the best futuristic “small weapon” would be a weapon that would defeat the idea of war before it began, and that it has to do with education, with the ability to communicate, and with an understanding that war as we know it is futile and costly.
My talk surprised the audience, I think, but it also pleased and interested them. Near the end is the core vision that led to THIS SHARED DREAM.
Here is the talk:
Hi. I’m Kathy Goonan, a writer and an educator. Today, I’m going to talk about things that some of you know, and that some of you don’t
know, and, I hope, some things that you’ve never considered before. At the end, I’ll tie them all together in a vision that I hope some of you will be in a position to take seriously.
I grew up in Springfield, just a few miles down the road. When my mother chose our house, in 1962, she drove down to the Navy Yard, where my father was working, to see how long it would take. The Braddock Road to Springfield section of the Beltway wasn’t finished yet, but Shirley Highway still made it a breeze—it only took her ten minutes! Her only miscalculation was that she made her test drive in the middle of the day. We kids spent many traffic jams in the car, in the original mixing bowl, listening to the Joy Boys (Ed Walker and Willard Scott, the original Ronald McDonald) and chase electrons to and fro. Eventually, I got a degree in English at Virginia Tech and American Montessori Institute certification at the Montessori Institute on S St. NW, and ran my own school of 100 children, two locations, and twenty employees for ten years.
Soon after we moved into our new house, where my father still lives, my mother told me quite seriously that my father was planning on
building his own helicopter and using it to commute. That was one future that didn’t happen, but now, many new possible technologically-enabled futures are close at hand.
Our ability to manipulate and govern human behavior, motivation, and resources grows daily. Artificial DNA, enhanced communication
abilities, memory drugs, nanotechnology, and new educational strategies have the potential to change the face of war–and peace–precipitously in the next few decades. Pinpointing the biological roots of war and aggression and using unexpected strategies in a war environment, such as pheromonal or bionan manipulation, defensively or offensively, are necessary adjuncts to our long-term survival as a species.
Humans are notoriously local and historically short-sighted, which suits the conditions of our very distant past. Now, we have the
capability to have a hand in our own evolution, and this requires awareness of the possibilities, which increase daily, and some very deep thought. We haven’t really educated ourselves to these ends, and we need to formulate and implement goals that may, eventually, remove the necessity for meetings like this. I deeply respect those who defend our country and study how best to do so, and I
fully understand that there are those who would do us harm. My father, uncles, grandfather, and great-grandfather are U.S. Army Veterans. But we need to think about how to move into a new way of sharing our resources.
Because of the end of the cold war, we are seen by ourselves and by the rest of the world as the dominant world power. This means that we have an enormous responsibility to seriously consider our long-term goals for the future, which will affect the entire world, and think about how they might be achieved. Will, intent, and vision are essential if we are to positively affect the trajectory of scientific and technological advances and how they might change human nature, or enhance some aspects while suppressing others.
Nassim Taleb holds a PhD from the Wharton school of business. He is a quantitative analyst (“a brand of industrial scientist who
applies mathematical models of uncertainty to financial (or socioeconomic) data and complex financial data” p 19 BS). He has developed a theory he calls “The Black Swan,” which he applies to issues of probability, history, and investing. Here, I quote him from Forbes.com:
Before the discovery of Australia, Europeans thought that all swans were white, and it would have been considered completely unreasonable to imagine swans of any other color. The first sighting of a black swan in Australia, where black swans are, in fact, rather common, shattered that notion. The moral of this story is that there are exceptions out there, hidden away from our eyes and imagination, waiting to be discovered by complete accident. What I call a “Black Swan” is an exceptional unpredictable
event that, unlike the bird, carries a huge impact.
He adds, We truly live under the illusion of order believing that planning and forecasting are possible. 9/11, for instance, falls into the
Black Swan category.
In light of his thesis, which is basically that we should not take anything for granted but that we are evolutionally prepared to do
little else, we need to spend a lot of time now working to understand how and why unexpected events happen. Low predictability, like 9/11, means that an event will have a high impact.
As we learn more about our our brains, our minds, and our senses, and take our place in a continuum of evolution in which we share
important genes and characteristics with other animals, it’s easy to form a picture of ourselves as the most frightening animal in the forest. Our wars not only destroy one another and our fragile accomplishments, but plant and animal life and habitats. To avoid and perhaps eliminate war, we must link unrelated disciplines, inventions, technologies, and philosophies and use these linkages
in novel ways in response to the unpredictable.
Education is the most potent weapon in our arsenal. Science is constantly increasing a wealth of avenues by which humans can be enhanced, avenues that may well change what we think of as human nature.
The flip side of the use of new discoveries and technologies is that some of them lend themselves not only to positive uses, but also to
defensive or offensive uses. How can we learn to flip from one extreme to the other, as if it were some kind of Singularity?
A Singularity, in mathematical terms, is the place at which an equation reaches a space of extreme fluctuation. Technically, it is the
place that gave Edison fits, because he couldn’t find a way through it to alternating current. Socially, I hope it is the place where we abandon war for peace, for progress, for human expansion.
Putting aside the obvious reasons that nations go to war—to increase their territory, markets, and power–why does this sort of behavior,
or terrorism in general, exist?
All of us have the potential, if cornered, for instant violence in defense of ourselves and our families, particularly if our proxies—the police, our intelligence services, our politicians, or our armies—fail to do so. At our heart, each of us is the same as the most extreme
terrorist we might imagine, if put in their circumstances, and if that circumstance is framed in a way that tugs on deeply embedded cultural beliefs. Certainly, if necessary, small bands of Americans would unite for heated defense of local territory, a situation in which many people around the world find themselves right now. And for this reason, to defend ourselves against other humans who might or who will definitely do us harm, we have developed a fearful arsenal of tools with which to equip our proxies and, sometimes,
ourselves. It seems clear that these traits evolved over millions of years to facilitate survival in a world that is vastly different than the one we inhabit today. However,despite our marvelous increases in technologies, we are still the same old humans that we always have been.
For thousands of years, terrorism has been the only recourse of the powerless who have no army to represent them. Dr. William Polk, a former State Department official, points out in Violent Politics, A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War From the American Revolution To Iraq, that successful insurgencies can begin with just a small number of people. Terrorism is a means by which those with a grievance can tie up vast resources and generate fear in their perceived enemies, as when Jewish terrorists in
Palestine blew up senior British officials in a Jerusalem hotel in 1947. Guerilla warfare is the next stage. As in the American Revolution, such movements can be difficult to contain.
But what, exactly, is a baseline human?
In Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, Marc Houser explores the developmental stages we go through when developing a theory of mind—which is the understanding that most of us have that others exist, and that they have the same basic emotions and reactions that we do—and the corresponding development of ideas of fairness.
I believe that an overdeveloped idea of fairness can lead to terrorism—for instance, that idea that one’s self or group has been wronged by another, and that only violence can bring about retribution and change. Isolation of an individual, or isolation of a group within society, can foster such ideas.
The more we believe that we are the same as others, the less we are inclined to hurt them. Portraying others as subhuman gives permission to harm them. The greater our capacity for imagining the lives of others and relating them to our own, the more difficult it is to hurt them. The increasing connectivity of the world is one element that may well widen our circle of empathy as well as increase our information and knowledge in general. The less centralized anything is, the more difficult it is to destroy it. That’s why the suppression of terrorism is so difficult, and is also a good reason to equally distribute as much information, power sources, and other resources as much as possible. According to my father, who was in Germany at the time, when Roosevelt died, Germans were sure that America would leave the war because their leader was dead. Our government and country survived because our power is distributed. Germany fell because everything was concentrated in one person.
If we have images of a baseline emotionally healthy human brain, we can then use imaging to see what parts of the brain are undeveloped or damaged in criminals, schizophrenics, terrorists—who are not normal–and others who wish to do us harm. Perhaps such individuals can undergo a course of genetic therapy to restore missing or malfunctioning parts of the brain, if
criminality and terrorism are seen as a disease and therapy can be mandated by society. Perhaps brain imaging can be used in airport check-in screens to further evaluate those who might be boarding with the intent to do us harm.
Several years ago, Floyd Romesberg at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla announced that his lab had successfully created
This revolutionary breakthrough has massive application potential in almost every field. DNA is presently used to direct material
formation in true nanotech bottom-up assembly. Artificial DNA means that we will be able to widen the scope of such applications regarding speed of assembly and a vast spectrum of new materials. In medicine, this means that we may be able to develop vaccines that reliably target and disarm biological agents without debilitating side effects.
Maybe artificial DNA could be used to create an empathy virus—or, to create people with little or no compunction about killing, except
that we’ve already done that ourselves, naturally.
Another avenue of possible communication and possible manipulation is pheromones. Pheromones have mostly sexual connotations in the public mind, but they are actually used in many animals for other reasons. A pheromone and its receptors for aggression have been identified in mice. If and when these pheromones are identified in humans, it might afford a way to screen for immediate aggressive intent in screening situations. It might also afford a method for aerosol mass deliverance of a pheromonal-based chemical that could
obviate aggressive intent and thus control a large group of people.
It might be possible to develop a range of artificial pheromones that yield precise results on the battlefield when delivered via
rocket launchers. These pheromones could be released in a nanotech fog filled with artificial pheromones agents that target the pheromone receptors in our noses. If we figure out how to replicate reactions seen in animals, such artificial pheromones could trigger flight or surrender. We could possibly create a tracking device like the hawk’s eye, which can see the pheromone trail
left by mouse’s urine, to track human pheromones, or use an artificial nose for that purpose. We could also use them to promote feelings of community and connectivity. It is even possible that we could use them for very precise communications, but limit the information to those who have acutely designed receptors.
Memory drugs are presently being tested in humans. They are ostensibly for delaying senility or the progress of Alzheimer’s, but you can
easily see that once they are readily available everyone will need them, if they work, just in order to compete.
It is also possible to keep memories from being formed—which for me seems like something that is my normal baseline operation; you might see more of the manifestation of this particular skill when you ask questions at the end of this presentation. However, it is a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome. It is very, very difficult to be a warfighter. It isn’t natural to kill fellow human beings who, like you, are proxies. It causes deep psychological distress, which is one clue that perhaps we are not truly as warlike as we would like to think we are. It is only when we can send someone else to kill others that it seems like the first resort rather than the very last.
Cicil Ison, an anthropologist and Vietnam veteran, is the subject of a story that recently ran in GQ, “The Long Shadow of War.” Cicil
Ison has mentally contained a horrific image and its accompanying emotional reaction for years. He didn’t even know he had it. But the day after bombing in Iraq commenced, the memory surfaced. He had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.
Though he did not allow his description of the event to be published, its power, and the power of similar images and memories in other
soldiers, are almost literally burned into memory.
New discoveries about how memories are formed provide a basis for creating a drug that will prevent such memories from lodging in the
brain, or erase them years later. Whether or not it is ethical to do so is debatable, and is debated. Doing so could wipe out whole categories of the arts, such as the blues, if there was no one to create them out of pain and misery, and no one left to understand them
WAR AND PEACE AND WAR: THE LIFE CYCLE OF IMPERIAL NATIONS by Peter Turchin, is a fascinating overview of historical cycles of war and peace, and new theories about the causes of war. The obvious causes of territoriality, trade imbalances, and economics are given a slightly new twist in that he postulates the existence of what he calls asabiya, or social solidarity. Asabiya along cultural fault lines eventually creates new empires, and the loss of asabiya causes the downfall of empires. In our case, asabiya may be waning. If so, one cause might be the lack of good education in our country. I will cite one example, and I don’t think that it is extreme.
My father was having some medical tests done, and was wearing his WWII Veteran visor. The woman drawing blood, who, by his description, was a woman who spoke good English and had grown up and attended school locally, asked him where he fought WWII.
“In Europe,” he said.
She was puzzled. “But where was WWII?”
Now he was puzzled too. “All over the world. The whole world was at war.”
“I thought World War II was in Vietnam.”
At that point he gave up.
In a recent, fascinating book about neuroplasticity, The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge cites research suggesting that culture
is incorporated in the same way as language—during a window of time in which it is absorbed from the environment: “The discovery of the critical period became one of the most famous in biology in the second half of the twentieth century.” Actually, this was discovered in the first decade of the twentieth century by Maria Montessori, but more about that later. “Scientists soon showed that other brain systems required environmental stimuli to develop. It also seemed that each neural system had a different critical period, or window of time, during which it was especially plastic and sensitive to the environment, and during which it had rapid, formative growth. Language development, for instance, has a critical period that begins in infancy and ends between eight years and puberty. After this critical period closes, a person’s ability to learn a second language without an accent is limited. In fact, second languages learned after the critical period are not processed in the same part of the brain as the native language.”
Culture is like language in this regard. Ideas that are strongly embedded in one’s own culture, such as how women and men are regarded,
patriotic feelings about one’s own country, religious assumptions, and the minutiae that are so invisible to participants in a culture but that make a one’s trip to another country striking, are imprinted early in life. A culture that targets one’s historical oppressor might be very difficult to step outside of, just as it is difficult for us to intellectually understand that not all members of a particular race or religion share the same impulses. And it is very difficult to rationally examine one’s own culture for ethical flaws. Most Germans, during WWII, found it relatively easy, by most accounts, to participate in Hitler’s plan for genocide, because he had spent a long time
intensifying and orchestrating their emotions. What they were doing seemed right to them. The religious commandment not to kill is easily modified to thou shall not kill unless.
Dr. Doidge’s book on brain plasticity cites studies that show through brain imaging that just the process of discovering and talking
about long-suppressed events and integrating them into consciousness, which resembles the process of a nation or region discussing long-held prejudices and their deadly results, results in physical changes to the brain. Many societies, religions, and cultures have been at war with one another for centuries, and accumulated grievances demand revenge and retribution. How can we break any cycle of violence? One social mechanism for doing so is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Council, which appears to help short-circuit this cycle. But
both sides have to be so exhausted, or so abashed, that they both agree to participate fully.
The advances taking place right now in neurological research, assisted by an increasing arsenal of brain imaging techniques, are
truly stunning, and may provide us with our biggest and most positive step into the future. All we have to do is figure out how and why we learn.
The development of fMRI, which shows what’s happening in someone’s brain while thought and action are taking place, is a major tool with vast potential in the fields of psychology, education, law enforcement, and in discovering intent.
The fMRI fulfills a dream of mine. I was thinking about getting a doctorate in education solely to develop studies of its use in seeing
how well various educational strategies work, finding none that link Montessori education, or literacy programs, with imaging. Recently, I found that such studies are being done, not by educators, but by neurologists. We need to evaluate and link such studies to educational programs to create curriculums and strategies that actually work.
William Gibson said something very wise not very long ago, which is, “The future is already here. It just isn’t equally distributed.”
We now need far less land to produce food than we used to, but that it is not distributed to many who need it. Medical care is famously
not well distributed. Education is not as available as it should be, and, in many cases, is mistargeted and inadequate, thus depriving us of our most valuable resource—humans who can think, reason, communicate, and contribute to social, scientific, and technological progress.
In fact, I would go so far as to put the word “education” in quotes, because, compared to what it could be, the education available to most
of our children is not only laughable but tragic, considering what it could be and what it could do if we brought all of our resources to bear on it as if we finally understood that ignorance and lack of understanding of what humans really are—basically, plastic learning machines—and what we could be—a tremendous catapult to a marvelous future—is our real international tragedy,and the force with which we should really be at war.
I think that the replication of the state of brain plasticity that every one of us was in when we learned to walk and to talk would be absolutely marvelous. The ages at which children experience a surge of assimilation of information in developmental stages have been studied for a long time, and perhaps the type or area of brain plasticity during those stages are unique and replicable.
The advances taking place right now in neurological research, assisted by an increasing arsenal of brain imaging techniques, are
truly stunning, and may provide us with our biggest and most positive step into the future by helping us understand the human brain and how we learn.
My interest in education is twofold. First of all, we need to bring education into the twenty-first century. We now know a lot about how
children learn, and it is not by sitting in rows of desks and listening to someone talk or seeing someone write on a board. That is how they learn to obey and keep quiet. But we no longer need these schools, which were created in order to produce good factory workers. Our factories are gone, and we are wasting the precious learning time of countless children with these schools, which obviously don’t work. To use a common and easily understood example trying to teach children something when they are not in the correct sensitive period to absorb that information is just as painful for the child and the teacher as it would be for you to try to learn a foreign language as an adult.
We need to give them information when they are ready for it, not when we for reasons of convenience or tradition are ready to try and cram it down their throats. We need a population that knows how to think, how to evaluate, how to make decisions, how to delve deeply into intellectual and political problems. We need a complete reworking of our educational system. To paraphrase a recent NYT article, we need a Marshall Plan for education. We don’t necessarily need Montessori schools, but we need a curriculum and pedagogy based on science, which is what Montessori is. There is no reason why most children cannot be doing college-level work in some areas when they are fourteen or fifteen, if their early and elementary education is not neglected, as it is now.
Secondly, I think that it would be a step in the right direction if we could understand and replicate the brain plasticity of children
in adults. Part of brain plasticity is due to the fact that our neurons are wildly productive during those times, and making connections at a headlong pace. We know now that adult brains can and do grow new neurons. It would be very nice if we could nudge this process along one way or another, using stem cells, pharmaceuticals, nuero-linguistic programming, memory drugs, artificial DNA, nanotech drug-carrying robots, or any other methods we can develop. We remain programmable until we die. Several scientists have developed curricula
that help dyslexics and others challenged by their non-standard brains learn to read and perform tasks that they never thought they would be able to. Likewise, an almost complete recovery from various kinds of stroke is possible using intensive but cheap and simple therapies, which ought to be of interest to those working with our injured soldiers.
All we have to do is figure out how and why we learn. Luckily for us, a lot of this work has already been done.
In 1896, Maria Montessori graduated from the University of Rome with a medical degree, the first woman in Italy to obtain one. She became an internationally known feminist, then turned her considerable scientific talent to understanding human development. She gave us a vision of the future based on biological principles that we seem to finally be rediscovering.
She observed that children absorb information effortlessly during stages of brain development which she called sensitive periods, a
biological term already in use at the time to describe the development of other species. Using materials developed by Itard and Seguin in France for use with deaf children, she formulated an environment that she described as auto-didactic; that is, the information on how to use the materials is inherent in their design, and the materials are self-correcting. She worked with the mentally retarded in Rome, and they were able to then pass the City of Rome exams at a normal level. Montessori then wondered why expectations for normal children
were so low. She was invited to set up a school in a new housing development for factory workers; the owners were concerned because the children were parentless all day and were defacing their property. In this environment, Montessori was able to further explore and refine her scientific observations about how children learn.
I was skeptical about the claims made for Montessori education, but I also wanted to own and teach in my own school while becoming
an established writer. All parents everywhere share the desire that their children have the best possible education, and within a week of opening I had a waiting list. People were anxious to pay me for what I knew how to do. It is very unlike the practice of writing.
I found that children learn to read and understand mathematics as eagerly as they learn to walk and talk if they are in the
correct environment and if the materials are available at the right time in their development.
So here is the vision I promised at the beginning of my talk. It is pretty much my own small-arms contribution to the war on ignorance
that I think we must all be prepared to wage, using some of the technologies—available now, or soon to be available—that I have mentioned. For those of you who think that infusing children with education, empathy, and altruistic tendencies is not worth our time and tax dollars, just consider that they are the ones that will be in charge of those tax dollars when you are old—although maybe we’ll be able to avoid that particular bailiwick by changin a few little biological switches. We’ll see. They are also the people who may
avert the destruction of the United States, and set the world on a course of increasing peace, prosperity, and knowledge.
Imagine a seed, as indestructible as a soybean, but stuffed with artificial DNA, being dropped around the world in a stealth operation.
Once exposed to sun, or rain, or cold, or heat—for it will be equipped to respond and thrive in all kinds of conditions, depending on what it encounters, much like we are—it will began to grow. It might put down roots, it might convert solar energy into sugars, it might begin to produce carbon nanotubes that will, eventually, turn into a Montessori classroom in Afghanistan, in Darfur, in any American inner city, small town, or rural community.
Parents will like them, because they’ll keep children occupied. Governments will like them, for there are no politics involved in
learning the names of objects or working on one’s path to perfect pitch, although the next step, learning how to read and write, could definitely put a crimp in the long-term goals of those who would control others for their own ends. A Montessori classroom helps children focus on fine-tuning their senses, on taking care of themselves and others, and on learning the basics of reading, writing, and mathematical operations. The materials are self-explanatory. Really, they are. An ideal Montessori classroom is completely non-centralized. There is no need of a teacher, per se; children exploring the environment might encounter a button next to each exercise that creates a holographic child working on, say, matching a wide array of color chips, arranging cylinders from short to tall, or kinetically learning the phonemes of their particular written language via large sandpaper letters. The function of a teacher in a Montessori classroom is merely to connect the children to the environment, and to guide them through a continuum of experiences when they are ready; I think that some sort of tracking device that records who is working with what material and for how long and observes their choices would do just as well and could then manifest the holographic child when necessary. In a mature m classroom, the younger children observe what the older children are doing, and begin to choose more complex work when they are ready to do so. You might rightly wonder about keeping order in the classroom, but it is kind of strange, actually. Children who are working on what they, developmentally, need to learn, are focused, quiet, concentrating, and orderly. They could easily learn that when they need to run around and shout, they can just go outside. I think the main problem with such schools would be to keep adults from overrunning them.
Certainly, I can imagine fierce armies hacking at such disturbing manifestations, because it would be hard to recruit child soldiers
or make slaves of people who can read, write, and use the internet, which will be embedded in the schools. But my schools will be very difficult to destroy. They will grow back quickly. They will know how close other classrooms are, and how many are needed for the local population, so there will not be too many, or too few.
We may well be able to do the same for adults. We could set up inexpensive self-teaching modules which afford literacy, mathematics, and internet access to vast portions of the world, and help them understand that the possibilities and opportunities that we take for granted are available. If temporary brain plasticity for adults is eventually developed, so much the better. Mindful evolution seems a far better alternative than mindless conflict.
Well, that’s my small arms presentation and vision. I’m not particularly wedded to Montessori, but it seems like the very best preschool model right now. It will take all of our concentrated resources and growing knowledge to put it into effect, but I definitely have confidence that we’ll do the right thing. Maybe when the singularity that I spoke of draws near, we will have, oddly enough, a completely unexpected Black Swan—a cheap, universal, technologically enabled preschool education—to pull out of the hat and push us over the edge.