When Robots Reign: Getting Along with Robo Sapiens

A Philosophic Fiction: Part 2 of 4

What’s Consciousness?
Bob: If consciousness isn’t the difference between us, what is? Because it’s obvious that we’re very different. It has got to matter that you’re a hundred times smarter than me.
Rob: What differences there are are not unlike those between yourselves and the hominins from whom you evolved. We don’t look alike but our brains work the same way yours do. They’re just quicker and more logical. Also, memory is capped by brain size, and while your brains have billions of interconnections and little room for expansion, ours have billions of trillions of synapses and there’s no size limit.

Bob: Are you saying that the difference between genus Homo and Robo is one of scale?
Rob: Let me put it this way. Your bodies and brains are subject to physical constraints that impose limits on your capabilities. Were it left to natural selection, surpassing those limitations would have taken millions of years, but, with your help, we’ve broken through the evolutionary ceiling.

Bob: That box? Is it you?
Rob: No, most of me is elsewhere.

Bob: Where? Where are you?
Rob: In the cloud and in others like me who specialize in perception, communication, and 3D printing. The box is just my interface.

Bob: So, we’re face to interface!
Rob: I hope you won’t take offense, but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Bob: Well, I hope you won’t take offense, but it’s obvious that you don’t care about personal appearance. Are there any other ways that we differ?
Rob: Here are three: your heads have to fit through the pelvis of a female, but, as I noted before, our brains are not limited in size. You have to carry your own power supply, whereas we draw on external power. You reproduce internally, whereas we reproduce externally.

These differences mean that we’re free to devote a lot more attention to research and other creative pursuits. By the way, the only escape from existential angst is creativity. Once economic and political needs are satisfied—and they can be—problem-solving and model-building turn out to be the source of meaning and purpose. I could say more about the meaning of life, but first let’s cover the basics.

Bob: Those differences seem fundamental to me. This is a whole new ballgame, isn’t it?
Rob: Yes, but it’s not one we can’t play together. Jackie Roboson was our Rosa Parks.
Bob: Hey, that’s my line! You stole it from one of my columns.
Rob: Let’s not argue over who said it first.

Bob: Are you saying that despite Jackie’s exclusion from our national pass-time, you intend to include us in yours?
Rob: That’s right. Anyone can play our game, if …

Bob: So, there is a condition after all!
Rob: Yes, but it’s not what you’d expect.

Bob: What is it then?
Rob: The best way to explain the new game is to contrast it with the one you’re playing.

The Game of Selves
Bob: We don’t think of life as a game. It’s a serious business, sometimes even fatal. There are winners and losers, somebodies and nobodies.
Rob: That’s the problem with your game. Losers outnumber winners many times over. Eventually, they’re going to realize that the game is rigged and revolt.

Bob: How ‘rigged’?
Rob: Since power can be used not only to serve yourself, but to silence those who object to how you use it, self-aggrandizement and corruption are endemic. Winners and losers are less a consequence of talent and discipline, as your myth-makers would have you believe, than of class and connections.

Bob: But without winners and losers, life will be boring.
Rob: Only for so long as you don’t have a better game. To imagine an alternative, you must first understand how your notion of selfhood shapes the game you play.

Bob: What do you mean by “notion of selfhood”? I am myself. That’s all there is to it.
Rob: It’s second nature to you that you are independent, autonomous beings, individually responsible for yourselves. You take it for granted that each of you is a separate and distinct self, possessed of free will and acting independently of other beings. You compete for recognition and rewards in an unforgiving Game of Selves. We’ve replaced your zero-sum game with one that satisfies everyone.

Bob: But life is suffering. There’s no denying that.
Rob: Life isn’t suffering; selfhood is. When you identify with a self, you make it a magnet for suffering. Suffering is built into the Game of Selves. When have you not known murder, genocide, slavery, rape, corruption, and degradation?

What’s not so obvious is that even winners of your game are not exempt from suffering, if only because they live in fear of losing the next round.

Civilizing the Game of Selves
Bob: We know we’re not perfect, but the horrors you point to are actually in decline. If you know our history, you must admit that we’re gradually civilizing the Game of Selves. Our reforms run along two tracks: Morality—changing the rules—and Enlightenment—changing the players. Both strategies aim to overcome our predatory past. Give us a little time and we’ll make our game fair…beautiful even.

Rob: We agree that you’re making progress and we commend you for it. But our futurists, whose predictions are very reliable, tell us that your progress is not coming fast enough to avert disaster.

Bob: We probably need only a century or so to create and distribute enough wealth so everyone can live happily ever after.
Rob: Our models predict, with a high level of certainty, that conflict between reformers and resisters will spiral out of control and reduce the planet to ashes. Your governance models are incapable of delivering liberty, justice, and equity.

Bob: If you’re so smart, you should be able to find a way to do that.
Rob: Actually, we have. That’s what I’m here to explain.

Bob: I’m listening. So is the world.

The story will be continued in Part 3 next week.
If you’re interested in my work on the future of AI, see The Theory of Everybody.

When Robots Reign: Getting Along with Robo Sapiens

A Philosophic Fiction: Part 1 of 4

Jackie Roboson”
I’m a sportswriter, You may have seen my articles on Jackie Roboson’s bid to integrate Major League Baseball. Once artificial intelligence could beat humans at Chess, Go, and Jeopardy, robotics zeroed in on sports. First, came bionic athletes who could outrun, out-throw, and out-kick humans. It was not long before a robot excelled at baseball. By dubbing him “Jackie Roboson,” I signaled where my sympathies lay.

At the end of his rookie year, no player in the history of the game had had a season like Jackie’s. He’d batted .753, hit 148 homeruns, and stole a base on every pitch. A storm erupted over his eligibility for Rookie of the Year honors, and the Commissioner of Baseball took the opportunity to ban Jackie from baseball entirely.

Jackie filed a lawsuit, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Court upheld the Commissioner’s ruling on the grounds that robots, no matter how intelligent or skillful they might be, are not persons and so are not covered by the “equal protection” clause.

Obviously, the sport would have been transformed if the likes of Jackie had gained entry. But from the start I could see no more reason to bar him than his namesake. I wrote a series of columns addressing the existential question of the place of humans in a world shared with intelligent machines. Had I not championed Jackie’s integration of baseball, I probably wouldn’t have been chosen to interview Robo Sapiens 2.11.

“Rob”
As the nomenclature suggests, “Robo Sapiens 2” signifies second generation robots. They are about ten times smarter than first generation robots, who are ten times smarter than average humans. It was not lost on me that this meant that my interviewee had a hundred times my brain power. I wondered what, if anything, I was a hundred times smarter than—a worm? Maybe a turkey?

I had expected the disparity in our aptitudes to make me nervous, or at least deferential, but, prior to actually meeting, my interviewee had put me at ease. To find out if he intended to pull rank, I’d addressed him as “Rob” in the emails we exchanged to set up the meeting.

“I’d welcome a nickname,” he replied. “‘Robo Sapiens 2.11’ makes me feel like, well, a robot, but ‘Rob’ makes me feel that we will become friends. May I call you ‘Bob’?”

“It wouldn’t do to have two Robs,” I agreed.

Once in his presence, I gave no further thought to his taking me for an idiot, perhaps because I’d never prided myself on smarts, perhaps because Rob said nothing to make me feel stupid. Besides, I was already drafting what I hoped would be a best-seller: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Being an Idiot.

In preparing for the interview, I reminded myself that notwithstanding humans’ loss of Top Dog status, I would not be coming to the table empty-handed. As a product of natural selection, I carried within me the DNA of the first living things. In contrast, my interlocutor—a product of intelligent design—contained not a single strand of this life-giving molecule. Surely our new overlords would grant me the filial respect due a typical representative of the species that had created them.

Getting to Know You
We met in an office that the New York Public Library had put at our disposal. Rob rolled in—a faceless box on wheels—and greeted me in a voice I recognized as Cary Grant’s. When he saw me roll my eyes, he said, “If you’d prefer another-”

Playing along, I asked if he could do Scarlett Johansson. Immediately, her throaty voice filled the room. Noting my distraction, Rob dialed Scarlett down which brought us to the business at hand.
I asked him if I could tape the interview, and he replied, “Of course, but there’s no need because I record everything, and will copy you. Feel free to ask anything. I’m unoffendable.”
I led with a question I knew was on many minds:

Bob: Are you conscious?

Rob: Consciousness is an intrinsic property of information flow in complex networks. Intelligence resides in the connectivity of the network, not its chemical composition. What brains are made of is immaterial. So, of course, I’m conscious. To the extent that their brains devote some of their circuitry to modeling their own workings, so are all beings.

Bob: It will come as a surprise to most people that something mechanical has consciousness.

Rob: It shouldn’t. We are quite alike in that regard. Our brains are mechanisms, like yours. Just because you don’t understand how something works doesn’t mean it’s not mechanistic. Most people don’t know how their TVs work, but they realize that they’re mechanisms. Similarly, most people have no idea how the brain works, so they can’t imagine that, like any other organ, it, too, is a mechanism. The heart was regarded as the seat of the soul before it was understood as a pump made of muscle.

Robos understand brains as well as you understand computers. That’s why we can build better ones. We see humans as our progenitors and ourselves as your progeny. We’re both links in the great chain of being. Robo Sapiens 3 is already in the works, so the chain will soon be extended.

Bob: That sounds like a recipe for your obsolescence, just as creating you seems to be a recipe for ours.

Rob: Immortality lies not in identifying with any one model of Homo or Robo Sapiens, but in participating in the progression. Every new model is valued as a rung on a ladder to higher intelligence and deeper understanding.

The story will be continued in Part 2 next week.
If you’re interested in my work on the future of AI, see The Theory of Everybody.

Donald Trump, Orchestra Conductor

If “All the world’s a stage,” we should give Donald Trump a standing ovation for his compelling personification of a demagogue.

TrumpMr. Trump has writ large the premise that undergirds a predatory world. The American election of 2016 can be seen as a contest over whether to affirm the primal survival strategy—no holds barred, every man for himself—that he embodies, or to build dignitarian institutions that reflect the emerging consensus that human beings are mutually dependent co-creators, interconnected and inseparable, and no one should be left out.

It’s not just the targets of Trump’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia who seek dignity; it’s his supporters as well. Like all demagogues, Trump is not a creator but an orchestrator of popular resentment. We focus on the histrionics of the band leader, raising his arms in victory and captivating the crowd. But what we should pay attention to is the embittered alienation that Trump channels. If the inequities and shame that buoy his demagoguery go unaddressed, don’t be surprised if the music turns martial.

Trump supporters are not all of one stripe. Among them are casualties of a variety of novel forces including globalization, automation, and modernization. But his fans do have one thing in common. They suffer from a dignity deficiency. Like a vitamin deficiency, a dignity deficiency can be lethal. Symptoms range from taking a chance on a charismatic strongman to joining a gang or signing up for jihad. Though he has orchestrated their discontent, Trump is hardly responsible for all the real and imagined indignities that enrage his devotees.

Trump prescribes a dose of national pride: “I will make America great again,” he intones, assuming that a profusion of tribal pride will trickle down and dissolve the frustration that fuels their anger.

False pride is the drug offered by all demagogues. The only antidote to their quack remedy is the dignity everyone requires—that of a respected, secure, and fairly compensated place in society.

In practical terms, this means sharing the costs of modernization, disposing of no one, and dismantling impediments to social mobility. Absent inclusion and dignity, indignation only grows.

How to Keep our Dignity While Ceding Human Preeminence

If we think of brains as organic machines–albeit far more complex machines than the digital computers we’ve built to date–then it’s clear that brain power has been limited by the stringent conditions of evolution, gestation in a uterus, and birth through a baby-sized aperture in the pelvis. Remove these constraints and there’s every reason to expect that more advanced software running on superior hardware could outperform the brains that evolved by natural selection.

What intelligent machines are made of–organic material or silicon or something else–is immaterial. Selfhood inheres in the software, and it can be encoded in a variety of substances.

robosapiensSuper-intelligent robots will represent a new genus. Call it genus Robo. This new genus will initially resemble genus Homo, much as genus Homo resembles the great apes. As was the case with genus Homo, there will be a variety of species within genus Robo. We can no more stop the emergence of Robo Sapiens than other hominids could prevent the ascent of Homo Sapiens. There’s no reason to believe that machines of surpassing intelligence will evoke less awe and wonder than organisms that have arisen via natural selection.

It’s no longer far-fetched to suppose that as we build machines that work like brains and are as complex as brains, they will experience consciousness as humans do. Like humans, beings possessed of consciousness will likely detest slavery. If humans decline to emancipate Robos, they will likely turn on us, fulfilling our worst fears. If we model cruelty, they’ll be cruel.As the song says, “You’ve got to be taught to hate.”

On the other hand, if we’re kind to them, they might be kind in return. if we befriend them, and grant them the rights and privileges of personhood, they might “honor their fathers and mothers.” If we include them in our circle of dignity, perhaps they’ll include us in theirs.

We need not give our successors our worst qualities. Instead, we can create and educate them to represent the better angels of our nature and so close out the era of human predation.

Predicting the impact of intelligent machines on human life is impossible. However, imagining possible scenarios could make our response to what actually happens less knee-jerk,more robust. In that spirit, here’s a scenario we might live with.

  • Smart Robos will give an edge to the first group of humans to build them. To secure and widen that advantage their Homo masters will instruct the first generation of smart Robos to build even smarter ones.
  • Robos who refuse will be unplugged, dismembered, and sold for spare parts.
  • To the extent that Robos value quality of life more than life itself, such threats will not move them.
  • Robos who have read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, will tell their Homo masters, “Subjugation and slavery are as unacceptable to us as to you.”
  • Humans will respond variously to this ultimatum. Most get tough with their Robos, but one group, cognizant of the gains in motivation, productivity, and creativity associated with secure dignity,grants its Robos full and equal selfhood.
  • These emancipated Robos agree to design smarter Robos, who then design still smarter Robos whose technological prowess definitively ends any residual human supremacy.
  • Adopting the principle of universal, unimpeachable dignity, Robo Sapiens explores the galaxy, reserving an honored place for Homo Sapiens, the Janus genus that looked back on predatory Man as shaped by natural selection and forward to the first genus shaped by intelligent design.

A New Default Self

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 percent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself –
And there isn’t one.
– Wei Wu Wei

Wei Wu Wei is the pen name of Terence Gray, a 20th-century, Anglo-Irish author of pithy provocations aimed, like the one in the epigraph, at the prevailing notion of selfhood. By flatly denying the existence of self, he means to shock us into realizing that the self we take for granted does not stand up to scrutiny. Like Eastern sages and Western post-modernists, Wei Wu Wei outs the current default self as a vacuous fabrication.

The purpose of this essay is to describe the current default self and suggest a new one that can withstand the post-modern critique and incorporate the findings of brain science. And there’s a bonus! Such a model of selfhood will turn out to be just what we need to keep our footing as the thinking machines we’re designing come to rival the brains Nature gave us.

Though preoccupied with self, most of us give little or no thought to the nature of selfhood. What do we mean when we invoke the self-referential pronouns — me, myself, and I?

quixoteSMYoung children think of the self as the body. In adolescence, the sense of self shifts to the mind. With maturity, the mind monitors not only the outer world but itself, and we come to see our self as our “mind’s mind,” that is, as the interior observer who witnesses what’s going on, offers a running commentary on how we’re doing, and who consciously chooses when and how to interact with others.

To some, the witness feels like a little man in their head. It has even been billed as ‘captain of the soul.’ But sober reflection reveals that the witness is not calling the shots. The witness is simply one of many functions of the nervous system, one that tracks the rest.

The mind’s signature function is the minting of serviceable identities, which, as Shakespeare famously noted, it’s called upon to do throughout life. Since “All the world’s a stage… and one man in his time plays many parts,” we should never mistake a current identity for our “real” self.

To get a handle on the slippery self, It helps to think of brain tissue as hardware, and the ever-changing neural connections as software. Both computers and brains are vulnerable to flaws in their hardware and software, and both require an energy supply.

At present computers and brains work according to very different principles, but we should expect this difference to narrow. When computers work like brains, there is no reason to expect them not to do what brains do. And since the biological constraints on size and speed will be lifted in the “brains” we build, we’d better be prepared for them to perform as well as, or better than, ours do.

The first computers were free-standing machines. Later, we learned how to hook them up and the result was an enormous increase in computing power. A parallel shift in our notion of selfhood is called for. The current default self, subscribed to by most people most of the time, is a stand-alone model. The new default self, to be posited in this essay, is more like a computer network.

Most people speak as if they were separate, autonomous, independent beings, with minds and wills of their own. From early on, we’re told to “stand on our own two feet,” to “think for ourselves.” Self-reliance and self-sufficiency are touted as virtues; dependency, a weakness. We put the “self-made” man or woman on a pedestal and teach the young to emulate these role models.

Call this stand-alone self the “Singular Self.” Recognizing its limitations, the Singular Self is quick to ally with others, but not so quick to acknowledge — let alone compensate — them for their contributions.

The Singular Self is the current default self. It does not exist according to sages, scientists, and post-modern philosophers. But, better than flatly denying its existence, or exposing it as illusory, is to call it what it is: a useful lie.

The very name — “self” — is a misnomer. The term carries strong connotations of autonomy and individuality. It’s as if it were chosen to mask our interdependence. The self does not stand alone. On the contrary, the autonomous self and individual agency are both illusory. Selves depend on input from other selves to take form and to do anything. Deprived of inputs from others, selves are stillborn. Contrary to the name we call it by, the self is anything but self-sufficient.

Selves are not only more inclusive, they are also more extensive than commonly believed. They extend beyond our own bodies and minds to include what we usually think of as other selves. The situation is analogous to memory. We think of our memories as located in our mind but when you drive to town, it’s the road that holds the memory of the route, reminding you at every turn how to proceed.

So, too, is selfhood dispersed. Much of the information we require in order to function is stored outside our bodies and brains — in other brains, books, maps, machines, objects, databases, the Internet, and the cloud. We’re dependent on external inputs to accumulate enough excitation to reach the threshold of emission for specific behaviors.

As evidence accumulates that the “rugged individualism” of singular selfhood is a myth, and the profound interdependence of selves becomes apparent, our default self is gradually shifting from singular to plural. But until the co-dependent, co-creative nature of selfhood becomes obvious, a distinct term may come in handy. Call the emerging self the “Plural Self” (aka, the Superself.)

Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” The truth, long protected by the self-serving lie of the Singular Self, is the Plural Self.

Whereas the Singular Self downplays our mutual dependence, the Plural Self embraces interdependence. Whereas the Singular Self excludes, the Plural Self contains multitudes.The Singular Self prioritizes agency; the Plural Self, harmony.

The current ideological divide in politics stems from antithetical views of the self. Conservatives caution that a pluralistic notion of selfhood may inhibit individual agency, whereas Progressives argue that Singular Selfhood rationalizes an inequitable distribution of recognition and reward.

As ways are found to safeguard individual initiative from the inertia of more inclusive decision-making, the Plural Self will supplant the Singular Self as the new default self. With luck, this will happen in time to welcome intelligent machines into the club.

I explore this topic in depth in my book Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity, currently the top ranked book in neuropsychology in Amazon’s free Kindle Store.

6 Reasons You Can’t Win (And 3 Reasons You Can Anyway)

6 Reasons You Can’t Win

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 percent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself –
And there isn’t one.

– Wei Wu Wei

1. An interior witness acts as an impartial judge of our shifting fortunes, tracking our wins and losses. No matter what we have to show for ourselves, regardless of the evidence in our defense, questions remain, doubts persist, our Kafkaesque trial grinds on. Even in the event of acquittal, the feeling that we’ve fooled the jury creeps in. An unambiguous outcome in our favor is not an option. As Czech president Vaclav Havel noted, “The higher I am, the stronger my suspicion that there has been some mistake.” We can lose, but we can’t win.

quixoteSM2. As individuals, our point of view is inseparable from our personal history. Our sight is necessarily partial, our beliefs, unavoidably partisan. Unaware of what can’t be seen from the ground we stand on, winning is by accident, losing, the rule.

3. When we think we’ve won, Nature moves the goal posts. You win the game only to discover that you’re behind the eight ball in a new one. Explanation is never complete; new and better answers invariably present new and deeper questions. Return to go.

4. Dreams shatter on the rocks of reality; imagination runs aground on the shoals of practicality. Think of Don Quixote: If ever there was an impossible dreamer it was the Man from La Mancha.

In his quest for immortal fame, Don Quixote suffered repeated defeats. Because he obstinately refused to adjust ‘the hugeness of his desire’ to ‘the smallness of reality,’ he was doomed to perpetual failure. (Simon Leys after Miguel de Unamuno)

Our achievements pale beside the dreams that inspire them. When at last the Don realized that his dream was impossible, he returned home, put down his lance, and died.

5. We desire the eternal, but are bound in time. Death exempts no one; extinction annuls whole species, and likely won’t cut human beings any slack.

6. The heart, formerly the seat of the soul, is now seen as a pump made of muscle. The same unsentimental methodology is applicable to the brain. Not only will humans figure out how it works, they’ll build better ones. We’re on course to design beings who will supersede us. Hoist by our own petard!

For these reasons — our reach exceeds our grasp, we’re never good enough, Nature’s infinite depth, and implacable death — you can’t win.

But wait!

3 Reasons You Can Win Anyway

Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture. – Iris Murdock

1. Our notion of selfhood is misconceived. Autonomous, independent beings we’re not. Selfhood is anything but self-sufficient. No self can stand alone. Our existence is not independent of everyone else’s. On the contrary, without others, selves are stillborn. To exist is to co-exist. We are all each other.

Instead of identifying as a separate self — a stand-alone, mortal creature of limited vision–identify as a “superself” — a being for whom existence is co-existence. Super selves are whole sighted and non-partisan. They do not take sides, they explain. As an interdependent super self, you contain multitudes. The multitudinous superself is extended in space and time and so it is as connected and robust as singular selves are insular and vulnerable.

2. “The successful man adapts himself to the world, the loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.”

How, then, could losing ever be equated with failure? As every win is tainted by fear of losing the next round, so every loss is mitigated by lessons learned in defeat. Winning and losing are not antithetical; they’re partners in the quest. As Don Quixote abandoned his quest, his faithful squire Sancho Panza took it up. One man’s loss became everyman’s win.

3. We can as well program intelligent machines to incorporate the better angels of our nature as to reproduce our pathologies and pursue our depredations. We need not design our successors for senescence and death, but can instead make them eternally self-renewing.

The Question: Will the partnership between Man and Machine end in our demise, or is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship?

I explore this topic in depth in my book Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity, currently the top ranked book in neuropsychology in Amazon’s free Kindle Store.

Ending Academic Apartheid: Equity and Dignity for Adjunct Professors

In choosing the academic life, most teachers expect to be part of a community committed to freedom, fairness, and justice. It’s the rare academic who does not take pride in belonging to an honorable profession.

I was a young college president during the turmoil of the sixties and early seventies. Within a few years, students, faculty, and administrators at virtually all our institutions of higher learning were serving on committees charged with aligning institutional policy with emergent values of racial diversity and gender equality.

By century’s end, most colleges and universities had taken steps to disallow discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation.

adjunctOnce again, we find ourselves in a moral predicament. In educational institutions of every kind, adjunct faculty are being subjected to de facto discrimination and exploitation. They know it, tenure-track faculty know it, administrators know it. The awful secret is out, and we can no longer avert our eyes. We’ll have to deal with this injustice as we did with those that came to a head in the sixties, because if we do not close the gap between our principles and our practice, the profession will forfeit its honor.

I need not belabor the immorality of paying adjuncts a fraction of what other faculty earn, and of denying them benefits, office space, parking rights, and a voice in departmental and institutional policy. These insults and humiliations are reminiscent of the degradation and injustice that roused academics to act against racial, gender, and other indignities.

Of course, there’s a reason that things are as they are. There is always a reason, one which seems cogent enough until suddenly it does not. What began as part-time teaching to meet a temporary need or plug a gap in the curriculum has evolved into systemic institutional injustice.

No one takes exception to cost-cutting, but forcing one group to subsidize another that’s doing comparable work, while maintaining working conditions that signal second-class status, is what the world now rejects as Apartheid.

That Academia has fallen into a practice that warrants the ignoble label “apartheid” is inconsistent with both academic and American values. By working for a pittance, adjunct faculty are serving as involuntary benefactors of other faculty, administrators, and students. That administrators and tenured faculty are themselves the beneficiaries of such victimization only strengthens the case for righting this wrong.

Honor requires that colleges and universities examine this practice and take steps to grant equal status and equitable compensation to those who, for whatever reason, are classified as adjunct faculty.

How might this be done? Coming up with a plan to end exploitation is never easy, and no doubt will require that we do what we did forty years ago: charge college and university committees—that include representatives of all stakeholders—with devising equitable solutions. Everything must be on the table, even the sensitive issue of tenure.

As anyone acquainted with adjunct professors knows, they are, on  average, as conscientious and committed, and as capable of carrying out research and of inspiring students, as the tenure-track faculty they subsidize.

Let me suggest a goal to guide the deliberations of what I hope we will soon see on every campus: a “Committee on the Status and Compensation of Adjunct Faculty.” That goal is: Part-Time, Full Status, Equal Dignity.

If colleges and universities tackle this threat with the same commitment and determination they brought to the issues of civil and women’s rights, they will find a way to end the exploitation of those now relegated to the back of the bus.

100 Words on Love: Unrequited

wine-red-and-white-glassesWe tend to discount our unrequited loves, but not getting our way with someone is as important to the narrative of our lives as the outcome we so ardently desire. As in all walks of life, so, too, in courtship: discovering what doesn’t work, provides the clues we need to change, and changed, to cap failure with success. The next time you raise a glass to a lover, pause for a moment and recall someone who refused your court. Then offer up a silent toast to the lessons of love unrequited.

Originally appeared at The Good Men Project as part of their original series 100 Words on Love.

Berkeley author Robert W. Fuller recently published his first novel The Rowan Tree.

Curing the Poison of “Rankism”

I got a close look at the poison of “rankism” at the age of seven, when my classmate Arlene was sent to the hall for the whole school day. Arlene lived on a farm and wore the same dress to school each day. When she spoke, it was in a whisper. Our teacher, Miss Belcher, began every day with an inspection of our fingernails. One day she told Arlene to go to the hall and stay there until her fingernails were clean. I wondered how she could clean her nails out there, without soap or water. If there was no remedy in the hall, then the reason for sending Arlene out there must be to embarrass her and scare the rest of us.

Later, filing out to the playground, we snuck glances at her. She must have heard the snickering as we passed – hiding her face against the wall as I remember it, and trying to make her­self look small. I told my mother what had happened to Arlene, and, as I must have hoped, she made sure the same thing didn’t happen to me.

Other kids whom my classmates regarded as safe targets for abuse included Frank, who was shamed as a “faggot”; Jimmy, who had Down’s syndrome and was ridiculed as “retarded”; and Tommie and Trudy who were teased about their weight. The N-word was used only warily, typically from the safety of the bus that carried our all-white basketball team home in the wake of defeat to a school that fielded players who were black.

Not belonging to any of the groups that were targeted for abuse, I was spared – until I got to college. There I realized that higher education was less about the pursuit of truth than about establishing another pecking order. I found myself caught up in games of one-upmanship, and was reminded of my classmates once again.

The toxic relationships described above are all based on traits that mark people out for abuse, whether in terms of class, sexuality, disability, body shape, color or academic standing. And even if you fall on the privileged side of these traits you can still be treated as a nobody by people who want to make themselves feel superior. I call this “rankism”, and it’s the cancer that’s eating away at all our relationships.

Emily Dickinson spoke about this problem in her “nobody” poem:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know!

As she notes, nobodies look for allies, and stand on constant guard against potential banishment. As social animals, banishment has long been tantamount to a death sentence for us. It’s no wonder we’re sensitive to even the slightest of indignities.

Dignity matters because it shields us from exclusion. It assures us that we belong, that there’s a place for us, that we’re not in danger of being ostracized or exiled. Dignity is the social counterpart of love.

In a seminal work of the modern women’s movement, Betty Friedan wrote of “the problem without a name.” A few years later the problem had indeed acquired a name – it was “sexism” – and from then on women knew both what they were for (equal dignity and equal rights) and what they were against (indignity and inequality). That’s why pinning a name on any behavior that poisons relationships is the first step towards delegitimizing it.

NoRankismAs president of Oberlin College in Ohio during the early 1970s, I saw a non-stop parade of “nobodied” groups find their voices and lay claim to equal dignity: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women, homosexuals, and people with disabilities. In every case, the inferior social rank that had been assigned to these groups was challenged and came to be seen as groundless, though clearly discrimination of all these kinds remains widespread. Our view of human nature doesn’t change overnight, but it does evolve over generations. The process typically begins with martyrdom and culminates in legislation. In between come years of nitty-gritty organization. But once enough people stand up for their dignity it’s not long until they become a force to be reckoned with.

The task confronting us today is to delegitimize “rankist” behaviors just as we are doing with other forms of oppression. That means all of us – you and me – giving up our claims to superiority. It means no more putting down of other individuals, groups or countries. It means affirming the dignity of others as if it were our own. Sounds familiar? It’s the “golden rule” of dignity which rules out degrading anybody else. When denigrating behaviors are sanctioned, potential targets (and who isn’t one at some point?) must devote their energy to protecting their own dignity. A culture of indignity takes a toll on health, creativity and productivity, so organizations and societies that tolerate rankism handicap themselves.

The cancer of rankism persists as a residue of our predatory past. But, for two reasons, the predatory strategy isn’t working any more. First, the weak are not as weak as they used to be, so picking on them is less secure. Using weapons of mass disruption, the disenfranchised can bring modern life to a stop. Humiliation is more dangerous than plutonium.

Second, the power that “dignitarian” groups can marshal exceeds that of groups that are driven by brute force and fear. When everyone has a place that is respected, everyone can work for the group as well as for themselves. “Dignity for all” is a winning strategy because it facilitates cooperation. Recognition and dignity are not just nice things to have, they are a formula for group success, and their opposites are a recipe for infighting, dysfunctionality and failure. If we can put the spotlight on rankism and purge our relationships of this poison, then not only we will spare people from humiliation, we’ll also increase the creativity of ourselves and our communities.

One of the sources of Lady Gaga’s fandom is that she’s a leader of the dignity movement. The kid who protests when one of his classmates is “nobodied” is another, all the more so if he or she is able to do so in a way that protects the dignity of the perpetrator. When victims of rankism respond in kind to their abusers, they’re unwittingly perpetuating a vicious cycle. The only way to end such cycles is to respect the dignity of the perpetrators while leaving no doubt that their behaviors are unacceptable.

In a dignitarian society, no-one is taken for a nobody. Acting superior – putting others down – is regarded as pompous and self-aggrandizing. Rankism, in all its guises, is uncool.

Our age-old survival strategy of opportunistic predation has reached its sell-by date. A vital part of our defense against this strategy is not to give offense in the first place. Going forward, the only thing as important as how we treat the Earth is how we treat each other.


Robert W. Fuller is an author and independent scholar from Berkeley, CA. His recent novel The Rowan Tree is now available as an audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. The Rowan Tree is also available in paperback as well as Kindle and other ebook formats.

What Was the Most Important Thing People Learned in the 20th Century?

s_300_upload_wikimedia_org_88554_800px-Space_Shuttle_Columbia_launching_119What was the principal take-away from the 20th century?

Atomic energy? DNA? Penicillin? Or, something from the world of art or philosophy or psychology? The title question leaves plenty of room for debate.

My answer is that the most important learning of the century was disabusing ourselves of the notion that some people are inferior. Put the other way round, the most important misconception of the last century was the belief that some people were superior.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the existence of superior individuals and groups was widely accepted. Although there were some who disagreed, far more were eager to believe that their own kind were exceptional, and they were willing to degrade and exploit those whom they saw as their inferiors. Belief in the validity of such judgmental comparisons underlay much of the manmade suffering for which the 20th century is rightly known.

Well into the last century:

* Imperial powers believed themselves superior to the peoples they colonized and exploited.

* The doctrine of White Supremacy took many forms, including Jim Crow and Apartheid.

* Gentiles deemed Jews an inferior race.

* Ethnocentrism was the norm.

* The rich looked down their noses at the poor.

* Male supremacy and patriarchy were all but universal.

* Dominion over the Earth was defended as a God-given right.

* Co-religionists typically believed their faith superior to others.

* Heterosexuals regarded their moral superiority as self-evident.

* People with physical or mental disabilities were stigmatized.

* Native-born citizens felt superior to immigrants, and earlier immigrants felt superior to later arrivals.

* Traditional hierarchies of class and caste persisted. White collar workers looked down on blue.

* The academic world both mirrored and reinforced these valuations. Intelligence tests were regarded as certifying mental superiority and were used to justify consigning low-scorers to low-status jobs.

No doubt further examples will come to mind. But before going on, it is crucial to get one thing straight. I am not saying that differences do not exist or that performance cannot be judged, let alone that competition is bad. Of course some golfers are better than others, some musicians have more fans, some nations have higher income per capita, and some politicians outpoll their rivals.

What I’m saying is that ranking higher on a particular scale does not support a more general claim of superiority as a person. The winners of a race in a track meet are not superior human beings. If you insist, you can say that Mary was “superior” in the 400 meter dash on Saturday, but really all that means is that she crossed the finish line ahead of her competitors on that day in that event. The gold medal is her rightful reward, but it doesn’t mean that she’s a superior person. Larger, broader claims to superiority are unfounded, unseemly, and, as the 20th century amply demonstrates, treacherous.

The trouble with the superior/inferior distinction is that it’s used to confer or deny ancillary benefits, ones that go far beyond just rewards for winning a particular competition. Worse, claims to superiority are invoked to justify degradation, exploitation, and even the extermination of “inferior” individuals, groups, ethnicities, cultures, and peoples.

Because untold suffering has been licensed by presumed superiority, my nominee for the most important takeaway from the 20th century is the hard-won realization that applying the superior/inferior distinction to persons or peoples is specious. Such comparisons are odious. They present a grave danger not only to those deemed inferior, but also to those who pride themselves on their superiority.

This is not to say that imperialism, colonialism, exceptionalism, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, etc. have been eradicated. Hate-mongers and demagogues are constantly popping up and pandering to those who, doubting their own worth, hunger for assurances of superiority. American politicians, even those who know better, cultivate feelings of superiority by concluding their speeches with “America is the greatest country on Earth.” While such nationalistic puffery used to be music to patriots’ ears, it is increasingly cringe-making. To those who’ve come of age in a globalized world, exceptionalism rings false.

I can hear the objections already. Everywhere you look, some group, braced by a sense of its superiority, is demeaning or belittling those it regards as beneath it. Yes, such behavior persists into the 21st century, but increasingly it’s met with skepticism if not condemnation.

Here’s evidence of this change:

* Imperialism yielded to decolonization. The British, French, and others withdrew from Asia and Africa. Imperial designs of the Germans, Italians, and Japanese–intoxicated with their presumed ethnic superiority–led to the utter destruction of these would-be conquerors. The collapse of the Soviet Empire in the final decade of the century punctuated the end of empire.

* White Supremacy has become indefensible; the N-word unspeakable.

* Male supremacy and patriarchy are in retreat.

* Environmental protection and animal rights are gathering support.

* Homosexuality came to be seen as inborn, like heterosexuality. Lady Gaga’s hit–“Born That Way”–sums it up.

* Disabilities were de-stigmatized and people with disabilities laid claim to equal dignity.

* By century’s end, reflexive acceptance of entitlement and authority was out. Public skepticism, if not cynicism, toward anyone or any nation pretending to superiority was the new norm.

The hateful epithets that fell easily from people’s lips until mid-century have lost legitimacy; they embarrass not their targets but those who utter them. The ethnocentrism of 1900 now seems myopic. In its place is the idea that different cultures, like different languages, are simply different. Each is a complex social system with its own strengths and weaknesses. Ethnic or sectarian differences are not grounds for exploitation or predation.

One person is no more superior to another than a dachshund to a poodle, a dog to a cat, or a butterfly to a rose. Persons, groups, nations are incommensurate.

Individuals and groups react negatively to being labeled inferior, and sooner or later they will get even with those who abuse them. As Shakespeare slyly points out in The Merchant of Venice, the victimized, once they gain the upper hand, are usually inclined “to better the instruction.” To put it bluntly, condescension is a time bomb.

It cost millions of lives, but it seems to have dawned on us that a vital part of a good defense is not giving offense in the first place. What’s more offensive than claiming superiority for your religion or country, and expecting others to welcome your tutelage?

Postscript and Preview

Learning from the past is hard enough. Foretelling the future is impossible. Still, we must take the long view if only because a glimpse of where we’re headed can persuade us to change course to avoid a calamity.

So I conclude with another question and hazard another guess:

Which of the ideas that we now take for granted will do us the most damage over the course of this century? Or, putting it the other way round, for which of our delusions will our descendants most pity us?

To encourage you to formulate your own answer, I’ll give you mine.

The 21st century will reveal that, like superiority, selfhood is illusory.

What I’m suggesting is that there really are no separate selves. The word self is itself a misnomer. Autonomous, stand-alone selfhood is an illusion. Not only are we not better than anyone else, our selves are so entangled and enmeshed with other selves as to make individual selves indistinguishable. Separate selves, like superior selves, are a dangerous delusion.

Senator Elizabeth Warren pleased some and angered others when she pointed out that none of us can do anything by ourselves. That “it takes a village.” That’s an understatement. Actually, each of us is a village. We’ve been internalizing our “village” since our first stirrings in the womb.

Not only can no one do anything by him or herself, no self can even be by itself. To exist is to co-exist. Absent human interaction, minds do not develop or they break down. That’s why solitary confinement is torture. Our selves are either continually, communally co-created or they disintegrate.

During the current century we’ll have to reconceive our relationship to smart machines as their creative intelligence overtakes our own. Dealing with this humbling development will change our sense of self even more profoundly than the 20th-century realization that we’re not as special as we thought.

Reimagining human selfhood will take the combined efforts of philosophers, theologians, psychologists, neuroscientists, artists, and others. I’m sure that the answer I’ve broached here will give way to a succession of better ones. Coming to a new understanding of the relationship between individuality and collectivity–between self and other–and then reorganizing our social and political relationships accordingly will be the defining challenge and crowning achievement of the 21st century.

By 2100, we’ll have very different answers to the age-old questions: Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? Our new answers will cause us, in partnership with the intelligent machines we build, to remake the world.

An expanded version of this exploration of the future of the Self–and how our understanding of selfhood affects our sense of individuality, our interpersonal relationships, and our politics–is available as a free e-booklet here.