1.03.2009

The Next Big Thing Might Not be What You Expected

The Edge Annual Question has stimulated Sam Harris to propose reliable lie detection as a something that would change society. He is entirely correct. But I would like to point out something that may adulterate the overwhelming joy, should it come to pass. I'm not taking issue with Harris. Far from it.

We all understand the concept of social compacts because we are the "law-abiding" and the "good" citizens. The last eight years of extreme conservative rule making should make it clear that there are things the American People hold dear. The "potential for human life" is one of them. Another is our duty to invade another country and change things if we suppose our friends are not being treated right. Harris couches it in terms of tension between absolute morality and moral dilemma.

Absolute standards may label a thief as a bad person. A burglar may not subscribe to the complete social compact as understood by your average minister, but he wouldn't necessarily hurt you on purpose. Likewise, I may not subscribe to the concept that human life begins at the time of fertilization.

Harris imagines it happening thus:
Well-intentioned people would happily pass between zones of obligatory candor, and these transitions will cease to be remarkable. Just as we’ve come to expect that many public spaces will be free of nudity, sex, loud swearing, and cigarette smoke—and now think nothing of the behavioral changes demanded of us whenever we leave the privacy of our homes—we may come to expect that certain places and occasions will require scrupulous truth-telling. Most of us will no more feel deprived of the freedom (to) lie during a press conference or a job interview than we currently feel deprived of the freedom to remove our pants in a restaurant.
What if there is a location-dependent social compact where it is acceptable to smoke or remove your pants? What happens when you leave the area? Do you magically change from being good to being bad?

Harris suggests in a presentation at the Salk Institute that objective measurement is a solution. I agree.

The future might be *squirmy*.