Search This Blog

Friday, 10 December 2010

The Secrecy Dilemma

In 1971, as a result of publishing the Pentagon Papers, an injunction was placed on The New York Times. This was the Nixon administration’s attempt to quiet The New York Times and claim dominance in censure over the press. Essentially, the executive authority was violating the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which says:

“The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments, and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.

The New York Times Co. versus the United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971) was argued before the Supreme Court on June 26, 1971. The opinion of the Court was presented on June 30, 1971, resulting in a 6-3 ruling in favour of The New York Times. Those who concurred with the decision of the Court included Justices Hugo L. Black, William O. Douglas, William J. Brennan, Potter Stewart, Bryon R. White and Thurgood Marshall.

The New York Times won back its right to publish the Pentagon Papers study, presenting the next article in the series the following day.

Justice Hugo L. Black provided a very passionate opinion. He came down harsh on the Nixon Administration for its lack of respect for the First Amendment.
Here is an excerpt from Justice Black’s opinion:

«The amendments were offered to curtail and restrict the general powers granted to the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches two years before in the original Constitution. The Bill of Rights changed the original Constitution into a new charter under which no branch of government could abridge the people’s freedoms of press, speech, religion, and assembly. Yet the Solicitor General argues and some members of the Court appear to agree that the general powers of the Government adopted in the original Constitution should be interpreted to limit and restrict the specific and emphatic guarantees of the Bill of Rights adopted later. I can imagine no greater perversion of history. Madison and the other Framers of the First Amendment, able men that they were, wrote in language they earnestly believed could never be misunderstood: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom… of the press…” Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints.»

On July 1st, 1971, The Washington Post published a long article on the case, titled: Court Rules for Newspapers, 6-3. Here’s an extract of Justice Potter Stewart’s comments on the case (as reported by John P. MacKenzie, Washington Post Staff Writer).

“For this reason,” said Stewart, “it is perhaps here that a press that is alert, aware and free most vitally serves the basic purpose of the First Amendment.” Secrecy is vital for the national government’s operations, Stewart and White acknowledged, adding, however, that “there can be but one answer to this dilemma, if dilemma it be. The responsibility must be where the power is.
“[The] very first principle of that wisdom would be an insistence upon avoiding secrecy for its own sake. For when everything is classified, then nothing is classified, and the system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or the careless and to be manipulated by those intent on self-protection or self-promotion. I should suppose, in short, that the hall mark of a truly effective internal security system would be the maximum possible disclosure.”

In his recent article on WikiLeaks (published in Time magazine, 13 December 2010), Massimo Calabresi rightly cites Justice Stewart again.
[This] is why the President’s real goal is to find a balance between keeping secret what should be secret, making transparent what should be transparent and doing it all in such a way as to augment the effective conduct of government. Potter Stewart had a go at defining such a balance in his Pentagon papers opinion in 1971. “The hallmark of a truly effective internal security system,” the Justice said, “would be the maximum possible disclosure, recognising that secrecy can best be preserved only when credibility is truly maintained.”

Will freedom of speech ever be truly free?

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Will our civilisation survive the crossing? Part II

Please read Part I of this article available below before continuing.

Futurology, or the art of predicting the future.
John von Neumann, who’s considered the father of the modern computer, made two predictions just after the war: first, he predicted that only governments would be able to afford very powerful computers in the future as these would become huge and expensive; second, he was confident that eventually powerful computers would be able to forecast the weather accurately. We very well know that weather forecasting is still pretty much a gamble. As for his first prediction, the growth of computers and their power over the past decades have gone in the opposite direction: almost anyone can afford a computer today and we can keep it in our pocket; for example smartphones.
Therefore, futurology seems a rather risky science. Considering that most scientific polls about our future or the future of our technology conducted by futurologists have been proved to be wildly off the mark, I’m not surprised to learn that futurology has gained a notorious reputation and seems closer to witch craft and Harry Potter magic. “What makes futurology such a primitive science is that our brains think literally, while knowledge progresses exponentially” (Kaku). What does that mean?
Futurist Ray Kurzweil explains that relation clearly in Time magazine (December 6, 2010 issue, 10 Questions): “Out intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and that makes a profound difference. If I take 30 steps linearly, I get to 30. If I take 30 steps exponentially, I get to a billion.”
So, rather than predicting the future based on our current technological status and looking into specific technological advancements, let’s take a broader look at how our civilisation may transform itself over the next millennia using just one parameter: energy.
The Physics of Advanced Civilisations
[This is an extract from Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku]

It is […] possible to use physics to sketch out the outlines of possible civilisations in space. If we look at the rise of our own civilisation over the past 100,000 years, since modern humans emerged in Africa, it can be seen as the story of rising energy consumption. Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev has conjectured that the stages in the development of extraterrestrial civilisations in the universe could also be ranked by energy consumption. Using the laws of physics, he grouped the possible civilisations into three types:

  1. Type I civilisations: those that harvest planetary power, utilising all the sunlight that strikes their planet. They can, perhaps, harness the power of volcanoes, manipulate the weather, control earthquakes, and build cities on the ocean. All planetary power is within their control. 
  2. Type II civilisations: those that can utilise the entire power of their sun, making them 10 billion times more powerful than a Type I civilisation. The federation of Planets in Star Trek is a Type II civilisation. A Type II civilisation, in a sense, is immortal; nothing known to science, such as ice ages, meteor impacts, or even supernovae, can destroy it. (In case their mother star is about to explode, these beings can move to another star system, or perhaps even move their home planet.)
  3. Type III civilisations: those that can utilise the power of an entire galaxy. They are 10 billion times more powerful than a Type II civilisation. The Borg in Star Trek, the Empire in Star Wars, and the galactic civilisation in Asimov’s Foundation series correspond to a Type III civilisation. They have colonised billions of star systems and can exploit the power of the black hole at the centre of their galaxy. They freely roam the space lanes of the galaxy.

Kardashev estimated that any civilisation growing at a modest rate of a few percent per year in energy consumption will progress rapidly from one type to the next, within a matter of a few thousand years to tens of thousand of years.
As I’ve discussed in my previous books, our own civilisation qualifies a Type 0 civilisation (i.e. we use dead plants, oil and coal, to fuel our machines). We utilise only a tiny fraction of the sun’s energy that falls on our planet. But already we can see the beginnings of a Type I civilisation emerging on Earth. The Internet is the beginning of a Type I telephone system connecting the entire planet. The beginning of a Type I economy can be seen in the rise of the European Union, which in turn was created to compete with NAFTA. English is already the number one second language on the Earth and the language of science, finance, and business. I imagine it may become the Type I language spoken virtually by everyone. Local cultures and customs will continue to thrive in thousands of varieties on the Earth, but superimposed on this mosaic of peoples will be a planetary culture, perhaps dominated by youth culture and commercialism.

The transition between one civilisation and the next is far from guaranteed. The most dangerous transition, for example, may be between a Type 0 and a Type I civilisation. A Type 0 civilisation is still wracked with the sectarianism, fundamentalism, and racism that typified its rise, and is not clear whether or not these tribal and religious passions will overwhelm the transition. (Perhaps one reason that we don’t see Type I civilisations in the galaxy is because they never made the transition, i.e. they self-destructed. One day, as we visit other star systems, we may find the remains of civilisations that killed themselves in one way or another, e.g. their atmospheres became radioactive or too hot to sustain life.)

By the time a civilisation has reached Type III status it has the energy and know-how to travel freely throughout the galaxy and even reach the planet Earth. As in the movie 2001, such civilisations may well send self-replicating, robotic probes throughout the galaxy searching for intelligent life.
But a Type III civilisation would likely not be inclined to visit us or conquer us, as in the movie Independence Day, where such a civilisation spreads like a plague of locusts, swarming around planets to suck their resources dry. In reality, there are countless dead planets in outer space with vast mineral wealth they could harvest without the nuisance of coping with a restive native population. Their attitude toward us might resemble our own attitude toward an ant hill. Our inclination is not to bend down and offer the ants beads and trinkets, but simply to ignore them.

The main danger ants face is not that humans want to invade them or wipe them out. Instead it is simply that we will pave them over because they are in the way. Remember that the distance between a Type III civilisation and our own Type 0 civilisation is far more vast than the distance between us and the ants, in terms of energy usage.

Will our civilisation make the transition to Type I civilisation? Or are we going to self-destruct before we get anywhere seriously? I thought I’d better leave the conclusion to you.
In Star Trek, first contact is made when a civilisation discovers Warp Drive and could therefore begin to explore the universe. It doesn’t have to be Warp Drive, or does it? The question perhaps is… are we going to achieve so great a thing that is going to be noticed by another civilisation out there among the stars?
If so, when?

What I’d like to conclude with is a paragraph from another great book, Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card; this is a classic in children’s science fiction. Here Officer Graff reminds Ender that a nasty civilisation from a faraway galaxy almost wiped us out once; it would only be a matter of time before they come back to kill us all. Ender is afraid he might not live up to the officer’s expectations: what if I can’t be the best, Ender tells him and Graff replies:
“Then too bad. Look, Ender, I’m sorry if you’re lonely and afraid. But the buggers are out there. Ten billion, a hundred billion, a million billion of them, for all we know. With as many ships, for all we know. With weapons we can’t understand. And a willingness to use those weapons to wipe us out. It isn’t the world at stake, Ender. Just us. Just humankind. As far as the rest of the biosphere is concerned, we could be wiped out and it would adjust, it would get on with the next step in evolution. But humanity doesn’t want to die. As a species, we have evolved to survive. And the way we do it is by straining and straining and, at last, every few generations, giving birth to genius. The one who invents the wheel. And light. And flight. The one who builds a city, a nation, an empire. Do you understand any of this?”
Ender thought he did, but wasn’t sure, and so said nothing.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Will our civilisation survive the crossing? Part I

For a start to this brand new and hopefully exciting Blog, I’d like to summarise, to the best of my abilities, some of the thoughts about the Types of Civilisations as theorised by two great scientists of our time: Dr Michio Kaku and Astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev. At different times and places in our modern era, both of them have conjectured about the various stages any intelligent civilisation in our universe would go through in its developmental progress.
Where do we, as a whole planetary civilisation, stand in the scheme of things?

Energy as a parameter for technological advancement.
In his book, Physics of the Impossible, Dr Michio Kaku tells us that “energy is vital to civilisation. In fact, all of human history can be viewed through the lens of energy.”
How so? About six millions years ago we left the apes to do their own things and we went our own separate way. It took us a while to realise what we could do with our own bare hands, we didn’t know then what energy really was. We had our bodies and sort of a thinking mind, that’s pretty much it. Life at that time was… primitive, we would simply say today. Really, it was a simple life made of hunting for food and moving from place to place. It was a short and savage life, with an average expectancy of twenty years.
Think about this: what happens when you use something too much, too often, when you push it to the limit? It wears off quickly, doesn’t it? The energy available to us six millions years ago was about a fifth of a horsepower; in other words “the power of our own muscles” (Kaku).

At some point we made our first crossing. Remember the ape in 2001: A Space Odyssey? She took up a bone and started to hammer the ground. With that bone she realised she could have power over the others with less screaming and jumping; in other words, a single bone increased her energy to do certain things. Now, jump to that day when a clever boy discovered (or invented?) the wheel and then his father put together the very first cart in human history. Suddenly that one-fifth of horsepower doubled – less wear of our muscles and more energy to do things. That’s what we call technological advancement, isn’t it?
Let’s time-jump again: ten thousand years ago we started farming and domesticating animals. We noted that the horse was especially kind and useful. And gradually we raised our energy output to one or two horsepower. “This set into motion the first great revolution in human history. With the horse or ox, one man had enough energy to plough an entire field by himself, travel tens of miles in a day, or move hundreds of pounds of rock or grain from one place to another. For the first time in human history, families had a surplus of energy, and the result was the founding of our first cities. Excess energy meant that society could afford to support a class of artisans, architects, builders, and scribes, and thus ancient civilisation could flourish. Soon great pyramids and empires rose from the jungles and desert. Average life expectancy reached about thirty years” (Kaku).

Fascinating so far? If that was the first great revolution, the second one occurred about 300 years ago when machines and steam power entered our daily life. Machines could plough massive fields or transport people comfortably for hundreds of miles. The energy available to one single person rose to dozens of horsepower. And life expectancy reached almost fifty in early 1900.
Today we are witnessing the third great revolution, the information age. Our curiosity has stretched exploration beyond the boundaries of our planet, and our creativity has led to technological advancements that require so much energy and power that we are actually stretching our finite supply of non-renewable energy to the limit. “The energy available to a single individual – Dr Kaku tells us – is now measured in thousands of horsepower. We take for granted that a single car can generate hundreds of horsepower.” So, do we all agree that the greater the energy available to a single individual, the more technologically advanced that individual is and the longer they live? If you don’t agree, please leave a comment below, otherwise carry on reading.
Part II to come soon.