I recently exchanged e-mails with a new reader "Peter" who sent me the following thoughtful note.
I came across your blog today by accident and just want to express my enjoyment of a well-written and well-researched series of posts that contain a great deal of sensible commentary rather than the too-frequent empty rantings one generally encounters across the 'Net.
I tried to subscribe to your blog via my Facebook profile but unfortunately encountered a fatal TypePad error. I'll try again later and see if I can successfully subscribe.
My own intellectual interests and concerns overlap with yours to a significant degree, but I have a slightly more hopeful (and, probably, more unrealistic...) outlook insofar as I continue to wonder if a more adequate knowledge of our cognitive limitations will ultimately enable us to engineer structures that limit much of the damage we cause ourselves today. By way of analogy, when physiology and aerodynamics were very poorly understood, people killed themselves by strapping large feathered wings to their arms and jumping off tall structures in the hope that they could fly. Once we had a better understanding of our limitations (insufficient pectoral mass, too low a rate of blood flow, etc.) and the challenges involved (a better grasp of aerodynamics) we were able to engineer solutions that gave us what we wanted (flight) while dramatically minimizing potential harm.
So the possible way forward would involve us facing up to our cognitive limitations and behavioral hardwiring (all of which are a consequence of various selection pressures operating throughout primate history) and consciously trying to engineer social structures and processes that are designed to minimize our capacity for self-harm. Provided that we also recognize the need for feedback/adjustment loops so that such engineering can adapt to real-world outcomes, this would in theory offer a way forward. That said, the challenged involved in (a) getting enough people to recognize the need for such an approach, (b) securing majority consensus on implementing at least a trial, and (c) doing the practical engineering, are all non-trivial.
The first step, in any case, is to define our cognitive boundaries, which your blog continues to do in a very readable and informative manner.
Anyhow, just wanted to say "thanks a lot" for your writing.
I always appreciate it when I get notes like this. Here is my reply. I made two small edits for clarity.