December 7th, 2012

krazy koati

Cultivate their need, gratify their greed

If human beings have one problem then we're really doing much better than the average. Through most of history people have had between three and eight problems, with the number rising to almost ten during middle school, when nobody told us we were dressing like that. We still are.

But among the problems, standing more prominently than ``the spell checker doesn't agree with any spelling of `accommodate' we can think of'' and about four feet to the left of ``not understanding how poodle skirts were a thing'', is humanity's general willingness to follow authority. It doesn't much matter where the authority comes from. It can be a teacher, an employer, a disembodied voice, the musically-tinged direction of Waylon Jennings. The most extreme case of just following directions would be the Carolingian Renaissance, the eighth- and ninth-century rebirth of learning and inquisition that turned out to be for nought once they realized Charlemagne hadn't ordered all this magilla, he just sneezed was all.

I have to point out that just following direction isn't always a problem, according to this stern-looking person who's staring at my computer. It can be a good thing, for example if the authority figure is directing you to changing a flat tire or what the steps are in successfully boiling an egg, providing the figure hasn't got directions mixed up and you really wanted to boil a flat tire, which a book I have somewhere tells me is a good source of fiber for people with robotic digestive tracts. And that's the hint about what kinds of authority become trouble. Why would robots have digestive tracts?

Obviously, because whoever made heard they were supposed to have them. But why would someone tell robot-makers they had to include digestive tracts that need boiled rubber tires as eggs? It's either some horrible misunderstanding somewhere along the line --- and I suspect the original intention was cars should be able to digest burst sofa cushions, which would make sense --- or else the whole robot digestion business is a scam to support the rubber egg market. Yet the rubber egg industry has almost no power, not since the passing of the MacComber Stretchy Omelette Control Act of 1989, passed to the acclaim of bouncy-restaurant owners nationwide. Therefore someone would have to be framing the rubber egg magnates and that's too depressing to think about.

So what if the authority figures directing stuff are wrong or malicious? According to a landmark study, only two percent of people will refuse to press a button they're told delivers a mild electric shock to a psychology undergrad work-study student; only four percent would not press a button delivering a more severe electric shock to a work-study student; only eight percent would not press a button to explode the building containing a work-study student, and than 22 percent of the population would hesitate to press a button which they're confident would blow up the Earth, containing a work-study student, if an authority figure in the room said to. That figure rises to only 26 percent if the button were claimed to destroy the Earth and some of its dependent planets. Come to think of it maybe the problem is people really hate work-study students. It can't all be a love of pressing buttons and following direction. It'd be interesting to see the experiment tried with a throw switch and a grad student in college administration, although if the college administration student is any good she'll refuse funding the experiment. Too bad.

I should mention these experiments are normally done only with simulated electricity, less because of the powerful moral convictions of actual electricity (which takes a very dim view of electrocuting work-study students) but because the simulated stuff is over twelve percent cheaper and can be got in powdered form from a shelf right about chest height. Not having to bend down to the bottom shelf, where the reconstituted electricity is kept, is one of those things you get to appreciate more as you age.

So what should you do about authority? I don't know. See what Waylon Jennings sings you should do.

Trivia: Benjamin Franklin observed on a hot summer day in 1750, with a Fahrenheit thermometer reading above 100 degrees, Franklin observed that if he sat in a wet shirt by an open window, he could remain relatively cool; with a dry shirt he would grow noticeably warmer. Source: The First American: The Life And Times Of Benjamin Franklin, H W Brands.

Currently Reading: The Toon Treasury Of Classic Children's Comics, Editors Art Spiegelman, Françoise Mouly.