Darwin Day, A Modest Proposal

Darwin gave us the theory of natural selection as the organizing principle explaining the evolution of life on earth. We have followed the trip he began along many paths. One of them leads to the conclusion that perhaps 50,000 years ago language emerged as the defining characteristic of our species, partly because of the very human desire to gossip, and gossip was the main mechanism for producing a consensus about everyone’s reputation. In a group where everyone knows everyone else, gossip permits us to know who the liars and cheats are, and how to deal with them. We also know whom to trust, and with that trust comes willingness to cooperate, and with that comes civilization. Reputation is the key, and in that environment of openness, building up a good one can be a powerful inducement for socially responsible behavior.

I propose that in that spirit we turn the National Security Agency into an electronic library of information openly available to anyone, about everybody. Turning the place inside out will solve a lot of ethical and practical problems, as well as saving a bundle of money. The NSA already has magnificent assets for the collection of information about almost everyone’s travels, financial arrangements, medical problems, and personal affairs. If anyone could access whatever bits of this cornucopia he or she wanted through a laptop or i-pad, we could restore the familiarity that existed (and still exists) in a small village. Politicians would need to rethink acceptance of financial emoluments for favors, and lovers would have to be a lot more careful. The value of reputation as a social asset would be restored in spades. The Golden rule might be rephrased to something like: “If you’re going to cheat, you better not tweet”.

Then everyone could get bar-coded so that cloud in the sky could tell us who was asking about us, and what they were finding out. That would put us very close to establishing that Utopian idea of a real global village.

Pardoning and rehabilitating Edward Snowden would be a small step in the right direction.

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