Infrequently Asked Questions

  1. Why does my country have the right to be occupying Iraq?
  2. Why should my country not support an international court of justice?
  3. Is my country not strong enough to achieve its aims fairly?
  4. When the leaders of a country cause it to do terrible things, what is the best way to restore the honor of that country?
  5. Is it possible for potential new leaders to raise questions about their country's possible guilt, without committing political suicide?
  6. Do I deserve retribution from aggrieved people whose lives have been ruined by actions that my leaders have taken without my consent?
  7. How can I best help set in motion a process by which reparations are made to people who have been harmed by unjust deeds of my country?
  8. If day after day goes by with nobody discussing uncomfortable questions like these, won't the good people of my country be guilty of making things worse?

Alas, I cannot think of a satisfactory answer to any of these questions. I believe the answer to number 6 is still no; yet I fear that a yes answer is continually becoming more and more appropriate, as month upon month goes by without any significant change to the status quo.

Perhaps the best clues to the outlines of successful answers can be found in a wonderful speech that Richard von Weizsäcker gave in 1985.

The time in which I write ... has a horribly swollen belly, it carries in its womb a national catastrophe ... Even an ignominious issue remains something other and more normal than the judgment that now hangs over us, such as once fell on Sodom and Gomorrah ... That it approaches, that it long since became inevitable: of that I cannot believe anybody still cherishes the smallest doubt. ... That it remains shrouded in silence is uncanny enough. It is already uncanny when among a great host of the blind some few who have the use of their eyes must live with sealed lips. But it becomes sheer horror, so it seems to me, when everybody knows and everybody is bound to silence, while we read the truth from each other in eyes that stare or else shun a meeting.
Germany ... today, clung round by demons, a hand over one eye, with the other staring into horrors, down she flings from despair to despair. When will she reach the bottom of the abyss? When, out of uttermost hopelessness --- a miracle beyond the power of belief --- will the light of hope dawn? A lonely man folds his hands and speaks: “God be merciful to thy poor soul, my friend, my Fatherland!”
-- Thomas Mann, Dr. Faustus (1947, written in 1945)
      [excerpts from chapter 33 and the epilogue]

Belorussian translation by Nadejda Dobkina
French translation by Anna Chekovsky

Postscript, August 2022

I posted the lines above in September of 2007. Recently I spoke at the CP 2022 conference, using the title “All Questions Answered” that I've been using for dozens of other lectures for more than two decades; and I learned afterwards of the following Infrequently Asked Question, posed by Serge Fenet (University of Lyon) too late to be included in the conference session:

As you most certainly know, our human civilization is currently facing a convergence of global threats that is unique in its history. From climate degradation to socio-economic rising tensions, from geopolitical global conflict to ecosystemic collapse, a single one of them might easily lead to the death of a good portion of the population. All of them are rearing their ugly head in a unique conjunction.
And yet, we collectively still keep moving in the same direction.
In this context, what do you think should be our role as computer scientists? Should we change our methods, our objects of interest, perhaps our jobs, maybe our entire way of life in order to help dealing with these global issues, if it is still possible?

Of course I have no good answer to that question; but everybody should certainly be contemplating it seriously. Here is how I replied to Serge, knowing that my response was inadequate:

We all know that the “big” questions are extremely complex and have no known answers. And indeed, you have hit the nail on the head, by not only identifying the dilemma but also pointing out that we will be seriously stuck unless we can take concrete steps.
One thing that has always encouraged me, when I look at history, is that every single thing that I truly admire was accomplished during a time when the world was faced with incredibly severe problems.
Yet I also share with you the conviction that problems have been scaling up, because many more opportunities for massive harm by small groups of people (or even individuals) have been multiplying. I do wonder if the SETI project finds nothing because the probability of a sustainable civilization is near zero.
To me the most puzzling thing of all, as I look at history in any particular decade, is that so many tens of thousands of the smartest people in the world have been essentially powerless to thwart the actions of less than a thousand of the world's most unscrupulous people.
You nicely point out that computer scientists have rather rare skills that might be an important resource. And yet, as you say, “we collectively still keep moving in the same direction.”
I recently looked at the home page of my colleague Stefano Ermon. He has indeed changed his career path, from studying individual technological tools to applying them to the world's problems.
But as an academic he is able to make such changes without substantial risk. Most people cannot make more than small perturbations to what they do each day without severe disruption in their ability to provide for themselves and their loved ones.
Thus I'm tempted to think that one of the greatest problems for computer scientists to help solve now is to figure out a way to provide opportunities for everybody to change their current lifestyles, without violence and without losing their dignity. I suppose better modeling, which somehow takes into account what everybody does each day, and how people's actions should change in 2022 and in 2023 and so on, might produce workable roadmaps for useful change before things collapse.
One idea I had, just as a thinkpiece, was for everybody in the world to suddenly be forced to replace their current salary by the LOGARITHM of their current salary. Costs would also decrease in the same way. (Maybe not the logarithm; maybe the square root. But anyway it should be a monotonic function, so that there still will be an advantage in working harder, just not such a ridiculously large one.) I'm not poor, yet Bill Gates's net worth is more than 10,000 times mine. He is a lot smarter than me and accomplishes a lot more per unit time, but not by that much.
Bottom line: I wish I had a better answer to your question, and I wish I knew how to get as many people as possible to discuss that question intelligently.

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