What Was the Most Important Thing People Learned in the 20th Century?

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About Robert Fuller

Before he was swept up in the movements of the sixties, Robert Fuller taught physics at Columbia University. In the early seventies, as president of Oberlin, he led the College through a series of reforms that drew national attention. During the eighties, he worked on bridge-building projects with Soviet scientists. With the end of the Cold War, he noticed that others had begun treating him like a Nobody. His reflections on his time in Nobodyland, became the subject of two books: Somebodies and Nobodies (introducing the concept of rankism), and All Rise (on the politics of dignity). For the last ten years, he has been speaking worldwide on dignity and rankism. He lives in Berkeley, CA, and has four grown children.


  1. “Although there were some who disagreed, far more were eager to believe that their own kind were exceptional, and they were willing to degrade and exploit those whom they saw as their inferiors.”

    American exceptionalism?


    Americans absolutely believe that they know better than Afghans or Iraqis. America believes that it has a right to bring democracy and freedom to other countries who may or may not want it. Then, after bringing “democracy” it exploits them for their natural resources.

    The difference is that the propaganda in the invading country used to be honest. The British empire was honest, and openly about British superiority, and taking money and tribute from the countries that it invaded.

  2. PursuitAce says:

    And who will give these intelligent machines the morality they’ll need? Or is morality derived from intellect? The future world you’re describing sounds like the Borg collective. Will there be a choice to join or will resistance ultimately be futile?

    • We ourselves will provide the moral education that, as you rightly note, intelligent machines will need—in the same way that our elders provide moral education for us.

      The reason humans resist seeing their machine-like nature is that they only think of machines as we already have known them: stupid machines like watches, cars, guns, digital serial computers, etc. We are just now beginning to build learning machines, ones that work something like brains. By mid-century we will be building intelligent learning machines and by century’s end these machines will be as intelligent and creative as humans at their best. We can teach them either to be predatory (like most humans have been till recently) or to be dignitarian, that is to respect and protect the dignity of every last person. The morality of such machines will not be borg-like. Rather it will be based on the principle of equal universal dignity. It’s motto might be: “Dignity is your right; it is also everyone else’s.”

      • PursuitAce says:

        While I always admire optimism I feel your vision may break even the ancient record of Alexander the Great’s world conquest plan. (I always believed if he’d headed west instead of east he’d never have made it out of Italy alive, but that’s another story.) I think the least of your challenges is human resistance to their machine-like-nature. The blending of humans and machines is already happening for the handicapped to great enthusiasm. It’s a very small step to go from equaling the quality of life for someone to enhancing the quality of life for everyone. The real obstacles will initially be legal. What you’re predicating, supporting, or describing is a species self-evolving. That’s a formula for hyper-interesting times as our Chinese friends might say. An interesting in this vein often equates to chaos which is at least a half brother to suffering. Humanity is not even close to the morality and unity required to pull off such a feat. This is the deficiency I see being passed on to the machines. And the timeline you’re describing is rapidly approaching. No, sir. I feel your optimism is unwarranted and incredibly Sonny (see iRobot the movie for the reference here).
        Speaking of elders, we might want to first reach out to any and all older civilizations that presumably have faced this transition. They may have some morality we haven’t considered. Better to pause then to press into this brave new world.

        • Robert Fuller says:

          I don’t disagree that it would be better if we approached this epochal transformation slowly and mindfully, but, we can’t control the pacing. What we might wisely NOT do, others will brazenly go ahead and do. Developments in neuroscience already suggest that human beings are on a fast track to building machines that work as brains do. Here’s a free short eBook on the subject:
          Once those machines — parallel computers, in contrast to the serial ones we’re using now — begin to show real intelligence, others will jump into the game and WHEW! Watch out. My reference in the essay to these foreseeable developments is not meant to cheer, or egg, us on, but rather to raise exactly the kind of questions you are raising. But how to effectively raise these questions in the world at large—China for example—that is the real question.

  3. We split the atom, walked on moon, invented silicon wafers and mapped out the human genome. ..maybe that genome thing was early this century.. not sure. But we were well on our way at least.

  4. Valter Viglietti says:

    “Gentiles deemed Jews an inferior race.”

    Sure thing, but let’s not forget that Jews saw themselves as superior people (and they still do).
    (see “Jews as the chosen people”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jews_as_the_chosen_people )

    And I believe that attitude is one of the reasons Jews have become somewhat unpopular or hated.
    Nobody likes being looked down.

  5. wellokaythen says:

    An excellent list of lessons that people *should* have learned from the twentieth century, but I’m not so sure that many people have actually learned those lessons. In reality, if we’re looking for example at World War II, a.k.a., the “Best War Ever,” it’s more like:

    Some groups of people who thought they were superior were defeated by other people who thought they were superior. The military victors thought they were superior because 1) they used violence more successfully and 2) they told themselves that they didn’t think they were superior. Apparently bombing civilian cities is a mark of moral superiority as long as your enemies did it first.

    It’s not so clear to me that the twentieth century destroyed people’s sense of superiority over each other, so much as gave us all more reasons for self-righteousness. Unfortunately, things like fascism didn’t collapse under their own contradictions nor did they fail from the inside out, which is what they would have done in time. The Nazis were defeated by force much more than moral persuasion, which is why the threads of fascism are still around, woven into various parts of the modern world.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the Allies won. Give me the EU over the “thousand year Reich” any day of the week. But I can’t help thinking that I’m glad the Allies won because I’m an American and that’s “my team,” more than the idea that America was on the side of angelic egalitarianism.

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