Lucent's Essays

Sunday, August 30, 2009


The Lazy Evil Genius

Before the professor arrived, a Bruce Vilanch-looking classmate claimed to have devised a scheme to dismantle the credit card system without employing extraordinary Fight Club-esque means. He would not reveal it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the idea really was feasible. Just as it wouldn’t surprise me if one could hack into a pacemaker to kill someone, or set up a black market organ network, or copy keys using photos and break into homes, or poison large amounts of drinking water, or write a virus that wiped out a percentage of the world’s hard drives. What is so fascinating, so perplexing, is that these things are simply not happening.

They’re not just not happening; we can reliably assume that they don’t happen. Anything remotely resembling the work of an evil genius is guaranteed to be found on Snopes with the red bullet of falsehood just to its left. Serial killer luring women with a recording of a crying baby: false. HIV-infected needle in payphone coin return: false.

Like “Bruce,” we imagine terrorists are mindlessly motivated to do harm. They stew, trying to devise ways to unhinge society, but they’re just too stupid, and so we must be careful not to give them any ideas or tools. This is the mental model we have of them, and no matter how many times it fails to predict their behavior, no matter how obvious it is that they have access to the ideas and are not using them, we can’t come up with a better one to replace it. Whenever I describe the business of a client, live tracking of airline flights, people immediately concoct their own terrorism plot and ask if it concerns us. “Couldn’t the terrorists use that to…?” Again, the mental model behind this objection is that millions of potential terrorists are stewing around with unlimited motivation and are just too dumb to figure that out. Quite outlandish, given the proposers of these scenarios are rarely masterminds themselves.

It’s downright paradoxical. A colleague of mine deems this the “no evil geniuses paradox” and does a good job of defining it. Slate did a ten-part series offering that many theories as to why the US has suffered no mastermind-style follow-up attacks since 9/11. None are particularly satisfying.

The puzzle is similar to that of the Drake equation. By the numbers, there should be many civilizations whose broadcasts have reached us. In actuality, none have, so we tweak the numbers to get the equation to spit out the answer we have, zero. Similarly, there should be many potential terrorists, so we must fudge the remaining terms to spit out the number of mastermind attacks, one.

When something perplexes us this much and defies explanation for this long, it’s unlikely the answer lies in finding some new piece of data or coming up with a novel theoretical model to tie it all together. It’s much more likely that we have an incorrect belief so deeply held that we cannot challenge it. And it is this belief that, when removed, will allow the remaining pieces to fit together.

We hold certain beliefs so deeply that we cannot consider their validity, because if they floated to the conscious level at all, even the consideration that they were true could be crippling. What if your boss was secretly thrilled about the power he had over you, and relished controlling you and felt he was a powerful winner? The mere consideration of the possibility is so off-putting that half of management is techniques dedicated to not only hiding that this is false, but even the consideration that it could be true. What if your partner thought about other prospectives as often as you did? What if parents don’t have some special kind of love for their children that you just don’t yet understand because you’re not one yourself? What if all the reasons you were given for personal or professional rejection were contrivance, and you would’ve gotten that person or job if you were just more attractive or likeable?

On the other hand, we have beliefs that are crippling for the opposite reason. They’re too good to be true. They make the world too spectacular a place with too many possibilities and opportunities.

Free will is one such crippling belief. What if we really did walk around with the understanding that every minute lost can never be retrieved? We know of all the opportunities in life. We remember the time we went a few seconds out of our way and met someone amazing or found the perfect apartment or job. We wax about seizing the day and making the most of life. It doesn’t happen. We need a story to tell ourselves about why it doesn’t happen.

That story is usually fate, in one form or another. “Everything happens for a reason.” “If you’re on the right path, life will fall into place.” These are alternate ways of telling oneself, “Relax, that time you changed the course of your lives by spending an extra minute with someone? That was arranged or going to happen anyway. Don’t drive yourself crazy taking every possible opportunity on account of that one success.”

Another such crippling truth explains our lack of motivation. Humans are essentially unmotivated creatures. There wasn’t a great deal of genetic reward for unmitigated entrepreneurship until society allowed one to interact with very large populations. We’re continually amazed with our own lack of motivation, our satiation with our lives. We know motivation is extremely valuable, yet can’t seem to conjure it. This truth requires a pretty spectacular story.

We have many such stories we tell ourselves to mitigate the impact of truths that are both too horrible to be true and too good to be true. Since the nature of these truths is that their mere consideration can be crippling, they stay heavily buried in our psyche under many layers of misdirection.

The story we have chosen to explain our lack of motivation had an odd side effect. It created a paradox where none exists. If we acknowledge the story and its falsehood, the evil genius paradox disappears, and the lack of terrorist masterminds becomes no more mysterious than the lack of green stars in the sky.

That story is, “Motivation will come when I have my big idea.” The reason you’re sitting around doing nothing, making nothing of life is because your idea has not come yet. Once it does, the switch will flip and you’ll be alive.

You unconsciously project this belief about yourself, which is merely a coping strategy and has no basis in reality, onto the terrorists. You picture them sitting around trying to come up with a way to destabilize society. If they manage to create or appropriate a good enough idea, they snap into action, and we all suffocate on hydrogen cyanide or something of the sort.

Luckily, ideas, no matter how spectacular, no more motivate terrorists than they do you. Osama was Bill Gates, not Einstein. You and the terrorist have more in common than you might think. You are both unmotivated to execute your plans, whether they be evil genius, or good genius.

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