Giancarlo Livraghi was recruited to Serendipia by Ron Lee and Jake Ghitis (see About Serendip Forum, 25 August, and following). Giancarlo is a writer, living in Italy, who has been involved in advertising, and currently concentrates on "the human and social issues of electronic communication", having been a founder of ALCEI-Electronic Frontiers Italy. Among his writings in English is an on line newsletter. Giancarlo's essays on stupidity appeared originally in Entropy Gradient Reversals, and are mirrored here with his permission. Some additional information about Giancarlo is provided by Entropy Gradient Reversal as part of their posting of his second essay.

The Power of Stupidity

Part Two

by Giancarlo Livraghi

September 1997

After fifteen months, my little essay on stupidity seems to be quite alive on the net. I am still receiving mail from different corners of the world; and it's being mirrored, linked or quoted in a number of places. The resulting dialogue made me discover some very interesting people and some remarkable websites I didn't know -- such as Serendip.

Questions and comments from several people led me to think a little more about this intriguing (and terrifying) subject. Here is the "humble result" of those meditations.

Is the Cipolla definition "true"?

In my early stages of learning, I was lucky enough to have teachers who set a few principles that, many years later, remain firm in my mind.

One of those philosophical principles is that there is no such thing as "absolute" truth. A "true" theory is simply the most convenient under the circumstances: the one that best explains and interprets what we are studying.

I don't know which is the best "absolute" definition of stupidity -- or even if there is one that makes any sense. I am not aware of any really effective definition of intelligence, either.

The beauty (I think) of Carlo Cipolla's definition of stupidity (and intelligence) is that it is not based on an abstract concept but on results: a person or a behavior is stupid or intelligent depending on what happens. This has two advantages.

The first is that it defines a person (and that person's behavior) as stupid (or intelligent, or hapless, or a bandit) on the basis of facts; or, at least, on our understanding and definition of facts. The second, and even more important, is that it leads us to concentrate on the vital factor: not stupidity per se, but the damage it causes.

There can be countless types of behavior that are, or appear, "stupid" but are harmless. They come up close to neutral in the Cipolla matrix -- and that is, indeed, where they belong.

For instance, sharing silly fun with friends and having a good laugh may be seen as "stupid" by outsiders, but according to the Cipolla Theory such behavior is likely to be classified as "intelligent": which indeed it is, as long as the fun shared by the people being amused is more than the annoyance or boredom caused to bystanders. Generally the intelligence (practical advantage) of such behavior is limited to a moment of good humor; but quite often it can lead to more relevant effects, by sparking up cooperation and ideas in ways that would not be possible in a boring environment.

"Silly" can be remarkably intelligent, while "serious" can be awfully stupid... quite apart from the fact that innovative thinking is often seen as "silly" by people who don't understand it.

This leads to an important subject: the relevance of non-linear thinking (as well as emotion and humor) in all mental processes and especially in innovation. To discuss that in a meaningful way I would need much more space than I have here. Let me just say that the distinction of "right" and "left" mind may be interesting in clinical experiments but, in my view, should be avoided in the general observation of human behavior because the structure of thinking is not as simple as that -- and, in any case, the various processes of perception and thought always work together and are better understood as a whole than as the sum of separate functions.

Three corollaries

Shortly after reading about the Cipolla Laws, I developed what came to my mind as the "First Livraghi Corollary". Then I realized that I couldn't call it "first", because I had only one. But my original feeling was right... I have since discovered that there are at least three.

Here they are:

First Corollary:
In each of us there is a factor of stupidity, which is always larger than we suppose

(I explained that in my original "stupidity" paper).

Second Corollary:
When the stupidity of one person combines with the stupidity of others, the impact grows geometrically -- i.e. by multiplication, not addition, of the individual stupidity factors

It seems to be a generally accepted concept that "the sum of a network increases as the square of the number of members" and it seems quite obvious that the same criterion applies to the combination of stupidity factors in individual people. This can help to explain the well-known fact that crowds as a whole are much more stupid than any individual person in the crowd.

Third corollary:
The combination of intelligence in different people has less impact than the combination of stupidity, because (Cipolla's Fourth Law) "non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid people"

Stupidity is brainless -- it doesn't need to think, get organized or plan ahead to generate a combined effect. The transfer and combination of intelligence is a much more complex process.

Stupid people can combine instantly into a super-stupid group or mass, while intelligent people are effective as a group only when they know each other well and are experienced in working together. The creation of well-tuned groups of people sharing intelligence can generate fairly powerful anti-stupidity forces, but (unlike stupidity bundling) they need organized planning and upkeep; and can lose a large part of their effectiveness by the infiltration of stupid people or unexpected bursts of stupidity in otherwise intelligent people.

In some situations these dangers can be partly offset (if not totally controlled) by being aware of the potential problem before anything goes wrong and having "backup intelligence" in the group (and in whatever equipment is being used) to fill the gaps and correct the mistakes before the damage becomes too serious. Any good skipper of a sailboat knows what I mean; so does any other person that has experience of an environment where the cause-effect process is bluntly direct and tangible.

Communities with a high intelligence factor are likely to have greater potential for long-term survival, but for that to be effective we must avoid the potentially devastating short-term impact of shared stupidity, which (unfortunately) can cause major damage to large numbers of non-stupid people before it self-destructs.

Another dangerous element in the equation (as pointed out by Carlo Cipolla) is that the machinery of power tends to place "intelligent bandits" (sometimes even "stupid bandits") at the top of the pyramid; and they, in turn, tend to favor and protect stupidity and keep true intelligence out of their way as much s they can. That is, I think, an important subject per se. Maybe one day I shall try to comment on it... if and when I do, the title could be The Stupidity of Power.

Stupidity and biology

In a basic biological environment, the "stupidity problem" doesn't exist. The process is based on the production of an extremely large number of "dumb" mutants. Only very few (the "fittest") survive, and that's it. From that point of view, what we see as catastrophe is just another variation in the "natural" course of events. Destructive fires are understood by botanists as a necessary, indeed desirable, step in the evolution of a forest. Millions of living creatures that die in the process may disagree, but their opinion is irrelevant.

In that perspective, solutions are simple and very effective. If there are too many people, all we need is another plague (or any mass slaughter device that will not interfere too much with the overall environment) that can kill 90 percent of the population. The surviving 10 percent, as soon as they get over the shock, are likely to find the resulting environment quite agreeable. They are also likely to be genetically similar: share specific traits of appearance and attitude. If they all had green hair, pink eyes and liked rainy weather, they would soon come to consider the (extinct) people with any other hair or eye color, as well as people that like sunny weather, as rather quaint and "inferior"; their moisture-resistant history books would treat most of us as we treat the Neanderthals.

The destruction or sterilization of our planet, by man-made nuclear (or chemical) power or by collision with some wandering rock, would be an irrelevant detail in a cosmic perspective; and it if happened before the development of space travel and colonization the disappearance of our species (along with the rest of the terrestrial biosphere) wouldn't cause much of a stir even in our galaxy.

But in the particular biological environment that is set by certain species (such as ours) the system is based on the assumption that the environment can, and should, be controlled; and that each individual in our species (and in other species that we "protect") should be able to live longer, and more pleasantly, than he or she would in an uncontrolled environment. This needs a particular breed of organized "intelligence". Therefore stupidity, in this stage and type of biological development, is extremely dangerous.

As we are human, that's what we need to worry about.

Stupidity and the "millennium"

There are very few things in this world that can be predicted as precisely as the end of the 20th Century. It will happen at exactly 0 hours, 0 minutes, 0 seconds of January 1, 2001; and we have enough shared conventional definitions to set our clocks and watches in each of the time zones as precisely as we need to pop a cork or use a sophisticated timer.

But there is a surprisingly large number of people who think the millennium will end at midnight on December 31, 1999. When, of course, we shall enter "year two thousand": but we shall still be in the 20th Century for another year. I know lots of bright and well educated people who take a while to adjust to that notion. They scratch their heads and eventually, only half-convinced, mumble something like Uhm, maybe you are right, I guess there never was a Year Zero.

Is that stupid?

By the Cipolla definition, it is not; because it's unlikely to cause any major harm, could encourage us to refresh our 'rithmetic, and may lead us to celebrate twice. If that doesn't cause too many accidents, it could mean people having twice the fun, merchants making money twice... at the end of the story it could turn out to be quite harmless, or even "intelligent".

But... there is a problem that may hit us quite severely at the end of 1999, and that is how clocks are set in computerized systems.

I've heard many rather dumb comments on this subject. Such as «Haha, my Mac will adjust to year 2000 and your PC won't» - or «What's all the fuss about? the clock in my computer will handle the 2000 figure.»

It seems nearly impossible to make people stop and think about broader implications than their own personal computer. I don't want to get into technicalities -- that's not my field and I leave it to the experts. Here is a link to a detailed analysis of "myths and realities" and several different opinions on this matter. It could be debated forever; but time is running out.

In any case, there seems to be enough old software around, in huge systems or in small vital devices, to be a serious problem for lots of people who have nothing to do with computers. A friend of mine, who is a very competent and bright EDP expert, says: «Your coffee machine, your alarm clock and your video recorder are unlikely to have date tantrums; your PC may well work through the turn of the century as it is, or with a few minor adjustments; but, in spite of the OTIS disclaimer, in some parts of the world you should be careful before you take an elevator on January 1, 2000.»

I don't think we are heading for doomsday. I guess in the next couple of years solutions will be found. But suppose just one little bit of something, in one single system or piece of equipment, is not fixed and tested properly ahead of time; and suppose it's in air traffic control, or a hospital, or the aiming device of a weapon... can we really trust all of the people concerned, in every corner of the planet, do their homework properly?

Big or small as the problem may be... the stupidity lies in its predictability. The Gregorian calendar was set 415 year ago; long before any of the modern devices (electronic or other) were conceived. How could anyone, no matter how long ago, make a computer, a piece of software, or anything containing a time program without considering that there would certainly be a problem if it couldn't handle year digits beyond 99? Two years from the deadline, they are still fussing about how to untangle the mess.

We could forget electronics and talk about many other things. Take pensions. In my country, pension schemes are government controlled and compulsory. Several decades ago it was abundantly clear that the population would get older and there would be a serious problem. Nobody did anything about it. Quite to the contrary, they did a number of things to make it worse: early pensions, special favors to people that neither deserved them or needed them, etcetera -- on a monstrously wide scale. And now they are still quarreling about how to try to fix the problem.

And the environment, the population explosion, the use of fossil energy... the dumb, hierarchic rigidity of private and public organizations (including schools) in a world of increasing turbulence and complexity... the "information society", the networked world, being potentially a powerful tool for the underprivileged, but driven by fatware in the opposite direction...

The blind are leading the blind, stupidity is running the world. For anyone looking at us from outer space, this could be extremely funny. But somehow it doesn't make me laugh.

See also

The Power of Stupidity, Part I