You must continue

A feature of a job like mine in the steerage of HE admin is never quite knowing what to expect next, which is why when I found myself, one random Tuesday afternoon, watching and re-watching a video of Stanley Milgram in the Seventies, talking about his obedience experiments, I wasn’t even slightly surprised (long story, involves copyrights, very dull). But a teaching moment, all the same; although the experiments are famous, I didn’t know any more about them than every other non-Psychologist: he proved that most people would hurt others if they were told to, even if they said they didn’t want to.

Once over the culture shock (the paternalism! Pipe smokers! Questionable facial hair choices!), the experiments turned out to be more complex. Several variations were run to test hypotheses on factors affecting the results. There must have been some fairly free interpretation of experimental design, as even in those days the ethics were questionable at best, but the findings stood up.

In lab settings and hired offices, and among test subjects of either gender, more than sixty percent of people instructed to give what they believed was a potentially fatal electric shock to another person in the context of a memory and learning test did so. Unwilling, protesting, being persuaded, assured responsibility lay with the directors of the experiments, the majority would continue.

The only factor that reduced this was proximity – the 60%+ was when the subject was in another room. If the person they believed they were shocking was in the same room, compliance was around forty percent, and if they had to physically interact with them to give the ‘shock’, around thirty.

The experiments, conceived in the long shadow of World War II, were infamous almost as soon as they were published, in academic circles and beyond. Milgram’s career hung in the balance for quite a while. Some of the strongest criticisms were less about flaws in the experiments than the need to reject a conclusion that went against many people’s conviction that they (and a majority of people) would reject authority when it directed them to cause harm.

For all that the experiments were about the past, it’s something to think about for the present, and the future. After all, isn’t the internet, where we increasingly work and learn, meet and shop and play, like everyone else being in the other room, all the time?


If you have had to put up with me over the last twelve months, I am grateful for your forbearance (if you haven’t, maybe that’s a cause for gratitude on your part). In any case, I wish you all peace and goodwill for the festive season, and good luck in the year to come.

Year down

Cards again. Birds again this year – some folk-ish stylised hens and some that have got a bit out of hand, currently with referred to as the anarcho-chickens.

In the meantime, a year has passed in this house and while not much art has been done, the toilets are no longer leaking, the windows don’t rattle every time a car drives past and there is no longer a whistling draught blowing down the hall. The broken washing machine has been replaced, although we haven’t managed to get the cupboard door put back on, as all the holes are in different places. Six or seven rubble bags of vines and thorns have been dragged to the dump, there are pears and raspberries in the freezer and two boxes of apples, deep blood red like ones from a fairy tale, sit in the shed.

We know the place better now; where to park and who the neighbours are, when the bins go out and how to open the back gate when it swells in the damp.

I’m trying to enjoy living in this generous old house, with its garden and the absurdly gothic cemetery beyond, but it still feels precarious, being here. When it rains, I fret about the roof, and in the drought about subsidence. Even in good times we didn’t expect to be here forever and it would be hard to call these good times. Everything has to be done with an eye to keeping options open, hanging on until school is done with if we can, one eye always on the lookout for an escape route.

Homesick blues

Imagine the rich men’s dreams come true, and you are standing out there one day on whatever planet or moon has become the new frontier, goldrush town or out-of-town fulfillment centre. Do you know what it is, the thing you would miss the most?

It won’t be gravity – without a useful amount of it no long-term settlement would work. However distracting the thought of null-gravity porn might be, a huge range of survival activities won’t work without it. Things like smelting, and surgery. Childbirth.

You will miss individual people, and places; but that’s part of any human life regardless of where it happens. Solitude might be hard to come by but if you’re determined you can find it.

Probably not the sights and sounds of Earth, either, even if you were raised here. VR immersion will likely be mandatory in a psychologist-advised effort to stop everyone beating each other to death with space rocks, so wide open spaces will be piped straight to your brain at regular intervals.

It will quite possibly be something you or the best scientific or strategic minds are only started to find out about now, never considered or even knew about. An obscure fungus spread by migrating birds that regulates some bacterial action in the soil, or your guts; or a mineral rock that stops enzyme cascades or speeds them up by slowly dissolving in the ocean; a cell reaction dependent on a particular level of magnetism or radioactivity, or a hormone that needs activating by a wavelength of light.

As much as we are in, on or of the Earth, it is in, on and of us. All boundaries are porous at some level whether we recognise them or not. Sometimes, like Joni says, you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.