Yesterday, Tom Craver wrote: "I hope MNT does increase creativity, and help make people more self-sufficient. The more that happens, the less I think we need fear that people will become alienated by the loss of their old lives, and do something evil."
This reminds me of something I've been trying to get a handle on for a long time. What is it that makes people turn themselves into bombs?
In trying to predict and perhaps shape the impact of molecular manufacturing, it will be important to understand both the possible effects of social change, and the possible consequences of new technology in the hands of would-be attackers and defenders.
Back in 2004, I wrote a couple of lengthy comments on terrorism (here and here) in a thread on security. At the time, I wondered whether it was possible for a formerly normal person from a sane society to be converted into a suicide bomber. Since then, the London tube bombings, and recently announced plot to blow up airliners, appear to confirm that it is quite possible to take a person who's grown up in a Western nation, and convince them to kill themselves. (But were these people already mentally ill? See below.)
On p. 304 of The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker argues: "In absolute terms, today's poor are materially better off than the aristocracy of just a century ago. .... But if people's sense of well-being comes from an assessment of their social status, and social status is relative, then extreme inequality can make people on the lower rungs feel defeated even if they are better off than most of humanity. It is not just a matter of hurt feelings .... chronic low status leads men to become obsessed with rank and to kill one another over trivial insults."
The mention of extreme effects of trivial insults is interesting, because brooding over intolerable insults is one of the factors that leads to the amok state, a state that sounds very similar to the suicide bomber's emotional makeup: "social isolation, loss, depression, anger, pathological narcissism, and paranoia, often to a psychotic degree."
Is social isolation the same as alienation resulting from major social shifts? They're not identical; they may however be related. And of course, loss can result from social or economic displacement.
Back to Pinker: on p. 327, talking about violence, Pinker provides evidence that violence is a result of a "culture of honor" that develops as a deterrent to being taken advantage of in a relatively lawless environment. "Cultures of honor spring up all over the world because they amplify universal human emotions like pride, anger, revenge, and the love of kith and kin, and because they appear at the time to be sensible responses to local conditions. .... A man's honor is a kind of 'social reality' in John Searle's sense: it exists because everyone agrees it exists, but it is no less real for that .... When the lifestyle of a people changes, their culture of honor can stay with them for a long time, because it is difficult for anyone to be the first to renounce the culture."
So a culture of honor is a social construct, which implies that offenses to honor can be defined and redefined by clever people working to spark mayhem. On the other hand, the mental mechanisms of honor-driven violence may have evolved into us over millennia of living in lawless societies, implying that a mis-calibration of a natural human mental mechanism may be enough to turn someone into a killer.
Which brings us to the third hand: the reaction of extreme and senseless destruction may require preexisting mental illness. This highly relevant New York Times article describes a study of 100 rampage attacks, and found that of 102 killers, 48 had a diagnosis of mental illness. (Interestingly, the mental illness apparently requires a trigger. Loss of a job precipitated almost half the attacks.)
The good news is that mental illness is diagnosable, and with only moderately advanced chemical detection, it should be biochemically diagnosable. (Even if not all of the attackers would have been diagnosable by today's standards, the buildup period of brooding and depression should leave biochemical traces.) The bad news is that repeated biochemical screening for mental illness would be very invasive by the standards of many (most?) societies. (People may find it more acceptable if combined with a voluntary and privately administered medical health scan.)
It should be noted that providing excellent opportunities for creativity, or even social justice for everyone, will not stop the attacks--a romantic issue was the trigger in 22 of the cases studied by the Times.
The article mentions something that's quite worrysome. The number of deaths per incident increased in the early 90's, perhaps corresponding to the availability of more-lethal weapons. Other sources have said that the goal of amoks is to kill as many people as possible. If the amoks take this literally, then it may be that giving potential amoks access to molecular-manufactured weapons will be an intolerable risk.
On the other hand, there is a copycat nature to the incidents. (The same could be said of suicide bombing.) So the possibility of inventing a new weapon and killing vast numbers of people with it may not be exploited by people in the amok state... if we are lucky... usually. (The Columbine killers tried to use bombs as well as guns.)
Tentative conclusion: Societies willing to do periodic and invasive (though not necessarily inconvenient) scans of people's psychiatric health will probably be able to protect themselves from suicide bombers and amok individuals. On the other hand, societies not willing to protect themselves this way may remain vulnerable to increasingly lethal attacks--especially if terrorist-recruiters further develop the psychological skills of identifying and aiming potential amoks.