Bugs in Human Software

I would like to ask you to imagine the entire human race as a single supercomputer.

This is not as far-fetched as you might think. A supercomputer is made up of many processors (thousands of them) which communicate amongst themselves. Humanity comprises over 6 billion processors (people) of roughly equal intelligence, and they communicate amongst themselves.

It might be argued that we are not computers, or that we do not communicate in precisely the same way as a computer, or that there are biological differences between individuals. This is all true, up to a point, but please bear with me to see where this analogy leads.

If you can imagine the human race as a giant computer, what would a program be? What is a program but data and instructions? For a regular desktop computer, a program might look like this:

10 Print "Hello "
20 Print "World"
30 Stop

This contains three instructions (two Prints and a Stop) and data ("Hello " and "World").

For a human, a program might look like this:

1) Get:  a cup
2) Add:  instant coffee mix
3) Add:  hot water
4) Stir: spoon inside cup

This is a standard program to make instant coffee. It contains four instructions and four bits of data. (For the computer experts: okay, they're parameters, but parameters are still data. If you want to get pedantic, even instructions are data at one level.)

I propose that much can be learned by seeing humanity as a giant computer. I'm not insisting that it is!  But let's look at it that way for a while because it's easier to see certain things that way.

As you probably already know, human-based programs are called “memes.” Memes are the software of the human supercomputer. And it all works quite well, really. We've managed to reproduce at an astonishing rate, a stunning number of us are quite healthy, and we haven't destroyed ourselves yet.

Memetic Bugs

There are, however, bugs in the software. For evidence of this, I present the standard fallacies, such as Ad Hominem, Sweeping Generalization, and so on. (If you've never heard of these before, I suggest you read about them here before proceeding with this article.)

You'll note that I called them the “standard” fallacies. You may have heard them called the “rhetorical fallacies” or something like that. Whatever words you use, you've surely encountered them numerous times throughout your life. You've used them, too.

An interesting thing about the fallacies is that nobody is explicitly taught to use them. No teacher deliberately teaches their students wrong. Yet the fallacies are both ubiquitous and ancient. We humans — all of us — have been making these mistakes for a long time.

Let's consider one example: the fallacy known as Tu quoque.  (Yes, these fallacies are so well known that they have names.)  Between two human “processors” (i.e. people) the software would work like this:

Human 1 says:  You stole that cabbage!
Human 2 says:  At least I don't beat my dog, the way you do!

You have probably noticed that what Human 2 says is irrelevant — it's an attempt to deflect criticism back on the person who is criticizing by pointing out one of his or her flaws. This is a silly way to discuss a serious matter, but it's a trick used everywhere on the planet! That's the way the standard fallacies are: 

Nobody explicitly teaches them, but almost everybody uses them.

I say “almost” everybody because it is possible to learn about these errors and then avoid them. This is similar to how an anti-virus program works on your home computer: it is taught to recognize certain types of action and prevent it from happening.

We might speculate that we could have a kind of anti-virus program for the human race — an anti-mind-virus or anti-meme program — but that is not the point of this article (though I will point out that such a program could itself be dangerous).

The point of this article is this:  the fallacies demonstrate deep flaws in humanity's software. It's not just what we think that is flawed, but the way we think. I am talking about flaws so fundamental that all discourse about current worries (politics, environment etc.) is suspect.

It's not just the standard fallacies that we need to examine. Consider the issue of money. Most people treat our system of money as if it was an inevitable requirement for the human race. It might be a convenient tool, but it is not inevitable. If someone cannot see that alternatives are possible, then evidently they are gravely infected with a recent version of the “money” mind virus, and this will affect the way they see reality.

To return to the original analogy, I invite you to visualize the entire human race as a supercomputer infected with numerous “stealth” viruses. They are potentially harmful and for the most part we don't even know that they are there. Now consider this:

Is it possible that some of the viruses are persuading you to do nothing about them?


  1. I see you've been reading Douglas Adams again :)

  2. I'm a huge Douglas Adams fan. In fact, just today I started re-reading the second Dirk Gently book.

  3. In my high school we are being taught to use appeal to emotions and appeal to authority.

    1. If they're explicitly teaching that then I'm guessing that they don't know any better, or your class is being taught become politicians and advertising executives!