Weird & Güd - When the Performance of Safety Goes to Broadway
Drop the curtain on society
A life well-lived is a life well-examined. A life well-examined has a little weird and güd within it. This newsletter is an examination of our weird and güd world.
If the theater is dead, we can always rely on an international tour of security theater. We’ve had runs of this show in the past, but this tour comes with a new storyline.
Perhaps when it comes to invisible attackers like illness, security theater is all the more comforting for its emphasis on visual performance.
Humans are a performative animal; less in the artistic sense and more in the sense of desperately wanting to conform and convey allegiance. Our group-ishness subtly drives much of our behavior—sometimes to the point of prioritizing performance above outcome.
Security theater is a term coined by computer security specialist and writer Bruce Schneier (whose book Beyond Fear I instantly bought based on title and synopsis alone). Understanding security theater means differentiating between two types of security: the security that makes you feel secure…and the security that actually works.
Security theater is any measure whose goal doesn’t require effectiveness—just great optics.
Why not toss the security equivalent of jazz hands into society? What makes security theater more sinister than innocuous is the same, tried-and-true lesson humans seem hellbent on bashing our heads against: every choice is made at a cost.
Ever missed a flight because the TSA upended a once simple part of flying? Then you know the cost of security theater personally.
Every action creates a ripple that flows far beyond the initial action that caused it.
A Cornell study found that, not only have those TSA cattle pens caused over 1 billion dollars in loss to the airline industry over just a 6% reduction in passengers in a quarter of the year—those would-be airline passengers translated into an increase in car accident deaths.
Security theater isn’t purely an illusion. While the security is illusory, the effects of the performance are real.
One of the more pernicious elements of security theater is its vine-like nature. When your raison d’être is fictional, finding a justification for your existence is like finding water in the desert—you need to look far and wide.
The TSA is the Broadway of security theater. With a 70 to 80 precent failure rate at detecting weapons, an ever-expanding program and budget, plus weird to plain ridiculous privacy breeches, the TSA is better at apprehending your doubt over the harm of security theater than any terrorists.
It wasn’t enough to subject travelers to cyber-style softcore porn shoots that still couldn’t detect weapons nor was it enough to make airport checkpoints a new ring of Dante’s inferno. The TSA’s solution to its ineffectiveness wasn’t to stop doing what doesn’t work, but to do it more.
Their Behavior Detection Analysis program dipped into the realm of pseudo-science in its desperation for validation, sending plainclothes agents beyond airport checkpoints to sniff out terrorist behavior…like yawning, being late, and whistling.
If you can’t hit your target, just make a wider target, right?
“We need your nudes….for safety.”
The scanners that produced these degradingly detailed images of you have now been replaced with scanners that anonymize bodies completely and aren’t reviewed in another room, but show the image on a screen near your view.
Of course, not before at least $40 million in citizen’s income were spent to deck out the TSA’s casting couch style security program.
There’s a more sinister and more overlooked cost to the kind of security theater that upends normal behavior and subjects citizens to scrutiny en masse simply for the sake of scrutinizing.
When the security show starts rolling, it rarely comes with an expiration date or even a renewal date that depends on proven efficacy. Instead, we continue taking our shoes off in airports like superstitions peasants for generations until eventually, you reach the generation that’s never done anything but perform the ritual dance of security.
The most pernicious scene in security theater is the one where entire generations are inevitably inoculated into accepting arbitrary intrusions of privacy.
Does anyone truly believe that, despite overwhelming evidence of its uselessness and damage, the TSA will ever be reduced, let alone removed?
Security theater is at best a superstition of comfort, at worst, a training system for submission to capricious power.
Privacy is an obstacle to power. To part with your privacy for the sake of shallow comfort is to make a deal so foolish it can only be said to deserve the security circus it begets.
Of all the harm that placing the illusion of security above efficacious outcomes can yield, perhaps one of the most corrosive is what it does to our trust in the institutions that enact it.
What does it say about the logic our institutions function upon when performance is placed above outcome?
Who will respect power when the curtain is pulled back to reveal a puppeteer instead of the expert we expect?
Nothing is free, including security. Even if that security is merely a performance, don’t doubt that you’re paying a price to watch the show.
As a modern human, the most important ability you have isn’t counting or even reading—it’s thinking. Humans stand apart from every other animal because of our super-powered thinking skills.
While humans invent plenty of problems, we solve just as many.
It was thinking that solved the problem of hunting animals larger and stronger than us by designing tools.
It was thinking that solved the problem of the unpredictability of relying on wild animals for food by creating domesticated livestock.
It was thinking that solved the problem of every human being bound to the land their food was grown upon by allocating different roles to different people.
Everything around you—the windows in your home, the light cast upon your room, the cup on your table—was once a problem solved by human thought.
In a free society, thought is valued above obedience.
If thinking is the pinnacle of human ability, then freedom is the catalyst for reaching that pinnacle.
Equally, a free society requires its residents to take the work of thinking seriously to maintain the kind of society that values thought.
We don’t often think about thinking, much like we don’t often think about our car while driving. Though, the more crucial your car is to what you do, the more you’ll think about your car versus solely where it’s taking you.
Those famed bursts of insight that lead to a major achievement are the instant-replay moments of cognition. Sudden insight is a beloved phenomenon across time and culture, from Einstein’s breakthroughs in physics to Archimedes discovering how to measure volume in ancient Greece.
The story of Archimedes having a burst of insight and running through the streets of Greece shouting εὕρηκα—eureka, meaning “I’ve found it,” is where the name for the eureka effect stems from.
Also called the aha! effect, this mental phenomenon includes both world-changing breakthroughs and simple but sudden realizations.
If you’re a human with the capacity to think, you have the capacity for sudden insight.
What makes the eureka effect different from the general process of finding an answer is how it originates. If you want to have your own Greek philosopher breakthrough moment, you’ll need these ingredients:
A problem you’re stuck on. When you’re trying to solve an issue but you’ve hit a wall despite considering every possibility, you’ve entered phase one of the eureka effect.
Step away from the problem. What usually precedes a moment of insight is having temporarily given up after intense effort to solve the problem. Mathematician, physicist, and general polymath Henri Poincaré sung the praises of sleep as a method for “unconscious thought” that helped him scale a mental block.
Phase three is the mystical process by which you suddenly get hit with the insight needed to solve a problem. Stepping away from a problem allows you to think about it in new ways for a similar reason to why a watched pot doesn’t boil.
Our thoughtful species experiences a lovely added element of the eureka effect: happiness. A moment of insight comes with a side of satisfaction.
Is there a better way to describe humans getting happy over having good ideas than just plain cute?
Research by John Kounios at Drexel University offers some science behind creating the right setting for seeking insight:
Insights are more likely to occur when a person's brain is in a particular state. This state is characterized by a positive mood and expansive, de-focused attention.
In this state, there is more activity in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate, which monitors other brain areas for conflicting ideas or tendencies. When the anterior cingulate is activated, then it can detect a weak, unconscious, alternative idea and signal other brain areas to switch attention to it, resulting in a sudden insight.
But when the anterior cingulate is less active, then alternative ideas aren't detected and a person's scope of thought is limited to the most obvious, straightforward idea. This is like mental tunnel vision.
Kounios recommends wide space with tall ceilings, or the world’s tallest ceiling—nature—for places that encourage the expansive, de-focused attention that births insight.
Contrary the cynical narratives we’re fed about ourselves today, the human brain might cling to ideologies and concoct conspiracies, but that’s only a fraction of what it can do.
In the right setting, every mind is capable of insight.
Perhaps more minds would seek insight if they weren’t already convinced the human mind is more of a threat than a resource.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
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