Civilization as AI

Smart perspective on “artificial intelligence” from Brian Eno:

Global Civilisation is something we humans created, though none of us really know how. It’s out of the individual control of any of us—a seething synergy of embodied intelligence that we’re all plugged into. None of us understands more than a tiny sliver of it, but by and large we aren’t paralysed or terrorised by that fact—we still live in it and make use of it.

Investing in Omaha

In an age when all the attention is on rich Silicon Valley people designing things for each other, it’s interesting to read why the world’s most successful investor lives in Omaha, Nebraska:

Buffett is known for investing in quality businesses that have fallen out of favor with the market, and he said being in Omaha helped him do that.

“In some places it’s easy to lose perspective. But I think it’s very easy to keep perspective in a place like Omaha,” he said.

Buffett said being far from Wall Street actually helped him.”It’s very easy to think clearly here. You’re undisturbed by irrelevant factors and the noise generally of business investments…If you can’t think clearly in Omaha, you’re not going to think clearly anyplace.”

I’ve worked with several rich and famous technologists, and I always wonder if their prior success helps or hinders their future efforts. I think it’s a bit of each, but no matter how rich you are, there’s one thing you can’t buy–the groundedness and perspective of life outside the bubble.

Digital despair

Neal Stephenson identifies the paradox of a tech-centered society that is attracted to visions of technology failing:

At the mass-market consumer level, we have a strange state of affairs in which people are eager to vote with their dollars, pounds and Euros for the latest tech but they flock to movies depicting a relentlessly depressing view of the future, and resist any tech deployed on a large scale, in a centralized way, such as wind turbine farms.

Previously: The impact of the future

Conversation — is there an app for that?

Smartphone usage is changing our face-to-face conversations–even when the phones are hidden:

[Her impatience] is characteristic of what the psychologists Howard Gardner and Katie Davis called the “app generation,” which grew up with phones in hand and apps at the ready. It tends toward impatience, expecting the world to respond like an app, quickly and efficiently. The app way of thinking starts with the idea that actions in the world will work like algorithms: Certain actions will lead to predictable results.

I’ve always thought that it was the act of programming computers that made tech geeks (like myself) talk like robots. Turns out the cause may simply be using them.

Theses of Technology

Some surprisingly good theses of technology by Alan Jacobs. He’s really not a fan of Kevin Kelly. A few of my favorites:

  • To “pay” attention is not a metaphor: Attending to something is an economic exercise, an exchange with uncertain returns.
  • Mindfulness reduces mental health to a single, simple technique that delivers its user from the obligation to ask any awkward questions about what his or her mind is and is not attending to.
  • The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.
  • Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.
  • [Kevin] Kelly tells us “What Technology Wants,” but it doesn’t: We want, with technology as our instrument.
  • The contemporary version of the pathetic fallacy is to attribute agency not to nature but to algorithms—as though humans don’t write algorithms. But they do.
  • What does it say about our understanding of human intelligence that we think it is something that can be assessed by a one-off “test” [the Turing Test]—and one that is no test at all, but an impression of the moment?
  • The chief purpose of technology under capitalism is to make commonplace actions one had long done painlessly seem intolerable.
  • Embrace the now intolerable.
  • Everyone should sometimes write by hand, to recall what it’s like to have second thoughts before the first ones are completely recorded.
  • To shift from typing to (hand)writing to speaking is to be instructed in the relations among minds, bodies, and technologies.
  • The always-connected forget the pleasures of disconnection, then become impervious to them.

Logic and the brain

Buzzfeed asked 12 scientists “What is the one fact humanity needs to know” if civilization was destroyed. Lots of good answers, but my favorite was from psychologist Dean Burnett:

People aren’t logical or rational by default, and it’s vitally important to remember this when trying to impart knowledge and guidance. Having some useful knowledge like atomic theory or the nature of gravity isn’t going to be much use if enough people don’t want to believe it.

I had an MRI done recently (purely for entertainment, through Klarismo), and it’s humbling to see that for all its capabilities and seemingly logical behavior, the brain is mostly wrinkled fat and water with electricity pumping through it. It’s a miracle that we can make sense of anything at all.

Burnett’s quote is a good reminder that if we want to make real advancements in society, improved technology (which has its own agenda) is not enough–we’ll need to deal with our monkey minds first.

Fossil fuels, our starter engine

The fossil fuel deposits of our Spaceship Earth correspond to our automobile’s storage battery which must be conserved to turn over our main engine’s self-starter. Thereafter, our “main engine,” the life regenerating processes, must operate exclusively on our vast daily energy income from the powers of wind, tide, water, and the direct Sun radiation energy. – Buckminster Fuller

I reference this idea often but had forgotten the source. Buckminster Fuller, of course.

Five years ago this would be in a science fiction movie

The FAA has made a PSA about drones at the Super Bowl.

Social change and technology change

When we think about long-term change with the benefit of hindsight, the things we think are unfathomable are usually the technology – planes, cars, computers. But it is at least as likely that the things that time travellers would most struggle with are the shifts in social values, which are almost invisible to us because we swim in them constantly and adapt ourselves to them as they change.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all.

With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it.