Nov 12

The disappearing truth

More is breaking us apart. More information, more connection.

We’re in a world of shrinking meaning and increasing anxiety.

There are no costs to information. Pragmatically, it’s free to store, access and process information. Take a simple example. There is no practical cost to email – drafting, blasting, storing or sending. And the lack of friction involved with email is making it’s value approach 0 (or negative). It takes more time to “manage” email than it does to create and send. Does a tree falling in a forest make a sound? Does an email sitting unread in an email inbox have value?

I see a wave of technology backlash. People “disconnecting.” There is a real cost to being connected. Humans aren’t built to be “always connected.” Like everything I think we need ebbs and flows. Solace and togetherness. Blistering and glacial paces both.

People are inundated with so much information that facts don’t have value. People want implications. They want the step beyond facts. Problematically, they value opinions, then, more than facts. And oddly, frictionless information, rather than bringing on a new higher form of scientific and rational society, is pushing us the other way. Culture is formed by emotion, opinion, the opposite of rational thought. We are moving backwards. Is anyone noticing?

In the last century we’ve industrialized and made things efficient. We have expectations about the market satisfying any need or want. It’s gone so far that we now expect to “know” things as simply as we order at McDonalds. I don’t want to think. Tell me what I need, what I want. Tell me the things to buy. Tell me what I should read. I want the world curated and offered up to me in the most efficient way. We rationalize this laziness as a form of productivity. The lie is that we convince ourselves that by making so many parts of our life efficient we can better enjoy the really meaningful things.

But what is meaningful today? I’d love a census of meaning. I’d love to map how meaning has changed over decades and centuries. It’s the age-old question — and with all our advances in technology and science, we’ve gotten nowhere with meaning.

Is meaning a form of faith?  Is it an illusion, our White Whale?  Meaning can’t be verified, measured, tested.  But meaning does have a partner.  Humans are unable able to ascribe meaning without the accompaniment of story.

The language of narratives is the human OS. If you want to get people to think, do, or believe, you do it through stories. It’s not with facts or evidence or science. Many of the storytellers with the most reach manipulate. They rely on age-old hacks and tricks to get people to think, feel, and do.

The problem is that these story hacks inhibit progress. Going back to the standard tried and true tropes reinforce the worst of our nature. For all our technological and scientific progress, we, culturally, are as backwards as we’ve ever been. We are proud of strong convictions and passion — cherry picking information that reinforces what we already believe (or want to believe).

A day doesn’t pass where I don’t see some public figure making a statement that seems wildly anachronistic. We have anachronistic beliefs. We take 2 technological leaps forward and 3 cultural steps back. The same culture responsible for making the Internet, space travel, and fusion possible, creates damaging fallacies like the belief there are no industrial effects on the climate, life-saving inoculations create health problems, and somehow freedom can translate to the right to bear arms and not the right to love another human.

It’s seems some of our core wiring is archaic. Our hardware and firmware update in such slow fashion — while everything we build and use iterates so many more cycles. It’s as if we have a shelf of Playstation 3 games and an Atari 2600 for a console.

Stories need to be hacked.  We need to rewire to slow things down, find the in-betweens, understand context.  We need evidence, analysis, and science to become emotional triggers.  We need ways to reduce the more without throwing away truth.  Problem is – a human will always choose a good story over a painful fact.

Feb 11

Outsourcing Intelligence

Are we becoming dumber as our systems become smarter?

I’m noodling around with the hypothesis —  but it seems that a confluence of factors are making us dumber.

1. We don’t need to think – everything else does so for us. You don’t need to know much of anything — thermostats, microprocessors, you name it, all have feedback and optimization built in. We just have to “set it and forget it.”

2. We don’t have the time – there are too many alternatives competing for our attention. Distractions are increasing exponentially while time is staying constrained. Don’t let #1 above fool you into thinking you have more time. You don’t. You just stop thinking about things you used to.

3. We are entitled – for much of the democratic world our unfilled needs are definitely near the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy. And in fact, as I review the hierarchy, I wonder if the factors here inhibit us from ever reaching self actualization. You get smarter when you feel there is a gap between the present and the future. I think we’re stuck in the vicious loop of seeking belonging and esteem…

This is just a start of a line of thought. It leads me to Schumpeter’s thinking of capitalism eating itself. I wonder if our “progress” make us more selfish, more entitled, and we end up outsourcing real purpose and meaning so we’re not bothered.

The original germ of this reasoning started when I was thinking about what I wanted to ask Arianna Huffington when she visited my office. I was thinking about the information we expose ourselves to — that “news” isn’t about what is fit to print — it’s more about what we want to hear (whether it is interesting, shocking, etc). And if you follow that reasoning to the limit, I fear that rather than having a broader world view we have a more narrow one. Rather than being more understanding, empathetic, and compassionate towards others, we instead seek out our cohorts or tribes and engage in a vicious echo chamber of thought.

There is a counterweight to all this — the transparency and connectivity that comes with the enabling technology. Twitter in the Middle East, Wikileaks and closed government, etc. But are those enough? If American politics are the bellwether we’re doomed.