Monday, October 14, 2013

The Mayflower Problem

The Mayflower(*) problem is this: you are the small group about to take a one-way trip to a big empty continent.  What do you pack? Metaphorically.

In this metaphor, the "empty" continent is The Future,

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Futurists blogging about thinking

Here are two blogs about thinking, by futurists. Overcoming Bias "is economist Robin Hanson's blog, on honesty, signaling, disagreement, forecasting, and the far future." Less Wrong "is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality." Tying them together, the latter site says,

In November 2006, Eliezer Yudkowsky began posting about rationality on Robin Hanson's blog Overcoming Bias. In February 2009, Yudkowsky's posts were used as the seed material for a new community website, Less Wrong. Overcoming Bias remains Less Wrong's "sister site."

Less Wrong is associated with the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University and the Singularity Institute, where Yudkowsky is a senior researcher.

Hanson wrote "If Uploads Come First," , a 1994 cold splash of an essay about the consequences of having human minds transcribed into easily-copyable form. Yudkowsky coined the term "friendly AI" and has developed ideas about how to program AIs to be able to learn and adapt and yet still be constrained by design to human-friendliness.

In my 1990s online extropian neighborhood, memes popped up a lot, and there were hopes for memetic science and engineering. In general we preferred Key New Ideas to conventional sluggishness, and tended to see things from outsider points of view. We liked to be meta and recursive. It stemmed from shared interests (among a larger set) in AI, cognitive science and The Singularity. I've always thought there was something more-than-met-the-eye about the extropian shared-interest convergence.

Anyway, rather than scientific study of rationality, or mental hygiene per se, I'm interested in how thinking about The Future, in particular, is hard and shows up background habits and assumptions.

The Singularity, with its supposed flat wall of incomprehensibility, is aggravating. Which aspects of the day after tomorrow will be futuristic and which will be business as usual... or timeless principle? How many orders of magnitude might simultaneous rates of change spread over? As William Gibson said, "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." Humanity has lived with mixtures of the novel and familiar forever, but humanity might be a bygone topic. Still, is mental confrontation with the future actually space-like? Cone-shaped? A story of accreting layers?

Another thrilling annoyance is the very notion of a futurist, a declared expert in something that has never been seen. Since Walter Cronkite and "The Twenty-First Century," since before Alvin Toffler. To focus on The Future seems both necessary and absurd... to me like Szechuan and Thai food when I was new to them.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Second-Order-First Fallacy

I admit, that when I think "about ways of thinking about the future," I'm often thinking condescendingly about others' mistakes. This is one of the first I imagined blogging about (taking a deep breath).

This example of the "second-order-first" fallacy is probably familiar: cars make it easier to regularly visit people and places that are farther away than you would regularly visit without a car. So, we can live further away from those people and places and still visit them with comparable ease. So, we do. We are less constrained in just where we live. Therefore (and here's the kicker) the effect of the automobile has been to push people farther away from each other and disconnect us from our surroundings.

My response is to say, excuse me, but no. The effect of the automobile is to bring people and places effectively closer and avail us of more connection. That's the starting point of the "further away" argument. The first-order effect of cars is to make us closer. A second-order effect, a dependent follow-on effect, is that we sometimes use that freedom to move physically further away from some people and places.

We could focus on this one example and get into details about the politics and sociology of place; the relative immediacy of walking over driving; the difference between being freed and being forced; zoning and the causes of urban and suburban sprawls; the way the area of a territory is proportional to the square of its radius; the way the landscape has become accommodated to cars; and so forth. But by trying to be fair we'd miss my larger point. When it's a SOFF, the rhetorical point isn't to be fair.

The rhetorical advantage of an author, say, wrestling a second-order effect into the foreground is, first of all, the paradox. Paradox is impressive and it gets the attention. It also raises suspicion: seemingly something has been hidden from us, or we have been tricked, and the author is bringing the trick and the hidden truth to our attention. That makes the author seem clever, and we are clever for recognizing the point, for seeing the care we must take to view the situation in this new way. I can't be the only one who feels a certain somber thrill at being alerted to any dark reality underlying the spectacle.

Now you may rightly suspect that I'm being paranoid. Here I am looking at the mere surface form of an argument, and pulling amateur psychoanalysis of the author (an imaginary author in fact!) and his audience into the foreground. My argument needs better footing to say the least.

Speaking of cars specifically, of course there are attractive poisons. In general, things aren't always what they seem. Talking about these sorts of issues is almost the whole justification for critical thinking.

But what I mean by the second-order-first fallacy is when a second-order effect is made to magically appear to be the real effect. You be the judge. A SOFF is being pulled when the paranoiac or paradoxical or clever logic is quietly substituted for justification and we proceed to analyze-- now that we have our heads on straight and our eyes squinted-- the details of this secondary effect which is the real story.

Let me illustrate with some similar points I would like people to believe. I think the effect of welfare programs is to degrade charity, and that the degradation of the attitudes, habits and institutions of charity is larger than the effect of helping out people in need. I think minimum-wage laws, overall, bring unemployment to poor people. I think equal-opportunity laws worsen-- that is , their larger effect is to worsen-- relations between people who seem different to each other.

If you're not a libertarian, you've probably at least heard crap like this before, accompanied by, guess what, twisty tortured crap libertarian paradoxy arguments that you forgot as soon as you could get a hot shower.

So, while I merely stated conclusions without taking us through the paradoxes, try to decide whether I could only make these points by SOFFing. One of the things I made a point of was to say explicitly that the effect I find important is actually larger than the intended effect of the programs I was criticizing. That way, were I to lay out my reasoning, at least it might be more noticeable if I failed to connect the dots. In any case, I think SOFF often happens as a shorthand-- or at least an easier sloppiness-- within an implied in-group.

Whether something is a SOFF isn't a technical criterion. SOFF isn't necessarily a deliberate strategy either. I think a paradox can help highlight a valid point. SOFF is more about whether proportion is lost or hobbled in the process of an argument. It's about the feeling of paradox itself substituting for support.


Naming and describing fallacies is a fun way to talk about thinking, and I suspect it's a good way to remember in the background things to be on the alert for, and once alerted, to remember how to judge whether a fallacy is actually happening.

At least two blogs about the future, by people in my loose peer group, the small-e extropians, are also explicitly about thinking and its pitfalls. The subject of thinking and its vagaries is fascinating, but putting oneself in the position of ragging on others' thought patterns at an abstract level is prone to irony and wobbliness, I think. I will have to write about that.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Technology as Dribble Glass

[I wrote this in 1997, after I had read "The Unix Haters Handbook," which at one point compares the "curses" terminal handling library to a dribble glass for the programmer. This is a little bit of a rant, but I still think it's wrong, not just unnecessary, to apologize to a bad design. --Steve]

Once in a while I find myself trying to explain to someone
that the fact that they didn't adhere to some stupid rule
of some stupid piece of technology
(often stupid in a subtle way, like the fact that
the VCR must be OFF or it won't record X-Files tomorrow night,
or the way that Dilbert, intending to delete an embarrassing
phone message, instead sends it to all his coworkers),
means the piece of technology is stupid,
not them.

Listen, it's a dribble glass.
It's designed in such a way that it dribbles on you.

"Yes, but I knew that."
It's still a dribble glass.
Dribble glasses work by fooling you into thinking they're something sensible,
fooling you into doing something perfectly sensible with them,
then doing something to you that looks like it was your fault.
Hah, hah, you trusted me.

"You'd think I would learn."
The point is that this is a retrograde, damaging kind of "learning."
It is unlearning the expectation of civilization--the expectation that people won't hand you a dribble glass. We are in denial. Instead of admitting the horrible truth that we are being handed dribble glasses left and right, we take the blame ourselves, eroding the idea that technology should not dribble on us, that it should be adapted to us.

First maybe learn to be a human being,
then, when you're done that, in your spare time,
you might take up the hobby of learning
the obeisance before fetish-objects,
the nervous glance,
the stepping over cracks,
the counting to ten,
the throwing salt over your shoulder,
the obsessive triple-checking and hand-washing,
the knees-bent, arms-outstretched walk,
the saying-the-opposite-of-what-you-mean, but winking obscurely,
in short the behaviors
that are adapted to the fun house--or funny farm--around you.

There is a moral point here.
Acquiesce to barbarism implies support of barbarism.
By saying "I should learn," one implies that
we all should learn to adapt to bad designs,
that it's okay for people to hand us dribble glasses.
We shouldn't. It ain't.

It's okay, as a provisional, practical matter, to learn the ways of the idiotic mutant sheep-monkey some piece of equipment was designed for, but don't make it sound like a measure of a person.

Measuring ourselves by dribble-glass standards is not a game I want to be included in, implicitly or not.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Just Tools

One of the tools people sometimes bring to bear on the future is the idea that technology is, or ought to be, ought to be treated as, or ought to be thought of as, just tools. I want to give a plug for a little sophistication and clarity around this idea-form. Tools are never just tools, but it's good to try to make them as close as possible to that, but that's really hard in more than one way.

If you run across the just tools idea, it's worth pausing to note what's not being, threatening to not be, not being treated as, or not being thought of as, just a tool, and how.

Maybe someone is talking about Technology with a capital T as an autonomous force. Maybe someone is treating a particular technology as a way of life, or getting too involved with it. Maybe a tool encroaches too much. Maybe there's just too much ado made about it.

And then, whether it's you or someone else talking, try to decide whether "Technology is just tools" is meant as a declarative statement, a reason not to worry, or more of a moral statement, for instance implying that it's (only?) when we treat tools as more than tools that we create problems. Then here are my two pence:

I should probably come out in favor of tools as tools first. I don't like tools as lifestyles. I don't like lifestyle products. I don't like products that force me to bend and shovel my whole life to fit them. I don't like that people treat technological change--in particular the development and adoption of standards--as a kind of ongoing fait accompli. I don't like how willing people are to treat technology as something you have to learn and become facile with, on pain of appearing an idiot, like multiplication tables or professional jargon. I don't like passivity in the face of how other people design things.

In particular I don't like tools that won't sit down and act like tools. To cite one trend, a lot of technological change is about putting computers into things, then putting more and more software into the computers, offering a growing grab-bag of features decided on by some sordid, faraway and out-of-control process that has not nearly enough to do with making a tool that acts like a tool.

To be just a tool, a tool mustn't be mysterious or unpredictable. Immediately most computers and computer-containing devices fail this test. We might add that just a tool needs to be immediate, apparent, sensible, clear, under control... fail, fail, fail, fail, fail...

Here is the good news about how tools should be tools: there are people who can design and build tools. It is possible to improve designs or produce better competing designs. It is possible to get funding to do so. It's possible to market, sell and be successful at it. To get other technologists and technology companies to change their ways. To show the public they don't have to settle for less, or for more-stupid; to change the world.

And the bad news is that every one of those steps is hard, hard, hard. In particular, designing something simple, making something be just a tool, is hard. The less stupidity and non-toolishness, the tougher it is. Simplicity isn't simple, it's the hardest thing. I don't think anyone gets by with just a knack for it; anyone who tries to make something simple and useful eventually grinds against the question of just what kind of simplicity matters. Then there are all the steps of getting something good out into the world.

One way to deal is to use tools that the world shovels out, but choose the best ones, of course, customize perhaps, and use them only in tool-like ways. I haven't found a clear-cut method to do this. Bad tools, I mean typical tools, will fight you, and if you engage a tool too strenuously in that fight, for instance by extensively customizing it or using it too much against its grain, then you are fighting it like an enemy rather than using it like a tool.

Technogenesis is a disgusting process involving slimy spasming organs like politics, business, marketing, geekery, an uncritical public and a pile of relevant historical accidents and mistakes that gets ever taller, never shorter. Saying so is only fatalism if you think there's no hope in this.

So now I will argue against tools as tools, by use of an example.

All of the genes of any organism code for proteins, but most of those proteins are enzymes. Enzyme just means a catalyst made out of protein, and a catalyst is a molecule that somehow wedges or nudges other molecules into or out of place, but isn't used up in the process. Often the process happens on its own without the enzyme, but having the enzyme around makes it go faster.

Most of the things your genes make are molecules that sit around helping chemical processes to happen. They are tools. Your genome is a catalog of tools. If you ask how any of the structures or chemicals in our bodies got there, most of them were produced with the use of enzymes. How did the enzymes get there? The main molecules of the genetic machinery--DNA, RNA, ribosomes--are all catalysts. How did the raw materials, the energy-carrying chemicals get there? Through processes carried out by the body's enzymes.

We are huge bags of tiny tools each owing its existence to large numbers of other tools, each helping to produce large numbers of other tools. Mutations change those tools, and when the tools are changed species change.

This pattern of mutually-supporting piles of tools is repeated at all scales of life, up through organelles, cells, tissues and organs. Also for ideas, habits, attitudes, all the blebs of learning. Up through social conventions, ethics, languages and professions. And sideways to the things we usually call tools and technologies.

Look from a tool to the pile of things it's used for, it's part of some semi-random collection of things it's suited for one way or another, and an obstruction in other places.

We pick up a tool and it's helpful for some things and not others. We didn't pick those two sets. Parts of our lives, not completely of our shaping, are made easier by having the tool. And by adopting the tool, we make some things get harder or go haywire.

Specific usefulness has never been refined in pure form. In fact I doubt a pure specific use, a pure end, can be identified. Everything's always on the way to something else, and facilitating one thing facilitates the set of things it's on the way to. Nor is there a hard boundary between the user and the used: our tools become parts of the collections of tools that are us; a tool changes us in ways defined by the interaction of that tool with the rest.

I mention this view of tools as soup-ingredients with unpredictable evolutionary effects to put a bracket around my view that we ought to wrestle tools into their rightful subservient place. Here is the heroic character, the Tool User, in an opera of meaning, complexity and history. The critical tool-using point of view is one element in the metabolism of our lives. The I/Tool distinction is always being pushed back at chaotically, and "I" has to pick its battles and admit that life isn't simply driving a station wagon and checking off of items on a shopping list. Tool Specifier, Tool Demander, Tool Builder, Tool Wielder, has an important dignity- and clarity- promoting job, an identity-defining job, but what is it in this larger picture?


So, without meaning to, I've set up one of my radical/reasonable tensions. In this case saying to hold both that maelstrom and that hero in mind side by side and ask, what is it we find so right about this particular hero? Why have we been underappreciative and why is she so unsung? Where do we find her?

And it's the point of this sputtering blog: to try to follow the plot and figure out where we're supposed to make our entrances. The Future is not a TV show on a screen, we are actors with parts. We are (from the point of view of this particular post) singing, gesticulating, hyperkinetic bags of tools. At some point or points we become protagonists; where are those points?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Time's Conveyor

Today, driving through Concord, I passed a funny-looking house with a sign: Octagon Farm. It reminded me of the huge octagonal barn at Linvilla Orchards, where we used to get corn and other rustic produce in the summers when we were teenagers. I thought I might like to drive back through that area with my siblings and see the place again.

That brought back a vague memory of being prisoners in the back seat as my father and one of his siblings dragged us kids through some old familiar stomping ground of theirs, droning on about this and that detail, absent landmark, or memory. How ridiculous they seemed, concerned with things so far in the past.

I guess I didn't understand time then. The life of an old person is the same length as that of a young person; it's just made of shorter years. Time is a conveyor belt that comes out of your chest and proceeds down a track that is only maybe a hundred feet long. The far end is a little harder to see but still well in sight. As things happen they emerge onto the belt and roll away. But as they roll they get more and more flattened till they're something like a stack of cardboard cutouts and stage backdrops.

As an example, I'm sure that, when I was a teenager, my father's and uncle's memories were as close to them as Linvilla Orchards is to me now. See? Not at all receded into irrelevance and ridiculousness the way I had imagined from the back seat. My umpteen years of memory were stretched out to an extent that would place their memories out of reach.

My father's reminiscences in turn reminded me of another backseat torture as my father drove his father through long country roads to enjoy the farmland scenery and autumn foliage. How indescribably boring. I didn't understand how the new stuff, like the shopping mall my childhood self would have preferred, can become so tiresome, and that sometimes only old places have freshness.

Linville's barn (which when I knew it was already a retail store, a Country Living Experience) has burnt down, but they intend to build a replica on the spot. I'm sorry you can't see it, it was something to behold, right in that area there.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Kevin Kelly's Technium

From Kevin Kelly's introduction to the book in progress he's blogging on his site The Technium:
For the past year and a half I have been studying the history of technology, the arguments of technology's critics, projections of its future, and the tiny bit of technic philosophy that has been written, all with the aim to answer a simple question: How should I think about new technology when it comes along?

Kelly was editor of The Whole Earth Review and then Wired, and wrote the Bible-chapter-level Out of Control. He reviews Cool Tools at his site.