With a nod to Hannah Arendt for her phrase “dark times,” the New York Times online column “The Stone” recaps the columns of 11 contributors who have addressed the issue over the past year.
“Calling something interesting is the height of sloppy thinking. Interesting is not descriptive, not objective, and not even meaningful. Interesting is a kind of linguistic connective tissue.”
One study suggests the brain may be hard-wired to respond to verse, while another reports creativity is associated not so much with one particular hemisphere, but rather with robust connections between the two.
Tim Parks: “How is it that we experience the world? How is it possible that the environment we live in, the objects we use and see, touch and taste, hear and smell, are both patently out there and simultaneously, it seems, in our heads? After four long conversations, … Riccardo Manzotti and I are no nearer to establishing what consciousness is or where it resides. Today, then, we have set ourselves a simple task: to review all the ways philosophers have supposed a subject might relate to and become conscious of an object.”
“The wonders of the Universe are under no obligation to make it easy for science-fiction writers to tell stories about them. The Universe is mostly empty space, and the distances between stars in galaxies, and between galaxies in the Universe, are incomprehensibly vast on human scales. Capturing the true scale of the Universe, while somehow tying it to human endeavours and emotions, is a daunting challenge for any science-fiction writer.”
Well, you probably know why. “With its descriptions of human social life subsumed by technology and images, it is often cited as a prophecy of the dangers of the internet age now upon us. And perhaps more than any other 20th-century philosophical work, it captures the profoundly odd moment we are now living through, under the presidential reign of Donald Trump.”
“The idea that intelligence could be quantified, like blood pressure or shoe size, was barely a century old when I took the test that would decide my place in the world. But the notion that intelligence could determine one’s station in life was already much older. It runs like a red thread through Western thought, from the philosophy of Plato to the policies of UK prime minister Theresa May. To say that someone is or is not intelligent has never been merely a comment on their mental faculties. It is always also a judgment on what they are permitted to do. Intelligence, in other words, is political.”
“For much of the world, the Golden Age brought extraordinary prosperity. But it also brought unrealistic expectations about what governments can do to assure full employment, steady economic growth and rising living standards. These expectations still shape political life today.”
Simon L. Garfinkel: Calling something interesting is the height of sloppy thinking. Interesting is not descriptive, not objective, and not even meaningful. … Interesting is a kind of linguistic connective tissue. When introducing an idea, it’s easier to say ‘interesting’ than to think of an introduction that’s simultaneously descriptive but not a spoiler. … In practice, interesting is a synonym for entertaining.”
“Dataism is a new ethical system that says, yes, humans were special and important because up until now they were the most sophisticated data processing system in the universe, but this is no longer the case. The tipping point is when you have an external algorithm that understands you—your feelings, emotions, choices, desires—better than you understand them yourself. That’s the point when there is the switch from amplifying humans to making them redundant.”
“People are quicker to diagnose change for the worse than change for the better. We established this basic effect across many methods, measures, and contexts … People demand less evidence to diagnose lasting decline than lasting improvement.”
“Today, in the United States, shyness is often associated with a broad jumble of related and overlapping conditions, from occasional timidness to general awkwardness, from stage fright to the DSM-recognized social anxiety disorder. This imprecision is, it turns out, fitting: Shyness isn’t a single situation or character.”
A scholar of the history of Christianity writes about “New Thought” – developed by a Maine clockmaker whose most famous student was Mary Baker Eddy (who, of course, went off in her own direction) – and how it led to the uniquely American “prosperity gospel” (which dates back to 1925) and Norman Vincent Peale, who led the church attended by the Trump family.
“As it stands, there is not only no incentive for the cable companies to not only expand far beyond the metropolitan areas where there are residences — it doesn’t make fiscal sense to go much further, which is why 43 percent of rural California residents have no broadband access — but there’s no real incentive for them to even innovate their products to provide better service for their existing customers. They’re getting their $50–80 a month for their substandard service anyway, as the only other choice is cutting the cord entirely.”
“One can be book-smart, street-smart, emotionally gifted, wise, rational, or experienced; it’s rare and difficult to be intelligent in all of these ways. Intelligence has many sources and our brains don’t respond to them all the same way. Thus, the quest to develop artificial intelligence begets numerous challenges, not the least of which is what we don’t understand about human intelligence.”
“Out of more than 1,900 proposals submitted, the foundation’s judges chose eight with goals that include eliminating river blindness in Nigeria, educating displaced children in countries like Syria, and caring for children in orphanages.”
“The gap between identifying a problem to be solved, devising a technique and then putting it to work – a step often not even on the radar of those who initiated the process – can last a century or more. That poses a challenge to policymakers keen to evince the returns that money spent on R&D will generate. Although everyone knows they will come, no one knows how long they will take.”
That is, ancient Greece: “The times we are living in have forced us to acknowledge that there is a darkness in humanity. … The Greek tragedies, those stories of darkness and obsession and revenge, resonate because we’re living in dark times and these are dark stories.”
Wait, what? Instead of becoming hostile or paranoid or more like Fox Mulder, 85 percent of people who believe they’ve encountered UFOs or aliens “become more humane, experience a oneness with the world. They become less interested in organized religion, they become more spiritual, they have less interest in monetary values, and become more sensitive to the ecological welfare of our planet, among many other psychospiritual outcomes.”
Would living forever make people happier or more generous? “It’s worth asking, ‘Should we die?'”
Each cell has a preference – a “handedness,” they call it, and that may make a difference in cell repair, in cancer, and in survival. “Ramsdell and a cadre of other developmental biologists are trying to unravel why the organisms can tell their right from left. It’s a complex process, but the key orchestrators of the handedness of life are beginning to come into clearer focus.”
“We’re developing an expert mechanic’s brain that identifies exactly what is happening to a machine by the way that it sounds,” says Amnon Shenfeld, founder and CEO of 3DSignals, a startup based in Kfar Saba, Israel, that is using machine learning to train computers to listen to machinery and diagnose problems at facilities like hydroelectric plants and steel mills.
“To label science as moral or immoral completely misses the point. Science is amoral. Science is a collection of facts about the natural world painstakingly carved out by a community of scientists who engage in detailed quantitative research and data analysis. This is true even for computer simulations of detonation shock fronts of explosive devices, for example, and even of engineers and technicians putting bombs together in an assembly line.”
Matthew Hutson: “In the coming decades, artificial intelligence will replace a lot of human jobs, from driving trucks to analyzing X-rays. But it will also work with us, taking over mundane personal tasks and enhancing our cognitive capabilities. … Here’s what to expect.”
“Developments in education technology promise to assist teachers and school systems in supporting struggling students by providing individualized instruction. But at what cost? As a teacher, it’s difficult to adapt to and embrace a machine that—at least for part of the time—takes over for me. The processes of teaching and learning are complex and innately human; I value the time I take to develop relationships with my students. But it’s hard not to wonder if that time could better be spent with adaptive learning technology.”
Researchers in the field are having a lively dispute over the question. Matthew Hutson lays out the arguments.
“It’s the simple, inspiring idea that when members of different groups – even groups that historically dislike one another – interact in meaningful ways, trust and compassion bloom naturally as a result, and prejudice falls by the wayside.” Jesse Singal offers an explication and a history of the concept.
“Distractions and interruptions are such a common part of our workdays, we don’t even think of them as excessive noise anymore. It’s often more obvious when we don’t hear the noise of distractions around us at work than when we do. A study at the University of California, Irvine, found that knowledge workers have focus periods of just 11 minutes on average in between interruptions.”
Daniel Dennett and others argue, genetic evolution is not enough to explain the skills, power and versatility of the human mind. Over the past 10,000 years, human behaviour and our ability to manipulate the planet have changed too quickly for biological evolution to have been the driving force. In Dennett’s view, our brains turned into fully fledged modern minds thanks to cultural memes: ‘ways of behaving’ — pronouncing a word this way, dancing like so — that can be copied, remembered and passed on.
“While all that instant gratification [that the internet and e-commerce provide] may be convenient, we are warned that it’s ruining a long-standing human virtue: the ability to wait. Well, it’s not waiting itself that’s a virtue; the virtue is self-control, and your ability to wait is a sign of just how much self-control you have.” Alexandra Samuel explains that it’s not really so straightforward.