And that devil is a necessary creation, for spelling is important in Germany. “When you misspell to a German, you don’t just overlook the language: you libel it; you defile it; you annihilate it.”
For instance: Several years ago, a small tech company called Jetpac identified and categorized the content of 150 million photos posted publicly on Instagram to build a directory of businesses searchable by their characteristics. If the photos taken at a restaurant showed a lot of mouths wearing lipstick, Jetpac’s app would tag the spot as ‘dressy.’ If most of the faces in a photo of a bar were male, it would tag the spot as a gay bar.”
Should we be horrified by extinction? Charles Darwin didn’t think so. In On the Origin of Species, he mocked the catastrophist view of extinction as scientific illiteracy: “So profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms to desolate the world!” Extinction was no cataclysm. Without it, the human species—along with all other life—would never have evolved.
Ulrich Boser reminds us of one of those factors that’s so obvious that people forget about it.
“Believing that hipsters can reverse the consequences of late-stage capitalism is a more attractive thought for city planners in cash-strapped cities than realizing that many American cities are, for now, screwed thanks to postindustrial decline and growing inequality. Gentrification may provide a new tax base, but it also reshapes what cities are, turning them into explicit supporters of inequality, reliant on it to self-fund, yet still unable to meet the needs of their poor. A real solution to the economics of American cities would require more work—more taxes, more laws, more intervention from the federal government. Those things are hard. Gentrification is easy.”
A team of four computer science professors at Stanford and Cornell used studies to work out what moves ordinary people to start trolling online, when it’s likely to happen, and measures that can make it less likely to spread.
For much of modern history, icebergs have helped us speak about deeper reservoirs of meaning. The phrase “just the tip of the iceberg” has, at least since the environmental movements of the Sixties, expressed the idea that there is much more to something than meets the eye. As the historian William Cronon observes, internalizing nature through language like this is our best way of understanding it—and ourselves.
“The strawberries appear red, despite their lack of any red pixels, because of color constancy, or the way that the human brain is designed to perceive the same colors under a range of circumstances. Remember The Dress? Same deal.”
“Campus speaker invitations and disinvitations reflect a curious paradox. On one hand, there’s clearly a market for speakers for bestselling authors like Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart writer and prolific campus provocateur. On the other hand, Murray was met with disinvitation attempts in 2014 and 2016 before he was shouted down last week at Middlebury, reflecting student awareness that the work for which Murray is best known—1994’s The Bell Curve, which was excerpted in the New Republic alongside criticism of it—has been largely discredited among social scientists.”
“It’s said that literature helps us to explore ways of being human, grants glimpses of lives beyond our own, aids empathy with others, alleviates distress, and widens our circle of awareness. The same could be said of clinical practice in all of its manifestations: nursing to surgery, psychotherapy to physiotherapy. An awareness of literature can aid the practice of medicine, just as clinical experience certainly helps me in the writing of my books. I’ve come to see the two disciplines as having more parallels than differences, and I’d like to argue they share a kind of synergy.”
“When did our world become quite so full of stuff? But acquisition and waste are both logical byproducts of basic human capacities for shaping and making, for decoration and manipulation: part of being human. Our linked capacities for manufacture and trade have long shaped our world, it’s just that both have developed exponentially in recent history and we are still unsure of where that is leading us. The things we are drawn to acquire reflect and express our personalities and more: our ideas about ourselves, our aspirations and perhaps our limitations and delusions.”
“Society-wide cultural norms … define highbrow culture as belonging to the feminine sphere,” notes a research team led by Ghent University sociologist Susan Lagaert. In a newly published study, she and her colleagues present intriguing evidence of how that assumption affects the behavior of adolescents.
“If we engage in behaviour we feel bad about over and over again, does our emotional response to this behaviour adapt? If so, then we’ve got a prediction: since we know that emotional responses can constrain our willingness to be dishonest, if these responses decrease through adaptation, dishonesty ought to increase as a result.”
I’ve previously argued that the word “algorithm” has become a cultural fetish, the secular, technical equivalent of invoking God. To use the term indiscriminately exalts ordinary—and flawed—software services as false idols. AI is no different. As the bot author Allison Parrish puts it, “whenever someone says ‘AI’ what they’re really talking about is ‘a computer program someone wrote.’”
“Driven by an ever-deepening dearth of funding, against a background of economic uncertainty, global political turmoil, and ever-shortening time cycles, research criteria are becoming dangerously skewed toward conservative short-term goals that may address more immediate problems but miss out on the huge advances that human imagination can bring in the long term. Just as in Flexner’s time, the progress of our modern age, and of the world of tomorrow, depends not only on technical expertise, but also on unobstructed curiosity and the benefits — and pleasures — of traveling far upstream, against the current of practical considerations.”
Scientists may try to define or explain this, says a philosopher, but only philosophers can really do the job. “Human beings live in mutual accountability, each answerable to the other and each the object of judgment. The eyes of others address us with an unavoidable question, the question ‘why?'”
How does the tech hold up? Surprisingly well, as if Disney Channel movies of the late 1990s were like the Black Mirror of today. “It is truly unfortunate that we don’t pay closer attention to silly near-future children’s entertainment when guessing at what anxieties we might soon develop. It’s too late, but we can look back at them now and marvel.”
The young man at the heart of “The Chicken Connoisseur” – a series of YouTube reviews, using dense London slang, of fried chicken and chips places- has gone viral. He’s clearly a populist, but is that dangerous or wonderful?
The role of smell in cultural preservation is getting its own attention – and the tool of the preservationists is “a sampling device that looks like a contraption out of Jules Verne: a crystalline dome with plastic tubing snaking from its side. The sampler is placed gently on objects — rare books, furniture, carpets — to capture the escaping molecules that create a distinct smell.”
Disaster science, in which lots of little, seemingly inconsequential things add up to large problems. For instance, at the Oscars, “having senior executives taking such a front-line role can be a recipe for trouble – they’re more likely to assume they’re going to do it right. Many accidents have been triggered by very experienced workers who grew overconfident and complacent — wilderness firefighters, for example, are most likely to be killed or injured in their 10th year on the job.”
“The spectacular progress of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century was made possible by the exclusion of the mental from their purview. To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgment that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain.”
“Until very recently, the practice of modern history centred on, and was dominated by, the nation state. Most history was the history of the nation. If you wander through the history and biography aisles of either brick-and-mortar or virtual bookstores, the characters and heroes of patriotism dominate. In the United States, authors such as Walter Isaacson, David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin have helped to give millions of readers their understanding of the past and the present. Inevitably, they wrote page-turning profiles of heroic nation-builders. Every nation cherishes its national history, and every country has a cadre of flame-keepers. Then, along came globalisation and the shake-up of old, bordered imaginations.”
You know that great American novel you’ve been planning to write? Start now, before the machines take a creative writing class.
Take the project to see if machines could recreate Gaudi’s aesthetic. “They have fed the machine not just hundreds of images of Gaudi’s work, but also contextual images – images of Barcelona, where Gaudi’s most famous work can be found, and other historical and cultural information. The idea is to actually recreate Gaudi’s intelligence, not just his signature style – to create an artificial Gaudi who was inspired the way Gaudi was. In theory, any artist’s brain could be recompiled in this way, and you could consult a virtual Leonardo da Vinci not just about how to draw and paint but about how to invent new flying machines.”
“We’re making decisions that are rational and even pleasurable from an individual point of view, but when everyone in society behaves this way — to cement in their own security, their own mobility — social mobility as a whole goes down, inequality goes up, many measures of segregation go up. And ultimately a bill for this comes due.”
Certainly thinkers were always concerned with what is true, but the word “fact” didn’t come into common use until the 1660s. David Wootton gives us the story, from how the likes of Kepler and Galileo paved the way for the concept to take hold to Hume’s definition of facts (as distinct from “necessary truths”) to how facts changed the idea of authority.
“In the last 15 years, the science of mind wandering has mushroomed as a topic of scholarly study, thanks in part to advances in brain imaging. But for a long time, it was still difficult to see what people’s brains were doing outside the lab. Then, when smartphones came on the scene in the late 2000s, researchers came up with an ingenious approach to understanding just how often the human brain wanders in the wilds of modern life.”
“We still don’t understand how the brain works because we’re still ignorant about the middle ground between single neurons and behavior, which is the function of groups of neurons—of neural circuits.” And that’s because of “the methodological shackles that have prevented investigators from examining the activity of entire nervous system. This is probably futile, like watching TV by examining a single pixel at a time.”
“People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.”
“Though I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it, I was morbidly fascinated by the idea that we might be on the verge of creating a machine that could wipe out the entire species, and by the notion that capitalism’s great philosopher kings—Musk, Thiel, Gates—were so publicly exercised about the Promethean dangers of that ideology’s most cherished ideal. These dire warnings about A.I. were coming from what seemed to be the most unlikely of sources: not from Luddites or religious catastrophists, that is, but from the very people who personify our culture’s reverence for machines.”