“Sidewalk Labs promises to embed all sorts of sensors everywhere possible, sucking up a constant stream of information about traffic flow, noise levels, air quality, energy usage, travel patterns, and waste output. Cameras will help the company nail down the more intangible: Are people enjoying this public furniture arrangement in that green space? Are residents using the popup clinic when flu season strikes? Is that corner the optimal spot for a grocery store? Are its shopper locals or people coming in from outside the neighborhood?”
This whole ‘knowing thyself’ business is not as simple as it seems. In fact, it might be a serious philosophical muddle – not to say bad advice.
Why bother with moral philosophy when common sense serves most of us perfectly well? The simple answer is that, as history shows, commonsensical beliefs are very often wrong. Slavery, marital rape, and bans on interracial marriage were all widely accepted in the relatively recent past. Much like fish who, as the proverb goes, are the last to discover water, humans are so immersed in immorality that we can be entirely unaware of it.
“Today, the technical ability to produce a robot that truly looks and moves and speaks like a human remains well beyond our reach. Even further beyond our grasp is the capacity to imbue such a machine with humanness—that ineffable presence the Japanese call sonzai-kan. Because to re-create human presence we need to know more about ourselves than we do—about the accumulation of cues and micromovements that trigger our empathy, put us at ease, and earn our trust. Someday we may crack the problem of creating artificial general intelligence—a machine brain that can intuitively perform any human intellectual task—but why would we choose to interact with it?”
Google has announced that AutoML has beaten the human AI engineers at their own game by building machine-learning software that’s more efficient and powerful than the best human-designed systems.
“Historians have long been stumped at how people with relatively primitive tools managed to transport the estimated 800 tonnes of material every day from Aswan, 500 miles to the south. Now ancient papyrus, a ceremonial boat and a system of waterworks have revealed the complex infrastructure created by builders to complete the structure.”
As long as the idea persists that myth, purpose and meaning are things to be burned away by the acid of scientific reason, evolution and science will be silent about creativity.
“Wittgenstein was hostile to modern philosophy as he found it. He thought it the product of a culture that had come to model everything that matters about our lives on scientific explanation. In its ever-extending observance of the idea that knowledge, not wisdom, is our goal, that what matters is information rather than insight, and that we best address the problems that beset us, not with changes in our heart and spirit but with more data and better theories, our culture is pretty much exactly as Wittgenstein feared it would become.”
Ariel Dorfman, who knows a thing or two about what happens when anti-intellectualism overwhelms a country: “The resurgence of nationalism in our time has not yet reached the homicidal extremes it did when Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco misruled their lands, but the United States still faces an assault on rational discourse, scientific knowledge, and objective truth. And this war on intelligence, too, despite the edulcorated pieties that come from those who carry it out, will lead to many deaths.”
For one thing, “the evidence, she added, supported the theory that the Viking settlements in the Malar Valley of Sweden were, in fact, a western outpost of the Silk Road that stretched through Russia to silk-producing centers east of the Caspian Sea.” But was there a deeper cultural and religious exchange as well?
“Making it cheap to express unpopular opinions makes it easier for outsiders to gauge what the average viewpoint of a group of scholars might be. And when an article causes a controversy, calls to uphold a field’s standards should be met with some skepticism, especially when those standards would prohibit the publication of the unpopular opinion in the first instance. After all, if academic freedom doesn’t mean the protection of unpopular and disruptive minority views, what could it possibly be for?”
“One study revealed that people think they are better at comprehending information when they read it on a digital screen. This resulted in those readers reading the text much faster than those reading the text in paper format. Yet despite spending less time reading the text, the digital readers predicted they would perform better on a quiz about the text than the people who read the text on paper. Yet when the digital and paper groups were tested, the paper groups outperformed the digital groups on memory recall and comprehension of the text. They also were closer to their test result predictions than the digital group was.”
“A snake-robot designer, a balloon scientist, a liquid-crystals technologist, an extradimensional physicist, a psychology geek, an electronic-materials wrangler, and a journalist walk into a room. The journalist turns to the assembled crowd and asks: Should we build houses on the ocean?” Is this the set-up to a joke? No, it’s The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson proposing his own “moonshot idea” on a reporting trip to Google’s X, “perhaps the only enterprise on the planet where regular investigation into the absurd is not just permitted but encouraged, and even required.”
“I don’t mean to depict our sensorium — the entire range and capacity of our sensory experience — as a pure state that has been defiled by light, noise, flavor and scent pollution; that would just be another version of the original-sin-and-fall narrative. I would argue rather that we have managed to turn the senses against themselves by pitting overwhelming light against lights, overpowering sound against sounds, intense flavor against flavors, penetrating aroma against aromas. In each case, the result is a marked simplification in the field of possible experiences — one or two stimuli will outshine, outsmell or outshout the rest.”
“We live in a time when scientists seem to like nothing better than to expose our everyday view of reality as delusional. They say, “You see the color red, but in fact, out there are only atoms; there are no colors. You hear music, but out there, there are no sounds,” etc. This gives them the authority to describe an entirely different reality, in which deciding between chocolate or strawberry ice cream, say, is nothing more than a matter of warring cohorts of neurons transferring their electrical charges and chemical processes this way and that, while outside your brain there is only a flavorless world of atomic particles. It’s a vision that denies not only our existence—as people choosing between ice-cream flavors—but also the existence of the things we experience.”
“‘The Case for Colonialism,’ written by a political science professor at Portland State University, drew immediate outcries from scholars when it was published last month by Third World Quarterly. Fifteen members of the journal’s 34-member board resigned in protest, and two petitions demanded that the journal retract the piece.” However, Noam Chomsky (of all people) argued against retraction, saying that rebuttal was the better course. “The article recently disappeared from the journal’s website with an explanation that it was withdrawn ‘at the request of the academic journal editor, and in agreement with the author of the essay, Bruce Gilley.'”
“Sure, if you’re an artist trying to impress other artists, that high-profile prize can indeed be inspirational. But for those not eligible for a Pulitzer or Emmy—such as consumers who are invited to come up with new product ideas—money is the more effective motivator.”
“Checking phones or tablets for the next message, the latest tweet, a new Skype meeting request, the email we’re waiting for, has become for us the new fidgety, anticipatory normality. These devices, and the systems and knowledge to which they give us access, addict us to the (short-term) future. And ‘addict’ is not a ill-chosen word. Such technologies underline for us that even the most recent past is out-of-date, and might as well be forgotten.”
“A futurist is a person who spends a serious amount of time—either paid or unpaid—forming theories about society’s future. And although it can be fun to mock them for their silly sounding and overtly religious predictions, we should take futurists seriously. Because at the heart of the futurism movement lies money, influence, political power, and access to the algorithms that increasingly rule our private, political, and professional lives.”
There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted. All of the time.”
Part of the appeal of live art is the chance that it could go wrong. There is also a perverse pleasure in observing the authenticity of a mistake in a contrived setting — for instance, actors “corpsing” can prove exhilarating in small doses. The trend of confessional art (and one may extend the point to reality television) offers similar authenticity within an artificial environment, if not to the same extent as an onstage mistake. As playwright and actor Tim Crouch puts it, “To see someone fail and to be embarrassed is a very real thing, and we like it real and unmediated.”
Are the subjects of totalitarianism mindless drones? No, wrote the Polish poet who defected to France after working for a government in thrall to Stalin. Instead, people in totalitarian societies are practicing ketman. That talent, or ability to dissemble, “goes deeper than mere lying. Ketman reaches deeper into the soul than simple hypocrisy. Ketman deceives the deceiver, as much as the person being deceived.”
And, if so, what can writers do about it? “When our political leaders use language not as a torch to illuminate our challenges but as a prod to stoke our fears and hatreds, we all have a duty as citizens to combat such debasement of civil discourse by exposing the contradictions between those leaders’ grandiose promises and the likely consequences of their implementation. But writers have a second responsibility: to strip away the rhetoric that shrouds in palatable justifications the underlying prejudices to which such leaders appeal and reveal what citizens are actually embracing when they support such politicians.”
Adam Savage, who used to host Mythbusters, says he thinks so. “I’m not positive that literature could satisfy that deep need for the transcendent, but I hope it can, because for me it really has.”
Is there any such thing as world literature now? Can anyone who writes a book in English, which thoroughly dominates in the business and political worlds, really think of it as only a national book? (And other questions.)
“The fascist tradition of using the arts as vehicles for expanding the movement is visible in the U.S. today, in some cases in eerily similar ways to the original rise of European fascism in the early 20th century. In an interview with Pacific Standard, Ross discussed the ways fascists have historically snuck into mainstream cultural milieus, why progressives sometimes fall for fascist infiltrators, and how entertainment media played a role in the election of Trump.”
Despite its importance, there is a lack of consensus over whether people’s tendency to take risks is consistent or whether it varies depending on the type of risk. To find out, Renato Frey at the University of Basel in Switzerland and his colleagues asked 1500 adults to complete 39 tests commonly used to measure risk preference in different scenarios.
“‘On a good day, 80 percent of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves,’ [psychologist and author Tasha] Eurich says. Making things extra tricky is the fact that self-awareness has two components: Internal self-awareness is the ability to introspect and recognize your authentic self, whereas external self-awareness is the ability to recognize how you fit in with the rest of the world. ‘It’s almost like two different camera angles,’ Eurich says. … To be truly, fully self-aware, you need both components – a feat that’s difficult to pull off for pretty much anyone. But, it’s worth noting, not impossible.”
“Candor led to greater creativity. Thus, we propose a new rule for brainstorming sessions: Tell a self-deprecating story before you start. As uncomfortable as this may seem, especially among colleagues you would typically want to impress, the result will be a broader range of creative ideas, which will surely impress them even more.”
“Cultures are not just the passive accumulation of customs and traditions; they are formed, and then sustained by a fine balance between social forces. And we can learn from other species about the biological origin of those forces – as well as how these forces are now shaping the future of our culture.”