CULTURE

What is Reputation?

[11.5.15]

NEW — A Reality Club discussion with responses from: Abbas RazaWilliam Poundstone, Hugo Mercier, Quentin Hardy, Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield, Bruce Schneier, Kai Krause, Sumit Paul-Choudhury, Margaret Levi.

That is basically what interests me—the double question of understanding our own biases, but also understanding the potential of using this indirect information and these indirect cues of quality of reputation in order to navigate this enormous amount of knowledge. What is interesting about Internet, and especially about the Web, is that Internet is not only an enormous reservoir of information, it is a reputational device. It means that it accumulates tons of evaluations of other people, so the information you get is pre-evaluated. This makes you go much faster. This is an evolutionary heuristic that we have, probably since the birth of the human mind.

Follow the people who know how to treat information. Don't go yourself for the solution. Follow those who have the solution. This is a super strong drive—to learn faster. Children know very well this drive. And of course it can bring you to conformism and have very negative side effects, but also can make you know faster. We know faster, not because there is a lot of information around, but because the information that is around is evaluated; it has a reputational label on it. 

Introduction

This Edge feature is our second foray into the idea of "reputation" in the age of the Internet. The first, in December 2004, "Indirect Reciprocity, Assessment Hardwiring, And Reputation": A Conversation with Karl Sigmund, occurred in another era (or was it another planet): no iPhones, no Facebook, no Twitter. We were sending faxes through our PCs and Macs attached to modems, and short messages through our pagers.

At that time Sigmund said, "In the early 70s, I read a famous paper by Robert Trivers, one of five he wrote as a graduate student at Harvard, in which the idea of indirect reciprocity was mentioned obliquely. He spoke of generalized altruism, where you are giving back something not to the person you owed it to but to somebody else in society. This sentence suggested the possibility that generosity may be a consideration of how altruism works in evolutionary biology."

"I am often thinking about the different ways of cooperating," he added, "and nowadays I'm mostly thinking about the strange aspects of indirect reciprocity. Right now it turns out that economists are excited about this idea in the context of e-trading and e-commerce. In this case you also have a lot of anonymous interactions, not between the same two people but within a hugely mixed group where you are unlikely ever to meet the same person again. Here the question of trusting the other, the idea of reputation, is particularly important. Google Page Rankings, the reputation of eBay buyers and sellers, and Amazon reader reviews are all based on trust, and there is a lot of moral hazard inherent in these interactions."

Gloria Origgi, whose previous Edge feature, "Who's Afraid Of The Third Culture?" appeared in these pages in 2006, is an exemplar of the Third Culture in Europe. According to philospher Daniel C. Dennett, she has completely mastered everything from philosophy to neuroscience, moving gracefully through the conceptual jungles of everything from neuroscience to cognitive science to anthropology. A Parisian, she is an antidote to that European genre of French thought that creates the illusion of depth and profundity that Dennett calls "Eumerdification"*.

In "What Is Reputation?" Origgi talks about "the double question of understanding our own biases, but also understanding the potential of using this indirect information and these indirect cues of quality of reputation in order to navigate this enormous amount of knowledge.

"What is interesting about Internet, and especially about the Web, is that Internet is not only an enormous reservoir of information, it is a reputational device. It means that it accumulates tons of evaluations of other people, so the information you get is pre-evaluated. This makes you go much faster. This is an evolutionary heuristic that we have, probably since the birth of the human mind.

"Follow the people who know how to treat information. Don't go yourself for the solution. Follow those who have the solution. This is a super strong drive—to learn faster. Children know very well this drive. And of course it can bring you to conformism and have very negative side effects, but also can make you know faster. We know faster, not because there is a lot of information around, but because the information that is around is evaluated; it has a reputational label on it."

GLORIA ORIGGI is a researcher at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris and a journalist. She is a best-selling novelist in the Italian language, a respected philosopher in French, a cognitive scientist in English, and the person you want to sit next to at a dinner party. Her latest book, La Reputation, was recently published in France. Gloria Origgi's Edge Bio Page.

[* Dennett writes in his book Breaking The Spell: "John Searle once told me about a conversation he had with the late Michel Foucault: 'Michel, you're so clear in conversation; why is your written work so obscure?' To which Foucault replied, 'That's because, in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.' I have coined a term for this tactic, in honour of Foucault's candor: eumerdification."]

John Brockman


WHAT IS REPUTATION?

I'm a philosopher and I do some social sciences, but basically I stick to philosophy in my method, in my way of tackling questions. I was interested in epistemology, in questions about knowledge. At a certain point in the early 2000s, Internet became such a major phenomenon that I started to be interested in transformations of the ways in which we organize, access, produce, and distribute knowledge that was dependent on the introduction of Internet in our lives.

I was interested in the question of trust. It seems like a paradox. The traditional view of knowledge in philosophy and epistemology is that you should not trust, and you should be an autonomous thinker. You should have in your own mind the means to filter information, and to infer new knowledge from what you already know without taking into account the opinion of others. The opinion of others is doxa, and episteme—the true knowledge—is the opposite, being an autonomous knower. With Internet and this hyperconnectivity in which knowledge started to spin around faster than light, I had the feeling that trust was becoming a very important aspect of the way in which we acquire knowledge.

What is Reputation?

Topic: 

  • CULTURE
https://vimeo.com/144038548

That is basically what interests me—the double question of understanding our own biases, but also understanding the potential of using this indirect information and these indirect cues of quality of reputation in order to navigate this enormous amount of knowledge. What is interesting about Internet, and especially about the Web, is that Internet is not only an enormous reservoir of information, it is a reputational device. It means that it accumulates tons of evaluations of other people, so the information you get is pre-evaluated. This makes you go much faster.

Choosing Empathy

[10.20.15]

NEW — A Reality Club Discussion with responses from: Paul BloomDavid DeSteno, Daryl Cameron, Dan Zahavi, and Christian Keysers.

If you believe that you can harness empathy and make choices about when to experience it versus when not to, it adds a layer of responsibility to how you engage with other people. If you feel like you're powerless to control your empathy, you might be satisfied with whatever biases and limits you have on it. You might be okay with not caring about someone just because they're different from you. I want people to not feel safe empathizing in the way that they always have. I want them to understand that they're doing something deliberate when they connect with someone, and I want them to own that responsibility.

JAMIL ZAKI is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab.  Jamil Zaki's Edge Bio Page

REALITY CLUB DISCUSSION
Paul Bloom:
"Zaki correctly describes my own position as “empathy is overrated”. I agree that empathy can sometimes motivate kind behavior. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism. It is short-sighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future. It is innumerate, favoring the one over the many. It is capricious; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for hatred towards those who harm them. It is corrosive in personal relationships, exhausting the spirit and making us less effective at helping those we love. ..." [Read]

David DeSteno: "How do we go from wanting to harm someone to commiserating with them? The answer, I think, potentially offers a solution to the competing views of Zaki and Bloom. Whereas Zaki is right about empathy and compassion being partially subject to choice, the usefulness of such “choosing” can be called into question. After all, Bloom is quite correct in noting that our care for others is biased. Compassion isn’t dispassionate; even when people’s suffering is objectively equal, we feel more compassion for those like us. ..." [Read]

Daryl Cameron: "Jamil Zaki presents a compelling case that empathy is a choice: empathy fluctuates depending on what we want to feel. I largely agree with this perspective. Despite what some claim, this is a new and controversial framework: as I have suggested elsewhere, this framework implies that apparent limits of empathy actually result from choices to avoid empathy. Empathy may not be fundamentally biased—instead, we choose not to feel empathy in many cases. Is empathy only as limited as we want it to be? ..." [Read]

Dan Zahavi: "To move forward, it can sometime be useful to go backwards. One move that is surprisingly rarely made is to revisit the initial philosophical and psychological debate on empathy that took place during the first decades of the 20th century. Were one to do so, it would quickly become apparent that many contemporary theorists understand (dare one say misunderstand?) something very different by the term ‘empathy’ than the people who originally coined it. ..." [Read]

CHOOSING EMPATHY
A Conversation with Jamil Zaki

I've been thinking an enormous amount about a puzzle concerning how empathy works. Before describing it, I should make sure that we're on the same page about what empathy is. To me, empathy is a useful umbrella term that captures at least three distinct but related processes through which one person responds to another person's emotions.     

Let's say that I run into you and you are highly distressed. A bunch of things might happen to me. One, I might "catch" your emotion and vicariously take on the same state that I see in you; that's what I would call experience sharing. Two, I might think about how you feel and why you feel the way you do. That type of explicit consideration of the world as someone else sees it is what I would call mentalizing. Three, I might develop concern for your state, and feel motivated to help you feel better; that is what people these days call compassion, also known as empathic concern.

Choosing Empathy

Topic: 

  • CULTURE
https://vimeo.com/140116580

If you believe that you can harness empathy and make choices about when to experience it versus when not to, it adds a layer of responsibility to how you engage with other people. If you feel like you're powerless to control your empathy, you might be satisfied with whatever biases and limits you have on it. You might be okay with not caring about someone just because they're different from you. I want people to not feel safe empathizing in the way that they always have.

Office For Anticipating Surprise

[8.14.15]


To enter or not to enter? Obama's choice before the capture of Bin Laden. Scene from the film Zero Dark Thirty. Photo: Jonathan Olley

Andrian Kreye, Feuilleton Editor
English translation by Arya Kamangar

For the psychology professor Philip Tetlock, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is a classic example of the insufficiency of secret-service agencies. When Barack Obama gave the green light for that operation four years ago, he knew he was making one of the most difficult decisions in his life—one that would not only mean life or death for those involved, but also sway the course of history and help determine his legacy. The prognoses offered by the secret-service agencies were inconclusive: some put the likelihood for success at 40%, others at 80%. In the movie based on this operation, Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA agent Maya insists she is 100% certain of success. In reality, Obama determined the chances stood at fifty-fifty and gave the green light against the advice of his secretary of defense. 

In Tetlock's view, such imprecisions present an unacceptable risk. Forecasts alleging complete certainty are, of course, unscientific. But Tetlock argues that a historic decision must not be based on imprecise reports. While Obama may have enjoyed luck on a historic scale, with his special task force finding Bin Laden and killing him, Tetlock insists that the work of secret-service agencies must change—fundamentally.

Since the eighties Tetlock has worked on precisely this endeavor. For four years now he has pursued research at the University of Pennsylvania at the behest of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which the NSA and the CIA, together with fourteen other American secret-service agencies, established in 2006, in order to develop new methods for secret-service work in the post-9/11 era. Among IARPA’s divisions are the Office for Anticipating Surprise, the Office of Smart Collection, and the Office of Incisive Analysis.

Psychologists' "forecasting tournaments" capture the interest of the NSA and the CIA

This past weekend Tetlock met with twenty scientists and engineers on a vineyard north of San Francisco. Two European journalists were invited; otherwise, the meeting was closed to the public. Tetlock wanted to discuss the results of his Good Judgment Project, which he has worked on for 24 years. The scientists discuss the project under ideal circumstances: sheltered from the summer heat in the cool living room of a stately Victorian house. With palms in the garden, a front porch and wainscoting, the house exudes colonial splendor. The air is redolent with the rose beds in front of the windows and the precious woods of the furniture. The host is John Brockman of Edge Foundation, Inc. (http://edge.org), which is the best network for such debates in the country. That explains the presence of such intellectual heavyweights as the Nobel Laureate in Economics Daniel Kahneman, the political scientist and National Medal of Science winner Robert Axelrod, the political scientist Margaret Levi, and Google Vice President Salar Kamangar. It isn’t easy to hold one’s own in such a group. Kahneman in particular, the cleverest of them all, is skeptical.

Tetlock begins by recounting the history of the Good Judgment Project. In 1984 he began holding "forecasting tournaments" in which selected candidates are asked questions about the course of events. In the wake of a natural disaster, what policies will be changed in the United States? When will North Korea test nuclear weapons? Candidates examine the questions in teams. They are not necessarily experts, but attentive, shrewd citizens. One of the best forecasters so far is Bill Flack, a former official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from Nebraska.

We Need A Modern Origin Story: A Big History

Topic: 

  • CULTURE
https://vimeo.com/126516234

In modern science, and I include the humanities here, science in a German sense of science—rigorous scholarship across all domains—in modern science we've gotten used to the idea that science doesn't offer meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past. I'm increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning—philosophers have banged on about this for a century-and-a-half—may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed.

We Need A Modern Origin Story: A Big History

[5.21.15]

In modern science, and I include the humanities here, science in a German sense of science—rigorous scholarship across all domains—in modern science we've gotten used to the idea that science doesn't offer meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past. I'm increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning—philosophers have banged on about this for a century-and-a-half—may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed. It's vastly more powerful than the previous stories because it's the first one that is global. It's not anchored in a particular culture or a particular society. This is an origin story that works for humans in Beijing as well as in Buenos Aires. 

It's a global origin story, and it sums over vastly more information than any early origin story. This is very, very powerful stuff. It's full of meaning. We're now at the point where, across so many domains, the amount of information, of good, rigorous ideas, is so rich that we can tease out that story. 

DAVID CHRISTIAN is Professor of History, Macquarie University, Sydney; Author, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. David Christian's Edge Bio Page 

Death Is Optional

[3.4.15]

Once you really solve a problem like direct brain-computer interface ... when brains and computers can interact directly, that's it, that's the end of history, that's the end of biology as we know it. Nobody has a clue what will happen once you solve this. If life can break out of the organic realm into the vastness of the inorganic realm, you cannot even begin to imagine what the consequences will be, because your imagination at present is organic. So if there is a point of Singularity, by definition, we have no way of even starting to imagine what's happening beyond that. 

YUVAL NOAH HARARI, Lecturer, Department of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari's Edge Bio Page

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, 2002 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2013. He is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Nicholas Carr, Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari, Kevin Kelly



Death Is Optional


DANIEL KAHNEMAN: Before asking you what are the questions you are asking yourself, I want to say that I've now read your book Sapiens twice and in that book you do something that I found pretty extraordinary. You cover the history of mankind. It seems to be like an invitation for people to dismiss it as superficial, so I read it, and I read it again, because in fact, I found so many ideas that were enriching. I want to talk about just one or two of them as examples.

Your chapter on science is one of my favorites and so is the title of that chapter, "The Discovery of Ignorance." It presents the idea that science began when people discovered that there was ignorance, and that they could do something about it, that this was really the beginning of science. I love that phrase.

And in fact, I loved that phrase so much that I went and looked it up. Because I thought, where did he get it? My search of the phrase showed that all the references were to you. And there are many other things like that in the book.

How did you transition from that book to what you're doing now?

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: It came naturally. My big question at present is what is the human agenda for the 21st century. And this is a direct continuation from covering the history of humankind, from the appearance of Homo Sapiens until today, so when you finish that, immediately, you think, okay, what next? I'm not trying to predict the future, which is impossible, now more than ever. Nobody has a clue how the world will look like in, say, 40, 50 years. We may know some of the basic variables but, if you really understand what's going on in the world, you know that it's impossible to have any good prediction for the coming decades. This is the first time in history that we're in this situation.

I'm trying to do something that is the opposite of predicting the future. I'm trying to identify what are the possibilities, what is the horizon of possibilities that we are facing? And what will happen from among these possibilities? We still have a lot of choice in this regard.

Death Is Optional (Yuval Noah Harari & Daniel Kahneman)

Topic: 

  • CULTURE

Once you really solve a problem like direct brain-computer interface ... when brains and computers can interact directly, to take just one example, that's it, that's the end of history, that's the end of biology as we know it. Nobody has a clue what will happen once you solve this. If life can basically break out of the organic realm into the vastness of the inorganic realm, you cannot even begin to imagine what the consequences will be, because your imagination at present is organic.

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