Edge 254August 12, 2008
(8,600 words)

THE REALITY CLUB

A SHORT COURSE IN BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS
Daniel Kahneman & Nathan Myhrvold

HYPERPOLITICS (AMERICAN STYLE)
David Brin

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ON "A SHORT COURSE IN BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS"

Edge Master Class 08
Richard Thaler, Sendhil Mullainathan, Daniel Kahneman


THE LATEST ...

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Princeton University, and Professor of Public Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his pioneering work integrating insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty.

DR. NATHAN MYHRVOLD is CEO and managing director of Intellectual Ventures, a private entrepreneurial firm. Before Intellectual Ventures, Dr. Myhrvold spent 14 years at Microsoft Corporation. In addition to working directly for Bill Gates, he founded Microsoft Research and served as Chief Technology Officer.

Daniel Kahneman

Let me postulate a few things:

1) I know my date of birth. Priming will not change my mind about it.
2) I do not believe there is anything anyone could do within the law to make me vote for a Republican this November.

So yes, of course there are limits to priming effects and to all forms of influence. My point was not that priming can make a person do anything at all. It was that priming has much more influence than people think it could have. Furthermore, people are generally not aware of having been influenced. [MORE...]

Nathan Myhrvold

Priming as Danny presents it is quite a strange phenomenon:

• Omnipresent—happening all the time, all around you.

• Impossible to guard against.

• Equally hard to detect—in yourself anyway, but also in others (unless you have a control group and can do the statistics, as one does in an experiment).

• Very important to understanding human perception.

• Also very important in terms of real world impact on thinking and decisions, with large real-world consequences.

I'm pretty sure Danny said each of these, one way or another. Or maybe I was just primed to draw these conclusions myself, but I think they are accurate.

If find that set of characteristics to be fascinating. However, they are also strange, and perhaps a bit alarming if you really take them seriously. It very naturally begs a set of other questions. [...MORE]

Daniel Kahneman

If somebody told me "the sun is green", there are two natural reactions I would have. The first would be to be skeptical and discount the assertion, thinking it is either false, exaggerated or occurs in very weird conditions. The second is to accept it provisionally and say "ok, if the sun is green, help me understand and accept that by explaining further how this could it be that I've lived my whole life thinking the opposite". Even if I want to believe, if I get no answer to this second approach, then I surely will be driven back to skepticism. But hey, maybe that's just me. [...MORE]

Nathan Myhrvold

But I can't resist one final point. The strangeness of priming is much worse than simply that we are not aware of it—we also don't seem to find its traces afterward.

Psychology is full of unconscious phenomena. So, for example, I can accept that my eyes may dart around and the pupils contract or dilate, betraying my interest in things. That by itself is strange, but easy to reconcile with intuition because you'd never know it without careful observation (with video cameras or the like). Last year Danny told us of the "peak plus end" rule that says people tend to remember the peak and the last bit of an experience (such as pain). Fascinating stuff, but ultimately easy to accept because it is explicitly about what we don't remember.
[...MORE]

Click here for entire discussion to date: W. Daniel Hillis, Daniel Kahneman, Nathan Myhrvold, Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman, Nathan Myhrvold, NEW Daniel Kahneman, Nathan Myhrvold, Daniel Kahneman, Nathan Myhrvold

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DANIEL KAHNEMAN

Let me postulate a few things:

1) I know my date of birth. Priming will not change my mind about it.
2) I do not believe there is anything anyone could do within the law to make me vote for a Republican this November.

So yes, of course there are limits to priming effects and to all forms of influence. My point was not that priming can make a person do anything at all. It was that priming has much more influence than people think it could have. Furthermore, people are generally not aware of having been influenced.

Let me respond to your points in your previous message.

1. There must be a catch—meaning something which winds up lessening the importance of priming from what you seem to be saying. Here is a list (i will try to be brief) of objections that come to mind.

a. The effect occurs, but it is proportional to ignorance, or indecision, or making your mind up when you don't have enough information (indeterminate or ill posed problem). So it is a very real effect, but only occurs a portion of the time. And in that portion, we don't know what to do anyway (see coin flip argument below).

1a. Not correct. The German judges were not completely malleable. They would not have assigned the same sentence to jaywalking. But under the influence of a prime they added an average of 8 months to the sentence.

b. In particular, the kind of question one asks on a questionnaire tends to be something where the person must either grasp at an answer, or make up a hypothetical—or otherwise are particularly prone to the effect. So this might be much stronger in precisely the cases studied in the experiments. Is it known whether people act this way "for real"? For example, one branch of experimental economists holds that doing experiments with real money (which may itself be priming!) makes things more real than hypothetical questions. Have those experiments been done with priming? I can't help but point out here that your colonoscopy experiment was real—to the extreme! Have similarly real world tests been done here?

1b. Yes, similar world test have been done here. Priming has been shown to have a marked influence on the behavior of people in an ultimatum game with real money. I don't know why this should be surprising. People's behavior in games is affected by sniffing oxytocin, which tends to make them more tolerant of exploitation. Oxytocin does not change their nature completely, but it biases their behavior in predictable ways, just as priming does. Much of priming research has been done with real behavior as a dependent variable. Recall the story of the eyes affecting behavior at the "honesty box" (repeated in Monday's NYT). The "artificial questionnaire/no incentive" gambit does not work here.

c. Other influences may drown out priming in cases of interest. The German judges were asked about a sentence—they weren't presiding over an actual trial where they had heard weeks of testimony and had both prosecution and defense repeatedly try to prime them. Would the freshman opinion count as much after all that context?

The power of anchoring effects is such that if a freshman opinion had been the only number proposed as a sentence, it would very likely have an effect. An anchoring effect occurs whenever you recruit arguments to make sense of something that sounds like a solution to your problem.

d. It may last only a short time, in which case the next priming comes in and overwrites it.

Two responses to this. First, decisions and judgments are made at a particular time and in a particular context. What priming effects demonstrate is that random features of the context can have a surprisingly large effect on decisions and judgment. The second response is that some priming-like effects are not short-lived. A defendant's physical attractiveness is a long-term prime that has significant effects. And a culture can provide very frequent reminders of the importance of money, or of the importance of community.

2. Or, I believe. But now explain how to reconcile our intuitive view of life with the strange reality you propose. The naive reaction to taking you seriously is the storm tossed sea of metaphors—can we really be reality? Could unconscious suggestion send us lurching between extremes all the time without our being aware of it? Perhaps, but it deserves explanation. How could it be so hidden? Why aren't we all switching political parties, wives, cars, and other decisions randomly based on some damn number we hear, or points we plot on graph paper? How can we go thorough life so gullible? Most aspects of life do not seem like a totally random walk—yet that is what you seem to be leading us. The incredible constancy and directionality of some aspects of life is hard to reconcile with the notion that we are almost whimsically influenced by cheap metaphors.

As I said above, let us stipulate that no one can make me vote Republican. I did not say that behavior is infinitely malleable, only that it is much, much more malleable than people know. So the fact that people stay with wives and political parties is not a challenge to what I said. But there was a lot of luck and a lot of random priming in the choice of the wife, if not of the party. There is a classic study in which male subjects encountered an attractive woman on a swaying bridge in Vancouver, or just off the bridge. They were much more likely to be smitten if the encounter was on the bridge—they did not know exactly why they had been excited. This is one of many ways in which behavior is moved by forces of which we are not aware.

I think it would help the uptake of this idea if you gave people some sense that one can reconcile priming with our life experience. Otherwise it becomes easier to reject the whole thing. Here are some attempted reconciliations I have thought of:

a. Dick asked whether we know how often optical illusions come into play in real life. I would argue that the neural processing behind optical illusions happens almost constantly. What is rare is that it produces a paradoxical answer. So, the answer to Dick's question depends on whether you mean "tendency to recognize faces" which occurs constantly, or the "picture that might be an old lady's face, or a young woman's torso" (another classic illusion) which occurs only rarely. So, perhaps priming is just as constant as the processing behind illusions, but its impact is usually small. You won't like this because it seems to de-emphasize priming, but there is a pro-priming way to think of this.

It really depends on what you mean by "small". I think that 8 months is not small, and many significant anchoring effects with real money are quite large in absolute terms. The effects are not huge—they are within the range of what people would consider unsurprising behavior for themselves. But I may be giving too much ground here: in the post-hypnotic suggestion case, people find themselves doing pretty bizarre things and are not subjectively very surprised. They find a reason for what they observe themselves doing. However, we know that even hypnotic suggestion has bounded effects. Repeating myself, I don't know how to use large or small—I do know that the effects are larger than most people think—otherwise the research would not be interesting and we would not be having this exchange.

b. Similarly one could make a case that lots of subtle things—like the example of culture you mentioned—could be due to priming. Yet culture, while pervasive at a large scale does not utterly dominate individual life. Indeed most people would agree that there is such a thing as culture, while at the same time arguing that they are their own man (or woman), exercising free will. One could argue that priming is not only responsible for culture, but like culture it is simultaneous palpable in some ways and diffuse in others, subject to ex post facto denial.

See above—who claimed that random priming effects utterly dominate individual life? You insist that the effect of priming is either overwhelming or negligible, but of course it is neither.

c. If indeed priming works best when we don't otherwise know, or have enough information, then it could be a substitute for a coin toss. If you are asked a hypothetical question, or are sitting on the fence on a decision, then what does it matter whether it is a priming effect, or a cosmic ray that pushes you over one way versus another? Instead of tossing the coin the brain takes whatever random thing it was told recently and turns up the gain on that noise to get an answer.

Few choices are dichotomous. You do not make a binary choice of a speed at which you will walk, so the coin toss analogy fails. There is a substantial normal range of speed, within which you can be influenced. And the influence can be significant. Most behavior has that continuous character. The friendliness of our attitude, the rudeness we allow ourselves, the size of contributions we make to a cause—sitting on the fence is a poor model for most of what actually goes on in the control of behavior.

d. The sum of sufficiently many random vectors is arbitrarily close to zero. So, maybe we are totally influenced—slaves to the cheap metaphors of life's contextual poetry. But if there are enough of those influences in enough directions, then overall they tend to balance out. Culture would be a good example of a systematic bias, but many other things would wash out. So maybe German judges just go by the last thing they heard, but there are plenty of integers so overall it would wash out over time.

Tell that to the felon who got sentenced. And there is really no reason to expect priming effects to cancel out. Yet again, you respond to a claim that has not been made, that we are totally influenced by context.

e. Perhaps it is getting caught that is rare. It is very unusual for German judges to get caught in the act of cribbing their jurisprudence from freshman CS majors. Instead we have plenty of ex post facto rationalization, and lots of other window dressing to explain how we act. So perhaps that is the strange part.

This is coming close to what I believe.

f. In fact life is a random walk in most ways and we just don't see it. I don't believe this, but out of completeness thought I would add it.

This is much stronger than I believe. Life is not a random walk, but there is more randomness than we see.

Finally, I have one additional question. Have you considered "Bayesian priming"?

Suppose that I am an Econ, not a human, and I am a very good Bayesian. Before making a judgment I recall my priors—the prior distribution has a very strong sway on what I do. If my prior distribution is accurate, great. But although I aspire to Econ-hood, I am only human. So if my prior distribution is faulty—for example if my prior distribution is influenced by the last thing I heard, then I could use a good procedure (Bayes' theorem) and get a bad answer.

The question here would be this—if you do numerical priming experiments (guess tallest redwood after hearing a random number), then one might be able to calculate what people's prior distribution was, and how it changed on hearing the priming number.

The answer might be that people are non-Bayesian, or that they can't do the prior. But it seems like there would be some merit in figuring out what effect the priming number is. If you said the tree was 1 million miles high, or 1 inch high, I bet it would be less priming effect. I would guess that the maximum effect occurs once you are in a zone of plausibility (i.e. has a probability consistent with your naive prior), and that the priming number tends to cause you to update the prior distribution in a systematic way.

The experiments you suggest have been done. Totally ridiculous numbers will not work, but you can be quite extreme and still get large priming effects. Dan McFadden (Econ Nobel Laureate) and I reported on a study in which one group of subjects made free estimates of a set of quantities, or answered hypothetical open-ended questions about contributions to various causes. Other subjects were anchored by a dichotomous question (the redwood example was from that study). The anchors were set either at the 5th or at the 95th percentile of the distribution of free responses. We could measure the anchoring effect as the proportion of the distance between the anchors that was spanned by the responses of the anchored groups. The results of such studies produce a robust estimate: about 50%. I have called this measure the anchoring index.

Nathan, priming and anchoring do not dominate your life—but they affect your choices and judgments more than you can tell by introspection. You can see your face in the mirror but not the brain behind it, and you can see some of what goes on in your mind, but most of it is hidden.

Best,

Danny


NATHAN MYHRVOLD

Danny complains that I am objecting to something he never said. I suppose that may be technically true, but what it tells me is that I must have done a poor job of explaining why I was bringing these points up in the first place. My apologies, let me try again.

Priming as Danny presents it is quite a strange phenomenon:

• Omnipresent—happening all the time, all around you.

• Impossible to guard against.

• Equally hard to detect—in yourself anyway, but also in others (unless you have a control group and can do the statistics, as one does in an experiment).

• Very important to understanding human perception.

• Also very important in terms of real world impact on thinking and decisions, with large real-world consequences.

I'm pretty sure Danny said each of these, one way or another. Or maybe I was just primed to draw these conclusions myself, but I think they are accurate.

If find that set of characteristics to be fascinating. However, they are also strange, and perhaps a bit alarming if you really take them seriously. It very naturally begs a set of other questions.

That is really the point—the explanation of priming (and particularly those factors above) begs some important questions. When Danny says that I am responding to claims he didn't make, I think he is misunderstands this point. I think that that the claims Danny did make beg the questions I was responding to.

If somebody told me "the sun is green", there are two natural reactions I would have. The first would be to be skeptical and discount the assertion, thinking it is either false, exaggerated or occurs in very weird conditions. The second is to accept it provisionally and say "ok, if the sun is green, help me understand and accept that by explaining further how this could it be that I've lived my whole life thinking the opposite". Even if I want to believe, if I get no answer to this second approach, then I surely will be driven back to skepticism. But hey, maybe that's just me.

When explaining something this strange, it is very helpful to provide preemptive rebuttals to the first line of skeptical theories. That way, even before the first few objections arise you can swat them down. It is perhaps even more important to provide the perspective on "how could it be that I've spent my whole life thinking the opposite". I didn't get either one from the discussion at the Master Class. Of course that may just be me being really dense. The brevity of the discussion is clearly a factor. Danny's forthcoming book probably handles this all brilliantly and I should just shut up and wait for it. But I'm impatient so I sought to clarify them in this response and counter response format.

My previous response cataloged a bunch of possible reactions to priming in each direction. The first was a list of ways of possible objections to discount the effect. The second was a set of possible ways to reconcile the phenomenon of priming with a naive intuitive notion of perception.

Frankly, approach this hasn't been all that successful, so I'll stop. Some of Danny's responses are spot on in providing the extra insight that I am looking for—they either rebut a skeptical point, or their explain that. Mostly however, I seem to have phrased things badly so Danny's responses seem aimed at trying to debate a recalcitrant heathen.

Incidentally, the sun is indeed green! But not usually—it is only green during a rare and very brief phenomenon called the "green flash". The rarity and brevity are why we don't think of it that way.

Nathan


DANIEL KAHNEMAN

If somebody told me "the sun is green", there are two natural reactions I would have. The first would be to be skeptical and discount the assertion, thinking it is either false, exaggerated or occurs in very weird conditions. The second is to accept it provisionally and say "ok, if the sun is green, help me understand and accept that by explaining further how this could it be that I've lived my whole life thinking the opposite". Even if I want to believe, if I get no answer to this second approach, then I surely will be driven back to skepticism. But hey, maybe that's just me.

Let's look at the second question first. There have been hundreds of experiments (thousands?) on the phenomena of priming and anchoring (these days often viewed as a species of priming). A common feature of these experiments is that the participants uniformly do not know what is going on (the few who do become aware are normally removed from the sample) and strenuously deny that the manipulation to which they were exposed (typically, the presentation of some obviously irrelevant stimulus) had any effect on their behavior. This highly robust observation does not explain why people can live their whole life without awareness of these phenomena, but it demonstrates the possibility (indeed, the likelihood) that if there is such a general effect we would not be aware of it. It is in the nature of unconscious effects that we are not conscious of them, and it also a universal and fully justified initial response to doubt their existence, generality and significance. I don't know anyone who was not initially skeptical, including myself. It is the sheer mass of results that I find compelling.

To deal with the first question, let me suggest an interpretation that makes the phenomena less weird. We are all aware that our behavior and our thoughts and feelings are highly context-dependent: none of us is quite the same person at home and in the office, in bed or in the subway. We are used to the context-dependency of our behavior and we have storeis fhat make sense of it—social pressure, norms etc. What we are learning from the priming/anchoring effects is that context-dependency is mediated in part by multiple subtle cues of which we are not necessarily aware. The effect of pictures of eyes on contributions to the honesty box illustrates this. People were barely aware of this contextual cue and had no idea it had a large effect on their behaivor—they were responding pretty much as if they were under observation. The example shows that it does not take actual fear of social sanctions to make us behave in a manner that would be appropriate in a truly social context. I believe that if you consider the factors that govern our adjustments to the contexts of our lives, the suggestive effects of primes and anchors should become less mysterious.

The novelty of the recent priming literature is in something that I called "Associative coherence" or "the poetry of priming". The characteristic of our responses to stimuli (I believe I used the word VOMIT as an example) is that they are coherent—the entire associative machinery (including the autonomic and skeletal responses that the machinery controls) seems to be reset for a new context. We are more alert, we are prepared to recognize stimuli that are predictable (in a Bayesian sense) in the new context, we are ready to escape etc. This coherent response makes a great deal of sense in an evolutionary context. The fact that some associations appear bizarrely symbolic (e.g., to notions of distance or reminders of money) makes sense in the context of theories of "embodied cognition", which trace some of the concepts people have to early experiences, e.g, of social and physical distance or of the difference between situations in which money and exchange are or are not relevant).

Finally, to the importance of the phenomena. Perhaps wrongly, I read Nathan as proposing that the effects are either extremely powerful or negligible, and my response was that they are somewhere in the middle. I find it helpful to think of behavior as a choice of values along multiple continua (e.g., of friendliness, warniness, effort, driving speed, etc.). At any one time each of these features of our behavior and mental state can be represented as an equilibrium, which is influenced by multiple forces, some of which are internal (habits, intentions, stored knowledge) others drawn from the context. We are not specifically aware of all these forces (any more than we are fully aware of what determines our choice of speed on a winding road), but they are at work, and priming is one of the way this comes about.

Nathan, thanks for the skepticism. I learned both from the questions and from the answers. In this context, 'recalcitrant heathen' is not pejorative—it refers to someone who says "you will have to do more to convince me", which is a pretty good description of our exchange.


NATHAN MYHRVOLD

Well, with this I think we can declare our commentary finished! Danny and I seem to be largely in agreement.

But I can't resist one final point. The strangeness of priming is much worse than simply that we are not aware of it—we also don't seem to find its traces afterward.

Psychology is full of unconscious phenomena. So, for example, I can accept that my eyes may dart around and the pupils contract or dilate, betraying my interest in things. That by itself is strange, but easy to reconcile with intuition because you'd never know it without careful observation (with video cameras or the like). Last year Danny told us of the "peak plus end" rule that says people tend to remember the peak and the last bit of an experience (such as pain). Fascinating stuff, but ultimately easy to accept because it is explicitly about what we don't remember.

However, in the case of priming, the unconscious phenomenon leaves an indelible mark on our lives. It's not just about something transitory—it is about lasting decisions, like what we pay for communal tea, or what sentences are given in a court of law. I think that this makes it doubly weird. If indeed we are so open to influence, then wouldn't we see that influence in the records of our deeds? Pupil dilation by German judges is one thing—the sentences they give quite another. If in fact there is a meaningful priming influence on such things, why don't we see life as a random walk? If a judge hired for his or her professional competence at administering justice responds to arbitrary priming, then shouldn't that show up in the judicial record? Wouldn't a statistical analysis show it?

That is why it is not enough (for me, anyway) to say it is a robust empirical fact that experimental subjects are unaware of priming. Yes, that is the first step! It makes me believe! Bu tnow tell me why don't we find their record of actual decisions to have that influence? If we are all tugged in different directions by factors beyond our control, then wouldn't evidence of that be recorded? If we are tossed about on a stormy sea of metaphors, why don't we notice, even after the fact?

There are many examples where economists and statisticians have indeed used statistics do show cumulative effects of all sorts of influences that may be unconscious—like correlation of height with income. The more one says that priming is important, the more I would expect it to come out in the statistics—probably as variance after known systematic effects were removed. Priming is so dependent on ephemeral context that it would seem that it would appear as the noise rather than then the signal.

Several of the points in my email were attempting to reconcile this aspect—that our lives seem ordered in retrospect. So, if the effect was small compared to other sources of variance, then you wouldn't see it—it would be hidden by other variability. Or perhaps priming is the primary source of variance. Or maybe priming falls within the same range as other forms of variance so it goes unnoticed. Or... at this stage it is time to stop before I reprise the whole discussion all over again. I think I have some idea of what Danny's answer would be here and I look forward to the fuller explanation in his book.

Nathan


Return to "A SHORT COURSE IN BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS"

ON "HYPERPOLITICS (AMERICAN STYLE)"
A Talk By Mark Pesche

David Brin


DAVID BRIN [8.07.08]

Thanks for sharing Mark Pesce's entertaining and erudite missive on hyperpolitics. Alas, though, I must take on a number of his points. Certainly his conclusion.

First, Pesce, defines Hypermimesis:

Whenever any one of us displays a new behavior in a hyperconnected context, that behavior is ... transparent, visible and observed. If ... successful, it is copied...hyperconnectivity produces hypermimesis, ... where each behavioral innovation is distributed globally and instantaneously.

Pesce extrapolates this to a plague of omni-imitation—humanity's billions enslaving themselves to uniform fads, in a simplistic cascade of monkey-see, monkey-do in which cultural and individual distinctions vanish under corroding waves of impulsive mimicry. Much as Pohl and Kornbluth portrayed civilization homogenizing into a bland paste of dullard sameness, in The Marching Morons, Pesce forecasts a commonwealth where expertise is lost and democracy becomes a tyranny of lobotomized consensus. Of course, Pesce's thesis fits into the pattern of cyber-grouchery, also seen in Nicholas Carr's recent essay in The Atlantic, "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?"

He goes on to front-load an axiom we're expected to take for granted—that liberal civilization is fundamentally based on privacy, secrecy and ownership. Yet, none of these three are given core status in any of the foundation documents of the liberal Enlightenment, especially the U.S. Constitution. Secrecy, when mentioned, is disdained. The word "privacy" is absent, though implied in very general restrictions upon the state's power of search and seizure. Property is defended, but only in loose terms having to do with due process. These are, in fact, contingent rights, desirable but fluid, subject to whatever laws, definitions and processes each generation chooses.

Let me re-state this point, because it's obscure, but important. In the U.S. Constitution, property and privacy are protected primarily by requiring that laws be evenly applied through open due process. As the Jeffersonians insisted, citizens are free to negotiate and even redefine these terms, contingent to the needs of each generation. (Ask women, who were "chattel," if they approve this process of continuing re-definition.)

Other rights are not "contingent" but instead treated as timeless and essential, with definitions that are rigid, clear and emphatic, in order to span all generations. Topmost among these: the right to know and to speak, to argue and compete—in other words, the basic toolset by which each generation may strike anew its own consensus about law and custom... and then re-argue that consensus, a little later. Here is where constitutional protection is explicit and fierce! Because any dilution of the freedom to know and speak can render pragmatic liberty useless.

Pesce goes from one strange assumption to the next: "In Liberalism, knowledge is a scarce resource, managed by elites: the more scarce knowledge is, the more highly valued that knowledge, and the elites which conserve it." He then takes the neo-modern trait that Kevin Kelly and others are so proud of, the proliferation of "the free" and calls this trend a calamity, because a tide of general altruism will now trump the 'virtue of selfishness.'"

So, let's see if I'm following this right. Liberal/Enlightenment society is based not only upon secrecy and ownership, but also upon scarce knowledge, elite control and selfishness. But... weren't these traits of all human cultures? Certainly feudalism had plenty of all five. Indeed, if the Enlightenment emphasized anything, even at the beginning, it was opening the floodgates of knowledge and harnessing selfishness under straps and collars of binding rules. May I insert a passage written by James Madison, during the debates over the Constitution?

"There are two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other,by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. ...Of the first remedy, it is worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire... But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency. The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed."

Out of Pesce's list of liberal "fundamentals," I'll concede that selfishness serves an important, though crude, role in the Enlightenment, analogous to the heat driving its engines. But those engines—markets, democracy, courts and science—use widespread education and knowledge to convert that self-serving heat into direction and production and problem-solving and positive-sum games. Markets and science and democracy have always benefited from increasingly open information flows in the past and education levels are still rising. Heck, so are IQ scores. And this is bad?

Mark Pesce will need more than a just-so story about imitative human-monkeys, to convince me that knowledge will soon reverse its effects and become a toxin. Indeed, he goes on to somehow foresee increased knowledge leading to a decline in selfishness, which then leads, in turn, to anarchic civil war, a logical chain that seems perplexing.

I'll concede that his apocalyptic vision does climax in a vivid and eloquent anthem for the rising Renunciation Movement. "Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a rapid descent into the bellum omnia contra omnes, Thomas Hobbes' "war of all against all."...Hyperconnectivity begets hypermimesis begets hyperempowerment. After the arms race comes the war."

Wow. Look, I share some of Mark Pesce's cybergrouch skepticism toward techno-transcendentalists like Ray Kurzweil and Clay Shirky, who foresee a rosy, Aquarian age just ahead, one of accelerating openness and proliferating connectedness, unleashing human potential in something radiant and self-propelled, self-directed and exponentially cornucopian. Oy! Teilhard's bodhisattva has returned! And part of me wants to believe. After all, the Teilhardists helped bring us to this party. If I must simplistically choose between Teilhardists and Renunciators, I'll pick the optimists.

But even Mr. Singularity, Vernor Vinge, will tell you that it ain't gonna be easy. If these good things are going to happen, it won't be smooth, organic or automatic. Emergent properties help those who help themselves!

Above all, we'll need to improve the tools of enlightenment at an ever-accelerating pace, so that smart mobs become super-smart, and not mobs! At present, looking at today's lobotomizing social nets, avatar worlds and so-called "collaborationware," I have to give ten points to the grouches.

Nevertheless, returning to Pesce, I see no reason to expect that hyper-interconnectedness will result in "Hypermimesis." For sure, some millions, perhaps billions, will become couch —or net—potatoes. Unimaginative, fad-following and imitative. So? Those people will matter as little tomorrow as they do today. Meanwhile, a large minority will continue to feel repelled by homogeneity and sameness! They'll seek the different and surprising. Centrifugally driven by a need to be exceptional, even in a small way, they'll nurture hobbies that turn into avocations that transform into niches of profound expertise in an Age of Amateurs.

Already we are in an era when no worthwhile skill is ever lost, if it can draw the eye of some small band of amateurs. Today there are more expert flint-knappers than in the Paleolithic. More swordmakers than the Middle Ages. Vastly more surface area of hobbyist telescopes than instruments owned by all governments and universities, put together. Networks of neighbors have started setting up chemical sensors that will weave into hyper environmental-webs. Can you really look at this and see the same species of thoughtless, imitative monkeys that Mark Pesce sees?

Well, we are varied. We contain multitudes, including grouches, mystics and pragmatists. And that's the point.


Return to "HYPERPOLITICS (AMERICAN STYLE)"



article

THE NEW YORK TIMES
August 13, 2008

GUEST COLUMNIST

OPTIMISM IN EVOLUTION

Olivia Judson

When the dog days of summer come to an end, one thing we can be sure of is that the school year that follows will see more fights over the teaching of evolution and whether intelligent design, or even Biblical accounts of creation, have a place in America’s science classrooms.

In these arguments, evolution is treated as an abstract subject that deals with the age of the earth or how fish first flopped onto land. It’s discussed as though it were an optional, quaint and largely irrelevant part of biology. And a common consequence of the arguments is that evolution gets dropped from the curriculum entirely.

This is a travesty.

It is also dangerous.

Evolution should be taught—indeed, it should be central to beginning biology classes—for at least three reasons. ...

...


article
PROSPECT
August 2008

OUT OF MIND

What's wrong with a man buying an oven-ready chicken, having sex with it, then serving it to his friends for dinner? Disgust is the guardian of our souls

Paul Broks

Sunday lunch. it's a family reunion. Across the table, Ebby shoots me a smile and jams a finger into her right nostril. Would I like to see her bogeys? No thanks, I say, but too late. The finger reappears capped in a glob of snot. Such a charmer, my wife says on the drive home. Charming? Nose-picking at the dinner table? Disgusting, surely. Picture Ebby as a dribbling great aunt and there's no question. But she's a pretty two year old, and purity trumps repugnance.

Two year olds are full of emotions like joy, fear and surprise, but have no sense of disgust, which usually emerges around age four or five. Disgust is a late developer in evolutionary terms, too, and may be uniquely human. Infants and animals reject bad tastes, but taste aversion and disgust are not the same. Disgust has more to do with offensiveness. Chocolate tastes good, but shape and texture it like dogshit and most adults are put off. Not so two year olds. That was an experiment devised by pioneer disgust researcher, Paul Rozin. He and a young philosopher called Jonathan Haidt went on to explore disgust and morality. In his 2006 book The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt describes the evolutionary gear shift from "core disgust," which is triggered...

...

Further Reading: Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion By Jonathan Haidt [10.3.07]


article

THE NEW YORK TIMES
August 12, 2008


OP-ED COLUMNIST
HARMONY AND THE DREAM


By David Brooks

The world can be divided in many ways — rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian — but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality.

This is a divide that goes deeper than economics into the way people perceive the world. If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.

When the psychologist Richard Nisbett showed Americans individual pictures of a chicken, a cow and hay and asked the subjects to pick out the two that go together, the Americans would usually pick out the chicken and the cow. They’re both animals. Most Asian people, on the other hand, would pick out the cow and the hay, since cows depend on hay. Americans are more likely to see categories. Asians are more likely to see relationships. ...

...

Further Reading: Telling More Than We Can Know By Richard Nisbett [1.1.06].


article

THE NEW YORK TIMES
August 11, 2008


THE MEDIA EQUATION
ALL OF US, ARBITERS OF NEWS


By David Carr

Early on in any journalist's career, the young reporter is besieged by advice from all sides. Flacks, sources and run-of-the-mill busybodies will pound on the phone about why the reporter isn't covering this or that story. And then, a sage editor will appear and counsel the newbie: "We decide what the news is."

That truism still attains; it's just the meaning of the pronoun has changed. Yes, we decide what is news as long as "we" now includes every sentient human with access to a mouse, a remote or a cellphone.

On Friday, NBC spent the day trying to plug online leaks of the splashy opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in order to protect its taped prime-time broadcast 12 hours later. There was a profound change in roles here: a network trying to delay broadcasting a live event, more or less TiVo-ing its own content.

Consumers have no issue with time-shifting content — in some younger demographics, at least half the programming is consumed on a time-shifted basis — they just want to be the ones doing the programming. Trying to stop foreign broadcasts and leaked clips from being posted on YouTube — NBC's game of "whack-a-mole" as my colleague Brian Stelter described it — was doomed to failure because information not only wants to be free [* See Edge note], its consumers are cunning, connected and will find a workaround on any defense that can be conceived. ...

...

[*Edge note: Credit for coinage of "information wants to be free" goes to Stewart Brand in his talk at the first Hacker's Conference in 1984 (organized by Brand and Kevin Kelly), and in a May 1985 article in Whole Earth Review:" 'Keep designing': How the information economy is being created and shaped by the hacker ethic.". "Information wants to be free" now has it's own page on Wikipedia.]

Further Reading: Stewart Brand Meets The Cybernetic Counterculture By Fred Turner [10.3.06].


article

THE NEW YORK TIMES
August 11, 2008


IS GOOGLE A MEDIA COMPANY?.
By Michael Helft

...Knol is not Google's first foray into content hosting. The company has long owned Blogger, one of the most popular blogging services. It is digitizing millions of books, which it makes available through its search service. It owns the archives of Usenet, a popular collection of online discussion forums that predates the Web. Google also carries some news stories from The Associated Press in Google News, and it publishes stock market information through Google Finance. And of course, Google owns YouTube, one of the largest media sites on the Web.

Critics say each new Google initiative in this area casts more doubt on the company's claims that it is not a media company.

"Google can say they are not in the content business, but if they are paying people and distributing and archiving their work, it is getting harder to make that case," said Jason Calacanis, the chief executive of Mahalo, a search engine that relies on editors to create pages on a variety of subjects. "They are competing for talent, for advertisers and for users" with content sites, he said.

Knol has been called a potential rival to Wikipedia and other sites whose content spans a broad range of topics, including Mahalo and About.com, a property of The New York Times Company that uses experts it calls "guides" to write articles on a variety of topics. ...

...


article

THE CHRONICLE REVIEW
August 15, 2008

WHO FRAMED GEORGE LAKOFF?
A noted linguist reflects on his tumultuous foray into politics

By Evan Goldstein

George P. Lakoff is falling asleep. It is a bright summer afternoon in San Francisco, and Lakoff is nursing a latte at a small table near the entrance of a bustling, sun-dappled cafe. "This is what happens when you are 67," he explains sheepishly after dozing off midsentence. A stocky man with a wide smile and a well-trimmed white beard, Lakoff doesn't seem tired so much as beleaguered.

For years he's been at the center of some of the biggest intellectual disagreements in linguistics (most famously with Noam Chomsky) and has helped create an important interdisciplinary field of study, cognitive linguistics, that is reshaping our understanding of the complex relationship between language and thought. More recently he has been vying for respect among people notoriously hard to persuade about anything — politicians and their financial backers. So this summer he has been on the road promoting his new book, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics With an 18th-Century Brain (Viking), which argues that liberals have clung to the false belief that people think in a conscious, logical, and unemotional manner and that this belief has doomed Democrats' chances with voters.

But transferring scholarly ideas into political practice can be tricky. After a heady few years when he seemed the person Democratic policy makers wanted on the other end of the telephone, Lakoff is finding that what they're asking for — and are willing to put money behind — is not always what he can provide. Lakoff's foray into politics is a story marked by intellectual breakthroughs, the allure of influence, and a fall from great heights. Yet his lifetime work permeates several disciplines and continues to spur cognitive researchers to go off in new directions. ...

...

Further Reading: Philosophy In the Flesh: A Talk with George Lakoff [3.9.99]



NEWSWEEK
AUGUST 9, 2008


NOT QUITE HAL 9000, BUT IT VACUUMS
The inventor of the Roomba describes what's in store for the future of human-robot interaction.


By Katie Baker

MIT robotics professor Rodney Brooks helped bring about a paradigm shift in robotics in the late 1980s when he advocated a move away from top-down programming (which required complete control of the robot's environment) toward a biologically inspired model that helped robots navigate dynamic, constantly changing surroundings on their own. His breakthroughs paved the way for Roomba, the vacuuming robot disc that uses multiple sensors to adapt to different floor types and avoid obstalces in its path. (Brooks is chief technology officer and cofounder of Roomba's parent company, iRobot.) Brooks talked to NEWSWEEK's Katie Baker about the challenges involved in creating robots that can interact in social settings. ...

NEWSWEEK: Sociologists talk about the importance of culture and sociability in humans, and why [it should be equally important] in robots. Do roboticists consider things such as culture when thinking about how to integrate robots into human lives?

Rodney Brooks:
Some of us certainly do, absolutely. My lab has been working on gaze direction. This is the one thing that you and I don't have right now [over the telephone], but if we were doing some task together, working in the same workspace, we would continuously be looking up at each other's eyes, to see what the other one was paying attention to. Certainly that level of integration with a robot has been of great interest to me. And if you're going to have a robot doing really high-level tasks with a person, I think you will want to know where its eyes are pointing, what it's paying attention to. Dogs do that with us and we do that with dogs, it happens all the time. Somehow cats don't seem to bother. ...

...So are there ethical implications involved when you think about developing sociable robots, in terms of how they might change human behavior?

Well, every technology that we build changes us. There's a great piece on Edge.org by Kevin Kelly, I think it was, talking about how printing changed us, reading changed us. Computers have changed us, and robots will change us, in some way. It doesn't necessarily mean it's bad.

...

Further Reading: Better Than Free By Kevin Kelly [2.5.08]; Beyond Computation: A Talk with Rod Brooks [6.5.02]; Biocomputation: A Talk with J. Craig Venter, Ray Kurzweil, Rodney Brooks [6.29.05]



BLOGGINGHEADS.TV
8.22.08

...


Paperback - US $10.17, 336 pp Harper Perennial   Hardcover - UK £9.09 352 pp Free Press, UK

What Are You Optimistic About?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better Edited by John Brockman Introduction by Daniel C. Dennett

"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal "Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine "Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed "Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday

paperback - US $11.16, 336 pp Harper Perennial   Paperback - UK £6.99, 352 pp Free Press, UK

What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable Edited by John Brockman Introduction by Steven Pinker Afterword by Richard Dawkins

"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London) "A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world's sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian "Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover

Paperback - US $11.16, 272 pp Harper Perennial   Paperback - UK £5.39 288 pp Pocket Books

What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty Edited by John Brockman Introduction by Ian McEwan

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book to be dog-eared and debated." Seed "Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian "Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4 "Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer



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