This is a guest post by Kyle Eschenroeder.
From Tolkien’s palantír to Thiel’s Palantir, from early religions to superintelligence, the dream of omniscience is an old one.
Imagine having a real palantír from The Lord of the Rings, a crystal ball which gives its user a perfect view into any and every event, past and present. Such extensive knowledge tends to heighten one’s sense of power and control–which in turn lead to arrogance and over-confidence.
This over-confidence creates blind spots. The White Wizard Saruman’s discovery of the palantír precipitated his downfall. The arrogance that came with his newfound power created an opening for Sauron to take advantage of him. Our own palantírs gave Hillary a 71.4%–98% chance of beating Trump. At one point, they gave the Patriots a 0.3% chance of winning Superbowl 51.
The confidence created by our palantír-ish technologies is a confidence in our measurements, not in ourselves. The more minutiae we measure, the less respect we have for taste or experience. Designers are being split-tested into insanity as mob rule decides which color they should use for the buy button. Decision makers are being confused by confident measurements of the wrong metrics.
This is an ongoing larger struggle in the world today between taste and data. Between what’s measurable and what matters. The promise is: here are numbers, let them make decisions for you. Algorithms we don’t understand interacting with, and reporting on, something we hope is reality.
This post isn’t about algorithms ‘we’ don’t understand (I don’t understand any of them) and it’s certainly not about Big Data. We want to get at the underlying issue: the way we interact with an unknowable reality. Our default is to find something we can measure and let that steer the ship. It’s not a new default, it’s one we’ve used forever. One of the more interesting examples of ‘something we can measure’ has been time.
The ancient Greeks had two words for ‘time’: chronos and kairos. Chronos is quantitative, the time on the clock. Kairos is qualitative, the inwardly-felt right time to do something. Chronos is about measuring the external world while kairos is about relating to the external world.
The invention of the clock made us hyper-aware of chronos: after all, “what gets measured gets managed.” With the focus on chronos, kairos began to fade into the background. Our personal sense of the “right time” was sacrificed for an accurate universal sense of hours, minutes and seconds. This type of tradeoff is happening all around us. As we clamor for accurate measurements of reality, our relationship to it changes.
The question is: is there a way to relate to reality that overcomes the deficiencies of relying on measurement and logic alone?
We might have expected the birth of reason in Greece to have created a new level of certainty about the world. New tools to rationally consider the world should allow us to be more sure of the world being considered. Except that’s not what happened. Doubt crept in and the Greeks became less sure of their reality, not more. Richard Tarnas explains in The Passion of the Western Mind:
“[T]he more the Greek developed a sense of individual critical judgment and emerged from the collective primordial vision of earlier generations, the more conjectural became his understanding, the more narrow the compass of infallible knowledge. ‘As for certain truth,’ Xenophanes asserted, ‘no man has known it, nor will he know it.’ Philosophical contributions such as the irresolvable logical paradoxes of Zeno of Elea, or Heraclitus’s doctrine of the world as constant flux, often seemed only to exacerbate the new uncertainties. With the advent of reason, everything seemed open to doubt, and each succeeding philosopher offered solutions differing from his predecessor’s. If the world was governed exclusively by mechanical natural forces, then there remained no evident basis upon which firm moral judgments could be founded. And if the true reality was entirely divorced from common experience, then the very foundations of human knowledge were called into question. It seemed that the more man became freely and consciously self-determining, the less sure was his footing.”
The Greeks were discovering that the world we experience by relating to it is different from the world we can measure and understand with reason. The assumption was and is that we’ve got to be like Neo in The Matrix, and see through to the source code in order to operate effectively.
But what if the most useful way of tuning reality doesn’t involve seeing things ‘as they are’?
Chances are, there is a reality going on. But evolution cares more about fitness than reality. So our perspective is being optimized for fitness, not reality. For most of human history the conversation would have stopped there. There wasn’t much we could change in our genetic and geographic realities. In the digital world, though, our realities are increasingly reprogrammable. This ability provokes the question: how should we go about reprogramming our reality? The default now seems to be “the most correct.” Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project is probably a sign of peak behavioral economics, a body of research showing just how many biases we have that point away from reality. These studies have inspired a million of us to try and outsmart our own mental biases in an effort to see the world more correctly. The perfectly reasonable assumption being that a more accurate view of the world leads to better decisions within it.
To the extent that this accuracy project works, it seems to be because the new perspective (or at least the new heuristic) leads to more effective actions, not necessarily a clearer version of reality. Indeed, different aims require different views. Entrepreneurship requires a different set of biases than investing does. Self-reliance, introspection, and experience help to parse out which biases are serving a particular aim and which aren’t. So when it works, the accuracy project ends up being primarily about better fitness, and only incidentally about more accurate views of reality.
If perspective A is optimized for winning and perspective B is optimized for seeing reality, perspective A will be passed on. As humans, most of us have several decades worth of time to work against this if we choose to. There are plenty of us struggling for a more correct view of reality every day — and I think that’s generally a good thing. Our education system itself is primarily concerned with spreading memes we all consider to be fairly tied to reality. (It’s worth mentioning again: reality and fitness aren’t necessarily at odds. We’re concerned with whether or not reality is the ideal to focus on.)
Depressive realism says folks with depression see the world more ‘as it is’ than others, yet clearly there is some kind of malfunction there. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) suggests various techniques for reframing reality that, ideally, lead to different thoughts, actions, and, eventually, emotions. You may need to reframe reality in a way that is less fully accurate in order to take more potent action. An irrationally optimistic outlook may be more helpful in dealing with a stressful situation than a rationally pessimistic outlook. There’s nothing new here: the Stoics of ancient Rome used all sorts of logic-tricks to feel better about a confusing, uncertain world devoid of their traditional honor competitions.
Our palantír problem has been giving us grief for a long time and we’ve been fairly creative in solving it, even if we’re not always conscious of it. Religions often suggest we need to go to a ‘deeper’ truth. ‘Deeper’ being an invisible concrete beyond the veil. Others, like Jordan B. Peterson, expand the definition of truth, in his case to include some kind of Darwinian-moral component. These models have saved psyches for thousands of years. They’ve also mostly held ‘truth’ as a universally primary aim.
There may be a more interesting way to tune our realities.
Learning to Care Better
Caring can be a helpful way to orient because it helps us act when “reality” isn’t directly accessible. We don’t necessarily need to know reality in order to act in the best interest of the person or thing we care about. What we care about determines what we give attention to. How we care about things determines how we act toward them.
As Milton Mayeroff says in his little manifesto On Caring:
“In the sense in which a man can ever be said to be at home in the world, he is at home not through dominating, or explaining, or appreciating, but through caring and being cared for…”
This kind of ‘being home in the world’ is a powerful place to act from. It means that our ego has been quieted because we’re lost in the object of our caring. The next best action becomes obvious because it’s whatever is in service of the person or thing we’re caring about.
This isn’t caring as in simply ‘giving a shit.’ It’s caring that is deeply involved. There is some level of ability to help the person or thing grow—according to it’s own needs, not our assumptions or plans for it.
Take the anxious Silicon Valley Tech Mom pushing their little girl to be perfect enough for Harvard so that she might eventually be perfect enough to be the next Sheryl Sandberg. This may work great for one girl, it might kill another. The difference lies in whether the SVTM cares more for her daughter or her dream for her daughter. The caring required to know the difference depends on the mom seeing the world with her daughter’s eyes while retaining her own. It’s not about parenting the daughter to a fixed destination, it’s about parenting for growth.
This difference in caring is the difference between playing a finite or infinite game: Parenting done well is not a game you play to win, it’s a game you play to keep playing. In order for a parent-child relationship to be healthy, there needs to be mutual trust that each will be involved as long as they’re alive.
This kind of caring means caring about what is right for your child, not what’s right for children in general. This means making plans, but it’s primarily about being so engaged that the next step becomes apparent. It’s about getting so involved that you don’t get worried about the complexity of the situation. It’s not about the odds, it’s about the thing you care about.
The lens that caring gives us is the best of the past, present, and future. Memories and experiences are framed for learning. The present possibility of flow is heightened. The future isn’t grasped at, but grown into.
Our tendency to be irrationally rational is uprooted and we may find ourselves behaving rationally irrational. That is, less grasping at complexity and more poking (or leaping) into the unknown. These aren’t the unjustified actions of randomness, but those of hunches based in deep involvement.
Caring creates a kind of internally felt compass to navigate an ungraspable reality. It favors action over explanation, because a more perfect description rarely serves the thing you care about.
Take our SVTM who undertakes the leap of faith from caring about her vision of her daughter’s life to her actual daughter. She’ll notice herself weighing her daughter’s particular needs above the best practices; these probably align often, but she’s not upset if they don’t. She may notice a weight lift as she forgets about the need to ‘explain’ her daughter’s success. The mother’s primary concern becomes supporting the potential growth of her daughter with regard to the daughter’s nature.
Beyond effectiveness, this kind of posture guarantees us a sense of meaning that precedes anything else. It also opens us up to other life treasures that can normally be had only obliquely. Serendipity is one such treasure. Caring for something fulfills serendipity’s requirements: we’re engaged in the thing and remaining open to what it might need.
These treasures are made available because caring demands we develop deep relationships to the objects of our caring. For instance, caring about the project we’re working on creates a meaningful relationship to our work. Caring about the people most important to us deepens our relationship with them. Caring about an idea or cause creates a relationship with something larger than you. These three relationships taken together are Jonathan Haidt’s prescription for a purposeful, meaningful, and maybe even happy life.
This caring is a kind of movement open to Buber’s Ich-Du — a kind of totally pure relationship devoid of any explanations, expectations, or anxieties. (“Ich-Du”, by the way, translates well to “I-You”.) When we care deeply about something or someone, we engage with them so intimately that everything else, including our own egos, falls away.
The way we work toward these frictionless relationships is to care deeply enough about something or someone that we’re forced to let go of everything else. The amount of friction in our relationships can act as an effective barometer for our caring. In fact, seeing the texture of these relationships may be our best way to know ourselves. The Indian sage Krishnamurti suggests that this is the only way to knowing thyself–and thus the only way to right action:
“Understanding of the self only arises in relationship, in watching yourself in relationship to people, ideas, and things; to trees, the earth, and the world around you and within you. Relationship is the mirror in which the self is revealed. Without self-knowledge there is no basis for right thought and action.”
Noticing these relationships, we quickly realize that being right is rarely the most important thing to care about. And as we notice this, the rigidity of rightness slowly gives way to a more nuanced understanding of the texture of our relationships.
Knowing that perfect knowledge isn’t always desirable for the best outcome, we might put our efforts into different types of communicating, relating, and caring. We begin to pay attention to the dynamic in-between things instead of static states (static present, static future).
There’s a phenomenological kind of rush that happens with this shift. We begin to feel the stuff between others and us. Not physical stuff, but the relationship itself. It gains texture. Maybe the texture then dissolves so that, in some sense, you are the thing — Ich-Du!
This practice helps understand the quality of our caring. The texture either feels right or it doesn’t. In a world where there’s no such thing as a real news story, this type of instinct is priceless. The objects and quality of our caring will determine our worlds–personal, economic, and political.
Being right matters, it’s just not always the most important thing. In Mass Flourishing, Edmund Phelps suggests that, “A truer narrative would be a more valuable one—provided it is not so much harder to grasp than the next-truest.”
It’s not necessarily the most accurate economic theory that leads to economic growth, it’s the one we can grok and act from. The most motivating stories in life are romanticized—a distorting lens is often needed to move things in new directions.
The economy itself is ungraspable. Our macroeconomic theories are different stabs at simplifications of an infinitely complex situation. When we take into account normally invisible economic-cultural rules that have developed over thousands of years of trading stuff, things get really funky.
As our big data gets bigger, as our Palantirs come closer to palantírs, it feels as though we can manage larger and larger systems more perfectly. Our belief in our abilities to control complex systems embolden us (eyes fixed on numbers) to tug at global strings more vigorously. Like kids at a playground with new rubber mulch, we get less scratches, but more broken bones than our friends who have concrete below their monkey bars.
Still, when it comes to our overriding economic theories, we must choose a few factors to narrativize and run with them. An Austrian economist will be concerned with the freedom of individual actions. A Keynesian will be more focused on spending.
Each simplification changes what we care about, and how we care in the economy.
Caring’s focus on helping the object of caring’s growth means selecting these simplifications more conscious of what lies beneath the numbers. We may find ourselves more concerned with human flourishing than boosting whatever we’ve managed to measure. In my estimation, it means less large, coercive programs and more small ones with humans at their center.
My suggestion here isn’t about policies. It’s a suggestion about posture: more data will only help if the underlying posture is sound. It’s not about creating the most comprehensively accurate theory. It’s about creating the most potent theory. A posture of caring keeps our attention on what matters in the face of new numbers pouring in.
If our quality of caring defines our economic lives, what happens when we zoom out even further? What happens when we consider caring at the cultural and political level?
“There are so many different versions of ‘reality’, it is impossible to speak of the nation as if it were a single thing that could daily be captured by the most determined news organizations. The news may present itself as the authoritative portraitist of reality. It may claim to have an answer to the impossible question of what has really been going on, but it has no overarching ability to transcribe reality. It merely selectively fashions reality through choices it makes about which stories to cast its spotlight on and which ones to leave out.
Herein rests an enormous and largely uncomprehended power: the power to assemble the picture that citizens end up having of one another; the power to dictate what our idea of ‘other people’ will be like; the power to invent a nation in our imaginations.
…The news we’re given about the nation is not the nation.” – Alain de Botton, The News
Poorly incentivized portraitists shape mass-market imagined communities designed for certainty and anger. Most of us get some derivative form of these reports. Personally, I hope that scrolling through Twitter I might find the right mix of reactions to a reported event so that I end up somewhere near the truth. The idea being that, like a pair of glasses, the right distortion applied to a distortion ends in some degree of clarity.
This is still a roundabout way of grasping at truths. Better, I think, is to take the posture of actively questioning those truths.
It’s difficult to make this leap when feeling right feels so warm and safe. The most rational among us run to the numbers, to science. Yet a strikingly large portion of scientific findings are incorrect. (Recall the predictions of our modern palantírs mentioned in the introduction.) When I’m seeking a final solution in nutrition, the graveyard of past scientific-sounding-yet-harmful diet books make it impossible to trust the new set of revelations. My hope for a single trustworthy perspective on any world event is only more tenuous.
The trick is to switch from a finite to infinite game. A trick accomplished by caring.
We can play with the posture we take toward a story or event until it starts to elicit what feels like the right action. It could be that we’re following our bliss or calling. More likely it’s less exciting: it might just be an obvious next step. Even more likely: silence, we’re caring about the wrong thing. Perhaps we’re led to a narrative living just under the one being yelled at us. Whatever it is, it’s more personal than the news-generated portrait.
In this way, we begin to benefit from news, events, and situations—regardless of our grasp on the underlying reality. When done well, we end up wu-wei-ing through the apparent chaos of fake news, irrelevant news, and bumming-me-out news. We’re not grasping, but growing.
My suggestion: even if we could, with a lot of effort, see reality as it is–it might not be the best lens to aim for.
This is blasphemous to many, obvious to some.
Grasping at reality is frustrating and maybe impossible. It’s certainly not always the most effective lens available to us. Instead of exhausting ourselves trying to form static images of a dynamic world we might try becoming more dynamic ourselves.
When we’re caring, we’re feeling via in-betweens, weeding out what doesn’t work as we find what does. We adjust our posture, perspective, and heuristics as we learn more about our relationship with the world.
Caring puts us in the posture of playing an infinite game rather than a finite one. This means favoring “improvisation over fixed rules, internal sensibilities over imposed morals, and playfulness over seriousness.”
There’s no one mental setup that works forever or even for a full day. We’re not working towards a perfect balance. We’re working on developing relationships with the world through caring better. We’re learning to slow things down by feeling the texture between ourselves and the world.
That’s the idea anyway.