Honesty and the Human Body

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt.

In economics and biology, honesty is understood in terms of signals.

Signals are anything used to communicate, to convey information. A price is a signal of value. Conspicuous consumption is a signal of wealth. A growl is a threat — and the growl’s depth is a signal of the size of the creature’s body cavity.

Signals are said to be honest when they reliably correspond to an underlying trait or fact about the world. Otherwise they are dishonest or deceptive.

The temptation to deceive is ubiquitous. Deception allows an agent to reap benefits without incurring costs. That’s why the best signals — the most honest ones — are expensive. More precisely, they are differentially expensive: costly to produce, but even more costly to fake.

This is the reason Apple retail stores are roomy and filled with helpful employees — it’s something their lower-margin competitors can’t afford. It’s also why species with good defense mechanisms (like skunks and coral snakes) evolve high-contrast colors. Unless it can defend itself, an animal that stands out quickly becomes another animal’s lunch.

Honesty is thus, in part, an economic proposition.
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Binoculars versus Cameras

I don’t normally pay attention to token gestures, but Mar 1/Mar 2 are the National Day of Unplugging. I don’t know who is behind this idea, or how much momentum it has, but I really like it. My one experience of joining a Jewish friend to observe Sabbath was both deeply relaxing and thought-provoking.

A complete unplugging happens to be unfeasible for me, since Refactor Camp is this weekend, but I am sort of pleased about the serendipity here. I am suspending my normal 90% online life to do something that strongly depends on physical presence and face-to-face interactions.  Refactor Camp weekend is also Ribbonfarm Unplugged weekend.

So while I won’t be able to entirely unplug from the Internet (let alone electricity), I think this qualifies as observance in the spirit of the idea. If you like the concept, check out that NDU website for more inspiration. Figure out a way to unplug.

While this is a start, I don’t think a token day of ritual observance and a manifesto will really make a huge difference. What we really need, to preserve our sanity and really figure out how to regain control of our agency, is to truly understand how digital/electronic power have hacked our brains, and hack the digital forces right back. They’re not as inexorable as they seem.

I want to share one particularly good unplugging hack I discovered recently, which has made a huge difference in my life. I bought a pair of binoculars. Specifically, these excellent Pentax binoculars:

binocularsI’ve wanted binoculars since I was a kid, but somehow never got around to buying them as an adult. I am particularly proud that I had the discipline to buy small, lightweight and waterproof binoculars I knew I would actually use, rather than bigger, powerful ones that satisfy gadget-philia more than observation needs.

But why are binoculars an unplugging hack?

Because they intensify present-moment sensory experience to a degree that you end up systematically choosing the present over the camera-deferred future. It is much easier to disintermediate the camera using a different device than simply trying to use it less. It’s the gadget equivalent of the solution to the “don’t think of an elephant” problem (the answer is “think of a giraffe instead”).

This moment — and the opportunity to experience it more intensely through binoculars — will be gone immediately. You have to choose whether to experience the moment or capture an impoverished digital memory that you are unlikely to ever review.

I’ve now carried my binoculars with me on several long waterfront walks, observed seabirds, container ships, trains and snowy mountains. I’ve taken them with me on a couple of long train and car rides, and to the Swiss alps. It seems to count as odd behavior. People stare when I whip out my binoculars while they’re whipping out their cameras or smartphones.

The camera today — especially the smartphone and lightweight point-and-shoot — is a dangerous device. Twenty years ago, film cameras were cumbersome enough (and film expensive enough) that most normal people didn’t experience reality through them by default. The dangerous device then was the camcorder, which tempted you into looking at the world entirely through a viewfinder.

Today, cameras being entirely digital and plugged into the Internet via wireless links means that they represent the temptation of continuous sharing. They are now as dangerous as camcorders used to be. Things in the environment start to be viewed and evaluated primarily in terms of their potential as online social objects. We see a spectacle and see an invisible Like button hovering under it. Once Google Glass goes mainstream, this will be literally true.

This power and potential is great so long as we remain conscious of what social sharing adds to the present experience. Does it enhance it or impoverish it? Does the act of sharing make you pay closer, more mindful attention to what you are looking at, or are you turning snap-and-share into a mindless operation like filing unread paperwork or retweeting unread links on Twitter?

Is your camera encouraging you to file away your life instead of living it?

These are not isolated behaviors. They represent a widespread abdication of agency and indeterminate deferral of direct experience. We are starting to inhabit a culture where we  are more likely to forward the experiential possibilities of our life to other people, our unreliable future selves, or digital systems, rather than choosing specific experiences in the moment.

I am never big on prescription, but I’ll offer one here: don’t do that.

And if you buy binoculars to counter the power of the camera in our lives today, please don’t buy those terrible camera-binocular hybrids you see advertised in Sky Mall catalogs. That would defeat the purpose.

I’ll stop here, just short of 900 words, which for me is a pretty disciplined act of unplugging in its own right, since I normally go on for at least 3000 words. But you’ll probably be hearing more from me on this topic in the future. I might even try to figure out a way to regularly observe a digital Sabbath (anyone want to write a WordPress plugin for me called “Digital Sabbath” that takes this site offline every Friday-Saturday and puts up a “Get offline!” page instead?)

The Ultimate Lifestyle Planning Guide and Map

Occasionally I get in a silly mood and make things like this. I’ve used the phrase getting ahead, getting along, getting away before as a shorthand description of the basic challenge of living life (an overload of a 2-pronged phrase from personality psychologist Robert Hogan: getting along and getting aheadand I like to use it to frame any writing in this general department.

I’ll do my annual round-up next week and then take the week after off, so consider this my holiday gift to you (festive colors, don’t you think?). If you have trouble unwrapping this (hehe!) some hints after the image.

You need some basic Venn diagram and yin-yang diagram literacy to read this. The colors have less symbolism, so you can get away without knowing color science 101. For more notes, read on.

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Patterns of Refactored Agency

This is a guest post by Mike Travers, who develops software at Collaborative Drug Discovery, blogs on diverse topics at Omniorthogonal, collects his random hacks at Hyperphor, and has a PhD in Media Arts and Sciences.

The scientific picture of the world has some disturbing implications when its assumptions are worked out to their ultimate conclusions. Brains and bodies are pieces of machinery subject to the laws of physics, and If we are simply mechanisms, then our ability to be free seems to disappear, along many of the basic foundations of everyday cognition and action (choices, selves, values, morality, consciousness, etc). The scientific worldview has proven both extraordinarily powerful and immensely unsatisfactory, given how at odds it is with our everyday experience. The disjunction between scientific thought and traditional humanistic thought was captured by CP Snow’s Two Cultures in 1959 but has only gotten worse since then. As a scientifically trained person who has worked on the margins of artificial intelligence, I’ve always struggled for ways to reconcile these two worldviews.

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Notes on Spatial Metaphors for Social Systems

Distance metaphors are natural in any conversation about social phenomena. We talk of the distance between governance systems and the governed, guerrilla movements and host populations,  rich and poor, Chinese and American, Red and Blue.

Kevin Simler’s recent guest post made use of the standard geometric-metaphoric scheme, the Hofstede cultural dimensions model, to talk about startup cultures. The model also forms the basis for the analysis of globalization in Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0, which I reviewed last year. So distance metaphors are very robust across a wide range of social phenomena, from small startups to the entire planet.

Topology — the study of the pre-geometric structure of a space, such as whether it is orientable or not, doughnut shaped or spherical, and so forth — is not as natural or easy to apply, but is also useful if you can pull it off, as Drew Austin’s recent post on the Holey Plane demonstrated.

When you do topology and geometry for social systems incoherently, you get frustrating books like Friedman’s World is Flat.

But more careful approaches aren’t safe either.  In particular, the more I think about Hofstede’s model, the more dissatisfied I get. Is there a better way? I’ve been playing around with a few very preliminary ideas that I thought I’d share, prematurely.

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At Home, in a Car

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Regenerations

Early tomorrow morning, I will pile stuff into my twelve-year old Corolla one more time, and make the two-day drive from Las Vegas to Seattle, via Twin Falls and Boise. My car (which I bought new in 2000) is now over 130,000 miles old and has sported license plates from five states. It has traveled with me from Austin to Ann Arbor to Ithaca to Rochester to DC to Vegas. That last trip was also a nomadic driveabout across the lower 48 that covered nearly 8000 miles over six weeks. Many of you have met my car. Some of you have ridden in it as well.

To the extent that there is any sign of external continuity to my adult life, it is tied up in this car. It has also been the only non-disposable physical part of my life for a long time. Since I arrived in America at age 22, I have not lived in a single place continuously for more than three years. In about a week, I will turn 38. I will have lived in 16 apartments/houses and half a dozen cities through my adult life. My digital life will have passed through half a dozen computers, email addresses and cell-phones.

For much of this time, my car has been the only physical anchor of my sense of place and self.


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The Abundances of Ages

This entry is part 6 of 15 in the series Psychohistory

High culture organizes its world views using overarching frames: intellectual superstructures that serve as extrinsic conceptual coordinate systems.  “Globalization” and “Industrialization” are examples of such frames.

Popular culture on the other hand, tends to be driven by the most visible and drama in the immediate environment.  From the chaos of turbulent change, popular culture tends to pick out specific motifs around which to grow a world view. These motifs mostly arise from the economic abundances that drive that particular age.

In trying to compare and contrast the motifs of different ages, something interesting struck me: the motifs tend to cycle between material, object and cognitive motifs. The objects aren’t random objects, but ones created by the operation of technology. So iron is a material motif for the Iron Age, the steam engine is an object motif for the Industrial Age, and writing is a cognitive motif for the Bronze Age.  Here’s an approximate and speculative table of the motif-cycling I made up.

(I have endnotes for the less obvious table entries, which may need some explanation; and obviously the model is more speculative for ages for which contemporary written records are not available to us).

Why is this cycling important? Well, for all you futurists out there who are stuck in a mental rut asking yourself, what’s the next big thing? the next big thing is almost certainly not going to be a thing at all (object motif).  It’s going to be a material motif. So the right question is what’s the next new material? 

So answers like “3D printing” are wrong in a specific and interesting way. Let me explain.

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Romanticism and Classicism (Assembly Required)

I’ve been obsessed with the concept of an aesthetic recently. In particular, aesthetics applied to things other than art and design. I’ve come to believe that your aesthetic posture is one of the most important determinants of how you think.

This post was threatening to snowball into a 10,000 essay (here’s why) so I decided to spare you the pain and provide three sampler pieces of the dozen or so I am trying to assemble into…something. Instead I’ll leave you to try and assemble something out of these pieces yourself.

Hint: you may want to try viewing a variety of distinct examples that are not formally pieces of art using these three constructs. Like say, coffee, the Republican/Democrat parties (in America), popcorn, a slum, a forest, a language, a mathematical result, a piece of code, an approach to planning a vacation, a way of organizing a desk…. So here you go, your first DIY ribbonfarm post.

First, always a good idea to start with a 2×2. Here, the challenge was to come up with a useful y-axis.

Next, an attempt to link aesthetics with attitudes about time. Paired-term lists are always good for exploring a dichotomy, and time is a reliably fertile variable to attempt to link to just about anything else.

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The Varieties of Scientific Experience

Note: this post has nothing to do with the book by Carl Sagan of the same name, which I just learned about from a comment. Damn Carl Sagan for using up a great title.

I recently realized that certain uses of words like science and scientific really annoy me. The train of thought started with this video of a TED talk by Jane McGonigal. Now, I don’t agree with a lot of what she says in the talk, but that isn’t really what bothered me about it. A lot gets written or said about scientific ideas that I don’t agree with. Disagreement and contention are a normal part of science. Nor was it the fact that it was a TED talk, with everything that signifies. I’ve made my peace with the existence of TED in our world. No, what bothered me was the specific rhetorical approach she adopted, in deploying the idea of “science” in a broader discourse. In other words, I disagreed with her way of talking about science and its place in society more than I disagreed with the science she was talking about.

Thinking more about it, it struck me that people who deal with science experience it in different ways. These varied experiences of science show up primarily when scientific ideas are situated within broader secondary discourses (I’ll leave primary scientific discourses for another post).  When people disagree about science at meta-levels, these different experiences are often the reason.

So something like what William James said about religious experience holds true of scientific experience as well: It comes in some distinct varieties. What are these varieties, and what light do they shed on incidents like my reaction to the TED talk?

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Waste, Creativity and Godwin’s Corollary for Technology

For the last six months, the scarcity/abundance dichotomy has been annoying me.  All dichotomies are false of course, but some are more of a bitch to transcend than others. On a 10-point scale where good vs. evil is a 4 in terms of transcendence difficulty, I’d rate scarcity versus abundance at 8.5.

And it is more than a harmless intellectual distraction. The scarcity versus abundance dichotomy is central to all technological thinking. The two sides of the dichotomy also have the two most powerful ideas in science — the second law of thermodynamics and evolution — as their respective intellectual motifs (I once called these two ideas the only sexy ideas in science; I think they appeal to humans because they both involve irreversibility, but that’s a story for another day).

So anytime you talk scarcity versus abundance, you are holding a sort of sumo wrestling match between two heavyweight ideas. This is why the respective poles of technological visioning, the ideas of the Singularity and Collapse, exercise such a powerful grip on our imagination.

I can’t say I’ve managed to rise above the dichotomy yet, but I am beginning to see a glimmer of a way out of this particular cognitive trap.

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