The World Wide Web isn’t all fun and games. This isn’t television! This isn’t an arcade! This is computing! We’ve got high-powered work machines tuned into this thing! With keyboards and mice and productivity software and everything!
These are the most useful tools and sites on the web, as nominated by the readers of Kottke.org:
Tyler Cowen’s new book, The Complacent Class, comes out today. In it, he argues that as a society, Americans have stopped taking risks, are too comfortable, and rely too heavily on incremental improvements of existing goods & ideas, which has resulted in a stagnation of our culture and economy. This video by Cowen is a good introduction to what he means by that.
After about the 1970s, innovation on this scale slowed down. Computers and communication have been the focus. What we’ve seen more recently has been mostly incremental improvements, with the large exception of smart phones.
This means that we’ve experienced a ton of changes in our virtual world, but surprisingly few in our physical world. For example, travel hasn’t much improved and, in some cases, has even slowed down. The planes we’re primarily using? They were designed half a century ago.
Since the 1960s, our culture has gotten less restless, too. It’s become more bureaucratic. The sixties and seventies ushered in a wave of protests and civil disobedience. But today, people hire protests planners and file for permits. The demands for change are tamer compared to their mid-century counterparts.
Americans traditionally have thought of themselves as the great movers, and indeed that was true in the nineteenth century and even through most of the twentieth. But since the 1980s, Americans have become much less restless in movements across the country, and more people are looking to simply settle down and entrench themselves.
Here is this change in a single number: The interstate migration rate has fallen 51 percent below its 1948-1971 average, and that number has been falling steadily since the mid-1980s. Or, if we look at the rate of moving between counties within a state, it fell 31 percent. The rate of moving within a county fell 38 percent. Those are pretty steep drops for a country that has not changed its fundamental economic or political systems. You might think that information technology (IT) would make it easier to find a job on the other side of the country, and maybe it has, but that has not been the dominant effect. If anything, Americans have used the dynamism of IT to help ourselves stay put, not to move around.
That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities, who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics time-use studies, these labor force dropouts spend on average 2,000 hours a year watching some screen. That’s about the number of hours that usually go to a full-time job.
Fifty-seven percent of white males who have dropped out get by on some form of government disability check. About half of the men who have dropped out take pain medication on a daily basis. A survey in Ohio found that over one three-month period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates. One in eight American men now has a felony conviction on his record.
If you need a chaser, consider this from the introductory chapter of Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (which I’m currently reading):
For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.
Absolutely none of this is going to matter in a post-scarcity economy. In the meantime, uh, doi? This is just simple evolutionary theory. When we have resources, we do less. Nature is about least effort with maximum output. Why do we think we're somehow above the forces of nature? The entire point of evolution is to gather resources and perpetuate the genetics. We do that. WE're at the pinnacle. Everything we are doing now *is* incremental change because we've reached a point where the pareto principle is kicking in. And when the AI takes over and we lead lives at our own direction, the kind of people that are saddened by this stuff will eventually disappear.
Jesus Christ maybe people being forced to move constantly to feed themselves shouldn't be considered a good thing. What's the point of technological progress if we're lonely automatons unmoored from our communities?
Ok. So I'm something of a contrarian. When I read about how the robots are taking over and the singularity is around the corner, I feel the need to push back. And when I read about how we are now stagnating compared with a past golden age, I also have to push back. We are clearly between these two extremes. So with that in mind:
Innovation since the 1970's has been dramatic even if you ignore communications and personal computing. He may be right that we have reached diminishing returns with airplanes. But the far more common transportation method of the automobile is going through drastic changes. From fuel efficiency, to electrification (remember when electric meant the Edsel?), to self-driving and safety features, to navigation. Driving today is far better than it was in the 70s. We have had revolutions in energy like fracking, solar power, even new wind turbines and new methods of energy storage.
For politics, it has become clear recently that popular rage and discontent are still huge forces in our society. Maybe people in the 60's protested more. But they still voted in relatively mainstream figures like LBJ and Nixon, not whacko outsiders who fanned the flames of populism. Remember that the Dixiecrats failed back then while the alt-right succeeded today. This form of dynamism isn't a good thing, but it isn't something of the past.
Interstate migration has failed, but that is likely not due to any cultural shift. If you look at urbanization data, 10% of the population shifted from rural to urban living between 1948 and 1971. While only 3% shifted from rural to urban living between 1990 and 2010. And it isn't surprising that this has slowed. In 1950, urbanites made up 64% of the population. Today they make up 81%. There is not that much more urbanization that can possibly happen.
Labor force participation among men is down compared to the 70's. How much of this is really a kind of 'complacency' or stagnation, and how much of it is a result of other factors like the dramatic increase in the female workforce in that timespan?
And incarceration is up. Which means the number of ex-felons is up as well. This is definitely a problem, but the roots of that problem lie in the very 'golden age' that is being hearkened back to. Whether it was culture or leaded gasoline, crime and violence spiked all during the 60's and 70's and did not plateau and decline until our 'complacent age' of the 90's and after. The edifice of our carceral state was created in those halcyon days and it is up to us to dismantle it so that it is commensurate with the lower amount of actual criminal behavior we have today.
So today isn't the best of all possible worlds. But we have not lost some ineffable dynamism we had in the past. In many ways our society is much more dynamic. Remember when there was only one way to communicate and it was via a state-mandated monopoly? Remember when there were only a few beer breweries in the US? Remember when all airlines charged the same high fees and flying was something only rich people did? Not a very dynamic era.
Cognitive biases are systematic ways in which people deviate from rationality in making judgements. Wikipedia maintains a list such biases and one example is survivorship bias, the tendency to focus on those things or people which succeed in an endeavor and discount the experiences of those which did not.
A commonly held opinion in many populations is that machinery, equipment, and goods manufactured in previous generations often is better built and lasts longer than similar contemporary items. (This perception is reflected in the common expression “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”) Again, because of the selective pressures of time and use, it is inevitable that only those items which were built to last will have survived into the present day. Therefore, most of the old machinery still seen functioning well in the present day must necessarily have been built to a standard of quality necessary to survive. All of the machinery, equipment, and goods that have failed over the intervening years are no longer visible to the general population as they have been junked, scrapped, recycled, or otherwise disposed of.
Buster Benson recently went through the list of biases and tried to simplify them into some sort of structure. What he came up with is a list of four conundrums — “4 qualities of the universe that limit our own intelligence and the intelligence of every other person, collective, organism, machine, alien, or imaginable god” — that lead to all biases. They are:
1. There’s too much information.
2. There’s not enough meaning.
3. There’s not enough time and resources.
4. There’s not enough memory.
The 2nd conundrum is that the process of turning raw information into something meaningful requires connecting the dots between the limited information that’s made it to you and the catalog of mental models, beliefs, symbols, and associations that you’ve stored from previous experiences. Connecting dots is an imprecise and subjective process, resulting in a story that’s a blend of new and old information. Your new stories are being built out of the bricks of your old stories, and so will always have a hint of past qualities and textures that may not have actually been there.
For each conundrum in Benson’s scheme, there are categories of bias, 20 in all. For example, the categories that related to the “not enough meaning” conundrum are:
1. We find stories and patterns even in sparse data.
2. We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories whenever there are new specific instances or gaps in information.
3. We imagine things and people we’re familiar with or fond of as better than things and people we aren’t familiar with or fond of.
4. We simplify probabilities and numbers to make them easier to think about.
5. We project our current mindset and assumptions onto the past and future.
Benson’s whole piece is worth a read, but if you spend too much time with it, you might become unable to function because you’ll start to see cognitive biases everywhere.
This seems a total overcomplication of the underlying processes. Do you understand the problem? Have you made comparisons to other datasets? have you investigated and not just guessed? Crap like this makes normal people think critical thinking is too hard when in fact it makes life so much easier. Like any muscle critical thinking has to be worked and strengthened through challenge and use. This kind of horseshit is like asking a baby to deadlift 100 pounds. Just give simple statements that people can use to get their brains engaged and they will naturally become critical.
I really like this way of thinking about bias and 'fallacies'. In order to productively deal with bias in our own lives, it can't be a kind of 'gotcha' we use to try to win arguments. Instead, we have to look at the reasons behind the bias. Many times, they are actually useful and help us deal with the four fundamental limitations described by the author. But as with any heuristic, they can give us a completely wrong answer when applied to the wrong situation.
The first line of Epictetus’ manual of ethical advice, the Enchiridion — “Some things are in our control and others not” — made me feel that a weight was being lifted off my chest. For Epictetus, the only thing we can totally control, and therefore the only thing we should ever worry about, is our own judgment about what is good. If we desire money, health, sex, or reputation, we will inevitably be unhappy. If we genuinely wish to avoid poverty, sickness, loneliness, and obscurity, we will live in constant anxiety and frustration. Of course, fear and desire are unavoidable. Everyone feels those flashes of dread or anticipation. Being a Stoic means interrogating those flashes: asking whether they apply to things outside your control and, if they do, being “ready with the reaction ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’”
I’m still struggling with recalling Epictetus’ advice when I need to, but I can identify with Batuman’s feeling of a weight being lifted when I do. I’ve noticed that the more central the notion of a lack of control is to my thinking, the more productive, more caring, more mindful, and (perhaps paradoxically) more willing to take risks I become.