October 8, 2014

Technology and Fitness Landscapes

One of the ideas which has become a tool for thinking for me is a fitness landscape. The concept is most common in evolution and in machine learning (at least, those are the domains where I've come across it).
Visualization of a population evolving in a dynamic fitness landscape
The main idea, as this Wikipedia GIF illustrates, is that agents look around, and then "hill climb" to the highest point that is near them. They then repeat this process until there is nowhere near them that is lower than them (that is, they are at a peak). In biology, peaks represent attributes with high reproductive success. In machine learning, they represent parameters with a better solution to a problem.

The result that you end up with (e.g., the attributes of an animal or the solution produced by a ML algorithm) depends on the fitness landscape, and on the location where you start. In general, you will end up at local, rather than global, peaks.

I think a lot about the interaction between technology and society, and I think that fitness landscapes can provide a useful way of thinking of them. Technology is sometimes talked about as though it causes certain political, cultural, or social outcomes. Alternatively, some people seem determined to act as though people act nearly independently of technology, and that technology is merely a tool.

I think that we can see the introduction of a new technology as a reshaping of the socio-cultural-political fitness landscape, so that some configurations become comparatively more costly or difficult to maintain (i.e., move lower) while others become more attractive or possible (i.e., move higher). Whether a given society will change their configuration is dependent on how much the landscape changes (e.g., if the landscape changes dramatically, then most configurations will change) and where they are located on the fitness landscape (e.g., if the peak they are on remains a local optimum, then they will stay, even if the overall landscape has changed a lot).

These ideas can be imperfectly mapped to real situations. For example, we could see a country with strong institutions and a stable culture as being at a rather high local peak. Technological changes would therefore be less likely to result in reconfigurations. Similarly, minor changes in technology may only alter the landscape in small ways, but those small changes may be enough to cause societies to change drastically (the arguments about Twitter causing the Arab Spring can be framed in these terms).

For me, at least, I think this is a nice framework for thinking about what's happening without resorting to simple cause and effect explanations.

September 12, 2014

Every Generation Makes the World Anew

This is probably something obvious to most people, but it struck me the other day that so much of how we perceive and interact with the world - language, culture, how-to knowledge, etc. - is in practice quite stable and long-lived, but in theory is very malleable and uncertain. As the title of this post says, each generation has to choose what to pass on - what books to preserve, what buildings to (not?) tear down, what songs to teach to their children, etc. The things they choose not to pass on disappear. Forever. I found that to be sobering.

September 2, 2014

The Web We Had

I recently finished the very good, classic work Small Pieces Loosely Joined, by David Weinberger. I enjoyed it very much (my brief review is here).

The book is 12 years old, however, and the Web has changed a lot in that time. While I found many of the ideas, especially the philosophical ideas about the Web, both insightful and applicable, as I was reading, I couldn't help but think about the ways in which the Web has drifted from the Web Weinberger knew in 2002.

In fact, coincidentally, Weinberger himself recently wrote about one of the ways that the web changed since then. Weinberger knew that it was social, but in the early days, that sociability was built almost exclusively around interests - mailing lists, irc channels, forums, blogs - they are all built around people interested in the content that is produced. Now, much more of the experience of the web is built around real-world relationships - Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. For most people, these are populated primarily with people who they know. In ways that are both good and bad, the web is more intimate and more insular than it was.

Secondly, the web was a purpose-built place. Many of Weinberger's arguments revolve around the idea that the web is a place apart from the "real world" - where what is created is created intentionally, and build around the interests of its creators. While the core of this claim is still true today, much of the web is now co-created with algorithms.

There are very few web pages that are designed exactly as they are. Most pages at least have ads which are chosen and served up by an algorithm. Many are created by algorithms in even more explicit ways. For example, Amazon suggests other items that you might be interested in, based on what similar consumers purchased in the past. Your Facebook feed is filtered based on the relationships you have with others - how many times you've liked someone's posts, how many friends you have in common, etc.

This is really interesting - we are living in a space that is altered based on what browser we are using, what sites we have visited, what purchases we have made, etc. It's as though when you went to the mall, all the stores you like were put closest to the entrance, and the salad places magically disappeared from the food court. Then, when the next person came in, their favorite stores and food magically moved to prime locations.

There are some dangers. The idea of a filter bubble is one - the idea is that it is good for us to be exposed to things we don't like, ideas we disagree with, etc. While I agree that this is something to worry about, let's not forget how amazing what we have is - the algorithm-based world of the web is one with better ads, more interesting content, and ways to find and connect with others who have things to say which are particularly interesting to us.