November 20, 2012

The Lottery of Birth

In his discussion of justice, the philosopher John Rawls introduced the idea of a birth lottery. I came across this idea a couple of ways - through Warren Buffett's "ovarian lottery", and through Lant Pritchett's wonderful Let Their People Come.

The basic argument is that
laws and other social systems should be designed as though by a premortal agent whose birthplace, intelligence, etc. would all be determined by lottery. Warren Buffett describes it wonderfully in the embedded video.

Anyway, I was thinking about another aspect of the birth lottery. As Warren Buffett argues, he is very lucky to have been born in a time and place where his skills are valued and rewarded. At almost any point in human history, or in most other places in the world, being able to allocate capital is a fairly useless skill.

This made me think about how many people were not so lucky. Right now we think of the greatest painters in human history as Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Picasso, etc. The list will certainly vary depending on who makes it. However, whatever list we make misses out on all of the people who would have been great painters, but either lived at the wrong time or place, or just never explored that skill. In fact, I would argue, it is almost certain that the (potential) greatest painter that ever lived was not a painter. Our mystery painter was born before paint was invented, or born in rural China, or most likely, she was a woman (a lottery ticket that has generally excluded half of the population from exploring many of their skills).

There is something tragic in this view of the world - for every skill, the person with the most natural aptitude almost certainly never found their calling. The greatest (potential) poet may be an unhappy accountant, the greatest pianist an Indian peasant, the greatest unicyclist a mediocre Math teacher.

This is one reason that I think capitalism is so needed - it encourages people to explore their talents in the areas that are most valuable to society. And yet, it is still wildly inefficient in the sense that the entire space of possible talents is so vast that it cannot be explored, and natural abilities are still only poorly matched with occupations.

As I was writing this post, I came across Kevin Kelly's very similar, technological version of this argument, and realized that I had read it, and it probably served as a subconscious prompt for my thinking.

August 22, 2012

Goodreads Reviews

I'm experimenting with cross-posting some of my GoodReads reviews here on the blog. If either of my blog readers want me to stop doing that, please let me know. :)

Review: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My natural inclination is toward technological optimism, and toward quantitative research. This book doesn't have much of either. As I began the book, I found myself arguing with Dr. Turkle's assumptions and the obvious coloring that her preconceived ideas gave her research. I longed for objectivity and proof.

While I still think that Dr. Turkle's arguments would be bolstered by a more objective, data-based approach, I began to see the value of her research. She writes about mothers who pay more attention to their phones than to their kids, and kids who are hurt because a robot doesn't respond to them. These sorts of stories really do relate something about our relationship with technology that pure data can't.

I do think that the book is intentionally pessimistic, however. Positive examples of people interacting with technology were few and far between. Even though we all experience the positive effects of technology daily, Dr. Turkle very nearly ignored any positives, potential or realized, and focused on dangers and problems.

View all my reviews

July 1, 2012

Communications Revolutions

Gutenberg Bible Communications technologies want to move along three continua (which I just learned is awesomely the plural of continuum).

They move along an interactivity continuum, from one-to-one interactions toward many-to-many interactions. They move along an immediacy continuum, from synchronous toward asynchronous communication. And they move along a spatial continuum, from being available only locally toward being accessible from anywhere (what I'll call aspatial).

Each major communications breakthrough has moved us further along one or another of these continua.

Language was the first communications breakthrough. Speaking is one-to-some, synchronous, and local.

Writing is also one-to-some and local (you have to have the book to read it), but asynchronous. Written works are persistent, and can be read at any time.

The printing press changed writing to be one-to-many, but it remained local.

The telegraph was the first non-local communication technology, in that for the first time, a message could be transmitted from any distance almost immediately, so that the location of the original message was no longer important. Telegraphs moved backwards on the other two continua, however. They are both one-to-one and synchronous (telegraphs were sent to a specific telegraph office, where someone had to be there to receive them). I would put telephones in this same camp.

Mass media (radio and TV) brought about aspatial, one-to-many communications, but they are still synchronous.

The Internet provides us, for the first time, with communications that are both asynchronous (websites can be viewed at any time, not just when they are created) and aspatial (you can view a website from anywhere). The Internet also enables many-to-many conversations, where lots of people can discuss, organize, etc.

I think that the next step is for the Internet to bring its attributes to other aspects of the world. It is already reaching back to other technologies to make printed works aspatial (e.g., Google Books) and mass media asynchronous (e.g. Hulu or Netflix). It is making buying and selling aspatial (e.g., eBay) and asynchronous (e.g., Amazon).

Image via starfire2k on Flickr

June 5, 2012

What Computers Want

Correlation isn't causation, but "Jeremy" and "cool"
both started surging around the year I was born

I really believe that our tools affect the way that we see the world. David Weinberger's Too Big To Know argues that the web has forced us to see knowledge as linked and foundationless - like a network, not linear like a book.

In a larger sense, I think that computers affect the way that we see the world. For the first time ever, we can store and manipulate huge amounts of data - we can quantify things that never seemed quantifiable before. For example, Google's Ngram Viewer allows you to analyze millions of published works to see how phrases have become more or less popular over time. People have used this as a way to quantify culture.

There is danger, however, in thinking that everything can be quantified. As Jaron Lanier argues in You Are Not a Gadget, when we quantify our lives, we may be tempted to think that they are fully quantifiable. Or worse - we may begin to live quantifiable lives. He argues that Facebook is "organizing people into multiple-choice identities", and that if we continually describe ourselves in those sorts of terms, then we may become flatter, describable, and boring people.

My deeper reaction, though, is that this is really cool. I think it's amazing that we can track all of the websites we visit, or how many steps we take or all of the places that we go, and find patterns and meaning. Thinking like a computer leads to a whole new way of seeing the world.

For example, Google took over search because they came up with the idea of tracking all of the links that go between websites. Before Google, search engines searched based on just the content of the page (or searched a human-created directory of websites). Larry and Sergey's great insight was that there was data in the network, not just in the nodes.

There are plenty of other examples of the insights gained from this sort of computational thinking - on they track correlations of how people answer questions. For example, they know that gel pen users are significantly more likely to drive to work than pencil users. Most of that is silly, but the fact that we can track and share these things is really cool, and I think that we will continue to find insights.

"Craigslisting" Higher Education

Empty ClassroomI just completed my second course on Udacity. In seven weeks, I learned the material covered in a semester-long college course, taught by one of the premier scientists in the field. I watched lectures when I wanted, and at the pace I wanted. It was a great experience - I learned the content in a way that was better than a college course in almost every way.

In short, online education is very quickly approaching the point where it is better than traditional education. That got me thinking about what will happen as people start to move toward online education.

As Craigslist began to put newspapers out of business, we realized that news is a public good, subsidized by classified ads, and that as ads become less profitable, we risk losing the benefits of newspapers.

Similarly, I wonder if the research that goes on at universities is a public good that is subsidized by tuition. As learning becomes cheaper and moves online, what will happen to that research? Are universities about to be "craigslisted"?

February 20, 2012

Leveling Up

Amoeba roteus At some level of size and interconnectedness, interacting individuals become something other than the sum of their parts. Our history is filled with examples.

Mutlicellularity began with independent single-celled organisms, interacting with each other. As those interactions became more complex, they began to act as a single organism. By working together, they could avoid being eaten, attack larger organisms, etc. They began to divide the tasks of survival, until eventually, they became one organism.

At that point, organisms could act on the world (and be acted upon) on two levels. Because the cells work so closely together, natural selection began to work on the organism as a whole instead of just on the cells. This led to the creation of a middle "level" of organization, in between cells and organisms: organs. Organs are groups of specialized cells. The cells communicate with each other in order to make the organ work, but they also communicate, as an organ, with other organs.

Thus, all of us are composed of levels of semi-independent, interconnecting parts. Although each level is composed only of its parts, it is something greater and different from the sum of those parts, and an attempt to understand one level by understanding its components misses out on this fact.

For example, we could be described as a bundle of interacting organs. We could (theoretically) map out exactly how each of those organs interacts with each other, and this would describe humans and their behavior convincingly. It would miss out, however, on what it means to be human. We are living the interaction between those organs, and it is something more than a medical school diagram.

Similarly, we could describe our lungs by mapping out how each of the cells acts and reacts to stimuli, but we would be missing out on the fact that the lung is not just cells, but a breathing machine. Understanding how each cell works does not describe how they work together, because they are doing something at a different level.

This exercise works all the way down. Understanding organelles is not the same as understanding the life of a cell; understanding protons and neutrons misses out on most of what chemistry is, etc.

The second half of my argument is that this complexity - this "levelling up", happens because it is beneficial to be able to interact at another level. Companies are nothing more than a group of people connected together, yet they can make commitments, sign contracts, etc. Even if all of the people who sign a contract for a company are fired, the contract is still in effect. Despite all of the brouhaha over "corporate personhood", in some real sense corporations are, if not people, agents that can act and be held responsible for their actions.

This is a very good thing. If Boeing had to get agreement from all of its employees before making a government contract, then it would never happen. By acting as one organism, the members of a corporation can make decisions and agreements that would not be possible as individuals, or even as a group.

The big unanswered question is whether there are other levels. Do economies, countries, or the Internet have a sort of autonomy?