So this is alternatively sourced to Marcus Aurelius and Oswald Spengler “The secret of victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious”. I would love to know the source, mostly because I would like to read what comes next. I really think that there is a profound truth to be explored along those lines, one that would resonate with Lidell-Hart as well as with Borges. And what a tag line…”The organization of the non-obvious”. I will use that from here on on.
Verus and Timon argue about the new book Dataclysm, in which the author highlights the gap between stated intention and preference and actual behavior in a way that shows what an abyss there exists between the two.
Verus: The book really is an interesting corrective to any future politically correct nonsense. This is who we are, as the author says “when no one thinks we are looking”. This is who we _really_ are.
Timon: Well, that seems both a bit rich and not quite true. The book finds difference between what people say and what they do, what is the new thing in that? Sure, men’s preference for younger women, our hidden racism and other glaring inconsistencies in our thinking seem very well documented by the data, but that really does not say anything does it? What we see in all of these experiments is actually not what people do – but the rich and disturbing complexity of our emotional lives. If you look at life and society in general the evidence is rather that we are able to overcome these swirling irrationalities and act in an ethical way…
Verus: Really? I think you are far too generous to mankind. I think that while our prejudice and our almost tribal instincts have become less visible they still determine our actions, our social structures and the lives of millions. Just think about the example of the applications for jobs with names that sounded African-american vs those that sounded Caucasian. Everywhere in our society our prejudice structurally disadvantages whole groups on a routine basis.
Timon: So our shadows of data reveal our hypocrisy, you mean? I just don’t buy that. I think the patterns in the data are far from born out in the real world. I do think that we are all complex, cruel, selfish and with an infinite capacity for evil – but with the same infinite capacity for good.
Verus: That is sweet, but what data sets do you have that speak for you?
Timon: Is that where this will end? That the production of a data set now will lead to the conclusion that we need to redesign society and engineer solutions that save us from our darker angels?
Verus: Why not? Hypocrisy exposed is hypocrisy you can fight. If we use data to reveal hidden biases we will be able to articulate defenses against them! And not deny them reflexively as you seem to be doing.
Timon: I don’t disagree with that, actually. I think revealing hidden biases is not a bad thing, but all of the data misses something – and what it misses is this: society has progressively become more equal and more just over the last 500 years. And that has happened without the articulation by data, it has been driven by something else. It has been driven — dear I say it — been driven by the human capacity for good deeds, for acting in a way that is just and right. Even without data to support it. In fact, I think if anything the data risks weakening that innate human ability for acting justly —
Verus: Come on, how can reveal bias actually make people act less responsible or justly?
Timon: Because just actions flow not from an understanding of data, but from a constant examination of your own soul and your own decisions. A constant battle with yourself and with your baser instincts. And data makes it into a collective structural artifact and not an individual responsibility. I believe that the way to a more just society – even in the future – is through the constant cultivation of socratic dialogue, incessant questioning of what justice really is. Not through data analytics. With data we risk externalizing the individual ethical responsibility and we actually give people an excuse: they can now say that well, it is not my problem – it is a social problem. We need laws, not individual self-examination.
Verus: I disagree, violently, with that. Big data will reveal us as we are, and our shadows of data will give us the menu for a political reform agenda that will allow us to really end structural racism, chauvinism and other diseases of the human mind once and for all. And through nudges and social engineering we will be able to build a social machine that can help us do so – individual responsibility just won’t do. Everyone is responsible today, and look at what has happened!
Timon: Well, look at the social progress we have done without data the last 500 years. Where did that then come from?
Verus: But it has flatlined! With data we can make the same kind of progress that we could make in science once we were able quantify the object of our studies. We will now be able to do the same with mankind — social physics, as MIT-professor Alex Pentland calls it.
Timon: Socrates turned away from natural science, because he believed that the examination of our own souls is necessary for any political animal. And that cannot be quantified. I am not a data point, and you are not a pattern.
Verus: But we are. And therein lies our salvation: we can quantify the parameters of our own moral shortcomings and correct them. We can close the gap between what we say and do. This spells the start of the end of hypocrisy.
Timon: I agree we can – but never through measuring what we do and using that to change what we say. We need to start with examining what it is we say in the light of eternal ideals of justice and with on-going human dialogue.
The night fell silently as their discussion continued, but we leave them there. In human dialogue or as data points in a pattern made available through data sets? We don’t really know.
In 1984 – a glorious year for music generally – a small group called Blancmange released the amazing album “Mange tout”. It is in many ways one of the best albums of the time, and it has receded far too fast into oblivion. Here is the lead single, “Don’t tell me”:
It is a brilliant piece of music, and the lyrics are just as good. Pure pleasure. But the best is yet to come. Their following album was released in 1985, and contains some of the most sublime music of that age – and for that reason it never was a hit. In -85 the world had moved on. Sadly.
I remember first reading about quantum physics with a sense of relief and liberation: the world was not a humean table of billiards, but a probabilistic chaos of possibilities. Now, since I have come to be much less convinced that probabilistic chaos is more free than deterministic order, but at some less reflective level I have always felt that if chance is at the root of things that would be, well, a good thing. Determinism always seemed a dreary proposition. It now turns out that this may have been a temptation shared by the Solvay-conferences dominant flank when they sketched out their view of what the world is based on quantum physics. Einstein famously objected that he felt uncomfortable with the randomness of it all in his comment “God does not play dice” – but Bohr dismissed that with asking that Einstein not tell God what to do. In a new article in Wired we can now read about deterministic accounts of quantum physics, and maybe, just maybe, we learn again that betting against the smartest person in the room is never a good thing to do. We also, however, are back at the drawing table from a philosophical viewpoint: if the world is deterministic – does it matter what we do? Were we determined to ask that question and to then act in a certain way in answering it and drawing our conclusions from it? Is there any space for meaning in an oil-droplet universe? Answers range from Chalmer’s notion of consciousness as a basic force in the universe to an in-depth study of the language games we are playing and how they are related – and why no single one has precedence over any other. A longer discussion. But one that suddenly became more interesting again – as the philosophical ramifications of the deterministic worldview in physics have remained largely unexplored since Solvay.
I arrived in Brussels a few days ago, and am traveling back tonight. The city is in full summer dress, and as I was running through one of the parks I ran past beautiful roses and other flowers, their scent almost creating a separate section of time and space. There is something about scents, about the way in which they catch you off guard. I am here working, but will not bore you with details. It is a formative period in the history of the European Union, a new commission, a new parliament — Europe chooses what it wants to be. It is also a formative time in many member states, where the sorting through the consequences of the European elections in quite a few cases is now shading over into national elections. I follow the reports from friends and others in Almedalen and see that Sweden is in the midst of this transition – the discussions about welfare, tax, xenophobia, immigration, education and health care both intense and wide-ranging. With the events in the Ukraine, defense also finds itself on the agenda, much to the surprise of many who would have expected that this issue would never figure on the national scene in Sweden.
I sat yesterday looking at the view from the terrace at the Sofitel, following the skyline of Brussels, the strange mix of small, old houses and new, very 70s modern architectures melding into one single skyline, interrupted by the occasional church or highrise. There is something about cities, there is something about that way of organizing ourselves that really appeals to me. I am reading a monograph on Aristotle and Plato, and right now the author is discussing their views of politics – the utopian Platonist view (that led to so many disasters when implemented in reality) and the Aristotelian view that starts from the bottom and reasons from the individual. Aristotle, then, is usually thought to be the father of the modern democracy, indeed of modern statecraft and a science of the state. His work on collecting constitutions – pure comparative political science – is one example. And Plato in the meantime has been derided as the philosopher of dictators and monarchs – and indeed that is how he has been used. But it strikes me that there is something both magnificient and tragic in Plato’s view of politics. His visions, myths and ideal models in The Republic and Laws or the Stateman are all societies that start from the assumption of the good man, they all start from this notion that virtue is knowledge. The socratic analysis. Virtue is knowledge, and hence if we build a society that creates knowledge – we will get virtue. When we give up on Plato, we give up on the possibility of creating (through external means) the virtuous man.
And, sure, we may be better off without that idea, without that illusion. But that does not mean that the question Plato forced us to ask was wrong. Plato’s assumption then – read one way – is that if we do not assume virtuous men and women, well, then what we do in politics will always be mitigation and probably useless at that. His quip, that good men do not need good laws, and bad men will ignore good law, is a reductio ad absurdum of the view that we can hope for laws to underpin any ideal society. The battle between Plato and Aristotle, then, becomes not so much the battle between utopianism and democratic realism as it becomes a a battle between the hope for a virtuous man and the fear that virtue is unattainable. We are, thus, perhaps, better off with Aristotle, but that sets a series of important boundary conditions for all political systems and asks that we base them on the assumption of scarcity of virtue.
I think that in one sense that was why Aristotle had to also attack the issue of virtue in the Nicomachean ethics. He needed to find a concept of virtue that was not impossible, but real. The very idea of virtue as the mean is powerful not least because the existence of the extremes prove that there is a virtue, it is real, it is realizable. And then we can build our society on that, not on the ideal man, but on the mean, and – again reading the ethics – on friendship as a fundamental social mechanism.
Then the question becomes: what is the maximum size of social organism that can be constructed with virtue as a mean and friendship as the constituent mechanisms? The city?
What are your views on spreading viruses? Do you believe that spreading viruses is a good thing because it increases the collective immune response of the species, or are you more of the conviction that spreading viruses is malicious and should be, in specific cases, even criminalized as a kind of abuse? Most of us likely end up in the second camp, and I know that I have secretly hoped there is a special circle in hell for those that go back to quickly to school/work/kitchen when they have suffered a bout of winter vomiting disease or the calici-virus.
So, why ask this? Well, I just finished looking at a very old TED-video (you know, the sometimes derided fast food for the mind that can give you world-shaking insights in a few minutes) that really set me thinking. It was a video with one of my all-time favorite philosophers, the unimaginably smart professor Daniel Dennett. His talk was about parasites. He told a story about a parasite that attacks ants, gets them to climb grass in the hope that they will be eaten by cows and there, in the nice and comfy heat of the cow stomach, the parasite can reach its next life stage (career growth!).
The parasite hijacks the ant’s brain and bypasses all genetic imperatives that normally govern how an ant behaves, and turns the ant into a vehicle for its own advancement.
This, Dennett said, is exactly what happens with some ideas as well — ideas that he, following Richard Dawkins, calls memes. These memes are mental parasites that proliferate through human communication and colonize the brains of humans in order to survive. Ideas evolve, survive and die out. Dennett had another interesting example: quakers. Quakers, he said, is a religion that preaches celibacy. For everyone. Not a great evolutionary strategy, one may note. But quakers could recruit enough orphans and outcasts in society to survive – until the modern welfare state put them out of business: not enough misery, and so not enough recruits, and hence they died out. Quakers had – Dennett implies – a mental meme parasite that hijacked them and counteracted all genetic imperatives.
And then he turned to more serious examples: fundamentalist religion being the perhaps most important one. There, more than in any other case, the imperatives of genetic evolution are effectively eliminated and young people willingly die for the sake of an idea. There are many such memes, Dennett noted, a great multitude of ideas to die for.
But so what do we do? Let us assume that the memetic hypothesis – it is not more than that I think – is right. What does memetics then teach us about how we constitutionally should design societies and legal systems?
What about, say, free speech?
Free speech is very much like a right to freely spread viruses, if the memetics hypothesis holds. Anyone can spread any idea, and if that idea takes hold it is fine to let it do so. If we believe that ideas are memes and act like parasites or viruses – do we then believe in free speech?
It is not an easy question. We can imagine a number of different answers that will put us in different kinds of dilemmas.
First, we could argue that we need inoculation to ideas that want us to die for them. The only inoculation that would work, we could say, is education. Education, then, is the key to allowing free speech. Only the educated are allowed to hear free speech, because they have the vaccine of knowledge that allows them not to be smitten by fundamentalism, nationalism or any other ism that wants to kill them. But what levels of education do we need, and how do we proceed with the many billions that have not yet had those levels of education? Should we revoke their right to listen as they are far to easily infected with murderous ideas? And how do you do that, but still educate them?
Second, if we assume this is true and revise our hate speech thinking to actually reflect a ban on ideas that wish that we die for them, ideas that are positively designed to circumvent the evolutionary genetic imperatives or procreation and evolution, what do we then do with non-violent versions of these ideas? The wish to join a monastery circumvents genetic imperatives, but is it harmful? Is it only ideas that want us to die for them that we need to stop? What about patriotism? Altruism? Do we object to ideas of sacrifice if they don’t make evolutionary or genetic sense? “It is logical to sacrifice yourself for two siblings and four cousins…” as someone supposedly said.
Thirdly, if we say memetics has no bearing on free expression, that there simply is no analogy there that is meaningful to explore – then do we really believe in the memetics hypothesis? If we indeed think we are sometimes victims to ideas that infect us, we should probably design our society to give us as good a chance as possible to fight them, should we not?
All this leads me to think that an exploration of a theory of free speech in memetics would be an interesting undertaking, and one that would allow us to cut the many challenges in free speech and free expression in a new way, even if it ends up discarding the analogy because of mismatches and glitches in the metaphors employed. Just a thought. Now, back to what you were doing.
Edit 24.7 2014: One reader was nice enough to point out to me that it was the shakers not quakers that had a prohibition on reproduction.
A brief excursion into the soundspaces I lived in when I was younger. Heck, still live in. Who am I fooling? Oh, well. May we never grow up.
An analogy that has been gaining in popularity these last few years is the idea of “innovation as evolution” — a model that implies that combinations of earlier innovation are what drive innovation not entirely new unheard of technologies suddenly appearing. In a recent paper, “Invention as a Combinatorial Process: Evidence from U.S. Patents” authors Hyejin Youn, Luis M. A. Bettencourt, Deborah Strumsky, Jose Lobo show that this is indeed what innovation looks like. They write:
Arthur and Polak  eloquently state the combinatorial view of technological change: “New technologies are never created from nothing. They are constructed – put together – from components that previously exist; and in turn these new technologies offer themselves as possible components – building blocks – for the construction of further new technologies.” (p.23) By using patent technology codes to identify distinct technologies and their combinations we are able to systematically and empirically study the combinatorics of invention. We find that the combination of technologies has indeed been the major driver of invention, reflected in an invariant introduction of new combinations of technologies engendered by patented inventions.
The introduction of new technological functionalities plays a minimal role in fueling invention once the system is mature. Instead, tinkering, gradual modification and refinements are very important in pushing invention forward. (My emphasis)
This is quite interesting and seems to imply that what we should do is to maximize the space for just this: tinkering, gradual modification and refinement. The results are worth examining closely, and we should of course be careful with drawing to far-reaching conclusions, but the method and results at least merit consideration by anyone interested in innovation, and perhaps in creativity overall. (Image. Dan Mason)
I have been meaning to write this post for quite some time now, but something has always gotten in the way. The reason for my interest in Weil and free expression is that I re-read The Need for Roots last summer and was struck by how modern the paradox of free expression in Weil’s thinking is. And her obvious frustration with the law and its inability to handle the tensions she thinks free expression creates is also instructive in many ways of how we in our age are struggling with the very same issues. Weil notes how important it is to be able to think freely and how liberty of thought is fundamental, and:
That is why it would be desirable to create an absolutely free reserve in the field of publication, but in such a way as for it to be understood that the works found therein did not pledge their authors in any way and contained no direct advice for readers. There it would be possible to find, set out in their full force, all the arguments in favour of bad causes. It would be an excellent and salutary thing for them to be so displayed. Anybody could there sing the praises of what he most condemns.
It would be publicly recognized that the object of such works was not to define their authors’ attitudes vis-a-vis the problems of life, but to contribute, by preliminary researches, towards a complete and correct tabulation of data concerning each problem. The law would see to it that their publication did not involve any risk of whatever kind for the author.
On the other hand, publications destined to influence what is called opinion, that is to say, in effect, the conduct of life, constitute acts and ought to be subjected to the same restrictions as are all acts. In other words, they should not cause unlawful harm of any kind to any human being, and above all, should never contain any denial, explicit or implicit, of the eternal obligations towards the human being, once these obligations have been solemnly recognized by law.
The distinction between the two fields, the one which is outside action and the one which forms part of action, is impossible to express on paper in juridical terminology.
But that doesn’t prevent it from being a perfectly clear one.
And here her notion is quite clear. She wants to have two spheres of free expression – one where you explore arguments without holding the views you express, and one where you hold the views you express and can be held to account for them. In the first she wants completely free thought, in the other extreme responsibility.
You can express whatever you want as long as you do not mean it.
It is easy to ridicule this notion, but there is something very fundamental about this thought that I think permeates also how we think about free expression today. And why is this the case? I think we intuitively realize that we should be free to explore all arguments, but that convincing people or persuading them is a different act than expressing a thought as clearly as possible. Noone would oppose a book that explained the reasoning and thought-processes behind, say, revisionism – but we all feel at some level that an attempt to convince us of a revisionist account of history is different.
There is an emotional gap between expression and persuasion that we are bothered by.
The genius of Weil’s solution is to create a frame, an environment in which there can be only expression and where persuasion is impossible per se. And then to allow anything in this environment. The early cyber-libertarians would have argued that the “new home of mind” was exactly that – that the Internet was this realm of abstract expression where complete freedom should reign. Now we know of the persuasive powers of social media, and we are much more wary of designating the web a separate domain.
At the end Weil acknowledges the tricky challenge of trying to frame this in legislation. It is clear that she realizes that if we want rule of law, we need legislation that expresses the limits of our rights and obligations, but this particular pair of rights and obligations is truly hard to frame in law. Yet still, she argues that it is completely clear. This is where I think she is wrong. Our inability to frame something in legislation actually shows us something about the clarity of the notions in our argument. Sure, there are things that are clear, but hard to frame in law — but when it comes to liberty we are probably wise to assume that if we cannot find the legal form of an argument, then the argument is just half-baked.
Finally, there is a wider point in Weil’s thinking here that I think is sometimes lost in the debate today, and a point that I think actually echoes Hayek in some sense, and that is the connection between a right and an obligation. Weil writes in the beginning of her work that duties or obligation precede rights, and that a sole human being in the universe would have obligations but no rights. Her concept of rights is a complicated one, but essentially she argues that all rights are dependent on obligations of different kinds, on an individual level. The right to express ourselves freely, in her argument, corresponds to the obligation to not try to persuade anyone of what is fundamentally immoral – and she assumes that this is evident for anyone that honestly examines an issue. This of course is an impossibly optimistic view of human nature, but at the same time a sympathetic one to a degree — if we did not know what it could actually lead to.
We could imagine other corresponding obligations, that to me seem more interesting. I had a chance to speak about this a year ago at a TEDx thing in Almedalen, and my thesis there was that the corresponding obligation to the enormous expansion of our individual rights of free speech is an obligation to listen to the growing silences of the growing number of people who are oppressed, quieted and censored – and act to dissolve these silences, as an individual obligation.