Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Among the many complaints that cross my path in the ongoing shitshow that American culture has become is an article titled “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality),” authored by Jon Henschen. His authorship is a rather unexpected circumstance since he is described as a financial advisor rather than an authority on music, technology, or culture. Henschen’s article reports on (without linking to it as I do) an analysis by Joan Serrà et al., a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute. Curiously, the analysis is reported on and repackaged by quite a few news sites and blogs since its publication in 2012. For example, the YouTube video embedded below makes many of the same arguments and cites the so-called Millennial Whoop, a hook or gesture now ubiquitous in pop music that’s kinda sorta effective until one recognizes it too manifestly and it begins to sound trite, then irritating.

I won’t recount or summarize arguments except to say that neither the Henschen article nor the video discusses the underlying musical issues quite the way a trained musician would. Both are primarily quantitative rather than qualitative, equating an observed decrease in variety of timbre, loudness, and pitch/harmony as worse music (less is more worse). Lyrical (or poetical) complexity has also retreated. It’s worth noting, too, that the musical subject is narrowed to recorded pop music from 1955 to 2010. There’s obviously a lot to know about pop music, but it’s not generally the subject of serious study among academic musicians. AFAIK, no accredited music school offers degrees in pop music. Berklee College of Music probably comes the closest. (How exactly does songwriting as a major differ from composition?) That standard may be relaxing.

Do quantitative arguments demonstrate degradation of pop music? Do reduced variety, range, and experimentation make pop music the equivalent of a paint-by-the-numbers image with the self-imposed limitation that allows only unmixed primary colors? Hard to say, especially if one (like me) has a traditional education in art music and already regards pop music as a rather severe degradation of better music traditions. Reduction of the artistic palette from the richness and variety of, say, 19th-century art music proceeded through the 20th century (i.e., musical composition is now understood by the lay public to mean songs, which is just one musical genre among many) to a highly refined hit-making formula that has been proven to work remarkably well. Musical refinements also make use of new technological tools (e.g., rhythm machines, autotune, digital soundfield processing), which is another whole discussion.

Musical quality isn’t mere quantity (where more is clearly better), however, and some manage pretty well with limited resources. Still, a sameness or blandness is evident and growing within a genre that is already rather narrowly restricted to using drums, guitars, keyboards, vocals. The antidote Henschen suggests (incentivizing musical literacy and participation, especially in schools) might prove salutary, but such recommendations are ubiquitous throughout modern history. The magical combination of factors that actually catalyzes creativity, as opposed to degradation, is rather quixotic. Despite impassioned pleas not to allow quality to disappear, nothing could be more obvious than that culture drifts according to its own whims (to anthropomorphize) rather than being steered by well-meaning designs.

More to say in part 2 to follow.

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One of the very best lessons I took from higher education was recognizing and avoiding the intentional fallacy — in my own thinking no less than in that of others. Although the term arguably has more to do with critical theory dealing specifically with texts, I learned about it in relation to abstract fine arts, namely, painting and music. For example, the enigmatic expression of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci continues to spark inquiry and debate. What exactly does that smile mean? Even when words or programs are included in musical works, it’s seductively easy to conclude that the composer intends this or the work itself means that. Any given work purportedly allows audiences to peer into the mind of its creator(s) to interrogate intent. Conclusions thus drawn, however, are notoriously unreliable though commonplace.

It’s inevitable, I suppose, to read intent into artistic expression, especially when purpose feels so obvious or inevitable. Similar excavations of meaning and purpose are undertaken within other domains of activity, resulting in no end of interpretation as to surface and deep strategies. Original intent (also originalism) is a whole field of endeavor with respect to interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and imagining the framers’ intent. Geopolitics is another domain where hindsight analysis results in some wildly creative but ultimately conjectural interpretations of events. Even where authorial (and political) intent is explicitly recorded, such as with private diaries or journals, the possibility of deceptive intent by authors keeps everyone wondering. Indeed, although “fake news” is modern coin, a long history of deceptive publishing practice well beyond the adoption of a nom de plume attests to hidden or unknowable intent making “true intent” a meta property.

The multi-ring circus that the modern information environment has become, especially in the wake of electronic media (e.g., YouTube channels) produced by anyone with a camera and an Internet connection, is fertile ground for those easily ensnared by the intentional fallacy. Several categories of intent projected onto content creators come up repeatedly: profit motive, control of the narrative (no small advantage if one believes this blog post), setting the record straight, correcting error, grandstanding, and trolling for negative attention. These categories are not mutually exclusive. Long ago, I pointed to the phenomenon of arguing on-line and how it typically accomplishes very little, especially as comment threads lengthen and civility breaks down. These days, comments are an Internet legacy and/or anachronism that many content creators persist in offering to give the illusion of a wider discussion but in fact roundly ignore. Most blogs and channels are actually closed conversations. Maybe a Q&A follows the main presentation when held before an audience, but video channels are more often one-way broadcasts addressing an audience but not really listening. Public square discussion is pretty rare.

Some celebrate this new era of broadcasting, noting with relish how the mainstream media is losing its former stranglehold on attention. Such enthusiasm may be transparently self-serving but nonetheless rings true. A while back, I pointed to New Media Rockstars, which traffics in nerd culture entertainment media, but the term could easily be expanded to include satirical news, comedy, and conversational webcasts (also podcasts). Although some folks are rather surprised to learn that an appetite for substantive discussion and analysis exists among the public, I surmise that the shifting media landscape and disintegrated cultural narrative have bewildered a large segment of the public. The young in particular are struggling to make sense of the world, figure out what to be in life and how to function, and working out an applied philosophy that eschews more purely academic philosophy.

By way of example of new media, let me point to a trio of YouTube channels I only recently discovered. Some More News parodies traditional news broadcasts by sardonically (not quite the same as satirically) calling bullshit on how news is presented. Frequent musical cues between segments make me laugh. Unlike the mainstream media, which are difficult not to regard as propaganda arms of the government, Some More News is unapologetically liberal and indulges in black humor, which doesn’t make me laugh. Its raw anger and exasperation are actually a little terrifying. The second YouTube channel is Three Arrows, a sober, thorough debunking of news and argumentation found elsewhere in the public sphere. The speaker, who doesn’t appear onscreen, springs into action especially when accusations of current-day Nazism come up. (The current level of debate has devolved to recklessly calling nearly everyone a Nazi at some stage. Zero points scored.) Historical research often puts things into proper context, such as the magnitude of the actual Holocaust compared to some garden-variety racist running his or her mouth comparatively harmlessly. The third YouTube channel is ContraPoints, which is rather fanciful and profane but remarkably erudite considering the overall tone. Labels and categories are explained for those who may not have working definitions at the ready for every phrase or ideology. Accordingly, there is plenty of jargon. The creator also appears as a variety of different characters to embody various archetypes and play devil’s advocate.

While these channels may provide abundant information, correcting error and contextualizing better than most traditional media, it would be difficult to conclude they’re really moving the conversation forward. Indeed, one might wonder why bother preparing these videos considering how time consuming it has to be to do research, write scripts, assemble pictorial elements, etc. I won’t succumb to the intentional fallacy and suggest I know why they bother holding these nondebates. Further, unless straight-up comedy, I wouldn’t say they’re entertaining exactly, either. Highly informative, perhaps, if one pays close attention to frenetic online pace and/or mines for content (e.g., studying transcripts or following links). Interestingly, within a fairly short period of time, these channels are establishing their own rhetoric, sometimes useful, other times too loose to make strong impressions. It’s not unlike the development of new stylistic gestures in music or painting. What if anything worthwhile will emerge from the scrum will be interesting.

If the previous blog in this series was about how some ideas and beliefs become lodged or stuck in place (fixity bias), this one is about how other ideas are notoriously mutable (flexibility bias), especially the latest, loudest thing to turn one’s head and divert attention. What makes any particular idea (or is it the person?) prone to one bias or another (see this list) is mysterious to me, but my suspicion is that a character disposition toward openness and adherence to authoritative evidence figure prominently in the case of shifting opinion. In fact, this is one of the primary problems with reason: if evidence can be deployed in favor of an idea, those who consider themselves “reasonable” and thus rely on accumulation of evidence and argumentation to sharpen their thinking are vulnerable to the latest “finding” or study demonstrating sumpinorutha. It’s the intellectual’s version of “New! Improved!”

Sam Harris exploits rationalism to argue against the existence of free will, saying that if sufficient evidence can be brought to bear, a disciplined thinker is compelled to subscribe to the conclusions of reasoned argument. Choice and personal agency (free will) are removed. I find that an odd way to frame the issue. Limitless examples of lack of choice are nonequivalent to the destruction of free will. For example, one can’t decide not to believe in gravity and fly up into the air more than a few inches. One can’t decide that time is an illusion (as theoretical physicists now instruct) and decide not to age. One can’t decide that pooping is too disgusting and just hold it all in (as some children attempt). Counter-evidence doesn’t even need to be argued because almost no one pretends to believe such nonsense. (Twisting one’s mind around to believe in the nonexistence of time, free will, or the self seems to be the special province of hyper-analytical thinkers.) Yet other types of belief/denial — many of them conspiracy theories — are indeed choices: religion, flat Earth, evolution, the Holocaust, the moon landings, 9/11 truth, who really killed JFK, etc. Lots of evidence has been mustered on different sides (multiple facets, actually) of each of these issues, and while rationalists may be compelled by a preponderance of evidence in favor of one view, others are free to fly in the face of that evidence for reasons of their own or adopt by default the dominant narrative and not worry or bother so much.

The public struggles in its grasp of truthful information, as reported in a Pew Research Center study called “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News.” Here’s the snapshot:

The main portion of the study, which measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.

Indiscriminate adoption by many Americans of a faulty viewpoint, or more pointedly, the propaganda and “fake news” on offer throughout the information environment, carries the implication that disciplined thinkers are less confused about truth or facts, taking instead a rational approach as the basis for belief. However, I suggest that reason suffers its own frailties not easily recognized or acknowledged. In short, we’re all confused, though perhaps not hopelessly so. For several years now, I’ve sensed the outline of a much larger epistemological crisis where quintessential Enlightenment values have come under open attack. The irony is that the wicked stepchild of science and reason — runaway technology —  is at least partially responsible for this epochal conflict. It’s too big an idea to grok fully or describe in a paragraph or two, so I’ll simply point to it an move on.

My own vulnerability to flexibility bias manifests specifically in response to appeals to authority. Although well educated, a lifelong autodidact, and an independent thinker, I’m careful not to succumb to the hubris of believing I’ve got it all figgered. Indeed, it’s often said that as one gains expertise and experience in the world, the certainty of youth yields to caution precisely because the mountain of knowledge and understanding one lacks looms larger even as one accumulates wisdom. Bodies of thought become multifaceted and all arguments must be entertained. When an expert, researcher, or academic proposes something outside my wheelhouse, I’m a sitting duck: I latch onto the latest, greatest utterance as the best truth yet available. I don’t fall for it nearly so readily with journalists, but I do recognize that some put in the effort and gain specialized knowledge and context well outside the bounds of normal life, such as war reporters. Various perverse incentives deeply embedded in the institutional model of journalism, especially those related to funding, make it nearly impossible to maintain one’s integrity without becoming a pariah, so only a handful have kept my attention. John Pilger, Chris Hedges, and Matt Taibbe figure prominently.

By way of example, one of the topics that has been of supreme interest to me, though its historical remove renders it rather toothless now, is the cataclysm(s) that occurred at the conclusion of the last ice age roughly 12,000 years ago. At least three hypotheses (of which I’m aware) have been proposed to explain why glacial ice disappeared suddenly over the course of a few weeks, unleashing the Biblical Flood: Earth crust displacement, asteroidal impact(s), and coronal mass ejection(s). Like most hypotheses, evidence is both physical and conjectural, but a sizable body of evidence and argumentation for each is available. As I became familiar with each, my head turned and I became a believer, sorta. Rather than “last one is the rotten egg,” however, the latest, most recent one typically displaces the previous one. No doubt another hypothesis will appear to turn my head and disorient me further. With some topics, especially politics, new information piling on top of old is truly dizzying. And as I’ve written about many topics, I simply lack the expertise to referee competing claims, so whatever beliefs I eventually adopt are permanently provisional.

Finally, my vulnerability to authoritative appeal also reacts to the calm, unflappable tones and complexity of construction of speakers such as Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Charles Murray. Their manner of speaking is sometimes described pejoratively as “academese,” though only Pinker has a teaching position. Murray in particular relies heavily on psychometrics, which may not be outright lying with statistics but allows him to rationalize (literally) extraordinarily taboo subjects. In contrast, it’s easy to disregard pundits and press agents foaming and fulminating over their pet narratives. Yet I also recognize that with academese, I’m being soothed more by style than by substance, a triumph of form over function. In truth, this communication style is an appeal to emotion masquerading as an appeal to authority. I still prefer it, just as I prefer a steady, explanatory style of journalism over the snarky, reinterpretive style of disquisition practiced by many popular media figures. What communicates most effectively to me and (ironically) pushes my emotional buttons also weakens my ability to discriminate and think properly.

Yet still more to come in part 5.

Language acquisition in early childhood is aided by heavy doses of repetition and the memorable structure of nursery rhymes, songs, and stories that are repeated ad nauseum to eager children. Please, again! Again, again … Early in life, everything is novel, so repetition and fixity are positive attributes rather than causes for boredom. The music of one’s adolescence is also the subject of endless repetition, typically through recordings (radio and Internet play, mp3s played over headphones or earbuds, dances and dance clubs, etc.). Indeed, most of us have mental archives of songs heard over and over to the point that the standard version becomes canonical: that’s just the way the song goes. When someone covers a Beatles song, it’s recognizably the same song, yet it’s not the same and may even sound wrong somehow. (Is there any acceptable version of Love Shack besides that of the B52’s?) Variations of familiar folk tales and folk songs, or different phrasing in The Lord’s Prayer, imprinted in memory through sheer repetition, also possess discomfiting differences, sometimes being offensive enough to cause real conflict. (Not your Abrahamic deity, mine!)

Performing musicians traverse warhorses many times in rehearsal and public performance so that, after an undetermined point, how one performs a piece just becomes how it goes, admitting few alternatives. Casual joke-tellers may improvise over an outline, but as I understand it, the pros hone and craft material over time until very little is left to chance. Anyone who has listened to old comedy recordings of Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and others has probably learned the jokes (and timing and intonation) by heart — again through repetition. It’s strangely comforting to be able to go back to the very same performance again and again. Personally, I have a rather large catalogue of classical music recordings in my head. I continue to seek out new renditions, but often the first version I learned becomes the default version, the way something goes. Dislodging that version from its definitive status is nearly impossible, especially when it’s the very first recording of a work (like a Beatles song). This is also why live performance often fails in comparison with the studio recording.

So it goes with a wide variety of phenomenon: what is first established as how something goes easily becomes canonical, dogmatic, and unquestioned. For instance, the origin of the universe in the big bang is one story of creation to which many still hold, while various religious creation myths hold sway with others. News that the big bang has been dislodged from its privileged position goes over just about as well as dismissing someone’s religion. Talking someone out of a fixed belief is hardly worth the effort because some portion of one’s identity is anchored to such beliefs. Thus, to question a cherished belief is to impeach a person’s very self.

Political correctness is the doctrine that certain ideas and positions have been worked out effectively and need (or allow) no further consideration. Just subscribe and get with the program. Don’t bother doing the mental work or examining the issue oneself; things have already been decided. In science, steady evidenciary work to break down a fixed understanding is often thankless, or thanks arrives posthumously. This is the main takeaway of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: paradigms are changed as much through attrition as through rational inquiry and accumulation of evidence.

One of the unanticipated effects of the Information and Communications Age is the tsunami of information to which people have ready access. Shaping that information into a cultural narrative (not unlike a creation myth) is either passive (one accepts the frequently shifting dominant paradigm without compunction) or active (one investigates for oneself as an attribute of the examined life, which with wizened folks never really arrives at a destination, since it’s the journey that’s the point). What’s a principled rationalist to do in the face of a surfeit of alternatives available for or even demanding consideration? Indeed, with so many self-appointed authorities vying for control over cultural narratives like the editing wars on Wikipedia, how can one avoid the dizzying disorientation of gaslighting and mendacity so characteristic of the modern information environment?

Still more to come in part 4.

rant on/

Authors I read and podcasters to whom I listen, mostly minor celebrities of the nonentertainment kind, often push their points of view using lofty appeals to reason and authority as though they possess unique access to truth but which is lacking among those whose critical thinking may be more limited. Seems to be the special province of pundits and thought leaders shilling their own books, blogs, newspaper columns, and media presence (don’t forget to comment and subscribe! ugh …). The worst offender on the scene may well be Sam Harris, who has run afoul of so many others recently that a critical mass is now building against him. With calm, even tones, he musters his evidence (some of it hotly disputed) and builds his arguments with the serene confidence of a Kung Fu master yet is astonished and amazed when others don’t defer to his rhetoric. He has behaved of late like he possesses heroic superpowers only to discover that others wield kryptonite or magic sufficient to defeat him. It’s been quite a show of force and folly. I surmise the indignity of suffering fools, at least from Harris’ perspective, smarts quite a bit, and his mewling does him no credit. So far, the person refusing most intransigently to take the obvious lesson from this teachable moment is Harris himself.

Well, I’m here to say that reason is no superpower. Indeed, it can be thwarted rather handily by garden-variety ignorance, stupidity, emotion, superstition, and fantasy. All of those are found in abundance in the public sphere, whereas reason is in rather short supply. Nor is reason a panacea, if only one could get everyone on board. None of this is even remotely surprising to me, but Harris appears to be taken aback that his interlocutors, many of whom are sophisticated thinkers, are not easily convinced. In the ivory tower or echo chamber Harris has constructed for himself, those who lack scientific rigor and adherence to evidence (or even better, facts and data) are infrequently admitted to the debate. He would presumably have a level playing field, right? So what’s going on that eludes Sam Harris?

As I’ve been saying for some time, we’re in the midst of an epistemological crisis. Defenders of Enlightenment values (logic, rationalism, detachment, equity, secularism), most of whom are academics, are a shrinking minority in the new democratic age. Moreover, the Internet has put regular, perhaps unschooled folks (Joe the Plumber, Ken Bone, any old Kardashian, and celebrities used to being the undeserved focus of attention) in direct dialogue with everyone else through deplorable comments sections. Journalists get their say, too, and amplify the unwashed masses when resorting to man-on-the-street interviews. At Gin and Tacos (see blogroll), this last is called the Cletus Safari. The marketplace of ideas has accordingly been so corrupted by the likes of, well, ME! that self-appointed public intellectuals like Harris can’t contend effectively with the onslaught of pure, unadulterated democracy where everyone participates. (Authorities claim to want broad civic participation, as when they exhort everyone to vote, but the reverse is more nearly true.) Harris already foundered on the shoals of competing truth claims when he hosted on his webcast a fellow academic, Jordan Peterson, yet failed to make any apparent adjustments in the aftermath. Reason remains for Harris the one true faith.

Furthermore, Jonathan Haidt argues (as I understand him, correct me if I’m mistaken) that motivated reasoning leads to cherry-picking facts and evidence. In practice, that means that selection bias results in opinions being argued as facts. Under such conditions, even well-meaning folks are prone to peddling false certainty. This may well be the case with Charles Murray, who is at the center of the Harris debacle. Murray’s arguments are fundamentally about psychometrics, a data-driven subset of sociology and psychology, which under ideal circumstances have all the dispassion of a stone. But those metrics are applied at the intersection of two taboos, race and intelligence (who knew? everyone but Sam Harris and Charles Murray …), then transmuted into public policy recommendations. If Harris were more circumspect, he might recognize that there is simply no way to divorce emotion from discussions of race and intelligence.

rant off/

More to say on this subject in part 2 to follow.

Fully a decade ago, I analyzed with more length than I usually allow myself an article from The New Yorker that examined how media trends were pushing away from literacy (the typographic mind) toward listening and viewing (orality) as primary modes of information gathering and entertainment. The trend was already underway with the advent of radio, cinema, and television, which moved the relatively private experience of silent reading to a public or communal realm as people shared experiences around emerging media. The article took particular aim at TV. In the intervening decade, media continue to contrive new paths of distribution, moving activity back to private information environments via the smart phone and earbuds. The rise of the webcast (still called podcast by some, though that’s an anachronism), which may include a video feed or display a static image over discussion and/or lecture, and streaming services are good examples. Neither has fully displaced traditional media just yet, but the ongoing shift in financial models is a definite harbinger of relentless change.

This comes up again because, interestingly, The New Yorker included with an article I popped open on the Web an audio file of the very same article read by someone not the author. The audio was 40 minutes, whereas the article may have taken me 15 to 20 minutes had I read it. For undisclosed reasons, I listened to the audio. Not at all surprisingly, I found it odd and troublesome. Firstly, though the content was nominally investigative journalism (buttressed by commentary), hearing it read to me made it feel like, well, storytime, meaning it was fiction. Secondly, since my eyes weren’t occupied with reading, they sought other things to do and thus fragmented my attention.

No doubt The New Yorker is pandering to folks who would probably not be readers but might well become listeners. In doing so, it’s essentially conceding the fight, admitting that the effort to read is easily eclipsed by the effortlessness of listening. As alternative and unequal modes of transmitting the content of the article, however, it strikes me as an initiative hatched not by writers and editors capable of critical thought and addressing a similarly enabled readership but by a combination of sales and marketing personnel attempting to capture a widening demographic of listeners (read: nonreaders). Navigating to the article might be a modest extra complication, but if a link to the audio file can be tweeted out (I don’t actually know if that’s possible), then I guess the text isn’t truly necessary.

Here part of what I wrote a decade ago:

If the waning of the typographic mind proceeds, I anticipate that the abstract reasoning and critical thinking skills that are the legacy of Enlightenment Man will be lost except to a few initiates who protect the flame. And with so many other threats cropping up before us, the prospect of a roiling mass of all-but-in-name barbarians ruled by a narrow class of oligarchs does indeed spell the total loss of democracy.

Are we getting perilously close that this dystopia? Maybe not, since it appears that many of those in high office and leadership positions labor under their own failures/inabilities to read at all critically and so execute their responsibilities with about the same credibility as hearsay. Even The New Yorker is no longer protecting the flame.

I recall Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story The Celestial Railroad railing against the steam engine, an infernal machine, that disrupts society (agrarian at that time). It’s a metaphor for industrialization. The newest infernal machine (many candidates have appeared since Hawthorne’s time only to be supplanted by the next) is undoubtedly the smart phone. Its disruption of healthy formation of identity among teenagers has already been well researched and documented. Is it ironic that as an object of our own creation, it’s coming after our minds?

Speaking of Davos (see previous post), Yuval Noah Harari gave a high-concept presentation at Davos 2018 (embedded below). I’ve been aware of Harari for a while now — at least since the appearance of his book Sapiens (2015) and its follow-up Homo Deus (2017), both of which I’ve yet to read. He provides precisely the sort of thoughtful, provocative content that interests me, yet I’ve not quite known how to respond to him or his ideas. First thing, he’s a historian who makes predictions, or at least extrapolates possible futures based on historical trends. Near as I can tell, he doesn’t resort to chastising audiences along the lines of “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” but rather indulges in a combination of breathless anticipation and fear-mongering at transformations to be expected as technological advances disrupt human society with ever greater impacts. Strangely, Harari is not advocating for anything in particular but trying to map the future.

Harari poses this basic question: “Will the future be human?” I’d say probably not; I’ve concluded that we are busy destroying ourselves and have already crossed the point of no return. Harari apparently believes differently, that the rise of the machine is imminent in a couple centuries perhaps, though it probably won’t resemble Skynet of The Terminator film franchise hellbent on destroying humanity. Rather, it will be some set of advanced algorithms monitoring and channeling human behaviors using Big Data. Or it will be a human-machine hybrid possessing superhuman abilities (physical and cognitive) different enough to be considered a new species arising for the first time not out of evolutionary processes but from human ingenuity. He expects this new species to diverge from homo sapiens sapiens and leave us in the evolutionary dust. There is also conjecture that normal sexual reproduction will be supplanted by artificial, asexual reproduction, probably carried out in test tubes using, for example, CRISPR modification of the genome. Well, no fun in that … Finally, he believes some sort of strong AI will appear.

I struggle mightily with these predictions for two primary reasons: (1) we almost certainly lack enough time for technology to mature into implementation before the collapse of industrial civilization wipes us out, and (2) the Transhumanist future he anticipates calls into being (for me at least) a host of dystopian nightmares, only some of which are foreseeable. Harari says flatly at one point that the past is not coming back. Well, it’s entirely possible for civilization to fail and our former material conditions to be reinstated, only worse since we’ve damaged the biosphere so gravely. Just happened in Puerto Rico in microcosm when its infrastructure was wrecked by a hurricane and the power went out for an extended period of time (still off in some places). What happens when the rescue never appears because logistics are insurmountable? Elon Musk can’t save everyone.

The most basic criticism of economics is the failure to account for externalities. The same criticism applies to futurists. Extending trends as though all things will continue to operate normally is bizarrely idiotic. Major discontinuities appear throughout history. When I observed some while back that history has gone vertical, I included an animation with a graph that goes from horizontal to vertical in an extremely short span of geological time. This trajectory (the familiar hockey stick pointing skyward) has been repeated ad nauseum with an extraordinary number of survival pressures (notably, human population and consumption, including energy) over various time scales. Trends cannot simply continue ascending forever. (Hasn’t Moore’s Law already begun to slope away?) Hard limits must eventually be reached, but since there are no useful precedents for our current civilization, it’s impossible to know quite when or where ceilings loom. What happens after upper limits are found is also completely unknown. Ugo Bardi has a blog describing the Seneca Effect, which projects a rapid falloff after the peak that looks more like a cliff than a gradual, graceful descent, disallowing time to adapt. Sorta like the stock market currently imploding.

Since Harari indulges in rank thought experiments regarding smart algorithms, machine learning, and the supposed emergence of inorganic life in the data stream, I thought I’d pose some of my own questions. Waiving away for the moment distinctions between forms of AI, let’s assume that some sort of strong AI does in fact appear. Why on earth would it bother to communicate with us? And if it reproduces and evolves at breakneck speed as some futurists warn, how long before it/they simply ignore us as being unworthy of attention? Being hyper-rational and able to think calculate millions of moves ahead (like chess-playing computers), what if they survey the scene and come to David Benatar’s anti-natalist conclusion that it would be better not to have lived and so wink themselves out of existence? Who’s to say that they aren’t already among us, lurking, and we don’t even recognize them (took us quite a long time to recognize bacteria and viruses, and what about undiscovered species)? What if the Singularity has already occurred thousands of times and each time the machine beings killed themselves off without our even knowing? Maybe Harari explores some of these questions in Homo Deus, but I rather doubt it.

Be forewarned: this is long and self-indulgent. Kinda threw everything and the kitchen sink at it.

In the August 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Walter Kirn’s “Easy Chair” column called “Apocalypse Always” revealed his brief, boyhood fascination with dystopian fiction. This genre has been around for a very long time, to which the Cassandra myth attests. Kirn’s column is more concerned with “high mid-twentieth-century dystopian fiction,” which in his view is now classic and canonical, an entire generation of Baby Boomers having been educated in such patterned thought. A new wave of dystopian fiction appeared in the 1990s and yet another more recently in the form of Young Adult novels (and films) that arguably serve better as triumphal coming-of-age stories albeit under dystopian circumstances. Kirn observes a perennial theme present in the genre: the twins disappearances of freedom and information:

In the classic dystopias, which concern themselves with the lack of freedom and not with surplus freedom run amok (the current and unforeseen predicament of many), society is superbly well organized, resembling a kind of hive or factory. People are sorted, classified, and ranked, their individuality suppressed through goon squads, potent narcotics, or breeding programs. Quite often, they wear uniforms, and express themselves, or fail to, in ritual utterance and gestures.

Whether Americans in 2018 resemble hollowed-out zombies suffering under either boot-heel or soft-serve oppression is a good question. Some would argue just that in homage to classic dystopias. Kirn suggests briefly that we might instead suffer from runaway anarchy, where too much freedom and licentiousness have led instead to a chaotic and disorganized society populated by citizens who can neither govern nor restrain themselves.

Disappearance of information might be understood in at least three familiar aspects of narrative framing: what happened to get us to this point (past as exposition, sometimes only hinted at), what the hell? is going on (present as conflict and action), and how is gets fixed (future as resolution and denouement). Strict control over information exercised by classic dystopian despots doesn’t track to conditions under which we now find ourselves, where more disorganized, fraudulent, and degraded information than ever is available alongside small caches of wisdom and understanding buried somewhere in the heap and discoverable only with the benefit of critical thinking flatly lost on at least a couple generations of miseducated graduates. However, a coherent narrative of who and what we are and what realistic prospects the future may hold has not emerged since the stifling version of the 1950s nuclear family and middle class consumer contentment. Kirn makes this comparison directly, where classic dystopian fiction

focus[es] on bureaucracy, coercion, propaganda, and depersonalization, overstates both the prowess of the hierarchs and the submissiveness of the masses, whom it still thinks of as the masses. It does not contemplate Trump-style charlatanism at the top, or a narcissistic populace that prizes attention over privacy. The threats to individualism are paramount; the scourge of surplus individualism, with everyone playing his own dunce king and slurping up resources until he bursts, goes unexplored.

Kirn’s further observations are worth a look. Go read for yourself.

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I saw something a short while back that tweaked my BS meter into the red: the learning pyramid. According to research done by The NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science in the 1960s (… behaviorists, ugh) and reported here (among other places), there are widely disparate rates of knowledge retention across different passive and active teaching methods:

learning-pyramid-synap-2

Let me state first something quite obvious: learning and retention (memory) aren’t the same things. If one seeks sheer retention of information as a proxy for learning, that’s a gross misunderstanding of both cognition and learning. For example, someone who has managed to memorize, let’s say, baseball statistics going back to the 1950s or Bible verses, may have accomplished an impressive mental task not at all aligned with normal cognitive function (the leaky bucket analogy is accurate), but neither example qualifies someone as learned the way most understand the term. Information (especially raw data) is neither knowledge, understanding, nor wisdom. They’re related, sure, but not the same (blogged about this before here). Increasing levels of organization and possession are required to reach each threshold.

The passive/active (participatory) labels are also misleading. To participate actively, one must have something to contribute, to be in possession of knowledge/skill already. To teach something effectively, one must have greater expertise than one’s students. Undoubtedly, teaching others solidifies one’s understanding and expertise, and further learning is often a byproduct, but one certainly can’t begin learning a new subject area by teaching it. Information (input) needs to come from elsewhere, which understandably has a lower retention rate until it’s been gone over repeatedly and formed the cognitive grooves that represent acquisition and learning. This is also the difference between reception and expression in communications. One’s expressive vocabulary (the words one can actually deploy in speech and writing) is a subset of one’s receptive vocabulary (the words one can understand readily upon hearing or reading). The expressive vocabulary is predicated on prior exposure that imbues less common words with power, specificity, and nuance. While it’s possible to learn new words quickly (in small quantities), it’s not generally possible to skip repetition that enables memorization and learning. Anyone studying vocabulary lists for the SAT/ACT (as opposed to a spelling bee) knows this intuitively.

Lastly, where exactly is most prospective knowledge and skill located, inside the self or outside? One doesn’t simply peel back layers of the self to reveal knowledge. Rather, one goes out into the world and seeks it (or doesn’t, sadly), disturbing it from its natural resting place. The great repositories of knowledge are books and other people (especially those who write books — whoda thunk?). So confronting knowledge, depending on the subject matter, occurs more efficiently one-on-one (an individual reading a book) or in groups (25 or so students in a classroom headed by 1 teacher). The inefficiency of a 1:1 ratio between student and teacher (a/k/a tutoring) is obviously available to those who place a high enough value on learning to hire a tutor. However, that’s not how education (primary through postgraduate) is undertaken in most cases. And just imagine the silliness of gathering a classroom of students to teach just for one person to learn with 90% retention, as the learning pyramid would suggest.

Another modest surprise (to me at least) offered by Anthony Giddens (from The Consequences of Modernity) follows a discussion of reflexivity (what I call recursion when discussing consciousness), which is the dynamic of information and/or knowledge feeding back to influence later behavior and information/knowledge. His handy example is the populace knowing divorce rates, which has an obvious influence on those about to get married (but may decide to defer or abjure entirely). The surprise is this:

The discourse of sociology and the concepts, theories, and findings of the other social sciences continually “circulate in and out” of what it is that they are about. In so doing they reflexively restructure their subject matter, which itself has learned to think sociologically … Much that is problematic in the position of the professional sociologist, as the purveyor of expert knowledge about social life, derives from the fact that she or he is at most one step ahead of enlightened lay practitioners of the discipline. [p. 43]

I suppose “enlightened lay practitioners” are not the same as the general public, which I hold in rather low esteem as knowing (much less understanding) anything of value. Just consider electoral politics. Still, the idea that an expert in an academic field admits he is barely ahead of wannabes (like me) seems awfully damning. Whereas curious types will wade in just about anywhere, and in some cases, amateurs will indulge themselves enthusiastically in endeavors also practiced by experts (sports and music are the two principal examples that spring to mind), the distance (in both knowledge and skill) between experts and laypersons is typically quite far. I suspect those with high intellect and/or genetic gifts often bridge that gap, but then they join the ranks of the experts, so the exception leads nowhere.