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The thing about the chickens

Evolution, whether by natural selection or artificial, whether in species or in ideas, is all around us.

It happens slowly. Usually more slowly than we’re aware of, and definitely more slowly than we have the patience for.

The Economist has a short article about how the price of chicken has fallen by almost 50% in real dollars over the course of my lifetime. We didn’t see it happening, didn’t vote on the benefits and the costs, didn’t realize it was transforming a species (and us).

I’m doing a two-part podcast on how creatures (and culture) evolve. You can hear last week’s episode here, and the second part goes to subscribers on Wednesday, January 23.

Drip by drip isn’t a crowd pleaser, but that’s what makes real change happen.

Justice is scarce

It always is. That’s its natural state.

Never enough opportunity, fairness and connection. Never enough time for a student who needs it, or dignity for a person who deserves it. A chance to be seen and understood.

But just because we’re always running short doesn’t mean we can’t try.

There’s always a chance to contribute and the opportunity to speak up. And if we don’t, who will?

Happy birthday.

The fourth cycle of the hive mind (and what to do about it)

The first cycle of computers was good at:

  • arithmetic
  • and storing data

This meant that if you wanted to know how strong a bridge was going to be, or how to schedule a complicated series of truck deliveries, a computer was the very best way to do it. The 1960s and 70s were transformed by these two simple tasks. We were able to send a rocket to the moon, design more efficient engines and compute weighted class rank using centralized, expensive computers.

The second cycle, though, was the dawn of the connection economy. These computers permitted us to bring distant events next to each other. This was the telephone plus the fax machine equals remote coordination.

And so you could use a credit card anywhere in the world, call an 800 number to place an order, and have your insurance updated immediately. It meant that workers and productivity were even more measured, and so were students.

Email and the internet populated large databases. It gave us Wikipedia, a web page for every business, eBay, LinkedIn and Paypal.

We used the powers of the first cycle, sure, but the second cycle added connection.

The third cycle combines the first two and it permits us to shift place and time.

You can watch a twenty-year old movie or participate in a video call with someone halfway around the world. Someone in Bulgaria can retouch your photos. Your phone knows where you are and who has been there before. Each cycle builds on the one before. Google maps is arithmetic plus data plus remote data entry plus location.

And the fourth cycle, which is now arriving, shifts direction from the previous two (which were about connection more than processors) and brings prediction to the table. Call it AI if you want to, but to be specific, it’s a combination of analyzing information and then predicting what we would do if we knew what the computer knew.

The prediction of the fourth cycle isn’t simply done in a centralized location, because the previous cycle put the computer everywhere. So now, we’re connecting all the computers the way we previously connected all the people. Now, we’re giving those computers the ability to make predictions based on what thousands of people before us have done.

If you’re a mediocre lawyer or doctor, your job is now in serious jeopardy. The combination of all four of these cycles means that the hive computer is going to do your job better than you can, soon.

With each cycle,  the old cycles continue to increase. Better databases, better arithmetic. Better connectivity, more people submitting more data, less emphasis on where you are and more on what you’re connected to and what you’re doing.

We’d like to think that this is it, that Facebook plus Apple plus Amazon plus Google is the status quo going forward.

But just as we made a massive leap in just fifteen years, the next leap will take less than ten. Because each cycle supports the next one.

Welcome to the fourth cycle. The hive will see you now.

Do you have a chocolate problem or an oxygen problem?

Run out of chocolate, and that’s a shame. Run out of oxygen and you’re doomed.

Sometimes, we overdo our reliance on chocolate. It’s better in small doses–too much and it loses its magic. And sometimes we confuse the thing we want with the thing we need…

If your day or your project or your organization focuses too much on finding the next piece of chocolate, you might forget to focus on the oxygen you actually need.

Problems and boundaries

All problems have solutions.

That’s what makes them problems.

The solution might involve trade-offs or expenses that you don’t want to incur. You might choose not to solve the problem. But there is a solution. Perhaps you haven’t found it yet. Perhaps you need to do more research or make some tradeoffs in what you’re hoping for.

If there is no solution, then it’s not a problem.

It’s a regrettable situation. It’s a boundary condition. It’s something you’ll need to live with.

Which might be no fun, but there’s no sense in worrying about it or spending time or money on it, because it’s not a problem.

“I want to go to the wedding, but it’s a thousand miles away.” That’s a problem. You can solve it with a plane ticket and some cancelled plans.

“I want to go to the wedding, but I’m not willing to cancel my meeting.” That’s not a problem. That’s an unavoidable conflict. If you need to violate a law of physics to get out of a situation, it’s not a problem. But you’ve already given up turning it into a problem, so it doesn’t pay to pretend it’s solvable.

Once we can walk away from unsolvable situations that pretend to be problems, we can focus our energy on the real problems in front of us.

HT David Deutsch

How to be honorable

Honorable men (at least that’s what they called themselves) used to settle their disputes with dueling pistols.

Honorable women used to bind their feet and shame others that didn’t.

Honorable humans used to own slaves.

“Honorable” has always been measured against the current culture, not an absolute of what we’re capable of.

Over time, then, as the culture changes, what used to be honorable becomes dishonorable.

Sticking with it because it’s always been that way is a truly lousy reason to persist in a behavior that causes harm.

Don’t steal metrics

A thoughtful friend has a new project, and decided to integrate a podcast into it.

Talking to a producer, he said that his goal was to make it a “top 10 podcast on iTunes.”

Why is that the goal?

That’s a common goal, a popular goal, someone else’s goal.

The compromises necessary to make it that popular (in dumbing down the content, sensationalizing it, hunting down sort-of-famous guests and doing a ton of promo) all fly in the face of what the project is for.

It’s your project.

It’s worth finding your metrics.

Asserting anthropomorphism

We’ve been doing it for a long time.

“The Gods must be crazy.”

The easiest way for a human to deal with a complex system (an AI that plays Scrabble, the traffic, the weather) is to imagine that there’s a little man inside, someone a lot like us, pulling the levers, getting annoyed, becoming frustrated, seeking retribution or offering a prize.

If that works, keep doing it.

But it might be even more helpful to remember that there’s no homunculus, no narrative, no revenge. Merely a complex system, one we can understand a bit better if we test and measure and examine it closely.

Fads in belief

Over time, some people embrace edge beliefs like ear candling, the Stein Harmonizer and hydrogen infused water, among thousands of others. Our search for reassurance and belief is built deep into our culture. And if it’s not hurting anyone and you can afford it, a placebo is a fine tool, and often a bargain, possibly effective as well.

It’s fascinating to note, though, that some people have embraced none of these edge ideas, while other people are regulars, moving from one to the other as each loses steam (you’re unlikely to know someone who currently keeps his razor in a pyramid to keep it sharp but it used to be common).

Why the need to switch? Why not stick with one for decades? And if you switch, what story do you tell yourself about this pattern–are you discovering that the prior ones weren’t nearly as effective as you hoped, but this one will definitely be the one? Or is it more likely that focusing on future prospects is simply more effective and enjoyable than acknowledging the long string that came before?

[The same behaviors can be seen in some stock investors, political pundits and diet gurus as well.]

It’s worth noting that fad beliefs are embraced precisely because they’re fad beliefs–temporary stories that bring solace, not breakthroughs in the long-term engineering of well being.

Should you say ‘please’ to an AI?

There are two reasons we say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

The first is pretty obvious. It gives the other person dignity. It acknowledges their humanity. It implies that at some level, this engagement is voluntary.

But of course, none of this is true when we’re talking to Siri or Alexa.

There’s a second reason.

It helps us realize that we might be acting entitled. We forget to bring humility along. “Please” is a narrative to ourselves, one about gratitude and choice. When we start barking orders without regard for what it costs to follow those orders, it’s easy to forget that time and resources are always scarce.

Even when it’s not voluntary, it turns out we benefit when we act as if it might be.

[And should an AI say please and thank you to us? Probably.]

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