Plato at the Googleplex
26 March 2014
From a book review of Rebecca Goldstein's "Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away" in The Atlantic:
Goldstein’s Plato, like Socrates before him, is less interested in teaching those with whom he converses than he is in helping them see that they don’t know what they think they know. In sending Plato to Google, Goldstein deftly exposes the conceptual presumption at the heart of what looks like the latest high-tech methodology. On his visit with the new masters of gathering human knowledge, Plato considers a (fictional) algorithm they have developed called the Ethical Answers Search Engine, or EASE, which does just what its name suggests: it crowdsources answers to ethical problems, the same way businesses now employ crowdsourcing to predict political outcomes and stock-market fluctuations, or to select marketing strategies. But ethical solutions are not as, well, easy as the search engine might have its users believe....
Plato certainly did not think the crowd was a reliable source of ethical insight. It was the crowd, after all, who put Socrates to death.
Goldstein's purpose in having Plato pay a visit to the Googleplex is, among other things, to demonstrate that knowledge is much more than information, a "conceptual presumption" about connection that today has inspired a new generation of makers and tinkerers to prosecute an analog rebellion, and phrases like "digital detox," which has become nearly synonymous with burnout. On the relative privilege we accord the sciences and its objective findings, the reviewer elsewhere approvingly quotes Søren Kierkegaard, who writes that "no generation has learned from another to love." Goldstein's Plato still sees shadows.
So to that still-here category of philosophy, I might add the arts, the humanities, the world's historic faiths, an exquisite meal and that charged, out-of-body electricity you felt one everlasting moment before your first kiss.
Your arms, you learned quickly, held tight.
20 March 2014
If you could attend a quantum physics lecture and view the scribbled equations on the chalkboard, what would you see?
Artist Alejandro Guijarro... spent three years traveling to the quantum mechanics departments of Cambridge, Stanford, Berkeley, Oxford and elsewhere to shoot large format photographs of blackboards just after lectures. Completely removed from the context of a classroom or laboratory and displayed in a gallery, the cryptic equations from one of the most formidable branches of physics become abstract patterns of line and color.
I don't know what it's like to launder dimension and manifold from the abstractions that Guijarro captures on film. But I do have an amateur's appreciation for what poetry can achieve, and hear in the physicality and phrasing of favorite works the sound of an echoing. It's amazing to me that any one person can do this, and, like my respect for poets, I deeply admire the mathematicians who can skillfully arrange and rearrange their symbolic material until its full and ineluctable sense materializes. And it would appear that mathematicians find the aesthetics pleasing too. A recent study showed that the brain area associated with emotional reactions to beauty activates when mathematicians view elegantly stated formulas.
This takes time. Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer said in his IdeaFestival 2013 talk that the job of an artist was to "slow down" and "to intercept" communication, by which I think he meant that in an age when so many answers are available to our fingertips, the human preoccupations with place and meaning are largely the same. We long to understand. As a non-mathematician, I am reminded that the line and color represented in Guijarro's images do not just present a pleasing appearance, but for those who have managed to describe the very nature of these vanishingly small realities, the culmination of a life's work. Of course there were dead ends, blind alleys and the faintest of intimations along the way. Few of us will ever write something as penetrating as Schrodinger's equation or prose with Auden's thrilling brevity. We will come no closer, alas, than pictures of scribbles. We will wonder.
What goes there?
Reading the post at Colossal reminded me of autistic savant Daniel Tammet talking about his love of numbers at the IdeaFestival nearly four years ago, a moment captured in this 12 minute video. Enjoy.
Kris Kimel: Something To Think About
18 March 2014
One of many things that we inevitably delve into at the IdeaFestival is the question of "relevance." Today, being and staying relevant plays a significant role in the competitive equation. It’s important for your organization, your employees and your customers. In a world where the conditions and context of everything change so fast, being and staying relevant is one the most critical factors that can help you weather the inevitable ups and downs of the marketplace - whatever your business is.
Fast Company recently noted that “…87% of global customers believe business should place equal weight on societal and business issues…” These societal issues include the pursuit of a higher purpose, environmental sustainability, a deep commitment to meaningful innovation and the respectful treatment of employees, suppliers and customers.
Of course the tricky thing is that being relevant isn’t a "thing" or something that can achieved in five easy steps or through a catchy marketing slogan. It's a way of thinking and acting, coupled with unbounded curiosity that is infused and evident throughout the entire organization. It involves meaning and purpose in the broader context and extends far beyond simply delivering a product, service or making money. Your ultimate staying power is more likely to be tied to your "relevance" than to your next profit statement or number crunching report.
Till We Have Faces
14 March 2014
Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own. - Jonathan Swift
Writing in the New York Times, Maria Konnikova questions a lesson a decade or more in the making.
Don't Quote Me on This:
Like pretty much every other 20-something, I’m online constantly, from the moment I wake up to bedtime. My iPhone sleeps by my bed. I Twitter and I Facebook — so much that I use both as verbs. I grew up with neither cellphone nor television, but I’ve come to rely on our ability to stay connected. I need the Internet for my work. I need it for my research. I need it, often, for my sanity.
With one important caveat. When I need to write or think, I shut the whole thing down. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get sucked into the very sort of vortex... to drift from fragment to fragment without pausing to consider the whole that any of them imply. I become a link zombie, mindlessly hungry for more: The lure of quotation wears me down.
In her piece, Konnikova expresses a concern about the prevalence of unmoored or "decontextualized" data on the web, questioning its contribution to what we know.
She would certainly have a sympathizer in a favorite blogger and writer of mine, Nicholas Carr, who does not gladly suffer hyperbole and glib assertions that the web is an unqualified boon to human intellect. I know. I was once one of Carr's targets in a rather regrettable, and, thankfully, short lived phase of my life.
And like Konnikova, when I need "to write or think" I tune out the web. My distractions are restricted to a good cup of coffee and a window.
I've learned that its mirrored expanse makes of me a whorling. The reason is a simple one: knowledge is not simply a collection facts, but the labor and hard won experience that accompany those facts. When the effort is frictionless, we become, as she says, link zombies and context is whatever we happen to looking at at the moment. If you don't believe that data and knowledge are two different things, ask any teenage mom or entrepreneur or military veteran what they know now that they didn't know then.
Of the web in particular, "the problem," as Konnikova says, "is one of limited time and energy meeting limitless content." Using her experience as the daughter of Russian immigrant parents, she writes in Don't Quote Me On This about Soviet truisms and the doublespeak that her parents were anxious to avoid in their adopted land. She grew up without a television as a result.
Today the screens are different, of course. But when I discovered late last fall that I could not not use my personal Gmail login for the IdeaFestival's YouTube channel, IFTV, I realized once again that free is conditional. I've since moved my personal and professional email to a paid service, and begun to use DuckDuckGo and Disconnect.me to reclaim some privacy. And because my search history is not being used to shape the results I get, there's an added bonus. The information bubble I so willingly accepted is pricked.
Data spun around my prior wants and desires and returned to me hardly qualifies as search, does it? Konnikova compares the habit elsewhere in her article "to mindlessly yanking open the fridge."
To know what one thinks still requires an effort. It still may be uncomfortable, in part because it must find ground not entirely our own. But with enough time and a willingness to tolerate ambiguity, the reckoning is an honest one. The face we discover is our own.
If you like this blog post, consider subscribing to the RSS feed! You might might also be interested in this Skyped Five Questions video interview with Maria Konnikova, or her post-presentation IF Conversation.
"Art is Useless" (But Not Worthless)
04 March 2014
Art is useless, but not worthless.
This edited version of an earlier post includes the full video of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's 2013 eye-opening IdeaFestival presentation. Watch for more full videos to be posted soon!
What is it about the sheer variety of ways I can now communicate that feels so impoverishing?
Having just mounted a powerful and eloquent defense of his very public work because it offers meaning rather than information, beginning at the 52:00 mark in the video here a mildly agitated Lozano-Hemmer leans into the thought once again during a question and answer session, pressing the case that his interactive works were shared experiences, not a way of saying any one thing.
Art has nothing to do with communication.... Communication is about the efficient transmission of information from one side to the other.... Art is not about that efficiency. It's not about that optimization. Art is much more about communion, about his moment of sharing.... It cannot be quantified. The telecom cannot charge us for this moment of complicity.
Beginning with an observation first made by Oscar Wilde, Lozano-Hemmer goes on to say that
Art is useless, but it's not worthless. [The artist] is actually here to slow down communication, to do interceptions....
And, finally, referring dryly to the work of artists:
If the [artist] wanted to communicate, he or she would write more clearly.
That vexation leapt to mind when I read The Attention Economy by Tom Chatfield. Like Lozano-Hemmer, I think Chatfield might ask that those who measure, map, sell or otherwise insist on surrender when it comes to our online relationships think about a set of shared experiences rather than communication. Because right now the exchange is woefully one-sided. Chatfield:
Attention... ‘comes in many forms: love, recognition, heeding, obedience, thoughtfulness, caring, praising, watching over, attending to one’s desires, aiding, advising, critical appraisal, assistance in developing new skills, et cetera. An army sergeant ordering troops doesn’t want the kind of attention Madonna seeks. And neither desires the sort I do as I write this.’
However, when it comes to automated systems for garnering attention, there’s more at play than one person listening to another; and the processes of measurement and persuasion have some uncannily totalising tendencies. As far as getting the world to pay attention to me online, either I play by the rules of the system — likes, links, comments, clicks, shares, retweets — or I become ineligible for any of its glittering prizes. As the American writer and software engineer David Auerbach put it in n+1 magazine, in a piece pointedly titled ‘The Stupidity of Computers’ (2012), what is on screen demands nothing so much as my complicity in its assumptions:
Because computers cannot come to us and meet us in our world, we must continue to adjust our world and bring ourselves to them. We will define and regiment our lives, including our social lives and our perceptions of our selves, in ways that are conducive to what a computer can ‘understand’. Their dumbness will become ours.
....Where is the space, here, for the idea of attention as a mutual construction more akin to empathy than budgetary expenditure — or for those unregistered moments in which we attend to ourselves, to the space around us, or to nothing at all?
Chatfield's defense of "attention" in distinctly human terms was so refreshing, and I marveled, having heard Lozano-Hemmer, at how poor we still are at understanding the emotional content, much less the emotional potential, of what it means to be with each other. The pity we seem so willing to attend to our stupid machines, unable as they are to tolerate our silence.