When you edit Wikipedia, what do you write about? Did you sit in the front row or the back row as a child? Did you grow up on science fiction, were you an activist in college? Did no one understand you, or have you always been perfectly normal? Tell me, because I want to know who’s in this conversation.
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
FCC Chairman Newton Minow gave this speech in 1961, decrying the state of the medium that many had hoped would bring new light to humanity. What is to say that the Internet will not sink into the same mediocrity?
There are differences, of course. The internet is (currently) very much an active, two-way medium; the internet is (currently) a very democratic place, where anyone can espouse their worldview to the whole world for only the effort of typing. And the internet is (currently) far too large and diverse to be effectively controlled by any particular corporate or goverment interest.
But I have a morbid interest in dystopia; and already I see signs that not everyone realizes what freedoms we could lose. Like bad science fiction, here are a few scenarios where the internet fails to live up to its almost obscene promise, where it becomes just another “vast wasteland.”
It just occurred to me that it’s worth Googling this phrase.
The fact that this five-second act has a reasonable chance of turning up a representation of the most carefully argued opinions of large cross section of (admittedly English-speaking) humanity, including quite possibly the opinions of the people who might actually understand the problem best — I find that quite a testament to the progress of, you know, civilization. And that capability is only about a decade old.
Who says that the olden days were better?
Next up, an article about how the internet might still drastically fail to achieve its potential.
I’ve been reading StopTheACLU.com, because I want to get into their heads, because I want to avoid the classic mistake of intellectual isolation, and because I want to be challenged. Sure, they’re weirdos, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make sense. But there’s at least one thing in the StopTheACLU worldview that I find very hard to method-act: in their universe, global warming is a myth.
Okay, but how did I end up on this side and not that side?
The North Sage and the South Sage met at the crossroads. Or on, let’s say, a mountaintop. They began to discuss what they knew about the world, in the hopes of becoming wiser. Neither would call what they believed a religion.
Science is sometimes really tricky, which makes writing about it even trickier. No real experiment exists apart from a huge background of assumptions, abstractions, caveats and complexities; the writer’s job is to find a strong narrative that is understandable with little or no prior knowledge, scans well, and catches the reader’s attention.
Recent research on physiological differences between liberal and conservative voters seems like a dream come true if you’re in need of a catchy press release, like this one from the National Science Foundation. I read the actual paper, and it says that people who answer more conservatively on a questionnaire about their politics tend also to have more pronounced “fight-or-flight” reactions to disturbing or surprising stimuli, as measured by skin conductance and startle response.
The press release tells a different story, and I believe that the NSF science writer told the wrong story. I attribute this partially to the politics of publicity, but mostly to the fact that science is actually very subtle, and hard to summarize.
But you saw it, right? Our man won the debates. Come on, it was totally obvious that the other guy simply does not understand what needs to be done. He’s such an imbecile, I just don’t understand anyone could believe such nonsense. As opposed to us– that man will take us into the future, I tell you. And, look, all the papers support us. The people want us. Just ask anyone you know.
Well, I certainly wouldn’t trust them. Not even worth listening to that crap.
Really. I read their web page once, and, man, it just enrages me. How could anyone think that way? Such people defy the plainest common sense. It’s not even worth listening to them. Here, read this book. It clearly shows that we’re right.
But how do you know?
Well. Isn’t it obvious? The arguments actually make sense, that’s the great thing about it. I mean, how many people have you met who didn’t agree? Yeah, okay, so there are some weirdos. Heh. That’s definitely true. Yeah, of course, research it if you want. Just remember that those reports are biased by their ideology. My god, who have you been listening to?
Talk to them?
Okay, but… you just can’t convince a person like that. It’s a waste of time with such people. Really. it’s been studied.
Do you ever wonder how they got that way?
What on earth do you mean?
I used to think I could move things with my mind. I could postulate parking spots into existence. I walked beneath streetlights and they would suddenly go out, victims of my weird and powerful energy. I was taught to believe this. I was taught that I could anything, and I excelled in everything I tried. The world is a wondrous place when nothing is impossible.
Then there was a moment, or perhaps a period of my life, when I lost this. I shed the mysticism I had been raised in; I raged at its flaws and threw it out entirely. It bound me too much and I had to get rid of it. I no longer believed that I could will the world into existence. I realized that I had no idea how often streetlights mysteriously went out when I was not standing under them.
I remember a night shivering in my apartment like the newly sober.
Continue reading Moving Things With my Mind
You cannot read all of the news, every day. There is simply too much information for even a dedicated and specialized observer to consume it all, so someone or something has to make choices. Traditionally, we rely on some other person to tell us what to see: the editor of a newspaper decides what goes on the front page, the reviewer tells us what movies are worth it. Recently, we have been able to distribute this mediation process across wider communities: sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, or Slashdot all represent the collective opinions of thousands of people.
The next step is intelligent news agents. Google (search, news, reader, etc.) can already be configured to deliver to us only that information we think we might want to see. It’s not hard to imagine much more sophisticated agents that would scour the internet for items of interest.
In today’s context, it’s easy to see how such agents could actually be implemented. Sophisitacted customer preference engines are already capable of telling us what products we might like to consume — the best example is Amazon’s recommendation engine. It’s not a big leap to imagine using the same sort of algorithms to model the kinds of blog articles, web pages, youtube videos, etc. that we might enjoy consuming, and then deliver these things to us.
There is a serious problem with this. You’re going to get exactly what you ask for, and only that.
True, we all do this already. We read books and consume media which more or less confirm our existing opinions. This effect is visible as clustering in what we consume, as in this example of Amazon sales data for political books in 2008.
This image is from a beautiful analysis by orgnet.com. Basically, people buy either the red books or the blue books, but usually not both. The same sorts of patterns hold for movies, blogs, newspapers, ideologies, religions, and human beliefs of all kinds. This is a problem; but at least you can usually see the other color of books when you walk into Borders. If we end up relying on trainable agents for all of our information, we risk completely blacking out anything that disagrees with what we already believe.
I propose a simple solution. Automatic network analyses like the one above — of books, or articles, or web pages — could easily pinpoint the information sources that would expose me to the maximum novelty in the minimum time. If my goal is to gain a deep understanding of the entire scope of human discourse, rather than just the parts of it I already agree with, then it would be very simple to program my agent to bring to me exactly those things that would most rapidly give me insight into those regions of information space which are most vital and least known to me. I imagine some metric like “highest degree node most distant from the nodes I’ve already visited” would would work handily.
You can infer a lot about somewhat from the information they currently consume. If my agent noticed that I was a liberal, it could make me understand the conservative world-view, and vice-versa. If my agent detected that I was ignorant of certain crucial aspects of Chinese culture and politics, it could reccomend a primer article. Or it might deduce that I needed to understand just slightly more physics to participate meaningfully in the climate change debate, or decide (based on my movie viewing habits) that it was high time I review the influential films of Orson Welles. Of course, I might in turn decide that I actually, truly, don’t care about film at all; but the very act of excluding specific subjects or categories of thought would force us, consciously, to admit to the boundaries of our mental worlds.
We could program our information gathering systems to challenge us, concisely and effectively, if we so want. Intelligent agents could be mere sycophants, or they could be teachers.