Friday, 18 March 2011

We are living in the future: A rant

Fairly frequently listening to people talk or post in online discussions, you run across an attitude you could sum up as

Come on! It's 2000-and-whatever and we don't even have flying cars/hoverboards/whatever yet!

In response, a rant. Profanity is for emphatic purposes only - I assure you the tone of this piece is "cheerfully outraged".

Seriously? Seriously? Are you fucking shitting me?

I'm carrying in my pocket a device smaller than my hand which can record audio, video and static images in high quality, and share them with anyone else in the world. It allows me to speak to people on the other side of the planet instantaneously, receives messages from space that prevent me ever getting lost, anywhere, and can reliably guide me to places I haven't even been before (even showing me a picture of the building, so I know what I'm looking for).

It provides wireless, practically-instantaneous access to the sum total of knowledge we have as a species (as well as all the LOLcats and boobies I could ever want to see), allows me to remotely control computers and devices around me, and can provide an "alternate reality" layer allowing me to peer into any one of hundreds of geographically-relevant virtual worlds that underlies the real one, so I can find businesses, read reviews or find invisible notes people have left attached to locations in the real world.

I can play games on it - in fact, I can emulate entire games systems from my youth at full speed, in software, on a device smaller than one of the controllers of the original console system.

And that's just my fucking phone, right now, today.

Leaving aside mobile computing, and the web, and computers that for $500 can read your fucking mind, looking forward you've got massive advances in genetics, the entire field of proteomics just opening up, private spaceflight (including affordable holidays in space reasonably projected within my lifetime), and that's not to mention practical holography, industrial and consumer nanotech and neuroprosthetics allowing you to extend or augment your own body, mind or consciousness in hitherto-unimagined ways.

Your problem is not that the exciting things still haven't arrived yet - it's that you're so neck fucking deep in exciting things that you've become jaded and stopped even noticing them. We live - to quote Paul Simon - in an age of miracles and wonders, but you're so used to them that they've stopped impressing you.

People like you bitch about the lack of flying cars, blind to the fact that we already have them, but most people are far too stupid, incompetent and distractable to drive safely in two dimensions, on the ground, where there's no risk of a collision causing even survivors to drop hundreds of metres out of the sky and pancake themselves on whatever's beneath them.

You complain about hover-boards, but miss the fact that we live in a society with unprecedented access to information and communication, where anyone can teach themselves practically anything to a high level for free on the internet, this increased access to information and unfettered, geographically-omnipresent, low-barrier-to-entry many:many communication means we're slap-bang in the middle of the biggest social revolution since the fucking printing press (possibly since language), and the public discourse is extending itself outwards and refining itself inwards as we gradually - and for the first time ever - begin to form a truly global consciousness and discourse. Cognition at the whole-species level, if you will.

And people like you bitch about the lack of a floating fucking plank? O_o

We are alive at the single most exciting time in the entire history of the world - not only is technology progressing faster than ever before in human history, but it's also taking less and less time before it's commoditised and even the relatively poor start to feel the benefits.

Put simply, we are living in the future.

How can you possibly be so bored of it already? ಠ_ಠ

Friday, 4 March 2011

Post-conventional wisdom

I've long believed that one of the most important aspects of rationality is learning to be skeptical even of your own rationality. Just like unquestioning faith in a creator or social movement is naive and usually incorrect, so is unquestioning faith in yourself and your own memories.

Most of us instinctively think of ourselves as rational, logical people. We believe that our thinking processes, assumptions and even automatic reactions are justified, proportionate and correct.

This is, to put it bluntly, wrong.

Over the last few decades cognitive science has demonstrated repeatedly that our "natural" way of thinking is actually little more than a collection of useful evolved heuristics, not a rational, logically-defensible framework. They've even collected a huge array of known cognitive bugs. We're all guilty of most of these biases much of the time, and even those of us who know about them and try aggressively to avoid them still fall prey to them upon occasion, often without even realising.

What it comes down to, broadly, is that you are not a reliable narrator, even of your own experiences, opinions and life-history. You are just as prone to biases, subconscious (and sometimes not-so subconscious) whitewashing and a whole suite of cognitive errors and biases as anyone else. Don't just gloss over that - let it sink in for a moment. Much of what you "remember" is invented detail. Many of the life-experiences that make up your sense of self and your identity are exaggerated, grossly biased or even wholly fallacious.

This is a revelation for some people, and for others (too attached to their mental image of themselves as perfect, incorruptible and in control of themselves) it's deeply troubling and offensive.

Really accepting this fact (rather than paying lip-service to it and then continuing to act as if it's not true) is deeply humbling and restrictive. You can't just get angry when you're feeling irritable, because you might not have the right. You can't automatically call others idiots and dismiss their opinions, because you might simply be missing their point. You can't even pride yourself unduly on achievements in the past, because much of what you remember is likely to be (even slightly) self-aggrandising or a distorted account.

This is obviously difficult for many to accept - it feels humbling, and restrictive to personal liberty. However, it probably feels restrictive for a five year-old child to be told not to run out into traffic and to instead learn the Highway Code.

Let there be no doubt; it is restrictive. It's also a part of growing up and taking responsibility for yourself.

There are distinct benefits, however. Aside from helping you become a more reasonable person (always a worthwhile goal), what it does do is give you the opportunity to learn to "step outside" yourself. When you always keep in mind the fact that you might be wrong, it helps you avoid being caught up in events, and allows you to rationally consider not only situations but also your own reactions to those situations in a more calm, considered, objective manner. Instead of merely reacting like a mindless emotional automaton, it allows you to analyse and probe your own emotions, and decide, consciously and rationally whether to pay heed to an emotional impulse or to disregard it as undesirable.

I honestly believe a real, conscious acceptance of one's own fallibility (even in areas we normally automatically assume we're infallible) - and (paradoxically) the opportunity for enhanced self-control that it presents - represents a distinct "level" of cognition (in terms of self-awareness, rationalism, "enlightenment" and the like) that many or even most people simply never advance to. Hell, I know I make a conscious effort to bear this in mind, and I frequently fall far short of the ideal. Nevertheless, I think the goal is a worthy one.

You can think of the two mind-frames as being exemplified by the following scenario:

If you wake up one morning and hear The Voice Of God, where do you go first? The church, or the psychiatric unit of your local hospital? Many (perhaps most) would instinctively believe in the veracity of their subjective experience and would believe God was talking to them personally. That this is an irrational conclusion is pretty easy to demonstrate, given the relative paucity of sanctified religious prophets compared to the enormous (and rising) incidence of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

If on the other hand you'd immediately to to your doctor and ask for a psychiatric evaluation, congratulations - that's exactly the kind of skepticism I'm talking about.

Postscript; a name for this type of skepticism (the title of this post) was coined by a helpful redditor, by analogy to Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development. I would never presume to describe it so grandly myself, but I think the analogy is a good one.