Archive for October 2008

Software and the Volitional Bias

October 30, 2008

Software often is designed in a way that treats the computer as a machine, while people increasingly are expecting, in fact are encouraged to expect, that their computers will act like volitional agents that are trying to help. With a machine, for example, if you are recording a quiet conversation, you want the amplifier to have a high gain, so you would set the input volume to “high”. With an assistant who is trying to record your voice clearly, you might tell him/her that the input volume will be “low”, relying on the fact that the computer “wants” to record the conversation and thus will decide, on its own, to increase the gain. This is a source of genuine confusion for many people: we are prone, as an explanatory style, to assign volition to things that have none. Hence, god(s).

Deliberation Maps and the Dilemma of Scale

October 30, 2008

The point of a collective intelligence system is to enable synergy amongst people with different strengths and styles: “we are smarter than me”.  Each person contributes what they can, filling in each other’s gaps. Not everyone has to wear every hat. A core challenge, though, is dealing with scale. As you scale the user population, the number of new ideas will eventually grow much more slowly than the number of contributors, undercutting the signal to noise ratio. But the chance of getting a *ground-breaking* idea (from the end of the “long tail”) continues to grow with scale. This creates a dilemma. You need lots of contributors to get important “weak signals”, but this can create huge redundancy. That’s where a deliberation system can help, because every unique point appears just once where it logically belongs. A colleague of mine in the UK (David Price) made an interesting demonstration of this (see ). He analyzed the arguments presented, in 102 media articles, to a Tony Blair speech. Even though most of the news reports individually made rather small points, with lots of repetition across reports, the complete set of arguments expressed across all the articles “constituted a mature and reasoned response to the Prime Minister’s lecture and developed the debate significantly beyond the case he outlined”. The deliberation map that David and his colleagues created (a portion is included below) made it possible to  perceive the underlying richness of the response in a compact, systematically-organized structure

Epigenetics and the Holocaust

October 30, 2008

I just saw an interesting video on epigenetics. Research is revealing that much of what makes us biologically unique as a species, and as individuals, is not just determined by our genomes. Human beings have a relatively small number of genes (about 20,000, far less than some plants), and most of our genes are identical to that of other organisms (99% of our genome, for example, is the same as a chimpanzee’s). Even identical twins, with the exact same genome, can have widely divergent medical histories. One can be bright and productive, for example, and the other autistic. So clearly much of what makes us unique is not the genes themselves, but our epigenetics: the patterns of which genes are turned on (expressed) or not. There are two interesting facts about this. One is that a person’s epigenetics is impacted by their history. Gene expression is governed among other things by the chemical markets (e.g. methyl groups) attached to our genes or to the histones around which those genes are wrapped. Some kinds of experiences (e.g. smoking, drinking, and starvation) can change our patterns of epigenetic markers in a way that is very persistent over time. The second interesting fact is that epigenetic markers can be inherited. Someone whose grandfather experienced a famine as a boy, for example, will be far less prone to diabetes than one whose grandfather did not, even though the child did not experience the famine him or herself. These two facts imply a previously unsuspected, cell-level mechanism for the impact of experience across generations. My parents are Holocaust survivors and, in all likelihood, had their epigenetics deeply impacted by that experience. In a very real sense, therefore, the Holocaust was imprinted into every one of my cells, at birth, and the same is true for Hannah, my daughter. Our experiences can thus ricochet through the generations at a deep biological level: a sobering thought for a parent.

Conservatism as Small-Circle Thinking

October 30, 2008

Rice University’s John Alford, associate professor of political science, co-authored a paper in Science in which he studied a group of 46 adults with strong political beliefs. Those individuals with “measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq War”. Conservatism is fear-based. Fear constricts our sense of self in space and time and relationship, and is fundamentally the wrong response to an interdependent world where systemic and inclusive thinking is needed in order to survive. A classic example of this is the conservative romance with market mechanisms. Market mechanisms can work very well if everyone makes their decisions based on their individual assessment of the inherent worth of the stock being traded. But investors are actually driven largely by their perceptions of how much other people value the stock ( These inter-dependencies result in volatility and market crashes. So you need to understand markets using “large circle” thinking to make good choices about when and how they are and are not appropriate. But conservatives are famously blind to these vastly destructive effects because they conflict with their central commitment to small-circle thinking.

Financial Crises and the Ideology of Continuous Growth

October 30, 2008

I’ve been trying to puzzle out the causes of our recent financial troubles, and I am beginning to think that such crises are inherent to the structure of how money is created by the banking system. A financial crisis is a funny thing. Suddenly, from one day to the next, stock prices plummet and companies fail and people lose jobs and homes, but nothing has fundamentally changed in the real world. There is the same number of people, with the same needs and skills, with access to the same resources as existed the day before. The problem, I’m coming to see, is that our current banking system relies on an inherently unstable dynamic to maximize the amount of money available for investment. Banks can create, by law, far more money (in the form of loans) than they have assets. In the US, they can typically create, I believe, about $20 in loans for every $1 of assets. And these loans can in turn be converted into even more credit in the same way, by layering  one financial instrument on top of the other. The result is that $1 of assets can be used to “justify” hundreds of dollars of loans. This all works fine, like a Ponzi scheme, as long the economy keeps growing and people are content to leave their money in circulation. But if something happens to make people worry about their money, and they try to get it back, they find that there is not enough for everyone, creating a self-reinforcing crisis of confidence in the investment system. In the last few decades, the financial services industry has been aggressively pushing to increase the amount of leveraging they can do, because more leveraging means they can sell more product and get more commissions, irregardless of whether the money is backed by sufficient solid assets or not. Once they’ve sold the product, they’re home free.  So this is one of the reasons for the ideology of the absolute need for continuous growth. If we rely on a highly leveraged financial system to enable a lot of investment, we either grow continuously or face periodic, and sometimes devastating, financial crises. And this is just one of several drivers for the ideology of continuous growth. Another is wealth inequity. Wealth inequity tends to increase in market economies, especially when large economic actors have a powerful influence on government and are thus able to influence the market rules so that they favor the wealthy even more. This can lead, however, to dangerous social unrest amongst the have-nots unless the total size of the economic pie continues to grow so that everyone’s wealth increases (albeit at starkly different rates). So the drive for continuous growth is also locked into place by the need to avoid social unrest where large wealth inequities exist. Continuous growth, however, is fundamentally unsustainable in a linear economy like ours i.e. where resources are converted, one-way, into (often dangerous) waste. So it seems we need to make at least two kinds of fundamental changes in the ways we create wealth:

1)     de-power the drivers (excessive financial leveraging, large and growing income inequity) that lock us into the need for continuous growth.

2)     change our economy’s use of resources from one-way to infinitely recyclable, so growth does not come at the expense of the requirements for further growth.

These are radical notions. Action (1) is foundationed in the premise that increasing immediate individual material wealth is no longer the paramount goal of our economic system. And action (2) means that we have to somehow internalize, in our economy, costs (e.g. resource loss, environmental and social degradation) and benefits (e.g. increases in social and environmental and even spiritual capital) that would otherwise only make their full impact felt sometime in the “imponderable” future.

I think one way to make this happen is to “de-materialize” our notion of wealth. Creating meaning and knowledge does not inherently undercut it’s own prerequisites the way material wealth creation does. And studies have shown that, while poverty undercuts happiness, material wealth does not create it. In other words, once we have enough material wealth to escape poverty, further “prosperity” does not seem to make us any happier, and we need to find a different metric for our success:

It appears that, once our basic material needs are met, people derive value from non-material “goods”, such as connection and contribution and the intense self-less immersion in skillfully performing something that is challenging and worth doing well. Imagine an economy where companies compete to provide opportunities for satisfaction and meaning. Where our GNP is measured in terms of personal and social and environmental health rather than goods and services. Will our economies naturally evolve toward that goal, as consumers experience the limitations of a focus on material wealth and come to better understand what they truly need? How can we speed that transition, given the enormous entrenched power of the institutions we created to pursue a material notion of wealth? Can we make the transition in time to preserve the personal and social and environmental legacies we find most precious?

Subversive Designs for Sustainability

October 30, 2008

I just watched an interesting video about NYU Professor Natalie Jeremijenko, who is designing some environmental health interventions like:

o      a spring-loaded pair of high heels that increases people’s stride length by about 40% and makes walking more energy-efficient

o      a kit to hack a commercial robot dog toy so it “sniffs” out and pinpoints environmental threats such as radiation release

o      tadpoles for sale, named after local water commissioners, that people can raise as a way of assessing endocrine disrupter concentrations in their water supplies (tadpole development is exquisitely sensitive to endocrine disruptors)

o      a set of perches that each play a different sound file about avian health when birds land on them. The birds apparently learned to land preferentially on the perches that most effectively influenced people to leave food out for them.

o      Mini-parks created by tearing up the asphalt in no-parking zones and planting vegetation there. Emergency vehicles can still park there if necessary, but in the meantime the plants clean the air and provide habitat for birds and other animals.

o      Barn-raised inflatable greenhouses assembled on roofs that become part of the building’s HVAC system, helping to remove the CO2, toluene, benzene, and other toxins that tend to accumulate in the air of our increasingly well-sealed buildings.

Or check this out: a self-sufficient, carbon-neutral, walking house, inspired by the Gypsies and developed as way to question assumptions about land ownership, social organization, self-sufficiency. and ecological impact (

It includes solar panels and a mini-wind-turbine, and composts its own sewage into fertilizer that can be used in an (optional attached) greenhouse.

I thought these ideas were clever, subversive and fun, because they inspire and educate while at the same time producing tangible environmental benefits. 

Transhumanism and Human Destiny

October 30, 2008

I’ve been watching some videos on transhumanism – see, for example,, but they all make more or less the same points – and it honest-to-god does seem true that humanity is hell-bent on either creating our own god-like replacements, or making ourselves extinct trying. I would bet most people are individually frightened by what that could mean, but in the aggregate we seem systemically unable to do anything else. Our destiny as a species seems to be defined by the fact that we are bright and competitive and chafe at our mortality, so it becomes a race for a finish line (the “singularity”) that we don’t understand and probably will not survive, at least not in recognizable form. And to think that the transition to post-humanism may occur in my lifetime, but probably without me. Weird weird stuff.

As just one small example, consider this: Robotic suits have been developed, in Japan, that read brain signals and helps people with mobility problems, and will be available to rent in Japan for US$2,200 a month for both legs, and $1,500 for a one leg:

For now, it’s an invention that mainly impacts the disabled and elderly (and their caretakers). But how long before people simply jettison even healthy legs in favor of superior mechanical replacements? And what will it do to us? Will we become even more lost to ourselves as a result?