Evening thoughts

The sun is setting over Camden. A new work week is coming up, and we are not sure who we are – or who we will be. Most of us are becoming. I met a man in the street today, walking down to buy some groceries, who walked slowly, elegantly dressed and speaking to a friend beside him. He looked as if he knew exactly who he was. There is beauty in that, but also a special kind of horror. To be done, a finished piece of music, only to be performed over and over again (oh, and the special horror of that performance that seeks to cast the work in a new light by cheap tricks and juxtapositions).

And we, who are drafts, envy the sense of completion – but we do not realize that it means that there will be no change. A finished sketch, a short story carefully worked out and then? Laid aside as a step on a longer journey. I think this is why we should not pursue happiness. It is a desire to be finished, to be laid aside. Our desire for happiness is an echo of Freud’s thanatos – remember that the god of death in Greek mythology appears when the fates have cut the thread. When they have finished.

I am very much a draft, and while it is frustrating at times it also means that the thread is still being spun, and measured – and has not yet been cut.

I have always wondered what happened with all those threads. Spun, measured, cut. I hope they are all woven into a new weave, a work of desperate beauty where our own threads intertwine with others, form new patterns, glimmers of gold in deep darkness. And then I hope this weave is made into beautiful, warm blanket that we can use to swaddle our children, and keep them safe from the terrible, cruel cold of the cosmos.

There is a special kind of sorrow that is not a sense of loss, but a sense of there never really having been anything in our tight embrace in the first place. A soft suspicion, whispered, that there was never anything there, not really. It is not sorrow, nor is it depression – it is more akin to melancholy – or perhaps a sense of responsibility for the re-evaluation of all values, and then the numbing feeling of fatigue, facing the sheer enormity of the task.

Nihilism was never an alternative, though. It lacks depth, it is a young mans game. Euthydemus was, in many ways, a nihilist first and a sophist second. The self-aggrandizement is what gives them away, and, of course, also undermines their professed beliefs.

Now more tea. A few phone calls. Then sleep. It has been a long day.

Dimensionality

“What is the right dimensionality of this problem?” This question – deceptively simple – is a good way to avoid defaulting into the dimensionalities that are most available to us – 2 or 3 dimensions to a problem, and, frankly, mostly two. Often when we describe a problem we somehow come back to the simple graph where one variable is plotted against another. It is often whatever thing we are studying plotted against a time scale. This can be useful, but also deeply deceptive. The reality is that we probably rarely face problems of such low dimensionality – and when we ignore higher dimension versions of a problem we are ultimately at sea when discussing solutions.

Now, there is a reasonable counter argument here, and it goes something like this: we cannot effectively work with higher dimensions than, perhaps, 3. Understanding a problem requires that we can reduce its dimensionality down to something we can visualize, and when we cannot, well, then the problem is effectively intractable to us.

I like this argument, because it acknowledges that there are things we cannot understand. But I also think it underestimates our inventiveness and intelligence. I do think we can understand problems with a higher dimensionality than 3 – and that it is not just about visualization (although visualizing something always helps). But I also suspect that there are classes of problems such that their sheer dimensionality make them practically intractable.

Just asking the question, though, is a good start. The best example I can think of where we naturally assume high-dimensionality is health. Human health is a high-dimension problem, and the different metrics we may use gives us a complex picture of a person’s health – it is not a horrible idea to think about what the “health of X” would look like when exploring different mental models.

Agents or victims

The New Yorker recently published an essay asking how bad social media is for democracy. It is a thoughtful text, looking at two different perspectives and suggesting that the real picture is, well, complex. The simplest statement of the hypothesis would look something like this:

(I) Social media is eroding democracy

The article notes, not surprisingly, that this statement is meaningless and ill-defined. But it also notes that there seems to be evidence that suggest that social media has a negative effect on democracies in a number of different aspects – albeit it in more narrow ways. The social science studies can support many individual statements of the form:

(II) This one aspect a of social media has a negative effect on this one aspect b of democracy.

But the devil lies in the causality. Is social media generating these effects or is it amplifying them? Again, the article strikes an interesting balance between the different claims. And helpfully links to a collaborative literature review.

One reason we seem to like hypotheses like this is that they suggest a simple fix: fix social media platforms and democracy will be just fine again. And this is also where this line of reasoning starts to look deeply problematic, since it seems to argue a much more foundational hypothesis:

(III) Democracy is dependent on the kinds of media present in it and the regulation of that media.

Is (III) true? It seems plausible somehow, but can it really be true? If it was we would just need to fix media and democracy would follow – right? Or are we saying that it is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for democracy to thrive that we have properly regulated media platforms?

There is an alternative hypothesis here that is equally tricky:

(IV) Democracy depends on the civic engagement of citizens.

This is the counter to the “social media made me do it”-slogan: you are responsible for your actions. It all comes back to the question of how gullible we are and how easy to manipulate we are. If we take the view that people are gullible and easy to manipulate, however, can we then really believe in democracy where those same people are meant to govern the state? If we do we have to posit that there is such a thing as a state in which gullible and easily manipulated people make only wise decisions, and we can get to that state through regulating media.

That seems a tall order.

The other thing about this is that the solution space looks very different for (III) and (IV). If we believe that it is the engagement of citizens and their commitment to democratic value that matters, then our challenge is harder in the sense that we have to think about how to become citizens again, and how to encourage others to also commit to basic democratic values. If we believe that it is about the media, then we can just regulate the media and hope for the best.

There are, of course, hybrid versions of all hypotheses here. We can believe we need to become citizens again, but that the noise produced by social media makes that harder. We can believe social media as currently set up stops us from becoming citizens, and wish for a kind of social media pause while we rebuild the citizenry of modern democracy. But at the end of the day when we ask about the root cause, when we ask the five why’s, we do get back to the individual responsibility that each and everyone of us has to our democracies.

And this is not surprising – because most political analyses end up in a question about human nature. If we believe we are responsible for our own actions we will end up with a different politics than if we believe that we are mere pawns in the hands of structure and society.

This is not so much a question of right / left as it is a question of agent / victim.

Energy and innovation (Questions)

It seems clear that the ability we have as a civilization to capture energy is directly related to the space of possible inventions we can unlock. If we wanted to do a classical technology tree, we would find, at the joints, the ability to capture energy in different ways. Som inventions are much more likely, at least, in a world that has harnessed the energy of fossil fuels.

More likely, yes – but is it a strict limit? Could you imagine a world in which parts of our technology tree were unlocked without fossil fuels? What would a scenario look like where nuclear power was discovered before the fossil fuel engine? Perhaps it is not so much a question about the source of the energy as the total sum of energy available to us as a civilization.

The concept of Kardashev-classes is interesting here. It was launched by Nikolai Kardashev, Soviet astronomer, in 1964 and essentially proposed three types of civilizations:

  • Type 1. Harnesses all the energy that reaches the planet from its parent star. Some calculations has this at 4 orders of magnitude above where we are now. Some put this at around 1016 to 1017 watts.
  • Type 2. Harnesses all the energy of the parent star. We are now at 4 x 1026 watts.
  • Type 3. Harnesses the energy in its parent galaxy. 4×1037 watts)

The different types are interesting thought experiments for sure, but they also allow us to ask a question about invention and innovation. Are there some innovations that we can conceive of in a Kardashev type 1 civilization but that really requires a type 2 civilization to work? The most obvious example could be widespread, planetary artificial intelligence. In order to work persistently, evolve and manage complex systems, such a technology may need type 2-energy capacity.

There would be, then, a special kind of tragedy here – the ability to understand and design a technology without meaningfully being able to deploy it – because of the energy shortage. If so, that would be interesting to explore as a scenario.

The question here, then, would be: is there technology that requires Type 2+ energy capture to be viable large scale, but can be designed in a type 1 civilization?