Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Science and Sanity

The time bind

with 3 comments

Last month, The Verge posted a leaked copy of a fascinating short film titled “The Selfish Ledger,” which was produced two years ago for internal consumption at Google. It’s only eight minutes long, and it’s well worth watching in its entirety, but this summary by journalist Vlad Savov does a good job of capturing its essence:

The nine-minute film starts off with a history of Lamarckian epigenetics, which are broadly concerned with the passing on of traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime. Narrating the video, [Google design head Nick] Foster acknowledges that the theory may have been discredited when it comes to genetics but says it provides a useful metaphor for user data…The way we use our phones creates “a constantly evolving representation of who we are,” which Foster terms a “ledger,” positing that these data profiles could be built up, used to modify behaviors, and transferred from one user to another…The middle section of the video presents a conceptual Resolutions by Google system, in which Google prompts users to select a life goal and then guides them toward it in every interaction they have with their phone…with the ledger actively seeking to fill gaps in its knowledge and even selecting data-harvesting products to buy that it thinks may appeal to the user. The example given in the video is a bathroom scale because the ledger doesn’t yet know how much its user weighs.

With its soothing narration and liberal use of glossy stock footage, it’s all very Black Mirror, and when asked for comment, a spokesperson at Google seemed to agree: “We understand if this is disturbing—it is designed to be. This is a thought-experiment by the Design team from years ago that uses a technique known as ‘speculative design’ to explore uncomfortable ideas and concepts in order to provoke discussion and debate. It’s not related to any current or future products.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I’m hoping to discuss various aspects of the film over the next few days. For now, though, I’d like to focus on one detail, which is the notion that the “ledger” of a user’s data amounts to a repository of useful information that can be passed down from one generation to another. (The title of the film is an open homage to The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, which popularized an analogous concept in the realm of natural selection.) In a voiceover, Foster says:

User data has the capability to survive beyond the limits of our biological selves, in much the same way as genetic code is released and propagated in nature. By considering this data through a Lamarckian lens, the codified experiences within the ledger become an accumulation of behavioral knowledge throughout the life of an individual. By thinking of user data as multi-generational, it becomes possible for emerging users to benefit from the preceding generations’ behaviors and decisions. As new users enter an ecosystem, they begin to create their own trail of data. By comparing this emergent ledger with the mass of historical user data, it becomes possible to make increasingly accurate predictions about decisions and future behaviors. As cycles of collection and comparison extend, it may be possible to develop a species-level understanding of complex issues such as depression, health and poverty. Our ability to interpret user data combined with the exponential growth in sensor-enabled objects will result in an increasingly detailed account of who we are as people. As these streams of information are brought together, the effect is multiplied: new patterns become apparent and new predictions become possible.

In other words, the data that we create is our legacy to those who will come after us, who can build on what we’ve left behind rather than starting from scratch.

The funny thing, of course, is that we’ve been doing something like this for a while now, at least on a societal level, using a decidedly less sexy format—the book. In fact, the whole concept of “emerging users [benefiting] from the preceding generations’ behaviors and decisions” is remarkably close to the idea of time-binding, as defined by the Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski, whose work had a profound impact on the science fiction of the thirties and forties. In the monumental, borderline unreadable Science and Sanity, the founding text of General Semantics, Korzybski describes this process in terms that might have been drawn directly from “The Selfish Ledger,” using language that is nearly a century old: “I defined man functionally as a time-binder, a definition based on a…functional observation that the human class of life differs from animals in the fact that, in the rough, each generation of humans, at least potentially, can start where the former generation left off.” Elsewhere, he adds:

The human rate of progress is swifter than that of the animals, and this is due mainly to the fact that we can summarize and transmit past experiences to the young generation in a degree far more effective than that of the animals. We have also extra-neural means for recording experiences, which the animals lack entirely.

The italics are mine. Korzybski uses the example of a mathematician who “has at his disposal an enormous amount of data; first, his personal experiences and observation of actual life…and also all the personal experiences and observations of past generations…With such an enormous amount of data of experience, he can re-evaluate the data, ‘see’ them anew, and so produce new and more useful and structurally more correct higher order abstractions.” And this sounds a lot like “The Selfish Ledger,” which echoes Korzybski—whose work was an important precursor to dianetics—when it speaks of reaching a better understanding of such issues as “depression, health and poverty.”

I don’t know whether “The Selfish Ledger” was directly influenced by Korzybski, although I would guess that it probably wasn’t. But he provides a useful starting point for understanding why the world evoked in the film feels so disturbing, when it’s really a refinement of a process that is as old as civilization itself. On some level, it strikes viewers as a loss of agency, with the act of improvement and refinement outsourced from human hands to an impersonal corporation and its algorithms. We no longer trust companies like Google, if we ever did, to guide us as individuals or as a society—although much of what the video predicts has already come to pass. Google is already an extension of my memory, and it determines my ability to generate connections between information in ways that I mostly take for granted. Yet these decisions have long been made for us by larger systems in ways that are all but invisible, by encouraging certain avenues of thought and action while implicitly blocking off others. (As Fredric Jameson put it: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”) Not all such systems are inherently undesirable, and you could argue that science, for instance, is the best way so far that the ledger of society—which depended in earlier periods on myth and religion—has found to propagate itself. It’s hard to argue with Korzybski when he writes: “If the difference between the animal and man consists in the capacity of the latter to start where the former generation left off, obviously humans, to be humans, should exercise this capacity to the fullest extent.” The problem, as usual, lies in the choice of tactics, and what we call “culture” or even “etiquette” can be seen as a set of rules that accomplish by trial and error what the ledger would do more systematically. Google is already shaping our culture, and the fact that “The Selfish Ledger” bothers to even explore such questions is what makes it a worthwhile thought experiment. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a closer look at its methods, as well as the question of how speculative design, whether by corporations or by artists, can lead to insights that lie beyond even the reach of science fiction.

To be or not to be

with one comment

The Structural Differential

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on October 11, 2016.

If you’re familiar with the science fiction of the golden age, you’ve probably come across the name of Alfred Korzybski, the Polish philosopher whose ideas, known as general semantics, enjoyed a brief but intense vogue with writers and fans in the late thirties and early forties. Korzybski’s work provided the backdrop for A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A and its sequels; Robert A. Heinlein mentions him by name in “Coventry” and “Gulf”; and he pops up in such stories as “The Helping Hand” by Poul Anderson and “Day of the Moron” by H. Beam Piper. He was also an important influence on L. Ron Hubbard and John W. Campbell, although both of them would have denied this. (Campbell liked to say that he was never able to get through Korzybski’s most famous book, Science and Sanity, and it’s likely that Hubbard never did, either.) And it isn’t hard to appreciate why the science fiction community found him so intriguing. General semantics was pitched as a kind of mental training program that would enhance the brain’s performance, allowing practitioners to think more clearly and move past the mental blocks that prevent us from accurately perceiving the world around us. Yet Korzybski remains relatively unknown today. Part of this is because Science and Sanity itself is such a daunting work: it’s long, repetitive, sometimes obscure, and often deeply weird. But there’s also a lot there that remains valuable to creative thinkers, if you’re willing to unearth it, and with certain qualifications, it’s still worth seeking out.

We can start with Korzybski’s most famous pronouncement, which a lot of people, including me, have quoted without fully understanding it: “The map is not the territory.” What he’s really talking about is language, which is the mental map that we use to orient ourselves as we make our way through the world. The trouble, he believes, is that the map we’ve inherited offers a flawed picture of reality. Language was developed when mankind was still in its infancy, and the inaccurate ideas that early humans had about the world are preserved in the way that we talk about it. We confuse words with their underlying objects; we take objects in isolation, when in fact they have meaning only in their relationships with others and in their place within an overall structure; we think in categories, when we’re invariably dealing with unique individuals; and we depend on preconceived ideas, rather than experience, to make our decisions. The primary culprit, Korzybski argued, was the word “is,” which always involves either a tautology or a falsehood. When we say that A is B, we’re either saying that it’s equivalent to itself, which doesn’t yield any useful information, or we’re falling prey to one of several fallacies. Either we’re saying that one unique object is identical to another; that an object is the same thing as the label we’ve given it, or to the overall class to which it belongs; or that it can be described in terms that can be agreed upon by all observers. And a moment’s reflection reveals that none of this is true.

Alfred Korzybski

Most of us, I think, will grant these points. What set Korzybski apart is that he attempted to train himself and others to systematically overcome these misconceptions, using a few misleadingly simple tricks. He advised his readers to be skeptical of any form of the verb “to be,” and that whenever they were told that something was the same as something else, they should reflexively respond: “This is not that.” The goal, he said, was “consciousness of abstracting,” or a constant, everyday awareness of how we think using different orders of abstractions. Words are not objects; objects are distinct from the inferences that we make about them; and the gap between the general and the particular means that no statement can be entirely true or false, but only probable in various degrees. To underline these points, Korzybski liked to use a model called the Structural Differential, a teaching aid fashioned out of wooden pegboards and lengths of string that were supposed to symbolize the abstracting process of the human nervous system. Students were told to study and handle it in silence, which would nonverbally remind them of the difference between an event, an object, a label, and the levels of abstraction above it. If this all sounds like an unwieldy way of seeing the world, if not a vaguely Duchampian joke, well, it is. But it’s also in service of what seems to me like a worthwhile goal: to insert a mental pause, or what Korzybski calls “the neurological delay,” before we unthinkingly respond to a statement or situation.

If we think of general semantics as an elaborate system for training us to pause to question our assumptions, it becomes a lot more comprehensible. It’s also worth noting that Korzbyski wasn’t opposed to abstraction, which he saw as a necessary tool and shortcut, but to its misuse. The ability for one generation to build on the abstractions developed by its predecessors, which he calls “time-binding,” is what separates human beings from the animals—but only if we’re good at it. Conventional language, which Korzybski associated with the followers of Aristotle, just makes it harder to pass along useful information; his non-Aristotelean approach was pitched as a more accurate reflection of reality, as well as a practical tool for generating and conveying ideas. And it’s probably worth a try. (If you don’t feel like plowing through all eight hundred pages of Science and Sanity, Korzybski advises readers to start with the shorter, self-contained section “The Mechanism of Time-Binding,” which includes most of the book’s practical advice.) Pausing before you think, interrogating your assumptions, and being conscious of your abstractions are all worthwhile goals, but they’re easier said than done: one of Korzybski’s followers later estimated that “about thirty” people had mastered it. You could argue that Korzybski overstated his case, that he exaggerated the benefits of his approach, and that he cloaked it in a lot of unnecessary pseudoscience. But he was right about the basic problem. And it’s easy to wish that we lived in a society in which we responded to all disagreements by pausing, smiling, and asking sincerely: “What do you mean?”

Written by nevalalee

January 18, 2018 at 9:00 am

To be or not to be

with 6 comments

The Structural Differential

If you’re familiar with the science fiction of the golden age, you’ve probably come across the name of Alfred Korzybski, the Polish philosopher whose ideas, known as general semantics, enjoyed a brief but intense vogue with writers and fans in the late thirties and early forties. Korzybski’s work provided the backdrop for A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A and its sequels; Robert A. Heinlein mentions him by name in “Coventry” and “Gulf”; and he pops up in such stories as “The Helping Hand” by Poul Anderson and “Day of the Moron” by H. Beam Piper. He was also an important influence on L. Ron Hubbard and John W. Campbell, although both of them would have denied this. (Campbell liked to say that he was never able to get through Korzybski’s most famous book, Science and Sanity, and it’s fair to say that Hubbard never did, either.) And it isn’t hard to see why the science fiction community found him so intriguing. General semantics was pitched as a kind of mental training program that would enhance the brain’s performance, allowing practitioners to think more clearly and move past the mental blocks that prevent us from accurately perceiving the world around us. Yet Korzybski remains relatively unknown today. Part of this is because Science and Sanity itself is such a daunting work: it’s long, repetitive, sometimes obscure, and often deeply weird. But there’s also a lot there that remains valuable to creative thinkers, if you’re willing to unearth it, and with certain qualifications, it’s still worth seeking out.

We can start with Korzybski’s most famous pronouncement, which a lot of people, including me, have quoted without fully understanding it: “The map is not the territory.” What he’s really talking about is language, which is the mental map that we use to orient ourselves as we make our way through the world. The trouble, he believes, is that the map we’ve inherited offers a flawed picture of reality. Language was developed when mankind was still in its infancy, and the inaccurate ideas that early humans had about the world are preserved in the way that we talk about it. We confuse words with their underlying objects; we take objects in isolation, when in fact they have meaning only in their relationships with others and in their place within an overall structure; we think in categories, when we’re invariably dealing with unique individuals; and we depend on preconceived ideas, rather than experience, to make our decisions. The primary culprit, Korzybski argued, was the word “is,” which always involves either a tautology or a falsehood. When we say that A is B, we’re either saying that it’s equivalent to itself, which doesn’t yield any useful information, or we’re falling prey to one of several fallacies. Either we’re saying that one unique object is identical to another; that an object is the same thing as the label we’ve given it, or to the overall class to which it belongs; or that it can be described in terms that can be agreed upon by all observers. And a moment’s reflection reveals that none of this is true.

Alfred Korzybski

Most of us, I think, will grant these points. What set Korzybski apart is that he attempted to train himself and others to systematically overcome these misconceptions, using a few misleadingly simple tricks. He advised his readers to be skeptical of any form of the verb “to be,” and that whenever they were told that something was the same as something else, they should reflexively respond: “This is not that.” The goal, he said, was “consciousness of abstracting,” or a constant, everyday awareness of how we think using different orders of abstractions. Words are not objects; objects are distinct from the inferences that we make about them; and the gap between the general and the particular means that no statement can be entirely true or false, but only probable in various degrees. To underline these points, Korzybski liked to use a model called the Structural Differential, a teaching aid made out of wooden pegboards and lengths of string that were supposed to symbolize the abstracting process of the human nervous system. Students were told to study and handle it in silence, which would nonverbally remind them of the difference between an event, an object, a label, and the levels of abstraction above it. If this all sounds like an unwieldy way of seeing the world, well, it is. But it’s all in service of what seems to me like a worthwhile goal: to insert a mental pause, or what Korzybski calls “the neurological delay,” before we unthinkingly respond to a statement or situation.

If we think of general semantics as an elaborate system for training us to pause to question our assumptions, it becomes a lot more comprehensible. It’s also worth noting that Korzbyski wasn’t opposed to abstraction, which he saw as a necessary tool and shortcut, but to its misuse. The ability for one generation to build on the abstractions developed by its predecessors, which he calls “time-binding,” is what separates human beings from the animals—but only if we’re good at it. Conventional language, which Korzybski associated with the followers of Aristotle, just makes it harder to pass along useful information; his non-Aristotelean approach was pitched as a more accurate reflection of reality, as well as a practical tool for generating and conveying ideas. And it’s probably worth a try. (If you don’t feel like plowing through all eight hundred pages of Science and Sanity, Korzybski advises readers to start with the shorter, self-contained section “The Mechanism of Time-Binding,” which includes most of the book’s practical advice.) Pausing before you think, interrogating your assumptions, and being conscious of your abstractions are all worthwhile goals, but they’re easier said than done: one of Korzybski’s followers later estimated that “about thirty” people had mastered it. You could argue that Korzybski overstated his case, that he exaggerated the benefits of his approach, and that he cloaked it in a lot of unnecessary pseudoscience. But he was right about the basic problem. And it’s easy to wish that we lived in a society in which we responded to all disagreements by pausing, smiling, and asking sincerely: “What do you mean?”

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2016 at 8:39 am

%d bloggers like this: