In the previous episode, I raised some concerns about how automatism and automaticity affect us, our technologies and therefore also the world in general. I quoted a line from Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, “Talking to strangers” – but I didn’t mention how he noted that although Holy Fools (people who are foolish enough to criticize the social order when they sense that something is wrong) are necessary, they are not sufficient (in his words: “we can’t all be Holy Fools” [19:10] ).
Mr. Gladwell’s book is mostly about communication between individual humans (this is also known as “interpersonal communication”). This is a very important technology, but it is not the only technology we need to think about. Automatism is also a crucial technology – and I think we need to pay more attention to it.
We can hopefully all still recall from our biology classes in school that the process of evolution includes several aspects. One fundamental pillar to the way evolution works is the aspect of variation – and this does indeed echo Gladwell’s sentiment that a homogeneous population of only Holy Fools would probably not work very well. In the theory of evolution, survival of a species depends on enough variation within the species to ensure that the species does not completely succumb to an attack from one vector.
My understanding of computers leads me to believe that this is a significant difference between machines and evolutionary technology (also known as “life” ). While life thrives on variation, machines thrive on standardization. Half a century ago, the pioneers of the Internet Age made a decision that recognizes this vulnerability inherent in computer technology – and therefore they built an Internet that was based on a principle of decentralization (and thereby implicitly also a system based on trust in the evolutionary principle of strengthening by variation).
While it may be acceptable to dismiss the occasional Bernie Madoff as a cost of doing business, a Bernie Madoff every day is a different thing. Or even worse: an existential threat. In any case, relying on one monopolistic technology is not a recipe for success – or even survival.
We have years, decades, even centuries long legacies of technologies based on “one right way” of thinking – and it’s easy to see why. Against a medieval backdrop of unenlightened quackery, witchcraft and whatnot, the Enlightenment delivered astoundingly reliable results. Newton and the like delivered mathematical formulas, scientific methods, accuracy and precision. True and false became undeniable facts.
Folk psychology is the kind of crude psychology we glean from cultural sources such as sitcoms — but that is not the way things happen in real life.Malcolm Gladwell, “Talking to Strangers”, chapter 6, audio version 26:20
In real life, true and false are very far from being undeniable facts. One might even argue that undeniable facts are not undeniable facts. Today the widespread fanatical devotion to data is no longer tempered with a reasonable understanding of how data collection actually works.
The expression “it’s complicated” is perhaps the quintessential embodiment of the kind of insight we need more of now – more than ever. We need to say goodbye to “one right way” and we need to say hello to diversity, variations from norms and differentiation in algorithms.
Differentiating in algorithms means becoming aware of context, realizing that different perspectives require different qualifications, understanding that variation in nature requires variation in (and in particular: qualitative) measurement. Otherwise, all those numbers will only glaze over and we won’t be able to distinguish apples from oranges.
Doing this right requires many right ways, not one right way.
This also means that an essential requirement for doing this right is that we need to accept and embrace complexity. This is something that has traditionally become ever more marginalized in the modern scientific method – modern science has traditionally preferred simplicity to complexity. Is that because of our own way of thinking? Is human automatism at odds with the automatism of natural evolution?
[thank u, next]