Saturday, July 30, 2011
“The dominant social networks are fantasy games built around rigged avatars, outright fictions and a silent — and often unconscious — agreement among players that the game and its somewhat creaky conceits influence the real world. This pact is what distinguishes Facebook and Twitter from other fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons and L.A. Noire. And because of this pact, and because so many hundreds of millions of people participate in this pact, Facebook and Twitter do have meaning and significance in the real world. Just as paper money is valuable because people who use it believe it’s valuable, Facebook and Twitter — right this minute — have value entirely because a whole continent’s worth of people believe they have value. So many players have invested so much trust in these games that they can’t afford not to believe they’re paying off.” Virginia Heffernan, New York Times July 24, 2011 (Opinionator, online commentary)
The importance of reality in choosing our incentives is presently made much more complicated due to the fact that the internet has virtualized incentives that can never be ‘cashed out’ to true social goods such as status, personal favor, or money. (Sort of like 'Monopoly' money replacing the gold standard) Consider this far fetched or very real scenario, depending of course upon your point of view. Everyone you know has been consumed by the cloud, and you are the last person standing. Outside of your normal amusements and curiosities, no human is around to provide you the incentive to do anything. And that’s a problem, because if no wants anything from you, whether is evidenced by individual or institutional mandates of collections of individuals, you ain’t going nowhere if no one wants you to be there. To get motivated, you need to arouse your animal spirits, and that takes more than individual choice but institutional design. Luckily though, in your isolation you have your own virtual reality emanating from voices in the cloud. For even though everyone has gone to the cloud, they kindly left you their IP addresses, and they want you to stay in touch. And so they poke you , IM you, and tweet you often to know that they care, and most often this is no more than the faint imprint of your stat sheet to let you know they visited. They are pithy in their praise, but that’s enough for you to blog, share, or otherwise spend you time with them. It’s inspiration from a thousand glimmers of attention from ‘friends’ you never knew you had. It all could be from an auto-responder of course, or the glancing attention of a bystander on the street who couldn’t be bothered. But you of course see more, and because you read more into these minute moments dutifully registered by your search engine you are transfixed by the constant tally of attention of a growing roster of friends, connections, contacts and followers who leave their mark in a word, or not even that. You have become in this virtual world a well connected, universally befriended, and consistently followed hermit.
To take measure of the scope of this illusion, consider this comparison to real life, when everybody looks at you and ‘remarks’. Walk down any busy street, and you receive a moment’s attention from passersby, gain the brief acquaintance of sales clerks, and infrequently chat with a friendly face who spares a minute and no more. If you monitor, tally, and even predict all this are your friendships greater or richer? Of course they are not because you know they are not. But if these nods of acquaintance are the virtual nods of a tape register, or a tweet, prod, or ‘like’, what is stopping you from inferring more? Indeed, because the motivations of our contacts are veiled, it is all too easy to surrender to the delusion that what is under the curtain is not just a contact but your best buddy. But how can we test this comfortable surmise?
Enter the Turing Test. The Turing test, envisioned by the cybernetic pioneer Alan Turing in the 1940’s, was a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior. An individual engages in a conversation with one human and one machine, both hidden behind a curtain, and each providing verbal responses to questions. If the judge cannot reliably tell the difference between the machine’s responses and the humans, the machine is judged to be intelligent. However, intelligence does not just entail intelligent response, but intelligent action. Let’s say during the test you fall off your chair. The human behind the curtain can at once come to your aid, while the computer can only commiserate. After all, ‘he’ is just a talking typewriter. And this is where social media becomes surprisingly unsociable. Building virtual social capital depends upon the circles of friends you have, but to see if your virtual capital can turn into real capital turns on a simple iteration of Turing’s original mind experiment. This new Turing Test requires not that they respond intelligently to you, but whether they will come to your assistance if you proverbially fall off the chair. Put that mind experiment to the test and you will find that almost all the automated nods from your social media ‘friends’ just might as well come from automated bots or intelligent typewriters, because you get intelligence but no empathy, no understanding, and ultimately, no action from intelligent agents who will commiserate with you, and no more.
Avatar for yours truly,
who will commiserate with you, for ten bucks
So where does this leave us? It makes us doubly doubtful about a distractive world that is not only useless, but indifferent. But it also leaves us with surveying the benefits of a distraction free world wherein we are just mindful of it all. (As I am sure, you the reader will comiserate!)
Monday, July 04, 2011
A Lesson from an Alternate History
In 1941, American learned its lesson. War is bad, let's give peace a chance. And so then president Wibur 'sponge-bob' Milquetoast apologized to the Japanese, and found that the Nazis were equally reasonable and nice.
Thus we had peace in our time, or well, at least peace in our backyards. And so the Japanese civilized half the world's people by killing them. The Germans would have repeated the favor for the other half, except the Russians had a few slight objections, and rolled up through Germany and half of Europe, making the world a socialist paradise. They stopped their tanks at the border of France. They didn't go further for an obvious reason. After all, they were French.
And so the French stayed Nazi, and as we all know about Nazis, they are indeed a mischievous bunch. And so, as time went on French Nazis slaughtered and gassed their own people, invaded Italy and occupied its pasta fields, and seized Switzerland to get a hold of all that cheese. Naturally, the world responded, and drove the evil French Nazis from Switzerland and Italy, but decided not to rid themselves of the evil French Nazis by taking Paris. After all, they were French.
President Sponge Bob
Around this time, American found its balls after Catholic fundamentalists blew up half its really large buildings. President Jon 'the Duke' Wainwright dispatched the Born Again Christian Soldiers to root out the Catholic fundamentalists from their monestaries in the mountains of Sicily. Then he noticed that the evil Nazis continued their quest to build weapons that would annihilate all life as we know it. This was not nice. And so the USA supported the separatist Vichy-soiss people in the south of France, and built up a force of three million troops in the principality of Monaco for an invasion. The world of course was dismayed. Why in heaven would you want to go to war with a regime that is despised by its people, threatens its neighbors, and builds weapons of mass destruction to sell on E-bay? It would be interpreted by the Catholics as an assault on their religion, and thus cause Catholic terrorism everywhere. The world knew as well that this wasn't a war to liberate France, but an effort to seize their cheese! Besides, these people were quite incapable of democracy. They were after all, French!
And so, America, in a very diplomatic way, said F*** you to the world, invaded anyways, and in five minutes the French were free. The French people greeted the Americans with wild approval and applause. Sadly, after three days, the Americans began to be overcharged for their rooms and meals, and overall were treated very rudely. The Americans then left en masse, vowing to never vacation there again.
And then the world said with a shrug. "We told you so! After all, they're French!
Friday, July 01, 2011
Blocking: The concept derived from Pavlovian conditioning that associations or learning attributed to a stimulus will not occur if those associations are redundant or superfluous. For example, a lab animal may learn that a red light signals food. If a green light follows and just as reliably predicts food, the animal will not learn to associate green with the food, since prior learning 'blocks' the association. Blocking should not be confused with blockheadedness, which is characterized by an inability to learn new and better explanations to an event once the first explanation is fixed in your mind.
Explanation is critical, for if you only go by the correlations of nature, your predictions can go seriously awry. Oftentimes those correlations work consistently, and for our practical affairs universally (though not perhaps it may be added for the universe). Throw a ball into the air, and Newtonian mechanics will predict where it will land. Of course, Newton’s laws break down when you are considering the very tiny (Quantum physics) or the very large (General Relativity), but the Newtonian inductive (i.e. consistent un-falsifiable correlations prove the rule, as compared to the deductive approach that uses the rule to predict and falsify correlations) approach is a reliable solution to our practical problems, even though it is irrelevant to our cosmic ones.
When we get down to human nature however, explanation seems to be on the wane. For our practical affairs, it is now the correlations that count. They are easy and cheap to derive, and with the advent of data mining, we can find correlations upon correlations that would make even Newton blush. Now even without Newtonian equations, behavior can be predicted with pinpoint accuracy through the correlations found through the brute force of our computing power. With predictions like this, who needs explanations!
And so we don’t.
This mindset is characterized by net denizens and wizards (Isaac Newton, who considered himself an alchemist first, was also a wizard), who have every confidence in their predictions, and have the gathered eyeballs and mega bank accounts to prove it. To illustrate this mindset in action, consider this recent article in by Thomas Goetz in Wired Magazine on ‘Feedback Loops’. Getting feedback not only informs, but it motivates, and getting prompt and regular feedback can get people focused, motivated, and aroused to do what they need to do. This is a simple and reliable premise vouched from not only all human experience but all recent iterations of human experience. The internet in particular provides us with not only information, but also feedback as to the state of our behavior. Harness that power, and you can harness human motivation, presumably of course for the good. All well and good, except that there are negative correlations within the positive correlations that a data miner may overlook but a good theory or explanation predicts.
Life is full of traffic signals
Consider that blinking road sign up ahead that gives you your speed. The information is redundant, as you know your speed from a quick glance at your speedometer. Nonetheless, as the data show, this feedback motivates you to slow down, and even after the sign passes keep slowing down. However, as Goetz claims, this is due to the fact that ‘people are reminded of the downside of speeding, including traffic tickets and the risk of accident’ (as if the speedometer doesn’t!). So whether information feedback is redundant or non-redundant, feedback works. The implicit correlation and thus prediction nested in Goetz’s article is that non-redundant and redundant feedback have a sort of equivalency. The fact is though, they don’t. Humans and indeed almost all sentient creatures do not tolerate information redundancy, indeed they don’t have the time or computational space for it. In fact, redundant information is automatically blocked out through a well known process aptly named ‘blocking’. As an illustration, consider another road sign example. Suppose you see a traffic light turn red, and then ten seconds later a second brown light also turns on. Both red and brown light correlate with ‘stopping’, but only the significance of the red light will be remembered. The information from the other light is redundant, and is therefore blocked. So when the light turns brown, you will not stop because your brain blocked you from considering it. This blocking phenomenon holds for all creatures and all events, and forces another explanation for Goetz’s data, namely the fact that people may be slowing down because they perceive that the blinking road sign does not just give information you already know, but information you don’t, namely the greater likelihood that there is a cop around the corner. I may be wrong here, but that is a good thing, because as with all predictions coming from good explanations, this premise is imminently testable. For example, put that feedback on your speed on every billboard you pass, and see what happens!
But there is another prediction that comes from explanation, namely that novel or unpredictable events provide an incentive salience or importance to moment to moment behavior that depends upon how information is arranged, or to point, its feedback function. The neural basis and explanation of feedback is that we are responsive not only to the ends of our behavior but to the novel twists and turns that get us there. In other words, performance feedback works because it activates mid-brain dopamine systems that are sensitive to the novelty that is implicit in non-redundant feedback. But dopamine is not activated by redundant information, only novel info will do. Hence the motivating power of redundant information if refuted yet again, but this time from predictions derived from how explanations of how the brain actually works. In other words, it ain’t loopy feedback loops’, but the novelty that counts, or in the large the explanation that counts.