Edge 2011: What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit?

The Thinker by Rodin

This year’s Edge question was: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” There are some good but somewhat boring answers, like Susan Blackmore’s or Kevin Kelly’s. But here are some of the more interesting ones I found:

Stewart Brand: Microbes Run the World

Nicholas Carr: Cognitive Load

Aubrey de Grey: A Sense Of Proportion About Fear Of The Unknown

Jonah Lehrer: Control Your Spotlight

Evgeny Morozov: Einstellung Effect

Jay Rosen: Wicked Problems

Douglas Rushkoff: Technologies Have Biases

Nassim Taleb: Antifragility — or— The Property Of Disorder-Loving Systems

I would especially recommend reading both Carr’s and Lehrer’s.

There are a ton of these, so I haven’t read them all, so there could be some gems out there I missed. What are your favorites?

If I’d been asked, I’d have chosen one of the following:

1. The idea of systematic ideology – that people choose what to believe based on ideology, not reason (an idea also supported by research indicating that facts can actually backfire when trying to change someone’s mind). Systematic ideology, named by George Walford, was proposed in 1947 by Harold Walsby. The idea is now being pursued by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, though they don’t use the term and may not be aware of Walsby’s and Walford’s work.

2. The Decline Effect.

Photo by Andrew Horne

3 Reads on the Financial Industry

Wall Street Unoccupied as 200,000 Job Cuts Bring ‘Darkest Days’. Schadenfreude, especially considering:

The 1% are the very best destroyers of wealth the world has ever seen

Secret Fed Loans Gave Banks $13 Billion Undisclosed to Congress

But the level of dislocation is disconcerting, especially as it continues to demonstrate how jobless this “recovery”” really is – even the bankers are out of work.

The Majority, Including Occupy and the Tea Party, Agree On Top Issues

Zero Hedge sums up the ways in which the majority of the U.S., including both Occupy and the Tea Party, agree on the most important issues:

  • No more bailouts
  • End crony capitalism
  • Prosecute Wall Street fraud
  • End, or at least rein in, the Federal Reserve
  • Respect the constitution and our liberty
  • End perpetual war
  • Make elections fair
  • Keep poison out of our food and water

A Majority of Americans (Including Both OWS and the Tea Party) AGREE on the Most Important Issues … We Just Don’t Realize It

This isn’t to say that health care reform, reproductive rights, immigration reform, and civil liberties for women and ethnic and sexual minorities aren’t important. But with the possible exception of the Federal Reserve issue, these are issues that affect everyone, and both liberals and conservatives can mostly agree on.

I’ve been hoping for some sort of left-alliance with the Tea Party for a long time (and I’ve made my own proposal for a left/libertarian alliance, but given the debt-ceiling debate, it’s not one I think would actually go over well). It may finally be happening. But it’s not an easy proposition, there’s a big clash of cultures.

This is not a trivial challenge. A few years ago Slavoj Zizek wrote in a somewhat meandering critique of both Alexander Bard’s and Jan Soderqvist’s Netocracy and Michael Hardt’ and Antonio Negri’s Empire:

Is it then true that these tendencies (these lignes de fuite, as Deleuze would have put it) can coexist in a non-antagonistic way, as parts of the same global network of resistance? One is tempted to answer this claim by applying to it Laclau’s notion of the chain of equivalences: of course this logic of multitude functions – because we are still dealing with RESISTANCE. However, what about when – if this really is the desire and will of these movements – “we take it over”? What would the “multitude in power” look like? There was the same constellation in the last years of the decaying Really-Existing Socialism: the non-antagonistic coexistence, within the oppositional field, of a multitude of ideologico-political tendencies, from liberal human-rights groups to “liberal” business-oriented groups, conservative religious groups and leftist workers’ demands. This multitude functioned well as long as it was united in the opposition to “them,” the Party hegemony; once they found THEMSELVES in power, the game was over.

This is not, I don’t think, an insurmountable problem, but it must be kept in mind. These conflicts could destroy a coalition.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: End Bonuses for Bankers

it’s time for a fundamental reform: Any person who works for a company that, regardless of its current financial health, would require a taxpayer-financed bailout if it failed should not get a bonus, ever. In fact, all pay at systemically important financial institutions — big banks, but also some insurance companies and even huge hedge funds — should be strictly regulated.

Critics like the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators decry the bonus system for its lack of fairness and its contribution to widening inequality. But the greater problem is that it provides an incentive to take risks. The asymmetric nature of the bonus (an incentive for success without a corresponding disincentive for failure) causes hidden risks to accumulate in the financial system and become a catalyst for disaster. This violates the fundamental rules of capitalism; Adam Smith himself was wary of the effect of limiting liability, a bedrock principle of the modern corporation.

New York Times: End Bonuses for Bankers

China Miéville’s Rejected Iron Man Pitch

Iron Man 2020
OK, that’s not Scrap Iron Man, it’s Iron Man 2020

An extraordinary figure in bizarre makeshift power armour the colours of rust and hazard-warning yellow has appeared, fighting burglars, thieves, drug-dealers, graffiti-taggers. Flashback: he’s Dan, an ex-worker in one of the high-tech heavy defence plants, horrified at the social breakdown, going through the many scrapheaps of the town and cobbling together his suit from industrial junk, trying to save his home.

Dan smashes up a crack house, but while most of those within run, one stays and jeers at him, calls him a bully. Dan knows her: Louise was the union rep at his factory. He’s ashamed: he always liked her. They get talking. ‘You really want to do right by Flinton?’ Louise says eventually. ‘By all the other Flintons? Then quit messing with symptoms. It’s time to take down the real villain.’

China Miéville: Rejected Pitch

3 Perspectives on #OccupyWallStreet

Local 40 Iron Worker at #OccupyWallStreet

(Photo via @Newyorkist)

John Robb on #OccupyWallStreet as an open source protest:

*A promise. A simple goal/idea that nearly everyone can get behind. Adbusters did pretty good with “occupy wall street.” Why? Nearly everyone hates the pervasive corruption of banks and Wall Street. It’s an easy target.

*A plausible promise. Prove that the promise can work. They did. They actually occupied Wall Street and set up camp. They then got the message out.

*A big tent and an open invitation. It doesn’t matter what your reason for protesting is as long as you hate/dislike Wall Street. The big tent is already in place (notice the diversity of the signage). Saw something similar from the Tea Party before it was mainstreamed/diminished.

Douglas Rushkoff:

Anyone who says he has no idea what these folks are protesting is not being truthful. Whether we agree with them or not, we all know what they are upset about, and we all know that there are investment bankers working on Wall Street getting richer while things for most of the rest of us are getting tougher. What upsets banking’s defenders and politicians alike is the refusal of this movement to state its terms or set its goals in the traditional language of campaigns.

That’s because, unlike a political campaign designed to get some person in office and then close up shop (as in the election of Obama), this is not a movement with a traditional narrative arc. As the product of the decentralized networked-era culture, it is less about victory than sustainability. It is not about one-pointedness, but inclusion and groping toward consensus. It is not like a book; it is like the Internet.

Justin Boland:

There’s a lot being written right now about what the #Occupy movement must do. What it should be, where it all needs to go. Yet somehow, everything that looked like a mistake at first has unfurled into an advantage. All any single #Occupy cell needs to do is hold their ground for another night, and plan to make tomorrow bigger and better. It’s easy to write a sneering caricature of a Tea Party rally, but it’s interesting to note how many reporters wrote mocking hit pieces on the Wall Street crowd that all wound up being completely different. It’s hard to get a bead on where the consensus is — but the occupation itself is the whole message. Nobody on Wall Street is confused about what it means, at least.

Why the Poor Don’t Always Support Programs Designed to Help Them

Instead of opposing redistribution because people expect to make it to the top of the economic ladder, the authors of the new paper argue that people don’t like to be at the bottom. One paradoxical consequence of this “last-place aversion” is that some poor people may be vociferously opposed to the kinds of policies that would actually raise their own income a bit but that might also push those who are poorer than them into comparable or higher positions.

Economist: The poor like taxing the rich less than you would think

See also this essay on the causes of conspicuous consumption.

When Libertarians Were Socialists

I read these two articles years ago, and spent some time tracking them back down today. The main purpose of this post is to place links to these essays here so that I can refer back to them later. I pass them on with context, but no comment.

1. State Socialism and Anarchism by Benjamin Tucker, a proponent of individualist anarchism, a predecessor to modern libertarianism. The essay was written in 1886. The position put forward in this piece is summarized on the Wikipedia entry on Tucker:

According to historian of American individualist anarchism, Frank Brooks, it is easy to misunderstand Tucker’s claim of “socialism.” Before Marxists established a hegemony over definitions of “socialism, “the term socialism was a broad concept.” Tucker (as well as most of the writers and readers in Liberty) understood “socialism” to refer to any of various theories and demands aimed to solve “the labor problem” through radical changes in the capitalist economy; descriptions of the problem, explanations of it causes, and proposed solutions (for example, abolition of private property, cooperatives, state-ownership, and so on.) varied among “socialist” philosophies. Tucker said socialism was the claim that “labor should be put in possession of its own,” holding that what “state socialism” and “anarchistic socialism” had in common was the labor theory of value. However, “Instead of asserting, as did socialist anarchists, that common ownership was the key to eroding differences of economic power,” and appealing to social solidarity, Tucker’s individualist anarchism advocated distribution of property in an undistorted natural market as a mediator of egoistic impulses and a source of social stability. Tucker said, “the fact that one class of men are dependent for their living upon the sale of their labour, while another class of men are relieved of the necessity of labour by being legally privileged to sell something that is not labour. . . . And to such a state of things I am as much opposed as any one. But the minute you remove privilege. . . every man will be a labourer exchanging with fellow-labourers . . . What Anarchistic-Socialism aims to abolish is usury . . . it wants to deprive capital of its reward.”

From the essay:

The economic principles of Modern Socialism are a logical deduction from the principle laid down by Adam Smith in the early chapters of his Wealth of Nations,—namely, that labor is the true measure of price. But Adam Smith, after stating this principle most clearly and concisely, immediately abandoned all further consideration of it to devote himself to showing what actually does measure price, and how, therefore, wealth is at present distributed. Since his day nearly all the political economists have followed his example by confining their function to the description of society as it is, in its industrial and commercial phases. Socialism, on the contrary, extends its function to the description of society as it should be, and the discovery of the means of making it what it should be. Half a century or more after Smith enunciated the principle above stated, Socialism picked it up where he had dropped it, and in following it to its logical conclusions, made it the basis of a new economic philosophy.

The abandonment of the labor theory of value is one difference between the anarchism of then and the libertarianism of today.

2. Herbert Spencer, Labortarian, a blog post including two excerpts from Herbert Spencer‘s book Principles of Sociology Part VIII: Industrial Institutions (published in 1896), one on the subject of labor unions and one on the subject worker cooperatives. In short, Spencer believes both are valuable and that the latter could possibly solve major problems in labor.

Spencer, well known in his time, is perhaps best remembered as the original Social Darwinist and coiner of the term “survival of the fittest” (though he may not fit the stereotype of a Social Darwinist). He too was an influence what became modern libertarianism.

Commuting is Making Us Fat and Miserable

traffic jam

People who commute more than 45 minutes a day are more likely to get divorced, according to a Swedish study. And that’s just one of many studies indicating that commuting ruins lives that Slate’s Annie Lowrey shares in a recent story on the subject. “The joy of living in a big, exurban house, or that extra income leftover from your cheap rent? It is almost certainly not worth it,” she writes.

Long commutes are associated with neck and back pain, high levels of stress, obesity and a high level of dissatisfaction with one’s life and work.

Despite everything, commuting time has only increased over the past 50 years. The number of “extreme commuters,” who commute 90 minutes each way, has doubled since 1990 to 3.5 million. Why? The number one reason seems to be housing costs. People tend to want to buy larger houses, even if that adds significant time to their commute. According to Lowrey, economists have been warning us since at least the 60s that we tend not to take the value of our time into account when we buy houses far from work.

It’s not always that easy, though. I don’t own a home, so I have more flexibility in where I live. But back when I was doing IT contracting I would work in one place for a couple-few months, then move on to the next gig. I worked in one northwestern suburb of Portland (Hillsboro) for six months, then in a southwestern suburb for 3 or 4 months (Tualitin) and then in a northeastern suburb (Gresham) for a month or so. Eventually I found a full-time job in the city. I could have tried moving closer to that workplace, but my wife worked on the other side of town. And really, I could have been laid off at any time and had to start commuting to another corner of the metro area. Living centrally (close-in southeast) helped – my commute was never more than about 45 minutes (by car) each way. But not everyone can live in the middle of a city.

Slate: Your Commute Is Killing You.

(photo by epSos.de)

Second Life Founder Launches New Alternative Currency

CoffeeandPower utilizes a virtual currency. Users who sign up and give their cellphone numbers so they can receive SMS updates are automatically seeded with C$20 to get started. C$ is exchanged when goods are bought and sold. More can be purchased (at an exchange rate of US$0.75 for C$1) and users will be able to “cash out” as well. As many of the transactions on the site might be quite small, the virtual currency will help minimize transaction fees for every exchange. In other words, you can earn from C$ and then buy things on from other users without any fees.

Second, CoffeeandPower really emphasizes the community around this marketplace. That’s not a surprise when you think of Philip Rosedale’s work in creating the virtual world Second Life and its online community and economy. Users will be able to chat with each other, both in a public timeline and in private messaging and video chat.

ReadWriteWeb: Second Life Co-founder’s New Project CoffeeandPower: Exchange Virtual Currency for Real-World Tasks

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