Monday, March 17, 2008

Can Technology make us Happy?

"Can Technology make us happy?" was the question raised in one of the discussions at the SciBarCamp I attended last weekend. Lead by Diane Nalini and Lee Smolin, it was a very lively and fun meeting. Since in addition to the discussion being well attended I am bad with recalling names anyhow I won't even attempt to reproduce who said what in reply to whom. Instead, I will just summarize my thoughts on the matter.


What kind of a question is this anyhow?


To start with I want to set the stage for how to interpret the question. I was sitting next to a white haired man who proclaimed he "loves watching Fox News" (because that tells him - directed at Lee - "how your fellow citizens are really like"), and he certainly left me with the impression that he was very happy about that.

This reminded me of an article I read last month about a criticism of 'educational' children's TV by Aric Sigman, a US psychologist living in Britain. He was quoted (in this article) by saying

"Television makers will always justify themselves by saying that children enjoy their programs," Sigman said. "They say they make children smile and laugh.

"But children will also smile if you give them cocaine. The argument that children enjoy something or laugh at something is not the basis on which you decide what is good for them."

Notwithstanding the question of whether or not that specific BBC program Sigman was referring to can compete with cocaine, the point is well made. There are lots of examples for behaviour that make humans happy on the short term, but on the long term will lead to more unhappiness. Addictions of any kind fall into that category. That's why people try to give up smoking. That's why parents tell their children not to eat chocolate all day long. And that's why by now people make new years resolutions not to check their emails all ten minutes, and the Departments of the Canadian government urge their employees to turn off BlackBerries over night. Because despite the dopamine kick when you have new mail, on the long run it can have side-effects like increased stress and attention deficit.

Thus in the following I will understand happiness as that of the sustainable kind, such that it does not on the long run lead to damage. I believe that was meant with the question raised, but given some of the comments I just wanted to clarify this in the beginning.

Do you want to live in the last century?


One of the most frequent arguments I have heard for why technology increases happiness is that the circumstances of our living have objectively considerably improved during the last centuries. Since I am not a technology enthusiast, I have repeatedly encountered the question that was also raised in this meeting "But who would want to live in the last century?". Underlying this criticism is the implicit assertion that people living in the last century must have been less happy than we are now.

To give credit to the steady increase in life-expectancy, Ruut Veenhoven proposed to use the 'Happy Life-Expectancy' (HLE) as a measure, which is the life-expectancy in years multiplied by average happiness - a factor that increases with improving medical supply. There are factors that are absolute about happiness. For example seeing children suffer from illness or war is certainly a cause of pain that, if avoided, objectively increases happiness. The same goes for generally covering all basic human needs like clean water, food, housing.

Most of these basic needs are fulfilled for the majority of people living in North America and Europe [1]. Further economical growth does not correlate with happiness in any obvious way. As Robert Hill from the University of New Brunswick puts it "Measures of average happiness in industrialized countries typically show little or no upward trend over time, despite substantial growth in real per capita incomes."

I therefore want to mention two other factors besides the absolute level of the circumstances that remain important even in industrialized countries with a high living standard

A) Change

Change in itself has a positive meaning for many of us. Stagnation results in frustration, and lack of novelty is perceived as a troublesome crisis. This is not so surprising as contempt and satisfaction with the state of things can't have been much of an evolutionary advantage over those cave-men who where constantly trying out new ways to use nature for their purpose. I.e. the time derivative matters.

B) Knowledge

Knowing (or believing) that other people live in better circumstances, are happier, wealthier, prettier, have greener grass, more sex, and whiter teeth lowers the own happiness. I.e. the spatial derivative matters as well.

[If anybody can point me towards references supporting/defeating the importance of these factors, this would be greatly appreciated.]

How people weight these both factors is of course individually different, and differs also among nations. The question of improvement for example is very much tied to hope and faith, and it is in this regard quite interesting that a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research asserts

"while "poor and left-wing Europeans" are unhappy about inequality, [i]n the United States, in contrast, the poor may believe in "social mobility" (so that being poor now doesn't mean they will be poor in the future) and thus be less concerned than Europeans about inequality."

(One may wonder however how much attention should be paid to a study by a Bureau of Economic Research which claims that believing in "social mobility" -aka the American dream - is the way towards happiness. Says the middle-class, middle-left, middle-European. It is also worthwhile to note that such happiness which relies on psychological factors is vulnerable to ego blows like e.g. an economic crisis.)

Taking into account factor A), since we all live in the 21st century and know how our life is like, even if we would be willing to accept a lowered life-expectancy we most likely wouldn't be happy to be thrown into a lower standard environment. Happiness is path dependent - it doesn't only depend on where you are and what you see, but it depends on where you've been before and what you've seen before. It is an interesting question whether it makes you unhappier about your own situation to imagine the potentially much better circumstances of living people might have in the year 2200.

Interestingly, there was one person in this meeting who indeed said he'd like to live around the time of Maxwell when electricity was invented. I think he made a good choice there, it must have been a tremendously interesting time with a lot of change and progress.

To come back to the effects of technology: Technology changes our world incredibly fast. Think of how much has changed in your life within the last 15 years. You take your cellphone everywhere, can log onto a wireless in almost every café, and have your music collection stored on an MP3 player smaller than your hand. Many of us just like to try new things. I am not much of a gadget person (in that I hardly ever buy something) but since early childhood I have a fascination for buttons that in some sense still exists. You'd push and something would happen! I just loved pushing buttons of all kind, whether that was the elevator, the stereo, or everything on the car's dashboard. Today I see adult men pushing buttons on fancy looking electronic equipment in the Futurestore. Falling in love with remote controls probably isn't encoded in our DNA but playing with and understanding new toys likely is.

And we get used to new gadgets so fast. We no longer wonder when somebody on the streets talks into the air - because we know he most likely wears a headset and is on the phone. We have navigation systems with GPS, sleep with our cell-phones or BlackBerries, and pay our bills online. I've gotten used to people who start typing on their handheld in the middle of a conversation, and I am reasonably sure I have several friends who check their emails while sitting on the loo.

"Some people who are persistently wired say it is not uncommon for them to be sitting in a meeting and using a hand-held device to exchange instant messages surreptitiously -- with someone in the same meeting. Others may be sitting at a desk and engaging in conversation on two phones, one at each ear. At social events, or in the grandstand at their children's soccer games, they read news feeds on mobile devices instead of chatting with actual human beings.
These speed demons say they will fall behind if they disconnect, but they also acknowledge feeling something much more powerful: they are compulsively drawn to the constant stimulation provided by incoming data. Call it O.C.D. -- online compulsive disorder.

The article quoted above is from 2003.

It is this constant novelty and improvement about technology that keeps people happy when their basic needs are fulfilled, not the actual level of complexity of the technology. The twist is now if one identifies technology = change = improvement one is tempted to believe it is technology that makes us happy. Needless to say, it is far from necessary that technology will always lead to improvement of the quality of our living that increases happiness.


    "Futures made of virtual insanity
    now always seem, to be governed by this love we have
    For useless, twisting of our then new technology
    Oh now there is no sound for we all live underground

    ~ Jamiroquai



Left Behind

For both factors A) and B) too much variation, over time or space respectively, is as undesirable as too little.

B) Inequality is very much a source of competition and keeps us going. Maybe your neighbor's grass is indeed greener, and maybe the highways in Europe are indeed better, and maybe the streets in Toronto are indeed cleaner. Our constant wish for improvement is very often what eventually leads to progress, and knowing that others do better can be a huge motivation. However, it can also be a source of jealousy and anger. If inequality is too large as that there is hope the higher level can ever be achieved, it can lead to violence because the less fortunate have to fear they are being left behind. You see these tension in many large cities where the very rich live right next to the very poor, in countries where social barriers are to high to be crossed (again it matters what people 'believe' how high these barriers are) .

A) Technological improvement isn't necessarily a source for happiness. (I hesitate to use the word progress here, since I'd think progress should imply improving happiness.) Humans need time to adapt to change, and if time is insufficient those who can't adapt will be left behind. Having learned that technological improvement leads to more happiness, we see a rapid incorporation of new technologies into our lives. This however means for many people that they are in a constant pressure of learning new things, or they will no longer be adequate for their job. Peer pressure is also an important factor in this regard.

If you don't have a TV, no cellphone, no high speed Internet access at home, don't write emails, are not on Facebook, not on MySpace, and don't know what Twitter is... - Gee, what century do you life in? Do you actually exist?

The capacity of the human brain to process new information is finite. It is hard to say when this capacity will be reached, and our working memory will no longer be sufficient. Not all of us will reach it at the same time, and those who reach it first will be left behind. There are limits to how many news feeds we can follow, and how many people in our social networks we can really keep up contact with. More scary, our understanding of the economical and ecological systems that are at the very base of our well-being is very insufficient.

Maybe we are close to reaching the stage at which humans start falling behind and are no longer able to cope with the change they have caused themselves. But I would guess that with the invention of the automobile there have been voices saying the human brain wasn't meant to deal with speeds as high as 30km/h, yet it turns out after some practice driving a car at much faster speed feels pretty much natural.

Once and again, the human brain has proved to be a marvelous result of natural selection. But no matter how marvelous, if the changes we cause continue to take place faster than the evolution of our brain - as has been the case for several thousand years now - then there will be some time when our brain reaches its limits, when we will no longer be able to fully grasp the change we are causing ourselves.

If technological progress becomes too fast as that we can really understand and appropriately act on its implications, we start to move on very slippery terrain.

Choosing between worms

I think it was Michael who pointed out that technology is nothing but a tool. It is intrinsically neither good or bad, and the outcome depends on how we use it. People make mistakes with new tools, and it takes some time to learn how to use new technologies appropriately. Somebody else mentioned that there is a huge pressure to use technologies to begin with, and not really an option to just not use them, instead we might end up being forced to "choose between worms" (so I finally figured out what was in Pandorra's box).

I very much agree that we have to learn how to deal with new technologies, that making mistakes is often unavoidable but that in most instances they can be corrected. This requires however that there is sufficient time, and a mechanism in place to make these corrections. As I argued in an earlier post The Spirits that We Called, I am concerned that the rapid distribution of the internet and the unregulated development of its features messes with the institutions of our societies and our political systems that are meant to deal with these technological changes to begin with.

To borrow a term from Homer-Dixon's book "The Ingenuity Gap", one has to wonder whether we have the social ingenuity to appropriately deal with the changes we have already caused. And that is the actual problem.

Examples

I want to mention some examples of where technologies have unwanted drawbacks that were brought up in this discussion, and I invite you to submit yours in the comment section (I will add them). Unsurprisingly, much was about the Internet, esp. the Web2.0, but feel free to to comment on technological developments in a broader sense


  1. Splitting of Communities
    I think it was Lee who mentioned this first, and it was later picked up by others. The believe that the internet allows access to all kinds of opinions and thus supports open-mindedness is doubtful. Yes, in principle the internet allows us to collect an abundance of information, and to connect with millions of people all around the globe - people who belong to all kinds of nations, political orientations, and religions, and have a large variety of opinions.

    But in practice most of us put together own social networks of necessarily limited size, because it is just not feasible to deal with all of that information (this goes along the lines of the previously mentioned necessity to filter and structure when faced with information overflow).

    However, in contrast to our actual neighbors, relatives, or people we meet in cafes and so on, it is very easy to keep an online social network 'clean' of disturbing influence. Like, I can forward your email into my junk folder, remove you from my friend's list, and delete your comments. Even better, if I have picked the right people, they will support the decision to do so and reward my in-group favourism. Outside the virtual world it is much harder to get my friend's husband/landlord/cousin to shut up on family meetings (not to mention these guys I meet in cafes). The websites we check daily belong in many instances to some kind of community whose general sentiment we like, and we stick to forums where we share a common interest. The example was mentioned that changing on the internet from the camps of Clinton to Obama is like entering another world.

    Thus, in many instances the possibility to select people in our networks can indeed increase gaps in our community instead of bridging them.


  2. Distortion of Online Communication
    Somebody pointed out that scientific discussions on blogs in many instances are overloaded by noise and insults (a comment that caused many people to nod). It is sad, but though blogs would offer the possibility to build and improve global scientific networks, one has to wonder whether the impression that is de facto raised by such discussions in the public about the way science is done, is favourable or damaging. To generalize the issue, especially non-verbal online communication between people who don't know each other personally is attached with difficulties. Failing to realize limits of people's abilities to adequately express themselves, combined with lacking patience, a low attention-span, the usual temptations of anonymity, and cyber-disinhibition in general results in ugly social phenomena in the virtual world that can very really affect people's happiness.


  3. Impact on Social and Political Systems
    I just want to list the previously mentioned point that the impact of mass media like TV and especially the internet on our social and political systems is very poorly understood and potentially worrisome. As a recent example, read this article of how cellphones spread hate messages in Kenya. It is easy to dismiss such events, and to believe oneself is immune to such hypes. But go ask yourself how often you are affected by things you have read. Especially if one has heard and read about a topic repeatedly it will acquire some status of importance. And as things are with the internet, some importance leads to some more importance. The internet is a tool that affects the opinions of millions of people, and it does without doubt influence the way we form opionons and make decisions.

  4. Industrialization
    There is an abundance of drawbacks that came with the industrialization era that were only realized with delay, such as air and water pollution, health and environmental hazards in chemicals, side effects of food preservation such as lack of certain vitamins or overdose of metals used for storage.


  5. Civilization Diseases
    We were not evolutionary trained to live with an abundance of food, or to sit in a chair 12 hours a day. Neither where we meant to cope with constant noise, frequent travel over several time-zones, or staring at a screen for hours and hours. In many cases, overweight, back-, stomach- and sleeping problems are a result of these changes.

  6. Teaching and learning
    There were several examples of how the use of technologies in teaching can have drawbacks. I believe it was Diane who mentioned that teaching via Powerpoint presentations, and making them accessible online leads the teacher to believe they can go through topic faster than appropriate (they can just look at it again later), makes students believe they don't need to take notes (which would be beneficial to structure thoughts), or lowers attention generally (if I don't get it, I can download it tomorrow). I don't teach myself, but I've heard similar remarks about making lectures accessible online - it leads students to believe they can always look up things later, yet they don't actually do it, or if, they do it last minute - just because it is possible.


  7. Information Overload
    “[I]nformation overload is not only caused by the sheer volume of information, but also because of the complexity or confusing structure of information that might overtax the user’s cognitive skill to focus on relevant information ... Therefore Helmersen et al. (p. 2) characterize information overload as “difficulties in locating, retrieving, processing, storing and/or reretrieving information due to the volume of available information.” Information overload may lead to stress, health problems, frustration, disillusionment, depression, as well as impaired judgment and bad decision making ...”
    ~ Behr, Nosper, Klimmt & Hartmann (2005) Some Practical Considerations of Ethical Issues in Virtual Reality Research, Presence Teleoperators & Virtual Environments 14:6, 668 (2005).


Bottomline

Many of us equate technology with progress, improvement, and an increase of happiness. Even if the actual value of a gadget in terms of progress is not clear, they are often a source of novelty, and novelty - in technology, as much as in art, entertainment, science, or your peer group's gossip - can be pretty much addictive. For these reasons, technological developments are mostly considered positive changes, which in turn leads us to push forward these changes and incorporate them rapidly into our daily lifes.

But it must not necessarily be the case that these changes are good and lead to increased happiness. It needs time for us to judge on the advantages and drawbacks of changes. Dealing with unwanted side-effects is not an easy task, not one that takes place automatically, and not one that an invisible hand guides; it requires care, thought, and political institutions that ensure happiness is sustainable even on the expenses of dopamine-kicks. Instead of 'Can Technology make us Happy?', the question we should then actually ask is
    If technology makes us unhappy, will we be able to realize and correct our mistakes in a timely manner?



[1] According to my site tracker that covers on the average more than 90% of all visitors of this blog.


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20 comments:

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

In as this Scibarcamp was primarily to expand ones thoughts on science, it appears it has again made you wonder that perhaps the world has had a bit too much of it. In some respect I have also had the same feelings and yet not from the same perspective as your own. Primarily, upon reading this post or others that you have written, with the same or similar theme; I always come away understanding that you feel that science/technology serves to be the cause and us the people the effect. The way for sometime I have looked at this, is that we only get what we want and then often deserve. You for instance see the greatest danger posed by our current technology is that it may overwhelm our abilities to keep up or cope; while I understand that these are a problem only since they serve for the majority to be substitutes for living, rather then to serve as an extension of it. You actually cite some of the symptoms, such as face book where no one actually gets in your face, blogs were one can omit comments and reality T.V. where one is left feeling superior to or self justified by those portrayed.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. We could demand that once again learning channels such as Discovery actually present something for us to discover, other then how idiotic people who built motorcycles are. We could click on TED and actually force ourselves to listen to a variety of opinions, even some that may conflict with our own. Then of course we could do something as old fashion as read a book, do some gardening, play an instrument or paint. What surprises me is I know you do many of these things and still feel we are all in danger. I can tell you that you are in no way in danger, yet I would agree that many are; for all those things are ones we must do, rather then thing that are done for us. This is the difference between the new world and the old. In the past they didn’t have a choice and today we do. What’s required is we learn how to make the right ones. I therefore submit that this is what has to be recognized and thus serve to form our strategies and actions, so that we not shun the future out of uncertainty and fear, yet welcome it with purpose and confidence. Perhaps then we can truly increase our chances for happiness.

Best,

Phil

Sunny Kalara said...

I am convinced that the "happiness" is a genetic trait - like a person's height or the length of his/her arms. Yes, you can tweak it a little here and there and temporarily raise/lower it but I think a person is born with a certain level of "happiness level" and no matter what situation you put them in, they will drift to their natural level of happiness.

I have also noticed that when people refer to technology, they typically mean "newer electronic gadgets".

So if I were to translate this question; it would be "does buying electronic gadgets make you temporarily happy? And the answer is clearly yes.

However, "technology" is a much broader term; technology is how people modify the natural world to suit their own purposes; it refers to the collection of processes and knowledge that people use to extend human abilities and to satisfy their needs and wants.

I don't think technology makes you happy - it allows you to have a fewer reasons to be un-happy.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Thanks for your as always thoughtful comment. I am afraid though that I don't actually succeed in communicating my opinion, so let me clarify some points. For one, I definitely don't think the world has had too much of science! On the contrary, I think it has a lack of science, or at least scientific method, especially when it comes to sociological and political questions where such an approach is desperately needed.

Since I would say science is done by humans, I would probably agree that we are the effect to the cause. However, zooming out from mankind I think we're all part of nature, and whatever we do is still part of nature. Even if we turn out to be stupid enough to initiate our own extinction, this will still be part of nature's way - and the universe won't care one way or the other.

The way for sometime I have looked at this, is that we only get what we want and then often deserve.

Well for one, this seems to me a very passive attitude that doesn't resonate with me. But besides this, what we 'want' is very much influenced by what we know and what we think we can achieve. I can not very well blame hundreds of millions of people who believe that capitalism is the way to increase happiness on the individual as well as on the community level because they have been told this all through their lives. How could I go and say, well the Americans, they deserve their economic crisis, if all they are trying to do is make the best out of their skills and resources, and according to the rules they have been taught? How could I go and say, well, all the countries who are not yet preparing for shortages in energy supply deserve to suffer from the problems they will be running into, if the problem is that the political system in place can't appropriately deal with the situation. The only thing I see is a lot of unnecessary confusion, actual and potential suffering due to inefficient decision making, and who deserves that?

We could [...] We could [...] Then of course we could

Yes, as long as we are living in a democracy, we 'could'. But what I have tried to express already in previous posts is that the 'could' is more or less irrelevant. What matters is whether we 'do' or 'do not'. And this is very much dependent on what we know, what we are told, what we have learned, and what we thus have come to believe. The problem is this process of opinion making is very vulnerable to distortions, and if lobbies or even politcal parties (! what an irony !) so obviously deliberately invest hundreds of millions of dollars to influence people with psychological tricks via mass media (you can bet they have psychologists in PR and advertisement) - how can one possibly expect the outcome to appropriately reflect people's opinions? How can one possibly expect a democratic system to work in such circumstances? How can one neglect the influence that is exerted through the internet, that more and more affects our opinions?

What surprises me is I know you do many of these things and still feel we are all in danger. I can tell you that you are in no way in danger, yet I would agree that many are; for all those things are ones we must do, rather then thing that are done for us. This is the difference between the new world and the old. In the past they didn’t have a choice and today we do. What’s required is we learn how to make the right ones.

Yes. And how do we learn that? That's what I am concerned about, that we don't have time to learn how to make the right choices. Best,

B.

Uncle Al said...

What is the point of Homo sapiens, to conquer the universe or to serve as a warning to others? They aren't exclusive states.

Dark skies and the Orion Nebula (middle "star" in the sword - try it with near-infrared film and an orange filter) or smog and loathsome homeowners associations? No Celestron telescopes for a few days' wages if you live in mud huts. Know the fear and do it anyway - per ardua ad astra!

Bee said...

Hi Sunny,

I am convinced that the "happiness" is a genetic trait - like a person's height or the length of his/her arms. Yes, you can tweak it a little here and there and temporarily raise/lower it but I think a person is born with a certain level of "happiness level" and no matter what situation you put them in, they will drift to their natural level of happiness.

There is no point in arguing about what you are convinced happiness is or isn't without defining it to begin with. I found the usage of the word as clarified by the WDH useful:

"Happiness is defined as the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of his life-as-a-whole favorably. Within this concept two 'components' of happiness are distinguished: hedonic level of affect (the degree to which pleasant affect dominates) and contentment (perceived realization of wants). These components represent respectively 'affective' and 'cognitive' appraisals of life and are seen to figure as subtotals in the overall evaluation of life, called overall happiness."

That being said, I strongly doubt that it is an entirely genetic trait. Sure, research shows that genetic factors might play a role (e.g. to the probability to develop a clinical depression), but environmental factors do also play a role. Do you really think a person would be as happy living in a country where the political situation is so unstable you risk being shot if you leave the house? Where you have to be afraid you won't have any clean water the next day? Where you could die from any bacterial infection because you have no access to antibiotics? Where you see mothers and children die in childbirth? Do you really think that people who suffer from chronical diseases (like e.g. back pain, sleeping problems, or constant stress) are as happy as those who don't and that they will just 'drift towards their natural level'? Do you really think the increase in depression rates in so-called civilized nations is an illusion - cause that is what you're saying if you call it a genetic trait.

I think you misestimate the 'little' that you can 'tweak' about a person's happiness by changing the social, political, economical and ecological environment the person has to live in. Maybe we can find a middle ground in that it is (to a certain extend) a genetic trait how 'happy' a person can be in a given situation - but you can still improve the situation.

Best,

B.

paul valletta said...

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7304004.stm

Arthur C Clarke seemed to think technology was just, and I suppose it made his long life very happy?

Neil said...

Bee, how can you be so prolific here and still do all that journal writing etc? (Even with lots of quotes to take some space, and good organization, you still come up with a good bunch of quality writing.) As for the topic question: technology will not continue to be able to make us happy if population keeps growing. Our numbers are stressing the energy, food, and now especially the water resources of the world. Tech is not a fixit for all that. It can help, but there are trade-offs and great effort to apply enough new technology to make up for the stresses of population. Some technology that people want makes those problems worse. Governments should stop subsidizing births (do any other than the US?) with cash incentives (deductions, credits, etc.) and instead use the savings to provide universal health insurance, better education, etc.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I truly appreciate your response to my comment and now understand perhaps I was mistaken when I said you felt we have had too much of science. I also share your perspective, where we are only one species of many and that our success or failure as a consequence is only important for us. If that realization alone was made general, mankind would be one step closer to the starting point of their considerations. I agree that far too many consider that the world, if not the universe is structured only for our concern. If they were to do just this, they then may also recognize that happiness might be found in the shared striving for goals rather then simply individual objectives. I’ve often wondered if things like reality T.V. are but new guises for what were the Roman Forum and its gladiators, with the decline in reading and general awareness the burning of the Library of Alexandra. Although all this takes different form, should not the similarities be recognized and the results heeded?

You ask for solutions. I say the beginnings are with things like this blog and those that author them. Next some of these few must either choose to be themselves or inspire leaders. These leaders must have as their mandate the general good and not self or special interest. Their support and nurture must first spring from those who inspired them and hoped to be extended by all. These leaders must not reach consensus by simple compromise, yet rather by the realization of good direction and planning.

The first principle in this should be to distinguish that the need holds priority over want. The first thing required is to determine what is sustainable. The next is to recognize (as you pointed out) that the quantity of life should not be confused with its quality, considered both in terms of the individual’s life span and the number of individuals. Resource should be recognized as belonging to all and not the providers. Education should be considered and provided in terms of not just the practical, yet also the general; so that decisions can be reached as the result of a broader understanding rather then only specialized. Science’s role should be in the expansion of understanding both potential and limit, while the disposition of it by those it serves. Things like race, culture, language and religion should be recognized for their potential of being divisive and counterproductive; not promoted and glossed over as being benign aspects of enrichment and diversity. We need to see beyond the human to the conscious, as to understand that the relevant and important is what’s contained, not the container; so that what we recognize and nurture is the race, culture, language and beliefs of our potential and not simply the limitations of our present state. Can we do it, of course? Will we do it; I still insist remains up to all and not just the few. In the end, only hope gained through inspiration can be its beginnings, confidence supported by improved understanding its continuance and action thus guided its completion.

Best,

Phil

P.S. You never did reveal the results of the arm wrestling. When I saw this on the program I had a vision of Einstein and Bohr with their sleeves rolled up, beads of sweat rolling down their browses, with the outcome to decide the bases and structure of reality :-)

Bee said...

Hi Neil,

I agree. You express that very nicely, I could have saved all these words by just saying tech can't fix it all. Regarding the births, see e.g. Make babies, ADQ urges Quebec women (I previously read similar articles about Italy and Spain, there are probably more. So no, the US isn't the only country.)

how can you be so prolific here and still do all that journal writing etc? Even with lots of quotes to take some space, and good organization, you still come up with a good bunch of quality writing.)

Thanks for the kind words. But it's not like I write papers every day. Plus, I'm a fast writer. It's actually finding the quotations/ references/ alternate opinions/ links that takes more time (not finding them, but I have to read them all to find out whether they are good for something). Either way, the challenge isn't typing on a keyboard but to follow a thought to the end. I had a lot of time thinking about the discussion while I was stuck on the 401 back to Waterloo.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Once again, I find myself nodding at what you write, so let me just continue your comment

You ask for solutions. I say the beginnings are with things like this blog and those that author them. Next some of these few must either choose to be themselves or inspire leaders. These leaders must have as their mandate the general good and not self or special interest. Their support and nurture must first spring from those who inspired them and hoped to be extended by all. These leaders must not reach consensus by simple compromise, yet rather by the realization of good direction and planning.

This all sounds very nice, but I doubt this is a realistic thing to happen.

First, there isn't much of what I'm saying that hasn't been said a thousand times before.

Second, I came to realize only recently that having a leader is probably necessary. But they don't grow on trees.

Third, there is a limit to what you can change in a system by using the rules of the system. That is to say, if you go today make it up all the way the political career latter it doesn't only take decades, but you have most likely necessarily already made a lot of commitments that potentially corrupt further directions (The problem is that the way politics works today, the important decisions are the ones made in small circles behind closed doors. You'll never make it if you don't play that game.)

Fourth, there is the time problem. Homer-Dixon spends some chapters on this in 'The Upside of Down', and unfortunately I share his general sentiment. To abbreviate his point, it basically says the more complex a system is, the faster it will break down. He later argues this rapid break down isn't inevitable - one can soften this blow but it takes care and preparation. Either way, I don't think we have much time to readjust our political system to cope with the challenges of an increasingly tightly connected global network. The way to do it 'within' the system would be to found a party, raise a LOT of money, do a LOT of convincing, advertising, lobbying. Get support in most other countries, do more convincing, advertising, lobbying, etc etc. My estimate on the time-scale: 50-100 years. Time-scale on which it needs to happen: 5-10 years.

Just to clarify the latter, I think most people greatly overestimate the resilience of their countries resources because they believe they will be able to solve any problem by the time it can't be no longer ignored.

But imagine some major city is faced by some problem arising from energy shortage/climate change. May that be rising water level, shortage of ground water, or that many people heat with oil and won't get through the winter because there simply isn't enough. etc. add what comes into your mind. Now the argument goes, this isn't a problem, we can just... build higher dams, bring in water from elsewhere, upgrade all these houses and so on.

Besides that there are many countries that couldn't cope, even those that can would have to invest a lot of human and financial capital. And all these people who now have to work on solving problem X are people who aren't there to work on whatever they've done before. All the money needed for emergency plans is money not where it used to be before.

Now consider a country like the USA - a service society which runs on constant permanent maintenance and a lot of hope and faith. Where people throw away things and buy new ones, where things constantly break and have to be fixed. There is a very small tolerance for shortage of people and money before the infrastructure seriously suffers. E.g. what happens to the already crappy highways/ streets/ bridges if even the cosmetic fixing can't be no longer done because the money and people are in other places? What happens to the water/electricity supply if there aren't enough people to fix arising bugs. What do you do if it becomes increasingly problematic to easily transport things from the East to the West-coast, etc. Along with that the crime rate is likely to soar, and in a country with a wide distribution of weapons this is going to cause further problems, that need more people to solve them, and so on.

You're a smart guy, you can follow that line of thought somewhat further - once things start tumbling down, there is a whole list of dependent problems that need to be solved. And there is a limit to how many can be solved simultaneously, no matter what you do.

That being said, there are very real limits to what a society can possibly achieve in a short time, no matter how high their self-confidence or how great their skills are. Such, even though I greatly appreciate the typical US-optimism, I think it misses the big picture. I can't but find it ironic that a presidential candidate talks about his preacher's childhood while his country is slipping into an economic crisis. But that is how the system works...

Best,

B.

Arun said...

My answer is that technology might help increase the hedonistic component of happiness, or might actually greatly destroy it (predator drones, hellfire missiles, daisy-cutters, etc.) -- scroll down to the last blockquote here for a tiny list of people whose happiness has been utterly destroyed by technology.

But technology cannot help with the contentment portion of happiness and cannot help with self-knowledge or maturation of the person.

Read "American in the Gulag" by Alexander Dolgun for an example of how this part is so much more important than the hedonistic part.

Technology by itself cannot really make people happier.

Arun said...

Off-topic, but those who prefer apple cider are chortling:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/18/science/18beer.html

"Ever since there have been scientists, there have been those who are wildly successful, publishing one well-received paper after another, and those who are not. And since nearly the same time, there have been scholars arguing over what makes the difference.

What is it that turns one scientist into more of a Darwin and another into more of a dud?

After years of argument over the roles of factors like genius, sex and dumb luck, a new study shows that something entirely unexpected and considerably sudsier may be at play in determining the success or failure of scientists — beer.

According to the study, published in February in Oikos, a highly respected scientific journal, the more beer a scientist drinks, the less likely the scientist is to publish a paper or to have a paper cited by another researcher, a measure of a paper’s quality and importance.

The results were not, however, a matter of a few scientists having had too many brews to be able to stumble back to the lab. Publication did not simply drop off among the heaviest drinkers. Instead, scientific performance steadily declined with increasing beer consumption across the board, from scientists who primly sip at two or three beers over a year to the sort who average knocking back more than two a day."

:) LOL!!!!!

John Baez said...

Aric Sigman wrote:


But children will also smile if you give them cocaine.


Is that really true?

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“Once again, I find myself nodding at what you write……..”

This is probably due to the fact that for as long as I can remember I have had the mind of a globalist. Later on this was reinforced when I studied more of Einstein and of course Plato.

“This all sounds very nice, but I doubt this is a realistic thing to happen.”

True and yet if it doesn’t we can forget about humanity ever reaching what many consider to be its potential.

“Second, I came to realize only recently that having a leader is probably necessary. But they don't grow on trees.”

First I’m intrigued that you in the past envisioned a world that has no leaders and then changed your mind. I also had this change in opinion and am curious if it occurred as the result of the same realization. Mine was to wonder why as a result of Darwinism that people have such a spread in both mental acumen and physical attributes. The physical ones and the mental ones have a common theme and that people of enhanced abilities in both served to be the leaders of the past. This of course is changing as of late to be more relevant to more the cerebral and less the physical. Of course it must be recognized that the superficial ones still play a role in this assessment. Actually what first puzzled me though, is why only a limited number would have a higher mental acumen reflected on the other end with those of a lower one with the majority bunched in the middle. In the Darwin perspective this reveals to be obvious. That is if everyone had elevated intelligence that decision making and consensus would become more difficult, rather then easier. It appears that natural selection validates this in what we find. To make a long story short is that to have a society to function one must have a majority that is lead by a minority to expedite direction and action. Perhaps in the future when other human traits like envy and greed fall by the way side that this bell curve might vanish.

“Third, there is a limit to what you can change in a system by using the rules of the system. That is to say, if you go today make it up all the way the political career latter it doesn't only take decades………..”

Yes this is indeed a stumbling block and one that would appear to have no solution and yet we did have a solution to this in the past and that was to limit those that can make final decision not by popularity and alliance yet rather by ability. The way this was done then is that the leaders were the elders. This served to have not only acumen yet also experience combine to form to be the criteria. This is what’s called wisdom. We may find with the increase in a quality life expectancy that the age of majority for those who wish to run for office should be increased, rather then diminished. This would first force the future leaders to do something else with there lives and therefore gain real experience and further to serve to have the ones that do, not hold it as to be their initial means of survival. So public service becomes just that, the want to serve.

“Fourth, there is the time problem. Homer-Dixon spends some chapters on this in 'The Upside of Down', and unfortunately I share his general sentiment. To abbreviate his point, it basically says the more complex a system is, the faster it will break down. He later argues this rapid break down isn't inevitable - one can soften this blow but it takes care and preparation.”

I would say we first must learn how to distinguish between the natural rhythm of ebb and flow from that are which are the true markers of impending collapse. This would appear to call for increased resource being extended to the research of these areas. I would totally support such a program, not only that we might recognize what is a danger yet also to eliminate what serves to be false ones, that only propagate irrational fear resulting in irrational action. I feel we are more vulnerable to the boogey man then ever before and there are more Chicken Littles then we can imagine.

“You're a smart guy, you can follow that line of thought somewhat further - once things start tumbling down, there is a whole list of dependent problems that need to be solved. And there is a limit to how many can be solved simultaneously, no matter what you do.”

I realize this to be true and yet this requires we find more reason for hope the ever before. There will be no movement to action unless hope can be realized. So lets increase hope to meet with our needs. I don’t mean the hope of a fool, yet rather the hope of those that realize that without it that the alternative is to resign to our fate. Shakespeare said through Hamlet:

"To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?"

Many mistakenly believe Hamlet is thinking that he needs to struggle to vanquish the troubles of the world, yet really it is to contemplate rather he should end the struggle by ending his existence. Shakespeare never himself realized the only feasible opinion rested with hope, which was truly what Hamlet lacked.

“Such, even though I greatly appreciate the typical US-optimism, I think it misses the big picture. I can't but find it ironic that a presidential candidate talks about his preacher's childhood while his country is slipping into an economic crisis.”

Yes one can question his true heart by who were his teachers and yet students often will thank their mentors and yet take different direction as they recognize what is false from what is true. In reading the Wednesday Globe and Mail they have a quote of Obama when addressing this when he says:

“ I chose to run for the president at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together, unless we perfect our union by understanding we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and may not come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction; toward a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”

Now I like youself will first take this to be nothing more then simply well written political rhetoric and yet whether or not the author or its orator be genuine the words certainly are. Therefore it is our ability to recognize truth that has always been our real challenge and will continue to be.

Best,

Phil

Plato said...

A little humour perhaps?

I have unleashed a natural disaster on this site. :)

On a more serious note.

“Fourth, there is the time problem. Homer-Dixon spends some chapters on this in 'The Upside of Down', and unfortunately I share his general sentiment. To abbreviate his point, it basically says the more complex a system is, the faster it will break down. He later argues this rapid break down isn't inevitable - one can soften this blow but it takes care and preparation.”

Making an assessment of the current condition of the United States in terms of the service industry coincides with the increase of imports, and less exports that it produces.

This perspective "ignites change" that has to take place within it's society. Increasing "self sufficiency," as a consequence of the current economical state, will thus reduce it dependency on imports and create exports as a result of that self sufficiency. It is a change in thinking that has to take place in that society, and how is one to do that but know that the introduction of public opinion can democratically change the very nature of it by the introduction of the ideal in that society by the choice of it's leaders?

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Yeah, Obama is good with the words, he certainly qualifies as a leader. Question is whether that's sufficient.

That is if everyone had elevated intelligence that decision making and consensus would become more difficult, rather then easier. It appears that natural selection validates this in what we find.

Yes, that is a good point. No, my change of mind came from elsewhere. I just came to notice how important it seems to be for people to argue for (or against) someBODY instead of someTHING. The presidential campaign is probably an extreme example. I guess putting trust into a person and then defend this person is more natural than standing behind a party's program. I am a believer in democracy, so there's no way around the consensus problem, but then you'll still need somebody to represent it (i.e. the guy who is then to blame for everything).

Either way, the actual reason why it seems to me leaders are necessary is that it's incredibly hard to get people to MOVE without somebody who produces visionary speeches.

... and yet we did have a solution to this in the past ... I would say we first must learn... There will be no movement to action unless hope can be realized...

Well, saying we had a solution in the past doesn't guarantee that solution will continue to work, even less so that it continues to work well. As I said previously, the question is whether we have enough time to 'learn'. The problem as I see it is that people 'hope' (They always hope. Hope and curiosity are the driving forces of progress altogether), but they 'hope' for the wrong things. E.g. they 'hope' they will manage to solve problems if they knock on the front door. They 'hope' change will always be for the better. They 'hope' we will be able to cope with whatever difficulties we are facing, and that 'hope' is sufficient. It's an optimism that you can as well call denial, and pretty close to religious believes. I'm not kidding actually, the 'believe' in that the 'invisible hand' will direct the market towards an optimal configuration that will increase happiness for everybody is faith in the presence of a higher power that will reward us if we obey the rules. The comparison to religion isn't coincidental, I'm just repeating what I said earlier that there is a lack of scientific method in the driving forces of our societies that has gone a long way (and so pretty well) but I am afraid will become a major problem at some point when trial and error takes too long time to work out properly.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi John,

Aric Sigman wrote:

"But children will also smile if you give them cocaine."

Is that really true?


Well, I haven't tried. I would guess giving it to them isn't quite sufficient. I didn't take Sigman's quote too literally, I'd think he knows the game and how to make a headline.
Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

It seems in many matters we see things much the same and yet as I’ve said in the past from perhaps slightly different perspectives. Our stumbling blocks centre on hope and science as the bases for our decisions and actions. I agree that science has a vital role to play in forming part of the methodology in our decisions, yet it can’t act in all since direction depends also on choice. That choice depends on goals. Modern science for the most part is something whose main objective and utility is to have the ability to predict, were one starts with a given set of variables and actions to indicate what will happen next in terms of outcome. It does not have much ability to determine what outcomes are the correct ones to choose. This I find to be the first source of confusion.

Before science can be effective in guiding the path of humanity, it must first decide were it wants to go. We then first must decide if we are creatures of destiny or creatures who will design one. If we are creatures of destiny then we don’t require science and that as you indicate would reguire dependence on hope as it relates to faith. However, if we are creatures who truly can choose to design our destiny, then it does require science to advise it and yet not be able to totally form the criteria for what that choice may be. Creatures of destiny whether they choose to believe or not are primarily reactive rather then proactive, were ones fate is more analogous with that of a game of pinball then anything else. That is no matter how good one is at hitting the buttons and quick to react, the destiny of the ball is to end up at the bottom and be lost. Creatures of designed destiny first recognize this is the wrong game and choose not to play, yet rather imagine and invent another.

Science can help us to design the game, yet it is up to us to decide what that will be. That is were the hope comes in and that is we can only hope we have chosen what will prove to be the better game. Pinball is a game were one is lead to believe and thereby convinced they are winners if they simply last longer and accumulate more points before they ultimately fail. The game humanity must imagine is one where this potential is denied and outcomes leads to continued growth and success while remaining sustainable. There are many who are under the impression that we can’t have both and I believe they represent those that can imagine only pinball. At present science can at best deal mainly with the first game and while it can lend some ability to plan and create the other it has no ability to actually initiate it. That is because the second game is one where we can extend our numbers in a practical way, while learning to manage, optimize and expand our resources. This requires more then science, this requires choice, a choice that can only succeed with far reaching and inspired common goals, that will mandate and implement clear policies which manifest planned actions, achieving the benefits of the designed result.

I am reminded of the other post were it was realized that all was the limit of action, where in this case the limit one can have in avoiding traffic jambs was to having no time required to react with no action. Actually this is not the practical limit, for the limit is to imagine all the cars before they enter the roadway and have them all having instructions of speed with spacing only limited by them not occupying the same space and not changing speed while entering and exiting. Then we are only limited by the speed of the cars and their dimensions. So then the limit of speed is that of light as it relative to their individual length. That’s a lot of cars! I say then that we must recognize we are largely limited only by our imaginations and not as much by nature, as many seem to believe. To believe otherwise we are confined to the game of pinball. While science can have us understand our potentials and limits to the chosen game, it is we who must choose which one it will be and for what reasons.

Regards,

Phil

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

Off-topic, but those who prefer apple cider are chortling:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/18/science/18beer.html


Ha. Funny :-) Next time somebody is impressed by my publ. list I will tell them that's just because I don't drink beer*. Given that the Czech republic is said to have the highest per capita consumption of beer in the world, it doesn't seem to be a good place for research. Best,

B.
___
* Restrictions apply.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Indeed we are limited by our imaginations. For societies as well as for individuals it is hard to realize change is necessary before things actually go wrong. We very much like to imagine things develop smoothly and gradually and one has all the time in the world to deal with problems - tomorrow is another day (I am guilty of this as well, please don't ask about my income tax).

Either way, regarding your reflection on science and choice, since you disagree with me about what I would also disagree on, I am afraid I didn't make myself clear, so I will give it another try.

Our stumbling blocks centre on hope and science as the bases for our decisions and actions. I agree that science has a vital role to play in forming part of the methodology in our decisions, yet it can’t act in all since direction depends also on choice. That choice depends on goals. Modern science for the most part is something whose main objective and utility is to have the ability to predict, were one starts with a given set of variables and actions to indicate what will happen next in terms of outcome. It does not have much ability to determine what outcomes are the correct ones to choose. This I find to be the first source of confusion.

No, science does not tell you what right or wrong decisions are, and I don't think science will ever replace choice. It can however tell you what are good and what are bad ways to set up a system such that choices can be found and realized efficiently. Much like you can chose to turn on the heating or not to, but there are ways to heat more or less efficiently.

About the prediction: I find it very unlikely one can make precise predictions about societies behaviour (too chaotic), but in certain cases over short time spans this might work (that's why people make polls all the time). Also, note that a large part of politics today IS about predictions. If we raise a tax on soandso, the result will be this and that. Or maybe not? If we pass this law the result will be. Or maybe not? If we cut support for X and put it in Y the result will be. Or maybe not? If we have a universal health insurance people will. Or maybe not? The arguments in these case are often rather ethereal, strongly biased, and unscientific. That doesn't have to be the case, and I believe this can be improved.

The point is that I see the role of politicians in finding a consensus on how the goal should look like (representing the voters opinions). Finding the best way to get there ('best' to be specified as well e.g. as minimizing loss of jobs or so) is a different task, and one that I think science will play a more and more important role in.

But besides this 'finding the best way' there is the question how a system has to be set up such that it is able to efficiently find that best way. This has nothing to do with actually making a prediction, but for setting the rules. To use the traffic example you mention above - you can considerably change the scenario if you have frequent traffic reports which point out alternative routes (well, that wouldn't work on the 401 given that there are no alternatives, but I think you get the point). I think our polical systems (globally) badly need to improve their rules (or have some to begin with).

Most political questions today are incredibly complex and entangled and dealt with very inefficiently, e.g. think about the carbon tax. The problem is the discussion about deciding for the 'goal' is too tightly coupled with the 'how to' - and it is at this step that loads of believes about 'invisible hands' or things begin to matter and the whole question drowns in rhetoric. Just look at the status that politics is in - it's about having 'visionary leaders' and the like, who convince people 'they can' because they 'believe'. Gee, most people don't even know what the point is of having a free market, how else could they actually tell me they are helping the economy if they convince people to buy things they don't need and never use (i.e. a complete waste of resources)? I occasionally wonder whether at least the basic ideas of our political system and/or economical systems are actually taught in schools (given that this is what our society rests one, wouldn't one think so?).

I want to add though, it is my fault if I can't express myself as clearly as I want to since I haven't actually followed this line of thought to the end, so it's hard to say where it will go. Best,

B.