Friday, August 22, 2014

Hello from Iceland

So here I am on an island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean that's working on its next volcano eruption.

In case you missed yesterday's Google Hangout, FQXi just announced the winner's of this year's essay contest and - awesomeliness alert! - my essay "How to save the world in five simple steps" made it first prize!

I'm happy of course about the money, but what touches me much more is that this is vivid documentation I'm not the only one who thinks the topics I addressed in my essay are relevant. If you've been following this blog for some while then you know of course that I've been thinking back and forth about the problem of emerging social dynamics, in the scientific communities as well as in society by large, and our inability to foresee and react to the consequences of our actions.

Ten years ago I started out thinking the problem is the modeling of these systems, but over the years, as more and more research and data on these trends became available, I've become convinced the problem isn't understanding the system dynamics to begin with, but that nobody is paying attention to what we've learned.

I see this every time I sit in a committee meeting and try to tell them something about research dedicated to intelligent decision making in groups, cognitive biases, or the sociology of science. They'll not listen. They might be polite and let me finish, but it's not information they will take into account in their decision making. And the reason is basically that it takes them too much time and too much effort. They'll just continue the way it's always been done; they'll continue making the same mistakes over again. There's no feedback in this system, and no learning by trial and error.

The briefest of brief summaries of my essay is that we'll only be able to meet the challenges mankind is facing if our social systems are organized so that we can react to complex and emerging problems caused by our own interaction and that with our environment. That will only be possible if we have the relevant information and use it. And we'll only use this information if it's cheap, in the sense of it being simple, fast, and intuitive to use.

Most attempts to solve the problems that we are facing are based on an unrealistic and utopian image of the average human, the well-educated, intellectual and concerned citizen who will process all available information and come to smart decisions. That is never going to happen, and that's the issue I'm taking on in my essay.

I'll be happy to answer questions about my essay. I would prefer to do this here rather than at the FQXi forum. Note though that I'll be stuck in transit for the next day. If that volcano lets me off this island that is.


  1. Bee Magnus! Bee Magnus!

    "Saving the world" is not purchasing what we loathe. Great empires thus arose, then declined when they backslid. We worship the lame, halt, dim-witted, addicted, perverse, diverse, deserving, delusional, and proven unable to the exclusion of the Gifted. Our future is process not product, punctuated by tests of faith and inquisitions.

    If you have no worth we award you no value. March or die.

  2. "first price"

    Should be "first prize". The corresponding words words are the same in some languages (such as German), but different in others (such as English).

  3. You might be interested in a recent book by Martin Harwit on a somewhat similar topic, or at least one with some overlap. I recently wrote a review of it.

  4. Congrats! :-) And you are going to be a FQXi member now!

  5. Congratulations!

    (I take this as more evidence that writing a book of essays would be a profitable enterprise for you, as well as enjoyable to us readers.)

  6. Hi Sabine

    Congrats again...

    I have stopped trying to make sense out of the world a long time ago but anyway here are my two cents.

    Sorry to say but there is an elephant in the room…

    I explain:

    Humanity is an ill-defined notion to begin with. There is no universal collective Meta entity called Humanity and it certainly can’t steer any future even if it knew exactly how. The future is steered by a complex network of ruling elites, economic political and other (the elephant I was talking about), according to their short/long term interests and the balance of power each time, aiming primarily to sustain and reinforce their economic, social and political power. Science is just another tool at their disposal used to serve these interests; it is guided and controlled by controlling its funds and resources. Now regarding individual decisions, these are heavily influenced by social trends and collective behaviors which in a large extend are imposed to the social body by the same ruling elites via well designed methods.

    So in order your plan to work, you need first (step 0) to get the elephant out of the room which is kind of a difficult thing to do:-)

    That being said I’m not even sure if you have to do that. Maybe this way the balance is kept and order emerges out of the underlying chaos. So maybe your proposal should be redirected towards the elites (which can really influence things) instead of the metaphysical entity called humanity. This way they will be able to steer the future in a wiser manner.

  7. Kimmo:

    Thanks. I am already an FQXi member. (I've won in the essay contest before.) Best,


  8. Giotis,

    You're right about the elephant, but the elephant is not separate from humanity. I don't see this divide that many people seem to feel between 'us' and 'them', where 'them' might be some government or some organization or some corporation. They're made of people like us. There's nothing wrong with people striving for power, that's how we are. What is presently wrong is the balance, in that the bulk of people cannot react to changing circumstances and that means that in essence it's those who can move quickly who lead the game and they collect much more power than is beneficial. That is your elephant. You can give power back to the people by making sure money isn't the main way to influence decisions. They need information, and they need to be able to use it smartly. Which brings you back to the beginning of my essay. Best,


  9. Congratulations on the money and glory, which hopefully can better save at least you and your family for some time. As to the rest of us, after having a look at your salvation version, I must admit that unlike any inspirational kind of vision (preferred by the humanity itself) your approach to human nature and future is properly gloomy and deeply pessimistic. However, it is still far from being realistic. Humans in mass (especially in the big world) are much more hopeless, and if they could “decide” everything themselves (as you want them to), humanity could not perform any of its achievements.

    The end of your essay: “I can’t tell you which course we will take if we enable our social systems to learn, but at least we will not be drifting any more.” Me, I can tell you the result of your kind of solution (which is hardly “enable our social systems to learn”).

    You assume that if humans are mainly stupid and indifferent beyond their immediate needs (scientists including, you’re right), then one can still help them to live better than they merit by performing (ever more) simplified manipulation around their (ever more) simplified “priorities”. As you correctly note, we have already this kind of system in developed countries (called “democracy”), you only propose to additionally amplify it with some special computer network facilities and then “brain chips” (oh, dear, as if we don’t have enough of other problems…). If your proposal could be realised (in reality it can’t), it would inevitably result in only quicker growing degradation. We have it already in this totally media fed back society and in a much stronger version in a well isolated and much more connected and informed science subsystem. Consider it as a proof. There are only humans to decide, you cannot obtain anything above their effective quality with the help of any technical tool (internet strongly proves it once again).

    The major underlying (typical) contradiction is that yourself you address modern unprecedented, historical and civilisation-scale problems from the point of view of just that mediocre average person dreaming only about gradual, small but immediate increase of the quality of physical existence. The contrast between the two scales is insurmountable within such approach. If we have today the qualitatively big gap between what we have and what we need, then only a respectively big, revolutionary change can close that gap. That the gap is big is well demonstrated by the fact that even the “advanced” community of most advanced scientists doesn’t really know how to solve quickly growing problems (not only within this contest, of course). Therefore, one should not confuse here, at THIS very special moment, “realistic” with “evident”, “technically feasible”, or “probable”, for NOW the true, real problem solution, irrespective of details, should formally appear as “qualitatively difficult”, “fantastic” and generally “improbable”. While everything “feasible” necessarily gives the same degradation.

    I would not repeat here the analysis of the relevant scale change, which I give and mathematically substantiate in my papers easily accessible through internet, presented at international conferences, blogs (this one including), etc. Naturally, without result (any reaction), despite all the rigorous proofs (contrary to usual pure words in such cases), as modern science and intellectual elites in general have definitely passed from the objective competition of ideas in the search for objective (provably consistent) truth to purely subjective competition of personalities and their vain ambitions. Too late for saving what is already totally rotten. However, one cannot fool reality, and the truth is that the mentioned gap is only increasing and takes already the catastrophic forms of physical destruction. The last possibility now to “wake up” indeed and opt for the real, human progress, instead of playing senseless technical games, in both science and society.

  10. P.S. By contrast to my rather sad conclusion (and your sad vision of human future), you look inexplicably nice and natural on that “severe” Icelandic landscape. Up to you to know what it can imply (maybe you’re just happy about the prize), but I hope you had a chance to plunge into their magic hot sources and give a kiss to the awakening volcano. Something like this can be helpful for the urgently needed mind shift. Because an awakening volcano is everywhere, not only in Iceland…

  11. Andrei,
    The volcano begins to erupt as I type this, the highest alert for air traffic.
    How thick is the covering glacier? Is the whole world covered in ice or fire or something imperfect but local and practical in between runnaway Utopias on the eternal march and clash between civilizations in some eternal return of August 1914.
    Efficiency is said to be a Fascist word while it makes sense in the expediencies if the moment to address the essential and not get lost in the non-essential. That our world is complex does not mean it follows we can simply frame it as an effecient theory of everything.
    Not that your thoughts are not clever and of high order but I doubt you understand or hear the depth of the issue and address people's universal simple needs.
    I do not see Sabine's essay as pessimistic. Historically some very influential philosophers have been said that and superficially understood.
    But what emerges new in our time is we look a little deeper into the why of the situation and science with a little better wisdom still serves us well if we do not give up or abuse it in our false fears of dystopias.
    Can there be a civilized civil war? A league of nations telling humans to desist with perhaps empty moral power? Like the red cross flag a token to neutral Switzerland a purple circle on white was proposed to exempt science and cultural centers from war.A fantasy more so in our day.
    Lenin once defined communism as Soviets and electrification. One has only to look down on the night sky over Korea to consider the truth of this.
    The corporal, elected by a landslide, said "When I hear the word culture I reach for my gun." Sometimes we need space even more than time.
    As we die for flags or move people from some place as if a region is only God given but not the people so many are lost into the god of the gaps. I think basic theory is a useful thing to address the problem of layered implications errupted with limited access to our deepest dreams - all such layers a given as all implications in some unified topology.
    Some cultures regard volcanos as gods that bring their source of life - not a place of virgin sacrifice, mythical awards and appeasement.
    In a photo of a little girl whispering into a fallen statue's ear, I like to think what children know- "All glory is fleeting, my Vladimir."

  12. Wonderful news - very glad to hear it. I don't know how great your essay is, but I know how great your blog is.

  13. Edgar (and others),

    The key point of the current situation and “the most important current concern of philosophy” (question from your profile), hidden behind all those words, “initiatives” and “research papers”, is whether the world can continue basically on its usual way (exemplified by modern “developed countries”) with only gradual, quasi-horizontal, “technical” modifications or will it necessarily make now a much greater, highly uneven and “nonlinear” leap, either downwards, in the default degradation tendency, or upwards, by well-defined and nontrivial efforts towards the new progress of human mind.

    The dominating answer is the first option, i.e. “change without change”, for why one should change strongly this still so well-fed, high-consumption life. It can well include many “initiatives” of technical, horizontal orientation, like the discussed prize-winning proposal of how to save the world. It actually assumes that the “danger” the world should escape is not that great, it is only of the level of “current” problems (which can be serious, of course, especially if neglected). Correspondingly, that kind of solution does not imply the qualitative “change of mind”, a crucial progress of the leading level of understanding, approaches and purposes.

    My idea is that everything shows that we are in the situation of the second option, objectively, i.e. in the bifurcation of development, where whatever you do, you cannot continue on the current level of consciousness, and then either everything degrades, without specially promoted progress, or one should try a growing initiative of much greater change, giving real, qualitative progress directed necessarily towards superior level of consciousness.

    However, irrespective of personal choices and preferences, I think that all active “philosophers”, “scientists” and other idle thinkers should indeed change their mind - and unify concretely their efforts - in the direction of “social” or “global” application of their intellectual activity, because a period of much more intense change (call it “globalisation” if you want) is here, even if one prefers to preserve the illusion of its mainly horizontal direction.

    It becomes impossibly grotesque today to continue all those purely abstract “quantum-gravity” kind of games as one’s unique, “very serious” profession when the real world around you has entered in a growing turbulence regime, involving now virtually all levels of reality. Honestly one could have doubts about those abstractions without real problem solution even in a “normal” world situation, but then they could be considered as a sort of strange art and exotic pleasure one could accept after all, at least in over-producing and generally successful parts of the world. But now “how do we sleep while our beds are burning” - and this hasn’t only “ecological” or purely “social” meaning any more. Everything is “burning” and “erupting”, everywhere (including science itself), and scientists and other “thinkers” should mobilise and unify their efforts for at least a part-time - but serious and quite “fundamental” - activity in order to cope with this qualitatively new reality. Others (including politicians) can hardly be efficient in leading properly the necessary transition. And toy "paper contests" cannot produce a real change either...

    Centres of such efforts should rather appear in developed, still sufficiently rich countries, maybe especially in Europe, the land of more acute and quickly growing contradictions…

  14. Congratulations. Had not been reading you for too long, now that!

    What about a social network implementation of your ideas? Something like "I share this guy's opinions on this or that topic", from which a Netflix-like algorithm could deduce what you like and forward relevant information to you. Not a split-second feedback loop, more like over days. But would solve the issue of where to get personal preferences from.

    Also, seems to me that the feedback loop needs a "conflict" marker, telling me "not obvious, need to think about it". It has to be a weighted map with many inputs (like a neural network), and a way to tell there is a tension between different inputs. Imagine a man meeting a beautiful woman. The tension is between attraction and risk of rejection. So even if the feedback loop gives an immediate result, that result does not lead to immediate action (in most cases).

  15. Andrei

    I find it hard to follow you and I think enough was said.

    What about the minus 1 law of thermodynamics... would that be abstract enough for you?

    Anyway the air traffic alert is down graded so the volcano settled down I guess.

  16. Christophe:

    What you suggest is a great way to amplify confirmation bias. The filters that we presently use are all based on the idea of 'give me more of the same thing' and I don't think it's good. Best,


  17. Congrats, Bee! You have been (for me) the most sensible voice on the issue of the future of humanity and it's great to see your ideas getting recognized by more people. Because these are the really important issues and the idea you present is a great way (maybe the only way we know presently) to tackle them.

  18. I'm afraid, that the research of cold fusion or similar technologies is what can save the contemporary world for now - not the hiking of physical theorists around Island. The contemporary world is so decadent, careless and separated from its reality, it's unbelievable.

  19. Unbelievable is that you still believe in cold fusion. To paraphrase Murray Gell-Mann, if cold fusion works, why aren't you rich?

  20. Phillip, if my science works (provably), why am I not rich? Eventually because the world is stupid I guess, not excluding the world of science, unfortunately. The same for the “cold fusion”, whatever real novelty that may finally imply. Novelty is a friend of true, creative intelligence (becoming extinct), or otherwise it is considered as a threat (to positions, ambitions, world views, etc.).

  21. @Phillip Helbig: Currently the mainstream physics is so demoralized, it even dismisses the third replication of EMDrive - despite it brings the evidence of quantum gravity phenomena, for research of which the same physicists otherwise spend billions of dollars.

  22. /* How incredibly shallow we are. */

    Somewhat funny thing is, I'm whining here over the essentially similar things, like Bee in it's winning essay. And when I "give the people the access to cheap information about the consequences of collective human actions", I'm just deleted from here.

  23. Bee - congrats on a job well done. I do not doubt that there will be many more such prizes in your future.

  24. Congrats! Nice to see your writing get recognized in that way!

  25. Alice,

    Wittgenstein - we will ALL agree here - fell and falls short here:

    (Paraphrased for English readers)

    The limits of languages are the limits to your worlds.

    In the land of fantasy Darwin contorts, retorts, and snorts:

    No wonder your sort went extinct!

    I fall short too. Being only trilingual. But wait, there are only 4997 more existing extensions of the human language to go.

    Bob Beware

  26. Hi Sabine,
    I read you essay. What you are trying to do is a participative society, a democracy. We live in nomicracy but we do not have a lot of say except in our consumption choices and here without info as you point out. H.G. Wells had thought about the World Brain. And Douglas Engelbart had envision window interfaces for solving the problem of the world. You bring about a new notion of money here with those feedback loops. And this notion of establishing for a system for the politic of science, for the republic of science as Polanyi called it is brillant.
    Thank you for you insights.
    Regards, Louis Brassard


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