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April 4, 2020


Neural Computing

I take in a lot of things that I want to share and discuss. Earth 2020 can appear to be an optimal environment for performing such tasks. And in many ways it is. But one of the adverse effects of sharing our ideas so easily is a higher propensity for diminished discourse, plundered of its nutrients and reduced to a husk.

It's been my experience that, if what you're after is a more meaningful kind of sharing; a more meaningful form of discussion; a deeper and more introspective dive into your own thoughts, feelings and fundamental nature; the online world (and more specifically, the "social media" world) can only take you so far, and is often (though not always) more likely to set you back. But if, knowing that, you, like me, still thoroughly enjoy being alone, and sometimes find the physical act of speaking akin to some grueling and barbaric sport, this can pose a dilemma, as it has for me for as far back as my memory allows me to go.

While it's hard to accurately quantify or measure these things, I count this particular dilemma as one of the innumerable reasons life as an expat began in my late twenties to seem so appealing to me, and ultimately landed me 9,000 miles away from my family, friends, language, place of birth, and virtually all else, way over here on Planet Thailand.

What I didn't imagine upon my most recent departure from the States, in September 2016, was how much the country and the world would change in those 3.7 years, which are but a yoctosecond in the long life of our utterly mystifying and indifferent (to us) universe.

So here we are in April of the Year of the Pandemic. We read and we watch and we know and we don't. Those who are lucky and privileged enough get to just stay home, hopefully without going broke or hungry, or coveting our neighbors' toilet paper. We quarantine and isolate, wash our hands but don't touch our faces, send emails and texts, make video calls, wait, worry, wonder, feel our emotions more intensely, and maybe even feel some new ones, from the depths of our newfound awareness, heightened now despite our clouded stay-at-home minds. Amid this oddness, our virtual worlds have emerged in a somewhat elevated form and begun serving as consolation camps. We go to them for comfort and nourishment, and sometimes even find it; far more often than we probably would have 3.7 years, or even months, ago.

Despite the havoc crises wreak, they also bring people together. If we were at war with a visible enemy, rather than an invisible agent, those of us confined to our homes would be out there in the havoc, immersed in it and our single-minded benevolence, physically huddled together with our friends, families and communities, helping each other out however we could. (Just as those of us who are home with partners, spouses, children or others are doing at scale right now.) The same can be said for basically any disaster. The author Sebastian Junger writes a lot about this in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, which I return to often when thinking about the correlation between communities and mental health.

The one thing that might be said for societal collapse is that—for a while at least—everyone is equal. In 1915 an earthquake killed 30,000 people in Avezzano, Italy, in less than a minute. The worst-hit areas had a mortality rate of 96 percent. The rich were killed along with the poor, and virtually everyone who survived was immediately thrust into the most basic struggle for survival: they needed food, they needed water, they needed shelter, and they needed to rescue the living and bury the dead. In that sense, plate tectonics under the town of Avezzano managed to re-create the communal conditions of our evolutionary past quite well. “An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain,” one of the survivors wrote. “The equality of all men.”

However perverse and perilous the thought may be, it is hard to deny that the coronavirus pandemic—both in spite of and because of its massive scale, its insatiable nature and indiscriminate course—is bringing us closer together, and, at least to some degree, it is equalizing us. Will that last? Can it? I don't know. But we aren't there yet. For now, we are still here, in this strange moment with both endless things still to do and the sense that there's nothing that can be done. And I think our mission forward, from our positions within the arc now feeding and growing from this moment, is to find and maintain a deeper awareness. To observe the world and ourselves more fully in the coming days, weeks, months, and potentially years of our vulnerable communion, and to store the things we find for later use. And maybe then, when later comes, we can move those things more easily to the surface, and shed some of the noxious stuff that, prior to all of this, had been doing us only harm.

The new robustness I'm seeing in our online discourse—which now moves with a little more compassion, a little more humor, a little more nuance, empathy and humility—has made me less resistant to the ongoing mechanization of our lives. We're already moving irrevocably in that direction. And there are many, myself included, who would reason that we're already there, and that we've already been there for a long time.

While I can't speak to his personal views on the topic, there are a few lines from Ted Chiang's brilliant book Exhalation that shine a rather compelling light on a human history long-infused and built on technology and its advancements. I doubt many (if any) would argue with that as a general fact anyway. But there's something in the specific construction of Chiang's sentences—and of course, the ideas that flow sustainedly from them and their surrounding story—that has reframed my perspective on the value of our digital interactions and communities. From the story, "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling":

We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound.

And I will leave you for now with that. Welcome to Think List. Please do write back to share your thoughts on the matters above or below (or wherever). And above all else, please take care of yourselves and each other.

Brian Leli, April 2020

What Do We Do Now?

A friend called our new world ‘a ghost ship’ — and maybe she is right. She has recently lost someone dear to her and recognises acutely the premonitory feeling of a world about to be shattered — and that we will need to put ourselves back together again, not only personally, but societally. In time we will be given the opportunity to either contract around the old version of ourselves and our world — insular, self-interested and tribalistic — or understand the connectedness and commonality of all humans, everywhere. In isolation, we will be presented with our essence — of what we are personally and what we are as a society. We will be asked to decide what we want to preserve about our world and ourselves, and what we want to discard.

Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files Issue #89, March 2020

Prevalence-Induced Concept Change in Human Judgment

Why do some social problems seem so intractable? In a series of experiments, we show that people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it. When blue dots became rare, participants began to see purple dots as blue; when threatening faces became rare, participants began to see neutral faces as threatening; and when unethical requests became rare, participants began to see innocuous requests as unethical. This “prevalence-induced concept change” occurred even when participants were forewarned about it and even when they were instructed and paid to resist it. Social problems may seem intractable in part because reductions in their prevalence lead people to see more of them.

Science, June 2018

The Better Conversations Guide

This guide (download the print-optimized PDF) is intended to help ground and animate a gathering of friends or strangers in a conversation that might take place over weeks or months. It provides a flexible roadmap you can adapt for your group and intentions. We created it as producers, but more as citizens, out of what we’ve learned in more than 15 years of conversation on On Being.

The On Being Project

Ted Chiang on Free Will, Time Travel, Many Worlds, Genetic Engineering, and Hard Science Fiction

Steve Hsu: I’ve always had trouble understanding what people mean when they say compatibilism. I think you’re saying that compatibilism is not the same thing as observing that we have merely the illusion of free will, is that it?
Corey Washington: Yes. I mean, I’m not an expert in this type of metaphysics, but as far as I know, people really want to say that there can be a robust concept of free will that’s fully consistent with a deterministic universe. Again, I’m very far removed from this literature, but as far as I understand, that’s what robust philosophical compatibilism holds. It’s not just an illusion of free will, it’s not just an epiphenomenon, it’s actually something that’s somehow consistent with a fully deterministic universe. Ted, where in the perspective of compatibilism does your position lie?
Ted Chiang: I am a compatibilist. My stance is largely based on Daniel Dennett’s arguments in favor of compatibilism, so the way I would phrase it is, what is it that you want from free will that you are not getting? If you try and nail down what it is that people want from free will when they use that phrase, what do they want from that? And what is it that they are not getting? It seems to me that, naively, people want the future to be completely unknown, in that there is no future. So there’s a future where they choose option A, and there’s a future where they choose option B, and they are both potentialities, and only when they make the decision does one actually obtain, and the other one ceases to be a possibility. The way I think about it is that, they’re imagining that there are these two scenarios. In the scenario where they choose option A, and the scenario where they choose option B, the entire history of the universe, the position and velocity of every atom was exactly the same up until the moment that they made their decision. And in one case they chose option A, and in the other case they chose option B. And if that’s what they want from free will, I don’t think that’s something that is meaningful. That’s not something that they actually want, because that scenario means that their choice of option A or option B depended on absolutely nothing that happened in the entire history of the universe prior to that point. It cannot have depended on it, because they’re exactly the same in both cases. That means choosing option A and option B was essentially kind of a quantum coin flip, and I don’t think that’s what people actually want. That’s no kind of decision at all.
Washington: My deep suspicion is that people who really want free will are kind of dualists. They think there’s a parallel level to the universe which is not physically determined, and their choice comes from this other layer of consciousness mind that can intervene in the physical world and drop down, and that’s what causes the universe to go towards option A or option B. It’s that causation of mind or consciousness that constitutes free will, and is not part of the previous physical structure of the universe.
Chiang: Yes, they are looking for a kind of dualism, even if they might not express it that way. They are looking for a kind of immaterial soul, although again, I think most of them would rather not phrase it that way. Then there’s the question of how does this immaterial soul work? And I don’t mean in a detailed physical sense, because it’s obviously non-physical, but when we think about what we want from free will, I think to some extent we want to deserve credit for the good decisions we make, and deserve the blame for the bad decisions we make. And some of that will arise out of our process of deliberation. The factors that go into our process of deliberation are everything that we have experienced in our life. Those are all physical things. Everything that happened to you in your life, those were all physical things. So the process of deliberation, by which you are, roughly speaking, taking all the experiences of your life as inputs, and then one of the outputs is your decision between option A and option B, that is something which I believe is entirely compatible with a materialist, physicalist universe. And I think a materialist, physicalist universe provides you with what you want, because your decision is the result of your life experience being processed through your cognition. That is what you want from free will, and I think that is what compatibilism, what a materialistic universe, actually gives you.

Manifold #19, September 2019

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

The Blitz, as bad as it was, paled in comparison to what the Allies did. Dresden lost more people in one night than London did during the entire war. Firestorms engulfed whole neighborhoods and used up so much oxygen that people who were untouched by the blasts reportedly died of asphyxiation instead. Fully a third of the German population was subjected to bombardment, and around one million people were killed or wounded. American analysts based in England monitored the effects of the bombing to see if any cracks began to appear in the German resolve, and to their surprise found exactly the opposite: the more the Allies bombed, the more defiant the German population became. Industrial production actually rose in Germany during the war. And the cities with the highest morale were the ones—like Dresden—that were bombed the hardest. According to German psychologists who compared notes with their American counterparts after the war, it was the untouched cities where civilian morale suffered the most. Thirty years later, H.A. Lyons would document an almost identical phenomenon in riot-torn Belfast.
The United States Strategic Bombing Survey posted observers in England to evaluate the effectiveness of their strategy, and one of them, Charles Fritz, became an open critic of the rationale behind the bombing campaign. Intrigued by the fact that in both England and Germany, civilian resilience had risen in response to the air raids, Fritz went on to complete a more general study of how communities respond to calamity. After the war he turned his attention to natural disasters in the United States and formulated a broad theory about social resilience. He was unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy. If anything, he found that social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves.
In 1961, Fritz assembled his ideas into a lengthy paper that began with the startling sentence, “Why do large-scale disasters produce such mentally healthy conditions?” His data was compiled by a team of twenty-five researchers who worked for the National Opinion Research Center, based at the University of Chicago. Their job was to rush to disaster sites and interview the inhabitants about how they were adapting to their new circumstances; by 1959, NORC researchers had compiled roughly 9,000 survivor interviews. Fritz also scoured academic publications for anything related to natural or man-made disasters. His study was conducted during the height of the Cold War, when the Russian nuclear threat was foremost in the minds of civil defense planners. Never mentioned in the report—though impossible to ignore—is the possibility that the study was intended to assess whether the United States could continue to function after a nuclear exchange with Russia.
Fritz's theory was that modern society has gravely disrupted the social bonds that have always characterized the human experience, and that disasters thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating. Disasters, he proposed, create a “community of sufferers” that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others. As people come together to face an existential threat, Fritz found, class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia that, Fritz felt, is enormously gratifying to the average person and downright therapeutic to people suffering from mental illness.

Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging