Overwhelm, curators, and the collaborative mind

Did you know that Instagram has links in story; WhatsApp added disappearing messages; Telegram has new weird scrambling messages; scientists successfully transplanted a pig’s heart into a human being; Kattar beat Giga 50-45 UD; Ireland beat West Indies 2-1 in a three match ODI series; Manchester United blew a 2-0 lead vs Aston Villa; Real Madrid won the Supercopa de Espana and all this happened last week. Notice that I did not mention anything about politics, technology, or the major pandemic which has caused some serious PR trouble for Djokovic and the government of Australia. These things are trivial at best but enough to overwhelm the mind.

The age of information is thus turning into the age of overwhelm. Gone are the days of the well-informed citizen who used to be on top of matters and formed informed opinions instead of some dogmatic cant recited by the disseminators of information. Due to the sheer amount of information, discounting its increasing complexity, it is impossible to process all of it. Everyone is already overwhelmed by either things to keep tabs on or people to contact and the small window of time afforded to a citizen to be well-informed is just big enough to fit a smorgasbord of headlines.

As a result, getting news from social media is becoming the new normal. This opens up a whole new set of possibilities for trolls –- who are strictly defined as people who try to mislead masses using clever misinformation for a hoot and not the hate-mongering ideologues the term is now used to refer to because of lazy journalism –- and ideologues. Trolls create chaos and mischief. Ideologues promise to make the world seem oh so simple and understandable and not overwhelming at all.

Powerful, as measured by social reach, ideologues then spawn a whole subspecies of ideologies because the matter at hand was never so simple as to be reduced to a single line of thought in the first place. This is a contributing factor in the curious phenomenon of the internet being a breeding ground for niche subcultures. The formation of subcultures leads to more alienation, more dogmatism, and further fragmentation of thought into simple rationalisations.

Fragmentation of ideologies often has disastrous consequences. Some branches of ideologies take a moderate idea to its logical extreme, which is a phenomenon observed in religions around the world. And ideologues can have a religious fervour to them, their actions, and the certainty in their speech is mesmerizing for people struggling to make any sense of the world. These are the larger questions, at least a subset of the larger questions, with implications on the larger society and not the individual, but individuals do not exist in a vacuum and are affected by what exists around them.

The amount of information present calls for curators: Google curates millions of websites according to your specific query, YouTube’s feed, Instagram’s explore page, and so on and so forth. They were always there: newspaper editors, radio/TV news correspondents, book publishers, etc. But the internet promised decentralization and freedom of information which, when you really look into it, is just an illusion. Even community websites like Wikipedia have curators, moderators, editors, basically, people who have authority over the information you can see. So curators may exist as long as information does, they can be human or AI-based algorithms, but they’re there and their presence is morally, mostly, neither good nor bad as an idea. What matters is how ethical the individual curators are.

All this means is that we are, at any point in time, part of a large community of curators whom we trust. Our mental makeup is then a collaborative effort which means we are essentially the CEOs of a hypothetical company that produces the product that is our mental model used to produce opinions and judgements. It is then crucial to not fool ourselves about our sources of information and to choose wildly.

The Book of (mostly good) Questions

The Book of Questions is an interesting read. It presents itself as a compendium of questions to contemplate (mentioned in the introduction) sugar-coated as a book of conversation starters. Any conversations started using the questions listed in the book, however, won’t make for pleasant conversation. This is a good thing. The book is essentially a set of prompts. These prompts appear innocuous but are crafted to stimulate the mind and do so with great results.

As a sampler from the book, here’s a question, a supposed conversation starter which is a trojan-horse for greater questions one would generally like to avoid:

Would you rather lose the use of all motorized vehicles all telecom devices and computers or one of your hands?

This question can be answered in two contexts: (i) I lose all my privileges but no one else does, or (ii) Everyone loses all their privileges. Since the question revolves around personal agency, I would say the former would be closer to the original intent of the author asking the question.

In order to answer this question we need to see what roles motorized vehicles, telecom devices, computers, and hands play in our day-to-day lives, then we have to assess the pros and cons of losing them in different contexts. The loss of a hand will have more lasting consequences both emotionally and physically. Losing ease-of-access privileges might directly relate to life expectancy.

Then there is the question of friendship and its role in such a case, because if you lose the privileges but no one else does, it should be possible to cooperate, which is also possible with the loss of a hand. This is complicated by our essentially social minds that will revolt against being left out which can transform into a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to less likelihood of finding people who would cooperate. And this brings us to the fact that human lives are interdependent and at any point in time there are thousands of variables affecting all areas of our lives. It is easy to knock a human life off kilter with so many interdependent variables involved which then depend on how they stand with regard to the larger social group.

The larger context of individuals behaving as a lesser degree of cyborg is important. We are dependent on technology and we co-operate and co-ordinate with it to solve problems. Even though devices are not directly implanted to our physical bodies, we are already behaving like technologically enhanced humans. Our interactions with technology are natural: unlocking a smartphone requires a negligible amount of conscious thought and losing a phone feels like losing a limb. The era of the cyborg is already upon us.

All of which means that losing access to technology and losing access to a hand are two concepts that are not as dissimilar as they superficially appear to be. This further complicates things for us the chooser as we’re pitted in a debate about man vs nature. Is it better to lose the acquired limbs of entrenched technology or if losing a limb would be, in some ways, better? It is not an easy question.

So the superficially easy, and somewhat politically incorrect, question which seems innocuous touches so many aspects of human life that you can’t tackle it without going into the most fundamental of all debates: nature versus civilisation.

The author’s introduction says that the questions are not to be answered trivially with a simple yes or no response and that is a good rule-of-thumb for this book. It is unsettling to work through the questions one by one. And this itself raises a good question: how do we know what we know is true? The definition of truth is often the domain of religion and philosophy which again leaves you with a question: are all truths fundamentally religious?

Asking these questions, or those of its ilk, means that the book meets spec. It does what it says i.e. hones one’s ability to question everything.

New things for the new year.

Some things bouncing around in my head.

Get sunlight in the morning, even on the cloudy wintry days. Getting sunlight exposure in the morning starts the circadian rhythm. Most problems with sleep originate from how we start our day. Minimum two minutes, thirty is optimal, five is most likely. Can reduce anxiety. A little walk is even better.

Use blink rate as a lever to control attention. Attention depends on how we blink. A faster blink rate equals less attention and vice versa. So it might be helpful to use it as a lever to control attention.

Try influencing psychology using physiology. A problem of the mind cannot be solved by the mind. Use physiology. Take a walk. Use your peripheral vision to have a relaxed gaze in times of rest. Counter the hunched posture with some exercise/stretches. It can help a lot.

Take any style guide and learn how to write. Writing is a fundamental skill. The remote world requires a lot of emailing.

Try programming in rust. It’s a fun language. Stretch yourself. Learning new languages is always good fun.