Fiction Predicts Reality

There has been a piece circulating around about the effects of big data on the 2016 election. (You can check it out here.) It tells the tale of the work of Michal Kosinski and the extensions of Psychometrics into the realm of behavior on social media. Kosinski found that, by monitoring people’s “likes” on Facebook, he could accurately predict their psychological profiles. Along came a man named Aleksandr Kogan, who appeared to swipe Kosinski’s ideas and formed a company called “Cambridge Analytica” which used Kosinski’s core ideas to gather data on people and predict their response to given marketing tactics. Donald Trump hired Cambridge Analytica, and by careful tweaking of news items and video clips, was able to hyper-target to specific segments of the population that could be swayed given their Facebook likes derived psychological profiles.

I recall when I first heard about Cambridge Analytica last year that the thought occurred to me, “Oh, someone finally invented “psychohistory.” Psychohistory was a concept invented and described by the author Isaac Asimov in his science fiction series the “Foundation Trilogy.” Psychohistory was a system of mathematical sociology that could predict the actions of a society on a large scale. It’s a little bit different than what Kosinski came up with in that Kosinski’s work does not predict the future, but rather predicts what triggers need to be pulled to get a population to do a certain thing in the future.

This all sounds pretty terrifying on the surface, but I don’t think there is any way to get this cat back in the bag. Big data is not going away. We are not going to stop expressing our psychology via activity on social media. People are not going to stop using that data to their own ends.

However, what we have in the example of getting the least qualified person ever to become President of the United States is only the first instance of this new technology being used in a big way. What I wonder is what might be done if someone else took this tool in hand. What if Bill Gates, billionaire and noted champion of environmental reform got his hand on this tool? He could market, in a targeted way, to those people on the fence about environmental concerns who were most likely to be swayed, and present them with the data and arguments most likely to sway them. The possibilities are endless.

We may have, once again, opened Pandora’s Box, but it need not be all bad this go around.

photo credit

Of World’s Ending and Things


One of my good friends has been on a strong campaign recently to raise awareness of the apparent ecological disaster looming ahead in our near future. I had some thoughts about this, and they ended up going on for a bit, so I’ve decided to make a post about it.

The basic thrust is that we humans have, through runaway use of fossil fuels (and other abuses of the environment) touched off a number of “positive feedback” loops that will inevitably lead to the extinction of the human race. (Note, the use of the term “positive” here is in the cold scientific way, meaning that these processes are additive and self-perpetuating, and not positive as in good for us… ) One such loop has to do directly with the rising of the ocean’s temperatures. As the temperatures have risen, especially in the northern hemisphere, we have been loosing the ice in the Arctic circle. This loss of ice means that the natural reflection of some of the sun’s rays back into space off the white surface of the snow and ice has been decreasing as the amount of snow and ice decreases. The darker color of the exposed sea then pulls in more heat from the sunlight and the cycle builds on itself.

Another such positive feedback loop has to do with the release of sequestered methane into the atmosphere as the permafrost of the Arctic circle thaws. This is releasing millions of tons of methane gas into the atmosphere, which traps more heat from the sun, which in turn thaws more permafrost.

Those are just two examples of the growing number of such self-feeding cycles that scientists are tracking and trying to warn people about.

Firstly, let me say that I think that anyone who does not see global warming and climate change as a real threat, and cause for concern, is being exceptionally foolish.

Secondly, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t see humanity, and it’s actions, as the primary contributors to this situation is being even more exceptionally foolish.

However, I do take exception to a certain trait that the dire warnings about the coming extinction event seem to share. They all say that it looks like it’s too late, and that it seems like a near mathematical certainty that within a few decades the Earth will not be suitable for human life, and very likely any life at all. What they seem to miss though is a phrase I mentally attach to any such statement. That phrase is, “… at current technological development.”

The pace of technological development, which also means scientific development, on this planet is ever accelerating. The difference between how life is now, and how it was three decades ago is staggering. Further, the way these technologies are relating to each other is ever more deeply and completely. The number of people using internet as I write this is approximately 1.5 billion. Within three years it is estimated to hit 5 billion. I would guess that a few years after that it will be the case that everyone on the planet who wants access to the information on internet will have it.

Increased information means increased innovation. One only needs to peruse the various crowdfunding sites to see what happens when inventive people with good ideas are able to get the word out. Inventions get realized. Change happens. And, it’s going faster and faster every day.

Personally I don’t see this as an excuse to continue the way we have been going. I think the threat to our environment is very real indeed. However, I simply can’t conceive of what life will be like in twenty years, when I think of what it was like twenty years ago. Based on the acceleration factor, I imagine that the world twenty years from now will look as different to us, as our current life would look to someone from a hundred years ago.

One way or the other, I see us coming to a singularity of existence, of some sort. I have no idea which way it will go. I do know that I can have no idea. The definition of “singularity” is a horizon past which you cannot see. The concrescence of technologies, ever accelerating, leads to a place coming very soon that none of us can see past. We have no way of knowing what is on the other side of such a demarcation.

Personally I am grateful for the people who are steadfastly raising the red flag of doom, and raising consciousness about the perils we are facing. What I can’t do though is go along with any declaration of how things will be. Our world is just changing too fast, and I for one will not be surprised if the human will to survive wins out, even if we face the tragedy of a dead planet.

One of my personal favorite thinkers is Terence McKenna. One of the things he said in his talks was something that the beings he contacts through psilocybin once said to him. They said, “this is what it looks like when a species gets ready to leave for the stars.” In his talks he uses the example of child birth. When you are aware of what childbirth is, you can view it from a bit of a detached view and find it something beautiful, a miracle of life unfolding just as it rightly should. However, if you had no idea what birth looked like you might have a very different reaction. If you rounded a corner into an alley and came upon the scene of a woman giving birth you would be justifiably horrified. There are screams (often), blood, tears, heaving, sweat, and a woman being squeezed open from the inside by something trying to force it’s way out. If you didn’t know any better you would be perfectly justified in freaking the fuck out.

It might very well be that the situation on our planet is something like that. With all the terror, and environmental breakage looming, and all the violence, and religious strife. Perhaps we are at a breaking point something like birth.

Of course, not all births are successful. Not all new born children make it. That’s simply a sad fact of the process of life. Still, a lot do make it. Especially as technology advances. That gives me hope.

Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged


Rant begins.

We humans do this funny thing. We judge people of past eras based on the knowledge, wisdom, and criteria of the current era we occupy.

Take the Bible for example. It says the earth and the heavens were made in 6 days. The methodology described is fantastical, and pure magic. Modern Christian apologists spend there time trying to smash together modern science’s findings about the big bang with the book of Genesis in an insane attempt to come up with something reasonable. They do this to stave off the laughter, and finger pointing, of modern educated people.

Does that make any sense at all?

I really don’t think so.

A bunch of shepherds and nomads looked to the night sky and tried to make sense of it all. They looked outside to the vast heavens and the horizon, and inwards toward their intuition and contemplation. They came up with something that worked for them, then. Trying to dove tail quantum mechanics and astrophysics, let alone a good old telescope and some geometry onto that is like forcing an adult to justify their fantasies of childhood with economic theory and political landscaping. It just makes no sense.

The human story is ongoing, unfolding, evolving. Trying to bring every old idea up to today’s scrutiny is a fool’s errand. Instead, why don’t we simply honor the roots of our history. Show some gratitude for the dim light in the dark night they provided so long ago, and be grateful the species survived to the point where we could make fun of it? Or, maybe even honor it for what it is.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with how people want to spend their time, I mean it is their time, but really. Seriously? Come on people! Let the past be what it is! Stand on it and move forward! Honor it! Stop dragging it with you wherever you go! The species as a whole, I dare to think, will lurch forward at a better pace.

Rant ends.