Comments on “Not a good decade for thinking”

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Communications

Perhaps the issue is not that this decade makes post-systemic thinking difficult for scary smart people, but that communication is based in systems. The watercrafts we must build are not thinking-based, but communications-based. Currently, the scary smart are forced to use systemic communications methods to share post-systemic ideas.

Or maybe there are only a few (systemic) ideas that occur again and again, post-systems thinking isn’t possible for humans, and we’ve reached a cognitive/moral wall.

Where would Feynman be?

Rin'dzin's picture

I don’t know. I was wandering around a perfectly planned urban plaza recently. There wasn’t an inch that hadn’t been thought about. Beautiful trees, nicely paved circular meeting point, places in the shade for (rich, middle class, mostly Western) locals to hang out. It was very nice indeed. Very safe. There were toddlers running around having a good time. And it was boring in a way that’s difficult to describe. This seems like a metaphor for the place we’ve reached culturally and intellectually, wrt systems.

City planners try to kick-start exciting tech hubs, and there are reasons they don’t work - but one of the main ones that also applies here, is a lack of the kind of space for randomness which nurtures and keeps interesting ideas. I think that’s why Twitter is the place for super smart people to hang out now. It at least simulates the openness and space that exists in a non-planned, intellectually exciting physical location.

On re-reading this page after a few years since David conceived it, I found myself asking, “okay, so if Feynman was alive today, would he be hanging out on Twitter rolling his eyes at those people trying to build systems?” And it was hard to imagine him doing that. He had a brilliant sense of humour, but it was a humour fitting for a different time. He was very kind. Today you can be kind and ironic. They didn’t go together so well a few decades ago. It’s difficult to even mentally transport him to the present and find a place for him. He also wouldn’t fit into university culture…he’d be stifled by it. It’s an interesting question: would he even be able to make the kind of leaps he did then, now? I don’t know, but I think maybe not, YMMV. Maybe he’d end up hanging out in Tuva playing bongos with some cool people. And that’s a problem.

Meaningful places to be

Oleg. S's picture

A couple of notes

  1. Back then, in 2014, how could you have missed Bitcoin? After all the hype in December 2013, when it reached unbelievable $1100 / BTC, it was all over the internet. And then, in mid-2014 all those ideas about what else could be done with blockchain started to blossom. Wasn’t that the first time since a long ago when a smart person could really change how the system operates? And to change it not in the old 20th century way, but in a rather new and scary 21th century way?
  2. Apart from the AI research field, the obvious cool place to be right now is Breakthrough Starshot. Space exploration is a major source of meaning for a lot of people. Understanding that first insterstellar travel to Proxima b is just within the reach of current generation is a really powerful idea.

Physics rant

Hm, I have two conflicting initial responses. I’ll see what happens when I think about it more.

One is some sort of ridiculous urge to defend the honour of the millennial generation by arguing that we can think real good, thank you very much.

The other is, well…

My personal major obsession is theoretical physics, which has been largely broken since the 80s, so this is a topic I care about strongly. What happened??

What became of that glorious 20th century run of progress, from the early days of relativity and the quantum theory to the fleshing out of the Standard Model, when physicists were the most justifiably arrogant people in academia? (“Well, I made the wave, didn’t I?”) Now we’re just arrogant, but the corresponding stream of ideas shut off, particle physics got boring, and instead we’re piling up fascinating but confusing experimental results and bits of theory in cosmology and astro and condensed matter and quantum foundations. And at the same time a lot of the prestige in theory has flowed to increasingly baroque and hard-to-test constructions, which just seem to get quietly shoved up the energy scale every time the LHC fails to detect anything.

Anyway that is a long rant I should probably have elsewhere. And I don’t think it quite ties in with your thesis here. Certainly physics does have an atomised look to it at the moment, but at this low level I think that a good old-fashioned return to systems is still mostly what we need. There’s still plenty of confusion at the foundations, which were built on very fast in the mid twentieth century in a pragmatic bid to Get Stuff Done, and a lot of mess that needs sorting out. I’m not sure though, so if anyone has any thoughts I’d be interested to hear them.

Augustan Twitter

One more tangential thought if that’s OK. I don’t really know much about Twitter so this must be a well-worn idea, but I’m struggling to work out what to google to check this. References appreciated!

Twitter to me has this sort of Augustan Age feel, the same emphasis on arch satire and concise wit and surface cleverness. I think Pope and Dryden would have happily decamped from their coffee-houses to trade zingers there and ‘demolish’ the political arguments of the day.

It’s an impressive spectacle, but, christ, imagine if the entire history of English literature looked like that! Most of it goes about three inches deep and there are vast depths of emotion completely undisturbed below it.

So, yeah, if brilliant people are confining their brilliance to this format then it does feel like something to worry about.

Insight Porn

Well Dave, I’m right here at the Insight Porn Wholesale Warehouse, and we’re rolling in it, so come on down!

Bitcoin, Millennials, physics, Pope

Oleg — Yes, once I did understand why Bitcoin is interesting, I felt really stupid for having missed the point for so long.

drossbucket

defend the honour of the millennial generation by arguing that we can think real good, thank you very much.

Yes… I said somewhere that although most people in each generation find a particular “mode” most natural, there are exceptions; and also that everyone can, and does, operate in each mode to some extent.

Certainly physics does have an atomised look to it at the moment, but at this low level I think that a good old-fashioned return to systems is still mostly what we need. There’s still plenty of confusion at the foundations, which were built on very fast in the mid twentieth century in a pragmatic bid to Get Stuff Done, and a lot of mess that needs sorting out. I’m not sure though, so if anyone has any thoughts I’d be interested to hear them.

I have a draft page about exactly this… but it’s probably embarrassing and I’ll never publish it. I don’t know nearly enough physics to be qualified to speculate.

However: what happens if one takes seriously the possibility that there isn’t a unified theory of quantum gravity?

Just askin’.

Also: isn’t it really really weird that Newtonian mechanics, which is so simple, is almost right but not quite? And that successively more complex theories are each also almost but not quite right?

This seems to me the best evidence for the Simulation Argument. The Simulators threw that in just to torture physicists for fun.

(This is a joke. But the mystery seems real.)

Your Augustan Age analogy seems apt.

Some good thinking I've found.

Ben's picture

I don’t know how much you are aware of, but I’ve found some seriously good thinking going on in the Ethereum/Zcash parts of the Bitcoin space.

Cutting edge cryptography and economics research gets applied immediately and released. Everything from zero-knowledge proofs, economic monetary policy, game theory (the real kind), Byzantine fault tolerance, even specialized hardware for security.

I’ll leave some links here in case you’re interested (I had some more but the spam filter didn’t like it, you can email me if you want more, or a few google searches should be fine). A word of warning though, a lot of the Bitcoin community has gotten really toxic. There is good thinking in some places, but some pretty bad stuff not too far way.

https://blog.ethereum.org/2016/12/05/zksnarks-in-a-nutshell/
https://github.com/ethereum/wiki/wiki/Sharding-FAQ

Have you seen the latest

Romeo Stevens's picture

Have you seen the latest posts up on the Archdruid? They seem to be on a roll starting here: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2017/02/the-world-as-representati… and continuing for two more posts so far.

WRT How to think real good (and your plan to update it), it occurred to me that the reason problem representation is such a fruitful area is that problem representations have many more degrees of freedom that they can be rotated through. In comparison, our bag of tools for generating candidate solutions is actually surprisingly small and domain constrained when you really examine them directly.

My take on the underlying thesis of why things got worse: we went from a garden you could play in to a factory floor. The latter doesn’t produce breakthroughs. Nowadays we have a few rare standouts who, to me, seem to be analytically gifted people who accidentally stumble in to good creativity techniques (a la open mode, edward de bono etc). We seem to have forgotten that creativity is a skill that can be cultivated by the creation of a certain environment. So, (related to Feynman comment above) high creativity and high technical skill are both rare, and even more rare in combination. But that becomes ten times worse if you optimize away from the conditions under which people can plausibly gain both.

The factory floor

Thanks! I had somehow read the middle of the three Archdruid posts (the Schopenhauer one) but not seen the other two. I’ll be interested to see where he goes with this.

I think he’s right that the confusions he’s tracing are prevalent and harmful among the public (i.e. non-philosophers), and that it’s important to correct them. And he’s also right that one has to take a historical approach to understand them—although few will have the patience to follow that, so for a broad audience, an ahistorical presentation may be better.

The problems that he’s pointing at were solved a century ago, I think (mainly by Heidegger); but those solutions were never presented clearly, and so remain effectively unavailable. Those solutions are background to everything I write, and supposedly I’ll eventually go back and explain them, but so far I haven’t gotten there.

problem representations have many more degrees of freedom that they can be rotated through. In comparison, our bag of tools for generating candidate solutions is actually surprisingly small

That seems like a good way of looking at it!

Re the factory floor: yes, definitely a good way of putting it. The direction of development of universities over the past few decades has been a disaster, I think.

systems and Systems

Haha, I think everyone should have an embarrassing page of half-baked physics speculation! I certainly have many…

However: what happens if one takes seriously the possibility that there isn’t a unified theory of quantum gravity?

Someone must have gone down that line of thinking, right? But I can’t think of anything much right now. It’s not a particularly appealing route to me, my own crackpot speculations go in a different direction, but it doesn’t sound noticeably worse that all the other rubbish people are trying :)

Also: isn’t it really really weird that Newtonian mechanics, which is so simple, is almost right but not quite? And that successively more complex theories are each also almost but not quite right?

Yes I agree that this is weird! David Deutsch somewhere has a nice quote about physics being ‘conveniently layered for easy access’ or something like that, but google is failing me. I’ve never come across a good attempt at explaining this, though I can’t say I’ve looked particularly hard.

I’ve thought about the post a bit more now and I have to say I don’t really buy the ‘thinking got bad because we’re in a post-systems era’ argument, or at least I’m more confused about what you mean by ‘systems’ than I thought I was. I thought ‘systems’ in your ‘post-systems’ sense meant Systems, giant eternal ordering principles that you attempt to fit your entire worldview inside? I don’t really view Bitcoin or molecular biology or even quantum gravity as that kind of big-S System, more like the ‘patterned’ bits in your ‘nebulous but patterned’ phrase? Nobody’s trying to build their entire worldview around them, and everyone still expects systematic reasoning to work OK on that scale?

Or have I missed the point somewhere?

What is called 'thinking'

Thank you—you are pointing at a valuable clarification.

have to say I don’t really buy the ‘thinking got bad because we’re in a post-systems era’ argument, or at least I’m more confused about what you mean by ‘systems’ than I thought I was.

You understood right. My failure was, instead, in not clarifying what I meant by ‘thinking’—even to myself.

On the whole, STEM has managed to avoid the collapse of systematicity, and so Bitcoin and quantum gravity are largely unaffected. If scientific progress seems to have slowed (I’m not sure it has), the reasons are probably somewhat different. Although… the general decay of universities probably contributes, and that does have roots in anti-systematic forces (as well as economic ones).

Where I was muddled was in not distinguishing technical thought from meta-systematic thought, which is more what I had in mind. This is a pretty major confusion. In my defense, I was drunk.

Thanks

Thanks, that makes things clearer for me!

Although… the general decay of universities probably contributes, and that does have roots in anti-systematic forces

Yes, I’m much more likely to buy a more indirect sociological explanation like this.

California is the place to

Armot's picture

California is the place to look at for what a 21 century culture will look like.

Californian culture has a problem for STEM guys: it loves magic. Just think about it: Hollywood and the fantasy world of films, user-friendly software for people who know nothing about the machine they’re using, the opacity of Bitcoin, the many Evangelical churches… the dark enlightenment thing, which is 100% California, 100% internet, 100% fluid.

So, all of that seems just like the opposite of what we want: insight into how the world works. Because they would love to be the priestly caste for the 21 century.

On the other hand, internet blessed us with access to human knowledge like never before. I still remember when first read Wikipedia (about taquions) and realiced that I will never read a paper encyclopedia again.

So it seems that California opened the systemic world and all its glory to anyone to discover and dive into. For example, who besides the Silicon Valley elite would want everyone to freak out about fractional-reserve banking?

I think a crucial fight of this century will be openness and transparency. So we can get the necessary insight into what is really happening now.

Systematicity

Sasha's picture

It seems to me that systematicity can and must persist, as we cannot function or understand or act without it.

At best we can approach systems with a bit of humility, as our best available world views of interconnected meanings, but always amenable to improvement, correction, or, if necessary, more radical revision or revolution.
But I don’t see how we can do without systems altogether, even at the individual level of cognition and values.

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