Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Decrypting My Own Central Theme: Increasing "Aggregate Intelligence."

Been remiss in posting. Swamped with work, taking my holocene project to its next level. Now that the patent is being granted. Still, I can at least put up some informally interesting items.

One of you pointed me to Jamais Cascio’s attempt to offer a two dimensional axis-landscape representing belief sets about the future. As ever, when this quintessential New Modernist speaks, it is well worth your time spent listening! See this spectrum metaphor at: Open the Future.

(In response to an earlier draft of this posting - and other commentary - Jamais has posted a revised version  I will nevertheless continue to post my comments because I just learned of his revision, of-late. Readers are free to view this as a dynamic exchange.)

There is much to agree with in Cascio’s metaphor -- especially his caution, almost a core tenet of the New Modernism -- that the map is not the territory. Metaphors are tools, not crutches or constraints. The sooner we admit that simplistic models can’t encompass human complexity, the sooner that complexity will become (somewhat) tractable.

Good stuff! Still, in the spirit of CITOKATE, I find it far more interesting to (respectfully!) carp and poke. So let me point out a few aspects of the chart and explanation that Jamais presented.

First off, he is quite right that there is more than a little frenetic and quasi-religious millennialism to be found in the “Idealist-Optimist” camp of Ray Kurzweil and the extropian-singularitans. See my paper about the yin/yang of a coming “technological singularity,” where I take this tradition all the way back to Teilhard de Chardin. It is a vein of “techno-transcendentalism” that seems (as Jamais says) to be at least as much a function of personality as evidence. See Singularities and Nightmares: Extremes of Optimism and Pessimism About the Human Future.

singularityStill, if you trace the persistence and age of this tradition , you quickly see how it blends with and emerges from other strains of millennialism. Personality traits do not seem to map on Cascio’s axes the way he suggests. Indeed, the people he put in the lower-right corner -- e.g. classic Marxists and rapture-revelation fundamentalists -- would hardly agree to call themselves “pessimists”! They perceive a happy ending in the offing, with all of their incantations are proved right as the curtain is rung down at the completion of history.

True, by Cascio’s defined standards, the fundies are “pessimistic,” in that WE (those of us reading this) would all be losers, consigned to perpetual torture for the fault of having believed (with all good intent) in a Creator who spectacularly made trillions of worlds, rather than a cramped and boring little one. Yes, their definition of “success” is highly discriminatory, bigoted and exclusive. We New Modernists are especially slated to gush blood from our eyeballs, when The Day arrives. Yum. Still, it is a goal, and you gotta hand them that. They are cheerfully optimistic and working hard to achieve it. God bless em.

This raises the first very important point, when it comes to efforts like this one, to create new “axis” metaphors, by which to make sense of a political or personality landscape.

1. A spectrum should not be pejorative. Ideally, you should choose axes that everybody can agree upon, because the values represented by those axes really do reflect how each person and/or group sees themselves. No one should much mind or disagree with where they fall on the chart.

Let me admit that I’ve thought a lot about this. I, too, have tried my hand at this kind of arrogant modelling. Enraged by the continuing use of that French Monstrosity... the hoary-horrific and nearly meaningless so-called “left right political axis,” that nobody can ever define, yet constrains and hampers 21st Century minds... I tried to present an alternative or two.

Of course others have done likewise. But if you look closely at those presented by the Libertarian Party, by Jerry Pournelle, and so on you will see that they all suffer from yet more demeaning faults.

2. Tendentiousness. The axes seem designed to coax people into choosing a predetermined quadrant. They are polemical, aimed at recruitment, or drawing a foregone conclusion.

3. Axes aren’t orthogonal. You learn this in physics. It’s best when the two or three “axis traits” don’t have anything in common. This allows a far better separation of variables and a better picture to form. Example, both Pournelle and the LP use “statism” and “coercion” which certainly shadow each other, as does a belief in proactive human and social perfectibility.

4. The axes should pragmatically separate groups that clearly do not like each other and have different goals. Likewise, they should illustrate nearness when groups share goals and the means to achieve them. And above all, nearness and farness ought to matter.

addictionGetting back to Cascio’s personality spectrum, one can immediately see a problem in that all of his examples are people who CARE about the future! They all believe that better days may lie ahead. There are huge differences between those who believe that apotheosis will arrive through hard work and hard negotiation vs those who expect it to be hand-delivered... and I applaud Jamais for pointing this out. But even this trait is not cleanly distributed across his chart.

Take Julian Simon & Bjorn Lomborg and other champions of FIBM (Faith In Blind Markets) - the cult that opposes the equally fanatical cult of fatalistic environmental doomsayers like Paul Ehrlich. The FIBMers clearly belong in the lower left of Cascio’s chart and the doomies in the lower right. (Indeed, the latter are far better examples of “pessimists” than the ones Jamais offered.)

And yet, would you call Paul Ehrlich an ally of fundamentalists, or Simon an extropian? YES, Jamais is talking about Personality As It Reflects Upon The Future. A narrow conceptual range. Yet we are behooved to pick at limits to this metaphor.

Finally, about the word “modernism.” Clearly I am a complete (welded at the hip) fellow-traveller with Jamais at the top of his spectrum, a “realist” who yearns to be optimistic, but who knows how much work it will take. And yet, are the extropians not modernist too? In their own way? Their cloud-cuckoo idealism may seem dreamy and silly to us. But we love to be invited to their meetings and play the role of grouchy elder brother. If they claim the title of New Modernists, I will be the last to eject them.

We need all the help we can get.


Chris Phoenix eloquently weighs in: ”Jamais asks at the end of his post, "What does this matrix miss?" The matrix can't really describe me, because it assumes I have a dichotomous view of the future--that I see the future as either good or bad, either transcendent or mundane.

“Now, I do recognize the possibility that things will go so sour that we wipe ourselves out, and I also recognize the possibility that we'll all live happily ever after, for ever and ever amen. But my view of the future goes beyond ignorance about which of two choices we'll end up in. I see the possibility of a weird superposition of states. We could all be happy slaves. Or we could be struggling individualists who have transcended today's problems but face bigger ones. Or we could split into a race of terrestrial couch potatoes and adventurous starfarers (one of Brunner's books has this theme). Or...

“Ask yourself this koan: Are we happier than our caveman ancestors? It is not only ignorance of the past that prevents us from answering.”


Stepping back, it seems that my version of the New Modernism is way up at the realist-pragmatist end of Cascio's spectrum and I am proud of it. Reciprocal Accountability and Citokate and all that...

. . . .and yet, I now realize that this isn't all of what's going on. In fact, there is a corner of me that's deeply worried - even a little HOSTILE - toward notions like lifespan extension and nanomanufacturing and all of that. Because part of me fears we are still way too stupid to deal with these things in ways that will make us the exception to the Fermi Paradox.

PredictionsRegistryWhen I look across the innovations that I have personally pushing... ranging from research into indignation addiction to to predictions registries to my newly patented Holocene communications software, to all this blather about transparency, I think I now see what's in common.

I feel we have to get smarter. Maybe a LOT smarter, before we will be able to deal with AI and immortality and molecular manufacturing and nanotech and bioengineering. Effective intelligence is where we really should be investing research and development. Because if we do get smarter, or make a next generation that is, then the rest of it could be much easier.

Frankly, when I look at Aubrey de Gray and Ray Kurzweil... and when I look in a mirror... I see jumped up cavemen who want to live forever and get all pushy with the universe and quite frankly, I am not at all sure that cavemen are ready to leap into the role of gods.

Not without either becoming more godlike in the best ways... or making gods who are far more worthy of the tasks ahead.

Chris: “I have sometimes thought that rather than focusing on MM policy and implications and all that stuff, we should just put an all-out effort toward neurotech research--the stuff that Zach Lynch talks about. Neurotech could be developed before MM gets here, and it might well be sufficient to save us--if we actually use the technology once we have it.”

DB: Actually, I consider this to be vastly too important to leave to the dubious powers of biological science. I do not expect it to be easy to artificially augment human intelligence, which may be our most complex and delicate quality. Initial attempts may bring 90% madness. We ALL know very bright people who --- well --- do not handle it well. There are a myriad synergies involved, almost none of which are understood.

This is why I concentrate on the methodologies that have already enhanced human effective intelligence. Our error-detecting transparency traditions and accountability arenas. Sum-of-the-parts citizenship. Suspicion of authority memes. Citizen resiliency + professional anticipation. Philanthropy, markets...

DisputationArenasArrowCover...and have pushed for extensions of these things, so that they can be more effective: predictions registries, philanthropy ideas, neo-markets, a “fifth accountability arena of disputation,” improved online conversation interfaces, and so on. This really is held together by the common theme that human aggregate intelligence is far easier to engender, enhance and fine tune than it will be to make individual humans smarter.

This has been very interesting. I don’t think I ever put all my interests together and saw the unifying theme, before.

====    ====    ====


  Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit

  An Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry and Social Psychology

  Singularities and Nightmares: Extremes of Optimism and Pessimism about the Human Future

  Accountability for Everyday Prophets: A Call for a Predictions Registry


David Brin
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jomama said...

I contend that first we have to live a lot longer as most take a long time to become truly intelligent.

All you have to do is look at the typical kid to see what's required.

Problem: Many of them never grow up making one wonder if longevity would provide.

Anonymous said...

For yet another example of a not quite orthogonal set of political axes, see the front page of Here, I use freedom and equality as axes. This maps closely to your property/liberty axes but is not identical.

As someone who does a lot of politics in the field, I submit that my political map has a big advantage over certain others: it maps values vs. actions. This is important when doing marketing or politics.

It is very difficult to change people's values. Ayn Rand tried it. The results at time were comical. (Can you prove that Beethoven's music is better than The Dead Milkmen?)

Changing people's actions are far easier -- as long as the suggested changes are consistent with the person's underlying value system. Science can be persuasive!

As a libertarian, I place a high value on liberty. If I tried to persuade an environmentalist that liberty is more important than reducing carbon dioxide emissions, I would be in for a rough time.

So instead, I teach certain basic economic and engineering concepts (like doing an actual requirements analysis before designing) that lead to increased liberty and lower carbon dioxide emissions. (For example, replacing the SS taxes with a carbon tax.)

Anonymous said...

I agree that we have to get smarter, both as individuals and collectively (Effective intelligence). But, I think there is another way that we need to improve ourselves that is just as important, perhaps more so. We need to make improvements in those aspects of the mind other than just raw intelligence. Aspects such as emotion, attitude, flexibility, and any others that affect how we interact with the world around us, particularly other people, and that have a significant impact on how we use, or don't use, our raw intelligence.

In short we need to improve our behavior. Only behavior doesn't really encompass it all. A person can behave well outwardly, but inside may be thinking that you are an ass and not giving your position a single thought because he already "knows" that he is right and you are wrong. We need to improve our behavior for real. Once most of us learn to keep an open mind, even about the concepts we hold most dear, learn to listen to and fairly evaluate the concepts of others even if they totally refute our own beliefs, and learn not to heap scorn on those who forward concepts that we believe are wrong, then our future will be looking much brighter.

In order to learn these new skills we first have to figure out how to teach them. I don't think implants or genetic modifications are necessary to achieve this, though who knows, something along those lines might end up being useful. Some few among us already seem to have attained such skills, so it seems to me it should be possible for most people to learn them.

Anonymous said...

So we have the goal of improving intelligence. The primal question is then: what is it about intelligence we want to improve? Data retention? Scope of knowledge? Better bull* filters?

Once we've defined our objective, then we can work out the mechanics of achieving it. I suppose I'm something of an extropian in believing that the defining of a goal takes us more than halfway to achieving it--in the fabulist part of our brain it's moved into the realm of possibility.

Once achieved, though, then what? We have this increased pool of knowledge, now how do we funnel it into the obviously misguided schlubs on that opposing quadrant over there? After all, they're the ones who don't accept the same Universal Truths we do, right? But we all have to agree, or all this amped-up brainpower does is find new and more rarified ways to take our memes to war.

Darrell had an interesting observation--intelligence is meaningless unless we modify behavior. What if the behavior we need to modify is how we communicate? After all, the aforementioned schlubs will come around to Our Way of Thinking if we can just get them to see the world as we do, right?

And they feel the same way about the universe as we do. We only differ in what we believe to be the proper path.

How, then, do we improve the ways we communicate? All that increased knowledge and wisdom, must somehow be transmitted through constricting sensory bottlenecks and somehow gotten past the memetic filters we all wrap around ourselves: Believer, Modernist, Singulatarian, whatever. If information is pure, then all it takes is the ability to get past the filters...

Wouldn't it be a hoot if those ascetic romantics sitting in silent contemplation had at least part of it right? That all it takes is a shift of perception, a conscious change of our mental filters, to achieve greater understanding?

A long ramble to get to my essential thesis, then: it's not intelligence, and not really behavior that matters, but how we communicate that will instigate the greatest change. Until we can not only have the ability to walk in that other schlub's shoes, but see through his eyes, think with his brain, and view the universe through his filters, all the stored data in the universe won't matter.

David Brin said...

Kewl responses. And glad Jamais is weighing in! (Cross riffs attract attention to BOTH of our Neo-Modernist blogs!)

First those of you like Damon who seem to miss my point. The whole notion of EFFECTIVE human intelligence is that the enlightenment used new tools (markets, democracy, courts, science) to MEDIATE disagreements among human beings, so that the aggregate result is something at least remotely like "wisdom".

NOT the so-called "wisdom" of gurus and Jedi-Yoda-grouchy-muppet-elfs! But the wisdom of allowing everybody to apply reciprocal accountability on everybody else. The result is messy. But ON AVERAGE a greater number of errors are found and acted upon, while a greater number of cool ideas also get found... and acted upon.

Even now, amid the full throttle neocon assault upon the enlightenment, these things (markets, science, etc.) offer far more aggregate wisdom than we can provide individually. Or (above all) through dogmas.

Everybody go look at Cascio's response and then respond to him, copy the best summarized points here. (Cumbersome? Why do you think I'm inventing Holocene!? ;-)

David Brin said...

Here's a copy of my response to Cascio's recent posting:

Jamais, you know I support you in nearly all ways as a flaming Neo-Modernist and radical, militant moderate, like me. I approve of your ruminations about "attitudes toward the future" and only offered a few helpful comments ;-)

Please, my comments about "needing to be smarter" should in no way be misconstrued as Billjoy-Kaczinski-style rejectionism! I feel we need to charge into a tech competent future ASAP!

Nevertheless, my own central theme has been all about finding ways to do this that are least-stupid. Least unwise.

Increasing aggregate intelligence, through improved capabilities of civilization - from markets to science to dispute resolution - should be top priority, above even life extension or cool toys.

Above all, I think it is time to reconsider another long discredited term (as long as we are resurrecting "modernism"). That term is "sanity." It was formerly used as a cudgel against eccentricity, enforcing homogeneity. We modern eccentrics consider that kind of repression to be evil... Cannot a society of smart and tolerant eccentrics have its OWN definition of sanity? Worthy of a debate, some time.

Anonymous said...

After looking over Jamais' chart, I tried (and failed) to remember who it was who asked what kind of society you would design if you didn't know in advance where you would be placed into it...

I'm sure it's just a coincidence that many scientists, engineers and general big-thinkin' people are pulling for a future where their talents would put them at or near the top of the heap in terms of income and prestige...

Wouldn't a better chart focus on one possible future and then simply rank where each type of person would fit in it?

Plenty of past and current societies place religious or military castes at the top of them...those are the people the neocons are playing to these days.

Logical people aren't welcome in their future for a reason.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just that I've long been a gaming nerd, but reading some of these comments, with each person emphasizing we need to work on THIS part of things to get where we need to be reminds me of parts of some RPGs. Most especially Mage, where one of the key themes was all the competing factions, pushing their particular worldview and way to get at what's Really Real. And as the characters advanced in knowledge, they realized that pretty much all of the things that seemed like fundamental differences between them were different ways of describing the same thing. Or maybe I'm just projecting from the games I know because I know way too much about them.

But on to the subject of intelligence. A lot of human intelligence now isn't really changes in people. It's that we've found ways to put our intelligence (mostly memory, but more and more other things) outside of just our brains and into our environments. Writing as the first example, and the Internet obviously, but there's a lot of other things, too. We make all of us better drivers by making driving simpler and adding things to cars like anti-lock brakes, power steering, and so on. Which doesn't mean everyone's become better drivers, but it's freed up more of our attention for things like talking on cell phones while driving. Okay, bad example. Or cooking. Measuring devices so you don't have to rely on the practiced eye of a cook. Ovens that can be set to a certain temperature and keep it. These are all things that take stuff that was once complex and difficult knowledge and make it as easy as turning a knob.

What was the quote I remember from somewhere? "Make a novel writing machine and you make writing novels better. Improve the pencil and you make ALL writing better."

reason said...

Hi Carl,
nice to see you posting here, even if it is just advertising. I like your site - many of the ideas correspond to ideas I already had so perhaps it is self-referential but I wish you well. But your colour scheme! Eek!

How much success do you have though in ideologically oriented USA? Ever considered moving to Canada or Australia? The political system there gives small movements more chance of success (and growth) as well.

I saw you talk about biblical welfare, so maybe you will find this interesting:

I suggest you read some Jane Jacobs (recently deceased) as well - totally orthogonal to all schools of thought and quite mind expanding as well.

Anonymous said...

All this talk reminds me of the 1983 movie The Day After, where the oblivious masses sat in their sports stadium while the nuclear rockets lifted off from the fields of Kansas just outside the stadium.

reason said...
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reason said...

you mean we are rearranging deckchairs on the titanic? Well, last week we were having a bad tempered discussion of speculative cosmology. So we are surely heading in the right direction.-)

Anonymous said...

Praxceles pointed out the need for empathy. It is usually easier to communicate if we have walked a mile in another's shoes. This should be part of our education, whether we learn it in school, in a variety of nonschool activities, or through the mental exercise of science fiction -- see yourself as the alien!

So much social and political strife seems to be between those of us who can see another's viewpoint and those who lack virtually all empathy. Those who have empathy are criticized as wishy-washy, without moral standards, without patriotism, weak, and untrustworthy. Those who lack empathy are seen as cruel, clannish, against any kind of exploration, and rigid. (Naturally they have their own terms for their own traits, e.g., wishy-washy equals flexible, rigid equals solid.)

How about an empathy axis?

Anonymous said...

After looking over Jamais' chart, I tried (and failed) to remember who it was who asked what kind of society you would design if you didn't know in advance where you would be placed into it...

It was John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice.

Anonymous said...

Andrew Smith is right that MDS can be useful, but one danger is that the old Left/Right dictomy defines loyalties in such a manner as to ensure that it come up as the major axis simply because people already define themselves in terms of it.

Anonymous said...

One problem with Jamais's matrix is that a substantial number of serious futurists such as myself and Bill Joy start out as "realists" and optimists, and as we learn more we discover that the situation is actually dire and that the institutional solutions that we had assumed were in place are totally broken with no realistic prospect of being brought up to task on time. As a result we are forced into the "Idealist" and "Pessimist" camps.

Tony Fisk said...

Michael, being free to wander around as you see fit on maps like these is one of their advantages. (in management speak it is called 'situational awareness': being able to tone your reaction to circumstances as necessary) The 'hoary old left right dichotomy' model tends to stuff you down one end or another like the filling of an old pillow, and there you stay.

I think that that tendency is one symptom of our need to get more clever: no matter how many axes we identify, we still have a tendency to skitter off to the corners of the room like cockroaches fleeing the light at ground zero (hey! Who can we see at the origin anyway? Some innocuous old geezer with a cat named 'The Lord'?)

Anonymous said...

I haven't been around for a while and I notice now that Mr. Brin is using hyperlinks now (or at least in this post). Excellent! Thank you!

reason said...

using an empathy axis is interesting but I tend to have a different problem. I tend to relate more to arguments than emotions and often find myself opposing everyone because I see the flaws in their arguments. I like people to recognise the weaknesses (or rather the inherent assumptions) in their own arguments before they try to dismiss the arguments of others as being flawed. Human beings have a built in orientation towards perfectionism. Very often instead of looking for the best solution they look for a "perfect" solution. (Perfect from whose perspective?). So I see empathy as more an aspect of idealistic/pragmatic. I suppose you could test this view empirically.

reason said...

perhaps we could include an empathy axis calling it inclusive/exclusive, people have different "ingroups" they identify with. Animal liberationists are one extreme, nazi's another.

Anonymous said...

Hey Reason, if we can have an empathy axis then why not also a satiability axis :)

Anonymous said...

Kung fu monkey has an interesting article about the Electoral College and how it encourages seeing U.S. politics as a dichotomy. Sounds familiar somehow...

reason said...
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reason said...

Doris, Frank et al,
I see actually an interesting side issue here. See some animal liberationists are terrorists. They justify that by saying that they empathise not just with people but also animals and we are hurting the animals. I have a similar issue with my wife - she thinks I don't get involved enough with people we deal with - but I grew up in a culture where that would have been regarded as favouritism. Maybe the Nazis care deeply - but just about each other? Anybody out there got a feeling about how this cleaves? I think I know what Doris means by empathy but there is more to it.

Anonymous said...

Reason: "Maybe the Nazis care deeply - but just about each other?"

I doubt that even Nazis can be so easily classified. Diversity is an inherent aspect of any group of humans.

Frankly, I think most people do not allow an ideology to define them. People have to go where the power is and that means they have to remain flexible in an uncertain world.

"I think I know what Doris means by empathy but there is more to it."

Are you sure it's empathy she's talking about and not sympathy? What was it again ? Empathy + Satiation = Sympathy ? Empathy in itself can be a deadly tool (the predator "reading the mind" of the prey in order to catch it). Realising that another person is suffering may very well not motivate one to ease that suffering if one is suffering as well.

Ideology can matter here. Prejudices about why a person is suffering or about the exact nature of the suffering may stop another person from caring.

reason said...

I'm not sure that I expressed what I meant so clearly, you seem to have slightly misinterpreted the emphasis. One example, you see a begger what do you do? Well sometimes I give them a little something, but I feel guilty about it. Why? Well why should I privilege those in need (and how do I know they are?) who are in my face, rather than the meek and ashamed. I would prefer a social society that ensured everybody in need was helped without favour. The issue is how broadly I see a problem or my attachment. It is the old of leverage and proxies as DB would say.

jomama said...

michael vasser said:

...and as we learn more we discover that the situation is actually dire and that the institutional solutions that we had assumed were in place are totally broken with no realistic prospect of being brought up to task on time.

Can The Institution think or is it just formed for the exercise of power? To me, the latter is obvious.

The controlling concept of all non-profit institutions is power.

What has power ever done for true, long-range problem solving and general progress?

Anonymous said...


You give something to a beggar and you feel guilty about doing that because it doesn't solve the problem of poverty?

Giving something to the beggar won't make the problem any worse, will it?

Anonymous said...

Frank managed to land a glancing blow on what I meant by an axis of empathy. Being science fiction fans, most of us lean toward empathy. However, too much empathy can endanger your own survival. If you are imagining the bad childhood of the person pointing a gun at you, you are not busy trying to get away/duck/hide/fight back. Maybe you can talk your way out of the situation by empathizing with your attacker, but you'd better have a Plan B.

At the other end of the axis, people are unable to see the needs of other people at all. Let's call that end of the empathy axis "selfishness". There are times to be selfish or relatively selfish. You should feed your own family before you feed a stranger's family. Maybe you can imagine another family's hunger pangs, but your biological imperatives tell you feed your own people first. (People with lots of empathy might feed the other family or person first. We usually call them saints or nuts or irresponsible parents.)

Some people fall toward the outer ends of the empathy/selfishness axis, but most of us are probably in the middle.

reason said...

I think you were deliberately being snide with your last comment. I wasn't talking about solving poverty (how could I), but about pernicious selection, about fairness.

Anonymous said...


I'm sorry if my being (a little) snide hurt your feelings. I just wanted to get my point across that it is pointless to feel guilty about giving those beggars who are "in your face" some relief, while perhaps ignoring those who are "meek and ashamed".

When you say: "I would prefer a social society that ensured everybody in need was helped without favour." to me that means that you do want to solve the problem of poverty, albeit not on your own of course.

I'm just saying, it may not be fair to pick and choose beggars, it's still better than ignoring all beggars because there's no general infrastructure in place that takes the responsibility away from individuals to care about the poor.

Hope this helps.

reason said...

Actually, where I live (Germany) there is such an infrastructure (Sozialhilfe) - but there are still beggars.