Sunday, January 1, 2017

Constant Human Capacities

There's a set of cognitive blinders, found both in everyday life and in academic work, which need to be recognized. I'm tempted to call the actual 'instantiation' of a cognitive blinder a 'fallacy', but on deep examination, that term is almost meaningless outside of the artificial environments of formal logic. Let's just call it a 'mistake' -- a conceptual construction that, outside of the conceiver's awareness, relied on an innate blinder that is known. We address mistakes, in a sense, by becoming aware of them -- by participating in rational discourse about them -- in the same way that we try to recognize other innate human perceptual or cognitive phenomena, such as optical illusions.

Let me describe two of these mistakes, which I encounter often.


The first I'll call the "future shock" mistake. This is the idea that "humankind is experiencing accelerating change", which is among the presumptions and conclusions of the Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. He goes further, blaming this acceleration for social changes that he does not like.

You could read a version of the "future shock" mistake in any era that has passed down a literature. No matter the actual seriousness of the problems, there are always times when things appear to be moving too fast. People who were previously comfortable become alarmed at change, and write books about how abnormal the rate-of-change is. If the change is positive for others, those people will say that change hasn't come fast enough.

So, it's nothing new. Nothing 'future' about it. 

The 'shock' that most people in the world experience at any given time might arise from technological or demographic change, as the book proposed. But far more shock emerges from how people are treated by governments, institutions, corporations, and each other. There are many other factors of course -- weather, disaster, novelty, loss. But, let's clarify with a comparison: the 2003 invasion of Iraq caused vastly more global and individual shock than the pervasive technologies that emerged over the last 50 years.

Shock is personal. It happens within the human mind. And that never changes. We're the same species, with each of us nearly identical to each other, over the last 50,000 years.

So the shock of being invaded has always been the same. And it's bad. We need the invading to stop -- or the lobbying, the privilege accumulation, the elitism, the bullying, the threatening, etc. These ancient problems demand far more immediate attention than bourgeois discomforts with "technological rate-of-change". If we want to address serious consequences of technology, we should fight the resource wars in Africa caused by our demand for cell-phones and batteries, and demand accountability and sustainability from corporations and governments. 

Stopping the wrong technologies, and promoting the right ones, sounds good, but that can only happen after we make progress in the fight for a real participatory democracy in modern times, which would give people the leverage to address the serious problems. That's the priority, and the root of the other problems. Nobody actually evaluates the utility of technology because the public has no collective, conscious influence over its development. The public is simply 'the market': the consumers. They can only choose as individuals, from among those limited and useless things presented to them.

There's something deeper that bothers me about the "future shock" presupposition.  Culture shock exists, but it is an individual phenomenon. You can only experience so much shock, again, because you're just a human being, basically identical to people throughout human history. You also have just as much ability to adapt. Your reaction to change might be to share worry with those around you, and that can amplify your feelings of shock, sometimes, and dampen them, at other times. 

But the way we cope with change is quite individual. I remember that, as a young consulting engineer, working in Japan for a year, I experienced far more culture shock on my return to the US than at any point in Asia. Sometimes new cultures are exciting, old cultures are an albatross -- and this is not because of buildings, or literature, or music, or films -- but because culture is in the human brain, and we form these cultural experiences ourselves during our interactions with people. Our reactions to those interactions can be sour, or wonderful, and they change easily -- they may, or may not, make us produce shock in ourselves.

Again, none of that has changed, throughout human history, because we're the same people. 

We are animals, and we have been the same animals, since the emergence of our species. The causes of misery are not new. But sometimes we ignore major factors, and invent others, in a kind of "search for the obscure" in our drive to say something new. We'd ridicule anyone who said "there's a paradigm shift going on among cats: because of youtube videos, domestic cats are experiencing a kind of cultural change that they've never experienced before. How will they cope with this?" It's silly because we know cats will cognitively cope with this "paparazzi paradigm", or not, on a case-by-case basis. Kind treatment is their more immediate and critical concern. The same is true for people.

Era Discrimination

... is the second mistake. It's the idea, generally speaking, that people 1,000 years ago were somehow more 'primitive' or more 'stupid' than we are. This is obviously the same kind of discrimination that continues against native peoples today, or the working poor at any time. Thanks in part to Franz Boas, the profession of anthropology took this mistake to the trash-heap long ago, but it still survives in all kinds of modern bigotry. 

With cash-backed corporate-propaganda driving technology discussion these days, of course indoctrinated future-enthusiasts will snicker at the 'ignorance' of the past. My favorite example is a NOVA episode where some modern construction engineers concluded that a sketch for a giant wooden crossbow, by Leonardo da Vinci, was fantastically antiquated, primitive, unenlightened, and incorrect. Over the hour show, we follow the top-notch engineers as they gradually realize that they have no real experience with timber-based mechanical engineering, and Leonardo's sketch was exactly right. Forget whether or not da Vinci was a genius -- why did they believe that they, in their lifetimes, had somehow accumulated more skill with wood than a professional engineer 500 years ago? 

So, why do I find a connection between this 'modern man' hubris, and the 'shock' notion that people will need 'new tools to cope' with change?

In both cases, pundits have managed not to think of others as real people, like themselves, with full lives, full of difficulties, bursting with energy and ability. This is the nature of bigotry. And, frankly, it's just bad science. 

Instead, we should admire the craftsperson of a thousand years ago. Good luck trying to recreate anything they did! And believe in people today -- they can cope with change. But do your best to make sure that everyone treats each other with respect and human kindness. We have a great deal of hard work ahead of us.