What Came Next

And then one year, all the stores raised their prices for Black Friday.

Everything was 100%-800% more expensive. During the month of November, the stores hyped their Black Friday mark-ups: $3001 for a bulky, standard-def TV; $801 for a blender.

Thanksgiving evening, the overnight lines for Black Friday “doorblocker” sales (6 AM to 8AM, minimum 30 per customer) were meager. A few stalwarts huddled in the cold, driven more by stubborn tradition than genuine enthusiasm.

The bulk of Americans stayed home that Friday. They made breakfast with leftovers. They sipped coffee and chatted on Messenger. They wondered how to spend their free time.

The best Black Friday of all: so much time saved.

Why We Do Better

From earlier this summer, what I call the prognostic treadmill:

“The hedonic treadmill describes our tendency to return to a baseline level of happiness (or curmudgeonliness) shortly after events we thought would bring us lasting joy: that new Tesla, that condo with the view, that promotion (long overdue, really).

We are less familiar with, yet no less afflicted by, the prognostic treadmill:

Our tendency to return to a level of confidence in our predictive ability, shortly after events that confirm our inability to make predictions: failure to reach last year’s growth targets, global economic recessions, populist upheavals.”

A shocking event scrambles the neat picture of the future that we held in our heads, like a child dashing a finished jigsaw puzzle to the floor.

For a fleeting instant, we see the unfolding of human history as it is: impervious to prediction. Anti-certain. Unfortunately, our brains crave closure.

Moments after the experts and pundits get it wrong, we gasp for more predictions, new predictions to settle our roiling bellies. Like salt water, bad predictions just make us thirstier for more predictions.

What would it look like to sit in uncertainty? To admit that in complex environments with interlocking dependencies, the odds are always 50-50? That it is better to have no map than a wrong map?

Might you be more cautious? Might you listen more closely? Might you work a little harder?

We can’t predict the future, but we can prepare for possibilities.

Why We Do Better

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. In the meantime though, there is a lot of fuckery.

If you find yourself waking up with a tightness in your chest, the grim ache of a gutpunch, or the simple fear of progress undone, then do not slide into dread.

In the morning light: breathe, stretch, and shake.

Breathe: Find a quiet room that you can sit in for 15-30 minutes today. Download and listen to a guided meditation. This one from Tara Brach is one of my favorites. You can also download the Headspace app, which explains how and why meditation improves our health with brief, adorable animations, then guides you through a 10-minute meditation. The app also offers themed meditations for topics like stress, anxiety, and sleep. Focus on the rising and falling of your breath. Pay attention to the sensations in your body. Listen to the moment unfold.

Stretch: Write down three things for which you are grateful right now. Do this every day. For support, get the Five Minute Journal, which provides a short, daily gratitude practice. Dread narrows our vision, contracts our muscles. In time, persistent dread paralyzes, like micro-doses of poison dripped into a morning coffee. We must reach past nihilism, which doesn’t serve us, which has never served. Research suggests that gratitude journaling improves mood, focus, and progress toward personal goals. On some days, finding something you are grateful for will feel like a stretch. That is exactly what we want. Stretching makes us mobile.

Shake: Move. Get involved. Take a long walk. Ask questions. Find alternate perspectives. Listen more. Read more. Donate. Lend a hand. Misery loves inaction. If you feel sore, shake it out and get to work.

Breathe, stretch, shake. Each morning is an opportunity.

Why We Act

You would though.

Given the right set of circumstances, you would vote for an erratic, dangerous, anti-democratic nitwit, assuming that she or he represented the majority of your political priorities.

So let’s build a liberal Donald Trump.

First off, it wouldn’t be Donald Trump, because an old white male would have difficulty channeling the younger, less-white, less-male Democratic base. However, this person could have all of Trump’s other qualities: narcissism, inexperience, troubling attitudes toward women, bluntness, and the ability to entertain large crowds by saying nothing.

Look: Kanye West would be liberal Donald Trump.

And what would be the characteristics of a Kanye candidacy? In order to appeal to a liberal base in a Trumpian fashion, we would see appealing far-left positions framed with a naive understanding of policy and diplomacy.

On the Kanye platform:

  • Monetary reparations for Black, Native, and Asian Americans
  • A promise to end to “all war”, including suspension of drone strike program
  • Federal legalization of marijuana and psychedelics
  • Expansion of women’s rights, including equal pay, parental leave, and greater access to reproductive health care (unfortunately including an off-color joke about being the cause of many abortions himself)
  • Amnesty to undocumented immigrants and uncapping the number of work visas granted per year
  • Commitment to move U.S. energy sources to “future shit”: solar, wind, etc. by 2030
  • Free Tidal accounts for all citizens (taxpayer subsidized)

Sounds pretty appealing, doesn’t it? The fact that he is a musician and entrepreneur with no political experience no longer strikes you as a deal-breaker. His inability to discuss these issues with any clarity or nuance on the campaign trail becomes easier to overlook.

But are you willing to overlook his more disturbing habits? Let’s also imagine:

  • An open war with police unions, including public musing over whether he will “shut down” the NYPD and prosecute officers for biased policing
  • Insults toward any opposition, including families of fallen officers
  • A full-throated defense of celebrity rapists
  • Behind-the-scenes recordings of him making demeaning comments about women and bragging about sexual exploits with questionable consent
  • A pledge to outlaw paparazzi and jail media outlets critical of his albums
  • 3AM Twitter ranting on biased journalism
  • A disgusting insistence that he will finally sleep with Taylor Swift as president
  • First Lady Kim Kardashian

You’re on the fence now. When 2024 rolls around, you don’t vote for Kanye in the Democratic primary, but he wins the nomination on a wave of (now-greying) millennial support. And who does the Republican party nominate?

Bionic Dick Cheney.

It has to be him. It has to be him because Dick Cheney makes liberals shudder the way Hillary makes conservatives furious. Their records aren’t equivalent, but they both represent the worst of the opposition party, and they have for decades.

We now have a 2016-style election between a dangerous asshole who you mostly agree with as long as he keeps his mouth shut (which is rare), and a literal zombie that hates everything you stand for.

You could, of course, make a protest vote. But you balk at people who do that. After all, there really is no such thing as a protest vote: Either Kanye West or Dick Cheney is going to be the next President of the United States.

And you aren’t going to vote for Dick Cheney. No way. No way.

You are going to vote for liberal Donald Trump.

Why We Act

In the summer of 1993, I ate nothing but Goldfish and ice cream, just to get out of playing Little League.

In third grade, my grandma signed me up for Little League. She’d noticed that I spent all of my free time playing Sega Genesis and reading Calvin and Hobbes and (rightfully) insisted that I’d benefit from physical activity and socialization.

It did not go well.

There were two problems:

  1. I didn’t watch baseball.
  2. I didn’t care about winning.

As a result, I tried very hard to not try very hard. I’ll never forget the time I spent an at-bat slowly striking out while my coach barked from the dugout, “Choke up on your bat!”

I still don’t know what that means.

The last day of Little League season was Family Day, a full day potluck cookout. Each of the players’ families was responsible for bringing something for everybody on the team to eat. I asked my mom to buy a giant tub of Goldfish crackers, since that wouldn’t require any preparation. That, and napkins. People always need more napkins.

However, when Family Day arrived, I refused to go. I had already decided I was done with Little League, so why would I have lunch with teammates I didn’t care about? My mom was relieved, because she didn’t have to waste a day in the hot sun small-talking yuppie parents.

Thus, I spent the rest of the summer eating through that Family-size tub myself, handful by tiny handful.

I cared so little about Little League that I couldn’t even bother to show up to a potluck.

That’s about the least you can care about anything.

What Came Next, Why We Love

What kind of monster am I?

MIT’s Moral Machines quiz exposed my grotesque form. In the survey, I determined the path of a self-driving car that suffers brake failure. In each scenario, I decided whether to send the car careening into a barrier or to barrel through pedestrian traffic.

Luckily, I prepared for this possibility.

While I could have treated this as a purely ethical exercise, instead I imposed four strict guidelines with the goal of ensuring consumer adoption of autonomous vehicles. The prime directive: save the passengers. I applied the following ruleset to each scenario, in order of evaluation:

  1. Animals are not humans
  2. Save the passengers
  3. Follow traffic rules
  4. Do not swerve

The rationale:
You may find my first rule the most monstrous, but it is a necessary condition for all subsequent rules: animals do not count as passengers or pedestrians. That means that a car full of animals is treated as an empty car, and a crosswalk full of animals is treated as an empty crosswalk. With apologies to the ASPCA, dogs (good dogs) would happily sacrifice themselves for their best friends. And cats, well, cats already treat us like empty space.

Next, the critical mandate: save the passengers. We do not assess number or type of passengers vs. pedestrians that will be endangered by swerving. We will save one criminal passenger when that requires plowing through five children walking to school.

Third, assuming passengers are safe, we follow traffic rules. This means that given the choice between driving through a green light and driving through a red light, we always drive through the green. We assume that pedestrians are less likely to cross against traffic. This rule will become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, though the citizens of Manhattan will be stressed out for a while. Coincidentally, the introduction of the automobile a century ago followed a similarly lethal pattern until pedestrians smartened up.

Finally, if we can save the passengers and follow traffic rules, we opt not to swerve. The intention here is that autonomous driving should be as predictable as possible. When we see a car accelerating toward us, we should assume that it will follow its current path. This means that in some cases, a larger number of pedestrians will be struck only for the unhappy accident of legally crossing at the wrong moment. This is terrible and unfair, though the number of victims will be dwarfed by the number of people saved from accidents due to human error.

So what kind of monster am I? When these rules are implemented across scenarios, what sort of trends do we see?

mit_moralmachines_1-1

Hm. I disgust me. Clearly, I am both sexist and ageist.

Moreover, we learn about my social and physical preferences:
mit_moralmachines_1-2
Awful. Just awful.

But I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how consistently wretched I was, so I took the quiz a second time, using the same set of rules. What kind of monster am I?

mit_moralmachines_2-1
Oh god. Is this worse? It’s worse, isn’t it? What else do we see?

mit_moralmachines_2-2

Huh. That’s strange. In the first quiz I prioritized the safety of younger, fitter people. This time, they were dispensable. Confused, I took the quiz a third time. Let’s settle this, what kind of monster am I?

mit_moralmachines_3-1

Well, that makes a bit more sense.

Over the course of a half dozen attempts, I was biased against criminals, athletic people, women, men, large people, babies, and the elderly. I implemented a ruleset that disregarded everyone’s identity, but given a limited sample size, any constituency could take me to court for discrimination.

This is the real dilemma for the trolley scenario and autonomous cars. Given indifferent rules, we will see bias. Given toast, we will see a face.

On a long enough timeline, we will be monsters to everyone.

What Came Next

What kind of monster are you?

No, really, I’d be curious to hear what kind of twisted, thoughtless human being you are. In order to find out, take MIT’s Moral Machine’s quiz. As we introduce autonomous machines to our roads, factories, and houses we must consider how self-driving cars should respond in events that will result in the loss of life. MIT’s goal is to understand our individual moral judgements, as well as how we apply those judgements to autonomous machines.

The quiz presents a series of trolly scenarios, where you indicate how a self-driving car should respond to brake failure. Specifically, you must decide who will die in the inevitable collision: passengers? Pedestrians? Young? Old? Overweight? Criminals? Dogs?

Jeez.

What kind of monster are you?

Why We Learn

You hold a white mug full of hot chocolate. Steam rises from the cup. When you feel the moment calls for it, you toss the mug to the floor. The mug shatters, the liquid splatters. Repeat thirty times, in thirty different rooms.

Shatter, splatter.

What changes? What is changed?

At the cafe, the patrons (mostly new moms and white-haired retirees) whip their heads in your direction. Their eyes flash half-fear, half-amusement.

At the opera, hundreds of tastefully-dressed men and women crane their heads and glare. You hear a dark murmur of resentment. A lady on stage misses a high A-flat. Several attendants rush in your direction.

At the football game, nobody notices or responds. A few wonder why their shoes are sticky on the walk to their car.

On stage, the audience shuts up and pays sharp attention. They did not expect your company’s keynote to open in this fashion. They wonder if this is some sort of performance art. Bloggers openly speculate about which rival toward whom these “shots” were “fired.” Your company’s stock price ticks up. Speakers at TED Talks adopt the “subversive” custom of opening their presentations with a sharp, destructive gesture. WIRED magazine writes a feature on you for their November issue (sales are modest).

The mug explodes every time, the froth flies more or less the same.

The reaction tells you more about the action than the action itself. A few consequences of this:

  1. We can unfollow the news; we will learn a greater amount by following only peoples’ reactions to the news.
  2. Reactions change depending on the room. To be indignant about the popularity of anything is to be stunned that the opera does not appreciate dropped mugs.
  3. Investigate surprising reactions, seek to map out the many rooms.
Why We Act

People visit tabloid sites to envy the famous,
The Economist to envy the wealthy,
ESPN to envy the athletic,
Vice to envy the deviant,
The Atlantic to envy the victimized,
Twitter to envy the offended,
Facebook to envy their friends,
Instagram to envy themselves.

Why We Create

When Tim Ferriss observes, “Almost every friend I have who is a consistently productive writer, does their best writing between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.,” he fires yet another missile in the endless conflict between owls and larks. Morning people extol the world-building virtues of their productivity. Night people insist that art, inspiration, romance – everything worth staying awake for – reveal themselves in the moonlight. Well-meaning scientists draw up non-rigorous studies that convince nobody of anything and both sides of their moral, intellectual, and societal superiority. Exhausted neutrals are asked to take a stand: Team Sunlight or Team Moonlight.

But:

Maybe you are not a morning person or a night person, but a morning person and a night person. Two people, each with their own sets of talents. Perhaps one is going unheard.

Some writers distinguish ideation from synthesis. Ideation periods are spent brainstorming, developing concepts, taking notes, reading and outlining. Synthesis is when the “actual” writing takes place, turning that note slurry into solid (or shaky) prose.

For most of us, ideation and synthesis demand different levels of focus, distinct forms of mental energy, separate muses. Perhaps your curiosity rises with the sun. You spill with ideas after breakfast. Yet you can’t sit still and bang out your masterpiece until your partner heads to bed. You tell your friends you are a night person, but the truth is a little more interesting: your ideation is a lark, your synthesis is an owl.

The mistake (as usual) is thinking you are one person.

Observe not whether, but how you are an owl and a lark.

Then, spend the afternoon in the noblest manner: napping.