Why We Fuck Up

In the bloodless war between computers and referees, computers win 100% of the time.

Research shows that baseball umpires are less likely to call a strike after they’ve called the previous pitch a strike.

Soccer referees flub offside calls all the time. Why wouldn’t they? They are asked to judge a split-second half-centimeter difference in player positioning from twenty meters away.

Funny thing is, after the blown call, the TV broadcast rewinds and replays the action in slow motion. Neon lines materialize and frame the play. High-definition lenses confer with powerful computer servers, and we have a near-instant, perfect judgment of what we just watched. The information is both thrilling and useless, like finding out a high school crush really liked you, 20 years later.

Why don’t we simply replace those near-sighted, weak-willed meat bags with infallible, unswayable robo-refs?

Because deep down, we like the chaos of it all. Because when shit goes sideways and our guy or gal misses the line by a nose hair (or did they?), we need a person to blame, a human voodoo doll to stick our pins.We need an idiot.

Ideally, computers would watch Them, and nervous humans would watch Us. At the end of the day, we want a fair game. But for Them, it should be extra fair.

Why We Act

When a vote is held on the floor of Congress, the result is almost always known before the votes are cast. Party-line votes are more common than at any point in history. In a system where loyalty is prioritized over effective decision making, the details of laws, the stories from the people they affect, and the possible consequences twenty years down the road matter less to our representatives than what the person sitting next to them is voting for.

We legislate by attrition. It often appears that the role of congresspeople isn’t to evaluate and decide on a course of action, but to show up, be a warm body in a seat.

We demand the same from our peers. During an election season, we tend to chastise those who show ideological uncertainty. We mock undecided voters, who seem to require a little more evidence before they make a decision.

Yet, when we look at the habits of our congresspeople, you wonder whether we could use a little more indecision up and down the political ladder. A few more people that wanted to learn more. A few more people open to either outcome. To alternative outcomes. A few more cautious optimists.

We get frustrated at undecided voters, but it might be marvelous if we were able to elect more of them.

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 Do Better

Fighter planes were new technology during World War II, and we needed to learn how to protect them.

The military commissioned a study that examined bombers that had returned from missions and had taken damage. The study found that a small number of areas took the majority of the fire. The commission recommended that we add armor to those areas of the aircraft.

Luckily, Abraham Wald stopped them before making a costly mistake.

A statistician before the war, Wald understood survivorship bias – our tendency to focus on the winners that are able to tell their story, rather than the losers that cannot.

He observed that instead of reinforcing the areas that took the most damage, we should protect the areas that took no damage. What the commission had actually studied was where bombers could take damage and survive. The planes that had been shot down, the ones that didn’t return to base to be studied by the commission, were hit precisely in the areas where the survivors were unscathed.

We are all survivors. It’s easy to forget, but the seat you’re sitting in right now is one that hundred people like you could have had. Our idols and mentors are brilliant and talented and wonderful, yes, but also lucky. So are you.

The bruises we carry with us and the mistakes we’ve made, the accidents we’ve had and the flack we’ve taken: we could focus on those when we try to improve ourselves. We could dwell on how to never be hit in the same place twice. But we made it. We survived all those hits. Our scars don’t tell us where we are weak, but where we are strong.

The better question is, where are we unscathed?

What Came Next

When asked to imagine 100 years into the future, the first place your mind might go is to the new technology: what do we use to communicate? Are there chips implanted into our eyes? How common are personal robots and drones? What medical breakthroughs have we stumbled upon? Have we populated the solar system?

Science fiction has trained us to imagine the future first through the lens of technological advancement.

Perhaps it has limited our imagination.

Let’s travel 100 years into the past. We flag down a woman walking down 8th Avenue. We have a story to tell her about the future. We’re short on time (the time control device really eats up our phone’s battery), so we tell her two things:

  1. In one hundred years, we will have created a device that instantaneously enables you to send photographs and messages to anyone else in the world. Everybody will have this device, and it will fit in the palm of her hand.
  2. We will elect our first female president, the successor to our first black president.

Which statement will inspire more curiosity? More excitement? Which statement will compel her to see her present day in a new light? To change her mind? To take action?

Again, imagine 100 years into the future. Science fiction might be the least radical lens through which we may envision the world-to-come.

Why We Fuck Up

The irony is that even if our self-driving cars kill indiscriminately, we would read bias into their distribution of victims for the same reason we see famous faces in toast.

You will hear:

“We must take into account regional and cultural differences in adherence to pedestrian jaywalking laws!”

“Autonomous vehicles are effectively targeting specific populations, and we demand accountability!”

“Of course the cars are biased. They’re made in San Francisco.”

The car company’s public policy and legal teams debate the ethics of algorithmic vehicular manslaughter over an increasingly emotional and sleep-deprived chain of weekend emails. Philosophical battle lines are drawn. On Sunday night, the CEO informs both teams that she has arrived at a decision and has informed her head of product: to counter the perceptions of bias, we will begin adding bias to our artificial intelligence.

Why We Do Better

I think of it as a tilt.

Cognitive psychologists call it priming. The idea is that our brains are quicker to recall memories or act on goals that are similar to whatever sights, sounds, and concepts have recently entered our heads.

For example, I show you a picture of a WOLF, then ask you to complete this word:

D O _

You probably filled in dog and not dot or don. The word wolf primed the structures in your mind associated with wolves, which includes dogs. When asked to perform a followup task, your mental surface was unbalanced – tilted – toward dogs.

Researchers are still digging through the extent to which priming consciously and unconsciously affects our decision making, emotional states, and performance on tasks.

We’re not going to wait for them to settle the debate.

Instead of showing up to work tilted by today’s angriest tweet, consider the how you feel in the moments you are performing at the top of your game. Then, search for a brief activity that evokes a feeling similar to that mental state. A specific song, a quick set of burpees, or swearing for 7 seconds. All three, in a row.

Before writing each morning, I read five minutes of intense poetry. I want something that short-circuits my rational brain, that taps into the tactile, emotional edges of words, their meaning beyond meaning. My writing might read completely differently if I preferred Sudoku.

It all depends on where you wish to tilt.

Why We Act

Go to a concert by yourself.

Listen to an album, front to back, with other people.

Go for a hike by yourself.

Read a book with other people.

Fly to Paris by yourself.

Take a shower with other people.

Whether by routine or taboo, we give our hobbies and habits a social orientation: private or public, alone or accompanied.

Insight blooms in new company.

What Came Next

Take a prediction about the future that we might all agree on: in two hundred years, our collective opinion about which 20th century pop musician is most overrated will be different than it is today.

Sure. Makes sense. Attitudes are always changing.

What if I told you it will be Michael Jackson?

Perhaps I should have started out with a trigger warning.

To drive someone crazy, be specific about the future.

Chuck Klosterman argues in But What If We’re Wrong? that a crucial bias in how we view the present day stems from our inability to imagine it as the distant past. We agree that we think about the world differently than people living a century ago, and we can also imagine that people a century from now will view the world quite differently than today.

Until we get specific. As Klosterman observes in his interview with Marc Maron:

“Everyone in the abstract sort of accepts this, but as soon as you start talking about specific ideas that we might be wrong about people are very uncomfortable. They need to feel a degree of certitude about specifics even if they can accept in a general sense that they might know nothing.”

We agree in the abstract. We disagree in the particular. The need for certitude casts a shadow over the sea of our beliefs:

Our moral and political opinions, the durability of our fondest memories, our affection for friends and family and total strangers, the virtue of technological progress, the safety of genome hacking, the stability of national borders, the superiority of science to mysticism, diversity to homogeny, The Beatles to The Monkees.

Yes, you say, I know these are all subject to change. Of course they are. Except, except, except.

Why We Create

I realized this morning that I find racism boring. Is that weird? Not the horror of it’s tragedies, but the body of commentary in their wake: the artistic depictions, social media reflections, academic analysis. I haven’t heard a perspective or individual experience of racism that has surprised me in a long time.

I find it amusing (encouraging, but amusing) to see wealthy white executives write sober admissions to the world about their newfound recognition of racial privilege. It’s inspiring to see their personal growth, but also akin to watching bears stunned by the fact they are in the forest.

Yes: we’ve been here all along. Did you assume all the world was green?

Conversely, I read beautifully written novels and painful memoirs and collections of caustic poems by today’s authors, each shimmering with exhausted fury, creaking under accumulated generational dread, and I feel a disquieting monotony. Just as repetition bleeds words of their meaning, flattens them into sound, each story flattens into its primal element: pain.

And while sharp pain can shock us into the present moment and compel us to move, chronic pain fades into the background. We resign ourselves to chronic pain. We accept it. It hobbles us, and we let it.

There is the poisonous banality to something as intrinsic to human nature as bias. Boredom is a kind of desensitization, and we are less likely to act on something we don’t feel.

I wish I wasn’t bored by racism in art, but I am. There is a lack of revelation to today’s stories. A part of me waits for the artist that finds a way to paint in novel hues.