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 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 Act

A confession: I used to be a person that rolled my eyes at the superstitious. When friends searched for wood to knock on, or kept a charm around their ankle, or pointed out the presence of a full moon, I’d puff my chest and poke holes in their mystic caution.

I might ask: Well, what exactly do you think will happen if you don’t touch wood? Why would that have any effect? I’ve never done that and nothing bad has happened to me, isn’t that weird, hm?

With the asphyxiating condescension of a true nerd, I’d insist on reason, logic, proof.

Later that weekend I would watch professional wrestling.

The next morning I’d bark to blank faces about the heart-rending rivalries between these athletes: years-long tales of kinship and betrayal, cowardice and grit, of heroes and heels scratching and clawing, inch by inch, setback after setback, toward the grand prize, the golden belt, the roaring fans, to immortality itself.

My friends reply: “Mm, yeah it’s fake, right?”

In that moment, I understood the meaning of a full moon:

Superstitions shine a light toward the limits of our understanding. They are a ritualized reminder that disconnected events can harm us (or help us) in ways we can’t predict. Take them literally, or don’t. Like pro wrestling, to challenge the reality of superstitions is to miss the idea entirely. In their unreality, they amplify our human truths.

In a scientific age, our superstitions form a lonely tribute to the weird, the wonderful, the dancing inexplicable.

What Came Next

Has the progress of technology lived up to its promise? Has the last hundred years of innovation made us happier? Our lives richer or more fulfilling?

Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel take opposing sides on this question. Thiel argues that most areas of technology, from energy to transportation to medicine, have seen only iterative progress the last century. Furthermore, while communications and IT have transformed, evidence that they have improved our lives remains elusive.

Toward the end of their 2013 debate, he muses on which signals might indicate that technological innovation is bettering our condition.

He suggests (51:30):

“I come back to an indicator that I think is an interesting cultural one: if Hollywood started producing science fiction movies in which technology was a good thing. The only ones i can think of are the Star Trek retread movies, which are a flashback to the 60s. Everything else, it’s, ‘technology is bad, its going to kill you, its going to destroy you.’ If people here stopped hating technology and started using their imagination to produce some good science fiction movies, that would be a very good sign.”

Recall films where new technology or novel social values rescue us (e.g. Contact, ID4).

Count that against films where new technology causes the problem and traditional technology or values solve the conflict (e.g. Avatar, Terminator, Star Wars, Jurassic Park).

We will call that ratio our Faith In Technology index.

When you have an idle commute or a quiet evening, check out Thiel and Andreeson’s debate and find where your perspective hovers.

Why We Do Better

…but it isn’t. (Yet.)

And unless you plan to travel back in time, the question “How did this happen?” is always less useful than “Why is it not worse?

Why We Do Better

A surprising property of group personality: it is exponential, not linear. Two charming people are four times more charming than one person. Three boring people are eight times more boring than one person. Ten funny people are more than a thousand times funnier than one person (e.g. The Simpsons’ writing room, 1992-1998).

Therefore, you and I have two opportunities to create incredible value in the world. First, we can connect great people. Second, we can prevent not-great people from connecting with each other!

We celebrate those who excel at the former, because their successes are visible. However, the latter are rarely recognized, and never rewarded. We sweep them into disgraceful obscurity alongside QA testers, effective policy makers, and all other professions that successfully prevent disasters from ever occurring (and thus cannot be praised for their foresight). Yet they are no less heroic. No less vital to our collective progress as a species.

So let’s take a moment to raise our glasses to the disconnectors, our unsung protectors, preventing our nation’s idiots from stumbling into one other.

Why We Fuck Up

There are four possible reactions to reading or watching the news. I shall describe the appropriate response to each outcome.

1. “I didn’t understand this before, and I still don’t.”

Bummer. Perhaps this topic was too complex for the author to effectively capture. You might consider seeking a handful of books written by people with personal experience in the topic, should you wish to better understand. Stop reading the news.

2. “I didn’t understand this before, now I do.”

No, you don’t. You might consider seeking a handful of books written by people with personal experience in the topic, should you wish to better understand. Stop reading the news.

3. “I thought I understood before, now I don’t understand at all.”

Hey, you understand! The author effectively captured the irreducible complexity of human nature. Should you wish to deepen your informed perspective, you might consider seeking a handful of books written by people with personal experience in the topic. Continue reading the news, but please exercise caution.

4. “I understood this before, and now I understand better.”

Please, for the safety of those around you, stop reading the news.