Why We Create

Before the year ends, read Jia Tolentino’s searing essay Worst Year Ever, Until Next Year:

In any case, someone will tweet “worst year ever” every few minutes until 2016 is over, and then people will begin tweeting “worst year ever” as soon as 2017 begins. They will type “worst year ever” because of spilled drinks and late Ubers, a new Trump story, a new dispatch—if she miraculously manages to survive until then—from Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl in Aleppo who’s been tweeting, with her mother’s help, her fears of imminent death. There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the Internet, and there’s no easy way to properly calibrate it—no guidebook for how to expand your heart to accommodate these simultaneous scales of human experience; no way to train your heart to separate the banal from the profound. Our ability to change things is not increasing at the same rate as our ability to know about them. No, 2016 is not the worst year ever, but it’s the year I started feeling like the Internet would only ever induce the sense of powerlessness that comes when the sphere of what a person can influence remains static, while the sphere of what can influence us seems to expand without limit, allowing no respite at all.

Perhaps it is the horror that swells, perhaps it is our awareness of it.

Yet I have friends who agree that this year was terrible culturally, and declare that it was their most fulfilling and happy year personally. This doesn’t diminish the personal pain that many others have gone through, but allows that there is a limit to the usefulness of abstract empathy. Despair is a passive verb. Even anger is more useful. One can both mourn and feel joy.

A shitty year is the most compelling argument for building oneself a joyful refuge. It doesn’t help anybody to freeze out in the cold.

It might be your best year ever. Please, fiddle while Rome burns. More than ever we need your songs.

Why We Do Better

Who wins a debate?

Who had the better argument?

Who seemed more likable?

Who showed more strength?

Who was more informed?

Who blinked less?

Who was more memorable?

Who was funnier?

Who convinced more people of their position?

Who had more empathy?

Who showed more certainty?

Of course, it doesn’t matter. Because the person that wins is the person that does the work, investigates the problems, builds the coalition, earns trust, takes responsibility for the outcome. This is the person that wins, whether they show up to the debate or not.

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.

Why We Create

“The 8 hours you need to sleep each night, are my opportunity. The time you spend with your family and friends, is my opportunity. If you’re not maxed out, if there’s still a shred of humanity left in you, then you’re just leaving your lunch on the table.”

This brilliant blog post by Elaine Ou captures a common strategy: to expand to the widest possible audience, slash your margins. Instead of making $10 per sale, make $1. Instead of $1, make 10 cents. Instead of 10 cents, raise funding to give it away for free.

We often encounter the same incentives at our own jobs. Rather than money, the margin for our work is time. Instead of leaving at 6, stay until 8. Instead of finishing at 8, work on the ride home. Instead of finishing when you arrive home, work the weekend. Slash your margins. Track your metrics. Eliminate your inefficiencies.

When your team begins talking about efficiency, it’s time to find a new team. Efficiency is an endless war, one measured in minutes and dollars saved, not in people served or missions met.

Every four years, someone sets a new swimming record at the Olympics. Efficiency is an endless war.

And what’s the opposite of chasing efficiency? Spending more time: to listen, to build relationships, to tailor, to take risks. To serve fewer, better. To add humanity to your work. The more you add, the more you keep.

Why We Love

“Every hour, 10 of us are asked to go rescue an influx of 200 people.”

I can’t stop thinking about the short documentary 4.1 Miles. It follows the day of a coast guard captain on the island of Lesbos, which sits 4.1 miles from the coast of Turkey. Every day, thousands of refugees attempt to cross the gulf in cheap inflatable rafts. Many capsize in the strong waves. The Greek coast guard tries to rescue as many people as possible.

The documentary reveals the incredible courage of the coast guard and refugees, and the unfathomable toll the struggle takes on both.

4.1 miles is roughly the distance between Penn Station and the top of Central Park. Facebook headquarters to Stanford Stadium. The length of the Bay Bridge.

Our brains tend to equate size with power, distance with struggle – an echo of our ancestors’ lives in the wild.

To endure so much sorrow in so short a span – our imagination fails us here. We must observe.

What Came Before, Why We Learn

“The problem of knowledge is that there are many more books on birds written by ornithologists than books on birds written by birds and books on ornithologists written by birds.”

Nassim Taleb, Bed of Procrustes

When it comes to birds, at least we have an excuse for epistemic blindness: avian writing proficiency has lingered around 0.0% for the bulk of human memory.

Unfortunately, we commit the same error in liberal education. High school history classes use textbooks that summarize events that were only important in hindsight. English classes read authors who were unpopular or unknown in their time. We study the past through the lens of the present far more than we study the past through the lens of the past, or the present through the lens of the past (i.e. old predictions about the future).

In doing so, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to study the types of errors we make in forecasting the future. We declare that Edgar Allen Poe and Franz Kafka were ‘underappreciated’ in their time, implying that we see clearly what our predecessors missed. We forget that we are living in someone else’s past, that we will be summarized and laughed at, that the authors that come to define our generation will likely be those that we’ve never heard of or heartily dismissed.

Like some twisted Greek myth, time turns each generation of ornithologists into birds.

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 Love

“There are three dimensions to music: melody, harmony, and rhythm. When it comes to music preference, I think everyone has one dimension that moves them more than the other two.”

A friend laid this theory out to me fifteen years ago. I return to it every few months after a new song gives me chills.

Some people might leap to nitpick or refute his claim. “Evidence!”, they demand. “Well actually,” they insist. These are the types of squares you want to avoid at parties.

For the rest of us, it’s a fun starting point to inspect the hidden strings that pull on our aesthetic tastes, to plumb past the cold pipes of reason and swim in our murky, bubbling, emotional broth.

“You, for example, are drawn to rhythm,” my friend told me, “which is why you love hip hop.” And why he, drawn to harmony, loved the Beach Boys.

In the past fifteen years, the only adjustment I’ve made to this theory is to add a fourth dimension: meaning. Songs are more than their sounds; for some, lyrics and cultural context are most moving.

Then last week, I made a synaesthetic discovery: we can extend this theory to visual art. Form, color, repetition, and interpretation are visual art’s siblings to melody, harmony, rhythm, and meaning. For example, I might be hypnotized by Autumn Rhythm’s subtle fractals, my friend might be moved by its melancholic soft browns and cutting blacks, and you might be completely disgusted by its lack of form and focal point.

Something to consider on long walks, or at parties (away from the squares): in music, we are drawn by different brushes. In painting, we are plucked by different strings.

Why We Talk

On long train rides, I consider the helplessness of Superman.

The public has, perhaps unfairly, concluded that Superman’s powers are limitless. Therefore, when a problem – any problem – goes unsolved, the point of failure is obvious: Hostage situation? Capsized pleasure cruise? Unexpected volcanic eruption? Superman problems.

Systemic racial bias in policing? Hidden debt in derivatives markets? Mounting threat of mass extinction due to global climate change?

Alas, Superman’s abilities end at the boundary between quick disasters and slow disasters.

Quick disasters are events that erupt in moments. They tend to be single-factor, physical, objective, observable incidents. Falling planes. Speeding cars. Aggressive drunks. Catastrophes that can be averted by lifting, swooping, blocking, catching, and most thrilling of all, punching.

Slow disasters brew and unfold for decades or centuries. They are often complex, contextual, informational, nonlinear systems. Regional political disputes. Behavioral norms and biases. Environmental and economic degradation.

In the age of Buzzfeed, I imagine strongly worded Open Letters to Superman, penned daily by representatives of communities obvious and obscure, decrying his inaction on the amount of GMO grain in chicken feed, and the shrinking of Australia’s coral reefs, and the development of commercial properties on tribal lands, and, and, and.

Not Superman problems.

Clark Kent problems. Clark Kent, the journalist.

The power of the written word: to snake through the boundary between quick and slow disasters, to lift hearts and minds instead of overturned school busses. To inspire mass action, to salve (if not solve) a generation of sectarian divide, to plant vision and ethics and seeds that grow for centuries, long after Superman returns to that great Fortress of Solitude in the sky.

Imagine if Krypton didn’t imbue Clark Kent with superhuman strength, but superhuman wit and empathy. Able to bridge bitter conflicts in a single aphorism. More inspirational than a parent’s sacrifice, a preacher’s pulpit, or a clear view of the Milky Way in the night sky.

Why We Fuck Up

Evan detests his cranky knees, his aching back, plastic tray tables, narrow armrests, and narrower seats. Four hours into an overnight flight from London to SFO, he considers kicking down the cabin door, blasting himself somewhere over the mid-Atlantic, and enjoying a couple minutes of supreme legroom as he makes his final descent.

No need to worry, passengers. Alas, he is wedged into a middle seat. He twists, desperately trying to crack his back, but the armrest blocks his rotation.

He shifts, left leg on right, right leg on left. Traces circles with his toes. Drums the armrest. Checks the time on his phone. He’s gotta move. He taps the middle-aged woman beside him on the shoulder and signals that he’d like to stand up. The woman pauses just long enough to create the impression that this is a great burden to her in-flight experience. He mouths a perfunctory apology as he lurches past her.

As he shuffles down the dark aisle, he considers how nice a long jog would feel after landing: something to sweep the crust from his joints, like shaking sand off a beach towel. Sadly, barring a miracle, he won’t have the time – the plane lands at 6 AM and he needs to be at school by 7:15: Evan “Mr.” Brosh is a seventh-grade teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District. He is returning from a prestigious conference-slash-networking event for gifted educators and ambitious tech investors. The conference was very productive: there was much talk of transformation and innovation and representation and he left with a dozen new LinkedIn contacts.

His mind wanders to his eighth period class. He feels a tightness in his chest, a weight behind his eyes. Several kids had become unruly over the past quarter. Their fidgeting had become so severe that he recently started writing names on the board. The thrill of returning from spring break would rouse them even further. He’d have to spend the first half of class settling them down. He just knew it. He paced down the aisle, back to his seat. Why couldn’t those kids just sit still for forty-five minutes?