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 Learn

Before we get too smug about the past century of scientific progress, note that scientists developed the theory of special relativity before developing a consensus on the existence of the female orgasm.

Scientific inquiry into sex didn’t begin until the 20th century, and until the 1950s remained at the extreme fringes of biology, medicine, and psychology. Participants were nearly impossible to recruit. Many researchers completed their studies with prostitutes, research assistants, spouses, and, when necessary, themselves:

“Rather than risk being fired or ostracized by explaining their unconventional project to other people and trying to press those other people into service, researchers would simply, quietly, do it themselves.”

Mary Roach, Bonk

Measurement instruments were even more difficult to acquire. Mid-20th century researchers like William Masters and Virginia Johnson built their own makeshift penis cameras to get a better look at the action:

“The dildo camera unmasked, among other things, the source of vaginal lubrication: not glandular secretions but plasma seeping through the capillary walls in the vagina.”

Mary Roach, Bonk

TIL.

Here’s the thing: The Hubble telescope recently photographed a galaxy 13.8 billion light years away, literally looking back in time to the formation of the universe. It is very likely that we will develop 3D-printed human kidneys for transplant before we develop a complete model of the mechanics of human insemination.

We are taught to view technology as the bottleneck for understanding the world around us. If only we had more engineers and data scientists to build the gadgets and crunch the numbers, we’d usher in our age of abundance.

We could build a machine to perfectly record and analyze every detail of human sexuality, and we’d still be screwed without thousands of people willing to strip down and jump in, without governments and universities willing to fund the studies, without teachers and parents ready to broach the subject. Until we de-stigmatize human bodies and everything we like to do with them, we’ll never fully understand or heal them.

For our most important human problems, technology is not the bottleneck.

The bottleneck is people willing to talk frankly, to act shamelessly, to share generously.

The bottleneck is culture.

 

Bonk, by Mary Roach, is a frank, generous, and hilarious look at history and science of sex.  Check it out here.

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?

What Came Before

I think my Spotify profile hates me.

I spent September in Spain, and the outrageous cost of data outside the U.S. was a good excuse to go on an iPhone diet. During that time I didn’t log into Spotify a single time. Before my trip, I downloaded my favorite songs from 2016 directly to the phone and used those as a soundtrack to long walks through Sevilla’s narrow streets and bustling plazas.

From Spotify’s perspective, I’d ghosted them. At no point did my account check in with their servers, let them know where I’d been and what I’d listened to.

My algorithm was starving.

Every Monday, Spotify generates a playlist called Discover Weekly, where they use your listening habits to automatically select an hour of songs that you might enjoy. The more you listen (and the more your tastes fall into a narrow and predictable set of genres), the better their recommendations become.

Spotify introduced me to many of my favorite musicians this year: NAO, Tei Shi, Gallant. Under-the-radar geniuses that I probably would have missed without a good music sherpa. In it’s best moments, Spotify understands my preferences better than I understand myself.

Upon my return from Europe, something had changed. I fired up Discover Weekly and… their predictions seemed desperate and inaccurate. Here was a bland funk remix. There was atonal indie rock dirge. Starving for data, my algorithm had started flailing.

Or. Perhaps it was passive-aggressively trying to teach me a lesson: “Here, want to disappear for a few weeks? Hey, I don’t care. Go on! While you’re at it, why don’t you check out this cool Puddle of Mudd B-side. And you like rap, right? Get on this hot Wiz Khalifa collab! Stupid idiots love it!”

I recently came across a video where kids from 2016 react to Tamagotchis, the toys from the mid-90s that tasked children with taking care of a baby alien. Every few minutes the Tamagotchi beeped to get your attention – to play, to eat, to poop. My friends and I spent about a month of fifth grade tending to our pixel babies. And then we moved on. I put my Tamagotchi in the dresser drawer next to my old folders and notebooks. It chirped, and it chirped, and then finally fell silent.

I thought, along with everyone else, that my Tamagotchi’s spirit died along with its nickel battery. Instead, like Obi Wan Kenobi, Tamagotchis became more powerful than we could possibly imagine. They are the invisible force that surrounds us, binds our millennial technology together. The buzz in our pocket, the iPhone notification, the email that begins “We noticed you haven’t logged in for awhile…”

The ghosts of our digipets, chirping away. They are hungry. We must feed them.

Why We Create

When you visit Paris, avoid The Louvre. Despite its reputation as the center (or centre) of high art, its massive size and dense crowds create an exhausting experience for many people. Unless you are an art student, a fan of indoor hiking, or a talented pickpocket, just skip it.

The Louvre’s biggest attraction and most upsetting experience is the Mona Lisa. Each day tens of thousands of people crowd into the room where the painting hangs behind bulletproof glass. Only the tall and persistent get more than a fleeting glimpse of the canvas. Most spy it only through the neck-and-shoulder gap of a tourist raising an iPad above their head, snapping a blurry memory that will surely last a lifetime.

Instead, wander the small streets around Rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais neighborhood, and explore as many of the contemporary galleries as you can. Seeing a breathtaking painting up close is an experience at once religious and deeply humanistic. Observe the way the paint rises and falls, smudges and streaks. What was a vivid figure standing before you becomes a series of a hundred million movements of a person’s hand. A marriage of intention and coincidence, perfectly arranged imperfection. Up close, you see the brushstrokes. You see the hand that made the brushstrokes. You see beyond the image that the paint depicts, you feel the fragility of the painter.

Go explore the world and look for the brushstrokes.

Attending a performance by Cirque du Soleil or a fight in the UFC is completely different from watching the televised broadcast. Up close you are overwhelmed by the sense of physical risk. Our notions of courage and harm are largely informed by images on screens. Rarely do we see people risk their life before us. Being in the room gives us a bigger thrill, yes, but also a more profound understanding of their talent and a deeper respect for their defiance of fear.

Since the printing press, reproduction has given us the incredible opportunity to spread our work to millions. Yet, each reproduction distances us from the creator. It is easy to forget about the artist, or worse, to idealize them. To imagine their ability as innate and not painfully, arduously earned. To assume their success was inevitable and not a series of daily skirmishes with doubt and fear. To view them as immortal and not laughably frail; people with sore wrists and gas and bouts of forgetting friends’ birthdays.

When we get close enough to see the brushstrokes, we restore humanity to the creator.

And only when we get close enough to feel their humanity do we understand their divinity.

Uncategorized, Why We Talk

Should you spend an afternoon wandering through any internet forum, you will observe the breadth of human interaction at play. Friends and strangers buzz with tension, disagreement, snark, and bile. Also: encouragement, condolences, anticipation, and gratitude.

Yet there is only one place I know of where people share apologies.

In the game Journey, you wander the pale, sun-baked desert. In solitude, you slide over sand dunes, scale ancient dust-choked ruins, soar through rose-gold valleys. Against the desolate and uncaring plain, we are reduced to a survival instinct. Perhaps the curiosity of what lies beyond the next hill propels us forward for a little while, but in the long stillness even that falters.

And then, suddenly, there is more. At a key moment you find yourself floating beside a red-cloaked companion, a real person playing the game alongside you. Your companion is unnamed. You pass through each other, like ghosts. The only way you can communicate with each other is with a melodic chirp.

As you travel together you can help each other navigate obstacles, but your partner is more than a tool to advance through the game. In this lonely expanse, this anonymous internet stranger becomes your beating heart, a reason to keep caring, to keep moving forward.

Wordlessly, relationships form. One guides the other. Or, you dance like fools in the air, for a moment unconcerned with the temple in the distance. Or, you chirp back and forth, la, la-la, perhaps the first song these sands have ever heard.

Perhaps the first anonymous kindness you have ever received.

That feeling of connection, so deep and unexpected, has led some to quit the game entirely after accidentally separating from their partner. And in one corner of the internet, people apologize to their companions. For the spotty internet that left them alone, for the bungled jump that stalled their progress, for “real” life calling them away.

All with a single melodic chirp.

After Journey, it is difficult to return to the roaring furnace of social media. The wordy diatribes, the looping gifs, the winking emoji, it’s all Times Square loud. Boisterous and garish and menacing. You wonder whether we really need any of this.

You have a golden memory of a friend in the desert. We sang to each other. For a time, it was all we needed.

What Came Next

After several generations of wearables with abysmal battery life, a breakthrough: researchers studying the effects of calisthenics on mice stumble upon an energetic process through which we can power our devices through ingested food calories.

We simply plug our devices into the USB hub on our hip and charge them with our body’s catabolic process.

Finally: lasagna and Krispy Kreme, Big Macs and burritos, chocolate shakes and triple-cream cheese: all in the service of full batteries.

Bacon-wrapped, deep-fried, fudge-stuffed, Texas-style: all to keep our phones glowing, cars rolling, keyboards tapping, apps tracking.

Best of all: we devour whatever we crave and gain no weight. Our appetite unclasps from our personal caloric requirements; we now eat for civilization’s pulse. After a long day’s work, we sit on the couch and plug into our apartment to power the lights, the TV, and the dishwasher. And, of course, we gorge. Steak and Steak’ums, Nutella and Cheez-Its, pizza and bagels and pizza bagels.

We gotta keep the lights on.

And then, a matter of some concern. Communities once suffering from staggering rates of obesity are now afflicted with chronic malnourishment. We simply can’t eat quickly enough, obscenely enough to power all of our devices.

The public begins to adopt elaborate habits and routines around unplugging. Some unplug after five in the afternoon. Others decide to only plug in with friends. A few unplug entirely, a variety of tech veganism that gains a small but vociferous group of adherents along the coasts. But many, an unfortunate many, simply can’t or won’t accept a disconnected life. For them, life goes on as normal, mostly, until one morning they begin to feel rather tired. They notice their phones won’t keep a charge even after a trip to Olive Garden. Their kitchen lights dim at increasing intervals.

It all takes about forty years.You can hover a few hundred miles above the Earth and watch. Blip by blip, each city begins to go dark.

Why We Create

Let’s test some alternative definitions for technology and art !  Let’s see. Simply:

Technology facilitates closure, completion of tasks.

Art opens, creates unresolved tensions, new tasks to complete.

With these definitions, we free ourselves from the thorny cages of silicon versus ink, steel versus string, function versus aesthetic. Can toilet seats be art? Can a poem be technology? Can the camera be a work of art, and the photo be the technology?

A personal essay that helps people find closure in the deaths of their family members? This is technology.

Simone Giertz’ shitty robots, the goofy, miserable contraptions that inspire people to build, to fail, to leap? Art.

Art and technology, questions asked and answered.

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.