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

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 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

We must teach intelligent machines how to kill. Not whether. How.

This is a source of much hand-wringing for those developing self-driving cars. On their shoulders (hunched, from years of poor desk posture) lies the responsibility to engineer a solution to the trolley problem.

The trolley problem, in brief, is a morbid game of “would you rather?” As in, would you rather let a runaway trolley plow through a group of kindergartners, or would you stop the trolley by pushing a man into its path?

Would you stop the trolley by throwing yourself into it path?

Although engineers of autonomous cars have started to downplay the weight of this dilemma, the truth is that their approach to this problem will determine whether self-driving cars become a global standard or a luxury. Or banned altogether. Should engineers aim toward adoption, I’ve created a helpful guide on how to resolve the trolley problem for a variety of catastrophic scenarios:

Q. Save an adult man in the street or save the passenger of the car?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save an adult woman or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save a nun or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save a baby or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save 30 babies (their strollers are somehow lined up in a row) or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save a rare white leopard or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save the last white leopard or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save the last white leopard, 4 babies in divinity school, George R.R. Martin (assuming the Winds of Winter not released), and the original Declaration of Independence or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger (hope that GRRM survives).

Q. What if we can assure the safety of the passenger?
A. Choose survivor at random (unless Winds of Winter is still unreleased ).

Indeed, the only ethical answer to the trolley scenario is the same one nature itself leans toward: uncertainty. There will be some engineers who insist we can devise a complicated algorithm that will minimize the severity of accidents: by number of victims, by age, by profession (they will insist it is reasonable to prioritize saving engineers).

Do not trust them. If adoption is our goal, only one certainty matters: we must save the passenger. Leave all else to chance.

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.

Why We Act

Pastors, fortune tellers, and therapists. When I am tempted to be skeptical about the intentions of the first two, I am reminded that they serve the same function as the latter: to give context and direction to those who seek it.

And when I am tempted to argue that pastors and fortune tellers are less effective than therapists, I remind myself of my experiences with therapists.

Why We Do Better

Already sweating and five minutes late, I huffed to the last intersection and smacked into dozens of people jogging down MLK Boulevard. Apparently, the organizers of the Oakland marathon selected today to send an uninterrupted stream of runners to prevent me from reaching my first yoga session in twelve months.

A familiar feeling settled over me as I searched the avenue for any path across.

I call it traveler’s calm: the serene curiosity you experience in response to a plan gone awry. A comfort with imprecision.

Travel frequently enough, and you will miss planes, board the wrong busses, wander into vaguely menacing neighborhoods, confuse restaurants for residences and residences for restaurants. You will show up far too late or much too early. You will ask the wrong questions and give the wrong answers, usually with incorrect grammar. You will apologize, apologize, apologize.

Spend enough of your year in this fashion, and eventually you stop worrying about getting anywhere “on-time.” You respond to lost bags, bad directions, missing taxis, and awkward conversations with bemusement rather than existential dread.

This isn’t some sort of enlightened pseudo-spiritual perspective, it’s a natural adaptation to the imprecision of exploring a new place.

Remain in any one city long enough, and the adaptation reverses: you develop routines and habits and schedules and begin to demand precision once again.

A thought occurred to me as I glared at the procession of joggers: perhaps I’ve been in the Bay Area a little too long. Perhaps I need to find my passport.

Yoga mat strapped to my back, I darted into the stream and ran alongside the marathoners. Slowly, strangely, I edged my way across the street.

I was ten minutes late to yoga, and somehow everybody survived.