Jul 272011

If you haven’t read Grist’s David Roberts on his idea of “The Medium Chill” go do so now. David is a great writer on energy politics – my day job – but I’d venture to say this is my favorite post of his. He’s also collected others’ responses here and here. I want dive into one dimension that has been mentioned only briefly. First, here’s David:

The medium chill involves what economists call satisficing: abandoning the quest for the ideal in favor of the good-enough. It means stepping off the aspirational treadmill, foregoing some material opportunities and accepting some material constraints in exchange for more time to spend on relationships and experiences.

The case for this is quite compelling in my view. And David’s main reasoning behind it is that many people would be happier this way. If we all worked less, we’d get to spend more time with loved ones, perhaps we’d exercise more, make more friends, devote time to our hobbies, etc. And there’s good psychological research suggesting that these things are quite important to our happiness and mental well-being. There’s actually good reason to think that achieving some level of mastery at work is an important source of happiness, but it’s unlikely that we have to spend 60 hours a week to derive that benefit, nor should we accept that work is the only context in which to achieve that sense of mastery. That gets me to what I want to explore: how the medium chill might also make us, in some sense, more productive. David hits on that briefly in one of his follow-ups:

More and more labor is shifting into informal/voluntary non-market contexts, a trend that’s both inevitable and desirable. Clay Shirky once said of Wikipedia that it is “best understood not as a product with an organisation behind it, but as an activity that happens to leave an encyclopedia in its wake.” More voluntary activities will leave useful social resources in their wake in coming years, especially when the first large cohort of computer-literate retirees arrives.

Matt Yglesias wrote something along these lines over a year ago:

Meanwhile, it’s more possible than ever for people’s non-commercial labors to have a meaningful impact on the world. I think open source software is exciting. I think amateur mashups are exciting. I think digital distribution of albums recorded on the cheap by people playing music for fun while holding down day jobs is exciting. I think fan fiction is exciting. I think people who work at universities and other non-profits writing blogs to inform and entertain is exciting. I think people diligently recording the progress of their neighborhood and organizing for a better city is exciting. Wikipedia is, of course, indispensable these days and Wikileaks is doing a tremendous job.

I wonder where this will take us. At the moment the cohort of people with the most opportunity to engage in non-commercial activities—retirees—is the very same cohort that’s least inclined to avail itself of digital technology. When Web-savvy people start retiring, I think we’ll see an explosion in non-commercial production. And can we extend it to other kinds of information goods beyond music and writing and brief amusing YouTube videos? Is open source pharmaceutical development possible? And if it’s not possible, what policy changes might make it possible?

Think of this in terms of the basic economics for a moment. We need to produce various useful goods and services. We rely on firms – and the market at a broader level – to coordinate the division of labor necessary to produce these things. We need managers and org charts and work plans to overcome the basic fact that, left to our own devices, we wouldn’t really be able to get much done.

That was the old assumption. It largely made sense in a world that wasn’t connected. To produce sophisticated goods requires collaboration and, pre-internet, collaboration was quite expensive. All that is changing. There’s a new model in town – what Yochai Benkler calls “commons-based peer production”, which I’ve written about here. Today, coordination within large groups is relatively cheap. That’s how we’re able to produce Wikipedia, Linux, and Ceiling Cat.

Let’s return now to the medium chill. Even pre-internet I’d find David’s formulation compelling. Even just on enjoyment alone he has a strong case. But in our new low-transaction-cost world I believe his case is even stronger. It seems at least possible that if we worked less, we would actually produce more of value. Whereas, the added spare time would have once gone almost entirely to leisure and time with immediate family or nearby friends, today much of it could conceivably be spent creating information and cultural goods like software, music, political commentary, and more. Added to all the other benefits of the medium chill, I think it sounds pretty good.

Jul 202011

Jonathan Rauch seems to willfully ignore how easy it is to create good filters that locate excellent content:

3) If we had but world enough and time (that’s poetry, btw), we could search for good stuff all day long and the average low quality of the blogosphere might not matter. But average people on average time-budgets have to care if average quality drops, because that’s what they’re dealing with on an average day. (The same will be true, by the way, of historians. Can you imagine the task they’ll face, wading through all that online dreck?)

This is very clearly how he’d prefer things to be. Because if only he’s right things might just go back to the way they were before… or something.

Now I do believe that it’s important to think both about how the web exists in terms of potential use, and how it’s actually used. So if the argument is that people aren’t using good filters then that’s an argument I actually respect. But the idea that it just takes too long to figure out good filters? Patently absurd. You could set yourself up with a decent filter in 5 minutes with Twitter or an RSS reader. Perfecting the filter? Sure, that takes time. But that’s a whole other ball of wax.

Jul 192011

I highly recommend this excellent piece “The Brain on Trial” from The Atlantic’s July/August issue. This bit stood out as relevant to some of the writing I’ve been doing on overcoming bias:

We may be on the cusp of finding new rehabilitative strategies as well, affording people better control of their behavior, even in the absence of external authority. To help a citizen reintegrate into society, the ethical goal is to change him as little as possible while bringing his behavior into line with society’s needs. My colleagues and I are proposing a new approach, one that grows from the understanding that the brain operates like a team of rivals, with different neural populations competing to control the single output channel of behavior. Because it’s a competition, the outcome can be tipped. I call the approach “the prefrontal workout.”

The basic idea is to give the frontal lobes practice in squelching the short-term brain circuits. To this end, my colleagues Stephen LaConte and Pearl Chiu have begun providing real-time feedback to people during brain scanning. Imagine that you’d like to quit smoking cigarettes. In this experiment, you look at pictures of cigarettes during brain imaging, and the experimenters measure which regions of your brain are involved in the craving. Then they show you the activity in those networks, represented by a vertical bar on a computer screen, while you look at more cigarette pictures. The bar acts as a thermometer for your craving: if your craving networks are revving high, the bar is high; if you’re suppressing your craving, the bar is low. Your job is to make the bar go down. Perhaps you have insight into what you’re doing to resist the craving; perhaps the mechanism is inaccessible. In any case, you try out different mental avenues until the bar begins to slowly sink. When it goes all the way down, that means you’ve successfully recruited frontal circuitry to squelch the activity in the networks involved in impulsive craving. The goal is for the long term to trump the short term. Still looking at pictures of cigarettes, you practice making the bar go down over and over, until you’ve strengthened those frontal circuits. By this method, you’re able to visualize the activity in the parts of your brain that need modulation, and you can witness the effects of different mental approaches you might take.

If these tactics can be successful for controlling the impulse to have a cigarette, could something similar work to counter one’s biases? Could we train the mental levers that are responsible for motivated reasoning? In some sense this – like much in bias research – should be intuitive. Take a deep breath. Count to 10. Keep your mind open. We know our susceptibility to bias isn’t static. What can neuroscience tell us about how to train ourselves to think more rationally?

(Note: it’s not emotion vs. reason as by now we grasp that emotion is central to all reasoning, biased or not.)

Jul 182011

In a lengthy new post, Clay Shirky hits on a point that I think doesn’t get mentioned enough:

Here’s what the newspaper business sounds like: the modestly talented son of the founder can generate double-digit margins based on little more than the happy accident that there are people who like football and buy cars living within 30 miles of his house.

That’s the newspaper business, or at least it was until recently. The average US paper runs more soft than hard news, uses more third-party content than anything created by their own staff, and reaches more people who care about local teams than local zoning.

Much public worry about newspapers concerns a relative handful of excellent dailies with national or international ambitions. Most papers, however, aren’t like that. The New York Times and the Enid, OklahomaNews and Eagle occupy different parts of the news ecosystem, and they face different stresses and fates, but more papers—many more—exist at the News and Eagle end of the spectrum.*

Buy a newspaper. Cut it up. Throw away the ads. Sort the remaining stories into piles. Now, describe the editorial logic holding those piles together.

If you’ve picked a general interest paper, this will be hard. I recently learned, from a single day’s paper, that a bombing in Kirkuk killed 27, that Penelope Cruz has only good memories of filming Pirates of the Caribbean while pregnant, that many U.S. business hotels are switching to ‘shower-only’ bathrooms, and that 30-year fixed mortgages fell from 4.63% to 4.61% the week before.

Writing about the Dallas Cowboys in order to take money from Ford and give it to the guy on the City Desk never made much sense, but at least it worked.

The point here is that not all that much of what “journalism” produces is actually civically important. There’s only a very small slice that is democratically necessary. That fact gets lost in part because many of the people writing about the problems of journalism are journalists, and so many of them write the content that isn’t essential. They tend to lump themselves all in together. But not all of their jobs are equally important. It’s a small slice that needs to be saved, for the sake of democracy.

As I put it in a post a while back:

When I talk about how we will finance news/journalism I’m interested in only a very small subset of all journalism which I’d refer to as that which provides core civic knowledge.  In other words, the information that we feel is vital to a functioning democracy.*  By this measure, most of what we see in the newspapers is not an issue.  Go through a newspaper sometime and look.  We’re not talking about how to fund the sports section, the travel section, the style section, that article on some writer’s quest for the perfect espresso.  That is beyond the scope of what we, as a society, need to ensure exists going forward.

[Side note: I happen to think the network/the blogosphere is pretty good at providing much of this "feature" content but even if it isn't, if people want it, let them pay.  If they won't pay, it's no great civic loss for it not to exist.]

Jul 152011

I have a couple quick items to post that relate to my last Atlantic post on embedding bias-correcting interventions in our media. One of them is quite belated; the other I just came across. First, here’s the gist of my initial post:

Photo: wellohorld And via Freakonomics

Context can affect bias, and on the Web — if I can riff on Lessig — code is context. So why not design media that accounts for the user’s biases and helps him or her overcome them?

There is some evidence, for instance, that “self-affirmation” exercises can limit our susceptibility to motivated reasoning. Our political beliefs reflect our conception of who we are and what we stand for. Therefore, information that runs counter to those beliefs threatens our perceived self-worth. Multiple studies have shown that having participants reaffirm their self-worth outside of politics reduces their vulnerability to motivated reasoning. (The exercises took the form of writing about a personal value unrelated to politics.)

How might I react if the pop-up at my friend’s site prompted me to write a few sentences reaffirming my value outside of politics?

(I did a follow-up post here on my blog clarifying some things and offering other examples.)

Shortly after the initial post went up I heard from Scott Clifford, a political science grad student, via Twitter. He pointed out that self-affirmation exercises are less effective if participants are aware of what’s going on. He pointed me to this paper, the abstract of which I’ve copied below:

Three studies investigated whether self-affirmation can proceed without awareness, whether people areaware of the influence of experimental self-affirmations, and whether such awareness facilitates orundermines the self-affirmation process. The authors found that self-affirmation effects could proceedwithout awareness, as implicit self-affirming primes (utilizing sentence-unscrambling procedures) produced standard self-affirmation effects (Studies 1 and 3). People were generally unaware of selfaffirmation’s influence, and self-reported awareness was associated with decreased impact of theaffirmation (Studies 1 and 2). Finally, affirmation effects were attenuated when people learned thatself-affirmation was designed to boost self-esteem (Study 2) or told of a potential link betweenself-affirmation and evaluations of threatening information (Study 3). Together, these studies suggest notonly that affirmation processes can proceed without awareness but also that increased awareness of theaffirmation may diminish its impact.

I don’t have anything novel to add here, but Scott is right that this is a critical issue for what I’m proposing. So that’s the long overdue item.

The next item is via Freakonomics. It’s a rather amusing example of the general point that interventions can predictably alter political beliefs:

As if we needed more evidence that people often fail to practice rational, thoughtful analysis in making a decision: a new study by Travis Carter at the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago’s Booth School finds that people who are briefly exposed to the American flag shift toward Republican beliefs.

Jul 012011

Thanks to Edge, I posted about the new research into the evolutionary basis of reason and argument well before The New York Times picked it up. But here, as a follow-up to that NYT piece, is another post that clarifies the authors’ position. Turns out it’s right in line with what I expected. Here’s what I wrote in my previous post:

The first question that comes to mind for me is this: Why, if reasoning isn’t based at least in part on developing correct beliefs, would reasons be useful for convincing others? In other words, if I’m not using reasoning in the traditional enlightenment sense then why would I treat reasons as useful input when someone else tries to convince me? Reasons would seem to be more useful tools for convincing in a world where individuals were also using them as tools for obtaining correct beliefs.

I take that to be what the authors are saying in the NYT follow-up:

We do not claim that reasoning has nothing to do with the truth. We claim that reasoning did not evolve to allow the lone reasoner to find the truth. We think it evolved to argue. But arguing is not only about trying to convince other people; it’s also about listening to their arguments. So reasoning is two-sided. On the one hand, it is used to produce arguments. Here its goal is to convince people. Accordingly, it displays a strong confirmation bias — what people see as the “rhetoric” side of reasoning. On the other hand, reasoning is also used to evaluate arguments. Here its goal is to tease out good arguments from bad ones so as to accept warranted conclusions and, if things go well, get better beliefs and make better decisions in the end.

Also, apologies for the light blogging lately. I’ve been writing a bunch about clean energy in the last few days over at the NECEC blog, so if you’re really desperate to read stuff I’m writing, you’ll find some new stuff over there.