A couple thoughts spurred by a quote from an obituary and a comment in a podcast about AI.
The SF Chronicle obituary for Ellen Tauscher, a moderate Democrat from the East Bay who served in Congress and the Obama Administration, had this piece of advice from her:
Politics, she said in a 2013 interview with University of California television, is the “ability to listen to people and understand what they’re saying.”
“You have to remember that you (may) know more than your constituents, but you don’t know better than they do,” she said.
It’s something to keep in mind in an age of artificial intelligence. Although there are people and systems who might seem to know more about you, they don’t know you better. And they’re not really listening to you.
Stuart Russell, an AI professor at UC Berkeley, said in an interview with Sam Harris on the Making Sense podcast episode, “Possible Minds,” aren’t paying attention to you and what you like. He talked about how the reinforcement learning algorithms of social media work.
“The system, which is a combination of the algorithms and the corporation — the people in the corporation that are adjusting them — have created a reinforcement learning process to maximize click-through revenue. When you run a reinforcement learning algorithm, here’s what it’s not doing. It is not looking at what that person clicks on and learning what that person likes and sending them more of what that person likes. That’s what you think (happens), and that’s what the designers of these algorithms imagine would happen. But that’s not what reinforcement learning does. What it does is it acts on its environment to maximize its reward. The environment here is your brain. It acts on your brain to make you a more predictable clicker. By a typical process of trial and error, what I think these algorithms have figured out is how to gradually feed you articles that will move you in a direction towards being a more predictable person, a more predictable clicker. That’s all it cares about.”
He remarked that people on the extreme ends of the political spectrum, left and right, are more predictable on what they click on. The people in the middle are less predictable. So the reinforcement learning algorithms push people out to the extremes where they will be more predictable, and of course, not caring whether that extreme is to the left or to the right.
This thought is elaborated on in Shoshana Zubbof’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism“. She writes that Internet companies use your data to build a predictive model of your behavior and create a prediction market. What they sell to other companies is their ability to predict whether you will click on one ad versus another, whether you are more like to buy one thing instead of another. Surveillance capitalism, she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.” This is, in turn, is “fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.” What hubris!
Tauscher’s advice is worth remembering for technocrats and technologists alike. Even though you may know more than another person, it doesn’t mean that you know what’s better for them.
Born in Bloomington, Indiana to Kuwaiti parents, Lubna Saif Abbas returned to Kuwait following the liberation of Kuwait by US Armed Forces. Working for JAG in the Army, she along with a group of women set out to document war crimes committed by the Iraqi Army. She decided to remain in Kuwait and with her partner Hamid runs Yawadi Glass, an art studio that is located in an Islamic museum.
I met Lubna at Maker Faire Kuwait in February 2019.
It was the Friday before Maker Faire Cairo opened. At a restaurant on banks the Nile, I had dinner with Michael Shiloh, a tinkerer, engineer and maker whom I have known since before the first Maker Faire in the Bay Area. After working for many years in industry, Michael discovered he enjoyed teaching. He taught at CCA in San Francisco, until two years ago when he began his current job as an associate professor of the practice of interactive media at NYU Abu Dhabi. Michael also worked with the Arduino team and co-authored with Massimo Banzi the 2nd Edition of “Getting Started with Arduino.”
I had the pleasure of reconnecting with Michael and wanted to share some of our leisurely conversation.
A few tidbits
It’s refreshing to come to Cairo where there is all this stuff going on, after living in Abu Dhabi for a couple of years where everything is so polished, pristine, and brand new.
We are trying to encourage (students) to be creative, not to be so proscribed, not to think so much about products, on scalability, and how much they are going to sell their startup for. … But to think creatively about what looks interesting, whimsical, fascinating, what amazes people, attracts their attention and not so much how I can sell it.
I have yet to see a bumper sticker or poster advocating on behalf of Oleg Deripaska or other Russian oligarchs. Where is the swelling of public support for removing sanctions from Russian oligarchs and Russian companies? Isn’t it just incredible why some things happen?
Isn’t it confounding that the US government would spend time thinking about how to remove sanctions from Deripaska or even define a process for removing them? Why do it? And why now?
It is hard not to see the lifting of sanctions as a favor based on the long-standing business relationship between Deripaska and Paul Manafort, who has worked as an advisor and investment manager for Deripaska and as a campaign manager for Trump. US Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin was in charge of financing the Trump campaign, and he is the one authorizing the changes that benefit Deripaska and other Russians who have been Republican donors.
As I wrote previously about the Russian hacking during the election, the Russians seem to know us better than we know ourselves. That is, they are under no illusion as to how our system works.
“Oleg Deripaska understands better than most Russian oligarchs how money buys influence in Washington,” said Michael R. Carpenter, a former National Security Council official during the Obama administration who is now senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. “It seems like he’s now using that knowledge to try to save his skin.”
Deripaska has a British Lord in his employ and many others lobbying for him. Apparently it is working.
If you want to learn more about Russians in power, read Red Notice, a terrific book by Bill Browder that tells Browder’s own tale as an investor in Russia in the 1990s who ended up on the wrong side of Putin and his cronies. It explains how the oligarchs amassed wealth and power following the break-up of the Soviet Union. When Putin came to power, he established the principle that the oligarchs worked for him and he got a healthy chunk of their wealth. Those were the only terms under which the oligarchs could keep a still sizable portion of their wealth and influence. Browder would not accept those terms and tried to make others in Russia aware of what was going on.
Browder was also a key figure in the passing of the Maginsky Act, named after an associate of Browder’s who was detained and killed in Moscow. The US law brought sanctions on the oligarchs restricting their ability to move money to the US and to enter the country. He believed it was the only way to bring some justice to the oligarchs.
Now, under Trump, the government is figuring out how to unwind the sanctions, at least for Deripaska and perhaps other Russians. The Democrats passed a bill in the House to stop the Treasury Department from ending the sanctions but it was defeated in the Senate. The Treasury Department lifted the sanctions on the Sunday a day before our own government shutdown was set to end.
I was in Beijing about a week ago and a Chinese colleague prodded me: “Your government is shutdown.”
Half-embarrassed, I replied: “Yes, we always shut down the government for the New Year.” The Chinese New Year would start in a few weeks and already people were talking about how Beijing would shut down, as many people leave to go visit their family elsewhere in the country.
After laughing, he added that the Chinese could not imagine their government shutting down. He even wondered if it would be a good thing to happen in China, simply because it was so unimaginable.
Later with a group over lunch, the discussion was about how the Chinese judged the work of their government. “There’s a billion people,” said a woman. “The government is responsible for so many people, which is hard, but they do their job.” They agreed that the government was mostly competent and they expressed pride in the work it did.
Last week, I received an email message from a woman who works at NASA Ames and like other NASA employees who not working because of the government shutdown. She wondered if anything could be done to help the NASA workers because morale was so low. She said that many of them come to Maker Faire and wondered if some hands-on projects would help them.
In her email, she wrote: “I am afraid my colleagues will leave and go to better paying private sector jobs because they have to know that they can support their families. I guess I just thought maybe… just maybe if somebody like you could offer a little bit of what they really need… their work. Then maybe they could hold on a little bit longer before thinking about going to The Private Sector.”
I wasn’t sure what I could do but I wanted to talk to the woman who wrote me. However, by the time we actually talked last Friday, the announcement had come that the shutdown was ending, for at least 3 weeks. Nonetheless, she shared how hard it was for the NASA workers to not be working. Scientists. Engineers. They missed their work. She described a social event that was held just to allow people to see each other, and it was very sad, she said. “These people work for NASA because of the mission, because they love science and they want to give something back to the world,” she told me. “They just want to do their work.”
Ronald Reagan famously said that “In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; the government is the problem.” When you make government the problem, you really don’t really care about the problem and you don’t have a working solution. The longest shutdown in US government history was not just pointless; it was careless.
Who you really are is what you say or do when no one is watching. There are all kinds of variations on this idea. C.S. Lewis says: “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” Motivational guru Tony Robbins quotes UCLA basketball coaching legend, John Wooden:
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are…the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
Robbins warns that creating an image of who you are, or cultivating an image through social media, can be at odds with who you really are, your core self. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that social media is creating a “prestige economy” in which people seek recognition or prestige by what they say or do online, often reacting to what others have said. It’s done with the idea that everyone is watching you, which at first seems compelling, like the 60’s TV-oriented protest slogan: “The Whole World is Watching.”
In a Recode Pivot podcast interview with Scott Galloway, Haidt says that:
social media and technology have put us all into a social space where whatever we say, various strangers with assumed names are going to say incredibly nasty things about us. Which makes us all reluctant to speak in public and which kind of decimates trust…
..,technology changes social dynamics so that when two people are talking, they’re not necessarily talking to each other. They’re talking to the, possibly a very large audience. That changes the nature of interaction, and generally, in bad ways.
Social media can be the equivalent of thinking out loud without giving much thought to what you say. It is possible to share whatever comes to mind, without any intervening delay, without getting the feedback of a few before hearing from many. The reaction might not be what you expected.
It is good to ask ourselves what we would do if all of that noise wasn’t happening all around us, online as well as offline. Or what we’d be thinking if we weren’t always listening to what everyone else has to say. Can we balance the chatter of social media by cultivating the life of our own minds, giving ourselves the time and space to think — or not think at all? This would require developing a practice, a habit of balancing ourselves, a kind of mental training for when nobody is watching you.
Nancy, my wife, does Morning Pages, a practice which comes from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Nancy writes three pages longhand every morning in her journal, which she will show to no one. (I have instructions that upon her passing to gather her notebooks and burn them — without anybody reading them.) Morning Pages are not intended to be consumed by anyone. They help create a space in your own mind for you to listen to yourself and express yourself — without judgement, without analysis.
I must admit that when she first started writing her Morning Pages, I didn’t quite understand what and why she was doing them. It was a kind of writing exercise, I thought, that seemed somewhat pointless to me. Blogger Chris Winfield thought the same thing until he started doing Morning Pages himself. He found that it helped develop a “clearer mind, better ideas and less anxiety.” It can also help you discover your creativity. He writes:
In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it. And it’s through this seemingly pointless process that you are able to find it. You discover things that have been hidden inside you and stuffed down in the business of life.
We need a way of discarding many of our thoughts and just letting them go. It’s like flushing pipes to clean them out before fresh water comes out. Opening the flow itself is what’s important about creating Morning Pages. Shutting off the flow altogether may also be its own practice.
Meditation, sometimes also called mindfulness, seems very different from Morning Pages, yet it is a way to gain some control over your thoughts. Often meditation is described as teaching yourself to be present in the moment, creating greater awareness that you and your mind are in your body, here and now. “Mindfulness is simply a state of open, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant,” Sam Harris, author of the book, “Waking Up”, writes on his site. Harris adds:
The goal is to awaken from our trance of discursive thinking—and from the habit of ceaselessly grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant—so that we can enjoy a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.
For most of us, meditating for long stretches, sitting in silence, seems impossible. Sometimes just for a minute, it is hard to stop the incessant talking in our own heads and not feel subject to the randomness of conscious thought. Meditating is a way of learning to pay closer attention to what Harris called the “flow of experience.”
This weekend, I attended a memorial service for artist and poet Wilder Bentley at a Buddhist temple (Emanji in Sebastopol). (I hope to write about Wilder in a future post.) In the pamphlet distributed at the memorial, a poem of Wilder’s mentioned “the silence behind all sounds” and the Buddhist priest emphasized it his remarks on Dharma, or Buddhist teaching. I want to learn to think more deeply, and also think a lot less. The priest went on to say that the Dharma is a flow, which I took to mean was a way of thinking, rather than the thoughts themselves. The Way of Dharma. The Artist’s Way. Seeking our own way.