Constructing our Truths

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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Kevin Kelly on the Inevitable... Richard Epstein on Cruises, Fi...

Russ Roberts's enthusiasm for technology and optimism for the future might only be outdone by this week's EconTalk guest, futurist Kevin Kelly. Their conversation ranges over the human need for communication, developing techno-literacy skills for The Inevitable future, and the very purpose of humans in relation to the digital world.

How do you interact with technology? Are you seeing a transition from the technology of information to the technology of experience? Has the Internet shortened your attention span? Sped up your brain? As always, we love to hear from you...So please share your thoughts with us in the Comments, and share our posts with your friends.

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1. What does Kelly mean when he says, "...in a very real way our inventions assign us our jobs?" How has your work changed with technology, and to what extent do you think technological advance is a net positive for people in your line of work?

2. What is "the Internet of Experience?" How does this signify a change in the way we interact with technology? Have you seen any evidence of this as yet? To what extent are you looking forward to it?

3. How has the Internet changed the way you communicate and interact with others? The way you contemplate? Has this been a net positive change in your experience? Do you think technology's effects will be more or less positive going forward?

4. While we used to be "people of the book," Kelly says we have now become "people of the screen." What does this entail? Kelly also suggests we will need a whole skill set for "constructing our truths." What should/would be included in such a skill set?

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Kent Lyon writes:

One is reminded that before books, humans stored a prodigious amount of information in their own memories. The ancient poets, blind though they may have been, recited the Iliad and Odyssey from memory. Australian aborigines could recite their 50,000 year history from memory, though the total reciting required a year to complete. Few to no humans (maybe Jorge Luis Borges, the blind poet of Argentina, now deceased) can now store such amounts of information mentally. Having all that content on compact storage devices may be a handicap as much as a boon. A "peripheral brain" as we used to say about the Washington Manual of Medical Therapeutics during residency training. One also thinks of the Australian aborigines who consider Westerners not quite full people because they require such things as telephones and radios (and now the internet and smart phones) to communicate over long distances, which the Aborigines appeared to do clairvoyantly. Or the observations that remote generations of homo sapiens appear to have had larger brains than current members of the species. And that humans may be becoming dumber with technological advances, over which Drs Roberts and Kelly seem so giddy. Now that we are creatures of the screen, not even the book, how much more impoverished will our memories and mental capacities and imaginations become? One fears to imagine.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a misnomer glorifying something truly mundane. Rather than "artificial intelligence" it should be termed "IA" which is, "Iterative Automation". While it can be highly useful, even transformational, it is hardly "intelligence" although it is artificial. The "real" thing is captured in Schroedinger's thought experiment of the cat in the box, namely, that human consciousness (intelligence, the real thing) is necessary to collapse the wave equation and effect the outcome of the several probabilities inherent in the wave equation of the system. Eugene Wigner observed that modern science has no method to explain how human consciousness directly affects the physical world as represented by Schroedinger's cat (formalized as Bell's Theorm or Inequality and extensively tested, so far not negated). "Artificial Intelligence" will become an actuality when computers can be demonstrated to be able to "collapse" the wave equation without human intervention. That is a rather tall order that no one is talking about at all. Quantum computation will need to be highly developed before that occurs. Count me a skeptic of the virtual world. or the mind enhancing powers of that world, entertaining as they may be.

The "mind scientists" of our time, such as Daniel Dennett, proclaim human consciousness an illusion, and maintain that humans are actually functioning in a zombie state (early refuted by a few moments of meditation on ones own thought processes, and the mind "working on it's own" as Russ Roberts happened to noted). In Dennett's perspective, AI is the real thing and can't be distinguished from human intelligence or consciousness. In fact, Kurt Godel mathematically refuted the zombie status of human consciousness, Dennett's "Illusions", in his famed but utterly misconstrued (by others, not Godel) Incompleteness Theorems. Dr. Roberts should search out someone with some insight into such issues to expand and complement podcasts like this one Maybe Thomas Nagel.

Russ Roberts writes:

Kent Lyon,

Thanks for the interesting observations. I don't understand your point about Shroedinger's Cat so if you can suggest a reading on that, I would much appreciate it.

Meanwhile, this essay tries to capture my latest thinking on the issue of consciousness, AI (or IA) and free will.

Daniel Barkalow writes:

3. Email has been great for me for communication. On the other hand, social media and the assumption that you know what your friends are up to has been difficult for me. One thing that I don't think people pay enough attention to is that the internet enables a wide array of different patterns of communication; it's not a single form like postal mail or the telephone, but a whole bunch of forms which have different properties and different mechanics, and these properties and mechanics matter enormously to the overall effect. I recently watched a YouTube video (M2rhc7mPqWI) about how SnapChat is different from Twitter. And it seems like it would be an arcane difference that only matters to techies, and like they're both just social media, but it turns out in practice that it matters a lot. It's like if you were interviewing a guest in front of a live audience, it would matter whether the audience was talking back to you loud enough for you to hear or not.

The thing that's new and tricky about the internet, then, that's different from previous technologies, is that we get new forms with drastically different properties so frequently, and which forms any given person is paying attention to change so often. In 1996, it was mailing lists; in 2001, it was blogs; in 2006, it was Twitter; in 2011, it was SnapChat; and that's only a small sample of qualitatively different new media. Furthermore, the choice of medium is often mostly dependant on who you're trying to communicate with or on the topic, and that, in turn, often depends on happenstance and features that aren't what shapes the discourse. (For example, there's no obvious reason that, when discussing EconTalk episodes, it is particularly appropriate that responses to one's own comments are mixed with other discussion of the same episode; that seems to me to be a property of the particular software which was chosen for other reasons.)

Crescent writes:

It is a really interesting topic, and our guest do provide some thoughtful statements.
As he mentioned, shift from books to screen is a way of sharing ideas, a symbol of “freedom”. He insisted that it will take a long time for people to understand the value of sharing and owning. What I felt about it is the opposite way. Ownership in terms of private poverty is determined to become the motives of productivity. Using music as an example, if singers know they will get no money from music, they will shift to films or other industries. Even though singers are still working on songs, it is possible that they will become less willing to do that.
In terms of communication, I have a few words to say. Our guest seems to omit a fact that while technology does enhance communication, it also dehumanized us. Take talking as a very general example. When people talk to each other face to face, they concern about their behaviors and tones, but when they post their thoughts on Tweet or Facebook, they are easily lose control of themselves. It is true that VR can provide us the similar feelings, but people may still treat it as “fake”, so they can react however they want. If they realize the one they are talking to is just an AI or VR, which means not a real person, people may not show the human characteristics like humble and respect because what people response to is just a “machine”.
I try to be open-minded, but there are much more problems we need to concern.

Christian Townsend writes:

3. How has the Internet changed the way you communicate and interact with others? The way you contemplate? Has this been a net positive change in your experience? Do you think technology's effects will be more or less positive going forward?

Having grown up in the age of the Internet I have always been immersed in the stream of knowledge that the Internet allows for. While there have been significant changes such as the smartphone and the increase in the efficiency of the Internet, the basic concept of being able to "Google" an answer has always been available. I remember getting AOL messenger in middle school in order to collaborate on a project for class, and just last week I was using google docs to work on a project for my internship.

The Internet has allowed for this constant connection with others and it has produced both positives and negatives. Positively it has increased our ability to work with others and has created a new way for us to bond with others. This, perhaps, could be the new way that we create the civic associations that Tocqueville says are integral to the survival of Democracy in America, and could be the way that we combat the recent decline of such civic associations that Putnam mentions in his book Bowling Alone. It has also increased the level of my communication with others as it has allowed me to be more informed about what is going on in the world politically and culturally.

However, it has also decreased the experiential interactions with others. Since communication can occur within the comforts of ones own house, people are less likely to seek out the face to face communications. I would argue that it also has decreased our level of contemplation. As Neil Postman argues in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the constant stream of information leads us to become less deeply informed on subjects and less concerned about their ramifications. Because the Internet produces so much entertainment for us it lulls us into a sense of comfort and ignorance and allows us to be manipulated by what we see on the Internet. This can be clearly seen in the commonplace of misquotes that occur because someone saw it on the Internet and assumed its veracity.

Whether or not the Internet has produced a net positive change or not is almost an impossible question to answer because of the way that it has so fundamentally transformed us. As Kevin Kelly said we have created something that we never thought we would need but now could not live without. I think our only comparison can be the Gutenberg press and the incredible change that it produced for the world. I think that in the same way we would say that it changed the world for the good we must say the same about the Internet. While I don't believe that this means we are better than the people who lived before the Internet or the people who lived before the Gutenberg press, they seem archaic to us because they lived in a different world than the one we live in now. Going forward, we will continue to see the change that technology will bring to our lives and continue to see the upheaval it creates. Arab Spring, Trump's political campaign, and Planking are all at least in some part creations of the Internet and we will continue to be forced to react and adapt to the changes that it throws at us. While it is important to reflect on whether or not the changes will be positive or negative, it is more important to accept the changes and attempt to continue to adapt to the new world technology has created.

Thomas writes:

I agree that Thomas Nagel needs to be looked at more in depth on this debate, especially his "Mind and Cosmos." So much of this modern optimism on the subject comes from men and women with a materialist metaphysic (commonly called by the name scientism), which, as many would argue, is radically incoherent.

The best and worst thing about the net in my own experience has been it's easy in allowing me to form sub-cultures I have no other relation to but mere interest. Society does not exist as a conglomerate of sub-cultures, and without the growth of local communities, many individuals can become (paradoxically) very connected but without a meaningful community.

Phillip writes:


There is no doubt the internet has changed the way humans interact and think. This podcast made me think of a research paper by Yale doctoral candidate Matthew Fisher and his colleagues Mariel Goddu and Frank Keil, Searching for Explanations: How the Internet Inflates Estimates of Internal Knowledge in which they asked if the internet makes people feel smarter than they actually are. Kevin Kelly says that the internet is a giant library, with the growing ease of access to this giant library, is the internet making us overconfident? Can we distinguish between what we know and just what we can easily find out? With the integration of this vast amount of data into our lives by downsizing the storage hardware to the size of a phone as Kevin Kelly suggests, I believe Fisher in that one effect this will have on humans of the future is not just the belief that we can find the answers to questions, but the belief that we know the answers to questions. The line between the information on the web and information in our minds, will begin to be blurred. This then raises the question of dependence future humans will have on this synthetic intelligence or any other form of AI, and what happens if it can no longer be accessed.
Whether the internet has created a net positive or negative change, this is hard to answer. I would say this technological development has made access to knowledge and information, and life in general easier, but it’s hard to answer if it made life better. The condition of life is relative to the time period. There is no doubt we live in a period of increasing connectedness and sharing of information. We will have to accept this and change in accordance to it, while trying to preserve ideals of individuality and self-reliance.

Jason Edmondson writes:

A common fear of a future in which technology can accomplish most tasks that fall on humans is that people will have scarce access to jobs. The concern that a technological future is one dominated by unemployment is irrational, however. Most seem to have forgotten that it is not unemployment they fear, but poverty. In a future where even the smallest job is done by a machine, poverty and unemployment do not accompany one another as they do today.

Donald J. Boudreaux, an econ professor, argues that prices will be so low that any one will be able to afford what they need. Machines lower the costs of production and consequently the cost of the product or service.

Obviously this is a fantastic world that is difficult to conceive or imagine, but it does act as a counterargument to those who worry about a "robot take-over." Post scarcity, for now, is merely a dream of a future that we do not yet know how to achieve.

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