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Rabbit Holes 🕳 #22
From rethinking intelligence, to democracy by lottery, food monoculture, the language of economics, and influencer creep
After the two-part deep dive into the idea of resonance (in case you missed it, click here), we're now back to the usual weekly Rabbit Holes format. Enjoy! 🙂
Rabbit Holes 🕳
As always, here are five perspective-shifting ideas that I’ve come across recently:
#1 🧠 Rethinking Intelligence
I know, I promised to make these excerpts shorter….😅 BUT this one is sooo interesting and so important, especially if you want to get a deeper understanding of what the ongoing hype around Generative AI means for humanity. But not only that! The below also gives you a different view on the human-nature relationship. A must-read!
“If we humans are going to gain a better understanding of the vibrant world around us — and the damage we are doing to it — we’re going to need a new conception of nonhuman intelligence.”
“[…] The modern version of “intelligence” […] came to be understood as a capacity for ordered, rational, problem-solving, pattern-recognizing cognition. […] Both intelligence and agency are habitually identified as universal human attributes, part of the very definition of what it means to be human.”
“Consider, for example, the ways intelligence has been used in the study of animal and artificial intelligence. […] Just as elite groups of white males had earlier stood as the standard for human intelligence, human intelligence continued to be the measure of animal minds. This happens explicitly, when cognitive performance is assessed by comparing it to the capacity of a human infant or child, and also implicitly, when the types of tasks used to assess intelligence speak to human strengths. [Hence,] the creatures commonly assumed to be most “intelligent,” like primates, are still those that look and behave most like humans.”
“The progress of artificial intelligence is also measured against the human yardstick […] Again, the idea of what constitutes “intelligence” closely resembles the earlier 19th-century model of rational, logical analysis. Key research goals [in AI], for example, focus on reasoning, problem-solving, pattern recognition and the capacity to map the relationship between concepts, objects and strategies. “Intelligence” here is cognitive, rational and goal-directed.”
“[…] Perhaps as a result, people tend to fear the consequences of AI. […] All these debates about intelligence and the human future are based on the assumption that intelligence is fundamentally rational and goal-directed — that is, that the 19th-century understanding of the concept is still the most appropriate interpretation of what it is. What if it isn’t? And what about agency? What if agency isn’t self-conscious, or even based in an individual?”
“By the end of the 20th century, studies of learning and decision-making began to note the importance of play and the significance of emotion to the development of both intelligence and agency. It became clear that emotion is central to the process of learning: It influences attention, retention and reasoning. […] In the 1960s, […] Jean Piaget argued that play was central to learning, enabling children to familiarize themselves with skills and scenarios in safe environments. More recent ethological work on non-human animals confirms that individuals who play more are more successful (in terms of individual life span and reproductive success) than those who don’t — although the precise mechanisms linking play with these outcomes remain unclear.”
“Even more importantly, when it comes to considering both AI and risk, researchers have recently begun to pay a lot more attention to the significance of stories when it comes to understanding public behaviors and decision-making. […] The startling growth of both the range and size of digital and analog entertainment platforms has demonstrated the economic weight of the imagination. Play, it turns out, is serious work. Fairy tales may well prove more useful than factor analysis in understanding human agency in the Anthropocene. This is because stories are vitally important in both explaining and expanding an individual’s understanding of a situation. Particularly in the past decade, the West has seen how stories (myths, post-truths, history) help form collective community identities, which can sometimes exacerbate inter-community tension.”
“But stories that involve multiple points of view also encourage readers or viewers to see the world from a different perspective. Different stories and different sensory orientations can open up different opportunities for dialogue and insight.”
“Stories, whether we are consuming them or acting them out, can themselves be considered experimental interventions, as we play out what the (economic, emotional, logical) consequences of particular actions might be. They enable us to interact with others more effectively. This point is important because interaction is probably the most unwisely ignored aspect of wise action in the Anthropocene. Discussion of agency in traditional economics and philosophy usually focuses on competition and the role of the (rational) individual. But when it comes down to it, one of the most distinctive and universal characteristics of humanity is our ability to cooperate. This capacity is literally built into our biology. Without cooperation, without the ability to form alliances, women would not be able to give birth or raise children: We would become extinct as a species.”
“Even more significantly — and without even touching on the question of how much of a human actually consists of bacterial DNA — we cooperate across species lines. Our capacity to form close bonds with dogs, for example, may have been a key factor in enabling Homo sapiens to out-compete other hominid species […]. […] In many ways, the Anthropocene can be understood as the expression of collective multispecies agency: Without companion animals and livestock, industrial society could never have developed. It’s not an accident that we still speak of an engine’s “horsepower,” or turn to puppies for companionship in the middle of a devastating pandemic.”
“[So] when it comes to anticipating what artificial intelligence might look like or do, we urgently need to get beyond our limited idea of what constitutes intelligence.”
#2 🗳️ Democracy By Lottery
What the recent rise of authoritarianism, social inequality, discontent and non-participation is showing us, is that the system of democracy is in dire need of a revamp. It feels like the time has (must) come for innovative ideas on how to improve democracy.
“[Elections] may seem the cornerstone of democracy, but in reality they do little to promote it. There’s a far better way to empower ordinary citizens: democracy by lottery.”
“Many Americans agree. In a poll conducted in January 2020, 65 percent of respondents said that everyday people selected by lottery—who meet some basic requirements and are willing and able to serve—would perform better or much better compared to elected politicians. In March last year a Pew survey found that a staggering 79 percent believe it’s very or somewhat important for the government to create assemblies where everyday citizens from all walks of life can debate issues and make recommendations about national laws.”
“The idea—technically known as “sortition”—has been spreading. Perhaps its most prominent academic advocate is Yale political theorist Hélène Landemore. Her 2020 book Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century explores the limitations of both direct democracy and electoral-representative democracy, advocating instead for government by large, randomly selected “mini-publics.”
“She is not alone. Rutgers philosopher Alex Guerrero and Belgian public intellectual David Van Reybrouck have made similar arguments in favor of democracy by lottery. In the 2016 translation of his book Against Elections, Van Reybrouck characterizes elections as “the fossil fuel of politics.” “Whereas once they gave democracy a huge boost,” he writes, “much like the boost that oil gave the economy, now it turns out they cause colossal problems of their own.”
“[…] The practice of choosing everyday citizens to make decisions goes back to the very inventors of democracy: the ancient Athenians. […] The Greek word demokratia usually gets translated as “rule by the people,” or, literally, “people power,” but as historian Paul Cartledge argues in his 2016 book Democracy: A Life, the Athenians had a specific kind of people in mind: the laboring citizens of the community, as opposed to leisured aristocrats. Of course, at the time, this category included only free men, not women, immigrants, or the enslaved—a mere 30,000 or so people out of a total population of some 300,000. But the idea of rule by the common man itself marked a dramatic development in political history.”
“In sum, the entire decision-making system of government was structured on lotteries. Only when it came to choosing generals did Athens employ elections.”
“[But] even if democracy by lottery worked for Athens, could it work today in the massive states of the modern world? A growing body of empirical work on citizens’ assemblies suggests it could.”
(shoutout to the Dense Discovery newsletter for making me aware of this idea)
#3 🥫 Our Food Monoculture
“Of the roughly six thousand different plants once consumed by human beings, only nine remain major staples today” is the quote that got me. What interests me is the question of whether this is also an indication of what’s to come within the plant-based foods market or of what oceans of opportunities within the space there still are if we regenerate and diversify our food again?
“Over the past several decades, globalization has homogenized what we eat, and done so ruthlessly.
The numbers are stark: Of the roughly six thousand different plants once consumed by human beings, only nine remain major staples today. Just three of these--rice, wheat, and corn--now provide fifty percent of all our calories. Dig deeper and the trends are more worrisome still: The source of much of the world's food--seeds--is mostly in the control of just four corporations. Ninety-five percent of milk consumed in the United States comes from a single breed of cow. Half of all the world's cheese is made with bacteria or enzymes made by one company. And one in four beers drunk around the world is the product of one brewer.
If it strikes you that everything is starting to taste the same wherever you are in the world, you're by no means alone.
This matters: when we lose diversity and foods become endangered, we not only risk the loss of traditional foodways, but also of flavors, smells, and textures that may never be experienced again. And the consolidation of our food has other steep costs, including a lack of resilience in the face of climate change, pests, and parasites. Our food monoculture is a threat to our health--and to the planet.
#4 🤔 Forced To Think About Everything In Economic Terms
This isn’t the first time that I share something that shows us how economic (and, in particular, capitalist) “rituals” have been infused in so many shouldn’t-be-economic domains and how that also automatically excludes those not capable of “speaking” economics.
“Economics has become a bit like Catholic theology in medieval Europe. It has basically become the language of the rulers. So if you don’t “speak” economics, you cannot participate in any debate. […] We have been encouraged and sometimes even forced to think everything in economic terms. So when you are trying to protect, I don’t know, a library or a museum, you have to make this economic argument you know: ‘this will encourage learning and increase people’s intelligence and our productivity…’ Why should you do that?.” - Ha-Joon Chang
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#5 🤳 Influencer Culture Creeps Into The Lives Of Workers
Whatever you do in today’s world you somehow also have to share it on social media and build ‘your brand’. And often not even to stand out but just to keep up – because everyone is doing it. How is that changing the idea of work and the relationship between employees and employers?
“[…] Influencer culture has become part of many careers, including journalism, academia, medicine and finance, even as influencers are still often singled out for their social media “hustling.” The expectation that one be “eminently visible,” […] regardless of profession, is particularly salient against a backdrop of labor precarity, the gig-ification of sectors like journalism and higher education, and an always-on work-from-home culture.
Remote workers may perform competence by organizing their work from home spaces into stylish, color-coordinated and highly “professional” Zoom backgrounds. Yoga instructors must take images of daring poses amid dramatic backdrops to build and maintain their following hoping that this online will translate to yoga-class attendance, which has slowed as people continue to work from home. House painters, carpenters, and vacuum-repair people can use their social media to demonstrate their skillfulness and trustworthiness to risk-adverse potential clients, who are nervously shopping around as we teeter on the edge of a recession.
Although the metrics being chased may look slightly different, what was once a matter of professionalization specifically for influencers is now becoming a part of professionalization in general.”
[…] We might […] call the expansion of micro-celebrity practice “influencer creep,” both for how influencing creeps into more forms of work and for how it creeps further into the lives of workers. The mark of influencer creep is the on-edge feeling that you have not done enough for social media platforms: that you can be more on trend, more authentic, more responsive — always more. It lodges in the back of your mind: film more, post more, respond more, share more. And […] there is no apparent way out.”
🤨 Interesting Stuff
🐦 Great Tweet
That’s it for this week!