As I've recently written Gartner's Hype Cycle is a misleading hype itself. Which actually doesn't follow its own projected trajectory at all! It seems to be at a perpetual 'peak of inflated expectations'. As they say, old dogmas hardly die, the hype cycle is a point in case. It has no descriptive or predictive power and is thus misleading instead of enlightning. I predict that blockchain will be another technology that disproves the usability of the hype cycle (as I've written extensively before). But there are also technologies that outperform the hype cycle, the best current day example is in my opinion machine learning. This article shows that it has been at the 'peak of inflated expectations' for a number of years now, which is odd. But even stranger is that the cycle completely misses the fact that machine learning has by now proven itself beyond any doubt. It has outperformed even the wildest of expectations and is nowadays being used in almost every conceivable information system. There are of course limitations with regards to applicability and biases of algorithms that should be taken very seriously, but the number of useful applications is simply staggering. AI, and its sub-field of machine learning, is about 50 years old. It would be interesting to plot one of the most powerful technological trends of our era onto a hype cycle.
As I said in my previous post, I've been reading a lot of books lately. And they are broadly speaking topic wise all related.
My curiosity was sparked by the question what the most fundamental drivers of human progress were. This question came to me pondering about the current state of the world. Although there are valid reasons to be critical of media coverage of the current state of affairs, it became obvious that our species is facing a number of tremendous challenges if it wants to survive and live in harmony. Climate change, erosion of truth, growing inequality, power centralization, threat of nuclear warfare, cyber security, privacy, and so forth. Even compensating for the bias of media coverage one can safely say that our species is facing a formidable challenge. Properly addressing this challenge means that one has to figure out where we are, how we ended up in this position and where it will lead us. Only insight into the fundamental driving forces behind these changes will give us the tools to make the right decisions and not go backward into the future. This boils down to answering the following three questions. As a species:
1) How did we arrived at our current state?
2) What is our current situation?
3) Where we are heading?
Thinking about this there is no denying that a significant driver of change has been technological innovation. And its role will only become bigger. As this is my area of both expertise and interest I started to wonder what mechanisms drove, and will drive, technological change. (Mind you that I'm talking about 'change' not 'progress'.) And that is not just a technical question.
Although the three questions above are very broad there is a surprising lively and focused debate going on between the world's foremost scientists and thinkers. This debate is not raging on social media but is more like a question and answer game played with books. Although there are many more books that participate in this 'debate', the following is the list of books that I've read over the past months. First and foremost I should say that everyone of these books greatly inspired me and satisfied my intellectual curiosity. The number of deep and novel insights in these books is simply staggering. One can only wonder in admiration how it's possible that so much insight can be packed into a modest stack of paper.
The following books are broadly speaking all about the three questions I posed above. Although each from a slightly different perspective they are all by brilliant and well-respected scientists that have a track record in both asking the right questions and (at least partly) answering them as well. I recommend reading them, at least an epitome, to enlighten yourself. I won't review them here since that would take me too much time while there are many great reviews to be found elsewhere.
The beginning of infinity: Explanations that Transform the World by David Deutsch
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Stephen Pinker
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
Human universe by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen
In his three best sellers historian Yuval Noah Harari gives an incredible overview of the big picture from a historical perspective. Even looking into the future. He gives an excellent overview and asks all of the right questions, but he doesn't really attempt to give an answer to the question about the most fundamental driving forces. Steven Pinker in his tour the force shows his readers (with tons of facts) that the human species is doing fine thanks to the powerful mix of reason, science and humanism that has been adopted by Western societies since the Enlightenment. Like Harari, Pinker is more focused on describing than on explaining. In what is probably the most creative and deep books of this list theoretical physicist David Deutsch shows its readers that the search for 'good explanations' through creativity, conjecture and critical thinking has been the fundamental driving force. A force that started during the Enlightenment that is so powerful that he considers it to be the 'beginning of infinity' for our species.
The deep insight that I got from reading these books is, in accordance with Deutsch's view, that the proper combination of creativity, conjecture and critical thinking is the only real driver behind all the positive change our species has gone through, and will be the main driving force shaping our future. Combined these books give ample evidence supporting this insight.
With that in mind I started wondering about the current state of this, almost holy, trinity. And to be honest, going by the latest societal developments the appreciation is currently not in good shape. In other words, they could use some love. Creativity is for instance not widely regarded as a core part of fundamental research in science. An interesting book describing how technological progress is almost always inspired by play is Wonderland: How play made the modern world by respected technology writer Steven Johnson. As a probably unintended side effect his book convincingly argues that creativity is at the very heart of progress. A case made by Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull in their somewhat more lightheartedly book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Creativity should thus be taken more seriously.
Proper conjecture is often mistaken for daydreaming, flights of fancy or even unscientific behaviour. It is deemed to be an unworthy way of working towards a real goal. While at closer inspection it is a paramount step in the process of coming to good explanations and realizing real progress.
Critical thinking is probably the most widely neglected skill in our current day and age. One has to have been living under a rock for the past few years when still thinking the capacity for critical thinking is still healthy in most societies. It is almost undoable avoiding blatant examples of uncritical thinking in our daily lives. In my opinion it is one of the most valuable skills one can obtain. A judgement that is abundant in another interesting book I've been reading lately. A book about what leading scientists think should be scientific concepts every human should master is This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking. It is a dollection of articles from top scientists, edited by John Brockman from edge.org.
With the above in mind I came to the conclusion that the most valuable thing one could currently do is to encourage everybody to improve their creative, conjecturing and critical thinking skills. By now I am convinced that is the only way to truly help our species. For now and into infinity (and beyond).
I've been reading a lot of books lately and I'll tell you why. It's been a conscious decision to direct my intellectual curiosity at a specific area instead of letting it wander all over the place. The latter is what happens when you let social media dictate your daily information diet. I always had a love/hate relation with social media. Having been one of the earliest users of the initial crop of social media, I never really felt at home there. After spending quite a lot of time on social media and thinking about their place in the information universe I concluded that there are 2 fundamental problems.
First of all social media doesn't 'weigh' messages. All messages are created equal and it's up to the reader to give weight to them. Users have to distinguish themselves how important a certain message is to them. The result is that social media promotes chitchat from remote connections with the same vigor as deep, emotionally relevant messages from close relatives. The result is a cacophony of messages from which it is extremely hard and cumbersome to pick out the valuable nuggets. It's like listening to music in which each not is played at the exact same loudness. It might be interesting for a minute, but it becomes very boring and exhausting after one minute.
The other problem is when you want to share a message via social media. In real live you carefully consider with whom to share your message. Not only because of privacy reasons, but mostly because you don't want to bother all your social circles with every message you send out. Physical reality obviously helps in constraining the picking the audience for your message, but that border disappeared in the virtual realm. This is of course one of the main causes of the first problem. Interestingly enough this was one of the key insights Google+ truly understood and gave them a head start. Unfortunately Google has proven over the past decades that it refuses to take its existing user base seriously and is unable to maintain a product beyond it's beta stage (the list of killed products is as staggering as the list of Google products that are still being supported after more than a year). But I digress.
After realizing social media were inappropriate for both consuming and sharing knowledge, and after having lost focus in satisfying my intellectual curiosity, I decided to skip social media and carefully picking books, pod casts and documentaries instead. I must say that it has been a soothing experience. Of course you miss some of the social chatter, and the occasional relevant insight or article, but on average it somehow gave me more peace of mind (to be honest I get the feeling that social media consumption doesn't make anybody happy). My regained focus and intellectual deepening really improved my life.
You might be wondering why I share this on my blog, which some might consider to be a social medium. I don't. This blog is where I write down my ideas and questions related to my professional life. Of course my professional life is never fully disconnected from my personal life, but the topic of all my messages here fall within a specific area and are therefore only interesting for a specific audience. You could say that my blog is a specific medium for my messages while social media, as far as they are used practically by most, is a general medium for any message. In my opinion Marshall McLuhan was right in concluding that the medium is the message, certainly when looking at the relation between a medium and all the messages it transmits. An interesting topic, but something for a separate post.