7 August 2015

Brave new world – bold new adaptation

Filed under: futurist, happiness, irrationality, theatre — Tags: , — David Wood @ 9:05 am

Q: What do the following cities have in common: Northampton, Edinburgh, Oxford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Wolverhampton, Darlington, Blackpool, and Bradford?

A: They’re the locations which have theatres featuring in the forthcoming tour of a bold new production of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.


“Brave New World” is a phrase that frequently enters discussions about the future. Even people who have never read Huxley’s book – or people who have long forgotten the precise contents – recognise the phrase as a warning about the future misuse of technology. In Brave New World, people lead lives that are… comfortable, even blissful, but which lack authentic emotional experience. As a result, technology leads to a curtailment of human potential. Overall, humanity is diminished in that Brave New World, despite the gadgetry and convenience of that future society.

The version of Brave New World that’s about to go on tour has a script by Dawn King, is directed by James Dacre, features original music from These New Puritans, and is produced by Touring Consortium Theatre Company. The cast includes Sophie Ward, Abigail McKern, William Postlethwaite, Gruffudd Glyn, Olivia Morgan and Scott Karim.

bnw-castheadI found out about this forthcoming tour a couple of months ago, when I was asked to come to speak, as a futurist, to representatives of the different theatres which would be hosting the play. Could I provide some perspective on the play, and why it is particularly relevant today?

I took the chance to read the script, and was struck by its depth. There are many layers to it. And despite Huxley having written the novel as long ago as 1931, it has many highly contemporary themes. So I was happy to become involved.

The team at Touring Consortium Theatre Company filmed what I had to say. Here are some short extracts:

Are we nearer to a Brave New World than we think? The pace of change is accelerating.

Factors that will shape the next 10-20 years.

Technologies from Brave New World that are almost within our grasp

Some of the social changes we’ve seen that are eerily close to what Aldous Huxley predicted in 1931.

What questions does Brave New World pose for today’s society?

Note: for the touring schedule – from 4 Sept to 5 Dec 2015 – see this listing.

To read more about Brave New World from a transhumanist perspective, see this website by philosopher David Pearce.

28 December 2010

Some suggested books for year-end reading

Looking for suggestions on books to read, perhaps over the year-end period of reflection and resolution for renewal?

Here are my comments on five books I’ve finished over the last few months, each of which has given me a lot to think about.

Switch: How to change things when change is hard – by Chip & Dan Heath

I had two reasons for expecting I would like this book:

I was not disappointed.  The book is full of advice that seems highly practical – advice that can be used to overcome all kinds of obstacles that people encounter when trying to change something for the better.  The book helpfully lists some of these obstacles in a summary chapter near its end.  They include:

  • “People here don’t see the need for change”
  • “People resist my idea because they say, ‘We’ve never done it like that before'”
  • “We should do doing something, but we’re getting bogged down in analysis”
  • “The environment has shifted, and we need to overcome our old patterns of behaviour”
  • “People here simply aren’t motivated to change”
  • “People here keep saying ‘It will never work'”
  • “I know what I should be doing, but I’m not doing it”
  • “I’ll change tomorrow”…

Each chapter has profound insights.  I particularly liked the insight that, from the right perspective, the steps to create a solution are often easier than the problem itself.  This is a pleasant antidote to the oft-repeated assertion that solutions need to be more profound, more complex, or more sophisticated, that the problems they address.  On the contrary, change efforts frequently fail because the change effort is focussing on the wrong part of the big picture.  You can try to influence either the “rider”, the “elephant”, or the “path” down which the elephant moves.  Spend your time trying to influence the wrong part of this combo, and you can waste a great deal of energy.  But get the analysis right, and even people who appear to hate change can embrace a significant transformation.  It all depends on the circumstance.

The book offers nine practical steps – three each for the three different parts of this model:

  • Direct the rider: Find the bright spots; Script the critical moves; Point to the destination
  • Motivate the elephant: Find the feeling; Shrink the change; Grow your people
  • Shape the path: Tweak the environment; Build habits; Rally the herd.

These steps may sound trite, but these simple words summarise, in each case, a series of inspirational examples of real-world change.

The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work – by Shawn Achor

“The happiness advantage” shares with “Switch” the fact that it is rooted in the important emerging discipline of positive psychology.  But whereas “Switch” addresses the particular area of change management, “The happiness advantage” has a broader sweep.  It seeks to show how a range of recent findings from positive psychology can be usefully applied in a work setting, to boost productivity and performance.  The author, Shawn Achor, describes many of these findings in the context of the 10 years he spent at Harvard.  These findings include:

  • Rather than the model in which people work hard and then achieve success and then become happy, the causation goes the other way round: people with a happy outlook are more creative, more resilient, and more productive, are able to work both harder and smarter, and are therefore more likely to achieve success in their work (Achor compares this reversal of causation to the “Copernican revolution” which saw the sun as the centre of the solar system, rather than the earth)
  • Our character (including our degree of predisposition to a happy outlook) is not fixed, but can be changed by activity – this is an example of neural plasticity
  • “The Tetris effect”: once you train your brain to spot positive developments (things that merit genuine praise), that attitude increasingly becomes second nature, with lots of attendant benefits
  • Rather than a vibrant social support network being a distraction from our core activities, it can provide us with the enthusiasm and the community to make greater progress
  • “Falling up”: the right mental attitude can gain lots of advantage from creative responses to situations of short-term failure
  • “The Zorro circle”: rather than focussing on large changes, which could take a long time to accomplish, there’s great merit in restricting attention to a short period of time (perhaps one hour, or perhaps just five minutes), and to a small incremental improvement on the status quo.  Small improvements can accumulate a momentum of their own, and lead on to big wins!
  • Will power is limited – and is easily drained.  So, follow the “20 second rule”: take the time to rearrange your environment – such as your desk, or your office – so that the behaviour you’d like to happen is the easiest (“the default”).  When you’re running on auto-pilot, anything that requires a detour of more than 20 seconds is much less likely to happen.  (Achor gives the example of taking the batteries out of his TV remote control, to make it less likely he would sink into his sofa on returning home and inadvertently watch TV, rather than practice the guitar as he planned.  And – you guessed it – he made sure the guitar was within easy reach.)

You might worry that this is “just another book about the power of positive thinking”.  However, I see it as a definite step beyond that genre.  This is not a book that seeks to paint on a happy face, or to pretend that problems don’t exist.  As Achor says, “Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change.  It is the realization that we can”.

Nonsense on stilts: how to tell science from bunk – by Massimo Pigliucci

Many daft, dangerous ideas are couched in language that sounds scientific.  Being able to distinguish good science from “pseudoscience” is sometimes called the search for a “demarcation principle“.

The author of this book, evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci, has strong views about the importance of distinguishing science from pseudoscience.  To set the scene, he gives disturbing examples such as people who use scientific-sounding language to deny the connection between HIV and AIDS (and who often advocate horrific, bizarre treatments for AIDS), or who frighten parents away from vaccinating their children by quoting spurious statistics about links between vaccination and autism.  This makes it clear that the subject is far from being an academic one, just for armchair philosophising.  On the other hand, attempts by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper to identify a clear, watertight demarcation principle all seem to fail.  Science is too varied an enterprise to be capable of a simple definition.  As a result, it can take lots of effort to distinguish good science from bad science.  Nevertheless, this effort is worth it.  And this book provides a sweeping, up-to-date survey of the issues that arise.

The book brought me back to my own postgraduate studies from 1982-1986.  My research at that time covered the philosophy of mind, the characterisation of pseudo-science, creationism vs. Darwinism, and the shocking implications of quantum mechanics.  All four of these areas were covered in this book – and more besides.

It’s a book with many opinions.  I think it gets them about 85% right.  I particularly liked:

  • His careful analysis of why “Intelligent Design” is bad science
  • His emphasis on how pseudoscience produces no new predictions, but is intellectually infertile
  • His explanation of the problems of parapsychology (studies of extrasensory perception)
  • The challenges he lays down to various fields which appear grounded in mainstream science, but which are risking divergence away from scientific principles – fields such as superstring theory and SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence).

Along the way, Pigliucci shares lots of fascinating anecdotes about the history of science, and about the history of philosophy of science.  He’s a great story-teller.

The master switch: the rise and fall of information empires – by Tim Wu

Whereas “Nonsense on stilts” surveys the history of science, and draws out lessons about the most productive ways to continue to find out deeper truths about the world, “The master switch” surveys many aspects of the modern history of business, and draws out lessons about the most productive ways to organise society so that information can be shared in the most effective way.

The author, Tim Wu, is a professor at Columbia Law School, and (if anything) is an even better story-teller than Pigliucci.  He gives rivetting accounts of many of the key episodes in various information businesses, such as those based on the telephone, radio, TV, cinema, cable TV, the personal computer, and the Internet.  Lots of larger-than-life figures stride across the pages.  The accounts fit together as constituents of an over-arching narrative:

  • Control over information technologies is particularly important for the well-being of society
  • There are many arguments in favour of centralised control, which avoids wasteful inefficiencies of competition
  • Equally, there are many arguments in favour of decentralised control, with open access to the various parts of the system
  • Many information industries went through one (or more phases) of decentralised control, with numerous innovators working independently, before centralisation took place (or re-emerged)
  • Government regulation sometimes works to protect centralised infrastructure, and sometimes to ensure that adequate competition takes place
  • Opening up an industry to greater competition often introduces a period of relative chaos and increased prices for consumers, before the greater benefits of richer innovation have a chance to emerge (often in unexpected ways)
  • The Internet is by no means the first information industry for which commentators had high, idealistic hopes: similar near-utopian visions also accompanied the emergence of broadcast radio and of cable television
  • A major drawback of centralised control is that too much power is vested in just one place – in what can be called a “master switch” – allowing vested interests to drastically interfere with the flow of information.

AT&T – the company founded by Bell – features prominently in this book, both as a hero, and as a villain.  Wu describes how AT&T suppressed various breakthrough technologies (including magnetic disk recording, usable in answering machines) for many years, out of a fear that they would damage the company’s main business.  Similarly, RCA suppressed FM radio for many years, and also delayed the adoption of electronic television.  Legal delays were often a primary means to delay and frustrate competitors, whose finances lacked such deep pockets.

Wu often highlights ways in which business history could have taken different directions.  The outcome that actually transpired was often a close-run thing, compared to what seemed more likely at the time.  This emphasises the contingent nature of much of history, rather than events being inevitable.  (I know this from my own experiences at Symbian.  Recent articles in The Register emphasise how Symbian nearly died at birth, well before powering more than a quarter of a billion smartphones.  Other stories, as yet untold, could emphasise how the eventual relative decline of Symbian was by no means a foretold conclusion either.)

But the biggest implications Wu highlights are when the stories come up to date, in what he sees as a huge conflict between powers that want to control modern information technology resources, and those that prefer greater degrees of openness.  As Wu clarifies, it’s a complex landscape, but Apple’s iPhone approach aims at greater centralised design control, whereas Google’s Android approach aims at enabling a much wider number of connections – connections where many benefits arise, without the need to negotiate and maintain formal partnerships.

Compared to previous information technologies, the Internet has greater elements of decentralisation built into it.  However, the lessons of the previous chapters in “The master switch” are that even this decentralisation is vulnerable to powerful interests seizing control and changing its nature.  That gives greater poignancy to present-day debates over “network neutrality” – a term that was coined by Wu in a paper he wrote in 2002.

Sex at dawn: the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality – by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

(Sensitive readers should probably stop reading now…)

In terms of historical sweep, this last book outdoes all the others on my list.  It traces the origins of several modern human characteristics far into prehistory – to the time before agriculture, when humans existed as nomadic hunter-gatherers, with little sense of personal exclusive ownership.

This book reminds me of this oft-told story:

It is said that when the theory of evolution was first announced it was received by the wife of the Canon of Worcester Cathedral with the remark, “Descended from the apes! My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known.”

I’ve read a lot on evolution over the years, and I think the evidence husband and wife authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha accumulate chapter after chapter, in “Sex at dawn”, is reasonably convincing – even though elements of present day “polite society” may well prefer this evidence not to become “generally known”.  The authors tell a story with many jaw-dropping episodes.

Among other things, the book systematically challenges the famous phrase from Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan that, absent a government, people would lead lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.  On the contrary, the book marshals evidence, direct and indirect, that pre-agricultural people could enjoy relatively long lives, with ample food, and a strong sense of community.  Key to this mode of existence was “fierce sharing”, in which everyone felt a strong obligation to share food within the group … and not only food.  The X-rated claim in the book is that the sharing extended to “parallel multi-male, multi-female sexual relationships”, which bolstered powerful community identities.  Monogamy is, therefore, far from being exclusively “natural”.  Evidence in support of this conclusion includes:

  • Comparisons to behaviour in bonobos and chimps – the apes which are our closest evolutionary cousins
  • The practice in several contemporary nomadic tribes, in which children are viewed as having many fathers
  • Various human anatomical features, copulatory behaviour, aspects of sperm wars, etc.

In this analysis, human sexual nature developed under one set of circumstances for several million years, until dramatic changes in relatively recent times with the advent of agriculture, cities, and widespread exclusive ownership.  Social philosophies (including religions) have sought to change the norms of behaviour, with mixed success.

I’ll leave the last words to Ryan and Jetha, from their online FAQ:

We’re not recommending anything other than knowledge, introspection, and honesty. In fact, as we say in the book, we’re not really sure what to do with this information ourselves.

29 August 2009

The human mind as a flawed creation of nature

Filed under: books, evolution, happiness, intelligence, unconscious — David Wood @ 11:38 am

I’m sharing these thoughts after finishing reading Kluge – the haphazard construction of the human mind by NYU Professor of Psychology, Gary Marcus.

I bought this book after seeing it on the recommended reading list for the forthcoming 2009 Singularity Summit.  The quote from Bertrand Russell at the top of chapter 1 gave me warm feelings towards the book as soon as I started reading:

It has been said that man is a rational animal.  All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.

A few days later, I’ve finished the book, still with warm feelings.

(Alas, although I’ve started at least 20 books this year, I can only remember two others that I finished – reviewed here and here.  In part, I blame the hard challenges of my work life this year for putting unusual stress and strain on my reading habits.  In part, I blame the ease-of-distraction of Twitter, for cutting into time that I would previously have spent on reading.  Anyway, it’s a sign of how readable Kluge is, that I’ve made it all the way to the end so quickly.)

I first knew the word “Kluge” as “Kludge”, a term my software engineering colleagues in Psion often used.  This book explores the history of the term, as well as its different spellings.  The definition given is as follows:

Kluge – noun, pronounced klooj (engineering): a solution that is clumsy or inelegant yet surprisingly effective.

Despite their surface effectiveness, kluges have many limitations in practice.  Engineers who have sufficient time prefer to avoid kluges, and instead to design solutions that work well under a wider range of circumstances.

The basic claim of the book is that many aspects of the human mind operate in clumsy and suboptimal ways – ways which betray the haphazard and often flawed evolutionary history of the mind.  Many of the case studies quoted are familiar to me from previous reading (eg from Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis and Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves), but Gary Marcus fits the case studies together into a different framework.

The framework is, to me, both convincing and illuminating.  It provides a battery of evidence relevant to what might be called “The Nature Delusion” – the pervasive yet often unspoken belief that things crafted by nature are inevitably optimal and incapable of serious improvement.

A good flavour of the book is conveyed by some extracts from near the end:

In this book, we’ve discussed several bugs in our cognitive makeup: confirmation bias, mental contamination, anchoring, framing, inadequate self-control, the ruminative cycle, the focussing illusion, motivated reasoning, and false memory, not to mention absent-mindedness, an ambiguous linguistic system, and vulnerability to mental disorders.  Our memory, contextually driven as it is, is ill suited to many of the demands of modern life, and our self-control mechanisms are almost hopelessly split.  Our ancestral mechanisms were shaped in a different world, and our more modern deliberative mechanisms can’t shake the influence of that past.  In every domain we have considered, from memory to belief, choice, language, and pleasure, we have seen that a mind built largely through the progressive overlay of technologies is far from perfect.  None of these aspects of human psychology would be expected from an intelligent designer; instead, the only reasonable way to interpret them is as relics, leftovers of evolution.

In a sense, the argument I have presented here is part of a long tradition.  Stephen Jay Gould‘s notion of remnants of history, a key inspiration of this book, goes back to Darwin, who started his legendary work The Descent of Man with a list of a dozen “useless, or nearly useless” features – body hair, wisdom teeth, the vestigial tail bone known as the coccyx.  Such quirks of nature were essential to Darwin’s argument.

Yet imperfections of the mind have rarely been discussed in the context of evolution…

Scientifically, every kluge contains a clue to our past; wherever there is a cumbersome solution, there is insight into how nature layered our brain together; it is no exaggeration to say that the history of evolution is a history of overlaid technologies, and kluges help expose the seams.

Every kluge also underscores what is fundamentally wrong-headed about creationism: the presumption that we are the product of an all-seeing entity.  Creationists may hold on to the bitter end, but imperfection (unlike perfection) beggars the imagination.  It’s one thing to imagine an all-knowing engineer designing a perfect eyeball, another to imagine that engineer slacking off and building a half-baked spine.

There’s a practical side too: investigations into human idiosyncrasies can provide a great deal of useful insight into the human condition.  As they say at Alcoholics Anonymous, recognition is the first step.  The more we can understand our clumsy nature, the more we can do something about it.

The final chapter of the book is entitled “True Wisdom”.  In that chapter, the author provides a list of practical suggestions for dealing with our mental imperfections.

Some of these suggestions entail changes in our education processes.  For example, I was intrigued by the description of Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery – a book intended to help teach children skills in critical thinking:

The eponymous Harry is asked to write an essay called “The most interesting thing in the world”.  Harry, a boy after my own heart, choosing to write his on thinking.  “To me, the most interesting thing in the whole world is thinking…”

Kids of ages 10-12 who were exposed to a version of this curriculum for 16 months, for just an hour a week, showed significant gains in verbal intelligence, nonverbal intelligence, self-confidence, and independence.

The core of the final chapter is a list of 13 pieces of individual-level advice, for how we can all “do better as thinkers”, despite the kluges in our design.  Each suggestion is founded (the author says) on careful empirical research:

  1. Whenever possible, consider alternative hypotheses
  2. Reframe the question
  3. Always remember that correlation does not entail causation
  4. Never forget the size of your sample
  5. Anticipate your own impulsivity and pre-commit
  6. Don’t just set goals.  Make contingency plans
  7. Whenever possible, don’t make important decisions when you are tired or have other things on your mind
  8. Always weigh benefits against costs
  9. Imagine that your decisions may be spot-checked
  10. Distance yourself
  11. Beware the vivid, the personal, and the anecdotal
  12. Pick your spots
  13. Remind yourself frequently of the need to be rational.

You’ll need to read the book itself for further details (often thought-provoking) about each of these suggestions.

A different kind of suggestion that we can augment our own mental processes, imperfect though they are, with electronic mental processes that are much more reliable.  The book touches on that idea in places too, mentioning the author’s reliance on the memory powers of his Palm Pilot and the contacts application on a mobile phone.  I think there’s lots more to come, along similar lines.

28 December 2008

The best book I read in 2008

Filed under: books, culture, happiness, psychology — David Wood @ 1:56 pm

I’ve had the pleasure to read through several dozen fine books in 2008 – here’s a partial list of reviews. (One reason this list is “partial” is because I often neglected to assign the label “books” to relevant postings.)

As the year draws to a close, I’m ready to declare one book as being the most memorable and thought-provoking that I’ve read in the entire year: “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” by University of Virginia Associate Professor Jonathan Haidt. It’s a tour de force in positive psychology.

The endorsement printed on the front cover is probably reason enough for anyone to read this book: “For the reader who seeks to understand happiness, my advice is: Begin with Haidt“. The endorsement is from Martin Seligman, Professor of psychology, University of Pennsylvania.

The stated purpose of the book is to consider “ten great ideas” about morality and ethics, drawn from Eastern and Western religious and philosophical traditions, and to review these ideas in the light of the latest scientific findings about the human condition. Initially, I was sceptical about how useful such an exercise might be. But the book quickly led me to set aside my scepticism. The result is greater than the sum of the ten individual reviews, since the different ideas overlap and reinforce.

Haidt declares himself to be both an atheist and a liberal, but with a lot of sympathy for what both theists and conservatives try to hold dear. In my view, he does a grand job of bridging these tough divides.

Haidt seems deeply familiar with a wide number of diverse traditional thinking systems, from both East and West. He also shows himself to be well versed in many modern (including very recent) works on psychology, sociology, and evolutionary theory. The synthesis is frequently remarkable. I found myself re-thinking lots of my own worldwide.

Here are some of the age-old themes that Haidt evaluates:

  • The mind is divided against itself – “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”
  • Perception is more important than external substance – “Life itself is but what we deem it”
  • Humans tend to be rank hypocrites – we notice the speck in others’ eyes, without paying attention to the plank in our own
  • The golden rule of “reciprocity” lies at the heart of all morality
  • Personal fulfilment depends on giving up attachments
  • Personal happiness is best pursued by seeking to cultivate “virtues”
  • Lives need suffering and setbacks to allow people to reach higher states of development
  • Religion plays a unique role in creating cohesive cultures.

To be clear, the evaluation of these themes typically shows both their prevailing strengths and their limitations. (It was a bit of a jolt every time I read a sentence in the book that said something like “What the Buddha failed to appreciate is…“)

The ideas that I have taken away from the book include the following:

  • A vivid metaphor of the mind as being a stubborn elephant of automatic desires, with a small conscious rider sat on top of it (as illustrated in the picture on the front cover of at least some editions of the book);
  • In any battle of wills, the elephant is bound to win – but there are mechanisms through which the rider can distract and train the elephant;
  • The most reliable mechanisms for improving our mood are meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac;
  • There are hazards (as well as benefits) to promoting self-esteem;
  • Although each person has a “happiness set point” to which their emotional status tends to return after some time, there are measures that people can take to drive their general happiness level higher – this includes the kind of personal relations we achieve, the extent to which we can reach “flow” in our work, and the extent to which different “levels” of our lives “cohere”;
  • Alongside the universally recognised human emotions like happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger, that have typically been studied by psychologists, there is an important additional emotion of “elevation” that also deserves study and strengthening;
  • The usual criticisms of religion generally fail to do justice to the significant beneficial feelings of community, purity, and divinity, that participation in religious activities can nurture – this draws upon some very interesting work by David Sloan Wilson on the role of religions as enabling group selection between different human societies.

Despite providing a lot of clarity, the book leaves many questions unresolved. I see that Haidt is working on a follow-up, entitled “The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion“. I’m greatly looking forward to it.

Footnote: “The happiness hypothesis” has its own website, here.

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