Tuesday, January 17, 2012

More Responses to the 2012 Edge Annual Question

The other day I posted a preliminary response to the 2012 Edge Question: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?.

Here are a few more of my favorite responses.

Associate Professor of Psychology, Princeton University

Seeing Oneself in a Positive Light

Is there a single explanation that can account for all of human behavior? Of course not. But, I think there is one that does darn well. Human beings are motivated to see themselves in a positive light. We want, and need, to see ourselves as good, worthwhile, capable people. And fulfilling this motive can come at the expense of our being "rational actors." The motive to see oneself in a positive light is powerful, pervasive, and automatic. It can blind us to truths that would otherwise be obvious. For example, while we can readily recognize who among our friends and neighbors are bad drivers, and who among us is occasionally sexist or racist, most of us are deluded about the quality of our own driving and about our own susceptibility to sexist or racist behavior.

The motive to see oneself in a positive light can have profound effects. The work of Claude Steele and others shows that this motive can lead children who underperform in school to decide that academics are unimportant and not worth the effort, a conclusion that protects self-esteem but at a heavy price for the individual and society. More generally, when people fail to achieve on a certain dimension, they often disidentify from it in order to preserve a positive sense of self. That response can come at the expense of meeting one's rational best interest. It can cause some to drop out of school (after deciding that there are better things to do than "be a nerd"), and it can cause others to ignore morbid obesity (after deciding that other things are more important than "being skinny").

Another serious consequence of this motive involves prejudice and discrimination. A wide array of experiments in social psychology have demonstrated how members of different ethnic groups, different races, and even different bunks at summer camp see their "own kind" as better and more deserving than "outsiders" who belong to other groups—a perception that leads not only to ingroup favoritism but also to blatant discrimination against members of other groups. And, people are especially likely to discriminate when their own self-esteem has been threatened. For example, one study found that college students were especially likely to discriminate against a Jewish job applicant after they themselves had suffered a blow to their self-esteem; notably, their self-esteem recovered fully after the discrimination.

The motive to see oneself in a positive light is so fundamental to human psychology that it is a hallmark of mental health. Shelley Taylor and others have noted that mentally healthy people are "deluded" by positive illusions of themselves (and depressed people are sometimes more "realistic"). But, how many of us truly believe that this motive drives us? It is difficult to spot in ourselves because it operates quickly and automatically, covering its tracks before we detect it.

As soon as we miss a shot in tennis, it is almost instantaneous that we generate a self-serving thought about the sun having been in our eyes. The automatic nature of this motive is perhaps best captured by the fact that we unconsciously prefer things that start with the same letter as our first initial (so people named Paul are likely to prefer pizza more than people named Harry, whereas Harrys are more likely to prefer hamburgers). Herein, though, lies the rub. I know a Lee who hates lettuce, and a Wendy who will not eat wheat. Both of them are better at tennis than they realize, and both take responsibility for a bad serve. Simple and elegant explanations only go so far when it comes to the complex and messy problem of human behavior.

 * * * * * * * 

Neuroscientist; Chairman, Board of Directors Human Science Center
Trusting Trust

After many years
A little gift to Edge
From the first culture.

Using the Haiku
Five seven five syllables
To express a thought.

Searching for beauty
To explain the unexplained
Why should I do this?

What is my problem?
I don't need explanations!
I'm happy without!

A new morning comes
I wake up leaving my dreams
And I don't know why.

I don't understand
Why I can trust my body
In day and in night.

Looking at the moon
Always showing the same face
But I don't know why!

Must I explain this?
Some people certainly can.
Beyond my power!

I look at a tree.
But is there in fact a tree?
I trust in my eyes.

But why do I trust?
Not understanding my brain
Being too complex.

Looking for answers
Searching for explanations
But living without.

Trust in my percepts
And trust in my memories
Trust in my feelings.

Where does it come from
This absolute certainty
This trust in the world?

Trusting in the future
Making plans for tomorrow,
Why do I believe?

I have no answer!
Knowledge is not sufficient.
Only questions count.

What is a question?
That is the real challenge!
Finding a new path.

But trust is required
Believing the new answers
Hiding in a shadow.

Deep explanations
Rest in the trust of answers
Which is unexplained.

Is there a way out?
Evading the paradox?
This answer is no!

The greatest challenge:
Accepting the present,
Giving no answers!

* * * * * * *

Douglas Rushkoff 

Media Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Program or Be Programmed; Life, Inc.

The Precession of the Simulacra

Having discovered much too late in life that the many things I had taken for granted as pre-existing conditions of the universe were, in fact, creations and ideas of people, I found Baudrillard's "precession of the simulacra" to be an immensely valuable way of understanding just how disconnected from anything to do with reality we can become.

The main idea is that there's the real world, there's the maps we use to describe that world, and then all this other activity that occurs on the map—sometimes with little regard for the territory it is supposed to represent. There's the real world, there's the representation of the world, and there's the mistaking of this simulation for reality.

This idea came back into vogue when virtual reality was hitting the scene, and writers called up Baudrillard as if we needed to be warned about escaping into our virtual worlds and leaving the brick and mortar, flesh and blood one behind. But I never saw computer simulations as so very dangerous. If anything, the obvious fakeness of computer simulations—from arcade games to Facebook—not only kept us aware of their simulated nature, but called into question the reality of everything else.

So there's the land—this real stuff we walk around on. Then there's territory— the maps and lines we use to define the land. But then there are wars fought over where those map lines are drawn.

The levels can keep building on one another, bringing people to further abstractions and disconnection from the real world. Land becomes territory; territory then becomes property that is owned. Property itself can be represented by a deed, and the deed can be mortgaged. The mortgage is itself an investment, that can be bet against with a derivative, which can be secured with a credit default swap.

The computer algorithm trading credit default swaps—as well as the programmers trying to follow that algorithms actions in order to devise competing algorithms—this level of interaction is real. And, financially speaking, it has more influence over who gets to live in your house than almost any other factor. A credit default swap crisis can bankrupt a nation as big as the United States—without changing anything about the real land it refers to.

Or take money: there's the thing of value—the labor, the chicken, the shoe. Then there's the thing we use to represent that value—say gold, grain receipts, or gold certificates. But once we get so used to using those receipts and notes as the equivalent of a thing with value, we can go one step further: the federal reserve note, or "fiat" currency, which has no connection to gold, grain, or the labor, chickens and shoes. Three main steps: there's value, the representation of value, and then the disconnection from what has value.

But that last disconnection is the important one—the sad one, in many respects. Because that's the moment that we forget where things came from—when we forget what they represent. The simulation is put forth as reality. The invented landscape is naturalized, and then mistaken for nature.

And it's when we become so particularly vulnerable to illusion, abuse, and fantasy. For once we're living in a world of created symbols and simulations, whoever has control of the map has control of our reality.

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