Stephen Pinker at the Long Now

I went to see Pinker’s talk at the Long Now this evening.  He is promoting his latest book “The Better Angels of our Nature” in which he proposes that many forms of violence have declined over time.  His previous TED talk on this topic caused “Sex at Dawn” author Christopher Ryan to criticize his characterization of hunter gatherer society as violent.  But Pinker’s talk this evening focused mostly on the last 500 years and stayed away from prehistoric man.

I liked it when Pinker pointed out that when people say that the 20th century was the most violent in history, they never mention any other centuries to compare it to.  He had data that showed that even World War II was only the 9th most deadly event in human history on a per capita basis.  I do agree with his view that per capita violence is the only intelligent way to measure it.

When evaluating causes of this great decline in violence, Pinker asserts that literacy played a greater role than wealth. English wealth was fairly flat during a great decline in murder and capital punishment, but efficiency of book production and literacy greatly increased.  He posits that reading allows us to be in the mind of others to some extent and naturally increases empathy.  It also supposedly decreases ignorance and superstition which may lead to violence.

Another cause of this decrease is alleged to be cosmopolitanism.  As humans rub shoulders with one another in cities, it forces them to share ideas and develop some tolerance of others.  Our allegiances expand outward from family and tribe to include our entire nationstate and on to other races, sexes, and children.

Pinker says that there is a propensity for genocidal totalitarians to push anti-city, back to nature ideologies.  Pol Pot’s Year Zero, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and even Hitler’s Lebensraum all focused on pushing urban populations into rural areas.  Stewart Brand commented on the fact that many of his contemporaries had followed suit and went out into the countryside only to become bored and returning to the cities.  Brand regrets that more of his friends don’t acknowledge the failure of this experiment.

Several times during the closing discussion with Brand, Pinker said that he was excited by social network science.  He mentioned the study of how social norms arise from individuals exchanging ideas explored in the work of Nicolas Christakis, Duncan Watts, James Fowler, Michael Macey.  I was deeply impressed by Connected by Christakis, so I will definitely be checking out these other researchers as well.

Overall, I enjoyed this talk.  I sense that Pinker is trying to defend the narrative of progress and the virtues of Western Civilization that are so maligned in this post-modernist era.  More power to him.

Heart Rate Variability

From Wikipedia:

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a physiological phenomenon where the time interval between heart beats varies. It is measured by the variation in the beat-to-beat interval.

It’s apparently healthier to have a larger HRV value which represents better “vagal tone.”  I understand that this is similar to the idea that a rubber band which is more elastic is less likely to snap.  This metric has been implicated as a measure of willpower, readiness for physical training, and even longevity.  So definitely sign me up for safe interventions to increase HRV.

I was first introduced to the idea of HRV by the biofeedback game “Wild Divine” which we purchased for my sister-in-law after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  This game series has some questionable new age content, but I’m not totally against the idea of mindfulness training tied to HRV and GSR (Skin Conductance) biofeedback.  My friend Robin B.  was less forgiving of the idea when I showed it to him.   He suggested that coherent breathing should be a consequence of mindfulness not a path to it.

I was next exposed to HRV by Dave Asprey’s QS 2011 talk.   Asprey suggested that HRV training produces some physiological changes similar to those attributed to meditation.  I doubt that you can really extract an “active ingredient” from meditation, but I am pretty lazy so I am open to any shortcuts that might be available.  Asprey is a huckster, but his Bulletproof Exec site does showcase some interesting toys.  I am a bit skeptical about some of the personal performance science he promotes, but he doesn’t seem quite so full of shite as Timothy Ferriss.

HRV was brought up again at QS 2012 by Ronda Collier from Sweetwater Health who makes an HRV app called BeatHealthy.  Ronda gave a great explanation of HRV and told a funny story about how the HeartMath folks overdue the coherence monitoring by trying to stay coherent during rush hour traffic or during meetings.  Her view was that coherence is a training state that should not be maintained  throughout the day.

Most recently I started reading “the Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal.  I am reading this because Michael Kim recommended it during his Habit Design talk at QS 2012 conference this year.  I joined the Habit Design meetup and will be trying to install a more fault tolerant writing habit.  McGonigal says that HRV is a good index of willpower.  She claims that a quick way to build willpower is to slow your breathing:

Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode.

McGonigal Ph.D., Kelly (2011-12-29). The Willpower Instinct (Kindle Locations 618-619). 

I have been doing HRV coherence exercises using the IOM Grapher in the “Healing Rhythms” software from Wild Divine.  This basically just involves reducing your breathe rate to between 4 and 6 breaths per minute.  I also ordered a Wahoo ANT+ heart rate monitor and I intend to start tracking HRV using the BeatHealthy app when it arrives.  Some athletes use HRV to determine if they are recovered enough to train that day, maybe I can use it to determine if I will have the will to write that day.  😉

Privacy is Dead – Let's Hope for Tolerance

Privacy has been on my mind a lot lately.  From conferences like DefCon and Quantified Self, to the bitter arguments with my pro and anti-Google friends, I have been engaging in a lot of discussion about privacy.  I tend toward transparency myself, and I actually don’t feel that I have much worth hiding.  So I don’t mind if Google’s new privacy policy lets them search not just my mail, but my docs as well.  My adblock is in place, so I feel unmolested.  I am fascinated by my friends that try to maintain strict control over their personal data.  It reminds me of the protagonists who go off the grid in the John Twelve Hawks Traveler series.  But since I assume my friends aren’t being chased by militant illuminati, I can’t really see the point.

I attended the 2012 Quantified Self conference, and there was much talk of the future of personal data.  I was told by one attendee that the Silicon Valley attitude is that “privacy is dead – get over it.”  Look at how the advertisers howled when Microsoft enabled  “do-not-track” not to mention the various privacy fiascos of Google and Facebook, among others.  There is a struggle to maintain privacy going on now, and it may be that Silicon Valley wants to disrupt it too much.

At his recent Long Now talk, Tim O’Reilly seemed to be resigned to the end of privacy.  He suggested that our ubiquitous personal data should be treated like insider information.  Many people will have access to it, but we should have laws governing the acceptable use of this information.  I am skeptical that this will work.  Misuse of personal data is harder to define and to detect than insider trading.

We had a good discussion of privacy at my Futurist meetup recently.  One new attendee brought up the idea of vendor resource management.  In this model, consumers would subscribe to a service that allowed them to control what advertisements that they wanted to see.   I like the idea, but some advertisers will always be predatory and disinterested in  the consent of the consumer.  She also pointed out that many of us maintain multiple personas online depending on the context.

4chan founder Christopher Poole argues that this is one way that Twitter does a better job of identity management than Facebook or Google:

It’s not ‘who you share with,’ it’s ‘who you share as.’ Identity is prismatic.  People think of anonymity as dark and chaotic, but human identity doesn’t work like that online or offline. We present ourselves differently in different contexts, and that’s key to our creativity and self-expression.

This actually contrasts strongly with Rushkoff’s view of online identity:

Our digital experiences are out of body. This biases us towards depersonalized behavior in an environment where one’s identity can be a liability.

But the more anonymously we engage with others, the less we experience the human repercussions of what we say and do. By resisting the temptation to engage from the apparent safety of anonymity, we remain accountable and present – and much more likely to bring our humanity with us into the digital realm.

Then O’Reilly chimes in with the assertion that trying to be anonymous or firewall personas is futile anyway.  The amount of data about us all is exploding and it’s going to get easier and easier to access.

I think that they are all correct to some degree.  Poole is clearly onto something when he points out the contextual nature of identity.  We all do assume different identities in different contexts even in real life (like Woody Allen’s Zelig.)  Rushkoff is also correct that non-anonymous communication can be more civil and there should be a space for that online. However, even the Federalist Papers were written anonymously.  There will always be some things that need to be said that won’t be if the personal cost is too high.  Unfortunately, O’Reilly is also correct.  I believe we can soon kiss all anonymity goodbye.  And that bodes ill for disruptive or nonconformist discourse.

At DefCon this year, former NSA technical director William Binney accused the NSA of gathering information on all Americans.  Governments around the world and throughout history have used data collection to squash dissent, and in this modern era more data is available than ever before.  Narrow AI systems pull needles of meaning from these unimaginably mountainous haystacks of data now.

The danger of ubiquitous data surveillance by governments to individuals ideally depends on how important individuals really are.  I subscribe to the view that the Arab Spring was more a result of food costs than individual activists.  There is a risk of irrational Hoover types in government with access to this data who will misuse it.  But rational leaders will do what is effective to stay in power.  Making individual activists or other poitical troublemakers disappear won’t save the leaders if the real cause of unrest is hunger.  Daniel Suarez makes the argument in Freedom ™ that the goal of torture is not to stop any individuals but to scare the populace into submission.  But the hungrier people are, the harder they will be to scare.

So my hope is that we will have rational despots at the top that won’t bother spying on activists or the general populace because that isn’t an effective way to stay in power.  I would hope that they would take action against actual criminals, although with big data we are back to the precog problem.  Should we really tolerate a state that arrests citizens because the security apparatus AI thinks they will commit a crime soon?  I would argue not, but there’s nothing I can do about it, so there is no need to stick me in a hole (Ok, Big Brother?).

A further consequence of the death of privacy might be more insidious than troublemakers getting stuck into holes.  The more data that is collected about us, the more predictable we will be.  This data will probably enable our governments to manipulate our behavior more effectively in ways that go beyond propaganda.  Arguably, some advertisers have been using the data they have on us now to influence our buying behavior.  If that isn’t working, then Google AdWords is going to have a whole lot of explaining to do.  Not that I think all advertisement is predatory and manipulative, but some percentage of it must be.  That would be one explanation for all this consumer debt we are mired in.

I don’t want to paint an utterly bleak view of the loss of privacy.  Kevin Kelley posited that this “quantified century” of data collection is rapidly expanding the recent invention called the “self.”  The very definition of self is becoming richer and more articulated.  In some sense we are trading privacy for personalization.  As we reveal more data about ourselves, we can engage with others in new ways and discover new facets of ourselves.  Maybe we will even see ads for things we really want and can afford.

Kelly also suggested that this ocean of data is forming a vast commonwealth.  Meaning and value will be derived by building relationships between various data streams.  These synthesized data streams will flow back into the commonwealth to enrich it.

Tim O’Reilly wasn’t worried about the loss of privacy, as long as it was accompanied by an increase in tolerance for other people.  Tolerance.  It’s not a bad antidote to cushion the blow once privacy passes away.