(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘history

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.”*…

Earlier (Roughly) Daily posts have looked at “Progress Studies” and at its relationship to the Rationalism community. Garrison Lovely takes a deeper look at this growing and influential intellectual movement that aims to understand why human progress happens – and how to speed it up…

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

But beginning around 150-200 years ago, everything changed. The world economy suddenly began to grow exponentially. Global life expectancy climbed from less than 30 years to more than 70 years. Literacy, extreme poverty, infant mortality, and even height improved in a similarly dramatic fashion. The story may not be universally positive, nor have the benefits been equally distributed, but by many measures, economic growth and advances in science and technology have changed the way of life for billions of people.

What explains this sudden explosion in relative wealth and technological power? What happens if it slows down, or stagnates? And if so, can we do something about it? These are key questions of “progress studies”, a nascent self-styled academic field and intellectual movement, which aims to dissect the causes of human progress in order to better advance it.

Founded by an influential economist and a billionaire entrepreneur, this community tends to define progress in terms of scientific or technological advancement, and economic growth – and therefore their ideas and beliefs are not without their critics. So, what does the progress studies movement believe, and what do they want to see happen in the future?

Find out at: “Do we need a better understanding of ‘progress’?,” from @GarrisonLovely at @BBC_Future.

Then judge for yourself: was Adorno right? “It would be advisable to think of progress in the crudest, most basic terms: that no one should go hungry anymore, that there should be no more torture, no more Auschwitz. Only then will the idea of progress be free from lies.” Or can–should– we be more purposively, systemically ambitious?

* C. S. Lewis

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As we get better at getting better, we might recall that it was on this date in 1922 that the United States paid tribute to a man instrumental in the progress that Progress Studies is anxious to sustain, Alexander Graham Bell…

There were more than 14 million telephones in the United States by the time Alexander Graham Bell died. For one minute on August 4, 1922, they were all silent.

The reason: Bell’s funeral. The American inventor was the first to patent telephone technology in the United States and who founded the Bell Telephone System in 1877. Though Bell wasn’t the only person to invent “the transmission of speech by electrical wires,” writes Randy Alfred for Wired, achieving patent primacy in the United States allowed him to spend his life inventing. Even though the telephone changed the world, Bell didn’t stop there.

Bell died on August 2, 1922, just a few days after his 75th birthday. “As a mark of respect every telephone exchange in the United States and Canada closed for a minute when his funeral began around 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time,” Alfred writes.

On the day of the funeral, The New York Times reported that Bell was also honored by advocates for deaf people. “Entirely apart from the monumental achievement of Professor Bell as the inventor of the telephone, his conspicuous work in [sic] behalf of the deaf of this country would alone entitle him to everlasting fame,” said Felix H. Levey, president of the Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf Mutes.

In fact, Bell spent much of his income from the telephone on helping deaf people. The same year he founded the Bell Telephone System, 1880, Bell founded the Volta Laboratory. The laboratory, originally called Volta Associates, capitalized on Bell’s work and the work of other sound pioneers. It made money by patenting new innovations for the gramophone and other recorded sound technologies. In 1887, Bell took his share of the money from the sale of gramophone patents and founded the Volta Bureau “as an instrument for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the Deaf,’” writes the National Park Service. Bell and Volta continued to work for deaf rights throughout his life.

Volta Laboratory eventually became Bell Laboratories, which was home to many of the twentieth century’s communication innovations.

Smithsonian

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“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance”*…

Employees at the BMIT data centre in SmartCity Malta, 22 June 2017.

Hot, strenuous and unsung. As Steven Gonzalez Monserrate explains, there is nothing soft and fluffy about the caretaking work that enables our digital lives…

The ‘cloud’ is not an intangible monolith. It’s a messy, swelling tangle of data centres, fibre optic cables, cellular towers and networked devices that spans the globe. From the tropical megalopolis of Singapore to the remote Atacama Desert, or the glacial extremes of Antarctica, the material infrastructure of the cloud is becoming ubiquitous and expanding as more users come online and the digital divide closes. Much has been written about the ecological impact of the cloud’s ongoing expansion: its titanic electricity requirements, the staggering water footprint required to cool its equipment, the metric tonnes of electronic waste it proliferates, and the noise pollution emitted by the diesel generators, churning servers and cooling systems required to keep data centres – the heart of the cloud – operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

But less has been written about those who work inside the machinery of the cloud. Though often forgotten, this community of technicians, engineers and executives is integral to the functioning of our increasingly digitised society. They are the caretakers of the digital, the wardens of our data, and the unsung heroes working tirelessly to sustain an ever-expanding array of digital objects, including our emails, cat videos, maps, non-fungible tokens, metaverse avatars, digital twins and more. The idea of digital caretakers might conjure science fiction images of empty, towering warehouses stacked with racks of automated machines. But these workers are very much flesh and blood. The silicon milieu they’re part of is as human as it is mechanical. From their vantage, the cloud is not merely an infrastructure they maintain, but a way of life, an identity, a culture of stewardship – replete with its own norms, rituals and language…

Explore that fascinating culture: “The people of the cloud,” from @cloudAnthro in @aeonmag.

Apposite: “The Maintenance Race,” from Stewart Brand (@stewartbrand)

* Kurt Vonnegut

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As we contemplate continuity, we might spare a thought for Richard Arkwright; he died on this date in 1792. An inventor and entrepreneur, he was a leader in the early stage of the Industrial Revolution. Arkwright was the driving force behind the development of the spinning frame, known as the water frame after it was adapted to use water power; he patented a rotary carding engine to convert raw cotton to ‘cotton lap’ prior to spinning; and he was the first to develop factories housing both mechanized carding and spinning operations, combining power, machinery, semi-skilled labor and the (then-new to England) raw material of cotton to create mass-produced yarn. Indeed, His organizational skills earned him the honorific title “father of the modern industrial factory system.”

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“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”*…

As Dylan Matthews explains, 80 percent of young Americans still live within 100 miles of where they spent their teenage years…

A new paper by Harvard’s Ben Sprung-Keyser and Nathaniel Hendren, and the Census Bureau’s Sonya Porter, takes an in-depth look at young adults leaving home. The big takeaway is … they do not.

At age 26, the authors find, 30 percent of Americans live in the census tract they lived in at 16. Fifty-eight percent live less than 10 miles away;80 percent live less than 100 miles away; 90 percent live less than 500 miles away. Census tracts are tiny, hyper-local designations, with populations between 1,200 and 8,000 each; mine is only 0.2 square miles in area. The small town where I grew up has three tracts within it. Staying within your tract is an extreme level of residential stasis, but 30 percent of young adults do just that…

As the demographers and sociologists reading this are likely to point out, the finding that people mostly stay put is not new. Indeed, residential mobility inside the US has been cratering for years, and kept falling even during the pandemic, despite narratives about city residents fleeing

How race and class play into this trend, how distant job opportunities don’t, and what might be done to change the pattern: “The great millennial migration that wasn’t,” from @dylanmatt at @voxdotcom.

* Albert Einstein

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As we get moving, we might recall that it was on this date in 1610 that explorer and navigator, Henry Hudson and his crew sailed into (what we now know as) Hudson Bay in (what we now know as) Canada. While Hudson is rightly remembered for this and his other explorations and chartings of the northern reaches of North America, it was at the time a disappointment: Hudson initially believed that he had finally found the Northwest Passage through the continent. Months of further exploration and mapping, of course, proven him wrong.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 2, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The things right in front of us are often the hardest to see”*…

Fake news, like conjuring, plays on our weaknesses — but, as Tim Harford explains, with a little attention, we can fight back…

Why do people — and by “people” I mean “you and I” — accept and spread misinformation? The two obvious explanations are both disheartening. The first is that we are incapable of telling the difference between truth and lies. In this view, politicians and other opinion-formers are such skilled deceivers that we are helpless, or the issues are so complex that they defy understanding, or we lack basic numeracy and critical-thinking skills. The second explanation is that we know the difference and we don’t care. In order to stick close to our political tribe, we reach the conclusions we want to reach.

There is truth in both these explanations. But is there a third account of how we think about the claims we see in the news and on social media — an account that, ironically, has received far too little attention? That account centres on attention itself: it suggests that we fail to distinguish truth from lies not because we can’t and not because we won’t, but because — as with Robbins’s waistcoat — we are simply not giving the matter our focus.

What makes the problem worse is our intuitive overconfidence that we will notice what matters, even if we don’t focus closely. If so, the most insidious and underrated problem in our information ecosystem is that we do not give the right kind of attention to the right things at the right time. We are not paying enough attention to what holds our attention.

The art of stage magic allows us to approach this idea from an unusual angle: Gustav Kuhn’s recent book, Experiencing the Impossible, discusses the psychology of magic tricks.

“All magic can be explained through misdirection alone,” writes Kuhn, a psychologist who runs the Magic Lab at Goldsmiths, University of London. Such a strong claim is debatable, but what is beyond debate is that the control and manipulation of attention are central to stage magic. They are also central to understanding misinformation. The Venn diagram of misinformation, misdirection and magic has overlaps with which to conjure.

[There follows a fascinating unpacking of the relevance of misdirection to to misinformation…]

We retweet misinformation because we don’t think for long enough to see that it is misinformation. We obsess over bold lies, not realising that their entire purpose is to obsess us. We see one thing and assume it is another, even though we are only deceiving ourselves. We will argue in favour of policies that we opposed seconds ago, as long as we can be distracted long enough to flip our political identities in a mirror.

And behind all this is the grand meta-error: we have no intuitive sense that our minds work like this. We fondly imagine ourselves to be sharper, more attentive and more consistent than we truly are. Our own brains conspire in the illusion, filling the vast blind spots with plausible images.

But if you decide to think carefully about the headlines, or the data visualisations that adorn news websites, or the eye-catching statistics that circulate on social media, you may be surprised: statistics aren’t actually stage magic. Many of them are telling us important truths about the world, and those that are lies are usually lies that we can spot without too much trouble.

Pay attention; get some context; ask questions; stop and think. Misinformation doesn’t thrive because we can’t spot the tricks. It thrives because, all too often, we don’t try. We don’t try, because we are confident that we already did…

Simple, but profoundly important, wisdom: “What magic teaches us about misinformation,” from @TimHarford. eminently worth reading in full. (Originally appeared in the Financial Times Magazine, from whence the illustration above.)

Related: the Barnum (or Forer) Effect

Apollo Robbins, world-famous pickpocket and illusionist

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As we dissect disinformation, we might spare a thought for Oscar Hammerstein; he died on this date in 1919.  As a newly-arrived immigrant to the U.S., Hammerstein worked in a cigar factory, where he discovered ways to automate the rolling process.  He patented his innovation and made a fortune– which he promptly reinvested in his true passions, music and the arts.  Possessed of a sharp sense of design and an equally good acoustical sense, he built and ran theaters and concert halls, becoming one of Americas first great impressarios…  a fact worth honoring, as history tends to overlook “Oscar the First” in favor of his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, the gifted librettist/lyricist and partner of Richard Rodgers.

Hammerstein (on left, with cigar) and conductor Cleofonte Campagnini

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