The Synthesizers In Charge

From an insightful (and terrifying) article in The Atlantic by Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher about the potential impact of AI on our civilization:

The challenge of absorbing this new technology into the values and practices of the existing culture has no precedent. The most comparable event was the transition from the medieval to the modern period. In the medieval period, people interpreted the universe as a creation of the divine and all its manifestations as emanations of divine will. When the unity of the Christian Church was broken, the question of what unifying concept could replace it arose. The answer finally emerged in what we now call the Age of Enlightenment; great philosophers replaced divine inspiration with reason, experimentation, and a pragmatic approach. Other interpretations followed: philosophy of history; sociological interpretations of reality. But the phenomenon of a machine that assists—or possibly surpasses—humans in mental labor and helps to both predict and shape outcomes is unique in human history. The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant ascribed truth to the impact of the structure of the human mind on observed reality. AI’s truth is more contingent and ambiguous; it modifies itself as it acquires and analyzes data.

The passage above reminded me of this gem by E.O. Wilson:

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

True but for the “people” bit?

The Metamorphosis

Are Dating Apps Making Marriages Stronger?

In Living in Information, I wrote about the increase in the number of romantic relationships that start online as a signal that we’re moving key social interactions to information environments. I’ve often spoken of this fact with a tone of surprise. At some deep level, the romantic in me wants to believe that when it comes to love, the key information is best found when being in the same physical space as the other person. But recently the Wall Street Journal highlighted results of a study that suggest otherwise:

According to the study, the rate of marital breakups for respondents who met their spouse online was 25% lower than for those who met offline.

Why would this be?

The researchers suggested that a greater pool of potential spouses might give users more options and allow them to be more selective.

They also found that more anonymous online communications produced greater self-disclosure-and stronger feelings of affection-than face-to face communications, laying the foundation for more enduring relationships. A 2011 paper published in the journal Communication Research reached a similar conclusion. In a study of 85 participants conducted by researchers at Cornell University, opposite-sex participants were assigned to a face-to-face exchange, an online exchange with the addition of a webcam, or a text-only exchange. Researchers found that the text-only couples made more statements of affection than either of the other groups and were more comfortable sharing intimate information.

In the book I defined information as “anything that helps reduce uncertainty so you can make better predictions about outcomes.” It may turn out that when it comes to finding a mate, what we learn in structured information environments helps us make better long-term decisions.

Dating Apps Are Making Marriages Stronger – WSJ

Table Stakes

Yesterday I was running an errand with my daughter. Our conversation drifted towards Mel Blanc. I explained how Mr. Blanc voiced most of the Looney Tunes characters and how I’d seen a hilarious interview years before in which he went through various voices. A “you had to be there” experience.

Then something amazing happened. Rather than (inevitably) mangle the retelling of Mr. Blanc’s amazing abilities, we pulled out my iPhone. Within seconds she was looking at the interview, which is available — along with so much else — in YouTube. She chuckled along. Our conversation continued. When, she wondered, was Mel Blanc alive? I said I thought he’d died in the early 90s, but that we may as well check. I long-pressed the phone’s home button to evoke Siri. I said, “When did Mel Blanc die?” The reply came almost immediately: “Mel Blanc died July 10, 1989 at age 81 in Los Angeles.”

One of my favorite quotes is from Charles Eames:

Eventually everything connects — people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.

I’ve been using an iPhone for over a decade. Even so, I’m still astonished at the quality of connections I can make from this device I carry in my pocket. And what’s more, having such a device isn’t a luxury afforded to a fragment of the population. Almost everybody has similar access.

Alas, the ubiquity of the experience has made it table stakes; we take it for granted. Of course you shot 4K video of the birthday party. Of course you cleared your inbox while waiting in public transport. Of course you know how to get there. (What with all the maps of the world and a GPS receiver in your pocket!) Everybody does.

How do we account for everyone having instant access to any piece of information anywhere at any time? Surely not with measures established in and for the world that existed before the small glass rectangles.

Ethics and Patience in Design

In an inspiring interview for Madame Architect, Design Observer co-founder Jessica Helfand opines on the drive for more ethical design in large organizations:

The problem is that ethics is not an institutional concern: it’s a individual concern. And individual issues begin with one person, at one time, doing one thing. That requires faith, understanding, compassion, and the one thing that challenges everyone: patience. Ethics isn’t derived by market research, or determined by an algorithm-and that’s tricky, particularly if you’re one of these large, behemoth companies that puts profit ahead of people.

Spot on. Organizations can only be ethical to the degree that the people who compose them are clear on their own value hierarchies.

I also appreciated the call for patience, which seems in short supply these days. Lasting, meaningful change requires long-term thinking. Many calls for “instant” fixes to intractably complex issues strike me as naïve, short-sighted, and often at odds with the long-term viability of the institutions they aim to “correct.”

The theme of patience (and humility) about our contributions as designers — especially when working in teams — comes up again, in a different guise, towards the end of the interview:

It’s hard in architecture, because how can you feel that you are engaging in the world of the spatially meaningful, when you’re working for a team doing window details for sixteen months and the building will take twenty years, and it’s a bank? I think it’s hard for designers, particularly with how much we do this on teams – how do you reconcile your role, when you’re part of a bigger team, when the collective effort overshadows your own, arguably sporadic contributions? I think that’s true of all designers, but it may be especially true for young architects.

The entire article is worth your time. (I was also inspired by the discussion about the creative studio as a sanctuary, something I’ve neglected in my life. This interview set me thinking about how I can correct that deficit.)

Visual Thinking: Jessica Helfand on Invention, the Studio as Sanctuary, and Being a Collector

Progress Studies

Writing in The Atlantic, Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen call for the creation of a new academic discipline: “Progress Studies”:

Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study.

The idea that things can (and do) get better over time has been central to Western culture for a long time. However, perusing social media like Twitter often makes me feel like many people have given up on the idea of progress — despite evidence to the contrary.

That’s not to say everything’s rosy. Progress in one area (e.g., cheap energy) can be lead to other areas falling behind (e.g., international conflicts, a polluted environment.) Also, we often ignore second-order effects; what appear to be advances in the near term can lead to serious issues down the line. Things are more complex than they seem on the surface.

Still, it’s worth striving to make things better. Studying what progress is, how we measure it, how we can incentivize it, and what we can do to minimize the downsides, seems like a worthwhile way of going about it.

We Need a New Science of Progress

Neal Stephenson on Social Media

Speaking in an interview with Tyler Cowen, Neal Stephenson offers an excellent analysis of how social media has hurt civic discourse:

COWEN: You saw some of the downsides of social media earlier than most people did in Seveneves. It’s also in your new book, Fall. What’s the worst-case scenario for how social media evolved? And what’s the institutional failure? Why do many people think they’re screwing things up?

STEPHENSON: I think we’re actually living through the worst-case scenario right now, so look about you, and that’s what we’ve got. Our civil institutions were founded upon an assumption that people would be able to agree on what reality is, agree on facts, and that they would then make rational, good-faith decisions based on that. They might disagree as to how to interpret those facts or what their political philosophy was, but it was all founded on a shared understanding of reality.

And that’s now been dissolved out from under us, and we don’t have a mechanism to address that problem.

Mr. Stephenson’s observation corresponds to my experience of social media (especially Twitter): It’s not that folks are talking past each other, it’s that they’re not even interacting with people who don’t share their mental models. The mere hint of the possibility of an alternate take can lead to ostracism — or worse. Amplified through continuous validation and a complete lack of pushback, opinions replace facts as the basis for worldviews. To talk of filter bubbles is misleading: these aren’t tenuous membranes; they’re thick, hardened shells.

The interview continues:

COWEN: But what’s the fundamental problem there? Is it that decentralized communications media intrinsically fail because there are too many voices? Is there something about the particular structure of social media now?

STEPHENSON: The problem seems to be the fact that it’s algorithmically driven, and that there are not humans in the loop making decisions, making editorial, sort of curatorial decisions about what is going to be disseminated on those networks.

As such, it’s very easy for people who are acting in bad faith to game that system and produce whatever kind of depiction of reality best suits them. Sometimes that may be something that drives people in a particular direction politically, but there’s also just a completely nihilistic, let-it-all-burn kind of approach that some of these actors are taking, which is just to destroy people’s faith in any kind of information and create a kind of gridlock in which nobody can agree on anything.

In other words, it’s a structural problem. As such, it’s also systemic. Unmentioned in the interview is the driving force behind these algorithmic constructs: business models based on monetizing users’ attention. Incentivizing engagement leads to systems that produce fragmentation and conflict.

Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality (Ep. 71)

Apollo 11 at Fifty

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most important achievements in human history: the Apollo 11 moon landing. I find the project incredibly inspiring. I tear up every time I think of the words inscribed in the base of the Eagle lander, which was left behind on the lunar surface:

Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.

Some people speak dismissively of Apollo, saying we ought to spend money on problems here on Earth rather than going to space. I wasn’t alive when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, but from what I gather it was a momentous event that brought the whole world together. I’ve only experienced that degree of global cohesion in my lifetime due to tragic events (E.g., 9/11, the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, etc.) Apollo stands out as a positive achievement that united the world. We need more challenges like it — especially in our polarized times.

There are lots of lessons in the moon program for anyone tasked with aligning and motivating people towards wickedly complex goals. (That’s why we refer to particularly gnarly challenges as “moonshots.”) Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading books, watching documentaries, and listening to podcasts about Apollo. If you’d like to look into it, here are a few resources that are worth your while:

  • APOLLO 11 (2019) – A breathtaking new documentary assembled from contemporary (yet astonishingly clear) footage and audio sources. I also loved the synthesized soundtrack; like the film, it manages to sound both modern and of its time.
  • 13 Minutes to the Moon – A podcast from the BBC World Service that features interviews with surviving members of the Apollo program, including astronauts, mission controllers, and more.
  • Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys – A memoir by Apollo astronaut Michael Collins. I’m still working through this one, but can already recommend it due to the quality of the writing and the level of detail it provides. (I’ve also posted a few things I learned from it already.)

The Treachery of Deepfakes

Ninety years ago, René Magritte painted a pipe. I’m sure you’ve seen the work; it’s among his most famous. Written under the rendering of the object are the words Ceci n’est pas une pipe — “This is not a pipe.” Huh? Well, it isn’t; it’s a representation of a pipe. Clever stuff.

The Treachery of Images

The painting is called La Trahison des images — “The Treachery of Images.” Treachery means to deceive; to betray our trust. The painting tricks us by simulating a familiar object. Aided by the charming image, our mind conceives the pipe. We recall experiences with the real thing — its size, weight, texture, the smell of tobacco, etc. Suddenly we’re faced with a conundrum. Is this a pipe or not? At one level it is, but at another it isn’t.

The Treachery of Images requires that we make a conceptual distinction between the representation of an object and the object itself. While it’s not a nuanced distinction – as far as I know, nobody has tried to smoke Magritte’s painting – it’s important since it highlights the challenges inherent in using symbols to represent reality.

The closer these symbols are to the thing they’re representing, the more compelling the simulation. Compared to many of Magritte’s contemporaries, his style is relatively faithful to the “real world.” That said, it’s not what we call photo-realistic. (That is, an almost perfect two-dimensional representation of the real thing. Or rather, a perfectly rendered representation of a photograph of the real thing.)

Magritte’s pipe is close enough. I doubt the painting would be more effective if it featured a “perfect” representation; its “painting-ness” is an important part of what makes it effective. The work’s aim isn’t to trick us into thinking that we’re looking at a pipe, but to spark a conversation about the difference between an object and its symbolic representation.

The distance between us and the simulation is enforced by the medium in which we experience it. You’re unlikely to be truly misled while standing in a museum in front of the physical canvas. That changes, of course, if you’re experiencing the painting in an information environment such as the website where you’re reading these words. Here, everything collapses onto the same level.

There’s a photo of Magritte’s painting at the beginning of this post. Did you confuse it with the painting itself? I’m willing to bet that at one level you did. This little betrayal serves a noble purpose; I wanted you to be clear on which painting I was discussing. I also assumed that you’d know that that representation of the representation wasn’t the “real” one. (There was no World Wide Web ninety years ago.) No harm meant.

That said, as we move more of our activities to information environments, it becomes harder for us to make these distinctions. We get used to experiencing more things in these two-dimensional symbolic domains. Not just art, but also shopping, learning, politics, health, taxes, literature, mating, etc. Significant swaths of human experience collapsed to images and symbols.

Some, like my citing of The Treachery of Images are relatively innocent. Others are actually and intentionally treacherous. As in: designed to deceive. The rise of these deceptions is inevitable; the medium makes them easy to accept and disseminate, and simulation technologies keep getting better. That’s why you hear in the news about increasing concern for deepfakes.

Recently, someone commercialized an application that strips women of their clothes. Well, not really — it strips photographs of women of their clothes. That makes it only slightly less pernicious; such capabilities can do very real harm. The app has since been pulled from the market, but I’m confident that won’t be the last we see of this type of treachery.

It’s easy to point to that case as an obvious misuse of technology. Others will be harder. Consider “FaceTime Attention Correction,” a new capability coming in iOS 13. Per The Verge, this seemingly innocent feature corrects a long-standing issue with video calls:

Normally, video calls tend to make it look like both participants are peering off to one side or the other, since they’re looking at the person on their display, rather than directly into the front-facing camera. However, the new “FaceTime Attention Correction” feature appears to use some kind of image manipulation to correct this, and results in realistic-looking fake eye contact between the FaceTime users.

What this seems to be doing is re-rendering parts of your face on-the-fly while you’re on a video call so the person on the other side is tricked into thinking you’re looking directly at them.

While this sounds potentially useful, and the technology behind it is clever and cool, I’m torn. Eye contact is an essential cue in human communication. We get important information from our interlocutor’s eyes. (That’s why we say the eyes are the “windows to the soul.”) While meeting remotely using video is nowhere near as rich as meeting in person, we communicate better using video than when using voice only. Do we really want to mess around with something as essential as the representation of our gaze?

In some ways, “Attention Correction” strikes me as more problematic than other examples of deep fakery. We can easily point to stripping clothes off photographs, changing the cadence of politician’s speeches in videos, or simulating an individual’s speech patterns and tone as either obviously wrong or (in the latter case) at least ethically suspect. Our repulsion makes them easier to regulate or shame off the market. It’s much harder to say that altering our gaze in real-time isn’t ethical. What’s the harm?

Well, for one, it messes around with one of our most fundamental communication channels, as I said above. It also normalizes the technologies of deception; it puts us on a slippery slope. First the gaze, then… What? A haircut? Clothing? Secondary sex characteristics? Given realistic avatars, perhaps eventually we can skip meetings altogether.

Some may relish the thought, but not me. I’d like more human interactions in information environments. Currently, when I look at the smiling face inside the small glass rectangle, I think I’m looking at a person. Of course, it’s not a person. But there’s no time (or desire) during the interaction to snap myself out of the illusion. That’s okay. I trust that there’s a person on the other end, and that I’m looking at a reasonably trustworthy representation. But for how much longer?

Design for Long-Term Relevance

Richard Saul Wurman in an interview for Interior Design magazine:

One of the reasons [my firm] went out of business was the ideal piece of architecture at that time was a Michael Graves building and he ruined architecture. I know he’s dead, but when he was alive he was smart and drew well and was a nice person, but he ruined architecture because all the critics made him the king architect doing these decorative buildings that won’t even be a footnote in 20 years. I’m putting this in context. Architects are as good as their clients and what they’re demanding. So, they are doing bling buildings. Look at what just got put up by thoughtful, bright architects—I’ve met every single one of them—in Hudson Yards. The idea of Hudson Yards is that it looks good from a helicopter and New Jersey. Walking around is the opposite of Piazza San Marco. It just isn’t interesting. It’s a fiction that all the architects during the Renaissance were great. What has held up is buildings that people want to occupy.

The Portland Building in August 1982. Photo by Steve Morgan.
Image by Steve Morgan CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

I was in architecture school at a time when Graves’ architecture was still hot. I remember poring over his beautiful drawings and thinking how much better they looked than photographs of the ensuing buildings. That was then; now, both look stale. Not the effect you want when designing something meant to be as durable as a building.

Relatively few things stand the test of time. Those that do — buildings, books, household objects, technologies, etc. — are worth paying attention to. If they remain relevant after taste and popular opinion have moved on, it’s because at some level they address universal needs.

Aspiration: design for long-term relevance. Hard to do for creatures dazzled by an endless array of new capabilities and embedded in cultures that place a premium on innovation.

10 Questions With… Richard Saul Wurman (h/t Dan Klyn)