Gongol.com Archives: November 2023

Brian Gongol

November 13, 2023

Computers and the Internet Mindless quotation is like distracted driving

After the widespread arrival of cell phones, it took a while for people to realize the dangers inherent to their use while driving. Mobile phones are tremendously useful tools, but it takes a considerable effort to do the education necessary for people to realize that the seduction of alerts and text messages needs to be tuned out while conducting a vehicle down the road. ■ Laws aren't always the solution. Some things that are bad for us call for awareness more than legislation, either because they demand self-discipline that can't easily be enforced, or because the harms they create are not fully intuitive and highlighting them helps people to see the need for voluntary compliance with good behavior. ■ Just as we collectively have internalized the dangers of texting while driving, we need to internalize the dangers of amplifying provocateurs. There are many running about, and they are responding to a feedback loop of incentives that encourages them to say things of escalating absurdity in their pursuit of attention. Say enough outlandish things to a devoted audience, and it might just land you a show on a disreputable cable channel. ■ Those provocateurs have to be tuned out, not just by people avoiding them in their own news and social-media feeds, but also by those who erroneously believe they are performing a public service by quoting the provocations in order to express revulsion. When, for example, a Presidential candidate espouses an utterly preposterous proposal to lay off half the country's civil service, he is not trying to be taken seriously. He is attempting to be so outlandish as to draw an outlandish response from others. ■ The temptation to point and shout in the direction of outlandishness is strong, but it has to be balanced by the self-discipline to realize that amplifying craziness, even to criticize, still serves to amplify craziness. If an absurdity must be pointed out, it can be done without using the provocateur's words or likeness. When they act in bad faith, the rest of us don't need to go along.

Science and Technology A great storyteller returns

After a hiatus of more than a quarter-century, the remarkable television presenter James Burke has revived -- or, perhaps, appended -- his "Connections" series. The programs did a remarkable job of telling the very non-linear story of science and technology: How seemingly different and widely-separated events and innovations eventually converged to produce unexpected outcomes. ■ Burke's ability to tell a riveting story is brilliant on paper. It is even more fantastic when delivered with a flair for the dramatic on-screen, like his perfectly-timed build-up to a rocket launch. That is a skill set worth celebrating in Burke and cultivating in others. ■ It comes as news to no one that we struggle to keep pace in the social sciences with progress in the technical sciences. A lot of developments come to fruition far before a legal framework is ready to accept them. That imbalance turns some people into Luddites and others into anarchists. ■ But Burke espouses a different view: "You're either optimistic, or you jump off the bridge, and I don't intend to jump off the bridge. The best thing is to stick around and do something." And his storytelling style -- particularly in its embrace of the unexpected, seemingly-random connections that cause changes in nothing like a linear fashion -- is a great model to embrace. ■ Nobody can know it all, and that's just fine. But we can (and should) be eager to learn some of it along the way, and to form useful heuristics for approaching new developments not with fear, but with sensibility.

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