Harvesting our amygdalas? Or trying to make the world a better place?

Jim Stogdill at O'Reilly Radar writes about Facebook and how they're actually farming our amygdala for information about our preferences and future actions.

Your mind is advanced enough to experience a self, a self that you think has intrinsic value. But that's just a construction in your head. Your actual extrinsic value, I'm sorry to say, is just the sum of your known behaviors and the predictive model they make possible. The stuff you think of as "your data" and the web thinks of as "our data about you — read the ToS," is the grist for that mill. And Facebook's shiny front room is just a place for you to behave promiscuously and observably. While you're farming, well, fake carrots or something, they are farming your amygdala.

It's a cool idea. Yes, our preferences are being recorded and mined. But I don't dig the sentiment that absolutely and necessarily a bad thing. How about saving us time, money, and effort? Isn't that the point of technology anyway?

At the risk of sounding like some sort of technological libertarian... well, yes, there is a certain invisible hand here that guides our actions and aligns our incentives. Clearly as human beings, we DO STUFF. And if the tools (whether Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, or some other communication facility) help us do that stuff faster, better, and for cheaper, then by all means.

We are still adjusting to the advent of new communication technology. Every major advance will result in a backlash. While new communication technology can be used to surveil and control people, I hardly think this is the aim of Facebook or any other innovator here.

The smarter systems get, the better we live. That's the point of technology. Lets not tilt at imaginary windmills. Especially if those windmills are out to get us.

Robert Thurman says we can find enlightenment through the interconnectedness brought to us by computers

Photo by Edward Burtynsky

Professor Robert Thurman gave an amazing TED lecture years ago that I recently rewatched. The topic: We can be Buddhas. We can find enlightenment. But one piece of it caught my eye. This quote:

"...all the interconnectedness of all the computers and everything, it's the forging of a mass awareness, of where everybody can really know everything that's going on everywhere in the planet."

Who is to say the time we spend in front of a computer does not promote deeper, real relationships? We are more connected with people than ever. And future generations will be even more so. I get that there's a general sentiment that spending more time on Facebook or Twitter isn't valuable "real people time." This sentiment is wrong.

I can take a small step into other people's minds and experiences when I dip into my activity streams. I found out minutes ago that an old friend of mine may become vegan because of an indie movie he saw. That's a tiny slice but it lets me step out of my own world. Ideas, experiences, slices of life, sent around the world and shared instantaneously for anyone who happens to be listening. And listen they do -- in the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands, the millions. 

Chris Sacca often gets asked how to get more followers for themselves, complaining of having only a couple hundred. He has millions. In the past, he's replied: Have you ever had to give a speech to a wedding reception? Say of 100 people, even. Most people would be scared to death. But that's what you can do for no cost at all to you. You can speak to a hundred people at any time at your every whim. That's powerful. 

Robert Thurman goes on though. There are consequences to this transparency. This new and possibly limitless interconnectedness. 

And therefore it will become intolerable -- what compassion is, is where it will become intolerable for us, totally intolerable that we sit here in comfort and in pleasure and enjoying the life of the mind or whatever it is, and there are people who are absolutely riddled with disease and they cannot have a bite of food and they have no place, or they're being brutalized by some terrible person and so forth. It just becomes intolerable. With all of us knowing everything, we're kind of forced by technology to become Buddhas or something, to become enlightened.

  ...

  Because our egocentric perception -- from the Buddha's point of view, misperception -- is that all we are is what is inside our skin. And it's inside and outside, self and other, and other is all very different. And everyone here is unfortunately carrying that habitual perception, a little bit, right? You know, someone sitting next to you in a seat -- that's OK because you're in a theater, but if you were sitting on a park bench and someone came up and sat that close to you, you'd freak out. What do they want from me? Like, who's that? And so you wouldn't sit that close to another person because of your notion that it's you versus the universe -- that's all Buddha discovered. Because that cosmic basic idea that it is us all alone, each of us, and everyone else is different, then that puts us in an impossible situation, doesn't it? Who is it who's going to get enough attention from the world? Who's going to get enough out of the world? Who's not going to be overrun by an infinite number of other beings -- if you're different from all the other beings?

  So where compassion comes is where you surprisingly discover you lose yourself in some way: through art, through meditation, through understanding, through knowledge actually, knowing that you have no such boundary, knowing your interconnectedness with other beings. You can experience yourself as the other beings when you see through the delusion of being separated from them. When you do that, you're forced to feel what they feel. 
...

  But apparently, this is a strange paradox of life. When you're no longer locked in yourself, and as the wisdom, or the intelligence, or the scientific knowledge of the nature of the world, that enables you to let your mind spread out, and empathize, and enhance the basic human ability of empathizing, and realizing that you are the other being, somehow by that opening, you can see the deeper nature of life, and you can, you get away from this terrible iron circle of I, me, me, mine, like the Beatles used to sing.

Mirror neurons strike again. Empathy. We must step out of ourselves, our ego, our own tiny worlds. Through that, we find enlightenment. 

It is an amazing time to be alive, to be able to participate in some small part of this... this next evolutionary step in human society. Of enlightened, interconnected experience.

Positivity and negativity in the mirror: You are what you think others to be

Point a finger at someone and three point right back to you. It turns out this is not just a childhood adage.

How positively you see others is linked to how happy, kind-hearted and emotionally stable you are, according to new research by a Wake Forest University psychology professor... They discovered particularly strong associations between positively judging others and how enthusiastic, happy, kind-hearted, courteous, emotionally stable and capable the person describes oneself and is described by others.

“Seeing others positively reveals our own positive traits,” Wood says.

The study also found that how positively you see other people shows how satisfied you are with your own life, and how much you are liked by others.

In contrast, negative perceptions of others are linked to higher levels of narcissism and antisocial behavior. “A huge suite of negative personality traits are associated with viewing others negatively,” Wood says. “The simple tendency to see people negatively indicates a greater likelihood of depression and various personality disorders.”

...

This research suggests that when you ask someone to rate the personality of a particular coworker or acquaintance, you may learn as much about the rater providing the personality description as the person they are describing. The level of negativity the rater uses in describing the other person may indeed indicate that the other person has negative characteristics, but may also be a tip off that the rater is unhappy, disagreeable, neurotic — or has other negative personality traits.

What we choose to say about the people around us reflects heavily on ourselves -- who we are, what we feel, and what our own personality is like.

See the good in others and they shall see the good in you. And wisely choose the company you keep for they will in turn form who you shall become.

Scott Adams suggests a panopticon with privacy: Could such a world exist?

In my book The Dilbert Future I imagined a world with cameras in every room, and on every street corner, recording all the time, but encrypted so that literally no one could view the video without a court order. You wouldn't need much of a police force in that scenario because every crime would be on video, along with the entire escape route, all the way to the criminal's bedroom. Maybe that's too Big Brother for you, but if you reflect on how much privacy you've already given up to technology, it's not that much of a stretch.
--Scott Adams via dilbert.com

This sounds like an excellent plot for a sci fi film. Without some colossally amazing improvements in camera and encryption technology, there are major risks. Diebold would probably try to make these cameras, and fail miserably, just as they have consistently failed at creating reliable voting machines.

Only the consequences are far more dire than a stolen election here or there. Imagine a vast network of cameras recording forever the actions of every single human. Yet through incompetence, that data falls into the hands of anyone willing to pay.

Organized crime? Obsessed exes? Those are just the misanthropic ones. The long arm of the law would have access too. A world of no forgetting. Such a world would be a realization of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, a place of invisible omniscience. Though a very interesting concept, above all one shouldn't forget a panopticon is still a prison.

And turning free society into a prison is something that should give us all pause.

How Wage Slaves vs. Entrepreneurs look at money

Really amazing analysis of business, interpersonal communications, and life coming out of ribbonfarm.com.

In particular, this latest piece on capital is brilliance.

My conception of money completely changed in the years and months leading up to work Posterous. The bargain when working as an employee is completely different. Its very easy to spend money like water when times are good and you've got a steady, reliable, and more than adequate. Its a renewable resource that in the moment seems to be infinite.

But if you want to make it on your own, you can't look at each dollar as something to be spent on your own happiness. That latte won't really make you happy. The only thing that may really make you happy is to be able to reinvest the money into yourself. It is, as Venkatesh points out above, building material for your dreams.

Jeff Bezos breaks with tradition when he sells the Kindle. Emotional marketing at its best.

Jeff Bezos is a trailblazer of the first order. In this Wired article he explains why the Kindle breaks from the traditional business models of subsidized hardware (e.g. cell phones for 99 cents)

It makes so much sense for Kindle. People are willing to pay more up front if it means no hidden fees later (no monthly fees for the connected Whispernet service, and no additional markup on each book). We are opened up to the unlimited nature of this sliver of a device -- imagine, every book at our disposal for cheaper than we'd pay for the treekilling one!

The alternative sucks. Yeah the device is free, but I gotta pay for connectivity and even more for books? Yechhh.

It's emotional marketing at its best.

Why middle-managers must rely on corporate doublespeak

A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.

The unfortunate upshot of this style of doublespeak is that you lose transparency and honesty. When people are too busy looking for ways to cover their ass and avoid looking bad, the business suffers.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind made a reality

Millions of people might be tempted to erase a severely painful memory, for instance — but what if, in the process, they lost other, personally important memories that were somehow related? Would a treatment that “cleared” the learned habits of addiction only tempt people to experiment more widely?

Neuroscientists have discovered a possible way to erase memories, the New York Times reports today.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind may be coming to a cul-de-sac near you. Or perhaps more sinisterly -- what might an authoritarian/totalitarian state do with this power?

Money = Happiness only if it's an investment in experiences. I'm living proof.

Money can lead to greater happiness for the person possessing it and those around them, if it is used to buy experiences, not possessions.

This explains why a spoiled rich kid can have all the toys in the world and still be empty inside. Buying stuff is a short term high, but money also lets you experience more too, and that's what matters in the long run. I'd add another aspect to this -- money is needed to let you connect to other people.

Last year, I spent many thousands on pro camera equipment (dSLR, pro lighting gear, top quality lenses and all the accessories). But along the way, I discovered that I absolutely loved capturing the beauty of life in photos. I got to go to concerts for free, get to know party promoters, connect with cool local SF bands, and help them on their road to stardom in some small way with my concert photography. Same with the various models I did promotional shoots with. I got to take photos on editorial assignments with a hip hop magazine Hood Star Magazine, and got to see a side of hip hop and street culture from the inside I would never have seen otherwise.

My first interaction with Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston of Y Combinator was actually through my photos of Startup School. Shortly afterwards, one of my photos appeared on the front page of the Startup School -- with thanks from PG himself. Awesome, I thought. It might well have given us a small push when we applied for YC later that year. When Jessica invites me to an event these days, she makes sure to ask if my camera is coming too. =)

I also learned the wonder that is a great, functioning user-generated content community (Flickr), and it helped Sachin and I every step along the way as we designed Posterous. Flickr addiction taught me the virtuous cycle that can happen when personal creativity gains a very real audience.

So I think the money was well spent. The experiences it purchased altered the very trajectory of my life. It put me in touch with new and awesome creative people, let me express myself in a powerful new medium, and in aggregate I'm happier and more engaged in my life now than ever before.

The next time you're considering whether or not to drop the cash on that new gadget or that trip or whatnot, think about whether it will unlock new avenues. If it will, consider it an experiential investment. Take that path and good thngs will come.