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Infinite Regression(?)

August 2, 2010

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.

I’m inclined to suggest a clarification or caveat to Einstein’s (putative) quip: humans are capable of infinite stupidity when disparate and atomized, but humans are also capable of transcending their individual foibles and fallibility by recognizing their individual limits and joining their intellectual prowess to create goods for all to reap and enjoy: human knowledge.

In terms of policy, here’s a categorical imperative I wish policymakers would adopt, by which I mean this as a simple litmus test for whether or not a policy ought to be enacted by a democratic society*: Would adopting the given policy or attitude tend to make society resemble cavemen or futuristic aliens? If we’d be regressing toward cavemen, that’s probably not good policy. Take any of today’s most prevalent political “questions” as examples. E.g.,

*Attractiveness of inquiry not guaranteed if you’re the ubermensche.

demotivational posters - PETA

Not using whips and chains to dominate nature: progressive?

In the best article he’s written in years, E.J. Dione points out that our politics are silly because we don’t actually play out the implications of policy positions in our inquiries by asking whether or not we’re regressing to Neanderthals in the process. For example, we have the narrative of supply-side economics, which insists that taxes are always too high, especially on the rich. Contrast that fairy tale with Warren Buffet’s famous observation that he pays a lower effective tax than his secretary or with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s observation, “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.” Our crowds sometimes don’t care to be wise, but sometimes they aren’t structured to allow the wisdom of crowds to shine through (like when a democracy isn’t much of a democracy):

When our republic was created, the population ratio between the largest and smallest state was 13 to 1. Now, it’s 68 to 1. Because of the abuse of the filibuster, 41 senators representing less than 11 percent of the nation’s population can, in principle, block action supported by 59 senators representing more than 89 percent of our population.

(Note: not sure how the odd number of Senators figures into calculations here, but let’s just leave that aside for now).

Maybe the caveman inquiry can help us solve some of these other, even more bleeding-edge questions:

Charging people for news: Neolithic or necessary for the prolific? Though the phenomenon is fairly recent, it’s still pretty clearly a historic relic in an era where the costs of sharing knowledge are actually $0. Paywall = fail! Rupert Murdoch’s The Times lost almost 90% of its online readership after erecting its paywall. Note how giddily The Guardian reported that loss, and you can easily see why The Times‘ approach simply isn’t viable on the Internet. It is implausible to believe that you can bend the herd that is the Internet to your will, especially when that will requires the herd to whi out a credit card when close and nearly indistinguishable substitutes are at the ready. Now, narrowing one’s reach o meet their grasp with a more elite audience and getting them to pay for it is certainly one approach, but most news outlets need to wake up to the fact that news provision is no longer a 10+% return industry, and its owners should seriously consider what they hope to accomplish with those outlets. Like I’ve asked before, if the news media are only in their business to make money, why are we worried about the loss of these whores? Twitter, WikiLeaks, blogs, or whatever other media impose the least barriers to speech can and will provide the raw information for others to collect and subsequently analyze and discuss. It’s actually quite surprising that someone as seemingly motivated by the propagation of their own ideology as Rupert Murdoch is making the first moves to make more money at the expense of the prevalence of his own viewpoint. So it goes.

And for a redeeming example of online organized masses trumping concerted ideologies, Anonymous has prevailed over the Oregon Tea Party in a manner most befitting the style of the massive hordes of 4chan.

The reason collective intelligence is preferable to small groups of fringe loonies is simply that the margin of error is reduced when more and more inputs are introduced to the formula. Having an infinite amount of people provide observations of an event would hypothetically produce the closest thing to a “true” observation because greater numbers diminish that natural margin of error. But unlike an infinite amount of monkeys (who incidentally just type the letter ‘S’ quite a bit) capable of pervasive error, humans also have the ability to correct pervasive errors on the fly and adjust for better results as the numbers continue to grow. Isn’t that process of error-correction just another way of describing the course of intellectual history, with some blips along the way?

Like that Einstein. He was a smart human.

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