➻ First up, we look to James Hannaham at the Village Voice for a review and interview as Stats Man Nate Silver Releases His First Book, The Signal and the Noise. “Speaking with the Odds God,” Hannaham discusses Silver’s rise from semi-obscurity in the world of sabermetric baseball statistics to wild success on the national stage in the political prediction game. It all came to pass because of the remarkable accuracy of his predictions during the 2008 presidential election on his FiveThirtyEight blog (538 is the number of votes in the electoral college)—which has since been picked up by The New York Times.
That site proved to be one of the most accurate political meta-polls during the 2008 presidential race (he called every state except Indiana) and continues to testify to Silver’s influence. So swift was his rise to King of Geekdom (TIME named him to its 100 Most Influential People list in ’09) that his followers lacked a bible. Now, though, he’s releasing his first book, The Signal and the Noise (The Penguin Press, 352 pp., $27.95), a substantial, wide-ranging, and potentially important gauntlet of probabilistic thinking based on actual data thrown at the feet of a culture determined to sweep away silly liberal notions like “facts.” For Silver, the key to successful prognostication is a clear-eyed examination of the difference between “noise,” misleading or biased methods or faulty data sets, and “signal”—that which is likely to turn out to be true, and whose significance often seems obvious in hindsight.
In 13 chapters, he covers a panorama of the unpredictable and the state of mankind’s ability to conquer it. Or come close, anyway.
“This is not a postmodern kind of book,” says Silver … “It’s saying there is truth, but we can’t know it, and it’s hard for people to accept both those propositions. It requires you to accept that you’ll always be a flawed, imperfect creature who’s struggling to get better.” …
As far as Silver is concerned, no one in a business or institution that relies on prediction can afford to accept their preconceived notions as fact.
I think this will make for a fascinating, down-to-earth contrast to a highly anticipated book being released by Random House next month, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.
➻ Next we turn from “the unpredictable and the state of mankind’s ability to conquer it” to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, A Post on the Occasion of Facebook’s Billionth Member, and the mankind’s future capacity to experience—and/or conquer—boredom.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that David Byrne was correct and that the distinguishing characteristic of paradise is the absence of event, the total nonexistence of the new. Everything is beautifully, perfectly unflummoxed. If we further assume that hell is the opposite of heaven, then the distinguishing characteristic of hell is unrelenting eventfulness, the constant, unceasing arrival of the new. Hell is a place where something always happens. One would have to conclude, on that basis, that the great enterprise of our time is the creation of hell on earth. Every new smartphone should have, affixed to its screen, one of those transparent, peel-off stickers on which is written, “Abandon hope, ye who enter here.”
Forget the Turing Test. We’ll know that computers are really smart when computers start getting bored. If you assign a computer a profoundly tedious task like spotting potential house numbers in video images, and then you come back a couple of hours later and find that the computer is checking its Facebook feed or surfing porn, then you’ll know that artificial intelligence has truly arrived.
There’s another angle here, though. As many have pointed out, one thing that networked computers are supremely good at is preventing their users from experiencing boredom. A smartphone is the most perfect boredom-eradication device ever created. (Some might argue that smartphones don’t so much eradicate boredom as lend to boredom an illusion of excitement, but that’s probably just semantics.) To put it another way, what networked computers are doing is stealing from humans one of the essential markers of human intelligence: the capacity to experience boredom.
And that brings us back to the Talking Heads. For the non-artificially intelligent, boredom is not an end-state; it’s a portal to transcendence—a way out of quotidian eventfulness and into some higher state of consciousness. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, but that’s a place that the computer, and, as it turns out, the computer-enabled human, can never visit. In hell, the house numbers, or their equivalents, never stop coming, and we never stop being amused by them.
It’s also a place where partisan cable news can never visit, but that’s a story for another time.
➻ In the meantime, we turn to The Daily Caller (cofounded by cable news pundit Tucker Carlson) and Matt K. Lewis’s review of a book on the positive possibilities of the networked age that Michael has covered extensively here on this blog—Future Perfect. Lewis writes that Steven Johnson’s ‘Future Perfect’ Puts the Political Left and Right on Notice:
Author Steven Johnson is a rare individual these days: A genuine optimist. His new book, Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age, preaches a gospel of an emerging worldview that “doesn’t map on to the existing left/right political categories.”
He swears he’s not selling “cyber-utopianism,” but Johnson believes the “peer network” structure of the Internet can help us meld the best qualities of conservatism and liberalism into a more visionary third way.
And he might have a point.
Consider the website Kickstarter, which allows individuals to voluntarily support creative projects. As Johnson notes, the site is “on track to distribute more money than the National Endowment for the Arts” (a potentially positive development for conservatives who lament having their tax dollars involuntarily go to such projects.) Why couldn’t, as Johnson suggests, local governments incorporate a similar sort of “participatory budgeting” model to decide which projects to fund?
This might sound like a quixotic attempt at “direct democracy,” but Johnson (who is the author of several other terrific books, including “Where Good Ideas Come From” and “Everything Bad is Good For You”) insists that finding new solutions requires casting aside cynicism and embracing optimism.
And it is refreshing to read an ostensibly political book in which the author genuinely seems to have no ideological agenda or partisan ax to grind. Johnson’s advice, thus, rings at least sincere.
“I think one of the key things that the Left needs to acknowledge is that the libertarian position that kind of comes down from Hayek,” he tells me, “in the long run, will outperform and out innovate centralized bureaucratic institutions.”
But while Johnson dismisses the notion that elite planners can solve all our problems, he also argues that tomorrow’s best innovative solutions won’t come exclusively from the market-based sources. “The idea is not to replace the market with the state,” he avers, “but to enhance and extend the market with other decentralized systems that aren’t necessarily driven by profit incentives.”
If this sounds naive, think of Wikipedia. Thousands of people voluntarily contribute to creating and maintaining this online encyclopedia — for free. (As author Dan Pink, has pointed out, sometimes financial incentives actually reduce motivation and participation.)
Achieving Johnson’s vision won’t be easy. A lot of people are invested in preserving the current political system. ”The Left needs to get rid of the idea [of] top-down, state-centralized master plans [and] big, top-heavy unions — all of these things that have been institutions of the left for a hundred years,” he says.
“But the Right has to give up the idea that everything is going to be solved by the market.”
➻ One thing Douglas Rushkoff would like you to know about the future is that the iPhone is Not Your Saviour
Yes, we’ve been here before.
First time, for me anyway, was the CD-ROM craze. Flashy interactivity, new authoring tools and seemingly infinite storage space led many media publishers to believe that CD-ROMs would be to the digital era what books were to that of text. They obsolesced themselves as a viable format (mostly by being slow and boring) even before networking speeds made disks irrelevant.
The dotcom boom appeared just as infinite to those in the know. While Amazon has been left standing, Pets.com and Etoys crashed as quickly as they rose. The vast majority of online retailers surprised the Wall Street analysts betting on them.
Social media was supposed to solve that problem for the tech industry and NASDAQ alike, but climaxed in the IPO of Facebook, a disappointment so far-reaching it has dragged dozens of social media companies along with it, and sent investors and entrepreneurs looking for greener pastures.
Like wireless handheld devices and the apps running on them.
Everywhere I turn, every conference I attend, every magazine story I read seems to be based on one aspect of these technologies or another. Everyone is hard at work on an iPhone app that lists, maps, or socializes some data set in some new visual way. Pictures over text, text over maps, restaurants close to subways, or apps showing subways with WiFi to download more apps.
Don’t get me wrong: Wireless is big, and these devices are here to stay, at least until we get comfortable with apps being embedded in objects and technology being implanted in our bodies. And while the opportunity for corporations to make billions on these apps may be overstated, we may still see a new peer-to-peer marketplace emerge between independent developers and the users of their bounty of applications.
But the extent to which entrepreneurs, developers, and even columns like this one depend on Apple and the rest of the wireless computing industry for new grist far exceeds their true impact or potential.
So go, get an iPhone. Enjoy it. But find something or someone else to save you.
Or, possibly, maybe you can find something or someone else to save? It would probably be more rewarding.
➻ And then there’s Dave Pollard, author of Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur’s Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work, who would like you to know Why We Cannot Save the World at all.
➻ So, I suppose the Mayans had it right. It’s the end of the world.