Sunday, July 26, 2015

Identities and Interdependence

We think of new things in ways we already understand. Imagine a horses body with a man's torso. If you were a bat, how would it feel to 'see' with your ears? If you were poor, how would you get yourself out of the situation? It is very hard to strip away how we already see when we look at the world. Quite often we understand the way our world is, and we can visualise the way we want the world to be. We can't quite see how we would get from here to there though. We want to moan about the way things are. But we are scared to change. We don't want to lose what we have. But we want something else.

Daniel Dennett talks about the confusing idea of taking two species and selecting just two bits and asking wouldn't it be better if this had that. A horse with wings. A cat that talked. A elephant with stripes. Things that are possible in isolation may not be possible together. They each came about through millions of small little tweaks that led them to a specific combination. Each characteristic is part of a larger orchestra. It doesn't exist in isolation. You may not be able to get from here to there.

We like to separate things into small chunks. To identify things. To create boundaries. Frameworks. Boxes. Rules. These boundaries are completely artificial and a tool we use to think. To create stories we think we understand. A queen bee, for example, is not distinct from the hive. The worker bee is not distinct from the hive. The hive is a single organism. Extend that further and we are not distinct from bees. No bees. No people.

Computers do amazing things by combining very simple 'dumb' things. Strings of 1s and 0s create decision paths that lead to 'intelligence'. A sensor may just be able to tell if it is light (1) or dark (0), but combined with many, many other small decisions it may be able to drive a car. So once a large, complicated organism grows and sees something else, we are very unsure about what to tweak.

Which is why creative destruction becomes so important. Quite often the change comes from people who are starting from scratch. Once you become very attached to the way you do things, you need to be able to plan a way to transition from here to there. Often that requires a completely different way of looking at things. There is no path sideways. You have to step back. There is no elephant with ears that work as wings. There is an elephant. There is a bird.

Sorry, no Dumbo Dumbo.

This is why change often happens without permission. While people are discussing the path or gaining consensus, someone else gets it done. Change also doesn't happen in an orderly fashion. There is no straight, predictable path of progress. Sometimes things bubble along frustratingly with no progress. Sometimes they go backwards. Then a better way emerges. Some changes uproot everything. Our world was designed around horses. Then the car came along. Now our world is designed around cars. They are everywhere. Maybe they will disappear too as they learn to drive themselves and we don't need so many. Maybe to go forward, we have to go back to walking.

Cars that drive themselves may have dramatic knock on effects. Everything is connected in ways we don't fully understand. If cars drive themselves, do we all need to arrive at work at the same time? Can we live outside the city? Do kids need to go to the same schools to save Mum & Dad driving time?  Do businesses need to have fixed locations? What else can 'drive itself'? What jobs become redundant. How does that change our world?

The world is incredibly complicated and interconnected. The wonder of human creativity is the ability to connect dots. To make wild, illogical, passionate leaps. To ask questions. Then to figure out the balance between conserving the things we love, accepting that things are bound to change, and putting aside the way we see the world to see both how it is and how it could be. A balance between questioning and practising

Exciting, nerve-wracking and without boundaries or identities.
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