Monday, September 11, 2017

Magical Heuristics – we'll be coming back to this one

I read somewhere that John P. Marquand, author of serious and well-respected novels like The Late George Apley and Sincerely, Willis Wayde as well as popular entertainments such as the Mr. Moto books would use the latter as a chance to research ideas and settings for the former. Blogs and twitter can serve an analogous function. Tweets grow into posts and posts grow into articles or books. I have noticed that many of Josh Marshall's pieces show up (in very rough form) on twitter while Paul Krugman often precedes his columns with a series of blog posts on the same topic.

I've made use of both forums and can generally recommend the approach. However, I sometimes get to a piece of the argument I'm building that doesn't want to break down into manageable chunks. The result is always something that I really want to write but which nonetheless keeps getting pushed back in the queue. I've come to thee conclusion it's best to get something out – even if it's rough and incomplete – to open the thread.

One of these is the concept of magical heuristics. As I have spent more and more time critiquing individual reports about technological advances and the larger narratives they represent, I've increasingly come to the conclusion that many, perhaps even most, of these standard narratives, though they make heavy use of the language and imagery of science, are based on essentially nonscientific ways of thinking.

For lack of a better name (and, trust me, I am open to suggestions), let's call these magical heuristics. As a student of George Pólya, I tend to think of heuristics along the lines that he laid out in How to Solve It, mental tools for problem-solving, pattern recognition, and evaluating plausibility. Though these tools are widely applicable, they very much come from the world of math and science and reflect that underlying philosophy.

Over the past few years, I began to realize that many of the journalists and pundits describing and discussing science and technology (particularly the latter) were thinking about these things in a fundamentally different way than researchers, engineers, statisticians did. The final product often looked scientific on the surface but underneath was not at all.

Though I have no expertise in mysticism and supernatural belief systems (and would dearly love the input of someone who does), I tried to work out a basic framework for the mental tools being used.  So far, this is what I've come up with. I still feel like there are essential parts missing, but it's a start:

Magic of association – – properties can be transmitted through proximity (physical or otherwise). This magic is particularly strong in Silicon Valley. Almost any association with someone or something noted for great wealth, success or innovation can pass on these properties. When no direct association is possible, it may be enough to simply invoke the name of a great success which leads us to...

Magic of language – – the proper use of words can alter reality. In addition to the aforementioned example of invoking names like Apple or Google, certain words such as "disruption" are assigned special power. Mission statements actually help determine the fate of companies. Great emphasis is also put on aspirational language which tends to segue into...

Magic of will/belief/doubt – – attitude also shapes reality. Things are more likely to happen the more deeply you believe in them. Correspondingly, skepticism and negative attitudes can undermine this magic. In extreme cases, particularly if surrounded by true believers, there are those who can simply will things into existence which leads us to...

Magic of destiny – – there are chosen ones among us. Their powers are all-applicable, not tied to any specific area or based on specific skills and knowledge; they can simply make things happen. Any association with the chosen ones is unquestionably beneficial. Like messianic American Express cards, they have no preset limits, but they do have at least one weakness: doubters. To question a chosen one is to inspire great hostility.

In the next few weeks, I'm going to fill this out with more examples, many of which will not involve Elon Musk. The eventual goal is to work this into a presentable essay. In the meantime, I can use all the help I can get. Any suggestions?

No comments:

Post a Comment