Perception of change, reality or illusion?

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Over at my other weblog I have posted an item titled Blogs of the Union in response to a call from Radio Open Source (listen live to see if Brendan notes my BOTU). The gist of it is that I believe we are the last generation of the old human, and might be the first generation of the new. JM Keynes said of Newton “He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.”1 I believe somethings similar applies to humanity as a whole in our age. Roughly, my contention is that in the information saturated universe, where obesity is starting to be seen a worldwide problem, mass culture is finally decoupling itself from the sensibilities that have grounded us in a common human experience for the last 50,000 years. True, a minority of humanity has always lived apart, whether it be in monasteries, or in unimaginable luxury, or the case of the likes of Newton, minds whose virtuosity bears no comprehension. But the mass consumer society is taking novel change to the people and consuming them. Roughly, I believe that the rate of the rate of change is increasing (i.e., derivative of change, change’, is > 0).

Of course, this could all be an illusion, a conceit held by every generation. Let me offer two rejoinders, one somewhat esoteric, the other mundane. First, we are not a particularly unique sample of humans who are that privileged at being born when we are,2 a large fraction of the individuals who have ever lived are alive today, 1 out of 20 to be precise.3 Second, walking on a college campus is a surreal experience, gone are the days when a stroll between buildings entailed a possible encounter with a stranger, eye contact with humans of unknown provenance. Rather, it is a time when you withdraw into a familiar cocoon and pull out the cell phone to talk to those who are near and dear. This wasn’t so 10 years ago. It wasn’t so 100 years ago. Or perhaps nearly 1,000 years ago at the University of Paris.

So do I live in a dream world? Do I simply not know what I think I know? Do you share RPM’s unbelief? As I tell Michael Vassar, I don’t go to church often, I don’t know the scripture and the portents, but I do believe….

Tigers of the future, Why the inflection.

1 – Keynes’ assertion was made after his purchase of Newton’s papers, he knew of what he spoke, for he had seen into the dark mind of the mad genius.

2 – Certainly those of use born into the first world are the lucky subset, but, I would argue that an age where famine is an aberration means even those who live in Bangladesh (for example) are graced.

3 – Due to the world wide drop in fertility we are also near the mode of the probability distribution of the likelihood of a human to be alive at in any given age. I believe that 100 years from there humans as we know it probably won’t exist, or that that those who remain will be less numerous than those at the mid-21st century peak (for whatever reason, ill or good).


  1. Could the third derivate of change be negative. At least the cost of technological development is increasing (comparing the price of physics experiments today and 100 years ago) and possibly the overall intellectual difficulty. Might this increase be at such a rate to cancel out our increasing abilities.

  2. well, science (some) may be near its limit in the foreseeable future, but i don’t think that is true of engineering or sociology and the all the incipient hybrids. even if change”’ < 0, i don’t think that change” is close to approaching zero yet. and if we do get strong AI soon i think change”’ will flip to > 0 pretty quickly.

  3. Isn’t change itself the first derivative? That is rate of change = change = d(reality)/dt. So and accelerating rate of change would be d^2(reality)/dt^2 > 0, which would only be the first derivative of change?

  4. yep, right, i’ll fix that.

  5. “walking on a college campus is a surreal experience, gone are the days when a stroll between buildings entailed a possible encounter with a stranger, eye contact with humans of unknown provenance. Rather, it is a time when you withdraw into a familiar cocoon and pull out the cell phone to talk to those who are near and dear” 
    I was on the campus of my alma mater a few weeks ago and as I strolled about I was stunned by exactly what you describe: almost every student on a cell phone, or listening to an ipod, or texting on cell phone while listening to an ipod. The concentration of people doing this was surreal for me, I felt like a spaceman visiting another planet (a feeling heightend by the fact that as far as I could see I was the only man on campus wearing a suit).

  6. carter, i have also been at my alma mater recently, and i only graduated 5 years ago. it seems to me that re: cell phones the take off period was 2001-2003, right after i left.

  7. In addition to Newton, there is some evidence (though not conclusive) that Francis Bacon was involved in somekind of occult underground society, maybe Rosecrucian, which later evolved into, or was followed by a somewhat similar secret society, the Free Masons, which numbered among its members many of the most distinguished figures in modern European and American history (George Washington, Leo Tolstoy, Goethe (?), etc.).  
    The goals of both groups were unexceptional by modern standards: improvement of human welfare, scientific enlightenment, social progress. So why all the secrecy?  
    My guess would be for the same reason progressive minded groups were forced underground in the Soviet Union, or today in China. Absolutist governments of every description feel threatened by and therefore will not tolerate freedom of thought and untrammeled reason. 
    Of course that still leaves unexplained the hermetic trappings of both these societies. In part they may have served as ideological cover, though, in the case of alchemy (about which admittedly I know little) it is clear that Newton (and maybe Bacon?) were dead serious. It eventually led to chemistry, so it couldn’t have been totally irrational — indeed we can literally turn one element into another nowadays!

  8. I’m gonna write this up for my blog soon, but how about the following enviromental change: we have better protected ourselves from infection. To the extent “mad genius” could stem in part from an infection subtly rewiring the brain, improved hygiene would keep genius from surfacing as much as before. Of course, just one factor among many (high IQ, access to mentors, etc.). Sound crazy? Consider a few stats from Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment (some tables here ). 
    His list of all those who scored in the 9th decile or above in any category (in a relative ranking w/ top person = 100) contains 18 westerners, 2 of whose birth months are unknown (Aristotle & Hippocrates). Of the 16 whose birth months we know, 14 were born in winter (Dec-Feb) or spring (Mar-May), 10 in winter alone: Galileo, Kepler, Darwin, Newton, Einstein, Euler, Pasteur, Koch, Edison, Watt, Beethoven, Mozart, Michelangelo, Shakespeare. The 2 summer-fall births are Lavoisier & Lyell. Win-spring is the most vulnerable time re: infection. 
    I’ve plotted percentage of summer-fall births against decile rank, and it looks pretty much like a Lotka curve: there are lots of summer-falls in the 2nd – 4th deciles, but in the 5th decile & above, winter-springs nearly exclusively dominate in the “mad genius” fields like philosophy, math, visual art, music, technology. Hard sciences aren’t so skewed b/c Murray equally weights what he calls “system-builders” (Newton, Einstein) w/ “brick-layers” (Herschel, the Curies). Literature is actually the reverse, no surprise since it’s not a brain strain to communicate using linguistic media (it’s instinctual). 
    Murray also shows that, relative to the “de facto population” of potential geniuses, accomplishment increased up to & including the Renaissance but has been declining since the end of it and esp since the 19th C, even though raw numbers are increasing (due to better education, wealth, Flynn effect, etc.). We think of horrible health conditions in 19th C, but imagine living during the Renaissance! 
    Let me illustrate w/ the example of music, the most abstract “mad genius” art. In Murray’s index, 5 people are in the 5th decile or above (Haydn in 5th, none in 6th, Wagner in 7th, Bach in 8th, Mozart & Beethoven tied in 9th). They are, for all intents & purposes, the giants of western music. All are German or Austrian, all born w/in the 130-year prd from 1685-1813, all are winter-spring births, and only Haydn was born in a village rather than urban area. Such a highly spatially & temporily localized ground zero, plus their birth months, suggests a role for infection. Indeed, Mozart was sickly all his life, and Haydn was a small pox survivor! Not to mention the known epidemics sweeping through at the time. 
    This isn’t a case of the first-comers getting all the low-lying fruit: there’s no reason to believe someone would’ve composed any of their work had they not existed, unlike discovery of planets. Now, I don’t know exactly how well this idea will pan out, but it’s worth investigating. Sure, there’s less to discover in hard science, but still, is the proportion of actual geniuses relative to potential geniuses declining due to better health? It’s worse in art, since there’s no built-in ceiling to accomplishment (unlike the “end of physics”). If we knew what the bugs were doing, we could try to engineer a mimic that wouldn’t have the other negative consequences.

  9. I think you’re right. It’s the kids who started using cells at an earlier age. If only they knew – or could understand – how boring they are.  
    And soon those tiny eyepiece video monitors will be everywhere…

  10. Hi, 
    I’ll bite – increasing technological change != transhuman condition. I would even argue that change is going to slow down a bunch in the next century for the following reasons – I am just going to blow out a bunch of pessimistic thoughts (I hope a lot are wrong, but): 
    We’ve already gotten the low hanging fruit – we can talk to almost anyone in the world instantly – it can’t get any faster than that. We can travel anywhere in the world in a couple of days, already the trip to the airport is getting longer than the flight for people, not much change possible there. We have more sources of information than we can use already and more and more is online now. Thus we are at an inflection point, in a bad way. 
    We have run into the harder problems in machine intelligence such that the problems are getting harder faster than our hardware. We don’t know how to make the software at this point.  
    We are going to have larger disasters that hinder us from working on this stuff. We are going to be running out of gas and will be spending a lot of R&D on that not on things that will lead to transhuman future. Global climate will put a lot of societies under stress – we have been lucky the last 2 centuries. 
    Much more of humanity will live under religious oriented governments that will control research and development, especially in biologic areas that are the best route “transhumanity”. A small number of corporations are altering laws that allow freedom of information (i.e. copyright, patent, trade secret), so development will be indirectly shut down by them of any technology that threatens their markets – stifling a lot of progress. 
    Just a few :-) I think people will have a lot of new technology in 2050 and 2100, will likely have a longer average lifespan, but live in recognizable ways to us. I think the bigeest change we got used to in the 20th century was that things change, we would be comfortable with things being different in the future, unlike someone from say, before the enlightenment.

  11. I think there are a number of key technologies pointing to major transition in the near future. 
    One is Moore’s Law and its analogues which suggests CPUs will be approaching human-level data processing power by the 2030′s or so. 
    Recent work on terahertz transistors suggest we are not yet near the end of this. 
    The other is the sense that the Human Genome project is going to start producing major technological revolutions in medicine in another generation or so.  
    Offsetting this there are serious anxieties about issues like global warming and peak oil/natural gas that suggest major problems may also be facing us in the same sort of time-frame. Troubling political indicators include the rise of religious extremism and nuclear weapons proliferation.  
    Does the good outweigh the bad? Is nanotechnology going to save us all. Tune in next decade for the next exciting episode.

  12. I tend to agree with Razib that we are going to turn into something different. However, it’s likely to make individual humans simpler and more specialized, like cells in a body, with higher cognitive functions getting handled at a system level. We won’t necessarily become mindless, just less complete in ourselves, less concerned about ourselves, more faithful to our assigned role. This is one way of finding god.

  13. In some ways, I expect we’ll hit a wall. I think we’re going to hit a wall against the physical laws this century, we will be drawn inwards.  
    Revolutions dealing with insight into the workings of the human brain, into the human mind will open the doors to a whole new world. Unravelling the nature of human intelligence will allow us to create machinery, and software capable of reaching the possible logical limits of intellects as allowed by the laws. 
    Humanity will most likely merge with its technology and will trascend into the digital, simulated domain, where far greater freedom is possible, freed from decay, with an expanded mind and the ability to travel the mindscape, to experience practically anything and share such instantly, in a sense godhood.

  14. At my house, we call them “uh ohs.”

  15. Another thing: this trend you notice contradicts another Big Cultural Idea de nos temps , namely that the ultramegatechnofuturistic world will breed conformity by killing imagination — if anything, the selection pressure to think outside the box, draw interesting parallels b/w seemingly disparate areas, & devise novel uses for existing idea-tools has been ratcheted up by orders of magnitude. The Blade Runner world is only a dystopia for the drones and narrow specialists, who will be ruled by the polymath mad geniuses.  
    Computers can ponder many more possibilities than ordinary humans: if you had to draw a curve through two points, humans draw a straight line, while the computer would have to ponder the infinite set of curves through two points. So they could better illuminate the choices, but our mad geniuses are still better at spinning idea-straw into idea-gold. The computer solved the colors-on-a-map problem, but it’ll take a creative human being to tell the satisfying story behind it. They’re polymath at describing how, but we’re best at explaining why.

  16. As a working hypothesis,I assume that the human brain is a species of Universal Turing Machine, and that all human mental processes are, in principle, emulatable. Similarly, I assume that the genetic processes of a virus, bacterium or eukaryotic cell are emulatable. 
    I think there’s a “trick” to what we label as human creativity, and I don’t think that trick is very far from our understanding now. Then we will put the trick in a billion little boxes, all with mad scientist potential. Depending on the scope of the input.

  17. No, you are quite wrong, sir. The human brain is a neural net machine with aspects of genetic algorithm. It is not, I repeat–not–a species of the UTM. You have committed a category error which renders all of your conclusions false. 
    Your education has not prepared you for the world that is. You must be educated in the real world before proceeding. 
    Thank you.

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