I watched this talk today online by Clay Shirky about the cognitive surplus, the idea that a huge amount of human free time is being squandered today in passive TV watching (on the order of 200B hours/yr in the US alone, or 1 Wikipedia worth just watching ads each weekend), and how humanity is on the verge of a social transformation as radical as what happened when the industrial revolution shifted society to our current societal iteration.
A few highlights:
It is better to do something than nothing…. Whenever you see a LOLCAT on the internet, it says “If you have some san serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game too! …When people are offered the potential to produce and share, people will take you up on that offer… Here’s what four year olds know, a screen which ships without a mouse is broken. Media which targets you but does not include you, is not worth watching.
I recently had a very encouraging experience with the current undergraduates at Olin College. When I was a senior, I proposed a set of amendments to the Honor Code (the Olin judicial code) and the assorted procedures around it, and received an incredibly negative response from my graduating year (we had built the college, and I think become resistant to change as a result of having been exposed to so much uncertainty) which resulted in the amendments not passing. Just a month ago marked the end of that push for change, as the last of the amendments I proposed were passed by the current student body. I realized that people hunger for change, and sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting for the right social conditions to emerge and then catalyze that moment.
I am so excited that over the next decade the first generation raised with the Internet as their second (or first) tongue will start to emerge out into the world. One of the things I think about a lot is the role of Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 1960s. People forget often that while most of the protesters were 18 or 19 years old, Savio was in his mid-twenties and a couple of years out of undergrad. He helped provide a point for the energy of those college freshman to coalesce around and just enough knowledge to focus them. At the same time, if those 18 and 19 year-olds hadn’t been ready to be catalyzed, the Free Speech Movement wouldn’t have gone anywhere.
I surfed over to Clay Shirky’s blog to learn more, and I ran across a post he had written called The (Bayesian) Advantage of Youth where he discusses that the advantage young entrepreneurs have over older entrepreneurs is that they don’t know as much, and as a result aren’t biased by that accumulated experience. In a world that is changing quickly, that’s a huge advantage. What if the key as you get older is to help those younger than you to accomplish things, as they are not biased in ways that you are, but you know more about how larger infrastructural processes work (ie. how to get shit done).
The older I get, the more I appreciate the brilliance of what Marissa Mayer has done with the APM program at Google. She takes a bunch of young people without that bias of experience (but who do have an intimate understanding living with the Internet), and lets them run (with course corrections/occasional guidance). As a result, she (like Mario Savio) gets a huge force multiplier to change the Internet with and a constant new stream of new ideas to help channel into tangible outcomes.
Aside: I really want to meet Clay Shirky.
It took me a few days to figure out why I was so mad at Tim for telling me that he didn’t think people should try to deny their feelings of rage or jealousy (this discussion was motivated by the drama of earlier in the week). I feel excusing rage or jealousy as natural emotions is a cop out.
I watched a long while back Dan Gilbert’s TED talk on Happiness, and was struck by the idea that our brains authentically change in response to events or choices that we make that how we perceive the world shifts. (His focus was primarily on happiness, see the end of the post for a video of his talk.)
Since then, I’ve read a bunch on how perseverance matters more than “aptitude” for lots of things like math:
Life Sciences is a health-science magnet school with high aspirations but 700 students whose main attributes are being predominantly minority and low achieving. Blackwell split her kids into two groups for an eight-session workshop. The control group was taught study skills, and the others got study skills and a special module on how intelligence is not innate. These students took turns reading aloud an essay on how the brain grows new neurons when challenged. They saw slides of the brain and acted out skits. “Even as I was teaching these ideas,” Blackwell noted, “I would hear the students joking, calling one another ‘dummy’ or ‘stupid.’ ” After the module was concluded, Blackwell tracked her students’ grades to see if it had any effect.
It didn’t take long. The teachers—who hadn’t known which students had been assigned to which workshop—could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.
The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.
Or similarly, how Will Power can also be built through repeated practice:
In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.
No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain. Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning behavior, or in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with cognitive control, use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Or maybe one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been used up repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity.
Who we “are” is a highly flexible concept. Our default, factory-condition, state might be prone to anger or becoming easily jealous, but if we practice recognizing those feelings and thinking about them, learning to calm ourselves, we can become authentically calmer, less jealous, less reactionary people. I hate it when people say that I’m just a less jealous person that other people, because I haven’t always been a less jealous person. (Ask Tim what I was like when I was 19.) If change is possible, shouldn’t we expect people to strive for change? To strive to become their higher selves?
Tim’s argument was that denying that people are angry or jealous just makes people feel pointlessly ashamed for their natural feelings. I don’t advocate shaming people, but I do advocate a cultural expectation that people should work towards engaging with the real issues that cause their feelings (ex. Are your jealous because your partner doesn’t spend enough quality time with you? Then work on that issue instead of wasting energy just feeling jealous or yelling at people.), instead of being overwhelmed by their feelings.
I don’t hear from the guy in forever, and then he sends me this:
Originally from The Boat Lullabies.
Jesus F sent me an email this morning with the subject line “Reference for current situation” and this video:
What a horrible day.