Category Archives: storytelling

how does music affect the brain?

The blurb:

“In this episode of Tech Effects, we explore the impact of music on the brain and body. From listening to music to performing it, WIRED’s Peter Rubin looks at how music can change our moods, why we get the chills, and how it can actually change pathways in our brains.”

For me the most interesting part was later in the video (10:20), how when we improvise we shut down the pre-frontal planning part of the brain and ‘just go with the flow,’ which is our most creative and innovation moments. This though does depend on having used the pre-frontal cortex in learning the techniques of music to get them so ingrained in memory that we are then free to play with what we’ve programmed.

Rushkoff: Team Human

Mark suggested this book as a future group reading and discussion and I agree. Rushkoff provides a very brief summary of his new book on the topic in the TED talk below. It starts with tech billionaires main concern being: Where do I build my bunker at the end of the world? So what happened to the idyllic utopias we thought tech was working toward, a collaborative commons of humanity? The tech boom became all about betting on stocks and getting as much money as possible for me, myself and I while repressing what makes us human. The motto became: “Human beings are the problem and technology is the solution.” Rushkoff is not very kind to the transhumanist notion of AI replacing humanity either, a consequence of that motto. He advises that we embed human values into the tech so that it serves us rather than the reverse.

The real American story

Reich explains that narrative is necessary to provide a structure to belief systems. Just telling the truth is not enough without the right story. He breaks down the 4 major stories Americans have operated within: the triumphant individual; the benevolent community; the mob at the gates; the rot at the top. All four can be told with the truth or with lies. Reich provides examples and how the Dems abandoned some of these stories, while the Repugs maintained the negative versions. So how do progressives regain the truth of these four stories? Hint: Sanders, AOC and their ilk are doing exactly that.

Lent responds to Harari

Lent makes many of the points we had in our discussion of Harari’s book Homo Deus. Lent said:

“Apparently unwittingly, Harari himself perpetuates unacknowledged fictions that he relies on as foundations for his own version of reality. Given his enormous sway as a public intellectual, Harari risks causing considerable harm by perpetuating these fictions. Like the traditional religious dogmas that he mocks, his own implicit stories wield great influence over the global power elite as long as they remain unacknowledged. I invite Harari to examine them here. By recognizing them as the myths they actually are, he could potentially transform his own ability to help shape humanity’s future.”

I will only list the bullet point fictions below. See the link for the details:

1. Nature is a machine.
2. There is no alternative.
3. Life is meaningless so it’s best to do nothing.
4. Humanity’s future is a spectator sport.

The science of storytelling

“Sometimes a good idea isn’t enough to drive social change; more important is how you communicate that idea. This is where “issue framing” comes in. In his talk, Nat Kendall-Taylor, PhD, breaks down the science of framing for philanthropy and nonprofit communications. He explores how people think about social issues and how advocates, experts, and strategic communications professionals can use an understanding of culture, storytelling, and science to communicate about social and scientific issues, shape policy, and lead change.

“Dr. Kendall-Taylor is an anthropologist and Chief Executive Officer at the FrameWorks Institute. He oversees the organization’s pioneering, research-based approach to strategic communications and message development, which uses methods from the social and behavioral sciences to measure how people understand complex socio-political issues and tests ways to reframe them to drive social change. As CEO, he leads a multi-disciplinary team of social scientists and communications professionals who investigate ways to apply innovative framing research methods to social issues and train nonprofit organizations to put the findings into practice.”

The death of the invisible hand (job)

Speaking of metaphors, article by David Sloan Wilson. Some excerpts:

“[Adam] Smith was critical of Mandeville and presented a more nuanced view of human nature in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), but modern economic and political discourse is not about nuance. Rational choice theory takes the invisible hand metaphor literally by trying to explain the length and breadth of human behavior on the basis of individual utility maximization, which is fancy talk for the narrow pursuit of self-interest.”

“The collapse of our economy for lack of regulation was preceded by the collapse of rational choice theory. It became clear that the single minimalistic principle of self-interest could not explain the length and breadth of human behavior. Economists started to conduct experiments to discover the actual preferences that drive human behavior.  […] Actual human preferences are all about regulation. […] Once the capacity for regulation is provided in the form of rewards and punishments that can be implemented at low cost, cooperation rises to high levels.”

“Functioning as large cooperative groups is not natural. Large human groups scarcely existed until the advent of agriculture a mere 10 thousand years ago. This means that new cultural constructions are required that interface with our genetically evolved psychology for human society to function adaptively at a large scale.”

“Theories and metaphors are the cultural equivalent of genes. They influence our behaviors, which have consequences in the real world. Mother nature practices tough love. When a theory or a metaphor leads to inappropriate behaviors, we suffer the consequences at scales small and large. To change our behaviors, we need to change our theories and metaphors.”

“New theories are not good enough, however. We also need to change the metaphors that guide behavior in everyday life to avoid the disastrous consequences of our current metaphor-guided behaviors. That is why the metaphor of the invisible hand should be declared dead. Let there be no more talk of unfettered competition as a moral virtue. Cooperative social life requires regulation. Regulation comes naturally for small human groups but must be constructed for large human groups. Some forms of regulation will work well and others will work poorly. We can argue at length about smart vs. dumb regulation but the concept of no regulation should be forever laid to rest.”

Can we understand other minds? Novels and stories say: no

by Kanta Dihal

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.

This particular hyperbolic gem has been doing the rounds on Tumblr for a while. It resurfaced in April 2018, in response to a viral Twitter challenge posed by the US podcaster Whitney Reynolds: women, describe yourself the way a male writer would.

The dare hit a sweet spot. Many could summon up passages from books containing terrible, sexualised descriptions of women. Some of us recalled Haruki Murakami, whose every novel can be summarised as: ‘Protagonist is an ordinary man, except lots of really beautiful women want to sleep with him.’ Others remembered J M Coetzee, and his variations on the plot: ‘Tenured male professor in English literature sleeps with beautiful female undergraduate.’ It was a way for us to joke about the fact that so much great literature was written by men who could express perfectly detailed visual descriptions of the female body, and yet possessed such an impoverished understanding of the female mind.

This is why the philosophical project of trying to map the contours of other minds needs a reality check. If other humans are beyond our comprehension, what hope is there for understanding the experience of animals, artificial intelligence or aliens?

I am a literature scholar. Over thousands of years of literary history, authors have tried and failed to convey an understanding of Others (with a capital ‘O’). Writing fiction is an exercise that stretches an author’s imagination to its limits. And fiction shows us, again and again, that our capacity to imagine other minds is extremely limited.

It took feminism and postcolonialism to point out that writers were systematically misrepresenting characters who weren’t like them. Male authors, it seems, still struggle to present convincing female characters a lot of the time. The same problem surfaces again when writers try to introduce a figure with a different ethnicity to their own, and fail spectacularly.

I mean, ‘coffee-coloured skin’? Do I really need to find out how much milk you take in the morning to know the ethnicity you have in mind? Writers who keep banging on with food metaphors to describe darker pigmentation show that they don’t appreciate what it’s like to inhabit such skin, nor to have such metaphors applied to it.

Conversely, we recently learnt that some publishers rejected the Korean-American author Leonard Chang’s novel The Lockpicker (2017) – for failing to cater to white readers’ lack of understanding of Korean-Americans. Chang gave ‘none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us’, one publisher’s letter said. ‘For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes …’ Any failure to understand a nonwhite character, it seems, was the fault of the nonwhite author.

Fiction shows us that nonhuman minds are equally beyond our grasp. Science fiction provides a massive range of the most fanciful depictions of interstellar space travel and communication – but anthropomorphism is rife. Extraterrestrial intelligent life is imagined as Little Green Men (or Little Yellow or Red Men when the author wants to make a particularly crude point about 20th-century geopolitics). Thus alien minds have been subject to the same projections and assumptions that authors have applied to human characters, when they fundamentally differ from the authors themselves.

For instance, let’s look at a meeting of human minds and alien minds. The Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin is best known for his trilogy starting with The Three-Body Problem (2008). It appeared in English in 2014 and, in that edition, each book has footnotes – because there are some concepts that are simply not translatable from Chinese into English, and English readers need these footnotes to understand what motivates the characters. But there are also aliens in this trilogy. From a different solar system. Yet their motivations don’t need footnoting in translation.

Splendid as the trilogy is, I find that very curious. There is a linguistic-cultural barrier that prevents an understanding of the novel itself, on this planet. Imagine how many footnotes we’d need to really grapple with the motivations of extraterrestrial minds.

Our imaginings of artificial intelligence are similarly dominated by anthropomorphic fantasies. The most common depiction of AI conflates it with robots. AIs are metal men. And it doesn’t matter whether the press is reporting on swarm robots invented in Bristol or a report produced by the House of Lords: the press shall plaster their coverage with Terminator imagery. Unless the men imagining these intelligent robots want to have sex with them, in which case they’re metal women with boobily breasting metal cleavage – a trend spanning the filmic arts from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the contemporary TV series Westworld (2016-). The way that we imagine nonhumans in fiction reflects how little we, as humans, really get each other.

All this supports the idea that embodiment is central to the way we understand one another. The ridiculous situations in which authors miss the mark stem from the difference between the author’s own body and that of the character. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if we can’t feel it. So, much as I enjoyed seeing a woman in high heels outrun a T-Rex in Jurassic World (2015), I knew that the person who came up with that scene clearly has no conception of what it’s like to inhabit a female body, be it human or Tyrannosaurus.

Because stories can teach compassion and empathy, some people argue that we should let AIs read fiction in order to help them understand humans. But I disagree with the idea that compassion and empathy are based on a deep insight into other minds. Sure, some fiction attempts to get us to understand one another. But we don’t need any more than a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else in order to empathise with them – and, hopefully, to not want to kill and destroy them.

As the US philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed in 1974, a human can’t know what it is like to be a bat, because they are fundamentally alien creatures: their sensory apparatus and their movements are utterly different from ours. But we can imagine ‘segments’, as Nagel wrote. This means that, despite our lack of understanding of bat minds, we can find ways to keep a bat from harm, or even nurse and raise an orphaned baby bat, as cute videos on the internet will show you.

The problem is that sometimes we don’t realise this segment of just a glimpse of something bigger. We don’t realise until a woman, a person of colour, or a dinosaur finds a way to point out the limits of our imagination, and the limits of our understanding. As long as other human minds are beyond our understanding, nonhuman ones certainly are, too.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kanta Dihal is a postdoctoral research assistant and the research project coordinator of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Can children learn to read without explicit instruction from adults?

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An experiment in a remote Ethiopian village demonstrates the potential of mobile devices to enable children to learn and teach each other how to read without traditional schooling.

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See also: How Reading Rewires Your Brain for Empathy

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A dive into the black waters under the surface of persuasive design

A Guardian article last October brings the darker aspects of the attention economy, particularly the techniques and tools of neural hijacking, into sharp focus. The piece summarizes some interaction design principles and trends that signal a fundamental shift in means, deployment, and startling effectiveness of mass persuasion. The mechanisms reliably and efficiently leverage neural reward (dopamine) circuits to seize, hold, and direct attention toward whatever end the designer and content providers choose.

The organizer of a $1,700 per person event convened to show marketers and technicians “how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products,” put it baldly.

subtle psychological tricks … can be used to make people develop habits, such as varying the rewards people receive to create “a craving”, or exploiting negative emotions that can act as “triggers”. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation”

Particularly telling of the growing ethical worry are the defections from social media among Silicon Valley insiders.

Pearlman, then a product manager at Facebook and on the team that created the Facebook “like”,  … confirmed via email that she, too, has grown disaffected with Facebook “likes” and other addictive feedback loops. She has installed a web browser plug-in to eradicate her Facebook news feed, and hired a social media manager to monitor her Facebook page so that she doesn’t have to.
It is revealing that many of these younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: never get high on your own supply.

If you read the article, please comment on any future meeting topics you detect. I find it a vibrant collection of concepts for further exploration.