My mind wonders quite a bit, here are a few of the attractors that keep pulling me in.

Debt and progress

When people think or talk about debt it is usually in the context of financial debt, the borrowing of money against the future to pay for something today. But there are other forms of debt, the one that most readily comes to mind is the concept of “technical debt” from the world of software development.

“You can pay me now or you can pay me later.”

Recently I’ve been thinking about debt in the more general, more broad sense, specifically as it might apply to cultural and societal progress (or lack thereof).

Disruption: Disruptors and the Disrupted

An exploration of the concept of disruption in general. Is disruption a goal, or is it the means to achieve a goal. How many disruptors are actually interested in providing something of value to their “customers”, and how many disruptors are simply pandering to the crowd to enrich themselves.

Everything you know is wrong

All models (maps?) are wrong, but some are useful. I’ve most often heard this used in the context of actual models or maps, things explicitly identified as such. But much of what counts for “facts” or “knowledge” these days are really nothing more than models. And they are, in the same way, wrong but useful.

Economics provides an excellent example of progressively useful and yet continually wrong models. The various economic systems throughout the ages have been useful as an instrument of progress, but as progress progressed the various systems became less useful and more obviously wrong. “Wrong”, of course, being in the eye of the beholder. We are at a point now where the current useful model, Capitalism, is on the verge of being declared wrong and replaced by the next useful model.

The most obvious examples of this comes in the continuum of religion and science. Early humans came up with useful models of how the world worked, why things happened, by creating gods and spirits. This often came in the form of creation stories and the passing down of rules in the form of commandments and other texts. Over time these religious stories became more wrong even as some of them became more useful. But useful to the tellers of the stories.

Even science has experienced this. The laws of motion discovered by Sir Isaac Newton were incredibly useful in the context of life in the 17th century and yet are profoundly wrong in the context of 21st century technology such as GPS. Still useful in our day to day experience, but wrong nonetheless.

Layers of abstraction, the cost of convenience, and the commoditization of experience

The story of progress is one of abstraction, of increased convenience, and the taming of novel experience into the everyday. An obvious example that comes to mind is in programming, and in fact this is the context in which this idea first came to me. I learned to program in BASIC in high school, but in my first digital electronics lab at UMR we learned how to program the 8088 processor using machine language, and then assembly language. I have no memory of either language, but what did stick with me was the idea all higher level languages are simply abstractions of those languages that humans can understand and write. The farther away from machine / assembly you get, the easier (more convenient) it is to get the machine to do what you want it to do, but at the cost of understanding what exactly you are telling the machine to do. And as things get more convenient, you don’t even need the experience of understanding: writing a block of code to something in a given context becomes nothing more than a copy/paste from Stack Overflow or some other place where someone (or something) else has already had the experience of creation.

A very different example, but one still close to my heart, is the sport of rock climbing. I learned to climb when I was in high school, in the early ’80s, when it was still a novelty. Before we could actually start climbing we had to learn basic rope management, the various knots, how to belay. And the gear, though effective, was by today’s standards, very rudimentary; if you needed your gear to do something, you figured out how to make it work. Today if you want to climb, you just go to the local rock gym, rent a harness and some shoes, get a quick lesson on how the auto-belay works, and away you go. Not saying this is a bad thing, I love that so many people are being introduced to the sport, even if they only climbing they ever do is in the gym. But that commoditization of the experience, that extreme convenience, abstracts them away from the joys of adventure climbing.

Of course, these examples are important, but they aren’t life and death. Like, say, knowing how to hunt, kill, clean, and prepare your own food. Or how to clear some land and build your own shelter.

One last example for now: When I first heard Dave Gray talking about his latest book, Liminal Thinking, I wrote down “layers of abstraction” among my notes. Though different from the other examples here, the more we commoditize our thinking – the more we are on auto-pilot – the more abstracted we are from an understanding of where our beliefs come from, and the harder it is to understand where others are coming from.

29 Marbles

An exploration of the “other”. Will also look at the impact of “compliance culture”. I expect that The Non-Conformist will come into play in some form, as so many people talk about disruption and difference and diversity, as long as they are the disrupters, the ones who are different, the unique ones.

For example: Why are personal assistants allowed for some people in some jobs or other situations, but not allowed for others?

Variations on a theme

Everything is just a variation of everything else. Some great insight on this from Scale by Geoffrey West.

And, of course, Hofstadter and Sander’s Surfaces and Essences.

Also this found via Giorgio Bertini):

Image of text that reads, "It may not be entirely vain, however, to search for common properties among diverse kinds of complex systems… The ideas of feedback and information provide a frame of reference for viewing a wide range of situations."

You Should Always Follow the Rules (except when you shouldn’t)

On the importance of rules and why you should learn them so that you can break them.

  1. Learn the rules, including their purpose and their history
  2. Understand the consequences of not following the rules, and of following them
  3. Always follow the rules, except when you shouldn’t
  4. When a rule needs to be changed, change it

Thinking in Bits (not atoms)

Musings on the ongoing digital transformation of everything and the need to not just learn and understand technology but to change how we actually think about what we can do, what is possible, and how it can come about.

  • Work
  • Mobility
  • Finance
  • Government
  • Education
  • Relationships