On November 16, the Oxford Dictionary announced it had chosen “post-truth” as the 2016 Word of the Year. After Brexit, the recent US election and the increasingly isolated and polarized nature of online communities where fake news stories get equal play or better than the real ones (see: Buzzfeed Facebook Probe), the choice seems entirely appropriate. This forum has posted 13 articles on the difficulty of knowing what is true and an extended series on the challenges of being rational. So perhaps being “post-truth” is no big deal? Nothing could be further from the truth! We ignore true facts of our experience, our science, and our spiritual teachings at our peril. The fate of the world, and the fate of our souls, hangs in the balance.
Imagine 100 monkeys typing (presumably randomly) on 100 typewriters for a limitless period of time: Eventually, hidden somewhere in the seemingly endless streams of nonsense, they would produce all of the works of Shakespeare. This popular thought experiment has been around for more than a century (longer than typewriters!) and demonstrates interesting features of both randomness and infinity. It is a useful starting point for discussing unique problems now being encountered with large data sets.
This week AEON magazine published a provocative article by Michael Schulson suggesting (half-heartedly) that we might consider government regulations in responding to websites and apps that are designed to promote compulsion or addiction, just as we do drugs or casinos. Schulson traces the manipulative tricks of Internet designers to the experiments of B.F.Skinner, who found that pigeons facing variable timing of rewards “went nuts… One pigeon hit the Plexiglas 2.5 times per second for 16 hours.” He suggests that our individual battles with legions of savvy, well-funded Internet companies is “not a fair fight”, and yet, as we do in gambling or drugs, we blame the addicts and not the purveyors. Can we rely on industry auto-regulation to help us, or do we need government regulations? In our series on The Human Race and the Technology Race, we focused on the only realistic option —personal self-regulation, and we offered the four “A’ tips: AVOID; ADOPT; ADAPT; ADEPT.