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article imageOp-Ed: Hacking the human brain? Um, er, ah, sure, maybe

By Paul Wallis     Sep 9, 2012 in Technology
Sydney - Every so often I see an article by some well-meaning academic about solving the world’s problems. This thing is called "Hacking the Human Brain Can Save Civilization" on Bloomberg. Yeah, I know- “What civilization?” Must be around here somewhere.
Bloomberg contributor Mark Buchanan, himself an accredited author of "The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You" and a couple of other science books is a theoretical physicist. That’s not actually illegal – yet. Buchanan has tried hard to get the context of the human effect on the world clear to readers before launching in to the idea of human thinking fixing the problems it has created.
The prelude, in essence as per Buchanan's Bloomberg article:
… scientists now talk about a new geological era – the “Anthropocene,” in which all Earth processes come to be powerfully shaped by human activity.
Followed by:
Some valuable thinking on the subject comes from Sander van der Leeuw, dean of the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, who takes an optimistic view.
…The gist of his (van der Leeuw’s) argument: Humans suffer from a mismatch between our thinking about what we do and the truth of what we do. Our brains make sense of a multifaceted world by ignoring much of its complexity -- a trait Van der Leeuw calls “low dimensional” thinking.
Meaning people don’t look at consequences or deal with issues holistically, in a wider context. There aren’t enough “dimensions” in their thinking about how humanity uses the world.
Fair enough. If van der Leeuw has a fault so far, it’s using too many euphemisms for the slop festival we for some reason still call planet Earth and the howling ineptitude of global management.
The problems start with this:
Van der Leeuw’s solution: Learn to innovate differently, by using technology to reduce the mismatch between our brains and reality. Computing and communications technology can improve our ability to handle large quantities of information. They make it possible, in principle, to help our brains build more accurate models of reality.
Hence “Hacking the Human Brain”= use of tech to develop the thinking.
Discussion/ monologue with very low pH
Before we go any further- I’m on van der Leeuw’s side of the thinking- to a considerable degree. He’s an expert in an emerging area of economics which is an extremely important part of the future. I get the sustainability idea. I’ve written articles for companies which have saved hundreds of millions of dollars in water usage alone by adopting sustainable efficiencies.
Which is why it would break my heart, if I had one, to see these guys doing things like this. They’re saying, “Think!” to people who simply aren’t good at thinking. They’ve never been trained to do the sort of thinking required. They lack the stamina. Real thinking could kill them.
Buchanan and van der Leeuw refer to atmospheric variables as part of the complexity of thinking our way out of the sorry mess of the atmospheric environmental disaster. There’s another analogy here:
(a) Consider the variables of the decision makers who literally go every way any breeze blows on a second by second basis.
(b) These guys are also an average of at least one generation behind the sort of situational awareness required to manage the problems.
(c) The “low dimensional” thinking is also “convenient thinking”- well within the comfort zone of those prepared to do absolutely nothing about anything which might cost them money.
(d) Have a look at our precious “thought leaders”, long on verbiage and with a 100% success rate at achieving absolutely nothing except getting publicity for themselves. These whores will say anything, and can hide behind PhDs which give the impression they can think. (A point occurs to me- Buchanan and van der Leeuw have taken a very unfashionable perspective here, advocating actual solving of problems when not fixing them makes so many people so much money.)
(e) The above points lead to another form of civilized constipation in terms of responsible thinking- Exclusivity. In a healthy thinking environment, inputs are sought from those with ideas. In an unhealthy environment, just about everybody is excluded from having an input. If they do actually contribute, they’re ignored.
Now the critical problem:
OK, suppose you have the ability to hack the human mind or at least get it to spit out useful contributions. You’re hacking into a particularly shaky bit of machinery in most cases. This Rube Goldberg’s bargain basement-based thing has some information and some LEGO-like logic to go with it.
There’s a basic issue at square one- What’s the objective? Part of the world’s problems is that nobody seems to have any idea what’s supposed to be achieved. Simple minded as we now know the old idea of “progress” was, it at least provided a direction. We now have more “progress” per day than per year last century, and we don’t seem to know where to point it. Actually it doesn’t even seem to have occurred to anyone to give it a direction.
Try telling any human brain where it needs to go, and it will do what? It’ll find reasons for going in other directions, get lost, and probably start up a fast food franchise somewhere between points A and B. Add seven billion plus human brains to that equation, and the conceptual navigation isn’t looking exactly Magellan-like, is it?
Fortunately for van der Leeuw, and one of the reasons for this epic article, there is a solution, and he’s sitting right on top of it: Sustainability can be translated into a working mode of thought, even for “convenient thinkers”, methane-based thought leaders and clueless decision makers. It creates an understandable objective.
Explain how things become cheaper and easier with sustainable options. Explain the health benefits. Explain the dollar values so the spreadsheet nuts get it. Explain the self-interest, in fact, and the human brain becomes a much easier thing to hack. It may even know what it’s talking about on some occasions. It will include itself in, because it will refuse to be excluded. Add tech to make it look nice, and it’ll all roll along nicely.
Civilization could happen. Don’t bet any money on it, but if it could find a use for itself, it might get interested, too.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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