The Internet and Us - Part 1Tue, 30th Oct '18, 3:45 pm::
This will be a series of long blog entries because it is my attempt to put into words an idea that has been percolating in my head for more than a few years now. Ever since I figured out what newspapers were as a kid, I have attempted to soak up every bit of information I come across, in an attempt to build my grand unified theory of the human experience. Two decades ago I logged on to high-speed Internet for the first time, a whopping 64Kb/s fast track to the information superhighway, and got hooked. The Internet is amazing. But let's back up.
It took humanity one million years to learn how to control fire. It took another hundred thousand years for us to talk right. Then ten thousand years to grow food. Followed by a thousand years to figure out machines. Only took a hundred years to master human flight. Now we are ten years into the great experiment of connecting all of humanity via social networks. And we're barely a year into every tech company walking into our homes. My hypothesis is that we humans as a collective are not ready for this. As individuals we can fly space ships and prove conjectures but as a group, we are no more capable of accepting society-wide changes than our fire-phobic ancestors would have been a million years ago.
What led me to finally write my disjointed thoughts on this topic was a remark by Dr. Milewski in his first lecture on Category Theory. He posits that humans only know how to (1) break down complex problems into simpler problems and (2) solve simple problems. Every bridge every built, every CPU ever designed, every heart ever surgically replaced relied on our ability to break down complex problems into simpler problems and then solve these simple problems. But this is not the only possible way to solve problems. Some alien civilization could solve simple problems as a byproduct of solving multiple complex problems. They could solve complex problems directly without breaking them down into simpler problems. Or they could combine a bunch of simple and complex problems and have one large complex solution to them. But Dr. Milewski argues that we humans only know how to solve simple problems. You don't have to take this as gospel or even agree with it but this is the spark that got my brain-fire burning.
I've been programming professionally for well over two decades now. No matter how complicated the problem, coders like (and better than) me all over the world break it down into the smallest parts possible and then attack each unit independently. How do you get a computer to recognize your face? First level — break it down to image acquisition, image processing, and image recognition. Second level — break down each of these into sub-problems e.g. image recognition into detection, classification, and identification. Third level — image detection can be further divided into features like edge detection, corner detection, Hough transforms etc. Fourth level — edge detection can use first-order approaches like Canny and Sobel or second-order like differential or phase congruency. No matter what field of study we pick, from art and sociology to political science and medicine, beyond third or fourth level, things sound like gobbledygook to anyone outside of the field.
But Chirag, you say, the examples you gave just made things more complex at each level, not simpler! Alas, that's the problem with how our language evolved. The simpler terms are often assigned to the most complex things. Face detection is not simpler than phase congruency. Art is not simpler than avant-garde geometric abstraction. The more general a topic is, the more complex it is, because it is composed of a thousand nested sub-topics, like a tapestry made of textile, made of multi-colored threads, woven warp and weft with picks and piles. But unlike a beautiful piece of tapestry, which we can step back ten feet and marvel at in awe, there's no way for our brains to see the big picture of billions of cellphones feeding our deepest thoughts and emotions.
As a species, we have become quite adept at solving problems. Early on we realized that we had a problem with passing knowledge from one person to next. So we made up numbers and words. Then we realized we had a problem with passing knowledge from one generation to next. So we made up lore and epics, passed down orally. Then we realized we needed something permanent, so we started writing on stones, scribes, and parchment. A few thousand years of that and we realized that a room full of manuscripts isn't enough to pass down the ever increasing volume of information humanity was generating so we came up with fields of study, education system, libraries, and professional teachers. Your college may have just built a new student activity center with virtual reality games but at its core, education today is not much different from Taxila or Plato's Academy.
So great, we figured out a solid way to education the masses. What's the problem with that? There isn't. The way we break down the universe of knowledge into fields, and sub-fields, with different degrees each taking years, broken up into gradually advancing courses is fantastic! This is how we managed to cure diseases, build dams, and send rockets into space. Good job, humanity! The problem is that this only equips us to deal with the problems we had ten thousand years ago - health, economics, and politics. Any new problem we come across, we try to shoehorn it into one of our existing models of study. Sure, we come up with new fields like operations research and management science as we broaden our knowledge-base but all of these rely on the same education system we built thousands of years ago.
Again, what's the problem with that? The problem is that we are now left to solve collective problems using tools meant for individuals. The foundation of our economic, political, and health-care systems is that each individual human is independent in their decision-making and will make the rational choice for themselves. Money is a tool meant for individuals. Voting is a tool meant for individuals. Proper diet and exercise is a tool meant for individuals. It's not my business if you go broke shorting stocks, vote for a guy who wears a boot as a hat, or eat cheesecake for breakfast, you are a free human with the liberty to do as you damn well please. Better yet, we even have laws that protect me if your actions or in-actions have a negative side-effect on me. We have built our society to incentivize human independence in every imaginable way and speaking as an independent human, that's a beautiful thing.
But speaking as someone who has read the news at least once in the last few years, we have some issues. We have some major, unsolvable issues. I don't mean the staples of hunger, poverty, and war. We are actually tackling these at an unprecedented rate. And we're using the tools of individuals (education, money, technology, voting) to chip away at these problems. Go humans! I mean major issues that we barely recognize, let alone know how to solve. Take for instance tourism, or rather over-tourism. Policymakers around the world are trying to curb the ill-effects of over-tourism by restricting length of stays, limiting the number of people admitted to pristine sites, raising taxes, and creating new regulations to best manage the local tourism industry. At a glance, this doesn't seem any different than lawmakers trying to stop any other unwanted human activity like drugs, smoking, or loitering. Lawmakers gonna law-make! But let's flip things around and look at the demand for tourism instead.
Why are so many people going to Easter Island all of a sudden? It is certainly not the steady increase in world population. Analysts at Skift, a travel website, say it's because of bucket lists and perfect Instagram snaps. When Bucket List, the 2007 film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman first came out, nobody could have predicted that it would lead to over-tourism in the Easter Islands. Sure, things like this have happened in the past for hundreds of years e.g. Dutch Tulip mania, but this is different. It's different because of the scale and the speed. Every well-off person on Instagram from India to West Indies wants to take that perfect shot under the big Jesus statue in Rio or push up against the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A hundred years ago, relatively few people knew about these places. Now they are must-see globe-trotter destinations, shared and retweeted a million times daily.
What's the big deal, you ask. Policies will be made, locals will adjust, and a sustainable level of tourism will be achieved over time. That's how our civilized world works and it's been doing so for a few thousand years. My problem isn't with the specific act of tourism. Tourism is great. More people should travel the world etc. etc. My problem is that a small photo with a caption can change our mind. My problem is that anyone can make that photo. My problem is that the photo can spread through a vast majority of humanity in mere moments. More people have seen Psy's Gangnam Style video in a few years than the entire population of Earth in 1950!
We have built our entire society on individualism. We now have methods to influence an ever-increasing number of individuals on a global scale. We can change a hundred million minds with a single photo in an instant! And we are all addicted to this steady stream of novelty that we call the Internet. We're on it. Our parents are on it. Our kids are on a slightly different flavor of it because what we use isn't exactly cool. But we're all consuming wholesome memes, outrage-fueled news, corporate astroturfing, rage-inducing CCTV footage, political propaganda, and outright nonsense all day. And most of the time, we have no idea who came up with it and why.
Our brains are addicted to new and we will accept anything that's new. Refresh, close, re-open, refresh. Sort-by-latest. Top-in-last-hour. Show me most viewed. I want to feel the pulse of the world. I want to be connected to my community, my town, my state, my country, my world. It's 2018 and I must form an opinion on every breaking news story. So let me drink from the fire-hose already!
This is the Internet now. The Internet and us. All of us. Yes, even you who deleted your Facebook or don't post on Twitter. You are with us now. Just because you get your fix from a different source doesn't mean you are not one of us. This is us.
In Part 2, I hope to write more about "The Internet" part and how we got here.