The Politeness Problem

One of the rules of “polite behavior” is not making other people feel uncomfortable, and that means not pointing out their shortcomings and failures, even (perhaps especially) obvious ones. Bringing up people’s flaws tends to be embarrassing, and harping on them comes across as cruel.

For example, if someone is clumsy due to a disability, it would be rude to draw attention to them dropping a glass. It would be

But politely not-mentioning-flaws is dependent on other people being already aware of their flaws–in this case, clumsy people are presumably not volunteering to carry your fine china. But what happens when people aren’t aware of their own failings? People don’t generally appreciate criticism, especially if they don’t believe they deserve that criticism.

There are three general approaches to the problem:

1. The Shit Sandwich 2. Be Rude 3. Retreat

“Shit sandwich” refers to the custom in fiction critiquing communities of “sandwiching” criticism of what’s wrong in a story between two compliments. For example, “Wow, I can tell you put a lot of work into your Smurfs/Harry Potter crossover. However, I think Gargamel defeated Voldemort with the flux capacitor a little too easily. Voldemort is pretty strong in the books and I think your story would have more tension if Gargamel had to work harder for his dastardly triumph. Overall I thought it was really creative and loved the part where Smurfette gave all of the house elves makeovers.”

Sometimes you can’t think of two nice things to say about a story. Then you lie and say you liked something about it, because “This story sucked from top to bottom and made me want to wash my eyes with bleach” tends not to inspire improvement. Even if a story has tons of problems, people can only focus on improving so many at once.

The shit sandwich works by softening the blow of the criticism and making the critiquer sound friendly and non-hostile. It reassures the writer that the critiquer is trying to approach the work evenly, appreciating its good and bad, rather than just looking for an excuse to insult someone.

But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes people react with anger and hostility to any criticism, no matter how softly it is framed. “How dare you not love my Thomas the Tank Engine Chainsaw Massacre? Horror is exactly what the toddler set needs!”

When the shit sandwich doesn’t work, people tend to escalate to option 2, Rudeness: “I threw up while reading this. There is no way I would read this out loud to my toddler.”

If that doesn’t work (or the mods step in,) people resort to option 3: avoid each other.

In online critique groups, avoiding problematic people works fine. Out i society where people often have to be around each other (you don’t get to pick your co-workers or fellow subway riders), it works much less effectively.

As a society, we are pretty bad at acknowledging our own flaws, politely pointing out unrecognized flaws, and acknowledging justified criticism. Instead we flail about yelling “I don’t suck, you suck!”

I could write a bunch of shit sandwiches about different groups, but chances are you’re already familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of each group. Women are great at nurturing but can be over-emotional; men are courageous and daring but also commit the vast majority of crime; Asians are really smart but many don’t take time to relax with friends; whites run nice countries but many of them are lizard-people; blacks are really creative but often aggressive. Have I covered all of the stereotypes?

I’d like to think that people could dispassionately take stock of their personal weaknesses and try to do better. I’ll never be a quantum physicist, but that doesn’t stop me from reading about about it. But society seems more inclined to shut down any and all criticism on the grounds that self-improvement isn’t as useful as screaming your opponents into submission.

The alternatives to politely recognizing our own failings and trying to work on them are either becoming ruder or avoiding each other. People have been trying to avoid each other for decades–first in the Great Migration, blacks decided to avoid Jim Crow and Southern whites. Then crime skyrocketed in urban areas, and whites fled to avoid blacks. But this is incredibly inefficient–not only have whole transit systems had to be re-built to handle the flow of commuters going in and out of the cities every day, but millions of people lost money they’d put into their houses and communities were destroyed.

And there is only so much avoiding people can do: sooner or later we meet each other on the streets or in the office, at school or in the park. No matter what we think of each other, we are all–for the foreseeable future–stuck in the same country together. We live under presidents and lawmakers voted for by other people.

If we can’t avoid each other, then what? ? Rudeness? Violence? Anger? A world increasingly run by HR departments?

We’d better figure something out.

Having a Baby vs. Having a Cat: A Response to The Oatmeal

The Oatmeal, a popular webcomic, recently published Having a Baby vs. Having a Cat. This is my response:

Ironically, the main reason I don’t have a dog or cat is that I don’t like cleaning up poop.

Anthropology Friday: Original Gangster, by Frank Lucas pt. 3/3

Frank Lucas in his chinchilla skin coat, photo from Narcos Wiki.

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday, featuring Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. At his height, Lucas’s net worth was, by his account, around 52 million dollars, much of it stashed in off-shore bank accounts and American real estate. But at this point in our story, Lucas was still Bumpy Johnson’s driver.

One evening, Bumpy, Lucas and a few others were eating dinner:

At Well’s, I sat a few booths away from Bumpy. …

The chimes at the door rattled and in came a tall, lanky young man with a shock of red hair styled in a straightened conk. He made his way to Bumpy’s table and then stopped, waiting for permission from Bumpy before sitting down.

Bumpy smiled, just barely, and tilted his head to the side in a gesture that meant “have a seat.” …

The two of them spoke briefly. I wasn’t close enough to hear anything but I could tell it was a friendly, personal conversation. They didn’t look like they were in any kind of business together.

The guy took one sip of his coffee, looked at his watch, and stood up.

“Gotta go. Good to see you, Mr. Johnson.”

Always good to see you. Careful out there, Red,” said Bumpy…

Just like all of Bumpy’s associates, the guy called Detroit Red didn’t speak to me… But I knew him. I knew they called him Detroit Red and I always recognized the bright red hair he had. Years and years later, he would become Malcolm X.

I assume I don’t need to tell you about Malcolm X. He’s pretty famous–even I’ve seen the movie about him.

Bumpy decides to put Lucas in charge of a “numbers” spot, keeping track of gamblers. He explains to Lucas the different kinds of gamblers and how the operation works:

“[This guy] Can’t afford to play more than a quarter a day. But he plays it. He’d skip lunch before he missed playing his number. …

“This is a sensitive operation. It’s illegal–God only knows why–so you have to watch out for the police. Avoid the good cops. Pay off the crooked ones. …

“Spot like this one? Right next to the subway line. Brings in at least a hundred grand a week.”

Lucas’ January 1975 federal mug shot.

As crimes go, gambling is pretty mild and makes decent money, but Lucas finds it boring and itches to expand into something more exciting. While watching a news report about American servicemen in Vietnam getting hooked on the local heroin, described as purer and cheaper than the heroin available in the US. Those words stuck in his brain, but Bumpy nixed his idea to go to Thailand and buy drugs straight from the source, bypassing the Mafia. In the meanwhile:

[Frank’s third child] was born in the spring. And by the fall of 1960, I was in a situation that would make it much harder for me to go see him.

I got arrested for conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to thirty months in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg… Doing jail time was no big deal to me. But what made it a little complicated was that they had blacks and whites desegregated. Around the time I went into Lewisburg, they’d passed some law that made it illegal to segregate prisoners. So, for the first time in the common areas and in the mess hall, black folks and white folk were together. I’m not so sue that was a good idea back then ’cause, for the most part, blacks and whites in jail were like the Bloods and Crips today.

And at Lewisburg, there were more white boys. We were outnumbered at least three to one, which just added to the tension when they started mixing us up.

I started this whole project hoping to find something on race and prison gangs (unfortunately, my local library didn’t have anything that looked promising on the subject.) Even within the genre of crime stories, it appears that most people aren’t very comfortable discussing racial conflict, but I doubt a stranger who started his memoir with a Klan slaying is any stranger to racial animosity.

With Bumpy’s passing, Lucas became one of the top gangsters in Harlem and could finally pursue his dream of importing heroin directly from Thailand. With military planes flying in and out of the area due to the Vietnam war, it wasn’t hard to arrange for a few more things to be shipped in their holds. The drugs arrive and Lucas arranges for a crew to unload it from the plane:

Doc and his boys moved everything out. They would take it to the second location to prevent the first crew from knowing too much about the operation. I always wanted to have more than one layer to my business proceedings. And with a project like this, it was even more important.

My work was now done. Doc and Glynn would make sure the product was prepared for the streets and sold. I didn’t touch any part of that process. … I was no longer a drug dealer. I didn’t deal with any junkies. I didn’t touch any drugs, and I was several layers removed from the streets. I was an entrepreneur; I simply dealt with supply and demand. Some folks import tea from China, art from Paris, or fabric from Italy. I imported heroin.

Both Mafia bosses and Frank Lucas used this technique of putting multiple layers of employees between themselves and the street-level handling, processing, and selling of the product (or street-level gambling operations, extortion, etc.) The Bosses call the shots, but with enough plausible deniability to make them difficult to prosecute (which is why they are often prosecuted on money-laundering charges, instead.)

With Frank Lucas managing the supply chain, the streets of New York were flooded with cheaper, more potent heroin–leading to thousands of deaths.

For years, I would use this to keep my mind off the guilt of what the heroin was doing to the people in my community. Joseph Seagram made sure the streets had beer, wine, and liquor. And I’m sure he didn’t feel bad about the winos and alcoholics in the street. Down in North Carolina, where I was from, R. J. Reynolds had tobacco fields everywhere. Made sure the streets were flooded with cigarettes… I know R. J. Reynolds didn’t feel bad about folks dying of lung cancer left and right.

I was Frank Lucas. I supplied the streets of Harlem with heroin. It was my profession. And, like war, it came with casualties.

Lucas goes to visit the poppy fields in Thailand:

I’m telling you, I felt like we crossed every river in Asia on our way. From the Ruak River to the Mekong, we trekked out on foot for miles and miles. ….

And across the land, there was nothing but poppies–everywhere. I was in complete shock.

Now, when I say there was nothing before me but poppy field, you really have to understand what I’m trying to tell you. I’m talking about land the size of all five boroughs in New York City combined. And there was nothing but the poppy seed plants–the plant that heroin is made from–stretching from one end to the other. I looked up and noticed that the entire field was covered with dark netting. The netting made it impossible to see the fields from the sky so that traveling military planes wouldn’t know what was going on there. But the sun could still shine through…

I asked my guide how the area had become the headquarters for heroin… In the 1960s, there was an anticommunist group of Chinese people who had settled near the border of China and Burma. They ended up getting support from the American CIA… The Hmong people traded in heroin, an with the CIA tuning a blind eye to their illegal activities, the region exploded. …

According to Wikipedia:

While the CIA was sponsoring a Secret War in Laos from 1961 to 1975, it was accused of trafficking in opium (an area known as the Golden Triangle). …

During its involvement, the CIA used the Meo (Hmong) population to fight Pathet Lao rebels. Because of the war against Pathet Lao rebels, the Hmong depended upon poppy cultivation for hard currency. The Hmong were very important to CIA operations and the CIA was very concerned with their well-being. The Plain of Jars had been captured by Pathet Lao rebels in 1964, which resulted in the Laotian Air Force not being able to land their C-47 transport aircraft on the Plain of Jars for opium transport. The Laotian Air Force had almost no light planes that could land on the dirt runways near the mountaintop poppy fields. Having no way to transport their opium, the Hmong were faced with economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. “According to several unproven sources, Air America began flying opium from mountain villages north and east of the Plain of Jars to Gen Vang Pao’s headquarters at Long Tieng.”[2]

The CIA’s front company, Air America was alleged to have profited from transporting opium and heroin on behalf of Hmong leader Vang Pao,[3][4][5] or of “turning a blind eye” to the Laotian military doing it.[6][7] This allegation has been supported by former Laos CIA paramilitary Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe), former Air America pilots, and other people involved in the war. … However, University of Georgia historian William M. Leary, writing on behalf of Air America, claims that this was done without the airline employees’ direct knowledge and that the airline did not trade in drugs.

Finally Lucas get a bit sloppy, shows off a bit too much wealth, and more than just crooked cops (who had long known about his business and been extorting him for money) come down on him. His house is raided and they find nearly $600,000 in cash (Lucas claims there was far more, but they stole it, including the key and subsequently contents of his safe deposit box in the Cayman Islands.) He was sentenced to 70 years in prison, but for providing evidence that lead to 100 other drug-related convictions, he was placed in the Witness Protection Program. His sentence was was soon reduced to five years plus lifetime parole.

After some more in-and-out with the legal system, he was released from prison in 1991.

Testimony during one of the trials from a grieving mother whose son overdosed on heroin began to make Lucas realize that he couldn’t just wash his hands of the results of his “business.” Tired of prison and the drug trade, Lucas was faced with the prospect of finding legal ways to make money:

As soon as I got out, my brother Larry asked me about working with him on an oil deal. He knew a man who was trying to import oil from Nigeria to Texas.

“He’s got a great connection,” said Larry. “He’s just trying to raise money.” … “Nothing illegal here, Frank. He just needs investors. Everything’s on the up and up.” …

I met with the guy and I was impressed with him right way. I agreed to start doing some fund-raising for him and try to get his oil business off the ground. Even though I wasn’t in the drug game anymore, I still knew people with money. I ended up raising close to a million dollars in three months… ‘The profits from the oil business started coming in quickly. It wasn’t big money. It was nothing like I’d experienced years before… But I did pull in about a hundred grand every few months. And I did it legally–for the very first time in my entire adult life.

Lucas soon found other ways to make money, like turning his life’s story into a book and then a movie.

At the memoir’s end, he approaches the premier of the movie about his own life, considers for a few minutes, and turns away:

In some small measure, my absence from the premier [of the movie about him] was out of respect to the many people, in Harlem and beyond, who suffered from the heroin industry that I helped to expand. …

Today, I write this book and outline all my successes and my failings in honor of every single person affected directly or indirectly by the evils of the heroin trade. … I’m seventy-eight years old today and I still have a lifetime of regret.

And every single word in this book is dedicated to those I impacted in any way.

Does he mean it? I suppose that is between him and God. Can a man of no conscience develop one? Can a man with psychopathic disregard for the lives of others (and his own) become a loving husband, father, and son? And can a man redeem himself for such crimes?

And from a societal perspective, what should be done with people like Lucas? Is there some alternative scenario where he didn’t enter a life of crime? Lucas certainly didn’t enter crime because he lacked the intelligence or talents necessary for other occupations, but because he was far too ambitious for the honest employment options open to him. Even if better jobs had been available, would he have wanted to pursue them, or would all of those years of school and training have been too tedious beside the allure of immediate money?

Finis.

Do Sufficiently Large Organizations Start Acting Like Malevolent AIs? (pt 2)

(Part 1 is here)

As we were discussing on Monday, as our networks have become more effective, our ability to incorporate new information may have actually gone down. Ironically, as we add more people to a group–beyond a certain limit–it becomes more difficult for individuals with particular expertise to convince everyone else in the group that the group’s majority consensus is wrong.

The difficulties large groups experience trying to coordinate and share information force them to become dominated by procedures–set rules of behavior and operation are necessary for large groups to operate. A group of three people can use ad-hoc consensus and rock-paper-scissors to make decisions; a nation of 320 million requires a complex body of laws and regulations. (I once tried to figure out just how many laws and regulations America has. The answer I found was that no one knows.)

An organization is initially founded to accomplish some purpose that benefits its founders–generally to make them well-off, but often also to produce some useful good or service. A small organization is lean, efficient, and generally exemplifies the ideals put forth in Adam Smith’s invisible hand:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages. —The Wealth Of Nations, Book I

As an organization ages and grows, its founders retire or move on, it becomes more dependent on policies and regulations and each individual employee finds his own incentives further displaced from the company’s original intentions. Soon a company is no longer devoted to either the well-being of its founders or its customers, but to the company itself. (And that’s kind of a best-case scenario in which the company doesn’t just disintegrate into individual self-interest.)

I am reminded of a story about a computer that had been programmed to play Tetris–actually, it had been programmed not to lose at Tetris. So the computer paused the game. A paused game cannot lose.

What percentage of employees (especially management) have been incentivized to win? And what percentage are being incentivized to not lose?

And no, I don’t mean that in some 80s buzzword-esque way. Most employees have more to lose (ie, their jobs) if something goes wrong as a result of their actions than to gain if something goes right. The stockholders might hope that employees are doing everything they can to maximize profits, but really, most people are trying not to mess up and get fired.

Fear of messing up goes beyond the individual scale. Whole companies are goaded by concerns about risk–“Could we get sued?” Large corporation have entire legal teams devoted to telling them how they could get sued for whatever their doing and to filing lawsuits against their competitors for whatever they’re doing.

This fear of risk carries over, in turn, to government regulations. As John Sanphillipo writes in City Regulatory Hurdles Favor Big Developers, not the Little Guy:

A family in a town I visited bought an old fire station a few years ago with the intention of turning it into a Portuguese bakery and brewpub. They thought they’d have to retrofit the interior of the building to meet health and safety standards for such an establishment.

Turns out the cost of bringing the landscape around the outside of the building up to code was their primary impediment. Mandatory parking requirements, sidewalks, curb cuts, fire lanes, on-site stormwater management, handicapped accessibility, drought-tolerant native plantings…it’s a very long list that totaled $340,000 worth of work. … Guess what? They decided not to open the bakery or brewery. …

Individually it’s impossible to argue against each of the particulars. Do you really want to deprive people in wheelchairs of the basic civil right of public accommodation? Do you really want the place to catch fire and burn? Do you want a barren landscape that’s bereft of vegetation? …

I was in Hamtramck, Michigan a couple of years ago to participate in a seminar about reactivating neighborhoods through incremental small-scale development. …

While the event was underway the fire marshal happened to drive by and noticed there were people—a few dozen actual humans—occupying a commercial building in broad daylight. In a town that has seen decades of depopulation and disinvestment, this was an odd sight. And he was worried. Do people have permission for this kind of activity? Had there been an inspection? Was a permit issued? Is everything insured? He called one of his superiors to see if he should shut things down in the name of public safety.

It’s a good article. You should read the whole thing.

Back in Phillipe Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in el Barrio, Phillipe describes one drug dealer’s attempt to use the money he’d made to go into honest business by opening a convenience store. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the store complaint with NYC disability-access regulations, and so the store never opened and the owner went back to dealing drugs. (What IQ, I wonder, is necessary to comply with all of these laws and regulations in the first place?)

Now, I’m definitely in favor of disabled people being able to buy groceries and use bathrooms. But what benefits a disabled person more: a convenience store that’s not fully wheel-chair accessible, or a crack house?

In My IRB Nightmare, Scott Alexander writes about trying to do a simple study to determine whether the screening test already being used to diagnose people with bipolar disorder is effective at diagnosing them:

When we got patients, I would give them the bipolar screening exam and record the results. Then Dr. W. would conduct a full clinical interview and formally assess them. We’d compare notes and see how often the screening test results matched Dr. W’s expert diagnosis.

Remember, they were already using the screening test on patients and then having them talk to the doctor for a formal assessment. The only thing the study added was that Scott would compare how well the screening results matched the formal assessment. No patients would be injected, subject to new procedures, or even asked different questions. They just wanted to compare two data sets.

After absurd quantities of paperwork and an approval process much too long to summarize here, the project got audited:

I kept the audit report as a souvenier. I have it in front of me now. Here’s an example infraction:

The data and safety monitoring plan consists of ‘the Principal Investigator will randomly check data integrity’. This is a prospective study with a vulnerable group (mental illness, likely to have diminished capacity, likely to be low income) and, as such, would warrant a more rigorous monitoring plan than what is stated above. In addition to the above, a more adequate plan for this study would also include review of the protocol at regular intervals, on-going checking of any participant complaints or difficulties with the study, monitoring that the approved data variables are the only ones being collected, regular study team meetings to discuss progress and any deviations or unexpected problems. Team meetings help to assure participant protections, adherence to the protocol. Having an adequate monitoring plan is a federal requirement for the approval of a study. See Regulation 45 CFR 46.111 Criteria For IRB Approval Of Research. IRB Policy: PI Qualifications And Responsibility In Conducting Research. Please revise the protocol via a protocol revision request form. Recommend that periodic meetings with the research team occur and be documented.

… Faced with submitting twenty-seven new pieces of paperwork to correct our twenty-seven infractions, Dr. W and I gave up. We shredded the patient data and the Secret Code Log. We told all the newbies they could give up and go home. … We told the IRB that they had won, fair and square; we surrendered unconditionally.

The point of all that paperwork and supervision is to make sure that no one replicates the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment nor the Nazi anything. Noble sentiments–but as a result, a study comparing two data sets had to be canceled.

I’ve noticed recently that much of the interesting medical research is happening in the third world/China–places where the regulations aren’t as strong and experiments (of questionable ethics or not) can actually get done.

Like the computer taught not to lose at Tetris, all of these systems are more focused on minimizing risk–even non-existent risk–than on actually succeeding.

In his review of Yudkowsky’s Inadequate Equilibria, Scott writes:

…[Yudkowsky] continues to the case of infant parenteral nutrition. Some babies have malformed digestive systems and need to have nutrient fluid pumped directly into their veins. The nutrient fluid formula used in the US has the wrong kinds of lipids in it, and about a third of babies who get it die of brain or liver damage. We’ve known for decades that the nutrient fluid formula has the wrong kind of lipids. We know the right kind of lipids and they’re incredibly cheap and there is no reason at all that we couldn’t put them in the nutrient fluid formula. We’ve done a bunch of studies showing that when babies get the right nutrient fluid formula, the 33% death rate disappears. But the only FDA-approved nutrient fluid formula is the one with the wrong lipids, so we just keep giving it to babies, and they just keep dying. Grant that the FDA is terrible and ruins everything, but over several decades of knowing about this problem and watching the dead babies pile up, shouldn’t somebody have done something to make this system work better?

The doctors have to use the FDA-approved formula or they could get sued for malpractice. The insurance companies, of course, only cover the FDA-approved formula. The formula makers are already making money selling the current formula and would probably have to go through an expensive, multi-year review system (with experiments far more regulated than Scott’s) to get the new formula approved, and even then they might not actually get approval. In short, on one side are people in official positions of power whose lives could be made worse (or less convenient) if they tried to fix the problem, and on the other side are dead babies who can’t stand up for themselves.

The Chankiri Tree (Killing Tree) where infants were fatally smashed, Choeung Ek, Cambodia.

Communism strikes me as the ultimate expression of this beast: a society fully transformed into a malevolent AI. It’s impossible to determine exactly how many people were murdered by communism, but the Black Book of Communism estimates a death toll between 85 and 100 million people.

Capitalism, for all its faults, is at least somewhat decentralized. If you make a bad business decision, you suffer the consequences and can hopefully learn from your mistakes and make better decisions in the future. But in communist systems, one central planner’s bad decisions can cause suffering for millions of other people, resulting in mass death. Meanwhile, the central planner may suffer for correcting the bad decision. Centralized economies simply lack the feedback loops necessary to fix problems before they start killing people.

While FDA oversight of medicines is probably important, would it be such a bad thing if a slightly freer market in parenteral nutrition allowed parents to chose between competing brands of formula, each promising not to kill your baby?

Of course, capitalism isn’t perfect, either. SpottedToad recently had an interesting post, 2010s Identity Politics as Hostile AI:

There’s an interesting post mortem on the rise and fall of the clickbait liberalism site Mic.com, that attracted an alleged 65 million unique visitors on the strength of Woketastic personal stories like “5 Powerful Reasons I’m a (Male) Feminist,” …

Every time Mic had a hit, it would distill that success into a formula and then replicate it until it was dead. Successful “frameworks,” or headlines, that went through this process included “Science Proves TK,” “In One Perfect Tweet TK,” “TK Reveals the One Brutal Truth About TK,” and “TK Celebrity Just Said TK Thing About TK Issue. Here’s why that’s important.” At one point, according to an early staffer who has since left, news writers had to follow a formula with bolded sections, which ensured their stories didn’t leave readers with any questions: The intro. The problem. The context. The takeaway.

…But the success of Mic.com was due to algorithms built on top of algorithms. Facebook targets which links are visible to users based on complex and opaque rules, so it wasn’t just the character of the 2010s American population that was receptive to Mic.com’s specific brand of SJW outrage clickbait, but Facebook’s rules for which articles to share with which users and when. These rules, in turn, are calibrated to keep users engaged in Facebook as much as possible and provide the largest and most receptive audience for its advertisers, as befits a modern tech giant in a two-sided market.

Professor Bruce Charlton has a post about Head Girl Syndrome–the Opposite of Creative Genius that is good and short enough that I wish I could quote the whole thing. A piece must suffice:

The ideal Head Girl is an all-rounder: performs extremely well in all school subjects and has a very high Grade Point Average. She is excellent at sports, Captaining all the major teams. She is also pretty, popular, sociable and well-behaved.

The Head Girl will probably be a big success in life, in whatever terms being a big success happens to be framed …

But the Head Girl is not, cannot be, a creative genius. …

The more selective the social system, the more it will tend to privilege the Head Girl and eliminate the creative genius.

Committees, peer review processes, voting – anything which requires interpersonal agreement and consensus – will favour the Head Girl and exclude the creative genius.  …

*

We live in a Head Girl’s world – which is also a world where creative genius is marginalized and disempowered to the point of near-complete invisibility.

The quest for social status is, I suspect, one of the things driving the system. Status-oriented people refuse to accept information that comes from people lower status than themselves, which renders system feedback even more difficult. The internet as a medium of information sharing is beautiful; the internet as a medium of status signalling is horrible.

So what do you think? Do sufficiently large organization start acting like malevolent (or hostile) AIs?

(Back to Part 1)

Do Sufficiently Large Organizations Start Acting Like Malevolent AIs? (pt 1)

(and Society is an Extremely Large Organization)

What do I mean by malevolent AI?

AI typically refers to any kind of intelligence or ability to learn possessed by machines. Malevolent AI occurs when a machine pursues its programmed objectives in a way that humans find horrifying or immoral. For example, a machine programmed to make paperclips might decide that the easiest way to maximize paperclip production is to enslave humans to make paperclips for it. Superintelligent AI is AI that has figured out how to make itself smarter and thus keeps getting smarter and smarter. (Should we develop malevolent superintelligent AI, then we’ll really have something to worry about.)

Note: people who actually study AI probably have better definitions than I do.

While we like to think of ourselves (humans) as unique, thinking individuals, it’s clear that many of our ideas come from other people. Chances are good you didn’t think up washing your hands or brushing your teeth by yourself, but learned about them from your parents. Society puts quite a bit of effort, collectively speaking, into teaching children all of the things people have learned over the centuries–from heliocentrism to the fact that bleeding patients generally makes diseases worse, not better.

Just as we cannot understand the behavior of ants or bees simply by examining the anatomy of a single ant or single bee, but must look at the collective life of the entire colony/hive, so we cannot understand human behavior by merely examining a single human, but must look at the collective nature of human societies. “Man is a political animal,” whereby Aristotle did not mean that we are inherently inclined to fight over transgender bathrooms, but instinctively social:

Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it; he is the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer denounces—the outcast who is a lover of war; he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.

Now the reason why man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere sound is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state. –Aristotle, Politics

With very rare exceptions, humans–all humans, in all parts of the world–live in groups. Tribes. Families. Cities. Nations. Our nearest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos, also live in groups. Primates are social, and their behavior can only be understood in the context of their groups.

Groups of humans are able to operate in ways that individual humans cannot, drawing on the collective memories, skills, and knowledge of their members to create effects much greater than what could be achieved by each person acting alone. For example, one lone hunter might be able to kill a deer–or if he is extremely skilled, hardworking, and lucky, a dozen deer–but ten hunters working together can drive an entire herd of deer over a cliff, killing hundreds or even thousands. (You may balk at the idea, but many traditional hunting societies were dependent on only a few major hunts of migrating animals to provide the majority of their food for the entire year–meaning that those few hunts had to involve very high numbers of kills or else the entire tribe would starve while waiting for the animals to return.)

Chimps have never, to my knowledge, driven megafauna to extinction–but humans have a habit of doing so wherever they go. Humans are great at what we do, even if we aren’t always great at extrapolating long-term trends.

But the beneficial effects of human cooperation don’t necessarily continue to increase as groups grow larger–China’s 1.3 billion people don’t appear to have better lives than Iceland’s 332,000 people. Indeed, there probably is some optimal size–depending on activity and available communications technology–beyond which the group struggles to coordinate effectively and begins to degenerate.

CBS advises us to make groups of 7:

As it turns out, seven is a great number for not only forming an effective fictional fighting force, but also for task groups that use spreadsheets instead of swords to do their work.

That’s according to the new book Decide & Deliver: 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization (Harvard Business Press).

Once you’ve got 7 people in a group, each additional member reduces decision effectiveness by 10%, say the authors, Marcia W. Blenko, Michael C. Mankins, and Paul Rogers.

Unsurprisingly, a group of 17 or more rarely makes a decision other than when to take a lunch break.

Princeton blog reports:

The trope that the likelihood of an accurate group decision increases with the abundance of brains involved might not hold up when a collective faces a variety of factors — as often happens in life and nature. Instead, Princeton University researchers report that smaller groups actually tend to make more accurate decisions, while larger assemblies may become excessively focused on only certain pieces of information. …

collective decision-making has rarely been tested under complex, “realistic” circumstances where information comes from multiple sources, the Princeton researchers report in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In these scenarios, crowd wisdom peaks early then becomes less accurate as more individuals become involved, explained senior author Iain Couzin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. …

The researchers found that the communal ability to pool both pieces of information into a correct, or accurate, decision was highest in a band of five to 20. After that, the accurate decision increasingly eluded the expanding group.

Couzin found that in small groups, people with specialized knowledge could effectively communicate that to the rest of the group, whereas in larger groups, they simply couldn’t convey their knowledge to enough people and group decision-making became dominated by the things everyone knew.

If you could travel back in time and propose the idea of democracy to the inhabitants of 13th century England, they’d respond with incredulity: how could peasants in far-flung corners of the kingdom find out who was running for office? Who would count the votes? How many months would it take to tally up the results, determine who won, and get the news back to the outlying provinces? If you have a printing press, news–and speeches–can quickly and accurately spread across large distances and to large numbers of people, but prior to the press, large-scale democracy simply wasn’t practical.

Likewise, the communism of 1917 probably couldn’t have been enacted in 1776, simply because society at that time didn’t have the technology yet to gather all of the necessary data on crop production, factory output, etc. (As it was, neither did Russia of 1917, but they were closer.)

Today, the amount of information we can gather and share on a daily basis is astounding. I have at my fingertips the world’s greatest collection of human knowledge, an overwhelming torrent of data.

All of our these information networks have linked society together into an increasingly efficient meta-brain–unfortunately, it’s not a very smart meta-brain. Like the participants in Couzin’s experiments, we are limited to what “everyone knows,” stymied in our efforts to impart more specialized knowledge. (I don’t know about you, but I find being shouted down by a legion of angry people who know less about a subject than I do one of the particularly annoying features of the internet.)

For example, there’s been a lot of debate lately about immigration, but how much do any of us really know about immigrants or immigrant communities? How much of this debate is informed by actual knowledge of the people involved, and how much is just people trying to extend vague moral principles to cover novel situations? I recently had a conversation with a progressive acquaintance who justified mass-immigration on the grounds that she has friendly conversations with the cabbies in her city. Heavens protect us–I hope to get along with people as friends and neighbors, not just when I am paying them!

One gets the impression in conversation with Progressives that they regard Christian Conservatives as a real threat, because that group that can throw its weight around in elections or generally enforce cultural norms that liberals don’t like, but are completely oblivious to the immigrants’ beliefs. Most of our immigrants hail from countries that are rather more conservative than the US and definitely more conservative than our liberals.

Any sufficiently intelligent democracy ought to be able to think critically about the political opinions of the new voters it is awarding citizenship to, but we struggle with this. My Progressive acquaintance seems think that we can import an immense, conservative, third-world underclass and it will stay servile indefinitely, not vote its own interests or have any effects on social norms. (Or its interests will be, coincidentally, hers.)

This is largely an information problem–most Americans are familiar with our particular brand of Christian conservatives, but are unfamiliar with Mexican or Islamic ones.

How many Americans have intimate, detailed knowledge of any Islamic society? Very few of us who are not Muslim ourselves speak Arabic, and few Muslim countries are major tourist destinations. Aside from the immigrants themselves, soldiers, oil company employees, and a handful of others have spent time in Islamic countries, but that’s about it–and no one is making any particular effort to listen to their opinions. (It’s a bit sobering to realize that I know more about Islamic culture than 90% of Americans and I still don’t really know anything.)

So instead of making immigration policy based on actual knowledge of the groups involved, people try to extend the moral rules–heuristics–they already have. So people who believe that “religious tolerance is good,” because this rule has generally been useful in preventing conflict between American religious groups, think this rule should include Muslim immigrants. People who believe, “I like being around Christians,” also want to apply their rule. (And some people believe, “Groups are more oppressive when they’re the majority, so I want to re-structure society so we don’t have a majority,” and use that rule to welcome new immigrants.)

And we are really bad at testing whether or not our rules are continuing to be useful in these new situations.

 

Ironically, as our networks have become more effective, our ability to incorporate new information may have actually gone down.

The difficulties large groups experience trying to coordinate and share information force them to become dominated by procedures–set rules of behavior and operation are necessary for large groups to operate. A group of three people can use ad-hoc consensus and rock-paper-scissors to make decisions; a nation of 320 million requires a complex body of laws and regulations.

But it’s getting late, so let’s continue this discussion in the next post.