Sunday, December 07, 2014

I'm Not an Algorithm

 As we all know it is the shopping season.  There are many more ways to shop now than before.  There are many ways to try to get a bargain, or to just give away money on a little plastic card.  We can shop on-line, we can shop through apps, we can go to the store and have it shipped home, we can shop at home and to and pick it up.  They say we will have drones doing the delivery soon, but it hasn't happened yet.

The Cloud knows what you have bought, what you are thinking about buying where you looked for it, a pretty much what you are willing to pay to anything and everything.  We all get ads for things we have bought or just looked at.  "If you looked at this you'll probably like that. If you live in this zip code and you looked at that store, and you bought this, you listen to this music, you read these books and web sites, then you think like this, vote like that, and have these needs.  They are correct a lot of the time.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a conference where people were taking about the mood apps, behavior apps and health apps they were designing and using for themselves and their patients.  Stay fit, eat right, relieve stress, exercise, breathe, do it all with friends and family.  Think happy thoughts, look at scenes of nature, call your mother, think out of the box, but stay in the box.

I'm old, and I get a bit antsy with all of this.  It seems to be that the goal is to get everyone to be mildly happy, to get along, to pay our bills and buy stuff.

I asked if anyone was designing an app to be grumpy, sarcastic, and oppositional.  Unless we have enough people like that, nothing will change.  We will listen to the music we already like, talk to the people we know, read about things we agree with, and not get upset.

It all sounds very pleasant, like too much mac and cheese.  You know what that can do to you.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Gentics of Ferguson?

The crisis in Ferguson, MO, continues, with lots of heated debate on both sides.  It is an excellent example of how complex our lives have become. Because we humans are such complex creatures, with uniquely evolved brains that allow us to plan, compute, design and build, we seem to have created an environment in which many of our ancient innate tendencies have become counter-productive

I have been reading all about Ferguson, talking about it with to some of my poorer, angry patients – people who aren’t prejudiced, they tell me, but who feel that Blacks are getting all the breaks—and also reading E.O. Wilson’s new book The Meaning of Human Existence. (How’s that for taking on a big topic at an old age?)

Wilson makes that point that there are two kinds of adaptations our genes have made over the past few million years.  One kind is to increase the likeliness that the genetic material of our individual selves, and our specific children, survive.  Whatever gives us an advantage: size, speed, tool making, problem solving, more fertile sperm, bigger hips, cuter smiles, anything that will increase the likelihood of a next generation, and of one after that, will remain a part of our genetic material, while those who do not have enough of those traits will drop out over time.

The second kind of genetic adaptation, that Dr. Wilson points out, is that we keep  the kind of genes that help our group survive.  We are one of the few creatures in the history of the earth who have learned the benefits of group cohesion.  Certain, very successful colonies of ants are among the few others.  People seem to have evolved to control the earth in the space of the larger creatures, while those ants not only out number us by billions, they are by far the most successful at surviving and multiplying of all the creatures.

Humans have very evolved skills at discerning what others are thinking, at communicating our moods, at anticipating threats. We have learned how and when it we should lead and when to follow, and when to act altruistically so that it helps our group.  We have learned that stronger groups get more resources, eat better, and raise the chances that more of our children will survive.  This is true of the ants also.

Some of that is what makes our racial problems so difficult.  We live in a country that professes to welcome all people, and offer all people equal opportunity.  Yet, Black people have never really been seen as part of that.  Many have ancestors who were brought here by force and were used as a source of energy, and not regarded as people.  Many people live in white enclaves and have very little contact with Black people.  They don’t know them as people.  They see them as part of a competitive group.

This was probably true of Officer Wilson.  I don’t know how many Black people are his close friends, probably not too many.  It was too easy for him to quickly classify Michael, Brown as a “demon,” which makes him not a human, not somebody’s child, but a part of a competitive group.  I am sure that this was not conscious.  His brain acted way faster than his mind had a chance to think.  It was all primitive emotion, acting to survive. Also, he had a badge and a gun, which gave him a very different mind-set than Michael Brown, who must have felt cornered by an enemy.

If America is to finally going to do better, we have to know one another as people.  To do that we really need to integrate our neighborhoods and our schools and our social clubs.  Since I won’t hold my breathe for that, it would be helpful if we did have regular gatherings, social gatherings, of all kinds of people, all of whom bring all kinds of food, play all kinds of music, and really get to mix and meet. We have to take the “otherness away.”  We have to have some real relationships.

This should happen in Ferguson, Boston, Selma, Topeka, L.A. and Akron; all over. For far too long our politicians have used the formation of opposing interest groups to split this country apart.  That is easy to do, and it works.  Except only in the short-run.  We have already put some people on reservations and keep them apart.  We already had a Civil War, from which we have never totally recovered.   Perhaps we could realize that it’s time to learn that the people in this country should be considered all a part of same group, and that we are not each other’s enemies.

That’s tough.  It goes against some of our genetic predispositions.  But the world is different.; we are all much more interconnected.  We are not separated by mountains and live in independent tribes.  That world, of 1000 years ago, will never be again.  There is no guarantee that the U.S. can do well in this new one if it goes to war with itself with tanks and automatic weapons.  We have to adapt.