Archive for July, 2013



July 21, 2013

Yes, I see that you are indeed writing a lot of conference papers recently.  Spreading the gospel from Boston to Bangalore to Beijing, in fairly diverse venues.  Now that you are becoming a star, I know you said you are having limited words to write with, but are you feeling any other deleterious effects?  “In a state of overload, cognitive limitations may constrain the value of a star’s social capital; if the information load goes unmanaged for long periods of time, the star may stumble and, ultimately, fall.”

Broadly, I think the scarcity of human attention is going to be a limiting factor for many aspects of society, especially in building sociotechnical systems, and it also suggests a wide variety of research questions.  In particular I think it gets to the heart of Thomas Malone’s question, “what are the conditions that lead to collective intelligence rather than collective stupidity”?

A few weeks ago, I was visiting the Santa Fe Institute and tried to make the case for human attention, but I’ll let you judge the strength of my argument.  

Incidentally, SFI is a really great place to visit: I had some nice serendipitous encounters.  Likewise with my recent trips to the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Lab and to the Barabasi Lab at Northeastern.

When you were at the 7th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, you had sent me several papers that essentially advance this argument too.  One that I found particularly intriguing was about serendipity as present in microblogging platforms, which essentially proposes a need to balance surprise and relevance (quality).  Any serendipity for you from either epidemiology or poverty economics?

As you know, this balance between surprise and quality seems to be informing some of my own work recently, whether it is the balance between surprise and flavor in computational creativity for culinary recipes or the balance between surprise and information in communication.

I think the idea that social norms make life much more predictable (rather than surprising) is also an interesting one.  As F. A. Hayek writes in his classic book Individualism and Economic Order:

Quite as important for the functioning of an individualist society as these smaller groupings of men are the traditions and conventions which evolve in a free society and which, without being enforceable, establish flexible but normally observed rules that make the behavior of other people predictable in a high degree. The willingness to submit to such rules, not merely so long as one understands the reason for them but so long as one has no definite reasons to the contrary, is an essential condition for the gradual evolution and improvement of rules of social intercourse; and the readiness ordinarily to submit to the products of a social process which nobody has designed and the reasons for which nobody may understand is also an indispensable condition if it is to be possible to dispense with compulsion. That the existence of common conventions and traditions among a group of people will enable them to work together smoothly and efficiently with much less formal organization and compulsion than a group without such common background, is, of course, a commonplace. But the reverse of this, while less familiar, is probably not less true: that coercion can probably only be kept to a minimum in a society where conventions and tradition have made the behavior of man to a large extent predictable.

I certainly find adherence to social norms makes life easier, but perhaps there is some balance between surprise and quality in social norm formation too? What impact do you think the emergence of global superstars will have on social norms?



July 6, 2013

Señor Jonathan Borlée, it has been a long time since I’ve picked up the metaphorical pen and put something up on the blog.  I think the statement that there are only so many words a person can write in a given time period does apply to me.  However I don’t think it is the microblogging that has been consuming my words; it has been the words in academic conference papers—I’ve never written so many in a short period of time.  Additionally, conscientiously completing two MOOCs (one on epidemiology and the other on poverty economics) required a consistent effort.  I also wonder what effect getting a smartphone has had on me.

“Many of us no longer think clearly,” insists Silicon Valley futurist Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, because of our compulsive attachment to the digital world.

You talked about leading a creative life.  One view on creativity is: calvinandhobbes1Although I don’t necessarily agree with the punchline, I do agree that there is a certain mood required for creativity.  I think that those three points of disconnecting, delving into the past, and being masterful have to be satisfied to get in the mood.  Thanks to your having me over for a couple of days over the holiday, I was able to disconnect and get into the mood to reconnect with the blog.  (It is amazing how watching back-to-back-to-back episodes of King & Maxwell and hour-upon-hour-upon-hour-upon-hour-upon-hour of coverage from the All England Club can allow me to disconnect.)

So what of delving into the past?  I read Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century this year, eight years after it came out.  I think that now was the right time for me to read it because it is only now that I am beginning to appreciate what globally integrated enterprises, supply chain management including human capital supply chain management, knowledge work, and the services economy means.  The flat world has enabled Walmart to be the one and only dominant force.  Ames, Hills, Woolworth, Zayre, and their ilk are all gone and Kmart probably will be too eventually.  In entertainment, Matt Allen, Munich, and Mumbai alike were mad for and then mourned for a single superstar: the king of pop.  Just like video killed the radio star, global integration is killing any star but the one superstar.

By making the entire world a single niche, technology is fanning the superstar effect: in sports, labor, and really everywhere.  I don’t doubt that the same will happen with higher education too: MOOC superstars will be the only ones left educating.

People who lose to the superstar effect are certainly the second best and third best performers, but more so the (mostly rural) segment of the population cut off and disconnected from the superstar.

It is a simple and undisputed principle of development theory that rural incomes simply cannot go up much if villages are not meaningfully connected to the city. No society has eve[r] been economically transformed without that link. Not connecting villages and cities in a mutually beneficial manner is a sure way to hurt the village. Trade and transport are two of the best ways known for creating urban-rural links.

So what of being masterful and connecting different bodies of knowledge in new ways?  Maybe Kṛṣṇa’s youth still has some lessons to teach.  His lifting of Govardhana made him a superstar (leaving Indra and the other devas to be the Phil Mickelsons and Vijay Singhs of religion).  He also has an urban-rural duality to him, having been born a prince in the city, raised in rural lands, and returned to the urban world.

The superstar effect cannot be stopped, nor should it be.  I think the key for the future is to have some superstars from all segments.  The most valuable superstar may well turn out to be one who is or was at some point connected enough to delve in, disconnects, and then connects back to disseminate a creation.  Maybe jugaad innovation is a counterbalance to technology destroying jobs.