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?



  1. I only got a little over 15 minutes into the video. Do you have a sense of how reincarnation would affect your models? Seems like an interesting avenue to explore. Also, are you assuming that the sender is notified when death occurs? Seems like that could change things up too.

    • Hi Rich, in the current model, the sender is not informed when death occurs, but we show that channel state feedback (the ability to inform the sender of channel death) does not improve performance.

      With infinite cycles of rebirth as in reincarnation without moksha, things become very different. For example, one would end up with a positive Shannon capacity.

      Hope you reincarnate and watch the last 45 minutes!

  2. […] things, and I suppose I’ve made you at least somewhat interested.  When I was visiting Santa Fe last summer, I feel like my interest in this topic was renewed, largely due to the enthusiasm of […]

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