October 27, 2010

When thinking gets too expensive

What luck for rulers, that men do not think. – Adolph Hitler

The Internet is a copy machine.  At a fundamental distribution level, but also at the human content level. Copying what we see and like, or realise gets results, is one of the keys to how humans have been such a successful species. What is unusual about it is that we will do so at the cost of common sense or logic. Unlikely as it would seem, it is a success strategy. Thinking is biologically expensive, and with 20% of our nutrients and oxygen going to the brain, the more efficient we can make that, the better. Humans are natural born hackers. We spot one of our tribe doing something that yields results and we try out the behaviour ourselves, even if we have no idea of the mechanics or conditionst that led to it. If it works it stays. And others copy us. If we don’t understand why it worked in the first instance, it needn’t be a reason not to use it. So are born a myriad of useful hacks that keep us safe, allow us to build on each others creativity and engineering. So too, rituals and traditions, and beliefs that have long ago shed the essence of the logic or context that made them work – mostly harmless but some of these thinking hacks with sufficient uptake or legacy are mistaken for Truth and can go rogue. Believing is easier than thinking.

The Internet only cranks up the volume, it doesn’t lead to shoddy thinking, it’s merely the best damn distribution system since bacteria hacked airborne transport. We’ve been brain hacking for millenia, there’s no stopping us now. What is critical is that we keep the ratio of thinking to believing and copying in lively balance.

Being close to the source as possible counts because it works like a Chinese telephone game. Like any signal down a line, eventually it erodes into unintelligible fuzz. None of the activating intelligence is left. Sometimes the shell still keeps doing the rounds anyway because its packaged so prettily.

For all the disdain that rains upon bloggers for mindlessness, the critics often fail to recognise that as newspapers burgeoned and the rush to be first, or to stuff content to marry off to advertising grew over the past decades – so too did the quick hack of regurgitating press releases, copying wire feeds and churning empty caloried opinion on their pages. Why slog and blaze the synaptic fires if someone else is willing to do it for you? The behaviour around journalism was hacked a long time ago. Newspapers of record like the New York Times, rich, reliable mags like New Scientist pay their writers to think and interrogate the truth. And then we cut.paste, RT, blog, email, whatever your flavour, to pass on what we believe in. Or reinforces our reality.

Our job is not to make up anybody’s mind, but to open minds and to make the agony of the decision-making so intense you can escape only by thinking. – Fred Friendly

The few on the thinking side have to work harder and burn more cognitive juice. They are the context providers not merely content providers. Their job is not to comfortably reinforce our thinking by mouthing cliches. They’re also least likely to be voted most popular because of that expensive thinking problem. Few of us enjoy the recalibration of our beliefs that thinking often effects, it’s unsteadying; give us emotion yes, intrigue surely, but deep analysis that doesn’t offer a safe answer, eh. It’s like eating broccoli for most of us. Why would you choose veggies when takeaways are tastier, cheaper and quicker?

Like eating fresh food and exercising it takes more time, costs more and often hurts while you’re doing it, but there’s nothing like it for avoiding the fate of a flabby homogenous consumer. Smart is sexy.



PS. if you haven’t, you do want to read Kevin Kelly’s piece on Better than Free:

AND also do hunt down Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society or watch this clip from at the very least:

—————————————EVENT UPDATE————————————————

One of the best places to get into a cerebral spin-class is The Daily Maverick, almost a year old now, and beloved by thinkers for not choosing the takeaway-in-pretty-packaging route. In celebration of their brave move from wholly print to wholly online at the beginning of November 2009, they’ll be gathering some of the smartest (also least-likely-to-mouth-cliches) people and some of their ferociously bright, opinionated readers into a room and let them loose on each other for the day.
The Gathering. Brainy bootcamp baby.

It’s not cheap (now up to R3000), it’s a whole day (4th Nov 2010, no work for you) and it’ll be a workout. But I am so looking forward to it!
The synaptic fritzing power of the DM team* is enough to short-circuit most people and send them scurrying to a gossip mag to recover.
But in accompaniment the speakers roll looks like this:

  • Zwelinzima Vavi, general-secretary of Cosatu
  • Michael Jordaan, CEO of First National Bank
  • Lauren Beukes, author of Zoo City and Moxyland
  • Khaya Dlanga, prolific blogger and troublemaker
  • Richard Mulholland, professional speaker most likely to be confused with a rockstar
  • Nic Dawes, editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian
  • Jovan Regasek, CEO of ITWeb
  • Yvonne Johnston, brain-mother to Brand SA and marketer-at-large
  • Ivo Vegter, columnist and analyst
  • Ray Hartley, Sunday Times editor
  • Yusuf Abramjee, head of news and corporate affairs, Primedia
  • Terry Annecke, operations director of BlackStone Tek
  • Victor Dlamini, chairman of Chillibush
  • Stephen Grootes, Eyewitness News reporter
  • Mike Ratcliffe, Wine master, Warwick wines
  • Toby Shapshak, editor of Stuff magazine.

(and knowing them, there’s likely to be a surprise or two for those who believe).
If you have the fortitude for mental marathons through unfamiliar lands, with a side of good humour -wit a DM signature and is never far away from even the darkest scenario. warning: those dry and serious of demeanour may be startled. It’s going to a riot of the best sort.

Read here and here for more if you need convincing (actually I don’t know if there are still tickets but mail ’em anyway. If you’re in South Africa on the 4th of Nov, why miss out?)  A little throng of us Capetonians are flying up for it, including Jacques Rousseau, Allan Kent and Dave Duarte. [If you’re coming too, please let me know].

* Branko Brkic (editor), Phillip de Wet (deputy), and Kevin Bloom, as well as Stephen Grootes, Sipho Hlongwane, Brooks Spector, Theresa Mallinson and Mandy de Waal. Commit these names to memory for the name tag scan ..and give them that knowing nod. They’re doing their damnedest everyday fending off those fuzzy copies to keep us from floating off into the sea of irrelevance.

Disclaimer: not only am I a fan, but count members of this brave & bright Daily Maverick clan as friends. I’m not a paid shill. My dharma is to cheer genius when I see it. So be it.

October 27, 2010