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Four Fairly Frivolous Flights of Fancy
these suggestions that aren't meant to be taken seriously, but it would be cool if you did.
What is the point of the blogosphere?
Nerd-bait. Insight porn. Whatever you call it. It’s great, it entertains and delights, leads you into novel thought-experiments and fun rabbit-holes. But surely, there’s a more productive outcome than just that? Does it do anything out in the real world other than change a few indivdual trajectories here and there?
My answer: it provides the best discussion material. With the intent of pushing the boundaries of regular discourse, to enable more playful, exploratory avenues for conversation. Thinking for the sake of thinking. Debate for the sake of moving the local Overton window.
And so, if there’s anything to be gained from the handful of facetious ideas that follow, it is the possibility of a lively discussion. The kind that is most definitely not a serious conversation, and therefore all the more worth engaging in.
Here, I present four suggestions, recommendations and policy ideas that lie on the edge between defensible and downright ridiculous. Like most things on this site, they’re not meant to be taken too seriously, but they’re engaging enough to merit actual conversation. Or so I hope.
1. We should set limits to video uploads.
Video is a dangerous hyper-stimulus. This is something that is not talked about enough.
There are two things that are near impossible for humans to ignore: faces and stories. There’s probably an evo-psych explanation for why this is true, but you can take my word for it for now. Or just look how popular cat videos are, they’d be far less entertaining without their ridiculous faces.
Video combines both these factors into a medium that make for the most potent consumption good ever. Moving pixels with stories, stories with people, people with faces, how are we supposed to resist?
Apart from that though, I also believe that the visual nature of the medium makes it intrinsically harder to simply “snap yourself out of it”. More than 50 percent of the pre-frontal cortex is used for visual processing. We don’t know exactly how much of that brain space is normally used for active thinking or impulse control, but this paper claims the pre-frontal cortex is, in fact, the man region involved with decision-making. Make of that what you will.
So that’s my naive neurological justification for how video might make those activities harder. And subjective experience tells me it’s harder to think while distracted, so this isn’t that silly an idea. But this means that it’s not just a simple matter of mind over matter if the mind is only working at half capacity. Video actively supresses impulse control.
You don’t need a degree in behavioural psychology to spot the evidence: TikTok (and its imitators), Netflix and [[insert your evil video streaming app of choice here]]. YouTube also had an “exceptional” first quarter in 2021 for direct-response advertising, and is investing heavily in its Shorts feature (which is exactly what it sounds like).
TikTok is near unstoppable because it combined the most effective technical aspects (amazing recommendation algorithms and remix features) with a format (seconds-long video) that incentives the most engaging content possible. It is o powerful, in fact, that a non-trivial number of its users can feel just how addictive it is. And even so, fail to change their viewing habits, short of permanently deleting the app.
Netflix, on the other hand, is an endless experiment to find the maximum successful long story. How long can you keep people interested within a low-consumption-effort medium? Both platforms are tremendously successful in doing what they need to: keep viewers watching.
This is why buffering is such a big deal when it comes to video. By far the most likely time time for a viewer to skip past a video is while they aren’t completely involved in watching it. Every scene can be made more engaging, but a pause creates a moment of clarity, and is enough time to reconsider one’s choice.
But perhaps this is the future. Maybe better stories are the highest good, and ways of telling them will get even more effective at agency-hijacking their viewers. The world keeps getting faster, you can but hang on for the ride.
But if you’d like it to stop the rise of hyper-media; and many people do; we need to begin with some speed limits.
2. We should strap GoPros onto the best performers.
Tacit knowledge is one of the most annoyingly difficult-to-tackle problems of our time. There’s some really good writing on the topic from both Rohit’s blog and the truly excellent Cedric Chen. But here’s quick definition from the Nintil post on the same:
What tacit knowledge means differs by whom you ask, but in general the definition refers to knowledge that is very hard to acquire (In the broadest definition) or knowledge that is embodied in a person (or group) and that they can’t make fully explicit. Of importance here is that talking to an expert wouldn’t get you that knowledge, in this second definition. An obvious example is riding a bike; one could read books about cycling or talk to Tour de France winners for months and not have much idea how to skillfully ride a bike on a first trial.
Experts across every domain have compressed knowledge into habit, experience into heuristics. There’s too much detail to convey in a linear fashion, which is how most courses are set up. You can’t teach what you don’t notice anymore.
And most education solutions are geared toward the start of the road, which always has the most people. As learner’s niche down and go deeper, the pool of learning resources shrinks further and further. In some cases, it might be just a dozen people across the whole world who are actively involved . This sucks for everyone who doesn’t live in close proximity to those people, because they’re often responsible for some truly amazing outcomes.
But there are still things we can do to get closer to scaling tacit knowledge. Like letting people see through the eyes of the best. Literally. Let’s get some cameras strapped onto these people.
I can’t put a number on the value that we’d get from watching Byrne Hobart write, or seeing exactly how Donald Knuth crafts code, but I’m pretty sure it’s much higher than zero. Eye-ball tracking could help even more; just knowing what the experts look for is extremely useful. It takes decades of trial-and-error to learn those details on your own.
The myriad of ways in which scenius arises, and how exactly it helps all its members is still an open discussion. But it isn’t a stretch to imagine that simply watching someone more experienced do their thing could prove to be an incredibly valuable experience.
If you really want to democratise learning, you’ll need to make the edges of the fields (the areas that the less privileged are furthest from) more accessible. Pushing up the average is great on it’s own, but lengthening the tails is amazing, and is where most of the payoff lies. One of the reasons the internet didn’t lead to a gigantic increase in global expertise is because it couldn’t replicate people, only data. Until now.
3. Raising your children in isolation from societal norms could be amazing.
I still haven’t decided whether it is a blessing or misfortune when you find someone to make your point better than you. Maybe, like all things, it’s a bit of both. But here’s Scott Alexander, speaking from a decade-old LW comment, saying it for me:
On any task more complicated than sheer physical strength, there is no such thing as inborn talent or practice effects. Any non-retarded human could easily do as well as the top performers in every field, from golf to violin to theoretical physics. All supposed “talent differential” is unconscious social signalling of one’s proper social status, linked to self-esteem.
A young child sees how much respect a great violinist gets, knows she’s not entitled to as much respect as that violinist, and so does badly at violin to signal cooperation with the social structure. After practicing for many years, she thinks she’s signalled enough dedication to earn some more respect, and so plays the violin better.
“Child prodigies” are autistic types who don’t understand the unspoken rules of society and so naively use their full powers right away. They end out as social outcasts not by coincidence but as unconscious social punishment for this defection.
It is beautiful, perhaps even delusional, to imagine this being true. And yet, it is the best kind of speculation, for it has a whiff of the truth about it. Enough to hopefully get people thinking about (and maybe even attempting) it. There could be ways to reduce the social costs of this kind of isolation from norms. Few people have thought about this, and there might be low-hanging fruit for anyone taking it seriously enough.
Of course, there still will be some costs, everything has tradeoffs. Outlier outputs only come with equally unreasonable inputs. But this is not the case of breaking your child’s spirit for them to make the Olympic ice skating team; quite the opposite. It is seeing what’s possible when that spirit remains whole.
It will be really hard to do well, but it might just be worth it.
4. Governments ought to incentivise exercise.
The positive effects of exercise are widely-accepted enough for me to not have to bother listing them all out. But here’s a few links anyway. And it isn’t just about the long-term benefits either, I mentioned those because everyone already knows that squats make you hotter. Which is good for, um, population maintenance reasons. (Have you seen those TFR graphs lately?)
But for health, especially in ageing populations, there are very few instances of fruit hanging this low. It seems downright foolish to not be going after them. The current numbers say only one in five adults or teens meet the fairly low bar of 2.5 hours of “heart-pumping physical activity” per week.
There is an argument to be made that some of the benefits from exercise are more correlation than causation (especially the third link, which I added mainly for its clickbait title, sorry). Possible confounding variables include economic status, access to healthcare, grit (and its impact on life outcomes), and other personality traits, culture, etc.
But that has more to do with trying to use a specific measure of fitness of a predictor, and doesn’t negate the physiological effects. With a field this old, “studies show that” is actually a valid defence, since there’s been more time to run more robust studies that prove/disprove the current consensus.
Most people I know will, or are, facing a sort of health debt trap. Shouldering the responsibility of funding healthcare for an ever-increasing number of family members, majorly the elderly. Physiological functioning becomes ever more use-it-or-lose-it as time goes by. Dying slowly sucks enough that we should care about any method that helps crate longer healthspans.
And with those TFRs falling all over the world, we’re gonna need the adults in the labour force for as long as possible. Because population health is a vital national resource, the government can count any resources spent supporting that outcome as national investment, albeit on a longer timescale. The second-order effects of a healthier population will be huge. But what exactly should the state do?
Subsidising gym memberships is not a new idea, and there are many examples of public projects that encourage more active lifestyles for the citizenry. But that’s not going far enough, it’s time to force the horse to drink.
The most direct (as well as most unreasonable) method of doing so would be to have some sort of law in place, mandating a certain number of hours of exercise per month. We already have a few examples of this in Korea and Singapore’s compulsory military service, and even worse: annual taxes. So another mandatory action is just…another mandatory action. But there are subtler ways to do it.
You could mandate reduced health insurance premiums for those who can provide evidence of sufficient physical activity. Employer schemes, direct cash incentivesand better propaganda are the other possible methods. I’m sure economists could come up with better ones if they really tried.