Change in the Age of Information – Part 4 Information and Knowledge

Sometimes the importance of a topic doesn’t become apparent immediately. Almost two months ago, part 1 of this series started with the quote, “The age of information is not the age of understanding” and it was only last week that I came across a related quote from the James Hillman book The Soul’s Code. Despite being written over 20 years ago, it rings truer today than ever:

“Our republic should learn this lesson, for we might one day vote into power a hero who wins a giant TV trivia contest and educate our children to believe the Information Superhighway is the road to knowledge. If one clue to psychopathy is a trivial mind expressing itself in high-sounding phrases, then education emphasizing facts rather than thinking, and patriotic, politically or religiously correct “values“ rather than critical judgment may produce a nation of achieving high school graduates who are also psychopaths.” (p. 225)

Hillman’s comments bring into focus something that subsequent parts of this series explored through the example of two major figures in the tech field: Elon Musk and Linus Torvalds. Their focus on facts and information to the point of excluding human nature and cultural trends put them both in difficult situations professionally making them seen to the casual observer almost psychopathic.

In today’s world everyone has access to a major percentage of human knowledge from a pocket sized device. As a result, facts have lost much of their broader value. They lose even more value when the effects of false, manipulative “facts” are added to the equation. Fake news, manipulative advertising, misleading product reviews, the “attention slot machine” of social media, filter bubbles, and the predominately negative bias of news outlets can all contribute to a certain level of psychopathy in even healthy individuals.

In fairness to Hillman, The Soul’s Code is actually an extremely positive book about the unique potential inherent in every human being which is reflected in its tagline, “In Search of Character and Calling.” However as a Jungian, Hillman cannot help but explore the negative side of his topic as well and the above quote is from a chapter called The Bad Seed. He builds on this idea in a subsequent chapter called Mediocrity where he eventually exposes three seemingly great people as mediocre due to their blind faith in their deeply held belief systems, i.e. the “facts” that make up their personal beliefs. Hillman’s conclusion that their faith that moved mountains became its own shadow is cited as evidence of how Americans in particular use belief as an excuse to not exercise critical judgment.

So what benefits can understanding and critical judgement provide that allow facts to regain their value? Hillman gives one clue by emphasizing their importance in allowing acceptance of “exceptional” individuals and thereby transforming conformance into the dangerous mindset. One positive benefit of this could be to reduce the tendency of popular culture to hold exceptional people (like Musk and Torvalds) to impossibly high standards. Should their questionable behavior be excused? No, but it should also not result in the glorification of “uninspired mediocrity.”

For example, the previous post in this series summarized the next steps Torvalds is taking in his personal development where his passion for his work and some concrete actions he is taking have gone a long way to making up for his behavioral shortcomings. As for Musk, in an interview he gave this week for ReCode, he gave some positive signs of developing the same understanding. The interviewer, Kara Swisher, explains in her summary of their conversation:

My favorite response [of Musk] showed he did understand those issues and his “self-inflicted wounds”: “Yeah, there’s no question there’s, like, self-inflicted wounds. In fact, my brother said, “Look, if you do a self-inflicted wound, can you at least not twist the knife afterwards?” You stabbed yourself in the leg. You don’t really need to twist it in your leg. Why do that?”

While this statement seems like Musk is making needed corrections, another of his comments casts some doubts. When the interviewer asks, “What I’m trying to get to is, do you want to acknowledge when you do this it does set off … People beyond you that listen to you, you have a fan base that’s quite rabid, I would say.” Musk simply responds, “No, I wouldn’t say that.” A categorically untrue statement since he is constantly setting off his fan base with everything from massive rocket launches to fully self driving supercars to selling 20,000 flamethrowers. Hopefully he will continue to work to find a way to balance his exceptionalism with understanding and critical judgement.

What about the rest of us that, as Hillman colorfully describes, “pass our time sheltered under the middle bulge of the bell curve,” what can we do to express our exceptionalism? Maybe it doesn’t seem like much, but to me an internal attitude of integrity, excellence, and critical judgment in my environment goes a long way toward “changing mediocrity from a term of contempt into a concept of value.” And if that’s not enough, I recommend reading The Soul’s Code for an additional 286 pages of exceptional exploration and guidance!

Change in the Age of Information – Part 3 They Came to Astroturf…

“… and they left with mud on their shoes.”

After a little over a month of self-imposed exile, Linus Torvalds has returned to the helm of running the world’s largest open source software project, Linux. However before discussing how a leader like Mr. Torvalds is beginning to come to terms with the shortcomings of his behavior, it might be interesting to review some opportunistic aspects / fake news that surrounded this controversy which has inspired the title and first line of this post.

First, The contentious Code of Conduct (CoC) was NOT set up by Torvalds. He said in an interview with ZDNet that “I actually stepped away from the CoC discussions exactly because I did *not* want it to be seen as me personally being involved in the discussion” but he added that “he doesn’t mind the CoC itself.”

The “fake news” aspect that generated thousands of comments on Reddit and elsewhere was eventually described by the tech community (including Torvads) with some colorful terms such as “bike shedding” and “astroturfing.” Bike shedding is when a team avoids an issue like a controversial building project by first focusing on trivial issues like building the bicycle storage shed. Astroturfing is when people with an agenda (for example, political or religious) falsely represent themselves as being part of a grassroots movement. Astroturfers, who were not part of the Linux community before or after this discussion, pushed hard to convince people that the CoC was a result of Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) pushing a political agenda. Hence the comment, “and they left with mud on their shoes” which was a turn of phrase indicating that the false identify the astroturfers tried to pass off as real was eventually replaced by the more accurate, but messy, information from the real grassroots Linux community. To quote a Reddit thread that received almost a thousand comments, “It was almost exclusively brigadiers from far right subs coming here to astroturf. There was nothing natural about that response.”

Getting back to how a leader like Mr. Torvalds is beginning to understand the shortcomings of his behavior and the responsibilities of power, his first act upon returning was to meet with a small group of about 40 key Linux developers at something called the “Maintainers’ Summit” in Scotland. Torvalds is in an powerful position similar to the CEO of a medium sized corporation and his first act was to travel from Portland to Scotland to meet with 40 software engineers. Amazing! That alone says a lot about him. Here’s a person paid over a half a million dollars in 2015 and he starts by meeting the technical people most impacted by his behavior. Soon after, he gave an interview to ZDNet in which he explained the steps he has taken to correct his behavior which boil down to “talking weekly with a professional,” an outgoing email filter to filter out expletives, and asking the people he works with closest to “send me email if they feel I’ve been unnecessarily abrupt.”

This doesn’t seem like much considering the massive upheavals in the Linux community this situation has caused, but given Torvalds passion for his work, maybe it is enough. A recent article in The Verge summed it up nicely, “… it sounds like productive first steps are being made to revise the Linux community’s culture for the better.” Only time (and some great code) will tell.

Change in the Age of Information – Part 2 Linus Torvalds / Linux

The last post in this series ended with the observation that Elon Musk is a great example of a person with a highly developed ability to utilize information, but maybe with a less developed sense of understanding his impact. In his mind, he probably thinks he should be free to drink and smoke pot on a podcast that is listened to by millions. That’s a reasonable assumption since he is definitely a disruptor, creating market transforming companies like PayPal, SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX (just to name a few) and having a current net worth of over $20 billion. However even if he didn’t do anything illegal, immoral, or out of character, those few puffs dominated the headlines for weeks despite being less than a minute out of almost three hours of fascinating conversation with Joe Rogan.

This is not an isolated incident in the high tech world. Linus Torvalds, the creator of the free, open-source software Linux, has also been in the headlines for “questionable” behavior as well. While most people don’t know Mr. Torvalds as well as Mr. Musk, all of us use the results of his creations everyday. The free software he created in 1991 in his dorm room in Helsinki powers over 40% of the websites on the Internet (including Google, PayPal, Amazon, etc.) and is at the core of over two billion Android phones. The issue was expertly explained in the recent New Yorker article, “After Years of Abusive E-mails, the Creator of Linux Steps Aside.” The headline is a little misleading because he has only stepped aside temporarily and the abusive emails were more of the insulting / demeaning type targeted at his peer group than anything else. Here’s an example of a recent one.

In fact, it is probably the New Yorker article that motivated Torvalds to replace his self-named “Code of Conflict” with a “Code of Conduct” based on something called the “Contributor Covenant” written in 2014 by “transgender activist Coraline Ada Ehmke.” As a result, the opinions of a very large group of technical people who use and love Linux exploded onto every major Linux forum. Here’s a summary of the sources and reactions.

  1. Torvalds final statement of the problem and his suggested course of action was: “I am going to take time off and get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.” As far as I can tell, except for an email to the BBC (see below), he hasn’t been heard from since.
  2. The Reddit thread that discussed Torvalds final statement with over 1,200 comments.
  3. The new Code of Conduct itself published in the most techie way possible by Torvalds himself.
  4. The Reddit thread that discussed the new Code of Conduct. It was locked after one day because the moderators felt that “Civil discussion had stopped.” Reddit is usually a fairly permissive place to comment so this is a severe step to take.
  5. The Reddit thread that discussed how Torvalds’ daughter has signed the “Post-Meritocracy Manifesto.” This was written by the same person who wrote the Code of Conduct. It was locked after 340 comments probably because it devolved into mostly negative comments about Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) destroying the tech community.
  6. The Linux World News (LWN.net) article that covered the whole story two days later. They also published a shorter comment on “Linus taking a break” that got several hundred more comments.
  7. Finally, 10 days later, the BBC published what might be the best short summary of the situation in the article “Linus Torvalds: I’ll never be cuddly but I can be more polite” which was based on “an exclusive email” from Mr. Torvalds.

What can I possibly add to the thousands and thousands of pages already written on this topic? Maybe just the fact that leaders in any environment have a responsibility to constantly strive to maintain that delicate balance between civility and directness, between effectiveness and inclusiveness, and between “mob mentality” and common sense. Team members consciously and unconsciously mimic leaders which is why people like Musk and Torvalds are, rightfully or not, held to a higher standard. They might think that their goal is to produce the best electric car, rocket, or best performing operating system, but one of the true goals is much deeper, to create environments where creative people can grow and thrive despite their differences and thereby make their best contribution possible to the world.

Finally, it’s good to keep in mind that every leader is a follower as well, which will be the topic of the next post in this series!

Linus Torvalds 2016 TED Talk
(5:30 – “I am not a people person…” and 13:30 – the “people people”)

Change in the Age of Information – Part 1 Elon Musk

I started this post weeks ago with the quote, “The age of information is not the age of understanding.” Unfortunately, it has been sitting in my drafts folder for so long that I can’t remember what motivated it, but on the positive side several interesting situations have come to light that make this quote a good starting point for exploring the complex relationship between information and understanding.

The first situation was the widely publicized interview of Elon Musk by Joe Rogan. If you haven’t heard of “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, you might be surprised to know that it has been running weekly since 2009, it is on Apple’s Top 5 list, and the almost three hour Musk interview was episode 1169. Despite its popularity, 99% of the press has highlighted the controversy over Elon Musk smoking marijuana and drinking whiskey on the show.

To get you hooked on watching this fascinating, but long interview with one minute of pot smoking, here are five of my favorite sections.

  1. On Artificial Intelligence – It is becoming a new “third part” of the brain where the it will help support the role of the brain’s cortex (“thinking brain”) making the limbic system (“primitive brain”) happy.
  2. Simulation (aka advanced “Video Games”) – Musk believes that simulation is a distillation of the most interesting parts of reality and that “most likely, and this is just probability, there are many, many simulations. These simulations, you might as well call them reality.” This is similar to how a movie can be a two hour distillation of what people find interesting in life. You just have to watch this part for it to make sense.
  3. Tesla Automobiles – Teslas are designed with the explicit intent of being enjoyable. “I think a Tesla is possibly the most fun thing you could buy, ever. It’s not actually a car, it’s a thing to maximize enjoyment, maximum fun.”
  4. The Boring Company – Musk’s idea to revolutionize transportation is based on boring underground tunnels because despite the fact that “Earth is a giant ball of lava with a thin crust on the top,” tunneling 10,000 feet down is “not a big deal” so it’s possible to have hundreds of three dimensional levels of tunnels.
  5. Musk Goes 100% Engineer when he explains why flying cars are a terrible idea. To summarize, too noisy and too much airflow, but the long version includes a wonderful description of “the fundamental momentum exchange with the air.”

So how does this interview relate to the quote at the beginning of this article? In my opinion, Elon Musk is a great example of a person with a highly developed ability to utilize information, but with a less developed sense of understanding. He can harness the power of science, engineering, and manufacturing to do amazing things, but at what cost to himself? Even when he explains that his favorite feeling is, “doing something useful for other people,” he soon follows that by admitting that his mind is like “a never-ending explosion [of ideas].” Even Elon Musk admits that it is difficult to be Elon Musk!

The next part of this post will begin to explore the social damage that results from information being out of balance with understanding. The creator of Linux, which powers almost 40% of the websites on the Internet, is experiencing this firsthand at the moment and it has created quite a heated discussion in tech circles.

ElephantTech is Changing and Change Can Be Scary

“Change can be scary, especially when it’s not under your control, and it’s really scary when it threatens things that you find familiar and I think as the kinds of people we are… we have a really complicated relationship with the familiar and with change… we love changing things when we’re doing it. When someone else tell us “Don’t change that” we go “No no no wait, it’s good” but when they come over to us and say, “You should change this” we go “Hold on, hold on” and systemd represents a lot of disruptive change. And part of the problem with that is that getting a whole community to change, that’s really hard and it results in a kind of knee-jerk reaction to it and the problem with those kind of knee-jerks is that they lead to things like abuse and that’s not cool. You might not like systemd, but that doesn’t mean that you need to go and send death threats to Leonard.”
— Benno Rice (@jeamland) from the video below – 24 minutes

The quote above is taken from a highly technical talk on a highly technical topic, but it reads like good advice for so many of the political, religious, and societal discussions today. If the word “systemd” is replaced with “trade tariffs” or “gun control” or “climate change,” the piece would still make perfect sense.

This post is the beginning of a new direction for Elephant Tech, exploring some of the historical and psychological underpinnings of current events. Change is nothing new and despite differences in the topics, people, and speed of change, a deep dive into the human nature behind it all might provide helpful clues for understanding and addressing some of these major issues.