J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Month: September 2010

The Importance of Like

What draws us to certain styles, things, and types of people?

Why do we prefer what we prefer? Lately I’ve been thinking that “personal taste” is somewhat illusory; what different people “like” is actually a simple algorithm based on age, gender, and cultural trends.  The majority of two to five year old girls in the United States like the color pink, fairies, and Disney princesses. (Gender stereotyping?  Sure, but also observation.)  Hipsters “like” single gear bikes.  Hippies “like” hummus.  And so on …

Beneath (or maybe mingled with) these broad demographic probabilities lies our real personal taste.  For most of us, it (luckily) overlaps with the zeitgeist — others are compelled to wear Renaissance Faire clothes to work every day.

Casual Friday?

For a myriad of biological and cultural and indeterminate reasons, we find ourselves with a set of strong and weak preferences toward various foods, clothing styles, people, types of work, activities, and situations.  How important is it to pay attention to these preferences?

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Global To Do List (Next 1000 Years)

Ridley Scott's Bladerunner -- let's not go there.

In 1000 AD, human civilization was led by the Golden Age of Islam (with extensive trade routes, massive cities, and polymath philosopher-scientists like Alhazen) and the 100-million strong Song Dynasty of China (with such inventions as gunpowder, paper money, the movable type printing). Vikings raided feudal Europe, Mississippian culture thrived in North America, and the Aztecs had just moved to what is now Mexico. Drought and environmental collapse had recently led to the downfall of the Mayans. Just like today, the world had its bright spots and disaster areas, and plenty of areas where people just muddled along as usual.

Diagram of a hydropowered water-raising machine from The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Al-Jazari in 1206.

Unlike today, the world’s 300-million inhabitants did not enjoy the quality of life many of us experience via sanitation, mass production, the combustible engine, electricity, the internet, modern chemistry, materials science, telecommunications and photography satellites, advanced optics, literature, recorded music, etc. Even the brightest oracles of 1000AD could not have predicted half the miracles we experience as part of daily life. Looking forward to the year 3010, there are no doubt hundreds of technologies and planetary events (and disasters) beyond what we have imagined. Still, nothing is stopping us from considering what we, as human beings, should try to do within the next 1000 years. This is the third and final post in this thought experiment; if you like you can also read the 10-year and 100-year lists. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t consider myself a futurist or an expert in any way — I just like to make lists and consider the big picture.

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Global To Do List (Next 100 Years)

Time to escape the gravity well (on the cheap).

This is the second in a series of three posts, in which I consider which tasks human beings should prioritize within various time frames, in order to improve quality of life for the most possible people.  Nothing in particular qualifies me to make these lists — it’s just a topic that interests me.  I don’t think enough people are thinking and talking about what kinds of progress *should* be made in the next 100 years.  A Google search for “goals for humanity next 100 years” returns scant relevant results.  There are plenty of predictions, but that’s a different game.  Intention is what I’m interested in.  What are we trying to do, as human beings, on this spinning ball in space?  An impossibly broad question?  Maybe.  Impossible to achieve consensus?  Of course.  There are at least as many legitimate answers as there are people.  So my  list-making is a thought experiment and a conversation starter, and isn’t meant to be definitive.

I can't wait for the future.

What kind of world did people imagine for their great-grandchildren, circa 1910?  In this fascinating article, Michael S. James collected quotes from various newspapers in 1900, considering life at the end of the 20th century.  Some seem overreaching, predicting flying cars, the eradication of disease, and the end of drunkenness.  Others are spot on, predicting gains in human height, improvements in health and longevity, and progress towards work equality for women.  In at least two areas — telecommunications and electronic computation — the predictions fall short of actual advances.

While future technological progress is impossible to predict, it’s largely irrelevant for the purposes of this list.  What I’m interested in is what our priorities should be, not how we’ll accomplish them.

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Global To Do List (Next Ten Years)

Get out your notebook.

There are infinite arguments for having either an optimistic or pessimistic view of the future of human beings on Earth.  For example, on the plus side, there are more human beings who are happy, well-fed, well-educated, and living without immediate fear of violence than at any other time in history.  Efficiencies of mass production and electronic communication have brought unprecedented wealth and information to billions.  Every day new scientific discoveries enable us to improve our lives and expand our knowledge horizons.  Positive, enlightened values like tolerance, freedom, caring for the environment, and personal responsibility are the on rise, worldwide.

There is just as much ammunition in the pessimist’s magazine.  Global warming will likely wreak havoc on our croplands and low-altitude communities.  Hundreds of millions still live in abject poverty, without access to clean drinking water and nutritious food (not to mention electricity, education, internet access, and most other luxuries many take for granted).

Not a joke.

A great deal of the world’s wealth is controlled by corporations who act with only profit-making in mind, abusing the environment, worker’s rights, and the health and well-being of both communities and customers.  Even worse, international organized crime gangs headed by sociopaths operate unchecked, dealing in arms, drugs, and human beings.  Our entire economic system is a pyramid scheme based on perpetual growth (which is impossible, at least until we escape the planet) and ignoring externalities (like the environment).  Many countries, including our own, seem to exist in a state of perpetual war, and xenophobic attitudes (as anachronistic as they might seem to the blog reader) are deeply entrenched in many communities.  Human health in threatened by a sea of chemicals (and poor quality Frankenfoods) of our own making.

Frankenfoods.

Human beings have triggered a new epoch of mass extinction by destroying nearly all of the old-growth forests on land and the great reefs of the sea.  Nuclear war is still a threat.  And we have zero protection against the ultimate calamity — a large asteroid hitting the Earth (don’t think it can’t happen).

Holding both the positive and negative in one’s mind at the same time is the most difficult path.  It’s much easier to take either a Panglossian or nihilistic attitude, as neither requires action. Take your pick: 1) Everything will work itself out, or 2) Everything is hopeless.  The true character of the extremist is laziness. The rest of us, who have a more balanced view, are compelled to roll up our shirt sleeves and actually do something to improve the world.

As a thought experiment, I’m going to write three posts in which I will attempt to prioritize the top five global to-do list items for a ten year, one hundred year, and one thousand year time frames.  Nothing in particular qualifies me to make such a list, except that it’s a question that interests me.  The results might influence the future choices I make about charitable giving, writing topics, etc.  Maybe some of you will be inspired to make your own similar lists (which will no doubt be different).  The main criteria I’m going to consider will be protecting and improving quality of life for the most possible people.

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Reverse Hack Video Game Psychology to Increase Real Life Motivation (and Why We Play Video Games Instead of Living Life)

Is it time to uprez your game?

Well-designed games, more than any other form of entertainment, directly hack into our motivational substructures.  They play into our desire to achieve status, collect things, complete tasks, explore the unknown, solve mysteries, be powerful, and make tangible progress (otherwise known as “leveling up”).

Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker

Video game theorist Ian Bogost explores and satirizes this aspect of games with his Facebook metagame Cow Clicker.  The game is maximally minimalistic; all you do is click on a virtual cow at regular intervals (the game that Cow Clicker satirizes, Farmville, is a mass social networking game phenomena with more users than Twitter, netting hundreds of millions in revenue for its creators).  Bogost states that his game “distills the social game genre down to its essence.”  His point is that game architecture can be distilled into simple psychological tricks the designer uses to engage the player.  In a well designed game, these tricks are used with brutal (or in some cases, subtle) effectiveness, and the game is hard to stop playing.  Some game designers have even been accused of making their games too addictive.

A good game cleverly manipulates us, playing on our various urges (competition, avarice, curiosity, desire for completion or closure).  In the context of the game, our skills are a good match for the tasks at hand, and rewards are frequent and well-timed.  Real life, on the other hand, is messier.  Our skills are often a poor match for the tasks at hand; what we need to do is often too easy (and therefore boring) or too hard (and therefore intimidating).  Rewards come unevenly and sometimes apparently randomly; we can work diligently for years or even decades and the world will basically shrug at us.  At other times, we can’t believe our good luck, and don’t feel worthy of the good fortune life bestows upon us.

Are there ways we can apply the motivational energy (or dirty tricks, depending on how you look at it) used by video games to our real lives?  This is one area where I completely agree with game designer/theorist Jane McGonigal (I discussed her recent thesis in my last post); I think we can.  McGonigal gives a brilliant example of this technique when she describes how she recovered from a debilitating concussion.  What else can we do to “reverse hack” the tricks video games play on our minds?

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