I’m sitting here at my computer wondering what website to go to. What person to follow on twitter, what article to read. When I go online I want to learn something new. Not only do I want to expose myself to information that makes me better. I also want to laugh a little bit and enjoy myself. But the amount of information out there is overwhelming.
I want to shape my digital environment myself. How do I this?
It turns out, this question is being played out right now for the individual, and at scale for countries, multi-national institutions and globally.
We’re entering the age of rapidly shaping our environment.
Less is More?
The idea that less is more is susceptible to the interpretation that ignorance is bliss. This idea must be considered on the background of a standard assumption to the contrary, namely, that knowledge is power. Historical progress has often taken the form of gaining new knowledge that enhances our mastery over nature, including human nature. Because this knowledge can also have destructive consequences, one might ask whether it might not sometimes be better to abstain from acquiring it.
In De Finibus Cicero interprets the Sirens episode of the Odyssey in this Perspective
Cicero does not suggest that Odysseus bound himself to the mast in order to remain ignorant, nor that the knowledge the Sirens offered would have been dangerous to him. Strikingly, the analogy is sometimes drawn between the Sirens episode in the Odyssey and the Fall in Genesis. The Serpent seduced Eve by offering intrinsically corrupting knowledge, whereas the Sirens (in this reading) used the prospect of knowledge merely as a means of enticing their victims to the rocky shores.
We’re at the beginning stages of a new era of tremendous environmental modification.
In this newsletter we’ll talk about the major trends of environmental change at the global/national scale.
In Part 2 next week I’ll focus on the individual scale. The best ways to cultivate a digital garden.
There’s a lot of people out there who want to hurt you with their content. They get the upside, you get the downside. They want to fill your head with things that don’t matter or have no relevance to your life. We’ll discuss strategies and tools to deal with the problem of abundance, negative news, and products designed for addiction.
Sure, we’ve always modified the environment around us.
Take for example sheep. They are docile, kind of dumb, gentle, have lots of fur, timid and cluster together. We made them this way. We domesticated them to be this type of animal over thousands of year years. Do you know what sheep looked like before we domesticated them?
Between 11000 and 9000 BCE, we domesticated the wild mouflon. Sheep are among the first animals to have been domesticated by humans. They look different than the sheep with their neoteny. The mouflon has magnificent horns and muscles.
Domestication of plants and animals changed the genetic makeup and morphology of both crops and animals around us. The assemblage of plants, animals, and humans in agricultural settlements created a new and largely artificial environment in which Darwinian selection pressure worked to promote new adaptations. The new crops could not survive without our constant attentions and protection. Much the same was true for domesticated sheep and goats, which became smaller, more placid, less aware of their surroundings and less sexually dimorphic.
Those animals that were domesticated entered an entirely new life world, encountering radically different evolutionary pressures from those they had experienced as free-living prey. For example, the early domesticates, sheep, goats and pigs were not free to o wherever they pleased. As a captive species their diet was, along with their mobility, restricted, and they were often crowded together in enclosures to a degree unprecedented in their evolutionary history. While guarded and tended by their human masters, the domesticates, like plants in the field, were spared many of the selective pressures (predators, competition for food, battles for mates) of the wild but were subject to new selection pressure, both deliberate and unintentional, imposed by their owners the humans who modified them.
Subject to radical new pressures of the human created dominion the major domesticates became different animals, both physiologically and behaviorally. These changes occurred in what was, in evolutionary terms, the blink of an eye.
Modern American Landscape
The Domestication of animals and agriculture are the two earliest and biggest changes human beings ever made to their environment. But there have been more, with the advent of cities, the industrial revolution and the car in the 20th century.
The American landscape went from age-old agreements between city and country, agreeable walkways, and shared public spaces built on a people-size scale, to a modern auto-suburban wasteland nation, devoid of life, humanity, civic beauty, mysteries and cozy shadows on crooked streets.
So this is the American paradox: suburbs are not towns, but they try to look like they are. They depend entirely on the cities from which their residents are fleeing. So, on a Monday morning, suburbs are emptied when people go to the city to work, and they become wastelands (the same happens in the city when everyone goes back home). Suburbs are, in a way, a fake – lovely houses that look like a home in an awesome place, but are detached from a community or a strong public space, and are repeated one house after the other, in tedious, monotonous, fragmented, identical and scary repetitions. They are, of course, only possible because cars enabled enormous gains of mobility, which turned America into a constant mobility nation.
In the end, urban planners were given the functional task to make all that work, and they invented zoning codes. Hence you have ultra-large asphalt streets in suburbs, wastelands of empty parking lots, constructions with abysmal space between them, billboards, highways, gas stations and car dealers everywhere and so on. When everything is mobility, everyplace becomes noplace.
There is no corner store or movie theater a few blocks away they can walk to. If you need a carton of milk when you live in one of those developments, you have to get in the car and drive to the nearest shopping center, which sits in a sea of parking spots. Because stuff is so spread out, public transportation won’t pay for itself, and no real community is built between people.
Mao and Sparrows
Modifying the environment can be risky business. Let’s take the example of 1958 China.
Mao Zedong, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, decreed that all the sparrows in the country were to be killed. Mao thought that sparrows ate too much grain. Hundreds of millions were killed. It was noticed that insect infestation of crop fields had soared. Sparrows ate pests such as locusts, and after the campaign, the locusts lost their major predator. The sparrows, it seemed, didn’t only eat grain seeds.
Locust populations boomed and they ate everything in their path. Grain production in most rural areas collapsed and a massive famine began. People ran out of things to eat and millions starved. The official number of fatalities from the Chinese government was 15 million. However, it’s estimated by some scholars that it was much more.
21st Century Modifications
Technology has accelerated so quickly in the past 20 years we are now grappling with the questions of genetic modification. Think about the mouflon and the sheep. Except for other animals, even humans, and using them to change environments at a rapid pace.
Take for instance the case of genetically engineering mosquitos. Mosquitos carry devastating viruses such as Zika and dengue. The gene editing strategy: Deploy (nonbiting) male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes bearing a gene that should doom most of their offspring before adulthood.
It turns out, what seems to have happened in Brazil with genetically modified mosquitoes, to handle zika and dengue diseases, whose offsprings were supposed to have died prior to reaching adulthood. They didn't die and bred further! And there may or may not be a new super mosquito out there.
No one really knows what’s going on.
The potential solutions to problems we can now cure come with a downside, multiplicative risk. Systemic risks.
Risks from GMOs, even if small, can mount up and spread because our agricultural and natural systems are globally connected. Think about how Covid travelled around the world.
So even though each risk may be small and reasonable, they accumulate inevitably to certain irreversible harm. These potential threats pose the risk of global harm. Not just local harm, which we can live with, but global.
Interestingly, if you class risks into two categories, one being system and one local you will find odd pairings. Something like nuclear power, which has a scary reputation is just a local risk. It will destroy the surrounding land but that’s about it. Mosquito nets and Nuclear are both local solutions to issues.
We are editing genes in humans now. Scientists used gene editing to remove a gene for heritable blinding. Surely a noble cause.
However, what ended up happening is the deletion of the gene also eliminated an entire chromosome in the embryo.
At some point in the future there may even be large geo-engineering projects to engage with climate change. Who knows.
On Cultivating Your Own Digital Garden
These huge environmental changes that are happening at the national and global scale are completely out of your control. You’re not going to be able stop these gigantic multi-national corporations or governments from doing crazy shit. You work for a living. You’re in the 4HL and the Consistency Space.
However, technology has accelerated so fast that an individual is now able to create their own environment.
It is not just digital environment either. Technology allows you to shape your physical location now. Take for example the recent phenomenon of Remote Work during Covid. The tools exist for certain white collar workers to take their laptop and work wherever they want. You don’t have to be in a big city anymore. You can live in the woods or even start your own town with like-minded people.
In the 20th century, we didn’t have a choice on what to consume. A few stations on the television and radio. Media was in a physical form. That changed with the advent of the internet and decentralization. Now there are millions of songs on SoundCloud, millions of people tweeting, writing articles and making videos on YouTube.
The environment has so rapidly shifted that psychologists have created a category called “cognitive biases”.
If a cognitive "bias" is helpful, it is not a bias.
eigenrobot @eigenrobotcognitive biases are good actually
Rockshot Johnson @RockshotJGerd Gigerenzer and his pal Taleb go way too far in their criticisms of "cognitive biases." Anyone who has ever put off an assignment to watch Netflix knows that present bias is very real. #BoundedRationality #EconTwitter https://t.co/gkhPMDAWA8
The Problem of Abundance
Information, porn, news, games, media are everywhere. Is it good for you? Does it cause stress?
Part 2 Next week