Curiosity and infinite detail

    This is a wonderful reminder by David Cain that there’s value in retraining our childlike ability to zoom in on the myriad details in life. Not in terms of leaves and details in the physical world around us, but in terms of ideas, too.

    Zooming in and out is, I guess, the essence of curiosity. As an adult, with a million things to get done, it’s easy to stay zoomed-out so that we have the bigger picture. But it ends up being a shallow life, and one susceptible to further flattening via the social media outrage machine.

    If you were instructed to draw a leaf, you might draw a green, vaguely eye-shaped thing with a stem. But when you study a real leaf, say an elm leaf, it’s got much more going on than that drawing. It has rounded serrations along its edges, and the tip of each serration is the end of a raised vein, which runs from the stem in the middle. Tiny ripples span the channels between the veins, and small capillaries divide each segment into little “counties” with irregular borders. I could go on for pages.


    Kids spend a lot of their time zooming their attention in like that, hunting for new details. Adults tend to stay fairly zoomed out, habitually attuned to wider patterns so they can get stuff done. The endless detail contained within the common elm leaf isn’t particularly important when you’re raking thousands of them into a bag and you still have to mow the lawn after.


    Playing with resolution applies to ideas too. The higher the resolution at which you explore a topic, the more surprising and idiosyncratic it becomes. If you’ve ever made a good-faith effort to “get to the bottom” of a contentious question — Is drug prohibition justifiable? Was Napoleon an admirable figure? — you probably discovered that it’s endlessly complicated. Your original question keeps splitting into more questions. Things can be learned, and you can summarize your findings at any point, but there is no bottom.

    The Information Age is clearly pushing us towards low-res conclusions on questions that warrant deep, long, high-res consideration. Consider our poor hominid brains, trying to form a coherent worldview out of monetized feeds made of low-resolution takes on the most complex topics imaginable — economic systems, climate, disease, race, sex and gender. Unsurprisingly, amidst the incredible volume of information coming at us, there’s been a surge in low-res, ideologically-driven views: the world is like this, those people are like that, X is good, Y is bad, A causes B. Not complicated, bro.

    For better or worse, everything is infinitely complicated, especially those things. The conclusion-resistant nature of reality is annoying to a certain part of the adult human brain, the part that craves quick and expedient summaries. (Social media seems designed to feed, and feed on, this part.)

    Source: The Truth is Always Made of Details | Raptitude

    Curiosity, projectories, and AI

    I’ve read a lot of danah boyd’s work over the years, especially given how her research interests intersect with my work. In this long-ish post, she argues for an approach to AI driven by curiosity and the concept of ‘projectories’ (subject to guardrails).

    xkcd cartoon on scenarios

    I just returned from a three month sabbatical spent mostly offline diving through history and I feel like I’ve returned to an alien planet full of serious utopian and dystopian thinking swirling simultaneously. I find myself nodding along because both the best case and worst case scenarios could happen. But also cringing because the passion behind these declarations has no room for nuance. Everything feels extreme and fully of binaries. I am truly astonished by the the deeply entrenched deterministic thinking that feels pervasive in these conversations.



    Even though deterministic thinking can be extraordinarily problematic, it does have value. Studying the scientists and engineers at NASA, Lisa Messeri an Janet Vertesi describe how those who embark on space missions regularly manifest what they call “projectories.” In other words, they project what they’re doing now and what they’re working on into the future in order to create for themselves a deterministic-inflected roadplan. Within scientific communities, Messeri and Vertesi argue that projectories serve a very important function. They help teams come together collaboratively to achieve majestic accomplishments. At the same time, this serves as a cognitive buffer to mitigate against uncertainty and resource instability. Those of us on the outside might reinterpret this as the power of dreaming and hoping mixed with outright naiveté.



    Rather than doubling down on deterministic thinking by creating projectories as guiding lights (or demons), I find it far more personally satisfying to see projected futures as something to interrogate. That shouldn’t be surprising since I’m a researcher and there’s nothing more enticing to a social scientist than asking questions about how a particular intervention might rearrange the social order.


    Source: Resisting Deterministic Thinking | danah boyd

    Art gallery mode

    I love this post by David Cain so much. He talks about how every weekend during the summer he goes on a bike ride. Using an app to randomise his destination, he always finds something worth discovering. Why? Because he’s in what he calls ‘art gallery mode’.

    To select a destination, I use an obscure app called Randonautica, which creates an X-marker somewhere on a map of the city. The app’s “About” section says it chooses this location through “theoretical mind-matter interaction paired with quantum entropy to test the strange entanglement of consciousness with observable reality.” It says the app’s users, when they arrive at their prescribed locations, often find “serendipitous experiences that seemingly align with their thoughts.”


    The first time it sent me to a creekside clearing, where I saw a strange black glob in the water that turned out to be a mass of tadpoles. Another time it sent me to a gravel back lane near where I used to live, at a spot where someone had written “DAD!” on the fence in some kind of white resin. Another day it took me to a book-exchange box containing only children’s books and Stephen King’s Tommyknockers.

    Wherever it sends you, there’s always something there that seems charged with a small amount of cosmic significance, even if it’s just a particularly charismatic patch of dappled sunlight, an abandoned shopping list with unusual items on it, or some other superordinary sight akin to the twirling plastic bag in American Beauty.

    The trick here is that there’s always something significant, poignant, or poetic everywhere you look, if your mind is in that certain mode – so rare for adults — of just looking at what’s there, without reflexively evaluating or explaining the scene. A mystery co-ordinate in an unfamiliar neighborhood gives you few preconceptions about what you’re going to find there, so the mind naturally flips into this receptive, curious state that’s so natural for children.

    I sometimes call this state “art gallery mode,” because of a trick I learned from an art history major. We were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, browsing famous abstract paintings by Pollock, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and other artists whose swirls, rectangles, and blobs are regarded as masterpieces.

    Source: How to Get the Magic Back | Raptitude