Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 68
Stories
Domus Lemurum
by Donald S. Crankshaw
Schrodinger's Grottoes
by Andrew Gudgel
A Giant's Rightful Due
by Amanda C. Davis
IGMS Audio
Out of the Belly of Hell
Read by David Thompson
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Everything Mimsy
by Samuel Marzioli
Bonus Material
The Story Behind the Stories
by Donald Crankshaw

Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Ogi Ogas
    by Randall Hayes

This month, another experiment--this time with an actual scientist! Meet Ogi Ogas, co-author of Dark Horse: Achieving Success through the Pursuit of Fulfilment. He works with Todd Rose at Harvard on The Dark Horse Project, which interviews people who have come to success through their own unique pathways. These are considerably more detailed than those colorful blurbs at the backs of SF novels, listing the crappy jobs we've apparently all endured on our way to authorial eminence. Examples at the link above. Among Dr. Ogas's own colorful adventures was a run on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? which we did not discuss. The picture below graces the Dark Horse website.

All Times, All At Once

"I wanted to create a sculpture almost anyone, regardless of their background, could look at and instantly recognize that it is about the idea of struggling to break free. This sculpture is about the struggle for achievement of freedom through the creative process."
- Zenos Frudakis

Hayes: What's your research background, and how did you get interested in "the science of the individual?"

Ogas: My PhD is in computational neuroscience from Boston University's department of cognitive and neural systems. I've always been deeply interested in the individuality of the human mind--how the software (and hardware) of each person's brain is unique. I became interested in the interdisciplinary science of individuality as I began to wonder what the individuality of the human mind signified for the trajectory of one's life. I specifically got involved with the science of individuality after I met Todd Rose and he invited me to join his Laboratory for the Science of Individuality.

Hayes: You and Todd Rose (also founder of a public think tank called Populace) claim that the Standardization Covenant--"follow the standard procedure and you'll be rewarded with success"--is an almost accidental outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution. To me it sounds very similar to what every hierarchical organization from Sumer on down always says: Trust us, we're experts. We spoke to the gods. Was this just the same con, dressed up with new mathematical gods? Or was it unique in some way?

Ogas: The Standardization Covenant certainly reflects a transaction fundamental to the relationship between any government (or authority) and its citizens--abide by my rules, and we will keep you safe and prosperous. But the Standardization Covenant contains a very specific agreement characteristic of the Industrial Revolution in economics and normative thinking in the human sciences: follow the standardized path based on the mathematical notions of averages, types, and norms, and we will provide you with security and prosperity. This fundamental reliance on statistical science is unique to the Industrial Age.

Hayes: It seems that at least through the 20th century, there's been consistent cultural pushback against this idea of the average human as being some kind of ideal. The Beats, the 60s counterculture, science fiction (I'm thinking in particular of Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," but there are many others). Standardization continued. How is this moment in history different? What have you got that they didn't have?

Ogas: Resistance to the Standardization Covenant flowered in the 1960s, certainly, though it's been around from the very start--Europeans were mocking the notion of "the average man" as long ago as the 1850s--but what all of these rebels and dissidents lacked was an alternative. It's not difficult to point out all the ways that standardization is oppressive; it's much harder to offer something better, especially something with a better math and science. That's what changed: we finally have the right kind of practical math, science, and technology to establish a viable social compact that is better than the Standardization Covenant (which was also a much better social contract than anything that came before).

Hayes: Isaac Asimov based his Foundation series and its future science of 'psychohistory' on statistics. How was that different than what we would today call 'big data,' and how are both of those different than what you're doing?

Ogas: Ironically, statistics, social science, and standardization were all born with the first eruption of "big data"--in the early 19th century in Europe. That's when governments started collecting data on everything they could; one historian called it an "avalanche of the printed number." Getting more and more data is not revolutionary in itself; what's revolutionary is how you think about and harness that data--whether you use it to develop a more detailed model of normality (or optimality), or whether you use it to better understand each individual on their own terms.

You do need more data about individuals to make practical use of the methods and tools of the science of individuality, but it's the way of thinking about individuals that's crucial, not the sheer volume of data.

Hayes: As someone who has taught college courses of 75+ people, and who tried customizing a nonmajors biology course at least to the level of the 11 or so different majors who were taking it--from accounting to journalism to nursing--it was really hard, and it didn't work that well. The students pushed back as though it was unfair to customize ("His work is easier than mine!"). Do you customize your own courses? How?

Ogas: Implementing personalized learning in an effective and affordable manner is an enormous challenge, no doubt. By definition, there will never be "best practices" or a "gold standard" when it comes to establishing a personalized learning system--it will always be highly dependent on local conditions: the specific material to be taught, the aims of the specific institution, the available infrastructure and budget, and of course the specific students. A number of educational institutions have implemented reasonably successful personalized learning programs, and they each look different--such as Western Governor's University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Summit Learning (K-12). One thing that makes the transition so difficult is that it's usually hard to move from a standardized pedagogical system to a personalized system in incremental steps--it usually demands numerous major changes in everything from textbooks to billing. Not many institutions are set up to make such a drastic change. That's probably why we see the greatest innovators coming from institutions getting built from scratch (rather than transitioning), or from institutions that were sort of on the margins and have little to lose from trying something radically different. I could be wrong, but I'd be willing to bet the Ivy League schools will be the last to adopt personalized learning, because what's their motivation?

Hayes: I really appreciated your discussion of "quotacracy," and how letting in the same predetermined number of people every year, regardless of people's actual scores on entrance exams, undermines the very idea of objective standards. Have you ever read anything about how IQ scales have been adjusted as the 20th century went on? Were humans getting smarter, due to better nutrition and such (some estimates were that iodized salt raised IQ by 15 points in deficient areas), or were schools just getting better at teaching to the tests?

Ogas: "Were humans actually getting smarter" is a poorly formulated question to begin with, like asking what color is justice, and it's even more pointless if you're asking it because of changing IQ scores. Intelligence is a complex adaptive system (i.e., non-linear, holistic, sensitive to initial conditions, contextual, etc.) which means that statistics don't apply, at least, not in any way that's useful for thinking about intelligence. It's like trying to compare LeBron James to Bill Russell--when Russell played, there were fewer teams, salaries were a tiny fraction of what they are today, there were no 3-point shots, fouls were called much differently. Our minds instinctively imagine that there's some essential quality we call "basketball talent" that we can divorce from all the messy details of playing real games in the real world, but that's silly. And mathematically dubious.

Hayes: Dark Horse mentions nonlinear dynamical models as being better than statistical models but doesn't offer any details (maybe that's in The End of Average, which I haven't read). What behavioral variables are you actually modeling, and how do you go about doing it, when your studies appear to be based on qualitative personal interviews? Where would an interested SF author--maybe one not terribly well versed in mathematics--learn more?

Ogas: Yeah, it's a huge problem that there are not really any great popular books about systems thinking. (I'm working on one right now, as a matter of fact, but we'll see if I can sell it.) The best I've come across is Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows, which is an accessible introduction. There are a lot of good, accessible books about complexity theory that contain discussions of complex systems that can be understood by readers without a strong math background. I like Complexity: A Guided Tour, by Melanie Mitchell.

Hayes: Let's say you get your way, and the Standardization Covenant is finally broken. What does the world look like? What changes? Have you ever thought about using SF to illustrate what that new world might look like? NSF has funded such outreach projects before. In fact, they now require some kind of outreach projects in all their research grants.

Ogas: I think our world is already moving away from the Standardization Covenant, in fits and starts. The Internet is a huge contributor. There are more universities and schools that implement personalized learning, as I mentioned. More and more employers are abandoning standardized approaches to hiring and management, and adopting personalizing hiring and management systems (Morning Star is a classic example, and particularly interesting because it's in one of the most old-school standardized factory industries around, food processing).

I think this is the only way that democratic societies will be able to regain and maintain a competitive economic and cultural edge over authoritarian societies like China--any country with an educational and economic system based upon the Standardization Covenant will always be outcompeted by one that uses a personalized (Dark Horse) covenant--that uses personalization throughout its systems, because personalization always maximizes the productivity, innovation, and engagement of its students and workers, whereas standardization always has an artificially low ceiling. The only way an authoritarian society like Russia or China will be able to compete with a truly personalized democratic society would be to become democratic and personalized.

Hayes: Maybe on long time scales, if the system can reach some kind of equilibrium. The history of agriculture and languages might argue otherwise. But those are topics for another day. Thanks so much for your time.

If you think you or someone you know fit the criteria to be a Dark Horse, you can nominate that person to be interviewed by e-mailing Dr. Ogas.

REFERENCES

https://lsi.gse.harvard.edu/people/ogi-ogas

https://lsi.gse.harvard.edu/dark-horse

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1R9b38GHJeM

http://www.zenosfrudakis.com/freedom-sculpture

https://lsi.gse.harvard.edu/files/gse-individuality/files/roserouhanifischer2013.pdf

https://lsi.gse.harvard.edu

http://populace.org

https://archive.org/stream/HarrisonBergeron/Harrison%20Bergeron_djvu.txt

"THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal."

http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/politics

http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/15/

Special issue on how "average thinking" seeped into worldwide culture.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychohistory_(fictional)

http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/mathematics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flynn_effect

And are we now getting dumber?

https://www.pnas.org/content/115/26/6674

https://www.businessinsider.com/iodization-effect-on-iq-2013-7

https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/jurisdiction

Nonfiction stories about "essential quality" thinking and how it gets us in trouble.

http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/cgi-bin/mag.cgi?do=columns&vol=randall_hayes&article=038

Perhaps not coincidentally, something I wrote about just last month.

https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/thinking-in-systems/

http://donellameadows.org/

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/complexity-9780195124415?cc=us&lang=en&

https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1646887

https://corporate-rebels.com/morning-star/

https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/08/evidence-that-humans-had-farms-30000-years-earlier-than-previously-thought/

Because those highly variable societies are being standardized out of existence.

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/04/saving-dying-disappearing-languages-wikitongues-culture/

As are their languages.


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