Anyone who sees a hurricane coming should warn others. I see a hurricane coming.
Over the next generation or two, ever larger numbers of people, hundreds of millions, will become immersed in virtual worlds and online games. While we are playing, things we used to do on the outside, in “reality,” won’t be happening anymore, or won’t be happening in the same way. You can’t pull millions of person-hours out of a society without creating an atmospheric-level event.
If it happens in a generation, I think the twenty-first century will see a social cataclysm larger than that caused by cars, radios, and TV, combined. . . . The exodus of these people from the real world, from our normal daily life, will create a change in social climate that makes global warming look like a tempest in a teacup.
Social networks allow people to connect with each other and have conversations on a wide variety of topics. However, users tend to connect with like-minded people and read agreeable information, a behavior that leads to group polarization. Motivated by this scenario, we study how to take advantage of partial homophily to suggest agreeable content to users authored by people with opposite views on sensitive issues. We introduce a paradigm to present a data portrait of users, in which their characterizing topics are visualized and their corresponding tweets are displayed using an organic design. Among their tweets we inject recommended tweets from other people considering their views on sensitive issues in addition to topical relevance, indirectly motivating connections between dissimilar people. To evaluate our approach, we present a case study on Twitter about a sensitive topic in Chile, where we estimate user stances for regular people and find intermediary topics. We then evaluated our design in a user study. We found that recommending topically relevant content from authors with opposite views in a baseline interface had a negative emotional effect. We saw that our organic visualization design reverts that effect. We also observed significant individual differences linked to evaluation of recommendations. Our results suggest that organic visualization may revert the negative effects of providing potentially sensitive content.
So I started to wonder what would happen if we challenged some of these sacred cows. Follow your passion -- we've been talking about it here for the last 36 hours. Follow your passion -- what could possibly be wrong with that? Probably the worst advice I ever got. (Laughter) You know, follow your dreams and go broke, right? I mean, that's all I heard growing up. I didn't know what to do with my life, but I was told if you follow your passion, it's going to work out.
I can give you 30 examples, right now -- Bob Combs, the pig farmer in Las Vegas who collects the uneaten scraps of food from the casinos and feeds them them to his swine. Why? Because there's so much protein in the stuff we don't eat his pigs grow at twice the normal speed, and he is one rich pig farmer, and he is good for the environment, and he spends his days doing this incredible service, and he smells like hell, but God bless him. He's making a great living. You ask him, "Did you follow your passion here?" and he'd laugh at you. The guy's worth -- he just got offered like 60 million dollars for his farm and turned it down, outside of Vegas. He didn't follow his passion. He stepped back and he watched where everybody was going and he went the other way. And I hear that story over and over.
Matt Froind, a dairy farmer in New Canaan, Connecticut, who woke up one day and realized the crap from his cows was worth more than their milk, if he could use it to make these biodegradable flower pots. Now, he's selling them to Walmart. Follow his passion? The guy's -- come on.
So I started to look at passion, I started to look at efficiency versus effectiveness -- as Tim talked about earlier, that's a huge distinction. I started to look at teamwork and determination, and basically all those platitudes they call "successories" that hang with that schmaltzy art in boardrooms around the world right now. That stuff -- it's suddenly all been turned on its head.
Safety -- safety first? Going back to, you know, OSHA and PETA and the Humane Society: what if OSHA got it wrong? I mean -- this is heresy, what I'm about to say -- but what if it's really safety third? Right? (Laughter) No, I mean really. What I mean to say is I value my safety on these crazy jobs as much as the people that I'm working with, but the ones who really get it done, they're not out there talking about safety first. They know that other things come first -- the business of doing the work comes first, the business of getting it done.
OK, I'm still in "Poetics," in Aristotle, and I'm thinking -- out of nowhere, two terms come crashing into my head that I haven't heard since my classics professor in college drilled them there. And they are anagnorisis and peripeteia. Anagnorisis and peripeteia. Anagnorisis is the Greek word for discovery. Literally, the transition from ignorance to knowledge is anagnorisis. It's what our network does; it's what "Dirty Jobs" is. And I'm up to my neck in anagnorises every single day. Great. The other word, peripeteia, that's the moment in the great tragedies, you know -- Euripides and Sophocles -- the moment where Oedipus has his moment, where he suddenly realizes that hot chick he's been sleeping with and having babies with is his mother. OK. That's peripety or peripeteia. And this metaphor in my head -- I got anagnorisis and peripetia on my chin. (Laughter)
I got to tell you, it's such a great device though. When you start to look for peripetia, you find it everywhere. I mean, Bruce Willis in "The Sixth Sense," right? Spends the whole movie trying to help the little kid who sees dead people, and then, boom -- "Oh, I'm dead" -- peripetia. You know? It's crushing when the audience sees it the right way. Neo in "The Matrix," you know? "Oh, I'm living in a computer program" -- that's weird.
You may find this difficult to understand but it is very easy for one in prison to lose his sense of self. And if he has been undergoing all kinds of extreme, involved, and unregulated changes, then he ends up not knowing who he is. Take the point of being attractive to women. You can easily see how a man can lose his arrogance or certainty on that point while in prison! When he's in the free world, he gets constant feedback on how he looks from the number of female heads he turns when he walks down the street. In prison he gets only hate-stares and sour frowns. Years and years of bitter looks. Individuality is not nourished in prison, neither by the officials nor by the convicts. It is a deep hole out of which to climb.
I have been a bit negative about memes, but they have their cheerful side as well. When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the colour of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king's genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world's culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G. C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.
Memes and genes may often reinforce each other, but they sometimes come into opposition. For example, the habit of celibacy is presumably not inherited genetically. A gene for celibacy is doomed to failure in the gene pool, except under very special circumstances such as we find in the social insects. But still, a meme for celibacy can be successful in the meme pool. For example, suppose the success of a meme depends critically on how much time people spend in actively transmitting it to other people. Any time spent in doing other things than attempting to transmit the meme may be regarded as time wasted from the meme's point of view. The meme for celibacy is transmitted by priests to young boys who have not yet decided what they want to do with their lives. The medium of transmission is human influence of various kinds, the spoken and written word, personal example and so on. Suppose, for the sake of argument, it happened to be the case that marriage weakened the power of a priest to influence his flock, say because it occupied a large proportion of his time and attention. This has, indeed, been advanced as an official reason for the enforcement of celibacy among priests. If this were the case, it would follow that the meme for celibacy could have greater survival value than the meme for marriage. Of course, exactly the opposite would be true for a gene for celibacy. If a priest is a survival machine for memes, celibacy is a useful attribute to build into him. Celibacy is just a minor partner in a large complex of mutually-assisting religious memes.
It is possible that this appearance of non-particulateness is illusory, and that the analogy with genes does not break down. After all, if we look at the inheritance of many genetic characters such as human height or skin-colouring, it does not look like the work of indivisible and unblendable genes. If a black and a white person mate, their children do not come out either black or white: they are intermediate. This does not mean the genes concerned are not particulate. It is just that there are so many of them concerned with skin colour, each one having such a small effect, that they seem to blend. So far I have talked of memes as though it was obvious what a single unit-meme consisted of. But of course it is far from obvious. I have said a tune is one meme, but what about a symphony: how many memes is that? Is each movement one meme, each recognizable phrase of melody, each bar, each chord, or what?
I appeal to the same verbal trick as I used in Chapter 3. There I divided the 'gene complex' into large and small genetic units, and units within units. The 'gene' was defined, not in a rigid all-or-none way, but as a unit of convenience, a length of chromosome with just sufficient copyingfidelity to serve as a viable unit of natural selection. If a single phrase of Beethoven's ninth symphony is sufficiently distinctive and memorable to be abstracted from the context of the whole symphony, and used as the call-sign of a maddeningly intrusive European broadcasting station, then to that extent it deserves to be called one meme. It has, incidentally, materially diminished my capacity to enjoy the original symphony.
Similarly, when we say that all biologists nowadays believe in Darwin's theory, we do not mean that every biologist has, graven in his brain, an identical copy of the exact words of Charles Darwin himself. Each individual has his own way of interpreting Darwin's ideas. He probably learned them not from Darwin's own writings, but from more recent authors. Much of what Darwin said is, in detail, wrong. Darwin if he read this book would scarcely recognize his own original theory in it, though I hope he would like the way I put it. Yet, in spite of all this, there is something, some essence of Darwinism, which is present in the head of every individual who understands the theory. If this were not so, then almost any statement about two people agreeing with each other would be meaningless. An 'idea-meme' might be defined as an entity that is capable of being transmitted from one brain to another. The meme of Darwin's theory is therefore that essential basis of the idea which is held in common by all brains that understand the theory. The differences in the ways that people represent the theory are then, by definition, not part of the meme. If Darwin's theory can be subdivided into components, such that some people believe component A but not component B, while others believe B but not A, then A and B should be regarded as separate memes. If almost everybody who believes in A also believes in B-if the memes are closely 'linked' to use the genetic term-then it is convenient to lump them together as one meme.
I have talked in elemental terms of suicidal genes for saving the lives of particular numbers of kin of exactly known relatedness. Obviously, in real life, animals cannot be expected to count exactly how many relatives they are saving, nor to perform Hamilton's calculations in their heads even if they had some way of knowing exactly who their brothers and cousins were. In real life, certain suicide and absolute 'saving' of life must be replaced by statistical risks of death, one's own and other people's. Even a third cousin may be worth saving, if the risk to yourself is very small. Then again, both you and the relative you are thinking of saving are going to die one day in any case. Every individual has an 'expectation of life' which an actuary could calculate with a certain probability of error. To save the life of a relative who is soon going to die of old age has less of an impact on the gene pool of the future than to save the life of an equally close relative who has the bulk of his life ahead of him.
Our neat symmetrical calculations of relatedness have to be modified by messy actuarial weightings. Grandparents and grandchildren have, genetically speaking, equal reason to behave altruistically to each other, since they share 1/4 of each other's genes. But if the grandchildren have the greater expectation of life, genes for grandparent to grandchild altruism have a higher selective advantage than genes for grandchild to grandparent altruism. It is quite possible for the net benefit of assisting a young distant relative to exceed the net benefit of assisting an old close relative. (Incidentally, it is not, of course, necessarily the case that grandparents have a shorter expectation of life than grandchildren. In species with a high infant-mortality rate, the reverse may be true.)
To extend the actuarial analogy, individuals can be thought of as lifeinsurance underwriters. An individual can be expected to invest or risk a certain proportion of his own assets in the life of another individual. He takes into account his relatedness to the other individual, and also whether the individual is a 'good risk' in terms of his life expectancy compared with the insurer's own. Strictly we should say 'reproduction expectancy' rather than 'life expectancy', or to be even more strict, 'general capacity to benefit own genes in the future expectancy'. Then in order for altruistic behaviour to evolve, the net risk to the altruist must be less than the net benefit to the recipient multiplied by the relatedness. Risks and benefits have to be calculated in the complex actuarial way I have outlined.
We are survival machines, but 'we' does not mean just people. It embraces all animals, plants, bacteria, and viruses. The total number of survival machines on earth is very difficult to count and even the total number of species is unknown. Taking just insects alone, the number of living species has been estimated at around three million, and the number of individual insects may be a million million million.
Different sorts of survival machine appear very varied on the outside and in their internal organs. An octopus is nothing like a mouse, and both are quite different from an oak tree. Yet in their fundamental chemistry they are rather uniform, and, in particular, the replicators that they bear, the genes, are basically the same kind of molecule in all of us-from bacteria to elephants. We are all survival machines for the same kind of replicator-molecules called DNA-but there are many different ways of making a living in the world, and the replicators have built a vast range of machines to exploit them. A monkey is a machine that preserves genes up trees, a fish is a machine that preserves genes in the water; there is even a small worm that preserves genes in German beer mats. DNA works in mysterious ways.