Seed Diversity in Humans

This one is for Rose Thomas.


Also, this one is gonna be a very rough sketch. It’s too important a topic for me to leave in such bad shape, so I’m going to try a new experiment: what you’re reading is a draft, and I’m going to come back and revisit this essay, hopefully several times, hopefully with more refined thoughts in the future. If you folks want to help refine my thoughts through discussion, I would love to discuss this stuff.

I had lunch with my favorite former boss today. We talked about managing the news. In my work, we like to blame results on algorithms, claiming that they’re neutral to human decisions. My old boss was quick to point out the idea that every algorithmic decision is actually an editorial decision, and that a lot of my job, which is ostensibly neutral, is not and cannot possibly be neutral. Every day, when I choose the ways I work with the news data, I’m implicitly choosing how the news data should look. It can’t be escaped.

We were also talking about the unhealthiness of news reading in general. We’re both addicted to news and we both recognize it to be like cigarettes, but he was adamant that I was doing a goodish thing working in this space.

Anyway, that’s all mulch for the main topic of the post.

We were talking about siloing people, either by political inclination, or by interest. What if people want to only see conservative or liberal news? What if they want to mostly see celebrity news, or no politics, or no sports? Isn’t it an editorial decision, he asked, to force users to read a diverse sample of things?

It definitely is.

Of course, I see that there are a lot of problems in the world, right now, which come from people being shown news that fits their political inclinations and reinforces their political and cultural beliefs. There’s not a lot of upside, in my mind, to showing people only the politics they want to see.

It’s more complicated to say whether it’s good or bad to show people things that suit their specific interests. Say some people want to ignore politics and only read sports news. I see some of the same problems here, but less so. People being shown different realities in the political space will inevitably clash, because they’re competing for control and sharing power. People with different interests entirely (politics versus sports versus celebrities) are so different that they could maybe just ignore each other. I also see some health benefits to siloing by interest; a person who pays less attention to politics is in general a more well adjusted and happier person.

Ultimately, I can’t decide if it’s good or bad for you, an individual, to be siloed… but honestly, I don’t care. What I care about is the aggregate, statistical level. I care very much that 80% of people care about politics, and 20% don’t. That’s what matters to me.

Without the 80% who care, many important fights will be de-facto settled by special interests, and probably not to the benefit of humanity at large. So the 80% are necessary to ensure that various fights go well for everyone.

But for each big fight, someday, that fight will be over. Someday, gay rights will be a given, and opposing them will be as unpopular as racism. At that time, we will need the minority, the 20% who never really invested in the fight, to teach us how to let go of it.

I’ve come to realize that I’m going to be fighting against organized religion for my entire life. I have tried to hide from this, but religion has hurt me too much, and the fight matters too much to me. So, despite my not really liking it, I will always grapple with organized religion and the religious.

But I have an atheist friend for whom this is all irrelevant. Not like the rest of you, not like the rest of us. He’s not recovering from religion. He’s not culturally aware of religion in his bones. It was just totally irrelevant to him for his entire childhood. His wife likes to say he doesn’t even realize how it bothers the rest of us.

If I parody a religious song, there’s some antipathy in what I’m doing. It’s a dig back at some people who hurt me in the past. If he does it, it’s innocent, about the same as parodying ancient greek culture. It’s empty and unthreatening to him.

I will never have that, but I wish I could. I hope my grandchildren are like that.

This leads me back to an older, more general thought: I want seed diversity in human ideas. There’s not a single idea I can think of that I would crush from the mind of mankind. Not one. Not the nazis, even. I have a blanket belief that, beyond my ability to decide individual good and bad ideas, the whole messy lot of them bouncing off each other leads us to create many good things.

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