Making a difference

Eric Dale: Do you know I built a bridge once?

Will Emerson: Sorry?

Eric Dale: A bridge.

Will Emerson: No, I didn't know that.

Eric Dale: I was an engineer by trade.

Will Emerson: Hmmm... hmmm

 Eric Dale: It went from Dilles Bottom, Ohio to Moundsville, West Virginia. It spanned nine hundred and twelve feet above the Ohio River.

Twelve thousand people used this thing a day. And it cut out thirty-five miles of driving each way between Wheeling and New Martinsville.

That's a combined 847,000 miles of driving a day. Or 25,410,000 miles a month. And 304,920,000 miles a year. Saved.

Now I completed that project in 1986, that's twenty-two years ago. So over the life of that one bridge, that's 6,708,240,000 miles that haven't had to be driven. At, what, let's say fifty miles an hour. So that's, what, 134,165,800 hours, or 559,020 days.

So that one little bridge has saved the people of those communities a combined 1,531 years of their lives not wasted in a fucking car. One thousand five hundred and thirty-one years.

Dialogue from 'Margin Call'

Constellating

We chose to know more about less and less. We may have expanded what we as a society know - but it was at the price of no single individual being able to truly know it all.

Now we obviously require specialized experts (as opposed to dilettantes) to solve specific problems [...] Even though the information storage capacity in our brains is vast, we eventually bump up against what we can truly understand - or we just can’t hold all the relevant knowledge in our heads.

[...] machines can help, acting as partners in generalism [...] As knowledge grows, we must increasingly rely on computers. This is not a new insight; in 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote the seminal “As We May Think” essay in The Atlantic describing the need for a machine:

But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers — conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial…

The difficulty seems to be… not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

The problem of hidden knowledge continues to grow. And now we have the Internet, and search, and big data which both surface, and hide, knowledge. As a way of addressing this problem of growing knowledge, Bush proposed a “memex” device, a type of rudimentary web browser.

[Samuel Arbesman]
Let’s Bring The Polymath — and the Dabblers — Back 

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I have my own problems with 'hidden knowledge'.

My music collection is the first case in point. Because it has become so easy to amass large quantities of music I now have a (digital) record collection that extends beyond my ability to interact with it effectively. I find myself having to come up with 'ways in' to it; methods by which I can access those songs that otherwise will never get played. These include playlists, shuffle mode, and limiting my access through arbitrarily defined boundaries (such as only playing artists that begin with the letter 'A'). It is too big; too complex.

This blog offers another example. As I write, there are a total of 526 posts on foreverbecoming. I do my best to link posts up to one another; and in so doing create threads - or constellations - that make (to my mind) greater sense out of the information.

These threads act in much the same way as a playlist in itunes. By linking things up - gathering separate elements together to make larger wholes - we create a higher, more abstract layer on top of that which already exists. I see this as akin to building a pyramid, where every subsequent layer of blocks gets larger and fewer in number.

It culminates in a single block at the top - the capstone - which is akin to a universal binding truth (such as the golden rule, "harm no one, help others as much as you can"). A true capstone is something that can in some way encapsulate everything beneath it, albeit in a very general way. It contains no details. I'm not sure what the capstone of foreverbecoming is, although I think the golden rule is as good as any. Maybe it is something like "L O V E."

The process of linking posts to each other is very similar to the process of creating constellations. It is also similar to a dot-the-dot puzzle, albeit one with many dots and no numbers. Essentially, I am using specifics to get at generalities. Every star is a picture - a constellation - in itself; but by joining stars to one another we gain access to a new level of understanding.

But inevitably posts get lost. Many of the posts on this blog will have no "Related posts:-" They are 'hidden knowledge', lost until they can be weaved into a bigger picture. They are like those towns and villages that haven't yet been linked up to the arteries of the modern world; those that aren't near a motorway, and don't have a train station. They get no traffic, and have terrible hit-counts. Advertisers go nowhere near them.

Looked at from that angle, perhaps they would prefer to stay hidden after all ... ☺
 
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Deep vs Shallow


We summarize these two 'zones' of characteristic as the diligent and the dilettante.

Diligence refers to the focused, assiduous character of the entrepreneur, driven by a single-minded passion and purpose. Dilettante refers to the impulsive, intuitive and opportunistic aspects of entrepreneurship. Importantly, it is the transition from dilettante to diligent which converts innovative ideas into entrepreneurial applications.

It follows that the effective entrepreneur or entrepreneurial enterprise must be at once flighty, amateurish, naive, flitting from idea to project without fixing for too long and drifting on free of commitment; until, when they happen upon and recognize something of particular interest, they become attentive, assiduous and persevering.

The contrast between breadth of references and depth of attention recalls Edward De Bono's distinction between 'lateral' and 'vertical' thinking, and the contrast between 'divergent' and convergent' creative processes [...] Hence, the diligent-dilettante dichotomy is rooted in creativity theory.


Arthur Koestler emphasized that creativity requires 'mental cross-fertilisation.' Howard Gruber describes creativity operating across a 'network of enterprises', while Sawyer notes a creative capacity to switch between fields or domains. Through these multiple contacts, creative connections can be made and new ideas emerge. Creative 'field-switching' fits with our description of the 'dilettante' above.

At the same time, creativity theory also emphasizes the importance of domain-specific expertise, a laboriously acquired repertoire of craft, experience and knowledge which allows creative impulses to take root and allows creative people to polish and refine their ideas into a completed form.

[...] The dilettante must also be diligent - and creative connections between fields must be channelled into expertise and knowledge within a designated field.


[...] work within a domain, but also think outside of it.

[...] becoming too diligent or too dilettante [...] can lead to limiting characteristics: turning recognizers into dreamers, developers into tinkerers, and so on.

[Chris Bilton & Stephen Cummings]
Creative Strategy: Reconnecting Business and Innovation, p. 121-23

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The dilettante is adept at taking everything out of context. This can be productive certainly, when the contexts are false. But it is impossible for the dilettante to form new concepts from mere fragments.

[Florian Havemann, as quoted by Karl Heinz Bohrer]
'The Three Cultures' in Observations on "the Spiritual Situation of the Age", p. 149

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To derive sustained pleasure from consumption, diversity is essential. Diversity, on the other hand, is an obstacle to successful self-realization, as it prevents one from getting into the later and more rewarding stages.

[...] the way the loss of opportunities for self-realization plays out is not through a paucity of options but a surfeit of them, all of which we feel capable of pursuing only to a shallow degree before we get frustrated or bored.

[Things that encourage a shallow level of participation may be] a symptom of some larger social refusal to embrace difficulty.

Consumerism [...] keeps us well supplied with stuff and seems to enrich our identities by allowing us to become familiar with a wide range of phenomena -  a process that the internet has accelerated immeasurably [...] But this comes at the expense of developing any sense of mastery of anything, eroding over time the sense that mastery is possible, or worth pursuing.

[...] Novelty trumps sustained focus, whose rewards are not immediately felt and may never come at all [...] if our focus is mistakenly fixed on something ultimately worthless. Rather than taking advantage of that "increasingly marginal utility" that comes with practicing something difficult, our will to dilettantism develops momentum.

[...] Dilettantism is a perfectly rational response to the hyperaccessibility of stuff available to us in the market, all of which imposes on us time constraints where there was once material scarcity. These time constraints become more itchy the more we recognize how much we are missing out on (thanks to ever more invasive marketing efforts, often blended in to the substance of the material we are gathering for self-realization).

We opt instead for “diversity,” and begin setting about to rationalize the preferability of novelty even further, abetted by the underlying message of much our culture of disposability.

Concentration takes on more of the qualities of work—it becomes a disutility rather than an end vis-a-vis the stuff we acquire. If something requires us to concentrate, it costs us more and forces us to sacrifice more of the stuff we might otherwise consume. In other words, consumerism makes the will and ability to concentrate seem a detriment to ourselves.

[Rob Horning]
'The alluring danger of dilettantism'

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In direct opposition to the trend in mainstream culture toward greater specialization, we need to actively promote the generalist - the one who sees connections and makes links across different disciplines. In this regard, one of the most hopeful trends is the increasing respect for more feminine values and ways of thinking.

[Helena Norberg-Hodge]
Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, p.189

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Related posts:-
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In-between 
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Rooted in blood and soil 
Familiar Territory

Onwards and Upwards

Extropianism, also referred to as the philosophy of Extropy, is an evolving framework of values and standards for continuously improving the human condition. Extropians believe that advances in science and technology will some day let people live indefinitely.

Originated by a set of principles developed by Dr. Max More, The Principles of Extropy, extropian thinking places strong emphasis on rational thinking and practical optimism. According to More, these principles "do not specify particular beliefs, technologies, or policies". Extropians share an optimistic view of the future, expecting considerable advances in computational power, life extension, nanotechnology and the like. Many extropians foresee the eventual realization of indefinite lifespans, and the recovery, thanks to future advances in biomedical technology or mind uploading, of those whose bodies/brains have been preserved by means of cryonics.

Extropianism
 
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Transhumanism is an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

Transhumanist thinkers study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging and hypothetical technologies that could overcome fundamental human limitations, as well as study the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies. They predict that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label "posthuman."

Outline of Transhumanism

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The anti-aging movement is a social movement devoted to eliminating or reversing aging, or reducing the effects of it. A substantial portion of the attention of the movement is on the possibilities for life extension, but there is also interest in techniques such as cosmetic surgery which ameliorate the effects of aging rather than delay or defeat it.

Two popular proponents of the anti-aging movement include Ray Kurzweil, who thinks humanity can defeat aging through the advance of technology, and Aubrey De Grey, who thinks the human body is a very complicated machine and thus, can be repaired indefinitely. Other scientists and significant contributors to the movement include molecular biologists, geneticists, and biomedical gerontologists such as Gary Ruvkun, Cynthia Kenyon, and Arthur D. Levinson.

Anti-aging movement

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According to transhumanist thinkers, a posthuman is a hypothetical future being "whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards."

Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or a symbiosis of human and artificial intelligence, or uploaded consciousnesses, or the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound technological augmentations to a biological human, i.e. a cyborg

Key to this posthuman practice is the ability to fluidly change perspectives and manifest oneself through different identities.

Posthuman

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