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A world that can’t learn from itself

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 19, 2017

From Umair Haque, a provocative question: Why Don’t Americans Understand How Poor Their Lives Are?

In London, Paris, Berlin, I hop on the train, head to the cafe — it’s the afternoon, and nobody’s gotten to work until 9am, and even then, maybe not until 10 — order a carefully made coffee and a newly baked croissant, do some writing, pick up some fresh groceries, maybe a meal or two, head home — now it’s 6 or 7, and everyone else has already gone home around 5 — and watch something interesting, maybe a documentary by an academic, the BBC’s Blue Planet, or a Swedish crime-noir. I think back on my day and remember the people smiling and laughing at the pubs and cafes.

In New York, Washington, Philadelphia, I do the same thing, but it is not the same experience at all. I take broken down public transport to the cafe — everybody’s been at work since 6 or 7 or 8, so they already look half-dead — order coffee and a croissant, both of which are fairly tasteless, do some writing, pick up some mass-produced groceries, full of toxins and colourings and GMOs, even if they are labelled “organic” and “fresh”, all forbidden in Europe, head home — people are still at work, though it’s 7 or 8 — and watch something bland and forgettable, reality porn, decline porn, police-state TV. I think back on my day and remember how I didn’t see a single genuine smile — only hard, grim faces, set against despair, like imagine living in Soviet Leningrad.

Haque places the blame on our inability as a society to look outward and learn from ourselves, from history, and from the rest of the world.

So just as Americans don’t get how bad their lives really are, comparatively speaking — which is to say how good they could be — so too Europeans don’t fully understand how good their lives are — and how bad, if they continue to follow in America’s footsteps, austerity by austerity, they could be. Both appear to be blind to one another’s mistakes and successes.

Reading it, I noticed a similarity to Ted Chiang’s essay on the unchecked capitalism of Silicon Valley (which I linked to this morning). Chiang notes that corporations lack insight:

In psychology, the term “insight” is used to describe a recognition of one’s own condition, such as when a person with mental illness is aware of their illness. More broadly, it describes the ability to recognize patterns in one’s own behavior. It’s an example of metacognition, or thinking about one’s own thinking, and it’s something most humans are capable of but animals are not. And I believe the best test of whether an AI is really engaging in human-level cognition would be for it to demonstrate insight of this kind.

Haque is saying that our societies lack insight as well…or at least the will to incorporate that insight into practice.