Mind the Post

A bathe in the sea of digital temptation


Where is the productivity growth that we are not able to find? This is a question that economists have been asking themselves with increasing anxiety for thirty years now.

Yet the answer might be dirty simple: just lost in the continuous distractions of our not-well-understood-yet digital lifestyle. Yes, our near sacred reverence to digital gadgetry, the modern holy grail of productivity, might have something to do. And no, I do not mean PokemonGo!

What’s curious is that, although scientific studies have been warning against the negative effects of multitasking for years, business leaders and employers seem to be eager to hire multitasking rock-stars.

Even more curious (to me) is that behind this reflection and the companion infographics, there is an evangelical Christian college in Dayton, Tennessee, United States. Named after William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted a teacher who broke the law by teaching evolution in a public school in 1925, the Bryan College motto is “Christ Above All”, and its faculty members and staff must subscribe to a Statement of Belief which includes that “the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis.”

Digital DistractionsI am not sure if they are targeting millennials as students or infidels, but only a Christian institution could have come up with such a beautiful recommendation:

Create work schedules that establish periods of focused work with small breaks to bathe in the sea of digital temptation.

Productivity works in mysterious ways. Don’t you think so?


Unavoidably Overcomplicated

technology_vs__mother_nature_by_purplestar321This month, a couple of new books elaborate on the nature of technology and our (in)capability to control it.

Samuel Arbesman, a complexity scientist, thinks that our technologies have become hopelessly overcomplicated. For centuries, humans have been creating ever-more complicated systems, and today’s technological complexity might have reached a tipping point:

We already see hints of the endpoint toward which we seem to be hurtling: a world where nearly self-contained technological ecosystems operate outside of human knowledge and understanding.

Computer hardware and software is much more complex that anything that came before it. Quoting Jean-Baptiste Quéru:

Today’s computers are so complex that they can only be designed and manufactured with slightly less complex computers. In turn the computers used for the design and manufacture are so complex that they themselves can only be designed and manufactured with slightly less complex computers. You’d have to go through many such loops to get back to a level that could possibly be re-built from scratch.

How do we respond to all of this technological impenetrability? Arbesman stresses the importance of understanding the complexity behind current technology. When something is so complicated that its behaviour feels magical, we end up resorting to the terminology and solemnity of religion. We cannot simply give up.

Despite all the overcomplication of the systems we vitally depend on, I’m ultimately hopeful that humanity can handle what we have built.

Perhaps, we should adopt a similar attitude to the one we have towards weather:

While we can’t actually control the weather or understand it in all of its nonlinear details, we can predict it reasonably well, adapt to it, and even prepare for it

We need to get better at ‘playing’ simulations of the technological world more generally.

This position would be aligned with Kevin Kelly’s view. He thinks that technological evolution is somewhat inevitable: A dozen “inevitable” trends will drive the next thirty years of digital progress.

I call these metatrends “inevitable” because they are rooted in the nature of technology rather than in the nature of society.

Kelly has been writing for years about the deep connection between technology and life. For Kelly, the “technium” is the evolving organism that our collective machinery comprises, a very complex organism that wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself. We cannot control it. There is a bias in the nature of technology that tilts it in certain directions and not others.

One first impulse when we confront extreme technology surging forward in this digital sphere may be to push back. To stop it, to prohibit it, deny it… To no avail. Banning the inevitable usually backfires.

These forces are trajectories, not destinies…

So complex. Curiously, both books have truly simple titles!


Featured Image: Technology Vs. Mother nature

Facts and Findings

Pray to Potato

Potato JesusNeither aging, lack of skills or resources pose a limitation when the gale of success is blowing at your back.

Cecilia Giménez was in her 80s when she became a celebrity in August 2012. She was trying to restore a damaged “Ecce Homo” created by Spanish painter Elías García Martínez circa 1930, and donated to the Santuario de Misericordia Church in the Spanish town of Borja (Zaragoza). The task proved more difficult than expected, and when authorities went to check on, they found the fresco drastically altered. They initially suspected vandalism, but Cecilia eventually came forward to confess.

On August 21st, 2012, the Spanish Heraldo de Aragón published an article about the botched restoration, and Cecilia was all but crucified. Her failed attempt to restore the fresco was described as the ‘worst restoration ever’.

The once-dignified portrait now resembles a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic,

Potato Jesus attracted international attention and became an online meme. As a result of the worldwide exposure, Cecilia suffered from panic attacks. However, on August 22nd the tables turned. A Facebook group titled Beast Jesus Restoration Society was created, receiving more than 4000 likes in just under two weeks. And a Change.org petition urged officials not to remove Cecilia’s restoration:

El osado trabajo realizado por la espontánea artista en el Ecce Homo del Santuario de la Misericordia de Borja, supone además de un entrañable acto de amor, un inteligente reflejo de la situación política y social de nuestro tiempo. En el cual se pone de manifiesto una sutil crítica a las teorías creacionistas de la Iglesia, a la vez que se cuestiona el surgimiento de nuevos ídolos. El resultado de la intervención combina inteligentemente el expresionismo primitivo de Francisco de Goya, con figuras como Ensor, Munch, Modigliani o el grupo Die Brücke, perteneciente a la corriente artística del expresionismo alemán.

The daring work done by the spontaneous artist in the Ecce Homo Sanctuary of Mercy of Borja, is an endearing act of love, an intelligent reflection about the political and social situation of our time. It reveals a subtle criticism of Church’s creationist theories, while questioning the emergence of new idols. The result of the intervention intelligently combines Francisco de Goya’s primitive expressionism with artists such as Ensor, Munch, Modigliani or the Die Brücke group, belonging to the artistic movement of German Expressionism.

People of Borja immediately realised that the ‘new’ Ecce Homo was doing more for the town than the original one ever did. They printed T-shirts with potato Jesus on them, and local vineyards vied to acquire the rights to use the image on their labels.

Unsurprisingly, a court had to rule about who ‘owned’ the new version of Borja’s Ecce Homo, and decided that proceeds should be split between the hospital foundation that manages the church and Cecilia, who now owns 49 per cent of the copyright.

In a twist of fate, Cecilia’s failed restoration has had an unexpected positive impact on the town of Borja, which has undergone a miraculous recovery thanks to tourism. More than 150,000 tourists has visited the town since august 2012. The story of Cecilia and her unsolicited brushwork has made it into a comic opera, and this week Assumpta Serna and Scott Cleverdon presented a new documentary, Fresco Fiasco, and a museum dedicated to Cecilia Giménez has just opened.

Certainly, God works in mysterious ways. And yes, chance is part of what we may call the mechanics of reality.


Russian Roulette Democracy

uk regions brexit voteYou will find this again and again: a good idea implemented with deleterious consequences. Democracy is a good idea. A Brexit referendum is not. After the relatively unexpected—Leave—result, many voices have raised against a decision of such potential consequence, made without the appropriate checks and balances. Of course, democrat fundamentalists will argue that a referendum is but the essence of democracy. Let me review a few thoughts against this popular misconception.

The idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily “democratic” is a perversion of the term. In “Britain Democratic Failure,” Kenneth Rogoff stresses that modern democracies have evolved systems of checks and balances to protect the interests of minorities and to avoid making uninformed decisions with catastrophic consequences. The greater and more lasting the decision, the higher the hurdles. Has this been the case with Brexit? Not at all.

Does the vote have to be repeated after a year to be sure? No. Does a majority in Parliament have to support Brexit? Apparently not. Did the UK’s population really know what they were voting on? Absolutely not. Indeed, no one has any idea of the consequences, both for the UK in the global trading system, or the effect on domestic political stability.

Perhaps the best proof is that people rushed to Google to understand the meaning of Brexit… the day after the vote took place!

brexit trends 24-7

The result has precipitated a chain of resignations in the party who called for the referendum, notably the first minister, James Cameron—presumably against Brexit—and Boris Johnson—Cameron’s nemesis—. The leave result leaves a (so called) United Kingdom divided in two camps, with the prospect of a minimum majority imposing their “tyranny” to a vast minority. (Of course, it would have been the same had the result been the opposite!)

This is democracy at its worst. Nobody who is rational and pursues a good outcome for his or her country, would have chosen this path. The question is why did they do it?

First things first: For decades, many British politicians have nurtured a cold disdain for Europe; and euroskepticism in the (so far) United Kingdom has become entrenched. Years of recession, job losses, higher costs of living, etc. have not helped. The EU is facing major challenges and in need of reform. In other words, the Brexit referendum has been the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Second, there is no silver bullet to democratic consensus. In his article, Rogoff also wonders whether there is a better way to make these decisions.

I polled several leading political scientists to see whether there is any academic consensus; unfortunately, the short answer is no.

Of course, after Kenneth Arrow we know that there is not a way of consistently aggregating individual preference patterns into a widely accepted collective choice. However, that does not mean we cannot think about and try to improve the tools that our democracies use:

It is still a heresy to ask whether elections, in their current form, are a badly outmoded technology for converting the collective will of the people into governments and policies.

And given the tough decisions we are facing all over the place today, I would say this is more than urgent!

Third and more worryingly, although referendums are used in representative democracies, dictators are also and perhaps much keener on them.

After invading Austria in 1938, Hitler asked the Austrians in a plebiscite whether they wanted to be annexed by Germany. It was a choice they could not really refuse. Despots like to be backed by plebiscites, because they do not only pretend to represent the People; they are the People.

A referendum is not necessarily the best way to tap into people’s rational faculties or expertise. A referendum reduces complexity to absurd simplicity. They have to be administered with a pinch of salt. Referendums are about gut feelings, and therefore can be easily manipulated by demagogues, which is why demagogues like them. Has the British conservative party been playing demagoguery?

According to Josiah Ober(1), democracy—the power of the people—originally referred to “power” in the sense of “capacity to do things”, not “majority rule”

In modernity, democracy is often construed as being concerned, in the first instance, with a voting rule for determining the will of the majority. The power of the people is thus the authority to decide matters by majority rule. This reductive definition leaves democracy vulnerable to well-known social choice dilemmas, including Downs’ rational ignorance and Arrow’s impossibility theorem.

In Athens, collective wisdom produced useful knowledge to solve complex problems. Athens outperformed its city-state rivals at least in part because of its citizens’ superior capacity to produce new solutions:

The city-state of Athens, from the late sixth through the late fourth century B.C. is a case study of a participatory epistemic democracy: an intensively-studied historical example of a community whose remarkable success can, at least in part, be explained by Page’s two factors of sophistication and diversity.

“Majority rule” was an intentionally pejorative diminution, urged by democracy’s Greek critics.

Institutional structures such as democracies and markets rests substantially on the emergence of collective wisdom(2). To a large extent, the competitive advantage of individual firms and corporations also rests on it. However, collective wisdom requires a lot more than an inert pool of people. Collective wisdom cannot be taken for granted. It should be seen as a potential outcome, as something that can occur when the right conditions hold, but one that is in no way guaranteed.

For collective wisdom to emerge, we need to understand how to engineer it. And if we do not see more innovation in the social technologies that support our free society, it is not because of the lack of ideas, or the lack of means. Why then?

Maybe because real democracy is too uncomfortable for the established authorities, and because the very same technologies that would underpin real democracy, can be cheaply used to create a false sense of democracy, a sort of democracy theatre. Maybe it is plain resistance to change. Or maybe because alpha politicians like to play Russian roulette, after all.

The problem is that, once in a while, there is a bullet in the chamber. And bullets like Brexit are making us all poorer.


(1) Ober, Josiah. ‘The Original Meaning of “democracy”: Capacity to Do Things, Not Majority Rule’. Constellations 15, no. 1 (2008): 3–9.

(2) Hong, Lu, and Scott E Page. ‘Some Microfoundations of Collective Wisdom’. Collective Wisdom, 2008, 56–71.

Mind the Post

Diagnosing the Undiagnosable

Sluggish Economic Growth - MankiwLooking to this chart, one would say that the vital signs of US economy are fading. This is not good, but what’s even worse is that economists have no idea of what’s wrong with the economy. Gregory Mankiw puts forward five possible theories here:

  1. Statistical mirage (it’s the measurement device what’s not working)
  2. Hangover from the crisis
  3. Lawrence H. Summers’s Secular stagnation
  4. Robert Gordon’s Slower innovation
  5. Policy missteps

One sickness, five diagnoses. Time to go visit Dr. Gregory House!

Facts and Findings

How you think matters

EIU Index 2015In an article for New Yorker, “The Mistrust of Science”, Atul Gawande argues that science is a social enterprise characterized by an intricate division of cognitive labor, and that, for all its flaws, it is perhaps the most powerful collective enterprise in human history.

In a moment, in which—according to the Economist Intelligence Unit—an increased sense of personal and societal anxiety and insecurity in the face of diverse perceived risks and threats is undermining democracy, Gawande’s final remark is worth serious consideration: how we think matters (emphasis added):

Even more than what you think, how you think matters. The stakes for understanding this could not be higher than they are today, because we are not just battling for what it means to be scientists. We are battling for what it means to be citizens.