Forgive me – technical & time issues have delayed the rest of these posts, so what was a liveish blog has now become a lateish blog. But plenty to make up for it in this post.
Plenty of the sessions of Thinking Digital weren’t really that digital, to be honest. But there was a distinct theme running through several of them – the irrational, emotional and sensual sides of ourselves, and the struggle to rationalise and co-opt them.
First up – Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine. While his politics are a little wonky (including a slightly bizarre rant about the world financial system), the majority of his talk was an interesting discussion of what makes people believe in the paranormal, in conspiracies, aliens, the Illuminati, Holocaust denial and all the rest. It’s sorely tempting to dismiss them as mere cranks, but Shermer did an admirably level-headed job of using what we know about the brain and evolutionary explanation.
What he calls “patternicity” (but I think is more usually called “apophenia“, one of my favourite words), the tendency to patterns in random noise is one tenet, which he explained is a side-effect of our ability to spot threats and predators. Then there’s “agenticity” (which sort-of ties in with anthropocentrism, the cognitive bias that humans (or some other species) must be the cause of observed phenomena, a side-effect of the development of empathy and a theory of mind. The two combine to make it easy for a belief that random events are actually orchestrated by powerful unseen entities. It’s a compelling explanation, although it still covers perhaps too easy and irrelevant a target – only a tiny minority of people holding irrational viewpoints are utter wingnuts. The more dangerous kind of irrational person, the mainstream kind like climate-change deniers, armchair general liberal interventionists, subprime derivatives traders and religious fundamentalists are influenced by more than cognitive kinks such as these – external factors such as money, power and greed – although cognitive biases of course play a part.
From trying to explain the irrational mental consequences of our evolution to exploiting them for fun and profit. Mostly fun, but also a lot of profit (we’re talking billions of dollars here). Yes, it’s the perfume trade. Chandler Burr, the New York Times’ perfume critic (yes, such a post does exist) gave us an entertaining and illuminating talk about the world of scent, a subject I know bog-all about (so forgive me if I get his words wrong here).
Our sense of smell (detecting molecules from the ambient environment) is perhaps our oldest, and yet at the same time while we’ve seen every colour we’ll ever see in our lives, we will never be able to do the same for smell. Artificial molecules will bring us new smells and experiences, and the course of the perfume industry’s history was shifted irreversibly when they were introduced. Chandler gave an illuminating talk into how it was both complex science – experimenting with different aromas and combining – and yet also art, likening movements in the industry to movements such as Impressionism and Abstract Art in the world of painting.
Interspersed in this talk was a series of smell tests of individual scents – we all got given individual strips to sniff – that are combined together into a full perfume. Chandler was good at explaining how each scent can be regarded as a note, and how you hear a note depends on the context it’s put in and the accompanying notes and tones – one chemical which is a component of artificial strawberry can equally be used in a different combination to form steak. The final sample we smelled was the final product the components were used in, and it was amazing to be able to pick apart the different scents thanks to the talk we had. The perfume in question was Silver Mark by Jack Black (no not that one) which was awesome – spicy and woody and probably not to everyone’s taste.
A different spin on tech for fun and profit was the final talk by Caleb Chung, toy inventor. While this sounds like the most awesome job in the world it seemed to be initially a tale of continued rejection and perseverance, of being forced to keep budgets low and ideas neutered. Chung toiled for years before making a big break with the Furby – which in fact he was almost apologetic for; it seemed he didn’t wager how much of a global phenomenon the simple, cute but above all their interactivity – interacting with their environment in a way that might seem crude now but was apparently enchanting then.
Having sold 50 billion (or so) Furbys, Caleb became a made man, an experience he likened to a death in the family, as it left him without purpose for the first time in his life. On the plus side it gave him free reign to do what he liked, and so after much work he came up with Pleo – an animatronic robot dinosaur with an advanced AI that reacts and learns from its surroundings. He brought one out to play, and I was astonished. I knew it was just a device of gears and rubber, but it really did accurately simulate a baby animal which could walk, cry for ‘food’ (its favourite was banknotes, ironic given the huge R&D costs), climb and react to human contact with (pseudo-)emotional behaviour.
Perhaps what made this even more like something out of Bladerunner was the fact that it’s not just humans that react empathetically to it. One Pleo owner shot this video (fast forward to 1:40) while taking it to an aquarium – one of the attendants there said they had never seen behaviour like that from the dolphins before. It’s a rare occasion that I’ve been both gobsmacked and smiling, but this video was one of them:
Sadly, Pleo’s manufacturers went bankrupt earlier this year, perhaps hamstrung by the device’s high cost. It’s a device perhaps a little too advanced for its time, too expensive for mass adoption like the Furby, which is a pity as they were finding out new and interesting uses for it beyond the toy world – such as being the ideal pet for those with dementia or mental difficulties who need companionship yet also unable to take care of a real animal. Perhaps when the cost of the parts and manufacturing come down a bit, we’ll see a second generation of Pleos being mass-adopted, and with it an interesting set of questions on the ethics of artificial pets (do they have rights like animals) and what it means to be empathetic.
These examples of using science and technology to understand – and where possible – provoke human irrationality and emotion – were perhaps the most eye-opening and enjoyable aspect of Thinking Digital for me. Partly because it’s a field I’ve dabbled in but can’t claim to even be a skilled amateur at, so tricky is it to grasp. Even comparative failures like Pleo involve a level of understanding of human psychology way above my own, and as for being able to critique and create perfume – forget it. But it’s good to know one’s deficiencies, it’s the best spur to learning we have.
Coming up – more geekery, the future of media, and something that provoked my fear of growing old. In the meantime there’s also a post about a subject I do know a fair bit on the work blog as well.