Everyday Chaos: A book review by Bob Morris

Everyday Chaos: Technology, Complexity, and How We’re Thriving in a New World of Possibility
David Weinberger
Harvard Business Review Press (May 2019)

Welcome to VUCA on steroids

As David Weinberger suggests, “The aim of this book is to reveal a shift that explains many of the changes around us in business, our personal lives, and our institutions…to examine the before and after these changes in particular domains of our lives, even though in most instances we have not yet reached the full ‘after’…[while] we are living through a deep change in our understanding of ourselves and our world.”

As I worked my way through Weinberger’s narrative — one that more resembles an obstacle course (or a mental minefield) than it does a yellow brick road — I realized that many of my ideas about how the world works are based on assumptions that are either obsolete or flat-out wrong. Weinberger cites these: events occur according to laws; it is possible to understand what happens…also why; events can be made to happen by pulling levers; and finally, change is proportional to effect or impact. “As we inch away from each of these four assumptions, perhaps our everyday understanding of how things happen is finally catching up with the way the world actually works, and how scientists have been thinking about it for a while now.” (page 11)

Weinberger goes on to suggest that “we are beginning to see the factors that determine what happens are so complex, so difficult, and so dependent on the finest-grained particularities of situations that to understand them we have had to turn them into stories far simpler than the phenomena themselves.”

In order to control this new paradox, we must first understand it. And I suspect, as Socrates once observed, the more we understand about the world, the more we realize how much we don’t understand.

These are among the passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Weinberger’s coverage:

o Mount Sinai Hospital’s Deep Patient (Pages 1-2)
o How We Think Things Happen (8-11 and 53-55)
o Prediction’s Sweet Spot (20-25)
o Conceptual Models, Working Models (41-43)
o Beyond Explanation: Machine Learning Working Model (53-62)

o Modes of Unanticipation (79-93)
o An Agile Approach to Unpredictable(83-85)
o Platforms of Unanticipation (85-93)
o Coda: Libraries of Unanticipation (97-100 and 104-107)
o Interoperability Is the New Causality (109-119 and 139-142)

o Progress (112-113, 147-148, 151-154, 157-159, and 160-163)
o Possibility (123-144)
o The Shape of Surprise (160-163)
o Coda: What We learn from Things (163-167)
o Morality and Meaning (181-189 and 189-192)

I read this book immediately after reading another, Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI, brilliantly edited by John Brockman. I agree with him that “artificial Intelligence is today’s story — the story behind all other stories. It is the Second Coming and the Apocalypse at the same time: good AI versus evil AI.”

One of the 25 contributors, Daniel D. Dennett, asserts that we don’t need conscious agents with whom to collaborate on AI initiatives. We need intelligent tools. He agrees with Norbert Wiesner that the real danger with AI is “that such machines, though helpless by themselves, may be used by a human being or a block of human beings to increase their control over the rest of the race or that political leaders may attempt to control their populations by means not of machines themselves but through political techniques as narrow and indifferent to human possibility if they had, in fact, been conceived mechanically.”

“So what we are creating,” he adds, ” are not — should not be — conscious humanoid agents but an entirely new sort of entity, rather like oracles, with no conscience, no fear of death, no distracting loves and hates, no personality (but all sorts of foibles and quirks that would no doubt be identified as the ‘personality’ of the system): boxes of truths (if we’re lucky) almost certainly contaminated with a scattering of falsehoods. It will be hard enough learning with them without distracting ourselves with fantasies about the Singularity in which these AIs will enslave us, literally. The human use of human beings will soon be changed — once again — forever, but we can take the tiller and steer between some of the hazards if we take responsibility for our trajectory.”

I agree with Dennett and Weinberger: Whether “everyday chaos” is creatively destructive or constructive — inherently negative or positive — is for us to determine. I presume to include this digression because I see several potentially significant learning opportunities to involve AI as we struggle to understand “further beyond our understanding than we’ve let ourselves believe.”

Thank you, David Weinberger, for putting white caps on gray matter. Everyday Chaos is a brilliant achievement. Bravo!

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