Is technology a good thing?

In a New York Times Opinion blog, We Are Merging With Robots. That’s a Good Thing, professor Andy Clark outlined some of the realities of this technological world. The first bullet point had me thinking:

Artificial intelligences already outperform us at many tasks and are now able to train themselves to reach competencies (in restricted domains such as chess or Go) that we can barely comprehend.

Artificial intelligence can be alarming because we can barely comprehend it. Our brains are magical in all sorts of ways but we just can't compete with artificial intelligence when it comes down to board games.

But most of the time we forget the world itself is more complex than us too. The world can outperform any individual person. We constantly create and use things we barely understand. Why isn't this alarming? Is it a good thing, always?

Some reminders to focus on

Most of this evening, I spent researching Parisian and Portuguese hotels. I'll be going on holiday in less than two weeks and it needed to get done, so time ran out to write something good.

So here's just a few good reminders that attention is required for ideas to grow:

If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.
It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.
Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.
— David Foster Wallace

The surprising science of happiness

I've been trying to meditate again. And it's funny how easy it is to drop into new habits, but the idea of sitting still for five whole minutes, training your mind not to do the thing it's done just about all of your waking life is still so rough.

In thinking about the mind as a trainable muscle, I found myself back on Dan Gilbert's 2004 TED talk, The surprising science of happiness. It's one of my favorites. And even though I've seen it a dozen times, something about the lessons really hit me today. I think I finally understood more about the power of subjective, synthetic happiness.

Gilbert put it in perspective with the scale of the world:

What are these terms? Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. And in our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind.

Why do we have that belief? Well, it’s very simple. What kind of economic engine would keep churning if we believed that not getting what we want could make us just as happy as getting it? With all apologies to my friend Matthieu Ricard, a shopping mall full of Zen monks is not going to be particularly profitable, because they don’t want stuff enough.

Being happy without the desires of our consumer culture seems to clash with the wonderful progress our society has done doing our work. Without the need to buy things, we'd definitely have less of a need to work on things. It's a weird balance that no one can put their finger on.

While reading Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, I know I'll get to the idea of the collective brain. Something about our progress and idea sex with one another is making the world a better place by tons of markers, but to what end? 

I like to think we don't know and we might not ever. The idea could be just to be. And it makes me think of Ferriss' 4-Hour Work Week, and a quote that always calms me down when I think I need to figure out some grand purpose:

The truth is this: those thousands of lives you save could contribute to a famine that kills millions, or that one bush in Bolivia that you protect could hold the cure for cancer.