Friday, January 8, 2010

Make Yourself Scarce

In an Edge article (via the indefatigable Arts and Letters Daily), Clay Shirky writes the following:

It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race, a misfortune because surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.

On a visceral level this is easy to quibble with--scarcity of food, medical care, or security can "break" bodies, not just conceptions, but on a spiritual or informational level it rings true. Scarcity is the mother of beauty and desire, whereas plenitude, whereas it intoxicates, also cheapens. And I think this effect interacts with temperament, such that some experience it rather more intensely than others.

Of course, this insight, such as it is, merely rephrases the law of supply and demand on a psychological level and therefore is itself an example of redundancy and "surplus." Perhaps there is neither exception to nor escape from the law of dimishing returns.

Isn't this why childhood is felt so intensely, because experience itself remains relatively scarce at tender ages? If it is true, as Shirky and many others seem to feel, that we live in an unprecedented time (whether because of information overload, the 65-year-old threat of nuclear holocaust, or the point of no return of environmental degradation), then perhaps this century will be the coming-of-age of humanity, for better or worse.

I remember once reading a remark by the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips that adolescence is the time in which one decides whether life is worth living. I'm not sure that I agree with that at all, but one hopes in adolescence to achieve a certain critical mass of experience, such that one at least has a good sense of what living entails, and crucially, what it it might entail in the future. Arguably one's susceptibility to deep surprise decreases in proportion to maturity. In that sense adulthood whether of a person or a civilization is a kind of denouement.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hard Truths

Finally, a position on antidepressants that manages to be both blunt and nuanced. Jonathan Rottenberg, Ph. D. at Psychology Today, discussing recent meta-analyses of antidepressants, conveys the unfortunate news: the primary issue with the treatment of depression is not access, but rather the very limited effectiveness of our treatments.

I've seen many patients who, having been on antidepressants perhaps five or ten years previously, say something like, "But I'm sure newer and better drugs are coming out all the time." At this point I have to resist the temptation to blurt out, "No! They're not!" The menu of options has certain grown bigger as compared to 10 or 15 years ago, but not necessarily better. And then there are those sexual side effects...None of this is a counsel of despair, but in general expectations of antidepressants have been out of control for some time now.

All of this is true as well of medications for anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and substance abuse. Yet the temptation is often to throw the kitchen sink at these disorders when nothing seems to work. Doctors used to be notoriously reluctant to be honest with patients with cancer or some other terminal diagnosis. Even when everything has been tried with a given patient, I think that in psychiatry there may be a similar reluctance to speak what sometimes is the truth: "I don't know that I can help you." The difference is that in psychiatry there is no pathology report or CT scan demonstrating that a patient is in fact beyond help. In psychiatry it is merely...a feeling one gets.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

God By Committee

From Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City:

"Simulated worlds theory says that computing power is inevitably going to rise to a level where it's possible to create a simulation of an entire universe, in every detail, and populated with little simulated beings, something like Biller's avatars, who sincerely believe they're truly alive. If you were in one of these simulated universes you'd never know it. Every sensory detail would be as complete as the world around us, the world as we find it."
"Sure," said Perkus. "Everybody knows that." He tried to dismiss or encompass Oona's description before she could complete it. "It's common knowledge we could be living in a gigantic computer simulation unawares. I think science established that decades ago, for crying out loud. Your Junrow was--huh!--behind the curve on that one."
"Right, right," said Oona slyly. "But here's the point. If we agree that the odds are overwhelming that it's already happened, then we're just one of innumerable universes living in parallel, a series of experiments just to see how things will develop. You know, whether we'll end up destroying ourselves with nuclear weapons, or become a giant hippie commune, or whatever. There might be trillions of these simulations going on at once."
"Why couldn't we be the original?" I asked.
"We could be," said Oona. "But the odds aren't good. You wouldn't want to bet on it."

This is an old philosophical musing, akin to life as a dream and vice versa, but why is it at once so compelling and so idle? It shows both the potentially maddening limits of our knowledge and the total lack of practical implications for these limits. If it could somehow be shown that our universe is in fact a virtual simulation, this would not, and should not, change anything about what we do. This thought experiment also undermines our now millenia-old assumption that God is singular...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Next Big Thing?

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."


David Carr in the New York Times celebrates the still (to me) mystifying Twitter, going so far--perhaps slightly tongue in cheek here--as to deem it the cyberspace equivalent of plumbing, something that far from being faddish, will become second nature to all but the most benighted among us. The power of Twitter? Access to information, but not just any information, rather, fresh information, what is happening now.

If people can be divided into Platonists and Aristotelians, or hedgehogs and foxes, then perhaps they can be divided into those who crave information and those who crave wisdom. The former view life as an engineering project--if we could ever have adequate data and organization, we could develop the promised land. The latter view the problem as failing to make use of the information we already have, perhaps even a universal "datum" that we have lost sight of or can't seem to fully appreciate.

Is life more of a moral or a technical challenge, or is this a false dichotomy? The technophiles are forever anticipating the next big thing(s), whereas the moralists await the once and future "thing." (Or perhaps people can be divided into those who relish dichotomies and those who don't).