Random finds (2016, week 17) — On minimal viable behaviors, work as problem-solving, and the Renaissance ‘bottega’
Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking over the last week.
A Framework of Experimental Habit Formation
“One of the key challenges of living and working in the future will be continuous learning and experimentation,” Tiago Forte writes. On ribbonfarm, he proposes a framework for guiding these efforts that is both feasible and focused on the individual: experimental habit formation. Forte believes it can help resolve one of the fundamental paradoxes of modern life: how to balance our need for stability and routine with our thirst for novelty and exploration.
“Change comes from new habits, from acting as if, from experiencing the inevitable discomfort of becoming.” — Seth Godin
According to Forte, habits are good vehicles for behavioral experimentation because they are MVBs or Minimum Viable Behaviors, each with a clear beginning, middle, and end (cue, behavior, reward), making them easy to define and identify when they appear. They are also well-suited to testing hypotheses because they can be measured as binary: did it/didn’t do it. “They are discrete and disposable, with low barriers to entry and exit,” Forte writes. “Their time-series, repeating nature lends itself well to teasing out confounding influences: circumstances from willpower, time from location, episodic from continuous. Lastly, habits are famously difficult to create and sustain; yet every person maintains many habits, and they come and go all the time. This paradox is a strong hint that they flourish only as organic, emergent patterns. Since emergence is hard to fake, this gives us a high standard of success in our experiments.”
There is a limit to how many times someone can fail and ‘try, try again’ before their faith in their own abilities starts to erode.
Which brings us to the second question: why is it necessary or beneficial to frame new habits as experiments? Forte sees self-experimentation as an excellent method for developing a scientific sensibility in the pursuit of self-knowledge. It relies on a behavior that most people already perform in some capacity themselves, and focuses on things that every person cares about — their personal circumstances and lifestyle. By relaxing the traditional requirements of population-sized clinical science, we lose universal validity, reliability, and replicability. But we gain a series of powerful benefits in our pursuit of self-improvement.
One of these benefits is that an experimental approach limits the risk to one’s sense of self-efficacy, which is actually the single greatest barrier to behavior change. “There is a limit to how many times someone can fail and ‘try, try again’ before their faith in their own abilities starts to erode. Discrete experiments give you more attempts by turning the fundamental attribution error to your advantage: containing failure to a particular experiment, while taking general credit for successes,” Forte writes. “Living an experimental lifestyle is an infinite game: the goal is not to win, but to keep playing. These aren’t just n=1 experiments; they are t=∞ experiments.”
Forte believes there is also a deeper promise of experimental habit formation: it provides a way of acting on possible futures without risking too much in the present. It addresses the fundamental tension — between routine and novelty, stability and exploration — by giving us just enough structure to feel comfortable dancing along the frontier between them. Like a deep-sea exploration vessel, it allows us to roam the ocean depths in shorts and t-shirts, and once in a while discover something remarkable.
What if we defined work as problem-solving?
“They say work is disappearing or at least massively changing because of technological advancement. Many organizations and individuals are struggling to find ways to adapt to rapid digitization with visions of the near future alternate between the dystopia of mass unemployment and the utopia of pure leisure. Could there be a third alternative? Could redefining the concepts that surround work and intelligent human action create new possibilities for value creation and meaningful human life?” Kati Saarikivi writes in Human intelligence and the abundance of work.
“Work exists,” she writes, “because there are people with problems that need to be solved, needs that require fulfilling and questions that beckon answers. Importantly, work exists because humans as a species are social. We wish to be relevant and important to other people, we come together to attain what we cannot alone. Therefore, work will exist for as long as there are people with problems and questions on this earth. This means that work is certainly not disappearing and in fact at its core perpetual. Working, however, meaning the ways in which the questions at the core of work are answered, and the problems generating work solved, keeps constantly changing and ever will. Why? Because ongoing social and technological development keep redefining what is ‘intelligent human action’.”
This intelligent human action is always contextual and ultimately socially determined. It’s the combination of human cognition and skill, the tools we have at our disposal, and the social attribution of meaning and value. Smart organizations are not only aware of the importance of these three areas, Saarikivi explains, they also see them as complementarity.
The human aspect is often overlooked, even though it is precisely through humanness that people create most value.
Many work organizations however, are only focusing on keeping up with the advancement of tools, often at the expense of the individual. But the most important human work requires higher-order cognition and skills, such as learning, creative thinking, flexibility and contextual thought, and most importantly, most persistently, the skills that permit fruitful interaction, like empathy. “It may be that algorithms can in a sense be creative and are able to learn some things as efficiently as humans,” Saarikivi writes, but there is an important distinction between humans and machines: the way that humans understand emotions requires a conscious self. The way that human creativity and learning is valuable is through the conscious, experiencing self. At least until (and if) AI becomes conscious, humans will be needed for connecting on the level of consciousness, for empathy that is experiencing and modeling other’s experiences as one’s own.
Saarikivi concludes her excellent post by saying that “the rapid development of our digital tools opens up new possibilities for the evolution of intelligent action at an astounding pace. It requires alertness, curiosity and a flexible learning mindset from work organizations to keep up with the change. Amidst technological learning, the human aspect is however often overlooked and the capacities that organizations have for understanding human cognition are subpar, even though it is precisely through humanness that people create most value. What is needed is better understanding of the complementarity of the human, the machine and the social, of the basis of intelligent human action. In any time, in the middle of any technological development, a human-centered approach is the key to stability and abundance.”
A bit more …
“Coworking spaces are on the rise, from Google’s ‘Campus’ in London to NextSpace in California. Much has been made of these shared workspaces as a brand-new idea, one that barely existed 10 years ago. But the way they function reminds me of a very old idea: the Renaissance ‘bottega’ (workshop) of 15th-century Florence, in which master artists were committed to teaching new artists, talents were nurtured, new techniques were at work, and new artistic forms came to light with artists competing among themselves but also working together,” Piero Formica writes in The Innovative Coworking Spaces of 15th-Century Italy.
These bottegas had three major selling points, according to Formica: turning ideas into action, fostering dialogue, and facilitating the convergence of art and science:
“Facilitating the convergence of art and science. While often remembered as primarily artistic today, in truth the Renaissance workshop was transdisciplinary. This helped create a holistic approach to creativity, which stands in opposition to our own organizations, in which people in different specialties are often separated into silos.”
“Florentine workshops were communities of creativity and innovation where dreams, passions, and projects could intertwine. The apprentices, workers, artisans, engineers, budding artists, and guest artists were interdependent yet independent, their disparate efforts loosely coordinated by a renowned artist at the center — the ‘Master.’ But while he might help spot new talent, broker connections, and mentor younger artists, the Master did not define others’ work.”
Read here (Harvard Business Review): http://s.hbr.org/1qUhbEA. And also: Renaissance Florence Was a Better Model for Innovation than Silicon Valley Is (Harvard Business Review).
In The Wellspring of Reality, the introductory essay to his seminal 1975 volume Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, Buckminster Fuller decries specialization as the enemy of synergy and proposes a reframing of culture that could “get all of humanity to educate itself swiftly enough to generate spontaneous social behaviors that will avoid extinction.” At its epicenter he places the value of wide curiosity and generalist knowledge.
“We are in an age that assumes the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable. Consequently, society expects all earnestly responsible communication to be crisply brief. Advancing science has now discovered that all the known cases of biological extinction have been caused by overspecialization, whose concentration of only selected genes sacrifices general adaptability. Thus the specialist’s brief for pinpointing brevity is dubious. In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.”
Read here (Brainpickings): https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/03/08/buckminster-fuller-synergetics.
David Hochman interviewed Ray Kurzweil for Playboy. “Talking to Ray is a little like chatting with Einstein, Mr. Spock and the Google guys all at once,” Hochman says. “His intelligence is off the charts. He knows everything about everything, and it’s all filtered through the lens of whatever’s at the forefront of the wired world.” Kurzweil, who wore a Google watch on one wrist and a Mickey Mouse watch on the other, spoke for hours with his gaze fixed on the middle distance, as if he were in a kind of trance, Hochman says. The biggest surprise? “We were together for two days, and Ray didn’t check his e-mail or text messages once.”
Hochman: “There are many things science isn’t able to explain.”
Kurzweil: “That’s true. In particular, science does not provide a definitive answer to the issue of consciousness. There’s actually no falsifiable experiment you could run that would definitively answer the question of whether or not an entity is conscious. You could ask the entity, and some character in a video game today could say, ‘Yes, I’m conscious, and I’m very angry at you,’ and we wouldn’t believe it, because it doesn’t have the subtle cues we associate with having those subjective states. But my contention is, as we get to the 2030s, artificial consciousness will be very realistic. That’s what it means to pass the Turing test. And we will believe it, and they’ll get angry at us if we don’t believe them, and since they’ll be very smart, we don’t want that to happen. But is that consciousness? John Searle, a philosopher at Berkeley, says consciousness is just another biological attribute, like digestion, lactation or respiration, but that’s not the case. We can’t really tap into the subjective experience of another entity. Are animals conscious? We don’t know. That question is the root of the animal rights issue. I think my cat, before he died, was conscious. Not everybody agrees with that, but they probably hadn’t met my cat.”
Read here (Playboy): https://www.playboy.com/articles/playboy-interview-ray-kurzweil.
“Paradigms are short lived. You have to constantly reinvent.” — Ray Kurzweil