Of interest to futurists and civil libertarians alike.

SYSTEM ERROR

WHERE BIG TECH WENT WRONG AND HOW WE CAN REBOOT

The technological future promises to be a dark one—unless, as the authors insist, technology is pressed into the service of doing no harm, as once promised.

Media technology often taps the worst in our instincts, driving misinformation, exploiting gullibility, and even inciting violence. The authors, Stanford professors and longtime familiars in Silicon Valley, assert that the owners and operators of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others have wrought more ill than good on many fronts: As engineers, they lack knowledge of public policy; as influencers of public policy, such as they understand it, they tend to a hands-off view that resists government intervention; as systems thinkers, they tend to despise democracy and instead, their demand for independence taken fully into account, to favor a technocratic view. Indeed, in one interesting thought experiment, a number of Silicon Valley leaders were asked what sort of society they might form if given the power to do so. They answered that they’d want a big patch of land, preferably an island, and certainly not a democracy as the form of government. Said one, “To optimize for science, we need a beneficent technocrat in charge. Democracy is too slow, and it holds science back.” As such, it’s no wonder that big tech has allowed for the amplification of anti-democratic views that go from the Ayn Rand–ian to the neofascist. In accessible prose, the authors argue that social media–wrought social engineering must be curbed. Along the way, they examine the effects—sometimes beneficial, mostly not—of algorithmic decision-making, which some enthusiasts argue will one day make lawyers and doctors redundant. The authors insist that such decision-making must be transparent, auditable, and accountable to norms of due process. In this illuminating account, they even offer a few rays of hope—e.g., actual hate speech on the web is surprisingly rare. Of course, they add, rare or not, it can lead to horrible behavior.

Of interest to futurists and civil libertarians alike.

Pub Date: Sept. 7, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-306488-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2021

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner summarizes and synthesizes the recent decades of research on intuition and systematic thinking.

The author of several scholarly texts, Kahneman (Emeritus Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.) now offers general readers not just the findings of psychological research but also a better understanding of how research questions arise and how scholars systematically frame and answer them. He begins with the distinction between System 1 and System 2 mental operations, the former referring to quick, automatic thought, the latter to more effortful, overt thinking. We rely heavily, writes, on System 1, resorting to the higher-energy System 2 only when we need or want to. Kahneman continually refers to System 2 as “lazy”: We don’t want to think rigorously about something. The author then explores the nuances of our two-system minds, showing how they perform in various situations. Psychological experiments have repeatedly revealed that our intuitions are generally wrong, that our assessments are based on biases and that our System 1 hates doubt and despises ambiguity. Kahneman largely avoids jargon; when he does use some (“heuristics,” for example), he argues that such terms really ought to join our everyday vocabulary. He reviews many fundamental concepts in psychology and statistics (regression to the mean, the narrative fallacy, the optimistic bias), showing how they relate to his overall concerns about how we think and why we make the decisions that we do. Some of the later chapters (dealing with risk-taking and statistics and probabilities) are denser than others (some readers may resent such demands on System 2!), but the passages that deal with the economic and political implications of the research are gripping.

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our minds.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-27563-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

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THIS IS YOUR MIND ON PLANTS

Building on his lysergically drenched book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan looks at three plant-based drugs and the mental effects they can produce.

The disastrous war on drugs began under Nixon to control two classes of perceived enemies: anti-war protestors and Black citizens. That cynical effort, writes the author, drives home the point that “societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it.” One such drug is opium, for which Pollan daringly offers a recipe for home gardeners to make a tea laced with the stuff, producing “a radical and by no means unpleasant sense of passivity.” You can’t overthrow a government when so chilled out, and the real crisis is the manufacture of synthetic opioids, which the author roundly condemns. Pollan delivers a compelling backstory: This section dates to 1997, but he had to leave portions out of the original publication to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration from his door. Caffeine is legal, but it has stronger effects than opium, as the author learned when he tried to quit: “I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep.” Still, back in the day, the introduction of caffeine to the marketplace tempered the massive amounts of alcohol people were drinking even though a cup of coffee at noon will keep banging on your brain at midnight. As for the cactus species that “is busy transforming sunlight into mescaline right in my front yard”? Anyone can grow it, it seems, but not everyone will enjoy effects that, in one Pollan experiment, “felt like a kind of madness.” To his credit, the author also wrestles with issues of cultural appropriation, since in some places it’s now easier for a suburbanite to grow San Pedro cacti than for a Native American to use it ceremonially.

A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-29690-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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