Only Natural

Nature, science, language, values, feral beliefs...

Entries for June 2023

                little bit more won't hurt
Just a little less Nature won't hurt anyone
June 26, 2023

  The Tragedy of the Common Cliches

The world is crowded with humans busy with all manner of occupations. Many of those occupations have significant - even devastating - direct and indirect impacts on natural places. Any city provides examples. Unfortunately, we've learned to take this for granted. Any one individual can act while comfortably thinking "oh, this one little impact won't really hurt anything". It's as if those other 8+ billion humans didn't exist - or at least, were not busy doing anything.

But of course many of those humans are busy, if not "just supplying the 'demand'", then helping to create it. This has resulted in what has been described as "The Tragedy of the Commons", on a global scale. If we are faced with any misgivings about exploiting nature, our language offers up the bromide "If we don't do it, somebody else will". With notions like that as part of our "mental tool kit", we are actually self-harming. Ignorance of the complexity of what we are impacting accelerates the process.

Self-serving rationalizations have become part of our "common sense", but which "selves" are they actually serving? When our thinking depends on self-harming cliches, have our minds been colonized by oppressive reasoning that benefits others? Maybe this is the tragedy of common cliches. There just doesn't seem to be enough incentive (yet) to forego their seductive, easy use, and apply critical thinking instead.

So, if we're cutting down a little bit of the forest, or catching a few too many fish, or releasing a little extra CO2, the cliches are there to help a whole lot of us feel a little better. As long as we don't think too far ahead.

The view is a bit foggy
Overlooking the Environment
June 19, 2023

  Artificial Ignorance and Technology

The mainstream media have recently briefly mentioned the negative effects that "AI" LLM text generators might have on "the environment". Mostly this reporting has focused on the huge, carbon-emitting energy demands of creating and running the server farms that do all the computations. That seems like worrying about paint damage that might result from a high speed vehicle collision. Viral confusion generators will probably greatly increase threats to most "environments", even the "work environment", and certainly any "environments" that are still largely natural.

Maybe people think they know what they're talking about when they use the singular term "the environment" - they usually don't mean the "built environment", whatever that might include. The term has many uses, some broad, some narrow. The meaning of the word "environment" will vary with the context and composition of the members of any particular discussion. And there might still be significant unspoken or unrecognised disagreement, as when one "environmentalist" doesn't consider another "environmentalist" to be authentic. But it's hard to nail down purity with such a fluid term using our everyday language. In actual practice, a government "Ministry of the Environment" could mean some protection for some species and spaces, or just more socially-sanctioned extraction of "resources".

To a large extent, humans are their language. Therefore, technology that can amplify people's attempts to disrupt or distort language will have widespread negative effects. With LLM text generators, we have a new technology that can amplify disruption and also introduce its own artificial distortions. Here we are faced with another in a series of technologies that are hyped as "good" by proponents and panned as " bad" by critics - like nuclear power, genetic engineering, internal combustion engines, social media, and so on. So far, we haven't developed language that is subtle and sophisticated enough to regulate the negative effects of these technologies - the most potentially dangerous technologies should undergo the greatest scrutiny . It might not be useful to ask a LLM text generator to compose a plan to regulate LLM text generators.

Just as the word "environment" can refer to a number of either distinct or interrelated concepts and activities, it might be useful to consider in more detail how monolithic such "technologies" actually are. Maybe their apparently unified packaging is artificial, and some of the more damaging parts of each could be discarded. Yes, some massive vested economic interests are profiting from, and lobbying for, those damaging parts, but that's the case with all activities that are socially regulated. When early hominids learned to use fire, they eventually must have learned to control that use.

More than
                the sum of the parts
A Whole Lot of Trees
June 12, 2023

  Abundance and Values

In the forests on the surrounding slopes within 10 kilometres from a clear viewpoint, I can see more than a billion trees. That might sound like an awful lot, but you can't really have a forest without a lot of trees. Such large numbers also make it easier for some people to assume that a relatively small percentage of trees won't be missed if they are cut down. If it's just a matter of numbers, maybe that seems like simple common sense.

Of course most people who actually plan timber cutting know that it is not quite that simple. Habitats, sensitive terrain, threatened species, ecosystems, and contradictory human social expectations need to at least be considered. And it all needs to be "balanced" against profitability. Well, "balance" might not be the right word.

There are so many trees, and they've been considered such a plentiful "natural resource" for so many centuries, that it is "only natural" to think about cutting as many as possible in the most efficient ways. Efficiency and profitability seem to be some of society's stronger values. Aesthetic, spiritual, or recreational values of forests appear to be weaker values. Climate buffering effects of forests might become a much stronger value in the coming years if people learn to understand them.

Since most of our values depend on what we have learned to think is "good" for us, it should not be surprising if they change over time. Sometimes that involves hard lessons. Sometimes even harder than they need to be.

This is not a
Clear Vision
June 5, 2023

  Augmented Artificial Neoteny

While thinking about LLM text generators, misuse of language, and human relationships with nature, I keep noticing what seems like a pervasive immaturity - I'm tempted to call it "intellectual neoteny". The term is awkward because we can't really compare rates of human intellectual maturity with other species. When extreme fans and critics of LLM based text generators claim that machines will soon outsmart humans, is this evidence of intellectual neotany?

Elements of social media often seem to delay or arrest intellectual development. Beyond the attractive distractions and broadcast disinformation, there are myriad in-group "echo chambers" where ideas get submerged in conceptual whirlpools, and thought atrophies. Some areas of social media appeal strongly to those inclined to re-create aspects and behaviours of teen-age life. Denial - one form of immaturity - gets plenty of internet-enhanced reinforcement.

It will be "interesting" to see what happens when "Artificial Intelligence" meets "Augmented Reality" goggles in immature attempts to redefine our self-definitions and our conceptions of the world around us. That looks like it will be the opposite direction from a walk in a forest.

In our ever more complex world, delayed maturity results in...oh, but who gets to say what maturity is, right? That's the immature response that too many adults resort to. One answer is that the future gets to say, but if we would look around, even the present might tell us many things. It might be a good idea to collectively address the issue. We already know it can be dangerous to let children operate motor vehicles.