Adapting to the Machine

Civilization creates a dilemma for all of us. It’s a dilemma we seldom notice – except in the extreme. It is a dilemma created by living in a world of machines.

The Chinese are planning on creating one such machine for their society.  In the planned Chinese “Social Credit” system every citizen will be rated based on their credit history, purchasing history, and more. The hope is that this grand societal machine will make China better – a more trustworthy place. It will create for every Chinese citizen a terrible dilemma.

An episode of the TV series Black Mirror played with this kind of social machine: a world where every time you so much as bump into a stranger you mutually rate each other out five stars – the resulting score controlling your access to all the good things in life. Black Mirror painted a predictably dystopian world – cheery trivialized bliss floating atop an ocean of mentally intolerable manipulative anxiety.

Watching that show, watching how the characters deformed themselves in-order to adapt to their absurd society, it occurred to me that this is more than just a sci-fi problem. This is more than just a Chinese Communist problem. This is more than just a social media problem. This is a fundamental problem of civilization.

We must adapt to the machine.

We humans have always adapted to our environment. We change our behavior to fit in, to succeed. For a hunter-gatherer, adapting to your environment meant adapting to nature. For a citizen of the modern world, adapting to your environment means adapting to civilization.

Now nature can be harsh – deserts, and ice, and lions – yet the ways of nature are always at their core suited to human nature. More accurately, human nature evolved to suit the ways of nature. In contrast, while civilization can be comfortable – sofas, and chocolates, and painkillers – the ways of civilization are a mixed lot. Some of it we created because it helps us. Some of it we created because when you create one thing you have to go on creating other things. And some of it… who knows why we made that?

Today more than ever, our environment is dominated by the products of human minds – technology and institutions. Machines built from matter, and machines built from people. Success in the modern world means adapting yourself to this world of machines.

Here comes the dilemma.

The things you must do in-order to get by in an artificial world often conflict with human nature. It is impossible to adapt to it without also harming yourself. Self-destructive adaptation. A lose-win or win-lose situation. One can be a functional member of society, or one can be a functional human being. But one can only do both in Utopia, or the wilderness.

All institutions and technologies have biases, tendencies, and needs that have nothing to do with why we created them. These machine-needs are born out of the nature of the machine itself. If you want to use the machine, then you must satisfy the demands of the machine. Those demands can be neutral, a bonus, or harmful – in the extreme they may even undermine the very reason the machine was created.

A technological example: Computers dislike rain, bright sun, and being jiggled around. So we use them indoors, sitting down, in the dark. We adapt ourselves to the needs of the computer. Use them too much and you grow sick from a lack of sun and exercise.

An institutional example: Schools have too few teachers to adapt themselves to the needs of individual children. Instead the children must adapt to the needs of the school. They must be made manageable: silent, still, passive – the very opposite of a healthy child.

Or take these very words as an example: too be ideally adapted to the internet, I would make this 140 characters long, give it a click-bait title, front it with a picture of cleavage and a kitten, then sit there counting views as a measure of success. But I would not have learned anything, and neither would you.

These self-destructive adaptations are everywhere. One major form is where we mistake some measure important to the machine with a measure that is important to us human beings. For example:

  • Step counts on an exercise monitor VS. being healthy
  • Facebook likes VS. friendship
  • Qualifications VS. expertise
  • Awards VS. quality
  • Triple A ratings VS. low risk
  • Number of citations VS. truth
  • GDP growth VS. national well-being
  • A good social credit score VS. a trustworthy citizen

The machines are dumb. They can only understand the world through these simple metrics (typically things you can put a number on, use to fill up spreadsheets, and present as evidence at an end of year review). Therefore these metrics are what the machine rewards and punishes. Whenever you interact with a complicated technology or institution you will be called to live your life based on these metrics.

Sometimes those metrics align with what we want. Sometimes they really really don’t.

Imagine a class with two notable students.  Samantha always gets A+ on every test. Harriet does poorly on tests, and typically brings class to a screeching halt by starting arguments with the teacher. Obviously society will reward Samantha. She’ll get prizes at the end of the year. Her parents will buy her celebratory meals. Universities will happily accept her. Likewise society will punish Harriet. She’ll get sent to detention. Stern letters will be written to her parents. She wont meet entry requirements for university.

Perhaps Samantha really is smarter than Harriet. But it is also possible that Samantha is an unimaginative idiot with a knack for uncritically memorizing garbage. It is also possible that Harriet is an actual genius who has figured out that the school curriculum is flawed and that their teacher is a moron. But the machine cannot handle this nuance. It is a machine and machines are dumb – reliant on simple metrics of success and failure. Therefore the education-machine produces an idiot who thinks herself a genius, and a genius who thinks herself an idiot. Both adapted to the machine.

The mismatch between human needs and techno-instuitional needs is perhaps greatest with those things that are big and complicated, created top-down, or based on a grand theory.

Compare the difference between using a chair and using an airplane. The chair is simple. Only one concession is required of you – put it on a flat surface. The airplane is monstrously complicated. Preflight checks, security screenings, weight checks, runways, fuel depos, air safety regulations…. All of society must adjust itself to the demands of the airplane.

Likewise with institutions. Compare a private tutor with a university. The tutor is hardly an institution at all, more a personal relationship. They can adapt to your exact requirements. A university, however, is an impersonal giant. It must facelessly classify and order it’s students by schedules and GPAs. Instead the students must conform themselves to the demands of an institution too dumb to truly understand them as human beings.

Now consider bottom-up versus top-down. Bottom-up creations are made by their users. They want a creation that works for them, not the other way around. But with a top-down plan? Here the designer is free to disregard the user entirely. Kings don’t have to live under laws made for peasants.

The worst nightmares result when planners create grand complicated top-down  schemes based on some flawed theory. The machine they create may demand outright insanity from its users. Mao’s Great Leap Forward and other such lunacies spring to mind.

So what are we to do?

First, better design. Down-sizing the down side. Fitting designs better to human needs. Using better metrics of success. Bringing users into the design process. Using the simplest effective technique rather the biggest most bloated technique. The machines will never match us perfectly, but we can do a lot better.

Second, be aware. Take note of how many common behaviors in society are actually adaptations to the machine, rather something inherently human. Be aware of when you are acting naturally, and when you are adapting to the machine. You may have no choice but to continue, but at least you’ll know, and at least you’ll have a chance to adapt more healthily.

Be especially aware of metrics – indicators of success and failure. Whenever you see a metric, ask, “Does this actually measure what I care about?” If it doesn’t then ignore it, or find something that does.

Also be aware of the dangers of envy and what passes as success. In a world of machines, it is possible to succeed as a member of society by failing as a human being. Samantha is not always better than Harriet.

Third, know when to adapt and when to rebel. If the cost of adapting is low and the gains are large, then by all means adapt. Likewise, if the cost of rebelling is low, and the cost of adapting is high, then… go on – be a rebel. Go out there and stand  on the street corner, tear off that business tie, throw your smartphone on the ground, and shout, “I’m not your prisoner anymore!” You’ll probably get arrested, but for a little while, just a little while, you might feel more human. And that’s gotta count as a win.




Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

China’s social credit system, on Wikipedia here.

An outline of the Black Mirror episode, on Wikipedia here. (Caution spoilers! You should probably just watch the show. It’s a good show!)

One of the mother of all adapting-to-the-machine dilemmas. Go along with it and your country starves to death. Refuse to go along with it and you risk getting shot. Mao’s Great Leap Forward, on Wikipedia here.




Thou Shalt Give up Bacon, Tasty, Tasty Bacon…

When it comes to food people get weird. It’s not what they do eat, it’s what they don’t eat. Think about it. Despite famines, despite high food prices, despite all the amazing eating opportunities on offer, people across the world have steadfastly refused to eat:

  • pigs
  • cows
  • rabbits
  • root vegetables
  • mushrooms
  • lettuce
  • fish
  • horses
  • insects
  • cats
  • alcohol
  • dogs
  • satay goat testicles
  • whales
  • hot beverages
  • uncooked food
  • guinea pigs
  • mice
  • pumpkins
  • beans
  • camels
  • garlic
  • your grandparents.

That’s just to name  a few.

Each of these foods has been proclaimed wonderful, or at least mouth-worthy, by one culture, and condemned as pig-swill and sin by another. How can we have such wildly different opinions about what counts as good food?

Here’s a few reasons why:

A) We Have No Imagination

Functional fixedness. A cat is a pet. A rat is a pest. A cow goes well with pasta. What it does is what it does is what it does.

That’s what it does.

A horse is a horse is a… tasty meal in France. But in England it’s just… no… you can’t… it’s a horse. You ride them. Horses. Riding. Don’t you get it? You don’t… no! Damn Frogs.

B) Philosophy and Religion

An environmentalist’s refusal to eat endangered sea turtles is easy to understand. Likewise a do-no-harm Jain’s refusal to eat animals, and your daughter’s refusal to eat her pet rabbit. And cannibalism is… do I really need to explain that one?

Other prohibitions get a bit stranger.  Believers in reincarnation might go vegetarian out of fear of eating grandpa in goat form.  Believers in animal spirits may only feed their children small animals, until the child’s spirit is strong enough to deal with eating bigger animal spirits. And believers in controlling one’s uncontrollable passions often dislike garlic because… garlic gets ya going?

When it comes to religious food taboos Judaism is head of the table. God said “Thou shalt not boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk.” and that was that. What can you do? It’s one of the Ten Commandments. (The other ten. Yes, there’s others.) No one’s clear why God said this. He just did. So Jews have been keeping their milk and meat kosher ever since. (P.S. ‘Kid’ here refers to a baby goat. Boiling children in mummy’s breast milk falls under that “Thou shalt not kill” bit. Just so we are clear.)

C) I Don’t Eat Garlic. Who Do You Think I Am?

What is it with garlic? Forget politics. You want a divisive issue, take a whiff of garlic. Go to the right time and place and “Garlic Eater” is a racial slur.

Food is community. Nothing sets you apart more than refusing to eat what others are eating. Nothing binds you together more than eating something no other group will eat. We are what we eat.

D) Power Games

Imagine if you could convince half the population that only you and people like you can safely eat chocolate. Wouldn’t that be great! All the chocolate for me!

Seems people have had this kind of idea before. Especially men. All the meat for me! And then, if they can, the rest of the group swings back around and slaps another taboo on you. Yes, you may get the chocolate and sausages, but we get the bananas and fish fingers! Ha! Social divisions end up getting written in food. Thus the elderly, chiefs, widows, children, and more end up with their own special taboos and rights of violation.

E) Conservation

Don’t eat the milk cow. You get milk from it. Seems sensible. Likewise, if each neighboring village has a different taboo for hunting a different forest animal then the chances of everyone driving these different creatures extinct is diminished.

F) Blame the Grim Reaper

Food can kill you. New food is suspicious. Is that really edible? Are the garlic eaters trying to poison us? They said it was the brown mushroom, right? That looks brown to me.

In the game of evolution, one bad experiment and you lose.

Our food taboo paranoia reaches a high point with pregnancy. Don’t eat fish. Do eat fish. Only eat rats if your husband done the butchering. And no hen’s eggs. You don’t want the baby to be too chicken to come out.


Us humans never do anything straightforwardly. Nothing could be more animalistically basic than food. Yet we can’t stop ourselves from squirting identity politics and religious dogma straight into the middle of your lunchtime sandwich. It’s enough to make you want to go get a plate full of bacon and horsemeat, garnished with extra garlic, gluten, and plus-sized animal-spirits, just to spite them. Mmm, yum!


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

Food Taboos: their origin and purpose. Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow (2009) Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. Here.

Strange Green Bedfellows

Flicking through an organic gardening magazine I noticed something strange. The advertising. Most was to be expected: chicken coops, garden tools, eco-tours. Then I saw a full page ad for a gluten-free conference. Huh? Do organic gardeners all have Coeliac disease? What does gluten-free have to do being green?

This sent me digging.

Most of the time environmentalism attracts what you’d expect: scientists, hiking enthusiasts, disillusioned nuclear weapons engineers. But then weird things keep popping up. What’s with all the dreadlocks, bongos, and pot? Why the anarchists, feminist, and spiritualists? Why, why, why, of all the people in history to have felt compelled to go green, do we find Nazis? Yes, turns out some of them were into animal welfare, organics, and mass murder.

What is going on here?

The key is this:  Green, and Green Plus. Plus free-love. Plus gluten-free sandwiches. Plus world conquest by the Aryan master-race. Figuring out what the Pluses have in common with Green, is the key to seeing why they didn’t just stick with their Plus but went and jumped in bed with Green. There are at least four points of contact:

1) Love of Nature

Obviously. Hence why the Animal Rights types jump right on in (and get one hell of a shock when they discover that Green can involve murdering truckloads of cute animals. It’s called pest control folks.) This also explains why spiritual types get involved. If Mother Nature is literally your god, then you’re going Green.

2) Raging Against the Machine

Environmentalism has big beef with mainstream culture and the powers that be. Hence the anarchists, feminists, and anti-globalists. Indeed, anyone who is counter-cultural, anti-consumerist, or wanting to live a simple life is going to feel good in bed with Green. Hence the hippies, the pot, and yet more spiritual types.

3) Turning Back the Clock

The modern world is an environmental disaster movie. Anyone who idolizes the pre-modern past will find Green alluring. This backwards gaze can get a bit romantic. So romantic it deserves a capital R.


Romanticism was so Romantic that it was a movement, and it had a big shape on who we are today. Central was an obsession with nature and the past. Consequently, Green gets yet more spiritual types, Thoreau musing beside Walden Pond, and the Nazi’s.

Yes, those damn Nazis.

Combine a love of the local, with a romantic view of the past, with a taste for myth and folklore, with a longing for a deep connection between a people and a place, and out pops nationalism. Pushed to it’s extreme, nationalism becomes fascism. Blood and soil, as the Nazis used to say.

This anti-modern streak can also go anti-science.  Science is just far too modern. They just don’t say “Holistic” enough. Hence the occasional foray into pseudoscience.

4) We are LOHAS. We are Legion.

Finally we circle back to those gluten-free ads. How does an advertiser choose where to place their ads? They target a defined demographic. This one’s called LOHAS: Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability. These are your ethical consumers, concerned about their own health, and the health of the planet.

Our final set of the weird Green mash ups, therefore, are due to demographic effects, and due to businesses targeting the lucrative market that is LOHA$. Marketers will throw anything at these guys that they think they’ll like. Some of it will be because LOHAS are green, some of it will be because LOHAS have an over-abundance of well-to-do middle aged women. Hence the wealth of organic wines, and the poverty of deep fried organic chicken nuggets.

So why those gluten-free ads? Perhaps it is because Coeliacs spend 28.42% of their lives reading labels asking “What is E-6i500 flavorant really?” then discovering that it is made from coal tar and endangered Guatemalan tree snails. Or perhaps it is because a greeny’s concern about pollution progresses to a haunting paranoia about what’s really in our food, which then progresses to a general concern with purity, and gosh-darn it, if gluten is a problem, then gluten is out! In a polluted world Health and Green tend to merge, hence LOHAS.

Nature, activism, anti-modernism, and demographics. Distinguishing the Green from the Green Plus is important for making sense of Green weirdness, and it’s also important for moving environmentalism forward. Much of what is accepted as core Green is actually optional. You don’t have to be a Green Plus. You can just be Green.



Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

For an example of Green’s perennial attraction for spiritual types, along with the kind of stuff that makes scientists cringe, see Biodynamic Agriculture, here.

Unfamiliar with Romanticism? Try here on Wikipedia.

Nazi organics haven’t gone away. Read “The Right-wing Organic Farmers of Germany” from the New Yorker here.

For an example of what LOHAS marketing looks like on the inside try the Natural Marketing Institute, here.



Why Drive to a Treadmill?

You’re driving past the gym. Your friends laughs. “Look,” he says pointing at the car park, “all those people, driving to the gym just so they can run on a treadmill. Idiots. Why didn’t they just run there?!”

Good question.

Two answers:

1) Your friend is the idiot.

2) A paradox is involved here, but it’s deeper down.

Why is your friend an idiot?

Because most people do have a good reason to drive:

  • I want to do more than go for a run, like do weight training, and
  •  adding an endurance run on top of that is overkill, and
  • I had already driven into town for work, and
  • it was raining, and
  • all the traffic fumes make me wheeze like a three-pack-a-day smoker, and
  • I don’t like getting run over by bad drivers, and
  • have you seen what goes down on these streets? I dislike being murdered.

These last reasons are where the paradox lies. Traffic and violence. They show us how society can get stuck in paradoxical traps.

Take the people who drive so they can avoid running alongside traffic. They become traffic. Other people drive to avoid them. They are stuck in a trap.

Here’s a simplified scenario of how this can happen.

Imagine a village of cyclists. The village roads are car-free. That’s what they want. Now imagine that one of the villagers buys a car.

That car makes the roads a tiny bit unsafe for cyclists. The most timid villager decides cycling is now too dangerous. They buy a car too. This leads to more cars. More danger. More switches. More cars. The whole village ends up doing the opposite of what they all wanted.

They get stuck.

The real world is much more complicated, but a similar dynamic is at play. A lot of us would prefer to get around by foot or by bike, but we are forced to drive because… we are all driving. The loop has pushed us to the point where homes, cities, and businesses – including gyms – are all built on the assumption that you will drive. Therefore you must. Therefore you do. Therefore it is assumed.

We got stuck.

That’s why we drive even when it seems like an idiotic thing to do.

Now let’s turn to the people who drive because they are afraid of violence. Poverty is a major root cause of street violence. A major root cause of poverty (and by no means the only cause) is economics, in particular, an exploitative style of capitalism which has no problem sacrificing people for the sake of profits.

Capitalism of this kind can act like an addiction.

Imagine an oil spill: a  container ship importing foodstuffs. It’s been flouting regulations because that’s most profitable. It runs aground in a bay full of fish.

Before the spill people would happily go fishing in that bay and eat for free. After the spill the fishery is destroyed. Those people now have to buy food. They buy it from a store. The store buys it off a wholesaler. The wholesaler gets it shipped to them on container ships full of oil.

More ships. More spills. More destruction. More substitutes. More ships.


When you choose to exercise by driving to a gym because you feel too unsafe exercising in your own neighborhood, then you too might be stuck in a trap. This trap is big and complicated, put together over decades by all the lobbyists, stockbrokers, oil executives, and more who done questionable things, which created poverty, which made you afraid, which made you decide to buy gas, which funded the oil industry, which sent that money back around to all the questionable people who got you here.

The more you have, the more you get.