All News is Fake News

There is infinite information in the universe. Any time you select a tiny slice of info and focus on it, you are creating a story that is different from reality itself.

Imagine a movie sliced into a million still screenshots. Say it was impossible to watch the movie and your only way of interacting with it was with these screenshots. If someone picked three of them and presented it to you as the “truth” of the movie, they’d be wrong, even if the screenshots weren’t tampered with or substituted for fakes. If the person presenting the “facts” of the movie to you had an ax to grind or wasn’t so scrupulous about accuracy in screenshots, it would be even worse. But the main point is that even if trying to be accurate, any version of the movie selected from a few micro-second still frames will present a story that’s incorrect.

Once you realize this, you can select your own slices based on what helps you achieve your goals. It may be no more accurate in terms of explaining the real movie, but none can be, so you might as well choose slices that help you. Better yet, you can stop worrying about figuring out the right version of this movie from the past and start creating your own story going into the future.

News is a specific view of reality. It’s always wrong. Worse, it’s usually bad for your health and sanity. Choose better slices of reality and your reality will improve.

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Antagonism and Action

One of the most useful methods I’ve found to get closer to actionable truth is by creating (non-hostile) antagonism.

If I’m unsure about options, I will pick one and act as if it’s true. I’ll argue in favor of it as if it’s the only way. I’ll make the best, strongest arguments for it I can, and won’t hedge. This requires someone else to take up the opposite position, if nothing else just to get it a fair hearing. But I’m gonna come on strong, so they are going to have to bring the strongest arguments to match.

With two people fully going to bat for the two positions, the truth is more likely to reveal itself far faster than if we just dance around the weaker “on the one hand but on the other hand” stuff.

Not only does going all in on one position draw out useful arguments from others for the alternate position, but it lets me test drive being a devotee of my position and see if it resonates with my gut. The most important truths are those you just know with your knower, even if you can’t consciously articulate or understand why. Indecision is when that gut feeling isn’t strong enough either way to cut through the intellectual pros and cons. Examining positions objectively at a distance is an intellectual exercise that doesn’t always help discover the gut feeling.

But putting on a position like it’s true and going all in gives a taste of what it feels like to live in that reality. The gut gets a chance to scream “this feels off” or “Yes, this is right!”

The hard part about this approach is that it can feel shocking or disheartening or overwhelming to people if they aren’t used to it. I grew up in a loud, talkative, interrupting, arguing household. To me, disagreeing is not offensive. There’s nothing personal about attacking each others arguments within a trusted context. But I’ve learned over the years this is not normal and I often end up bowling over people and they just yield to my pigheaded arguments…even if I’m just test driving them myself.

I’ve tried to ease back some, but mostly to collaborate with people who can get down with strong argument as a form of truth discovery.

PS – I find this works really well for action items. I do not like this approach for discovering philosophical, moral, or abstract truth.

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Thought Experiments

I was just discussing with a friend a thought experiment I put together years ago during a debate on whether or not inequality is a prerequisite to economic exchange.

The claim I heard from some economists was that you can’t have trade without inequality. While I believe inequality is inescapable, natural, not undesirable, and an inevitable outcome of freedom and prosperity, I don’t think it is logically necessary in order for mutually beneficial trade to occur.

I emphasize logical, because thought experiments can be useful for finding errors in reasoning, but they are almost never useful for finding better explanations for the real world. I think I can construct a thought experiment that reveals that inequality is not logically necessary for win-win trade, but that doesn’t do much to improve understanding of the world. In the real world, everyone is unequal, period. We differ in taste, preference, ability, biology, etc. Even small divergence leads to different subjective valuations which is the major driver in gains from trade.

The point of the claim the inequality is needed for trade is to reveal that, for from being a danger to be feared, it’s a necessary part of human flourishing. That is true. Still, I don’t think it is logically required for trade to occur.

Here’s my thought experiment:

Two perfectly identical people live on an island. To survive, they need both fish and berries in their diet. Both have identical preferences for types of work, and identical abilities at fishing and berry picking.

In 1/2 a day, one can collect 100 berries, and in 1/2 a day one can catch 2 fish. So each individual splitting the day between berries and fish will end up with 100 berries and 2 fish, for a combined total of 200 berries and 4 fish.

But there are more abundant berries high up on the mountain. The catch is it takes an entire day to get there and back, leaving no time for fishing. And there are more fish deeper in the ocean, but it takes an entire day to paddle there and back leaving no time for berries.

The two identical people could specialize. One spends the whole day fishing in more abundant waters and catches 6 fish. One day one spends all day in more abundant berry bushes and picks 300 berries. They can trade and end up with 150 berries and 3 fish each. Both individuals have gained (50%!) from the trade due to the division of labor.

This does not require either individual to become more skilled than the other at one task. They could alternate each day who does which and still win. Division of labor and specialization coupled with trade is a better outcome than self-sufficiency even for two completely equal individuals because of the uneven nature of production itself. Each unit of time does not produce an identical outcome, and duration spent at a task may affect the marginal productivity, even without new skills gained or new capital employed.

See, trade is beneficial even in a world of perfect equality!

The problem is every assumption in the thought experiment is far fetched beyond belief. It can reveal an error in the logic of the original claim, but not its reality. Trade always arises between unequal partners because no two people are equal in the real world. Even identical twins stranded on an island aren’t. Even engineered clones under my scenario wouldn’t be, because in reality they would enhance their skill with more time invested in one task than another.

Thought experiments are not “gotcha” moments for real world claims. They may be mild rebukes of the certainty of the logical necessity, but they are so divorced from the real world, and so stripped down of variables that they allow the real world to contradict them all the time.

Just ask those economists who couldn’t discover any logical way lighthouses could be funded without government so they declared it an impossible wish, even while the very lighthouses outside their window were currently funded without government. Thought experiments are fun and occasionally useful, but more often arrogant, blinding, and dangerous.

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Stories Open Doors

Learning to tell stories is an incredible skill. But learning to think in stories is even more fundamental.

A narrative arc is more memorable and impactful than factual bullets. The ability to create narratives is what allows attracting friends, collaborators, investors, customers, and fans.

Storytellers are interesting people who get interesting opportunities. Not just those who tell anecdotal tales, but those who weave all of life into layers of narrative. The price of wheat is not merely an economic fact, it’s part of a story that started somewhere and will end somewhere. And it’s probably nested in other stories.

But telling stories starts with thinking in narrative arcs instead of dots.

I’ve seen this illustration several times (I’m not sure the origin):

Data To Wisdom Via Information, Knowledge & Insight ...

These are all different ways to see facts. But none of them weave a story. There’s no narrative in the dots or the colors or the lines or the connections or paths. They are facts with relationships, but they stop short of a narrative arc. Yes, there is wisdom in seeing that point A follows a path to point B. But why? How? For what purpose? What happened when the path was completed? What was going on before?

A narrative thinker will see these facts and be able to construct a story – a beginning, middle, and end – with motivations and purpose involved. Stories have teleology, facts do not.

The ability to see a meaningful story in any person, event, or series of facts leads to the ability to communicate in narratives. You can connect dots for reasons, and show the future if the dots continue to connect.

Thinking in story helps you be more interesting because it helps you be more interested.

When someone tells you, “I’m an engineer”, instead of filing this as a fact in your mental Rolodex, you immediately want to know the story. How did they end up an engineer? Is this the end of a long journey, the beginning of a new story, or the middle? Curiosity drives you to ask good questions, good questions make connections, and connections lead to opportunities.

Discovering, telling, and re-telling your own story is a great place to start. Why are you sitting there reading this right now? What led you here? Why? What does it mean for the future?

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Keeping Focus Without Retreatism

I wrote yesterday about the information war. We’re bombarded with so much information if we are tuned in it’s impossible to think.

But I don’t think the long-term solution is total retreat from the world at large, or what Venkatesh Rao calls Waldenponding.

The bad information experience is like artillery perpetually pounding around you, driving you mad. But there’s another kind of information experience that’s more like a constant stream. It flows endlessly, every moment bringing past new things. You can wade in, you can get refreshed by it, you can have fun, catch valuable bits, and you can also drown. But the info stream is not inherently hostile or trying to make you useless like the info artillery. You can step back onto the banks and just observe without getting immersed. You can contribute to it, consume from it, or use it for inspiration to create.

The info stream has always existed, even before computers and cell phones, radio and TV. It’s the scuttlebutt, the gossip, the collective conversation we call culture. It’s trends, fads, ideas, fashions, commerce, and events constantly moving around us.

The digital world has broadened the stream to include more participants, and the flow is faster than ever. But each individual also has more control over their experience of the stream, how they consume, and especially how they contribute.

Waldenponding sounds both difficult and welcome when under constant fire by the info artillery. If only we could go screenless and escape, we’d become whole beings and achieve spiritual enlightenment, we think. But I think the urge to retreat entirely is another form of delusion, less dangerous perhaps than the delusion of thinking it’s all real and urgent and important, but a delusion nonetheless.

It makes more sense to take control of your relationship to information, rather than be controlled by it or completely shielded from it.

First, get the hell out of the bullshit battlefield. Don’t let yourself be bombarded. Don’t sit there and get shelled to oblivion. Get away from the noise and chaos and need to always know the news and have an opinion.

Breathe.

Maybe wander the quiet woods for a bit after leaving the battlefield. When you’re ready, approach the stream. Look at it as something beautiful and fascinating. Respect it as something powerful and dangerous. Wade in from time to time as you are able without getting swept away. You’ll get stronger and form a better relationship to the stream over time. Make it a part of your existence that serves you, not the other way around.

And when you realize it’s pulled you under, or that you’ve wandered away from the stream metaphor altogether and are back on the battlefield, exit again. Go back to the woods.

Metaphors are how we make meaning. The conscious navigation away from a battlefield to a stream can help reset your engagement with the world of endless information. At least it does for me.

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Information as Artillery

You are being bombarded.

The blasts just keep coming, day and night. It’s so bad there’s a perpetual ringing in your ears, you can’t see straight, you can’t focus, and the people and reality right in front of you seems far off, disconnected, a blur. The constant barrage of artillery overhead has your whole being humming, vibrating unnaturally.

You can’t read, or write, or talk calmly, or think deeply, or experience silence. Even in gaps between the salvos, you’re too shell-shocked to be of much use. Every sensation sets you off.

That is the environment in which we live.

The trenches are anything connected to the internet or television or news of any kind. Information is the artillery.

The good news is, you can leave.

You can get the hell out of the foxholes and away from the mud and blood and constant head-splitting noise. When you exit this battle, there’s no negative consequence, no dishonor, no desertion, because the battle is not real. It’s bullshit. There are no sides, no ground to be taken or lost. The only objective in this battle is to occupy you with it, to keep you from being useful, fulfilled, free, and productive.

You can’t become useful, fulfilled, free, and productive sitting in someone else’s trenches while information artillery rains down, paralyzing you. You can only lose if you play.

The only way to win is to quit. To enter the fray is to be consumed and lose your sense of sanity and self. To exit is to regain your humanity and reclaim your capacity for creative thought.

Don’t let yourself become a casualty. Leave now, before the shell-shock gets worse. Exit the information barrage. Be alone with your thoughts. Be free.

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