Sunday, January 28, 2018

"The insight-industrial complex"

Not the thing Eisenhower warned against.*
Horrifyingly worse.
If you're trapped in one of these two-hour talks.

From TechCrunch:
I don’t like tech conferences. I mean, of course I don’t, they’re not meant for people like me. I’m an introvert, so I find them exhausting, and am (presumably) less likely than an extrovert to meet interesting or contributory people. I read much faster than people talk, so they’re not a good way for me to learn things. But there’s more to my dislike than that.

I find that the actual goal of conferences often seems to be quite distinct from the notional goal. The notional goal is for people to come together to learn about the field in question: some detailed specifics, some new announcements, and an overall general view of the state of the art, all under one roof. Maybe, if all goes well, to even find people to collaborate with in the future.

To the extent that conferences do those things, they’re great. But at too many conferences, those intentions often seem to be incidental to the actual goal, which is to reify the importance and social status of the conference organizers and speakers, while in practice all else is secondary.
Obviously this wouldn’t be true, or at least wouldn’t matter, if people were actually getting their money’s worth from the pearls of wisdom their “VIP” speakers drop on stage. But are they really? Speaking as an occasional alleged pearl-of-wisdom dropper myself, let me assure you: I have serious doubts.

There seems to be a widespread mindset that all you really need to succeed is insight. That you just need to learn a little more, to integrate one more dose of perspicacity from some billionaire or guru, and then you too will have assembled enough of an arsenal of wisdom to overcome any of life’s or business’s obstacles. That what separates success from failure is a sufficiency of sage advice.
This seems to be especially common among those who revere academia, or their idea of academia. The problem is this: it’s not true. Very few pearls or even paragraphs of wisdom ever actually translate into any kind of actionable plan. What’s more, if you look hard you can probably find unimpeachable wisdom arguing all sides of any given situation.

Meanwhile, if you’re doing something genuinely interesting, then nobody really knows what the hell is going to work or not yet; and if you aren’t, then a dozen others are doing it too, and execution, rather than a little extra abstruse understanding is going to make the difference. Either way, pearls of wisdom seem pretty extraneous....MORE
*One of the most farsighted speeches ever delivered in the USA, President Eisenhower's Farewell Address to the American People, January 17, 1961.

Most folks know his warning on the military-industrial complex:
...In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together...
But they don't remember what followed immediately after:
...Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.
In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present--and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite....
Something to think about.