Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Special Present Fallacy

I’m special. Really, I am. Of course, you’re special too. In fact, most people think they’re above average. We all live in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.

It’s human nature to put ourselves at the center of the world. Our own lived experience is much more vivid than what we can imagine others must be feeling. This provides constant, if subconscious, vindication that we have a privileged perspective.

There is a good evidence for perspective bias. Kruger and Dunning, for example, have shown that people tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. Researchers in behavioral economics have found many such effects, including the “endowment effect”: people value something they own more highly than the identical item owned by someone else. For example, Seattle Seahawks fans already own have tickets to the Superbowl might not sell them for less than, say, $800, whereas they wouldn’t pay more than $600 for someone else’s tickets.

Anthropocentrism is another perspective bias: viewing humanity as the center or final aim of the

universe. Anthropocentrism has many ramifications, from philosophy and religion to animal rights. In cosmology, for example, it has had an illustrious history from Ptolemaic astronomy to the anthropic principle.

It’s a small step from “what I own, or who I am, is better” to “when I’m alive is better”. The notion that we’re living in a special time – the Special Present fallacy – follows from our innate egocentrism.

Every generation believes it’s facing unprecedented challenges; the apocalypse is always at hand. When I was in High School thirty years ago, our Religious Studies teacher had us work through a book predicting imminent Armageddon based on events in the Middle East and the Book of Revelations. (Little has changed in the Middle East since then; in fact, little has change there for millennia.) One of the impulses in the feverish times that led to the Reformation was the feeling that the End was Nigh; 1500 is a half-millennium, and so nice round number to be worried by. Our personal apocalypse – our death – is of course always near, but it does not follow that the world will end for everyone else at that moment.

A currently fashionable end-time obsession is ”the singularity”, introduced (?) by Vernon Vinge and popularized (!) by Ray Kurzweil.

Technologists are no more immune to the Special Present fallacy than anyone else. Computing has portrayed itself as revolutionary since its inception, with a major shake-up in our daily lives always only an upgrade away. However, we’ve been here before, as Tom Standage explains in his preface to The Victorian Internet:

“During Queen Victoria’s reign, a new communications technology was developed that allowed people t communicate almost instantly across great distances, in effect shrinking the world faster and further than ever before. A worldwide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans, it revolutionized business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates and dismissed by the skeptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium. Attitudes toward everything from news gathering to diplomacy had to be completely re-thought. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself.”

To go back another step in time, any country’s experience of the industrial revolution was arguably more socially and technically disruptive than anything we’ve experienced in the decades of the “personal computing revolution”. According to T S Ashton’s history The Industrial Revolution: “Everywhere it is associated with a growth of population, with the application of science to industry, and with a more intensive and extensive use of capital. Everywhere there is a conversion of rural into urban communities and a rise of new social classes.”

Our innate egocentrism should not mislead us into seeing uniqueness where there is none. We may, indeed, be living in very special times. However, given the dismal inaccuracy of past prognostications, the standard of proof should be very high.