Algorithmic Intolerance

The stack of books on my nightstand expands and collapses with the ebb and flow of my free time. It’s a good indicator of how much I have going on in my life. Its existence is constant. Its volume varies. 

It’s a good time to be alive for informavores. Beyond the books, which can be discovered through algorithmic recommendations, bought with a click and delivered tomorrow, the modern world has incredible hubs for information. Wikipedia is one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind. It’s ubiquity and general acceptance as an extension of our human understanding is under appreciated. Wikipedia knows everything. Literally. All of it.

Blogs like Marginal Revolution are eclectic collections of the world’s most dynamic thinkers. They expose people like me to the universe’s most esoteric thoughts over my morning coffee before the kids get up,

Twitter is amazing. It’s hell also. But it’s amazing. That’s the best treatment I can give it.

Most of what is published in this blog is the applications of the ideas and observations of others applied to the world I see around me. Revealed by my own choice and woven together as a continuous stream of consciousness, one could argue that these essays make up a theory of the universe that is someone unique. Mostly, they’re the distribution of the thoughts of others though.

There’s an interesting dance that happens with the sharing of ideas. I guess it’s always been a part of idea sharing. Today though, the immediate nature of how we share and the feedback loop that completes that sharing brings it closer to the front of my mind of late. I’m plagued by a question.

What am I allowed to share?

Where is the limit that matches my brand and the signal that I seek to send with what I share?

Signaling is the point after all.

Economist Robin Hanson wrote a book on signaling called The Elephant in the Brain. He maintains that over 90% of everything we do is signaling. 30% or so of that is intentional, conscious signaling. I read it a few months back. I liked it. It bummed me out the way that reading something good that disappoints you about yourself does, but I liked it.

Hanson, was recently labeled “creepiest economist” by Slate because he signaled creepiness by blogging about the redistribution of sex in a similar tone as other economic redistributions in the wake of the Toronto terrorist attack by someone who called himself an Incel—an involuntary celibate.

Of Hanson, Slate’s Jordan Weissman wrote, “…he clearly thinks sexually frustrated men have a legitimate complaint about society and doesn’t seem to understand why their concerns are any less valid than those of people who’ve been ground down by the machinations of capitalism and working for poverty wages.”

I’m not sure that’s what Hanson hoped he was signaling. But, that’s at least the signal some got. I’m not going to jump on the the signaling railroad track to defend him either.  My point in bringing Hanson up is to play a bit with the irony of the topic of his book and the bit of bad press he’s in right now.  It raises a good question.

Am I still allowed to have liked his book?

Am I allowed to like Nassim Taleb’s book Skin in the Game?

I first ran into Taleb’s work when I read the back cover of Black Swan while stuck overnight in the Dubai airport (signaling). I burned through the book before the end of the flight the next day. It wrecked the way I looked at the world for a bit and I’ve followed his work ever since.

I just wrote a book about the 2016 election (more signaling) in which I am an open critic of President Trump. I cite Taleb’s first book in one of the chapters. His last, Skin in the Game, is the best explanation of support for Donald Trump by a Donald Trump supporter that I’ve read.

Am I allowed to say I like it?

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life is on the top of the stack next to my bed. It sits there conspicuously unread. I’m deeply concerned that I may enjoy the book as many smart, respectable people who have dared to say so have. If I google Jordan Peterson, the “People Also Searched For” include Ben Shapiro, Milo Yanopolis and Lauren Southern. None of them are in the same intellectual stratosphere as Peterson. But whatever signal he’s sending is bouncing off the same walls as theirs. And it makes me ask the question again.

What if I like Peterson’s book?

Maybe that’s why I haven’t read it yet.

If there’s a point to this essay it’s that I worry about intolerance creeping into rational ideas in a weird algorithmic sense. Not the way that would lead me to throw a fit about toxic political correctness of diversity gone awry. We are a people with a long and troubled history of intolerance, bigotry and racial oppression after all. And it’s entirely reasonable and necessary to account for our history in what we will and won’t tolerate in our culture. But I do wish it were easier to talk about more diverse ideas within the framework of how we communicate ideas in today’s algorithmically driven world.

I’m equally afraid of who agrees with me as I am who disagrees with me. Because it’s public knowledge. And I think that’s new.

Now what the hell do I do with my Kanye Pandora channel?




3 thoughts on “Algorithmic Intolerance

  1. And after some more noodling, a tangent question: how is the algorithmic community approaching neurodiversity? If all the development is created around neurotypical decisioning (is that a word?), what happens when the only people capable of independent decisioning (I’m keeping it) are the neurodiverse, such as people on the autism spectrum?


  2. What about Mein Kampf? If I want to understand how the Holocaust was possible (as should anyone), should I be “allowed” to read it? It was banned in Germany. And, if I want to play my guitar at an open mic, is it OK to play acoustic versions of “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” or “One of These Nights”, or “Whole Lotta Love” if they appear to denigrate women? Can I still like Elvin Bishop, Glen Frey and Zep?? Can I still like Tom Brokaw? Just askin’.

    “He is the best physician who is the most ingenious inspirer of hope.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge



  3. Great blog entry, Sean. Thought-provoking question, for sure. It’s something that’s bothered me for a long time about advances in technology. So much energy has been focused on enabling technology to make decisions for us…but why have we been so eager to surrender decision-making? Making choices and learning from the consequences of those choices – positive and negative – are what make our lives and relationships rich and meaningful. Maybe I’m just too stubbornly Yankee to surrender much decision-making power. Thanks for making my grey matter work this morning.


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