Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 75

Apps for Mentats

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Last year, I did a podcast episode called Right Relationship with Robots, about balancing my technophile and luddite inclinations, and finding a sane, moderate approach to living with technology. It centered on my Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. Well, the state of the art has advanced a little since then, and the subject – living with technology, not my vacuum cleaner specifically – seems worth revisiting.

Don’t worry, my Roomba and I are still on excellent terms, though I’ve calmed down a bit from running it daily. But today I’m going to talk about what it seems nobody can shut up about – yes, that’s right, it doesn’t take a generative AI to finish this sentence – Chat-GPT.

Or rather, I’m going to go off on a tangent inspired by Chat-GPT. Next episode I’ll get into Chat-GPT more directly.

I’m not, in either episode, going to speculate about whether it’s going to take over the world and make humanity obsolete, or whether it’s overhyped, just a glorified autocomplete. There are legions of way smarter, better informed people than me on both sides of that issue. My suspicion is “both,” though not in the way or degree to which we expect. Instead, I’m going to focus on my special, limited, Everyday Systems mandate: personally, in terms of our daily behaviors and habits, how do we, as individuals, live with the darn thing, giant question marks and all?

It’s a tricky issue to approach with moderation. We have near infinite, opposite claims being made all around. It will save us all, it will destroy us all. It’s the biggest deal ever, it’s the biggest pile of BS ever. And then my favorite, in terms of sheer repulsiveness: there is this gold rush sense of greed that if you figure this out before your dumb coworkers, you personally will be catapulted ahead of them to your own private techno-heaven of 10x productivity and wealth.

So how do you stay moderate when there’s a revolution going on around you? When we don’t know what the impact of this all is going to be? Well, to some extent it’s a perennial question. For the last couple of centuries at least there has always been a revolution of some sort, maybe multiple revolutions going on. This time may be even bigger, but we don’t know, and that’s a part of moderation, accepting that we’re operating in a state of ignorance, knowing only this for certain: that we will make mistakes in our prognostications, and that we’ll have to muddle through, somehow, making reasonable guesses, guided by some sense of human decency, as calmly as possible.

There are two components to having a right relationship with technology: moderate detachment, and moderate engagement, luddite mode and partner mode. I’ve talked about both of these a bit already, the first as far back as weekend luddite, one of the oldest everyday systems, and the other with Right Relationship with Robots, fairly recently.

For luddite mode, I have one additional thought to add today. It’s that in addition to Weekend Luddite style breaks from technology, with certain whitelisted exceptions, but as comprehensively and for as long and as regularly as you can manage, there’s also a positive detachment from technology. It’s not just a “thou shalt not,” but a positive displacement, an engagement with non-technological activities, activities that get us away from our dependence on machines, or at least, get us a little distance from the intrusive presence of machines. And we might even use a thing or two we’ve learned from our relationship with machines during these absences.

I imagine that some of you may be a little tired of all my Dungeons & Dragons analogies, so today, I’m going with sci-fi for my metaphorical inspiration, Frank Herbert’s Dune. It's the title of this episode, “Apps for Mentats.” Don’t worry if sci-fi is just as alien to you as fantasy, all shall be explained.

Dune is set 20,000 years into the future. Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy. As far as I can recollect, there are no actual aliens, though humans themselves have gotten a little strange, especially some of them.

One of the things I love about Frank Herbert is that he doesn’t simply take some existing trend and extrapolate it out forever, instead he imagines the responses and counter responses to it, and counter counter responses. His interstellar order is reactionary, it’s feudal. They fight with knives because defensive technology, the Holtzman shield generator, has rendered lasers and projectiles largely obsolete. It’s inhabitants aren’t hyper rational atheists but have religious orders, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, and a holy book, the Orange Catholic Bible, a syncretic remix of Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other religious texts, whose chief commandment (I love this) is “thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Deep in the backstory of Dune was an event called the Butlerian Jihad, when humans decided the threat of AI was too great and had to be decisively rejected. It’s a very technologically advanced society, but they have rejected machine-based computing, at least, anything approaching the level of AI. They can fold space and travel throughout the galaxy but the advanced mathematics required to pull this off aren’t done by computers, but by human guild navigators, hopped up on spice from planet Arrakis. And in general, all of their computing is done by the Mentats, the human computers, who have been bred and trained (and drugged) to do everything computers used to do and more.

Now, it isn’t exactly utopia, and the mentats aren’t exactly unproblematic, and I’m not sure how practicable any of this is, but I love this idea of human beings reclaiming some measure of their independence and dignity from the machines, kicking away this crutch that they’d leaned on for centuries or millennia. And I’ve decided that that’s a little what Everyday Systems are like: apps for mentats, psychological programs that run in your human mind – conscious and (once you’ve habitualized them) subconscious – rather than on digital computers. With my physical index card based todo list system, personal punch cards, that’s been explicitly built in right from the beginning, that metaphor.

But you also don’t need streaming video or internet connected machines for Shovelglove. You don’t need an app to track what you eat on the No S Diet. You don’t need a fitbit for Urban Ranger. They, too, can be apps for mentats.

Now you can watch video while doing shovelglove (though I'd recommend something actually interesting vs video of me or someone else doing it). You can supplement the No S Diet with an electronic HabitCal or Noom or other apps. You can wear a fitbit while Urban Ranger. But you don’t have to. And I’d argue that there is something purer and better without. Not that I achieve that purity always in all cases, but I like to think I’m at least aware of what tradeoffs I’m making when I don’t.

The Apps for Mentats image is good to keep in mind, I think. Both so you register a ding of “a tradeoff is happening here!” alert every time you supplement an everyday or other habit system with technology, and so you try to start from a non-technological place when you’re coming up with a new system from scratch. You don’t have to be perfect, sometimes the tradeoffs are worth it, but there is something good, about every little step back, every tiny reclamation of human dignity and independence. Not exactly a Butlerian Jihad, but a Butlerian hesitation.

Maybe this sounds too abstract to you. Let me give you a more concrete benefit of stepping back from technology. There are a lot, but I’m going to content myself with just one for now. It’s about time. We all know how computers and especially phones distract us, right? When’s the last time you picked up your phone to check the weather and just checked the weather. Half the time I then forget to even check the weather. I’m not even going to mention that. We all know about that.

Rather, I’m going to ask you to try to remember the Study Habit episode, or rather two episodes, I did, about the different kinds of study time. Two of them, in particular, require some distance from technology. Dedicated, focused time, and what I called Eureka time. That computers are often a hindrance to dedicated focus is obvious. As I just mentioned, we can’t even check the weather without being distracted. But that other kind of time, unforced mental leisure, when your mind is wandering, and you all of a sudden might put two ideas together, for a personal project, for work, for reaching out to an old friend, you have a Eureka moment, this is also very precious and is also imperiled by invasive technology intruding on its natural territory. I like to think of Eureka moments as a very shy species of endangered animal, whose shrinking habitat we have to be very careful about preserving. One reason they occur so frequently in the shower is that we can’t bring our phones in there.

When concocting apps for mentats, it’s OK to be inspired by actual apps. In particular, gamification, setting thresholds for sensory dings of approval can be very helpful. My kids and I use this language learning app called Duolingo and when we’re all at it it almost sounds like a casino in our house with all the happy dings of correct answers. Duolingo uses all the grossest, psychologically manipulative social media manipulation techniques around towards the commendable end of learning a language. You can do that kind of stuff when you are offlining too. A green mark on a physical calendar. A star on a personal punch card with all its tasks crossed off. Every bit as psychologically powerful as computer generated ding.

Well, that’s all for today. Next month I’ll talk about active partnership with technology part, and in particular partnership with LLMs/Chat-GPT. Until then, remember your Orange Catholic Bible, and enjoy a Butlerian pause or two.

Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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