Category Archives: Technology

The Mathematics of the Soul

In 1960, physicist Eugene Wigner published The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. The gist of it is in the title: Math is weirdly good at describing the physical world, good enough to seem unreasonable.

At the end, Wigner says:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning. (emphasis added)

I could’ve cut that off after the first sentence, but that phrase: to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement. I’ve had that feeling with math, when something click click clicked into place and made the most wonderful, most unexpected kind of sense.

What, then, is the mathematics of the soul?

It can’t be mathematics, because the soul

  1. isn’t physical, and
  2. doesn’t exist.

So let’s ask the question this way: What is unreasonably effective at expressing, communicating, shaping, and preserving the fruits of the human heart? What carries those precious things through time and space and past the death of the individual?

Beauty. Art. But most especially song and story, story and song.

Song and story intersect at rhythm and narrative. Song has harmony and melody; story has plot and character. Song slices through reason like a sharp knife through the butterlike-brain; story marinates and soaks and dissolves and precipitates thought from reverie.

Song and story are unreasonably effective in transmitting and preserving culture, persevering when written word and graven image do not. What’s sung and said is the most Permanent Record. Erasing that takes genocide, and even that doesn’t always work.

I could not accept a theory of humanity, a theology or a philosophy of life, without song and story as one of its foundations. Along with human solidarity and grateful wonder at the world, it is one foundation of mine.

UU 102: What Is Fairness?

From danah boyd, who is not (so far as I know a Unitarian Universalist) comes What Is Fairness? She’s put her finger on one version of a question that haunts us:

In the United States, fairness has historically been a battle between equality and equity. Equality is the notion that everyone should have an equal opportunity. It’s the core of meritocracy and central to the American Dream. Preferential treatment is seen as antithetical to equality and the root of corruption. And yet, as civil rights leaders have long argued, we don’t all start out from the same place. Privilege matters. As a result, we’ve seen historical battles over equity, arguing that fairness is only possible when we take into account systemic marginalization and differences of ability, opportunity, and access…

And that’s where we are now–or are we? Those of us who have watched the Internet become a tool of commerce first and a means of communication second have seen other troubling trends. This is one danah boyd understands differently than than I had before:

Beyond the cultural fight over equality vs. equity, a new battle to define fairness has emerged. Long normative in business, a market logic of fairness is moving beyond industry to increasingly become our normative understanding of fairness in America.

It’s long been known that The Poor Pay More. Like it has done to so many other things, the Internet has changed the speed, the volume, and the frequency of the mechanisms that makes that happen. It’s also an ideal means of enforcing those mechanisms:

Increasingly, tech folks are participating in the instantiation of fairness in our society. Not only do they produce the algorithms that score people and unevenly distribute scarce resources, but the fetishization of “personalization” and the increasingly common practice of “curation” are, in effect, arbiters of fairness.

(Those “tech folks”? That’s me. That’s what we do for a living. When I’m not destroying skilled jobs or performing guard labor, I enforce market values through technology. We also do productive labor, but the majority of what we do is not for the good of humanity.)

This is another systemic problem, and it will take systemic change. It’ll have to begin with an acceptance that we live in a socially engineered environment. (Every society is.) Those who invent and spread the myth that we do not, those who preach most loudly against social engineering? Those are the bosses of the social engineers. They have the power to work their will and would rather not change that. It’s understandable they don’t want to cede their power gracefully. And it’s understandable I believe they should lose that power utterly.