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What’s Your Law?

January 11th, 2004

lightbulb.jpgJohn Brockman at edge.org asked many of the world’s smartest and most interesting scientists, technologists, artists and authors to draw up potential “laws” or rules of nature that occured to them as a result of their work. So far 160 of these people have submitted nuggets of wisdom from their respective fields, and together their contributions form one of the most entertaining and inspiring documents I’ve read in months. Here are a few of my favorite submissions:

Tor N┬»rretranders’ Law of Symmetrical Relief: If you find that most other people, upon closer inspection, seem to be somewhat comical or ludicrous, it is highly probable that most other people find that you are in fact comical or ludicrous. So you don’t have to hide it, they already know.

Tor N┬»rretranders’ Law of Understanding Novelty: The difficulty in understanding new ideas originating from science or art is not intellectual, but emotional; good ideas are simple and clear, but if they are truly new, they will be hard to swallow. It is not difficult to understand that the Earth is not at the center of the Universe, but it is hard to believe it. Science is simple, simply strange.

Lee Smolin’s Second Law: In every period and every community there is something that everybody believes, but cannot justify. If you want to understand anything, you have to start by ignoring what everyone believes, and thinking for yourself.

Steven Kosslyn’s Second Law: The individual and the group are not as separate as they appear to be. A part of each mind spills over into the minds of other people, who help us think and regulate our emotions.

Nicolas Humphrey’s Law of the Efficacy of Prayer: In a dangerous world there will always be more people around whose prayers for their own safety have been answered than those whose prayers have not.

Rupert Sheldrake’s Reformulation of a Traditional Theory of Vision: Vision involves a movement of light into the eyes, changes in the brain, and the outward projection of images to where they seem to be.

Sherry Turkle’s Law of Evocative Objects: Every technology has an instrumental side, what the technology does for us and a subjective side, what the technology does to us, to our ways of seeing the world, including to our ways of thinking about ourselves.

Sherry Turkle’s Law of Human Vulnerability to An Active Gaze: If a creature, computational or biological, makes eye contact with a person, tracks her gaze, and gestures with interest toward her, that person will experience the creature as sentient, even capable of understanding her inner state.

The human has evolved to anthropomorphize. We are on the brink of creating machines so “sociable” in appearance that they will push our evolutionary buttons to treat them as kindred… We will not be in complete control of our feelings for these objects because our feelings will not be based on what they know or understand, but on what we “experience” them as knowing, a very different thing.

We don’t know what people and animals are “really” thinking but grant them a “species pass” in which we make assumptions about their inner states. It is a social and moral contract. Contemporary technology has put us close to the moment when we shall be called upon to make this kind of contract (or some other kind) about creatures of our own devising. We are called upon to answer the question: What kinds of relationships are appropriate to have with a machine? Our answer will not only affect the instrumental roles that we allow technology to play but the way technology will co-create the human psyche and sensibility of the future.

W. Brian Arthur’s Second Law: As technology advances it becomes ever more biological.

We are leaving an age of mechanistic, fixed-design technologies, and entering an age of metabolic, self-reorganizing technologies. In this sense, as technology becomes more advanced it becomes more organic–therefore more “biological.” Further, as biological mechanisms at the cellular and DNA levels become better understood, they become harnessed and co-opted as technologies. In this century, biology and technology will therefore intertwine.

Stewart Brand’s Pace Law: In haste, mistakes cascade. With deliberation, mistakes instruct.

Marvin Minsky’s Second Law: Don’t just do something. Stand there.

Daniel Gilbert’s Law: Happy people are those who do not pass up an opportunity to laugh at themselves or to make love with someone else. Unhappy people are those who get this backwards.

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