Thursday, July 7, 2011

The inevitable Casey Anthony post

What does my previous post ranting about the innovation killing potential of Google+ have to do with the Casey Anthony case? And why, when Google reports 40 million pages of material on Anthony, would anyone bother to write more on the subject? Read on .....

Three Ideas

This is the story of three things, how those things came to be in my mind at the same time, the associations/connections that my brain made as a result, and the implications of that set of events. What were the three things? First, there was the Casey Anthony trial. I didn't really follow the case much over the past 3 years. But the coverage leading up to the verdict was so frenetic I got hooked. Curiosity got the best of me and I spent hours watching the closing arguments of both the prosecution and the defense. As a result, I have a basic awareness of the overall case and the way each side framed it to the jury. I, like many of the talking heads, thought the prosecution presented a more coherent case. But given the number of 'uncertainties' and the general level of family dysfunction, I wasn't totally shocked by the verdict.

The second thing rattling around in my brain was a curiosity about the Knobe effect, an effect having to do with the connection between moral judgements and intentionality. This was not something I had ever thought about before, it was directly traceable to an article (The anatomy of intentional action) I read on the day the verdict came down. Conventional wisdom tells us that we need to know whether an act was intentional or accidental before reaching a moral judgement. If someone accidentally steps on the cat's tail, that is forgivable. But, to purposefully step on the cat's tail and intentionally inflict pain is cruel and wrong. This distinction lies at the heart of the Anthony trial narratives. According to the prosecution, Caylee was intentionally murdered. According to the defense, Caylee accidentally drowned and events spun out of control from there.

But, the article discussed research suggesting we're more likely to view an act as intentional if we disapprove of it. In other words, the research suggests that conventional wisdom gets the causal order wrong. Rather than our assessment of whether or not an act was intentional (cause) informing our moral assessment of the act (effect), the research shows that our moral judgement (cause) often affects our assessment of whether or not someone's actions were intentional (effect). So, putting the ideas present in the article together with the trial, we get a plausible account for the divergence between public opinion and the jury verdict. A large segment of the public is obviously upset with the verdict. And many of these same people are thoroughly outraged by Casey's "Bella Vita" lifestyle. Perhaps the research in the article explains the link: these people passed moral judgement on Casey's lifestyle choices and, as a result, attributed intentionality to her actions toward Caylee.

The third item rattling around in my brain was the arguments presented by noted sociologist Charles Tilly in a wonderful little book titled Why?. In it Tilly analyzes the reasons people use to explain events or behavior. The basic points of the book: 1) there are different "types" of reasons, 2) the different types are contextually deployed -- in other words, rather than always giving the same reason for a particular action, people will explain it one way in one situation and another way in a different situation, and 3) there are conventionalized expectations, based on the situation, as to which type of reason we expect someone to provide and, hence, it is seems socially jarring when they provide a kind of reason that differs from the type we expect. This last point explains much of the humor in The Big Bang Theory; humor that follows directly from physics geeks offering up socially unexpected/inappropriate reasons for their behavior.

Publisher's Weekly summarized the book as follows:
He (Tilly) lists four basic types of reasons: conventions (socially accepted clichés like "My train was late," or "We're otherwise engaged that evening"), stories (simplified cause-effect narratives), codes (legal, religious) and technical accounts (complicated narratives, often impenetrable to nonspecialists). He demonstrates that our social relations dictate the kind of reason we invoke in a given circumstance. For instance, we offer more elaborate rationales for our behavior—stories, rather than conventions—to those close to us. We invoke codes with individuals whom we have power over, but not those who have power over us.

Anyone who followed the Anthony trial knows that all four types of reason -- conventions, narratives, codes, and technical accounts -- were present in the testimony. Perhaps Tilly's ideas provide some insight into the jury's verdict. Take, for example, the treatment of the forensic evidence. Generally speaking, the prosecution engaged that evidence by way of technical accounts -- the testimony of various experts -- while the defense tended to make sense of the forensics with other types of reason. The duct tape on the jaw, for example, was explained by a narrative implicating Roy Kronk. Similarly, the defense used the code 'junk science' to call into question the prosecution's technical account about the amount of chloroform present in the trunk of the car. One of the main points that Tilly makes is that people tend to be persuaded by certain types of reasons more than others and, hence, that social scientists (a group of whose technical accounts are legendary for being uninterpretable to the general public) should develop better ways of communicating. Perhaps that is what the defense did. Perhaps the types of reasons the defense supplied more accurately matched the kinds of reasons the jury expected to hear given the specifics of the various situations.

When Ideas have Sex

But the point of this isn't to describe the mash-up of ideas floating around in my head. Nor is it to detail how the Knobe effect or Tilly's types of reason provide insights about the Anthony trial. The point is that, because these ideas were in my head at the same time, my brain was able to find connections between them. And, more to the point, the connections were innovative.

There are millions (billions?) of words on the web about the Casey Anthony trial. I'd be very surprised, however, if anyone else has written about the relevance of either the Knobe effect or Tilly's types to an understanding of the trial process. Put Google to work and see for yourself. With millions of people riveted on the Anthony trial and writing so many reams of material about it, you would expect -- like the famous typing monkeys that ultimately produce Hamlet -- that someone else would have stumbled on the same connections.

Again, the point isn't that the connections are particularly profound. It is that they are innovative and original. They are the product of the idiosyncratic mix of materials floating around in my head (a necessary condition -- if the ideas weren't in my head, my brain couldn't connect them) and one particular type of neural activity (the creation of a network linking them together). Put them together and you have innovative thought -- the meeting and mating of ideas that Matt Ridley discusses as 'ideas having sex.' Or, as James Burke puts it: 1+1=3. If you take two things (a bell and a push-button, for example) and connect them together you get a third (a door bell).

As anyone who watches Dragon's Den (aka Shark's Tank in the US) knows, not all innovations are good innovations. But having the idea is a necessary precondition to separate the wheat from the chaff. In Darwinian terms, evolution is the product of lots and lots of mutations -- most of them trivial and useless -- that the selection process operates on.

Getting into Gary's Head

So, it is the juxtaposition of two or more seemingly unconnected things that lets the brain make connections. If they aren't there at the same time, no connections will be made. How, exactly, did this odd jumble of ideas come to be in my head? As everyone knows, the Anthony trial is in the air and hard to avoid. And, as I mentioned above, the crush of attention piqued my curiosity and I invested a few hours in catching up on an event that many had been following for years.

The other material came to my attention more elliptically. I frequently visit the Resilience Science blog. A few days ago they had a link to an interview with TC Boyle discussing five books dealing with the relationship between humans and nature. When I checked out the interview, I discovered it was hosted on an aggregator site, The Browser, which had lots of interesting material. Over the next few mornings, I returned to The Browser and that is where, on the day of the trial's verdict, I discovered a link to The Anatomy of Intentional Action.

The path to the Tilly material is even stranger. I was engaged in a work related activity, looking for a picture of Erving Goffman. So I typed his name into Google and sorted for images. As I scanned through the images, I noticed a photo of Malcolm Gladwell. Curious about why a search for Goffman would bring up Gladwell's image, I clicked on it and traced it back to the source page, an article in the New Yorker written by Gladwell reviewing Tilly's book and comparing it to Goffman's works. While I hadn't heard of Why? before, I've read several of Tilly's other books and respect his work. So, I read the review and that's how I came to know about Tilly's types of reasons.

Anyone who has spent time wondering the web can give you similar stories about the non-linear connections that result. You start out looking for a recipe for Bánh mì and, through a series of connections that would make Kevin Bacon proud, you end up looking at Mike Carp's minor league batting average. Two things are important to notice about the process. First, while the individual actions -- clicking on this link or that -- are intentional, the search path as a whole is not. I didn't go looking for information about intentional action or different types of reason. I serendipitously discovered it through a process that involved scanning the environment and following up on items that aroused my curiosity.

Second, the presence of these three items in my mind at the same time was equally serendipitous. They were the product of three independent and unconnected scans of the environment that occurred within a period of 24 hours. Like the water flowing downstream in a river, the bulk of what I experience rapidly disappears from my memory. Within a couple days, I can't tell you anything about 95% of the movies I see. So, if one or the other of the thee scans had occurred a day or two earlier or later, its likely that the ideas wouldn't have been in my head at the same time. And I wouldn't have been able to make the connections that I did.

The Poverty of Push

To summarize, the likelihood that a particular individual will come up with an innovative idea is a product of factors influencing co-presence (getting multiple ideas into their brain at the same time) and juxtaposition (having enough points of similarity so that the ideas get connected, but being different enough that the connection results in an idea that is outside the box). Given that the complexity of the world's problems, what processes can we put in place that would improve the odds of coming up with innovative ideas?

Individuals who study information flows contrast two basic models: the push model and the pull model. In the pull model, the information consumer reaches out into the environment and pulls those pieces of information that are of interest to themselves. The scan and select processes that put the three ideas into my head illustrate the pull model in action. In the push model, information is pushed at the consumer based on a variety of pre-established criteria. Think, for example, of an RSS feed where a particular kind of information -- the recipe of the day or news about the economy -- are delivered to your inbox. While there is an initial pull -- the consumer has to established the criteria defining the types of information they want to receive -- once they have been set up, information of that requested type is pushed at the consumer.

Both models are equally good in relation to co-presence; they both connect the information consumer to a flow of information that puts ideas and information into their head. But they differ dramatically in terms of juxtaposition. Push processes provide information that neatly fits within particular predefined parameters. Information consumers who live in a push world may have access to enormous amounts of information, but that information all falls inside particular boxes. It is hard to think outside the box, when all the information you get is inside the box. Pull processes, as we have seen, encourage exploration outside pre-packaged information worlds and, as a result, increase the likelihood that in individual's brain will be inhabited by multiple ideas that provide the basis for interesting and innovative juxtaposition.

Obviously, any given individual uses both processes. But technological developments influence the relative proportion of information an individual gets by one process or the other. Up until now Google has been the preeminent pull technology. You type in a search term and Google pulls in the results for you. But as the company shifts to the social media emphasis of the Google+ paradigm, as suggested in the earlier post, I suspect users will live increasingly in a push world. And there is no way that a push world can replicate the quirky paths that put those three ideas in my head. And without those ideas in my head, we don't get the innovative juxtapositions.

No problem, you say. The ideas weren't particularly interesting. Nobody's paying attention. The world wouldn't be any worse off without them. But that isn't the point. We need technological products that will foster creativity and innovation, not ones that suppress it. It isn't about the individual results, but overall productivity. And, I fear, Google+ is a move in the wrong direction.

July 11 Update:

Since posting this, I've become aware of a book that makes a similar argument: Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. It provides an eye-opening investigation of how ultra-personalization is controlling and limiting the information we’re exposed to. "We’ve moved to an age where the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see." For those who don't want to read, you can get the basic idea from his 2011 TED Talk.

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