Alice in Wonderland once inside the rabbit hole found all of the ways she’d understood the world were of little use. Her experience forced her to draw a new map of reality.
The motif of making maps, sketches, and models of reality is a common theme in literature. The problem is our lack of humility in admitting these maps are often inaccurate and unreliable guide to our journey through reality. We believe these representations are certain and true rather than temporary and provincial pools that reflect how perceptions are processed. Teachers explain scientific and cultural concepts by drawing mental maps. We rarely question the map we learned in school.
The result is adults retain their childhood maps of reality. In Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, a local expat Englishmen named Wormold is recruited by MI6 to become a spy in Cuba. He needs the income from this side job in espionage to satisfy a high-maintenance daughter. The problem is he knows nothing about intelligence gathering. His mental construct is seriously flawed when it comes to actual espionage. Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, makes up a world of operatives and dangerous devices. MI6 accepts Wormold’s construct including an imaginary network of local agents and sketches the mechanism of the inside of a vacuum cleaner. He submits it to MI6 as an advance weapon system hidden in the mountains outside Havana.
The problem is our mental modeling is no better than MI6’s acceptance of Wormold’s vacuum cleaner sketch as evidence of Cubans building an atomic bomb. Here’s the problem that Greene was pointing out. Our mental model of intelligence agencies is they have the access to data and information, and as professionals can access, assess, and act upon this trove to create a mental model that aligns with reality. In the world of espionage all is lost if the gathering of that information is able to substitute a plausible sketch for a device. In the Cold War, MI6 and the Americans wanted to find such evidence, and if you wish to find something, sooner or later, someone will provide evidence that satisfies you. Does weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a justification for war ring a bell?
The other great lesson from Our Man in Havana is, after Wormold confesses his deception at MI6, his bosses decide to bring him in as a teacher and to recommend him for an OBE. So far Americans don’t award OBEs for this kind of thing, though, if they could, no doubt those pushing the WMD line as a justification for going to war would have received a gong.
Turning a blind eye to information that requires you to update or jettison a mental construct is hard. It is dangerous. It leads to shouting, fights, vilification, hatred, invasions, and murder. The satire of Wormold’s deceptive behavior, putting one over on the professional institution, is seriously fun to read. As often is the case, behind the satire is some seriously important business that is never finished.
It is a wonderful glimpse into the world of mental modeling. Do you have an image of what the inside of a nuclear device looks like? Or a dishwasher, an iPhone, or the names of countries on a blank map of Europe or the United States? These are tangible things. You can search and find information that would give you a model of the reality of these things. Most of the time we don’t look things up. We assume our mental models are right, and they are truthful, useful and valuable guides when it comes to forming opinions, making decisions, or examining our beliefs.
I am uncertain why no news organization gave blank maps of the United States and Europe to groups of Democrats and Republicans and released their findings. Now that might have changed the election outcome.
When asked to fill in a blank map of Europe, an American with an advanced degree handed in this paper.
It is more revealing when students are asked to draw the United States and the individual States on a blank sheet of paper.
British students as well as American students when asked to fill in a blank of the United States showed a similar level of error. Here’s an example.
We look at these maps and have a laugh. “How stupid,” we smugly tell ourselves. The reality is most of our mental maps of reality aren’t much better. We carry around a map of the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia, thinking it describes the reality of these locations. When put to the test our mental map and reality don’t necessarily align. The people at the top of the policy making chain may have gaps, errors, omissions and other follies on their map of a geographic area, the internal workings of an agency or institution, or chain of command inside a corporation or law firm.
What is your map for how a Hollywood film is made? You’ve seen many films. Just like you’ve eaten many sausages. Try mapping the process of financing, casting, shooting, post-production, and distribution of a film. Go through the same process to describe how a sausage is made. It’s hard unless you have personal experience or have studied these enterprises. We have a vague idea and based on that sketchy bit of information decisions are made, opinions formed, wars fought, and honors conferred.
A current theory in psychology is the brain stores models and our observations are tailored to confirm existing mental models. These models bias what we notice and pay attention to. The ordinary objects and events blend into background model. That’s why when you walk down a street, you ‘see’ a dog, a car, a pizza box, dozens of people, these objects and events are good enough to satisfy the brains model. The downside is we don’t look at the precise details of specific object. If the dog is singing “Hallelujah” that would likely conflict with the model most people have in their head. They’d notice a different kind of dog than the one that is a background model of a generic dog. Most days are spent processing the equivalence of a “generic dog.” If we run across a singing dog our memory modifies the dog model so after a couple of times, we don’t notice a singing dog as an object worth further inspection.
It’s as if we wore a built-in biological VR set of goggles programmed with a generic dog mental model for government, Russia, Trump, Syria, the British Empire, World War II, our galaxy, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, black people, queer people, farmers, the elites, to name a few examples. As Wormold demonstrated, our mental model of the mechanism of a vacuum cleaner is generic, inaccurate, flawed, with details filled in not with engineer information. Our perception of the world is often a poor translation of reality.
We are prone to cognitive biases, lack of attention, fitful concentration, lack of training, knowledge and expertise, as well as stress, emotions and sleep deficit. All of these factors act as filters to our perception of reality. These filtering mental states influence the cognitive tools used to measure objects and events in their spatial relationship with us, each other. Also, we automatically apply our sense of timelines, which we use to create our sense of causation: What happened first, what happened next, and how the two points in time are connected.
We have a personal sensitivity to defend. We have, in other words, a horse in the race when it comes to intelligence, perception, judgment, and responsibility. There is a debate about the role of humans in the new generation of self-driving cars. At issue is whether safety of the car requires the option of support of a human driver. The so-called Level 3 development would leave a space for human beings in the self-driving car. The developers and engineers want to leave the human driver out of the driving picture. Forget about Level 3 and go straight to Level 4 and 5, fully automated self-driving vehicles. And what is the main argument driving this development? If one looks at the data rationally human beings aren’t reliable or dependable behind the wheel of a car. Agreeing to forgo the status, reputation, and sense of agency that is embedded in car ownership is going to be a tough sell. It doesn’t matter that logically, rationally a fully automated car is more efficient, safer, and faster than one with a human involved wouldn’t get anyone elected to public office.
In fact, given the cognitive issues discussed earlier, humans are flawed, dangerous, error prone, and emotional. Not to mention the co-ordination problem of switching between an automated but intelligent, narrow-AI system to a human being, which would be measured in seconds. We are too cognitively slow, biased and inattentive to be brought into a life-and-death road situation as sit back in the car, and are pulled out of our Kindle, podcast, Netflix drama or Facebook page, and are asked to make a split second call. Logically this should be a natural progression of our technology. But as David Hume wrote we are emotional creatures driven by our passions, and there are no automated, self-driving emotional packages on the market. Yet.
The experts are signaling it is time human beings stepped aside from the fantasy they add value as human emergency system. We must adapt to a new mental model of the relationship between a car and a human being. That will take some time and may take a generation before it is firmly acknowledged that the mental model of a car is quite different from our accepted consensus as of 2017. We have a history of our mental models being demolished. As much of the political, social, and economic institutions we have modeled become unstable as the new way of seeing the world changes.
Copernicus and Galileo with mathematics and observation were able to overthrow the thousands of year old model of the earth as the centre of the universe. Darwin came along and overthrew the model of mankind as some divinely created being with a soul. The theory of evolution demonstrated that our species, like every other animal on the planet, had through sheer blind chance arose to occupy an ecological niche. Copernicus and Darwin are often cited as the great wreckers of existing mental models of reality and our place in it. Those models are the bedrock of religion, politics, and culture. In each case, it was scientific inquiry, observation, experiments, and new measuring tools like the telescope and microscope that destroyed the old beliefs organized into a mental model of reality.
At the same time, we can confirm that a substantial part of the human population will stick with mental models of reality that are pre-Copernicus and pre-Darwin. Religion is often where they take refuge. As science shows every indication of a trend to remove human beings from command and control of cars, trucks, trains, factories, drones, weapon systems, health and education, the more stress will build as we seek to retain our mental models of our place in the universe, in our country, workplace, family, and society.
If you are educated, intelligent, well read, you might be tempted to think you rise above a superstitious factory worker. We’ve seen the difficulty people have in filling blank maps of America and Europe. When it comes to specific questions about their country they demonstrate a similar disconnect with reality.
The Financial Times 1st January 2017 edition ran an article titled: “How well do you know your country?” They compared actual value, what a FT reader thought, and what general public thought about certain issues. What, for example, is the mental model of the Muslim population level in your country? In the United States, the actual number of Muslims is about 2%. The general public thought Muslims were 17% of the population, and FT readers thought it was about 5%.
When asked what percent of total household wealth do you think the least 70% wealthy own in the United States, the FT reader thought 15% and the general public thought 27%, when the actual answer was 7%. We are making all kinds of decisions every day as workers, officials, policy-makers, and teachers that are based on mental models disconnected with reality.
In 2017 we are beginning to understand how the brain models reality and the limitations that come from these imperfect mental maps. The basic idea is that our sensory perception evolved in a quite different ecology and demanded a certain range of accuracy in forming mental models of reality. It didn’t much matter if it was objectively wrong so long as it was useful in staying alive long enough to reproduce. That’s all evolution requires. If non-aligning with reality kills you before you reproduce, your gene pool ends. From the history of mankind there is evidence that alignment with reality is a by-product of science. That is a recent development, one that hasn’t been fully assimilated. There hasn’t been enough time. Like star formation, mental model formation takes place over large expanses of time. Meanwhile, we believe that our personal model of reality is aligned accurately with the much larger reality outside our sensory system. But it seems that is not the case.
There are many examples of illusions that demonstrate the fallibility of our perception and reason. But don’t go down that rabbit hole just now. Stay with me. Once you accept that we have cognitive and perceptional limitations, you can start to focus on understanding where those boundaries meet and how they can and have been exploited, and by whom.
The squares “A” and “B” share the identical background color. If you import the image into photoshop and compare the squares, you discover each has the same hex color value #787878. What you see is not necessarily a reflection of the real world.
Given this history, shouldn’t we be searching to understand the mental models of those standing for election to public office? There is no penalty paid for appealing to the flawed models of the electorate, who have sketchy maps of reality dotted with highways constructed from gossips, propaganda, misinformation, half-truths, and prejudices. What we aren’t taught and are left to find on our own that this infrastructure of inputs is what feeds beliefs—religious and ideological. The same polluted waters are what we draw on to form our sense of identity and self. It is rabbit hole debris pulled to the surface and projected as reality.
It is rare for someone running for public office to ask the voters to readjust their mental map and point out the flaws in the current cartoon like models on policing, guns, healthcare, trade, and automation. If you want to get elected, it is safer to pitch your program as if it were the generic dog with high emotional appeal. How does your brain come up its maps? The graphic below shows the input pipes that fill our heads. One can ague whether journalism is all that stands between us and being drown in a surge of illusions washing over us.
None of these ideas have likely gone unnoticed by the vast intelligence and surveillance communities. Their job is to model reality, and to alter existing models to sustain their power, resources, and network of interest. I have a mental model of a war room with banks of computer connected to millions of other computers, and data mining programs trying to find patterns in big data. Inside the Russian conference room deep in the Kremlin, the best neuroscientists, psychologists, historians, sociologists, game theorists gathered to discuss Donald Trump’s mental modeling of reality. Once you understand another person’s map, you can judge how reliable it is in reality, and how some of those trails may lead in directions that are in your national interest.
Let’s consider the political implications of all these badly made maps. When electing a president shouldn’t we be curious as to how he or she maps reality? There has been a lot of discussion of Trump’s mental maps, and many of those discussions suggests his map-making draws from the pipelines in the graphic of the dam above. To be fair, all of us have faulty maps but cling to them as if they were precise, certain and doubt free. Our adversaries and enemies seek to discover those flaws in mental models and take advantage of them. Much of what passes for intelligence work is of this nature.
Remember the film Being John Malkovich (1999) when Craig played by John Cusack enters a small door behind a filing cabinet and discovers he’s inside Malkovich’s head and can control his action. By playing with the internal maps used by Malkovich he can make him paranoid. Let’s substitute Trump for Malkovich and Putin for Trump. We go inside Trump’s head. Let’s call this movie: Being Donald Trump (2017), in pre-production.
Putin is inside Trump’s skull, looking around, opening doors, flipping memory switches, turning lights off and on, checking out the casting couch room. He could get distracted. If he doesn’t, his next step is to update Trump’s mental models in ways that don’t seem disruptive. Computers will run complex mental models examining the probability of outcomes, and the likelihood those outcomes will produce certain results. Like self-driving cars, we are inside a programmer’s world. She writes an algorithm to mimic the reactions to various scenarios such as assistance to allies, trade and finance priorities, and calculate the outcomes predicted by the model. Tweak the scenarios and update. Make updates ones that appeal to Trump’s vanity and need for approval. Also inside Trump’s head, one can better understand why the Donald is so easily distracted. That’s a big advantage to wish for in an enemy. He can’t stay on point. One minute he’s playing golf, the next tweeting about a piece of anti-Trump gossip, cutting deals, figuring out the size of bets to make. Like the self-driving car, Trump may be an experiment that proves the dangers of human being behind the wheel of complex decision-making.
Trump is another capitalist product. He’s only incidentally a person. He’s a packaged commodity that enough consumers bought because like a shopping bag of Twinkie’s, and you shove down the whole bag. Billions are spent on marketing every year. This isn’t brain science; people make a large amount of money to spin others in buying their stuff. All you need is a rather simple modeling of a mind possessed by Trump. That is one of things AI will do well: mind-model of primates (will be a subject in less than 200 years). Once you can predict how that program of modeling works, you can figure probability of outcomes, coupling them with various enticements, messages, insults, adorations, etc. and see how that improves or lessens the probability of a particular outcome. We already have enough expertise to evolve this technology. For a relatively simple mind like Trump, the first country that de-codes him has won a valuable key to open the resources of the USA for their own benefit. Whether Being Donald Trump is a comedy or tragedy is a closely guarded secret. One thing for sure, it is a movie that will have a worldwide audience.
I think we are at the point of computer hardware/software with skill equal to aligning the tiles on a Rubric Cube. Once the pros are able to run this modeling with a large database set for continuous updates, you start to see what is likely, what is possible, and what won’t work. Figuring that out, gives you a huge edge. I’d bet the Chinese, Russians, Germans, and others are assembling IT and medical science personnel to create better predictive programs.
The message of the Enlightenment is: Human beings are equipped with the generic dog level of perception. The message of the Enlightenment is: Human beings are equipped with the generic dog level of perception. The networked complexity of all systems from hydro, to driving, policing, judging, maintenance, and resource allocation, will be in the not too distant future in intelligence entities that human being will be incapable of comprehending. It will be like magic tricks for children. We may want to know how it was done. Or more likely, we will be in a virtual reality chasing after a generic dog while watching our own ideologically tailored version of Being Donald Trump. Remember we are walking around on a planet where many people have a map without any nation states but a generalized impression as their mental model inside their head.
This weekend printout the map of Asia below and ask a friend, colleague or loved one to fill in the names of the countries. Of course, you will know all the right answers in advance. That will give you a huge, beautiful advantage and make you appear very smart. But we know that map making is an illusion, a trap we can never escape. Being Donald Trump or Being John Malkovich is a variation on our own internal movie of Being Me.
Christopher G. Moore new book of A Vincent Calvino crime novel is titled Jumpers.