Discover more from Kyla’s Newsletter
Language, Loneliness, and AI
the periodic table came to Mendeleev in a dream
So sorry for the late post! I try to publish once a week, but had a massive run in with the flu this weekend. Stay healthy and safe out there!
I am going to (hopefully) tie together a bunch of disparate thoughts in this article. I feel like all of these are tangential into how we should think about the economy (human-centric, right?) but as a heads up and out of respect for your time, none of this is inherently economic focused (for example, the Fed is not mentioned once!) Rather, it’s an overarching analysis on some thematics that I think are economic drivers.
Here is the audio version (on all streaming platforms under Let’s Appreciate)
A lot of what we do ties back to language. Communication can be physical, verbal, visual, written, etc and we engage in it constantly. Language is the foundation of how we interact with each other, especially in an online world.
And a very long time ago, in our caveman era, we developed these linguistic abilities for the first time. This came at the cost of our visual acuity and memory as this research paper describes. We had to give stuff up in order to begin talking to one another.
This radically changed how we interacted with the world. Rather than having detailed and lovely cave paintings, language enabled a deeper level of human to human interaction. And to this day, of course, language still shapes how we see the world through linguistic relativity - our language is our universe.
It impacts how we relate to things - there is a paper that explores how different naming conventions for colors results in cognitive dissonances across cultures and another paper that explores how language gender systems impact how people perceive objects (masculine objects strong, female objects delicate for example)
Language has generational impact - as Jacob Taubes wrote in Occidental Eschatology “with each new apocalyptic wave, a new syntax is created, and the breakdown in meaning in language makes people from the old age appear deranged to those of the new, and vice versa…”
There are even micro-examples of language impacting relation in online culture, like men calling diets “biohacking” for example - and as Winslow Dumaine says if men had their way knitting will be renamed “hyper threading” or “powertangling”
There’s actually a thesis on the relationship between language, men and knitting by Angela Desmarais1 . Men used to be super into knitting in the 1200’s - in fact, there used to be knitting guilds that you had to train 6 years to get into (of course there were).
But language and meaning evolve (knitting became girly) - and so how men relate to knitting through language had to evolve too. A lot of Desmarais’ work was around how men communicated that they were !manly knitters! in a Reddit forum - in order to achieve “identity, belonging, and empowerment” in the knitting community they used a lot of language around knitting as a “strength, mathematical skill, and (relative to their) possession of body hair.”
Language is a form of social validation - someone calling you cool or affirming that you have the best beard they’ve ever seen on a knitter is important. Online Internet forums like Reddit are one of the main channels in which people develop friendships and relationships now - and this is both bad and good.
Our world has become increasingly lonely - we have a “friendship recession” 2. And it’s across all age groups, across most countries. There’s a lot of things to point to here - for the U.S. specifically, lack of walkable cities, reliance on social platforms, and perceived loss of autonomy.
The pandemic: People haven’t been able to establish platonic or romantic relationships like they used to for the past 2+ years, and we’ve replaced a lot of our relationships with the online space - which is fine, but also it leaves gaps.
We are starved for intimacy which is why AI chatbots like Replika are so popular with some people. We seek connection.
But we also engage in other forms of community. Somehow we have allowed gambling to become a complement to sports watching. The money that goes into betting is money that is desperate, and that is the most angry money of all. Almost counterintuitively, it’s also the money that demands community. When reflecting on what happened with GME/AMC and even some pockets of the crypto universe, that was essentially community betting - people finding each other through number go up.
We crave other people - it’s human. And there’s almost an irony to the perceived selfishness of the “online generation” - they are so focused on social media, on posting pictures, on capturing every moment via phone but not because they are self centered, but because they are afraid to lose themselves. A lot of people in this generation (and of course, perhaps every other generation) have no idea who they really are.
The heart button: It sometimes seems that only way that we exist is if we are perceived by others, if the likes come rolling in, if we are seen through the screen as something deserving by the algorithmic gods. Dopamine, but also demonstration, documentation, of existence.
And I really don’t think this is narcissism, it’s the fear of non-existence. Neil Hilborn once said “Isolation is not safety, it is death. If no one knows you’re alive, you aren’t… I’m not saying you’ll find the meaning of life in other people. I’m saying other people are the life to which you provide the meaning to.”
But we’ve lost that focus on other people because this loneliness is more pervasive than just “ah we have no friends, we scroll so much”. It has reshaped how we interact with the world because we are losing core elements of things that are associated with human relationships.
We lose trust.
There is something called “being chronically online” where people almost see themselves as the main character in some big game - life isn’t about other people, it’s about watching people - and they attempt to exempt themselves from criticism, live through others parasocially, and throw stones in the online arena.
Phones are these daydreaming machines that enable us to do all of the above. In an interview, Bo Burnham talked about this in context of the online generation - he talked about the incentives that social media companies have to keep people scrolling, to be “chronically online”, to keep them glued to the ads - it’s a growth-centric revenue model, and we are just starting to see how Big Tech might not be able to rely on these Big Ads for growth anymore.
And of course, the question is - is infinite growth through commodifying the human experience even possible? Ads are good to an extent, but like, when does it end?
Malcom Harris wrote an article titled “Why are Kids so Sad?” talking about how it isn’t social apps that are creating the mental health crisis in our youth - it’s lack of autonomy (which comes from social apps, amongst other things) - playing, exploring, learning, failing, and trying again are kind of lost. As Burnham said “truth is completely dead to (to the youth) and they know it.” Nihilism leaks into every post it seems.
Going back to the points about loneliness - lack of walkable cities, reliance on social platforms, and perceived loss of autonomy - we live in a really weird world that is so hyper and so loud and as Harris writes -
American kids feel like their actions don’t matter and the world is fucked anyway; is that so different from the rest of us? There have been many times where my friends tell their parents that they are depressed, but the parents are shocked and try to belittle it, or demand to know why, and most kids can’t answer that.
Harris holds the thesis that kids don’t have enough freedom, don’t get enough playtime, but you know, they are sad for the same reasons we are sad. The loss of autonomy ties into social media. We are exposed to an endless scroll of everything. And our brains focus on the bad, even when there is so much good.
We treat the world around us as something to extract from rather than something we are a part of - and that is a problem within itself. “We are not really looking up at the sky, we are more so sticking out into space” as Christopher Uhl describes in his book, Developing Ecological Consciousness. We are merely a moment in the Milky Way Galaxy, but we forget that. As Aldos Huxley writes in The Doors of Perception -
“To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness - to be aware of it and yet remain in a condition to survive as an animal. Our goal is to discover that we have always been where we ought to be. Unhappily we make the task exceedingly difficult for ourselves.”
The world is good, even amongst the bad.
When we think about advances like AI, it probably will be like how we used to feel about the cellphone. It’s something new and big and scary, and there is going to be cognitive dissonance about integrating it into our lives. We often think about it in terms of destruction - “this will change so much” and that’s really valid.
But AI is a mirror to what humans are, in a sense, right? A model trained on human input; it’s merely more organized than we are (at least, right now).
Oscar Wilde once said “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation”.
But there are so many tradeoffs to advancement, especially at the speed at which we are going. It’s Clay Christensen disruptive technology where AI is moving upstream (it seems) - and very quickly.
The wild thing is people are like “this is better than Google, I can get what I want FASTER and BETTER” and there is a world where this makes *us* faster and better
But there is also a world where we fall into the trap that TS Eliot describes “where is the life we have lost in living? where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
This points to this sense of excess and abundance - we have so much, so much data, so many hot takes, so much noise, but we have lost some of our ability to parse through that, to know what works and what doesn’t, to know the difference between living and life.
There is an argument to be made that AI takes away serendipity and randomness and replaces it with bottled perfection. AI might lead us to monoculture, where everything is stark and perfect and too shiny and it makes our eyes hurt. There is also an argument to be made that AI can be supplementary to humans, that it can enhance our imperfections, and truly make our lives better. For example -
When humans draw things, they place the eyes too high on the face because we have distorted facial perceptions. We see eyes! The perfection is the imperfection, the fact that we love eyes so much that we make them too big and too round is something that AI will “fix” but what does that really mean?
People say that AI will replace college but college is more than just lecture hall, its finding friendship and exploring passions. Even removing the nonacademic aspect of university, as Derek describes “education is motivation x information, and just because information is zero-margin doesn't mean motivation is abundant”. We often forget that life is more than just data points.
There was a study called the Minimum Turing Test that tries to find the difference between a human and AI which came to the conclusion that the most uniquely human thing to say is "poop” because it evokes emotions rather than refers to them. There is a difference between knowing what things are and knowing how to make others feel them through language.
AI is just in the beginning stages. But of course, there are worries about human complacency - no one has the patience for creativity anymore. We consume the Marvel Cinematic Universe and reality dating shows and that arguably creates a cultural void rather than cultural landscape.
When we think about art and the concept of “better than human” art is really meant to be a way for us to relate to each other - it’s language, it’s a way of telling stories, it’s how we see other people for what they are - human. So if our art supersedes us, is it even art?
The Human Condition
We are surrounded by so much and we are so alone. It’s almost laughably ironic.
We glorify the state of being busy, especially in the United States, because then we can avoid reflection, we can avoid healing, we can lose contact with who we are as Jeff Brown writes in Hearticulations. And that’s when we can be manipulated and we become unhappy and we wonder why the world is spinning by us as we forget who we are. And its funny because it’s simple, what most people want - respect and love.
But the possibility of joy begins with vulnerability, and we lose our ability to be vulnerable when we are shrouded in the never ending scream of the world around us. We constantly seek connection, but never allow ourselves to truly achieve it because we worry about perception (I am a manly knitter, for example).
I touched on this earlier, but lots of people don’t know who they are because we see what we aren’t first - we describe ourselves in the negative! We never see ourselves for where we are going, only for where we have never been
Goethe said once “if we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming”.
So we get stuck, we get overwhelmed, we allow technology to become our own path forward - the advancements around us seem to overtake any marginal improvement we could make on our own life so we take a deep breath to try and process.
A lot of people end up LARPing around (the media influence of things like Wolf of Wall Street and The Social Network are an impetus here)
But also there is this horrifying thing where “life is just too goddamn dull” as Tom Nichols writes - and “there is no bill you can pass, no social program, that will solve the problem of a dentist or realtor who has decided (this) and that they're gonna spice up their week by getting some tactical gear and cosplaying the Second Civil War.”
This ties into an internal rage that some people carry when they see people getting help with something that they were never helped with. They feel alone in their suffering (why doesn’t anyone see my pain) and in order to make that suffering palatable, they begin to see the other party - with scorn. They wish things were different. So they choose hate.
And envy drives a lot of what we do, not greed as Charlie Munger has pointed out. “One day, I will be a rich billionaire, so we should not tax rich billionaires” or “I am better than everyone because of my beliefs and I cannot tolerate the idea of anything different”.
The laziest way to create meaning in your life is to find an enemy.
And we’ve seen business leaders do that en masse this year. VCs picking fights with “wokeness”, loudly proclaiming, creating noise that never needed to exist. This was supposed to be a decade of building, but instead we got these e-commerce plugins and B2B SaaS solutions that played off pattern matching and valuation models based on glimmers of fantasy rather than reality, all the while screaming about how the world isn’t exactly what you thought it would be. And we pedestalize this.
"If a monkey hoarded more bananas than it could eat, while most of the other monkeys starved, scientists would study that monkey to figure out what the heck was wrong with it. When humans do it, we put them on the cover of Forbes” as Nathalie Robin said.
Icarus flew too close to the sun but as Seth Godin once described, there were two warnings about the wings - don’t fly too high and don’t fly too low. Too high, and the sun will melt the wings. Too low, and the water will weigh them down. We warn people against hubris, we say “how dare you” but we never say “be careful, the water is right there, dream a little more, fly higher”
And when thinking about AI and creativity and complacency, and loneliness, we have to remember that the periodic table came to Mendeleev in a dream. We are capable of so much!! There are so many exciting things!!! The sun is right there, but so is the water.
We are going to have to get a lot weirder and do more human stuff, as Kevin Roose wrote. There is so much to do, so much to see, and perhaps language might not be enough to describe the world that we are in. Like even writing this piece I feel gaps in what I want to say and what you might be thinking.
Just like our caveman ancestors lost some visual acuity and memory to develop the first iteration of language, we probably will lose some of our features as we become more integrated with technology.
And of course, we will seek meaning but we will have to find different ways to describe it. And this poem from Keith Leonard reminds us that sometimes, we will never have the right words
My students want certainty. They want it
so badly. They respect science and have memorized
complex formulas. I don’t know
how to tell my students their parents
are still just as scared. The bullies get bigger
and vaguer and you cannot punch a cloud.
I have eulogies for all my loved ones prepared,
but cannot include this fact in my lesson plans.
The best teacher I ever had told me to meet him
at the basketball court. We played pick-up for hours.
By the end, I lay panting on the hardwood
and couldn’t so much as stand.
He told me to describe the pain in my chest.
I tried. I couldn’t find the words. Not exactly.
Listen, he said, that’s where language ends.
And perhaps it’s as simple as what Felix Poswolsky once said
“I think we found the answer to the universe which was, quite simply: spend more time with your friends”
Thanks for reading.
Disclaimer: This is not financial advice or recommendation for any investment. The Content is for informational purposes only, you should not construe any such information or other material as legal, tax, investment, financial, or other advice.
what would this yield curve look like?