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Linear thinking

[ 2011-06-28 15:02]     字号 [] [] []  
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Linear thinking

Reader question:

Please explain “linear thinking”, as in this sentence:

“We don't need to come out of Yale knowing everything. What we need is an urge to explore, to figure out what makes us come alive, and to abandon the linear thinking that school has given us.”

My comments:

In other words, schools are about teaching us how to think, rather than forcing us to remember by rote facts, figures and methodology.

“The linear thinking that school has given us”, however, does exactly that, calling for us to stick to the books without questioning them, and without change when we try to apply the knowledge and methodology we learned in class to actual practice.

Which deprives us innovation, which in turn prevent us from doing new things altogether.

In fact, linear thinking prevents us from seeing things with fresh eyes. Linear is about lines, straight lines. Linear thinking therefore refers to thinking in straight lines, from Point A to Point B to Point C.

Linear thinking is simplistic, systematic, rigid, dogmatic, inflexible. For example, if a linear thinking person gets stuck in traffic, he will not turn at the nearest green light and take another route. The linear thinking man never sees another route to get around a traffic jam. In fact, to the linear thinking man there is no such thing as another route, the route that he takes to the office every day is the only route there is.

The linear thinking man, therefore, doesn’t believe in the adage that every road leads to Rome.

In short, the linear thinking man cannot think outside the box. Thinking outside the box is, on the other hand, for people with lateral thinking or circular thinking.

Thinking outside the box? Lateral thinking? And circular thinking?

Well, yeah, very well, but that will be for another day, or two.

Now, examples of linear thinking in the media:

1. President Eisenhower introduced the domino theory back in the 1950’s when America was a linear thinking government, IMO. Some people might argue that it still is a one dimensional, simplistic thinking government. Foreign policy is complex, and leaders know it, but their bandwidth is narrow as is their time in office is short, so they simplify. Let’s play dominoes.

In the illustration posted with this story, China is the first to fall. Fall to what? It fell to communism, a dread form of acute socialism that swallows individual freedom and civil liberties. There is truth that the China form of government, one that is managing the largest population in the world, is massively bureaucratic that represses democratic freedom. At the end of WWII, Mao Tse Tung installed a new form of government and it took.

Fear was that the powerful China would move to its neighbors. Indeed, the USA was occupying Japan at the end of WWII. China feared the USA would occupy Southeast Asia. China had an allied relationship with their neighbor, the USSR and leveraged to fight the Americans against South Korea, a fight to control the Korean Peninsula.

If Korea fell to the Chinese, what next? Vietnam?

So history revealed the next legs of the struggle that has reached some state of stability.

Surprising to some is that countries like Vietnam have their own autonomous personality and character. They don’t want to be occupied by anyone. Same is true for Korea, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and the rest.

“The rest” include Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and India. Each of these nations are profoundly different in culture, scope, and scale. The dread, “communism,” an economic and social management philosophy either failed on merit or has transformed into something workable, as in the case of China.

Nation states are so busy trying to achieve viability in a global economy that they don’t have time for dominoes.

- Dominoes won’t fall, NowPublic.com, October 30, 2010.

2. Nobody expects that Afghanistan will be wholly at peace by then, nor that the Taliban insurgency will have been routed. So for the troops to leave with dignity there needs to be some semblance of a peace process. This week, America’s defence secretary, Robert Gates, confirmed that America has been engaged in “very preliminary” talks with the Taliban. That requires some embellishment of the Taliban’s image. That is tricky when they are the enemy. At America’s urging, a United Nations sanctions committee has agreed to distinguish between the Taliban—a domestic political force as well as an armed insurgency—and al-Qaeda, perpetrator of global terrorism.

The obstacles in the way of reaching an accommodation with the Taliban are manifold. There is the oft-repeated cliché that “the Americans have the watches, but the Taliban have the time.” Setting a timetable for withdrawal gives the Taliban reason to think that they can wait out the latest foreign power to try to bend Afghanistan to its will. And of course at the same time as pursuing “outreach”, America is doing its high-tech damnedest to kill as many Taliban leaders as it can. In what one Western diplomat calls the Taliban’s “madrassa, linear-thinking sort of way” this does not infuse talks with mutual trust.

- Banyan: Neither a picnic nor a Switzerland, The Economist, June 23, 2011.

3. Ray Kurzweil has plenty of titles already: inventor, author, futurist, techno-optimist, artificial intelligence expert. Now he’s adding a Hollywood gloss to that list by writing, directing, producing and acting in his first feature film. He’s adapting his latest book to make a movie titled The Singularity Is Near: A True Story About The Future.

The “technological singularity” is a concept that’s enchanting to some, like Kurzweil, and terrifying to others. As a result of the exponential progress of technology, Kurzweil believes, we’re racing towards a day when the power of the artificially intelligent machines we create will exceed human brainpower. Our computers will then carry on fashioning a new world -- with luck, they’ll keep our best interests in mind.

Wired News talked to Kurzweil about the movie that he hopes will give us a glimpse into that world.

Wired News: Can you tell me a bit about the structure of the movie?

Ray Kurzweil: There’s an intertwined A-line and B-line: The A-line is a documentary, and the B-line is a narrative. Did you see What The Bleep Do We Know!? I didn’t like the movie that much. But you can convey information well with that structure. On its own, the narrative line is so specific, it can’t give you all the information. But sitting through 100 minutes of a documentary can be ponderous. So we’re combining the two.

WN: What’s in the documentary part?

Kurzweil: It contains footage of myself, and also me interviewing 20 big thinkers, talking about their ideas, and their ideas about my ideas. We have people like Eric Drexler, one of the founders of nanotech; Aubrey de Grey, a theorist about radical life extension; Bill Joy.

Bill Joy had a famous cover story in Wired that created a firestorm, because you had a technological leader talking about the dire prospects of technology. His article was based on my previous book, The Age of Spiritual Machines. He and I are often compared. Even though I'm known as an optimist, I’ve always investigated the promise of new technology versus the peril. In that Wired article, Bill Joy focused on the peril.

WN: So you’re debating some of these people in the interviews?

Kurzweil: Yes, there’s Bill McKibben -- have you ever heard about this phenomenon called global warming? Well, he coined the term. He has a book called Enough, where he says we should not pursue more GNR – that’s genetics, nanotech, robotics. He argues for the relinquishment view, and says, “Let’s relinquish these new technologies, they’re too dangerous.”

That’s not a view I can accept, for three reasons. One, it would deprive us of all the benefits, like curing cancer. One of the questions I ask him is, “If you really want to stop global warming and wean us from fossil fuels, and (technological progress) is the only way to do it, would you give it up?” Second, it would require an authoritarian system to implement such a drastic change. Third, it wouldn’t work, it would just drive the technology underground.

WN: OK, that’s the A-line. What’s the narrative you use for a B-line?

Kurzweil: The narrative story is an outgrowth of the Ramona Project, which I started in the year 2000. I gave a presentation at TED 2001 (the Technology Entertainment Design conference) -- the theme was that in virtual reality you can be someone else.

I turned myself into a computer avatar named Ramona. I had magnetic sensors in my clothing, picking up all my motions and sending the data to Ramona, who followed my movements in real time. My voice was turned into Ramona's voice, so it looked like she was giving the presentation. I was standing next to the screen, so people could see what was happening. A band came onstage, and I sang two songs: “White Rabbit,” and a song I wrote called “Come Out and Play.” Then my daughter came out, who was 14 at the time, and she was turned into a male backup dancer. Her avatar was in the form of Richard Saul Wurman, the impresario of the conference. He’s kind of a heavyset gentleman, not known for his hip-hop kicks, so it was quite a show.

WN: Ramona is also a presence on your website, right? You can interact with her, ask her questions, and sort of test her artificial intelligence.

Kurzweil: Right. It’s a real 20-year project of mine, to create an AI that can pass the Turing Test.

WN: So in the movie’s narrative, Ramona the avatar is the main character?

Kurzweil: It’s a Pinocchio story. She detects a “gray goo” attack, an attack of self-replicating nanobots. The Department of Homeland Security is oblivious to this, and won’t listen to her, so she gets her other avatar friends to work on this. But she breaks some homeland security protocols in the process. She’s arrested -- and there’s a discussion about how you can arrest a virtual person. She hires (civil rights attorney) Alan Dershowitz to defend her, and also to establish her rights as a legal person. She feels she’s human enough to have human rights. There’s a whole courtroom scene, and finally the judge says, “OK, I’ll grant your legal rights if you can pass the Turing Test.” She hires Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker, to help her become more human, and the plot goes on from there...

WN: So you’re trying to make people understand how the exponential advances in technology will abruptly and unexpectedly solve many of the world’s problems?

Kurzweil: Think how different the world was 10 years ago -- 10 years ago, most people didn’t use search engines. That sounds like ancient history now. Generally, people think linearly. I think it's critical that people understand that linear thinking no longer applies. If we capture one part out of 10,000 of sunlight that falls on the earth, we can solve our energy problems. And nanotech will give us the capacity to store (that solar energy). Radical life extensions mean that the current discussion of social security is completely unrealistic. People say, “Oh, there’s going to be a deficit in 2027.” Their model is based on linear predictions on longevity, productivity and economic growth. The situation will be different when you have 65-year-olds who look and act 35 years old.

WN: It's certainly true that linear thinking runs through everything we do.

Kurzweil: For thousands of years, it actually served our needs to think linearly. If you think about our genes and our brains, they obviously evolved into their modern forms before advanced technology. If you saw something in the trees coming towards you, and you made a linear projection about where it would be in 15 seconds, and where you needed to not be, that actually worked very well. But these days we have different kinds of problems, and we need a different kind of thinking.

- Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: The Singularity, Wired.com, November 13, 2007.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


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