Claude Shannon’s world: Fun, games and the search for truth

 

It’s a small sample, but the brilliant people I know and have known share two underappreciated traits: a sense of humor and a quirky passion for following their curiosity, no matter what. These two qualities can get you into a lot of trouble.

The most interesting people, too, have their own unique motivations and their own ways of slicing and dicing what interests them. Put them into the usual mold, and they will probably break.

The article below, by the authors of the new book A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, touches on both qualities.

Shannon was a mathematician and puzzle solver who proved theorems and built gadgets with the same combination of passion and precision. His concept of information was the elusive quantity that lies behind the entire digital age. It was similar to that of entropy, at least mathematically, and he called his home Entropy House, a metaphor any homeowner can appreciate.

I used to visit Entropy House in the 1970s and ’80s and recall the eccentric unicycle and the bald patch of grass where Shannon practiced juggling.

His hobbies tended to combine a sense of play, some physical challenges and — often but not always — a deeper theoretical insight. He built gadgets that were both amusing and instructive. One was a machine that turned itself off.

He made a machine that solved the Rubik’s Cube and wrote a funny poem about the elusive device. He built Theseus the mechanical mouse, which, along with its maze, was considered the first practical demonstration of artificial intelligence.

After building several scale models, he turned a small school bus into an elaborate camper van. He played the clarinet and loved Dixieland Jazz.

He investigated the mathematics of the stock market but made more money by investing in a few tech companies. Hanging out in casinos, he co-invented the first wearable computer.

Back at Entropy House, the rule was you paid attention to something because your were curious about it. Not because it was practical or promised some conventional reward like financial gain, although could ensue later on.

This something could be a puzzle, a scientific mystery, a technical or physical challenge, the draft of a poem, or a gadget to build or fix. Tools included unicycles, juggling balls and clubs, Erector Sets, mechanical devices of all kinds, musical instruments, computers both analog and digital, mathematics, chess sets, frisbees, books – and, well, tools.

Shannon was known for a killer intuition, paring away a problem to get at its essence, then building it up again. This could irritate brilliant people who didn’t have the knack.

His many interests and hobbies cross-fertilized each other. Procrastination was a way to avoid the quick but simplistic solution. He would spend years on a difficult problem. When he had solved it to his satisfaction, he moved on.

Reclusive and not career oriented by normal standards, Shannon was employed by Bell Labs, MIT and the US government, with stops at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and Stanford.

During WW II he put cryptography on a mathematical footing and did research that led to his ground breaking work on what was to become known as information theory.

At Bell Labs he sometimes got in trouble for unicycling and juggling – at the same time – but as senior researcher and respected all-purpose genius, he got away with it.

Not only did he juggle, but he also came up with a mathematical theory of juggling. This is interesting partly because many math types have juggled over the generations, but he was the first one to deconstruct the practice.

At Bell Labs he preferred to hang out with the guys at the machine shop while other theoreticians wondered why he was so fascinated with gadgets. He liked to build things with his own hands, but wasn’t above hiring others to help.

Shannon combined his passions for machines and chess in early research into what we now call artificial intelligence, but at the time it seemed more like a sidetrack.

He rarely collaborated. The “bit” was his idea, but he asked his buddies to come up with a word for it.

He loved games of all kinds and although he described himself as a frail man, he was athletic. He loved music, Alice in Wonderland and the sounds of words.

In recent years several books have brought a new prominence to this shy scientist and inventor. A film is coming soon.

There is no Nobel for the fields in which he worked — math, engineering and computer science — so it was fitting that he won the first Kyoto Prize.

His work was often decades ahead of its time.

When asked if machines would ever be able to think, he replied: “Well, I’m a machine and you’re a machine and we both think, don’t we?” [I think I got that right.]

He was friends with Alan Turing and spent time with John Von Neumann. His mentor at MIT was Vannevar Bush, the practical academic who invented modern science policy, fostering research into atomic weapons during the war and the Internet in peacetime. Our modern tech billionaires owe a lot to Bush, but not all of them know it.

Entropy House had a great vibe. It was a sort of Disney Land for talented people who didn’t take themselves too seriously.

His wife Betty was a collaborator. She was also a math whiz, a reader, a puzzle solver and a master weaver. She bought him his first Erector Set. The next generation is talented too.

With all his technical and scientific achievements, I asked what Claude Shannon was most proud of. “Lasting 42 moves with the world chess champion,” replied a family member.

From the article below:

Reflecting on the arc of his career, Shannon confessed, “I don’t think I was ever motivated by the notion of winning prizes, although I have a couple of dozen of them in the other room. I was more motivated by curiosity. Never by the desire for financial gain. I just wondered how things were put together. Or what laws or rules govern a situation, or if there are theorems about what one can’t or can do. Mainly because I wanted to know myself.”

http://observer.com/2017/08/10000-hours-with-claude-shannon-how-genius-thinks-works-lives-a-mind-at-play-bell-labs/

 

Creating new worlds vs. the myth of problem solving

By David Holt

Despite its popularity, the current obsession with problem solving is way off the mark. Ditto finding out what your customers want and giving it to them. This is fine for fine tuning and tweaking what already works, but it’s not what changes the world. Not even close.

As Henry Ford reportedly said, “If I’d listened to my customers, I would have invented a faster horse.”

Here’s why. The problem-solving orientation is based on accepting someone else’s view of the world, like that of your fourth grade teacher. A problem is, by my definition, a situation that has already been defined, usually by someone else.

School is a good example. Here’s a problem, says the teacher. Solve it. Get an A. Please the teacher. This is really about social acceptance—not objectivity and creativity, the two forces that change the world.

The people who change the world in all fields aren’t trying to get an A from the powers that be, including the apparent rules of the current marketplace. These people are driven by curiosity to understand and to create.

Mozart had his moments but was buried in a pauper’s grave. The careers of Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec didn’t kick in until after they died. Shakespeare made his money as an investor in the Globe Theatre, not as a playwright and actor.

Gregor Mendel’s genetics experiments were ignored for decades. Nikola Tesla was often out-maneuvered by Edison, a ruthless character who staged the public execution of a circus elephant in a misleading stunt to malign the concept of alternating current.

It was Alexander Graham Bell’s wife Mabel who insisted on the patent application for the telephone. Bell was a serial inventor, a lone genius and brilliant collaborator. His wife was the business mind.

What creative people are doing is creating new worlds. They realize, more than the rest of us, that reality is not fixed.

This is the key insight in a recent article in Fortune magazine by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh: This Ancient Chinese Text Is the Manual for Business Disruptors: And no, it’s not Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.” [April 1, 2016].

A few extracts:

When disruption became the rallying cry for innovators a decade ago, they seized on ancient work of Chinese philosophy to prove their point. In Sun-Tzu’s Art of War, a new class of business disrupters claimed to have found the original manual.

They were right about ancient Chinese philosophy, but wrong about the manual.

As it turns out, another text from China, the Laozi, actually offers a much more expansive—and revolutionary—vision of innovation. Like the Art of War, the Laozi is a 2000-year-old text.

The Art of War says that victory comes to a general—read, a business leader—who avoids following conventional strategies and instead uses surprising tactics to unsettle a seemingly dominant opponent… But it assumes that the disrupter has to take into account things like the actual terrain on which he is fighting and that he must treat his adversary as stable and unchanging.

The Laozi, by contrast, questions the very idea that we should try to come up with innovative strategies within a defined, predictable arena… Instead, the Laozi assumes a world in constant flux and motion.

The key lies in understanding one basic idea: although we tend to think of things as stable because that makes them easier to grasp, every situation that ever arises actually results from interactions between sets of constantly shifting, interweaving worlds.

Laozian innovation comes from an awareness that if everything is composed of moving parts, subtle actions allow one to alter or even make the world into something new.

Examples:

[With CNN] Ted Turner … crushed the idea that the news belonged to a few TV channels and a few hours of the day, and thus helped pave the way for the day when everyone can assume news is delivered instantly and around the clock.

[With Amazon] Jeff Bezos did not disrupt the book industry or even several industries. He created a new world where those industries became less relevant because a large amount of shopping would now be done through this one website.

With the iPhone, Steve Jobs created a new world simply through completely reinventing a daily object [the phone] we already used and carried around all the time.

It’s that we don’t realize that we are entering these new worlds created by others that makes them so powerful.

Indeed, these new creations are more platforms or delivery vehicles than products or services. CNN carries “the news.” Amazon is really the ultimate logistics company. Apple provides the opportunity to create.

Besides delivering atoms and bits, these platforms are their own worlds. In addition to efficiency, they offer something else we humans love. Call it a feeling, a certain tone. We line up to buy.

The illusion of free

By David Holt

Goods and services are getting cheaper. Many are free. Blame it on the Internet and globalization. The upside is that businesses can create new business models where costs are minimal, as Chris Anderson explains in Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The downside is that our brain chemistry is wired by evolution to love a deal. We love to consume, as Ellen Ruppel Shell writes in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

In an age where we can go only a few minutes without staring at a computer screen (smartphones included), it is fair to ask what it is we are consuming. The answer is: Time and information.

People now walk holding their phones in front of them, text while at the cash at the grocery store, fiddle with them compulsively at the gym, check messages at the crosswalk. In the waiting room everyone is glued to the tiny screen. In the office, the phone sits beside the laptop and it isn’t all work. Head slouched forward is the new normal.

Think of all this clicking and scrolling as transactions. They seem free (or cheap, even when we pay), but they are not.

Powerful software is tracking our every click, analyzing, storing and selling it to other software. Purchases at the store–not just online–are tracked and added to giant databases. Targeted ads pop up on our screen, floating into our unconscious and influencing our decisions.

Time and information are the new consumables. The real economy lies beneath: a maze of data routed and tracked by software and stored on thousands of servers. The sound of the modern economy is a low hum.

If you think about it, it was always thus. Our entire lives are just a set of experiences, mediated by our thoughts and feelings. In buying, especially, anticipation is the key.

We don’t buy a car, but rather the ability to travel efficiently and pleasurably. “If I’d listened to my customers, I would have invented a faster horse,” said Henry Ford. He invented the sturdy, affordable automobile, but more than that he saw that he could create and we would buy. The horseless carriage was so much more appealing than the carriage itself.

He used information to create and refine his new business model exemplified by the assembly line and the reliable vehicle that could survive the wagon-rutted roads of his time.

Out driving on the open road, his customers were spending their most valuable commodity–their time. Compared to tending the horse and fixing the wagon, this was a deal.

Their buying decisions produced a lot of information about what worked and what was wanting. The cars required better roads and a fuel distribution system, gas stations and repair shops. Business guys watched the trends and new industries were unleashed.

Time and information–those are the ultimate currency of business. It was ever thus. There are deals everywhere, but what businesses really seek is the consumers’ time and information about their behaviour. The best way to get it nowadays is to provide the illusion of cheap or even free. But organizing information has a cost, as we know from thermodynamics. And someone has to pay.

Don’t just read front to back

By David Holt

Many of the best non-fiction books are thick and filled with many stories, facts and chains of wisdom. Reading them front to back can be delicious but also off-putting. You can get bogged down, distracted, put a book down, perhaps forever. Opening a book randomly and reading a few pages can deliver little slices of insight.

Over the last few days I have been dipping into The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, who also wrote about Einstein and Steve Jobs. He has also been showing up on end of year news shows on TV. He always expands the context of the question the interviewer asks and tends to have a wonderfully quirky sense of whatever the interviewer thinks is important.

This book is about the creators of computers and the Internet–the quirky geniuses who worked in a universities, the private sector, government, bedrooms and garages. The big lesson: despite all their quirkiness, they collaborated. Environments that fostered creativity were a big help. This includes US government policy crafted over decades.

Some of the stories and facts I knew, some I didn’t. This is the kind of book you could read many times and still learn from, not only from the rich material but also from the insights of the author.

Here is one theme: Many of these technical people got key insights far from their technical fields–from art, music, old books, odd early schooling like the Montessori method, athletic pursuits, and parents who supported and challenged them in unusual ways. Somehow they blended their independent mindedness with an ability to find the right collaborators. Some blended theory with the practicality needed to create and grow businesses.

Read a few pages at random and you will learn a lot. In fact, this ability to dip into knowledge in non-hierarchical, semi-random way is one of the principles of the Web. It is also one of the principles of innovation itself. Go figure.

Rant: When you read these stories and if you are lucky enough to know people who do these types of remarkable things, you realize that the pursuit of knowledge (curiosity) — and indeed any kind of personal growth — for its own sake is the root of much of the practical stuff that the world later comes to rely on. Government policies that don’t recognize this simple fact jeopardize the future.

The productivity paradox: Lessons from the sugar camp

sugar camp

Strategy and execution are at opposite poles of the spectrum. The former demands a broad view and some imagination – the ability to speculate and innovate. A light touch. Sometimes even a sense of humor.

Execution on the other hand demands a tight focus and the ability to follow the rules. An organization needs both. When it comes to productivity–something you can measure–we are usually talking about execution. This is good as far as it goes, but sometimes we take it too far.

The other day I was pushing a vacuum around the office but I might as well have been on Mars. My colleagues were sitting diligently at their computers, headsets on, focused, being productive. Spending time diligently at your computer is the new definition of work. Anything else is suspect.

The Net is full of advice blogs telling you how to have efficient meetings—generally, the fewer and the shorter the better; with a tight agenda and action items—so you can get back to work, which means sitting at your machine, being productive.

Some groups have walking meetings, but come on?

Productivity is the gospel of our age, but what does it mean? From a distance it often means tapping on keyboards and sliding a mouse.

What is happening is execution. The tasks are relatively clear. Let’s get on with it. Today, most of the tools are digital. Whether you are an architect, a manager, a scientist or a cop in a patrol car, it’s mostly about the laptop, or maybe the PC and don’t forget the smartphone.

In the background of execution lies a set of shared assumptions. A fancy term for this is strategy—the roadmap of where we want to go.

The strategy may be brilliant, but it was set in the past. Execution is really just a test of strategy. Yet there is no perfect strategy.

It is the role of management to set the course and monitor the execution. But reality is complicated. Sometimes you get lucky—you are riding a wave you are not even aware of. Other times you deserve better, but some random act knocks you off course.

The only way to know is step back, sometimes way back. To remove yourself from the day-to-day and all those shared assumptions. You discover something new. It is often from a source outside your usual context. From your viewpoint, it is an anomaly. Suddenly the strategy is suspect.

You realize all that efficiency and productivity may be taking on the wrong route. Perhaps a nimble upstart has devised something new that will make you and your known competitors an anachronism. You have to study your world more deeply, cast a wider net.

This is inimical to the notion of productivity which, by its nature, demands a narrow focus.

How to find the balance?

Sometimes I do that “management by walking around” thing. It is informal. This is how I get to know people. “How is your day going?” is one of my standard lines.

On the surface, there is no agenda but instead a strategic purpose, to prepare the ground for what comes later.

Maybe some storytelling and a few laughs. After a while you get to know your co-workers, their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses. In a group setting, it creates a certain atmosphere and sense of belonging.

Later, when it is time to confront an important decision that must be made quickly, you discover there is a collective wisdom. Everyone brings their special talents to the table. A few scenarios are tossed out. The decision is made. There is a kind of cosmic efficiency that comes from this holistic approach.

I remember watching my father-in-law and his brothers at the maple sugar camp. They had grown up together and knew each other well. When the sap runs it is all hands on deck, day or night.

The boiling camp is a complicated operation. Wood is fed into the boiler, sap into the pan. Customers wander around enjoying the scene but getting in the way. Someone checks the specific gravity and the syrup drawn off at just the right time.

The customers buy some maple products: syrup, sugar, butter, leaves. People have to be fed. An ATV arrives with supplies.

It is a sort of controlled chaos. There are many technical operations to keep track of, some laughs and teasing at the same time. This how people have worked in groups since the dawn of time. It is informal but sophisticated. There is a sense of flow.

People look up. They have to communicate in tight quarters. Joking around helps. Young people watch the older ones. They are learning a subtle set of social rules as well as the technical stuff.

Outside the weather changes. It is warming up. There is a light drizzle. The sap stops running. Soon it will be time to clean the pans. Head home.

Nature is a mysterious force. It is hard to predict exactly when the sap will start running and how long it will run. When the season will start and when it will it end.

There are many technical tasks but the groups has to have its own wisdom—that sense of the bigger picture. The tools are just tools and everyone knows it.

The “why” is clear: The season is short and the sap is rare. The syrup is delicious and it can be made into many more products. Making the stuff is an experience in itself.

You are out in the woods. Your senses are alive. Strategy and execution have to blend. At the end of the day someone sweeps out the boiling camp.

I shut off the vacuum. Get back to work.

2016: Year of the Human

green-monkeys-112275_1920

Look around. You are driving to a parking lot, walking into tilt-up concrete buildings to buy stuff imported from China, making small talk with the cashier while checking your phone.

You are on-line at work, at home, at the gym, on the move. Like Xerox once, Google is now a verb. So is Facebook. When Jeff Bezos says “drones,” you had better duck. Netflix after supper.

This digital world is convenient and entertaining, and it often seems free or at least cheap–though it’s not. The data miners are cashing in. Machines and software are getting smarter. Algorithms are evolving, almost like life forms.

The market knows. In 2015, four stocks drove the US stock market. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (FANG) soared, while the S&P 500 ended the year up only 1.4%.

In contrast, we humans seem to be stuck in the old ways. We are hardwired to focus on the short term–to respond to our perception of immediate threats and opportunities. Like our primate cousins, we trust our inner circle. Everyone else, no so much.

This is the wiring that kept our primitive ancestors alive.

Highlighting the contrast between the evolution of technology and the evolution of society is my submission for #BigIdeas2016.

Our societies have evolved gradually. Are they evolving fast enough today?

We have companies and governments.  Social clubs and schools. Languages and cultural norms. Paradigms of thinking and doing.

By definition, entrenched interests everywhere benefit from these norms and paradigms.

Meanwhile, technology is advancing exponentially. Our brains and bodies not wired for this. Nor are our social and individual conventions — how we do things around here.

There is a disconnect.

Increasingly, we humans are trading off our own basic needs and innate ways of being for a digital world. Seeing Star Wars at the cineplex, there were almost no employees except the kids selling toxic popcorn, but the credits at the end included a long list of those working for Industrial Light and Magic. That is the hidden, subsurface work done by the business interests, storytellers and technicians. Creative and well paid: A tiny fraction of total employment.

George Lucas said Star Wars was always about people, families. A soap opera, he called it. Stories he wanted to tell. Not about space. He is no longer involved in the films.

Our eyes stare at screens of different sizes. We get hits of dopamine but our other senses are becoming dormant. Even proprioception, the sense of where we are in space. We are slouched over now, mostly living in our heads.

Nothing wrong with technology. It’s a tool. It is moving ahead, seeming to evolve on its own. Software designing software. Robots building robots.

It’s our human side that needs work. Even in our advanced age of global communication and travel, there is a lot of  xenophobia out there. Anyone not like us is THEM. But that is wrong. We are all more similar than we are different. There is magic in those differences, both personal and cultural.

In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin shows how over the centuries the human race has become more “we” and less “them.” We have figured out creative solutions to social problems. Call it civilization.

There have been major steps backwards like the world wars of the 20th century, but, overall, human rights and equality of opportunity have been increasing.

Here’s to more of that in 2016.

David Bowie’s reinventions

Innovators make a lot of experiments. Some work out. By the time we know, they have moved on. David Bowie comes to mind – and my friend Joe Donovan.

freekstreet

David Bowie died. I was up late watching a BBC documentary about him in the 1970s. He was a character trying out many musical roles. “I’m not very creative,” the musician said at one point. “I just like to keep up on the latest trends.”

Only a truly creative person would say that. Regular people try to be creative. There are books and seminars. Creative people may try not to stand out. It can be a struggle. People who go out of their way to appear creative usually aren’t the real thing. Real creative types are too busy exploring, falling down and getting up again.

In Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, authors Kaufman and Gregoire argue that the essence of creativity is the same in any field. Creative people tend to have diverse interests and try a lot of things. This helps them to see connections most of us miss. It’s not easy.

“Highly creative work blends together different elements and influences in the most novel, or unusual, way, [they write] and these wide-ranging states, traits and behaviours frequently conflict with each other within the mind of the creative person, resulting in a great deal of internal and extra tension throughout the creative process.”

The authors quote psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: “If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes.”

Bowie certainly explored many themes and styles throughout his life. He created musical personae. He acted on stage and in film. He was a writer and an artist. He moved in many worlds. When he first came to New York City as a young glam rocker from England, one of his musician friends took him immediately to The Apollo Theatre to check out this mecca of black music.

My late school friend Joe Donovan shared some of Bowie’s characteristics. I met Joe at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire in the fall of 1968. We were entering the third form. He grew up in South Bend and told stories about tornadoes; his father taught at Notre Dame. I was from small town Nova Scotia. Like most third formers, we felt out of our league.

We ran cross country and one day after practice I talked to him about the novel Ulysses. I had just read the war novel HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean; he was talking about James Joyce. He was known for his wit.

Joe played the piano and, late at night, boogie woogie on the chapel organ. He played the bassoon in the school orchestra. He had many classical records on the Nonsuch Label and loved The Greatful Dead. He was the only third former to play in the 18-hour performance of Vexations by Eric Satie at Mem Hall.

At age 15 he studied Greek and read the I-Ching and Zap Comix. He wrote in an ornate hand with coloured ink and drew stylized cartoons and sketches with a Rapid-o-graph pen.

We were in France together for the last year of school and I got to know him better. We walked the cobblestone streets of Rennes. He made ridiculous comments. I laughed.

Arriving back in New York, we stayed with a friend in a huge apartment in the west seventies. In the fall he attended Columbia. He came out. He discovered the Apollo. I visited him a few times, checking out jazz concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. We lost touch.

When we reconnected years later he had bulked up from swimming and running. He was HIV positive but took medication and was healthy for many years. We went shopping for supper in the neighbourhood. He wore a beret and joked with the clerks.

He got into bowling and sang with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. “Imagine a rehearsal,” he told me. “Two hundred guys sitting around talking about Judy Garland.” He had a shrine in his West End Avenue apartment in memory of the girlfriend of his friend, Joe 2. She had died of cancer.

Bowie preferred to compose on his first instrument, the saxophone. He wrote, acted and influenced the world of fashion, marrying model Iman. Even his name was made-up. He was born David Robert Jones.

He had an eye for business, helping to create the first “celebrity bond.” The musician securitized his music catalog, selling an offering to raise $55 million. Designed to last 10 years, the bonds allowed Bowie to monetize his music without giving up ownership.

Joe Donovan worked for a PR firm and wore a suit to work. He wrote for Avenue magazine. I met Joe and Joe 2 at a bar, the coolest joint. There was a neon sign, the symbol of a lizard on the outside wall, no name. We drank martinis. Later we visited this flight attendant just back from somewhere. It was late. She was tired, served us drinks anyway.

When I got lost in intellectual pretense, Joe put me in my place fast. The last time I saw him was at a school reunion some years ago. For some reason he thought that because he was gay he would not fit in. When he showed up, his old friends and classmates were glad to see him. He had been one of the stars of our form – an original. You never knew what he would say, but it would probably be funny.

He had cancer and was between chemo sessions.

We were waiting for a cab that last morning and I was rambling on about people deserving their fates. “You’re being a Jansenist,” Joe scolded.

A few weeks later he had his final chemo session. The cancer came back fast. I spoke to him on the phone one last time. He died soon after.

Reading the press, I realize how many lives Bowie lived. Many successes, many failures. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t supposed to be.

One study of Nobel laureates in science found that they were more likely than their peers to have a serious hobby in the arts, painting, say, or playing an instrument. Einstein played the violin and loved to sail. They were skilled amateurs whose hobbies were a divine distraction. Always learning. Falling down, getting up again.

Science, the arts, business, sports, they are fundamentally the same. We explore the world, carve it up so we can understand it better. Hit one out of the park. Strike out. Learn. Thank you, David. Thank you, Joe.

The price of perfect: The mythology of the digital age

The airplane stops. Everyone turns on their smartphone. There is a lot of Facebook. A man passes my wife’s bag from the overhead storage. “Thanks,” I say. “How is your day going?” Suddenly he looks suspicious. “Why do you ask?” he says, his eyes narrowing.

We have a brief chat. I can tell he isn’t used to speaking to people on airplanes. Entering the terminal, most people are staring at their phones. Inside, almost everyone is. Few people are talking to each other. Social now means media, not chatting to the person beside you.

This is the new normal. Everywhere a laptop, a tablet, a smart phone. All the pretty pictures, clever videos, smart websites. Check social media and see your friends smiling on a mountaintop. Their life is wonderful, and yours should be too.

So much is free on line, or seems to be so, including access to the libraries of the world, the latest scientific discoveries and the ripest gossip. You can buy stuff – it’s fast and cheap. Everything has a rating. There are few secrets.

This is the world we live in. It is beautiful and efficient on the surface. You can be forgiven for thinking your life should be this way too.

It is also a mirage.

The people who have grown up in this world are comfortable with what we call technology, computers and the internet. They use it all day long. The digital world has many attractions and benefits. No-one wants to go back to the old days. Life is easier. You don’t need much matter to scale. It is harder to deceive.

But there are drawbacks. There is a flip side.

On the level of organizations, the networked economy means that pyramids are getting steeper. The closer you get to the top, the more opportunities you find, the more money you make. But for many the pyramid is harder to climb.

The networked economy is squeezing the middle class. In the United States at least, the wealth rebound since the 2008 recession has gone almost exclusively to the top one per cent.

On the personal level, our gadgets promote the illusion that the world is pretty, efficient and mostly free. By implication, if your life isn’t going so well, you are falling short–way short. You may never catch up.

Paradoxically, another drawback is the multiplicity of choices–for products, services and life decisions like career direction and even who to date. It is hard to decide. No matter what you choose, something sleeker and cheaper—or someone who is better looking, more accomplished and wealthier–will come along. Perhaps moments later.

These drawbacks seem to take an especially big toll on young people. A recent article in The Atlantic, The Silicon Valley Suicides by Hannah Rosin, investigates the psychology of high school students in Pal Alto. Rosin found a lot of unhappiness among young people who, on the surface, have it all. Their families are wealthy, the schools are good and they have many opportunities.

Rosin checked in with Suniya Luthar, a psychiatrist who was been studying adolescents for some time. She has found that kids of the affluent and well educated feel tremendous pressure to perform, both academically and in extracurricular pursuits. Their parents have high expectations, but they are busy with their own revved up lives and tend not to be around.

“Luthar constructed a profile of elite American adolescents whose self-worth is tied to their achievements and who see themselves as catastrophically flawed if they don’t meet the highest standards of success,” Rosin writes. “Because a certain kind of success seems well within reach, they feel they have to attain it at all costs—a phenomenon she refers to as ‘I can, therefore I must.’”

Madeline Levine, a child psychologist in the Bay Area, says these young people “feel they have no choice. Many have also fallen prey to what she calls a ‘mass delusion’ that there is but one path to a successful life, and that it is very narrow.”

These young people lack a sense of purpose and agency, the feeling they can control their own lives. Rates of anxiety, depression and suicide are far higher than the national average. This is the price of perfect.

Dr. Bob Rotella is a sport psychologist who also consults with businesses and high performers of all stripes. Writing in How Champions Think, he makes the case that perfectionism is a terrible trap. Falling under its illusion, athletes and others who obsess about the inevitable setbacks of life develop unrealistic expectations and an unhealthy psychology that is ultimately self-defeating.

The best hitters strike out, the best golfers mishit shots, and the best sales people fail to close sales. Top performers come up with their own strategies for dealing with tough times.

“For the perfectionist nothing is ever good enough and every performance is a failure,” Rotella writes. “Perfectionists almost never arrive at the highest levels of sport. They can’t survive. So much depends on not being a perfectionist, on understanding that there will be losses and mistakes and on responding well to those setbacks.”

So, put those phones away for a while. Look at the sky. Talk to the person next to you. The digital world has many benefits, but it isn’t real. It promotes the illusion that life should always be pretty, easy and cheap. This viewpoint is superficial and artificial. It is like a drug.

The people who create the business models and write the code know it’s not always easy. Success comes at a price. Innovation involves a lot of trial and error.

The digital world is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Ray Kurtzweil invents the future

This inventor is fascinated by long time scales, tiny pieces of matter, long strings of information and the brain’s ability to make jokes and love.

We are addicted to the short term, the dopamine jolt delivered by our various screens. Turn on the news and you get a blast of randomness of the negative variety. Switch to entertainment, what the stars are wearing. A TED Talk subs for reading a book.

So Ray Kurzweil’s thoughtful optimism and long view of the world are refreshing. Pragmatic and creative, the animated inventor and archetypal boy genius is no longer a boy, but he wants to live forever.

He forages on information and produces ideas, books, talks, real-world products, start-ups and consulting gigs. His terrain includes computer science, optical character recognition, speech recognition, and electronic keyboard instruments; health, artificial intelligence, life extension technologies, nanotechnology, robotics, and biotechnology. Unlike most so-called futurists, he has a solid track record of long-term prediction.

While Kurzweil’s inventions have helped to transform several fields, he also has Edison’s knack for commerce, churning out patents and co-founding companies.

Speaking at the Big Data for Productivity Congress in Nova Scotia, the director of engineering at Google takes us on an intellectual road trip back to our small rodent-like ancestors.

Kurzweil zeroes in on the neocortex that first appeared in the brains of small mammals 200 million years ago. About the size of a postage stamp, it allowed these creatures to create a new behavior on the fly–and remember it. Zigging as a predator zagged, for example. Their brethren could watch and learn.

Most of the time the environment changed slowly, allowing less intelligent animals to evolve, he explains Then 65 million years ago there was a catastrophic event, the Cretaceous extinction. Dinosaurs and many other life forms went extinct. Mammals could cope with that scale of change and grow the neocortex.

“But we still have primitive drives for conquest that we sublimate by writing books and giving talks.”

A key step in our evolution was the large forehead where the expanded cortex allowed language, the arts, science and technology. Cognitively, our brain is a pyramid where each level is more abstract than the one below. The higher levels allow us to get creative. This is where we find a sense of irony and a love of poetry and music.

Now we can expand the power of the brain by connecting it to the cloud, he says. We will invent new forms of music. By 2030 our thinking will be a hybrid of biology and technology. Implanted devices are already improving the performance of those with Parkinson’s.

Big data and the cloud are just the latest flavours of what Kurzweil calls the law of accelerated returns, the exponential growth curves that characterize information technology. This insight has led him to make a host of predictions.

He saw, for example, that ARPANET would expand to something we now know as the Internet and the World Wide Web. He foresaw the need for search. “Many researchers were working on it, but I did not anticipate that a couple of kids in a Stanford dorm would take over the world.”

Most decisions today are made by linear thinking: 1+ 1 +1 = 3, and so on, he says. Our rodent-like ancestors were able to calculate a possible escape route from a predator because it was all about straight lines.

“Exponential growth is not intuitional,” he says. “We have a brain to predict the future but we evolved to make linear predictions — our linear intuition fails us today.”

Moore’s Law, based on transistors, predicts that computing power doubles roughly every couple of years. This is just one iteration of a deeper trend, he says, slapping up slides that show the exponential nature of technology. He calls Moore’s Law the fifth paradigm of a pattern that can be tracked back to the census of 1890. This pattern continued even through the disruptions of the World Wars, the Depression and recessions.

Growth in IT is the driver of the economy today, he says. It infiltrates every sector. “The total bits shipped is increasing exponentially and it is very cheap to make bits. Innovation is coming up with new uses for bits.”

He has turned his fertile mind to biology, including what he considers the outdated information processing system of DNA. Health and medicine are now based on information technology. Biology is an information process. Genes are software.

“In the past, by age 25 the adult human was using up the precious food of the tribe. There was no need for longevity.” He would like to update this out-dated software. [DNA is not written in C++, he jokes. Maybe in COBOL.] DNA sequencing is growing exponentially. Now we can turn genes on and off and add new genes.

He would like to turn off the insulin receptor gene that helped our ancestors get the maximum energy from a limited food intake, but now it helps to make us fat. “It was a great idea 10,000 years ago, but now we do our hunting at the supermarket.”

We have doubled life expectancy, he says. The first baby to live to be 150 has been born. Health and medicine will increase longevity by reprogramming outdated information processes. Nanobots will patrol the bloodstream, attacking disease and repairing the body. We will print out human organs like lungs and kidneys. By the 2030s we will be augmenting the immune system with new T cells.

Every year that you live you will add more than one year of potential life. [“Google is doing its part. Self-driving cars mean we will be less likely to be hit by the proverbial bus.”]

For all his idealism, Kurzweil warns that we are in the hype stage of the technology cycle. “Exponential growth is transformational but not instantaneous.” Still, by 2020 3D printing will transform manufacturing. There will be open source design of clothing the way it has transformed music, movies and books that can now be sent as email attachments.

People will still pay for products and services. The traditional economic model will coexist with open source. “It is a leveler. Kids in Africa can afford a phone. Critics say you can’t eat technology, it can’t build a house. But that will change.” IT is transforming all sectors.

Kurzweil says he finally got a day job after being hired by Larry Page, one of the founders of Google. While this would be a dream for most in the tech world, it wasn’t in his plan. He approached Page to invest in one of his start-ups, and Page turned the tables and offered him a job.

Kurzweil’s optimism is tempered with a broad sense of responsibility. “We have a moral imperative to improve technology to reduce damage to the environment and reduce poverty.”

Yes, there will be implications for white collar and other jobs, he says, in the same way farming and manufacturing no longer dominate the economy. But technology will create new jobs in fields like renewable energy.

“There are always short- term issues, but if you look at the broad trends we are headed in a good direction.”