We live in a complicated world that constantly throws complex issues at us. Because it is impossible for one person to be an expert in every field, we have to employ different strategies and tactics to navigate through these issues.
A fascinating way that our brain tries to solve a current issue is the availability cascade. This is a self-reinforcing cycle, where an idea essentially “infects” a group of people, displacing individual thought and opinion and overwhelming critical thinking.
The way this happens was described and modelled by Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein.
First, a new idea that seems to be a simple and elegant solution or explanation to the current issue starts to gain traction. People easily adopt and embrace this idea because it sounds plausible and because it is easy to process.
Secondly, people who adopt these ideas spread it themselves, making it more available in the social network. Particularly, nowadays we see this in both reported and social media.
Lastly, as the availability increases, more and more people are pulled in and the idea seems more credible, because “everybody” seems to think it. People do less research and have less individual thoughts or opinions about the matter because the group consensus is more appealing or acceptable.
The availability cascade as a platform can be very effective at raising awareness of issues and banding people together to fight a common cause, such as when the AIDS epidemic was starting. However, it is fraught with issues.
The availability cascade is mediated by a heuristic, which is essentially a mental shortcut. Heuristics are extremely useful in that it reduces our cognitive load and automates many of our decisions. However, because they are based on rule sets, they are not as effective for new, different situations.
We are less likely to think critically when using heuristics, meaning that we are more vulnerable to being manipulated. In this situation, people think “this is widely available information, therefore it must be important” and default to believing it (even if it is just to appear “current” and to fit in).
Because critical thinking is overwhelmed by the availability cascade, it can be extremely dangerous when misinformation spreads this way; or worse, disinformation – where people maliciously spread false information for their own gains.
A classic example is the anti-vaccination movement that spawned from a discredited, falsified article that claimed MMR vaccines increased rates of autism, despite mountains of evidence pointing towards the effectiveness and safety of immunisation. Subsequently, vaccination rates dropped and we now see outbreaks of illnesses such as measles, resulting in countless deaths and injuries that could have easily been prevented.
Information can be just as contagious and dangerous as an actual infection. Knowing about the existence of these cognitive biases and phenomena help protect us from falling victim to them.
How does a caterpillar become a butterfly? Every child and adult knows that they undergo a process of metamorphosis while in a chrysalis. But few know that the caterpillar has to dissolve all of its internal organs to form a pool of raw materials that it will use to build itself into a new butterfly. Although from the outside we only see a beautiful shell that appears to be just sitting there, in reality the caterpillar is undergoing a change so profound that it completely rebuilds its foundation.
What is interesting about the metamorphosis process is that it is not as simple as breaking down a caterpillar and rebuilding the pieces into a butterfly like one would do with Lego blocks. Once the puddle of cells is formed within the chrysalis, a new type of cells called imaginal cells appear. We do not know where they come from, but they just appear at a certain time. These cells are completely different from the original caterpillar cells – so different that the original cells begin attacking it as if it was a virus. However, even with all this cellular genocide, more and more imaginal cells pop up, until eventually the original cells cannot keep up. The imaginal cells start to cluster together, multiplying at an exponential rate. These clusters then grow and differentiate to form the parts of the new butterfly, such as wings and antennas. The original caterpillar cells slowly wither away as they are overrun by the new, fresh imaginal cells. The caterpillar becomes a butterfly.
Human beings, in general, are not good with change. We as a society fear something that would completely shift our paradigms and proceed to attack it viciously. Throughout history, ideas that would shake the foundations of society were often challenged and oppressed: the concept that the Earth is round, that the Earth revolves around the Sun or that we are the product of millions of years of evolution. These “imaginal cells” of society such as Charles Darwin and Galileo Galilei were faced with criticism, mocking and even punishment by those who could not accept the fact that what we know can be wrong. However, their ideas spread among like-minded people, until the number of people who believed in these new ideas greatly outweighed the people who did not. This is how society evolves and metamorphosed over time.
Change is difficult and scary, whether you are on the receiving end or on the side trying to change the world. Being the first imaginal cells of society is a painful road one to travel, but the effects of your actions can cause ripples throughout society to change the world for the better. Or perhaps you are experiencing change at a more personal scale, with your traditional way of life being threatened by some new force. But no matter what the change is – for better or for worse – you will adapt and society will adapt. Great ideas persevere and change for the better is inevitable.
There is no reason to be afraid, for everything is and will be okay.
There once lived a community of mice in the attic of a house. The mice would sneak into kitchens, gnaw holes in the walls and run about freely. The owners were so fed up that they brought in a cat, causing the mice to all hide in fear. The terrified mice eventually held a meeting to discuss how they would sneak around the house without getting caught by the cat. One mouse suggested: “What if we put a bell around the neck of the cat? Then we can hear it coming and run away.”. The mice unanimously agreed that it was a brilliant idea. However, when they came to decide who would bell the cat, no mouse was brave enough to step forward and the plan was never carried out.
What would actually happen if a cat was belled? Without a doubt, the cat would take it as a cruel, cruel punishment. Not because it cannot catch mice, but because the sound of the bell ringing every time it moves will be extremely loud for the cat. A cat’s hearing is six times better than a human’s. With this excellent hearing, the constant sound of bells attacking its eardrums would be physical torture for the cat.
Furthermore, a cat can hear frequencies as high as 40,000Hz. A person can only hear up to 20,000Hz, meaning a cat hears over twice the range of sounds we can. This combined with the boosted volume results in the cat living in a very noisy world. Ergo, putting a bell around a cat’s neck is an extremely atrocious thing to do.
Author Bernard Werber (the inspiration for this Encyclopaedia) posited the following theory: if we could see the future, would we not actively build towards a better future? Imagine a tree soaring high into the sky, stretching countless branches in all directions. The many branches of the tree branch off into smaller branches, which branch into even more smaller branches. At the end of each branch, there hangs a leaf. This tree is not a normal tree; it is a Tree of Possibilities that represents the flow of time from the beginning of the universe to the distant future. Each split in a branch represents the creation of two different futures due to a choice or a change, while a leaf represents the final future created from the cumulative effects of these changes. Thus, the Tree of Possibilities is the ultimate crystal ball showing all the pasts that could have been and all the futures that can happen.
Of course the Tree of Possibilities is a fictional model created in our imaginations. But what if we could actually make this tree? First, we would create an organisation of the greatest scientists, mathematicians, sociologists, psychologists, historians, philosophers, science fiction writers etcetera that represent the many fields of knowledge. These people are gathered in a location far from the reaches of governments and the media, where they can discuss without any interference. These specialists will debate over all sorts of topics, amalgamating their knowledge and intuition to generate a tree diagram as mentioned above. This is a diagram free from ethics, morals, laws, optimism, pessimism and individualism – the ultimate objective view of all possible futures that humanity and the Earth may face. The experts may agree with each other at times and disagree at times. There is ample possibility that their postulations are wrong. But none of these matter. The important point is not that the Tree is “accurate” or not, but that it is an extensive scenario database of all the paths humanity can walk on towards the future.
The Tree of Possibilities will have various conjectures such as: What if nuclear war broke out? What if artificial intelligence is perfected? What if chimpanzees reach the intelligence levels of human beings? What if we build cities on the Moon? However, the future is altered much more easily that you would think. Thus, there will also be branches representing much more trivial and ordinary (even bizarre) postulations as well: What if smoking is banned? What if the average age women gave birth is older? What if rhinoceroses were domesticated pets? What if pianos do not exist?
On analysing these numerous postulations, a branch bearing the leaf with the ideal future will be found. Ergo, we can choose to follow a path of least resistance, where all the choices we make will ultimately lead to that ideal future. Essentially, the Tree of Possibilities is a tool that is used to predict the future. However, it is not “fortune telling” as it is based on logic rather than magic and divinity to see into the future. The future the Tree tells is not a set “destiny”, but rather one “possibility”. Thus, instead of fearing the future like we do with fortunes, we would instead feel excitement over the potential of finding the ideal future. If the path we are currently on is fated to an unhappy ending, then we can simply jump onto a different path with the guidance of the Tree. Unlike fortune telling, which destroys all uncertainty and any other possibilities in the future, the Tree of Possibilities provides humanity with the greatest gift: dreams of a better future.
As you could imagine, the possibilities of the future are infinite so a drawn-out diagram of the Tree of Possibilities would take up extensive amounts of space. Ergo, the ideal form of the Tree of Possibilities would be a computer program. As computer programs only need sufficient storage space, it provides a perfect environment in which the Tree may grow. The program would generate a Tree based on the information provided by the scholars, drawing out each branch and leaf, while also calculating the effects of any action on each of the possible futures. If we further applied the engine used in chess programs to predict the next few moves, then we may be able to create a program that can calculate the ideal future and the path of least resistance for humanity.
My ideal future is this. There is an isolated island, far from any interference, with a large building. At the centre of this building, there lies a supercomputer running The Tree of Possibilities. The computer is surrounded by lecture theatres, conference rooms and residential areas. Thus, specialists of each field may come to stay and use their knowledge to water the Tree and foster it. This island will provide humanity with hopes and dreams, leading them towards the best possible future based on logic and imagination.
The Tree of Possibilities will radically change our day-to-day lives. One of the greatest weaknesses of human beings is the inability to see the long-term happiness and sacrificing it for short-term gain. However, if we were able to see precisely how our actions will affect the future, then would we not act differently? Armed with insight and foresight, people will understand what is best for the future, and instead of the current near-sighted attitude of only seeing the gain right before our eyes, they will act in the best interests of their children and grandchildren. Politicians will see how useless bickering over trifling issues is and instead focus on policies that take a while to show the effects (yet nonetheless important), such as environmental conservation. The Tree of Possibilities will help us make rational decisions to create a world that the future generation will be happy living in, without being swayed by emotions and selfish greed. And so, we will build towards a utopia.
The greatest weapon a person has is imagination that can build the future.
If one was, for some twisted and malicious reason, wished to systematically destroy a culture, what would the first step be? Genocide? Brainwashing? The answer is destroying the native language.
Language is the skeleton that supports the culture of the people. It is an integral part of every culture that allows for effective communication of ideas and thoughts. Each language is tailor-made for a certain culture and best exhibits the culture’s character and ways. Language is one of the greatest inventions of mankind as it allowed for the preservation of thought. If you do not record thought into words, it may be distorted, warped or worse – be forgotten. Using words, one can pass on knowledge to others, even in the future. This is essentially what culture is: a collection of ideas and knowledge that we inherit from our predecessors.
As these thoughts were recorded in one language, there is bound to be some distortion during translation. We can often see examples of barriers in communication due to the inability to properly translate a word from one language to another. If you cannot describe an idea with words, it is extremely difficult to preserve the idea. Ergo, by destroying the language of the people and enforcing your own on them, you can mutilate or eradicate their culture over time. Of course, since language is a major part of the endemic culture, you have gotten off to a great start already. When the people lose their language, they become susceptible to being assimilated into another culture. Slowly, they talk and think like the oppressors until they lose all identity of their roots.
During the early 20th century when Imperial Japan was invading neighbouring countries, they used the exact same method to try and eliminate other cultures. They outlawed the native language and enforced the use of Japanese. To protect their cultural identity, Koreans (and other countries invaded by Japan) had to teach children in underground schools at the risk of torture or death. The preservation of the Korean language allowed the people to unite with strong patriotism, fuelling the resistance against the oppressors. Without the dedication of the people, who knows how much precious cultural heritage would have been lost forever.
When the people lose their language, they lose their voice. When people lose their voice, they lose their identity. When they lose their identity, they lose the fight.
The famous surrealist artist Salvador Dalí had a strange habit. When he could not solve a problem or had difficulty coming up with an idea, he chose to nap. However, he did not nap “normally” to say – he used a unique method.
First, find a comfortable sofa or armchair, a spoon and a large plate or pan. Sit in a comfortable way, flip the plate over and place it on the ground, then hold the spoon directly above it with only your thumb and index finger. While thinking about the problem you want to solve, fall asleep.
As soon as you enter REM sleep, all of your muscles will relax and so the spoon will fall onto the plate, making a loud clatter. As soon as you get woken up by this, you will not only feel well rested, but also discover the solution or idea you were looking for.