Heuristics break down

I reblogged a post on Tumblr a few minutes ago. The OP appears to have deleted the original post, so I'll just quote the text:

political beliefs: if it upset rich people then it’s good

Now, that's obviously hyperbolic. There are almost definitely political positions that the majority of wealthy people would agree with, but that are nonetheless not horrible. [1. I mean, we're unlikely to notice them, because if something is (a.) not terrible and (b.) something rich people want, it's just going to happen and everyone will assume it's the way it's always been.]

It reminded me of a bit from one of Cory Doctorow's talks, The Coming War on General Computation, in which he explains that lawmakers can normally write sensible legislation about things they aren't intimately familiar with because they follow heuristics. Among those heuristics are: general-purpose things are simple, like wheels, and cannot be easily regulated; complex things are special-purpose, like cars, and they can be governed by more specific regulation.

That heuristic breaks down when it comes to computers, because they're incredibly complex, but are fundamentally general-purpose. That breakdown leads to lawmakers writing bad laws about computers.

And there are a huge number of heuristics that people use every day to get through basically every part of life. Just so far today, I employed these heuristics:

  • A scheduled online meeting to discuss a software update is going to contain obvious information, so I don't have to pay close attention
  • Four or five small objects, purchased at Walmart, are unlikely to cost enough to make me overdraw my bank account
  • Tylenol will probably relieve the horrible pain in my neck from sleeping on stiff and poorly angled pillows
  • Bloggers I follow who are reblogging information about Ferguson are generally trustworthy, and I can count on them to either (a.) not reblog any false information, or (b.) quickly and clearly point out their mistake to mitigate the spread of that false information, if it turns out they made a mistake

Any of those things could have been wrong. But they're all most likely right, and if I had tried to get through my morning without making any of those assumptions, I would (a.) be hungry and exhausted, because I had neither bought food nor caffeine pills this morning, (b.) have missed the phone meeting altogether, and (c.) not know any new information about Ferguson, because (d.) I'd be in the hospital making sure my neck wasn't broken and slowly leaking spinal fluid into my muscle tissue or something.

We all have to make assumptions to get through life. The important thing, I think, is being aware that almost-all-or-all of our decision making is based on heuristics, and being prepared for the possibility that, at any moment, we could be dealing with a situation where our heuristics are breaking down.

One of the ways to tell if your heuristics are breaking down is to take notice of the consequences of your actions and see if they look different from how you would have expected them to look. My card wasn't rejected this morning, so I'm pretty sure the purchase went okay.[2. I'm going to check my bank balance after I finish this post because I've made myself nervous, but that's beside the point.] I did attend the online meeting, had the shared-screen window open and kept the phone by my ear, so if any information struck me as unfamiliar I could tune back in. I check Tumblr pretty often, so I should see any posts about false info being spread on Ferguson -- although evaluating my level of trust for bloggers is an ongoing project that lasts as long as I follow them.

As for the heuristic at the top of the post, I'm generally sceptical of political views espoused by the very wealthy, but I'll be open to commentary by other political folks, in whom I have more trust, in case they're saying "Wait, this person's actually not full of shit."

Generally speaking, just saying to me "Are you sure your heuristics apply in this situation?" is a good way to get me to stop and think harder before proceeding in a conversation.

I want to dig deeper on this topic -- it's in orbit of an idea about political views that I haven't quite figured out how to express yet -- but for now I'm going to stop it here.