FF Insights #670: Hocus pocus

June 10, 2022: Older is better; Mall walking; New jobs

Founding Fuel

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Good morning,

There are some people who have this incredible ability to make the most compelling arguments that help us comprehend the world around us. The scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett is one of them and his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking forces us to face up to questions we may not want to. By way of example, many of us like to believe miracles happen and that magic is real. But magic is hocus pocus and miracles don’t happen.  

If people believe in that, it is because “Some people, including not a few neuroscientists and psychologists—and philosophers—are at least subliminally attracted to the idea that somehow or other the dynamic properties of neural tissue can do something you might call miraculous, something that harnesses hidden forces undreamed of by science. Maybe they are right, but we mustn’t assume that they are from the outset,” Dennett writes.

So, he insists we imbibe a rule: “The rule has to be: no wonder tissue!” 

This is because there is something we know for certain. “There is certainly no wonder tissue in any computer. We know exactly how the basic tasks are accomplished in computers, and how they can be composed into more and more complex tasks, and we can explain these constructed competences with no residual mystery. So although the virtuosity of today’s computers continues to amaze us, the computers themselves, as machines, are as mundane as can-openers. Lots of prestidigitation, but no ‘real magic.’

“This is a valuable fact… Its value lies in the fact that any time we can make a computer do something that has seemed miraculous, we have a proof that it can be done without wonder tissue… Computers thus play an important role as demystifiers, and that is a good reason to insist on developing computer models of anything we are trying to understand, whether it be hurricanes or housing bubbles or HIV or human consciousness. 

“As our understanding grows, what counts as wonder tissue shifts.” 

If this is true, why do people who are familiar with the domain continue to believe in magic and speculate on the nature of a wonder tissue that may exist in our heads? Think about it this way, Dennett argues: “The main objection to wonder tissue is that it does not give us a way of solving the problem, but a way of giving up, of assuming that it is a mystery that can never be solved.” And you’ll give up on wonder tissue.

Much food for thought there!

Older is better

Yesterday, we pointed to a piece that made a case for welcoming back women who have stayed out of the workforce. When reading up on the issue, we came across literature that pointed to how companies discriminate against older people when it comes to hiring. ‘Seniority’ is looked at as a burden. But does it have to be? 

Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic make the case that “Contrary to popular belief, older, more tenured people are more successful entrepreneurs. Those over the age of 40 are three times more likely to create successful companies as a result of their patient, collaborative natures, and their lack of a ‘need to prove myself’ attitude that tends to accompany youth. 

“Our career systems, pay systems, and recruitment and assessment systems are designed against hiring older people. Many companies believe that older people are ‘overpaid’ and can be ‘replaced with younger workers’ who can do the job just as well. 

“The scientific evidence on this issue shows differently: For most people, raw mental horsepower declines after the age of 30, but knowledge and expertise—the main predictors of job performance—keep increasing even beyond the age of 80. There is also ample evidence to assume that traits like drive and curiosity are catalysts for new skill acquisition, even during late adulthood. When it comes to learning new things, there is just no age limit, and the more intellectually engaged people remain when they are older, the more they will contribute to the labour market.”

Dig deeper

Mall walking

Mall rats is a term most of us are familiar with. It is used condescendingly to describe people who like to hang out at malls. But perspective matters much. So, when we started to read an extract on the history of malls on Bloomberg.com by Alexandra Lange, an architect and design critic, we were fascinated.   

There’s this story she recounts about Caroline Knutson who joined a group that used malls to just exercise. “What began as an inexpensive way to lose weight became part of Knutson’s identity and—despite the death of her husband and another daughter, despite changes in walking companions, favourite stores and her own deteriorating health—a treasured thirty-year routine. The mall, in its quiet early hours, provides affordances most cities and suburbs cannot: even, open walkways, consistent weather, bathrooms and benches. The mall is also “safe,” as Genevieve Bogdan told The New York Times in 1985; the Connecticut school nurse was “apprehensive about walking alone outdoors early in the morning before work.”

Then there is a sense of community and belonging that it fosters that is not evident at first glance. “Like teens hanging out in the atrium, the seniors in the food court can observe without penalty and be a part of community life that can be overwhelming in truly public spaces. After police officers removed elderly Korean Americans from a McDonald’s in Flushing, Queens—managers claimed the group overstayed their welcome, buying only coffee and french fries—sociologist Stacy Torres wrote in The New York Times, “Centres offer vital services, but McDonald’s offers an alternative that doesn’t segregate people from intergenerational contact. ‘I hate old people,’ one 89-year-old man told me.”

Whoever would have imagined such cultures and subcultures can evolve in spaces such as malls?

Dig Deeper

New jobs

(Via WhatsApp)

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Warm regards,

Team Founding Fuel

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About the author

Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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