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Book review: Silicon Valley culture may be changing how your brain works | health and fitness


Author: Christian Madsbjerg

Publisher: Hachette

Price: Rs 599

What does your brain have in common with American politics and the post-truth era? They’re all being altered by what comes out of Silicon Valley, according to Christian Madsbjerg.

“The Silicon Valley is now an ideology, a mindset that values knowledge from the hard sciences above all other forms of knowing,” Madsbjerg writes, in Sensemaking.

Our increasing reliance on numbers and the hard sciences is taking us away, he argues, from study and engagement with humanities and the human condition. And “in a Silicon Valley state of mind, sensemaking has never been more lacking or urgently needed.”

This sensemaking, he explains, is the opposite of algorithmic thinking. Essentially, it’s the way we learnt about the world and dealt with problems before algorithm took over.

Madsbjerg breaks down this approach to problem-solving into five ideas: culture and not individuals, thick data not thin data, savannah not zoo, creativity not manufacturing, and the North Star not the GPS.

Read: Our review of The Telomeres Effect, on how your chromosomes can help you fight ageing

He argues, through these sections, that we need to make room again for randomness and non-linear ways of thinking, because behaviour, cultures and peoples cannot be evaluated in mathematical terms. He argues that social instinct is an acquired strength, and it is one that we are at risk of losing as we depend more and more heavily on number-based algorithms and binaries.

This section of the book goes on a bit, and tends to get a bit jargony.

The book’s strength, though, lies in its deductive ability. When you rely on algorithms for everything from your commute to work to your lunch order, Sensemaking suggests, you aren’t just altering the way you do things. You are changing the very filter through which you view reality. You are changing your ideas of what is intelligible and meaningful.

It’s like a brain used to both trigonometry and poetry, suddenly being used only for simple math. The rigour of endless doubt is replaced by a confidence in linear logic.

Madsbjerg argues that this is not habit or accident, but a culture with roots in Silicon Valley’s binary code.

Author Christian Madsbjerg.

With this approach, he seeks to explain Donald Trump’s election victory, and post-truth. “Why seek out new information, why learn something different, or push the boundaries of debate or previously accepted ideas, when data can serve up exactly what serves up already-established preferences? This is what journalists have called the post-truth era,” he says.

Madsbjerg emphasises that his point is not to dismiss the tremendous contributions of the Valley, but to critique its creeping costs on our intellectual life.

“Even with the magnificent computational power now at our disposal, there is no alternative to sitting with problems, stewing in them, and struggling through them with the help of careful, patient human observation,” he writes.

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