A Personal Preview of 2022

For my last post of 2021, I thought I would talk a little bit about some of the intellectual themes I’ve gotten interested in during the year and intend to pursue through the next year. I’ll also cover a couple resolutions of sorts, or at least some behaviours or dispositions I’ll try and cultivate during 2022.

Intellectual Themes

For those who have been following my blog, Twitter or online presence in general, you may know that I began my first full-time job in government this year. My current role as a system analyst is a wide-ranging one, with a variety of technical, research and communication and organisational competencies required. It’s been a fun and challenging role so far and encompasses a number of my broader skills and interests, including research, governance and utilising technology in the public good. I see myself working within the public service or on projects and in organisations related to the public sector for the foreseeable future. Making this decision, as I mentioned in an earlier post (https://scottjdavies.com/2021/10/18/optionality-commitment-and-choosing-a-path/), also frees up a lot of cognitive bandwidth to think about other things.

Throughout 2021, like many people, I’ve also become keenly interested in web3. I’ve developed this interest for a different reason than most, though. As I’ve explored and participated in a number of web3 projects and DAOs, including Gitcoin, the Commons Stack and Verses, I’ve become more interested in the possibility of DAOs and the alternate governance structures they utilise to help inform how traditional government may work.
Closely related to this, I’ve been thinking about digital governance and public goods provision. How might the gap between policymaking, public service provision/procurement and the cutting edge of digital innovation in startups and technological enterprises be bridged? It’s a vital question that I think needs far more attention than it currently gets. From my vantage point, there are many people with knowledge and experience in either government or the private sector, but far less interest in meaningfully leveraging the best of both worlds to solve pressing challenges in governance. I want to make one of my professional goals in 2022 and beyond figuring out what I can do to bridge this gap, and how.

Among all this, I’ve also come across the Foresight Institute’s Existential Hope program. Existential Hope (https://www.existentialhope.com/about), succinctly put, is “generating common knowledge to catalyze cooperation towards beautiful futures“. It combines rational, measured techno-optimism, innovation and positive-sum thinking in order to think about and help create a more positive vision for the world. In a way, it provides an overarching framework for the work I’m doing in government, digital governance and public goods. I’m looking forward to working more closely with the Existential Hope program in 2022, including attending online meetups, hosting Interintellect Salons on the topic and more.

Behaviours and attitudes to cultivate

If there’s one real ‘resolution’ that I have for 2022, it is living unconditionally. Basically, this means not placing arbitrary conditions on how I need to live life, or on what I ‘should’ be doing. In others, it’s being less extrinsically motivated and more intrinsically motivated. It’s about removing mental blocks that suggest I ‘can’t’ do something for one arbitrary reason or another.

My previous post, which was about finding and committing to a path, touches on some of these themes as well. For the first time in possibly my entire adult life, I have a clear idea about where I’m going in life, what I’m willing to focus on and trade-off, and cultivating a positive mindset toward doing so. Instead of looking at my work and my personal life as separate entities, I now see how the two inform and are integrated into each other. Naively fixating on one aspect (usually work), hoping for other things to sort themselves out will be a thing of the past.

2022, like this year was, will be a year of considerable challenges and change for me. It will be the culmination and execution of a lot of preparation, thought and practice I have done in the last few years. I’m very excited about what this year will bring and I can’t wait to get started.

The Medicalization of Human Experience

I recently came across a thought-provoking article in The New Atlantis entitled ‘All Pathology, All the Time’ (https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/all-pathology-all-the-time.) The central argument of the article was that our society is becoming ever more medicalized, and more and more behaviours and emotional states were gaining a medical label of some sort. In essence, the threshold for the diagnosis of many disorders was being lowered. As a result of this creeping expansion of the definition of disorders, people who would previously not have been diagnosed with a condition now have a diagnosis and are subject to the medical management that comes with these diagnoses.

Illness, particularly mental illness is often a result of a multitude of factors. In the Western medical context, many illnesses are often reduced to an individual biological issue and treated accordingly. There are plenty of occasions where this is the correct way to deal with these illnesses. Sometimes, however, this approach is not sufficient and can at times exacerbate the issue someone is going through. As Suzanne O’Sullivan argued in her book “The Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories of Mystery Illness” (https://undark.org/2021/10/08/book-review-the-mystery-illnesses-informed-by-culture/), this narrow conception of medical health often misses important cultural and environmental factors behind the illness. What may appear to be a mystery or unknown medical issue can, with the right social context and perspective, be more easily identifiable.

The medicalisation of an ever-increasing number of behaviours and emotional states, and the increasingly narrow methods of treating other disorders creates perverse consequences. For instance, it has the effect of narrowing the bounds of ‘normal’ behaviour, and also makes the treatment of issues an individual’s issue, ignoring the social context of such issues. These diagnoses and subsequent labelling can also have a perverse effect on how people interact with others and the world at large.

I have first-hand experience with these problems as someone who was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome at age eight. In the years since my diagnosis, the criteria for diagnosis of what is now Autism Spectrum Disorder has changed multiple times. With the changes in diagnosis comes changes in how people interact with those of us with this condition as well as how the medical profession views us. To be clear, these changes in interaction have generally been more positive than they were previously. One decisively negative aspect of these changes, however, has been the increasing tendency to reduce us to what the changing definition of these disorders describes us as, taking away our personal agency in the process.

This creates a conundrum for those of us who are trying to grapple with this complex condition and find ways of adapting and growing in a positive and healthy manner. Even if we work to overcome some of the more negative aspects of our condition if society at large views us through the narrow lens of a medical diagnosis, how are we to properly integrate into society, and fully develop socially? Without the space to grapple with complex and difficult emotions, social situations and setbacks without immediately seeking a therapeutic or medical solution, our self-esteem, freedom and agency are diminished.

In saying this, I am certainly not arguing that medication, therapy and the like have no use or place for physical and mental health. However, they are just tools among a large number of potential tools for solving health issues. An over-reliance on these tools whilst ignoring other potential fixes cannot continue in the manner it has been without more serious consequences down the road. A more balanced, holistic approach to physical and mental health, which sees people as active participants, not passive recipients in their recovery is needed to avert the issues of our current pathologisation of medical health.

Optionality, Commitment and Choosing A Path

Recently, I had a significant breakthrough in terms of my professional life and my overall direction.
There are several factors which led to this. Firstly, my first taste of finally being in full-time, stable employment, not having to worry about whether I was qualified for a job or not. I now had definitive proof I could in fact make it, which made me feel more confident in my current skillset and ability and not feel the need to keep upskilling indefinitely.
Beyond this, though, it was the culmination and bringing together of several strands of what had long been intellectual interests of mine. The role I’m currently in involves aspects of technology, systems and complexity thinking, economics and finance, as well as governance and public policy, all of which have been or are currently interests of mine. Granted, some of these aspects are only tangentially there in my current job. However, I do not believe it’s a coincidence that these themes have come together at once in the way they have.

Apart from my current job, these interests, though I did not realize until recently, also drove a lot of the side projects I worked on and was gravitated to. Even things such as topics I liked to discuss over at the Interintellect or with random people on Twitter tended to lean toward the subjects I mentioned before. It only makes sense, then, that I would lean toward these subjects and the patterns of thinking and action associated with those who take a keen interest in them, both in and out of my career.

While keeping your options open and exploring your interests is worthwhile, there comes a time where options can’t be preserved any longer and choices must be made. This necessitates lost opportunities, sacrifices and ‘missing out’, a perennial fear particularly among millennials. The pressure to constantly strive and chase after the latest high-status career or job title, no matter whether it’s a personal fit or not, seems to get stronger all the time. Optimization and optionality, paired together, can also be a means of procrastination and avoiding responsibility and commitment. I know this first-hand, as it has been a large driver of my previous behaviour. The fear of making a wrong or suboptimal choice led to indecision, analysis paralysis and ironically, missing out on far more than if I had just making a choice. By contrast, with picking an option, even if it may not be optimal, comes the chance for contentment, stability and the opening of new opportunities, within a more established and clearer frame.

I feel much more relaxed about the future since discarding career optionality for a clearer path. I now know what my strengths are, what are the weaknesses I need to work on and which skills can ultimately not be prioritized. Having made peace with closing off a large number of potential paths, I can now focus on the one I have committed to. With this, I can now also forgo what has been at times an almost relentless drive of self-improvement, optimization and upskilling in order to feel like I’m keeping up.
Along with this, I can finally place more energy into my oft-neglected social and personal life. Living in a more deliberate, balanced manner can only be a good thing for me in the long run.

Quick Thoughts on web3 and DAOs

Like so many others this year, I have found myself taking a far closer interest in cryptocurrency and related fields such as decentralized finance (DeFi), non-fungible tokens (NFTs) as well as the nascent Web3, or decentralized web movement, including decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs).
Unsurprisingly, as the number of acronyms even my opening paragraph hints at, the learning curve in this space is steep. Very steep. There are an astronomical number of projects, initiatives and concepts to be across, and the number grows seemingly by the hour. Even for people who are used to self-learning and taking the initiative when learning new things, it can be unforgiving to find your footing in the space.
However, that is part of the appeal for me. I always enjoy an intellectual challenge, and coming to grips with such a fast-moving field is certainly a challenge that appeals to me.

I will admit to being a sceptic of many aspects of cryptocurrency in the past. Like many, I briefly engaged with cryptocurrency during the 2017 boom. However, back then I treated it essentially like a gambling exercise, only looking to see if I could make a quick buck. I had little interest in the underlying technology and its use cases.
This time around, however, I approached the space in a vastly different way. Before making any investments, I spoke to a number of people experienced in the space to learn things from them. I did my due diligence to figure out what are legitimate projects and what are just scams or a quick moneymaking scheme, and overall I put more of a focus of being a participant rather than a spectator or speculator.

This leads me to looking into DAOs. There are DAOs for almost any conceivable function. However, the DAOs I sought out focused on education, onboarding new people into the space and that were trying to make entering the space a less daunting experience. I’m a strong believer in the power of education to help people realize their potential, utilize their skills and talents and as a means of empowerment. As such, one of the DAOs I am contributing to is called Crypto, Culture and Society, which focuses on the effects of the growth of cryptocurrency and web3 on society and culture. For all the great things about this space, it sometimes shirks at responsibly acting towards newer entrants in particular. This is partly the reality of the incentives of a rapidly growing, new system. There’s lots of quick money to be made, and with that, an abundance of people willing to scam and shortchange newer entrants. However, I believe if that cryptocurrency and web3 is to succeed, a more responsible self-governance and education is needed, lest this becomes imposed through heavy-handed and stifling regulation.

One of the great things about web3 is that you don’t have to have a tech background to get involved. There’s a place for almost anyone – marketers, community leads, writers, editors are among many of the sought out skills for DAOs and web3 projects. As the space grows as quickly as it has been, the demand for these skills grows accordingly. The main thing that’s needed is initiative and a drive to get involved.

On the Optimization and Quantification of Life – Assorted Pre-Salon Thoughts

This post is a preview of sorts to my Interintellect Salon on the 31st of July. This isn’t going to be a particularly in-depth post, it’s mostly to give some of my initial thoughts on the topic and to provide some more context to people who may be interested in the Salon but are on the fence about attending.

One of the main reasons why I think this topic is a timely one, especially as we slowly return to normalcy after the past year and a half is that now is a good time to think about how society operates, what some of the shortfalls are and how we can rectify this.

While I will in parts of the Salon touch on the quantification of work and professional life, this has been discussed almost ad nauseum elsewhere, and is not the main focus of what I had in mind for this topic. Instead, focusing on areas such as personal lives, leisure time and even hobbies is more of interest to me. Incidentally, one of the things which sparked this idea for a Salon was watching the Euros recently and noticing the extent to which stats, even ones which had at best peripheral relevance to what was happening, being a centrepiece of the broadcast. Having not paid close attention to football for a few years before the last few months, the number of new metrics and stats measured struck me as being bizarre at first, but also a part of a broader trend the more I thought about it. While a seemingly inoccuous thought at first, it did soon prompt me to think further on the issue which eventually led to me coming up with the idea for this Salon.

Particularly in the online spaces where I frequent, I find a lot of people trying to relentlessly optimize and quantify even their hobbies and interests. To an extent, this is a natural response to broader societal trends. However, it seems not only to be expressed through actions, but also through a more pervasive worldview.

As well as this phenomenon, I want to explore the other downstream effects of the relentless push for optimization and quantification, and how it may affect aspects of our lives which we didn’t even think about, or in different ways than we usually conceptualise. This thinking is reflected in some of the posts I have shared to read before the Salon in the event page for the event.

Again, this post is far from a comprehensive summary of my thoughts on the issue, but just a way to air out some of my initial thoughts on the topic as I continue to prepare for the Salon. In the days leading up to the Salon on the 31st July, I’ll likely discuss this more on avenues such as Twitter, the I.I discord and elsewhere.

For those who are interested, the link to the online event is below. Tickets are $10, which is a great deal for a 3hour+ event. It starts at 8pm Adelaide time on the 31st July, which is around 11:30am in the UK and early morning in the US if you’re up for a late start. Hope to see you there!


High and Low Time Preferences

One of the big things I’ve been thinking about the past few months has been the concept of high and low time preferences. What are high and low time preferences? Put simply, it is a preference between short and long-term thinking, planning and decision making. It’s the difference between wanting quick gratification and results, and being able to think more systematically and broadly.

In particular, my focus in terms of time preference has been related to finances, investment and spending. This has coincided with having a new job which affords the ability to think longer term. For the first time, I am thinking seriously about learning about investing, creating an investment portfolio and thinking of my financial decisions on a timescale of years and decades as opposed to weeks and months. Of course, going from a situation where I have been forced to think mostly short-term to being able to think on a longer time scale has taken some adjustment.

It’s not been easy to make such an adjustment, beside the increased capacity to do so. At present, so much of our society is geared toward high time preferences, wanting to act immediately and attain immediate results. Think of our spending habits, for instance. Saving is not incentivised nearly as much as immediate spending and going into debt. There is a tremendous amount of social pressure to spend in a way that emphasises social status, no matter whether it’s affordable or not. Wanting to live frugally is often derided or seen as unusual.

In the political sphere, decision making, when it is actually done, is mostly reactionary, based on the topic du jour and the latest opinion polling. At most, planning is done based on the 3 or 4 year election cycle, and big decisions requiring thinking decades into the future is largely ignored. Similarly, our institutions largely fail to think long term and anticipate trends and changes, opting for just-in-time fixes over preventative measures and astute planning.

While I am thinking with a lower time preference in general than what I used to, I do of course acknowledge this isn’t always possible or ideal. Sometimes, decisions need to be made right now and action taken immediately. It’s not possible to live while solely focused on the future. As much as anything, thinking with a lower time preference helps to make me more aware of the tradeoffs I make with the decisions I make and reflect on the principles and thinking that led me to those decisions.

One of the questions that continually interests me and that I keep coming back to is – how do we as a society place more of a value on a low time preference, and to strike more of a balance between short term and long term thinking? It’s a very tough question to solve, but it is an essential issue to tackle to sustain ourselves on a longer time scale.

Getting reacquainted with art

For most of my life, I did not consider myself to be a particularly artistic person. I was never good at art subjects at school, although I did start to learn guitar in high school and take lessons for a while. Other forms of art, however, such as film, paintings, TV and so on I never really ‘understood’. Part of it was a lack of consistent exposure. The main reason, however, was a personal narrative that I had, which was that I was not an ‘artistic’ person.

I have started to challenge this over the past couple years, however. I’ve steadily become more interested in art, architecture, design and aesthetics more broadly. I was able to do it partly through leaning on my naturally analytical, inquisitive nature and by learning some of the basic techniques for looking at art. Crucially, however, I did not go overboard in doing this. In a rare move for me, I relied more on my intuition and allowing myself to be drawn to what appealed to me, rather than what I felt I needed to enjoy. It’s meant taking in new experiences, influences and ideas I would likely have overlooked or not been at all aware of otherwise.

A major factor behind this shift has been because of joining the Interintellect at the start of the pandemic last year. It was here that I was introduced to many people who were interested in all forms of artistic expression – music, poetry, painting, design and so on. Having had limited exposure to some of these forms in my daily life before then, I quickly became gravitated toward the people within the Interintellect who were interested in these things, as well as the Salons, or online discussions which they held. This is despite it previously not being a particular interest of mine. However, being part of this community clearly piqued my interest more so than any previous exposure to art had done.

In particular, the Salon “Visual Intelligence and Art – Learning to See”, hosted by Patricia Hurducas, creator of the Flaneuse Project (https://flaneuseproject.com/salons-hosted/) was crucial to developing this newfound interest. It was during this Salon, where we were invited to bring along an artwork that we particularly liked or that held personal significance that I finally felt comfortable talking about art. During the course of the discussion, where I spoke about the famous ukiyo-e artwork ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, something in my mind clicked – that I could finally understand and appreciate art on a deeper level than I did previously.

File:The Great Wave off Kanagawa.jpg - Wikipedia
The Great Wave off Kanagawa

During what has often been a dreary and depressing year between lockdowns, difficult personal circumstances and general uncertainty about the future, this newfound interest and appreciation for art has been an unlikely but valuble source of novelty, spontaneity and curiosity. When the days would otherwise meld into one another, exploring art has been greatly enjoyable and beneficial. I’m not exactly sure where in particular this newfound interest will take me, but I’m excited to explore the possibilities nonetheless.

An Introduction to Cybernetics

Cybernetics, due to the complexity and scope of the concept, is often misunderstood, especially by non-specialists. Even during the course of researching this article, finding a relatively concise explanation of cybernetics that a general audience that were not already familiar with the term could grasp was difficult. Thus, the inspiration for this post arose.

Cybernetics, as a field, has been around roughly since the end of the second world war in the manner that it is referred to in a contemporary context. The term comes from the Greek term kybernetike, or governance. It is defined by Norbert Weiner, author of the book ‘Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine’ as “The scientific study of communication and control”. Its foundation as a formal field can be traced back to the Cybernetics Conferences held between 1946 and 1953. These conferences were aimed at pulling together the disparate scholars to create a formalised “general science of the workings of the human mind”. While they did not succeed at this stated aim at the time, these conferences had a significant influence on the development of cybernetics as well as fields such as cognitive science and systems theory.

Part of the complexity of understanding cybernetics as a beginner is that it is a concept that can be applied to almost any field one can think of. While it is primarily associated with computer science and related fields, it can be applied in many other ways. Its interdisciplinary nature, while making it a complex subject to approach, is also what makes the subject so interesting and worthy of study, due to its applicability in a broad swathe of areas. As a way to figure out some of the core thinkers, concepts and ideas behind cybernetics, I recently spoke to Maggie Appleton, a digital anthropologist and designer in order to learn more about the topic. During the course of our discussion, we came up with a board of ideas of these concepts, which can be seen below.

Cybernetics is closely related to complexity theory and complexity studies, and the overlap between the two often creates confusion for those new to cybernetics. Some scholars argue that rather than being two separate fields, they are merely different approaches to the same overall problem. One distinction that is generally made between the two is that systems theory focuses on the structure of systems, while cybernetics focuses more on their functionality and how they control themselves.

To help make more sense of what cybernetics is, I’ll explain one of the core concepts of cybernetic theory, which is the cybernetic loop. A cybernetic loop is the process of how a self-regulatory system works. An example of this can be in the context of a workplace. An initial input would be a task assigned by a manager, an order to fill from a customer or something similar. The response would be to then perform the required work, and the output would be the completed order or objective. During the process, there would likely be some form of feedback, such as further instructions from a manager or customer. Upon receiving this feedback of new information, the work performed would change and the output with it would change. This system is an example of a first-order cybernetic loop or control system.

This post of course barely scratches the surface of cybernetics. Further reading, especially of core texts such as Norbert Weiner’s Cybernetics are highly recommended for those who wish to take a deep dive into the subject. It’s a seminal text of the field and holds up to this day, even if it is somewhat inaccessible in parts.

This is also the first of a series of posts that I will be writing as a means of creating artifacts of learning after exploring topics as part of the Camp Curiosity series of events over at the Interintellect. Held monthly, these events are online-based gatherings of curious minds who want to go down rabbit holes of learning together in order to enhance their understanding of various topics of begin to explore something for the first time with the guidance of others. They will be on the first weekend of every month for the remainder of the year. A link to the next event can be found here, if you’re interested: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/down-the-rabbit-hole-the-infinite-curiosity-atlas-ii-intro-salon-tickets-137597813765

Digital Gardening

Recently, I came across the concept of a digital garden. As someone who’s often reading blogs, articles and various other forms of content on the Internet, I’m always interested in new ways to express ideas and thoughts.

So, what is a digital garden? According to Maggie Appleton, a digital garden is a means of organising thoughts and personal notes, as well as a way to share current learning in public. It’s a bit more formalised than simply writing it down on paper or in an app, but less formal and structured than a traditional blogpost or article. It’s an ideal way of quickly sharing thoughts, and also has the benefit of not needing to be fully formed.

An additional benefit to a digital garden is that, because it can be updated easily, it is also easier to curate and maintain than other mediums. Unlike many other forms, where information is static and stuck in the context of when it was published, a digital garden can, and ideally should, change over time.

Having blogged and written more formally for a number of websites in the past, my public output of writing has gone way down in the last year or so, partially because of personal circumstances, but also because I was increasingly finding the time commitment as well as stricter format of blogs and articles more constrained. I want to start experimenting with less structured writing and notes, as well as incorporating other mediums such as audio and video. The digital garden format, requiring less commitment in order to get started, may also help me as I begin to explore different topics and trails of curiosity.

Going forward, I’ll be posting the majority of my shorter-form posts and thoughts there, and leaving my main site for longer-form writing as well as for more technical writing, projects and portfolio work related to things I’m doing in my IT career.

Here is the link to my digital garden, which is very much a work in progress at present: https://adoring-elion-4b1eac.netlify.app/

If you’re interested, here is the link to the tutorial that I utilised to help me build the site: https://maximevaillancourt.com/blog/setting-up-your-own-digital-garden-with-jekyll

I’d like to thank Helena Ng (@herrowna) from the Interintellect for all her help with the process of not only getting the site up and running, but also for introducing me to the digital gardening idea in the first place.

World Development Indicators – Tableau Dashboard

This is a dashboard that I’ve put together as a basic visualization exercise. The aim of the visualization was to provide simple visualisations of key health and economic trends. The indicators that I chose to focus on were GDP in 2017, Average Life Expectancy for men and women between the years 1960 and 2017, and the top 10 countries on average for Healthcare expenditure since the year 2000. The data was obtained from the ‘World Indicators’ dataset, which was used in Week Ten of the #MakeoverMonday Tableau challenge from 2019: https://www.makeovermonday.co.usck/data/data-sets-2019/

As a first attempt at creating a dashboard, the attempt was mixed. The charts in general could probably display information more clearly. Though the dashboard on Tableau Public is somewhat clearer than the image below, nonetheless, there are issues with the ease of use to work on in the future. The full dashboard, including individual sheets, can be found here: https://public.tableau.com/profile/scott.davies#!/vizhome/SummaryofKeyHealthandEconomicMeasures/Dashboard1?publish=yes

There are some interesting insights that can be obtained from this dashboard. Firstly, the trend of life expectancy increasing for both men and women over the last several decades is clear. For both men and women, life expectancy has increased by several years, from a starting point of below 60 years on average worldwide to around 70 years old as of 2017. A further data visualization and analysis could break these statistics down further, by region or compared to national GDP.
The top 10 countries by average health expenditure showed a surprising result. These countries were primarily made up of small island nations such as Nauru, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. However, nations with a very high overall GDP such as Germany were also present in the top 10. The factors behind this are worth further consideration and would make an ideal topic for a further analytical project. While the dataset being utilized has a sufficient number of measures and dimensions for analysis, the data was not without issues. There were notable gaps in the data, with some measures and some years having considerable gaps in the data. This limited the range of analysis that could be conducted. In addition, while the measures were mostly self-explanatory, there was no data dictionary to go with the dataset, which made analysis somewhat more difficult. Overall, working with this dataset was a worthwhile exercise as a new practitioner of Tableau. My visualization skills were sharpened, as were my analytical skills of looking at a dataset and exploring it for insights to present.

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