For Your Consideration: Essential Self-Delusion, Moral Progress, Fake Vacations, Harvard Sentences

1. How our delusions keep us sane

The mind’s delusory tendencies, McRaney explains, are just as vital as the automatic self-preservation processes of the body. Much like the respiration inhibition function of the brain prevents us from damaging our lungs by consciously deciding to stop breathing, the psyche employs a sort of “despair-inhibition module” of positive illusions constantly running in the background to power our self-enhancement bias — those rose-colored glasses we reserve exclusively for viewing ourselves, without which we might be blinded by life.

Citing several studies, McRaney writes:

“Your wildly inaccurate self-evaluations get you through rough times and help motivate you when times are good. [Research shows] that people who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy day to day as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities.”

In other words, not only was Hunter S. Thompson right about journalism when he wrote that “there is no such thing as Objective Journalism” and that “the phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms,” but he was also right about the human condition at large — we are wildly unrealistic about ourselves, and that’s a good thing. Still, our self-perception — or explanatory style — exists on a spectrum, and different people fall at different spots along it. McRaney explains:

“At one end is a black swamp of unrealistic negative opinions about life and your place in it. At the other end is an overexposed candy-cane forest of unrealistic positive opinions about how other people see you and your own competence. Right below the midpoint of this spectrum is a place where people see themselves in a harsh yellow light of objectivity. Positive illusions evaporate there, and the family of perceptions mutating off the self-serving bias cannot take root. About 20 percent of all people live in that spot, and psychologists call the state of mind generated by those people depressive realism*. If your explanatory style rests in that area of the spectrum, you tend to experience a moderate level of depression more often than not because you are cursed to see the world as a place worthy neither of great dread nor of bounding delight, but just a place. You have a strange superpower — the ability to see the world closer to what it really is. Your more accurate representations of social reality make you feel bad and weird mainly because most people have a reality-distortion module implanted in their heads; sadly, yours is either missing or malfunctioning.”

Still other illusions underlie the trifecta of our self-illusory positivity — confirmation bias, which leads us to notice more of the information which confirms our beliefs and less of that which contradicts them, hindsight bias, which causes us to retroactively revise our own predictions in the face of new information and claim that we always saw it coming, and self-serving bias, which lets us take credit for all the good stuff that happens to us but blame the bad on external circumstances or other people. McRaney summarizes the formidable alchemy of these conspirers in forming the master-delusion of our self-enhancement bias:

“The positive illusions and their helpers form a supercluster of delusion that thumps in the psyche of every human. Together, illusory superiority bias, the illusion of control, optimism bias, confirmation bias, hindsight bias, and self-serving bias combine like Voltron into a mental chimera called self-enhancement bias. It works just as the name suggests — it enhances your view of your self.”

2. Morality and the Idea of Progress in Silicon Valley

Critiques of recent scandals in Silicon Valley rightly place the blame on a culture that supports amorality, thoughtlessness, and ignorance rather than ill intent.[2] But the problem runs much deeper, because Silicon Valley’s amorality problem arises from the implicit and explicit narrative of progress companies use for marketing and that people use to find meaning in their work. By accepting this narrative of progress uncritically, imagining that technological change equals historic human betterment, many in Silicon Valley excuse themselves from moral reflection. Put simply, the progress narrative short-circuits moral reflection on the consequences of new technologies.

The progress narrative has a strong hold on Silicon Valley for business and cultural reasons. The idea that technology will bring about a better world for everyone can be traced back to the Enlightenment aspiration to “master all things by calculation” in the words of Max Weber.[3] The successes of science and technology give rise to a faith among some that rationality itself tends to be a force for good.[4] This faith makes business easier because companies can claim to be contributing to progress while skirting the moral views of the various groups affected by their products and services. Most investors would rather not see their firms get mired in the fraught issue of defining what is morally better according to various groups; they prefer objective benefits, measured via return on investment (ROI) or other metrics. Yet, the fact that business goals and cultural sentiments go hand in hand so well ought to give us pause.

The idea of progress is popular because it ends up negating itself, and as a result, makes almost no demands upon us. In Silicon Valley, progress gets us thinking about objectively better, which suggests that we come up with some rational way to define better (e.g., ROI). But the only way to say that something is better in the sense we associate with progress is to first ask whether it is moral. Morality is inherently subjective and a-rational. Suggesting that a technology represents progress in any meaningful, moral sense would require understanding the values of the people affected by the technology. Few businesses and investors would be willing to claim they contributed to progress if held to account by this standard. If people are concerned with assessing whether specific technologies are helpful or harmful in a moral sense, they should abandon the progress narrative. Progress, as we think of it, invites us to cannibalize our initial moral aspirations with rationality, thus leaving us out of touch with moral intuitions. It leads us to rely on efficiency as a proxy for morality and makes moral discourse seem superfluous.

4. Surreal Photos from Inside the “Fake Vacation” Industry
Click through for the Images.

It’s hot, the water’s warm, and blue skies stretch as far as the eye can see. Which actually isn’t very far at all since, all sensory evidence to the contrary, we’re indoors — clustered inside a giant plastic globe in one of the oldest industrial centers of Northern Europe. Welcome to the world of “fake vacations,” as documented by Austrian photographer Reiner Riedler.

Many travel magazines, guide books and websites focus on “authentic” experiences; off-the-beaten track places that reveal the genuine culture beyond the touristic clichés. Riedler has spent the past decade documenting the opposite phenomenon — artificial destinations that mimic other places around the world, foregoing any sense of authenticity in favor of ease and convenience. Whether watching a Pacific sunset in Germany, dining beneath Mayan ruins in Florida, or snowboarding in Dubai, a lot of people are happy to skip the effort and expense of travel in favor of a cheap, comfortable simulacrum of the real thing.

4. The “Harvard Sentences” Secretly Shaped the Future of Audio Tech

During World War II, the boiler room under Harvard’s Memorial Hall was turned into a secretive wartime research lab. Here, volunteers were subjected to hours of noise as scientists tested military communications systems. Out of this came the Harvard sentences, a set of standardized phrases still widely used to test everything from cellphones to VoIP.

Few know about the sentences themselves other than speech scientists and audio engineers, but the technologies they’ve helped build are everywhere. Verizon’s real-life “Can you hear me now?” guy uses them. Speech-to-text software engineers use them. Speech scientists studying cochlear implants say them out loud all the time. “These materials have been the gold standard,” says David Pisoni, director of the Speech Research Laboratory at Indiana University.

Top image: The Harvard sentences are used to test intelligibility in situations where speech is supposed to be less than intelligible. One speech researcher told me his favorite mistake: “Tea served from the brown jug is tasty” misheard as “Tea soaked in Lebron James is tasty.” Illustration by Tara Jacoby

There are other standardized sets of words for testing speech, but the Harvard sentences are among the oldest and most popular. Their origins—which I pieced together from old academic papers and interviews—reveals a fascinating slice of little-known history.

But first, perhaps you’d like to read some more of the sentences.


“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” – George Bernard Shaw


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