Friday, October 5, 2012

Garrett Hardin and Michael Lewitt quotes (human fallibility, technology)

“You don’t have to be an expert to have a healthy respect for human nature. In fact, laymen often are better at evaluating reliability than are the experts. The expert who looks for “the light at the end of the tunnel” can all too easily end up with tunnel-vision. The layman whose attention is less narrowly focused may be better at taking in the whole panorama.”

“Human beings are the instruments of scientific progress. Technical results are often difficult to understand, but the peculiarities of the instruments—fallible human beings—are both fascinating and understandable by all. In what follows, concern with human nature takes precedence over the details of technology.”

–Garrett Hardin, Filters Against Folly


“Moreover, markets are motored by technology. Money is moved around the world by massive computer power that reduces every form of capital to the same thing – bytes, or 1s and 0s. This leveling of differences is essential to facilitate the flow of money around the world, but it does not come without a cost. The treatment of everything as the same thing conceals the very real differences that lie behind the numbers. Technology creates the illusion that capital is stable and continuous when it is in fact highly unstable and susceptible to abrupt discontinuities. The failure to understand the dynamic nature of capital heightens the risks involved every time an investor takes cash and exchanges it for a stock or bond or tangible asset.

Its stewardship by human beings is what renders capital unstable. Even the most rational human being is highly irrational and driven by emotion. Human beings suffer from a fascinating dichotomy – they live their physical lives sequentially but are endowed with minds that are not bound by time. We live our lives in order but we can think them out-of-order. The ability of the human mind to remember and to imagine introduces an enormously influential element of unpredictability and emotion into human action. An investor’s greatest challenge is to reconcile this dichotomy, which is an ineluctable part of the human condition. And while an investor can try to rely on models that by their very nature simplify reality, he must acknowledge and include in his calculations the incalculable.

Credit is therefore the ultimate human construct. It relies on the past to predict the future. It enlists both memory and imagination. And it is subject to discontinuities that can lay ruin to the best laid plans. Central bank creation of limitless amounts of credit out of thin air is the ultimate human act. But it must be understood for what it is: not something that reduces risk, but an act that radically heightens systemic risk.”