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How the Internet Makes the Improbable Into the New Normal 191

Hugh Pickens writes "A burglar gets stuck in a chimney, a truck driver in a head on collision is thrown out the front window and lands on his feet, walks away; a wild antelope knocks a man off his bike; a candle at a wedding sets the bride's hair on fire; someone fishing off a backyard dock catches a huge man-size shark. Now Kevin Kelly writes that in former times these unlikely events would be private, known only as rumors, stories a friend of a friend told, easily doubted and not really believed but today they are on YouTube, seen by millions. 'Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we'll see or hear about today,' writes Kelly. 'As long as we are online — which is almost all day many days — we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.' But when the improbable dominates the archive to the point that it seems as if the library contains only the impossible, then the 'black swans' don't feel as improbable. 'To the uninformed, the increased prevalence of improbable events will make it easier to believe in impossible things,' concludes Kelly. 'A steady diet of coincidences makes it easy to believe they are more than just coincidences.'"
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How the Internet Makes the Improbable Into the New Normal

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  • God and Star Wars (Score:5, Interesting)

    by llZENll ( 545605 ) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:02PM (#42584173)

    Does this hail the rebirth of religion? Or perhaps the renaissance of sci-fi in 5-10 years?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:11PM (#42584237)

    They were prior to the discovery of black swans in 1697.

  • Apparently.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by phrackwulf ( 589741 ) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:16PM (#42584281)

    The Internet makes stupid people more stupid..

    What were the odds?

  • The Example Rule (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dangermen ( 248354 ) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:27PM (#42584423) Homepage

    The book "The Science of Fear' calls this the example rule. The rule that somehow because something just happened, that it is now likely to happen again. People are wired such that they usually act this way(gut), only your head can override your gut when you know you are following this rule.

  • Re:God and Star Wars (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:28PM (#42584433) Journal

    I don't know about sci-fi; but I'd be inclined to doubt any significant effect on religion.

    To the degree that religions bother with making truth claims about the world, they tend to focus on a very well-honed version of the sort of "stories a friend of a friend told, easily doubted and not really believed" that TFA contrasts with the new internet-enabled transmission. You tend to see belief spread, or at least persist, by means of strong social connections(the traces of 'to tie/bind together' in the latin root of 'religion' are not by accident), emotionally intense personal experiences and group ritual union.

    For the assorted, somewhat irksome, 'something vaguely in my favor happened, it's a Sign and/or My Guardian Angel Intervened' brigade, the fact that humans don't know probability from a hole in the ground(even statisticians have trouble on a gut level, and everybody else doesn't have an alternative to the gut level) probably helps spice things up; but that phenomenon doesn't seem to scale: people who have already been influenced by the very old, affectively powerful, personal methods are more likely to interpret random events as possessing meaning or representing some sort of supernormal intervention(unlike, say, a gambler who also falls prey to nonsense about 'hot streaks' or 'my number is due to come up'; but doesn't experience their shoddy grasp of probability as metaphysically invested).

    If anything, broad access to the improbable would actually seem to damage traditional attitudes and beliefs about 'miracles' and the like. "It was a head-on collision on an icy road and she was thrown clear, what a miracle!" will meet "I'm glad she's ok, here are 1800 dash cams of people escaping horrible accidents without a scratch, and it looks like the American road kills about 35,000 people a year, I guess god just hates them and their families, eh?"

    (Now, I don't actually expect any change, a bunch of abstract numbers and facts are so pale and lifeless in the face of emotion and experience, so I doubt that there will be any major shift from this source.)

  • by fotoguzzi ( 230256 ) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:28PM (#42584437)
    I didn't read the article, but the bloopers keyword in the subject reminds me: in the last one or two centuries we had National Geographic, Ripley's Believe it or Not, and the Guiness Book of World Records. Our analogue forebears would know viscerally that there were women with discs in their lips the size of coffee can lids; they might have believed thirty percent of the Ripley's books; and they would have photographic proof that the heaviest twins went riding on motorscooters and the tallest man could look down on a "no parking" sign.
  • by MarcoAtWork ( 28889 ) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:37PM (#42584525)

    ... in a study that applied this concept to things like lottery winnings (would people buy lottery tickets as much if they didn't know anybody who won?) fear-based behaviors (would people be avoiding running in parks so much if they very rarely heard of related crimes?) dishonesty/narcissism (would people try so much to 'get ahead' by dishonest means if they didn't think that 'everybody does it' which is validated by watching the national news?) etc. etc. etc.

    It seems that we spent many, many, many hundreds of years being routinely exposed only to a very small set of other people (the ones living in our village) which gave us a push towards conformity with our limited surroundings and its values and calibrated our 'probability meter' with that amount of 'throws of the dice' in mind. Nowadays no matter what you want to think/believe it is trivial to find many people sharing your point of view and/or finding events that validate your belief/magical thinking.

    As I was saying before, if you had never ever met anybody in your life who won a lottery, you would be a lot more likely to look at lottery tickets as a very frivolous use of money, while nowadays where every few weeks you see in the news (with a special interest story, that makes you think you "know" these people) somebody wins a significant amount of money somewhere it's a lot easier to 'magical think' that lottery tickets are instead a lot more worth it (in statistical terms) than they really are.

    Just like a lot of people I know that will not run alone in a park because somebody somewhere was victim of a crime and so they are afraid of doing so (without obviously realizing how low the probability that something like that would happen to them, much lower than the probability of them being run over by a car when they run along a road instead).

    I don't think that we are equipped to extrapolate probabilities from the small to the large: when it comes to 50 people we are fairly capable of distinguishing normal occurrences, low probability occurrences and once-in-a-blue-moon occurrences, but when it comes to several hundred millions we really can't cope and cannot relate how something that happens to 10 people on a nation-wide level (say, win a lottery jackpot of 100+ millions) is way, way, way unlikely that will happen to us or to somebody we know personally. This is definitely affecting most people's behaviors, in some cases positively (say, rare disease sufferers can find somebody else somewhere that has their same symptoms and can get care, instead of being dismissed) but in many cases not overly so unfortunately.

  • Re:God and Star Wars (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Golddess ( 1361003 ) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:57PM (#42584711)

    I doubt anyone is going to see God, Mohammed, Buddha or Jesus on youtube without it being an obvious mockup or hoax, regardless of whether or not any of the do/did exist.

    It isn't about seeing them personally, but rather "look at all these miraculous events! How can you possibly claim that my particular flavor of deity does not exist?"

  • Re:God and Star Wars (Score:5, Interesting)

    by icebike ( 68054 ) on Monday January 14, 2013 @05:52PM (#42585875)

    Mod Parent Insightful.

    The fact that everyone and their brother has a camera at the ready these days, or, more likely, the odds that at least someone is recording live video is increasingly common.

    The videos of strange events, as mentioned in the story, or a line of airplane seats coming across the highway [] and smacking a car, just happening to get caught by a driver recording his trip with his mounted cell camera, are becoming common. As cameras become more ubiquitous, there is virtually nowhere you can go these days and NOT be near someone who has a camera.

    But taking your same line of reasoning from a different direction: Why haven't we got ANY (non-faked) pictures of Big Foot yet, or Aliens landing, etc? ?

    Can it be that, after a suitable period of time with a sufficient number of observers, the Absence of Evidence actually becomes Evidence of Absence? In a world where virtually every unusual event has a high probability of being photographed, can the Appeal to Ignorance [] continue to be hand-waived away?

  • by mrsquid0 ( 1335303 ) on Monday January 14, 2013 @05:57PM (#42585925) Homepage

    I doubt it. If a school bus crashes and kills 39 children then it will be very big news for a week or two, then it will be forgotten. Do you remember what happened in Yuba City?

  • by jimbirch ( 2621059 ) on Monday January 14, 2013 @10:28PM (#42588145)
    Unlike other animals we have some specialized biological equipment to handle very low probability events, but then we are special. If you're a nematode worm you're pretty much restricted to "Death learning" aka genetic learning where the species learns by individuals being ejected from the gene pool. Over time the species comes up with a time-integrated behaviour function that produces optimum responses to what the environment is chucking at you. So you tend to eat the right foods, mate with the right guys and avoid the nasty guys. The behaviour function is strongly weighted to the probable events, for obvious reasons. Rare events can kill you, but not as often as probable events.

    The next big step up the evolutionary ladder is "Suck It and See Learning" where the individual modifies behaviour based on its past experience: that stung me, this tasted good, etc. The individual no longer has to die to learn something. Progress. An extension of this mode is learning not just by personal trial and error but also by watching other members of your species, usually mom and or dad. A baby bird learns how and where to catch worms not just by endlessly scratching around in random patches of dirt until it jags a worm, but by doing the rounds with its parents. It can also learn signs of danger so it doesn't need to be eaten by a cat to find out why cats are interested in birds.

    Humans add another even more sophisticated layer on this, which might be called Narrative Learning. This is basically creating and swapping stories. It might also be called knowledge, but isn't knowledge just stories that happen to be true, or true enough to be useful. This is what allows us to handle very low probability events, things that might occur once a year, once in a lifetime (water flowing underground) or even once in several generations. If you happen to be living out on the plains of Africa half a million years ago this kind of stuff would give you a wild advantage over all the monkey-see-monkey-do types around you. How to choose a good spear, how to predict the seasons, when to shift camp, what plants can kill you, etc. Science is the ultimate form of narrative learning; stories are picked not because they sound right/are interesting/are sexy/worked once, but by relentlessly grinding them up against reality.

    And this capacity for narrative learning is, of course, why we find the improbable events on You Tube - or the Bible - so very compelling: we have evolved to love and collect the improbable, just because it just might save us one day. I know that next time I crash a truck, I'm going through the window, and landing on my feet. It works.

The best defense against logic is ignorance.