The Temptation

At the invitation of Professor Mihai Stan, editor-in-chief of the Litere / Letters magazine of the Târgoviște Writers’ Society, I started writing about my April 2022 trip to Iran in a column entitled Algorithms and stars. Once again my thanks here for his invitation.

Here is the link to the first article in Romanian available on page 93:

Photo by Sam Moghadam Khamseh on Unsplash

The English version is below:

We live more and more under the sign of algorithms. They rule our lives without our knowing it, without our feeling it, most often without our consent, and all this happens while we continue fighting for the freedom to choose what each of us really wants more and more passionately. We often fuss and debate, with more or less valid arguments, if the influence of algorithms on us is acceptable or not; we think about whether we will be replaced by robots or just ruled by them, but we forget more and more to look at the stars and remember what it was like when they were the ones literally guiding our steps and journeys, not Google maps, or were influencing our destinies for those who believed in the power of some of the “initiated” in reading beyond what can be seen of the visible or less visible universe.

A Facebook algorithm brought me an invitation for a trip to a relatively exotic destination. Sent by a friend from my list with whom I had had awesome adventures before. Therefore, it wasn’t too difficult for me to give in to the temptation, especially since I had to offer myself a birthday present for a beautiful age for which the only real gifts are the immaterial ones: novel experiences and the thoughts they induce. Therefore, giving in to the algorithm and also consulting with my internal advisor replacing the stars, in other words checking my various memories related to that destination, memories from books or constructed from the media or from my international students coming from that area, there I was accepting the invitation.

And why is it a big deal to accept going on a trip? Even if it’s quite long, 18 days is after all a bit of a luxury for those who still work and have various obligations to family and community. Especially while the pandemic is still active in the world, even though our authorities seem to have lifted all bans, and the war is much closer to us than we would have liked it and it affects us in extremely painful ways. Especially those who still have the memory, real or mediated, of the wars fought in Europe before. Not to mention the fact that I had decided to stop traveling, especially over long distances, and obviously by plane, because the planet still needs some timeout from pollution similar to the one during the lockdowns.

This is the value of our promises in the face of the temptations intelligent algorithms constantly send us because they know us too well. The experts in the mysteries of artificial intelligence say that algorithms know us even better than we know ourselves. We have anyway long forgotten, or maybe we didn’t even know the “know thyself” adage. Not even the promised hell of climate change that is already here though we are feeling it probably less than others in the more and more aggressive deserts against the planet that we humans have conquered often not knowing where to stop and how to end the suffering of animals and plants because we don’t really care for the suffering of other people. Not even the hell of climate change scares us any longer. Based on the principle that has become axiomatic though it shouldn’t have that often “homo homini lupus”. And yet, the wolf is a remarkably social animal, highly intelligent, caring and devoted to its family (pack), playful and, above all, attentive to the cubs, whom it “educates” to be efficient in their world, of wolves, but also attentive towards the wounded or elderly whom they do not leave behind when they can no longer actively contribute to the life of the pack [1]. Unfairly demonized by fearful and ignorant humans, the wolf is undoubtedly disadvantaged by the comparison with us.

But doesn’t the same happen with other fields or with other people we do not know or we know less? Aren’t we, more often than not, creatures of habit either through stereotypes and clichés that we pick up without much analysis, out of convenience, or because we simply refuse to complicate our existence with deeper analysis and search?

Didn’t Kahneman receive half of the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002 [2] because for decades, together with Amos Tversky, he studied how people take decisions? And why would a psychologist take the Nobel prize for economics? Because he set out to dismantle a very dear idea to the economists – that of Homo Economicus, i.e., the rational man who only makes well-founded economic decisions. Kahneman and Tversky, both interested in human irrationality, have shown that people often, and of course involuntarily, make irrational decisions. Why? Because, says Kahneman, people use two methods to reason, in other words to make decisions. Kahneman called these two methods Systems 1 and System 2. In Kahneman’s view [3], system 1 represents the fast, intuitive thinking through which we react to the surrounding world, based on what seems coherent to us at the time, taking short-term decisions: it’s cloudy – I’ll take my umbrella; the economy collapses as a result of the pandemic and of the economic sanctions against Russia, I am more careful with my disposable income, I won’t spend money too easily because a crisis awaits us, etc.

System 2 is more analytical, it starts more slowly, and generally prefers not to be disturbed. If system 1, for example, tells you that your boss just walking past you frowns because lately you haven’t had very good results at work, system 2, if it were to activate, would say your boss is frowning because of the horrible traffic on his way to work and of the recent discussion with his wife. The activity of system 2 requires a lot of energy or put differently intellectual activity, that of reflection and meditation, and tires us more than a medium-intensity physical activity.

Well, the algorithms that select our future “options” know very well that we react based on system 1 and they send us all kinds of information maybe, just maybe we take the bait. On the other hand, even if we can’t change our biology, we can adapt and take it into account. Of course, we know that every click on Facebook will bring us ads and information from that area. A lot fake, some biased, and, of course, much replicating the general line of thinking of those in our bubble. It’s so much easier to give a “like” or whatever else Facebook allows us, than to stop for a while, check the information, usually it is very simple and quick, and make an informed decision.

Like me, for example, when I received the invitation to join a group of tourists who were going to a Middle Eastern country that our own Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommended as risky and therefore to be avoided if possible. The temptation, however, had been too big and here I am back safe and sound, having had not only an excellent tourist trip, but an incredibly rich one from a cultural and historical point of view as well. I am now reading one of the novels of the writer of Turkish origin Elif Shafak whom I discovered through the recommendation of one of my former international students from the country I visited and whose action takes place in the country where I spent three weeks of incredible walks into history and culture. Among algorithms and stars. In the future I will tell you here wonderful or just ordinary happenings that deserve to be shared. See you.




[3] Daniel Kahneman, 2013, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux