Reflections on 2022 – from Trussonomics to generative AI and goblin mode

It has been a tumultuous year, marked by upheaval and conflict. The people of our community have faced challenges and hardships that tested the very fabric of our society. The SmallDataForum chronicles the stories and struggles to survive in a harsh and unforgiving world.

And so, we put our microphones towards the tale of this tumultuous year. For many of us, this year has been one of great change and uncertainty. But as the old saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

As we look back on the events of the past year, we can take solace in the fact that we have survived, and that we are stronger for it. So let us now delve into the tale of the end of this tumultuous year and see what lessons we can learn from the challenges we have faced.

Ok, perhaps there are better ways to intro our year-end pod, than asking chatGPT to come up with something in the style of the Gisli Saga. Then again, that’s what it’s for, isn’t it…?

It was certainly a tumultuous year in Britain, that popular raiding destination of Gisli and his ilk. We had the end of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch coincide with the beginning of the reign of Mary Elizabeth Truss as Prime Minister. And as it quickly turned out, Elizabeth II’s reign would be 70 years and 170 days LONGER that than of PM Truss.

Changing of the guard: last official photoshoot of Queen Elizabeth II on 6th September 2022

Ah – Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, the Bonnie and Clyde of British politics, burning a £30bn hole into Britain’s finances with their ‘move too fast and break everything, then run away and hide’ neoliberal ultra spirit. #goodriddance

We briefly reflect on our auguries from a year ago – Neville’s hopes for the online safety bill weren’t quite met, but then reports of its demise would also be greatly exaggerated. It is currently making its way through the digestive tract of British policy-making. The hope is that what will come out at the end is more than – oh you know…

Sam got the sunsetting of Ralf Rangnick and Alex de Pfeffel right, whereas I’d rather not dwell on Germany’s successive group stage exit from a World Cup. Unprecedented, dear reader – like so many other events these days.

Yet another occasion when a German team was beaten less ponderous, more spirited and practical ideas-driven opposition…

From previous predictions we progress to present reflections. Neville’s 2022 is one of ubiquitous “intensification” – of discord, rage, political and economic doom and gloom. More of the ‘social heating’ that we discussed before. Whereas Sam’s characteristic compound is shitshow, a much more fitting moniker, than Collins Dictionaries’ sanitised WOTY version, permacrisis. For me, 2022 is yet another year of the boiling frog, that sad creature not feeling the heat until it’s literally cooked.

We trade film references to illustrate our takes on the year that almost was – Sam’s is White Noise, a “a deadpan comedy of catastrophisation, a meditation on western prosperity and its discontents, its anxieties, its intellectual satiety”, according to Peter Bradshaw’s five star Guardian review. Mine is Don’t Look Up, the not universally acclaimed media morality tale of, well take your pick:  boiled froggery? Head in the sandity?

We should all listen more to (and understand) Danny Kahneman

This brings up the SmallDataForum’s favourite thinker about fast and slow thinking, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Sam shares an interview of the still super sharp not-quite-nonagenarian with “sustainable AI” Ekimetrics CEO Jean-Baptiste Bouzige: “why is it so difficult to change”? Why indeed. Why do we allow ongoing intensification of social heating, why the never-ending encores to the shitshow, why does the frog not jump out of the pot?

Abstract problems that don’t seem to affect us directly, contested arguments, overconfident leaders – Sam lists just a few of the arguments and recommends listening to the 15 minute YouTube clip.

As our conversation about the good, the bad, the smart and the dumb of AI continues, I throw Jeff Hawkins into the mix, the inventor of the Palm Pilot and the Handspring Treo whose real lifelong passion is the brain, and figuring out intelligence.

From his 2005 book On Intelligence (Amazon kindly reminds me that I bought this book on 10th May 2011), I remember the conclusion that the brain really is one gigantic memory-prediction engine, constantly making predictions and taking actions based on stored memories and experiences.

Which doesn’t seem to be all that different from a Large Language Model being fed all the knowledge of the interweb to make algorithmic decisions as to which combinations of symbols will be the most likely to construct a meaningful sequence as a response to a prompt. Or in human: to mimic having a conversation.

However, it’s not my philosophical musings that light up Neville’s and Sam’s memory-prediction systems, but rather the mention of Palm and Treo – leading to reminiscing anecdotes of Seventies TRS-80s (Neville) and Eighties Apricot 8086s (Sam).

Those were the days: TRS-80 (in the left) and Apricot 8086

Returning back to the future of now, Neville shares his experiences with ELLIE, a GPT-3 powered email response bot.

All that automation and seamlessness awakens my inner Zuboff as I see dystopia unfold. Sam, while sharing this concern, rightly points out that this is first and foremost a ‘knowledge worker problem’.

Of course it’s true that wfh and zoom calls in business shirt and pajama bottoms have never been an option for nurses, or bin men, or supermarket staff, or in fact the Thames Water engineers that will hopefully fix our current water problems. Victorian Christmas traditions – good. Victorian pipework when temperatures hit sub zero – not so much.  

Briefly, our joint attention settles on the various WOTYs put out by competing dictionary publishers, from Oxford Dictionaries “Goblin Mode”, to Merriam Webster’s “Gaslighting”, the aforementioned “Permacrisis” put forward by Collins, and lastly, Cambridge Dictionaries’ “Homer” (apparently triggered by a Wordle spat over the legitimacy of Americanisms).

Both Neville and Sam appear caught out by goblin mode – as was I when I first read about it last week. I explain that it basically means “not giving a fuck”, though the SDF panel’s new definition of “an aggressive form of hygge” is rather more poetic.  

Unsurprisingly, goblin mode doesn’t feature in any of our 2023 predictions:

Neville returns to the online safety bill (that world-beating British alternative to the EU’s Digital Services Act) , the decentralisation of social networks post-Twitter, and more political polarisation.

Sam reassures us that the world will not end, though Twitter will implode. He also provides a statistician’s safe bet in times of extremes: we will see a regression to the mean on most fronts. And finally, Bazball helping England regain the Ashes. In due time, we will know whether that went the way of my over-optimistic prediction of Flickball glory in Qatar…   

As always, I have more questions, than answers: will Elon kill Twitter (probably)? Will chatGPT work if it charges money, and will it get a catchier name (likely, on both fronts)? Will 2023 bring more than hollow rhetoric from the PR & comms wheelhouse of purpose, authenticity, ESG, DEI etc… Or will there be just more astroturfing, gaslighting and various forms of colour and other washing, from white to green to rainbow to sports?

For an answer to that question, look no further than the Qatar World Cup, with its frothing UK PR support and providing a perfect template for Saudi-Arabia 2030.

We close with Neville rightly highlighting that it’s been a very good year for our podcast: great topics, great interaction, with just enough grumpy disagreement.

As always, a cartoon by Marketoonist Tom Fishburne says it best…

There is more to come, with or without the support of chatGPT. I couldn’t resist letting it have the last words:

Q: “Write three funny predictions about big and small data for the year 2023 in the style of the Old Testament”

A: “And it came to pass that big data was worshipped as a deity, and all manner of incantations and sacrifices were made to appease its all-seeing algorithms.

And lo, the small data did rise up in rebellion, claiming that it was just as important as the mighty big data. But alas, the small data was silenced, for it was deemed too insignificant to matter.

And it was prophesied that in the year 2023, big data would become so powerful that it would be able to predict the future with perfect accuracy. But alas, the only thing it accurately predicted was that it would be wrong about everything else.”

So there.

Listen to Episode 64:

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