Ming the Mechanic:
Mimicry Nation

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Mimicry Nation2003-02-10 21:48
11 comments
picture by Flemming Funch

My three year old daughter is great at learning by mimicking. She will do things sort of like grownups do it. She'll go through the motions, press the buttons, say the words, and often she'll quickly learn to do things for real. She's recently been practicing jokes, and she's mimicked the rhythm really well, even if the punch line isn't strictly speaking funny. Oh, it is very funny when she does it, no matter what the punch line is. It is a great strategy for a baby or a toddler. Just start faking it till you make it. It is delightful and wonderful and entertaining that it works.

But what starts worrying me is that it also seems to be a pervasive principle in education in schools as well. American schools is what I'm talking about. Their homework and essays often adds up to sounding like you're actually talking about something real and useful, even if you aren't. So, if you can just regurgitate some of the materials you've studied, and put together sentences that look fairly correct, you'll do pretty well. And if the components are mostly right, you'll get a good grade. Nobody pays much attention to whether the things you do actually are useful.

I realized some horrible things about education some years ago when it was part of my job to hire computer programmers. I hired a dozen or so programmers over several years. To do that, I had to look through the stacks of thousands of applications we'd gotten, and I needed to interview hundreds of people and pick the ones to hire. And a disturbing picture quickly started forming. Very often, the more advanced a degree the person had in Computer Science, the more hopeless it was to expect them to program anything real. Well, generalizing is dangerous, so let me point out that I'm talking about those who didn't have real jobs as programmers while they were studying, and who didn't spend all their sparetime programming video games. And, don't get me wrong, there are some really useful things on the curriculum in Computer Science, which all programmers really ought to know. What I'm talking about is the people who just went through the college courses and exercises and exams, hoping to be great computer scientists, hoping they'd have a career once they were done. If it were just a Bacherlor's degree, there might be some hope that they could actually program, and that they might apply some of what they learned. If it was a Master's degree, it was probably too late. And the clerk in the store where we bought our computers, he had a Ph.D. in Computer Science, the poor fellow.

The point is that here we have some people who've worked hard for years, and they've learned to get things *mostly* right, who've learned that if they get 80% of the questions right, they're doing well. If they can regurgitate what the textbook says, and make their answers look about right, they do well in school. They've been thoroughly trained and validated into doing things that look sort of right, but which aren't.

The problem is that in the real world, if you have the job of building something that actually works, as a computer programmer or as an engineer, or you need to do something very precise and important, like surgery, you can't get away with anything much less than 100% right. You might get away with 99.99% right, and the last 0.01% will still haunt you. But if you're several percent off, the bridge will fall down, the patient will die, and your software just won't run. You can't *almost* save an account record and still call it an accounting program. It doesn't matter if you made a good effort and that your notes look good if you amputated the wrong leg.

I solved my hiring problem by giving people actual tests that involved solving a problem by writing a program, and I hired the people who wrote a working program. The best programmer I hired was a 19 year old guy fresh out of highschool.

The bigger point I'm trying to make is that a large percentage of the human population, even as grownups, are just mimicking what others are doing, regurgitating what they've heard, and trying to look right. And a surprisingly small percentage of people are actually thinking through and figuring out how to make things work.

And the horrifying thing is that sometimes whole countries are run by people who're just actors who're kind of winging it and trying to say things that sound about right. And they gather people around them who're good at making things sound like they know what they're talking about. And when they say these things in the media, lots of people will repeat them, and will go around talking about stuff they really have no clue about, but they know how to act as if they do.


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11 comments

10 Feb 2003 @ 21:49 by sevenlamb : Mimicry, Slavery, Cognition
I'm intending and currently at work writing at length on this topic, because this single cognitive incongruity in our society is enough to extinguish us, especially in the domain of what we might call 'root-metaphors': the implied 'sources' of what and how we believe, and act.

We need to discriminate carefully between mimicry and emulation, as well as different very positive forms of mimicry.

In terms of language and our cognition, however, the domains owned by mimetic systems (which are not driven by any person, society or desire — they are 'alive' in those beings, instead) are so vast that one glance in the general direction results in terror, for a good reason.

Most of our inner and outer terrains are vastly overpopulated with incredibly predatory mimetic systems. Our inner and outer gardens, in a general sense, are 'filled with copies' of things, or, machines which copy things and themselves.

Consider the difference between one who makes ways of making maps, one who makes maps, and one who can only 'use maps made by others'.

Consider the peril of an entire nation who falls almost completely into the latter set.

Consider the cognitive apocolypse which arises in scalar waves as we substitute 'token based' knowledge (mimcry) for 'structural and unique experiential mastery of fundamentals' (learning).

Consider a world where all 'play' is only preparation for 'work'.

We end up with a society where a single group of people, with a figurehead that couldn't compose a rational paragraph of text to save his own life, who can steal the presidency, resolve the issues of the theft, rape our economy faster than any president in history, erase our constitution, and collapse the already torturously constrictive 'society' we live in into an actual physical, financial, personal, social and spiritual 'mall-prison'.

Our schools are cognitively mutilating our children, and our media is cognitively mutilating our ability to unify. We can no longer discern authenticity, in a domain crammed with mimics, crammed, and bursting, and breeding geometrically before our eyes over the past 150 years.

And what of social mimicry?

What about when a society, or a community, is nothing more than an aggravated set of mimetic thrisps in mortal combat -merely to be heard- above the din?

What about when our 'community', actually isn't? What about when it hasn't been, for some 100 years? What about when everything we think we believe...

...shifts and fades in tides of endless and deadly mimicry...in all possible domains...except the one...

...where together, we notice, admit the problem, join hands in rings, and set about resolving it...

Because hidden inside this deadly momentum, is one of seven keys...

and those keys unlock the seals...

that turn our wings into cages. And force our labor to insure this happens faster, and harder, any time we do anything at all...  



11 Feb 2003 @ 02:37 by istvan : Is it to late to see this?
Maybe not>
When an actor becomes the president of a "great" nation, that nation is in deep Shit. I have known that as it happened. The current president select has only one genuine talent also, that is acting.Now..., lately he is mimicking preachery and wery sucessfully at that. He is nay, but a loaded bible tauting cowboy, yet the people heed his words as gospel.
We have to watch how animals teach their young to see mimicry truly working in nature.
It works on the human level more than we realise.Hot topic, hot item, cool sites, heroes of wars, outstanding athletes, Nobel prize etc, etc...on and on.And we all want to be like them.
To me the most important facet of crating New Civilisations would be to actually create working communities that experiment with our so eloquent philosophies and see if ihey work or not. If they work the others will mimic, for mimicry is part and parcel of nature. You can not remove the mimic, but we can change and change the script of the comedy until it is really funny and then we learn to laugh again at our numerous follies(like children often do), not fight for them.  



11 Feb 2003 @ 13:31 by ming : Mimicry
Yeah, there are of course many good aspects of mimicry. And maybe what is needed is better stuff to mimic. Better role models. More sane behaviors.  


11 Feb 2003 @ 16:44 by sharie : Role Models, Sane Behaviors
A self-sustaining society needs values, shared beliefs, and common goals that are sustainable. This consumer culture is consuming everything and self-destrucing.  


11 Feb 2003 @ 20:52 by maxtobin : An astute observer
Ming in facilitating the employment of many in the high tech environment (I have even worked with bridge builders) I would have to agree that a degree is no guarantee of common sense. There is no substitute for getting the hands dirty and no computer hire is ever done any more on the basis of a CV alone. A bit like the "show me the money" mantra, proof is in the program running and the bugs not biting.  


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Other stories in
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