We have a lot of sophisticated analyses that try, with great precision, to predict and describe existing systems in terms of an assumption of universal rationality and a sub-assumption that what that rationality tries to do is maximize returns to the self. Yet we live in a world where that's not actually what we experience. The big question now is how we cover that distance between what we know very intuitively in our social relations, and what we can actually build with.
YOCHAI BENKLER is the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard, and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. His research focuses on the effects of laws that regulate information production and exchange on the distribution of control over information flows, knowledge, and culture in the digital environment. He is the author of The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.
THE END OF UNIVERSAL RATIONALITY
[YOCHAI BENKLER]: The big question I ask myself is how we start to think much more methodically about human sharing, about the relationship between human interest and human morality and human society. The main moment at which I think you could see the end of an era was when Alan Greenspan testified before the House committee and said, "My predictions about self-interest were wrong. I relied for 40 years on self-interest to work its way up, and it was wrong." For those of us like me who have been working on the Internet for years, it was very clear you couldn't encounter free software and you couldn't encounter Wikipedia and you couldn't encounter all of the wealth of cultural materials that people create and exchange, and the valuable actual software that people create, without an understanding that something much more complex is happening than the dominant ideology of the last 40 years or so. But you could if you weren't looking there, because we were used in the industrial system to think in these terms.
A lot of what I was spending my time on in the 90s and the 2000s was to understand why it is that these phenomena on the Net are not ephemeral. Why they're real. But I think in the process of understanding that, I had to go back and ask, where are we really in between this what's-in-it-for-me versus the great altruists and the stories of Stahanovich and the self-sacrifice for the community?
So this is the puzzle that I'm really trying to chew on now, which is how we move from knowing this intuitively and having a folk wisdom about it to something that probably won't in any immediate future have the tractability and precision of mainstream economics. Not, by the way, that as we sit here today, mainstream economics necessarily enjoys the high status that it might have a few years ago, but nonetheless so that we will be able to start building systems in the same way that we thought about building organizational systems around compensation, like options that ties the incentives of the employees to that of the business, like we thought with regard to political science that's completely pervaded today by the understanding of, how does politics happen? Well, it depends on what the median voter wants and what the median Senator wants, and all of that.
We have a lot of sophisticated analyses that try, with great precision, to predict and describe existing systems in terms of an assumption of universal rationality and a sub-assumption that what that rationality tries to do is maximize returns to the self. Yet we live in a world where that's not actually what we experience. The big question now is how we cover that distance between what we know very intuitively in our social relations, and what we can actually build with.
There are lots of different disciplines where people have been doing work for a long time. In many cases, doing work that was peripheral during the period of the rise of selfish rationality. Really we're talking about a period from about the 1950s until roughly now, when in economics, in political science, in law, in evolutionary biology, you got an increasing relative importance for explanations that depended on individuals acting in ways that maximize their returns, where their returns largely are assumed, though not universally, to be material with self-interest.
Game theory and mechanism design imagines people as acting with self-interest and guile. Political science builds models that are based on self-interested voters and self-interested Senators and self-interested Congressmen, each one trying to understand what is their interest. Is it to get elected again? Is it to maximize a particular position? And each time you build a system around this idea of individuals interacting, trying to maximize their own returns.
In evolutionary biology, for example, one thing that you saw was the rise of very sophisticated ways of explaining behavior that seemed to be altruistic, purely in terms that redounded to the benefit of the individual organism. This is where reciprocity becomes so important. What we see again throughout all of these different disciplines is that somewhere around the 80s in some places, like organizational sociology, somewhere closer to the 90s, if you talk for example about evolutionary biology and the resurgence of the possibility of multi-level selection and group selection where it's not all reduced to the individual, there are also components that happen at the group level.
Certainly in the context of political science and the emergence of some studies of commons and common property regimes and collective actions — successful collective action models. In economics, we see a substantial work in experimental economics, like Ernst Fehr's group in Zurich and Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis in Santa Fe, starting to do experiments that show that people deviate from selfish rationality. That people systematically and predictably behave in ways that are much more cooperative than would be predicted by the game theoretical impact.
You've got theoretical economists, like Roland Benabou, Jean Tirole, and Matthew Rabin, who begin to build quite sophisticated models that try to implement very different kinds of motivations, like even a sense of self image and a sense of 'I'm okay' relative to the world. (There is a beautiful study, for example, from two or three years ago about knowledge workers. (Bruno Frey and Margit Osterloh)) A sense of what's normal and moral. A sense of what's socially preferable. You begin to see even in economics in the '90s and early '00s, an increased salience and attention and major complications to(?) efforts to build much more sophisticated models of multiple motivations including pro-(Inaudible) motivations.
In organizational sociology, in management science, you look — Toyota production system was the big ah-ha moment, when Toyota came to the U.S. for the first time and created the first NUMMI plant in GM's Fremont plant in the early '80s. All of the stories that used to be "oh it's Japanese culture, it's something completely different, it's not about us," were flipped. One of the worst performing GM plants in 1980 closes down, opens up two years later under Toyota management, almost the entire same employees said the entire union leadership. Within a couple of years it becomes the most productive plant in the U.S.
Who knows what the situation is now, but as of the numbers last year, it continued to be one of the three most productive plants in the U.S. Same people, same industry, very different organizational structure built a lot less on hierarchy, a lot less on precise specification of exactly what everybody needs to do. Much more on teamwork, much more on supporting normative commitment to innovation, to process innovation. And still relatively very constrained. It is the automobile industry.
We're not talking about high-tech industries. But there you have a very different orientation in terms of setting up the motivation and relationships among workers, between workers and management. You move from having 70 process engineers on the floor telling each employee exactly what to do, to having none. And having the teams have a lot of autonomy on how they do things.
That started a movement, again, in organizational sociology and management science, of people starting to say, wait, maybe we shouldn't be thinking purely in terms of whether workers shirk or not, and how the firm exactly monitors against shirking and how it employs rewards and how it employs monitoring up and down the line, because we assume that everyone, from the top management down to the last employee, is going to be try to shirk and d therefore we need to set up the incentives just right.
In all of these disciplines, the last 20 years and particularly the' 90s onward, have seen emerging studies, some models, some experiments, some observational field studies, that are showing, A) that people systematically do not behave according to the traditions of selfish rationality under controlled conditions; B) that when you set up systems with different assumptions, you get different behavior, and you get actually better results. There is a beautiful study, for example, from two or three years ago about knowledge workers. Knowledge work is one of the hard things to get precise in contracts. How do you tell somebody, "How creative have you been at 11:00 in the morning?" And so that's a classic place where having precise contracts to precisely monitor what you do and what you don't do becomes very difficult.
They did observational studies, and they built a model and they built observational studies. What happens to knowledge-sharing within teams if on the one hand, you create explicit incentives, monitor the incentives, you share more, you get more; on the other hand, you build much more team spirit and you make it the thing that's the right thing to do as a member of this team and create much more social relations within the team. What they found was ... setting up a social dynamic that's a team dynamic, and what's understood to be the right thing to do achieves much greater internal knowledge flows than setting up an effort to create incentives. So you have very real implications.
As we're sitting here talking, and GM is teetering on the edge, one of the ways that's interesting to think about it is to see that GM in many of its structural components is the quintessential output of models based on selfish rationality. If we look both at the shop floor structure, at the supply chain structure and at the executive compensation structure, along all three of those dimensions, it's implementing theories of organization that assume shirking unless you get the material incentives just right. At the shop floor level, a lot of process engineering, a lot of monitoring, very precise specification of actions. You basically have to specify the actions, you have to monitor, you have to compensate for successful action and punish for not, and you have to then have the managers have more managers on top of them, until you go all the way up. That's one level in terms of the internal. It's a very monitoring and controlling hierarchy system.
Then starting in the late '80s but really reaching a peak in 1990, we have this invention by Jensen and Murphy of agency theory. The theory there was, everybody's trying to shirk. And the way you solve is somebody above the monitors. Well, who monitors the monitors? Somebody above them. When you get to the very top executives, what do you have to do? You can't monitor them. It straddles all the way down up to a point. The answer is, what you have to do is you have to align the incentives of the person at the top with the company. That way they don't want to shirk, because for every dollar that the company is making, they are making ten cents or however much they're making. The result? Executive compensation packages that emerged in the 1990s. If you look at the U.S. around 1980, its executives are making roughly the same multiple of what an aligned employee is making as European counterparts. Japanese counterparts making somewhat less. This is on the order of 30 to 50 times as much.
Fifteen years later, you see multiples of 200 and 500. Across the board. You get to a point where you look in the mid-2000s, and the CEO of GM is making more than the top 21 executives at Honda put together. But it's theory-driven. You need to align the incentives just right, because otherwise, the person at the top will shirk. Well, the fact of the matter is we didn't get this alignment. In the last five or six years, even Jensen and Murphy themselves in later studies became very cautious about the degree to which they thought that it worked. You had more fraud. The percentage of companies that had questionable tax filings, for example, was correlated to the degree of executive compensation, because you're looking for quick fixes. You are drawing people who are particularly motivated by these high returns, and you're compensating them in ways that allow them to pull out returns very quickly. Essentially you actually didn't get even what you wanted there. You got a mis-alignment of incentives.
And the third is with supplier relations. Again, over the course of the last 20 years there's been a bit of a convergence between the Japanese company's relationship with suppliers and the American company's relationship with suppliers. The Japanese company is becoming a little less tightly bound than they were in keiretsus, and the American firm is becoming more connected with long-term contracts. But again, if you look at the studies of this industry, what you see is that the big three continued to in various ways defect. They would get to a certain point in negotiations, then suddenly they'd demand a five percent reduction. Or suddenly they would take plans for an innovation and give it to a competitor to set up competitive bidding. You had a breakdown of trust.
Japanese companies didn't. The same exact U.S. suppliers working with firms manufacturing in the U.S. produced different levels of technology and different levels of efficiency because of who they were dealing with. At all of these layers you see a company, and in many senses this is true of Detroit more generally, but in GM this is a specific case. There is a theory-driven set of practices that are about monitoring people below, incentivizing people above, and always trying to make sure that you set up the relationships so that you extract everything. Not a big success.
I have been looking at the social implications of the Internet and network societies since the early 90s. Before that, I was looking at questions of property and 19th century land reform in the U.S. in the Homestead Act, and it struck me as identical. Because it was about how we structure the basic rules of control over the core productive resources of our economy, as a way of structuring both economy and society. I stumbled across, by mistake, the beginnings of questions of law with regard to the Net and suddenly understood that I was looking at a major decision point 150 years ago, but in fact we're at a major decision point now. These are the core resources that will decide who has economic power, who has social power, who has political power, what are the modalities of organization.
The decision point is whether we will have a much more radically distributed capacity to create knowledge, information and culture, and participate in the creation of knowledge, information and culture, or whether we will have a replicated and only slightly different industrial structure to information and knowledge production. So that late 19th and throughout the 20th century model, we very much follow an industrial model, relatively highly capitalized in contractual and hierarchical relationships within firms, be it the big five accounting firms, be it the old IBM, be it AT&T, be it the Hollywood movie studios, based very much on the sale of information and culture as goods, with a relatively concentrated industry and a small number of players controlling a relatively limited set of creators. A very stark separation between producers and consumers, with consumers conceived as relatively passive and watching culture.
Where we are now, and we already know that we are there, is in a much more permeable and fluid society and a much more permeable cultural environment where the difference between producers and consumers is much more blurred. Where this category of users has become absolutely central to everything we do. So when we talk about newspapers, we have to think about the users who communicate with a commercial organization like TPM, the users who basically get together and make their own new party presses, like DailyKos or Townhall, like the users who make up YouTube, like the users who make up Wikipedia. Suddenly you have radically decentralized practical capacity to act. And what do people do? They act.
They use chunks of time, particularly chunks of time that they used to spend watching passively finished goods as entertainment, in an activity that's a social activity and a creative activity and an expressive activity on a very large scale. This is tilting all of our information, knowledge and cultural industries something between a quarter and two-thirds of the way around. Because in addition, government will continue to fund some science, some arts, et cetera. Commercial organizations will continue to do the same thing. Individual selling in markets will, but also social production now comes in as a major force. And that re-aligns in different industries more, in different industries less.
In music today, for example, we're seeing the recording industry fighting an ongoing battle, but we're beginning to see artists really coming out and having a much more direct relationship with their fans. In film, we're seeing a much more widely dispersed set of preferences and tastes that are able to be addressed, some of them simply because of the Netflix/Amazon phenomenon of long tale. All sorts of niche documentary movies that could only exist from government funding or philanthropy now have an occasional small market as well, through Netflix or through Amazon.
But much of it also through the fact that people with very simple and relatively inexpensive means can create interesting little snippets. In response, we're changing our preference, and it's more interesting to look at ten different really quirky interesting insights into life, than it is to watch another failed TV series.
But the decision point is essentially which of these worlds we go. And it's a decision point we're making through law. The copyright wars are a classic instance of trying to set up the technology and the legal environment in such a way that you can keep the horse in the barn, and rent it out for rides, as opposed to having all the horses out. Situations where you get digital rights management and criminalization of breaking or distributing things that overcome digital rights management. That's a place where you see law playing catch-up against the technology that doesn't want to be there, or that isn't going there in any particular way.
Interesting what'll happen with Kindle, right? Once you can actually load whatever you're downloading into something that's the only thing you're going to use, that gets more ambiguous. I think it's very hard to bring yourself to read in poor formats. I saw that the Kindle is now on the iPhone. I haven't actually seen how good the quality is in terms of whether it could actually replace the book. The book's a really good technology. It's really very good. I mean, there's a reason it's been around for so long. It's not that easy to overcome.
Joi Ito's new book is a very interesting project. It's basically amateur photographer turned maybe publisher of his own book with a combination of saying so what will be scarce in this digital environment? One thing that will be scarce will be authenticity. Authentic connection with a thing that has a unique artifact value. A physical thing. Some of the books that have very high production value, that are signed by him, et cetera, go for a very high price. I don't know how much he's selling them for, but on the order or three or low four figures per unit. Some are limited edition-like prints. Somewhat lower. But free, the photos are free. Trying to actually create this kind of a situation where you try to see what is it that is non-fungible when the material is fungible. And the non-fungible is the human relationships. That's where the talks come from, that's where the services and teaching come from, that's where the live performance for the musician comes from.
In some cases the spectacle is really the equivalent of the rock star live performance. It's not at all about the human relation, it's about the unique experience. Which in some sense is somewhere between the human connection and the artifact.
I’m a Professor at Harvard Law School, and I’m Co-Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. The Berkmen Center's origin was in the law school; now it's a university center. We have now and increasingly have more people from every single discipline. I'm trying to think of some of my own collaborations. One is with students in Martin Nowak's program on evolutionary dynamics, some of the work is with people in political science doing text analysis, and a couple of different groups at the computer science department doing different kinds of modeling and online experimentation. And some sociologists and some psychology students.
These are all different collaborative projects that are part of this effort to try to understand cooperation and human cooperation. The Berkman Center is now quickly becoming very interdisciplinary, and part of what we are doing is to build open research platforms that will allow any social scientist to use web-based tools to conduct both controlled experiments and large-scale, computationally-supported observational studies.
Another aspect of the Berkman Center that is very interesting is it's place at the intersection of academia and activism. There are quite a few people among the fellows who are social activists or social practitioners, bloggers, people who organized all sorts of online groups and activities. It's a very interesting conversation between people who come from academia and from science.
THE TRADESCANT'S ARK EXPERIMENT
In this Edge Video, archeologist Tim Taylor conducts an experiment about making sense of things.
"There are 43 stones passing amongst you. It’s called the Tradescant's Ark Experiment and I’ve named it in honor of John Tradescant and John Tradescant, Sr. and Jr., father and son, who were collectors of things in the 17th century. They were the exhibitors of the world's first pay-to-view museum and they had a cabinet of curiosities set up in Lambeth, on the Thames, which much later was sold to Elias Ashmole and became the germ of the Ashmolean Museum. Not much of it survives, there are little parts of it in the Ashmolen Museum. What is more important is the intellectual move they made in the catalog, which John Tradescant the younger created and in which he distinguished between 2 types of things, naturalls and artificialls. He divided all the things he collected into those he thought were natural and those that were modified by human hand—what archaelogists today call artifacts."
TIMOTHY TAYLOR teaches in the Department of Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford, UK, and conducts research on the later prehistoric societies of southeastern Europe. He has presented BBC archaeology programs and he is the author of The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture, and The Buried Soul.
[Note: requires either Safari or Firefox browser]
"Edge's long-form interview videos are a deep-dive into the daily lives and passions of its subjects, and their passions are presented without primers or apologies. The decidedly noncommercial nature of Edge's offerings, and the egghead imprimatur of the Edge community, lend its videos a refreshing air, making one wonder if broadcast television will ever offer half the off-kilter sparkle of their salon chatter.
Mahzarin Banaji, Samuel Barondes, Paul Bloom, Rodney Brooks, Hubert Burda, George Church, Iain Couzin, Helena Cronin, Paul Davies, Daniel C. Dennett, David Deutsch, Jared Diamond, Freeman Dyson, Drew Endy, Peter Galison, Murray Gell-Mann, David Gelernter, Neil Gershenfeld, Anthony Giddens, Gerd Gigerenzer, Daniel Gilbert, Rebecca Goldstein, John Gottman, Brian Greene, Anthony Greenwald, Alan Guth, David Haig, Marc D. Hauser, Walter Isaacson, Daniel Kahneman, Stuart Kauffman, Ken Kesey, Stephen Kosslyn, Lawrence Krauss, Ray Kurzweil, Jaron Lanier, Armand Leroi, Seth Lloyd, Gary Marcus, Ernst Mayr, Marvin Minsky, Sendhil Mullainathan, Dennis Overbye, Dean Ornish, Elaine Pagels, Steven Pinker, Jordan Pollack, Lisa Randall, Martin Rees, Matt Ridley, Lee Smolin, Elisabeth Spelke, Scott Sampson, Robert Sapolsky, Dimitar Sasselov, Stephen Schneider, Martin Seligman, Robert Shapiro, Lee Smolin, Dan Sperber, Paul Steinhardt, Steven Strogatz, Leonard Susskind, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Richard Thaler, Robert Trivers, Neil Turok, J.Craig Venter, Edward O. Wilson, Richard Wrangham, Philip Zimbardo
It seems to me that we can defend evolution without having to cater to the faithful at the same time. Why not just show that evolution is TRUE and its alternatives are not? Why kowtow to those whose beliefs many of us find unpalatable, just to sell our discipline? There are, in fact, two disadvantages to the "cater-to-religion" stance. ...
MUST WE ALWAYS CATER TO THE FAITHFUL WHEN TEACHING SCIENCE?
JERRY A. COYNE is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. His new book is Why Evolution Is True.
MUST WE ALWAYS CATER TO THE FAITHFUL WHEN TEACHING SCIENCE?
[JERRY COYNE:] Must we always cater to the faithful when teaching science?
As long as I have been a scientist, I have lived with my colleagues' view that one cannot promote the acceptance of evolution in this country without catering to the faithful. This comes from the idea that many religious people who would otherwise accept evolution won't do so if they think it undermines their faith, promoting atheism or immoral behavior. Thus various organizations promoting the teaching of evolution, including the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education, have published booklets or websites that explicitly say that faith and science are compatible. In other words, that is their official position. In contrast, the view of many other scientists that faith and science (or reason) are incompatible is ignored or disparaged. As evidence for the compatibility, the most frequent reason cited is that many scientists are religious and many of the faithful accept evolution. While this proves compatibility in the trivial sense, it doesn't show, as I've pointed out elsewhere, that the two views are philosophically compatible.
As an example of the "official position" of some groups on compatibility, an alert reader sent me the URL of a site at The University of California at Berkeley, Understanding Science 101, that discusses the nature of science and how it’s done. There are a lot of good resources at this site, but perusing it I found, to my dismay, a sub-site that pushes the compatibility between science and faith:
It seems to me that we can defend evolution without having to cater to the faithful at the same time. Why not just show that evolution is TRUE and its alternatives are not? Why kowtow to those whose beliefs many of us find unpalatable, just to sell our discipline? There are, in fact, two disadvantages to the "cater-to-religion" stance.
Because of this, I think that organizations promoting the teaching of evolution should do that, and do that alone. Leave religion and its compatibility with faith to the theologians. That's not our job. Our job is to show that evolution is true and creationism and ID aren't. End of story.
In 25 years of effort, these organizations don't seem to have much effect on influencing public opinion about evolution. I think that this may mean that the USA will have to become a lot less religious before acceptance of evolution increases appreciably.
The Berkeley website contains something more of interest. It's a page called "Astrology: Is it Scientific?, which sets out a checklist of questions that the student should answer to see if astrology is indeed a science. Here's part of the checklist:
The page concludes by saying:
It seems to me that some of the claims of many faiths are similar to those of astrology–the four ideas given above. Religion focuses on the natural world (at least some of the time), purports to explain it, uses testable ideas (e.g., efficacy of prayer), and relies on evidence (Scripture, archaeological findings, etc.) Like astrology, religion fails all of these tests.
I'm not trying to say anything portentous, except that scientists are really keen to denigrate astrology while at the same time bending over backwards to respect religion, even though there is the same amount of evidence supporting each. This is a point that science writer Natalie Angier makes in her wonderful essay, "My God Problem."
Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University's "Ask an Astronomer" Web site. To the query, "Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?" the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, "modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions." He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of "God intervening every time a measurement occurs" before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn't—and shouldn't—"have anything to do with scientific reasoning."
How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. "No, astronomers do not believe in astrology," snarls Dave Kornreich. "It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary." Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science "one does not need a reason not to believe in something." Skepticism is "the default position" and "one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something's existence."
In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them, the poor gullible gits; while for the multitudes who believe that, in one way or another, a divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton, there is no demand for evidence, no skepticism to surmount, no need to worry.
A few final points to prevent misunderstanding:
1. I am by no means denigrating the worthwhile achievements of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education in pushing back the tide of creationism. Their effects (especially the NCSE's) in court cases and school-board hearings have had a real and positive effect on keeping evolution in the schools. My beef is that these effects are temporary ones. Creationism is like herpes: it keeps coming back again and again until you extirpate the root cause. The court cases and school board hearings are outbreaks of herpes, which are stanched by our colleagues. But until the underlying virus is extirpated (that is, the kind of faith that is incompatible with evolution), the outbreaks will continue.
2. The NAS and NCSE seem to always trot out the "religious scientists" or "scientific theologians" when they need to sell evolution: John Haught, Ken Miller, Michael Ruse, etc. I would feel better about the whole issue if they'd also trot out Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the many other evolutionists who represent a non-accommodationist point of view.
3. By saying that we should leave the reconciliation of faith and science to theologians, I am not endorsing the idea that they can or should be reconciled. Personally, I don't think they can be. I'm saying only that that reconciliation is not the job of scientists or pro-evolution organizations.
Clay Shirky's shock treatment for newspapers executives — "Nothing will work" — is a refreshing rejoinder to the proponents of the latest batch of so-called solutions to the industry's crisis. His words are all the more important given the fundamentalist certainty with which many of these failed or unrealistic strategies are being advanced. But it is by no means inevitable, as he asserts, that all old media institutions will disintegrate as the printed newspaper itself diminishes in importance and eventually ceases to exist. A few newspapers will make the transition to an all-digital future with their newsrooms largely intact. It's just not obvious yet how they will get there.
As Shirky rightly points out, what is really at stake is not the survival of newspapers but of the quality journalism they have come to represent. And the key to that survival is not the triumph of one particular business model over another, but of innovation. The question is: can newspaper companies learn to innovate before it's too late?
There is still time, though not much time. There are many people in the industry who are innovating even as old business models and ideas compete for our attention. The trouble is that breakthrough technological innovations are inherently disruptive. They do not enhance old business models and processes so much as they overthrow them. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, for all but the most visionary of established institutions to pursue strategies that appear to lead to their own demise but may actually be their salvation.
Given that organizational and psychological handicap, it's remarkable how innovative some newspaper companies have become. Newspaper websites have rushed to embrace the social Web, blogs, user generated content, personalization, data visualization, video and all manner of interactivity. At the best sites, the pace of change is astonishing and exciting to witness, and to be a part of for journalists, business people and technologists alike. The recession combined with the long-term secular decline of print has convinced many in the industry to embrace new ideas even as we are naturally compelled to reconsider some old ones. But on balance, digital news sites are getting better — more useful, more enjoyable, easier to read.
That is one reason why I believe an economically sustainable model for a quality Internet-only news organization will emerge far sooner than anyone expects, perhaps as early as two or three years after our current recession ends. It will be primarily based on advertising, with subscriptions and other forms of paid content adding incrementally to the bottom line. Many newspapers will not make it but those that do will have a few things in common.
First, they will have realigned their costs with their revenue, not just by cutting bodies but by intelligently reimagining how they run their businesses in general and how they produce news and information in particular so that they can become efficient, low-cost producers of quality journalism. They will understand how to use technology to automate what can be automated and to streamline processes that must remain manual. They will learn how to use metrics to improve the presentation of news and information, not to cheapen it or compromise their editorial integrity.
Second, they will stay focused on producing the best digital news products for their audience, products that take full advantage of the Internet's unique properties — its ability to combine immediacy and depth, its ability to offer highly personalized experiences, its ability to offer instant access to useful information from obscure public records to mundane event listings, and its ability to form networks so that users may form communities that mirror and extend the ones that exist in the physical world. They will learn how to engage their users to create and contribute content to enrich the experience of reading online, and not overwhelm their readers with a cacophony of undifferentiated noise.
The point here is that newspapers must accomplish online what they have long been able to achieve for generations of readers in print: they must forge an emotional bond with their readers by becoming an essential part of their daily lives. That hasn't happened yet to judge by the level of reader engagement online versus print. But it will — it must, if newspapers hope to make the transition to the digital age.
Third, and perhaps most important (because without this the first two are impossible), newspapers must recognize (as some already have) that technology and journalism are inexorably intertwined. The software developer who never thought of taking a journalism class in college may be the one who invents a new way of telling a story online, or a new and more profitable way of connecting readers and advertisers. And the journalist who never dreamed of writing a line of code may be the one who creates a new user interface that makes it easier for users to read and interact online.
If the Internet is a medium in its infancy, the creative partnership between journalists and technologists is younger still. That partnership needs to be nurtured and encouraged at every turn. The alternative is to cede that ground almost completely to technology companies, some of whom profess a love of newspapers and journalism but whose larger agendas may lead to the destruction of both.
It is easy to forget that the newspaper itself was once a disruptive technological innovation. Technology got newspapers into this mess, and it's going to get them out of it. One way or another.
APRIL 6, 2009
By Jeremy McCarter
The notion that the origin of the arts — crowning glory of the species, realm of such sublime masterworks as "Hamlet," Beethoven's Ninth and the "Mona Lisa" — can be traced to the living and mating routines of our subliterate nomad ancestors sounds like some kind of joke. In fact, it was treated as a joke by Stephen Colbert a few weeks ago, when he invited Denis Dutton, the author of a new book about creativity and evolution, on to "The Colbert Report." Dutton was explaining why our love of string quartets and Jane Austen began hundreds of thousands of years ago in the Pleistocene epoch when Colbert cut in: "How many cavemen were reading 'Emma'?"
Colbert being Colbert, the objection was pretty obnoxious. (Moments earlier, he'd begun the interview by asking Dutton to stipulate that "evolution is a fraud.") But his comically overstated question helps pinpoint one of the more fascinating debates within Darwinism in this, the 200th anniversary year of Charles Darwin's birth. Since "The Origin of Species" appeared in 1859, scientists have succeeded in explaining more and more aspects of the natural world as products of evolution by natural selection, the process by which some features, because they enhance survival and reproduction, become more prevalent over the generations. Their progress has led scholars to poke around in the human mind itself. Researchers such as Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett have tried to explain the way we think and act in modern society in terms of faculties that helped our ancestors survive on the East African savannas of prehistory—a form of analysis that often sounds, as Colbert's question suggests, kind of preposterous. ...
...Second, on those long, dull savanna nights after the day's hunting and/or gathering was done, a big vocabulary and a creative streak would have improved a man's chances of wooing a lover (and thereby passing on his genes to a child)—just as an amusing woman would have been more likely to entice the guy to stay (thereby boosting the child's odds of survival). According to this view, which Dutton derives from the psychologist Geoffrey Miller, evolution turns the brain into "a gaudy, overpowered Pleistocene home-entertainment system" for winning and keeping lovers. ...
...Because, really, who knows? In his lucid and authoritative new book, "Why Evolution Is True," Jerry A. Coyne, a biologist from the University of Chicago, decries the "scientific parlor game" of trying to find Darwinian explanations for every form of behavior. ...
...All this, I realize, sounds like the romantic nonsense of a culture writer whose field is being encroached upon by the guys in lab coats. I'll cop to the romantic part, but not to the nonsense. After all, evolutionary psychology has received its sharpest criticism from no less a Darwinian than Stephen Jay Gould. Until his death in 2002, he stood as one of the great champions and evangelists of science, as well as one of the most exacting critics of its tendency to overreach. He was also my teacher. When I tried to pinpoint why Dutton's book left me unsatisfied, his lessons kept coming to mind.
March 27, 2009
This house believes that people's DNA sequences are their business, and nobody else's.
Defending the proposition: Professor Arthur Caplan
There are, it is increasingly said, plenty of reasons why people you know and many you don't ought to have access to your DNA or data that are derived from it. Have you ever had sexual relations outside a single, monogamous relationship? Well then, any children who resulted from your hanky-panky might legitimately want access to your DNA to establish paternity or maternity. ...
Against the proposition: Professor J. Craig Venter
As I suspected he would, Art Caplan raised the fear argument. "The police, government, medical system, researchers and prosecutors … the military, your out-of-wedlock children, your parents, your boss, doctor, hospital, universities, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies and the immigration service etc.," are all out to get your DNA and control you. "They know that they can track you, control you and even profit from you." ...
Clarke's Third Law (the Clarke in question being Sir Arthur C., a distinguished writer of science fiction) is that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That law applies nicely to the modern science and technology of genetics. On the one hand, understanding and eventually manipulating genes may lead to the treatment and even abolition of many diseases by white-magical (or, at least, white-coated) sorcerer-priests. On the other, dark necromancers plot to use the knowledge that genetics brings to regulate and manipulate people on behalf of commercial and political princes. ...
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Book Review: Questions of Truth: God, Science and Belief by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale
AC Grayling rips into the latest attempt to bridge the God-science gap
...This is the strategy adopted by the Templeton Foundation too, of sidling up to proper scientists and scientific establishments and getting their sticky religious fingers on to respectable coat-sleeves in the hope of furthering their agenda - which, to repeat what must endlessly be repeated in these circumstances, is to have the superstitious lucubrations of illiterate goatherds living several thousand years ago given the same credibility as contemporary scientific research.
To confuse the model with the world is to embrace a future disaster driven by the belief that humans obey mathematical rules.
...Financial models are therefore best regarded as a collection of parallel, inanimate “thought universes” available for exploration. Each universe should be internally consistent, but the financial/human world, unlike the world of matter, is vastly more complex and vivacious than any model we could ever make of it. The right way to engage with a model is to be like a reader of fiction — to suspend disbelief and then push ahead with the model as far as possible.". ...
NATURE V NURTURE? PLEASE DON'T ASK
...Though well-intentioned, and in some respects an important antidote to pseudoscientific genetic determinism, this view was dangerously inflexible. Any evidence that genetics might be seriously influential after all would threaten the very foundations of liberty and equality - so it would have to be resisted, as would research that might provide it.
The result was that scientists who investigated effects on human behaviour found their positions caricatured and their politics demonised as reactionary, even fascist. E.O.Wilson, the great evolutionary theorist and conservationist, is no man of the Right. Yet when he dared in the 1970s to suggest that human nature, like that of other animals, has a biological basis that might fruitfully be studied, his lectures were picketed and students doused him with water. The left-wing biologists Steven Rose, Leon Kamin and Richard Lewontin responded with a book entitled Not in Our Genes, which accused Wilson, Richard Dawkins and other sociobiologists of a crude determinism designed to legitimise the status quo. “Its adherents claim, first, that the details of present and past social arrangements are the inevitable manifestations of the specific action of genes,” they wrote.
Such attacks were misconceived. First, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, they set up a straw man. It is simply impossible to find serious biologists who believe that behaviour and social structure are “the inevitable manifestations of the specific action of genes”. Those who reject cultural determinism make a much more modest proposal - that genes, as well as the environment, make a contribution. As Dawkins wrote in a review of Not in Our Genes: “Reductionism, in the ‘sum of the parts' sense, is obviously daft, and is nowhere to be found in the writings of real biologists.”
[From 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know by Mark Henderson]
VAST SPY SYSTEM LOOTS COMPUTERS IN 103 COUNTRIES
In a report to be issued this weekend, the researchers said that the system was being controlled from computers based almost exclusively in China, but that they could not say conclusively that the Chinese government was involved.
The researchers, who are based at the Munk Center for International Studies at the University of Toronto, had been asked by the office of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader whom China regularly denounces, to examine its computers for signs of malicious software, or malware.
Their sleuthing opened a window into a broader operation that, in less than two years, has infiltrated at least 1,295 computers in 103 countries, including many belonging to embassies, foreign ministries and other government offices, as well as the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan exile centers in India, Brussels, London and New York.
The researchers, who have a record of detecting computer espionage, said they believed that in addition to the spying on the Dalai Lama, the system, which they called GhostNet, was focused on the governments of South Asian and Southeast Asian countries.
Intelligence analysts say many governments, including those of China, Russia and the United States, and other parties use sophisticated computer programs to covertly gather information.
The newly reported spying operation is by far the largest to come to light in terms of countries affected. ...
SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW
Richard E. Nisbett, a prominent cognitive psychologist who teaches at the University of Michigan, doesn't shirk the hard work. In "Intelligence and How to Get It," he offers a meticulous and eye-opening critique of hereditarianism. True to its self-helplike title, the book does contain a few tips on how to boost your child's I.Q. — like exercising during pregnancy (mothers who work out tend to have bigger babies who grow up smarter, possibly because of greater brain size). But its real value lies in Nisbett's forceful marshaling of the evidence, much of it recent, favoring what he calls "the new environmentalism," which stresses the importance of nonhereditary factors in determining I.Q. So fascinating is this evidence — drawn from neuroscience and genetics, as well as from studies of educational interventions and parenting styles — that the author's slightly academic prose style can be forgiven.
Intellectually, the I.Q. debate is a treacherous one. Concepts like heritability are so tricky that even experts stumble into fallacy. Moreover, the relevant data come mostly come from "natural experiments," which can harbor subtle biases. When the evidence is ambiguous, it is all the easier for ideology to influence one's scientific judgment. Liberals hope that social policy can redress life's unfairness. Conservatives hold that natural inequality must be accepted as inevitable. When each side wants to believe certain scientific conclusions for extra-scientific reasons, skepticism is the better part of rigor.
Nisbett himself proceeds with due caution. He grants that I.Q. tests — which gauge both "fluid" intelligence (abstract reasoning skills) and "crystallized" intelligence (knowledge) — measure something real. They also measure something important: even within the same family, higher-I.Q. children go on to make more money than their less-bright siblings. ...
THE CIVIL HERETIC
FOR MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson has quietly resided in Prince ton, N.J., on the wooded former farmland that is home to his employer, the Institute for Advanced Study, this country's most rarefied community of scholars. Lately, however, since coming "out of the closet as far as global warming is concerned," as Dyson sometimes puts it, there has been noise all around him. Chat rooms, Web threads, editors' letter boxes and Dyson's own e-mail queue resonate with a thermal current of invective in which Dyson has discovered himself variously described as "a pompous twit," "a blowhard," "a cesspool of misinformation," "an old coot riding into the sunset" and, perhaps inevitably, "a mad scientist." Dyson had proposed that whatever inflammations the climate was experiencing might be a good thing because carbon dioxide helps plants of all kinds grow. Then he added the caveat that if CO2 levels soared too high, they could be soothed by the mass cultivation of specially bred "carbon-eating trees," whereupon the University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner looked through the thick grove of honorary degrees Dyson has been awarded — there are 21 from universities like Georgetown, Princeton and Oxford — and suggested that "perhaps trees can also be designed so that they can give directions to lost hikers." Dyson's son, George, a technology historian, says his father's views have cooled friendships, while many others have concluded that time has cost Dyson something else. There is the suspicion that, at age 85, a great scientist of the 20th century is no longer just far out, he is far gone — out of his beautiful mind. ...
WIKIPEDIA EXPLORING FACT CITY
Contributors to Wikipedia have wondered aloud lately if — perish the thought — they are running out of topics. The obvious articles, low-hanging fruit like “China,” “Moses” and “Homer Simpson,” have been written and rewritten hundreds of times. There are more than 2.8 million articles on the English version of Wikipedia alone. Already looking back, Wikipedia this month got its first serious memoir, “The Wikipedia Revolution,” by Andrew Lih, an early Wikipedian (yes, that is what they call themselves), who writes about how “a bunch of nobodies created the world’s greatest encyclopedia.”
But these concerns seem misplaced — Wikipedia can no more be completed than can New York City, which O. Henry predicted would be “a great place if they ever finish it.” In fact, with its millions of visitors and hundreds of thousands of volunteers, its ever-expanding total of articles and languages spoken, Wikipedia may be the closest thing to a metropolis yet seen online. ...
Virus hunter Nathan Wolfe is outwitting the next pandemic by staying two steps ahead: discovering new, deadly viruses where they first emerge -- passing from animals to humans among poor subsistence hunters in Africa -- before they claim millions of lives
NATHAN WOLFE is the Lorry Lokey Visiting Professor of Human Biology at Stanford University and directs the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (www.gvfi.org). His research combines methods from molecular virology, ecology, evolutionary biology, and anthropology to study the biology of viral emergence.
March 23, 2009
YOU ARE NOT YOUR BRAIN
There's a kind of temporal lobe epilepsy that causes people to experience deeply religious feelings. Couldn't the relevance of that association tell us something about, say, the roots or essence of religious experience?
I'm pessimistic. A lot is context; things always happen in a setting. Imagine how you feel after a run. Out of breath, rapid heartbeat, sweaty? Now imagine you just woke up feeling like that. It would be terrifying. But after a run it makes sense and it feels good. Meaning is not intrinsic, it's relational. It's only in context that an intense feeling means one thing or the other. Again, we need to look outside neuroscience to understand what that significance is.
If someone had a seizure that caused a sensation like they imagine they might have if they were meeting God, that would be very confusing. But it would be a mistake to conclude from that that religious experience is only a brain state.
I'm not a religious person. And putting aside the fact I don't believe in God, I don't think the impulse of religion can be thought of as a kind of biological feature of us, or that there's something about our brains that makes us apt for that. I think of religions as communal and as literary traditions, both things existing outside the brain. I don't think of religious belief as something we can understand individualistically. When someone says they believe in God, you've got to understand the practices, customs, backgrounds and social realities that are part of that. None of it is going to reduce to anything individual inside of that person's brain. ...
...It's very clear from history that markets bring forth innovation. If you've got free and fair exchange with decent property rights and a sufficiently dense population, then you get innovation. That's what happens in west Asia around 50,000 years ago: the Upper Paleolithic Revolution.
The only institution that really counts is trust, if you like. And something's got to allow that to build. Property rights are just another expression of trust, aren't they? I trust you to deliver this property to me. I trust somebody else to allow me to keep this property if I acquire it from you.
But human beings are spectacularly good at destroying trust-generating institutions. They do this through three creatures: chiefs, thieves, and priests. ...
THE THINKING READ
WHY EVOLUTION IS TRUE
Understanding science is hard for non-scientists because of the technicalities involved, especially the mathematics. But no intellectually responsible non- scientist can get away with ignorance about the sciences, which collectively constitute humanity's greatest achievement. There is no excuse for lacking at least a broad-brush sense of what is happening in fundamental physics, cosmology and biology -- just to take the major areas of contemporary interest -- not least because there are so many good books for the general reader by first-rate practitioners in these fields.
A paradigm case is Jerry Coyne's lucidly brilliant account of evolutionary theory, Why Evolution Is True. For many reasons, among them the rapid advances we are witnessing in contemporary biological science, an understanding of evolution as the central principle of biology is crucial. If we are to be informed participants in the debate about what we want from the applied biological sciences, across the range from medicine to cloning to genetic modification of crops to the saving of endangered species, we need a proper understanding of evolution as the living world's organising principle.
Everyone who reads Coyne's book with attention will acquire this understanding. It is a model of expository clarity and intellectual rigour, a point for other science writers to note; all that readers need note is how accessible it is, and how fascinating. Moreover in it Coyne carefully and conclusively refutes efforts by "intelligent design" creationists to contest evolutionary biology. This, given the state of the debate over biology, is by no means the least important aspect of his book.
Religion-motivated efforts to derail serious biological enquiry, and therefore to interfere with responsible science education, are worse than merely a time-and-energy wasting distraction. They arise in connection with all three of the main nodes of contention between religious and non-religious outlooks in today's society. One is the question of the intrinsic credibility of the claims made by revealed religions, another is the question of how much influence religious viewpoints should have in the public square, and the third is the overall question of the relation between religion and science.
In this last domain two different, indeed inconsistent, strategies are open to religious apologists, some of whom nevertheless combine them. One is to say that religion and science speak different kinds of truth because they address different realities, the spiritual and material. The other is to say that religion and science are direct competitors for the truth about the one and only reality, namely, this world; which is what creationists claim. ...
...Coyne shows science carefully, responsibly, testably, profoundly at work on the glory that is the natural world. It starts with no prejudices (it is not trying to prove that there is no Fred, having decided at the outset that this is its aim), but is open and self-critical. What you see in Coyne's account is science as the enterprise that seeks to understand, and always stands ready to revise itself in the face of contrary evidence. It is a beautiful process, and the results are literally wonderful. Coyne's book is a testament to this. It seems almost coincidental to say that it is also a brilliant introduction to evolution which should be required reading: in its blaze of illumination the ID case melts like summer snow. ...
WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT
great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture."
Contributors include: STEVEN PINKER on the future of human evolution • RICHARD DAWKINS on the mysteries of courtship • SAM HARRIS on why Mother Nature is not our friend • NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB on the irrelevance of probability • ALUN ANDERSON on the reality of global warming • ALAN ALDA considers, reconsiders, and re-reconsiders God • LISA RANDALL on the secrets of the Sun • RAY KURZWEIL on the possibility of extraterrestrial life • BRIAN ENO on what it means to be a "revolutionary" • HELEN FISHER on love, fidelity, and the viability of marriage…and many others.
Praise for the online publication of
"The splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. I strongly recommend a visit." The Independent
"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture." El Mundo
"As fascinating and weighty as one would imagine." The Independent
"They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds." The Guardian
"Even the world's best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge." The Times
"Provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures."The Telegraph
The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now." San Francisco Chronicle
"As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity." The News & Observer
"A jolt of fresh thinking...The answers address a fabulous array of issues. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake—bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up." The Globe and Mail
"Answers ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions." The Toronto Star
"For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ...What a feast of egg-head opinionating!" National Review Online
"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal
"Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine
"Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed
"Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday
"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant bok: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)
"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald
"Provocative" The Independent
"Challenging notions put forward by some of the world's sharpest minds" Sunday Times
"A titillating compilation" The Guardian
"Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover
"Whether or not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." LA Times
"Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism -its opposite -it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking. not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." The Times
"John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas." The Observer
"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle—a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed
"Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian
"Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe
"Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4
"Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer
Edge Foundation, Inc. is a nonprofit private operating foundation under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.