Edge 287—May 27, 2009
| If these authors are the future of science, then the science of the future will be one exciting ride! Find out what the best minds of the new generation are thinking before the Nobel Committee does. A fascinating
chronicle of the big, new ideas that are keeping young scientists up at
night. — Daniel Gilbert
"A preview of the ideas you're going to be reading about in ten years." — Steven Pinker
[ED. NOTE: What are "the big, new ideas that are keeping young scientists up at night?" Beginning today with Laurence Smith's "Will We Decamp for the Northern Rim", and in the coming weeks, Edge will publish a selection of the essays in Max Brockman's book What's Next: Dispatches On the Future of Science, published today by Vintage Books. —JB]
If these authors are the future of science, then the science of the future will be one exciting ride! Find out what the best minds of the new generation are thinking before the Nobel Committee does. A fascinating chronicle of the big, new ideas that are keeping young scientists up at night. — Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness
"A preview of the ideas you're going to be reading about in ten years." — Steven Pinker, author of The Stuff of Thought
"Brockman has a nose for talent." — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author The Black Swan
"Capaciously accessible, these writings project a curiosity to which followers of science news will gravitate." — Booklist
Already the impacts are obvious in the extreme north, where melting Arctic sea ice, drowning polar bears, and forlorn Inuit hunters are by now iconic images of global warming. The rapidity and severity of Arctic warming is truly dramatic. However, the Arctic, a relatively small, thinly populated region, will always be marginal in terms of its raw social and economic impact on the rest of us. The greater story lies to the south, penetrating deeply into the "Northern Rim," a vast zone of economically significant territory and adjacent ocean owned by the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. As in the Arctic, climate change there has already begun. This zone — which constitutes almost 30 percent of the Earth’s land area and is home to its largest remaining forests, its greatest untouched mineral, water, and energy reserves, and a (growing) population of almost 100 million people — will undergo one of the most profound biophysical and social expansions of this century.
WILL WE DECAMP FOR THE NORTHERN RIM?
LAURENCE C. SMITH is Professor and vice chairman of geography and professor of earth and space sciences at UCLA. He studies likely impacts of northern climate change including the economic effects in the Northern Rim.
WILL WE DECAMP FOR THE NORTHERN RIM?
Changing the public's opinion was not easy. It took the work of thousands of scientists, painstakingly accumulated over more than three decades. Their findings were then steadily communicated to the world through massive synthesis reports in 1990, 1995, 2001, and 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), displaying a level of organization unprecedented in science. These reports document the evidence, now overwhelming, of our new man-made climate.
Pivotal to the public opinion shift were ardent "Third Culture" scientists — among them James Hansen, at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies; Lonnie Thompson, at Ohio State University; Richard Alley, at Pennsylvania State University; and Mark Serreze, at the University of Colorado — with a talent for grasping the most significant discoveries and channeling them to the public through books, interviews, YouTube, and popular magazines like Rolling Stone These efforts at public outreach represented a significant shift in the culture of science. As a graduate student in the mid-1990s, I witnessed the widespread, if subtle, scorn directed at the remarkable astronomer and writer Carl Sagan by his professional colleagues for his efforts in publicizing his scientific work. But today, and especially in climate-change science, public outreach is part of the job and a cause for appreciation and emulation by scientific colleagues.
Other events, largely unforeseen, also figured prominently in converting the public. The graphic horrors wrought by Katrina — regardless of that hurricane's cause — sowed national unease via millions of televisions and computer screens. The failed presidential bid of Al Gore in 2000 freed him to film An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 — and, together with the IPCC, he won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. The 2006 decision of Wal-Mart to embrace and aggressively market green technology reached millions more, including many who wouldn't be caught dead at an Al Gore movie. In my home state of California, Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asserted, "The [climate] debate is over" — and from a scientific and public-opinion standpoint, he was right.
The burden of proof is past, so what's next? The debate has, if anything, intensified; the line of scrimmage has simply moved downfield. Questions like "Is it real?" and "Is it our fault?" have morphed into "What will happen?" "Where?" "How fast?" and "What are we going to do about it?" Science may have led us to these questions, but our answers will reverberate far beyond science. At stake is no less than the global pattern of human settlement in the twenty-first century.
So, what will happen? Here is what we know currently: First, the warming is just revving up. It is 90 percent certain that continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above the current rates will induce far ‘greater' climate change in the twenty-first century than we've yet experienced.1 In every plausible population-growth or greenhouse-gas-emission scenario for the next century (barring some as-yet-undiscovered nonlinearity in the climate system), basic physics dictates that Earth's climate must continue to warm, with global average temperatures rising between 1.8°C and 4.0°C (3.2°F and 7.0°F) by the end of this century.2 How high we go depends on how much carbon we choose to load into the atmosphere; the lower value is the IPCC's optimistic estimate, which assumes a stabilized global population and the adoption of clean-energy technology. The high value is the estimate based on unabated dependence on fossil fuels.
If those temperature changes don't sound large to you, they should. Even the most optimistic number (1.8 °C) triples the warming we had in the twentieth century. Furthermore, thanks to the long life of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the sluggish response of the world's oceans, we are already "locked in" to much of that warming, regardless of what policy changes we enact. The global temperature increase to 2030 is all but committed, and even if we could cap greenhouse gas emissions immediately at 2000 levels, we would still experience about half the projected warming by midcentury. But over the long run, policy changes will have a large impact: only 20 percent of the projected 2100 temperature rise is currently locked in. At this point, it is still possible — through aggressive societal action — to blunt the warming. But we cannot stop it.
The hotter temperatures will increase evaporation, drying soils and raising the frequency of drought, especially in two broad belts from 20° to 40° north and south latitudes — that is, in both hemispheres. The number of extremely dry days will increase sharply in the southwestern United States, southern and eastern Europe, southern Africa, and eastern South America.3 Water vapor in the air will also increase, in obedience to the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, which states that the water-holding capacity of the atmosphere must go up 7 percent for every 1°C rise. Because water vapor fuels weather systems, the frequency of extreme precipitation events — and therefore floods — will go up right along with it. Deadly, power-sucking heat waves — like the killers in France in 2003, the United States in 2006, and Japan in 2007 — will happen more often. Sea level will continue to rise (it's rising now, around three millimeters per year), the only uncertainty being exactly how fast and how high. Low-elevation coastal areas, including Florida, the Netherlands, island nations, and impoverished Bangladesh, will face inundation in the coming decades.
If you saw An Inconvenient Truth or read climate-change stories in the press, you already know most of this bad news.
Alongside more speculative notions about hurricanes and wildfires, they are the most widely reported scientific predictions for the twenty-first century. However, even these are not the starkest forecasts of our climate models. The most robust changes will sweep across the northern high latitudes, starting at about the 45th parallel running through the northern United States, Canada, Russia, and Europe. North of that line, the climate changes will be unrivaled on Earth. Temperatures will rise at nearly double the global average — driven mostly by milder winters — and precipitation will increase sharply as well.
Already the impacts are obvious in the extreme north, where melting Arctic sea ice, drowning polar bears, and forlorn Inuit hunters are by now iconic images of global warming. The rapidity and severity of Arctic warming is truly dramatic. However, the Arctic, a relatively small, thinly populated region, will always be marginal in terms of its raw social and economic impact on the rest of us. The greater story lies to the south, penetrating deeply into the "Northern Rim," a vast zone of economically significant territory and adjacent ocean owned by the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. As in the Arctic, climate change there has already begun. This zone — which constitutes almost 30 percent of the Earth's land area and is home to its largest remaining forests, its greatest untouched mineral, water, and energy reserves, and a (growing) population of almost 100 million people — will undergo one of the most profound biophysical and social expansions of this century.
There are a number of reasons why these northern latitudes have never been a magnet to southern settlers. Sunlight is strongly seasonal. In the extreme north and within deep continental interiors, permafrost (permanently frozen ground) ratchets up construction costs and keeps soils waterlogged, making the land a moist heaven to billions of mosquitoes. Growing seasons are short, agricultural yields are low, and large tracts of land are mountainous. But the single greatest inhibitor to southern forms of life — plant, animal, and human — is the mind-numbing, crushing cold of winter. Summers are warm, even hot (there are air conditioners throughout the Northern Rim), but winters are a frost-panting monster. Deciduous trees crackle and die, frogs freeze solid in their mud beds, and at –40° (the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales converge at this number), compressors fail, steel shatters, and manual work becomes impossible.4
"Minus-forty" is feared and hated by everyone who has experienced it. The shutdown of human activity it mandates has been described to me by people from all around the Northern Rim — restaurateurs in Whitehorse, Cree trappers in Alberta, truck drivers in Russia, retirees in Helsinki. And while they express otherwise mixed opinions on the various problems and opportunities presented by recent warming, the one sentiment they all share is utter relief that minus-forties are becoming increasingly rare.
By defanging winter's bite, will global warming spawn new human societies around the Northern Rim? The idea is not so far-fetched: According to an August 8, 2007, article in the Wall Street Journal, speculative real estate buying in Newfoundland and Labrador rose sharply in 2007. Likewise, the Financial Times of December 1, 2007, reports rising real estate markets across
northern Norway, Sweden, and Russia. But before you rush to Realtor.com to scope out acreages near Anchorage or Winnipeg, listen up: yes, there will be growth, but it won't happen everywhere. Like human expansion over the millennia, its direction will be shaped by the choices we make and the previous imprint of history and geography.
In his book Collapse, my UCLA colleague Jared Diamond scours human history to identify five prime factors that determine the likelihood that an existing society will fail: environmental damage, loss of trade partners, hostile neighbors, climate change, and how a society chooses to respond to its environmental problems. Any of these, alone or in combination, can trigger a society's collapse. Turning the question around, what makes a new society likely to successfully establish itself ? First and foremost is economic opportunity, followed by environmental suitability, opportunities for investment and trade (implicit in this is military security and the consistent rule of law, without which investors balk and trade will not be stable), friendly neighbors, and willing settlers.
At present, these requirements are met only to varying degrees around the Northern Rim. Abundant economic opportunities exist in the form of commodities — fossil fuels, minerals, fish, and timber — and, indeed, their exploitation currently generates most of the Northern Rim's gross domestic product, the second contributor being government services. The neighbors are generally friendly; relative to the rest of the world, all eight Northern Rim nations have low internal unrest and share amicable borders — though Finland frets over its long border with Russia, and Russia worries about the United States and (especially) China on its thinly populated eastern flanks.
Nonetheless, there have been no serious military incursions among the eight countries since World War II. Seven of them (Russia is the exception) enjoy the most stable political systems and rule of law in the world.
That leaves environmental suitability, trade, and settlers. It seems likely that climate warming will blunt the most significant environmental limitation — brutal winters — currently restricting human expansion in the Northern Rim. The warming will also ameliorate other problems, such as the short growing season, and create new ones, such as pest infestations, but these are secondary to the impact of milder winters. So climate change, one of five key factors known to collapse past societies, will actually engender them in these northern latitudes.
Still remaining are trade and settlers. All else in place, these factors depend mainly on markets, infrastructure, and demographic trends. While commodity prices are famously volatile, over the long haul (this century and the next, for example), it's a safe bet that the world's demand for water, minerals, energy, food, and timber will remain high. But demand per se does not create trade; there must also be infrastructure, without which commodities cannot get to markets, and settlers, without which there is no labor. And sufficient settlement requires domestic population growth, immigration, or both. Since strong contrasts in both infrastructure and demographic trends exist around the Northern Rim today, I expect them to shape the geographical pattern of northern human expansion. Unless, that is, we jolt the system somehow — which is exactly what we did twice in the last century, which led to the geographical contrasts in the first place.
The Northern Rim has long been resource-rich and population-poor, an irresistible siren call to its central governments. Over the years, their efforts to increase infrastructure, population, and economies have been motivated by different ideologies and have had mixed results. Also, their treatment of aboriginals has varied hugely, with U.S. and Canadian groups faring best in recent years, followed by those in Scandinavia and lastly Russia. But all this pales in comparison with two enormous choices made in the twentieth century — choices that utterly transformed the footprint of humanity in the Northern Rim. They were the U.S. Army's decision to occupy Canada during World War II and Joseph Stalin's decision to create the Gulag, a string of forced-labor camps and exile towns across Siberia, between 1929 and 1953.
The underlying motivation for Stalin's murderous prison-camp system ran far deeper than the silencing of political malcontents. It was nothing less than a forced settlement of his country's remote territories — then sparsely occupied by aboriginals — with ethnic Russians. The Gulag was responsible for some of the worst atrocities of modern history, including countless deaths from starvation, exposure, exhaustion, and outright murder. But as a forced-settlement tool, the program was a resounding success. By the early 1950s, the camp population stood at 2.5 million people, most of them political exiles or people condemned for minor crimes.5 They labored in mines, cut timber, and built roads, railroads, and factories. If they survived their sentences, ex-prisoners were legally prohibited from returning home. The towns grew huge, and by the end of the 1980s they were major cities, entrenched across some of the coldest terrain on Earth: Novosibirsk, Omsk, Yekaterinburg, Khabarovsk, Chelyabinsk, Krasnoyarsk, Noril'sk, Vorkuta. Mother Russia had urbanized Siberia.
Today the future of these cities lies in doubt. Their locations are arbitrary, selected more for quaint socialist ideals, such as taming nature and Engel's dictum (the idea that industry should be uniformly distributed across a country), than for the pragmatic requirements of economic viability. They exist in places that don't make sense: in harsh environments, at long distances from one another and from trading partners, precariously linked by absurdly stretched infrastructure that requires deep subsidization from Moscow. The burden socialist planners placed on the Soviet economy by founding these cities in such inhospitable locations was so great that in their book, The Siberian Curse, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy argue that "the cost of the cold" deeply saddled the Soviet economy and helped bring down the USSR in 1991.
After the Soviet collapse, the subsidies disappeared. Throughout the 1990s, the giant Siberian cities emptied out faster than Detroit in a bad layoff year. Today there are some signs of population stabilization, and limited prosperity is trickling back with high oil prices. A second, wiser attempt at massive infrastructure establishment in Siberia may well occur in this century, as Russia and China eye its vast natural wealth. There are already early indications of this: Vladimir Putin has officially opened a 6, 200-mile highway between Moscow and Vladivostok — the longest highway in the world — and Russian military scholars have floated the idea of a "free economic zone" in Siberia's Far East, opening up the region's vast timber reserves to development with Chinese capital. But the population continues to drop, among ethnic Russians and aboriginals alike — a decrease compounded by high mortality, suicides, and grinding poverty. Any new human expansion in Siberia will require a considerable installation of infrastructure, a wiser settlement plan, abandonment or relocation of failed towns, and reversal of today's negative population trends.
In North America there was a different story. The small number of white settlers initially coexisted with aboriginal groups, grubbing out a frontier living in mining, trapping, fishing, and small farming. World War II changed everything. At the height of the war, the U.S. Army injected massive infrastructure into the Northern Rim — airstrips, roads, bases, pipelines, ports, radar stations, and towns throughout Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Iceland. There were sixty thousand
U.S. military personnel and contractors in Alaska alone. In northwest Canada, there was what amounted to a friendly occupation by forty thousand soldiers and civilian workers — a huge population infusion for such a sparsely populated area. The Canadian government watched from Ottawa as the United States transformed its country with the Northwest Staging Route, the Alaska Highway, the Canol Pipeline, and dozens of other projects.6 The imprint of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still shapes the pattern of Northern Rim human settlement and economic activity today.
Aboriginal groups, utterly marginalized, saw their homelands overrun. In Canada they endured culturally damaging resettlement programs. However, since the early 1970s they have steadily regained control of their territories and mineral rights through legal action (land claims), now largely concluding.
U.S. and Canadian aboriginals are forming blue-suit business corporations and strengthening their economic and political clout, and they have some of the highest population growth rates of the Northern Rim. If the American droughts continue, I and my fellow climate-change refugees will be unable to count on swarming across our northern border: all the good spots will be taken.
So what does this tell us about the coming northern expansion? The United States and Canada have sensible infrastructure, working rules of law, and a fast-growing domestic population of suitable settlers. These two countries are well positioned for expansion. Russia, with badly placed infrastructure and a severely declining population, is not. Scandinavia, with its well-developed roads, ports, and universities, is already poised to benefit from the winter climate warming already in the pipeline.
Lest you misinterpret this essay, let me make something absolutely clear: the transformation I describe is a conversion from land that is hardly livable to land that is somewhat livable. There will be no northern utopia. Global society will be far better off if we can stay where we are, enjoying the much larger and friendlier land mass between about 50° N and 45° S. The 23.5° axial tilt of our planet dictates that there will always be darkness and cold at higher latitudes, even if greenhouse warming causes February in Churchill, Manitoba, to warm up to, say, February in Minneapolis. And the die is not fully cast: yes, we are locked into a large amount of warming, but not (as of yet) so much that we must all migrate to Yakutsk. Just as Stalin shaped the Northern Rim with prison camps and the U.S. Army shaped it with airstrips and the Alaska Highway, our choice is whether to shape it with sensible, far-reaching plans based on the IPCC's optimistic or pessimistic greenhouse gas emission scenario. At best, the Northern Rim will become tolerable, not a paradise. I do not advise buying acreage in Labrador.
But maybe in Michigan.
1 S. Solomon et al., eds. "Summary for Policymakers," in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 13. 2 Ibid. "Technical Summary," 70.
3 Solomon et al., fig. 10:18.
4 F. Hill and C. Gaddy, The Siberian Curse (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), 41–49.
5 Hill and Gaddy, 86.
6 See K. S. Coates and W. R. Morrison, The Alaska Highway in World War II: The U.S. Army of Occupation in Canada's Northwest (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).
BOOKS OF THE TIMES
Catching Fire” is a plain-spoken and thoroughly gripping scientific essay that presents nothing less than a new theory of human evolution.
Human beings are not obviously equipped to be nature’s gladiators. We have no claws, no armor. That we eat meat seems surprising, because we are not made for chewing it uncooked in the wild. Our jaws are weak; our teeth are blunt; our mouths are small. That thing below our noses? It truly is a pie hole.
To attend to these facts, for some people, is to plead for vegetarianism or for a raw-food diet. We should forage and eat the way our long-ago ancestors surely did. For Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard and the author of “Catching Fire,” however, these facts and others demonstrate something quite different. They help prove that we are, as he vividly puts it, “the cooking apes, the creatures of the flame.”
The title of Mr. Wrangham’s new book — “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” — sounds a bit touchy-feely. Perhaps, you think, he has written a meditation on hearth and fellow feeling and s’mores. He has not. “Catching Fire” is a plain-spoken and thoroughly gripping scientific essay that presents nothing less than a new theory of human evolution, one he calls “the cooking hypothesis,” one that Darwin (among others) simply missed. ...
Eno artwork lights up opera house
To the Editor:
To the Editor:
To the Editor:
To the Editor: Prof.Daniel Gilbert’s essay about the relationship of certainty to happiness is a powerful counterargument to one of the Republicans’ most cherished dogmas: People are better off keeping their money and deciding how to spend it, rather than having the government tax it away to spend on federal programs. ...
To the Editor:
By KATIE HAFNER
They do it late at night when their parents are asleep. They do it in restaurants and while crossing busy streets. They do it in the classroom with their hands behind their back. They do it so much their thumbs hurt.
Spurred by the unlimited texting plans offered by carriers like AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless, American teenagers sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages per month in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the Nielsen Company — almost 80 messages a day, more than double the average of a year earlier. ...
...The rise in texting is too recent to have produced any conclusive data on health effects. But Sherry Turkle, a psychologist who is director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who has studied texting among teenagers in the Boston area for three years, said it might be causing a shift in the way adolescents develop.
“Among the jobs of adolescence are to separate from your parents, and to find the peace and quiet to become the person you decide you want to be,” she said. “Texting hits directly at both those jobs.”
43 NERI OXMAN
By Anya Kamenetz
In the MIT Media Lab's basement workshop sits a machine that can slice human bone instantly using a blast of water mixed with garnet dust. It's Neri Oxman's favorite. "The laser cutter is very feminine, elegant. The water-jet cutter is very masculine. It cuts anything. To be here at 2 a.m. all by myself -- it's really exciting!" This laughing, chic young woman in a flowing Helmut Lang jacket is an artist, architect, ecologist, computer scientist, and designer who is not just making new things but also coming up with new ways to make things...
...The combination of high concept and live, seductive forms makes it tempting to see Oxman's work as art. No less an authority than Paola Antonelli, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art who has acquired many of Oxman's pieces and included her in last year's Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit, says it's more than that: "What was amazing about this work is that it uses the computer to transform the secrets of nature into algorithms, and in a biomimetic way to try to use the same stratagems nature uses."
Eventually, Oxman wants to have her own lab where she can oversee an interdisciplinary team in both research and practice. Her innovations are, after all, essentially computer-controlled manufacturing processes, so in some sense she needs to see her ideas play out on an industrial scale and in the marketplace. Still, she knows her work will always be a little out there. "I like to be on the edge because it makes me vulnerable. On the fringes, I think, is where disruptive innovation begins."
Imagine a chair that moves when you move, that adjusts to every muscle in your body, that responds like a living organism . . . a chair kind of like a really excellent lover. Neri Oxman imagined such a chair. Then she built it. The result was Beast, the chaise lounge that the young designer built in collaboration with MIT professor Craig Carter. She describes it as being "all about an efficiency of material, distributing it according to your body load." Resembling a praying mantis, the Beast chair is a prime example of the "living-synthetic constructions" that Oxman is becoming famous for. In short, her works are a complex recipe of design, science, art, and environmentalism, and it's often hard to tell where one field ends and the other picks up. ...
...Oxman usually looks to nature for practical design answers. Her work integrates the principles of biomimicry with manmade objects—think buildings that can "breath and sweat and think and grow and change," she says. Recently at MoMA, she even showed a series of hive-like sculptures made of wood, acrylic, and nylon that actually respond to light, heat, and weight like living tissue. Such experiments are more than aesthetic: They could point to the future of energy-efficient building materials. ...
...As for her own future, she rejects any possibility of a Neri Oxman line of roof tiles or a collaboration on Andre Balazs's next hotel. Ideally, she would direct others in her art-design-ecology practice. "A great dream of mine would be to run a design studio full of scientists who think about science as creatively as if they were doing art," she says. Oxman isn't so taken with architecture and design whose only revolution lies on the surface. "Forget about the way it looks," she says. "Think about how it behaves."
The Coming Superbrain
Several years ago the artificial-intelligence pioneer Raymond Kurzweil took the idea one step further in his 2005 book, “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.” He sought to expand Moore’s Law to encompass more than just processing power and to simultaneously predict with great precision the arrival of post-human evolution, which he said would occur in 2045.
In Dr. Kurzweil’s telling, rapidly increasing computing power in concert with cyborg humans would then reach a point when machine intelligence not only surpassed human intelligence but took over the process of technological invention, with unpredictable consequences.
Profiled in the documentary “Transcendent Man,” which had its premier last month at the TriBeCa Film Festival, and with his own Singularity movie due later this year, Dr. Kurzweil has become a one-man marketing machine for the concept of post-humanism. He is the co-founder of Singularity University, a school supported by Google that will open in June with a grand goal — to “assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges."
...The science fiction author Ken MacLeod described the idea of the singularity as “the Rapture of the nerds.” Kevin Kelly, an editor at Wired magazine, notes, “People who predict a very utopian future always predict that it is going to happen before they die.”
However, Mr. Kelly himself has not refrained from speculating on where communications and computing technology is heading. He is at work on his own book, “The Technium,” forecasting the emergence of a global brain — the idea that the planet’s interconnected computers might someday act in a coordinated fashion and perhaps exhibit intelligence. He just isn’t certain about how soon an intelligent global brain will arrive.
...Ironically, economics was a distant focus in the first days of Google. After Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded the company in 1998, they channeled their energy into its free search product and left much of the business planning to a 22-year-old Stanford graduate named Salar Kamangar, Google's ninth employee. The early assumption was that although ads would be an important source of revenue, licensing search technology and selling servers would be just as lucrative. Page and Brin also believed that ads should be useful and welcome—not annoying intrusions. Kamangar and another early Googler, Eric Veach, set out to implement that ideal. Neither had a background in business or economics. Kamangar had been a biology major, and Veach's field of study was computer science.
Google's ads were always plain blocks of text relevant to the search query. But at first, there were two kinds. Ads at the top of the page were sold the old-fashioned way, by a crew of human beings headquartered largely in New York City. Salespeople wooed big customers over dinner, explaining what keywords meant and what the prices were. Advertisers were then billed by the number of user views, or impressions, regardless of whether anyone clicked on the ad. Down the right side were other ads that smaller businesses could buy directly online. The first of these, for live mail-order lobsters, was sold in 2000, just minutes after Google deployed a link reading SEE YOUR AD HERE.
But as the business grew, Kamangar and Veach decided to price the slots on the side of the page by means of an auction. Not an eBay-style auction that unfolds over days or minutes as bids are raised or abandoned, but a huge marketplace of virtual auctions in which sealed bids are submitted in advance and winners are determined algorithmically in fractions of a second. Google hoped that millions of small and medium companies would take part in the market, so it was essential that the process be self-service. Advertisers bid on search terms, or keywords, but instead of bidding on the price per impression, they were bidding on a price they were willing to pay each time a user clicked on the ad. (The bid would be accompanied by a budget of how many clicks the advertiser was willing to pay for.) The new system was called AdWords Select, while the ads at the top of the page, with prices still set by humans, was renamed AdWords Premium.
...This crisis is not just the trough of a cycle but the end of an era. We will come out not just wiser but different.
What we have discovered over the past nine months are growing diseconomies of scale. Bigger firms are harder to run on cash flow alone, so they need more debt (oops!). Bigger companies have to place bigger bets but have less and less control over distribution and competition in an increasingly diverse marketplace. Those bets get riskier and the payoffs lower. And as Wall Street firms are learning, bigger companies are going to get more regulated, limiting their flexibility. The stars of finance are fleeing for smaller firms; it's the only place they can imagine getting anything interesting done.
As venture capitalist Paul Graham put it, "It turns out the rule 'large and disciplined organizations win' needs to have a qualification appended: 'at games that change slowly.' No one knew till change reached a sufficient speed."
The result is that the next new economy, the one rising from the ashes of this latest meltdown, will favor the small.
We're not talking about your grandfather's socialism. In fact, there is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the newest American innovation. While old-school socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government—for now.
The type of communism with which Gates hoped to tar the creators of Linux was born in an era of enforced borders, centralized communications, and top-heavy industrial processes. Those constraints gave rise to a type of collective ownership that replaced the brilliant chaos of a free market with scientific five-year plans devised by an all-powerful politburo. This political operating system failed, to put it mildly. However, unlike those older strains of red-flag socialism, the new socialism runs over a borderless Internet, through a tightly integrated global economy. It is designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. It is decentralization extreme.
Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless meritocracies, where the only thing that matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free goods.
I recognize that the word socialism is bound to make many readers twitch. It carries tremendous cultural baggage, as do the related terms communal, communitarian, and collective. I use socialism because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions. Broadly, collective action is what Web sites and Net-connected apps generate when they harness input from the global audience. Of course, there's rhetorical danger in lumping so many types of organization under such an inflammatory heading. But there are no unsoiled terms available, so we might as well redeem this one.
Charlotte Allen is very, very angry with us atheists -- that's the only conclusion that can be drawn from her furious broadside in The Times on May 17. She can't stand us; we're unpopular; we're a problem. What, exactly, is the greatest crime of modern atheists?
I can't actually argue with that. It's true. We're all just ordinary people -- your neighbors, your friends, your relatives. I know atheists who are accountants, real estate agents, schoolteachers, lawyers, soldiers, journalists, even ministers (but don't tell their congregations!). Our leading lights are college professors, scientists, philosophers, theologians and other such pedantic, scholarly riffraff. For entertainment, they read books, and if they want to do something ambitious and dramatic, they write books. I'm one of them, so trust me, I know -- we don't exactly live the James Bond lifestyle. Calling us boring is a fair cop.
But still -- why would anyone get angry about that? I find myself bored witless by games of chance, but I don't write irate letters condemning all card players and demanding the immediate shuttering of all casinos. I'm afraid I don't believe Allen. There are other motivations behind her denunciations, and they aren't as simple as that she finds us boring.
She should drop the pretense that the objectionable part of our character is our lack of excitement. What really annoys Allen is that in our books, blogs and media appearances, we challenge religious preconceptions. That's all we do. It's admittedly not exactly a roller-coaster ride of thrills, but it does annoy the superstitious and the fervent true believers in things unseen and unevidenced. We are also, admittedly, often abrasive in being outspoken critics of religious dogma, but it's also very hard to restrain our laughter and contempt when we see the spectacle of god-belief in full flower.
We witness many people who proudly declare that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, roughly 9,000 years after the domestication of dogs, 5,000 years after the founding of Jericho and contemporaneous with the invention of the plow. They cling to these beliefs despite contradictions with history, let alone physics, geology and biology, because they believe the Bible is a literal history and science text. We find much to ridicule in these peculiarly nreal ideas.
Thomas Nagel famously asked, “What is it like to be a bat?” That question has become a staple of Philosophy 101 courses, but we might be better served asking a more basic one: What is it like to be a baby? Though all of us experience life as a baby firsthand, we've long held misconceptions about what babies are capable of thinking, feeling, and understanding. Only recently have we overturned dominant theories of development in which very young children were thought to be barely conscious at all.
In The Philosophical Baby developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik compiles the latest in her field's research to paint a new picture of our inner lives at inception — one in which we are, in some ways, more conscious than adults. Gopnik spoke with Seed's Evan Lerner about how babies and young children learn from us and what we can learn from them.
Seed: How does a better understanding of what's going on in the minds of babies help us as adults?
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WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT
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