What should we worry about? Scan the headlines, and the answers seem obvious. We should worry about Congress and the debt ceiling, about gun violence and climate change, about terrorism, the euro, schools, taxes, entitlement programs and Kim Kardashian's sunburn.
But how confident are we that we're worried about the right things? History shows that our concerns are often misguided or conditioned on outdated assumptions. Ask 100 motorists the colors of a "yield" sign, and most will say yellow and black, even though they've been red and white since 1971. But if we still believe in yellow and black despite all evidence to the contrary, what other assumptions will lead us astray? Our endless fretting over Y2K didn't stop terrorists armed with box cutters.
So, what really should we worry about? It's the official question John Brockman posed this year to his jury of top intellectuals. Brockman isthe über literary agent, cultural impresario and best friend to the world's smartest people. He runs edge.org, a science/arts salon with lofty ambitions: "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together; and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves."
These are people who, presumably, don't sweat the small stuff. Brockman's question drew 150 short essays from among the salon's 660 vetted contributors. Concerns about runaway viruses and Chinese eugenics made the cut, as did a handful of glib commentaries about the perils of worrying. But the overarching theme was easy to spot:
We should worry about the interplay between humans and technology. ...
I hereby announce the formation of an international campaign to eliminate all future uses of the phrase, "Work smarter, not harder." ... As the cyber-sceptic Evgeny Morozov pointed out this month, in an article at edge.org, Silicon Valley loves nothing more than proposing "smart" solutions to problems such as crime, voter apathy or climate change. Yet the word blurs a crucial distinction: a smart solution may be ingenious, but it doesn't follow that implementing it will necessarily be for the best. We can persuade people to vote, some techno-reformers argue, using clever incentives, such as shopping discounts or video game-style prizes. But should we, if it risks coarsening democracy, eroding the role of argument and deliberation in persuading people to vote? The answer may be "yes", of course. But Morozov's point is that we fail to ask such questions in the first place.
Every year John Brockman, editor of the online salon Edge, puts forth a question that he hopes will inspire fascinating answers from leading scientists and thinkers, such as Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, and Sherry Turkle. He has done it again. This time he asked, "What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?" A multiplicity of answers are offered in the compact, accessible essays that form "This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works" (Harper), edited by Brockman. If you want to increase the intellectual heft of your reading while keeping it entertaining, "This Explains Everything" will do nicely.
Edge.org is a website where really smart people write about subjects that make most people's heads hurt. I check it out whenever I need to feel particularly stupid.
...This year's subject was suggested by the technology historian George Dyson: "What should we be worried about?"
Dyson's premise: "[P]eople tend to worry too much about things that it doesn't do any good to worry about, and not to worry enough about things we should be worrying about." This sounded good to me. My hobbies include worrying, moping and brooding. As I previously have confessed, I spend way too much time obsessing about grizzly bear attacks. ... I figured the Edge.org piece could help me spend my leisure hours more effectively.... I figured wrong. ... First off, some 150 really smart people contributed things to worry about. Their essays ran to 168 printed pages. I got through maybe 50 of them before going catatonic. ...
Science salon Edge.org is permeated with a sense of wonder. Maybe that's what lured in the many brainy contributors (Steven Pinker, Brian Eno) to This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, edited by John Brockman ($18, Harper Perennial).
"The most stimulating English-language reading to be had from anywhere in the world."
Every year the Edge resulting collection of answers/ideas (previous questions tackled have included What Is Your Dangerous Idea? What Are You Optimistic About? and What Have You Changed Your Mind About, And Why?) seems the most stimulating English-language reading to be had from anywhere in the world. ... I mention all this because what's so refreshing about the essays of the Magnificent 155 is that their worries are, mostly, very big worries. ... I commend them as role models for those Canberrans who waste their Letters to the Editor on their teeny-weeny, First World, bourgeois NIMBY worries. What if Summernats makes some noise? What if a new floodlight pylon alters the view we've grown used to? What if we have to pay for plastic shopping bags? What if arrogant cyclists stray, outrageously into our driving lanes? What if the government leaves the grass unmown and untidy? ... Here, at edge.org, entertainingly discussed, are the sorts of worries that really matter, worries about the whole planet, our whole species, about the wider world beyond our suburbs and our narcissistic suburban selves.
This is what editor John Brockman asked some of the world's foremost thinkers. He shares their answers with Veronica Rueckert — representing 150 of the most fascinating theories of how the world works.
All these kinds of pedestrian worries are horrible enough, but the Edge list makes it clear that we haven't considered all the delicious possibilities out there.
I had no idea, for example, that I needed to be worried about "data disenfranchisement," as David Rowen, the editor of Wired UK, suggests, or the end of what Adam Alter calls "hardship inoculation."
I was amazed at how many smart people (psychologist Susan Blackmore, MIT researcher David Dalrymple, roboticist Rodney A. Brooks) were worried about robotics. While I have wasted far too much time worrying about "men," just as biological anthropologist Helen Fisher did in the survey, and "stress," as aggregator Arianna Huffington responded, I don't think we are talking about the same things.
Everything alive will eventually die, we know that, but now we can read the pattern and see death coming. We have recently learned its logic, which "You can put into mathematics," says physicist Geoffrey West. It shows up with "extraordinary regularity," not just in plants, but in all animals, from slugs to giraffes. Death, it seems, is intimately related to size.
As a perennial skeptic of most ideas that involve "uploading our consciousness" or "superhuman artificial intelligence," I'm more than a little doubtful. Author Bruce Sterling, who writes sci-fi and authored the nonfiction classic The Hacker Crackdown, is with me. "It's just not happening," Sterling wrote in his own Edge.org commentary. "All the symptoms are absent. Computer hardware is not accelerating on any exponential runway beyond all hope of control. We're no closer to 'self-aware' machines than we were in the remote 1960s. Modern wireless devices in a modern Cloud are an entirely different cyber-paradigm than imaginary 1990s 'minds on nonbiological substrates' that might allegedly have the 'computational power of a human brain.' A Singularity has no business model, no major power group in our society is interested in provoking one, nobody who matters sees any reason to create one, there's no there there."
As is the case every year, Edge.org, the prestigious site disclosure and debate, throws down the gauntlet to his question of the year: what should we care? From his website, whose identity definition reads: "To reach the bank of knowledge of the world, look for more complex and sophisticated minds, reúnalas in a room, and have to question each other the questions that are being raised" - the aristocracy of thought, science, philosophy or art takes stock of the concerns of our time, presenting an assortment of Gordian knots. And there is more shade than is pinched inside the question: we care about the concern. community today lives with the feeling that his days are no longer a blank canvas to fill, not even moral competition coup and epistemological. ...
... the one formula that rules it all, from unicellular organisms to whales and sequoias and humans. A math formula that governs our life and tells us when to die.
For 15 years, the literary agent John Brockman has been posing open-ended questions on his Web site Edge.org. Last year’s question — “What is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?” — drew responses from more than 150 scientists and creative thinkers. The geographer Jared Diamond wonders at the 1950s experiments that revealed how plants and animals generate electricity; the anthropologist Helen Fisher thinks we can transcend the old nature-nurture debates by studying how the environment can turn genes on and off. But the meta-award goes to the philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein for answering one question with another: “Where do we get the idea that the beauty of an explanation has anything to do with the likelihood of its being true?
...We are serious fans of his work. And if his recent comments about the potential risks of greater-than-human artificial intelligence—or lack thereof—are any indication, he's itching to start a giant fight among futurists. ... Sterling made his remarks in the current manifestation of the Edge's annual Big Question. This year, editor John Brockman asked his coterie of experts to tell us what we should be most worried about. In response, Sterling penned a four paragraph article saying that we shouldn't fear the onset of super AI because a "Singularity has no business model."
The musician Brian Eno looks with fear to the fact that intelligent people increasingly distance themselves from politics: "The most intelligent people I know do not want anything to do with politics. ... Avoid politics like the plague [...] We expect you handle it when other people and these people make mistakes we complain. We believe that our responsibility to stop at the ballot box and there are people who come to us even the ballot box." ... Kate Jeffrey, a professor of behavioral neuroscience is concerned that more and more people die in the years ahead: "The extension of the duration of human life is often claimed in the media and is never questioned." ... The tax and astronomer Gregory Benford afraid that human beings become like "mice blocked on the spherical surface of our world, where we will be even more trapped."
... Kevin Kelly thinks we should worry about the "underpopulation bomb" - the first time in human history to experience a diminishing number of young people combined with an increasing number of robots. ... Paul Saffo worries about a coming fight between two extreme classes he calls "engineers" and "druids", basically optimists and pessimists respectively who either want to use technology or ban technology. "Druids fear that robot cars are unsafe; Engineers wonder why humans are allowed to drive at all." Andy Clark says we don't need to worry about Super-AIs ruling the world, unless they get culture first. That's just a sampling of the many references to robots, robotics, and machine intelligence. As it has been in past years, the full set of responses is well worth a read for anyone with an interest in the future of the world.
Characteristically thought-provoking and reliably cross-disciplinary, This Explains Everything is a must-read in its entirety.
"The greatest pleasure in science comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way."
China at home
John Brockman’s Edge question for 2013 asks more than 150 intellectuals, “What should we be worried about?”... more»
The Edge Question again is not any question, but the question asked annually since 1998 by the bustling New York literary agent John Brockman to a circle of the most prestigious researchers and intellectuals in the world (who are mostly from English-speaking countries). A year ago, the Question was: "What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?" ...
...There perhaps seems to be a little too much science fiction in the game and too little politics. It is then, in one of the surprises that make Edge, that the pop star Brian Eno presents a response that is one of the shortest and most elegant, but perhaps the most disturbing: "Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague—like Edge avoids it, in fact. ...We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we're as laissez-faire as we can get away with. ... What worries me is that while we're laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing."