Cosmologists have measured the real universe with greater precision than any reportable metric encompassing the extent of the digital universe — even though much of it is sitting on our desks.
Sales figures of all kinds are readily available, whereas absolute numbers (of processors, CPU cycles, addressable memory, disk space, total lines of code) are scarce. We are left to make rough approximations (skewed by volatility in prices) where there could and should be a precise, ongoing count.
Have we reached Avogadro's number yet?
The public still thinks of research as a very serious and lonely activity. The picture of a scientist that typically comes to mind is that of a person in labcoat hunched over heavy books, locked up in their ivory tower. The truth is that scientists are more like a group of uninhibited, curious kids at play. Maybe teenagers would be more into science if they had a more accurate picture of what research is like and realized that one way to avoid growing up is to become a scientist.
Today (but I hope not tomorrow) I think the most important unreported story concerns the reasons for a return of right-wing extremism in Europe, and for the first time in the U.S. Since I am not a journalist I would not report such a story, but I would first find out if it is really true, and if true then study what its causes are. Is it that people are running out of hope and meaning? Have the Western democracies run out of believable goals? What conditions favor fascism and what can we do to prevent them from spreading?
That's easy: abrupt climate change, the sort of thing where most of the earth returns to ice-age temperatures in just a decade or two, accompanied by a major worldwide drought. Then, centuries later, it flips back just as quickly. This has happened hundreds of times in the past.
The earth's climate has at least two modes of operation that it flips between, just as your window air-conditioner cycles between fan and cool with a shudder. And it doesn't just settle down into the alternate mode: the transition often has a flicker like an aging fluorescent light bulb. There are sometimes a half-dozen whiplash cycles between warm-and-wet and cool-and-dusty, all within one madhouse century. On a scale far larger than we saw in the El Nino several years ago, major forest fires denude much of the human habitat.
To the extent the geophysicists understand the mechanism, it's due to a rearrangement in the northern extension of the Gulf Stream. A number of computer simulations, dating back to 1987, of the winds and ocean currents have shown that gradual global warming can trigger such a mode switch within several centuries, mostly due to the increased rainfall into the northern North Atlantic Ocean (if the cold salty surface waters are diluted by fresh water, they won't flush in the usual manner that allows more warm water to flow north and lose its heat). Meltwater floods from Iceland and Greenland will do the job if tropical-warming-enhanced rainfall doesn't.
This has been the major story in the geophysical sciences of the last decade. I've been puzzled since 1987 about why this story hasn't been widely reported. A few newspapers finally started reporting the story in some detail two years ago but still almost no one knows about it, probably because editors and readers confuse it with gradual climate change via greenhouse gases. This longstanding gradual warming story seems to cause the abrupt story to be sidetracked, even though another abrupt cooling is easily the most catastrophic outcome of gradual warming, far worse than the usual economic and ecological burden envisaged.
How would I report it? Start with the three million year history of abrupt coolings and how they have likely affected prehuman evolution. Our ancestors lived through a lot of these abrupt climate changes, and some humans will survive the next one. It's our civilization that likely won't, just because the whiplashes happen so quickly that warfare over plummeting resources leaves a downsized world where everyone hates their neighbors for good reason. Fortunately, if we get our act together, there are few things we might do to stabilize the patient, buying some extra time in the same manner as preventive medicine has extended the human lifespan.
We have taught our machines to conduct propaganda. Web sites and other media are designed to be "sticky," using any means necessary to maintain our attention. Computers are programmed to stimulate Pavlovian responses from human beings, using techniques like one-to-one marketing, collaborative filtering, and hypnotic information architecture.
Computers then record our responses in order to refine these techniques, automatically and without the need for human intervention. The only metrics used to measure the success of banner ads and web sites is the amount of economic activity - consumption and production - they are able to stimulate in their human user/subjects. As a result, the future content and structure of media will be designed by machines with no priority other than to induce spending.
It amounts to a closed feedback loop between us and our computers, where - after their initial programming - the machines take the active role and human beings behave automatically. Programs adjust themselves in real time, based on their moment to moment success in generating the proper, mindless responses from us. In fact, computers and software are already charged with the design of their own successors. They are encouraged to evolve, while we are encouraged to devolve into impulsive, thoughtless passivity.
Those who stand a chance of resisting - people who actually think - are rewarded handsomely for their compliance, and awarded favorable media representations such as "geek chic." These monikers are reserved for intelligent people who surrender their neural power to the enhancement of the machine, by becoming vested web programmers, for example. Those who refuse to suspend active thought are labeled communist, liberal, or simply "unfashionably pessimistic." Worse, they are unfaithful enemies of NASDAQ, and the divinely ordained expansion of the US economy.
Ultimately, if such a story were actually reported, it would have to dress itself in irony, or appear as the result of an abstract intellectual exercise, so as not to alert too much attention.
The story that has gripped me lately is the quiet resurgence of psychedelic compounds as instruments of both spiritual and scientific exploration. This trend is unfolding worldwide. I just attended a conference in Switzerland at which scholars presented findings on the physiological and psychological effects of drugs such as psilocybin, LSD and MDMA (Ecstacy). At the meeting, I met an American chemist who had synthesized a new compound that seems to induce transcendent experiences as reliably as LSD does but with a greatly reduced risk of bad trips; a Russian psychiatrist who for more than 15 years has successfully treated alcoholics with the hallucinogen ketamine; and a German anthropologist who touts the spiritual benefits of a potent Amazonian brew called ayahuasca. Long a staple of Indian shamans, ayahuasca now serves as a sacrament for two fast-growing churches in Brazil. Offshoots of these churches are springing up in the U.S. and Europe.
Several non-profit groups in the U.S. are attempting to rehabilitate the image of psychedelic drugs through public education and by supporting research on the drugs' clinical and therapeutic potential. They include the Heffter Institute, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. MAPS, based in Florida. The question is, will this new psychedelic movement founder, as its predecessor did in the 1960's? Or will it bring about the profound spiritual and social changes that advocates envision?
I have two answers, which will certainly qualify because you may well never have heard of either.
The first, and my primary answer because it is a local matter that the Third Culture can hope to affect, is the closing of the High Flux Beam Reactor at Brookhaven National Lab.
Many high profile media scientists proclaimed the Supercollider decision as the point at which the US definitively turned away from science. But it was nothing of the sort. It was a badly managed and unwisely promulgated project, immensely expensive and disconnected with the rest of science, about which many perfectly reasonable scientists had serious doubts — not just me, though I seem to have taken the brunt of the blame.
My nominee for this turning point is the HFBR. A coalition of pseudo-environmentalists and trendy New Agers, useful and wellheeled Clinton friends and campaign contributors with Long Island real estate, blew up a leakage which amounted to the amount of tritium in the exit signs of your local movie theatre into a major issue, and Bill Richardson, the Secretary of Energy, caved without listening to the scientists involved. It is reported that the coalition arranged an interview for the Secretary with a supermodel on the afternoon the scientists had asked for a last appeal.
In any case the loss of the HFBR closes one of the world's most productive scientific instruments and sends the entire community off to our friendly competitors in Europe and Japan. Neutron scattering and diffraction is central to much of condensed matter physics and useful in biology, chemistry and several branches of technology. Approximately 300 experiments were run the last year the HFBR was up. There was no conceivable economic reason for shutting it down — it was a very inexpensive instrument relative to the projects which are replacing it. Its real problem is the anti-intellectual bias of the majority culture. If only we had been able to label it "organic" rather than "nuclear" it would have survived.
I will be brief about the other.
You will never have heard the name "Eppawala". This is a project of a US-Japan consortium to mine phosphate in gigantic quantities from a mountain in Sri Lanka, destroying a thousand-year-old irrigation system, numerous antiquities, and many villages and compensating the locals on a typical Third World scale with a minute fraction of the profits — profits which hardly exist if one were to count the true cost of the project. It is a staggering example of the misuse of economic reasoning which characterizes third world "development" projects. Not just third world, in my opinion!
Since I work in building autonomous humanoid robots reporters always ask me what will happen when the robots get really smart. Will they decide that we (us, people) are useless and stupid and take over the world from us? I have recently come to realize that this will never happen. Because there won't be any us (people) for them (pure robots) to take over from.
Barring an asteroid size thwack that knocks humans back into pre-technological society, humankind has embarked on a journey of technological manipulation of our bodies. The first few decades of the new millennium will be a moral battleground as we question, reject, and accept these innovations. Different cultures will accept them at different rates (e.g., organ transplantation is currently routine in the United States, but unacceptable in Japan), but our ultimate nature will lead to wide spread adoption.
And just what are these technologies? Already there are thousands of people walking around with cochlea implants, enabling the formerly deaf to hear again — these implants include direct electronic to neural connections. Human trials have started with retina chips being inserted in blind people's eyes (for certain classes of blindness, such as macular degeneration), enabling simple perceptions. Recently I was confronted with a researcher in our lab, a double leg amputee, stepping off the elevator that I was waiting for — from the knees up he was all human, from the knees down he was robot, and prototype robot at that — metal shafts, joints full of magneto-restrictive fluids, single board computers, batteries, connectors, and wire harnesses flopping everywhere; not a hint of antiseptic packaging — it was all hanging out for all to see. Many other researchers are placing chips in animal, and sometimes human, flesh and letting neurons grow and connect to them. The direct neural interface between man and machine is starting to happen. At the same time surgery is becoming more acceptable for all sorts of body modifications — I worry that I am missing the boat carrying these heavy glasses around on my nose when everyone else is going down to the mall and having direct laser surgery on their eyes to correct their vision. And at the same time cellular level manipulation of our bodies is becoming real through genetic therapies.
Right now we ban Olympic athletes who have used steroids. Fairly soon we may have to start banning kids with neural Internet connection implants from having them switched on while taking the SATs. Not long after that it may be virtually mandatory to have one in order to have a chance taking the new ISATs (Internet SATs).
We will become a merger between flesh and machines, and we (the robot-people) will be a step ahead of them (the pure robots). We won't have to worry about them taking over.
Given the number of media outlets for independent voices to tell good stories, the vanilla quality of mainstream reporting is like the proverbial frog in a pot of water who doesn't notice the slow temperature increase and boils cozily. In a consumer-oriented culture under a booming economy, critical voices are marginalized and the questions "we" ask ourselves lose color and substance and become sensational and picayune. A news magazine won't tell you about record-setting U.S. arms sales, for instance, but they will tell you that Ricky Martin is the sexiest man alive.
Consumers don't like to hear that things aren't what they seem, so advertisers won't support those who publish such nonsense. The same goes for education — people are still uncomfortable with the idea that we've descended from apes and so, in the case of Kansas at least, students needn't be burdened with that knowledge.
Until a few years ago, tracking the evolution of language was only possible for idle gentlemen: university scholars, amateur dilettantes (whence arose the Oxford English Dictionary), or pompous columnists (only one of whom has a weekly piece in the New York Times Magazine). It was carried on from an elite gentleman's club perspective and consisted of deploring decline and patronizing neologism.
But now we have the tools to do a vastly better job of paying attention to what *we* are saying. Huge quantities of "real" language as it is spoken and written can be collected easily and subjected to sophisticated tracking analysis. Gender, class, nationality: all can be revealed and studied as never before. The ethical and political bases of society as it is (not as it imagines itself to be) can be displayed and analyzed.
Why is this important? Because the way we talk about ourselves and others is the way we create ourselves and our society. The ethical and social revolutions of the last half century have been far reaching, but it is still possible for those who prefer nostalgia to justice to wish those revolutions away. The emergence of a serious journalism of language, supported by good science, would document the way in which all classes and social groups have changed and continue to change. It would tell us things about ourselves that we know in our hearts but have not had the self aware and the wisdom and the courage to say to ourselves aloud. I believe we would all be happier if we knew how far we have come, and I can think of no better way of measuring and showing it.
There are now two generations of Americans who have grown up after the rock revolution of the late 1960s, for whom classical music and the old style Broadway/Hollywood songs are largely marginal. As a result, today's typical American ear is attuned more to rhythm and vocal emotion — the strengths of rock and rap — than to melody and harmony, the strengths of classical music and Golden Age pop. This is true not just of teenagers but of people roughly fifty and under, and has been the most seismic shift in musical sensibility since the advent of ragtime introduced the American ear to syncopation a century ago.
A catchy beat is not just one element, but the sine qua non in most pop today, opening most songs instead of the instrumental prelude of the old days. The increasing popularity of rhythm-centered Third World pop (pointedly called "World Beat") underscores this change in taste. Certainly folks liked a good beat before Elvis, but much of even the most crassly commercial dance music before the 1950s was couched in melody and harmony to a degree largely unknown in today's pop. Our expectations have so shifted that the rock music that critics today call "melodic" would sound like Gregorian chants to members of even the cheesiest little high school dance band in 1930.
Yet what pop has lost in craft it has gained in psychological sophistication, and the focus on vocal emotion is part of this. In the old days, singers made their marks as individuals, no doubt, but, for example, Sinatra's artistry was in being able to suggest a range of emotions within the context of rather homogenous lyrics. Modern pop singers like Alanis Morrisette are freed from these constraints, and the variety and individuality of many modern pop lyrics have made them America's true poetry; indeed, many listeners relate to the lyrics of their favorite rock singers with an intensity our grandparents were more likely to devote to the likes of Robert Frost.
Yet the fact remains that for the typical American of the future, melody and harmony will be as aesthetically marginal as they are to the African musician whose music is based on marvelously complex rhythms, with a vocal line serving largely rhythmic and/or decorative ends (notably, World Beat listeners are little concerned with not understanding most of the lyrics; it's the vocal texture that matters). Lyrics will continue to count, but their intimate linkage to musical line will be of no more concern than individual expression or complex rhythm was to pop listeners sixty years ago. I once attended a screening of a concert video from the mid-1960s in which Sammy Davis, Jr., who occupied the transitional point between the old and the current sensibility, sang Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" first "straight", and then without accompaniment, eventually moving into scatting and riffing rhythmically to the merest suggestion of the written vocal line for a good few minutes, in a vein we would today call "performance art". Young hipsters behind me whispered "This is rad!"; a few seconds later I heard an elderly woman in the front row mumble "Enough of this is enough!" She would have been happy to hear Davis simply sing it through once with the orchestra; the hipsters wouldn't have minded Davis walking out and doing only the vocal riffs — and they are the American musical ear of today and tomorrow.
The most unreported story deals with evolution of human lifespans and intelligence. Although we hear news reports about how humans will live longer in the future, we rarely hear reports that our children or grandchildren will be immortal by the end of the next century. Given the tremendous advances in molecular biochemistry that will take place by 2100, we will certainly uncover the molecular and cellular mysteries of aging, and therefore many humans will live forever, assuming they don't suffer a fatal accident. I am amazed that this obvious concept is not discussed more often or taken more seriously. Of course, the ecological, economic, political, social, and religious implications will be extreme. Imagine an immortal Pope discussing the afterlife with his followers — or the growth of two social classes, those that can afford immortality and those too poor to gain access to the required anti-aging "treatment."
Similarly, most scientists and lay people seem to think that there is intelligent, space-faring life elsewhere in the universe. A related unreported story is just how special human intelligence is. Despite what we see in Star Wars and Star Trek, I don't expect intelligence to be an inevitable result of evolution on other worlds. Since the beginning of life on Earth, as many as 50 billion species have arisen, and only one of them has acquired technology. If intelligence has such has high survival value, why are so few creatures intelligent? Mammals are not the most successful or plentiful of animals. Ninety-five percent of all animal species are invertebrates. Most of the worm species on our planet have not even been discovered yet, and there are a billion insects wandering the Earth.
If humankind were destroyed in some great cataclysm, in my opinion there is very little possibility that our level of intelligence would ever be achieved on Earth again. If human intelligence is an evolutionary accident, and mathematical, linguistic, artistic, and technological abilities a very improbable bonus, then there is little reason to expect that life on other worlds will ever develop intelligence that allows them to explore the stars. Both intelligence and mechanical dexterity appear to be necessary to make radio transmitting devices for communication between the stars. How likely is it that we will find a race having both traits? Very few Earth organisms have much of either. As evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond has suggested, those that have acquired a little of one (smart dolphins, dexterous spiders) have acquired none of the other, and the only species to acquire a little of both (chimpanzees) has been rather unsuccessful. The most successful creatures on Earth are the dumb and clumsy rats and beetles, which both found better routes to their current dominance. If we do receive a message from the stars, it will undermine much of our current thinking about evolutionary mechanisms.
Despite the improbabilities, we must continue to scan the stars for signs of intelligence. I agree with the ancient Persian proverb, "The seeker is a finder," which suggests we must always search in order to understand our place in our universe.
After two thousand years of "civilization," women are still considered inferior to men by most cultures, whether in developed, developing, or undeveloped nations.
Although the media reports on glass ceilings in the job place, they do not penetrate beyond the economic discrimination women face into the culture itself: What is it that makes most men think they are superior to women?
Why is the thought of electing a woman president of the United States so unthinkable to most of the population? Why is it surprising that most Fortune 1000 companies still lack a woman on their board of directors? Why do women athletes still lack funding and popular support on a scale that their male counterparts garner?
Because after 2,000 years of recorded history, and 20,000 years of artifact-preserved history, women have generally been relegated as breeders not leaders. And even though technological and economic advances have allowed women to have children as well as professional careers, their multimillenial image as background breeders persists.
This pervasive fallacy continues to limit the creative potential of half of the world's population. The underlying belief in women's inferiority seems to be so ingrained in our collective psyches that even the media doesn't seem motivated to investigate — let alone challenge — its roots.
Whatever happened to looking for the Peace Dividend? What if the rampant prosperity in America these years is it? Money not spent on Defense gets spent on something. Research not sequestered into Defense applications gets loose into the world faster, and in pace with other events in technology and science. Policies not organized around paranoia can be organized around judicious optimism. The more former enemies there are, the more new customers and suppliers.
(Are Democrats getting credit for something that Republicans did? — -win and end the Cold War. But maybe Democrats are exactly who you want running things when a long debilitating war ends.)
Question: if the Peace Dividend is prosperity, is it a blip good for only a couple years, or is it a virtuous circle that goes on and on?
The way we learn to use the Internet in the next few years (or fail to learn) will influence the way our grandchildren govern themselves. Yet only a tiny fraction of the news stories about the impact of the Net focus attention on the ways many to-many communication technology might be changing democracy — and those few stories that are published center on how traditional political parties are using the Web, not on how grassroots movements might be finding a voice.
Democracy is not just about voting for our leaders. Democracy is about citizens who have the information and freedom of communication the need to govern themselves. Although it would be illogical to say that the printing press created modern democratic nation-states, it would have been impossible to conceive, foment, or implement self-government without the widespread literacy made possible by printing technology. The more we know about the kind of literacy citizens are granted by the Internet, the better our chances of using that literacy to strengthen democracy. And what could be more important? What good is health and wealth and great personal home entertainment media without liberty?
Every communication technology alters governance and political processes. Candidates and issues are packaged and sold on television by the very same professionals who package and sell other commodities. In the age of mass media, the amount of money a candidate can spend on television advertising is the single most important influence on the electoral success. Now that the Internet has transformed every desktop into a printing press, broadcasting station, and place of assembly, will enough people learn to make use of this potential? Or will our lack of news, information, and understanding of the Net as a political tool prove insufficient against the centralization of capital, power, and knowledge that modern media also make possible?
The same tool that affords tremendous power to the grassroots, the broad citizenry, the cacaphony of competing "factions" necessary for healthy democracy, also affords tremendous power to the elites who already have wealth and power. Guess who can best afford to apply the tool to further their ends? What's in it for big media interests to inform us about how we can compete with big media interests?
The political power afforded to citizens by the Web is not a technology issue. Technology makes a great democratization of publishing, journalism, public discourse possible, but does not determine whether or not that potential will be realized. Every computer connected to the Net can publish a manifesto, broadcast audio and video eyewitness reports of events in real time, host a virtual community where people argue about those manifestos and broadcasts. Will only the cranks, the enthusiasts, the fringe groups take advantage of this communication platform? Or will many-to-many communication skills become a broader literacy, the way knowing and arguing about the issues of the day in print was the literacy necessary for the American revolution?
The "public sphere" is what the German political philosopher Habermas called that part of public life where ordinary people exchange information and opinions regarding potholes on main street and national elections, school bonds and foreign policy. Habermas claimed that the democratic revolutions of the 18th century were incubated in the coffee houses and committees of correspondence, informed by the pamphlets and newspaper debates where citizens argued about how to govern themselves without a King. Public governance could only emerge from public opinion. Habermas wrote: "By "public sphere," we mean first of all a domain in our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed." The public sphere is the reason why the modern coup d'etat requires paratroopers to capture television broadcast stations — because those are the places where the power to influence public opinion is concentrated.
The problem with the public sphere during the past sixty years of broadcast communications has been that a small number of people have wielded communication technology to mold the public opinion of entire populations. The means of creating and distributing the kind of media content that could influence public opinion — magazines, newspapers, radio and television stations — were too expensive for any but a few. Just as books were once too expensive for any but a few. The PC and the Internet changed that. Desktop video, desktop radio, desktop debates, digicam journalism, drastically reduced the barriers to publishing and broadcasting. These technological capabilities have emerged only recently, and are evolving rapidly. While much attention is focused on how many-to-many audio technology is threatening the existing music industry, little attention is focused on political portals. While all eyes are on e-commerce, relatively few know about public opinion BBSs, cause-related marketing, web-accessible voting and finance data.
Look at VoxCap, and the Minnesota E-Democracy Project, project, the California Voter's foundation, and scores of other unreported experiments. Imagine what might happen if more people were told that the Web could help them remain free, as well as enhance their shopping experience?
No one, least of all in the press — least of all in the business press — has seen the beginnings of what may be the greatest revolution in the history of commerce: the end of money, and with it the concept of the customer.
Until there was money, there was no such thing as a customer. It wasn't swapping tools for fish that turned a Polynesian islander from a trader into a customer. That's simply barter. The idea of "buyer" and "seller" emerged only when one party swapped something with a fixed use for something fungible. Often, the money received by the seller had a modest utilitarian purpose; gold, for instance, could be hammered into nose rings, false teeth or satellite solar arrays. But money became the foundation of economic life precisely because it had symbolic more than practical value.
Then God gave us lawyers and accountants to prevent underweighing and overcharging, to make sure that every exchange of tangible things for intangible money was perfectly balanced, perfectly reciprocal. But this is a conceit of economists, accountants and lawyers, as everyday commercial life reveals. Because it can be turned into anything, money represents dreams unfulfilled, and unrequited dreams, at any price, are worth more than dreams realized. We all realize this intuitively. A buyer asks a seller to give up a mere thing; a seller asks a buyer to give up hopes and possibilities. For the same reason, it's more costly for sellers to recruit buyers than for buyers to recruit sellers: Sellers can exchange their stuff for only one thing (money), while buyers can exchange their money for anything. That's why, in the real world of purportedly balanced transactions, sellers invariably defer to buyers — why we say "the customer is king" and "The customer is always right."
But let's say it's 2000 and you're Time Inc. You own some of the best-known media properties in the world: Sports Illustrated, People magazine, etc. You want to leverage those properties. So you approach Yahoo!, say, or American Online. You propose to provide content to them. They propose to promote your brand. And as you sit down to the bargaining table to sort out the economics of all this, you throw up your hands and ask, "Are we paying you or are you paying us?" That's how these negotiations actually go.
"Who's paying whom?" Asking a question like that signals that maybe nobody needs to pay anything to anybody. Lots of value is created, but "nobody's paying for it". It just happens because two (or more) business partners create something together. In these situations firms can't begin to account for the nickels and dimes in the deal and may not even bother trying. In these situations, relationships triumph over transactions. Money drastically diminishes as a factor in the deal. And the identity of the customer — Are we paying you or are you paying us? — becomes fuzzy. The very concept of the customer begins to disappear.
Look at Silicon Valley. Every major firm there is a node in a complex network in which a huge fraction of the value creation could never be accounted for in monetary terms. Should Intel pay for Microsoft to optimize operating systems in a way that makes Intel chips ubiquitous? Or should Microsoft pay Intel to design chips that make Microsoft operating systems ubiquitous?
The press and the pundits are clueless about the effects of these de-monetized value-added dealings. No wonder, because all their measurements are expressed as units of money. Unless some dough changes hands, even the biggest commercial developments are as unheard as trees falling in the distant forest. The data mavens at Commerce are blind to the value created when Yahoo! adds a new Web site listing or when Mapquest shaves 0.6 miles off my trip. When the Labor Department calculates the Consumer Price Index it has no idea that its own Web pages are being dished out on free Linux source code or that a building contractor in Bowie, Md., decided to eat a change order because he wanted to preserve the goodwill of his client — and that more and more of the economy is being transacted on such a basis. When Dr. Greenspan and the poo-bahs at the Fed deliberate over the "irrational exuberance" of the stock market, how much weight do you suppose they're giving to the fact that the marginal cost of a transaction in a world of e-commerce has essentially dropped to zero? More de-monetization.
Today most of the money in the world isn't even made of paper, much less metal. It exists as binary digits. No wonder the central banks of the world are heaving their gold reserves into a collapsing market. Who needs gold when money sheds the slightest pretense of being anything but data? Say good-bye to gold. Gold is history. If you want currency backed by something tangible, sign up for 5,000 frequent flier miles on a new Visa card.
What stories are most likely to go unreported? Those that have to do with things that happen so gradually that they aren't noticed, or happen so commonly that they aren't news, and those that have politically incorrect implications.
A story that has gone unreported for all three reasons is the gradual and pervasive change in parenting styles that has occurred in this country since the 1940s, and the consequences (or lack of consequences) of that change.
In the early part of this century, parents didn't worry about shoring up their children's self-esteem or sense of autonomy, and they didn't feel called upon to provide them with "unconditional love." They worried that their children might become spoiled, self-centered, or disobedient. In those days, spankings were administered routinely, often with a weapon such as a belt or a ruler. Kisses were exchanged once a day, at bedtime. Declarations of parental love were made once a lifetime, from the deathbed.
The gradual but dramatic change in parenting styles over the past 50 years occurred mainly because more and more parents were listening to the advice of the "experts," and the experts' advice gradually changed. Nowadays parents are told that spankings will make their children more aggressive, that criticism will destroy their self-esteem, and that children who feel loved will be kinder and more loving to others. As a result of this advice, most parents today are administering far fewer spankings and reprimands, and far more physical affection and praise, than their grandparents did.
But that's only half the story. The other half is the results, or lack of results, of this change in parenting styles. Are today's children less aggressive, kinder, more self-confident, or happier than the children of two generations ago? If anything, the opposite is true. Rates of childhood depression and suicide, for example, have gone up, not down. And certainly there has been no decline in aggressiveness.
The implications, whatever they are, are bound to be politically incorrect. Perhaps the "experts" don't know what they're talking about. Perhaps parenting styles are less important than people have been led to believe. Perhaps human nature is more robust than most people give it credit for — perhaps children are designed to resist whatever their parents do to them. It's possible that being hit by a parent doesn't make children want to go right out and hit their playmates, any more than being kissed by a parent makes them want to go right out and kiss their playmates. It's even possible (dare I suggest it?) that those parents who are still doling out a lot of punishment have aggressive kids because aggressiveness is, in part, passed on genetically.
But now I'm getting into a story that HAS been reported.
Living flesh is innervated with all kinds of sensors like taste buds, pressure sensors, photoreceptors and position sensors in muscle fibers, which monitor internal and external conditions. Brains analyze signals from these sensors using built-in and ever-evolving models of the world (that include the owners of the brains) and then use these analyses to formulate plans of action.
One of the most important un(der)reported stories today is the way the inanimate world built by humanity is becoming ever more innervated with sensors (cameras, microphones, strain gauges, magnetic sensors, GPS receivers, transponders, infrared sensors, satellite surveillance, etc.) as well as communications systems linking these sensors to computers that can store, analyze and act on those signals just like biological brains. What's more, all of these sensors are likely to ultimately link into a next-generation Internet via ultra-miniaturized, on-board, wireless connections (one of the main R&D thrusts of the microelectromechanical systems community). Millions of millions of thermometers, barometers, GPs transponders in vehicles, seismic monitors, radiation monitors, department store surveillance cameras, and thousands of other gadgets watching the world will all feed data into the system. This will amount to a global-scale, sensitive infrastructure a planet-sized body, that is — whereby myriad sensory signals will constantly feed into a global-scale cyberspace coursing with sophisticated pattern-recognition abilities, knowledge-discovery (data-mining) systems, and other artificial cognition tools. One consequence will be that Earth will have a new kind of planetary self-awareness akin the bodily awareness living creatures have due to their sensory tissue. Debate about personal privacy will become almost moot since the entire world will constitute a glass house. On the up side, the complexity of this worldwide awareness — and the new categories of data about the world will become available — is likely to lead to emergent phenomena as surprising as the way life emerges from molecules and consciousness from life.
As Aldo Leopold once suggested, the greatest invention of the 20th century might be the concept of ecology. It reminds us of the illusory nature of the concept of the autonomous, unitary, individual being. We are all — ourselves as persons, the human animal, all species, in all likelihood, the universe — a constant product of relational and transactional processes.
The internationalization of the third culture, by which I mean the growth of a class of people who do creative work of some kind (science, arts, media, business, technology, finance, fashion...) who live and work in a country other than their own, are married to such a person, or both. This is not a new situation, but what is new is the extent to which the combination of inexpensive air travel, telephone the Internet and computer technologies makes living and working outside of ones native country not only easy but increasingly attractive for a growing proportion of people in these professions. This is a natural consequence of the internationalization of these areas, which has made frequent international travel, and periods of studying and working abroad the norm rather than the exception. It is made possible by the ascendancy of English as a global language and the long period in which the developed world has been more or less at peace. With the end of the cold war, the growth of democracies in Latin America and the Far East and the unification of Europe there remain few significant political obstructions to the growth in size and influence of a denationalized community of people who work in exactly those areas which are most critical for shaping the human future.
This class of people shares not only a common language and a common set of tastes in food, clothing, coffee, furniture, housing, entertainment, etc, but are increasingly coming to share a common political outlook, which is far more international than those from the old literary cultures, based as they are each on a national language and history. It is perhaps too early to characterize this outlook, but it involves a mix of traditional social democratic and environmental concerns with an interest (or perhaps self-interest) in the links between creative work, international exchange of ideas and technologies and economic growth. Moreover, they share an interest in the conditions which make their lives possible, which are peace, stability, democracy and economic prosperity, and these are more important to them than the nationalist concerns of their native countries. It is not surprising that the daily experience of juggling different languages, identities and cultures gives these people a much more optimistic outlook concerning issues such as pluralism and multiculturalism than those from the literary cultures. Most of them feel an attachment and identification to their native culture, but they also feel alienated from the party politics and petty nationalisms of their home countries. When they move to a new country they do not immigrate in the traditional sense, rather they enter a denationalized zone in which their colleagues and neighbors come from an array of countries and the place where they happen to be is less important than the work they do.
How they and their children will resolve these different loyalties is far from clear. One can meet young people whose parents each speak a different language, who grew up in a third country, did a university education in a fourth, and now work in a fifth. What the political loyalties of such people will be is impossible to predict, but it seems not impossible that the growing concentrations of such people in the areas of work that most influence public taste and economic growth may catalyze the evolution of nation states into local governments and the invention of a global political system.
A plausible explanation of how the brain can create internal models of veridical and hypothetical worlds has long eluded theorists. But recently there has been significant progress in the theoretical understanding of this defining aspect of human cognition, and it has scarcely been reported. About a decade ago, I wrote in The Cognitive Brain that the capability for invention is arguably the most consequential characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other creatures. Our cognitive brain is especially endowed with neuronal mechanisms that can model within their biological structures all conceivable worlds, as well as the world we directly perceive or know to exist. External expressions of an unbounded diversity of brain-created models constitute the arts and sciences and all the artifacts and enterprises of human society.
The newsworthy story is that we now have, for the first time, a biologically credible large-scale neuronal model that can explain in essential structural and dynamic detail how the human brain is able to create internal models of its intimate world and invent models of a wider universe.
Quite an interesting question and one that required both research and introspection. I finally had to rely on what I have experienced in travelling to 6 of the earth's continents.
The world is losing potable water at a rate that is unprecedented. Saharan and sub-saharan Africa water supplies are contaminated with bilharzia, schistosomiasis (sic), giardia, and other water-born parasites and diseases. Russia has seen the Caspian Sea and other land-locked lakes decline rapidly over the past 25 years due to evaporation from a warmer climate and drainage to irrigate arid lands. Populations are expanding into areas where water is scarce and aquifers will be drained in less than 100 years at current consumption rates. Even my favorite Sierra streams are polluted with giardia and require treatment before you can drink the water. China, India, Asia, and South America are also faced with the same problems of water-born diseases and decreasing supplies.
In the 19th century we saw battles fought over water rights in New Mexico. What will happen in the next century when nations are faced with hydro projects in a neighboring country decrease the flow of water to another country. This is already happening in Turkey where a massive hydro project threatens Iraq's water supply. Will this be Saddam's next war?
Scientists still do not understand what the impact of desalinization of sea water will have on the balance of the global ecosystem. The salt removed has to go somewhere, usually back into the water. Will increased salinity impact polar ice caps or the temperature of the earth's oceans? We have already seen an increase in the salinity of water in Russia, the Middle East, and even in areas in the USA.
In terms of consumption, we waste a tremendous amount of water as individuals. More water goes down the drain or the gutter as we continue to plant water-intensive lawns or keep the tap running while we brush our teeth. Recent draughts in California have highlighted how much water can be saved on a daily basis. On the converse, in many third-world countries more time is spent each day bringing the necessary water to the home as wells dry up. You can't be productive if you're always fetching water.
The next global war will be fought over water, not imperialism or political ideology. Man can live without a lot of things, but not water. Mainstream media in all countries have been absent in their reporting as well as conservation groups like the Sierra Club. What will the world do when there's not enough rain to go around?.
As each presidential candidate makes education the big issue for his campaign we need to understand that none of them actually wants change in education. There are two main reasons for this. The first are vested interests. Those who oppose real change in our schools include teachers unions who lobby heavily for the status quo, book publishers who are afraid of losing the textbook investments they have made, testing services and test preparation services who have a significant investment in keeping things as they are and parents who really would be quite frightened if the schools changed in a way that made their own educations seem irrelevant. No politician wants to challenge a group like this so no politician wants to do any more than pay lip service to the issue. The second reason is more insidious. When real reformers propose that everyone should be equally educated there are gasps from the elitists who run our government. Their concern? If everyone were educated, who would do the menial jobs? Hard as it may be to believe this issue is raised quite often in Washington.
My story is about pigs! How could anything connected with pigs possibly have significant cultural consequences? It comes from research that entails a fundamental change in the scope of scientific inquiry. To appreciate what is at stake, we need to recall a basic assumption in the practice of western science: reliable knowledge about nature depends upon measurement. We can be sure of the wavelength of light rays from the setting sun, but there's no way we can determine the beauty of a sunset. Or we can find out the weight of a pig, but we can never know if a pig is happy or sad. Western science is about quantities, which are regarded as 'objective' properties of the world that everyone using the same method of measurement can agree on. It is not about qualities such as pleasure, pain, honesty, happiness or grief, which are regarded as subjective states that are not objectively real, however important they may seem to us.
But what if it could be shown that qualities can be evaluated just as reliably and consistently as quantities? And by essentially the same scientific procedures? This is what has been shown in studies by a research team working in Edinburgh. People were shown videos of individual pigs interacting in a standard pen with the team leader, Francoise Wemelsfelder. They were asked to write down for each pig any set of terms that they felt described the quality of its behavior. These included words such as bold, aggressive, playful for one animal; timid, shy, nervous for another; indifferent, independent, self-absorbed for a third, and so on. There was no limit to the number of descriptors that could be used for any pig. A routine procedure was then followed in which each pig was evaluated again by each observer using all their chosen pig-descriptive terms and the results compared over the whole group of observers to see if there was consistency of evaluation. This type of procedure is regularly used in evaluation of food quality and flavour, but it has never before been used to see if people agree about an animal's 'subjective' state in terms of its behavior.
The results were startling: there was a high level of consensus among people about the quality of behavior shown by different pigs. Their assessments were not arbitrary, personally idiosyncratic descriptions, but evaluations with a high degree of intersubjective consistency. This is precisely the basis of scientific 'objectivity': agreement between different observers using an agreed method of observation. This opens the door to a science of qualities with startling implications.
The most important aspects of our lives are connected with qualities: quality of relationships, quality of education, quality of our environment, quality of life generally. We spend a great deal of time evaluating the behavior of those on whom we depend and trying to sort out whether they are happy, angry, depressed, reliable, and so on; i.e., we get a lot of practice at evaluating others' internal states by reading their behavior. And on the whole we are pretty good at it, despite dramatic errors of judgement to which we are prone. So it isn't all that surprising that people with no familiarity with pigs should nevertheless be very consistent at evaluating the quality of their behavior. But what is most dramatically lacking in the lives of people in 'developed' countries at the moment is, by general consensus, quality of life. Quantities we have in abundance - of food, technological gadgets of all kinds, cars, aircraft, information, and so on; the things that our science of measurement and quantities has been so successful at providing. But that science has degraded qualities such as beauty, love, joy, grief, and creativity to mere epiphenomal subjectivity, regarding them as ephemeral shadows with no objective reality. We intuitively know better. But now we can actually explore this territory systematically, scientifically, and reinvest our world with the qualities that are essential for living full lives; not just for humans but also for pigs and cows and trees and cities and landscapes and watersheds and cultures and the biosphere. With a science of qualities we can start to recover the wisdom we lost when we restricted our search for reliable knowledge to measurable quantities and cut ourselves off from the qualitative half of the world without which we and all else must perish.
Media sells your attention to advertisers using bad news. This makes people think the bad news is the real state of the world. Pollution is making the world a worse place, raw materials are being used up, bigger populations are overconsuming us into wretchedness, etc. They even want all of us to waste our time sorting garbage for fear that we'll run out of barren land to put it on!
The real story is that human life has gotten better and better and better over the centuries. The world used to be a very polluted place — if you count deadly infectious bacteria in the environment. Centuries of focus on clean drinking water, separating sewers from food and water supplies, medicine, and nutrition have resulted in human life span being literally doubled and tripled, first in "civilized" countries and then in "developing" countries. China has doubled life-span in this century. Everyone grows up taller and stronger than hundreds of years ago. There is much less pollution in London today than in any recorded century. There is much less pollution in the US today than in any recorded decade. There are more proven oil reserves than ever before, and in fifty years when those have been used, another fifty or sixty years' worth will have been worth locating. There are more acres of forest in North America than a hundred years ago. (There's a market for growing trees now, and they can be transported to where people want to buy the wood! Two hundred years ago it was more work to move wood twenty miles in carts on mud roads, than it was to take it across the Atlantic!) Resources of all types are getting cheaper and cheaper, as measured in decades and centuries. There is no reason to believe that these trends will change. (Remember the people like Paul Erlich who predicted world famine by 2000? They are still making predictions, but you shouldn't believe 'em any more, because it's 2000 and the starving hordes aren't here.)
Prof. Julian Simon was a "liberal who got mugged" — by the facts. He started off trying to prove the environment was getting worse, but whenever he found actual historical data, it contradicted that thesis. Eventually he changed his mind and started writing books about it.
Ultimate Resource 2 is his updated book about how all the resources except one of-a-kind objects are becoming less scarce, except humans. (Human attention commands higher and higher prices over the decades, a trend easily visible in the price of labor, despite there being more humans around.)
The State of Humanity is a very well documented (footnoted) survey of human life, health, and the environment. It points you to actual historical data showing the real long-term trends in human longevity, health, welfare, prices of materials, acres of forest, number of species known, pollution, smoke, you name it he's got it.
Knee-jerk liberals beware! These are the kinds of books that you won't like to read. The interior feeling of a mind stretching is uncomfortable, though the result is well worth it.
Two stories, one of global importance, the other of importance in the areas in which I work:
Global: At any one time in recent years, there have been civil wars raging in several countries in Africa. Thousands of individuals die each year. Last year, according to one authority, 1/3 of the African countries were at war. Yet because the political aspects of these conflicts are no longer of interest to Americans (because the Cold War is over), the economic stakes have no global importance, and African populations do not capture the attention of well-off Westerners, one needs to be a specialist to find out the details of these conflicts. The contrast with the attention paid to the death of an American youth, particularly one from a middle-class family, is shocking and hard to justify sub species aeternitas. Of course, mere knowledge of these conflicts does not in itself solve anything; but it is a necessary step if we are to consider what might be done to halt this carnage.
Local: In my own areas of psychology and education, there is plenty of interest nowadays in student achievement in schools. Yet the coverage of these matters in the press almost entirely leaves out knowledge which enjoys wide consensus among researchers. In the area of human development, it is recognized that youngsters pass through stages or phases, and it makes no sense to treat a four year old as if he or she were simply a "slower" or less informed middle school student or adult. In the area of cognitive studies, it is recognized that youngsters "construct" their own theories by which they attempt to make sense of the world; and that these intuitive theories often fly directly in the face of the theories and disciplines which we hope that they will ultimately master.
Because these points are not well understood by journalists, policymakers, and the general public, we keep implementing policies that are doomed to fail. Efforts to teach certain materials in certain ways to youngsters who aren't ready to assimilate them will not only be ineffective but they are likely to cause children to come to dislike formal education. And efforts to instruct that fail to take into account — and challenge — the often erroneous theories that youngsters have already developed will delude us into thinking that the students are actually understanding materials that remain opaque to them.
I think that this happens because as humans we are predisposed to come up with this theory of learning: Our minds are initially empty and the job of education is to fill those vessels with information. It is very difficult for humans to appreciate that the actual situation is quite different: in our early years, we construct all kinds of explanations for things. Our scholarly disciplines can only be mastered if we get rid of these faulty explanations and construct, often slowly and painfully, better kinds of explanations. Put sharply, evolutionary theory is not intuitive; creationism is. And that is why eight year olds are invariable creationists, whether their parents are fundamentalists or atheists.
O.J.'s Search for the Real Killer.
When we think about our conscious experiences of the world, we are aware of vivid colors, sounds, and feelings. These seem to occur in a world of three spatial dimensions evolving through time. When we look at a typical brain, we see an unbelievably intricate web of networks energized by electrical and chemical processes. These networks often have incredibly large numbers of components. Given such different levels of description, it has been difficult to comprehend how a brain can give rise to a mind.
During the past decade, theorists of mind and brain have finally been able to model the detailed temporal dynamics of known brain cells and circuits...AND the observable behaviors that they control, using the same model. Thus, for the first time in history, there are theories powerful enough to begin to explicitly show how our minds arise from our brains.
The exciting thing about this progress is that, in every case, it depends upon qualitatively new concepts and theories about how our brains adapt on their own, moment - by - moment, to a rapidly changing world. Many outstanding problems in technology also require that an intelligent agent adapt on its own, moment-by-mo ment, to a rapidly changing world. These new concepts and theories have therefore begun to find their way into new technological applications.
Thus the new progress about how our brains work promises to provide a more human technology. The story has not been adequately reported because the new concepts are qualitatively new — for the same reason that brains seem to be so different from minds — and many reporters have not taken the time to understand them.
The increasing use of mitochondrial DNA in determining genetic relationships among human beings opens up the extraordinary possibility of a global registry in which every individual knows his or her antecedents and degree of genetic closeness to all other living human beings.
What would be the result of such knowledge? A delight in finding out that we are all more or less brothers and sisters under the skin, leading — one hopes — to a decrease in hostilities between antagonistic groups? Or would a new clannishness emerge in which anyone who is more, say, than six degrees of genetic separation from oneself is identified as a natural enemy?
Beyköy is a hamlet sitting on the lonely edge of the world — in the highlands of Phrygia in western Turkey, hundreds of kilometers away from either city or coast. In 1876, a local peasant made a remarkable discovery in these forsaken backwoods — one that ranks today as the world's most important unreported story.
This farmer's pasture extended along the foot of a low but extensive mound, believed to hold the remains of an ancient city. While working his ox and plow along the base of the hill, the farmer struck some objects in the furrow which gave off a metallic noise. After picking up and scrutinizing the large pieces of metal which he had accidentally unearthed, the peasant noticed they were covered with script.
Several years later, the American scholar William M. Ramsay passed through the village. Speaking with some local people, Ramsay inquired if they possessed any coins and artifacts picked up off the ground, with the intention of finding a bargain. Among the pieces offered to him was a tiny fragment containing a short inscription. Wondering aloud about its original location, the locals pointed towards the knoll. After further inquiry, Ramsay found out about the series of spectacular bronze tablets which had also been found there. Unfortunately, they were gone and nobody was able to say where.
As it turned out, the Beyköy bronze tablets had made their way into the archives of the Ottoman empire. Recognizing their possible significance, the curator in charge did not hesitate in contacting the world's foremost authority, German-born Anatolia expert Albrecht Goetze, in order to publish the finds. In the late 1950's, this professor of Yale University began to investigate the texts. For over ten years, he examined, translated and interpreted them. Then, he informed another colleague of their existence. Goetze completed his investigations and manuscript shortly before he died in 1971. Owing to the subsequent death of his editor, the monograph, however, has never been published and the Beyköy tablets remain completely unknown. Goetze had found that they contained lists of Anatolian states, kings, and military actions from as early as the fourth millennium BC up until the eighth century BC. These texts proved conclusively that today's Turkey was once the home of a civilization older and more important to European history than Pharaonic Egypt. Yet, this civilization has remained virtually uninvestigated to the present today.
Now, why should the discovery of the Beyköy tablets be considered the world's most important unreported story? After all, archaeological discoveries — like that of the man in the ice — have often surprised the general public and upset established scholarship. The discovery of the Beyköy tablets, however, is of a different order of magnitude. It shows that the center of European history is to be found way outside the frontiers of the hitherto Old — and accepted — World. Therefore, its impact equals a scientific revolution similar to those caused by Nicolas Copernicus, Charles Darwin and Siegmund Freud. Copernicus' work generated an upheaval, since it demonstrated that humankind is not at the center of the universe. Darwin's research demonstrated that humans do not stand at the ultimate zenith of Creation; instead they are more or less an accidental product of a million years-long evolutionary process. And Freud showed that we are not even in full command of our own mind, our inner selves.
The publication of the Beyköy tablets will take this sequence of upheavals in western thought one step further. It will demonstrate — once and for all — that "western culture" is an arbitrary, abstract concept resting upon the wishful thinking of certain eighteenth century members of the educated class. Old world civilizations, especially that of ancient Greece, evolved from frontier outposts of much older Asian civilizations in the adjacent Orient. The practices characterizing western civilization — domestication of animals and plants, agriculture, husbandry, permanent homes, life in village communities, metallurgy, politics and cosmology — all clearly originated in Asia.
After this paradigm shift, only one even greater upheaval remains — proving that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.
What is the biggest unreported story?
The hidden consequences for our health and the environment, and for social and economic justice, of our daily choices as consumers of products and services.
Our individual habits of consumption, when multiplied by our vast numbers, have devastating impacts — but we are blind to the chain that links our individual choices with their vaster consequences. I'd like to know what these links are — but they lack transparency. We need something akin to the labels of nutritional value on foods that would surface these hidden consequences of our own actions.
A case in point: what is the environmental cost of choosing to buy a hamburger? How many acres for cattle to graze, how much erosion or degrading of land as a consequence, how much more greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere, how much water used for this purpose rather than other things? How does a burger made from beef compare in this regard to, say, one made from turkey, or from soybeans?
Another case in point: since childhood, I've suffered from asthma. Asthma is becoming epidemic among children, especially in urban neighborhoods. One clear reason for the upsurge is the increase in airborne particulates that irritate and inflame respiratory passages. I live in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, which, because of prevailing winds, receives a large portion of its particulates from the pollution in the metro New York City area, as well as from the industrial Midwest states. One coal-powered electrical plant in Ohio, a notoriously bad offender, contributes almost half the airborne particulates that reach my area from the Midwest. Who are the largest industrial customers of that electrical plant? What products that I'm now buying are built using power from that plant? I might boycott them if I knew.
Individually, the consequences of my choices are admittedly negligible. But if summated across millions of consumers making the similarly informed choices, the impact could be quite great. We could 'vote' for more benign consequences if we had this missing information.
I applaud, for instance, the mutual funds and other corporate citizens who are offering shareholders the option to get their reports via the internet, rather than wasting resources — trees, power, etc. — mailing thousands of hard copies. One fund informs me, for instance, that if all members sign up for internet reports, the savings in pulp amounts to more than three hundred trees per year.
I want more choices like that.
So how about a new investigative beat for journalism: hidden consequences.
And since policy making to deal with such controversies calls for value judgments, and that in turn requires a scientifically literate public to telegraph their value preferences to leaders, miscommunication of the nature of scientific controversy has serious implications for democracy in a world of exploding complexity.
In political reporting, it is both common and appropriate to "get the other side": if the Democrat gives a speech, the Republican gets comparable time/inches/prominence. This doctrine of "balance" — which is still taught proudly in journalism schools in the U.S. — is supposed to underlie the journalistic independence of the Fourth Estate. [And let's not forget that conflict packaged in sound bite-sized chunks garners higher ratings than more circumspect reporting.]
But while journalists rightly defend the need for balance in truly bipolar stories, how many scientific controversies are really two-sided? More likely, there will be several competing paradigms and a half a dozen marginal ideas kicking around scientific controversies. And when the issues have high-stakes political winners and losers — like the global warming topic I work in — it is to be expected that various special interests will compete for their spin. We've all seen media filled with the views of environmental catastrophists, technological cornucopians, ideological opponents of collective controls on entrepreneurial activities, or denial from industrial producers of products that pollute — to name the usual prime players. And each often has their hired or favored PhDs handy with ready explanations and slick sound bites — e.g., why carbon dioxide buildup in the air will be either catastrophic or good for you.
Unfortunately, here is where a serious — and largely unreported by the very people who bring us this daily show — disjuncture occurs. For example, in the name of "balance", a 200-scientist, two-years-in-the-making refereed scientific assessment gets comparable space or airtime to a handful of "contrarian" scientists saying it "ain't so". When I challenge this equal time reporting to my media colleagues, they accuse me of being against "balance". This parade of dueling scientists isn't remotely "balance" I respond, but rather, utter distortion — unless the journalist also reports the relative credibility of each quoted position. I call the latter doctrine "perspective" — as opposed to the "balance" that journalists label.
In science all opinions are decidedly not equal, and we spend the bulk of our effort winnowing the less from the more probable lines of inquiry. Moreover, when we are assessors, we are obligated to report whether our estimates of the likelihood of some set of hypothesized outcomes are based on objective rather than subjective odds. I don't have space to get into the "frequentist" versus "Bayesian" debate over what is ever "objective", but awareness of the issue is also part of what scientific literacy entails — even for scientists.
Nevertheless, I do agree it would be irresponsible not to cover minority opinions in media accounts of complex controversies. My concern comes when contradictory scientific opinions are offered without any attempt to report the relative credibility of these views. Then, the public — and political leaders too for the most part — are left to do that difficult assessment job themselves. More often than not the "dueling scientists" get equal time in the story, confusion sets in and outlier opinions win equal status at the bar of public opinion with more widely accepted views. Of course, as Kuhn has taught us, once in a while someone comes along to overthrow the mainstream doctrine — but we celebrate these paradigm busters primarily because they are rare, not commonplace. One well-known editor argued with me that to report scientific credibility "calls for a judgement on the part of the journalist, and that most reporters lack specialized qualifications to do that". "Without making judgments how can they choose what to report and who to quote", I responded? "Why don't you get someone from the Flat Earth Society to 'balance' every space shot you cover — isn't that a 'judgment' about their lack of credibility"? Of course, they could hire such specialists, but only a few major media outlets do — and those reporters are decidedly not at the top of the respect hierarchy in corporate media.
Science must always examine and test dissent, even if it takes a long time to reduce some uncertainties. But science policy needs to know where the mainstream is at the moment. My mantra to those seeking scientific literacy in order to address the implications of the debate is to remember to ask all competing claimants of scientific "truth" three questions: 1), "What can happen?", 2), "What are the odds?", and 3) "How do you know?" And if you intend to ask the third question, plan to have a pen and paper along and be willing to check references, for question 3) isn't a sound bite-length inquiry.
In summary, most stories turn the doctrine of balance on its head by applying it too literally to complex, multi-faceted scientific debates. Then, the unreported story becomes that there actually are different probabilities that belong to each of the various positions covered, yet these conflicting positions appear in the story to be equally likely.
Science must always examine and test dissent, even if it takes a long time to reduce some uncertainties. But science policy needs to know where the mainstream is at the moment. My mantra to those seeking scientific literacy in order to address the implications of the debate is to remember to ask all competing claimants of scientific "truth" three questions: 1), "What can happen?", 2), "What are the odds?", and 3) "How do you know?" And if you intend to ask the third question, plan to have a pen and paper along and be willing to check references, for question 3) isn't a sound bite-length inquiry.
As the 20th century draws to a close, biologists triumphantly announce the beginning of the end of the project to sequence the human genome. Metaphoric hyperbole runs rampant as we speak of "reading the book of life" and of "unraveling the essence of what it means to be human". But less noticed is the fact that developmental biologists who study the role of genes in development are busily dethroning the gene.
When I was a young embryologist I lectured about genes in development. Following the dogma of the time, I told my students that there were two groups of genes. First, there were housekeeping genes — those responsible for the mundane daily functions of the cell — the feminine duties of maintenance. These genes supposedly kept the machinery running smoothly — respiration and waste disposal went on quietly and demurely. But the really important genes were the development genes — those masculine entities that pioneered new territory and wrought new form from undifferentiated plasm. The goal of any self-respecting developmental geneticist was to find those special genes for development and thus unravel the mystery of how genes control the formation of new organisms.
The successes have been many and profound. Developmental biologists have uncovered myriad genes involved in embryo formation. They have found an amazing continuity of genetic structure and function across the phyla. We now understand in fabulous detail the function of many genes in development. But something funny happened on the way to the genetic forum. The distinction between housekeeping genes and development genes has become increasingly hard to maintain. Some development genes fall into the category of transcription regulators, as might be expected for genes that control genetic expression. But many turn out to be involved in cell communication and signaling. What is more these genes don't control development. In a real sense development controls the genes. The same genetic read-out can have a vastly different outcome depending upon when during development and in which cell the protein is produced. Indeed, most development genes seem to act at multiple times during development and in many tissue and cell types. The same gene can play a key role in quite a variety of developmental events.
The important story is that the search for genes that control development has shown us that our initial idea that genes control processes within an organism is wrong. Instead genes are one set of actors within a developmental system. The system itself contains all of the pre-existing contents of the cell, organ or organism. These include thousands of gene products, other chemicals such as ions, lipids, carbohydrates and more, all organized and compartmentalized in a highly-stru ctured physical setting (the cell and its substructures, the organ and its tissues, the organism and its organ systems). From before the turn of the century embryologists debated whether the cytoplasm controlled the nucleus or vice versa. What the last decade of research on genes in development reveals is that both things are simultaneously true — the system and its history control development. Genes are but one of many crucial components of the process.
Having lived for several years in East Africa, I am struck by two observations which seem to me to have escaped sufficient reporting. The first concerns the health crisis on the continent. Unlike anywhere that I have ever lived, and especially over the past 5-10 years, I am overwhelmed by the illnesses. When one walks among villages in Uganda, or on the streets of cities such as Nairobi and Kamapal, one sees AIDS. There is no need to go to the local newspapers and read the latest counts. It is right in front of ones eyes. Perhaps more depressing than the AIDS crisis is the problem with malaria. Unlike AIDS, for which we have only the weakest medicines, we certainly do have the medical technology to eradicate most of the problems with malaria. Cracking this problem will not, however, require medical expertise alone. Rather, it will require a creative team of doctors, anthropologists, sociologists, and economists working hand in hand, trying to understand the local mores, the local economy, and the struggles of daily life. It will also have to crack the problem of medical distribution, still a problem in much of Africa.
A second problem comes from my experience teaching in Uganda. I had the great pleasure, and honor of teaching students in Uganda. I have never seen such a thirst to learn. And yet, much of the educational system is lacking in basic supplies and materials that would transfer these students into highly educated scholars. Like the poor distribution of medicinal supplies, there is an equally poor level of educational distribution. The inequities here are dramatic. Those of us who write for the Edge, should put our heads together to think of some way to help, to lend our minds to theirs. Any takers?
It is the best candidate to the major unreported event of the next century. Only people in need really do need a brain. Plants don't, and get along pretty well without it: photosynthesis alone largely fulfil all their requirements. Actually, now that we know that we share, for better or worse similar DNA, — the instruction booklet that designs living organisms robust enough to ensure survival, but flexible enough to adapt to changing environments —, the missing brain is the only difference between plants and us. And as we'll quickly learn during the next century, it is nothing to be very proud of.
Although it seems harder to define the differences within the brainy species themselves, including primates and other animals, it is, however, rather surprising to find that -in the History of human thought- there has hardly been a single intellectual who has not condescended to share the collective and unending appraisal of the substantial differences between men and the rest. In fact, this debate has bored quite a few generations of learned hominids. Fortunately, it is about to end thanks to, above all other scientists, Lynn Margulis. Let me explain why.
It has taken quite some time and arguing to show that most animals do indeed communicate and master reasonably evolved languages to that end. There is nothing terribly creative about the capacity to learn a language; as Steven Pinker pointed out it is genetic, and could not be more damn simple, since it is digital. Men can do it; other mammals too. The only surprising thing about it is the sheer impotence of current scientific thought to unveil the basics of animal culture.
Despite the fact that we share the same genes, tool-making also helped to substantiate the differences between hominids and chimps. Of course, a few of those genes are different, but we still don't know which of them actually makes the difference. The tool making singularity, however, has not outlived the language exclusiveness. As other people moved by curiosity, I have enjoyed looking at zoologist Sabater's collection of chimp's sandals, hats, seed's catchers and sticks for all sorts of widely different uses, such as beating, or carving the sand searching for fresh water during the dry season, instead of trying to drink in muddy soils.
The identification of consciousness — since scientists assumed twenty years ago that the scientific method could be extended to these domains, up to then left to superstition —, looked like the final argument. "We're conscious of ourselves. We know who we are. And they don't". It was the most serious argument ever put forward in our defense. It did not matter that chimps could also recognize themselves in a mirror; somehow they would not show the precise awareness, nor the same cognitive capacity to ruminate about one self. Unfortunately, biologists like Lynn Margulis showed that bacteria — as far back as two billion years ago- could not manage their electric-like motors, nor their magnetic navigation systems, without some realization of what on earth they were building up those ultramodern transport systems for. You just can't pretend any longer that bacteria are not conscious too.
For those still interested in the old debate about the differences between the brainy species, let me remind you that the most avant garde argument now runs something like this: only the descendants of the Australopitecus have developed the capacity to generate symbols. Nobody can demonstrate neither when nor how it happened; I myself am convinced that the whole thing started six thousand years ago when people settled to labor the land, and women had to leave their babies unattended shouting all day long.
But total allegiance to symbols like the San Francisco 49ers, the Serbian motherland, or the Manchester United colors are undeniably humane. No chimpanzee would risk his life for these or similar symbols, nor for that matter would leave their newly born unattended. Chimp's mothers love to carry them. There at last is something which makes us really different from other animals. The capacity to generate symbols and to blindly follow them, has indeed taken Homo Sapiens a long way off from the brain's original purpose: to go in the right direction, and to anticipate a few questions. A very lucid New York physiologist attending last December a Neuroscience Congress at the birthplace of Ramon y Cajal, actually told me he knows of a particular specie who ends up eating its own brain once it settles in the right place and knows the basic answers.
Could it not be that the brain has taken over a bunch of simple people who were only in need of a few addresses and of guessing what on earth was going to happen tomorrow? The World Health Organization is predicting that life expectancy will reach one hundred and twenty five years very shortly. Neuroscientists should start worrying about the outcome of forty additional years with jammed brains immersed in the process of deepening their symbolic capacity, leaving at long last an unbridgeable and recognizable gap with plants and animals.
Yet despite this distinctive capacity to generate symbols, some 25% of the population — excluding criminals — have serious brain disfunctions, and most medical observers already agree that brain disorders will be the most serious health threat in the twenty-first century. The lucky 75% who will not be insane already know, according to the latest statistics, that more patients die as a result of practitioner's brains guessing wrongly about the nature and treatment of real or invented illness, than people succumb on the roads and from heart failure altogether.
Thankfully, building a collective brain through Internet should alleviate the stress of saturated individual brains, and help manage the lives of the great majority of people who have already been overcome by too many choices regarding the path to follow and the answers to non-formulated questions, even under current life expectancy models. I'm afraid that quite a few of them will, however, regret the placid and constructive life of brainless plants.
Human brains are making the human world smarter and smarter, so that they (the brains) can be dumb in peace. Or rather, we are progressively altering our environment so that our brains, which are good at pattern-matching, at sensory recognition, and at the manipulation of objects in the world, can support intelligent choice and action by their participation in much larger networks. Human development is a process in which the brain becomes deeply tuned to the available environmental surround, be it pen, paper and sketchpad, or PC, Palm Pilot and designer software. As the century closes, and our typical, reliable environmental props and supports become ever more sophisticated and interlinked, so the mental machinery that makes us who we are is becoming ever more extended, interanimated and networked. In the near future, software agents whose profiles have evolved alongside those of a specific individual will count as part of the individual person. To say that I use those software agents will be strictly false. Instead, my brain and the various personalized manifestations of new technology will constitute integrated thinking things. I will no more be the user of these close-knit technologies than I am the user of the various sub- systems already existing within my biological brain. Instead, better to see both those sub-systems and these close-knit external technologies, as together constituting a spatially extended kind of user or person. The next step may be, as Rodney Brooks suggests, to put as much of that technology back inside the biological membrane as possible. This buys easier portability without changing the real state of affairs. We are already (mental) cyborgs.
While the absolute numbers of humans on Earth will continue to rise for another generation at least, birth rates around the world are sinking, particularly in the developed countries. In the coming decades many emerging countries — currently boosting the rise in absolute population numbers — will themselves make the transition to lower birth rates. While most estimates see the global population of Earth peaking around 2040-50, what none of them show is what happens afterward. Unless some unknown counterforce arises, what happens after the peak is that the world's birth rate steadily sinks below replacement level. Increasing people's longevity can only slightly postpone this population fizzle.
The main reason this is unreported is that it will be decades before it will happen and until it does, the population boomers are correct: our numbers swell exponentially. But the story is worth reporting for three reasons:
1) Long before the world's population fizzles, it will age. As it already is. The average age of a human on earth has been increasing since 1972. The developing countries are aimed to be Geezer Countries in another twenty years or less. This will affect culture, politics, and business.
2) There is currently no cultural force in the modern societies to maintain human population levels over the long term. Population robustness these days comes primarily from undeveloped countries, and from cultural practices that are disappearing in developed countries. Once the developing countries become developed, there will be little at work to maintain an average of one offspring per person, with millions have more to balance the millions with few or no children. How many future readers will be willing to have three or more kids?
3) There is no evidence in history of declining population and increasing prosperity. In the past rising prosperity has always accompanied rising populations. Prosperity riding upon of declining population *may* be possible through some wisdom or technology that we don't possess now, but it would require developing an entirely new skill set for society.
This story could be reported by asking the non-obvious questions of the usual population pundits: what happens afterwards? What happens in China with a continually declining birth rate? What would happen to the US without immigration? Who is going to work in Europe?
We routinely tolerate concepts that challenge our perceived reality. Electrons are allowed to spiral through the air transmitting information and sprouting quarks, yet we insist of a very concrete, biomedical understanding of our body.
The body is sacred and our provincial understanding of its workings in imbued with cultural biases that are bred from birth and dominated by guttural rather than cerebral influences. The resulting theology of the medicine insists that all citizens having heart attacks must have chest pain, or smoke, or have type A personalities, or have high cholesterol, or be obese. The observation that half the victims of mankind's largest killer do not fit this profile eludes the public. And how do these risk factors explain why heart attacks are most likely to occur on Monday mornings? We make the error of assuming that medicine, which describes tendencies rather than certainty, is a mathematical field rather than a statistical field. Even the act of observing disease in the form of a patient-physician relationship can alter the natural history of the illness, the medical equivalent of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics. This may explain the well know placebo effect and its dark relative, the nocebo impact.
Religious and scientific explanations for disease crisscross frequently in the brain. How about the eyesight you use to read a sentence describing your grandmother's love for you. We can describe how you can see the words on the page, and even how you know what the words mean and how they fit together. We can understand the memory processes that allow you to recall you grandmother's face, but how do you know that the image you are seeing is your grandmother? Do you have an individual brain cell reserved for each object you ever see with one being reserved a young grandmother and another for a more mature memory? At some point we push our scientific understanding into the abyss of art and become surrounded by the seeming darkness of theology. What makes this experience particularly frightening is the associated realization that we, as individuals, are so unique that cookie cutter answers offered to humanity on losing weight or avoiding heart disease are unlikely to work. We each have to shoulder our own burden in seeking these answers on our journey through life.
The much-touted reduction since 1993 in American crime is an illusion. The U.S. rate of violent crime today is still nearly four times what it was in 1960. The recent dip in crime is the predictable result of our segregating in our prisons more than six times the number who were inmates as recently as 1975. A few of these inmates are psychopaths, persons whose genetic temperaments made them too difficult for the average parents to successfully socialize. A few others are mentally ill or retarded or sheer victims of circumstance. But most are sociopaths, persons broadly normal in genetic endowment who matured unsocialized due to parental mis-, mal-, or non-feasance. Like our language talent, humans evolved an ability to acquire a conscience, to feel empathy and altruism, to accept the responsibilities of a member of the social group. But, like the language talent, this proclivity for socialization requires to be elicited, shaped, and reinforced during childhood. The epidemic of crime that began in the 1960s is due largely to the fact that, of males aged 15 to 24, the group responsible for at least half our violent crime, the proportion who were reared without fathers is now four times what it was in 1960.
More than two-thirds of — abused children, juvenile delinquents, school dropouts, pregnant teen-agers, homeless persons, adult criminals — were reared without the participation of their biological fathers. Calculated separately for white and black youngsters, it can be shown that a fatherless boy is seven times more likely to become incarcerated as delinquent than a boy raised by both biological parents. Judith Rich Harris argues that parents are fungible, that children are shaped mainly by their genes and their peers. I think she is 80% correct but I think that there are a few super-parents who effectively nurture and cultivate their children (and largely determine their choice of peers). And I am certain that the bottom 10% of parents are truly malignant — immature, or overburdened, or indifferent, or sociopathic themselves — so that their children are almost certain to be robbed of their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Suppose we were to require those who wish to have — and keep — a baby must be mature, married, self-supporting, and never convicted of a crime of violence. If the parents of the 1.3 million Americans currently in prison had met such simple licensure requirements, I believe that at least a million of those inmates would instead be tax-paying citizens and neighbors. Interfering with parental rights, even as modestly as this, is rather frightening because the instinct to procreate is as strong in us as it is in all the birds and beasts. But homo sapiens should be able to agree that the rights of the children outweigh those of parents who are unable or unwilling to grow up, get married, and get a job.
The most significant unreported story? The mathematician in me screams that this is a paradox. The moment I write about it, it ceases to be unreported. That aside, there are so many reporters chasing stories today, it would be hard to point to something that has the status of being a "story" but has not yet been reported. On the other hand, as Noam Chomsky is fond of reminding us, there's a difference between being reported somewhere, by somebody, and being covered by the major news organizations.
I'll settle for a trend. I'm not sure if it will turn out to be a story, but if it does it will be big. It's the death of the paragraph.
We may be moving toward a generation that is cognitively unable to acquire information efficiently by reading a paragraph. They can read words and sentences — such as the bits of text you find on a graphical display on a web page — but they are not equipped to assimilate structured information that requires a paragraph to get across.
To give just one example, a recent study of 10,000 community college students in California found that, in the 18-25-year age group, just 17% of the men could acquire information efficiently through reading text. For the remaining 83%, the standard college textbook is little more than dead weight to carry around in their bag! The figure for women in the same age group is a bit higher: just under 35% can learn well from textually presented information.
These figures contrast with those for students aged 35 or over: 27% of males and over 42% of females find it natural to learn from reading. Of course, that's still less than half the student population, so any ideas we might fondly harbor of a highly literate older generation are erroneous. But if the difference between the figures for the two generations indicates the start of a steady decline in the ability to read text of paragraph length, then a great deal of our scientific and cultural heritage is likely to become highly marginalized.
Half a century after the dawn of the television age, and a decade into the Internet, it's perhaps not surprising that the medium for acquiring information that both age groups find most natural is visual nonverbal: pictures, video, illustrations, and diagrams. According to the same college survey, among the 18-25 age-group, 48% of males and 36% of females favor this method of acquiring information. The figures for the over-35s are almost identical: 46% and 39%.
If these figures reflect the start of a story that has not been reported, then by the time somebody does write it, there may not be many people around able to read it. The social, cultural, scientific, and political consequences of that are likely to be major.
Here is my not very original answer to this year's question: what is today's most important unreported story?
The enduring vitality of the more moderate kinds of religion. Although the fanatical and fundamentalist versions of religion receive heavy attention from the media, the moderate versions of religion do not. The majority of religious people are neither fanatical nor fundamentalist. This is true of Christians, Jews and Moslems alike. In the modern world, with inequalities between rich and poor growing sharper, governments are increasingly incapable or unwilling to take care of the poor. Organized religions increasingly provide the glue that holds societies together, giving equal respect to those who profit from economic prosperity and those who are left behind. This is true even in such a prosperous and technologically advanced community as Princeton, New Jersey, where I live. Princeton has more than twenty churches, all trying in their different ways to reach out to people in need, all bridging the gap between young and old as well as the gap between rich and poor. Religion plays this same role, holding communities together with bonds of fellowship, among the Arabs of the West Bank, the Jews of Brooklyn, and the African-Americans of Trenton, New Jersey. Religions that have endured for a thousand years and helped generations of oppressed people to survive are not about to disappear.
Today's most important unreported story is an imminent paradigm shift in understanding consciousness. Quantum computation will soon replace our familiar classical computation as primary metaphor for the brain/mind. The purported brain=mind=computer analogy promising robot/computer superiority and human/machine hybridization from near-future classical computers is a myth promulgated by the "silicon-industrial complex. "
Quantum computation was proposed in the 1980's by Feynmann, Benioff, Deutsch and others to take advantage of the mysterious but well documented quantum phenomenåa of 1) superposition (particles existing in multiple states or locations simultaneously) and 2) entanglement (instantaneous, non-local communication among quantum states). Whereas classical computers represent information digitally as "bits" of either 1 OR 0, quantum computation utilizes "qubits" in which information exists in quantum superposition of both 1 AND 0. While in superposition, multiple entangled qubits may interact nonlocally, resulting in computation of near-infinite massive parallelism.
In 1994 Peter Shor of Bell Labs proved that quantum computers (if they are able to be built) could factor large numbers into their primes (the key to modern cryptography, banking codes etc) with unprecedented efficiency, rendering conventional systems obsolete. Shor's work sparked major funding in the general area of quantum information (quantum computation, quantum cryptography, quantum teleportation). An apparent roadblock to quantum computation — the problem of decoherence by environmental interactions — was potentially solved in the mid 1990's by groups who developed quantum error correction codes which can detect and repair decoherence before quantum computation is destroyed.
In the past several years numerous quantum computational prototypes have been developed, and various technologies for full blown, large scale quantum computers are being explored. It seems almost inevitable that quantum computation will have an enormous impact on information technology.
The brain/mind has traditionally been compared to contemporary vanguards of information processing (dating from the Greeks' "seal ring in wax" as a metaphor for memory, to the telephone switching circuit, to the hologram, to the modern day classical computer in which consciousness "emerges" from complex computation among simple neurons). As quantum computation comes to the forefront of technology, human nature (and ego) will surely resist the notion that technology bears superior intellect, and search for quantum computation in the brain.
There are cogent reasons for believing that quantum computation does indeed operate in the brain, and such suggestions have been made by theorists including Sir John Eccles and Sir Roger Penrose. However critics quickly point out that the warm, wet, noisy brain must be inhospitable to delicate quantum effects which (in the case of superconductors, Bose-Einstein condensates etc) seem to require complete isolation and temperatures near absolute zero to prevent decoherence.
On the other hand "quantum-mind" advocates suggest that biological quantum coherence is metabolically "pumped", point to several lines of evidence suggesting that biological evolution has solved the decoherence problem, observe that only quantum computation can solve the enigmatic features of consciousness, and propose testable predictions of quantum-mind theories (on the contrary, experimental predictions regarding classical computational emergence of consciousness have not been put forth). The implication, and potential theme for the next century, is that we are not strictly emergent products of higher order complexity, but creatures connected to the basic level of the universe.
Many developing countries are copying the Western way of living, and they are now copying the Western way of dying.
Illnesses like coronary heart disease that used to be very rare in countries such as Japan and other Asian countries are becoming epidemics, causing huge drains on their economies as well as enormous personal suffering — much of which could be avoided. The same is true for prostate cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, arthritis, and so on. Trillions of dollars in direct and indirect expenditures could be avoided, along with untold suffering.
That's right. No thing exists, there are only actions. We live in a world of verbs, and nouns are only shorthand for those verbs whose actions are sufficiently stationary to show some thing-like behavior. These statements may seem like philosophy or poetry, but in fact they are an accurate description of the material world, when we take into account the quantum nature of reality.
Future historians will be puzzled by the fact that this interpretation has not been generally accepted, 75 years after the discovery of quantum mechanics. Most physics text books still describe the quantum world in largely classical terms. Consequently anything quantum seems riddled with paradoxes and weird behavior. One generally talks about the "state" of a particle, such as an electron, as if it really had an independent thing-like existence, as in classical mechanics. For example, the term `state vector' is used, even though its operational properties belie almost anything we normally associate with a state.
Two voices have recently stressed this verb-like character of reality, those of David Finkelstein, in his book Quantum Relativity, and of David Mermin, in his article "What is quantum mechanics trying to tell us" [1998, Amer. J. of Phys. 66, 753]. In the words of the second David: `"Correlations have physical reality; that which they correlate does not.'" In other words, matter acts, but there are no actors behind the actions; the verbs are verbing all by themselves without a need to introduce nouns. Actions act upon other actions. The ontology of the world thus becomes remarkably simple, with no duality between the existence of a thing and its properties: properties are all there is. Indeed: there are no things.
Two hundred years ago, William Blake scolded the physicists for their cold and limited view of the world, in terms of a clockwork mechanism, in which there was no room for spontaneity and wonder. Fortunately, physicists did not listen to the poet, and pushed on with their program. But to their own utter surprise, they realized with the discovery of quantum mechanics that nature exhibits a deeply fundamental form of spontaneity, undreamt of in classical physics. An understanding of matter as dissolving into a play of interactions, partly spontaneous, would certainly have pleased Blake.
What will be next? While physics may still seem to lack a fundamental way of touching upon meaning and wonder, who is to say that those will remain forever outside the domain of physics? We simply do not know and cannot know what physics will look like, a mere few hundred years from now.
There is an analogy with computer languages. Physicists have a traditional aversion to learning any other language than Fortran, with which they grow up, no matter how useful the other languages may be. But without ever parting from their beloved Fortran, it was Fortran that changed out from under them, incorporating many of the features that the other languages had pioneered. So, when asked how future physicists will program, a good answer is: we have not the foggiest idea, but whatever it is, it will still be called Fortran.
Similarly, our understanding of the material world, including the very notion of what matter and existence is, is likely to keep changing radically over the next few hundred years. In what direction, we have no idea. The only thing we can safely predict is that the study of those wonderful new aspects of reality will still be called physics.
The very notion of the "most important unreported story" makes it inevitable that any answer will be highly subjective. For can anyone honestly say they know for sure what is the most important thing in life? One might say that the very essence of life is growth and uncertainty about the direction in which it happens. I feel forced to look for striking unreported stories whose ultimate importance is inevitably unknown. Then I find that no story is completely unreported, only underreported compared with the standards I would apply.
In this line, I find that the existence of serious (though not conclusive) scientific evidence for the complete nonexistence of time has been strikingly underreported. But having just published a book on the subject (and also undergone Edge edition No. 60) on this theme, I do not feel like returning to it. I offer two substitutes.
Though certainly reported, there is a feature of modern life that I feel should be given more prominence. It is the extraordinary proliferation of jobs and careers that are now open to people, both young and old, compared with my childhood over 50 years ago. I can gauge this especially well because of a piece of research that is worth mentioning on Edge. In the midst of the Second World War, but when it was already clear that the Allies would win, the British war cabinet decided that it should start thinking about how life should be improved for both the urban and the rural population. Task forces were set to work, researching the existing state. As it happened, the village 20 miles north of Oxford where I grew up and still live (South Newington) was chosen as the centre of an oblong region (measuring 4 by 6 miles on the Ordnance Survey map of Britain) that was to be studied in detail as typical of rural Britain. Every village in it was surveyed, and almost every person living in this region questioned about their lifestyle and occupations.
The outcome was a book and a film called Twentyfour Square Miles, made just after the war, when I was a boy of eight. Every few years, this film is shown in the village. What is most striking is the subsequent incredible mushrooming of career opportunities (and the large degree of equalization of prospects between the sexes). Back in 1945, boys could look forward to jobs in agricultural (quite a lot), as motor mechanics (perhaps 20 such jobs in the entire region), working in the aluminum factory in the nearby town of Banbury, and not much else. For girls the options, apart from motherhood, were essentially limited to domestic service, working as salespersons, and secretarial or other clerking jobs. Probably only about one child in 20 would go on to higher education. The transformation in 55 years has been amazing — and it seems to me to be accelerating. In fact, any reasonably bright young (or even relatively old) person in the region can now choose to follow more or less any career.
There is some concern today that we are all becoming more and more stereotyped. It seems to me that the mere fact that we now engage in such a huge variety of occupations should largely offset any such danger of stereotyping. Now to my second offering.
A highly original book not widely known must be an important unreported story. (The President of Edge can hardly disagree!). It turns out that the book I have in mind is actually quite widely known (it has about half a million sales worldwide, as I learned recently on the phone from its author) but seems to be almost completely unknown in the UK. I am a sufficiently chauvinistic Brit to think that the UK reading world is important, so here goes.
I learned about the book from Stewart Brand's The Clock of the Long Now: It was a professor of religion, James P. Carse of New York University, who came up with the idea of "the infinite game". His 1986 jewel of a book, Finite and Infinite Games, begins, "A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the game."
This struck me as an extremely novel idea. I immediately ordered the book and was not disappointed. A slim volume written in the addictive aphoristic manner of Leibniz's Monadology and Wittgenstein's Tractatus, with both of which it most certainly can be compared, I think it is perhaps the most original perspective on life and the world I have encountered. In fact, I was so delighted that I logged onto amazon.co.uk and ordered 50 copies to send to friends as Christmas and New Year presents (along with a copy of this entry to serve as explanation for the said slim volume).
My order had a gratifying effect on the Amazon sales ranking of Finite and Infinite Games. Before my order it stood at 25499. Two hours later it was 4287. I mention this in the hope that some high Amazon executive reads Edge and will ponder a somewhat less erratic way to measure the rankings, which fluctuate so wildly as to be almost useless. I think they need a Longer Now.
I am writing this on 31st December 1999 while listening to BBC Radio 3's monumental day-long 2000-year history of music called "The Unfinished Symphony". The subtitle of Carse's book seems especially apt in this connection —" A Vision of Life As Play and Possibility". Perhaps the idea of life as an everlasting game or an ongoing symphony is the most important unreported story.
On the subject of slim volumes, the British photographer David Parker, who specializes in science studies and monumental landscapes with a trace of the human element (Utah mainly), recently told me the ultimate traveling-light story. Years ago he was trekking in Bolivia with a friend who takes traveling light to the extreme. He therefore allowed himself just one book, the Tractatus. To lighten even that slim load, he would read one page each evening, tear it out and then deposit it carefully wherever his bed happened to be: beneath a stone if in the open or in the bedside table to rival the Gideon Bible if in a hotel. One can hardly call the Tractatus an unreported story, but the method of dissemination is worthy of Professor Emeritus James P. Carse.
I believe the world to be experiencing an unprecedented erosion of traditional "divides". Yes, we can all point to examples of horrific ideological conflict, but such tribalism surely seems anachronistic to most of us. And that is because many of us have grown accustomed in the latter decades of the 20th century to a kind of social enlightenment that stems from urbanization, globalization, and the sharing of common information disseminated by our extraordinary new communication tools.
Now, it may seem obvious that nationalism and political and religious ideologies are having an increasingly hard time remaining "pure" in the face of increased face-to-face contact with those who see things differently from us. Moreover, we cannot easily cling to our most formative views when we increasingly find ourselves in conversation via phone and e-mail with others who see the world differently from us. And, finally, it must be ever more difficult to remain isolated in our views of others when we are surrounded by images of them — often touching images — on film and television.
Still, all this may have been discussed somewhat in various media. What especially intrigues me is the apparent erosion among relatively educated families of a different "cultural divide": the generational divide. What are the drivers of this shift? And what are its effects?
In my necessarily limited experience, I have observed that parents and children are increasingly "friends". It has been much noted that the Baby Boom generation and their children share many of the same interests in music. At formal events — I think of my recent experience in Sweden attending the Nobel festivities — teenagers and 20-somethings happily mingled with their elders who, if they were male, were dressed in cut-aways. Indeed, some of the young people were wearing special costumes in order to play roles in this highly traditional event. In my time, we would have seriously considered committing suicide before putting on costumes provided by our elders, then attending hours of events populated largely by our parents and grandparents, and finally dancing to "retro" music in the closest imaginable proximity to our parents and even grandparents.
I conclude from this and similar experiences that as this new millennium begins, a sort of truce has taken place between generations, with parents and children attempting to bridge divides that, in my view, ought naturally to exist between them. If I am correct about this, then surely there are major ramifications on our culture...and I'm not at all sure they would only be for the good. I worry, for example, that some needed element of rebelliousness is being "bred out" of the system of growing up. I worry that this may have an effect on creative thought. And I worry that the potential lack of tension between generations might lead to a kind of stagnation in the arts, humanities and sciences.
Am I alone in this concern? I personally haven't seen this topic addressed in the all-too-limited spectrum of publications I can personally scan. So maybe others have publicly shared this concern. If not, however, I vote for this as one of the most important underreported stories of our time.
The most important unreported story at the dawn of the Information Age has two parts: (1) The last Sunday of the 20th century passed and the United States Government still continued to outlaw first-class mail on Sunday and (2) no one complained.
The emotional, physical, sexual abuse of children in our society and the lack of services to heal them.
It has been a great century for mathematical groups of all shapes and sizes! They have been part and parcel of our daily lives for the last couple of millennia or more. Apart from ruling our bureaucracy, groups of transformations and symmetries are the keepers of law and order among mathematical structures, the sciences and the arts — as well as the sources of beauty. Every finite group admits a decomposition into a finite sequence of simple ones similar to the prime factorization of integers. But it has proven spectacularly difficult to obtain a systematic grasp of the set of all finite simple groups.
The first step was a 254 page proof in 1961 of a key conjecture dating back to the last century. Then a team of over 50 group theorists started snowballing under the leadership of Daniel Gorenstein who, in 1980, announced the result of their labors, recorded in some 15000 highly technical journal pages: every finite simple group belongs either to one of two fairly well understood infinite families or to one of 16 less tractable infinite lists or is one of the 26 so-called sporadic groups— a strange elusive lot whose discovery was a hunt full of hunches, surprises and insights, reminiscent of the chase for elementary particles. It was an extraordinarily fruitful proof. Within 2 years of its completion a conference was dedicated to applications in nearly all branches of mathematics. But beyond merely establishing truth a good proof must illuminate and explain. At first ascent everybody is just glad to have scaled the peak.
Then comes the search for a more elegant, easier, snappier route. By 1985 that second stage of the project was well under way. The "enormous proof" has set a new trend in mathematics. It is a True Tale of a Tower of Babel with a Happy Ending! All those mathematicians toiling side by side, if spread all over the globe, each with his own outlook, language, bag of tricks: constructing geometries, permuting objects, calculating characters, centralizing, fusing, signalizing and inventing all sorts of new terms for situations that had been lying there waiting to be recognized, named and used. They were not treading on each other's toes but collaborating in a prolific way unprecedented in the history of mathematics!
This wonderful happening did provoke lively professional discussions but not much attention from the popular media. It is difficult to advertise, unintelligible without technical explanations and lacking in historical romance. Much of the friendliness of the sporadic monster is lost on an audience gaping at its size, incapable of appreciating its capricious charms. And there are no melodramatic side shows; group theorists — especially finite ones — make up just about the sanest and nicest species among mathematicians. Glitter and glamour are not engendered by the laborious toil that went into the quest for a classification of the finite simple groups. Finally, the "second generation" has not yet completed its task, a good reason for holding back the popular fanfares.
But it is a great story in progress to be carried over into the new millennium!
I see unrealized projects as the most important unreported stories. As Bergson showed, realization is only one case of the possible. There are many amazing unrealized projects out there, forgotten projects, misunderstood projects, lost projects, realizable projects, poetic-utopian dream constructs, unrealizable projects, partially realized projects, censored projects and so on. The beginning of a new millennium seems like a good moment to remember certain roads not taken in an active and dynamic and not nostalgic way.
A revolution recently occurred in neuroscience that has far reaching implications for our future.
According to all the textbooks in neuroscience, we are born with a full complement of around 100 billion neurons and that it is all downhill from there. This was a discouraging "fact".
Fred Gage, a colleague of mine at the Salk Institute, has discovered that new neurons are born every day in the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for long-term memory of facts and events, even in adults. This was first found in rats, but has now been shown in monkeys and humans, and not just in the hippocampus, but also in the cerebral cortex, the storehouse of our experience and the fountainhead of our creativity. This was widely reported, but what has emerged since then is even more encouraging.
First, the new neurons in the hippocampus don't survive unless the animal exercises; a running wheel in an otherwise standard lab cage is enough to keep new neurons alive and well in mice. Second, the increase in the strengths of connections between neurons in the hippocampus that occurs when they are strongly activated, called long-term potentiation, is twice as strong in mice that had access to a running wheel. Finally, the mice with exercise were smarter at memory tasks. We still do not know how all this happens, but the bottom line is that something as basic as exercise can make you smarter. Recess in schools and executive gyms help not only the body, but can also make the mind sharper.
These results have implications for graceful aging.
Until recently, the dominant view of how the brain develops made the assumption that experience selects neurons and connections from a fixed, pre-existing repertoire. This view had some plausibility when it was thought that all of the neurons you will ever have are present at birth, coupled with evidence of neuron death and pruning of connections during childhood. However, if the brain makes new neurons in adults then this cannot be the whole story, since the growth of new connections must also be occurring, and doing so in an experience-dependent way.
This discovery, coupled with increasing evidence that new connections can grow even between old neurons as a consequence of an enriched environment, means that an active mind along with an active body predisposes us for a lifetime of learning. This is good news for the baby boomers who have embraced health clubs and challenging new experiences, but bad news for couch potatoes who are exercise phobic.
In short, "Use it or lose it".
An active lifestyle and a rich social life are the best insurance against premature senility. We will learn much more about the how the brain renews itself in the next century as neuroscientists reveal more about the mechanisms and circumstances that make new neurons survive and grow stronger connections. Ultimately, this will lead to greater productivity from the elderly, the fastest growing segment in western societies.
First is the incredible dynamism, energy and economic hope found in the great cities of the developing world. Most coverage of developing world cities concentrates on the problems: environment, overcrowding, shanty towns. But these cities represent the best hope of the world's poor nations. Modern myth has it that these cities are growing at unprecedented rates in an increasingly urbanized world. In fact the cities of the north grew at even greater rates in the 19th century. Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Calcutta, Buenos Aires and Rio all had more people moving out than moving in over the decade of the '80s. More than two-thirds of the world's cities with populations of more than 1 million were important cities 200 years ago. Miami and Phoenix grew more rapidly than Nairobi in the 20th century; Los Angeles more rapidly than Calcutta. Urban growth is generally good: rising levels of urbanization are strongly associated with growing and diversifying economies, and most of the nations in the south whose economic performance over the last 10 to 15 years is so envied by others are also the nations with the most rapid increase in their levels of urbanization. The developing worlds cities need to be celebrated and not lamented.
Less encouraging is the largely ignored story of climate change. All media have great difficulty in covering stories that develop over generations. Who in 1900 would have written about the changing role of women or the spread of democracy, two of the extraordinary shifts of the last century. The failure of the Kyoto conference on climate change to get significant action by the advanced, industrialized countries on climate change means that the problems will get far worse before there is any chance of them getting better.
As a nation we pay lip service to the idea that we're all created equal. But the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Is this because the poor have bad brains that can't learn to do better, or because their brains never get the opportunity to learn? We know that even the best of brains needs input from the environment to form and flourish. So why do we allow schools in poor neighborhoods, as a rule, to be so much worse?
The difference is less about race than about class. Shouldn't education be more standardized from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, and state to state? Improvement of educational opportunities wouldn't solve all the problems the poor face, but is an obvious place to start. Critics of liberal social policy often claim that pouring money into a situation doesn't help. I'm not suggesting that the poor get anything extra, just that they get what others get. A decent education is a right not a privilege.
We are currently being fed a series of snippets detailing the unraveling of the human blueprint — our genome. If every isolated and obscure report were strung end to end, and edited thoroughly into a coherent whole, we might just have a comprehensible story — and one of the most important to be told. But let me jump to the end point and make an educated guess! I suspect that when we decide that tweaking the odd gene or two seems like a good idea to cure this or that disease or shortcoming, or to get this or that eye color etc, we will get a heck of a surprise. It seems to me that the likelihood that individual genes are singularly responsible for any one trait is pretty slim. So I am putting my money on a reasonably strong interdependency, that is — we will have to attend to complex combinations of genes to achieve some desired effect. Realizing an adequate level of understanding of the complexity of the genome code book may well take considerably more effort than the initial mapping of all the raw elements. Like Morse Code and the German Enigma machines of W.W.II, we will almost certainly require some hefty computing power to do the job. Now this really will be worth reporting!
The young people I work with at NASA's Langley Research Center are sharp and hard working. We get some of the best, but they are almost all great. And what is rarely understood, nevermind reported, is that they have to process about twice the information that I had to deal with starting out in research in 1959.
Of course, the biggest untrue story told, one probably found in the first cave writings, is that "the younger generation is going to hell."
Does money buy happiness? Few of us would agree. But would a little more money make us a little happier? Many of us smirk and nod. There is, we believe, some connection between fiscal fitness and emotional fulfillment. Most of us tell Gallup that, yes, we would like to be rich.
Three in four entering American collegians — nearly double the 1970 proportion — now consider it "very important" or "essential" that they become "very well off financially." Money matters.
Think of it as today's American dream: life, liberty, and the purchase of happiness. "Of course money buys happiness," writes Andrew Tobias. Wouldn't anyone be happier with the indulgences promised by the magazine sweepstakes: a 40 foot yacht, deluxe motor home, private housekeeper? Anyone who has seen Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous knows as much. "Whoever said money can't buy happiness isn't spending it right," proclaimed a Lexus ad.
Well, are rich people happier? Researchers have found that in poor countries, such as Bangladesh, being relatively well off does make for greater well-being. We need food, rest, shelter, social contact.
But — the underreported story in our materialistic age — in countries where nearly everyone can afford life's necessities, increasing affluence matters surprisingly little. The correlation between income and happiness is "surprisingly weak," observed University of Michigan researcher Ronald Inglehart in one 16 nation study of 170,000 people. Once comfortable, more money provides diminishing returns. The second piece of pie, or the second $100,000, never tastes as good as the first.
Even lottery winners, those whose income is much higher than 10 years ago, and the very rich people — the Forbes’ 100 wealthiest Americans surveyed by University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener — are only slightly happier than the average American. Making it big brings temporary joy. But in the long run wealth is like health: Its utter absence can breed misery, but having doesn't guarantee happiness. Happiness seems less a matter of getting what we want than of wanting what we have.
Has our collective happiness floated upward with the rising economic tide? In 1957, when economist John Galbraith was about to describe the United States as the Affluent Society, Americans’ per person income, expressed in today's dollars, was $8700. Today it is $20,000. Compared to 1957, we are now "the doubly affluent society" — with double what money buys. We have twice as many cars per person. We eat out two and a half times as often. Compared to the late 1950s when few Americans had dishwashers, clothes dryers, or air conditioning, most do today. So, believing that it's very important to be very well off, are we now happier ?
We are not. Since 1957, the number of Americans who say they are "very happy" has declined from 35 to 32 percent. Meanwhile, the divorce rate has doubled, the teen suicide rate has nearly tripled, the violent crime rate has nearly quadrupled (even after the recent decline), and depression has mushroomed. These facts of life explode a bombshell underneath our society's materialism: Economic growth has provided no boost to human morale. When it comes to psychological well being, it is not the economy, stupid.
We know it, sort of. Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow reports that 89 percent of people say "our society is much too materialistic." Other people are too materialistic, that is. For 84 percent also wished they had more money, and 78 percent said is was "very or fairly important" to have "a beautiful home, a new car and other nice things."
But one has to wonder, what's the point? "Why," wondered the prophet Isaiah, "do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" What's the point of accumulating stacks of unplayed CD's, closets full of seldom worn clothes, garages with luxury cars — all purchased in a vain quest for an elusive joy? And what's the point of leaving significant inherited wealth to one's heirs, as if it could buy them happiness, when that wealth could do so much good in a hurting world?
No end of changes in our world are cited as we look back on the twentieth century: population growth, scientific and medical advances, communications technology, transportation, child rearing and family structure, depletion of energy and mineral resources, and human impact on the environment, to name a few. In general we analyze these changes over the whole sweep of the century although some, to be sure, because of their exponential character, have made their mark mainly toward the end of the century.
What has gone largely unreported, it seems to me, is the suddenness with which a set of societal changes occurred in less than a decade between 1965 and 1975 (a step function to a mathematician, a seismic shift to a journalist). In that period, we saw revolutionary change in the way people dress, groom, and behave; in the entertainment that grips them; in equity for minorities, women, and the variously disabled; in higher education; and in the structure of organizations.
The unpopular Vietnam war can account for some of these changes, but surely not all. The changes were too numerous and extended into too many facets of our lives to be explained solely by antiwar fervor. Moreover, what happened was not a blip that ended when the war ended. The changes were permanent. With remarkable speed, as if a switch had been thrown, we altered the way we deal with one another, the way we see our individual relation to society, and the way we structure our organizations to deal with people.
I lived through the period on a university campus, and saw rapid changes in higher education, not to mention dress and behavior, that are with us still. My own professional society, the American Physical Society, transformed itself between the late 1960s and the early 1970s from an organization that held meeting and published papers to an organization that, in addition, promotes equity, highlights links between science and society, seeks to influence policy, and cares for the welfare of its individual members. Why did so much with lasting impact — happen so quickly?
"America, where are you going in your automobile?" Allen Ginsberg
The years of 1939 and 1999 were snapshots in time revealing the world as it was and as it would be. At the 1939 New York World's Fair, General Motors' "Futurama" and Ford's "Road of Tomorrow" showcased freeways and spiral ramps scrolling around urban towers. The future was clear. American would rebuild its cities and highways to sing a song of prosperity and personal freedom.
In 1999, a snapshot of the Internet revealed what was and what will be. Wires are still being strung. The Ecommerce structure is still being built. And content is still incunabulum.
What is today's most important unreported story? That the choices made about the Internet today will have great consequences in the next century. Like the automotive age, exuberant times make it easy to forget that a bit of thoughtful design will profoundly influence the fabric of our future society.
What's the issue? Access. Half the people in the US don't have computers, but 98% have TVs and 97% have phones. Why do they say they don't have computers? "Too complicated."
Using a computer should be as easy as turning on a TV. And it could be.
Computers interfaces should be self explanatory. And simple. And they could be.
The quality of information design in the US is declining. Good information design should reveal relationships about the information. It should make you smarter. Learning disorders are on the rise. It's not because we are getting better at diagnosing them. It's because we are creating them. All too often our textbooks are confusing or misleading. And that same lack of thoughtful design pervades the personal computer, and the Internet. Information design is a science that needs to underpin our society if we are going to remain democratic and vital.
The biggest difference between 1939 and 1999? The automobile was simple at the outset. It took years to make it complicated and inaccessible. Computers have been unnecessarily complicated since they began. It is hard to make things simple. But they could be.
One of today's great untold stories — or, I should say, it keeps trying to get itself told and is usually mercilessly thrashed or ignored entirely — is the degree to which our behavior is manipulated and conditioned by media.
Most everyone has heard about the studies (more than 200 at last count) that show a direct correlation between increased aggression and exposure to violence portrayed in media. The most compelling of this research suggests that the visual media in particular — television, movies and even video games — employ psychological techniques such as desensitization and Pavlovian conditioning which change how we think about and react to violent behavior.
Of course, the entertainment and advertising industries dismiss these studies, saying it's impossible that their little ol' movie or TV show or 30-second ad or point-and-shooter could actually influence anyone's behavior.
That's what they say to Congress, anyhow, when they get called on the carpet for irresponsible programming.
But how do their protestations square with the gazillion-dollar business of TV advertising, in particular? This is an industry which is based entirely on the proposition that it can and does, in fact, impel people to buy a new car or a new pair of shoes, to drink more beer or get online — to do something different than they've been doing, in some shape or form.
So one of those statements has to be a lie, and if you follow the money, you can make a pretty good guess which one.
Once you are willing to consider this premise (and if you've read the studies and/or are willing to honestly observe your own behavior, it's pretty hard not to), it becomes apparent that a whole lot more than our attitudes toward violence may be influenced by visual media.
Not long ago, for example, it occurred to me that the rising obesity rate of our TV-addicted population might actually have something to do with the fact that any given hour of programming will yield an infinity of food porn — sexy, slender women shoving two-pound dripping hamburgers into lipsticked mouths, or normal-sized families cheerily gorging themselves at tables piled with giant lobsters and steaks and all manner of things oozing fat and sugar.
I mentioned this theory of mine to a colleague last November and, remarkably, the very next day, a blurb in The New York Times' science section announced that a Stanford University study had correlated children's obesity with television watching, and that the American Institute for Cancer Research found that most Americans overestimated a normal-sized portion of food by about 25 percent.
Neither of these two studies directly linked TV's food bonanza with overeating, but they do suggest a connection between what our eyes see and what our brains subsequently do with that information.
It's then no giant leap to wonder whether the constant barrage of TV "news" and political programming — from the Clinton-Lewinsky extravaganza to Sunday morning's meet-the-pundits ritual to the "coverage" of the latest batch of presidential hopefuls — is another case of media desensitization in action.
Could TV itself, the place where most Americans get their daily fix of news, actually be causing America's vast political ennui and depressed voter turnout? Have we become so anesthetized by what we watch that we require the specter of Jesse Ventura or Donald Trump as president to engage, even superficially, in the political process?
The studies that correlate media exposure with a flattened cultural affect about violence would support that general premise.
But as we know, correlation does not prove causation. To prove that TV "causes" violence, for example, you'd have to conduct a controlled, double-blind experiment which, if successful, would result in someone committing a violent act.
The human subjects committee at any responsible research lab or university would never approve such an experiment, and for good reason.
But it must be possible to set up a sufficiently rigorous, violence-free experiment to measure the actual neurological and behavioral effects of visual media. Wouldn't we all like to know what really happens — what happens in our brains, what humans can be impelled to do — as a result of spending so many hours in front of TVs and computers and movie screens?
Considering the massive amount of visual stimuli that is pumped into our brains every day — and the astronomical profits made by the industries who keep the flow going — this seems like a story eminently worth reporting.
Prior to about twenty years ago, wars could almost always be understood as depressingly rational events perceived by instigators as being in their own self interests. Certain recent wars and other acts of organized violence are astonishing in that they seem to break this age old pattern. A striking example is the series of awful confrontations in the former Yugoslavia.
If it was only an evil strongman, a Slobodan Milosevic, who instigated the bloodshed, events would have kept true to the old established pattern. Many a leader has instigated conflict, conjuring a demonized foreign or domestic enemy to rouse support and gain power. But that is not really what happened in this case of Yugoslavia. In the past, the demons were accused of posing a material threat. Hitler claimed the Jews had taken all the money, for example. Yes, he claimed they (we) were morally degenerate, etc., but that alone would perhaps not have roused a whole population to support war and genocide. The material rationale seemed indispensable.
By contrast, in Yugoslavia a large number of both middle level leaders and ordinary citizens, not limited to the Serbs or another single group, rather suddenly decided to knowingly lower their immediate standard of living, their material prospects for the foreseeable future, their security, and their effective long term options and freedoms in order to reinforce a sense of ethnic identity. This is remarkably unusual. While ethnic, religious, and regional movements have throughout history sought political independence, they have almost never before resorted to large scale violence unless economic or some other form of material degradation was a critical motivation. Had the English Crown been more generous in the matter of taxation, for instance, he might well have held on to the American Colonies.
It is often pointed out that the cultural context for conflict in the Balkans is extraordinarily old and entrenched, but there are awful psychic wounds in collective memory all over the world. There are plenty of individuals who might under other circumstances be drawn once again into conflict over the proper placement of the border between Germany and Poland, for example, but there is absolutely no material incentive at this time to make an issue of it, and every material incentive to live with the situation as it is.
Similarly, if an uninformed, uneducated population had burst into violent conflict on the basis of bizarre beliefs that the enemy posed a serious threat of some kind, perhaps abducting children to drink their blood, then that would have kept to the historical pattern as well. Neither Von Clausewitz nor any other theorist of war has claimed that war has always in fact been in the self interest of perpetrators, only that it was perceived to be so. But Yugoslavia was a nation that was relatively prosperous, well educated, and informed. Yugoslav society was not closed or controlled to the extent of other contemporary nations formed upon related ideologies. There were relatively open borders and extensive commerce, tourism, and cultural contact with the West.
And Yugoslavia was not Germany between the wars. Yugoslavs were not humiliated or frustrated relative to other populations across their borders. The material conditions were critically different. There was no sense of hopeless economic disintegration, no reason to think, "Even war would be better than this, or at least a risk worth taking."
Before Yugoslavia, war famously spared nations blessed with Macdonald's hamburger franchises. The comforting common wisdom was that economic interdependence reduced the threat of war. Economic globalism was supposed to remove the material incentives from making war, and it indeed it probably has done that.
In former Yugoslavia, an upwelling of need for absolute identity trumped rational, material self interest. This phenomenon can also perhaps be seen in some instances in the rise of Islamic militancy. The recent rise of violent events perpetrated in the name of "traditional" identities, values, and beliefs is startling. Once again, such violence has always existed, but almost always before it has been coupled with a component of material motivation. The Biblical Israelites were enslaved and subjected economic abuse, for example. The fundamentalists who attack abortion clinics seek no improved material prospects. Neither do the Taliban. Or the bombers of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
In all these cases, identity has become more important than wealth, and that is new.
Another possible explanation that haunts me is that the human spirit cannot cope with the changes technology makes to human identity. This can be as simple as MTV blasting into the lives of children who otherwise would never have known the meaning of spandex, piercing, or whatever is in fashion on a particular day. Any thinking person, though, must know that the changes to the human condition wrought by such technologies as MTV, or even abortion and birth control, are mere whispers compared to the roar of changes that will soon come to pass.
Four of five stories on trends in American life that appear on national television news describe negative, frightful trends rather than hopeful ones. Crime stories are the top category of local news, outnumbering segments on health, business, and government combined.
Perhaps we require the media to be our sentinel. But we also seek a spark.
The popularity and prestige of science has never been higher because science is forward looking. Science has become the bearer of hope, a source of the sublime.
Once seen as a marginal enterprise of interest only to health food fanatics, organic farming is booming in Europe. Over the last 10 years, the acreage under organic management has been growing by 25 per cent per year. At present growth rates, 10 per cent of Western European agriculture would be organic by 2005, and 30 per cent by 2010. But in some parts of Europe the growth rates are even higher. In Britain, within the last 12 months the acreage more than doubled, but even so the surge in demand for organic food greatly outstrips the supply, and 70 per cent has to be imported. Most supermarket chains in the UK now carry a range of organic products, and the market is growing at 40 per cent per year. By the end of this year, nearly half the baby food sold in Britain will be organic.
Why is this happening? It reflects a major shift in public attitudes, which are probably changing more rapidly in Britain than in other countrides.
First there was the trauma of mad cow disease and the emergence of CJD, its human form, contracted through eating beef. No one knows whether the death toll will rise to thousands or even millions; the incubation time can be many years. Then in 1999 there was the remarkable public rejection of genetically modifie foods, much to the surprise of Monsanto and their government supporters.
Recent surveys have shown the third of the public who now buy organic food do so primarily because they perceive it as healthier, but many also want to support organic farming because they think it is better for the environment and for animal welfare.
The rise in organic farming together with the continuing growth of alternative medicine are symptoms of a mass change in world view.
Governments and scientific institutions are not at the leading edge of this change, they are at the trailing edge. A major paradigm shift is being propelled by the media, consumers' choices and market forces. A change of emphasis in the educational system and in the funding of scientific and medical research is bound to follow, sooner or later.
Buried beneath the blitz of news coverage of the rise of e-commerce and the emergence of the World Wide Web as a new focal point of consumerism ( the most ubiquitous stories of the moment) is a potentially just as significant, still unreported, story: the appropriation of the Internet as an effective and powerful tool of large scale global social protest.
Most major mainstream broadcast and cable news coverage and commentary rather jadedly treated the WTO protests in Seattle last month as a fluke, a nostalgic hippie flashback. Their cynicism reflects not only the binders of their Beltway mindsets, but the bias of their own, now challenged, media formats.
For most of the past forty years, since broadcast television emerged in about 1960 as the primary deliverer ( and definer) of news, political activism evolved in a kind of dependent relationship (which superficially some took to be a symbiotic one) to television. Intuitively, sometimes by instinct, sometimes, as students of McLuhan, quite consciously, activists of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, attuned to the persuasive power of the mediated image, learned to cast and craft their political protests at least in part as media politics. Grass roots organizing remained, as always, the essential underpinning of a viable social movement, but angling for a dramatic visually intense slot on the nightly news ( what Abbie Hoffman called "Becoming an Advertisement for the Revolution" or "Media Freaking") became a primary tactic, if not full fledged strategy.
The power relationship, however, was always ultimately one-sided. Those who lived by the televised image, could be easily squashed by the image gatekeepers, cancelled like a burnt-out sit-com or cops-and-robbers show once their novelty effect ebbed. And when "The Whole World" was no longer watching, communication was pretty easily squelched.
What the WTO protests represent, far from Luddite know-nothing-ism (despite the handful of brick throwing John Zerzan/Theodore Kaczynski "anarcho-primitivists" whom broadcast TV reflexively and inevitably locked-in on as the TV stars of the event) is the first social protest movement created largely through and communicating largely via the Web. Which is to say the first, potentially at least, able to by-pass the gatekeepers of mainstream media while reaching hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of participants/observers/ sympathizers and others, globally on an ongoing basis.
This suggests that the populist cyber-punk roots of Net BBS's are surviving and even flourishing alongside the corporate branding the Web is undergoing. With due apologies to the great writer Bruce Sterling (who advises us to retire cyber prefixes once and for all), I can't help thinking that, despite the apparent easy triumph of cyber-commercialization (the Web as global strip-mall), the next few years may also witness the blossoming of the first era of mass global populist cyber-protest.
Although there hasn't been any shortage of stories on genes in the press, public dialogue hasn't even begun to seriously consider how radically genetic technologies will alter human life and society — and probably all much sooner than we think. Forget cloning — the pace of the Human Genome Project combined with the emerging dominance of market forces in dictating how spinoff technologies from gene therapy to engineering novel genes will be utilized suggests that we'll soon be able to retool human life (altering human traits from life history — aging, reproduction — to intelligence and personality). We haven't really begun to consider the enormous implications these will have for the design of human society and social policy, from the family unit to education and work. My bet is that feasible technologies to retool human life will put us face to face with the basic dilemma of deciding what it means to be human within two decades.
In the last ten years, psychology has finally started to deliver the goods — hard facts about what causes human happiness. The results have been astonishing, but their social implications have not sparked any serious public debate:
(1) Almost all humans are surprisingly happy almost all the time. 90% of Americans report themselves to be "very happy" or "fairly happy". Also, almost everyone thinks that they are happier than the average person. To a first approximation, almost everyone is near the maximum on the happiness dimension, and this has been true throughout history as far back as we have reliable records. (This may be because our ancestors preferred happy people as sexual partners, driving happiness upwards in both sexes through sexual selection).
(2) Individuals still differ somewhat in their happiness, but these differences are extremely stable across the lifespan, and are almost entirely the result of heritable genetic differences (as shown by David Lykken's and Auke Tellegen's studies of identical twins reared apart.)
(3) Major life events that we would expect to affect happiness over the long term (e.g. winning the lottery, death of a spouse) only affect it for six months or a year. Each person appears to hover around a happiness "set-point" that is extremely resistant to change.
(4) The "usual suspects" in explaining individual differences in happiness have almost no effect. A person's age, sex, race, income, geographic location, nationality, and education level have only trivial correlations with happiness, typically explaining less than 2% of the variance. An important exception is that hungry, diseased, oppressed people in developing nations tend to be slightly less happy — but once they reach a certain minimum standard of calorie intake and physical security, further increases in material affluence do not increase their happiness very much.
(5) For those who suffer from very low levels of subjective well-being (e.g. major depression), the most potent anti-depressants are pharmaceutical, not social or economic. Six months on Prozac™, Wellbutrin™, Serzone™, or Effexor™ will usually put a depressed person back near a normal happiness set-point (apparently by increasing serotonin's effects in the left prefrontal cortex). The effects of such drugs are much stronger than any increase in wealth or status, or any other attempt to change the external conditions of life.
The dramatic, counter-intuitive results of happiness research have received a fair amount of media attention. The leading researchers, such as Ed Diener, David Myers, David Lykken, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Norbert Schwarz, and Daniel Kahneman, are regularly interviewed in the popular press. Yet the message has influenced mostly the self-help genre of popular psychology books (which is odd, given that the whole concept of self-help depends on ignoring the heritability and stability of the happiness set-point). The research has not produced the social, economic, and political revolution that one might have expected. Journalists have not had the guts to rock our ideological boats by asking serious questions about the broader social implications of the research.
Popular culture is dominated by advertisements that offer the following promise: buy our good or service, and your subjective well-being will increase. The happiness research demonstrates that most such promises are empty. Perhaps all advertisements for non-essential goods should be required to carry the warning: "Caution: scientific research demonstrates that this product will increase your subjective well-being only in the short term, if at all, and will not increase your happiness set-point". Of course, luxury goods may work very well to signal our wealth and taste to potential sexual partners and social rivals, through the principles of conspicuous consumption that Thorstein Veblen identified. However, the happiness research shows that increases in numbers of sexual partners and social status do not boost overall long-term happiness. There are good evolutionary reasons why we pursue sex and status, but those pursuits are apparently neither causes nor consequences of our happiness level. Some journalists may have realized that the happiness research challenges the consumerist dream-world upon which their advertising revenues depend — their failure to report on the implications of the research for consumerism is probably no accident. They are in the business of selling readers to advertisers, not telling readers that advertising is irrelevant to their subjective well-being.
Also, if we take the happiness research seriously, most of the standard rationales for economic growth, technological progress, and improved social policy simply evaporate. In economics for example, people are modelled as agents who try to maximize their "subjective expected utility'. At the scientific level, this assumption is very useful in understanding consumer behavior and markets. But at the ideological level of political economy, the happiness literature shows that "utility" cannot be equated with happiness. That is, people may act as if they are trying to increase their happiness by buying products, but they are not actually achieving that aim. Moreover, increasing GNP per capita, which is a major goal of most governments in the world, will not have any of the promised effects on subjective well-being, once a certain minimum standard of living is in place. None of the standard "social indicators" of economic, political, and social progress are very good at tracking human happiness.
When hot-headed socialists were making this claim 150 years ago, it could be dismissed as contentious rhetoric. Equally, claims by the rich that "money doesn't buy happiness" could be laughed off as self-serving nonsense that perpetuated the oppression of the poor by creating a sort of envy-free pseudo-contentment. But modern science shows both were right: affluence produces rapidly diminishing returns on happiness. This in turn has a stark and uncomfortable message for those of us in the developed world who wallow in material luxuries: every hundred dollars that we spend on ourselves will have no detectable effect on our happiness; but the same money, if given to hungry, ill, oppressed developing-world people, would dramatically increase their happiness. In other words, effective charity donations have a powerful hedonic rationale (if one takes an objective view of the world), whereas runaway consumerism does not. Tor Norretranders (in this Edge Forum) has pointed out that 50 billion dollars a year — one dollar a week from each first world person — could end world hunger, helping each of the 6 billion people in the world to reach their happiness set-point. The utilitarian argument for the rich giving more of their money to the poor is now scientifically irrefutable, but few journalists have recognized that revolutionary implication. (Of course, equally modest contributions to the welfare of other animals capable of subjective experience would also have a dramatic positive effect on overall mammalian, avian, and reptilian happiness.)
Other contributors to this Edge Forum have also alluded to the social implications of happiness research. David Myers pointed out the lack of correlation between wealth and happiness: "it's not the economy, stupid'. Douglas Rushkoff and Denise Caruso bemoaned America's descent into mindless, impulsive consumerism and media addiction, neither of which deliver the promised hedonic pay-offs. Daniel Goleman identified the hidden social effects of our daily consumption habits — they not only fail to make us happier, but they impose high environmental costs on everyone else. Others have suggested that some external substitute for consumerism might be more hedonically effective. David Pink championed a switch from accumulating money to searching for meaning. John Horgan was excited about the quiet proliferation of better psychedelic drugs. Howard Rheingold thinks more electronic democracy will help. They may be right that spiritualism, LSD, and online voting will increase our happiness, but the scientific evidence makes me skeptical. If these advances don't change our genes or our serotonin levels in left prefrontal cortex, I doubt they'll make us happier. There may be other rationales for these improvements in the quality of life, but, ironically, our subjective quality of life is not one of them.
Perhaps the most important implication of the happiness literature concerns population policy. For a naïve utilitarian like me who believes in the greatest happiness for the greatest number, the happiness research makes everything much simpler. To a first approximation, every human is pretty happy. From an extra-terrestrial utilitarian's viewpoint, human happiness could be treated as a constant. It drops out of the utilitarian equation. That leaves just one variable: the total human population size. The major way to maximize aggregate human happiness is simply to maximize the number of humans who have the privilege of living, before our species goes extinct.
Obviously, there may be some trade-offs between current population size and long-term population sustainability. However, most of the sustainability damage is due not to our large populations per se, but to runaway consumerism in North America and Europe, and catastrophic environmental policies everywhere else. Peter Schwartz (in this Edge Forum) mentioned the declining growth rate of the world's population as if it were unreported good news. I take a different view: the good news for a utilitarian who appreciates the happiness research would be a reduction in America's pointless resource-wastage and Brazil's deforestation rate, accompanied by a luxuriantly fertile boom in world population. Given modest technological advances, I see no reason why our planet could not sustain a population of 20 billion people for several hundred thousand generations. This would result in a utilitarian aggregate of 10 quadrillion happy people during the life-span of our species — not bad for such a weird, self-deluded sort of primate.
It's being covered as a publicity ploy by a Lewinsky scandal leftover — that is, not much and certainly not seriously. But check out the pictures. This is a MAJOR makeover. It represents the culmination of a process we have been tracking for awhile — but in two different arenas of celebrity, the real and the Hollywood.
Remember the new Nixon? Distant ancestor of Al Gore remakes and of McCain and Bradley, the "story" candidates, and every prominent real life figure today who is now obliged to play some version of themselves. On the other front, we have cases of performer resurrections in new guises going back to the straightforward comebacks of Frank Sinatra and John Travolta to Madonna and Michael Jackson makeovers to Garth Brooks effort to recreate himself as a fictional celebrity whose name escapes me at the moment.
Linda Tripp's makeover represents a consolidation, a fusion of these trends. This marks a moment when the possibility of making and remaking one's image collapses into the possibility of making and remaking oneself literally.
And it's just the beginning...
A greatly underrated crisis looming over us was predicted by the futurist H. G. Wells. In about 1922 he commented that survival would depend on the race between education and catastrophe. The justification for this profound foresight can be seen in the incredible violence of this century we have survived, and the newfound capacity of mankind to obliterate the planet. Today, although political rhetoric extols education, the educational system we have cleverly devised and which is in part a product of the wisdom of our founding fathers defies reform. It is a system incapable of learning from either our successes or our failures.
How many parents and policy makers know that the system for teaching science in 99% of our high schools was installed over 100 years ago?
A National Committee of Ten in 1893 chaired by a Harvard President recommended that high school children be instructed in science in the sequence Biology, then Chemistry, and then Physics. The logic was not wholly alphabetical since Physics was thought to require a more thorough grounding in mathematics.
Then came the 20th century, the most scientifically productive century in the history of mankind. Revolutions in all these and other disciplines have changed the fundamental concepts and have created a kind of hierarchy of sciences; the discovery of the atom, quantum mechanics, nuclear sciences, molecular structures, quantum chemistry, earth sciences and astrophysics, cellular structures and DNA. To all of this, the high school system was unmoved.
These events and pleas to high school authorities from scientists and knowledgeable teachers went unheeded. The system defies change. We still teach the disciplines as unconnected subjects with ninth grade biology as a chore of memorizing more new words than 9th and 10th grade French together!
This is only one dramatic example of the resistance of the system to change. Our well-documented failure in science education is matched by failures in geography, history, literature and so forth.
"So what?" critics say. "Look at our booming economy. If we can do so well economically, our educational system can’t be all that important."
Here is where appeal to H. G. Wells’ insightful vision enters. The trend lines of our work force are ominous. Increasing numbers of our citizens are cut-off from access to technological components of society, are alienated and are condemned to scientific and technological illiteracy. We have by the process, solidified and increased the gap between the two classes of our culture. And the formative elements of culture outside of school: TV, cinema, and radio . . . strongly encourage this partition. Look at the social (as well as economic) status of teachers. Most parents want the best teachers for their children, but would bridle at the suggestion that their children become teachers.
The penalties of continuing to graduate cultural illiterates (in science and the humanities) may not be evident in year 2000 Wall Street, but it is troubling the leaders of our economic success, the CEO’s of major corporations who see a grim future in our workforce. Can we continue to import educated workers? As the low-level service jobs continue to give way to robots and computers, the needs are increasingly for workers who have high level reasoning skills, which a proper education can supply to the vast majority of students.
But what is it that threatens "catastrophe" in the 21st century? Aside from the dark implication of a hardening two-class system, there is a world around us that provides global challenges to society and solutions require large popular consensus. Global climate change, population stabilization, the need for research to understand ourselves and our world, the need for extensive educational reform, support for the arts, preservation of natural resources, clean air and water, clean streets and city beautification, preservation of our wilderness areas and our biodiversity–these and other elements make life worth living, and cannot sensibly be confined to enclaves of the rich.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to construct catastrophes out of a failed educational system.
Speech is a byproduct of the respiratory adjustments associated with walking upright on two legs. With bipedalism came a secondary and unrecognized consequence, the respiratory plasticity necessary for speech. Quadrupedal species must synchronize their locomotion and respiratory cycles at a ratio of 1:1(strides per breath), a coupling required by the shared, rhythmic use of the thoracic complex (sternum, ribs, and associated musculature), and the need to endure impacts of the forelimbs during running. Without such sychronization, running quadrupeds would fall face first into the dust because their thorax would be only a floppy air-filled bag that could not absorb the shock of forelimb strikes. Human bipedal runners free of these mechanical constraints on the thorax employ a wide variety of phase-locked patterns (4:1, 3:1, 2:1 [most common], 1:1, 5:2, and 3:2), evidence of a more plastic coupling between respiratory rhythm and gait. The relative emancipation of breathing from locomotion permitted by bipedality was necessary for the subsequent selection for the virtuosic acts of vocalization we know as speech.
The contribution of bipedality to speech evolution has been neglected because linguists typically focus on higher-order cognitive and neurobehavioral events that occur from the neck up and overlook the neuromuscular processes that produce the modified respiratory movements known as speech.
The current American monopoly on Internet innovation is not etched in stone.
With about two thirds of the worldwide internet user base in North America, US based companies generate over 80% of global revenue and these represent about 95% of the sector's overall market capitalization of about a trillion US dollars (as of January 2000). This is indeed a paradox for a medium that was designed to be open and global.
Quite understandable, though, when you consider that US entrepreneurs benefit from: abundant venture capital, more efficient equity markets, flexible employment, higher PC penetration, efficient infrastructures and earlier deregulation leading to lower communications costs to consumers, better business academia linkages and a large, homogeneous domestic market.
Of course, the rest of the world is catching up, as is increasingly reported in the news. In Europe alone, the aggregate market value of internet companies has shot up by a factor of 30 in the past year, admittedly from a low base of $ 2 billion early 1999 to be contrasted with "only" a four-fold increase for internet companies quoted in US markets. Thus, observers generally agree that the disproportionately low aggregate capitalization of the non-US internet companies is a temporary fact.
However, the media here often views the primacy of US innovation in the internet which is of course the premise of its leadership as something like an American birth right. During the past "American century" this has been a conventional wisdom for other equally significant sectors. In the late 1960s, a major unreported story was that Boeing's leadership in civil aircraft construction was more fragile than one would expect; yet, Airbus's orders surpassed Boeing's last year. Ten years ago, US dominance in cellular telecommunications technology seemed equally impregnable. Since then, the European GSM consortium has spawned a technology which is now widely accepted as a global standard for digital mobile telephony. Likewise, could new internet concepts and user experiences emerge outside of the US, with global relevance and reach ?
A remarkably underreported story is that the existence of a uniform mobile standard outside of the US is poised to be the foundation of a new generation of internet-enabled applications, which can be an extremely significant innovation. If portable devices and internet-enabled mobility are to be at the center of the current information revolution, Europe seems at an advantage to seed the landscape with new concepts, technologies and companies leveraging their consistent mobile infrastructure.
In Europe, location-sensitive services are being tested as we speak, enabling merchants to reach pedestrians and motorists with information and opportunities. Thus, rather than competing online with pure-play e-commerce companies, established bricks-and-mortar businesses could find their revenge in the high streets, thanks to these devices. The best technologies enabling these experiences might well come from all over the world but the first movers are likely to find a privileged ground in Europe: a caveat for the complacent in the US !
Few large-scale, gradual demographic changes can be expected to generate headlines. The exceptions are those which point toward catastrophe, such as the widespread belief a generation ago that the population bomb would doom millions in the third world.
In fact, the most significant unreported story of our time does deal with the so called third world, and it is the obverse of the panic about overpopulation. It is the story of the gradual growth of a prosperous middle class in China and in India.
The story is truly dull: yes, millions of Indians can now shop in malls, talk to each other on cell phones, and eat mutton burgers and vegetarian fare at Mcdonald's. Such news goes against the main reason for wanting to cover Indian cultural stories in the first place, which has traditionally been to stress cultural differences from the West. That millions of people increasingly have a level of wealth that is approaching the middle classes of the West (in buying power, if not in exact cash equivalence) is not really newsworthy.
Nevertheless, this development is of staggering importance. Middle class peoples worldwide, particularly in a world dependent on global trade, have important values in common. They share the values they place on material comfort. They borrow in living styles from one another. They appreciate to an increasing extent each others' cultures and entertainments. And they place an important value on social stability. Countries with prosperous middle classes are less likely to declare war on one another: they have too much to lose. In the modern world, war is a pastime for losers and ideologues; the middle classes tend to be neither.
When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in India in the 1960s, I accepted the conventional belief that south Asia would experience widespread famine by the 1980s. My first surprise was returning to India in 1988 and finding that far from moving closer to famine, India was richer than ever.
Now in the computer age, and having abandoned the Fabianism of Nehru, India is showing its extraordinary capacity to engage productively with the knowledge economies of the world. China too is will contribute enormously to the world economy of the 21st century.
The story does not square with many old prejudices about the backward Orient, nor does it appeal to our sense of exoticism. But the emerging middle class of Asia will change the human face of the world.
My candidate for most important unreported story is the dramatic fall in the rate of growth in global population. Instead of hitting 20, 20 or even 50 billion as was feared only a few years ago, with all the associated horror, it is likely to reach between ten and eleven billion by mid century. The implications for the carrying capacity of the planet are profound.
Deprived of sleep and somewhat dulled by holiday festivities, I had no reaction except a mumbled "Damned if I know..."
I immediately set out to understand this question (which soon dominated My Every Waking Hour of my Holiday Vacation), and in order to get my mind around the question and all it implied, I would need to do some research beyond the most propitious mixture of rum and eggnog, and how to cook a turkey dinner for nine...
I basically asked almost everyone I met, making a (typically) cheerful nuisance of myself. The results were most interesting, and I quickly found that the results of my research, like many of the previous responses, was also conditioned by the world views that obtained given the career choices and life objectives of the people I asked.
Most of people I asked, deprived of sleep and dulled by the holiday festivities, shrugged and said "Damned if I know..." I found such informal results less than satisfactory. Over more "eggnog" I came to the conclusion I should ask people who might actually know. The next day, I talked to people in the news trade, figuring, if they publish the stories that do get reported, they would certainly know what doesn't get reported.
I contacted a number of people in this regard, among them; an editor of a major San Francisco weekly newspaper, a writer for a major San Francisco daily newspaper, a photo editor for another daily, and a writer for a weekly newspaper and the internet, located near Seattle. Four people from completely different backgrounds- and they all said (basically) the same thing- "How can it be that there is incredible poverty amidst incomparable wealth, so often resulting in homelessness? "
This threw me for a loop, because I didn't anticipate unanimity from such a diverse lot. What also struck me was how I felt they were wrong. While I do think poverty does deserve a greater examination, and is certainly an important issue, I don't feel like it is particularly "unreported" much less unknown. Anyone who lives in an urban center in America (and many other countries for that matter) knows about the reality that is poverty and homelessness.
I also felt I had to discount their answer, to a certain degree. For one thing, they spend much of their time reporting on the headline eating news- the acts, both dastardly and venal, of society's misfits, madmen, and squalid criminals, both elected and otherwise. These people are journalists, and journalists, especially American journalists, have a tradition- bordering on an archetype- of being the voice for the voiceless, the muckraker, the fourth estate, the ever critical conscience of a secular society. This would make their odd unanimity explainable, and, to a degree, underscore the value and gravity of their choice.
But — John didn't ask them, he asked me. And what do I know? Enough to make me a worthy opponent at most trivia games. Enough that I'm not homeless. Yet.
Are the growing ranks of the homeless and poor amidst our ever deepening sense of prosperity and wealth the answer to Brockman's question?
Or is it something broader and deeper? Ever since there have been small privileged classes of the rich and/or powerful, there have been the endless ranks of peasants and proles, microserfs and burgerflippers, all of them struggling to feed their children, and then there have been those who look up to peasants and proles, microserfs and burgerflippers: the misfits, the madmen, and the squalid criminals both elected and otherwise. Perhaps that's an important untold story- the grand parade of the society's faceless "losers", the peasants and refugees fleeing some obscene tyrant and his witless army of cannon fodder dupes and cruel henchmen, and why on earth do they all buy into this fiction we call "Civilisation"?
Or, is it less of a fiction as one might imagine, and simply the natural product of a status conscious primate whose every activity is amplified and processed by its symbolic language center? Does reason in human relations only extend as far as the highly codified and ritualistic systems of voting and criminal justice? Can the objectivity of scie nce ever be used to develop social and economic systems that will eliminate injustice and poverty? Or, I wondered, is such a quest based in an outmoded socio political messianistic teleology? Are we fated to forever step over the prone bodies of those less fortunate or healthy? If the answer to "When will the horror ever end?" is "Never", then the big unreported story of the year is the true loss of "Utopia" and the evisceration of the humanist's hope by the knives of history and a scientifically informed realism.
Should we then also apply the logical conclusions of the Copernican revolution to our own human existence? With a decentered earth, sun, galaxy, and now, if some theories are correct, a decentered Universe, it is now logical that we should apply the lens of decentering to ourselves, our civilisations and cultures, and to our actions both collective and personal Perhaps that's the most important unreported story of the year — we're really not "The Story" any more, and what we do is likely of little, if any, consequence. Are we, as persons and a species, merely bit players in a peculiar performance? Improvising before an empty house, and all of our preening culture and posturing civilised rhetoric but a vain and oddly comical conceit? On this tiny planet of water, trees, and concrete — are we small participants in a giant multiverse that is actually less moving material incidentals expressing an equation of variables and constants, and more of a growing, blooming, beautiful, if very slowly dying, flower?
I found your demand for "most" important a bit of a distraction, so forgive me for ignoring it.
My first thought was "chemistry for non-chemists". Few people write about chemistry for the public, few stories appear in the press. It's intrinsically difficult and, anyway, biology is, for the foreseeable future, just too sensational (in both good and questionable senses) and fast-moving for all but the sexiest of the rest of science to get much of a chance to compete for space in the media. But there is room for unusual science writers who know how to hit a nerve with a neat association between interesting chemistry and the everyday world - there just seem to be too few in existence and/or too little demand. (I'd mention John Emslie and my colleague Philip Ball as two honourable examples.)
The second thought was entrepreneurism. Because of inevitable business secrecy, entrepreneurism too rarely gets adequately opened up to scrutiny and public awareness. That's not to imply a hostile intent - entrepreneurism can provide the basis of riveting tales in a positive as well as negative senses. But, in Europe especially, chief executives of high-technology companies who bemoan the lack of an entrepreneurial culture unsurprisingly resist suggestions that a well-proven journalist be given the chance to roam around their company and write about what they find. Partly as a result of such inevitable caution, and partly because of the way the media approaches business, the public tends to get basic news and oceans of speculation about share prices and profits, gee-whiz accounts of technology, misrepresentation from lobby groups on both sides of a divide, lectures on management, partial autobiographies of successful business people, but, unless a company collapses, nothing like the whole truth. More could surely be done, though the obstacles are daunting.
Hundreds of stories are reported every year about discrimination, bias, and prejudice against women, minorities, and those who are different. But there's a more pervasive, universal, and possibly more insidious form of discrimination that goes on every day, yet lacks a name or an organized constituency-discrimination on the mating market. Although there are important individual differences in what people want (e.g., some like blondes, some like brunettes), people worldwide show remarkable consensus in their mating desires. Nearly everyone, for example, wants a partner who is kind, understanding, intelligent, healthy, attractive, dependable, resourceful, emotionally stable, and who has an interesting personality and a good sense of humor. No one desires those who are mean, stupid, ugly, or riddled with parasites. To the degree that there exists consensus about the qualities people desire in mating partners, a mating hierarchy is inevitably established. Some people are high in mate market value; others are low. Those at the top, the "9's" and "10's" are highly sought and in great demand; those near the bottom, the "1's" and the "2's," are invisible, ignored, or shunned.
Being shunned on the mating market relegates some individuals to a loveless life that may cause bitterness and resentment. As the rock star Jim Morrison noted, "women seem wicked when you're unwanted." Discrimination on the mating market, of course, cuts across sex, race, and other groups that have names and organized advocates. Neither men nor women are exempt. For those who suffer discrimination on the mating market, there exists no judicial body to rectify the injustice, no court of appeals. It's not against the law to have preferences in mating, and no set of social customs declares that all potential mates must be treated equally or given a fair chance to compete.
But it's not just the rock bottom losers on the mating market that suffer. A "4" might aspire to mate with a "6," or "7" might aspire to mate with a "9." Indeed, it's likely that sexual selection has forged in us desires for mates who may be just beyond our reach. The "7" who is rejected by the "9" may suffer as much as the "4" who is rejected by the "6."
People bridle at attaching numbers to human beings and making the hierarchy of mate value so explicit. We live in a democracy, where everyone is presumed to be created equal. Attaching a different value to different human beings violates our sensibilities, so we tend not to speak in civilized company of this hidden form of discrimination that has no name. But it exists nonetheless, pervasive and insidious, touching the lives of everyone save those few who opt out of the mating market entirely.
This unreported story is not much up to date. It is perhaps not even unreported (everything is reported — does anything exist if it isn't reported?). And I do not know how "important" it is. Importance is determined by what is perceived to be important, and what is perceived important is reported. What remains is what will be viewed as important by our descendants — but let us leave them the burden of the choice — , and what is perceived important by singles or groups.
I have been reading the other "most important unreported stories" in this fascinating collection of answers, and I have been surprised how much the perspective of importance matches the specific of the interests, or of the personal history, of the writer. So, I shall allow myself to be absorbed by the same soft self-indulgence...
The most important under-reported story I want to talk about is the old story of the great dream of a more gentle world. A more just world, not based on the competition of everybody against everybody, but based on sharing, the world as a collective adventure.
The dream is dead.
Killed by the simple fact that most of the times — and this one is no exception — the stronger and aggressive wins and the gentle one looses. Killed by the fears it generated in the privileged. Killed by its own naivete, by horrors its unrealism generated, by its incapacity to defend itself from the thirst of power hidden inside. And killed by the thousand of reported and over-reported stories of its sins.
The new century raises over a dreamless new world, with richer riches and with desperates by the millions. This is reality and we go with it, its imperfections and its promises, which are no small.
But the dream is dead. It has moved generations, it has inspired peoples, made countries, it has filled with light the youth of so many of us, from Prague to San Francisco, from Paris to Beijin, from Mexico City to Bologna. It has lead some to the country, some to take arms, some to let their minds fly, some to Africa, some to join the party, some to fight the party. But it was for the humanity, for a better future for everybody, it was pure, beautiful and generous. And real.
Stories do not get unreported because they are kept hidden. But simply because there are different perceptions of reality and of importance. Perception of reality changes continuously. What was there and big, may then vanish like a strange morning dream, leaving nothing but confused undecoded traces and incomprehensible stories. A strong ideology believes to be realist, and calls its reported stories "reality". The old dreams are transformed in irrational monsters, then they get unreported, then they have never existed.
Just as we are beginning to appreciate the importance of our prehistoric and evolutionary roots to understanding the human condition, precious and irreplaceable information about them is in danger of being lost forever:
1. Languages. The 6,000 languages spoken on the planet hold information about prehistoric expansions and migrations, about universal constraints and learnable variation in the human language faculty, and about the art, social system, and knowledge of the people who speak it. Between 50% and 90% of those languages are expected to vanish in this century (because of cultural assimilation), most before they have been systematically studied.
2. Hunter-gatherers. Large-scale agriculture, cities, and other aspects of what we call "civilization" are recent inventions (< 10,000 years old), too young to have exerted significant evolutionary change on the human genome, and have led to cataclysmic changes in the human lifestyle. The best information about the ecological and social lifestyle to which our minds and bodies are biologically adapted lies in the few remaining foraging or hunting and gathering peoples. These peoples are now assimilating, being absorbed, being pushed off their lands, or dying of disease.
3. Genome diversity. The past decade has provided an unprecedented glimpse of recent human evolutionary history from analyses of diversity in mitochondrial and genomic DNA across aboriginal peoples. As aboriginal people increasingly intermarry with larger groups, this information is being lost (especially with the recent discovery that mitochondrial DNA, long thought to be inherited only along the female line, in fact shows signs of recombination).
4. Fossils. Vast stretches of human prehistory must be inferred from a small number of precious hominid fossils. The fossils aren't going anywhere, but political instability in east Africa closes down crucial areas of exploration, and because of a lack of resources existing sites are sometimes inadequately protected from erosion and vandalism.
5. Great apes in the wild. Information about the behavior of our closest living relatives, the bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, requires many years of intensive observation in inaccessible locations, but these animals and their habitats are rapidly being destroyed.
What these five areas of research have in common, aside from being precious and endangered, is that they require enormous dedication from individual researchers, they are underfunded (often running on a shoestring from private foundations), and have low prestige within their respective fields. A relatively small reallocation of priorities (either by expanding the pie or by diverting resources from juggernauts such as neuroscience and molecular biology, whose subject matter will still be around in ten years) could have an immeasurable payoff in our understanding of ourselves. How will we explain to students in 2020 that we permanently frittered away the opportunity to write our species' biography?
The most important unreported story, and perhaps one that is impossible to report, is about the peculiar feedback loops— both negative and positive — that drive media reporting of technological and science issues.
In Britain, the science repoting agenda in the past year has been dominated by stories about genetically modified food and crops. Britons have rejected them, crops in experiments have been torn up (thus preventing the results of the experiments, which could show whether or not the crops had harmful effects, being produced). Supermarkets vie with each other to find some way in which they don't use genetically modified ingredients or crops. Newspapers run "campaigns" against genetically modified ingredients.
There is an incredible positive feedback loop operating there, driving ever wilder hysteria — at least amongst the media. Whether the public really cares is hard to ascertain.
Meanwhile climate change, that oft-repeated phrase, is almost accepted as being right here, right now; to the extent that my news editor's eyes glaze over at the mention of more global warming data, more melting ice shelves (apart from "Are there good pictures?" A calving ice shelf can do it.) There is clearly a negative feedback loop running there. The only way to garner interest is to present someone or some paper which says it isn't happening. Which seems to me pointless, before Stephen Schneider jumps on me.
But what is making those loops run in the way they do? Why doesn't genetically modified food get a negative loop, and climate change a positive one? What are the factors that make these loops run with a + or - on the input multiplier?
Damned if I know how it all . But I'll read about it with fascination. As we are more and more media-saturated, understanding how all this works looks increasingly important, yet increasingly hard to do.
While I was writing about libidinousness among female primates for my book The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture, a friend told me that she had been sexually abused by her mother. My research had helped her cut through the cultural myth that only men could be sexually violent. Since then five more people have told me that as children they were sexually abused by females (not all by their own mother — adult relatives and unrelated persons figure too). A seventh person believes she may have been abused by a female, but her memory is clouded by later abuse by a male. The seven come from a range of social and ethnic backgrounds; three are men and four are women. None of them has had any form of memory-tweaking therapy, such as hypnotic regression. Indeed only two of the seven have mentioned their abuse to a doctor or therapist (as compared with two out of the three people I know who were abused by males).
Each abused child grew up in ignorance of others, in a culture in which their kind of story was not told. As with abuse by males, the psychological effects are profound and long-term. The ability to name what happened is thus won with difficulty and has come only recently to each of the victims I know: maturity and parenthood, supportive friends, and the simple realization that it can actually happen, have all played a part.
Whatever its biological and cultural antecedents — poor parent-infant bonding, the urge to control and dominate, repression, hidden traditions of perversion, etc. — the truth of abuse by males has only recently been accepted, and the extent of it probably remains underestimated. By contrast, abuse by females is almost totally unreported outside specialist clinical literature. Successful criminal prosecutions, rare enough for the former, are almost unheard of for the latter except where they comprise part of more unusual psychopathic crimes (such as the torture and murder of children). But there is nothing inherently implausible about there being as many female as male paedophiles in any given human community. That women paedophiles have been a systemic part of recent social reality is, in my view, today's most important unreported story.
In the early nineties, when I graduated from college, the media was obsessed with a generation of indifferent teenagers and twenty-somethings who couldn' t be bothered with social causes, careers, or the general state of humanity. Ironically, the same media structure which had previously been upset with the 60s generation for being too rebellious was now upset the kids born in the 70s and the 80s for not being rebellious enough. They branded us slackers and they called us generation X, ho-hum.
Fast forward five short years. The same media covering the same generation, but instead of dismissing them as slackers they anoint them business titans and revolutionaries controlling the future of business, media and culture. With technology as their ally they will not rest until they've disintermediated anyone or anything inefficient. This group of rebels are on a mission, and their drive is matched only by their insane work ethic. Never a mention of slackers or generation X.
The story that isn't being told in all of this is why a generation of slackers would suddenly create and drive one of the biggest paradigm shifts in the history of industry. Clearly part of this is a matter of perspective. The media givieth and the media takieth away, all in their desire to create sexy stories through polarization, generalization and, of course, exaggeration. However, looking deeper into the issue, is the fact that a generation of young adults, having stumbled onto a new medium (the Internet), was smart enough to seize the opportunity, taking their own piece of the pie and leaving the dead to bury the dead (think: old media).
What did we, as generation X inherit in the early 90s? The remnants of a five-yea r, cocaine-infused, party on Wall Street that ended in tears and a recession. Our generation wasn't filled with slackers, it was filled with such media savvy, and saturated, individuals that we knew that participating in the existing paradigm would only result in low pay and long hours for some old-school company. Is it is a coincidence that this same group of people are the ones who owned the media that obsessed over the slacker generation? Perhaps they hoped to guilt us to getting into line?
Equity is the revolution of our generation, as in having equity in the company you work for. This equity, in the form of stock options, is not on the same level as the equality that the 60s generation fought for, but it is certainly an evolution of that same movement. Don't believe the hype.
In the spirit of tabloid headlines (Ted No Longer Fonda Jane) my Exclusive, Untold Story would be headed Weird Ape Fouls Planet.
Granted Bill McKibben got very close with his book The End of Nature, but there continues a pervasive denial that stops this story from honest resolution.
First, of course, we'd rather not hear about it. At the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival we discussed the dilemma of presenting the dreadful conservation stories without depressing the audience, which is another way of asking, Shall we not hit this nail on the head again? So beyond the various lobbies and doubts that obscure issues such as global warming, the media hesitate to offend, or to be redundant.
Secondly, it's a story I'd rather not research and write because it is a bummer. The first half I did attempt; I truly do think humans are quite a wonderfully weird, unique species and the story of our place within the evolution of life on earth is fantastic (and for many, still unbelievable.) But when it comes to our impact on the earth, the already palpable effects of over-population, I get bogged down in the details, or distracted by Untold Story Number Two (Equal Rights Amendment Never Passed U.S. Senate).
For example: there was a rush by health insurers to provide for coverage of Viagra use, but not of contraception pills for women. Enormous pressures remain for reproduction, from social and religious ones (the Vatican Rag) to the biological cues that inspired John Updike (The Witches of Eastwick) to put these words in the mouth of Jack Nicholson: What a Bait They Set Up. In a roundabout way the fallibilities of being human were covered ad nausea (Leader of Free World Impeached for Thong Thing) and maybe the reason that too will pass is because we would prefer to deny the power of these urges, on par with drugs and greed, plus ego, i.e. parking one's off road 4-WD Range Rover in front of the Hard Rock Café.
So I'm with Bugs Bunny, who said, people are the strangest animals because we have this ability to reason and yet that base stem of the brain, wherever it is located on your anatomy, tends to rule the day. Hollywood might be the only medium that can rattle our cage on such issues of perspective, truly seeing ourselves in context; journalism no longer seems capable of delivering profound, incisive news, unless you dare to have canines as sharp as those of Maureen Dowd.
Time's "Person of the Year" should have been Abraham Maslow.
The great psychologist is the key to understanding the biggest economic story of our day ? a story that's been obscured by stock tickers crawling across the bottom of every television screen, by breathless magazine covers about dot-com fired insta-wealth, and by the endless decoding of Alan Greenspan's every emission.
Deep into the middle class, Americans are enjoying a standard of living unmatched in world history and unthinkable to our ancestors just 100 years ago. This development goes well beyond today's high Dow and low unemployment rate. (Insert startling factoid about VCRs, longevity, car ownership, antibiotics, indoor plumbing, or computing power here.) And demographics are only deepening the significance of the moment. Roughly seven out of eight Americans were not alive during the Great Depression ? and therefore have no conscious memory of outright, widespread, hope-flattening economic privation. (Note: long gas lines and short recessions don't qualify as life-altering hardship.) As a result, the default assumption of middle class American life has profoundly changed: the expectation of comfort has replaced the fear of privation.
Enter Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. I imagine that at least a majority of Americans have satisfied the physiological, safety, and even social needs on the lower levels of Maslow's pyramid. And that means that well over 100 million people are on the path toward self-actualization, trying to fulfill what Maslow called "metaneeds." This is one reason why work has become our secular religion ? and why legions of people are abandoning traditional employment to venture out on their own. (It's also why I guarantee that in the next twelve months we'll see newsmagazine stories about despondent, unfulfilled "What's It All About, Alfie?" Internet millionaires.)
What happens when life for many (though, of course, not all) Americans ? and ever more people in the developed world ? ceases being a struggle for subsistence and instead becomes a search for meaning?
It could herald an era of truth, beauty, and justice. Or it could get really weird.
"Today's most important unreported story" may be the fact that there are no longer ANY unreported stories. To be sure, there are stories that are given less attention than some might think appropriate, and others that are inaccurate or misleading. But the proliferation of sources of information — the Internet, myriad cable television stations, niche magazines, alternative newspapers — makes it virtually certain that no occurrence can remain secret or unmentioned.
The dilemma that faces all of us is not one of ferreting out information that is hidden but of making sense of the information that is readily available. How much of what we read and see is reliable? And how can we tell? In the not-so-distant past, we could rely, to an extent, on the brand name of the information provider. We all applied our own measures of credence to stories we read in the York Times or in the National Enquirer. But who knows anything about the authors of what we read at www.whatever.com?
Everything — all that has happened and much that has not — is reported.
It's now a billion to a billion: Of the six billion human beings currently alive on this planet, one billion live with a daily agenda of malnutrition, hunger and polluted drinking water, while another one billion — including you and me — live lives where hunger is never really an issue.
The number of really rich and really poor people on the planet now match. That makes the following piece of arithmetics very simple indeed:
If all of us who are rich (in the sense that starvation is out of the question and has always been) want to provide the economic resources necessary to end hunger, how much should we pay? We assume that all existing government and NGO aid programs continue, but will be supplemented by a world-wide campaign for private donations to end hunger (feed your antipode).
The cost of providing one billion people with 250 kilograms of grain every year is approximately $40 billion dollars a year. That would seem to be a lot of money, but with one billion people to pay, it is no big deal: $40 a year! An even more moderate estimate is provided by the organization Netaid: Just $13 billion dollars a year and the basic health and food needs of the world's poorest people could be met.
With $50 billion a year as an estimated cost of ending world hunger, the expense for each well-off person is one dollar a week. It is the growth in the number of rich people on the planet, while the number of poor has not grown, that results in this favorable situation, unprecedented in human history.
The advent of the Internet makes this proposal practical and conceptually clear:
Living in a global village makes it meaningful to help end global hunger, just like the populations of most industrialized countries have already done on a national scale.
The Internet provides a simple way of collecting the money (this writer broke the embargo on his own unreported story and sent $100 to www.netaid.org to pay the global tax to end hunger for himself and one child). The money flowing through organizations such as netaid.org and hungersite.org will attract public attention and scrutiny of their efficiency in turning money into food for the hungry.
Also, the Internet makes it perfectly clear who should consider her/himself as part of the rich billion on the planet and hence pay a dollar a week: Every user of the Internet. In few years time the number of users will be one billion and we could see the end of hunger on this planet.
Obviously, once the money to end hunger is available, all sorts of obstructions will appear before those in need are fed: bureaucracies, mafias, corruption, waste. But is it not then time that we deal with them? A very important effect of annual donations from a billion people is the resulting global awareness of the embarrassment involved in the present unnecessary situation.
Today's most important unreported story is that for many millions of people in the industrialized and developing countries education and training are not keeping up with the information technology revolution. As the world enters the 21st century we need more robust educational education and training, benchmarking to ensure that educational systems provide the skills needed for this new era and resource commitments that recognize that educational investments are critical to economic prosperity and social stability in this new century.
If the benefits of the information technology revolution are to be broadly shared, and its economic potential fully realized, a far greater effort is required during and after school years to enable larger numbers of people to utilize and benefit from new information technologies.
Failure to do this will widen the digital divide and the income gap within and among nations, sowing seeds of social unrest and political instability. It also will deprive our economies of the talents of many people who could make enormous contributions to science, medicine, business, the arts and many other fields of endeavor were they able to realize their full educational and professional potential.
The goal of our societies should be not only to be sure schools and homes are wired and online — itself a critical infrastructure challenge — but to provide education and training programs so that larger and larger numbers of people at all income levels can use these new technologies to learn and create during their school years and throughout their lives.
For the US, whose population is steadily aging, this means ensuring that older citizens have greater training in the use of these new technologies. And it means that younger Americans, especially minorities who will become an increasingly significant portion of the 21st century workforce, have far greater education and training in the use of information technologies than many do now. The better trained they are the better position they will be in to contribute productively to the US economy — empowered by these new technologies. In the emerging economies, IT education is an important part of their evolution into dynamic participants in the global information economy, attracting more and more investment based not only on low labor costs or large domestic markets but also on their innovativeness and ability to adapt to a world where more and more high quality jobs are knowledge based. In much of Asia the financial crisis received so much attention that much of the world paid little attention to the dynamic changes in the information technology sector taking place in the region; impressive as that is, it can be even more impressive as greater investment in human capital expands the number of information / technology savvy citizens in these countries and thus broadens the base of high-tech prosperity.
In the least developed economies, IT education should be a top priority. It is greatly in the world's interest that they be able to achieve their full economic potential. A substantial amount of international support from the private sector and governments will be needed. This can both prevent these nations from falling further behind and unlock the innovative potential of their peoples.
An education revolution in industrialized, emerging and developing nations is needed to keep up with and realize the full potential of the information technology revolution. We should not become so enamoured of technology that we ignore the human dimension that is so critical to its success and to the social progress that these technologies have the potential to accelerate.
The Death of Nations
For centuries societies have organized themselves in terms of kingdoms, countries, and states. Towards the second half of the recently past 20th Century these geographical, cultural, and political "units" acquired a more precise meaning through the establishment of modern "nations". The process was consolidated, among others, through the creation of the so called United Nations, and the independence of most colonial territories in Africa during the 60's. Today, we naturally see the world as organized in clear-cut and well-defined units: the world's nations (just check the colors of a political atlas). Nations have their own citizens, well established territories, capital cities, flags, currencies, stamps and postal systems, military forces, embassies, national anthems, and even their own sport teams competing in the various planet-scale events. This widespread view not only has been taken for granted by most sectors of the public opinion, but also it has served as the foundation of the highest form of international organization — the United Nations. The most serious world affairs have been approached with this nation-oriented paradigm. But the reality of our contemporary global society (which goes far beyond pure global technology) is gradually showing that the world is not a large collection of nations. Nations, as we know them, are not anymore the appropriate "unit of analysis" to run the world, and to deal with its problems. Here is why.
These are only a few examples. There are many others. Very serious ones, such as the primacy of watersheds over national borders in solving serious problems of water distribution. And less serious ones, such as the potential collapse of one of the Canadian national sports (ice-hockey), if their franchises continue to move to more profitable lands in the United States. All these aspects of our contemporary societies challenge the very notion of "nation", and reveal the primacy of other factores which are not captured by nation-oriented institutions. The world is now gradually adjusting to these changes, and is coming up with new forms of organization, where nations, as such, play a far less important role. Such is the case of the formation of the European Community (which allows for free circulation of people and merchandises), the establishment of a "European passport", and the creation of the Euro as common currency. After all, many national borders are, like those straight lines one sees in the maps of Africa and North America, extremely arbitrary. It shouldn't then be a surprise that the world divided into nations is becoming an anachronism from the days when the world was ruled by a few powerful kingdoms, that ignored, fundamental aspects of ethnic, cultural, biological, and environmental dynamics. We are now witnessing the death of nations as we know them.
RAFAEL NUNEZ is Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Freiburg, and a Research Associate at the University of California, Berkeley. He is co-editor (with Walter J. Freeman) of Reclaiming Cognition: The Primacy of Action, Intention, and Emotion.
I'm currently thinking about Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus and the Book of Exodus, which is inclining me to the opinion that today's unreported stories are similar to yesterday's: shifting empires and power as the powerless struggle for sanctuary and their own form of salvation.
THOMAS A. BASS is the author of The Predictors, Back to Vietnamerica, Reinventing the Future, Camping with the Prince and Other Tales of Science in Africa , and The Eudaemonic Pie. A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Audubon, Discover, The New York Times, and other publications, he is Contributing Writer for Wired magazine and Scholar-in-Residence at Hamilton College.
Over the last century we in the western world have gradually come to take seriously other culture's religions, social systems, aesthetics, and philosophies. Unlike our eighteenth century forebears we no longer think of indigenous peoples of the non-white world as "savages", but have come to understand that many of these cultures are as complex and sophisticated as ours. The one area where we have continued to proclaim our own specialness - and by extension our own superiority - is science. "True Science" - that is a "truely empirical" understanding of the world - is often said to be a uniquely western pursuit, the one thing we alone have achieved. Against this view, a small but growing body of scholars are beginning to claim that many indigenous cultures also have a genuine scientific understanding of the world - their claim is that science is not a uniquely western endeavour. These "other" sciences are sometimes referred to as "ethnosciences" - examples include (most famously) Mayan astronomy and Chinese medicine, both of which are highly accurate, though wildly different to their western equivalents. Less well known is the logic-obsessed knowledge system of the Yolgnu Aborigines of Arnhemland in northern Australia, and the complex navigational techniques of the Polynesians.
The claim that other cultures have genuine sciences (and sometimes also complex logics) embedded in their knowledge systems, raises again the whole philosophical issue of what exactly does the word "science" mean. Helen Verran, an Australian philosopher of science who is one of the leaders of the ethnoscience movement, has made the point that having the chance to study other sciences gives us a unique opportunity to reflect back on our own science. Her work on the Yolgnu provides a important window from which to see our own scientific insights in a new light.
Sadly, some scientists seem inherently opposed to the very idea of "other sciences". But studying these other ways of knowing may enhance our own understanding of the world in ways we cannot yet imagine. The example of accupuncture must surely give any skeptic at least some pause for thought - the Chinese have performed operations using accupucture needles instead of anesthetic drugs. Likewise Mayan astronomy, though based on the cycles of Venus, was as empirically accurate as anything in the West before the advent of the telescope.
Two hundred years ago the idea that indigenous "savages" might be genuine philsophers would have struck most Europeans as preposterous. Today we have accepted this "preposterous" proposition, but a similar view prevails about science. Learning about, and taking seriously, these other ways of knowing the world seems to me one of the greatest tasks for the next century - before (as Steven Pinker has rightly noted) this immense wealth of human understanding disappears from our planet.
The most important untold story according my opinion is how kids replaced the generals as the major source of defining the innovation agenda of the world; how the biblical prophecy "thou shell turn your swords into Sony Playstation 2" is being fulfilled; how the underlying power sending satellites to the skies, creating fabs for 128 bit machines, pushing for broadband, is not any longer based on the defense needs of the big powers ,but on the imagination and the passion of kids (and adults) to play games, see 1000 channels of television, and listen to music!!
This is just amazing, and beautiful. Never in the history of mankind have kids had such a profound influence on the creativity and innovation agenda. It is a very democratic process as well as the decision-making power is distributed widely.
DR. JOSEPH VARDI is the Principal of International Technologies Ventures, a private venture capital enterprise, investing principally for its own account, which has initiated, negotiated, structured and arranged financing for the acquisition of operating companies; and created and funded several high-tech companies in the fields of Internet, software, telecommunications, electro-optics, energy, environment and other areas.
Dr Vardi is the founding investor and the former chairman of Mirabilis Ltd, the creator of the extremely popular Internet communication program ICQ which took the web by storm, making it one of the most successful Internet products of all times, with currently over 65 million users. The company was acquired by AOL.
Just before the year 1000, a rumor arose in a certain town in Germany, Hamelin I believe, that the coming of the new time would bring rats to the public buildings. Some had been spotted in the basement of the town hall, some in the local stables. Rat preventers were hired at great price, and indeed when the century turned no rats were to be seen.
The city fathers felt shamed by the scare and called the preventers before them. You have spent a great deal of money on these rats ? but there were no rats, they said.
Ah, city fathers, said the preventers. That's because we prevented them.
I. A new kind of object: From Rorschach to Relationship
I have studied the effects of computational objects on human developmental psychology for over twenty years, documenting the ways that computation and its metaphors have influenced our thinking about such matters as how the mind works, what it means to be intelligent, and what is special about being human. Now, I believe that a new kind of computational object — the relational artifact — is provoking striking new changes in the narrative of human development, especially in the way people think about life, and about what kind of relationships it is appropriate to have with a machine. Relational artifacts are computational objects designed to recognize and respond to the affective states of human beings–and indeed, to present themselves as having "affective" states of their own. They include children's playthings (such as Furbies and Tamagotchis), digital dolls that double as health monitoring systems for the homebound elderly (Matsushita's forthcoming Tama), sentient robots whose knowledge and personalities change through their interactions with humans, as well as software that responds to its users’ emotional states and responds with "emotional states" of their own.
Over the past twenty years, I have often used the metaphor of "computer as Rorschach" to describe the relationship between people and their machines. I found computers used as a projective screen for other concerns, a mirror of mind and self. But today’s relational artifacts make the Rorschach metaphor far less useful than before. These artifacts do not so much invite projection as they demand engagement. The computational object is no longer affectively "neutral." People are learning to interact with computers through conversation and gesture, people are learning that to relate successfully to a computer you do not have to know how it works, but to take it "at interface value," that is to assess its emotional "state," much as you would if you were relating to another person. Through their experiences with virtual pets and digital dolls (Tamagotchi, Furby, Amazing Ally), a generation of children are learning that some objects require (and promise) emotional nurturance. Adults, too, are encountering technology that attempts to meet their desire for personalized advice, care and companionship (help wizards, intelligent agents, AIBO, Matsushita's forthcoming Tama).
These are only the earliest, crude examples of the relational technologies that will become part of our everyday lives in the next century. There is every indication that the future of computational technology will include ubiquitous relational artifacts that have feelings, life cycles, moods, that reminisce, and have a sense of humor, which say they love us, and expect us to love them back. What will it mean to a person when their primary daily companion comes is a robotic dog? Or their health care "worker" is a robot cat? Or their software program attends to their emotional states and, in turn, has its own?. We need to know how these new artifacts affect people’s way of thinking about themselves, human identity, and what makes people special. These artifacts also raise significant new questions about how children apporach the question of ‘What is alive?" In the proposed research the question is not what the computer will be like in the future, but what will we be like, what kind of people are we becoming?
Relational artifacts are changing the narrative of human development, including how we understand such "human" qualities as emotion, love, and care. The dynamic between a person and an emotionally interactive, evolving, caring machine object is not the same as the relationship one might have with another person, or a pet, or a cherished inanimate object.
We have spent a large amount of social resources trying to build these artifacts; now it is time to study what is happening to all of us as we go forth into a world "peopled" with a kind of object we have never experienced before. We need to more deeply understand the nature and implications of this new sort of relationship — and its potential to fundamentally change our understanding of what it means to be human.
We need to be asking several kinds of new questions:
• How are we to conceptualize the nature of our attachments to interactive robots, affective computers, and digital pets?
• How does interacting with relational artifacts affect people’s way of thinking about themselves and others, their sense of human identity and relationships? How do the models of development and values embedded in the design of relational artifacts both reflect and influence our ways of thinking about people?
• What roles — both productive and problematic — can relational artifacts play in fulfilling a basic human need for relationship? Their first generation is being predominantly marketed to children and the elderly. What does this reflect about our cultural values about these groups? How will these objects influence their understanding of who they are as individuals and in the world? Are we reinforcing their marginality? Are we tacitly acknowledging that we do not have enough "human" time to spend with them?
In the 1960s through the 1980s, researchers in artificial intelligence took part in what we might call the classical "great AI debates" where the central question was whether machines could be "really" intelligent. This classical debate was essentialist; the new relational objects tend to enable researchers and their public to sidestep such arguments about what is inherent in the computer. Instead, the new objects depend on what people attribute to them; they shift the focus to what the objects evoke in us. When we are asked to care for an object (the robot Kismet, the plaything Furby), when the cared-for object thrives and offers us its attention and concern, people are moved to experience that object as intelligent. Beyond this, they feel a connection to it. So the question here is not to enter a debate about whether relational objects "really" have emotions, but to reflect on a series of issues having to do with what relational artifacts evoke in the user.
In my preliminary research on children and Furbies, I have found that children describe these new toys as "sort of alive" because of the quality of their emotional attachments to the Furbies and because of their fantasies about the idea that the Furby might be emotionally attached to them. So, for example, when I ask the question, "Do you think the Furby is alive?" children answer not in terms of what the Furby can do, but how they feel about the Furby and how the Furby might feel about them.
Ron (6): Well, the Furby is alive for a Furby. And you know, something this smart should have arms. It might want to pick up something or to hug me.
Katherine (5): Is it alive? Well, I love it. It’s more alive than a Tamagotchi because it sleeps with me. It likes to sleep with me.
Here, the computational object functions not only as an evocative model of mind, but as a kindred other. With these new objects, children (and adults) not only reflect on how their own mental and physical processes are analogous to the machine’s, but perceive and relate to the machine as an autonomous and "almost alive" self.
My work with children and computational objects has evolved into a decades-long narrative about the way computation has affected the way we make sense of the world. In many ways, the behaviors and comments of children have foreshadowed the reactions of adults. In the first generation of computer culture I studied, the children of the late 1970s and early 1980s tended to resolve metaphysical conflicts about machine "aliveness" by developing a concept of "the psychological machine"–concluding that psychology and a kind of consciousness were possible in objects they knew were not alive. This way of coping with the conundrums posed by computational objects was pioneered by children, and later adopted by adults. Later cohorts of children's responses to computational objects that were more complex and problematic in new ways again reliably foreshadowed the conclusions the culture at large would soon reach. First, they explained that although machines might be psychological in the cognitive sense (they might be intelligent, they might have intentionality), they were not psychological in the emotional sense, because they did not know pain, or love, they were not mortal, and they did not have souls. Soon after, the children I interviewed began consistently citing biology and embodiment as the crucial criteria that separated people from machines; they insisted that qualities like breathing, having blood, being born, and, as one put it, "having real skin," were the true signs of life. Now, I have begun to see a new pattern – children describe relational artifacts not as "alive" or "not alive", but as "sort-of-alive." Categories such as "aliveness" and "emotion" seem poised to split in the same way that the categories of "psychological" and "intelligent" did twenty years ago.
Children's reactions to the presence of "smart machines" have fallen into discernable patterns over the past twenty years. Adults' reactions, too, have been changing over time, often closely following those of the children. To a certain extent, we can look to children to see what we are starting to think ourselves. However, in the case of relational artifacts, there is more to the choice of children as subjects than a simple desire to stay ahead of the curve in anticipating changes in computer culture. By accepting a new category of relationship, with entities that they recognize as "sort-of-alive", or "alive in a different, but legitimate way," today's children will redefine the scope and shape of the playing field for social relations in the future. Because they are the first generation to grow up with this new paradigm, it is essential that we observe and document their experiences.
SHERRY TURKLE is a professor of the sociology of sciences at MIT. She is the author of The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit; Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud†s French Revolution, and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet..
Sources from deep inside The New York Times Company, owner of The New York Times, Boston Globe, numerous TV stations, regional newspapers, and various digital properties, and from The Onion, a web based satirical newspaper (www.theonion.com) have verified the rumors. It's true, The Onion, Inc. company headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin has made a offer to buy The New York Times, Inc., company for stock.
This is a serious offer and word is that NYT Chairman and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger sees it as a way instantly transform his family's company into a major Internet content provider and thereby pump up the company's stock creating instant wealth for many long time shareholders.
According to people close to the talks, Sulzberger and other New York Times executives were recently seen in Madison Wisconsin where they reportedly attended a Friday afternoon beer bash at The Onion headquarters. Apparently, the executives of both companies really hit it off and have even gone on camping trips together. Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld of The New York Times and Onion's Editor-in-Chief Robert Siegel have formed a "mutual admiration club" and are seriously considering swapping jobs once the merger is finalized.
"Some of the ideas these two groups discuss once they've had a few beers is phenomenal, particularly when you get Mr. Sulzberger into it," reported one of the Onion editors. The New York Times group is particularly intrigued with the success that The Onion has had by using invented names in all its stories except for public figures. By employing an Internet journalistic standard to an old media newspaper like The Times, it is felt that editorial costs can be reduced by a whopping 80%!
Cultural differences between the two companies and differing standards of journalism aren't seen as major stumbling blocks to getting the deal done. The biggest challenge will be to get the two sides to agree to a valuation that gives shareholders of both companies plenty to cheer for. This is complicated because The Onion has a market cap that is several hundred billion dollars higher than the New York Times Company. The expectation, though is this will be worked out to be similar to AOL's purchase of Time Warner, with The Onion shareholders getting about 55 to 60 percent of the merger company. Thus, The New Times Shareholder will see an instant up tick in their stock which should compensate them more than adequately for losing control of the company.
Onion Publisher & President Peter K. Haise will reportedly give up his position to become Chairman of the combined company and move to New York. Arthur Sulzberger will more to Wisconsin, to run The Onion which will be the new flag ship of the what will be called "Onion New York Times Media Giant Company." Haise and Sulzberger have also agreed to swap houses and families as part of the deal, which will facilitate their need to move quickly.
The resulting "Onion New York Times Media Giant Company" will be one of the world's largest media companies in terms of market cap, though only half as big as AOL/ Time-Warner. The year 2000 is already being seen as the year that old media surrendered to new media and there are some more surprises to come. The biggest merger yet could happen this summer when Wired Digital spins out Suck.com which will in turn make a bid to buy The Walt Disney Corporation. Stay tuned dear readers, Suck!Disney could become the biggest acquistion of all time.
The press has been preoccupied with possible explanations for the current extraordinary boom. Many articles say, as they always do while a bubble grows, that this market is "different." Some attribute the difference to new information technology. Others credit changes in foreign trade, or the baby boomer's lack of experience with a real economic depression. But you never see a serious story about the possibility that this market is different because investor's brains are different. There is good reason to suspect that they are.
Prescriptions for psychoactive drugs have increased from 131 million in 1988 to 233 million in 1998, with nearly 10 million prescriptions filled last year for Prozac alone. The market for antidepressants in the USA is now $6.3 billion per year. Additional huge numbers of people use herbs to influence their moods. I cannot find solid data on how many people in the USA take antidepressants, but a calculation based on sales suggests a rough estimate of 20 million.
What percent of brokers, dealers, and investors are taking antidepressant drugs? Wealthy, stressed urbanites are especially likely to use them. I would not be surprised to learn that one in four large investors has used some kind of mood-altering drug. What effects do these drugs have on investment behavior? We don't know. A 1998 study by Brian Knutson and colleagues found that the serotonin specific antidepressant paroxetine (Paxil) did not cause euphoria in normal people, but did block negative affects like fear and sadness. From seeing many patients who take such agents, I know that some experience only improved mood, often a miraculous and even life-saving change. Others, however, report that they become far less cautious than they were before, worrying too little about real dangers. This is exactly the mind-set of many current investors.
Human nature has always given rise to booms and bubbles, followed by crashes and depressions. But if investor caution is being inhibited by psychotropic drugs, bubbles could grow larger than usual before they pop, with potentially catastrophic economic and political consequences. If chemicals are inhibiting normal caution in any substantial fraction of investors, we need to know about it. A more positive interpretation is also easy to envision. If 20 million workers are more engaged and effective, to say nothing of showing up for work more regularly, that is a dramatic tonic for the economy. There is every reason to think that many workers and their employers are gaining such benefits. Whether the overall mental health of the populace is improving remains an open question, however. Overall rates of depression seem stable or increasing in most technological countries, and the suicide rate is stubbornly unchanged despite all the new efforts to recognize and treat depression.
The social effects of psychotropic medications is the unreported story of our time. These effects may be small, but they may be large, with the potential for social catastrophe or positive transformation. I make no claim to know which position is correct, but I do know that the question is important, unstudied, and in need of careful research. What government agency is responsible for ensuring that such investigations get carried out? The National Institute of Mental Health? The Securities and Exchange Commission? Thoughtful investigative reporting can give us preliminary answers that should help to focus attention on the social effects of psychotropic medications.
Randoph M. Nesse, M.D., is Professor of Psychiatry, Director, ISR Evolution and Human Adaptation Program, The University of Michigan and coauthor (with George C. Williams) of Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine.
I am confident that I don't know "today's most important unreported story" because it hasn't been reported to me yet. But I'll take a stab at one of today's most important under-reported stories: Infection is much bigger than we thought, bigger than we think, and perhaps bigger than we can think. With apologies to J.B.S. Haldane, let me offer a less grandiose, but more tangible and testable (and ponderous) version: The infectious diseases that are already here but not yet generally recognized as infectious diseases will prove to be vastly more important than the infectious diseases that newly arise in the human population from some exotic source (such as the jungles of Africa) or genetic diseases that will be newly discovered by the human genome project. By "important" I mean both the amount of disease that can be accounted for and the amount that can be ameliorated, but I also mean how much of what we value as well as what we fear.
A judgment on this pronouncement can be assessed incrementally decade by decade over the next half-century. What are the diseases to keep an eye on? Heart disease and stroke; Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases; impotence, polycystic ovary disease, cancers of the breast and ovaries, the penis and prostate; schizophrenia and the other major mental illnesses. The list goes on.
But is the scope really "bigger than we can think"? Who can say? We can speculate that the scope of infection may extend far beyond what many in the year 2000 would be willing to take seriously. If schizophrenia and manic depression are caused largely by infection, then perhaps the artistic breakthroughs in our society, the groundbreaking work of van Gogh, for example, can also be attributed to infection. How much of what we prize in society would not be here were it not for our constant companions? Rather than pass judgment now, I suggest that we return in 2010 to this offering and each of the other contributions to see how each is faring as the fuzziness of the present gives way to the acuity of hindsight.
I appreciate Paul Davies' response to my question "What is science, and do indigenous kniowledge systems also contain a genuine scientific understanding of the world?" My point in raising this question is not to suggest that Western science is not universal - clearly the same law of gravity operates in the deserts of central Australia as operates in the labs of Caltech. In that sense Western science is indeed something that every culture can share and benefit from, if they so choose. At issue here is really the reverse question: Might there also be discoveries about the way the world works that have been made by other cultures, that we in the West have not yet come to - knowledge that we in turn might benefit from?
One example here is the Aboriginal tradition of fire burning. It is now known that Aboriginal people traditionally managed the land and its native flora and fauna by complex patterns of burning. Given the huge risk of out-of-control bush-fires in Australia, there is now interest among some ecologists and park mamagers re understanding this tradional knowledge. Another example is accupuncture. Some years ago I had a serious case of hepatitis, for which Western medicine could do nothing whatever. Eventually after months of illness, I started to see an accupuncturist because Chinese medicine claims to have ways of treating liver disease. Eventually I recovered. It is possible, of course, that I might have recovered without the accupuncture, but many many people (including billions of Chinese) have had therapeutic experiences with accupuncture. I do not claim to know how accupuntcure works, but it seems fair to at least keep an open mind that there really is some deep understanding here of bodily function - some knoweldge that we might truly benefit from.
The hard part of the question is does such knowledge constitute a genuine "science"? Paul suggests not, but I think this option should not be ruled out. In practical terms, accupuncturists operate much the same way that Western doctors operate: you go for a diagnosis, they check for various symptoms, then they prescribe certain treatments. All this involves rational analysis based on a complex underlying theory of how the body works. That theoretical foundation might well sound odd to Western minds (it obvioulsy does to Paul, as it does to me), but if billions of people get well it seems hard to dismiss it completely. We should not forget that our own medical science today now incorporates theoretical ideas (jumping genes for example) that were scofffed at by most scientists just a few decades ago. There are no doubt many more "true" ideas that we have not yet come to about the human body - things that might seem crazy today. Numbers of double-blind trials have shown that accupuncture can be very effective - so even by Western standards it seems to pass the test. One could still argue that its not a "true science", but just a complex set of heuristics that happens to work in lots of cases, but is this any less so of much of our own medical science?
As "shining emblems of true science" Paul suggests, "radio waves, nuclear power, the computer and genetic engineering." The first three examples all come out of physics, which because of its mathematical foundation is somewhat different to most of the other sciences. As philosphers of science have been saying for some time, it is problematic to judge all sciences according to the methodologies of phsyics. If that is the criteria for a "true science" then much of modern biology would not count either. Paul's final example, genetic engineering, is from the biological area, but it is the most "atomized" part of biology. Historically the whole area of gene science (from Max Delbruck on) has been heavily influenced by a physics mentality, and contemporary genetic engieering is indeed a testimony to what can been achieved by applying a physics paradigm to biology. But again, if this is our only criteria for "true science" then what is the status of other biological sciences such as ecology, zoology, and indeed Darwin's theory of evolution? None of these would seem to me to pass Paul's criteria.
Thus we come back top the question: What really is science? This is a question of immense debate among philosophers of science, and among many scientists. I don't claim to have a simple answer - but I would like to argue for a fairly expansive definition. Although I trained as a physicist myself, and physics remains my personal favorite science, I do not think it can or should be our only model for a "true science."
By suggesting that indigenous knowledge systems contain genuine scientific understandings of the world, I do not mean to imply that Western science becomes less universal, only that there may well be other truths that our science has yet to discover. The point is not to diminish our own science, or our understanding of what sicence is, but to enrich both.
MARGARET WERTHEIM is the author of Pythagoras Trousers, a cultural history of physics, and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. She writes regularly about science for Salon, L.A. Weekly, The Sciences, Guardian, TLS and New Scientist. She is the senior science reviewer for the Australian's Review of Books.
One of the Big Stories of the last century was globalization ? the rise of plodding great dinosaur-like institutions promoting the interests of the Fortune 500. Of course, merger-mania continues to capture headlines, creating ever-larger multinational firms, centralizing information and money ? and hence power ? in the hands of a few old White guys. This is Goliath, and Goliath at a scale above the State. On David's side of the battle for our hearts and souls, we have the Internet, the weapon of Everyman. The Internet is the newfound instrument of the little people, bringing us all within a few clicks of each other (the so-called "small world" phenomenon). It is no accident that the first to flock to this medium were minorities of all kinds ? poodle-lovers, UFO-watchers and other fringe-dwellers. Here, through this network, they found a way to broadcast their message across the world at virtually no cost through an avenue not controlled by Walmart or Banque Credit Suisse.
What is getting squeezed out in this picture is the institution in the middle, the nation-state. It is easy for the media to focus on the President as he waves to them while boarding Air Force One ? indeed, they fawn on these "photo-ops." The existence of standardized channels, like the press advisor, for disseminating "important messages" makes their job easy. Thus, the media haven't noticed that the institution the President represents is increasingly irrelevant to the course of events. Why? Let's look at the sources of State power, and how they are being eroded.
First, money is no longer tied to any material token (see Thomas Petzinger, Jr., this Forum). Once the link to cowrie shells or gold bullion is severed, the exchange of value becomes a matter of trust. And this trust is increasingly being placed in computers ? the Internet again. Greenspan can control greenbacks, but not e-money. Any zit-faced teenager can become an instant millionaire by flipping a digit on a strategic computer account. This is digital democratization, of a sort. So one of the vital sources of centralized governmental power ? control over the money supply ? is increasingly no longer in the hands of the State.
What about the distribution of wealth? It used to be that those close to the political decision-making machinery could write the rules for moneymaking and thus guarantee themselves advantages: policies informed incentives. But the globalization of capital markets has reversed that causal ordering: money now flows as if national boundaries were invisible, slipping right'round local rules and regulations. The policy-makers are always a step behind. So the State no longer finds it easy to ply favorites with favors.
The ultimate source of control, of course, is access to information. What you don't know you can't act on. Governments have long recognized how important this is. Can States nowadays control public opinion? Are the media operated by people the State can coopt? Well, sometimes. But the Fall of the Wall suggests control is never perfect. So you can tell some of the people what to do some of the time, but not whole populations what to think for very long. It just costs too much. And (as Phil Leggiere points out elsewhere in this Forum), the Internet is now a powerful means for protest against State interests. No wonder States are trying hard to control this organically-grown monster.
States of course use various means to attract allegiance beside the media. For example, they stir up patriotism by the tried-and-true method of demonizing outsiders. However, of late, it has become harder to direct aggression "outside," as made obvious by the proliferation of aggressive conflicts along ethnic lines within States (Jaron Lanier's non-Clausewitzian wars, in this Forum). The other possibility, of course, is that some splinter group will get hold of ? or make ? a nuclear warhead, and hold a government ransom. So the ability to incite war ? another source of State power ? seems to be coming from other quarters. This constitutes additional evidence of the soon-to-be demise of States.
What people really care about, the social psychologists tell us, is the group they identify with. You don't identify with Uncle Sam (a clever anthropomorphizing gimmick that only works during war); you identify with Uncle Fred and the other kin who share your name. So it's difficult for people to identify with a country. It's too big ? just a jerry-rigged bit of color on a map in many cases. How can you care when your vote has no influence over outcomes? "Representative" government is farcical when a population is counted in millions. Of course, if you're rich, you can buy influence, but the ante is always being upped as some other special interest vies for control over your Man in Washington. Besides, those guys always logroll anyway. When your self-concept, wealth and well-being derive from participation in other kinds of community, the State becomes an anachronism.
The result of all this will not be the arrival of the Libertarian heaven, a State-less society. It is just that mid-level governance will be replaced by larger- and smaller-scale institutions. We won't have monolithic Big Brother looking over our shoulders in the next century. Instead, we will become a network of tightly linked individuals, empowered by technologies for maintaining personal relationships across space and time. We will all choose to be cyborgs (Rodney A. Brooks), with implants that permanently jack us into the global brain (Ivan Amato), because of the power we derive from our environmentally augmented intelligence (Andy Clark, with apologies to Edwin Hutchins and Merlin Donald). We will all come to live in what Manuel Castells calls a Network Society, and begin, literally, to "think globally and act locally."
Margaret Wertheim asks what is meant by "science." I have an answer. It must involve more than merely cataloguing facts, and discovering successful procedures by trial and error. Crucially, true science involves uncovering the principles that underpin and link natural phenomena. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with Margaret that we should respect the world view of indigineous non-European peoples, I do not believe the examples she cites — Mayan astronomy, Chinese acupuncture, etc. — meet my definition. The Ptolemaic system of epicycles achieved reasonable accuracy in describing the motion of heavenly bodies, but there was no proper physical theory underlying it. Newtonian mechanics, by contrast, not only described planetary motions more simply, it connected the movement of the moon with the fall of the apple. That is real science, because it uncovers things we cannot know any other way. Has Mayan astronomy or Chinese acupuncture ever led to a successful nontrivial prediction producing new knowledge about the world? Many people have stumbled on the fact that certain things work, but true science is knowing why things work. I am open-minded about acupuncture, but if it does work, I would rather put my faith in an explanation based on nerve impulses than mysterious energy flows that have never been demonstrated to have physical reality.
Why did science take root in Europe? At the time of Galileo and Newton, China was far more advanced technologically. However, Chinese technology (like that of the Australian Aborigines) was achieved by trial and error refined over many generations. The boomerang was not invented by first understanding the principles of hydrodynamics and then designing a tool. The compass (discovered by the Chinese) did not involve formulating the principles of electromagnetism. These latter developments emerged from the (true, by my definition) scientific culture of Europe. Of course, historically, some science also sprang from accidental discoveries only later understood. But the shining emblems of true science — such as radio waves, nuclear power, the computer, genetic engineering - all emerged from the application of a deep theoretical understanding that was in place before — sometimes long before — the sought-after technology.
The reasons for Europe being the birthplace of true science are complex, but they certainly have a lot to do with Greek philosophy, with its notion that humans could come to understand how the world works through rational reasoning, and the three monothesitic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — with their notion of a real, lawlike, created order in nature, imposed by a Grand Architect. Although science began in Europe, it is universal and now available to all cultures. We can continue to cherish the belief systems of other cultures, whilst recognizing that scientific knowledge is something special that tanscends cultures.
Paul Davies is an internationally acclaimed physicist, writer and broadcaster, now based in South Australia. Professor Davies is the author of some twenty books, including Other Worlds, God and the New Physics, The Edge of Infinity, The Mind of God, The Cosmic Blueprint, Are We Alone? and About Time.
Several under-reported stories come to mind. Almost all powerful stories concern human beings in some way or another, metaphorically or directly. One result of globalization, let's call it cultural unity, is a story of such power. I'll mention only one facet of this story. Over the past 50,000 years, the vast diversification of human culture ? the creation of quasi distinct cultures, the plural ? stands as a peculiarity of Homo sapiens (relative to earlier humans and other organisms). Human life has divided into diverse languages and ways of organizing kin, technologies, economies, even mating and demographic systems. It's a process that reflects our ken for doing things differently from the people in the next valley.
Globalization may mean the dissolving (all too gradually) of tribal mentality. But there's more to it. The related extinction of languages, loss of local cultural information, and decay of cultural barriers, all point toward an eventual homogenization of behavior that hasn't existed at such a scale (across all humans) since the Paleolithic prior to 50,000 years ago, or even much earlier. The result: the loss of alternative adaptive strategies and behavioral options, which have been rather important in the history of human adaptability.
That's pretty big.
In seeking a truly unreported story, though, it's wise to think a little further out, to make an unexpected prediction. How can that be done? "Unexpected prediction" seems contradictory. Well, the history of life is full of curious experiments, and careful study lets one fathom its rash opportunism and rises and erasures of biotic complexity. The history offers hints. An intriguing case is the evolution of the complex cell, the basis of all eukaryotic life, including multicellular organisms. The cell, with its nucleus, mitochrondria, centrioles, and other components, represents an ecosystem of earlier organisms. The cell emerged evidently by symbiosis of a few early organisms brought together in a single, coordinated system. It's complex internally, but it evolved by simplifying, by gleaning from the surrounding ecosystem. Each of us carries around about a hundred trillion of these simplified early ecosystems, which are coordinated at even higher levels of organization ? tissues, organ systems, the individual.
The big unreported story that I fancy is a latter-day parallel to this fateful development in life's history. Human alteration of ecosystems presents the parallel ? a sweeping simplification of a previously diverse biotic system. Homo sapiens has slashed, culled, and gleaned. It has forged symbiotic relationships with a few other species (domesticates) that help fuel its metabolism (economic functions) as humans enhance the replication of those few at other species' expense.
While these observations are somewhat familiar, the unreported part is this: The global reach of this process threatens/promises to create a single extended organism. The superorganism continues to alter the planet and promises to touch virtually every place on the third rock from the sun. Will this strange organism eventually harness the intricate linkages of ocean, atmosphere, land, and deep Earth? Will it seize control over the circulation of heat, moisture, energy, and materials ? that is, the core operations of the planet? Hard to say without a crystal ball. At its current trajectory, the process seems destined to turn the planet into a cell, highly complex in its own right but evolved by vast simplification of its original setting. Certainly a different Gaia than is usually envisioned. If this story has any validity, it's interesting that the initial loss of cultural alternatives due to globalization roughly coincides with the emergence of this incipient planetary organism.
What I suggest here is the onset of a Bizarre New World, not an especially brave one. It might take more bravery to conserve Earth's biological diversity and diverse ways of being human, salvaging species and cultures from oblivion in a globalized world. Then again...this may already be old fashioned sentiment.
Any important story, even as complicated as this one, needs a headline:
Human-Earth Organism Evolves
Will It Survive? What Will It Become?