John Naisbitt, who spent two years on the New York Times Bestseller list in the early 1980s with Megatrends, proved a pretty good prognosticator, not just a useful counterpoint to the previous decade’s dire soothsaying of Alvin Toffler. They were both right on many counts, often seeing flip sides of the same coin. His comments about technology not reordering socializing along more-virtual lines seem off the mark, however. Three quick excerpts follow from a 1982 People Q&A conducted by John Stickney.

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Question:

Are we more obsessed with the future than past generations?

John Naisbitt:

Yes, because of an important shift in our time orientation. As an agricultural society, we were oriented to the past, with traditions of how to plant and harvest. An industrial society is oriented to the present—get it out, get it done, ad hoc, bottom line, short term. Now we’re changing from an industrial society to one based on information, and that’s a megatrend. An information society is oriented to the future, which is why we’re so interested in it. We’re drowning in data, yet thirsty for intelligence and knowledge.

Question:

With this deluge of data, don’t a lot of people feel they may go under?

John Naisbitt:

Of course. People are looking for something to hold onto, and that’s why we’re having a religious revival. That’s also why we have all these waves of nostalgia. We want to cling to the past, which is becoming ever more recent, by the way. The past is the 1950s and 1960s.

Question:

How can you get a fix on the future?

John Naisbitt:

A sense of what’s happening now would put us way ahead. Practically the whole country continues to act as if we’re an industrial society. You shouldn’t get depressed about the latest gloomy business statistics, which are often rooted in old indices like the Dow Jones industrial average. Many companies in electronics, biotechnology and other so-called “sunrise sectors” are going strong. They’re the ones to invest in now. The economy is much better off than the economists represent to us.

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Question:

Why are there so many start-ups now?

John Naisbitt:

Because access to the system is so much easier. In the old economy the strategic resource was capital. Now it’s what’s in your head, it’s information, not how much money you’ve got in your pocket. Think about all those kids starting software companies. One-third of the new businesses today are started by women.

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Question:

The home of the future may be a so-called “electronic cottage” connected by computer to the outside world and to the workplace. Won’t this put a damper on old-fashioned socializing? 

John Naisbitt:

On the contrary. The electronic cottage won’t go very far because people want to be with people. The more technology you put in society, the more people will seek ways to congregate at movies, restaurants, shopping malls. There will be no end to office meetings. It’s a trade-off I call “high tech/ high touch.”

Question:

Would you explain?

John Naisbitt:

The idea is we put in high technology and then create a compensatory human element, or we reject the technology. For example, simultaneous with the wave of stories about the wide-spread use of computers in schools have been reports about either reviving religion there or teaching courses in values.

Question:

Where’s the political power going?

John Naisbitt:

It’s decentralizing. The percentage of eligible voters casting ballots in presidential and congressional elections continues to decline, but turnouts for local initiatives and referenda are going up—as high as 75 and 80 percent in some areas. State governments in particular are asserting themselves. Nevada, for example, is demanding state control over the four-fifths of its land now under federal jurisdiction. The decentralizing trend is reinforced by states increasingly dealing directly on their own behalf with countries all around the world.

Question:

Don’t you see any threatening clouds on the horizon?

John Naisbitt:

Of course. What are we going to do about our underclass, our industrial workers who need retraining, and our aging population? I don’t have the answers, but I’m convinced changes will come from the local level, with the private sector involved. Just because something must be done doesn’t mean the federal government creates a solution and then we all salute it.•

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Earlier this week, Elon Musk made this provocative comment about a future in which autonomous automobiles have been perfected: “People may outlaw driving cars because it’s too dangerous.” A good deal more work needs to be done before robocars are finished, but as Emily Badger writes in the Washington Post, no such legislation would be required in Musk’s scenario. An excerpt:

What Musk hasn’t considered, though, is that the importance of public safety here will no doubt bump up against another equally prized American value: individual freedom. And when the two conflict, we don’t always chose the former. We chose, for instance, to allow widespread private gun ownership in America, despite its costs in gun violence and the prevalence of accidents.

Your right to drive a car isn’t protected by a constitutional amendment. But it’s a form of freedom that’s deeply engrained in American culture. It’s hard to imagine lawmakers ever taking it away, even in the face of persuasive safety data. Like with vaccines, driverless cars may one day create a kind of herd effect short of 100 percent adoption, and maybe we’ll live with that. Maybe the cars that will be driven by computers will be able to compensate for the bad decisions of cars driven by humans.

All of this is a case for why lawmakers probably won’t ban human driving. But that doesn’t mean the private market won’t effectively do the same. Fifty years from now, if you still want to drive your vintage 2021 Camry onto a highway humming with autonomous cars, you may have a very hard time finding insurance to do that — that is, if you can still find the car.•

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Robots needn’t be conscious to help or hurt us, to serve or displace us. One possible remedy to the fears about an automation proliferation is human-machine collaboration. For example: In freestyle chess, teams comprised of one human and one computer regularly obliterate a lone person or computer. Will human employees be paired with robots in the same way?

Two things: 1) Such tandems will still checkmate a lot of workers, and 2) It may be the “detente” is only temporary, the human half of the equation gradually phased out. From a report about you newest coworker–a cobot–from Tanya Powley at the Financial Times:

Meet Sawyer. It is the newest robot on the block designed to speed up automation in factories by taking on tasks that once relied on humans’ manual dexterity and good eyesight.

The machine is one of two new “collaborative” robots, or co-bots, launched this week that are part of a new generation of affordable lightweight robots that are unlocking new markets and applications beyond automotive and semiconductor manufacturing, where robots have been a mainstay for decades.

Robot companies have been rushing to develop co-bots, which can work side-by-side with employees rather than behind a safety cage, as they look to capitalise on a growing trend by manufacturers to turn to technology to compete amid rising wage costs and labour shortages.

Unveiled on Thursday, Sawyer is made by US-based Rethink Robotics, which already builds a dual-arm humanoid robot known as Baxter. The single-armed Sawyer is more accurate, faster and smaller than Baxter, enabling it to automate a wider range of tasks such as machine tending and circuit board testing in the electronics industry. It can also carry a larger weight. Baxter has largely been used for packing purposes in factories and for academic research. …

Lightweight collaborative robots are cheaper, more dexterous, easier to move between tasks and do not require specialist programming skills. Many of them can be taught new moves by simply taking the robot arm and moving it to show it what to do. …

Sawyer will be marketed for $29,000, compared with a six figure sum for an industrial robot. Universal Robots sells its flexible, lightweight robot arms for between €20,000 to €30,000.

This has helped make automation more accessible for small and medium-sized businesses that previously could not afford the expensive heavyweight traditional industrial robots or did not consider them economical for smaller production volumes or contract manufacturing.•

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The Space Race knew numerous casualties, and one of the first was Austrian rocketeer Max Valier, who passed away 39 years before humans reached the moon. His work with rocket motors and his founding, in 1927, of the Society for Space Travel, were instrumental in humankind’s eventual giant leap. (One of the Society’s members was Wernher Von Braun, who later became a Nazi before leading the American postwar space program.) Newspaper writers had wondered for years when his daring experiments would do him in, but Valier actually perished while calmly tinkering in his lab. The story of his demise from the May 18, 1930 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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Robert Reich is opting in on technological socialism, a phrase often uttered by futurists, believing automation will cause a paucity of good jobs, and, one way or another, an endgame for capitalism that’s functional. He may be overreacting, but a working world of few hands and a long tail is at least a strong possibility. An excerpt:

The iEverything will be the best machine ever invented.

The only problem is no one will be able to buy it. That’s because no one will have any means of earning money, since the iEverything will do it all.

This is obviously fanciful, but when more and more can be done by fewer and fewer people, the profits go to an ever-smaller circle of executives and owner-investors.

One of the young founders of WhatsApp, CEO Jan Koum, had a forty-five percent equity stake in the company when Facebook purchased it, which yielded him $6.8 billion.

Cofounder Brian Acton got $3 billion for his twenty percent stake.

Each of the early employees reportedly had a one percent stake, which presumably netted them $160 million each.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will be left providing the only things technology can’t provide – person-to-person attention, human touch, and care. But these sorts of person-to-person jobs pay very little.

That means most of us will have less and less money to buy the dazzling array of products and services spawned by blockbuster technologies—because those same technologies will be supplanting our jobs and driving down our pay.

We need a new economic model.•

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It’s not always easy to distinguish between a nudge and a shove, as we well know already from the advertising age and will know even better once the Internet of Things becomes the thing. In “The Algorithmic Self,” Frank Pasquale’s expansive Hedgehog Review piece about how the new, non-humming machine we’ve built can quietly quantify us–direct us, even–while making it impossible to opt out. He surveys the landscape, looking at therapeutic robots, invasions of privacy, the dawn of a new type of surveillance, etc. An excerpt:

For many technology enthusiasts, the answer to the obesity epidemic—and many other problems—lies in computational countermeasures to the wiles of the food scientists. App developers are pioneering behavioristic interventions to make calorie counting and exercise prompts automatic. For example, users of a new gadget, the Pavlok wristband, can program it to give them an electronic shock if they miss exercise targets. But can such stimuli break through the blooming, buzzing distractions of instant gratification on offer in so many rival games and apps? Moreover, is there another way of conceptualizing our relationship to our surroundings than as a suboptimal system of stimulus and response?

Some of our subtlest, most incisive cultural critics have offered alternatives. Rather than acquiesce to our manipulability, they urge us to become more conscious of its sources—be they intrusive advertisements or computers that we (think we) control. For example, Sherry Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, sees excessive engagement with gadgets as a substitution of the “machinic” for the human—the “cheap date” of robotized interaction standing in for the more unpredictable but ultimately challenging and rewarding negotiation of friendship, love, and collegiality. In The Glass Cage, Nicholas Carr critiques the replacement of human skill with computer mediation that, while initially liberating, threatens to sap the reserves of ingenuity and creativity that enabled the computation in the first place.

Beyond the psychological, there is a political dimension, too. Legal theorist and Georgetown University law professor Julie Cohen warns of the dangers of “modulation,” which enables advertisers, media executives, political consultants, and intelligence operatives to deploy opaque algorithms to monitor and manipulate behavior. Cultural critic Rob Horning ups the ante on the concerns of Cohen and Turkle with a series of essays dissecting feedback loops among surveillance entities, the capture of important information, and self-readjusting computational interventions designed to channel behavior and thought into ever-narrower channels. Horning also criticizes Carr for failing to emphasize the almost irresistible economic logic behind algorithmic self-making—at first for competitive advantage, then, ultimately, for survival.6

To negotiate contemporary algorithms of reputation and search—ranging from resumé optimization on LinkedIn to strategic Facebook status updates to OkCupid profile grooming—we are increasingly called on to adopt an algorithmic self, one well practiced in strategic self-promotion. This algorithmic selfhood may be critical to finding job opportunities (or even maintaining a reliable circle of friends and family) in an era of accelerating social change. But it can also become self-defeating. Consider, for instance, the self-promoter whose status updates on Facebook or LinkedIn gradually tip from informative to annoying. Or the search engine−optimizing website whose tactics become a bit too aggressive, thereby causing it to run afoul of Google’s web spam team and consequently sink into obscurity. The algorithms remain stubbornly opaque amid rapidly changing social norms. A cyber-vertigo results, as we are pressed to promote our algorithmic selves but puzzled over the best way to do so.•

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Charter cities don’t work very often, probably because top-down design is antithetical to human nature, trial-and-error needing to be a more gradual and granular process. The stately pleasure-dome may work for Kubla Khan but not so much for you and I. Some academics love placing these planned utopias at the heart of bull sessions, building this city or tearing down that one in their heads. It can be disquieting to listen to, even if the intentions are good. In a new EconTalk episode, host Russ Roberts and NYU economist Paul Romer had such a talk. Two excerpts follow.

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Paul Romer:

You can think of a charter city as a kind of a zone, but a big one, big enough to encompass an entire city. One of the questions that you confront when you propose new zones is: What fraction of existing zones have succeeded, in any sense? Most zones fail. And so we have to ask, Why is that? It could be that starting a zone is kind of like starting a startup firm: even if you do it right there’s a high probability that it won’t succeed. But you keep doing it because the ones that do succeed are worth enough. But I think there’s another problem with zones around the world, which is that they fail in ways that you could have predicted when you started them, because they took this form that I’m calling a ‘concession zone.’ So, what’s the difference? A concession zone is a zone where you do something differently as a kind of a concession, a gift to some favored party. So, you give a tax holiday or some other kind of favored treatment to people who get those favors through mechanisms that are pretty easy to forecast. The test of whether something is a reform, or reform zone, is: Do you want it to extend to the rest of the country, and, do you want it to last forever? So, for example, a tax holiday, which is just for firms in a zone and just for a finite amount of time is clearly a concession. There’s no sense that this is something you’d want to extend to every firm in the country and extend forever, because typically they have no plan for how they would recover the tax revenue that they’d give up that way. So the thing to ask in small or big zones all over the world, is: Are governments using these to try out reforms that they want to spread throughout the rest of the country and have last forever, or are they just using them to give some concessions? And if they are to give some concessions, the probability that it won’t do anything good for the country, the ex ante probability, is very low.

Russ Roberts: 

Now, the way I originally understood the idea of a charter city is you have a system–you have a country, excuse me–where the governance of the country is failing in some dimension and it’s very difficult under that scenario, under that situation, for the government to credibly commit to reforming itself. And what a charter city would do is import essentially the institutions of a different country which they are more likely and more credibly able to promise about property rights, the rule of law, say, crime. And in this way you could encourage foreign investment, or any kind of investment, in that city, that you wouldn’t be able to attract if you were stuck under the governance of the host country. That idea is only one kind of charter city or one kind of reform, correct? Because you’re really talking about something more like a laboratory where trial and error could be used to assess effectiveness. 

Paul Romer: 

Yeah. I think the general concept here is that you use the decision to opt in to a new geographic area as an opportunity to implement reforms of any sort, any type of reform, that might be controversial if you tried to implement it on a group of people who were already in a particular location. Think of it as a way to avoid–is to try something new without any coercion. Try something new where the people who live under this new regime choose voluntarily to be part of that. And the thing that you try to do differently or try to do new can take many different forms; and different countries at different stages of development might try many different kinds of reforms or just innovations in their systems of rules. So, the one you were describing where the reform you want to undertake is one where you import government services from outside, I think that’s in practice a very important possible type of reform for poor countries. But the more general concept would allow many different types of reforms. You can even consider a new reform zone/city in the United States where you might do something like say, well, every vehicle in this city has to have autonomous control, instead of driver control. Or you might say, we’re going to ban any use of gasoline and diesel and just rely on natural gas and build the infrastructure for that. So, there’s things you can try in the new setting that would be very difficult from a technical point of view and a political point of view to try in an existing setting; and we might learn a lot that generalizes from running an experiment like that.

Russ Roberts: 

Well, what’s exhilarating about it is it allows the choice of a city to be similar to my choice of, say, music player. Right? Nobody sticks me with a music player. I go out and choose the one I want. I choose the phone I want. I choose the kind of house I want to live in, and I choose the books I want to read. I can choose the government I want but the costs of that choice are very different, right? 

Paul Romer: 

Yeah.

Russ Roberts: 

Because I can move.

Paul Romer: 

Yeah. When I teach about cities these days I tell students to think of cities as intermediate entities between the nation and a business. So, I don’t think a city is identical to a business. And I think there are some city functions that we couldn’t privatize to a corporate governance accountability kind of model. Policing is the test case on this. I think very few people would actually voluntarily choose to go someplace where there’s a police force and a judicial system that could lock you up that’s run by a corporate entity. And I think that doesn’t change whether it’s a nonprofit or a for-profit corporate entity. So, what we’re doing is using some of the same mechanisms for cities, like choice by consumers or users–we’re using choice, but it’s on an entity which is still likely to have some form of government that’s subject to some form of political accountability. And what this reform-zone idea does is more fully exploit the possibilities of this thing that lies between the nation and the business.•

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Russ Roberts:

So, if you say to me, ‘Hey, we’re starting this new town. It’s fabulous. It’s going to have driverless–this is the town that me and 17 other people would want to live in. It’s got driverless cars, natural gas fuel, no minimum wage laws–whole range of, say, attractive things. So, it’s clean air; it’s fabulous. But they you say: ‘But where is it?’ ‘Well, it’s in the middle of Nebraska.’ ‘But I don’t want to live in the middle of Nebraska.’ So in a way, all the good spots have been taken in the United States. That’s why there are cities there already. So, one of the challenges I think of thinking about Shenzhen and India and China, where their population is growing so fast: It’s going to be very appealing sometimes to leave a city for a new place. It’s a little more challenging in a country like the United States–imagine where this magical city of Oz would be.

Paul Romer:

Yeah. Well, I think we have to use a little bit of imagination. This is mostly being facetious, but one thing I tell people, having visited Long Beach, California just once, is that we should think about Long Beach as a tear down. You know, it’s a really ugly city, but in a beautiful location.

Russ Roberts:

Uuuh, uhhh, yeah–

Paul Romer:

We ought to just tell them to tear down the whole city. And then if you build like a Manhattan in Long Beach–if you could get like Manhattan densities and street activity and excitement, with California weather, man, that would be a successful real estate project.•

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You don’t have to read too much between the lines to understand that Braun design legend Dieter Rams, in his dotage, maybe regrets devoting his life to the field despite being so brilliant at it. I don’t think that’s such an unusual reaction to being on the wrong side of aging, no matter the accomplishments. Three excerpts follow from Gary Hustwit’s Fast Company Q&A with Rams.

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Question:

How has design changed in the last 50 years?

Dieter Rams:

What I am especially bothered by today is that, particularly in the media, design is being used as a ‘lifestyle asset.’ I’m bothered by the arbitrariness and the thoughtlessness with which many things are produced and brought to the market. There are so many unnecessary things we produce, not only in the sector of consumer goods, but also in architecture, in advertising. We have too many unnecessary things everywhere. And I would even go as far as to describe this as inhumane. That is the situation today. But actually, it has always been a problem.

We need to deal with our resources differently, in terms of how we waste things. We have to move away from the throwaway habit. Things can, and must, last longer. They must be designed so that they can be reused. We need to take more care of our environment. That means not only our personal environment but also our cities and our resources. That is the future of design, to take more care of these basic elements. Otherwise I’m not sure what the future of our planet will be. So designers have to take on that responsibility, and to do so we need more support from government. We need political support to solve the problems with our environment and how we should shape our cities. As designers, we shouldn’t be doing this for ourselves, but for our community. And the community needs support, not only to interact with each other democratically, but it also needs support to live democratically.

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Question:

If you were to design a computer now, what would it look like?

Dieter Rams:

It would look like one of Apple’s products. In many magazines, or on the Internet, people compare Apple products to things which I designed, with this or that transistor radio from 1965 or 1955. In terms of aesthetics, I think their designs are brilliant. I don’t consider it an imitation. I take it as a compliment.

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Question:

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t covered so far?

Dieter Rams:

Well, I’m not very active in the design field anymore. I have only a few things to do, mainly in the furniture sector, because I have certain commitments. But I am still very interested in what’s happening, and it is my wish that we really do deal with our surroundings more consciously in the future. That is really my wish, because I believe it contributes to living with one another more peacefully. That’s why, if I had something to do in this world again, I would not want to be a designer. Because I believe, in the future, it will be less important to have many things and more important to exercise care about where and how we live.•

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A scene from Objectified, 2009.

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In her NYRB piece on Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage, Sue Halpern runs through periods of the twentieth century when fears of technological unemployment were raised before receding, mentioning a 1980 Time cover story about the Labor-destabilizing force of machines. These projections seemed proved false as job creation increased considerably during the Reagan Administration, but as Halpern goes on to note, that feature article may have been prescient in ways we didn’t then understand. Income inequality began to boom during the last two decades of the previous century, a worrying trajectory that’s only been exacerbated as we’ve moved deeper into the Digital Revolution. Certainly there are other causes but automation is likely among them, with the new wealth in the hands of fewer, algorithms and robots managing a good portion of the windfall-creating toil. And if you happen to be working in many of the fields likely to soon be automated (hotels, restaurants, warehouses, etc.), you might want to ask some former travel agents and record-store owners for resume tips. 

Halpern zeroes in on a Carr topic often elided by economists debating whether the next few decades will be boon or bane for the non-wealthy: the hole left in our hearts when we’re “freed” of work. Is that something common to us because we were born on the other side of the transformation, or are humans marked indelibly with the need to produce beyond tweets and likes? Maybe it’s the work, not the play, that’s the thing. From Halpern:

Here is what that future—which is to say now—looks like: banking, logistics, surgery, and medical recordkeeping are just a few of the occupations that have already been given over to machines. Manufacturing, which has long been hospitable to mechanization and automation, is becoming more so as the cost of industrial robots drops, especially in relation to the cost of human labor. According to a new study by the Boston Consulting Group, currently the expectation is that machines, which now account for 10 percent of all manufacturing tasks, are likely to perform about 25 percent of them by 2025. (To understand the economics of this transition, one need only consider the American automotive industry, where a human spot welder costs about $25 an hour and a robotic one costs $8. The robot is faster and more accurate, too.) The Boston group expects most of the growth in automation to be concentrated in transportation equipment, computer and electronic products, electrical equipment, and machinery.

Meanwhile, algorithms are writing most corporate reports, analyzing intelligence data for the NSA andCIA, reading mammograms, grading tests, and sniffing out plagiarism. Computers fly planes—Nicholas Carr points out that the average airline pilot is now at the helm of an airplane for about three minutes per flight—and they compose music and pick which pop songs should be recorded based on which chord progressions and riffs were hits in the past. Computers pursue drug development—a robot in the UK named Eve may have just found a new compound to treat malaria—and fill pharmacy vials.

Xerox uses computers—not people—to select which applicants to hire for its call centers. The retail giant Amazon “employs” 15,000 warehouse robots to pull items off the shelf and pack boxes. The self-driving car is being road-tested. A number of hotels are staffed by robotic desk clerks and cleaned by robotic chambermaids. Airports are instituting robotic valet parking. Cynthia Breazeal, the director of MIT’s personal robots group, raised $1 million in six days on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, and then $25 million in venture capital funding, to bring Jibo, “the world’s first social robot,” to market. …

There is a certain school of thought, championed primarily by those such as Google’s Larry Page, who stand to make a lot of money from the ongoing digitization and automation of just about everything, that the elimination of jobs concurrent with a rise in productivity will lead to a leisure class freed from work. Leaving aside questions about how these lucky folks will house and feed themselves, the belief that most people would like nothing more than to be able to spend all day in their pajamas watching TV—which turns out to be what many “nonemployed” men do—sorely misconstrues the value of work, even work that might appear to an outsider to be less than fulfilling. Stated simply: work confers identity. When Dublin City University professor Michael Doherty surveyed Irish workers, including those who stocked grocery shelves and drove city buses, to find out if work continues to be “a significant locus of personal identity,” even at a time when employment itself is less secure, he concluded that “the findings of this research can be summed up in the succinct phrase: ‘work matters.’”

How much it matters may not be quantifiable, but in an essay in The New York Times, Dean Baker, the codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, noted that there was

a 50 to 100 percent increase in death rates for older male workers in the years immediately following a job loss, if they previously had been consistently employed.

One reason was suggested in a study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), who found, Carr reports, that “people were happier, felt more fulfilled by what they were doing, while they were at work than during their leisure hours.”

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Today may be Netanyahu’s waterloo, or not, with the ideologue shifting further right at the eleventh hour, hoping to extend his time in office. One thing which shouldn’t be lost regardless of the election’s outcome, is that in addition to worries about diplomatic bungling and existential threats from without, the country is enduring serious income inequality. From “Israel’s Gilded Age,” by Paul Krugman of the New York Times:

Why did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel feel the need to wag the dog in Washington? For that was, of course, what he was doing in his anti-Iran speech to Congress. If you’re seriously trying to affect American foreign policy, you don’t insult the president and so obviously align yourself with his political opposition. No, the real purpose of that speech was to distract the Israeli electorate with saber-rattling bombast, to shift its attention away from the economic discontent that, polls suggest, may well boot Mr. Netanyahu from office in Tuesday’s election.

But wait: Why are Israelis discontented? After all, Israel’s economy has performed well by the usual measures. It weathered the financial crisis with minimal damage. Over the longer term, it has grown more rapidly than most other advanced economies, and has developed into a high-technology powerhouse. What is there to complain about?

The answer, which I don’t think is widely appreciated here, is that while Israel’s economy has grown, this growth has been accompanied by a disturbing transformation in the country’s income distribution and society. Once upon a time, Israel was a country of egalitarian ideals — the kibbutz population was always a small minority, but it had a large impact on the nation’s self-perception. And it was a fairly equal society in reality, too, right up to the early 1990s.

Since then, however, Israel has experienced a dramatic widening of income disparities. Key measures of inequality have soared; Israel is now right up there with America as one of the most unequal societies in the advanced world. And Israel’s experience shows that this matters, that extreme inequality has a corrosive effect on social and political life.•

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Some still eat McDonald’s and Kraft Singles and Lunchables and other suspicious-looking pseudo-edibles, but thankfully far fewer are stepping up to those plates. Big Food in America has repeatedly chosen taste over nutrition, a decision which paid off handsomely for a good while, but that mindset has come back to bite the industry. While the corporations have not changed, consumer choices have. It’s probably, in part, consequence of the ceaseless food porn and tiresome celebrity chefs which inundate us. Those screaming, skilleting idiots may have served a purpose after all. From Gary Silverman at the Financial Times:

Andy Warhol knew what he was doing. In the early 1960s, when he was looking to create a stir in the world of modern art, he fixed on an image as familiar to his audience as the Pietà was to Michelangelo’s — the Campbell’s soup can. It was both a consumer good and an icon of the age. Red and white, like the wine and bread of the sacraments Warhol knew from church, it promised comfort for the user once its condensed contents were mixed with water, heated and served.

But Warhol’s old models are now facing misfortune. The signature offering of Campbell Soup Company of Camden, New Jersey, founded in 1869, is falling out of favour with consumers in the US. Campbell’s condensed soup is no longer the stuff of modern art; it is becoming a symbol of days gone by, when Americans could be counted on to stock their pantries with the processed food brands advertised relentlessly on the three big television networks.

Today, a revolution is under way in US supermarkets. A more health-conscious millennial generation is forsaking the convenience food of their baby-boomer parents for fresher, more natural fare and proteins of various sorts. Burgeoning immigrant populations are stoking demand for different types of provisions. Beleaguered consumers are buying lower-cost store brands at bare-bones retailers, or cooking less and eating out more so they can work longer hours.

The result is that even as the US economy has recovered, some of the country’s best-known food companies — and some of their most enduring brands — have been suffering. Sales of Campbell’s condensed soup slipped 3 per cent year on year during its last six months of reported results. During the most recent quarter, North American revenues for Kellogg’s cereals and other morning foods fell 7.7 per cent, while Kraft Foods, the North American grocery business of the old consumer giant, reported a 6.6 per cent sales decline for meals and desserts, including its macaroni and cheese in a box.

So tumultuous are the culinary times that some of history’s most successful marketing organisations are admitting that they have lost touch with the people who buy their products. John Cahill, chairman and chief executive of Kraft, might as well have been speaking for the industry when he issued an extraordinary mea culpa this year as he cleaned his corporate house, saying goodbye to senior executives including his chief financial officer and adding a new “vice-president of growth initiatives”.

“It’s clear that our world has changed and our consumers have changed,” Mr Cahill said. “But our company has not changed enough.”•

 

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Newly standing on a world stage can make for an awkward posture. Every country has its faults, but some practices, like China stocking its market of internal organs by harvesting from executed prisoners, is particularly beyond the pale. Of course, it’s difficult to stop commerce practices long established, especially in a nation flooded with money and lacking in human rights. From the Economist:

TRANSPLANT operations in China have long relied on organs taken from executed prisoners, a practice that has led to such abuses as the timing of executions to meet organ demand, with no notification of relatives. As by far the world’s biggest user of the death penalty, China could count on an abundant—if still far from adequate—supply. But in recent years, stung by international criticism, it has been trying both to reduce executions and to end the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners without their, or their families’, consent. Since January 1st the government has insisted that no such organs be used for transplants. Ensuring compliance, however, will be difficult.

The number of executions is almost certainly falling, even if it remains far higher than in the rest of the world. The government does not release data, but the Dui Hua Foundation, an American NGO, reckons there were around 2,400 executions in 2013, down from 6,500 in 2007. In spite of the impact this has had on organ supply, the government still seems keen to sever the grim link between hospitals and courts that allows wealthy (or well-connected) patients to use organs from condemned prisoners. In theory, the rules mean that hospitals will be able to obtain only organs donated by volunteers to a national organ-bank. …

Persuading the public to donate remains a problem. Many Chinese adhere to a traditional belief that the body has to be kept intact to show respect for ancestors. A senior official at a provincial branch of the Red Cross Society of China, the agency responsible for the donor scheme, says that a lucrative backdoor trade in executed prisoners’ organs will be hard to stop.•

From the March 9, 1884 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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The Electra and Oedipus of the Apollo space program, Oriana Fallaci and Norman Mailer were two writers with egos massive enough to observe humankind’s mission to the Moon as not only material for New Journalism reportage of an historical quest but also as backdrop to investigations of their own psyches. In 1968, two years after Fallaci published If the Sun Dies… and the year before Mailer stormed through a series of long-form articles for Life magazine that became Of a Fire on the Moon, the pair sat down for an interview with Fallaci serving as the inquisitor. In Mailer’s face–“noble and vulgar,” she called it–Fallaci claimed to be searching for America. It actually wasn’t a bad place to look: Like his country, Mailer could be at turns soaringly brilliant and shockingly brutal–and completely delusional about his behavior in regards to the latter. His remarks about domestic violence, for instance, were beyond horrifying, and they unfortunately weren’t merely macho showboating. The discussion opened Fallaci’s collection of (mostly) non-political interrogations, The Egotists. Three excerpts follow.

_____________________________

 

Oriana Fallaci:

The problem I want to talk about is a difficult one, but we have to deal with it. The fact is we Europeans used to love you Americans. When you came to liberate us twenty years ago, we used to look up to you as if you were angels. And now many of us don’t love you anymore; indeed some hate you. Today the United States might be the most hated country in the world.

Norman Mailer:

You used to love us because love is hope, and we Americans were your hope. And also, perhaps, because twenty years ago we were a better people, although not as good as you believed then–the seeds of the present ugliness were already there. The soldiers with whom I fought in the Pacific, for example, were a little better than the ones who are fighting now in Vietnam, but not by much. We were quite brutal even then. One could write a novel about Vietnam along the lines of The Naked and the Dead, and the characters would not need to be worse than they are in the book.The fact is that you have lost the hope you have vested in us, and so you have lost your love; therefore you see us in a much worse light than you did before, and you don’t understand that the roots of our ugliness are the old ones. It is true that the evil forces in America have triumphed only after the war–with the enormous growth of corporations and the transformation of man into mass-man, the alienation of men from their own existence–but these forces were already there in Roosevelt’s time. Roosevelt, you see, was a great President, but he wasn’t a great thinker. Indeed, he was a very superficial one. When he took power, America stood at a crossroad; either a proletarian revolution would take place or capitalism would enter a new phase. What happened was that capitalism took a new turn, transforming itself into a subtle elaboration of state capitalism–it is not by chance that the large corporations in effect belong to the government. They belong to the right. And just as the Stalinists have murdered Marxism, so these bastards of the right are now destroying what is good in American life. They are the same people who build the expressways, who cut the trees, who pollute the air and the water, who transform life into a huge commodity.

Oriana Fallaci:

We Europeans are also very good at this. I mean this is not done by only right-wing Americans.

Norman Mailer:

Of course. It is a worldwide process. But its leader is America, and this is why we are hated. We are the leaders of the technological revolution that is taking over the twentieth century, the electronic revolution that is dehumanizing mankind.•

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Norman Mailer:

I still have hope you seem to have lost. Because of the youth. Some of them are subhuman, but most of them are intelligent.

Oriana Fallaci:

That is true. But they are also stuffed with drugs, violence, LSD. Does that help your hoping?

Norman Mailer:

Theirs is an extraordinary complex generation to live in. The best thing I can say about them is that I can’t understand them. The previous generation, the one fifteen years ago, was so predictable, without surprises. This one is a continuing surprise. I watch the young people of today, I listen to them, and l realize that I’m not twenty years older than they are but a hundred. Perhaps because in five years they went through changes that usually take half a century to complete, their intelligence has been speeded up so incredibly that there is no contact between them and the generation around thirty. Not to speak of those around forty or fifty. Yes, I know that this does not happen only in America; this too is a global process. But the psychology of American youth is more modern than that of any other group in the world; it belongs not to 1967 but to 2027. If God could see what would happen in the future–as he perhaps does–he would see people everywhere acting and thinking in 2027 as American youth do now. It’s true they take drugs. But they don’t take the old drugs such as heroin and cocaine that produce only physical reactions and sensations and dull you at the same time. They take LSD, a drug that can help you explore your mind. Now let’s get this straight: I can’t justify the use of LSD. I know too well that you don’t get something for nothing, and it may well be that we’ll pay a tragic price for LSD: it seems that it can break the membrane of the chromosomes in the cells and produce who knows what damage in future children. But LSD is part of a search, a desperate search, as if all these young people felt at the same time the need to explore as soon as possible their minds so as to avoid a catastrophe. Technology has stripped our minds until we have become like pygmies driving chariots drawn by dinosaurs. Now, if we want to keep the dinosaurs in harness, our minds will have to develop at a forced pace, which will require a frightening effort. The young have felt the need to harness the dinosaurs, and if they have found the wrong means, it’s still better than nothing. My fear had been that America was slowly freezing and hardening herself in a pygmy’s sleep. But no, she’s awake.•

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Norman Mailer:

Damn it, I don’t like violence. But there’s something I like even less, and that’s a need for security. It smells of the grave and forces you to react with blood. 

Oriana Fallaci:

You dislike violence? You who knifed a wife and can’t miss a boxing match?

Norman Mailer:

The knife in my wife’s belly was a crime. It was a grave crime, but it had nothing to do with violence. And as for the fights, well, boxing is not violence. It’s a conversation, an exchange between two men who talk to each other with their hands instead of their voices: hitting at the ear, the nose, the mouth, the belly, instead of hitting at each other’s minds. Boxing is a noble art. When a man fights in a ring, he is not expressing brutality. He expresses a complex, subtle nature like that of a true intellectual, a real aristocrat. A pugilist is less brutal, or not at all brutal after a fight, because with his fists he transforms violence into something beautiful, noble and disciplined. It’s a real triumph of the spirit. No, I’m not violent. To be violent means to pick fights, and I can’t remember ever having started a fight. Nor can I remember ever having hit a woman–a strange woman, I mean. I may have hit a wife, but that’s different. If you are married you have two choices: either you beat your wife, or you don’t. Some people live their whole life without ever beating her, others maybe beat her once and thereon are labeled “violent.” I like to marry women whom I can beat once in a while, and who fight back. All my wives have been very good fighters. Perhaps I need women who are capable of violence, to offset my own. Am I not American, after all? But the act of hitting is hateful because it implies a judgement, and judgement itself is hateful. Not that I think of myself as being a good man in the Christian sense. But at certain times I have a clear consciousness of what is good and what is evil, and then my concept of the good resembles that of the Christian.•

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Just Looking

Straight 30 year old male wondering where all the fun couples are. I’ve tried this before and had some success. I would like to Watch a couple together. JUST WATCH. If your interested in more we can discuss. Must be clean ddf and laid back. Please discreet and able to host in the area. If interested message back with header “watch us” and attach a face pic and I will return one and we can go from there. Be real and don’t waste my time.

I recently came across the photo of Tinius the Turtle robot being “walked” at Rice University in 1950, and how cute! So far most psychological tests indicate humans are averse to harming robots, but I’m not buying it. Considering the things we do to one another and the atrocities we reign down on chickens and pigs and cows, it’s only a matter of time before restraint is relaxed and hands ungloved. There’ll be AI petting zoos, but there also be an industry of lifelike machines built to take a punch, or a bullet. There’s just something about us. We compartmentalize. From Alex Hern’s Guardian article about robopets and torture, which centers around DAR-1. An excerpt:

DAR–1 is the creation of roboticist Ray Renteria, who introduces himself to the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, as an amateur magician. And just as the work of a magician is focused around misdirection, and a control of the context in which magic is performed, so too is DAR–1 an exercise in how simple, mechanistic effects can be imbued with life with just the right presentation.

The work starts in Renteria’s blurb for DAR–1, a part of the festival’s “Robot Petting Zoo”. The Raspberry Pi and laser-cut legs (both, incidentally, produced in England, leading Renteria to describe the machine as a “British invader”) aren’t mentioned. Instead, visitors are primed to treat the robot as a fellow living being from the off.

“Curious about people, he’ll study your eyes and your smile with the intensity of a focused child,” it reads. “He’s shy, though. If you get a little too close to him, he’ll get nervous and try to back away. See how long you get him to keep following your eyes by looking deep into his.” Similarly, if you ask Renteria why the robot has a permanent shiver to its movements, there’s a technical answer – a particular variable hovering between fully-on and fully-off leads to motors being rapidly engaged then disengaged – but also an anthropomorphised one: “he’s nervous”.

At the same time, says Renteria, “he’s a robot, he’s proud of being a robot, so you’re not going to talk to him, you’re not going to call to him to try to get his attention.”

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I’ve written this before, but I think the final 5% of designing true driverless cars may prove to be more difficult than getting to that stage. Navigating inclement weather and “reacting” to signaling traffic cops will not be easy. There’ll be incremental introductions of the technology, but a car that allows you to sleep or play cards while it does all the work is not an easy assignment. From Matt McFarland at the Washington Post:

In an panel Saturday at SXSW, University of Michigan professor Ryan Eustice, who is developing algorithms for the maps driverless cars will rely on, acknowledged the challenge.

“To really field this technology in all weather, all kinds of scenarios, I think the public’s been a little oversold to this point,” Eustice said. “There’s still a lot of really hard problems to work on.”

He cited the problem of a driverless car’s sensors being confused by snowflakes during a snowstorm. There’s also the question of whether a driverless car in a snowstorm should drive in its original lane or follow the tracks of the car in front of it?

You might think we can just rely on humans to take over whenever a situation gets dicey. But Eustice and others aren’t fond of that.

“This notion, fall back to a human, in part it’s kind of a fallacy,” Eustice said. “To fall back on a human the car has to be able to have enough predictive capability to know that 30 seconds from now, or whatever, it’s in a situation it can’t handle. The human, they’re not going to pay attention in the car. You’re going to be on your cell phone, you’re going to totally tune out, whatever. To take on that cognitive load, you can’t just kick out and say oh ‘take over.’ ”•

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Elmo Keep, who made an appearance on Afflictor’sGreat 2014 Nonfiction Articles” list for her ambitious Matter piece about the seeming futility of the MarsOne project and, more broadly, the pursuit of escape in a dying universe, is back with a brief follow-up report. She refers to the Netherlands-based project as “hopelessly, dangerously flawed,” and I don’t think too many close watchers of the enterprise would disagree. The astronatut selection process sounds something like Amway hurtling through the Milky Way. An excerpt:

When Joseph first signed up with Mars One — the media-hyped, one-way mission to colonize the red planet being floated by a Dutch non-profit — he didn’t think much of it. The former NASA researcher said he never really took the application seriously; he was just putting his hat in the ring mostly out of curiosity, and with the hope of bringing public attention to space science.

But eventually Joseph — who is actually Dr. Joseph Roche, an assistant professor at Trinity College’s School of Education in Dublin, with a Ph.D. in physics and astrophysics — found himself on the group’s shortlist of 100 candidates all willing to undertake the theoretical journey. And that’s when he started talking to me about the big problems he was seeing with Mars One.

It was difficult for him to break his silence, but he was spurred into speaking out by the uncritical news coverage. Many basic assumptions about the project remain unchallenged. Most egregiously, many media outlets continue to report that Mars One received applications from 200,000 people who would be happy to die on another planet — when the number it actually received was 2,761.

As Roche observed the process from an insider’s perspective, his concerns increased. Chief among them: that “ and are being encouraged to “donate” any appearance fees back to Mars One — which seemed to him very strange for an outfit that needs billions of dollars to complete its objective.

“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points,” Roche explained to me in an email. “You get points for getting through each round of the selection process (but just an arbitrary number of points, not anything to do with ranking), and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”•

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Science and technology are the best chances for humans to survive a while longer–a lot longer, actually–but they also mean the end of us, as we’ve long defined our species. Those changes, which will likely occur very gradually, are disquieting (and fascinating) when considered all at once. Maybe that’s why movies and commercials set in techno-dystopias so enthrall us, as we watch them from the screens of our beloved tablets and smartphones. We want the future, but not all of it. In a CNET piece, Chris Matyszczyk wonders about our dual emotions regarding tomorrow. An excerpt:

It seems that almost every ad and Hollywood movie created about the future shows a world that is cold, heartless, menacing and thoroughly soulless.

Yes, we’ll have all sorts of strange gizmos, flying machines and lasers that will paralyze all living beings from galaxies away. But at heart our lives will be chillingly dark, the only color being provided by little green people who zoom in for a pot of tea, a cookie and a skirmish or two.

Simultaneously, in these pages we’re celebrating new devices, robots, flying cars, um, watches and other exciting creations that will take us into a more intelligent and allegedly advanced world.

While Google’s Ray Kurzweil cannot wait until the robots come and he can become one of them, many of us more earthly beings – Stephen Hawking, for example – worry that the robots will take one look at us, use us for a little while and stomp us against the cutting room floor.

Perhaps one reason why ads and movies like to portray the future as a miserable and dangerous place is that humans, in all our bloated magisterial weakness, have an innate fear of the unknown, of the things that can’t ultimately be predicted and controlled.

Yet here we are actively creating that very future. Here we are constructing the very digital, electronic elements that end up frightening Tom Cruise, Will Smith and even non Thetan-believers like Denzel Washington.

Is it really that we’re just playing a little game with ourselves in these ads and movies? Is it that filmmakers have to portray the future as menacing and dangerous so that they can ultimately create a happy ending (even if the world’s been largely destroyed in the process?)

Could it be, though, that there’s some element of self-distrust and even self-loathing in our dedication to automation and digital nirvana, while at the same time using ads and movies to warn of the insane nincompoopery of our thought processes?•

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Pushing back at Bill Gates’ favorite book of the last decade, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, philosopher John Gray argues in the Guardian that those who believe global violence to be on the wane are using accounting that’s too messy and theories too neat. We assign violence to backwardness when the cutting edge has the potential to be the sharpest of all. The essay comes from Gray’s new book, The Soul of the Marionette. An excerpt:

There is something repellently absurd in the notion that war is a vice of “backward” peoples. Destroying some of the most refined civilisations that have ever existed, the wars that ravaged south-east Asia in the second world war and the decades that followed were the work of colonial powers. One of the causes of the genocide in Rwanda was the segregation of the population by German and Belgian imperialism. Unending war in the Congo has been fuelled by western demand for the country’s natural resources. If violence has dwindled in advanced societies, one reason may be that they have exported it.

Then again, the idea that violence is declining in the most highly developed countries is questionable. Judged by accepted standards, the United States is the most advanced society in the world. According to many estimates the US also has the highest rate of incarceration, some way ahead of China and Russia, for example. Around a quarter of all the world’s prisoners are held in American jails, many for exceptionally long periods. Black people are disproportionately represented, many prisoners are mentally ill and growing numbers are aged and infirm. Imprisonment in America involves continuous risk of assault by other prisoners. There is the threat of long periods spent in solitary confinement, sometimes (as in “supermax” facilities, where something like Bentham’s Panopticon has been constructed) for indefinite periods – a type of treatment that has been reasonably classified as torture. Cruel and unusual punishments involving flogging and mutilation may have been abolished in many countries, but, along with unprecedented levels of mass incarceration, the practice of torture seems to be integral to the functioning of the world’s most advanced state.

It may not be an accident that torture is often deployed in the special operations that have replaced more traditional types of warfare. The extension of counter-terrorism to include assassination by unaccountable mercenaries and remote-controlled killing by drones is part of this shift. A metamorphosis in the nature is war is under way, which is global in reach. With the state of Iraq in ruins as a result of US-led regime change, a third of the country is controlled by Isis, which is able to inflict genocidal attacks on Yazidis and wage a campaign of terror on Christians with near-impunity. In Nigeria, the Islamist militias of Boko Haram practise a type of warfare featuring mass killing of civilians, razing of towns and villages and sexual enslavement of women and children. In Europe, targeted killing of journalists, artists and Jews in Paris and Copenhagen embodies a type of warfare that refuses to recognise any distinction between combatants and civilians. Whether they accept the fact or not, advanced societies have become terrains of violent conflict. Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred.

Deaths on the battlefield have fallen and may continue to fall. From one angle this can be seen as an advancing condition of peace. From another point of view that looks at the variety and intensity with which violence is being employed, the Long Peace can be described as a condition of perpetual conflict.

***

Certainly the figures used by Pinker and others are murky, leaving a vast range of casualties of violence unaccounted for.•

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While his 1974 adaptation of Libertarian tract, The Incredible Bread Machine, drops my jaw with its intense anti-government paranoia, filmmaker and sculptor Theo Kamecke’s 1970 documentary, Moonwalk One, is a poetic, moody and beautiful work. Funny that it was lost for decades since it was built for the ages.

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Michael Tennesen is a glass-half-full kind of guy. The author of the newly published The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man tells Lindsay Abrams of Salon that something may extinct humans (his guess: overpopulation), but it’s not that big a deal. Maybe something less shitty will come along and replace us. 

A tangent before the interview excerpt: I’ve heard a million times that no one reads anymore and that Amazon has destroyed publishing and that books are dead, but have you noticed how one great title after another keeps emrging, almost more than it’s possible to keep up with? Something there doesn’t compute.

The interview excerpt:

Question:

A lot of us look at these studies about pollution and climate change and extinction on a very day-by-day, headline basis. What was the value for you of stepping back and taking a more pulled-back, planetary perspective on these issues?

Michael Tennesen:

I was influenced by a paper that Anthony Barnosky from the University of California at Berkeley wrote, about his idea that we are entering a mass extinction event. People who study life on Earth think that extinction has a dual side: it could be a catastrophe or it could be an opportunity. The comet that fell out of the sky at the end of the Cretaceous period knocked out the dinosaurs, but made way for mammals and man.

So I’m trying to look at what can happen next. And to get an idea of what can happen next, I kind of had to pull back and look at the history of life on Earth with the idea: how does life recover from catastrophe? What things can you see in both events that might possibly be repeated in the future?  I wanted to look at the whole concept. There was a book by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, where he talked about what it would be like tomorrow if man disappeared and how long it would take for man’s infrastructure to come down, for New York to fall.  I just wanted to look at it from more of a reality standpoint: What would the biology be like in such an event?

Question:

When you’re looking back at some of these lessons we can learn from past mass extinctions, what are some of the most important things you came across, that we should be paying attention to?

Michael Tennesen:

If you look at the past, the driver of four out of the five mass extinctions has been carbon dioxide. I went to Guadalupe National Park and took a hike with the national park biologist Jonena Hearst to Capitan Reef, which was just this explosion of life that existed back in the Permian Era, 250 million years ago, just before the Permian extinction. It showed just how susceptible life is to chemicals in the environment, and the litany of things that was going on during the Permian extinction, which was the greatest extinction we’ve ever had: 90 percent of life was knocked out of the ocean; 70 to 75 percent on land. The high CO2 content and greenhouse gases and other problems — sulfur dioxide release, major changes in the ocean currents — these are some of the things we’re dealing with now. I don’t know if we’re going to be heading into that massive of an event, but there are lessons there. A lot of people want to go, “Well, what’s CO2? What’s the big deal?” It’s 400 parts per million. That’s a lot.

Question:

As you said, there is sort of a more optimistic way of looking at mass extinction, because there are some positive potential outcomes…

Michael Tennesen:

In an extinction event, you’ve got a new playing board. I went up to Mt. St. Helens and looked at the land around that volcano. They’ve actually separated a portion of the volcanic area as a natural experiment to see how life would come back. Nature actually does a pretty fabulous job pretty quickly.•

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Fears about declining America innovation is a cyclical concern, not something that started with Peter Thiel. Thirty-five years ago, then-MIT President Paul Edward Gray believed if the sky wasn’t falling then it had at least darkened. Gray was right that smaller companies were about to explode into behemoths and elbow aside traditional giants, but his worries about regulation seem to have been excessive. And he clearly couldn’t have anticipated China’s rise.

Of course, the most honest response to the question “So there will be no more individual inventors like Edison?” is that Edison and other larger-than-life industrialists never were individual inventors. That was mostly a “Great Man” narrative. From Gail Jennes’ 1980 People interview with Gray:

Question:

What is happening to the spirit of innovation in America?

Paul Edward Gray:

The increasing complexity of the systems we work with makes innovation ever more difficult. It requires larger investments in laboratories, equipment and people—and more sophistication in all of them. Not that inventing a practical light bulb looked simple to Edison around 1879 when he did it; but it was physically a lot less complex than, say, what Edwin Land faced when he invented instant photography in 1947. And that, in turn, seems simple in comparison with some of the challenges facing us today.

Question:

So there will be no more individual inventors like Edison?

Paul Edward Gray:

Well, in the last decade or two it’s become harder for an inventor to bring a new idea into the marketplace. It’s not just a matter of the light bulb turning on over somebody’s head, as in the cartoons. The innovator has to think about the problems of marketing, sales, controlling the manufacturing process and, not least, meeting the demands of government regulatory agencies.

Question:

Then who is replacing the old-fashioned inventor?

Paul Edward Gray:

Small companies like Alza Corp., a pharmaceutical company in California, and Florida’s LaserColor Laboratories. The large corporations have the means to innovate, but they develop an investment in the present—a mindset which values stability and resists the introduction of radically different ideas. Take the transistor, or semiconductor, as an example. None of the companies that made vacuum tubes 30 years ago is significant in semiconductors today. The ability to invent and the ability to capitalize on invention are often two radically different things. …

Question:

In terms of innovation, is the U.S.S.R. gaining on us?

Paul Edward Gray:

Basic science there in many respects is very good. In certain areas, such as fusion research, they’ve been in the forefront. But that’s not true of their technology. Why is the U.S.S.R. so interested in buying large-scale and medium-size computers? Because they can’t make their own. They can hand-tailor a few for military installations, but they can’t produce modern, fast digital processors like we can. The Soviets will not be our competitors in any high-technology world market in the foreseeable future. The same thing is true of China, in spades. I visited Peking last summer, and their computer, chemical and engineering sciences are 20 years or more behind. They’ll have a tough time catching up.

Question:

Who will be our competitors?

Paul Edward Gray:

A few Western European countries, principally Germany. Also Japan. And maybe in the near future some other Far East nations. Taiwan, for instance, has developed at a tremendous clip. So has South Korea.

Question:

Are you optimistic about the future of science in the U.S.?

Paul Edward Gray:

Someone once said that the difference between the optimist and the pessimist is that the pessimist understands things better. I’m not sure I agree. I guess I am an optimist. A large part of the answer lies in training the scientists and engineers of the 1980s and 1990s to deal with novelty and uncertainty. At MIT, we’re in the right place at the right point in history to make a difference. I hope we can.•

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Chuck Barris, game-show producer and occasional murdererrealized like P.T. Barnum before him (and reality shows after) that there was money to be made off the marginal, the quasi-talented, the damaged and the freakish. But I doubt even Barris could have predicted that during his lifetime the sideshow tent would be relocated to the center ring, that the audience would commandeer the dance floor. The defeat of professionalism is the cost of new technologies decentralizing the media, a price that seems high but one we should be willing to pay to live in a more egalitarian world, for everyone to have access. From the Reuters obituary of Eugene Patton, a.k.a. Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. An excerpt:

Eugene Patton, the stage hand who earned fame as “Gene Gene The Dancing Machine” on the quirky talent romp The Gong Show, has died at the age of 82 after suffering from diabetes, his family said.

At what were supposed to be spontaneous moments in the show launched in the 1970s that celebrated offbeat and sometimes awful acts, Count Basie’s upbeat “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” would blast out and host Chuck Barris would bellow out “Gene Gene the Dancing Machine,” setting the stage for Patton.

The stage hand, usually wearing a green windbreaker, painter’s hat and bell bottom pants, would dance his way on to stage, show off his moves and ignore a volley of items thrown his way ranging from clothing to rubber fish.

Barris, the show’s B-List celebrity judges and the audience would usually join along in dance.•

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