I worry about my safety. Worries about my physical and financial safety surface daily and suddenly, but are easily assuaged by realizing there’s nothing to worry about right now. Mostly, I worry about my emotional safety. I feel overly exposed and porous whenever I’m awake and it’s hard to protect myself from emotional overwhelm. Basically I’m worried about myself.
The editors at Edge.org, for last year’s Annual Question, asked scientists, academics, writers (or people whose job it is to think), What Should We Be Worried About? — things that should worry everyone and affect everyone — and released a book of the same name with essays that answered the question.
The book didn’t make me worry; it made me think. I wasn’t informed enough to be worried about issues such as:
1. Singularity — the name given to the phenomenon (or threat) of machines taking over. I dreamt about a bus that drove itself last night and wasn’t responding to the direction of the driver.
2. Underpopulation being a bigger problem than overpopulation.
3. A population with more unmarried men than unmarried women causes increased civil unrest, crime and “have measurable economic effects, lowering per capita GDP.” (1) Interesting. Marriage isn’t just about romantic love and weddings.
4. The Anthropocebo Effect — This is the name Jennifer Jacquet, Professor of Environmental Studies at NYU, gives to the effect of “framing humans as the dominant driver of change (leading) to further negative change.” Jacquet believes that the Anthropocebo Effect causes
a certain pessimism that makes us accept human destruction as inevitable…Words also matter for perception and perception matters for behavior.
Constantly being reminded that we’ve ruined the environment makes us believe it’s ruined beyond repair and doesn’t motivate us to do anything about it.
Some of the responses that intrigued me, fascinated me, I agreed with, and I just thought were cool:
On Fragile Complex Systems
One of the biggest worries that was raised by more than one contributor was the fragility of the complex systems we increasingly rely on. Steven Strogatz, mathematics professor, describes the problem and a solution in “Too Much Coupling”:
Too much coupling (the ability of one part of a complex system to influence another) makes a complex system brittle. In economics and business, the wisdom of the crowd works only if the individuals within it are independent, or nearly so. Loosely coupled crowds are the only wise ones.
On Anti-Science Beliefs
In his essay “Magic”, Physicist Neil Gershenfeld makes a connection between the increase in easy technology that seems to work magically and an increase the number of people who don’t believe in evolution:
There is a cognitive dissonance in fundamentalists using satellite phones in their quest for a medieval society, or creationists who don’t believe in evolution receiving a flu shot based on genetic analysis of seasonal mutations in influenza virus. These are linked by workings that are invisible: deities behave in mysterious ways, and so do cell phones.
The risk in seeing advanced technology as magic is failing to see where it comes from. The ability to distinguish which is which matters for recognizing the difference between progress and nonsense.
Accepting the benefits of science without having to accept the methods of science offers the freedom to ignore inconvenient truths about the environment, or the economy, or education.
Rather than seeking to hide the workings of technology, we should seek every opportunity to expose it. The quest for technologies that work like magic is leading to a perverse kind of technical devolution.
Mobile operating systems that forbid users from seeing their own file systems, touch interfaces that eliminate use of fine motor control, cars that prevent owners from accessing maintenance data—these all make it easier to do easy things, but harder to do hard things.
The challenges that we face as a planet require finding highest rather than lowest common denominators. Learning curves that progress from simple to difficult skills should be sought, not avoided.
Many of the essayists worried about how booming technological innovation will affect our lives. The consensus is its affect will be mostly negative unless we start examining its role in society. In “Losing Our Hands”, Susan Blackmore worries that technology is creating
a world in which humans manage the power supplies to feed an ever-increasing number of inventions, in return for more fun, games, information, and communication — a world in which we so value the fruits of our machines that we willingly merge both physically and mentally with them.
Our hands now spend little time making or growing things and a lot of time pressing keys and touching screens. Our brains have hardly changed in size or gross structure but their function has. Our evolved desires for fun, competition, and communication lead us into ever vaster realms of online information and away from the people right next to us. And who are ‘we’? Our selves, too, are changing as they disconnect from our bodies, becoming as much the person who exists on multiple websites and forums as the physical body who acts and interacts right here and now—as much a digitally propagated entity as the man now holding my hand in his.
Author Bruce Schneier worries about who is benefiting from the increase in information technology in “Power and the Internet”:
Unless we start deliberately debating the future we want to live in, and the role of information technology in enabling that world, we will end up with an internet that benefits existing power structures and not society in general.
The rap group Wu-Tang Clan is releasing only one copy of their next album The Wu — Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. “We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music. We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king” says RZA, a member of the group. This album is an example of what journalist Rolf Dobelli calls a “status-conveying good”, something we’ll being seeing more of in the future because of what he calls “The Paradox of Material Progress”:
As mammals, we are status seekers. Non-status seeking animals don’t attract suitable mating partners and eventually exit the gene pool. Thus goods that convey high status remain extremely important, yet out of reach for most of us. Nothing technology brings about will change that. Yes, one day we might re-engineer our cognition to reduce or eliminate status competition. But until that point, most people will have to live with the frustrations of technology’s broken promise. That is, goods and services will be available to everybody at virtually no cost, but at the same time status-conveying goods (like art, certain property, and rap albums) will inch even further out of reach.
A backlash is inevitable.
W. Daniel Hillis’s essay about the “The Opinions of Search Engines” made me the most uneasy:
In the past, meaning was only in the minds of humans. Now it is also in the minds of tools that bring us information. From now on, search engines will have an editorial point of view and search results will reflect that viewpoint. We can no longer ignore the assumptions behind the results.
This is already happening. Instead of finding what we are actually searching for we’ll find what Google suggests we find. Scary. I also worry that the worthiness of information will be determined by how much it is shared or how popular it is and that eventually only the information that is well “liked” will be the most easily accessible or the only information available. The most informative and interesting stuff will disappear because of lack of shareability.
My favorite answer to the question “What should we be worried about?” was from director Terry Gilliam:
I’ve given up worrying. I merely float on a swarm of acceptance of anything life throws at me… and marvel stupidly.
Something to aspire to — stupid acceptance.
(1) Robert Kurzban’s All the T in China