Every year John Brockman tries to reach the Edge of human knowledge by asking lots of the world’s best minds the same question and then compiling their answers. This year the question is ‘what should really worry us’, and I’m reading through them, writing summaries as I go. Here are essays 17- 32.
17) Nicholas Carr notes that technology is becoming faster and faster and that humans are consequently becoming accustomed to less and less time waiting — especially now that our phones are powerful computers as well. He speculates that this could have a negative impact on both the cultural and social level, because many deep human experiences require time to cultivate, understand, and appreciate. A deficit in patience could rob many of us of some of the most profound aspects of life.
Psychology, Technology, Culture
18) Kevin Kelly says that we are not worried enough about what will happen when underpopulation becomes a problem. Everyone has heard about the dangers of having too many people and not enough resources, but the prospect of not having enough people to drive an economy and help the aging is also a scary, and less well-understood, problem. Statistics from many countries, both in the developing and developed worlds, shows that fertility rates are dropping, and we should be concerned.
17) Lisa Randall is worried that we’ll stop doing the kinds of experiments which require long-term planning and big funds but which also probe the deepest mysteries of the universe. She passionately argues that knowing how things really are is a worthwhile goal in and of itself.
18) Evgeny Morozov thinks that we may craft technology that’s too smart for our own good. He reminds us that not all problems need a “smart” solution, and asks us to consider what might be lost in a world where smartphone apps and games ensured that everyone recycled, but at the expense of reaching these same people through the moral force of arguments.
19) J. Craig Venter believes that a combination of poor sanitation, improper use of antibiotics, and growing numbers of unvaccinated people (among other things) could lead to an outbreak of novel strains of infectious diseases against which there are no current defenses.
20) Adrian Kreye thinks that a desire for catharsis — hardwired into us and at the foundation of our enjoyment of art, music, literature — is also antithetical to rational thought. While we probably can’t change something as deeply wired as the near-ecstatic release of tension, if we understand what’s happening, we can avoid falling into a trap of escapism.
Art, Culture, Literature, Psychology
21) Terry Gilliam claims to have stopped asking questions, choosing instead to ‘marvel stupidly’ at the world.
22) Jennifer Jacquet fears what she calls the “anthropocebo affect”. Two seemingly unrelated facts are drawn upon for insight: one, that pain and illness can sometimes be relieved when the patient merely believes they’ve been given medicine; and two, humans have recently become a global geologic force. She believes that knowledge of human influence in global climate will engender apathy, a perception of the destruction we cause as somehow inevitable.
Psychology, Climate Change, Culture
24) Hans Ulrich Obrist is concerned about extinction on two different levels. The first is more well-known, and is simply the good-’ol-fashioned annihilation of humans. The second is more subtle cultural extinction resulting from global homogenization. He discusses a number of different artists who are fighting against these two types of extinction through their work.
25) Robert Sapolsky believes that free will is a myth and that some combination of genetics, environment, randomness, and unknown-but-not-free-will variables completely decide what a person is and does. But it’s really hard to feel like free will doesn’t exist, even armed with this knowledge, and thus our attitudes are still subtly out of alignment with the facts. It is this difficulty that should worry us.
26) Katy Jeffrey is not as excited about the prospect of ending death as many others are. She believes that death is there for a reason and that it has served us well. It is an integral part of the process by which humans improve from one generation to the next, and she asks us to consider a world in which ten generations (or more) of humans were competing for the same resources, and in which attitudes/mindsets might be half a millennia old.
Death, Aging, Science,
27) Lawrence Krauss discusses two possible reasons we may never be able to answer certain fundamental questions in physics. The first is that modern physical theory predicts an infinite number of universes beyond our ability to explore. Should the laws of physics be probabilistic, we stand little chance of finding this out if we can only explore one universe (our own) out of the many. The second is that, because the universe is expanding away from us, the amount of universe we can explore is shrinking all the time. The longer we wait, the less of nature’s secrets we’ll be able to discover. He isn’t too worried though; there’s plenty to keep us chewing on for a long while.
28) Tim O’reilly draws on his classics background to apply lessons from the fall of Rome to the modern world. He sees in certain parts of American religion and politics the same sort of superstitious thinking that lead to the dark ages. Should anti-science win the day, what might the consequences be? Today’s world is different in a key respect from the world in Roman times, in that we very nearly have a global civilization. If one falls, we all fall.
Politics, Religion, Science
29) Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran draws on philosophy and specific examples to argue that crime is more fundamental to the operation of many governments than is commonly realized, and that the ways in which political scientists examine modern governments is outdated.
30) Bart Kosko fears that, like the drunk looking for his keys in the lamplight because that’s where he can see, we restrict ourselves to just five probabilistic models because they are easier to teach and calculate. The result is that we’re not modeling the world as well as we could be, and the negative effects may especially hamper the Bayesian revolution in probabilistic computing.
31) Timo Hannay believes that consciousness is the origin of suffering and joy, but that we have absolutely no way of telling what things are conscious and what things are not. Though we know much about the brain as a physical system, and though we have powerful intuitions about the degrees of consciousness which different animals possess, neither is a very strong basis for analyzing subjectivity. That we are so in the dark about such an important matter should worry us.
32) Helen Fisher thinks that not enough time has been spent dispelling myths about men. After conducting a staggeringly comprehensive survey of 5,000 single people, she found that men compared to women were just as eager to marry, faster to fall in love, less picky in their mate choice, more likely to have very personal conversations with their partner, and much more likely to kill themselves following a break-up. This differs markedly from the typical stereotypes American culture associates with men.