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Did you read the thought-provoking opinion piece by evolutionary anthropologist, Dorsa Amir, in the Washington Post?  You should read the whole thing and see what you think!  Clickbait title aside, it presents a powerful premise, even if the writer does not quite follow through on her conclusions.  In case you don’t feel like reading it (or if the WaPo paywall is knocking you around), here is a crude summary:  one of the unique features of human culture is children’s culture which, across time, and throughout all different nations, has provided a sort of society-within-a-society where playing at being adult teaches the critical aspects of social interaction and creative problem solving to the next generation.  By pushing children immediately into the great adult hierarchical game of constant adversarial competition (by means of overscheduling, too much busywork/schoolwork, constant supervision, curtailing free play, and so forth and so on) contemporary society is denying children a chance to get good at the truly important things: curiosity, creativity, and interpersonal relationships.

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As ever, I find humans less different from other animals than the anthropocentric author seems to be willing to recognize (has she never watched kittens play…to say nothing of juvenile spider monkeys or baby elephants?), but let us leave that aside and address to her social thesis. I am not sure that 21st century adults’ overprotective urges to give their kids any advantage in our workaholic, winner-take-all culture is the real problem.  I think the workaholic, winner-take-all society itself is the problem.  It is not that kids play too little in our over-teched world.  It is that adults play too little. Plus we do it wrong.

Let me explain with an anecdote before expanding my critique. I have some friends who are super-successful Park Slope parents.  They are raising their children with every advantage (and every overscheduled, over-tutored, overworked, over-fretted-upon stereotype of Amir’s piece).  The children however, are not mindless little perfectionist zombies.  They are brilliant wonderful kids. My buddy heard his 5-year-old daughter talking with great animation to someone behind closed-doors, and, upon bursting in, he discovered she had snatched a tablet and launched an internet chat show of her own.  “These kids are already broadcasting!” he told me with a confounded look.

Just as the Thule kids of Amir’s essay built miniature hunter-gatherer storehouses, the Park Slope children were assembling miniature media empires.  The ancient analogous relationship was still perfectly intact.  It’s just that the adults are no longer stalking javelinas or building granaries, we are staring at damned screens (argh, I am doing it right now, after doing it all day at work! So are you!) [as an aside, I was shocked to find “Thule” showing up again in an essay about hunter-gatherer childhood culture…what is up with that confounding name?]

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American society features a well-known need to be continuously productive (this is the famous “Protestant-work-ethic”…though New York has taught me that our newest citizens from West Africa or East Asia have a very homologous sort of code).  Technology and the shifting nature of work have somehow brought that tendency even further into our lives.  When my mother was baking a pie or feeding the geese, I could grasp those activities and join her or make my own games about animal husbandry or baking mastery.  Yet when modern parents are on their smartphones responding to late night emails from the boss about PR or legal questions, the script is harder to follow for children.  The kids do get onto the devices and there are plenty of games and social and other diversions to be had there.  I am no technophobe: I think the next generation’s technological savvy will serve us well, yet things online are crafted like fishing lines or beartraps to capture our attention for the purposes of others.  Free unstructured play in the real world transcends such things. To see people engaged together in such play is to see their faces alive with thought and delight.

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When I ran a toy company, my business partner and I did not know very many children.  In order to test our creative animal-themed toys out, we showed them to adults.  The poor people looked deeply flustered at being asked to “play” again and they stared at the toys like dogs who had been whipped.  Only gradually would they pick up the colorful pieces and try to recapture the magic of childhood.  However, then a lovely thing would happen.  They would be captivated by the delight of making things for the sheer joy of it. They would get all wound up in toys and in explaining their creations. Unexpected people came up with all sorts of great ideas. Children know that play is the magic elixir for bonding and brainstorming. Adults have forgotten this or only rediscover it in attenuated form with team-building exercises or obsessive-compulsive video games.

Watching people go bowling or play with Legos or play with children makes you immediately recognize that watching Netflix or “liking” things on social media is not playing.

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How do we create a world of meaningful creative play for adults?  That sounds like a crazy/frivolous question compared to queries such as how we confront 21st century business monopolies or solve political paralysis or make people interested in the beautiful yet complicated inquiries of science.  But I feel like the answers might actually be related.

We modern adults need to work harder at playing.  Only then will we capture the true benefits of all of our frenetic toil.  Let’s learn from the kids instead of breaking their spirits early on with too much of our gray work world.

Martian Gothic (James Beoddy, 1997,  mixed media)

Martian Gothic (James Beoddy, 1997, mixed media)

Time sort of escaped me today, so here is a strange and intricate painting to think about.  This is “Martian Gothic” by James Beoddy.  It is an exciting retro-future tapestry of techno-humans piecing together a patchwork future. The networked world of the painting looks alien but also strangely familiar—as though today’s political and consumerist trends just moved a bit further down the road.  The dark glittering society is not as dark as some visions of tomorrow—but it does seem to have lots of sharp edges.

detail

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earth-globeSo it’s Earth Day again. I would like to express my very best wishes for our beautiful home planet! I wish the brightest and healthiest future for Earth and Earth life! I am sure all sane people feel the same way. Frustratingly, however, Earth Day is tinged with all sorts of political controversy and antagonism–because different people have very different ideas about exactly what constitutes a bright future for Earth and its inhabitants.

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People whose politics incline to the right are broadly guilty of ignoring the deleterious effect which billions of people constantly running engines and throwing away rubbish are having on the poor oceans and skies. Many religious folks are also seemingly inclined to think that animals have no souls and are meant to all be driven to extinction for humankind’s amusement and profit. The extremely devout laugh outright at the idea of conservation: saving the planet is unimportant to them since some messiah, or demon, or god is going to show up any minute to save/end everything (all while lifting the few faithful up into a parochial paradise filled with virgins or harps or whatever and throwing everyone else down to hell).

 

Albrecht Durer, 1498, woodblock print

Albrecht Durer, 1498, woodblock print

These ideas are bad—morally, scientifically, and philosophically. Yet I also find the environmentalists who created earth day to be a bit smug. People on the left can be just as antiscientific—for similarly nonsensical reasons. Every day on the internet or on the subway, I hear people despise genetically modified organisms or voice paranoid suspicions about vaccines—vaccines for goodness sake! Some of my dear friends fight against bioengineering and geoengineering while advocating organic everything. Some people on the left belittle those on the right for being anti-science while stridently opposing new energy technologies—especially new nuclear technologies. It makes me want to knock the damn-fool kombucha out of people’s hands and explain the actual nature of the world’s energy economy in greater detail.

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All of this illustrates that I have some serious prejudices and preconceived inclinations myself. I’m sorry. It’s a problem I’m working on. In fact we all need to look harder for solutions while being more respectful of other people’s differing viewpoints. Those religious people whom I so thoroughly disparaged are (mostly) good people and we need their steadfastness, bravery, and compassion. Likewise we need the dreamers who wish for a gentler world of sustainable farming and mining. The people who are afraid of vaccines are afraid for their children: too often they have heard self-serving megacorporations speak as if with the weight of science when those corporations were just spouting more misleading advertising (even if that is not at all what is happening with vaccines). The people who steadfastly deny anthropocentric climate change presumably realize how central hydrocarbon energy is to every aspect of economic, defense, and agricultural activity. Society simply can not transition away from consumer culture and fossil fuels. Not without some big breakthroughs.

No Future World

The answers are hard to find and even harder to understand…and it’s all about to get even harder as the human population expands further and competes more intently for resources. Only through understanding math and, above all, science can we move forward. No god has given me reason to believe in any divine rescue. Likewise the raw economic data indicate that organic farming and windmills will not be enough to provide basic sustenance—much less a livelihood– for everyone. Humankind’s gawky and protracted adolescence will need to end and we’ll all have to get smarter if we hope to build a worthwhile future for all living things.

Or maybe some competition is necessary for everything to work...

Or maybe some competition is necessary for everything to work…

It will involve studying harder and taking science much more seriously—despite all of its fraught ambiguities and uncertain answers. It will also involve everyone setting aside some of our fears, prejudices and certainties and reaching out to understand the scariest big animals that live on Planet Earth—our fellow people.

...then and again maybe there is an unanticipated tech solution out there...

…then and again maybe there is an unanticipated tech solution out there…

A Chalet in Davos

A Chalet in Davos

The World Economic Forum at Davos (where the planet’s richest and most powerful people meet to hobnob about the affairs of humankind) has come and gone.  Somehow Ferrebeekeeper’s invitation got lost in the mail–so I missed this year’s conference, but all of the talking heads from the media seem to agree that the event was notable for its extremely dramatic and noticeable LACK of new ideas.  Let’s take a page from upper management and “bulletpoint” the important structural analytics coming out of this year’s Davos Forum:  then we can see if we can take these broad trends and come up with some actual ideas to move humankind forward from the great recession and the vast economic hollowing out which followed.

Um...looks fun?

Um…looks fun?

OK, so according to “The Economist”, the watchwords of the conference were “economic inequality”.  The world economy as a whole actually seems to be growing quite nicely, but generally speaking, only the people in charge are realizing these gains while the vast majority of humankind is unemployed or stuck with stagnant wages.  It is ironic that the political and financial elites are worried about this, since they are the ones making it happen (and are reaping the direct benefits) but large scale changes are sometimes hard to perceive—and even harder to affect.   The answers as to why the world is splitting into a hyper-wealthy elite and a poor…um…everyone else seem to boil down to:

  • Computers and automation are becoming exponentially more powerful and useful
  • Technology is also becoming cheaper
  • A second wave of industrialization is seeing middle class jobs replaced by robots and software (working class manufacturing jobs are already largely gone and only the most servile “entry-level” jobs remain)
  • Capital is becoming even more important—labor is becoming even more irrelevant
  • People with capital own the newly efficient means of production with which they make even more capital. Repeat the cycle….

The elites at Davos noted these changes, but had only superficial answers (like slightly raising the minimum wage).  Privately, economists and bankers worried that regulatory backlash might threaten some of the gross economic gains, but since, the political elite are allied with the interests of the so-called 1% this is a limited problem.  That seems to be about as far as anyone got in analyzing the world’s economy.

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OK, we have summarized the conclusions coming out of Davos, what now?  Frankly, I tend to think the rich/powerful people are kidding themselves if they think they are immune to the true impact of these sweeping changes.  Assembling spreadsheets, crunching numbers, and issuing inhuman orders are things which I am extremely, extremely bad at…so maybe I am in no position to talk…but it seems like computers would be even better than Russian oligarchs, government bureaucrats, or Wall Street titans at managing the world.  During the first wave of industrialization, the landed aristocracy looked down their lorgnettes at factories, joint-stock companies, and the changing social dynamic. Anyone watching Downton Abbey knows how this worked out (spoiler: only the very savviest and luckiest aristocrats could stay important and solvent for long during the tumultuous market and political changes).  Today Carlos Slim may own everyone in Mexico, but his great granddaughters might well be humble dental hygenists like everyone else.  Indeed, some people are already talking about creating computer software to run companies with true efficiency.  These deathless hyper-effective algorithms would initially serve the elite, but I suspect that we would all quickly become their servants (assuming that we are not already).

The Future?

The Future?

Some people believe that we will soon move toward a world where individual and obviously human-crafted objects will take on a new importance: the future will all be about personalized nannies and Etsy (a website where you can buy exquisitely hand-crafted objects).  I’m extremely good at making things, and I don’t think this will happen at all.  The majority of people are worse than ever at ascertaining what is beautiful and worthwhile (just look at the abominable derivative garbage which makes up the fine art market).  Plus do we really want supecomputers to run the world while we make quilts, fancy cakes, wooden gnomes, and lovely saltshakers for each other?  I don’t even want that and I can make amazing cakes, gnomes, and saltshakers….

The Future?

The Future?

My answer, as always, lies above.  Earth seems like everything to us, but it is microscopic in the vastness of space.  Only beyond our atmosphere can humankind find the necessary raw materials, the boundless wells of energy, and, well, the space to spread our wings (not to mention the fact that, if we stay here, we will kill ourselves with our collective appetite—assuming the bozos at Davos don’t kill us all off first).

The Future!

The Future!

In conclusion we should be working much harder at aerospace, nuclear engineering, materials, and bio-innovation. What our leaders and betters should be working on is a way to make the wealth of all the world useful for discovering effective new atomic energy sources, building new materials necessary for space elevators and space habitats (like my cherished Venus colony). New incentives and new regulations will be necessary.  It worries me that none of the talk from Davos centers on how technology can truly help humankind (instead it seemed like rich people were worried about the envy of the poor). Maybe somebody can help me write a computer algorithm about space pioneering?

The Curiosity Lander as Photographed by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

There can only be one subject for today’s short post: congratulations to NASA for successfully landing the large space rover Curiosity on Mars!  The touchdown was a stupendous triumph of engineering and space-faring: you can check out the ridiculous precision which was required on the NASA produced digital animation Seven Minutes of Terror. There is even an amazing photo of the actual landing taken from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a multipurpose spacecraft which has been orbiting Mars and diligently assembling a comprehensive picture of the place.

Artist’s Conception of Curiosity Approaching Mars

The Curiosity is a very alien looking vehicle.  A deliciously irony about our space exploration program is the extent to which our current technology resembles the clichés of the golden age of science fiction.  The Curiosity literally arrived via flying saucer.  It has six insectoid wheeled legs and a laser blaster!  If it landed it my back yard I would grovel before it and offer to take it to the president or maybe throw a hatchet at it and call the Air Force (depending on how I construed it intentions).

Artist’s Conception of the Curiosity Rover Investigating a Rock Surface

The Curiosity beamed back a few photos from Mars to prove it arrived safely:  now it will go through a series of diagnostics and start-ups before the real research gets started. The actual measurements it takes will be pored over by astrophysicists and geologists for decades. However, in a larger sense, a substantial chunk of the real research has already taken place—the scientific and engineering challenges which went in to creating the lander are as big a part of the program’s utility as the information stream from the surface of an alien world.

Of course the success of the Curiosity has a frustrating side: the comments on all of the news sites were filled with complaints from myopic Luddites who were angrily whining that the United States is wasting its money on Mars. “We humans need to get our own house in order before we start worrying about red rocks on Mars. There are millions of children who go blind every year from parasites and malnutrition and you’re worried about sending a robot to Mars to collect stupid red rocks,” wrote Matthew Smith in a typical anti-research anti-progress comment.  Fortunately, such views seemed to be a minority today, but they always call for a stern rebuttal.  Many of the the technologies which we use every day and undergird our economy grew from the space program (and related defense research).  To cut back on such research is to abandon our prosperity and technology leadership in the future but, more worryingly, it is to abandon the future.

Humankind needs to understand both astrophysics and aerospace engineering far better: missions like Curiosity are a way to accomplish both those goals.  Additionally Curiosity is working on some questions unique to Mars, a world which once had oceans and an atmosphere and now does not.  That seems like something we should understand better for its own sake, but it also suggests that microscopic life might still dwell on Mars (or at least the remains of extinct life could exist in fossils).  Finally, we did not spend the money on Mars.  The government spent all of that money here, on salaries for engineers and scientists and on R&D for high tech industries.  China is amazingly proficient at penching pennies and producing plastic junk, but it will be a long time before they can build anything as complicated as the Curiosity and the equipment which took it to the surface of Mars (although hopefully they are trying—we could use some new partners in space and some friendly competition might get us moving a bit faster).

I’m a globalist who favors free trade and open markets, so I hope people won’t take me the wrong way when I take a certain amount of umbrage with today’s capitalism.  A new generation of leaders and thinkers need to rework the way in which decisions are made and resources are allocated. The actions of the market—which so many economists and businesspeople regard as sacrosanct–are hemming us in to a stale repetitive worldview, which is ultimately a trap.

The way we live now...

Capitalism is very good at creating captivating plastic rubbish, dangerous motor-vehicles, elaborate insurance for said vehicles, and erection pills, but it is less gifted at facilitating fundamental scientific research.  Most of the really important technological innovations of the last century came from the military, from universities, or from crazy monopolies (before they got busted up).  Capitalists refined these ideas and made them marketable, but they were not interested in the initial open-ended “blue sky” research which was expensive and did not always proceed logically to money making technologies.  Virtually every part of the aerospace industry originated in military technology for solving cold war (or World War I & II) tactical problems. The internet grew up out of defense department computer and communications experiments. The capacitor was created in one of Ma Bell’s laboratories before AT&T was broken up. Antibiotics were discovered by an absent-minded professor with a messy lab!

Capitalists are necessary to refine and popularize great ideas, but they do not see farther than the bottom line…and the truly worthwhile discoveries are lurking out there in the wilderness beyond immediate financial recompense.

Yes, yes but where exactly are we going?

There are indeed avenues by which money travels into pure research. Rich bankers give money to universities and research hospitals. Taxpayers give money to NASA and the military.  All of us give money to monopolies (which have an insidious way of forming despite legislation prohibiting them). These avenues are not enough.  We are stagnating.  Ask anyone.  Or just look outside at a fossil fuel & automobile based world which seems pretty fundamentally similar to the 1920’s.

Dammit, that's what I figured. Can't you think bigger here for just a few minutes?

There is a world of wonder out there and our future could be bright indeed: By the end of my life we should have nanobots that eat cancers and repair brain damage. We should have space elevators and brilliant robot superservants which (or maybe I should say who) beat the Turing test.  We should be crafting true artificial ecosystems that exist outside of this world (because it doesn’t take a genius to see that there are too many of us). However, the investment bankers and wallstreet power brokers need to rethink the utility of the (musty oligarchical) world they are building, and politicians are going to have to think beyond the end of their term. Otherwise the glowing future is never going to come.

A probabilistic functional gene network of the small plant Arabidopsis thaliana (Image: Insuk Lee, Michael Ahn, Edward Marcotte, Seung Yon Rhee/Carnegie Institution for Science)

I have no idea how to incentivize these things better. Maybe we should ask an economist. But don’t you want to live a much longer life? Don’t you want space elevators and robot servants? Then write to your congressperson and ask them to send more money towards research (or better yet, vote for a new legislator—none of the current ones seem much good).  If you are a stockholder, vote out the current board.  I am blaming our shortsightedness on our leaders but they are a manifestation of all of us.  Our vaunted capitalist system needs to incentivize vastly more scientific research and it needs to reward bold long-term thinking (rather than myopic money-grubbing). We are going to have to stop thinking small and greedy–only then can we create a future which is truly big enough and great enough for our bright dreams.

A Bernal Sphere (painting by Don Davis)

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