What the trendy smart people are worrying about

February 2, 2013

Every year, literary-agent-to-famous-intellectuals John Brockman emails his 150+ clients a philosophical question to publicly weigh in on. The question he asked this year is, What should we be worried about?

I can’t say this list did much for my peace-of-mind, but it was interestingly diverse. Most comments aren’t anything you couldn’t find in the New York Times, but some seemed unusually pithy, prescient, or fresh. Here’s what stood out to me this year:

Rolf Dobelli on how goods that convey high status will always be in short supply:

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 will inch even further out of reach. That’s a paradox of material progress.

Yes, luxury used to define things that made life easier: clean water, central heating, fridges, cars, TVs, smart phones. Today, luxury tends to make your life harder. Displaying and safeguarding a Rauschenberg, learning to play polo and maintaining an adequate stable of horses, or obtaining access to visit the Pope are arduous undertakings. That doesn’t matter. Their very unattainability, the fact that these things are almost impossible to multiply, is what matters.

As global wealth increases, non-reproducible goods will appreciate exponentially. Too much status-seeking wealth and talent is eyeing too few status-delivering goods.

Paul Kedrosky on obsolete institutions:

How many calls to a typical U.S. fire department are actually about fires? Less than 20%. If fire departments aren’t getting calls about fires, what are they mostly getting calls about? They are getting calls about medical emergencies, traffic accidents, and, yes, cats in trees, but they are rarely being called about fires. They are, in other words, organizations that, despite their name, deal with everything but fires.

Why, then, are they called fire departments? Because of history. Cities used to be built out of pre-combustion materials—wood straight from the forest, for example—but they are now mostly built of post-combustion materials—steel, concrete, and other materials that have passed through flame. Fire departments were created when fighting fires was an urgent urban need, and now their name lives on, a reminder of their host cities’ combustible past.

Everywhere you look you see fire departments. Not, literally, fire departments, but organizations, technologies, institutions and countries that, like fire departments, are long beyond their “past due” date, or weirdly vestigial, and yet remain widespread and worryingly important.

David Dalrymple on the lack of post-robotic-revolution economic planning:

When the value of human labor is decimated by advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, serious restructuring will be needed in our economic, legal, political, social, and cultural institutions. Such changes are being planned for by approximately nobody. This is rather worrisome.


Simon Baron-Cohen on different fields having their own set of facts:

What worries me is that the debate about gender differences still seems to polarize nature vs. nurture, with some in the social sciences and humanities wanting to assert that biology plays no role at all, apparently unaware of the scientific evidence to the contrary.


Paul Saffo on Druids vs Engineers:

There are two kinds of fools: one who says this is old and therefore good, and the other who says this is new and therefore better. The argument between the two is as old as humanity itself, but technology’s relentless exponential advance has made the divide deeper and more contentious than ever. My greatest fear is that this divide will frustrate the sensible application of technological innovation in the service of solving humankind’s greatest challenges.

The two camps forming this divide need a name, and “Druids” and “Engineers” will do. Druids argue that we must slow down and reverse the damage and disruption wrought by two centuries of industrialization. “Engineers” advocate the opposite: we can overcome our current problems only with the heroic application of technological innovation. Druids argue for a return to the past, Engineers urge us to flee into the future. … The two camps do not merely hold different worldviews; they barely speak the same language.


David Berreby on the tyranny of the grey:

Finally, on the cultural front I worry about too much deference being given to the fears of people my age (54) and older. In the past 20 years, it has become intellectually respectable to talk about immortality as a realistic medical goal. I think that is an early symptom of a greying population. Here’s another: When we speak of medical care, it’s often taken as a given that life must be preserved and prolonged. Ray Kurzweil has said that whenever he asks a 100-year-old if she wants to reach 101, the answer is yes. Has he asked the 100-year-old’s children, neighbors or employees? They might give a different answer, but in a greying world, the notion of natural limits and a fair share of life becomes taboo.

Richard Posner described the pre-greying dispensation this way: “In the olden days, people broke their hips and died, which was great; now they fix them.” Posner grew up with the simple and once-commonsensical notion that you have your time on Earth and then you get out of the way. Because other, younger people are here, and they need to take your place. They’ll need money for something other than their parents’ practical nurses, they’ll need the jobs older people won’t retire from, they’ll need the bandwidth that we old people will fill with talk of tummy tucks and IVF and Viagra. And they will need to have some decades out of the shadow of their parents. Once, people who were dutiful if not lovingly devoted to their elders could count on liberation. (I think of Virginia Woolf, whose father died at 71, writing 25 years later: “He would have been 96, 96 yes, today; but mercifully was not. His life would have ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books—inconceivable.”) I fear it is becoming acceptable, due to the demographic shift, to tell younger generations that their day might never, should never, come.


Geoffrey Miller: The West’s aversion to eugenics is China’s gain:

China has been running the world’s largest and most successful eugenics program for more than thirty years, driving China’s ever-faster rise as the global superpower. I worry that this poses some existential threat to Western civilization. Yet the most likely result is that America and Europe linger around a few hundred more years as also-rans on the world-historical stage, nursing our anti-hereditarian political correctness to the bitter end.

The BGI Cognitive Genomics Project is currently doing whole-genome sequencing of 1,000 very-high-IQ people around the world, hunting for sets of sets of IQ-predicting alleles. I know because I recently contributed my DNA to the project, not fully understanding the implications. These IQ gene-sets will be found eventually—but will probably be used mostly in China, for China.


John Tooby: It’s important to test beliefs against reality (and most intellectuals don’t do this):

We take for granted that the function of a belief is to be coordinated with reality, so that when actions are based on that belief, they succeed. The more often beliefs are tested against reality, the more often accurate beliefs displace inaccurate ones (e.g., through feedback from experiments, engineering tests, markets, natural selection). However, there is a second kind of function to holding a belief that affects whether people consciously or unconsciously come to embrace it—the social payoffs from being coordinated or discoordinated with others’ beliefs (Socrates’ execution for “failing to acknowledge the gods the city acknowledges”). The mind is designed to balance these two functions: coordinating with reality, and coordinating with others. The larger the payoffs to social coordination, and the less commonly beliefs are tested against reality, then the more social demands will determine belief—that is, network fixation of belief will predominate. Physics and chip design will have a high degree of coordination with reality, while the social sciences and climatology will have less.

Because intellectuals are densely networked in self-selecting groups whose members’ prestige is linked (for example, in disciplines, departments, theoretical schools, universities, foundations, media, political/moral movements, and other guilds), we incubate endless, self-serving elite superstitions, with baleful effects: Biofuel initiatives starve millions of the planet’s poorest. Economies around the world still apply epically costly Keynesian remedies despite the decisive falsification of Keynesian theory by the post-war boom (government spending was cut by 2/3, 10 million veterans dumped into the labor force, while Samuelson predicted “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced”). I personally have been astonished over the last four decades by the fierce resistance of the social sciences to abandoning the blank slate model in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is false.


David Bodanis: One man’s egalitarianism is another man’s facism:

Because of what fascism led to in the past, it’s easy to forget how attractive it can be for most citizens in troubled times. With a good enemy to hate, atomized individuals get a warm sense of unity. And, although some gentle souls like to imagine, frowningly, that only an ill-educated minority will ever enjoy physical violence, that’s not at all the case. Schoolchildren almost everywhere enjoy seeing a weaker child being tormented. Fears about our own weakness disappear when an enemy is mocked and punished—a reflex that radio shock jocks across America most skillfully manipulate.

This cry of the dispossessed—this desire for restoring order, this noble punishment of those who ‘dare’ to undermine us—will get a particular boost from medical technology. Medicine’s getting better, but it’s also getting more expensive. Extrapolate those trends.

There’s every reason to think modifications of Botox will be longer-lasting, and avoid unmovable foreheads—but what if they cost 4,000 dollars a shot? The differences in physique noticeable between the wealthy and the poor at many shopping malls even now will only be exacerbated.

Gene therapy is likely to take that further, quite plausibly slowing aging by decades—but what if that costs several hundred thousand dollars? Many people in our cities’ wealthiest neighborhoods would start using that. It’s not hard to imagine popular leaders with no memory of World War II inspiring those outside the select high-income domains, those who are mocked beyond endurance by the existence of these near immortals in their midst, to pursue this all too human response to injustice.


Karl Sabbagh on how most people are not good:

The most worrying aspect of our society is the low index of suspicion that we have about the behavior of normal people. In spite of the doctrine of original sin that permeates Christianity, the assumption most of us hold about most people in everyday life is that they are not, on the whole, criminals, cheats, mean-spirited, selfish, or on the lookout for a fast buck. Bad behavior is seen as something to be noticed, reported on, and analyzed, whereas people who do not lie and cheat are taken for granted. Good behaviour is seen as the default mode for humans, and bad behaviour is seen as ‘aberrant’, even though from self-knowledge as well as experiments like Stanley Milgram’s, we know that ‘normal’ people are not always saints.

This unwillingness to believe the worst of people permeates society and harms us in all sorts of ways. The most egregious current example, of course, is bankers and financiers, who have shown that only the most severe constraints on their activities would stop them filching our purses, and grabbing huge salaries or severance payments which are usually rewards for failure. And it is precisely those constraints that the institutions resist most strongly, promising after each one of their crimes is exposed, that self-regulation will prevent the next. But any daily newspaper will show countless examples of individuals who demonstrate that when they (we?) can get away with it, they will.

There is much psychological research into the nature of evil. This usually starts from the basis that people are naturally good, and tries to explain why some people depart from this ‘norm’. Isn’t it time we took the opposite view and looked into why some people, perhaps not many, are ‘good’?


Rodney A. Brooks: We need more robots:

Many recent press stories have worried that smarter robots will take away too many jobs from people. What worries me most right now is that we will not find a way to make our robots smart enough quickly enough to take up the slack in all the jobs we will need them to do over the next few decades. If we fail to build better robots soon then our standard of living and our life spans are at risk.

Population growth and technological advance have gone hand in hand for centuries with one enabling the other. Over the next fifty years the world’s population growth is going to slow dramatically, and instead we are faced with a demographic shift in age profile of our population unlike anything we have seen since the Shakers–and we know what happened to them.


Michael Shermer: The Is-Ought distinction used to make sense when we didn’t know much about science. It no longer does:

Ever since the philosophers David Hume and G. E. Moore identified the “Is-Ought problem” between descriptive statements (the way something “is”) and prescriptive statements (the way something “ought to be”), most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.

We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing just as the research tools for doing so are coming online through such fields as evolutionary ethics, experimental ethics, neuroethics, and related fields. The Is-Ought problem (sometimes rendered as the “naturalistic fallacy”) is itself a fallacy.


Charles Seife on how regulatory capture is the rule, not the exception:

Companies like Massey Energy (which ran Upper Big Branch) and BP (which ran the Deepwater Horizon) flout the rules—and when disaster strikes, everybody wonders why regulators failed to take action despite numerous warning signs and repeated violations of regulations.

In the 1970s, economists, led by future Nobel laureate George Stigler, began to realize that this was the rule, not the exception. Over time, regulatory agencies are systematically drained of their ability to check the power of industry. Even more strikingly, they’re gradually drawn into the orbit of the businesses they’re charged with regulating—instead of acting in the public interest, the regulators functionally wind up as tools of the industry they’re supposed to keep watch over. This process, known as “regulatory capture,” turns regulators from watchdogs into lapdogs.


Roger Highfield on how we need more Feynmans:

The Decline Of The Scientific Hero

In post-Olympic Great Britain, everyone is still basking in the glory of last summer’s crop of sporting superheroes. Thanks to Bradley Wiggins, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and all the other British medalists there’s overwhelming support for the view that the Games were great value, despite the huge cost of around £9 billion. But, by comparison, how many heroes of this year’s science does anyone remember? Answer: British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, and for work he did half a century ago.

This worries me because science needs heroes for the same reason as the Olympics. If we abandon our heroes, we make science insipid. And if it’s boring, science loses support and funding. Yet we need science to inspire and engage ordinary people more than ever before because, through technology, it’s the most powerful force acting on today’s culture. What a difference it would make to how science is regarded by the public if we had a few more contemporary scientific heroes.

But it’s becoming harder to find them.


Finally, a few words. It seems as though reasons to worry and reasons to be optimistic are both multiplying as we barrel into 2013. I could simply point toward increased volatility due to various exponential trends as an explanation, but I think there’s more to it.

I look back on the last fifty years, and I see a great deal of social continuity– it feels as though we set our social rudder in the 60s, and the present is more-or-less a logical extrapolation of that course. But our institutions are creaking, technology is disrupting everything, our social contract is a round peg trying to fit into a square hole, and simply put, we’re not going to be able to muddle through on the present course much longer.

Change is coming. Good and bad things will happen. By and large, I think big social changes are overdue and inevitable, much as the build-up of tectonic pressure eventually results in an earthquake. But it’s my impression that the order in which things happen will be important.

I think it will be quite the ride. One thing I wonder: what societal excesses do we rant and rail against now, but we’ll look back wistfully, even fondly upon in ten years? I’m not sure, but I have a few guesses.

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  1. Mike & John Brockman,
    Important clarification: It is not that humanities people claim that biology has no role whatsoever in gender difference, it is that we want to assert that we cannot ever understand the role of biology without looking at it through the lense of culture. We not do deny materiality; we just say that our very understanding of materiality is formed and accessible only through culture. Bodies exist, but the way we understand bodies is a culturally contextual project. Because of that, we are highly critical of biology and its claims, but we don’t say that we should do away with it entirely.

  2. Tracy,

    I concur. I think it’s easy to get too one-dimensional, and biological determinism is quite limiting, and I would say… manifestly wrong. I want to be clear I certainly understand the view you outlined.

    I think this topic is hopelessly complicated and incredibly important. Certainly different communities put different weight on the nature vs. nurture divide– and unfortunately few communities really keep up on research from both sides.

    The first quote I pulled on the topic was from Simon Baron-Cohen (interestingly, the cousin of Sasha Baron-Cohen, of Borat fame… though I’m not sure that endears him to you, T. :) — he’s an autism researcher in the UK, and I think he feels the way he does partly due to the pushback he’s gotten from people who think autism is a social disease, i.e. ‘the mothers are doing something wrong’.

    The second quote I pulled was from John Tooby, co-founder of evolutionary psychology (along with his wife Leda), who has spent a great deal of his time trying to identify ‘mental modules’, and contexts where they break down. He thinks human intelligence is essentially an amalgamation of many domain-specific ‘narrow intelligences’ aka highly specific algorithms. E.g., we’re really good at recognizing faces, but upside-down faces are really hard to recognize– therefore we have some specific hardware in our brain that’s narrowly-intelligent at recognizing right-side-up faces, instead of a general ‘intelligence’ module that can be used for faces. Similarly, we’re really good at figuring out if someone’s cheating us somehow (say, in a card game), but really really bad at figuring out the same sorts of situations when phrased only in logic and numbers.

    I doubt that either of these researchers strike the perfect balance between giving nature its due, and giving nurture its due. But I understand why they say the things they do, and I do believe each of their work has moved our understanding of nature vs nurture toward a better place, on the whole.

    Baron-Cohen references a talk by C. P. Snow on “Two Cultures”, which laments the growing divide between scientists and literary intellectuals, with each dismissing the contributions of the other. Brockman has used this talk as a springboard, arguing we need more contexts in which they can mingle. His yearly questions are an attempt to throw people from both cultures together and shake vigorously.

    I could say more, but I’m afraid I might ramble a bit. I did want to thank you for your comment, though. And I can’t say I disagree that science is pretty bad at some things.


    Edit: I added who said which quote– it was probably pretty confusing to read without any attributions.

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