To many people today, the brain seems like a contemporary surrogate for the soul. But lost in the public’s romance with the brain is the most fundamental lesson neuroscience has to teach us: that the organ of our minds is a purely physical entity, conceptually and causally embedded in the natural world. Although the brain is required for almost everything we do, it never works alone. Instead, its function is inextricably linked to the body and to the environment around it.
From The Cerebral Mystique, by Alan Jansoff, May 2018,
In the social media age, the measurability and commoditization of content, in the form of traffic, clicks, and likes, has tethered editorial strategy to analytics like never before. The emphasis on quantifiable metrics stacks the news cycle with stories most likely to generate the highest level of engagement possible, across as many platforms as possible. Things traveling too far, too fast, with too much emotional urgency, is exactly the point, but these are also the conditions that can create harm.
From Executive Summary: The Tyranny of Analytics, in The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators Online by Whitney Phillips, Data & Society, May 2018
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. There was a brief moment, in the early 1990s, when the digital future felt open-ended and up for our invention. Technology was becoming a playground for the counterculture, who saw in it the opportunity to create a more inclusive, distributed, and pro-human future. But established business interests only saw new potentials for the same old extraction, and too many technologists were seduced by unicorn IPOs. Digital futures became understood more like stock futures or cotton futures – something to predict and make bets on. So nearly every speech, article, study, documentary, or white paper was seen as relevant only insofar as it pointed to a ticker symbol. The future became less a thing we create through our present-day choices or hopes for humankind than a predestined scenario we bet on with our venture capital but arrive at passively.
How tech's richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse by Douglas Rushkoff, The Guardian, 24 July 2018
The internet is morally agnostic. It forges community, or kindles hatred, with complete indifference. No attempt to censor its content can alter this core characteristic. In its duality it mirrors its creator, humankind. This is 21st-century life. Or perhaps, simply, it is life.”
The Power of Ariana Grande by Roger Cohen, NY Times, 26 May 2017
Leo Laporte: We all thought in the 70s and 80s and 90s, especially when the Internet started taking off, that the Internet was going to be a great democratizing force, the gatekeepers would fall, it would be friction free commerce, the world would be a better place. And it hasn't turned out […] I think the Internet is a disappointment. I think we did have high hopes, and it failed us.
Owen JJ Stone: Isn't that life, bro?
This Week in Tech, episode 698, 23 December 2018 [at 17:40]
And that was the problem with 1968. People went ahead and built those things without worrying much about the consequences, because they figured that, by 2018, we'd have come up with all the answers.
What 2018 Looked Like Fifty Years Ago, by Jill Lepore, New Yorker, 7 January 2019
It takes decades for significant change to be realized. This has serious implications for urban policy and leadership because the timescale of political processes by which decisions about a city’s future are made is at best just a few years, and for most politicians two years is infinity. Nowadays, their success depends on rapid returns and instant gratification in order to conform to political pressures and the demands of the electoral process. Very few mayors can afford to think in a time frame of twenty to fifty years and put their major efforts toward promoting strategies that will leave a truly long-term legacy of significant achievement.
Geoffrey West, Scale, 2017
I first came to the United States in September 1961 to attend graduate school in physics at Stanford University in California. I took a steam train from King’s Cross Station in London up to Liverpool, where I boarded the Canadian steamship the Empress of England and sailed for almost ten days across the Atlantic, down the St. Lawrence River, eventually disembarking in Montreal. I stayed overnight before taking a Greyhound bus that deposited me in California four days later, having spent one night at the YMCA in Chicago, where I changed buses. The entire journey was an extraordinary experience that transported me across many dimensions, not least of which was anamazing introduction to the variety, diversity, and eccentricity of American life, including an appreciation of its immense geographical size. Fifty-five years later I am still trying to process everything I experienced on that road trip as I continue to grapple with the meaning and enigma of America and all that it stands for.
Geoffrey West, in his book 'Scale', 2017
Everything nowadays is ultra, everything is being transcended continually in thought as well as in action. No one knows himself any longer; no one can grasp the element in which he lives and works or the materials that he handles. Pure simplicity is out of the question; of simplifiers we have enough. Young people are stirred up much too early in life and then carried away in the whirl of the times. Wealth and rapidity are what the world admires…Railways, quick mails, steamships, and every possible kind of rapid communication are what the educated world seeks but it only over-educates itself and thereby persists in its mediocrity.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1825 From Goethe's Letters to Zelter, London: George Bell & Sons, 1887 (as quoted in Scale by Geoffrey West, 2017)
But extinction is not the only tragedy through which we’re living. What about the species that still exist, but as a shadow of what they once were? In “The Once and Future World,” the journalist J.B. MacKinnon cites records from recent centuries that hint at what has only just been lost: “In the North Atlantic, a school of cod stalls a tall ship in midocean; off Sydney, Australia, a ship’s captain sails from noon until sunset through pods of sperm whales as far as the eye can see. ... Pacific pioneers complain to the authorities that splashing salmon threaten to swamp their canoes.” There were reports of lions in the south of France, walruses at the mouth of the Thames, flocks of birds that took three days to fly overhead, as many as 100 blue whales in the Southern Ocean for every one that’s there now. “These are not sights from some ancient age of fire and ice,” MacKinnon writes. “We are talking about things seen by human eyes, recalled in human memory.”
The Insect Apocalypse Is Here by Brooke Jarvis, New York Times Magazine, 27 November 2918.
A 1995 study, by Peter H. Kahn and Batya Friedman, of the way some children in Houston experienced pollution summed up our blindness this way: “With each generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as the norm.” In decades of photos of fishermen holding up their catch in the Florida Keys, the marine biologist Loren McClenachan found a perfect illustration of this phenomenon, which is often called “shifting baseline syndrome.” The fish got smaller and smaller, to the point where the prize catches were dwarfed by fish that in years past were piled up and ignored. But the smiles on the fishermen’s faces stayed the same size. The world never feels fallen, because we grow accustomed to the fall.
From The Insect Apocalypse Is Here by Brooke Jarvis, New York Times Magazine, 27 November 2918. Astonishing, moving and deep, with many thoughts about human perception, scale, and change.
The point at which politics becomes hard to understand is the point at which it is no longer politics but just competitive play, a Risk-style board game. Once there is only a handful of self-qualified players, we no longer qualify as a democracy, or perhaps even a polity. To cover political life as a game played between elites tells citizens that politics is a spectacle to be watched, not an activity to be participated in. Such coverage creates what scholar Bob Entman refers to as a ‘democracy without citizens.’
We'll Be Paying For Mark Halperin's Sins For Years To Come, by Eve Fairbanks, Buzfeed, 22 November 2017
Their endless drumbeat of meaningless micro-scoops helped create the impression we are living at the edge of time, where the present is as momentous as anything that has ever occurred. The future, in this context, cannot take any time or energy to be properly imagined.
From Eve Fairbanks' searing critique of celebrity political journalism We'll Be Paying For Mark Halperin's Sins For Years To Come, Buzfeed, 22 November 2017
(And she was commenting on a time before social media.)
It is amazing how much a trained human can tell from just looking at a single frame of a surgical procedure. A well-trained surgical resident can walk into an operating room where a surgery is underway, and can glance up and with one look at the screen know what kind of procedure it is, what step you are at in the procedure — they know what’s going to happen next, and they can tell if it’s going well or not, using clues like if you’ve got a lot of blood in the field, or from looking at the body language of all the people in the operating room. Is the surgeon stressed out? Has the music been turned down? Are people still talking? What are they saying? There’s all kinds of clues.
Medical doctor and engineer Catherine Mohr, in How will technology transform humanity, New York Times, 16 November 2018
Writing this post has really hammered home the point that humans are mainly a temporary container for their genes. In 150 years, all 7,100,000,000 people alive today will be dead, but all of our genes will be doing just fine, living in other people.