Tomorrow's talk: 2006 Edge excerpts
- Friday night in Mira Mesa, we're discussing Edge's new annual question,
"What is your dangerous idea?"
Edge, originally called The Reality Club, is a bunch of scientists and
scholars who are increasingly taking the place of traditional intellectuals
in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, reconceiving the
world in light of new developments & discoveries. They are the most thriving
"future studies" online crowd.
Edge has collected the best 75000 words (!) of answers this year at
http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_print.html , but we will definitely not
consider all those words as "common knowledge" for our discussion. Instead,
I've selected six passages right here that I bet we'll find especially
worthwhile. At least skim over them tonight or tomorrow!
Evolutionary Psychologist, University of New Mexico; Author, The Mating Mind
Runaway consumerism explains the Fermi Paradox?
The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was
talking about the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence with
some other physicists. They were impressed that our galaxy holds 100
billion stars, that life evolved quickly and progressively on earth,
and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could
colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that
extra-terrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened
patiently, then asked simply, "So, where is everybody?". That is, if
extra-terrestrial intelligence is common, why haven't we met any
bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi's Paradox.
The paradox has become more ever more baffling. Over 150 extrasolar
planets have been identified in the last few years, suggesting that
life-hospitable planets orbit most stars. Paleontology shows that
organic life evolved very quickly after earth's surface cooled and
became life-hospitable. Given simple life, evolution shows progressive
trends towards larger bodies, brains, and social complexity.
Evolutionary psychology reveals several credible paths from simpler
social minds to human-level creative intelligence. Yet 40 years of
intensive searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence have yielded
nothing. No radio signals, no credible spacecraft sightings, no close
encounters of any kind.
So, it looks as if there are two possibilities. Perhaps our science
over-estimates the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence
evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep
tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After
Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make
colonizing space-ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear
bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Perhaps
extra-terrestrial intelligence always blows itself up. Fermi's Paradox
became, for a while, a cautionary tale about Cold War geopolitics.
I suggest a different, even darker solution to Fermi's Paradox.
Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get
addicted to computer games.
DANIEL C. DENNETT
Philosopher; University Professor, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive
Studies, Tufts University; Author, Darwin's Dangerous Idea
The intergenerational mismatches that we all experience in macroscopic
versions (great-grandpa's joke falls on deaf ears, because nobody else
in the room knows that Nixon's wife was named "Pat") will presumably
be multiplied to the point where much of the raw information that we
have piled in our digital storehouses is simply incomprehensible to
everyone–except that we will have created phalanxes of "smart"
Rosetta-stones of one sort or another that can "translate" the alien
material into something we (think maybe we) understand. I suspect we
hugely underestimate the importance (to our sense of cognitive
security) of our regular participation in the four-dimensional human
fabric of mutual understanding, with its reassuring moments of
shared–and seen to be shared, and seen to be seen to be
What will happen to common knowledge in the future? I do think our
ancestors had it easy: aside from all the juicy bits of unshared
gossip and some proprietary trade secrets and the like, people all
knew pretty much the same things, and knew that they knew the same
things. There just wasn't that much to know. Won't people be able to
create and exploit illusions of common knowledge in the future,
virtual worlds in which people only think they are in touch with their
I see small-scale projects that might protect us to some degree, if
they are done wisely. Think of all the work published in academic
journals before, say, 1990 that is in danger of becoming practically
invisible to later researchers because it can't be found on-line with
a good search engine. Just scanning it all and hence making it
"available" is not the solution. There is too much of it. But we could
start projects in which (virtual) communities of retired researchers
who still have their wits about them and who know particular
literatures well could brainstorm amongst themselves, using their
pooled experience to elevate the forgotten gems, rendering them
accessible to the next generation of researchers. This sort of
activity has in the past been seen to be a stodgy sort of scholarship,
fine for classicists and historians, but not fit work for cutting-edge
scientists and the like. I think we should try to shift this imagery
and help people recognize the importance of providing for each other
this sort of pathfinding through the forests of information. It's a
drop in the bucket, but perhaps if we all start thinking about
conservation of valuable mind-space, we can save ourselves (our
descendants) from informational collapse.
Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University;
Author, Why We Love
If patterns of human love subtlely change, all sorts of social and
political atrocities can escalate
Serotonin-enhancing antidepressants (such as Prozac and many others)
can jeopardize feelings of romantic love, feelings of attachment to a
spouse or partner, one's fertility and one's genetic future.
SSRIs curb obsessive thinking and blunt the emotions--central
characteristics of romantic love.
I believe that Homo sapiens has evolved (at least) three primary,
distinct yet overlapping neural systems for reproduction. The sex
drive evolved to motivate ancestral men and women to seek sexual union
with a range of partners; romantic love evolved to enable them to
focus their courtship energy on a preferred mate, thereby conserving
mating time and energy; attachment evolved to enable them to rear a
child through infancy together. The complex and dynamic interactions
between these three brain systems suggest that any medication that
changes their chemical checks and balances is likely to alter an
individual's courting, mating and parenting tactics, ultimately
affecting their fertility and genetic future.
Professor of Psychology, Provost, Senior Vice President, Tufts University
The more we discover about cognition and the brain, the more we will
realize that education as we know it does not accomplish what we
believe it does
Our understanding of the intersection between genetics and
neuroscience (and their behavioral correlates) is still in its
infancy. This century will bring forth an explosion of new knowledge
on the genetic and environmental determinants of cognition and brain
development, on what and how we learn, on the neural basis of human
interaction in social and political contexts, and on variability
Are we prepared to transform our educational institutions if new
science challenges cherished notions of what and how we learn? As we
acquire the ability to trace genetic and environmental influences on
the development of the brain, will we as a society be able to agree on
what our educational objectives should be?
Since the advent of scientific psychology we have learned a lot about
learning. In the years ahead we will learn a lot more that will
continue to challenge our current assumptions. We will learn that some
things we currently assume are learnable are not (and vice versa),
that some things that are learned successfully don't have the impact
on future thinking and behavior that we imagine, and that some of the
learning that impacts future thinking and behavior is not what we
spend time teaching. We might well discover that the developmental
time course for optimal learning from infancy through the life span is
not reflected in the standard educational time line around which
society is organized. As we discover more about the gulf between how
we learn and how we teach, hopefully we will also discover ways to
redesign our systems — but I suspect that the latter will lag behind
Our institutions of education certify the mastery of spheres of
knowledge valued by society. Several questions will become
increasingly pressing, and are even pertinent today. How much of this
learning persists beyond the time at which acquisition is certified?
How does this learning impact the lives of our students? How central
is it in shaping the thinking and behavior we would like to see among
educated people as they navigate, negotiate and lead in an
increasingly complex world?
We know that tests and admissions processes are selection devices that
sort people into cohorts on the basis of excellence on various
dimensions. We know less about how much even our finest examples of
teaching contribute to human development over and above selection and
Most of our learning is implicit, acquired automatically and
unconsciously from interactions with the physical and social
environment. Yet language — and hence explicit, declarative or
consciously articulated knowledge — is the currency of formal
Social psychologists know that what we say about why we think and act
as we do is but the tip of a largely unconscious iceberg that drives
our attitudes and our behavior. Even as cognitive and social
neuroscience reveals the structure of these icebergs under the surface
of consciousness (for example, persistent cognitive illusions,
decision biases and perceptual biases to which even the best educated
can be unwitting victims), it will be less clear how to shape or
redirect these knowledge icebergs under the surface of consciousness.
We are well aware of the power of non-verbal auditory and visual
information, which when amplified by electronic media capture the
attention of our students and sway millions. Future research should
give us a better understanding of nuanced non-verbal forms of
communication, including their universal and culturally based aspects,
as they are manifest in social, political and artistic contexts.
Even the acquisition of declarative knowledge through language — the
traditional domain of education — is being usurped by the internet at
our finger tips. Our university libraries and publication models are
responding to the opportunities and challenges of the information age.
But we will need to rethink some of our methods of instruction too.
Will our efforts at teaching be drowned out by information from
sources more powerful than even the best classroom teacher?
It is only a matter of time before we have brain-related technologies
that can alter or supplement cognition, influence what and how we
learn, and increase competition for our limited attention. Imagine the
challenges for institutions of education in an environment in which
these technologies are readily available, for better or worse.
Researcher, philosopher, software developer, Author: 3DScience: new
Scanning Electron Microscope imagery
Anty Gravity: Chaos Theory in an all too practical sense
It is not violent crime and global terrorism I worry about, as much as
the basic underpinning of our entire civilization coming apart.
What I am referring to is a slow process I observed over the last 30
years, ever since in my teens I wondered "How would this world work,
if everyone were like me?" and realized: it wouldn't!
More & more of us now need to feel special, be utterly unique. So
unique that they race off like lemmings to get 'even more individual'
tattoos, branded cattle, with branded chains in every mall, converging
on a blanded sameness world wide, but every rap singer with ever more
gold chains in ever longer stretched limos is singing the tune: Don't
be a loser! Don't be normal! The desperation with which millions of
youngsters try to be that one-in-a-million professional ball player
may have been just a "sad but silly factoid" for a long time.
But the anthill is relying on the behaviour of the ants to function
properly. And that implies: the social behaviour, the role playing,
taking defined tasks and follow them through.
What if each ant suddenly wants to be the queen? What if soldiering
and nest building and cleaning chores is just not cool enough any
If AntTV shows us every day nothing but un-Ant behaviour...?
In my youth we were whining about what to do and how to do it, but in
the end,all of my friends did become "normal" humans, orthopedics and
lawyers, social workers, teachers... There were always a few that
lived on the edges of normality, like ending up as television
celebrities, but on the whole: they were perfectly reasonable ants.
1.8 children, 2.7 cars, 3.3 TVs...
Now: I am no longer confident that line will continue. If every
honeymoon is now booked in Bali on a Visa card, and every kid in
Borneo wants to play ball in NYC... can the network of society be
pliable enough to accommodate total upheaval? And what if 2 billion
Chinese and Indians raise a generation of kids staring 6+ hours a day
into All American values they can never attain... being taunted with
Hollywood movies of heroic acts and pathetic dysfunctionality, coupled
with ever increasing violence and disdain for ethics or morals.
Seeing scenes of desperate youths in South American slums watching
"Kill Bill" makes me think: this is just oxygen thrown into the
fire... The ants will not play along much longer. The anthill will not
survive if even a small fraction of the system is falling apart.
Couple the drive for "Super Individualism" (and the Quest for Coolness
by an ever increasing group destined to fail miserably) with the
scarily simple realization of how effective even a small set of
desperate people can become, then add the obvious penchant for
religious fanaticism and you have an ugly picture of the long term
Artist, New York City; Mary Boone Gallery
The unknown becomes known, and is not replaced with a new unkown
Several years ago I stood in front of a painting by Vermeer. It was a
painting of a woman reading a letter. She stood near the window for
better lighting and behind her hung a map of the known world. I was
stunned by the revelation of this work. Vermeer understood something
so basic to human need it had gone virtually unnoticed: communication
When I think of Vermeer's woman reading the letter I wonder how long
did it take to get to her? Then I think, my god, at some time we
developed a system in which one could leave home and send word back!
We figured out a way that we could be heard from far away and then
another system so that we can be seen from far away. Then I start to
marvel at the alchemy of painting and how we have been able to invest
materials with consciousness so that Vermeer can talk to me across
time! I see too he has put me in the position of not knowing as I am
kept from reading the content of the letter. In this way he has placed
me at the edge, the frontier of wanting to know what I cannot know. I
want to know how long has this letter sender been away and what was he
doing all this time.
Vermeer puts me into what had been her condition of uncertainty. All I
can do is wonder and wait. This makes me think about how not knowing
is so important. Not knowing makes the world large and uncertain and
our survival tenuous. It is a mystery why humans roam and still more a
mystery why we still need to feel so connected to the place we have
left. The not knowing causes such profound anxiety it, in turn, spawns
creativity. The impetus for this creativity is empowerment. Our
gadgets, gizmoes, networks of transportation and communication, have
all been developed either to explore, utilize or master the unknown
If the unknown becomes known, and is not replaced with a new unknown,
if the farther we reach outward is connected only to how fast we can
bring it home, if the time between not knowing and knowing becomes too
small, creativity will be daunted. And so I worry, if we bring the
universe more completely, more effortlessly, into our homes will there
be less reason to leave them?