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Tomorrow's talk: 2006 Edge excerpts

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  • Andrew Breese
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 2 2:41 PM
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      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.

      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
      across people.

      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
      the former.

      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
      from afar.

      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?
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