It’s a step more useful for midterm politics than for reality, unfortunately: “All 49 members of the Democratic caucus are in favor of the resolution, along with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). If it passes, the resolution still faces a tough vote in the House, as well as the signature of President Donald Trump.”
Turns out USians are most afraid, right now, that government officials are corrupt, and afraid for the planet, and afraid of losing health care. Whew, whatever happened to public speaking? Well, we’re complex: “We’re simultaneously too primitive and too evolved for our own good. Our lizard brains are ruthlessly efficient.”
Sweden’s war on cash has changed a lot about the country, including how robbers operate. “As Sweden’s supply of banknotes continues to dwindle, criminals have shown new enthusiasm for the endangered-species black market, previously cornered by reptile wranglers and orchid thieves. Crimes involving protected species recently reached their highest level in a decade. A single great gray owl — known as the ‘phantom of the north’ — now goes for 1 million kronor (about $120,000) on the dark web.”
This widespread rejection of scientific findings presents a perplexing puzzle to those of us who value an evidence-based approach to knowledge and policy. Yet many science deniers do cite empirical evidence. The problem is that they do so in invalid, misleading ways. Psychological research illuminates these ways.
While in the new millennium the quality of French intellectual life has plummeted, its reputation remains. Shlomo Sand bracingly compares media-friendly intellectuals such as Houellebecq, Éric Zemmour and Alain Finkielkraut to Nazi-collaborating writers such as Robert Brasillach and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. Like such past figures, Sand argues, they cling to a France that is “totally imaginary” and yearn for it to be purified of the Other. In 1940 that meant Jews, in 2018 Islam.
A clearer sense of the greater science ecosystem is required to figure out what role science should play and how society can best make that happen. Who gets to do research in the 21st century, and why? How has it changed over time? Is science in good shape, and how can we know? When I started asking these questions I realized there’s a lot that even scientists still don’t know about themselves.
In the United States, theory has become a utopian experiment and experience: it exists alongside increasingly historicist literary studies as a site of mixture and reprieve; it promises, for example, to help literary scholars moonlight as media theorists and art historians, while reminding them to consider the horrors of colonialism and the errors of the Enlightenment. Meanwhile, it makes the rounds online, on social media, in popular music, in art world press releases, and in the New York Times, decontextualized and meme-like, sometimes the stuff of conspiracy and outrage and at others the balm of empathy.
Sometimes, the word ‘beauty’ aspires to the solidity of a proper noun, grand and true. Other times, it seems a more nebulous term for an elusive kind of experience. We can be careless about the beautiful, shrugging it off as a matter of mere appearance. It is not grave like the stuff of our political lives, or profound like our moral considerations. Certainly, we know to admire the beautiful in its different forms – a painting, a song, a building, sometimes even an act or a gesture – and we might go so far as to believe that our engagement with beautiful things constitutes a deep and meaningful experience, as though it were a momentary pause in the hectic thoroughfare of our lives. But we rarely permit matters of beauty the same seriousness that we customarily grant big ideas such as ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’.
A central tension in the field, one that muddies the timeline, is how “the Singularity”—the point when technology becomes so masterly it takes over for good—will arrive. Will it come on little cat feet, a “slow takeoff” predicated on incremental advances in A.N.I., taking the form of a data miner merged with a virtual-reality system and a natural-language translator, all uploaded into a Roomba? Or will it be the Godzilla stomp of a “hard takeoff,” in which some as yet unimagined algorithm is suddenly incarnated in a robot overlord?
Can we have knowledge of the past? Does science progress toward a more truthful apperception of the physical world? Or is it all a matter of opinion, a sociological phenomenon that reflects consensus, not truth? Unfettered emission of greenhouse gases promotes global warming. Species evolve through natural selection. Can we meaningfully assess the truth of these assertions?
“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. The interdependence of these factors is masked however by a cultural phenomenon I call the ‘cerebral mystique’ – a pervasive idealisation of the brain and its singular importance, which protects traditional conceptions about differences between mind and body, the freedom of will and the nature of thought itself.”
Our brains are the product of millions of years of evolution. Scientists would very much like to know how some of the most ancient brains functioned and evolved over time, but that’s obviously not possible, owing to the complete lack of primordial brains to work with. As a good consolation prize, however, scientists can work with crocodiles—an animal that originated more than 200 million years ago, barely changing over the eons. Accordingly, scientists can study crocodiles to understand at which point certain brain structures and behaviors first emerged.
Experimental philosophy – that is, x-phi – isn’t new, but it is more and more common. “A well-known example of this kind of work is Knobe’s own finding, called the ‘side-effect effect’ or just the ‘Knobe effect’. In a nutshell, this is the finding that people judge a side-effect to be intentionally caused much more often when that side-effect is negative than when it’s positive.”
The absence of joy and pleasure—anhedonia—has, in its way, become a popular issue in the wake of the disease depression. A quarter of us are affected by it over the course of a lifetime, various studies suggest, and its frequency is increasing in the industrialized world. The treatment of depression has become both a window display and a battleground for deep brain stimulation.
At some point in the future, could an A.I. company manufacture something akin to a neural bridge, allowing ordinary people to occasionally share their experiences? Maybe. Elon Musk recently announced the founding of Neuralink, a company that aims to put A.I. inside the head, merging humans and machines. Neural lace, the artificial hippocampus, brain chips to treat mood and memory disorders—these are just some of the mind-altering A.I. technologies already under development. While it may not be around the corner, a device akin to a temporary neural bridge—something that users can occasionally insert when they wish to share experiences—isn’t that far-fetched.
Information technology and its effect on the way we think and feel is a crucial issue in our time. In his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Lyotard wrote, “It is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor.” This has come true. The information technology at a certain historical moment must determine, to some extent, the way that we communicate with each other.
Ultimately, to challenge Facebook, Google, and the many unknown players of the data economy, we must devise new business models and structural incentives that aren’t rooted in manipulation and coercion; that don’t depend on the constant surveillance of users, on gathering information on everything they read and purchase, and on building that information into complex dossiers designed to elicit some action — a click, a purchase, a vote. We must move beyond surveillance capitalism and its built-in inequities.
“We’ve created a scammy society where we concentrate wealth in ways that are petty and not helpful, and we’ve given them a world of far fewer options than we had. There’s nothing I want more than for the younger people to create successful lives and create a world that they love. I mean, that’s what it’s all about. But to say that the path to that is for them to agree with the thing we made for them is just so self-serving and so obnoxiously narcissistic that it makes me wanna throw up.”
What is the meaning of ‘meaning’ in ‘the meaning of life’? We talk about the meaning of words, or linguistic meaning, the meaning of an utterance or of writing in a book. When we ask if human life has meaning, are we asking whether it has meaning in this semantic sense? Could human history be a sentence in some cosmic language? The answer is that it could, in principle, but that this isn’t what we want when we search for the meaning of life.
At the beginning of the 21st century, a new world is emerging. Not since Marx identified the manufacturing plants of Manchester as the blueprint for the new capitalist society has there been a deeper transformation of the fundamentals of our socioeconomic life. A new commons-based mode of production, enabled by information and communication technology (ICT), what we now call digitisation, redefines how we (can) produce, consume and distribute. This pathway is exemplified by interconnected collaborative initiatives that produce a wide range of artifacts, from encyclopaedias and software to agricultural machines, wind turbines, satellites and prosthetics. And much of this relates to the little pipe-seller’s attitude.
In Boyle Heights, there’s a delicate balance to maintain – the city knows Boyle Heights residents are not interested in a threatening wave of gentrification. So a one-day “play street” plan might actually be a good solution. “What a play street is not is a replacement for permanent parks. … But it bridges the gap in a way that’s really needed.”
Ohhhhkaaaay, Silicon Valley PR machine: “AR board games promise a host of advantages over their real world counterparts. They eliminate the need to set up complicated boards and remove the foot-piercing pieces you eventually need to round up and put away (and the mess when someone flips the board in frustration). Perhaps even more importantly, augmented-reality board games let you play your favorite titles with friends and family regardless of whether you’re in the same room.”
The game – for instance, getting more money back on CVS cards, or figuring out which credit card to use in which specific situation – is infinite, and rigged. “It’s not a zero-sum, winners-and-losers sort of game, like Monopoly or cage fighting, but rather one that continues as long as you want to play and one that, in a sense, you can’t win.”