Von Neumann in 1955 and 2020: Musings of a cheerful pessimist on technological survival

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Johnny von Neumann enjoying some of the lighter aspects of technology. The cap lights up when its wearer blows into the tube.

“All experience shows that even smaller technological changes than those now in the cards profoundly transform political and social relationships. Experience also shows that these transformations are not a priori predictable and that most contemporary “first guesses” concerning them are wrong.” – John von Neumann

Is the coronavirus crisis political or technological? All present analysis would seem to say that this pandemic was a result of gross political incompetence, lack of preparedness and impulsive responses by world leaders and government. But this view would be narrow because it would privilege the proximate cause over the ultimate one. The true, deep cause underlying the pandemic is technological. The coronavirus arose as a result of a hyperconnected world that made human reaction times much slower than global communication and the transport of physical goods and people across international borders. For all our skill in creating these technologies, we did not equip ourselves to manage the network effects and sudden failures in social, economic and political systems created by them. An even older technology, the transfer of genetic information between disparate species, was what enabled the whole crisis in the first place.

This privileging of political forces over technological ones is typical of the mistakes that we often make in seeking the root cause of problems. Political causes, greatly amplified by the twenty-four hour news cycle and social media, are illusory and may even be important in the short-term, but there is little doubt that the slow but sure grind of technological change that penetrates deeper and deeper into social and individual choices will be responsible for most of the important transformations we face during our lifetimes and beyond. On scales of a hundred to five hundred years, there is little doubt that science and technology rather than any political or social event cause the biggest changes in the fortunes of nations and individuals: as Richard Feynman once put it, a hundred years from now, the American Civil War would pale into provincial insignificance compared to that other development from the 1860s – the crafting of the basic equations of electromagnetism by James Clerk Maxwell. The former led to a new social contract for the United States; the latter underpins all of modern civilization – including politics, war and peace.

The question, therefore, is not whether we can survive this or that political party or president. The question is, can we survive technology? Read more »

Making far out the norm: Or how to nurture loonshots

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Vannevar Bush – loonshot pioneer (Picture credit- TIME magazine)

What makes a revolutionary scientific or technological breakthrough by an individual, an organization or even a country possible? In his thought provoking book “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases and Transform Industries”, physicist and biotechnology entrepreneur Safi Bahcall dwells on the ideas, dynamics and human factors that have enabled a select few organizations and nations in history to rise above the fray and make contributions of lasting impact to modern society. Bahcall calls such seminal, unintuitive, sometimes vehemently opposed ideas “Loonshots”. Loonshots is a play on “moonshots” because the people who come up with these ideas are often regarded as crazy or anti-establishment, troublemakers who want to rattle the status quo.

Bahcall focuses on a handful of individuals and companies to illustrate the kind of unconventional, out of the box thinking that makes breakthrough discoveries possible. Among his favorite individuals are Vannevar Bush, Akira Endo and Edwin Land, and among his favorite organizations are Bell Labs and American Airlines. Each of these individuals or organizations possessed the kind of hardy spirit that’s necessary to till their own field, often against the advice of their peers and superiors. Each possessed the imagination to figure out how to think unconventionally or orthogonal to the conventional wisdom. And each courageously pushed ahead with their ideas, even in the face of contradictory or discouraging data. Read more »

The Pollinators of Technology

by Evan Edwards

DownloadOn the night of Monday, April 3rd, a man stood in the middle of the intersection at Franklin and Columbia in Chapel Hill, NC. Within minutes, thousands of people poured out of bars, houses, apartments, fraternity and sorority homes, and who knows where else, barrelling down the largest streets in the town to join him. There’s a video that shows it happening in high speed. The University had just won the NCAA men’s basketball tournament which (if you don’t know) is a very big deal.

I grew up in North Carolina, and as the week drew closer to the game, I watched so many people that I know from Middle and High school making their way back to the state, just to be there if/when they pulled it off. If they couldn’t make it, many documented their excitement wherever they were, on social media, and sent messages and memes to one another as the game loomed closer, just brimming with enthusiasm. Although I never really got into sports, it was a bit moving to watch people get so very joyous about something when nearly everything else in the news is tinged with a kind of abysmal horror.

If you watch the video I linked to above, you notice that the frame shakes as it pans from side to side. Because we’re used to it, we can read this erratic movement as the work of a smartphone camera because professional cameras and drones aren’t this sloppy, and no one uses handheld video-cameras any more. In the shot, too, you see the arm of the man in the intersection upstretched in the first few frames, the luminous glow of his iPhone at its apex, almost giving him the look of an angler fish wandering the deep, or a single firefly waiting in a meadow. As the crowd rolls in, you can’t always make out the screen glow, but it’s clear that almost everyone in the crowd is either raising their phone up to take a picture, to record video, to go live, or to snapchat.

When I was younger, my friends and I did something similar to this. We would call each other during concerts, to leave voicemails or let them listen for a while if a song that meant something to both of us was being played. For me, it was a special way of using technology to deepen a personal friendship. This was before I was on Facebook (you had to have a college e-mail address to get an account when I was in High School), Myspace was not used for sharing things like this, and so the concert voice mail was, in some way, the most cutting edge social medium we had. It was extraordinary to wake up to a voicemail like that from a friend. Absolutely moving.

Read more »

Reflections on congestion and technology

by Emrys Westacott

Last week I drove from the small college town in upstate New York where I live to New York City. Traffic_330_1a1i8i2-1a1i8i8 We covered the 306 miles from home to the George Washington Bridge, which takes one into Manhattan, in just under five hours. The next 15 miles, through Manhattan to our destination in Brooklyn, with a quick pick up and drop off on the Upper West Side, took an hour and a half. The following day we had a similarly miserable experience driving from Brooklyn to midtown.

I understand that a country mouse like myself is likely to be both not very savvy about and easily unsettled by the ways of the big bad city. Even so, the congestion, the jungle-law etiquette, the impatient honking, the anxiety induced by reckless cyclists passing on left and right, the lanes blocked by delivery vehicles, the need for so many police officers to direct traffic and pedestrians at snarled intersections, the difficulty of finding street parking–all this had me shaking my head. I know that thousands do it every day. Many do it for a living. And a few no doubt enjoy it. But regularly spending hours in congested traffic, even in a taxi on a bus, is no part of the good life in my book. At best, it's a fairly hefty sacrifice for the sake of other benefits the city has to offer.

Strolling around midtown Manhattan, I was struck by how many of the cars on the street were yellow taxis. Apparently there is no official figure for the percentage of New York traffic constituted by taxis, but my impression was that it must be more than fifty percent, especially if one includes cars that provide ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. According to New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission, about 20,000 of the city's 65,000 vehicles for hire are Ubers.

Read more »

Mutant Nature

by Dwight Furrow

Mutant natureNature is not disappearing; it's just hiding in your salad bowl.

Throughout most of human history human beings were utterly dependent on nature and everything about human life was determined by it. Adapt or die was the imperative that governed all life and so nature seemed infinite and without measure, a fact recognized by 18th century theories of the sublime. Yet, throughout most of that history, we refused to acknowledge this dependence striving to see ourselves as ultimately separate from nature. The separation of mind and body, of earth and heaven, the opposition of nature and culture, were taken to be simply obvious.

But today we have reversed that equation. Inexorably, we have learned to control nature through technologies which have reached such a critical mass that nature has been reduced to a mere instrument to be carved up and used as we see fit—a “standing reserve” as Heidegger called it. Even our biological make up will soon be subject to fundamental manipulation as gene editing comes online. The result is that nature now seems finite and fragile, disappearing under the deluge of techno-science and mass industrialization.

Paradoxically, as we gain more control over nature we have begun to acknowledge our dependence on it, as the Paris climate talks get underway amidst a deepening sense of crisis. The consequences of ignoring our dependence on nature are all too evident. For us today nature is both an instrument to be used up and a center of independent power, a Janus-faced phenomenon, on the one hand limited and circumscribed by human activity but on the other hand generating effluvia that create a devilishly devious constraint on human activity. The resistance of nature yields to our technology in countless ways but leaves behind a residue of pollution and devastation that threatens to undermine that hard won human control.

Read more »

On Fear of Surveillance Technology

by Emrys Westacott

Surveillance of people by governments and other institutions is an ancient practice. According to the legend, the first Christmas occurred in Bethlehem because of a census ordered by the emperor Augustus. One of the first acts of William the Conqueror after becoming king of England was to commission the Doomsday Book–an exact accounting of people and property throughout the realm.
ImagesKnowing who people are, where they live, what they own, what they think, and whom they associate with has long been recognized as key to holding and exercising power. Not surprisingly, therefore, chief surveillance officers like Cardinal Richelieu and J. Edgar Hoover have been among the most powerful men of their time.

It is a commonplace that the technological revolution based on the digital computer has made possible a revolution in surveillance. This process is well underway and can be expected to continue into the foreseeable future. Innovations that constitute this revolution include:

  • cameras monitoring highways, airports, banks, shops, malls, streets and other public placestelephone records of every call made, often including a record of the actual conversation
  • monitoring and recording of e-mail, text messages, and other internet activity; of all financial transactions, particularly banking, credit card purchases, and loans; and of individual shopping habits from large item mail order purchases to the particular brands of tinned fruit one prefers at the supermarket
  • digitization (which allows for more detail plus enhanced accessibility) of hence of medical records, academic records, and other data bases of personal information, including fingerprints and other unique identifiers, used by police, immigration services, and other government agencies concerned with law enforcement or security
  • tracking devices attached to people or vehicles
  • implants that monitor such things as a person's pulse or insulin levels and send alerts if these change dramatically

The list could be extended almost indefinitely. One notable consequence of all this monitoring is that the police and other agencies with access to this information can track our movements much more easily than in the past. Every time we send a text message or swipe a credit card, they fix our location.

The revolution in surveillance technology gives rise to at least three different kinds of fear.

Read more »