For years I've heard apocryphal stories of knowledge workers in Silicon Valley who outsourced their job themselves. They had permission to work at home, but in fact outsourced their work to cheap Chinese or Indian labor. The Valley worker would work only a few hours per day overseeing his help, and goof off the rest. The Asian workers under him were delighted with a real job that paid well for them -- but only a fraction of what the CA guy got. And the CA guy's boss was delighted with the great work he was getting. It was an ingenious racket! Win, win, win for 3 sides; everybody happy. But all this shadow outsourcing was only rumors as far as I could tell.
Now comes some hard evidence from a Verizon security team that at least one person was really pulling off this sweet scam. From this article from Verizon:
"As it turns out, Bob had simply outsourced his own job to a Chinese consulting firm. Bob spent less that one fifth of his six-figure salary for a Chinese firm to do his job for him. Authentication was no problem, he physically FedExed his RSA token to China so that the third-party contractor could log-in under his credentials during the workday. It would appear that he was working an average 9 to 5 work day. Investigators checked his web browsing history, and that told the whole story.
A typical ‘work day’ for Bob looked like this:
9:00 a.m. – Arrive and surf Reddit for a couple of hours. Watch cat videos
11:30 a.m. – Take lunch
1:00 p.m. – Ebay time.
2:00 – ish p.m Facebook updates – LinkedIn
4:30 p.m. – End of day update e-mail to management.
5:00 p.m. – Go home
Evidence even suggested he had the same scam going across multiple companies in the area. All told, it looked like he earned several hundred thousand dollars a year, and only had to pay the Chinese consulting firm about fifty grand annually. The best part? Investigators had the opportunity to read through his performance reviews while working alongside HR. For the last several years in a row he received excellent remarks. His code was clean, well written, and submitted in a timely fashion. Quarter after quarter, his performance review noted him as the best developer in the building."
Scott Adams was head by a whole decade. From Dilbert, August 3, 2003
Nobody reads big factual books anymore. Who has time? With a lot of effort you can get folks to buy big factual books, but they don't usually read them. They sit on the "to read" shelf once they get home. Or pile up in the inbox on an ebook reader. I know. As an author I know how many of my purchased books are unread. But while it is nice that people buy books, I feel a failure as an author if the bought (or borrowed) books are not read.
A couple of years ago I had an idea for increasing readership of books. I'll pay you to read my book! I had a clever way to use ebook readers to accomplish this. I mentioned the system to many book lovers and authors, and one of them whom made his living patenting ideas suggest my idea was patentable.
I took some initial steps in that direction, but realized very quickly that getting a patent is just like getting a child - you now have to tend it, protect it, feed it, and develop it. It did not solve anything; it only created new things to solve. I have too many other things to do than babysit or try to peddle a patent, so I am publishing the idea here. It may be that this idea is not patentable at all, or even already patented (I never got that far to look), or maybe it is a lousy idea that can't be implemented. In any case, here it is.
I think it's a great idea. I'd like to have this option as a reader, as well as an author and publisher. I hope someone does this.
A MODEL FOR PAYING READERS TO READ BOOKS
By Kevin Kelly
June 1, 2012
Proposal for a patent: The idea is to pay people to read a book.
Readers would purchase an e-book for a fixed amount, say $5. They would use an e-book reader to read the digital book. The e-book reader would contain software that would track their reading usage – how long it took on average to turn a page; how often they highlighted a passage; how many pages activated at one sitting, etc. Amazon Kindles today already track bookmark usage patterns which they relay back to Amazon on via its wireless Whispernet. Using a database of known reading patterns from verified readers the software would compare a purchaser’s reading behavior to these known reading patterns and establish whether or not a purchaser is really reading the book. If the behavior patterns exceeded the threshold level – say 95% of pages turned at the right speed -- then the e-book device would initiate a predetermined payment to the purchaser.
If a reader is given credit for reading the book, then he/she would earn more than they paid for the book. For example, if they paid $5 for the ebook, they would get back $6, thus earning $1 for reading the book. Not only did the book not cost them anything, but they made money reading the book. If they read it.
The Publisher would pay the difference from the potentially greater sales revenue this arrangement would induce. Greater numbers of readers would purchase the book initially in the hope and expectation that they would finish the book and be reimbursed greater than the amount they paid. In their mind, entering into a purchase is an “easy buy” because they calculate “it will cost them nothing.” Or maybe even make them money.
However the likelier outcome is that while many more customers buy the book, fewer actually read it completely. This follows the known pattern that most bought books are not read. So the actual payout for success will likely be less than the actual gain in sales, resulting in a net gain to the Publisher for this deal. So if, for example, the Publisher sold 10 books that were unread for every 1 book that was read, the revenue would be $50-$6 = $44. If this offer increased ordinary sales by for example 40%, there would be a net increase in revenue from $35 to $44 or $9, or 25% additional profit for this model.
There is satisfaction for both parties in either outcome. If the purchaser buys the book, but does not read it in full, he/she paid the acceptable price, and still owns the book. The Publisher keeps the full amount. If the purchaser finishes reading the book, they still have the book, but also earned money doing so. The publisher loses only a small amount on the sale, which can be offset from greater sales to others.
The payout ratio can be adjusted depending on the price of the ebook, or the category of content. This mechanism requires no new hardware than what exists today, and better hardware in the future – such as eye tracking technology -- will only make it more practical to evaluate whether someone has read a book. This can be accomplished primarily in software. Of course, it should be an opt in choice, and engaged with a purchaser’s permission only.
Cops, emergency room doctors, and insurance actuarists all know it. They realize how many crazy impossible things happen all the time. A burglar gets stuck in a chimney, a truck driver in a head on collision is thrown out the front window and lands on his feet, walks away; a wild antelope knocks a man off his bike; a candle at a wedding sets the bride's hair on fire; someone fishing off a backyard dock catches a huge man-size shark. In former times these unlikely events would be private, known only as rumors, stories a friend of a friend told, easily doubted and not really believed.
But today they are on YouTube, and they fill our vision. You can see them yourself. Each of these weird freakish events just mentioned can be found on YouTube, seen by millions.
The improbable consists of more than just accidents. The internets are also brimming with improbable feats of performance -- someone who can run up a side of a building, or slide down suburban roof tops, or stack up cups faster than you can blink. Not just humans, but pets open doors, ride scooters, and paint pictures. The improbable also includes extraordinary levels of super human achievements: people doing astonishing memory tasks, or imitating all the accents of the world. In these extreme feats we see the super in humans.
Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we'll see or hear about today. The internet is like a lens which focuses the extraordinary into a beam, and that beam has become our illumination. It compresses the unlikely into a small viewable band of everyday-ness. As long as we are online - which is almost all day many days -- we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.
That light of super-ness changes us. We no longer want mere presentations, we want the best, greatest, the most extraordinary presenters alive, as in TED. We don't want to watch people playing games, we want to watch the highlights of the highlights, the most amazing moves, catches, runs, shots, and kicks, each one more remarkable and improbable than the other.
We are also exposed to the greatest range of human experience, the heaviest person, shortest midgets, longest mustache -- the entire universe of superlatives! Superlatives were once rare -- by definition -- but now we see multiple videos of superlatives all day long, and they seem normal. Humans have always treasured drawings and photos of the weird extremes of humanity (early National Geographics), but there is an intimacy about watching these extremities on video on our phones while we wait at the dentist. They are now much realer, and they fill our heads.
I see no end to this dynamic. Cameras are becoming ubiquitous, so as our collective recorded life expands, we'll accumulate thousands of videos showing people being struck by lightening. When we all wear tiny cameras all the time, then the most improbable accident, the most superlative achievement, the most extreme actions of anyone alive will be recorded and shared around the world in real time. Soon only the most extraordinary moments of our 6 billion citizens will fill our streams. So henceforth rather than be surrounded by ordinariness we'll float in extraordinariness.
It's one thing to hear a story about someone getting struck by lightening, but it feels different seeing a video of it. I have a hunch that seeing "facts" on video makes them seem realer to us than either reading, hearing, or seeing stills about them. And then there are always more than one. That's the thing, you can start with the most unlikely event or achievement, and then watch a series of this unlikeliness for hours. Over time this extremism accumulates. When the improbable dominates the archive to the point that it seems as if the library contains ONLY the impossible, then these improbabilities don't feel as improbable.
I think there is already evidence that this ocean of extraordinariness is inspiring, galvanizing, prompting, daring ordinary folks to try something extraordinary. At the same time, superlative epic failures are foremost as well. We are confronted by the stupidest people in the world as well, doing the dumbest things imaginable. So we see the extremes. In some respects this is making us a world of Ripley-Believe-it-or-Not-ers, or it may place us in a universe of nothing more than tiny, petty, obscure Guinness World Record holders. Everyone is a world record something for 15 minutes. In every life there is probably at least one moment that is freakish.
To the uninformed, the increased prevalence of improbable events will make it easier to believe in impossible things. A steady diet of coincidences makes it easy to believe they are more than just coincidences, right? But to the informed, a slew of improbably events make it clear that the unlikely sequence, the outlier, the black swan event, must be part of the story. After all, in 100 flips of the penny you are just as likely to get 100 heads in a row as any other sequence. But in both cases, when improbable events dominate our view -- when we see an internet river streaming nothing but 100 heads in a row -- it makes the improbable more intimate, nearer.
I am unsure of what this intimacy with the improbable does to us. What happens if we spend all day exposed to the extremes of life, to a steady stream of the most improbable events, and try to run ordinary lives in a background hum of superlatives? What happens when the extraordinary becomes ordinary?
The good news may be that it cultivates in us an expanded sense of what is possible for humans, and for human life, and so expand us. The bad news may be that this insatiable appetite for supe-superlatives leads to dissatisfaction with anything ordinary.
I don't know, but if anyone is aware of research on this effect, I'd like to know about it.
Clay Shirky argues that the least creative act is making a LOL-cat, but that even making a LOL-cat is better than making nothing, and so the internet of LOL_cats is a net good compared to say a world of make-nothing consumption. One could make a similar argument that the least distinctive human achievement is a bad accident captured on YouTube, but that moment of uniqueness is better than no uniqueness at all, and so a world of YouTube extremities, improbabilities and superlatives is a net good.
New media technologies often cause an allergic reaction when they first appear. We may find them painful before we find them indispensable.
I watched the movie The Hobbit. Twice. First I saw it in its "standard" mode. A day later I returned to see The Hobbit in 3D at a high frame rate of 48 frames per second, called HFR. HFR is a cinematic hi-tech that promises greater realism. It was amazingly real. And disturbing at first.
Because 48 frames per second is just above the threshold that a human eye/brain can detect changes, the projected picture seems startling whole and "smooth," as if it were uninterrupted reality.
I was surprised though that the movie in 48HFR looked so different. (The 3D did not have an effect.) Even though both formats were shot with the same cameras and lighting, they appeared to be lighted and shot on different sets. The HFR lighting in the HFR movies seemed harsh, brighter, and more noticeable. The emotional effect of HFR was disturbing for the first 10 minutes. And perplexing -- because the only thing different in the two movies was that one was displayed in the 48 frames it was shot at, and the other was computationally reduced down to the normal 24 frames per second. Why would the frame rate distort the lighting and the emotion?
I was not the only one who noticed. The HFR version of the Hobbit -- the first commercial movie to be released in this new format -- stirred up howls from the critics. Very few filmish people liked what they saw. For most it was painful. The reviewers struggle to express what HFR looked like and why:
"Audiences looking for a rich, textured, cinematic experience will be put off and disconcerted by an image that looks more like an advanced version of high definition television than a traditional movie." - Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times
"One thing The Hobbit is not is a celebration of the beauty of film. A celebration of video-game realms, perhaps." - Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
All kinds of ailments were ascribed to it, including hard of hearing:
"I can honestly say I had a harder time hearing some of the dialogue in the 3D HFR version than in the 2D... It was like watching really, really, really atrociously bad state run TV show......High frame rates belong on bad TV shows and perhaps sports." -- Vincent Laforet, Gizmodo
My first impression, too, was that HFR reminded me of my first look at video. That theme was repeated by many. But what is it about video that we didn't like at first?
"Those high frame rates are great for reality television, and we accept them because we know these things are real. We're always going to associate high frame rates with something that's not acted, and our brains are always going to associate low frame rates with something that is not. If they're seeing something artificial and it starts to approach something looking real, they begin to inherently psychologically reject it." -- James Kerwin, Movieline
"Instead of the romantic illusion of film, we see the sets and makeup for what they are. The effect is like stepping into a diorama alongside the actors, which is not as pleasant as it might sound... Never bet against innovation, but this debut does not promise great things to come." - C. Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune
What's going on here? I really struggled to figure out what was happening to my own eyes and my perception that something as simple as changing a frame rate would trigger such drastic re-evaluations of cinema?
I researched on the web without much satisfaction, since few people had actually seen 48HFR. I asked a few friends in the advance cinema industry and got unsatisfactory answers. Then I was at a party with a friend from Pixar and asked him my question: why does HFR change the appearance of the lighting? He also could not tell me, but the man next to him could. He was John Knoll, the co-creator of Photoshop and the Oscar-winning Visual Effects Director for a string of technically innovative Hollywood blockbusters as long as my arm. He knew. I'll put his answer into my own words:
Imagine you had the lucky privilege to be invited by Peter Jackson onto the set of the Hobbit. You were standing right off to the side while they filmed Bilbo Baggins in his cute hobbit home. Standing there on the set you would notice the incredibly harsh lighting pouring down on Bilbo's figure. It would be obviously fake. And you would see the makeup on Bilbo's in the harsh light. The text-book reason filmmakers add makeup to actors and then light them brightly is that film is not as sensitive as the human eye, so these aids compensated for the film's deficiencies of being insensitive to low light and needing the extra contrast provided by makeup. These fakeries were added to "correct" film so it seemed more like we saw. But now that 48HFR and hi-definition video mimic our eyes better, it's like we are standing on the set, and we suddenly notice the artifice of the previously needed aids. When we view the video in "standard" format, the lighting correctly compensates, but when we see it in high frame rate, we see the artifice of the lighting as if we were standing there on the set.
Knoll asked me, "You probably only noticed the odd lighting in the interior scenes, not in the outdoors scenes, right?" And once he asked it this way, I realized he was right. The scenes in the HFR version that seemed odd were all inside. The landscape scenes were stunning in a good way. "That's because they didn't have to light the outside; the real lighting is all that was needed, so nothing seemed amiss."
Now some of the complaints make sense:
"While striking in some of the big spectacle scenes, predominantly looked like ultra-vivid television video, paradoxically lending the film an oddly theatrical look, especially in the cramped interior scenes in Bilbo Baggins' home." - Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
"Instead of feeling like we've been transported to Middle-earth, it's as if we've dropped in on Jackson's New Zealand set..." - Scott Foundas, Village Voice
As digital recording continues to increase in resolution, fluidity, and sensitivity, this verisimilitude with "being in the set" will also increase. John Knoll wisely predicts that his industry will quickly learn that they have to abandoned the old style of lighting, and also increase the realism in such things as props and special effects. "I liked the HFR version," he said. "We are going to see a lot more of it."
But that is not what the filmish people want. They like the less sensitive, blurry style of film better. One critic even suggested that directors should use soft-focus filters to debase the clarity of the new digital recordings and restore the "painterly" aspect of classic films.
"Over all, though, the shiny hyper-reality robs Middle-earth of some of its misty, archaic atmosphere, turning it into a gaudy high-definition tourist attraction." - A.O.Scott, The New York Times
"At 48 frames, the film is more true to life, sometimes feeling so intimate it's like watching live theater. That close-up perspective also brings out the fakery of movies. Sets and props look like phony stage trappings at times, the crystal pictures bleaching away the painterly quality of traditional film. Like the warmth of analog vinyl vs. the precision of digital music, the dreaminess of traditional film vs. the crispness of high-frame rates will be a matter of taste." - Associated Press
I told Knoll that these complaints about the sterility of the new digital format reminded me of the arguments against CD music albums. Digital was "too clear" "too clinical" not "warm and fuzzy enough" according to audiophiles. CDs missed the musical ambiance, the painterly soul of a song. The critics were not going to buy CDs and the labels would have to pry their beloved analog vinyl albums from their dead hands. Of course, for average music fans, the clear hiss-free quality of CDs were soon perceived as much superior, particularly as the "frame" rate of the digital sampling increased past the point of most ear's perception. "That's exactly what it is like, " exclaimed Knoll. HFR is the CD of movies right now.
This pattern of initial irritation followed by embrace has been found in other media introductions. When the realism of photography first appeared, artists favored soft lenses to keep the photos "painterly." Drastic sharpness was startling, "unnatural" to art, and looked odd. Over time of course, the sharp details became the main point of photography.
Color TV, technicolor, and Kodakchrome all had its detractors who found a purity and monumentalism in black and white. Color was all too gaudy, distracting and touristy, not unlike the criticism of HFR now.
I predict that on each step towards increased realism new media take, there will be those who find the step physically painful. It will hurt their eyes, ears, nose, touch,and peace of mind. It will seem unnecessarily raw, ruining the art behind the work. This disturbance is not entirely in our heads, because we train our bodies to react to media, and when it changes, it FEELS different. There may be moments of uncomfort.
But in the end we tend to crave the realism -- when it has been mastered -- and will make our home in it.
The scratchy sound of vinyl, the soft focus of a Kodak Brownie, and the flickers of a 24 frame per second movie will all be used to time-stamp a work of nostalgia.
I started out as a photographer. For years in Asia I was chasing the "decisive moment" in a still picture, that moment I would chose when everything lined up perfectly, the light, the angle, the eyes, the form, the motion -- in that micro-second it all came together just as I clicked the shutter. If I were lucky I got the exposure and focus right. (But I never knew until I developed the film later.)
I've also done a small bit of filmmaking and videoing. Different camera, different mode. Forget the decisive moment, you are searching for streams and flows. Many times I wished I was videoing when I had a still camera. Is there a way to do both?
Why not just digitally "film" a scene and then take perfectly crisp stills from the "footage" to get the best of both worlds? Then you could take a decisive hour's worth of motion and then later pick through it to retrieve the best stills. You would be working with the advantage of hindsight, something you don't have in the field or real life. Making a decisive moment image will be much easier; you don't just have to be lucky.
Until now this dream has not been possible technically. The extracted stills were never sharp or rich enough to stand on their own. But a new camera from Canon makes it practical now. Advances in lenses, sensors and storage mean that you can "film" a scene and then extract very crisp, well exposed, information rich still images. Watch this video for a introduction.
The distinction (what was left of it) between still images and cinematic images is gone. As this technology continues to shrink and improve, eventually moving to your phone, it will change what we think of as photography -- including cinematography. Even though I spent many years aiming for that elusive moment, I welcome the disruption.
Take a look at these farm houses which I saw under construction in remote areas of Yunnan province China. They were not unusual; farmsteads this size were everywhere in rural China. Note the scale of these massive buildings. Each support post is cut from a single huge tree. The massive earth walls are three stories high and taper toward the top. They are homes for a single extended family built in the traditional Tibetan farmhouse style. They are larger than most middle-class American homes. The extensive wood carvings inside and outside will be painted in garish colors, like this family room shown in a finished home. This area of Yunnan is consider one of the poorer areas in China, and the standard of living of the inhabitants here would be classified as "poor."
Part of the reason is that these homes have no running water, no grid electricity, and no toilets. They don't even have outhouses.
But the farmers and their children who live in these homes all have cell phones, and they have accounts on the Chinese versions of Twitter and Facebook, and recharge via solar panels.
This is important because a recent thought-provoking article by a renowned economist argues that the US economy has not been growing during the internet boom and probably will not grow any more than it has already because computers and the internet are not as productive as the last two industrial revolutions.
You can read the article here: Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? (PDF) by Robert Gordon.
Gordon answers his own question with: Yes, US economic growth is over for a while. I think Robert Gordon is wrong about his conclusion, but I wanted to start with one of the bits of evidence he offers for his view. He is trying to argue that the consequences of the 2nd Industrial Revolution, which bought to common people electricity and plumbing, was far more important than the computers and internet which the 3rd Industrial Revolution has brought us. (Gordon's 1st Industrial revolution was steam and railroads.) As evidence of this claim he offers this hypothetical choice between option A and option B.
With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?
Gordon then goes on to say:
I have posed this imaginary choice to several audiences in speeches, and the usual reaction is a guffaw, a chuckle, because the preference for Option A is so obvious.
But as I just recounted, Option A is not obvious at all.
The farmers in rural China have chosen cell phones and twitter over toilets and running water. To them, this is not a hypothetical choice at all, but a real one. and they have made their decision in massive numbers. Tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, if not billions of people in the rest of Asia, Africa and South America have chosen Option B. You can go to almost any African village to see this. And it is not because they are too poor to afford a toilet. As you can see from these farmers' homes in Yunnan, they definitely could have at least built an outhouse if they found it valuable. (I know they don't have a toilet because I've stayed in many of their homes.) But instead they found the intangible benefits of connection to be greater than the physical comforts of running water.
Most of the poor of the world don't have such access to resources as these Yunnan farmers, but even in their poorer environment they still choose to use their meager cash to purchase the benefits of the 3rd revolution over the benefits of the 2nd revolution. Connection before plumbing. It is an almost universal choice.
This choice may seem difficult for someone who has little experience in the developing world, but in the places were most of the world lives we can plainly see that the fruits of the 3rd generation of automation are at least as, and perhaps more, valuable than some fruits of the 2nd wave of industrialization.
So if people value the benefits of computers and internet so much why don't we see this value reflected in the growth of the US economy? According to Gordon growth has stalled in the internet age. This question was first asked by Robert Solow in 1987 and Gordon's answer is that there are 6 "headwinds," six negative, or contrary forces which deduct growth from the growth due to technology in the US (Gordon reiterates he is only speaking of he US). The six "headwinds" slowing down growth are the aging of the US population, stagnant levels of education, rising inequality, outsourcing and globalization, environmental constraints, and household and government debt. I agree with Gordon about these headwinds, particularly the first one, which he also sees as the most important.
Where Gordon is wrong is his misunderstanding and underestimating of the power of technological growth before it meets these headwinds.
First, as mentioned above, he underestimates the value of the innovations that the internet has brought us. They seem trivial compared to running water and electric lights, but in fact, as billions around the world show us, they are just as valuable.
So back to Solow; if digital innovations, millions of apps, the vast social networks that are being woven are increasing our living standards where is the evidence in the GDP?
I think the key sentence in Gordon's paper is this:
"Both the first two revolutions required about 100 years for their full effects to percolate through the economy."
Repeat: it took a century for the full benefits of the innovations to show up.
By my calculation we are into year 20 of this 3rd upheaval. Gordon wants to start the clock on the 3rd Industrial Revolution in 1960 at the start of commercial computers. That's an arbitrary starting point; I would arbitrarily start it at the dawn of the commercial internet because I don't think unconnected computers by themselves are revolutionary. Unconnected computers did not change much. Standalone personal computers hardly changed our lives at all. They sped up typing, altered publishing, and changed spreadsheet modeling forever, but these were minor blips in the economy and well-being of most people. Big mainframe computers helped the largest corporations manage financial assets or logistics, but a number of studies have shown that they did not elevate much growth.
Everything changed, however, when computers married the telephone. This is when ordinary people noticed computers. They could get online. Everything went online. Retail changed, production changed, occupations changed. This communication revolution accelerated change elsewhere. Processes and gizmos got smarter because they were connected. Now the advantages of personal computers made sense because in fact they were just local terminals in something bigger: the network. As the Sun Computer company famously put it: the network is the computer.
So the 3rd Industrial Revolution is not really computers and the internet, it is the networking of everything.
And in that regime we are just at the beginning of the beginning. We have only begun to connect everything to everything and to make little network minds everywhere. It may take another 80 years for the full affect of this revolution to be revealed.
In the year 2095 when economic grad students are asked to review this paper of Robert Gordon and write about why he was wrong back in 2012, they will say things like "Gordon missed the impact from the real inventions of this revolution: big data, ubiquitous mobile, quantified self, cheap AI, and personal work robots. All of these were far more consequential than stand alone computation, and yet all of them were embryonic and visible when he wrote his paper. He was looking backwards instead of forward."
Finally, Gordon is focused, as most economists, on GDP which measures the amount of "labor saving" that has been accomplished. The more labor you save while making or serving something, the more productive you are. In the calculus of traditional economics productivity equals wealth. Gordon rightly points out that so far the internet has not saved a lot of labor. As I argue in my robot piece in Wired, Better Than Human (not my title), I think the real wealth in the future does not come from saving labor but in creating new kinds of things to do. In this sense long-term wealth depends on making new labor.
Civilization is not just about saving labor but also about "wasting" labor to make art, to make beautiful things, to "waste" time playing, like sports. Nobody ever suggested that Picasso should spend fewer hours painting per picture in order to boost his wealth or improve the economy. The value he added to the economy could not be optimized for productivity. It's hard to shoehorn some of the most important things we do in life into the category of "being productive." Generally any task that can be measured by the metrics of productivity -- output per hour -- is a task we want automation to do. In short, productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring. None of these fare well under the scrutiny of productivity. That is why science and art are so hard to fund. But they are also the foundation of long-term growth. Yet our notions of jobs, of work, of the economy don't include a lot of space for wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.
Long-term growth of that type that Robert Gordon studies is really weird if you think about it. As he notes, there wasn't much of it in the world before 1750, before technological progress. Now several centuries later we have a thousand times as much wealth as before. Where does this extra good stuff come from? It is not moved from somewhere else, or borrowed. It is self-created. There's a system which manufactures this wealth "out of nothing." Much like life itself. There are certainly necessary conditions and ingredients, but it seems once you have those in place, the economy (the system) will self-generate this wealth.
A number of economists have wrestled with the origins of this self-generating wealth. Paul Romer and Brian Arthur both separately point to the recombining and re-mixing of existing ideas as the way economic growth occurs. This view focuses on knowledge as the prime motor in a self-renewing circle of increasing returns. Unlike say energy or matter, the more knowledge you spend, the more knowledge you earn, and the more breeds more in a never-ending virtuous spiral.
What is important is that this self-increasing cycle makes things that are new. New goods, new services, new dreams, new ambitions, even new needs. When things are new they are often not easy to measure, not easy to detect, nor easy to optimize. The 1st Industrial Revolution that introduced steam and railways also introduced new ideas about ownership, identity, privacy, and literacy. These ideas were not "productive" at first, but over time as they seeped into law, and culture, and became embedded into other existing technologies, they helped work to become more productive. For example ideas of ownership and capital became refined and unleashed new arrangements for funding large-scale projects in more efficient ways. In some cases these indirect ideas may have more long-term affect on growth than the immediate inventions of the time.
Likewise the grand shift our society is undergoing now, moving to a highly networked world in the third phase of industrialization, is producing many innovations that 1) are hard to perceive, 2) not really about optimizing labor, and 3) therefore hard to quantify in terms of productivity.
One has the sense that if we wait a while, the new things will trickled down and find places in the machinery of commerce where they can eventually boost the efficiency of work.
But it seems to me that there is second-order tilt in this shift to a networked world that says the real wealth in the long-term, or perhaps that should be the new wealth, will not be found merely in greater productivity, but in greater degrees of playing, creating, and exploring. We don't have good metrics for new possibilities, for things that have never been seen before, because by definition, their boundaries, distinctions, and units are unknown. How does one measure "authenticity" or "hyperreality" or "stickiness"?
Productivity is the main accomplishment, and metric, of the two previous Industrial Revolutions. Productivity won't go away; over the long term it will take fewer hours of human work to produce more of the goods and services those economies produce. Our system will do this primarily because most of this work will be done by bots.
The main accomplishment of this 3rd Industrialization, the networking of our brains, other brains and other things, is to add something onto the substrate of productivity. Call it consumptity, or generativity. By whatever name we settle on, this frontier expands the creative aspect of the whole system, increasing innovations, expanding possibilities, encouraging the inefficiencies of experiment and exploring, absorbing more of the qualities of play. We don't have good measurements of these yet. Cynics will regard this as new age naiveté, or unadorned utopianism, or a blindness to the "realities" of real life of greedy corporations, or bad bosses, or the inevitable suffering of real work. It's not.
The are two senses of growth: scale, that is, more, bigger, faster; and evolution. The linear progression of steam power, railways, electrification, and now computers and the internet is a type of the former; just more of the same, but only better. Therefore the productivity growth curve should continue up in a continuous linear fashion.
I suggest the growth of this 3rd regime is more like evolutionary growth, rather than developmental growth. The apparent stagnation we see in productivity, in real wages, in debt relief, is because we don't reckon, and don't perceive, the new directions of growth. It is not more of the same, but different.
Say we are watching an organism evolve. It might over time become extremely efficient in its energy use. Or it might become very large, cleverly optimizing its metabolic rate to manage its new girth. In either case, if we were biological economists watching it we would declare the organism to have grown in productivity.
But we can also imagine many other ways this organism might grow or evolve while keeping its metabolism steady. It could start complexifying, becoming multicellular. It might develop new sensors increasing its range of interaction. It might sift its reproductive strategy from making only one offspring garnering much attention, to making thousands of them with less care. It might evolve a tail and change its mode of locomotion entirely -- all the time leaving its metabolism rate unaltered.
Our economy is moving into the latter mode of growth -- an evolutionary uplift, which may or may not show an increase in productivity, particularly at the start of this phase. We see hints of this evolutionary growth already. The US economy shows:
Increased complexity -- Derivatives, derivatives of the derivatives, flash crowds, dark pools of money, there are hundreds of new instruments and states of money.
Increased interdependency -- National economies, particularly the US, are not longer independent cells, but part of a multi-organel system.
Increasing ubiquity of finance and monetization -- More of our lives, from games to socializing to cooking to child caring, are now part of the greater economy.
Decreasing emphasis on ownership -- In the parts of the economy run on information, data, and knowledge, these key ingredients can be used without owning them, and in fact often are more valuable when not "owned."
There are many more, but these few demonstrate the way the economy is shifting rather than simply accelerating (although it is doing that too).
Technology will continue to increase productivity for the commodities of life, even if it takes another 80 years. But the next phase we are rushing into -- the 3rd Industrial Revolution, the world of networks -- the non-commodities of life will play a greater role in economic terms. When science fiction author Neal Stephenson laments: "I saw the best minds of my generation... writing spam filters" he should not give up. It's not that different that the best minds of a former generation designing oil filters. These are the unglamorous but essential tasks in constructing a whole new infrastructure.
In his paper Robert Gordon talks about the huge value gained from "one-time" events, such as the one-time (first and last) move of a large proportion of women into the workforce. This new gain happens only once (assuming they remain). In this computer-internet economy we are experiencing a one-time gain from a huge one-time event. This is the first and only time a planet will get wired up into a global network. We are alive at this critical moment in history, and we are just at the beginning of the beginning of the many developments that will erupt because of this shift.
Happy new economy!
On January 23, 2013 Robert Gordon sent me a response to my critique of his paper after hearing about a podcast interview I did with Russ Roberts on EconTalk. I will post my reply to Gordon later; here is his letter in full:
Dear Russ (and hello Kevin aka KK)
While I don’t look at videos longer than two minutes (yours is listed at 58 minutes), I did download and print out KK’s essay in the Technium and have quite a few reactions.
The first 1/3 or so of KK’s essay features the Chinese with their well-built houses which are equipped with cell phones but no running water or toilets, indoor or outdoor. This is supposed to prove that, at least to some people, running water and indoor toilets are unimportant.
The commentators on KK’s essay immediately picked up the fact that he had not priced out the options. Cell phones are cheap and toilets are useless unless the neighborhood has been reached by urban sanitation infrastructure (pipes carrying fresh water and removing sewerage). This infrastructure was built in the U.S. between 1870 and 1930, and running water/ indoor bathrooms were almost universal in urban America by 1929. That is one of the greatest inventions of all times and overshadows today’s innovations.
But a more important objection to this irrelevant detour to China is that it has nothing to do with my paper. My choice of “Option A” vs. “Option B” explicitly states that option A allows you to keep everything invented up to 2002 and allows you to keep running water and toilets. All you have to give up is everything invented 2002-2012, including ipod, iphone, ipad, facebook, twitter, etc.
One of the things that existed in 2002, as it did in 1992, was the standard cell phone. This is what the poor people of China are using, not iphones. Just think of all the things you can enjoy with Option A – dumb cell phones, and on a desktop or laptop google, amazon, Wikipedia, full networked access to all the knowledge of the world.
The next section of KK’s essay claims that I “undervalue” the inventions of the third industrial revolution. Again, remember that I am giving a lot of credit to the computer for keeping the growth of productivity growing from 1960 to 2000 with the succession of inventions – computer printed bank statements and telephone bills (1960s), airline res systems and memory typewriters (1970s), personal computers, ATMs, and bar-code scanning (1980s), and then the marriage of the computer and communications in the 1990s. That is all given suitable appreciation in my story of what was invented before 2002.
Much of the rest of KK’s essay repeats the word “networking.” But this is really old stuff. I sent my first e-mail in 1993, 20 years ago, and was soon fully networked. My university web site was developed in the fall of 1998 and its design has not changed in 15 years (and it is quite unique, including 325 photos of economists, among other things).
But what KK misses is that the essence of networking was what the 2nd IR created. Virtually no house was connected to anything in 1870. By 1929, virtually every urban residence was connected to electricity, gas, phone, water, and sewer. The chapter in my book about the utter transformation of the living standard over 1870 to 1930 is subtitled “The Networked House.”
Then KK proceeds to criticize the concept of “productivity” by missing much of what is valuable to people. Let’s settle on several definitions. The standard of living is real GDP / population (Y/N). Productivity is real GDP / hours (Y/H). The growth of these can differ when H/N rises (female LFPR in the 1965-90 period) or falls (retirement of baby boomers and dropping out of lower income prime-age men now).
For KK to argue that real GDP does not capture the entire variety of human life, with his making art and playing sports, this is not a new idea but an ancient theme. The rising standard of living throughout 1870-2007 made possible a decline in H/N, much of which was taken as leisure time (far more in Europe than in the US). All this extra leisure time allowed human talents to flourish, and now we have “soccer moms” pushing their children into an endless round of activities from which my generation was exempt (I took piano lessons at the home of a teacher who lived in between my school and my house, which I walked every day. I was never chauffeured by my mother or father to any activity).
At a broader level, which KK does not consider, throughout history real GDP has understated the increase in the standard of living, because conventional price data do not give credit for the consumer surplus added by new inventions. KK would be right that smart phones are perceived as making the lives of their users better by more than the amount they have to pay for their data plans.
But the bias due to the undervaluation of the value of new goods goes way back to the beginning. The internal combustion engine created an entirely new “product” called “free personal travel.” Previously, ordinary people couldn’t afford a horse and its needs for stables and food and care in between uses. Suddenly there was this horseless carriage which did not use fuel when it was standing still. Suddenly ordinary families could venture outside of crowded cities and explore the country side. That was a “new product” as valuable as the iphone.
Some factoids are useful. The price of the Model T Ford declined so fast that in 1923 it cost only 15% of annual average personal income, and installment financing was available. Suddenly everyone could afford a motor vehicle, and the ratio of motor vehicles to households rose from 0 in 1900 to 85% in 1929.
The last section of KK’s essay is hopelessly vague. “this organism might grow or evolve.” If you want to talk about the value of new inventions, I highly recommend that you read Chapter 4 on the current state of medical care and technology in the following book:
Jan Vijg, The Technological Challenge: Stagnation and Decline in the 21st Century.
Vijg is the chair of the genetics department at Alfred Einstein medical school in NYC and is a distinguished scientist. His Chap 4 on medicine is worth reading. Much of the rest of his book is admittedly the contribution of an educated amateur, although I was impressed by his deep level of reading.
-- Bob Gordon
Tourism is at least 1,000 years old. Ancient Chinese accounts record a parade of tourists coming to gawk at West Lake in Hangzhou (contemporary scene above), then the capital of China in the Song Dynasty. Emperors prettified the lake with causeways, pavilions, and stone bridges to woo and impress visitors. People came just to see the sights, which is the definition of tourism.
While there was some tourism then, and even earlier in Roman times, it was rare and limited to a few places. Today there is not a town in the world that does not see at least a few tourists in a month. Globally, tourism is a trillion dollar industry. We underestimate the consequence of the constant mixing that tourism produces. The term globalism encapsulates many things; one of them is simply the awareness and experience of others far away. Some of this global experience comes via movies and websites -- being able to inspect other ways of living -- but much is increasingly coming from the eye witness during travel. Travel is no longer a luxury of the rich, but an expectation of the middle class.
It made the switch somewhere around 1970s. Prior to that time, travel into remote otherness and wholly alien cultures took a great deal of resources. You needed connections, letters of credit, introductions, porters to move luggage, help in moving money, and you need a wad of money. Visiting a tribe required a great deal of planning, and a network of expert support. Anything outside of a city was an expedition. An expedition was not done casually. But the final result of all that planning and preparation was entry into a separate reality, a different culture with different norms and only small areas of overlap with home. Few could afford this treat, but it was very potent for those who did. It was the realm of missionaries, anthropologists, and explorers.
Fast forward to today when nearly anyone can zoom to the most distant place. With almost no exaggeration I can arrive in the most remote place on earth in 3 days, with no advance planning, and not much money. Within less than 24 hours from my bedroom I can be at 95% of the locations of the world, squatting in someone's hut. It might cost two week's worth of income for most people. But while it is now super easy to go into any culture, including tribal life, this culture has much in common with home. It is not as different as it once was. The young there will be listening to the same music, watching the same movies, studying the same things in school, using the same devices. Even the remote villages of any country is deeply connected. This semi-different world is the realm of NGO aid workers, travelers, and the Pancake Kingdom of Lonely Planet cafes.
But there was a brief two decades in the 60s and 70s when anyone could get to anyplace for very little money and when they arrived, it was still not touched by globalization. There were no maps, no guidebooks, no cafes, ATMs, no forums, even no hotels. It was all surprises. That was the time I was traveling -- going very deep, very different, for very cheap. Someone like me with almost no money could ride trucks and jeeps and canoes and arrive in the most medieval village in Afghanistan, or Mali, or ancient Indonesia island to experience a remarkably different and deeply alien culture. I would often have no idea at all what the next village or city would be like. It was like going on a interplanetary cruise for a few dollars.
That time is now past. There is almost no place left on earth untouched by globalism. Evidence of which is in the things sold in the market, to the cloths folks wear, to the converging conventions of signage, transportation, architecture, etc. Also the business of travel is global. You can read a review of any hotel, inn, or even home-stay on the planet, and get a orientation of the "best of" any city, with maps and chatter. You can be fully educated and only select the most interesting places (to you) to visit. Before you leave.
The bad news is that great difference is harder to find in the world (although there are pockets here and there and my hobby is to hunt them down). But the good news is that you can get to anywhere you want very cheaply and easily. Most important -- there is still enough difference in most places to make travel worthwhile every time. The medicine of travel, though weaker, can still disrupt, heal, or stimulate. So I still go to different places in order to find places of difference. It can be done. It is easier to arrive but you have to choose where you arrive with more care.
But we are not going back to a pre-connected world. I am glad of that, and so are the inhabitants of those formerly unconnected places. We cannot return to the time when it was a shock (to all) for a foreigner to visit a village. Now every village gets visitors every now and then. Just as you get electricity, you get visitors. Multiplied by millions every year, the exchange produces a subtle leavening, a quite education, a silent bridging that may in the end be as powerful as electricity and roads.
Take something as simple and ordinary as tea, then dig deeply into its roots to show that it is far more complex, subtle, varied, challenging and interesting than you would have ever believed. That's the recipe for a delicious documentary, and this one delivers. A fanatical tea drinker in California becomes a connoisseur of fine teas, and then goes on to restore now forgotten traditions of organic artisan tea growing in China. Along the way he reveals the fascinating intricacies of how tea is hand-crafted, almost like a bottle of wine. This low-key journey into the hinterlands of China will completely transform your idea of tea.
All In This Tea
Les Blank, Gina Leibrecht
2007, 70 minutes
$2, Amazon Instant Video rental
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This is another one of those films that is far more interesting than the title would suggest. It follows the unlikely trajectory of a black kid from the tough side of Baltimore who finds his genius as the invisible soul of a furry puppet with a high voice on public TV. In a flash of inspiration after many decades of struggling as an unknown puppeteer, Kevin Clash re-invents Elmo as a being who radiates unconditional love, and thus elevates this overlooked character (and himself) into universal stardom. (After this film was released Clash resigned over sexual accusations, but it does not detract from brilliance of his creations, or his impact on our culture.) The insight offered in the film that even puppets have to be ABOUT something, was worth the ride for me. It is also a pretty good view into the dynamics of what makes the foam Muppets believable as beings.
2011, 96 minutes
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The Tokyo sushi chef Jiro has done the same thing at work every day for 60 years, no vacations, no holidays. He says he has loved every day of this repetition. The secret to his happiness is that everyday he tries to make his sushi even better than the day before. According to his customers he succeeds since his tiny 10-seat shop in a subway station is sold out a year in advance at $300 per meal. This documentary is an insightful and inspirational portrait of a craftsman seeking mastery, and the quest for perfection. Jiro's life is now an inspiration for others following mastery as a way to find their passion. Oh, and the film is also a tremendously great view of the quality of work that world-class sushi really entails. You'll look at sushi differently now. This is a deliciously perfect film about a perfect craftsman.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
2011, 82 minutes
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Master documentarian Herzog invites you to join his rhapsody as he examines very recently discovered 30,000-year-old cave paintings -- the most intact and pristine old paintings we know about. This film will move you back in time while he connects you with the neolithic painters who worked their art. Despite the vast time shift, and the geographic relocation, and the inaccessibility of the cave, you will feel, as Herzog intends, that these were painted by your uncle just last week. They will make sense and you'll feel you made a journey. (The original was filmed in 3D which may be worth seeking out.)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
2010, 90 minutes
Read more about the film at Wikipedia
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This is an amazing film. What would happen if you raised a chimp as a human in an ordinary home and taught it sign language from infancy? Would it learn language? A professor and his hippie girlfriends tried this experiment during the 1970s with a chimp named Nim. Everyone of the dozen of humans who raised and cared for the chimp, bonded and communicated with Nim as if he were human. Nim was raised by a free-love mother who never disciplined him. When he got too strong to handle he was sent off to an animal farm where a long-haired hippy befriended him, and hung out everyday with him for years; he and Nim often smoked joints together. The farm ran into financial difficulties so, despite the outrage of his human family, Nim the "talking" chimp was sold to a research center where he was the subject of "medical experiments." Finally he was rescued. Amazingly, Nim was filmed for much of his life so the director was able to put together this fantastic visual biography. Woven together with interviews from all the principle characters in Nim's life we get an intimate record of this grand but misguided adventure. A hundred questions are raised by the experiment and many are answered by this superbly crafted film. I recommend it highly.
2011, 93 minutes
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1) Embrace the Swarm. As power flows away from the center, the competitive advantage belongs to those who learn how to embrace decentralized points of control.
2) Increasing Returns. As the number of connections between people and things add up, the consequences of those connections multiply out even faster, so that initial successes aren't self-limiting, but self-feeding.
3) Plentitude, Not Scarcity. As manufacturing techniques perfect the art of making copies plentiful, value is carried by abundance, rather than scarcity, inverting traditional business propositions.
4) Follow the Free. As resource scarcity gives way to abundance, generosity begets wealth. Following the free rehearses the inevitable fall of prices, and takes advantage of the only true scarcity: human attention.
5) Feed the Web First. As networks entangle all commerce, a firm's primary focus shifts from maximizing the firm's value to maximizing the network's value. Unless the net survives, the firm perishes.
6) Let Go at the Top. As innovation accelerates, abandoning the highly successful in order to escape from its eventual obsolescence becomes the most difficult and yet most essential task.
7) From Places to Spaces. As physical proximity (place) is replaced by multiple interactions with anything, anytime, anywhere (space), the opportunities for intermediaries, middlemen, and mid-size niches expand greatly.
8) No Harmony, All Flux. As turbulence and instability become the norm in business, the most effective survival stance is a constant but highly selective disruption that we call innovation.
9) Relationship Tech. As the soft trumps the hard, the most powerful technologies are those that enhance, amplify, extend, augment, distill, recall, expand, and develop soft relationships of all types.
10) Opportunities Before Efficiencies. As fortunes are made by training machines to be ever more efficient, there is yet far greater wealth to be had by unleashing the inefficient discovery and creation of new opportunities.
Technology and human activity are so global that they operate together as if they were a geological force. Civilization is altering the climate in the same way that volcanoes do and have done; our agriculture alters the biosphere the way climate has in the past; and now megacities are altering the planetary balances of heat and sea level. The technium is a planetary event.
I describe this global system of technology deployed around the planet as an emerging superorganism. It consists of roads, electric lines, telephone cables, buildings, water systems, dams, satellites, ocean buoys and ships, all our computers and data centers, and all 6 billion humans. But while this superorganism of new and old technology operates at the planetary scale, and reaches all continents, and spans the oceans, and reaches into orbital space, it is a thin and uneven layer on the globe. In fact most of the planet, on average, is in a very primitive state.
Let's draw a grid around the globe with lines that form a square approximately every 100 km (at the equator). At every intersection of these grid lines we'll take a picture for inspection.
There are about 10,000 intersections over the land part of this planet. They will give us a very good statistical portrait of what this planet looks like on land.
Shown are 6,000 images of a possible 10,000 degree intersections on land.
The imaginary grid is the longitude and latitude grid, and somewhat remarkably, over 6,000 of the 10,000 intersections have already been photographed. Intrepid volunteers sign up at a web site called the Degree Confluence that is half art-project, and half adventure storytelling in order to select an intersection somewhere on the globe to visit --no matter how wild -- and record their success with photographs including a legible snapshot of their gps proving a bonafide "even" lat-long reading with lots of zeros.
The resultant grid of photos is very revealing (below). Here is a portion of southern China, one of the most densely settled regions on the planet. Each image is one degree intersection. There is hardly a building in site. And for a place that has been intensely farmed for centuries if not millennia, there is a surprising lot of wildness. What it does to show is urbanization.
If we take a random 6 images from the database, we get an even more randomized view of what the planet looks like on average (on land). Here even agriculture is absent. On average the force of the technium is indirect. On average, Earth is rural and wild. Not a virgin, uninterrupted wild, but an un-urbanized rural place. The great work of the cities and megacities are relegated to thin neuronal clusters.
Projections for the year 2050 predict that most of the 8 billion people on the planet will live in megacities, with populations over 30 million. And these megacity clusters will form a network made up of smaller cities over 1 million in population. But these incredibly dense clusters will weave through a countryside that is emptying. It is already common to find entire villages in China, India, and South America abandoned by its inhabitants who fled to the swelling cities, leaving behind a few old folks, or often, no one at all.
This is the pattern on Earth. Extremely dense and vast populations in a network of megacities connected to each other with nerves of roads and wires, woven over an empty landscape of wild land, marginal pastures, and lightly populated farms.
By 2050 and beyond, Earth will be a urban planet, while the average place on the planet will be nearly wild.
This small portrait of over-educated parking lot attendants in a college town is surprisingly entertaining. The guys profiled rank at the bottom of society's status, but become the "Gods of the Corner Lot" and enter into a constant battle with the owners of expensive cars and SUVs. Their whole war with the "parkers" is all in their heads, and since they spend a lot of time sitting in their tiny shack doing nothing, they live in their heads. The great joy of this film is that it gets you into their big heads. Their tiny patch of sub-culture is charming and amusing.
The Parking Lot Movie
2010, 71 minutes
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A classic Hollywood trope is the evil genius madman who is using new technology he just invented to murder (or blackmail with the threat to murder) a large chunk of humanity. Always the lone evil genius works in a high tech haven, hidden from others, all by himself. At this point, the scenario is total fiction because no one can run all that technology by themselves. It is hard to keep 3 computers and a network going all by yourself. The madman's electronic door hatch probably crashes once a month, particularly if the madman just invented it. So can you invent and keep operational the death ray? No. Way. No solo genius can destroy mankind. That kind of power takes cooperation.
In fact, I offer a new theorem: The power of an individual to kill others has not increased over time.
To restate that: An individual -- a person working alone today -- can't kill more people than say someone living 200 or 2,000 years ago.
At first this seems to fly against all the other trends in technology, but I think this law is true, and it is true for the same reasons that overall violence is diminishing over time, as Steven Pinker points out.
I did some basic research to see if my hunch was correct, so I asked weapons experts about the kill power of solo weapons. How many enemy can they kill by themselves? I did not find any weapons that moved the number out of the ordinary order of magnitude of 10^2 people killed. That is a person can use old technology like fire and poison, or sinking a boat or airplane to kill many hundreds, and new technologies like drones or machine guns also give similar results. It turns out it is hard to kill thousands even using modern technology.
If I were doing proper research I would go through news clippings about deaths per deliberate act by a single person, to see what kinds of body counts mass murders have accumulated in the past. I haven't done that but at the same time I don't recall any mass crimes where one person killed thousands by himself. (If you know of any, can you email me with a source?)
While I am pretty certain this trend holds true for individuals, it may hold true for teams as well. This is trickier to prove because of defining where teams end. For instance 19 hijackers killed 3,000 plus people in the 9/11 attacks, which is at most 150 killed per person involved, and much less when you include the many more Al Queda leaders and support than just 19 hijackers involved.
I suggest you'll get similar numbers if you take the number of deaths per team member for mass killings. For instance there were between 100,000 and 400,000 people who died in the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Manhattan Project employed 130,000 people, so that ratio works out to be in the neighborhood of one person killed per one person involved, and certainly no more than 10.
I think there are two reasons for this effect. 1) People are hard to kill, and the greater number you want to kill at once, the more complex it becomes, requiring much more social cooperation. The totally false myth is that a lone rogue bad guy can kill everyone. And 2) More social cooperation also generates more social resistance, making it more difficult to recruit resources for the project.
We COULD invent a mass people killer that would allow any single person to strike down more than thousands of people, but the financing, and engineering needed would be subject to so much social pressure against doing that, that it has not happened and probably won't happen. The engineering problems are formidable: how do you make this weapon "safe" until it is triggered, and so on. The problems of a safe weapon of mass destruction is one reason I don't buy the idea of a rogue scientist making a lethal bio infection, a la a Small Pox mutant. Again this kind of achievement is very hard science to do; you have to keep testing to make sure it will work (but how do you test by yourself?), and all without killing either yourself or your loved ones. Can it be done? Yes, but not by one person. You'll need many smart people, and money, and both of those come with built in forces acting against the idea.
It requires a lot of power to kill many at once. How about you ignite a nuclear bomb in a sports stadium? That would kill a lot. But the truth is this is very hard to do by yourself. Getting a bomb, and getting it to ignite when you want it to is not easy. Do you know how to arm a nuke? That info is not on the internet. The more powerful a tech is the more people you need to operate it. The more people you need to operate it, the more resistance it will gain against using it to kill.
If those constraints are true then what about subverting an existing technology, already developed, and weaponizing it? That was the genius of the 9/11 hijackers who weaponized a plane into a bomb. (But even they did not achieve a higher kill/killer ratio.)
The lesson of "what technology wants" is that any technology can be weaponized, so this idea of subverting existing technology would seem to fertile ground. While it is not hard to weaponize a technology to be a chronic low-level killer, I think our society is built for the purpose of making it hard for technology of any sort to kill us massively. We do everything we can think of to prevent it from being dangerous as we deploy it. We are very sensitive to this possibility of bite-back, and as the technology is being realized and refined we are removing as many options for mass destruction as we can. We do that in simple ways like where we allow them to be built, or stored, or used. For instance things that can explode we keep far from homes. Drones are now going to go through this process in the coming years. Weaponized drones will be able to kill hundreds, but society will work to prevent them from being able to kill thousands or more; and if they can kill thousands, that will mean hundreds of people will have worked on them and operate them, not just a single person.
Well what if an entire country or tribe decides it wants to collectively use technology to kill a lot of people? That happens and it is called war. But as Steven Pinker has proven, the physical violence of war -- the number of killed per event -- has been diminishing and continues to diminish over time. I have not made the calculation but I suspect that the kill/killer ratio in war has been dropping and will continue to drop even as the remaining war becomes higher tech.
The myth of the lone evil genius is that you can make complex technology all by yourself without the infrastructure of a society. You can't, at least in the beginning. Because more powerful technologies require more social support, this increased social pressure keeps the technology in check. Crazy rogue geniuses with caves full of death technology ticking down to blow up the world make great villains on the big screen, but there is no evidence at all in the real world that anything like that has ever happened. (Correct me if I am wrong.)
...disequilibrium, fragmentation, uncertainty, churn, and relativism, the anchors of meaning and value are in short supply. We are simply unable to deal with questions that cannot be answered by means of technology. The stereotypical modern consumer is already a rather thin character. He or she is like a balloon: possessing an inflated ego and a thin identity stretched to its limit. They don't know who they are, but they are very certain that they are very important. The smallest prick can pop their container.
In the great vacuum of meaning, in the silence of unspoken values, in the vacancy of something large to stand for, something bigger than oneself, technology--for better or worse--will shape our society.
Because values and meaning are scarce today, technology will make our decisions for us. We'll listen to technology because our modern ears listen to little else. In the absence of other firm beliefs, we'll let technology steer. No other force is as powerful in shaping our destiny. By imagining what technology wants, we can imagine the course of our culture.
The future of technology is networks. Networks large, wide, deep, and fast. Electrified networks of all types will cover our planet and their complex nodes will shape our economy and color our lives. The shift to this new perspective will be neither immediate nor painless. Nor will it be as strange as it first appears.
There is no reason to accept the imperative of technology without challenge, but there is also no doubt that technology's march is clearly aimed toward all things networked. Those who obey the logic of the net, and who understand that we are entering into a realm with new rules, will have a keen advantage in the new economy.
Bill Cunningham is the long-time photographer for the New York Times who, at 80 years old, still rides his bike around the streets of New York shooting street fashion -- or folk fashion -- what people actually wear. Today there are hundreds of blogs chronicling this vernacular fashion, but for decades Bill Cunningham was the only one. He is an odd, but sweet genius. He unfashionably has worn the same blue blazer for 30 years, works all the time, ignores money, lives by himself in a tiny closet of an apartment stuffed with his photo negatives, and is a man marching to the beat of his own drum. There is a legitimate zen quality to his style and manner. While his subjects may be swayed by wealth, celebrity, and the superficial, he seems immune to them. This film is not about fashion; it's about someone who has successfully invented their own occupation, and their life. It is uplifting. I smiled the whole time watching it.
Bill Cunningham New York
2011, 90 minutes
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If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a very loose English paraphrase of his French poem Dessine-moi un bateau, or Make Me a Boat, found in Citadelle, 1948.
You say, "Why should I learn these difficult technical skills when it's all just gonna change? Let me know when it's settled down." Problem is, by the time you catch on that it's *never* gonna settle down, you're five years behind, with no real way to catch up, and you feel like a one-person Soviet Union. -- Stewart Brand, on the WELL, about 1991
The ultraintelligent machine … is a machine that believes people cannot think. -- Jack Goode, in George Dyson, Turing's Cathedral, 2012, p. 262
A history of the entertainment business could be framed as a series of experts asking, “Who the hell wants to watch that?” When the answer is “more people than you think,” the definition of profitable entertainment changes. -- Rob Walker
On You Tube, Amateur Is the New Pro, New York Times, June 28, 2012
Cell phones are tracking devices that make phone calls.
-- Jacob Appelbaum, n+1, April 26, 2012
If you are able-bodied and you see a person in front of you walk into the path of an oncoming car, you have a responsibility to pull that person to safety. But, in a world in which we can know what is happening everywhere all the time, what responsibility will we feel – or be burdened with? -- Esyher Dyson, Technology's Mental Frontier, Aug 21, 2012
Demographic curves are very hard to bend. -- Jonathan Haidt, He Knows Why We Fight, Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2012
You see, a wire telegraph is a kind of very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand? Radio operates in exactly the same way. The only difference is that there is no cat. -- Old joke, starting in 1866 (!), Quote Investigator, February 24, 2012
The young, multibillionaire technologist is left with only two avocations: space travel and the engineering of immortality. Both are about escaping the gravity of the situation. -- Nick Carr, Rough Type, Farmville, May 8, 2012
Some quite natural events -- hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, derechos -- have such unimaginable power that the destruction they wreak will always take days, or weeks, or months to fix. No society can afford to harden the infrastructure that supports it to make that infrastructure immune to such destructive forces.
(Sometimes it makes more sense to spend money on mitigation than it does to spend it on prevention.) -- Randy Baum, C&EN, July 16, 2012
Parkinson's Law of Triviality states that, "the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved." In other words, if you try to build a simple thing such as a public bike shed, there will be endless town hall discussions wherein people argue over trivial details such as the color of the door. But if you want to build a nuclear power plant — a project so vast and complicated that most people can't understand it — people will defer to expert opinion. -- C. Northcote Parkinson, 1957, Parkinson's Law.
A fact is a simple statement that everyone believes. It is innocent, unless found guilty. A hypothesis is a novel suggestion that no one wants to believe. It is guilty, until found effective. -- Edward Teller, Conversations on the Dark Secrets of Physics, 1991, p. 69 footnote.
The “uncanny valley” is a term coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori to describe the revulsion people experience when seeing robots that look and act almost, but not exactly, like humans. Badly targeted Internet ads provoke the same feeling. They’re dumber than any human salesperson, and they’re just smart enough to make you queasy. -- Farhad Manjoo, The Uncanny Valley of Internet Advertising, Slate, August 23, 2012
Chart from XKCD, 2012