the structure of knowledge

27 03 2009

Structure of Science
Via Kevin Kelly, a rather nifty map of scientific knowledge, as determined by citations within journal articles.   And here’s a (slightly less readable) map of knowledge relationships as determined by “clickage,” or clicks from one reference source to another:


What I find striking about these two maps – aside from their innate coolness – is the fact that neither of them links into any of the liberal arts.  There is plenty of linkage to the social sciences – more, in fact, than I might have expected – but nothing regarding literature or the visual arts.  As far as the “maps” are concerned, art and science exist in completely different worlds.

“Art is the tree of life,” said William Blake, “science is the tree of death.”  That’s not a widely held belief these days.  And the Internet, for example, is nothing if not an amalgam of technology, literature, and graphic art.

C. P. Snow’s observations about the “two cultures” aren’t considered relevant by too many people these days.  Even Snow backed off them quite a bit.  Yet here’s a map that suggests he may not have been too far off the mark, at least in terms of the intersection of two academic worlds.  Some of my favorite art works take place where these two worlds collide.

“It is not down in any map,” Herman Melville wrote.  “True places never are.”



27 03 2009

Someone’s designed a real-life Wall-E for the Terrefuge Rapid Re(f)use Project:


Looks like a good idea, too

the machines are on the rise

11 03 2009


Freder descends into the underground city.   There he sees workers pushing dial hands back and forth frenetically as a valve shows the great machine building up steam. Finally it explodes.  Freder sees the machine transformed into a giant demon, spewing fire and devouring workers.

“Moloch!” Freder exclaims as columns of workers march into its gaping, fiery mouth.

– Metropolis, 1927

From Ezra Klein we learn of the continued use of a discredited story:  that Obama created the post of “National Coordinator of Health Information Technology,” presumably for sinister reasons.  Improved health IT is actually one of the few issues where left and right – at least the reasonably informed left and right – agree.  The position was created by President Bush years ago, and both its Bush-appointed occupant and his boss (HHS Secretary Mike Levitt) did some good work.

The latest appearance of this myth comes in a piece by Amity Shlaes that compares the current Administration to the best-known works of the Wachowski Brothers.  “Barack Obama has dropped us all into The Matrix,” writes Ms. Shlaes.  She continues:

In the Obama Era, it seems, we all pick our way through anxious lives that have something to do with software. Like Keanu Reeves’ Neo, we realize hour-to-hour that we are being manipulated by a system that has its own larger plan.

If only we keep a cool head, we tell ourselves, our powers of logic will help us escape the web. But each move we make, even the one that feels independent, takes us deeper into the Matrix …

President Obama’s $634 billion, 10-year health-care plan undoubtedly appeals to would-be Neos out there … As in “The Matrix,” freedom is a mirage … and there’s no escape.

If I tell you that before she’s done she says Republicans need a “superhero” and compares Peter Orszag to Agent Smith, you’ll get the general idea.  America reads this and wonders:  Do I take the blue pill or the red pill?

(Think I’ll take a Tylenol capsule.  It’s blue and red.)

Ms. Shlaes has more, like this line:  “There was discussion during the campaign of tax breaks for employers for providing health care.”  (Actually, employers already have a tax break for providing health care.)   But we’ll skip the details and stick with the broader picture.

There’s a pattern developing, the outline of a new mythmaking that’s about finding spooky sounds on the organ and then playing them over and over until the audience runs screaming from the theater. Why pick on the “national coordinator for health information technology”?  Because that pedal can be made to sound scary by bringing up memories of all those computers-are-taking-over movies from the seventies.  Because some partisans believe that we all share a general anxiety about everything digital, that we all “pick our way through anxious lives that have something to do with software.’

The problem is that, judging from the poll numbers, they’re grinding away at the old pipe organ but nobody’s listening.   All of which gives me an idea … how about a piece comparing criticism of health reform to ‘Phantom of the Opera’? I could wring 1,000 words out that one, easy.  Think I’ll pitch it to Bloomberg News.

In the meantime, I look forward to Amity Shlaes’ next piece, in which she warns of the  enslavement of humanity that’s sure to come if people don’t stop forwarding that cute video of a dog cleaning your computer screen from the inside.

christianity and transhumanism

6 01 2009


I’ll want to give this article on Teilhard de Chardin and transhumanism considerably more time, thought, and study than I’ve given it so far.  But here’s an initial reaction:  Not only is transhumanism of some kind already an irreversible social trend, but the author is correct in saying that Christianity and transhumanism are not irrevocably destined for conflict.

There are certain trends that might be called “prosaic transhumanism,” and even very fundamentalist Christians have embraced them.  Breast augmentation comes to mind.  Nor have eyeglasses, hair coloring, or bluetooth headsets met with any particular evangelical resistance.

In fact, my unenhanced gut says that evangelicals will be among the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of certain forms of transhumanist enhancement, although they probably wan’t call them by that name.  But that’s just a guess.

I can even envision a scenario where radical human self-enhancement becomes a Christian movement – a preparation for the Rapture and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.  But that’s just speculation – more appropriate for a short story than anything else.

Fascinating article, in any case, courtesy of the Journal of Evolution and Technology.

(high tech cross via

It’s 2019 And Humanity’s In Danger. Meet Me There.

13 10 2008

Here’s what I’ve been doing for the past week: When I’m not working my day job or obsessing about the 2008 election, I’ve been hanging out in the year 2019, trying to figure out how to save humanity. The bad news is that things don’t look good. The good news is you can help.

I’m one of the “guides” for Superstruct, an online multiplayer game that simulates the world as it might look in ten years. The game only lasts for six weeks, but with five more weeks to go there’s still a chance for you to experience and reshape one of our possible futures.

Superstruct was developed under the auspices of the Institute For the Future, a nonprofit research group in Palo Alto with 40 years of forecasting experience. In this particular future we face five grave threats, each of which would be serious enough on its own. But the cumulative effect of all five could actually result in humanity’s extinction (See the fictional “GEAS” report, read this short explanation, or watch the video above.) The five threats are:

  • Quarantine: A massive respiratory epidemic, ReDS, has rendered parts of the world (including sections of the US) virtual ‘sick zones.’ Nobody knows how much worse it will get.
  • Ravenous: Breakdowns in the food distribution chain have caused widespread hunger, with shortages in Mexico, China, and the Middle East.
  • Outlaw Planet: “Griefers” (Internet vandals), hackers, and criminals have devastated the networks upon which we rely, like the Internet and early warning sensor systems for natural disasters. The results include hacked Congressional elections which have paralyzed the political process in the U.S., and false tsunami alarms in Asia that threaten to create mass panic.
  • Generation Exile: Natural disasters and other forces have led to massive human displacement, with waves of refugees flooding parts of the planet.
  • Power Struggle: As the world moves into the post-oil era, conflicts have broken out between differing alternative-energy sources as oil-producing countries descend into chaos..

This is, of course, just one of many possible futures. But if it sounds far-fetched, ask yourself: How implausible would today’s challenges have looked ten years ago? Count ’em up: Terrorists blowing up the World Trade Center. US-led torture programs and detention centers. A trillion-dollar war in the Middle East. Global warming. Tsunamis. The devastation of New Orleans. Super-hurricanes. A worldwide global financial crisis.

Shall I continue?

One of its two principal architects is Jamais Cascio, a futurist who co-founded, writes and speaks about long-range trends, and advises science-fiction shows – among other things. The other is Jane McGonigal, a pioneer in the use of gaming to address real-world and business issues. (She’s listed as Director of Game Research and Development, which has to be one of the most envied job titles ever.)

When I read about Superstruct in Jamais’ blog I put in for a guide position right away, for a couple of reasons: First, it sounded like fun. Secondly , I agree with thinkers like Jamais and Jane who believe that multiplayer games represent a new way to draw upon the intellectual and emotional (one could even say spiritual , in the non-religious sense) resources of large numbers of people. If humanity is to have a future, it will have to be one in which technology and sociology intersect to create new human networks. These new associations will need to respond quickly and creatively to crisis and change.

That’s where the “Superstruct” name come in. It’s short for “superstructures,” new and impromptu social alliances that players are encouraged to form in order to address the five threats. A superstructure is an informal alliance of groups that might not typically associate with one another.

What do “superstructures” look like? One player created “Terraformers” to convert abandoned human habitations (check the South Bronx for examples) into food production areas, presumably by employing people like farmers, squatters, community organizers. Another created “Nomadic Markup Language,” where artists, doctors, and civic leaders can join to develop a new graffiti language – a combination of warchalking and hobo signs – to give people vital information about the health and safety of neighborhoods and communities in the absence of reliable online information.

If collaboration is a key tool for success, then – to use a very 21st Century prefix – superstructures represent meta-collaboration.

I’m a guide for “Quarantine,” which fit with my own background in healthcare. But I find it impossible to resist participating in all the threats. And I’m not alone. After one week we already have more than 2,500 players, and the group creativity is coming fast and furious. One player predicts people will hack household devices to create things like homemade cardiac defibrillators. Another asks provocatively if he’ll “need to bring a gun” to this future, prompting heated debate about the use of defensive violence during a crisis. Still another envisions a crisis in eldercare, as older people live in virtual “lockdown.”

One technically advanced player has already created a Google Earth map showing the location of “ReDS Relief sites” throughout the world. Another forecasts a Detroit riven by ethnic violence as oil-based jobs end in the Middle East and displaced workers in-migrate to the inner city. Still another chronicles life in self-sustaining “Edgeville.”

Players have created their own wikis, including a “Whole Superstruct Catalog” based on Stewart Brand’s 60’s-era publication. They’re created “Superstruct Classified” ad pages and a “ReDSNet” distributed computer processing system. There are even mock web pages selling products like “RedS-Prot3ct,” a pressurized filtration system to keep airborne pathogens out of your home (although other players argue that won’t work.)

In the end, though, the game is all about the superstructures. In addition to “Terraformers” and “Nomadic Markup Language,” superstructures have been built around the Catholic Church, distributed computing to replace hacker-violated data systems, and an “ATM” for getting seeds to grow your own food. “ARK” is a global arts collective. Another superstructure is (virtually) building “agricologies,” self-sustaining buildings you never have to leave (based on current architectural thinking). There are urban food cooperatives and groups of scientists collaborating online in “open source” forums.

And we’v’e only been going for a week. That’s the power of groupthink and collective collaboration. And the more people that play, the better it gets. You can go here to join, and I hope you do. Who can play? Doctors. Performance artists. Classrooms. Engineers. Gamers. Politicians. Bloggers.

Writers. Students. Teachers. And so on, and so on, and so on … The next time you need a break from the campaign, why not join us in working on the challenges of the future? As one player wrote, “(it’s) my favorite vision of the future ever. Because I feel like I can actually be useful in this future.”

In the words of Jane McGonigal, “that’s the idea.”

japanese jukebox of the dead

12 08 2008

It was bound to happen, given the spiraling cost of land in Japan and that country’s technological creativity:

For 79-year-old Shinya Shimada, paying his respects around the time of Japan’s annual Bon festival, when the spirits of ancestors are believed to return home, means a visit to a modern vault rather than a traditional graveyard.

“Initially, I was a bit uncomfortable with a high-tech grave. But now, I have come to see it positively,” Shimada said.

At the nondescript three-storey building alongside a Buddhist temple, Shimada uses an identity card to dial-up the gravestones and urns carrying his ancestors’ ashes.

A library-stack-like machine behind altars transports them, complete with accompanying music and pictures of the deceased on a TV monitor.

It’s a kind of jukebox for the dead. Another “vault,” maintained at the Banshoji Temple, is even using RFID chips – tiny embedded transmitters – to keep track of the deceased:

When a relative visits the “Crystal Hall” on the third floor of the temple, they will scan an RFID-enabled card which first causes images of their loved one to appear on a screen while the deceased’s preferred musical selections play in the background. Then a wall-mounted LED system will guide the visitor to the correct area among the 2,000-capacity vault, where the card will open the appropriate ashes vault.

Banshoji is in Nagoya – where, many years ago, the relative of an old friend of mine left his life as a Buddhist priest to open up a Grateful Dead theme bar.  Japan’s an interesting place.

We may someday see these “jukebox graveyards” someday in the coastal areas of the United States.  Those areas already face land scarcity in places, and that could someday be aggravated by rising coastlines caused by global warming.

Personally, I don’t care where, how, or if my remains are preserved.  Others may feel differently.  To paraphrase Olivia Newton-John:  Please Mister, please.  Don’t make me B-17.

Long-Term Thinking About Health: Seven Trends That Should Concern Us

25 07 2008

(written for The Huffington Post)

This country is in a healthcare crisis today — but we’re not thinking enough about tomorrow either. Here are seven trends to watch, starting with the short-term and ending with what may seem more like science-fiction.

The seven trends are: Doctors leaving the public system, a shortfall in primary care, underutilization of medical treatment, “superbugs,” virtual health care, climate change, and radical self-redesign and enhancement.

1. Doctors Leaving the Public System
: Medicare dodged a bullet when Congress stopped a substantial pay cut for physicians this month. But doctors continue to leave the Medicare system — in Texas, in Washington State, in Tennessee, and elsewhere. And many doctors already limit the number of Medicaid patients they accept. Shortages will become more acute as SCHIP and other reforms (hopefully) increase the number of Medicare and Medicaid recipients, and they’ll hit lower-income and minority communities first and hardest.

2. Unavailability of Primary Care Doctors: Primary physicians (internists, family practitioners, gerontologists, etc. ) aren’t paid enough. It’s part of a general tendency to under-compensate for “cognitive services” — thinking, talking, and diagnosis. Doctors are economic actors like the rest of us. So the result of this payment bias is a critical lack of “cognitive” physicians who should be the drivers of the medical process. Instead, young doctors are being lured into high-cost specialties. This increases the use of costly (and sometimes unnecessary procedures), according to studies conducted at Dartmouth and elsewhere.

This shortage is already crippling health reform in Massachusetts. The idea of increasing compensation for primary care keeps circling around in health circles, as it is now — along with the concept of a “medical home,” which is a re-articulation of health reform ideas that appear at regular intervals like comets. The thinking is probably correct, but the problem will persist — until there is fundamental reform in the way doctors are educated, compensated, and rewarded with social status. And meaningful reform will be difficult without adequate primary care.

3. Underutilization: Medical policy types are well-versed in the cost problems and health complications that stem from over-utilization of health services. Over-utilization is a central tenet of the McCain health proposals. But, while it occurs — especially in certain specialties — the reverse problem of under-utilization is prevalent and growing.

As insurers and employers shift more and more costs to individuals’ pockets people are seeking less and less treatment, as this California survey (warning: pdf file) demonstrates. 38% of respondents said they avoided seeking medical care — either preventive or curative — because of health costs. That’s up from 34% three years ago, and it’s a problem. Failure to seek needed care increases health costs, adds to individual suffering, and can allow untreated contagious conditions to spread. Which gets us to…

4. Superbugs: A study of MRSA “superbug” infections published last year found a dramatic increase in occurrence among Chicago’s urban poor. Crowded living conditions in jails and public housing could be a factor, according to the study’s authors, and illegal tattoos may also be contributing to their spread. Now British hospitals are facing a new superbug called “Steno” that is at least as hard to treat as MRSA.

As new viruses mutate and spread, ready access to preventive and curative medicine becomes more critical. Superbugs would be a concern even if we had a fully functional health system. With the system we’ve got, the impact of new mutated pathogens could be serious — and potentially catastrophic.

5. Virtual Health Care: Online healthcare holds great promise for the future – both as a way for people to manage their own health, and as a tool that links doctors and patients in a unified network. But even now, before “Health 2.0” is a reality, we’re seeing a wave of health data losses and thefts. (They’ve become so common that I have a whole blog section devoted to privacy issues.)

The combination of electronic medical records, electronic prescriptions, and other online tools could result in new forms of crime — with scary enough potential results that I’d rather not describe them in public. (Why serve as a think tank for the bad guys?) Virtual health could also cause substantial shifts in the kind of medical care people demand. While that might actually be a thing, failure to plan for it could result in some temporary inconveniences.

6. Climate Change: Global warming could change the way we use medical care – and how much we need. As an Australian study found (and we summarized here), overall hospital admissions went up by 7% during heat waves, while mental health admissions went up by the same percentage — and kidney-related admissions increased 17%. That adds up to a snapshot of medical conditions on a globally-warmed planet. Other changes, like a dramatic increase in the occurrence of mosquito-borne diseases, could also take place.

7. Radical self-redesign: ‘Transhumanism’ — the movement to re-engineer the human body — isn’t a well-known term today. But the process is already underway, and it will gain momentum in the coming decades. Choosing our children’s genetic characteristics, building computer technologies into our bodies, extending our lifespans, all of these will come into being in the coming years. This will raise a series of questions in fields like medical ethics and health financing, as we’ve discussed before.

What should we be allowed to do to ourselves and our children? Which changes should be paid for as a social right, and which are a personal choice? Will we create a ‘two-tiered’ race of human beings? These science-fiction questions will become increasingly concrete as we consider the health care reform issues of the coming century.