Contrarian view: “Why 2012 was the best year ever”

The Spectator argues that 2012 wasn’t so bad when you look at the big picture:

It may not feel like it, but 2012 has been the greatest year in the history of the world. That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.

To listen to politicians is to be given the opposite impression — of a dangerous, cruel world where things are bad and getting worse. This, in a way, is the politicians’ job: to highlight problems and to try their best to offer solutions. But the great advances of mankind come about not from statesmen, but from ordinary people. Governments across the world appear stuck in what Michael Lind, on page 30, describes as an era of ‘turboparalysis’ — all motion, no progress. But outside government, progress has been nothing short of spectacular.

Take global poverty. In 1990, the UN announced Millennium Development Goals, the first of which was to halve the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015. It emerged this year that the target was met in 2008. Yet the achievement did not merit an official announcement, presumably because it was not achieved by any government scheme but by the pace of global capitalism. Buying cheap plastic toys made in China really is helping to make poverty history. And global inequality? This, too, is lower now than any point in modern times. Globalisation means the world’s not just getting richer, but fairer too.

The doom-mongers will tell you that we cannot sustain worldwide economic growth without ruining our environment. But while the rich world’s economies grew by 6 per cent over the last seven years, fossil fuel consumption in those countries fell by 4 per cent. This remarkable (and, again, unreported) achievement has nothing to do with green taxes or wind farms. It is down to consumer demand for more efficient cars and factories.

And so on. It is hard to keep this big picture in mind. Tragedies seem common or at least too frequent. Good news doesn’t seem to trickle up to the top of the news heap as much. Or perhaps it is because our relative status in the United States and elsewhere in the West seems precarious. Or perhaps it is because due to globalization we are also more aware of the risks in the world around us.

This argument reminds of Stephen Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature (my quick review here). Pinker argued in the book that humans have had a much more violent past and today is marked by relative peace and conflict today tends to be more limited in terms of deaths and how big of an area is affected. Yet, the average citizen would not probably pick up on this.

Before watching The Hobbit on Friday night, my wife and I were struck by the number of movie trailers for post-apocalyptic films. Granted, we didn’t see any trailers for romantic comedies or many Oscar worthy dramas – the theaters clearly think there is a certain audience for The Hobbit – but these sort of narratives seem to be on the rise. People want to watch fictionalized movies and TV shows about the end of times, when the narrative of human progress is clearly smashed and small groups of people try to put the pieces together again. Of course, such movies can also be an excuse for monsters and violence but this is a fascinating trend tied to pessimism about the present and future.

Study finds cell phone usage linked to addiction, materialism, and impulsiveness

A new study in the Journal of Behavior Addictions argues cell phone usage can be linked to other concerns:

“Cell phones are a part of our consumer culture,” said study author James Roberts, Ph.D., professor of marketing at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business. “They are not just a consumer tool, but are used as a status symbol.”…

Roberts’ study, co-authored with Stephen Pirog III, Ph.D., at Seton Hall University, found that materialism and impulsiveness are what drive cell phone addiction.

Cell phones are used as part of the conspicuous consumption ritual and also act as a pacifier for the impulsive tendencies of the user, according to Roberts. Impulsiveness, he noted, plays an important role in both behavioral and substance addictions…

Some studies have shown that young adults send an average of 109.5 text messages a day or approximately 3,200 texts each month. Furthermore, surveys suggest that young adults receive an additional 113 text messages and check their cell 60 times in a typical day…

Data for this study come from self-report surveys of 191 business students at two U.S. universities. Cell phones are used by approximately 90 percent of college students, and said Roberts, “serve more than just a utilitarian purpose.”

New technologies tend to have the potential to allow us to do new things in new ways, often working alongside a narrative of progress, but we need to continually ask whether the use of new technologies can also lead to negative outcomes. We don’t have to be Luddites to suggest that we should evaluate the social changes that accompany technological change.

One question about addiction and mass culture: if a majority or large number of people have more addictive relationships with their cell phones, does it at some point then cease to be addiction and comes to be seen as “normal”?

Risk, reward as more complexity leads to new, more problems

In discussing the recent fine levied about BP for the 2010 oil issue in the Gulf of Mexico, an interesting question can be raised: are events and problems like this simply inevitable given the growing complexity of society?

In 1984, a Yale University sociologist named Charles Perrow published a book called “Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.” He argued that as technologies become more complex, accidents become inevitable.

The more complex safety features that are built in, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. You not only add technical complexity more things to go wrong but you add a human element of complacency. The more often things don’t go wrong, the more likely it is that people think they won’t. The phrase for this is “normalization of deviance,” coined by Boston University sociologist Diane Vaughan, part of the team that examined the 1986 explosion of space shuttle Challenger.

“Normal accident” and “normalization of deviance” come to mind because 10 days ago, the oil company BP agreed to plead guilty to 12 felony and two misdemeanor criminal charges in connection with the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers were killed and nearly 5 million barrels of oil (210 million gallons) poured into the Gulf over 87 days…

But it requires complex systems that will, at some point, fail. Politically, the government can only seek to explain those risks, try to minimize them with tough regulation and make sure those who take big risks have the means to redress inevitable failure.

If these sorts of events are inevitable given more complexity and activity (particularly in the field of drilling and extraction), how do we balance the risks and rewards of such activity? How much money and effort should be spent trying to minimize risky outcomes? This is a complex social question that involves a number of factors. Unfortunately, such discussions often happen after the fact rather than ahead of possible occurrences. This is what Nassim Taleb discusses in The Black Swan; we can do certain things to prepare for or at least think about known and unknown events. We shouldn’t be surprised that oil accidents happen and should have some idea of how to tackle the problem or make things better after the fact. A fine against the company is punitive but will it necessarily provide the solution to the consequences of the event or guarantee that no such event will happen in the future? Probably not.

At the same time, I wonder if such events are more difficult for us to understand today because we do have strong narratives of progress. Although it is not often stated this explicitly, we tend to think such problems can be eliminated through technology, science, and reason. Yet, complex systems have points of frailty. Perhaps technology hasn’t been tested in all circumstances. Perhaps unforeseen or unpredictable environmental or social forces arise. And, perhaps most of all, these systems tend to involve humans who make mistakes (unintentionally or intentionally). This doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t strive for improvements but it also means we should keep in mind our limitations and the possible problems that might arise.

Delta shows you how your airline luggage travels

Delta Airlines put together an interesting 2:34 video about what happens to your luggage from check-in to coming off the luggage belt at your destination.

I know plenty of people have lost luggage (it has happened once to me as well, delivered by UPS two days later) but this video brought an idea to mind: large systems like this which require a large number of employees and machines across cities around the world might also be considered quite efficient and remarkable. Perhaps we could argue about what constitutes an acceptable rate of error or delivering luggage to your final destination and weigh this against alternative forms of delivery such as paying to ship the luggage by private companies. More broadly, we could ask whether it is fair or realistic to expect mechanized/large-scale systems of today to be perfect 100% of the time (or perhaps we don’t mind until it is our luggage that is lost). Indeed, the luggage delivery systems of today for the tens of millions of airline passengers might have been unimaginable even 60 years ago.

Could someone design a better and cheaper system?

Also: is an app for tracking your luggage simply a means to help reassure passengers and to show them that most of their luggage does indeed make it to the right place?

Argument: environmentalism something the wealthy can pursue “to the exclusion of everything else”

Here is an interesting argument (to be clear, in a conservative outlet): environmentalism is something the upper class pursues because it no longer needs industrial progress.

In turning down Keystone, however, the President has uncovered an ugly little secret that has always lurked beneath the surface of environmentalism. Its basic appeal is to the affluent. Despite all the professions of being “liberal” and “against big business,” environmentalism’s main appeal is that it promises to slow the progress of industrial progress. People who are already comfortable with the present state of affairs — who are established in the environment, so to speak — are happy to go along with this. It is not that they have any greater insight into the mysteries and workings of nature. They are happier with the way things are. In fact, environmentalism works to their advantage. The main danger to the affluent is not that they will be denied from improving their estate but that too many other people will achieve what they already have. As the Forest Service used to say, the person who built his mountain cabin last year is an environmentalist. The person who wants to build one this year is a developer…

What finally focused my attention on the aristocratic roots of environmentalism, however, was a chapter in Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. Although the book is justly famous for coining “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste,” there is a lesser-known chapter entitled “Industrial Exemption” that perfectly describes the environmental zeitgeist. Veblen posed the question, why is it that people who are the greatest beneficiaries of industrial society are often the most passionate in condemning it? He provided a simple answer. People in the leisure class have become so accustomed affluence as the natural state of things that they no longer feel compelled to embrace any further industrial progress

But that was not the point. It is not that the average person is not concerned about the environment. Everyone weighs the balance of economic gain against a respect for nature. It is only the truly affluent, however, who can be concerned about the environment to the exclusion of everything else. Most people see the benefits of pipelines and power plants and admit they have to be built somewhere. Only in the highest echelons do we hear people say, “We don’t need to build any pipelines. We’ve already got enough energy. We can all sit around awaiting the day we live off wind and sunshine.”

Environmentalists have spent decades trying to disguise these aristocratic roots, even from themselves. They work desperately to form alliances with labor unions and cast themselves as purveyors of “green jobs.” But the Keystone Pipeline has brought all this into focus. As Joel Kotkin writes in Forbes, Keystone is the dividing line of the “two Americas,” the knowledge-based elites of the East and West Coasts in their media, non-profit and academic homelands (where Obama learned his environmentalism) and the blue-collar workers of the Great In- Between laboring in agriculture, mining, manufacturing, power production and the exigencies of material life.

So the argument here is the wealthy of all political stripes are generally opposed to industrial progress, not just liberals or conservatives?

I wonder how much this explanation differs from explaining resistance to certain projects in terms of NIMBYism. When NIMBY is invoked in response to unwanted projects, existing residents can throw out a lot of reasons to oppose the project. Two reasons are commonly thrown out: safety and environmentalism. In a typical suburban situation, a new subdivision is going to be built on open land adjacent to another recently built subdivision. The current residents then complain about the open space that they is going to disappear, losing sight of the fact that their own neighborhood was just recently built on open land as well. If the above argument is completely true, then those existing residents would say, “we don’t need any more new houses. There are plenty of older homes for people to live in.” Is this exactly what happens or are they willing to let houses be built somewhere but just nowhere near them?

Also, if this argument is correct, then those who aren’t as wealthy will end up throwing environmental concerns under the bus when push comes to shove?

h/t Instapundit

US population growth slows in 2011

The Census Bureau announced today that the population growth rate of the United States slowed in 2011:

The population of the United States is growing at its slowest rate in more than 70 years, the U.S. Census Bureau said on Wednesday.

The country’s population increased by an estimated 2.8 million to 311.6 million from April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2011. The growth rate of 0.92 percent was the lowest since the mid-1940s.

“The nation’s overall growth rate is now at its lowest point since before the Baby Boom,” Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said in a statement.

Texas gained more people than any other state in the 15-month period, at 529,000, followed by California at 438,000, Florida at 256,000, Georgia at 128,000, and North Carolina at 121,000, according to the latest Census estimates.

Looks like the Sunbelt is still continuing to grow. This news comes on the heels of a slow population growth rate during the 2000s:

Despite the slowest decade of population growth since the Great Depression, the USA remains the world’s fastest-growing industrialized nation and the globe’s third-most populous country at a time when some are actually shrinking.

The United States reached 308.7 million in 2010, up 9.7% since 2000 — a slight slowdown that many experts say was caused by the recession and less immigration.

Even so, U.S. growth is the envy of most developed nations. Trailing only China and India, the nation is expected to grow at least through the next generation because it is one of the few industrialized countries that has a fertility rate close to replacement level. The rate of births needed for a generation to replace itself is an average 2.1 per woman. The USA’s is at 2.06.

Perhaps one’s perspective is dependent on which country the United States is compared to.

It would be interesting to talk with Americans about their expectations about population growth. I’ve thought about this before when considering shrinking cities or suburbs: we tend to assume places will go on growing forever but we know there are some communities that have not. Throughout the course of American history, Americans have seemed to believe that the country would continue to grow in terms of land, population, and political and economic power. And growth often seems to be tied to progress: bigger will lead to better. Granted that there is no land left to have and our political and economic power is somewhat stagnant, what would happen if the population growth of the United States came to a standstill in a few decades? Is a slowdown in population growth taken as a sign of weakness or a necessary correction? Similarly, in European countries that now have fertility rates below replacement levels, how much angst is there about the future of these nations?

Perhaps the biggest area of concern would be welfare or safety net programs that are reliant on a large population base that can support others. If the population is stagnant or dropping, this tax base can’t support the growing number of elderly citizens. But there could also be cultural consequences including a sense of decline or stagnation. Maybe that’s why USA Today reported that our lower rates of growth are “the envy of most developed nations.”

Sociologist considers “Humanity 2.0”

A sociologist who is “Auguste Comte chair in social epistemology in Warwick University’s Department of Sociology” discusses his new book titled Humanity 2.0. In my opinion, here is the most interesting part of the interview:

Let’s put it this way: we’ve always been heading towards a pretty strong sense of Humanity 2.0. The history of science and technology, especially in the west, has been about remaking the world in our collective “image and likeness”, to recall the biblical phrase. This means making the world more accessible and usable by us. Consider the history of agriculture, especially animal and plant breeding. Then move to prosthetic devices such as eyeglasses and telescopes.

More recently, and more mundanely, people are voting with their feet to enter Humanity 2.0 with the time they spend in front of computers, as opposed to having direct contact with physical human beings. In all this, it’s not so much that we’ve been losing our humanity but that it’s becoming projected or distributed across things that lack a human body. In any case, Humanity 2.0 is less about the power of new technologies than a state of mind in which we see our lives fulfilled in such things.

Wouldn’t someone like Archimedes describe us as Humanity 3.0 compared to his era?

Yes, Archimedes would probably see us as pretty exotic creatures. He would already be impressed by what we take for granted as Humanity 1.0, since the Greeks generally believed that “humanity” was an elite prospect for ordinary Homo sapiens, requiring the right character and training. Moreover, he would be surprised – if not puzzled – that we appear to think of science and technology as some long-term collective project of self-improvement – “progress” in its strongest sense. While the Greeks gave us many of our fundamental scientific ideas, they did not think of them as a blueprint for upgrading the species. Rather, those ideas were meant either to relieve drudgery or provide high-brow entertainment.

What is considered “normal” for human beings has changed quite a bit over the centuries. This reminds me of something I read months ago about the concept of “normal” in medicine: we tend to focus on more unusual circumstances so don’t know as much what the possible ranges of “normal.” When first introduced, many technological changes were not “normal” but humans adapted. As Fuller suggests, perhaps we need to have a conversation about what is “normal” and how much change we are willing to accept and how quickly it might be implemented.

Were Archimedes and the Greeks correct in focusing more on “character and training” rather than scientific progress?

When people talk about these sorts of topics, readers start thinking about things like robots, prosthetics, and computer chip implants and don’t think so much about eyeglasses or common crops. Indeed, the book cover plays off these common stereotypes with its “futuristic” look at a human head. Does this jump to future technology and the potential problems immediately turn some possible readers off while a cover that played around more with “safer” ideas like eyeglasses would be attractive to more people?

General Motor’s “Parade of Progress” bus tour

General Motors has had difficulty in recent years but at one point, GM was important and big enough to cast a vision for America’s future. In addition to the “Futurama” exhibit which featured an impressive highway system, GM also had a bus tour that gave Americans a glimpse of the future:

General Motors’ research Vice President Charles Kettering (Boss Ket) decided to take GM’s show on the road. Between 1936 and 1956, the company’s “Parade of Progress” toured the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Cuba, visiting hundreds of towns and showing millions how working examples of modern technology would transform their everyday lives.

Eight 30-foot, streamlined buses led the parade, six with walk-through exhibits, one with a stage and one carrying equipment, while nine tractor-trailers carried the remaining gear, and new models of GM cars followed. The red-and-white buses would pull into a small town, circle the wagons at the football field, and the buses would open like clams while electric floodlights rose on poles. A crew accompanied the parade and erected a tent that could accommodate up to 1,500 people for a free technology show.

The show was such a success that GM built 12 Futurliner buses in 1940, after the New York World’s Fair. The parade continued to tour until Pearl Harbor, after which it was disbanded and the buses stored in Ohio. They wouldn’t see the light of day for 12 years, until the “Parade of Progress” was revived in 1953, with 12 buses. But the world had changed. TV had stolen the parade’s thunder, and even though the show included new exhibits — Highways of Tomorrow, How a Jet Engine Works, Wonders of Stereo, Kitchen of Tomorrow and What is the Atom? — it was over by 1956.

It really does seem like a bygone era: a bus tour of America that would pull into a community and residents would come out to see the technology of the future. It is interesting that the article notes that the television was part of the demise of these bus tours. With the information the television provided plus the information available to anyone today through the Internet, who needs to check out a bus tour? At the same time, these experiences are quite different in that they are solitary and more passive. Additionally, I imagine there could be quite a crowd or energy that would build at these exhibitions. This would be a Durkheimian “collective effervescence” experience. What would be the equivalent today: people showing up at the Apple store to see the latest technological wizardry? But this sort of experience would be about a single or just a few digital devices and less about an exciting vision of the future. Is there any place these days that offers a comprehensive and positive view of the future?

I also wonder how much these GM exhibits helped push the narrative of scientific and technological progress that seemed to develop in the post-World War II United States.

The appeal of Google and its driverless cars

It was recently revealed that Google has been testing automated cars for some time now:

With someone behind the wheel to take control if something goes awry and a technician in the passenger seat to monitor the navigation system, seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control. One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation. The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.

Autonomous cars are years from mass production, but technologists who have long dreamed of them believe that they can transform society as profoundly as the Internet has.

Why does this story have as much as appeal as it seems to have on the Internet? A quick argument:

This is a dream dating back decades. The futuristic exhibits of the mid 20th century had visions of this: people blissfully enjoying their trips while the cars took care of the driving. To see the dream come to fruition is satisfying and fulfilling. On a broader scale, this is part of the bigger narrative of technological progress. Although it has been delayed longer than some imagined, it demonstrates ingenuity and the progress of Americans. Since Americans have a well-established love affair with the automobile, driverless cars offers the best of all worlds: personal freedom in transportation without the need to actually do any work. And if we soon get cars that run on electricity or hydrogen, it can be completely guilt-free transportation!