Seeing 10 Years into the Future

Somehow, even in the shadow of the virus, we can see 2030 with surprising clarity. We know a lot, and we can make good guesses about much of what we don’t know. In fact, I’ve been doing this for several years, traveling the world, speaking to university audiences, explaining how and why Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are the places that today’s students must study because of their enormous population increases and their associated growth as consumer markets. I’ve been focused on the lives and futures of young people growing up in the 21st century, much of it connection with Kids on Earth, a global interview project, and my work as a Senior Scholar at The University of Pennsylvania.

In fact, it was a browse through a UPenn newsletter that led me to Professor Mauro F. Guillén, a colleague at UPenn’s Wharton School. About two months ago, Guillén published a book entitled 2020: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything. My interest in children, teenagers, parents, and schools; his is business, economics and government, but our circles overlap with plenty of shared space.

For both of us, the key to the secrets of the 21st century is the number of babies being born, where they are being born, the number of people who are living long lives, and where they are living those lives. He sets the stage with the rapid growth of the world’s population: 3 billion by 1960, 4 billion by 1975, 5 billion by 1987, 6 billion by 2000, and 7 billion by 2010.

And then: “The reality is that by 2030 we will be facing a baby drought.”

Take a closer look: “for every baby born in the United States, 4.4 are being born in China, 6.5 in India, and 10.2 in Africa” and “improvements in nutrition and disease prevention in the poorest parts of the world have made it possible for an increasing number of babies to reach adulthood and become parents themselves.” And so, by 2030: “South Asia (including India) will consolidate its position as the number-one region in terms of population size. Africa will become the second-largest region, while East Asia (including China) will be relegated to third place. Europe, which in 1950 was the second largest, will fall to sixth place, behind Southeast Asia…and Latin America.”

If 21st-century governments were more open to immigrants, the trends could equalize, but they’re going in the opposite direction–limiting incoming populations from countries whose people they need in order to maintain not only sufficiently large populations but also sufficiently young ones. That is, Europe and The United States will become increasingly old–which is terrible for the economy (the success of Social Security in the U.S., for example, relies upon income from the younger population, which disappears if there aren’t enough babies and aren’t enough immigrants). As we make these (okay, the correct word really is “stupid”) decisions, we are making an economic and social mess for ourselves.

It’s always instructive to study maps. One of my current favorites compares the size of the African continent with various countries. If you move the countries around like jigsaw puzzle pieces, you can fit all of China into the part of Africa that’s south of the equator, with all of India and all of the United States, and Eastern Europe, and France, Germany, and Spain, and still find enough space on the continent for The U.K., Japan, Italy, Switzerland, and a bunch of other countries. It’s not easy to think clearly about Africa, or any other place unless you understand its size, its history, and its potential for the future. Incredibly, people in the countries listed above know very little about Africa (challenge yourself: how many African countries can you name? how many cities?)

Perhaps women will think more clearly than men have done. This is the other huge trend: women graduating from higher education, with more advanced degrees than men, and gradually gaining power in both industry and government. They marry later–average age of first time mothers is now 28 years old. For example, “in the 1950s, about 7 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 29 had a college degree, half the rate of men. Nowadays, the proportion of women with a college degree is 40 percent, while the figure for men is only 32 percent.”

Now, let’s think about old age. People really are living longer–science, medicine, biotech, nutrition, hygiene, education, social programs–everything contributes to longevity. “By 2030, the average 70 year old will live like today’s average 50 year old.” We’ll be aided by robotics, and devices that make it easier to climb stairs, maintain balance, diagnose disease more quickly, and more–all of this takes shape during the current decade. In many ways, this is driven by necessity. For example, “by 2025, Japan will need 1 million nurses the country currently doesn’t have.” In the U.S., as in most countries, “about 90 percent of paid senior care is done by immigrants”–but our present-day policies are limiting the number of available workers. If Japan solves the problem with robots–a significant current effort–perhaps the U.S. will benefit.

Forget about “keeping up with the Joneses.” Now, we’re “keeping up with the Singhs and the Wangs.” Forget about your current notions of cities as a great place to live and work. (We’re seeing this in the real estate market as many people leave the crowded cities for locations with fewer people, less crowding, and increasingly excellent services.) Many cities exist near bodies of water, and with climate change, water levels are rising, and storms are causing chaos. Also on the subject of water, several cities in India are illustrating a nasty future in which water supply is insufficient for population needs. (“A majority will face formidable challenges related to pollution, congestion, and security. The cities most exposed to climate change will suffer from a shortage of freshwater and an excess of saltwater.”) Less so, perhaps, for food needs as vertical farming is becoming to take hold. And yet, some cities are flourishing–even during the pandemic, and hopefully, afterwards–because of creative class and knowledge workers–but these are precisely the folks who can work just about anywhere.

Present-day assumptions about ownership may be giving way to newer assumptions about sharing (a phenomenon slowed by the pandemic). Assumptions about the ways money and banking work are also taking shape in new ways–look at the progress made by PayPal, Venmo, and credit cards in a marketplace where so many people are now reluctant to handle paper currency and coins. We may be seeing the end of non-digital money by 2030.

I like the quote from William Faulkner that begins the end of the book: “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” So here we are, stuck in the pandemic, questioning whether we all ever return to the old normal, strikingly unaware of so many of the realities already in the “high likelihood” category for 2030. We’ve already lost sight of the shore; we just haven’t accepted that reality.

The author’s suggestion that we “approach uncertainty with optimism” may be the only approach that makes sense in what is now a fairly crazy world of the future.

Gandhi on the Economics of Newspapers

From yesterday’s New York Times, a special report on the death of another American newspaper. As is typical for the NYTimes, the story is in-depth, thoughtful, and well worth reading time (especially in its original Special Section print edition.) Original NY Times caption: “CreditTim Gruber for The New York Times”

Every few days, somebody sends me an interesting article about a nonprofit approach to journalism. There is usually a well-intended foundation involved, and an emphasis on discovering the future of local newspaper reporting, or something similar. These investments are made in the public interest. Unfortunately, interest from members of the public is often so limited, these journalist ventures cannot and do not sustain on their own. In the past, revenues from classified and display advertising masked this limitation. The only other form of reliable newspaper revenue, circulation (people paying for their newspapers) has long been insufficient to fund local journalism. All of this becomes more complicated when we add layers of television, radio, and internet storytelling.

The NPR model works because it is funded, in part, by Federal funds generated by taxing every American, and because some of those same people donate addition money to support not only journalism but entertainment programs as well. Given the competitive landscape in radio, NPR has developed a popular brand, so it is also able to attract advertising (which it calls “corporate support” to mask the whiff of commercialism).

And that leads us to South Africa in 1903. Gandhi was an attorney fighting for the rights of people with Indian heritage. He was a member of the team that founded Indian Opinion, a newspaper published mostly in English with section in Gujarati. “Though…this paper, we could very well disseminate the news of the week among the community. The English section kept those Indians informed about the movement who did not know Gujarati, and for Englishmen in India, England and South Africa, Indian Opinion served the purpose of a weekly newspaper.”

Indian Opinion began with advertiser support. “[Some] of our best men had to be spared to do this….some of the good workers had be set apart for canvassing and [collecting bills] from advertisers, not to speak of the flattery which advertisers claimed as their due.”

And here’s the part that struck home for me: “…if the paper was conducted not because it yielded a profit but purely with a view to service, the service should not be imposed upon the community by force…only if the community wished. And the clearest proof of such a wish would be forthcoming if they became subscribers in sufficiently large numbers to make the paper self-supporting.  [We] stopped advertisements in the paper. The community realized at once their proprietorship of Indian Opinion and their consequent responsibility for maintaining it…”

He goes on, “[The workers’] only care now was to put their best work into the paper, so long as the community wanted it, and they were not ashamed of requesting any Indian to subscribe to Indian Opinion, but thought it even their duty to do so. A change came over the internal strength and character of the paper and it became a force to reckon with….the community had made the paper their own.”

For those who could not understand the language, or afford the subscription price, neighbors would read the paper aloud, translate and explain the meaning of the stories.

With so much information flowing toward us every day, discussions about the future of journalism are constantly obscured and made unimportant. And newspapers continue to die. And the internet and NPR are insufficient replacements. Imposing solutions from above–foundation funded and such–are reasonable short-term solutions. More than a hundred years ago, Gandhi was dealing with very different realities, but his concept of pull vs. push is very much alive today.

I’m not read finished reading The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of Writings on His Life, Work and Ideas, but this particular idea captured my imagination, so I thought I’d share it with you.

 

 

 

A Credible Faker–and A Future of Journalism

I’ve never been a fan of the term “fake news” because it over-simplifies the problem of poor instruction in critical thinking and media literacy. News stories have always been fabricated, and always constructed to persuade, disrupt, or otherwise confuse the audience or the reader. And honest journalism has long existed on the far side of the spectrum. Most of what’s in between is the mediocrity that describes most of the contents of a 24-hour news cycle.

It’s always been easy to print and publish truth or nonsense under an assumed or otherwise made-up identity. The now-esteemed Alexander Hamilton did it, and so did founding fathers James Madison and John Jay. In my early days of magazine writing, I sometimes wrote under an assumed name.

And, of course, we’ve been enjoying doctored photographs for a long time. If a friend cannot attend a wedding, he or she can be Photoshopped (a new verb?) into the image. We add sunrises and sunsets, make photographic models that much prettier, and so on. Many of us are now learning to do this with video as well. “I can’t believe my eyes” seems like a good way of thinking about what we see, especially on screens.

And that brings us to the fake news anchor, with the adjective fake referring not to the news itself, but to the anchor who is confidently delivering information as a kind of digital puppet (lots of connotations for puppet in that scenario). He can be programmed to read just about anything, from any source, but he looks quite human and his delivery, which will only improve, is already pretty darned good.

Have a look. And consider the possibilities for teachers, professors, and politicians, all programmed to say what you, or somebody else, wants them to say.

Heads Up for Everyone

NavdyMaybe twenty years ago, I remember my friend Harry, who knows a lot about cars, telling me about a magical idea called a “heads up display.” Harry explained that data and images would be projected on every car windshield, and if I understood him correctly, instrumentation would move from the dashboard to an ultra-simple visual presentation directly in the driver’s field of view. No more looking down, no more looking away from the road. I became vaguely aware that some truck drivers were using this technology, but I wondered whatever happened to the consumer side of the idea.

Next year, we can all buy a dashboard mounted video projector called a Navdy. It costs less than $30o, and it does what Harry promised, and more. Navdy projects very simple graphics and just a few words directly on the windshield, directly above the steering wheel. The projector is set up so that your point of focus on the data is also your point of focus while driving, so the information is always easy to see (I’m curious how those with bi- or trifocals will respond).

We all know that picking up a phone while driving (or stopped at a light) to read a text message is a bad idea, and that sending a text is an even worse idea. So now, the text shows up immediately in front of you, perhaps with a little iconic picture of your texting buddy (who is, hopefully, on a coach, not driving a big rig while texting). To reply, you either speak (Navdy will recognize what you have to say) or gesture (a favorite but simple way to interact with Navdy).

You can use your existing cell phone (Android or iPhone). There is no monthly service fee. You only need to buy the device.

So what else does Navdy do? It can display your fuel level, speed, and other information about your car. It allows you to make phone calls and to respond to them without touching a telephone. Ditto for text messages. If your phone is playing music, you can stop and start the stream. It responds to voice control, just as Siri does (hopefully, it’s better than Siri).

New idea? As an add-on, sure. But those who follow the car industry report several million HUDs (Heads-Up Displays) already in cars that are on the road, and have been for several years.

Although there are lots of questions about what we should and should not be doing while driving, whether Navdy is a help or a hindrance or something else entirely, whether this sort of thing will become standard in every vehicle, and, of course, whether most of us will actually be driving a car in a future where cars are probably going to be driving themselves. In the mean time—there’s at least a ten year gap between today and the future—this is a device that will become a buzz item in 2015.

Do watch the video. It’s irreverent and fun.

 

 

The Other Stuff

Tubi TV Teaser from adrise on Vimeo.

Although Netflix, YouTube and other video providers offer a whole lot of stuff, I’ve often wondered where the other stuff resides, why we’re not seeing so many old TV series and movies, and why so little that is produced and distributed outside of the U.S. is offered to U.S. audiences.

TubiTV (dreadful name) is about to change that, or, at least, some of that. It’s a new video-on-demand service with about 20,000 titles in its startup library. According to Variety, “Tubi TV content partners include Starz Digital Media, Cinedigm, Shine International, Jim Henson Co., Hasbro Studios, Film Movement, ITV, Endemol, Zodiak Rights, DRG, All3Media, Kino Lorber, Korean TV network MBC and Korean studio CJ Entertainment. In addition, Tubi TV has lined up several digital content partners, which include Newslook, AP, Reuters, anime distributor Funimation, Havoc Television, ACC Digital Network, Viki, Anyclip.com and Wochit.”

When it launches in the U.S. this summer on multiple platforms, it is expected to be free (ad-supported).

 

 

Grandpa, what’s a camera?

Infographic-1920-1200-ver-2-0-1024x640This infographic comes from a website called Lensvid, which is filled with interesting photographic stories, inspiration, reviews and more.

The site attempts to explain what happened, but their editors as as mystified as I am. Clearly, smart phones are having an impact— why spend the money and tote around a separate smart box when the phone contains a perfectly fine snapshot camera.

But there are hobbyists, amateurs, professionals—and it seems unlikely that shipments dropped by as much as 40 percent in a single year. Unless it was a tipping point. The graph on the top left certainly illustrates a multi-year drop. But why haven’t lenses dropped by a similar percentage? Maybe because the sale of lenses wasn’t so hot in the first place—and once an amateur buys into, say, the Canon system with a digital SLR, they tend to keep their lenses when they buy the new camera body from the same manufacturer.

No surprise that sales of compact cameras are dropping so quickly—a 60 percent drop since 2010—because those the cameras that are most effectively replaced by the cameras in smart phones.

Isn’t it odd: we are taking more pictures than ever before, and yet, the camera business is falling apart. Reminds me of a recent post on LinkedIn by my friend Paul. It appears below, and I can’t quite get it out of my mind.

30e72c12-a53d-11e3-93ba-12313d026081-medium

 

 

 

 

 

4K TV – Sooner Than You Think!

A few days ago, I was on the phone with the FCC and an interesting question came up. Will broadcast stations have enough over-the-air bandwidth to provide 4K service to the public? I was struck by the question because 4K is such a new idea, and because I’d never really thought about it as broadcast idea.

Compare 1080 pixels (dark green0 with 4000 pixels (red) and you get a sense of how much more picture information (resolution, detail) is available on the new 4K TV sets.

Compare 1080 pixels (dark green0 with 4000 pixels (red) and you get a sense of how much more picture information (resolution, detail) is available on the new 4K TV sets.

What’s 4K TV? It’s a much higher-resolution version of HDTV. And the first 4K TV sets are arriving soon (see below0. In order to provide all of that picture information, more data is required, which means larger storage devices, and, in order to provide that data to connected TV sets, more bandwidth is required, too. That’s the basic theory, but it’s important not to think about 4K in terms of the current systems because of that always-astonishing digital magic trick: compression. Yes, 4K requires a lot of data and a lot of bandwidth. But “a lot” is a relative term. And yes, there are new digital broadcast standards on the way. Good news for consumers and for broadcasters, who will be able to pack more and prettier program material into their TV signals, not-so-good news for broadcasters who are attempting to build a coherent strategy related to the upcoming FCC TV spectrum auction, in which many stations will trade their licenses for cash, or for the opportunity to share a channel with another broadcaster in the market.

panel2_imageAnyway… I woke up this morning to an announcement from Sony… with all sorts of enticing promises: improved detail, improved color rendition, better audio, screen mirroring so what’s on your tablet can be viewed on your new TV (albeit it in lesser detail, a service currently available to Apple users).

How much? $5,000 for the 55-inch model, and $7,000 for the 65-inch model.

What are you going to watch? Well, yeah, that’s always the problem at this stage. Here’s a terrific article about “upscaling” the currently available media, which seems to require 24x improvement. More data will require more robust local storage, and so, we move closer to a complete convergence of television, home network, home digital storage devices in sophisticated home library systems, and, perhaps far more likely, streaming solutions in their next phase: advanced versions of Netflix, Hulu, and so forth, tweaked to serve big files for 4K TV sets.

Which brings us back around to the TV station wondering about its 4K future. Sure, it’s technically possible to broadcast 4K, but in the few years remaining for the current broadcast standard, this seems fairly unlikely because (a) it will be expensive for television stations to install in their master control facilities, and (b) relatively few people will leap from their new-ish HDTVs to 4K sets in the next year or two.

Sony-4KTVDo we want or need even more resolution than 1080i HDTV sets provide? Maybe for microscopy or astrophotography or other science work that demands the highest possible resolution. Do I think ESPN is investing in a whole new 4K operation–cameras, video switcher, storage, transmission, etc. so I can watch baseball in even higher resolution. You know they are, or will soon be, doing just that. And when they do, we’ll buy the sets because, you know, people will come…

Encouraging Schools to Join the 21st Century

Darryl WestConventional public schools are “arranged to make things easy for the teacher who wishes quick and tangible results.” Furthermore, “the ordinary school impress[es] the little one into a narrow area, into a melancholy silence, into a forced attitude of mind and body.” No doubt, you’ve had a thought similar to this one: “if we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

There’s a reason for the old school language. The words were published in 1915 by educator John Dewey. A century later, the situation has begun to change, mostly, according to Brookings Institute vice president Darryl M. West, as a result of the digital revolution. Mr. West advances this theory by offering an ample range of examples in his new book, Digital Schools.

Quite reasonably, he begins by considering various attempts at school reform, education reform, open learning, shared learning, and so on. Forward-thinking educators fill their office shelves with books praising the merits of each new wave of reform, and praise the likes of Institute for Play, but few initiatives taken hold with the broad and deep impact that is beginning to define a digital education.

digital schoolsBlogs, wikis, social media, and other popular formats are obvious, if difficult to manage, innovations more familiar in student homes than in most classrooms, but the ways in which they democratize information–removing control from the curriculum-bound classroom and teacher and allowing students to freely explore–presents a gigantic shift in control.

Similarly, videogames and augmented reality, whether in an intentionally educational context or simply as a different experience requiring critical thinking skills in imaginary domains, are commonplace at home, less so in class, and, increasingly, the stuff of military education, MIT and other advanced academic explorations, and, here and there, the charge of a grant-funded program at a special high school. More is on the way.

Evaluation, assessment, measurement–all baked into the traditional way we think about school–are far more efficient and offer so many additional capabilities. No doubt, traditional thinkers will advance incremental innovation by mapping these new tools onto existing curriculum, perhaps a step in the right direction, however limited and short-sighted those steps may be. The big step–too large for most contemporary U.S. classrooms–is toward personalized learning and personalized assessment, but that would shift the role of the teacher in ways that some union leaders find uncomfortable.

The power behind West’s view is, of course, the velocity of change in the long-promising arena of distance learning. During the past ten years , the percentage of college students who have taken at least one distance learning course has tripled, and  passed 30 percent in 2011. Numbers are not available, but I suspect we’ve now passed the 50 percent mark. The book does not address the stunning growth of, for example, Coursera. Kevin Werbach, a Wharton faculty member, taught over 85,000 students in his first Coursera course (on gamification)–students from all of the world. Indeed, the current run rate is 1.4 million new Coursera sign-ups per month.

Mimi Ito is one of the more influential thinkers about modern education and its future. Click to read her bio.

Mimi Ito is one of the more influential thinkers about modern education and its future. Click to read her bio.

The author quotes education researcher Mimi Ito:

There is increasingly a culture gap between the modes of delivery… between how people learn and what is taught. [In addition to] the perception that classrooms are boring… students [now] ask, ‘Why should I memorize everything if I can just go online? … Students aren’t preparing kids for life.”

Is this a ground-breaking book. No, but it is useful compendium of the digital changes that are beginning to take root in classrooms across America. Yes, we’re behind the times. In many ways, students are far ahead of the institutions funded to teach them. The book serves notice: no longer are digital means experimental. Computer labs are being replaced by mobile devices. Students are taking courses from the best available teachers online, and not only in college. Many students are enrolled nowhere; they are simply taking courses because they want to learn or need to learn for professional reasons. Without formal enrollment, institutions begin to lose their way. The structure is beginning to erode. Just beginning. And it can be fixed, changed, transformed, amended, and otherwise modernized. And so, the helpful author provides an extensive list of printed links for interesting parties to follow.

Just out of curiosity, I called up Darrell M. West’s web page–it’s part of the Brookings Institution’s site–and, as I expected, he is a man of consider intellect and accomplishment.  And so, I hoped I would find the above-cited links as a web resource. I looked for Education under his extensive list of topics of interest but it wasn’t there. (Uh-oh?) I did find a section on his page called “Resources,” but the only available resource on that page was a 10MB photograph of Mr. West. I couldn’t find the links anywhere. Perhaps this can be changed so that all readers, educators and interested parties can make good use of his forward-thinking work.

Sorry–one more item–I just found a recent paper by Dr. West, and I thought you might find both the accompanying article and the link useful.

Here's a look at 42-year-old John Dewey in 1902. To learn more about him, click on the picture and read the Wikipedia article.

Here’s a look at 42-year-old John Dewey in 1902. To learn more about him, click on the picture and read the Wikipedia article.

Google Glass: “technology closer to your senses”

Google Glass

You’re looking at a new invention that may revolutionize our interaction with digital devices.

Connecting devices to the body, or, at least, wrapping devices around parts of the body, will be the next big thing. Apple is developing a watch that cuffs the wrist and provides information via a curved glass display. Google is going further.

A wonderful story published in The Verge provides lots of interesting insight, for this is not simply a product concept, but a potential shift in the ways that we think about interaction between humans and between humans and machines. Here’s an excerpt:

Human beings have developed a new problem since the advent of the iPhone and the following mobile revolution: no one is paying attention to anything they’re actually doing. Everyone seems to be looking down at something or through something. Those perfect moments watching your favorite band play or your kid’s recital are either being captured via the lens of a device that sits between you and the actual experience, or being interrupted by constant notifications. Pings from the outside world, breaking into what used to be whole, personal moments.

Steve goes on. “We wondered, what if we brought technology closer to your senses? Would that allow you to more quickly get information and connect with other people but do so in a way — with a design — that gets out of your way when you’re not interacting with technology? That’s sort of what led us to Glass.” I can’t stop looking at the lens above his right eye. “It’s a new wearable technology. It’s a very ambitious way to tackle this problem, but that’s really sort of the underpinning of why we worked on Glass.”

I encourage you to go to The Verge report, watch the video (which is on the page), and start thinking differently about a future that may arrive as soon as 2014.

Only Half of This Is True

Maybe not now. But soon.

Turns out, facts are like radioactive materials, and, for that matter, like anything that’s not going to last forever.

arbesmanMore or less, this is half-life principle, developed just over 100 years ago by Ernest Rutherford, applies to facts, or, at least, a great many facts. This persuasive argument is set forth by Samuel Arbesman in a new book called The Half-Life of Facts. I especially like the sub-title: “What Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date.” Arbesman is a math professor and a network scientist, and, as you would expect, this is a smart book. The book seems more like a musing than a fully worked-out theory, but I suspect that’s because facts are not easy to tame. Herding facts is like herding cats.

HalfLifeOfFactsLet’s begin with “doubling times”–the amount of time it takes for something (anything) to double in quantity. The number of important discoveries; the number of chemical elements known; the accuracy of scientific instruments–these  double every twenty years.  The number of engineers in the U.S. doubles every ten years. Using measures fully detailed in the book, the doubling time for knowledge in mathematics is 63 years, in geology it’s 46 years. In technology knowledge, half lives are quiet brief: a 10 month doubling for the advance of wireless (measured in bits per second), a 20 month doubling time for gigabytes per consumer dollar. With sufficient data, it’s possible to visualize the trend and to project the future.

So that’s part of the story. Of course, it’s one thing to know something, and it’s another to disseminate that information. As the speed of communication began to exceed the speed of transportation (think: telegraph), transfer of knowledge in real time (or, pretty close to real time) became the standard. But not all communications media is instantaneous. Take, for example, a science textbook written in 1999. The textbook probably required several years of development, so let’s peg the information in, say, 1997. If that textbook is still around (which seems likely), then the information is 16 years old. If it’s a geology text, the text is probably valid, but if it’s an astronomy text, Pluto is still a planet, and there are a lot of other discoveries that are absent. And, there are facts rapidly degrading, some well past their half life.

Trans-Neptune

Although you can click to make the image bigger, Pluto still won’t be a planet…

And, then, of course, there are errors. Sometimes, we think we’ve got it right, but we don’t. Along with the dissemination of facts, our system of knowledge distribution transfers errors with great efficiency. We see this all the time on the internet: a writer picks up old or never-accurate information, and republishes it (perhaps adding some of his or her own noise along the way). An author who should know better gets lazy and picks up the so-called fact without bothering to double check, or, more tragically, manages to find the same inaccurate information in a second source, and has no reason to dispute its accuracy. Wikipedia’s editors see this phenomenon every day: they correct a finicky fact, and then, it’s uncorrected an hour later!

Precision is also an issue. As we gain technical sophistication, we also benefit from more precise measures. The system previously used for measurement degrades over time–it has its own half-life. Often, errors and misleading information are the result.

The author lists some of his own findings. One that is especially disturbing:

The greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.

And, here’s another that should make you think twice about what you see or hear as news:

The hotter a scientific field (with more scientific teams involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true.

My favorite word in the book is idiolect. It is used to describe the sphere of human behavior that affects the ways each of us sends and receives information, the ways in which we understand and use vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, accent, and other aspects of human communication. A fact may begin one way, but cultural overlays may affect the way the message is sent or received. This, too, exerts an impact on accuracy, precision, and, ultimately, the half-life of facts.

Word usage also enters in the picture. He charts the popularity of the (ridiculous) phrase “very fun” and finds very strong increase beginning in 1980 (the graph begins in 1900, when the term was in use, but was not especially popular).

Time is part of the equation, too. The Long Now Foundation encourages people to think in terms of millennia, not years or centuries. Arbesman wrote a nice essay for WIRED to focus attention not only on big data but on long data as well.

Given all of this, I suspect that the knowledge in the brain of an expert is also subject to the half-life phenomenon. Take Isaac Newton–pretty smart guy in his time–but the year he died, most of England believed that Mary Toft had given birth to sixteen rabbits.

Last week, on CBS Sunday Morning, Lewis Michael Seidman, a Georgetown University professor commented about our strong belief in the power and relevance of the U.S. Constitution (signed 1787, since amended, but not substantially altered):

This is our country. We live in it, and we have a right to the kind of country we want. We would not allow the French or the United Nations to rule us, and neither should we allow people who died over two centuries ago and knew nothing of our country as it exists today.

CBS News Constitution

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