Are The Edge’s Dangerous Ideas Really Dangerous?

Dave Pollard has an excellent post on his blog about The Edge’s question "What’s your dangerous idea?"  Here’s an excerpt:

I was stunned by
the blandness of the responses and the utter disconnectedness of
respondents from the critical issues of our world today. From the
social scientists, who are overwhelmingly from the so-called ‘cognitive
sciences’, we get navel-gazing speculations on consciousness that are
neither dangerous nor useful. From the technologists we get
technophilia, muddle-headed blather about technology as religion and as
the saver of the universe, dangerous only its naivety. From the real
scientists we get shopworn retreads about the compatibility or
incompatibility of science and religion. From philosophers we get
starry-eyed dreaming about a new political order, a world where people
suddenly stop behaving the way they do and start behaving responsibly.
What planet do these people live on? […]

if Edge proprietor John Brockman could get past the idea that his
beloved "Third Culture", the blending of elite intellectuals from both
the scientific and literary world, doesn’t need the collective
intelligence of the great unwashed rest of the world to inform, provoke, qualify, amplify and act on its ideas, and, as Einstein expounded and exemplified, to keep us all self-critical and humble,
Edge might stand a chance of once again becoming relevant to the real
world. In the meantime, the most dangerous idea that emerges from this
self-referential group is the propensity of elites to groupthink and to
exaggerate their own awareness, knowledge, importance, power,
authority, and relevance.

Link: How to Save the World: Blinded by science: What’s your dangerous idea? (via Scott Rosenberg’s blog)

He goes on to offer some truly dangerous ideas from various thinkers.  It’s worth reading in full.


Hysterical Journalism and more Wikipedia nonsense

Patrick Smith talks about the recent Alaska Airlines incident that got overblown thanks to a "citizen journalist":

[Much] attention soon became focused on the blog of Jeremy Hermanns,
a private pilot who was a passenger aboard flight 536. His photos from
the MD-80’s cabin, including a digital self-portrait complete with
plastic mask, were picked up by newspapers around the country, while
interview requests began to pour in.

I found Hermanns’ account of the incident, which he describes as
"horrific," and "the unthinkable," to be luridly overblown. […]

Along with dozens of other readers, I went ahead and left some comments on Hermanns’ blog. The majority of passengers, I wrote, could not be blamed for feeling scared and confused. It was noisy, and no doubt disorienting for many of the plane’s occupants; the need for the crew to initiate a rapid descent would have been frightening to those who didn’t understand what was happening. But it was not a life-threatening situation. […]

Most of this was included in my post on Hermanns’ blog. He promptly deleted the entire thing. Believing it might have been a mistake, I later reposted the identical text. Again, it disappeared within minutes.

My dissection was meant to be instructive and helpful, and I certainly have no association with Alaska Airlines. Yet he chose to censor it.  It’s interesting, because he had no problem leaving up many rude and offensive comments, but deleted mine because they didn’t fully jibe with his contentions. […]

If anyone was working the P.R. angle, it was Hermanns, with his theatrically mask-strapped mug splashed on newspapers and on "Good Morning America," describing a loss of cabin pressure as "horrific" and "the unthinkable." And it’s craftily moderated Web pages like his that make many people scoff at the notion of bloggers as journalists.

Link: Technology | Ask the pilot.

From Hermanns’s response:

That’s where Patrick Smith comes in. Patrick has a site of
his own, and a book where he shares with the world his air travel
expertise as a licensed pilot (I’m told it’s a real page-turner).
Patrick came to my site, offered some critical assessments of my choice
of two words (those very same two he was SO aggravated by in the Salon
piece) and then proceeded to fill my site with spamtastic links to his
books and site. Not only was Patrick beating a dead horse (I’d been
chided left-and-right throughout the comments for the very same things
he was saying), he was filling my message board with spam-filled
messages trying to boost his own site’s traffic and pagerank. But in
Patrick’s world, any refusal to help him promote his products is
obviously an attempt to manipulate the publicity for my own gain
(which, in case you’re wondering, is still at a whopping $0).

understand Patrick’s bitterness–after all, last week more people read
my story than read his writing ALL of last year. But now to help his
own cause, he’s decided to try and make himself part of the story. […]

But as much as having your words
blatantly distorted by a “major” publication like Salon sucks, I
understand that this is the fate of anyone who publicly shares their
experiences, be it online or thru any other form of media. The unique
thing I’ve learned about sharing your experiences in a blog (with
comments) is that the conversation can develop really fast–and plenty
of opportunists, like Patrick Smith, will gladly try to co-opt it,
whether or not they have anything to actually contribute to the

Link: Salon tries to drag the Alaska saga on…, and (earlier) Alaska Flight #536 – Rapid De-Pressurization and Panic at 30K Feet.

Speaking of overly defensive bloggers…

Here’s another lengthy defense of Wikipedia by Cory Doctorow, specifically relating to how he was able to edit his own Wikipedia bio — and it required only(!) "a couple hours over the following weeks coming to a consensus with the various parties in the dispute".  And here’s the Register article by Andrew Orlowski that inspired Doctorow’s article.  Orlowski’s main point was that you’ll have a much easier time correcting your Wikipedia bio if you’re a Wikipedia fan.  Doctorow seems to ignore that point; instead he trots out the familiar Wikipedia line that you can’t edit regular news articles, therefore Wikipedia is better.

Mobile Entertainment and the “Technology is Neutral” Fallacy

From an interesting column by Monica Haynes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

[The] proliferation of handheld devices, and the rush to provide nonstop content for them, leads not to the question: If you provide it, will they access it? Ringtones, a $3 billion business last year, answered that.

No, the question is: If you provide it, should they access it — all the time? Do we have control over the technology or does the technology have control of us?

That’s the question that Linda Garcia, director of communication, culture and technology at Georgetown University, asks her students.

Her department was established nearly 10 years ago to look at where social, technological, economic and political issues come together.

"Technology becomes a form of life. We mold ourselves to fit the technology as opposed to the technology fitting particular needs we have," Dr. Garcia said. "The industry that supports this form of life becomes embedded in our society."

Her students develop products in class and talk about the negative and positive aspects of them.

"I think technology is neither good nor bad. It’s what are the conditions it’s being used in," she said. "I think the most significant question to ask is under what circumstances do we have control." […]

Link: Is mobile entertainment empowering or imprisoning — or both?.

Via Techdirt, where I wrote the following comment (paraphrasing many technology writers smarter than I who have made this point over the years):

It has become de rigueur to say "technology is
neutral, and whether it is good or bad depends on how it is used." But,
like the similar fallacy of "guns don’t kill people" it is simply wrong
(and tiresome). The very existence of a technology changes the
landscape of possibilities. Some technologies have built-in biases. To
say technology is neutral closes off an important avenue of discussion.

I know there were other points to the article and to Techdirt’s post.  I just wanted to get that off my chest. says “Don’t Read”

From Library Journal:

The new advertising campaign for Audible, which provides downloadable audiobooks and other content, bears the message "Don’t Read," which the company and its ad agency consider "a satirical homage to the American Library Association‘s ‘Read’ public service announcement posters." Not everyone at the ALA is so flattered; some comments on the ALA Council electronic mailing list suggested a protest, while others said it would just call more attention to the campaign.

Last week, ALA executive director Keith Fiels announced on the mailing
list, "We are in the process of sending them a polite but firm cease
and desist letter. This use clearly violates our trademark and is not
consistent with our message as an Association, which is to promote
reading." The letter has been sent, but Audible spokesman David Joseph
said late last week that he hadn’t heard from ALA. "I think people are
taking this way too seriously," he told LJ. "It’s obviously not
meant to offend anybody. We’re not going to be changing people’s
reading habits with this campaign. Our customers when they come to our
site tend to consume more literature."

Link: Library Journal – Audible’s "Don’t Read" Campaign Raises ALA Hackles.

I think the ALA is right to complain.  And the "can’t you take a joke?" defense might be more believable if these were actually funny.  This is just weird.  Congratulations, Audible, you’ve just qualified for 2006’s first Bad Taste in Marketing award!

Via bookslut blog.

High-Tech Dining For Zombies

From the International Herald Tribune:

Sitting outside a restaurant one night and staring at a pager that
would tell him when a table had opened up, Dave Thompson had his
epiphany. Why, he wondered, did the restaurant give him a pager that
did nothing more than vibrate, light up and buzz? Why not a pager that
could also give him something to do while he waited?

"I just thought, ‘This is really old technology,"’ he recalled. "We can do better than this."

Thompson’s company, Embedded Processor Designs, based in Fletcher,
North Carolina, is selling a restaurant-paging system that not only
alerts people when their tables are ready but also can entertain them
while they wait, let them check out the menu and even order cocktails
or appetizers to arrive when they are seated. […]

Link: Better mousetrap isn’t the only way to catch customers – Print Version – International Herald Tribune.

No disrespect to the man and his invention (we’ve all got to make a living), but, um, wow…  Do people not talk to each other anymore?  Is it really that hard to bear a few minutes of inactivity waiting for a table?  I guess so.

On the topic of "entertainment while you wait"…  A couple of years ago I was putting gas in a rental car before dropping it at the airport in Cleveland.  The high-tech pumps at this station had little TV’s offering weather and trivia and other nonsense to entertain me during my 30 second ordeal.  What did I gain from this luxury?  I was so dazzled that I mistakenly thought I heard the pump stop and I pulled out the nozzle too soon, spraying gas all over the side of the car.  Okay, maybe I’m just an idiot, but I’ve never done that before — I blame the TV.

Pharmaceutical waste in our lakes and streams

This is not a new problem, of course, but it popped up in our local paper today:

When prescription drugs expire or are no longer needed, many people simply flush and forget them.

That’s the best way to keep them away from people who shouldn’t have them, including children, poison prevention groups and pharmaceutical associations say.

But growing evidence suggests that flushing pharmaceuticals poses environmental risks.

The Orange Water and Sewer Authority is recommending packaging unused
drugs and putting them in the trash.  But that still might give children
or others access to controlled substances, said Terri Buckner, an OWASA
board member.


Daughton said the alternatives to flushing aren’t great. Even if
drugs reach the landfill, they could seep through the lining, he said.

Officials in Maine, however, think they have a better idea.

test program there will urge people to mail unused drugs to a post
office box monitored by state drug enforcement agents, who will destroy
the medicines.

Link: Drugs pop up in the reservoirs :

What about holding the drug manufacturers responsible?  Manufacturer "takeback" programs are becoming increasingly popular, in particular for consumer electronics.  This is not only an efficient solution (the manufacturer knows exactly what’s recyclable, trash, or toxic in your old computer, so they know best how to safely dispose of it); it’s also motivation for producers to cut down on waste in their designs.

The same idea should apply to drug companies.  You should be able to give back any unused drugs for them to incinerate or recycle (and not flush down the corporate toilet… presumably the EPA could check on that, if we still have an EPA).  It’s an extra expense for them, of course, but even if it means higher prices, this still seems like the best model.  The Maine solution seems like a bad idea to me.  The responsibility rests more naturally with the manufacturers.

(I’m assuming drug companies don’t yet do this, but I may well be wrong… corrections welcome!)

Dangerous Ideas, like Introspection

The Edge poses a question each year to various "third culture scientists and science-minded thinkers." This year’s question "What’s your dangerous idea?"  (Link: The World Question Center 2006.)

Lots of interesting (and/or scary) stuff here.  I’ve only read a tiny fraction so far.  I like Leo Chalupa’s "A 24-hour period of absolute solitude."   He says we need a break from the barrage of activity the modern world throws at us so that we can attain "optimal brain performance."  I think we need it so we can stop trying to perform and be efficient for one day, and instead practice a little introspection and consideration of what this crazy world is doing to us…  Of course, in this spirit we already have various world meditation days and "Take Back Your Time" day.

Related: David Was comments on the dying art of introspection in our current age of iPod: Welcome to 2006 and the Death of Thought (from today’s Day to Day on NPR).

Cars Make Us Libertarians

Interesting and provocative article by George Monbiot.  Excerpt:

I believe that while there are many reasons for the growth of individualism in the UK, the extreme libertarianism now beginning to take hold here begins on the road. When you drive, society becomes an obstacle. Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away. The more you drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become. The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and the Australians, into a nation which recognises only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people’s actions. We drive on the left in Britain, but we are being driven to the right.

Link: George Monbiot : The Anti-Social Bastards in Our Midst.

(via Treehugger)