THE REALITY CLUB



From: George Dyson
Date: July 6, 2000

Don't forget that we upstart Americans owe this whole digital business to G. W. Leibniz, hardware and software alike. In 1679, while exploring the powers of binary arithmetic, he imagined a digital computer in which binary numbers were represented by spherical pellets, governed by a rudimentary form of punched card control. "This [binary] calculus could be implemented by a machine (without wheels)," he wrote, "in the following manner, easily to be sure and without effort. A container shall be provided with holes in such a way that they can be opened and closed. They are to be open at those places that correspond to a 1 and remain closed at those that correspond to a 0. Through the opened gates small cubes or marbles are to fall into tracks, through the others nothing. It [the gate array] is to be shifted from column to column as required." In the shift registers at the heart of all electronic computers, from mainframes to microprocessors, voltage gradients and pulses of electrons have taken the place of gravity and marbles, but otherwise things are still running exactly as Leibniz envisioned (in Germany) in 1679.

What better way to place ourselves between the digital past and future than to build a working model — 321 years later — of Leibniz's machine, on tennis-ball scale? It would take millions of tennis balls, and hours to perform the simplest of calculations, but a few miles of clear plastic shift registers, accumulators, and some gravity-fed input-output would make visible the invisible workings that govern so much of our existence today.

[Leibniz, De Progressione Dyadica, Pars I,” (MS, 15 March 1679), published in facsimile (with German translation) in Erich Hochstetter and Hermann-Josef Greve, eds., Herrn von Leibniz’ Rechnung mit Null und Einz (Berlin: Siemens Aktiengesellschaft, 1966), pp. 46-47. English translation by Verena Huber-Dyson, 1995.]

GEORGE B. DYSON is a leading authority in the field of Russian Aleut kayaks ¶the subject of his book Baidarka, numerous articles, and a segment of the PBS television show Scientific American Frontiers. His early life and work was portrayed in 1978 by Kenneth Brower in his classic dual biography, The Starship And The Canoe. Now ranging more widely as a historian of technology, Dyson's most recent book is Darwin Among The Machines.


From: Stewart Brand
Date: July 6, 2000

That's an endearingly almost random sample of ideas and thinkers. As good a way to dive in as any.

Germany does seem more alert than most to some of these questions. They've translated my Clock of the Long Now, and two German video teams are filming the development of Danny Hillis's Clock and the ideas around it.

STEWART BRAND is founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder of The Well, cofounder of Global Business Network, cofounder and president of The Long Now Foundation. He is the original editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, Author Of The Media Lab: Inventing The Future At Mit, How Buildings Learn, and The Clock Of The Long Now: Time And Responsibility(MasterMinds Series).


From: Sebastian Schnitzenbaumer
Date:
July 6, 2000

Schirrmacher's article is interesting, although a bit biased, since it fails to include the new economic spirit in Germany and the people who are driving it. As you know, the 1968 Generation is currently the biggest problem. As youngsters these people were in revolt against the post-Nazi regime in Germany, and they definitely did a great job of moving us away from the past. Today these people are in power, but because they were always against power, they make the worst CEOs, managers, etc.

These people are against the concept of optimism for the future and believe that any form of pride, patriotism or team spirit is a manifestation of the devil himself. Today they're a royal pain the ass: inflexible, negative, blind.

A very good example is the bureaucracy in Germany. Considering themselves to be the "last line of defense" against the Nazi Regime in the 50s, 60s and early 70s, the 1968 Generation felt that they had no alternative but to fight the old order. A lot of them became bureaucrats
themselves, "infiltrating" the system and changing it from the inside. Others became terrorists.

The reality is, though, that after securing power by making the long and tiresome walk through the institutions, the 1968 Generation really didn't change things a lot, except in making things even less efficient because of their lack of management talent. And since it took them so long to get there, they're all really "burned-out" and frustrated.

Members of the 1968 Generation are blind because they fail to see what's really going on with the younger European generation, which is very different. Today's younger generation combines the best of both worlds: the idea that not every technological innovation is necessarily for the best, as well as the ability to become movers and shakers, to become entrepreneurs, to make things happen together.

The next generation, which I represent, is solving the same problem that the 1968 Generation faced from a very different angle. My company, Mozquito Technologies, has just signed a deal with the Bavarian government to put all government forms online. And all I did was found a company with friends, raise money, and develop a technology together in a team. This whole process took us just two years.

This technology will now make it possible to interact with the Bavarian bureaucracy without physically having to go to a government office, wait for hours in ugly rooms, fill out silly forms by hand, talk to those frustrated 1968 Generation guys. We're not making them obsolete, but at least we're providing an alternative path. These government officials will soon find themselves to be in competition with online forms, their digital counterpart. They're losing their status of being omnipotent and irreplaceable.

In order to achieve this, did we have to fight? No. Did we have to throw away our lives and infiltrate the system from the inside? No. We've prevailed with a smile, silently, without much talking. And we had a great time doing it.

SEBASTIAN SCHNITZENBAUMER is CEO of the Munich-based Stack Overflow AG which specializes in innovative client-server solutions for the Web. Their flagship product — the Mozquito Factory — is the world's first XML-based XHTML authoring tool, enabling developers to use tomorrow's Web technologies today.


From: Dave Myers
Date: July 6, 2000

One aspect of the technological revolution that Americans are now researching and debating ́ and that Frank Schirrmacher and FAZ may wish to engage as well ́ is its social consequences. For example, does the Internet, while connecting people with kindred interests, also facilitate social isolation and risk of depression?

Robert Putnam engages this issue in his new Bowling Alone , and I track various social trends during the technological age in my own The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty.

DAVID G. MYERS is the John Dirk Werkman Professor of Psychology at Hope College and author of The Pusuit of Happiness, and most recently. The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty.


From: Clifford Pickover
Date: July 6, 2000

The Frank Schirrmacher article "Wake-up Call for Europe Tech" is an interesting one. I believe he is suggesting that European technologists are not pursing the fractal edge of the known and unknown as much as American technologists are. In short, he appears to suggest that European technologists are less creative than their American counterparts and are not speculating as much about the philosophical implications of future technology. If this is Schirrmacher's point, and if this is true, it would be fascinating to determine various correlations between such technological creativity (TC) and other societal factors. Aside from more obvious economic and political indicators, are there other correlators of TC? For example, does the percentage of science-fiction books sold in a country correlate with TC? Does the number of people who bought Frank Tipler's The Physics of Immortality correlate with TC? (I mention this book in particular because I heard it sold quite well in Germany.)

Can we directly infer TC by counting the percentages of "Edge.org" readers in each country? I hope to track country of origin for readers of the "Pickover Report" at www.pickover.com to infer TC.

Here's a question to ask of the Edge readers: "What are viable correlators of technological creativity in a society?" Who knows — maybe we will find a direct correlation of TC with readership of mind-numbing SF authors such as Greg Egan, Robert Sawyer, Neal Stephenson, or Stephen Baxter? Or maybe there is a correlation with the religious makeup or age demographics of a country, or the percentage of people speaking English, or some other odd factor.

When I asked colleagues why Europe might have less TC than America, they made three controversial points:

1) "Europeans deliberately poke around the edges of current technology because they lack the lash of being eaten alive (laid off) if some other company beats the company they work for."

2 "The measure of success in America is the height of the pile of dollars accumulated. This is less true for Europeans."

3. "The European response to American innovation is frequently an attempt to apply brakes: 'No gene-engineered frankenfoods.' 'No information unless you pass oppressive privacy rules.' 'The Internet is an American imperialist plot to infect all countries with the English language.' 'Let's only send snail mail instead of e-mail, which gives a competitive advantage to American companies.' Perhaps Americans are more willing to beg, borrow, or steal ideas that work than Europeans are."

I don't know I agree with all of these points, or if they are relevant, but they seem to be on peoples' minds.

CLIFFORD PICKOVER is a research staff member at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center, in Yorktown Heights, New York. He is the holder of more than a dozen patents dealing with computer interfaces, and he has written some twenty books on a broad range of topics, including Time : A Traveler's Guide, Surfing Through Hyperspace : Understanding Higher Universes in Six Easy Lessons, Black Holes : A Traveler's Guide, Future Health : Computers and Medicine in the 21st Century, Keys to Infinity, and The Science of Aliens.


From: Kai Krause
Date: July 6, 2000

Euro Muse and Ponder

What Schirrmacher is describing is important and timely. I have lived between the continents somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic for 25 years. Born and raised in Germany I left at age 19 and have been intertwined with computers and Silicon valley since the inception of personal computers. When in Europe, I found myself on stages and TV shows wildly gesturing to the audiences about the coming revolutions, the PC, and later the Web. The West- East lag time in the 80s would easily be measured in years, even as late as the mid 90s hardware and software prices would typicallys be tripled by the time they reached end users. Now in "the Zeroes" the visible delays have been minimized. Sure, it always will take a couple extra months before The Matrix hits DVD in German, but no more so than it takes half a year for the Playstation II to migrate from Japan to the US. That doesn´t seem to ruffle the feathers of the American consciousness or make them feel inadequate. A stroll down Akihabara will teach any American that there are such quirky last vestiges of cultural imperialism expressing itself in a communal smirk.

And while I completely agree with Schirrmacher´s general poke at old encrusted layers, I can´t quite subscribe to the notion that the American version is all that its cracked up to be. There is a huge gap between the cutting edge digerati and the common man. Cutting from Danny Hillis to Billy Bob Hillbilly can bring you to the edge of insanity. A cross country trip and a random stop at any random gas station in anytown can easily let you lose all faith in mankind.

There have been plenty of times where I was certain it´s time to reboot this planet and hope for Earth 2.0 to be better. It has never been this great and it has never been this bad.... The landscapes are cut up beyond all repair, kind of a molecular entropy getting more chaotic by the week. The frequencies are globbed with more and more and more of nothing. This is not the space to whine about the ever obvious dot coma we are in and anyway you are the choir and beyond being preached to.

The point in question was that Europe with all its encrustedness has also endless amounts of beautiful crust on its bread, for starters. As a bicontinental drifter and now living in a space that is in parts 1000 years old I do have many thoughts on the question.

Surely there is kind of a Germanic-depression lingering. The school I went to was older than the entire US. The generation of the teachers had gone through one or several wars. Everyone´s parents and uncles were still talking about the post-war time of extreme restrictions. America has never even had a war invade on its soil. Or rebuild all of Chicago after it was bombed out entirely. The first generation of Germans that is no longer completely pummeled by the communal guilt and depression of that era is just now emerging.

The weather isn´t as everblue, there is a 24bit high resolution gray that sets in. But suddenly now I find it kind of soothing. Its light out until a quarter to 11pm. I muse and ponder...

There has always been a focus on completeness, depth and details which I am very glad to have inherited and refer to as my "Mercedes Benz genes". What may be described in a superficial manner as an Urge for Cleanliness is to me just an expression to get things right and follow through to final details. This may have its side effects but is in principle a very laudable trait. Much that I see in Germany is an absolutely beautiful attention to the small minor aspects.

The building I am in high above the Rhein river has hundreds of such details that would make modern architects shrivel up...that could not possibly be done in this age. Free hanging staircases out of bevelled wood, stone steps leaving a central free column for a bellrope, a chapel built underneath a meeting room and over an archway...and all that as Beethoven was turning deaf, Chopin wrote some piano concertos and Brahms was busy not being born yet. In California, sneezing the wrong way will dent the neighbors sliding glass doors from Sears.

The waiter at the local restaurant has learned "waitering" in a three year apprenticeship, waiting to become a Meister at his craft. In L.A. I have yet to meet a waiter that wasn't more focused on a script than the fishfork, or one that could even identify one.

And such are the intellectuals on the scene here. They are not as loud and colorful. There aren´t as many billionaires to buy Leonardos. But they do go to the local "Kneipe" which is not the same as a "pub" since they don't just drink beer, real beer at that by the way, but they discuss and debate and argue and engage. The local village here by the Rhein river has barely a couple thousand souls and yet there are places that serve food after midnight and dancing till 5 am, when just in time the local bakeries open for breakfast. Did I mention the bread?

The Cultural Scene in a town like Cologne easily matches anything in the US anywhere. There are more museums, interactive art shows, theaters, plays, children and senior citizen events, classical concerts, ballet and multimedia events than you are likely to find in a city 15 times its size like LA. Aside from that, going to a midnight Vernissage in LA would let you take your life into your hands...I brought a dozen US designers and programmers with me and it was amazing to see their reactions and wonder. As I used to say it in various debates and keynotes in the US: "in this damn puritan fake society you can´t even show a nipple, unless someone is cutting it off with a razor blade at the time, then it´s ok..." And that was before I saw a wrestling event.

This place here has had 16:9 widescreens for a decade. Driving an S-class at 270 km/h on the Autobahn will make 55 mph on the way to Vegas feel like a very sad joke. I have had navigators in every rental Beamer and Merc since 98. My cellphone was half the size of the model "back home". I take a train, it comes every 12 minutes and it is on time. The fast ones go 220 km/h. I took my kids on an Amtrak to up the coast. LA-SB is 4 hours, three times the time by car.

Germany has comics that are ever bit as wild and witty as a Robin Williams, if not more so. There is machine gun speed and wit like "Otto" but also deep political satire like "Hüsch" and hundreds of shades between. Never heard of them...? Well its no wonder. The reason is simple: this stuff simply doesn't translate. Its like watching a Woody Allen movie in Irian Yaya or east Shanghai: without the voice and the New York context, it just loses everything. There are plenty of people that are, seriously, "World Famous" in Germany. Every bit as entrenched in the local culture alas, they cannot be exported. What strikes me as sad though is that this simple insight itself is not exported and the lack of English speaking German Standup Comics leads to this implied notion that the entire population is somehow stern and tough and worse yet "humorless". This is, to use a technical sociopsychpathological term, complete bullshit!

The point of non translation, both in language and therefore in awareness, is made with the implied statement that there are plenty of extremely creative people here, amazing artists, literate thinkers and innovative spirit at every level and in every shade of meaning. Its just that you may have never heard of them and maybe in some cases never will.

Its not all roses of course. IPO fever has hit the Neue Markt and there are now plenty of rambling etailers with b2b speeches about sticky eyeball solutions. The American LHF disease ("low hanging fruit") has rampaged through the ranks.

The "Old Money" also has "Old Knowledge". They are endangered species. Count von Suchandsuch can´t count on anyone to drag him onto the web. The schools are in dire need of new generations of teachers with new methods, tools and guidelines

The creative young spirits don't have the structures that built Silicon Valley.... in Silicologne Valley they are only beginning to talk about Angel investors and penny options for all early team members. Starting a corporation will set you back 50,000 Euro immediately: three students in Prague and 2 professors in Tyrolia may already fumble. But as I sit with the Chancellor discussing these stumbling blocks I sense that they are keenly aware that everything is about to change. They WANT to embrace that change. They KNOW that they don't know...

As I arrive here, in love with the notion of an ancient castle with monstrous walls and inside all plasma screens, digital monks meandering about, I cannot help but feel more at home than I do in my actual home of Santa Barbara.

There is something in the air, I used to explain to the Germans about California, and I didn't mean the smog. It is that "anything is possible", that you are reduced to the essence of what you bring to the party and if its good, you will succeed.

That as the American Dream appealed to me in my twenties. The twists of that and the shades of the American Nightmare appall me in my Forties. Still I am an Optimist, but I am lost between these worlds. I don't feel either German or American. Albert spent a considerable amount of time in the end thinking about a world government. Having felt a Citizen of the World all my life, I believe that the future incarnations of the Ultroid Web will get us there faster than any political structural changes. I do see a chance for a completely new kind of "digital democracy" so to speak, where all the ants in the ant hill suddenly have direct access to every aspect of their culture as well as each other.

The differences should not be between the US and Europe. They are between individuals that want to bring about change for the better and the ones that don't, both here and there. We have more in common than in difference.

Don´t label several hundred million people with that much history in their jeans as "they stopped thinking". Maybe they should start talking a bit more about the fact that they are thinking. I´ll mention it to them.

Schirrmacher did too, and I am grateful for it.

KAI KRAUSE, born 1957 in Germany, has a doctorate in philosophy, a masters in image processing, a patent for interface concepts, a Clio for the first StarTrek movie and a Davis Medal by the Royal British Photographical Society. Time magazine selected him as one of the 50 most influential thinkers of the next decade. His software was used for the Oscars and the Mars Mission, Issey Myake clothing and Playboy logos, an Absolut Kai ad and a few others. He wrote some filters for Photoshop, stuff for kids and programs to play with landscapes and human figures and then took the whole thing to Nasdaq in 95 for a few hundred million.

He is currently building a research lab in a castle on the Rhein river dubbed the Byteburg for applied innovation in all fields, as well as an Incubator for startups with the German government in a second castle near Cologne. He loves "Go and G̉del, Bach and Billiards, Escher and eclectic food. Tea and Tivo, new gadgets and old books, museums and symphonies.


From: Jason McCabe Calacanis
Date: July 7, 2000

Frank Schirrmacher's dispatch on the state of thinking and execution in Germany doesn't surprise me. While I'm not an expert on science, it does seem from my pedestrian perspective that the United States is clearly pushing the dialogue, as well as the envelope, on important topics of our time like nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics and the human genome. Topics which are, and will continue to, converge in our to time.

As for my personal focus (the Internet), I get the sense that Germany, along with all of Europe, is suffering from a general mental block, or perhaps sympathy pains, with regard to Internet development. When I speak with Internet entrepreneurs outside of the United States, the distinct feeling I'm struck with is that they believe that what has happened in the last five years in the United States is the gospel in regard to the dot-com world. As such, the prevailing thinking is to build knock offs of businesses that have worked in the United States Internet market (think: EBAY for Germany, EBAY for Spain, etc.), as well as financial models (i.e. angel investors, incubators, stock market roll-ups, etc.).

What non-U.S. markets have to realize is that the U.S. dot-com market is like some warped house of mirrors inhabited by a freak show. Figuring out why theglobe.com was worth billions and is now worth $50 million, or why the market rewards B2C one day and B2B the next, is like trying to figure out who's who when you've stumbled into the house of mirrors and you're looking at the reflections of the bearded lady and the world's smallest man after drinking three martinis.

Boo.com, Europe's biggest and shortest-lived dot-com play to date, is a result of buzz-word copycat thinkers mirroring the worst of U.S. dot-com models: raise lots of money, spend tons of it on advertising, and sell products at a loss in hopes of making it back in volume.

Sure Europeans need to study the United States market, but most importantly, they need to look at the core values of the Internet and evaluate them for themselves in relation to their market and culture. Every child in the United States plays with Legos at some point in their childhood. They are one of the longest and best-selling toys ever, and hail from a tiny, yet innovative country (Denmark), with a population that is a fraction of the size of the United States. That is how European dot commers need to think — Ian Clarke's advances with Freenet could be the first example.

JASON MCCABE CALACANIS is Editor and Publisher of Silicon Alley Daily; The Digital Coast Weekly, Silicon Alley Reporter and Chairman CEO, Rising Tide Studios.


From: Charles Simonyi
Date: July 10, 2000

To George Dyson:

George, as usual, is bringing incredible historical detail to the discussion. I would add two small morsels to this already sumptuous meal:

1. Leibnitz also had very practical ideas in mechanical computation: his invention, the "Leibnitz wheel" has been the basis for most mechanical decimal calculators and cash registers until very recently. Most devices where you had to perform an addition by "turning the crank" were based on this wheel which was really a gear with a variable number of teeth that could be set by slipping a keyway concentrically with the gear. So if you set the digit 2, the gear "grew" two teeth which later added two at the respective place when you turned the crank (you could also multiply by 3 by turning the crank 3 times. Subtraction was handled by turning backwards etc. etc.)

2. "Practical" mechanical binary computation had to wait for another German genius, Konrad Zuse who created his first binary computer out of tinplate in his parents kitchen. A reconstruction of his machine (c. 1936) is now at the Museum fuer Technik und Verkehr in Berlin. Some of his later relay-assisted machines are in the Deutsches Museum in Munich. You could not make a decimal computer out of tinplate: the tolerances would be a problem. The Zuse story is very exciting and would deserve much more exposure - even in the sociological sense, since Zuse, being mainly interested in structural stress calculations, approached the problem in an american way from the applications side - like Dan Bricklin did with VisiCalc - and not from the traditional European philosophical agonizing side.

To Kai Krause:

I have some differences of opinion and of emphasis with my dear friend Kai. (Btw. there is a very nice article on Kai's Byteburg in one of the latest issues of Der Spiegel).

Unlike Kai, I am completely (and legally) separated from Hungary, the country where I was born and grew up. When I return to Europe, I feel like a tourist, and I can hardly wait to get back here and have a really good shower (OK, so I have a German showerhead and mixing valve in my house).

Kai mentions how the waiter in a small German village has been an apprentice for three years, as opposed to the waiters in LA who are more interested in scripts than in fishforks.

I am not sure if being great waiters is part of the solution - I rather guess it may be part of the problem. I fear the scenario - which I've heard first in England - that Europe may become a Disneyland - not in the sense of Eurodisney park, but literally: Venice becomes "Venice", Paris becomes "Paris" and so on, where the rest of the world will go to experience what we think Venice and Paris should be. I think LA has the more survivable idea: waiting on tables is just a temporary stage in life, a little like military service, and one should focus on ideas and software - which is what movie scripts are. And if fishforks disappear into museums that is tough - in any case my dining in LA has always been just fine.

I feel sick in Copenhagen, when I engage the saleslady in the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain outlet in an endless transaction over some simple plates and cups. She may have the best education in the world, unlike American students she definitely knows where Finland is, and she may speak four languages fluently but she is really performing $0.001 worth of computation during our transaction not to mention using my time. This is not a healthy state of affairs.

I believe that Kai is an extremely positive force in bringing much-needed dynamism to Europe. All I am saying is that the American dynamism is a very complex ecosystem and the various "third-way" filters of taking X and rejecting Y will not necessarily work.

Kai, I hope we can travel one day through the American countryside and have a really good time.

CHARLES SIMONYI, Chief Architect, Microsoft Corporation, joined Microsoft in 1981 to start the development of microcomputer application programs. He hired and managed teams who developed Microsoft Excel, Multiplan, Word, and other applications. In 1991, he moved on to Microsoft Research where he focused on Intentional Programming, an ecology for abstractions which strives for maximal reuse of components by separating high level intentions from implementation detail.

Before coming to Microsoft, Simonyi worked at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center developing Bravo, the first WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor. Born in Budapest, Hungary, Simonyi holds a BS degree in engineering mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford.


From: Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
Date: July 11, 2000

Why do these recent manifestoes (cf. Gelertner, Schirrmacher) make me so uneasy? They have such a deterministic tone, such an aura of fanatic certainty. It is true that if you believe that AI and genetic engineering hold the keys to the future, we are likely to act out these scenarios, and so they will become self-fulfilling prophecies. At least in the short run, our savings invested in mutual funds and pension plans financing dot-com and gen-tech startups will make some visionary entrepreneurs rich for a while (and the rest of us poorer). But there are other scenarios, other possibilities, that we could make come true if we refused to settle for the obvious.

The past century has seen the realization of two deterministic manifestoes, both bravely revolutionary and in retrospect both sadly wrong. Marx's Communist Manifesto claimed to be the inevitable voice of history - and for at least half a century a sizeable part of the world acted as if it believed in its truth. Has the life of our species been improved as a result?

Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto has been all but forgotten, but in some ways its vision has become more a part of our lives than Marx's has. We worship speed, power, the ruthless pursuit of individual expression - the "inevitable" march of material progress envisioned by the futurists almost a hundred years ago, and that so easily dovetailed with fascist ideology. Are we really better off as a result?

Those who try to convince us that certain lines of progress (technological, political, social) are inevitable, do so as propagandists for a future that they want us to help them enact. Like with any other sales pitch, one's first reaction should be to reach and protect one's wallet - figuratively speaking. Of course, most zealots of technology sincerely believe that they are the mouthpieces of progress, prophets of the future. But that does not necessarily make them right.

I am sorry to hear that FAZ, a bastion of sanity in the global journalistic free-fall, has decided to join the trend without considering alternatives. In future scenarios worth implementing, technology can be a vital means, but cannot be the final goal. It is such points as those raised by Krause and Myers that need to be seriously factored in. These will not have the mythic appeal that technology currently enjoys, but isn't it time to face reality instead of indulging in seductive dreams?

MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI (pronounced "chick-SENT-me high"), a Hungarian-born polymath and the Davidson Professor of Management at the Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California has been thinking about the meaning of happiness since a child in wartime Europe.

His research and theories in the psychology of optimal experience have revolutionized psychology, and have been adopted in practice by national leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as well as top members of the global executive elite who run the world's major corporations. Csikzentmihalyi is the author of several popular books about his theories, the bestselling Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, The Evolving Self: A Psychology For the Third Millennium, Creativity, and Finding Flow (Masterminds Series).The Wall Street Journal has llisted Flow among the six books "every well-stocked business library should have."


From: J.C. Herz
Date: July 11, 2000

To Cliff Pickover:

Here's a question to ask of the Edge readers: "What are viable correlators of technological creativity in a society?" Who knows maybe we will find a direct correlation of TC with readership of mind—numbing SF authors such as Greg Egan, Robert Sawyer, Neal Stephenson, or Stephen Baxter? Or maybe there is a correlation with the religious makeup or age demographics of a country, or the percentage of people speaking English, or some other odd factor.

Or perhaps just youth — the spiritual and psychological youth of a culture. The European criticism of America is that Americans are children — novelty-obsessed, easily distracted, naive, and materialistic. But that's probably what drives a lot of technological innovation in this country. We're novelty-obsessed (another gadget, ooh cool, gimme!), easily distracted (this business plan's looking kind of stale, hey, that looks interesting), naive (pipedream.com — to infinity and beyond!) and materialistic (stock options, anyone?).

When it comes to cultures, and people, the best thing and the worst thing are usually the same thing.

To Kai Krause:

The building I am in high above the Rhein river has hundreds of such details that would make modern architects shrivel up...that could not possibly be done in this age. Free hanging staircases out of bevelled wood, stone steps leaving a central free column for a bellrope, a chapel built underneath a meeting room and over an archway...

Yes — the Beauty Thing. Hard to argue against beauty. But this relates also to one's time horizon (which also has to do with one's age). If you have an idea of hundreds or thousands of years of past, then you can also imagine that what you're building will last hundreds or thousands of years into the future (this is why The Long Now is more necessary and redeeming in the States than it would be in Europe). If you're building in that frame of mind, you don't mind spending more or taking longer, because you're building something to last. If you can't see beyond the next quarter, what's the point? Throw up a prefab office complex, set up some cubicles, it's all disposable anyway so make it cheap. The only man-made beauty is in throwaway things, the cheap, transient things (we have the best coffee cup lids in this country). Which is sad. On the other hand, we do have the Grand Canyon.

The waiter at the local restaurant has learned "waitering" in a three year apprenticeship, waiting to become a Meister at his craft. In L.A. I have yet to meet a waiter that wasn't more focused on a script than the fishfork, or one that could even identify one.

But they have those cute name tags! And they recite the specials with so much verve! In all fairness though, one must take into account the general surliness of Gallic waitstaff in this comparison, and consider that the three year waitering apprenticeship is a sign of severe European underemployment and skewed government training subsidies.

But they do go to the local "Kneipe" which is not the same as a "pub" since they don't just drink beer, real beer at that by the way, but they discuss and debate and argue and engage.

You mean you can do that offline? It's inarguable though, this is one area where Europe is clearly superior: strangers do actually converse and engage in public space rather than just veg in deluxe home theaters. They argue about politics, whereas we clearly couldn't give a damn, as long as the stock market's doing well. We prefer to argue about the things that count: celebrity trivia. Unless there's some kind of juicy sex scandal in Washington, in which case we're all over it, while in Europe, they shrug.

To Jason Calacanis:

While I'm not an expert on science, it does seem from my pedestrian perspective that the United States is clearly pushing the dialogue, as well as the envelope, on important topics of our time like nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics and the human genome.

There is a deeper issue about the difference between science and technology. We're willing to commit massive sums of money to the latter (stock market upside) but are spending less and less on the basic research that underpins all this golly wow technological innovation. Let's not forget the European contributions to science — real science in the search-for-truth sense — at CERN and elsewhere (cloning happened in Scotland, not Palo Alto). Ultimately, that may be Europe's real contribution: the staying power, concentration span and intellectual sophistication (all grown-up qualities) to plough through the hard theoretical work. Whether they can capitalize on this is another issue.

Boo.com, Europe's biggest and shortest-lived dot-com play to date, is a result of buzzword copycat thinkers mirroring the worst of U.S. dot-com model.

Combined with the worst of European/British smug condemnation of someone with the temerity to rise above their station — it was unbelievable how the British tabloids piled on to kick the corpse, and the stigma instantly attached to everyone involved, who, it was assumed, would quickly scuttle off with their tails between their legs to live a life of quiet ignominy with scarlet "F"s tatooed to their foreheads. Scared the daylights out of anyone even contemplating a web-based business of any sort ("Don't try, you might fail in which case you will be publicly humiliated and punished — look what happened to Boo! Run away!"). There was a pervasive sense that these people were getting what they deserved, not for running a boneheaded business, but for aspiring in the first place.

Never would have happened in the States — we can't sustain that level of schadenfreude. Our collective response to the DEN bankruptcy (an equally boneheaded business failure): "Oh, duuuuuude, like...bummer." Another dot.com moved into the empty space in a matter of weeks — but not before performing a New Age hippie exorcism to get the bad juju out of the cheap carpeting.

Hope springs eternal in California. The worst thing and the best thing are usually the same thing.

J.C. HERZ is the author of Joystick Nation : How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds and Surfing on the Internet, which was described by William Gibson as "post-geographical travel writing."

She was the New York Times' first computer game critic and is now producing a documentary on the history of videogames for PBS. J.C. serves on the National Research Council's committee on Creativity and Information Technology.


From: Lee Smolin
Date: June 12, 2000

I am intrigued by the mention of Leibniz by George Dyson and Charles Simonyi. Let me add that it was Leibniz who first articulated the relational conception of space and time which has since been vindicated by general relativity and underlies much of the recent progress in quantum gravity.

I would like then to sharpen the US/Europe debate by asking where in the world a young Leibniz would find an appropriate position today. It is unlikely that a young Leibniz of today would be a cyberguru, rather she or he is a guru for technologies yet univented, for which there will likely be no market for a long time to come. It is very easy to recognize astounding talent when someone works within the domain of an already established research program, or contributes to the development of a technology in great demand. But how well do we do with someone like Leibniz, who is more likely to invent a whole new field than to contribute to one already started?

Despite the very real and obvious strengths of American science, it is hard to imagine a young Leibniz finding a good academic position in the US in the present climate. She or he would suffer from having no connections to well established and well funded research programs, without which it is difficult to guarantee funding. Without this it is essentially impossible to convince a dean to hire someone, even if a department is in favor. Moreover, while there is a lot of talk about interdisciplanarity, on the part of agencies such as the NSF as well as universities, in all cases I know of where there was interest in someone on the part of several departments (chemistry, computer science, physics, biology, in one case I know of) the effort eventually foundered. It is true that a number of truly original and broad scientists with their own research directions now in their 50s and 60s secured academic positions in the US (I am thinking of Per Bak, David Finkelstein, Stuart Kauffman, Lynn Margulis, Roger Penrose...) but a version of any of these people in their 20s would not be an easy case for a hire at a major US research university in the present climate.

There is certainly more interest in and support for these kinds of original thinkers in the universities of several European countries. It seems clear that this is due to the greater respect that Europeans have for independent thinking. as well as the fact that the governance of most European universities is more democratic.

Each major European country has, however, a major flaw in their academic system compared to the US, which has resulted in a steady drain of talent across the Atlantic. In Germany there is the very wasteful idea that a scientist doesn't need a secure position until their mid-40s, at the earliest. In France, on the other hand, a selection between those who will have a permanent research position and those who can never have one is made too early, on the basis of very competitive examinations, before most have done any research. In the UK the salaries are too low by a factor of 2 so that more than one in four of the members of the Royal Society work outside the country and lecturers can't afford to live in London. The scientists of other countries like Italy are struggling to reform the traditional system by which academic advancement is controlled by a small number of politically powerful professors.

It is a worrying fact that on both sides of the Atlantic a number of the most original scientists choose not to have academic positions (Julian Barbour, Danny Hillis, Stuart Kauffman, Walter Fontana, Jaron Lanier, James Lovelock...). They believe that going independent, even with all its uncertainties, is more conducive to doing original science than putting up with the increasing focus, on both sides of the Atlantic, on big science, as well as the continuing transition of universities from incubators of original thought into heavily managed beauracracies. At the very least, the academy fails for not enlisting such people as teachers and mentors for young scientists.

There will always remain some amount of flexibility and free space in the universities, but there is no doubt that the universities on both sides of the ocean are become less hospitable to the likes of someone like Leibniz. I believe that if any country, on either side of the ocean, were to take on the reform of their academic system, with the aim of identifying and supporting those young people who think creatively and independently, but still do science of the highest quality, that country would see tremendous benefits both culturally and economically.

LEE SMOLIN is a theoretical physicist; professor of physics and member of the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at Pennsylvania State University; author of The Life of The Cosmos.


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