What Questions Have Disappeared?

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Leon Lederman

"Does God play dice?" (...first asked by Albert Einstein some time in the 30's.)

Like mathematics whose symbols can represent physical properties when applied to some scientific problem, God is a convenient symbol for nature, for the way the world works. Einstein's reaction of utter incredibility to the quantum theory from its development in the late 20's until his death in 1955, was echoed by colleagues who had participated in the early creation of the quantum revolution, which Richard Feynman had termed the most radical theory ever.

Well does she?

The simplest example of what sure looks like God playing dice happens when you walk past a store window on a sunny day. Of course you are not just admiring your posture and checking your attire, you are probably watching the guy undressing the manikin, but that is another story.

So how do you see yourself, albeit dimly, while the manikin abuser sees you very clearly? Everyone knows that light is a stream of photons, here from the sun, some striking your nose, then reflected in all directions. We focus on two photons heading for the window. We'll need thousands to get a good picture but two will do for a start. One penetrates the window and impacts the eye of the manikin dresser. The second is reflected from the store window and hits your eye, a fine picture of a good looking pedestrian! What determines what the photons will do? The photons are me. Philosophers of science assure us that identical experiments give identical results.

Not so!

The only rational conclusion would seem to be that she plays dice at each impact of the photon. Using a die with 10 faces, good enough for managing this bit of the world, numbers one to nine determine that the photon goes through, a ten and the photon is reflected. Its random...a matter of probability.

Dress this concept up in shiny mathematics and we have quantum science which underlies physics, most of chemistry and molecular biology. It now accounts for 43.7% of our GNP. (this is consistent with 87.1% of all numbers being made up.)

So what was wrong with Einstein and his friends? Probabilistic nature which is applicable to the world of atoms and smaller, has implications which are bizarre, spooky, wierd. Granting that it works, Einstein could not accept it and hoped for a deeper explanation. Today, many really smart physicists are are seeking a kinder, gentler formulation but 99.3% of working physicists go along with the notion that she is one hell-of-a crap shooter.

LEON M. LEDERMAN , the director emeritus of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, has received the Wolf Prize in Physics (1982), and the Nobel Prize in Physics (1988). In 1993 he was awarded the Enrico Fermi Prize by President Clinton. He is the author of several books, including (with David Schramm) From Quarks to the Cosmos : Tools of Discovery, and (with Dick Teresi) The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?

Dave Winer

"What's your business model?"

Until this summer this was the most common question at Silicon Valley parties, at bus stops, conferences and grocery stores. Everyone had a business model, none planned to make money, all focused on the exit strategy.

The euphoria attracted a despicable kind carpetbagger, one who wanted nothing more than money, and had a disdain for technology. All of a sudden technology was out of fashion in Silicon Valley.

Now that the dotcom crash seems permanent, entrepreneurs are looking for real ways to make money. No more vacuous "business models." VCs are hunkering down for a long haul. The average IQ of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is zooming to its former stratospheric levels. There's a genuine excitement here now, but if you ask what the business model is you're going to get a boring answer.

Silicon Valley goes in cycles. Downturns are a perfect time to dig in, listen to users, learn what they want, and create the technology that scratches the itch, and plan on selling it for money.

DAVE WINER, CEO UserLand Software, Inc.

Lance Knobel

"Are you hoping for a girl or a boy?"

The moment of birth used to be attended by an answer to a nine-month mystery: girl or boy? Now, to anyone with the slightest curiosity and no mystical scruples, simple, non-invasive technology can provide the answer from an early stage of pregnancy. With both of our children, we chose to know the answer (in the UK about half of parents want to know), and I suspect the likelihood of the question continuing to be asked will diminish rapidly.

What's interesting is this is the first of many questions about the anticipated child that will soon not be asked. These will range from the trivial (eye colour, mature height) to the important (propensity to certain diseases and illnesses). The uneasiness many people still have about knowing the sex of the child suggests that society is vastly unprepared for the pre-birth answers to a wide range of questions.

LANCE KNOBEL is a managing director of Vesta Group, an Internet and wireless investment company based in London. He was formerly head of the programme of the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos and Editor-in-Chief of World Link.

Rick Potts

"How do societies function and change?"

The general question of how human societies operate, and how they change, was once a central feature of theory-building in anthropology. The question — at least significant progress in answering the question — has largely disappeared at the emergent, large-scale level ("society" or "culture") originally defined by the social sciences.

Over the past three decades, behavioral biology and studies of gene-culture coevolution have made some important theoretical advances in the study of human social behavior. However, the concepts of inclusive fitness, reciprocal altruism, memes, coevolution, and related ideas have yet to effectively penetrate the question of how large-scale cultural institutions — political, economic, religious, legal, and other systems — function, stay the same, or change.

The strong inclination toward bottom-up explanations, which account for human social phenomena in terms of lower-level individual behaviors and epigenetic rules — implies either that social institutions (and thus how they function and change) are only epiphenomena, thus less worthy of investigating than the genetic bases of behavior and evolutionary psychology; or that cultural systems and institutions do exist — they function and change at a level of complexity above human psychology, decision-making, and epigenetic rules — but have largely been forgotten by certain fields purporting to study and to explain human social behavior.

RICHARD POTTS is Director of The Human Origins Program, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. He is the author of Humanity's Descent : The Consequences of Ecological Instability and a presenter, with Stephen Jay Gould, of a videotape, Tales of the Human Dawn.

Jordan Pollack

"Should the right to own property be preserved?"

For all of history, humans traded objects, then traded currency for objects, with the idea that when you buy some thing, you own it. This most fundamental human right — the right to own — is under attack again. Only this time, the software industry, not the followers of Karl Marx, are responsible.

In the last 15 years of the information age, we discovered that every object really has three separable components: the informational content, delivered on a physical medium, governed by the license, a social or legal contract governing the rights to use the thing. It used to be that the tangible media token (the thing) both held the content, and (via possession) enforced the common understanding of the "ownership" license. Owners have rights to a thing — to trade it, sell it, loan it, rent it, destroy it, donate it, paint it, photograph it, or even chop it up to sell in pieces.

For a book, the content is the sequence of words themselves, which may be rendered as ink scratches on a medium of paper bound inside cardboard covers. For song it is a reproduction of the audio pattern pressed into vinyl or plastic to be released by a reading device. The license - to own all rights but copy rights — was enforced simply by possession of the media token, the physical copy of the book or disk itself. If you wanted to, you could buy a book, rip it into separate pages, and sell each page individually. You can slice a vinyl record into individual song rings for trade.

For software, content is the evolving bits of program and data arranged to operate on some computer. Software can be delivered in paper, magnetic, optical, or silicon form, or can be downloaded from the internet, even wirelessly. Software publishers know the medium is completely irrelevant, except to give the consumer the feeling of a purchase.

Even though you had the feeling of trading money for something, your really don't own the software you paid for. The license clearly states that you don't. You are merely granted a right to use the information, and the real owner can terminate your license at will, if you criticize him in public. Moreover, you cannot resell the software, you cannot take a "suite" apart into working products to sell each one separately. You cannot rent it or loan it to a friend. You cannot look under the hood to try to fix it when it breaks. You don't actually own anything but exchanged your money for a "right to use", and those rights can be arbitrarily dictated, and then rendered worthless by the very monopoly you got it from, forcing you to pay again for something you felt you had acquired last year.

There is no fundamental difference between software, recordings, and books. E-books are not sold, but licensed, and Secure Music will be available in a pay-per-download format. Inexorably driven by more lucrative profits from rentals, I predict that within a couple of decades, you will no longer be able to "buy" a new book or record. You will not be able to "own" copies. This may not seem so nefarious, as long as you have easy access to the "celestial jukebox" and can temporarily download a "read-once" license to any entertainment from private satellites. Your children will have more room in their homes and offices without the weight of a lifetime collection of books and recordings.

What are humans when stripped of our libraries? And it won't stop with books.

For an automobile, the content is the blueprint, the organization of mechanisms into stylistic and functional patterns which move, built out of media such as metals, pipes, hoses, leather, plastic, rubber, and fluids. Because of the great expense of cloning a car, Ford doesn't have to spell out the licensing agreement: You own it until it is lost, sold, or stolen. You can rent it, loan it, sell it, take it apart, and sell the radio, tires, engine, carburetor, etc. individually.

But the license agreement can be changed! And when Ford discovers the power of UCITA, you will have to pay an annual fee for a car you don't own, which will blow up if you fail to bring it in or pay your renewal fee. And you will find that you cannot resell your car on an open secondary market, but can only trade it in to the automobile publisher for an upgrade.

Without an effort to protect the right to own, we may wake up to find that there is nothing left to buy.

JORDAN POLLACK, a computer science and complex systems professor at Brandeis, works on AI, Artificial Life, Neural Networks, Evolution, Dynamical Systems, Games, Robotics, Machine Learning, and Educational Technology. He is a prolific inventor, advises several startup companies and incubators, and in his spare time runs Thinmail, a service designed to enhance the usefulness of wireless email.

Kevin Kelly

"What is the nature of our creator?"

This question was once entertained by the educated and non-educated alike, but is now out of fashion among the learned, except in two small corners of intellectual life. One corner is religious theology, which many scientists would hardly consider a legitimate form of inquiry at this time. In fact it would not be an exaggeration to say that modern thinking considers this question as fit only for the religious, and that it has no part in the realm of science at all. But even among the religious this question has lost favor because, to be honest, theology hasn't provided very many satisfactory answers for modern sensibilities, and almost no new answers in recent times. It feels like a dead end. A question that cannot be asked merely by musing in a book-lined room.

The other corner where this question is asked — but only indirectly — is in particle physics and cosmology. We get hints of answers here and there mainly as by-products of other more scientifically specific questions, but very few scientists set out to answer this question primarily. The problem here is that because the question of the nature of our creator is dismissed as a religious question, and both of these sciences require some of the most expensive equipment in the world paid by democracies committed to separation of church and state, it won't do to address the question directly.

But there is a third way of thinking emerging that may provide a better way to ask this question. This is the third culture of technology. Instead of asking this question starting from the human mind contemplating the mysteries of God, as humanists and theologists do, or starting from experiment, observation, and testing as scientists do, the third way investigates the nature of our creator by creating creations. This is the approach of nerds and technologists. Technologists are busy creating artificial worlds, virtual realities, artificial life, and eventually perhaps, parallel universes, and in this process they explore the nature of godhood. When we make worlds, what are the various styles of being god? What is the relation to the creator and the created? How does one make laws that unfold creatively? How much of what is created can be created without a god? Where is god essential? Sometimes there are theories (theology) but more often this inquiry is driven by pure pragmatic engineering: "We are as gods and may as well get good at it," to quote Stewart Brand.

While the third way offers a potential for new answers, more than the ways of the humanities or science, the truth is that even here this question — of the nature of our creator — is not asked directly very much. This really is a question that has disappeared from public discourse, although of course, it is asked every day by billions of people silently.

KEVIN KELLY is a founding editor of Wired magazine. In 1993 and 1996, under his co-authorship, Wired won it's industry's Oscar — The National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Prior to the launch of Wired , Kelly was editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Review, a journal of unorthodox technical and cultural news. He is the author of New Rules for the New Economy; and Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World.

David Gelernter

"How should adult education work? How do we educate the masses? (That's right, The Masses.)...."

How should adult education work? How do we educate the masses? (That's right, The Masses.) How do we widen the circle of people who love and support great art, great music, great literature? How do we widen the circle of adults who understand the science and engineering that our modern world is built on? How do we rear good American citizens? Or for that matter good German citizens, or Israeli or Danish or Chilean? And if this is the information age, why does the population at large grow worse-informed every year? (Sorry — that last one isn't a question people have stopped asking; they never started.)

These questions have disappeared because in 2001, the "educated elite" never goes anywhere without its quote-marks. Here in America's fancy universities, we used to believe that everyone deserved and ought to have the blessings of education. Today we believe our children should have them — and to make up for that fact, to even the score, we have abolished the phrase. No more "blessings of education." That makes us feel better. Many of us can't say "truth and beauty" without snickering like 10-year-old boys.

But the situation will change, as soon as we regain the presence of mind to start asking these questions again. We have the raw materials on hand for the greatest cultural rebirth in history. We have the money and the technical means. We tend to tell our children nowadays (implicitly) that their goal in life is to get rich, get famous and lord it over the world. We are ashamed to tell them that what they really ought to be is good, brave and true. (In fact I am almost ashamed to type it.) This terrible crisis of confidence we're going through was probably inevitable; at any rate it's temporary, and if we can't summon the courage to tell our children what's right, my guess is that they will figure it out for themselves, and tell us. I'm optimistic.

DAVID GELERNTER, Professor of Computer Science at Yale University and author of Mirror Worlds, The Muse in the Machine, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, and Drawiing a Life: Surviving the Unabomber.

Tor Norretranders

"Who are we?"

In the not so distant future we will have to revive the question about who and what we are.

We will have to, not because we choose to do so, but because the question will be posed to us by Others or Otherness: Aliens, robots, mutants, and the like.

New phenomena like information processing artifacts, computational life forms, bioengineered humans, upgraded animals and pen-pals in space will force us to consider ourselves and our situation: Why didn't we finish hunger on this planet? Are we evil or just idiots? Why do we really want to rebuild ourselves? Do we regain our soul when the tv-set is turned off?

It's going to happen like this: We build a robot. It turns towards us and says: "If technology is the answer then what was the question?"

TOR NORRETRANDERS is a science writer, consultant, lecturer and organizer based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was recently appointed Chairman of the National Council for Competency.

Marek Kohn

"What about the workers?"

It may have been uttered as often in caricature as in anger, but the voice from the crowd asked a question that was accepted as reasonable even by those who winced at the jeering tone. Until fifteen or twenty years ago, the interest-earning and brain-working classes generally felt that they owed something to the workers, for doing the drudgery needed to keep an industrialised society going. And it was taken for granted that the workers were a class, with collective interests of their own. In some instances — British miners, for example — they enjoyed considerable respect and a romantic aura. Even in the United States, where perhaps the question was not put quite the same way, the sentiments were there.

Now there is an underclass of dangerous and hopeless folk, an elite of the fabulous and beautiful, and everybody in between is middle class. Meritocracy is taken for granted, bringing with it a perspective that sees only individuals, not groups. There are no working classes, only low-grade employees. In a meritocracy, respect is due according to the rank that an individual has attained. And since achievement is an individual matter, those at the upper levels see no reason to feel they owe anything to those at lower ones. This state of affairs will probably endure until such time that people cease to think of their society as a meritocracy, with its upbeat tone of progress and fairness, and start to feel that they are living in a Red Queen world, where they have to run ever faster just to stay in the same place.

MAREK KOHN'S most recent book, published last year, is As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind. His other books include The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science and Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground. He writes a weekly column on digital culture, Second Site, for the London Independent on Sunday.

Joseph LeDoux

"How do our brains become who we are?"

Many neuroscientists, myself included, went into brain research because of an interest in the fact that our brains make us who we are. But the topics we end up working on are typically more mundane. It's much easier to research the neural basis of perception, memory or emotion than the way perceptual, memory, and emotion systems are integrated in the process of encoding who we are. Questions about the neural basis of personhood, the self, have never been at the forefront of brain science, and so are not, strictly speaking, lost questions to the field. But they are lost questions for those of us who were drawn to neuroscience by an interest in them, and then settle for less when overcome with frustration over the magnitude of the problem relative to the means we have for solving it. But questions about the self and the brain may not be as hard to address as they seem. A simple shift in emphasis from issues about the way the brain typically works in all of us to the way it works in individuals would be an important entry point. This would then necessitate that research on cognitive processes, like perception or memory, take subjects' motivations and emotions into consideration, rather than doing everything possible to eliminate them. Eventually, researchers would study perception, memory, or emotion less as isolated brain functions than as activities that, when integrated, contribute to the real function of the brain-- the creation and maintenance of the self.

JOSEPH LEDOUX is a Professor of Neural Science at New York University. He is author of The Emotional Brain.

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John Brockman, Editor and Publisher

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