Third Culture

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59 contributions

47,800 words
Richard Rabkin
Derrick de Kerckhove
Margaret Wertheim
Kevin Kelly
Paul W. Ewald
Roger Schank
Steven Strogatz
J. Doyne Farmer
Esther Dyson
David Berreby
Sylvia Paull
Julian Brown
Jordan Pollack
Cliff Barney
Jay Ogilvy
Timothy Taylor
The Editors of Nature
Mary Catherine Bateson
Richard Dawkins
Robert Axelrod
David Farber 
Geoffrey Miller
Freeman Dyson
Robert Provine
Jaron Lanier
Timothy Taylor
Joel Garreau
George Dyson
John McCarthy
Chris Stringer
Steve Grand
Robert Aunger
David G. Myers
Piet Hut
John Maddox
Keith Devlin
Frank Schirrmacher
M. Csikszentmihalyi
Todd Feinberg
Martin Rees
Douglas Rushkoff
Michael Nesmith
Tor Nørretranders
Bruce Sterling
George Lakoff
Nicholas Humphrey
Peter Von Sivers
Cliff Pickover
James O'Donnell
Colin Tudge
Karl Sabbagh
Luyen Chou
Yossi Vardi
Todd Siler
Roger Schank



You can read the individual responses to this Edge Question, which are linked to the excerpts below. and presented in the order of most recent first. Or, click on the "Printer version", for a printable file containing all the responses to date.

Marvin Minsky: I agree with much of the rest of what David Deutsch says — but I feel that he has missed Dawkins' point: that one way that we can defend ourselves is by finding ways to reduce the huge numbers of people who have been trained to follow charismatic leaders by suspending their critical thinking and commonsense.

Now that especially applies to religious people, especially from the more orthodox sects. And of course, again, there are exceptions — but a very large proportion of people on this planet do grow up in "faith-based" sects.
.... [click here]

David Farber: After the tragic attack of September 11th, the Bush administration is calling for, and receiving, increased powers to listen to our conversations, monitor our e-mail, see who and where we visit in cyberspace — all with the stated intention of protecting us from terrorists. I could fill this column with the implications of the mechanisms that have been proposed for aiding law enforcement. As with any legislative mechanism behind which there is so little technical understanding, many of the changes may create greater dangers than they hope to eliminate. I would like, however, to focus on the security of the basic communications infrastructure we count on. .... [click here]

David Deutsch: It is not true that the recent attacks on the US were motivated by a state of mind similar to that which is currently motivating the Western response. The Western stance — and even Western mistakes, including appeasement and moral relativism — are driven fundamentally by respect for human beings, human choices and human life. Western values are life-affirming and life-seeking. The murderers worship death. There is no symmetry between life and death.

There is no "cycle of violence" that we have to "break" by making the murderers and their sympathisers feel less angry with us. Their anger is unjustified: To cleanse the Arabian peninsula of non-Muslims is an immoral aim, violating the human rights both of non-Muslim residents and of Muslims who wish to associate with them (and, perhaps more pertinently, to seek their assistance in defending themselves). To cleanse Israel of Jews is an aspiration similar in kind but much more evil both in its racist motivation and in its intention to destroy an entire nation. To replace secular or less-than-fundamentalist governments by religious fundamentalist ones in all Islamic countries is an utterly tyrannical agenda. And there is a fourth unjustified 'grievance' that goes implicitly with those three: they demand the right to punish the West, by mass murder, with impunity, if anyone in the West opposes them in pursuing any of those other 'grievances'. .... [click here]

Mark Stahlman: Not understanding that North and South are merely antipodes of a common "environmental field" — as we so surely understand — these people-from-a distant-time wouldn't have grasped that they were both committed to the same environment. Earth. They wouldn't have comprehended that they were all dependent on both the North and the South . . . neither of which could exist without the other. ...How does this relate to the Edge question, "What Now?" .... [click here]

Richard Rabkin: I think I should contribute something from the "strategic" point of view to the "what now?" discussion since it seems to be sadly missing, or, perhaps, simply obvious to all.... [click here]

Derrick de Kerckhove: The other biggest mistake made by the same token is to have given bin Laden a huge PR effect by affording him the dignity of the enemy. Declaring war — even on "terrorism" was disastrously wrong, not only at the military level (how do you fight an enemy without an army?), but much much more at the symbolical level (the one that counts for the perpetrators of the September 11th massacre) because it immediately elevated a bunch of criminals to a heightened status, and provided Bin Ladin with the only military power he and the Taliban have, that is to be recognized officially as an opponent worthy of huge media attention and also have access to the minds of millions who see him as a hero and not as a terrorist.... [click here]

Margaret Wertheim: Science, like religion, is a double edged sword — neither inherently good nor inherently evil, but rather a tool in the hands of its users. If Osama bin Laden's fundamentalist brand of Islam is a perversion of that fairth, I would suggest that so too it is a perversion of the "faith" of science to lend that faith to the production of landmines, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weapons and other such attrocties of war. If we in the scientific community can send any message at this time of crisis I suggest it should be that our "faith" will not be co-opted to the service of mass destruction. ....[click here]

Kevin Kelly: The Taliban are kind of like Nazis to the Afghanis, but we should remember that while the Nazis had resistance and passive obedience among the Germans, they also had supporters. And so do the Taliban. But it's true most of the Afghanis, like the Germans, are just getting screwed. ...[click here]

Paul W. Ewald: The puppet masters who orchestrated the September 11th attack might be as strategically suicidal as many people make them out to be. That assumption leads to an oft-mentioned scenario for this episode of our history. They destroy a symbol of free enterprise and thousands of civilians. We get mad and blow them away. End of story....[click here]

Roger C. Schank: The U.S. is the most highly educated and highly entertained country on earth. We export entertainment. All around the world, people, watch American television and see the latest Hollywood movies. But, instead of exporting education we import the best and brightest of every country, educate them in the U.S, and keep them here. The time has come to seriously consider how we can create an education industry to rival the entertainment industry....[click here]

Steven Strogatz: Several newspapers have called me to ask how many handshakes separate us from someone who worked in the WTC. Using the sociologists' best estimate of about 300 acquaintances per person in the US, and assuming no overlap in anyone's friendship circles (very crude but no one knows how to do better), I estimate that about 1 in 20 of us knows someone who worked in WTC....[click here]

J. Doyne Farmer: If we are to avert even worse disasters, we need to understand what caused the events of Sept. 11. It's clear that Osama bin Laden is a really bad guy, and these were really misguided people, and we need to do something about disabling them in the future. But if we are to ever return to a more lasting state of peace, we have to address the root causes of terrorism. The best method to control something is to understand how it works....[click here]

Esther Dyson: Where were you? In years to come, everyone will remember where they were on Sept. 11, 2001... I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, with people who had every reason to be grateful to America and Americans: I was speaking at a conference of men and women engaged in bringing democracy and open markets to the post-Soviet world, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development. ...[click here]

David Berreby: I take your "what now?" question literally — what should "we" do — the people reading and writing these? Not "we" the political entities of the West or "we" the heirs of civilization. It strikes me that in these times, the answer is actually quite clear, and it has to do with the great flexibility of that concept of "we."...[click here]

Sylvia Paull: One must ask what role women have played since September 11, and it seems to me that our voice has been lost....[click here]

Julian Brown: As the guardians of reasoned thought, scientists have a special responsibility in impressing on the wider public the distinction between the rationality of science and the irrationality of religion....[click here]

Julian Pollack: My "What now?" question is whether we can ever overcome our own mass psychology. Can humanity achieve group adaptation at the cognitive level? ...[click here]

Cliff Barney: I do not think you can discuss the bombings and not talk about mideast policy and a lot of other social issues. Kevin Kelly is quite right, the bombings have nothing to do with technology; they are about social rage and pain. This is my hard-edged comment after many years of feeling some of that pain as I watched the brutal politics that produced it. ...[click here]

James Ogilvy: Scenarios can provide anticipatory disaster relief, a way of avoiding trouble by rehearsing futures in our minds so we don't have to live them as fact. Alternatively, scenarios can inspire us to raise our sights. By imagining positive outcomes, we can see more clearly the steps that will be necessary to get there. ...[click here]

Timothy Taylor: When Martin Heidegger famously observed that 'science does not think' he was referring (in part) to the fact that it does not, of itself, supply a system of values. Thus the perversion of science known as Lysenkoism occurred (also in part) because the USSR, in becoming as wholly atheistical as Richard Dawkins, lost the touchstones of ethics, truth, and humility. ...[click here]

The Editors of Nature: Perhaps the least to be expected of those in a position to make a difference is some reflection on the roles of science in the cultures and societies caught up in this conflict. How might contacts between scientists and between scientific organizations, of a sort that proved valuable during the cold war, play a constructive role in long term relations? ...[click here]

Mary Catherine Bateson:The first lesson to learn and act on is not that terrorists are uniquely evil but that all targeting of civilians is immoral. This includes the destruction of infrastructure, which is equivalent to the Biblically prohibited poisoning of wells, the material basis, of survival and the disruption caused by economic sanctions. Economic disruption creates unemployment and lost savings in industrialized nations; in the third world it can create famine and uncontrolled epidemics. The casualties are real....[click here]

Richard Dawkins: When we bend over backwards to see the other point of view and blame ourselves for everything; when we fall over ourselves to sympathise with religious 'hurt', 'offence' and legitimate grievance; when we tie ourselves in knots to avoid anything that could conceivably be misinterpreted as racist, let us keep a sense of proportion. The chips are down, and I suddenly know whose side I am on....[click here]

Robert Axelrod: The US must not let the war on terrorism drive out other priorities. For example, we should still pay attention to human rights, non-proliferation, free trade, and democracy. We should not make the mistake of the Cold War where we let our anti-Soviet priority lead to collaboration with brutal right-wing dictators....[click here]

David Farber: One of the most important issues facing the United States and its like is to prevent 2004 from becoming 1984 (Orwell's story of a dismal future). In defense of liberty and in order to defeat those who attempt to subvert it by terror, we must avoid so changing our society that they will have won. ...[click here]

Geoffrey Miller: Why does the rest of the world hate Americans so much? I agree with Roger Shank that we must face this question...One reason surely concerns the unthinking zeal with which we export our brand of American consumerist capitalism — a zeal comparable in irrationality and intensity to fundamentalist religion....[click here]

Freeman Dyson: The only wisdom that I can extract from these memories is that the problem of terrorism is not a military problem. It is a problem of people's hearts and minds. Attempts to solve it by military means will only make it worse. I don't pretend to know how to solve it.
...[click here]

Robert Provine: Decision theory offers guidance for national security policy and associated civil liberty issues introduced by the tragic events of September 11. Signal Detection Theory, the state-of-the art procedure for decision making considered here, provides a powerful model for detecting the presence of a "signal," whether a sensory stimulus in the laboratory, a bomb, or a terrorist. Although the underlying mathematical model is complex, predictions from the model are straightforward and will be explored in a few of the many possible security-related applications. ...[click here]

Jaron Lanier: I must first address some remarks to "Leftist" readers in Europe. Many of you have suggested to varying degrees that we Americans brought this attack on ourselves through our horrid foreign policy. The claims vary from the mild— that we can't expect to extend our will around the world without somebody striking back — to the insane, as exemplified by the words of Karlheinz Stockhausen , who said the attack was "the greatest work of art ever." I'm a composer, and I fear these words will tarnish the tradition of Western music forever. That someone could even think to say this is an indictment of our esthetics. Could one of our most prominent artists really have lost touch with all concerns other than the quest for extremity and public notice? ...[click here]

Timothy Taylor: Depressed-aggressive suicide-murderers are likely to be people who feel unloved and unvalued, the very opposite of the New York firemen and self-sacrificing passengers aboard the fourth plane, scuppered in the Pennsylvania woods. Actions that create more desperate and bitter people will contribute to the world becoming more dangerous for us all. What now? — it depends on the quality of our humanity. ...[click here]

Joel Garreau: There's been a lot written about our military limits, as if it were impossible to combat a network....Actually, we've learned a great deal in the last ten years about how to degrade, detach and destroy human trust networks (as distinct from electronic networks). Ironically, it's the flip side of what we've been furiously learning about how to make ours work better. ...[click here]

George Dyson: The eloquent statements made by people much closer to this tragedy and its root causes than I am prompt me to consider how we should deal with one of its effects: not just the crash of the four airliners, but the crash of the airline system which followed. ...[click here]

John McCarthy: Oppressive Islamic fanaticism is in part a recent development — perhaps from the 1970s. Before then intellectual youth were modernists, but in the 70s political Islamism became dominant in many countries. Perhaps this is related to the loss of confidence in Western society among the Western media elites and among Western youth, at least as depicted in the media....Fanaticism is therefore not a permanent feature of these countries, and will probably die down again as new generations come to see it as a dead end. ...[click here]

Chris Stringer: But beyond these issues, I have another sadness and even greater fear: that the world will forget the even greater threat we all face from global warming. If we do not start to face up to this threat properly, the chaos that will ensue over the next century as half the Earth tries to relocate to find food and water will make these recent events, awful as they are, pale into insignificance. ...[click here]

Steve Grand: Since this question has been posted on Edge. I've been casting around for something useful I could say — something that I could recommend we do. I've failed. Most of the techno-fix and cultural solutions that occurred to me were either unworkable or simply closing one of many stable doors after the horse has bolted. So instead I've decided what to do at a personal level: as my tiny contribution to this learning experience I am going to become less tolerant. ...[click here]

Robert Aunger: The "first war of the new millennium" — with its very different targets, and hence tactics — provides an excellent opportunity to make use of what has become one of the most sophisticated, but relatively unknown, corners of contemporary social science: the formal study of social networks.
...[click here]

David G, Myers: Dawkins is perhaps right to suggest that a warped religious idea of martyrdom and the afterlife was at work here. And he's surely right that religion at its worst can be toxic and superstitious — which is something healthy religion must ever be vigilant about (much as science is vigilant about pseudoscience). Witness Jerry Fallwell's initial explanation of the disaster. But on balance, is religion good or bad for us? (Medicine, twisted, can kill people. But we'd want further evidence before deciding that medicine is bad.) ...[click here]

Piet Hut: I find it fascinating that, notwithstanding John's initial urge to limit the discussion to "hard-edge" comments, most writers have focused on what we normally consider rather "soft" topics, such as culture and ways of viewing one-self and one's world, as well as suggestions for changing the current global economic situation. This is a remarkable shift, especially among a group of intellectuals with a background in science and technology....[click here]

John Maddox: The first thing Edge must do is to emphasise the obvious: there is no "technical fix" for terrorism. Terrorists fit into normal society, are trusted by their colleagues and then they betray that trust. Until so much is known of how the human brain thinks that it will be possible to read out people's secret thoughts by some non-existent non-invasive technique, diagnosing the condition of "terrorist" is science-fiction. In my opinion, it will always be so. ...[click here]

Keith Devlin: Humans do not act irrationally. When a human acts in a way the rest of us view as irrational, there is inevitably a context or background within which the action makes perfect (if sometimes horrific) sense. To refer to the actions of the September 11 terrorists as "cowardly" or "mindless," as far too many world leaders have, is a massive misunderstanding of the situation. Moreover, it is a misunderstanding that, when perpetrated by those in a position to influence subsequent events, is likely to have dangerous consequences. ...[click here]

Frank Schirrmacher: President George W. Bush did not say what was in the script. One could even write that he did not say what Americans until now believed one should say at such a moment. He has withstood the pressure of succumbing to the collective consciousness and — if one interprets the impressions correctly — by doing so he has reinvented a piece of America. ...[click here]

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: I have seen this idea that consumerism will win the war resurface again and again. It seems to me equivalent to someone having been bitten by a malarial mosquito in a swamp who then says: "I won't let that bug change my lifestyle; I will go back to the swamp and live there." Ironically, the evidence is rather conclusive that fancier dishwashers and dreamier cruises don't make our lives better in any meaningful sense. The material goals that have become our raison d'etre have a very short shelf life. People are happy when they have a job that is fulfilling, a family they can rely on, a faith that sustains them, and a government that respects their freedom. ...[click here]

Todd Feinberg, M.D.: Complacency or Denial? According to reports, after the first plane hit Tower One of the World Trade Center, and the evacuation of the second tower was in progress, there was an announcement that the second tower was secure and everyone should go back to their offices. Upon hearing this, some workers unfortunately returned to their desks and some of these persons perished when that building later collapsed....As a neuropsychiatrist who has studied psychological defense in patients who have neurological disease, I found the account of these events quite extraordinary. How could anyone who was responsible for the safety of that building declare that the building was "secure" when the tower next door was in fact in flames and the cause of that unfolding disaster was still unknown? ...[click here]

Martin Rees: The most immediate concern is that an ill-judged US response to the WTC attack could heighten tension still further. But recent events should be a "wake-up call", alerting us to the risk of even more devastating attacks, using nuclear devices. A long-range missile carrying a compact warhead — the kind of weapon that "star wars 2" is supposed to defend the US against — may be beyond the resources of dissident groups. Not so, however, detonation of a stolen weapon transported in a truck or ship, or a crude device assembled, using stolen fissile material, in a city apartment....[click here]

Douglas Rushkoff: In his speech to Congress, Bush — perhaps unintentionally — presented the choice before us: we will either bring justice to the nations of our enemies, or bring our enemies to justice....Although he probably didn't mean it this way, his two alternatives represent two completely different tacks. The former suggests extending the ideals of the Enlightenment on which this nation was founded into regions where human rights are not honored. The latter implies nothing less than accepting the fundamentalists' invitation to holy war....[click here]

Tor Nørretranders: The time has come to realize this:..."We will soon be living in an era in which we cannot guarantee survivability of any single point." ... This statement was made in 1964 in the first of a series of reports from RAND Corporation authored by Paul Baran, an electrical engineer, striving to solve the problem of a nuclear war triggered by a mistake. ...[click here]

Michael Nesmith: Certainly I have wanted to see such issues as are current tackled by scientific method. Morals and morality, right and wrong, good and evil, need a good shaking out in the scientific world. They lurk always in the wings of scientific work, and the community has too long parked them in the rag pile of the irrelevance of the non-quantifiable. ...[click here]

Bruce Sterling: In addressing the question of "What Now?" I want to speculate freely on what might happen on a large scale in the near term. Here are some rough scenarios, with my even vaguer estimate of their likelihood. ...[click here]

George Lakoff: As a metaphor analyst, I want to begin with the power of the images. The images we see and recall interact with our system of metaphors. The results can be powerful...There are a number of metaphors for buildings. A common visual metaphor is Buildings Are Heads, where windows and doors are openings in the head like eyes, nose, and mouth. For many people this metaphor interacted with the image of the plane going into South Tower of the World Trade Center, producing via visual metaphor the unconscious, but powerful image of a bullet going through someone's head, the flame pouring from the other side blood spurting out. ...[click here]

Nicholas Humphrey: The only sanity-preserving way to think about what happened on September 11th is as a 'natural disaster', in which human beings were caught up as tragic agents as well as tragic victims....Had it been an earthquake, we would not have mourned the less, we would not have been any the less determined to prevent a re-occurrence. But, by now, we would have been energised by our capacity to explain, and on the back of this to make good and to overcome....Our duty as scientists in response to the present crisis is no different. We must try to explain the shifting plates of human psychology and culture, and show why and how these can erupt in individual acts of such madness. This is not to recommend forgiveness — no one forgives a volcano or a hurricane — but it is to oppose any interest in retribution. ...[click here]

Peter Von Sivers: The unspeakable events of Sept. 11 have resulted in inquiries from students, friends, and acquaintances about my reaction as a professor of Middle Eastern history. I did a brief summary (following below) which you might find of general interest also for readers of Edge because it summarizes new insights gained during the past fifteen years. Recent scholarship has subjected the history of Islamic origins to the same kind of historical questioning that scholars dealing with ancient Israel, early Zoroastrianism, and early Christianity are used to. Such a questioning, in which Islam is put into its historical context, improves our approach to contemporary Islamic religiosity....[click here]

Cliff Pickover: We've come to realize that no amount of airport security with respect to carry-on items will prevent a high jacking. Three strong men armed with ball point pens and shouting that they have shampoo bottles full of anthrax could be successful in a highjacking. In this respect, it is not useful to overly restrict the nature of items carried onto planes. ... Instead, we should add a voice-activated system in the cockpit such that when the pilot says the word "Zanzibar," the plane can't be highjacked. The code word also triggers an emergency alert to air traffic controllers. The plane is sent into autopilot mode. Other biometric devices, such as fingerprint readers, might be useful. ...[click here]

Terry Bristol: Attack and defense strategies are limited short-term responses. Given that there are 10,000 symbolic targets, largely indefensible, and a number of decentralized terrorist networks, these short-term strategies — while worth doing to some extent — can not be expected, by themselves, to produce an acceptable long-term solution. ...[click here]

James J. O'Donnell: Victor Klemperer's harrowing diaries of life as a Jew in Nazi Dresden have been my intermittent bedside reading for many months. In the end, Klemperer and his wife escaped deportation and death because the firestorm bombing of Dresden set them free, but only after a dozen years of living with the terror. This week I find it hard to pick him up again because I suddenly feel a small piece of what he felt — a quite impersonal fear that the world I have come to live in is more threatening than I had surmised. ...[click here]

Colin Tudge: I continue to think science is wonderful and that in principle it really should help us to understand human nature and the human condition. But I continue to be disappointed by the contributions of scientists to this end; even outstanding scientists. ...[click here]

Karl Sabbagh: Violence of the sort we are trying to avoid is not, in the end, caused only by American power and oppression, Israeli occupation, religious antagonism, the evils of capitalism. Such grievances are necessary but not sufficient. After all there are many people who endure these without strapping explosives to themselves or bombing buildings. There is always an additional factor, almost too trite to mention — the willingness of a person to use physical violence against other people with whom he disagrees. To reduce violence we need to understand this. And, in various ways, we do already. ...[click here]

Luyen Chou: Even left-leaning people now speak of destroying terrorism "root and branch". What are the roots of terrorism? How far and how deeply do they extend? We can all see the leaves and some of the branches, but the roots are less visible to the naked eye, and they are undoubtedly where the real problem lies. So far as I know, there is no substantive, high-profile national dialogue about this. ...[click here]

Yossi Vardi: This time the answers are not all in the hi-tech world of physics and electronics, but in psychology, sociology, knowledge-assembling. to the extent physics and computers can be harnessed to serve those areas, hi-tech can do a job. but the human factor , the human thinking , dedication, perseverance; awareness , belief in the cause, will be much more important then just the sheer hi-tech. ...[click here]

Todd Siler: Somehow we're going to have to face the emergent reality behind Martin Rees's reflection on those terrors to come from under the horizon of our fears. Because they will come. As Martin and others have noted: 'biological advances will offer new 'weapons' that could cause world-wide epidemics, etc; moreover such catastrophes could be caused by a single individual.' I refuse to abandon my optimism, or succumb to pure pessimism. I believe there is a realistic way of handling this new world of perils and risks. But we're all going to have to think, work, live and act together very differently than we're currently doing. ...[click here]

Roger C. Schank: Why are these people so angry at us? It is odd, but that question is rarely voiced. It is all too easy to say that they are crazy, but we might wonder, even so, how it is that we incurred their wrath. They don't attack Italy or Sweden. Anyone who has spent significant time abroad can tell you that in most countries there is love-hate relationship with the U.S. Most of our citizens fail to understand why this is the case and instead back mistaken notions of patriotism, waving flags, and talking about bombing people who don't like us. It really isn't all about the U.S. support of Israel. That is too easy an answer. We need to look for more difficult answers and do the very thing the terrorists want us to do, reexamine the role of the U.S. in the international arena. Just because that is what the terrorists want us to do, does not make it the wrong thing to do. ...[click here]

From the Introduction: I believe that the Edge community can mount a serious conversation about the catastrophic events of the past week that might do some good. Within the community is invaluable expertise in many pertinent areas, not to mention the intelligence that the "Edgies" can bring to the subjects. I am interested "hard-edge" comments, derived from empirical results or experience specific to the expertise of the participant. Edge is not the proper venue for people to vent their justified rage at the acts of terrorism, displeasure with the administration, U.S. Mid-East policies, etc. But it is the right venue for an informed, intelligent commentary......So how about a new Edge question: WHAT NOW?"... [click here]