How to Improve E-Books

I love print books: the way they feel in my hands, the ease with which I can skim / flip ahead or flip back, and my ability to scribble notes in the margins. I also love e-books for traveling, and highlighting sentences when a pen isn’t handy.

Whether it’s print or electronic, I like the focus reading requires. The singular, focused stimulation of text, with no distractions — uniquely suitable for deep thoughts. So I’m wary when e-book proponents suggest video, animation, sound, and the like — we already have plenty of media objects with those characteristics. Let books be.

That said, there are obvious improvements that could be done without harming the immersive experience. Kane Hsieh identifies several:

The problem with ebooks as they exist now is the lack of user experience innovation. Like the first television shows that only played grainy recordings of theater shows, the ebook is a new medium that has yet to see any true innovation, and resorts to imitating an old medium. This is obvious in skeuomorphic visual cues of ebook apps. Designers have tried incredibly hard to mimic the page-turns and sound effects of a real book, but these ersatz interactions satisfy a bibliophile as much as a picture of water satisfies a man in the desert.

There is no reason I need to turn fake pages. If I’m using a computer to read, I should be able to leverage the connectivity and processing power of that computer to augment my reading experience: ebooks should allow me to read on an infinite sheet, or I should be able to double blink to scroll. I should be able to practice language immersion by replacing words and phrases in my favorite books with other languages, or highlight sections to send to Quora or Mechanical Turk for analysis. There are endless possibilities for ebooks to make reading more accessible and immersvie than ever, but as long as ebooks try to be paper books, they will remain stuck in an uncanny valley of disappointment.

Another misstep in the growth of ebooks was the complete incompatability of previous libraries. People who have amassed libraries of paper books over many years were left behind by ebook distributors. Unlike music or photographs, there is no way to migrate an old book library into a new one. Over the past decade, I’ve been able to convert my tapes to CDs, my CDs to MP3s, and now import my MP3s into Spotify and listen to music over the cloud. Yet, if I want to read my favorite books on my Nexus 7, I have to pay for a separate ebook version, assuming one even exists.

It makes sense to have a third tier of book: paper + digital access. I am more than willing to pay a little extra for a book if it means that I have a copy for my library shelves and I can read it on a tablet on the subway. Amazon in particular is well positioned to implement this pricing structure. Better yet, why not a subscription service? $20/mo for all the books I can read? Unfortunately, as of now, the only options for paper book fans that want to use ebooks for convenience are to pay twice, or maintain two disjoint book libraries. Like its content, ebook pricing models cling to the past….

So ebooks, stop trying to be paper books; break free of the page and the book paradigms and realize your potential as a fully digital medium. As for me, and readers like me, you will never replace our beloved paper books – but if done correctly, I will be proud to own a library of ebooks. Until then, I only use you to avoid carrying books like IQ84 in my backpack.

Book Review: The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman, who writes a great column / blog titled This Column Will Change Your Life, has a new book out: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

In his book, he argues against an optimism-focused, goal-fixated, positive-thinking approach to achieving happiness. Instead, he praises stoicism, meditation, keeping vague goals, tough love, and pursuing a ‘negative’ path to happiness.antidote-240

It’s a delight to read. Oliver doesn’t cite the same studies of everyone else — he commits real acts of journalism, traveling out to meet people, doing a 10 day meditation retreat himself, drawing upon new and old books alike. And rather than obsess only about the idea of happiness, Oliver riffs on a broad set of “deep” life questions.

He leads a thoughtful discussion about our fear of death and the various “immortality projects” we take on as a result.

He says our attachment to goal-setting can be explained by our inability to deal with the anxiety produced by uncertainty. (I’ve written before about the fact that I’m not an especially goal-oriented person, despite high ambition.)

He suggests that thinking through the worst case scenario in your mind — grappling in your head with possible negative outcomes from a given endeavor — may be more productive than soaking up self-help positivity maxims.

He cites Paul Pearsall’s effort to get the concept of “awe” accepted as one of the primary human emotions, alongside love, joy, anger, fear, and sadness. “Unlike all the other emotions, awe is all of our feelings rolled into one intense one. You can’t peg it as just happy, sad, afraid, angry, or hopeful. Instead, it’s a matter of experiencing all these feelings and yet, paradoxically, experiencing no clearly identifiable, or at least any easily describable, emotion.” (Awe, to me, is the core emotion of a secular spiritual practice that emphasizes nature/the outdoors.)

He also quotes others throughout. For example, on trusting uncertainty:

“To be a good human is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertainty, and on a willingness to be exposed. It’s based on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.”

– Martha Nussbaum, Univ of Chicago Law School

 On love and vulnerability:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung, and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no-one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with your hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

– C.S. Lewis

The most important characteristic of the book is its tone: it’s not bubbling with sunny, practical solutions for building a meaningful life. It’s a darker view of the human experience. But he does not employ said darkness as a cheap way to seem sophisticated — he’s subtle, and thus worth listening to.

Bottom Line: Oliver Burkeman writes about everyday philosophy and the wisdom of the good life. I believe he is underrated. I recommend his book.

Book Review: The Expats

A great CIA thriller set in Europe, which I conveniently read while in Paris: The Expats by Chris Pavone.

Mostly it’s a plot-driven page turner, but there were some juicy quotes, which I re-produce below:

Kate was taken aback by this excessive garrulousness. People who were too outgoing made her suspicious. She couldn’t help but presume that all the loud noise was created to hide quiet lies. And the more distinct a surface personality appeared, the more Kate was convinced that it was a veneer.

Conversations with Julia often became much more personal than Kate wanted. Julia wore her need for intimacy on her sleeve, practically begging Kate to open up to her. Despite Julia’s bluff of outgoing confidence, she was tremendously insecure. She’d been unlucky in love, unconfident in relationships, and uncomfortable in intimacy. She’d been lonely her whole life, much like Kate, until she’d chanced into Bill. But she was still operating on lonely-person principles, still worried that her happiness could be wrenched away at any moment, for reasons out of her control.

She was worried — no, it was beyond the uncertainty of worry; it was awareness — that this would cross some line in their marriage, a line that no one acknowledged until you were there on its precipice. You know the lines are there, you feel them: the things you don’t discuss. The sexual fantasies. The flirtations with other people. The deep-seated distrusts, misgivings, resentments. You go about your business, as far away from these lines as possible, pretending they’re not there. So when you eventually find yourself at one of these lines, your toe inching over, it’s not only shocking and horrifying, it’s banal. Because you’ve always been aware that the lines were there, where you were trying with all your might not to see them, knowing that sooner or later you would.

All people have secrets. Part of being human is having secrets, and being curious about other people’s secrets. Dirty fetishes and debilitating fascinations and shameful defeats and ill-begotten triumphs, humiliating selfishness and repulsive inhumanity. The horrible things that people have thought and done, the lowest points in their lives.

Book Discussion: “Future Perfect” by Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson is one of my favorite authors. I’ve blogged about his various books several times; I’ve read them all.

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a Google Hangout discussion with Steven and a handful of other commentators to discuss his new book Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age. The full hour discussion is below and on YouTube. (BTW: Google Hangout group discussions work pretty well — I’ll be doing more of them.)

Audiobook Review: This is How You Lose Her

Junot Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and professor at MIT. He also speaks English with a native Dominican accent. These two facts make his latest novel, This is How You Lose Her, an unusually good choice for audiobook.

The stories, which surround the life of a Dominican man at different points in his life, are well-written. They are on themes of infidelity, friendship, love found, and love lost. There are sentences like “The half-life of love is forever.” When Diaz speaks these sentences on the audiobook from the perspective of the man, he does so with intensity — especially when it’s a lewd reference or expletive. There are probably a dozen Spanish sentences scattered throughout, and Dominican musical beats separating each chapter.

You can listen to a sample on Audible.com. Here’s the Amazon hardcover link.

So far, my algorithm for listening to audiobook (vs. print or e-book) has been “something I probably won’t need to reference later.” This recent experience has led me to modify that criteria: I’ll also seek audiobook when it’s read by someone with a voice that truly upgrades the reading experience in authentic way.

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One other point on audiobooks: I’m buying CDs now for the car because it’s too damn hard to download MP3s and sync across iTunes and control the start/stop functions while also using phone’s GPS. Old school works.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. A Gift of Freedom: How the John T. Olin Foundation Changed America by John J. Miller. A remarkable account of how a foundation with a set of intellectual convictions went about spreading those ideas into society, especially via the academy. Any philanthropist keen on spreading a philosophical idea should read this book.

2. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality by Leigh Eric Schmidt. I was hoping this would shed light on the uniquely American view of spirituality, but it was too dense for me. Too much detailed history. That said, the following six characteristics that she says help define what most Americans mean by “spiritual” I thought was spot on:

1) a yearning for mystical experience  or epiphanic awareness; 2) a valuing of silence, solitude, and sustained meditation; 3) a belief in the immanence of the divine in nature and attunement to that presence; 4) a cosmopolitan appreciation of religious variety, along with a search for unity in diversity; 5) an ethical earnestness in pursuit of justice-producing, progressive reforms; 6) an emphasis on self-cultivation, artistic creativity, and adventuresome seeking

3. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The classic introductory book; full of wise guidance on the nature of meditation and stuffed with practical exercises to get you started. Excellent for uninitiated.

4. Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. As a huge Robert Wright fan, it was about time I read Non-Zero, cited by many in the Valley as their favorite book. It’s been a decade since the book came out, and many of the assertions about globalization and greater economic/political integration — and how they drive greater zero-sumness in the world — may seem less profound than on the date of publication. But it remains an excellent introduction to basic game theory and the authoritative framework for thinking about non-zero-sum interactions.

5. Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur by Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor. Brad’s blog posts on work-life-balance are among the most thoughtful you’ll read anywhere. His post last November “Resetting My Priorities” was especially poignant. In his latest book, co-authored with his wife Amy, they detail the full range of strategies they employ to have a happy marriage amidst the chaos of busy entrepreneurial lives. I expect this book will occupy a very important niche that many people will turn to on a downswing. Hopefully an increasing number of entrepreneurs will turn to it proactively at the outset of a relationship. It’s a critical topic I’ll write more about in a later post.

6. Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think by Bryan Caplan. Citing twin studies to make a nature over nurture argument, Caplan says parents put too much pressure on themselves by thinking every choice they make will be consequential to their kids’ futures. Relax, he says. Do less work and relish the fact that while the first couple decades of their life are rough from a parenting perspective, you’ll have them around at least as long after that; in their adult years they can be vital companions and caretakers. There are other points he makes, but this is the one that seemed most compelling.

7. Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing by Constance Hale. I picked this up in a bookstore on a whim, and while there are some good writing tips throughout, I made the mistake of thinking I could read it passively versus actively. Hence, by the time I reached the end, none of it had stuck. I’ll have to re-visit it when I’m prepared to try out the tips in real writing in real time.

8. How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton. An appealing title and excellent form factor in terms of a smaller physical book. I love de Botton, but I didn’t glean any killer insights out of this one, other than a vigorous head nod at this general point: “A mind originally designed to cope with little more sexually temping than the occasional sight of a tribeswoman across the savannah is rendered helpless when bombarded by continual invitations to participate in erotic scenarios far exceeding any dreamt up by the diseased mind of the Marques de Sade.”

Book Short: Republic, Lost

Larry Lessig’s latest — Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress, and a Plan to Stop It — is an excellent overview of how money and campaign finance cripples D.C. lawmakers.

At a time when everyone seems to have a different pet policy issue that’s “urgent” and “critical” to our country’s future, it’s refreshing read something that contemplates deeper, underlying issues that, if addressed, could have a positive trickle down effect on the entire system.

Lessig’s writing in general is, as they say, self-recommending.

Book Review: The Best American Essays of 2012

This year’s edition is curated by David Brooks, and as usual, it’s phenomenal. One of the things I most look forward to in my annual reading diet is diving into the latest Best American Essays series.

Brooks must have death on his mind as several essays in the anthology are directly or indirectly on the topic.

There’s Miah Arnold’s piece on teaching English classes to some of the sickest children in the world in Houston. Imagine teaching a class where your child-aged students are dying every day, every week–you grow attached to your students but before the semester’s over, they’re dead. “When you know somebody with less than six months to live and that person agrees to spend any moment of it with you, the immensity of that generosity does change you, undeniably.”

There’s Dudley Clendin’s short piece titled “The Good Short Life,” about living (and dying) of A.L.S. It’s very moving. There’s this serious point:

We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative — not governing — in order to be free.

And after describing why he’d rather die than be an (expensive) vegetable:

Last month, an old friend brought me a recording of the greatest concert he’d ever heard, Leonard Cohen, live, in London, three years ago. It’s powerful, haunting music, by a poet, composer and singer whose life has been as tough and sinewy and loving as an old tree.

The song that transfixed me, words and music, was “Dance Me to the End of Love.” That’s the way I feel about this time. I’m dancing, spinning around, happy in the last rhythms of the life I love. When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over.

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Here are my excerpts from the 2001 edition. From the 2007 edition. Thanks to Amy Batchelor for her on-going inspiration to read this series.

Book Notes: Religion for Atheists

Alain de Botton is amazing person to follow on Twitter. He’s also a stimulating author and an inspiring ideas entrepreneur (via the School of Life).

Religion for Atheists, one of his recent books, explains to pro-religion non-believers like myself (an identity label I borrowed from Tyler Cowen) what we can learn from religious institutions when it comes to building community, forming relationships, improving ourselves, etc. Recommended. Highlights below.

 


We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.

For instance, much of what is best about Christmas is entirely unrelated to the story of the birth of Christ. It revolves around themes of community, festivity and renewal which pre-date the context in which they were cast over the centuries by Christianity.

One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community. We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighbourliness which has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, a state where people pursue contact with one another primarily for restricted, individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.

All buildings give their owners opportunities to recondition visitors’ expectations and to lay down rules of conduct specific to them. The art gallery legitimates the practice of peering silently at a canvas, the nightclub of swaying one’s hands to a musical score. And a church, with its massive timber doors and 300 stone angels carved around its porch, gives us rare permission to lean over and say hello to a stranger without any danger of being thought predatory or insane. We are promised that here (in the words of the Mass’s initial greeting) ‘the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ belong to all who have assembled. The Church lends its enormous prestige, accrued through age, learning and architectural grandeur, to our shy desire to open ourselves to someone new.

the Mass embodies a lesson about the importance of putting forward rules to direct people in their interactions with one another.

Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction. However, the proximity required by a meal – something about handing dishes around, unfurling napkins at the same moment, even asking a stranger to pass the salt – disrupts our ability to cling to the belief that the outsiders who wear unusual clothes and speak in distinctive accents deserve to be sent home or assaulted.

It is hard to attend most wedding parties without realizing that these celebrations are at some level also marking a sorrow, the entombment of sexual liberty and individual curiosity for the sake of children and social stability, with compensation from the community being delivered through gifts and speeches.

religions understand that to belong to a community is both very desirable and not very easy. In this respect, they are greatly more sophisticated than those secular political theorists who write lyrically about the loss of a sense of community, while refusing to acknowledge the inherently dark aspects of social life.

We shouldn’t banish feasting and debauchery to the margins, to be mopped up by the police and frowned upon by commentators. We should give chaos pride of place once a year or so, designating occasions on which we can be briefly exempted from the two greatest pressures of secular adult life: having to be rational and having to be faithful. We should be allowed to talk gibberish, fasten woollen penises to our coats and set out into the night to party and copulate randomly and joyfully with strangers, and then return the next morning to our partners, who will themselves have been off doing something similar, both sides knowing that it was nothing personal, that it was the Feast of Fools that made them do it.

The difference between Christian and secular education reveals itself with particular clarity in their respective characteristic modes of instruction: secular education delivers lectures, Christianity sermons. Expressed in terms of intent, we might say that one is concerned with imparting information, the other with changing our lives. Sermons by their very nature assume that their audiences are in important ways lost. The titles alone of the sermons by one of the most famous preachers of eighteenth-century England, John Wesley, show Christianity seeking to dispense practical advice about a range of the soul’s ordinary challenges: ‘On Being Kind’, ‘On Staying Obedient to Parents’, ‘On Visiting the Sick’, ‘On Caution Against Bigotry’.

Departments would be required to confront the problematic areas of our lives head-on. Notions of assistance and transformation which presently hover ghost-like over speeches at graduation ceremonies would be given form and explored as openly in lay institutions as they are in churches. There would be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness.

We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption.

This double insight – that we should train our minds just as we train our bodies, and that we should do so partly through those bodies – has led to the founding, by all the major faiths, of religious retreats where adherents may for a limited time abscond from their ordinary lives and find inner restoration through spiritual exercise.

It is a mechanism whereby society – whether secular or religious – attempts reliably to inculcate in its members, within a set span of years, what it took the very brightest and most determined of their ancestors centuries of painful and sporadic efforts to work out.

The signal danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation.

Our secular world is lacking in the sorts of rituals that might put us gently in our place. It surreptitiously invites us to think of the present moment as the summit of history, and the achievements of our fellow humans as the measure of all things – a grandiosity that plunges us into continuous swirls of anxiety and envy.

our museums of art have become our new churches.

compassion, the fragile quality which enables the boundaries of our egos to dissolve, helps us to recognize ourselves in the experiences of strangers and can make their pain matter to us as much as our own.

It is one of the unexpected disasters of the modern age that our new unparalleled access to information has come at the price of our capacity to concentrate on anything much. The deep, immersive thinking which produced many of civilization’s most important achievements has come under unprecedented assault. We are almost never far from a machine that guarantees us a mesmerizing and libidinous escape from reality.

They were employing institutions, marshalling enormous agglomerations of people to act in concert upon the world through works of art, buildings, schools, uniforms, logos, rituals, monuments and calendars.

In his Republic, Plato conveyed a touching understanding (born from experience) of the limits of the lone intellectual, when he remarked that the world would not be set right until philosophers became kings, or kings philosophers. In other words, writing books can’t be enough if one wishes to change things. Thinkers must learn to master the power of institutions for their ideas to have any chance of achieving a pervasive influence on the world.

Book Notes: What Technology Wants

Someone I respect once told me, “I have never heard an uninteresting thought come out of Kevin Kelly’s mouth.” Shortly thereafter, I dove into Kevin’s latest book What Technology Wants with heightened attention and expectation. I was not disappointed. There were interesting bits on nearly every page about the evolution of technology and the relationship between humans, technology, and society.

After learning a lot about our networked brains and the living organism that is technology, paragraphs like the following may induce goosebumps.

In addition to holding spiritual retreats in redwood groves, we may surrender ourselves in the labyrinths of a 200-year-old network. The intricate, unfathomable layers of logic built up over a century, borrowed from rainforest ecosystems, and woven together into beauty by millions of active synthetic minds will say what redwoods say, only louder, more convincingly: “Long before you were here, I am.”

Highly recommended for your “long, slow read” pile. Some of my highlights from the Kindle edition below.

Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going. There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels.

During the years I was puzzling over these questions, something strange happened to technology: The best of it was becoming incredibly disembodied. Fantastic stuff was getting smaller, using less material but doing more. Some of the best technology, such as software, didn’t have a material body at all. This development wasn’t new; any list of great inventions in history contains plenty that are rather wispy: the calendar, the alphabet, the compass, penicillin, double-entry accounting, the U.S. Constitution, the contraceptive pill, domestication of animals, zero, germ theory, lasers, electricity, the silicon chip, and so on. Most of these inventions wouldn’t hurt you if you dropped them on your toes. But now the process of disembodiment was speeding up. Scientists had come to a startling realization: However you define life, its essence does not reside in material forms like DNA, tissue, or flesh, but in the intangible organization of the energy and information contained in those material forms. And as technology was unveiled from its shroud of atoms, we could see that at its core, it, too, is about ideas and information. Both life and technology seem to be based on immaterial flows of information.

Even if we acknowledge that technology can exist in disembodied form, such as software, we tend not to include in this category paintings, literature, music, dance, poetry, and the arts in general. But we should. If a thousand lines of letters in UNIX qualifies as a technology (the computer code for a web page), then a thousand lines of letters in English (Hamlet) must qualify as well. They both can change our behavior, alter the course of events, or enable future inventions. A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

what I consider to be the essential quality of the technium: this idea of a self-reinforcing system of creation. The qualities we hold dearest in the universe are all extremely slippery at the edges. Life, mind, consciousness, order, complexity, free will, and autonomy are all terms that have multiple, paradoxical, and inadequate definitions. No one can agree on exactly where life or mind or consciousness or autonomy begins and where it ends. The best we can agree on is that these states are not binary. They exist on a continuum.If humans are not fully autonomous, what is? An organism or system does not need to be wholly independent to exhibit some degree of autonomy. Like an infant of any species, it can acquire increasing degrees of independence, starting from a speck of autonomy. So how do you detect autonomy? Well, we might say that an entity is autonomous if it displays any of these traits: self-repair, self-defense, self-maintenance (securing energy, disposing of waste), self-control of goals, self-improvement. The common element in all these characteristics is of course the emergence, at some level, of a self. In the technium we don’t have any examples of a system that displays all these traits—but we have plenty of examples that display some of them. Autonomous airplane drones can self-steer and stay aloft for hours.

We created the technium, so we tend to assign ourselves exclusive influence over it. But we have been slow to learn that systems—all systems—generate their own momentum. Because the technium is an outgrowth of the human mind, it is also an outgrowth of life, and by extension it is also an outgrowth of the physical and chemical self-organization that first led to life.

All technology, the chimp’s termite-fishing spear and the human’s fishing spear, the beaver’s dam and the human’s dam, the warbler’s hanging basket and the human’s hanging basket, the leaf-cutter ant’s garden and the human’s garden, are all fundamentally natural. We tend to isolate manufactured technology from nature, even to the point of thinking of it as antinature, only because it has grown to rival the impact and power of its home. But in its origins and fundamentals, a tool is as natural as our life. Humans are animals—no argument. But humans are also not-animals—no argument. This contradictory nature is at the core of our identity. Likewise, technology is unnatural—by definition. And technology is natural—by a wider definition. This contradiction is also core to human identity.

Fewer than 1,500 generations after their “great leap forward” in Africa, Homo sapiens had become the most widely distributed species in Earth’s history, inhabiting every type of biome and every watershed on the planet. Sapiens were the most invasive alien species ever. Today the breadth of Sapiens occupation exceeds that of any other macrospecies we know of; no other visible species occupies more niches, geographical and biological, than Homo sapiens. Sapiens’ overtake was always rapid. Jared Diamond notes that “after the ancestors of the Maori reached New Zealand,” carrying only a few tools, “it apparently took them barely a century to discover all worthwhile stone sources; only a few more centuries to kill every last moa in some of the world’s most rugged terrain.” This sudden global expansion following millennia of steady sustainability was due to only one thing: technological innovation.

Daniel Dennett crows in elegant language: “There is no step more uplifting, more momentous in the history of mind design, than the invention of language. When Homo sapiens became the beneficiary of this invention, the species stepped into a slingshot that has launched it far beyond all other earthly species.” The creation of language was the first singularity for humans. It changed everything. Life after language was unimaginable to those on the far side before it.Also, many women are extremely lean and active and, like lean, active women athletes in the West, often have irregular or no menstruation.We are not the same folks who marched out of Africa. Our genes have coevolved with our inventions. In the past 10,000 years alone, in fact, our genes have evolved 100 times faster than the average rate for the previous 6 million years. This should not be a surprise. As we domesticated the dog (in all its breeds) from wolves and bred cows and corn and more from their unrecognizable ancestors, we, too, have been domesticated. We have domesticated ourselves. Our teeth continue to shrink (because of cooking, our external stomach), our muscles thin out, our hair disappears. Technology has domesticated us. As fast as we remake our tools, we remake ourselves. We are coevolving with our technology, and so we have become deeply dependent on it.

Historian Lynn White notes, “Few inventions have been so simple as the stirrup, but few have had so catalytic an influence on history.” In White’s view, the adoption of the lowly foot stirrup for horse saddles enabled riders to use weapons on horseback, which gave an advantage to the cavalry over infantry and to the lords who could afford horses, and so nurtured the rise of aristocratic feudalism in Europe.

Yet ideas never stand alone. They come woven in a web of auxiliary ideas, consequential notions, supporting concepts, foundational assumptions, side effects, and logical consequences and a cascade of subsequent possibilities. Ideas fly in flocks. To hold one idea in mind means to hold a cloud of them.

The effort to maintain difference against the pull of entropy creates the spectacle of nature. A predator such as an eagle sits atop a pyramid of entropic waste: In one year 1 eagle eats 100 trout, which eat 10,000 grasshoppers, which eat 1 million blades of grass. Thus it takes, indirectly, 1 million blades of grass to support 1 eagle. But this pile of 1 million blades far outweighs the eagle. This bloated inefficiency is due to entropy. Each movement in an animal’s life wastes a small bit of heat (entropy), which means every predator catches less energy than the total energy the prey consumed, and this shortfall is multiplied by each action for all time. The circle of life is kept going only by the constant replenishment of sunlight showering the grass with new energy.

The powers of our minds can be only slightly increased by mindful self-reflection; thinking about thoughts will only make us marginally smarter. The power of the technium, however, can be increased indefinitely by reflecting its transforming nature upon itself. New technologies constantly make it easier to invent better technologies; we can’t say the same about human brains. In this unbounded technological amplification, the immaterial organization of the technium has now become the most dominant force in this part of the universe.

I think the balance settles out at higher than 50 percent positive, even if it is only slightly higher. As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi once said, “There is more good than evil in the world—but not by much.” Unexpectedly, “not much” is all that’s needed when you have the leverage of compound interest at work—which is what the technium is.

worldwide, affluence brings increased satisfaction. Higher income earners are happier. Citizens in higher-earning countries tend to be more satisfied on average. My interpretation of this newest research—which also matches our intuitive impressions—is that what money brings is increased choices, rather than merely increased stuff (although more stuff comes with the territory). We don’t find happiness in more gadgets and experiences. We do find happiness in having some control of our time and work, a chance for real leisure, in the escape from the uncertainties of war, poverty, and corruption, and in a chance to pursue individual freedoms—all of which come with increased affluence.

One UN report found that households in the older slums of Bangkok have on average 1.6 televisions, 1.5 cell phones, and a refrigerator; two-thirds have a washing machine and CD player; and half have a fixed-line phone, a video player, and a motor scooter.

As Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City (about Mumbai), says, “Why would anyone leave a brick house in the village with its two mango trees and its view of small hills in the East to come here?” Then he answers: “So that someday the eldest son can buy two rooms in Mira Road, at the northern edges of the city. And the younger one can move beyond that, to New Jersey. Discomfort is an investment.”

Historian Niall Ferguson believes that on the global scale, the origins of progress lie only in expanding population. According to this theory, in order to elevate populations beyond Malthusian limits you need science, yet it is the increase in the number of humans that ultimately drives science, and then prosperity. In this virtuous circle more human minds invent more things and in turn buy more inventions, including tools, techniques, and methods that will support more humans. Therefore, more human minds equal more progress. The economist Julian Simon called human minds “the ultimate resource.” In his calculation, more minds were the prime source of deep progress.

If the origins of prosperity lie solely in growth of the human population, then progress will paradoxically temper itself in the coming century.

We don’t go on as we are. We address the problems of tomorrow not with today’s tools but with the tools of tomorrow. This is what we call progress.

I prefer how biologist Simon Conway Morris puts it: “Progress is not some noxious by-product of the terminally optimistic, but simply part of our reality.”

But a hundred, or a thousand, cases of isolated significant convergent evolution suggest something else at work. Some other force pushes the self-organization of evolution toward recurring solutions. A different dynamic besides the lottery of natural selection steers the course of evolution so that it can reach an unlikely remote destination more than once. It is not a supernatural force but a fundamental dynamic as simple at its core as evolution itself. And it is the same force that funnels convergence in technology and culture. Evolution is driven toward certain recurring and inevitable forms by two pressures: 1. The negative constraints cast by the laws of geometry and physics, which limit the scope of life’s possibilities. 2. The positive constraints produced by the self-organizing complexity of interlinked genes and metabolic pathways, which generate a few repeating new possibilities.

Humanity is a process. Always was, always will be. Every living organism is on its way to becoming. And the human organism even more so, because among all living beings (that we know about) we are the most open-ended.

But Isaacson, a celebrator of Einstein’s special genius for the improbable insights of relativity, admits that “someone else would have come up with it, but not for at least ten years or more.” So the greatest iconic genius of the human race is able to leap ahead of the inevitable by maybe 10 years. For the rest of humanity, the inevitable happens on schedule. The technium’s trajectory is more fixed in certain realms than in others. Based on the data, “mathematics has more apparent inevitability than the physical sciences,” wrote Simonton, “and technological endeavors appear the most determined of all.”

A recent example: The first digital cameras had very rough picture resolution. Then scientists began cramming more and more pixels onto one sensor to increase photo quality. Before they knew it, the number of pixels possible per array was on an exponential curve, heading into megapixel territory and beyond. The rising megapixel count became the chief selling point for new cameras. But after a decade of acceleration, consumers shrugged off the increasing number of pixels because the current resolution was sufficient. Their concern instead shifted to the speed of the pixel sensors or the response in low light—things no one had cared about before. So a new metric is born, and a new curve started, and the exponential curve of ever more pixels per array will gradually abate.

But on average, digital technologies will roughly double in performance every two years for the foreseeable future. That means our most culturally important devices and systems will get faster, cheaper, better by 50 percent every year. Imagine if you got half again smarter every year or could remember 50 percent more this year than last. Embedded deep in the technium (as we now know it) is the remarkable capacity of half-again annual improvement.

Who you are is determined in part by your genes. Every single day scientists identify new genes that code for a particular trait in humans, revealing the ways in which inherited “software” drives your body and brain. We now know that behaviors such as addiction, ambition, risk-taking, shyness, and many others have strong genetic components. At the same time, “who you are” is clearly determined by your environment and upbringing. Every day science uncovers more evidence of the ways in which our family, peers, and cultural background shape our being. The strength of what others believe about us is enormous. And more recently we have increasing proof that environmental factors can influence genes, so that these two factors are cofactors in the strongest sense of the word—they determine each other. Your environment (like what you eat) can affect your genetic code, and your code will steer you into certain environments—making untangling the two influences a conundrum. Last, who you are in the richest sense of the word—your character, your spirit, what you do with your life—is determined by what you choose. An awful lot of the shape of your life is given to you and is beyond your control, but your freedom to choose within those givens is huge and significant. The course of your life within the constraints of your genes and environment is up to you. You decide whether to speak the truth at any trial, even if you have a genetic or familial propensity to lie. You decide whether or not to risk befriending a stranger, no matter your genetic or cultural bias toward shyness. You decide beyond your inherent tendencies or conditioning. Your freedom is far from total. It is not your choice alone whether to be the fastest runner in the world (your genetics and upbringing play a large role), but you can choose to be faster than you have been. Your inheritance and education at home and school set the outer boundaries of how smart or generous or sneaky you can be, but you choose whether you will be smarter, more generous, or sneakier today than yesterday. You may inhabit a body and brain that wants to be lazy or sloppy or imaginative, but you choose to what degree those qualities progress (even if you aren’t inherently decisive). Curiously, this freely chosen aspect of ourselves is what other people remember about us. How we handle life’s cascade of real choices within the larger cages of our birth and background is what makes us who we are. It is what people talk about when we are gone. Not the given, but the choices we made.

Roads throughout the vast Roman Empire were built to this specification. When the legions of Rome marched into Britain, they constructed long-distance imperial roads 4’ 8.5” wide. When the English started building tramways, they used the same width so the same horse carriages could be used. And when they started building railways with horseless carriages, naturally the rails were 4’ 8.5” wide. Imported laborers from the British Isles built the first railways in the Americas using the same tools and jigs they were used to. Fast-forward to the U.S. space shuttle, which is built in parts around the country and assembled in Florida. Because the two large solid-fuel rocket engines on the side of the launch shuttle were sent by railroad from Utah, and that line traversed a tunnel not much wider than the standard track, the rockets themselves could not be much wider in diameter than 4’ 8.5”. As one wag concluded: “So, a major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of two horses’ arse.”

Like personality, technology is shaped by a triad of forces. The primary driver is preordained development—what technology wants. The second driver is the influence of technological history, the gravity of the past, as in the way the size of a horse’s yoke determines the size of a space rocket. The third force is society’s collective free will in shaping the technium, or our choices.

In Nonzero, author Robert Wright offers a wonderful analogy for understanding the role of the inevitable as applied to technology, which I paraphrase here. It’s appropriate, Wright says, to claim that the destiny of a tiny seed, say, a poppy seed, is to grow into a plant. Flower yields seed, seed sprouts plant, according to an eternal fixed routine burned in by a billion years of flowers. Sprouting is what seeds do. In that fundamental sense, it is inevitable that a poppy seed becomes a plant, even though a fair number of poppy seeds wind up on bagels. We don’t require that 100 percent of seeds arrive at their next stage to acknowledge the inexorable direction of the poppy’s growth because we know that inside the poppy seed is a DNA program. The seed “wants” to be a plant. More precisely, the poppy seed is designed to grow stems, leaves, and flowers of a precise type. We regard the destiny of the seed less as the statistical probability of how many complete the journey, and more as a matter of what it is designed for. To claim that the technium pushes itself through certain inevitable technological forms is not to say that every technology was a mathematical certainty. Rather, it indicates a direction more than a destiny. More precisely, the technium’s long-term trends reveal the design of the technium; this design indicates what the technium is built to do.

David Nye, a historian of technology, adds to the list of inventions envisioned as abolishing war once and for all and ushering in universal peace the torpedo, the hot-air balloon, poison gas, land mines, missiles, and laser guns. Nye says, “Each new form of communication, from the telegraph and telephone to radio, film, television and the internet, has been heralded as the guarantor of free speech and the unfettered movement of ideas.”

We do the same with unknown technologies, too, just not as well. And most of the time, after we’ve weighed downsides and upsides in the balance of our experience, we find that technology offers a greater benefit, but not by much. In other words, we freely choose to embrace it—and pay the price.

I believe these two different routes for technological lifestyle—either optimizing contentment or optimizing choices—come down to very different ideas of what humans are to be.

“Technology,” Kay says, “is anything that was invented after you were born.”

We make prediction more difficult because our immediate tendency is to imagine the new thing doing an old job better. That’s why the first cars were called “horseless carriages.” The first movies were simply straightforward documentary films of theatrical plays. It took a while to realize the full dimensions of cinema photography as its own new medium that could achieve new things, reveal new perspectives, do new jobs. We are stuck in the same blindness. We imagine e-books today as being regular books that appear on electronic paper instead of as radically powerful threads of text woven into the one shared universal library. We think genetic testing is like blood testing, something you do once in your life to get an unchanging score, when sequencing our genes may instead become something we do hourly as our genes mutate, shift, and interact with our environment.

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