The Next Fire

Fareed ZakariaCredit where credit is due, both the major ideas in this post come from Fareed Zakaria on his CNN Sunday program, GPS. If you follow TV news at all, you know Sunday mornings have such long-running standards as Meet the Press (on NBC since 1947!) and Face the Nation (on CBS since 1954). (Or was it Meet the Nation and Face the Press?)

Zakaria is one of the good ones: very intelligent, highly educated, calm and measured. He’s well worth listening to. (I’ve realized one attraction to TV news is the chance to — at least sometimes — hear educated, intelligent talk. It’s a nice respite from most TV entertainment.)

Two things on Zakaria’s last episode really rang a bell with me.

The first shall be last here even though it came from his opening piece, which is always a monologue expressing some view or idea of his. I’ll end with it. The second actually comes from something one of his guests said:

The last trillion-dollar industry: computer code.
The next trillion-dollar industry: genetic code.

That’s [a] likely entirely correct and [2] a pretty cute way to say it.

genetic toolkitBiologists already have access to genetic toolkits that allow genetic experimentation without much of the prep work.

DNA analysis is well-established in law enforcement, and is now available online!

It wasn’t the genetic code part that rang my bell. (Biology was never one of my stronger sciences, and I never really cared all that much about it.) What got me thinking was that, yeah, the rise of computer code changed everything (again)!

It was a true revolution on par with the discovery of fire.

Which got me wondering what other milestones in human history were that much of a game changer for us naked apes…

¶ Fire is the cornerstone of this whole essay, and it’s arguably the first major game-changer in our history (although see the next one).

Fire gave us safety from cold and fire-fearing animals, and it allowed us to  heat our food (mmm, BBQ). More than that, it gave us access to ceramics and metals. It gave us access to other chemical processes that require heat (such as distilling oil).

Fire is a tool that began to let us truly shape our tools and manipulate our world.

printing-press¶ Language may have come earlier or later than fire, but it certainly comes from about as far back in our history (and our command of both grew over time).

It’s a game-changer in allowing us to communicate — and record — ideas and discoveries. Combined with the next game-changer, it leads inevitably to the printing press.

Many feel the printing press itself was a game-changer on par with fire, but here I’m treating it as the inevitable byproduct of language and…

¶ Simple Mechanical Physics: the wheel and axle, the lever and fulcrum, the screw, the pulley, and the wedge and inclined plane.

These discoveries gave us machines. And those led to buildings (ever tried to build a hut with just your bare hands?) and vehicles (other than horses). And roads and bridges for those vehicles (and gas stations).

bear at picnic tableAnd weapons.

(And before you peace-loving liberals wrinkle your nose at “weapons” just remember they’re important for food and self-defense, too. Or would you rather be eaten by a bear?)

And, of course, mechanics brings us the printing press, the dental drill, the Jaws of Life, Transformer toys, and the Leatherman tools!

¶ Farming was another game-changer for us.

The stability it provided led directly to having more time, more possessions, and more society. Farming leads directly to cities. And, of course, it leverages the discoveries so far, especially mechanics.

On the flip side, the change in diet nearly killed us off. Many still suffer today from gluten allergies (which can be very, very serious, even life-threatening).

electronsThe Electron. This one is at least as big as fire. It may, in some ways be bigger.

Harnessing the electron began changes we’re still experiencing over 100 years after its official discovery! It’s impossible to overestimate the impact the electron has had on human society.

The combination of the electron, a bit of mechanics, and language, leads inevitably to the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the television, the internet, the interweb, cable TV, and cell phones.

¶ Computer Code. Algorithms (Computer Science). For the first time, we break the direct connection between mechanics or electronics and the effect they produce.

Now, rather than needing a rod to push on a valve, or a voltage to control an output, we can use process and calculation to produce physical effects.

Apple watchThe ideas behind algorithms lead to Turing Machines, Universal Turing Machines, and then, combined with electrons, inevitably to the computers we all know and love (and carry in our pockets or wear on our wrists).

Computer code is fascinating in how it disconnects physical cause and effect! It leads us into the era of data and information processing! We begin to see the world in terms of its information content in addition to its physical content!

¶ Genetics. One more step along the path of controlling our environment and ourselves.

This game-changer has occurred, and we’re in the process of seeing what it leads to. Early days, but no doubt a trillion-dollar industry lies ahead.

§

Well, this is where I came in. What will be the next game-changers after that? What will be the next discovery of fire (or the electron)?

killer robot¶ AI and Robotics seems a natural place where the right sort of advances would be major game-changers for humans (especially if the robots kill us all).

It certainly seems like cracking the hard problem of consciousness would open a lot of doors.

If software AI is possible, it could lead to uploading our minds into machines and living forever (I’m skeptical it will ever happen, but if it does it’s likely many, many decades away).

¶ Quantum Physics and Gravity. I can’t help but wonder two things: [1] Have we gotten something really bass-ackward with regard to quantum physics and its seeming complete disconnect with gravity? [2] Would getting it right change our whole approach to small-scale physics?

Will we someday harness vacuum energy or dark energy (resulting in cheap, clean, abundant energy for all)?

¶ Alien Life (especially intelligent alien life) would be a pretty big game-changer as far as our view of ourselves in the universe. It’s still possible to believe there’s no one else out there.

§

I’ll leave you with a thought from Zakaria’s opening monologue.

founding fathersIt was basically a riff on why America (the USA) is seen as “the world’s greatest country.”

He noted that there are other countries that are more democratic, so it’s not our democracy. Likewise, there are other countries with more freedoms, so it’s not our freedoms.

What he pointed out is something that is being talked about due to the sudden death of US Supreme Court Justice Anthonin Scalia.

America is a land of ideas.

And not just these days. It was founded on deliberate, considered ideas (and some damned good ideas they were). It may be the only country in the world created by an act of political will and political science.

Which they largely, brilliantly, invented on the spot.

A fundamental principle here is that ideas are open to all, even kooks. (As Charlie Pierce points out in his book, Idiot America, even kooks often are 1% great ideas lurking in the 99% crazy. We have done very well, and benefited from, paying attention to that particular 1%!)

We the People

Political science!

Our love of ideas sometimes does us badly (not all ideas are equal, after all), but it’s made us a leader in STEM fields as well as in higher education (pity we suck at lower education, though).

We are a world leader in ideas. It shows up in our art, which is the most dynamic in the world. Our TV shows, our movies, our music; these things are loved world-wide.

Our current politics, on the other hand, not so much. And some of the ways we behave are… discouraging to others who expect more sense from a world leader (why we don’t seem to expect it of ourselves, I just can’t fathom).

But that is a topic for other posts.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

23 responses to “The Next Fire

  • Steve Morris

    Good stuff. I would like to add writing to your list (as distinct from verbal communication) and a precursor to printing. Also trade, which made the other developments possible. Actually, what I like is the idea that one idea depends on another (no writing is possible until farming has been invented – no computers until we’ve sussed electricity, etc.)

    Some thoughts for the future: nanomachines, sustainability (which I often sneer at, but is something that biological machines do orders of magnitude better than we do, so there are obvious gains to be made if we could too), solar power (which is one of the few truly scaleable energy generating technologies – and we’re going to want orders of magnitude more energy in the future.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “I would like to add writing to your list…”

      That’s a good one! What about making it include the idea of any symbolic representation of some aspect of reality? That’s a trick that really changes the game. The idea that an image of something stands for that something is something we have to learn as infants (and it’s beyond most animals). The idea that we can represent language in a visual form is part of that revolution.

      “Also trade, which made the other developments possible.”

      Maybe. That one might be too generic and too always prevalent to have a well-defined mile marker. Even some ape species have a basic sense of quid pro quo, which is the basis of trade. (I’ll remove your fleas if you remove mine!)

      “Actually, what I like is the idea that one idea depends on another…”

      It’s one of our defining characteristics, isn’t it! We build on our discoveries. No other animal does. We’ve come a long way since fire! (And in pretty short time compared to evolution or the life of stars.)

      “…nanomachines…”

      Could be. There are some energy and leverage limitations that might make them not live up to what many hope (certainly not to the level seen in SF movies). I suspect they’ll end up being as much biology and chemistry as mechanics. After all, living cells can accomplish tasks.

      “…sustainability…solar power…”

      I agree those are very important, perhaps even crucial! Are they game changers for all humanity? I suppose it becomes a matter of how you look at it.

      • Steve Morris

        Symbolic representation of reality – agreed. Absolutely crucial, and so far reaching.

        I think you may underestimate the importance of trade, which isn’t an obvious strategy (almost no animals do it), yet unlocks all the other possibilities.

        Nanomachines – yes, they may use biology as their building blocks, but they need not be restricted to that.

        As for solar power, it has the potential to move us from the fossil fuel era to a new state of clean energy abundance.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I think you may underestimate the importance of trade,…”

        I’m not underestimating its importance, because I totally agree it’s important. I was arguing that it, or its origins, might extend into our very primitive past and might, therefore, be built into us on some level.

        OTOH, one might make the same argument about language!

        [shrug] Maybe it’s that it doesn’t seem like primary discovery to me — something that had clearly never been before — rather than an obvious consequence of other things. (Although, again, you can make some of that argument for language. OTOH, I’m actually not entirely comfortable with language being on that list for many of the same reasons trade seems to me different from the others.)

        FWIW, I don’t include hunting, either. (Am I, perhaps, way over-thinking this? 😮 )

        “As for solar power, it has the potential to move us from the fossil fuel era to a new state of clean energy abundance.”

        There are other forms of power that could also move us off fossil fuel. What makes moving off fossil fuel a game-changer rather than just a transition to a new form of power?

        I’m less convinced this one belongs on a list of primary discoveries, but that’s just how I see it. I don’t mean to attempt to persuade you to not have them on your list of game changers! As I’ve always said: Your mileage may vary! 🙂

      • Steve Morris

        I’m not dogmatic about solar power. There are other technologies that have the potential to move us to sustainable and abundant energy. Nuclear power, wind power, biofuels, and synthetic fuels may all play a part, and energy storage and distribution technology will be needed too.

        What I see as the game-changer is moving to an era where energy is no longer expensive, finite and polluting, but ubiquitous. It’s a generational shift, not an overnight invention.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It would, in fact, be the world of Star Trek as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry! It’s implicit in his vision. (Capt. Picard mentions it in one of the TNG episodes. Supposedly they don’t even have money… except the Ferengi sure do. 🙂 )

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Here’s one we missed. It keeps popping into my head when I’m AFK, and I keep forgetting about it when I return: 3D Printing. It’s a change like algorithms that decouples processes that historically were required for certain results.

      Want shoes? You had to find a shoemaker or a shoe-seller with a connection to a shoemaker. Even if you made them yourself, you had to use a specific manufacturing process (and possibly specific tools).

      Now? Data provides a template and an algorithm for driving a general machine. There is a very strong analogy to a UTM here. One machine, one process, different data, vastly different result.

      (And, yes, we are already at the level of printing shoes. 😄 )

      I’ve been thinking about nano-machines… I think to me they’re an extension of robotics (and possibly AI) combined with our mastery of the mechanical (with maybe also of the electron). The revolution — the game-changer — to me is self-directed machines (of any kind). But that’s just my take on it.

      One thing: I think we may have slightly different definitions for “game-changer for humanity” and that difference likely accounts for slightly different lists. I’m setting the bar deliberately, and perhaps artificially, high to make the list small and comprised of only truly major things. Trade seems big enough to make that bar, whereas something like energy use seems (to me) to blend in with many other major technical advances in our history.

  • Steve Morris

    Can I suggest an alternative reason for why America may be so successful? Size, plus a common language. In order for ideas to be born, to flourish, to spread and give rise to new ideas, a common language is a huge benefit. And obviously population is a direct contributing factor. Europe had the population, but was divided into dozens of small groups speaking different languages, and generally distrusting each other, if not engaged in all-out war.

    Can I suggest that the modern world is now like an even bigger America, with a huge population and a common language (English, obviously.) Combined with the internet and a willing to cooperate, we are now progressing at speeds our forefathers could never imagine.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Can I suggest an alternative reason for why America may be so successful?”

      [The smart aleck in me remembers several English teachers, and a college girl friend, who would definitely have quipped: “I don’t know, can you?” 😮 ]

      Yes, of course you may, but Zakaria’s point (and mine) was that American is (often said to be) the “greatest” country in the world, and he was addressing why that’s an entirely defensible thing to say. Success is a different thing.

      But we can talk about that, too! 🙂

      “Size, plus a common language.”

      Those are, no doubt about it, contributing factors. In the beginning, of course, when the country was formed, it wasn’t very big. However, as it grew and drew immigrants, often there wasn’t a common language (other than the common language of the American ideals).

      Part of our success is due to having lucked out with a virgin territory just filled with riches. It was a land of vast forests, fertile prairies, oil and minerals and ores (oh, my). Part of our success (and shame) comes from the aggressive way we explored and developed those resources.

      Consider Los Angeles (where I loved living for 20 years). How does a city on the other side of a huge mountain range from the rest of the country become one of the largest cities in that country? Anything manufactured there has to be shipped back over the Rockies.

      Three things: Oil, constant sunshine, hugely varied terrain.

      Oil is valuable enough to pay for its own shipping costs. The constant sunshine is nice for people and crops (California is the biggest farming state in the USA), but what it’s really nice for is building, testing, and flying airplanes. Which you can just fly back east. Finally, within a very short distance from LA, one finds beaches, mountains, forests, deserts, river valleys, lakes, gulches, mesas, plains, and prairies. Plus constant sunshine. Which makes it great for making movies.

      And movies are small packages that aren’t too costly (compared to what they earn) to ship back east.

      That sort of story was played out over and over as the USA grew. The gold rush, the timber boom, and the land rush. We succeeded because of the American way of thinking and because we lucked out with an incredibly rich and largely unused land.

      “Europe had the population, but was divided into dozens of small groups speaking different languages, and generally distrusting each other, if not engaged in all-out war.”

      Yes, exactly. The countries in Europe evolved over a very long period of time with each region developing as it could on its own. America was a rare time in the modern era when a nation was literally built from scratch. And, crucially, built on a specific set of well-considered basic principles.

      “Can I suggest that the modern world is now like an even bigger America, with a huge population and a common language…”

      [Clearly you can! Sorry.]

      Funny thing is, that’s very true, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

      The size of the USA actually works against it in that a country this large ends up being very diverse. The Deep South is a different world compared to the Northeast, the Southwest, the Midwest, Texas (which is its own thing), or Florida (also its own thing). There’s also “black America” and “Hispanic America.” Part of the reason our politics is so messed up comes from all those diverse views (and their sense of entitlement).

      In this regard we are very much like the divided Europe you mentioned. And I agree the modern world is just as fractured.

      Our success, the increase in the rate of success, and the increase in the rate of increase of the rate of success, come (I think) pretty strictly from our own human process of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Lots of growth curves pick up speed as they progress.

      There is something else. I assume you’re familiar with the sociological term, WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). Many social and anthropological studies have been devalued because they only studied WEIRD subjects.

      There is evidence my WEIRD culture is making the whole world WEIRD. It definitely makes the children of those who migrate here WEIRD. I’m not sure that lack of diversity of culture and thought is a good thing! We seem to be making endangered species of other cultures.

      • Steve Morris

        If I may, I will make some further observations.

        1. I view the world as a physicist, not as a historian. Therefore I always look for the simplest parameters that describe a system. In the case of America, size and uniformity are the clear factors. I know you say that America is a diverse place, but the common language makes it much less diverse than the rest of the world. It has also always been a free trade zone, with few restrictions on trade between states. So again, it’s big and with few internal barriers (in stark contrast to the rest of the world.)

        2. Natural resources played a part, as you say.

        3. My point about the world today is that it is becoming much less divided. Free trade, a common language and cooperation are becoming the norm.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “In the case of America, size and uniformity are the clear factors.”

        So are other factors when you look beneath the surface. The USA is only the third largest country (fourth if we include Antarctica). Russia is close to twice as large, and China is just slightly larger.

         # | Country   | KM MM | Pop. MM |
         --+-----------+-------+---------+
         1 | Russia    | 16.38 |   143.6 |
         2 | Antarctica| 14.00 |      ~0 |
         3 | China     |  9.33 | 1,382.3 |
         4 | USA       |  9.15 |   324.2 |
         5 | Canada    |  9.09 |    36.2 |
         6 | Brazil    |  8.39 |   209.6 |
         7 | Australia |  7.68 |    24.3 |
         8 | India     |  2.97 | 1,326.8 |

        Russia has less than half our population, but China has many times more than us. I know China has more than one language, but I believe there is a common one. I assume all Russians speak Russian.

        So Russia has the size and common language, plus a much longer history, so if size and common language were the key factors in success, they should be the world power. The USA pulled off becoming a world power in under 200 years.

        And China has about the same size, far more people, and something that passes as a common language. Plus they’ve been around a very long time.

        So I can’t help but feel there is a great deal more to it than size and a common language. I maintain that, at its core, it’s more about our ideas and way of seeing the world.

        “My point about the world today is that it is becoming much less divided. Free trade, a common language and cooperation are becoming the norm.”

        Among civilized, industrialized countries, yes, absolutely. They are slowly becoming WEIRD! (And it’s happening without a common language, although English is becoming more and more of a “trade” language.)

        But this is much less so with regard to the Middle East or Africa. ISIS, obviously, is actively fighting that incorporation. They’re not the only ones. The Taliban are re-emerging in Pakistan, for example.

      • Steve Morris

        Historically, both Russia and China were great powers. Both countries self-destructed in the 20th century thanks to revolution. I don’t need to point out China is back in the ascendant – thanks to the re-introduction of free trade. Russia is still dragged down by a command economy and crony capitalism. So I think this is again evidence that free trade is far more powerful than attempts to organize from the top down.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        With very long histories gaining that power and, as you indicate, an idea-throttling culture that fomented revolution. China’s current rise is problematic for them right now; as I understand it, they’re facing a financial crisis that is affecting the global economy. Russia has been in disarray for quite a while. And both still have cultures that throttle ideas and free expression (good luck being gay in Russia). Life for many in those countries isn’t good, even in this modern era.

        Life isn’t good for many in the USA, either (or anywhere else in the world, really), but there are opportunities here — because of our ideas and culture — unlike any in the world. This is one of the few places on Earth where an idea can take one from pauper to prince almost overnight. Just ask Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey.

        You just posted about memes. Ideas are powerful. More powerful than size, population, geography, common language, or history. They are more powerful because they can overcome all those things! Just consider how the idea of Christianity conquered geography and language and has persisted largely intact for over 2000 years!

      • Steve Morris

        Oh yes, ideas are sooper-dooper powerful! And America has done an amazing job of nurturing them!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        And creating them! I’m not sure why, perhaps because my memory falsely had “Ideas” as one of the four bullet points, but this conversation reminded me of a bit (an omniscient monologue) that occurs early in my favorite Neal Stephenson novel, Snow Crash:

        This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world. When it gets down to it — talking trade balances here — once we’ve brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they’re making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here — once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel — once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequalities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity — y’know what? There’s only four things we do better than anyone else:

          music
          movies
          microcode (software)
          high-speed pizza delivery

        If you’ve never read it, and have any taste at all for “punk” science fiction, I think you might really like it. One of the main characters is a pizza delivery guy, and you’ll just love his high-speed delivery vehicle.

        A “snow crash” is a bitmap image that, if you’ve been programming code long enough to have trained your brain on binary code, and you look at this bitmap image, your brain will subconsciously decode the bitmap into an algorithm that runs in your brain. A virus algorithm that “crashes” your conscious mind. The “snow” is analogous to the snow seen on an old TV screen reading dead air: just static noise.

        The novel also features a cool virtual reality world people visit to hang out and party and do business. I’d probably include Snow Crash on a list of 100 favorite SF novels. (I’ll warn you that Stephenson doesn’t do endings like most writers. His stories just kind of end. Suddenly. It can be a little jarring. The first time I read Snow Crash I wondered if the final chapter was missing!)

      • Steve Morris

        It’s one of my favourite books 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Cool! I love the idea of the snow crash bitmap… it’s one of my favorite SF ideas in modern SF! (And after coding at all levels for 40 years, I’d definitely be susceptible!)

  • Steve Morris

    On trade, I’m glad we’re agreed on its fundamental importance. To answer the question, “Is it built into us on some level?” requires more space than is available in the comments section. I’m tempted to write a blog article about it. Would you be happy for me to mention and link to this discussion?

  • Is free trade natural? | Blog Blogger Bloggest

    […] been having an interesting chat with my blog friend, Wyrd Smythe about the discovery of fire, and other game-changing advances in human civilization. We both agree that trade is of fundamental importance, but where we have differing views is […]

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