Monday Topsight, June 12 2006
"Topsight" is one of those words that deserves wider use, especially within the scenario/futurist/early indicators community. It means a view, or understanding, of all aspects of a problem or situation: the components, the context, the drivers, the participants... everything. The Big Picture, but with less emphasis on broad structures and more emphasis on completeness. Computer scientist David Gelertner may have coined it for his 1991 book, Mirror Worlds, but I've seen it used in reference to military planning, so it may have earlier origins (any etymologists in the house?).
As part of my goal of blogging a bit more often (but not too often), I'm hereby instituting a regular "Topsight" post, gathering together a diverse selection of interesting items, offering a distant early warning of changes on the way.
• It's Not Happening Here, But It's Happening Now: An utterly brilliant advertising campaign for Amnesty International now underway in Zurich, Switzerland. Under a headline reading "It's not happening here, but it's happening now," images of torture, prisoner abuse, and utter privation appear to be taking place just beyond the sign. Under the right lighting, the signs look transparent (they're not, for a variety of reasons), and the effect is electrifying.
This is an important campaign for a few reasons. The first is that they drive home the point that these kinds of abominations are happening right now, not in a hazy past for later documentation and condemnation. The second is that, despite the language of the headline, the ads leave one with the unsettling realization that these kinds of abuses could happen here, too; it wouldn't take much for us to be living in societies where prisoners are treated in this way -- and maybe we already are. The last is that they are early indicators of what life will be like with pervasive augmented reality tools: advertisements that layer onto the world we see, even interacting with it (imagine how much more powerful these ads would be if they were animated, or could somehow respond to the presence or absence of people). It's good that Amnesty brought this ad series out now, before the technique was too debased by pseudo-transparent ads for macaroni and cheese or disposable diapers. (via Unmediated, 37 Signals, AdLand; see examples on Flickr: 1, 2, 3, 4.)
• PLoS Blogs: The good folks at the Public Library of Science noted my recent piece on the PLoS ONE project, and wanted me to know about another new endeavor. PLoS Blogs will offer "an insider's view of the latest developments at PLoS;" they've launched two different blog pages, one focusing on publishing issues (and new publishing plans), the other on the technology of what they're calling "Open Access 2.0."
[I'd like to call for a temporary moritorium on the use of "2.0" for identifying variants of existing movements or ideas. Not a permanent ban -- it's a useful meme, just a bit over-used for now. Too often, "2.0" is used not to indicate a wholly new version of something, but a tweaked version that the creator wants to differentiate for marketing purposes.]
There's not much upon the PLoS Blogs right now, but that will undoubtedly change. I would like to see PLoS consider offering blogs to regular participants, much like the "diaries" at sites like Daily Kos. The tension between citizen science and traditional science research often comes down to the legitimacy offered by peer review. If the PLoS Blogs included science diaries, allowing citizens (students, researchers between jobs, autodidacts, etc.) to "publish" their own ideas for review by other participants, we might see some of that legitimacy get distributed. PLoS Blogs -- from Science Journals to Science Diaries. Yeah, that has a ring to it.
• This Is Your Brain On Drugs: My friend and occasional colleague Joel Garreau has an interesting piece in the Washington Post about the growing use of neuropharmaceuticals among students and knowledge workers. Anti-ADD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, as well as the anti-narcolepsy drug Provigil, are changing study habits for a startlingly large number of people. While these are therapeutic drugs for some, they clearly have value as temporary enhancements, improving mental focus and alertness.
For a senior project this semester, Christopher Salantrie conducted a random survey of 150 University of Delaware students at the university's Morris Library and Trabant Student Center.
"With rising competition for admissions and classes becoming harder and harder by the day, a hypothesis was made that at least half of students at the university have at one point used/experienced such 'smart drugs,' " Salantrie writes in his report. He found his hunch easy to confirm.
"What was a surprise, though, was the alarming rate of senior business majors who have used" the drugs, he writes. Almost 90 percent reported at least occasional use of "smart pills" at crunch times such as final exams, including Adderall, Ritalin, Strattera and others. Of those, three-quarters did not have a legitimate prescription, obtaining the pills from friends. "We were shocked," Salantrie writes.
The traditional perspective is to be shocked that such things are going on. But how, aside from effectiveness, does the use of Adderall or Provigil differ from the use of caffeine? All have mild side-effects, and all alter brain chemistry. Caffeine is "natural," but that's not much of a defense for a brain-chemistry-altering drug. The cost of prescription cognitive enhancers should drop when generics become available, albeit not likely down to cup-of-coffee levels.
The difference, of course, is our familiarity with them. There's an old saying that "technology" is "anything invented after one turns 13." For the generation brought up in a world where these drugs are commonplace -- even given to 8 year olds, as someone in Joel's article points out -- these chemicals are hardly scary and unfamiliar.
And that does point us to where the risks come from. Office workers are free to not drink coffee, but if they consistently fall asleep on the job, or are regularly too tired to work effectively at some point in the day, they're going to face not-so-subtle pressure to start drinking something caffeinated. It's not a required drug, per se, but it's one that society assumes will be used casually when needed. A similar fate may lie ahead for neuropharmaceuticals like Adderall and Provigil. You won't be forced to use them, but work and school life may slowly become structured around the assumption that you will. If staying up 48 hours straight to finish a job is as easy as popping an aspirin, and has as few side-effects, organizations with employees ready, willing and able to do so will have a notable competitive advantage -- and employees not ready, willing or able will face some real questions about their viability in the job market of the not so distant future.