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Must-Know Concepts for the 21st Century

My colleague at IEET, George Dvorsky, posted a list of concept about the future that he sees as vital for people who consider themselves to be intelligent to know and understand. His goal is admirable: too much of what passes for public discourse (in the United States, at least, but from what I can see, also in much of the rest of the West) is deeply focused on the past, and much too narrow. Moreover, it's not simply that we've become a culture of niche thinkers; it's that the niche thinkers that dominate public discourse have seemingly decided that their particular set of niches (largely issues of domestic politics and economics) are the only important ones.

George's list is, by and large, a good one. I'd quibble about a couple of items he includes, but nothing strikes me as outrageously out-of-place. (I do wish he'd add links to the terms to help people who don't recognize various entries get up to speed, however.) He covers, for the most part, terms concerning advances in human engineering and in information and material technologies, with particular emphasis on various manifestations and implications of non-human intelligence(s).

George asks for additions, so in that spirit, here's a list of 10 more terms and concepts intelligent participants in the 21st century should understand. Mine has links. :)

I'm not entirely satisfied with this list; it remains a bit too tech-focused. Still, in combination with George's list, this looks like the beginnings of a good primer for dealing with the key issues of the new century.


Those are excellent additions. I have to admit that some of those terms were new to me (like Carlson Curves and continuous partial attention), so thank you for the links. You are absolutely right to mention extended identities, and I'm surprised I didn't think of that.

BTW, I thought of adding climate tipping point, but I figured it was a sub-section of the larger existential risk category. I realize that climate change is the most obvious and addressable extinction risk currently unraveling, but the jury is still out as to whether this will prove to be the most challenging threat to face the planet and our species.

I'd say it's the largest currently-quantifiable risk to our civilization, but not the planet or, really, the species.

Hmm. I think this calls for a taxonomy of eschatology.

You've also been talking about the personal panopticon -- shouldn't that be on the list?

Actually, George Dvorsky included my "participatory panopticon" idea as one of his "must-know" concepts, so there was no need to put it on mine.

"Moreover, it's not simply that we've become a culture of niche thinkers; it's that the niche thinkers that dominate public discourse have seemingly decided that their particular set of niches (largely issues of domestic politics and economics) are the only important ones."

In my years of going to news and media stuff at Harvard and MIT, I'd have to say that it is only rarely that the subjects of energy, climate, or science come up in the discussions at either place. It is almost always war and electoral politics.

Looking over the "brown bag" lunches at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy in 2005 and 2006, I don't see even a discussion of the coverage of New Orleans, one of the greatest Natural disasters in US history.

I’m having a slightly different perspective on what should be placed inside the rucksack taken to that journey. This list, as you mentioned yourself, is too tech-and-science-oriented, as if the knowledge about all those scientific issues will give us better tools to cope with an unpredictable future.
So what is missing? What about some oldies but goldies? What about philosophy? I think that philosophy, not as an analytical practice, but rather as a collection of good questions asked in the course of human history is a great survival tool. What about Art & Cinema? The eyes artists have are completely different than those we’re having – they know how to observe a changing environment in an a-textual way which is critical, imho, to our future adaptation.
And so forth.

The trouble with George's list is that it's largely wishful thinking. I'd wager that many of the terms on it ("self-improving and autopotent intelligence," anyone?) will be moot points well before the end of the century - and not because they will be fait accompli, either. They're projections of desire, not meaningful assessments of the complexity involved in modeling phenomena like sentience or self-awareness.

And this opens up a deeper can of worms (with apologies for the Friedmanism): I get terribly frustrated, sometimes, with how people so alive to the potential of technology can so willingly blind themselves not merely to everything else that is unfolding on our planet, but to everything that history tells us about what it means to be human.

I can't say I blame you for training your eyes forward, since looking backward is only rarely anything but painful. But I can't help thinking that your forward vision would be improved by a deepened acquaintance with who we are as a species, and what we've done with the tools we've already been given to play with. (My own personal touchstone is Solzhenitsyn, but there are many, many others.)

I'm of the belief that there will never be any such thing as post-scarcity economics, to begin with, as *some* commodities will always be hard to come by and highly valued for that reason: space, silence, and the time to consider issues deeply are just a few that come to mind.

But elevating this dreamy notion to the status of concept central to twenty-first century thought is just obscene. Go tell the folks in Lagos, in the favelas, or the 30,000-odd human beings living on a garbage dump in Manila that they're merely a few replicator patents away from a post-scarcity existence.

Believe it or not, AG, I agree with nearly all of that. I don't know if you've seen the site I co-founded and wrote quite a bit for prior to Open the Future -- Worldchanging, but the question of how to blend foresight and global responsibility is one that has been on my mind for quite awhile.

Telling someone living in a garbage dump that mass fabricators will give them a post-scarcity existence is silly and cruel, and would be wrong even if nanoreplication did link to post-scarcity economics. No one solution is ever the solution. People living in such conditions aren't there simply because they don't have cheap enough stuff.

In defense of George's list (which seems to have the brunt of your focus), however, he was explicitly looking at themes and ideas that are *not* already on the table of most concerned, intelligent people, but will nonetheless be important over this century.

Now, something subtle here: this doesn't necessarily mean that these things will happen -- it does mean, however, that these topics will be subject to intense public debate, and people who know more about them and have ill will can be in a position to take advantage of a public that doesn't know much at all about them. The role of the public intellectual, here, is to offer an informed voice on complex subjects.

And, for what it's worth, one of my degrees is in History, so I appreciate the role of looking backwards in trying to look forwards.

Too bad George's list isn't a glossary? "remedial ecology"?

But I think his rhetoric is offensively pompous, elitist, and naïve.

I guess I don't get the guidelines for the list. Concepts intelligent people should know? Concepts about the future people should know? Seems very arbitrary. Why words ordinary words like "automation", "open source", and "virtual reality", but not "evolution" or "market economy", "sustainable development", "non-zero-sum"? I guess don't really grok. Maybe I'm just an intelligentsia halfling, but I agree with the sentiment of Karen's post on his site.


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