A few stories that are worth your time.
I love to ask people what they’re reading, and I love being asked what I’m reading. Like everybody else in the digital age of sharing, I come across pieces from all over that grab my attention, get bookmarked and sometimes even get read. And while we all struggle with flooded inboxes, I confess I’m always happy when friends send me emails with subject lines like “Arianna, READ THIS!” So here are a few of the best I’ve read this week.
A great interview by Vox’s Sean Illing of Michael Bess, author of Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in a Bioengineered Society, and a professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in the history of science. The conversation is sweeping: about how technology – from smartphones, to AI to bioengineering — is changing what it means to be human. Yes, it’s a big topic, but, as Bess says, these are exactly the kinds of questions we need to be thinking of. “I think each of us needs to ask, ‘What does it mean for a human being to flourish?,’” he tells Illing. “These technologies are forcing us to be more deliberate about asking that question. We need to sit down with ourselves and say, ‘As I look at my daily life, as I look at the past year, as I look at the past five years, what are the aspects of my life that have been the most rewarding and enriching? When have I been happiest? What are the things that have made me flourish?’”
And, he adds, “if we ask these questions in a thoughtful, explicit way, then we can say more definitely what these technologies are adding to the human experience and, more importantly, what they’re subtracting from the human experience.”
Steven Pinker, psychology professor at Harvard and author of Enlightenment Now, writes about the serious consequences of the media’s distorted focus on negative news. “Consumers of negative news,” he writes, “not surprisingly, become glum: a recent literature review cited ‘misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization, and in some cases … complete avoidance of the news.’ And they become fatalistic, saying things like ‘Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help,’ or ‘I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.’” It’s a good reminder to resist the fatalism and cynicism that lead us to believe that we can’t take action to make the world around us a little better.
David Pilling, author of The Growth Delusion: The Wealth and Well-Being of Nations argues in The Big Think that we need to go beyond GDP as a metric of a country’s true well-being. He tells the story of Simon Kuznets, the economist who first came up with the measure at the request of FDR. Kuznets wanted to exclude economic activity that didn’t contribute to human welfare. “Above all, said the man who practically invented the concept of economic growth, GDP should never be confused with wellbeing,” writes Pilling. “It is a warning we have roundly ignored.” And, as Pilling shows, growth for growth’s sake works as badly in the long-term for corporations as for countries.
Thrive Global’s Josephine Chu writes about the Russian film “Loveless,” which examines the perils of screen addiction through the story of a phone-obsessed mother who doesn’t realize her son is missing for two days.“This passion for selfies is like a virus that spreads all over the world, like an illness of modern-day society,” director Andrey Zvyagintsev told The Village Voice. The film, along with TV shows like Black Mirror, are signs that, as Chu writes, “more and more films and TV shows these days are reflecting the reality of our society’s phone addiction.” It’s an overdue discussion and it’s great to see it being tackled by artists and story tellers.
On the same theme, Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald writes in Thrive Global about something she’s increasingly seeing in her patients: memory problems. And she believes that the increasing reliance on smartphones is playing a role. Citing research on what multitasking does to our brains, how distraction limits memory formation and how smartphones disrupt our sleep, which in turn leads to cognitive decline, she makes a compelling case. While the Internet and smartphones may seem like the greatest inventions of our generation,” she writes, “the truth is there is nothing more precious than a strong and healthy brain rooted in an ability to make and retain memories. For without memories, we are truly lost…and a device can never replace the world’s most incredible computer: the human brain.”