Scary Good Ideas

Idea 1: Build Anything

Commentary upon the recent Popular Science interview of Joi Ito, entitled “Making Gadgets Great.”

(Aside: this interview is notably longer on the web than in the magazine print version, where I originally read it.  That says something about our current media culture.  Maybe several somethings.)

There is a great deal about Joi Ito and his current work at the MIT Media Lab that should be applauded.  In the first place, he’s building things, rather than merely “providing services” or spinning out impossible ideas.

In the second, he eschews hyperspecialization, and keeps his focus broad:

I think the Media Lab is unique in its ability to be multi-disciplinary but execution-oriented.

That combination is rare, and is a Really Good Idea.  We need more places like this.

In the third place, he’s leveraging the increasing cheapness of technology to make this execution really practical.  One of the cool things about technology (in fact perhaps its defining benefit) is that the more of it you have, the cheaper it gets.  This is true of lots of things, but probably more so of technology than, say, sheep or lumber or granite.

Never Say Never

But what Ito is up to is also pretty scary, in a number of respects.  For instance:

It’s a risk-taking, extremely creative, build-oriented, multi-disciplinary place where there isn’t a single thing that we would ever say we would never do.

Of course the obvious counterfactual is “What if I floated an idea for a specially ingenious device for killing large numbers of people at once?”

To be fair, Ito would (probably) say no.  But then again, maybe he would just ask how much money was in it.  Who knows?  The point is that, while he may possess them, moral constraints are nowhere to be found on the basic grid he uses for assessing new ideas.   This to me is scary.


MJ: Your investment fund is named Neoteny. What does that mean?

JI: “Neoteny” is the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood. As a child you learn, you have wonder, you’re curious, and every day’s a new day. But at some point you become an adult. And as an adult you focus on producing, reproducing, protecting. In the old days, the world didn’t change very much, so once you became a plumber, you didn’t really need to learn that much more about plumbing. Today you have to keep learning, and learning is somewhat of a childlike behavior. We want the Media Lab to be more like kindergarten and less like a lumber mill.

Again, there’s plenty here worth lauding.  There should be no argument that “work” should include as much like “learning” as possible, because learning is fun, and work—to the degree that it prohibits discovery and invention and improvement—is not.  Of course the issue is a lot muddier than this, because a lot of the imaginative and creative learning has been stripped out of our schools, and at the same time a lot of it is still being done at the adult level (in colleges and seminars and research labs and lots of places); but Ito is correct that whatever is good about childhood learning is something that adults can and should benefit from.  Kids like colors and stories and music and rhyme: but it’s not because they’re kids, it’s because they’re human.  The fact that college students can learn without such fun mnemonic aids doesn’t mean they should have to, or that it’s the best way.

But there’s something creepy here too.  Neoteny is in fact a disease, or a disorder.  Irrespective of Joi Ito’s juvenile philosophizing, when you witness it in nature, it’s pretty obviously not right.

Take the axolotl, a salamander that develops reproductive capacity but never loses its gills, and so never leaves the water.  It’s curious, and maybe even cute, and is anyhow an amazing example of genetic flexibility.  But it also doesn’t live up to its classification as an “amphibian.”  And there’s a lot of the world it never sees.

Neoteny in humans is even scarier.  And sadder.

Because the waters that it lives in are increasingly polluted, the axolotl is in danger of extinction.

Idea 2: Precision Pesticides

Commentary upon the article “Small Business Owner Exports Earth-friendly Pesticide,” in which the Small Business Administration touts one of its success stories.

Better Death

A little-known fact is that less than 1 percent of the insecticide in a traditional spray application actually hits its target….

That’s reason enough right there to build a better mousetrap.  And there’s no need to recount all the badness that accrues from traditional pesticide methods.

Higher kill rates and lower pollution levels are pretty appealing, I have to admit.  And joining a poison with a female pheromone is pretty specially ingenious means of killing large numbers of insects at once, too.

And since we do live in a fallen world, and since pests really are pests, there may be a place for such a thing.

But What If

But what if all this is just a science fiction story waiting to be told?

What if this pest fills an ecological niche, say as a food source for a bird that also gobbles up the crop’s secondary and tertiary pests? Or those of the field next door?  What if it is adopted so broadly, and works so well, that a few dozen species of pest simply go extinct?

Or what if, conversely, the synthetic version of the pheromone doesn’t attract every male of the species equally, but only the weakest and stupidest?  Do we really want to kick natural selection up to that very unnatural level?

What if a targeted assault on a given species holds no less hubris, in its essence, than a broadcast assault?

And what if this pheromone should happen to attract not only the crop’s major pest, but also its primary pollinator?

A Fable

Once upon a time, Hawaii had a rat problem.  The rats were eating all the sugar cane.  Some clever orc realized that mongooses eat rats.  So they imported mongooses.

The mongooses ignored the rats, and ate the eggs of the native birds.

A Future

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom. 8:19-25)

Someday the remnant of mankind—those that have the faith and hope of a child!—will grow up.

Someday the adoption will be completed, and death and faith and hope will be done away, and the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the mongoose with the bird of Paradise.

For now we wait with patience, and yet say Marana Tha.