All of Technology Conspires to Give Us a Richer Life, and That Won't Change

All technologies conspire to give ordinary people more information, more tools, more resources, more ways to connect with each other, more ways to influence conversations.

Technology is always surprising.  I have no idea whether in 2016 or 2020 Facebook is still going to be what it is.  Maybe it will be even bigger.  Who knows?  Maybe something new will have taken over. 


Go visit a college campus and ask how many people have Snapchat.  You will not find one person who does not have Snapchat.  Is that going to be the case in four years?  I have no idea.  I do know that the overall direction of these technologies is quite clear and is not going to be reversed.  All of them collectively - whether one particular company does a better job getting users than the other - all of them collectively, sort of conspire to give ordinary people more information, more tools, more resources, more ways to connect with each other, more ways to influence conversations. They give us more power and a richer life.  And that’s not going to change.

Whatever technology comes and goes, the ability of a candidate or, for that matter, a brand to connect with people and show the people that they respect them and are about them and want to empower them is going to be increasingly important to the outcome because people aren’t going to tolerate anything less. There’s going to be a competitor who does respect that stuff and who does get that stuff.  

Come 2016, is it conceivable that a candidate who’s a digital luddite wins?  Sure.  But that’s going to be a real disadvantage for them.  Could a candidate win without TV ads?  Perhaps, but that’s going to be a real disadvantage for them. 

That’s only going to be more true in 2020.  And it’s not about tactics.  It’s not about finding the best possible copywriter for Facebook and Tumbler.  That doesn’t hurt.  You should go try to find a really good copywriter, but it’s about something more philosophical than that.  People have a different relationship now to the organizations they care about, in politics, to the brands they care about than they ever had before. 

The thing we used to say on the campaign is that in 2008 if we’d been not local enough, not timely enough, just off our game that wouldn’t have been good and people might have clicked away.  In 2012, they’d click away and Tweet about why they lost confidence in the President.  And that’s a really fundamental difference in terms of the power that people have.  We weren’t just risking losing them if we were off our game.  We were risking losing their entire network. 

That’s only going to become more and more true.  And so again, it's going to be the case that people are going to have more power in 2016 than they had in 2012 and more power in 2020 than they had in 2016.  And the candidates who get that and respect that and try to use that in a positive way rather than trying to play an inside game or trying to pretend like they get that but not without really getting it are going to be the ones that succeed or at least have a big leg up over their competitors. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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