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  • A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
  • Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
  • This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".

Given the mounting crises of 2020, wouldn't it be nice to just get on a giant spaceship and leave this troubled planet behind? While we don't yet have a surefire candidate for the new Earth, and our tech is still probably decades if not centuries behind, proposals and achievements in interstellar travel are stacking up. A new study makes the fascinating case that if a group of humans was to venture out on a space journey that lasted generations, their language would likely change. It could evolve into something the people of the original Earth would not understand.

Let's say, a contingent of people boards a so-called "generation ship," a fully-stocked world-onto-itself spaceship that can sustain generations of humans in space, slowly traversing the heavens towards another possibly inhabitable planet like Proxima b in the Proxima Centauri star system. We cannot yet build such a ship, which might have to fly for thousands of years, unless we invent some type of warp-drive or use antimatter, as has been imagined in science fiction, but there have been some initial studies on the subject.

Such a journey could be subject to a variety of dangers and unforeseen circumstances like viruses, asteroids, computer malfunctions, you name it. New research, carried out by linguistics professors Andrew McKenzie from the University of Kansas and Jeffrey Punske of Southern Illinois University, shows what might also happen is that the language of the travelers would mutate. The study highlights the fact that when communities become isolated from each other, conditions are ripe for language to transform. Over time, the spacefaring colonizers would not be able to able to understand their original language.

In the study, the linguists use examples of effects from long-distance voyages on Earth, like the changing languages of Polynesian island explorers, to show how much language can change, even within one's lifetime.

Professor McKenzie described a likely (and somewhat sad) scenario in a press release:

"If you're on this vessel for 10 generations, new concepts will emerge, new social issues will come up, and people will create ways of talking about them," McKenzie explained, "and these will become the vocabulary particular to the ship. People on Earth might never know about these words, unless there's a reason to tell them. And the further away you get, the less you're going to talk to people back home. Generations pass, and there's no one really back home to talk to. And there's not much you want to tell them, because they'll only find out years later, and then you'll hear back from them years after that."

Generation Ships

What might also happen is that the language of people on Earth would change. So it's possible, given the distance, and the dwindling reasons to communicate, that both parties might simply not be able to speak each other as time passes.

One way to prevent this issue – have a member of the crew trained in linguistics or make other accommodations to remember the language of Earth. Thinking even further ahead, the professors propose that each new ship of people coming over to a faraway space colony would essentially contain "linguistic immigrants" and an effort would have to be made to train them in the changed language to help them avoid discrimination.

In case you're deadset on going to Proxima b, recent research found that using currently-imaginable-tech such a trip would take 6300 years and would need to start out with a crew of at least 98 people.

Check out the study, "Language Development During Interstellar Travel" in Acta Futura, the journal of the European Space Agency's Advanced Concepts Team.

Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.


Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we've come to rely even more on our digital devices, including to help manage our emotions.

There are approximately 2.57 million apps available for Android users to download and approximately 1.84 million apps available for Apple users. Apps are those tools on our phones or tablets which help us monitor, record and regulate some of the most intimate aspects of our lives, from sleep and menstrual cycles, to food intake and finances.

Many of the most popular apps in the West include the goal of self-improvement, which seems to be a constant drive for many.

The investment of our time and money into apps that help us become better performers, managers and producers is one of the consequences of neoliberalism, the idea that humans can make progress in their lives through market competition and economic growth.

Neoliberalism empasizes individualism, economic efficiency, low to no government interference and generally ignores systemic issues.

Under neoliberalism, a person is an enterprise whose personality traits and skills are considered valuable assets that need continuous management, improvement and investment.

Apps can help with the business of us: we can easily track and monitor our bodies with workout classes, diets and skill-building exercises. As we track our progress in apps, we can literally visualize our bodies and capabilities improve.

Emotions, however, are trickier. We haven't had the same kind of metric tools and assessment criteria to track our minds to the same degree we can track our bodies caloric intake or waist circumference.

Enter mood tracking apps.

The simultaneous production and consumption of emotion, or emotional prosumption manufactures emotion for consumer consumption.

The pursuit of happiness

Mood tracking apps are sophisticated tools which promise the ability to track, measure and improve our emotions. Positive emotions, like happiness, are encouraged through visual features like "best day streaks."

Negative emotions like sadness or anger are dissected with aims to avoid or erase their existence.

In this new emotional frontier, happiness is the bar against which we measure all other emotions. The very existence of mood tracking apps is a testament to this.

The potential to improve our emotional traits and skills through apps appears limitless. While there is nothing wrong with pursuing a more fulfilling emotional life, there is a danger in being blinded by the quest for happiness. Since mood tracking apps are designed to direct us solely toward happiness, will we be prevented from understanding and engaging with the true complexity of our emotions?

Data dangers

By reducing our experiences, bodies and emotions to numbers, or quantified data, we make them ripe for consumption by app developers and interested third parties.

As a critical health researcher and a digital health literacy researcher, we are both concerned with how unsuspecting users may be taken advantage of within this frontier of continual self-improvement, especially if their personal data falls into the wrong hands and manipulated against them.

When it comes to commerce, emotions are powerful. They have the ability to move us towards action, change our minds and foster new relationships. They are also fast and reactive. Making decisions becomes more challenging when choices are everywhere and need to be made at lightning speed.

Modern advertising, by design, targets this impulsivity by hooking us on products and content through emotion.

In his book, Psychopolitics, Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, cultural theorist Byung- Chul Han discusses how this shift signals a creation of emotional consumption. We no longer buy a phone because it's a good phone, but rather because the ad displays happy people surrounded by friends using that phone.

We are drawn to ads and marketing campaigns because of the way they make us feel rather than the service they provide.

In a similar vein, social media platforms like Instagram, Tinder and Facebook hook us by "selling" us "likes," matches and affirmation through numbers. Since likes and swipes take less than a second to perform, they target and rely on the reactive nature of emotion.

The consumption of emotions

Emotions then become a new commodity that we knowingly or unknowingly produce and are for sale to the highest bidder. This is known as emotional prosumption.

Emotional prosumption produces two consequences. First, due to the reactivity of emotions, our decision making can be swayed when the information we consume is emotionally charged.

As such, in 2016, the emotions of voters in the United States were taken advantage of and manipulated through specifically targeted ad campaigns. Specifically, emotionally charged ads pertaining to immigration, gun laws and other political issues were deliberate targeted at the U.S. electorate just days before the election.

Our emotional data can be sold to third parties without our permission. Likes, swipes and mood tracking logs can all be classified as emotional data and provide companies with information on how to promote products to us in ways that trigger the highest emotional response.

These abilities raise questions not only for data privacy, but also for advertising ethics.

The unregulated creation and consumption of emotional data is therefore problematic for two reasons: It places emphasis on "positive" emotions rather than a healthy spectrum, and it takes information about immaterial consumption without user knowledge.

The ethical implications of emotional prosumption may leave a lasting impact on how we advertise, how and what we consume, and what aspects of ourselves we are willing to alter in the never ending quest of personal optimization.

Anna Rudkovska, PhD Candidate, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Western University and Danica Facca, PhD student, Health Information Science, Western University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.

Walmart recently announced plans to battle Amazon in the massive online shopping market. At $98/year, Walmart+ offers many of the same perks, including same-day grocery delivery, as well as discounts at Walmart gas stations, one of the few things Amazon cannot offer (yet). Of course, it lacks the entertainment perks of Amazon Prime, such as the automatic subscription to numerous TV shows and movies.

Another important distinction: Walmart is offering discounts on fossil fuels while Amazon has promised to create a fleet of 100,000 electric delivery vans in order to become completely carbon neutral by 2040. That said, Walmart does have plans for reducing its carbon footprint as well. Unfortunately, these ambitious plans likely won't impact harmful consumer habits, which are rooted in the conveniences that online retailers offer.

Earlier this year, a study from researchers in the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, confirmed what many expected: online shopping is worse for the environment than going to the store yourself. This contradicts previous research championing online shopping.

While Amazon boasts of its greening efforts, the corporation's current protocols are horrendous. Many packages are glorified Matryoshka dolls. I recently ordered a three-inch cable that arrived wrapped in two boxes, padded by three layers of brown wrapping paper and plastic.

There seems to be no uniform shipping policies. Some books arrive in white padded envelopes, others in thin brown envelopes, some in boxes. While supply chain management is tricky, a company cannot both claim to be environmentally friendly and notoriously unreliable. Online retailers bank on convenience, not being stewards of nature.

The researchers investigated production distribution disparities in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs), such as personal care and home care products, between physical stores, "bricks and clicks" (fulfillment via physical store deliveries), and non-store-based e-commerce sites, known as "pure players." They conclude that the latter considerably increases greenhouse gas (GHG) footprints.

piles of cardboard inside recycling warehouse

A pile of recycled cardboard sits on the ground at Recology's Recycle Central on January 4, 2018 in San Francisco, California.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A large part of the reason is speed. In a competitive market, pure players use the equation, speed + convenience, to drive adoption. This is especially relevant to the "last mile" GHG footprint: the distance between the distribution center and the consumer.

Interestingly, the smallest GHG footprint occurs when you order directly from a physical store—even smaller than going there yourself. Pure players, such as Amazon, are the greatest offenders. Variables like geographic location matter; the team looked at shopping in the UK, the US, China, and the Netherlands.

Sadegh Shahmohammadi, a PhD student at the Netherlands' Radboud University and corresponding author of the paper, says the above "pattern holds true in countries where people mostly drive. It really depends on the country and consumer behavior there."

The researchers write that this year-and-a-half long study pushes back on previous research that claims online shopping to be better in terms of GHG footprints.

"They have, however, compared the GHG emissions per shopping event and did not consider the link between the retail channels and the basket size, which leads to a different conclusion than that of the current study."

Online retail is where convenience trumps environment: people tend to order one item at a time when shopping on pure player sites, whereas they stock up on multiple items when visiting a store. Consumers will sometimes order a number of separate items over the course of a week rather than making one trip to purchase everything they need.

While greening efforts by online retailers are important, until a shift in consumer attitude changes, the current carbon footprint will be a hard obstacle to overcome. Amazon is trying to have it both ways—carbon-free and convenience addicted—and the math isn't adding up. If you need to order things, do it online, but try to consolidate your purchases as much as possible.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter, Facebook and Substack. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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In this Big Think Live session, multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Judith Light ( Transparent, Ugly Betty) and host, writer, and actor Winsome Brown will discuss the art of acting, the challenge of choosing the right roles, and why any career is made better by asking "How can I be of service?" instead of "How do I get more...?" From her work fighting for equality and dignity at the height of the AIDS epidemic (and long after) to advancing acceptance of the LGBTQ community through screen and stage, Light will share insight from her incredible career that can help you fine-tune your own goals toward a greater good.

Ask your questions for Judith Light during the live Q&A!

Join the stream 2 pm ET on Monday, July 13.

STREAMING LINKS:

Big Think Edge | YouTube | Facebook

  • Not being able to engage with students in-person due to the pandemic has presented several new challenges for educators, both technical and social. Digital tools have changed the way we all think about learning, but George Couros argues that more needs to be done to make up for what has been lost during "emergency remote teaching."
  • One interesting way he has seen to bridge that gap and strengthen teacher-student and student-student relationships is through an event called Identity Day. Giving students the opportunity to share something they are passionate about makes them feel more connected and gets them involved in their education.
  • "My hope is that we take these skills and these abilities we're developing through this process and we actually become so much better for our kids when we get back to our face-to-face setting," Couros says. He adds that while no one can predict the future, we can all do our part to adapt to it.

This video is part of Z 17 Collective's Future of Learning series, which asks education thought leaders what learning can and should look like in the midst and wake of the coronavirus pandemic.