Is Technological Magic Infantilizing Us?

Samuel Arbesman warns that we’ve entered a new “age of Entanglement” with our complex technology-based systems.

It could be argued that the technology on which we depend in our daily lives doesn’t evolve so much as simply grow. “Evolution” suggests a primitive form that’s slowly replaced by a more advanced generation. But these systems — power grids, the computers we use each day — accumulate complexity over time. New capabilities are tacked onto previous iterations without clearing out older technologies, complexities, and workarounds. And that’s a real problem, as author Samuel Arbesman’s book Overcomplicated makes clear. Arbesman says we’re living in a new “age of Entanglement,” and he’s not talking about the quantum kind: He’s talking about the kind that you can’t make your way through. A thicket full of thorns, a tangle of dusty, fraying wires.


Thorny situation

Think about air travel. Yes, it’s great we can see where we are in a constantly updated map on the back of the seat in front of us, it’s amazing we can check in online and receive updates, and the logistics involved in sending crews and planes where they’re needed across the U.S. are mind-boggling. But when the system does down, as Delta’s recent outage shows, the whole Rube Goldberg device is so complicated, so cobbled-together from mismatched old and new components, that just figuring out where the problem resides is a nightmare.

According to Arbesman in The Atlantic, this kind of thing is pretty much inevitable now, and it leaves us more vulnerable to chaos than we may realize.

“When the world we have created is too complicated for our humble human brains, the nightmare scenario is not Skynet—the self-aware network declaring war on humanity—but messy systems so convoluted that nearly any glitch you can think of (and many you can’t) can and will happen. Complexity brings the unexpected, but we realize it only when something goes wrong.”

Consider just a single software application. How many coders have worked on Microsoft Word? It’s a classic example of software that keeps adding functionality without ever going back to to fix what’s already broken. And who can blame its current stewards? They’d have to dig through layers and layers of ancient code and comments by programmers who long ago moved on to other things. Why not go back to Square One occasionally? Apple has done that a few times — iMovie, Pages, Final Cut — and been savaged for replacing featured-packed apps with fresh versions that traded beloved features for a clean reboot. So, no wonder most companies don’t bother. They just keep adding new code on top of the old.

Now imagine how many such programs must be working in tandem to maintain our power grid or air-travel system, each contributing its own impenetrable complexities to a system that is thus totally mystifying in the aggregate. No one person could possibly understand all of such a complex system. Parts, sure, but the whole thing? No way. Is this really okay?

LAX (TIM BRAY)

Another issue Arbesman cites is technology companies’ desire to create a simple “it just works” experience. In the effort to hide the magic under the hood, any chance for users to understand what’s actually going on is also jettisoned, so that if something goes wrong, well, it just does. It’s infantilizing to us, really, leaving us at the mercy of tools and systems on which we depend.

Arbesman doesn’t advocate starting, say, Word all over again, much less tearing down our power grid for rebuilding from scratch. His suggestion is instead that we, as a society, work on our curiosity about technology and not settle so readily for “magic” in our day-to-day lives. He says this could help us be more realistic about systemic problems that will inevitably arise with our complex systems. “The need to have a more calm, tinkering approach to technologies is going to be very, very important” Arbesman says, and he says we might try and get over the idea that things should “just work,” and think a little bit more about how.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.