Should We Optimize Our Children's Online Presence?

Question: How are we changing our choices because of the \r\nInternet?  
\r\n 

Clay Shirky: I had a campaign years ago called “Give \r\nyour kid a GUID,” a Globally Unique ID, as they are called.  That kind \r\nof Google calculation about providing a unique or rare ID for you kid.  \r\nI’ve grown up with that, right?  People write me, are you the clay \r\nShirky I knew in high school.  Well, I can’t exactly say, no.  I mean, \r\nit’s an unusual enough name.  And that kind of... providing that kind of\r\n legibility, the sociologists call it, for a society is a big \r\ncalculation because everybody’s realized now, you can’t get the login \r\nnamed “Susan.”  Right?  It’s just you’re Susan1234567@AOL.com or you're \r\nSCrawford, or whatever.  But the awareness that these name spaces are \r\nall global all the time is, I think effecting how people think about the\r\n world. 

\r\nThere is certainly, I mean, I think the biggest difference we’ve seen so\r\n far in calculations that involve the Internet come from people with \r\nsomething significantly public at stake.  Right?  There’s lots and lots \r\nof private changes around anything from, "I don’t need to own a cookbook\r\n because I can get recipes from the Internet," to Match.com will help me\r\n find someone to date.  The public stuff, though, is quite remarkable.  \r\nIn particular, politicians after the Trent Lott defenestration and after\r\n the "macaca" moment in Virginia, have seen that saying one thing to one\r\n group and another thing to another group can be a career-ending moment.\r\n And as a result, for I believe for the first time in American history, \r\npoliticians are on message all the time, and that message is always \r\nnational.  The upside of this is there’s a little bit less of the \r\npreaching trade barriers in Michigan and open borders in Florida kind of\r\n stuff—depending on whether you’re import or export driven, you know, \r\ntalking about import or export driven parts of the U.S. economy—but the \r\ndown side to that is we know less about what a politician thinks when \r\nthey get into office than if there had been lots of different \r\nenvironments they’d been talking in.  I was delighted when Obama won, \r\nI’d given him money, I voted for him, but at the same time I was a \r\nlittle dismayed that the hope and change message was so dominant and so \r\nuniversally adhered to that... that the rhetoric that he used, he'd \r\ncorrectly assessed, had to work for every voter all the time wherever he\r\n was, but it meant that we knew less of him than we would have, I think,\r\n in an earlier campaign, even though that was the winning strategy. 

\r\nQuestion:
How is the Internet affecting business in emerging \r\nmarkets?
\r\n
\r\n
Clay Shirky: I teach a class—I’m down at the Interactive \r\nTelecommunications Program at NYU—and I teach a class in partnership \r\nwith UNICEF.  And one of the interesting things about thinking about \r\naccess on mobile phones, is you take a lot of web design principles, \r\nright?  The idea of two-way data-driven social communications and you \r\nend up repurposing them for the simplest possible devices, right?  SMS \r\nback and forth with mobile phones.  And in many cases, you get really \r\nastonishing bits of value, like the Fisherman’s Marketplace in Kenya, \r\nright?  Fishermen coming off the ocean can SMS ahead and figure out \r\nwhich port has the best price for the fish they currently have.  All you\r\n need for that is SMS.  This is fantastic.  All of the M-Pesa mobile \r\nbanking stuff coming out of Africa, again designed to work with the \r\nsimplest possible phones. 
 
On the other hand, the kind of \r\nrich, face-oriented, social interactions that we’ve all gotten used to \r\nfrom the Web get attenuated on the mobile phone.  And so, I think the \r\nquestion becomes, and it’s still an open question, which of the design \r\nprinciples that were pioneered on the Web were pioneered because we had \r\nan open system—but now once we got those principles we can move that to \r\nanything?  And the closer it gets to being market-oriented or \r\ntransactional, the easier it is to make it appear on the phone.  And \r\nwhich of those things only work on a web-like interface, or on a PC-like\r\n interface with you know, a really visible large-scale screen, camera, \r\netc., etc.  The separation of the PC and the phone is now ending, right,\r\n as netbooks, iPads, iPhones converge on not a single point, but on the \r\nrange that covers the difference between sitting in front of a large \r\nscreen at home and carrying around tiny screen on your phone.  And one \r\nof the great design challenges in the next five years is essentially \r\nfigure out, at what point along that scale do you have to say, "I can’t \r\nsqueeze a Web site down any further.  I have to custom," versus "It’s \r\nactually the social interaction pattern I care about; it will work on \r\nany device."
 
So Facebook squeezes down to the phone less well \r\nthan Twitter for the obvious reasons, and mobile banking and payment \r\nsystems squeeze down to the phone—n fact, they’re kind of born to be on \r\nthe phone.  It’s not even a question of squeezing—work on the phone \r\nbeautifully and don’t really get much benefit from being on the Web. 
 \r\n
And so rather than being in the lumpy world we were in ’95, here’s \r\nyour computer, bang!  Here’s your phone, it’s crappy and can hardly hear\r\n anything.  There’s nothing in between.  Now we’ve got this whole range \r\nbetween the biggest and smallest devices.  What we don’t yet know is \r\nwhere there are real break points and where it’s just a spectrum.

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown

From U.S. elections to fishing markets in Kenya to baby names, Internet technology is changing our choices and behavior daily.

Videos
  • A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
  • The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
  • But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.


Do calories even count? Research counters a longstanding assumption.

The calorie is the basic unit of measure of food — and it might be off.

Tourists enjoy a traditional 'Zapiekanka' at Krakow's Main Square. On Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Krakow, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Surprising Science
  • In a new article in 1843, Peter Wilson argues that counting calories is an outdated form of weight management.
  • Research shows that labels are up to 20 percent off true caloric totals; 70 percent in frozen processed foods.
  • Not all digestive systems are created equally; humans process foods at different rates under varying conditions.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.