By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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This Week:


Last week's weblog highlighted some of the physical aspects of Wired magazine's "map of an emerging world." This week, Wired on artificial and intangible elements of the world and our changing understandings of space.


Is there a buzzier buzzword in the technological marketplace than networking?

And yet the most essential form of networking remains relatively old-fashioned and underappreciated—the Web of human relationships. Dazzled by utopian rhetoric about the transforming power of digital technology (to which, the reader might observe, Wired itself has contributed), we forget that the world's politics, economics and culture actually run on the engine of human connections, writes author Duncan Watts in Wired. A now-globalized village only validates the six-degrees theory of Stanley Milgram: all human beings are connected by six levels of relationships. That is, everyone alive is at least a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of yours. Full story

Unanswered Questions: What is the effect of Western individualism and the decline of loyalty to traditional communities on these six degrees—are all of the degrees closer together now, or has globalization made degrees three through six closer while one and two are farther apart?

Also, Watts raises this fascinating point that seems to have special bearing on the Christian pondering the question, "Who is my neighbor?" "Six degrees from someone is still a long way," Watts writes. "Someone three degrees away is, for all practical purposes, a stranger, no more relevant to us than someone off the street."

Watts proceeds to suggest that the six degrees principle should dissolve the temptation to forget about the African AIDS crisis a half a world away. It would be interesting if church mission statements (or discussions of them) tackled this question: Do we have differing moral obligations to people different degrees away from us? To whom are churches reaching out—how many degrees away, and is the objective of "making disciples of all nations" (see v.16 here) in effect to reduce people's degree of distance from the church?

Related: Malcolm Gladwell writes extensively and lucidly about the six degrees principle in this New Yorker article and in his book The Tipping Point.


If the last decade saw a revolution in digital information, the next will bring a similar explosion in genetic information—DNA code, written in A's, T's, C's and G's. Already, though, a rift is forming between nations that have a wealth of genetic research and those who don't—what this Wired article's co-writers call the "bioliterate" and "bio-illiterate." "This means that even as biodata begins to drive industries from agribusiness to computing, cosmetics to chemical manufacturing, few nations have the skills required to develop, access, and use it," they write. Most genetic data in the world today is researched, accessed, and added to by only ten countries. It's too early to know the impact of this "genome geography," the writers say, but it looks as though the brave new world of biotech will be dominated by a concentrated elite.

Full story


"Harnessing the Gene," a lecture by author Jeremy Rifkin at Calvin College's January Series


Biotech research may be concentrated, but in general, research is breaking out of the laboratory, writes Paris professor Bruno Latour. "The 20th century was the golden age of the laboratory," he says. "Outside the laboratory's borders began the realm of mere experience—not experiment." No longer. With more instruments surveying the world, more researchers without Ph.D's, and bigger questions that can't be answered within four walls, now all the world is a laboratory, and traditional labs no longer have a corner on scientific knowledge. Full story

Unanswered Question: The most important implication of this shift out of the lab, it seems to me, is that fewer experiments are occurring under so-called "controlled conditions." Is this a revolution in the scientific method, contradicting the conventional wisdom that empirical truth can only be discovered amid "controlled variables"?


Advertisers may be their own worst enemy; they've swallowed so much space in the world that they're now drowning themselves out, writes advertising executive Steve Hayden. "A viewer's ability to recall a given message drops 45 percent when the number of ads in a commercial break doubles, according to Nielsen Media Research," he reports. "Advertising has the most impact in countries with low clutter—Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands—and the least impact in the most saturated countries: Japan, Hong Kong, Italy, and Spain." Hayden concludes that to compete amid the din, ads need that "water cooler" element—the creative gimmick that gets people talking. It's the conclusion you might expect from Hayden, who created famous 1984 Apple commercial. Full story

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