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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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

Unanswered Questions: But won't a redoubled effort to find that gimmick only result in even more clutter? Does a "high clutter" country such as the United States, even with our fondness of free speech, have an interest in cutting down on ad space in order to reduce noise pollution?

Related from Wired:

When cities speak to us: the voices behind public address announcements


We need a new metaphor when we talk about Internet security, says author Bruce Schneier in Wired. We usually think of network security as a wall that keeps the bad guys out and the good guys in; for better security, build a stronger wall. Schneier says it makes more sense to compare Internet security to a town, which monitors people within its boundaries and allows well-meaning newcomers to enter. "In a town, security space is fluid. Barriers exist, yet they're only part of the solution." Just as trust among neighbors keeps the streets safe, Schneier says, "I'd also like to see Internet users develop relationships with each other based on trust." Full story

Unanswered Questions: How do current, "wall"-based security systems discourage trust and vigilance of neighbors? Doesn't technology work to discourage the kind of interpersonal intimacy required for trust to flourish? And what does Schneier mean by his closing line: "In both the real and virtual world, nothing improves security more than gentrification"?


From the BBC:

The tiny Polynesian island of Niue has become the first country to get a free nationwide wireless Internet service. The free wi-fi link will be accessible to all of Niue's 2,000 residents as well as tourists and business travellers. People will need a laptop with a wi-fi card installed to access the service. The service is being supplied by a charitable group called the Niue Internet Users Society and will employ the same radio technology used for the numerous wireless networks springing up around Europe. Wi-fi uses radio technology to send data over the airwaves, removing the need for computer cables. Niue is already a sophisticated internet nation. Free e-mail services were introduced in 1997 and free broadband has been offered at the island's internet café; since the spring. Full story

California's wine industry is weathering the worst downturn in the industry's history after a string of bumper crops and a souring economy has led to plunging prices and financial problems for some vineyards. The seeds of the oversupply were sown in the 1990s when demand skyrocketed and a booming economy prompted growers to plant more vines. During the late 1990s, plantings soared by 45%. But timing is everything in the wine business, and those grapes are now maturing in an altogether different economic climate…. A report by the California Agricultural Statistics Service shows that the 2002 harvest produced 3.79 million tons of grapes, 12.5% more than the year before. Full story


  • The maternity ward is a quieter place these days. Last month the U.S. government reported that the national birth rate is at an all-time low (story here). Credit that to a decline in teen pregnancies, the baby boom generation passing fertility age, and families waiting longer to have fewer children, says the Washington Post in an editorial. It's to early to worry, says the Post, but if the nation's population starts to shrink, it could hurt the economy, leaving fewer workers to care for an aging population. Full story
    Earlier in this weblog: Humanity's slowing growth
  • Opium is flourishing in post-Taliban Afghanistan, allowing poor farmers to make a living—as much as $9,000 a year in a country with an average income of less than a dollar a day. But while the drug trade enables individual success stories among the poor, it keeps warlords in power and in the way of a flustered President Harmid Karzai, says Newsweek. Full story
  • "Piracy has become a national pastime," says U.S. News & World Report. "Every day, ordinary people download billions of files: blockbuster movies, cable TV shows, music, video games, software, and nearly every other kind of copyright-protected material available in digital form." Having all but given up on going after the technology the way it did with Napster, the recording industry plans to start suing people who download copyrighted content. The result may determine how intellectual property law will govern digital technology in the years to come. Full story For a more thorough piece the recording industry (and a less obvious copycat of a Time cover story on digital piracy in May), see last week's New Yorker (unavailable online, but summarized by blogger Wayne Robbins)
  • In between scratches this mosquito season, you may wonder, why do we itch? Scientists are wondering too, says the New York Times. "The itch-scratch cycle sits right at the fascinating intersection of pleasure and pain, reflex and compulsion, but it has received relatively little scientific attention." Scientists used to think that the itch was a cousin of pain and traveled the same route to the brain. Recent research now suggests the itch has its own separate pathway. But no one is sure why scratching works. Full story (reprinted in The Scotsman)
  • The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer "will bear constant retelling," writes the New Yorker's Anthony Lane. "There is always the fascination of studying him in photographs—the fair, unflappable fellow with the body of a boxer and the bespectacled gaze of a reliable family doctor." A new documentary brings Bonhoeffer back to life through the memories of the late biographer Eberhard Bethge and the sister of Bonhoeffer's fiancé;e. The hero of faith and victim of Hitler emerges as "a big laugher and a fine musician, whose confidence in the life to come lent lustre and vigor to his capacity for the life of the moment." Full story (second item)

Also from the New Yorker:

Friends star David Schwimmer does little to advance dialogue on race while opening Chicago theater

• Perverse as it is, plagiarism among preachers is nothing new. Now the Internet has made it easier, writes syndicated religion columnist Terry Mattingly. But where is the line between legitimate inspiration and blatant stealing from one of the countless sermon sites such as SermonNotes.com? "It's hard to footnote sermons," says Haddon Robinson. Full story

Nathan Biermais editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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