Yet while we appreciate the Internet’s technological wonders, the cultural landscape it leads to is less explored. We acknowledge the Internet’s effect on information but are less considering of its influence on us. Even as we use its resources, most of us have no understanding of its mechanics or any notion of the ideas, powers, and people that led to its creation.
One way to situate the Internet is to see it as inaugurating the next stage of copy culture—the way we duplicate, spread, and store information—and to compare it to the print era we are leaving behind. New technologies in their early development often mimic the obsolete systems they are replacing, and the Internet has been no different. Terms like “ebook” and “online publishing” offer up approximations of print technology while revealing little of the new technology’s intrinsic nature.
Just as the written word changed the spoken word and the printed word changed the written word, so too will the digital word change the printed word, supplementing but not replacing the earlier forms of information technology. Speaking and writing both survived the print revolution, and print will survive the Internet revolution. The difference is that the Internet, with its ability to duplicate and transmit information to an infinite number of destinations, will increasingly influence the culture of the copy.
In the twilight of the Cold War, the United States decommissioned dozens of military bases using a procedure that wisely avoided getting Congress involved. But the method had one noteworthy flaw: The market value of the land was not among the criteria used to decide which bases to close. Even when the land was sold off, the price the government could get was not a factor. And today, if a branch of the military decides it no longer needs a base and sells the land, none of the proceeds go back to that branch of the military, or even to the military itself.
In another intervention, insulation firms set up a service to clean out customers’ attics while installing insulation. (It was found that people were much more likely to pay for new energy-saving insulation if they didn’t have to go through the trouble of sorting through years worth of junk.) The unit has been an occasional target of ridicule on Fleet Street, but its interventions have been successful enough — about £300 million ($485 million) in savings so far — that other governments are looking to copy it.
“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” Baumeister told me in an interview.
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future.
Equally decisive in determining crime rates are the more invisible barriers to crime set up by social norms and social cohesion. Indeed, one of the most robust statistical patterns known is that crime rates tend to go up with rising economic inequality, which itself tends to go along with erosion of social trust.
Is the solution to poverty as simple as giving a little bit of money to a large number of people? We may be about to find out. On New Year’s Day, India, the world’s largest democracy, launched what may become the most ambitious anti-poverty program in history. Called the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), the initiative will directly provide cash to poor families — at first more than 200,000 people, then potentially hundreds of millions — via the banking system. India’s finance minister has described it as “nothing less than magical.” While there is no “magic” solution to development, DBT could revolutionize assistance to India’s roughly 350 million people living on less than 56 cents a day, the country’s official poverty line.
A recent report by the African Development Bank, makes a similar point. “Africa’s growth tends to be concentrated on a limited range of commodities and the extractive industries,” the report states. “These sectors are not generating the employment opportunities that would allow the majority of the population to share in the benefits. This is in marked contrast to the Asian experience, where the growth of labor-intensive manufacturing has helped lift millions of people out of poverty…” The report goes on to note that “[p]romoting inclusive growth means… broadening the economic base beyond the extractive industries and a handful of primary commodities.”
…there’s something particularly evocative about this time series from Amsterdam, which illustrates on a Google Map the methodical expansion of stoplights across the Dutch capital’s city map, dating back to 1932. The website Amsterdam.nl has mapped eight decades of automated traffic control stretching out from the city’s center. Click through the decades, and the effect is a bit like disease spreading (or rabbits mating?).