The Namib desert, as seen from the Korean KompSat-2 Satellite

Seeing the Whole

April 23, 02016

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
―W.B. Yeats

Human perception is a fickle, paradoxical instrument.

Our visual sense, while more acute than that of many species, is hardly the keenest in the animal kingdom. An eagle, for instance, has eyesight so sharp it can spot small prey more than three kilometers away. The next time you happen upon one in the wild, know that it saw you coming from afar, and waited patiently for you to arrive.

Birds are also “tetrachromats”; in addition to the spectra that are visible to humans, they possess a fourth kind of cone in their retinas, which allows them to see ultraviolet wavelengths of light. A very few human beings have inherited a genetic variant that confers tetrachromacy; they describe living in a world of spectacular subtlety and vibrancy, wholly unavailable to the rest of us, in which hundreds of unseen variations lurk in what we might otherwise label “green” or “blue.”

Other animals, especially small ones, sense time in ways that we might consider super-human. A common housefly processes about four times more visual information each second than a human being. Their “mental movie” is composed of two hundred and fifty frames per second; ours, a paltry sixty. As a consequence, some zoologists believe that a fly’s experience of time is radically slowed. To them, we appear as lumbering beasts, haplessly waving our rolled-up newspapers in slow motion.

One could fill a book with such unflattering comparisons, but don’t pity the poor humans. Over thousands of years of self-compounding refinement, we have managed to augment our otherwise provincial senses far beyond what any other animal might hope for. Indeed, this increasing sensual acuity is a central theme in the story of human progress.

Consider: In the 5th century BCE, the Greek philosopher Democritus first developed the (at the time, unobvious) idea that the world was filled with small, indivisible particles—άτομα. His contemporary, Aristotle, thought this idea was ludicrous, and the idea languished for centuries.  Today, along the border between France and Switzerland, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider regularly accelerate subatomic particles to 99.999999% of the speed of light, and then smash them together in violent explosions that simulate the earliest moments after the Big Bang. In the resulting flash, which lasts for only a few billionths of a second, they glimpse the esoteric particles that form the basic building blocks of the universe. To even attempt this feat required the invention of detectors that are so exquisitely sensitive that they must be continually readjusted to compensate for minute fluctuations in the gravitational pull of the moon.

In a similar vein, we have peered further out into the inky darkness—and thus, further back in time—than any other animal. The universe is 13.7 billion years old. Human beings have built an instrument—the Planck Space Telescope—that has detected the dim remnants of radiation emitted when the cosmos was a mere 380 thousand years old—or 0.00002 billion years after its birth. Said another way: if the entire history of the cosmos were compressed into a year, we human beings have peered all the way back to the first ten minutes.

These Olympic feats of enhanced perception are among the crowning achievements of our species. Yet even as we celebrate them, our workaday senses remains stubbornly parochial.

Walking down the street, we easily sense changes that occur at a one or two meters per second, especially if those changes occur where our experience tells us they ought to. But, we’re terrible at sensing changes that unfold significantly faster—or slower—than our preferred speed, or occur where our experiences haven’t conditioned us to look.

This parochialism is part of the reason why we so poorly understand the world around us. Our planet is vastly larger and more complex than our ability to readily comprehend, and moves at speeds, and scales, and with interdependencies that do not conform to our everyday modes of thinking. If it did, climate change would have been solved long ago.

Paradoxically, humanity’s civilizing instinct inflames these perceptual biases. Civilization can be understood, in part, as the imposition of a kind of human-scale regularity upon the world. From inside it, it’s easy to forget that we nest, unsteadily, within the larger complexity of the whole—and not the other way around.

Now, thankfully, humanity is developing new technologies that can help us sense the world at scale, and make change visible in ways that are much more amenable to human cognition. And that matters, because seeing the world, deeply and in its totality, is the first step on the path to communion, empathy, and stewardship.

Mangroves spread in fractal patterns along the remote Keep River in Australia.
Image courtesy of Planet Labs.


For the past several years, I’ve been lucky enough to work with Earth-imaging specialists, planetary scientists, engineers and others who regularly peer at the world through a suite of these new instruments.

Uncontrolled peat fires in Indonesia, exacerbated by a strong El Nino.
Image courtesy of Planet Labs.

Some of these colleagues, at a company called Planet Labs, are deploying the largest constellation of Earth-observing satellites in human history. When fully operational, this system will collectively image the entire surface of the Earth, in high resolution, every day.

Luuq, Somalia rests in a large oxbow in the Jubba River, and is currently a haven for hundreds of Somalia’s “internally displaced persons.”
Image courtesy of Planet Labs.

Through the Planet Labs satellites (called Doves) and other Earth-imaging tools, on any given day, one can witness the world of the Anthropocene—the Age of Humans—in all its complexity. Agricultural fires signal the onset of the planting season in Brazil. Refugee camps expand along the Turkish border with Syria. Ice-flows dissolve off the coast of Nova Scotia. The Amazonian rainforest is slowly, and illegally denuded. Monolithic manufacturing complexes spread out in China. Megacities in Africa push ever outward. Crater-like remnants of nuclear bomb tests scar the Nevada desert. The density of nighttime illumination hints at the relative poverty, and equity, of human societies.

Nevada’s “Plutonium Valley”, where nuclear explosions, were tested in the 1950s, will remain radioactive for 400 generations.
Image courtesy of Planet Labs.

Not all of this sensing is done with satellites. At the University of Washington, computer scientist Ricardo Martin Brualla and his colleagues have developed software tools that harvest countless digital snapshots that we post on the Internet and synthesize them into films that show the aggregate change in one place over time.



 (Above: The retreat of the Briksdalsbreen glacier in Norway, and the rise of the Las Vegas skyline, recomposed from hundreds of Internet photos, by Ricardo Martin Brualla and colleagues. Used by permission.)

For the first time in our history, broad access to these kinds of tools and imagery make visible, for anyone, the hidden dynamism of the planet—a dynamism that we spy occasionally, and only liminally, in our everyday life.

These images reveal not only change, but also vast diversity. Look upon the Earth long enough, and you will find almost every adjective fulfilled, somewhere. The world is beautiful, of course. But it is also sometimes ugly. It is intensely intertwined with human affairs, although it is sometimes indifferent or even overtly hostile to them. In some places, we are instruments of the world’s ruin; in others, less frequently, its regeneration.

The world is being built. It is growing. It is on fire. It is collapsing. It is in bloom. It is in decay.

And it is all these things at once.

Sitting with the grand simultaneity of it all, with the direct perception of boundless, kaleidoscopic global change, one begins to feel something new: the possibility of aplanetary sense.

And here is the crux of the matter: Earth observation, if entered into deeply, can be not only a psychological experience, but a spiritual one, too.

This requires not just looking, but beholding—to sit in deep and focused awareness, in full presence, without judgment.

Through this practice, we can begin to internalize the complex and subtle array of connections, patterns, and rhythms that dance upon the Earth. With practice, one can induce a kind of “perceptual flickering”—the rapid switching of awareness between radically different scales of time, space, and organization.

As this awareness grows, so too do a host of simultaneous emotions: joy at the breathtaking beauty of the world; wonder at is occasional, deep strangeness;empathy with its suffering; urgency toward the relief of that suffering. These, in turn, reinforce an abiding solidarity with the planet and its many inhabitants.

Still deeper, this solidarity gives way to a sense of unity. The subject-object distinction collapses, and we discover that the dynamism of the world does not end at the water’s edge of our senses. It continues inward. We contain, and are contained within, a great multitude of systems and processes—flickering into being, growing, ebbing, and renewing.

Such an observation should not be paralyzing, but liberating. The world has conspired to produce consciousness at the human scale, but it hasn’t limited our ability to sense or act solely to that scale.

Language sometimes fails us. It is predicated on syntactical rules that often reinforce our separateness. We read “Earth Day” through the lens of this linguistic separation—as if we were somehow outside of the Earth, and not, in reality, utterly cradled within it.

By cultivating our planetary sense, to look more directly at the world, we can push past the illusions of syntax, toward a deep, contemplative ecology, of which we are an integral part.

A version of this essay first appeared on the website of the Garrison Institute, where I serve as a Board member, to commemorate Earth Day.


Patterns of Resilience and Collapse

March 13, 02016

In 1901, the writer and Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck published “The Life of the Bee”, which popularized the idea that humanity owes our continued survival to the dutiful pollinator. “It is … estimated that more than a hundred thousand varieties of plants would disappear if the bees did not visit them,” Maeterlinck noted, “and possibly even our civilization, for in these mysteries all things intertwine.”

Today, we are getting perilously close to testing Maeterlinck’s hypothesis empirically. Bee colonies, which are responsible for billions of dollars of agriculture, food security, and ecosystem services, are collapsing around the world. It would not take the death of the last hive for life to become grim for at least some of the people, plants and animals who depend on bees, either directly or indirectly.

But precisely how many bee colonies have to collapse before the larger system fails? Are we near the tipping point? Here, we are on much murkier ground.

The same dynamic holds true in our understanding of countless other marquee challenges of our present age, from ocean warming and climate change, to the genetic basis of cancer, the performance of electrical grids, digital networks, and even the stock market. While all of these complex systems have compensatory elements, there is a point when the accumulation of damage becomes unrecoverable, and catastrophic collapse follows. But when?

Last month, network theorists Jianxi Gao, Baruch Barzel and Albert-László Barabási published an important paper in Nature, Universal resilience patterns in complex networks, which takes us a significant step closer to determining these pernicious tipping points. The authors present a universal mathematical framework which allows one to compute a straightforward “resilience function” (or perhaps more aptly, a “collapse threshold”) for any complex system – its point of no return.

Until now, the only way to identify such thresholds was to painstakingly map the interactions of all of the individual elements in the system – a task that was impractical or impossible in most circumstances. (Even our most sophisticated models of the climate, run on supercomputers, model only a fraction of the forces acting upon it.) Gao, Barzel and Barabási have taken much of that complexity out, collapsing it into a single indicator of system health. As such, if borne out, this work will certainly find its way into applied resilience domains – especially disaster risk reduction, climate adaptation and finance.

The above video, which acts as a companion to the paper, does a terrific job of explaining the work (and key concepts of ecological resilience in general).




Introjis: Emoticons for Introverts

February 14, 02015

Continuing the recent theme of bringing emotional richness to social media, FastCo.Exist has details of Introjis, emoticons designed for introverts by designer Rebecca Evie Lynch.

Introjis allow introverted users to express a natural and healthy affinity for solitude or quietude, and wordlessly express the occasional distress or fatigue that comes from being in the crowd too long. They’re an evocative counterpoint to more traditional emojis, which express a different range of emotional temperatures.

The “No to the invitation, but thank you!” Introji


The “I want to leave the party” Introji


The “Let’s sit quietly and do our own thing” Introji



Darwin’s Stickers

February 10, 02015

For the past year, I have been working closely with Jad Abumrad and the team at RadioLab on a fascinating story about Facebook, entitled “The Trust Engineers“.

The story centers on the work of Arturo Bejar, who is one of the technical leaders at the company, and a team of engineers, product developers and external social scientists who collectively operate under the banner of the Compassion Research Group. Together, this team is studying how our ancient human capacities for conflict, compassion, respect, trust, and empathy are expressed by people on Facebook; based on these findings, they’re reworking the service’s interface to encourage more humane relationships among its 1.3 billion users.

In addition to exploring our digital relationships and emotions, the Facebook story also touches on the ways in which our online lives are continuously experimented upon; the new ways social scientists are exploring ancient questions with ‘big data’; and the ethical considerations that such inquiries inevitably raise. Social media is changing social science, and at Facebook, we caught a glimpse of its future.

For space and flow reasons, one particularly intriguing example of this work didn’t get an in-depth airing in the radio piece, and I thought I’d relate it here more fully.

The story actually begins all the way back in 1859, with the publication of Charles Darwin’s landmark treatise, On the Origin on Species. In that book, Darwin famously lays out the argument that species evolve over the course of generations, through the process of natural selection. At the time, most scientists, not to mention most people, were creationists who believed that the great diversity of Life was part of a natural and unchanging order, over which God had given us dominion. Accordingly, Darwin left the natural conclusion of his argument – that human beings evolved via the same mechanism as all other species – largely unstated. (Except, for a single, telling line at end of the book: “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”)

Darwin didn’t publish his own fuller views on human evolution until more than a decade later, with two works that came in rapid succession, The Descent of Man (in 1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (in 1872).

In first of these books, Darwin argued, to no one’s surprise, that human beings did indeed evolve from a common hominid ancestor. In the second book, however, he presented an argument not just about the origins of our species, but of our psyches.

His argument spoke to what was, both in Darwin’s time and our own, a commonly held view: that our emotional life – marked by feelings like grief, envy, tenderness, love, guilt, pride, and affirmation – is uniquely human. If our emotions are unprecedented, so the thinking went, then we must be, too.

To debunk this idea, Darwin presented a detailed taxonomy of forty distinct emotions, ranging from “high spirits” such as joy, to the “low” spirits” such as despair, and concluded with the more complex emotions such as shame. Then he painstakingly documented how these emotional expressions have consistent physiological roots. Everywhere, people use the same thirty muscles in our faces to pull our lips up into a smile, knit our forehead into a frown, distort our cheeks into a grimace of psychic pain, bow our heads in supplication, and tilt our necks to signal puzzlement.

Innate experssions from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
(CC source: Wikimedia)

Darwin argued that these emotional expressions are not just universal across cultures, but have their roots in purposeful, and similar, animal behaviors across many mammalian species. A Chimpanzee uses similar muscle groups to purse its lips as we do, and often for the same reasons. We’re not as different – or as special – as we might suppose.

Chimpanzee pursing its lips in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
(CC source: Wikimedia)

With this argument, Darwin helped advance the field of evolutionary psychology and usher forth the robust scientific study of emotional experience.  His basic thesis has been elaborated, refined, studied and debated ever since.

Researchers subsequently confirmed that human beings in both Western and non-Western societies can indeed consistently recognize a core subset of Darwin’s facial expressions. In 1967, psychologist Paul Ekman, perhaps the most well known contemporary figure in emotions research, went so far as to show these expressions to an isolated community in Papua New Guinea, who had never seen modern movies or television. They were able to identify the expressions without difficulty. Other studies have shown that our autonomic nervous system responds in consistent ways when we see Darwinian expressions of emotion – further evidence that they’re hard-wired into our biology.

Yet critics point out that both the subjective experiences and physical expressions associated with supposedly ‘basic’ emotions can vary widely even within a category. One person might stutter when enraged, while another lets loose an eloquent stream of epithets; one person might blush with quiet pride at an accomplishment, while another roars like an NFL star in the endzone.

To critics, this variability suggests that emotions are as much cultural signals as they are biological ones. To stereotype for a moment (for rhetorical purposes only – no letters, please!): is the Southern Italian, who wildly gesticulates with his hands as he talks, really using the same innate, emotional vocabulary as the famously stoic Swede? Is the facially impassive, but verbally expressive Japanese businessman really wired the same way as the ironic Brooklyn hipster? Doesn’t this variety suggest that our emotional lives are substantially, if not entirely, a matter of culture?

And, if that’s the case, why should it matter that everyone in the world can associate a smile with happiness, if people in your particular society don’t actually make a habit of smiling when they’re happy?

Here, we return to Facebook, and to the work of the Compassion Research Group. One of its leading members is the Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, who co-directs that university’s aptly-named Greater Good Science Center. A former student and colleague of Ekman, Keltner’s research explores the roots of human goodness, particularly compassion, awe, love, and beauty, and how they are communicated through means of gestures, touch and expression.

During their work together, Arturo Bejar approached Keltner with an intriguing proposition: would he be interested in using what had been gleaned in the scientific study of emotions to design a ‘sticker pack’ for Facebook?

Stickers are widely-used animated icons (often of the human face or common objects) used to add expressiveness to otherwise bland text chats – think of them as more sophisticated versions of emoticons, like the “:-)”smiley face that some of us embed in our emails. Here was a chance to use Darwin’s insights to enhance the emotional content the online communications of millions of people around the world.

So Keltner turned to Matt Jones, an animator at Pixar Studios (yes, that Pixar) and gave him the job of designing 51 animated faces, mostly derived from Darwin’s original emotional taxonomy. The full list included admiration, affirmation, anger, anxiety, astonishment, awe, boredom, confusion, contemplation, contempt, contentment, coyness, curiosity, desire, determination, devotion, disagreement, disgust, embarrassment, enthusiasm, fear, gratitude, grief, guilt, happiness, high spirits, horror, ill temperment, indignant, interest, joy, laughter, love, maternal love, negation, obstinateness, pain, perplexity, pride, rage, relief, resignation, romantic love, sadness, shame, sneering, sulkiness, surprise, sympathy, terror, and weakness.

Early studies for Matt Jones’ Darwinian Facebook stickers.
(Source: Dacher Keltner)

To succeed online, Jones’ sticker designs would have to consistently communicate these emotions without benefit of a label, and in very different parts of the world. End-users would have to be able to look at the sticker for ‘happiness’ or ‘maternal love’ and identify it as such. To ensure the stickers performed as expected, Keltner and his colleagues took Jones’s prototype designs and independently tested them with research subjects in two very different societies: the United States and China.

Overall, both the Chinese and American subjects had roughly the same accuracy, correctly identifying 42 of the 51 distinct emotions presented. Cultural differences did appear: the Chinese were better able to recognize negative emotions, while the Americans were better able to identify positive ones. Yet Jones’ designs universally communicated the most extensively-researched emotions like anger, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise, and happiness, as well as more recently-studied ones like embarrassment, pride, desire, and love – and even a few emotions that hadn’t been studied before, like contemplation, coyness, astonishment, boredom, and perplexity.

With these results in hand, Keltner and his colleagues turned Jones’ now-tested illustrations over to Facebook’s designers, who used the best performing ones to create a new sticker pack called Finch, named after the finches Darwin had famously encountered in the Galapagos Islands. Finch contains sixteen cross-culturally tested animations of emotions based on Jones’ original designs.

Final versions of the Finch stickers
(Source: Dacher Keltner)

As the stickers were made available on Facebook, downloaded and then used in chats by millions of users around the world, the Compassion Research team could now look at how they were being used – not by specific users, but in the aggregate. How much ‘love’ was being expressed with the stickers in each country? Or ‘anger’? Or ‘sympathy’? Did different cultures vary in terms of the types of emotional stickers they use? Over time, the researchers realized they could use such analysis to take the emotional temperature of a sizeable portion of the planet.

Clear patterns emerged in the data. Italians, South Africans, Russians and Brazilians had ‘Cultures of Love’ – sending lots of amorous stickers. The U.S. and Canada were similar in most of their usage patterns – though the Canadians were vastly more ‘sympathetic’, while the Americans were ‘sadder’. And the use of ‘deadpan’ stickers predominated across North Africa and the Middle East.

Cultures of Sadness – geographical distribution of the use of the ‘sad’ Finch sticker on Facebook (Source: Dacher Keltner)

The picture got even more interesting when the researchers correlated the usage of the Finch stickers with other social indicators. Countries that expressed the most ‘awe’ online gave more to charity offline. And countries that expressed the most ‘happiness’ were not actually the happiest in real life. Instead, it was the countries that used the widest array of stickers that that did better on various measures of societal health, well-being – even longevity. “It’s not about being the happiest,” Keltner told me, “it’s about being the most emotionally diverse.”

These are intriguing correlations – and so far, they’re just that. We have to be careful not to over-extrapolate, or conflate the measure of the thing for the thing being measured. Clicking on a sticker to express a belly laugh is not quite the same thing as having an actual belly laugh. And while there are now more Facebook users than Catholics worldwide, there are still more people who’ve never been online than have ever been on Facebook. (One wonders how their inclusion would skew the data.)

Still, this is clearly the beginning of a unprecedented social science revolution, one that will reveal previously impossible assessments of the global psyche, and perhaps shift the dialogue about the relationship between nature and culture. And one wonders what else might consistently correlate with our global emotional weathermap. The stock market, maybe? Or social revolution? Or world peace?

How does that make you feel?



Geothermal vents in Iceland

When Cleantech meets Cryptocurrency

February 9, 02015

During periods of relative calm, objective observation of the world is hard enough; foresight, even harder. During times of great change, clarity can be impossible.

Yet occasionally an encounter will reveal, sometimes just for a moment, the usually invisible systems and activities that comprise the global order – the “emergent now” that pulses just out of view. And it’s usually stranger than we would have otherwise imagined.

I had just such a moment recently in Iceland, where I had a chance to sit down with several of the country’s leading clean-tech and data center experts.

Iceland famously generates vast amounts of ultra-green electricity – about seventeen terawatt hours’ worth every year. Twenty five percent of this capacity is geothermal in origin, and the rest comes from hydrothermal, making Iceland’s one of the cleanest economies in the world. This abundance has attracted energy-intensive industries (including highly controversial aluminum smelters) as well as clean-tech startups like Carbon Recycling, a company that fuses waste CO2 and hydrogen to produce “synthetic methanol”, which is exported to the Netherlands and blended with gasoline. Electricity is so cheap in Iceland (about a third of the cost in the U.S) plans are even being developed to export it to Europe via undersea cable.

Perhaps the buzziest of the industries that have been borne of Iceland’s energy independence is the green datacenter sector. The business pitch, made by local players like Verne Global, and Advania, is simple: in Iceland, data centers are cheaper to run from an electrical perspective and cheaper to cool from a geographical perspective – a double win.

Iceland’s remoteness makes it an inappropriate choice for certain datacenter applications like high-frequency Wall Street trading, where milliseconds matter and the computers have to be as close to the action as possible. But for slower applications, where cost and computing matter more than connectivity, Iceland is ideal.

One such “perfect” application is Bitcoin mining, and the country’s datacenters have attracted a lot of it. A year ago, the NYTimes’ Nathaniel Popper profiled Emmanuel Abiodun, a British entrepreneur who has established a multimillion-dollar bitcoin-mining operation called CloudHashing within a major Icelandic datacenter; Cloudhashing leases its specializing mining equipment to others.

This is presumably a tougher sell now that Bitcoins are worth closer to $200 apiece rather than the almost $1200 they commanded in late 2013. Even so, the lower cost of electricity in Iceland makes it possible to run these machines more efficiently, and presumably, make Bitcoin mining profitable at lower costs than elsewhere.

As I was preparing for my own walking tour of one of these ultra-secure facilities (the head of security pleasantly marched me through no less than nine physical security systems) one local tech-sector leader told me that most of the customers for these Bitcoin mining contracts are Chinese, and that, at its peak, demand was so high that an astounding eight percent of all Bitcoin mining worldwide was thought to be happening in Iceland.

Let’s take a moment to visualize and appreciate the resulting set of connected facts:

On an island in the North Atlantic, leagues below the surface, subterranean veins of liquid rock well upward through primordial vents, whereupon they make contact with equally ancient aquifers, producing steam that is artfully siphoned off and passed through turbines, which, when spun up, produce bountiful, carbon-free electricity.

This great stream of benign electrons – a true social good if ever there was one – is then passed onward, by means of cables, to some of the most esoteric, purpose-built computers ever assembled. These machines patiently wade through a truly psyche-shattering number of useless calculations, each one a discarded digital lottery ticket. Ever-more rarely, one of them strikes algorithmic gold. In an instant, the winning computation is transmuted into units of cryptocurrency, and on the other side of the planet, a Chinese hedge fund collects a small reward.

This is how the world works now: the geophysical system connects to the computational system, which links to the financial system, which shapes the geopolitical system, and round and round we go. Speculators from an ascendant, and nominally Communist 21st-century world power quietly leverage the entrepreneurial efforts of a citizen from a former 19th-century world power, to harness a market opportunity made possible by the unique ecological properties of an independent small state. These dependencies-at-a-distance make for strange bedfellows, for sure, but their larger consequences are not as neatly categorized: in times of relative stability, such interdependence likely improves resilience and reduces risk; in periods of complicated change, such connections likely amplify fragility and disruption.

There is also a lesson here about what happens when a resource is made cheaply and abundantly: namely, people feel comfortable “wasting” it. In the dark winters of centuries’ past, whole Icelandic families might huddle around a small fire for warmth. Now, the heat of a single rack of Bitcoin-mining computers, performing many billions of calculations a second, make it warm to the touch.