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The Crunch # 70

The fear virus. Plus, bricklaying robots, gene-edited twin girls, bacterial nanobionics (what?) and good news on suicide, AIDS, electricity access and LGBTQI education.

A year ago something terrible happened in London’s Oxford Circus.
 
It was just before peak hour on Friday 24th November 2017, and hundreds of thousands of people were in the city centre to take advantage of the Black Friday sales. The problem started underground, and news passed quickly through the masses, sweeping up through the subway tunnels and into the streets. Alarm turned into panic, and panic became fear and eventually outright terror, crackling like wildfire through the crowded streets.
 
Within minutes thousands of shoppers were stampeding, dropping their bags, dialling loves ones and ducking low behind hastily barricaded department stores. Emergency services leapt into action, throwing up fencing and evicting crowds from nearby streets. The London fire brigade was called, while social media filled with rumours of gunshots and videos of screaming crowds fleeing the station entrance. Singer Olly Murs, locked inside Selfridges at the time, urged his nearly 8 million Twitter followers to get out, if any were inside.
 
"F--- everyone get out of Selfridges now gun shots!! I'm inside,"
 
"Really not sure what's happened! I'm in the back office ... but people screaming and running towards exits!"
 
"Evacuating store now!!! F--- heart is pounding."
 
Londoners’ worst fears had been confirmed. In a city primed for terror, it was a familiar feeling. Memories were fresh of attacks on Westminster Bridge, parliament, on London Bridge, at Borough Market and on the tube at Parson's Green. As one onlooker described afterwards, “What went through my mind immediately was 'It's Black Friday in Oxford Circus in a city that's had incidents,' and as I ran I was too terrified to look back because I thought I would see a car heading towards us.”
 
Except there was no car.
 
There was no incident.
 
No terrorist attack, no bomb.
 
An inquest later found that the whole thing had begun with a scuffle on the platform for the Central Line and that the panic, chaos, speculation and misinformation rippled out from there. Because the crowds had been packed in so tightly nobody could see or hear what had happened. Each person had just picked up on the fear of the person next to them.
 
Nobody had information. All they knew was that it was one of the busiest days of the year, in a country that’s a terrorist target, in a city that’s terrorist target, in a shopping area that’s an obvious terrorist target. The fear fed on itself, multiplying and spreading like a virus or pandemic, eventually shutting down parts of one of the world’s biggest cities.

Humans are really good at picking up emotion in other humans. We’re able to detect the tiniest changes in another person’s expression, in the modulation of their voice or the tensing of their shoulder muscles. Emotion is its own language, and stress, anxiety and fear are some of the strongest words. We speak that language from an early age. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have found that when infants are cradled by their mothers who have just experienced a socially stressful event, the infants’ heart rates go up too. The message transferred via the mother’s pounding heart to their babies is of danger, and the baby responds without needing verbal cues.
 
We know this instinctively. If your co-worker is stressed you are more likely to tense up and feel stressed yourself. You don’t even need to be in the same room or the same country. Studies show that reading bad news or seeing videos of something scary raises your pulse, makes you sweat and enlarges your pupils. Our pre-programmed physiological reactions to danger can be triggered by a tweet. That’s why the Oxford Street panic was so bad: it was amplified by social media.
 
The fear virus can be transmitted digitally as easily as can be physically.
 
And that’s a problem, because digital technologies reach everyone. It’s not a few thousand people in a crowd. Three quarters of adults on earth now have a smartphone, which means we’re getting 24 hour access to all of the worst stories happening everywhere to 7.5 billion people, all the time. The speed and tenor of cultural conversation is now mind bogglingly fast, and spans the world. The moment something bad happens somewhere on the planet, fear ripples through the ether. One person armed with a bad story can now infect millions of others in a few minutes.
 
Right now the English-speaking world is in the middle of a fear pandemic. Every day terrifying stories sweep through the global village, in articles, tweets and evening broadcasts, and are fed back and amplified again a million times until there’s nowhere to hide. Mental illness, foreign infidels, chronic pain, hooded extremists, robots coming to take our jobs, burning forests, warlike naval manoeuvres, marching racists, algorithmic bias, rising waters, surveillance regimes, trade wars, toxic chemicals, predatory capitalism, roaming gangs of criminal youths, drug overdoses, benefit-devouring migrant caravans massing at the border… the list goes on and on. The fear virus takes hundreds of forms, and mutates and spreads every time we click or watch, or mutter darkly about the future at family dinner.
 
At times it feels like we’re helpless against the onslaught. Our cognitive biases leave us ill-equipped to deal with the nature of the digital plague. Amygdala hijacks and warped media business models are just the tip of the iceberg. Recency bias means we give more weight to stuff we’ve heard recently: the latest cholera outbreak feels representative of the bigger problem, yet we forget about the UNICEF time series showing that global deaths are on the decline. The availability heuristic causes us to give more weight to things that are easier to imagine. It means that thanks to decades of priming by news broadcasts and Hollywood thrillers, it’s a lot easier to picture the lone gunmen rampaging through a school, or the journalist ambushed and murdered at an embassy.
 
We’re discovering new cognitive biases all the time too. There’s one known as concept creep. If we’re primed for danger and it then disappears, we go looking for new, lesser forms of danger to replace it. In a recent study Harvard researchers showed volunteers a series of computer-generated faces and asked them to decide which ones seem ‘threatening.’ As they showed fewer and fewer threatening faces over time, the volunteers expanded their definition of ‘threatening’ to maintain a similar number. Eventually, in a sea of smiling faces even a slight frown seems scary. Danger it turns out, is a relative concept rather than an absolute one.
 
There’s a good reason for this. Our brains have evolved to conserve energy, and relative comparisons use less energy than absolute measurements. It’s a lot easier to remember which of your cousins is the tallest than to remember how tall each cousin is. Whenever it can, our brain uses rules of thumbs, heuristics and shortcuts, because that’s usually enough information to safely make decisions while expending as little effort as possible. The human watcher will evaluate faces as threatening long after they have ceased to be so, and identify the slightest scuffle as the sign of a terrorist attack if primed by the news to be on the lookout.
 
Perceived threat also triggers a stress reaction that makes us better at processing information that conveys unrelated bad news. A series of brain imaging studies by neuroscientists in New York for example, have shown that there is physiological evidence for this; unexpected signs of danger trigger a neural signal that switches on the part of our brain that gets us ready for learning. When firefighters have had a few hectic days in a row, they’re far more likely to predict that there’s a chance they could be involved in a car accident or become a victim of credit card fraud. It doesn’t matter that these have nothing to do with fires. The world just seems like a more dangerous place. When students are told they have to give a surprise public speech, their cortisol levels spike, their heart rates go up and they suddenly became better at processing unrelated, yet alarming research on rates of disease and violence.
 
We’re all students and firefighters these days. Every time we catch the fear virus, it leaves us more susceptible to the next outbreak. The unrelenting messages of doom cycle at lightspeed through the information superhighway in the same way panic spread through the crowds at Oxford Circus a year ago, paralysing us, causing further panic, making us more likely to watch out for more trouble, and leaving everyone in a permanent state of anxiety. We’re living like firefighters on call, constantly ready to put out the flames in our news alerts and on our social media feeds.

The Oatmeal... with a classic here.

Here’s the thing that really gets to us.
 
By almost any measure you care to use, the world is becoming a better place.
 
The large scale evidence for this has already been well documented by people such as Max Roser, Stephen Pinker and the late, great Hans Rosling. Poverty is disappearing, battle deaths are falling, violence is less common, suicide is decreasing, life expectancy is increasing, literacy is on the rise, child mortality is declining, we’re winning the wars on diseases such as AIDS, cancer and malaria. The internet has democratised information, education, and business, given voice to the silenced, helped to erode outdated taboos and advanced human rights. If you’ve been following this newsletter for long enough you’ll know that it’s not perfect, and that there are always setbacks, but that every day, the human species makes incredible progress.
 
There’s a strange, sad irony in this. We’ve never had it so good, and yet we’ve never been more scared. Just as we’ve reached the point in our evolution where we can see ourselves as we truly are – see the evidence of both the terrible things we’ve always done to each other, and the evidence of our progress in making those things happen less often – we’ve also managed to spook ourselves into a state of abject terror. That’s why the fear virus is so pernicious. It’s as if we’ve been huddled in the cave for millennia, waiting for the storm to pass. And just as it’s started to taper off we’ve stoked the fire, made the shadows dance higher on the walls and retreated even further into the dark.
 
We can’t afford that because there’s a long road ahead. Not all the news is good: the 21st century has brought a series of new challenges (and a few old ones that look suspiciously familiar) into full view. Populism, ecological collapse, new pandemics and mounting evidence of our warming planet. Poverty, war, hunger, disease, and intolerance are still with us, and we need to continue working on them. A healthy respect for the scale and magnitude of these challenges is important because it creates awareness, and the basis for a common understanding. That’s what allows us to work together.  
 
But when awareness tips over into unnecessary fear, when the virus becomes so virulent that it causes us to panic, we stop. Fear paralyses us and blinds us to countervailing forces, positive stories and glimmers of solutions. It causes us to confuse the growing pains of change with signs of the end of entire systems. It makes us miss the possibility that behind the end of the old ways there might be new ones poking through. A terrified populace is far more susceptible to the appeals of strongmen and demagogues, and far less willing to stand up and fight for an economy that doesn’t cost the earth.
 
So don’t let the fear virus get you.
 
When the stories reach you, don’t cough and pass them on. Every time you do that you act as a vector, infecting your friends, your family or your followers. Make sure the fear virus stops with you. That’s the very least you can do. If you’re willing to go one step further ask yourself, “am I willing to be a physician or a nurse in this fight?” Instead of passing on stress and outrage, can you pass on stories of change or progress? In the panic at Oxford Circus, it would only have taken a few hundred people to stem the tide by keeping calm and carrying on. If we’re able to stop panicking, we can reduce anxiety, take some more time to think and evaluate, making for better decisions.
 
In all of this, remember that every step we take is the mark of a species that is willing to challenge itself and press forward, seeking out wonder, identifying problems and solving them, one that has the ability to look inward by looking outward. So take time too, to enjoy the successes and celebrate them. Kill the fear in its tracks. Replace it with new narratives about how our best natures can overcome our worst: how the goodwill, cooperation and kindness of humans can overcome the wickedness, self-deception and greed of humans.
 
The poison, as always, is also the cure.
 

read this as an article online

Good news you probably didn't hear about 


A little perspective. Global suicide rates have dropped by 38% since 1994, saving 4 million lives, four times the number killed in combat during that time. Economist

Last year, 120 million people gained access to electricity. That means that for the first time in history, the number of people without access is less than one billion. IEA

Cigarette use among Americans has dropped to its lowest level since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started collecting data in 1965. CNN

Since 2010, global HIV/AIDS infection rates have fallen by 16% in adults and by 35% for children. Most countries are on track to eliminate infections by 2030. Undark

In the DRC, doctors are winning the war on sleeping sickness. At the turn of the century there were 30,000 cases. Last year, there were 1,100. Guardian

More ammo for fun conversations with population-obsessed baby boomers. The global fertility rate (average number of children a woman gives birth to) has halved since 1950. Half the world's countries are now below replacement levels. BBC

25 million doses of a new cholera vaccine have been administered globally, and five countries are preparing to run the largest vaccination drive in history. UNICEF

Scotland is the first country in the world to include teaching of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights into its state schools curriculum. The Scotsman

Tunisia has become the first Arab nation to pass a law giving women and men equal inheritance, overturning an old provision of Sharia Islamic law. Dhaka Tribune

Jean Paul Gaultier has become the latest fashion designer to ban fur, joining Gucci, Versace, Armani, and just about every major fashion house. Independent

Officials in South Korea are bulldozing the country's largest dog slaughterhouse. The reason? Years of campaigning by activists, and shifting tastes in millenials. BBC

The Republic of Congo has created its fifth national park, protecting western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants and other threatened wildlife. MongaBay

Indistinguishable from magic


Rocket Labs has become the first private company outside the United States to get commercial satellites into orbit - for one tenth of the price of a SpaceX launch. CNBC

A one-armed bricklaying robot from Australia has built a 180 sq.m, three bedroom, two bathroom home in 72 hours, and it meets all relevant building standards. BI

Rice farmers in Cambodia are using blockchain to negotiate smart contracts with buyers in the Netherlands, and to increase the efficiency of supply chains. NewsBTC

Deep learning algorithms have successfully identified Alzheimers and other forms of dementia in patients an average of six years before clinicians. NYPost

Say hello to your exposomethe unique cloud of microbes and chemicals that surrounds you and affects your health (you heard it here first). Scientific American

A scientist says twin girls in Shenzhen have been born with CRISPR-edited genes to make them resistant to HIV and cholera. The medical world is freaking out. MIT 

Here's a sentence you don't see every day: Researchers in New Jersey have 3D-printed cyanobacterial cells and graphene nanoribbons in electronic ink onto the cap of a mushroom to create a new field of science called bacterial nanobionics. IEEE

The information superhighway is still awesome


We've all heard about China's social credit system right? Wrong. Reality is nowhere close to our hysterical, English-speaking Black Mirror fantasies. Foreign Policy

NASA has a new video, and it looks very different to anything they've made before. Apparently Hidden Figures made a bigger splash than anyone realised. Youtube

Benedict Evans' annual talk at a16z is consistently the best global analysis of what's happening in tech. We always mark our diaries for this, nobody does it better. 

We've all heard how screens are destroying the kids right? Wrong. Child education expert Anya Kamenetz argues that when parents take time to connect with childrens’ digital interests, it can be a site of shared joy and a way to uncover creativity. CJR

If you've ever seen us speak, you may remember Jan Scheurmann, the first woman to control a robotic arm with her mind. This is her incredible story. New Yorker

Wondering what to give to children this Christmas? Check out this STEM-inspired gift guide, designed to inspire 3-18 year olds with engineering and design. Purdue

Ten years ago, Australian coal miner Ray Collins started photographing waves. They're some of the most beautiful images we've ever seen. My Modern Met

Start your engines...


The big one is coming up, our annual list of 99 great things that happened to humanity this year while everyone's attention was focused on the dumpster fires. The good news stories that didn't make it onto the evening news, or your Facebook feed. It's out in the next edition of this newsletter, and you should almost certainly open the email when it arrives in your inbox. 

13th December 2018

That's the date. Don't miss it. Thanks as always for your attention and support, we're looking forward to one last newsletter with you all this year...

Much love,

Gus and Tane


From Melbourne, with love. You can support what we do on Patreon (we'll give your money away better than you can). If it's your first time, you can subscribe over here. There's an archive of all the back issues over here. Find us on Twitter as @future_crunch and on Facebook as futurecrunch.
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