Moment of Inertia, Issue #5 | An Embarrassment of Riches

What happens when something decreases, but our ability to measure it increases? 


An embarrassment of riches

Back during my days at 3D Systems, I assisted in several events organized in conjunction with Singularity University, the futurist think tank/brain trust/tech cult/etc. based out of Silicon Valley and founded by techno-luminaries Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. Not everything they've discussed in the past has come to pass (I recall Kurzweil predicting in 2013 that we'd be partially merged with computers by now - he's since revised the estimate) but there is an observation that Peter made on several occasions that struck me as surprisingly true: this is the most peaceful period in his history.

At first take, that might surprise you too, but consider the previous centuries: in the 20th we had two worlds wars interspersed with a combination of purges and systematic violence in essentially every modern country; the 19th century bore witness to the American Civil War, the Crimean war, the Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812, to name a few; the 17th century and further back is much of the same - the list goes on back to Mesopotamia. This is not to say we haven't witnessed violence in this generation, we certainly have. The scale of conflict and violence has been reduced, however. 

This trend applies at the local level as well. Smaller episodes of violence (i.e., crime) is also at dramatically lower levels than it was just a generation ago (and anyone who's seen Gangs of New York or similar period pieces can attest that modern crime rates are also lower than other earlier generations). 

If you've watched the news, read a paper, or logged on to the internet in the past two decades, though, all of these claims might sound a bit outrageous. Every day, we're bombarded with bad news from all over the world. Therein lies the crux of the problem, though. It's never been easier to connect, or "measure", bad news. Our global information network is so large and dense, that we can find out about pretty much any major event happening anywhere. This was not a luxury that was afforded citizens in the 19th century (during the first half of which boats were still the primary means of long distance communication). 

Crime apps like Citizen, from yesterday's M&D, make this easier than ever. And very frequently, these improved information pipelines also inspire people to provide still more data, that they otherwise would not.

Take for instance the increased calls to 311 in New York about rats. It turns out there isn't a growing rat infestation - the population is generally stable - the increased calls to 311 are tracking gentrification in the city. As a neighborhood becomes more affluent, it's residents make more complaints about rats. Sometimes, it's not just our ability to gather data that's improved, it's also the fact that there are different people gathering the data than there was before. 

So the cat's out of the bag: the world had never been safer (even though we're not totally sure why). And as we're also living in the most globally aware tone in human history as well, it's important we keep that in mind as we process the news, and try to normalize our data as much as we can.