The Confluences of Spring Break

First published March 26, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

It’s funny. Given three disparate ideas and enough time out of the office, I can somehow manage to tie it all together into a Search Insider theme. The ingredients for this column? The two books I chose to pack to read on my Spring Break vacation, and a bit of history from Southern Portugal, where I’ve spent the past week.

Odd Man Out

The first book was Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, “Outliers” (chosen primarily because reading Gladwell doesn’t seem like work at all, a key criteria for vacation reading). In typical Gladwellian fashion, he takes a central idea — the outliers that fall beyond the bell curve aren’t there solely because they’re on the thin edge of pure statistical probability — and explores it with a mix of story telling, research and undeniably compelling writing.  If one can excuse Gladwell for his “Just So” tendencies, putting his ideas across from his single perspective, with a rather fast and loose selection of supporting arguments, it made for a painless and fascinating read.

In “Outliers,” Gladwell looked at statistical oddballs as diverse as Bill Gates (in terms of success), The Beatles (again, success),  Chris Langan (a genius with an IQ of 195 who never made it through university), Korean Airlines (for the frequency of crashes in the ’80s and early ’90s), a small town called Roseto in Pennsylvania (where everybody lives longer than they’re supposed to, statistically speaking) and the hockey players that make it to the WHL (Western Hockey League) and eventually, the NHL (like me, Gladwell also grew up in Canada).

Luck is What You Make It

Gladwell’s point, which he makes persuasively, is that these things are not simply a matter of odds or blind luck. There are distinct patterns of influence that tend to create outliers. They include your socioeconomic status, your culture, your upbringing and even your birthday. Here is a smattering of Gladwell’s reasonings:

·     NHL hockey players make the big leagues because they’re born early in the year, physically dominating their age groupings in minor hockey, advancing to rep teams, thereby getting more coaching and ice time.

·     Bill Gates, through a series of lucky occurrences, managed to amass 10,000 hours of programming experience as a child and teen at a time where access to computers was very hard to come by.

·     The Beatles jumped ahead of their contemporary competition because the 8-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week performing schedule in Hamburg ground down their rough edges and smoothed out their act.

·     Korean Airlines had an abysmal safety record because Korean culture made it taboo to question the wisdom of the pilot, even if he had the plane heading directly into a mountain

·     Chris Langan was born with one of the highest measured IQs in America, but was also born poor and disadvantaged, leaving him without the social skills required to successfully navigate through university and on to adult success.

Gladwell’s conclusion Luck, either good or bad, isn’t simply left to chance.  And even inherent gifts, like Langan’s IQ, aren’t a guarantee of success. Luck can be manufactured. The conditions for success can be consciously put in place in a system where the desired outcomes are known. So, what are those outcomes? That brings me to the second book I brought on vacation.

Welcome to Kurzweil’s Singularity

Ray Kurzweil is definitely out there. This is a man who takes 250 nutritional supplements every day and gets seven blood transfusions every week so he can re-engineer his body to live longer. He believes humans and computers will merge in the next few decades, vastly pushing back the known limits of human intelligence, an event he calls the Singularity.

My other book was Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near” — a book chosen primarily for its heft of over 600 pages. I knew it would keep my busy through to the end of my two- week vacation. A quick summary of Kurzweil’s predictions from the book might lead one to question his mental stability:

–       Physical bodies will become essentially meaningless in the next century, as we will live in a virtual world with physical representations of our own design.

–       Table top “nanofactories” will create everything we’ll need, atom by atom, from a lump of raw materials.

–       We will upload our personalities to a computer, thereby living forever.

–       Technological evolution has taken over from biological evolution, giving humans the freedom to design our future.

–       Aging and disease are a few decades away from being conquered forever.

–       Nanobots will allow us to control every element of our environment,  eliminating pollution.

Kurzweil is manically optimistic about our future, and that future is not hundreds of years away. Most of Kurzweil’s seminal events happen before 2050. As the title of the book says, the merging of biology and technology is near (starting in 2030).

Just Crazy Enough to be Right

But Kurzweil is far from a quack. The reason for the imminent horizon is the rapid, exponential increase in the rate of technological advancement. Kurzweil is meticulous in pulling together the current state of affairs in areas including nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and neuroscience to build a rock-solid foundation for his predictions.

Kurzweil’s view of the future is positively blinding in its enthusiastic brilliance. He is adamant that there is no problem that can’t be overcome with enough intelligence, a resource that will explode in abundance thanks to the Singularity.  And his track record is sound. Kurzweil’s predictions have been remarkably accurate in the past. It’s hard not to get caught up in his optimism. Even if it all doesn’t come to pass, Kurzweil paints a picture of a future worth striving for.

So, those are the first two ideas that converged over my Spring Break. Luck doesn’t just happen. We’re not held prisoner by some probabilistic crapshoot. And for the first time in memory, I saw a vision of the future that wasn’t predominantly pessimistic. I’ll leave it there for now. Next week, I’ll tell you the story of Portugal’s Henry the Navigator.

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