Thinking today for tomorrow

Reading today both that Sumatran rhinos are extinct in Malaysia (only 80 of the species are left in Indonesia now) largely due to poaching for their horns, and that koalas are in ever-greater danger (even if they may not be “functionally extinct” as a few now-viral articles have claimed) due to habitat loss from the bushfires which are worsening likely due to human effects on climate. There are untold consequences of human effects for humans everywhere too, of course, but the suffering of animals tugs especially at my heart.

Today seems like a good day to do some deep thinking about both the big, bold actions and incremental choices we need to make to leave the world better off from here, not exponentially worse off.

Is there a small step you can make? Is there a big action you can take, and/or that we can take together? I invite you to join me in considering these questions today.

Algorithmic Lookalikes

I’m back visiting my old home town of Nashville for a few days, and had a super-fun breakfast conversation with Mary Laura Philpott this morning during which she mentioned that she sometimes gets automatically tagged in photos as Nashville mayor Megan Barry. The two bear a passing resemblance but not enough that you’d probably think to comment on it. She also mentioned that she has occasionally heard that she looks like Reese Witherspoon (although she never hears that in Nashville — Witherspoon’s home town).

I also used to hear all the time that I looked like Sandra Bullock, and the joke used to go that I could be her security double — the person who goes out the front door to throw off the fans and paparazzi so the actual star can sneak out the back door. (I’ve always wished I could be mistaken for Connie Britton just for the hair, but I don’t have the patience for hot rollers.)

Anyway, it occurred to me as Mary Laura and I were chatting that there’s a new kind of double: the facial recognition algorithm double. Facial recognition algorithms have become a routine part of our social media and personal photo library management, but they’re going to show up more and more in varied aspects of our lives, from surveillance to shopping. And the idea that you can “pass for” someone else — and that someone else could pass for you — is a tad troubling, isn’t it?

After all, there’s not much we can do about it, unless we have reconstructive surgery and hot-roll our hair and even then we might start getting tagged as Jocelyn Wildenstein or something, so we should probably just accept whatever Doppelgänger fate hands us and get on with life. The machines don’t know whether we’re the mayor of Nashville or the star of “Nashville” or just visiting Nashville.

Creativity and Change: The more things change, the more the timeless stuff matters

Snapchat pic in Shakespeare Garden with notebook and coffeeSitting in the Shakespeare Garden this morning, soaking up the sun and the homage to the Bard, I can’t help but think about the work of creativity, and its place in culture, and how that is subject to change over time, or not. Creative endeavors always bear the burden of every genius who came before. It’s as if the legacy is silently challenging the new to match its power. And already in biblical times there was “nothing new under the sun,” so attempting to put something new into the world can feel pointless.

Of course, one way of looking at it is that there legitimately are new developments — new technologies, new understandings of science and the nature of the universe — and that those might indeed give us something new to know, to study, to color our thinking, and it follows that we might have something new to write about, to sing about, to paint about.

But on the other hand, humanity is still humanity, and more to the point, a person is still a person, with all our famous failings and timeless shortcomings. In that sense, nothing at all has changed.

Recognizing those two ways of looking at the world leaves me feeling that the current emphasis of my work — how the new stuff, like tech and digital innovations and ubiquitous data collection — affects what is timeless about our understanding of what it is to be human, and how love happens in the world, and all about meaning, and purpose, and empathy. What it means to be a physical being in a world of virtual interactions and digitally projected aspirational selves. What the future may hold for us socially, culturally, and individually.

In a way, I’m sure it’s very much an of-the-moment question. And of course, abstracted from the specifics of technology, it’s no doubt the same question people have been asking for ages and will ask for all time.