Around the World in Six Ideas

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On easy street... Travel Pictures/Alamy

Government by Nudge

Richard Thaler, who co-authored the 2009 bestseller Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, has been working with the British government applying his principles of persuasion to tax collection and pension plans. Cass Sunstein, the other co-author, spent much of the first Obama term at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs looking to convince Americans they could “collaborate” with myriad government regulations. This “libertarian paternalism,” as they call it, has become a major ongoing experiment in modifying public behavior. But as Thaler sees it, they’re just nudging people to do the right thing. “Make it easy” is their mantra. And if people disagree with automatic enrollment in British pension plans, for instance, they can opt out. The behavioral bet is that few take the initiative. “Of course you don’t blazon across the front of that letter, ‘We are enrolling you in this pension plan because we know if left to your own devices you are absent- minded and procrastinate and may never get around to this,’” says Thaler. Some critics are uneasy about government manipulating minds in any form. But Thaler insists “nothing is secret, everything is documented; we are not the CIA.”

Dogged Determination

Bulldog Cute cognition. Lysandra Cook/Getty

Sometimes scientists seem to be telling us what we already know. Thus a recent study at Britain’s University of Portsmouth determined that if you told a dog not to take a piece of meat, then turned out the light so he thought you couldn’t see him, he’d likely steal the food anyway. (I once lost half a Thanksgiving turkey like that, but it was no experiment.) What the rigorous testing done with scores of dogs of different breeds at Portsmouth has proved scientifically is that our canine friends really do pay attention to whether or not we are paying attention to what they’re doing—a level of cognition that puts them in a category of intelligence that can begin to be compared with primates. “Dogs show some specialized skills in how they read human communications,” says Juliane Kaminski, one of the authors of the Portsmouth study. “This seems to be a direct result of selection pressures during domestication.” To put it unscientifically, they’ve been man’s best friend so long, it’s in their blood. Kaminski says she doesn’t know of any similar studies done on felines. But, then, we already know cats don’t really give a damn what humans think.

Silicon Egypt

dickey-big-think-CO02-technology Looking for the next big thing. Holly Pickett/The New York Times

The Internet, which played such an important role in bringing on Egypt’s revolution two years ago, may yet help to save its foundering post-uprising economy, according to a recent study commissioned by Google from the Boston Consulting Group. Even though Cairo seems mired in perpetual political crisis, entrepreneurs are excited and in many cases thriving as they exploit the rapidly evolving market for online goods and services. A decade ago the Web was almost nonexistent in Egypt; now 31 million of the country’s 85 million people are users, while cellphone penetration exceeds 100 percent in many regions. The Internet economy already contributes as much to the GDP as Egypt’s health services or its education sector or oil refining. And the potential for growth remains enormous, because Egyptians are just beginning to get the hang of e-commerce. At the moment, to take one obvious case, Egyptian companies are exploiting only about 5 percent of what the study estimates is a potential $2 billion online marketplace for travel and tourism. “The report underscores that the opportunity is now,” says entrepreneur Chris Schroeder, author of the forthcoming book Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution That’s Remaking the Middle East.

Reality Plus—or Minus

dickey-big-think-CO02-gadgets Through a glass darkly. David Ebener/dpa/Corbis

The ever-expanding concept of “augmented reality” is now upon us. We may not all have our Google Glass specs with heads-up display as yet. (Google is holding a hackathon this month to get more apps going for the prototypes.) But our cellphones already give us plenty of information about our surroundings, providing readouts on everything from weather to medical data, business backgrounds, and basic history. Georgia Tech’s Blair MacIntyre, an apostle of augmentation, sees it as one of those developments like, say, Twitter and Flickr and YouTube, that just become part of our lives. It can “really transform the way people think about information,” he told a recent meeting of the World Economic Forum, and the aim is to “address real human needs.” But he also raises an interesting question: is it possible that categorizing everything around us will, in his phrase, “take away the realness of the world”? He thinks not. Still, it is pretty easy to imagine the day when just looking at the setting sun won’t seem enough. We’ll need a readout on the distance, the temperature, and all those pollutants that are giving the sky such a divine color.

Speaking Up

dickey-big-think-CO02-behavior When silence isn’t golden. Shannon Fagan/Getty

Leslie Morgan Steiner was a Harvard grad, had a successful career, three beautiful kids, and a charming husband who eventually beat her and threatened her life with a gun to her head. In her book Crazy Love and on the speaking circuit, Steiner is now telling her story of romance, terror, and survival, but perhaps more important, she says she’s found the answer to stopping the kind of abuse she suffered. “I broke the silence,” she told the audience at a recent TED Talk. “I told everyone: the police, my neighbors, my friends and family, total strangers, and I’m here today because you all helped me.” There are millions of cases of domestic violence in the United States. (Recent government studies estimated as many as five children a day die of abuse or neglect.) But by sharing the truth about what is happening, those who suffer can find support. As if to reaffirm this idea, President Barack Obama gave a shout-out to the Senate in his State of the Union address for finally passing legislation meant to curb domestic violence that has been languishing for 20 years. “Abuse,” says Steiner, “thrives only in silence.”

This Land’s Not Your Land

dickey-big-think-CO02-agriculture Growing anger over crops. Janet Jarman/The New York Times

Agribusiness concerns and rich little nations with big appetites are buying up enormous tracts of land at a phenomenal rate in poor, often politically unstable countries—and the results are likely to make those countries poorer and more unstable still. In one well-known case, the United Arab Emirates grew sorghum in Sudan, where it would normally feed people, then shipped it back home for the camels. In northern Mozambique, a Brazilian-Japanese venture plans to farm more than 54,000 square miles, an area as big as Pennsylvania and New Jersey combined, then export the crops on the world market. Local communities find themselves dislocated and deracinated. In Mali, that process helped fuel resentments that led to civil war. In Cambodia, where 55 percent of arable land has been acquired by domestic and foreign agribusiness, authorities have harassed, jailed, and in some cases killed those who protest. Part of a solution, according to Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center, is to get the World Bank and other international organizations to make sure they aren’t funding such operations. But the gluttonous world market may be creating hunger—and anger—in local communities for many years to come.

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