On October 8, 2016, the American Academy inducted its 236th class of members at a ceremony held in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The ceremony featured historical readings by Robert Millard (MIT Corporation) and Mellody L. Hobson (Ariel Investments, LLC), as well as a performance by the Boston Children’s Chorus. It also included presentations by five new members: Terry A. Plank (Columbia University), Jay D Keasling (University of California, Berkeley; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Joint Bioenergy Institute), Andrea Louise Campbell (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Theaster Gates, Jr. (Rebuild Foundation; University of Chicago), and Walter Isaacson (The Aspen Institute). The ceremony concluded with a performance by the singer-songwriter Judy Collins.
Terry A. Plank
Terry A. Plank is the Arthur D. Storke Memorial Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2016.
Thank you, Academy leadership, for giving me an opportunity to say a few words. It is an incredible honor to represent Class I, the Mathematical and Physical Sciences, with these remarks.
There is some foreboding to a meeting that requires checking the hurricane forecast prior to attending. As Matthew is bearing down on the Carolinas, it is hard not to feel awe at the fury and force of nature.
It is also important to remember, however, how lucky we are to have satellites in the sky and scientists on the ground, with the ability to predict the location and strength of the storm in a timeframe that gives people at least a chance to get out of the way. The situation is very different for earthquakes. There is no warning, no chance to get out of the way.
Volcanic eruptions can have lots of precursors, but we don’t know how to read them. Sometimes there is a lot of unrest and no eruption. That is an embarrassment. Sometimes there is an eruption with little prior unrest. That is a disaster. Volcanic ash brings down aircraft; the next major eruption of Rainier will be a disaster for Seattle; the next super-volcanic eruption of Yellowstone will disrupt life as we know it on the planet.
So hurricanes, earthquakes, and eruptions –yes, there is a hierarchy among natural hazards. Hurricanes are well forecast, but the destruction of property is vast. Earthquakes can’t be forecast, but earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do. Volcanoes are poorly forecast and have the ability to affect life as we know it on the planet. You can tell what I work on, and what I think “wins.” This reminds me a bit of that scene in the movie Thank You For Smoking, where the lobbyists from alcohol, tobacco, and firearms –the merchants of death –sit and gossip over their weekly lunch.
What I want to talk about is potentially the most exciting discovery in earth science in the next ten years: the ability to forecast earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It is a great time to be an earth scientist, though, in fact, I have found it has always been a great time to be an earth scientist. In my lifetime, we have discovered plate tectonics and global warming and we are ripe for another breakthrough in our understanding of the earth.
Most of us study the earth because it is fun –we get outdoors –and it allows us to connect the rocks at our feet to planet-scale processes. Nowhere was this more obvious to me than as a graduate student, on a ship in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean, drilling the seafloor.
We wanted to see what went down the Marianas Trench, but it takes a leap of faith to drill mud that is headed on a journey you can’t see into the earth, to be transformed at high pressure and temperature into magma that finally erupts out a volcano.
My early work examined this invisible process with chemical tracers, and I have been following the path of subduction my whole career, into the trench and to the hot core of the mantle wedge, and back out, now face to face with the volcano.
For many of us, the volcano is a portal, like Jules Verne’s journey to the center of the earth; it conveys information from the deep and is really a bit of an annoyance that it erupts. But my recent work tracing water through the subduction zone and into magma has found that the water content doesn’t seem to relate to eruptive explosivity. This is a problem for the standard selzer bottle model, that the gas drives the eruption. But as anyone who has been handed a shaken bottle knows, it isn’t so much the amount of gas in the bottle, but how fast you open the cap. So timing is everything, and eyes are now trained on volcanoes to see how rapidly magma and gas rise and decompress on the way to the surface.
And we are just beginning to read these signs of volcanic unrest: swarms of migrating tiny deep earthquakes, the ground literally swelling, that we can capture with GPS and satellite interferometry, and CO2 burps that presage magma moving under the ground. Lots of signs, but will it erupt next week, next month, ever? What is actually happening under the ground?
This is where our work comes in. The ash and crystals that are erupted record chemical patterns, and using the principles of chemical diffusion we can clock the disequilibrium processes that occur, like magma mixing or gas exsolution (bubble formation). This is the key needed to interpret the precursorsy signals: what is actually happening under the ground, which of the precursors matter, and what leads to imminence in eruption.
There are similar rumblings and new omens in the study of earthquakes. Japanese instruments happened to be in the right place at the right time, on the seafloor before the big Tohoku-Oki earthquake in 2011 –the one that generated an enormous tsunami and led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. These instruments caught migrating swarms of small earthquakes that occurred weeks before the main shock. Earthquake precursors used to be a dirty word; too many scientific careers have been burned looking for them. But these new phenomena are giving earthquake scientists optimism for understanding the timing and physics of run-up to rupture, now that they know where to look and what to look for.
So we as a community are trying to organize a new initiative of observatories that peer into the earth instead of outward to space. This requires a newer model than the usual small-team hypothesis-driven proposal submissions to the NSF, which are largely what have supported our field. In this, we can take lessons from the 1960s.
I work at Columbia University, on a special campus called the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The campus was established in the 1950s as a quiet place outside Manhattan to test seismometers, but it quickly became a home base for seagoing scientists. The research vessel Vema was in constant motion sailing back and forth across the oceans, with ships full of graduate students and a mix of scientists working in close quarters for months at a time. The standing order was to stop and take a mud core a day from the seafloor, and to drag magnetometers and run gravimeters continuously, punctuated by charges of dynamite lobbed off the side to take sounding of the seafloor. This systematic but essentially blind data collection back and forth across the ocean for years led to the discoveries of plate tectonics, and the cores are still being mined for their records of climate change. (My fellow newly elected member Lisa Tauxe studied those magnetics data.) All these seagoing voyages were block funded by the Navy, at a scale that does not happen today, but could –and probably with great benefit to our science and society.
At a large planning meeting last week, we planted the seeds for a subduction zone observatory. We can expect another five magnitude >8 “great earthquakes” in the next five to ten years. There are about fifteen volcanoes in a state of unrest right now; we have no idea when or if each will erupt. We need arrays of seismometers and seafloor GPS,
real-time gas sniffers, and rapid response collections of samples to catch events as and before they happen. When we have them, we’re going to discover new phenomena, with repercussions we can’t now predict.
In 1989, KLM Flight 867 was heading to Anchorage, Alaska, when it flew into Redoubt volcano’s ash cloud, lost power in all engines, and entered a free fall for four minutes before regaining power. All passengers survived, but the aircraft sustained $80 million in damage.
Let’s just say it costs a fraction of that to monitor volcanoes in Alaska each year; yet monitoring funding continually gets cut. There are thirty-five historically active volcanoes in Alaska –two that have erupted this year. Thirty thousand passengers fly over Alaska volcano air space each day. For any of you who might fly from the United States to Asia, the flight path takes you over Alaska. Many of the active volcanoes have no monitoring equipment. The situation is worse for many other volcanoes in many other countries. My hope is that ten years from now, if you are flying to some fancy meeting like ours today, you will have a volcano forecast to check.
© 2017 by Terry A. Plank
Jay D Keasling
Jay D Keasling is the Hubbard Howe, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Biochemical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley; Associate Laboratory Director for Biosciences at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2016.
I am deeply honored to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and to represent my fellow honorees in the Biological Sciences.
My experience with biology started at a very young age.
I was raised on a farm in rural Nebraska. My father grew corn and soybeans and raised pigs and cattle. As a young boy, every evening I came home from school to do an hour or two of chores: feeding cattle, watering pigs, laying out irrigation pipe. On Saturday afternoons, my father made me clean pigpens with a shovel. From the time I was eight years old until the time I was eighteen, I had the smell of pig manure on my hands. When I left the farm to go to college my father sold the pigs because he had no one to scoop the manure. So I had lots of practical experience with biology.
I was eight years old when the first genetic engineering experiments were published, and I remember reading a few years later about the founding of Genentech. I was fascinated by the potential to engineer life. Although I went to college with the idea of becoming a medical doctor, my first genetics course rekindled my fascination with genetic engineering and drove me down a completely different path, one I am still on today.
My area of research is biological engineering, or synthetic biology. My colleagues and I seek to create tools to manipulate biology in a highly controlled and reproducible manner and then use those tools to solve some of the world’s most important challenges in human health, the environment, and energy. Our ability to engineer biology has accelerated by leaps and bounds over the last four decades since the advent of genetic engineering. We have sequenced a significant, but still small, fraction of the world’s genomes. We can insert or delete genes in almost any organism. We can simulate biological systems on the computer and predict their behavioral responses to changes in their genomes. We can design and construct new genomes from scratch. We can build tissues and organs from a single progenitor cell.
In just four decades, biological engineering has had a tremendous impact on society, and nowhere is it more evident than in agriculture. When I was on the farm in the 1970s, it was the height of chemistry’s impact on agriculture. The seeds my father planted in the fields were hybrids created using traditional crop breeding and they were covered in noxious chemicals to keep rodents and other pests from eating them. Farmers sprayed other noxious chemicals on the crops from the tractor and from airplanes. And the pesticides and fertilizers leached from the fields and into the groundwater.
After I left the farm in the 1980s, genetically modified crops began to appear. Corn and soy were engineered to be resistant to relatively innocuous chemicals like Roundup and to be resistant to corn bores and other pests; many noxious chemicals were no longer needed. The amount of energy needed to farm decreased dramatically relative to that used in the chemicals era. Wildlife partially came back to the farm. And nationally, crop yields increased dramatically. We are now advancing into an era where microbiomes in the soil are being added or cocultivated with the crops to increase yields.
Biological engineering has had a tremendous impact on agriculture, but it has not yet solved some of the most important problems. One percent of the world’s energy is consumed to make nitrogen-based fertilizer, largely for U.S.-produced corn. We spread a huge amount of phosphate-based fertilizer on the ground, with only a small fraction actually going to crops, since it is not in a form that plants can take up. Weeds have acquired resistance to Roundup. And plants are relatively inefficient in photosynthesis and require large inputs of water. In theory, these challenges can be solved with biological engineering.
The world faces many other problems, problems created by our generation and the generations before us: we’ve consumed our natural resources; we’ve polluted our water, land, and air; and people are needlessly dying because they can’t get access to high quality, low-cost pharmaceuticals.
Biology has the potential to solve many of these problems. We can engineer plants and microbes to produce renewable, carbon neutral, transportation fuels. We can engineer plants and microbes to clean up the environment. We can prospect the biological diversity of the planet for new drugs to diseases and produce those drugs affordably. And eventually we will be able to effectively engineer humans to eliminate genetic disease.
But solving these challenges requires an understanding of basic biology. We need to know how cells grow and divide, how enzymes inside the cell catalyze reactions and build the basic molecules of the cell. We need to know how plants capture the energy of sunlight, fix carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and turn that fixed carbon into more plant material. We need to know how microbes in the soil and in our guts interact with us and other multicellular organisms. We need to know how organisms can survive and thrive in extreme environments. We need to know how the brain works. And we need to know how a changing climate will affect the growth and proliferation of all organisms on the planet.
This basic science does not need any other justification than curiosity itself. We are sometimes so focused on solving problems that we forget that the technology we have in our phones, our gas tanks, our medicines, and even our clothes was built on a foundation of basic science and serendipity. The United States has been a leader in its support of basic science and, in particular, basic biology. Unfortunately, our government does not always support basic science in a manner that will ensure that the United States remains at the technological cutting edge. We, as scientists and engineers, must be willing to speak with policy-makers and the public to help them understand the science and how some seemingly far-fetched pursuits could have unknown and outsized impacts.
Finally, we need smart regulation of technology. The United States is one of the few places where biological engineering can be practiced, particularly for agriculture. We must not take that technological and scientific freedom for granted. Regulation lags far behind technology development, and the stakes are too high in biological engineering for something to go awry. Scientists should not shy away from participating in the development of regulation. Rather, we should embrace it and participate in a dialogue in an unbiased and meaningful way.
Through smart regulation and public support, biology will continue to be one of the most exciting areas of basic science, will continue to grow as a fraction of the U.S. economy, and will make the world a better place.
Again, I am deeply honored to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
© 2017 by Jay D Keasling
Andrea Louise Campbell
Andrea Louise Campbell is the Department Head and Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2016.
Thank you to the Academy for the opportunity to speak on behalf of Class III, the Social Sciences. I am honored to be elected to this esteemed institution.
To be an academic, especially a tenured one, is an incredible pleasure and privilege. But occasionally we fat and happy faculty get our comeuppance. Usually, from the expected sources:
- We lose an intellectual debate to a colleague.
- We face critiques from editors and reviewers.
- We encounter energetic young graduate students who reanalyze our data with new techniques and challenge our findings. (That’s a good one.)
I never thought I would receive my comeuppance from the very programs I had spent years analyzing: from a car accident that rendered my sister-in-law a quadriplegic and plunged her and my brother into the world of means-tested programs in the United States, the “safety net” of social welfare programs.
These are programs I had long studied but quickly discovered I really didn’t know anything about. I could rattle off program parameters and statistics and technical terms. But I didn’t truly appreciate what these program designs meant for people on the ground –how they shape and distort people’s lives –until my own family members were enrolled.
Four years ago my sister-in-law was on the highway in California on her way to nursing school when a hit-and-run driver caused her car to roll over, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down. She was pregnant. Fortunately, the baby survived and my nephew is now a healthy four-year-old.
But her disability and need for help with the activities of daily living meant enrollment in Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income Americans. Why? She wasn’t poor. But Medicaid is the only source of help for the long-term supports and services the disabled need.
Medicare, for which the disabled can qualify after a two-year waiting period, doesn’t cover long-term supports. Private long-term care insurance is time-limited, not meant for those who need decades’ worth of help. Plus my sister-in-law didn’t have long-term care insurance: she was thirty-two years old. So Medicaid it was.
As a disabled person, she was categorically eligible for Medicaid. But because it is a program for the poor, she and my brother also had to become poor. That meant meeting Medicaid’s income and asset caps.
They had to keep their income below 133 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s $2,100 per month for their family of three. Studies show that that’s half the income needed for a “modest living standard” in most parts of the country.
And while about half the states no longer have an asset limit for Medicaid eligibility, California does. The cap for my brother and sister-in-law? $3,150. Except for their home and one vehicle, their total financial assets could not exceed $3,150. I should add: this cap was last adjusted in 1989.
So they had to spend down their modest bank account. My sister-in-law had to liquidate a small 401(k) plan from an earlier job –and pay the early withdrawal penalty. And as luck would have it, my brother’s hobby was working on old cars; those had to go.
Their liquidated assets could only go toward the exempt items: the house and the wheelchair van they had to buy. They couldn’t pay off their credit card bills, or college loans. Nor could I help them –well, not officially –lest I violate their income cap.
Here’s my comeuppance. As a social policy scholar –I will never again use the term expert –I “knew” all this. I knew there were asset and income limits. But I didn’t fully understand the implications.
If you are a citizen –a citizen! –in need in the United States who is enrolled in a means-tested program, the government can tell you how you can spend your own money. The government could tell me how I could spend my own money. This offended the inner libertarian I didn’t even know I had.
Then there are the incentives, or disincentives, built into the program designs. First, the disincentive to work: any money my brother made above their allowance of $2,100 per month would simply go to Medicaid. So he rolled back his work hours in the face of this 100 percent marginal tax rate.
And the disincentive to save: my brother and sister-in-law can’t do any of the things families are always told to do for financial security: Have an emergency fund. Save for college (a 529 fund counts against the asset test in California). Save for retirement (IRAs also count against the asset test in California). Here it’s worth noting the multitude of studies that show that outcomes for children –in education, economic mobility, criminal justice –are worse for lower income families. And among low-income families, they are worse for those with lower assets. And yet government programs for the poor force people to raise their children in a state of financial instability, fostering intergenerational poverty.
Conservatives might argue: if these programs are so terrible, we should get rid of them. Liberals might argue: no, let’s reform them and fix the disincentives and Draconian parameters.
I hope in some less polarized future we can bring left and right together for reform. I believe there could be common ground. I’ll leave it to the other political scientists to explain how we get to that less polarized future.
But in the meantime, I try to spread word of what I’ve learned. I now appreciate that we need to know more about the lived experience of poverty and the role government programs play. A number of my fellow social science inductees do wonderful work in these areas. The recent interest in inequality among scholars and the broader public gives me hope.
I now recognize the need for a multiprogram perspective. Academics and policy-makers tend to focus on one program at a time, but it’s the interactions among programs that matter for recipients. The Obama administration proposed raising the asset cap on federal assistance programs like food stamps to $10,000, which is wonderful. But for a recipient also on Medicaid in a state with a $3,000 asset cap, the federal reform would be moot. We have to be more holistic in our analysis and policy-making.
We need to socialize the costs of catastrophically expensive risks like disability. The lifetime risk that each of us will be disabled or need to care for a family member who becomes disabled approaches 100 percent. Imagine if we had true, universal social insurance for these needs.
I will sum up by saying that at the end of the day, we have to recognize that we’re all needy. That is the deepest lesson I have learned. As University of Chicago health policy scholar Harold Pollack says, “We are all vulnerable. We have to take care of each other.”
© 2017 by Andrea Louise Campbell
Theaster Gates, Jr.
Theaster Gates, Jr., is a Chicago-based artist whose practice includes space development, object making, performance, and critical engagement with many publics. Founder and Executive Director of the Rebuild Foundation, he is also Professor in the Department of Visual Art and Director of Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2016.
For the last couple months, I have been trying to simplify the way I talk to nonartists about the artist life and artist processes, and it seems there might be a few nonartists in this room. The words that I have come up with, that seem to sum up my practice, are three: love, administration, and iteration. I have been thinking about these words a lot.
Love, administration, iteration. I thought I would try to talk to you today about what I do in my studio, and what I do and see outside my studio, in relation to these three words. When you’re a young artist, you are given an opportunity to be subject to crits (short for critiques). Basically you hang some work on a wall or you put some art out or you do a performance, and you give your peers and teachers in the crit –ten or fifteen of them, or even thirty to forty –permission to tell you how bad your work is. We can call that a kind of administration. People take turns, one after another, telling you it should have been black, it should have been blue, you should stick to photography and not change to video, you should stick to economics and not be a painter at all.
As an undergraduate or graduate student, you’re in a process of iterating. In fact, at Iowa State, I started out in pre-pharmacy, and I moved from pre-pharmacy to urban planning. Already then I was understanding the importance of iteration, and that there was a way in which iteration was calling me to the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Two years after Mandela had been released, I thought maybe I could continue my studies of traditional African religion, sculpture, and space.
It was at the University of Cape Town that I started to really consider this idea of love and administration: That there was a way in which Mandela had so gracefully imagined that those years of sacrifice in jail had created a platform by which he could be not just himself, but a kind of symbol for the possibility of peace and reconciliation in South Africa. That, in a way, for me, Mandela had become the most beautiful work of art of that time, combining a symbolic life with a pragmatic life, a life of forgiveness. Mandela as a work of art, as a symbol of love.
Administration. When I left the University of Cape Town, I was bored, trying to figure out what was next. Slowly, my art career started to grow, but only alongside a full-time day job, because my parents were determined not to help me out. They were like, look, if you want to make it in this world, you’re going to have to do it on your own. So my mom would quietly give me a couple hundred bucks every once in a while, and I would say, yes, dad, I’m totally independent. Love. Love and good house administration.
In those years, I found myself trying to grow my knowledge of urban planning and my knowledge of the city, while also advancing my knowledge of ceramics. I was a craftsman. I didn’t consider myself a conceptual artist or a contemporary artist. I had my studio, but during the day, I had my bowtie on. I didn’t wear a jacket today because now I get to be wholly an artist. I’m no longer a civil servant, I’m just a servant.
It was really the studio that helped me learn how to be a better administrator. In my studio, I could make a work of art, look at it from all sides, and imagine if it was working. If it wasn’t, I could change what surrounded it, I could add to it, I could put it back in the kiln. I could glaze it and reglaze it. I could turn it on its head. I could let other people come to my studio and critique me until I didn’t want to hear them anymore. I was engaged in acts of iteration. And when I start to look at the possibilities for artistic practice today, and I look at the kind of troubles that exist just outside of my studio, I think this is a moment when serious iteration is needed within our administration, and a tremendous amount of love is needed, especially in Chicago.
Terry Plank spoke to us about how it’s possible that we could track minor ruptures to predict a tremendous volcanic blow, that there is a kind of precursive possibility to this explosion. When I travel, people always ask me what I think about gun violence in Chicago, what I think about young black men killing each other, what I think about police brutality and these travesties. Well I think that there might be ways we could get ahead of the volcanic explosion, by tracking these minor ruptures that are happening below sea level, below deck, below our houses, within the education system. And that requires a tremendous amount of care and administration. If the rupture destroys your equipment, if your equipment is water damaged, you have to commit to the next iteration of it. If for some reason my studio isn’t working the way that I want, I’ll start with a tar painting, I’ll make another, and another, until I find myself with an iteration that I love. The same is true with the city.
There’s a series of abandoned two-flat buildings in Chicago that could be transformed into a great series of cultural centers. No one lives on this block. But the Department of Planning can only see that the buildings are zoned to be houses, not cultural centers. Unwilling to administrate with iteration or love, the Department of Planning says, no, they’re zoned as two-flats and they’re going to stay two-flats. Here is where I think an artist who practices thinking about the city, thinking about policy, has the ability to show an administrator in Detroit that if in two square miles of residential zoning there aren’t enough people to fill those houses, maybe those houses could be repurposed for other uses. Or if there are huge tracts of vacant land in Chicago where there are homeless people and hungry people, surely there’s a way, through love and administration and great iteration, those things could reconcile themselves.
What I’ve realized is that, as much as it might be a kind of vocation, urban planning has more to do with sculpture. That urban planning is, in fact, one’s capacity to shape the city, and that urban planners and scientists, like artists, are equipped with the tools whereby they might reshape their subjects. The challenge is that no one has taught the planner, like they’ve taught the artist, that iteration is OK. No one has shared with the urban planner, with the public policy-maker, or with the elected official that it’s OK to be creative, to identify when policies aren’t working anymore, and to revise. Chicago is no longer the city it was when it was all wooden; it transformed to brick, and planners and policy-makers had to iterate. Now, maybe these empty postindustrial buildings could be something else, maybe these men returning from prison can be something else. But it requires a tremendous act of love. When we enter policy through an act of love, we start to find new ways of exploring policy, of making more room for more people.
And so I’m convinced today that I am an artist. It took me a long time to be able to say that. But inside or outside my studio, the thing I’m most interested in making is a transformed world. My work is an attempt at making meaning. It’s an attempt, like Mandela, to understand the possibility of the symbolic. Sometimes it includes paintings, but a lot of times it’s about how you can use the creative process to change what’s around you. I want to believe that beauty is a basic service, but I’ve found the only way you can get to that beauty is through a hell of a lot of work.
So I want to commend the Academy for allowing me to be a part of its membership. And I want to commend my cohorts, because artists are the amazing workers who convince the world and convince cities and their occupants that they can be beautiful, bold, and powerful again. I hope that I can be a part of that legacy. Thank you so much.
© 2017 by Theaster Gates, Jr.
Walter Isaacson is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Aspen Institute. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2016.
Recent speakers for Class V (Public Affairs, Business, and Administration) have addressed broad and daunting challenges, such as my friend Darren Walker, who last year spoke on inequality, and previous speakers who discussed the breakdown of civil discourse, the loss of faith in our political institutions, and the decline of productivity and financial inclusion.
The challenge I wish to address today is more focused, but is also a contributor to all of these larger problems. It is that, after forty years, the Internet is broken. We broke it, we allowed it to corrode, and now we have to fix it.
There are bugs in the foundation, bats in the belfry, and trolls in the basement. The anonymity that is embedded into its transmission control protocols has poisoned civil discourse, enabled hacking, permitted cyberbullying, and made email a risk. It has prevented easy transactions, thwarted financial inclusion, destroyed the business models of content creators, unleashed deluges of spam, and forced us to use passwords and two-factor authentication schemes that would have baffled Houdini.
The trillions being spent and the IQ points of computer science talent being allocated to tackle security issues makes it a drag, rather than a spur, to productivity in some sectors.
This talk is not intended to be one of those technophobic rants about the Internet rewiring our brains to give us the twitchy attention span of Donald Trump on Twitter, nor about how we have to log off and smell the flowers. Those qualms about new technologies have existed ever since Plato fretted that the technology of writing would threaten memorization and oratory.
Instead, I speak as someone who loves the Net and bemoans its decline.
The Internet began as a way for the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now DARPA) to connect the computers they were funding at various research universities. The network was packet-switched, which meant that the information was broken up into little digital packets that were sent scurrying separately through the fishnet of network nodes by whichever path was at that instant most efficient. The packets were encoded with headers that told them where to go and how to rejoin with the other packets when they got there.
The universities were told to come up with a way to connect their big mainframes to the ARPANET’s routers. So they did what research professors often do. They delegated the task to their graduate students.
As graduate students in the late 1960s, they tended to resist authority. The most genial, Steve Crocker, was designated to take notes, which he called “requests for comments,” to indicate that this was a collaborative process with no hierarchy of control. That was cool. It’s particularly cool that we’re still doing it this way. The RFC process is up to number 7,900.
The architecture Crocker and company created was radically decentralized and distributed. Each and every node had equal power to originate and forward any packet. If a node got taken out or someone tried to censor things, the Net would route around it.
This has been explained as a survival mechanism against a Soviet attack. But I interviewed Crocker and his colleagues and they denied that this was the case. “We were grad students.” they said. “Why? Because we were avoiding the draft and Vietnam. We weren’t interested in helping the Pentagon create a military system.”
Some of them wrote a letter to Time magazine explaining as much. Time was arrogant back then. I know, because I was there. The Time editors claimed to have a better source on the topic, and didn’t print their letter.
Years later, when I was writing The Innovators, I went back to the Time archives to find the “better” source. And it actually was a good one: Stephen Lukasik, who was in charge of the funding for ARPA at the Pentagon. He said that of course the network was meant to survive a Russian attack; that was the rationale for getting the colonels at the Pentagon and members of Congress to fund it.
“You tell Crocker,” he said, “that I was on top, he was on bottom, so he didn’t know what was happening.”
When I reported this back to Steve Crocker, he paused, stroked his chin, and replied: “You can tell Lukasik that we were on bottom and he was on top, so he didn’t know what was happening.”
So that’s how the Internet works. There is no central control or authority.
The separate but near-simultaneous invention of the Internet and the personal computer in the 1970s had a transforming effect on information flow not seen since Gutenberg. It meant that anyone anywhere could publish anything and get anything published from anywhere.
Those in this room may not understand the import. We all have plenty of opportunities –too many –to be published. But 99 percent of this country never had the opportunity to write or have their opinions disseminated until the advent of the Internet and its related services, such as Twitter, Facebook, Medium, and blog sites.
There was one fundamental trait embedded in the genetic code of the ARPANET, one that was replicated when Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf wrote the set of protocols that allowed the ARPANET to internetwork with other networks, thus forming the Internet. The packets were encoded or enveloped with their destination address, but not with their place of origin. With a circuit-switched network, you could track or trace back the origins of the information. Not with the Internet.
Compounding this was the architecture that Tim Berners-Lee and the inventors of the early browsers created for the World Wide Web. It brilliantly allowed the whole of the earth’s computers to be webbed together and navigated through hyperlinks.
But the links were one-way. You knew where the links took you. But if you had a webpage or piece of content, you didn’t exactly know who was linking to you or coming to use your content.
All of that enshrined the potential for anonymity. You could make comments anonymously. Go to a webpage anonymously. Consume content anonymously. With a little effort, send email anonymously. And if you figured out a way to get into someone’s servers or databases, you could do it anonymously.
For years, the benefits of anonymity on the Net outweighed its drawbacks. People felt more free to express themselves, which was especially valuable if they were dissidents or hiding a personal secret. This was celebrated in the famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
Now the problem is nobody can tell if you’re a troll. Or a hacker. Or a bot.
A long, long time ago, John Finley strode this stage and tried to teach the wisdom of Plato. In the Republic, we learn the tale of the Ring of Gyges. Put it on, and you’re invisible and anonymous. The question that Plato asks is whether those who put on the ring will be civil and moral. He thinks not. The Internet has proven him correct.
Anonymity has caused a host of problems: We can’t trust email. I’ve now been involved in four hacks. I am no longer comfortable using email for anything of substance.
Our notions of privacy have been twisted. We oppose the right of the government to get into the iPhone of a mass murderer, we are appalled that the government might be monitoring the metadata of Internet traffic, yet we merrily read Colin Powell’s and Hillary Clinton’s and Sony’s email when the North Koreans, Russians, or private actors try to influence our movie preferences or political process.
We are inundated with spam. Every day I get four or five emails offering me breast augmentation. How many people open an email from an unknown address and are persuaded to have their breasts augmented? I don’t know. But if the Net is so good at personalization, why am I on these lists?
The Web is no longer a place of community, no longer an agora. Every day more sites are eliminating comments sections.
What are some solutions to these problems? If we could start from scratch, here’s what I think we would do:
- Charge a tenth of a penny for email. If you send twenty emails a day, you can afford the two cents. If you’re a spammer, you would have to think twice.
- Create a system that enabled content producers to negotiate with aggregators and search engines to get a royalty whenever their content is used, like ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) has negotiated for public performances and radio airings of its members’ works.
- Embed a simple digital wallet and currency for quick and easy small payments for songs, blogs, articles, and whatever other digital content is for sale.
- Encode emails with an authenticated return or originating address.
- Enforce critical properties and security at the lowest levels of the system possible, such as in the hardware or in the programming language, instead of leaving it to programmers to incorporate security into every line of code they write.
Most Internet engineers think that many of these reformations are possible, from Vint Cerf, the original TCP/IP coauthor, to Milo Medin of Google, to Howard Shrobe, the director of cybersecurity at MIT. “We don’t need to live in cyber hell,” Shrobe has argued.
DARPA, which created the first segment of the Internet, has set up a project to explore such possibilities. It is called Clean Slate. It asks what would we do if we could rebuild networks and computer systems from scratch.
It would be possible, they concluded, to build servers and host computers that used operating systems that defied or corrected security flaws that were in whatever software ran on them. They also came up with a plan, Active Authentication, that would provide various ways to securely identify any user.
People can be verified biometrically and by other means. Their communications and activity can be authenticated and certified. If they choose, they can allow only authenticated users so send them email, use their site, or get into their systems.
This could be done by having chips and machines that update the notion of an Internet packet. These packets could be encoded or tagged with metadata that describe what is contained in the packet and give the rules for how it can be used. It would then be encrypted and sent to another computer, which would not accept it unless the metadata met its standards.
Implementing some of these is less a matter of technology than of social will. Some civil libertarians will resist any diminution of anonymity, which they sometimes mistakenly label privacy.
The best approach, I think, would be to try to create a voluntary system, for those who want to use it, to have verified identification and authentication of users.
People would not be forced to use such a system. If they wanted to communicate and surf anonymously, they could. But those of us who choose, at times, not to be anonymous and not to deal with people who are anonymous should have that right as well. That’s the way it works in the real world.
And the benefits would be many: Easy and secure ways to deal with your finances and medical records. Small payment systems that could reward valued content rather than the current incentive to concentrate on clickbait for advertising. Less hacking, spamming, cyberbullying, trolling, and the spewing of anonymous hate. And the possibility of a more civil discourse.
© 2017 by Walter Isaacson
To view or listen to the presentations, visit https://www.amacad.org/induction2016.