TED Conversations

Jason Pontin

Editor in Chief/Publisher, MIT's Technology Review


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"Why Can't We Solve Big Problems?"

I'll be giving a TED U Talk in Longbeach at the end of the month. I'll be asking "Why Can't We Solve Big Problems?" I think that blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.

I'd love to know what the TED Community thinks our difficulties are - or, even if the idea is true at all.

Here's a URL to the story I wrote in MIT Technology Review on the subject: http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/429690/why-we-cant-solve-big-problems/

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    Feb 23 2013: Because technology is just a tool, not an intelligence in itself. Technology is a very poor innovator, has no intuition whatsoever and is not cognizant of the human sensibilities it is supposed to serve.

    We seem to have lost sight of the notion that humans are supposed to be the master intelligence - not the technology we ourselves have created.

    In short, the bright sparks of imagination, intuition and innovation required to come up with solutions to big problems have got hopelessly lost in a thick fog of technology, administrative procedures, lawsuits, health and safety legislation and politics - to name but a few.
    • Marc J

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      Feb 23 2013: Hear, hear! To borrow a phrase, "the mind is a terrible thing to waste!"
    • W T 100+

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      Feb 23 2013: I remember when they started installing "smartboards" in our school.

      I thought to myself, what the school needs is more "smart teachers"....not another techy toy which half the faculty will just let hang around collecting dust.

      I second Marc's statement!!
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      Feb 24 2013: Did you miss Pontin's point here, "technologists have diverted us and enriched themselves with trivial toys."?
      If technology is just a "tool" what work is be being used for? My guess is that it is busy keeping us pacified and entertained, perhaps "distracted" from the real problems is the best way to put it..

      But these tools can and are being used in innovative new ways in areas of the world where survival depends on them. Charles Leadbeater describes this in his TEDTalk:

      " Because actually radical innovation does sometimes come from the very best, but it often comes from places where you have huge need -- unmet, latent demand -- and not enough resources for traditional solutions to work -- traditional, high-cost solutions, which depend on professionals, which is what schools and hospitals are."

      Education is one of these areas where as Leadbeater says: "Our education systems all work on the principle that there is a payoff, but you have to wait quite a long time. That's too long if you're poor. Waiting 10 years for the payoff from education is too long when you need to meet daily needs, when you've got siblings to look after or a business to help with. So you need education to be relevant and help people to make a living there and then, often. And you also need to make it intrinsically interesting."

      He adds, "....science has opened up successively different vantage points from which we can see ourselves, and that's why it's so valuable. So the vantage point you take determines virtually everything that you will see. The question that you will ask will determine much of the answer that you get."

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        Feb 24 2013: Hi Theodore. Yes, I guess I did miss that, and it's a good point about diverting 'trivial toys'

        Thanks for the Charles Leadbeater link!
  • Feb 14 2013: I've been noticing a pattern. In your article with MIT Technology Review and in the comments of a number of people are lines similar to the following: "We could solve this problem if only such and such group thought or behaved differently than they do." Well, there's your answer. Focusing just on technological developments as the means of solving the world's ills is insufficient. There needs to be much more focus on how do we change people's thoughts and behaviors. These problems are best solved by behavioral scientists. Allow me to provide a more extreme example for clarity: Science is a double-edged sword. What can be used to help can also be used to harm. Eventually, people will have access to the means to do tremendous harm to other people, the environment, etc. This is a byproduct of technological advancement. If these people are malevolent, this is of tremendous concern. While it's certainly a good idea to develop vaccines and radiation detectors and other technologies to help keep us from being harmed by these malevolent actors, these technologies are insufficient when it comes to stopping the threat. Again, I suggest the solution is with the behavioral sciences. One problem is that people do not really understand or appreciate the benefits of the behavioral sciences. If a radiation detector stops a dirty bomb from entering a nation at a port, the benefits of this technology are very obvious. If a psychologist's research leads to policies that lessen extremism, causing group members to rule out using a dirty bomb in the first place, the world may never make the connection. For reasons well beyond the scope of my comments, the behavioral sciences are under appreciated in terms of their utility to help solve some of the world's biggest problems. Unfortunately, what's required to change this isn't just a funding increase in behavioral science research---it's an absolute sea change in how people view the utility of the behavioral sciences.
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      Feb 14 2013: Yes, I think that's right: the main reasons why we can't solve big problems with technology is that we either don't want or our institutions have failed. In other words, it's a human failure more than anything else.
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        Feb 15 2013: Actually we can solve poverty with technology and capitalism , would you like to know how?
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          Feb 15 2013: Yes, sure. I mean, if it's science fiction (that is, involving technologies that don't yet exist, or couldn't plausibly exist), I'll take it with a grain of salt - but, by all means, solve poverty.
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        Feb 15 2013: Ok, so the fundamental part of Capitalism is that people have to make less money so other people can make more. This can be seen in today's current economy as the 99% vs. the 1% in America. What most Americans don't realize is that the 99% of Americas are also in the top 1% of the world.
        Because I am able to run my business in a free market, my plan is to limit my employee’s salary, as well as my own, to an amount no greater than $100,000 per year for life. I already have 3 business ventures that I am currently working to get off the ground. These businesses are as follows; One in Marketing, one in 3D printing, and one that can be best described somewhat as a Jiffy Lube for nail salons. As I’ve previously stated, my employee’s and I will never make more than $100,000 a year in income. Furthermore, I plan to automate the jobs completed by my employees and create machines that will complete the work for them. However, I will still pay them their annual salary. I will be able to accomplish this with the capital received from the automated services my businesses will provide. As an employer, I don’t really care who or what does the work as long as it gets done. With the future IT companies I plan to establish, I will be able to spread Wi-Fi coverage to everyone in the country, cheaper than it’s already being done. In addition, I will also have the ability to offer more coverage in more places. I will show those employees how they can outsource their job to 3rd world workers, where they can basically double that person’s income by only paying them a tenth of what I plan to pay my employees. This will allow my employees to semi-retire and still complete all the necessary job requirements. Essentially, this method will enable me to rescue my employees as well as the 3rd world workers from a life of poverty. This can be seen as a trickledown effect, which current businesses like to pretend they already accomplish.
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        Feb 15 2013: The best part about this plan is that my “semi-retired” employees will have the buying power. Therefore, they will buy from my company instead of from my competitors. Much like a lobbyist, I will be “bribing” my employees for their loyalty in the form of the semi-retired salary, which they will make for the rest of their lives. My employees will know the more they buy from me, the more people we can rescue from poverty.
        Once I educate my employees on how money actually works, they will realize it is a juggling act and my enterprise will be the ultimate juggler. This will also allow the removal of government welfare programs, thus lowering everyone’s tax rates. This will be effective simply because I will be paying people for doing nothing. From then on they can volunteer or spend their time completing more hospitable and fulfilling activities while having job security.
        If 25% of the world companies and charities used this model instead of our current model how fast do you think we can end poverty?
    • Feb 17 2013: Well said, as a mental health professional I cannot stress how limitless the benefits could be for the human civilization, if we apply it appropriately.
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        Feb 17 2013: Thank you,

        What do you think it will take for us to apply this method? Do you think we really want to end poverty or is it just talk?
        • Feb 17 2013: " ... do we really want to end poverty ...?
          Good question !
          Maybe people want to end poverty but not for the sake of their own prosperity.
          If we solve a little problem with our big ego, big problems will become little :)
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        Feb 17 2013: Wouldn't ending poverty add prosperity?
        • Feb 17 2013: Yes, if you think globally.
          Government as an institution is meant to protect interests of the country. Its strategy is to keep poverty at a distance. As an implication, the prosperity becomes ours and poverty theirs.
          And it doesn't want to end their poverty at the expense of our prosperity.
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    Feb 18 2013: Lets rephrase the question to ask the much more empowering question how HOW CAN WE SOLVE BIG PROBLEMS? Then we may come up with the big solutions needed to do so.
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      Feb 18 2013: I agree Michelle, that focusing on what we CAN do is more energizing and empowering than focusing on what we cannot do....excellent point!!!
    • Feb 18 2013: i think you might be missing something here.

      it is important to keep a positive perspective, yes, but it is equally important to seek out and identify anything that might hinder us (the human race) from achieving progress.

      the fact of the matter is that we are capable of solving world hunger, equalizing global economy, and reversing environmental damage. however, these endeavors are not profitable to the entities that are capable of setting them into motion. if, by "Big Problems", we are referring to problems on a global scale, than i think the answer is capitalism. the world as a whole is obsessed with ownership, competition, money, profit, etc. and as a result, moralistic goals will always fall short of our need of luxury. we can solve the problems, but only by sacrificing capitalism.

      we all want to solve world hunger, but nobody is willing to question how it's possible in America to find braised Eel in countless restaurants that are thousands of miles away from the ocean, yet in Ethiopia it is almost impossible to eat enough to survive.
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        Feb 19 2013: William,
        I agree that it is "equally important to seek out and identify anything that might hinder....achieving progress".

        My interpretation of Michells's comment, and reinforcement of the idea is "FOCUS". Once we know what might be hindering progress, it may be good to focus our attention on solutions. Sometimes, it feels like we (humans) go round and round complaining and evaluating the challenges in our world, without genuinely seeking solutions. I agree with you that we (humans) are often obsessed with ownership, competition, money, profit, etc, and we are very good at theorizing!

        "One of the great difficulties in the new order of thought is that we are likely to indulge in too much theory and too little practice."
        (Ernest Holmes - "The Science of Mind")
        • Feb 19 2013: Ms. Steen,

          I truly agree with your statement, and believe that the development of effective courses of action is just as important as their implementation.

          the one thing i seem to observe, however, is that good ideas are not something we are in short supply of. everything is opensource, now. people are connected all across the world on a level that we've never seen. the progress of infrastructure in Africa is beginning to advance to the level of continent-wide casual internet access, which will make for a 20-30% increase in size to the global think tank.

          the problem that i see is that the decision of what the general effort of the human race will be is in the wrong hands. i think it's important for people to realize that there is something wrong with our governments, and that no matter what political stance you take, or activism you promote, no agenda is going to supersede that of the corporations, banks, etc. that own this planet, and that agenda seems to explicitly demonize individual aptitude, self reliance, peace, and pretty much anything that can fall under the broad definition of "a solution to a global problem."
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        Feb 23 2013: You make some good points William. Good ideas are not something we are in short supply of....people are connected throughout the world. WE are the governments...WE elect and appoint the leaders. When/if enough people take back their own power to think, feel, share ideas respectfully and genuinely work together, we may see some changes. Actually, I believe change is happening right now.

        Because of our advanced communication systems, (including TED), which facilitate more awareness, we are uncovering corruption in politics, corporations, religions, etc. Corruption and abuse of human rights thrives in isolation.

        What we focus on expends. I prefer to spend time and energy focusing on what we CAN do that will move us toward solving our global issues, rather than spending time and energy debating why we think we cannot Solve Big Problems.
    • Feb 19 2013: I agree with your idea to re-focus the question. I also believe that the term "solve" can also be misleading. As others have asserted once a "problem is solved" then another one will take its place. It is an unending cycle to continually "solve" problems. Rather taking steps in the name of progress and expanding knowledge have no definitive "end", so there is not the disappointment/frustration that can come with a solution-based strategy.
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        Feb 19 2013: Good point Jeff! I believe that as evolving humans, there may always be challenges, so if we know and understand this, we begin to look at the life experience in a different way? We can continually progress and expand with knowledge and technology without a definitive end result. I agree with you that this practice gives us (as individuals, AND as a global community) more freedom, time and energy to move forward and improve life circumstances, rather than spending time and energy with disappointment and frustration that can come with a solution-based strategy:>)
  • Mar 1 2013: I see that you have given your TED U Talk. Hopefully I'll see it here, as the question is provocative. Provocative in many different ways and levels. It appears to me that I am not alone in the belief that we are solving the problems and yes, the big ones but, its not technology that's doing it. Apologies to those taking offense at that remark. I am fully aware that at MIT the "T" stands for technology and having spent my youth in Malden I take great pride in things on both banks of the Charles.

    We are the big "problem". The technologies we develop may give insight to some of our goals and desires but we are not our technologies. Things not achievable are not necessarily problems. Desires unfulfilled are just that, not problems. Mankind dramatically progresses, in the Shakespearean sense. We explore the skies beyond the scope of imagination and yet, our degree of ignorance for that within arm's reach is numbing. Communities within and surrounding MIT, people in India and Japan, motivated by their compassion for mankind, they go on to solve the "big problems", at times flying possibly to Mars, other times getting food and clothing to those who need it most.

    I was very happy, yet not the least bit surprised, to see similar sentiment expressed or hinted at by others. Is hunger a problem for technology today? Do current technologies not suffice to solve the problem ten times over? "We" are the big problems. "We" are the big solutions. Looking forward to your talk.
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      Feb 16 2013: What sort of design do you do, Carolyn, if you do not mind my asking?
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          Feb 16 2013: How wonderful, Caroline, to have such DIY energy! The security guards at the local art museum often are engaged like this outside of their paying work and some show and sell some of their creations now and then, but not as their steady income.

          My neighbor went to RISD and she too can make anything..
    • Feb 16 2013: Wholeheartedly agree with you !
      We've talked ourselves to belief that nature is mute, but in fact, nature is the only evaluable statement.
      We are deaf and blind and we should do something about it. The question is What and How.
  • Feb 15 2013: Big problems is a wide ranging issue. Our main issue with technology is: instead of wisdom we are gaining knowledge. Knowledge is a piece of what makes wisdom, but we need to have the other parts of wisdom as well. Love, compassion, higher thinking.

    I think maybe once you attempt to solve all the "big problems" you may be left chasing your own tail. Why is this? That is the biggest problem of all! Why does attempting to solve "big problems" end in a logical tail chase?

    My personal opinion on our problems is that we are living by an outdated system of life, a.k.a. society, a.k.a. economic system, a.k.a. government, a.k.a. Overall thought process. As a manufacturing engineer my life centers around finding root causes to problems (as any optimist knows a problem is really just an opportunity)

    In a root cause analysis of our problems I come down to needing large systematic changes. In other words as human beings we need to be enlightened to a higher thinking. Logically from an engineering standpoint our system is set up incorrectly. If I created a car that lasts indefinitely and could sell for $5 that ran on water....everyone from our government to the guy on Ford's assembly line would hate me and stop me from making said car. Our economic system is set up to create garbage. Garbage in, garbage out. The garbage in is our logically backwards thinking that less jobs is bad, long lasting products are bad for business, and money is all life is about.

    With less pointless work we can spend more time enjoying life, creating, and researching how to solve REAL human "big problems"
  • Feb 15 2013: The problem with a problem is that it is problematically labelled as a problem, a negative focus or a negative impacting design, which is affecting or will be affecting a positive.

    To first enable a problem to become a non-problem it may first need to be relabelled.

    e.g. there is no such thing as a "problem", there are only opportunities to improve.

    Hence the opportunity which was previously mislabelled, the mislabelling is the problem, the question should be, "Why does it take so long to make significant improvements"?

    Therein lies the problem solved, improvements develop over time with greater shared thinking and input/commitment.
    The bigger the required improvement, the bigger the stakeholder input is required, man is selfish, therefore, the improvement is still lacking.
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      Feb 15 2013: I do like the idea of focusing on opportunities for improvement.
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      Feb 16 2013: I agree Lionel....once we label something a "problem", we sometimes fail to see the opportunity.
      As long as we say it is "hard", "difficult", "impossible", etc., that is the reality we create for ourselves.
      "It's not a problem....it's a feature"!

      As thinking, feeling, evolving, creative human beings, we have the tools to improve many situations in our global communities. When we look at all the issues we could be dealing with, it sometimes seems overwhelming, and I think that feeling often causes people to think/feel that any action is too small to make a difference.

      I believe it helps to focus on one step at a time, and each step, by every single individual in our global community is valuable. Every journey begins with a single step, and if we can focus on how the steps add up, we are on our way to change. With each new step, we improve and develop with greater shared thinking, input and commitment. One thing our communications technology is facilitating, is connections around our world:>)
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        Feb 16 2013: What you say- that people tend to under-invest energy in problems when they believe their actions will be too small to make a difference has been demonstrated in experiments. This is also, interestingly, one reason so many solicitations for funds for worthy causes feature individuals one can sponsor and so forth rather than offering big picture numbers for people at risk in various ways.

        I am absolutely with you that everyone can make a difference (the Drew Dudley talk immediately comes to mind) and I too live that way. In fact, I am a strong believer that figuring out how we can best contribute and then doing it consistently is a valuable way of life.
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          Feb 16 2013: In addition to varified experiments Fritzie, I unfortunately, hear it all the time...

          Some people do not recycle because they do not feel that their effort makes any difference. I get kidded a lot for saving and reusing plastic bags.....because some folks say my effort doesn't make any difference. Can you imagine how much of a difference it would make if everyone in our world participated in these seemingly "small" efforts?

          I'm sometimes told that conserving electricity and water doesn't make any difference because we have "plenty" to use. Some folks do not look beyond the switch on the wall, or the faucet, to realize that conserving our resources IS important!

          BTW.....I am SO excited to have had a meeting this week with a company that is working with power companies in this state, installing solar panals on individual homes for NO upfront cost. It will reduce my electric bill, put energy into the grid, and reduce my "footprint"......win/win/win! I'm really excited!
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        Feb 16 2013: Around here, the city is vehement about recycling. The price structure for garbage collection provides incentive to recycle and separate recycling. Picking up recycling is free but garbage costs, depending on the size of can.

        Stores are not permitted to give you groceries in plastic bags and must charge for paper bags, so everyone brings their bags back to refill or uses a tote of some kind.

        There are also incentives for energy retrofits.
  • Ross G

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    Feb 14 2013: And are they profitable? ie. The treatment tends to be substantially more profitable than the cure.
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      Gail . 50+

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      Feb 14 2013: Succinctly put!
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      Feb 14 2013: as soon as there is a cure, it is infinitely more profitable than a long treatment. because nobody will choose the long treatment anymore. its market shrinks to zero.
  • Feb 13 2013: I admire your willingness to address the areas that have been largely ignored such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.

    Hunger and poverty can be changed easily, its just that there is no political will. I am an Indian who was born in Kenya, and I noticed that the Israelis helped us learn farming in the desert and they did also set up a farm for the hungry and poor too. Once it was handed over to those who it was created for, the minister who was in charge of the area simply stole the money it was generating thereby destroying the farm.

    The leaders prefer the hungry stay hungry and poor so that they can attract donor aid that they simply steal and stash in Swiss bank accounts. The poor are used as bait to attract money and assistance that does not go to those who need it, last time the food purchased to feed the hungry was sold in the local markets and the starving and hungry simply died.

    Malaria can be solved using quinine, and there are many other methods to work it out.

    Climate change too can be worked upon, offering to re-afforest some countries shall work out well, in Kenya we only have 2-3% forest cover instead of having a 35% forest cover, making deals with foreign governments so as to be allowed to plant trees and maintain the forests.

    Cancer and old age diseases - might be a game for the pharmaceutical companies to make money with, imagine if the world were to be disease free or even a reduction of diseases by up to 30% itself would mean a huge reduction of profits, jobs, revenue... for the economy overall.

    So to reiterate the issues discussed it is the lack of political will to solve the most pressing problems. The solutions have existed but addressing them has not been the motive of many countries and society, I'm sure more than 80% of the worlds population would like to have a better world.
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    Feb 13 2013: Technology is solving big problems, but new problems crop up all the time. Entropy in all contexts is a constant, and human beings can only do so much, so quickly, to stem the onslaught of new / evolving problems.

    Another factor to consider when it comes to human civilization is that, as much as we change the external world / reality, we are still guided largely by human nature, something which hasn't changed substantively in thousands of years; further, human nature easily and quickly reverts to primal instincts, often with dire consequences.

    Our best tools for fixing humanity's problems usually involve improving the way we approach or understand the world and each other.
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      Feb 14 2013: We exist an increasingly complex system. These "new problems" that you speak of are an emergent property of our increasing complexity. "Fixing" the problems, implies the wrong headed notion of installing our sense of order and control on nature, instead of better understand the "system" and its complex nature.
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        Feb 14 2013: I wouldn't call vaccines, for example, wrong-headed, nor many other medical and scientific breakthroughs. Nor would I agree that attempts to heal the environment are wrong-headed.

        To put a very fine point on it, if an asteroid were approaching the earth, should we use our knowledge and skills to attempt to avert a collision, or simply "understand the 'system' and its complex nature"?

        You seem to be, potentially, mixing problems created by humanity with those created by nature. Whatever the case, I would suggest it's in our best interests, and perhaps those of the world, that we continue to try to find solutions to problems. This is what humans do, it's how we adapt. It is our nature.
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          Feb 14 2013: How much complexity theory do you understand?
          The asteroid problem is not an "emergent property" of increasing complexity. Global warming is. DDT was intended to address a "problem." How did that work out?
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        Feb 14 2013: I was addressing the original question about tackling big problems, not just the subset of problems created by humankind. In any event, we can choose to address the problems, or not. Perhaps the issue you're having is with my terminology 'fix.' By 'fix' I simply mean address, deal with.
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          Feb 14 2013: "I seek not to know the answers, but to understand the questions" Master Po.
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      Feb 14 2013: Michael,
      You say...."....as much as we change the external world / reality, we are still guided largely by human nature, something which hasn't changed substantively in thousands of years; further, human nature easily and quickly reverts to primal instincts, often with dire consequences."

      To some extent, I agree with your statement, and on the other hand, I like to think/feel that with evolution, we are learning, growing and becoming more aware? If we continue to reinforce the idea that humans are NOT changing....that we are guided simply by human nature....that we revert to primal instincts...,.are we reinforcing the attitudes and behaviors we would like to change?

      I very much agree...
      "Our best tools for fixing humanity's problems usually involve improving the way we approach or understand the world and each other."

      How about if we change our perception of humans and recognize that we may be evolving beyond primal instincts? New approach?
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        Feb 14 2013: I agree with you, Colleen: we are evolving emotionally, intellectually; we are on the whole moving in the right direction with, of course, some notable exceptions. What I was referring to was our core nature, our instincts, our animal side...the id, if you will, not the super ego, to lift some Freudian terminology.

        You make a great point: it's important for us to appeal to humanity's better self, to ask and help people to think beyond their own self interest, to consider others. In other words, to evolve their thinking.
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          Feb 14 2013: I agree Michael, that it is important to appeal to humanity's "better self", and encourage people to think beyond their own self interest and consider others....evolve.

          I think I understand what you refer to when talking about our core nature, instincts, and animal side. I believe those elements of "us" are evolving, to the point of being able to see beyond instinct and animal behavior. We are multi sensory, multi dimensional human beings, and if we are more aware of the possibilities, we could change some perceptions and have a new approach.

          As long as we continue to reinforce the idea that our core nature, our instincts and animal side cannot be changed, that is the reality we create.

          For example:
          I co-facilitated "cognitive self change" sessions with offenders of domestic violence who were incarcerated. The guys often said something like...it's natural...instinctive, to slap somebody who tics us off. That is just "natural".

          You see? If we continue to reinforce the idea that there are natural animal instincts at our core, which cannot be changed, I think we do a disservice to humanity.
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        Feb 14 2013: I don't know if we're capable of changing our instincts. I see cake, I want it; but my higher mind tells me, "Hey, that belongs to my wife. Don't touch it." The goal is to teach people to think things through. I know that my children, who are not yet four, have very base instincts. My job as a parent is to help them evolve their behavior. Do I change what is deep down inside? Maybe. But I know I can help change what is closer to the surface.

        Great points, Colleen.
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          Feb 14 2013: EXACTLY Michael! I don't think we can change our instincts either. We CAN however, change the way we use the information. I totally agree....give people the tools to be able to think and feel things through.

          Many of the old instinctive behaviors were knee jerk reactions without any thought or feeling. Absolutely.....we can support others in the quest to evolve behaviors. I don't think we want or need to change what is deep down inside. We CAN change how it affects us and others. We CAN change our thoughts, feelings and behaviors to be more beneficial to ourselves and the whole of humankind.

          One of the first steps in this approach, is to discontinue talking about abusive, violent animal behaviors as something natural that cannot be changed. As thinking, feeling, intelligent, evolving human beings, we have choices:>)
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      Feb 14 2013: Let's compare these two statement:

      One thing to keep in mind: our beliefs shape our world view. That is to say, the entire construct of what we feel and know is shaped by our beliefs, whether those beliefs originate from faith or reason."

      "Our best tools for fixing humanity's problems usually involve improving the way we approach or understand the world and each other."

      Understanding the world often conflicts with our beliefs about the world. Which do we reshape?
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    Feb 13 2013: I do not think we can get rid of all world's problems. The best we can do is to substitute old problems with new problems. What happens in the macro scale only reflects the micro - it is impossible to be 100% healthy. Cure one ailment and you will only open the way for another. And who knows what is better? sometimes the old familiar problem is better because one knows what to expect from it. I do not want to say we should ignore malaria, cancer and other serious problems but we should not expect that once they are battled, there will not be any more problems comming.
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      Feb 19 2013: -Namaste
      I feel a problem to you, might be a lesson to another. All problems in math have solutions, some might just be far more infinite than finite right? I hope I can use that mathematical analogy to apply to this general discussion of problems. Math is considered a universal language after all correct?
  • Mar 10 2013: We have solved big problems. Better tests that detect cancer earlier, advanced materials that make things lighter, stronger, and use less resources, drugs that fight HIV and extend the lives of people, communications technology that connects us to other parts of the world almost instantly, mapping of the human genome, and the list goes on and on. Each time there is a new innovation, we get closer and closer to solving the really big, complex problems. If we have people focusing on these problems, we will get there.
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    Mar 6 2013: Years ago, the first TED talk I ever watched was by Liz Coleman:


    She made a great point that higher education corrals us into specialization, often at the expense of having the skill of integrative thinking with other fields. So, when specialists are called on to solve the world's multi-faceted problems, they tend to work isolated in their own heads, unable to truly understand how something from another field can provide synergy with what they can offer. This is why we can't solve big problems.

    For me personally, I think the root of the problem is two things: we don't philosophize anymore and we are hopelessly classist and protectionist. First, it's rare that we step back and look at entire systems to understand them. For example, we'll recycle our cans like good citizens, but not invest the time to understand if cans and what's contained in them are worth the health, public money and environmental issues they create.

    And we are classist and protectionist. MIT itself may have publishing biases toward high profiled projects, engineers, or ideas that will attract more attention / philanthropic funds (I'm making this up!). We don't poke around developing countries enough to see if there are better ideas there. "Innovation" is disproportionately a Western, male, moneyed thing. Clinical trials showing old medicine that cures new ailments have no potential for patent-protection (and therefore riches for pharmaceutical companies) and are ignored. This is probably true of dichloroacetate on cancer cells: http://bit.ly/Tq0Uo5

    This is why we slog along, IMHO.
  • Mar 5 2013: Technology will be part of solving big problems but it is only a tool for it. People will always look after their own self interest which is the main reason most big problems have not been solved or even why more problems have been created. The internet itself is an amazing tool to share information and ideas but it eventually evolved into a mechanism for people and businesses to make money. Sure their are a lot of people who use technology to do good things and work to solve problems but the underlying theme has always and will always be human nature to advance for its own self interest. If that wasn't the case their would not be such a huge inequality which creates many of the world's big problems.

    It does feel like society is changing course a bit and it becoming more focused on the greater good for all which in turn will help the individual (self interest). Technology is helping this movement a huge way mainly because it helps spread the message about different causes and reasons to help make things better. Generally people tend to have a "herd" mentality and as the direction of the "herd" is changed by influential people it will, over time, generally will start to move in that direction. It seems like the overall direction is starting to set a new course but it takes generations for that to happen. Technology is making that change quicker and more efficient but overall it is still the people who control which direction that is taken.

    We are using a simple concept along with technology to help move things in that direction. We use technology to allow people to Do Well by Doing Good which will give people some sense of future security by doing good deeds. Incentivizing people has always worked for our economy as a whole advance with incredible strides but hasn't really been used for the advancement of good causes (causes for some reason stigmatize using incentives) . We think it is time to change that, www.RepaySomeday.com Thanks for reading!
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      Mar 5 2013: Dave,
      I agree with most of what you write....technology is a tool, which helps us find solutions...inequality creates many of the world's challenges.....it feels like society is changing course....people have a "herd" mentality, and as the direction of the herd is changed over time, it will move people in that direction...technology is making that change quicker and more efficient.....all good ideas!

      I think/feel that some folks have thoughts, feelings, ideas, actions, reactions which serve personal interests and personal financial gain, and some folks strive to create actions that manifest into gain for the global communuity. Do you think that with the changes you mention, we (humans) are beginning to understand and embrace the idea that we can evolve in ourselves as individuals, AND contribute to the global community AT THE SAME TIME? It feels like this is the balance we are seeking?
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      Mar 5 2013: Dave, There is some wisdom in your views on the positive focus of doing well by doing good.
      What concerns me is historically, this is not a new idea and has not always been successful.
      Consider; Christians will tell you that Jesus embodies this message. Muslins will say it is Mohammed, then there is Buddha, the list goes on. In many cases, individuals came to promote these philosophies with literally fire and brimstone proclaiming "do my good or dying not so well". We see this happening today.

      Is there a biological thing of the Alpha-alpha gene? Does the human species have to evolve into another species where we can come together as a global society, because it's unlikely to happen any time soon. Or do we use all this new great technology to just eradicate the species?

      One wag has said that in the event all the global disaster prophets are correct, maybe there will be enough human survivors with knowledge to do it right the next time. But, probably not.
      • Mar 5 2013: Mike, I understand what you are saying about the tag line I use "Do Well by Doing Good" but it is not aimed at saving all of society and the problems it has. I have always said my idea is simple but it could generate some changes if a large enough amount of people join in. And really the idea is more geared toward trying to make things a little more fair. It is kind of a longer read but if you take a look at the website www.RepaySomeday.com and read the page titled "The Reason" you will understand where I'm coming from.

        And very briefly, my thoughts are that most people want to do good deeds and/or help other people. But doing so, more than just doing minimal amounts, conflicts with a person's efforts to make sure they and their family are secure in the future. Besides those who live lavishly, most people concentrate on working to buy life insurance, save for retirement, kids education, etc and the basics to make sure they feel "comfortable" for the future. The idea is just as companies incentivize people to work harder and longer so those people can provide for their families, I think the concept of doing good should have the same type of incentive. My idea is in a basic form now but if you could concentrate more on doing good deeds knowing those good deeds can result in you and your family being secure in the future, than you can concentrate more on doing those good deeds. Hopefully the page on the website explains the idea and the reasoning behind it.

        So overall, I think if people can concentrate more on doing good things for others, the people receiving the good deeds will be better and the people offering the deeds will be able to continue to do more. Hopefully resulting in a snowball affect of more people helping each other.
        Thanks for your comments and insight.
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    Mar 5 2013: Technology is binary and problems such as hunger, etc.. is pulse. Binary is not a substitute for pulse and vice versa. Both technology and problems are created by humans. Only we should decide the direction that he/she should take considering the future for our next generation.

    Resolutions = ? until we start to think and feel others pain. Good care would solve the biggest problem but Is it feasible through technology?. I am getting more questions than answers.....
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    Mar 5 2013: Simply responding to this post without having read the other responses and your replies, it would seem to me that we ARE solving the big problems. In fact, we may be doing it so successfully, I wonder if we are not destined to cause our own demise?

    A few key strokes and a little help from Google tells me the following:

    1. World hunger, as described by worldhunger.org (the want or scarcity of food in a country), stood at 925 million in the year 2010, which was roughly 13.2% of the world's population, estimated at ~7 billion people. A little further investigation shows the number has grown from roughly 875 million in 1969; but global population around that time was estimated at 3.6 billion people. So on a percentage basis, some 24% of the world's population were hungry then, compared to 13.2% now. The takeaway is that in the last 40-years, we have nearly cut world hunger in half.

    2. Similar searches regarding global population -- on a percentage basis -- show that issues such as infant mortality rates are down sharply; life expectancy is rising; more people in the world have access to power, fresh water, modern communications; and while illness associated with older people may be rising, it's because so many more of us are living longer. And clearly, we are making great strides in medical science as well.

    Therefore, I return to the beginning of my response with perhaps an even BIGGER QUESTION. Assuming I'm correct in my cursory review of data, that show we are indeed, incrementally solving Big Problems related to humanitarian issues; Are we in fact not inevitably contributing to our own demise?

    The unparalleled success of the human race, in many ways, comes at the expense of other species and our environment. Human population at its present rate is on a course to double about every 100-years. In a world of finite space and finite resources, how much longer can we consume at the present pace until there is nothing left to consume?

    Food for though
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    Mar 4 2013: depending on what we're talking about, I'd say because of the limits of human cognition.


    With advancement in technology and science what we consider big now may not be big in the future. Nonetheless I still think there are questions that we'll never know but this shouldn't stop us from exploring.

    Now if your referring to poverty, hunger, climate change, I think these are geopolitical issues that can be address. Modifying the purpose and role of government and understanding global human rights I think will be essential. It also takes work from everyday individuals like ourselves. All this i think is in our control, we just have to really want it.

    Hope your talk goes well.
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    Mar 4 2013: Another interesting question to ponder is: Are problems becoming harder and harder to solve? What I mean by this is that the complexity of modern problems are vastly incomparable to the ones humans faced at the dawn of human civilisation. Are we slowly moving towards some form of intellectual steady state, after which we would run out of steam to solve the most intractable problems of our era? Sounds pretty Malthusian to me. Food for thought though.

    I think there are many reasons why we struggle with big problems. One of them the overwhelmingly complexity of our world; we struggle even to understand the workings of our own planet, not to mention everything else out there. Even with exponential leaps in industrialisation, we struggle against stuff we cannot fully comprehend, from deadly microorganisms to strange physical phenomena.

    Then there is the failure to tap fully into human potential. Wars, corruption, poverty, disease and extremism remain rampant in developing countries and the political tussles between the West and Middle East continue. Globalisation is making progress in empowering all humans with greater prosperity (and henceforth the capacity to solve big problems), but it hijacked by problems of gross inequality. Until we solve these problems, we cannot focus on big problems.

    The strangeness of the world is also interesting. Inventions in the modern world is increasingly driven by the incentives that come with industrialisation. But perhaps not everything that can be learnt about the world has benefits attached to it, and so we may never learn some things.
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      Mar 4 2013: Yes, I believe that we solved many of the easy problems. In my original essay I wrote, "Hard problems are hard." If you think about the biotechnology revolution, for instance, all the early drugs were essential replacement therapies for proteins we already fully understood and were already manufacturing in less efficient ways. We already knew how to make human insulin and human growth hormone. Biotech just coaxed e.coli bacteria to manufacture them for us. Truly novel therapeutics have been harder to create.
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      Mar 4 2013: Ethan and Jason,
      Good point, that our world is more and more complex all the time. I honestly don't think we will "run out of steam to solve the most intractable problems" Ethan. I believe that as we continue to evolve, we create. While we have more complex challenges, we also have more complex systems and technology to help provide solutions.....do we not?

      I suggest that we may look back at challenges as "easy problems", and they may NOT have seemed so easy at the time. Hindsight is wonderful....is it not? You say we "already knew" about some things. There was a time when we did NOT know, and we were challenged....just as we are now.
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    Mar 4 2013: Its simple. we cant solve them because we consider them big.
    If you predecide that something is extremely hard or impossible, then it actually will be impossible.
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      Mar 4 2013: I wholeheartedly agree Siddharth. We create our reality, so if we program ourselves to believe something is extremely hard or impossible, that is the reality we create. I believe that is one important factor that keeps some people from doing anything....they think/feel that what they might be able to do is not enough. When we pool our resources as a global community, however, with everyone working together, we CAN find solutions that are beneficial to the whole.
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        Mar 4 2013: Exactly. By pushing each other to go beyond this "impossibility" as a whole community is definitely a solution. But this brings us to one more question, can everyone work together? Can we leave our ego, the concept of "mine and yours", etc behind and make this happen?
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          Mar 4 2013: Some of us can and do:>) Actually, I believe all of us CAN.....the next question is....do we want to? I believe that when we are working together, it is better for the individual AND the whole.....what do you think Siddharth?
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    Mar 3 2013: I believe that technology has helped getting closer to finding the solution for these problems, but it is not concentrated and planned enough to actually solve anything.

    Maybe because we have these embedded thoughts that big problems need big minds and big abilities and it is impossible to be achieved by regular people. So we are reducing the chance for answers to be found out. I really don't know.

    I think we need to empower people to be their own solutions. Education can be one of the ways.
  • Mar 2 2013: I think our difficulties stem from people not seeing the world for what it is and for other people as who they are. It's a lack of relationship at it's essence. Lack of willingness to be open.
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  • Feb 25 2013: Hi Jason, specificity will be needed to address this question in my humble opinion, the measure by which we define big problems and how they are addressed, it may require a full study of the subject problems one by one and an interconnected mapping of the relations between them, in your post you mention 6 big problems and therefore I will try to give my opinion on those summarizing one or more constants that represent one of the causes for this happening:
    1. Ignorance of facts, risk and statistics.
    2. Lack if proper information on the dangers it poses.
    3. contrary interests.
    4. financial burden
    5. financial interest by a countering party.
    6. lack of consensus
    7. lack of proper interaction between disciplines.
    8. corruption.
    9. fear.
    10. ignorance by the majority.
    With those ten I think we have the majority of the why addressed, unfortunately the "big problems" we face are solvable but the human race seems to be destined to self-destruction based mostly on ignorance that spurs lack of interest in solving these issues, where we have a Country (The United States) where 30% of its population believes that climate change is not happening, where 40% believe in ghosts, where in this Planet an outstanding 80% believe in witchcraft, I presume Ignorance to be the major factor even so the technology is put forward to solve these big problems the majority of the People in the World finds it hard to believe we have solutions for some of these problems but prefer to believe in ressurection or 72 virgins on paradise. therefore the majority of this planet is more concerned of spending time in a church than in a scienctific symposium. We will perish because the minority does not have a strong voice to spur the majority to act, just take a look at the US Congress and see how many of these people actually believe or knows technologies such as Photocatalysis or Transportation of atoms in space/time, etc.
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      Feb 26 2013: I agree that the reasons are complex and profound - and being specific about a particular problem is helpful.
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      . . 100+

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      Mar 3 2013: I agree with your list 1-10 and also "being specific about a particular problem is helpful"...I don't understand the "72 virgins on paradise" part..lol...it takes two brain cells (two neurons--and each human has 100 BILLION neurons) to see through this nonsense:in order to get into paradise. No one gets into heaven without first dying...which means exiting from this body form...so what is the use of 72 virgins to a ghost?! lol.
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    Feb 25 2013: Hello,
    because for some people there aren't "their" big problems... not only powerful and rich people that their big problems are how to collect money and power... I mean people in general, that try to keep their space of wellnes and really don't care what happens to the neighbor. To resolve big problems we must start resolving the problems close to us...

    Challenge: during the day count how many people might need help on money, health, friendship, love, a smile etc and count among those people, how much help you can give... If you can fix almost all problems you are ready to try to fix big global problems...and also if you get may be contagious and other people will imitate you...
  • Feb 25 2013: The definition of problems varies from region to region and from culture to culture and so do the solutions. The big problem actually arises when one region starts taking decisions for another with respect to the solution of the problem. Take for example the problem of Afghanistan or Iraq or Palestine generally considered as big problems universally. Why all these problems could not be resolved? One logical reason could be because the solutions were imposed as per the understanding of another region and were heavily inspired by the vested interests. So, to me the solution should be indigenous and free from vested interests.
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    Feb 24 2013: Hello, Jason;
    Possibly the reason we can't solve the big problems is because we are attempting to solve them with our limited human minds, fixed in time and corrupted with programming and past emotially painfull experiences, along with the prejudices we have inherited. Then we have the ego, that thing we think we are that seeks only to be superior to others

    I suggest that the big problems can only be solved by transcending this small self and tuning into Universal Consciousness, sublimating our Human aspect to our Being aspect.

    True we have solved many problems, but the greatest one remains untouched; That of knowing ourselves as what we truly are; One with the source of our timeless unlimited universe.
    • Feb 25 2013: I salute your ability to utterly distort and obscure a very simple question with insanely hilarious new age pabulum. That's some jedi level nonsense you got there.
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    Feb 24 2013: I'd take make this view with a broad brush. We can solve big problems with our technology but I believe the problem lies in the values and the heart of how we define business and ourselves, 'the pursuit of profit'. By definition a business cannot exist without supporting itself (unless with subsidisation from government, another issue). The aim is to produce a monetary reward and this is seen as success.

    But wait, aren't we intelligent and open enough by now to realise 'success' should be something that increases quality of life and happiness? Betterment for all? If by the parameters that we measure success by are changed, then perhaps the chances for collaboration and problem solving can increase. Picking up on Allan's point (below) he is quite right, there is "a thick fog of technology, administrative procedures, lawsuits, health and safety legislation and politics" that also stand in out way.
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    Feb 14 2013: Hi neighbor Jason! I'm in Vt., and when we are interacting with people around the world, MA seems very close:>)

    Before we can effectively solve the big challenges in our world, we need to put aside prejudice and personal bias. Do you remember years ago when a "talk" was planned, and world leaders could not agree on what shape the table "should" be.....round, spuare, rectangle? I think it took months, maybe even years to come to an agreement on the shape of the table they would sit at. To really come together, people need to let go of personal preferences, and genuinely consider the benefit to the whole of our global community. And I agree with Ross G....people need to be aware of, and working toward "profits" for the whole, rather than profit to individuals or specific organizations

    Possible? Yes....I believe so. The more people are mindfully aware of the goal, the more it becomes possible:>)
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    Feb 14 2013: It has long been said that it is not our smallness that we fear, it is our greatness.

    If I were to give a speech on the topic you offered, I would frame it around the power of the mind and how reality shapes itself to conform to our beliefs. When we see our own "individual" greatness, we will stop reaching for our smallness (or failing to act because of it while making excuses).

    If our indoctrinated culture were to focus more on improving our common EQ, and less on improving our financial net worth, we could do amazing things. Somehow, we seem to have lost that through our educational paradigm that exists solely to serve the global marketplace at the expense of the value of the individual.

    I suggest that you review the following three talks that are indirectly related.

    Quantum mechanics is offering us the basis for a very empowering worldview. I agree with TED Lover who says that we are like battered women who can't figure out how to survive an escape from our cultural prison. What we are BEGINNING to learn from where QM researchers are heading is HOW to escape with life, peace, and abundance.

    Thoughts, being electromagnetic energy, are things. As things, we use them to construct our destinies. When our thoughts are focused on what we cannot do, we do not do. When we open our minds to possibilities - something that is taught out of us in our forced indoctrination (public education) - whole new destinies are possible. Motivation naturally changes. Capitalism becomes the problem that locks most people in their prisons.

    So, the answer in my mind lies in broad-based education - ESPECIALLY in the area of self-awareness. WHAT is a human and WHAT is humanity? These are questions our culture doesn't ask, though answers can solve all the issues U mention
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      Feb 14 2013: Isn't "our own "individual" greatness" at odds with your question, "WHAT is humanity?" We learn little about the hive by studying a single bee. Perhaps the broad based education that you see a need for is not centered in our orientation of individuality, but instead in a sense of humanity as a whole.
      • Feb 16 2013: Don't see any contradiction here.
        "individual" greatness" is only possible if it unfolds from wholeness, if it doesn't, it's arrogance and misleading illusion.
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    Gail . 50+

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    Feb 14 2013: Congrats on your upcoming speech.

    You begin by talking about the moon walk - a major accomplishment. But Let's put that in context. It was in the midst of the Cold War. It didn't happen in a vacuum. Also, consider who the people were at the time of Kennedy's inauguration. We were a nation of families, pretty much certain that government knew what was best for us, and with the ongoing threat of nuclear annihilation (remember hiding under your desk? LOL. The idea of the USSR "owning" the moon, from which it could launch nuclear attacks, was a grave threat.

    Now jump to today. Government no longer serves the people. It exists to serve Wall Street, and Wall Street has its own agenda. We are powerless, living under the dictatorship of a Plutarchy. Free or cheap pollution-free energy is opposite of Wall Street's interests. Giving voice to the people is against government's.

    I have been toying with the idea of hydrogen-on-demand power systems that every home could have in a small sound-proofed shed in the back yard. (A DIY project made from ball jars and tubes with a deep cycle battery & generator backup. The generator is fueled mostly by the hydrogen it makes. My lack of expertise is slowing my ability to grow the project in my mind, but I'm getting there). If I were to create such a system for my own house, and put my design in the public domain, how long do you think it will take for laws to pass outlawing them unless they use patented products made by corps?

    I'm reminded of when the auto industry bought up LA's subway system, and then closed it down. Or the electric car of the 60s - squashed by the oil industry. Or the right to be homeless - illegal

    The difference, in my mind, between the 1960s and today is that the people have lost all hope along with their voice. We pretty much know that our economy is on life support - and is not sustainable. We are like battered women - caught in a trap from which we do not know how to survive an escape.