Introducing “iGen.”

From Jean M. Twenge’s recent essay in The Atlantic:

The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

Twenge supplies a lot of correlated data that strongly link smartphone use to a number of generationally-distinct patterns in what she calls “iGen.” Among the more worrying data, she documents the rise of cyberbullying among young people, especially among girls. Then this:

Social-media companies are of course aware of these problems, and to one degree or another have endeavored to prevent cyberbullying. But their various motivations are, to say the least, complex. A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” Facebook acknowledged that the document was real, but denied that it offers “tools to target people based on their emotional state.”

At no time in human history have we possessed tools more finely-attuned to the art of manipulating the psychology of masses of people. These tools are supremely scalable. The same platforms that can target a demographic of heterogenous millions can individualize their content to reach, perhaps, a niche demographic of dozens. Taken in the context of Mark Zuckerberg’s utopian manifesto from earlier this year, the existence of the “boost” document ought to give us serious pause.

Allow me to go one step further. Scientists based in Portland, Oregon, recently succeeded in using the gene-editing program CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the DNA of embryos to eliminate the development of a genetic mutation that would cause hypertrophic cardiomyapathy. This is an incredible victory for medical science. But as I’ve said before, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. You should, too.

We have the tools to shape and reshape the human experience on a very literal level. On the genetic level, CRISPR is but the first feeble step toward technology whose power will enable us to program our own genetic makeup on scales previously imagined only in science fiction. Similarly, the algorithms of social media sites like Facebook have the potential to shape their users’ desires, feelings, and perceptions in ways that are simultaneously microscopically managed and macroscopically unpredictable. I strive to make these observations not in a spirit of alarm or histrionics but in the mindset of sober assessment. If, despite my attempts at sobriety, you feel alarmed… well, good.

Ice Age Solastalgia

The mammoth’s extinction may have been our original ecological sin. When humans left Africa 70,000 years ago, the elephant family occupied a range that stretched from that continent’s southern tip to within 600 miles of the North Pole. Now elephants are holed up in a few final hiding places, such as Asia’s dense forests. Even in Africa, our shared ancestral home, their populations are shrinking, as poachers hunt them with helicopters, GPS, and night-vision goggles. If you were an anthropologist specializing in human ecological relationships, you may well conclude that one of our distinguishing features as a species is an inability to coexist peacefully with elephants.

But nature isn’t fixed, least of all human nature. We may yet learn to live alongside elephants, in all their spectacular variety. We may even become a friend to these magnificent animals. Already, we honor them as a symbol of memory, wisdom, and dignity. With luck, we will soon re-extend their range to the Arctic. […]

Nikita and Sergey seemed entirely unbothered by ethical considerations regarding mammoth cloning or geoengineering. They saw no contradiction between their veneration of “the wild” and their willingness to intervene, radically, in nature. At times they sounded like villains from a Michael Crichton novel. Nikita suggested that such concerns reeked of a particularly American piety. “I grew up in an atheist country,” he said. “Playing God doesn’t bother me in the least. We are already doing it. Why not do it better?”

–Ross Andersen, Welcome to Pleistocene Park

This is how science moves

This is how science moves, through layers of history, through what phenomenologists call the “lifeworld.” The great scientist Benno Müller-Hill famously described the “two faces” of molecular biology. “In the textbooks, almost everything is solved and clear,” he wrote. “Most claims are so self-evident that no proofs are given. Old, classical experiments disappear.” In a sense, the first face is taken as a given. “The other face of molecular biology is seen at scientific conferences or read in recent issues or NatureScience or Cell,” at the cutting edge of the field, where knowledge struggles with ignorance. Robert Pogue Harrison has suggested the metaphor of “two angels,” drawing on Paul Klee’s painting — made famous in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” — that depicts an “angel of history is borne upward through the air on outspread wings, facing backward.” In Benjamin’s vision, all the angel sees are “the accumulated ruins of the has-been.” Harrison goes on to suggest that

science flies on the wing of another kind of angel — the angel of neoteny — who weaves in and out of enfolded spaces, forever turning a corner or rounding a bend, entering or exiting a crease of the cosmos, such that his expectant, forward-looking gaze sees anew a world it has been seen countless times before, always as if for the first time.

–Jim Kozubek, On Writing a History of Crispr-Cas9

Improve the world, become famous, and/or make money

NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.

–Francis Collins, Statement on NIH funding of research using gene-editing technologies in human embryos

To me, the biggest likely change in our world from CRISPR-Cas9 and other genomic editing methods won’t be in humans but in the non-humans we use the methods to modify. As it gets cheaper and easier to modify genomes, non-human genomes offer freedom from a lot of regulation, liability, and political controversy, while offering plenty of opportunities to improve the world, become famous, or make money – with combinations of all of the above.

Want to end malaria? Come up with a modified version of Aedes aegypti that can’t transmit yellow fever, dengue fever, or chikungunya viruses to humans and will outcompete and eventually eliminate the wild type. Want to make a really economical biofuel? Take an algae and modify its genome in thousands of ways to optimize it for producing hydrocarbon fuel. Want to bring back the passenger pigeon? Use CRISPR-Cas9 to modify the genomes of existing band tail pigeons to match, more or less, the genomes sequenced from specimens on the extinct passenger pigeon. What to corner the market in high-end gifts? Start playing around with horse genomes adding in bits and pieces from other species in an effort to produce actual unicorns. What to make a splash as an artist? Use CRISPR-Cas9 to make a warren of truly glow-in-the-dark rabbits.

In fact, on the same day Science published the moratorium call on-line, it published on-line an article on one very successful “gene drive” system, using CRISPR-Cas9, that could spread a chosen genetic variant very quickly through an entire population. (See the news story in the next day’s magazine here.)

It is these kinds of uses of genomic engineering that could reshape the biosphere. As the ability to make carefully engineered genomic changes becomes more widely accessible, the possibility of insufficiently controlled or considered experiments increases dramatically. And so, of course, does the chance of more controlled interventions. I would like to see much more focus on this issue, of great practical importance, instead of so much attention on the sexier issue of germline genome modification in humans.

-Hank Greely, Of Science, CRISPR-Cas9, and Asilomar

Context and links via Vox.

On a related note, over the holidays I read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) for the first time. I suggest you do the same.