Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Ratchet

My MacBook laptop has been annoying me with glitches that are signs of old age (or planned obsolescence). Am I sorry? Not really. At last I can justify buying what I've wanted for several years -- a MacBook Air.

And here it is, in my trembling hands, in a package so sleek and slim that one wonders where there is room for the circuitry, flash drive and battery. For my money, the Air is the most sublime manifestation of human technology on the planet today.

As a graduate student in physics in the early 1960s, I availed myself of a Univac computer that sat in the central space of a large building built for it alone. Now I lie here on the couch holding a machine vastly more powerful than the Univac. And with a few clicks of these beautiful back-lit keys I have instant access to … well, to almost anything I can imagine that can be presented on a screen. I am reminded of Arthur Clarke's 3rd Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It was a stunning ride, from Eniac to Univac to personal computer to the Air, all in one brief lifetime.

In a recent issue of Science, an international group of researchers addressed the question of cumulative culture. Why is it that in a few tens of thousands of years humans have advanced from small groups of hunter/gatherers armed with sharp sticks to a planet-dominating species connected by the internet and Airs, while our nearest primate cousins are still digging termites out of holes with twigs as they did all those thousands of years ago?

The researchers presented young human children, chimpanzees, and capuchin monkeys with a puzzle box that required sequential problem-solving to obtain rewards. Well, it's a long story, but what stands out is the tendency of the human children to share knowledge and rewards, something not manifested by the chimps or capuchins.

It is no big surprise that pro-social behavior should be related to cumulative culture. The larger question is perhaps why humans evolved pro-social behaviors. Collective hunting? Fire and cooking? Language? Brain size? Delayed maturity? My goodness, there is no end of possible contributing factors, and essentially no way in this chicken-and-egg conundrum to sort out causality.

Maybe we'll never know what was the evolutionary tipping point that unleashed the human rise to planetary dominance. If pro-social behaviors are the cause or result or cumulative culture hardly matters. My new Air was made in China, by people who are as much entranced by these sleek machines as I am. We are bound together by DNA and WiFi, poking at our puzzle boxes, and -- when we are at our best -- sharing knowledge and rewards.