Daily Archives: March 31, 2009

Reader Request Week 2009 #4: Procreation

M asks:

If we procreate, we doom civilization through overpopulation and depletion of resources. If we don’t procreate, we doom civilization through exacerbating an aging population. What’s a potentially procreative person to do?

I don’t think it’s as bad as that, personally.

For one thing, personally speaking I don’t think an aging population is a civilization killer, if for no other reason than that in a relatively short period of time the problem of an aging population solves itself (think about it for a minute and you’ll figure out how). Nor do I think that in theory an intelligently-handled reduction in population (via natural attrition through old age, to be very clear about that) would be a horrible thing; the problem is I wouldn’t expect it to be particularly well-managed, and indeed in the places where the populations are aging and the birthrates are declining there seems to be bit of confusion on how to handle the issue.

On the other side of the coin, while personally I think seven billion people is more people than the planet actually needs to have on it, there’s no reason why we couldn’t manage ten billion or fourteen billion or even 25 billion — if again the population was managed in a way that we don’t abuse or overtax our planetary resources. This would mean drastically changing how people lived, driving down their overal energy and resource use, vastly improving their reuse and recycling processes, changing how they eat and generally getting them to keep from killing the shit out of each other. But again, the issue isn’t whether it’s theoretically possible but whether people would do what’s required to make it happen.

Or to put it another way: the issue isn’t how many people the planet has; the issue is how the people who are on it (however many there are at any given point) handle their resource management and way of living. And in point of fact we do a really crappy job of it overall. For one thing, resources are highly unevenly distributed (said the guy living in the country that consumes 25% of the world’s energy while having only 5% of the world’s population); for another thing, the lifestyles, desires and goals of the people of the whole world are too heterogeneous to make coordinated and evenly distributed resource management possible — which is a nice way of saying that your average American likes his big house and all his toys and doesn’t want to ditch them all to live a lifestyle resembling that of, oh, your average Kyrgyzstani (additionally, one suspects the average Kyrgyzstani would like to live like the average American, given the choice, which complicates matters).

This is actually something I think about a fair amount. Truth to be told, I personally have far more crap than I need and most of the time even want (thanks to being a packrat), and I live on a house with more space than I or my family use, on land we don’t really do anything with. I suspect strongly we could downsize — in terms of what we have and use — by a rather substantial amount before we felt a real change in our overall quality of life, and we could downsize rather substantially more than that before it became actually uncomfortable. This is relevant to the question at hand because in either case of a declining or rising population, a downsizing in things is likely to be a long-term result. In any event: I think the population issue really is a stalking horse for resource issues; those are what I worry about in the long run.

Nevertheless. As regards procreating, my thought on the matter is that if you are procreatively inclined but are worried about a growing population, have one kid; if you’re worried about a declining population, have two. Here in the US, the “replacement rate” — that is, the number of births required to counteract the number of people the nation loses from death, is 2.1 kids per fertile woman, so having two is doing your part, and you can assume other people having more, combined with the US immigration rate, will keep our overall population from decline. In other countries your replacement mileage may vary, but one or two is a reasonable rule of thumb here.

I wouldn’t worry personally about whether having even the one will send the overall world population spiralling into some sort of Malthusian nightmare, as US/Western world births are an overall drop in the bucket in terms of worldwide population growth, i.e., when the worldwide famine hits, it won’t be your fault for having a kid (it might be your fault for driving an SUV, however, to go back to the resource issue). But if you are worried about that but still want to have kids, well, you know: It’s called adoption, and in general I think it’s a very cool thing, and encourage you to go that route. And if you don’t want any kids at all, then don’t have ‘em, of course. Kids are a good way to have a complete life, but you know what, there are other ways to a complete life that don’t include them, too.

But overall, unless you’re having a dozen or so children, and they’re having a dozen (and so on), however many children you’re having is not really going to make a difference in whether civilization collapses. What will make a difference is how you (and the rest of us) manage the resources we have. The irony is, if civilization collapses, chances are very good the birthrate will go up as well. It’s what would happen after that which would likely constitute the tragedy. So, you know. Let’s work on that resource thing.

(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else.)

The Big Idea: Julia Angwin

Hey, folks, this Big Idea piece is a huge thrill for me to present to you because the author, Julia Angwin, is an friend of mine back to our college days, when she was an editor at the Chicago Maroon, the newspaper at which I was the editor-in-chief. We both went into newspapers, but unlike me, she stuck with it and is now the Senior Technoloy Editor of WSJ.com, the Wall Street Journal’s web site. Which is pretty damn cool, if you ask me. Also cool: her sharing in a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2003.

Being a technology reporter and writer put her in a good position over the last few years to watch the rise and transformation of MySpace, and now she’s put it all together in a book: Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America. It’s unsurprisingly (to me, anyway) been garnering great reviews (“You needn’t know a portal from a platform to follow this sprawling, rollicking Internet history” — The New York Times) and puts into context one of the most influential Web sites ever.

And now for your edification and amusement, Julia explains how the Big Idea for non-fiction differs from the big ideas for fiction — and how what she thought the Big Idea about MySpace was changed during the writing of her book. Take it away, Julia:


As a nonfiction writer, I don’t get to choose the ‘big idea’ in my work. All the ideas – large and small – arise naturally from the facts I uncover. My job is to take the facts, stare at them hard and extract the ideas from them.

When I began writing Stealing MySpace, I thought that the ‘big idea’ that would emerge would be about the remix generation – the kids who were using MySpace to reshape their digital worlds. After all, weren’t they changing the world with their behavior?

But, in fact, the big idea that arose from my reporting was altogether different. It was this: what does it take to be a successful entrepreneur?

Early in my investigation, I discovered that the founders of MySpace were scammers. Before they started the social-networking site, they sent spam, distributed spyware, and peddled spy cameras you could hide in your shoe and e-books touting “how to grow taller” and “how to hypnotize people.” MySpace was just an idea they copied from a popular Web site at the time, Friendster.

MySpace’s parent company, Intermix, wasn’t much better. It made most of its money selling subscription wrinkle cream and diet pills online, had a spyware business of its own, and had a thriving animated greeting card business best known for its fart and poopy diaper jokes.

In the book, the venture capitalist who backed Intermix (and was initially reluctant to support MySpace) David Carlick says why he’s not worried about the unsavory parts of Intermix. “Marketing has always been on the scary edge of ethical.”

This was a vastly different story than the canonical tech startup tale. This oft-told narrative stars a Bill Gates genius-type founder dropping out of Harvard to work on his technological breakthrough in a garage somewhere.

This was the story that I absorbed into my pores as a kid growing up in Silicon Valley, and then as a reporter covering the industry.

Meeting this new type of success story I wondered: were the MySpace founders just lucky? Or was their hucksterism part of what it takes to succeed?

One solution presented itself to me: Web technology had finally become easy to use. No longer were Web companies going to be run by engineers; now they could be run by marketers, too.

But then, slowly, it dawned on me that the Silicon Valley tale I’d grown up on was a bit of a myth. Hadn’t these tech companies really been run by marketers all along? Bill Gates, although he was a brilliant programmer, was an even more brilliant marketer. Ditto for Steve Jobs, whose marketing prowess is such that he is considered a “reality distortion field.”

And thus I stumbled onto my big idea: The greatest entrepreneurs are hucksters who have simply crossed the line into brilliance.


Stealing MySpace: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Stealing MySpace (pdf link). Visit Julia Angwin’s blog. Follow Julia Angwin on Twitter.

Reader Request Week 2009 #3: Space!

Liz asks:

If you could, would you go into Space?

The short answer: Sure, as long as someone else paid for it.

The longer answer, yes, but I resent the fact that a decade into the 21st century the only way I could get into space at this point is to spend $20 million or so to strap myself onto a rocket whose basic design has not changed in 50 years, and launch myself toward an “international space station” where for three days I’ll be confined to an area not much larger than a bus, with a toilet that may or may not function. I mean, hell. If that’s how I wanted to spend three days, I could take a Greyhound from Boston to San Diego. Yes, I’d be weightless and the view would be nice, but you could tie me to a ballon and put a picture of the Earth on a big screen HDTV, and that would be 90% of the experience right there. Here in 2009, I should be able to visit a real space station, one that rotates for artificial gravity and is large enough to house more than a couple of Russian cosmonauts sullenly babysitting whatever middle-aged American millionaire has paid to go into space this time. It sucks that I can’t.

This goes back to a question I see peppered in the request thread, which is: What the hell happened to going into space? What happened to it, bluntly, is that the cold war collapsed and thus we felt we no longer had to justify the expense of putting humans into space, especially when robots and spacecraft can do whatever we could do better and cheaper. In practice, I don’t have a problem with this, because a manned space program is expensive and one really does have to question the value of humans in space when pretty much everything they can do can be done better with machines. In theory, I suspect that there could be some value of having a significant human outpost in near space — or could have been, had we used the moon shots as a stepping stone for a further manned presence of space, rather than patriotic cock-swinging, to be zipped up once we showed those damn Soviets who was the boss of space. Our hearts just weren’t into staying in space; we proved we could get to the moon, after all. What more do you want? But we could have made it work — made it so that a human presence in near space, at the very least, would be something useful and enduring and complementary to our machine-based presence in space.

But we didn’t, and now for the near future our manned space presence will be confined to the decidedly unromantic ISS and a few entrepreneurs catering to the rich who want to tell their friends how they did that whole Yuri Gagarin thing. And while I wouldn’t spend the ridiculous amounts of money currently required to do that — this science fiction writer could think of better things to do with that money, starting with drawing down his mortgage — if someone wanted to front me the trip rather than using the money to, say, feed hungry orphans, I’d take it. It’d be fun to write about afterward. I just hope the toilet works when I get up there.

(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else!)