It’s the Top 10 Countdown!

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by John Zielinski

It’s a new year. The best part of it, at least for me, comes down to 1 thing: no more year-end lists!

Since before Christmas we’ve been bombarded with lists related to 2018. Some of those were based on objective evidence. There were the best-selling cars and the highest grossing movies and the most streamed recordings. Many more were matters of opinion. These included the best and worst new cars, TV shows, movies and investments. The one thing that almost all of these lists had in common was that they included only 10 items. It makes me wonder if they would have had 12 if human beings had evolved with 6 fingers on each hand.

The positive aspect of the year-end lists is that they’re constrained to a limited time period. One thing that I’ve always found interesting, though, is how lists that are implicitly or explicitly not time bound end up being somewhat similarly constrained. To make the point, let’s create a few lists, shall we? In each case the list should contain no more than 10 items, the items should be ranked with 1 high and 10 low, there can only be 1 item per number (no ties) and the content should be based on your own opinions. Ready?

What were the most important pieces of technology that have been created?

What were the world’s worst natural disasters?

Who were the worst world leaders?

Now that you’ve created your lists, I’m curious about the content.

Did your list of technology include the transistor? Without transistors the contemporary world of micro-electronics (that’s based on transistors etched on silicon chips) wouldn’t exist. How about the steam engine? No? It only drove the Industrial Revolution. The lever? The wheel? These 2 were fundamental to the evolution of human society as well as to the evolution of technology. They’re still in play in huge ways today.

The question of the worst natural disaster should be a lot easier. How about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906? Over 80% of the city was destroyed either directly by the quake or by things like the fires that broke out because of it and that lasted for days. Some consider this the deadliest earthquake in US history. Surely, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 BCE is on your list. That’s the eruption that buried Pompeii and other cities near it. The eruption has been estimated by some to have released 100,000 times the energy of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs together. Well, at least the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event ~65.5 million years ago tops your list, doesn’t it? After all, it caused 75% or more of the animal and plant species on earth at the time to become extinct. It’s hard to find a natural disaster worse than that.

I’m not going to bother with the 3rd list. By now you’ve got the idea and there’s some ambiguity that colors the results. Who would be considered a world leader? Who was the worst and based on what criteria?

All 3 of these questions have appeared on well-known social media sites, in dead tree print and on talking head media. Each has also inspired what may best be called spirited discussion. Perhaps most importantly, no one who has contributed to the fray appears to be even slightly aware of how her or his bias has influenced the items on the list, the comments that have been made or the arguments that have ensued.

Well before the first draft of this piece I ran these questions past groups of people and collected the results. It wasn’t a controlled, scientific study with a large, random sample. It was a matter of personal curiosity limited to people connected with me in some way who were willing to create and share their lists. Those results were the impetus for the words that you’re reading right now. The groups included people of a variety of ages and educational backgrounds, but all of them lived, and most were born, in the US.

The things that didn’t show up or showed up rarely on the other lists are the very ones that I mentioned above. Each person’s focus seems to have been limited primarily to things that happened during her or his lifetime or the lifetimes of their parents. For the natural disaster list, the answers were further mostly limited to disasters within the person’s area of residence (city, state, country). I found myself wondering how this myopia may affect one’s view of the future.

Knowing that the wheel, the lever, the steam engine and the transistor were transformative technologies is more than a matter of memorizing technical history. It highlights that what will be transformative in terms of tech is often unknown until well after the fact. It’s a reminder that what may seem a trivial or crackpot idea today can change the world in unanticipated ways. Consider that the electric motor and the battery are both old tech, but that electric vehicles based on these appear to have a healthy future.

How can we prepare for massive natural disasters of the kinds mentioned if we don’t understand their basis, try to understand how to predict them or at least try to come up with ways to mitigate their effects? How do buildings and infrastructure get earthquake-proofed if we don’t know how bad an earthquake can be? What’s likely to happen when the most massive caldera in North America – the one commonly known as Yellowstone Park – erupts again? Will it be equivalent to eruption of Vesuvius or will it be worse? Is there any way to prepare for that day or know when it’s coming? Is investing in Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection worthwhile so that we can at least be aware of potential extinction events and maybe address them before it’s too late?

Is there a benefit to knowing how bad or dangerous world leaders came to power and what they did with that power? Might your decision about getting involved in politics or at least voting be different if you know that a complacent populace was the root? Would your views about military or surreptitious intervention to change governments be different if you knew how similar efforts had proceeded in the past and what came of them?

Looking to the past and looking beyond your own neighborhood can be the key to a better future – or even the existence of a future. You may discover something from outside your current purview that allows you to radically change the course of events. Then again, in 50, 100, 1,000 or 1 million years that thing may not even make a Top 10 list assuming, of course, that there are still people around to make Top 10 lists.

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