October 14, 2016
Harris is the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience. As the co‑founder of Time Well Spent, an advocacy group, he is trying to bring moral integrity to software design: essentially, to persuade the tech world to help us disengage more easily from its devices. ... While some blame our collective tech addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower, Harris points a finger at the software itself. That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible. The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” ... we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us. ... He studied computer science at Stanford while interning at Apple, then embarked on a master’s degree at Stanford, where he joined the Persuasive Technology Lab. Run by the experimental psychologist B. J. Fogg, the lab has earned a cultlike following among entrepreneurs hoping to master Fogg’s principles of “behavior design”—a euphemism for what sometimes amounts to building software that nudges us toward the habits a company seeks to instill. ... Sites foster a sort of distracted lingering partly by lumping multiple services together.
Oxitec is trying to leverage this mating instinct to help wipe out one particular species of mosquito: Aedes aegypti, carrier and spreader of some of the worst insect-borne diseases known to medicine—dengue, malaria, and Zika. The A. aegypti mosquito has evolved to survive even the most effective pesticides. It can lay 500 eggs in just a bottle cap’s worth of water, and it prefers to bite humans over animals, so it lives in places where no one thinks to spray, like under the couch. ... The idea behind Oxitec’s experiment is that if enough genetically modified male A. aegypti mosquitoes are released into the wild, they’ll track down large numbers of females in those hard-to-find places and mate with them. The eggs that result from any union with an Oxitec mosquito will carry a fatal genetic trait engineered into the father—a “kill switch,” geneticists call it. The next generation of A. aegypti mosquitoes will never survive past the larval stage, never fly, never bite, and never spread disease. No mosquitoes, no Zika. ... Oxitec is far from the first company or research team that’s tried to sterilize an entire insect population. Scientists have been going after A. aegypti in this way since the 1970s, usually by irradiating them. The problem with radiation is that it makes the mosquitoes too weak to get out and breed. The great innovation of the Oxitec method is that it cleverly achieves the same result as sterilization, while leaving mosquitoes able to do what mosquitoes do. ... Oxitec charges about $7.50 per person per year in each area it treats.
There was no future, no jobs, said my companion. Corruption flourishes, he went on, so-called tenderpreneurs thrived, a breed who use inside knowledge to make a mockery of the tender process, inflating costs while lowering standards. ... A teacher-turned-trader, part-time entrepreneur and occasional taxi-driver, he owns a plot on which he grows maize — although not for his family: the crop is sent to relatives in the countryside. Reversing the traditional direction of trade, workers in the city are now feeding the farmers. The drought, the worst for three decades and embracing much of southern Africa, is taking its toll. ... Zimbabwe is far from “dead”. The country is free of religious divisions — although cursed by ethnic and clan tensions — and still has supportive neighbours, a battered but surviving infrastructure, a broad English-speaking skills base and a talented diaspora longing to return home. And above all, the military are still — for now — in the barracks.
Above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, a half-day's journey by snowmobile from the nearest paved road or tree, a village called Kivalina sits on a slip of permanently frozen earth bracketed by water — a lagoon on one side and the Chukchi Sea on the other. Every spring, when daylight returns to the village after months of darkness, people stand in the snow outside their storm-battered cabins and look out at the sea, hoping this will be the year. ... Some Alaskan villages catch a whale every year. Kivalina was never that lucky, partly because it occupies a spot on the coast that's farther from the migratory path of the bowhead whale. Still, there was a time when villagers could reasonably expect to land a whale every three or four years. Those days are gone. ... It had been 21 years since the last successful whale hunt, 21 years of futility and disappointment, and yet, for reasons I didn't fully understand, the villagers hadn't given up. When I asked Reppi Swan why they still did it — why they still risked their lives and spent so much of their time and money pursuing a goal that always eluded them — he was succinct. "It's who we are," he said.