By Jim McCarthy Sep 19, 2011 0 comments

The Great Jump Ball Continues

Two things over the weekend have caused me to revisit the notion of the current period in history as the Great Jump Ball.  For the non-basketball initiated, when two players both grab the ball at the same time and neither of them has clear possession, the referee calls a jump ball.  The players who were fighting for the ball then stand on either side of a line and the referee throws the ball into the air, equidistant between the two of them, and they’re not allowed to move until the ball reaches the peak of its straight-up flight.

And then the ball is up for grabs.

Right now, global society is one big jump ball, and the society of the 21st century is being formed.  This is always partly true, of course, but for most of the last 60 or so years, we’ve been working within the basic post World War II-framework.  That framework is being revisited, revised, and replaced.

Here was the first bit of news that reminded me of that this weekend: in the U.S., deaths from drugs now outnumber deaths from traffic fatalities.  What’s even more fascinating about this is that it’s the afterschool special drugs that are doing it; it’s prescription drugs.  Meanwhile, cars keep getting safer, and over the last few years, auto fatalities have taken a dramatic downward dip.  Start with this graph, which shows the two trends going in opposite directions, and then move on to this chart, which tells a story of which drugs account for those deaths, where, for example, deaths from prescription anti-anxiety drugs increased by 284% from 2000 to 2008.  If you really want to ruin your morning, start this interactive graph on the year 2000 and then slide it forward in time.  Watch the states darken, as though a plague were spreading, as the drug deaths from things that had mostly been given to them by their doctors, increase.

I’m still absorbing this story, but here’s the rub for me: at the top of the skill pyramid in society, engineers can make cars safer, even if they’re crashed.  In the middle and, likely, at the bottom, people are confronted with medicines they can no longer safely administer to themselves, or alternatively, they choose not to.  This is globalization showing itself in the lives of everyday people in both good and bad ways, but if you’re not paying attention, you might not notice at all.

Here’s the second piece.  Just read this tidbit from the story:

“Gamers have solved the structure of a retrovirus enzyme whose configuration had stumped scientists for more than a decade…After scientists repeatedly failed to piece together the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, they called in the Foldit players. The scientists challenged the gamers to produce an accurate model of the enzyme. They did it in only three weeks.”

Foldit isn’t exactly The Sims.  It’s a pretty heavy duty community of deep thinkers, but it is still a game, and they really did solve a problem that resisted solution by dedicated, trained scientists for a long time.

In.  Three.   Weeks.

Did you get that?  A semi-anonymous group of amateurs playing a game solved a major scientific problem that still couldn’t be solved after a decade of work in the time it takes to watch a season of Friday Night Lights. Personally, I might have re-written the headline to be: Scientists Succeed by Using Gaming Community to Solve Problem, because that’s the real story.

There is no meaningful example of  this kind of thing in the 20th century world, but the world after the Jump Ball will have plenty of them.  How will they happen?  Who will they serve?


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