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Erosion of personal memory

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Advanced information technology appears to be contributing to the erosion of personal memory: “Digital dependence ‘eroding human memory'” by Sean Coughlan.

For a discussion of personal and social memory, see: Mowshowitz, A. The end of the information frontier. AI & Society, 28 (1), 2013, pp. 7-14; DOI 10.1007/s00146-012-0414-2.

Startling statistic

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

The World’s 85 Richest Now Worth as Much as 3.5 Billion Poorest

The greatest Ponzi scheme of them all

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

by Abbe Mowshowitz

Pyramid Scheme (source: US Securities Exchange Commission)

Ponzi schemes operate on the principle of rewarding existing members with funds acquired from new members. Each new member brings in money, treated as an ‘investment’ for example, and interest is paid regularly to existing members according to their current balance and length of time in the scheme. No use is made of the money while it is invested in the scheme. The attraction is the relatively high rate of return on the investment, a rate that one might say is too good to be true. So long as membership grows everyone is happy. However, experience shows that something always comes along to interfere with growth, just as trees do not grow to the sky. Since the only source of revenue is the money brought in by new members, Ponzi schemes crash when growth stops. In one of the more notorious recent cases, namely the scheme perpetrated by Bernie Madoff in which participant losses amounted to an estimated $18 billion, the end came when Madoff allegedly told his sons about the massive fraud. Prosecution followed when the scheme was revealed to authorities and Madoff was eventually convicted of fraud and sentenced to a prison term of 150 years.

Is termination of growth unavoidable? Madoff kept his scheme going for decades despite occasional probes by financial regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission. What if the authorities remained blind to wrong doing or simply were befuddled by the seeming rectitude of a Ponzi scheme operator? After all Madoff was regarded for years as a pillar of his community, contributing substantially to his favorite charities and political parties. Perhaps he could have kept the scheme going and passed it on to the next generation. The key question for historians is what prompted Madoff to wind up his ‘business.’

Almost all natural phenomena one can think of have a finite life cycle. Plants and animals come into being then grow decay and die. Such is the way of nature. The lengths of these life cycle stages vary from one class of creature to another, but all are subject to the iron rule of growth decay and death. The same rule seems to apply to social and cultural phenomena as well. Empires and civilizations have come and gone. Are there any exceptions to the iron rule? At first glance there does appear to be one, namely, economic growth.

Economic growth has all the earmarks of a Ponzi scheme. The detailed workings vary from place to place and change over time, but certain basic features of the scheme are noteworthy. Each succeeding generation pays into the scheme by undergoing a protracted period of costly education and training. Families effectively manage trusts for children as they pass through the education and training system. When certified as skilled workers, the rising generation begins to receive ‘interest’ on its ‘investment’ in the form of wages derived from a job, and at the same time continues to contribute to the scheme. Clever accounting reduces the interest payments to active workers by withholding a portion that is reserved for various social insurance programs so that, for example, retirees can receive ‘interest’ from the system. Thus the amount invested in the scheme increases as the population grows. If economic growth comes to an end, as it does temporarily in recessions, those invested in the scheme can no longer count on any interest income.
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Wealth Inequality in America

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013


YouTube Video Published on Nov 20, 2012

Infographics on the distribution of wealth in America, highlighting both the inequality and the difference between our perception of inequality and the actual numbers. The reality is often not what we think it is.


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The End of the Information Frontier

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011



The possibility now exists of capturing a cradle-to-grave record of everything a person says or does. No longer must a personal history be a partial picture. Technology has made it possible to record, process, store, and retrieve all the text, sounds and images that are required to paint a complete picture of an individual’s life. The efforts of future historians will be directed more to forgetting than to remembering. By default society will forget nothing. For almost all of human history, remembering has meant the judicious selection and organization of observations about events and people. There used to be an information frontier beyond which the past was a tabula rasa. That information frontier has gone the way of the dodo.

The social memory of events in an individual’s life is not only detailed but permanent. Although physical storage is fallible and changes in technology may make some devices effectively unreadable, these limitations are more than made up for by the negligible cost of duplication and distribution in a network. The record of one’s triumphs and tragedies will haunt one forever. Gone is personal privacy since facts buried in the past can be uncovered at any moment. Gone is personal memory since it is easier to rely on the external social memory of cyberspace. In what follows we explain these observations and trace their consequences.

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