10 Ideas That Changed The World In 2012

shapeways 3d printing honeycomb

Photo: Shapeways

What better time than late December to pause for a retrospective look at the ideas that mattered over the past year?In this era of specialisation, no one person is qualified to offer a definitive list of this kind. So think of what follows as a proposition to ponder: all that follows is either going to reshape our world, or would reshape it if only the idea in question were given its due.

Take to the comments section to offer ideas that ought to appear on lists like this one.

From TheAtlantic – shaping the national debate on the most critical issues of our times, from politics, business, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture.

1. Anyone can own a 3D printer.

It wasn't so long ago that 3-D printing sounded like science-fiction: a device that was fed code and printed out three-dimensional objects?!

Nowadays, 3-D printers are widely known to exist. And in 2012, they began the who-knows-how-long transition from tech-geek luxury item to common consumer good. The first retail stores selling 3-D printers opened in New York and Los Angeles.

'People can come in, look at a variety of printed objects, and buy 3-D printed knickknacks like watch bands and little plastic squirrels for their friends,' Ashlee Vance wrote this autumn. 'They can also check out the just-released Replicator 2 printer from MakerBot that costs $2,199 and lets people build larger, more precise objects than its predecessors could.'

Expensive, sure, but prices are falling fast, with one online company selling its consumer model, The Portabee , for $500. At this rate, it isn't difficult for anyone to imagine that one day in the not so distant future, they'll be hooking up their own 3-D printer in a home office.

2. The NFL starts to understand the deadliness of repeat head injuries.

Strange as it may seem, American sports historians may one day look back on 2012 as the beginning of the end for NFL football, at least in its present-day, helmeted, blocking-and-tackling-intensive incarnation.

Thousands of former players are embroiled in a lawsuit against the league, alleging that it hid information about the danger of repeated head trauma. Present and former NFL insurers are also fighting the league over who is owed what.

Every new concussion a current player suffers--and especially any suicide, violent crime or debilitating medical condition involving a former player--only brings the issue to broader public attention. And the cultural impact is trickling down to young kids whose parents are thinking twice about letting them join Pop Warner or attend tryouts during their freshmen year of high school.

3. Trial-and-error experiments could improve public policy.

That's the case Jim Manzi made in a 2012 release, Uncontrolled , that received far less attention than it deserved.

As David Brooks put it in a column that doubled as its most prominent review, 'Businesses conduct hundreds of thousands of randomised trials each year. Pharmaceutical companies conduct thousands more. But government? Hardly any. Government agencies conduct only a smattering of controlled experiments to test policies in the justice system, education, welfare and so on. Why doesn't government want to learn?'

It is Manzi's belief that some in government do want to learn, and that a new federal agency dedicated to learning by experiment would serve as a useful injection of empiricism into policy-making.

4. Centrists aren't the answer.

Even after winning the GOP primary, Mitt Romney delayed moving to the political centre.

President Obama shored up his support among single women, gays, and Hispanics, all core progressive constituencies, by taking controversial actions on their priorities in the runnup to the election.

Writing about the impressive data operation that ultimately helped Obama win reelection, Sasha Issenberg explained that while it's long been believed that 'voters in the centre are the most up for grabs,' the most advanced models now suggest that isn't the case - the probability that a given voter can be persuaded to change their minds prior to election day turns on other factors .

And in an article on advances toward prison reform made by libertarians and evangelicals, who've taken up the historically liberal issue for their own reasons, David Dagen and Steven M. Teles reflected that in an ideologically polarised country, 'The expert-driven, centre-out model of policy change that think-tank moderates and foundation check-writers hold dear is on the brink of extinction. If it is to be replaced by anything, it will be through efforts to persuade strong partisans to rethink the meaning of their ideological commitments, and thus to become open to information they would otherwise ignore. Bipartisan agreement will result from the intersection of separate ideological tracks--not an appeal to cross them. This approach will not work for all issues. But in an environment in which the centre has almost completely evaporated, and in which voters seem unwilling to grant either party a decisive political majority, it may be the only way in which our policy gridlock can be broken.'

5. Blockbusters can try out more frames per second.

Filmmakers long had to shoot any movie intended for mass release at 24-frames-per-second to accommodate the projectors owned by movie theatres. For a while now we've had digital video cameras and even digital projectors. Filmmakers nevertheless shoot at the same speed in part because moviegoers are accustom to the aesthetic.

But Peter Jackson may have changed all that. The Hobbit, his latest release, was shot at 48 frames per second. Said one reviewer, 'Middle-earth in 3D looks so crisp it's like stepping into the foreground of an insanely gorgeous diorama.'

It's the highest profile test yet for filming a major Hollywood release at higher speeds, and if it's well received it may start to irrevocably change the aesthetic of the industry, especially if the 3-D trend continues.

6. The Western tourism industry must start catering to China's middle class.

Efforts to cater to Chinese travellers were only recently at the cutting edge of the Western hospitality industry.

Now they're mainstream.

In Europe, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, tourism authorities are spending more of their budgets catering to the rising Chinese middle class, high-end hotels are increasingly likely to train staff in basic Chinese etiquette and cultural preferences, and an influx of Chinese visitors is causing even folks lower down the industry pecking order to learn, via experience, that a tea kettle in the room or remembering to avoid putting guests on the fourth floor goes a long way toward keeping the customer happy.

7. Autism has economic benefits.

This September in Tianjin, China, the founder of a consulting business won a prestigious award for social entrepreneurship.

What's so special about his company? Its employees are all highly skilled autistic people, as is his son, whose unusual abilities inspired him to create the Danish firm.

As the New York Times put it earlier this year, 'many companies struggle to find workers who can perform specific, often tedious tasks, like data entry or software testing; some autistic people would be exceptionally good at those tasks.'

It was only last year when Tyler Cowen (pictured) turned heads with an academic paper about the economic value of autistic workers. With real-world examples winning international accolades, even as more autistic kids are being born, it's an idea whose time has come.

8. Drones are a game-changing technology, and the rest of the world wants them.

The United States has normalized the use of drones in military conflict, and established the precedent of flying them over countries with which we're not at war and extra-judicially killing their citizens.

Israel, a staunch ally, uses armed drones with our blessing.

And Iran? It now claims to have a drone with a range of more than 1,000 miles. They won't be the last to make use of the technology. As expert Peter Singer of The Brookings Institute told The Huffington Post earlier this year, 'drones are a game-changing technology, akin to gunpowder, the steam engine, the atomic bomb--opening up possibilities that were fiction a generation earlier but also opening up perils that were unknown.'

Neither President Bush nor President Obama has treated this as a technology to be reined in as a prudential matter in advance of widespread proliferation. But our adversaries have gotten the idea, and are bound to exploit our shortsightedness.

9. The government's biggest problem is actually 'kludgeocracy.'

Americans typically think about government in terms of left and right, big and small, but it's the complexity of the bureaucracy that ought to get more attention, Professor Steven Teles argued in an instantly popular essay.

'The name, for a lack of a better alternative, is kludgeocracy,' he wrote, invoking a computer programming term for inelegant software patches that serve as temporary fixes. 'When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program, one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes,' he continued.

'For any particular problem we have arrived at the most gerry-rigged, opaque and complicated response. From the mind-numbing complexity of the health care system, our Byzantine system of funding higher education, and our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from the welfare state to environmental regulation, America has chosen more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than any comparable country.'

More than bigger or smaller, we need a less kludgey government.

10. Driverless cars are a matter of 'when,' not 'if.'

In 2012, a California law permitted experimental driverless cars on its roads, Google expanded its fleet of self-driving vehicles, Volvo decided to stake its future on the technology, and the EU is funding experiments to bring the vehicles onto its highways.

The notion of cars that drive themselves was hardly invented this year. What's changed is attitudes toward them.

As the New York Times put it in October, 'there is a growing consensus among transportation experts that self-driving cars are coming, sooner than later, and that the potential benefits--in crashes, deaths and injuries avoided, and in roads used more efficiently, to name a few--are enormous.'

As it turns out, the flying cars we were all promised will be self-driving ground vehicles instead. And for purposes of reading, napping, and playing with the kids, isn't that even better?

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