Ignore the noise, but not the real value of STEM

I think we can all agree that perpetual disruption and reinvention can be tiresome, especially when the unspoken subtext is that a lot of folks are going to get fired. A lot of Thomas Friedman columns these days just get booed down. We’ve heard that record before.

Lingering over a cup of loose-leaf-brewed tea, walking or running in the woods, talking in person with family and friends, and reading printed books all bring joy to life. These fulfilling activities were equally available (with the possible exception of books) to our distant ancestors as they are today.

We may in the not-too-distant future transition to spending much of our time working and playing inside virtual-reality. The internet has already brought us halfway there. Facebook is currently spending tens of billions of dollars (!) buying up companies that will complete the trick.

But so much of the innovation that gets touted as disruptive is tacky. Facebook and (alas) Twitter are businesses in which you, the consumer, are the product being sold to corporations that want to sell you stuff you probably don’t need. 3D printing at home is another example. Sure, we can all use CAD files and replicating machines to bring manufacturing in-house and fulfill our wants with ever greater precision. But at the end of the day, it’s mostly just a bunch of customized plastic. (I’d like to know how well the recycling system will work to ensure that what we print can become the raw material of our next creation. If it’s done right, and it becomes more ecological than factory production, I could see myself changing my mind about 3D printing.)

I’m not advocating for a return to analog-everything. Despite the fact that the best things in life may be simple things, I think science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have made us much better off than those folks of yesteryear who only had simplicity and their wits.

Better application of science and technology for health and prosperity can be far more profound than the superficial offerings of social media, Google Glass and 3D printing. For me, the part of the STEM revolution that brings value is the power it gives us to better enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

What could be more basic and life-affirming than enjoying good health? Because we’re alive today, we can read medical science books informed by more comprehensive data and better technology. Here are two examples:

I first encountered David Agus, MD, in the pages of Wired magazine. That feature article opened my eyes to a different, more systematic, way of understanding biology, which he outlines in his book The End of Illness. His scientific/systems biology approach allows him to distill some simple recommendations about health that cut through the media hype. Some of these are somewhat surprising, such as his advocacy of cutting vitamins and supplements in favor of eating real food.

Robert Lustig, MD, is famous for “Sugar: the bitter truth,” which has been viewed almost 4.5 million times on YouTube, where I was first exposed to him. Like Agus, Lustig takes a systems approach that makes a compelling case against added sugar and industrial food processing. His book Fat Chance makes that case convincingly and scientifically.

Then there’s our financial health. The simple life is aided by avoiding all the complexities of poverty, and in this regard people-oriented financial technology is making it easier for the disciplined “little guy” to achieve some degree of financial independence (FI). Index investing is a product of the IT revolution, and its champions—people like Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, the financial academic Burton Malkiel, and the increasingly popular blogger Mr. Money Mustache (all three are worth reading)—point out how computing power has made investing simpler and less costly.

Technology allows us to track our health and wealth with greater accuracy than ever before. To the degree that next generation body sensors (like Fitbit) and financial aggregators (such as Personal Capital) aren’t distracting or even all-consuming, these are great reminders that until we die we always have room to grow and improve.

My point is that STEM has the power to transform complexity into life-affirming simplicity, and its power to do so is getting better each day. Underneath all the noise, these are the real life improvements.

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