Why the World Cup in Brazil Is Our Future: In More Ways Than One

The bold gamble of the Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis to have a paralysied person using an exoskeleton controlled by the brain kick a soccer ball during the World Cup opening ceremony  has paid off.  Yet, for how important the research of The Walk Again Project is to those suffering paralysis, the less than 2 second display of the technology did very little to live up to the pre-game media hype.

The technology of saving people suffering paralysis using brain-machine interfaces is still in its infancy, though I hold out hope for Nicolelis and others’ work in these areas for those suffering from paralysis or the elderly unable to enjoy the wonders of movement, the future we can see when looking at Brazil today is a much different one than the one hinted at by the miracle of the paralyzed being able to walk.

I first got hint of this through a photograph.  Seeing the elite Brazilian riot police in their full body armor reminded me of nothing so much as StormTroopers from Star Wars. Should full exoskeletons remain prohibitively expensive, it might be soldiers and police who are wearing them to leverage their power against urban protesters.  And if the experience of Brazil in the runup to the World Cup, especially in 2013, but also now, is any indication, protests there will be.

The protests in Brazil reflect a widespread malaise with the present and future of the country. There is endemic concern about youth underemployment and underemployment, crime and inadequate and grossly underfunded public services. What should be a great honor, hosting what is arguably the premier sporting event on the planet, about which the country is fanatic, and in which it is predicted to do amazingly well, has a public where instead, according to a recent Pew Survey:

 About six-in-ten (61%) think hosting the event is a bad thing for Brazil because it takes money away from schools, health care and other public services — a common theme in the protests that have swept the country since June 2013.

The Brazilian government has reasons to be nervous, it is now widely acknowledged, as David Kilcullen points out in his excellent book Out of the Mountains that rabid soccer fans themselves, known as Ultras, were instrumental in the downfall of government in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. This is not to suggest that Brazil in on the verge of revolution, the country is not, after all, a brittle autocracy like countries that experienced what proved to be the horribly misnamed “Arab Spring” rather, to suggest just how potent a punch can be packed by testosterone charged young men with nothing to lose.

This situation, where you have an intensively dissatisfied urban population, from which mass protests, enabled by ubiquitous mobile technology, protests which governments have extreme difficulty containing, are not, of course, the province of Brazil alone, but have become one of the defining features of the early 21st century.

One of the problems seems to be that even as technological capacities stream forward the low-tech foundational capabilities of societies are crumbling, developments which may be related. Brazilians are simultaneously empowered by mobile technology and disempowered through the decline of necessary services such as public transportation.

We can see the implications here even for something like Nicolelis’ miracle on a Brazilian soccer field today. Who will pay for such exoskeletons for those both paralyzed and poor? But there is another issue, perhaps as worrisome. Our very failure to support low -tech  foundations may eventually render many of our high-tech breakthroughs moot.

Take the low-tech foundational technology of antibiotics:  as Mary Mckenna pointed out in a chilling article back in 2013 the failure of pharmaceutical companies to invest in low-tech and therefore unprofitable antibiotics, combined with their systemic overuse in both humans and animals, threatens to push us into a frightening post antibiotic age.  Many of our medical procedures for dealing with life threatening conditions utilize the temporary suppression of the immune system, something that in itself would be life threatening without our ability to utilize antibiotics. In a world without antibiotics chemotherapy would kill you, severe burns would almost guarantee death, intensive care would be extremely difficult.

Next to go: surgery, especially on sites that harbor large populations of bacteria such as the intestines and the urinary tract. Those bacteria are benign in their regular homes in the body, but introduce them into the blood, as surgery can, and infections are practically guaranteed. And then implantable devices, because bacteria can form sticky films of infection on the devices’ surfaces that can be broken down only by antibiotics.

One answer to this might be nanotechnology, not in the sense of microscopic robots  touted by thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil, but in the form of nanoparticle sprays that kill pathogens and act as protective coatings that help stem the transmission of killer bacteria and viruses. Research into pathogen destroying nanoparticles is still in its early stages, so we have no idea where it will go. The risk remains, however, that our failure to invest in and properly use technologies we’ve had for a century might make a technological miracle like Nicolelis’ exoskeletons impossible, at least, in the case of paraplegics, where surgery might be involved. It would also threatens to erase much of the last century’s gains in longevity. In a world without effective antibiotics my recently infected gum might have killed me. The message from Brazil is that a wondrous future may await, but only if we remember and sustain the achievements and miracles of the past.



Tenochtitlan, Dürer, Civilization

In the year 1521 the armies of Hernando Cortez captured the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan near where Mexico City now stands.  In conquering the city Cortez had brought to the Spanish empire one of the great cities in the world. The population of Tenochtitlan numbered somewhere between 200,000- 250,000. To modern ears, accustomed to cities of enormous scale, these numbers appear tiny. And yet, it should be remembered that the world population in 1500 was only 500 million compared to the 7 billion alive today. The largest city in the world in 1500 was Beijing, China with 625,000 people. At the time, Tenochtitlan was in the middle range of the world’s ten largest urban centers tied with cities both still existent, and whose fame has been long forgotten, cities such as Hangzhou in China, Tabriz in Iran, and glorious Istanbul. Only one Western city could be numbered among the largest cities in the world in 1500, Paris with a population of 185,000.

The great artist from Nuremberg, Albrecht Dürer, who lived during this time of Western discovery and initial conquest of the New World, had the opportunity to set his eyes on some of the stolen treasures of Aztec civilization. Certainly, they must have come as a shock. The genius Dürer found something both familiar and utterly alien. The universal character of art he could comprehend, while at the same time the mythological language and culture that gave context to the art was incomprehensible within the  not only the Christian world-view, but from the view point of any of the cultures, ancient or modern, he might have known. Only the works of Ancient Egypt might have appeared so wondrously baffling.  In 1520 Dürer wrote of seeing the Aztec treasures:

All the days of my life, I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these treasures, for I saw among them wondrous works of art, and I marveled at the subtle Ingenia of men in foreign lands. Indeed I cannot express all that I thought there.

It is not definitively known whether the account of Cortez’s conquest of the Aztecs, especially its beautiful illustrations of Tenochtitlan, such as the one above, influenced Dürer’s short work on fortified cities published in 1527, (illustration below) but the more than superficial similarities, timing, and his interest in the Aztec’s all suggest this may be the case. If Tenochtitlan did indeed influence Dürer’s idea of fortified cities it would be somewhat ironic, for he was expressing not just his own utopian ideal, but offering what he thought was a practical remedy for Turks on the march against Hungary. In basing his fortifications on Tenochtitlan, Dürer was using a city that had fallen to a handful of Spaniards and their allies almost overnight.

Dürer’s fortress cities remained a mere flight of imagination for all but one instance: the Black Forest town of Freudenstadt designed by the architect Heinrich Schickhardt, which was explicitly based on the designs of Dürer.  Freudenstadt folds us firmly back into the utopian tradition, for the town was an immediate influence on J.V. Andreae’s Christianopolis , another idealized city and utopia (pictured below) that remained a mere thing of the mind.

All of this brings us back to Tenochtitlan. For the Spanish conquest of the city signaled the beginning of the rise of the West. The momentum of urbanization shifted there, especially with the beginning of industrialization around 1800. All of the world’s largest cities, save one, were located in the West by 1900: London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Chicago, St. Petersburg, and Philadelphia. The one exception was Tokyo, a consequence of the fact that Japan alone among non-Western societies had fully embraced industrialization.

As has always been the case, with cities came all the momentum in art, architecture, literature, science, technology. This was the Venetian sunset of our civilization. In the 21st century the momentum of civilization has again shifted back to the non-Western world. Like Paris at the beginning of the modern era, New York stands alone as a representative of the West among the world’s ten most populous cities. Mexico City, the heir of Tenochtitlan, is back where it once was among the world’s largest cities.  With this shift, the creative energies of humanity are likely to move away from the West and towards the great cities of the wider world. A person in Europe or America can only patiently wait for the art of “foreign lands” to blow their mind like the Aztec’s blew the mind of Dürer, or for the ideal city to be re-imagined somewhere outside of our civilization, and perhaps, this time, even formed.