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Catherine Cusick
Catherine Cusick is the audience development editor of Longreads. She was previously a rep at the American Booksellers Association, as well as the social editor for IndieBound, a nationwide local-first movement.

The Case of the Poisoned Calves

A newborn calf
(William Campbell / Corbis via Getty Images)

In Longview, Texas, someone poisoned eighteen of the Birdsong family’s calves, killing them one at a time over the course of four years by feeding them a mysterious grain. But who? And why? Texas Monthly writer-at-large Leif Reigstad digs into a confounding true-crime cold case with no leads, no motive, no patterns, and no suspects.

In more than two thousand investigations over a twenty-year career as a special ranger with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Scott Williamson, who now serves as the executive director of law enforcement and theft prevention, has never seen a case like Buck’s. “Typically, anything we saw was either small numbers or ended up tying back to more of a prussic acid poisoning, which is just a natural poisoning of grasses that come under awful [drought or frost] conditions and can kill cattle in a short period of time,” said Williamson. “It’s just an act of God through a natural process. But I have personally never worked a case of intentional poisoning.”

After a fourth calf died, in 2014, Buck took a pair of night vision goggles that Becky had bought him for Christmas and went out into the pasture after dark, hoping to catch the perpetrator in the act. For four nights, he sat on a bucket behind the cover of the trees along his fence line, so that he could see almost the entire pasture, staking out his land through the night with a cooler full of water and Gatorade beside him. He was alone with his thoughts, and all the possible scenarios and unanswered questions began running through his head again and again. But by the time the sun came up, he’d be no closer to catching the killer than he was the first day he heard the terrible wailing of the mother cow.

Everyone had a theory or a quick fix. Put up game cameras, one suggested. (Buck had.) Was it blackleg? one commenter asked. (None of the calves exhibited symptoms of the fatal disease.) Leptospirosis? No. White snakeroot? Bad bull semen? Larkspur? Nightshade? Hemlock? No, no, no, no, and no. Get a Great Pyrenees guard dog. Get a Doberman. Buck has had dogs on his ranch, and they’ve never done much good. I’d sit out there all night with night vision goggles, someone said. Of course, Buck had done that too.

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‘I’d Rather Import Water Than Export Children’

Moab, Utah
An unusally wet spring in the Desert Southwest. (George Rose / Getty Images)

In Outside MagazineMark Sundeen visits St. George, Utah, “the fastest-growing metropolitan area in America,” to report on the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline.

“The battle over the pipeline is a proxy for the debate on growth,” Sundeen writes. Some Utahns hope that the water project, which is projected to cost between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion, will support a growing economy and provide the next generation with opportunities for local employment. Without enough water, pipeline advocates believe that the state’s investments in education and infrastructure will go to waste.

But local activists believe Utah’s urban centers should follow examples set by desert cities like Albuquerque, Las Vegas, and Tucson, which manage to conserve water while serving far larger populations. Continued growth may also create more environmental problems than economic solutions for the next generation, especially in cities where the landscape is already naturally inhospitable.

“There is no lack of water here,” Sundeen quotes author Edward Abbey, “unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”

It was easy to like Dean Cox and his tale of entrepreneurial grit. He welcomes the new growth. In the past, most local kids were forced to leave St. George—or Dixie, as it’s nicknamed—if they wanted a career. The area became a haven for retirees, the first wave arriving in the 1970s. One big achievement of this early boom, Cox told me, is the expanded new hospital. Instead of a handful of country doctors, they have a first-rate medical center with a roster of specialists. His daughter works there. “She wouldn’t be here—that job wouldn’t be here—” he said, “without the previous water projects.”

Old-timers like Cox say they have no right to shut the door behind them. He believes that the county needs the water for the next generation. “If we don’t have the pipeline, we don’t have the growth, and we can send our kids somewhere else,” he said.

Van Dam and Rutherford also dispute the line that growth makes the city more affordable for future generations. They showed me a report by a panel of university economists forecasting that, if the pipeline is built, it could raise water rates more than 500 percent. Eventually, Van Dam said, St. George will have to reckon with the fact that it’s living beyond its natural means. “They’ll keep building until you have more people here than God ever intended,” he said. “They are passing the hard decisions they should be making now onto their grandkids.”

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The Future of Decisions

Unisphere
Children ride their scooters in front of the Unisphere in New York. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Corbis via Getty Images)

“How to live in a world where profound uncertainty is not a bug, but a feature?”

In a Wired UK excerpt from his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari argues that we must teach our children how to develop the mental and emotional flexibility to navigate decades of unprecedented change.

[Schools] assumed that as long as we give students lots of data and a modicum of freedom, the students will create their own picture of the world, and even if this generation fails to synthesise all the data into a coherent and meaningful story of the world, there will be plenty of time to construct a good synthesis in the future. We have now run out of time. The decisions we will take in the next few decades will shape the future of life itself, and we can take these decisions based only on our present world view. If this generation lacks a comprehensive view of the cosmos, the future of life will be decided at random.

As strangeness becomes the new normal, your past experiences, as well as the past experiences of the whole of humanity, will become less reliable guides. Humans as individuals and humankind as a whole will increasingly have to deal with things nobody ever encountered before, such as super-intelligent machines, engineered bodies, algorithms that can manipulate your emotions with uncanny precision, rapid man-made climate cataclysms, and the need to change your profession every decade. What is the right thing to do when confronting a completely unprecedented situation? How should you act when you are flooded by enormous amounts of information and there is absolutely no way you can absorb and analyse it all?

Technology can help you a lot, but if technology gains too much power over your life, you might become a hostage to its agenda. Thousands of years ago, humans invented agriculture, but this technology enriched just a tiny elite, while enslaving the majority of humans. Most people found themselves working from sunrise till sunset plucking weeds, carrying water buckets and harvesting corn under a blazing sun. It can happen to you too.

Technology isn’t bad. If you know what you want in life, technology can help you get it. But if you don’t know what you want in life, it will be all too easy for technology to shape your aims for you and take control of your life. Especially as technology gets better at understanding humans, you might increasingly find yourself serving it, instead of it serving you.

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Redlining in the Lap Lane

Red, white, and blue swimming pool lane divider
"Pools have historically been the sites of major feuds over race, income, and access." Olga Khazan for CityLab (Photo by Black 100/Getty Images)

In CityLabOlga Khazan revisits her hometown to ask residents in McKinney, Texas, how they’ve been faring since a 2015 viral video captured Eric Casebolt, a white police officer, using excessive force on Dajerria Becton, a black teenager, at an unauthorized pool party.

Khazan soon finds that tensions in the community are still running high three years later, and that the fallout tracks with how private club pools and homeowners’ associations have historically provided a cover for redlining.

The west has long been referred to as the “new” side, the “good” side, and sometimes the “white” side.

Builders have carved up the west side into sylvan subdivisions with names like Hidden Creek and Eldorado Lakes. The west-side neighborhoods are full of tidy lawns and brick homes. To combat the triple-digit heat that engulfs North Texas for much of the summer, they have swimming pools that are accessible only to residents.

On the east side, some homes are new or remodeled, but others are patched with plywood and corrugated metal. Eighty-six percent of the west side was white in 2009, when the city was forced to settle an affordable-housing lawsuit, compared with 49 percent of the east. The lawsuit claimed that all of the town’s public housing and most of the landlords willing to take Section 8 vouchers were on the east side.

The incident was perhaps especially incendiary because it involved a swimming pool: Pools have historically been the sites of major feuds over race, income, and access. As my colleague Yoni Appelbaum wrote in the wake of the McKinney incident, in the early 20th century, public pools were plentiful—but segregated. As civil-rights activists pushed to desegregate them, many cities privatized the facilities rather than be forced to integrate them. Private and exclusive pools became more common; public ones, less so. “Suburbanites organized private club pools rather than fund public pools because club pools enabled them to control the class and racial composition of swimmers, whereas public pools did not,” the historian Jeff Wiltse noted in his 2007 book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.

Many of the homes on McKinney’s east side were built before homeowners’ associations began incorporating gated pools into their developments. People in McKinney who don’t belong to homeowners’ associations can use the city’s public swimming pools. There are four, and rather than operating on homeowners’-association dues, they charge a fee for admission. The newest pool, at a facility called the Apex Center, features water slides and costs $10 a person for a day pass. (It’s on the west side.) If Rhodes had wanted to host her party legally, she would have had to rent one of these pools. For up to 200 guests, the cost is $110 to $800 for two hours, depending on the pool.

“Craig Ranch is a multimillion-dollar development,” said Henry Moore, a pastor at Saint Mark Baptist Church, an old black church on the east side, whom I spoke with one Sunday last month before services began. “On the east side, there is no Craig Ranch multimillion-dollar development. So there will be nicer things on the west side than there are on the east side.”

When the socioeconomic divide in a town is so stark, the line between feeling unwanted because you’re not from the neighborhood and feeling unwanted because of your race can start to blur. “Are you saying I’m not supposed to be here because I don’t live here?” Moore continued, speculating on the mind-set of some of the teens that day. “But I was invited.”

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Waiting for Mental Health Care

Waiting room
(Anthony Asael / Art in All of Us / Getty Images)

Do you need help? Ask for help. Do you need help now? Get in line.

In The Guardian, journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson responds to the many empty refrains encouraging mentally ill patients to just ask for help — a beyond-frustrating suggestion “when you’ve been asking for help and not getting it.”

There is a poster in my local pharmacy that exclaims, “Mental health can be complex – getting help doesn’t have to be!” Each time I see it, I want to scream.

I used to blame the system. Mostly it is the system: those never-ending cuts and closures; the bureaucracy; the constant snafus of communication; the government’s contempt for staff.

But sometimes, that system gets inside the staff, too. It is there when you are asked the same questions by 20 professionals, in a time of great distress, and then reprimanded for anger when you snap the 21st time. It is there when you are asked to fill out a form to assess a service, after being told you won’t receive that service until two birthdays in the future.

The waiting. The offers of therapies that aren’t suitable because there is nothing else. (Throwing a ball of wool to one another in a circle might be helpful for some people, but it absolutely wasn’t for me. I knew it wouldn’t be. But I gave it a go.) The being matched with a therapist who, through no fault of her own, is unsuitable (you have friends in common) but who you don’t ask to change because you know there isn’t another. The 10-minute GP slots that take weeks to secure.

After the sectioning and the 22-hour wait, there was a hospitalisation out of borough. Upon leaving the inpatient ward, there was a two-week stay at a crisis house (which helped), then that was it. I was ill enough to be sectioned, but well enough to have therapy discontinued. I was put on an 18-month waiting list for therapy. I called iCope, an NHS digital therapy service, but because I was on a waiting list, I was ineligible.

It took me about 16 weeks to get back to work – much longer than it should have done – because I had to clamber from a well without ropes. I would run into GP surgeries, suicidal; the receptionist said he would “pass the message on”. I sat in the consulting room, sweater over my head and howling.

Since I was sectioned, I have been hospitalised twice, once after a suicide attempt. I am still on a waiting list, a different one: this one is two years long. My friends and family simply do not understand the delay, cannot believe it when I tell them about the system. So, clearly, the Conversation isn’t as illuminating as it thinks it is.

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Jonathan Franzen’s “Readers”

Jonathan Franzen
Novelist/essayist Jonathan Franzen. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

“Most of the people who have complaints with me aren’t reading me,” says Jonathan Franzen, but he’s a process guy. He doesn’t read anything by his readers. They could write the book on reading him, but he wouldn’t read it and neither would they.

In The New York Times MagazineTaffy Brodesser-Akner profiles Franzen profiling his haters, who he’s fine with:

People can think something about you that isn’t true, and it isn’t necessarily your job to correct them. And if you do correct them, the corrections will eat up your entire life, and then where is your life? What did you do? You don’t have to answer criticism of yourself. You don’t even have to listen to it. You don’t have to fit your thoughts into sound bites just because of character limitations.

Has anyone considered that the interaction is the fragility? Has anyone considered that letting other people define how you fill your day and what they fill your head with — a passive, postmodern stream of other people’s thoughts — is the fragility?

Right at that minute, I wanted what he had so badly that I would have drunk his blood right there in the arboretum to get it.

Here is another thing about birds: They don’t care about people. They don’t interact with them, and yet they are totally accurate seismographs for people’s behavior. They reflect us without coming anywhere near us.

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Nintendo Can Keep a Secret

Nintendo Switch
A gamer plays 'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild' on a Nintendo Switch. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, or at least that one time by Howie Day and Kevin Griffin, that even the best fall down sometimes. What businesspeople are still trying to wrap their heads around is how a perennial blockbuster like Nintendo can fall down regularly for more than a century, innovate continuously from that prone position, and rise up, as if on cue, to master the art of fairytale comebacks.

In Bloomberg BusinessweekFelix Gillette tries to crack the code behind the gaming giant’s success, which remains as mysterious and unlikely as lucking into a banana bunch in the depths of an abandoned mineshaft.

Kimishima took a sip of tea. Next year, Nintendo will turn 130 years old. Once again, the outside world is wondering how a company periodically left for dead keeps revitalizing itself. But seesawing is nothing new for Nintendo. It has long alternated between fallow periods, in which the media churns out reports of pending doom, and boom times, during which Nintendo Mania is cast as an unstoppable force. What remains constant is the company’s understated and zealously guarded culture—the system at the root of its unusual ability to recalibrate, with some regularity, to humanity’s ever-evolving sense of play.

Miyamoto has offered some clues. He’s often told a story about how, when he was young, he discovered a cave in a bamboo forest outside his village of Sonobe, northwest of Kyoto. Initially afraid, he pushed deeper into the subterranean world, marveling at the feelings of mystery and soulfulness that washed over him. That sense of astonishment and animism persisted, helping to inspire hit games such as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda. Miyamoto’s cave tale is to Nintendo acolytes as Plato’s cave allegory is to students of Greek philosophy: a way of framing the inherent challenge of perceiving reality. How to create a naturalistic gaming environment that opens a player’s mind to the transcendent elements within?

When it was Furukawa’s turn to speak, he noted that Nintendo makes “playthings, not necessities” and that if consumers stop finding its products compelling, the company could be swiftly forgotten. “It is a high-risk business,” he added. “So there will be times when business is good and times when business is bad. But I want to manage the company in a way that keeps us from shifting between joy and despair.”

If Nintendo, as a company, has long benefited from its artistic temperament, it suffers, too, from an artist’s restless insecurity. No matter how many times outsiders marvel at its work, its game designers must wake up each day, bike into the ivory cocoon of the R&D building, face the blank screen, and make something for the world.

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The Urban Crisis of Affluence

Skyscrapers
Photo by Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images

After three decades living in and around New York City, I, too, am leaving to make way for the only people the city is still welcoming: billionaires who don’t live here.

In Harper’s Magazine, Kevin Baker writes at length in “The Death of a Once Great City” about how the few who can afford to build and buy in New York don’t want to live here, either. In one affluent twenty-block corridor, “almost one apartment in three sits empty for at least ten months a year.” A couple of neighborhoods south, developers at an eighty-three-unit luxury condo were recently offering “to throw in two studio apartments and two parking spots for any buyer willing to shell out $48 million for the building’s 7,000-square foot penthouse.” That’s five empty things for the price of one empty thing, in case you’d like to park dozens of millions of dollars in an investment property that’s big enough to fit dozens of homeless families.

Drawing from Michael Greenberg’s incisive piece on the city’s housing emergency last summer in The New York Review of Books, Baker connects the dots between empty penthouses and empty storefronts, decrying how “all that our urban leaders, in New York and elsewhere, Democratic as well as Republican, have been able to come up with is one scheme after another to invite the rich in.”

As New York enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable. It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there.

The new rich infesting the city are barely here. They keep a low profile, often for good reason, and rarely stick around. They manufacture nothing and run nothing, for the most part, but live off fortunes either made by or purloined from other people—sometimes from entire nations. The New Yorker noted in 2016 that there is now a huge swath of Midtown Manhattan, from Fifth Avenue to Park Avenue, from 49th Street to 70th Street, where almost one apartment in three sits empty for at least ten months a year. New York today is not at home. Instead, it has joined London and Hong Kong as one of the most desirable cities in the world for “land banking,” where wealthy individuals from all over the planet scoop up prime real estate to hold as an investment, a pied-à-terre, a bolt-hole, a strongbox.

A triplex at the forthcoming 220 Central Park South will reportedly be sold for $200 million, and a four-story apartment at the same address is priced to move at $250 million. These would be the largest home sales ever recorded anywhere in the United States.

Who spends this sort of money for an apartment? The buyers are listed as hedge fund managers, foreign and domestic; Russian oligarchs; Chinese apparel and airline magnates. And increasingly, to use a repeated Times term, a “mystery buyer,” often shielded by a limited liability company.

This is not the benevolent “gentrification” that Michael Bloomberg seemed to have had in mind but something more in the tradition of the king’s hunting preserves, from which local peasants were banned even if they were starving and the king was far away.

There are now so many of the supertalls gathered so closely together that they threaten to leave the lower sections of Central Park, the only true architectural marvel to be seen here, in shadow for much of the year. One simulation found that the shadows of the highest towers may knife a mile into the park on the winter solstice.

When the journalist Warren St. John protested against these towers that block the sun and literally leave children shivering in the park, he pointed out that the highest supertall apartments—when they are occupied at all—house maybe a few hundred people, as opposed to the 40 million individuals who use Central Park every year. But this seems to be the calculation on which New York now operates.

Even for those who can afford the new New York, it is unclear how much they actually like it or maintain any ability to shape it to their tastes. What is the point, after all, of paying a fortune to live in a city that is more and more like everywhere else?

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If Tim Russert Could Interview Trump Today

Tim Russert during a live taping of 'Meet the Press.' (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty)

“When I run for president,” Tim Russert would tell candidates who tried to turn his interviews back on him, “I’ll answer all your questions.”

If Russert was anything, he was skeptical. As the longtime moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, Russert gave viewers the impression that he’d both heard everything before and that this kind of thing — no matter how unique any new movement may have seemed — had already happened. Every event had a historical precedent, and so did every tactic and every lie and every political sidestep. Russert had a long memory, and he knew what questions to ask.

Russert died ten years ago today, on June 13, 2008. A decade on, journalists and moderators are still trying to live up to his legacy for asking the right questions. Whenever I try to think of who is carrying his baton today, with the same rigor and acuity, I’m overwhelmed by the memory of how much we trusted him.

Fans of Meet the Press feel Russert’s absence daily, perhaps never more so than throughout the 2016 election. Russert was a walking fact-checker, with the ability to recall just the right detail to rebut false statements immediately with truthful, well-sourced evidence to the contrary.

So many of us wish Russert could interview Trump today — that he was still alive to ask him serious questions, to surround all of Trump’s responses with truthful context, and to guide so many political discussions that have gone so far off the rails.

Watching their October 24, 1999 interview, I have so many questions of my own. How did Russert take a Trump presidency this seriously in 1999 when, more than one year into his first term, much of the electorate still hasn’t? How is it that, nearly twenty years later, Trump is saying so many of the same things? When did American audiences lose respect for asking any of these questions, let alone for the people who insist on asking them?

If Russert could interview Trump today, would this interview change at all?

RUSSERT: Let me show you what you said about women in your book and give you a chance to respond. This is helpful.

TRUMP: All right.

RUSSERT: “Women have one of the great acts of all time. The smart ones act very feminine and needy, but inside they’re real killers. I’ve seen women manipulate men with just the twitch of their eye — or perhaps another body part.”

TRUMP: Well, you know that. I mean, you’re married to an incredible woman. And I’m sure she manipulates you beautifully.

RUSSERT: When women see or hear that on the screen, however, don’t they say, “Donald. Donald Trump. Isn’t that a little bit over the line?”

TRUMP: I think they respect it. I’m saying women may be beyond us, you and I. I mean, they’re smart, they’re cunning.

RUSSERT: “They’re killers.”

TRUMP: They’re killers in many respects.

RUSSERT: That’s what you said.

TRUMP: Absolutely. I’m not saying all, but I’m saying in many respects. And I’ve seen women that are so tough they make us wince.

RUSSERT: Let me move on to some issues. But first —

TRUMP: You haven’t met any of those women?

RUSSERT: When I run for president, I’ll answer all your questions.

TRUMP: Okay.

RUSSERT: One of your former wives — Marla — had this to say and let me put it on the screen, give you a chance to respond: “If Trump is really serious about being president and runs in the general election next year, I will not be silent. I will feel it is my duty as an American citizen to tell the people what he is really like. But I can’t imagine that they would really elect him, would they? … His drug is attention.”

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Before We All Teach Someone a Lesson

Students dressed as the video game Tetris, shaking hands cooperatively
Students dressed as Tetris blocks shake hands with their team. (Photo by Andrew Hancock / Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)

“Trashing is insidious. It can damage its subject for life, personally and professionally. Whether or not people sympathize, the damage has been done.”

— Laurie Penny, Who Does She Think She Is?

In the right context, moral outrage can be justified and effective. When marginalized or less-empowered voices leverage a moral megaphone to remedy systemic injustice — when hate suffers consequences — those social repercussions help bend the arc of the moral universe in the right direction. In communities where we can all see each other in person, correcting bad behavior in judicious, measured proportion serves everyone in the long run.

Yet even justified social consequences can get out of hand quickly when they’re exacted by waves of anonymous online strangers. Constructive criticism tips over into merciless abuse that undermines whether transgressors can learn any semblance of an appropriate lesson.

In Mosaic, Gaia Vince examines how our first impulse offline is usually to be generous and kind to each other, but those instinctual wires get crossed online depending on how a social network is set up. Even just one bad experience with a jerk can set a formative precedent that leads to less cooperative behavior.

“You might think that there is a minority of sociopaths online, which we call trolls, who are doing all this harm,” says Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, at Cornell University’s Department of Information Science. “What we actually find in our work is that ordinary people, just like you and me, can engage in such antisocial behaviour. For a specific period of time, you can actually become a troll.”

The good news is that this also works the other way around: well-timed, well-meaning interventions can encourage us to bring more of our evolved prosocial habits from offline communities into our online discourse.

Here, Vince visits Yale University’s Human Cooperation Lab to explore how we can redesign social networks in ways that help “further our extraordinary impulse to be nice to others even at our own expense.”

“If you take carbon atoms and you assemble them one way, they become graphite, which is soft and dark. Take the same carbon atoms and assemble them a different way, and it becomes diamond, which is hard and clear. These properties of hardness and clearness aren’t properties of the carbon atoms – they’re properties of the collection of carbon atoms and depend on how you connect the carbon atoms to each other,” [Nicholas Christakis, director of Yale’s Human Nature Lab] says. “And it’s the same with human groups.”

“By engineering their interactions one way, I can make them really sweet to each other, work well together, and they are healthy and happy and they cooperate. Or you take the same people and connect them a different way and they’re mean jerks to each other and they don’t cooperate and they don’t share information and they are not kind to each other.”

In one experiment, he randomly assigned strangers to play the public goods game with each other. In the beginning, he says, about two-thirds of people were cooperative. “But some of the people they interact with will take advantage of them and, because their only option is either to be kind and cooperative or to be a defector, they choose to defect because they’re stuck with these people taking advantage of them. And by the end of the experiment everyone is a jerk to everyone else.”

Christakis turned this around simply by giving each person a little bit of control over who they were connected to after each round. “They had to make two decisions: am I kind to my neighbours or am I not; and do I stick with this neighbour or do I not.” The only thing each player knew about their neighbours was whether each had cooperated or defected in the round before. “What we were able to show is that people cut ties to defectors and form ties to cooperators, and the network rewired itself and converted itself into a diamond-like structure instead of a graphite-like structure.” In other words, a cooperative prosocial structure instead of an uncooperative structure.

But as I’m watching the game I just played unfold, Christakis reveals that three of these players are actually planted bots. “We call them ‘dumb AI’,” he says.
His team is not interested in inventing super-smart AI to replace human cognition. Instead, the plan is to infiltrate a population of smart humans with dumb-bots to help the humans help themselves.

“We wanted to see if we could use the dumb-bots to get the people unstuck so they can cooperate and coordinate a little bit more – so that their native capacity to perform well can be revealed by a little assistance,” Christakis says.

Much antisocial behaviour online stems from the anonymity of internet interactions – the reputational costs of being mean are much lower than offline. Here, bots may also offer a solution. One experiment found that the level of racist abuse tweeted at black users could be dramatically slashed by using bot accounts with white profile images to respond to racist tweeters. A typical bot response to a racist tweet would be: “Hey man, just remember that there are real people who are hurt when you harass them with that kind of language.” Simply cultivating a little empathy in such tweeters reduced their racist tweets almost to zero for weeks afterwards.

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