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See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 5

Following the Data Trail from Humble Human Beginnings to World Domination

Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina introduces the November 2013 issue of Scientific American
Hominid footprints



JOHN READER Science Source

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Sometime around two million years ago the number and types of large carnivore species in Africa began to drop. Were our forebears responsible? In our cover story, “Early Humans—Not Climate Change—Decimated Africa’s Large Carnivores,” paleontologist Lars Werdelin takes us down the data trail in search of an answer. Although our ancestors were slow and weak, he posits, they also proved to be clever and collaborative and, as omnivores, able to take advantage of opportunities for obtaining nourishing calories from a variety of different sources better than more dedicated meat eaters could. As a result, when times were the worst, they might have had a competitive advantage.

Millennia later, with humans now firmly in the position of being the dominant species on our blue planet, we are taking the next step in understanding and managing our world through big data. Computers gather and analyze countless bits of our personal information. We leave a trail of our digital DNA with every click: what we buy online, the number and types of searches we make, and even where we go and when with our smartphones. Through the use of powerful algorithms that sift through the masses of recorded activities, we are making the world a more efficient, healthier and better-managed place to be sure. But, asks digital visionary Jaron Lanier, at what cost?

As Lanier explores in “How to Think about Privacy,” privacy is more than an expectation of remaining at least a little mysterious to others. It is a lens through which we can explore our fast-changing notions surrounding its relation to power, politics and the law. Technology, he reminds us, is ultimately society's to wield as we collectively see fit.

“We still have the potential to choose what we want,” Lanier writes. “It is as if we have forgotten the most basic fact about computers: they are programmable.”

This article was originally published with the title "Following Data Trails."

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