Jon Peder Zane is one of numerous dedicated, serious folks who are working to keep good reporting and good writing alive at the News and Observer. He was the book editor until the drastic changes under McClatchy’s management turned him into the Ideas Reporter, and I have actually very much enjoyed the products of his new beat. He has written about everything from banned Christmas trees to bioethics. He has also consented to create a series of videos for NandO’s website – Fist Bumping is typical. ( He really turns being stiff into a comic artform). But this guy’s writing is just downright stimulating! His book, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, has gotten a great, well-deserved response, and his 1999 Distinguished Writing Award proves he has been doing great work before and through all the changes at NandO.
He has outdone himself, in my mind, with his response, this year and several previous years, to the Edge annual big question. These highly provocative writings cast a huge net in searching for the meaning of our times. In the essay linked above, he sees hope in the prospect of vastly improved bodies, and justified fear in the idea of transmitted neural signals. He ends with the hope that science will continue to be of overall benefit, as in the past. Zane focuses on issues about which he has written before – stem cells and genomics. But he gave a sense of the wide ranging ideas contained in the series, and I went and downloaded and printed them. I will be processing what I read for a long time, but I will offer the notes below, with thanks to Jon Peder Zane for the motivation and stimulus!
What will change everything?
I love SF, and these essays skirted SF with regularity, while offering very real solutions for some pretty big problems – like death, endless energy, and radical transparency in the marketplace. The most sinister visions by far concern our growing ability to monitor and “tinker with” the mental experiences generated by the brain. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist from Rutgers, thinks Vance Packard’s “Hidden Persuaders” will take chemical and totally effective form. But we alter our consciousness with drugs and media all the time, and I think we’re more resilient than that.
The most practical visions derived from nanotechnology, with the idea that developing molecular, self-directing machinery would make materials goods as “free” as information is already fast becoming. An intermediate step in this process is suggested by both Chris Andersen and David G Myers: universal computers and all that implies.
The truly revolutionary nature of information technology is overshadowed by hyperbole about it. Kevin Kelly of “Wired” envisions a conscious intelligence arising from the Web – a “ubiquitous AI embedded in the feedback loops” of cyber civilization. Kevin Sloan, a “digital technologist,” predicts the accretion of a universal memory. As I read through the numerous essays that predicted the reality of artifical intelligence, I was always disappointed by the clear fallacies in the various positions, and comforted by the divining rod of clarity I received so many years ago from Coleridge. Clarity, that is, as to the certain uncertainty in defining the creative element that informs and energizes the human mind. They can map every darn neuron and correlate every one with a function, but that still won’t give them what they need to build a true thinking machine. Coleridge described it as a balance of “Fancy” and Reason – later Chomsky used the very methods of rational science to prove the uncatchable infinity that is human expression. Art represents a conscious presentation of creative forces that inform every aspect of human culture. That element will always be missing from artificial intelligence. Not that it’s missing from true science – which is the making of new knowledge. Timothy Taylor, an archeologist, points out the creativity generated in the “tension… between fixity and change” – science, in his view, being the major source of change. Science gives us our material culture, art attempts to re-present and name the meaning of that culture. The latter, for Taylor, is attempting fixity, but I think that’s true only for the linguistic scientist, not the poet and artist. Good art gropes to name and describe the changes, and thus makes in actuality a “new thing.”
The basic point is made by several writers in the series. Celebrating our “new” awareness of rationality’s limits, Randolph Nesse from the University of Michigan sees good science “recognizing that the body is not a machine.” Stuart Kaufman, a proponent of the value of “biocomplexity,” simply states: “the universe is open, neither fully lawful nor random.” Every artist, aware or not, assumes a non-linear infinitude of possibilities in order to work. These essays have taught me that scientist working in many fields have so much reason to feel the same. Closing with the words of Mr Nesse: “Some evolved systems may be indescribably complex.” For me, a comforting thought.