September 30, 2010

The Chaos Scenario - Bob Garfield; The Age of Spiritual Machines - Ray Kurzweil

Read these to take a break in between the first and the second Stieg Larsson books. With The Chaos Scenario, one of your two two favorite hosts of On The Media riffs on the various disruptive aspects the internet will have on media, business, and, ultimately, society as a whole. There were many questions and few answers but rather cautionary tales. If you like his discursive style on OTM, you'll enjoy his very conversational writing style.

Kurzweil's book presents a conundrum: how to objectively approach a 10-year-old book that attempts to predict the world 10 years into the future (and much further)? Additional: how to give fair judgment when the author emphasizes their credentials yet over-estimates potential accomplishments within those credentialed areas? This was an impulse purchase after reading it referenced with praise in several discussion threads. Although many ideas were interesting, I came away disliking his inelegant, artless writing style and generally dry structure. In contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed the predictions and explications of bioengineering in Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future, even though I disagreed with his conclusions.

[ update 30 Nov 2010 ]

Ray Kurzweil's Slippery Futurism from IEEE Spectrum [ via Slashdot ] gives a drubbing to predictions in The Age of Spiritual Machines, examining both the difficulties in separating what had been common knowledge 10 years ago from what seems prescient now, and the difficulties in getting Kurzweil to admit when he was, obviously, wrong. The inexplicable crowing that Kurzweil does in the book regarding his past business successes seems more explicable now.

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posted by sstrader at 9:47 PM in Current Interests , Language & Literature | permalink | comments (0)

February 15, 2010

The Windup Girl; Paolo Bacigalupi

Heard about this via the io9 book club and so purchased the hardback of it and his short story collection Pump Six. TWG has been praised by Time Magazine as one of the top ten books of fiction for 2009 and by the American Library Association as the best SciFi of 2009. Halfway into the story thus far and it feels very of-a-time with Naomi Klein's and Michael Pollan's ideas, along with (in a more minor fashion) Fukuyama's somewhat older book Our Posthuman Future.

Other links:

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posted by sstrader at 1:09 PM in Current Interests , Language & Literature | permalink | comments (0)

December 23, 2008

The enhanced classes

Listened to Toby Miller, author of Makeover Nation: The United States of Reinvention on Media Matters (stream available). He discusses, among other subjects, the role of direct-to-consumer marketing of drugs and their use to alter personalities as one of the methods that America has, dubiously, excelled at using to reinventing itself. Similar discussions are echoed in Fukuyama's book Our Posthuman Future (see also my reference in in July 2005). Miller worries that people are presented with too much power with the direct marketing. He argues that just as the unskilled should not have the power to build bridges or airplanes, they should not be presented with the power to choose their medications. Not the perfect comparison but it gets to the point. Similarly, Fukuyama warns that as we have more freedom to alter our personality (he complements this with a discussion on our power to alter our physical self), we take away apparent deficits that are actually benefits. One of the driving forces behind human accomplishments is those "negative" feelings of fear, unhappiness, inadequacy. Take those away and we have less drive to conquer the objects of our distress.

Maybe we're still in a nascent age of mood-altering drugs. In the same way that there is an older generation who cannot adapt to using cell phones, text messages, and mobile internet--a technical alteration that gives us a connective and communicative power--there will be a generation that can't adopt the use of mood alterations that may give us concentrative and expressive power. Such drugs certainly don't exist today, but their potential to exist in the next 20 to 30 years is feasible. Once this is accessible and non-addictive, won't adoption of its use be as common as adoption of current technology? Once common to some, the gulf in ability between those enhanced and not could be similar to that of those born with rare physical prowess and those not. We could see an enhanced class of people who would be working on a much higher plane of consciousness with the rest of the population--most likely poor--fumbling around unfocused.

posted by sstrader at 10:05 AM in Culture & Society | permalink | comments (0)

August 31, 2005

Political flood

bump dutifully points to an article over at Editor & Publisher questioning whether the White House is culpable for focusing more funds on Iraq and homeland security than on the New Orleans levees. The federal government set up SELA to prevent catastrophic flooding. This is only a more visceral effect of the egregious uselessness of Iraq. What quieter troubles are building as money is poured into Iraq? This has been discussed before, and the social trauma from the Republicans' fiscal ignorance in Iraq (hey, at least the Democrats attempt to throw money towards our society instead of away), ignoring their international and moral ignorance, can only be guessed at. Few could argue that the ROI of the Iraq war mitigates the billions lost to it.

And with this, I keep reading the defense "what do the Democrats offer instead?" Geesh, what wouldn't be better than what we have now? (Fukuyama has a more dispassionate assessment over at the NYT op-ed pages.)

Second question: are we equipped to handle this disaster with the few national guardsmen that are left here at home?

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posted by sstrader at 12:19 PM in Culture & Society | permalink | comments (1)

July 24, 2005

Monkey brains

Scientists have been injecting human brain cells into monkey fetuses (NEWS.com.au, LiveScience.com, Google News). The resulting animals, if left to grow, could develop self-awareness--or, if as some argue, many animals are already self-aware, they could develop consciouis characteristics more indiscernible from humans.

Last November, I noted that animals were begin engineered to produce more human-like organs. Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future [Amazon] addresses many of these issues and suggests that limits be defined soon so that the "natural" definition of human is not altered.

posted by sstrader at 11:33 AM in Science & Technology | permalink | comments (0)

July 24, 2004

Robotic nation

Earlier this year, Marshall Brain (yes, Brain) of the wonderful How Stuff Works put out a longish essay titled "Robotic Nation." In it, he predicted 50% unemployment in 20 years as automation takes over the workplace. As it stands, the world's economy would collapse.

He's been busy since then bolstering his argument:

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posted by sstrader at 12:28 PM in Science & Technology | permalink | comments (0)