Jamie Davies, “A Closed Loop“:
The concept of ‘the gene for feature x’ is giving way to a much more complicated story. Think something like: ‘the gene for protein a, that interacts with proteins b, c and d to allow a cell to undertake process p, that allows that cell to co‑ordinate with other cells to make body feature x’. The very length of the above phrase, and the weakness of the blueprint metaphor, emphasises a conceptual distance that is opening up between the molecular-scale, mechanical function of genes and the interesting large-scale features of bodies. The genes matter – of course they do, because something has to build all these proteins. But the helix seems less and less appropriate as an icon for the all-important control systems that run life, especially at larger scales (cells, tissues, organisms, populations, ecosystems and so on).
There is, however, an alternative. It can be represented by an even simpler icon than the double helix. It really does seem to pervade life at all scales. This alternative is a concept, rather than a physical thing. And it can it be glimpsed most clearly if we ask how things structure themselves when they must adapt to an environment that cannot be known in advance.
John R. Searle, “What Your Computer Can’t Know“:
Suppose we took seriously the project of creating an artificial brain that does what real human brains do. … How should we go about it? The absolutely first step is to get clear about the distinction between a simulation or model on the one hand, and a duplication of the causal mechanisms on the other. Consider an artificial heart as an example. Computer models were useful in constructing artificial hearts, but such a model is not an actual functioning causal mechanism. The actual artificial heart has to duplicate the causal powers of real hearts to pump blood. Both the real and artificial hearts are physical pumps, unlike the computer model or simulation.
Now exactly the same distinctions apply to the brain. An artificial brain has to literally create consciousness, unlike the computer model of the brain, which only creates a simulation. So an actual artificial brain, like the artificial heart, would have to duplicate and not just simulate the real causal powers of the original. In the case of the heart, we found that you do not need muscle tissue to duplicate the causal powers. We do not know enough about the operation of the brain to know how much of the specific biochemistry is essential for duplicating the causal powers of the original. Perhaps we can make artificial brains using completely different physical substances as we did with the heart. The point, however, is that whatever the substance is, it has to duplicate and not just simulate, emulate, or model the real causal powers of the original organ.
Technological innovation on a grand scale is an act of sublimation, and we are too self-knowing to sublimate. Let me lead into this discussion by acknowledging that this point may be too subtle to be true, so I offer it circumspectly. According to certain schools of psychology, sublimation describes the process by which we channel or redirect certain desires, often destructive or transgressive desires, into productive action. On this view, the great works of civilization are powered by sublimation. But, to borrow a line cited by the late Phillip Reiff, “if you tell people how they can sublimate, they can’t sublimate.” In other words, sublimation is a tacit process. It is the by-product of a strong buy-in into cultural norms and ideals by which individual desire is subsumed into some larger purpose. It is the sort of dynamic, in other words, that conscious awareness hampers and that ironic detachment, our default posture toward reality, destroys. Make of that theory what you will.
Jeffrey Toobin, “The Solace of Oblivion“:
Mayer-Schönberger said that Google, whose market share for Internet searches in Europe is around ninety per cent, does not make sinister use of the information at its disposal. But in “Delete” he describes how, in the nineteen-thirties, the Dutch government maintained a comprehensive population registry, which included the name, address, and religion of every citizen. At the time, he writes, “the registry was hailed as facilitating government administration and improving welfare planning.” But when the Nazis invaded Holland they used the registry to track down Jews and Gypsies. “We may feel safe living in democratic republics, but so did the Dutch,” he said. “We do not know what the future holds in store for us, and whether future governments will honor the trust we put in them to protect information privacy rights.”
Ian Bogost, “Future Ennui“:
Unlike its competitor Google, with its eyeglass wearables and delivery drones and autonomous cars, Apple’s products are reasonable and expected — prosaic even, despite their refined design. Google’s future is truly science fictional, whereas Apple’s is mostly foreseeable. You can imagine wearing Apple Watch, in no small part because you remember thinking that you could imagine carrying Apple’s iPhone — and then you did, and now you always do.
Technology moves fast, but its speed now slows us down. A torpor has descended, the weariness of having lived this change before — or one similar enough, anyway — and all too recently. The future isn’t even here yet, and it’s already exhausted us in advance. It’s a far cry from “future shock,” Alvin Toffler’s 1970 term for the post-industrial sensation that too much change happens in too short a time. Where once the loss of familiar institutions and practices produced a shock, now it produces something more tepid and routine. The planned obsolescence that coaxes us to replace our iPhone 5 with an iPhone 6 is no longer disquieting, but just expected.
Image: still from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.”