Archive for the ‘genetic engineering’ Category

generosity 3

December 8, 2010

Last day of class in FoL, soon the Future class will be past. Time keeps on slipping slipping slipping… So we’d better finish Generosity.

Thassa channels Richard Dawkins: “we are the lucky ones,” he said.

And she says

Everyone alive should feel richly content, ridiculously ahead of the game, a million times luckier than the unborn

And

No one should be anything but dead.

And

Everything that is, is ours.

She’s right, but like the rest of us she’ll have a hard time holding those thoughts and holding off intermittent existential despair. Maybe none of us has alleles long enough to sustain our most elevated moments of transcendent insight. Alas. But maybe, too, their very transience and instability is what makes those moments so special.

Older Daughter recently amazed me by participating in NaNoWriMo, “national novel-writing month,” a public writing project in which participants pounded out 50,000 words in thirty days. I was so impressed with her determination and stamina. I’d have felt more like Russell Stone, or a weak-willed Sisyphus, if you’d made me do that: “I have to go take my own life.”

But of course I, like Stone, believe that all writing is re-rewriting. In the past that’s always slowed us down. If we’re re-writing not just words but genetic code, it may speed us up. Strap on your seat-belts.

As a pragmatist I feel somewhat dissed by Powers’ characterization of the “witty pragmatism” of the positive psychologist who tells “Oona’s” audience– much like Oprah’s– about happiness. He might be right, though, to advise keeping your options open (“stay loose and keep revising the plan”). Is Powers right to predict that pop media culture will be the largest stage upon which our collective future is to be written? Scary thought. But “all the world’s a stage”  is scary, too.

Kurton prefers collaborative fiction to singly-authored texts. We’ve talked about that, in connection with the Updike-Kelly dispute. I’m still in Updike’s (not Kurton’s or Kelly’s) corner.

More Dawkins-esque rhapsodizing about our evolutionary epic:

Six hundred generations ago, we were scratching on the walls of caves. Now we’re sequencing genomes… If that doesn’t inspire us, we don’t deserve to survive ourselves.

That’s a bit harsh, but I’m inspired. I’m also partial to my old-fashioned founts of happiness. Can’t we have both?

Finally, in this oddly self-referential tale that ends in narrative dissolution, Powers asks “What kind of story would ever end with us?” On Eaarth? You’ll have to answer that for yourself, but my answer is: the story we’re living at this very moment continues with us. Where it all ends is a mystery.

So we’d better be generous, and give all we’ve got right now. The future will be here before we know it. Cue the symphony.

generosity 2

December 6, 2010

We’re seriously into final report presentations today in FoL, but we also continue with our final text: Richard Powers’ Generosity.

The “collective wisdom” of our crowd-sourcing anonymous horde species does not particularly impress Powers, who says he’s not allowing his narrative to linger over the “tragically flawed” character of his fictional Venter/Kurzweil/de Grey/Moravec/Shirky/[???] hybrid.  Powers throws a curve-ball when he tells us Thomas Kurton is not so “grandiose” (=egocentric?) as Craig Venter, but I think that’s mostly a legal disclaimer.

Kurton, the expert “gene signature reader,” is drunk on genetic possibility and the next big development issuing from our collective direction. Individual responsibility is becoming passe’, at least in this story.

The humanist in the story, Stone, is– like most who cross Thassa Amzwar”s path– content to bask in the glow of her genetically-cooked joie de vivre. But “he himself may never be happy for more than a few island moments.” It’s ok, her “spillover” is enough for him.  Should it be enough for you and me? I say no. But I’m not stepping up for genetic enhancement, either.

Are there other ways to increase your own “set-point” for happiness? Or maybe we just need to rethink our situation. Stoics, Buddhists, and others make themselves “happy” merely by reframing their self-image in the light of reason and reality. Thassa resists the clinical interpretation of her “optimal allele assortment,” insisting:

They make me sound like some kind of bio-factory for ivresse [euphoria]. That’s just silly. Everyone can be as content as they like. It’s certainly not pre-destiny.

But try telling that to the people who buy and sell the happy pills.

Still, there’s a practical as well as philosophical difference between positive happiness and the suppression of negative feeling, isn’t there?

“The entire human race” a massive parallel computer? Douglas Adams should get at least a footnote for that.

Julian Barnes introduces Part Three: “Myth will become reality, however skeptical we might be.” I’m skeptical about that.

It’s not just religious apocalyptics who think we’re in the “end times,” we’ve heard about the end of nature and the end of history. Now it’ll be the end of human nature, if the transhumanists have their way (says the Aussie nobelist). Are reports of our death exaggerated?

Stone has writer’s block, but if he were writing a book it would apparently be about his creeping feeling of being no longer at home in the world, in our time. Would people buy that book, in their collective wisdom (which he considers “catastrophic”)?

Evolution has designed us to notice life in the bursting present, not so much gradual change over time. That could be our undoing, unless we can catch up culturally.

The “secret of Happiness” is probably not what media reports in our story say it is.  Or rather, fulfilling that condition doesn’t tell us how to do it. My hunch is that the secret has a lot to do with learning to live lightly in the present design space nature has foisted upon us. We don’t seem much inclined to do that.

Engineered happiness is one possible “design template for the future,” but finish this book before you decide to endorse it.

generosity

December 1, 2010

“Real generosity towards the future consists in giving all to the present.” Kay Jamison isn’t quite so punchy as Camus, but says exuberance creates contagious joy. Don’t we all need more of that? But maybe we need less “first person” feeling fixation?

More questions for Richard Powers, and (meanwhile) for FoL class today, when we’ll also conclude Eaarth and commence final presentations:

Is Thomas Kurton trying to play Craig Venter in Generosity? With a dash of Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, and Charles Darwin’s “grandeur“? [Dyson on Venter... Kurzweil at TED...Generosity reviews]

Is hypomania a bad thing? How about hyperthymia? Do we need to engineer them out of our genome?

What would you pay for “meaningful connection with another living thing”?

“Why the future doesn’t need us”

September 13, 2010

In the Wired essay of this name, a few years old now but still startling to think about, Bill Joy was definitely not happy to contemplate the world without us. [Wiki bio]

His point was that we need to be charting a very different future than the one our present technological trend-lines– particularly in genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology– seem to be converging on. It’s not clear that he was playing Chicken Little in that piece, or that the sky will not soon fall. He was sounding an alarm. Have any of us heard it?

Well, Bill McKibben did. See his Enough: staying human in an engineered age. Like Joy, he too is now intensely preoccupied with green solutions to our woes. [350.org]

Some people call him Chicken Little, too, ever since End of Nature; and he keeps looking more and more like a prophet just barely ahead of his time. Let us hope Bill Joy was just wrong. Better yet, let’s act to make him wrong. That’s what he was really hoping we’d do, after reading Wired.

You could call him a Star Trek geek, too. He still seems to share the same Roddenberry vision of the 24th century he and I and many others were infected with on Thursday nights back in the late ’60s. Good for us, I say. But: where are our jet-packs?! Well, maybe they’ll be along soon enough, if he’s right about carbon nano-tubes and Moore’s Law, along with our replicators and transporters. We’ve already got our phasers and tri-corders. Live long and prosper!

(Wired continues its penchant for lapel-grabbing feature stories. Lately they’ve pronounced the death of the Web. Sounds, like reports of Mr. Twain’s death more than a century ago, a bit exaggerated.  And premature.)

NOTE TO CLASS: in addition to Bill Joy, the syllabus promised some discussion today of transhumanists and gerontologists, including Aubrey de Grey. Stay tuned, we’ll get to all that– and the idea of bio-enhancement– a little later. Meanwhile, take a look for Wednesday at some of the founding documents of the Long Now Foundation from Hillis &  Eno, et al, and then let’s get started with Brand’s Clock of the Long Now.

dead heat

June 15, 2010

“But this is when the story is at its most desperate: when techne and sophia are still kin, when the distant climax is still ambiguous, the outcome a dead heat between salvation and ruin.” Richard Powers, Generosity

The subtitle of this clever fiction is “An Enhancement,” and that’s what its clever author finds most ambiguous in his story: the prospect of genetically-enhanced humans, and their prospects for what we now understand by happiness. I’ve finished the book but I’m not done with it. The critics have not all been generous, I myself am a bit ambivalent.

But speaking of dead heat, there’s the languid sun now. My dog team and I have to head out, to try and get a step ahead.  Later.


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