Posts Tagged ‘Danny Hillis’

if we only had a brain

September 29, 2010

We’ll talk a bit in FoL today about Danny Hillis’s “A Forebrain for the World Mind” and whatever else from the first 40 pages of This Will Change Everything anyone cares to mention, before looking back at the Long Now clock.

What we have now with the world wide web, Hillis says, is a primitive hindbrain concerned with

the functions of preference and attention that create celebrity, popularity and fashion, all fundamental to the operation of human society. This hindbrain is ancient. Although it has been supercharged by technology, growing in speed and capacity, it has grown little in sophistication. This global hindbrain is subject to mood swings and misjudgments, leading to economic depressions, panics, witch-hunts, and fads. It can be influenced by propaganda and by advertising. It is easily misled. As vital as the hindbrain is for survival, it is not very bright.

And what do we need? A forebrain,

with conscious goals, access to explicit knowledge, and the ability to reason and plan. A world forebrain would need the capacity to perceive collectively, to decide collectively, and to act collectively.

Sounds a lot like Plato’s philosopher-kings, but that’s not what Hillis wants. He just wants more intelligent direction in our communal affairs, more smart collaboration and connection. So far,  “technology has made the conversation larger, but not smarter.”

But smarter is what we need: “an intelligence greater than our own,” a global forebrain. “This will change everything.” We’ll not be in Kansas anymore.

Is this the change we need, change for the better? Will our attention span finally be wide enough to wrap around all our challenges? We’ll talk about that for as long as we can stand it this afternoon. Then we’ll take a little test, and we’ll probably get back that twenty minutes of overtime from Monday.  (Was that a useful demonstration of what the “Long Now” feels like?)

Now, at last

September 15, 2010

In “Future of Life” class (hereafter abbreviated as FoL) the Clock finally chimes today: the Clock of the Long Now, that is, so named by musician Brian Eno.

If we want to contribute to some sort of tenable future, we have to reach a frame of mind where it comes to seem unacceptable – gauche, uncivilised – to act in disregard of our descendants.

We’ve got to extend our empathy far forward and gain a new appreciation for the “beautiful continuum of life.” He and his Long Now Foundation compadres (Eno came up with their name) think the best trigger for that transformation may be a new artistry and iconography of time. Stick a clock in a mountain and try to keep it ticking, they say. The trying is the beauty part, and the caring.

Danny Hillis is the earnest computer scientist behind the whole endeavor. Challenged by the late Jonas Salk to acknowledge the ego-driven angle of his passion, he confesses:

OK, Jonas, OK, people of the future, here is a part of me that I want to preserve, and maybe the clock is my way of explaining it to you: I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.

I have hope for the future.

He wrote that a decade ago, and it would be easy enough to surrender to hopelessness now. But if we did, what would our descendants think of us? (Or… what descendants?) It’s important, as Woody Allen has (with perverse unintended irony) said, to be reasonably well thought-of after we’ve “thinned out.”

Ego does have its uses.

But there are practical problems to face, with this improbable clock.


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