Posts Tagged ‘Richard Powers’

Enhanced, but… improved?

April 10, 2013

We’re on in Bioethics to Michael Sandel’s The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (“The Ethics of Enhancement”) and Richard Powers’ Generosity: An Enhancement.

“Enhancement” is the inescapable issue here. Enhanced for what, to what end, with what rationale?

In Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, Bill McKibben imagines several responses. Perhaps the road to enhancement will take us to Enchantment too, and answers (at last!) to the philosophers’ perennial questions.

  • Where did the universe come from?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What is the meaning of conscious existence?

“Not to be impolite, but for this we trade our humanity? Sure, these questions are important, especially the last one. But they’re not all-important.” Are we happy? might just be a better one.

What’s ultimately problematic about enhancing ourselves and our progeny, aside from legitimate worries about equity, democratic opportunity, and enhancement for all? Sandel is concerned for our freedom and dignity, for the “moral status of nature” and the “given world.” He’s worried about the prospective sacrifice of our humanity for something  less intrinsically meaningful and more divisive.

Powers is concerned for the fragility of happiness, and seems eager to impress upon us all a consciousness of ourselves, at this specific moment of natural history, as the collaborative authors of a future to whose inhabitants we owe the greatest generosity (which we can pay only in the coin of responsibility in the present).

Sandel begins with the case of the deaf lesbian couple who wanted a child “like themselves” (i.e., hearing impaired) and so arranged it, with a strategy “not very different from what straight couples do when they have children.”

Well, that could be the problem. Emerson long ago scolded parents who insist on reproducing “another you,” when “one’s enough” already. The problem’s in the will to design, rather than accept the genetic lottery’s default. “None of us chooses our own genetic inheritance,” nor should any of us have to accept the choices of parental engineers

And yet, “Viagra for the brain” sounds irresistibly alluring to some of us. “Memory suppression” too.

But as a parent who’s already spent a small fortune to educate the next generation, I’m definitely not interested in “hormonal arms’ races,” height extension, gender selection, or anything else in any Gattaca scenario. “They used to say that a child conceived in love…has a greater chance of happiness. They don’t say that anymore.” Well call me old-fashioned, I still do. [MoreIt’s Time to Question Bio-engineeringPowers@dawn/DS]

As for our playfully self-conscious novel, with its Camus epigraph, Sisyphean theme, and protagonist called “Stone”: the early stage-setting of Generosity comes with a foreboding warning (but also a reminder that we’re involved here with a story, a work of the imagination still subject to human choice and will): “Here… is one plot no one will ever bother writing down: A happy girl passes through the world’s wretchedness and stays happy.” Happy, generous, and present.

But do remember: this is fictionSo far.

Oprah scares the hell out of some people

May 26, 2011

Bye Oona... I mean Oprah! 

She “scares the hell out of” Richard Powers’ protagonist in Generosity, in her audience to discover “the secret of happiness,” even as she reassures him. She scares fundamentalists with her version of New Thought and Positive Thinking, which is often silly but usually harmless and sometimes actually constructive.  (More on this to come in SoL.) And say whatever else you will about her Book Club, it got people reading.  She was the J.K. Rowling of daytime TV.

But did God really raise her ratings and give her her “best life”?

irrational exuberance

December 24, 2010

Exuberance carries us places we would not otherwise go—across the savannah, to the moon, into the imagination… Kay Redfield Jamison

Generosity continues to speak to me, this morning in connection with those nuns whose own exuberance for living the cloistered life is so contrary to my own sensibility, and so sad to me. But just listen to them, they’re beside themselves with the ecstatic joy of a meaningfulness they had not found in the secular world. Sister Beatrice says

this is the most freeing thing I could have chosen, because everything else would have been trying to find this — this defining relationship that would give value to everything.”


“I met the person for me. I’ve been known by him forever. And I’ve known him more or less throughout my life. And now I know that this is where I’m called to.”

“We’re all orienting ourselves towards heaven,” says another Sister. I find that creepy and depressing, myself. But we’re not talking about me.

Ex uberare—”the pouring forth of fruit.” If we’re going to be Jamesian pragmatists about this we’ll just have to overlook some of the absurdity and focus on the fruit, the good works, the charity, the high-spirited mobilizing of personal and institutional energies for good.

And for bad, Hitch will remind us: church edicts proscribing contraception in Africa, priestly perversion and child rape… it all goes onto the scale.

Wisdom, James said, is knowing what to overlook. My challenge, again, as an aspirant “atheist with a soul”, is where to draw the line beyond which tolerable absurdity becomes the kind that should no longer be overlooked?

Julia Sweeney pointed out in Letting Go of God that the line between trinitarian virgin birth and Joe Smith-style weirdness is specious, just a shade this side of Scientology. And Deepak Chopra’s New Age quantum weirdness is right in there with them.

But, on this holiday eve, it would be much more in the spirit to overlook all that for now and instead accentuate the positive. Take it away, Eric

So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

OK, that last couplet isn’t entirely positive. But I’m told there’s healing in prayer.

wise words

December 22, 2010

Two perspectives on talk:

Everyone could be redeemed, given the right combination of behavioral adjustment , medical intervention, and talk. And of these three, the foremost was talk. Generosity

I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises. There has been too much talking by men who had no right to talk. Native American Wisdom

I say: they’re both right.

Words conceal and reveal, convey insight and duplicity, charm and harm, rules and misrule. They’re the tools in our bag and the albatross on our back. They often run away with me, so I try to walk away from them at least once a day.

And every day, of course, inevitably, they walk me back again. We have a love-hate relationship, which I love to talk about.

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


No one should be anything but dead.


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.


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 VenterKurzweil at TEDGenerosity 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”?

avoid boring people

November 10, 2010

That was the ambiguous title of Double Helix co-discoverer Jim Watson’s book, and it’s also Jaron Lanier’s caution in today’s section of reading in FoL. If we allow ourselves to be assimilated by our software designs and the computing culture they’re locking in, that’s exactly what we’ll be. But the good news is, we’ll also be too flattened and objectified to notice.

As he promised early on, his manifesto is getting a bit cheerier near the end. He now admits that cybernetic totalism is useful for some purposes of understanding. He still wants to keep it out of our actual engineering designs.

He’d rather think of us as meaning-makers, and of our gadgets as mere tools; but he also sees the utility of computationalism, not as a culturally-pervasive  ideology but as a realistic model of the brain (more precisely, of brain-based personhood). It, and we, have been product-tested and honed by “a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.” That’s Lanier’s creation story, maybe the one naturalistic account of birdsong and Shakespeare worth considering.

But first he has to get in another swipe at narrow computationalism, akin to the  “Logical Positivism” we thought was moribund. Apparently it’s hot again, in  Silicon Valley (and at MIT and Tufts). With tons of data hovering in the Cloud, just waiting to verify our sentences, the neo-Positivists say, human subjectivity is unnecessary.

Lanier, we already saw, wants to pin a big scarlet  “Z” (for Zombie) on Dan Dennett and his old collaborator Douglas “Strange Loop” Hofstadter for such thinking. Thing is, if they’re right we’re all zombies. It’d be the end of consciousness as we thought we knew it, and we’d feel fine. We’d be as thoughtful and creative and un-blood-lustful as we ever were.

And as loopy, musically and otherwise: look at Andrew Bird‘s amazing 1-man band at TED.

But Lanier is sure they can’t be right. He rejects the Turing test criterion of personhood. When we start finding ourselves indistinguishable from our gadgets “we make ourselves dull.” But on the other hand, a master storyteller like Richard Powers can make a Turing scenario very lively indeed. Read Galatea 2.2, a hugely clever updating of the Pygmalion (“My Fair Lady”) story, if you doubt it. (Dennett is a fan.) Modern sculptors beware: even if it walks and talks like a lady it may still be hardware.

It’s a very big deal to Lanier that our scanners can read faces now. Privacy may be out the window for good. Will anyone look up from their screens long enough to notice?

Finally, a couple of positively-tinged  speculations from Lanier:

Swearing is rooted in sniffing, the “old factory” olfactory system. Who knew? Probably not Artoo, “it would take a lot of wires to address all those entries in the mental smell dictionary.” Or the metal one?

And, automatic language translation may get good enough to begin breaking down ancient nationalistic hostilities. The universal translator is not just a pipe dream, we’re getting closer. But if the machines hiccup they could start a major conflagration, too. Remember Douglas Adams’ inter-galactic misunderstanding between the Vl’hurgs and the G’gugvunts triggered by a malfunctioning Babel Fish (but resolved by a miscalculation of scale and swallowed by a canine)? So, maybe you don’t want to stick it in your ear.

Finally, Lanier the humanist computer geek is worried about the future of language and literature as the Cloud expands. But if he was right about the “sexual display” component of good words, we shouldn’t have to worry. Persons seeking mates will never be entirely boring. And Wikipedia is still growing, but it’s nowhere near Borges’ Library of  Babel. Is it?

“Future” begins

August 30, 2010

I have to say it at least once: The future is now.

The “Future of Life” course, that is. It starts today. Trying to get a jump-start, I’ve emailed students (though Beloit says the “1st Yrs,” the Class of 2014— born in 1992!– don’t really do email anymore) and asked them to begin pondering a statement from William James in his Pragmatism, at the end of his third lecture:

The really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself? The centre of gravity of philosophy must therefore alter its place. The earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights. To shift the emphasis in this way means that philosophic questions will fall to be treated by minds of a less abstractionist type than heretofore, minds more scientific and individualistic in their tone yet not irreligious either. It will be an alteration in ‘the seat of authority’ that reminds one almost of the protestant reformation. And as, to papal minds, protestantism has often seemed a mere mess of anarchy and confusion, such, no doubt, will pragmatism often seem to ultra-rationalist minds in philosophy. It will seem so much sheer trash, philosophically. But life wags on, all the same, and compasses its ends, in protestant countries. I venture to think that philosophic protestantism will compass a not dissimilar prosperity. Gutenberg etext

I’ve asked my still-future students (or the ones who still read email, anyhow): Do you agree with James? Wherein lies the “vitality,” for you? Or is the future a black box any normally-constituted human should expect to have difficulty imagining or caring about? What would it mean, really to care about it? How would, or how does, caring impact your choices and actions?

That’s part of what our course will be about. “Future” and “life” both sprawl in an almost untameable way, of course, so we’ll have plenty of parsing to do as we go along. That means even more basic, orienting questions: Is the future all about me, or about us, at all? Or is it all about successors to whom our relation is murky? Should we consider our main obligation to be to ourselves as individuals, to our (contingent) historical epoch, to our wider communities, our DNA, the species, the planet, the carboniferous form of life, or— as the late Carl Sagan said– to the very cosmos, “ancient and vast” and ongoing, itself?

So many questions. We’ll begin looking for answers with a nod to Dan Dennett, who pointed out that we are the beneficiaries of generations of people who cared about us while knowing they’d never meet us, and with a forward-looking glance backward from 19th century futurist Edward Bellamy (“Looking Backward“). How easy it is to get details wrong, but how exciting to dream of real progress in subduing the inherited scourges– including economic and political as well as biological plagues– of the past.

Then, Sagan’s calendar and the Long Now Foundation’s clock (“now“),’s “Third Culture” crowd, Jaron Lanier, Bill McKibben, Richard Powers,  maybe E.O. Wilson and Aubrey de Grey too.

So many possibilities, in the great open-ended pluralistic universe. I talked about some of them on the radio back in the Spring, when the future seemed so far off.

But first, it being the first day, we’ll introduce ourselves. I’m tired of being “Dr. Phil,” maybe I’ll pass along Older Daughter’s suggestion that, in this class at least, I become “Phil of the future.”

sustainable satisfaction

June 18, 2010

Just one more Generosity post, for now, so I can discharge this current obsession and look for another to latch onto.

Richard Powers is one of those literary writers–like Percy, Updike, Stegner, Ford– best read with pen and notebook constantly to hand,  so many and memorable are his striking aphoristic lines. To wit,

a sharp blue filament of need makes him want to see what will happen to the species, long after he’s dead…

An endlessly useful & preserved trait: the ability to revise  at will. ‘All writing is re-writing’…

Mobile is the last thing in existence he wants to be. His every original thought is already being interrupted by real time…

…[there’s a] massive structural flaw in the way the brain processes delight. The machinery of gladness that Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years in the bush is an evolutionary hangover in the world that Homo sapiens has built…

Depression had its uses once, when mankind was on the run. But now that we’re somewhat safe, it’s time to free the subjugated populace and show what the race can do, armed with sustainable satisfaction at last…

That’s what the brain-body loop does, anyway [make up its own autobiographical details]: it’s not the traumas Thomas remembers that shape Thomas — not so long as Thomas shapes the traumas Thomas remembers…

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

He launches his slow Internet connection, then stares at the search-engine box, wondering how to initiate a search for unreasonable delight. He taps in manic depression, and deletes that, too. He taps in extreme well-being. And right away, he’s swamped. In the world of free information, the journey of a single step begins in a thousand microcommunities. Inconceivable hours of global manpower have already trampled over every thought he might have and run it to earth with boundless ingenuity.  Even that thought, a digitally proliferating cliche…

He tries to say things that won’t look ludicrous, copied down…

The genes of discontentment are loose, and painting the universe. Life’s job is to get out of their way…

Fate has no power over anything crucial… What we have been is as nothing; what we will be is ever beyond us.  But what kind of story would ever end with us?

This is what the Algerian tells me: live first, decide later. Love the genre that you most suspect. Good judgment will spare you nothing, least of all your life…

Flow, words: there’s only one story, and it’s filled with doubles. The time for deciding how much you like it is after you’re dead.

“The Algerian” here is Powers’ protagonist Thassa, who– like the other gifted and challenged Algerian, Camus, and his subject Sisyphus– we finally must imagine to be happy.

There’s no single point to a memorable work of art, but I take this point away from Generosity:

“What we will be is ever beyond us,” lasting satisfaction can only be sustained by feet planted firmly on the ground of the present, but: we owe the future our best transmission, too. There is indeed a perpetual challenge to us, in this, but no contradiction. Real generosity to the future gives all to the now.