11.0248 Resistance is futile! & other Online notes

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Fri, 29 Aug 1997 10:59:55 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 248.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Fri, 29 Aug 1997 10:38:50 +0100 (BST)
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: Resistance is futile! & other Online matters

>From the Guardian for Thursday, 28 August, Online section,

(1) Paul Marks, "Anything worth watching on the radio tonight?" (pp. 1-2),
on the launch of digital radio in Europe, in Berlin this Saturday. This
audience is, of course, inclined to think the innovation a Good Thing, and
in many ways it is (better reception, menu of radio stations by name on
screen, &c.), but it's worth considering at this juncture the contingency of
technological innovations, and pondering what in particular radio does well
as is. We tend all too easily to forget, with the teleology of hindsight,
that sometimes, perhaps often, the inventions which seem to us inevitable
have only been able to reach us through a series of accidents and compulsive
promotions. I've mentioned before a favourite book of mine, Robert Friedel's
<cite>Zipper: An exploration in novelty</cite>, which documents the many
contingencies in the history of this seemingly inevitable part of modern
life -- how, for example, its survival depended at times on the irrational
determination of a few individuals to see it succeed. As an aside, an
AltaVista search for "zipper" gives some insight into the murky
psychological cross-currents with which our device for opening up clothing
quickly is tangled, and turns up a delightful set of Web pages at
<http://www.zenzero.com>, including next to a photograph of peaches, this
from Thomas Hardy: "If all hearts were open and all desires known - as they
would be if people showed their souls - how many gapings, sighings, clenched
fists, knotted brows, broad grins, and red eyes should we see in the
market-place!" Keep it zipped up? For us the real question here is how
possibly an invention that gets so deeply entangled with our murky depths --
or, perhaps, in part emerges out of them -- can be anything but contingent
on the state of our collective mind at the moment of its emergence?

In the case of digital radio, it will be interesting to observe which of the
features survive, and how they evolve. I recall at a colloquium celebrating
the invention of the radio (at which Marconi's distinguished daughter spoke)
that an official from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation spent some time
enthusing about what will become possible with radio once it goes digital --
e.g. selection of programmes for play at whatever time is convenient for the
listener. I recall breaking out (silently -- this WAS a Canadian event) in
full rebellion. I like radio the way it is (sans bad reception, of course,
but even then there's a charm to that), its play within the stream of time,
the deeply engaging sense of being there when the event is happening. I
think radio does its job particularly well, so why mess with it? Later, in
conversation with said official, I was instructed that people nowadays,
being postmodern and all, like the play with fragments, do not like to
concentrate for long periods of time, e.g. in order to catch a radio play.
Is this true? To what degree does my own pleasure in the non-visual and
necessarily continuous communing with the speakers or musicians on radio
have to do, for example with my date of birth, with the fact that my family
did not have a TV until I was about 8 years old, thus giving me a compelling
association of radio with early childhood? This autobiographical outbreak, I
hope, illustrates the contingencies that would appear to be so very
important to how things turn out.

How about the computer? I note, thanks to Jack Schofield in "Windows
dressing" (p. 7) that Windows 98 is now known to contain, among the several
enhancements that current PC owners will not be able to appreciate, those
"needed for the next generation of entertainment-oriented PCs".

(2) Tom Shakespeare, "To Helix and back", on the U.K. Millennium
Commission-funded International Centre for Life, "a combination of a
research institute, a commercial biotechnology centre and a high-tech
visitor attraction called Helix". It seems that past the initial funding --
an object lesson for Big Science and Big Humanities projects -- it will be
necessary to attract "almost 300,000 punters a year. To achieve these
numbers... genetic science has to be presented at the level of
sensationalism." Shakespeare notes that "The exhibition master-plan gives
cause for anxiety" -- because in order to succeed Helix must gloss over "the
complexities of the new science. Notably absent is any discussion of the
social and ethical implications of the new genetics: no mention of the
dangers of a genetic discrimination in employment and insurance, of the
ethics of gene patenting, or the threat to disabled people from increased
pre-natal screening." "Theme-park style triumphalism", it seems. We can be
glad that humanities computing is unlikely to attract the degree of interest
that biotechnology does, but perhaps it is worth thinking about the virtues
of opting for the small, modest projects in which scholarship comes first.
Thirst for funds means appealing to the public, which it is noble to
educate, but is not entertainment at fundamental odds with what we're about?

(3) Karlin Lillington, "The agony and the extropy", on the vision of a group
of cyber-enthusiasts for the coming of the Borg -- or, for those of you who
have not grown up through the American TV series Star Trek, for the moment
"when you can upload yourself and become truly posthuman". The idea is
called "extropy", all packed into the mnemonic command "BeSt Do It So", or
Boundless Enthusiasm, Self Transformation, Dynamic Optimism, and Spontaneous
Order. Extropians recently came to Silicon Valley in California (where
else?) from around the world, for the Extro3 conference; last year's keynote
was given by Marvin Minsky (MIT), who considers himself an Extropian, as
does Ralph Merkle (Xerox PARC) -- there are serious people involved with
this. The questions raised by the Borg invasion, resonating with the ancient
human dream of physical immortality, ARE interesting ones. Even if the
Extropians are wrong, perhaps especially if they are wrong, their arguments
are worth some attention. "The basic idea", according to Max More,
co-founder of the Extropy Institute (A Brit, with Oxford degree), "is that
personality, conscience, mind are in the brain... you can describe the brain
in terms of software. You should be able to write a program that simulates
the brain" -- which he thinks will be possible in 20 years. Good luck!

For a full explanation of the movement, see the Website of the Extropy
Institute, "Spearhead of the Transhumanist Movement", at
<http://www.extropy.com/>. A nifty animated gif too.

Shall we rename our seminar Transhumanist? Posthumanist? We can now; when
Humanist was named a decade ago, the name had to be 8 characters or less.


Dr. Willard McCarty
Senior Lecturer, Centre for Computing in the Humanities
King's College London
London WC2R 2LS
+44 (0)171 873 2784 voice; 873 5081 fax

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