I recently read Newitz’s Autonomy, and I wondered how she could so accurately describe the paths that our technological development might follow. Having read Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans will Survive a Mass Extinction, I now understand, because as a science writer and editor of io9, she has been in this conversation for a long time and knows a lot about scientific trends. She extrapolated some fascinating ideas based on that knowledge…
More thoughts below:
- Newitz’s approach is far different from most who write about our future destruction – she thinks humans, as agile, problem-solving, incredibly smart creatures, should survive. She does not ignore the problems we cause – she links us to cyanobacteria as the only organisms to negatively impact the planet enough to bring about a mass extinction – but she thinks that ultimately we are worthy of moving onto the next step in our development.
- As if any of this is linear, of course…
- In the book she charts both mass extinctions from the planet’s geological history *and* stories of how humans have scattered, adapted, and remembered, and thus survived.
- Her description of the ways that Jews have survived is particularly interesting, as she talks about the importance of culture, narrative, and story.
- Her view is remarkably non-anthropocentric – by positing humans in what she argues (with help from a bunch of scientists) is the beginning of the next large mass extinction, she identifies our place in the universe as a little smaller and more fitting than how we ordinarily think of ourselves.
- The last section of the book is probably too short, but it was fascinating as she discussed how humans will probably adapt (breathe methane, have skin that can survive acid rains on other planets, and so on) and the immediate technological developments we will pursue (algae-derived energy, space elevators, and so on).
- She doesn’t simply talk about all this from her own “research” as that is defined now – glorified Google searches. Instead, she shows us what powerful science writing is by incorporating interviews (that she’s done) and research from the scientific communities involved in this discussion – disaster preparation as well as well energy derivation and space exploration.
- As someone who occasionally thinks that maybe a meteor strike wouldn’t be a bad idea, I appreciate her rational, pragmatic, and organized look at ways that we might actually survive (and heavens forbid learn from) the coming destruction we are doing to the planet…
I’m always interested in views of our dystopian future, especially when they involve robots, so I watched I am Mother recently. My thoughts below:
- I’m not always good at identifying how a film will end (my wife guessed the ending of Sixth Sense way before I did) so I’m probably a bad source, but I at times had trouble seeing which way the plot would go. (SPOILER ALERT) It certainly didn’t end as I expected, with the spunky-but-conflicted humans blowing up all the robots.
- I also kept wondering just how aware the director was of what felt to me like plot holes – as becomes evident at the end of the film he is (and was), but my guess is that the misdirections that felt unfollowed were designed to lead us astray as to what the ending would be.
- One of my major obsessions with robots is how they are represented in terms of power and control – this film messes with those ideas, as the killer droids seem to not be all that interested in killing unless they are ordered to do so (despite their fearsome appearance). I’m not exactly sure in this filmic world who does that ordering…and the hints are that Mother’s desire to save us from ourselves is not necessarily a bad thing…
- Mother seems too eerily drawn to be the perfect mom, and I’m guessing that’s designed to show that her coding is done from a robot’s perspective, with all coding errors done on the side of appearing as human as possible.
- It’s not exactly the sort of the Asimovian cyborg gets elected president because he’s perfect story, but there are hints that the robots truly do know better…
Moretti is a Cal Berkeley economist who studies the ways that labor markets develop (and move) across different geographical regions. The New Geography of Jobs is loaded with economic breakdowns of the forces that have caused American cities to either prosper or falter economically.
- Moretti is way smarter than I am, and is very comfortable with the macro-economic analyses that have a lot to say about the ways in which American labor markets move and grow. His holistic overviews make sense, and at a very high level his analysis says a lot about the ways that some communities have continued to attract talent.
- His emphasis on the power of innovation makes sense, especially as currently configured our economy cannot compete with cheaper manufacturing costs. He also makes a point of showing how these sorts of innovation industries (not his phrase, and not a great one) can support a lot of other folks, especially those who are not necessarily innovative themselves.
- He also speaks convincingly about how difficult making the transition for other cities might be – Detroit and Cleveland, for instance, might struggle with developing economies around innovation.
- I struggled throughout this though with the sense that he was making this all sound too easy. That’s not fair – he’s not working with details – but macroeconomic analyses to me often seem so bloodless…
- I am also not sure what to do about rural areas in this configuration. These tend to get relegated to resource extraction/farming areas anyway, and innovation definitely removes jobs.
- Discussions about this sort of look at the future seems especially odd when they do not odd take a larger look at how we pay for things. I struggled trying not to read this discussion through a very specific lens – guaranteed wage, keeping people interested and motivated, and so on…
In the middle of my reading spree Ready Player One came up, so I plunged in. It was a quick read, and my guess is that the plot has been dissected all over the web (Wikipedia’s entry gives us all the details we need to know), so I won’t worry about it.
- I’m always fascinated by what some folks consider to be the highlights of 80s pop culture. It’s almost always quite different than mine. This different perspective reminds me of how often I used to diss contemporary readings of text (‘they didn’t have the perspective of history yar yar yar’), and I’m not quite as confident in my dismissals as I used to be.
- The idea of trailer stacks and blends of technology is an understandable and projectable view of the future…
- making game developers into heroes is fun, although it reminds me of a line from a Mekons song – “Making journalists into heroes takes some doing.”
- the list of games that the protagonist had to solve was a solid list, including as it did lots of arcade games and a bunch of nods to board games…
- as a text for gamer nerds it works, and although it feels like a check-the-box approach to fiction I am okay with adding african-american lesbians and characters who are not the height of ideal physical beauty as heroes…
Two studies that I’d like to consider as we move forward with helping students write more effectively:
- Group writing effectiveness, especially as writing courses move online
- Games/empathy (affective and cognitive)
I think that we can start to accumulate data on both, and I’m going to try to outline how I see these studies working in a series of posts that will follow.
One goal, I think, is to work towards a different approach to writing on campus. We are feeling pressure to include more digital projects, but until we get more technical help and a different way of staffing instructors for these classes this won’t happen. In the meantime, though, we can start to look at ways to incorporate online aspects of the writing experience in what we do and how we teach.
One possibility might be to go to a 102/202 model. In this format students have to pass 102 at the end of their first semester and 202 at the end of their second. 202 can be more specialized, allowing different cohorts of students to write in the areas in which they are becoming experts. A list of pros and cons might look like this:
|202 can be more discipline-focused
||Interacting with other faculty and having them teach writing will be difficult
|202 can be more group-focused
||Having expertise in facilitating group writing projects will take training and patience
|Students and instructors will still want optional 100 and 101 courses
||Scheduling (or, more accurately, planning out an individual’s college career) might become difficult
|Having 202 takes the outcome focus away from vague general improvement concerns (“they have to learn to read and write, even acontextually”) to more directed conversations in their areas of expertise
||This approach will make us rethink our entire approach to writing, which will be a long and difficult conversation especially in an ecosystem that operates by fiat
|More direct involvement for tutors, with the potential for tutor-run workshops
||Need to produce more tutors, and create better interactions between them and faculty
There will be more, of course. The best approach will involve some sort of pilot, but even implementing that might be tricky. My guess is that we can work with the various consistuencies (registrar, advising, tutoring) on campus to make this (pilot) happen.
In my never-ending praise of disruptive movements (when that power is used for good) and desire to find examples of folks tweaking their corporate masters and doing good work, I picked up a text that might curb my enthusiasm a bit, Wolf’s Proust and the Squid. Wolf is a neuroscientist who uses this text to collate recent brain research about how we read and then use that collation to help us understand where we’re going with technological development, and it definitely served to correct my relentless search for a way out of the dystopic trends in our culture. Better summaries of the text are available on the open net that will no longer exist if certain alpha males get their way, so I’ll just add a few notes:
- Her argument is that despite how natural it feels to read, our brains were not designed for reading, despite our cultural privileging of that activity.
- She sees that as a feature, not a bug – “thus, the reading brain is part of highly successful two-way dynamics. Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually” (5).
- She combines Proust’s use of reading as an “intellectual ‘sanctuary'” with the idea of the squid, an animal that helped us understand how beings with long central axons transmit sensually-derived information in the body. The squid essentially serves to help her explain the biological components of reading, Proust the cultural.
- Her findings have a ton of implications for how we think about dyslexia (not some sort of defect but rather a brain that processes information differently) in particular.
- It has also been used by folks like Nicholas Carr to try to understand what the different types of reading we are asking people to do now affect the brain. There have been all kinds of studies on reading and its affective qualities (I’ll link to them in another post that I’m working on), and technoculture (and digital culture), and Wolf’s argument that we are losing some sort of “associate dimension” when we read on the web, losing our abilities to make truth out of the world for ourselves and instead relying on search engines (wow, The Circle reappears constantly) to identify truth for us.
- This argument is firmly in the dystopic, skynet-is-active vein of technological criticism. Wolf’s findings, I think, can certainly be seen in that light – we will get shallower, dumber, less capable of making associations, and our brains will be forever tweaked, incrementally, in that direction by our addiction to the net.
- I’m going to try to think about this in a different direction, however – those incremental changes, if we’re fast enough and smart enough, might well lead incrementally to a far different place, one in which we value the plasticity of our brains and look to ways to make those connections useful, empathetic, and driven by our needs for connection. Wolf devotes her entire final chapter to what she sees as ways to start this disruption.