We’ve been marking the launch of occasional Dabbler Bryan Appleyard’s new book The Brain is Wider than the Sky with a mini-Appleyardfest (read Brit’s review here and an exclusive Q&A with the author here). To conclude it, here’s Elberry on the human imagination…
Signed copy competition winners – congratulations to Dabbler Book Club member Sandra Paterson and to John Halliwell, who wins the copy reserved for the League of Dabblers.
A colleague saw me reading this book, and, glimpsing the cover, said: “Whoah – The Brain is Weirder than the Sky!”
“Wider,” I corrected him. But weird would do well, as in wyrd and becoming, the uncanny. The title is from an Emily Dickinson poem. It is not an idle borrowing; in a book devoted to science and modern culture, Appleyard returns to the right weirdness of poetry, to Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. He is wide-ranging and unpredictable; he writes here about celebrities, Apple, Microsoft, artificial intelligence, brain scanners, David Hockney. But this is typical of Appleyard at his best, for example his article on St Pancras: he draws as wide a circle as possible, to include the surrounding culture, what went before, what may come after. He thinks in spirals. Thus, the introduction:
This is a book about, in roughly this order, neuroscience, machines and art. It began when, in August 1994, I visited Microsoft in Seattle and spent a couple of hours with the company’s co-founder and then chief executive officer, Bill Gates. In the course of the visit, something began to form in my mind. It was too vague to be called a thought; rather, it was a mood, an anxiety, an uncertainty, a riddle, but it seemed to me, even in my vagueness, to be fundamental to the nature of the new world that was then just being born and in which we live.
But Appleyard, you may say, what is all this about vagueness and uncertainty, aren’t you writing a book? A serious book? Must you be so awkward? Yet it is a useful awkwardness. There is something not wholly modern about Appleyard, so while he is conversant with science and technology, he poses awkward, unexpected questions. In Understanding the Present, he asked: is everything algorithmically compressible, can mathematics model reality? And if so, is our experienced reality superfluous, an unnecessary elaboration of pristine binary code? In Brain, the focus is on technology; the technology, however, carries the same assumption, that the real can be represented and satisfied by the virtual, by manmade tools; and indeed that these tools can surpass their makers:
Human consciousness may be no more than strings of zeros and ones. Hans Moravec of the Robotics Institutes of Carnegie Mellon University imagines a robot surgeon sucking out a human brain, reading all the information it contains and then uploading it on to a computer. The person awakens to find himself just as he was and unaffected by the fact that he is now inside a machine.
Robotics could provide bodies for our uploaded minds, but it would be far better if these superior bodies had superior minds. This is exactly how Moravec sees the future, as a place where biological evolution ends and machine evolutions begins. ‘Unleashed from the plodding pace of biological evolution, the children of our minds will be free to grow to confront immense and fundamental challenges in the larger universe. We humans will benefit for a time from their labours, but sooner or later, like natural children, they will seek their own fortunes while we, their aged parents, silently fade away. Very little need be lost in this passing of the torch – it will be in our artificial offspring’s power, and to their benefit, to remember almost everything about us, even, perhaps, the detailed workings of individual human minds.’
I can hardly wait. If consciousness can be wholly represented in binary, then it can presumably be wholly accommodated, and replaced by, technology (let us build a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven). Already, we have lesser technologies, call trees:
These machines – starting with the telephone and ending with the various networked devices that have insinuated their ways into our daily lives – exert a twofold pressure. On the one hand, they seduce us, we want them to contain, include and involve us; on the other hand, they demand that we become more ‘machine readable’. We pay for inclusion and involvement by becoming more like machines.
We use these tools to engage with the world; and in time they come to mediate the world. The more extensive and nuanced our technology, the closer it insinuates itself into the self, until we cannot extricate ourselves, having no selves to extricate. Dogs sometimes resemble their owners; less happily, we tend to resemble our tools: “the cyborg is now the ideal to which all our most advanced technology is tending.” One sees this in advanced bureaucracies: the machines have won – not the machines which enslave us, but the machines we become. The most successful employees, in such systems, are the most mechanical, efficiently unquestioning; not at all awkward, no longer fully human (one could say that human beings have the unusual ability to cease to be fully human). This is far from Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is a man”: now, technocrats gush about replacing men with machines; and authority resides in the inhuman, not in nature but in machines. Anything not constructed by man is despised. The authentic human voice is disregarded as of no consequence, as one sees in the misleadingly-named Humanities, where modern academic prose aspires to a vilely convoluted ugliness, and anything remotely human is dismissed as “not academic style”. The human is disreputable; this to the point where no one can distinguish between fake and “authentic” academic articles – because, in a sense, they are all fake.
The anti-human tendency reaches its apogee in the celebrity:
Our first robots are not made of metal, they are made of flesh. The men without chests, foreseen by C.S. Lewis, have arrived. Celebrities are a dry run for the fully machine future, our best robots yet. They are, in fact, what roboticists would call ‘affective robots’; they display emotions with which humans can identify. Whether they actually experience these emotions or not is beside the point.
At this point, any genuine humanity shocks, and offends. The authorised version is the machine. It is not surprising that scientists often seem to be missing some part of the soul, to be immune to art, to wonder; so Bill Gates:
He seemed to find art itself a kind of puzzle. When he talked about digitising all the great paintings of the world so that they could be available on The Highway, he did so with the air of a man who was interested in art as a phenomenon, rather than something felt. It was something whose significance in the lives of others he found puzzling. It was a code to be deciphered.
This attitude is not uncommon among scientists: for example, a chemist I know regards films and books as nothing more than information, and if he knows how a story ends he is incapable of enjoying the narrative. His favourite film is Transformers, because it has robots and explosions. Such masters will create the new world, where machines will supersede the human:
The last machine we will ever build will be able, in theory, to boot itself into successively higher levels of intelligence and solve all the problems of our present condition – answering the outstanding questions we have about the nature of matter and of consciousness, curing our diseases, rendering us medically immortal, painting our masterpieces and writing our poems.
If indeed human consciousness is just a load of zeros and ones, then this may be so. However, it isn’t, so it isn’t. Computers can only process quantitative data – numbers; the experience of being alive is qualitative. Money is supremely quantitative – so a five pound note is equivalent to five one pound coins. The experience of being alive cannot be wholly modelled. It can be represented but the representation is not the thing itself. If I could see things exactly the way you do, I would be you.
It is not possible to abstract the human experiencer from our reality. Quantitative methods (i.e. science) are an attempt to bypass the zen koan: if a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound? And this is why Appleyard’s anecdotal approach works – he makes no attempt to remove himself from his experience; he allows the circumstantial details, the colour and texture: these are part of it, being as it is a human book, a good book. As he writes of Dickinson and Stevens: “the place where the mind ends and where the world begins is unknowable.”
He closes with a chapter about David Hockney, who has adapted Apple products to his own needs, the artist master over his tools. That Hockney can use the ipad without compromising his art suggests the problem is not that we have technology, but that we adore and serve it. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before Apple release the i-dol. The problem is that our idea of the human, once the image of god, is no longer reputable. So, almost a century ago, Rilke (tr. M.D. Herder Norton):
Only in boilers now do the former
fires still burn, heaving the hammers that grow
always bigger. But we, we diminish in strength, like swimmers.
Appleyard is right to write as he does, aware of all the weird detail a machine would miss; and he is right to look to Hockney, and to Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. It is in the human imagination that all this begins and ends.