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There is a lot to like about Lauren Smeadley‘s intriguing proposal to establish a Fab Lab in the Fayetteville Free Library. While I suspect it will yield positive fruits, I confess to being skittish about some of the rhetoric she and her supporters have used to support the idea. While I delight in the video clips featuring Captain Picard in his fully-enlightened glory, any honest Trek geek would admit it wasn’t replicators that brought about a post-capitalist society, but the fatigue for conflict following the Eugenics Wars and first contact with the Vulcans. Not a technology, but a philosophy. Anyway, tempting as it may be, it’s not Jean Luc’s rhetoric I’m here to consider. It’s just that I get a very familiar vibe off of this effort. It takes me back to the heady days of my youth, driving to my first real girlfriend’s house to dialing into the local BBS. At a respectable 1600 baud we traded software and chatted with people with clever (and not so clever) handles. Just by participating in this underground culture we were fighting the power and changing the world, as long as we didn’t get booted when her mom called home from work. Idealism should never, ever die. Nor should we ever stop trying to change the world. But if we’re going to do it, we have to make sure that we’re not letting our enthusiasm make us vulnerable. Vulnerable in particular to the agendas of folks who want to keep the world exactly the same. Mixed in with Picard’s bemused confidence has to be a little of Sisko’s realpolitik. In other words, to push the Trek references a little too far, “never turn your back on a Breen”.

There are so many cautionary lessons to learn from of the early “information society” apostles. For example, I remember reading this quasi-utopian rhetoric and being so inspired. Even this flashy corporate voodoo was exciting (and featured Anna Paquin auditioning for the part of what I can only imagine is conduit to the Senior Partners at Wolfram & Hart). The problem is that the beautiful logic was all flawed. Enthusiast believed that by the Transitive Power of Progress, if a given technology was revolutionary in one domain and was created by smart people with egalitarian intentions, it would necessarily bring about smart, egalitarian revolutions in other domains (politics, economics and society). It just doesn’t work that way. Technology doesn’t make things better, it just makes things different. People can then choose to make things better, or not. It’s so much easier to choose the path of not. Neil Postman wrote a lot about the technological determinism fallacy. Love him or hate him, he has to be accounted for. He pointed out how the internet, like so many other technologies, began with idealistic hobbyists only to come increasing under the control of just a handful ISPs and Telcos. Sure everything is digital now, but at the price of having to deal with the intellectual propertization of everything, too.

What’s my point? The point is, rhetorically overselling the power of technological progress dampens the urgency and sense of individual responsibility people need in order to change the world. And boy does the world need changing. If we don’t take responsibility for carving (or printing) out the future we want, the same people with financial power now will extend their influence to include 3D printing, dominating it, and by extension the very people who need public libraries the most. It’s not just companies doing the dominating either. The Arab Spring demonstrated the power of a highly networked society to subvert autocracy. WikiLeaks, Stuxnet and the AntiSec hacktivist movement demonstrated how vulnerable governments are to cyber espionage. How are central governments going to respond to that? Even in nominal democracies, the government pushback is going to open up millions of personal back channels. It will get harder and harder to be anonymous on the web and easier and easier for mass marketing and mass media to target you personally. No level of proxying or encrypting will protect us if we’re voluntarily participating in a hegemonic panopticon. Right?

So, if the rhetoric of progress is a dangerous way to promote the idea of adding Fab Labs to public libraries what rhetoric should be used? The one that will appeal most to other librarians is one Smeadley is already using, the rhetoric of the public library being an arsenal for democratic culture. This is a popular ideal, and one that does good in the world. Unfortunately it’s one that Michael Harris’ The Purpose of the American Public Library. A Revisionist Interpretation of History poked pretty big holes in, too. It’s not impossible to still use the foundational myth, but one has to do so very cannily in order to be persuasive. There’s also the librarian’s classic (mostly unfounded) fear of losing relevancy to yet another emerging technology approach, but that would be a very dyspeptic one to try. In the end, I’m not sure it’s a grand rhetoric that is needed, even while one is trying to secure funding. 3D printing is a powerful, emerging technology. It would be useful to get ahead of the adoption curve on it, so librarians can help shape its adoption and implementation in a way that favors free or fair access. That is enough to get me really excited, and probably many other people too.

To be clear, I admire Smeadley’s initiative (in both senses), and am not accusing her of being anything but forward-thinking and appropriately enthusiastic. I am just concerned that it is so very easy to slip into the rhetoric of progress and technological determinism, and that can lead to problems down the road. Not only might it make the local trough of disillusionment deeper than it has to be, there is the very real possibility that if left to the devices of oligarchs, 3D printing could make things worse for democracy instead of better. I sincerely hope I’m just being an old coot about all this, and this time the technology really will change things. I look forward to keeping up with developments in Fayetteville.

I wanted to share this article by Emily Wax from Aug 22nd’s Washington Post titled “Philosophical counselors rely on eternal wisdom of great thinkers”. The gist of the article is that around 300 people around the United States have established philosophical counseling practices where, for 80 dollars an hour, clients can pick the mind of a highly trained philosopher. The process is designed to be an alternative to psychological counseling for people who do not believe themselves to be ill, only lacking in perspective, new concept or mental training. The leading proponent of this kind of counseling is Lou Marinoff, the author of Plato Not Prozac! Applying Eternal Widom to Everyday Problems.  Coincidentally an ex of mine once gave me a copy of that book. I could never figure out if it was because she thought I would be a good philosophical counselor, or because she thought I needed perspective, new concepts and mental training. Probably both. In any case, if you are curious about the concept, that would be the place to start.

There is a lot to like about this movement, not the least of which is the idea of philosophers making good money for a change. Beyond that, I think it is good to reinforce the distinction between mental illnesses and erroneous thinking. As Alan Watts liked to say with a laugh, “Anyone who goes to an analyst should have her head examined,” meaning that if you go to a doctor, you can hardly be surprised when you are treated like a sick person. Instead of dwelling on how to “fix” what is “broken” inside one’s self, it may be in some cases healthier to instead come to new understandings of how the world works, and how best we might operate in the world armed with a new understanding. Anything that promotes reflection on the world instead of deeper self-absorption is a welcome practice in my opinion.

That said, I wonder what you all think about the way this counseling is marketed as being access to eternal wisdom? It may be my training in the philosophy of science, or all the 18th century Philosophes murmuring on the shelf behind me, but it seems to me that appeals to timeless wisdom are kind of… bogus. There are two problems here, the eternal part and the wisdom part. Not to get too relativistically funky, but the more timeless something claims to be, the less mass it seems to have, the less substance. Wisdom demands substance, in the form of context and is rooted in practice. If you aren’t engaged in a practice, solo or in a community, wisdom is either exotica or abdication of reason to authority. Wisdom that can be doled out without context is about as useful as a fortune from that Zoltar machine in the movie Big. Worse, it can be harmful, because it can create false understanding. For example, in the article we find this quote from Marinoff:

“Read the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, who taught that every loss comes bundled with gain, for they are inseparable manifestations of yin and yang,” offered Marinoff. “In other words, instead of focusing on the loss, focus on the gain: Losing a job, you have just gained an opportunity to develop a latent talent and to enter a more suitable career path.”

That sounds like Really Good Advice, but entering a state of non-judgment is really, really difficult. It takes Taoist practitioners years to habituate this state, and they have the context and foundational theoretical support to buttress them. If I was a client and heard this, it would be very easy to just obsess on looking at the bright side of things, instead of cultivating equanimity. Could a good philosophical counselor provide this context and foundation, certainly. Could they do the same equally well for Nietzsche and Sartre and Schopenhauer and Rousseau and Plato? There’s a reason why therapists don’t specialize in cognitive-behavioral and gestalt and Rogerian and Jungian counseling all at the same time.

In conclusion, I really do think this is a helpful and useful alternative to therapy for those who do not consider themselves ill, but I am suspicious of anyone who makes claims to possess timeless wisdom. If you’re thinking to yourself that I ‘m just jealous people will pay philosophical counselors 80 dollars an hour to give them profound things to read without much context, something librarians will do for free, well, you ain’t wrong. They have to set themselves up as experts in order to charge clients like therapists do, but is the therapy model really the best way to do it? Is there no way to establish small sophist schools instead? Those might be cheaper, create a persistent group of like minded thinkers, and allow for philosophical specialization. Plus, it completely removes the questionable idea of philosopher as healer, and restores the philosopher to position of social teacher, where in my opinion she or he belongs. If you are a philosophical counselor, and have ever dreamed of being a public philosopher, I would be happy to hook you up with some space in the local public library. It would do the polis some good.


This post is a response to a conversation about IBM Watson’s significance for reference librarianship begun by Andy Woodworth on his excellent blog Agnosticmaybe.

First, I want to thank Andy for taking up this subject. I, too was surprised at the lack of response from librarians re:Watson. Also like Andy, I’m high on this technology, and look forward to its implementation in a library context. However, I’m far less confident that it won’t be a significant disruptor for the library profession. In fact, I’d be willing to bank that it will be a game changer. We’ve time and again seen in contests between electronic v. analog resources–as Watson is an electronic resource to the reference librarian’s analog–digital convenience wins out against analog quality as long as the loss in quality is with acceptable parameters. Funds follow the user, so if 80% of people prefer to direct their questions to Watson’s more sophisticated successor, doesn’t it become so much harder to financially justify having three reference librarians on the payroll instead of two? Or eventually–as the iterations of the software progress and the system gets sufficiently adept–just one who verifies the answers. And how challenging would it be to convince administrators that answer verifiers need to be tenure track faculty, with terminal graduate degrees? That’s not a fight I want to see play out in system after system because it’s not one we would consistently win.

Consider also, Watson’s successor (Shera, Dewey, or whatever catchy name vendors come up with) wouldn’t have to reside in the library. Given trends in distributed computing and mobile access, t will reside in the cloud and manifest wherever the user is. That means one fewer reason to step foot in the library. Diminishing foot traffic means more pressure on justifying the presence of expensive physical libraries. If a cheaper and easier digital system comes along, how could it fail to cause disruption in the dominance of its analog equivalent? Maybe Dewey won’t be exactly as good as an experienced reference librarian, but honestly, we can’t afford to sit around hoping that it won’t become say  75% as good. For that matter, after watching Watson torch Ken freaking Jennings in his bailiwick, I’m not so sure that in time Dewey wouldn’t be able to torch us in ours, in terms of information retrieval.

Still, I truly am excited about this technology, because if implemented widely it has the potential to revolutionize user interfaces and information retrieval; an integral step in problem solving. Anything that helps us solve our species’ mounting problems quickly and efficiently is a welcomed thing. That said, I also am excited about librarians, and the future of librarianship, but only if we realize that Watson’s victory is our “Sputnik moment”. It provides us with a reason to reflect now, before we’re no longer the only game in town, on what we really offer to our learning communities. What makes us most special, and how can we accentuate and promote those things? Instead of taking a business-as-usual stance on this, I think we need to recognize that Watson is a real wake up call for a profession that’s been asleep at the wheel for some time now.

Ask the scribes. Adapt or perish, That’s the name of the game.

First, let me say that if you haven’t read Windup Girl and Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi you  should make an effort to do so soon. They are bitter to read, but in the way of the very darkest chocolates, after you’ve savored them, you won’t want anything lighter. Both novels are set in world where calories are scarce and oil has long since peaked, and most people’s standard of living are basically the same as that of sewer rats. People call Bacigalupi’s novels dystopian, but that’s not accurate. Too often a dystopian setting is just a way for an author to put her or his characters into interesting and stark situations, primarily for purposes of creating epic conflict and secondarily so that those characters actions can point out something about the human condition.

While reading Windup Girl, I got the feeling the Bacigalupi couldn’t care less about telling an epic story (although it is), or saying something about the human condition (which he does). Rather, Bacigalupi is writing you, me and everyone an intervention. We’re dancing and gorging ourselves on our grandchildren’s suffering backs, and he needs us to know how depraved and criminal that is. He’s trying hard to help us break through our false consciousness that this lifestyle we’ve achieved for ourselves is even remotely perpetually sustainable. Right now, for an all too brief moment in history, we’re able to use technology to stave off the Malthusian nightmare of too many mouths and too few calories only by burning though natural resources with desperate abandon. Once those resources are gone, no matter how clever we are, we will eventually collapse into entropic war, plague and massive starvation.

Bacigalupi manages to convey that message persuasively in his narratives more so than futurists are able to in essays because we as readers are used to being sold dystopias and apocalypses.  The genre of science fiction, even bitter and hard science fiction provides a buffer that gives the reader the mental sandbox to work through ideas that would be too overwhelming if they were forecasts of our own future. Once we’ve considered those ideas in Bacigalupi’s imaginary worlds, we’ll be more willing to look at them in our own. And we have to look at them, because we’re running out of more than just oil. Any non-renewable substance with industrial use will have peak outputs followed by ever increasing scarcity unto depletion.  We’re like bacteria in the petri dish. When we’ve consumed the agar, its game over.

Of course, we’re not bacteria, but men and women who sometimes allow ourselves to consume mindlessly like bacteria. The only reason we in the developed nations are able to consume at the rate we are is that we have oppressed the rest of the world systemically stripping them of their natural resources, period. If the whole world were Americans we would suck this world dry. I’m not excluding myself from this. I stick a straw in the world every day and get out all the juice I can.  And it’s a sick thing to do, if you let yourself think about it. If you make yourself think about it. But realistically I’m not going to leave the grid and grow kale for the rest of my life, so if I’m going to be able to look at myself in the mirror every day, I have to do something. The something I’ve decided to do is become an Epicurean.

An Epicurean, what the hell? They’re hedonists who consume the worlds finest things right? Pleasure seeking snobbery is your answer to eating the future?

No, Epicureanism  is the opposite of hedonism. Epicureanism is a philosophy the aim of which is the reduction of fear, a state called ataraxia. The path to this tranquility is moderation in all things, and a deep awareness of what it is that really makes you happy. Classically, the two things that Epicureans valued were contemplation in their gardens and friendships, but those should not be thought of as prescriptions. You can live in the polis and still be an Epicurean so long as you are dedicated to moderation and tranquility.  So often, when we don’t know what it is that we are lacking, or yearning for, we will in its place consume that which is readily available. We all have our default consumptions. It’s not our fault. We’ve been raised in a mass market economy, which has conditioned us to relate happiness with consumption.

It is, however, our fault if once we realize we are consuming as a replacement for tranquil happiness we selfishly and brutishly persist in doing so.

Epicureans do care only about the finest things in life, but that doesn’t mean the most expensive watches, esoteric sexual practices or drinking only coffee from beans partially digested by Asian palm civets. It means finding what makes you happy and doing only that, while minimizing that which will cause you to suffer. Some things would seem to give happiness, (eating a whole pie) but when reflected upon will only cause suffering (ugh, I ate a whole pie). Friendship and contemplation were deemed to be the best things because they did the most good and the least harm, but again, if you come up with different peak happinesses, that’s great. The hope is that if we stop reflexively consuming, we’ll take up fewer resources. If we focus on what really makes me happy, we’ll need less to get us through the days. This isn’t the only solution, but it think it’s a good start.

For now, why not take a few minutes to think about what it is you reflexively consume? When do you move mindlessly through your day? What makes you happiest, when you feel the more tranquil and farthest from suffering? How can you minimize your suffering, while in turn maximizing your access to the two or three things that make you happiest? If you can answer those questions, then maybe we can try together to eat less of the future.

For Further Reading:

Epicurus -

Epicurus: His Continuing Influence and Contemporary Relevance

Last week the science fiction pop-culture blog io9 published an article asking the question, are we in the middle of a  mass extinction? To answer that question, they interviewed Ross MacPhee, a paleontologist, curator at the American Museum of Natural History, and an expert on mass extinction. You can read that article for yourself, but in brief, he argued that we are not in the middle of a mass extinction event because 1). in order for it to be a mass extinction you have to lose species from every level of the biosphere, from top predators to micro-flora, and 2). statistical estimates of the modern loss of species based on E. O. Wilson’s work have not been put to empirical test. Furthermore, loss of local populations of animal and severely reduced populations of species do not equate actual extinctions.

There’s no reason to doubt MacPhee’s expertise. He’s had a long and esteemed career, and contributed significantly to his discipline. However, it’s important to remember that by discipline he is a paleontologist. As such he is an expert in past extinction events, not current or future events. Asking a paleontologist about a current extinction event is a little like asking a sports historian to predict next year’s Super Bowl. The beginning of a mass extinction event is probably going to look a lot different from the middle. The truth is, we can’t know if we’re in the middle of a mass extinction event until we’re in the middle of a mass extinction event, and by then it’s too late.

So instead of looking at what is happening now, and measuring it against a hard-coded definition, it would probably be more helpful to ask ourselves, “are things happening now which left unchecked could result in a mass extinction?”

News of one such mass-extinction precursor came across my feeds today. An article in Nature by Siegel and Franz suggests that our current level of climate change is resulting in about a 1% a year drop in the population density of phytoplanktons, the bottom-most element of the marine food chain. Specifically, they note a 40% decrease in population from 1950 to the present. While MacPhee’s assessment that it’s not a mass extinction until species at the top and bottom of the biosphere have been effected, it doesn’t take much of an intuitive leap to say that if the thing that krill feed on goes extinct, or at very least is driven to the brink of extinction, a lot of other species will disappear too. So, while I don’t fault MacPhee for answering the question asked of him, I do think that there was a more responsible way of answering it than this, “My point is that people are speculating about extinction with arm-waving. I don’t see evidence of mass extinction or extinctions of large effect. Doubtless humans are endangering species – but how many gravestones are we talking about? I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody else does either.” As he notes earlier, when extinctions happen, they happen quickly. Otherwise life has a chance to adapt. By the time we can show him the cemetery, we’ll be living in it. So the best question is not, “Are we living through a mass extinction event” instead it is, “Are we doing everything we can to promote resiliency in the form of rich biodiversity while we can?”

Further Reading:

via Marine phytoplankton declining: Striking global changes at the base of the marine food web linked to rising ocean temperatures.

David A. Siegel & Bryan A. Franz. Oceanography: Century of phytoplankton change. Nature, July 28, 2010; p569

E. O. Wilson  The Future of Life, 2002, Knopf, ISBN 0-679-45078-5

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

Published in 2008, The Adoration of Jenna Fox is a young adult novel written by Mary E. Pearson.  It is impossible to discuss why people interested in enhancement should read this book without spoiling some of the basic premises of the story.  I will do my best not to reveal the narrative results of these premises, but if you are already convinced to read this book, and you want to remain unspoiled then you may want to skip this blog post.

So, having yet to achieve the age of majority, Jenna Fox was in a terrible accident. So terrible that only a small portion of her original body remains intact. The rest has been replaced by a substance that is a cross between stem cells and a nano-robotic neural network. Other than gaps in her memory, and odd artifacts in her locomotion and somatic awareness Jenna is indistinguishable from an unmodified girl. Her new body is far more lifelike than even the most cutting edge prostheses available on the market. She is far more wondrous than the standard wonders in this vivid near-future thought experiment. She is also in dramatic violation of the national medical ethics standards, thus an illegal life form. Her status is the fulcrum that moves the story towards its narrative and ethical conclusions.

While all these are interesting themes, what sets Jenna Fox apart from other New Promethians is that more than just her body has been remembered. Her mind has also been uploaded to a simulated purgatory, and then downloaded into this embodied neural network. Through the course of the novel, Jenna has to decide if she is the old Jenna Fox, a new Jenna Fox, or something else entirely. There are many other plot lines and themes, and the whole book is ethically sensitive, intelligent and finely-crafted. Knowing what was done to Jenna should not keep you from wanting to find out what Jenna is, what that means for her world, and indeed for the world of the reader.

What I found particularly interesting was the question of ownership of Jenna’s mind. All parents have to go through the process of letting go of their child, allowing them to become their own person. But what if that cleaving away were not inevitable? What if it were possible to keep that child forever dependent, obedient and pliant? In short, who owns the uploaded mind of a child? In this instance, the mind is the most literal possible example of intellectual property. While it is clearly a speculative exercise, the boundaries of intellectual property are already being pushed in the real world. Technology allowing for the  genetic modification of cultivated plants and livestock is becoming more mature, and is increasingly big business. In order to protect the intellectual capital of these research giants, the processes for modifying those organisms and indeed the resulting genomes are subject to copyright protection. The sequence is just information after all, just a code. And yet, it is that code that is the essence of life. It is a small leap to make from copyrighting the information that constitutes a genome to copyrighting the information that constitutes an uploaded mind. What if someone could engineer and implant the memory of the most beautiful sunrise imaginable? Or more exotically, the memory of riding bareback on a giant predatory dinosaur? Would that not be worth a great deal of money? And yet as soon as we are able to commoditize memory, then all of identity has become commoditized. Persistent identity is the cornerstone of ethics, the justice system, and participatory democracy. If identity is trivial to modify, then the idea of individual accountability becomes farcical.

This kind of uploading-based scenario seen in Jenna Fox is not even an essential precursor for the commoditization of identity. For early stage work on memory modification, read this article in Wired Science. Jenna Fox provides us with an entertaining and enjoyable context for the exploration of identity in a world where mind can be quantified. We owe Pearson a debt of gratitude for the opportunity to work this out within the confines of fiction. It is far better to decide on our ethical response to the commoditization of identity now while it is still fiction than to wait until the technology is in place. I won’t spoil Pearson’s conclusions, since you really should read them for yourself. Ultimately, it is not important that we share her conclusions, but rather that we take the time to come to conclusions of our own, and share those conclusions with one another.

This week, as a result of a discussion in the library profession initiated by Michael Ridley, CIO of the University of Guelph, I introduced my seminar class to the idea of a post-literate society.  Even though these students are bright, well-educated senior undergrads the idea of post-literacy was  too foreign for them to grasp it comfortably. So instead of discussing how a society might become post-literate and what that would be like, I spent the rest of the session helping them to imagine and to unpack what post-literacy meant. Not the literal words, of course, which are obvious enough. Rather we tried to figure out what information was if not collected data systematically organized through the use of a written language. It turned out, I believe, to be a fruitful exercise, because teasing out our fundamental assumptions gave us an opportunity to really explore the nature of the relationship between information tools and modes of human thought.

To do this, I first asked them to imagine the entire run of the human species in all its manifestations from our remote paleoanthropological origins to whatever those mysterious and inevitable ends of our species might be. Picture it if you will, as one vast line segment, a cutout from the even more mind-liquifyingly long universal time line. From there we visualized the part of the segment covering that fraction of time when we humans could communicate complex ideas using speech. It is surprisingly short compared to the length of time “Homo” has been around. Then, an even shorter segment is devoted to iconographic and alphabetic systems of writing. Then smaller, scribal culture, smaller still printing, tiny electric printing and finally the nearly imperceptible pinprick of desktop publishing and e-paper.

The purpose of this Saganesque exercise, as you can imagine,  was to point out that across any two points on the human fossil and historical records, people manipulated information in sometimes subtly, sometimes grossly differing ways. Likewise, it is pretty safe to say that pre-human speech era thought differed from speech-capable human thought and that pre-graphical human thought differed from graphic-capable human thought. Yet, both pre and post kinds of thought were still human thoughts. We can thus infer that there is nothing inherently more human about the way we process information today, nor about the way we think than at any other point in the history of our species. How we do so is just an incident of where we sit on that vasty line segment. Whatever method of information manipulation that provides the best competitive advantage is what we use, and human thought patterns adapt accordingly to make most optimal use of that technology.  Walter Ong’s book Orality and Literacy addresses this strange and interesting topic at length. In this way, my class came to distinguish post-literate adaptation from the dreaded anti-intellectual neo-barbarism.

So why even talk about post-literacy and post-literate societies if the process is adaptively self-correcting?  One wonderful reason is simply to provoke the imagination. Another is that maladaptive change is always possible. A third and perhaps more immediately practical reason is of particular interest to my fellow librarians.  This reason is that it helps contrast a keystone policy of the library profession, the promotion of universal literacy, with what I would argue is an even more critical policy. This policy is the elevation of curiosity as the most cardinal of all human virtues, followed closely and augmented by the ability to reason critically.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a librarian. I have a deep fondness for books, and love people who read. Yet, the avid readers I know tend to be so because they are people of great curiosity, who like to think critically about what they read.  I consider readers a subset of a larger population, curious-critical folk.  I argue that an educational system build on forcing people to read will not make them curious. Rather, by constantly encouraging them to be curious we may well compel them, through self-direction to pick up a book. Or whatever comes after the book, and to want to make sense of that book. To argue that reading alone is a doorway to egalitarian empowerment, or to dwell on how the internet might be making us “stupid”, is to privilege in an unhelpful and a priori way, one technology and one way of thinking over all competitors. Adaptation to environment will determine which technologies and which ways of thinking propagate. No myth of progress is implied, just pure adaptation with the potential for maladaptation. Yet there can be no reason to tether the library profession to any one technology, any one building, any one way of thinking, because no technology will be best suited for all existential conditions.

So instead of expending precious time and energy arguing the merits of books vs ebooks, text vs audio, audio vs video vs speculative future alternatives, should we not redirect that energy towards re-imagining our schools? Instead of fact-implanting factories, they should be places where curiosity is privileged above all else. The goal of education should be to learn the skills necessary to teach yourself what you need to know, wherever life should lead.

Considering post-literacy is not an act of future-lust, but an opportunity to reconsider our values and priorities in the here and now. If we continue failing to sufficiently encourage innate human curiosity and to force unnatural educational conformity, then it won’t matter what technology we choose to manipulate our information, we will become maladapted to any and every potential environment. Changing technology will never render librarians obsolete. We will only be doomed as a profession when no one has any questions left that they want to answer. Let us make sure that does not happen for a very long time.

So, findings in a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience point to inheritance as being the most important variable in the intelligence-determination equation. Specifically it is the inheritance of genes which promote optimal myelination of neural axons, and thus speeding the brain’s ability to process signals. Future research will be geared toward discovering exactly which gene or genes are responsible for producing optimal myelination. This research could possibly lead to wide-scale enhancement efforts, aimed potentially at raising the processing speed of entire populations. While this prospect is nothing short of thrilling in terms of increasing the general intelligence of the species, these findings can also be speciously applied.

If placed within the context of the nature/nurture debate, strong findings which favor the nature camp may be used to minimize the persuasiveness of arguments for nurturing children through universal education. If, as may be extrapolated from this finding, most of intelligence is determined by a child’s genes, then why should we bother to educate children in an egalitarian way? Why not just test for those children who are rich in myelination and put them into accelerated courses, and minimize our expenditures on those children who have below optimal levels? I’m not trying to set up a straw man here, if increase in intelligence were the main goal of education it really would make little sense to spend equal money without hope of equal results. All you would be doing is setting the child up for failure and poor self-esteem. The research here measures white matter levels and how they correlate to I.Q. scores, using twin studies to establish myelination trait heredity. Though I.Q. is a useful way of measuring intelligence, it is not the only way.

Even if it were the only way to measure intelligence, nurture, in the form of communal  education, serves many other purposes besides just the accumulation of information. Communal education is useful for acculturation, for promoting important social and communication skills, for promoting active healthy lifestyles, and for gaining life skills.  Basically access to education is a quality of life issue as much as it is about information access. Consider the work of the U.N. Berhane Hewan project, which promotes continued education and delayed marriage for girls in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. Without knowing the levels of myelination in any of these girls, and their subsequent probable I.Q.’s, I can say with confidence that the education they receive as a result of the program is improving their quality of life. So while knowledge of the hereditary causes of optimal myelination can and should lead us to research ways of enhancing myelination in all children, in the mean time, we must not be swayed towards believing that smart children in disadvantaged circumstances will simply educate themselves so we don’t have to worry about providing universal childhood education.

Universal childhood education is a way of affirming the humanity of a child, of affirming their worth to the greater community, and of obliging them to contribute in return to the betterment of society. The benefits of this go far beyond raising a few I.Q. scores.

(via ScienceDaily)

One of the main roadblocks to open discussion of cognitive enhancement is the “yuck factor”. The yuck factor a sense of distaste or wrongness that arises when considering alternative expressions of the human condition. It may be seen clearly in the prejudicial aversion to those who are physically disabled, mentally handicapped or mentally ill. From the perspective of evolutionary psychologists, the yuck factor is a deeply rooted, if cruel, means of evaluating the fitness of a potential mate. Radically different morphology or mentality may be interpreted as a sign of reproductive non-viability.

This inspiring 2009 TED Talk given by enhancement activist Aimee Mullins documents her efforts at overcoming the yuck factor when it comes to physical disability. Through various custom leg prostheses, she demonstrates that radical morphology can be not only aesthetically appealing but also sexually attractive. Mullins’ efforts to make enhancement acceptable are inspiring. It is one thing to argue for enhancement from an ethical or practical standpoint, and it is another to see how a person’s self-esteem and quality of life really do improve as a result. Watch her video and see what you think. It may be NSFW for some artistic nudity.


So, basically this blog is about my life’s work, which is to do everything I can to make the human species and the tools we use more intelligent. This comes not out of some elite intellectualistic notion that to be a smarter is to be onlogicically better. Instead, I think that we as a species are facing several existential threats in this century, and that we’re not currently smart enough to find solutions to those threats. Some of ways we can increase human intelligence are fairly conventional, and fit well with a classic progressive agenda. (Improved nutrition for children, universal education including advocacy for the education of women in developing countries, unfettered access to information, etc.) Other ways are much more radical, including the use of nootropic substances, volitional evolution and body modification and augmentation. Still others lie somewhere in between with the extension of computer networking and the micronization of processors to create a smart world, where the “internet of things” is able to respond and proactively adapt to human needs.

This blog will be a way for me to comment on some of the more interesting enhancement news items that crop up, as well as a place for me to muse on this subject and others related and not so related that interest me. Comments are welcomed and encouraged.