Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

06 OCTOBER, 2014

The Artist and the Anguish of the American Dream: Zadie Smith’s Love-Hate Letter to New York

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“The greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization.”

With his philosophy of happiness as a moral obligation, it is no surprise that Albert Camus is intellectual America’s favorite European export. The American Dream is built on the pursuit of happiness, but Camus amplifies it from a mere right to something more, something better aligned with the modern condition of compulsive pursuit — of happiness, of productivity, of self-actualization. Indeed, this is a paradoxical culture where the Self reigns supreme, even though we know it is an illusion; a culture built on hard-headed, hard-bodied, hard-and-fast individualism, even though we don’t know how to be alone. Ours is an era built on the legacy of the age of anxiety, the pathology of which we’ve perfected to a virtuoso degree.

Some weeks ago, I attended Amanda Stern’s excellent Happy Endings literary salon, where writers are asked to read their work. The magnificent Zadie Smith, she of great wisdom on the craft of writing and the psychology of the writer’s mind, read an enchanting essay she had just written — about Manhattan, about our modern compulsions, about the artist and the anguish of the American Dream. The essay, titled “Find Your Beach,” is now published by The New York Review of Books. With unparalleled humor and humility, Smith explores the essential hubris of our age, not without admitting her willful participation as an ambitious cog in the machinery of compulsive self-actualization.

She opens with a view of a billboard across from her university housing in Soho — a beer ad, “very yellow and the background luxury-holiday-blue,” captioned “Find your beach.” Smith finds the text — almost a command — perfectly, tragically emblematic of American culture. She writes:

It seems to me uniquely well placed, like a piece of commissioned public art in perfect sympathy with its urban site. The tone is pure Manhattan. Echoes can be found in the personal growth section of the bookstore (“Find your happy”), and in exercise classes (“Find your soul”), and in the therapist’s office (“Find your self”).

Smith considers the ad’s particular placement in Soho — “home to media moguls, entertainment lawyers, every variety of celebrity, some students, as well as a vanishingly small subset of rent-controlled artists and academics” — at once paradoxical and telling, a kind of self-aware eulogy to those vanishing bastions of culture:

Collectively we, the people of Soho, consider ourselves pretty sophisticated consumers of media. You can’t put a cheesy ad like that past us. And so the ad has been reduced to its essence — a yellow undulation against a field of blue — and painted directly onto the wall, in a bright pop-art style. The mad men know that we know the Soho being referenced here: the Soho of Roy Lichtenstein and Ivan Karp, the Soho that came before Foot Locker, Sephora, Prada, frozen yogurt. That Soho no longer exists, of course, but it’s part of the reason we’re all here, crowded on this narrow strip of a narrow island. Whoever placed this ad knows us well.

Even the language of the caption, Smith notes, is odd — “faintly threatening mixture of imperative and possessive forms, the transformation of a noun into a state of mind” — and reflective of the undulating cult of the Self. Where alcohol ads used to promise the illusion for communal fun, she notes, they now sell the illusion of solitary bliss:

Here the focus is narrow, almost obsessive. Everything that is not absolutely necessary to your happiness has been removed from the visual horizon. The dream is not only of happiness, but of happiness conceived in perfect isolation. Find your beach in the middle of the city. Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if — as in the case of this wall painting — it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go. The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty.

Illustration by counterculture cartoonist Peter Kruper from 'Drawn to New York.' Click image for more

One can’t help but think of E.B. White’s 1949 ode to Gotham, perhaps the finest and most enduring portrait of the city ever committed to paper. White writes of “the essential fever of New York,” a city populated by strangers who have come “seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail,” a city filled with “the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.” For White, writing a decade before social psychologist Abraham Maslow established self-actualization as a cultural fetish, New York’s singular proposition was one of promise. For Smith, it seems to be one of peril — one that, perhaps like the bibulous billboard’s imperative to “find your beach,” is toxic but nonetheless alluring, inescapable. She writes:

In an exercise class recently the instructor shouted at me, at all of us: “Don’t let your mind set limits that aren’t really there.” You’ll find this attitude all over the island. It is encouraged and reflected in the popular culture, especially the movies, so many of which, after all, begin their creative lives here, in Manhattan… Our happiness, our miseries, our beaches, or our blasted heaths — they are all within our own power to create, or destroy…

The beach is always there: you just have to conceive of it. It follows that those who fail to find their beach are, in the final analysis, mentally fragile; in Manhattan terms, simply weak… To find your beach you have to be ruthless. Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment — as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything — not even reality — to impinge upon that clear field of blue.

Once again, White’s Manhattan comes to mind, with its gift of “insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute,” as Smith lament’s Manhattan’s existential imperative:

There is a kind of individualism so stark that it seems to dovetail with an existentialist creed: Manhattan is right at that crossroads. You are pure potential in Manhattan, limitless, you are making yourself every day. When I am in England each summer, it’s the opposite: all I see are the limits of my life. The brain that puts a hairbrush in the fridge, the leg that radiates pain from the hip to the toe, the lovely children who eat all my time, the books unread and unwritten.

This, perhaps, was what 36-year-old Italo Calvino felt when he recorded his first impressions of America, “the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little.”

Smith observes the centripetal force with which New York, every time she returns, pulls her into its vortex of unrelenting beach-finding:

I have to get used to old New York ladies beside themselves with fury that I have stopped their smooth elevator journey and got in with some children. I have to remember not to pause while walking in the street — or during any fluid-moving city interaction — unless I want to utterly exasperate the person behind me. Each man and woman in this town is in pursuit of his or her beach and God help you if you get in their way.

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

But what makes Smith’s essay so compelling is that the Soho tower from which she observes the “Find your beach” billboard is by no means an ivory one — her lament is rooted not in an onlooker’s static judgment but in a participant’s dynamic self-awareness:

I suppose it should follow that I am happier in pragmatic England than idealist Manhattan, but I can’t honestly say that this is so. You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality. “A reality shaped around your own desires” — there is something sociopathic in that ambition.

It is also a fair description of what it is to write fiction. And to live in a city where everyone has essentially the same tunnel vision and obsessive focus as a novelist is to disguise your own sociopathy among the herd. Objectively all the same limits are upon me in Manhattan as they are in England. I walk a ten-block radius every day, constrained in all the usual ways by domestic life, reduced to writing about whatever is right in front of my nose. But the fact remains that here I do write, the work gets done.

Even if my Manhattan productivity is powered by a sociopathic illusion of my own limitlessness, I’m thankful for it, at least when I’m writing. There’s a reason so many writers once lived here, beyond the convenient laundromats and the take-out food, the libraries and cafés. We have always worked off the energy generated by this town, the money-making and tower-building as much as the street art and underground cultures.

And yet, Smith mourns the loss of the underground creative energies that made Manhattan — those of Walt Whitman’s Bohemian coterie and of Patti Smith’s starving-artist circles — replaced now by something more ominous, something sterilized by the relentless pursuit of self-actualization:

A twisted kind of energy radiates instead off the soulcycling mothers and marathon-running octogenarians, the entertainment lawyers glued to their iPhones and the moguls building five “individualized” condo townhouses where once there was a hospital.

It’s not a pretty energy, but it still runs what’s left of the show. I contribute to it. I ride a stationary bike like the rest of them. And then I despair when Shakespeare and Co. closes in favor of another Foot Locker. There’s no way to be in good faith on this island anymore. You have to crush so many things with your mind vise just to get through the day…

The greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next.

What emerges, then, is the notion that happiness is to be allowed rather than attained, a notion closer to Alan Watts than to Camus. But Smith’s essential lament is that such gentle surrender is one of which we beach-hungry moderns, whether New Yorkers by residency or by geographically unmoored temperament, seem incapable. And yet isn’t this awareness — awareness Smith crystallizes with far crisper eloquence than most are capable of, yet one most of us experience in a perpetual cycle of reconciliation — already a dissolution of that “sociopathic illusion”? She concludes:

I can see my own beach ahead now, as the children grow, as the practical limits fade; I see afresh the huge privilege of my position; it reclarifies itself. Under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.

It is such a good town in which to work and work. You can find your beach here, find it falsely, but convincingly, still thinking of Manhattan as an isle of writers and artists — of downtown underground wildlings and uptown intellectuals — against all evidence to the contrary. Oh, you still see them occasionally here and there, but unless they are under the protection of a university — or have sold that TV show — they are all of them, every single last one of them, in Brooklyn.

Smith’s full essay is well worth reading, as is her 2009 collection, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

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06 OCTOBER, 2014

Karl Marx’s Life and Legacy, in a Comic

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From the opium of the masses to the downfall of capitalism, by way of love and revolution.

The history of our species is rife with ideologies — political, religious, social, philosophical — that have been either wholly hijacked from their creators or gradually warped, with only fragments of the original vision intact, doomed to being continually misunderstood by posterity.

On the heels of the excellent graphic biography of Freud, British indie press Nobrow is back with Marx (public library) by Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon — an illuminating chronicle of the life and legacy of a man at once reviled as “the Devil” for denouncing capitalism and celebrated for his ideals of eradicating inequality, injustice, and exploitation from the world. More than the sum total of his political legacy, Marx’s story is also one of great personal turmoil and tragedy, inner conflict, and moral tussle — subtleties that the comic genre, with its gift for stripping complexities to their simplest truths without losing dimension, reveals with great sensitivity and insight.

The story begins with Marx’s childhood as the third of nine kids in a traditional Jewish family and traces his exasperation with classical education and his choice to study philosophy instead, how he fell in love with the woman who would become his partner for life, the evolution of his influential treatise The Communist Manifesto, how he ended up dying a stateless person, “both adored and hated,” and what his ideas have to do with the 2008 economic collapse.

One of the final pages, reflecting on communism’s rise to power in Russia, Eastern Europe and China in the twentieth century, captures the dimensionality of Marx’s legacy in elegantly simple form. “Some very good things came out of it, but some very bad ones, too,” writes Maier as Marx’s ghost is depicted walking off, muttering to himself, “My ideal of freedom was betrayed.”

Complement Marx with other fantastic graphic biographies — Salvador Dalí, Richard Feynman, Andy Warhol, Charles Darwin, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs — then revisit Nobrow’s wonderful graphic novel about the brain.

Images courtesy of Nobrow Press

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06 OCTOBER, 2014

What the Future of Robots Reveals About the Human Condition

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“I find it touchingly poetic to think that as our technology grows more advanced, we may grow more human.”

In the most memorable scene from the cinematic adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, Jodi Foster’s character — modeled after real-life astronomer and alien hunter Jill Tarter — beholds the uncontainable wonder of the cosmos, which she has been tasked with conveying to humanity, and gasps: “They should’ve sent a poet!”

To tell humanity its own story is a task no less herculean, and at last we have a poet — Sagan’s favorite poet, no less — to marry science and wonder. Science storyteller and historian Diane Ackerman, of course, isn’t only a poet — though Sagan did send her spectacular scientifically accurate verses for the planets to Timothy Leary in prison. For the past four decades, she has been bridging science and the humanities in extraordinary explorations of everything from the science of the senses to the natural history of love. In The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (public library), Ackerman traces how we got to where we are — a perpetually forward-leaning species living in a remarkable era full of technological wonders most of which didn’t exist a mere two centuries ago — when “only moments before, in geological time, we were speechless shadows on the savanna.”

With bewitchingly lyrical language, Ackerman paints the backdrop of our explosive evolution and its yin-yang of achievement and annihilation:

Humans have always been hopped-up, restless, busy bodies. During the past 11,700 years, a mere blink of time since the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, we invented the pearls of Agriculture, Writing, and Science. We traveled in all directions, followed the long hands of rivers, crossed snow kingdoms, scaled dizzying clefts and gorges, trekked to remote islands and the poles, plunged to ocean depths haunted by fish lit like luminarias and jellies with golden eyes. Under a worship of stars, we trimmed fires and strung lanterns all across the darkness. We framed Oz-like cities, voyaged off our home planet, and golfed on the moon. We dreamt up a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels. We may not have shuffled the continents, but we’ve erased and redrawn their outlines with cities, agriculture, and climate change. We’ve blocked and rerouted rivers, depositing thick sediments of new land. We’ve leveled forests, scraped and paved the earth. We’ve subdued 75 percent of the land surface — preserving some pockets as “wilderness,” denaturing vast tracts for our businesses and homes, and homogenizing a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming. We’ve lopped off the tops of mountains to dig craters and quarries for mining. It’s as if aliens appeared with megamallets and laser chisels and started resculpting every continent to better suit them. We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture; we’ve made the planet our sandbox.

But Ackerman is a techno-utopian at heart. Noting that we’ve altered our relationship with the natural world “radically, irreversibly, but by no means all for the bad,” she adds:

Our relationship with nature is evolving, rapidly but incrementally, and at times so subtly that we don’t perceive the sonic booms, literally or metaphorically. As we’re redefining our perception of the world surrounding us, and the world inside of us, we’re revising our fundamental ideas about exactly what it means to be human, and also what we deem “natural.”

Nowhere does this revolutionary reframing come more alive than in a chapter poetically titled “When Robots Weep, Who Will Comfort Them?” Ackerman’s exploration of the implications of artificial intelligence is at first necessarily discomfiting, then productively perplexing, then assuringly optimistic. She writes:

It’s an Anthropocene magic trick, this extension of our digital selves over the Internet, far enough to reach other people, animals, plants, interplanetary crews, extraterrestrial visitors, the planet’s Google-mapped landscapes, and our habitats and possessions. If we can revive extinct life forms, create analog worlds, and weave new webs of communication — what about new webs of life? Why not synthetic life forms that can sense, feel, remember, and go through Darwinian evolution?

Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland' by Robert Gilmore. Click image for more.

To probe the furthest fringes of this question, Ackerman visits the pioneering Cornell University roboticist Hod Lipson, whose lab is working on the development of a new self-aware species, Robot sapiens. Ackerman explains the implications, nothing short of existential:

Our own lineage branched off many times from our apelike ancestors, and so will the flowering, subdividing lineage of robots, which perhaps needs its own Linnaean classification system. The first branch in robot evolution could split between AI and AL — artificial intelligence and artificial life. Lipson stands right at that fork in that road, whose path he’s famous for helping to divine and explore in one of the great digital adventures of our age. It’s the ultimate challenge, in terms of engineering, in terms of creation.

If this sounds a little sci-fi, Ackerman points out that the very notion of Robot sapiens is predicated on one of the most undeniable forces Earth has ever known, that of evolution — Lipson’s work, then, is doing little more than “asking a primordial soup of robotic bits and pieces to zing through millions of generations of fluky mutations, goaded by natural selection.” Reflecting on these new creatures, Lipson shares with Ackerman a vision at once utterly mind-bending and utterly sensical:

They will have deep emotions… But they won’t necessarily be human emotions.

The kernel of this capacity, Lipson believes, lies in “the unspoken Holy Grail of a lot of roboticists” — the aspiration to create self-aware consciousness. (A goal undoubtedly quite far away, as we still struggle to understand human consciousness.) He tells Ackerman:

When a machine learns from experience, there are few guarantees about whether or not it will learn what you want… And it might learn something that you didn’t want it to learn, and yet it can’t forget. This is just the beginning.

To demystify the proposition, Ackerman points to our age-long refusal to acknowledge animal consciousness, something on which scientists now uniformly agree, much thanks to the work of Jane Goodall. Ackerman considers the criteria we presently use for conscious beings and parlays those into the question of what makes us human:

[Animals] possess a theory of mind, and can intuit what a rival might do in a given situation and act accordingly. They exhibit deceit, compassion, the ability to see themselves through another’s eyes…

I don’t think they fret and reason endlessly about mental states, as we do. They simply dream a different dream, probably much like the one we used to dream, before we crocheted into our neural circuitry the ability to have ideas about everything. Other animals may know you know something, but they don’t know you know they know. Other mammals may think, but we think about having thoughts. Linnaeus categorized us in the subspecies of Homo sapiens sapiens, adding the extra sapiens because we don’t just know, we know that we know.

This meta-knowledge is what E.F. Schumacher explored in his beautiful 1977 contemplation of the art of adequatio and how we know what we know, and it is also at the crux of what is at stake in the quest for self-aware artificial intelligence. Ackerman writes:

When people talk about robots being conscious and self-aware, they mean a range of knowing.

[...]

Lipson wants his robots to make assumptions and deductions based on past experiences, a skill underlying our much-prized autobiographical memory, and an essential component of learning. Robots will learn through experience not to burn a hand on a hot stove, and to look both ways when crossing the street.

But, like a true humanist, Ackerman wonders whether such faculties will ever penetrate the essential mystery — perhaps a “permanent mystery,” to use John Updike’s term for existence — of the human spirit:

Yet however many senses robots may come to possess—and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have many more than we, including sharper eyesight and the ability to see in the dark — they’ll never be embodied exactly like us, with a thick imperfect sediment of memories, and maybe a handful of diaphanous dreams. Who can say what unconscious obbligato prompts a composer to choose this rhythm or that — an irregular pounding heart, tinnitus in the ears, a lover who speaks a foreign language, fond memories evoked by the crackle of ice in winter, or an all too human twist of fate? There would be no Speak, Memory from Nabokov, or The Gulag Archipelago from Solzhenitsyn, without the sentimental longings of exile. I don’t know if robots will be able to do the sort of elaborate thought experiments that led Einstein to discoveries and Dostoevsky to fiction.

Yet robots may well create art, from who knows what motive, and enjoy it based on their own brand of aesthetics, satire (if they enjoy satire), or humor. We might enjoy it, too, especially if it’s evocative of work by human artists, if it appeals to our senses. Would we judge it differently?

The iCub humanoid robot (Photograph: Sharingame CC-BY-NC-ND)

On a visit to the 2013 Living Machines Conference, Ackerman encounters iCub — a three-foot robot that has “naturally evolved theory of mind,” that developmental milestone human children reach around age three or four when they begin to understand that others have experiences, thoughts, intentions, and desires different from their own. Ackerman considers how this childlike robot attains its knowledge of self and other in relation to the world:

Through countless interactions between body and world it codifies knowledge about both. None of that is new. Nor is being able to distinguish between self and other, and intuit the other’s mental state. Engineers like Lipson have programmed that discernment into robots before. But this was the first time a robot evolved the ability all by itself. iCub is just teething on consciousness, to be sure, but it’s intriguing that the bedrock of empathy, deception, and other traits that we regard as conscious can accidentally emerge during a robot’s self-propelled Darwinian evolution. It happened like this. iCub was created with a double sense of self. If he wanted to lift a cup, his first self told his arm what to do, while predicting the outcome and adjusting his knowledge based on whatever happened. His second—we can call it “interior” — self received exactly the same feedback, but, instead of acting on the instructions, it could only try to predict what would happen in the future. If the real outcome differed from a prediction, the interior self updated its cavernous memory. That gave iCub two versions of itself, an active one and an interior “mental” one. When the researchers exposed iCub’s mental self to another robot’s actions, iCub began intuiting what the other robot might do, based on personal experience. It saw the world through another’s eyes.

There is one implication I find particularly curious — despite all that has been written about the self illusion and how it limits our true human potential, it seems nonetheless a necessary one. Without the ability to distinguish the boundaries of one’s own self against those of others, amid the amorphous jelly of the world, there would be no theory of mind and no sense of self. Consciousness, after all — at least in the empirical sense — requires self-awareness.

Robots, Ackerman argues, can also help us make sense of the world now that our own sensemaking capacity is being drowned out by an information ecosystem of exponentially swelling amounts of data. She recounts that in 1972, when she was making her writing debut with a suite of poems for the planets, Carl Sagan, who was on her doctoral committee at Cornell, gave her access to NASA photographs and reports. It was possible then, Ackerman argues, “for an amateur to learn everything humans knew about the planets.” This is no longer the case — “the Alps of raw data would take more than one lifetime to summit, passing countless PhD dissertations at campsites along the trail.” So there is incredible allure in the notion of intelligent robots that can help us trek across those Alps and make new discoveries.

How extraordinary that we’ve created peripheral brains to discover the truths about nature that we seek. We’re teaching them how to work together calmly as a society, share data at lightning speed, and cooperate so much better than we do, rubbing brains together in the invisible drawing room we sometimes call the “cloud.” Undaunted, despite our physical and mental limitations, we design robots to continue the quest we began long ago: making sense of nature. Some call it Science, but it’s so much larger than one discipline, method, or perspective.

Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland' by Robert Gilmore. Click image for more.

This, Ackerman argues, is cause for celebration rather than lamentation. Echoing Paola Antonelli’s assertion that technology humanizes objects rather than dehumanizing people, she writes:

I find it touchingly poetic to think that as our technology grows more advanced, we may grow more human. When labor, science, manufacturing, sales, transportation, and powerful new technologies are mainly handled by savvy machines, humans really won’t be able to compete in those sectors of the economy. Instead we may dominate an economy of interpersonal or imaginative services, in which our human skills shine.

She returns to Lipson’s robots and their broader implications:

One of Lipson’s robots knows the difference between self and other, the shape of its physique, and whether it can fit into odd spaces. If it loses a limb, it revises its self-image. It senses, recollects, keeps updating its data, just as we do, so that it can predict future scenarios. That’s a simple form of self-awareness. He’s also created a machine that can picture itself in various situations — very basic thought experiments—and plan what to do next. It’s starting to think about thinking.

[...]

And with this will come emotions, because emotions, at the end of the day, have to do with the ability to project yourself into different situations — fear, various needs — and anticipate the rewards and pain in many future dramas.

And yet given how woefully flawed we humans are at making projections about our own future selves, one can’t help but wonder whether artificial intelligence, however self-correcting it may be, would succumb to the same system bugs as the very minds that created it. Even Ackerman, optimistic though she may be about the humanizing potential of robotics, remains profoundly human in her lament, rooted in our essential and rather fragile sense of the personal I:

A powerful source of existential grief comes from accepting that I won’t live long enough to find out.

But Ackerman’s wistfulness rests into a larger optimism of foresight that peers into the quintessential do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep question as she considers the unimaginable evolution of Robot sapiens:

Will they grow attached to others, play games, feel empathy, crave mental rest, evolve an aesthetics, value fairness, seek diversion, have fickle palates and restless minds? We humans are so far beyond the Greek myth of Icarus, and its warning about overambition (father-and-son inventors and wax wings suddenly melting in the sun). We’re now strangers in a strange world of our own devising, where becoming a creator, even the Creator, of other species is the ultimate intellectual challenge. Will our future robots also design new species, bionts whose form and mental outlook we can’t yet imagine?

Way back in our own evolution, we came from fish that left the ocean and flopped from one puddle to another. In time they evolved legs, a much better way to get around on land. When Lipson’s team asked a computer to invent something that could get from point A to point B—without programming it how to walk—at first it created robots reminiscent of that fish, with multihinged legs, flopping forward awkwardly.

[...]

It’s a touching goal. Surpassing human limits is so human a quest, maybe the most ancient one of all, from an age when dreams were omens dipped in moonlight, and godlike voices raged inside one’s head. A time of potent magic in the landscape. Mountains attracted rain clouds and hid sacred herbs, malevolent spirits spat earthquakes or drought, tyrants ruled certain trees or brooks, offended waterholes could ankle off in the night, and most animals parleyed with at least one god or demon. What was human agency compared to that?

Illustration from 'The Book of Miracles,' 1552. Click image for more.

To be sure, this question of where robots are headed isn’t a negation of human agency or human potential but, rather, a celebration of it. Reflecting on our “extraordinary powers of invention, subtlety, and know-how,” on “the small unremarkable acts of mercy and heroism parents and lovers perform each day,” Ackerman concludes by reconsidering our human journey in relation to nature, the inescapable backdrop against which — to borrow Carl Sagan’s beautiful language — “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” She ends with an invocation at once gentle and urgent:

We can survive our rude infancy and grow into responsible, caring adults — without losing our innocence, playfulness, or sense of wonder. But first we need to see ourselves from different angles, in many mirrors, as a very young species, both blessed and cursed by our prowess. Instead of ignoring or plundering nature, we need to refine our natural place in it.

Nature is still our mother, but she’s grown older and less independent… As we’re becoming acutely aware of just how vulnerable she truly is, we’re beginning to see her limits as well as her bounty, and we’re trying to grow into the role of loving caregivers…

We are dreamsmiths and wonder-workers. What a marvel we’ve become, a species with planetwide powers and breathtaking gifts. That’s a feat to recognize and celebrate. It should fill us with pride and astonishment. The name also tells us we are acting on a long, long geological scale. I hope that awareness prompts us to think carefully about our history, our future, the fleeting time we spend on Earth, what we may leave in trust to our children (a full pantry, fresh drinking water, clean air), and how we wish to be remembered. Perhaps we also need to think about the beings we wish to become. What sort of world do we wish to live in, and how do we design that human-made sphere? …

We still have time and talent, and we have a great many choices… Our mistakes are legion, but our imagination is immeasurable.

The Human Age is a spectacular read in its entirety, pointing the poetics of science to the heart of such ensnaring open questions as what an imaginary future geologist might deduce about our civilization based on our human-made landscapes, why there might be more to the weather than we realize, and how 3-D printing will reshape the notion of the body.

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