Douglas Coupland on Video Games

Douglas Coupland’s new novel,
JPod, is set in the world of video game developers.  There was an interesting article about him in The Observer this week.  Excerpt:

‘I don’t play games myself. Never. But I will watch people playing, especially if they’re good. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is, of all the games to watch people play, the most fun. It’s not like a race; you can take time off to just work for a while as a taxi driver, or visit a hooker. There’s something interesting, fascinating actually, about watching someone take time off in a video game to go and visit a hooker. Games I do find interesting,’ he says, ‘for what they say about us, about what we wish for, about the programming. But let it stop there: don’t listen to this rubbish about them actually being good for you, helping with hand-eye co-ordination or whatever. They’re games. They prepare you for nothing.’

Link: The Observer | Magazine | Generation next,

via Bookslut.

Honoring Jane Jacobs?

I’ve noticed that many blogs have commented on the recent death of Jane Jacobs, whose work obviously affected many people, myself included, though I haven’t read all of her books.  The latest is a tribute from the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology of all places.  After a few sentences describing how an economic theory of hers has some relationship to their nanotech manufacturing ideas, it continues:

Despite her
age—nearly 90—we have to wonder whether advanced nanomedicine could have saved
her life and given the world many more years of her keen and valuable insights.

Link: Nanotechnology: Latest C-R-Newsletter.

The sentiment is genuine, I’m sure, but this comes across as a very base sort of way to argue for your technology.  Imagine a big pharmaceutical company writing: it’s sad that such-and-such celebrity just died; we have to wonder if our new drug might have saved her life, if only the FDA would hurry up and approve it.

Furthermore, I have to wonder if the author of Dark Age Ahead, a book that raised deep questions about the trajectory of our culture and technology, would appreciate being associated with this agenda.

Lee Silver Provokes Again

Molecular biologist Lee Silver has a new book out called Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life.  Like his earlier book, Remaking Eden, this one is likely to raise hackles (it worked for me).  In this book, Silver attacks those opposed to biotech in all forms, from cloning to GM foods.

It looks like name-calling is his main strategy for criticizing supporters of organic foods.  From one of the "bullet points" on the website for the book:

Think Christian fundamentalists and New Age organic food devotees have nothing in common? That’s what they think.  But their passionate opposition to biotechnology springs from a common Biblical source, whether they know it or not.

He’s argued for GM foods in Newsweek recently ("Why GM Food is Good for us," and a follow-up debate).

Google Your Brain?

Bioethicist Glenn McGee posted some excerpts on his blog from an essay he published in The Scientist called "Search Me Not" (subscription required).  It’s a response to "Google Your Brain" by Jack Woodall, which McGee says "seems like a bad idea to me, just on philosophical grounds"

My most disorganized friends, or at least the smart ones, are steadily working their way toward scanning all the paper in their offices onto hard drives, turning piles of nomenclature and unfinished projects into a different kind of pile. Desks get cleaned, computers get filled. But the clutter is still there, it’s just hidden more effectively. Those who scan their worlds without clearing out the junk and learning to sort information just make their messes more intimate. I don’t need to remember a lot of what is stored around my office or in the corners of my mind.

There is something to be said for forgetting. Nietzsche argued that those who cannot forget are quickly driven to madness.

Link: – Search Me Not

Books and Stuff

I finally got around to reading that Kevin Kelly article the other day, and started writing up a bunch of comments but lost the energy for it.  I feel like it’s already been said perfectly well.  Two books come immediately to mind: The Gutenberg Elegies (Sven Birkerts on the importance of books), and On the Internet (Hubert Dreyfus).  Dreyfus, in 2001, wrote about exactly this universal electronic library hype that Kelly espouses, and contrasted "Hyperlinked Culture" with "Old Library Culture."

It also struck me that Kelly lumped together a bunch of ideas that really don’t need to be related.  The orphan copyright issue (which I agree is important) has other solutions besides scanning books and moving everything to digital.  Digital archiving doesn’t imply hyperlinked snippets and the death of the book.  I also don’t believe that mash-up/remix art as promoted by Cory Doctorow and the Creative Commons crowd will ever produce art of  any lasting importance.  But maybe I’m just grumpy.

John Updike on Kevin Kelly

John Updike spoke at BookExpo America about Kevin Kelly’s vision for the future of books:

Updike went on at some length, heaping scorn on Kelly’s notion that
authors who no longer got paid for copies of their work could profit
from it by selling "performances" or "access to the creator." ("Now as
I read it, this is a pretty grisly scenario.")

Unlike the commingled, unedited, frequently inaccurate mass of
"information" on the Web, he said, "books traditionally have edges."
But "the book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and
women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in
a sparkling pod of snippets.

"So, booksellers," he concluded,
"defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our
edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity."

Link: Washington Post: Explosive Words.

See also this recent article by Jonathan Weber in the Times UK: Why books resist the rise of novel technologies.

Previously: Discussion of Kevin Kelly’s article.

Robot Performs Heart Surgery

Techdirt reports on an Italian news story, which looks suspiciously like a press release, about the world’s first heart surgery performed completely by robot.  The story says it was guided remotely by a surgeon in the U.S., and is low on other details.  Techdirt, who seem to have a grudge against doctors, are ready to be guinea pigs:

Though doctors are among the biggest costs in healthcare, and
technology like this could certainly help save money, we can expect
surgeons to fight tooth and nail from letting robots encroach on their
territory. They’ll claim, much like top chess players do, that surgery
is part art and that a robot could never match the performance of a
human. Of course, robots don’t get tired after a long day, stressed
out, lose concentration, or have any of the other human traits that
affect the quality of surgery. And while doctors make mistakes all the
time, robots will be held to a higher standard; after one mistake,
there will be calls to curtail their use in medicine. With all due
respect, many surgeons are like plumbers who work on an extremely
complicated system of pumps and valves — in both cases, technology is reducing the value of their labor.

I count a half-dozen or so fallacies in that paragraph (or at least highly debatable points).  Pretty impressive!

Link: Techdirt: Robot Performs Heart Surgery, Will Surgeons’ Union Go On Strike?.

Synthetic Biology Conference

The "Synthetic Biology 2.0" conference is happening this weekend at Berkeley.  Synthetic biology is defined by researchers as:

A) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and
B) the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.

A coalition of groups has issued an open letter calling for open public debate about regulating this technology.  The letter begins:

We are writing to express our deep concerns about the rapidly
developing field of Synthetic Biology that is attempting to create
novel life forms and artificial living systems. We believe that this
potentially powerful technology is being developed without proper
societal debate concerning socio-economic, security, health,
environmental and human rights implications. We are alarmed that
synthetic biologists meeting this weekend intend to vote on a scheme of
voluntary self-regulation without consulting or involving broader
social groups. We urge you to withdraw these self-governance proposals
and participate in a process of open and inclusive oversight of this

More links at The Technology Chronicles : Caution urged on "synthetic biology" research.