Kevin Kelly on Screen Culture

Tech-pontificator Kevin Kelly has a long piece in the NY Times magazine about screens. An excerpt:

When technology shifts, it bends the culture. Once, long ago,
culture revolved around the spoken word. The oral skills of
memorization, recitation and rhetoric instilled in societies a
reverence for the past, the ambiguous, the ornate and the subjective.
Then, about 500 years ago, orality was overthrown by technology.
Gutenberg’s invention of metallic movable type elevated writing into a
central position in the culture. By the means of cheap and perfect
copies, text became the engine of change and the foundation of
stability. From printing came journalism, science and the mathematics
of libraries and law. The distribution-and-display device that we call
printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink
on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a sentence), a
passion for objectivity (of printed fact) and an allegiance to
authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book.
In the West, we became people of the book.

Now invention is again
overthrowing the dominant media. A new distribution-and-display
technology is nudging the book aside and catapulting images, and
especially moving images, to the center of the culture. We are becoming
people of the screen.

Link: Idea Lab – Becoming Screen Literate,
via Kelly's blog The Technium: Screen Fluency.

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I'm skeptical. One of the messages from Naomi Baron's book Always On was that, perhaps surprisingly, today's youth are likely reading and writing more text than their parents did. There are differences in how they use text (and some reasons for concern) but there's little doubt that they're still hooked into a kind of word culture. So I don't buy Kelly's idea here, unless he has some real evidence for it (and Kelly's style seems heavy on opinion and low on evidence).

Kelly has been posting many lengthy articles like this one to his blog recently, which has made me suspect that he has a book forthcoming, and indeed he does according to the blurb at the end of the NYT piece: "Kevin Kelly is senior maverick at Wired and the author of “Out of Control” and a coming book on what technology wants." What technology wants? Interesting…

One of those recent blog posts in particular caught my eye. It's called The Pro-Actionary Principle and in it he rejects the precautionary principle, or at least his interpretation of it, which looks a lot like a straw man to me. He argues instead for his own "pro-actionary principle" based on extropian/futurist Max More's earlier document by the same name. I think Kelly and More's project is flawed from the start because it is based on a faulty premise –  that the precautionary principle means "technology must be proven safe." Perfect proof is almost never possible and the intention is not to hold up progress until it is achieved. Governments that use the precautionary principle seem to understand this without any difficulty.

The Rise of Malcolm Gladwell-ish Anecdote Books

This is a good little rant by Joel Spolsky (of "Joel on Software" fame) about what he sees as a trend in current science books. He starts off by commenting on a review of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book…

This review captures what's been driving me crazy over the last year…
an unbelievable proliferation of anecdotes disguised as science,
self-professed experts writing about things they actually know nothing about, and amusing
stories disguised as metaphors for how the world works. Whether it's
Thomas Friedman, who, it seems, cannot go a whole week without
inventing a new fruit-based metaphor explaining everything about the
entire modern world, all based on some random jibberish he
misunderstood from a taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur, or Malcolm Gladwell
with his weak theories on tipping points, crazy incorrect theories on
first impressions, or utterly lunatic theories on experts, it all
becomes insanely popular simply because the stories are fun and
interesting and everybody wants to hear a good story. Spare me.

Friedman and Gladwell's outsized, flat-world success has lead to a
huge number of wannabes. I was really looking forward to reading Simplexity,
because it sounded like an interesting topic, until I settled down with
it tonight and discovered that it was chock-full of all those amusing
bedtime stories about the map of the cholera plague in London in 1854,
which I've heard a million times, …

Link: Anecdotes

I haven't read anything by Malcolm Gladwell, but I have read Jeffrey Kluger's Simplexity and I also found it disappointing for similar reasons. I expected Kluger to get around to explaining some actual theory or scientific work going on at Murray Gell-Mann's Santa Fe Institute, but Kluger never got beyond anecdotes and simplistic "storifying," if that's a word.

Update: After more thought, and after reading some comments on Joel's post and a good counterpoint by Dan Saffer, I feel like clarifying my opinion on this…  I think there is great value in pop science books, in articles written by non-experts, and in anecdotes. I read Joel's piece not as a rant against all those things but against those things badly done. Where you draw the line on that is probably a personal thing — it depends on the reader. I was probably not the intended type of reader for Kluger's book (I think this is partially the fault of the publisher for marketing that book in the science category instead of business).

My point in quoting Joel's article here is not to bash non-experts or "soft" science writing. I think he's probably right that there are more and more "big think" books out there that are not very original or substantive.

Synthetic Biology Debate

If you're in the San Francisco area you might want to check out this upcoming Synthetic Biology debate with Drew Endy and Jim Thomas. It takes place Monday November 17th and is sponsored by the Long Now foundation. Here is their description:

Bioengineer Drew Endy is the leading enabler of open-source
biotechnology. Technology activist Jim Thomas is the leading critic of
biotech, based with ETC Group in Ottawa.

"Synthetic
Biology includes the broad redefinition and expansion of biotechnology,
with the ultimate goals of being able to design and build engineered
biological systems that process information, manipulate chemicals,
fabricate materials and structures, produce energy, provide food, and
maintain and enhance human health and our environment." — Wikipedia.

Synthetic
biology is swarming ahead all over the world, at a self-accelerating
pace far greater than Moore's Law, with a range of impacts far greater
than genetically engineered food crops. Jim Thomas raises the question:
"Is Synthetic Biology reckless or wise from the perspective of 'the
long now?'. I feel the synthetic biology community is driven by
immensely short term assumptions and motivations, and as a result the
medium term prospect for this platform holds both predictable problems
and nasty surprises."

Drew Endy says: "Jim and I have somehow managed to establish a
productive working relationship, and feel that there is now a
once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop the cultural foundations
needed to support long term and constructive discussions of the issues
existing and emerging with biotechnology—safety, equity, security,
community, and so on."

The point of Long Now debates is not win-lose. The point is public
clarity and deep understanding, leading to action graced with nuance
and built-in adaptivity, with long-term responsibility in mind.

Link: Synthetic Biology Debate (Long Now Seminars About Long-Term Thinking)

Audio and video of the talk will be available at the Long Now site after the event.

The ETC Group has a lot of good material about the issue on their site: ETC Group – Synthetic Biology.