Michael Sandel on Genetics and Morality

"It is tempting to think that bioengineering our children and ourselves for success in a competitive society is an exercise of freedom. But changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment. It distracts us from reflecting critically on the world. It deadens the impulse to social and political improvement. So I say rather than bioengineer our children and ourselves to fit the world, let's instead create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and the limitations of the imperfect human beings that we are."

– From the Reith Lectures given earlier this year by Michael Sandel, quoted at Biopolitical Times blog.

Sandel's book about the ethics of genetic engineering just came out in paperback: The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.

Another from James Richardson

"That gentle, harmless drug that would make me permanently happier? I would refuse it. After all, I can't tell myself from my limits. It would be like dying for a great cause: nothing of me would be left to know what I'd done. And I am no hero."

– from Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays.

I highly recommend Richardson for anyone who likes aphorisms and prose poems. The subject matter varies widely — it just happened that a couple seemed relevant to this blog.

New Books

Some recent books I've bought or spotted:

Peepdiaries Hal Niedzviecki's The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors
looks at oversharing in the digital age. Naturally he has a blog, a twitter account, a webcam, a forthcoming documentary, and much more at the book's site.

From the book description:

We have entered the age of "peep culture": a tell-all, show-all,
know-all digital phenomenon that is dramatically altering notions of
privacy, individuality, security, and even humanity. Peep culture is
reality TV, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, over-the-counter spy
gear, blogs, chat rooms, amateur porn, surveillance technology, Dr. Phil, Borat,
cell phone photos of your drunk friend making out with her
ex-boyfriend, and more. In the age of peep, core values and rights we
once took for granted are rapidly being renegotiated, often without our
even noticing.

[…] Part travelogue, part diary, part
meditation and social history, The Peep Diaries explores a
rapidly emerging digital phenomenon that is radically changing not just
the entertainment landscape, but also the firmaments of our culture and

Richard SennettCraftsman's The Craftsman, just out in paperback, seems like a broad hybrid of sociology, psychology, history, cultural studies and philosophy. I've only read a couple chapters, and while it's not the quickest read, I'm finding it compelling as it combines a lot of things I'm interested in. In the book's prologue (about half of which you can read in the Amazon preview) he says that the book is the first of a planned "Pandora" trilogy. It sounds ambitious, though he seems mightily prolific. He writes:

This is the first of three books on material culture, all related to the dangers in Pandora's casket, though each is intended to stand on its own. This book is about craftsmanship, the skill of making things well. The second volume addresses the crafting of rituals that manage aggression and zeal; the third explores the skills required in making and inhabiting sustainable environments. All three books address the issue of technique–but technique considered as a cultural issue rather than as a mindless procedure; each book is about a technique for conducting a particular way of life. The large project contains a personal paradox that I have tried to put to productive use. I am a philosophically minded writer asking questions about such matters as woodworking, military drills, or solar panels.

AndThenTheresThis Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper's and apparently the inventor of the flash mob, has a new book called And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. From the description:

And Then There’s This is Bill Wasik’s
journey along the unexplored frontier of the twenty-first century’s
rambunctious new-media culture. He covers this world in part as a
journalist, following “buzz bands” as they rise and fall in the online
music scene, visiting with viral marketers and political trendsetters
and online provocateurs. But he also wades in as a participant,
conducting his own hilarious experiments: an e-mail fad (which turned
into the worldwide “flash mob” sensation), a viral website in a
monthlong competition, a fake blog that attempts to create “antibuzz,”
and more. He doesn’t always get the results he expected, but he tries
to make sense of his data by surveying what real social science
experiments have taught us about the effects of distraction,
stimulation, and crowd behavior on the human mind. Part report, part
memoir, part manifesto, part deconstruction of a decade, And Then There’s This captures better than any other book the way technology is transforming our culture.

AtLeastInTheCity Wade Rouse's (third) memoir At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life tells the story of his trying to become a self-described “modern-day Thoreau.” Sounds fairly amusing, and I like the cover.

In a slightly similar vein is One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World by Gordon Hempton. Hempton is an "acoustic ecologist" and writes about his experiences recording the quietest places in the country. The book comes with a CD and is an outgrowth of the One Square Inch project, which seeks to preserve a quiet space in Olympic National Park.

Dan Lyons on Singularity Man Ray Kurzweil

Dan Lyons (formerly Fake Steve Jobs) has an article about Ray Kurzweil, who is behind the new Singularity University and whose book The Singularity is Near will soon be a movie, in Newsweek. Excerpt:

Ray Kurzweil's wildest dream is to be turned into a cyborg—a
flesh-and-blood human enhanced with tiny embedded computers, a
man-machine hybrid with billions of microscopic nanobots coursing
through his bloodstream. And there's a moment, halfway through a
conversation in his office in Wellesley, Mass., when I start to think
that Kurzweil's transformation has already begun. It's the way he
talks—in a flat, robotic monotone. Maybe it's just because he's been
giving the same spiel, over and over, for years now. He does 70
speeches annually at $30,000 a pop, and draws crowds of adoring fans
who worship him as a kind of prophet. Kurzweil is a legend in the world
of computer geeks, an inventor, author and computer scientist who bills
himself as a futurist. The ideas he's espousing are as radical as
anything you've ever heard. But the strangest thing about Ray Kurzweil
is that when you sit down for a one-on-one chat with him, he's
absolutely boring.

Listen closely, though, and you may
be slightly terrified. Kurzweil believes computer intelligence is
advancing so rapidly that in a couple of decades, machines will be as
intelligent as humans. Soon after that they will surpass humans and
start creating even smarter technology. By the middle of this century,
the only way for us to keep up will be to merge with the machines so
that their superior intelligence can boost our weak little brains and
beef up our pitiful, illness-prone bodies. Some of Kurzweil's fellow
futurists believe these superhuman computers will want nothing to do
with us—that we will become either their pets or, worse yet, their
food. Always an optimist, Kurzweil takes a more upbeat view. He swears
these superhuman computers will love us, and honor us, since we'll be
their ancestors. He also thinks we'll be able to embed our
consciousness into silicon, which means we can live on, inside
machines, forever and ever, amen.

Link: Ray Kurzweil Wants to Be a Robot.

See also this companion article by John Horgan: Ray Kurzweil's Science Cult.

Dispatches journal – free copy

I've got a spare copy of the latest issue of Dispatches that I will mail to anyone interested (just email me your address — US only, please). This is volume 1, issue 4 with the theme "out of poverty" (table of contents).

Dispatches is a quarterly political/cultural journal with long-form articles that launched last year with headlines like "Dispatches magazine prefers print over Internet" (see previous post). That was enough to warm luddite hearts like mine, so I gave them a try and bought a subscription. I read the first issue all the way through and I liked it, but I'm probably not going to renew. I appreciate what they're trying to do, but it's pricey at $100/year and they seem to have big distribution problems (issue 2 didn't get sent to some or all subscribers, including me, and everybody apparently got two copies of issue 4, thus the giveaway). I also just have way too much other print piling up to read.

My wavering support notwithstanding, I do like that there are magazines like Dispatches and Lapham's Quarterly keeping high quality nonfiction alive in print magazine form (if only barely).