New Book: Enhancing Me – The hope and the hype of human enhancement

I just picked up a copy of Enhancing Me: The Hope and the Hype of Human Enhancement
by Pete Moore.  From the book description:

In Enhancing Me, Pete Moore examines the ways in which technology
can change our bodies, our brains, our emotions, and how long we live.
He talks to people who have actually been 'enhanced' to find out what
it's like and how beneficial it is; and to the experts to find out what
the future holds – including a look at some of the more controversial,
headline-grabbing claims.  He also looks at what drives us to want to
be 'superhuman', and the consequences for the individual and society

  • If you could live forever, would you want to?
  • If you could download your mind onto a computer, would you still be you?
  • Should we insert chips into our children, so we can track where they are?
  • Should we force violent criminals to have mood-controlling brain implants?
  • Would you want technology to improve your memory… or help you forget?

I've only read a couple of chapters, but it seems quite good.  It's written for a popular audience but is not too terribly dumbed down.  The glossy full-color presentation makes it look a bit like a museum guide (which it sort of is — see below) or a Rough Guide.  That also makes it a bit pricey at $20 in the US.  My only other quibble is that it's missing a bibliography or further reading guide (though Pete Moore does have suggestions on his own website).

Enhancing Me is part of a book series called TechKnow, produced by the Dana Centre, which is affiliated with the London science museum. The Dana Centre is "a stylish, purpose-built venue in London (UK). It is a place for
adults to take part in exciting, informative and innovative debates
about contemporary science, technology and culture." They host multiple events every week on science and technology issues. It sounds like a fantastic project — I wish they had something like that here.

So far there are four other books planned for the series, covering computer games, human enhancement in sports, living online, and the consumer electronics industry.  The site has previews, blogs, and videos for each.

Bill Buxton’s CHI 2008 Closing Keynote

I’m back from CHI and will be posting notes about it over the coming weeks (I am so not a live-blogger).  There were a number of sessions that I think will be of interest to readers of this blog, starting with Bill Buxton‘s fantastic closing plenary.  He threw out the canned talk he had planned to give and instead improvised along the theme of "Being Human in a Digital Age."

I hope video of the talk gets posted, but until then you should check out Nate Bolt’s rough transcript.  Here are a few points from memory:

  • The level of discourse about technology, and human-computer interfaces in particular, is awful.  He contrasted two articles he and he wife were reading on a plane recently: hers was a review of an art exhibit, his a review of the $100 laptop (OLPC).  Hers was deeply written and considered the exhibit within social, historical, and philosophical contexts — something that’s just naturally a part of art criticism; his talked about technical specs and barely considered the human context of the device.  We don’t have a well-developed practice of "interaction criticism" (a theme that popped up elsewhere at CHI too).  HCI professionals should take time out to write for a public audience.
  • Creativity requires a culture that values it.  This is a theme he has written about earlier in a short article "What if Leopold Didn’t Have a Piano?"  Mozart was a genius, but the culture he was born into valued and supported creativity — if it didn’t he might have grown up instead to be the greatest sausage maker in Salzburg.  Our current emphasis on individuality risks losing these values.
  • There is a lot of choice in how we design and use technology.  Culture can change.
  • Good design is aware of its history.  Jonathan Ives doesn’t just invent things for Apple, he borrows creatively from history (and this is a good thing).  All new technologies percolate for at least 20 years before they become big — Buxton’s "Long Nose of Innovation" theory.
  • Much of Buxton’s HCI work has simply been aimed at getting back to where we were.  In the 1970s he worked at the National Film Board of Canada editing soundtracks using one of the most sophisticated and usable computer systems yet built (two-handed, mouse, chord keyboard, graphical display).  Since then he’s been trying to achieve what its designers had already done back than.  Buxton’s chapter in the book HCI Remixed talks about this: My Vision Isn’t My Vision: Making a Career Out of Getting Back to Where I Started.
  • On fostering creative values in business, he recommends Yvon Chouinard’s (badly titled) book Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman (Chouinard is the founder of Patagonia).

How to address fear about WiFi health risks?

Dale Dougherty writes at O’Reilly Radar about supposed health hazards of wifi, and how a small number of residents used this fear to force Sebastopol, CA to stop a plan to permit city-wide public wifi.  An excerpt:

One can see the fear spreading. Science should be a way to dispel
such fears but it is clear with this group of people that science
cannot be trusted. They put forth the idea that science should be able
to prove that there is no harm and therefore eliminate any risk, and
without such proof, we should not move forward. They use this logic to
recommend a "precautionary" approach, which is their keyword for a
"know-nothing, do-nothing" approach.


Now, I don’t know that wireless (or electricity) is without harm. I
can read the research that does exist and learn more — if I have the
time and reason to do so. However, I do not like the smell of fear, and
when people justify actions based on their own fears, I become
suspicious that the concern is unwarranted. If it wasn’t wifi, it would
be flouride. Something is needed to affix to their anxiety. I can only
be glad that they weren’t alive when the city decided on
electrification a century ago.

Link: Hazards of Wifi – O’Reilly Radar.

Like Dougherty, I’m willing to bet that wifi isn’t dangerous, but I still have problems with what he says.  For example: "it is clear with this group of people that science cannot be trusted."  Well, we do have examples where scientists has been wrong in similar situations and should not have been trusted as quickly — think pesticides and radiation fallout from nuclear tests and accidents.  How do scientists earn trust?  By having a good track record and by providing evidence.  Have they provided enough evidence that wifi is harmless?  I don’t know, but what I’ve read seems to suggest that more studies could be done.  The precautionary approach does not (I think) call for absolute proof, but only for strong evidence — I think Dougherty’s characterization of it is simplistic.

Dougherty doesn’t like people basing their decisions on emotion, but how different is it when he bases his decision on blind faith in the scientists’ word?  It’s right to be suspicious when the critics offer nothing but blind fear, but I think it’s also right to be suspicious when the advocates offer nothing but blind faith.

How to Think About Science

Promothinkaboutsciencesm(Post updated below with more on later shows and a response to a comment.)

I’ve been listening to the excellent "How to think about science" series from CBC Radio’s Ideas show.  The basic premise of the show:

If science is neither cookery, nor angelic virtuosity, then what is it?
Modern societies have tended to take science for granted as a way of
knowing, ordering and controlling the world. Everything was subject to
science, but science itself largely escaped scrutiny. This situation
has changed dramatically in recent years. Historians, sociologists,
philosophers and sometimes scientists themselves have begun to ask
fundamental questions about how the institution of science is
structured and how it knows what it knows. David Cayley talks to some of the leading lights of this new field of study.

Link: How To Think About Science.  (That link has the shows in Real Audio format.  For MP3 format go to the podcast archive.  It’s also listed on the iTunes store.)

I’ve listened to the first six shows so far.  The first two, featuring interviews with Simon Schaffer and Lorraine Daston, are particularly good.  What strikes me about this series (and, to a lesser extent, anything I read from historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science) is, first, how old-hat this stuff is to specialists — to them the "science wars" are over and we’re now living with a more realistic, less mystical understanding of how science really happens, thanks to the sociologists and others who hashed it out in the 80s and 90s.

The second thing that strikes me is that, from an everyday person’s point of view, this stuff is still completely new.  Most people (and scientists) know nothing of the fabled science wars, and still think of science as "received truth" and scientists as infallible.  Furthermore, many people are still threatened by any effort to simply describe scientific practice and are quick to label it as "anti-science." 

The response to this radio series itself gives an indication of how
threatening this type of discussion still is.  A discussion at the
"Center for Inquiry," some sort of online forum about science, labels
the series "anti-science," "pseudo-intellectual BS," and one commenter
calls for a letter writing campaign against the CBC!  One only needs to
listen to the show to realize how bizarre and ironic this reaction is.

A frequent refrain in these interviews is the difficulty these thinkers have had in trying to make it clear that they do not intend to undermine or debunk science, but merely to understand how it works, and in some sense to apply the principles of scientific scrutiny to science itself.  What’s also apparent in this show is that there is no monolithic sociological critique of science, and how these thinkers themselves have been fallible and mistaken.  What emerges is a picture of the variety of approaches to understanding science and the need for dialog.

Update, March 31 — I’m now caught up with the series (the first 15 episodes anyway) and I think I can understand now where the hostile reactions are coming from, though I still disagree with them.  Jim Royal writes in the comments:

If you’re only six episodes into the series so far, you’ve heard the
reasonable parts of the series. Starting around episodes 7, 8 and 9,
things start getting weird. I think my favorite bit is where the host
asserts without a shred of evidence that many scientists "feel they
know when they are being looked at, think their dogs are telepathic,
experience premonitions, doubt the world is all in their heads."

This is episode 9 with Rupert Sheldrake.  He has done controversial research, to be sure, but I think the point of the show was mostly to tell his story and not to push his theories.  According to him the "sense of being stared at" is real (among everyday people — I don’t believe he tested scientists) and can be reliably measured.  I’m skeptical but I don’t have any problem with scientists doing and publishing that research.  He claimed that he couldn’t get it published, despite the fact that others repeated and validated his experiments.  I think that’s an interesting situation — why are others so unwilling to permit that kind of research?  The Ideas show dug into this issue and, while it was sympathetic to Sheldrake, I don’t think it was trying to present his theories as truth.  Surely this issue crops up elsewhere in scientific practice, though maybe not to such extremes.

Again from Jim:

That particular episode ended with the assertion that scientific
results are all the same everywhere in the world, regardless of local
customs, cultures, or religions because scientists collude with each
other to keep out ideas that would upset their world view.

The series moved from examining the boundaries of science to entertaining crackpots to outright paranoia.

I don’t remember that assertion, or at least not stated in quite that way, but I agree that it’s an caricature.

Some of the other episodes didn’t do much for me:  I like some of Wendell Berry’s writing but I thought a whole episode about farming and local knowledge seemed like too much (similarly with the Dean Bavington episode about cod fisheries).  Sajay Samuel said some interesting things but his approach is a bit too abstract for me.  David Abram was rather disappointing: repetitive and a bit too new-agey for my taste.

On the other hand, I’m glad that they’re going for diverse viewpoints and I don’t expect to agree with or appreciate all of them equally.  And I don’t think the trajectory is strictly downhill — the last two episodes, with Evelyn Fox Keller in the first and Barbara Duden and Silya Samerski in the second, were very good.

Presidential Candidates Invited to Science Quiz, er, Debate

The Science Debate 2008 campaign sent out invitations to the four major candidates recently for the debate, now set for April 18th if anyone shows up.  In the invitation they write:

This is a policy debate.  It is not intended to be a science quiz. Nor
are we interested in state-level battles such as the evolution versus
creationism/ID debate.  Our goal is to find out how aware candidates
are of America’s major science and technology problems and
opportunities, and how they propose to offer the kind of visionary
leadership and policy solutions that will tackle those challenges and
ensure America’s place as the most scientifically and technologically
advanced nation on earth.  This is your opportunity to demonstrate that
you are such a leader.

It’s telling that they needed to reassure candidates that it’s not a quiz, because when Science Debate first came on the scene it was clear that many of the people pushing for it wanted a quiz.  There was gloating in comment boards about the chance to make fun of candidates who don’t believe in evolution or don’t understand science.  (Not that those are excusable — thank the gods that Mike Huckabee doesn’t have a chance of winning.)

There are important science and tech policy issues to discuss, but I’m still skeptical of the need for a separate debate on this.  (Previous post: Do we need a presidential debate on science?)

There have been several recent articles on the story:

Ethics and Climate Change

Philosopher and writer Nigel Warburton interviewed James Garvey about his new book The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World.  An excerpt from the interview:

Nigel: Why did you write this book? What is its main message?

James: I wrote the book to help people into thinking about the
ethical dimension of reflection on climate change.  There’s a great
deal written concerning action on climate change, but often it’s from a
scientific or economic or political point of view.  All of that
matters, but climate change presents us with a host of moral problems.
Getting those in plain sight is part of the point of the book.  What we
do about our changing planet depends a lot on what we value, on what we
think is morally right.


Nigel: Despite the bleak factual picture you paint in your first
chapter, you end the book on an optimistic note. Isn’t this

James: There is a lot of unnecessary suffering ahead if we fail to take action
now.  I’m not sure that governments and businesses will do what’s
right, but I surprise myself sometimes with the thought that the rest
of us will.  According to a BBC World Service poll of 22,000 people in
21 countries, large majorities of people all over the world believe
that human activity causes climate change and that strong action must
be taken, sooner rather than later.  Human beings eventually do the
right thing, and that gives me a little hope.  There’s nothing
inconsistent in worrying about our future, all the while hoping that we
do the right thing in the time we still have.

Link: James Garvey Interviewed on the Ethics of Climate Change (, Nigel Warburton’s blog).

I really like that last sentence.

James Garvey writes at the Philosopher’s Magazine’s blog and has a short post about his book there: New Book: The Ethics of Climate Change.