Saturday, October 27, 2018

Book Review: The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology


The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ray Kurzweil postulates that we are fast approaching a time when humankind will meld with technology to produce mind boggling advances in intelligence. He calls this future time period The Singularity, which is a term he borrowed from physics, in which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, it’s impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. In other words, "technology will be the metaphorical opposable thumb that enables our next step in evolution."
But, as Paul Davies wrote in Nature about The Singularity is Near, “it’s a breathless romp across the outer reaches of technological possibility" while warning that the "exhilarating speculation is great fun to read, but needs to be taken with a huge dose of salt."
This book should not be read as a scientific treatise. Rather, it is a futuristic book of technological optimism limited only by our human imagination.
In the book Kurzweil characterizes evolution as progressing through six epochs, each one building on the one before. He says the four epochs which have occurred so far are Physics and Chemistry, Biology and DNA, and Brains and Technology. Kurzweil predicts the Singularity will coincide with the next epoch, which would be The Merger of Human Technology with Human Intelligence. He even predicts that this future intelligence will actually radiate outward from the planet until it has saturated the entire universe.
Kurzweil says that evolution moves towards "greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love". He says that these attributes, in the limit, are generally used to describe God. “That means,” he continues, “that evolution is moving towards a conception of God and that the transition away from biological roots is in fact a spiritual undertaking.”
This is perhaps the best known book related to transhumanism which is a zealous type of utopian thought underwritten by the belief that day by day we are getting closer and closer to building a better human.
Transhumanists believe we can make ourselves. But, as Thomas Ligotti says, “this is impossible,” and the reason its impossible is because of evolution. “Evolution made us. And everything we have done since we became a species has been a consequence of being made. No matter what we do it will be what we were made to do. One of those plans seems to be the dream of transhumanism which may just be a plan to unmake us.”
Transhumanists are dissatisfied with what we are as a species. Naturally they think that being alive is all right so much so in fact that they cannot stand the idea of not being alive and have envisioned strategies for staying alive forever. Their problem is that they need being alive to be vastly more all right than it is.
An apocalyptic scenario has even been inserted into their world view like a wild card, which they refer to as the Singularity. In this sense, transhumanism is a secular retelling of the Christian rapture myth, and some of its believers even foresee it as happening within the lifetime of many who are alive today, just as the early Christians believed in an impending Judgement Day.
Yet one possibility transhumanists have not wrestled with is that the ideal being standing at the end of evolution may deduce that the best of all possible worlds is useless, if not malignant, and that the self-extinction of our future selves would be the optimal course to take.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Book Review: Wisconsin Death Trip


Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

According to photojournalist Ted Grant, “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.” In a sense then a photograph becomes a link to eternity, one that toys with resurrection making what is absent present. Photographs become something like an immortal object, undead, and we wake the dead thing each time we look at them making us witnesses to that eternity.
Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip sets out to capture a time and a place, Black River Falls, Wisconsin, shortly before and after the turn of the 20th century. The book was published in 1973 and is assembled from photographs of Charles Van Schaick, a local photographer who captured images of the town and its residents, and is juxtaposed with newspaper clippings from the Badger State Banner, a weekly newspaper tasked with reporting both the mundane and the morose goings-on in Black River Falls and surrounding Jackson County. It was edited by Frank Cooper and his son George whose style of reporting consisted of small chunks of copy, written in a pared-down, matter-of-fact style.
None of the pictures carry any captions or descriptions however, so the faces one sees throughout the book are nothing more than nameless ghosts and the book itself has no clear beginning or narrative structure. It’s an “alchemy,” as Lesy calls it, of carefully chosen fragments of history layered together. “It’s a way of using pictures and words to tell a story,” he notes. “I wanted to provide people with an experience.” By treating images and excerpts in this way, Lesy gives birth to a new kind of “poetic history” that makes tangible the experiences that other kinds of history writing often overlook.
For most Americans, the last decade of the 19th century was a time when great fortunes were to be made. For many others, however, that time period was one of economic dislocation, when the gap between city and countryside, rich and poor, grew ever wider. Industries were shutting down, leaving people unemployed and desperate. Faced with economic depression, a brutal climate and a diphtheria epidemic that decimated its infant population, a good number of the citizens of Black River Falls, most who were recent German and Scandinavian immigrants, went berserk and many found themselves incarcerated in the nearby Mendota Asylum for the Insane.
Women killed themselves over grief at the death of their children. Men killed themselves for lack of work. A brother and two sisters go insane within weeks of each other, a woman poisons her baby with strychnine, another slashes her stomach with a butcher knife, and a man blows his head off with a stick of dynamite. In separate incidents, two elderly women douse their bodies with kerosene and set themselves ablaze.
Many historians concern themselves with American aspirations and hopes, but few with its fears and delusions which is why Lesy’s book remains one of the bleakest, most devastating accounts of rural American life ever published. It offers us a unique opportunity to face not the America Dream but the American Nightmare.
The town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin eventually recovered, but this small town will forever be remembered for the many terrible events that took place in the span of just 20 years.


Monday, October 1, 2018

Book Review: Equus


Equus by Peter Shaffer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave and since Dysart can’t account for this power he is forced to question his whole profession, even his whole existence.
Shaffer was inspired to write Equus when he first became aware of a crime involving a 17-year-old boy who blinded six horses in a small town near Suffolk. He then set out to construct a fictional account of what might have caused the incident, without knowing any of the details of the crime. The character Alan Strang is actually written not as a person but almost as if he’s an answer to a question. The plays action becoming something of a case study rather than a drama, involving the attempts of the child psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart to understand the cause of the boy's actions.
Dysart is tasked with treating Alan because he is believed to be suffering from some sort of deep psychological disturbance. But Dysart argues that the cause of this disturbance might not be entirely unwanted, which sets up a major theme of the play. Removing this disturbance comes with a price, as this disturbance is a product of Alan's extreme passion. To remove the disturbance would be to remove the passion as well, and without this passion, Alan would have very little left of himself. Dysart is even jealous of Alan's disturbance, since he feels that he has none of this kind of passion in his own life.
Shaffer's story is loaded with Freudian and mythological trappings and the play itself was actually written in the shadow of the then voguish theories of R. D. Laing, which championed the creative beauty within madness while fixing blame on the repressiveness of the conventional family. So what Equus argues then is that normal is not always ideal, and that madness is constructed by society.
Most important however are the religious themes featured in the play, and the manner in which the character Alan Strang constructs a personal theology involving the horses and the supreme godhead, "Equus". Alan sees the horses as representative of God but confuses his adoration of his "God" with sexual attraction. His personal identification with horses becomes a focus for his own, as well as his mother's, fascination with the passion of Christ, his deep seated masochism, and his latent homosexuality. However the play only suggests his sexual orientation in a flashback to his childhood encounter with the horse and its rider, who are cast in specifically sexual terms. Alan’s masturbatory fantasies elaborate on his obsessions. And when he gets a job in a stable, he takes the horses out at night and stands for hours next to them, naked, sharing their presence. Later when a girl at the stable becomes attracted to him, she offers herself to him. But he is impotent and ends up blinding the horses in a fury of self-hatred.
While Dysart can acknowledge that what Alan has done is unspeakable. He also realizes that he can see, after shining a light into the recesses of the boy’s mind, the landscape of a self-made, chthonic religion. For Dysart, a man in a sterile marriage who has measured out his life in patients’ files and annual holidays in Greece, Alan’s inner existence takes on the mythic grandeur of Homer’s Olympus.
In any case, this is a play about someone who sees and feels more deeply than ordinary folk and the idea that such depth is to be envied even if it prohibits its possessors from fully belonging to human society.